Chapter 1: Crow
A/n: this is the sequel to "Unfiltered." Basically, the events from "Unfiltered" led Goro Akechi's heart to change (though no one knows yet), and he decides to change his ways and help the Phantom Thieves avoid the Conspiracy's trap. This should go without saying, but for more details about the events that led to Akechi's drastic change, please read "Unfiltered" if you haven't yet.
- This fic will contain major spoilers for the game (obviously).
- This fic has a female Akira.
- The story may become a bit serious in the Metaverse parts, but it'll eventually have a lot of fluff in the slice of life parts. Gotta have Akechi bonding with the Phantom Thieves :D .
- I'm bad at descriptions, and English isn't my primary language.
Disclaimer: Persona and all related characters are property of Atlus. Any trademarks that may be referenced in this fan fiction are properties of their respective owners. I am just a fan and do not have any relations to said people/companies.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"It appears that you have managed to purge the darkness that clouded your heart," came an unfamiliar, soothing feminine voice.
"Huh...!" Akechi gasped and opened his eyes. Everything was dark, and the only thing he could see was a small butterfly that emanated a gentle blue light. What was that voice just now? Did it come from the butterfly? Akechi didn't know. All he knew was that he was wary of unfamiliar voices in his head. It was one of those that had introduced him to the Metaverse and set him on the path to destruction, after all.
"You have been chosen by a malevolent entity to play an important part in his twisted and unfair game." The voice continued. "However, it appears that you were able to overcome the vulnerabilities that he took advantage of. If this voice is reaching you, then it means that your mind is open to new possibilities. You may have lost the chance to have a bright future, thanks to all the harm you have caused. Even so, if you have even the smallest intention of atoning for what you have done, then stand up and use your power for what is right, and to benefit others instead of causing harm. You must acquire new vows, which shall become the wings of rebellion to foil the twisted game. Oh, first Trickster. Rebel against the malevolent entity, and prevent him from stealing other people's futures."
The butterfly zoomed past Akechi and disappeared. All that remained was a trail of shining blue light.
Akechi gasped, startled awake on the train, on the way to the TV studio for an interview. He took a few deep breaths to calm himself down, and began reflecting on his current situation.
Thanks to an unexpected run in with Akira Kurusu, Akechi ended up learning what it meant to deepen a bond with someone, and then he was sure he had finally gotten what he had always wanted. The feeling of being accepted, of being cared about. And he didn't need Shido or the stupid revenge for that. In fact, it was as though a dark cloud had dissipated from Akechi's vision, and allowed him to see the surroundings more clearly. He saw how pointless and flawed his revenge plan was, and what he could do from then on.
Akechi tried to go over his strange dream just now. As wary as he was about unfamiliar voices talking to him, that one just now was probably right. Akechi had lost the right to have anything good in his future. His past actions were unforgivable, and nothing he could do could make things right. Getting involved with the Metaverse was the worst thing he had ever done. And this was why he felt he needed to get the Phantom Thieves out of that mess before they went in too deep and had their futures destroyed as well.
For that, Akechi would need to convince the Phantom Thieves to stay away from people involved in the mess. However, he would also need to continue opposing them on TV to mislead Shido and make him think all was going according to the twisted plan. And this was what Akechi would do in the interview he was headed to.
The interview played out with no issue, except for the reporter throwing at his face how low Akechi's popularity had gotten after the Medged incident. That aside...
"You had mentioned that you had found common points between the changes of heart and the mental shutdowns," The male reporter said. "Do you think the Phantom Thieves are behind the shutdowns as well?"
"This is unclear at this point. However, we can't deny that both the changes of heart and the mental diseases are sudden and so far unexplainable occurrences. If the Phantom Thieves have anything to do with those, though, only time will tell. Sooner or later, they will show their true colors. Then, we shall see what is what. There is only one thing I can say for sure, though."
"And that is?" The reporter asked for effect.
"No matter what happens, justice will prevail in the end." As cliched as that statement was, the determination in Akechi's eyes was convincing. Not because he was a good actor, but because he wasn't acting at all. His expression was genuine and reflected his true intentions. Intentions which Shido wouldn't guess, as he had no reason to suspect anything.
... ... ... ... ...
Tuesday, September 13
Since Okumura was at the top in the Phantom Thieves' forum rankings, Akechi was sure the gang would show up at Okumura's Palace sooner or later. So, he went there in his black armor, and waited.
Akechi didn't need to wait much. The robotic Shadow guards were restlessly searching for some intruders. He followed the Shadows to see what was going on, and found the said intruders trying to escape. It was that odd cat-like creature that was always with the Phantom Thieves, and a girl who Akechi had never seen before. When they failed to escape and the Shadows got to them, Akechi took the opportunity to come out and have Loki burn the enemy robots to ashes.
"Um, I don't know who you are, but thank you for saving us," the girl said with a slight bow.
"Y-you...!" The cat-like creature gasped. "A black mask... no, more like a black helmet..." He mumbled to himself, then glared accusingly. "You're the Persona user causing mental shutdowns in the Metaverse, aren't you?!"
