Odaiba is Sae's favorite place to meet, and Yusuke doesn't blame her. Distance blurs the ugliness and bustle of the city proper, leaving only the gleaming skyscrapers. The air is cold and crisp, the water calm. There are no Phantom Thieves or dead CEOs here. There is only beauty.
Sae jogs toward him. Her cheeks are pink from the wind and exertion, and she's smiling. Not the small smiles tinged with irony that she has sometimes gifted him with over the last four months but a grin that transforms her and makes Yusuke fight the urge to grab his sketchbook before he forgets the smallest detail. She stops in front of him. "Hello." Even her voice is lighter.
"I got you something." She produces a box from her coat. "My boss and I had a meeting over tuna. It's smushed, but it should still be warm."
"Thank you." Sae almost always feeds him before their sessions. Yusuke wonders if that's why he's still thrilled with her as a model when he has never dared ask Ann to pose again even with her clothes on. It's more than mercenary, he tells himself. Sae Niijima embodies the contradictions of the human nature he has sought to capture. The severe, dogged prosecutor and the patron of the arts whose eyes are bright and whose left cheek is dimpling slightly as she looks at him. Who doesn't pretend starvation enhances his creativity.
He opens the box. Sae must have left half her meal in here to share with him. He takes a bite. The tuna tastes of pepper and other spices he has no name for, but mostly all he can think is delicious. There's a war in Yusuke's mind and mouth between wolfing it down in one gulp and savoring every morsel. He looks at her, watching him with undisguised amusement. It wouldn't do to be undignified. He chews carefully. "This is delicious." And far too much for him. "Join me."
"I got this for you." But she sits beside him on the bench. Their knees are not quite touching, and her gloved hands are carefully in her lap, but Yusuke can feel Sae's warmth. Nothing they do is improper. They always meet in public, and his sketches of her would satisfy even the most prudish busybody. A frisson still washes over every time they're together. To think he had once imagined himself above and beyond such things.
He eats in easy silence, but something about the tuna tugs at Yusuke's brain. "This is unusually high quality food. It tastes expensive."
"We ate at Ryutari." Her voice is soft, almost sympathetic.
Yusuke swallows his bite with more force than necessary. Ryutari is one of the most exclusive and expensive restaurants in the city. It's a popular place for successful artists and their patrons. Madarame had told him it was "a degeneracy that destroyed true artistic spirit" and that he and Yusuke must never eat there. Madarame dined there once a week with his mistress under assumed names. "What was it like?"
"About like you would expect. Wood panels, hushed tones, impossibly deferential staff." Her hand rests next to his leg. "You'll be going there yourself before long. A friend in the Organized Crime Unit is looking for a painting for her bedroom. I mentioned your name."
Another commission. Part of him is still horrified at the idea of using his creativity in service to base commerce, but mostly Yusuke calculates his likely fee and how much breathing room it's going to give him in his budget for the month. It's not the first job Sae has arranged for him. He wonders why she cares so much. He's never seen her at a gallery or museum in all his years with Madarame, so he doubts that she is an art lover. Makoto is his friend, but Ann and Akira are far closer. The one time he had asked her why him, Sae's eyes had gone hard and she had chided him for questioning fortune.
So many mysteries in this...friendship? Affair? Yusuke's not even sure what to call it.
Perhaps he can solve one puzzle. "It's not usual for your director to dine with subordinates at Ryutari is it? Is that why you're in such a good mood?"
"It is." She grins again, and her eyes crinkle and brighten. "I'm getting a promotion. It's not final yet, but all my hard work is about to pay off." Her nails dig into her leg. "All those insults and comments about how I should just find a husband won't matter anymore. I can finally make things up to—well, maybe I can take you to Ryutari and we can discuss me commissioning you for something besides a quick sketch."
They look at each other. Yusuke might never have been there, but he's seen enough travel shows and heard his friends wax rhapsodic about the Wilton buffet often enough that he can imagine what the Ryutari must be like. Sitting across from Sae in the dim light as the food is cooked in front of them. Watching her swirl her wine glass. Talking commissions, but other things too as both their guards lower bit by bit. The feel of her hand on his as she leans across the table.
