Work Header

Wings of Rebellion

Chapter Text

"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."

Everyone tensed.

"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 not to 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."

Everyone agreed.

... ... ... ... ...

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 not to 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."

Everyone tensed.

"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.

Chapter Text

Thanks to their last interaction, Akechi had gotten face to face with the Phantom Thieves and could take a closer look at them. This confirmed his suspicions. Akira wasn't just one of the Phantom Thieves, but actually their leader. The others were indeed those people in her circle of friends, who had been involved with previous targets. Three other Shujin students, one of them being the Student Council President, Makoto Niijima, or Sae-san's little sister; a Kosei student, Madarame's former pupil Yusuke Kitagawa; The navigator girl that must be Wakaba Isshiki's daughter, Futaba Sakura; Morgana the supernatural cat; and then that new girl that had called herself, "Beauty Thief." She looked familiar, though Akechi couldn't remember where he might have seen her face before.

As soon as Akechi found himself with some free time, he went to Okumura's Palace. However, he found no one except from the usual Shadows. No doors or other paths had been unlocked, either. It meant that the Phantom Thieves hadn't come yet. But his last interaction with them showed that convincing them wouldn't be as easy as he had hoped, and he had the feeling that they would show up at Okumura's Palace again sooner or later. So, he waited.

A few minutes went by, but nothing happened. When Akechi was about to give up for the day, he spotted the Thieves sneaking around out of the corner of his eye. Thus, Akechi, or rather, Crow, went in their general direction and approached them.

"I knew I'd find you here, Phantom Thieves of Hearts," he said once they were in conversational range.

"Same here. You were waiting for us, weren't you? Don't you have anything better to do?" Their leader, Akira, asked.

"I only dropped by this Palace based on the times I've spotted you in the Metaverse on other days."

"Y-you've figured out o-our schedules?" Their navigator stuttered in fear, while a few others shuffled apprehensively.

"Why are you doing this? What do you want?" It was the girl in a biker costume, Niijima-san.

"Our talk from last time isn't over yet." He stated coldly.

"You wanna talk?" Akira nodded in satisfaction. "Good, because we're here to talk, too. We investigated a few of those things you mentioned. We managed to confirm the manipulation of the forum rankings, and that the SIU Director has a Palace. But we'd like to have a few other things clarified."

The new girl raised a hand. "Um, I have a question."

"Hmm." Crow looked at the new girl. "Beauty Thief, was it?"

She shuffled awkwardly. "Uh, y-yes, it was... but not anymore. Now that I'm one of the Phantom Thieves, I have changed my code name. You may just call me Noir."

Did she really have to explain that in detail?

"Noir. It's way easier to say. So, what was it that you wanted to ask?"

"Um, i-is it true that Okumura Foods has been using mental breakdowns and shutdowns to harm its competitors?"

"... Yes."

Noir was horrified. "H-how does that work? Does Fa-" She quickly corrected herself. "I mean, the president of Okumura Foods directly ask you to... uh, you know...?"

Crow had been wondering what that girl had to do with anything. So, that was it. Her slip made him recall having seen a picture of her. It was clear now. She was Okumura's daughter.

"No. He talks to the higher-ups." He answered her question.

"Higher-ups? Hmm. You had mentioned a 'mastermind' last time, too. Does this mean you're just a pawn then?" Akira observed.


"Um, thank you for answering my question," Noir got back on topic, as polite as always. "But why are you giving us so much information?"

"Isn't it obvious? I'm betraying them."

"Betraying...? Why?" Noir asked.

"Because I had enough."

"Ah, I see. You had said that the mastermind uses everyone and then eliminates them," Akira was quick to reason. "This also includes you, doesn't it?"

"Good observation, leader." He nodded. "Of course I'm not an exception. I was an idiot not to have realized this sooner. I know too much, and this bothers him." Crow sighed. "To tell the truth, I don't mind dying. I have nothing to lose. Of the little I had, I lost one half and threw the other half away. After everything I've done, I have no hope of salvation. But..." His voice rose in anger. "Knowing all I know, I can't just stay still waiting for him to kill me! Much of this current chaos is my fault and can't be undone. All I can do now is find a way to expose his organization."

"You mean to say this is an act of desperation?" The fox-masked Kitagawa said.

"Pretty much."

"How did you get involved with those wicked people, anyway?"

Of course it had to be Akira asking the most difficult question. And it had to be about the topic he least wanted to discuss with her, too. The one that could shatter their friendship for good if she were to find out his real identity. He had never told anyone about it, and if he revealed it now, he would be telling it to eight people at once. But he was trying to help the Phantom Thieves, and felt he should be honest with them.

"It all started with a stupid grudge." He began resignedly. "My life turned into hell thanks to a certain man. He probably doesn't even know what happened, and doesn't even care. But I wanted to make him pay for it by having him feel all the suffering himself. Once I finally found out where he was and what he was trying to achieve, I thought about approaching him. Somehow ally with him and help him reach the top, only to shove him off the peak and make him lose everything he had achieved."

"Sounds pretty twisted already." The boy with a skull mask commented with displeasure.

"Yes." Crow had to admit. "The more I think about it now, the lamer it sounds. But at that time, in my head, it was the perfect and flawless plan. Though I was a nobody and had no means to do anything. And that was when it happened. I heard a voice. I don't know if it was a god or a demon, but it gave me this power. The power of Persona."

Akira interjected. "Wait, you didn't awaken to this power on your own? Someone gave it to you? How can that be? And who was it?"

"I don't know. I only heard a voice. He said that I was chosen, that I was special. It was exactly what I wanted to hear, and I bought into it. Easy, right? Just tell this to someone who's totally lost, and you'll have them on the palm of your hand. This was what happened to me. This mysterious entity told me about the Metaverse, gave me access to it and the power of Persona. When I entered the Metaverse and felt this power for the first time, I laughed hard. I was so exhilarated, and felt I could do anything! The mysterious entity told me that the subject of my grudge was interested in the Metaverse thanks to a peculiar research, and that I could carry out my revenge plan if I were to approach him and say that I had a way to access the Metaverse. This is what I did. I approached the man, and you can imagine the rest."

"Is this man the 'mastermind' you spoke of?" Akira deduced.

"Yes. He somehow bought into my Metaverse talk, we struck a deal, and that was that. I began doing everything he ordered me to, as a way to help him reach the top so that I could shove him off later. Eventually he learned from the research that killing the Shadow in the Metaverse would also kill the person in the real world, and since I was the one who could enter the Metaverse, he ordered me to kill the Shadow of someone that was 'bothering' him. At first, I didn't want to, but my plans of revenge spoke louder, and when I realized it, I was already doing it. More of those orders came, and I continued following them. I kept trying to justify my actions by thinking I had power and no one could catch me, or even if they could, I had no hope for a good future anyway and had nothing to lose. Deep down I knew it was wrong, but it got to the point that I was too blinded by that revenge crap to care."

"This is... pitiful," Sae-san's sister spoke for everyone. "You said you want to expose this huge organization. How do you intend to do that?"

"There's only one thing to do. Make him spill everything himself."

"You mean...!" The girl in a panther suit gasped.

"Yes. To change his heart, of course." He chuckled bitterly. "This is what I should've done from the start."

"Yeah, just give us the asshole's name and keywords, and we'll do it! It'll be our biggest target ever!" The skull-masked boy was eager.


"Why not?!" The boy protested.

"There's one thing you are right about. He'd be the biggest target so far. And that's the problem. He's too strong for your group to handle at your current skill level. You've just started at this Metaverse thing. I've been at this for more than two years now, and I'm sure this will be difficult even for me. He's the one who stole the research, after all. He knows one extra thing or two about controlling his own cognition, and his Palace has some countermeasures not even I am sure how to deal with."

The navigator girl gritted her teeth, as though she couldn't decide to be angrier at him for having caused a mental shutdown on her mother, or at the "mastermind" for having stolen the research and used it for evil. "H-hey," she said hesitantly. "Why d-did he steal the research?"

Crow answered with some hesitation. "Other people would learn about the Metaverse's existence if the research were to go public. He was planning on using the Metaverse for his gain, and didn't want anyone figuring out the methods." An awkward pause. "... Speaking of methods... what am I supposed to do to change his heart, anyway?"

"You... don't know?" Mona was incredulous.

"Hmm? What about the two years experience you were talking about, huh?" The boy with a skull mask mocked him.

Crow had to admit his failure and keep himself from lashing out at the provocation. And for someone that tried to be as well-informed as possible, admitting his lack of knowledge of something basic hurt his pride. "No. I don't know... most of what I know about the Metaverse I learned from trial and error."

"Huh? What about the research?" The navigator asked. "You've read it... right?"

"... Not really. Just a few short snippets, but that's about it."

"Not even you had access to it?" Akira voiced her surprise.

"He didn't allow me to see much. Just a few parts that he deemed of note or convenient-" Crow balked at the realization. "Wait. I see. So, that was it... he must've gotten afraid that I might suddenly betray him, and kept away the information that could be used against him." Crow narrowed his eyes. "So, it turns out he actually doesn't trust me completely. Perhaps never did..." Crow even forgot the Phantom Thieves were there, and kept talking to himself. "This is so obvious. How come I didn't realize this before? That revenge plan never had any chance of succeeding. I was only fooling myself the whole time! I'm such an idiot. This is pathetic! Ridiculous! I can do nothing about this other than laugh..." And he... began laughing like crazy.

Joker was rooted to the ground. Crow's story was painful to listen to. He was a terrible person, and had done so many bad things because of a stupid revenge. Despite that, she couldn't help but feel sorry for him. Her intuition told her he had really regretted what he did. No doubt that his views had been distorted. It was a wonder how he managed to open his eyes and realize his mistakes on his own without them needing to force his heart to change. It should be hard for someone to change their heart on their own, and even harder for someone in the state Crow said he had been in. For that, he had her respect. However...

"He broke..." Oracle's statement couldn't be more correct.

Crow stood there laughing his head off like a maniac. He seemed to break a bit more each second, at each realization of another mistake. It was sad to watch. That strange empathy Akira felt towards him only made it worse.

Queen took a step back. "What if he is mentally unstable? If he loses his grip inside the Metaverse and gets aggressive, who knows what he might do. It may be dangerous!"

Everyone backed away, except Joker who was frozen in place.

"Hey, Joker!" Mona called out, and Skull came and dragged her away.

The Phantom Thieves left Crow behind and went to a nearby room. They traded solemn looks and remained silent for a while.

"Hey." Skull spoke up. "I know I shouldn't be feeling this way, and that he doesn't deserve it. But..." He heaved a sigh. "I can't help but feel bad for the guy, y'know? Hey, Mona. Remember, way back when you told us we could make Kamoshida repent if we changed his heart?"

"Yeah. You and Joker seemed so determined to do it, but then I said Kamoshida might die if it were to go wrong, and you freaked out. Then... I mocked you for chickening out, and... said that even if he were to die, no one'd find out it was your fault." Mona made an ashamed face. "Ugh, I can't believe I had as much as considered something like that!"

"But it was you that kept us in line and insisted time after time that we should be careful not to kill Kamoshida." Joker reminded Mona. "We were so mad because of what Kamoshida was doing to the students, what happened to Suzui-san and all that. If you hadn't been with us, who knows what we might've done with this power. Just a little more, and we might've become like Crow."

"Yeah..." Panther nodded slowly. "Sad, but true."

"Oh, I didn't know that. So, it was Mona that kept everyone from going out of line?" Oracle grinned and pinched Mona's cheek. "See? You're very important to our group, you silly kitty."

"Ah! Stop it!" Mona protested.

"Crow is a horrible person." Panther voiced her opinion. "But that mastermind guy sounds even more horrible. I mean, he didn't want to get his hands dirty and had Crow do all those things, right?"

"Yes." Queen agreed. "Of course, the fact that someone else was behind it doesn't exempt Crow from the responsibility for what he did, but still..."

"He really seemed ashamed." Noir noted. "It seems like Crow has really regretted his past actions."

"I felt that too," Mona said. "And he seems to have overcome his heart's distortion on his own. This is not something that happens every day. I think he deserves some credit."

Joker was glad that the others shared the same thoughts as her.

"It was sad to listen to his story," Fox said. "Even sadder to admit, though, is that I would probably have done the same in a similar situation. If you all had not saved me, if my situation had ultimately worsened and I had gotten this power, I may have followed a similar path."

Oracle nodded, much to everyone's surprise. "Crow's the one who killed my mom. I know I should hate him. But after he said all those things, and the way he broke down... I don't know what to think."

"The way Crow seemed to go nuts earlier got me worried," Joker said. "A situation like his is too much for a person to deal with on his own. What if he's mentally unstable, like Queen said? He's breaking. And he wants to change the mastermind's heart alone. I feel that if we leave him unattended, he'll break even more..."

"We should keep an eye on him." Fox declared.

Everyone nodded, in an unanimous decision.

"Then, let's go back to where Crow is." Mona suggested, and everyone walked back the way they came.

Crow had finally recovered from his outburst. All those emotions were overwhelming. On one hand, he felt miserable. How could he have been so foolish? How could he have messed up so much? On the other hand, he felt refreshed. Telling others about his predicament seemed to have lifted a weight from his shoulders, even if it meant they would hate him for being such a horrible person. Well, as though they didn't hate him already. Anyway, letting loose and laughing at his own stupidity also helped him feel better. Maybe letting his true feelings out actually wasn't a bad thing.

He hadn't even realized the Phantom Thieves had left. But then, they came walking towards him.

"Crow." It was Akira. "You okay?"

He nodded. "And now you know how the Metaverse can screw a person's life. This is why I'm asking you to disband. You may get in serious danger if you get involved further."

"We've made our decision." She gave him a serious look. "Sorry, but we have no intention of stopping. If the law system's as corrupt as you say, then it's something we can't just ignore!"

"... What?" It was the answer he had been dreading. "Are you out of your mind!? After all I've told you, about the trap and-"

"Oh, we're taking your warning into account. Thanks for that. We'll find a way around that trap somehow," she said nonchalantly.

"How can you say it as though it were that easy!?" When Crow realized it, his emotions had come out again, and his voice had risen. "Seriously, I can't tell whether you have something concrete planned to back that up, or you're just stupid. Don't you realize the danger you are in? If it goes wrong, all of you might lose your futures, your lives, everything!"

Akira seemed taken aback for a moment, but then determination flared in her eyes. "We know! Of course we know, and we're scared too. But we'll be doing it anyway. Why? Because we can. We're sure we can make some things change for better, and that this'll help a lot of people."

Crow gritted his teeth in frustration. He quickly searched his mind for more arguments, but found none. All he could do was sigh resignedly. "Your selflessness is beyond my comprehension."

"That's just how we are." The leader grinned. "All of us were victims of this corrupt society in one way or another. We were helpless, only being beaten up and unable to do anything, until we snapped and awakened to this power. Then we found out we can use this power to make a difference and cause change. And this is what we'll continue doing, to help other people so that they won't have to go through what we did."

Prevent others from going through what they did. Actually, this was what Crow was trying to do, too. Prevent the Phantom Thieves from having their futures destroyed like he had. But it was apparent that nothing he could say would change their minds. There was only one option...

"So, this is how it is..." Crow spoke darkly, with a strengthened resolve. "Then, you leave me no choice."

"Uh... what is he gonna do?!" The skull-masked boy asked apprehensively, as the group members either tensed or took a step back.

"I'll come with you."

Crow's announcement took everyone aback.

"... Huh?" The skull-masked boy deadpanned.

"Let's make a deal." Crow went straight to the point. "I'll help you come up with a plan to avoid the trap, and in return, you'll have to teach me the ins and outs of how to change a heart."

The Phantom Thieves traded looks among themselves, until the leader nodded and turned her focus back to Crow.

"Deal. But don't dare betray us, or we won't forgive you! Got it?" She warned.

This reminded Crow of the original plan. The plan where he should join them temporarily to sell them out later, once they had fallen into the trap. That thought caused him a sickening feeling. But the circumstances were different now. He couldn't save himself. But he could save the Phantom Thieves, and he would do it at all cost.

"Of course." He nodded resolutely at Akira, and their deal was sealed.

Then, everything froze. A strange card appeared in Crow's vision, accompanied by a calm voice.

"I am thou, thou art I... thou hast acquired a new vow, the Phantom Thieves Confidant. It shall become the wings of rebellion that breaketh thy chains of captivity. With the birth of the Fool Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power..."

The card disappeared, and everything came back to normal. What was that just now? Crow gaped in surprise for a second, but the Phantom Thieves didn't seem to be paying attention.

"That reminds me. We still haven't introduced ourselves properly, have we? I am Fox." Kitagawa revealed his code name.

The others did the same, and Crow finally learned all the Thieves' code names.

"So, how does one change a heart?" Crow asked.

"We have to take the treasure!" Mona pipped up.

"A treasure?"

"Yes. The target's distorted desires, which are also the Palace's core. It takes shape as a valuable treasure. This is what we have to steal."

"Hmm. Oh, now I remember. I had tried to find out more about the research, to learn things that the mastermind didn't allow me to see. I found an old paper by the Metaverse researcher, but couldn't gleam much from it. However, it mentioned something in the other world that causes the person to misbehave, and once this cause is removed, the misbehavior stops. Now that I think about it, this sounds like the 'core,' or the 'treasure' you speak of."

Oracle nodded shakily. "Y-yeah, I've seen that too. I think that's about right."

"But how do we find the treasure? I came across broken objects and a few weapons, but that's about it. I've been to all the Palaces of the people involved with the organization, and have seen more different manifestations of distorted cognition than I care to count. Yet, I've never found anything likely to be the Palace's core, or extremely valuable and that could be 'removed.'"

"We have to cause it to materialize," Mona said. "For now, let's secure the route to the treasure. We'll explain things as we go."

"Alright! About time we get this Palace exploration going!" Skull was excited.

"You're really intent on targeting Okumura." Crow commented. "Then, make sure to be as inconspicuous as possible. Meaning, no theatrical stunts and flashy calling cards."

"You are telling us to change his heart without sending him a calling card?" Queen asked.


"But that's not possible." Mona responded. "We need to do that to cause the treasure to materialize!"

Crow hadn't expected that. "What? The calling cards are really needed? You mean they aren't just for show?"

"We have to change the targets' cognition and make them believe their desires are valuable and can be stolen. This is how the treasure takes shape! The cards have to be flashy, or they may not have enough impact on the targets' for their cognition to change."

Crow furrowed his brows. "This is a problem."

"What do you mean?" Panther asked.

"As you already know, the organization is banking on having Okumura targeted. The problem is that they've specifically talked to Okumura about the rankings and convinced him that the Phantom Thieves are a threat, and they have been really adamant about telling him to call the police in case 'something suspicious' happens. There's no doubt that he'll tell the police if he gets a calling card, and this will be the sign to the mastermind to give the... order to... you know what."

A tense silence followed, which Akira, or rather, Joker, broke. "Hey... if you get that order, what do you intend to do?"

Crow tensed. "I... don't want to obey it. If only there were a way for me to trick the mastermind into thinking I did it..." Crow sighed. "Truth is, there's one of those orders that I disobeyed already. There's one other person he wanted to get rid of. That is... Shujin Academy's Principal Kobayakawa."

"Shujin's... Principal!" Panther gasped. "He's involved in this mess too?!"

Crow confirmed. "He has done... dishonest things to get to his current position. Not as bad as some others, but yes. He's one of the 'minor connections,' as the organization puts it, and they decided to get rid of him. All the pressure from those magazine articles is their doing. They planned to have the public's eyes on the issue, then kill him and put the blame on... yes, you guessed it. The Phantom Thieves."

Skull growled. "Ah! Just hearing this pisses me off! How much more twisted can this whole story get?!"

"We've heard that Shujin's Principal is comatose in the hospital," Queen said. "It looks like he suddenly fell ill and collapsed, but no one knows what happened."

Crow sighed in relief. "Good. It seems my plan worked. He should be fine."

All eyes turned to Crow.

"What did you do?" Noir asked.

"It seems he was already aware that the organization had turned against him, and was planning to report them to the police. But it'd be useless, considering the power they have over the police. So, I told his Shadow to lay low for a while, until I manage to change the mastermind's heart. I convinced his Shadow to cause his real self to collapse and stay unresponsive in the hospital, and he was so scared of dying that he accepted. We know that there are people who manage to survive a mental shutdown, although in a vegetative state. So, the mastermind thinks Kobayakawa is as good as dead now... or at least, I hope this is what he's thinking. After the realization that he never trusted me completely, I can't be so sure anymore."

"Whoa. That was hell of a plan, huh?" Skull said. "How did you know that it'd work?"

"I didn't. This was my most rushed plan ever. In other words, it was a gamble."

Everyone stared incredulously at Crow.

Crow continued. "It's a relief to know that it seems to have worked. I wish I could do the same to Okumura, but I'm sure the same plan won't work twice. If two people consecutively fall into a coma instead of having a mental shutdown, it'll be clear that it isn't a coincidence, and the mastermind will suspect that something's up."

"This is more complicated than we had imagined," Fox said.

"That was an interesting plan nonetheless." Joker praised him. "Let's secure the route to the treasure first, then we shall think about how to deal with Okumura's case. I'm sure we'll come up with a good solution. Nine heads think better than one, after all."

"Eight, because Skull's empty head doesn't count." Mona mocked.

"Shut up!" Skull shouted. "... Uh, but Crow seems to be quite smart. Maybe his head counts as two? I think he'd give our strategist a run for her money."

Queen, apparently the said strategist, didn't seem pleased to hear that.

"Um, but Oracle is our true genius here," Panther said. "Isn't she like a living supercomputer or something?"

"Okay, okay." Joker waved it off before that talk could break into a fight. "The fact is that we have many skilled brains in our group. No way that we can't devise a good plan! That being said, let's begin our heist!"

They began exploring the Palace, and arrived at a door that required a biometric scan. Noir had her hand scanned, and granted the group entry.

Joker grinned at Crow. "I doubt you'd have gotten past this door without Noir's help."

"Easy. There were some conditions that Okumura had to accept when he made a deal with the organization. As a result, I'm also authorized to open these doors."

"Wow, some networking you've got. Alright, I take that back."

Some Shadows appeared, which Crow defeated with ease. Loki's Maragion took all the enemies out, even though they didn't have a weakness to fire.

"Wow... he's t-too strong!" Oracle sounded scared. "His power... i-it... it's over 9000!"

More battles happened, and the Shadows didn't see what had hit them.

"Hey, leave a bit for us!" Skull complained. "How are we gonna get stronger if we don't battle?"

"Ah, yes, my bad. You're right..." Crow stepped back and let the Phantom Thieves have their fights.

Crow observed the Thieves battle. Even though they weren't as experienced, he couldn't deny that they were skilled. The most interesting of them all, though, was Joker. When Crow saw the leader of the Phantom Thieves switch Personas for the first time a few months back, he had gotten envious. Crow had thought his ability to use two Personas was special. But Joker was more, as she could switch between multiple Personas, with a constantly changing selection. And unlike him who could only use Justice Personas, she had Personas of all Arcana. Crow hadn't wanted to accept that. The entity that gave him his power had said he was special, hadn't it? Why couldn't he use lots of Personas like the leader of the Phantom Thieves, then?

But now he knew how bright, strong-willed, kind, considerate, and special Akira was. Unlike him, she deserved that privilege, and much more. And unlike him, she could get everything she deserved.

The Phantom Thieves were fighting a Shadow, and it got scared and begged for its life.

"Please, don't kill me! A-alright, I h-have an idea. Let me join you. Yes, I'm sure you can use my strength-" The Shadow was saying, but deflated. "Oh... I see. You already have the Mothman aspect within you..." It probably meant that Joker already had that Persona. "Hmm, wait. But you don't." The Shadow suddenly turned to Crow.

"... Huh?"

"That's it then. I'll lend you my strength. I am thou, and thou art I." The Shadow dissolved into light, then became a mask and got absorbed into Crow's mask. He felt something new inside him. A new kind of power he had never felt before.

"He has the same ability as Joker!?" Mona exclaimed in awe.

"S-same? I..." Crow himself was stunned. "Well, I had two Personas... but that was it. Nothing like this had happened before. This is a first even for me!"

They entered another battle, and Crow used his new Persona to defeat a Shadow. Yes, he really had that power. How ironic. Now that he had accepted that he didn't deserve that power, he was getting it.

"Amazing! Too bad that you chose the wrong side..." Joker lamented.

He wanted to say that this wasn't right, that he didn't deserve this power, that Akira deserved it and much much more. "I'm on your side now," was what left his mouth instead.

"I really hope so." The leader responded. A sign that the Phantom Thieves didn't trust him completely, either. He knew they didn't. It was understandable. Still, the confirmation hurt a little.

They defeated robot guards and Shadows alike.

"All enemies are down!" Oracle announced as Fox knocked the last standing enemy to the ground.

"Now!" Joker shouted. It was so sudden that Crow had no idea what they were supposed to do "now," and only stood there as all the Phantom Thieves advanced and set upon the enemies at once.

"H-hey, what are you standing there for?" Oracle called out to him. "You should've joined in!"

"Huh? ... How was I supposed to know what to do?"

"When all enemies are downed, all of us attack them to finish them easier!" Skull said as though it were obvious. "Man, if you weren't this strong, it'd be hard to believe you have two years experience or whatever."

Crow was getting irritated. Why did Skull have to keep throwing that two years experience comment back in his face? He did his best to keep his cool. "That is... a group technique. I've been on my own this whole time."

"Oh, yeah." Skull didn't give up, though. "But... uh, haven't you been spying on us or something, too?"

"Uh, ah, sometimes..." Crow admitted. "But this was so sudden and caught me unprepared."

Panther sighed in exasperation. "Why does Skull only make good points when it's about picking on someone? Ah, whatever..."

"Skull, cut him some slack." Joker chided her teammate. "Crow, just try to join in next time."

The "next time" came, and Crow joined the Thieves in their All-Out Attack. It was indeed an effective way to finish fights quicker. Then, on the next battle, he was caught by surprise again when Joker unexpectedly "Baton-Passed" - as the Thieves put it - to him. He felt empowered, despite his new Persona being much weaker than either Robin Hood or Loki. A few fights later, he experimented Baton-Passing to the others, and the Phantom Thieves were very pleased.

It was strange. Despite making it clear that they didn't quite trust him, the Phantom Thieves still insisted on having him join them in their All-Out Attacks and Baton Passes as though he were one of them. Crow couldn't understand. All he knew was that these were ways of battling he had never experienced because he had always acted solo. Before, he had been proud of being able to defeat hordes of Shadows on his own, and thought that it proved how powerful and self-sufficient he was. He had thought that relying on others and splitting the work was a sign of weakness. But now he realized how wrong he had been. It was so satisfying to Baton-Pass to someone knowing he could trust them to get the job done. Sometimes accidents happened and the group members didn't always respond the way he wanted, but he wasn't always able to correspond to their expectations, either. Despite that, their team had a good synergy, and that teamwork thing felt great. Addicting, even. It got to the point that Crow found himself Baton-Passing to someone else instead of finishing the fight himself, just because he thought it was more satisfying this way.

Crow helped the Thieves to hide and attack enemies by surprise, and to figure out the Palace's traps. He also ended up getting a few more new Personas in the process. Before they knew it, time had flown by, and they had reached the end of the Palace.

"We did it! That's the treasure!" Mona pointed at a cloudy... something in the distance.

"... That?" Crow gaped. "Ah. I... see. I had found similar things in the other Palaces as well. So, that's the core?"

"Now we need to devise a way to materialize that without a calling card," Queen said. "There are a few things I would like to look into, but it will take some time, probably a few days."

Joker thought for a bit. "Hmm. How about we think this over and meet up here again next Monday to discuss the issue?"

"Meet up... here? In the Palace?" Panther sounded confused.

"Yeah." Joker didn't elaborate, though the reason was obvious. She didn't want to meet up outside the Metaverse and reveal their identities to Crow, unaware that he had figured them out already.

But Crow still didn't want to reveal his identity to them, either, and agreed with Joker's plan. "Sounds good. I'll see all of you here next Monday, then." And he parted ways with the Phantom Thieves.

Chapter Text

Akira and the other Phantom Thieves were on their way back from the Metaverse.

"I'm beat. Though I can't believe we cleared the Palace in just one day." Ryuji said. "Let's see if I got it right. We'll continue this on Monday, yeah?"

"Yep." Akira confirmed.

"It's true that we need to come up with a plan," Makoto said. "But there is another reason why I'd like to have more time. Before deciding how to proceed, I would like to look into Principal Kobayakawa's situation, and see whether what Crow told us about the issue and reality add up. We should be cautious, and not take what I said at face value."

"Why do we have to meet up in the Palace?" Ann asked. "I still don't get it,"

"Well, we can't exactly be taking Crow to our hideout, now can we?" Akira answered.

"Oh, yeah. You're right..." Ann smiled sheepishly. "Sorry. He seemed to fit in with us so well that I even... uh, forgot we shouldn't be trusting him too much."

"Who on Earth's Crow anyway?" Futaba was scared. "That guy's all over the place!"

"Yes." Yusuke agreed. "One moment, he is sad and regretful, the next, he is laughing uncontrollably like a maniac. Then he gets angry... and next thing we know, he is working alongside us as though he had always been here. I don't doubt he may be mentally unstable, as Makoto pointed out."

"Well, it'd be weirder if he weren't," Akira said. "I mean, who wouldn't lose sanity after facing what he said he went through?"

"I wonder who he really is." Came Haru's timid voice. "Who are we dealing with, exactly? And how much can we trust him?"

"I know we shouldn't trust him much, but isn't there some kinda cool air about him?" Ryuji tried to explain. "I mean, he sneaks around the Palace and ambushes Shadows like a pro, like those mercenaries from movies or something. It's cool and scary at the same time! Would we've gotten so strong if we had been at this Metaverse thing for two years?"

"He tends to lose his temper easily and shout a lot, too." Morgana smirked at Ryuji. "It looks like someone here has serious competition."

"Whaat was that?" Ryuji narrowed his eyes and raised his voice.

Morgana sighed. "This is exactly what I'm talking about."

"Honestly, I don't like this whole issue." Makoto was clearly uncomfortable. "For someone mentally unstable, Crow is frustratingly smart and skilled. He was a bit slow at teamwork matters at first, but he is really good at stealth, and is extremely strong as well. Not only that, but he even has the same multiple Personas ability as Akira! If his true intention turns out to be to betray us in the end, we will be in serious trouble. His skills are too much for us to handle on our current level."

"Regardless of his intentions, he might be akin to a bomb that may explode at any moment if we aren't careful," Yusuke said, and the others couldn't agree more.

During that whole conversation, Futaba remained silent, with a conflicted expression on her face.

... ... ... ... ...

That night, Akira was summoned to the Velvet Room during her sleep.


"Attention, Inmate!" It was Caroline, one of the cute but scary little twin guards.

"Our master wishes to have a word with you." Justine, the calmer twin, added.

"To think the other Metaverse user would reveal himself on his own. Quite the unexpected turn of events." Igor, the long-nosed prison warden, seemed rather amused.

"He has the same ability as me. The wild card, was that what you called it?" A thought occurred to Akira. Had Crow also been getting help from the Velvet Room? Did he have Confidants? "Has he been here to the Velvet Room?"

"No, he has not. No one else has come here besides yourself." Igor responded.

"Then, he can't get new Personas trough fusion?"

"Apparently not. Either way, this turn of events was quite interesting. Will this lead you closer to your rehabilitation, or to ruin? Only time will tell." Igor chuckled mysteriously. "I look forward to seeing the events unfold."

Like always, Igor's responses were vague at best. Perhaps Akira should talk to Crow about the wild card ability herself.

"Time to go back to sleep, Inmate!" Caroline hollered as the sirens blared and Akira's consciousness faded away.


Friday, September 16

The day passed with no incident. Thankfully, no dreaded orders from Shido. Just a normal school day, some talk at the police station, and a TV interview in the afternoon. Akechi had just finished recording the interview, where he basically said he wasn't sure what the Phantom Thieves would do and all everyone could do was wait. The public seemed to be interpreting his vagueness as caution because his popularity plummeted after the Medged incident, which was a good thing as he could get away without speaking much.

Satisfied with how things were going, Akechi decided to finish his day with a warm cup of Leblanc coffee.

Leblanc was devoid of customers. Akechi placed his order and sat at a table. He closed his eyes and let the cafe's calming atmosphere soothe him as he waited. The calmness helped clear his head, and he was sure this would make it easier to come up with a good plan to help the Phantom Thieves avoid the trap.

The sound of the chimes made him open his eyes and glance at the door.

"Hi!" Akechi's face lit up and he smiled widely at Akira, who had just stepped inside the shop.

"Oh, Akechi-kun!" Akira looked surprised to see him there. "You look well."

"It's been a calm day. Now I just need a nice cup of coffee to complete it. Akechi sighed wistfully. "I wish every day were like this..."

"More calm days will come, I'm sure."

Akechi chuckled. "Thank you for the positivity. I hadn't realized how much I needed it until now. I've been hearing people complain a lot, both at school and the police station. So, hearing some positive words is a nice change of pace."

"Wow. Is my positivity affecting you now? It wasn't like this when I ran into you at the hotel."

Akechi was surprised. He had made his positivity comment without thinking. He really meant what he said. But now that Akira mentioned his previous behavior, he realized that this wasn't the way he used to think. Before, if Akira were to say positive words after he had been around much negativity, he would have only gotten irritated rather than cheered up.

"Hmm. Now that you mention it... yes, it wasn't. Hearing your comment now really felt refreshing, though."

"Nice to see you in a good mood." Akira glanced at her phone. "Um, I'd like to talk to you more, but I have other plans for today. If you excuse me."

Akira disappeared into the shop, perhaps to use the bathroom. A minute later, she reappeared.

"I need to be going. Sorry that I can't stay more. I think we should hang out again sometime, though!"

Akechi smiled at the memories of their bonding moments at the hotel. "That would be nice."

"We'll discuss this later. I'll be off now. Enjoy the calm and the coffee. You deserve it."

"Thank you for the kind words." Akechi wasn't sure if he really deserved the things Akira had said, but he thanked her anyway. "I wonder whether I can try out all of this place's available blend combinations before I die..." The comment escaped his mouth, and he soon realized it was a mistake.

A hurt look appeared in Akira's eyes. "Hey, don't say things like that. It sounded kinda depressing."

He hadn't been kidding, though. After all the bad things he had done, Akechi didn't have long to live. Once this was over, he would either have to remain behind bars forever, or die at once and get it over with. Considering the severity of his crimes, he wouldn't be surprised if he got sentenced to death despite being a minor.

However, Akechi shouldn't have allowed his last comment out. He didn't like that expression on Akira's face. He tried to laugh it off. "Oh, no. I'm sorry if it sounded that way. I just meant to point out that there are too many blend combinations, and that it may take a lifetime to try them all out."

Thankfully, Akira smiled. "That reminds me. You haven't tried my coffee yet! Boss is teaching me the ways of coffee. I can make a few blends already."

Akechi raised an eyebrow. "Oh, does this mean that I actually have even more blends to try out? This sounds exciting. I look forward to trying your coffee, Akira."

"And I look forward to making it! Until another day, then. See you again, Akechi-kun!"

Once Akira had left, Sakura-san approached and left a cup of coffee on the table in front of Akechi. "Hmm. That look you threw her when she arrived. I see. You're interested in her, aren't you?"

"Uh... what?" Akechi's face flushed. "I-it isn't..."

"It isn't like that, you say?" Sakura-san flashed a knowing look. "Maybe that's what you think, but I know. I could see your fascination. It was the same kind of fascination I had when I met Wakaba. I used to be quite the ladies man, but Wakaba was the true love of my life. She was the person I wanted to live with, and to spend the rest of my life near."

Well, living with Akira actually didn't sound like a bad idea, though Akechi was sure he didn't deserve that... but no, this wasn't it. More importantly, though, was that the mention of the researcher caused a pang in Akechi's chest, and his expression darkened. This only served to worsen the misunderstanding.

"And then, I realized that she was out of my league. I bet that you had this realization in your case too, huh?" Sakura-san sighed sadly. "To me, Wakaba was fascinating. Otherworldly. A mystery that I couldn't grasp. An unique and precious gem that I knew I couldn't get, but kept trying anyway. I insisted on lingering near her, wanting to impress her, talk about something, anything, just to keep her attention on me. In the end, I didn't manage to get her to look at me the same way, though. I eventually gave up and decided to settle on being just friends with her. And then, she passed away and left me behind, as though being just her friend was already more than I deserved. I don't think I could ever love anyone else the same way I loved Wakaba."

This was heartwrenching. Akechi had ruined Sakura-san and Isshiki-san's love life, and Futaba's family life. He had been so blinded by his revenge plan, and hadn't so much as considered anything about the kind of person the researcher was, or the people important to her that would be affected with her passing.

"S-Sakura-san... I-I'm-" Akechi tried to apologize, but Sakura-san placed a hand on his shoulder and startled him.

"As for Akira. I had my doubts when I took her in, but it didn't take me long to realize what a unique person she is. You may be a celebrity and all, but you have some serious competition, you know? There are those boys she's constantly hanging around, and there might be more at school, too. You're smarter than I was when I began trying to impress Wakaba. So, you still might have a chance. You'd better act fast, and find a way to reel her in before someone else can take her away."

"Sakura-san, I-"

"Sojiro!" Futaba barged in through the door, and interrupted Akechi's attempt to apologize once more. At the sight of Akechi, she froze and made a face.

"What's up, Futaba?" Sakura-san asked.

She took a timid step towards Sakura-san and spoke shyly. "Um, there's this anime DVD box set on sale at Akihabara. I asked Akira to take me there and buy it, but she's busy... Sojiro, you can come with me, right?"

"Ah, sorry. I have to buy some supplies for tomorrow. I can take you there another day."

"But the sale's only today!" Futaba whined.

Sakura-san heaved a sigh and furrowed his brows in thought. "Sorry, Futaba. I'll buy it for the full price later."

"I can go with you." Akechi offered, and earned a surprised look from both Sakuras.

"Y-you? Why?" Futaba asked in a near whisper.

"Because unlike Akira and Sakura-san, I have nothing to do right now."

Futaba only stared apprehensively.

"Would you really do it? Are you sure?" Sakura-san lowered his voice. "She may be a bit... um, hard to deal with."

"Yes." Akechi was sure nothing he could do would make up for what he did to Isshiki-san, but he felt he needed to do something for them.

"Alright, thanks. Be careful out there. Oh, and this is a good opportunity to get a nice gift for Akira. You have to spoil her a little if you want to go after her."

"What? Y-you're interested in Akira..." Futaba looked at him angrily. "I d-don't approve!"

"Don't worry. It's not like that." Akechi tried to assure her, but she still looked angry. He turned his focus back to Sakura-san, and made sure to change the subject. "Thank you for the coffee." Akechi finished his coffee and placed his bill payment on the counter. "Let's go, Futaba-chan."

Futaba didn't respond, and followed him warily. Akechi knew she had more than enough reasons to dislike him, but it didn't matter. He would do something to help her. This should relieve his conscience, even if only a little.

A few steps out of Leblanc, Akechi noticed that Futaba had stopped walking. "Hm? Futaba-chan, what happened?"

"Why are you doing this?" She asked shyly.

"I felt like it, I guess."

Futaba didn't buy into it. "Why? What's your goal?"

She must be thinking he had ulterior motives. He couldn't blame her. Thanks to his upbringing, Akechi had been suspicious of anyone that seemed too nice himself. He hadn't been able to understand why Akira and the Phantom Thieves insisted on helping other people so much. But now, Akechi thought he was starting to understand.

"I already told you. I have nothing else to do right now. I figured helping you would be a productive way to pass the time."

"Whatever. Fine, I'll go along with this, but I have a challenge for you. I dare you to not talk about the Phantom Thieves for this whole outing."

"Huh?" That unexpected challenge had Akechi chuckling in amusement. "Ah, I see. My question made you uncomfortable that other day at the cafe, didn't it? I'm sorry. That wasn't my intention. I won't bring controversial topics up, if it makes you feel better."

Futaba still looked unconvinced, but said nothing. They walked to the train station in an awkward silence.

They stood side by side in the train. Futaba kept listening to music with her headphones and ignoring him during the whole trip.

They got to Akihabara and located the store Futaba wanted to go to. It wasn't packed, but there were a few other customers in front of them.

"I have to prepare mentally... calm down, calm down..." For some reason, Futaba was all fidgety and mumbling to herself. When the last customer ahead of them left, she turned to Akechi. "Wait here."


Futaba nodded decisively at herself, and stepped forward.

"Welcome!" The store clerk greeted her.

And... Futaba froze. She started to tremble, and all her confidence vanished from her face.

"Are you here for the Featherman Neo DVD box sale too?" The clerk asked.

Futaba's mouth opened, but produced no sound. After a few unnerving seconds of silence, she nodded stiffly.

Akechi hadn't expected that kind of behavior from her, and was unsure what to do. When he finally decided to try to help her, Futaba had just managed to trade the sum of money for a box with three DVDs. Despite the successful purchase, she looked devastated when she came back to where he had been waiting.

"Futaba-chan, what's wrong?"

She didn't respond.

They left the store and walked back to the train station. Futaba avoided looking at Akechi, as though she were angry.

"Futaba-chan, what happened?" Akechi insisted. He spoke gently to her.

More silence. Just when Akechi was about to give up on getting an answer, Futaba stopped walking and responded. "I... failed."

"Huh?" Akechi also had to stop walking.

"I thought I could buy the DVDs without help. But I failed..."

"You bought them, though." Akechi was confused.

"Yeah... but that went horribly." Futaba finally looked at him. "I'm... really bad at talking to people. When I need to talk to others, I get nervous and freeze up."

"... Really?" Akechi would have never guessed this. He had thought her lack of responses to him was because she disliked him for opposing the Phantom Thieves on TV. And she was quite talkative as their navigator in the Metaverse, too. He could have never imagined Futaba had this problem. "You have social anxiety? I didn't know."

Futaba nodded. "No matter how much I prepare, no matter how much I try to convince myself that it should be simple, that I should just say stuff normally, everything goes wrong when it's time to talk. I get nervous, my voice fails, sentences either scramble into a mess in my head, or my mind simply blanks out. And now it happened again. The clerk talked to me, and I couldn't say a word." She sighed in shame. "I was never good with people, though it was easier when my mom was around. After she died, it only got worse... I get scared when I think about it too much. What if I don't ever overcome this?"

Akechi felt a pain in his chest. How could he have been so selfish and insensitive? He had been so blinded by his stupid revenge plan that he failed to realize how his actions could ruin people's lives. He had not only killed someone, but had also screwed the lives of those close to that person. What if Futaba's negative thoughts got confirmed and she never became able to overcome her problem? Her future might be destroyed forever, and it was his fault.

"Now you are scaring me too," Akechi said shakily.

"Akechi...?" Futaba seemed to notice he was troubled.

"Sorry. I don't know what to say..." Akechi was sincere. "I hadn't expected you to freeze up back there. I should have tried to help, but I was so taken aback when it happened, and I..." Akechi trailed off. He closed his eyes and ran a hand through his bangs. "See? You aren't the only one whose mind blanks out when it most counts." Akechi sighed, at a loss. Only now he realized how many empty words he had thrown out just to please others. It would be easy to say encouraging words just for the sake of it, but he wasn't feeling like it now. He felt the need to be honest to Futaba. "Uh, I mean... I wanted to say something comforting, but I don't know what to say. I can tell that the problem isn't as simple as it sounds, and that it's not been easy for you. But I have no idea how to solve your problem. I'm sorry."

Futaba stared at him strangely, as though she weren't sure whether to accept his words or not.

Akechi added. "Um, but on further thought... Even though it didn't go the way you wanted, you bought the DVD box on your own merit. It's something, right? And you opened up to me about your issue, too. I think we can consider this as progress."

Futaba reluctantly nodded and made a timid affirmative sound.

"Well, shall we head back?" Akechi suggested, and they resumed the walk to the train station.

Inside the train, Akechi eyed the bag with the DVD box set Futaba was carrying.

"Featherman, huh?" His face showed a nostalgic look and a sad smile. "Watching that show used to be my only pleasure, once upon a time..."

"Hmm?" His words piqued Futaba's curiosity.

"I was living at a foster home... well, basically, it was a horrible place, and the expectation for the next Phoenix Rangers Featherman episode was the only thing that kept me going. I've never told anyone that I liked it, and had no one to discuss the show with. The foster family didn't care, and the kids at school made fun of anyone that liked the show. Well, not that I talked much to them anyway."

Futaba made a face. "Ugh, yeah, same at my school, too. Kids in middle school made fun of me when they found out I liked Featherman. They said it was lame and that only preschoolers were allowed to like it. Um, do you... still like it?"

That simple question was surprisingly hard to answer. It took Akechi a while to sort out his feelings toward the show. "I don't know. I've heard that the show had a few iterations later, but I stopped watching it and stopped keeping track."

"What was your favorite episode?"

"It was..." Akechi's mind blanked out. "Ugh, I don't remember much. The most I recall was a part of an episode where the crew infiltrated a submarine base..."

"Submarine base! It was the aquatic birds' arc. That aired in 2008! Wow, that was a long time ago." Futaba was getting excited, and starting to act more like the cheerful Phantom Thieves' navigator rather than the socially-anxious girl.

"Yes, it's been a long while..."

"... Hey." Futaba hesitated. "Um, wanna... watch it?" She slightly raised the bag with her purchase. "I, uh, could lend you the DVDs."

That offer was unexpected. "Ah, thank you, but I don't have any device that can play DVD."

"What about your computer?"

"It's a netbook and doesn't have a DVD drive."

Futaba deadpanned. "Seriously? You're more poor than I had thought, mr. ace detective."

"I never had the need or the time for such things."

Futaba was deep in thought for a bit. "Alright!" She suddenly declared. "You can watch it with me, then!"

"... What?" Akechi startled.

"On one condition, though." She grinned mischievously, and spoke in a low voice. "In return, I might ask you to do some... detective work for me."

"Hmm?" Akechi's eyebrows rose at the strange deal.

"Hmph. I want to see if you're as good a detective as the rumors say."

Well, he actually wasn't. His detective reputation had been built around a facade, where he "solved" cases involving mental shutdowns. Even though he had honestly solved some smaller cases, what had ultimately increased his reputation had been the manipulated cases. His excitement at getting a mystery to solve was real, though. While Akechi might not live up to his reputation, he believed his ability to investigate and solve puzzles shouldn't be that bad. He wondered what Futaba wanted him to investigate. If she were to ask about the organization, though, while there were things he probably shouldn't say at the moment, he already had access to information that most others didn't, and this was an advantage to him.

He was a bit scared thinking what might happen if the Phantom Thieves were to find out his identity as Crow along the way, especially concerning his friendship with Akira. Either way, Akechi's mind was made up, and he would continue cooperating with them no matter what.

"Fine." Akechi agreed. "Sounds acceptable."

"Deal." Futaba reached her free hand out for a handshake.

And when they shook hands, everything froze.

"I am thou, thou art I... thou hast acquired a new vow, the Futaba Sakura Confidant. It shall become the wings of rebellion that breaketh thy chains of captivity. With the birth of the Hermit Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power..."

That strange occurrence again. The same thing that happened when he agreed to cooperate with the Phantom Thieves. Akechi wondered what that was, and why it had been happening. Something about that voice sounded familiar somehow.

"If this voice is reaching you, then it means that your mind is open to new possibilities." Yes, it reminded him of that voice he had heard in his dream with the shining blue butterfly! It had basically told him he was irredeemable, but if he wanted to atone for his wrongdoings, he should use his power for the right thing and benefit others instead of causing harm. "You must acquire new vows, which shall become the wings of rebellion to foil the twisted game." Not only that, but it had mentioned vows and wings of rebellion, too!

"Hey, we're in Shibuya already." Futaba tugged on his tie and snapped him back to focus.

Akechi blinked. "Oh, right. I got lost in thought for a second. Sorry."

A couple of minutes later, they were back at Leblanc, where Sakura-san had been awaiting their return.

"Did you get to buy what you wanted, Futaba?" Sakura-san asked.

Futaba nodded and showed him the bag. "Did you buy your supplies?"

"Yeah. I just arrived a few minutes ago." Sakura-san turned to Akechi. "What about you? Found a nice gift for Akira?"

"Huh?" Akechi shook his head. "No, I didn't go there for that."

Sakura-san sighed in exasperation. "Someone else will take her. I'm warning you..."

"I still don't approve of you going after Akira, got it?" Futaba inched closer and spoke in his ear. "Though depending on how our deal turns out, I may reconsider. So, you'd better work hard if that's what you want!"

Akechi shuffled. "I already told you. That's not it."

Futaba completely ignored his response. "I'll head home and check the DVD bonus contents out. Time to make like a Featherman and fly away. Bye!"

Sakura-san had a fond smile as Futaba dashed out of the cafe excitedly. "Thanks for helping her out. I hope she hasn't caused much trouble."

"No, not at all. She took me off guard when she froze up in front of the store clerk, but that's it. She managed to buy the DVDs on her own, though. Later she told me she has social anxiety. I didn't know."

Sakura-san raised an eyebrow. "You decided to help her out without knowing this? How nice of you."

"I'm trying," Akechi said awkwardly. "I could tell she was shy, but I had no idea the issue was so deep."

"You know, it's a relief to see her out and about like that. After her mother died, Futaba got really depressed and became a shut-in. She refused to leave her bedroom, and even to go to school. I didn't know what to do anymore. She's slowly breaking out of her shell, thanks to Akira and the others. If not for them, I don't know if she'd come through."

"... I'm so sorry to hear this. Really," Akechi said solemnly. "I... I could never have imagined. Uh, I'm sorry. I..." Words began scrambling in his head, and he decided it would be best to shut up before he said anything he shouldn't.

"I could see that you two started to get along, too. This is a good thing."

Akechi nodded awkwardly, sure that he and Futaba probably shouldn't get along.

"I'm back." And Akira returned. "Akechi-kun, you're still here?"

"Oh, I left and came back just a while ago. I was helping Futaba-chan buy some DVDs."

"You helped her out?" Akira was surprised. "Thanks. I'd have gone with her, but I was already busy when she texted me about it. Was it... hard?"

"No, it was fine."

"Thanks for today, detective." Sakura-san winked at Akechi and walked past them. "I'll leave the two of you alone."

Sakura-san flipped the sign to "closed" and left the shop.

Akechi stared at Akira awkwardly, bothered by Sakura-san's strange assumptions.

"Uh, I'll leave too." Akechi announced.

Akira shook her head at him. "Earlier we agreed you'd try my coffee out. I'll make you some."

"Huh? But..." Akechi tried to come up with an argument. "You've just returned from an appointment. Aren't you tired?"

"Nah. It'll be quick and easy. And I really want you to taste my coffee!" Akira gave him that expectant look that was hard to resist. "Take a seat. I'll be back in a few."

"I-if you insist..." Akechi gave in and did as told.

Akira headed to the kitchen area. Morgana came out of Akira's bag, climbed onto a stool and kept staring at Akechi warily.

Akechi stared back. He was curious about the little supernatural creature. A talking cat that had a different form in the Metaverse, and a lot of knowledge about Personas and cognition. But what exactly was Morgana, anyway? Akechi wondered whether he should approach the supernatural cat, but Morgana's wariness made him give up.

Shortly later, Akira brought a cup of coffee and placed it on the table. "Not as good as boss', but I hope you'll like it."

Akechi slowly took a sip of the beverage. It was certainly different from Sakura-san's coffee. Not bad, but something seemed to be missing.

"How's it?"

"It's good."

Akira wasn't satisfied. "From your face, you seem to have some remarks, though. Give me an honest opinion, please."

He didn't want to criticize her work, but since she had asked for it... "Hmm... I'm not sure how to put this, but something seems to be missing."

"Oh. Boss always says that the flavor's bland, and that I have much to improve. This must be it, then. The problem is that I have no idea where I went wrong. Too little or too much coffee? Water? Heat? Time? It can be frustrating..." Akira sighed. "Boss says I'll only be able to tell with much practice."

"So many variables. But you're determined, and I'm sure you won't give up until you get all of them right. I hope to have the chance to drink your mastered coffee."

"Of course you will. Once I master it, I'll call you over to try it out for sure!"

This wasn't the problem, though. Akechi wondered whether he would still be alive by the time Akira mastered the art of coffee-making.

"Uh, thanks..." He said anyway, and managed a weak smile. "I'll gladly try the iterations in between, too."

Akira seemed pleased.

Akechi finished his coffee and stood up. "Akira, Thanks for the coffee. I'll be going."

"Okay. Then at least let me wish you good night properly. Sleep well tonight, detective." With no more warning than that, Akira inched forward and gave him a soft peck on the cheek, the same way she had given him good night kisses at the hotel.

As usual, the action took Akechi off guard. Both surprise and embarrassment showed on his face, and his heart skipped a beat. He even failed to notice an alarmed gasp from Morgana. Akechi recalled how Akira had kissed him good night on the first day at the hotel. The feeling had been soothing, and he had concluded he wouldn't mind it happening again. And now, it had just happened...

"O-oh, I wasn't expecting this. Um... thanks?" He responded awkwardly.

"No need to thank me." Akira inched closer and whispered in his ear. "But you need to do your part too. I have no one to do this to me, so..."

Yes, there was that, too. Akira had had him kiss her good night at the hotel as well. It had been embarrassing that time, and now it was even worse because the first thing that came to Akechi's mind was how Sakura-san misunderstood his situation and kept pressing him to go after Akira. But that wasn't it! Akechi didn't have any romantic interest in her!

But again, those good night kisses weren't romantic. The good night kisses Akechi remembered from movies were more like... a cute affectionate gesture. Then, it should be fine. Theoretically. Probably...

Akechi had to muster the courage to face the embarrassment and return Akira's gesture. "O-okay." He hesitantly inched forward and whispered to her. "Good night, Akira." A wave of embarrassment hit him as he timidly pecked Akira's face. Then, he quickly backed away and hurried out the door. "Uh... bye!"

Akira waited for Akechi to leave before locking the door. She was a bit disappointed at his shyness. He had been so spontaneous and affectionate when he kissed her good night at the second day at the hotel, when he was under the effect of a medicine that made him sleepy. Although she had to admit that shy Akechi was very cute too.

"Akira, what have you done!? And how dare he!?" Morgana was shocked.

"Hey, calm down. We didn't do anything wrong. It was just a good night kiss."

"You say it as though this were a normal thing..."

"Abroad, it seems to be. I've seen it on foreign movies, and it was so cute. I don't get why people here have a problem with it. It's such an adorable gesture..." Akira didn't let Morgana argue. "Remember when I told you I ran into Akechi-kun at the hotel? The first day I dared him to do it, just to fluster him, you know? I pestered him so much that he gave in. On one hand, it was so funny to see the almighty detective flustered! ... But on the other hand, I felt so bad for having made fun of him that I ended up returning the gesture. When I apologized to him afterward, he told me his mom used to give him good night kisses when he was little, and I had a glimpse of the serious detective's cute side."

Morgana had an exasperated expression. "Akira, sometimes it seems like you forget that he's against the Phantom Thieves. If you get too close to him, you might make a serious slip-up and have him figure out our identities. He works for the police, too, you know. You should be extra careful around him."

"And that's the thing. I want to make him change his mind about the Phantom Thieves. Remember that stuff about his past he mentioned when he came to Leblanc the other time? He gave me more details. It's really messed-up, Morgana. He has no one. Never had. No one from his family wanted him, and he got passed around to lots of unknown people. Since he had nowhere to go, some families that agreed to take part in the foster care program were forced to take him in, and once they found out he was a bastard child, they didn't want him, either, and mistreated him until the social service came and sent him somewhere else. This happened a lot of times. Some families just took him in to nab the money from the foster care program! How screwed-up is that? Those are the kind of people that need a change of heart!"

"That's horrible..." Morgana agreed.

"Yeah. He's a victim of rotten adults too. Actually, I think he's gotten it worse than any of us. This is the reason why I'd like him to change his mind about the Phantom Thieves. He seems to have pessimistic views about the world in general, too, and I believe we can help him. I want to show him that all's not lost, and that there's still hope in this world."

Morgana was pensive for a moment. "Hmm. I see your point. Still, you should be careful, got it?"

"Yeah, I know. Ah, and just so you don't get jealous." Akira crouched down next to the stool Morgana was on, and gently pecked his cheek too.

"H-hey!" Morgana protested and tried to pretend he didn't enjoy the attention, without much success.

Akira smiled at the flustered kitty. "Not bad, right?"

Morgana didn't respond.

"I'll take your silence as consent."

"Grrr. Akira, you're impossible." Morgana uttered, then jumped down from the stool and walked away as though he were angry.

Akechi was on his way home, already recovered from the embarrassment. He spotted Akira's male blond friend and fellow Phantom Thief - who he hadn't known the name of - carrying a grocery bag and helping an old lady cross the street. After crossing the street, the old lady walked away. The boy was distracted looking to make sure the lady was okay, and was about to collide with a parked car.

"Watch out!" Akechi warned.

"Ah!" The blond boy balked. His eyes widened when he realized what almost happened. He seemed about to say thanks, but got on edge when he realized who had warned him. "A-Akechi..."

"Hi, uh... I still didn't catch your name."

The boy seemed annoyed and unwilling to respond, but he eventually did. "It's Sakamoto. Ryuji Sakamoto." He shifted his attention from Akechi to the grocery bag. "Phew, that was close. One more sec and the tomatoes'd be crushed and turn into sauce..."

"Hmm?" Akechi raised an eyebrow curiously.

"What're you looking at? I'm just running an errand for my mom. You have a problem with that?!"

"Ah..." A distant look appeared in Akechi's eyes. If only his mother were still alive, he could be doing something similar. Running errands for her, supporting her, having a normal and simpler life. "Sounds nice."

"Nice? It's quite rough. She's been having a hard time raising me on her own since my dad vanished to who knows where. I'm doing everything I can to make things easier for her. Seeing her suffer is the worst thing to me."

"I know the feeling. Still, it must be nice to know you can help in some way, and that your help is appreciated."

Sakamoto threw him a weird look. "You're acting weird today. What's up? Is it 'cause your popularity fell like a brick?" He smirked mockingly.

"Huh? No, it's just... you mentioned that your father disappeared and left your mother to raise you alone, yes?" Akechi paused, unsure whether he should disclose this to Sakamoto. But again, he had disclosed worse things to Sakamoto and the rest of the Phantom Thieves in the Metaverse. "Actually, the same thing happened to me."

"For real...?" Sakamoto became serious in a blink and uttered in a low voice. "It should be easier for you, though. I mean, I'm not good at much else besides running... well, not even that anymore. But you're smart and appears on TV and all, so..."

Akechi didn't respond.

"Hey, why don't you say anything!?"

After some more silence, Akechi responded with a sad smile. "You know? I had thought you were just another troublemaker. Hotheaded, immature and irresponsible."

"What?!" Sakamoto snapped. He seemed ready to take the tomatoes out of the grocery bag and throw them at Akechi's face.

"But now I realize I had been wrong about some aspects. I'm inclined to believe you are quite considerate to other people, from the way you helped that old lady cross the street. And the way you support your mother shows how responsible you are."

Sakamoto was taken aback for a moment. "H-hey, why are you making such a big deal out of this? It's natural to want to help people. Yeah, I have to agree with that thing you said, about being able to help and knowing others appreciate it. Feels good, you know?"

Akechi recalled his attempt to help Futaba. All he had wanted was to relieve his conscience a bit. In the end, he apparently managed to comfort Futaba somewhat despite her freeze-up, and she even opened up to him a little. Both Sakura-san and Akira seemed pleased that he had helped Futaba as well. Indeed, it felt good. Helping the Phantom Thieves in the Metaverse had also felt good.

Akechi flashed another smile, but not a sad one this time. "Yes, I suppose. Sakamoto-kun, you're a good guy. My opinion of you has changed quite a bit just in these last few minutes. If only the kids that bullied me at the orphanage were anything like you..."

It took a few seconds for the words to sink in. "... What? Orphanage? Wait a minute... What about your mom?! Don't tell me..."

"You probably guessed it. It's a sad story. I'll spare you from the details." Akechi decided to end the conversation quickly and not give Sakamoto a chance to press him for more details. "Sorry to keep you here. Just go home, back to your mom. You should be thankful that you have her! I'll also be on my way. Bye!"

Akechi left, while Sakamoto stood there, Bewildered.

As Akechi resumed his walk home, he thought about how helping others felt like. He had always wished people would accept him, and also rely on him. But since it never happened, and other people had rarely helped him willingly, Akechi had lost interest in helping others as well. Whenever he did it, it had been because he had expected something in return. And from the time he associated with Shido, it got even worse. He became unable to see anything else besides his revenge plan. Now that his priorities had changed, Akechi was seeing everything around him from a new perspective. He was beginning to learn how it felt like to help others without expecting anything in return other than genuinely happy expressions. It felt satisfying, and Akechi was getting convinced that this satisfaction was what drove the Phantom Thieves to do what they were doing. They were going as far as risking their lives to help make other people's lives better. Akechi could have never imagined he would ever view it this way, but now he was starting to think that the effort may be worth it.

Chapter Text

Saturday, September 17

After school, the Phantom Thieves gathered at Leblanc.

"I asked the Vice Principal for the phone number of the hospital Principal Kobayakawa is at." Makoto informed them. "I was able to call the hospital yesterday afternoon. It turns out Principal Kobayakawa is alive and in a coma. This confirms what Crow said, but..."

"But what?" Akira asked.

Makoto fidgeted. "Uh, I don't know. Everything he has said seems to add up so far. He is really smart, though. I have a nagging feeling about this whole situation. It frustrates me that I've been unable to read anything between the lines of his words. It may be that there just is nothing between the lines to read, and he's being honest with us. But what if he's trying to mislead us? If so and we realize it too late, then it will mean that I failed as our group's strategist, that I wasn't smart enough to identify the problem sooner..."

"You're jealous because we found someone else who's smart?" Ryuji spoke bluntly.

"Err..." Makoto made a face. "M-more like, intimidated. It feels like we're really dealing with a professional here. Someone of a much higher level than us in nearly all aspects. We don't know if he told anything about our interactions to the police, either. For all we know, he may be acting as a double agent. Honestly, I'm not sure whether we can handle the situation if Crow proves to be a problem."

"I have this feeling that Crow is being honest," Akira said. "Everything he told us about his involvement with the organization, the way he got emotional and broke down in front of us, the way he seemed concerned when he argued with us after that, the way he helped us clear the Palace. I don't think any of that was just an act."

"One thing is for sure. He's unstable, Akira. This makes him all the more dangerous." Makoto argued. "Even if it turns out he's on our side now, what if the organization pressures him into revealing our plans and he caves in?"

"Yeah, he's unstable." Akira agreed. "But isn't this the reason why we agreed to keep an eye on him?"

"I'm interested in keeping an eye on him too." Morgana spoke. "He has the same power as Akira, which is something I can't ignore."

Ann wasn't worrying much. "Makoto, I think you're being too paranoid."

"I'm just considering all the possibilities, and trying to come up with back-up plans in case any of these possibilities prove to be true."

"I don't think we can do much about it right now, though." Akira admitted.

"Our confrontation with Okumura's Shadow shall be a decisive moment," Yusuke said. "Let us pray that Crow doesn't go back on his word and doesn't kill the Shadow. If Crow keeps his end of the deal, we may give him more credit. Speaking of Okumura's Shadow, any ideas about how to materialize the treasure without a calling card?"

"Nothing yet." Morgana's statement made everyone deflate. This showed that no one else had had any idea, either.

"Shouldn't we discuss this with Crow, too? After all, his head is worth two, yeah?" Ryuji's comment didn't please Makoto in the slightest.

Since nothing productive was coming out of that meeting, the Phantom Thieves decided to go home for the day, except for Futaba who remained at Leblanc with Akira and Morgana.

"Futaba, sorry for not being able to help you buy the DVDs yesterday," Akira said. "I've heard that Akechi-kun helped you, though."

"Uh, yeah."

"How was it?"

"At first, I was scared. I was worried he'd keep asking about the Phantom Thieves like last time. For a moment I even thought he had somehow figured out I'm a Phantom Thief, and was trying to squeeze info out of me! So, I told him I'd only go with him if he kept from talking about the Phantom Thieves!"

Akira laughed. "Good plan, Futaba."

"And guess what?" Futaba chuckled proudly. "It worked! It sounded like the Phantom Thieves was the only thing he knew to talk about, and I thought he wouldn't agree. But he agreed, and didn't mention the Phantom Thieves even once! Yeah, I was surprised too." Futaba proceeded to talk about her frustration from trying to buy the DVDs by herself. "It didn't go the way I'd have liked, but I managed to buy the Featherman DVDs. Akechi kept insisting on talking to me and asking why I was sad. I ended up telling him about my communication problem. Turns out he didn't know about it, and got all worried about me. I wasn't expecting that. Well, he did nothing the way I had expected, actually. From TV and from the other time he came here, I thought he was snarky and a jerk and a show-off. He acted nothing like that yesterday, though. He didn't remind me of the Akechi from TV at all."

"I can confirm this," Akira said. "Akechi-kun's actually nice once you make him drop his celebrity mask and you get to know him."

"Um, later we talked about Featherman, and Akechi said he liked the show when he was little! Who could've guessed? He told me he lived at a horrible place, and waiting for the next Featherman episode was the only thing that kept him going. He had no friends, and no one to discuss the show with. And, um... I ended up inviting him to watch the DVDs with me."

"Oh?" Akira had noticed Futaba's dislike for Akechi, and it was surprising to hear such a thing coming from her.

"Yeah. I know he's against us and all that. But while we talked, he looked so sad, so lonely... he reminded me of myself, no friends at school and all. And it occurred to me that maybe he was helping me because he wanted to become my friend. Besides you guys, and... err, only one other person, no one ever did that. Kids at school either made fun of me, or avoided me because they thought I was weird. Making friends was always impossible to me, and since Akechi also had no friends, it means it must be hard for him too. So, I thought I'd at least give him a chance. I just hope this was the right thing to do and it doesn't backfire..."

"That was nice of you. I don't think he has enough reasons to suspect you, though. He's only seen you here in Leblanc, which is your adoptive dad's shop. Just do as you did, keep from talking about the Phantom Thieves, and it should be okay."

"Akira, if you're also here when he comes over, um, could you join us? You know, just to make sure it's safe."


"I'm not sure how to invite him, though. I didn't get his number. Well, I guess I'll have to nab his info from a company's database somewhere and hope his cellphone number's there... oh, wait, we have the files from prosecutor Niijima-"

Akira raised a hand and cut Futaba off, with disapproval on her face. "No need for that. I have his number."

"Awesome!" Futaba chuckled mischievously. "But maybe I'll look for some info I can use to blackmail him, just in case."

"Blackmail, seriously? This is not how you make friends, Futaba."

"I said, 'just in case.' In case stuff backfires or something. I'm curious about him, though."

"Then, just ask him stuff yourself. He'll eventually tell you more about his life once you two get closer. I know you're better at hacking than at communication, but you don't need to breach people's privacy and use hacking for everything." Akira gently scolded Futaba.

"Okay, okay. I'll try to get the info by talking." Futaba startled. "Oh, wait! I've talked to him quite a bit yesterday. Doesn't this mean I've completed a task from the promise list? 'Talk to a stranger my age.' He must be a couple years older, but yeah."

"Right, you did. And you didn't even realize it!"

"Great! Go me! Am I awesome or am I awesome?" Futaba was all excited. "Alright! I guess I can add another item to the promise list. 'Get along with Akechi.'"

A bit later, Futaba went home.

"Akira." Morgana, who had been silent during the whole conversation with Futaba, finally spoke up. He seemed concerned. "I've also noticed Akechi is acting differently from usual lately. I didn't say anything because I didn't want to worry Futaba, but it's obvious something is off about his recent behavior. I want to know what's up."

"Nothing's up," Akira said. "He got more at ease around me ever since we bonded at the hotel. That's all that there is to it."

"You told me your reasons to get close to him and change his views about the Phantom Thieves, and I agree with you. But are you sure you didn't make any slip that could've made him want to behave differently around us? It may be just an act."

"I did not! Morgana, chill."

"Akira, you're taking this too lightly. If something happens, don't tell me I didn't warn you!"

"I have an idea!" Akira took her cellphone out. She selected Akechi's number and pressed the call button. After a few rings, he picked up.


"Akechi-kun, it's Akira here!" Akira put the call on speaker. "Um, do you have some time?"

He thought for a bit. "I have homework, but I can make some time. Why?"

"Akira, w-what are you doing!?" Morgana asked, but Akira paid no mind to him.

"I have a favor to ask. I'll be away for a bit." It was a lie. "And... um, could you look after Morgana for me?"

"What?!" Both Akechi and Morgana exclaimed at the same time.

"W-why me?" Akechi shakily asked.

Akira had to think up an excuse quickly. "Um, my other friends' parents wouldn't let him stay at their places. Since you live alone, you don't have this problem, right?"

"Uh, but..."

"Unless you don't like cats."

"I'm not a cat!" Morgana protested.

"Uh, that's not it... it's just... this is too sudden."

"Morgana is well-behaved. I assure you! Please, just until tomorrow." Akira insisted.

"Hmm... I-I guess just for one night wouldn't be a problem." Akechi gave in.

"Oh, this is great!" Akira grinned in triumph.

"What? He agreed?" Morgana was incredulous.

"I'm leaving work. Should I drop by Leblanc to pick him up?"

"You'd do that? Thanks."

"Okay. I'll be there in around forty minutes." Akechi hung up.

"Akira, I can't believe you're doing this...!" Morgana was still exasperated.

"I'm just giving you a chance to get to know him better! Once you spend some time with him, you'll understand my points."

Morgana wasn't pleased by that idea, and Akira had known he wouldn't be, but she was confident her plan would work.

Akechi was unsure about the sudden task of looking after Morgana. Akira's request sounded off, as though she had ulterior motives. But Akechi had been curious about Morgana, and this was a good opportunity to know the supernatural cat a bit better.

Akechi arrived at Leblanc and took the opportunity to try a different coffee blend.

"You're here to see Akira, aren't you?" Sakura-san asked.

"She... um, she asked me to look after the cat for today. I'm here to pick him up."

"Oh, I see. If you plan to stay with Akira, you'll have to get used to the cat too."

This again... "No, that's not it..."

"You seem a bit unsure about taking care of the cat, though." Sakura-san completely ignored Akechi's argument. "I had doubts in the beginning, but there's nothing to worry about. The little fellow can be a bit noisy, but aside from that, it behaves pretty well. That cat's an unique one. It's quite smart, and knows its place. Surprisingly, it has never caused me any trouble. It even acts like it understands what we're saying! In other words, you'll be fine."

From the sounds of it, Sakura-san was actually the one who didn't understand what Morgana was saying.

"Thank you for the encouragement." Akechi responded awkwardly. "I'll do my best."

As Akechi finished his coffee, Akira came downstairs with Morgana in her arms.

"Hi, Akechi-kun." Akira smiled. "Thanks for agreeing to look after Morgana. It'll be of great help." Akira reached Morgana out for him to hold.

Morgana didn't share Akira's friendliness, though. He was staring at Akechi warily.

Akechi thought about how Akira carried Morgana in her bag. "I left my school bag at home before heading to work. Hmm. It'll be difficult to hold both him and the suitcase." Akechi motioned to his trusty suitcase with the letter "A."

"Oh, right. I have a backpack I sometimes use for shopping. I'll lend you that. Would you hold him while I go get it? Don't worry. He's as light as a plume. Uh... when not asleep, that is."

Akechi nodded and carefully took Morgana from Akira's hands. Sure enough, Morgana was light, and holding the supernatural cat felt surreal.

Akira brought a blue backpack, and Morgana went inside without complaints.

Akechi retrieved his suitcase he had left on the ground while having his coffee. "So, anything else I should know?"

"Hmm, I don't think so. Morgana's a good boy. You have nothing to worry about." Akira helped Akechi put the backpack on. "Oh, Akechi-kun. Tomorrow's a Sunday. If you're free, how about you come over to watch the Featherman DVDs with Futaba and me?"

"Sounds good. I'll be sure to finish my homework today, then. Tomorrow, if no emergence comes up, and I hope none does, I'll have the whole day free. I can join you when I bring Morgana back."

"Great! See you tomorrow! And Morgana, don't cause any trouble, alright?"

Morgana grunted in annoyance from inside the backpack. Akechi ignored that and left the cafe.

As Akechi walked on the street, Morgana stayed alert for any suspicious behavior. If Akechi's behavior turned out to be just an act, he would surely make a slip sooner or later.

At the train station, they ran into Prosecutor Niijima, or in other words, Makoto's sister. Morgana couldn't help but poke his head out of the backpack to observe the interaction.

"Sae-san, heading home?"

"Yes." She noticed Morgana in the backpack. "Hmm? A cat?"

"He's the one from Leblanc. I was asked to look after him for a bit, and I couldn't say no."

Prosecutor Niijima made an annoyed face. "You must have a lot of free time on your hands to have accepted such a task. Shouldn't you be looking into the Phantom Thieves? I have no time to be scouring through all the nonsense rumors and comments. This is why I left this part of the case to you."

"Sae-san, this case is my priority number one. Do you really think I would slack off on it? That being said, I have hit a roadblock right now. I have been keeping up with the news and the Internet, but there's no sign of movement from the Phantom Thieves yet. We have nearly zero evidence of their methods and motivations so far. The investigation cannot proceed unless there are new developments."

As if we'd leave traces like that, Morgana thought mockingly. You'll never figure our plans out just by looking on the news and the Internet!

"Sae-san, what about you? I hope you at least have some time for your sister and yourself. If not, I think you should take a day off."

"I don't have this kind of luxury. It is hard enough to ensure we'll have food on the table as it is. I will only get behind if I stop working!"

"But if you overwork and collapse, it will be even worse." Akechi argued.

"Don't talk as though you know what I'm going through!" The prosecutor raised her voice. "I must concentrate all my efforts on continuing to win. And Makoto doesn't need me to babysit her. All she needs is to keep studying to enter a respectable college. You wouldn't understand, since you are talented, have a scholarship at a prestigious school, will surely be able to get a recommendation letter to enter any college you want, and have connections to place you in any job you choose. The fact that you are a man also makes things way easier for you." Envy dripped from Niijima's voice. "Meanwhile, the rest of us, mere mortals born without talent must climb the stairs to success one step at a time, with much effort and hard work. These are struggles that someone like you will never understand. This is why I need to keep winning at all cost."

"... H-huh?" Akechi's voice wavered in an unusual way. "It's not like that. You're mistaken. I'm not talented-"

She raised a hand and cut him off. "Stop. Your attempts at modesty don't work on me, Akechi-kun. You will never understand my struggles. However, as you look after that cat, perhaps you will have a taste of how hard it is to care for another being, and to bring food to the table. Then hopefully you will learn to be more responsible and less arrogant."

She turned away and left a stunned Akechi behind.

Morgana was shocked. He had never imagined that Makoto's sister was such a cold person.

"More responsible and less arrogant..." Akechi muttered. "... Am I arrogant?" He asked to no one in particular.

"Don't make me answer that." Morgana quipped. "I can agree that her words were a bit much, though."

From inside the backpack, Morgana was unable to look at the detective's face. He only knew that Akechi didn't say a word and resumed his walk to the train, then paid for the pet fare, which was bothersome. Morgana hated being treated as a pet.

Akechi managed to find an empty seat. He placed the backpack on his lap, and Morgana could finally take a good look at the expression on the boy's face. Surprisingly, Akechi didn't seem to be faring very well. It was true that Niijima had been really harsh. Still, since Akechi was a public figure and should be used to getting a lot of criticism, Morgana had thought he should be taking the prosecutor's words better. Akechi's confident and "all business" mask was nowhere to be seen, and at the moment, he looked like a kid that just got scolded. Honestly, Morgana didn't know what to make of it, but his first impulse was to try to change Akechi's focus.

"Hey." Morgana called out, just to grab the boy's attention and elicit some kind of response.

"Hmm?" Akechi finally turned his focus to Morgana.

Morgana clawed at the backpack's insides and pretended to want to escape, just to keep Akechi distracted for a while.

"We're almost there. I'll let you out once we get home. Just hang on a bit more."

Morgana pretended to not have heard it, and continued clawing at the backpack.

The woman who sat next to Akechi glanced at them. She didn't seem to have recognized the celebrity, however... "What a cute cat you've got! Um, may I pet it?"

No, no, no. Morgana almost snapped at hearing that. He wasn't cute! He was cool and strong and special! Okay, he had to accept that he might not be human, but he definitely wasn't just a cat! Morgana hated to be treated like a pet, and refused to have strangers touching him. Suddenly, his intent to escape from the backpack had gotten real. Before he had a chance to do anything, though, Akechi intervened.

"Sorry, he's my friend's cat. He's not even used to me yet. I doubt he'd take well to other people touching him."

"Oh, o-kay. Sorry." The woman was disappointed, but Morgana was relieved.

"Here's my stop." Akechi stood up and carefully put the backpack on. "Bye, have a nice day."

They left the train, and Morgana released the breath he had been holding, glad at Akechi's intervention.

Akechi entered an ordinary-looking building and took the elevator. On the third floor, he came out into the hall, took a key from his pocket and unlocked a door.

"We're here." He announced once they were inside.

"... Whaaat is this!?" Morgana couldn't keep himself from exclaiming. "What a minuscule place!"

The extremely small apartment they were in certainly wasn't the kind of place that came to mind when Morgana thought of Akechi. The detective was always dressed elegantly and clearly worried about maintaining a good appearance, and it was logical to think his home would be fancy, or at least a more comfortable place.

Once inside, Akechi locked the door, carefully placed the backpack on the ground and gently helped Morgana out. Morgana was surprised at how Akechi had been treating him so carefully. It was the opposite of most people, most notably Ryuji and Futaba.

Free from the confines of the bag, Morgana glanced around the confines of the apartment. It was meant for only one person to live in, and wasn't appropriate for accommodating visitors. Just a single room with a small table, a folded futon tucked in a corner, and some boxes. There was a small stove, a fridge and a sink on one side, and a bathroom at the back.

Morgana ran in a circle around the "living room" area, and made a displeased face. "And I thought the attic was shabby... no, even the attic is bigger and more furnished than this! How can you live in here? It's so cramped and has practically nothing in it! You don't even have a TV..."

"It looks like you didn't like the place too much, huh? Sorry, but you're stuck here for today."

"Ah well, fine. I guess seeing how the almighty detective manages anything in here will be enough entertainment for me." Morgana sat on the ground and began licking his paw.

Akechi left his suitcase on the table, then headed to the kitchen area. Morgana waited for around a minute, but curiosity got the better of him and he ended up going there to check what Akechi was doing. The boy had just finished drinking a glass of water. When Akechi opened the fridge to place the bottle back inside, Morgana spotted a carton of mango juice in the fridge.

"Ah..." Morgana's mouth watered. It was one of those beverages Akira and the Phantom Thieves had never let him try out! There were so many foods and drinks he wanted to try out, but the Phantom Thieves never gave him because they were worried those could make him sick, as those weren't appropriate for cats. Morgana vehemently refused to go to the vet to check whether his body worked like a normal cat's, and the Phantom Thieves decided it was better to be safe than sorry. This resulted in Morgana being forced to have cat food every day, which he hated. The only exception they made was during the celebration at the buffet. Come to think of it, aside from the consequences of having eaten too much, nothing unusual happened to Morgana thanks to that event.

Akechi glanced at Morgana, then at the carton of juice. "You... want that?"

Yes, Morgana did. But he tried to resist, sure that Akechi would arrive at the same conclusion as the others.

"Hmm. Just a bit... should be fine, right?" Akechi muttered to himself, and slowly reached for the carton of juice.

"What? R-really?" Morgana couldn't believe what he was hearing.

"How should I go about this, though? Hmm." Akechi rummaged through the cabinet below the sink until he found a small recipient. "This should do." He poured some juice into it and placed it on the ground in front of Morgana.

"Whoa...!" Morgana's eyes sparkled in glee. He tentatively drank a bit of the juice. "Oh, so sweet and refreshing! One of the pleasures of the human life. To think you'd be the one to provide me this!"

Akechi laughed in amusement, and the tension from the earlier conversation with Niijima seemed to be gone. "From your reaction, I see that you don't have many chances to try this kind of thing. What's Akira been giving you? ... Cat food, perhaps? I forgot to ask her."

Morgana made a face in confirmation.

"Did I get it right?" Akechi raised an eyebrow. "And you don't like it?"

Morgana made another displeased face.

Akechi laughed again. "This completely slipped my mind, and I forgot to ask her what I should give you. I don't have cat food here. So, at least for today, you won't have to endure that."

Morgana was also amused. He grinned at Akechi. "Detective, I have to commend you for guessing my issue just from a few facial expressions. But this doesn't mean that I trust you completely yet. Got it?"

Akechi flashed a weak smile. Weak, but genuine, different from those forced ones from TV. "Well, I'll leave you to drink your juice at peace. I have homework to finish."

"Homework?" Morgana wondered whether it was actual school homework or figurative speech. It could be something related to detective work and the investigation about the Phantom Thieves.

Akechi sat on the chair at his table, and watched Morgana from a distance. That supernatural creature was fascinating. From what Akechi could gather from his observations, non-Persona users, like Sakura-san for example, couldn't understand Morgana's speech. Akechi wondered why that was. He had concluded that Morgana was the Phantom Thieves' Metaverse guide, but where did Morgana come from, exactly? From the Metaverse? And why? Either way, since Akechi didn't want to reveal his identity as Crow just yet, he couldn't reveal that he was able to understand Morgana's speech. Luckily, Morgana was expressive enough and could communicate fairly well even without speech.

Something was off, though. Why did Akira ask him to take care of Morgana? Her argument had been that her friends' parents wouldn't let the cat stay at their houses. However, it was strange to think that this was the first time Akira needed someone to look after Morgana. Considering that it had happened before, who did she leave Morgana with the other times? Probably no one. She had even told him that she carried Morgana practically everywhere she went. Then, why him? And why now? This sounded more as though Akira was suspecting him for some reason, and sent Morgana there to spy on him. Akechi and Akira had just become friends, hadn't they? It was painful to think that she might be trying to do such a thing behind his back. Akechi didn't want to believe this was the case.

He stopped observing Morgana for the moment, and went for his homework. He retrieved his study materials from his school bag, which was strapped to the chair's backrest.

Akechi tried to do his homework for a while, but he had a hard time staying focused. He kept recalling what Sae-san had said earlier, about studies, scholarships and connections.

"I'm not talented like she thinks." Akechi mumbled. "I've always struggled with studies, too. I've always struggled with everything. She says I shouldn't talk as though I know what she's going through, but the same goes for her. She knows nothing about me..."

"Akechi...?" Came Morgana's voice.

"Ah!" Akechi startled. He hadn't noticed Morgana was nearby. "Oh, yes. You were here..."

"This is about what Niijima said, isn't it?" Morgana approached with a concerned look. "I hadn't imagined Makoto's sister could be such a harsh person. I also think she went too far. Don't let it get to you, though. Maybe she was only having a bad day."

Akechi would have liked to think that, too. However, this would mean that Sae-san's days have been getting worse and worse since a few months ago. This wasn't right. But he shouldn't be talking about this to Morgana right now. "Are you... concerned about me?" He asked instead.

Morgana seemed about to deny it and give some excuse, but Akechi offered a grateful smile and disarmed him.

"I'm not used to having others worry about me. Um, so... thanks?" Akechi chuckled awkwardly and patted Morgana on the head. "I'll try to go back to my homework. I need to finish this today. If possible, I don't want to cancel on Akira and Futaba-chan."

Akechi continued his homework. Despite spacing out a few times, he managed to make good progress. Half an hour had passed.

Suddenly, Akechi heard grunts from Morgana.

"What's up?"

Morgana was grunting and shuffling restlessly. "Hmmm... ugh... ah! I can't hold it anymore! toilet!" And he bolted to the bathroom.

"Huh?" Akechi gaped.

"Aaaaah!" Panicked shouts from Morgana followed. "The lid is closed! I won't manage to open it in time! Help!"

And Akechi found himself jumping to his feet and dashing to the bathroom...

"Phew, that was close..." Morgana commented once they were back at the living room. "I think I had too much juice..."

"You actually use the toilet? That was quite unexpected. I see that Akira wasn't kidding when she told me how well-behaved you are."

Morgana puffed his chest. "Of course I am!"

"I'm thankful for that. One less thing to worry about." Akechi sat back on his chair and returned to his homework.

Morgana sat on the ground and observed Akechi. Apparently, it was just school homework. However, Morgana still had his suspicions and wanted to check whether Akechi kept notes about his Phantom Thieves investigation in his notebook.

When Akechi stopped and left to take a shower, Morgana took the opportunity to climb onto the table and take a peek at the notebook. The writing was neat, and it was easy to tell that Akechi was a good student. However, to Morgana's disappointment, there was only normal school homework. No scribbles about other topics whatsoever.

Morgana sighed in defeat. So far, nothing pointed to Akechi being anything more than a normal high school student. Morgana's gaze floated over to the "A" suitcase further away on the table. Akechi carried it everywhere. Detective work material must be in there! However, closer inspection revealed that it had a lock. While Morgana was sure he could pick it if he had enough time and a thin object such as a hairpin, it didn't sound right to invade Akechi's privacy like that. Right after Akechi had complimented his good behavior, no less. Frustrated, Morgana gave up on his investigation for now.

Akechi returned from the shower wearing pajamas even though it was still early, and no longer had his gloves on. Morgana was so used to seeing Akechi in uniform or elegant clothes on TV that it was rather strange to see him dressed in nightwear.

Akechi went back to doing homework, and Morgana continued observing him. A few minutes later, Akechi finished his homework, placed his study materials inside the school bag, then checked the lock on his suitcase for good measure. It was almost as though he suspected Morgana of having tinkered with it. It was unsettling. Or maybe it was just paranoia... from both sides.

"Well, time to make us dinner." Akechi announced and pulled Morgana out of his thoughts.

"Oh, you can cook?" Morgana curiously followed the detective to the kitchen area.

Akechi prepared a simple meal. Just rice, omelet and some greens. He spread the futon in the living room area, then put a bit of the food in a small bowl meant for salads and left it near the futon for Morgana.

Morgana got all excited when he tasted the food. "Oh! It's been so long since I last had rice! Last time was at the buffet, I think." That statement got Akechi curious, but he wouldn't ask. "Hmm, this doesn't compare, of course. Not bad, though. I'd have this over cat food any day!"

"You like it? I'm glad." Akechi brought his own bowl and sat on the futon next to Morgana. "To tell the truth, it's the first time someone else tastes my food..."

"Huh? Aren't you dining at the table?" Morgana shot him a look of surprise.