"That's right." Akechi had no reason to lie. He spoke in a cold and dark tone, completely different from the polite and friendly way he normally spoke in the real world.
Alarmed, the cat-like creature stood in front of the girl. "Beauty Thief, stay back! He's dangerous!"
"Huh?" The girl stepped back uncertainly.
"I have no intention to fight." Akechi stated. "I only have a message for the Phantom Thieves."
"Hmph." The cat-like figure scoffed. "Then you came to the wrong place. I have nothing to do with them anymore!"
"Hmm? You had a falling-out?" Akechi concluded. "Ah, it doesn't matter. The next time you see them, just deliver them my message."
"What if I refuse?"
"Um, Mona-chan, why are you being so cold to him?" The girl joined the conversation. "He saved us. Couldn't you at least say thank you?"
"He's the one causing mental breakdowns and shutdowns! He's an enemy!"
"You have said that before, but I still don't understand. He's 'Causing' those? I had thought those were natural diseases..."
"Yeah, he's causing them! He said so himself. You heard it!" The cat-like creature, who the girl had addressed as "Mona-chan, spoke to her, then turned his attention to Akechi. "I have no reason to play messenger for you, or to talk to the Phantom Thieves! Beauty Thief and I will change Okumura's heart by ourselves. Just the two of us!"
Akechi sighed at the creature's stubbornness. "Then, what I have to say extends to the two of you as well."
"Huh?" The girl looked at him inquisitively. Unlike Mona, she seemed willing to listen.
"Don't go after Okumura. It's a trap." Akechi gave his message, confident that even if Mona wouldn't tell the other Phantom Thieves, the girl would. "Targeting him will put not only Okumura, but also the Phantom Thieves in serious danger."
"... What?" Mona froze for a second.
The girl seemed worried. "This doesn't sound good... Mona-chan, I think we should tell them..." She looked uncertainly at Akechi. "Um... thank you?"
Akechi chuckled at the girl's reaction. "This was all that I had to say. Now, if you excuse me..."
"Please, wait!" The girl stopped him. "How may we address you?"
"Hmm?" Akechi hesitated. They clearly hadn't figured out his real identity, and he preferred it would stay that way, at least for now.
"This is Mona-chan, and I'm Beauty Thief." She introduced both of them. "You are?"
Akechi considered the situation. From the snippets of conversation he had managed to hear when he had stalked the Phantom Thieves in the Metaverse, he could gather that the group members addressed each other by nicknames. Or code names, perhaps. Akechi figured he should do the same. And it so happened that he already had come up with one.
"Hmm, I see. If you want to refer to me, you may call me... Crow." That was the code name Akechi had meant to use once the Phantom Thieves had fallen into Shido's trap and Akechi had joined them temporarily to sell them out. He was hesitant to use that one now that the circumstances were different, but it would be easier than coming up with a new one.
Akechi stepped back and left. Hopefully, that warning would be enough to cause the Phantom Thieves to stay away from Okumura and derail Shido's plan.
... ... ... ... ...
Out of the Metaverse, Akechi decided to have a nice cup of coffee, and headed to Leblanc.
"Oh, Akechi-kun." Akira greeted him. Unlike usual, she seemed a bit down. She was seated at a table doing nothing, literally with her arms crossed.
"You seem worried." Akechi noted. "What happened?"
"The cat ran away." Sakura-san answered for Akira.
"What?" Akechi had had his suspicions. He had been 99% sure that Akira was a Phantom Thief. Now, he was 100% sure. And her talking cat could only be the same creature he had been trying to talk to in the Metaverse a while ago. But something about the current situation was strange. Even though Akira and Sakura-san looked worried, they didn't seem to be doing anything about the issue at the moment. "Where did you already look?"
"Nah, there's no need. We're just letting him cool off for a bit," was what Akira said, though worry was evident on her face.
That was stupid.
"Wait, you simply let him run away and did nothing? You didn't even look for him!"
"From the way he stormed off angrily, he doesn't want to be looked for," Akira said.
"I'm sure he'll come back when he gets hungry," Sakura-san added.
Akechi had seen how said "cat" was in the Metaverse having a hard time running away from Shadows. Akira should go look for Mona as soon as possible before something bad could happen.
"Akira, I still think you should look for him, if only to make sure he's okay. Seriously, seeing you with arms crossed like this gives the impression that you don't even care, and this is so unlike you!"
Akira froze for a second. "Of course I care! ... Uh, I guess you're right. I'll look for him." She stood up.
"Is there anywhere in particular he likes to go? Perhaps somewhere akin to a special spot..." Akechi tried to subtly drop a hint that the supernatural creature might be in the Metaverse.
"Hmm, yeah, I guess so." Akira took her phone. "I'll call my friends to see if they can help in the search."
"I'd help you, but I still have some work to do." Akechi lied. He didn't want Mona finding out he had been involved in the search. "I'll just have a nice cup of coffee and get back to work. Good luck with your search, Akira. I hope you find him soon."
By the moment Akira reassembled all the Phantom Thieves in Leblanc's attic, Akechi had already left.