And the death glare of the other patrons as they notice his Kosei uniform, the only clothing he owns that could possibly gain him entrance to such a place. A prosecutor and a high school student in a place like that. So many social niceties are inscrutable to Yusuke, but he knows the gossip would destroy Sae within the hour. It doesn't matter that Madarame and the other targets have made him an expert on the ways one human being can exploit another and that this is not exploitation. There is Right and there is Wrong, and then there are the Rules.
Sae must realize it too. She shakes her head. "I'm being silly, I know. Shall we get to work before you lose all your light?"
Ah, yes. Work. He must be infatuated with Sae if a simple meal and conversation can distract him from their entire reason for being here. "If you can stand at the railing there..."
Yusuke's world narrows the pencil and paper in his hands and to Sae standing at the waters edge. She is beautiful, yes, but she is also all straight lines and a power that she keeps barely field. He directs the movement of her head and arms until she appears lost in thought, the empress surveying her empire. And then he tries to purify what Madarame has taught him by capturing it.
A half hour later the sun is low on the water and Yusuke is forced to declare his work good enough. And it isn't a bad piece. It isn't Sayuri, but perhaps his block is breaking in truth. The woman on the page possesses echoes of the power and grace of the Sae who is currently rolling her shoulders and stretching cramped muscles. He should be able to give her more. Perhaps, when they discover who murdered Okumura, he'll have time to paint Sae from memory with or without her commissioning him.
Sae troops back to the bench. "May I see?" she asks, tired but still ebullient.
Yusuke holds his breath and hands Sae the sketchbook. The rational part of him knows that she is almost always pleased with his work, but there's always a moment of terror when exposing his innermost self.
Sae sinks onto the bench and she studies the sketch. "Oh, Kitagawa," she whispers. "This is how you see me?" She angles herself to face him. Yusuke wishes he were better at reading expressions. There's something in her face that might be pain or grief except that that makes no sense. One hand comes up and she's tracing the outline of his face. He only has to move his head a few centimeters and he could feel more than imagined warmth and softness.
Foolish rules. "You are an inspiration to artists everywhere," he manages.
Sae's hand drops and she clenches and unclenches her fist. "Yes, but most artists wouldn't draw me like this. Seventy-five hundred?
"So much? I haven't even cleaned up the lines."
"I like it." She reaches into her pocket and pulls out a wad of bills. "Stop being so surprised when people give you what you deserve."
There's no way a simple sketch can be worth so much but she is all but shoving the money into his hand. "This is only the beginning," she says. "You, Makoto. I can finally give you what you deserve."
"And perhaps someday I'll be skilled enough to give you what you deserve."
Something else that Yusuke can't decipher flickers across Sae's face. "I already have far more than I deserve."
Later, Yusuke stumbles toward the dorms in a daze of memory and daydreams. He wishes he were brave enough to take Sae's hand, to kiss her, to say how he feels. Akira would be. He wishes he could ask Akira what do, but Akira would tell Makoto and that would be unpleasant. It hardly matters, in any case. He will not disgrace Sae by offering what she cannot take. This ambiguity is enough.
As if she would want you, says Madarame's voice in his head. A weakling who lived and died and starved himself on the whim of an old man.
This is enough. It has to be.
Each deadly sin is opposed by a corresponding virtue. Pride by humility. Envy by kindness, Wrath by... Yusuke can almost feel his eyes glaze over. Why did he have to get a scholarship to a Catholic school?
His phone goes off. Ryuji. We have a big problem. Turn on the news.
Tension roiled in Yusuke's stomach as he descended to the common area. A big problem when a man had already died while clawing at his eyeballs and the police were determined to bring down the Phantom Thieves by any means necessary? A half-dozen of his dormmates crowded around the television watching the news.
An old man in an immaculately-tailored business suit stands at a podium in front of the Prosecutor's Office. Sae stands at his side. Her eyes are hard and dark and her mouth is a thin line. The tension in Yusuke's stomach intensifies. She doesn't look like Sae. She looks like Death, come to visit judgment on the world without pity or mercy.
"The Phantom Thieves' case poses a clear and imminent danger to the security of Japan," the man says. "These terrorists must be brought to justice without delay. To that end, I am authorizing a special task force led by one of our most brilliant and tenacious prosecutors. I present to you the woman who will restore security to this country: Ms. Sae Niijima."