It was clear that Morgana disliked being treated as an ordinary cat, and Akechi felt it was unfair to dine at the table and leave Morgana on the floor. Truth be told, interacting with Morgana was like a dream come true. The dream about fantasy worlds from the anime Akechi had watched sometimes when he was a child. Morgana could be said to be a magical being, like those anime mascots with superpowers that only the protagonist could see or interact with. Unfortunately, though, Akechi wasn't the protagonist. That role was exclusive to Akira. Akechi was the villain. But he didn't want to be the villain... he wished he could reveal that he could understand Morgana's words and have a proper conversation, ask about Personas and the Metaverse and whatever else. But he had just become friends with Akira, and could finally feel what a friendship was like. Akechi wasn't ready to reveal his identity and throw that achievement away just yet.

They had their dinner in silence. After a while, Akechi glanced at Morgana's bowl, and noticed it was empty. "Want more? Who knows when you'll be able to have non-cat food again."

Morgana's eyes sparkled, and Akechi took that as a yes. Akechi retrieved the bowl and brought another serving, which Morgana devoured contentedly.

After doing the dishes, Akechi sat back on the futon. He took his cellphone and glanced through the news and the Phantom Thieves website. No dreaded calls from the organization, nothing unusual on the news or the website. So far, so good. The only problem was thinking of a way to materialize Okumura's treasure without a calling card.

"The Phansite, huh?" Morgana came from behind and peered into the cellphone.

Akechi jumped. "H-hey! Don't sneak up on me like that."

"I see..." Morgana stopped in front of Akechi and looked him in the face contemplatively. "You had been acting like just a normal kid until a while ago, and I had been wondering where the serious detective from TV had gone to. This is it, then. Turns out your demeanor totally changes when it's about the Phantom Thieves, huh?" Morgana inched his head forward curiously. "So, found anything interesting, detective?"

Now Morgana was prying for sure, probably expecting Akechi to think aloud and talk about his findings, though there was nothing to make a slip about, since nothing unusual had happened. However, the thought that Akira might have sent Morgana as a spy nagged at Akechi again.

"Nothing, eh?" Morgana jumped to Akechi's left and spoke mockingly. "This case's doing a number on you and challenging your pride, isn't it? I bet it's been the most difficult puzzle ever! It might even be bad for your health, if you get too worked up trying to solve it." Morgana jumped to Akechi's right.

"Would you stay quiet? You're distracting me. I need to think."

"Nah, you don't. It's no use. You're just wasting your time and brain cells. Just give up already."

Akechi was trying to come up with a plan to materialize Okumura's treasure, but Morgana was talking nonstop and getting in the way. Actually, Akechi had some questions for the Phantom Thieves about their heart-changing methods, and once again he lamented that he couldn't ask Morgana right now.

"Morgana, what's gotten into you, jumping around like that? What do you want?"

Morgana walked closer to Akechi and grinned. "I want you to just give up and admit that the Phantom Thieves are awesome. It's way easier!" A pause. "And... you know? You're way nicer when not in detective mode."

Akechi was taken aback by that last part. It was rare to hear someone say that he was nice. This was on the same day Sae-san had said he was arrogant, too. Akechi spaced out for a moment, unsure what to think. Once he had recomposed himself, he sighed at the conclusion that he couldn't think up a solid plan without input from the Phantom Thieves, more specifically from their Metaverse guide who was standing right next to him.

Akechi set his cellphone aside for the moment, and looked back at Morgana. "Alright, you have my full attention now."

"H-hey!" Morgana's grin vanished as Akechi began petting him.

Without gloves on, Akechi could feel the special cat's soft fur as he slowly stroked Morgana's head. It was a soothing feeling, and made him temporarily forget the argument with Sae-san, and even Shido and the organization. It was as though the softness alone could warm his heart, like a comforting ray of light during dark days. Perhaps Morgana was the opposite of Akechi. While Akechi could use his power to cause hearts to go berserk, Morgana might have the ability to calm hearts. Could this also be part of the Phantom Thieves' strategies?

Despite the initial protest, Morgana seemed to have relaxed and to be enjoying being petted. He even let out some normal cat noises for once, and this made Akechi's thoughts wander, from hearts to the Phantom Thieves to cats and to his childhood...

"This brings back memories." Akechi's gaze was distant. "When I was a child, at one of the foster homes. I was... 9, I think. The foster family didn't like me at all, and I had no friends at school. But there was a stray cat in the neighborhood, and he took a liking to me. He was always happy to see me, unlike all the humans who looked down on me and never welcomed me wherever I went. He didn't judge me. It felt as though he even understood me. Perhaps the fact that both of us were abandoned made us relate. He wasn't as expressive as you, but we were able to get along quite well. I often found myself sneaking out of home to play with him. Then, one day, one of the neighbors caught me. When the foster family found out, they yelled at me. They said I should never sneak out of home again. And they told me to not even think of bringing the cat home, because I was already a burden as it was..."

Morgana's eyes flared in anger. "They said it right to your face!? That'd be harsh normally. And they dared say that to a child!"

After a delay, Akechi continued. "After that, I snuck out once more, to see the cat just one last time. You know, to say goodbye and tell him we couldn't meet anymore. But a neighbor caught me again, and called the foster family... they yelled at me once more, and beat me up... they said it was my punishment for having disobeyed them. And after that, they always locked me in my room once I arrived from school, to make sure I wouldn't sneak out. I never saw the cat again. Time passed, and I ended up forgetting him completely..."

"What horrible people! And sad story, too..."

Akechi smiled sadly. "I guess you were lucky that Sakura-san let you stay at his shop." Akechi retrieved his cellphone, which had been forgotten during this interaction. He checked the time. "Well, it's getting late. Let's call it a night."

Minutes later, they were lying on the futon, with Morgana keeping some distance from Akechi.

"Good night, Morgana." Akechi uttered and closed his eyes.

However, sleep wasn't coming. A while later, Akechi was still awake, and Morgana began mumbling.

"As hard as it is to admit this, sounds like Akira's right. There's more to you than meets the eye, huh? Beneath that celebrity mask, there's a lot of stuff no one can even imagine. It must've been rough going through so much abuse and all that. I had my doubts when Akira forced me to spend time with you, but she's right. We must help you recover your motivation in life."

Akechi had heard everything, and was touched. Akira and Morgana weren't trying to spy on him. They wanted to help him! But it would be useless. After everything he did, his life was practically over. He was a lost cause. Once he freed the Phantom Thieves, all that would be left to him would be either to die, or to stay in jail for the rest of his life. Akira would only be wasting her time and energy if she were to try helping him. Would it be better to reveal that he was Crow and get it over with and prevent Akira from wasting her time?

"Ah, if only you'd give up on opposing the Phantom Thieves, it'd be way simpler... but that's not gonna happen so easily..." Morgana continued mumbling, unaware that Akechi was hearing everything.

Yes, it isn't. If I give up, the organization will find out I betrayed them, and all of you will be doomed, was the answer that Akechi was inclined to give, but in the end, it came out only as a thought. Akechi was selfish. He had never had anyone that cared about him. Now that he had, he wanted to enjoy that feeling for a bit longer. He wasn't ready to let the revelation of his true identity destroy his bonds just yet. No. He wasn't ready, period. Akechi came to a decision. He wouldn't tell the truth to the Phantom Thieves. Ideally, they would only find out once Shido confessed everything and Akechi turned himself in. Until then, Akechi would just enjoy the Phantom Thieves' company and do what needed to be done.


"Mor-ga-na..." A soothing feminine voice called out in Morgana's dream.

"Huh? This voice..." Morgana looked around. Everything was fuzzy, as though he were in a TV screen with static.


There was something familiar about that voice. "... You are..."

"Please, find... the other wild card..." The voice continued. "You Must join forces... guide... bring..." The static kept disrupting the audio.

"The other... wild card? P-perhaps you mean Crow? Do you mean I also should find out where he is outside the Metaverse?"

"Yes. It would... ... easier." A wave of static disrupted the voice midsentence.

"How can I find him, though?"

"You can do it," The voice said assuringly, only it didn't assure him at all.

Morgana had no way to find out anything about Crow's life outside the Metaverse, much less where to find him. Perhaps that voice's owner had some clue? Morgana decided to ask, "Who is he, exactly?"

"His name... is..."

But before the voice could reveal the answer, the static became stronger and expanded. Morgana was able to see a shining blue butterfly for a split second before the static engulfed everything and he woke up.


As Morgana awoke in the middle of the night, he realized he was in a totally different position from when he had fallen asleep. He had slept at a considerable distance from Akechi and facing in the direction of the boy's head. But now he was lying on the pillow, and glued to Akechi. He recalled he had also done something similar to Akira a few times. It was strange. Morgana usually slept at Akira's side, but when he realized it, he had climbed onto her chest during his sleep. It was involuntary, like the way he got drawn to Palaces' treasures. And now he was cuddling up to Akechi, with his face touching the detective's cheek.

Akechi stirred, and Morgana concluded it would be best to back off and return to his original position. But as Morgana began to roll away, Akechi unexpectedly reached out and grabbed at him.

"H-hey!" Alarmed, Morgana tried to escape, but as he rolled to stand on four paws, Akechi managed to get a hold of him. "What are you-" Morgana began to protest as Akechi turned him around and gently drew him closer. The next thing Morgana knew, he was staring into Akechi's face and leaning into his chest. The young detective lightly wrapped an arm around Morgana, released a contented sigh, and returned to a peaceful sleep.

Akechi's gesture had been unexpected at first, but then Morgana recalled the sad story about Akechi's childhood cat friend. That story had resonated deeply with Morgana, and made him want to comfort Akechi. Even though Akechi had said he forgot the cat completely, perhaps, deep down, he still missed the cat.

Ah well... Morgana thought at the sight of how content Akechi seemed. As much as Morgana hated to be treated like a normal cat, he still wanted to comfort Akechi. Even though he wasn't the cat from Akechi's childhood, if he could comfort that lonely boy's heart just by being there, then so be it. Morgana decided to let it slide, just for that night.

... ... ... ... ...

Sunday, September 18

Akechi was ready to take Morgana back to Leblanc. "So, used to this place now? You aren't reacting as badly to it as when you arrived. Would you agree to live here?" Akechi chuckled. "Ah, of course you wouldn't. You have Akira. I kind of envy her for having you to keep her spirits high the whole time."

"She doesn't like my advice too much, and I think she gets more annoyed rather than cheered up. But you got that right. I wouldn't trade that shabby attic for anything. That's where I belong. My place's there with them."

"Ah well, maybe I'll see with her if I can borrow you again."

Morgana stared at Akechi in a mix of surprise and concern. "Wow, are you really this lonely? Hmm. From what you told me yesterday, and from what Akira said, you don't seem to have a place to belong. In the end, you're a misfit, just like... all those guys."

Akechi only stared, as he shouldn't ask questions.

Morgana grinned. "Well, I guess I wouldn't mind keeping you company again, as long as you don't give me cat food." Morgana's expression changed into concerned. "Seriously, though. I want to help motivate you, and help you find a place to belong. That's what Phantom Thieves are for!"

And everything froze.

"I am thou, thou art I... thou hast acquired a new vow, the Morgana Confidant. It shall become the wings of rebellion that breaketh thy chains of captivity. With the birth of the Magician Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power..."

Akechi smiled, touched by Morgana's concern. He placed Morgana in the backpack Akira had lent him, and left the apartment. Half an hour later, he was in Leblanc.

"Hmm, Morgana seems to be in a good mood." Akira observed. "It looks like both of you are getting along."

"How did it go?" Sakura-san asked.

"He's good company. Interacting with him is really fascinating." Akechi answered. "He's quite expressive and well-behaved. He even uses the toilet..."

Sakura-san chuckled. "The first time, I was surprised too."

"Morgana, how did you like the company?" Akira asked.

"As long as he isn't thinking about the Phantom Thieves, it's fine, I guess."

Sakura-san raised an eyebrow. "This cat reacts to practically everything we say, doesn't it?"

Akechi nodded.

"How about we have lunch and then go watch the DVDs?" Akira suggested. "I'll call Futaba over."

Akechi ended up agreeing. Soon, Futaba came and brought the DVDs.

Sakura-san served them rice with cooked chicken, potatoes and vegetables. Akira placed a bowl of cat food in front of Morgana, and the little Phantom Thief's displeased face didn't go unnoticed by Akechi.

Futaba seemed a bit wary, probably due to Akechi's presence, but besides that, everything seemed normal. When Sakura-san and the girls were distracted talking to each other, Akechi took the opportunity to sneak some pieces of chicken into Morgana's bowl.

"Oh? That's some stealth..." Morgana muttered in surprise.

"Shhh." Akechi shushed him and continued his lunch as though nothing had happened.

After lunch, they went upstairs. Just as Morgana had said, the attic was bigger and more furnished than Akechi's home.

"This is... big." Akechi glanced around. "Probably bigger than my apartment..."

"He doesn't have a couch nor a TV!" Morgana pointed out. "He has only one chair, too. That place isn't made to accommodate visitors."

Futaba and Akira were incredulous.

"Really?" Akira voiced her puzzlement.

"The place is small and has practically nothing in it," Akechi said. "I don't mind, though. I'm away from home most of the time, and don't get visitors anyway, so..."

"Detective Akechi is poor confirmed." Futaba mumbled as she took control of the TV and the DVD player as though she owned the place. "Sit down." She practically commanded, then grabbed Morgana and threw herself backwards onto the sofa.

Akechi reluctantly sat to Futaba's left on the sofa, while Akira sat on a chair.

The Featherman anime started playing. Even though these episodes were unfamiliar to Akechi, some of their elements were reminiscent of the show from years ago, and Akechi felt as though he were a child again, with his eyes glued to the TV.

At first, Futaba seemed a bit wary, but then she began cheering for the characters while the anime played, and released all the tension. Something that began bothering Akechi, though, was that Futaba would squeal and painfully squeeze Morgana during the more impactful scenes.

Morgana squirmed in Futaba's arms. "Aaah! Stop! You're suffocating me!"

"Futaba-chan, would you stop that?"

"But pressing him to my chest calms me down!" She protested.

"Uh, well, there's a calming quality to Morgana, I understand, but you're being too rough. He's not a toy."

While they were arguing, Morgana took the opportunity to jump over to Akira's lap.

"Ah! Mona escaped! Akira, give him back!" Futaba inched towards Akira and reached her hands out expectantly.

"No. Futaba, give Morgana a break."

Futaba made a sad face.

Shortly later, Akira got a message on her phone. "Uh, sorry, guys, but I'll have to be away for a bit. Is that okay, Futaba?"

"Yeah..." Futaba sounded displeased, but agreed. Of course, when Akira left, Morgana left too. Futaba glared at Akechi. "See what you did? Even Akira left! Now you'll have to protect me from the bad scenes yourself. You have to take responsibility for this!"

Even though Akira's leave wasn't his fault, the expression "take responsibility" hung heavily in Akechi's mind. He had ruined Futaba's family life. He needed to do whatever he could to make Futaba feel better.

On TV, the enemy's base was exploding, and the Phoenix Rangers were having a hard time making their escape.

"Aaaaah! I hate these parts! I don't want to even see that..." Futaba stunned Akechi by throwing herself onto him, squeezing her eyes shut and burying her face on his chest.

"F-Futaba-chan?" Akechi tentatively placed a hand on the girl's head.

Futaba stayed still with her eyes shut. A while later, she raised her head and whispered to Akechi. "Is it over? Did they escape?"


Futaba finally backed away from Akechi and returned to her original position on the sofa. She smiled in relief at the sight of the Phoenix Rangers safe and sound. "I hate when the enemies have bases that explode. I..." She paused. "Since I stay home most of the time, my body's kinda weak, and I get tired easily when I walk outside. I like to imagine myself having adventures at the places like the ones in Featherman, but intense escape scenes are a no go. I doubt I'd be okay if I had to run that much. I almost have a heart attack just by imagining that!" Futaba suddenly cheered up and giggled. "You did a good job calming me down, though. If you're around but Mona isn't, I guess that works, too."

"... I-if you say so."

They watched that DVD until the end, then Futaba popped another one into the player.

In the middle of the episode, the Rangers began confronting an enemy.

"Go, go, Red Hawk!" Futaba cheered.

"The attack won't work, though." Akechi stated matter of factly.

Sure enough, the attack didn't work. The next one did, but wasn't enough to defeat the enemy.

"Red Hawk, now!" Futaba animatedly gestured at the TV.

"It'll be no use." And Akechi nailed it again.

"Hey, how did you know?! this isn't fair." Futaba protested. "I had thought you had never watched these episodes."

"I haven't. But now that I think about it, Featherman has always been too predictable. The first attack never has an effect on the enemy, unless it's a surprise attack. Then the next attack works. But the one after that doesn't, and the enemies boast how they won't fall to the same trick twice. Then the Rangers usually get pummeled until victory seems impossible, then they use their super special moves and manage to defeat the enemies. This is the general pattern to most of the fights, with a few exceptions here and there. It can become rather repetitive ."

Futaba made a face. "Detective, you're no fun."

"The animations and sound effects are always cool, though."

Two episodes later, Futaba yawned.

"Is it the repetitiveness?" Akechi asked playfully.

"Oh, shut up." Futaba yawned again. "Stop ruining the mood and help me."

"Help you with what?"

"Nap." Without warning, Futaba moved to sit on Akechi's lap, leaned backward into him and closed her eyes.

Akechi was surprised, but the "taking responsibility" thing still weighed heavily in his mind, and he felt he should do as she wanted without complaining. So, he simply left Futaba have her way. Soon she was sleeping peacefully, and once more, Akechi found his heart being soothed. First Akira, then Morgana, then Futaba. All of them managed to soothe his heart so effortlessly. Apparently, each of the Phantom Thieves could touch hearts in their own way.

When Akira returned, the TV was on, and Futaba was still asleep on Akechi's lap.

"Oh?" Akira directed an amused look at them. "What happened here?"

"Futaba-chan kind of just... settled herself here, and I couldn't say no."

Akira giggled. "She's also done that to me sometimes. I hadn't expected she'd warm up to you this quickly, though."

"Me neither..."

"Aww, but this is so adorable!"

"Yes. She's a handful, but is also quite adorable."

"Yeah." Akira agreed. "But it's not just her I'm talking about. You too."

"Huh? M-me?" Akechi felt embarrassed. "A-Akira, don't make fun of me like that."

"I'm not! It's true."

"Hmhmm." Futaba stirred awake. "Akira, you're back!" She suddenly sprang up and tackled Akira in a hug, and Akechi was glad Akira's attention had diverted from him. "Um, how about we switch now? I'll stay with Mona, and you stay with Akechi."

"No!" Morgana quickly refused.

Akechi looked at his phone. "We still have time to watch a couple episodes. I stay with Morgana and you stay with Akira. How about that?"

"Oh well, I guess that's fine too." Futaba agreed, somewhat begrudgingly.

Akechi sat on the chair Akira had occupied previously, and Morgana sat on his lap, while Futaba stayed glued to Akira on the sofa. They watched two more episodes, and Morgana remained on Akechi's lap without complaint.

"How was it?" Sakura-san asked when Akechi went downstairs to leave.

"I had an enjoyable time. That show made me feel like a child again."

Akira came trailing after him with Morgana in her arms, followed by Futaba.

"Wow, I hadn't imagined that watching anime with others'd be so fun fun fun!" Futaba was happy.

"I agree," Akechi said. "This was the first time I could enjoy the show in someone else's company, too." He flashed a genuine smile. "In fact, I had a great weekend, thanks to you three. I feel ready to face anything this next week may bring." That included facing the issue about Okumura's Palace.

Futaba pouted. "That's good and all, but how come Mona seems to like you more than me?"

"That's because you treat him too roughly. He's a living being, you know."

Akira walked over to Akechi. "Akechi-kun, thanks for having cared for Morgana yesterday. Would you look after him again if I need it?"

"As long as you ask when I'm free, I'll gladly do it." Akechi reached out towards Morgana in Akira's arms and patted him on the head, then smiled at the three Phantom Thieves. "See you again." And Akechi left.

Chapter Text

Monday, September 19

As agreed, Joker and the other Phantom Thieves headed to Okumura's Palace. Sure enough, Crow was waiting for them at the entrance.

"It has been a few days. I hope you haven't revealed our plans to the police or anything," Queen said with suspicion.

Crow seemed annoyed. "I wouldn't do that. We must avoid sending a calling card precisely so that the police won't find out. Wasn't this what we agreed on? So? About the said plan. Anyone has any idea?"

The Phantom Thieves remained in a heavy silence.

"I take that you are having a hard time with this." It was hard to tell whether Crow was mocking them or just making an observation.

"How about you, then?" Queen stared at him challengingly.

"I don't have anything concrete, either. But I have questions, and need some input."

Queen sighed. "We have no choice then. We'll have to brainstorm our way out of this."

"Brain what?" Skull was clueless. "Is it some kind of advanced strategy technique?"

"Brainstorm." Joker repeated. "Nah, we basically shoot our ideas left and right, think together and try to arrive at a good plan. Just like what we do to figure out our targets' keywords."

"Oh! I wouldn't have thought that messy trial and error stuff had such a cool name!"

"There's nothing advanced about it at all," Crow said awkwardly. "But... 'brainstorm our way out of this,' huh? I guess it sounds cool when you put it that way."

"I can't believe he agreed with that..." Panther remarked.

"I think it sounds cool, too," Oracle said.

"Even you?" Mona looked exasperated at Oracle.

"Um, me too." Came Noir's timid voice.


"Well, let's discuss the plan at the last safe room." Crow used the Metaverse app and teleported away without waiting for the others.

"Wait!" Joker called out, but Crow was already out of their sight.

Skull gritted his teeth. "How dare he think he can boss us around like that!?"

"I just hope he isn't planning on killing the Shadow behind our backs," Queen said.

Noir gasped. "No, he can't be planning on that... can he?"

Joker deadpanned. "Uh, I think that's a bit too much..."

"Let us go after him." Fox prompted.

They used the app to teleport to the last safe room. To their relief, Crow was there.

"Crow! What do you think you're doing, going ahead of us like this?!" Panther reprimanded him. "As long as you're in our group, you have to stick with us! We have an unanimous decision rule, too, where everyone has to agree on the important stuff. You didn't even wait to see if all of us'd agree and dashed off!"

Crow gaped, stunned at the sudden reprimand. "I... I see. I-I'm sorry. I didn't know. This sort of thing completely slipped my mind."

"I don't doubt that you aren't used to working in a group, but..." Queen looked at him with disapproval.

"I believe we never explained the rules to him, though." Fox pointed out.

"Okay, okay. All of us messed up." Joker waved it off. She turned to Crow. "Panther's explained the rules, and now you know. Keep them in mind from now on, okay?"

Crow nodded. "I will. I'm sorry."

"Hmm, he can be quite docile sometimes, huh?" Oracle noted with a mischievous grin.

Crow looked as though he wanted to protest, but he didn't.

Noir giggled and dispelled the tension. "Well, shall we start our cool-sounding plan?"

"You had said you needed our input." Mona spoke to Crow.

"Yes. I have been thinking about how actions in the real world can affect the Metaverse, and vice versa. For example, taking the treasure from the Metaverse affects the person in the real world. On the other hand, changing the person's cognition in the real world affects the Palace and the Shadow in the Metaverse."

"Yeah. So what?" Skull asked.

"I wonder whether it's possible to do the opposite. Change the person's cognition from inside the Metaverse directly, and cause the same kind of impact that can lead the treasure to materialize. This way we could bypass the calling card step, and slip under the organization's radar."

"That... actually makes sense." Queen agreed with Crow for once.

"Mona, what do you think?" Crow asked.

Mona jumped. "Huh? Me?"

"You're their Metaverse guide, aren't you?"

"Uh, y-yeah..."

"He's totally unreliable as a guide, though." Skull remarked. "I doubt it's any use asking him. Everything we ask Mona about the Metaverse, he either doesn't remember, doesn't know, or isn't sure."

"Shut up!" Mona was offended. He closed his eyes in contemplation for a moment.

"So?" Crow insisted.

Mona sighed in defeat. "To be honest, I... I've never considered this before. But you're right when you say that the person can be influenced both from inside the Metaverse and from outside. Hmm. On further thought, everything that's inside the Palace gets twisted by the ruler's distorted cognition. That is, except us, who have a rebellious will and can defy the distortion's effects. So, maybe... maybe our rebellious wills can cause some cognition change from inside, too." Mona paused. "Crow, when you confronted the Shujin Principal's Shadow, what did you do?"

"I didn't do much. The Shadows of those that made a deal with the organization are aware that the one carrying out the elimination orders is a black-masked Persona user. Kobayakawa's Shadow got really scared when I showed up, and he realized that the organization had decided to get rid of him. I basically said I was betraying the organization, and told him to influence his real self to stay unresponsive in the hospital, and hide until this all is over. The Shadow was so desperate that he apparently concluded this was the only way for him to survive. He faded away, and that's that."

"What about the treasure?" Mona asked. "I assume you didn't take it, since you didn't even know what a treasure was."

"Right. I didn't take anything. Oh, come to think of it... I vaguely remember a cloudy mass exploding at the back of the room. After that, the Palace began to collapse. From what you told me last time, now I realize that the cloudy mass must have been the treasure."

"C-collapse?" Oracle uttered shakily.

"This is what always happens after we take the Palace's treasure," Mona said, unaware of Oracle's discomfort.

Panther blinked. "Wait, the treasure didn't materialize, then? But it exploded and the Palace still crumbled?"

"I see..." Fox nodded. "Could this mean that we don't necessarily need to take the treasure, and having it disappear is enough for the distortion to dissipate?"

"Sounds about right." Mona confirmed.

"Hmm." Crow hummed in thought. "Then, can we conclude that the Shadow was so desperate that he chose his life over the treasure?" He gasped. "Wait, when the distortion disappears, a change of heart happens, right? Does this mean that I unwittingly caused the Principal to have a change of heart?"

"It... seems so," Queen said. "I was able to confirm that the Principal is alive and in a coma in the hospital. We shall see what happens once he wakes up."

"I changed a heart without realizing it...?" Crow was stunned. After a pause, he continued. "... A-anyway, now that we are more confident as to how this works, I think we should proceed with Okumura in a similar way. Either make him hand us the treasure, or make him sacrifice it. The problem will be how to have him hide. Having him fall into a coma like Kobayakawa isn't an option, as it'll be too fishy if the same thing happens twice in a row."

"How about just having him keep quiet?" Joker suggested. "Keep him from revealing he had a change of heart until we manage to deal with the mastermind."

"Hmm." Crow considered the suggestion. "Maybe. This might work."

"Are you sure this'll be okay?" Panther asked. "Won't he... uh, still go after Okumura?"

Crow hesitated for a bit. "It's not 100% guaranteed, but he likely won't. What the mastermind really wanted was to blame the Phantom Thieves for the mental shutdowns. Once we change Okumura's heart, the Palace will be no more, and it'll no longer be possible to cause a mental shutdown on him. If Okumura..." Crow awkwardly avoided looking at Noir. "... Were to become a victim of anything other than mental disorders, it would not only be harder to hide, but it also wouldn't be possible to link the incident to the Phantom Thieves and the mental shutdowns anymore. With this trap's failure, I believe the mastermind will give up on Okumura."

"A-are you sure?" Noir was obviously scared.

"As long as Okumura doesn't decide to oppose the organization, it should be fine. And he has no reason to, unlike Shujin's Principal. Kobayakawa was in bad standing with the organization already, and once the pressure intensified, Kobayakawa put two and two together and was likely planning to do something against them. But Okumura has no reason to suspect he's being pressured. He doesn't know that the rankings on the Phansite were manipulated. He's on good standing with the organization. And all the repercussion on the news shouldn't be that unexpected, considering how huge Okumura Foods is. Once the Palace is gone, it won't be possible to cause a mental shutdown on Okumura anymore. If things completely deviate from the original plan, then the mastermind will be thrown off. It'll be easier for him to just give up on Okumura and change targets."

"Change targets?" Joker asked. "Who could it be next?"

"I don't know. The truth is, it actually didn't need to be Okumura. It just so happened that the size and popularity of Okumura Foods were convenient to cause a scandal and then put the blame on the Phantom Thieves, but in fact, it could just as well have been someone else. The mastermind has many connections that could serve as Phantom Thieves bait."

Panther gritted her teeth. "You say it as though he chooses people to kill as though he were just choosing what clothes to wear for a walk. Ugh, hearing about this mastermind guy makes me sick! He treats people's lives as though they were nothing!"

Suddenly, Crow's demeanor changed completely. He heaved a sigh, lowered his head in shame, and reminded everyone that he had been the one who ended those lives.

"Crow?" Joker cocked her head towards him.

"Thanks to that man, I became as worthless..." Crow balled his fists, and his voice rose in anger. "I didn't consider the consequences at all when I followed those cursed orders! All I could see in front of me was the path to revenge! I didn't consider how many people would be affected with one person's passing. What might happen to the person's relatives that would be left behind. I know all too well how it feels to lose someone close. Yet, when I carried out the orders, I didn't even remember that! I didn't think about anything, except that stupid revenge!"

"Crow..." Oracle looked at him with a conflicted expression.

Crow quickly looked away from her and dashed to a corner. "Aaaaah!" He screamed in anguish and violently punched one of the safe room's walls.

The Phantom Thieves froze on the spot, scared of getting near him. Queen was right when she had said Crow might lose his grip and become aggressive. And this showed how unstable he was. One moment, he was discussing strategies with them normally, and the next, he was having an emotional crisis.

The pang that Joker felt in her chest was as violent as Crow's punch on the wall. It was that strange Confidant-esque empathy again. She was also scared, but Crow obviously needed support, and no one seemed willing to step in.

"C-Crow, please!" She took a tentative step towards him. "You can't break on us now! Get yourself together! We need you for our plan, you know. Come on, deep breaths..."

Surprisingly, he complied and began taking deep breaths, until he seemed to have calmed down enough.

"Yes. You are right..." Crow straightened his posture and slowly stepped away from the wall. "Sorry. I've been having a hard time restraining myself in the Metaverse lately. I'm usually better at controlling my emotions in the outside world."

"It sounds like you have too much stuff bottled up. Wanna talk about it?" Joker offered to listen.

"It's just the same things I've already told all of you before. There's nothing else to talk about."

"Yeah, there is." Joker insisted. "There's something I've been wondering about your story. You said you approached the mastermind because you wanted revenge. But why? You said he turned your life into hell. What did he do, exactly?"

"Joker!" Queen gasped in alarm as Crow seemed about to break down again. "Stop! Now is not the time to be asking these things!"

"But I'm worried!" Joker was the one driven by emotion now. "It worries me knowing how rotten this mastermind guy is. What could have he done to lead Crow to do what he did? I just thought that Crow might feel better if he got that out of his system."

Crow was touched. But Queen was right. It was not the time to talk about that issue. They should focus on their plan.

Crow chuckled. "I appreciate your concern, Joker, even though I know I don't deserve it. Yes, you got me. What he did affected me greatly. I don't feel like talking about it, though. It's not something that you all would want to hear. Still, of course it doesn't justify what I did to those people, or to the ones affected by the consequences. Nothing does..."

Crow tried to ignore the pain in Oracle's expression, partially hidden by her goggles, but obvious enough to the ones aware of what had happened.

"All I can do now is focus on putting an end to this mess, and try to prevent things from getting worse. This is why I'm here." Crow nodded decisively to himself. "What matters right now is carrying out our plan to change Okumura's heart."

"How should we go about it?" Noir asked.

"From what we discussed earlier, my presence alone seemed to have been enough of a calling card in Kobayakawa's case. Let's proceed with Okumura the same way. How about this? Your group approaches him and tries to have him hand the treasure. If he doesn't, then I come in to threaten him."

Crow hadn't expected his last sentence would suddenly put everyone on edge. They didn't trust him completely, sure, but they had been working along quite well so far, hadn't they?

"... Threaten him?" Fear flashed in Noir's eyes.

"Don't worry. Just think of it as a Shadow hold-up negotiation." Crow tried to assure them. "He must feel threatened enough to hand us his treasure, and we'll have to pressure him accordingly."

All the Phantom Thieves traded nervous glances, still unwilling to trust him completely. Crow was unsure what he could do to convince them.

"I won't kill him. I swear."

"Even so, how can we be sure that this isn't the real trap?" Queen asked. "How can we be sure that you aren't planning to betray us later?"

"... What?" He hadn't thought they were still distrusting him that much.

"I hate to admit this, but you clearly have an advantage over us." She continued. "You are way stronger than us, and know that we can't do anything against you. There's no guarantee that you won't switch sides any moment. Even if you're on our side now, what prevents the organization from pressuring you to sell us out later?"

"Queen!" It was Joker's turn to call Queen out. "We want to trust you, Crow. But we're scared. Like you said yourself, if something goes wrong and everything blows up on our face, it'll all be over for us."

"I want to trust you, too." Panther admitted. "But, um, to be honest, this whole deal's too strange. The way you came to us out of nowhere, and told us all those things, supposedly the enemy's plans. It feels too good to be true, you know?"

Fox added. "As much as we would like to trust you, this is a do or die situation. We can't help but be on edge."

The Phantom Thieves were clearly trying to trust him, to integrate him in their group. But it wasn't easy, especially since it was a do or die situation, as Fox put it. Crow understood their points, but hearing those words hurt. He was trying his best to do the right thing, and wished they would trust him more.

"I can understand why you'd think this way," he said. "But what should I do, then? All I can do is give you my word, but if this is worth nothing to you, then I don't know what to do. What would be enough proof to you?"

No one seemed to have an answer to that.

"Hey, guys." Mona spoke up. "He's really regretted what he did and all. It's easy to tell it's genuine. If it weren't, he wouldn't be having these emotional breakdowns we've been seeing. To us Phantom Thieves, isn't it all about having criminals repent? He's repented. I think we should give him a chance to prove himself."

To think Mona would be the one to understand him.

Joker was the first to nod, followed by Panther, then Noir, Fox, Skull, Queen, and lastly, Oracle.

"Thank you." Crow uttered weakly as he gave a slight bow of his head.

"Let's put our plan into action, then." Joker commanded. "Let's just do as Crow said. Even if we can't intimidate Okumura's Shadow, if Crow shows up, the Shadow should realize that the bad guys are after him and feel intimidated, right?"

Crow nodded.

"In other words, you'll be our calling card, Crow." Mona sounded excited. "This will be interesting. An operation like this one is a first even for me!"

They left the safe room and headed to the unmaterialized treasure's location.

"Okumura's Shadow isn't here," Panther said. "How can we find him?"

"Easy. Like this." Crow dashed away.

"Crow!" Queen snapped. "What did we say about having you dashing ahead-"

Queen's reprimand was cut short by a gasp. Crow had ambushed a Shadow and was holding it at gunpoint.

"Where is Okumura?" Crow asked menacingly.

"Ah!" The Shadow guard flinched. "Y-you are... no, it can't be..."

"I asked where... is... Okumura." Crow spoke between gritted teeth, as though his patience were running short.

"Wow, he can b-be quite s-scary, too..." Oracle commented.

"Ugh! ... I won't tell you!" The Palace's security level increased. "... Backup! Calling for backup!" The guard shouted, and a lot of Shadows spawned. "We must fight until we die! For our glorious president!"

But Crow used Loki's Maragion and quickly finished all of them off.

The alarms rang again, and more Shadows came. Crow was surrounded.

"Let's help him out!" Joker stepped forward and prompted the others to do the same.

The Phantom Thieves used their Personas' multi-target attacks and dispatched all the Shadows, but the alarm rang again. One more wave of Shadows later, the enemies stopped coming.

"You caused quite the commotion there." Joker commented to Crow.

"This is what I do whenever I'm unable to locate the Palace's ruler. It may be a bit risky, but this strategy has never failed me. All this noise alerted Okumura's Shadow for sure. He might be here any minute."

"Makes sense," Mona said. "The Palace's security level always increases to maximum after we send the calling card, and redirects all the ruler's focus into protecting the treasure. You're going for something similar here."

Some time passed, and no more guards came. However...

"This signal... there's no mistaking it! He's coming!" Oracle alerted the group.

Crow went into hiding, and only the Phantom Thieves were in sight when Okumura's Shadow arrived.

"What is going on!?" The Shadow was irritated. "Where are those incompetent security guards when I most need them?!"

"They're dead, because you pushed them over their limits too much." Joker mocked him. "You should know better and not send your workers into fights they can't win. Exploiting your employees is wrong! As a future employer, I can't tolerate that!"

"Hmph. So, you really managed to reach here, Phantom Thieves. You are as annoying as all those rumors from the media!"

"We're here for your treasure." Joker spoke again. "Just hand it over, and we won't do anything to you."

"You'd better be quick." Mona warned. "Apparently, there's someone else in this Palace besides us."

"I will never hand over my-" Okumura's Shadow froze midsentence when Crow came into view. "... Y-you! You are...!"

"You realize why I am here... don't you?" Crow spoke darkly as he took slow steps towards the Shadow.

Okumura's Shadow was shocked. "... But why?! I did nothing that could harm the organization. I did nothing that could upset 'him...'"

"You should have known how it works. You see your underlings as mere robots, worthless and disposable. It's basically the same to him."

"No, p-please, no!" The Shadow cowered. "A-alright. This is it... I-I will give you anything, but please let me go!"

"Hmm. Anything, you say?" Crow smirked, and his gaze floated over to the cloudy mass hanging in the distance. "Very well. If you hand me that treasure, I will spare your life."

"N-no!" Okumura's Shadow blurted out quickly. "Anything except that! I am nothing without that core. I need it for my utopia!"

"Sorry to inform you, but your utopia has no chance of happening." Crow shot the Shadow's argument down. "Haven't you realized it yet? The organization will no longer support you. But if I have that treasure, I can see about convincing the organization to at least let you go."

"Ah! Please no! Look. I can give you money. I will give you as much as you want, but please, don't kill me!"

"No, money doesn't interest me." Crow was firm. "All I want is that treasure. It's what the Phantom Thieves are after, yes? There must be something very special about these Palace treasures for the Phantom Thieves to be after them so much. I'm interested to know what these treasures are all about."

The Shadow recoiled. "No! Without that core, I can't continue on! I won't be the same ever again without it..."

"Think carefully." Crow warned. "It's either your treasure, or your life. There's no other option."

"Father, please!" Noir begged. "You can always start over as long as you are alive. But if you die, it's the end. I want you to live. So, please, hand me the treasure, and I will save you."

"Oh, Haru... my sweet Haru... you may be hanging around those Phantom Thieves, but I knew it. I knew you wouldn't turn your back on your father. Here, come closer."


"Noir, wait!" Mona tried to stop her, but Noir apparently couldn't hold herself and slowly walked over to the Shadow.

"Haru, you are here to protect me?" The Shadow hid behind Noir. "Then, be my shield."

"What the hell?!" Skull shouted. "He basically took his own daughter hostage?"

"She is mine. I will use her as I see fit."

Noir's eyes watered. "Is this really all that I am to you? A robot? A tool? A disposable object? Father..." Tears slowly rolled down her face.

"How dare you treat your own child like that!?" Panther snapped.

Crow gritted his teeth. Okumura saw his own child as a mere tool. Apparently, Okumura and Shido were more alike than it seemed. Crow growled, and his face heated in anger behind his mask. "This is pathetic! Cut the bullshit and hand over the treasure already!" The volume of his voice exploded, and startled everyone. "My patience is running short!"

"Oh no...!" Queen gasped at Crow's sudden loss of temper. "Don't tell me..."

"I said, hand over the treasure!" Crow yelled.

However, the violent action that took everyone by surprise didn't come from Crow.

"I refuse to be used as a shield!" Noir shoved the Shadow away from her and sent him crashing to the ground. "I want my father back!" Her watery eyes flared with determination as she ran back to the Phantom Thieves. "The kind father that, despite not having much time for me, loved me as a daughter, as a human being. The president who found joy in coming up with new food recipes to make others happy. Not this mass of selfishness that you have become! This is the reason why I will stay with the Phantom Thieves. I will take that treasure, and steal my father back!"

"Haru... how dare you...!" Okumura's Shadow stood up, recovered from the surprise attack. He was furious. "Betrayal is our family's motto. You are taking it to the extreme, huh? Very well. Then, you will die here!" The Shadow activated something on a remote controller device.

"Self-destruct sequence activated." A mechanical voice echoed in the Palace. "All personnel evacuate immediately. This base will be destroyed in thirty minutes. I repeat. All personnel evacuate immediately. This base will be destroyed in thirty minutes."

"What the...!" Mona gasped.

"He is trying to get into Politics. This should be the utopia he keeps talking about." Queen concluded. "Even this company is just a stepping stone to him. Once he ascends into Politics, he will discard this place."

"Hey, look!" Panther pointed in the treasure's direction.

The treasure solidified into gold, and an UFO came to retrieve it.

"The treasure! Did he materialize it so that he could move it away?" Mona voiced his theory.

"I will never hand over my precious treasure! I will take off towards my utopia while all of you die!" Okumura's Shadow dashed off to where the UFO had gone.

"Let's go after him!" Joker commanded, and everyone started moving.

There were guards in the way, but Crow dispatched them quickly. The group reached Okumura's Shadow, who was ready to set off in a spaceship.

"You won't escape." Crow spoke firmly.

"Gah! How did you..." Okumura's Shadow panicked. "You lazy robots! It's time to work!" He shouted, and all kinds of section leader robots appeared.

Crow scoffed, and Loki made quick work of the robots.

The Shadow frantically called waves and waves of robots, and the area became a war zone. Despite the chaos, the combined efforts of Crow and all the Phantom Thieves reduced the robots to nothing. Fifteen minutes had passed.

"You incompetent machines! What are you doing? Time to work, time to work!" Shadow Okumura desperately called more robots, but none came. "Why?! Why does no one come!?"

"What did I say about overworking your employees?" Joker smirked at him.

"Aaaaargh! This can't be happening! This can't be! Aaaaah!"

The Shadow screamed in despair and charged at them. One attack from Queen was enough to break his space chair and throw him to the ground.

"No... I failed. My utopia..." The Shadow lamented, crying on the ground.

Crow towered over the fallen Shadow. "Give up. Your utopia had no chance of happening from the start."

"Ah. My utopia! It's the end. I lost. I failed... I have nothing else left..." Okumura's Shadow cowered, closed his eyes and waited for the worst.

"What are you talking about?" Joker spoke. "You have your daughter."

"Stand up, Father." Noir approached him.

"H-Haru..." Shadow Okumura slowly opened his eyes. "Haru, my Haru..."

"Let us make a deal, and I will save you," she said.

"A... d-deal?"

"Rescind my marriage contract." She demanded.

"Huh...?" The Shadow blinked. "... J-just that?"

"And hand us the treasure." Noir was quick to add.

"Fine. I will rescind the contract." The Shadow agreed resignedly. He slowly stood up and stared at Noir as though he were seeing her for the first time ever. After a few seconds of staring, he spoke again. "Oh. I am sorry, Haru. I failed you. I became so obsessed with my utopia that I even forgot to pay attention to you. And now you have become a strong and independent woman. I arranged that marriage, and didn't consider your feelings at all. Please forgive me, Haru."


"If you take the treasure, I will be back to what I once was. This is what you had said you wanted, isn't it?"

Noir nodded. "Thank you."

Crow chuckled darkly. "You decided to give the treasure to the Phantom Thieves, eh?" He shrugged. "I guess that also works. I'll just have to steal it from them later. As for my end of the deal, yes, I will keep it. The organization's plan is to make the public aware that the Phantom Thieves are targeting you, then have you suffer a mental shutdown, and put the blame on the Phantom Thieves. In order for that not to happen, your best bet to fly under their radar is to not reveal you had a change of heart. This way, it will look like nothing happened, they will think the Phantom Thieves didn't go after you, and they will leave you alone."

The Shadow gaped. "You will really let me go, in exchange for my treasure? Why are you doing this?"

"To tell you the truth, I have my own agenda. I plan to destroy the organization from inside, by taking you know whose treasure. Until then, you should return to your real world self, stay quiet and pretend this whole thing in your Palace never happened. Once the organization is in flames and the court is looking for reports and testimonies, you may come out and do whatever you want against them."

"Well... I guess I have no other choice." The Shadow finally agreed. "It's strange to be saying this, but... uh, thank you."

The Shadow faded away in a bright light.

"Wow, this was quite the change already." Skull commented. "I mean, the guy had even taken his own daughter hostage and all... but now he actually looked like a good dad."

Crow spaced out for a moment and muttered to himself. "If 'his' heart changes, could it be possible that..."

"Hmm?" Joker threw him a questioning glance.

"It's nothing." Crow blinked and focused back on reality. "Anyway, the treasure."

"Yes. Noir, the treasure!" Mona urged.

Noir stepped forward determinedly and took the treasure.

Suddenly, the area shook violently and a crack appeared on one of the walls.

"The Palace's beginning to crumble! We've got to run!" Mona said, and the Phantom Thieves took off.

The Phantom Thieves were having a hard time keeping close to each other as they frantically dodged pieces of the collapsing structure.

"Come on, guys!" Joker encouraged the group.

Queen's gaze darted around. "Wait, where is Oracle?"

A glance showed their navigator at a distance behind them. She was advancing at slow steps, almost stopping.

"Oh no..." Crow muttered as his conversation with Futaba from yesterday resurfaced in his mind.

"Since I stay home most of the time, my body's kinda weak, and I get tired easily when I walk outside. I like to imagine myself having adventures at the places like the ones in Featherman, but intense escape scenes are a no go. I doubt I'd be okay if I had to run that much."

"Oracle, what are you doing!?" Fox shouted. "Run!"

"What are you doing!?" Crow yelled at Fox. "You should go and help-" He balked. "Never mind. I'll go."

"C-Crow!" Joker stopped running, unsure what to do.

"Joker, don't stop!" Crow gestured to the way ahead and signaled Joker to continue running. "I'll get her. Go on ahead. We'll catch up." Crow saw that Joker was still unsure. "Just trust me!" Crow didn't wait for Joker's response and ran back to rescue their navigator.

"I c-can't..." Oracle panted, on the verge of collapsing. "Help... someone..."

"Oracle! Oooooracle!" Crow shouted after her.

"Crow...?" She uttered weakly.

Crow's eyes widened at the sight of a huge piece of the ceiling that was about to fall. It was right above Oracle, and would crush her for sure. In an act of desperation, he plunged at Oracle and caught her in his arms protectively. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. Oracle relaxed in his arms, and he could feel that she was relying on him completely.

Then, everything stopped, the Hermit card appeared in Crow's vision, and he heard a voice in his head saying that the Hermit Confidant had ranked up.

The card disappeared, and just before everything unfroze and returned to its normal flow, Crow had a glimpse of the ceiling piece that had just begun to fall, right above their heads.

"Lokiii!" With a desperate cry, Crow summoned his strongest Persona.

Loki answered the call. Fortunately, he managed to hold the piece of ceiling in mid air for a few seconds, which Crow used to slide under it with Oracle unscathed. As soon as Loki disappeared back into Crow, the piece of ceiling violently crashed down to the ground. Safe for the moment, Crow carried Oracle and ran as fast as he could.

"Crow! Oracle!" Skull shouted their code names worriedly at the sound of the crash.

"There they are!" Queen Noticed them.

Crow caught up to the Phantom Thieves in a spacious area, just in time to see Mona transform.

"A... car?"

"Cool, isn't it? I call it the Monamobile," Joker said.

"Hop on, quick!" Mona's voice came from the car.

Crow managed to not let the puzzlement stop him, and did as told.

Panther looked worriedly at them. "Are you two okay?"

Crow finally had time to catch his breath as what had just happened fully sank in. "Yes. We're fine." He gently settled Oracle onto Joker's lap, and collapsed on the seat behind him, near the door and next to Joker.

Joker wrapped her arms around Oracle's frame and smiled in relief. "You did it. Thank you, Crow."

Despite everything, a warm sensation washed over Crow's heart. He had always wanted to know what it felt like to have others rely on him, and only now he was experiencing it. It was a pleasant feeling. Even better than how he thought it was supposed to be.

Queen was driving. The car ran and dodged debris left and right as the Phantom Thieves continued their escape. Despite all the destruction in the scenery, Crow could tell that they were nearing the Palace's entrance.

"We have no time to talk right now. My exit is almost here. Let's do the debriefing in Mementos. I'll see you all there." Crow didn't wait for a response, quickly opened the door and jumped out of the car.

"Hey! Unanimous decision rule!" Panther scolded him, but by that point, Crow was already being engulfed in light and transported out of the Metaverse.

The Monamobile continued ahead, and soon the Phantom Thieves also got transported out of the Metaverse. Everyone let out the breath they had been holding.

Akira still held Futaba in her arms. "Futaba, are you okay?"

Futaba made a weak affirmative sound.

"Let's sit down." Akira suggested and helped Futaba walk until they found a ledge, and all the Phantom Thieves sat down.

"Hey, Morgana didn't act all weird near the treasure this time." Ryuji noted.

"Was that so? Hmm." Morgana thought a bit. "Perhaps because I have a better idea of my goals now. Still, I'm pretty sure going after big treasures is important, though."

"Goals? You mean about remembering your origins?" Ann asked.

"Exactly. I still believe we'll find out more as we go further into Mementos. And to open the path further, we must keep changing big targets' hearts so that more people will have us in their cognitions. This is why I'm sure going for big treasures is important!"

"Speaking of treasures..." Yusuke joined in. "What became of Okumura's treasure?"

"It's here." Haru showed it to them.

Ann looked at the object Haru was holding. "A... plastic model kit?"

"We've gone to all this trouble for a toy spaceship!?" Ryuji was incredulous.

"But this must be it!" Haru exclaimed, and everyone looked at her questioningly. "Father once told me that there was a plastic model kit he was never able to get when he was a kid. No matter how much he asked for it, Grandfather never bought it for him."

"Huh? Can't your family buy thousands of these, though?" Ryuji asked.

"No. Even though Okumura Foods has been around for generations, it had been a very small food company before Father took over. Grandfather was actually quite poor, and visits from creditors were frequent when Father was a kid."

"Then, this toy was what drove him to get so obsessed with money." Makoto concluded.

"How much could we sell it for?" Ryuji asked.

Makoto took her phone and input the name inscribed on the toy into a search engine. "Wow..."

Ryuji glanced at the results on Makoto's phone. "300,000! For real?! People'd pay this much for a plastic toy?"

Makoto took a look at the pages talking about the item. "Apparently, this was a popular toy a few decades ago, but is quite the relic nowadays. It became a formidable collector's item."

"Uh, wait a minute." Futaba finally spoke up. "It's just us here, isn't it?"

Yusuke glanced around. "Yes. We have managed to go in and out of the Palace unnoticed by any real world guards."

"Inari, that's not what I mean." Futaba paused. "Crow. He saved me. Shouldn't he be here too?"

"Now that you mention it..." Ryuji also looked around. "Where's he? Shouldn't he have come out with us?"

"Hmm. He teleported out from a different spot from the one we did." Morgana observed. "It makes sense that he'd come out at a different place. He said he'll be awaiting us in Mementos, though. We'll see him again there."

Ann sighed. "That guy's always sure to ignore our rules, isn't he? We keep reminding him about the unanimous decision rule and all, but he insists on dashing off and doing stuff on his own."

"But he was the one that noticed Futaba was in trouble and took the initiative to save her," Joker said.

"Yes..." Makoto had to agree. "It was remiss of us to not have realized Futaba's situation sooner. We really do owe him one this time."

"That reminds me. Futaba, It was your first time escaping from a collapsing Palace." Morgana noted. "Still, this didn't look normal. What happened? Did you freeze up in fright?"

"No. Battery ran out." Futaba answered. "I, um... I don't go out much, so my body's kinda weak and can't handle workouts too well. Exploring the Palace was tiring but had been kinda okay 'cause we took breaks at the safe rooms. But today we had to run a lot to catch up to Okumura's UFO and all. And then, the Palace collapsed, and we had to run more. It was too much for me..."

"Oh. Such a thing didn't even cross my mind! I'm sorry." Makoto apologized. "I feel really bad for not having realized it."

"Me too. I'm sorry, Futaba." Akira wrapped an arm around Futaba's shoulder. "Next time, one of us should stay near you to help when we escape from a Palace."

"And walking outside more often should help too, so that you get better at dealing with workouts." Ryuji suggested.

"Y-yeah, I know I have to get better... but d-do I have to go out alone?" Futaba shut her eyes. "I had thought I could do it, but after that disaster when I tried to go to Akihabara alone, I'm not sure anymore..."

"I'll continue helping you, of course."

Futaba smiled. "Thanks, Akira. You're the best."

Akira giggled. "Now, to Mementos, was it? Futaba, maybe we should leave you home. You need to rest."

"No." Futaba shook her head. "I'm fine. I'm feeling a bit better after sitting here for a while. And... I want to see Crow."

"If it's what you want. Then, you can lean onto me if you need to."

Crow headed right into Mementos and waited. After around ten minutes, the Phantom Thieves arrived, including Oracle.

Crow was really glad to see Oracle safe and sound. His insides burned with guilt for having killed her mother, and if he had been unable to save Oracle, he would have despaired.

"Here you are. You set off without waiting for our opinion again." Panther reminded him.

Followed by Queen. "Do you have any intention of following the rules at all?"

"Ah..." Crow gasped. "Things were so hectic that I ended up acting on impulse without consulting you. I'm sorry." He looked at Oracle, who had been hiding behind Joker. "Oracle... is she alright? Maybe I should have scheduled our debriefing for tomorrow. Sorry, I had too much to think at once."

"No, I'm o-okay." Oracle came out from behind Joker and stepped forward shyly. "Um... th-thanks. Uh, for... earlier."

Crow was embarrassed, unsure how to respond. Despite her social anxiety, and the fact that he had been the one who killed her mother, Oracle still thanked him genuinely. She seemingly had put a lot of effort into her thanks, and Crow felt that the standard "you're welcome" wouldn't cut it. "I... I'm glad that you're fine."

"Um..." Noir stepped forward. "I'm pretty sure you have figured out my identity already. The Shadow even said my name quite a few times."

"You pointed out that he is your father quite a few times, too."

"Uh, y-yes, I did that." Noir shuffled in embarrassment.

"Haru Okumura, right? Don't worry. I won't tell anyone."

She smiled at him. "Thank you for helping us change my father's heart. Oh, and for getting us out of the trap as well."

"Oh yeah, there was that, too," Joker said. "And you saved Oracle. We owe you one, Crow. Or two, or maybe three..."

"Uh, d-don't worry about it..."

"Whoa, dude." Skull spoke. "First you break down in front of us, then you go from threatening Shadows like a friggin' mercenary, to running ahead and ignoring our rules as though you own the group, then you begin acting all awkward like this. You're really all over the place, huh?"

"... Huh?" Crow blinked cluelessly.

"Stop provoking him, Skull." Panther chided her teammate. "You wouldn't want to set him off."

"What? I'm not provoking him! It was just a comment! And what's wrong with that? I only spoke the truth."

"By the way." Fox interjected. "We succeeded in taking Okumura's treasure. What is the next step?"

"Oh, yes." Crow straightened and recovered his composure. "I'll delay the status reports to the organization as much as possible. An advantage we have is that I'm the mastermind's main source of information about this whole Metaverse thing. So, I'll do my best to keep misleading him. This will hopefully give you time to do some training."

"Training?" Panther echoed.

"I had said that the mastermind's Palace is way beyond your current skill level, remember? You won't stand a chance unless you greatly hone your skills."

"Huh? The other time, you had insisted so much saying you didn't want us to go." Skull observed. "Why this change all of a sudden?"

"Because I learned that there's no arguing with you Phantom Thieves. Even if I say no, you'll be coming anyway."

"Of course we will," Panther said. "We can't let someone like that mastermind guy run free!"

"And we need to be there to keep you sane." Joker added. "If I got it right, he's apparently the source of your biggest problems. I doubt you can keep your sanity intact if you go to his Palace."

"You're probably right about that." Crow's gaze fell in resignation at his weakness. Joker's concern was touching, though. "Uh... thank you for the consideration."

The Phantom Thieves still weren't trusting him fully, but Crow felt that they were a bit more accepting of him now. A Tarot card invaded his vision, and a voice invaded his mind to say that the Fool Arcana Confidant had ranked up.

"It's settled then," Crow said once the rank-up message was over. "I'll leave you to do as you will now. I'll see you again here in Mementos some other day."

"You aren't coming with us?" Mona seemed a bit disappointed for some reason.

"No. I don't think it's necessary. I'll focus on stalling and misleading the organization while you prepare. I'll be sure to check up on you all once in a while and keep you posted. That being said, we had enough of the Metaverse for today, hadn't we? Let's call it a day and take a rest."

"Agreed." Joker nodded. "And Oracle's battery ran out, as she put it herself. We need to take her home quickly."

"Yes, let's head back," Mona said, and the Phantom Thieves headed out the Metaverse.

Chapter Text

Tuesday, September 20

Akira was on lunch break with the other Shujin Phantom Thieves.

"Haru, how's your father doing?" She asked.

"He has been cooped up in his study since yesterday. He didn't respond when I tried to talk to him. When I checked up on him this morning, he seemed out of energy and lost in thought. Is this normal?"

"It should be." Morgana answered from inside Akira's bag. "Something like this also happened to Madarame and Futaba, the ones we could check personally. From this, we can assume it went on similarly for the others."

"Futaba-chan had a Palace too?"

"Yeah." Ann told Futaba's story to Haru. "She stayed in bed for like a week. I'm sure your father will be fine too."

"It's the same thing we keep repeating after taking every major treasure. All we can do now is wait," Morgana said.

"Speaking of waiting, Crow said he's gonna buy us some time." Ryuji reminded them. "I wonder what he'll do."

"Me too." Makoto agreed. "Honestly, I have a nagging feeling about this. The way Crow refused to join us in Mementos is suspicious. It means we can't keep an eye on him in the Metaverse. We have no way to contact him, either. Who knows what he might be doing behind our backs!"

"Do you still doubt him this much?" Ann asked.

"I'm sorry." Makoto had a conflicted expression. "He seems to have repented, like Morgana said. He helped us, kept his word and didn't kill the Shadow, and even helped Futaba. But I can't bring myself to trust him too much. Something doesn't add up. He is the one behind the mental shutdowns. What could've made him switch sides so suddenly?"

"From his story, his views were clearly distorted." Morgana observed. "There's only one thing I can think of that could've made him begin acting this way. A change of heart."

"I also think he's changed and all, but do you really think it was a change of heart?" Ryuji asked. "You said Persona users can't have a Palace. So, no one could've gone to his Palace and changed his heart."

"A clever observation, coming from you, Ryuji." Morgana ignored the "What was that?!" retort from Ryuji and continued talking. "I'm inclined to think he overcame his heart's distortion on his own. Yes, it's something extremely hard to happen, especially to someone in the state he said he was in. But again, he also has the ability to yield multiple Personas. This must mean there's something very special about him."

"I thought the same thing," Akira said. "If he really changed his own heart, then it's incredible."

"Could such a thing really happen?" Makoto was unsure.

"There's a lot about the Metaverse that we still don't know." Morgana answered. "It should be possible."

"I hope you're right." Fear flashed in Makoto's eyes. "Actually, I think I'm wary of him because I'm scared. He is too skilled, too smart, and can even use multiple Personas. He also tends to lose his grip easily and become aggressive. That time when the Shadow tried to use Haru as a shield, my heart almost stopped. I really thought Crow would lose it and kill the Shadow. What if he attacks us during one of his episodes? Or what if he suddenly decides to switch sides again? Like Yusuke said the other day, Crow is like a bomb that we never know when will explode."

"And this is why we decided to keep an eye on him, to not let him explode." Ann reminded Makoto.

"But he refuses to work in a group, and keeps doing things on his own without consulting us," Makoto said. "And he refused to accompany us in Mementos as well. As a result, we can't keep an eye on him. Who knows what he might be doing where we can't see him."

As horrible as Crow's actions had been in the past, Akira felt a strange sympathy towards him, and wished he could get a second chance at life. However, she wasn't sure about voicing this to the others. So far, the only one that seemed more accepting of him was Morgana.

The previous day's foray into the Metaverse tired Akechi more than he would have liked to admit, and he had gone to sleep early. He failed to hear the alarm in the morning, and had to hurry to school. It was only during lunch break that he had time to check his phone, and saw a text message from an unknown number. The sender's identity became clear soon enough, though.

"Hey Akechi, it's Futaba." the message stated. "Akira gave me your number. Next Featherman session when?"

Akechi snickered at Futaba's directness. The message was from yesterday at ten, and he didn't want to keep Futaba waiting any longer. He went to a secluded area of the courtyard and called her number. The phone rang five times, and it sounded like Futaba wouldn't pick up, but she eventually did.

"Y-y-yes?" Futaba shakily spoke.

"Hi, Futaba-chan. It's me, Akechi. Sorry, I only saw your message now."

"O-okay, but why are you calling me? You could've just replied the text."

"Ah, yes, I could have, but I think talking is quicker and easier."

"The total opposite of me! It must be easier to you, since you're used to talk in public and stuff, but to me, writing's easier. I can take my time, and if I think the message's not making much sense, I can reword it before sending it. If I try to talk and freeze up, words either won't come out or won't make any sense, with no chance of fixing."

Akechi chuckled. "Yes, it's a valid point. You're making perfect sense right now, though."

"Oh, really?" Futaba cheered up, and went on to the main topic. "So, when can you come over so that we can watch Featherman together again? ... Um, how about right now? I'm bored..."

Akechi let out an amused laugh. "Sorry, I can't right now. I'm at school."

"Oh crap. You go to school too. I forgot! Too bad..." Futaba paused. "Wait, you're phoning me in class?"

"I'm on lunch break." He clarified. "You said you're bored. I can't come over, but I can continue talking until lunch break ends. I-I have no one else to talk to, so..." He found himself saying.

From Futaba's gasp, her mood seemed to have darkened. "N-no one? No classmates?"


"Akechi, from what you told me when you watched Featherman in 2008, it sounded like you had no friends at school." Futaba sounded sad. "Is it the same even now?"


"Even though you're good at communicating and stuff?"


"Do you... get bullied?"

"I was bullied a lot at the orphanages and the previous schools." Akechi answered. "Even though the bullying has stopped, the other kids here aren't exactly friendly to me."

"Sojiro wants me to go back to school, but I don't feel like I can do it." Futaba sounded really insecure. "Akira took me for a tour of Shujin, and I remembered a lot of depressing stuff, mostly from elementary school. I always got bullied. The kids said I was a freak, and no one wanted to talk to me. They made fun of me, hid my things, and put weird stuff in my lunch or my locker." Futaba sighed into the phone. "I know school's important, and honestly I want to go back, but I don't know if I can handle it..."

Akechi wished Futaba would overcome her trauma and live a normal life. Futaba didn't deserve those problems. The worst reason for her trauma was her mother's death. In other words, it was his fault. He wished he could do something to help her and make it up to her. He wanted to say something and encourage her to return to school, but school had never been a pleasant experience to him, either.

"Akechi, how's it at your school? How does people treat you?"

"My school allows me to take care of detective work during school hours as long as I maintain high scores. At first, I thought it was a cool privilege, but now that I think about it, I can see how wrong I was. It's quite hard to keep up with studies and work at the same time. And I noticed the other kids are displeased because I get special treatment. Not to mention that many of them dislike me because... they are fans of the Phantom Thieves."

"You know what? You should just stop looking into the Phantom Thieves and come watch anime with me. It'd be a much more productive use of your time!" Strangely, the Phantom Thieves comment seemed to have cheered her up.

Akechi laughed in amusement. "Lunch break is almost over. After school, I'll drop by Leblanc if nothing comes up."

"Great, I'll be waiting."

... ... ... ... ...

Since Akechi's goal was to stall, he wouldn't talk to anyone from the organization unless they contacted him. Fortunately, they didn't, and Akechi could have the afternoon to himself. As agreed, he went to Leblanc.

"Akira's away. But she said I can use her DVD player. C'mon, let's go!" Futaba hurried upstairs with a bounce in her step.

Feeling guilt upon seeing Futaba was inevitable, but the sight of her so cheerful managed to ease the pain in Akechi's heart a bit. It had really been a close call yesterday. He was really glad Futaba was safe and sound.

"Ah, I'm tired." Futaba popped a DVD into the player and collapsed on the couch. "Before Akira left, she took me for a fifteen minute walk around Yongen. I was a bit tired and panting by the end of it. What if I can never become good at long walks?"

So, Akira had begun helping Futaba stretch her legs. This was good. It could mean Futaba would have more stamina in the Metaverse as well.

"It was just the first day, right? Just keep walking a little every day, and you'll get used to it."

"You think so?" Futaba became hopeful.

"Yes. It's like the saying goes. Practice makes perfect."

"Okay, I'll try. I never needed to walk much. When I lived with my Mom, my home was near the school and the grocery shop. Whenever we needed to go somewhere farther, Sojiro'd take us by car. Now I live near the station, and that store in Akihabara from last time was near the station, too. Maybe next time I should choose a store farther away from the station?"

"Sounds like a good idea. Buying what you want should be a good incentive."

"Then I'll do that! Alright! I'll get so good at walking that collapsing enemy bases won't stop me anymore!"

Akechi spaced out, and a chill ran down his spine at the mention of collapsing enemy bases. Once again, he recalled how he had almost despaired imagining the worst case scenario. He had even urged Akira to go ahead, and to trust him to save Futaba. If he had failed, he would have one more thing to feel guilt for. He probably should stay close to Futaba during their escape from the next Palace, to ensure such an incident wouldn't happen again.

"Akechi, you're no fun. At least play along or something!"

"Uh, sorry..." Akechi snapped back to focus.

"Ah, whatever. Let's watch the... ah!" Futaba gasped. "I was so tired that I forgot to turn the TV on and get the DVD player's remote! And I'm still tired. Akechi, I guess I'll leave the task to you."

Akechi did as asked without complaint, then returned to the couch and placed the remote controller on Futaba's lap. "Here you go."

Futaba smirked. "I knew I could count on you."

Akechi let out an amused chuckle, then took his spot on the couch beside Futaba.

The afternoon flew by along with the Featherman episodes, and they finished watching the third DVD Futaba had bought. Much to their relief, there were no more episodes with exploding bases. Now Akechi was traumatized, too.

"The Phoenix Rangers go to so many different places..." Futaba commented once she had turned the TV off. "I had always wanted to visit those kinds of places, like the museums and the sci-fi-esque labs. Too bad they aren't real."

Akechi realized that now she could, thanks to the Metaverse and how fantasious people's Palaces could get. Okumura's spaceport had surely been a field day to her... minus the collapsing part, of course.

"What about you, Akechi?" Futaba's question caught him off guard.

"Huh? Me? I... had never thought about it. Back then, I hadn't imagined visiting such places or having superpowers like the Phoenix Rangers. I had never considered doing something myself, because I knew I couldn't do anything. I only wished heroes were real, and that they would come to save me."

"You said the house you lived was horrible." Futaba looked at him with concern. She didn't explicitly say it, but her eyes pleaded for more details.

Akechi was hesitant, but ended up telling her the story about the cat he had told Morgana about.

"Oh. So, this explains why you liked Mona so much! That family was really horrible, though! They locked you in your room?"

Akechi nodded. "That was the time when watching Featherman was my only pleasure. As I watched it every week, I kept hoping that heroes would appear and save me, take me away from that house to somewhere I could be happy, but it didn't happen."

"How did you get out of there, then?"

"Uh, yes, the social service got me out of there, but this didn't mean much. After the cat incident, the family seemed to have ultimately decided to get rid of me. They began giving me less food and water each day, until the social service came and saw how I was being mistreated. Since no one showed interest in taking me in, the social services sent me to a random family, but the new family didn't like me, either, and didn't like that they got forced to take me in. Things didn't improve much, and the social service sent me somewhere else. I kept hoping that maybe next time, the next family would want me. Some of them seemed willing to stay with me at first, but as soon as they learned about my background, their stance towards me changed completely. Then, it was either abuse or negligence, and I got sent somewhere else again. After the third or fourth time, I gave up. In the end, no one came to save me, and I concluded that heroes didn't exist. I stopped watching Featherman. I began hating it. I blamed the show for putting naive dreams in my head and making me have false hopes, only to get deluded and frustrated."

Futaba stared at him sadly, and Akechi realized he had said too much. It was rare to find someone willing to listen to his problems. As he realized Futaba was willing, he couldn't hold himself.

Akechi gasped. "I'm sorry. I darkened the mood. I didn't mean to say all those things..."

Futaba became serious and hesitantly placed a hand on his arm. "After my mom died, I was passed around my relatives, and no one wanted me. Just like you, I guess."

"Huh?" Akechi startled. He hadn't known about that. "... I-is that so?"

"Yeah. But Sojiro stepped up and took me in. I'm very very happy here!" Futaba's face lit up all of a sudden. "I'm sorry you didn't have the same luck. But I'm sure of this. Heroes exist, Akechi. They just didn't manage to find out where you were."

Akechi felt a warmth in his heart, and couldn't find words to respond.

His lack of response seemed to make Futaba insecure. "Hey. Um... why did you decide to watch Featherman with me?"


"You said you began hating the Show." Futaba clarified. "you were watching Featherman begrudgingly, then?"

"No!" Akechi gasped. He took a deep breath and tried to explain. "The first time you suggested watching it, I wasn't really sure about my feelings for the show. But thanks to you, I could come to terms with my feelings. Now I can say that I like the show again, and can watch it from a new perspective. And... with company. It's a different experience for sure."

"... Yeah!" Futaba smiled, and became all excited again. "Alright! We finished watching all the DVDs I bought. We need more! I had been considering whether or not to get the Feathermen Memories collection. It has select episodes from all the show's iterations, including that one from 2008. It's decided! I'll get it for next time! It'll be your chance to make up with those episodes from 2008!"

Akechi felt really touched at that kindness he was sure he didn't deserve, and a wide smile formed on his face. "Um, thank you."

"Oh, but as my anime-watching buddy, you'll have to take me to the store to help me buy the collection, got it?"

Futaba was really pushy, but after seeing how she was motivated, Akechi just couldn't say no. "Okay. Let's just agree on a day and a time, and I'll take you there."

"Great! And I'll choose a store far from the station so that I can have a bigger purpose for walking more! It'll be an awesome mission!"

Akechi could feel Futaba's determination, both to buy her DVDs and to improve her physical condition. The Hermit Confidant ranked up.

Just as they arrived downstairs, Akira returned.

"Hey, welcome back!" Futaba greeted her cheerfully.

"I take it that you two had fun."

"Yeah, we finished watching the new DVDs. I'm planning on buying more for next time!" Futaba excitedly told her. "But that mission has special requirement flags,, and I'll need to sort some stuff out first. I'll get on it right now! Time to make like a tree and branch out! Akechi, I'll text you later!" She hurriedly left the cafe.

"Ah, wait! Futaba-chan, you forgot your DVDs upstairs!" Akechi called after her, but it was already too late.

Sakura-san sighed, more amused than annoyed. "I'll take them when I leave later." He pointed to the newspaper he had been reading. "By the way, Akira, it seems your friend's doing well."

From his position, Akechi was able to see the headline, "Kosei High School Student Wins Art Competition," along with a picture of someone familiar.

"That's... Kitagawa-kun, right?"

"Yep." Akira was amazed. "Wow. I had known he won the competition, but I hadn't expected he'd make it to the newspaper."

"This says he'll do a public presentation about his art piece at the museum in Ueno tomorrow," Sakura-san said.

"Oh. He must be busy with the preparations then. This must be why he isn't replying to my messages!" Akira clasped her hands. "I have an idea! Akechi-kun, if you're free tomorrow, how about we go see the presentation together?"

"Huh?" Akechi startled at the sudden invitation.

"I really want you to see the winner art piece." Akira stared at him expectantly.

"Uh, I'm not very good at interpreting art, though. If someone explains what symbolizes what, I might understand it, but-"

"And this is exactly what Yusuke's presentation is for!" Akira cut him off. "Please?" She threw him that pleading look it was hard to say no to.

"Um, i-if I have free time..."

"Great!" Akira gave him a satisfied smile. "I'll check the details and will let you know." Then, she got an alert on her phone, probably about new messages. "Oh, excuse me." She stepped away to check her phone.

Sakura-san set the newspaper aside. "The newspaper says the presentation will be tomorrow at 17:30. It's mostly geared to art students to learn more about impactful art pieces, but anyone may go, and entrance is free."

"I'll go if I have free time." Akechi restated his decision.

"No. If you don't have free time, then you gotta make some free time for it. It's an unique opportunity you shouldn't waste! Your special girl just asked you out, and you have the obligation to accept it!"

Akechi's face flushed. "Uh, it's n-not like that..."

Sakura-san chuckled. "Whatever. Say what you will. Just go and enjoy your time."

... ... ... ... ...

Wednesday, September 21

To Akechi's relief, the organization didn't bother him, and he could tell Akira that he would go to the museum with her.

"I'm glad you could make it." Akira smiled to him when they met at the museum entrance.

"Apparently, I can have some free time as long as the Phantom Thieves don't cause a commotion."

"Stuck at your investigation, eh?" Akira glanced at him teasingly. "Bored because of no news?"

"Not really. Actually, I'd be grateful if no news'd come for a while."

"Aha!" Akira stared at him mischievously. "Tell me the truth. All you want is to slack off, eh detective?"

Akechi's gaze fell a bit. "I just want to be a normal high school student for a while longer... rather than a detective. That's all." It was mostly true.

"Oh, sorry. I didn't mean to offend you." She unexpectedly patted his head.

"Y-you didn't offend me." Akechi was embarrassed. Even though he appreciated Akira's gesture, they were in public. Someone could have seen them and gotten the wrong idea. Akechi's eyes darted around to make sure no one was looking. Apparently, no one was... maybe except for a certain magical creature inside Akira's bag. "You're really bringing Morgana here?"

"Yeah, I want him to see the painting too," She said as though bringing a cat to a museum were something perfectly normal. "Come on, let's get inside."

Akechi followed her without protest, as absurd as the situation was.

A few minutes later, Akechi and Akira were seated next to each other in the audience. The bag with Morgana was on Akira's lap, and the supernatural cat discreetly poked his head out from time to time.

Kitagawa was showing his painting. Its title was, "Desire and Hope." Despite it being an abstract painting and Akechi being unsure what to make of it, there was a touching quality to that piece of art. Perhaps the decisive and skillful traces, or some visual effect that caused a reaction in his brain in some way, or perhaps something else.

"In this painting, my intention was to capture the intricacies of the human heart. But before discussing how it became what it is, I would like to present to you the previous version." Kitagawa took another painting that had been leaning into the wall behind him and turned it to face the audience. "First, I started with one of the most basic things that can move one forward. Desire."

About the only difference from the previous painting was the absence of "hope" in the title, and of the light ray things in the picture. Yet, the feeling it evoked was completely different. Rather than evoking determination and inspiration to move forward, the older painting looked more aggressive and chaotic.

Kitagawa pointed at the painting. "This painting had been on display previously, and its ugliness and eeriness caused it to receive nothing other than scorn and criticism from the viewers. I considered throwing it away, but I decided against it. I cannot deny that this painting is part of my past as an artist, and captures desire as I had known it. When thinking about desire, we tend to think of positive emotions such as pleasure and satisfaction, and may have a hard time associating the chaos in this painting to desire. Sadly, there is another, much more negative side to desire, and this was what ended up represented in this picture. The destructive, obsessive kind of desire that may consume one's heart like ferocious vortexes. I had been dealing with the consequences of such a phenomenon for most of my life thanks to Madarame, and the obsessive desire that consumed him and twisted both his views and his person. This piece captures desire as I had known it. Most people that never had to deal with a similar situation will most likely find the painting meaningless, and won't be able to understand it. It's probably for the best, as having to deal with a situation involving the negative side of desire is outright horrible."

The explanation made perfect sense to Akechi, and he understood why the painting was so eerie. It could be interpreted as the insides of one's heart which had been totally twisted and consumed by distorted and obsessive desires, in complete chaos and with no way of recovery. In fact, it could very well represent his own heart, ruined by that stupid desire for revenge. And Added to that was the pain from having realized the consequences of all the damage he had caused. His heart was a wreck, perhaps even worse than that picture.

"Now, back to the newer painting." Kitagawa set the "Desire" painting aside and focused on the newer one once more. "I struggled a lot thinking about how to evoke feelings on the viewers even if they don't understand the piece's meaning, and I think this painting achieves this goal. Regardless of whether the viewer knows the darker side of desire or not, Rays of light illuminating the darkness evoke a hopeful feeling. Desire, preferably the positive kind, is necessary to motivate us to move forward, and hope is always something important to have. Always move forward, and never give in. As long as we harbor hope in our hearts, they won't turn into the abomination from the previous picture."

The audience applauded Kitagawa's speech.

A young man in the audience raised a hand and posed a question. "Not really about the painting, but about you and Madarame. Just before he did that public conference and confessed his crimes, apparently the Phantom Thieves changed his heart. How did you react? What do you think about what happened?"

Akira tensed slightly.

"It was hard for me." Kitagawa answered after some thought. "I used to look up to him. I had always viewed him as a mentor, a father figure. I had known about the plagiarism, but was conditioned to accept it. I was grateful to him for having taken care of me since I was three, or so I kept telling myself. The truth was that I wished to leave, but I didn't have the courage to do so, especially considering how Madarame had destroyed the lives of the pupils who had tried to oppose him. Then, Madarame's so called change of heart happened. He confessed everything, including more matters he had deceived me about that I wasn't aware of. It was quite the shock. It was hard, but I was eventually able to come to terms with my feelings. Whatever the Phantom Thieves did, I am grateful. Had they not saved me, I probably wouldn't have been able to envision the rays of hope over the desire painting."

Another person, a woman, raised her hand. "I don't think people are born good or bad. But what do you think, Kitagawa-san? Was Madarame bad from the start?"

"I do not think people are born good or bad, either. I believe it is their experiences that cause them to sway to one side or the other." Kitagawa chuckled. "This is becoming more of a philosophical discussion rather than an art presentation, but I digress. After the truth came to light, I began having doubts about Madarame. He had been kind to me in general, but I was no longer sure to which point it was genuine. I had even considered the possibility that he had taken me in just so that he could abuse my talents. Come to think of it, though, there was no way Madarame could have guessed that I would develop artistic skills. And I have also heard stories that indicate Madarame was likely a... normal person years ago, before he took me in. So, yes, he might have been a good man before desire consumed his heart."

"So young, but so wise." Someone commented in the audience.

Akira spaced out. "Before the distortion..." She muttered to herself. "I wonder..."

"Huh?" Morgana poked his head out of the bag questioningly.

"If it was a change of heart, then before, maybe..." Akira was distracted and spoke in a low voice, but it was loud enough for Akechi to hear, though vague enough that he couldn't really tell what she was talking about.

"Is this about Madarame?" Morgana whispered back in confusion.

Akira gasped, seemingly realizing she had been thinking aloud. "Uh, n-no, it's nothing..."

After some more words from Kitagawa, the presentation ended and people began filing out of the room.

Akechi stared at the "Desire and Hope" painting again. Something about it was inspiring indeed. However, he was pretty sure that the other picture was the one that better represented his heart. While he had found a weak ray of hope in his heart as of late, it was hope for others, not for himself. It was sad, but what could he do?

"Akechi-kun?" Akira seemed concerned. "You okay?"

Akechi snapped to focus and nodded to her.

She threw him an apologetic look. "Sorry. You had been unsure about coming. Did the presentation bore you?"

"The presentation was enjoyable enough. And you have nothing to apologize for." But this argument didn't work.

"I was the one who invited you. I thought you'd feel motivated if you saw the winner painting, but if art really isn't your cup of tea..."

"No, that's not it..." Akechi frantically shook his head. "I enjoyed the presentation. I... just think it's hard to follow the advice of harboring hope in my heart."

"Well, no one said it's easy, especially considering where you're coming from. It's perfectly possible, though. Just take your time."

Akechi didn't respond.

Once most people had already left, Akira called Kitagawa over.

"Akira. And Akechi... san?" Kitagawa hesitated, seemingly unsure whether or not to use a honorific.

"Hi, Kitagawa-kun. Just Akechi is fine." Akechi put an end to that indecision.

"I invited him to see your painting." Akira explained. "I thought it might cheer him up a bit."

"Congratulations on winning the competition," Akechi said. "It's a nice piece. And you did a good presentation."

"Oh, thank you." Kitagawa was wary, unlike during the presentation where he had seemed so sure of himself.

Akechi added, "The desire painting is scary, though."

Kitagawa raised an eyebrow. "Do you think so? People rarely comment about the desire painting. Most don't identify with it, and some even say it has no artistic skill at all."

"I admit I'm terrible at interpreting art, and obviously can't judge others' artistic talent. But I understood everything thanks to your explanation."

"While this is good to hear, that is the desire painting's weak point. Most people won't understand its meaning unless it's explained. I wanted to create a piece of art that can touch people's hearts when they look at it, even if they don't understand its meaning or about art in general. I am proud to say that I achieved this with the newer piece. But today, I made sure to discuss both pieces because I wanted to show the 'before' and the 'after.' If the older one had never came to be, the newer one also wouldn't exist, after all."

Akechi nodded.

Kitagawa had seemingly relaxed, now that they were discussing his art. "By the way, Akira said she invited you here because she wanted to cheer you up. Did something happen?"

"Uh, nothing in particular," Akechi said awkwardly. "Things in general aren't looking very bright to me at the moment. That's all."

"I am sorry to hear. May you find your rays of hope to illuminate your path."

"Thank you."

As the museum staff arrived and began helping Kitagawa clean up, Akechi and Akira left.

They were talking, standing next to each other in the train.

"I'm happy for Kitagawa-kun." Akechi commented. "Things seem to be going well for him."

"You're... envious?"

"Err, maybe a bit..." Akechi admitted with a sheepish chuckle. "He's strong. He had it pretty rough, but managed to face his situation and is standing with his head high."

"It was hard to get him to this point, actually. Until a few weeks ago, he had been lamenting how he felt lost after everything he believed while living with Madarame crumbled, and he didn't have inspiration to paint like before. It took us a lot of talking and thinking together and stuff. It's not that simple. Sometimes people need a little push, you know?"


Akira placed a comforting hand on Akechi's arm and looked him in the eye. "I'll gladly help you find a way out of your problems if you're willing to discuss them with me."

"... A-Akira." Akechi couldn't maintain eye contact. It was painful to see that smile on Akira's face, and that look that expressed how much she was determined to help him. He couldn't be saved. She was only wasting her time.

"Come on. We're friends. If there's anything I can do for you, I'll do it."

"U-um... th-thanks." Akechi tried to regain his composure. He didn't want to accept her help, but he felt the need to help her. "Come to think of it, I should do something for you, too. Um, after all, this goes both ways, right?"

"Oh, Akechi-kun, you don't need to feel obligated to do anything for me."

"But I want to do it. Since others rarely helped me willingly, I didn't have motivation to help others before. But unlike most other people, you've been so nice to me, and this makes me want to do something for you." Not only that, but he felt the need to do something good to try to make up for his wrongdoings, even if a little. "There must be something that I can do. Let's see. Perhaps I could... yes, this is it. I'll look into your false charges case and prove your innocence."

"Thanks, but you don't need to worry about it. I'm past half of my probation time already. Just halfway to go, and my name'll be clean." Akira, as optimistic as always.

"But it's different. If you're proven innocent, it'll be clear that you were falsely-accused, and it'll be as though you never had a criminal record to begin with. Your name will be clean for good, and the man responsible will be punished, both for the harassment to that woman and for having incriminated you falsely. It's much better. On the other hand, if you only conclude the probation, you'll still be viewed as someone who had a criminal record, and the man will get away unpunished."

"Hmm, yeah, you may be right..."

"Hey, Akira." Morgana pipped up from inside Akira's bag. "I think this is a great opportunity. If he manages to find out the man's name, then..."

Akira deliberated on the suggestion for a second, then a mischievous smile appeared on her face. "Then, I have an idea I want to test. Akechi-kun, if you find the guy's name, I'll put up a request for the Phantom Thieves, to see if they go after him!"

"Huh?" Akechi's head shot up slightly.

"I believe this is the kind of person that'd make a good target for the Phantom Thieves! If his heart changes, then he should confess about the harassment and the false charges himself, and my name'll be clean in the best way like you said! If it goes right, you'll have to accept that the Phantom Thieves are just. How about this?"

That was sudden. "... Uh, well..."

"We made a bet to see whether the Phantom Thieves are good guys or not, remember? This is a great opportunity to settle the score!" Akira was really determined to win him over. "Why the hesitation? Are you scared of losing the bet?"

The situation was getting awkward. The Phantom Thieves had already won him over, but he wouldn't reveal this yet. "No, I-I'm not..."

"Then, you're on?" Akira did her cute expectant face.

Akechi took a deep breath. "Fine. If this is the only way that you'll let me help you..."

Akira giggled in triumph. "Deal!"

And everything froze.

"I am thou, thou art I... thou hast acquired a new vow, the Akira Kurusu Confidant. It shall become the wings of rebellion that breaketh thy chains of captivity. With the birth of the Star Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power..."

Akechi wasn't versed in Tarot card meanings, but he felt that Star feet Akira nicely. She was always so bright and hopeful, qualities that could easily be associated to a star.

However, unlike the previous times, the Tarot card image remained for a bit longer, and the Confidant rank skipped right to 5.

Those Tarot card visions were getting more and more frequent. Could they be related to the multiple Personas ability? If so, Akechi wondered whether Akira also had them. But of course, he couldn't ask her.

It was night when Akechi and Akira arrived at the Shibuya station. They could have parted ways there, but Akechi absentmindedly took the train to Yongen-Jaya with Akira, and when he realized it, he was walking into Leblanc with her.

"How was it?" Sakura-san asked.

"Oh, It was quite interesting." Akechi answered. "Kitagawa-kun explained the reasons for his painting. He has rather deep insights."

Sakura-san was amused. "He sure does. Soon after his former-mentor was arrested, that boy had nowhere to go and came here. He stayed for just one night, but we had a deep conversation. Then, he thanked me for the hospitality and left that painting here."

Akechi's gaze floated over to the painting he had always wondered about. The first time he had seen it there had strengthened his suspicions that Kitagawa and Akira had involvement with the Phantom Thieves. Otherwise, why would Kitagawa have left such an expensive art piece there? "The Sayuri. It's a bit different from the image everyone knows. Is this perhaps the original one?"

Akira tensed slightly. "No, i-it's not."

Akechi felt he was missing something. How had the Phantom Thieves gotten their hands on... unless...! His eyes widened at the realization. That art piece must have been Madarame's treasure! Akechi took a step closer to the wall with the painting.

"A-Akechi-kun?" Akira called out to him, as though she didn't want him to keep looking at the picture.

"W-well, it makes sense," Akechi said awkwardly. "If this painting were the original one, then it should have come to the public's attention. This explains why Kitagawa-kun decided to give it away." Akechi stared at the painting for a bit longer. "This piece evokes a soothing feeling. I see. This must be what Kitagawa-kun meant to achieve with his painting as well." Akechi turned around and walked until he was behind Akira and could see Morgana in her bag.