"Hadn't Morgana said something about taking Okumura's treasure by himself?" Ann observed. "Do you think he might've gone to the Metaverse?"
"It's possible," Makoto said. "Futaba has already figured out the location and the keywords to Okumura's Palace. Even though it's almost nightfall, I think we should go take a look. Otherwise, Morgana might end up spending the night in the Metaverse, and who knows what might happen."
Before they had time to reach the location and enter the Metaverse, though, they heard Morgana's cry for help on the street, and found him with a female Shujin student being hassled by a man. And this was how they ended up helping Haru Okumura and taking her to Leblanc.
It turned out that Morgana was happy to see that the Phantom Thieves came looking for him. Kudos to Akechi for insisting on that!
Morgana apologized and made up with them, and the Phantom Thieves learned about Haru's arranged marriage and how her father treated her, and also how she ended up in the Palace when she ran into Morgana and awakened to a Persona.
"Um, guys, I almost forgot." Morgana began. "I know it's getting late, but this is important. We ran into the other Metaverse user."
"You mean, the black-masked Persona user that Madarame's and Kaneshiro's Shadows mentioned?" Ann asked.
"More like, black armor, but yeah," Morgana said. "Like we suspected, he's the true culprit. The one behind the mental shutdowns. He confirmed so himself."
"F-for real!" Ryuji exclaimed while Futaba made a horrified face and the others showed worry.
"Did he do anything to any of you!?" Akira asked in concern.
"Actually, he saved us from some Shadows," Haru said.
"Saved?" Ryuji blinked.
"Yes." Morgana confirmed. "His Persona was really strong, from what I could tell. And he told us to deliver a warning to the Phantom Thieves. He told us to not go after Okumura. He said that it's a trap, and that if we target him, both Okumura and all of us will be in serious danger."
"Huh?" Ryuji rolled his eyes. "That's weird."
"So, he decided to suddenly come out and threaten us?" Futaba concluded.
"I don't know." Morgana closed his eyes in thought. "I have no idea what his intentions are. But it was really strange. He only kept insisting that we delivered his message to you guys, and never showed any intention of attacking us."
"Did he inform you of his name?" Yusuke asked.
"No, just a code name." Morgana answered. "He told us to call him 'Crow.'"
"Crow... I wonder whether this code name tells us anything about him..." Yusuke mused.
"Well, his armor is all black." Morgana pointed out.
"Oh. I guess that's all that there is to it then..." Makoto concluded.
Akira covered her mouth to suppress a yawn. "Let's rest for now and think about this tomorrow."
... ... ... ... ...
Wednesday, September 14
On the way to school, Akira ran into Akechi at the train station.
"Good morning." Akechi greeted her. "Did you find your cat?"
"Yep. Here he is." Akira opened the bag and forced Morgana out of hiding.
"H-hey!" Morgana protested.
"Wait, what? You're taking him to school?!"
"Yeah, he stays quiet under my desk just fine."
Akechi's mouth hung slightly open. "Akira, your bravery impresses me..."
"Not only to school. I take him almost everywhere." Akira revealed.
"Wow. What is his name, again?"
"Huh? But that is a female name." Akechi pointed out.
The little feline couldn't hold himself. "I am a Man! 'Man' with a capital 'M.' 'M' for Morgana!"
"Uh, he already had this name when I met him." Akira justified.
Akechi chuckled. "Ah. You seem so close. It's strange that he'd have decided to run away."
"Don't talk like you know anything!" Morgana shouted.
Akechi only stared at Morgana amusedly. "Are you sure he can get himself to stay quiet?"
"Yeah, I'm sure. He's just kinda... protective? Uh, something like that. He gets kinda agitated near strangers."
"This was rather contradictory. You must run into a lot of strangers wherever you go, right? Shouldn't this mean you have a hard time getting him to stay quiet?" The detective observed. "Or perhaps he just doesn't like me in particular? Whatever. It doesn't matter. As long as you can get by without getting in trouble, it's fine."
Morgana was annoyed at being their conversation's focus. He said to Akira, "I bet now he's going to talk about the Phantom Thieves. I mean, he always does..."
"I have to be going. See you around." Akechi smiled to Akira and walked away.
"What? No Phantom Thieves comment?" Morgana was incredulous. "Wait, isn't he acting a bit different today? More... at ease? I don't know how to describe it."
"Oh, yeah. You know, when everyone went to the school trip and I went to attend that course, I ran into Akechi-kun by chance. We spent some time together, and grew closer." She wouldn't mention that she shared a hotel room with him or their fluffy moments, though. "This is why he's more at ease around me now, and why we have more subjects to talk about besides the Phantom Thieves."
"You should be careful, Akira. He's against us. You heard all the stuff he says on television. And he has connections to the police, too. If he finds out you're a Phantom Thief..."
"Yeah, I know, I know." Akira waved off nonchalantly. "The Phantom Thieves is the one topic we can't seem to agree on. But I swear I'll make him change his mind one of these days!"
... ... ... ... ...
After school, Akira assembled the Phantom Thieves plus Haru in the attic.
Haru told them how her father wanted to basically "sell" her to her fiancée - the man that had hassled her yesterday.