No. No. No! This can't be happening. Another of Sae's rules is never to discuss work, and so neither of them had ever mentioned the Phantom Thieves. He had known they were technically on opposite sides, but they're both devoted to justice. He or Makoto would tell her the truth once the true culprit behind the mental shutdowns was brought to justice. Sae would understand because she was good and kind.
There is no kindness in her voice now. "I promise you that I will stop the Phantom Thieves by whatever means necessary."
What is he going to do?
Any sane man would stay away from the woman hunting him down, but Yusuke finds himself at the water's edge three days later. Perhaps Madarame was right and Yusuke was desperate for any show of affection that he would endure anything. At least Makoto looked as sick as he feels. She had a plan to get information from Akechi, she said, and discover who was really behind the mental shutdowns. They can still turn Sae to their side.
Yusuke's hands tremble. The true murderers have manipulated them and all of Tokyo for at least a month, perhaps longer. How are a band of high school students supposed to end people like that? And before Sae is discovered. Even if he is a pining fool, foolish prosecutors don't triumph over sexism to become the youngest attorney ever appointed to Special Investigations. And even if they can discover the murderer, how will they make Sae believe a story that includes a talking cat?
And yet, they must find a way. Perhaps they will. He had thought himself doomed to a life as Madarame's fodder before the day he had met Akira and the others. He has those who love him. He has Sae, even if their relationship is something he cannot name. They will triumph.
"Kitagawa." Sae joins him at the railing. She looks like neither Empress nor Death, and excitement no longer enlivens her face. Her skin is ashen, her eyes dull. "I'm glad you're here." Her voice is soft and sad. More emotions that make no sense. He's the one facing certain disaster. Tokyo is Sae's oyster.
He wants to take her hand and stroke her hair and promise to destroy whatever has turned her joy to ashes. Akira would charm all the details of the investigation from her and have her half in love with him inside of a quarter of an hour. But Yusuke never knows what to say, he is always speaking too loudly and making other people flush with embarrassment. He shuffles from foot to foot and swallows. "What's wrong? I saw your speech. You shouldn't be unhappy."
Her eyes narrow and her teeth clench and for a moment Yusuke is back in the shack as Madarame rages at him for asking for more food. "What would you know about it?" He imagines an otherworldly reverb in her voice, and flinches. Her eyes widen almost imperceptibly. "Never again," she whispers. "I'm sorry. Work has been…difficult."
There are a thousand things hidden in that one word. The others think him ignorant of society, but he's not naive. There are those who would twist beautiful tradition to force Sae to live only for a husband and children, as if she were some sort of broodmare. She has endured countless slights to be seen as a human being. As has he. "You'll show them." They will find a way to catch these murderers and he'll convince the others that clearing their names is enough and they should let the Prosecutor's Office at the credit. Sae will be the hero of Tokyo and no one will dare cause her pain again.
"The things you say." She stares at the water as if it holds the key to the mystery she wants to solve. She bites her lip. "May I ask you something about your time with Madarame?"
Yusuke stiffens. She's never asked him about Madarame either. He has expected questions ever since he noticed Sae's lapel badge, but the lies he told the detectives must have withstood scrutiny. He hates the idea of lying to her too, but refusing to talk would be even more suspicious. "Yes?"
"He stole your work and the work of dozens of other apprentices. You watched him destroy lives, and he forced you to be an accomplice by silence in a massive campaign of theft and fraud."
Yusuke flinches at every word. She's not wrong. He stayed silent when Madarame passed Yusuke's work as his own. When Madarame slandered his former students and drove them to suicide. He endured being starved and forced to sleep on a bare floor. All because he was so desperate to believe the creator of Sayuri was a great man who loved him. "Yes." There is no defense he can offer for his cowardice.
"He would have left you to starve in the streets or worse. You were forced to cooperate with evil, but it didn't change you. You're a good person." Her voice is thick, halting, strained. "It's possible to be forced to break the rules and not give in to the shadows?"
Yusuke stares at her. She's a lawyer, not a philosopher. But Sae is looking at him with such wild, desperate hope that he forgets how to breathe. "I regret my inaction every day. I only hope that the work I create for you and others is some kind of atonement."
"By you would have died!" Sae grips his sleeve hard enough that Yusuke is thrown off balance. Her eyes flash. "You would have died for foolish honor and nothing would have changed. He would have found more apprentices and kept stealing."