"Uh... what are you looking at?" Morgana recoiled warily.

Akechi turned to Akira. "I don't know how to put this, but Kitagawa-kun's hope painting... kind of reminds me of Morgana."

For some reason, this statement threw both Phantom Thieves off.

"... Huh?" The supernatural cat deadpanned. "No idea where you got that from..."

"Morgana? Really?" Akira looked at Akechi quizzically.

Akechi was confused. Only he thought that, then? "Looking at Morgana gives me a comforting feeling, like seeing a thin ray of light in the darkness. It's similar to the feeling I had from looking at Kitagawa-kun's painting."

"But he's black..."

"I'm serious here!" Akechi protested.

"Uh, sorry, but I don't see your point. Maybe you just like cats?"

How disappointing. "I... don't think that's it, but whatever..."

"Detective, since you are here, how about a cup of coffee?" Sakura-san offered.

Akechi was about to refuse. He wasn't even sure why he had accompanied Akira to Leblanc in the first place.

However, Akira didn't let him. "I'll handle it!"

Sakura-san hummed in amusement. "Akira, I'll leave it to you, then. I'll head home."

Sakura-san left, Akira hopped away to the kitchen area, and Akechi had no choice other than to accept the offer.

A few minutes later, Akira brought a cup of coffee and a plate of food. "Here you go. Nothing fancy. I just hope you don't have a problem with instant noodles."

"Oh, I don't."

"Good." Akira smiled in relief. "I added a bit of curry for a special touch. Boss'd kill me if he were to see what I'm using his special curry recipe on, but I assure you it tastes awesome. And it goes very well with my coffee!"

"Um, you didn't need to go to the trouble to prepare dinner."

"It was no trouble at all." Akira waved it off. "I'll get a plate for myself. I'll be right back."

She brought her own plate and sat at the table across from him.

"So, how is it?" Akira looked expectantly at Akechi when he tentatively ate a bit of his food.

It was simple, but good. The curry really gave the food a special touch.

"I like it." Akechi took a sip of the coffee. "Oh, the food and the coffee really go well together! And your coffee has improved as well!"

"I'm glad to hear!" Akira grinned, pleased at the compliment.

"I think I'll need the recipe to... add some spice, pun intended, to my own instant noodles..."

Akira laughed. "You usually have instant noodles?"

"I'm a high school student living by myself. What do you think? If I'm home and not in the mood to cook, it's what I usually have."

"I see. But I can't give you the curry recipe. It's secret! It's Futaba's mom's special recipe. I can't just go and give it away!"

The mention of the researcher caused a pang in Akechi's heart, and he concluded he really didn't have the right to know the recipe. "Oh, it's o-okay. I u-understand."

Akira seemed disappointed that he gave up much too quickly. "You're free to guess, though, detective."

Akechi quickly formulated an argument. "I don't have enough knowledge about curry recipes to try to guess what's inside. I'll pass."

"Ah, fine then. Whenever you need curry, you know where to find it! The real deal, Boss' curry, is much better than mine, too."

Akechi laughed. "That's some marketing."

Akira laughed as well.

Once they had finished dinner, Akechi was ready to leave.

"Akira, thanks for the food. It was delicious."

"If all you want is coffee and curry, Boss has it covered. But if you want curry with instant noodles, just ask me and I'll make it for you."

Akechi let out another burst of laughter. "Thanks."

"Akechi-kun, seriously. I'm sorry that the art presentation didn't cut it for you. I'll pick somewhere more fun next time, I promise." Akira took a few steps closer to him. "For now, good night."

Akira placed an affectionate kiss on Akechi's face. Somehow, this action never failed to surprise him, and to cause his heart to race.

"Good night to you too, Akira." Akechi timidly returned the gesture, then did his best to recover his composure as he walked over to a stool from where Morgana had been watching them, and lightly patted the little cat on the back. "Night, Morgana. Bye. I'll see you two around." Akechi smiled to the two Phantom Thieves and left.

Akira headed to her room with Morgana. She smiled as she thought of Akechi. Despite the art presentation not having cheered him up, she felt that they had grown closer. The Justice Confidant had even ranked up to 5! Akechi had been so sweet to Morgana and her, too. The more Akira spent time with him, the more she saw his nice and sweet side overshadow his forced celebrity side.

But then, she realized she might have lowered her guard a bit too much.

"Oh no. Morgana, you saw the way Akechi-kun kept staring at the Sayuri... think he's suspecting us even more now?"

"He probably is. Not only that, but Akechi heard Yusuke's words of gratitude to the Phantom Thieves, too. No idea what he made of them. We need to find a way to change his opinion of us as fast as possible." Morgana sighed in exasperation. "How did he see a correlation between Yusuke's painting and me, anyway? Maybe he was trying to impress you or something?"

"Why'd he do that? His reaction when I disagreed was quite weird, though."

"Although..." Morgana's gaze became distant. "I can't explain it, but I had strange feelings when I saw Yusuke's paintings. Kind of... nostalgic? I felt that a memory was about to surface, but it didn't." Morgana was lost in thought for a moment, then gave up and changed the subject. "Akira, when you were muttering about a change of heart and something before a distortion, who were you talking about?"

"Crow." Akira answered. "What he did was really horrible. But when Yusuke said that Madarame might've been a good guy before, I began wondering what kind of person Crow might've been before his views got distorted."

"Well, in theory, when someone's heart changes, aside from the guilt of the wrong things they did, they go back to being how they had been before the distortion. If what happened to Crow was a change of heart like we think, then he shouldn't have been too different from the way he is now."

"It's as though the distortion made him go out of his mind and kill all those people. He's regretted what he did, and I can tell he's suffering a lot." Akira hesitated. "I didn't say this to the others because of how distrustful of him they are, but I kinda feel sorry at how much he's suffering. He's repented of what he did, and is helping us do what's right. Despite his quirks, he's been a good guy so far. Now that he opened his eyes, I think he could have another chance at... everything, you know? But after all the bad stuff he's done, if he turns himself in, his life'll be as good as over."

"Yeah, I wish he could have another chance, too. But it's complicated. The consequences of what he did are too serious. If the truth comes out, society won't let him go."

Akira furrowed her brows in thought. "Morgana, do you think we can do something to save him?"

Morgana heaved a sigh. "Who knows. From what he said, some powerful people are after us. We aren't even sure if we can save ourselves..."

Sad, but true.

Then, Akira's phone beeped with a new message. It was Hifumi saying she was available to hang out, and this took Akira's focus away from Crow for the moment. She would think about the issue again another time.

Chapter Text

Thursday, September 22

Haru awoke to a pleasant surprise that morning. She arrived at the dining room, but instead of one of the butlers coming to serve her breakfast as usual, her father was the one doing it!

"F-Father! Um, g-good morning." Haru was so stunned that she nearly forgot to say good morning.

"Good morning." Her father looked embarrassed and unsure as to what to do, completely the opposite of his ever so imposing and confident businessman image. "Haru... I have prepared breakfast."

Haru felt a warmth in her heart. She smiled at the sight of fruit, a sandwich, and a coffee mug on the table. "This is... just like the way you used to do when I was little!"

Her father smiled sheepishly. "I am not sure if I was able to get it to taste the same way as it did back then, but I tried my best. Ah, this brings back memories." He continued after an awkward pause. "This is too sudden, I know. I am unsure how to put this, but I am sorry, Haru. I don't know what overcame me. My head has been in space this whole time, and I even forgot how enjoyable these simple moments could be. Only now I have realized how much I miss them..."

"I m-miss them too, Father. I miss them so much..." Haru's eyes couldn't help but fill with tears.

Her father seemed about to cry as well. "I haven't been paying attention to you, and went as far as to take advantage of you. I will rescind the marriage contract, and will do my best to be a better father from now on, but please forgive me!"

"... Father!" Haru took a step forward, but froze. For a moment, she thought he would say it was just an act and try to take advantage of her like his Shadow had done. But his Shadow had changed, and his heart also should have. With this conclusion, Haru determinedly closed the distance and tackled her father into a hug.

They spent a moment in silence, just crying quietly in each other's arms.

"Haru, thank you." He broke the hug, relieved that his daughter had forgiven him. "I would have liked us to have our breakfast together, but I must attend a meeting I was unable to cancel with some of our food suppliers. I need to be going."

"It's alright." Haru assured him. "We will certainly have other opportunities."

"Yes." He nodded. He turned around and was about to leave, but turned back. "Oh, I almost forgot. Our company had scheduled an event at Destinyland tonight, but as we have other priorities now, I canceled the event. But this was such a last minute decision that there was no time to cancel the rent. You are free to take your friends there and have some well-deserved leisure time." He paused. "... I mean, you have friends at school, yes? I am sorry. I haven't been paying attention even to these details..."

Before, Haru had no friends. Even though she got along fine with her classmates, she had had no one she could consider to be a friend. But now that the Phantom Thieves had entered her life, she finally connected with people she could call friends.

Haru giggled. "Yes, I do. Thank you."

Akira was on lunch break with everyone when Haru told them the news. "Wow, amazing!"

Haru had sparkling eyes and a wide smile. "His heart has really changed. I am so happy right now! This calls for a celebration, and we just so happen to have the perfect location!" She told them about the Destinyland deal.

"For real!?" Ryuji was the first one to voice surprise. "Destinyland! You mean that Destinyland, right?! The whole park all to ourselves tonight?!"

"In other words, the Phantom Thieves will take Destinyland for one night..." Morgana had a mischievous grin. "Is this cool or what, huh?"

"This is incredible..." Akira said while Ann and Makoto just gaped. "I have to tell Yusuke and Futaba."

Akira promptly took her cellphone and messaged them. A few texts later, it was decided that they would meet up at the amusement park at six.

... ... ... ... ...

As agreed, Akira took Futaba to Destinyland and met up with the others there. Haru hadn't been kidding when she had said they would have the whole amusement park to themselves. They enjoyed all the available attractions, and ate like kings at the restaurant. Haru even managed to get high-grade cat food for Morgana!

"Haru, see what you've done? Now you've taught them what real luxury is..." Morgana commented. "Thanks to this, they won't settle for anything less for the next celebration!"

"Hey, that includes you, too." Akira directed a pointed look at Morgana.

"It would, if only I could have something other than cat food..." Morgana muttered under his breath.

Haru just giggled. She seemingly hadn't heard what Morgana had muttered.

"Next celebration." Yusuke echoed. "Is it not too early to think about that? We don't even know what our next step should be..."

"Yes, I agree," Makoto said. "Either way, this surely is a formidable welcome party to Haru."

"... Welcome party..." Futaba mumbled.

"Futaba?" Akira was concerned. "You've been acting a bit weird since we arrived at the restaurant. Are you okay?"

"I... don't know, Akira."

"What's wrong?" Akira placed a comforting hand on Futaba's shoulder.

It looked like Futaba wasn't going to speak, but she eventually did. "Haru deserves a welcome party, of course. Uh, but this whole operation wouldn't have gone well if... you know."

Akira came to a realization. "This is about Crow, right?"

"... Yeah." Futaba slowly nodded. "I don't know what to feel, Akira. To begin with, I joined the Phantom Thieves to get back at whoever killed my mom, and we found the culprit already. It's Crow. I know I should hate him. But I feel that he's truly regretted the bad stuff he did. I feel he's really opened his eyes, and from the way he keeps breaking down, he's suffering a lot thinking about what he did. And still, he's trying to start over, just like me after you guys rescued me from the labyrinth in my heart. When I think how hard he must be trying to make things right, I just can't bring myself to hate him..."

"Actually, me neither, Futaba." Akira admitted.

Futaba perked up. "Then, I'm not weird to think like this?"

"No, you are kind." Morgana added, "... I think. Either that, or the three of us are weirdos."

"Oh, you too?" Futaba giggled, a bit more cheerful. "Whatever. I'm just glad to know I'm not alone in this. But I still think he should've been here..." And then she was back to her angry and demanding self. "When Haru brought up the party, I bet you guys didn't even remember about him!"

Makoto shuffled nervously. "... Well, we have no way to contact him."

"I agree that the operation might not have succeeded without him," Haru said. "Too bad we couldn't get a hold of him and invite him to the celebration. I believe he should have the treasure, at least."

"Fine with me." Ryuji agreed. "We usually burn the treasure to pay for the parties. This time we didn't need to do that, so..."

"It is your father's treasure," Yusuke said. "If you don't mind letting go of it..."

Haru smiled. "I will hand it to Crow the next time we see him."

The others nodded.

"I have an idea." Akira announced. "He seemed to be acting on his own even though he had been working alongside us. Maybe it's because he thinks he isn't part of our group. What if we try to make him officially join us? As long as he feels that he belongs in the group, he'll have to take part in our activities more, and to stay near us most of the time."

Futaba nodded decisively.

"If even Futaba is okay with it, them I'm game too," Ann said.

Ryuji was excited. "Oh, if he joins us, will this mean he'll be kinda like our secret agent? Sounds cool!"

And so was Morgana. "I think it's a good idea! When he refused to accompany us, I was disappointed that I wouldn't be able to observe him, the other wild card. If he agrees to effectively join us, we'll have two wild cards! We'll be nearly invincible!"

"Wild what?" Ryuji asked.

"Wild cards. People that can use multiple Personas, like Joker! Persona users are already rare to come across. Wild cards are even rarer!"

"Oh... hell yeah!" Ryuji pumped his fist. "You're right! We'll be unstoppable!"

"And if he officially becomes a member, we can throw a welcome party for him after the next mission!" Akira declared.

Makoto closed her eyes and sighed. "Will this really be okay...?" She muttered to herself.

... ... ... ... ...

Friday, September 23

The Phantom Thieves went to Mementos to fulfill some smaller requests. To their luck, they ran into Crow at the last available rest area.

"Crow!" Joker exclaimed. "You knew we were here?"

"No, I just spotted you all entering Mementos and assumed you'd come to this platform."

"Status report?" Joker asked.

"Nothing really. The organization has yet to contact me about anything, and since our objective is to buy time, of course I won't be the one to contact them first. In other words, I just want you all to know that nothing has happened yet."

"Like the saying goes, no news is good news, eh?" Joker chuckled. "Thanks for dropping by to keep us posted."

"This was all I had to say." He was about to turn and leave.

"Wait!" Noir stopped him. "Um, about my father's treasure."

"What about it?"

"You haven't seen it yet, have you?" Noir approached him and extended the object towards him. "Here."

"Hmm?" He carefully took the object. "A plastic spaceship? This... is the treasure?"

"It turned out into that when we got out of the Palace." Noir explained. "It was the toy Father was never able to get when he was a kid, as my family was quite poor back then. This item was what led him into the greed for money."

"I see..." Crow turned the toy over. "Aside from the fact that it's a toy... it just had to be a spaceship, hadn't it?"

Noir giggled. "Yes. Father has always liked this kind of thing. He was a gentle person before his views got distorted, though."

"Hmm. It's hard to imagine that, because when I knew of him, his views had already been distorted. But from the Shadow's reaction after his defeat, I guess it's possible."

"Yes, and his heart has definitely changed! He has even been preparing my breakfast, the same way he used to do when I was little! He said he will rescind the arranged marriage contract as well! I'm so happy! We probably wouldn't have succeeded in this operation if not for you, Crow. We believe you should have the treasure."

Crow shook his head. "No, I can't have this."

"Didn't you say you were interested in the treasure?" She asked innocently.

"That was just an argument to convince the Shadow."

"Are you sure you don't want it? It seems to be a neat collector's item nowadays," Joker said.

"I don't want to run the risk of the organization questioning me if they happen to find such a peculiar item in my possession. Thanks, but I can't accept it."

"Well, if you say so." Noir accepted the object back.

"Most importantly, you said your father's heart has changed. I hope his Shadow is keeping his end of our agreement. He hasn't mentioned about publicly confessing what he did, has he?"

"No. This morning he mentioned a plan to restore Okumura Foods' reputation, which will include indemnifying the employees who sued the company, and other things that will take a while. It's all he has said."

"So much for remaining quiet in hiding." Crow sighed. "Ah well, I guess this alone should be fine. He desperately needs to do something about his company's reputation, after all. Let's hope that the Shadow will keep his end of the deal, and that the 'other things that will take a while' refers to testifying against the organization once we change the mastermind's heart like we agreed. Surely, this will take a while..."

"Interesting," Mona said. "Instead of just resigning and turning himself in like our other targets, he's actually taking action, huh?"

"He is back to the person he once used to be. I'm so happy to have my father back! This makes me think that, before their views got distorted, bad people could have been good." This was the same conclusion Akira had had after Yusuke's art presentation. "Crow, I wonder what kind of person you were before the desire for revenge consumed your heart. You seem to be a nice person right now."

"... Me?"

"I've been wondering this too," Joker said.

Crow sighed. "I was nothing out of the ordinary. Just one more person in the crowd, with nothing good to add to the world. All I could do was let the current carry me, since I didn't have the strength to defy it."

"Just like us, then." Panther concluded.

"Yeah..." Skull agreed.

"This is practically the reason that got all of us together," Joker said.

Crow let out a bitter chuckle. "If only your group had appeared a few years earlier, maybe I wouldn't have jumped head first into this mess..."

Joker realized it was a good opportunity to put their plan into action. "It's never too late. Wanna join us now?"

"... Huh?" Crow gaped for a moment. "A-are you serious?"

"Yes." Mona answered. "Your presence and intel were vital to our last operation, and will be to the next one too! Also, we could use another wild card in our team."

"Wild card?"

Skull grinned. "See, I wasn't the only one who didn't know what that was."

"No one said you were." Panther retorted. "To answer Crow, according to Mona, a wild card is someone that can use many Personas, like Joker."

"Ah, this explains the reason for Joker's code name. In playing cards, the joker is a wild card."

"You're into playing cards?" Skull asked.

"Not really. The joker card thing is just common knowledge."

"Uh, yeah, I guess..."

"So, you're joining or not?" Joker got back on track.

"... I'm not sure. I mean, after everything I did..."

"Thanks to that, you've lost your place to belong." Mona concluded. "We're a band of misfits too, and know what it feels like to be ostracized. We're willing to give you a chance. Crow, join us. As long as you are with us, you'll have a place."

Crow was speechless.

Joker's eyes darted between her friends, but no one else said anything. She looked at Oracle and spoke in a low voice. "Oracle, tell him what you told us at the party yesterday."

But Oracle froze up, and no words left her mouth.

It took too long with no one else throwing arguments, and Crow gave up. "Thank you for the offer, but I can't accept it. I'm fine being just an informant."

"Why?" Joker asked.

"It seems most of you don't quite trust me yet. We argued enough about this last time. I don't want to continue disrupting your teamwork."

"No, this is not it!" Noir tried to argue.

"Just worry about your training. I will do my best on my end so that the next operation succeeds." Crow didn't let anyone argue back. "I did what I came here to do. I'll leave."

"Crow!" Joker called out, but Crow used a Goho-M and disappeared. "Why didn't anyone say anything?"

"I had expected either Skull or Panther would say something." Fox tried to justify his silence.

"Huh?" Skull's head shot up. "What were we supposed to say, right after Mona said all that touching stuff?"

Panther nodded. "Yeah, if Mona's speech didn't convince him, then nothing we could say would."

"S-sorry." Oracle lowered her head. "I... froze up. I wanted to say something, but the words scrambled in my head and nothing came out."

"It's okay, Oracle. This must be quite hard for you, all things considered," Queen said. "Crow's insistence on working alone doesn't help eliminate my wariness of him, though."

Joker sighed. "He's misunderstanding us. He really doesn't feel he belongs here. We'll have to be more assertive next time."

From the time Akechi began fighting the organization, he had been feeling more out of place than ever. Not quite in the organization, and not quite in the Phantom Thieves. Strangely, Morgana seemed to be the one most willing to accept him. Despite acting mocking and rough often, Morgana was so kind deep down. Other than the supernatural cat, most of the Phantom Thieves seemed at least willing to tolerate Crow, though some of them were still uncomfortable around him, especially Queen and Oracle. He felt that if he were to join in these conditions, he would only hinder the group. Not to mention that if he got forced to accompany them everywhere, he would have to reveal his identity to them, something he wasn't ready to do just yet. He wanted to enjoy his friendship with Akira for a bit longer. On that note, he should get away from the Shibuya Station as fast as possible before the Phantom Thieves could come out of Mementos and catch up to him.

Akechi took the train home. When he was nearing his building, a woman from the neighborhood approached him.

"Um, excuse me, you are Akechi-kun, the high school detective, right?"

"Yes, I am."

"Oh, so it was true! I've heard that you live nearby. This is great. I could really use some help from a detective right now."

"Uh... huh?" Akechi was stunned.

"My son has been acting strange lately. He's in the first year of middle school. There are days when he doesn't come straight home from school, and only returns at night. I ask him what he has been doing, but he gets evasive, as though he's hiding something. He wasn't like this before. I'm worried he might be going somewhere dangerous, or hanging with the wrong kind of people at night. Akechi-kun, do you think you could investigate?"

It was the first time someone asked for his help like this. But Akechi had no reason to accept that random request. Everyone he had been helping lately was for a reason. He was helping the Phantom Thieves because it was the right thing to do, Akira because she was his only friend, and Futaba more as a way of trying to relieve his conscience because of what he had done to her mother. But this woman was a total stranger. He had seen her on the street a few times, and that was it. He had no logical reason to help her. But when Akechi realized it, his newly awakened will to help had prevailed over reason, and he found himself agreeing to fulfill her request.

The woman, Mrs. Takano, gave him more details, a picture of her son, her address and the boy's school's address.

Akechi traced the way from the boy's home to the school, and asked people whether anyone had seen the boy from the picture. One of the answers led him to a street near the school. Sure enough, the boy was there, crouched down.

Akechi approached the boy and spoke softly. "Hey. What are you doing at a place like this?"

"U-uh, I'm j-just taking care of her." The boy timidly pointed at a brown puppy fallen on the ground. "She's sick."

Akechi's gaze focused on the puppy. "Oh. So this is it..."

The boy stood up from his crouching position and looked at Akechi properly. "W-wait, you're the detective from TV, a-aren't you?"

"Yes. You're Takano-kun, right?"

The boy startled. "H-how do you know?"

Akechi smiled to put the boy at ease. "I ran into your mother on the street. She asked me to help look for you, and gave me a photo for reference. This is how I know."

The boy hesitated. "Is she angry?"

"No, she's just worried because you've been coming home late and doesn't tell her why. She's worried you might be hanging out with bad people or something. But it turns out you are just taking care of a sick dog. What a relief..."

The boy was shocked. "I've been coming here in hiding because I was scared my mom wouldn't let me. But I hadn't thought she'd worry like that!"

"You should tell her."

The boy slowly nodded.

When Akechi phoned Mrs. Takano and said where he had found her son, she hurried over there and saw the boy caring for the dog with her own eyes. The boy apologized for having kept this fact hidden. In the end, Mrs. Takano even agreed to take the dog in!

Akechi was relieved it had worked out. "I'm glad this had a happy ending. I didn't have the same luck when I was a child."

"Something like this had happened to you?" The boy was surprised.

"Yes, except in my case it had been a cat. And the people I lived with weren't... very nice."

Mrs. Takano was relieved. "Akechi-kun, you found my son so quickly. Thank you so much! You're really a talented detective! Um, sorry, I was so desperate that I hadn't even thought of a reward..."

"Huh?" And neither had Akechi. No one had ever asked for his help like that, and he hadn't been prepared. "It was nothing. Don't worry about it."

"Alright. I'll make some food and leave it at your building's reception. Just a small token of gratitude."

Akechi could tell she wouldn't take no for an answer. "Okay, if you insist."

Akechi parted ways with the Takanos and returned home.

... ... ... ... ...

Saturday, September 24

Back from school, Akechi was rummaging through his boxes and found some clothes from a few years ago. Mostly plain clothes that one of his last foster families had wanted to get rid of and gave him. Those were what he used to wear before he began appearing on TV... or rather, before he began his destructive quest for revenge.

Since the clothes had belonged to an adult before he got them, they had been a bit big for him back them. Akechi wondered whether those clothes fit him now. He tried a white shirt and gray pants on. To his surprise, they actually fit him just right. As Akechi looked in the bathroom area's mirror, he saw the image of a normal, not particularly impressive teenager in worn clothes. A totally unfitting image for a celebrity.

And Akechi realized how his celebrity status meant nothing to his satisfaction anymore, and its only use now was to mislead Shido rather than its original purpose of deceiving the public.

Akechi recalled Sae-san's words about how his connections could get him privileges, and how he was arrogant. Her words had hurt. He had wanted to say she was wrong. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized she was right. Even though it wasn't exactly the way Sae-san had said and he wasn't as talented as she believed, it was true that he got some privileges, thanks to his connections to the organization.

Before getting access to the Metaverse, Akechi had never gotten any remarkable achievement in his life. So, when the organization began giving him those privileges, he had thought it was finally his time to have everything he had never been able to get, and got all full of himself. As Akechi began his TV appearances, he started to give more importance to his looks and follow the trends to appear more charming in the public's eyes. Akechi felt he had power, and felt proud of himself as he managed to deceive the public with his fake case conclusions. Soon, he became lost in the sensation of glory. This had only been possible thanks to the Metaverse, and Akechi had thought he was chosen, special, and blessed with that power. However, now he realized that his "glory" was just an illusion, not unlike his charismatic looks and fake cases. The ability to enter the Metaverse wasn't a blessing. It was a curse. Now Akechi wasn't feeling proud of his power or his privileges in the slightest. Actually, he was feeling ashamed. How could he have fallen so low, and done so much wrong?

Akechi looked at his image in the mirror again. This was the image of what he should have become if only he hadn't given in to revenge. Until a few weeks ago when all he could think about was revenge and glory, he would probably have scorned at the image, or outright refused to put those old clothes on. But now, Akechi wished he could be his previous self, with no evil in his heart and maybe a chance to have a future.

At that moment, his phone beeped with a message. Akechi got worried it might be from someone in the organization, or in other words, trouble. Fortunately, it wasn't. It was from Akira! The perfect distraction from those depressing thoughts.

"Akechi-kun, are you free tomorrow?"

An involuntary smile spread on Akechi's face when he read the message. Spending some time with Akira was enjoyable, and he couldn't resist.

"Yes. What do you have in mind?" He wrote back.

"Nothing in particular. Actually, I was thinking I'd have you pick a place to hang out this time."

After some thought, Akechi responded. "How about we go cycling? I haven't done that in a while."

"Sounds good." Akira agreed, and they set a place to meet up.

Then, the doorman called to tell Akechi that someone had left a chicken pie for him at the reception. It must have been the reward Mrs. Takano had said she would give him. Now that he was sure what to have for dinner, Akechi decided to put his old clothes in the nearest laundromat for tomorrow.

... ... ... ... ...

Sunday, September 25

As planned, Akechi changed into his old clothes, and deliberately left home without his tie, his gloves and his cellphone. He arrived at the meeting place and waited. A few minutes later, Akira appeared, but walked away without noticing him.

"Hey! Akira! Over here!"

She balked, turned around, then skipped over to him with a smile. "Oops, I hadn't seen you there. Sorry!" She stared. "Wow, talk about casual clothes. Maybe those are the reason why I didn't recognize you. What's with the change?"

Akechi laughed sheepishly. "Uh, nothing. Yesterday I was cleaning up and these clothes popped out."

"Cleaning up? And I thought you had no space to accumulate junk in your home." Morgana appeared from Akira's bag.

Akechi jumped at the cat's sudden appearance. "O-oh, you're here too?" He ignored Morgana's comment, though. "Uh, they're old clothes I got at one of the foster homes I lived at. These were what I had before... uh, you know, before I started appearing on TV. I wondered whether they fit, and decided to try them on. They had been a bit big for me back then, but now they fit just right. Do they look bad?" Akechi was sure Akira would give him an honest opinion.

"Not at all. I just didn't think those were the kind of clothes you'd wear. You seem to enjoy standing out."

"You got that right. I do. Or rather, I thought I did. But today I want none of that. I even turned my cellphone off and left it at home. All I want is to have some fun, just between us, disconnected from all the rest."

"What if someone phones you about work and can't find you?" Akira asked.

"Then I'll say that the phone's battery ran out."

"Lying, eh detective?" She directed him a mischievous glance, but then smiled. "Anyway, you said these clothes are from before you became a celebrity. When was that?"

"I was 13. About to turn 14."

"Hmm. Then, basically, it's as though I were talking to 13 year-old Akechi-kun?"

"Not really."

"Why not? What changed? Aside from you having grown up a bit, of course."

Akechi's gaze lowered. "A lot has changed, mostly for worse. For one, 13 year-old Akechi would never lie."

"Aww, don't berate yourself like that. There are some rather nice things about the current you. For one, you're so caring and sweet to Futaba, Morgana and me."

"Uh, well, you're... my only friend. And Futaba-chan..." Akechi paused. He was helping Futaba out of guilt. "... For some reason, I just can't say no to her."

Akira giggled. "Yeah, she's so quirky and cute. It can be hard to say no to her sometimes."

Akechi nodded awkwardly. There was that too. "As for Morgana... I don't know. It's... a bit odd how we seem to get along."

"Odd indeed!" Morgana agreed. "I think I somehow get along with you better than with Ryuji! How can this be?"

"You're being authentic, Akechi-kun. Your feelings and actions are coming naturally, just as it should be. I've noticed your forced celebrity side's been appearing less and less lately. You're just being yourself."

Morgana scoffed. "To think this was actually the detective jerk's true nature, huh?"

Akechi's mouth opened slightly, and he had to hold himself from echoing, "true nature."

On further thought, even though Akechi had begun doing things for those three for selfish reasons, those Phantom Thieves had a way of warming and massaging his heart that made him want to elicit happy expressions on their faces. Was this really normal? Could this really be his true nature, like Morgana had said? Could a heart that had previously been consumed by destructive desires still have kindness to spare?

Akira's gentle touch on his shoulder pulled him out of his reflection. "So, my authentic detective friend, how about we do what we came here for?"

Akechi nodded, and they set off to rent the bicycles.

Akechi chose a bike, and looked at Akira. "I'm done choosing a bike. What about you?"

Akira fidgeted. "Um, actually, I can't pilot a bike."

"Huh?" Akechi gaped. "When I suggested cycling, you didn't mention that! If you'd rather do something else, you should've-"

"Who said I didn't want to come?" Akira smiled at him sheepishly. "I was hoping you'd give me a ride..."

"A-a ride?" Akechi hesitantly glanced between the back of the bicycle and Akira, who was making that cute expectant face. It was hard to say no to her too. "... O-okay. Uh, just be warned that... it's my first time ever giving someone a ride..."

"It shouldn't be a problem." Akira wasn't worried.

Morgana jumped out of the bag. "I guess I'll take a walk around while you hang out with-"

"Hey, don't run off." Akechi was quick to crouch down and catch Morgana.

"Ah! hey!" The little creature made no effort to escape, frozen in surprise.

Akechi placed Morgana in the bicycle's basket, and chuckled at the thought that they would basically be carrying their car on a bike.

Akira also chuckled, for a different reason. "Aww, so cute!"

Morgana made a face at Akira's comment. Akechi said nothing, and just took his position on the bike. He was a bit surprised when Akira sat behind him and held onto his waist.

"I'm ready whenever you are," Akira said.

Akechi nodded and began pedaling. Their bicycle built speed until it felt like they were sliding gracefully on the street.

"Ah... the sensation of freedom, and the wind on our faces. This feels so good!" Morgana practically squealed in joy.

Akechi laughed heartily, both at Morgana's reaction and at the nice feeling. The sensation of freedom was precisely the reason why he enjoyed cycling. Akechi had always been at the mercy of the adults, and freedom was something that he hadn't been used to have.

Another thing that Akechi was enjoying was the fact that Akira was relying on him, since she couldn't ride a bike on her own. Akechi had always wished people would accept him, love him and rely on him, but throughout his life, this had never happened. In fact, it had been the opposite. He had been weak and helpless. He had always had to rely on the foster families to survive, and people always viewed him as a burden.

After some laps around the blocks, they stopped. The three of them wore contented expressions as Akechi turned the bicycle back in.

They walked to an empty buss stop and sat down on a bench.

"This was fun!" Akira smiled at Akechi. "Thanks for the ride, Akechi-kun. This time I could tell that you really had fun, too. I like that happy expression on your face!" With no warning, Akira lightly pinched Akechi's cheek and made him flustered. "Oh, your flustered face's very cute too."

"Wh-what was that for? Stop it..." Akechi's voice came out weakly. He sounded like a little child being bullied.

"Oh, sorry. I couldn't resist. Okay, I'll let you have your revenge. Bring it on." She dared him to do something to embarrass her.

Akechi's stomach churned at that cursed word. He quickly shook his head. "No thanks."

"Oh, come on. Not bold enough to embarrass me?" She provoked him. "No one's looking."

Except for Morgana, of course. Aside from Morgana, fortunately, passersby were few and far between at the moment, and those who came didn't pay them any mind.

"I f-forgive you," Akechi said. "Besides, I don't want to see you flustered. I want your face to always be bright and cheerful in my memory. And if possible, in reality too."

"Awww, thanks. Detective, that was so sweet." Then, she looked at him with a mix of playfulness and suspicion. "Wait, you aren't trying to charm me, are you? It sounds like something you might say to one of those clingy fans."

"What? No!" Akechi laughed at Akira's sudden statement. "I mean what I said. Um, and I have to admit that most of my fans' faces got deleted from my memory..."

"Whoa. Poor fans. That didn't sound very nice..."

"See? I'm saying that 13 year old Akechi changed for worse."

"Why did you decide to be on TV, anyway?"

"I..." Akechi paused. He needed to choose his words to not reveal anything unnecessary. "I had always wanted to be recognized, accepted, admired by others. I came to be mindful of my behavior and my grades in hope that someone would acknowledge me, and that the foster families would view me less as a burden. It helped a bit, but didn't work as well as I would have liked. Everyone only acted as though I was doing nothing more than was expected of me. When I got the opportunity to be on TV, I thought it was my chance to have others accept me. At the beginning, I was proud to have waves of fans, and that lots of people were listening to my words at last. But now I realize that all that glory was just an illusion."

"It must not be easy to deal with so much backlash like what you've been getting lately."

"Definitely not. The 'fans' turn against me and criticize me at the slightest mistake. Before, it was limited to the internet, but now I can hear people criticizing me on the street, and even at my school. I've learned to ignore it, though. But this isn't the real problem."

"Oh?" Akira raised an eyebrow curiously.

"I've realized something. Even when the public seems acceptive of my words, it's not the kind of acceptance I was seeking. They only care about my looks and whatever is written on my social network profiles which, let's be frank, are just the result of marketing strategies and convey nothing about me at all."

"Well, I don't know about the social network profiles. I haven't looked..." She laughed sheepishly. "But I've always thought that your celebrity image doesn't convey a thing about you."

"I have rules to follow in public, from the kind of clothes I'm allowed to wear, to the way I should appear in front of the camera. I've been trained to behave that way on television, and the marketing people were the ones who wrote my social network profiles. This meaningless nonsense is all that the general public has to go off of to form opinions about me. They don't know anything about my past. The profile says that my mother died, and that's about it. Of course there's no mention of how I'm a bastard child, as it's something people frown upon. As such, the public doesn't understand my situation, and doesn't know about my problems. They only accept me for how I look, and not for who I am. Hmm, who I am..." Akechi paused, then heaved a sigh. "To be honest, though, I've been forcing my behavior in front of others so much that not even I know who I'm supposed to be anymore..."

Morgana sighed sadly. "Not knowing who you really are. I can understand that. The fact that I don't remember my past had been my biggest problem for a long time. But now I believe it doesn't matter as much. What matters more to me now isn't who I was in the past, but who I want to be from now on."

Not even Morgana was sure of his own origins? As curious and shocked Akechi was to know this, he shouldn't ask.

Akira smiled at Morgana's words. "We can't change the past, only the future. So, if we aren't satisfied with who we were until now, all we can do is change little by little and strive to become who we want to be from now on." She "translated." "Though if your views on your celebrity status changed, then I guess you're already changing."

"I guess so." Akechi agreed. However, his biggest problem wasn't trying to change now. The problem was all those horrible things he had done in the past. As Akira had said, it was impossible to change the past. His past actions had already destroyed his future, no matter how much he were to change from now on.

"I also didn't know anything about you before. This is why I decided to approach you at the hotel, to know you better." Akira smiled. "And I don't regret it one bit. What a strange place for us to have met, huh? That must've been fate. Like you said, fate brings people together."

"... I said that?"

"The first time you came to Leblanc. You said you believe fate brings people together. Don't you remember?" Akira looked disappointed. "... Was that a lie?"

Akechi chuckled awkwardly. "You caught me. Yes, it was a lie. Just empty words. That was the kind of thing I'd have said to my fans. Just beautiful words I know people would be pleased to hear. I'm sorry." Akechi looked downwards in shame. "I wish I could believe those words, though. But fate hadn't been kind to me thus far."

"But now you can, right? After that chance meeting..."

"Yes. Or maybe..." Akechi thought for a moment. "Do you think fate can be changed?"

"Yeah! I even made a bet with a fortune-teller about this!" Akira smirked. "So far, I'm winning, heheh."

Akechi chuckled. "That's so like you. And now I want to believe too."

The Phantom Thieves' "fate" should have been to fall into Shido's trap, be charged with crimes they didn't commit, and be eliminated. Maybe fate had indeed been changing.

Akechi smiled. "I'm really grateful for that chance meeting. If not for that, I..." Akechi trailed off.

"Hmm?" Akira waited for him to finish his sentence, but he didn't respond.

If not for that chance meeting, Akechi might have still been lost in his quest for revenge, without realizing it was doomed to fail, and without realizing how many people he had been harming. He wouldn't say this, though. Akechi just leaned into the bench's backrest, closed his eyes, and proceeded to enjoy the company and the soothing afternoon breeze. If only time would freeze and that peaceful moment would last forever...

Time actually froze for him, but it was brief, just to let him know that the Star Confidant was ranking up to level 6.

Akira waited for Akechi to finish what he began saying, but to no avail. It seemed he wasn't willing to talk to her about some things yet, but all in all, she was glad that Akechi was opening up to her a bit more. Still, she could feel his gratitude towards her, and the Justice Confidant ranked up to level 6.

They remained there, just enjoying the peace for a few minutes, then decided to part ways.

"Akira, thanks for today."

"Huh? But I'm the one who needs to thank you. You gave me a ride. I didn't do anything for you."

"You kept me company and listened to what I had to say. It's already way more than what most people do."

"I still can't understand why in the world people treated you so poorly. Preconceptions or no, your actions should've moved their hearts at least a little."

"They might've found me boring, I don't know. I really tried my best."

"Maybe your luck's turned around. Now you get along just fine with Futaba, Morgana and me. Continue being yourself like you've been doing, and hopefully you can get along with others, too!"

"Thanks for the advice. I'll try."

Akira and Akechi went their separate ways.

Morgana was back inside Akira's bag. "It's still hard to believe he's really that Akechi. But I guess we shouldn't judge a book for its cover, huh?"

Akira slowly nodded.

Morgana spoke again. "The foster homes stuff was already bad as it was, and even on TV he has no freedom at all thanks to those money-hungry adults."

"He's gotten it worse than any of us, and is still struggling to break free from those chains."

"I wonder, if..." Morgana trailed off.

"Hmm?" Akira encouraged him to go on.

"If Akechi's rebellious will were to awaken, I believe it'd be crazily strong."

"... You mean in the Metaverse? Yeah, now that you mention it..."

"It'd be hard to convince him to go there with us, though. He's inflexible when it comes to the Phantom Thieves. He might cell us out to the police if it goes wrong."

"Hmm. The others don't like him much, either." Akira reminded Morgana. "First, maybe we should have him hang out with the others so that they warm up to him, too."

"Yeah, you're right. If you hadn't forced me to spend a day with him, I don't think I'd be considering any of this right now. Wait, come to think of it, even Makoto and Yusuke had been against us in the beginning. Now Akechi's against us, and the others are against him. Ugh, what a complicated puzzle we've got..."

Akira grinned at the exciting new challenge. "But we'll make it work. I'm sure of it!"

Chapter Text

"Sis, welcome home." Makoto greeted as Sae returned. "You look exhausted. I think you should take a day off. If you collapse, it'll be bad!"

Sae made a displeased face. "Akechi-kun said the same thing the other day. I can't stop! I need to continue winning!"


Sae sighed tiredly. "I will take a shower."

After Sae's shower, the two sisters were having dinner.

"How are your studies going?" Sae asked routinely.

"They're going well. Um..." Makoto remembered something. "Sis, you had mentioned Akechi-kun earlier. I've heard that he has come out on top at the mock national entrance exams. What kind of person is he?"

Sae spoke with scorn. "He is arrogant, and sometimes will even go out of his way to mock others."

Makoto's impressions were confirmed. "I've briefly talked to him only twice, and got the same impression. The first time, he went to Shujin just to talk to me and mocked me right to my face. The other time, I was with my friends, and he was quite unpleasant around us, too."

"Yes, that's the way he is. He always acts proud and full of himself. As frustrating as it is, he is not all talk, though, and has enough reasons to be proud of himself. He is really smart and talented, and has connections that can easily bump him up on the career ladder."

"I saw on an interview that he intends to take the same course as me..."

"Then, be prepared. He is the kind of person that can nab the spot on a good university from you easily. The kind of person that you should be extra wary of, as such people will always be your biggest obstacles."

With that, Makoto concluded that she definitely disliked Goro Akechi.

Monday, September 26

"Could you stay here while I go out for a bit?" Akira asked Morgana.

"Hanging out with someone?"

"Yeah." Technically she would be. Probably, if it went the way she expected. "See you later."

Akira went to the Shibuya station and used the Metaverse nav to enter Mementos. Inside, she waited.

A few minutes passed with nothing happening. Joker was considering giving up when the person she had been awaiting finally appeared.

"Hi, Crow. What brings you to Mementos today?"

"Nothing in particular. Just dropping by to maybe check up on a certain group of thieves. But look what we have here. What is the leader of said thieves doing here alone?"

"Well, if you come with me, I won't be alone."

"Huh?!" Crow's voice rose. He didn't seem to have liked that suggestion too much.

"Just kidding." Joker laughed. "I was wondering whether you'd show up. I wanted to talk to you in private. I have a few questions."

"Questions?" Crow seemed on edge for some reason.

"About the multiple Personas stuff. Um, some weird things happen to me related to that. But whenever I try to tell the others about those, they wave it off and act as though I'm spouting nonsense. This is why I came here alone. Since you have the same power as me, I thought maybe you'd be willing to hear me out."

"Hmm." Crow relaxed a bit, and the subject seemed to have piqued his curiosity.

"I know you've always acted solo and all, but do you happen to have Confidants?"

"Confidants?" He didn't seem to know what that was about. How disappointing. But then, he added, "Perhaps, do you have strange visions of Tarot cards when talking to some people?"

Joker's expression lit up. "You do!?"


"Yes!" Joker jumped with excitement. "How many do you have?"

"Only a few. And one is with the Phantom Thieves."

"One? With the Phantom Thieves? You mean... one Confidant for the whole group?"


Joker was surprised. "Really? I don't have a Confidant for the group. I didn't even know there could be a confidant for a whole group! Uh, yeah, now I remember I have a Confidant with two people, but the Phantom Thieves is a whole group! What Arcana is it?"

"The Fool. Whatever that's supposed to mean."

"Huh? My Fool has nothing to do with the group... ah, whatever! Any Confidant you've maxed?"

"Maxed?" Crow echoed.

"Yeah, rank 10. I have only a few ones. Since you've been at this Persona thing for quite a while, I thought you'd have some maxed ones..."

"What? These Confidant things have started only recently for me. When I agreed to help the Phantom Thieves avoid the trap, the group Confidant formed. That was my first one."

"Oh, really recent then. What's the highest one do you have?"

"It's..." Crow hesitated. "Star. It's on rank 6, and only because it weirdly decided to skip levels."

Joker laughed. "Whoa, it skipped levels? That's crazy!"

"As crazy as the person associated with it, I guess. But never mind that. I have a few Confidants. So what? What are Confidants, exactly?"

Joker blinked. "Huh? You don't know what Confidants are? No one explained it to you?"

"I have no one to explain me anything!" Crow sounded between angry and frustrated.

"You don't? Weird. I had a lot of hand-holding in the beginning... alright then. Let me explain!" Joker did her best Sojiro impression she could manage. "Basically, Confidants are people you have a mutually beneficial bond with, where you help each other grow and solve specific issues. Doing well on the Confidants may even cause changes to your abilities in the Metaverse! And the higher the Confidant ranks you have, the stronger Personas you can create!"

"Hold on." Crow raised a hand. "Create Personas? What are you talking about?!" He sounded as frustrated as Ryuji did sometimes.

"Thanks to the help of some weird people, I can get Personas fused to create new ones! It means sacrificing old masks to create different ones." Joker was excited to explain the details of those weird things she had never gotten to talk to anyone about. "The resulting Personas can inherit some of the ingredients' skills, and the higher the Confidant rank for the resulting Persona's Arcana, the stronger the result gets! So, if the fusion results in a Persona of the Fool Arcana, if my Fool Confidant is high, the Persona will get stronger!"

It was hard to read Crow's expression because his mask covered practically his whole face, but he didn't seem very pleased at the new information.

"You're really something, huh?" He sounded downright humiliated, and laughed in resignation. "I can't believe how I was made to think that I was chosen, that I was special. Whoever introduced me to this basically just filled my head with tempting words, dumped me into the Metaverse, and that was it. No help, no explanations, no anything. I don't know who is helping you, but it's clear that you are the chosen one, the special one. Rightfully so. But what an idiot I was to have so much so as listened to those words..."

"Crow..." That was sad. Joker didn't want Crow to think he was inferior to her or anything like that. Actually, she was tempted to pull him into a hug and try to comfort him, but she was afraid he would react negatively. Instead, she slowly turned in the direction of the door to the Velvet Room, where Justine was patiently standing. "Can you see anything over there?" She pointed in the direction.

Crow's gaze followed her indication, and he stared blankly for a few seconds. "No. What am I supposed to be seeing?"

Joker sighed in disappointment. "A door. Oh, and a cute little girl dressed like a prison guard. The door leads to a weird blue prison. And the guard's one of the twins who fuse my Personas. More like, hang my Personas on a guillotine. Yeah, it's gruesome. Poor little Personas..."

"This is hard to even imagine." Crow heaved a sigh. "If I hadn't seen your varied selection of Personas with their varied selection of skills, I don't think I'd believe any of this."

"This is why I didn't tell anyone else about it." Joker walked over to the door. "I'll talk to them and see if they can help you too."

"Do you need something?" Justine asked, as calmly as ever.

"You heard the whole conversation. Why don't you help him like you've been helping me?"

"We were instructed to aid you on your quest for rehabilitation. You and no one else, Inmate."

"Who instructed you? Was it Igor? Then let me talk to him!" Joker entered the Velvet Room prison and approached Igor.

"We are here merely to help you with your rehabilitation. His role is different from yours, and he has nothing to do with your rehabilitation," was Igor's response.

"But he's helping me too, isn't he? This isn't fair! He's a wild card and even has Confidants and all that! Why can't any of you help him at least fuse Personas!?"

Caroline violently banged on the prison bars. "How dare you raise your voice to our master! Know your place, Inmate!"

But Akira would have none of it. "His role? My rehabilitation? What's that even supposed to mean?! Why don't you explain it clearly to me? Why didn't anyone explain anything to him!? How come I need rehabilitation if I've done nothing wrong? If there's someone who needs rehabilitation, it's him!"

"Enough, you insolent Inmate!" Caroline shouted, while Justine seemed conflicted and only stared silently. "Never talk to our master in this manner again. And as punishment, you will be unable to fuse Personas for one week. Out of here, now!"

The Velvet Room abruptly faded away. Joker found herself standing back in Mementos, but the Velvet Room door was nowhere to be seen.

"Now... to you, what did it look like I was doing?" Joker asked, dejected.

"To me, you just spaced out for a few seconds." Crow replied.

Joker lowered her head. "I'm sorry, Crow. I talked to them, but they only keep saying nonsense and giving excuses as to why they aren't helping you."

"It's fine. I wasn't expecting anything anyway."

His coldness hurt, as did the Velvet Room residents' unwillingness to help him out.

"Crow, I don't want you to think you're inferior to me or anything like that."

Crow tensed.

"It's what you're thinking, isn't it?" Thanks to that strange Confidant-esque empathy thing, she could tell. "Please, don't. I don't want to get in a conflict with you. I just want us to be able to continue working well together. You're helping us, and for our next mission, we need all the strength we can get, right? If only they'd help you, I'm sure your Personas'd be much more amazing than mine. I tried to get them to help you, but failed. Crow, I'm sorry."

"Why are you apologizing? It is just how it is. Nothing you can do about it."

Joker didn't like Crow's resignation. "But I can't accept this! It isn't fair! Sometimes you can't just accept things as they are. As long as people continue accepting unfairness and don't move to do anything against it, then their situation will never change."

"How idealistic. Unfortunately, this is an uphill battle. You're just one person. Just having a small minority swimming against the current won't do anything. They'll only be swept away, and won't have enough strength for their voices to be heard."

"And this is what the Phantom Thieves are for!" Joker countered, with determination returning to her eyes. "By changing criminals' hearts, we aren't only changing the affected people's lives for better, but also showing that having those criminals change, something that seemed impossible, is actually possible. We want lots of people to believe that other seemingly impossible things are actually possible, and encourage them to stand for themselves and try to make a difference in the environment around them, too. This is the Phantom Thieves' main goal!"

Crow seemed stunned for a moment. "This is also quite idealistic. Though the approach seems more reasonable... to the point it might actually work. As positive as the changes of heart results have been, there are countless criminals in the world, and it's obvious that a group of less than ten people won't be able to change all of their hearts. It's something I've been wondering, and now I see that this is not the point. Through your actions, you want to encourage the masses to also take action. Quite an interesting plan. Talk about thinking, and also acting, outside the box. I hadn't imagined you had been thinking so big."

"That's the Phantom Thieves for you." Crow's praise cheered Joker up a bit.

Crow laughed in defeat. "You aren't the leader of the Phantom Thieves for nothing. Joker, I'm sorry. You are right. I'm envious of all your Persona privileges. I don't want to feel this way, but feelings are things we can't control. I don't want to get in a conflict with you, either."

"I told them how it's unfair that they aren't helping you. I got angry and raised my voice. They weren't pleased and decided to punish me. Now I can't fuse Personas for a week, and the door disappeared." Joker smiled sadly. "Well, on the bright side, neither of us can see the door now. It's not only you anymore."

"This is not comforting at all."

Joker was dejected at her failed attempt to brighten the mood. "I'm sorry..."

"You and your infinite disposition to cheer others up." Crow chuckled. "Rather than being envious, I guess I should be proud to have a-" He stopped abruptly.

"Huh? To have a what?"

Crow's mouth opened and closed a couple of times, until he finally answered. "To have... such a good influence nearby." His voice lowered and assumed a sad tone. "Not that this can save me in the long run, though..."

"... Wait, what?"

Crow dodged the subject completely. "You should leave. It seems it'll rain today."

"... E-excuse me?" Joker shot him a confused look. That was an oddly mundane, out of the blue topic coming from an ex-murderer with extraordinary Persona powers.

"It was on the weather forecast."

"Oh, um... okay, thanks. I didn't bring an umbrella. I guess I should be going then. Bye!"

Instead of leaving, Akechi spent some time in Mementos threatening Shadows to get items from them. It wasn't something he did often, but he recalled how the Phantom Thieves negotiated with Shadows in Okumura's Palace, and decided it was something he could start doing. Since he had no way to make his Personas inherit other Personas' skills like Akira had, he decided to obtain some general use items and try to make up for it, especially things like Physical and Magical Ointments, which were free Tetrakarn and Makarakarn spells he could use without wasting SP. In the process of robbing items from Shadows, he discovered the existence of skill cards, which he could use to give new skills to his current Personas.

Akechi left Mementos and headed to the convenience store 777 to see whether he could find some useful item there. He didn't find anything particularly interesting, and when he was about to leave, it was starting to rain. He regretted not having followed his own advice of leaving earlier, as he also hadn't brought an umbrella. He chose to stay there and hide from the rain.

Akechi stood near the entrance and thought to himself, more specifically, about the humiliating feeling he had as Akira described all the Persona-related privileges she had. Then, he recalled Sae-san's words.

"You are talented, have a scholarship at a prestigious school, will surely be able to get a recommendation letter to enter any college you want, and have connections to place you in any job you choose... meanwhile, the rest of us, mere mortals born without talent must climb the stairs to success one step at a time, with much effort and hard work. These are struggles that someone like you will never understand."

Sae-san was wrong. It wasn't like that. She had no idea how much effort he had put into obtaining high grades, in the hope that someone would look at him, admire him, accept him... however, something occurred to Akechi. Could Sae-san have been experiencing something similar to that feeling of humiliation he had when Akira described her Persona privileges?

Makoto had spent her afternoon looking for specific books to help her study for her college entrance exams, to no avail. The school's library didn't have them, nor the stores she had searched. When she left Shibuya's bookstore, it was starting to rain. Makoto began to panic. She hadn't brought an umbrella. She ran in search of somewhere to hide from the rain, and entered 777, only to have a... not very pleasant surprise. Right near the entrance stood Goro Akechi in his school uniform.

"Niijima... san?"

"A-Akechi-kun!? Are you... also hiding from the rain?" She stuttered, and felt embarrassed at how obvious the answer to her question was.

"Yes." He answered anyway. "I had just finished checking the store's item selection when it began raining."

"I-I hadn't expected it would rain..." She said awkwardly.

"I had seen the forecast, but my umbrella is in my school bag, which is at home."

An awkward silence.

Makoto felt really uncomfortable in Akechi's presence. She felt as though he would find a reason to mock her at each silly word, at each small movement.

The turned-on radio was broadcasting news about how the Phantom Thieves were getting popular to the point merchandise with their logo was becoming all the rage.

Akechi had obviously been listening. He tended to talk about the Phantom Thieves at his first opportunity. However, this time, he was oddly silent.

Makoto mustered up her courage and glared defiantly at Akechi. "Won't you say anything?"


"About the Phantom Thieves. You always have something to say about them."

"Oh. I have decided to keep my Phantom Thieves comments to interviews only. I had been trying to use those comments to spark conversation, since the Phantom Thieves are a popular topic. But I stopped, as bringing them up tends to ruin my conversations these days."

"Why don't you just give up already? The more you oppose the Phantom Thieves, the more unpopular you'll get. If you simply admit that you judged the Phantom Thieves hastily, the public's opinion of you might do a 180. Or perhaps you are too proud to admit defeat?"

Akechi didn't lose his composure. "I have my reasons."

The way he seemed unfazed was unsettling. Makoto wasn't sure how to respond.

"... Hey." Akechi unexpectedly called out to her. "How is Sae-san doing? I haven't seen her for a week."

"She is..." Makoto paused, and stopped the automatic response from coming out. For sure, Sae wasn't fine. "... Exhausted. Irritable."

"I can imagine. The last time I saw her, she... scolded me hard..." Akechi had a hurt expression for a second. "Sae-san wasn't like this when I first met her. Back then, it was all about honesty and justice to her. But now she only cares about being promoted, and 'continuing to win.'"

"Yes. She wasn't like this before." Makoto confirmed.

"Has she taken a day off yet?"

"No. She refuses to. She is really exhausted. I wonder how her reasoning is still working. She seems about to collapse at any moment! I'm worried..."

Makoto hadn't expected the worried look that appeared in Akechi's eyes. Was it just her, or Akechi was really concerned?

"When did it became all about 'winning' and 'losing' to her? Sorry for the sudden and extremely personal question, but are the two of you really that strapped for money for Sae-san to be this obsessed with work?"

"Not really. We have enough to go by. But after our father died, all the house responsibilities fell on her shoulders. It's too much for her to handle, and she must be afraid of suddenly losing her job. She has to handle all our expenses alone, since I don't have a job yet. Once, she even... told me I'm useless because all I can do is study and consume resources..." It was unnecessary to disclose that detail, but when Makoto realized it, it was already out.

Akechi made a face. "I know how that feels. It was the same with me."

"Huh?" Makoto hadn't seen that one coming. "You...?"

"Yes. This was why I did everything I could to get a scholarship to enter high school. To not burden the family."

It was a noble reason. Makoto hadn't expected that from him.

"I also tried that... but failed," Makoto said in shame.

"In my case, it had been pretty close, too."

"Really? I had thought you only got perfect grades."

Akechi chuckled awkwardly. "No, not really. My local school's exams, yes, these I can manage, because usually there aren't any surprises as long as I'm keeping up with classes. But for entrance exams and such, that's far from being the case."

Makoto blinked. "What about the recent mock national entrance exams? You've been coming out on top, right?"

"I have, though it's been pretty close too. Despite being at the top, I've never gotten a perfect score on those. The media didn't disclose my scores, though, and this must be where both your and Sae-san's misconceptions about me are coming from. I'm not as talented as you might think."

Makoto gaped. "Y-you're just being modest, aren't you?"

"No, I'm being honest. I don't know whether Sae-san has given you her opinion of me, but I don't like the way she mistakenly thinks of me, and I don't want you to think the same way as her." Akechi's expression was serious. He wasn't doing that mock embarrassed expression he did on TV whenever he tried to appear humble. He was acting totally out of character for his celebrity self, and Makoto didn't know what to make of it.

"Um, did you have to study a lot to get those results?"

"Of course. And it's hard to juggle school and work at the same time. I often have to study at the police station, or even in the train. Recently I've started to buy digital versions of books so that I have less things to carry around, and... to keep at home. I live at a very small place..."

"Oh..." Makoto could have never imagined those things.

Akechi's cellphone rang, and he answered the call. When he finished the call, he sighed in annoyance. "Interview." He glanced outside. "The rain is letting up. We should leave."

When Makoto was about to walk out of the store, she dropped a piece of paper. Akechi noticed it and retrieved the paper for her.

"Book titles?"

"Y-yes. I wanted to study these, but I can't find them anywhere." Makoto waited for Akechi to hand her the paper back, but he didn't seem about to let go of it.

"Hmm. I have a few of these. The physical versions, I mean. I can lend them to you if you want."

"Uh, what?" That offer caught Makoto aback. "Would you really?"

Akechi nodded, and finally handed her the paper back.

"How do you intend to deliver them to me?"

"How about we meet up at the Shibuya station tomorrow after school?" He suggested.

"... Um, Akechi-kun. Actually..." Makoto trailed off.


"Um, about the last mock national entrance exams. I... didn't fare as well as I would have liked. I still don't understand the reasoning for some of the answers..." Makoto wanted to ask him for a few pointers. Since he had come out on top, theoretically he was the best person for her to ask, but would he agree to help her? "If it's not much to ask... do you think you could... give me some pointers?"

"... O-okay." Akechi reluctantly agreed, much to Makoto's surprise.

"R-really?" Makoto almost couldn't believe it. Thanks to the arrogant impression she had of him, she had thought his pride would make him refuse to help her. "How about we meet up at the diner, then? I've heard it's a good place for studying."

Akechi nodded. "Alright. Then, see you tomorrow." He calmly walked out of the convenience store.

Makoto couldn't help but think about how Akechi had behaved in an unexpected way. The moment they stopped talking about the Phantom Thieves, his proud and mocking self completely vanished. Could this be a different side of him that she didn't know, or... was it just an act to lower her guard?

Oh no. What have I done? Makoto thought in alarm. What if he had only agreed to meet up with her because he saw in it an opportunity to get Phantom Thieves intel out of her? He seemed to suspect her and her friends of being the Phantom Thieves, after all.

The TV in Leblanc was on as usual. Akira and Futaba were dining when Akechi's interview came on.

"As everyone knows, Mr. Okumura is at the top on the Phantom Thieves website rankings," the male reporter said. "Today, Okumura Foods released a statement informing that they will indemnify some employees that sued the company. Akechi-san, do you think the Phantom Thieves have done something against Mr. Okumura to lead him to take such measures?"

"Oh no, here he goes again..." Futaba closed her eyes. "Aaah... what's he gonna say!?"

"I know everyone is impatiently waiting for the Phantom Thieves' next move." Akechi spoke. "I know, because I am too! However, we shouldn't get hasty and jump to conclusions. Okumura Foods' reputation is too damaged. Public opinion of them is getting worse each day. They are losing customers, and stocks are plummeting. By indemnifying those employees, they are merely trying to mitigate the negative rumors to prevent their reputation from getting worse."

"One reason that led people to want the Phantom Thieves to target Mr. Okumura was a series of slave labor rumors." The reporter pointed out. "By indemnifying the employees, isn't Okumura Foods admitting to the slave labor rumors?"

"Not necessarily. The way I see it, Okumura Foods probably concluded it's easier and cheaper to indemnify the employees rather than waste their resources with endless appeals in court. This also has the benefit of making said employees quiet down and reduce the negative rumors. As disappointing as it is, nothing from the Okumura Foods' actions can be linked to the Phantom Thieves. It seems to be just a marketing strategy to restore the company's reputation."

"Oh, makes sense!" The reporter said. "Have you found out anything else about the Phantom Thieves?"

"I have been keeping up with the news about this case on the media and their forum, but there are no signs of movement from them so far. The Phantom Thieves always announce their moves in ways that draw everyone's attention. Considering how big Okumura Foods is, the Phantom Thieves wouldn't waste the opportunity to... uh, sorry, forgive me the pun, make this case go out with a... big bang."

The reporter laughed in a cringy and forced way. "Yes, you're right! We are all excited to see that! Thank you for your insight, detective!"

Futaba smirked and spoke in Akira's ear. "There was none of that this time. We've totally thrown them off!"

"Phew." Akira released the breath she had been holding.

Akira's cellphone beeped with a message in the chat. It was from Ryuji. "Did you see Akechi's interview just now? I thought he'd try to link Okumura's actions to the changes of heart or something..."

Futaba replied. "Yeah, but he totally went in the opposite direction!"

"I was nervous too." Came Makoto's message. "But I guess there is really nothing that indicates we have already done our move. We made sure to do the opposite of the usual and left no traces this time. But..."

"What's up?" Akira asked.

"I ran into Akechi-kun at the convenience store a while ago. We were discussing about how he came out on top at the last mock national entrance exams, and I ended up asking him to help me with some questions I answered wrong. We are supposed to meet up tomorrow."

"And?" Ryuji didn't see the point.

"And now I'm worried. He still suspects us of being the Phantom Thieves, right? What if he has accepted to meet up with me only so that he can squeeze Phantom Thieves intel out of me?"

"Nah, don't worry." Futaba wrote nonchalantly. "Akira, Mona and I've been spending time with him lately. I had been wary in the beginning too, but Akechi isn't that bad. He's actually quite nice as long as you don't bring the Phantom Thieves up."

"You have been hanging out with him?!" Makoto seemed alarmed.

"Akira also took him to watch my art presentation, and there were no problems at all." Yusuke revealed.

"Are you sure he isn't hanging out with you only to lower your guard so that you slip and confirm his Phantom Thieves suspicions?" Makoto asked. "He suspects all of us!"

"We're sure." Akira wrote. "Morgana was worried too. So, I had Akechi-kun take Morgana home and care for him for one day, and everything went fine."

"For real?" Came Ryuji's catchphrase.

"You did what?!" Makoto wrote back.

"Akira, you really did that?" Ann was incredulous.

"Yeah. Morgana says Akechi-kun acted totally normal. Deep down, he's only a student, just like us. Makoto, chill. I'm sure he'll be of great help to you with your studies!"

Makoto replied after a moment. "Well, I'll meet up with him tomorrow and see what happens."

Tuesday, September 27

After school, Akechi headed to the diner in Shibuya. While he waited for Niijima-san, he kept thinking about the next steps for changing Shido's heart. Ideally, while the Phantom Thieves prepared, he should also prepare and collect evidence to build a case against Shido. Enough evidence to take Shido's connections down with Shido the moment the change of heart happened, to have public pressure for a trial, strong enough to overshadow Shido's influence on the police. This wouldn't be easy. Akechi didn't think he would be able to do all of it alone. He would likely need help from a lawyer. The problem was that most people he knew were Shido's accomplices. In fact, it was difficult to know who was and who wasn't, and if Akechi were to make a wrong move, he might end up revealing his intent of betrayal to the wrong people.

"Akechi-kun?" Niijima-san's voice pulled him from his thoughts.

"Ah, good afternoon, Niijima-san." And her last name gave him an idea. Despite her workaholic behavior as of late, Sae-san had always done everything right, and Akechi was sure she wasn't "contaminated" by Shido's corruption. In fact, she was probably unaware of the true extent of the corruption in her work environment.

Rather than being one of those who Shido's underlings corrupted, Sae-san was one of those they deceived and that should only do as she was told. Akechi himself had steered her in the wrong direction, with his previous comment that suggested the Phantom Thieves might be responsible for the mental shutdowns. It had been one of her suspicions, and she bought into his talk easily. If he were to ask for her help, he would need to fix that and set her on the right track. However, Akechi quickly discarded the idea. It was too risky. Sae-san would need to conclude her investigations at the right time without raising suspicion, or she may be put in danger, too.

"Good afternoon." Niijima-san replied hesitantly. "... Is something wrong?"

"Oh, sorry. I was thinking about a complicated case." Akechi tried to put on a lighter expression. "But now isn't the time to think about that. Let's head inside, shall we?"

Inside the diner, they ordered a cup of coffee and some cookies to not seem rude. Akechi and Niijima-san sat at a table, across from each other.

Akechi took a sip of his coffee. "I mean no offense, but this coffee doesn't compare to Leblanc's."

"You have tried Leblanc's coffee?" Niijima-san attempted to spark conversation.

Akechi nodded. "I began frequenting there as per Sae-san's recommendation."

Niijima-san looked at him warily, as though she were asking, "Is this the real reason you've been going there?" It was unsettling. She was wary of him both inside and outside the Metaverse, even though she should be unaware that he was Crow. Could she be having suspicions about his identity?

They finished their coffee and cookies in an awkward silence.

"Let's do what we came here to do." Akechi spoke up.

"Uh, yes." Niijima-san took a briefcase from her school bag and showed him some papers with the mock exam questions.

Akechi explained the logic of the questions Niijima-san was having trouble with.

"Ah, I see. They were tricky questions indeed. I don't like to admit this, but I don't think I would ever have answered them right."

"Niijima-san, what course do you intend to take in college?"

"I want to study to become a police commissioner."

Akechi's eyebrows rose slightly. "Oh. Just being a normal police officer won't do for you. You intend to be at the top, to be the chief of operations. Aiming big from the start. It'll be hard work."

"I know..." Niijima-san responded with a displeased face. She didn't seem to have liked his comment much.

"I've heard that your father was a police officer."

"Yes." A determined look crossed her eyes. "I've always admired his work. He died on duty. I want to continue where he left off, and go beyond that." Niijima-san fidgeted. "Uh, sorry. I realize I haven't answered your question about the course I intend to take. Probably Criminal Justice, since it covers law, types of crime, criminal behavior, investigative work and such." The determination disappeared from her face, and she went back to looking insecure again. "... S-same as you, yes? It's what you stated on the news when they congratulated you for having come out on top at the mock exams..."

"Yes." Indeed, that was what he had said when the reporter asked what course he intended to take. He had planned on taking that course, but just to get a graduate certificate. Not that he would need it for his career or anything, since the organization was backing him up and his cases were all fake anyway. And Akechi realized how twisted his thoughts had been. Sae-san had been more than right when she said he was arrogant. Such a horrible person he had become...

"Um... this basically means we'll be competing for a spot at college, right? Does this... make us rivals?"

"... C-competing?" A knot formed in Akechi's stomach. He had no hope for his future. The moment he turned himself in, his life would be over, and college would be meaningless. He would only be in Niijima-san's way if he were to apply for the course. What if, thanks to the limited number of spots, he managed to get a spot and she didn't? Niijima-san had dreams and goals, while Akechi had planned to take the course just for the sake of it. She deserved a spot much more than him. No, scratch that. She deserved a spot, period. Akechi definitely didn't deserve it. "No. Why do I have to compete with you?" This was what left his mouth, and Niijima-san's response showed how wrong his comment had sounded.

"Are you so confident that you don't view me as a worthy opponent?"

"What?" Akechi's voice nearly failed. "... I didn't mean it like that! And please, don't use words like 'opponent.' I... I'd rather have you as a coworker."

"Huh?" Niijima-san was taken aback.

Actually, that didn't sound like a bad idea. In an ideal world, Akechi would have a clean record, and Akira as his best friend and confidant. He would work as a detective solving real cases, and Niijima-san would be his teammate, probably his superior since she would be the chief of operations.

"A teammate. Yes..." Akechi uttered.

Niijima-san mulled over that notion. "Yes, that would be... interesting."

Niijima-san really needed that spot at college, though. Akechi didn't want to get in her way. In fact, it was only fair that he should use his knowledge to help her study for the entrance exams.

"But for that, we need to make sure to enter college to begin with." Akechi wouldn't reveal that he was planning to give up on college. He took three books out of his suitcase and set them on the table in front of them. "Here are the books I agreed to lend you."

"Oh, thank you. When should I return them?"

"Don't worry about it. I won't be needing them anytime soon. Just take your time. And if you need more help with studies, feel free to ask."

"... Thank you," she said warily. "But why are you doing this? I mean, you don't help just anyone with studies, do you?"

She had gotten him. That question was difficult to answer without revealing his true intentions. "... Yes, I actually don't."

"Then, why?"

"Uh, because... you were the first person that ever asked for my help. Most people tend to avoid me..." It was true. "And... we are supposed to become... teammates, right?"

Niijima-san only stared at him in bewilderment and said nothing.

Akechi offered her a weak but genuine smile. "It's settled then. I look forward to working with you, future police commissioner Niijima."

And everything froze.

"I am thou, thou art I... thou hast acquired a new vow, the Makoto Niijima Confidant. It shall become the wings of rebellion that breaketh thy chains of captivity. With the birth of the Priestess Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power..."

Like always, Akechi hadn't been expecting a new Confidant to start.

"Um, then we probably should... trade contact information, right?" She asked awkwardly.

"Oh. Right."

They traded phone numbers.

"Akechi-kun, um, thank you for today. I'll go home and begin reading the books." Niijima-san stood up and left.

Akechi remained where he was. He went back to thinking about building a case to turn the general public against Shido, and getting Sae-san's help seemed to be his best option. But it was too dangerous. If the organization were to figure her out and target her... if something bad were to happen to her, it would be his fault, one more thing for him to be guilty of. Akechi didn't want to be responsible for hurting anyone else. And the Phantom Thieves...

"It's never too late. Wanna join us now?" Akira's offer replayed in his head.

"We're willing to give you a chance." Followed by Mona's compassionate words. "As long as you are with us, you'll have a place." These words had touched Akechi greatly, and had also made the Magician Confidant rank up.

"Teammates..." Akechi muttered to himself, and a smile slowly formed at the realization that Mona was probably right. Even though they weren't in an ideal world and Akechi didn't know what would become of him once this all ended, he could have Akira as a friend and Niijima-san as a teammate while he moved alongside the Phantom Thieves. Maybe he should reconsider the offer. If he managed to earn the others' trust, it might work out. They could probably work together for only a month or two, but Akechi should make the most of it while it lasted.

Akira was at Sojiro's house playing video games with Futaba when Makoto posted on the chat.

"I have just returned from my study session with Akechi-kun."

"How was it?" Akira asked.

"He clarified the mock exam questions I had had trouble with, and even lent me some books."

"See? He's nice once you get to know him." Akira wrote.

"And that's the problem. He is being too nice, and this bothers me." Makoto argued. "I mean, he didn't behave anything like this the other times we interacted with him."

"I have never talked to him before." Haru wrote. "How did he behave during your previous interactions?"

"He had been mocking and unpleasant in general, the complete opposite of how he is behaving now." Makoto answered. "It's too drastic of a change to ignore!"

"Those times, we had only talked about the Phantom Thieves, though." Akira pointed out. "He gets difficult when the topic's the Phantom Thieves."

"I dunno. I ran into him the other day, and thought something was off, too." Ryuji gave his two yen.

"I haven't run into him lately, and can't imagine what you're talking about." Ann wrote. "But even those other times we met him, at the TV studio and on the way back from the sushi restaurant, I had the impression that he was trying to spark conversation and be nice, but failing. You know, when you try to talk to someone but the conversation doesn't flow."

"Actually, he told me something along these lines." Makoto responded. "When I met him yesterday, some news about Phantom Thieves merchandise was on the radio nearby, but he strangely didn't comment on it. When I pointed that out, he said he previously used the Phantom Thieves as a conversational subject because they are a popular topic, but now stopped commenting about them outside of interviews because he realized it tends to ruin his conversations nowadays."

"Seriously, guys, I think he's just lonely." Futaba gave her opinion. "He told me he has no friends at school. He doesn't even have a family."

"What do you mean?" Ann didn't understand.

"She means what she wrote." Akira stated. "Akechi-kun is an orphan."

"I've been wondering about that too." Ryuji chimed in. "When I ran into him, he spaced out and got all weird when I said I was running an errand for my mom. Then he muttered something about orphanages."

"I hacked into the social services' database and looked him up." Futaba told them. "His mom died when he was 5, and his dad's name doesn't show up anywhere. No one wanted him, and he was sent to an orphanage. He stayed a year at one orphanage and around a year and a half at another, then got passed around many foster homes until around two years ago, when he began living on his own. No one seemed to want him at the foster homes, either. The social services' database shows that he got transferred to a different family every year or so, because of abuse or negligence or stuff like that. It's really messed up."

"But he was just a kid!" Ann seemed incredulous. "Why'd no one want him and treat him so badly? Even if he happened to be totally unruly or something, it doesn't make sense!"

"He told me about his situation. I don't get it, either." Akira shared the sentiment. "Apparently, it's just because his parents weren't married. People value marriage and blood relations a lot, and everyone looks down on him because he's a bastard child. Still I can't believe this is normal. It's as though he got sent only to the worst possible people... I really don't get it!"

"This is sad. It is as though his life were meant to be ruined from the start." Came Yusuke's message.

"I see." Makoto wrote. "He told me he worked hard to get a scholarship so that he wouldn't burden the family with his study expenses. I thought it was odd that he said, 'the family,' and not, 'my family.' He was referring to a foster family, then."

"Akechi-kun told me he started appearing on TV because he wanted people to accept him." Akira continued. "Apparently, he's at the production staff's mercy. They disclosed nothing important about his past in his public profiles, and his looks seem to be all his fans care about. He said this isn't the kind of attention he wanted. I'm pretty sure the annoying personality was his TV self, and this nicer one's his normal self. He's been realizing what he really wants, and now he's kinda lost, alone, and unsure what to do with himself."

"I have an idea." It was Haru. "What if we invite him to the school's culture festival next month? I've always dreamed of walking around the festival with friends. Maybe he would also like it."

Akira liked that suggestion very much. "Great idea! I'll invite him. Oh, Yusuke and Futaba, of course you should come too! Sometimes I forget that Yusuke isn't in the same school as us."

"I am interested to know how Shujin's culture festival differs from my school's." Yusuke replied. "I will be attending for sure."

"I don't have good memories of school events, but if all you guys'll be going, then I'm sure it'll be fun!" Was Futaba's response.

"Akira, you do realize that if you bring Akechi-kun to our school's festival, you will be taking him straight to a gathering of all the Phantom Thieves, right?" Makoto's message came like a warning.

"Yep. Actually, Morgana and I were wondering whether we could eventually find a way to take him to the Metaverse with us." Akira dropped the bomb. "Having him hang out with all of us'd make for a great setup for that!"


"Makoto, you were against us in the beginning too, remember? But you understood our reasons once we took you to the Metaverse. I'm sure Akechi-kun will understand, too. And from the way he's suffered, I imagine he can awaken a very powerful Persona! We'll need all the strength we can get for the next mission."

"I wasn't exactly against you. I was just conflicted." Makoto corrected. "Anyway, I'm not sure about this plan. Regardless of Akechi-kun's past struggles, he has connections to the police. What if this is exactly the opportunity he has been wanting to sell us out? The police is none too happy to be losing credibility because of the Phantom Thieves. I'm sure they would give him a huge reward if he were to catch us. This would get him a lot of recognition as well. What if this is what he is aiming for?"

"We just gotta soften him until then, so that he chooses us over the police."

"Akira, why do you have to take everything so lightly?" Disapproval was evident in Makoto's message.

"You're too paranoid, Makoto."

"I'm worried for our group's safety. Remember, if the police catches us and decides to put the blame for the mental shutdowns on us, our lives will be over."

"I know, but it won't happen. This is why Crow's helping us, right? He got us away from the trap and all."

Makoto's reply came a minute later. "I don't know what to make of this anymore. I need to cool off for a bit. We will continue this discussion another time." She logged out of the chat.

"Whatever! Taking Akechi to the culture festival, then to the Metaverse, eh? Sounds fun! I can't wait!" Futaba shuffled restlessly in her sitting position on her bed as she typed the message.

Chapter Text

Wednesday, September 28

Akechi came to pick Futaba up at Leblanc so that they could go to Akihabara and buy the Featherman DVD collection.

The first thing Futaba noticed was that he was wearing his old casual clothes. "Whoa. What's with the non-fancy look? Running away from fans or haters or something?"

Akechi laughed. "No, nothing like that."

"Ah, whatever. It doesn't matter!" Futaba was all excited. "Guess how I got the money to buy the DVD collection!"

"I have no idea."

Futaba made an annoyed face. "Oh, come on. You didn't even try. I expected more from you, detective."

"I'd say from your savings or by asking Sakura-san, but from your excitement and prompt for me to guess, I assume you did something unconventional. Thus, my conclusion is that I have no idea."

"Oh, okay. I take that back. It was a good assumption." Futaba grinned proudly. "I had this old laptop lying around for a while. It had some custom mods and upgrades, but its specs were too weak for my current standards. I put it up for sale online, and people were willing to pay a good price for it! I sold it, and added the money I got from that to my savings! Neat, huh?"

Akechi was seriously impressed. "Wow. That's amazing. Great job!"

Futaba giggled happily at the praise. "Now, if I manage to buy the collection without freezing up, it'll make my day!"

"You can do it. If you think you're about to freeze up, focus on your goal, and try to remember the excitement and the satisfaction you're feeling right now. I think this should keep you motivated."

Futaba nodded. "I'll try." A smug expression appeared on her face. "Alright! We have the goal, and the required money. All's set. Mission start!"

And they set off. Inside the train, Futaba showed Akechi the maps app on her phone, and indicated the store she had chosen to buy at. It would be a good walk from the Akihabara station, but Futaba was determined to reach the goal.

Outside the Akihabara train station, they began their trek.

"Akechi, you remember the other part of our deal, right? We agreed we'll watch anime together, but you have to do some detective work for me."

"I remember." Akechi wondered what Futaba had in mind.

"There's something I want you to look into." Futaba became hesitant all of a sudden. "Um, Back in the day, I used to do promise lists with my mom. Like a goals checklist. I had managed to reach all the goals, except one. It was, 'Get along with Kana-chan.' As you already know, I was bullied a lot at school. One day, a girl named Kana transferred to my class. She was absent a lot, and the kids began bullying her too. Then, she began trying to talk to me. I froze up and freaked out in the beginning, but she insisted on greeting me every morning. Then I realized she was trying to become my friend. She was the first ever person that really did that, and I decided to gather my courage and try to greet her back. This is where the goal for the promise list came from. I managed to respond to her. But..."

"You didn't get along?" Akechi took a guess.

"We did, in the beginning. Until one particularly windy morning, when Kana-chan dropped her diary and the pages scattered everywhere. When I retrieved them and batted an eye on the contents, I found out that she was absent from school most of the time because her parents were forcing her to work by selling pictures of her in weird clothes."

"What?" Akechi didn't like the implications of that.

"Kana-chan got mad at me when she saw I had read her diary. She yelled at me, and the only thing I managed to do was run away. She moved to another school soon after, and we didn't make up. But I was scared to tell my mom what happened, and kept lying to her saying I was getting along with Kana-chan."

That was sad. But then, Akechi realized one thing. "Hold on. You mean you didn't tell this even to your mom?"

Futaba nodded. "Akira was the first person I've told this to. And you're the second person. Feel honored."

Akechi was stunned. That was such a delicate personal matter, and she chose to tell him about it, out of all people.

"I know it's been years, but I want to complete that goal for real. I want to make up with Kana-chan. I have her and her parents' full names. Akechi, if I give you this data, think you can find her for me?"

Akechi considered the databases he could consult. "I believe so."

"Really?" Futaba's face lit up. "Awesome! I'll send you the info later. I'll be counting on you, detective!"

"And we are here." Akechi announced, right in front of the store Futaba had chosen.

"Wow, we got here faster than I had expected!"

"Probably because we were engrossed in our talk. Futaba-chan, how are you doing? Are you tired?"

"Just a bit. I think I can manage the walk back."

"Good." Akechi nodded in approval. "Let's get inside."

"Y-yeah. Aaah... the t-time has come..." Futaba's voice wavered as they set foot into the store.

"You can do it." Akechi spoke assuringly in her ear. "Take deep breaths, and remember the satisfying feeling from earlier."

As instructed, Futaba took a few deep breaths, then took large and determined steps towards the counter while Akechi watched her from behind.

"Hello, how may I help you?" The female clerk asked in a business-like manner.

"Uh... um..." Futaba shuffled nervously, then traded a glance with Akechi.

"Anything you're looking for?" The clerk slipped into a friendlier, less business-like mask and changed the question.

"U-um... th-the Feathermen Memories DVD collection!" Futaba managed to say.

"Oh, right, that one with 12 DVDs. Just a moment. I'll get it for you." The clerk disappeared to the back of the store, then returned with a big box depicting the Phoenix Rangers from the show's various iterations. "Here you go."

"Oooh..." Futaba uttered in glee. "Yeah... this is the one!"

"It'll be 48,000 yen. Will you pay in full or in installments?"

"... I-in full!" Futaba declared nervously, but proudly.

"Oh, then you get a discount. Payments in full get 10% off! It means..." The clerk retrieved a calculator.

"43,200!" Futaba uttered the value even before the clerk had managed to input a single digit into the calculator.

Bewildered, the clerk input the digits and confirmed the result. "Yes, exactly!"

"Wow, this is a much better deal than I had expected... I had been thinking 50k or more...!" Futaba commented, then proceeded to make the payment.

"As you can see, the box is a bit big to carry." The clerk pointed out. "Want to take it with you, or want it delivered to your house? Shipping is free."

"I'm dying to watch the DVDs!" Futaba tilted her head thoughtfully. "Hmm... but I guess waiting for them to pop up at home is part of the fun, too. Okay, I want it delivered!"

Futaba told her address to the clerk, and her purchase finished in huge success.

She happily hopped over to where Akechi had been waiting. "Ah, ah, ah... I was nervous, my heart was hammering loudly, but I did it!"

From earning all the required money to carrying out the purchase, Futaba had done everything on her own. Akechi felt proud of her, and it was strange. He didn't remember ever having felt proud of anyone other than himself. It was a nice feeling, though.

"Congratulations. Futaba-chan, you did great," he said with a wide smile.

Also proud, Futaba returned a similar smile, but then slowly shook her head in mock disapproval. "Hey, why do you always have to be so formal? Just say, 'congrats.'" She looked at him expectantly. "Now, rewind, take two. Lights, camera, action!"

Akechi sighed. Why did Futaba have to use studio phrases, out of all things? He had enough of TV production staff dictating his behavior already. But he would do as she wanted, as his guilt didn't allow him to say no to her. "Futaba-chan, you did awesome. Congrats."

Futaba giggled and grinned at him happily. "Now, this is more like it!"

"Hey." The clerk called out to them from her position behind the counter. "Your sister is so adorable."

"... Huh?" It took a few seconds for Akechi to realize the clerk was talking to him.

"S-sister...?" Futaba muttered absentmindedly.

Akechi shook his head in embarrassment. "Uh, she's not my sister."

"She isn't? Oh, sorry!" Now the clerk was also embarrassed. "When I saw you two, I thought you were siblings. Your faces look kinda similar..."

"No way! We look nothing alike!" Futaba blurted out. "... Or do we?"

"Hmm, a bit, I think." The clerk glanced at Akechi. "Um, have we met before?"

"I don't think so..."

"Hmm. I was sure I had seen your face somewhere..." The clerk closed her eyes in thought, but gave up. "Ah, never mind. Have a nice day!"

"Wow, she failed to recognize a celebrity." Futaba commented once they had left the store. "Maybe it's because of those clothes?"

"Do they make me this unrecognizable?"

"Hmm, I guess they make you blend in rather than stand out, and kinda hides that fancy and smug aura about you. May we call this camouflage?"

"I hadn't thought about it that way." Akechi chuckled. "blend in rather than stand out, huh? I like the sound of it."

"But... siblings...?" Futaba murmured.

From Futaba's reaction when the clerk's comment happened, Akechi was sure the comment had offended her. "Don't mind it. It was just a misunderstanding."

"Now that I think about it again, maybe it's not a bad idea."

"Huh? What?" No, it was a horrible idea.

Futaba's hesitation returned. "Um, would you like if... if it were true? I know it's next to impossible, but, um, what if we actually were-"

"I'd prefer if we weren't." Akechi cut her off.


"If we were siblings, then it would mean that you have the same good for nothing asshole of a father as me. I wouldn't want that for you." Not to mention all the implications. Shido was the one who ordered Isshiki-san to be killed, and... Akechi was the one who carried out the order. Akechi and Futaba, siblings? That sounded wrong on so many levels...

Unexpectedly, Futaba deflated.


She didn't respond, and only stared at him sadly.

Akechi began talking about other things to change Futaba's focus. She was silent at first, but Akechi's plan eventually worked, Futaba cheered up and proceeded talking back to him normally.

They disembarked the train back at the Yongen-Jaya station. Rather than taking Futaba to Leblanc, though, Akechi took her to her house.

"Mission complete." Akechi announced in front of Sakura-san's house. "And now you are back home, safe and sound."

"Oh, you had known where I live?"

"Not until I heard you tell your address to the clerk."

"Oh, yeah, there was that." Futaba smiled sheepishly. "You sure pay attention to details, huh detective?" Then, she became hesitant again. "Um... Akechi?"

"What is it?"

"Did... um, did you get to meet your dad?"

"I..." Akechi froze, and his expression darkened. Why did Futaba had to ask about Shido, out of all people? Akechi considered not answering the question.

But Futaba would have none of it. "What is this angry face supposed to mean? Yep? Nope?"

"W-well..." Akechi sighed in resignation. "... Actually, yes, I did."

"I know you said your dad's basically a jerk, but, um, what kind of person was he?"