"No, we have to change his heart. There's no other way!" Ryuji was angry.
"According to prosecutor Niijima's files, Okumura's really doing wicked stuff." Futaba pointed out.
"Um, but what about Crow's warning?" Haru asked.
"We can't let that stop us!" Ann countered. "Okumura is the kind of person that needs a change of heart, and we can't ignore him!"
Akira raised a hand. "Actually, I'd like to talk to this 'Crow' first. He said it was a trap. But what did he mean by that? Who's behind said trap, and why? I'd like to hear more details. If his arguments happen to be a load of nonsense, I think we can ignore the warning. But what if he has valid points? I mean, to say, 'don't go after Okumura or you'll regret it,' is one thing. But to come out and specifically say it's a trap? Why would he do that? I think we should learn more before we decide on our next move."
"It's a sensible plan." Yusuke nodded. "How can we find him, though?"
"I don't think it'd be too difficult." Makoto gave her opinion. "He must be keeping tabs on us in the Metaverse. If we go to Okumura's Palace, I'm sure we'll run into him.
Akira agreed. "Yeah, exactly what I thought. Let's go!"
The Phantom Thieves headed to Okumura's Palace. There, they saw how Okumura viewed his employees as mere robots which he overworked without mercy. The more they saw, the more sure they became that they had to change his heart. Haru fully awakened to her Persona power, and The Phantom Thieves defeated some robot Shadows, including one that was the cognitive representation of Haru's creepy fiancée.
"It looks like you've really decided to ignore my warning..." Came a dark and cold voice.
Everyone froze in their tracks and turned in the voice's direction. Sure enough, it was the black-armored Persona user!
Oracle took a step back. "E-everyone, be careful! He's real strong!"
"So, you're Crow, huh?" Skull didn't seem to pay any mind to Oracle's warning. He was ready to pick a fight. "You're the one behind the mental shutdowns?!"
Oracle glared angrily, and the others stood on edge.
"You admit it, just like that?" Skull looked at him with disdain.
Panther was equally ticked. "You've harmed so many people! You've even killed! And you just come and admit you caused mental shutdowns as though it were nothing!"
"Don't make assumptions!" Crow's voice rose dangerously and made everyone jump. But then, its volume went back to normal as suddenly as it had risen. "I know what I did, and don't intend to run away from it."
"Um, why did you do those things?" Their newest member, Noir - formerly Beauty Thief -, asked.
"I was only following orders." He answered.
Skull sneered. "Oh, and now you're gonna blame someone else for what you did, huh? It's the same kinda bullshit Kamoshida and Madarame and Kaneshiro and every other baddie says. That it's society's fault, that they're the victims, blah blah blah."
Crow hesitated for a moment. "... While I can't deny some of that, I won't try to justify my past actions. I know fully well that they're inexcusable. But enough about me. I'm here to talk about your group, Phantom Thieves of Hearts." His gaze stopped on Mona. "By the way, I see that you're back in the group already. That was fast."
"Hmph. It's none of your business." Mona told him condescendingly. "You're here to say something, right? Then, spill it already!"
Joker went straight to the point. "You told us to not go after Okumura, and said it's a trap. We need more details."
"You really have no idea of the trouble you're getting into..." Crow sounded disappointed. "I hoped I wouldn't need to go into detail, as it's dangerous to know too much. But it sounds like I have no choice." He sighed. "Fine then. I'll explain. The rankings were manipulated. Most of those accesses and votes on the website are fake."
"... What?" Panther gasped. "But why? Who?"
"Who? The same group that posed as Medged. Why? To lead your group to go after Okumura."
"You're saying that... those guys were just posers?" Oracle was confused. "This'd explain why their code was so amateurish. But I still don't get it!"
"What would the problem be about going after Okumura?" Queen asked. "He is clearly doing horrible things. This Palace is proof of it." She motioned to the scenery around them.
"Yes, of course he is." Crow answered. "As are most of the people involved with the organization I ended up in. The mastermind uses whoever he views as worth using, then gets rid of them. This is what he intends to do to Okumura as well."
Noir gasped in shock, and worry filled her eyes.
"This makes no sense!" Skull shouted. "What do we have to do with that?"
"Will you let me finish!?" Crow hollered in irritation and startled everyone again. "The problem is that your group is garnering too much attention, and he has his eyes on you now. He's the one who stole the research about the Metaverse. He plans to use the Metaverse for his gain, and you're in his way."
Oracle gaped. "The one who stole... the research..."
"He had the rankings manipulated in order to lead you to target Okumura. He wants to have the public's eyes glued to the forum and the Phantom Thieves, then have the media cause a commotion once you send the calling card so that the general public sees it. And then..." Crow trailed off.
"... And then what?" Joker tried to get him to continue.
Crow didn't seem the least bit pleased with what he was about to say. "... He intends to force me to cause a mental shutdown on Okumura, and then he intends to blame the Phantom Thieves for it."
Nothing could have prepared any of the Phantom Thieves for that revelation.
Everyone remained silent, until Skull couldn't take it anymore. "This is so messed up!"
Crow wasn't done yet. "This isn't all. If that happens, the more famous you are, the worse it will be, since more people will turn against your group. If you get blamed for the incident with Okumura, the police's most logical course of action will be to blame you for all the mental shutdowns and whatever other unusual incidents so far."
"I-incidents that you caused!" Oracle pointed a shaky accusing finger at him.
"... I'm sorry." He really sounded ashamed.
But skull would have none of it. "'Sorry?' After everything you did, that's all you have to say?!"
Crow briefly looked like a little child being scolded, but he quickly regained his composure. "What do you suggest I should do, then?! I know that nothing I say will change what already happened. But I had to say something!"
It sounded like Crow and Skull shouting back and forth would become a trend.
Joker raised a hand. "Um, guys, would you let him finish his explanation? Crow, go on."
"Thank you, Leader." Crow looked grateful for her intervention. "As I was saying, if your group gets charged with all of that, you will be treated as true criminals. You may be arrested. He has the police, and even the Special Investigation Unit on the palm of his hands. If you get caught, then your life will be as good as over."
"The... Special Investigation Unit!" Queen gasped. "No... this can't be..."
"Huh? Special... Investigation Unit? What's that?" Skull asked her.
"It's a special unit composed of the most capable investigators in Japan." Queen explained. "They deal with scandals and incidents that are big enough to be deemed a threat to the country. They haven't failed a case in more than 50 years!"
"What the hell!?" Skull exclaimed. "You're saying powerful guys like those may come and arrest us!? ... B-but they don't have proof!" He looked at Crow. "Unless you're planning to sell us out..."
"They don't need proof. They can very well fabricate evidence in order to maintain their successful reputation. Why do you think their success rate is so high? That SIU Director is an evidence-forging expert."
That was too much. That whole story was too "messed up," as Skull had put it. Joker didn't want to believe it, and could tell that the same went for the others. It might as well be just a very elaborate story to scare the Phantom Thieves and make them give up and get out of the enemy's way.
"You are implying that the SIU is going as far as to incriminate innocent people to maintain their reputation?" Queen refused to believe that. "No, no, no. It can't be! All of this sounds like a huge exaggeration. And evidence forgery? This is a really grave accusation."
"This is no exaggeration nor an accusation. It's fact." Crow countered. "I could take you to the SIU director's Palace and show you."
"You're saying that this director guy has a Palace?" Panther said.
"Yes. Most of the people involved in this mess have one. I'm telling you that they're no good. Hopefully now you've realized what you're up against. The unfair 'justice' of a corrupt system. I'm warning you. You should jump out of this mess before it's too late. It'd be in your best interest to cease your activities and disband."
"... Disband?" Panther echoed.
"And leave you to do whatever you want in the Metaverse? No way!" Skull refused. "Aren't you just telling us all this to make us give up so that we get outta your way or something?" He voiced the thought that must have been in everyone's minds.
"Forging evidence? It is hard to believe that one of the most reliable organizations of the country would resort to such a dirty method," Fox argued.
"Unfortunately, it's true," Crow said. "Corruption knows no bounds. I can't blame you for distrusting me, though. If you don't believe what I said, then you're free to investigate by yourselves. You have the means to do that, don't you? You've even managed to defeat those hackers, after all."
Crow left. The Phantom Thieves stood there, unsure as to what to do.
"Joker! What he said isn't true, is it?!" Skull spoke up, and all eyes focused on Akira, as though she had the answers to all the problems in the world.
"I-I don't know." Joker answered in a shaky voice. "It might be a lie. What he said now might be the real trap. He might be trying to scare us off, like you said. Or he might be trying to ruin the police and the Special Investigation whatever's image and planning something against them. Or... it might all be true..."
"I'll look into some databases online and see what I can find." Oracle decided.
"I believe the SIU Director is Sis' superior," Queen said. "If what Crow said is true, then Sis might be in trouble! I'll try to find out his name to check whether he really has a Palace."
"Let's assemble again tomorrow and discuss our findings." Joker put an end to the discussion for the moment.
They left the Metaverse, and were silent on their way home. Akira said nothing else because she didn't want to worry her friends even more, but she was really scared now. She had experienced firsthand how unfair the law system could be. She was in big trouble already, under probation, accused of a crime she didn't commit. She knew what it was like to have her reputation ruined in a blink, to be labeled as a delinquent and expelled from school, to see her chances of getting a good future diminish, and to be looked down by anyone who found out about her probation. Akira was lucky that Shujin accepted her, but still. If what Crow said were true and she and her friends eventually got charged with murder and all the mental shutdowns, it would really be over. Not only Akira, but her friends would also lose everything. They would be treated as criminals forever, and would never again have a place in society.
That was the worst possible, and least desirable scenario. Yet, there was something about Crow that made Akira want to trust his words. For some reason, Akira felt a strange connection to him, not unlike the ones she had with her Confidants. It wasn't unusual for her to feel empathy towards her Confidants, which made her feel a bit of what they felt and helped her understand better what they were going through. Even though Crow wasn't supposed to be her Confidant - at least there were no visions of Tarot cards or voices in her head talking about Arcana so far -, she felt sadness and shame. It was as though she could tell that Crow had too much to explain and too much to regret.