"'Jerk' is a compliment to him. He's horrible." Apparently, Akechi wouldn't be able to avoid the subject. He wouldn't talk about it in detail, though. "My mother and I ran into him on the street once. She was sick and asked him to help pay for her treatment, but he got angry, said he didn't care, called us names and left. When she insisted on following him, he acted like he didn't know her and ordered his security guards to shove her away."

"So, your mom, huh, died because he didn't pay for her treatment?"

"... That too." Akechi could tell that the look in Futaba's eyes meant she was expecting more details. "Sorry. I really don't want to talk about this."

Futaba looked like she would insist, but then began talking about herself. "I don't know who my real dad is. Mom said it doesn't matter, because there's Sojiro."

"She was right."

"Yeah, I think so too. I guess it's like those tech accessories. Sometimes the unofficial ones are better than the official ones!" Futaba's face lit up. "Alright, I have an idea!" She clasped her hands. "I, Futaba Sakura, hereby declare I unofficially adopt you as my brother. How about this?"

"... What?!" Akechi snapped in shock. "Futaba-chan, y-you can't just-"

"Yeah, I can! Since it's unofficial, we can get away doing whatever we want. It's the feelings that matter, not the papers."

"That's not the problem!" Akechi desperately tried to argue.

"Your dad's the problem, right? Since this isn't on paper, then your dad isn't involved."

"B-but..." Akechi wanted to say something to make her discard that ridiculous notion, but tears formed in his eyes and the words died in his throat. Unfortunately, papers or not, his dad was in fact involved, rather deeply...

Futaba was a bit sad, but didn't give up. "I had never thought I'd ever say this, but when the clerk said we kinda look like each other, I noticed we actually have some stuff in common. Like unmarried parents, and no friends at school. Akechi, I know what it feels like to be unwanted by your family and passed around. It happened to me, too. My mom was doing a research. After she died, the bad guys took her research away, and made a fake suicide note to blame me for my mom's death. This made my relatives hate me and not want me."

"... What!" Then, Shido hadn't only ordered Akechi to kill Wakaba Isshiki, but had also made sure to put the blame on someone else, the researcher's pure and innocent daughter that had nothing to do with the incident. That was outrageous! Akechi hadn't known about those details. That had been one of the cases others had handled, and Akechi hadn't been the one to "solve." He had caused the mental shutdown, and that was it. Shido had really gone too far. Rage bubbled up inside Akechi. He couldn't forgive Shido, and couldn't forgive himself.

Futaba was still speaking, unaware of the thoughts buzzing in Akechi's head. "It was horrible. But then, Sojiro swept in and adopted me, and now, I'm very happy! It's too bad that you didn't have the same luck. This is why I want us to be unofficial siblings. I just want you to experience what it feels like to have a nice family around. And if you don't agree with my idea, then how am I supposed to complete my promise list? I'm doing a promise list with Akira too, and guess what the newest goal on it is!"

Akechi said nothing. He was more worried about holding his tears off, which was becoming more and more difficult at each new sentence that Futaba uttered.

"It is, 'Get along with Akechi.'"

This was too much for him to handle, and the tears leaked out. Akechi wanted to say that Futaba didn't know what she was doing, and how absurd and wrong her idea was. That they shouldn't get along, because he was only helping her out of guilt, because he was the one who killed her mother... but tears ran down his face, his body shook, sobs got in the way, and words refused to come out of his mouth.

"Aww, you're making your brother cry! Mean Futaba!" She spoke to herself, then took a step closer to Akechi, reached out and gently patted his head.

Futaba's gesture was so touching, but also so painful. Akechi felt as though his guilt would crush his heart. He wanted to swat Futaba's hand away and tell her to stop, but his body refused to move.

"Come on, let's head inside," Futaba said.

Akechi managed to vehemently shake his head. He wished he could use a Goho-m and teleport out of there. Sadly, he wasn't in the Metaverse...

"But all that walking left me tired!" Futaba protested. "Uh, and it'll be embarrassing if people see us..."

That was true. Still...

Futaba grabbed Akechi's hand and tried to pull him, but he didn't move.

"Come on! Akechi, don't be like this..." Futaba wrapped an arm around his waist and pulled him toward the door.

Akechi tried to break free, but his body refused to obey his command.

"... Stop!" He managed to utter.

"I refuse." Futaba looked at him mischievously. "You're coming with me."

Akechi was unable to avoid being dragged into the house.

"Welp, I'm tired." Futaba collapsed onto a sitting position on the couch in the living room, then quickly retrieved her cellphone and did something with it.

Still standing, Akechi turned in the door's direction.

"Uh-uh." Futaba shook her head. "I've installed an electronic lock on that door. And now, it's locked! You're trapped here, and can't leave unless I authorize it!"

Akechi made a frustrated face, still with tears running down his cheeks.

"What are you standing there for? Come and sit down." Futaba patted the empty spot next to her on the sofa.

"F-Futaba-chan." Akechi managed to say between sobs. "Please... stop. I don't deserve what you're doing. I... I..." A lump formed in his throat and blocked his next words.

"Come on! Don't make me stand up to go fetch you." She didn't seem to be paying attention to his words at all.

Akechi felt helpless. His most important words failed to come out, and what did come out didn't seem to have reached Futaba at all. Resigned, Akechi slowly walked over to the couch and sat down, just to satisfy her. Then, he turned his head away from her and closed his eyes.

"Awww, stubborn Akechi. It's okay, though. I'm confident that I can handle you just fine." It sounded like she was having too much fun for some reason. "Plus, caring for a sibling should make me improve as a person, too, right? Well, you're older than me, but whatever. This is unofficial and quite nonstandard anyway." Futaba yawned. "I'm tired after that super mission. You should rest too. It may make you feel better."

Futaba leaned into Akechi and made herself comfortable. Akechi considered pushing her away, but gave up when he risked a glance at her. Futaba had her eyes closed and a satisfied smile, thanks to her success at her "mission" at Akihabara. She deserved praise and also a good rest. Thus, Akechi ultimately decided against disturbing her peace and let her have her way. He leaned backwards into the couch's backrest and closed his eyes. A few minutes later, Akechi noticed that Futaba had fallen asleep, and it wasn't long until he had also dozed off.

Futaba awoke half an hour later, and saw that Akechi was asleep. Not wanting to wake him up, she slowly backed away from him. She took her phone and texted Akira.

"Akira, great news! Akechi went with me to Akihabara and I managed to buy the Featherman DVD collection on my own! And now I've unofficially adopted him as my bro!"

"Hold on. What?" Came Akira's confused response.

"Oh yeah. The store clerk mistook us for siblings, and I decided to become his unofficial sibling so that he feels what's like to have a nice family."

"Awww, that's so nice of you! :3" Akira approved.

"Great way to complete that goal on our promise list, right? Looks like Akechi's not used to being treated nicely, though. He was so shocked that he froze up and cried his eyes out! We're at my place, and he's asleep on the couch right now."

"Whoa," was all Akira wrote back.

"I'll tell you more at Leblanc tonight."

Futaba set her phone aside and began watching her unofficial brother.

Akechi's eyes opened, and the reminder that he was at an unfamiliar place put him on alarm.

"Calmer now?"

Futaba's question finally reminded him where he was and how he had gotten there.

"... More or less." Akechi answered. He stared hesitantly at Futaba. Now that he had recovered his speech, should he reveal the truth?

"Hey, what's up with the hesitation? You weren't like this. Where did the high and mighty detective go?"

"I don't know..." He answered with a sigh.

Futaba laughed at his response. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Uh, well, I've been feeling a bit lost lately. Ever since I ran into Akira when she was on a trip to attend a course, I... I don't know what happened."

Futaba grinned. "Aha! So, you're really interested in Akira, huh?"

Akechi's eyes widened at the realization of how wrong his comment had sounded. "What? No! I didn't mean it like-"

"You're much better this way, though." Futaba cut him off and completely ignored his response. "You're quite nice when you're not in celebrity mode, you know?"

Another wave of warmth washed over Akechi's heart. "Y-you really think I'm nice?"

"Yep yep. Nice, and fun to be around."

"I don't understand." Akechi uttered weakly. "I worked so hard to behave well, get high grades, and be an exemplar child, but no one noticed me. The families never praised me. They only acted as though I was in the way, and that the fact I was behaving well only meant they had one less problem to worry about. I couldn't fit in no matter how hard I tried. And now, I'm not doing anything special, but you and Akira and Morgana make me feel like I'm meant to be here..."

"I had problems at school, too. I always got perfect grades, but the kids bullied me and said I was cheating. One day, out of frustration, I turned a test in with nothing written on it."

Akechi raised an eyebrow. "You... deliberately turned in a blank test? How brave of you. My determination of following model student standards would have never allowed me to do such a thing."

It was Futaba's turn to be surprised. "You think I was brave?" But then, she became sad. "I got in trouble for it, though. The teachers called my mom in and yelled at her, and the kids mocked me even more. I'm worried this kind of stuff may happen again when I go back to school. I don't want teachers yelling at Sojiro, or kids bullying me. But I don't know how to avoid the bullying." She sighed. "I guess I'll have to endure it somehow." Despite her insecurity, Futaba flashed a smile. "But but, maybe it gets easier to endure it if I focus on how I can have fun after school. It's really fun being around Akira and Mona and the others. And now there's you, too. Yeah, maybe you're meant to be here."

Akechi could feel Futaba's sisterly affection. Then, the Hermit Confidant ranked up.

Akechi was speechless. Why did the first ever person to get attached to him and rely on him like that had to be Futaba, out of all people? He didn't want to admit it, but as wrong as that situation was, it warmed his heart, and... brought tears to his eyes... once more.

"Hey, you're gonna cry again?"

"It's your f-fault! Because you keep saying touching stuff..."

"Hmm, looks like I've found the great detective prince's weakness." Futaba grinned.

Yes, she sure did. It was the Phantom Thieves. They had captured his heart, held it up, turned it around, massaged it, and Akechi was sure they would cause it to melt one of these days.

"I just want you to experience what it feels like to have a nice family around." He recalled Futaba's words from a moment ago.

"As long as you are with us, you'll have a place." And Mona's words from the other day.

Indeed, near them, Akechi felt he actually had a place to belong, even though he didn't deserve it. He wasn't sure he should feel ashamed, or grateful for having the opportunity to feel he belonged somewhere in the first place, even if that feeling were just an illusion.

And he realized Futaba wasn't the only person developing attachments. He was getting attached to his closest Phantom Thieves, too. They were the first and only people that had accepted him, and that taught him what selflessness and true kindness were. Akechi felt they were precious to him. Unlike him, the Phantom Thieves deserved a place to belong. All he could do was give his best to protect them and prevent them from losing their place.

Akechi stood up with determination. "Futaba-chan, I won't let your case end like this."

"Huh? Case?"

"The case about... your mom. I'll prove your innocence, and your relatives won't hate you anymore. And those responsible must be punished." Including himself, of course.

Futaba gasped, and a pained look briefly crossed her eyes, but she waved his words off. "... Nah, you don't need to do that. I have Sojiro now. And I'll make a request to the Phantom Thieves to catch the ones responsible. I'm sure the case'll be closed in no time!"

"W-what?" Ironically, the Phantom Thieves wouldn't be able to stop the organization without him. Akechi couldn't help but release a burst of laughter. "You distrust my abilities this much?"

"I'm just saying that I'd prefer to have you here watching anime with me rather than wasting your time with a case that someone else'll solve anyways. We've gotten 12 shiny new discs, right? Gotta watch 'em all!"

Akechi had a distant look for a moment. He wondered whether he would have enough time to watch all the DVDs. He estimated he would have only a couple months at most before he would have to turn himself in and confess everything. The truth would hurt Futaba, and the fact that he kept hiding it would as well, but Akechi was selfish and wanted to get the most of those nice moments before that whole mess ended, and he either got arrested, or died, or whatever fate chose for him.

"Akechi? What's wrong?" Futaba also stood up. "Are you that bitter about losing a case to the Phantom Thieves? Then I dare you to close the case before they do. I doubt you can do it, though." She smirked mockingly at him.

Akechi chuckled. "This only confirms how little faith you have in my abilities. It doesn't matter, though. I'll do whatever I can either way. Also, be sure to remember to send me the info about your friend's parents."

"Yeah, sure thing." Futaba took her cellphone and sent the message right away. "Their full names are Kouta Magario and Asami Magario, and as for Kana-chan, I'm sure you can guess. I've just texted you the info. Let's see what you can do."

Akechi nodded. "Alright. Time to get to work. So, may I leave now?"

"Okay." Futaba used her phone to deactivate the electronic lock on the door. "Oh, one last thing before you go." She took a step closer to him and whispered in his ear. "Akira said that your annoying personality's your TV self, and that your softer one's your normal self. I'd not approve if your celebrity self were after her. But if it's your normal self, I allow it."

Akechi froze at Futaba's sudden statement. Eventually, he heaved a sigh. "Geez. Sounds like Sakura-san is putting weird ideas in your head..."

"He's shipping the two of you. And now, I am too!"

"... Shipping?"

"Relationshipping, shipping for short!"

"That's not even a word... er, never mind. I'm not after Akira, okay? She's a very special person, and should be with someone in the same level as her." He smiled at Futaba. "I'm leaving. Bye. And... um, thanks."

As agreed, Futaba came to Leblanc at night. After dinner, Akira took her to the attic, and Futaba filled her in the details.

"Oh, that was fast!" Futaba checked her messages on her phone.


"I asked Akechi to look into Kana-chan's parents, and he's already sending me the info. Look!" She showed the phone to Akira.

"Futaba-chan, I've looked into Asami, Kouta and Kana Magario, and cross-referenced data from phonebooks, as well as some document information and other databases my work gives me access to." Akechi's message stated. "Credit analysis data reveals they are buried in debt, and it seems Kana-chan hasn't enrolled in school after she graduated middle school. This might be an indication that their financial situation might have worsened and they are unable to handle her study expenses. I couldn't find out what they're doing to survive, but chances that they may still be exploiting Kana-chan and selling inappropriate pictures of her are likely, as these activities tend to be carried out in the 'underground,' and are harder to track. If you want to know more, your best bet is to contact Kana-chan directly and have her tell you the details. I'm sending you their address and phone number. I've found Kana-chan's email address as well. Emailing should be easier for you, right? I recall you said you prefer communicating through writing." Then, the address and contact info followed.

"Wow, he's good!" Futaba was pleasantly surprised. "I only told him their names, my story with Kana-chan, and how she skipped school a lot because her parents forced her to take weird pictures." Futaba grinned at Akira. "Actually, I had already done some hacking and found out all of this info he sent me, but I wanted to see what he could do."

Akira gaped in puzzlement. "You were only testing him?"

"Yep! Looks like his detective skills are the real deal!"

Futaba excitedly wrote a reply. "Awesome! Quick and complete. You even remember I prefer emails, too! That's my bro! You know me well already. Thx!"

Futaba sent her reply, and continued talking to Akira. "Alright! It's all set! I don't even need to contact Kana-chan to find out the rest."

"What do you mean?" Akira didn't understand.

"It turns out Kana-chan actually posted a request on the Phansite. From the contents and the IP's region, I'm 99.9% sure it's her. The post says her parents are having financial problems, and have been forcing her to take weird pictures to make money. This has been going on for years, and she can't take it anymore. She's asking the Phantom Thieves to change her parents' hearts so that they'll stop."

"Wow. Then, if everyone's available tomorrow, to Mementos we go!"

Chapter Text

Thursday, September 29

After school, Akira and the other Phantom Thieves discussed the plan at the attic, then headed to Mementos.

They were in the Monamobile looking for their targets, and found who they weren't looking for. Crow had just finished a battle. But when the Phantom Thieves were about to approach him, wheels appeared on his boots and he skated away.

"For real?!" Skull exclaimed.

"Crow! Wait up!" Mona called after him as Joker hastily tried to guide the vehicle towards Crow.

"He's fast! Ah!" Joker yelped when she lost control of the car.

The others also yelped as the Monamobile crashed into a wall and fell on its side, and caused everyone to fall on top of each other.

The noise made Crow finally stop and come see what was going on. "It's you all... what happened here?"

"Isn't it obvious? We crashed, duh." Skull responded. "And It's your fault, 'cause you don't stop moving!"

"Huh?" Crow was clueless.

"We saw you in the distance and were trying to get to you." Noir explained.

"Is everyone alright?"

The Monamobile stood back upright.

"Yes, thank you for the concern." Fox answered.

"Dude, skates, seriously?" Skull was incredulous. "They're weird on your armor-like outfit."

"Says the one whose Persona rides a ship." Crow responded, but this time he didn't seem about to lose his patience with Skull. "It would be impossible to explore this place by simply walking."

"So, what makes you want to explore this place today?" Joker asked.

"Just trying to get items and new Personas."

"We're here to cause some smaller changes of heart." Joker informed him. "Wanna come with? You'll get your share of items and Personas along the way."

Crow seemed thorn between coming with them or not. Even though he had refused to join them last time, maybe, deep down, he actually wanted to come with them.

"Guys, we should get a move on. We've been hanging in this area for quite a while." Mona urged, and Joker tensed.

Skull, on the other hand, wasn't worried at all. "Mona, are you sure there's really a super strong monster that can appear if we stay in one area for too long?"

"I'm sure! And I'm also sure we can't handle it on our current level."

"That's right. I've run into it once." Crow revealed. "It's really strong, has all kinds of elemental attacks and resists everything. Nothing I threw at it caused much damage, and I was forced to retreat. Sounds of chains clanking and dragging on the ground are the sign that it's approaching. If you hear chain noises, you should run for dear life."

All the girls, including Joker, were scared.

"Ugh... it sounds even worse than what I imagined!" Joker closed her eyes in fright.

"Chain noises? That's creepy!" Panther said.

"Crow, we need you around to protect us if that thing appears..."

Joker had been half-kidding, but her comment seemed to have had a greater effect on Crow than their offers of a place in the group.

"I don't want to run the risk of having that thing randomly appear and ruin our plans." Crow sighed resignedly and gave in. "Fine. I'll come with you."

"Great! Then, hop on!" Mona opened the door.

Crow jumped aboard and took the passenger seat, beside Joker.

As the car zig-zagged on the train tracks, Crow realized that being inside was a good thing, because he would rather not risk being outside and in Joker's way. To be frank, she was a terrible driver.

"Phew. We're safe." Joker let out a relieved sigh once they had reached a platform.

Mona opened the doors and ejected everyone in just a couple of seconds. It was a wonder how all the Phantom Thieves flew out of the car without colliding into each other. However, the sudden ejection caught Crow by surprise and he nearly fell to a sitting position on the ground. He somehow managed to fall to a crouching position, then stood up.

Joker noticed it. "Crow, you okay there?"

Crow was still trying to regain his composure. "At least a warning would've been nice..."

"Sorry." Joker apologized. "This is so normal to us now, and warning you about it didn't even cross my mind. Yeah, it was surprising to all of us the first time, though. "

Mona returned to his normal form, and everyone descended the stairs to the next area.

"One more thing that worries me. Doesn't Mona have safety belts? I didn't see any." Crow pointed out.

"No, I don't." Mona answered. "Wearing belts would be too restrictive for us."

"Restrictive? It's a safety measure!"

"As you should know, our Persona powers make us much more resilient in the Metaverse than in the real world. You saw how we crashed earlier, and everyone's perfectly fine. Safety belts wouldn't mean much to us. Also, if we run into battles, we must be ready to fight at a moment's notice. This is the reason for the ejection, too. Isn't it cool? We ambush Shadows, eject, and bam. In a blink, we're surrounding them and ready for action!"

"You have a point..." Crow had to admit.

"Correction! Points, plural!" Mona said in a condescending manner. "I have quite a few points, and all of them are valid!"

"Man, isn't Mona annoying?" Skull said.

"He's the most unique car I've ever seen."

The playful comment took Skull by surprise. "Huh? Yeah, I guess..."

"I... I'm not a car!"

"Course you are." Joker smirked, then stepped closer to Crow and whispered. "Throw him onto the tracks."

"... What?" Crow was hesitant.

"Just a little prank to make him pay back for having thrown you without warning." Joker disapproved Crow's hesitation. "Come on, stop being so serious and just do it."

Crow didn't want to hurt Mona. But again, since they were in the Metaverse, Mona was much more resilient than when he was in little cat form. Well, it was just a little prank, and shouldn't hurt.

"What are you two whispering there, huh?" Mona was still in condescending mode.

Crow quickly grabbed Mona and threw him at the train tracks they were supposed to walk on next. Crow went easy to make sure he wouldn't hurt the peculiar creature. Still, the move was sudden and caught Mona by surprise.

"Aaah! What are you-meoooow!" When Mona hit the ground, he transformed into his car form.

"Don't think you can throw us around and be spared from the feeling," Crow said, while Joker burst laughing.

"Hah! Dude, nice one!" Skull cheered. "Take that, Mona!"

"And now you're a car." Joker added.

"Uh, y-yeah, but this wasn't my point! I meant that I'm not really a car! I just can transform into a car!" Mona kept talking while everyone got inside. "Ugh... Crow, I'll only forgive what you did now because you handled me more gently than, say, Oracle. I wasn't expecting that! "

"Then, I believe we are even."

"Anyway, I don't sense our targets in this area. Moving on!" Said navigator interrupted their conversation.

"Hey! That's my line!" Mona protested again as Joker started the engines.

Crow sighed in exasperation and whispered to Joker. "Is it always like this?"

"More or less. I think we're pumped today! May be because we have company!" She turned her head in Crow's direction, held the steering wheel with one hand, and took the liberty of placing her other hand on Crow's shoulder. Akira, as carefree as ever...

Crow's exasperation only intensified. "Would you please pay attention to the way ahead and drive properly?"

"Hey, don't worry so mu-"

Crow cut her off. "The fact that everyone gets more resilient in the Metaverse isn't an excuse. What if we run into Shadows? We may get ambushed if you don't pay attention."

"Whoa. He's strict..." Panther observed.

"Joker, he... is right." Queen agreed with Crow for once.

Joker gulped. "Uh, yeah, that's true..." She admitted, removed her hand from Crow's shoulder, and focused on the steering wheel and the way ahead.

Despite this, Joker's driving didn't improve at all. The car zig-zagged a lot, and kept shaking and bumping into walls. Crow wondered whether driving Mona was really difficult, or whether it was Joker that was really terrible at driving.

They ran over a group of Shadows, Mona ejected everyone again and untransformed. This time, Crow managed to land on his feet with no problem, and everyone was ready to battle. A few swift motions and Persona-summonings later, the battle was over. Everything happened so quickly that the Shadows didn't even see what had hit them.

The Phantom Thieves jumped back into the car and continued on their way.

"I have a few questions, to whoever can answer," Crow said.

"Shoot 'em." Joker prompted him.

"You said we are here after smaller targets. Is the process for smaller targets different from the one at Palaces? Do you also send calling cards to smaller targets?"

Mona was the one who answered. "The process is simpler for smaller targets because their views aren't as distorted as the bigger ones'. And we don't even need to send a full-fledged calling card. Usually, just having our intentions of targeting them posted to the Phansite and commented about by the public is enough."

"The Phansite... hmm." Crow chuckled, impressed. "I see. This group never ceases to amaze me."

"Why do you say that?" Fox asked.

"What about the Phansite?" Panther added a question of her own.

"I've realized that the forum is actually much more than what it seems to be. It's not a mere place where readers can post target requests, but actually an integral part of your Phantom Thievery. A place that influences both the general public's cognition of the Phantom Thieves, and the targets' cognition of their own distorted desires... quite interesting. It seems you all are more resourceful than it looks."

"Nah, it isn't that amazing," Skull said.

"Yes, it is." Mona disagreed. "Even more so because we hadn't planned any of this in the beginning. One acquaintance of ours built the website to offer us support, and we just rolled with it. At first, we had thought it'd be just a place to collect information and target requests, but in practice, it happens exactly as you described, Crow. And it's this influence on people's cognition that allows us to access deeper into Mementos. The Phansite turned out to be an indispensable resource!"

"Y-yeah. Crow, props for figuring all that out so quickly." It was rare for Oracle to talk directly to Crow when not navigating, for obvious reasons. So, when this compliment left her mouth, it touched Crow's heart.

"You should feel glad. It is rare for a compliment to leave her mouth outside of battle." Fox remarked.

"Shut up, Inari!"

Crow chuckled. "Yes, I feel glad. Thank you, Oracle."

And Oracle froze up again.

They got to the next platform and disembarked. There was one thing that had been bothering Crow greatly, and he couldn't take it anymore.

"Joker... can't you do anything about all this shaking and bumping!"

"Uh, sorry. I don't know how to drive..." She admitted.

"I can see that! But are you even trying!?"

"I get nervous thinking that the super strong monster may appear, and I try to get to the platform as fast as I can. But all the bumping's no problem. Mona's tough in the Metaverse."

"You sure use this excuse for anything, don't you?" Crow sighed. "Mona, don't tell me you are fine with this level of torture."

"Well, it isn't exactly nice, but what can we do? No one here knows how to drive. We gotta take what we can get."

"We cannot drive. We are minors," Fox said. "Though I recall Queen mentioning she has a motorcycle license."

"That reminds me, Queen was the one driving during our escape from Okumura's Palace." Crow argued. "Why doesn't she always drive?"

"That'd be even crazier!" Panther shot the suggestion down. "She usually gets way more destructive when she drives!"

"I feel as though I am unstoppable! The sensation of blazing through the way is exhilarating!" Queen herself said. "The Metaverse is the only place I can do it without breaking the law." So much for someone aiming to become a law-enforcing police commissioner...

"Seriously...?" Crow muttered under his breath.

"Since I'm good at high speeds, we agreed that I will drive when we need to escape Palaces while Joker will drive in Mementos." Queen added.

"Mona, can't you move on your own?" That was Crow's last hope.

"Well, I can if I put my mind to it... it's hard, and I don't have much control, though."

Crow heaved a sigh. Their driving situation was hopeless.

Joker looked at Crow. "Why don't you try, then?"

"... Me?" Crow startled.

"Yes. You're the only one complaining." Mona was back into condescending mode. "If you can't do better, then you have no right to complain!"

Crow was also a minor, and didn't know how to drive, either. But that was the Metaverse, where they were capable of more than they were normally. There was the possibility that driving Mona might be different - and hopefully easier - from driving a real-world car. Whether knowledge from actual driving would apply to Mona-driving was anyone's guess, but Crow was determined to learn, even if just to have more comfortable trips.

"Fine. I accept the challenge." Crow decided.

As they descended to the next area, Mona pipped up. "I can sense our targets somewhere in this area!"

Oracle seemed nervous for some reason.

Skull, on the other hand, was excited. "Finally! We've been looking for them for a while. Let's go and kick those Shadows asses already!"

"We need to reach them first, though." Joker smirked. "Crow, I'll leave the driving to you. Let's see what you can do!"

Crow nodded without a word.

The Phantom Thieves entered Mona's vehicle form again. Crow switched places with Joker and took control of the steering wheel. He struggled a bit for a while, and just when he thought he was starting to get the hang of it, Mona spoke up.

"They should be there in that smoky area!"

Crow directed the vehicle to said area. The Phantom Thieves disembarked, and Mona returned to his normal form.

Inside the special room, they could see the Shadows of a couple. The Phantom Thieves were discussing the plan while they observed the Shadows from a distance.

"So, those are Oracle's childhood friend's parents?" Noir was the first person to speak.

Panther was angry. "They're selling inappropriate pictures of their own daughter. So disgusting!"

Crow had to keep himself from gaping. Did Futaba ask him to look into them because the Phantom Thieves were intent on targeting them?

Now the reason why Oracle was nervous became apparent.

"Oracle, are you okay?" Queen asked gently.

"Y-yeah, I... I'm okay." Oracle shook her nervousness aside and nodded with determination. "Let's put a stop to this. Let's save Kana-chan!"

They approached the two Shadows.

"Ah! Could you be... thieves?" The female Shadow jumped. "Please, let us go! We have nothing of value to hand you. We have no money. This is why we need Kana..." That reasoning sounded totally twisted already, and caused a small wave of anger in Crow's heart.

"Her cuteness, her innocence. It's all we have that we can sell." The male Shadow added.

"Can't you see that your daughter is suffering?!" Panther yelled.

"What about her feelings? What about her happiness?!" Noir asked angrily.

"All of us are suffering," the male Shadow said. "If Kana doesn't work to earn us money, we can't survive. Unless our financial situation stabilizes, we can't think about happiness."

Queen glared at them. "You're forcing your daughter to take pornographic pictures to earn you money? That can't even be called 'work!' It's child exploitation!"

"You subject your daughter to such a disgusting activity while you just stand there complaining and doing nothing?" Crow couldn't contain himself. "Cut the crap!" The volume of his voice exploded and startled most of those present. "Quit whining and get a real job yourselves! Aren't parents supposed to be the ones supporting their children? You should be the ones working to support her, not the other way around!" His voice began shaking in anger.

"It's no use trying to reason with them! They're far gone!" Mona warned.

But Crow paid no mind to Mona and continued yelling. "You aren't thinking about anything other than yourselves. I'm sick of this kind of selfish people! ... So..." He balled his fists threateningly.

Queen gasped in alarm. "Crow, stop!"

"Get a hold of yourself!" Fox shouted.

"I-I get how you feel, but you have to calm down!" Joker placed a shaky hand on Crow's arm. "Let's calm down, a-alright?"

Crow balked as he noticed the fear in Joker's eyes. He didn't like the fear overtaking her usually bright and positive gaze, and having it directed at him felt even worse.

"C-Crow..." Oracle spoke to him shyly. "Remember, we're here to... just to..."

Yes. They were there to take those Shadow's hearts. As much as Crow felt like punching the Shadows into oblivion, it would be bad if his reckless action ended up killing them. His insides were burning with guilt for what he had done to Oracle's mother as it was, and he wouldn't want to risk hurting her childhood friend's parents as well.

Crow slowly unballed his hands and took a deep breath. Then, he looked at the Shadows again. "So, this is why I came here with the Phantom Thieves. We will take your distorted hearts and clear your senses! You should be grateful!"

The Phantom Thieves sighed in relief.

"No! This is our way of surviving! We won't let you take it away from us!" The female Shadow transformed into Succubus, while her partner transformed into Incubus.

They battled. A bit calmer, Crow made sure to hold back to not risk killing the Shadows. Soon, the fight was over, and the Shadows returned to their human forms.

"Oh no... what we are doing is really that wrong?" The male Shadow asked.

"Yes. You are not only abusing your daughter and making her suffer, but your activities are also illegal," said the future police commissioner.

The female Shadow gasped in horror.

Her husband spoke. "We got a huge debt, and no way to pay it. So, we concluded the only way to earn enough money was to hit the jackpot. We spent all the money we had on gambling, and instead of hitting the jackpot, we became even more poor. That was when we met a man who told us there was an easy way to earn money, and that all we needed to do was give him pictures of our daughter in suggestive poses. We were so desperate that we agreed to it. But instead of using that money to try to lessen the debt, we kept spending it on more gambling, thinking that maybe the next time we'd hit the jackpot and be able to pay the debt in full at once. And maybe next time, and maybe next time... but the jackpot never came, and this has been going on for years..."

All the Phantom Thieves had exasperated expressions.

"As the time passed, the man came to demand greater and greater number of pictures from us." The male Shadow continued. "And Kana, poor Kana... we forced her into taking those pictures, and she even lost a full school year because of this... she suffered so much, cried so much... but we were so out of it, and all we did was tell her that this was necessary, that there was no other way. To think all I wanted before was to have my daughter eat delicious things and make her happy..."

"So, what we did was a crime?" The woman's Shadow still looked horrified. "Then, should we turn ourselves in to the police?!"

"But if we do that, Kana won't have anyone to take care of her!" The man's Shadow argued.

"How about this, then? Don't turn yourselves in to the police." Joker suggested. "Just stay by your daughter's side and care for her the way good parents do. She needs support, and the best way to atone for what you did is to make up to her."

"Yes, this should be best." The future police commissioner agreed.

The female Shadow seemed a bit relieved. "Alright. We'll strive to become better parents, and make up to Kana. And we'll get a job to pay the debt ourselves. Our debt is our responsibility, not hers."

Crow nodded in approval. "Also, I believe you should find a way to report the person that got you into the illegal activity. There might be more victims to his scheme besides your family."

"Yes, you are right." The woman's Shadow agreed. "We'll do that. Thank you for the advice."

"Ah, just one more thing before you disappear." Crow turned to the Phantom Thieves' navigator. "Oracle, the last word is yours."

"Wa!" Oracle jumped. "Wh-why me?"

"Isn't this about your childhood friend? You still haven't said a single word to them."

"Wh-what a-am I supposed to say?! This is so out of the blue... h-how come you throw a bomb on my hands like this?! Crow, you devil. I won't forgive you!"

"I'm sure you have much worse reasons not to forgive me. But they're your childhood friend's parents, aren't they?! Just say something!"

Oracle froze up.

"Childhood friend?" The female Shadow interrupted their banter. "We hadn't paid too much attention to Kana and her school life, but I remember now. She had talked about the only friend she made in elementary school. So, it was you!"

Oracle's eyes widened, and she nodded.

The Shadow kept talking. "We had to move right after you two had a fight, and you didn't make up. Kana was so sad when we moved. She had wanted to talk to you, but she didn't have your phone number..."

Oracle was stunned. "She doesn't... ... hate me?"

"Of course she doesn't. I'm sure she'll be very happy to talk to you again... oh, this is it! I'll give you our new phone number!"

"I... I a-already have the number!"

The female Shadow smiled. "Really? Then, call her! She'll love the surprise!"

Oracle nodded, with watery eyes. "I... I will!"

"It's a wonder you have managed to find us after all these years, though," The male Shadow said.

The female one added, "To think our Kana's childhood friend'd turn out to become one of the Phantom Thieves, the ones that'd save us and make us come to our senses... this must be fate..."

The two Shadows smiled and faded away together. They left a Growth 3 skill card behind, which Joker retrieved.

Fate... Crow thought. He didn't think positively of fate, since it had been too cruel to him. But Akira had said she believed fate could change. Perhaps this was the Phantom Thieves stealing fates and changing it.

"Hey, Crow!" Skull spoke up. "I know I have trouble to control my temper, but what's with you? Earlier, we thought you may end up killing the Shadows!"

"This was not the first time, either." Queen noted. "You nearly lost it during the confrontation with Mr. Okumura's Shadow as well."

"I'm sorry." Crow apologized honestly. "Maybe I'm not cut out to be a Phantom Thief, after all. It won't be good if I keep losing my grip at each and every target."

"I think it was worse the first time, though." Joker, always looking from the bright side of things. "And we managed to keep you in check both times, too. Don't worry. You'll get better at controlling your temper. It'll be okay."

"It's strange, though," Crow said to no one in particular. "I hadn't expected I'd get so angry at those Shadows. I usually couldn't care less about other people's problems. But the moment I reminded myself that the issue with those Shadows was related to one of you, I couldn't contain myself..."

"It's the same to me, actually." Mona had a distant gaze. "In the beginning, all I cared about was having these guys change hearts and open the way further into Mementos, and the involved targets meant nothing to me. But as I realized those targets had hurt some of these guys as well, I couldn't help but get angry. I don't know exactly who or what I am and where I'm from, but this bunch of misfits gave me a place to belong. Now, their place is my place, their friends are my friends, and their enemies are my enemies. This is how I feel. And looks like you feel the same way, huh?"

Crow felt a kinship with Mona, and the Magician confidant ranked up.

His tarot card vision was interrupted by a wail from their navigator, who got unable to hold her tears and was crying her eyes out.

"Aaaaaah! Crow, it's your fault!" Oracle spoke between sobs. "You threw me that bomb about Kana-chan's parents, a-and now I'm crying in front of e-everyone! It's... embarrassing! And I can't stop!"

"It seems to have made you happy, so whatever." To Crow, it was only fair, after she had him cry so much with that sibling talk yesterday. What she said next wasn't fair, though.

"B-but I'm having trouble to speak... and to concentrate, And... I can't na-vigate! You'll ha-have to do it in my place."

"What?! You aren't being serious... are you?"

Oracle smirked, still with tears escaping from under her goggles.

"This is too sudden! How come you throw a bomb on my hands like this?!"

"... Y-you stole my line!" Oracle made a mock hurt face.

"The dynamics between those two wasn't like this before... was it?" Queen muttered.

"I don't think so. But having him navigate sounds like a nice idea, doesn't it?" Noir gave her opinion. "I'd trust him with that."

"Navigation from a different perspective. Sounds interesting," Fox said.

"Yeah, now I want to see that, too," Joker agreed.

"Wait. But I don't have a support type Persona!" Crow protested.

"Neither do I, but I had been the one navigating during battles before Oracle joined." Mona informed him. "You know a lot about the Metaverse, too. I think you'd do fine."

"You have two years experience or whatever, yeah? I think you'd do better than Mona." Skull mocked them both.

Mona didn't take well to that. "Skull, shut up!"

And Crow was defeated by the unanimous decision rule. He heaved a sigh. Now he not only would have to drive, but to navigate, too.

They left the special area where the Magarios' Shadows had been, and engaged a Girimehkala in battle.

Despite his earlier protests, Crow made sure to take the navigation task seriously. "One enemy. It's weak to bless skills, repels physical and gun attacks. Just remember that, and it shouldn't be a problem."

The battle ended quickly.

"Not bad!" Mona complimented him, already moving in vehicle form.

"You even pointed out what the enemy repels. I was the one supposed to say that!" Queen was impressed. "You may be even better than me at Shadow factorization..."

"This was more from memory than anything else. That enemy is still fresh in my memory thanks to Okumura's Palace. But now that you mention it, even though I don't have a support-oriented Persona, I should be able to do a bit of analysis and identify some of the lesser Shadows' characteristics if needed." Crow realized that Oracle wasn't crying anymore. "Oracle, you're okay now, right? You can return to your post."

"Nah. I wanna watch you do the analysis and stuff!"

"Yeah, go on!" Joker encouraged him.

And once again, Crow found himself doing as they wanted. He didn't remember the next group of enemies' specifics, and had to analyze it. He did a reasonable job at identifying what the enemies nulled or repelled, and the Phantom Thieves seemed satisfied.

They moved on the tracks again, and Oracle proved her ability to speak was back to 100% as she began talking about real life. "I bought the Feathermen Memories DVD collection! I'm dying to watch them!"

"Featherman. It is the show the figurines in your room are based on, yes?" Fox spoke.


"Oh, now I wonder, if we were the Featherman characters, who would we be?" Noir asked.

Oracle replied excitedly. "Let's see... I guess Joker'd be Red Hawk, Skull'd be Yellow Owl, Panther'd be Pink Argus, Queen could be Blue Swan, and... Crow'd be Black Condor! Black Condor even has a friendly rivalry thing going on with Red Hawk, just like both Crow and Joker can use lots of Personas!"

Crow was impressed at how much thought Oracle had put into that comparison, though he wouldn't admit it aloud. There was even his envy thing going on with Joker...

"What about me?" Mona asked.

Oracle smirked. "Sorry, no cats in the show."

"I'm not a cat!"

"Then, a car?" Joker teased.

Mona was about to retort, but Fox spoke first. "Wait a moment. Isn't Red Hawk supposed to be male? And as crow is already a bird, I believe Crow should be 'Black Crow,' rather than 'Black Condor...'"

Oracle rejected the suggestion. "Nah. We have to stick to the existing characters, not make others up!" And when Crow thought that conversation couldn't become any more absurd, Oracle declared, "With our characters established, now we only need Featherman poses when entering battle!"

"P-poses?" Panther uttered shakily. "That'd be embarrassing..."

Crow didn't like where this was going. First, the Phantom Thieves had forced him to drive, then to navigate, and now, if they were to agree with that ridiculous idea, they would want him to do Featherman poses too?! Crow couldn't take it anymore. "No way!" He blurted out angrily, and caught everyone by surprise.

"You had been listening?" Joker said.

"Of course I had. With the proximity and how loud you guys are talking, who wouldn't?!" Crow was quick to reiterate. "And I'll say it once more. I refuse to do ridiculous poses!"

"Did you just call the Featherman poses ridiculous!?" Oracle exploded. "They're super cool!"

"If you like the poses so much, then perform them yourself!" Crow dared.

Oracle gasped and recoiled in embarrassment.

"Hey." Skull joined in. "It's been a while since I've watched Featherman, and I don't remember much of the poses. But doesn't the idea of doing poses sounds cool? We could come up with our own poses for us Phantom Thieves!"

"Umm... I actually wanted to do something like that..." Noir said shyly. "Entering battle and announcing the arrival of the Phantom Thieves of justice! Wouldn't it be cool?"

"Stop! That'd be so awkward and embarrassing!" Panther whined.

"I wouldn't mind," Joker said nonchalantly from Crow's side.

Crow growled, and shouted as assertively as he could manage. "Do whatever you want, but just count me out!"

"Guys, a Shadow's spotted us!" Mona warned. "Crow, step on that gas!"

Everyone became alert and focused on the problem at hand. Crow had the vehicle accelerate and tried to escape from the Shadow. In the end, the Shadow got to the Phantom Thieves, but they at least didn't get ambushed.

After the battle, the Phantom Thieves were talking among themselves while on the tracks again. The panic while running from the last Shadow seemed to have made them forget about the poses, and Crow was glad for that.

"Even though the surface is irregular, we are moving rather smoothly now." Noir observed.

"Oh, yeah! We aren't shaking as much. I didn't think this was possible!" Panther chuckled. "Since it had always been like that, I had taken the bumping and shaking for granted..."

"I had thought Mona was a bad car," Skull said.

"What did you say!?"

"I'm saying you're an okay car."

"Then, we found the problem. Joker sucks at driving," Oracle said with no tact at all.

Joker didn't seem offended in the slightest, though. "But we found the solution, too! Looks like we've got ourselves a new driver!"

Crow felt good. Apparently, he had finally found something he was better than Joker at... but then, he felt sad. As nice as it was to have the Phantom Thieves counting on him, his days were practically numbered. Just a couple of months, give or take. He couldn't continue helping them for long.

When they arrived at a rest area, Joker called out to him. "Crow, you're amazing! You've done a great job today. Battling, driving, and even navigating! You deserve a reward!"

"Huh?" Crow deadpanned. Joker was exaggerating. And he didn't think what he did was worthy of a prize.

"Yeah, this is it! The Magarios' treasure. You should have it. It's a Growth 3 skill card. Since you don't have many options to improve your Personas, this should be a nice item for you to have, right?" Joker reached the card out to him, and gave him that cute expectant look of hers.

"... Thanks." Crow accepted the card, as he could tell Joker wouldn't take no for an answer.

"Is it not almost scary how talented he is?" Fox spoke.

"Yes." Queen really seemed scared. "Strategizing, solving the Palaces' puzzles, battling, driving, and even Shadow analysis... he is good at everything! What kind of genius is he, anyway?"

Those compliments and the group's awe were starting to make Crow uncomfortable.

"Crow, we really need you here," Joker said. "You have to protect us from that super strong thing."

"And to drive, too." Mona added. "I'm glad for not having bumped on the walls so much today."

Crow felt that the Phantom Thieves were depending on him. The Fool Confidant ranked up.

But when Crow snapped back from his Tarot card vision, Mona was suddenly in condescending mode. "And you'll be coming to the bottom of Mementos with us, got it!"

"H-hold on!" Crow regained his composure and raised his voice. "You can't just decide all this stuff!"

"But you're the other wild card. You must be there with us. It's my duty to... to..." Mona spaced out for a few seconds. "Err, never mind. Anyway, You'll be coming, whether you want to or not!"

"How about you set your pride aside for a moment and settle into our group at once?" Panther asked.

"This is not the problem!" Crow justified himself. "It's not that I don't want to help. While I'm glad to know I'm being useful, you guys'd better not depend on me too much."

"Why?" Noir asked innocently.

"Once we take the mastermind's heart, we must... part ways."

"What are you going to do?" Joker asked shakily.

"Isn't it obvious? There'll be nothing else to be done. It'll be the end of the line for me, Joker."

"You intend to... turn yourself in?"

Crow nodded. "It's the right thing to do."

A hurt look appeared in Oracle's eyes, for obvious reasons. Crow was the one who had killed her mother, and she must hate him. But this conversation should assure Oracle that she would finally get the justice she deserved.

Crow averted his gaze, unable to keep staring at Oracle. It made his heart compress. "This is it. Just use the app to teleport to the entrance or something. I'm leaving."

"Hey! Who said our exploration's over?!" Skull shouted, but Crow used the app and disappeared.

"Crow!" Joker called out, but it was already too late. She sighed. "Why does he always have to leave us hanging?"

"Why?!" Oracle stomped on the ground in frustration. "Why did I have to freeze up again?! It's him who insisted I talk to the Shadows of Kana-chan's parents, and now I know that Kana-chan doesn't hate me. I wanted to thank him, but... my voice failed again..."

"Oracle..." Joker approached her and wrapped an arm comfortingly around her shoulders.

Oracle began crying again. Joker hugged her and they waited for a while, but Oracle's crying didn't stop. With their navigator not in condition to navigate once more, the Phantom Thieves were forced to do as Crow had suggested and leave Mementos for the day.

Akechi had 0 away from Mementos and boarded the first train home. He wanted to cry. Until recently, he didn't mind dying. It had been part of his revenge plan since the beginning. He had planned to take his own life after ruining Shido's. No, actually, he had entertained that thought several times throughout his childhood as well, while he suffered in the foster families' hands. He had even tried putting the thought into practice once, when he was a child, but fate had always been cruel to him, and he didn't succeed. Now, Akechi had people that were precious to him. Akira, Futaba even though she should hate him, Morgana, Niijima-san, and the other Phantom Thieves. They were counting on him the way he had always wished people would rely on him. All of this made Akechi want to live, to walk alongside the Phantom Thieves and see their future successes through. But ironically, now that he had regained the will to live on, he was sure he would die...

Inside the train, Akechi couldn't stop thinking about the Phantom Thieves.

"This is why I want us to be unofficial siblings." He recalled Futaba's words from yesterday. "I just want you to experience what it feels like to have a nice family around."

Akechi had ruined Futaba's family life. He didn't want to cause her any more suffering. But they were getting attached. The truth would make her hurt so much...

Out of the station and near his building, Akechi ran into another of his neighbors.

"Akechi-kun, I'm glad I ran into you here," the man said. "Mrs. Takano told me you did some detective work for her. Um, I'm not sure if this qualifies as detective work, but my panic doesn't let me think properly. Could you help me reason?" The man didn't wait for a response. "I went to three meetings today. I forgot my cellphone at one of them, and now I don't know which one it was! I tried calling my cellphone's number, but no one picked up. Maybe the battery ran out. What should I do? Akechi-kun, please help me think and locate my phone!"

It was a simple problem, and Akechi said the man didn't need his help, but the man insisted, and Akechi ended up agreeing to help. At least it would change Akechi's focus from his biggest problem for the moment.

The Phantom Thieves arrived back at the attic.

"Um... Akira." Futaba had finally recovered her speech. "Yesterday, Akechi actually offered to look into my mom's case, and said the people responsible must be punished. I tried to convince him to leave it alone, but he refused to give up... and now Crow said he'll turn himself in." Futaba had a conflicted expression. "I know he's done horrible things, and that my mom wasn't the only person he's killed. Criminals get arrested so that they won't run away and do more bad stuff, right? But Crow's trying to start over! If he doesn't do more bad stuff, is there a need to arrest him? I... I don't want him to get caught." It seemed to have been very hard for Futaba to admit that.

"Futaba..." Ann muttered.

"To tell the truth, me neither." Akira flashed a kind smile. "You have a nice point, though. If his heart's really changed, which I'm sure it has, and he's working hard to do good, then I think it'd be more productive to have him out and about doing good stuff than to have him arrested. Something like rehabilitation."

"I agree," Yusuke said. "It would be a huge waste of talent to keep him in prison. If only he were placed under probation, like Akira is currently, he would be free to live his life normally and continue doing good actions."

"Makoto, you understand some of this law stuff, right?" Morgana asked. "If Crow gets caught, what do you think will happen to him?"

"I'm not sure." Makoto hesitated. "... To be honest, I can't think of any good possibility. I don't think he would even have the right to be put on probation. What he has done is too severe. Killing one person is already considered 'extreme.' Killing three people is reason for a death sentence. We don't even know how many people he has killed. If his crimes come to light, it... it will definitely be the end of the line for him..."

"You're saying he might die?!" Ann was shocked.

Makoto nodded hesitantly.

"That makes no sense!" Ryuji shouted. "Killing him won't bring back any of the people he's killed. And he's a good guy now, right? Then it's like Futaba said. He won't hurt anyone anymore, and there's no point in arresting him! Much less in killing him! It won't solve anything! Hey Makoto! Isn't there a way out?"

Everyone looked expectantly at Makoto as though she had the answer to all law questions.

Makoto fidgeted at the pressure. "I... I don't know. I'm not familiar enough with the details. I'll try to look them up in my sister's books. There is one thing I have been wondering, though. Crow is so talented, so smart... he must have the potential to achieve amazing things in life. But what could have caused his heart to distort so much and led him to have gone this far? It's really a huge waste of talent! He said he wanted to get revenge on that mastermind man. What did the mastermind do to Crow, anyway?!"

This was the one million yen question Akira also wanted the answer to. Her Confidant-esque empathy with Crow always made her heart tighten when she thought about his revenge plan, and how he was suffering of guilt now. It frustrated her to no end that, despite the strong connection she felt, there was no sign that a Confidant bond with him would form.

"I'm curious," Haru said. "Who is Crow, and what does he do outside the Metaverse?"

"He works for that organization." Yusuke stated the obvious. "This is all he has told us."

"Cold and mysterious." Ryuji grinned. "He really feels like a secret agent."

"Do you think he knows who we are?" Ann asked.

"He knows who I am, since I kept referring to President Okumura as my father, and the Shadow also addressed me by name," Haru said.

Yusuke jumped. "Wait... I might be remembering incorrectly, but I think I recall Crow once said he had decided to wait for us in Mementos because he had seen us entering."

"Entering?" Haru echoed. "You mean he implied he followed us from outside?"

Yusuke thought hard. "This is the impression I got... however, I am not sure. As I said before, I might be remembering incorrectly. Does any of you remember such an incident?"

Everyone drew a blank.

"I don't remember," Morgana said. "Yusuke, when do you think that was?"

"It should have been... after we changed Okumura's heart. We had never interacted with Crow in Mementos before that."

"True." Makoto agreed. "He might indeed know our identities. Or he just might have seen Haru entering Mementos with the rest of the group... assuming he knows what Haru looks like. Since the organization has connections to Mr. Okumura, chances are that Crow might have seen her picture somewhere. This does not apply to the rest of us, though. He might know our visual appearances, but not our names."

"There's Inari." Futaba added. "His picture came on the news while all that fuss about Madarame was going on. Besides Inari, I haven't seen pictures of you guys anywhere, though."

"Hmm... Crow's voice..." Akira muttered, and everyone turned in her direction. "Now that I think about it, sometimes I think there's something familiar about his voice."

"Whoa, hold on. You think you might've run into him somewhere?" Ryuji asked.

"I don't know. There's the fact that his helmet mask thing muffles his voice a bit. Even so, I have the impression I've heard his voice before, but I can't put a finger on it. Something about it feels off..."

The Phantom Thieves remained silent for a while and tried to reason. Suddenly, Ann's cellphone rang.

"Sorry, it's from the agency." Ann picked up the call. "Hello? Yeah. Huh? ... Me? Why me? ... Oh, o-okay... thanks." She finished the call, and nervously shut her eyes tight. "Oh... oh my god..."

"What's up?" Ryuji asked her.

"Uh, there's this ongoing series with interviews of talented young people on TV. The agency said they had been unsure whether to choose Mika or me to take part in it, but they recently found out Mika pulled a stunt and did unfair stuff, and... they decided I'll be the one going!"

"Wow, congrats!" Ryuji patted Ann on the shoulder. "That's awesome! Why are you so nervous, though?"

"I've never been on TV before! I've been interviewed for magazines, but on TV it's different! The interview will be live and everything! And it'll be... tomorrow! Aaaah... what should I do?"

"Do not worry, Ann." Yusuke tried to comfort her. "You can do it. Believe in your acting and performing skills."

Akira couldn't say the same, though. Ann's acting skills were... very far from being the best. Actually, they might be comparable to Akira's driving skills. Akira wouldn't say that, though. "Ann, you don't need acting skills for that. Just be yourself, and it'll be fine!"

Hearts appeared in Morgana's eyes. "No matter what you do, your beauty will stand out! Lady Ann, I will be watching and cheering you on."

Everyone deadpanned, except for Ann.

"St-stand out? You're making me even more nervo-" Ann's cellphone rang again, and she shuffled to pick the call. "Um, h-hello? Huh? Y-you forgot a detail? ..." Her eyes widened. "O-of course I've heard of... yeah. Thanks for the heads-up." And the call ended. "Whoa. This was sudden..."

"Hmm?" Ryuji threw her a questioning look.

"Turns out I won't be the only one interviewed. Um, Akechi-kun will be there too."

Makoto's expression darkened. "Ann, be careful. He still suspects us. Be sure to not make any slip."

Ann nodded stiffly at Makoto's scolding. "Uh, you guys keep saying how he's opening up and all, and I've been curious to talk to him again. But yeah, I'll be careful."

"Don't lower your guard." Makoto added.

"Yeah, yeah, I know."

"It's good that you won't be alone, or with a total stranger," Akira said. "I bet he'd even give you some advice about how to behave on TV if you were to ask!"

"... You think so?"

"Yeah!" Akira tried to reassure Ann. "Maybe you could use this to start talking to him. Anyway, I can't wait to see the two of you on TV tomorrow!"

Chapter Text

Friday, September 30

Akechi had gotten a sudden call from the TV studio informing he would be featured in a TV show about young talents. Since his TV career didn't matter much to him anymore, he wasn't too keen on going, but he chose to go because skipping TV appearances was unusual behavior for him and might make the organization suspect something was up.

Akechi went to the TV station building and was seated on a couch in the waiting room. He had heard that he would be interviewed alongside a promising model named Ann Takamaki. Modeling wasn't among his topics of interest, and he had no idea who that young model was. The call from the studio had been so last minute that Akechi didn't have time to check the details. What was his surprise when someone from the staff beckoned Takamaki-san into the waiting room, the door opened, and Akira's female blond friend entered.

"Um, Akechi-kun, good afternoon..." She greeted him shyly.

"... Oh, so it was you!" Akechi was so surprised that he was unable to keep his usual formal mask.

"... Huh?" Takamaki-san startled.

"Uh, sorry, I hadn't known your name..." It was embarrassing to admit that. Even more awkward was to think that he had known her Phantom Thief code name, but not her real name. "I had heard I'd be interviewed alongside someone named Ann Takamaki, but I could've never imagined it was you. What a coincidence, isn't it? The world's such a small place..."

"Yeah..." She laughed a little. "When the model agency told me I'd be on TV with you, I was surprised too." Takamaki-san sat down on the couch across from him. "Um, Akechi-kun, are you excited about this interview?"

"To be honest, not really."

"Oh. Akira said that you're having second thoughts about your celeb status."

"She said that?" Akechi raised an eyebrow. "Yes, it's true, though. It's precisely the reason I'm not too excited about this interview. At least having a familiar face around should make it less boring..."

"Um, you mean me?" Takamaki-san shuffled awkwardly. "I'm so nervous... I've done interviews for magazines before, but it's my first time on TV. Akechi-kun, you're used to this TV stuff, right?"

Akechi nodded. "I have been trained to be on TV."

"Trained? Wow... I might ruin your spotlight, then. I'm a total newbie at this, and have no idea what I'm doing..."

Unlike him, Takamaki-san needed the publicity for her future as a model. And when Akechi realized it, his goal had changed from, "endure the interview and pretend not to be bored," to, "help Takamaki-san go through the interview."

"Okay, I'll try to give you a hand if you get stuck."

"Whoa. Really? Thanks..." Takamaki-san seemed both surprised and grateful, and a smile broke through her insecurity. "Oh, I have an idea! So, how about we drop by the crepes store after this?"

Akechi was taken off guard by the sudden question. "... You want me to come too?"

"Yeah. Neither of us is too thrilled about this interview, right? So, I thought having some kind of goal'd keep us motivated. Unless you don't like crepes..."

Akechi shook his head politely. "No, that's not it. I just didn't expect you to invite me. Crepes sound good to me, though. I'll take you up on your offer."

A man from the production staff came to inform them that the time had come.

"Ah... oh my god..." Nervousness got the better of Takamaki-san, and she shut her eyes tightly.

"Calm down. It'll be fine." Akechi tried to assure her.

her eyes opened and looked at him in search of support. Akechi could feel that Takamaki-san was depending on him...

"I am thou, thou art I... thou hast acquired a new vow, the Ann Takamaki Confidant. It shall become the wings of rebellion that breaketh thy chains of captivity. With the birth of the Lovers Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power..."

And yet another new bond had to form and take Akechi by surprise.

Akechi blinked the Tarot card vision away, and nodded supportively at Takamaki-san. "Let's go." He stood up from the couch and left the waiting room, with Takamaki-san trailing behind.

... ... ... ... ...

"Today's featured talented youths are these two!" The TV show hostess announced. "Please, introduce yourselves and tell us a bit about what you do."

Akechi took the lead. "Hello, my name is Goro Akechi. I'm a third-year high school student, but some people call me a detective because I also do some investigative work in my free time."

The hostess gave the word to Takamaki-san.

"Um, hi. I'm Ann Takamaki. I'm a second-year high school student at Shujin Academy." She more or less mimicked Akechi's introduction structure. "I aim to become a professional model!" She chuckled sheepishly. "Sorry, I'm so nervous! It's my first time on TV, so please bear with me."

So far, so good.

"Takamaki-san surely has some distinct visual traits, doesn't she?" The hostess noted. "Takamaki-san, you must get this question a lot, but are you a foreigner?"

"No. I'm Japanese, but my grandmother is American."

"Oh! Do you speak English?" The hostess asked curiously.

"I do. I'm not a native speaker, though, and my accent isn't the best..."

"Do you mind giving us that same self-introduction, but in English?"

"H-huh?!" Insecurity took over Takamaki-san's face. "O-okay, I'll try..."

She recited her self-introduction in English. Both the hostess and Akechi clapped their hands at the end, and Takamaki-san blushed.

"Akechi-kun, what about you? Do you also have English skills?" The hostess asked him.

"Um..." Akechi was caught off guard despite all his training. "I think it's important to learn English because it greatly broadens one's ability to look up information. I can understand some English, but speaking is very hard for me."

"Uh... want to give it a try?" Takamaki-san asked him tentatively, out of the microphone's range.

"... Me?" Akechi was the one embarrassed now. "Right after Takamaki-san's performance, no less?" He shook his head. "No thanks. I'll pass. Uh, well, if not even Takamaki-san's accent is perfect, then mine will probably butcher the language. I'd rather not take the risk..."

On one hand, this incident was embarrassing to Akechi, but Takamaki-san had fared well, and this might boost her confidence a little.

"Okay. Moving on." The hostess went to the next question. "Choosing a profession is an important step in life, and may be difficult even to adults. Amazingly, these two are so young, and already know what they want! Takamaki-san, what made you decide to become a model?"

"Uh, my parents are fashion designers, and one day they needed a model for an event. But the model didn't come, and I ended up acting as a sub. The people watching looked so happy, and it was so fun that I decided to continue!"

"A 'sub?'" Akechi asked out of the microphone's range.

"Ah, substitute. Sorry..." Takamaki-san fidgeted.

"Akechi-kun, what made you decide to become a detective?"

"Since I enjoy solving mysteries and puzzles, I figured detective would be a suitable profession for me." While this was true, it wasn't the whole truth. His real motivation had been that he wanted to find out Shido's whereabouts.

"You even have a detective name! Goro Akechi. It's similar to Kogoro Akechi, the famous fictional detective character! Forgive me for asking, but is this really your real name?"

"Yes. My mother was a fan of the Kogoro Akechi books and named me after him. I guess this fact also contributed to my decision of becoming a detective. It was too fitting to ignore." There was more to it, but he wouldn't get into details.

"Pretty cool." Takamaki-san commented.

"Akechi-kun, you also do detective work for the police, and your popularity has earned you the title of Second Coming of the Detective Prince. How do you feel to have gotten this title?"

Now that Akechi thought about it, he felt horrible. His reputation as a detective had been built around manipulated cases. He definitely didn't deserve that title, as unofficial as it was.

"That isn't an official title." He explained. "My fans only began calling me that because I'm a high school student doing detective work, similar to the original Detective Prince. At first, I didn't know anything about the original Detective Prince, except that it was someone named Naoto Shirogane. Then I looked the person up, and... wow. Shirogane-san is amazing. She's actually a detective princess, not a prince, but people had given her that title because she used to hide her gender to avoid being discriminated in the male-dominated field. But now she doesn't hide her real gender anymore, and is admired as a highly competent detective. I really admire her work. And honestly, I don't think I can be compared to her."

"Aww, he's so modest, isn't he?" The hostess asked no one in particular.

"No, I'm not." Akechi shook his head, genuinely embarrassed. He was a disgrace to Shirogane-san's title. "For one, Shirogane-san had a nice head start because her grandfather is a detective, and she had been earning experience in the field from the time she was little. Meanwhile, I'm just starting out. I don't think it's fair to compare both of us."

"Oh, don't worry. As you said yourself, you're just starting out. You still have a whole life ahead of you!"

Akechi awkwardly muttered his thanks, sure that the woman's words didn't apply. His days were already numbered.

The hostess proceeded to ask Takamaki-san some questions. When Takamaki-san got stuck in her answers, Akechi tried to help her along, and when she spoke too much modeling jargon, he asked her to clarify.

"I apologize for intruding so much," Akechi said even though his intrusions had been on purpose to help Takamaki-san get her messages across. "I'm unfamiliar with the modeling-related terms, and sometimes it sounds like Takamaki-san is speaking in another language... that's not English."

The hostess chuckled. "It's fine. The clarifications enrich the presentation, and should be good for those in the audience unfamiliar with the terms, too. By the way, you two seem to get along well. Had you known each other before?"

"I had run into him at a TV station during a school field trip, but we didn't talk much." Takamaki-san answered. "Just greetings and some random small talk, like when you try to talk to strangers and end up discussing weather, and that was it."

"It was only today that I learned her name," Akechi said, and both the hostess and Takamaki-san laughed.

A few more questions later...

"It's almost time to wrap the show up!" The hostess announced. Just when Akechi thought the interview would be over... "But Akechi-kun, there's something I would like to ask you. Anyone who has heard of you knows that you have your eyes glued to the cases involving the Phantom Thieves. Any news on your investigation about the Phantom Thieves? Everyone is dying to know!"

Takamaki-san tensed.

Great. Just what I needed... Akechi thought sarcastically.

"Sorry to disappoint, but nothing significant yet."

"Even though there is nothing in the Okumura Foods front, there are new gratitude messages on the Phantom Thieves forum." The hostess pointed out. "It seems to indicate the Phantom Thieves are active and are fulfilling smaller requests. Do you think they may have decided to ignore Mr. Okumura and the rankings? The fans are going crazy!"

Takamaki-san seemed to be holding her breath now.

"Perhaps the Okumura Foods case is too hard for them? It's the president of a big multinational company we are talking about. I had said something similar during the Medged case. I had doubted the Phantom Thieves would be able to defeat Medged, and they still did it, on the last day before Medged's deadline, no less. But it took around a month from the day Medged declared war until the day the Phantom Thieves defeated them. I think we just need to be patient. It still hasn't been a month since Mr. Okumura's name got to the top of the rankings."

"And you will only wait and do nothing?"

"As frustrating as it is, there's no other way. No one knows where the Phantom Thieves are or what they might be doing. Their only tracks are the news and comments on the Internet. I can't continue my investigation unless new information appears."

"Akechi-kun, you have been opposing the Phantom Thieves ever since, and have even compared the changes of heart to brainwashing. However, the results of the Phantom Thieves' actions seem largely positive so far. They even saved us from Medged's cyber terrorism threat!" The hostess observed. "Takamaki-san?" And Takamaki-san jumped. "I'm sure the audience would like to hear your opinion as well! What do you think of the Phantom Thieves?"

"Huh? ... Me?!" Takamaki-san was even more nervous. "I... I b-believe they are just... um, I mean, there are lots of gratitude messages from people and all..."

"Looks like we have a Phantom Thieves fan here! Akechi-kun, still no chance of your opinion about the Phantom Thieves changing?" The hostess gaze was almost expectant.

That hostess was clearly a Phantom Thieves supporter, and one of the naive TV staffers not yet corrupted by Shido's followers. Akechi's opinion had already changed, but his statements must be consistent with what he had already said before, or the organization might figure his true intentions out.

"Even though their actions' so far seem positive as both of you pointed out, I don't want to hastily jump to conclusions. Plus, I still believe that forcefully changing people's minds is something very dangerous. It's undeniable that these sudden changes of heart have points in common to the psychotic breakdowns and mental shutdowns, and we still have no evidence to rule out the possibility of the Phantom Thieves being the ones responsible. This is why I must investigate. I'll get to the bottom of this case and gather proof to clear these doubts once and for all. Once I'm 101% confident in my conclusions, you can be sure that I will share them with all of you."

"If, in the end, there is conclusive proof that you have misjudged the Phantom Thieves, will you admit you had been wrong?"

"If there is conclusive proof, yes, of course. I have been getting a lot of backlash from fans whenever I make a mistake, and if there's one thing I have learned from this, it's that I should admit to my mistakes."

"These were some wise words!" The hostess seemed a bit disappointed that his opinion didn't seem about to change, but praised him anyway. "We can only wait and see how both you and this case will develop! And with this young boy's wise words, we wrap today's show up. Akechi-kun, Takamaki-san, thank you for your time. I wish both of you success in your careers!"

They left the studio and were in the elevator. Akechi was more tired than he thought he would be. Probably because of the Phantom Thieves questions which he had to quickly think at least twice before answering. His statements needed to be consistent with what he had said in previous interviews so as not to trigger alarms in the organization members.

Takamaki-san also wasn't faring too well, for obvious reasons.

"Takamaki-san, are you okay?"

"Ah!" She jumped slightly. "Um, yeah... sorry, I was nervous until the end." She tried to hide the fact that the worst of her nervousness was because of his Phantom Thieves comments.

"You did well."

She shook her head. "No. You had to keep stepping in all the time..."

"But you got all your ideas across, and said everything you should." And didn't say anything she shouldn't for that matter. Not that anyone had reasons to suspect her of being a Phantom Thief, though.

"Uh, thanks. Akechi-kun, your help meant a lot, really. I had no idea what to do there..."

"You're welcome. And now you have a bit more experience for the next TV interview."

"Hey, don't talk about a next interview. This one was already hard enough... I still need to recover!"

Akechi allowed a soft laugh to leave his mouth.

They left the building. On the way to the train station, they passed a restaurant. At the sight of Akechi, some teens that had likely watched the interview from the restaurant's TV began shouting and booing him.

"Akechi, get lost!"

"Quit trying to steal the Phantom Thieves' spotlight! Just give up and leave them alone!"

"Ann-chan! Stay away from him, cutie! This guy's worthless!"

"Phantom Thieves, what are you doing?! Take this jerk's heart already and make him apologize in public!"

The haters wanted to see him humiliated. Ironically, this was probably what would end up happening. After everything Akechi had done, he was sure he deserved the humiliation. Once they had managed to take Shido's heart, Akechi intended to reveal the truth publicly. He would formally apologize to the Phantom Thieves, confess his crimes and turn himself in to the police. This would make the Phantom thieves finally figure out that he was Crow, the one responsible for all those atrocities. The members closest to him would probably be hurt, feel betrayed by that revelation. But it would already be too late and Akechi wouldn't be in condition to see their reactions anymore. Most importantly, Shido would be arrested and not become prime minister, the Phantom Thieves' justice would be proven once and for all, and everyone else would live happily ever after...

Ann had been already nervous because of her inexperience with TV interviews, and the Phantom Thieves questions and Akechi's comments made her nervousness even worse. Contrary to what it seemed, Ann could tell that Akechi wasn't in his best element, either. And it didn't seem to be just because he was in that interview against his will. During the interview, Ann kept looking at Akechi to follow his example of how to behave in front of the camera, and also because she had gotten curious after her friends kept mentioning how Akechi was opening up and all. Even though everything seemed well on the surface, Akechi's eyes showed a hint of sadness from time to time, which he was quick to hide.

Now, Ann was feeling bad for Akechi at seeing those guys harassing him. They wanted the Thieves to change someone's heart just for the sake of it, just to eliminate opposition, like twisted tyrants. Never mind that Akechi didn't have a Palace. Forcefully changing people's hearts in repression was wrong. But the public didn't care, and only wanted to watch everything burn as though it were a game. This wasn't the reaction the Phantom Thieves wanted from the public. Their goal was to encourage others to face the adversities in life, not this chaos...

Even with all that hostility, Akechi held his head high. It looked like he was really serious about getting to the bottom of that case. However, his determined posture contrasted with the sadness in his eyes. The same sadness he had tried to hide during the interview, now showing clearer than ever.

"It must be tough to deal with all of that." Ann spoke once the haters were out of earshot.

"This is the general public for you." Akechi chuckled resignedly. "Ha. To think I began my TV appearances because I had been seeking people's approval... but you know what? I've realized that I don't need their approval to do what I must do. Quite ironic, right?" He smiled weakly. "Uh, thanks for the concern, though."

Once more, Akechi pushed his sadness to the background and tried to appear strong. Ann knew the sadness was still there, though. She wanted to comfort him, but wasn't sure how. She recalled Akira and Futaba bringing up how messed-up Akechi's childhood had been, and how ostracized and lonely he was. Now he had been realizing his popularity on TV didn't provide him what he wanted. Akechi must feel he didn't fit in anywhere, and that was a feeling Ann had known all too well. She wanted to tell him that there were people who cared about him. She cared, and she knew at least Akira cared, too. Ann wished Akechi would open up to her. But they were practically strangers. They had barely talked to each other, and she knew he wouldn't open up to her just yet. So, Ann concluded that all she could do for now was keep him company and take him to the crepes store.

They rode the train in silence and came out at the Shibuya station. There, they ran into someone Ann didn't want to see at the moment.

"Hi, Ann-chan!"

"Hi, Mika..." Ann greeted the girl back with no enthusiasm whatsoever.

"Akechi-kun!" Mika flashed a wide and exaggerated smile at Akechi. "It's a pleasure to meet you in person! My name is Mika. No need for honorifics. I'm also a model, and have been featured in magazines together with Ann-chan a few times. Right, Ann-chan?"

"Yeah..." Ann confirmed dryly. "So, you were waiting to ambush us here?"

"Ambush? What a rough word to use, Ann-chan." Mika did a mock offended face. "I watched the show on the big screen in Shibuya, and just thought I might manage to welcome you back here at the station, or if I got lucky, both of you. It seems I have good fortune today!" An unnatural happy face, and a bright smile. "Akechi-kun, I saw that you kept having to step in to help her. She can be quite the airhead sometimes..." A giggle. "Just kidding." (not) "I just hope it wasn't much trouble."

"Oh, It was no trouble at all." Akechi waved it off. "She has fared quite well, despite not having gotten any training for talking in public."

"You were given special training?!" Mika's face lit up. "Wow, you're really a pro! That's a whole different level. No wonder why you're so amazing!" She threw him flattery words for good measure. "How about we go to a restaurant to talk more? There's so much I'd like to know about your TV career..." Mika pouted.

"Mika, a restaurant, seriously? What about all those diets?" Ann remarked and ruined Mika's acting.

Mika did a disgruntled face, but recovered quickly. "Hey, don't be a killjoy, Ann-chan. Let me have my moment! So, Akechi-kun?" Mika gave him one of those seductive glances of hers that made most men drool. Rather than just trying to talk, it seemed more like she was flirting with him. It was weird.

"Mika-san," Akechi said, even though Mika had stated there was no need for honorifics. "I apologize for ruining your moment, but I already have an appointment today."

"I-is that so?" Mika looked frustrated because her seductive glance didn't work on him. Still, she didn't give up. "Um, then, how about we trade phone numbers and set up another time?"

"Sorry, but I can't go giving my number to everyone, as getting a lot of calls from random fans would be rather inconvenient." Akechi quickly shot her down.

"Uh, I... understand. Then, if we ever see each other again... Akechi-kun, thanks for your time. Have a nice day!" Mika left in a hurry, desperately trying to hide the expression of utter defeat on her face.

Ann gaped in awe. That was amazing. Mika's acting always earned favors from people of the opposite gender, both fans and men from the agency alike. However, Akechi not only didn't fall for her tricks, but also showed her that she wasn't invincible.

"Ah! Wait..." Ann recalled Akechi's words from earlier and gasped. "Akechi-kun, sorry. You said you have another appointment..."

"Aren't we going to the crepes store? ... If you're still up for it, that is."

"Uh, yeah... sure!" Ann laughed in embarrassment. For a moment, she had thought Akechi already had an appointment scheduled beforehand, and she had caused him an inconvenience by inviting him to the crepes store.

Akechi followed Takamaki-san to the crepes store, and they were talking while having their crepes.

"Um, about Mika. She's totally fooled me at first. She may look all nice and friendly, but it's just an act." Ann told Akechi.

"I could tell."

"Wow. You know? You're the first person I've seen that didn't fall for her tricks! How did you figure it out?"

"Just some detective deductions," he said playfully. "First, the way you seemed uncomfortable when she approached us spoke volumes. You seem to be a kind person, and the fact that her presence bothered you so much could only mean that something was up with her. Second, she was trying too hard to appear nice, and her exaggerated smiles and expressions looked rather forced. This point bothered me the most, because... um, as you've probably noticed, I'm guilty of doing some of those things too."

"Y-yeah, I've noticed."

"It's the way I've been trained to behave in public, especially in front of the camera. Flash friendly smiles, offer flattery words and the politically correct responses people would like to hear. Only now that I've seen someone else overdoing it, I've realized how annoying it can be."

"You haven't done those things much today, though."

Akechi raised an eyebrow. "You were paying attention?"

Takamaki-san chuckled. "Yeah. I didn't know how to behave in the interview, but since I was sure you knew what you were doing, I tried to use you as example."

"Oh, that was a smart move. I honestly have no idea where Mika-san's airhead comment came from."

Takamaki-san blushed. "Uh, um... today I think you behaved naturally most of the time. I think it's better this way."

"Hmm. Yes, I haven't bothered much with those 'techniques' today. On one hand, I'm glad I didn't get you to mimic those forced gestures. But on the other hand, I don't know. If I don't behave the way the producers want, they might kill me." Literally, if the organization were to deem his behavior change to be a reason to suspect him of betrayal.

"You mean they not only impose how you should look, but they're also the ones who decide what you can and what you can't do and say? Akira told me that you said you're at the producers' mercy. Was this what you meant?"

"Sounds like Akira is proving to be quite the gossip, huh?" Akechi sighed. "But yes, that's pretty much it."

"That's horrible!" Takamaki-san was indignant. "You don't have any freedom at all?!"

"This is how it is."

They continued eating their crepes. Takamaki-san kept glancing at him as though she wanted to say something, but she didn't, and they finished the crepes in silence.

"Um, so, how did you like the crepes?" Takamaki-san spoke up awkwardly.

"They were great. It had never occurred to me to try out chocolate crepes. Thanks for the recommendation."

"I've recommended them to Mika, too, but she refused to even try them out. Ah well, her loss."

They were back on the street and were about to part ways.

"Akechi-kun." Takamaki-san addressed him, with a serious expression. "You're having second thoughts about your TV career..."

"Please, just don't spread rumors." Akechi cut her off. "The public and the TV staff must not know about this."

"The TV staff? You mean you'll keep quiet and continue doing whatever they want? They're using you! It isn't right! You shouldn't just bow down and accept that! Maybe you should just quit..."

"I can't."

"They won't even let you quit? This should be your choice, not theirs!"

"If only it were that simple..." Akechi couldn't quit. Quitting would be a giveaway of his betrayal intent. Plus, even though the Phantom Thieves weren't aware, they were depending on him to keep stalling on TV to buy them time.

"Um, okay. I don't know the specifics, but if you need support, or help with something, or just someone to talk to... well, remember you have Akira. She cares a great deal about you. Um, and of course, if there's anything I can do, I'll support you, too."

And there came one of those heartwarming speeches that touched him in a way only a Phantom Thief's magic could... accompanied by the Lovers Confidant ranking up. That was a first. Two ranks in just one day!

A smile broke into Akechi's face. "Thanks. I'll be going now. Speaking of Akira, please send her my regards if you see her." He slowly turned away and left.

Akira was in her room talking to her mother on the phone.

"Akira, your friends are really something, aren't they? That boy, Kitagawa-kun, is the winner of that art competition. And you had told me about Ann-chan, your classmate that's a model. She's the girl that appeared in today's young talents feature, right?"

"Yeah, it's her!"

"Wow! Being forced to move to Tokyo was tough for you, but it'll be good if you manage to have nice memories of your stay by the end. I'm glad you've been making friends, but tell me. Nothing more than that yet?"

"Huh? You mean..."

"I mean it's about time you begin considering to get a boyfriend! The easiest place to find someone interesting should be at school. That was how I met your dad! Okay, that was in college, not high school, but whatever. Since the school has so many people, it's the place where you have the highest chances of meeting someone interesting. Akira, you've been there for almost half a year already. It should've been enough time for you to have won at least a boy's heart, or a boy to have won yours..."


But Mrs. Kurusu was lost in her high school romance fantasies. "Ideally, if only you could find someone good-looking and smart... you know, like that cute detective boy from TV."

"What? A-Akechi-kun?"

"He was with Ann-chan on TV just a while ago. He's so polite and well-behaved, isn't he? And the way he kept helping Ann-chan along... he seems to be such a sweetheart! Too bad he doesn't like the Phantom Thieves..."

That last part was unexpected.

"Uh, Mom, do you believe in the Phantom Thieves?" Akira asked in surprise.

"Yeah, I do! I've read so many good things about them! I just wish they were around at the time your false charges happened..."

Come to think of it, the Phantom Thieves only came about because the false charges happened. If Akira hadn't been forced to move to Tokyo, the group wouldn't have formed. Anyway, Akira was glad to hear that her mother believed in the Phantom Thieves.

"Isn't there a way for you to meet Akechi-kun, though?" Her mother insisted.

"Uh, actually, we've already met. It was during a school trip to the TV studio. Then I ran into him again at the hotel when I went to attend the entrepreneurship course, and we've been talking more since then. We don't seem to agree when the subject's the Phantom Thieves, though..."

"So you're already acquainted with each other? This is great! He's a celebrity. The fact that you have his attention is a huge victory already! Oh, and today, for the first time, he raised the possibility to admit he had been wrong if he gets conclusive proof that the Phantom Thieves are just. So, now there's a chance that his opinion will change! With no more reasons for disagreement between the two of you, maybe you can finally take his heart!"

Akira deadpanned. "Mom..."

"Sorry, I have to begin preparing dinner. I'll hang up now. Akira, take care, and keep it up! Ah, and stroke the cat for me a little, okay? Bye!"

Akira put her cellphone away, and with no warning, walked over to Morgana and playfully stroked his head.

"H-hey!" Morgana jumped.

Akira giggled. "Mom asked me to do this in her behalf."

Morgana pretended to be displeased, then followed Akira downstairs.

The last customer left, and Akira was helping Sojiro wash the dishes.

"Hey, Akira. So, any interesting happening between you and the detective yet?"

"Huh?" Akira recalled Sojiro was "shipping" her and Akechi, as Futaba would say.

"Haven't you noticed? He's interested in you, girl."

"What? Boss, where did you even get that idea from?"

"It's easy to see that he likes you a lot."

"Uh, yeah, but that's just because he's too lonely." Akira argued. "He has no family and no friends..."

"I heard that when he talked about it the first time he came here. Isn't this the more reason for you to be with him, though? Haven't you ever thought of this possibility? You clearly enjoy his company, and care about him, too. Don't you feel like being the one to fill the void in his heart? Unless you already have your eyes on someone else..."

"I... I..." Akira was unsure how to argue back.

"You may be thinking I'm joking or spouting nonsense, but I'm serious." Sojiro heaved a sigh. "He may not be aware of his own feelings just yet. But the way he acts around you reminds me too much of how I used to behave near Wakaba, and I just can't ignore it." Sojiro turned the faucet off and looked Akira in the eye. "And you don't seem to be aware of your feelings, either. How much do you care about him? And how much are you willing to do for him? Is it enough for you to want to become more than friends with him or not? Before anything else, you need to determine the answers to these questions. Akira, think about it with care, got it? I'll do the rest of the dishes while you reflect. I'll let you know when dinner's ready."

Stunned, Akira returned to her room, with Morgana in tow.

Akira had always heard about how unexplainably obsessed people became over their crushes, and thought the moment it happened to her would be the moment she should start thinking about romance. But so far, she hadn't felt anything unusual toward anyone. Was it really time for her to start thinking about that?

"That was quite the speech, huh?" Morgana remarked. "The chief raised some valid points, though. Don't just dismiss them."

Oddly, what Sojiro said didn't involve obsessions nor crushes... but his points actually made sense. Did Akira care about anyone enough to become more than friends with them? And how much did she care about Akechi?

"So, how is it, Akira?" Morgana asked her. "Akechi needs someone by his side. And you've been the one practically forcing us to befriend him to begin with! How far would you go for him?"

She wanted to help Akechi recover his motivation, sure. Her Confidant bond with him made her feel some of his loneliness and sadness, and it made her heart tighten. Akira wished she could do something to make that sadness go away. She wanted to give him the attention that he deserved and that all those horrible families refused to give him. But get into a romantic relationship with him? Would she go that far?

"I don't know..."

"Well, you don't need to have an answer ready right away. Just be sure to keep these questions in mind." Morgana paused. "Uh, I could've never imagined I'd say this one day, but... if in the end you decide to go for Akechi... um, I'll support you."

Akira gaped and stood there, reactionless.

... ... ... ... ...

Saturday, October 1

That morning, Ann was the talk of the classroom. Classmates flanked around her and kept asking her about the interview.

All the Phantom Thieves from Shujin gathered on lunch break, and Ann told them about the previous day's events.

"He said he will admit he is wrong about the Phantom Thieves if he gets enough proof!" Haru said innocently. "It's the first time he has said something like this. Isn't this nice?"

"It's kinda hard to believe, though..." Unlike her, Ryuji didn't buy it.

"Yes." Makoto agreed with Ryuji. "He still suspects us, and might have said this only to make us lower our guard and deliberately reveal ourselves to him. He seems really serious about figuring us out, and that statement may be part of his plan. His statement might've had a positive impact on restoring his popularity, though. Saying he'll admit to his mistakes gives the impression he's becoming humble, and may make people respect him more."

"But he said something that got me wondering..." Ann countered. "Later, we went to the crepes store, and he told me that the producers are the ones who decide what he can and what he can't say. Then, I thought that they might be forcing him to say stuff against the Phantom Thieves too, and that maybe he doesn't mean those things he said... but I wasn't brave enough to ask him if this is really it."

"And perhaps this was precisely what he wanted you to think. It might also be part of his plan."

The way Makoto distrusted Akechi greatly bothered Akira. "Makoto..."

Makoto cut her off. "Akira, you've seen the determination on his face when he talked about getting to the bottom of the Phantom Thieves' case. And he said he will tell the truth to everyone once he is 101% sure of his conclusions. He spoke with such conviction, and looked really confident that he can solve the case. I'm sure he already has a concrete plan, and this might mean he already has figured something out. He is serious about this. We must take this seriously as well."

Akira opened her mouth to argue. However, the words died in her throat. What Makoto was saying made sense, but the Confidant bond with Akechi made Akira want to trust him.

Lunch break was over, and everyone returned to their classrooms.

"Um, Akira, I noticed something about Akechi-kun," Ann said on their way to the classroom. "He looked mostly fine during the interview, but sometimes he'd look very sad."

Yes. It was that sadness that also bothered Akira. She believed she and Akechi were rather close, but despite this, there was something Akechi wasn't telling her.

Ann talked about the haters that harassed Akechi after the interview, the interaction with Mika, the talk at the crepes store, and how Mika's forced acting had bothered Akechi because it was the same way he was trained to behave in public. When Ann's narrative finished, they were in the classroom and the teacher was coming.

Akira believed in Akechi. She believed that he had been realizing things about himself, and that his behavior wasn't an act. Akechi must have been going through a hard situation, and whatever it was made him sad. Akira didn't like when her friends distrusted him. She wanted him to join them, and for that, everyone in the group needed to get along with him. Maybe if Makoto spent more time with him, she would understand...

... ... ... ... ...

Classes ended. Akira got a text message from Makoto, and headed to the Student Council room.

"Akira, I need a favor." Makoto looked worried. "I had reported the issue about Tsukasa to the police a few days ago, but I just called them to ask about the status, and guess what? They said they will look into it. In other words, they haven't even begun investigating yet! I asked if they had any estimate as to when they would get to it, but they had no concrete answer. If Tsukasa really turns out to be ill-intentioned, Eiko will get in trouble if no one does anything! If the police takes too long to address the case, it may be too late!"

"This is bad..."

"I can't just leave this be. I'm thinking of asking around in Shinjuku to hear what people say about Tsukasa. Um, but I'm not sure about going there alone..."

"I'll come with you, too! When do you want to go?"

"As soon as possible. The more time passes, the more trouble Eiko might get into! Ideally, I'd like to go today..."

"As in, right now? Okay! Let's go!"

Akira agreed without much thought, and they set off to Shinjuku. Only once they disembarked at the Shinjuku station, Akira realized something.

"Um, we'll have to ask those promoters and such too, right?"


Akira hesitated. "Uh, I hadn't thought about this until now, but two girls wandering alone in Shinjuku and approaching shady promoters doesn't sound like a good idea..."

Makoto was embarrassed. "Um, yes, now that you mention it... this had completely slipped my mind as well."

"I think we should ask the boys if they can help us."

Akira texted both Ryuji and Yusuke, but they answered they weren't free today.

"What now?" Makoto was getting nervous.

"Wait, there's Mishima! I've spotted him at Shinjuku a few times. He should be more familiar with the area!"

... But Akira texted Mishima, and he was also busy...

"Oh no..." Makoto was losing her hopes.

"If only I were human, I'd gladly escort both of you..." Morgana lamented from inside Akira's bag.

Makoto flashed a weak smile. "Thank you for the concern, Morgana. But what should we do now?"

And Akira figured this was the chance she needed. "All isn't lost yet! I have an idea." And she made a call. "Hi, Akechi-kun, Akira here. You're free today, right? Please say you are. We need your help!"

"A-Akira, what are you..." Makoto gasped in alarm.

"Wh-what's wrong?" Akechi's voice wavered. He sounded concerned.