Back at her room in Leblanc's attic, Akira wondered how she could investigate some of those nagging points Crow had mentioned. She scrolled through her list of contacts on her phone, until her gaze stopped on the newest addition to the list: Goro Akechi. They had traded numbers at the hotel a few days ago, and he had told her he would do his best to help her if she needed something. Akira considered contacting him. He might know something. He was a detective, after all. But he already suspected her and her friends of being the Phantom Thieves. If she were to ask him about those specific pieces of information, he would probably become even more suspicious of her. So, Akira gave up on that idea for now.
... ... ... ... ...
Thursday, September 15
After school, the Phantom Thieves assembled at the attic again.
"Guys..." Futaba began. "I didn't find anything about the police yet, but I did some digging into the Phansite. And... yeah, it's confirmed. Most of the accesses and votes on the rankings are manipulated. They left traces, and I could see that they used the same kind of half-assed cut and paste code as those Medged fakers."
"I also have news." Makoto raised a hand hesitantly. "I wasn't brave enough to ask Sis about the SIU Director. But I looked up some interviews with him online and managed to find his full name. I put his name into the Metaverse app, and... yes, I got a hit."
"Then... the things Crow said might be true...?" Ann shakily voiced the conclusion that was probably on everyone's minds.
"Uh, but, just because someone has a Palace doesn't automatically mean that they're evil." Morgana wasn't willing to accept Crow's words just yet. "It just means that they have distorted views of the world around them."
"Y-yes, but..." Makoto trailed off.
"For all we know, Crow may be using these particular facts to mislead us and have us fall into another trap." Morgana didn't falter.
"What if Crow is telling the truth, though?" Akira argued.
Ryuji cursed loudly. "If all that's true and we get blamed for the mental shutdowns, Akechi'll be the first one to latch onto that!"
Ann agreed. "Yeah. He keeps saying that the mental shutdowns and the changes of heart are similar. And he said that we'll show our true colors sooner or later, or something like that. If we get blamed, it'll be a field day for him!" She grunted. "Just imagining his smug face on TV makes me sick."
"Hey, his name is high on the rankings, too." Ryuji reminded them. ""Why don't we just do what our fans want and go change his heart?"
"Akechi-kun doesn't have a Palace..." Akira found herself saying, and all eyes focused on her. "Yeah, I already checked."
"For real?!" Ryuji couldn't believe that. "How come a jerk like him doesn't have a Palace?!"
"He doesn't. And besides, forcefully changing someone's heart just because they have different opinions from us is wrong! That'd be repression, and if we were to do that, we'd only be proving him right." Akira paused. "While you all were on the school trip and I left to attend that entrepreneurship course, I ran into Akechi-kun at the hotel I stayed at. We ended up arguing about the Phantom Thieves. He said that we'd only prove to be after fame if we were to follow the rankings, and prove to be related to the mental shutdowns if we change his heart to eliminate opposition, since it's the same thing Okumura seems to be doing, like those incidents in the fast food industry indicate."
Makoto's eyes widened. "Those incidents that benefited Okumura, the same ones mentioned in Sis' files?! Then, Akechi-kun also knows... and he's following the same line of thought as Sis. That Okumura might be having his competitors suffer psychotic breakdowns and mental shutdowns..."
"Could F-Father really be going that far?" Haru was horrified.
"Ah! Sorry, Haru." Makoto realized she had been saying bad things about Haru's father right in front of her. "I didn't mean to..."
Haru shook her head. "It's fine..." She sighed. "... Ah. I had been so selfish and naive. I wanted to change my father's heart because of my arranged marriage. But it isn't only about me anymore. First slave labor, and now this... the more I think about it, the more I'm sure that he needs a change of heart, but... what if what Crow said is true and there's a trap waiting for us?"
"No way that we'll disband and do as he wants!" Ryuji was adamant. "What about our fans?"
"Yeah, we can't let them down!" Ann agreed with Ryuji.
"Hey, look." Akira felt the need to speak her mind and called everyone to attention."Our fans? Never mind the fans! You all remember why we started this group, right? It was to give hope to people that's been forced to deal with unfairness like us, not to get famous!"
"Hadn't we already agreed on this? If we don't get famous, how'll people know what we do and get encouraged?" Ryuji tried to argue.
"Yeah, that was what I had thought too. But if what Crow said is true, then it's exactly this fame that'll get us doomed!"
"And you're gonna trust Crow, out of all people? He's the true culprit! He's the one behind the mental shutdowns! He even said this himself!"
"I know!" Akira matched Ryuji's aggressive tone. But then, she lowered her head in defeat. "But you know what? If what he wanted was to scare us, then he did it. I, for one, am scared. Like, really scared... I had thought we could keep changing hearts, and no one would find us. But the enemy knows the Metaverse too. If the organization targeting us is as powerful as it sounds, then we're in danger! I know what it feels to be falsely-accused and lose a place in society, and don't wish this to any of you. We may be arrested and marked as criminals forever, even though we did nothing wrong. Or we might even die..."