"The thing is, Makoto's friend began dating a host from a club in Shinjuku. The guy's all suspicious and weird, and Makoto suspects he might be from a human trafficking gang. But the girl's so obsessed over the guy and doesn't listen to reason. And now she's already asking people for money! Makoto's worried, and wants to investigate the guy and find out if he's really from a gang. Because if he is, Makoto's friend might be dragged into deep trouble!"

"Akira...!" Makoto gesticulated in panic and pleaded for Akira to stop.

However, Akira ignored her. "We want to ask around in Shinjuku to find out more about the guy. Um, so, could you help us, please?"

"H-hold on..." Akechi sounded overwhelmed. "Let me see if I got this right. You want my help to ask around in Shinjuku to investigate someone that may be from a human trafficking gang?"

"Yeah. Having a detective helping with our investigation would make things much easier! Plus, we need someone to escort us! Only now that we've arrived at the Shinjuku station, I realized we'll need to talk to those creepy promoters and possibly other hosts that try to drag girls to their clubs..."

"Wait, you mean you are already in Shinjuku?!" Akechi was alarmed.

"Yeah, at the station."

"Why don't you just report the case to the police?"

"Makoto's already done that! She made a report a few days ago and called the police today to know the status, and they're still saying they have no estimate as to when they'll start looking into it! If no one does anything and the guy really is bad, who knows what might happen to Makoto's friend! Akechi-kun, please help us out. We'll just ask around to hear what people have to say about the guy."

After a few seconds of silence, Akechi heaved a sigh. "A-alright. I'll just drop my school materials at home, and will head to Shinjuku. Don't leave the station. I'll be there shortly."

"Yes!" Akira exclaimed. "Thank you so much!"

Morgana poked his head out of Akira's bag. "He'll be coming, then?"

"Yeah!" Akira looked at Makoto. "This also means we can see how he goes about detective work, right?"

"Well, yes." Makoto nodded hesitantly. "... What did he say?"

"He told us to wait for him and not leave the station. It's what we'll do. Come on. Let's head to a spot he can find us easily."

Makoto wasn't too sure about getting Akechi's help, but followed Akira anyway.

Chapter Text

Inside the train to Shinjuku, Akechi sighed as he thought about what he had gotten himself into. Akira and Niijima-san were being reckless. Akira had said they would only ask around, but what if they ran into the guy in question and he were really a criminal? Or what if they ran into other criminals and got in trouble? As much as Akechi wished to protect them, this time he wasn't in the Metaverse and didn't have his two years Persona power experience to back him up. Worst was that he had known Akira and Niijima-san were stubborn, and if he were to refuse to help them, both girls would be going anyway. Akechi was worried at the possibility of them getting in trouble, and concluded that leaving them be wasn't an option.

Makoto wasn't too sure of having Akechi help them. But perhaps she could use this opportunity to observe the detective and try to figure him out.

Akechi arrived. "Hi, Akira, and Niijima-san."

"Hi... um, just Makoto is fine." Makoto tried to make him feel more comfortable and lower his guard, then eventually make a slip and give a hint about his plans regarding the Phantom Thieves case.

"If you say so... hi... Makoto." He rephrased.

"Hi, Akechi-kun! And look who's here, too!" Akira pulled Morgana out of her bag.

"Hey!" Morgana protested at Akira's action.

"... Morgana?!" Akechi gaped. Once he recovered, he rolled his eyes. "Akira, you really make no effort to be discreet, don't you? You're bringing Morgana to an investigation about a possible criminal gang, seriously?"

"We're here to give Makoto moral support," Akira said matter of factly. "You know how well-behaved Morgana is. He stayed perfectly quiet at the museum last time, didn't he?"

"y-yes, but still..."

"No worries. It'll be fine." Akira assured him.

Makoto was so used to Morgana by now that she even forgot other people only saw him as a cat. And now that Makoto thought about it, she realized the current situation was absurd. "Wait, museum!?" And Akechi had seen Akira take Morgana to a museum?! That definitely wasn't normal...

"Yeah, we went there to see Yusuke's painting that won the competition." Akira explained.

"... What?!"

Akechi was right. Akira made no effort to be discreet. Well, not that Akechi had a reason to suspect a cat of being a Phantom Thief. However, Akira had not only gone to a museum with Morgana, but taken Akechi to see Yusuke's painting as well! If she continued being this careless, she might end up revealing to Akechi that all of them were Phantom Thieves sooner or later.

"Uh, whatever." Akechi apparently decided to ignore Morgana for the moment. "Niijima-I mean, Makoto. Are you really sure about investigating on our own?"

"Yes." Makoto spoke firmly. "If we report this to the police with no evidence at all, they may not even hear us out. The guy may or may not be from a gang, but if he is, Eiko... my friend might get in serious trouble, and if the police takes too long to look into him, it may be too late."

"I see your point. Okay, fine." Akechi had seemed oddly hesitant, but his hesitation disappeared, and his eyes sparkled with the excitement of a challenge. "Then, I guess we can consider this our first investigative work together, future commissioner Niijima."

"Yes, I suppose. Let's give our best, detective Akechi." She played along.

They left the station. On the street, they asked a few people about the host named Tsukasa. The passersby seemed to not know anything, and most of the promoters just brushed them off - well, it was better than the promoters trying to abduct them to their clubs. Still, this was proving to be a fruitless search.

"Do you know a guy named Tsukasa?" Akira asked for the umpteenth time, and Makoto was expecting nothing to come out of their investigation anymore.

"Are you that guy's friend?!" The promoter asked angrily.

"No, we are not." Akechi chimed in.

The promoter blinked, suddenly willing to cooperate. "Uh, wait, you're that famous young detective! I get it. You're investigating him, right? That guy is trouble. And I've heard he's using the sake bottle trick again."

"Sake bottle trick?" Akechi echoed.

"He reels girls in, then breaks a sake bottle, and says that it was a very expensive one. At first, he asks the girls to give him money to pay for it so that he won't get in trouble with his superiors. He'll get the girls to give him all their money, and say it still isn't enough and that the only way is to have them 'pay for it using their bodies.'" At that, Akira made a horrified face. "I've heard he's targeted another girl recently. She'll be done for if it continues this way. You must get her out of there!"

"Eiko..." Makoto muttered her friend's name. "Thank you for the information!" She thanked the promoter, and they walked away. Makoto was ecstatic. Finally some concrete information! And she had to admit that Akechi's presence had made getting intel easier. "Great, we have a testimony now. Thank you, Akechi-kun!"

"I didn't do anything. This was some interesting intel, though. But I believe we should have more information sources. I suggest we ask around some more to see if other people say the same thing."

"Right." Makoto agreed. "Don't believe the first thing you hear. Is this what you mean to say, detective?"

Akechi nodded.

They did as Akechi suggested, and asked a few other promoters. Some of the promoters gave them information, and the answers were consistent.

"It looks like your suspicions were correct, future commissioner Niijima," Akechi said.

"Yes. Now we must convince Eiko to stay away from him." Makoto glanced at the time on her phone. "According to my previous texts with her, this is around the time her shift at the 'salon' she works at ends, and she meets up with Tsukasa. We need to talk to her and make her open her eyes."

They walked to the entrance of the "salon." Makoto could see Eiko inside wearing a bunny costume and doing poses to one of the male customers. Thankfully, Tsukasa wasn't there yet.

However, several minutes passed and Eiko still didn't seem about to come out.

"Eiko..." Makoto glanced at the phone again. "Oh no. I think Tsukasa may be here any minute."

Akechi tensed.

"So, do we barge in or what?" Akira asked.

"Wait. I have an idea. I will make Eiko see with her own eyes who Tsukasa really is."

"What are you planning to do?" Akechi sounded oddly nervous.

Makoto just threw a confident glance at the detective, took her cellphone and typed a text message.

A minute later, Eiko came out of the facility, already in her Shujin uniform. "... Makoto?" She became angry immediately. "What the hell are you doing here?!"

"Eiko, please, you have to listen." Makoto began talking frantically. "Tsukasa is trouble. We've talked to the promoters around, and they told us he breaks sake bottles and makes his targeted girls give all their money supposedly to pay for it, then still says it isn't enough and makes them... 'work for it using their bodies!' It's what he intends to do to you! You must get away from him!"

Eiko looked scared for a moment, but her anger returned. "I don't want to hear your crap! You won't take my Tsukasa away from me. He's all I have..."

"Eiko!" Makoto pleaded with her eyes.

"He's deceiving you!" Akira added.

"Shut up! If you won't lend me the money that I need, then just leave me alone!"

"Oh, you're already here, my princess." Tsukasa approached them. "I got the text saying you'd be late, and thought I'd have to wait."

Akechi sized the guy up warily, while Akira stared forward with a serious expression.

"You're especially beautiful today, my princess."

Pink hearts seemed to come out of Eiko's eyes, and an embarrassed smile appeared on her face. "Awww, just in your eyes, honey. I haven't done anything different."

Makoto had to keep herself from making a face. Those interactions were disgusting to watch. Instead, she decided to risk a glance at Akechi, and caught him fiddling with his tie nervously, but he stopped as soon as Makoto began looking.

"By the way, it looked like you were arguing before I arrived. What's going on?"

"Oh, my Tsukasa... they're saying bad stuff about you." Eiko pointed an accusing finger at the three of them.

"I get that a lot. They have the misconception that all hosts are bad. Don't worry, my princess. Just let them talk."

"Awww, Tsukasa. You're so cool..." Eiko fidgeted. "Um, sorry, I still couldn't get the money..."

"Money, huh?" Makoto interrupted their conversation. "She has told me you want her help to pay for a broken sake bottle. We've talked to the promoters around here, and they told us that you break a sake bottle on purpose to make girls give you all their money to supposedly pay for it, then make them do... inappropriate work to get more money for you. Just what exactly you intend to do to her, huh?"

For the first time, Eiko seemed unsure. She threw a desperate look at Tsukasa. "This isn't true... is it?"

"Of course not. All lies!"

Eiko needed more assurance. "You only have eyes for me, right?"

"Yes, I only have eyes for you, my princess."

"Your princess this, your princess that." Makoto spoke darkly. "Why don't you call her by her name? Oh yes, because you've been deceiving so many girls that you don't even remember any of their names, isn't it? All of them are your 'princesses.'"

Tsukasa bit his lip. "No. This is n-not true." He stuttered.

"Then, what's her name? If she is so important to you, then you should at least remember her name, right?" Makoto challenged him.

"Uh, um..." Tsukasa hesitated.

"... Tsukasa?" Eiko was getting scared. "I'm special t-to you, right?"

Tsukasa looked at Eiko. "Yes. You're very special to me... er..." He paused. "... Makoto."

A few seconds of silence. Once what happened finally registered in everyone's minds, Akira blinked, Akechi raised his eyebrows, and Eiko seemed about to panic.

"Wh-what? No..." Eiko was disheartened.

Makoto smirked in triumph. "Sorry to inform you, Tsukasa, but you got her name wrong."

"What?! But I remember getting her text saying her shift'd end late today." He took his phone and checked it for good measure, then flashed a smug smirk. "Hah! Here it is, and it says 'Makoto.'"

"Well, I'll have to commend you for at least remembering that the message's sender was named Makoto. But it wasn't her who sent you that text. It was me. You had insisted on getting my number saying her friends were your friends and such, and I took advantage of that. I just mimicked her writing style and threw in a bunch of emojis so that the message would look like hers."

"You... little...!" Tsukasa was getting irritated now.

"See, Eiko? This is who your 'boyfriend' really is." Makoto told her.

"B-but you deceived him!" Eiko protested.

"You're still defending him?" Akira couldn't believe it.

"Tsukasa is all I have..." Eiko uttered in panic.

Makoto was angry. She was at her limit, and didn't know what else to do to convince Eiko. On impulse, she went over to Eiko and slapped her hard on the face. "How can you still say that?! He's using you, and you know it! You just don't want to see it. Eiko, open your eyes!"

Eiko froze and gaped. The slap seemed to have hurt. Makoto felt bad, but it was already too late.

Tsukasa growled. "You little pests..."

"Give up. We got you," Akira said. "Just confess your crimes already! Spill!"

Tsukasa's face flared in anger. "Yeah, yeah! All of that is true. So what? What do you think you can do?! You're just kids!"

"We will report you. We have testimonies." Makoto countered.

"No, you won't tell anyone about this. Know why? Because I won't let you!"

"Tsukasa, no!" Eiko cried in alarm.

Makoto gasped. Everything happened so quickly. Tsukasa charged at them. The next thing Makoto knew, Akechi was standing protectively in front of them, and Tsukasa was fallen on the ground.

"How dare you trip me up!" Tsukasa slowly got back on his feet.

"Your days of crime are numbered, Tsukasa," Makoto said. She was scared and her heart was racing, but she managed to hide it. "I come from a line of accomplished police officers and know what I am doing. I won't let you escape!"

Tsukasa spat a curse as he glanced around. "People are beginning to stare!" He took a step back, with his body shaking in anger. "I will remember this! You'll regret having angered me. Don't expect me to go easy on any of you if we ever meet again!"

"Though if we do, it'll most likely be at the police station." Akechi shot back. "I doubt you will want to cause a ruckus in front of the police, as you will just complicate your situation even more."

"Hmph." Tsukasa glared daggers at Akechi. "You might be famous and all, but your fame is worth nothing. You can't catch me. At the end of the day, you're nothing more than a kid. You should stop playing detective and go home." Tsukasa turned away and left.

"Wait!" Makoto was about to run after him.

"Makoto." Akechi put a hand on her shoulder and stopped her. "It's enough for now. Let's go somewhere calmer. People are beginning to gather to see the commotion."

"What about Eiko?" Akira asked as they began walking.

Eiko was clearly scared and trying to sneak away.

"I think we should calm her down, or she might do something stupid." Akechi suggested.

The girls agreed, and the three of them scrambled after Eiko.

"Eiko!" Makoto called out.

Eiko startled and tried to run faster, but tripped and nearly lost her balance. Akira and Akechi arrived just in time to hold and steady her.

"You took Tsukasa away from me..." Eiko spoke weakly in tears, without looking at either one of them in particular. "Why did you do this to me? Before, I was just an ordinary girl, without very good looks or very good grades. The opposite of my older brother. So, no one paid attention to me, not even my parents. Then, Tsukasa came... he was the only person that ever called me a princess... that said I was special. Now he's gone, and I have to go back to being the ordinary girl no one looks at or pays attention to. I have nothing..."

"What are you talking about? You have Makoto." Came the unexpected input from Akechi. And when Makoto glanced at him on reflex, she saw a painful expression she had never expected to see on Akechi's face. That wasn't the ever so confident and show-off detective she was used to seeing.

"Yeah, that's right!" Akira spoke enthusiastically. "She's always telling me about you. She was so happy to have made a new friend! And she began worrying a lot when Tsukasa approached you, because he was acting too much like the members of a gang her father, who was a police officer, had been trying to catch. Makoto's been thinking about you all the time!"

"She even went as far as risking her life to help you." Akechi added. "Even though she knew he was a criminal, she still confronted him despite the danger. You should consider yourself blessed. It's very rare to find someone that'll risk their life for you." Akechi's voice lowered a bit. "I'm glad she managed to save you before it was too late..."

Eiko was stunned. Once she had recovered, she finally looked at them, but still avoided meeting Makoto's gaze. "You'll tell the police, won't you?"

Akechi nodded. "You'll have to testify, too, since you're the victim in this case."

Makoto was unable to guess what Eiko might be thinking. Would she refuse? Or would she still defend Tsukasa?

Eiko sighed and lowered her head in shame. "When my parents find out about this, I'll be screwed..."

"And then, you'll realize it was better when they weren't paying attention to you. Yeah, the irony..." Akira smirked slightly.

A chuckle escaped Eiko's mouth. "Yeah, I guess..."

"That's what they get for not caring for you properly." Akechi sounded a bit bitter.

"Eiko, don't worry." Makoto assured her. "We're here to help you."

"We've got your back!" Akira added.

"Um... th-thanks." Eiko uttered weakly, then slowly raised her head and looked at Makoto. "... M-Makoto, I-"

Makoto shook her head. "It's okay. You don't need to say anything. For today, just go back home safely and rest."

Eiko nodded gratefully, and slowly walked away.

It was only the three of them once more, and Makoto could focus on the next step.

"The promoters' testimonies should be enough for the police to get a more thorough investigation going. But this is kind of frustrating... Tsukasa even confessed his crimes himself. If only the police could hear that..."

"They still can." Akechi's sudden statement took Makoto by surprise.

"What do you mean?" Akira asked.

"He may have been right when he said my fame is worthless. However, this is not a game to me, and I'm not 'playing detective' as he put it." Akechi quickly did something on his phone.

A ringtone indicating a new message startled Makoto, and she took her phone out to check it. It was from Akechi, and contained an audio file as attachment. "This is...!"

"I recorded the audio of most of our confrontation." Akechi revealed. "When the guy in question arrived, I suspected things might heat up, and decided to record the conversation, as it might be useful as proof."

"Huh? Recorded? But I didn't see you use your phone." Akira observed.

"Good observation. It'd be too suspicious to be taking my phone in the middle of a confrontation with a criminal."

"Could it be..." Makoto's head shot up. "A hidden microphone?"

"Exactly." Akechi brought his hand to his necktie.

Now, Makoto understood. When she caught him fiddling with his tie, he had actually been activating his hidden recording device.

"You have a mic in there? Wow! This is amazing!" Akira was all excited. "That's our ace detective!"

Makoto couldn't share Akira's excitement. Once more, Akechi's cleverness overthrew her. What if he had been recording their conversations all along and one of them happened to have a hint about the group members' identities as Phantom Thieves?

"Quite resourceful..." Makoto complimented him while she tried to hide how intimidated she was. "But are you sure you should be revealing your secret techniques to us like this?"

"Why shouldn't I? We're working together." Akechi stated matter of factly.

At least his guard seemed to be low enough around them for him to be revealing his techniques. This was an advantage.

"Yes, we are." Makoto went back to the matter at hand. "Well, shall we head to the nearest police station, then?"

Akechi helped with doing the report and showing proof to the police. They were talking to a male officer while Akira only watched.

"The victim's name is Eiko Takao, yes? We will also need her testimony eventually," the officer said.

"I have told her this would be the case." Akechi informed.

"You kids were really brave." The officer complimented them as he filled some paperwork. He put the papers aside and looked at Makoto. "What made you suspect the man could be member of a gang?"

"My father was a police officer, and had been incessantly trying to catch those gangs. He had always talked about such gang members' behavior. How they specifically targeted lonely and depressed girls, put a lot of empty words in their heads to make them feel they were special, and made them become loyal to the gang members. Then the gang would take all the girls' money, would still say it was not enough, and subject the girls to 'selling their bodies.' And if worse came to worse, they would send the girls to other countries and make them engage in inappropriate and illegal activities."

"Oh. Your last name is... Niijima, isn't it? Oh, yes." A lightbulb seemed to appear on the officer's head. "I see! You are Officer Niijima's daughter!"

"You knew my father?" Makoto was surprised.

"Not personally, but I had known he was very famous for having tracked down most of such gangs around here in Shinjuku."

"In the future, I intend to follow in his steps and also join the police." Makoto said with determination.

The officer smiled. "This is promising to hear! It will be great to have you here. Both you and Akechi-kun have great potential. I wish you two success."

As they came out of the police station, Morgana finally spoke up. "That whole thing was intense. I was worried for a moment."

"Phew, it's over. We did it!" Akira responded.

Akechi heaved a sigh. "This was some field experience, huh? So much for just asking around..."

Makoto tried to justify herself. "I had only intended to get some intel, and in case my suspicions were confirmed, try to convince Eiko to get away from Tsukasa. Initially, I hadn't expected to have to confront him!"

"Either way, your text message shenanigan impressed me. Great job, future commissioner Niijima." Akechi threw her an amused look.

Makoto blushed a little. "Uh, thank you. And you were of great help, detective Akechi."

Akechi could feel that Makoto wasn't very comfortable around him just yet, but was genuinely grateful for his help. The Priestess Confidant ranked up.

They were walking to the train station.

"As for you, Ms. Akira Kurusu..." Akechi looked at Akira in a reprehending manner. "You should be more careful about the places you wander into."

"Huh? How come you compliment Makoto but scold me? I was here to help, too!"

Akechi's expression softened a bit. "I know. But Akira, you are on probation, remember? You shouldn't be going to dangerous places and getting in the middle of crime scenes. This was what got you in trouble to begin with, right?"

"We'd just ask around. No one could've predicted we'd have to confront the guy." Akira argued.

"I predicted it." Akechi countered. "Of course it could happen. Shinjuku is already full of shady guys as it is, and you came here to ask people about someone that might be a criminal! When you asked me to help, I kept thinking how you might run into the guy, or his possible accomplices, or ill-intentioned promoters, or other gangs, or..." Akechi trailed off. "I thought of all sorts of ways this might go wrong. You two might run into dangerous people, and they might be armed. Even though I knew I couldn't do much if it ended in a fight, I ended up agreeing to help." Akechi's voice lowered and began to waver as he poured his feelings out. "I knew that if I were to refuse, you two would be coming anyway. So, I just couldn't refuse to come, because I'd keep worrying all the time..."

Akira didn't have an answer ready.

Makoto had her gaze low. "Akechi-kun, you are... absolutely right about all of this. First, Akira should avoid complicating her situation even more. I am to blame for this whole thing today. It was me who wasn't brave enough to come by myself and asked her to keep me company. Second, it was obvious that this would be dangerous, but I had been so worried about Eiko that I failed to account for all the possibilities you mentioned. I failed to see the danger right in front of my face, and ended up risking the lives of all of us. I'm really sorry."

The atmosphere around their little group was heavy for a moment. Morgana interjected. "Hey, why are you all arguing!? All ended well. You should be celebrating!"


Akechi heaved a sigh. "Ah, whatever. I'm tired. I don't even know what else to say. I'm just glad that nothing bad happened and that no one got hurt. From now on, try to stay away from trouble as much as possible, alright? Especially you, Akira."

"Okay. I get it."

"We will be more careful." Makoto reassured him. "I will make sure of it."

They entered the station and boarded the train without another word.

Akechi was exhausted. It had been too many emotions in just one day. First the worry when Akira asked for his help and told him what she and Makoto were up to. Then, the tension from the moment they faced danger. Lastly, what Takao-san had told them, about how Tsukasa had been the only person that had made her feel special. It reminded Akechi too much of his own upbringing, how that mysterious entity had filled his head with flattery words and stressed how special Akechi was, how he had potential, how he had been chosen. Those were all lies, but Akechi had been vulnerable. Those were the kind of words he had waited his whole life to hear, and he embraced them without a second thought. Thanks to that, now his heart was a mess, and his life looked like a broken puzzle with some pieces shattered and others missing, completely destroyed by his previous actions. His life was a broken puzzle which was no longer possible to solve, and all Akechi could do was try to salvage the pieces that were left.

Akira thought about how Tsukasa and the gangs Makoto talked about took advantage of vulnerable people. This reminded her of Crow's words.

"I only heard a voice. He said that I was chosen, that I was special. It was exactly what I wanted to hear, and I bought into it. Easy, right? Just tell this to someone who's totally lost, and you'll have them on the palm of your hand."

Akira had no idea who that mysterious entity might be, or even if it really existed. But she was inclined to trust Crow, and believe he wasn't making that up. Either way, that manipulation had made power go above Crow's head, and resulted in him going as far as killing people. Just by thinking no one was free from suddenly going crazy and doing horrible things made Akira's heart compress. It was like those psychotic breakdowns which - despite also being Crow's doing - could happen to practically anyone, and then they wouldn't remember why they had acted that way afterwards. And just like those innocent people, Crow was being so nice, and Akira didn't feel like he was someone that would kill people. It was as though that mysterious entity, whoever that was, had caused a long-lasting psychotic breakdown on Crow, made him go crazy and led him to do all those things. And now that he was free from the entity's influence, he was being forced to deal with the consequences of what he had done, and was burning with guilt.

Akira trusted Crow. She believed the connection she had with him was strong. Despite this, there was no Tarot card vision to officialize their bond. Why? What might be preventing it? And what Arcana was he? These questions greatly frustrated Akira.

As Akira focused back on reality and glanced between her two friends, her gaze unexpectedly met Akechi's. Her heart briefly jumped, and she didn't know why. All she knew was that she caught that bothersome sadness in his gaze, but he quickly tried to hide it once he realized she was looking.

Akechi had decided to check up on the two girls when Akira unexpectedly caught his gaze. He did his best to push his depressing thoughts aside, but it was too late. Akira was giving him a concerned stare already, and Akechi could only hope she wouldn't ask anything. Thankfully, Makoto spoke up and diverted their focus.

"Um, Akechi-kun? Have you seen my sister lately?"

"No, I haven't..."

Makoto sighed. "She still refuses to take a day off, and completely ignores me whenever I suggest that... no, she's starting to ignore me no matter the subject. She refuses to talk, gives some excuse and leaves. Akechi-kun, if you see her, could you, um... try to convince her?"

"Me? If she doesn't listen to you, what makes you think she'd listen to me?"

"She, um, respects you professionally, right?"

Frustration briefly flickered on Akechi's face at the recollection of Sae-san's scolding. "Respects? I don't know. To her, it seems like I'm just an arrogant and spoiled brat."

"W-well..." Makoto hesitated for a moment. "I think she gives you more credit than she gives me. To her, I'm just a naive and submissive girl..."

"You, naive and submissive?" Akechi allowed himself a slight smirk. "I wonder how she'd react if she were to hear today's recording..."

Makoto was horrified. "She would flip! And scold me every day for the rest of my life. Please, don't show her that!"

Akechi laughed in amusement and broke the tension. "Don't worry. I won't do that. You have a copy. Showing it to her will be up to you, if you ever decide to."

Makoto fidgeted. "Perhaps one day... but not now. I just hope you'll keep your word." A pause. "But you know? She said you aren't all talk and has enough reasons to be proud of yourself, and I agree. The way you helped us and secretly did the recording is proof of this."

"Yeah, it was awesome!" Akira complimented him, probably trying to cheer him up.

However, Akechi wasn't glad at the compliments. Recently, he came to realize he had more things to be ashamed of than to be proud of.

"A-alright. I'll try to talk to Sae-san." Akechi went back to the original subject. "No guaranties that I can convince her, though."

"Thank you." Makoto was glad.

Back at the Shibuya station, Makoto parted ways with them.

"Akechi-kun, how about some coffee?" Akira suggested, and Akechi could tell she still intended to try cheering him up. He wished she would stop. She was only wasting her time. His problem didn't have a solution.

Some coffee sounded like a good idea, though. Akechi concluded he should at least enjoy some nice coffee while he could.

Akechi nodded and silently followed Akira to another train, to the Yongen-Jaya station.

"No, you idiot!" Was the first thing they heard upon entering Leblanc.

Akechi froze on the spot. Sakura-san was angry, and Futaba seemed on the verge of crying.

"What's going on?" Akira was brave enough to butt in.

"A-Akira..." Futaba took a step closer to them. "A-and Akechi too..."

Sakura-san heaved a sigh. "It's about 'that guy' again."

"You mean Futaba's uncle?"

Sakura-san nodded.

Akechi was totally out of the loop. "Her uncle?" He found himself asking, even though it was none of his business.

"Ah. Uh..." Sakura-san was hesitant.

"The last person I lived with before Sojiro saved me." Futaba explained it herself. "He treated me real bad. He didn't feed me and made me sleep on the floor... it was horrible. Now he's been demanding money from Sojiro and threatening to go to court if Sojiro doesn't give him what he wants."

Akechi gritted his teeth.

"Futaba..." Sakura-san was surprised, as though he hadn't expected Futaba to share those details, let alone to a stranger like Akechi.

"Because of this, I know how it feels to go through negligence and abuse and stuff, like what you've gone through. And worse, he's my real relative." Futaba giggled weakly. "See what I meant when I said unofficial relatives may be better than official ones?"

Sakura-san was the one out of the loop now. "Huh? What's this all about?"

Futaba suddenly cheered up. "I decided to unofficially adopt Akechi as my bro 'cause he doesn't have a family! ... Right, Akechi?" She looked expectantly at Akechi.

Akechi could only nod awkwardly. Those Phantom Thieves would definitely melt his heart one of these days. And just when he had thought he had had enough deep emotions in one day...

Sakura-san laughed softly. His heart seemed to have warmed as well. "Oh, Futaba, this was so nice of you."

"Boss, why were you and Futaba arguing?" Akira asked.

"Futaba says she got dirty on her uncle through hacking, and wants me to use it in court. Of course I can't do that. If only I could use the info, it'd make it impossible for him to win the case in court. The problem is that I'd have to prove how I got access to this information, and-"

"... H-hacking?" Akechi finally recovered his speech. "Uh, Futaba-chan, may I see the info?"

Futaba tensed. "Um... y-you aren't gonna report me, right?"

"Of course I won't. I'm just curious to see the kind of info you got."

Futaba was a bit wary, but complied, and reached her cellphone out for him to see the screen. No way she was going to let him touch her phone, it seemed.

The info consisted of bank account numbers and their histories with negative balances, or in other words, how Futaba's uncle was buried in debt.

"Hmm, this is some interesting stuff. I-if you want, I could see about getting similar info in a legal way..." When Akechi realized it, the offer of help had already escaped from his mouth.

"Really?!" Futaba's face lit up.

"... You can do that?" Sakura-san seemed amazed.

"Yes." There was no backing out now. Akechi would follow his heart. He had been the one who had ruined the Sakuras' lives. Even though he couldn't fix things completely, he would do anything he could to help make their lives a bit better.

"Awesome!" Akira was also glad.

"Wow. Thanks, detective. In return, I'll brew you some of my most expensive coffee, on the house. Not really as payment, but, well, just to show my gratitude."

Akechi's eyes widened, and he vehemently shook his head. He was the one who needed to make up to them, and didn't deserve that act of kindness. "No, I can't accept that."

"Uh, he's offered to investigate my false charges case too." Akira quickly added another argument.

"Oh, is that so?" Sakura-san was even more impressed. "Detective, you're really something, eh?"

Akira grinned. "We have enough reasons to give you some coffee for free."

"Please, stop," Akechi blurted out. "I can't just accept expensive coffee like this." He quickly thought of an argument. "Uh, while I intend to try the more expensive varieties someday, I'd rather pay for it myself, as... as some sort of accomplishment..."

"Fine. Normal coffee, then?" Akira had that expectant look in her eyes. She inched closer to him and whispered in his hear. "You know, to make it up for... that whole thing today."

Apparently, there was no backing out of this, either. Resigned, Akechi nodded. At least it wasn't the expensive coffee.

"Then, take a seat. How about some coffee for the four of us?" Sakura-san suggested.

"I'll help you, Boss!"

Akira and Sakura-san left to do their work. Akechi and Futaba sat at a table, and Morgana chose to climb on the bench and stay next to Akechi rather than follow Akira.

Something was nagging at Akechi. "Futaba-chan, the amount of info you got was impressive, and it got me wondering... it was much more complete than what I got from the credit analysis of Kana-chan's parents. And this means... you could very well have gotten the Magarios' info yourself, couldn't you?"

Futaba froze for a moment. "... Y-yeah. Um, actually, I had already gotten it all before I asked you."

"... What?" Akechi was stupefied. He felt hurt. He had collected the information thinking he had been helping Futaba, when she actually didn't even need his help. "You were testing me? Then... then... I did all that work for nothing?"

"No. Remember our agreement? I had said I'd ask you to do some detective work for me, because I wanted to see if your skills were the real deal." Futaba smirked. "And now, I'm sure they are!"

For some reason, that last part wasn't comforting at all.

But Futaba didn't seem to realize how he was feeling. "Speaking of Kana-chan, I called her this morning!"

"... Called?"

"Yeah! I was feeling so motivated that I decided to up my game and skip the email step! It was hard. I felt nervous, but I did it! I apologized to her. And you know what? She apologized to me, too. Kana-chan doesn't hate me. Actually, all this time she had been thinking I hated her. In the end, both of us had been thinking the same thing!" Futaba laughed. "Funny, right? It took a while, but we've finally made up! At last, I completed that goal on the promise list. 'Get along with Kana-chan...'"

This was great news, and a smile broke into Akechi's face. "Congrats."

"You're learning." Futaba giggled happily at his informality.

Morgana spoke up. "Futaba, be sure to remember what you said before. You still need to thank Crow."

Akechi's eye twitched, and he hoped no one had caught it.

"I kno-" Futaba balked midsentence, and Akechi held his breath. Futaba cleared her throat. "... Shut up, cat!"

"What was that for?! I was just trying to give you a friendly reminder! ... And I'm not a cat!"

"I'm telling you to be quiet!"

Akechi slowly released his breath. Maybe they hadn't noticed, after all. But what was that about? Futaba had considered thanking him?

Morgana glared at Futaba. "Your speech is working just fine. Why don't you just use it to say everything you have to say to Crow, huh?!"

"'Cause it doesn't work when it most needs to! ... I-I mean, shut up, Mona!"

Everything she had to say? Akechi was intrigued, and a bit scared at the same time. Just what did Futaba intend to say to him...?!

"Akechi, this cat's being stubborn and doesn't listen to me! He prefers you over me, right? Tell him to shut up!"

"Akechi, Futaba is being mean for no reason. Tell her to stop!"

"Huh? What?" Akechi blinked and finally snapped to focus. He glanced in confusion between the two quarreling Phantom Thieves.

"This cat's being too loud!"

"Meowww..." Morgana made a hurt face and rubbed his cheek against Akechi's arm like a normal cat, probably to make Akechi pity him and take his side in the argument.

Futaba shot an accusing glare at Morgana. "That's cheating!" Then she grumbled. "And you still complain when we call you a cat..."

Akechi's gaze floated toward Futaba. His mouth opened slightly for a couple of seconds and closed. He almost wished she would say whatever she had been intending to tell him, right then and there. But on the other hand, he was a bit scared. She might have decided to thank him just out of politeness, and might still say she hated him. A thought struck Akechi. The thought of how hard it was to be a good person. If he had remained a bad person, he wouldn't care about others' feelings, and these issues wouldn't hurt him at all.

Be quiet, Loki, Akechi scolded his darker side as a thought. He had to admit that the notion actually made sense, though. If he had been helping Futaba only to relieve his conscience like in the beginning, maybe hearing her say she hated him wouldn't hurt so much. But despite said "disadvantage" of the good side, Akechi didn't regret trying to be a better person. The good side had given him people who care about him like he had always wanted, and his happiest memories ever. Akechi felt the good side was much more fulfilling to be at, and refused to go back to his old ways.

"Akechi..." Morgana tugged at Akechi's shirt and pulled him back from his thoughts again. "She's the one wrong here, isn't she? Isn't she?" Morgana stared at Akechi expectantly.

"Uh..." Akechi looked at Morgana, but quickly averted his gaze and tried to focus, or he might end up responding to Morgana's words at some point. "Um, would... both of you stop? Or I might get a headache. I had a rough day today..."

Futaba looked away and remained silent.

"Yeah, you look worse for wear." Morgana's expression turned into concern. "You need a good rest."

Sakura-san and Akira brought a tray with coffee mugs and sandwiches. Talk filled the cafe, and Futaba quickly forgot her little quarrel with Morgana.

"The Feathermen Memories Collection arrived. I'm dying to watch everything, but at the same time, I don't wanna remove the seal on the package. That neatly sealed box looks like a collector's item on its own right, and I feel as though opening it'll remove the magic."

"Why don't you do an unboxing video?" Akira suggested.

Futaba shook her head in horror. "Nope nope nope... I love unboxing videos, but no way I'll show my face on the Internet like that!"

"You don't need to publish it," Akira said. "Just keep it to watch later! You know, like those party videos people take, to watch years later and remember the events!"

"Futaba's memories collection..." Akechi muttered.

"Hmm... that actually doesn't sound bad. Record movie clips of important events to rewatch later. Alright! I'll start my memories collection!" Futaba announced. "The first video will be the unboxing one, and Akechi, you'll be in it too."

With his mouth full, Akechi quickly shook his head.

"Oh, c'mon. We even went to Akiba to buy the box together! And you're my bro. You need to be part of my important memories, too!"

And this was exactly what Akechi believed shouldn't happen. He quickly thought of an argument as he swallowed his food. "I don't want to be in it. And you may decide to publish it on the Internet down the line."

"I've just said I'll keep it and not publish it. Didn't you hear?"

"You might decide to publish it, years from now, once you aren't afraid of exposing yourself anymore..."

"Are you scared of your fans laughing at you if they see you like Featherman or something?"

"Futaba-chan, please. I don't want to be in it, period." Having him in the videos would surely ruin her memories collection, since he should be part of her undesired memories.

"Fine, not in the unboxing one. But I'll make sure to drag you into other ones."

Akechi heaved a sigh. He had had much more than enough feelings today. He was tired of arguing, of reasoning, of being alert to hide his Metaverse identity from the Phantom Thieves...

Their food was gone, and Sakura-san came to retrieve the empty tray and mugs.

"Hey, are you okay?" Sakura-san asked Akechi.

"No, he's not." Futaba answered before Akechi had the chance to. "He's been spacing out and acting kinda weird since a while ago."

"You look exhausted." Sakura-san looked at him in concern. "You're living on your own, right? Are you taking proper care of yourself?"

Akechi nodded, but it didn't convince Sakura-san.

Morgana ran to Akira. "Akechi is exhausted. I think we should have him stay the night here."

Akechi had heard it. He shouldn't stay there... the more he stayed near the Phantom Thieves, the more feelings he would have to go through. He stood up and was preparing to leave, but Akira stopped him.

"Akechi-kun, you don't look well. Stay the night here." It wasn't a question.

"But..." Akechi was tired, and didn't manage to form an argument.

"We have some futons upstairs. Futaba, help me get one." Sakura-san changed priorities and gave up on retrieving the dishes for the moment. Instead, he had Futaba follow him to the attic upstairs.

"Akechi-kun. Thanks for your help today." Akira took a few steps closer to him. "I'm sorry for having made you worry. But also, I felt so happy to know you care about me this much." She spread her arms and embraced him, then whispered in his ear. "I want to make it up to you. Please, stay here, and I'll make sure you won't need to worry about anything tonight."

Akechi was too tired to react, and let himself just enjoy the comfort of Akira's embrace.

Akira pressed Akechi tightly against herself with one arm, while her other hand gently stroked his hair. Akechi felt Akira's affection, and the Star Confidant ranked up to 7.

Akira released Akechi once the Sakuras' footsteps sounded on the stairs.

"The futon is ready." Sakura-san informed.

"Thank you." Akechi realized he had no choice and would have to stay the night.

Akechi asked permission to use Leblanc's bathroom rather than going to the public bath outside. After a quick shower, he headed upstairs.

"You don't want dinner?" Akira asked.

Akechi shook his head, then promptly collapsed on the futon.

"Wow, you're really tired. Sleep at peace, my precious detective friend." Akira leaned into the futon and gave him an affectionate good night kiss. She lightly ruffled his hair upon realizing how tired he was. "Okay. This time you get away without returning it. Night."

Shortly after Akira left, Futaba came in hurriedly, and took no care whatsoever to be quiet. "Aaakechi! You awake?"

Akechi grunted. Now he was awake, thanks to Futaba's heavy footsteps.

She sat down next to him. "I'm here to tell you a story so that you can sleep better!"

"... Huh?" But that was a children's thing...

"It's what siblings do."

"... Is it?" Akechi didn't think this was how it worked. For one, shouldn't the older sibling be the one telling the other stories?

"Yep! Next time, it'll be your turn."

"... Whatever..." Akechi responded in a heavy and dragged speech. Futaba seemed so happy to have the chance to be doing this, and Akechi decided to just roll with it.

And this was how Akechi fell asleep at the sound of Futaba's voice narrating her improvised Featherman fanfiction...

Chapter Text

Morgana lay by Akira's feet on the bed. For days now, he had been thinking about that dream where he heard a voice asking him to find Crow outside the Metaverse. Morgana had the strong feeling it hadn't been just a dream, though, and that the task was important. However, he had no idea how to accomplish it. He had absolutely no clue of where Crow might be. Morgana kept hoping that the voice would reach out to him in another dream and give him some directions, but so far, it hadn't happened. Frustrated, Morgana closed his eyes and waited for sleep to come.

To his horror, once again he had that nightmare about a Shadow version of himself forming from a cloud of despair.

"No, no, no! That can't be me...! I'm... I'm a human. Well, maybe not... but I can't be that... that thing!"

"... Morgana?"

"I'm not some weird monster... I'm... I'm..."

"... Hey..."

Morgana gasped awake at someone lightly shaking him. Then, he realized were he was. He was no longer on the bed with Akira, but rather, on the futon on the floor with... "A-Akechi...?"

Akechi startled awake in the middle of the night. He felt a bit disoriented. First, because he realized he wasn't in the usual futon in his home. Second, because he used to sleep alone, and hadn't expected some rather cute wails to pull him out of his sleep. Then, Akechi remembered he had agreed to stay the night at Akira's place, and realized that the source of the wails was her supernatural cat.

"No, no, no! That can't be me...! I'm... I'm a human." Morgana's voice sounded right next to Akechi. "Well, maybe not... but I can't be that... that thing!"

"... Morgana?"

"I'm not some weird monster... I'm... I'm..."

From the sounds of it, Morgana was having some kind of nightmare.

"... Hey..." Unsure as to what to do, Akechi tentatively reached for Morgana and lightly shook him awake.

"A-Akechi...?" Morgana also startled awake and seemed disoriented. "Why am I here? I had been on the bed... no, wait, I woke you up, didn't I? You had been so tired..."

Akechi smiled at Morgana's concern and patted the kitty on the head. "Are you okay?"

Morgana's demeanor changed, and he tried to appear tough. "Of course I am! It was just a dream! Just a dream... I'm perfectly fine!"

"Hmm... Morgana?" Akira stirred awake. "What happened?"

"It looks like he had a nightmare or something." Akechi summarized.

"Gah! And now both of you are awake... I'm fine, okay? Don't mind me, and just go back to sleep!" Despite his own words, Morgana sat on the ground, apparently unwilling to return to sleep.

"What's the problem? Want to go back to Akira?" Akechi picked Morgana up and lay him on the bed, but Morgana tensed and got back to a sitting position.

Akechi returned to the futon, but Morgana still seemed unwilling to go back to sleep.

"What's wrong?" Akira asked.

"Maybe he's scared of going back to sleep and having another nightmare." Akechi theorized.

"I-I'm not!"

"No worries, Morgana. I'm sure this will make you feel better." Akira gave Morgana a light peck on the face.

"H-hey!" Flustered, Morgana looked away.

Morgana lay on the bed, next to Akira's head. He heaved a sigh in frustration. Still no dreams about that feminine voice, and no hints about Crow. Morgana believed Crow deserved a second chance despite all the horrible things he had done. Morgana had faith in humans, and believed that hearts could change even without the Phantom Thieves' intervention. Overcoming the distortion in one's own heart was no easy task. Yet, Crow had accomplished it. This showed that Crow had a strong will, a strong heart, and wasn't a wild card for nothing. With these thoughts, Morgana began falling asleep.

"Wild card..." Morgana muttered, half asleep.

"Hm? Did you say something?" Akira mumbled.

"Meow..." He grunted, and somehow it came out as a cat noise.

Akira chuckled, and petted him a bit. Her touch was comforting, and more cat noises escaped involuntarily. It made Morgana want to comfort Akira as well. On impulse, he shifted closer to her and began rubbing his cheek onto hers.

"Hey, what's gotten into you? I'm not a treasure." Akira whispered to him.

Treasure... Morgana thought. Akira was referring to those Palace treasures Morgana used to be so attracted to. A wild card was rarer than those treasures, though. Wild card...

But how to find a wild card? Even though the feminine voice from Morgana's dreams had tried to assure him that he could find the other wild card, Morgana still had no idea how...

Then, a hint of realization dawned on Morgana's half asleep self. Perhaps there was something special about wild cards that he should be able to detect. It was as though he could almost grasp the key to solve a mystery. He could smell it. Smell? Yes, perhaps he should do just that. Morgana began sniffing Akira's face curiously.

"Hey, seriously. Morgana, what's gotten into you? You've never been like this before. You're acting just like a normal cat!"

Akira, wild card. Morgana thought absentmindedly.

"What's going on?" And Akechi was awake again... "It isn't another nightmare, is it?"

"No, but Morgana's acting totally out of character. Ah, he's being very cute, so whatever! New discovery! Looks like he enters adorable mode when half asleep! Kinda reminds me of someone I know..."

"W-what is this supposed to mean...?" Akechi spoke shakily.

Morgana perked up at the sound of Akechi's voice. He backed away from Akira, and turned his head in the detective's direction.

"Morgana, how about you go give Akechi-kun some attention, too?" Akira suggested.

After a few seconds of hesitation, Morgana jumped from the bed and padded over to Akechi. He hesitantly sniffed the boy's face a few times, then tilted his head to the side in confusion.

Akechi... wild card? No, no, no, this can't be right...

"What's it, hmm?" Akechi whispered gently, and began petting Morgana.

Morgana meowed contentedly, and his train of thought derailed. He tried to resume his thoughts, but they weren't making any sense. In the end, Morgana gave up, and just let Akechi continue petting him. Morgana eventually relaxed, leaned into Akechi's chest and fell asleep.

Sunday, October 2

"You two, wake up. The chief's already here," Was the first thing Akechi heard in the morning, coming from Morgana no less.

"Morning, Morgana." Akechi responded.

"Oh, Morgana, you're back to normal! You were acting a bit weird last night, and I got worried for a sec."

"Back to normal?" Morgana blinked. "What did I do? I don't remember. Um, though I think I sleepwalked and bothered Akechi again. Hey, sorry, Akechi. You were supposed to be resting..."

As Morgana tended to be condescending to people in general, it was touching how he displayed so much concern toward Akechi. Too bad Akechi had to keep himself from responding...

While Akira left for the bathroom, Akechi remained in the attic with Morgana.

Akechi was sitting on the futon, lost in thought. He recalled that Makoto had asked him to convince Sae-san to take a day off. This reminded him of the idea he had had previously about trying to get Sae-san's help to expose the organization. Akechi had given up on that idea, as it was too dangerous if the organization were to begin suspecting Sae-san's movements, but so far, he hadn't come up with any better idea. Yes, Sae-san was the only person that was competent enough and he was sure Shido's followers hadn't corrupted her. The clock was ticking, and this was the only option Akechi had found so far. There was no other way. He would have to ask for Sae-san's help.

As Akechi focused on reality, he saw Morgana walking around and throwing him contemplative looks.

"Hmm. That could only be a dream." Morgana muttered. "Yes, that had to be it. No way that you'd be a..."

"Hmm?" Akechi threw a questioning look at Morgana.

"Never mind. It's nothing!" Morgana shot back and began grooming himself.

Akira returned, and Akechi went to the bathroom.

Once he had finished his morning routine and came out into the cafe, Sakura-san approached him.

"Did you sleep well?"

"Yes, I did." Akechi replied.

"You seem worried, though. Did something happen?"

"Um..." Akechi considered what to say. "I'm worried about Sae-san. Sakura-san, when was the last time Sae-san came here?"

Sakura-san looked a bit uncomfortable. "Ah, the prosecutor lady. I haven't seen her since summer. She kept demanding information that I don't have, and even threatened to go to court and falsely-accuse me of mistreating Futaba. I told her I don't have the info she wants, and that she could do anything and I wouldn't fight back. She hasn't stepped in here ever since. Honestly, that day when you came here for the first time, I thought she had sent you here."

Akechi's expression aggravated. "Sorry, I had no idea. She mentioned she had pressured you to get something, and I thought she had gone too far, but I didn't know the details. Sorry if it looked like I was here to bother you. I just had come here to have some coffee."

"And to see Akira, right?" Sakura-san threw him a knowing look.

Embarrassment took over Akechi's face for a second. "Uh, well... I had just found out Akira was staying here. So, yes, sort of."

Sakura-san did a, "Hah, I knew it," face.

Akechi went back to the subject of Sae-san. "I've heard Sae-san is overworking and refuses to take a day off. I plan to go talk to her later today. Even though it's Sunday, I'm sure she's working."

"After our last argument, she hasn't dropped by even for the coffee. I told her I don't have the info she wants, but the doors will be always open if she just wants some coffee. Maybe you could remind her for me? It doesn't feel good to lose a regular customer just because of some nonsense argument..."

Akechi chuckled. "I'll remind her."

"Thanks. And sorry for burdening you so much with my problems. First the thing with Futaba's uncle, and now this."

"It's no problem. Thanks for letting me stay the night yesterday."

"Oh, and you're helping with Akira's issue too." Sakura-san recalled. "You're doing a lot for us. It may not be a lot, but I'll let you stay the night whenever you need. You work a lot and live on your own. You need someone to look after you once in a while. Akira and Futaba were so happy to have you here, too."

"Um, thank you." Akechi responded awkwardly, sure that he didn't deserve this much kindness.

But he could feel Sakura-san's concern towards him...

"I am thou, thou art I... thou hast acquired a new vow, the Sojiro Sakura Confidant. It shall become the wings of rebellion that breaketh thy chains of captivity. With the birth of the Hierophant Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power..."

... ... ... ... ...

Later, Sakura-san was serving them breakfast.

"Akechi, you had said you're investigating Akira's false accusation case. How's it going?"

"Unfortunately, I've hit a roadblock. All I know so far is that the outcome of that ruling was quite strange, and impossible to have happened unless some deal had taken place. From what Akira has told me, the man forced the woman to incriminate her as well. The problem is that no one's name was divulged, and we have no slightest idea who the man and the woman might be. Did the man randomly try to harass a woman on the street, or did they already know each other?"

Akira's head shot up slightly. "Now that you mention it... I think she threatened to report to the police about something he did involving money..."

"Hmm, this is new information. The woman threatened to report something the man had done previously. This means they weren't strangers to each other. Do you remember what the man's response was?"

Akira thought a bit. "I don't remember exactly what he said, just that the gist was that it'd be useless, that she couldn't do anything."

"Anything else you remember? Did you hear any name being mentioned?"

Akira seemed to be thinking hard. "No, I don't remember anything else."

"Sorry, Akira. I know it's a hard event to recall. I don't mean to pressure you, but I have too little information to go off of. The only other way I can think of to proceed with this investigation is to go to your hometown and look for witnesses. Ask them if they remember anything from the day the incident happened, and try to get a lead on either the man or the woman. But right now, I can't just go and leave the city, due to work reasons. This means your memories are all we can rely on at the moment."

"It's okay. If I remember something else, I'll be sure to tell you."

They finished breakfast.

"Thanks for the hospitality once more. I need to be going."

"Really?" Akira was disappointed. "Can't you spend some more time with us? It's a Sunday..."

"Sorry. I have important things to do."

"Okay... we'll hang out some other time, then." Akira lightly patted Akechi on the shoulder. "Bye. Take care."

Akechi left Leblanc, and headed to the court house.

"Akechi-kun, it's you..." A grumpy female secretary greeted him at one of the halls. "Here to see Niijima-san?"

"Yes." It was the only reason he had been showing up there.

"Then, would you do me a favor? I was asked to deliver these papers to Niijima-san to sign, but I still have so much to do. Would you deliver them for me?"

A daring idea formed in Akechi's head. It would be tricky to pull off and may very well not work, but Akechi thought it was worth a shot. "Sure, no problem."

The woman handed him a folder with the papers. "Thanks. It'll be a great help. Just bring them back once she's done."

As they parted ways, the woman walked away and mumbled about how helpful and responsible some kids were.

Now Akechi needed to put his plan into action. It was a crazy plan, and he had no idea how it had crossed his mind to begin with. Maybe it was Akira's influence? She was the one who usually did daring things like that.

Akechi went to an unused room and took a quick peek at the papers. Just some process-related papers that required Sae-san's signature. Nothing special. Since Akechi didn't have his "A" suitcase in hand at the moment, he had no access to his laptop. So, he located another secretary and asked for permission to use a computer and a printer, with the excuse he needed to print some detective work-related email. It was a long shot, but surprisingly he was granted permission. The perks of being famous... Akechi created a new text document. He copied the layout and used similar fonts and font sizes from the process papers, and wrote a letter asking for permission to take a couple days off. He printed the letter, and tucked it in the middle of the papers in the folder. The hard part was already done, and the only thing left was to have Sae-san sign the letter.

Sae was working in her room when there was a knock at the door. "Come in."

The door opened, and Akechi entered. "Good morning, Sae-san. It's been a while."

"Akechi-kun...?" She hadn't expected to see him there. "What is it? Please, be brief. I still have a lot of work to do"

"Um, there's something I'd like to talk to you about, but if you don't have time right now, then it's fine. We'll talk later. But I ran into a secretary along the way, and she asked me to deliver you these files." He showed her the folder.

"Ah, the process files I need to sign. I had been expecting them. Thank you." Sae took the folder from his hands.

"Can you sign them right now? The secretary asked me to hand her the folder back."

Sae opened the folder and batted an eye on the first sheet of paper, which had the text she had expected. She signed it, and moved on to the next one. Look what it's about, sign. Rinse, repeat. Next, next, next. After half a dozen sheets, her attention began to wane. Sae was exhausted, her brain wasn't in its best, and the thought that she still had much work left caused her to rush her signatures. Something about one of the sheets seemed a little off, but Sae paid no mind to it and signed it anyway. Once she was finished, she closed the folder and handed it to Akechi.

"Thanks." Akechi had a serious expression as he took the folder. "Remember we still need to talk later, though. Could you text me once you have some time?"

"It'd better be important."

"Have I ever discussed any unimportant subject with you, Sae-san?"

Sae sighed. "Fine."

Akechi left, and Sae continued her work. Half an hour later, her boss, the SIU director, called her.


"Niijima, I have received your letter asking for a few days off."

"... Huh?" This was so sudden that Sae didn't know how to respond. Days off? What was this about? Letter? She hadn't written any letter. It had to be a mistake. "Sir, I-"

"You have been doing a great work, Niijima. You may take the rest of the day, and also a few more days... no, you should probably take the whole week off. All indicates that our next job will be big... you know, about the case you have been pursuing for so long..." He teased her. "So, you should take a good rest and prepare. I will need you to be 100% in full gear when you return. Do you understand?"

A big job was coming... about the case she had been pursuing for so long... it could only be about the Phantom Thieves and the mental shutdowns! Finally, the chance she had been waiting for! If she managed to solve this case, she would be promoted for sure! The prospect of her so desired promotion pushed the letter issue aside immediately.

"... Yes, sir."

Sae's heart was thumping in her chest when the call ended. She had won all the way to get to where she was now, and at last, she would get what she had wanted for so long.

And Sae remembered the letter her boss had mentioned. She hadn't written any... Sae gasped as she recalled that odd file in the middle of the bunch. Now that she thought about it, that file may or may not have mentioned something about permission or...

"Akechi-kun." She glared at the table in front of her. It had to be his doing. How dare he play a prank on her! Sae yanked her phone from her pocket, and sent him a text message.

Since Sae suddenly found herself with the rest of the day - and of the week, for that matter - off, she had no choice but to leave work. She met with Akechi in front of the train station.

"You were quick. You texted me sooner than I had expected." The amusement on the boy's face confirmed her suspicion.

"It is because I have the rest of the day, and the week, for that matter, off." Sae spoke bitterly.

"The whole week off?! Congratulations. You deserve it. It's about time you earned that, don't you think?"

Sae glared at him. "Akechi-kun, don't play dumb with me! That letter. It was your doing, wasn't it?!"

Akechi laughed hard, in that mocking way of his, and left Sae even more irritated.

"Yes, you got me. It's a bit too late, though."

"... How dare you play a prank on me like that?!" Sae exploded.

"I'm sorry," he said in a way he didn't sound sorry at all. "To be honest, I had my doubts as to whether you'd fall to that or not. I'm sure it wouldn't have happened if your brain had been working properly. The fact that you fell to such a prank probably means you really need to take some time off, though. Thankfully the letter was harmless, but you should be rested and alert not to run the risk of signing things you shouldn't be signing."

It was frustrating, but Akechi was right. He always was...

Sae tried to hide her frustration and changed the subject. Perhaps Akechi had some clue about her next job. "So, what is it that you want to talk to me about? Is it about the Phantom Thieves?"

Akechi chuckled. "You got me again."

"In one of your recent interviews, you had stated you will get to the bottom of the Phantom Thieves' case no matter what, and share your conclusions once you are 101% certain of the facts."

"You watched that?" Why did he have to ask an unrelated question and change the topic? How irritating.

"Not really, but I saw a report with snippets from that interview." Sae made sure to get back on track quickly. "Anyway, you seemed confident. Does it mean you have something concrete in mind?"

The amusement vanished from Akechi's face and he became serious. "You could say that."

Sae's eyes widened, and she awaited eagerly for the information. Maybe it could give her a head start for her next job.

"But for me to disclose what I have, both of us need to be on the same page. For that, there are some things I'd like you to think about, but I'd rather have your brain working in perfect order. I suggest you rest for a few days first."

"Akechi-kun!" Sae insisted with her gaze. She needed the information right now.

Akechi shook his head. "Another day, Sae-san. For now, just go home and rest."

Sae gritted her teeth. She hated when other people kept telling her what to do.

"We shall discuss this another time. Have a nice week." Akechi didn't wait for a response and left.

"Wait!" Sae called after him, but he didn't listen and disappeared amidst the crowd.

At home, Makoto startled at the front door opening.

"I'm home." Sae announced without enthusiasm.

"Sis!" Makoto was both startled and happy at the surprise. Her sister didn't seem to be in a good mood, though.

Sae stomped on the ground. "Argh! Akechi-kun! How dare he?! He managed to sneak a permission request letter into some files I needed to sign, and now my boss gave me the whole week off..."

That was totally unexpected, and Makoto tried to stifle a laugh. "Akechi-kun did... what?"

"He got me into unwittingly signing a letter asking for permission to take some time off!"

Makoto couldn't contain her laughter.

"Even you are laughing at me?"

"N-no, I'm laughing at him! How did he even come up with such an idea?"

"And that is the problem. His intelligence is on a different level than ours." Sae sighed. "Anyway, my boss authorized me to have the whole week off."

"This is great! Does it mean we can spend more time together?"

Sae hesitated. "Well, I guess so." She heaved a sigh. "My boss said there's big work coming. If only I could get some information to have a head start on that when I return..."

Makoto became apprehensive. "Big work...?"

"Yes. This may be the chance I have been waiting for. I must give my best to not waste this unique chance. I have worked so hard to get to where I am, and cannot afford to lose. I must continue winning, no matter the cost."

"Sis..." Makoto had a bad feeling about the "big work" Sae mentioned. What if it had something to do with the Phantom Thieves? Crow had said the SIU director was trouble. And the way Sae was obsessed with her promotion was worrying as well.

Sae headed to the kitchen, and Makoto went to her bedroom.

Makoto closed the door, took her phone and made a call. "Akechi-kun? Makoto here. My sister just arrived home. It seems you managed to get her to take some time off... still, I can't believe how you managed to pull that off!" Makoto was almost laughing again.

"Me neither. It was quite the sudden and crazy idea."

"She told me you got her to sign a letter. Care to share the specifics?"

"I had gone to the court house to talk to Sae-san like you had asked me to. Then, I happened to run into a secretary who needed to deliver a folder with some files for her to sign. Since I was there to see Sae-san, the secretary asked me to deliver the folder. Then, I had the idea. I borrowed a computer with the excuse I needed to print an important email. I mimicked the layout and fonts in the files Sae-san needed to sign, wrote the letter, printed it, snuck it into the files, and delivered them to Sae-san. I thought she might figure it out, but apparently she was so exhausted that she wasn't alert enough to suspect anything. Sae-san signed the files, including the letter, and didn't say a word. I turned the folder back in to the secretary and asked her to direct the letter to the SIU director, and that was that."

"You mimicked the layout of the files?" Makoto spoke between stifled laughs.

"Yes. I guess your text message shenanigan from yesterday inspired me."

Makoto blushed. She hadn't expected Akechi would be impressed enough at something she had done, much less feel inspired by it.

"Akechi-kun, your approach was ingenious. I must admit I found it quite amusing. I just hope you realize what you did was-"

"Wrong? Yes, I do. It was for a good cause, though. I was sure just talking wouldn't work." Akechi justified himself, not regretful in the slightest.

Makoto relaxed a bit. "Yes, I actually agree. I'll overlook it this time."

"Thank you, future commissioner," he said playfully.

"No, I'm the one who needs to thank you. If you hadn't done that, my sister wouldn't rest. U-um, Akechi-kun?" Makoto changed the subject, and decided to approach the topic she had intended to ask him about in the first place. "Speaking of the SIU director, my sister told me he said some 'big work' is coming. Um, by any chance, do you have any idea what this might be about?"

"... 'Big work?'" Akechi's voice wavered in an unusual way, like someone who had just heard some undesirable piece of news. "No, I don't know..."

"Really?" Makoto didn't think he might be lying, but asked for confirmation anyway.

"Really. This is the first I've heard of it..."

"Okay." Makoto felt the need to justify her apprehensiveness. "Sorry, I'm worried because of how obsessed with work my sister has been lately. And now that she has heard of this new job, she probably won't stop thinking about it during her whole time off..."

"I understand your worry, Makoto. I'm worried too."

Makoto felt touched by Akechi's concern. Little she knew he really did understand her worries, including the worry that the issue might be related to the Phantom Thieves.

"Akechi-kun, thank you. For the help yesterday, for getting my sister to take a week off, for lending me those books, for... um, have I forgotten anything?"

"I had forgotten about the books already." His response threw her off. "I hope they've been useful."

"Y-yes, they have... I'll try to make a copy of them, and I'll hand them back. Anyway, I hope we can continue working well together."

This incident got Makoto to trust Akechi a bit more. Unbeknownst to her, this interaction caused Akechi's Confidant bond with her to go up.

Once Makoto finished her call with Akechi, she called Akira.

Akira had spent her morning helping Futaba record the unboxing video. After lunch, she went to the attic, sat on the bed, and got lost in thought. When her phone rang, she startled.

"Hello, Akira." It was Makoto. "I have some rather interesting news." Makoto talked about how her sister ended up forced to take a week off.

Akira also laughed. "Wow, that was smart. Akechi-kun sure knows his stuff!"

"Yes. We shouldn't take Akechi-kun lightly. He even carries a hidden recording device around. We must be extra careful about what we say near him. Especially you, Akira." Why did their talk had to turn into a reprimand? Shouldn't Makoto at least be glad that her sister had some time off?

"Ugh, yeah, I know."

"I don't know how much of his behavior near us was just an act, but..." Makoto paused. "He showed a lot of concern for us, both yesterday in Shinjuku when he explained his reasons for having agreed to help us, and today with my sister's issue. I'm inclined to believe his display of concern was real."

Akira was glad to hear this. Makoto seemed to be warming up to Akechi at last. "Yeah, I'm sure, too. At the end of the day, he's just a person like any other, with feelings, aspirations, fears, and on top of all that, is a misfit just like us. This is why I think we should show him the Metaverse. Now that his mind seems to be open to different ideas, I think we can clear things up and convince him of our reasons." Once they took Akechi to the Metaverse and he realized his inner strength, Akira hoped he would feel motivated, and that the bothersome sadness would vanish from his gaze for good.

"Akira, this is even more dangerous. You've seen his confidence on television. He is determined to get to the bottom of the Phantom Thieves case no matter what. This might be exactly what he is aiming for. His plan might be to get close to us until we trust him enough to willingly reveal our methods to him, and then he will have all the information he needs to sell us out."

"Didn't you just say you believe his concern about us is real? He cares about us, Makoto. I'm sure he does. He can't just go and sell us out!"

"If he turns out to be as obsessed with this case as my sister is obsessed with her promotion, which I don't doubt, then he probably will."

"We just gotta make sure he realizes our cause's more important than whatever he wants to get by catching us. I'm sure we're getting there."

"Akira, why do you always have to take this so lightly?!" Makoto sighed in exasperation. "I would like to trust him, and would like you to be right. But if we aren't careful and he ends up selling us out, it'll be the end for us! I'm scared, Akira. This is the reason I'm so worked-up about this." Makoto admitted.

"Yesterday, Akechi-kun said he didn't know how he could help if we were to get in trouble. Still, he followed his heart and came to help us. If worse comes to worse and he needs to choose between us and his fame, I believe he'll follow his heart again. I trust his heart. I can tell it's in the right place."

"I hope you are right..."

They remained in silence for a few seconds. Akira searched for another subject. "By the way, Makoto, did you find something out about the death sentence thing?"

"Not yet. I had intended to check my sister's books today, but now that she's home, I can't check these specific topics without her asking questions."

"Um, I was wondering about something," Akira said. "Remember what Crow said when he told us how he got his power? He had said that some strange entity put a lot of flattery words in his head and gave him the power and instructions to go after the mastermind. It reminds me of those gangs you talked about, and how they manipulate vulnerable people."

"Now that you mention it... assuming that said entity really exists, this may have been its strategy."

"It has to exist. I don't think Crow'd make this up. I mean, saying that some mysterious entity from another world manipulated him into killing people would do him no good. It'd be lame to tell this story in court to try to justify what he did. It'd be worse, and everyone'd conclude he's definitely crazy."

"You have a point."

"It's horrible that it turned out the way it did, but we can say Crow's a victim too, right?"

"I suppose so..." Makoto agreed hesitantly. "I'll try to check the books once I have the chance."

... ... ... ... ...

Monday, October 3

After school, the Phantom Thieves discussed their plan and went to the Shibuya station, from where they used the Metaverse app to enter Mementos. It was around the same time as always. They waited a few minutes in hope that Crow would come, but he didn't show up.

"We should move. We can't wait all day." Mona urged.

"I don't want to drive..." Joker whined.

"How about we attempt to drive, then?" Noir suggested. "Anyone willing to try?" Silence. "Then, I will."

Noir tried her hand at driving, but she failed to ambush Shadows. Or rather, they were the ones frequently getting ambushed. Her performance was as bad as Joker's. When the Monamobile crashed and fell on its side, Noir concluded it was time to give up.

"Oops, sorry... I had been considering driving my own car in the future rather than having a chauffeur, but it doesn't look like this may happen anytime soon..."

"Then, my turn." Queen took control of the steering wheel. "Let's do this!"

"Hey, wait...!" Mona cried in alarm.

"A- aaaaaah!" Everyone screamed as Queen was unable to hold herself, and the Monamobile tore through the tracks at a blazing speed.

Once the Phantom Thieves finally dealt with the targets they had come to Mementos for, they headed back to the entrance.

"Crow!" Joker exclaimed when she spotted him at the entrance.

"Dude, where've you been? We seriously need you here to drive," Skull said. "Noir sucks at driving as much as Joker, and Queen gets crazy when she drives! We thought our hearts'd jump outta our mouths!"

Crow didn't respond, and his expression was unreadable.

"Did you know we were here?" Panther asked.

"No, but I decided to check." He finally spoke. "I have... worrying news."

"... What happened?" Joker asked.

"We're running out of time."

To Joker, that didn't mean much without a proper explanation. "What do you mean?"

"The mastermind snapped. He got impatient at the lack of a calling card to Okumura, and..." Crow took a deep breath. "Ordered a mental shutdown on Okumura anyway, even though there was no calling card. He says the public will see the news, put two and two together, and logically conclude it was the Phantom Thieves' doing."

"What?" Noir was horrified.

Crow was quick to add. "Of course, a mental shutdown will be impossible because the Shadow is safe and the Palace is no more. We have until October 14th. This means we have a deadline now."

"What do you intend to do?" Queen asked.

"Waiting until the last day would be suspicious. So, once we have around three days left, I'll have to break it to him that the Palace doesn't exist anymore, and may have to show him the app if he demands proof. I'll say that Okumura's Shadow self-destructed the Palace by fear of the Phantom Thieves."

"None of that is a lie, either," Fox said. "Impressive."

"Not that it matters, though. My integrity is long gone."

"I don't think so." Panther disagreed. "If it were, I don't think you'd be saying this."

Crow seemed taken aback by Panther's statement.

"But what should we do now?" Joker was worried. "Do you mean we have to be 100% ready for the mastermind's Palace in one week!?"

"Well, this would be ideal. I can't buy us time beyond this deadline, and can't predict what may happen after that. But realistically speaking, if we consider the strongest Shadows currently available to us here in Mementos, being ready in one week is clearly impossible..."

"Um, isn't the strongest enemy here... that super powerful monster?" Oracle spoke.

"Oh... if only we could defeat that..." Mona had a mischievous expression.

Crow tensed. "Wait! You can't be seriously thinking of...!"

Joker was scared. In fact, she had been scared of that monster ever since the first time Mona had mentioned it.

"If this is our only option." Fox didn't share the sentiment.

"Maybe not the only one, but it is the best one," Queen said. "This is the only way we can strengthen significantly in just one week."

"It's scary, but I will do my best." Noir was determined. How Joker wished that determination, too...

"And of course, you'll be coming too." Mona looked at Crow.

"Huh?! Are you all out of your minds!?" Crow yelled.

"Scared, eh?" Mona taunted in that rough gangster way of his.

"Of course I am! I already mentioned how I faced that thing once, and barely could deal any damage to it!"

"You were alone when you fought it. Now you have us!" Panther glanced at Crow expectantly. "We and you work well as a group. It may be dangerous, but I'm sure chances will be way better if all of us work together!"

"If everyone gangs up on it together, it should be fine." Skull also didn't seem scared at all. "Right, Joker?"

"H-huh?" Joker gulped. "I'm scared, too. B-but if this i-is our best and quickest way..."

"Even you, Joker?!" Crow deadpanned.

"I t-trust you guys," Oracle said. "I'll support you as best as I can!"

Crow heaved a sigh. "Is this an unanimous decision again?"

"This is our best shot. I believe we should at least try, and flee if we conclude it's too much for us to handle." Queen gave her opinion. "I have a plan. We should bring the best healing medicine we can get, and the best spell items like protective barriers. We should also have items to distract the enemy and flee from the battle if we realize we can't win. This will be sort of a test. This is our best way to get what we want in a timely manner. If we test the waters and conclude it's too much for us, we will have to find another way."

"It's a good plan. Joker and I have the items covered!" Mona said. "So, Crow, you're coming, right?"

Crow heaved an exasperated sigh. "Alright. But just to test the waters a bit, as Queen put it. If we conclude it's too much, you must give up on this stupid idea at once. No stubbornness or pushing yourselves. If any of you still insist, I'll stop you by force if I need to."

Joker felt a warmth in her heart at Crow's words. "Thanks a lot, Crow." She smiled brightly at him.

"I just want to make sure everyone gets out of this alive. I don't want to be made responsible for the death of the Phantom Thieves, too. I already have too much to regret as it is." Obviously, that wasn't a joke.

Even though Crow made it sound like he would help them more out of guilt than anything else, Joker felt Crow actually cared a great deal about them. It was at times like these that a Tarot card usually invaded her vision to inform her of a Confidant rank-up, but this time, nothing happened.

"Then, see you tomorrow?" Panther said.

Crow nodded.

"Alright. We'll go home now. See ya!" Skull said his goodbye and everyone began heading to the exit.

"Joker." Crow stopped Joker in her tracks. "If we're going to do this, then we should do it right. I have a good spell to reduce the enemy's attack, defense and agility, but we probably should also use support spells on the team and try to decrease our disadvantage. I can't do much about my Persona selection like you can. So, make sure to bring Personas with team support spells like Masukukaja to make evading attacks easier, and with healing spells as well."

"Good advice. Thanks! And I see that you're getting better at working in a team."

Crow didn't respond to her compliment.

Joker wished she could express how glad she was to know he cared about them. There was so much she wanted to ask him, too.


"See you tomorrow." He cut her off and walked away briskly.

"Ah, wait!" Joker called after him, but he was already out of sight. She scrambled to catch up, but the last she saw of him was the light transporting him out of the Metaverse.

"Joker!" Mona came running to her. "What happened? Everyone is out of the Metaverse already."

"I was just talking to Crow. There was more I wanted to ask him, but he left the Metaverse too..."

"I had also wanted to talk to him. How about we try to catch him outside? He should still be around."

Joker and Mona hurried to the exit. All the Phantom Thieves were waiting outside.

"Akira, you got left behind! What happened?" Futaba was worried.

"I was trying to talk to Crow, but he left me hanging again. He left the Metaverse. So, he should still be nearby, right? Have any of you seen anyone 'suspicious' around?"

"No." Ann answered.

Akira looked around. All she could see was a bunch of people going about their own business.

"Mementos is connected to Shibuya's train tracks." Morgana reminded them. "It means this station is the only way to enter Mementos. He must still be somewhere around here."

Makoto was also looking around. "I wonder where he enters Mementos from."

Futaba made a crying face. "Crow... why do you still hide your identity from us? Don't you trust us enough already?"

"Let us take a walk around." Haru suggested.

The Phantom Thieves walked around the station, but found no one out of the ordinary.

"It's no use." Makoto concluded. "Now that I think about it, we don't even know what traits to look for..."

"Yes, it's no use." Morgana agreed. "Let's call it a day."

With that, the Phantom Thieves were forced to give up, and parted ways.

Chapter Text

It had been one day already, and Sae still didn't have the information she wanted. She couldn't hold herself and called Akechi's number.

"Akechi-kun, this is regarding the subject we were supposed to discuss."

"Sae-san, I had told you you should rest."

"Isn't this important? I would rather not wait."

"Yes, it is, and I'd rather discuss it in person. But I'm not available right now. Sorry, but you'll have to wait a bit more..."

How strange. The detective boy was always so eager to boast his theories. Why was he stalling now?

"Akechi-kun-" Sae tried to insist.

"For now, just rest. You got the whole week off for a reason."

Sae grunted in frustration. "Why do you have to keep intruding in my routine!?"

"It's for your own good. Hadn't you said I needed to become less arrogant and more responsible? It's what I'm trying to do. Think less about myself and more about others." This took Sae aback, and Akechi used this opening to end the call. "I'll talk to you another time. Take care."

"Wait!" Sae protested, but the call was already over.

Half an hour later, Sae came to a decision. She would make Akechi talk, even if she had to go to his house and demand the information from him directly. And this was what she would do. Sae dug up Akechi's address from the files in her computer, and just as she was about to leave, Makoto returned.

"I'm home!"

"Makoto, I need to be away for a bit."

Makoto did that cute innocent worried face of hers. "Sis... don't tell me this is about work again."

"There is some important information I need to obtain. I need it to get a head start once my work resumes."

"But it's your week off...!"

"Once you become an adult, you will understand why such sacrifices are necessary."

"No, Sis. I will never understand!" Makoto whined. "You're overdoing it!"

"This big job may be the chance I have been waiting for. I must succeed. I must win no matter what!"

"Win..." Makoto murmured sadly.

Sae didn't like to see her little sister this sad, but there was nothing she could do. This was necessary.

"Once this job is over, we will go to the hot springs, together. Just the two of us. Okay?"

Makoto seemed about to cry.

Sae patted Makoto on the head. "I'm leaving. Don't wait for me for dinner."

... ... ... ... ...

Sae dropped by a restaurant and bought some takeout, then headed to Akechi's address.

"Good evening. Does Goro Akechi live here?" She asked the doorman.

"Yes, he does. You are?"

"I am prosecutor Sae Niijima. I have some work-related matters to discuss with him."

"He isn't home yet, though." The doorman informed her.

"At what time does he usually come home?"

"Usually around seven thirty."

Sae glanced at her phone. It was a little past seven. "I will wait for him. It is important."

Since she had never been to that building and Akechi wasn't there to authorize her entrance, the doorman didn't let her in, and she had to wait outside. Luckily, around ten minutes later, Akechi arrived.

"Sae-san...?" His eyes were wide in surprise.

"Since you will talk only if it is in person, here I am. Would you let me in?"

Akechi looked totally out of his element. It was rare to see him out of composure like this. To Sae, it was satisfying. Lots of things seemed to be buzzing in his head at once, and Sae was sure he would give in.

"O-okay, I get it. We can talk." Bingo. "Uh, but a-are you sure you want to come in?"

"Yes." Sae showed the lunch box from the restaurant. "I know this is sudden. So, I bought you dinner to make up for the inconvenience."

"Uh..." Akechi gaped. "You didn't need to go to the trouble... no, but what I mean is..."

Sae was getting impatient. "Shall we go in or not?"

"Um, yes. Follow me." Akechi finally signaled the doorman to open the gate and headed inside. Sae entered after him.

Sae thought it was a bit odd how generic and worn the building looked, and couldn't avoid getting stunned when they entered Akechi's apartment, but not for the reasons she imagined she might.

"Is this... really where you live?" Sae glanced around the small cubicle.

"Yes. Sorry, I'm not used to getting visitors. Actually, this was the reason I asked whether you were sure you wanted to come in. Going to a restaurant would probably be more comfortable..."

The place didn't have a sofa. It had only one chair to which Akechi's school bag was strapped, and a single table he probably used as a desk.

"How can you manage to live at a place like this?"

"I'm away most of the time, and basically stay here just to study and sleep."

"You don't even have a television set." Sae pointed out.

"There are TVs and radios turned on at most of the places I go to. So, I see no need to have one myself. If I ever need to check news at home, there is the Internet." Akechi pulled the chair next to the table. "Please, take a seat."

"What about you?"

"I'll remain standing."

Sae hesitated. It would be weird to sit down and leave him standing. Sae would prefer if both of them could sit down. In the end, she set the lunch box on the table and shook her head. "If you will remain standing, then I will as well."

"If you say so."

"Alright, Akechi-kun. Enough pleasantries. Let us discuss what really matters. The Phantom Thieves."

"Okay. You remember the last time we discussed their actions, don't you?"

"Of course I do. You had pointed out how the so called changes of heart have similarities to the mental shutdowns and psychotic breakdowns. You had hypothesized that the Phantom Thieves may be terrorists using their methods to eliminate opposition and achieve power and fame." She recalled his annoying mocking face. "And you had been laughing and having so much fun with this theory as well..."

"Why wouldn't I? A detective versus a mysterious group of thieves. Isn't this epic?" Akechi's displeased tone and expression didn't match the excitement his words implied. He chuckled bitterly. "It turns out I had been the one aiming to use this to get fame. But things aren't as simple as they seem, and that was a hasty conclusion to make."

"Care to elaborate?"

"Sae-san, you had analyzed President Okumura's connections, and concluded he was the person who most benefited from the psychotic breakdowns, right?"

"Yes. I am inclined to think President Okumura may have done some deal to get the Phantom Thieves to cause psychotic breakdowns on his competitors. Now that the fans want them to go after him, they might, in order to increase their popularity."

"Then, analyze the other breakdown and shutdown incidents. Who have benefited from those the most?" Akechi paused. As Sae didn't respond, he continued. "Basically, other businessmen, people connected to politics, and others wanting to rise to power, exactly the same way President Okumura had been doing. If you think about it, you'll see that after every such incident, someone influential either got a better position, or got away with cheating."

Sae recalled the events after a few of the incidents, and it was just as Akechi said. The events usually involved someone climbing up, or someone that was clearly corrupt not falling, though there were incidents that seemed random and she couldn't determine who had benefited.


"Now, analyze the changes of heart." Akechi prompted her. "Who have been benefiting from those the most?"

Sae recalled people complimenting the Phantom Thieves. "... The fans...?"

"More like, the general populace." Akechi corrected her. "Or rather, the complete opposite 'audience' from the breakdown and shutdown incidents. Normal, mostly nobodies, not affiliated with politicians or anything. In fact, most politicians speak against the Phantom Thieves, as does the police, because people have been giving more credit to the Thieves than to the authorities."

"Now that you mention it... the police has been restless from the time the Phantom Thieves targeted Kaneshiro." Sae contemplated the implications. "So, are you implying that the Phantom Thieves' actions and the other mental incidents might be separate?"

"Exactly. Even though the methods may be similar, if we take the different 'audiences' into account, it doesn't make sense to think they are all the same thing, now does it? Also, the breakdowns and shutdowns have been happening for a couple of years. The first time we've heard about the Phantom Thieves was sometime in spring this year. Judging from this, we can conclude that the Phantom Thieves might have learned about the heart-changing methods only recently."

No, it couldn't be. Sae was inclined to believe the Phantom Thieves were the ones responsible for the mental shutdowns and psychotic breakdowns. The mental illnesses were a mystery, and there was nothing more unexplainable and suspicious than the Phantom Thieves. It had to be them! Sae refused to let those suspicions go. "What if the Phantom Thieves have two different sides in order to mislead-"

"Mislead? How? What would they gain by doing that? These are clearly two different, opposite groups. Trying to lump them simply doesn't make any sense, Sae-san."

Sae gaped for a moment as she frantically tried to find another argument to defend her suspicions. "I... I need evidence to support this."

"How about interrogating the Phantom Thieves' targets privately?" Akechi suggested. "Try to find out whether they felt threatened, or whether they remember anything about the Phantom Thieves."

Sae scoffed. "I already tried that. I attempted to talk to Madarame and Kaneshiro at different occasions, but the police didn't allow me to interrogate them. They said it was dangerous, as the two may be mentally unstable. It is as though the police were hiding-" Sae balked. "No..."

"Hiding the Phantom Thieves' targets? It may very well be the case. The police can't accept to lose credibility to a group of vigilantes. They may very well be trying to keep the targeted figures away to save face."

"No, but this is absurd..."

"You recall I work for the police, too, right?" Akechi reminded her. "Yes, this possibility is absurd, but I don't doubt it at all."

"This can't be..." Sae tried to organize her thoughts. "Wait. Even if we disregard the Phantom Thieves for the moment, it is a fact that corrupt people are benefiting from the breakdowns and shutdowns, is it not? Then, shouldn't you bring this to the public's attention?"

"I can't." Akechi's expression was serious, unlike last time when he laughed mockingly while spouting his hypothesis about the Phantom Thieves. "Do you realize how big this issue is? Bringing this to the media's attention would be the last thing I would do... quite literally. There are powerful people that won't like it, and won't think twice before crushing me."

"Will you just remain quiet, then?!"

"For now, yes. I want to expose the truth. But for that, I need a thorough investigation, to gather enough evidence to nip the evil in the bud. I need someone from the law's side to do that. And... this is why I I would be glad if you could help me, but..."

Akechi, the ever so arrogant boy, asking for help? This definitely wasn't something Sae had expected.

"This is too sudden. I need to think." Sae responded. "You are implying that the Phantom Thieves aren't necessarily the ones I should be after. Either way, if this is as big as it sounds, then I might get a promotion at the end..."

"Is your promotion really all you care about?" Akechi sighed in exasperation. "You should think carefully. As much as I would like your help, this is a serious issue. Messing with powerful people is dangerous, and we may be biting much more than we can chew. Too much is at stake beyond a single worker's promotion. Although, yes, I believe you'd deserve a promotion after this. But I also think you deserve a better boss..."

This statement intrigued her. "Why do you say that? My boss is the director of the Special Investigation Unit, one of the most respected organizations in the country."

"Have you ever looked him up? If you haven't, then you should."

Sae had a bad feeling about Akechi's last statement, and felt she really should look into the issue. "Alright, I will. That being said, I still want to know about the Phantom Thieves' methods. But as we have just concluded, interrogating the targets is out of the question."

"Not necessarily. Who said it has to be Madarame and Kaneshiro? There are other targets who didn't do things serious enough to be arrested, and are out and about, living their lives normally."

"Other targets?" Sae perked up.

"I've tracked a few requests from the Phansite and noted down the targets' information. Would you take out your phone? I'll send you the list."

Both of them retrieved their cellphones, and Akechi transferred a document file to Sae's phone. Sae opened the file, and marveled at how organized it was. It contained the target's full name, the message from the forum explaining the reasons for the person to be targeted, a link to the source message, and lastly, the home address or work address of the target, presumably collected by Akechi himself. Most of the investigation had already been done. It was just a matter of visiting the listed address and interrogating the person.

"Thank you." Sae put her phone away. "Since I have some free time, I will try to talk to a few of them. It's you who gave my this homework. Don't dare tell me to stay still and rest!"

Akechi laughed. Not mockingly like Sae was used to, but amused. "Okay, I won't. But what about dinner? You still didn't have dinner, did you?"

"No, but..."

"Let's see what we have here..." Akechi opened the lunch box and saw rice with potatoes, some greens and some meat. "Luckily, I have more than one bowl and pair of chopsticks..."

"What? But that is only for you. I will have dinner once I get home."

"But you came all the way here... besides, all this food is a bit much for me." Akechi pointed at the chair. "And please take a seat. You've been standing since even before you arrived here."

"What about you?"

"I'll sit on the futon."

Sae couldn't deny that her feet were aching, and allowed herself to sit on the chair.

Akechi brought the bowls and chopsticks, split the food for both he and Sae, then unfurled the futon that had been tucked in a corner and proceeded to sit down and have his dinner there.

As they consumed their food, Sae couldn't help but think that something had changed about Goro Akechi. His usual air of arrogance was gone, and his forced celebrity smiles were also nowhere to be seen. He looked more serious, and was behaving more responsibly than how Sae had imagined he did. It was as though something shocking had happened to him and forced him to mature. She got curious to know what might have happened, but it was none of her business.

After dinner, Sae stood up and headed towards the door. "Thank you for the information and the hospitality."

Akechi threw her an apologetic glance. "I'm sorry that I can't do much about the hospitality part. Thank you for bringing dinner, though. And..." He looked her in the eye. "Please, don't tell anyone about what we discussed. Not your boss, or any coworker, no one. We should keep it just between us for now."

"Of course." Sae nodded firmly.

Akechi's gaze became distant for a second, and Sae considered asking whether something was wrong, but gave up. Once again, it was none of her business. She just said goodbye and left.

Once Sae-san had left, Akechi exhaled in relief. It seemed he had at least managed to undo the damage from his previous statements and steer her in the right direction. It was a start, the first step into exposing the truth.

"I am thou, thou art I... thou hast acquired a new vow, the Sae Niijima Confidant. It shall become the wings of rebellion that breaketh thy chains of captivity. With the birth of the Judgement Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power..."

Tuesday, October 4

After school, Akira gathered all the Phantom Thieves at the attic before heading to Mementos.

"My sister was away for a bit yesterday, and I took the opportunity to check her Law books. I have learned a bit more about the death penalty." Makoto announced, and all eyes turned to her. "There are a few factors that weigh in the decision to apply the death sentence. The main factor is the number of victims. Then there are the criminal's motivations, and the level of remorse. Another factor is whether the victims' families want the criminal to be sentenced to death. There are specific cases where the person's sanity and mental stability may be taken into account as well."

"The victims' families have a say in it too? Like, if they want to avenge their relative's death?" Ann asked.

"I don't want him to die!" Futaba declared firmly. "Not sure about the families of the other mental shutdown victims, though..."

"His level of remorse seems to be very high." Yusuke noted. "We can tell from the way he breaks down whenever we touch upon the subject too much."

"Yeah, it's as though he had suffered a psychotic breakdown himself, and now is horrified to find out what he did." Akira gave her analogy. "Uh, Makoto, you said the person's mental stability may be considered. What is worse? Someone that killed because he had lost his mind, or someone that killed fully aware of what he was doing?"

"Err, I don't know. I think the two scenarios may be equally bad. But in the end, what really weighs the most is the number of victims. We have no idea how many people he has killed... certainly more than three, though. It's a really complicated case. I'm not sure whether there's a way for Crow to be saved. And from the way he seems willing to simply turn himself in, he must be aware of his circumstances as well."

"Isn't there anything we can do?" Akira asked.

No one had an answer to that.

"Hey, we need to be going! We have a powerful monster to defeat!" Morgana prompted the group to move. "Crow will be there, and we can try to talk to him."

Everyone silently agreed and went to Mementos.

Crow was already there. "Are you really sure about doing this?" He asked them.

Joker nodded hesitantly. "My Personas are ready. Yeah..."

"So, we just need to stay in one area for some time until we hear chains clanking?" Noir asked for confirmation.

"That's right." Crow answered. "I suggest we stay at one of the upper areas with weaker Shadows, so that they won't pose a problem if we need to run away."

"Good thinking... as always." Queen agreed.

"We've also brought a lot of items. Let's go!" Mona said excitedly.

They went to the tracks and entered the Monamobile. Joker was glad that Crow would be driving.

However, there wasn't much driving this time. The car soon stopped near the rest area on one of the upper floors, where they would wait for the monster.

"Joker." Crow spoke up. "You need to learn to drive."

"I don't want to. I prefer being a passenger. You do a much better job!" She complimented him to see if he would stop insisting.

"How are you supposed to continue your explorations once I'm gone?" He asked that as though he would simple be away on a trip. This showed how resigned he was.

"Crow." Queen interjected before Joker could respond. "Sorry to ask this, right before our important battle, but since we have some time, I thought we could talk a bit. How many people did you, um, cause mental shutdowns on?"

Crow lowered his head, seemingly unwilling to respond. But then, he suddenly raised his head and shook it. "No, I've decided that I won't run away from what I've done." A heavy pause. "Nine people, if memory serves right. Of those, three are alive and in a vegetative state."

"In other words, six people have died..." Queen concluded. "What about psychotic breakdowns?"

"I didn't keep track. Certainly more than mental shutdowns, though."

"How did you cause those?" Panther asked. "Was it by killing people's Shadows, too?"

"No. I channeled all the hate from my heart through my Persona, and made their Shadows go berserk."

"I've never heard of such an ability!" Mona said.

"How can you be so sure? You've lost your memories." Skull mocked.

"Skull, shut up!"

"You channeled all your hate into the Shadows?" Joker felt a pang in her heart. "What is it that you hate so much?"

"It's easier to say what I don't hate."

"Crow..." Joker made a hurt face.

"I don't hate you guys. That's about it."

That was too sad. Joker wished she could do something about the hate in Crow's heart. He was doing the right thing now. He deserved good things in his life. She was tempted to reach out and wrap an arm around him, but she heard sounds of chains dragging, and froze.

"I-i-it's coming..." Oracle stuttered.

Crow was alert. "Prepare for battle. I'll try to ambush it."

The monster came into view, holding guns and with chains that tied its body and dragged on the ground. It moved fast. A bit of struggling later, Crow managed to maneuver and get behind the monster, and the Monamobile ran it over from behind! Joker doubted she would have been able to do the same. They really needed Crow as their driver.

Mona ejected everyone, and they surrounded the enemy.

"We, uh, have the advantage, but it's... it's too strong!" Scared, Oracle took more distance from the battle than usual.

"Let's begin. Robin Hood!" Crow summoned his Persona and used a spell that debuffed the enemy's attack, defense and agility at the same time.

"Whoa! Awesome!" Joker was awed, and almost forgot to summon her own Persona. "Masukukaja for us!" Joker called upon her Byakko who she had taught Masukukaja through Persona sacrifice, and proceeded to boost the team's agility.

The others used the buffs they had access to. And the enemy attacked. Even with all the buffs and debuffs, one attack from the enemy was enough to put everyone in the danger zone. Queen used Mediarama, but it wasn't enough, and Joker had to use a medicine to help heal the team.

They attacked, with disappointing results. Not even Crow, the strongest of the group, could deal any significant damage. Then an enemy attack came and threw almost everyone to the ground again.

"But I think it's not impossible!" Queen used Mediarama once more. It wasn't enough, and Joker also had to use Mediarama.

Since their attacks weren't doing too much, the Phantom Thieves decided to throw the monster's own attacks against it. They resorted to using all the ointment barrier items they had. Even so, the results weren't very promising, and it wasn't long until they ran out of barrier items... Crow used Tetrakarn and Makarakarn a few times, but this burned his SP quickly, and he became unable to use his super debuff spell.

Another attack threw the Phantom Thieves to the ground. Queen cast Mediarama.

"This isn't good!" Queen gasped for breath, also out of SP.

Joker was forced to use her best medicines to get the group back to full health, then Mona switched places with Queen to be the healer.

"Meooooow!" However, a Ziodyne from the enemy hit Mona squarely. Electricity was his weakness, and he couldn't withstand it. Mona fainted after a painful meow.

"We need to run!" Joker decided, and no one needed to be told twice.

Joker threw a Vanish Ball item to distract the monster. Noir took the unconscious Mona in her arms, and they ran.

The Phantom Thieves ran as fast as they could. It was a good thing that they had been battling near the platform, and luckily the monster stopped coming for them once they reached the platform. They breathed in relief at the rest area.

"Gah! What on Earth is that thing anyway?" Skull gasped for breath.

"F-from my analysis, looks like it's called Reaper." Oracle responded.

"That wasn't... what I meant!" Skull panted.

"Phew, that was scary! My heart's still racing." Joker collapsed into a sitting position on the bench at the rest area. "Is everyone alright?"

"Mona-chan is still unconscious." Noir lay Mona down on the ground.

"I have a few revival items, but they aren't the best ones." Joker retrieved one of her revival medicines.

"If only I had enough SP, I would use Samarecarm." Crow lamented.

Even before drinking the revival medicine, Mona half-opened his eyes, and began dragging himself groggily towards... A wall?

"Hey, where do you think you are going?" Crow quickly moved and held Mona before he could collide with the wall.

Mona seemed to perk up at Crow's voice. "Meooooow..." He meowed cutely and unexpectedly clung to Crow.

"Hey! What are you doing?!" Alarmed, Crow pushed Mona away and took a step back.

"Since Mona is awake, a healing medicine instead of a revival one will do." Fox advised.

"Come on, Mona, let's get you back in full gear." Joker approached Mona with a healing medicine in hand.

While Joker tended to Mona, Crow walked over to a bench and sat down.

However, Mona looked away from Joker and refused to drink the medicine. "Meooow..." Instead, he whined and scurried over to the bench, climbed on it and clung to Crow again.

"What's gotten into him...? Never seen him like this before!" Skull was perplexed. "Okay, he used to get weird around big treasures, but he never clung to people like that!" Indeed, he hadn't. Not even to Panther, who he had a weird crush on. "What if this is Mona's true nature, and his true form is just a normal cat?"

Mona growled at Skull, but insisted on sticking near Crow.

"Joker, do something!" Crow glanced desperately at Joker.

But all Joker did was smile at the scene. "Awww, this is adorable!"

"Cute Mona," Oracle said with a mischievous grin.

Noir giggled. "I think he likes you, Crow. We're safe from danger here. Why don't you give him some attention while you rest?"

Everyone sat down to take a break after their unsuccessful battle, and fortunately, successful retreat. Crow was relieved that nothing bad had happened to any of the Phantom Thieves. His only worry at the moment was the fact that Mona strangely decided to cling to him. It reminded him of Morgana's behavior during that sleepover at Leblanc, and Crow got worried that Mona might have gotten some hint about his identity. Unlike in Leblanc, though, Crow chose to look away and not pet Mona or anything. Crow sat stiffly, and merely allowed Mona to lean into him and rest.

"Here. Give him this." Joker handed the medicine to Crow, and he administered it on Mona. This time, Mona drank it without protest.

"Hmm?" Mona blinked awake. "... Crow?" He backed away from Crow a bit, but remained where he was. "We didn't win, right?"

"We escaped, and Noir had to carry you." Crow answered.

"Sorry, Noir." Mona glanced apologetically at Noir, who offered him a kind smile. "And Crow, you too. Sorry. I was out of it for a bit, and kinda just..."

Noir kept smiling. "Mona-chan, you are quite fond of Crow, aren't you?"

"Uh, I..." Mona hesitated. "Crow is a wild card, too, and I feel that I need to keep an eye on him, just as I do with Joker."

Mona was trying to appear serious and rough, but Crow could feel his kindness.

Fox changed the subject. "Our mission to defeat the monster has failed. What should we do now?"

"Good question," Queen said. "We can't make much progress with the Shadows in here."

Crow spoke after some hesitation. "Perhaps I could... make some normal Shadows berserk. This would make them stronger. Don't worry. It shouldn't cause a psychotic breakdown on anyone."

"I'm curious about this ability," Mona said. "How about we try it on one of the lower floor Shadows as a quick test?"

The Phantom Thieves agreed, for the lack of a better idea. They headed to the lowest floor they had access to, and engaged a normal Shadow in battle.

"I'll do it. Stay back!" Crow warned the group, then summoned Loki. Crow screamed as he released his hate towards the Shadow.

"The Shadow's power level... exploded!" Oracle exclaimed in fright.

Even though the Shadow became stronger, the Phantom Thieves defeated it without much problem. It was a nice change of pace after that dangerous and frustrating battle against the Reaper.

"Whoa! I think it worked!" Panther was ecstatic. "I feel my Persona is a bit stronger!"

Crow used his ability on four more Shadows. But after that, he was tired and gasping for breath.

"Won't Crow have a heart attack if he keeps at this?" Queen was concerned.

"Crow, stop!" Joker looked at him with a hurt expression. "That seems painful..."

"Let's go back to the rest area." Mona decided. "And Joker, you drive."

"Ugh... okay." Joker grimaced, but agreed to drive, surprisingly.

Back at the rest area, everyone sat down again.

"Crow, you alright?" Mona asked in concern.

Crow wanted to say he was fine, but it wasn't true. His heart was hammering in his chest, and it was hard to breathe. This was the first time Crow had used his berserk ability five times in quick succession like this.

Mona climbed onto the bench next to Crow. "Crow, calm down."

"Hug Mona. It's calming." For the first time today, Oracle talked directly to Crow outside of battle.

At first, it sounded like Oracle was making fun of them, but Crow recalled how calming it had been to hold Morgana when the supernatural cat stayed at his house. At that time, he had even considered that Morgana might have the ability to calm hearts, the opposite of himself. If this were really true, then it must solve his current problem. With that thought, Crow pulled Mona to sit on his lap.

"Ah!" Mona gasped at the unexpected action. "Don't tell me you're taking her joke seriously!"

"It's not a joke." Oracle countered. "Why do you think I hug you when I'm nervous?"

Mona shuffled awkwardly. "W-well, Crow, if you think this'll make you feel better..."

Crow didn't respond. He merely held Mona to his chest gently and tried to take deep breaths. Eventually, Crow's heartbeats returned to normal, and he relaxed.

"Wow, it's working?" Panther was surprised.

"It is. Thanks for the advice, Oracle."

"M-me!?" Oracle jumped.

"It was your suggestion." Crow set Mona back on the bench. "Thanks, Mona."

"Uh, I didn't do anything..."

Crow looked at Mona, and remembered how the special cat had been scared about the nightmare that night, likely about his origins. Crow wished he could do something to help Mona remember his past.

"Mona. The other day, you mentioned something about going to the bottom of Mementos. What is in there for you to want to get there so much?"

"... To be honest, I'm not sure. Must be something about my past, though I don't remember. But I have this strong feeling that it's very important, and that you two wild cards need to be there too."

"Alright. If I have time after the mastermind's change of heart, I'll join you in your Mementos exploration. This will solve your issue, right?"

"You're coming?! Yes!" Mona's face lit up. "I'll be counting on you, Crow!"

Crow felt his bond with Mona growing. The Magician Confidant ranked up.

When the card vision disappeared, Crow heard Queen already talking about something else. "Having Crow use his berserk ability on the Shadows isn't an option. It may be dangerous to Crow's own health. That being said, all our strategies for quicker training have failed. We need another plan."

"We need a big target with a Palace that has stronger Shadows!" Skull said.

"How are we going to find a big target so quickly, though?" Fox asked. "We always take several days to find a target."

"Aren't there a lot of options at the bad guys' organization?" Joker said.

"I'd rather not mess with the organization members for now." Crow advised. "If one of them has a change of heart and ends up giving hints, the mastermind may suspect something's up. It'd be safer to target someone that isn't involved with the organization."

"Okay. I doubt it, but does anyone have any ideas?" Joker risked asking.

Queen suddenly made a conflicted face, and Crow had a bad feeling about it. He hoped she wasn't thinking of...

"I... might." Queen uttered hesitantly. "But, um, I'm not really sure. I need some time to think."

"Let's call it a day and think about this later." Joker suggested. "Things were kinda hectic today..."

They teleported from the rest area back to the entrance.

Joker flashed that expectant look of hers. "Crow, wanna come with?"

"... Huh?" Crow's eye twitched. He shook his head.

"We could take you to have coffee or something," Joker said.

"I have other things to do." He lied. "See you tomorrow." He quickly walked away towards his exit before the Phantom Thieves could ask more questions.

Joker slapped her thighs in frustration. "Why does he keep evading us like this? Shouldn't he be comfortable enough around us to show his identity already?"

Oracle seemed sad. "After he overused his power, he was suffering so much..."

Joker couldn't agree more. Her strange empathy to Crow made her feel some of his pain, and it was horrible. She could only imagine the full extent of what he was feeling. He didn't even need the law to punish him for his wrongdoings. His own conscience was already doing it. "Yeah, it looked so painful. I wish we could take all the hate and the pain from his heart."

"Hmm..." Mona was pensive.

"Mona-chan?" Noir looked at him questioningly.

"I had a feeling..." Mona shook his head. "No, never mind. Let's go home too."

Akechi returned to his apartment. He recalled how Makoto had become hesitant at the mention of a next target. He had a bad feeling about it. Actually, that thought had already occurred to him before. Sae-san's obsession with being promoted and "winning" was worrying. Akechi had had a bad feeling about Sae-san's behavior for a while, but he had been afraid to check. He finally decided to find out the answer and get that question over with.

Akechi took his cellphone out of his pocket and opened the Metaverse app. "Prosecutor Sae Niijima..." He said hesitantly into the voice recognition software.

"Match found."

Akechi startled and lost the grip on his cellphone, which slipped from his hand and fell unceremoniously to the ground. That was the response he had been dreading to hear. Sae-san's views were really distorted, and she had a Palace.

Chapter Text

Even though Akechi was very tired, he had trouble to sleep that night. The more he thought about the fact that Sae-san had a Palace, the worse it seemed. It meant her views were really distorted, and she might do anything to "win," no matter the cost. This also could mean she might switch to the organization's side if she deemed it more advantageous.

It was past midnight, and Akechi was still tossing and turning in his futon. When he least expected, his cellphone rang and made him startle. Who could it be at this time of night? His heart raced at the thought that it may be someone from the organization... luckily, it wasn't. He breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of Futaba's name on the screen. And then he got worried again because it might be an emergency, judging by the time, and by the fact that she was calling him rather than sending him a text message.

"Futaba... chan?"

"Akechi..." She said in a whiny voice.

"What's up? It's past midnight..."

"Yeah, and I can't sleep..."

"... Me neither." Akechi admitted.

"Tell me a story? I told you it'd be your turn next."

That was quite the strange request, and Akechi wasn't sure he could fulfill it.

"Sorry, I don't think my head can handle that right now. It isn't working right."

"Hmmm..." Futaba made a disappointed noise. "Just talk, then?"

"You're really up for talking, aren't you? I'm surprised you're calling me instead of sending texts. Do you call Akira this late in the night, too?"

"Nah, never done it before. Not sure why I decided to call you, either. Maybe 'cause I'm here, alone in my room, and know you're there alone, too. Akira has Mona."

"Thanks..." Akechi uttered, touched. He only wished the level of feelings pressure in his heart would reset every day at midnight or something, because the roller coaster of feelings he had been going through lately was overwhelming.

"Huh? What are you thanking me for?"

"For... calling. For thinking of me like that."

Futaba giggled. "Weird reasons, but whatever! So, what do you wanna talk about?"

"Well, it's you who wants to talk... I don't know."

"I also don't know. Welp, I guess I'll continue telling you that story. You owe me one story, got it?" And Futaba proceeded to continue narrating her improvised Featherman fan fiction.

Futaba was doing this, unaware that he was the one who killed her mother. Akechi didn't deserve this kindness. He wanted to cry, but held himself. Eventually, his body, including his eyelids, began feeling heavy, and he finally fell asleep.

Wednesday, October 5

Akira smiled brightly at the sight of Akechi, at the train station on the way to school. "Akechi-kun! Good morning! It's been a while since we don't run into each other on the way to school, isn't it?"

"Good morning." Akechi responded tiredly. "Yes, this hasn't happened in a while."

"How's it at your school? How do people treat you?"

"The teachers treat me fine as long as I do well. The students mostly look down on me, either because they envy my scores and because I have permission to skip school to take care of work, or because they dislike me for my statements about the Phantom Thieves."

"Do you have anyone to keep you company during lunch break? I know you don't have friends, but don't you have at least one person to do small talk with?"

"No. I'm used to it, though. Better than being bullied, like when I had been in elementary school."

Akira looked at him with sympathy. "I wish we were in the same school. Then, we could spend lunch break together. And you'd also have Ann and Ryuji and Makoto and Haru."

"... Hmm?" Akechi blinked.

"Oh, you still haven't talked to Haru, have you? She's such a sweet girl! It'd be fun if all of us could spend lunch break together almost every day, right?"

Akechi's gaze became distant. "It would've been nice if it were like that..."

"Why don't you transfer?"

Akechi laughed. It was that genuine laugh he did when he was being just himself. "At this point? No, I can't just transfer. There's a lot of weird contracts and stuff between my work and the school. It isn't that simple. Besides, this is my last year."

Akira failed to catch the double meaning in Akechi's sentence. "Oh, speaking of school, I'll have exams in two weeks. Think you could help me study a bit?"

"Me? Why you don't just ask Makoto? She's from your school and all."

Akira gave his hair a quick ruffle. "Because I want to spend time with you, silly."

Akechi jumped in alarm. "A-Akira, we are in public... I-I mean..."

"Akechi-kun, please." Akira ignored his protest. "Didn't we just say it'd be nice if we were in the same school? This is the next best thing. Let's act as though I were your schoolmate."

Akechi looked sad for some reason. It was that bothersome sadness Akira disliked to see. "So, Futaba-chan pretends to be my sibling, and you pretend to be my schoolmate... Nothing but illusions..."

So, this was what Akechi was feeling. The sadness of being alone, of having no family, no friends and no supportive schoolmates, and the wish to have all of that. Akira didn't like the way he put it, though. It was as though Akechi was saying his bond with Futaba and Akira were worth less just because Futaba wasn't his real sibling, and Akira wasn't his real schoolmate. It was like those adoptive kids who insisted on wanting to find their real parents thinking their bond would be more genuine than the bond with their adoptive parents.

"No. It's not like that. Futaba may not be your real sibling, and I may not be your schoolmate, but our bonds are real, Akechi-kun. We're close all the same. The feelings are what counts. Actually, our bonds with you may be worth more than those with real siblings and schoolmates. Do you know why? Because Futaba and I want to be close to you by choice, and not by circumstance."

Akechi was stunned for a moment, until a smile slowly formed and broke through his sadness.

"Sunday at Leblanc, then?" Akira insisted.

"Alright." Akechi finally agreed. "It's good that you aren't leaving all your studies for the last day. It's a bit too much to try condensing two months worth of subjects into just one afternoon session."

Akira grinned in triumph, happy that Akechi had agreed. "Yeah, I know. You should tell Ryuji that."

"Then, tell him for me." Akechi glanced at the platform. "We should go, or we'll be late. See you around, Akira."

They parted ways. Akira boarded the train.

"Akechi..." Morgana heaved a sigh and muttered the detective's last name.

"Hmm?" Akira inched her head closer to the bag to hear Morgana.

"No, it's just... I had a strange dream the other day. In that dream, I somehow concluded that Akechi was..." Morgana trailed off.

"Was what?"

"No, never mind..."

"Oh, come on. Tell me."

"No. It really makes no sense. Just forget it..."

... ... ... ... ...

In the afternoon, the Phantom Thieves went to Mementos. Crow was already awaiting them.

"Anyone found a new target?" Oracle asked.

"Of course not!" Skull snapped. "It isn't that easy. We can't just wipe a target out of thin air..."

Crow raised a hand. "Actually..."

Everyone looked at him, but he didn't continue.

Skull was impatient. "What the heck? Man, just say it!"

"Actually, we might have a target." Crow uttered the complete sentence. "Not sure about the Shadow levels in the Palace, though."

"... Who?" Panther looked at him questioningly.

"A prosecutor. Her name is..." Crow hesitated. "Sae Niijima."

"Niijima?" Skull's eyes bulged. "Wait a minute! That's..."

Queen, on the other hand, didn't seem surprised. She merely stared forward determinedly. "Yes, my sister. And yes, I know she has a Palace."

"You had known?" Everyone was bewildered, but Panther was the one to voice their bewilderment.

"She is obsessed with work, and all she cares about is her promotion. I have been worried about her work obsession for a while. As soon as I got the Metaverse app, I input her name into it, and it gave me a hit."

"For real...?" Skull uttered.

"She's investigating the mental shutdowns, and might set her eyes on the organization at any moment." Crow continued. "This is good. We'll need someone from the law side to build a case against the organization members. The problem is that she seems willing to do anything to get a promotion, no matter the cost, and her boss just so happens to be the SIU director, who is one of the main members of the organization. If he tries to pull her to the organization's side and she thinks it's more advantageous, she might accept his offer."

Queen gasped. "I... I hadn't realized this, but you're right! Her boss gave her a week off and told her some big work will come once she returns next week."

"Next week..." Crow echoed. "Ah, I think I get it! Remember that the mastermind set a deadline? They probably think Okumura will suffer a mental shutdown sometime along this time. According to the plan, they intend to use this to blame the Phantom Thieves and send the Special Investigation Unit after us."

"But Okumura won't suffer a shutdown, and the plan will fail..." Oracle muttered, seemingly more to herself than to the others.

Crow heard it. "That's right. When Queen's sister returns to work, the said big job likely won't happen. What will happen from there is anyone's guess, though. I did what I could."

"We know, Crow. No one's saying you didn't." Joker assured him. "What are the keywords?" She took her cellphone.

"I still haven't checked." Crow answered. "I only saw that she has a Palace, and didn't try to figure the keywords out. But since her problem is her obsession with work, I assume her Palace must be her workplace."

"the court house..." Queen muttered, and the app gave a hit.

Skull startled. "Ah! Spot on! Now, for what she thinks it is..."

"She told me it's a place where she must keep winning," Queen said.

"Winning? Like in an arena?" Noir took a guess.

No hit.

"A casino, probably," Queen spoke with a serious expression.

"Match found."

Everyone jumped.

"Gambling?" Crow found it absurd.

"She's gambling everything she has to get a promotion?" Joker theorized.

"How reckless." Fox commented.

Panther was hesitant. "Should we... take a look?"

"Queen, what do you want to do?" Mona asked her. "This is about your own sister."

"Let's do it." Queen was firm. "This is the reason I decided to become a Phantom Thief in the first place. I found out my sister has a Palace, and wanted to change her heart."

"Whoa... wait," Skull said. "Now that I think about it, aren't most big targets a family member of one of us here? Niijima-san is Queen's sister. Okumura is Noir's dad. Madarame was kind of like Fox's dad, too..."

Crow's expression aggravated at the realization that soon there would be one more of such targets. Shido, his father...

"Crow?" Joker stared at him questioningly.

Crow snapped to focus. "It's nothing. I'm heading to the Palace. I'll see you all there." He quickly excused himself and teleported out of the Metaverse.

Panther sighed. "There he goes again..."

"Skull, see what you did? Now Crow definitely knows Inari's identity." Oracle commented.

Noir gave her opinion. "Um, if we expect Crow to trust us enough to reveal his identity to us, it is only fair we trust him enough to reveal our identities to him as well, is it not?"

"It is bothersome that he refuses to reveal his identity to us. But you have a point, Noir." Fox agreed.

"It is a risk we may need to take," Queen said. "Perhaps if we reveal our identities to him, he will feel encouraged to do the same. He surely knows who my sister is, and can easily find out who I am, provided that he has not already..."

"I'm sure he's on our side and won't sell us out to the bad guys," Joker said. "It's fine with me."

"Let's go to the court house," Queen said. "I know where it is. I have gone there to deliver my sister's lunch and luggage a few times."

The Phantom Thieves left Mementos and went to the court house. However, as they reentered the Metaverse, their clothes didn't change into their thief costumes, which meant they weren't being viewed as enemies just yet. But there it was. A shiny huge casino.

"This thing's huge!" Skull exclaimed.

"It looks like something from a movie." Panther commented.

"Isn't this a perfect place for thieves to raid?" Skull spoke with an excited grin. "Now, where's our secret agent, though?"

"Let's go in." Joker led the group inside, and their clothes finally morphed into their thief costumes.

After a bit of walking, they found Crow fighting some Shadows.

"Hey, don't go ahead without us!" Joker approached him once the battle was over.

"Sorry, you were taking too long to get here, and I decided to take a quick peek inside. I, uh, got a bit careless, and those Shadows spotted me."

"You, got careless?" Skull looked at Crow disbelievingly. Crow's words had sounded more like an excuse to not wait for them outside, so that they wouldn't see him in normal clothes and find out his identity.

Crow tried to regain his composure. "... Though I have to say, these Shadows are stronger than the ones we had been facing in Mementos."

"Great, let's do this, then," Joker said.

Noir glanced around at the people in the casino. "The people in here didn't even react to Crow's battle."

"It's as though they are so engrossed in their gambling that they don't even notice what happens around them." Fox mused.

"At least they look like real people." Joker observed. "Not robots or walking ATM or other weird things like our past targets' cognitions."

"This means Niijima at least doesn't view people as objects," Mona said.

They found a few Shadows, and indeed, those were stronger than the Mementos ones. They had finally found suitable opponents for training! Or so they thought.

"Attention all." A feminine announcer voice sounded from a loudspeaker. "The casino will be closing for maintenance until next week. Please finish your play sessions and take your leave. I repeat, the casino will be closing for maintenance until next week..."

"Next week! You've gotta be kidding me!" Skull snapped.

Crow gritted his teeth and ran over to a Shadow clerk behind a counter. "May we speak to the manager? It's urgent."

"Apologies. Have you not heard the announcement? Everyone must leave."

"Please. It is an urgent matter." Queen restated.

"Please leave. If you do not, we will call security." But the attendant didn't wait to see if the Thieves would leave or not and called security anyway. The alarms rang, the Palace's alertness level increased, and a horde of Shadows spawned near them.

The Phantom Thieves were forced to battle. They defeated Shadow after Shadow, but more kept coming, and the alertness level kept rising.

"This is bad! Let's retreat for now!" Mona urged.

The Phantom Thieves had no choice but to flee and hide in a safe room.

"Phew, these were definitely stronger." Panther commented.

"But it seems we will not be able to use this Palace for training, either," Fox said.

"Next week..." Crow growled, and spat a curse in frustration. "Does this mean she's taking time to prepare?"

"What now?" Panther asked.

"Trying to influence her cognition from inside the Metaverse is out of the question, then," Mona said.

From inside the Metaverse... Crow thought to himself. Then, maybe from outside... It would be difficult, but he could try to talk to her outside the Metaverse and try to soften her a bit. Sway her to the Phantom Thieves' side, and try to increase the chances of her not switching sides if her boss were to make her some tempting offer.

"Either way, I think taking Niijima's heart is a good thing." Mona added, and everyone looked at him questioningly. "It'll keep her safe. If her Shadow returns to her and the Palace disappears, the evil organization can't use the Metaverse to harm her. Well, not that Crow would obey them, but it should be one less danger."

"That was one of my worries." Crow admitted. "If she starts looking into the organization, they might suspect her and want to cause a mental shutdown on her. But now that you mention it, yes, I think taking her heart is our best course of action. This should protect her. We'll have to pray that the organization doesn't make any bold move next week."

"Well, nothing else we can do until then except continue training in Mementos." Joker shrugged and smiled, more relaxed. "More importantly, though... Crow, you said 'us' when talking about the Phantom Thieves earlier!"

"... I did?"

"Yeah! This means you finally consider yourself one of us now, right?"

Crow gaped for a second. "I... don't remember."

"C'mon..." Skull waved his hand. "Even I, who sometimes don't pay attention to some stuff, have heard when you said that."

"Why don't you just accept to officially join our group at once?" Panther asked.

Crow hesitated. "To... protect you all."

"What do you mean?" Panther didn't understand.

"If I accept to join you, it'll mean that you'll be associating with a true criminal, and this is wrong. The Phantom Thieves aren't criminals."

"But you are on our side now." Noir tried to argue.

"We may be together in our victories, but once the moment of truth comes, I must be the one held responsible for those bad events, and you must get away unscathed. This is why I think we shouldn't associate officially."

"This makes no sense!" Skull yelled. "You either are with us, or you aren't! There's no way to be in the middle..."

"I... I think I get it, though." Oracle spoke up. "He's with us. It just isn't 'on paper!' The same way I adopted Akechi as my bro, but it isn't on paper. It's unofficial, but the feelings are true all the same!"

And Crow had to hold himself not to take a step backwards. He recalled Akira's words from earlier.

"Futaba may not be your real sibling, and I may not be your schoolmate, but our bonds are real, Akechi-kun. We're close all the same. The feelings are what counts."

Crow had gotten attached to the Phantom Thieves. Without realizing it, he had been doing the same thing Futaba had chosen to do by "adopting" him. Akira was right. Their relations may be unofficial, but this didn't make their bonds any less strong.

"Huh? What's this all about?" Apparently, Skull hadn't heard the story yet.

"We'll tell you guys later." And Joker smiled at Crow. "I can tell you really mean what you're saying. Thanks, Crow."

Everyone silently contemplated that notion for a few seconds, and Crow felt closer and a bit more connected to the group. That feeling settled in his heart, and the Fool Confidant ranked up.

"Uh... whatever. Let's get out of here, and be careful not to be ambushed." Crow ignored the Phantom Thieves' protests from behind him, and moved ahead in an attempt to hide his embarrassment.

It was the second day of Sae's investigation of the Phantom Thieves' targets, and it hadn't been going the way she had imagined. The previous day, she had gone to Shinjuku and approached a man named Shinsuke Kishi, one of the Phantom Thieves' targets from the list Akechi had given her.


"A prosecutor?" The man was apprehensive as she asked to talk to him at his workplace.

"Yes. Mr. Kishi, from the information I have, it seems you were one of the Phantom Thieves' targets. I would like to ask you a few questions."

"The Phantom Thieves?" Mr. Kishi seemed clueless, until understanding crossed his eyes. "I see. What a relief. For a moment, I had thought one of my ex-employees had decided to sue me. But it seems like one of my employees decided to report me to the Phantom Thieves instead." He chuckled. "So, the Phantom Thieves really exist, after all..."

"Then, you do not deny you have been targeted?"

"I suppose not."

"Do you remember anything? Did you feel threatened?"

The man slowly shook his head.

Sae was a bit disappointed at how clueless the man seemed. "They have tampered with your mind. Do you not believe what they did was wrong?"

"That's hard to judge, but all I'm sure about is that I was the one wrong. I had been sick of people taking credit for my hard work. It had always been like this, since my school days. You know, when you have to do group assignments, but no one in the group does anything and you end up doing all the work on your own, only for the others to take credit?"

Sae nodded. She had known that struggle all too well.

Mr. Kishi went on. "And once I entered the job market, this continued. I worked so hard, and in the end, my superiors always took all the credit for my work. It was so frustrating! So, I decided that once I reached a high position, I would do the same. Low effort, high rewards." He sighed in shame. "And this was my mistake. One day, I began remembering all this, all I had suffered. For the first time, it occurred to me that my employees must have been feeling the same way, and despising me just like I had despised my previous bosses and classmates. It felt wrong, and I concluded I couldn't continue like that. Since I've reached this position, I should make better use of it! So, I decided to become a good boss, like the boss I wished I had had. I'm still not sure if I'm managing to do a good enough job of it, but this is where I am now. Even though it may be hard, it's much more fulfilling. My employees became more productive, and the company's results are better than ever!"

Sae was stunned. This was such an inspirational and passionate speech.

The man jumped slightly. "Ah, I digress. You were asking about the Phantom Thieves. I don't remember anything that could point to the Phantom Thieves, and don't have a concrete answer to your question. I could never have imagined that the Phantom Thieves might actually exist, and can't judge whether what they do is really right. But if they're the ones who made me open my eyes like you are saying, then they changed my life for better, and I can only thank them for that. I probably should also thank the employee that reported me, whoever that is."

He really seemed grateful to the Phantom Thieves, and it seemed genuine. Sae didn't know what to think.

"... I am trying to learn more about the Phantom Thieves, and this was an interesting conversation. Thank you for your answers, Mr. Kishi. I will keep them in mind."

"I'm not sure how all this rambling may be of any help, but I'm glad you could get something useful out of it. Good luck with your investigation."

"Thank you. Good luck with your work."

Sae was still stunned when she left Shinjuku. Even the man's company had changed for better after the Phantom Thieves' intervention? Those results sounded good, and deep down, Sae wanted to believe they were. But her wariness remained. She had too little information to jump to conclusions.


It was still hard to believe. So, today, Sae went to the trouble of scrolling through the Phantom Thieves' fan site herself, and picked two target names who weren't in the list to try to make sure Akechi wasn't being selective, tracked them down, and set off to talk to them. To her surprise, the results were similar. Mature people who were ashamed of their wrongdoings, but seemed to have learned from their mistakes, and were continuing their lives with a determined gaze forward.

Back home, she decided to change the focus from the Phantom Thieves a bit and check something else. She turned her laptop on, and looked her boss up, like Akechi had suggested. At first, she found nothing unusual. He had become the director two years ago and-

"... Two years ago?" Sae gasped. The mysterious mental illness cases had begun around two years ago, and the way Akechi had told her to look her boss up nagged at her. "He couldn't be implying that..."

Sae furiously typed on her keyboard and accessed news websites to look up the events surrounding her boss' Ascension. To her shock, she found out that the previous SIU director had resigned after having shouted swear words during an interview. Quite the shameful behavior for someone in such a respected position. She wouldn't have connected the dots before, but after that last talk with Akechi, that incident was sounding more and more like a psychotic breakdown to her. Could this really mean that her boss had been benefiting from those incidents as well?

Sae didn't want to believe it, but the more she dug up, the more she found occurrences where her boss and his associates had benefited from equally strange incidents. It couldn't be a coincidence.

What if it were true? What could she do? Could she even do anything to begin with? Sae recalled Akechi had requested her help. What did he have in mind?

Sae took her phone and called the boy. They agreed to meet at the train station.

"I'm home!" Makoto returned.

"Welcome back." Sae responded.

Makoto noticed her aggravated expression. "Sis...?"

Sae stood up, ready to leave. "I will be away for a bit."

"Leaving again?"

"I will be back in an hour or so."

Cute little Makoto was worried again, but Sae left anyway.

As agreed, Sae met up with Akechi at the train station.

"You look tired." She told him.

"Likewise. Are you sure you've been resting on your days off?"

"I am. But I am also doing that homework. Today I have talked to a few of the targets."


Sae heaved a sigh. "They didn't seem to have been threatened, nor brainwashed. Their faces showed satisfied expressions, as though they had managed some major achievement. This wasn't what I had been expecting to see. The consequences of whatever happened to them sounded surprisingly positive. To be honest, I don't know what to think." Sae paused. "Also, I just looked my boss up. He got to his current position around two years ago, thanks to an absurd scandal involving the previous director, and seems to have been benefiting from such strange incidents since them. This cannot be just a coincidence."

Akechi nodded.

"Akechi-kun, you had requested my help. But this sounds too big. Can we even do anything?"

"Looks like you've finally realized the dimension of the problem..."

Yes, and she wasn't sure about how to approach it. "What do you have in mind? What do you want me to do?"

"What else could it be? Gather as much evidence as you can, and prepare to build a case against those people."

"Just that?"

"Yes. Isn't that what you do best?"

Sae still wasn't sure about that endeavor. "How do you intend to go about this, though?"

"I want to expose them, when the time is right. I'm confident we can win, if we play our cards right."

It sounded like an uphill battle, but the way he said it struck a chord with Sae. "Fine. I will see about that. But now... I need to cool off, preferably somewhere with coffee."

"Leblanc?" Akechi suggested.

Sae made a face. "I wish. Their coffee is my favorite. However, the problem is that I am not on good terms with the shop owner, thanks to the way I pressured him about that research."

"You're right. Their coffee is great." Akechi assumed a more casual tone. "Now I'm a regular there, too. Thank you for the recommendation." His expression relaxed. "Sakura-san asked of you the last time I was there. He was disappointed at having lost a regular customer. Maybe it's about time you make up with him."

Sae wasn't in the mood for that. "No, never mind."

"But Sakura-san would be glad to hear his coffee is your favorite." When Sae was about to reply, Akechi cut her off. "Oh, I think I know what you could do to make up to him. You said you were planning to accuse him of mistreating Isshiki-san's daughter, right? It came to my attention that she had really been mistreated. Not by Sakura-san, though, but by Isshiki-san's brother, her previous caretaker. He's buried in debt and demanding money from Sakura-san, and threatening to go to court if he doesn't get what he wants. I agreed to dig up his credit analysis information for Sakura-san to use in court. Sae-san, why don't you help them, too? I think this is a good opportunity for you to reconnect."

Sae was annoyed at Akechi's insistence. "Why are you insisting so much? I have a lot to handle as it is, and do not have time for doing charity."

"Are you sure you'll keep from having your favorite coffee? You need to do something if you want it back." Before Sae had time to respond, he added, "Actually, some Leblanc coffee sounds like a good idea right now. I'll come with you."

And Sae was left with no other choice. Soon, she found herself heading to Cafe Leblanc with Akechi.

Akechi and Sae-san arrived at Leblanc. However, the moment they entered the cafe and the chimes announced their arrival, they heard Sakura-san's angry voice.

"Futaba, what is the meaning of this!?"

Futaba sounded panicked. "... Y-you entered my room without permission, didn't you?!"

"I'll apologize as much as you want later. Now, tell me. What was something such as this doing in your room?"

"It seems like we have arrived at a bad time." Sae-san whispered to Akechi. "Perhaps we should-"

Akechi had no time to respond. Futaba froze at the sight of them. "A-A-Akechi..."

Sakura-san also noticed them. "Good evening."

"Good evening, Sakura-san. Sorry, we thought the cafe was still open. We came here for some coffee, but..."

"It's open. There were no customers, that's all." Sakura-san turned to Futaba. "I'll prepare their coffee. Later, you'll have some explaining to do."

"Ex-plaining..." Futaba reached her hand out. "Gi-give that back!"

"From your reaction, this doesn't seem to be a prank."

"What happened?" Akechi couldn't contain himself.

"I was cleaning Futaba's room, and found this." Sakura-san showed a piece of cardboard. "It seems this is the real deal."

"Ah!" Futaba screamed, but Sakura-san had already passed the object to Akechi.

Akechi's eyes widened. "A... calling card!? From the Phantom Thieves! Why?" At first, he thought it was a calling card the Phantom Thieves had been preparing to someone, but on further inspection, he saw that it was addressed to Futaba herself. "Why did you get a calling card, Futaba-chan?"

"Were you also targeted?!" Sae-san asked.

Futaba was frozen as though she had seen a ghost.

"Why did they target you? Do you remember anything? Did you feel threatened?" Sae-san released a barrage of questions.

Futaba squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head vehemently.

"Sae-san, you're overwhelming her. Futaba-chan has social anxiety and has trouble to communicate. I'll try to talk to her." Akechi approached his unofficial sister and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Futaba-chan, calm down."

Futaba faced away from him and began crying.

Sakura-san beckoned Sae-san and Akechi to take a seat, which they did. Akechi had Futaba sit next to him. Unsure what to do, he resorted to petting her head.

Futaba eventually calmed down, and finally turned her head to face him.

Akechi insisted again, with Sakura-san in hearing range. "Futaba-chan, can you talk?"

Futaba continued staring into his face, but remained silent.

"Why did you get a calling card?" Silence. "Did the Phantom Thieves really come after you?" A slight nod. "Why?"

After some more silence, Futaba finally responded weakly. "... 'Cause I asked them to."

"You... asked them to?" Definitely not the answer Akechi had expected to hear.

"I asked them to take my heart."


"'Cause it was so messed-up..." Futaba made a long pause. "After my mom died, everyone blamed me for it because of that fake suicide note, and they didn't want anything to do with me. They yelled at me and said that it was my fault, that I had killed her. Of course it wasn't true, but I was so desperate that I listened to them, and also began thinking it was my fault. I shut myself off from everyone and everything, and didn't even want to leave my room. I wanted to die, because I thought that maybe if I sacrificed myself, my mom'd come back."

"Futaba..." Sakura-san was horrified. "I could never have imagined..."

Akechi felt bad. Her family had been blaming her for something that was his fault... and Futaba had even been thinking of dying!

"Stupid, right? But that's what I thought. I thought that dying would fix things. Even if it were my fault, that wouldn't fix anything..." Futaba spaced out for a bit. "Yeah, I can say this now, but back then, I thought it was over. I thought of my home as a tomb, and that I'd die there. I had known I was lost in the labyrinth of my heart, but couldn't get out. So, when I heard of the Phantom Thieves, I wanted to know if they were the real deal, and asked them to take my heart. And they did. They gave me my life back. And now, I'm here..."

"... So, you're saying that you only broke out of your shell thanks to the Phantom Thieves?" Shocked, Sakura-san uttered slowly.

Futaba nodded.

"Then, this was really it..." Sakura-san muttered.

"Huh? What do you mean?"

"I may not be managing to do a great job of it, but remember, I'm your guardian. Of course I noticed something was up. You changed so much, Futaba. Before, you didn't even want to leave your room. Suddenly, you walked out of home and came here on your own. Then, you began saying you wanted to see fireworks and go to the beach and..." Sakura-san was the one bewildered now. "At first, I thought this was just because you were hanging around Akira and her friends, because there's nothing like being near people your age. But then I began thinking that these sudden changes sounded too much like the stuff related to the Phantom Thieves."

"Yeah." Futaba wore a grateful smile. "It looked like the Phantom Thieves had a lot of trouble to track me down, but they didn't give up on me and went out of their way to take my messed-up heart. I felt so happy to know there were people who cared about me like that, a nice change after my family despised me so much. Not only that, but it turns out the Phantom Thieves can access the cognitive world, the same stuff Mom had been researching. So, I asked the Phantom Thieves to take down the bad guys."

Akechi gasped and jumped slightly. Futaba had revealed their plan in front of Sae-san. What if Sae-san decided to tell the SIU director about that? Then the organization would know that the Phantom Thieves were aware of them!

"Bad guys?" Sakura-san was clueless.

"The ones who took Mom's research! They took it away and ordered her to be killed!"

Sakura-san's eyes were wide open. "... K-killed?"

Akechi wanted to say something, to stop Futaba from spilling what they knew. But he was frozen in panic, with the guilt of what he had done to Isshiki-san gnawing at him again.

"I remember it now, Sojiro. It wasn't suicide. That note's fake! She loved me so much and would never write those horrible things, and you know it! You had realized it was fishy too, hadn't you!?"

Sakura-san furrowed his brows.

Sae-san looked totally out of place, caught up in the middle of a family affair she had nothing to do with. She slowly raised her hand. "I apologize for the intrusion, but I believe this to be the case. My investigations point to Wakaba Isshiki-san being a victim of a mental shutdown."

Sakura-san sighed in defeat. "Yeah, I knew. Of course I knew. Some dangerous people had been after her because of her research. But they're too powerful, and I couldn't do anything against them. All I could do was run away here and take Futaba with me to keep her safe."

This sparked Sae-san's interest. "They? Who are they?! Sakura-san, you know who they are, don't you?! Please, tell me! I need to know!"

Akechi was still frozen, reactionless.

"Powerful people, ms. prosecutor. Influential businessmen, authorities, politicians... fish too big for us. If we try to do anything against them, we'll only be crushed. Can the Phantom Thieves really deal with them, though? ... Um, I mean, if the Phantom Thieves also use the cognitive stuff, then they know too much. Won't the bad guys want to get rid of them?"

"I'm sure the Phantom Thieves can do it, Sojiro. I'm sure." Futaba was confident and determined, almost back to her cheerful navigator self. "All they've done until now sounds impossible, too, but they still did it! This time won't be different!"

"Hmm." Sakura-san still had his doubts, but said nothing.

Futaba glanced to her side and gasped at the sight of Akechi, as though she had forgotten he had been there. "Akechi..." She hesitated. "You heard all of this, didn't you?"

He had, obviously. All Akechi managed was a slight nod, as he still hadn't recovered from all the emotions.

Futaba pleaded with her gaze. "The Phantom Thieves are good guys. They saved me, and saved a lot of other people too. Akechi, you have to stop going after them."

Akechi didn't know how to respond.

Futaba's expression saddened. "I still wanna keep watching anime with you and stuff. I don't want us to be on bad terms because of something like this!"

Those words caused a smile to creep into Akechi's face. "Who said we are on bad terms?" He finally recovered his speech. "Sorry, this whole talk was too sudden. I'm still a bit shaken, that's all. To think you'd also have been targeted..."

"Akechi, you have to promise you'll rethink your opinion about the Phantom Thieves."

Akechi considered how to respond. He had changed his stance on the Phantom Thieves a long time ago. But Sae-san was around, too, and he still wasn't sure how much he should disclose to her. "I'll think about this carefully, okay?" He attempted a comforting smile. "And I won't tell anyone about what I heard here."

"Promise." Futaba demanded.

"I promise," Akechi said looking her in the eye.

"If you don't keep your word, I'll use my hacking skills to dig up embarrassing info about you and spread it all over the Internet!"

"Sounds dangerous." Akechi chuckled, but his expression became serious again. "I've seen some of what you're capable of, thanks to that info you got about your uncle and Kana-chan's parents. I'd rather remain on your good side."

Futaba relaxed. "Good kid." She grinned, patted Akechi on the head and whispered to him. "That's my bro. If you turn out to really be good at keeping promises, I'll be proud of you."

Her gesture had been really strange to him, but so endearing nonetheless. Akechi whispered back, "You won't be disappointed." At least regarding that one promise, he would make sure she wouldn't.

Akechi could feel Futaba's trust in him, and the Hermit Confidant ranked up.

Sae was overwhelmed by the whole event. She hadn't expected to hear any of the things she did... nor to find the interaction between Akechi and the girl so adorable. Sae was used to arrogant Akechi, and didn't take him for a caring person. But Akechi had been way different before. She was sure of that. In general, now he looked more responsible, more mature. His interaction with the girl reminded Sae of Makoto and herself when they were younger, and a pang of nostalgia hit her.

"Ms. prosecutor, sorry that you ended up caught up in this whole argument," Sakura-san said. "I'll prepare you two some coffee for free to make up for the inconvenience."

"No, i-it is quite alright." While it was nice to have her coffee for free, that whole commotion hadn't been anyone's fault. Sae had not only gotten some rather intriguing information out of it, but also the Sakuras' situation touched her, and she began thinking she should do what Akechi suggested and help them with the issue involving the girl's uncle. "Uh, Sakura-san, Akechi-kun told me about Isshiki-san's brother that has been hassling you. If you end up taking the issue to court, I will be glad to provide my assistance."

Sakura-san's eyebrow's rose. "Oh, thanks. This is reassuring. One more reason to give you some coffee for free."

Despite her previous thoughts, Sae concluded this was a win and chose to accept the offer at last.

Sakura-san brought their coffee. As Sae took a sip, she was reminded of how much she had been missing that coffee.

Sae was curious about the changes of heart, and decided to take that opportunity to ask the girl for some details. "You are... Futaba-chan, right?"

The girl nodded shyly.

"My name is Sae Niijima. I am researching about the Phantom Thieves, and am curious about some details. When you had your heart stolen, how did you feel?"

The answer took a while to come. When it did, it was in a quiet voice. "... Tired. Slept a lot, and also thought a lot."

"Thought about what?"

"About how I let those bad adults fool me, 'cause I was too scared to remember the truth and chose to just run away." Futaba answered in a monotone, likely the result of her shyness. "About how I'd have to stand up and try to get better, and how hard it'd be. It was tough. But I got able to see stuff I couldn't see before, like a dark cloud had disappeared from my mind."

"Thank you. What an interesting answer." Quite mature, to say the least. Not something Sae would have expected to hear from a young teenager.

"Good speech." Akechi complimented proudly, and Futaba flashed a shy smile.

By the time they finished their coffee, Akechi seemed even more tired than when Sae had met up with him. That whole scene must have taken a toll on him.

"Akechi, you okay?" Futaba asked him.

"I'm fine."

"Stay the night?"

Akechi shook his head. He stood up and came close to Sae.

"Sakura-san, thank you for the coffee," Sae said.

"She told me your coffee is her favorite." Akechi unexpectedly added.

"Glad to hear. Thanks for your preference."

"You and the Sakuras seem rather close." Sae commented once they were out on the street.

"You could say that..." And the tiredness, or the shock, or whatever it was caught up to Akechi, and he totally lost his composure. Unexpectedly, his gaze fell, and he looked like a child that had been scolded after behaving out of line. He suddenly looked sad like Sae had never imagined him before, and she couldn't understand why. Was it because of the story?

"That was a sad story."

"She had even considered... ending her own life." Akechi spoke in a strained voice, and his eyes flared in anger.

"Futaba-chan is a strong girl, though. She is overcoming her problems."

Teardrops escaped from Akechi's eyes, and took Sae aback.

"Akechi-kun?" Sae was getting scared. "What is the matter?"

Akechi looked away and refused to respond.

Akechi felt lost. His plan was going wrong. First, Futaba had spilled a lot of information about both the Phantom Thieves and the organization in Sae-san's presence. This meant that now Sae-san knew more than she should at this point. Akechi hadn't intended to tell her this much. Maybe once they had taken her heart, but now it was dangerous to have her know too much, as there was the risk of her telling everything to the SIU director. To make things worse, Akechi got unable to hold his emotions in. His guilt was making him cry in front of Sae-san, and of course she wanted clarifications.

"Akechi-kun." She called out again.

In panic, Akechi quickened his pace. Soon, he realized it was a mistake, because it only made her want to press him for details even more.

"Wait!" Sae-san seized him by the shoulder. "Akechi-kun, look at me." She demanded.

Defeated, Akechi stopped walking, and hesitantly faced her.

"Akechi-kun, you are scaring me. Tell me what is the matter."

Telling her would only scare her even more, though. Akechi shook his head. "Another time." His voice came out weaker than he had expected.

Sae-san would have none of that, though. Her gaze hardened. "No. Tell me, now."

Akechi considered what to do. Apparently, it would become harder and harder to hide the truth. Since Sae-san already knew more than she should, perhaps Akechi should simply be honest with her. Explain the whole situation, and implore for her to not switch sides. It was a risky gamble, but he was betting all cards on her already.

"This isn't something I'd tell just anyone." Akechi sniffled. "I want to trust you, though. Can I trust you, Sae-san?"

Sae was scared. The ever so confident Goro Akechi stood in front of her, with an insecure and imploring gaze. He looked so helpless and defeated, and she was beginning to pity him. She wondered what had happened to make him become like that.

"Yes, you can trust me." She answered firmly.

"It's another bomb, Sae-san. I'm not sure either of us can handle this today."

Whatever. She wouldn't go home until he had told her what she wanted to hear. Plus, it seemed really serious. If it was a "bomb" as Akechi had put it, then it seemed to be almost exploding. "I will accompany you to your home so that we can talk in private." She hoped it would make him more comfortable to talk as well.

Akechi didn't seem too fond of the idea, but silently allowed her to follow him home.

They entered Akechi's apartment. He spread his futon on the ground and they sat down facing each other.

But instead of feeling more comfortable, Akechi seemed more apprehensive, and backed away to increase the distance between them. He stared into the ground and took deep breaths to calm down.

Sae began talking about other things to put Akechi at ease. Perhaps a compliment would help. "Considering all I have learned from the Phantom Thieves' targets so far, it seems you were right when you said the changes of heart and the mental shutdowns are separate. It is a sound theory."

Akechi slowly raised his head. "It's not a theory, Sae-san. It's true. The Phantom Thieves are just a group of idealistic young people that stumbled into the cognitive world by accident, and decided to use their newfound powers for a good cause. The organization, though, is a whole different story. And it is also true that they are after the Phantom Thieves."

His reply rang alarms in Sae's head. "How can you be so sure? And what is this about an organization?"

Akechi took a while to respond. "I know because... they've corrupted me, too."

"What? Corrupted you?"

"They offered me privileges, status and recognition in exchange for 'favors...' and I accepted."

Sae was incredulous. "Why?! Why did you accept? You are so intelligent, and have everything you need to achieve professional success. I am sure your family would be proud-"

A bitter chuckle from Akechi cut her off. "Family? What is that? I can see you haven't looked my background up, either. You are mistaken. I had never had anything good in my life, Sae-san. I had always struggled a lot with my studies, and tried my best to be a model student. I did everything society considers to be exemplary behavior, thinking that people would look at me, recognize me... but no one did. Then I got sick of it and set on a self-destructive path towards glory and revenge. I ended up associating with the wrong kind of people. They threatened to kill me if I didn't do what they wanted, and I did it, because it was the only way for me to survive until I got my revenge. At that point, I had stopped caring about anyone or anything except winning and getting whatever I wanted, no matter the cost." He heaved a sigh. "It hurts to admit this, but you had been right about one thing. I became just an arrogant and irresponsible brat. I put my stupid goals above everything else, and did everything I shouldn't have done..."

Sae only listened with her mouth agape. She wasn't sure what to think of the young and smart detective anymore. She would continue listening, though. As she used to say herself, hear everything first, judge later.

She managed to formulate a question. "You said they gave you privileges in exchange for 'favors.' What were those favors?"

"One of the things I did was manipulate the solutions of the mental illness cases. Basically, mislead others not to associate the breakdowns and shutdowns with anyone in the organization. Since it's hard to prove anything related to the cognitive world, I just laid down theories about the cases in the most logical way possible, only with the available information disregarding anything about the cognitive world. In other words, my biggest achievements as a detective are all fake. But this isn't even the worst part..."

"And... the worst part is?" Sae had a bad feeling about the answer, but nothing could have prepared her for what it actually was.

"Actually, I can access the cognitive world, too. A-and-" His voice cracked, and he squeezed his eyes shut. "The mental shutdowns and psychotic breakdowns..."

"... What of them?"

Akechi's gaze filled with guilt. His mouth opened and closed, and his voice failed a few times as he tried to speak. Then, the bomb exploded. "I... was the one causing them."

Chapter Text

"Actually, I can access the cognitive world, too. A-and-" Akechi's voice cracked, and he squeezed his eyes shut. "The mental shutdowns and psychotic breakdowns..."

"... What of them?" Sae prompted him to continue.

Akechi's gaze filled with guilt. His mouth opened and closed, and his voice failed a few times as he tried to speak. Then, the bomb exploded. "I... was the one causing them."

It took a few seconds for Sae's brain to process Akechi's terrible revelation. "What? ... You are saying that..."

Akechi nodded, with shame written all over his face. "I'm saying that the real culprit for those incidents you've been seeking so much... is right in front of you, Sae-san."

Sae stared at him in shock. "But you are just a kid! Wait, does it mean they are purposefully using a kid to do their dirty work?"

"Convenient, right?" Akechi said bitterly. "No doubt they'll want to get rid of me sometime along the way, though. Because I know too much."

Sae did her best to remain composed and continue asking questions. "So, you have realized this, and decided to oppose them?"

"No. I just had enough. My life was so messed-up that I went of the deep end and did all those things, without any regard for people's lives, or for anything at all. But all this mess isn't worth it..." A heave pause. "It's my fault that Isshiki-san died! I ruined the Sakuras' lives... I began trying to help Futaba-chan out of guilt, but ended getting attached to her and everyone at Leblanc. Futaba-chan doesn't know what I've done and treats me as though I were her brother... I don't deserve it!" Akechi shut his eyes and tried to hold the tears, but they escaped from his eyes' grip and streamed down his face.

Sae didn't know how to react. Saying that he had not only manipulated the solutions of the cases but had actually been the one causing the mental illnesses himself was a grave confession. Yet, the care Akechi had for the Sakuras seemed genuine and mutual, and his current emotional breakdown didn't feel like an act, either. In fact, the way he seemed to be suffering and cried his eyes out reminded Sae of Madarame's public confession on television after the change of heart. And there was the way Akechi seemed to have matured and been acting differently as well. Could he also have...

Sae blinked to focus, and once again, reminded herself to listen to everything first and judge later. However, there was a problem. In order for her to listen, Akechi had to continue talking, but he didn't seem to be in condition to talk at the moment. Akechi had his head low and his eyes shut tightly. Despite all the things he had just confessed, it was hard to think that he had gone as far as to cause mental illnesses that killed people. He was so broken. Right now, he seemed to be nothing more than a lost and helpless child.

When Sae realized it, she was reaching her hand out and stroking Akechi's hair, the same way she used to do to Makoto when their parents were still alive. Akechi startled at the unexpected action, and also made Sae startle and retract her hand for a brief moment, but she ended up resuming the gesture. Despite his initial reaction, Akechi didn't move to back away. He remained with his eyes closed, and just let Sae slowly stroke his hair while tears streamed down his face.

Eventually, Akechi seemed to calm down, and his tears stopped.

Sae spoke up. "Akechi-kun."

"Hmm." He raised his head and opened his eyes. "Sorry. I-"

Sae cut him off. "All the Phantom Thieves' targets I have talked to had a distinct look in their eyes. A look that shows they are ashamed of what they have done in the past, yet have matured and are determined to move on. And since a few days ago, I have noticed this same look in your eyes. Akechi-kun, they also took your heart, did they not?"

Akechi seemed surprised for a second, then a dreamy smile slowly formed on his face, as though he were recalling a fond memory. "You could say that... though they didn't even need the cognitive world, nor the whole group to do it. It was accidental, and I don't think even they know what happened..."

"Please, elaborate."

"I simply ended up running into a person that later I found out was from the Phantom Thieves. All this person did was remind me what kindness is all about. Then, I came to think that if all Phantom Thieves were this kind, they didn't deserve to fall into the trap the organization laid for them."

"A trap?"

"The organization got some IT people to manipulate the rankings on the Phansite and put President Okumura at the top so that the public would be sure the Phantom Thieves would target him. The plan was to have Mr. Okumura tell the police once he had gotten the calling card, and have the media make a stir so that the whole public would know. Then, cause a mental shutdown on President Okumura and blame all the mental incidents on the Phantom Thieves. The whole public would believe it and turn against the Phantom Thieves. Then, the Phantom Thieves would be charged with murder, and considered a major threat to the country. This would cause the police, and also the Special Investigation Unit to go after them. The police and the SIU would falsely incriminate a bunch of innocent people just to save face, and the politicians and authorities complaining about the public relying more on vigilantes rather than them would be happy."

Sae gasped. "Even the Special Investigation Unit...!"

"Yes. The organization intends to have the plan kicking by next week. In other words, this must be the 'big job' your boss has teased you about..."

Sae's mouth hung open as she tried to gather her thoughts. "Wait, there was no news of Mr. Okumura receiving a calling card, though."

"Exactly." Akechi was unable to contain a proud smile. "There wasn't, and there won't be. I'll have to break this to you. That 'big job' won't be happening."

Sae's first impulse was to snap angrily. The chance for a promotion she had been waiting for so long! ... But this wasn't right. Using a group of innocent and good-intentioned people as scapegoats for the shutdown incidents, and going as far as to send the SIU after them wasn't right. This story was so messed-up. Come to think of it, dealing with such a conspiracy seemed a task much bigger than that teased job.

Sae tried to understand what had happened. "Then, the Phantom Thieves had known?"

"No, they hadn't. The Phantom Thieves weren't even aware dangerous people are after them. Basically, I had to infiltrate them in the cognitive world, tell them all these things I'm telling you now, and help them avoid the trap. The next step will be to take the heart of the organization's mastermind."

"Futaba-chan had said the Phantom Thieves will go against those people. Then, they will really..."

Akechi nodded. "This is the plan."

"Can they really win?"

"Yes, I'm sure. They're very skilled. They just need to become a bit stronger to be able to face the dangers from the mastermind's distorted cognition. Plus, I'm on their side. Though they still haven't recognized me and realized that their new informant is the half-assed high school detective just yet..."

"Skilled? Stronger? Dangers?" Sae was getting more and more intrigued. "How do the Phantom Thieves go about changing hearts, anyway? Is it not only a matter of hypnotizing the targets or something similar?"

Akechi chuckled in amusement. "Far from it. The cognitive world is a crazy place. Actually, we call it the Metaverse. It's full of traps and monsters born from negativity, and we have to use special equipment and summon our own inner creatures to deal with all that. Not to mention we have to deal with the targets' distorted selves as well."

"This sounds quite far-fetched..." Sae had trouble to believe it.

"True. This doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of what it's all about, though. Oh, I realize I still haven't answered your question about how to change a heart. It's done by removing the corruption from the target's heart. It basically consists of 'stealing' the object that causes the person's obsessive behaviors. Such objects usually appear in the Metaverse in the form of treasures, hence all the thievery terms."

While it somewhat made sense, all those details were too outlandish. But as always, listen first and judge later. "What about the mental shutdowns?"

Pain flickered in Akechi's eyes again. "This happens if the person's other self in the Metaverse... dies. I actually don't know everything it entails, but I assume some important part of the person's mind gets destroyed. Some people manage to survive the shock and remain in a vegetative state, while others don't."

"And how did you get access to the cognitive world?"

"A strange app suddenly appeared on my phone at the Shibuya station. When I opened it, I got transported to the Metaverse. Then, I heard a voice in my head. It said a lot of flattery words, and told me that I was special, that I had an unique power. Then, it steered me into going after the organization and fed my desire for fame and revenge. I had been so lost that I bought into that talk without a second thought."

All that was too hard to believe, but Sae decided she would leave it at that. "Alright. All of this sounds like something out of a fairy tale, but I will take everything at face value for now. One last question before I leave." There were a lot of questions she still wanted to ask, but one of them stood out, and was more likely to have a less outlandish response. "Akechi-kun. You clearly know the identity of the Phantom Thieves. Who are they?"

Akechi was serious. "Sorry. I wouldn't sell them out, not even to you. I don't want to betray their trust."

As disappointing as it was, it sounded noble. "Fair enough. Thank you for all the information." Sae stood up.

Akechi also stood up and implored with his gaze. He felt the need to stress his point. "Sae-san, this goes without saying, but please, don't tell anyone about any of this. Who knows how many of our coworkers are in this mess too. Actually, it's hard to know who is and who isn't. You are the only person I'm 100% sure they still haven't corrupted. If I approach the wrong people, the word that I'm betraying the organization will reach them in no time. This is why I asked if I could trust you, and I hope I really can. I have no one else to turn to. I'm betting all my cards on you, Sae-san. Please, help us win this." He threw her some casino keywords for good measure. "For your own sake, for your sister, and for everything you hold dear, please don't tell this to anyone, especially not to the SIU director! If you do, you, me, the innocent Phantom Thieves, and everyone will be doomed. As much as you want your promotion, this isn't the way to get it."

Sae-san stared back at him. Akechi was desperate and tired. His eyelids felt heavy, and it was hard to hold Sae-san's gaze.

"This is too much to take in at once, but I will analyze it more calmly later."

"Sae-san..." Akechi's voice came out strained.

Sae-san unexpectedly patted him on the head. "You are reminding me of Makoto when she wants something difficult. Speaking of her, she must be worried. I had told her I would be back soon."

Akechi smiled weakly. The simple fact that Sae-san had uttered such words should mean that he had managed to soften her heart a bit. He hoped this was also a sign that he could trust her.

Akechi accompanied Sae-san to the door. They said their goodbyes, and Sae-san left.

Once Akechi had closed the door, he walked back to the futon and collapsed, still in his school uniform. He had done everything he could to convince Sae-san. Now, he could only hope she would cooperate.

Akechi fell asleep almost instantly, and nearly failed to catch the Tarot card vision informing him that the Judgement Confidant had ranked up.

"I'm back!" Akira returned to Leblanc after hanging out with one of her Confidants.

"Akira..." Futaba ran to her and blurted out, "Sojiro found my calling card and scolded me in front of Akechi and Niijima, and they figured stuff out!"

"Whoa, hold on." Akira raised a hand, confused. "What? Start from the beginning."

Futaba told Akira what had happened during her absence.

"They found out that I had my heart stolen. I panicked and ended up blurting some stuff. I didn't reveal anyone's identities, though."

To Akira and Futaba's shock, Sojiro had been in hearing range. "Identities? Futaba, do you know who the Phantom Thieves are?"

Futaba gulped. She looked at Akira for support, but Akira also didn't know what to do.

"I think we should tell him." Morgana spoke from inside Akira's bag. "The chief's been hosting us here ever since. I think he has the right to know."

Sojiro was still waiting for an answer.

Akira hesitated. "It... it's us, Boss. I mean, my friends and I..."

Sojiro didn't react for a second, but then he jumped. "What?! You guys?! Well, I can imagine you'd help Futaba, but..."

"Akira's the leader!" Futaba revealed.

"Do you mean to say that I've been sheltering a Phantom Thief for more than six months?" Sojiro furrowed his brows with a concerned expression. "Akira, come to think of it, you seem to be a commotion magnet. First, that P.E. teacher from your school, then your artist friend's former mentor... and that girl who's been coming here recently is the daughter of the Okumura Foods president, isn't she?"

"He's sharp." Morgana commented.

Akira nodded at Sojiro. "Spot on."

Sojiro frowned. "But then, it also means you're planning to go up against those powerful people who had been after Wakaba! It's dangerous! They aren't opponents that kids can deal with!"

Futaba had a defiant expression. "Those guys stole Mom's research, ordered her to be killed and made my family blame me for it! I won't stop until we've put them in their place!"

"Boss, sorry, but we have to do this." Akira added. "We're the only ones who can do something!"

A tense silence followed, until Sojiro took a deep breath, and heaved a sigh. "No, I'm the one who needs to apologize. I know how it feels to be helpless. I couldn't do anything against them, and this is why I ran away and hid here. You guys have done a lot of unthinkable stuff. So, perhaps you can do something about them... unlike me. Even now, I can't do anything significant. All I can do is provide you shelter."

"Boss..." Akira hadn't seen that one coming. "What you're doing is a lot, really! I'm very grateful!"

Sojiro cracked a smile. "I guess it's time for me to stop running away from those problems, huh? Well, Phantom Thieves. Just know that you have a supporter in me. This shop isn't the busiest of places. You may use the whole shop for your meetings if you want. Just ask when you need it."

"Wow! Thank you, Boss."

"Just promise one thing. If it gets too rough, just stop and retreat. Don't fight a battle you know you can't win."

"We will win, Sojiro. We will!" Futaba was adamant.

Sojiro looked at Futaba and smiled. "I can't remember when it was the last time I've seen you this determined, Futaba. Well, I'll make dinner. All this talking made me hungry."

"Yeah! I hunger too! Curry curry curry! Hurry hurry hurry!"

Sojiro laughed and left to the back to prepare dinner.

"The chief is a very understanding person," Morgana said. "He's a great man with a big heart. I feel a little bad for having kept quiet this whole time, though. Maybe we should have told him earlier."

Futaba grinned. "Maybe we should take him to Mementos just for a sec, just so that he can understand when you talk."

Akira found that suggestion amusing. "Nice idea. We'll have to see about that!"

While Sojiro prepared dinner, Akira texted the whole group to tell them the news.

"Whoa, Boss is the man!" Ryuji wrote. "But Akechi almost found out, too?"

"Just about my calling card." Futaba explained. "I said a lot of good stuff about the Phantom Thieves, though. I made him promise to rethink his views, and he promised. I hope he keeps his word!"

Akira saw an opportunity in that event. "I think it's about time we prepare to take him to the Metaverse. Have the whole group spend time with him and stuff. I asked him to come to Leblanc and help me study for exams next Sunday. You guys should come, too!"

"Studying for exams already! But exams are only in two weeks!" Ryuji protested.

"'Don't leave studies to the last day. It's a bit too much to try condensing two months worth of subjects into just one afternoon session.' This was Akechi-kun's message."

"Akechi-kun is right." Makoto agreed. "We should study in advance, little by little. It should be easier and less taxing."

The others agreed, and Ryuji lost to the power of the majority.

"I'm home." Makoto heard Sae's voice, and put her cellphone away.

Makoto ran to greet her. "Welcome back, Sis."

Despite the fact that Sae didn't look too well, the beginnings of a smile appeared on her face, a rare sight as of late. "Have you had dinner yet?"

"No. I had been waiting for you. Dinner is ready, though."

"Sorry. I took longer than expected. I'll take a quick shower and then we'll have dinner."

After Sae had returned from the shower, they were dining at the table. Makoto didn't like to see her sister's disturbed expression.

"Is everything okay?" Makoto asked with concern.

In an unusual way for her, Sae hesitated, then sighed in resignation. "Well, I may need some time to clear my head, after all. Makoto, how about we go somewhere tomorrow?"

"Huh?" Makoto couldn't believe what she was hearing. "Somewhere... where?"

"I don't know. Wherever you feel like going. I'm not in the mood to think too much right now..." In other words, not in her usual mood for sure.

Makoto was happy to hear her sister asking to hang out, though. This had rarely happened after Sae started working. "Okay! I'll make sure to pick a nice place," was what Makoto said, though she had no idea where to go. Akira and the others had shown her to a few hang-out spots, but Makoto's horizons weren't that broad just yet.

Thursday, October 6

Akira was on lunch break with her friends.

"Training at Mementos again today, then?" She asked.

"Um, sorry, today I can't," Makoto said. "I know we should try to train as much as possible, but my sister actually asked to hang out today! This has rarely happened since she started working, and I won't let it pass!"

"You look so happy, Mako-chan!" Haru said.

"Awesome!" Akira giggled. "This is so good to hear! Just go and have some fun!"

"The only problem is, she told me to choose a place, but I don't know where to take her! I don't know many places to hang out." Makoto admitted.

"Maybe to eat something?" Ann suggested.

"Or to the movies." Haru gave her input.

"Or both!" Akira exclaimed.

"Just check the Net for events going on nearby and the food places near them!" Ryuji made it sound so simple.

"Um, okay, I will try. I will look for events we might like and ask for my sister's input. Thank you all for the suggestions!"

When Makoto left for school this morning, Sae had still been trying to determine whether all those things she had heard yesterday weren't just a dream.

"Family? What is that? I can see you haven't looked my background up, either." Akechi's words rang in her head and reminded her that, in fact, she hadn't looked his background up.

Sae decided to correct her mistake. She looked him up in a few databases she had access to, which she used to consult for her investigations. It didn't take long for her to find out that Akechi was an orphan. He was born in a very poor place known as Grape Village, whose only thing to note was its grapes which resulted in good wines. His mother, Ms. Nanami Akechi, had committed suicide a mere few months after he had turned five, and there was no mention of his father's name anywhere. Akechi got sent to foster care, where he had remained until around two years ago.

Sae had heard stories about people who had had a lot of trouble either in orphanages or foster care, including depression and mental disorders resulting from both the loss of their parents and improper care at the institutions. These problems could hinder the orphans' performance at school and make it harder for them to enter the job market. This was the kind of thing Sae feared might happen to Makoto after their parents died, and one of the reasons she had been working so hard and telling Makoto to focus on studies and not think about anything else. Akechi must not have had problems at school, considering how smart he is. But again, he had told her everything had gone wrong in his life...

Not quite satisfied, Sae got a hold of one of her contacts. A few phone calls and emails later, she obtained Akechi's history from the social services database. Sae had expected to see that he had lived with a couple of families, but the information she found was far from that. Akechi had been transferred to a different foster family almost every year. The reasons were usually physical abuse or negligence, and his transfers had always been listed as emergency cases, which meant none of the families had taken him in voluntarily. Certainly not what Sae had expected to be the young celebrity detective's background.

One thing was for sure, though. This kind of situation would surely traumatize a child, and it made sense that Akechi would have gone crazy and turned to crime without a care for anything. If he had really done what he said he had, then his case was really complex and messed-up.

Even after that quick investigation, Sae still couldn't quite believe some things Akechi had said, especially what involved the cognitive world, or what he had referred to as the "Metaverse." Monsters? Treasures? It was too far-fetched and sounded like a made-up setting. Sae would believe it only if she could see those things with her own eyes.

Makoto returned from school and searched on the Internet for nearby events they could attend.

"How about this one?" Makoto brought up a page about a performance by a high school string quartet, and the entrance was free. "I saw there's an ice cream shop nearby."

"Fine by me." Anything to focus away from all the craziness.

Makoto smiled happily, and they left home.

Sae and Makoto took a train, and had to unboard at the Shibuya station to switch lines.

"A strange app suddenly appeared on my phone at the Shibuya station." Akechi's words replayed in Sae's head. "When I opened it, I got transported to the Metaverse."

During the wait for the next train, Sae warily reached for her phone and checked all her apps. There was nothing unusual, and she didn't know whether to remain skeptical or to be disappointed. Something about Akechi's talk made her want to believe him, but it was proving to be hard.

"Sis, is something wrong?"

"No, it's nothing." Sae put the phone away. "I'm just checking if there is anything new. There is not."

The train arrived, and they got on board. No matter how much Sae tried to remain skeptical, she couldn't help but be intrigued about the Metaverse, and wonder whether there was a way for her to see it without any strange app on her phone.

"Akechi-kun, are you free today?" Came a text message from Akira. "My other friends are busy. I hope you aren't."

If her friends were busy, then, no Metaverse today.

"Just some homework, but I can deal with that at night. Other than that, I'm free."

"Awesome." She replied. "Can we hang out? It's been a while since we haven't."

"Sure. Where do you want to go?"

"How about Inokashira Park? " Akira suggested. "Just to take a leisurely walk and relax."

If Akechi could really manage to relax, it would be good. He still wasn't 100% recovered from yesterday. First, Futaba's revelations, then Sae-san's talk right after that. Not to mention he had just returned from the Metaverse and had been a bit tired when all that happened.

"Sounds like a good idea." He responded, and this settled it.

... ... ... ... ...

Akechi donned his old casual clothes and met up with Akira at Inokashira Park. They began walking trough the trails of trees and fallen autumn leaves. It was indeed relaxing to breathe some fresh air and walk among nature with nothing to worry about.

"Morgana stayed at home today?" Akechi commented on the absence of Akira's bag which normally housed the supernatural cat.

"Yeah. I left him with Futaba."

"Oh. I hope he'll be okay."

This earned a curious glance from Akira. "Why do you say that?"

"From what I've seen, she treats him too roughly and keeps shouting at him."

"I had left him with her during my trip to attend that course, and Morgana didn't complain to me later."

That sentence made sense... until Akechi reminded himself that he wasn't supposed to know Morgana could talk.

But then, a memory struck Akechi. "Huh? Didn't he run away right after that, though? This feels like enough of a complaint to me."

"Oh yeah, he did! I had just thought he'd take a walk to cool off and come back, you know? Thanks for insisting I should look for him, by the way. I mobilized my friends to look for him, and he had been in trouble when we found him. Who knows what might've happened if you hadn't insisted!"

Akechi could imagine. That time, he had run into Morgana struggling against Shadows in the Metaverse, after all. "Glad I could help in some way."

"Morgana isn't as temperamental now. I'm sure he won't run away again!" Akira declared with conviction, and her eyes sparkled like an excited child's. "Speaking of that course, being alone with you like this reminds me of those days at the hotel. Do you remember everything that happened there?"

"Not everything." Akechi smiled dreamily at the recollection. "There's one thing I can say for sure, though. Those moments at the hotel were the best things that ever happened to me."

Akira wrapped an arm around his shoulders. Akechi startled a bit, and recalled that first day at the hotel when the slightest touch from her made him jump.

Akira also had a dreamy smile as she inched her head closer and whispered to him. "If needed, I'd do everything all over again."

Her words touched Akechi's heart, and he gave her a grateful look.

They walked in silence for some time, just enjoying the peace.

Akira spoke up. "Um, wanna ride the boat next?"

Akechi agreed... and began thinking that perhaps he shouldn't have. He soon found out that Akira was terrible at keeping the boat steady. It was as bad as her driving skills in the Metaverse!

"Sorry, I guess I'm not very good with vehicles." Akira smiled sheepishly. "I came here with Yusuke once, and he asked me to row the boat while he looked for art inspiration. I couldn't steady the thing no matter what. It was a nightmare!"

A spontaneous burst of laughter escaped Akechi's mouth. Then, he shuffled awkwardly. "Uh, sorry, I didn't mean to laugh at your misfortune."

"I liked that laugh. You're forgiven." Akira glanced at the paddle, then at Akechi. "Think you can do any better?"

"No idea. Never done it before."

"There's only one way to find out, right?"

On further thought, perhaps he should try. Akechi had known one place where they might end up needing a lifeboat... he knew Shido's ship Palace had lifeboats, but wasn't sure if they were motorized or not. So, better to be prepared.

Akechi tried to row the boat. He struggled a bit, but the thought that he may need to use that ability to escape Shido's Palace motivated him, and he eventually began to improve.

"Hey, not bad! Better than me for sure! You really haven't done this before?"

"No. Just doing things I remember from movies."

This made them talk at length about movies, and Akechi learned that Akira liked some movies he had also enjoyed.

"You know a lot about movies for someone who doesn't have a TV." Akira remarked.

"I've watched a lot of them at the foster homes. I don't know much about the more recent ones, though."

Akira grinned. "Then, we have to fix that! We should go to the movies sometime!"

When they returned to their starting point and unboarded the boat, a man who had been walking nearby approached them with a concerned expression. "Hey, be careful!"

"Huh, what?" Akechi got a bit alarmed at the sudden action.

"Haven't you heard? It's said that if you ride the boat here in Inokashira with your girlfriend, you might break up soon!"

Akira did a serious expression, and Akechi's face flushed a bit.

"N-no, we aren't..." Akechi was unable to finish the sentence.

"Oh, you aren't dating?" Thankfully, the man understood, and smiled in relief. "You'll be fine then. Have a nice day!"

Akechi and Akira walked away from the man. They walked in silence for a moment, but Akechi still hadn't managed to send the embarrassment away.

"Some people really believe these superstitions..." Akechi commented, still trying to hide his embarrassment. Though he realized that, even though they weren't dating, they would indeed need to part ways soon.

Akira remained serious. "Yeah, and many people either think we are dating, or that we should... Boss, Futaba, and even my mom's shipping us together!"

"Huh?!" Akechi's eyes widened. "That's-"

"Maybe we should just follow the suggestion?"

"Wh-what?!" Akechi startled and stopped walking abruptly. Even though Akira's tone had been playful, the expression on her face hadn't, and this put Akechi on edge. "Akira... you're just kidding, right?"

But her seriousness remained as she positioned herself right in front of him. "No, I'm not." Akira took a deep breath and looked Akechi in the eye. "Boss had a serious talk with me and made me think. So, I've been thinking about this for days now. About how much I like you, and how much I'd be willing to do for you. And the answer to both of these is, a lot. Akechi-kun, you're always so sad. No matter how much we have fun together, I know you're still sad, and this really bothers me. I want you to be happy. I'd do anything I could to make this happen."

Akechi was frozen on the spot.

"... B-but I'm happy, Akira." Akechi managed to argue after a few seconds of silence. "Compared to everything I've gone through, I'm in paradise now..."

"No, that's not it." Akira shook her head. "Because of all the unfair stuff you've gone through, you might be thinking that your current situation is normal, but it's not! I want to show you that life can be much better. And I guess it'd be easier if we were together."

These words hurt so much. Akira was so determined to waste her time and energy on him. But he was a lost cause.

"No, Akira. We can't be together!" Akechi blurted out, unsure what else to say.

"Why not?"

"We can't... we shouldn't..." Akechi desperately tried to find a convincing argument. "You're an Amazing person, Akira. You deserve someone much better." Preferably someone that hadn't killed people...

"Don't belittle yourself like that! You're the one who deserves better. Shame on all those people who didn't realize what a great person you are, and all those families who didn't want you and treated you so horribly! I want to give you all the attention that they didn't give you."

Maybe, if things had happened differently and Akechi didn't have all the weight of his sins on his shoulders, he might have accepted to take his relationship with Akira one step further, but reality was different. Akechi's heart tightened. Tears threatened to form, but he succeeded in blinking them away.

"Akira, you've been doing too much for me as it is. I don't think we need to change anything. Being just friends is more than enough for me."

Akira frowned. "No, Akechi-kun. You're responding too quickly. I've been mulling over this for days. You should take some time to think, too."

Akechi didn't respond. There was nothing to think about. A romantic relationship between them was an inconceivable idea, period.

They resumed their walk in an awkward silence until they left the park and boarded the train back to Shibuya. Akechi and Akira stood side by side.

Of course Akira was disappointed at his response to the previous subject. "Can we continue hanging out, though?"

Akechi nodded.

Akira smiled in relief. "Good. I don't want to be on bad terms with you because of our argument earlier."

"Me neither. Sorry, Akira. Don't get me wrong. You're my best friend, and the best friend I could have ever hoped for. I don't want to mess our friendship up."

"Yeah, I understand. Honestly, I'm scared too. I had never needed to think about romance stuff before. I had thought I'd only have to consider it if I were to get one of those obsessive crushes on someone, but that never happened, so..." And Akechi was glad she at least didn't have an obsessive crush on him. "Akechi-kun, have you ever thought about this stuff?"

He hadn't. Not about the serious kind, anyway. First, no one wanted him. Second, he didn't intend to live long. "Well... the serious kind, not really."

Akira raised an eyebrow. "You're saying you had considered the not serious kind?"

"Actually... once, the TV production staff had proposed having me get a girlfriend just for status. I have to admit I had considered the idea for a bit, but am glad it wasn't carried through. It'd have been really annoying, and of course the relationship wouldn't have been serious, and would only have added to my collection of lies..."

"You had said something about lies before. It seems to bother you a lot."

"This is what I mean, Akira. I'm not a saint like you make me out to be." Akechi's gaze lowered. "I had been a prime example of a well-behaved kid, until a certain point... but since that had never worked, I..." Akechi stopped himself before he could make any slip-up. Since Akira was still waiting for him to continue, he had to choose his words. "I lied a lot. To the public, to my fans, and above all, to myself..."

"You're talking about your celebrity side, right?"

He nodded, though his celebrity side wasn't the only thing he had meant.

"What about now, though?" Akira argued. "Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone admits this and tries to change for better. You've come a long way since you stopped wearing your celeb mask most of the time, and I take it that you're trying to improve. And..." Akira paused. "I guess... this is one of the reasons that makes me like you so much." This touched Akechi's heart and made his mouth hang slightly open. Then, Akira added, "Though I can't say the same for your celebrity self..."

Akechi couldn't contain himself and laughed. Akira surely knew how to warm his heart... and to make him laugh. She smiled brightly at him, and the awkward tension between them was completely gone at last.

They unboarded the train.

"Up for some coffee next?" Akira offered.

"Sounds good."

But as they were on the way to take the train to Yongen-Jaya, Akechi's cellphone rang. That, on the other hand, didn't sound good...

Akechi sighed in annoyance as he ended the call. "An interview came up... ugh, I guess the coffee will have to wait."

"Can't you have coffee before heading to the studio?"

Akechi shook his head. "I'll need to drop by home and change into more appropriate clothes."

"Ah, I see. It's goodbye for now, then. Um, be sure to think about... our talk earlier with care, okay?" She gave his hair a quick ruffle.

They were at the station. Other people must have seen it for sure! Embarrassed, Akechi uttered a quick goodbye to Akira and hurriedly left for his line.

Later, Akira was with Futaba, Sojiro and Morgana at Leblanc when Akechi's interview came on. Akira's and Futaba's gazes fixated on the TV.

"Oh no!" Futaba gasped. "Yesterday, I... uh, ended up saying I was sure the Phantom Thieves'd go after those bad guys! This means Akechi has an idea what we're gonna do... Akechi! If you spill stuff, I'll spread embarrassing info about you on the Internet! You've been warned!" Futaba threatened, even though Akechi obviously wouldn't hear her.

"Futaba, calm down," Sojiro said.

"Or we can't hear the TV!" Morgana added.

"So, any news on the Phantom Thieves, Akechi-san?" The TV show host asked.

"Aaah!" In panic, Futaba clung to Akira who had been seated next to her on the bench, shut her eyes tightly in fright and buried her face in Akira's hair.

"I'm sorry to say this, but nothing yet." Akechi heaved a sigh. "This is really frustrating. Their forum doesn't indicate that they're even considering the issue about Okumura Foods' president. But again, their moves regarding 'bigger targets,' so to speak, have never come from the Phansite to begin with. The 'big news has always come from media coverage of someone who has received a calling card. But so far, it hasn't happened for the case in question."

"Do you think they have decided to ignore the issue?" This was the second person Akira heard asking this question.

"Ignore? I don't think so. Considering how famous Okumura Foods is, targeting its CEO would boost the Phantom Thieves' popularity to new heights for sure. I still believe they will make a move, though. They have to!" Strong conviction reflected in the detective's eyes.

"What makes you say that?"

"Err... actually, not much more than plain expectation."

The host seemed surprised. "Oh, I hadn't thought I'd hear such a thing coming from a detective. No logic? No theories?"

Akechi's celebrity self did his mock embarrassed expression and chuckled. "Sorry, since I have nothing concrete to work with, this is all I have to cling to. Unlike common criminals, the Phantom Thieves don't leave any traces besides their flashy calling cards and the repercussions on the news. I hate to admit this, but a detective can't work without any clues to investigate. As long as no big news comes to the public's eyes, there's nothing I can do."

"Are you basically admitting defeat?"

"Of course not!" The host's statement seemed to have hurt Akechi's pride. "It's not over yet. The Phantom Thieves have always surprised us, and made their move when we least expected it. I believe this time won't be different. They have to make a move sooner or later! And once this happens, my investigation will advance for sure. Even if I have to take one small step at a time, connect one dot at a time... I will get to the bottom of this case no matter what!"

The interview ended.

Futaba finally let go of Akira. "It's scary when he says stuff like that! But he said nothing about what I told him yesterday..."

Sojiro had a pensive expression. "He doesn't seem to be such a closed-minded guy, though."