The whole group stared solemnly at Akira, and no one uttered a word for a while.
"Yeah... I get it. I see what you mean. I'm sorry." Ryuji apologized, a bit calmer.
"I'm sorry too, Akira." Ann sighed in shame. "It's sad to admit this, but I think we were starting to lose focus with all this fame. It was supposed to be all about encouraging others. But our original goals began to fade into the background along the way, and I was even fantasizing about public appearances. Stupid, right? Phantom Thieves can't appear in public like that..."
"I must agree. It was remiss of us to lose sight of our goals like this." Yusuke also looked ashamed.
"Yes... I, too, was going with the flow and failed to realize we were getting off track." Makoto sighed. "A bit more, and we ran the risk of becoming the kind of people Akechi-kun says we are. People who put fame above everything else."
Morgana made a face. "That Akechi guy may be a jerk, but as much as I hate to admit it, he's smart... he almost got us good!"
"What now, though?" Ryuji asked.
"We need to prove him wrong," Akira spoke firmly. "We need to show him our justice."
"Huh?" Ryuji blinked. "From what you said earlier, I thought you'd bail out..."
"I don't know about you, but if the law system's so corrupt as Crow says, then I can't rest easy and just ignore it! We need to get around this somehow. I'm sure there's something that can be done!"
Makoto smiled in agreement. "Yes, you're right. I can't leave this be, either."
All the others nodded.
Morgana was satisfied with the group's reaction. "It's an unanimous decision. Then, we need to come up with a plan."
"What should we do about Crow, though? I am sure he will not be pleased with our decision." Yusuke reminded them.
"What do you think he'll do to us?" Ann asked.
"If he decides to fight, then we just fight back!" Came Ryuji's straightforward answer.
"... I d-don't think that's a good idea!" Futaba blurted out. "His Persona's strong! Like, really really strong!"
"Ah, but he's alone, against seven of us!" Ryuji pointed out as though it were that simple. "If we work together..."
"Seven?" Ann didn't like to hear that. "No! Are you crazy!? And you're including Haru in this, too? She's just joined!"
"Maybe we could... talk it through? I mean, he didn't act hostile towards us..." Akira suggested, and everyone stared at her as though she had grown two heads. She knew her idea was equally as crazy as Ryuji's, but that strange empathy she felt towards Crow made her think it might just work. "I know underestimating him isn't a good idea, either, but he went out of his way to convince us through words. Maybe we can come to an agreement..."
Makoto was worried. "I'm not sure about this. What if he attacks us?"
"If we proceed forward into the Palace, he might pursue us and attack us as well." Yusuke countered. "We will need to face him one way or another."
"True..." Ann sighed in defeat.
"Even though we can't win against him in a fight, I believe we can work something out if we talk it through." Akira insisted.
"Let's do it." The determined statement came from where everyone least expected.
"Haru...?" Ann uttered in surprise.
"Actually, I have a few questions for Crow as well," Haru said timidly. "I wonder whether he will be willing to answer."
"It's decided then. Let's go!" Akira announced.
"W-wait! You mean... right now?" Ann startled.
Futaba was scared. "C-can't we even p-prepare mentally?"
"The sooner we get this over with, the better, right?"
The others were nervous, but agreed with their leader in the end. Thus, to Okumura's Palace they went.
A/n: I had wanted Crow to run into one (or two) of the Thieves first, to deliver the warning to the others, and I realized this was the part of the game Morgana and Haru were separated from the group, so I had him run into them. Aside from that, I condensed the part where Morgana runs away because this part in the game is horrible. I'll also skip most of the dungeon crawling and fights, not only because I'm terrible at describing dungeons, but also because I want to get the Metaverse stuff over with and get to the fluffy parts quicker :P . I'd like this story to have more slice of life stuff than Metaverse stuff, but in some chapters this won't be possible. The fluff will come eventually, though.
Chapter 2: New Vow
Disclaimer: Persona and all related characters are property of Atlus. Any trademarks that may be referenced in this fan fiction are properties of their respective owners. I am just a fan and do not have any relations to said people/companies.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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?"
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 to not 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.
"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 to not 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.
"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. 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.
"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.
A/n: I made the Phantom Thieves be Akechi's Fool Arcana Confidant here, like in Personas 3 and 4, where the party's Social Link was of the Fool Arcana.
And until their next trip to the Metaverse comes, there'll be a few chapters with fluff (finally)...
PS: it's December 19th, 2017 at the moment of this writing. Happy holidays, and see you next chapter!
Chapter 3: To Help Others
A/n (2018/01/10): ugh. I had planned to post this chapter last weekend, but on Thursday my main computer's hard drive died, and I had to devote most of my time afterwards to buy a new one to replace it, and get everything working again.
Thankfully I had backups and didn't lose much of my work-related files... but sadly, I lost my VOCALOID and UTAU project files, including the UST of the "Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There" UTAU cover that took me a month to finish (here's the Youtube link to anyone curious). I released the audio, but not the UST. It was in a different partition of the HD and I forgot to back it up...