Akira agreed. "I think so too, but it's hard to know what he's thinking when the subject's the Phantom Thieves..."

"Perhaps, he's gathering all the facts first, and will only say something major once he has reached a conclusion," Morgana said.

"Okay. He said he's connecting the dots, right?" Akira nodded confidently. "Then, we just have gotta make sure he connects the right ones!"

Ryuji was heading to the supermarket when he passed the big screen in Shibuya and Akechi's interview was on. Ryuji stopped and watched with gritted teeth. That interview turned out to be worrying. Akechi seemed really determined to catch the Phantom Thieves! They seriously needed to change his opinion soon!

As the interview ended, many people who had also been watching on the big screen began booing Akechi. That didn't feel good, either. Ryuji recalled his last interaction with the detective where they had talked about their moms, and how Akira and Ann had spoken well of Akechi lately. Ryuji couldn't help but feel bad for the guy, and chose that moment to sneak away.

Ryuji decided he would simply resume his errand and headed to the supermarket. He was in the middle of choosing products, and almost dropped his shopping basket when he spotted Akechi walking around.

"Ah!" An exclamation escaped his mouth louder than it probably should have been, and this also called the detective to attention.

Akechi startled and turned around. "... Sakamoto-kun?"

"A-Akechi? Wh-what are you doing here?" Ryuji blurted out. He couldn't stop thinking about the interview, and how Akechi seemed serious about the Phantom Thieves case. What if Akechi had suspected Ryuji to be a Phantom Thief and decided to follow him to try to get intel?

"Huh? What else could it be? I'm here to do some shopping. I've just finished an interview, and decided to get something for dinner."

"Uh..." Ryuji had his doubts, but tried to disguise that. "Uh, y-yeah, I was j-just surprised to run into you here. I watched your interview on the big screen at Shibuya just a while ago. Um, many people nearby were booing you."

"Ah, that's to be expected. My popularity is so low right now that people will probably criticize me no matter what I say."

"You'll just let them talk?"

"Yes. There's nothing else I can do except wait and see." It was scary how Akechi didn't seem to care, as though he had some big plan to turn the tables."Are you on an errand again?"

Akechi's question was obvious, but Ryuji was glad for the change of subject.

"Yeah." Ryuji saw Akechi grab a few packs of instant noodles. "Hey. You actually don't live on that, right? Instant noodles may taste great and all, but you know, not the most healthy stuff..."

Akechi chuckled. "Certainly not the most healthy stuff. And no, I don't live on instant noodles. I only have them in 'emergencies,' when I'm really not in the mood to cook... or utterly beat like yesterday, when the last pack of instant noodles was gone. This is the reason I'm here."

"Oh, so that was it..." Ryuji sympathized with the detective, and was tempted to just take those words at face value and forget about the Phantom Thieves paranoia.

"Yes." Akechi sighed. "If only there were a way to have cooking feel less like a chore..."

"Oh. You live on your own, yeah? I help my mom with cooking sometimes, and I don't mind doing it. Err, nothing out of ordinary, but I know she appreciates the help. Maybe if you had someone to cook for, it'd... uh, never mind. I guess this makes no sense..."

Akechi raised an eyebrow. "You cook?"

Ryuji was embarrassed, and got on the defensive. "You have a problem with that?"

"N-no, I was a bit surprised, that's all." Akechi actually seemed to have had a lightbulb moment. "Anyway, are you saying that cooking might feel less like a chore if I were to prepare food for someone else rather than just for myself?"

"Uh, well, y-yeah." Ryuji admitted. "I thought of saying that, but I thought you'd find it lame..."

"Hmm. Cooking for someone else. I wouldn't have thought of that. The closest thing to that I did was when I had to take care of Morgana. Just an omelet and some leftovers, but he still liked it."

Ryuji was surprised. Morgana, out of everyone possible? "For real? He liked it? He can be quite demanding..."

"He did. He had two servings, and seemed quite pleased. It made me happy. So, you may be right. I have no one else to cook for, though."

In the flow of conversation, Ryuji let go of the wariness and was already acting normally. "Maybe a girl you like?"

"H-huh?!" A blush inadvertently invaded Akechi's cheeks at the recollection of Akira asking him out earlier.

"Hah!" Sakamoto smirked. "You thought of someone right now, didn't you?"

"I, uh..." Akechi tried to argue, but his blush completely ruined his composure.

"Hmm. The almighty detective has his eyes on someone, huh?" Sakamoto was half curious, half mocking.

"I-it's not like that!" Akechi blurted out. He didn't know what else he could say.

"Yeah right. Your face says it all." Sakamoto glanced at him sideways. "Aside from being a smartass, you're actually pretty normal, eh?"

"... Normal?"

"Yeah, you have instant noodles, don't like house chores, fall in love..."

Akechi was still embarrassed,. How he wished he could hide his face with a mask right now...

"... I didn't fall in love!" Akechi felt the need to make it clear.

"Uh-huh." Sakamoto waved it off. "Anyway, what I mean is, I had never thought I could get along with you. But in the end, you're a normal guy like everyone else. Maybe we can actually get along?"

Akechi could feel that Sakamoto was beginning to accept him a little, and his mouth curved up into a grateful smile.

"I am thou, thou art I... thou hast acquired a new vow, the Ryuji Sakamoto Confidant. It shall become the wings of rebellion that breaketh thy chains of captivity. With the birth of the Chariot Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power..."

"So, why don't you try cooking for her?" Sakamoto said with a grin. "It might get you her attention. And motivate you, too!" He shrugged. "Tell me how it went next time we meet, alright? I'll continue my shopping. See ya!"

Sakamoto walked away, and Akechi stood there holding the packs of instant noodles.

Despite the misunderstanding, Sakamoto was a nice guy. The "cooking for someone else" thing also didn't sound like a bad idea. Maybe Akechi should try...

The afternoon had been peaceful for Sae. The string quartet concert had a lot of beautiful and calm songs, and Sae was able to relax in a way she hadn't in a long while. The ice cream was great as well. Also, she felt proud of Makoto. The girl had done everything, from choosing the place, to guiding her there, to talking to attendants. Makoto proved to be just fine on her own.

Then, at night, Akechi's interview happened. He seemed really determined and sure of himself.

"Sis..." Makoto's timid voice brought Sae back to focus. "After the Kaneshiro incident, the police began investigating the Phantom Thieves, right? Um, you had come home angry saying that the Phantom Thieves basically stole your and the police's spotlight..."

"Yes." Sae confirmed.

"You're investigating, too... aren't you?" Makoto looked a bit scared.

"Yes." Sae repeated her previous answer. She tried to determine why her sister looked scared.

Then, she recalled Makoto unexpectedly bringing the Phantom Thieves up a few months back, and wondering whether they were just or not... wondering whether their father would consider the Phantom Thieves just if he were alive...

"Akechi-kun seems really confident." Makoto observed. "Even though he said he was stuck, this wasn't what it looked like."

It was an astute observation. Despite all Akechi had known, he made sure not to give any information about any of it on TV.

"It's as I have already said. He is not all talk. He knows what he is doing." Sae wasn't sure whether to despise him, or to pity him, or what, but she had to admit Akechi's smartness still impressed her. Such a waste of potential...

Honestly, Sae didn't know what to think about Akechi anymore. At first, she had thought he was just an irresponsible and arrogant brat. But there was so much more to the detective boy than she could have imagined. Akechi had said he was the one responsible for the psychotic breakdowns and mental shutdowns, and that was really despicable. But Sae kept recalling what she had learned about Akechi's orphan situation, how he had no one to guide him, and how despair could have led him to do what he had done. How he seemed to be fond of the Sakuras, and how he refused to reveal the Phantom Thieves' identities to her. It was strange, but Sae was tempted to believe that Akechi was really intent on protecting the Phantom Thieves.

"Um, I ran into him the other day, and we talked a bit." Makoto spoke up. "Since he got first place on the mock national entrance exams, I risked asking for his help with studies. Surprisingly, he agreed."

Sae hadn't seen this coming. Akechi was also helping Makoto? "He agreed to help you, just like that?"

"He said he'd help me since we'll be taking the same course and have to study the same things. I was surprised too! He even lent me some books. I still need to return them." Makoto nodded determinedly to herself. "Yes, I think it's about time I do that..." She stood up and left for her room.

Sae heaved a sigh. She wondered what their father would have done about Akechi if he were alive... how should the police deal with changes of heart in general? And how should they deal with a misguided kid that lost his way and committed murder without any regard for the severity of his actions, then had a change of heart later?

And what was Sae to do? If what Akechi said was true, her work environment was a rigged system. After her father died, Sae had criticized him so much because he had embraced his profession without caring how huge the risks were, and this was what ultimately led to his death and left Sae and Makoto on their own. If Sae were to go on with that case, she would ironically be taking similar risks. Leaving things as they were didn't feel right, though. What now? Could the Phantom Thieves really win?

Chapter Text

Friday, October 7

During lunch break, Makoto texted Akechi and asked for his help with studies. It was true that she was having trouble with some topics, but most importantly, it would be a good opportunity to have him reveal his plans about the Phantom Thieves. She had the feeling that he was cooking something up, and was worried as to what he might do.

Akechi texted her back, and they agreed to meet up at the diner.

After school, Makoto headed to the diner, and Akechi was already waiting for her.

Makoto stared at Akechi warily, and her gaze briefly stopped at his necktie, which now she knew housed a hidden microphone.

"Good afternoon, Akechi-kun. Did I make you wait too much?" She greeted him and tried to disguise her wariness.

"No, I've just arrived. Let's get inside."

They entered the diner and ordered some fruitea and a slice of cake, which they had before tackling their studies.

"How is Takao-san doing?" Akechi asked while they had their cake.

Makoto was surprised that he had asked about Eiko. "She is recovering. The police has captured Tsukasa and heard Eiko's testimony. Her parents were shocked when they found out about the whole incident, but she has told me they are giving her more attention now. We have made up and are talking normally again. Eiko says she still doesn't know what she wants to become in the future, but she'll find out along the way."

Akechi nodded. "She can do it. She has time."

They finished eating and shifted their focus to studies.

"Akechi-kun, here are your books." She placed the books on the table in front of them. "Thank you. They were of great help."

"You didn't need to hurry. Are you sure you won't need them anymore?"

"Yes, I made a copy of the most relevant sections. Thank you."

Akechi hesitated a bit, but accepted the books back. "Okay, if you say so." He put the books away. "So, what are you having trouble with?"

Makoto told him. To her surprise, he was struggling with the same subject as well! But after discussing the textbook examples and reasoning together, they managed to figure the solutions out.

"This was some nice teamwork." Akechi commented once they had put their study materials away. "I hadn't thought today would be the day I'd have the solutions to these problems."

"I had thought I would, since I was sure you had known how to solve them." Makoto complimented him to massage his ego, but it didn't seem to work for some reason.

"Sorry to disappoint."

"You helped me solve them, though." Makoto argued.

"But I had been as stuck as you."

"Hey, isn't that Akechi?" They heard a voice, which belonged to a teenage boy that was about to leave the diner.

"Yeah." Another boy answered. "He's got some nerve, doesn't he? His popularity's so low that no one listens to what he has to say anymore. Why does he keep insisting on going after the Phantom Thieves? He should just give up already!"

The two boys walked out of the diner, and the sound of their conversation faded away.

Makoto looked at Akechi, and he seemed completely unfazed by the criticism. This only intensified her suspicions that he had a concrete plan regarding the Phantom Thieves.

This was the perfect opportunity for Makoto to approach the subject she was there for. "And they've got some nerve to say those things right near you." She tried to elicit a response from him.

"Ah, it's been like this for a while now, mainly on the Internet. But also at school, and even on the street. I just ignore it, though."

"It's impressive how you don't seem to have trouble handling the criticism. You seemed quite confident during yesterday's interview as well. Why is that?"

"Huh?" Akechi still refused to give in. But the way he seemed clueless threw Makoto off a bit.

"You don't seem to be as stuck in your investigation as you made it sound. I'm curious." Makoto lowered her voice. "You actually have a plan in mind, don't you, detective?"

Akechi had been confused at first, but at Makoto's last question, he realized how she was nervous. Then, he recalled how Takamaki-san had reacted during the interview when both of them appeared on TV together. While it was good to know he was being convincing in his TV appearances, it seemed as though this was making even his allies uneasy...

"I have nothing new to say." Technically it was true, as he had told his plan to the Phantom Thieves as Crow already.

"You basically said you are counting on the Phantom Thieves responding to your expectations. What do you expect them to do, anyway?" She changed the question.

"Just something surprising, like usual."

"I don't believe you are banking on expectation alone, though." Makoto insisted. "I had expected a more rational response from a detective."

"But this is a rational response." Akechi countered. "The Phantom Thieves have always taken everyone by surprise. It's what I expect to happen again. Why are you so bothered by this issue, though?"

"I-I'm not bothered." Makoto stuttered, and her denial failed miserably. "I'm just curious. Your reasoning amazes me." She hesitated, and her expression darkened. "I'll be honest with you. I... I'll admit. I envy your intelligence, Akechi-kun. My sister once said your intelligence is on a whole different level than ours, and I agree. You always seem so composed, and so confident in your abilities."

That hurt. And worse, Akechi had known all too well how that felt. It was the same kind of envy he had of Akira. He didn't want to feel that way, but he had no control of his feelings.

Makoto was still talking. "Yesterday, my sister hung out with me. And she was the one who suggested it. This hadn't happened in a while. I was so happy! But something still bothers me. She keeps seeing me as just a naive little girl. I've done everything the way she tells me to. I've been studying so hard like she tells me to, and she never compliments me. But she compliments you..."

Akechi was alarmed. He hoped Sae-san hadn't said anything she shouldn't. "She... talked about me?"

"Yesterday, after the interview, I pointed out how confident you looked. Then, she once again said that you aren't just all talk, that you know what you are doing." And right now, Makoto looked like a naive little girl jealous of another kid.

That also hurt. Sae-san shouldn't be complimenting him, after everything he had told her!

After a bit of silence, Akechi spoke up. "Looks like we have this issue in common. It was the same to me."

"... Huh?"

"I had always been in my best behavior and studied so hard, in hope that the adults would acknowledge me, admire me, accept me... but it never happened. And sadly, this is where our similarities end. Sae-san shouldn't be complimenting me, and you shouldn't be envying me, either. You have virtues that I don't have, Makoto. You have dreams and noble goals. I don't. You want to become a police commissioner, so that you can continue your father's work and fight injustice. I don't have anything like that to aim for."

"I wasn't sure what to do until recently, though." Makoto argued. "I just did whatever the adults told me to, and thought that this was all, that it was just the way life was supposed to be. But the issue about Eiko made me remember what my father had told me about his work, and that continuing it was what I've always wanted."

"You should tell her that, if you still haven't. Takao-san will be happy to know she helped you find the path to your future."

Makoto stared in awe for a moment, then nodded. "Yes, I will. Thank you for the advice." She paused. "Akechi-kun, you said you don't have noble goals. But as a detective, isn't your goal to solve cases and fight injustice, too?"

No, it wasn't. The only injustice he had been thinking of was the one he had suffered.

"No. I wasn't thinking about that. When I decided to become a detective, I had only been thinking about myself. I wanted recognition. I wished someone, anyone, would accept me. This is why I turned to the TV, thinking that having the public admire me would do it. I came to realize this isn't the case, but it's too late now..."

"What do you mean?"

"Now, among other things, I'm trapped in the hands of a corrupt TV staff with screwed connections. I can only do what they want me to do, and say only what they want me to say."

"Is this about the Phantom Thieves?" Makoto guessed.

"About any topic, really. But of course, I also do some work for the police, and they dislike the Phantom Thieves, so..."

Makoto seemed to be carefully considering what to say next when Akechi's cellphone rang. He swiftly swept the device out of his pocket, and tensed at the caller's name. It was the mastermind himself.

"Speak of the devil! Sorry, I really need to take this call. Excuse me." Akechi sprang up from his seat and bolted out of the diner. "Hello."

There was not even a greeting. Shido went straight to the point. "As expected, the interview I scheduled for yesterday was a good setup. Your popularity may be low right now, but once things go down and the public sees the 'surprise' next week, they will see who was right and turn against the Phantom Thieves."

"Yes." Akechi replied.

"How is your progress at Okumura's Palace so far?"

"I believe I'm past the halfway point." Akechi lied. "I'm busy with studies right now, though. Exams are coming, and I need to maintain high scores."

"Of course. However, remember, you have until the 14th to do what needs to be done."

"I know. Don't worry. I am sure I can finish the work in a timely manner."

"Good. I expect great results from you, Akechi."

"Yes, sir." Akechi responded like he always did. This time, though, he didn't feel excited at Shido having expectations of him, or at the possibility of praise. All Akechi had was the determination to make sure his plan with the Phantom Thieves would work. It needed to work...

The call ended, and unbeknownst to Shido, it was recorded. Akechi had installed an app on his phone and set it to record all calls involving Shido's number. Even though some calls, like this one in specific, hadn't produced anything too interesting, Akechi already had enough material to incriminate Shido and increase the man's sentence by a whole lifetime. Akechi intended to release the most incriminating speeches for the whole public to hear, once he and the Phantom Thieves had reached Shido's treasure. Those recorded calls would incriminate Akechi as well, but since he would turn himself in soon after anyway, it didn't matter. All that mattered was that it would be hell of a calling card.

"Akechi-kun?" Makoto's voice came from behind him and made him jump. Had she heard anything he said on the phone?!

Akechi finally realized that he was a bit tense, and that his grip on the phone had been a bit stronger than necessary. "Uh, when did you get here?"

"Just now. You worried me when you suddenly stormed off. I tried to wait, but got impatient and decided to check up on you. Um, I didn't hear anything from your call, okay?"

Akechi slowly took a deep breath to calm down, and exhaled in relief.

Makoto didn't know what had gotten into her. First, she had poured her feelings out during her talk with Akechi earlier. Then, his sudden call happened, and he jumped to his feet and flew out of the diner. He had just said some corrupt people were using him, and Makoto found herself worrying. She still had her doubts about trusting Akechi, but his solemn expression from when he told her about his upbringing made her want to believe that Akira was right, and that Akechi was being used by rotten adults just like most of the other Phantom Thieves. That he might understand the Phantom Thieves' reasons, and maybe even let them help him get out of that.

"Akechi-kun, you look a bit tense..."

"See? I can't remain composed all the time." Akechi made no effort to put his composed mask back on.

"What happened?" Makoto's eyes widened. "Could it be... because you are taking too long to catch the Phantom Thieves?"

"Something like that." Akechi nodded.

You didn't get in trouble, did you?"


Makoto thought hard. An idea popped up in her mind. If she could convince Akechi to let the Phantom Thieves help him out of his problem but without the need to meet them, he could become more receptive to their actions if they succeeded in helping him.

"Akechi-kun, you said some corrupt people are using you. Um, I have a suggestion. What if you ask for the Phantom Thieves' help?"

"Hm?" He looked surprised by her suggestion.

"Since this is related to people around you, it would be easier to track any movements, right?"

"You have a point." Akechi responded after a bit of thought, and Makoto was sure she had him.

"Akechi-kun, I'll let you in on a little secret." Makoto continued her gamble. She inched closer and lowered her voice. "I was the one who requested the Phantom Thieves to target Kaneshiro."

"... What?" Akechi's head shot up. "But why? What did you have to do with anything?"

"It had come to my attention that some victims of Kaneshiro's schemes were students at my school, and as the student council president, I had to do something! ... but there was nothing I could do. This was right when I had been wondering whether the Phantom Thieves were just or not. So, I decided there was only one way to find out, and requested their help."

Akechi gaped at the new information.

"Akechi-kun, here's a tip. If you don't want to make a public post on the forum, you can use the website's contact form. I'm sure the webmaster can pass the message along to the Phantom Thieves."

"Hmm." Akechi's eyebrows rose. "Quite interesting. I didn't know this. Thank you for the information."

"Just a bit of advice from the future commissioner." Makoto offered him a smile. "Thank you for helping me with studies today. And good luck with your issue."

Akechi felt Makoto's concern towards him, and the Priestess Confidant ranked up.

They parted ways. On Central Street, as Akechi was returning to the train station, he spotted Kitagawa just standing there. It was odd. Kitagawa had been at the same spot when Akechi was on his way to the diner earlier. This likely meant he had remained there since before Akechi's whole interaction with Makoto.

Akechi couldn't help but be curious and approach the artist. "Hi, Kitagawa-kun."

"Akechi..." Wariness was apparent in Kitagawa's voice. Still, he responded politely. "Good afternoon."

"Good afternoon. Sorry for the sudden question, but what are you doing? I recall you were already here when I passed by, more than one hour ago. Are you waiting for someone?"

"Oh, no. I am merely observing the passersby. I usually stay at the Shibuya underground mall, but have decided to observe from a different location today. I like to watch the nearby people and note their behavior. Some have their heads low, others high. Some are attentive to the scenery around them, while others seem to be in a hurry, moving on autopilot and not paying any mind to anything... there is a story to be told hidden behind each one of those expressions and actions, and I keep wondering about those stories' details. I become inspired while watching people. Their behavior convey emotions, which I am trying to learn how to express in my art."

Akechi found that reply peculiar and interesting. "Oh, I see! Detective work also requires learning behavior patterns, body language and such, to identify when suspects are lying, things like that. But your observations go even deeper, huh? You even try to guess details about people's lives!"

"Yes, however, I have no way to know whether my guesses are correct or not. Many people are like the distinct shapes of clouds in the sky. They only pass me only once."

"What about the people you know? You had your first impressions before you got to really know them, didn't you? Like Akira, for example."

Kitagawa relaxed a bit and let out an amused chuckle. "Well, while I can say that I made some correct guesses about people I know, my guesses about Akira couldn't be more incorrect. There is something about her that makes it difficult to know what kind of person she is just by looking at her. She can be rather unpredictable, and there is much more to her than meets the eye."

"I can't agree more."

Kitagawa stared Akechi in the face. "It is not only Akira, though. You as well."

"... Huh?" Akechi jumped slightly.

"Akira has told me about your situation. About foster care, and how no one was willing to accept you."

"She... d-did that?" Akechi stuttered. From his talk to Takamaki-san the other day, he had noticed that Akira had disclosed things about him to the others, but he hadn't imagined she had talked about his most touchy subjects. Come to think of it, he hadn't asked Akira to keep quiet about them!

Kitagawa nodded. "Speaking of stories hidden behind expressions and actions, your expressions and behavior on television fail to convey anything about yourself." Kitagawa's wariness was completely gone now, and he was giving a passionate speech. "You resorted to television in search of recognition and acceptance, yes? In that case, don't you think you should show your true self to the public? The public should accept you for who you are, not a fabricated image. Otherwise, what is the point?"

Akechi's voice took a sad tone when he replied. "No one had ever accepted my true self. This was the reason why I began hiding behind those polite and exemplary behavior standards to see if anyone would accept me then. It hasn't worked, either. My true self got lost along the way, and I became unable to even tell what it's supposed to be like anymore..."

Kitagawa threw him a solemn look. "You are feeling lost. Even though I cannot say my situation was the same, I can relate. After that whole Madarame incident, I felt lost. It was as though everything I had believed in had collapsed from under me and I had no path to walk on anymore. I lost my artistic inspiration, and began doubting my future. Akira had to keep talking sense into me until I was able to recover my hope and find a path to walk on again."

"'Desire and Hope...'" Akechi muttered the title of Kitagawa's painting from the presentation at the museum.

"Exactly. Only after I came to terms with my situation, I was able to find the hope to place over the desire painting."

Akechi smiled weakly but genuinely. "I remember that presentation, where you had discussed your conclusions about the situation. It was very touching. You're really strong, Kitagawa-kun."

"All I needed were people to give me a little push forward and keep me from falling. I am sure you can also find the rays of hope to illuminate a new path. Rather than doing what you think others expect from you, try to listen more to your own heart. Do what you believe is right,and you may rediscover your true self. I may not be able to do much at the moment, but I can be one of the people helping push you forward if you would like."

Akechi smiled, touched at those words. He could tell Kitagawa sympathized with him and was willing to help him.

"I am thou, thou art I... thou hast acquired a new vow, the Yusuke Kitagawa Confidant. It shall become the wings of rebellion that breaketh thy chains of captivity. With the birth of the Emperor Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power..."

"Thank you, Kitagawa-kun. I'll keep your advice in mind. I just can't show my true self on TV, though. This is not what the TV staff wants, and I can't go against them."

"If you are unsatisfied with television, why don't you just stop?"

"I can't."

"You are being used, aren't you?" Kitagawa pressed. "The same way Madarame was using his other pupils and me. He would make sure to ruin the reputation of whoever dared defy him. I had also thought there was no other way, that all I could do was fool myself and use my gratitude to him for having raised me as an excuse to turn a blind eye to what he was doing. However..." Kitagawa talked as though he had found a solution, which could only be...

"The Phantom Thieves..." Akechi muttered.

"Don't you want clues? This seems like a good opportunity to get the Phantom Thieves to move in your favor."

"I've just told Makoto about the TV staff, and she gave me the same suggestion." Akechi noted warily.

"Is that so?" Kitagawa acted as though he didn't know, but it was suspicious. It sounded like the Phantom Thieves were setting something up.

"She told me to use the Phansite's contact form if I don't want to post a message publicly. You two say it as though you actually want me to find the Phantom Thieves..."

"In yesterday's interview, you pointed out that you cannot proceed with your investigation without clues. If the problem is that the Phantom Thieves are making no movements, then trying to attract them to move in your favor should be a sensible option, don't you agree?"

Except, they seemed to be the ones trying to make him move in their favor, for some reason...

Kitagawa's expression was serious. "It is not an exaggeration to say that the Phantom Thieves saved my life. If there is someone that can really help you out of your current situation, I believe it should be them. If you see the effects of their actions for yourself, you may be able to have a better understanding of their methods and obtain the answers you seek."

Technically, Akechi had already asked for the Phantom Thieves' help. This was the reason why they would change Shido's heart. Messing with more of the organization's main members wasn't a good idea, though. If the organization were to find out one of their important members had a change of heart, they may suspect that the Phantom Thieves were after them. The Phantom Thieves had already messed enough with some of the organization's clients as it was.

"Those are good points. Thank you for the suggestion, Kitagawa-kun," Akechi said, even though he didn't intend to follow the suggestion. "I'll be on my way. I'll leave you to observe the passersby at peace. See you again."

Akira was out on the street when a message from Makoto came on the chat.

"Oh. So, we should expect Mishima to bring us a message from Akechi, then we help him by changing the hearts of the people who are using him, in hope he'll be more open to our methods?" Akira summarized Makoto's explanation. "I like the sound of this!"

"I have run into him on the street just a while ago, and we have talked a little." Yusuke wrote.

"I talked to him a bit yesterday too." Ryuji revealed. "I was kinda nervous at first, thinking that he might be suspecting me of being in the Phantom Thieves, but he only talked about normal stuff. It wasn't that bad."

Yusuke added, "He is going through something similar to what most of us have faced. I could not help but also suggest seeking the Phantom Thieves' help. He has to understand us after this."

"What about Niijima-san, though?" Ann wrote. "If Akechi-kun makes the request soon, we'll have Niijima-san's Palace, and his request to deal with at the same time!"

"Sis' Palace is more urgent." Makoto replied. "We need her cooperation to solve our own issues about the evil organization. No one knows what they might do once they find out their plan has failed."

"Yeah, we'll deal with her Palace first." As much as Akira wanted to help Akechi, priorities were priorities.

"Then, we solve Akechi's issue, tell him everything and take him to the Metaverse, right? Can't wait!" Excitement showed in Futaba's message.

"We're getting there. I can feel it!" Akira was also excited.

And so was Haru. "I am still curious to meet Akechi-kun personally. All of you talk about his non-TV side so much, and I still have not seen it for myself."

"Oh yeah, you're coming to Leblanc to study with us tomorrow. You can talk to him there!" Akira wrote with a smile, glad to see that her friends were warming up to Akechi.

Akira finished chatting and put her phone away.

Morgana pocked out of the bag. "By the way, Akira, what about that thing the chief cornered you about?"


"I mean, your feelings toward Akechi. Have you come to a decision?"

"Uh, yeah, I have." Akira confessed. "I concluded I like him quite a lot. So, I, uh, decided to go for it."

"It took you long enough to decide." Morgana looked satisfied. "So, when are you going to talk to him about it?"

"I already did. I asked him out yesterday, actually. But he refused..."

"Huh?" Morgana rolled his eyes. "He refused, just like that?"

"Yeah. I don't blame him, though. I could tell that he's scared of starting something, you know?"

Morgana entered condescending mode. "I can't believe the detective'd freak out so easily! Where's his guts?!"

"Um, to tell you the truth, I'm a bit scared too. I had to think a lot to come to a decision myself. So, I told him to also give it some more thought. I still get a bit nervous when I think about this. I'll wait and see what he'll say..."

"Well, like I said the other day, you have my support."

"Thanks, Morgana."

... ... ... ... ...

Akira returned to Leblanc. It was a bit early, but the sign was flipped to "closed."

"Akira!" Futaba excitedly skipped over to her. "I've convinced Sojiro to close up shop early and come with us to Mementos for a sec, just so that he begins to understand Mona's speech!"

"I'm not really sure about this, but Futaba is so happy that I just can't help it." Sojiro admitted.

"Akira, let's go go go!"

They headed to the Shibuya station.

"Here, at the station?" Sojiro looked around.

"Yeah." Futaba grinned mischievously as she took out her cellphone. "We just have to open this app here, tap tap tap, click!"

Sojiro felt lightheaded for a second, and when he regained focus, he was near the ticket gates inside a different train station.

"Ah..." Sojiro startled. Where Akira and Futaba had been standing... well, they were still standing, but in different clothes and wearing masks.

"Sojiro, meet the Phantom Thieves of Cafe Leblanc!" Futaba enthusiastically pointed at Akira. "Akira's the leader. Her code name is Joker. I'm Oracle, and Mona is Mona."

"The name is Morgana!" The new, unfamiliar voice startled Sojiro once more.

"Uh... Morgana? But that's..." The cat's name. Sojiro stared reactionless at the bipedal feline creature standing beside Akira. "Y-you're really Morgana?"

"Yes. The one and only!" The feline exclaimed proudly. "Hello Chief, it's nice to finally be able to talk to you!"

"Let me explain!" Futaba mimicked Sojiro. "What just happened is called a cognition change. Now that you are sure that Mona can talk, you'll be able to hear him talking outside the cognitive world, too!"

"Oh....." Was all that Sojiro managed to utter.

"You still haven't seen half of it, though." Morgana warned.

"How about we take a stroll around?" Akira suggested.

Futaba smirked. "We can go to one of the easier floors where enemies run away from us 'cause they know we're too strong for them."

"... Enemies?" Sojiro was getting apprehensive.

"Don't worry, Sojiro. It'll be okay." Futaba didn't seem the least bit concerned.

Unsure what to think, Sojiro followed the kids into the station until they arrived at a platform. "Huh? So, we're going to take a train or what?"

"It's the 'or what' option," Akira said playfully.

"You don't mean we have to walk on the tracks, do you?"

"We'll be going by car." Futaba answered. Only, her answer didn't clarify anything at all. There was no car, or any other vehicle around for that matter.

"Chief, you can drive, right?" Morgana asked.

"Yeah, he has a car." Futaba answered for him.

"Then, Boss, today you'll have the pleasure of driving... the Monamobile!" Akira declared.

Morgana jumped onto the train tracks, and transformed into a vehicle! Sojiro could only gape at the absurdity before his eyes.

The girls helped Sojiro into the car, and had him take the driver seat.

"The steering wheel is on the left side." Sojiro observed. "A foreign car?"

"Neat, huh?" Morgana's voice sounded proud from the car itself, though Sojiro couldn't tell from which part specifically.

Aside from the fact that it only had a button to start the engines instead of a key, the "car" felt rather normal. Surprisingly, driving it was easy and smooth.

"What's that?" Sojiro saw something ahead.

"It's one of the enemies I had talked about," Futaba said nonchalantly. "Just ignore it. It knows better than to mess with us and will just mind its own business."

Sojiro warily avoided nearing the strange thing, and it didn't bother them indeed.

"That's some real driving." Morgana's voice spoke. "He drives even better than Crow!" Whoever that was.


"Our... um, honorary member." Akira answered.

"Hey, Sojiro." Futaba spoke from the seat behind him. "Think you can teach Joker how to drive? Her driving skills are terrible!"

It took a second for Sojiro to recall Futaba saying that Joker was Akira's code name. "Uh, sure."

Thus, Sojiro spent the rest of his afternoon showing Akira how to drive.

Sae arrived home, very satisfied with her research. She had randomly decided to talk to Natsuhiko Nakanohara, the target from the first ever request posted to the forum, according to the notes from Akechi's list. She tracked the man down at his current workplace, and asked him about the Phantom Thieves. She hadn't been expecting anything really new to come out of it, but then...


"The request message was supposedly from your ex-girlfriend, and stated you had been stalking her."

"Yes." Nakanohara confirmed. "Before, I used to be studying to become an artist, under Madarame... but I couldn't keep quiet as I kept witnessing the plagiarism. There was one very talented pupil, who always poured his soul into his art. This pupil got so devastated from having all his work stolen that he... committed suicide, and I couldn't do anything to stop it."

"This is sad to hear," Sae said.

"It was the last straw for me. When I tried to oppose Madarame, he kicked me out of the house and used his influence to destroy my reputation and all my chances of continuing my career as an artist. This ruined my dreams for good. I got a job, but it didn't go too well. With nothing else left, I began thinking that if Madarame could treat people as his possessions, so could I. This was how I became possessive over my girlfriend, and kept stalking her even after we broke up. Then, she posted the request on the site. I don't really know what the Phantom Thieves did, but if not for that, I'm not sure I'd have stopped what I was doing."

Yet another touching story about the results of the Phantom Thieves' actions.

"You mentioned Madarame. As everyone knows, he became one of the Phantom Thieves' most prominent targets. And now that I think about it, this happened only a couple weeks after they took your ex-girlfriend's request."

"Actually, I was the one who asked them to go after Madarame." Nakanohara unexpectedly revealed. "I had known there was one last pupil living at Madarame's house, a young one at that. I feared that he might end up taking his own life like the other pupil. I wished someone could save him. And then, I remembered about the Phantom Thieves. Thanks to what happened to me, I learned that the Phansite thing was the real deal. But by fear of creating more problems with Madarame because of his fame, I didn't want to make a public post. Instead, I just posted a message through the website's contact form in hopes that it would reach the Phantom Thieves. And it did!"

Then, this was the reason that led the Phantom Thieves to target Madarame?! And the bit about the contact form sounded very convenient as well.

Sae gasped. "You mean that the forum is not a mere fan creation which the Phantom Thieves happen to read, but is actually connected to them directly?"

"It seems so."

This was a huge breakthrough. An idea began forming in Sae's mind.

But Nakanohara's attention was already somewhere else. He retrieved his cellphone and opened a news article. "The young ex-pupil seems to be doing really well now. He even won an important art competition recently!" Nakanohara handed his cellphone to Sae so that she could take a look at the article.

The article was about Madarame's last pupil, a student at Kosei High School named Yusuke Kitagawa, who had won an art competition with his painting called "Desire and Hope." The article highlighted a few passages from a presentation he had done, and it was amazing to think that those insightful words had come from a teenager.

"This is really impressive." Sae commented.

Nakanohara smiled. "I'm so relieved, so glad... and also so proud, even though I have nothing to do with it." He chuckled. "Maybe I should see about studying art again, now that Madarame won't pull the rug from under me anymore. I had been trying to let it go, but it's my dream..."

Touched, Sae handed him his phone back. "You could sue Madarame and try to get your reputation back. Considering Madarame's reactions so far, he might even confirm that his actions against you were unjust. Good luck."


Sae was very satisfied with her investigation's result, though she was still curious about the Phantom Thieves' methods. Theory was one thing, but Sae wanted to see how it worked in practice. And now, she might have an idea as to how...

After some back and forth on a few floors, Sojiro stopped the car in the middle of the tracks because the kids insisted they wanted him to watch them defeat a trio of those enemies Futaba had mentioned.

"Ah, it's those Hua Po things. They're weak to ice!" Futaba spoke from her UFO... thing. "Not that we need to abuse elemental weaknesses of these trash mobs, but whatever!"

"Lachesis!" Akira summoned a figure Sojiro had never seen before, and it released an ice pillar that froze the enemy into nothingness.

"Andras is weak to wind! Mona, your turn!" Futaba cheered excitedly.

"Show your might, Zorro!" Morgana also summoned his own monster and eliminated the enemy.

"The Obariyon is weak to elec, but just do whatever!"

With a knife in hand, Akira ran to the last enemy and cut it in half, but rather than being split in two and bleeding, it simply disappeared in a cloud of smoke. That fight looked like something out of a movie, or maybe a game.

"Well done!" Futaba complimented them as Morgana transformed into his vehicle form again and they went inside.

"What about those knives, huh?" Sojiro directed a disapproving glance at Akira.

"Just replicas, like from the military shop in Shibuya. These knives can't even cut paper. Somehow, they work wonders against those monsters, though."

Sojiro's expression softened, and he sighed. "At least I won't have to explain to the social services about you illegally having weapons. That wouldn't do your probation any good."

"Yeah, it wouldn't."

The trip to Mementos ended with Joker driving back to the entrance.

"Good. You still have a long way to go, though," were Sojiro's words. The same kind of words he used when talking about her progress with coffee. Well, thanks to Sojiro's tips, she was driving a bit better than before, which was a good thing.

"So, Chief, what is the verdict?" Morgana asked once they were out of the Metaverse.

Sojiro thought hard for a moment. "You're really talking..."

"Huh?" Morgana deadpanned. "Out of everything, this is all you have to say?" He chuckled. "Of course I am talking. I've always been."

"Well, the verdict is, all of this is way over my head. If I continue hearing words coming from your mouth tomorrow, I'll be sure that this wasn't a dream. Though I have to say this. I don't know how much of that world Wakaba managed to see, but if all of this is real, I think now I can understand why she was so fascinated with it."

"She couldn't enter it," Futaba said. "Not sure how much she managed to see, either. But sometimes I caught her talking to herself. Maybe literally. Now that I think about it, she might've been talking to her other self from the cognitive world. My other self appeared to me once, when I had been having hallucinations. But in Mom's case, I think her other self was helping with the research..." Futaba stopped talking, and her expression became sad all of a sudden.

"Futaba?" Sojiro asked, but she didn't respond.

They headed back to Leblanc, and Futaba was still sad.

"What is wrong?" Akira approached her.

Futaba slowly raised her head. "I've just realized I have a hard level ahead. I need to fly home, and think how to go about it. Akira, for now, boodgye!" And she hurried out of the cafe.

"I wonder what the problem was," Akira said to no one in particular.

"It must be something she wants to do on her own. We should let her, and believe in her." Came some rather wise words from Morgana, which Sojiro had been in range to hear.

That night, Futaba couldn't sleep. And she felt she wouldn't calm down until she managed to complete her hard mission. Maybe she should just try to get it over with now.

She stood up, left her room, and knocked on Sojiro's door. "Um, Sojiro?"

"Hmm." Sojiro mumbled. "Futaba? What is it? Can't sleep?"

"Y-yeah... may I come in? There's s-something I want to tell you." Futaba spoke nervously.


Futaba opened the door, entered and walked over to Sojiro's bed. Sojiro sat up, and she sat next to him.

"A-alright. The thing is..." She took a deep breath. "We found... the person who followed the order to kill Mom." She made sure to emphasize the "followed the order" part.

Sojiro's head shot up. "You guys found... for real?! Who is it?"

"We don't know his real name. So, we just call him Crow, his code name. He isn't the problem, though. He's the solution."

"Huh? I don't get it."

"He was being used. Someone powerful ordered him to enter the Metaverse and kill Mom's other self. It's this powerful person we're after, and Crow's been helping us."

"Helping you guys?" Sojiro connected the dots. "... Wait, this 'Crow' is the 'honorary member' Akira mentioned, right? You guys simply go and trust him, just like that?! What if he's playing double agent or something?" Was Sojiro's argument, just like Futaba had predicted.

"He's not. We've thought a lot about this. But now we're sure we can trust him. You know why? Because his heart's changed too, Sojiro. His heart had been so distorted that he associated with the wrong guys and began doing bad stuff without a care for anything. But his heart has changed, and he's really regretted what he's done. I know because every time we talk about mental shutdowns and stuff, he hurts a lot and breaks down in front of us. Kind of like that old painter on TV after the change of heart. Now Crow's helping us, and even got us to avoid some very elaborate traps from the enemies. If not for him, we'd have fallen into them for sure!" Futaba told Sojiro about the enemy's trap involving the manipulated Phansite rankings and Okumura.

Sojiro was shocked. "What a situation you guys ended up in... you've been dealing with more risky stuff than I could have imagined!"

"Yeah. But it could've been much worse. If we had fallen into the trap, Okumura'd be dead, we'd have been falsely charged with murder, and would have a bounty on our heads right now. We had had no idea that such dangerous people were after us. We only learned about it because Crow told us. He saved us, Sojiro."

Futaba had no way to know what was going through Sojiro's mind, as he only heaved a sigh and said nothing.

"Sojiro, I don't want you to hate him!" Futaba's tone was pleading. "At first, I had thought I should hate him because of what he did. But he's suffering of guilt a lot. He says he'll turn himself in once we take the mastermind's heart. But to tell the truth, I don't want him to be caught! If he does, he might die! You know, 'cause death sentence and stuff..." Futaba's eyes watered, but she pressed on. "Everyone's allowed to make mistakes, right Sojiro? If their heart changed and they're willing to atone, shouldn't they deserve a second chance? I can tell he's trying to do the right thing now, and he's trying so hard... Crow's been helping us so much, buying us time so that the evil guys leave us alone for a while longer, protecting us in the fights against stronger monsters... I wanted to thank him, say how I appreciate his help, say that I don't hate him... but whenever I decide to talk to him about serious stuff, I freeze up, my thoughts scramble in my head and my voice fails."

"Honestly, I don't know what to think." Sojiro admitted. "All I know is that this change of heart stuff really seems to work." He heaved another sigh. "I wonder what Wakaba's opinion would've been if she were here."

"Me too. I wonder if she'd forgive him if she could see how much he's changed, how far he's come." A peaceful smile broke into Futaba's face. "I think she would."

Sojiro chuckled. "I think so, too. She wasn't one to hold grudges. As for me, I don't know. I'm still very bitter about what happened, but I guess I should just move on and stop crying over spilled milk." Sojiro smiled fondly. "Wakaba was the true love of my life. Too bad I wasn't lucky enough to have her love me the same way... and look at you, with a heart so strong to be dealing with such serious stuff with your head high, unlike me..." He took a deep breath. "Futaba, I'm sorry. I'm a failure as your guardian. At the time you most needed help, I had no idea how I could help you and just let you be... I couldn't have imagined you had even considered... ending your life. A bit more, and you might have..." Sojiro hung his head in shame. "Wakaba would've been so disappointed in me..."

More tears formed in Futaba's eyes. "No way, Sojiro! Mom always talked to me about how kind and interesting and awesome you are. She even said not knowing who my dad is doesn't matter because I have you. And I agree! Living with Uncle was horrible. You saved me and took me out of there. You're my hero, Sojiro. I'm happy to be where I am, and sure Mom'd be happy to know I'm in your hands." Her gaze turned apologetic. "Um, but I can't do much outside of computers, so, I'm sorry if I'm just burdening you..."

"Futaba..." Tears rolled out of Sojiro's eyes. "You're the treasure your mother left behind. You're saying she'd be happy to entrust you to me? Then, I guess I was lucky enough, after all." Sojiro pulled Futaba into a tight embrace. "I'll do my best, even though I know I can't do much."

Futaba leaned into Sojiro's chest, and both of them cried tears of joy together.

Futaba couldn't tell what Sojiro's stance on Crow was, but she chose to be content with her mission's results for now. She closed her eyes tiredly, and soon fell asleep in Sojiro's arms.

Saturday, October 8

Akira was on lunch break when Mishima approached her.

"Kurusu, a few minutes ago, a message arrived in the Phansite's mailbox. Sounds like a challenge to you guys!"

"A challenge?" Could it be Akechi following Makoto's suggestion? A challenge sounded like something he would come up with. "Who is it from?"

"Um, it says it's from someone named Niijima... wait, isn't the council pres' last name Niijima too?"

"What?" Akira jumped. Could it be...

"I'll forward you the message in a sec."

Akira gathered her friends from Shujin.

"Makoto, Mishima got a message via the Phansite."

"Already?" Makoto perked up. "What does it say?"

"I still haven't checked. Mishima's just forwarded it to me. Um, it's not from Akechi-kun, though. Looks like it's from your sister."


Akira read the message.

"Phantom Thieves, I am prosecutor Sae Niijima. I have been investigating the mental shutdowns and psychotic breakdown incidents for quite some time, and it has come to my attention that those incidents as well as the changes of heart are carried through by the use of the cognitive world. My investigation led me to believe that the group behind the mental illnesses is unrelated to you, and that you might actually be planning to go after them. However, it appears that this other group is composed of powerful and influential people. The kind of people that not just anyone can hope to mess with without suffering serious consequences. I am willing to help your cause, Phantom Thieves. However, you must prove to me that you really have what it takes to win this. As proof of your abilities, I request that you go to the cognitive world and change my heart."

Akira showed the message to everyone.

"For real...?" Ryuji uttered.

"Crow had said she might set her eyes on the evil organization soon." Morgana reminded them. "She's even pointing out the existence of another group besides us, and also the cognitive world. She must've come far in her investigation to be able to arrive at this conclusion."

"Yeah, not even Akechi's said anything like this." Ryuji pointed out. "He only kept insisting that the changes of heart and the other stuff might be similar, blah blah blah."

"The day Niijima-san went to Leblanc, Futaba blurted out that we're going after the evil guys and also mentioned how her heart changed through the cognitive world. This explains why Niijima-san'd know." Akira concluded. "But Akechi-kun knows about this too, since he was with her."

"He has said nothing about this in his interview, though." Haru observed.

"Yes. I also wonder what Akechi-kun intends to do with this information," Makoto said.

"Was it really Niijima-san who sent the message, though?" Ann asked. "I mean, this is just after Makoto told Akechi-kun about the contact form..."

"It's her email address, but I wonder whether Akechi-kun could have found a way to send the message on her behalf." Makoto answered.

"We may be able to confirm this once we go into the Palace," Morgana said. "We shall see how her Shadow will react."

"Um, either way, we should just proceed with the plan of taking Niijima-san's treasure as normal, right?" Haru gave her simple conclusion.

"Sounds good to me." Akira agreed.

"Let's assemble to let the others know, and head into Mementos later today." Morgana suggested. "We should talk to Crow about this, too."

Sae was impatient. She had sent the message to the Phansite, and couldn't stay still waiting for something new to happen. There was the issue about the Metaverse as well. How she wished to see it...

She texted Akechi asking if they could meet up, and surprisingly, his response came shortly later.

"Yes, we can. A teacher is absent today, and I'll be released in one hour."

Great! Earlier than she had expected as well!

One hour later, they met up on the street.

"So, Sae-san, where should we talk this time?"

"Akechi-kun, I have a favor to ask you."

"A favor?"

"I have researched some more, and am inclined to believe what you told me. The only thing I still can't wrap my head around is the cognitive world, or 'Metaverse,' as you called it." She stared him in the eye. "Akechi-kun, I want you to take me to the Metaverse."

"... What?" He took a step back.

"I will only believe those outlandish details if I see the Metaverse with my own eyes. I don't have the smartphone application you mentioned. Since you are the only person I know who has it, I will have to ask you to take me there."

Akechi hesitated a bit. "Um, fine. Just a quick peek, alright? It may be dangerous."

Sae agreed, and followed Akechi.

In the train, Sae kept thinking how it was difficult to imagine that Akechi was the one behind the mental shutdowns. He looked so inoffensive...

They came out at an all too familiar street, the one Sae took to head for work every day. But when they were approaching the court house, Akechi had her sneak around, as though he didn't want anyone to see her there in her day off. He took his cellphone out and tapped on the screen a few times.

Sae felt a bit lightheaded, and only recovered when she heard Akechi's voice.

"We're in."

"Huh?" Sae looked around and blinked. "Is this it?" She asked skeptically. "Nothing looks out of ordinary..."

"Really?" Akechi sounded a bit apprehensive. "Look at the court house... that is, if it can even be called that... it sure doesn't look anything ordinary to me. Unless you've been seeing it like that normally..."

They came out of hiding, and Sae's gaze searched for the court house... only, she saw no court house at all. Where her workplace should have been, looking completely out of place near the police station, was a huge casino. Despite the many lights indicating a lot of activity inside, it had a big signboard saying, "Closed for maintenance until 10/10!"

"... Wh-what is that?!"

"The facilities born from people's distorted cognition are called Palaces. It's what that casino is. The world created from your own distorted cognition, Sae-san." Akechi answered, more certain. "In other words, it's your Palace. That is how you subconsciously view the court house."

"A casino? How can this be?!"

"Looks like you've been too obsessed about 'gambling' and 'winning' in your work..."

On further thought, Akechi was right, and Sae couldn't deny it. "Oh my god..."

The place was intriguing as much as it was shocking, and Sae couldn't contain herself. She felt as though the casino were calling out to her, and quickened her pace towards it.

"Sae-san!" Akechi scrambled after her. He put a hand on her shoulder and caused her to stop abruptly.

Sae startled, not only at the boy's action, but also at an alarm sound that blared out of nowhere, and the sudden appearance of a bottle-holding security guard out of thin air. Sae held her breath, and froze on the spot.

"This facility is closed for maintenance so that we can deliver a much more 'fair' and 'balanced' experience in the future." The guard stated, with a not so friendly emphasis on "fair" and "balanced." He glared at Akechi. "You are trying to break the rules, are you not?"

"Huh?" Akechi was confused.

"The rules are clear, and state that no one may enter until maintenance ends. If you think you could circumvent the rules by coaxing the manager's softer side, you are mistaken. Those who break the rules must be punished!"

"Sae-san, stay back!" Akechi jumped protectively in front of her and pushed her backwards. From there, everything happened quickly. In a blink, Akechi's attire changed into a set of clothes resembling black armor, with a black helmet that covered practically his whole face.

Then, the single guard unexplainably exploded into three totally unrelated figures.

"Loki!" Akechi summoned a menacing creature of his own from his mask, and it released flames that quickly consumed the three enemies. All that remained of them was a small and round object on the ground, which Akechi retrieved.


"I had said it may be dangerous." His voice came out dark and a bit obscured by his headgear, in a warning tone she had never heard him use before. "Let's back away from the casino before more of them come."

He once again placed a hand on Sae's shoulder and guided her. When they were at a considerable distance from the casino, his clothes returned to normal.

"Akechi-kun, your clothes... those monsters... what just happened?! I need an explanation! Right now!"

"Well, looks like we are at a safe enough distance. Since no one will hear us here, this should be a good opportunity for talking. Those monsters are born from negative emotions, and are called Shadows. If the Shadows begin to view me as a threat, my outfit changes into a 'battle outfit,' so to speak. It's the same for the Phantom Thieves and, in fact, that is the only way I have interacted with them in the Metaverse so far."

"Oh." This explained why the Phantom Thieves hadn't recognized him. The outfit covered almost his whole body, the helmet-like mask covered most of his face, and not only the outfit, but his voice also got darker.

"What about that creature you summoned?"

"That is called a Persona. Another aspect of myself, like an inner creature."

"You had said that the Phantom Thieves cause a change of heart by taking the target's treasure. Does this mean that there is such a treasure inside the casino, and that my heart will change if they retrieve it?"


"What could this treasure be?"

"I have no idea. I'll only know once I see it."

"Alright, these answers are enough for now." Though Sae was disappointed that the Phantom Thieves weren't there. When were they going to act? Did the message even reach them to begin with? Then, she recalled that Akechi had infiltrated the Phantom Thieves. "Have you talked to the Phantom Thieves today?"

"No, I haven't."

Sae heaved a sigh. "I sent them a message through the contact form on the Phansite this morning, and wanted to know what they said. But if you don't know anything, then never mind."

"Hmm? The contact form?" Akechi raised an eyebrow.

Sae told him about her interaction with Mr. Nakanohara.

"Oh, I see." Akechi had a pensive expression. "Alright, I'll try to find out if the Phantom Thieves got your message. Now, let's get out of the Metaverse."

"How do we get out?"

"From the way we came in."

"Can't you simply use the program on your phone to send us back?"

"No. We can only leave by crossing the same spot we entered from."

Sae followed Akechi through the way they had come. When they crossed the spot they had hid before activating the app, she felt lightheaded again.

"We're back." Akechi informed her.

Sae warily walked to a spot from where the court house was visible, and when she looked in its direction, it was there as though nothing had happened.

"I hope this was enough," Akechi said.

"Yes, it was. Thank you." Sae recalled something. "Akechi-kun, what was that small object one of the enemies dropped?"

"This?" Akechi showed her the object. "Looks like a casino coin."

"... May I keep it? If I have that, I can look at it to remind myself that this was not a dream."

Akechi nodded, and wordlessly handed her the coin.

Sae was quite satisfied. She had finally seen the Metaverse with her own eyes! It was both fascinating and scary at the same time, and the outlandish details Akechi had told her were really true. Now she even had an object brought from the Metaverse in case she ever began doubting the little adventure was real. The only thing she needed now was to have the Phantom Thieves cause a change in her heart.

After school, Akira told Yusuke and Futaba about Niijima-san's message, then everyone headed into Mementos to hopefully meet with Crow so that they could tell him the news as well. They were talking while they waited.

Oracle spoke up. "Um, guys, yesterday I talked to Sojiro about Crow. I told him that Crow's heart changed, how he's regretted what he's done, how he helped us avoid the enemy's trap, and how he's protecting us and helping us take on the bad guys. I said I don't want Sojiro to hate him, but I'm still not sure what Sojiro's opinion is. Talking about this was hard, and I don't know if I managed to do a good job of explaining it, but I did what I could."

Understanding crossed Mona's eyes. "Oh. So this was what you were worked-up about yesterday. You wanted to tell the chief about Crow! Although, couldn't you have waited a bit more to tell us this?"


"If you had waited to say all this once Crow had arrived, I bet he'd be happy to hear it." Mona explained.

"Well, just tell him once he gets here, then." Joker smiled encouragingly at Oracle. "No need to do anything special. Just say it the same way you did now."

Oracle nodded stiffly.

After that sudden little adventure in the Metaverse, Akechi's bond with Sae-san ranked up. They parted ways, and he went to Mementos to see if the Phantom Thieves were there.

Joker smiled brightly at him when he arrived. "Crow! You're usually the one who brings news for us, but this time we have some news for you! Look at this!" Joker showed him her cellphone with an email app open.

"This is...!" Crow's eyes widened in surprise. It could only be the message Sae-san had talked about!

"What do you think?" Joker asked for his input once he finished reading the message.

"I hadn't expected her to challenge us! She's daring us to take her heart?" Crow smirked confidently. "Fine, we were already going to do this anyway."

"Let's go right now, then!" Skull was eager. "If she's expecting us, then the Palace must be open already!"

"Good reasoning. Sadly, it's not. I've just dropped by the casino before coming here, and it was still closed."

"Such efficiency." Fox complimented.

"Did you try to find a way in?" Queen asked.

"As soon as I got a bit close, the Palace's alert level increased and Shadows started coming. They won't let us enter no matter what. There's a big signboard saying the casino will be closed until 10/10. We'll have to wait until then. There's no other way."

Joker deflated. "How disappointing..."

"However, on the other hand, if proving our abilities to her will guarantee she won't side with the SIU director, it's even better!" It meant that Crow's dangerous gamble had had a favorable outcome, which was a relief. "Also, she even mentioned the cognitive world. If she believes that taking something from the cognitive world will change her heart, then doesn't this mean we don't even need to send her a calling card?"

"Oh, good point!" Mona agreed. "I think so too! Come to think of it, it's as though she had sent us a calling card, instead of the other way around!"

"Whoa..." Skull exclaimed.

"In short, at least we can wait until 10/10 without the need to worry, yes?" Noir concluded.

"I believe so," Crow said.

Joker heaved a sigh. "Welp, for today, nothing we can do other than deal with some smaller requests here in Mementos, then."

"Now Joker's learning to drive," Oracle said.

Crow nodded approvingly. "That's good." He took a step back. Then another.

"Hey! Where are you going?" Mona called out.

"I'm leaving."

"Why?" Noir asked. "Won't you help us fulfill the requests?"

"If I stay here, she'll keep refusing to drive."

"Ugh..." Joker made a face. "Um, but what if we run into the powerful monster?" Joker used the argument that won him over the other time.

Crow didn't sway this time, though. "You have those items to escape. Good luck with your driving. See you again." He turned away.

"Ah! B-but we aren't done telling you all the news!" Joker desperately blurted out, and shot a glance at their navigator. "R-right, Oracle?"

"Huh!" Oracle jumped, caught totally off guard. She looked scared all of a sudden.

This reaction caused Crow to stop in his tracks and turn to look at Oracle.

"Come on! Say what you had meant to say!" Mona encouraged her.

Crow was paralyzed. He recalled that day Futaba and Morgana kept arguing about something she had meant to say to him. What was she going to say?!

Then, Oracle made a hurt face and looked like she was going to cry, and Crow felt as though his heart was being squeezed.

"Hey, Oracle! What's wrong?" Mona threw her an exasperated look.

They had probably convinced her to say something to him out of politeness, which she actually didn't mean to say at all.

"It's enough." Crow shakily raised a hand. "Don't force anything. If she's going to say something she doesn't mean to just for the sake of it, then there's no need to say anything."

The navigator shook her head, but words still didn't come from her mouth.

"That's it. I'd better leave. I don't want her to be unable to navigate and ruin your training." He turned away and resumed his walk to the exit.

Out of the Metaverse, he sent a text message to Sae-san. "Challenge accepted, although no one can do anything until maintenance ends. Sorry, but you'll have to wait."

"I see." Sae-san replied. "I had hoped to solve this issue before my work resumes, but it seems there is no other way."

"Wait... don't go..." Oracle's words came out in a whisper, and were unable to reach Crow's ears. Oracle was devastated.

"Oracle!" Joker hurried over to her.

"Why do I have to freeze up? Why it has to be so hard? I don't get it!" Oracle hugged Joker and began crying.

"Oracle..." Noir looked at her sadly, as did the other Phantom Thieves.

Everyone crowded around Oracle and waited until she had calmed down.

"Should we call it a day?" Queen asked.

Oracle shook her head. "No. Let's do those requests. I wanna keep speaking more and more, and maybe it'll help me level up. One day, I wanna be able to tell Crow what I feel."

"You can do it." Joker smiled encouragingly. "We'll be with you! Unless you want to talk to him alone, of course." She chuckled.

Oracle laughed. "Yeah! Now, let's use those requests for training. Not only you guys, but me too!"

And the Phantom Thieves set out into Mementos with determination on their faces.

Chapter Text

Sunday, October 9

It was the day Akechi had agreed to help Akira with studies at Leblanc. He chose a white shirt and a blue jeans from his old casual clothes. He didn't put on his tie or his gloves. Today, he would just pretend to be a normal student at a normal study session with a friend. Akechi also didn't want to take his cellphone with him, as he wanted nothing to have with the organization. But he took it anyway, because if Shido decided to call him right near the deadline and he didn't pick the call up, it wouldn't be good. Though Akechi hoped no one would call him... the only other "abnormal" thing he made sure to take was an envelope with the requested info about Futaba's uncle for Sakura-san.

On his way to Leblanc, Akechi kept discreetly glancing behind to make sure no one was following him. Now that he was frequently near one Phantom Thief or another, he became more wary of organization members possibly following him. Not only for his sake, but for the Phantom Thieves' safety as well. Fortunately, Akechi had never seen anyone following him so far, but he shouldn't let his guard down.

As soon as Akechi entered Leblanc, he froze on his tracks. Akira wasn't waiting for him alone. The whole group was there seated at a table.

"H-huh? Um..." Akechi didn't know what to say.

"A... Akechi?" Sakamoto stared weirdly as though Akechi had grown two heads. Or maybe it was because of his clothes...

"Whoa! So casual!" Takamaki-san giggled in amusement, and her comment confirmed Akechi's thought.

"Hi, Akechi-kun." Akira stood up and came over to greet him. "I told my friends we were going to study, and invited them too." She whispered in his ear. "Remember that day when we talked about how nice it'd be if we all were in the same school? This is the mood I'm going for here. I just want you to have a good time."

Akechi threw a glance at the whole gang.

"Even you, Kitagawa-kun? You're from a different school."

"The topics I am studying are similar." Kitagawa countered.

Akechi saw Futaba and hesitated at the recollection of her painful expression from the previous day. "And Futaba-chan, you don't even go to school..."

"Akira invited you, and all her other friends too, and I figured it'd be fun," Futaba said.

"She's probably the only person who thinks studying is fun..." Sakamoto made a disgruntled face.

Akechi was wary. First, Makoto and Kitagawa had pressed for him to ask for the Phantom Thieves' help, and now this. The suspicion that the Phantom Thieves were scheming something was becoming stronger in Akechi's head.

"Hello, Akechi-kun." A cute and gentle voice spoke.

"Ah!" Akechi jumped and snapped to focus. "Uh, hi..."

One of the girls, actually Okumura's daughter who Akechi had never met outside of the Metaverse in person, stood up and approached him. "Akira-chan and Futaba-chan have told me a lot about you, and made me curious. My name is Haru. Nice to meet you!" She purposefully didn't mention her last name.

"Um, Akira had mentioned you to me as well. Nice to meet you too, Haru-san."

"Just Haru is fine."

"Oh... o-okay." He nodded awkwardly.

Haru gave him a sweet smile and stared at him curiously.

"I am thou, thou art I... thou hast acquired a new vow, the Haru Okumura Confidant. It shall become the wings of rebellion that breaketh thy chains of captivity. With the birth of the Empress Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power..."

Another Confidant bond. Akechi realized now he had an individual Confidant bond with all the Phantom Thieves.

"Yo! New look, eh?" Morgana came from behind and climbed on the bench near where Akechi was standing. The sudden greeting interrupted Akechi's thoughts about his Confidant bonds and made him jump again.

"Whoa, someone's jumpy today." Akira commented.

"Uh, sorry. I was distracted. A-anyway, is Sakura-san here? I need to deliver these files to im." Akechi raised the envelope.

Futaba's eyes lit up. "Is it the stuff about my uncle?" Akechi nodded. Futaba hopped over to him. She grinned from ear to ear and patted Akechi on the head. "Awesome! Akechi best bro! I'll hand that to Sojiro." She took the envelope from his hand and ran to the back.

Akechi stood there, stunned by Futaba's sudden action. The Phantom Thieves stared at him, most of them equally stunned.

"What just happened?" Sakamoto asked.

"That was cute..." Haru said.

Those comments only served to make Akechi even more embarrassed.

"Come on, Akechi-kun. Take a seat!" Akira approached him, placed a hand on his shoulder and guided him to the bench by the table.

With both hesitation and embarrassment, Akechi sat next to Morgana, and the Phantom Thieves kept looking at him as though they didn't recognize him. Akira took the spot right next to him, and flashed him a supportive smile. However, it didn't put him at ease at all.

What have I gotten myself into? Akechi thought and heaved a sigh. For some reason, he felt that it would be a long day, and that the embarrassing events were far from over.

Akira spread her school materials on the table. "Shall we get this study session started?"

Morgana glanced at the whole group. "Hey, Akechi. I hope you can help squeeze some knowledge into these guys' heads. Makoto can't manage them all by herself."

Makoto, who was sitting right across from Akechi, shuffled nervously. "Um, Akechi-kun... actually, I'm having trouble with these equations. Do you think you could help me?"

"Let me see." Akechi took Makoto's notebook. "Hmm. May I use a blank sheet?"

"Of course." Makoto passed a pencil over to him.

Akechi turned to a blank page and began writing his calculations.

Futaba returned, and took a peek at Akechi's scribbles from behind his back. "Math, huh?"


Futaba observed silently for a while, then returned to the other bench where she had been previously.

A couple of minutes later, Akechi's pencil was still sliding across the paper.

Out of the blue, Futaba began shouting random numbers. "Five! Twenty! Thirty! Forty one!"

Akechi raised his head from his writing. "Futaba-chan, you're ruining my concentration."

"Sixty nine! Ten! Eighteen!"

"Ugh, Futaba, shut up!" Sakamoto snapped. But Futaba just smirked and continued spouting numbers. She seemed to be having a lot of fun, too.

"Futaba, what's gotten into you?" Akira asked.

Kitagawa heaved a sigh. "Could it be that she did not mean to have fun by studying, but rather by annoying us?"

Sakamoto looked at Akechi. "What're you writing so much, anyway?"

Akechi's hand stopped moving. "Sorry, I, uh, um... forgot the formula, and was trying to remember the steps to arrive at it..."

"Forgot?" Makoto was incredulous. "May I take a look?"

"Yes, but I'm not done yet." Akechi handed back her notebook.

"Fifty seven! Twelve! ..." Now that no one was paying attention to her, Futaba gazed downward and muttered to herself. "It's coming out normally... why can't it be always like this?"

"Hm?" Akechi looked questioningly at Futaba, but Makoto's voice diverted his attention.

"... What is this?" Makoto made a panicked face and set the notebook on the table. "I can't understand any of it!"

Everyone was shocked.

Sakamoto glared. "Akechi, what the hell did you do that not even Makoto can understand?"

"Lemme see!" Futaba snatched the notebook from the table. "Hmm... hmm. so, this goes like this, and that goes like that... yeah yeah..."

Makoto looked at Futaba in surprise. "You can understand that?"

"Sort of."

Takamaki-san was amazed. "Wow, she's really like a walking computer!"

"And random number generator." Akechi added.

Futaba was still talking to Makoto. "Um, well, I don't know where he was trying to get with these calculations, but I can tell that they're right... or not. Akechi!" Futaba spoke his last name in a scolding manner. She stood up and brought the notebook over to him. "Looks like my lil' bro can't do math... it should be 2 here." She indicated one of the results.

"Huh?" Akechi examined what he had written. "Yes, it should indeed... I messed up because someone kept spouting random numbers and ruining my concentration!"

"Sowy!" Futaba said in a singsong voice, in a way she showed she wasn't sorry at all, and ruffled Akechi's hair as though she were dealing with a little kid.

"F-Futaba-chan..." Akechi blushed and closed his eyes in embarrassment.

Futaba chuckled and continued stroking Akechi's hair.

"Whoa, what's going on here?" Sakamoto sounded confused.

"Those two..." Haru trailed off. "This is so..."

"So cute!" Takamaki-san completed.

"Ah, familial love. Now I can identify it perfectly!" Kitagawa exclaimed excitedly.

Akechi felt so flustered. Futaba was embarrassing him in front of everyone again! He risked opening his eyes, and a quick glance to his right showed that Akira was having trouble to conceal a huge smile.

"Aww, shy Akechi is so cute cute!" Futaba kept teasing him. "Right, Akira?"

Akira giggled. "Yeah, and you are too."

Futaba gasped and hid behind Akechi, who didn't know what to do anymore, as everyone was still looking at him.

Once Futaba had calmed down enough, she raised her head. "No necktie today?"

Akechi confirmed.

"Less formal. You're learning." Futaba patted him on the head once more.

Sakura-san called Futaba, and she finally left Akechi alone.

Akechi was still embarrassed, though, and lowered his head in an attempt to hide the embarrassment. Had the Phantom Thieves set that study session up just so that they could fluster him or what? They were quite the "bullies" in the Metaverse, too. They had used their unanimous decision rule and forced him to navigate, to drive, to join them in a fight against a powerful monster...

"Hey." Morgana piped up from his left. "Akechi, I get you. It's quite embarrassing. You should be glad, though. Futaba may not be your real sibling, but her sisterly love for you is the real deal."

Akechi had no doubt of that. He thought she shouldn't, though. Maybe he should just tell her that he was Crow so that she would hate him at once. After what he had done to her mother, hating him should be the right thing for Futaba to do... but Akechi couldn't bring himself to do it. During his whole life, he had wished to feel loved, and to be assured that there were people who cared about him. And now, he could. He had Akira, Futaba, Morgana, and the feeling of being cared about was too good to let go.

Makoto was having a hard time believing that the shy and humble-looking boy right in front of her was really Akechi. First, he was wearing casual clothes that Makoto had never imagined he would choose to wear. To add to that, Futaba had pulled his celebrity mask off and completely destroyed the arrogant detective image that Makoto had in her head. Now Akechi was embarrassed, but not in that forced mock embarrassed way he sometimes acted to appear humble on television. He was looking just like a normal kid, not any more different from any of them, really.

Akechi had his eyes closed, and was unaware of the fond smile Akira was directing him. Makoto saw it, though, and realized both Akira and Futaba were more fond of the boy than she had imagined. They were really intent on helping him and convincing him about the Phantom Thieves' reasons. Makoto wasn't sure if Akechi had always been this way or if he was changing, but maybe she should give him a chance...

"... Akechi-kun?" She addressed him hesitantly.

"Ah!" Akechi jumped and his eyes shot open. "I'll f-finish the calculations. Wait just a moment..." He hastily took the pencil, and buried his face into the notebook to hide his embarrassment.

while the second year students discussed other school subjects, Akechi managed to arrive at the formula he wanted.

"I found the formula, and got the solution to your issue." He told Makoto. "I made a lot of calculations while I was trying to figure things out, but all that matters to solve your issue is from this point onward." He proceeded to explain the logic to her.

"Ah, I see!" An understanding look crossed Makoto's eyes. "It wasn't that hard. Now I understand it. Thank you, Akechi-kun." She decided to massage his ego to see if the show-off detective boy would come back. "Um, I knew I had made the right choice when I decided to ask for your help the first time. You didn't get first place in the mock national entrance exams for nothing!"

However, strangely, he didn't seem glad at the compliment at all...

The others stopped what they were doing, and all eyes turned to Akechi.

"First place?!" Ryuji nearly shouted. "For real?"

"Congratulations! Such a feat would be impossible to someone like Ryuji." Yusuke remarked.

"'Course it would! But I don't care. No one's expecting anything of me anyway."

No one's expecting anything... Akechi thought about his own situation. He had always tried to get the highest grades he could because it was the behavior people expected of him. Or at least, what he had thought people expected of him. What he had thought he needed to do for people to admire him, to recognize him, to love him. But none of those grades meant anything to him at this point, especially considering his days were numbered. What was he studying for, anyway? He couldn't stop now, though, because it would be a sudden change of behavior which the organization would surely notice. He had to act as though nothing were happening. At least, if he helped the Phantom Thieves study, some of his knowledge would be useful for something...

"Akechi-kun, say something as well!" Makoto was looking at him for support, probably hoping he would encourage Sakamoto to study.

"... Huh?" Akechi snapped to attention.

"You're really out of it today, aren't you?" Akira said. "Is everything okay?"

"Yes, I'm okay... I just have a lot on my mind..." Akechi added before Akira could ask for details. "Sorry, forget about it. Let's go back to studies."

"Okay." Thankfully, Akira didn't insist. "Now where was I again? Oh yeah, the mock entrance exams. I had heard people gossiping about your mock exam results."

"First place in the mock entrance exams is really amazing!" Haru looked at Akechi with admiration. "You must feel really proud!"

"Uh, well... at first, I did. But now that I think about it, that didn't make my life any better." It came out more bitterly than Akechi had intended, and only after his opinion was out, he realized he probably shouldn't have given it.

Akira looked at him with concern. "That sounded kinda depressing..."

"Uh, sorry." Akechi would have to try to fix it. "I didn't intend it to sound that way. I guess what I mean is, Sakamoto-kun shouldn't need that much, unless he's aiming big like Makoto."

Sakamoto waved it off. "Nah. I just wanna run, y'know? I used to be part of Shujin's track team, and was their best runner! Until... uh, well, messed-up stuff went down, and I ended up with a broken leg. I'm trying to get back into shape, but it's been rough..."

Kitagawa interjected before Akechi had time to ask what "messed-up stuff" had gone down for Sakamoto. "I believe I have not heard what Makoto is planning to do in the future."

"I intend to become a police commissioner." Makoto replied.

"Um, and what does a commissioner do?" Sakamoto asked.

"Basically, she wants to be above everyone and be the head of operations." Akechi summarized.

Now Makoto was the one getting embarrassed, but she continued speaking anyway. "I know it will be a lot of work. But I will become an even better police member than my father was, and I will get there!"

Everyone was awed by Makoto's ambition, and their attention diverted from Akechi's achievements for the moment.

"What about you, Haru?" Akechi asked.

"Oh, me? I'm into gardening! I have secretly grown vegetables on the school's rooftop!"

"On the school's rooftop?" Akechi found it an odd place to grow plants, let alone vegetables.

"Yeah, and she takes care of the flowers at the entrance too!" Takamaki-san said. "They're beautiful!"

Haru giggled. "I want to open a cafe, and grow my own coffee beans for it!"

"Hmm." Akechi hummed in wonder. "So, Akira wants to start a business. Takamaki-san is working as a model already, and Kitagawa-kun is doing well as an artist already. Sakamoto-kun wants to be an athlete. Makoto wants to be a police commissioner. Futaba-chan is skilled at computers, and should find a good job easily. And Haru wants to open a cafe and grow her own coffee beans... looks like everyone here is sure what they want in life already. This is admirable. Right, Sakura-san?"

Sakura-san had been silently observing the group nearby. "Huh? Yeah... many young people waste a lot of time until they either find out what they want to do, or circumstances force them to do something whether they like the job or not. Knowing what to do this early on is a nice head-start."

"I'm rooting for all of you." Akechi smiled genuinely at the Phantom Thieves.

Uh, wait. Am I the only one who hasn't decided what to do? Morgana thought to himself. He needed to get a job once he became human... that is, if he could even become one to begin with. Well, it was no use thinking about this until he got to a position of needing a job.

Morgana put that thought aside and stared at Akechi. Once again, he recalled that dream where he had thought Akechi was a wild card. It was absurd. Morgana had no idea what could have led him to that conclusion. It was even less likely because wild cards were very rare to find, and they had Akira and Crow already...

"Meeeooow!" A high-pitched and embarrassing meow left his mouth when Futaba snuck behind him and pinched his cheek. Morgana's sudden cry also caused Akechi to jump once again, and the Phantom Thieves burst laughing at both of them.

Futaba ignored the group's reaction. "Aww Mona, why do you have to like Akechi more than you like me? I'm hurt..."

"I'm hurt from the way you treat me." Morgana retorted. "Akechi treats me with dignity."

Futaba huffed, ignored Morgana and skipped happily over to the bench with the other Phantom Thieves, who were still laughing at the scene.

Akechi spent the afternoon helping the Phantom Thieves study.

"The study session wasn't that bad... I even understood a thing or two..." Sakamoto laughed.

"Me too!" Takamaki-san said. "I hope I won't be so close to the minimum required score this time. Thanks for the help, Akechi-kun."

"Yeah, thanks," Sakamoto also said.

Akechi didn't think he had done much, but Sakamoto and Takamaki-san were grateful, and both of their Confidants ranked up.

Sakura-san served curry to everyone. They had dinner, then returned home.

"I need to be going too." Akechi stood up.

"No. Akechi, come to my place and watch Featherman with me." Futaba practically demanded. "It's been one week since the DVDs arrived, and you haven't come to watch them yet. I'm not watching them without you!"

"Um..." Akechi threw a glance at Sakura-san.

"There's still some time. You could watch a few episodes or something." Sakura-san suggested.

"Okay. In that case..."

"Akechi-kun, before you go, can you come here for a moment?" Akira motioned to the stairs. "I want to talk to you."

Akechi agreed and followed her to the attic.

"I hope you've enjoyed it today," Akira said.

"I did." Embarrassing events aside, it was lively.

Akira seemed glad. "You have to hang out with us more often! Say, do you like school culture festivals?"

"To be honest, not much. At least at the ones from the schools I've studied at, all I did was run left and right to assist my class with preparations."

"And you don't have anyone to hang out with, either, right? Sounds boring. How about you come to Shujin's culture festival, then? Everyone will be there. I've invited Yusuke and Futaba, too. We can all hang out together!"

"When will it be?"

"After exam ends. I'll tell you once we get the right date."


Akira giggled. "Alright. You may go now. Thanks for the help today, and good night." Akira inched closer to him and affectionately kissed his face.

Akechi blushed. He recalled their talk from the other day about starting a relationship, and concluded that Akira's kiss likely meant more than just "good night" this time. What a way for her to press him for a response without applying pressure... not only that, but this time her kiss made his heart beat even faster than before. He wondered whether Akira also felt anything different whenever he returned the gesture, and this reminded him that he still had to do just that...

Akira hoped her kiss had been able to express her affection. Maybe it had, from the way Akechi was blushing.

"C'mon, your turn." She stared expectantly at him.

Akechi hesitated, but slowly inched his face closer. His lips lightly touched her cheek, even more timidly than usual. This was enough to cause a nice warmth in her heart, though.

"Akira... do you..." Akechi closed his eyes and shook his head in embarrassment. "No, never mind..."


"It's nothing." Akechi insisted. "I'll be going now. Bye, and good night." He turned away and left, trying to hide his blush.

Unfortunately, the time Akechi took to arrive downstairs wasn't enough for his blush to completely fade away. Sakura-san threw him a knowing glance, but didn't comment at first.

Akechi left the cafe with the Sakuras. Futaba pulled him by the hand as though he were a little child, and Sakura-san only watched in amusement.

But Sakura-san's silence about the traces of Akechi's blush didn't last long. "So, how is it going with Akira?"

"Uh, um..." The blush Akechi had thought he had gotten rid of came back with full intensity. "She, um, actually asked me out the other day... but I still haven't responded..."

"How come?" Sakura-san gave him a disapproving look. "You shouldn't keep a lady waiting like this!"

Futaba did the same. "Yeah, this isn't how I raised you..."

An awkward chuckle escaped Akechi's mouth.

"You two are too slow..." Sakura-san said in exasperation. "You don't realize how lucky you are, boy. I had to corner Akira and make her think about some important points, such as how much she cares about you. And if her answer was enough for her to decide to date you, then it means it isn't just some random high school romance thing. She's seriously up for it."

"Yes, I could tell. But..."

They stopped in front of Sakura-san's house, and Sakura-san turned to face Akechi fully. "It's easy to tell that you like her too. What's the problem, then?"

Akechi recalled Akira's words. "Boss had a serious talk with me and made me think. So, I've been thinking about this for days now. About how much I like you, and how much I'd be willing to do for you. And the answer to both of these is, a lot."

Actually, his answer was the same as hers. And he was doing everything he could for her, to protect her and the other Phantom Thieves, and get them away from trouble. But he couldn't enter a romantic relationship with her. They couldn't be together. In a couple of months, they would change Shido's heart, and Akechi would turn himself in and be forced to stay apart from Akira, not to mention she would learn that he was Crow, the person who had done all those horrible things. This would surely break her heart. She might be devastated in the same way his mother had become when she learned who Shido really was, and Akechi hurt just by thinking about it.

Akechi had to formulate a response, as Sakura-san was still staring at him with a serious expression. "Um, you know, this is my last high school year. And Akira will have to leave too, right?"

"Hmm? You're worried about being far apart later. I see how this could be a problem, but-"

Futaba deflated. "Akira's leaving! I had forgotten about that..." And suddenly cheered up again. "Then, we've gotta make the most of our time with her while she's here!"

Sakura-san smiled at Futaba, then looked at Akechi. "Yeah, and that goes for you too. Make the most of your time with her so that you won't regret it. Then, think about being apart once it happens. Who knows, maybe you'll be lucky and it won't even happen..."

Akechi didn't respond. A very big miracle needed to happen for his fate to change, and he couldn't see that happening.

They entered the house. At the living room, Sakura-san turned the light on... or rather, tried to.

"The bulb's burned out. Looks like I'll have to call an electrician..." Sakura-san grumbled in annoyance.

"Do you have a new bulb somewhere? If so, I can replace it." Akechi found himself offering. The task was easy enough, and he didn't think there was a need to call an electrician.

"Don't worry about it." Sakura-san dismissed the offer. "Actually, I could do it myself, but I'm just lazy, and calling someone to do it is more convenient. I wouldn't ask this of you, though."

"You've replaced bulbs before?" Futaba sounded curious.

"I had to do it at one of the foster homes when the kitchen's bulb burned out. They said, 'Since you're staying here, you must at least do something useful.' I did it begrudgingly at the time, but I'd do it gladly for you two."

"Well, if you insist..." Sakura-san gave in. "I'll get the new one then. Wait here a sec."

Sojiro brought a new bulb and handed it to Akechi. He watched as the boy climbed on a chair and replaced the bulb without much trouble.

"Done." Akechi announced.

"Yay!" Futaba pressed the switch, and the light turned on as expected. "This is my bro!"

"Thanks," Sojiro said once the young detective was back on the ground.

"No problem." Akechi flashed a genuine and friendly smile.

"C'mon, Akechi! Let's watch Featherman already!" Futaba pulled Akechi by the hand and dragged him to her bedroom.

With a serious expression, Sojiro stared at the spot Akechi had been standing before Futaba dragged him. Akechi had been helping them so much... and Sojiro realized he still hadn't thanked the young detective for Futaba's uncle's credit information. Anyway, the point was, Sojiro had observed the boy during the afternoon as well, while he helped Akira and her friends with studies. Akechi seemed well acquainted with the group. Although, from the way Futaba had made him promise to rethink about the Phantom Thieves, he didn't seem to be one of them... or was he?

"We don't know his real name. So, we just call him Crow." Futaba's words replayed in Sojiro's head. "... Crow's been helping us so much..."

Futaba had said they don't know Crow's identity. But what if it were... Sojiro shook his head. It couldn't be. Akechi was such a good kid, and from the time Futaba began getting along with him, she became so happy in his presence. Akechi couldn't be a murderer! Let alone the one who killed Wakaba... could he?

"But his heart has changed, and he's really regretted what he's done..." And Futaba defended this "Crow" so much, too. "Sojiro, I don't want you to hate him! ... I wonder if she'd forgive him if she could see how much he's changed, how far he's come."

Sojiro frantically blinked his thoughts away. No, this wasn't making sense. He had to be just imagining things... that absurd trip to the cognitive world the other day must have messed up his imagination... or maybe not...

Akechi followed - or rather, got dragged to - Futaba's room.

"Look! My Featherman action figures!" Futaba excitedly pointed at her action figures by the window.

"Oh!" Akechi looked at the figures in awe. "It's the first time I see Featherman action figures in person!"

"You may touch them. I allow it. Because you know Featherman well, and know what you're doing, unlike Inari."

"... Who?"

"Oh, I mean Yusuke." Futaba fumbled a bit. "Um, I call him Inari because he likes weird traditional Japanese stuff such as inaris. He came here once, and messed all my figures up! I almost had a heart attack when he swapped their heads!"

Akechi laughed. "That would make a good episode. The rangers accidentally having their heads swapped, then trying to find a way to return to normal. But an emergency happens, and they need to act. The problem is, their heads are still swapped, and they're forced to use the powers from the rangers they swapped heads with, but they only know how to use their own moves, and chaos ensues."

Futaba also laughed. "That'd be so funny!"

Akechi carefully took the figures and examined them, then set them back to their original positions.

Futaba put a DVD in one of her computer's DVD drives, and they sat on the bed to watch it.

"This episode's from 2007! Do you remember watching it?" Futaba asked in the middle of the episode.

"Uh-uh." Akechi shook his head. "This is definitely the iteration from the time I used to watch the show, though."

Futaba became excited for some reason. "Let's just pretend we're back to that time!"

"Huh?" Akechi blinked.

"I want you to feel like how it'd have been if a good family had taken you in back then!"

This was touching.

Futaba didn't even need to pretend, as she was already a child at heart. Akechi wasn't sure how to act, though. His child self still had done nothing wrong. So, he might at least try to put aside the haunting thoughts about his sins and his fate for the moment, and allow himself to fully enjoy the company of his adorable unofficial little sister.

Futaba was restless on the bed, and kept cheering loudly at the phoenix rangers.

"Why are you so quiet!?" She complained to him.

"Um, is it really okay to make so much noise? The adults at the other home beat me up when they thought I was being too loud," Akechi said, as he concluded this was what his child self would have said.

Futaba didn't seem the least bit worried. "It's okay! Sojiro isn't gonna go to sleep yet. If we wake him up, he might get angry, but he wouldn't hurt us! 'Cause Sojiro is best dad."

Two Featherman episodes went by.

"One more! One more!"

Akechi ended up agreeing, unaware that he had lost track of time.

A few minutes into the episode, Akechi gasped. "Oh no. I remember this one!"

Futaba's expression darkened. "Ugh... yeah, I've seen this one too. The enemy's base'll explode at the end! I hate when that happens! Akechi, help me!"

"... Can't we just skip it?"

"But the fight's cool..." Futaba whined.

The episode played normally. When the enemy's base began to explode, Futaba screamed and leaned into Akechi's chest. The dreadful memory of Okumura's Palace collapsing surfaced in Akechi's mind with full force, and he reflexively caught Futaba and hugged her protectively. Also scared, he closed his eyes, and they stayed there looking like two scared children hiding from some monster.

Futaba jumped when she focused back on the Featherman anime a few minutes later. "Ah! The episode's ending already..."

"Wait, what time is it?" Akechi let go of Futaba and checked the time on his phone. "Almost 11! This is bad!" He jumped to his feet. "It's late. I need to go!"

"No, you don't. Just stay the night here!"

Akechi shook his head in panic. "I can't. I need to go home!"

"But the episode with the exploding base was the last one I've watched. What if I have a nightmare about it!?"

Akechi sighed in exasperation. "Sorry, Futaba-chan. I have school tomorrow. My uniform and school materials are at home."

Futaba made a crying face, but Akechi was firm.

When he got to the living room and told Sakura-san he was leaving, though, Sakura-san's response was, "Stay the night here."

"But-" Akechi tried to argue.

Sakura-san cut him off. "It's too late for you to be wandering the streets. It might be dangerous."

"Nice one, Sojiro!" Futaba jumped in joy.

Akechi tried to think up another argument, but Sakura-san's concerned look made him give up and sigh in resignation. "Alright. If both of you insist."

Futaba's eyes lit up. "Yay! Akechi will stay!"

"I'll have to leave early to get my school stuff at home, though."

Futaba ignored his statement and was already up to something else. "Yeah, it's quite late. I'll take a shower. No peeking around in my room, got it?" And she dashed off without waiting for an answer.

"She's a handful." Akechi commented.

"Yeah. I can't keep up with her most of the time. I'm glad you seem to manage it, and that you two are getting along. There's nothing like spending time with people her age. And she's been so happy since she came with that unofficial sibling talk."