And also, one whole upcoming chapter of this fic is gone, and I'm still trying to recover my motivation to rewrite all of it... chapter 3 is intact, though. So, here it is.
Disclaimer: Persona and all related characters are property of Atlus. Any trademarks that may be referenced in this fan fiction are properties of their respective owners. I am just a fan and do not have any relations to said people/companies.
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."
"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 whole detective reputation was built around a facade, where he "solved" cases involving mental shutdowns. However, his excitement at getting an actual mystery to solve was real. Akechi was confident in his skills, and 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.
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 4: Good Company
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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."
"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?"
"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.
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?"
"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."
"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.
A/n: wow, this chapter got way longer than the others. But the fluff kept coming and I couldn't stop :D .
Buuuut if you think the fluff for this chapter is over, then you're wrong! This is because, Ayza-chan, one of my readers and a talented artist, kindly drew this piece of art for me! It's from the scene where Morgana and Akechi are sleeping. To check it out, visit the link below, and let the cuteness take your heart! :D
Ayza-chan, thank you so much! :3
Next chapter will be the conclusion to Okumura's Palace.
Chapter 5: Spaceport of Greed Destroyed
A/n: yay! I've finally managed to rewrite the parts I had lost with the HD crash. And my vacation has started, which should mean more time to write... I hope. Time's flying too fast :D .
Anyway, here's the conclusion to the Okumura Palace part.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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?"
"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?"
"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.
"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.
"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.
A/n: and this Palace's done. The title for this chapter comes from the trophy for clearing Okumura's Palace.
Phew, enough of Okumura's Palace. I want to get to more fluff :P .
Chapter 6: Desire and Hope
A/n: just a few days after I published the previous chapter, I got a very nice surprise! One of my readers, A-noni-mass (AnoniNABS) gifted me some amazing fics about Akechi and female Akira, inspired by "Unfiltered!" ... They're in Brazilian Portuguese, though. But if you happen to understand Portuguese, you should definitely check them out! Here's the link.
Now, on to Wings of Rebellion chapter 6! (*pulls a Futaba*) Here comes the fluffs!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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."
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."
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."
"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.
A/n: finally, Akechi's Confidant bond with Akira officially formed! Not only that, but it's up to speed, too! It's rank 5, just like Akira's Justice link with him is rank 5. Rather than Akira being his Justice Confidant like he is to her, though, I decided to go with the Star Arcana, as his bond with Akira focuses more on her brightness and naive hope like the Star Arcana, and not on what's right and wrong like the Justice Arcana.
Chapter 7: A Different Image
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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."
"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."
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?"
"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!"
A/n: Akechi's official profile (I think it was from the Persona 5 artbook) says that one of his hobbies is cycling.
Akechi's statement that fate brings people together comes from the game, during Justice rank 3, when he goes to Leblanc for the first time and discloses about his past.
Akira's and Akechi's Confidant ranks are synced! Justice rank 6 and Star rank 6.
Chapter 8: Envy
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"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."
"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.
"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.
"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."
"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.
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.
A/n: in the English dub, I thought Akechi sounded fake and mocking most of the time. In the Japanese dub, when he interacted with the MC and the Phantom Thieves (especially in the early Confidant ranks), I thought his speech sounded a bit forced too, but more like he was trying too hard to spark conversation in hopes of fitting in, without much success. This inspired the "using the Phantom Thieves as a conversational topic because they're a popular subject" part in this chapter, and Ann's comment about how she thought that Akechi had tried to seem nice and carry a conversation but it didn't flow.
This chapter was more on the angst side and lacked fluff, but worry not! Fluff warning: next chapter is bound to be cute!
Chapter 9: Siblings
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.
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."
"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!"
"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!"
A/n: this chapter is a bit short because adding the Mementos mission would make it too long. So, I decided to leave this chapter with only the fluff and leave the Mementos part for the next one. The next chapter will be uploaded later this month!
Speaking of "this month..." At the moment of this writing, it's June 2nd, 2018. In other words, the birthday of our favorite secret agent in this fic! Happy birthday, Akechi-kun! You get a cute little sister as a gift! :3
About the "siblings" fan theory. One of the Persona 5 official books (I think it was the Maniax book) revealed that both Akechi and Futaba have the same blood type (AB, which is already very rare at that). As Futaba's biological father was never mentioned, fans began speculating that it might actually be Shido. Obviously, that'd have serious implications, considering what both Shido and Akechi did to Futaba's mother. At first, I thought this fan theory was a bit of a stretch, but the more I think about it, the more it sounds plausible... Wakaba might've been researching the Metaverse even before she had had Futaba, and Shido might've gotten close to her because he was already interested in the research or something. Either way, I think this theory has huge potential as fanfic material. I'm not sure whether to make Akechi and Futaba real siblings in this fic or not. To me, unofficial is good enough for now, but we'll see...
Chapter 10: The Phantom Thieves' Way
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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!"
A/n: in the Night Breakers audio drama, the Phantom Thieves discuss coming up with poses for when they enter battles :P . Not sure if it has anything to do with Featherman, though.
Next up for interacting with Akechi: Lady Ann! XD