"I'm still not sure why she became so attached to me." Akechi's mouth insisted on curving up into a smile. "I had never felt so accepted before. Not only Futaba-chan, but Akira, even Morgana, and some of the others too, make me feel as though I have a place to belong... even though I shouldn't deserve it." Akechi uttered the last part in a low voice, and guiltily avoided eye contact with Sakura-san.

"Why do you say that?"

"I..." Akechi's gaze lowered in shame. "I've done some rather irresponsible things in my life already."

Sakura-san stared at him seriously. "Young people tend to do irresponsible stuff, especially if they have no one to guide them properly. I won't ask what you did, as it's none of my business. But I did my fair share of wrong stuff when I was a kid, too. Lying about my age to enter the movies, underage drinking and messing around with girls at parties, getting into fights on the street because of pointless stuff, just to name a few."

"Lying to enter the movies?" Akechi chuckled bitterly. Sakura-san's "sins" were nothing compared to what Akechi had done. "I've lied a lot too. But it went way beyond entering the movies."

"I don't know if you're aware of this, but your smug attitude in your TV appearances, especially early on, didn't exactly give the impression of a saint."

Akechi didn't know whether to feel offended or what. "Uh, well, I suppose not. I hadn't realized how people were viewing me until Sae-san threw it to my face. It was quite the shock. This was not how I had intended the public to view me, but I guess I'm not good enough to pretend to be something I'm not. I have to admit that the desire for fame had gone above my head, and I thought I could do anything."

"Some of us as teenagers may think we can do anything and go against everything the adults tell us, until a bucket of cold water falls on our heads and we finally become aware of our responsibilities. Sounds like this has happened to you already. Not everyone realizes or admits the mistakes they made, and if you did, be glad the realization came early enough. You're still young and should have plenty of time to make up for what you did wrong."

Plenty of time? In Akechi's case, not really, unless he somehow managed to escape prison or death sentence, which he didn't believe could happen.

"Not everyone realizes or admits to their mistakes... Akira has said something similar." Akechi sighed. "She would definitely be disappointed if she were to find out what I've done, though. Well, all of you would, for that matter..."

"Ah, I get it. Is this the reason you're hesitating to go after her? I'm pretty sure Akira would understand. Everyone can make mistakes, and should deserve a second chance if they're willing to atone. Or so Futaba said, and I know Akira agrees."

"... Futaba-chan... said?" Akechi's eyes widened in surprise.

Sakura-san looked Akechi in the eye and heaved a sigh. "Well, on my part, I guess I'll just focus on the fact that you're helping us, and making Futaba so happy. Oh, by the way, I had forgotten to thank you for the info about Futaba's uncle. So, thanks."

"No problem. I actually had it ready that time I went to Leblanc with Sae-san, but I didn't have the envelope on me that day. Sorry for taking so long to deliver it."

Sakura-san ignored Akechi's apology. "Come on. I'll get you a futon to sleep in."

Sakura-san disappeared into his own bedroom, then came out bringing a futon.

"Thank you for the hospitality, Sakura-san."

"It's as I said the other day. You may stay whenever you need to."

Akechi felt a complex mix of hesitation, relief, trust and wisdom from Sakura-san, and the Hierophant Confidant ranked up.

Sakura-san told Akechi to shower at the bathroom downstairs, and so Akechi did. He was lost in thought during the shower, mulling over the conversation he had just had with Sakura-san. Once Akechi came out of the shower and returned to the bedroom, he found Futaba at her computer.

Akechi sat on the futon and spaced out. He wondered what had led Futaba to tell Sakura-san that everyone could make mistakes and should deserve a second chance.

"Oh, you're back." Futaba turned away from the computer and regarded him.

Akechi considered what to say. His gaze floated over to the computers, then to Futaba. "What are you doing?"

"Stuff," She said enigmatically, then chuckled. "Not really. Just browsing the Net. The Phantom Thieves' popularity fell a bit thanks to 'lack of action,' though some still believe something'll happen. More than that, though, um, Akechi, everyone's bashing you a lot right now."

"I know. People purposefully criticize me in my presence, even at school."

"Oh, that must be tough..." Futaba hesitated. "Um, in the last interview, I thought you'd say everything I had told you about the Phantom Thieves stuff."

"And have embarrassing info about me spread all over the Internet? No thanks. What I've been dealing with is quite enough as it is."

Futaba laughed. "You remember that!"

"Of course." Akechi was the one hesitating now, but he decided to ask something he had been wondering about, and scared of the answer to. "Um, Futaba-chan, from the time I learned you're good at hacking, there's something I've been wondering about. Embarrassing info aside, you've... looked me up already, right?"

Futaba stared downwards as though she had been caught doing something wrong. It took a moment, but she eventually spoke up. "Y-yeah. Akira told me not to, but I ended up doing it. I was curious... she told me to ask you directly, but um... I was scared of asking, and thought you wouldn't want to tell me."

"What did you find?" Akechi asked shakily. He hoped she hadn't found anything related to his ties to the organization.

"Sad stuff. Like how your mom died when you were 5, your history from the foster care database, and the reasons every time you got transferred from family to family."

"That's all?"

"Yeah." At least she hadn't mentioned anything related to the organization. However... "And this info was what made me want to unofficially adopt you! You know? To tell you the truth, I didn't like you much at first. I had thought you were a show-off and a jerk." It hurt to hear that from Futaba directly. "But then we began talking, and I saw that that wasn't it. You were like that only because you were alone and lost. Remember when I said heroes exist, and they only couldn't find out where you were? Now we've found you! ... Actually you may have found us first... ah, whatever! What matters is that you aren't lost anymore, and we can help you have a better life!"

"... We?"

Futaba fidgeted. "Uh, Akira, me, y-you know..."

"Hmm." One more sign that the Phantom Thieves were up to something...

Futaba's next words completely derailed Akechi's train of thought. "I think my mom'd be happy to know that things are working out. That Sojiro adopted me, and that I adopted you..."

"... Huh?" Akechi perked up. "You... think so?"

"Yeah. I keep wondering. If you had been around years earlier, I could've spent time playing with you and left Mom to do her research at peace, then maybe she'd have had time to finish it."

Akechi felt bad. "You don't blame yourself for her not having finished it, do you?"

"Um, actually, a bit. So, I wanted to continue it from where she left off. But the problem is that I don't even know where she left off. The bad guys took her research, her notes, everything. This is why I learned hacking. I broke into a lot of databases to see if her research could be hidden somewhere, but found nothing..."

Akechi sighed and looked downwards solemnly. As much as he wanted to do something about it, the original research was gone, and only god knew to what extent Shido had disfigured it.

"But you know what?" Futaba suddenly sounded excited. "I've managed to learn one thing or two about the cognitive world anyway! Thanks to all that stuff about changing my heart, I ended up getting more than I bargained for. Though it was probably a good thing! All in all, Things are falling into place. It'll all work out in the end. Um, I hope really really everything will work out..." Sadness flickered on her face for a second, but when Akechi realized it, Futaba had suddenly cheered up and jumped to a different subject altogether. "I've downloaded a new PC game! Wanna try it?"

"Huh?" It took a couple of seconds for Akechi to catch up to her. "Futaba-chan, it's late. I have school tomorrow. I need to sleep."

"Hmm... okay." She didn't like his response, but accepted it anyway.

Futaba turned her computers off, then removed her glasses and headphones to go to bed.

Akechi stared at her curiously.

"Huh?" Futaba cocked her head to the side.

"This is the first time I've seen you without your gear." Akechi explained. "Well, maybe... maybe we look like each other a little bit."

Instead of protesting like she had done when the clerk at Akihabara made a similar comment, Futaba flashed a smile and caught Akechi by surprise.

Akechi felt Futaba's sisterly affection strenghtening, and the Hermit Confidant ranked up.

Futaba turned the light off and got in bed. "Night, my lil' big bro."

"Night." Akechi replied with a chuckle and got in the futon.


Sure enough, Futaba had a nightmare that night. She didn't know what place she was at. All she knew was that it was collapsing, with pieces of walls exploding and flying everywhere. She felt weak. Her legs stopped moving, shaky and threatening to give way at any moment.

"Oracle!" Crow desperately shouted over the noise of collapsing structures. "Oracle!"

Crow... She tried to utter, but her mouth didn't produce sound, and his code name remained only as a thought.

"Oracle! Where are you?!"

Crow. I'm here. I'm here... help me! She needed to reply so that he could locate her, but her voice refused to work. Why did her voice had to fail her when it most mattered!?

Futaba panicked when she realized a piece of the ceiling was about to give way right above her. Her body wasn't obeying her, but she needed to move out of the way. She desperately tried to move and...


"Aaaaah!" A sound finally left her mouth, but then she fell... from her bed. She only didn't hit the ground with full force because Akechi acted quickly enough to hold her.


"A-Akechi...!" Futaba felt disoriented, and her heart was racing. She felt relieved that Akechi had agreed to stay the night at her house. She clung to him hoping that her dizziness would go away. Glued to Akechi, Futaba could tell that his heart was racing too.

"You aren't hurt, are you?" He asked with concern.

"Uh-uh." She managed to utter.

Akechi released a relieved sigh. "Quite the scare you gave me. Was it the exploding base?"

"Yeah..." She uttered weakly and shakily. "Not sure where that was, but it was exploding. I couldn't move. A friend was calling out to me, trying to locate me. I wanted to reply. I just wanted to say, 'I'm here.' Sounds easy enough, right? But my v-voice didn't come out!" Her frustration of being unable to communicate properly with Crow got the better of her, and she began crying in Akechi's arms.

Akechi didn't mock her for failing to say such a simple sentence, nor judge her at all. He just held her comfortingly, as though he could understand how hard it was for her to face that problem.

Speaking of comforting, the way Akechi was holding her reminded Futaba of how she had felt safe when Crow had saved her. There was one thing that didn't make sense to her, though. The escape from Okumura's Palace had been traumatizing, and she had forgotten some details, but later she realized how Crow had seemed so concerned about her, from the way he had desperately shouted her code name, and the way he had held her protectively as he ran back to the Phantom Thieves. But why? They had barely interacted, and he had no reason to be so concerned about her. But Crow had saved her life, and all she had managed was to say a simple "thanks." Futaba had had conflicting thoughts about Crow at the time, but now she thought a simple "thanks" didn't do her gratitude justice at all.

Akechi held her patiently until her heartbeats returned to normal and she stopped tearing up. Futaba was getting sleepy, and not scared to have another nightmare since Akechi was there. Futaba slowly backed away and broke the embrace.

"Do you think you can go back to sleep?" Akechi asked her.

Futaba nodded. "Thanks, Akechi. I feel better now. Um, is it okay if I sleep here? I mean, I can't fall again if I'm already on the floor..."

Akechi laughed amusedly. "Sure. This is your house. You may do practically whatever you want. If you think it'll make you feel better..."

Akechi got back into the Futon. Futaba huddled into the futon next to him and closed her eyes. Soon, she was fast asleep.

Chapter Text

Monday, October 10

Akechi awoke to a knock on the door.

"Hey, Akechi." Sakura-san's voice sounded outside.

"Yes." Akechi replied and got up.

"Hmm..." Futaba mumbled and also got up.

Akechi opened the door, and Futaba stood behind him.

"Good morning, Sakura-san."

"I've prepared breakfast for both you and Futaba."

"Sojiro, you're early." Futaba whined from behind Akechi. "It's still a bit dark outside..."

Akechi gasped. "Oh no. Sakura-san, sorry if you got up earlier than normal because of me. And you shouldn't worry about my breakfast! I was going to leave right away. And Futaba-chan, just go back to sleep."

Sakura-san waved it off. "It's no big deal. Most importantly, you're having breakfast properly before going to school, right?" Actually, not always, and Sakura-san frowned at Akechi's lack of response. "Futaba, how about you keep your brother company and join him for breakfast? You may go back to sleep after that." Despite everything, it was touching to hear Sakura-san refer to him as Futaba's brother.

Futaba rubbed her eyes sleepily, but agreed.

Minutes later, Akechi and Futaba were having breakfast at the kitchen while Sakura-san only watched. The food consisted of rice, slices of pork, cooked tofu and miso soup.

Futaba's gaze was distant. "Um, about that friend from my dream."

"Hmm?" It took a while until Akechi recalled Futaba's mention of a friend in her nightmare. He had promptly dismissed the information, because it didn't matter. Akechi just assumed it was one of the Phantom Thieves, and that was that.

"It's someone amazing at dealing with hard stuff. If only I were that strong, I could overcome this silly communication problem like it was nothing."

Those qualities could really fit any of the Phantom Thieves, as all of them had strong hearts and had to deal with their own difficulties. Futaba's problem wasn't silly, though. Akechi worried at how traumatized she was. As if the collapsing base weren't already bad enough, even her communication problem also had to make its way into her nightmares. He recalled how she had told him she was scared of never being able to overcome her problem. Most of her trauma was his fault, and he wished he could do something to help her, but he had no idea what.

"It's not a silly problem."

"Yeah, it is. Everyone takes this communication stuff for granted. But to me, it's so hard..."

"You are strong, Futaba." Sakura-san spoke up.

"Huh?" Futaba turned her head in Sakura-san's direction.

"When we had that talk that night, you showed me how you've matured." Sakura-san looked proud. "Few people can handle that sort of complex stuff with their head held high and the level of understanding and maturity you showed."

"Huh? But I was so nervous. I didn't know what to say and blurted everything out and..."

"What matters is that You got your message across. It was so touching, too."

"Sojiro..." Futaba's expression lit up. "Does this mean I'm leveling up?"

"Uh, yeah." Sakura-san was confused at first, but confirmed anyway.

"I'm leveling up without even realizing it?" Futaba giggled, then turned to Akechi. "Um, Akechi, yesterday you said I might get a nice job in the future because I'm good at computers. You really think so?"

"Uh-huh." Akechi nodded. "I'm sure of it."

Futaba jumped in joy on her seat. "Great! I thought I might never overcome my communication problems and get a job. But if you say so, then maybe I can really manage it!" Then, Futaba got lost in thought and began muttering to herself. "I just need to get my message across somehow, then? Hmm..."

Akechi finished his breakfast and stood up. "Thank you for the food, Sakura-san. And the hospitality. Sorry if I was a bother."

Sakura-san chuckled. "You behave much better than many kids your age. And better than me when I was your age, that's for sure. Whoever looks at you now wouldn't think..." Sakura-san trailed off.

"Huh?" Akechi tensed slightly.

"... No one would believe you did irresponsible stuff like you said you did." Sakura-san rephrased awkwardly.

"Irresponsible stuff? Like what?" Futaba was curious, much to Akechi's discomfort.

Akechi lowered his gaze.

Futaba smirked at him. "From your smug looks on TV, I didn't think you were that well-behaved actually..."

At the time Akechi was most engaged in his TV appearances, he certainly wasn't well-behaved.

He chuckled awkwardly. "Sakura-san said the same thing. And I thought I had been doing well at presenting a model student image. Looks like I was doing a terrible job of it."

"Yeah, you looked like you were so proud of being smart that you'd skip school 'cause you thought that you know everything and that school's pointless!" She inched closer to him. "Um, say, won't you skip school and stay here today? Sojiro goes to work, Akira goes to school, and I'll be here alone with nothing to do..."

Akechi laughed. Futaba seemed to be kidding, but who knows. "No, I can't."

Futaba disguised her disappointment. So, maybe she had been half-kidding. "You're no fun. Now you're too responsible..."

"I guess... now I'm back to the way I used to be." A sad look crossed Akechi's eyes. "All the foster families took me in against their will, because the social services forced me onto them. All the families looked down on me because I'm a bastard child. They always viewed me as a burden. I was very particular about my grades, and behaved the best I could so that I wouldn't get in anyone's way. I kept hoping their views of me would change and they'd eventually acknowledge my efforts, but it didn't happen. I got tired of being either ignored or looked down on... and threw everything up in the air. When I got the opportunity to be on TV, I thought becoming famous would get me what I wanted. For that, I let people use me in exchange for privileges. And worst of all, I thought I was doing well..." Akechi chuckled in resignation. "Futaba-chan, you're absolutely right. I was both a show-off and a jerk."

Sakura-san had a conflicted expression as he stared intently at Akechi.

"Akechi..." Futaba looked at him with sympathy. "You're being used? Who is using you?"

"The media, the police..."

Futaba hesitated for a bit. "Why don't you, um... make a request to the Phantom Thieves? I'm sure they'd do something about those people that are using you."

"Huh?" First Makoto, then Kitagawa, and now Futaba. The Phantom Thieves were definitely scheming something. Akechi just didn't know what.

"It might be an interesting idea." Sakura-san added.

"... Even you, Sakura-san?"

"As you can see, the Phantom Thieves' actions not only saved Futaba from depression, but also made her mature this much. This is a good thing, no matter how you look at it. After all this, I can't help but be inclined to believe in them."

"Uh, um..." Akechi fidgeted.

Futaba inched her head towards him. "If you make a request, tell me. I want to know what'll happen too!"

Akechi nodded awkwardly just to satisfy Futaba, and as expected, earned an excited grin from her. However, he wouldn't make a request, because he had technically made it already. Change Shido's heart.

"Um, so, I'll be leaving now. Bye."

Sakura-san walked to the door and opened it, then followed Akechi outside the house.

"Once again, Sakura-san, thank you for the hospitality."

"As I said before, you may stay whenever you need to. Uh, actually..." Sakura-san trailed off.

"Hmm?" Akechi waited for Sakura-san to finish what he was saying.

After an awkward pause, Sakura-san spoke hesitantly. "You know? If... if only I had somehow found out what was going on with you a few years earlier... I might've taken you in."

"Huh?" Akechi gasped, taken aback by Sakura-san's unexpected statement.

"If I had, maybe..." Sakura-san trailed off again.

Akechi couldn't tell what Sakura-san was getting at, but what came to Akechi's mind was, things would have been very different for sure. For one, he probably wouldn't have lost his way, and wouldn't have killed Isshiki-san.

"Too bad that I didn't find you." Sakura-san lamented.

Akechi's eyes watered, and a lump formed in his throat. "Once, I had told Futaba-chan that I had stopped believing in heroes," He said in a strained voice. "Then, she said that heroes exist, and that they just didn't find out where I was. And she said you're her hero..."

Sakura-san was touched as well, and his mouth curved up. "To think she'd become able to say such touching stuff..." To which Akechi just nodded, with tears threatening to fall. "Now go. Have a good school day."

Akechi felt a mix of fondness and sorrow from Sakura-san, and the Hierophant Confidant ranked up yet again.

"Th-thank you." Akechi muttered once the Tarot card had disappeared. Then he walked away briskly as he tried to hold his tears.

Sojiro returned inside the house, and found Futaba looking at the calendar on the wall.

"Whoa! Today is 10/10! I had forgotten!"

Sojiro couldn't recall any important event for the date. "What is it on 10/10?"

"Oh, today we'll continue our mission in the Metaverse!"


"It's what we call the cognitive world!"

"Ah... you mean the Phantom Thieves will get on the move, huh? Does this mean you'll meet up with Crow again?"

Futaba tensed. "Y-yeah. S-Sojiro, he's on our side."

"I know. You convinced me."

She jumped, both in surprise and excitement. "Huh? R-really?"

"Yeah... but are you sure you really don't know his identity?"

"We don't. His costume in the Metaverse hides everything, and his mask covers his whole face. It's like a helmet and kind of muffles his voice, too."

"What else does he do?"

"Um..." Futaba thought a bit. "He loses his temper easily, shouts a lot, and when we mention the mental shutdowns, he gets all regretful and breaks down in front of us."

"Do you think he knows who you all are?"

"I dunno. Um, I know he knows who Haru is, but I'm not sure about the others."

"When was the first time he approached you guys?"

"That day when Mona ran away. He actually saved Mona and Haru from enemies in the Metaverse, and told them to warn the rest of us about the trap."

"Hmm?" Sojiro's eyebrows rose. He recalled Akechi had come to Leblanc that day and insisted they should look for Morgana. And it was also from that day on that the detective began coming to stop by the cafe more frequently. Could this be mere coincidence? Sojiro wished it were, but a gut feeling told him that it was not.

The more Sojiro talked to Akechi, the more he suspected the detective to be the Phantom Thieves' mysterious honorary member. From the boy's drastic change of demeanor, to the way he looked sad and ashamed whenever he mentioned he had done "irresponsible things." If Akechi were really Crow, it meant he had lost his mind thanks to his upbringing, fame or whatever had gone up to his head, and he had obeyed the person who wanted Wakaba dead. It was a painful notion. Sojiro didn't want to believe it was true. He didn't want to believe that such a kind boy was a murderer.

"Sojiro?" Futaba noticed him spacing out.

"Oh, it's nothing." Sojiro snapped back to attention. "Futaba, you had said your mom would forgive him. Then, I probably should, too."

Sojiro wasn't 100% sure Akechi had really done all those things, but before he realized it, he had been pitying the kid and even lamenting not having taken the boy in a few years earlier. Maybe that was Wakaba whispering to him from the heavens and telling him to forgive "Crow."

"... You forgive him?"

"I guess so." Sojiro gave in to his feelings. "And I think I have a plan to reveal his identity."

"A plan?"

"Yeah. Would you tell Crow that we forgive him?"

Futaba shuddered. "M-me?"

Sojiro managed an encouraging smile. "I have the feeling that he might stop hiding if you do that."

"Why do you think that?"

"Isn't he hurting with guilt for what he did? If someone forgives him, he might feel comfortable enough to open up completely."

"Um..." Futaba was scared. "D-does it really have to be me? Can't we ask the others?"

"It has to be you. You were deeply affected by his actions. If you can convey the feeling that you forgive him, it'll have way more impact."

"I want to talk to him, but I always freeze up when I'm about to bring this stuff up..."

"Consider this my request to the Phantom Thieves. Or rather, the Phantom Thief right in front of me." Sojiro placed a hand on Futaba's shoulder. "Tell him that both of us understand his situation and that we forgive him."

"What a hard mission... oh my god..." Futaba shuffled restlessly.

"If you manage to do this, you will... uh, how should I put this? You'll... gain a lot of levels at once. I think this is it..." Sojiro struggled trying to speak Futaba's language. "I'm counting on you."

"Uh... o-okay, I'll try. I promise." Futaba balked. "Huh? Wait, promise! Yeah, I guess I'll add one more item to the promise list. 'Tell Crow that Sojiro and I forgive him.'"

After school, Akira gathered her friends and headed to the court house. They activated the Metaverse app, and their costumes changed once they neared the casino, where Crow was already waiting for them.

"Oh, you're already here!" Joker grinned at him.

"Any news about the organization?" Queen asked. "My sister's days off are over, and I am worried because her boss had teased her about some big job."

"Nothing so far, though I'll have to say this. The organization's Okumura deadline is in four days. I'll have to give them an excuse, probably tomorrow or the day after. Then, let's hope the mastermind doesn't come up with another messed-up plan after that."

"... Okay. I will keep an ear out for my sister's comments as well."

"Well then, let's get this exploration started!" Joker prompted everyone to start walking.

Inside the casino, they were greeted by a multitude of lights and colors, working gambling machines, customers entranced by the games, and a rather catchy funky music playing in the background.

"What a lively atmosphere..." Noir commented.

"I don't remember if this music was playing the other time we were here," Panther said. "Did they turn it on after maintenance?"

"It was playing, but way quieter." Oracle observed. "They must've adjusted the levels!"

"Hell yeah!" Skull cheered. "The music and these lights are getting me pumped up! Let's begin exploring already!"

Even though maintenance was over, there were a lot of security guards nearby, and the Phantom Thieves chose to sneak around to avoid being ambushed. They used the fire escape and entered through a door on the roof.

"I know you are there, Phantom Thieves. Get down here, now." Came the distorted voice of Niijima-san's Shadow from down below.

"It's her." Mona alerted everyone. "Since she knows we're here, I guess there's no point in hiding."

They jumped down to the ground, and there Niijima-san's Shadow was.

"Sis...!?" Queen gasped in shock at the sight of her sister's Shadow wearing black clothes, a hat, and lots of makeup.

However, the Shadow showed no hint that she had recognized Queen at all. "I have been expecting you, Phantom Thieves. I was sure you would come to take my challenge on. As such, I am here to personally welcome you and explain the challenge's rules, because I intend to do this fair and square. In order to get where I am, I had to always keep winning. I must not lose, ever! Thus, I will join the winning side. If you can prove that your side is the winning side, I will support your cause." She clicked her fingers, and a plastic card appeared in the air in front of the Phantom Thieves.

Joker caught the object. "This is...?"

"A member's card, which you need to participate in my challenge. You must play in this casino and win if you want to prove yourselves to me."

"Huh?!" Skull hollered. "We have to gamble? Can't we just battle and get this over with?"

Niijima-san's Shadow chuckled. "Oh, do not worry. A lot of action awaits in this casino as well. And if you can reach the manager's floor, you will have the honor of partaking in a battle against me, fair and square. I will await you at the manager's floor. Then, let the challenge begin!" She clicked her fingers again and disappeared.

Noir glanced at the elevator nearby. "Perhaps we can reach the manager's floor by using that elevator?"

"Um, I doubt we can just go in and get there, though." Oracle shot down the hopes that anyone in the group might have had. "It wouldn't be this easy. At least in video games, it never is..."

Joker checked the elevator, and indeed they didn't have access to the manager's floor. With no other option, they went to the members' floor, the only floor available to them at the moment.

"Oracle was right..." Panther sighed in dejection. "Now what?"

"I believe we will have to play the games." Fox gave his input. "This is what her challenge entails, after all."

They walked up to a counter.

"Welcome." The attendant Shadow behind the counter greeted them. "Please show your member's card."

"You mean this?" Joker showed the card she had gotten from Niijima-san's Shadow.

"Oh." The Shadow forced a business-like smile. "You are the manager's special guests." The Shadow wrote something on a computer. "I have gifted you 1000 coins to get you started. As you earn more coins at the games, you can exchange them for prizes."

"What prizes are there?" Joker checked the available prizes. "Wow, guys, look at this! It's a High Limit Floor member's card!"

"For real?!" Skull inched closer to look. "But it costs 50,000 coins! You've got to be kidding me!"

"Hmm. I see. This must be like a casino member's club, where you climb the ranks by winning at the games." Crow theorized. "We'll have to win at the games and climb the ranks to get access to the higher floors."

"Exactly." The attendant confirmed.

"Wow!" Panther looked at Crow curiously. "Do you have experience with casino stuff?"

"Of course not. I just happen to know that this is how it works."

"Oh." Panther seemed disappointed that she hadn't guessed anything about Crow's real world life.

Skull shrugged. "Either way, our secret agent sure knows a lot of stuff!"

Crow ignored the comment and directed his attention to the attendant Shadow. "What games are available to us?"

"Right now, you have access to the dice game and the slots."

"50,000 coins is really a lot, though!" Joker said.

"You may also borrow coins if you need a little help." The Shadow informed them. "You are allowed to borrow as much as you currently have on your card."

"Borrow?" Skull made a face. "Nah. I don't want to owe coins in a weird casino inside someone's head."

"Well, let's see how the games work. Let's check the dice game first." Joker decided, and they walked away from the counter.

The group headed to the dice game area.

"Just guess if the sum of the dice numbers'll be less or greater than 12?" Skull smirked. "This is easy! Let me do it! I've played enough Gambla Goemon to have gotten a hang of this kind of stuff!"

"Okay." Joker let him and paid the coins.

"Gah! I lost! Once more!" Skull insisted, and Joker paid the coins again. One more loss, and one more try. "Not again!? Next time I'll..."

"As I thought. It's no use." Crow spoke coldly.

"Huh?" Skull glared. "Are you mocking me?! Come and do better, then!"

"That's not what I meant." Crow justified himself. "I have a nagging feeling about this Palace. The other time I was here, one of the guards said that the casino was in maintenance so that in the future it could provide a more 'fair' and 'balanced' experience... with a lot of sarcasm, that is."

"So what?" Skull still didn't get it.

"I'm saying that these games must be rigged, configured in a way to never let us win." Crow explained in simpler words.

"For real!? Then, ms. manager fooled us! It's not 'fair and square' at all!"

"Makes sense," Mona said. "And considering we are her 'special guests,' she must've prepared some special traps for us, too..."

Queen seemed hurt and afraid. "Sis... how could you have become like this?"

"If Crow is right, there's no point in playing here," Joker said. "If we keep playing, we'll only waste our coins and reduce our chances of getting the higher-rank member's card."

"What should we do?" Noir asked. "We can't win a rigged game..."

"Then, there's only one thing to do. Let's unrig the game!" Crow declared. "There must be computers controlling these games somewhere."

"Computers?" Joker grinned at Oracle. "Looks like this is a job for our awesome resident hacker!"

The navigator startled but composed herself quickly. "O-oh, y-yeah, leave it to me!"

The Phantom Thieves explored the vicinity and fought the Shadows they found. The enemies in there were stronger than those from Mementos, and provided some nice battle experience.

The group's coordinated attacks knocked an Ose and a Power Shadow down.

"All-out attack time!" Oracle announced.

"I have been waiting for this moment!" Crow sounded excited, which was something rare.

They finished the Shadows off, and it looked like Crow was having a field day.

Soon, they were in the middle of another battle. The last two enemies were Queen Mab Shadows. Crow baton-passed to Joker, and she downed the two Shadows with Fortuna's Magarula.

"Now! All the enemies are done for!" Oracle cheered. Everyone went for the all-out attack, and the Shadows were history.

It was rare to see Crow excited, and Joker was amused at how he was clearly enjoying baton-passing and joining them in the all-out attacks. Their next surprise was that he seemed so pumped up in the following battle that he even did a little dance at the end of the all-out attack, an action totally out of character for their ever so cold and serious secret agent. The action was so amusing that it sent the Phantom Thieves into a fit of hysterical laughter.

Unfortunately, this pulled him out of spontaneous mode. When Crow glanced around and saw the Phantom Thieves looking at him and laughing, he realized he was the subject of their outburst.

"What are you all laughing at!?" His voice rose dangerously.

The Phantom Thieves startled, but most of them still couldn't stop laughing.

"Oh man, that little dance thing you did just now was hilarious!" Skull spoke between laughs, while Panther covered her mouth.

"... Huh?" He seemed puzzled, as though not even he had realized what he had done.

"S-sorry, Crow..." Even Noir was stifling chuckles.

"W-well, looks like you're having fun." Joker was also trying to stifle a laugh. "S-sorry for laughing, but your 'performance' was so unexpected that we couldn't help it..."

"Ugh, whatever. Moving on!" Crow's face may be hidden behind his helmet-like mask, but it was easy to tell that he was embarrassed.

"It's good to let loose once in a while. You should do it more often." Joker encouraged him, though she suspected he wouldn't follow her advice.

Sure enough, after this incident, Crow became self-conscious and began restraining himself, much to Joker's disappointment...

A little later, the Phantom Thieves were eavesdropping on two security guards.

"Let that guy think he's winning, and then, make him lose big." One guard instructed the other one.

"It is as Crow said." Fox concluded. "Those guards are manipulating the games and harming the customers!"

Joker made a disapproving face. "I know the customers are only cognitions, but this is nasty..."

The Phantom Thieves eventually found the computers controlling the dice game.

"Done!" Oracle announced proudly. "I've rigged the game in our favor! Now, we'll win no matter what! "

"Hey, I said, 'unrig the game,' not rig it in our favor. This is cheating!" Crow protested.

Oracle flinched. "B-but..."

Noir didn't like that action, either. "This way, we are also being unfair..."

"But this way we can get the coins we need!" Panther argued.

"The ends justify the means... this is a horrible thought." Crow's gaze fell. "I'm ashamed to remember that this was the way I used to think..."

"Crow..." Joker looked at him in concern, worried that he might have an emotional crisis again.

"Hey, guys!" Mona called everyone to attention. "I think you're forgetting an important point. This is a Palace. Everything is distorted, and we can't get through it by normal means. There's no way we can win by sticking to the rules if not even the manager is following them."

"... Yes. You have a point..." Crow slowly nodded. "If this casino is really specialized in cheating, things won't be easy for us. We need to earn as many coins as possible, and use all means we can."

"I do not like this idea, either, but it is a good point," Fox said.

"Let's go back to the dice game." Joker decided, and they headed back.

"Oh, you arrived at a great time!" The Shadow hosting the dice game said. "We're having a special campaign right now, with bigger prizes than normal! However, you are only allowed to play up to four times."

Oracle smirked. "Skull, it's your turn!"

Skull attempted the game again, and won four times in a row! They were so caught-up in the game that they didn't notice Crow and Mona sneaking away.

"Wow!" The Shadow was impressed. "Four times in a row! This is incredible! Here are the coins on your card!"

They walked away from the Shadow to talk among themselves.

"Ha, take that! I'm awesome!" Skull was full of himself.

"It was only thanks to Oracle, though." Mona returned with Crow.

"Hey, Mona, don't be a killjoy," Joker said. "Let him have his fun."

Panther giggled. "Even though we knew we'd win, it was exciting! Now I think I get how people become addicted!"

"We still have like only 5,000 coins, though." Oracle observed.

"By the way, Mona, where have you and Crow been?" Fox asked.

Mona laughed. "While you guys were busy playing, we found something neat. Come on, over here!"

Everyone followed Mona to the back area.

"This must be where they store the coins to hand out as prizes," Crow said.

"Guys, look at that!" Mona pointed at a sack overflowing with coins. "We are thieves, so..."

"We gotta get'em all!" Oracle finished.

Joker stared at the mountain of coins. "Um, do we have to carry all that?"

"Joker, the member's card has a sensor, and all coins have a serial code." Oracle pointed out. "Just use it to scan the coins, and the amount on the card should update."

"Convenient!" Panther exclaimed. "I was also wondering how we were supposed to carry 50,000 coins around."

Joker scanned the coins. "Yeah, the amount on the card updated. But even though it looked like a lot of coins, we still have only 10,000..."

Skull was annoyed. "They had just 5,000 in here? What kind of shabby stock is this?! I thought we'd get all coins we need in one go..."

Joker shrugged. "Ah well, let's see what we can get at the slots game."

"Um, may we take a break? I'm tired," Oracle said.


At the safe room, Crow kept his distance from the others as they chatted about their daily lives.

"Hey, why are you isolated like this?" Mona approached him.

Crow turned his head in Mona's direction. "Because I want to concentrate and sort out the excuse I need to give to the mastermind tomorrow." It was a half-truth. The confrontation with Shido was indeed one of Crow's greatest worries at the moment, but he was avoiding the Phantom Thieves because he didn't want to join their conversation and talk to them about his normal life.

"I'm sure you have better times to think about that."

"The excuse for tomorrow is important, and we might get in trouble if I mess it up. I can't help but be worried about it."

"Come on, Crow, we're taking a break. You need to relax a little."

Crow tried to look away from Mona, only for his gaze to meet Oracle's. This startled her, and the uncomfortable face she made only left Crow feeling worse. With nowhere safe to look at, Crow closed his eyes and lowered his head.

"What about Oracle?" Mona noticed it. "Come to think of it, this isn't the first time I see you avoiding her."

It took a while for Crow's response to come out. "There's a weird tension between us." It was weird indeed. She was very happy around him outside the Metaverse, and very uncomfortable when inside it. Crow was sure she would be devastated if she were to find out his true identity. "I just don't want to get in her way, as I don't want her to feel bad."

"Hmm." Mona took a moment to think. "She said that she has told her guardian about you."

"What?" Crow gasped in shock.

"I don't know what his response was, though. If you want to know, you should ask her."

Crow concluded he definitely didn't want to know. It couldn't be anything good, no matter how he looked at it.

Joker signaled the end of the break, and everyone left the safe room.

They went to the slots game area, but the slot machines were all being used by other customers. The Phantom Thieves continued exploring the area until they found a much bigger slot machine.

"This thing is huge!" Skull exclaimed.

Panther looked at the rules. "It costs 10,000 coins to enter, but if we match three 7s and hit the jackpot, the prize is five times that! 50,000! Exactly the amount we need!"

"10,000 is all we have," Fox said. "If we lose the bet, we will lose our whole work from today and have to get 10,000 coins all over again..."

"After all that work..." Skull grumbled.

"Oracle, can you make it so that we get the best prize from here too?" Joker asked.

"I'll try. We've gotta find the computers controlling these slots."

They walked around and fought Shadows until they found a terminal.

"Oracle, how about that machine?" Fox pointed at the terminal.

"Let me see..." Oracle examined it using her Persona's power. "Nope. This one's not it. This one needs to be accessed remotely from some kind of main terminal. Hmm... looks like we need to find a red and a green terminal."

"Argh! This is so much work!" Skull complained. "Can't we just break into another storage room and get all coins we need already?"

"I don't think we could do that." Crow responded. "From what we saw at the storage room earlier, they likely keep a very limited amount of coins stocked in each storage room. Considering the rigged nature of everything here, customers should win at these games very rarely, and there shouldn't be much need to keep a lot of coins to hand out as prizes."

"This is probably the case..." Queen agreed. "I just hope there will be enough coins for us if we get the maximum prize."

Panther made a scared face. "Don't say that! Now you got me worried..."

"There's only one way to find out. Let's do what we can, and see what happens." Joker cut their conjectures off.

During one of the battles, Panther knocked a Kikuri Hime Shadow down with Carmen's Agilao and baton-passed to Crow, who used Robin Hood's Eigaon and knocked two Power Shadows down.

"All the enemies are done for!" Crow shouted and advanced upon the enemies. Everyone did the same, and after a series of hit noises, the battle was over.

"Hey! That was my line!" Oracle whined.

"Ah!" Crow had thought the situation called for that sentence and uttered it on impulse, but he had forgotten he had heard Oracle utter that line earlier. He should apologize for accidentally stealing her line.

"But it sounded... cool when you said it..." She added unexpectedly.

"... Huh?" Crow's head shot up in surprise.

"Hey, next time both of you should say it together!" Joker gave the unexpected suggestion.

"To-together?" Oracle stuttered.

Joker continued. "Crow, if we manage an all-out attack next battle, you should try to join her!"

"What?!" Crow almost growled. It was annoying how Joker seemed to be trying to have him interact with Oracle. If Oracle was against it, they shouldn't force it!

They managed an all-out attack in the following battle. The time came... ... and Oracle froze up. Crow also said nothing. The Phantom Thieves hesitated for a second for lack of a signal, but managed to finish the Shadows off anyway.

With no enemies in sight, Crow looked at Joker in a "I told you," way. "I was sure this wouldn't work... Joker, you shouldn't pressure her!"

"I didn't mean to pressure her. I thought having both of you shout the line together was a fun idea..."

"You see that it wasn't fun at all. And now Oracle is troubled. Let's just do what we have to do and stop with nonsense, or she might become unable to unrig the game for us."

"I'm f-fine... I..." Oracle stuttered.

"Let's go already." Crow walked briskly ahead of the group.

"Hey! Don't go without us!" Panther complained as everyone scrambled to catch up.

Once they had caught up to him, Crow fell into step beside them.

Queen looked at him sternly. "Crow, how many times have we told you not to go on ahead without us?"

"Since you guys didn't seem about to move anytime soon, I took the initiative."

"All business as always..." Skull grumbled. "Hard to believe he even did that dance thing a while ago!" This comment made Crow become self-conscious again. "Welp, whatever..."

The Phantom Thieves eventually found the red and green terminals.

"Um, I have some worrying news," Oracle said. "Not even this terminal has full access to manipulate the slots. I did what I could to make the slots work in our favor, but we aren't 100% guaranteed to win. There's still a 20% chance that the slots won't give us the jackpot."

Noir was worried. "2 out of 10 plays might result in a loss? What should we do?"

"80% chance is still high, though!" Joker didn't lose her optimism. "The slots are our best bet to get the 50,000 coins. Let's have faith!"

They backtracked to the big slot machine.

"Let me try it!" Panther volunteered. "Skull seemed to have had so much fun at the dice game. I want to play too!"

"Alright, Panther. You'll be next!" Joker agreed excitedly, and paid the 10,000 coins. "Good luck! To you and all of us."

Panther tried her hand at the slots. One 7... two 7s... everyone held their breaths. The roulette slowed down, about to stop on something else... and... ... spinned a little bit more, and stopped on a 7!

"Aaaaah!" Crow nearly jumped in excitement, and was the first one to cheer loudly, like someone whose favorite soccer team had just scored a goal. Everyone else seemed to still be in a daze and trying to believe they had really won.

Only when the machine began spilling an inordinate amount of coins, the situation fully sank in for the whole group. As they laughed and excitedly muttered "yeses" and "we did its," Panther and Skull high-fived, Mona smirked proudly, Oracle jumped in joy, Queen closed her eyes and heaved a relieved sigh, and Fox and Noir smiled.

"We did it! We won!" Joker laughed and grinned from ear to ear, unable to contain her excitement. Before she realized what she was doing, she had jumped and tackled the nearest person into an embrace, which happened to be Crow.

The unexpected action took Crow aback, and he nearly lost his balance. On reflex, he reached out in search of something to hold onto for support, and when he realized it, he was holding onto Joker.

"Uh, J-Joker..." Crow's eyes widened in panic, and he tried to back away.

However, Joker didn't let him. Rather than being embarrassed and backing away, she smiled and gave him a gentle squeeze. "Your battle outfit is softer than it looks. It feels like a jacket. I thought it'd be hard and, uh, more armour'y."

Crow didn't know how to respond, and his mouth merely hung open slightly. He was even more embarrassed when he heard voices nearby.

"Hey, looks like someone hit the jackpot!" It was one of the cognitive customers.

A lot of customers were gathering, awed at the coins coming out of the machine. Oddly enough, no one seemed to be paying attention to Crow and Joker, something Crow was glad for. First the embarrassment from the moment he got carried over with excitement earlier, and now this... at least his mask hid the profuse blush that he knew was on his face.

Joker giggled. "Anyway, I think you needed a hug. " She patted him on the back before breaking the embrace. "Hey, Oracle, you deserve a hug too. We wouldn't have won the jackpot if not for you!"

Oracle bounded over to Joker with a cheerful smile, and they willingly tackled each other into a hug. Crow was glad that Joker decided to share hugs with someone else as well, so that her hug to him wouldn't seem even weirder.

"Hey, the card updated with the 50,000 coins, right? Let's get the higher floor card already!" Skull urged, and reminded Crow that the other Phantom Thieves had been there the whole time and probably saw what happened.

Joker nodded, and they left the area, with the machine still spilling coins just for aesthetics, since the card had already registered their prize and the value had been updated to 50,000, much to their relief.

The Phantom Thieves returned to the counter, and traded the 50,000 coins for the high limit floor card. To their relief, the card gave them access to the high limit floor. However...

"You are not allowed beyond here." A security guard stopped them when they came out of the elevator. "You need special authorization from the manager."

"Huh?!" Skull glared at the guard. "We've got the card to access this floor and all. And the member's card, too. She's even said we're her special guests and gave us the member's card herself! How come we can't pass?"

"You are not allowed beyond here." The guard repeated. The alarms rang, the alertness level rose, and a lot of Shadows spawned out of nowhere.

The Phantom Thieves defeated the Shadows, but the alarm rang once more, and other Shadows appeared. Even though the Phantom Thieves won the battles, the alarm kept ringing and increasing the security level, and more Shadows kept coming. As much as the Thieves wanted to train, the way the security level kept rising wasn't good.

"Guys, it's no use. Let's retreat!" Mona commanded.

Skull refused. "But we came all the way here!"

"I'll explain once we're safe. Run!"

They hurried back to the elevator and to the lower floor. They entered the nearest safe room, and allowed themselves another break.

"This is just like what happened last time, when the casino began maintenance and the Shadow kicked us out." Joker observed.

"Exactly," Mona said. "And just like last time, this should also be thanks to external factors influencing Niijima's cognition."

"Now that I think about it, the below view in that floor reminded me of a court room." Queen noted. "We might be able to proceed if my sister sees us in one of the court rooms at her work."

"Sounds like it." Mona agreed. "We'll have to change her cognition so that she accepts us into that room."

Queen spoke again. "Let's watch one of her trials. I will ask her when the next one will be, and contact you all once I find out." She paused. "Which reminds me. Crow, how can I relay this information to you?"

"You don't need to. I have means to find out."

"You still insist on hiding your identity from us," Fox said.

Joker smirked. "You keep hiding from us, but all of us need to be at the court room, and you'll have to be there too."

Crow tensed, and quickly tried to find a way out. "Uh... not necessarily." All that mattered was to have Sae-san see him at the court room. Maybe he could quickly drop by there either before the trial began or after it ended. He didn't need to stay and watch the whole thing.

"This way, you give the impression that you intend to report us at some point, and refuse to reveal your identity so that we can't sell you out." Queen's words hit him hard.

"Huh?" Crow made a hurt face, though no one could see it behind his mask. "Now you offended me..."

"I am sorry, but as an aspiring police commissioner, I can't help but think from these angles as well."

"I wouldn't do that!" Crow yelled defensively. Then, his heart tightened at the shameful thought that, if he had still been on the organization's side, he would indeed have betrayed the Phantom Thieves. He had even begun planning that out when Shido came up with the trap.

"I am not accusing you of planning to betray us, but it's the impression you give." Queen responded.

"Crow, we trust you," Joker said. "You should trust us too."

"This is not the problem. Once we do what we need to do, our relations will be over. I'll turn myself in, and you all won't hear from me ever again. Justice will be served, and it's all that matters."

"J-justice...?" Oracle muttered shakily.

Crow couldn't bear the sight of the pained look in Oracle's eyes. "I'm leaving." He turned away from the Phantom Thieves, bolted towards the safe room's door, quickly swept his phone from his pocket and teleported to the entrance.

This time, Joker didn't skip a beat. "I'm going after him!" She also took her phone and teleported out without waiting for the others. "Crow!" She balked, and her eyes widened at the scene.

Crow seemed equally shocked. Caroline and Justine stood before him, and from his expression, he was able to see them this time.

"Good timing, Inmate!" Caroline said.

"We have been observing this other wild card, and we must say that he is quite intriguing as well." Justine added.

"Two little girls dressed like prison guards..." Crow muttered to himself, then turned to Joker. "Could these be the people you once told me about? The ones who help you with your Personas?"

"You can see them now..." Joker voiced her conclusion. "Yeah, it's them."

"We have decided to show ourselves to him momentarily." Justine explained. "We propose a challenge to both of you. If you are able to clear it, we may think about helping him with his Personas..."

"Really?!" Joker got ecstatic.

"A challenge...?" Crow spoke apprehensively.

"We will await both of you tomorrow at the entrance to Mementos," Caroline said. "Only the two of you must come. Do not bring anyone else. If either of you doesn't come or you bring someone else, we will consider it your defeat!"

"This was all we had to say, Inmate. We will return to our duties now." Justine and Caroline walked back to the Velvet Room door.

"... What was that?" Crow seemed confused. "We just got challenged out of nowhere..."

Joker smiled cheerfully at Crow. "If we clear the challenge, they might lend you a hand to manage your Personas! Finally!"

Crow didn't seem too sure. "What do you think they might want from us?"

"No idea. We'll find out tomorrow! Whatever it is, I'm sure we can do it if we work together!" She tried to encourage him.

Crow hesitated. "On further thought, I'm not sure if I should accept help with my Personas."

"What do you mean?"

"Joker. After what that entity did to me, I'm wary of strange people in the Metaverse randomly saying we have potential and offering help. Are you sure you should trust them blindly like this?"

Joker hesitated. Crow had a point. "I don't know. It's weird. They can be quite vague and don't say where they come from, and only say their duty is to help me in my rehabilitation, whatever that means. But it's thanks to this help that I could get stronger Personas, and I'll be sure to make good use of them."

Crow took some time to think. "Fine. They clearly have access to more things from the Metaverse that we don't. I might as well go to Mementos, and at least meet up with them to ask if they know something about the entity that screwed me. Who knows? This may be an opportunity to finally find out more about it."

"Then, I'll see you tomorrow?"

Crow nodded. "I just hope the trial isn't tomorrow."

"If it is, I'll tell Queen that something important has come up, and that we'll have to wait for the next one."

"This is it then. I'll be in Mementos tomorrow at the same time as usual."

Crow walked away.

The other Phantom Thieves came after Joker.

"Where is Crow?" Noir asked.

Panther rolled her eyes. "Don't tell me he left you hanging again..."

"... Huh?" The twins sudden appearance threw Joker off, and she completely forgot she had wanted to continue the previous talk with Crow. "Uh, yeah, sort of... I guess we should be leaving too."

They left the Metaverse, and were on their way home.

"I got nervous and failed to talk to him again!" Futaba protested. "And the all-out attack thing too." She looked at the ground in shame. "I'd say the line, but I wasn't sure if Crow would say it or not, my timing messed up and my voice failed and it was already too late..."

"There's always next time," Joker said.

"Yeah, I guess..." Oracle sighed. "Why is it so hard to interact with him? ... Um, Sojiro gave me a very hard mission this morning. He told me to talk to Crow and say that both of us forgive him. Sojiro believes Crow'll stop hiding if I do that..."

Akira liked that idea. "Wow, sounds like a plan! Boss is the boss!"

"Yeah. I even added it to the promise list, but it's so hard to put into practice..."

"Futaba, you can do it!" Ann encouraged her.

"I'm not sure... whenever I'm near Crow and think about telling him, everything scrambles in my head, and I don't know where to start..."

"Hmm... how about you give him a gift?" Haru suggested. "I believe this would help emphasize your feelings and help you start a conversation."

"Oh! Good idea! I think I'll do that! I'll think on what I can give him..."

That night, Makoto and Sae were having dinner. "Sis, how has your day been?"

Sae seemed agitated. "It was... more uneventful than I had expected."

"Um, what about that big job you mentioned?" Makoto risked asking.

"There was no talk about that. Just ordinary processes."

Makoto realized she probably shouldn't show she was relieved. Instead, she decided to approach the subject she needed to. "Uh, Sis, there are no age restrictions to watch trials, right?"

"Correct. There are no age restrictions. Anyone may watch them."

"U-um, speaking of your work, I'm curious to see you at work. I've been considering attending one of your trials..."

"Oh, I see. If you also choose to enter the law system in the future, it should be a valuable experience." Sae got to her own conclusion.

"When will the next trial be?"

"It will be on the 13th. It is scheduled to start at 5."

"The 13th... next Thursday. Alright. I'll be there."

In bed but unable to sleep, Akira kept thinking about Crow. His spontaneous actions in battle, her hug to him, the touch of his Metaverse outfit which had felt nicer than she had expected... he had even hugged her back, and it had been spontaneous, too. Now she realized she was more intrigued about their mysterious secret agent than she had thought. Who was hiding in that outfit? What were the suppressed feelings he hid behind that cold exterior? Akira suspected he had many things bottled up, and that he had never told anyone. She wished their Confidant bond would start so that he would open up more to her. Akira hoped he would show up tomorrow and accept the twins' challenge, and maybe she would be able to learn a bit more about him...

Chapter Text

Tuesday, October 11

Akira was in the attic, after school.

"Um, Morgana, I need to head out. I'll be back before dinner, I hope."

"Oh, alright." Morgana didn't ask any questions. He probably just assumed she would be hanging out with someone. Also, being left behind would be less boring to Morgana now that he could also communicate with Sojiro.

Akira left Leblanc, took a train from Yongen to Shibuya, then entered Mementos from there.

The twins were already waiting, but Crow still hadn't arrived.

"What about the other wild card?" Caroline asked impatiently.

"I don't know, but he said he'll come." Joker responded quickly, as she remembered the twins would consider it a defeat if one of the wild cards didn't show up.

"Fine. We shall wait for a few minutes." Justine agreed to wait, fortunately.

Akechi was in Shibuya, ready to head to the station when he spotted Takamaki-san carrying two heavy-looking bags. He could tell she was having trouble and approached her.


"Oh, Akechi-kun!"

"Those bags look heavy." He commented.

"Ah..." She fidgeted a bit. "I meant to buy a few clothes I need for work, but some clothes I've been wanting for a while were on sale... and only after the payment I realized how heavy everything was..."

"Are you heading to the train station?"

"Yeah, I am." She confirmed.

"Me too. I can help you with these bags until we get there."

Takamaki-san seemed about to refuse the help out of politeness, but ended up giving in. "Thanks..."

Akechi carried the heavier bag and accompanied Takamaki-san to her line. He only handed her bag back once he heard the sound of an incoming train.

"Akechi-kun, you didn't need to come all this way..."

"It's no problem. I'm glad I was here to help."

"It was a great help. Thanks!" Takamaki-san smiled at him gratefully.

With that event, their bond grew a bit stronger, and the Lovers Confidant ranked up.

The train arrived. Takamaki-san said goodbye and went inside.

Akechi waited for the train to leave, and then resumed his course. He made sure there were no more Phantom Thieves nearby and snuck to his entry spot, then used the app and teleported to Mementos.

Joker was worried. Crow still hadn't shown up. This was his chance for him to finally get help with his Personas, and she hoped he would come. He was taking a while, though.

"Grrr!" Caroline growled. "Why is he taking so long!?"

"Do not be so impatient, Caroline." Justine chided her twin. "I can tell he is already at the station. We should wait just a bit more."

"Huh? Where!" Joker perked up, tempted to leave the station and see if she could catch Crow without his Metaverse outfit.

Caroline raised a hand in a commanding way. "Stay where you are, Inmate! If you leave, we'll consider it your loss because you ran away!"

"But I'm not-"

"He is here." Justine cut Joker's protest off and alerted them to Crow's arrival.

"Crow!" Joker fully turned her focus to him and smiled, glad that he had kept his word.

Caroline stared intently at him. "May we take it that you accept our challenge, then?"

"I have a few questions. I'll decide about the challenge depending on your answers. I've already gotten in too much trouble for having accepted a random deal from a mysterious stranger, and don't want to repeat this same mistake."

"Fair enough." Justine stepped forward, seemingly willing to engage in civil conversation.

"First of all, who are you? And what on Earth are you?"

"My name is Justine. Hers is Caroline. As for what we are..." Justine seemed to space out for a second. "We are... guards." She spoke as though not even she was entirely sure. "Our sole purpose is to guide prisoners to their rehabilitation. Our master said so."

"Your master? Who is that?"

"Our master is Igor, the proprietor of the Velvet Room, the timeless place which sits between dreams and reality, mind and matter."

Joker was impressed at how the twins, or at least Justine, had been cooperative so far, though it was unclear what Crow had gotten from that vague explanation.

"Do you happen to know who is the entity that introduced me to the Metaverse?"

"We do not know. All we know about you is what the cards showed us, and what we have observed from your recent behavior. It is precisely this curious behavior that caused us to take interest in you. According to the cards, you were on a clear path to destruction and darkness, the complete opposite path from the one the Phantom Thieves were following. While they sought to reform society, your actions might have led to its ruin."

Caroline joined in. "The cards showed that you were meant to oppose the Inmate. But you suddenly made a 360 and began going completely against the cards."

"A 360 is a full circle." Crow remarked coldly.

"Caroline, it should be a 180..." Justine corrected her.

"Err..." Caroline tried to hide her embarrassment. "... Whatever! What I mean to say is that you turned out to be as unpredictable as Persona fusion accidents. Once we noticed this, we couldn't help but begin paying attention to you."

"And this brings us to our challenge," Justine said. "We normally do not act without our master's consent. However, we are so intrigued by both of you wild cards that we could not contain ourselves this time. We have come here purely to satisfy our own curiosity, independently of our master's wishes. Thus, we are doing this in hiding from our master."

Joker spoke up. "And what is this challenge supposed to be?"

"You must fight us! Two on two." Caroline turned her head in Crow's direction. "If you win, we may think about lending you a hand with your Personas... though we'll have to do it in hiding as well"

Joker looked expectantly at Crow, pleading with her gaze for him to accept the challenge. Crow was still unsure. As he opened his mouth to speak, though, everything seemed to freeze and the familiar blue butterfly appeared.

"Please, you two must win this. If you triumph over them, they will not regret having followed their own wishes rather than the rules they are conditioned to, and this may cause further changes. Even though they may not remember it, they are also being restrained. I have faith in the two of you. I believe you are capable of freeing their hearts. Please, help them... help... me..."

Now that Joker thought about it, that voice sounded like Justine's, though a bit more gentle.

"Who... are you?" Crow uttered, and confirmed that he could also hear the voice.

"I am... I am..." But the butterfly suddenly faded away, as though it didn't have enough strength to maintain the connection, and the flow of time returned to normal.

The twins were holding their heads, and looked a little out of it.

"Uh, what was this dizziness just now?" Caroline asked no one in particular.

Justine let go of her own head. "You too?"

"Perhaps... could any of you also have heard a voice?" Crow asked in confusion.

Caroline quickly recomposed herself. "Huh? What are you talking about? Are you so scared of our challenge that you're freaking out?"

"... Never mind." Crow slightly shook his head.

"So, do you accept the challenge or not?" Caroline directed her impatience at him.

"Would you give me some time to discuss this with Joker?"

Caroline made a displeased face. "Are you saying we'll have to wait even more!?"

"Caroline, let them come to an agreement. If they ultimately decide to decline our challenge, then so be it. But we shouldn't waste this opportunity." Justine reasoned.

"Fine." Caroline huffed.

Crow called Joker aside to talk, and they walked away from the twins for a bit.

"They answered my question. Or rather, they didn't have the answers I wanted. They don't know anything..." Crow sounded frustrated.

"You aren't going to skip the challenge, are you?" Joker hoped he wouldn't.

"I have more important things to do. Today is the day, you know."

Of course Joker knew. It was the day Crow had agreed to report to the mastermind and give an excuse about Okumura's case. Still...

"Crow, please." Joker refused to let him just give up.

Crow heaved a sigh. "But I heard that voice. You also heard it, didn't you?"

"Yeah." Joker nodded. "I feel that it has some connection to the twins. It even sounded like Justine..."

"I think so too. And it sounded like we'll help them realize something important if we win. Oddly enough, I find this thought more motivating than the prospect of getting help with my Personas..."

Those words surprised Joker, and she smiled in admiration. "Despite the rough impression you try to give, you have such a kind heart..."

"I don't know about that, but it must be the guilt for having been so selfish in the past."

"No matter what you say, it's admirable. You know? You should stop trying to justify your emotions to others, and just accept your feelings at once. People won't think any less of you for that. Much to the contrary..."

Crow shrugged evasively, as though he meant he wasn't in the mood to hear her scold him for feelings stuff. "Well, let's do this then. Do you have any idea of those twins' strength?"

Joker shook her head. "I've never seen them battle before."

Crow didn't like her answer. "Then, it's really a shot in the dark... somehow I have the impression that this won't be easy."

"What makes you say that?"

"I don't know..." Crow admitted. "Just a gut feeling."

"Really?" Joker looked at him with amusement. "A gut feeling? No logic?"

"We'll be facing the unknown here. The only thing that's clear is that they're no ordinary beings. Aside from this, we have no logic to rely on. So, we should prepare for whatever. You'd better still have those Personas with buff skills you used in the fight against the Reaper thing."

"Yeah, I still have them. But you just had to try to justify your feelings again..."

"You're doing this on purpose, aren't you?" Crow sounded annoyed. "You asked about my reasons. If you don't want me to elaborate, then don't ask!"

"Okay, okay. No need to be angry. I was only curious."

"I'm not angry." Crow countered.

"Good." Joker smiled in relief. "We'll need to work together in this battle, and we'd better be on good terms. Oh, and I'm not saying that relying on a gut feeling is a bad thing. I just thought you relied more on reason. Anyway, I'll trust your intuition." Joker only wished their Confidant bond would officially start. She was sure it would be a pretty strong bond!

They walked back to where the twins were waiting.

"You took long enough." Caroline complained. "So?"

Joker nodded. "Yeah, let's do this!"

Caroline grinned in both excitement and mischief. "Now we are talking! Let's begin, Justine!"

"Yes." Justine nodded and assumed a battle stance. "Wild cards, show us what you are capable of!"

Crow gasped. "This... this is worse than I had imagined. Their power is... terrifying!"

"We didn't even begin, and you're already freaking out?" Caroline taunted him. "It'll be disappointing if you just give up..."

"... No one said anything about giving up! Robin Hood!" Crow summoned his Persona and promptly cast Debilitate on Caroline.

"Byakko!" Joker summoned her Byakko that had Masukukaja, and boosted their agility in hopes of avoiding more attacks.

The twins used physical skills. Justine's attack hit Crow and dragged him a few feet backwards. Caroline attacked Joker, and yelped in surprise as Byakko's Counterstrike skill activated and reflected her attack back at her.

"Hmph." Caroline scoffed. "Not a bad start, at least."

Crow recovered from the attack and proceeded to cast Debilitate on Justine, and Joker cast Marakukaja om themselves to increase their defense.

The twins moved again, and took the wild cards aback. Joker only gaped. Crow was the one who voiced their surprise. "Different Personas!?"

"We are the ones managing the prisoners' multiple Personas." Justine stated matter of factly. "It is only natural that we would have specialized knowledge about their usage."

Crow was right. Those twins were anything but ordinary beings.

Justine's attack missed, but soon Joker realized having boosted their defenses was a good thing, because Caroline cast Agidyne. Fire was Byakko's weakness, and Joker screamed in agony. She felt as though her insides were tearing and burning.

"Joker!" Crow switched Personas and cast Diarama on her. Even though it wasn't enough to put her back to full health, she was feeling much better. She was scared, though.

"Crow..." She spoke his code name with fear. "Your intuition was right. What on Earth was that attack?!"

Caroline looked at Joker critically. "It's a wonder you're still standing, even after I hit your weakness. It appears I underestimated your resilience, Inmate."

Joker had to agree with Caroline. It was a wonder she was still standing. If not for all the buffs and debuffs, though, it would probably have been a whole different story.

"Weakness..." Joker uttered. They would need to hit the twins' weaknesses to get an advantage. "Too bad Oracle isn't here to detect their weaknesses."

"Unfortunately, they have none," Crow said.

"Huh?" Joker was confused for a second, until she recalled Crow had navigated for them previously, and proved he could do some analysis as well.

"I may not be as good as Oracle, but I can do some basic analysis too. Those two don't have weaknesses. Or at least, neither of their Personas had a weakness so far. So, just assume they don't and throw whatever you can at them."

Joker and Crow attacked together, with Maragion and Mabufula respectively. To their disappointment, the damage was minimal.

"Is this all you've got?" Caroline seemed bored.

Joker switched to Fortuna, and cast Garudyne on Caroline. She didn't fare that well, but still better than the previous Mabufula.

Caroline's next wind attack missed. Justine used an electric attack and aimed another weakness hit on Joker... but this time, Crow used an item that cast Makarakarn, and the barrier reflected the electric attack back at Justine.

"Thanks!" Joker glanced at Crow gratefully.

The battle continued, and all combatants switched between attacks and Personas a few times. The twins began getting more aggressive, and one thing became apparent. What the twins had displayed until now was far from being their true strength.

Caroline aimed a bless skill at Joker. When Crow tried to put up a barrier to protect Joker again, Justine came from behind him and kicked him to the ground.

Joker received the brunt of the bless attack. Thankfully, it wasn't a weakness hit this time, though it was still quite powerful, and painful.

As soon as Crow got up, Justine was upon him again. He tried to jump aside, but Caroline came right to where he was going and kicked him to the ground again. Crow was able to roll to the side skillfully, just in time to get out of the way of the Mazionga spell Joker aimed at the distracted twins. The damage may not have been much, but the twins surprise almost made up for it.

Crow managed to stand up, and ran closer to Joker. "Their sync is too good. Even though they don't even communicate between themselves, they move in unison as though they were extensions of one another, as though they were one person rather than two independent people..."

This statement seemed to get the twins in a daze for a few seconds.

Justine recovered first. "Your joint efforts aren't that bad, though. This is an interesting result, especially considering that the cards had showed that you two were supposed to oppose each other... why this unexpected change? What could have brought you two so close?"

And Joker kept wondering why her Confidant with Crow refused to start. What was missing?

The wild cards kept fighting as best as they could. They reapplied the buffs and debuffs whenever necessary, and attacked whenever there was an opening. But what caused more damage to the opponents was reflecting their own attacks at them through barrier items or Makarakarn. When Joker and Crow thought they were making some progress, each one of the twins used Diarahan and got back to full health!

"What!?" Crow shouted. "I can't believe this!"

Caroline sneered. "Don't think you're the only ones who can heal yourselves!"

"... What now?" Joker's voice wavered. She was tired, and could tell Crow was as well. "We lost all our progress..."

"This battle has been a good warm-up," Justine said. "But it is taking too long."

"Yes." Caroline agreed. "I can't remember when was the last time I moved so much! But it's about time we put an end to this. Prepare yourselves!"

Crow equipped Arahabaki, and Justine got a powerful gun attack reflected back at her. But Caroline didn't skip a beat and hit Crow with a psychic attack, Arahabaki's weakness. This knocked Crow down, and Caroline used the opportunity to baton-pass to Justine

What followed was a piercing scream from Joker. Justine unleashed a powerful ice spell Joker had never seen before. It wasn't a weakness hit, and Joker didn't want to think what would have happened to her if it had been. She froze and fell to the ground.

Once Crow found an opening, he threw an item that melted the ice and unfroze Joker.

"Joker! Joker!" He called her code name, but there was no response.

The leader of the Phantom Thieves was barely able to move, almost unconscious.

"The inmate is out for the count, huh?" Caroline looked at Crow mockingly. "It looks like it's only you and us now."

Crow gritted his teeth, but stood his ground. Or rather, tried to. Tired and outnumbered, he was unable to fight the two girls at the same time. No matter what he tried to do, one of the twins was already beginning to counterattack. No matter the direction he turned, one of them was already blocking his escape. It was as though they were able to read his movements. He was hit by all kinds of physical and elemental attacks. All he could do was endure, and internally thank Loki for not having a weakness.

"Stop..." Joker pleaded in a low voice from her position, but the twins didn't hear her. Or if they did, they ignored her completely.

Crow was fallen on the ground. A horrible sensation bubbled up inside him. Being beaten-up like that reminded him of when bullies surrounded him at the orphanages or elementary school, or when the adults beat him up at the foster homes for whatever reason. The current situation evoked exactly the same feelings. Helplessness, humiliation, anger at those who beat him up, frustration at being unable to do anything against them...

"Is that all?" Caroline taunted him.

Her taunt worked. Crow couldn't hold those horrible feelings in anymore. "No... not yet." He forced himself to stand, and anyone who heard his voice would be able to tell that he was on the verge of losing it.

The twins only stood there, staring curiously to see what he would do.

Joker couldn't stand hearing the twins pummel Crow with no mercy, and as soon as she heard how his voice had altered, she had a bad feeling. It reminded her of the times Crow broke down in front of the Phantom Thieves, and she feared he would lose it.

Joker stood up with difficulty, and managed to drink a medicine while the twins were distracted. It was far from enough to restore her energy, but it became a bit easier to move.

"... Crow, what will you do?" She asked shakily.

"I'll... I'll use the berserk power on myself. It's the only way for me to get stronger and have a chance."

"No, don't do that!" Joker was horrified. Crow was beginning to sound like a maniac already. If he were to deliberately cause himself to go crazy... he might not even be able to handle it! Joker didn't want to think about it.

But Crow was beyond reasoning already. "Lokiiiiii!" His voice cracked dangerously when he shouted his Persona's name.

Joker nearly lost her balance as she scrambled towards Crow. "No!" She shouted in panic, and did the first thing that came to her mind. "Arsène!" She also called her initial Persona.

"W-what are you doing?!" Crow shouted.

"You might break if you keep this up! I won't let you! You said this power comes from your hatred, right? Okay then. I'll take the hatred from your heart." Joker raised a hand commandingly. It was a bit shaky, but she didn't care. "Rob it, Arsène!"

"... Stop!" Crow shouted in shock. But Loki was already in the middle of doing his thing, and Arsène came in a flash and collided full force with Loki.

Both Personas disappeared, back to their respective owners. The two wild cards got thrown backwards as though a barrier had repelled them, lost their balance and fell to the ground. Joker contorted in pain and screamed. She wanted to stand up, but the pain and a multitude of bad feelings overwhelmed her. She couldn't handle it, and lost consciousness.

As soon as their Personas clashed, Crow flinched and was violently thrown backwards. He clutched his head in pain and fell. He got sick with worry when he heard Joker scream, but the pain was too much to bear, and he was unable to go check up on her.

"J-Joker..." Crow uttered shakily. His head hurt even more when he tried to get up, a wave of dizziness hit him, and he fainted.

Meanwhile, at Leblanc, there were no customers, and Sojiro was watching the news on TV.

"So, they'll be calling for early-elections this year. What a hassle..." Sojiro grumbled.

"People are panicking at how messed-up the current situation is." Morgana's voice startled Sojiro.

Sojiro's gaze shot up to the stool near the counter, where the little cat was resting. "Oh, I hadn't realized you were there... but uh, yeah... after that train accident, the minister of transport resigned, and the new one only speaks nonsense. There've been talks about firing the minister of health because he's 'doing nothing to reassure people that new mental shutdowns and breakdowns won't happen again,' and the public's been complaining that they don't trust the police to keep them safe, and some are even saying the Phantom Thieves are more reliable than the authorities."

Morgana had a pensive expression. "While it's good to know people have faith in us, this is a bit too much. If only the authorities were more favorable to us, we could inspire them to up their game and do a better job... ah well, here's to hoping better people rise in the next elections..."

Sojiro grunted. He wasn't very optimistic about that. There was a new party addressing the public's concerns and gaining strength with their impactful speeches... but Sojiro had known those people at the time he worked for the government, and he could say for sure that they were bad news.

Sojiro chose to shake that bad feeling away for the moment, and focus on a much more amusing thought. I could've never imagined one day I'd be discussing politics with a cat...

"Hey!" An irritated voice called out to Crow.

Crow slowly came back to his senses, and it took him a while to remember where he was. At least his head wasn't hurting anymore. He saw the twins standing next to him, and concluded that the one who had called out to him had been Caroline. What ultimately brought him back to full alertness, though, were the insistent sobs that sounded nearby.

"Look what you did." Caroline spoke as though she were scolding a bad-behaved child, and pointed a finger in the direction the sobs were coming from. "You broke her!"

Crow felt a heavy thump in his heart and gasped in shock. "... Joker!"

"It should be needless to say, but I will say it anyway." Even though Justine seemed to be a calm person, she was definitely angry now. "As both of you were rendered out of combat, it is your loss. Face it. You would not have been able to win at that rate..." She lowered her head slightly. "The battle had its good moments, but we expected more from you. You are the one who rebelled against the cards, and since then, your unpredictable behavior has been causing unexpected changes. What you have done is not something that happens every day. In fact, it should be rare enough to be considered a miracle. We had hoped you would show your full potential and cause another miracle in this battle. However, the battle has ended on a shameful note instead. Look what you did to our inmate!"

Crow glared at the twins, and the volume of his voice exploded. "I don't care about your expectations! And I shouldn't have accepted your stupid challenge! If I hadn't, Joker wouldn't..."

All that mattered to Crow at the moment was the leader of the Phantom Thieves, who was lying on the ground a few feet away. Her body shook with every sob, and the tears streaming from below her mask caused Crow's heart to ache.

The twins silently cast Diarahan on both wild cards, but Joker's state didn't change. Crow felt a bit better physically, but emotionally, not at all.

"It's my fault..." His voice lowered to a near whisper.

"Yes, it is!" Caroline sounded upset. Perhaps she was more fond of Joker than it seemed. "Maybe you were meant to lead her to ruin, after all..." She said bitterly.

"... No..." Crow whispered, in the verge of breaking himself.

Joker looked pained and devastated. This was the kind of thing Crow had feared would happen if Joker were to find out his true identity. It was even more painful because the sight reminded him of his mother's state once she saw Shido's true colors. The reason why Akechi had refused to get in a romantic relationship with Akira was that he didn't want her to eventually feel abandoned, betrayed like his mother felt when she saw who Shido truly was. But his desire for power just had to get the better of him again during the twins fight. He had acted on impulse, and ended up accidentally screwing Akira's kind and pure heart...

"Here, only so that you do not say you got nothing out of all this trouble." Justine tossed a plastic bag over to Crow, and it landed to his right. "A consolation prize."

He didn't even bat an eye at the bag. "I don't want anything! I don't need your consolation crap! This is pathetic. With you two's strength, I bet you could defeat the Metaverse's strongest Shadows and uncorrupt the worst hearts if you wanted to! Meanwhile, just to get strong enough for the mastermind's Palace, we have to take precious time and train hard like a bunch of idiots! How about you two stop making a fool out of us and go do something useful!?"

The twins were stunned for a moment.

"W-we can't do anything without our master's consent..." The almighty Caroline stuttered, like a little girl being scolded.

"Then, what were you doing just now, huh?!" Crow hollered, like Skull when he decided to vent his frustrations on whoever was nearby. "Didn't you say you were here in secret?!" Crow looked away from them and lowered his head. "Whatever. I don't really care. But... what if she doesn't return to normal?" His voice lowered and wavered in fear. Every psychotic breakdown victim so far had returned to normal, but who knows. Fate just had a way of screwing him over...

"You are really fond of this inmate, are you not?" Justine's expression softened, and she flashed a sad smile. "We do not know what may happen to her, though. She is up to you now. Let us go, Caroline."

Justine took her twin's hand, and both girls walked away in a solemn silence. The only sound that remained at the Mementos' entrance were the sound of Joker's sobs and of the trains in the distance.

"What now? What should I do?" Crow kneeled next to Joker's crying form. He reached a hand out hesitantly, but soon retracted it and gave up on touching her. "I screwed your heart, didn't I? Joker, I'm sorry. Akira, I'm sorry... maybe those twins are right and I'll only make you suffer. This is why I can't... I can't..." Tears rolled out of his eyes, though they couldn't escape from the confines of his mask. "I wish this were just a nightmare. Akira..." He murmured her real name and looked away, because he couldn't stand seeing her like that. It reminded him too much of the way his mother became devastated and unresponsive after she found out about Shido's true nature, how she spent hours and hours crying and even stopped acknowledging him.

With nothing else to distract himself with, Crow chose to take a peek at the items inside the bag Justine had left. There were a lot of powerful revival items, but unfortunately, nothing that applied to Joker's situation. He felt stupid for having thought he would find anything useful there in the first place. Crow sighed in annoyance and set the bag aside.

Crow noticed Joker wasn't sobbing anymore, and brought himself to risk a glance at her. But she was still unconscious, and he dreaded her reaction once she finally woke up. What if he had caused her permanent mental damage? All because of that cursed power, the power that had gone up above his head and caused him to commit all those atrocities. It was the power that led him to throw his future away. What if it had screwed him over once again? What if it had led Joker to ruin like the twins had said?

"I..." Crow uttered shakily in tears. "I p-promise. I won't use that power ever again. But please..."


A/n: and thus, the crucial moment has come, and the journey of the Phantom Thieves' leader has abruptly come to an end. Not from a shot to her head, but from a blow to her mind. Even though the means may be different, the other wild card was still unable to go against his predetermined fate. In the end, he led her to ruin, just as the cards had shown...

Bad ending. Game over.

(*Grins triumphantly like Ryuji*) ... As if!

Alright, just kidding! Moving on!


Akira felt weak, lost in the darkness. Then, fuzzy images began appearing in front of her, like a movie on a big screen. Everything was foggy, and she could only make out silhouettes.

The images showed what looked like a school's entrance. From the children's voices in the environment, it must be an elementary school. A boy came out of the school, and as he turned a corner, two bigger boys leapt out of hiding and set upon him. He gasped in surprise and tried to react, but couldn't do anything against the two opponents at once. The bullies hit him fiercely, and seemed to be enjoying having an easy target to exert their strength on. The scene reminded Akira of how Caroline and Justine had been beating Crow up. This led her to the natural conclusion that the boy being beaten up must be Crow.

"Stop!" Akira raised her voice in hope to get the bullies' attention, but it was no use. They continued what they had been doing as though nothing had happened, as though that were a recorded scene Akira couldn't intervene in.

The scene was gruesome to watch. What felt like an eternity later, the bullies finally got satisfied, threw the boy to the ground and walked away. Just watching the scene was already bad enough, and Akira could only imagine how the boy had been feeling through all that.

Akira's gaze focused on the boy, but the image was too foggy for her to make out his visual traits. But from the elementary school scenery and his stature, she concluded he should be around ten years old.

The boy, who Akira chose to simply refer to as "Crow" until she got his actual name, made his way back home with his head low. He entered what Akira assumed to be his home...

"What's with this bruise on your face and all this dirt on your uniform?!" A woman received him angrily.

A man came from the back and saw what was going on. "I can't believe this." His tone was disapproving. "You've just arrived here, and are already causing trouble!"

"I-I'm not-" The boy tried to protest.

The woman sounded angry and exasperated. "And it was your first day at the new school! I don't even want to imagine what'll happen in the coming days..."

This was probably something the boy could agree with.

"We don't want to get any complaints about you from the school. So, make sure to behave, got it?!" The man gesticulated for emphasis at each syllable.

The boy just nodded obediently, since they showed no sign of listening anyway.

"Ah, one more thing," the man said. "Some of my friends will be arriving here in half an hour. I don't want anyone to see you. If they see you, they'll ask questions. Just go to the room in the back and stay there. Don't come out until I tell you to. Understand?"

The boy uttered a quiet "yes" and did as told. He entered the said room and closed the door.

From the way the couple treated him, it sounded like Crow was a troublemaker, and out of line most of the time. But was the truth really what it sounded like? Since Akira was biased, she was inclined to side with Crow and believe he hadn't done anything wrong. In fact, this little event with the adults reminded Akira of how Sojiro got angry at her when her accidental first trip to the Metaverse made her be late right on her first day of school.

Akira observed him as he absentmindedly stared into the window.

"Tell me, what happened? Why were those kids beating you up? You didn't do anything wrong, did you?" Akira had known it was no use, but she felt the need to talk to him, and ask those questions she believed the adults should have asked.

It was really no use. He didn't respond, and only remained there staring at the window absentmindedly until the sky darkened.

The scene forwarded to the following day, and something similar happened. The same bullies got hold of him and beat him up again, but the images didn't show the whole event, as though they had decided to spare Akira from watching it all. Once it ended, the boy's posture was miserable. Akira could tell he was making an effort not to cry.

After a few hesitant steps, he raised his head and began running desperately. He needed to cross a street, but instead of stopping to wait, he ran forward without a care in the world.

"Ah!" Akira yelped and closed her eyes in horror at the sight of a car coming straight for him.

The scene changed to a hospital room. The boy slowly came to his senses, and a single word left his mouth in a whisper, "Why...?"

To Akira's shock, when his family came to see him, they didn't display even a hint of concern.

"Can't one day go by without you causing trouble?" The man sounded irritated. "Can't you at least pay attention while crossing the street?! Look. When you create trouble, it's us who people will complain to! We're doing a favor by letting you in into our house. The least you can do is behave and not get in our way."

The boy didn't respond.

Akira was horrified. What kind of treatment was that!?

The scene changed, and showed the boy closed up in his room once more. Something had been airing on TV, and at a mention of "Red Hawk," Akira guessed it was the Featherman anime. However, Crow didn't react to anything that happened in the show. He was sitting at a desk, just staring blankly at the TV, and wasn't paying any mind to it at all. He eventually opened his mouth to speak, and it was only then that he finished the sentence he had started when he woke up in the hospital.

"Why... am I still alive?"

Akira felt a pang in her heart at the realization. He hadn't just "failed to pay attention while crossing the street" or anything stupid like that. It had been a deliberate action. He had tried to... to kill himself. And no one had realized this! No one had understood him, no one had worried for him...

"Do I really need to live?" A pause. "Then, someone, help me. Someone get me out of here. I can't take this anymore..." His voice came out weak and strained. He stood up and finally regarded the TV, but just to turn it off. "Yeah, I know. No one will come. No one will save me, because heroes don't exist. They're just naive fantasies... illusions..."

He grabbed an object that had been near the TV on the stand and raised it, presumably to throw it in anger, but ended up setting it back to its original position, probably because he realized he would get in more trouble if he were to break anything. Instead, he threw himself to the ground onto his knees.

"Does happiness really exist, or is it illusory too?" He asked no one in particular. "Or is it meant just for the gifted, and I don't have the right to get it because I'm... I-I'm..." His sentence was left unfinished as tears inadvertently streamed down his face. His body shook and he sobbed as he failed to restrain his cry.

Those things were too depressing to hear, even more so coming from a kid around ten years old. It was heartwrenching, and Akira couldn't take it anymore, either.

"... But I'm here!" Akira shouted desperately, also with tears falling. "You should live, and you deserve happiness too! I'm here to get you out! I'll do whatever I can to save you..."

However, he didn't respond to her, and just continued crying.

It hurt to see that poor child so broken. It was no wonder that he would end up going crazy, or that his hatred would become strong enough to cause other people to go berserk. Akira wanted to pull him into a hug, comfort him, talk to him... she reached a hand out in hope that she could touch him, but her hand met only air.

"Hey..." Akira insisted on talking. "Let's be friends." Who knows? If she could get anything out of this interaction, maybe their Confidant bond could finally start... "Please, say something. Show that you can hear me." However, except for the boy's sobs, there was only silence. But Akira still didn't give up. She thought of some question she could ask him, and recalled she hadn't gotten his name yet. "My name is Akira Kurusu. What's yours?"

Silence was her only response.

"Hey... please!" Akira's heart constricted, and tears kept leaving her eyes.

It looked like the scene would change again, but rather than that, all the images disappeared and left Akira in complete darkness.

"Please, tell me. How can I reach you? How can I help you?" Akira asked, but there was no one to answer her.

A faint blue light appeared, and revealed itself to be the blue butterfly.

"The way you found to peek into his heart was a bold and selfless move." Came the calm and gentle feminine voice.

"Huh? His... heart?"

"Since he is a Persona user, he does not have a Palace. However, thanks to your action, you were able to get a small glimpse into his heart. What you have just witnessed are some of his memories."

"Me-mories...?" Akira did her best to swallow her sobs and tried to talk. "Um... who are you? Are you Justine?"

"Yes, in a way. I am part of those twins' conscience that got detached from them thanks to the malevolent entity. Or rather, they are part of my conscience that got detached..."

"Malevolent entity?" This rang bells in Akira's head. "... Do you mean the same one who manipulated Crow?!"

"Exactly. The one and the same." The voice confirmed.

Akira gasped. "Why did it do that?"

"To lead society to ruin and then take control of it. Fortunately, its plans do not seem to be going too well. Initially, I thought the other wild card was a lost cause, as he had been completely consumed by his distorted desires and doing exactly as the malevolent entity wanted. The malevolent entity intended to have the other wild card oppose you and guide society towards ruin. However, a miracle happened. The wild card not only managed to free himself from the entity's influence, but also grew quite close to you. This led me to believe in his potential and want to support him as well. Unfortunately, thanks to his past actions, the path to his future is currently closed."

"You mean... about the death sentence?"


"Is there no way to save him at all?" Akira dreaded the response.

The voice hesitated a bit, likely choosing her words. "There does not seem to be any exit for him, unless a miracle happens." She seemed to notice Akira's pain at those words. "You are quite fond of him, are you not? Yes, you are." The voice didn't wait for Akira's answer. "Your attempt at removing the hatred from his heart was commendable, and shows how much you care about him." There was a hint of a smile in the voice. "And it is easy to tell that his feelings are mutual," The voice said. "Since both of you were set to oppose each other, the fondness you have for each other is a miracle in itself. This was totally unexpected, and who knows what changes it may bring. Maybe... maybe you can help him, and once again cause a miracle to happen..."

"Once again?" Akira echoed, but the blue butterfly faded away and ended the conversation.


Joker opened her eyes, and found herself back at the Mementos entrance. Crow was nearby. However...

Crow was kneeling with his head low, just like the crying boy from the image Akira had been trying to talk to. She had wanted to hug him, comfort him, talk to him. Now, she realized she could. Even though she still felt weak and tired, she needed to comfort Crow.

Joker slowly got to her knees and dragged herself closer to him. Only then, she realized how drained she felt. Her body felt heavy, and she involuntarily leaned forward. Crow was quick to catch her, and he ended up being the one hugging her instead of the other way around.

"... Joker." His voice came out strained and shaky. "Please, don't tell me... don't tell me I screwed your heart for good..."

"I'm okay." Her voice came out low and weak, and she didn't think it did a good job of assuring him. She felt the need to add, "Just tired." She quickly glanced around and didn't see the twins anywhere. "What about the battle?"

"We lost." Crow told her.

"Oh no. Then... they won't help you with your Personas, right?"

"I wasn't counting on it. But how come you still worry about others at a time like this!?" Crow sounded panicked. "I get that I may hinder the group at the mastermind's Palace if I don't improve my Personas selection, but..."

"That's not it..." But before Joker could explain her point, she heard a sniffle. "Huh? You're... crying?"

Crow sniffled again, and made no effort to seem tough and hide the fact that he was crying. "I know you don't like when I justify my feelings, but I'll do it anyway... I'll be honest with you. I still envy you, Joker."

Joker didn't like to hear that. She didn't want him to envy her! "You mean... because of the Personas thing...?"

"Because of everything. Your natural talents, your positivity, your luck... you have everything that I could never have."

Joker was confused. "W-what are you talking about? I don't have any talent..."

Crow wasn't done yet, though. "And you have one more thing that I can't have. A future. But I know envying you is no use... so, I decided to just deal with it and protect you and the other Phantom Thieves to make sure you'll have your futures." His voice began failing. "Joker, I am sorry. I was supposed to protect you, but in the end, I was the one who caused the most harm... you cried so much... you were clearly suffering, and it's my fault. I thought the worst. I thought you might not return to normal and I'd end up leading you to ruin, just like those twins had said... I really shouldn't have accepted their stupid challenge. If I hadn't, you wouldn't have..."

That speech both touched and overwhelmed Joker. She had found it strange when the voice from the blue butterfly had said her fondness for Crow was mutual. Joker had had no idea that he cared about her this much!

"Crow, uh..." There was so much Joker wanted to say. She wanted to assure him that she was okay. She wanted to comfort him, and also to ask him the specifics about his memories she had just seen, but she felt drained and her thoughts scrambled in her head.

After a few more sniffles, Crow gently placed a hand on the back of Joker's head and had her rest her head on his shoulder. "You'd probably prefer someone else to comfort you, but this is the only thing I can do to make up to what happened. Please, let me comfort you just for this time..."

Why did he think she would prefer someone else to comfort her? Was it because he was blaming himself for making her suffer? He hadn't done anything wrong to her, though. This reminded her of how those adults had scolded him for things that made no sense. She was okay. It was him who was not. If anything, she should have been the one comforting him! But she was still stunned and felt too weak to protest. His embrace was so warm, the surprising softness of his battle outfit was so soothing... and Joker found herself surrendering to all that comfort. Overwhelmed on one hand, but on the other hand, happy to know how much he cared. Joker felt safe in his arms, and more than ever, she felt she could trust him. All those warm feelings lulled her to sleep, and the last thing she could vaguely remember was a vision of a Tarot card...