The wheels turn in Yusuke's mind. Sae's desperation is not about him or Madarame. Her ashen skin...difficult work...has she been asked to engage in corruption? He knows from Akira how much justice depends on the whims of the powerful but...Sae? The woman who feeds him? Who lets him sketch her and pays too much for the finished product? She isn't capable of such vileness. It would have shown on the page. His own darkness is why he can't equal Sayuri. But how else to explain the pain in her voice?
Even the saints were tempted, he tells himself. Temptation is not sin. He puts his hand as close to hers as he dares. "I was weak, and I don't know if I'm a good person. Not like you. The first time I saw you, I had to draw you. Not because of some physical beauty. You radiate courage and integrity. I had to capture it." You are better than whatever poison they are trying to feed you.
She blinks rapidly. "You wouldn't say that if you knew about the last three years. Since Dad died—you're the only person in the world who thinks I'm noble. Because I feed you."
Yusuke shrugs. "Starving makes people grateful for food."
Sae seizes his shoulder. Her fingers are as soft and strong as he's dreamed even through his shirt. "You won't starve anymore, I swear it." Her eyes burn like flame. "Thank you. That makes things easier."
"My honor." Her hand doesn't move. Yusuke sinks into the warmth of her touch. For this he will brave a thousand conspirators.
"I'm thinking of triggering a change of heart in Sae." Akechi pauses for effect, the Detective Prince even now. "I've already discovered that she has a Palace."
Yusuke chokes on his drink. "P-palace?" That couldn't be right. Sae had been melancholic and she was hunting them, but it was because she had the wrong information. Once they exposed Akechi as the murderer he was, everything would be back to normal. Sae was no monster who saw the world as her personal kingdom.
"She's at her wit's end. The arrest warrant and reward show how desperate she is. Her entire career is riding on this case, and Sae cares for nothing so much as her career." Akechi's voice was thick with false grief. "I fear that if she doesn't catch you, then she will pin the crime on some other poor soul."
"No, she's not capable of such a thing! I will not let this defamation continue!" His voice is like thunder in his ears, and the others are staring at him but Yusuke couldn't stop himself. "Ms. Niijima is good and kind and would never do such a thing! You are the m—"
A hand encases Yusuke's wrist. "Easy, buddy."
"I didn't know you even knew Niijima." Ryuji's voice is tinged with horror and wonder. "One of the guys in my class said she almost had his dad for breakfast when she was interviewing him for something. No offense, Makoto."
Yusuke takes a deep a deep breath and tries to calm the rage bubbling within. They are talking about Sae as if she's just another target. Another Madarame. "She's my model and has been for months and been very kind about it." An idea works at the edges of his brain. There is a way to stop this madness. He reaches for his sketchbook. Sae has most of his portraits, but there are enough to prove his point. He opens to his favorite of those remaining: Sae sitting on a park bench in three-quarters profile, pensively staring at the duck pond. "Could I create work like this from such a distorted model?"
Makoto takes the sketchbook from him. Her eyes go wide. "Sis? She's so...vulnerable. You drew this from life? My sister actually models for you? My sister? How? My sister?"
"This is no time for redundancy." Yusuke sniffs. "I saw her at the park one day, and I was enraptured. Such pleasing aesthetics married to such authority and intelligence. I approached her and asked her to model for me. She looked at me like you're looking at me now, but then she became quite serious and told me that she had never modelled before but that she had a few moments."
Yusuke closes his eyes at the memory. He still cannot predict people's reactions very well, but he knows enough from his time with the Thieves that his treatment of Ann was badly done. "All quite modest if that's what you're worried about." He thinks sometimes about what it would be like to have Sae pose for a nude. Nothing crass or titillating. Just erotic power and true beauty calling the viewer to the sublime. And yet, he dares not risk it. "All very proper."
The others are crowding around Makoto and craning their necks as if they're view in a car accident and not art. Makoto's skin is pale. "You've been meeting like this for months? Neither of you ever said a word. She just lets you draw her like that?"
"Stop speaking as if we are doing something monstrous. I sketch her in public places. We talk before or after. She feeds me and she never disparages me for my eccentricities. My current solvency is entirely due to her. So you see, Sae posessing a Palace is quite impossible."
The room grows silent and Yusuke knows that he has said the wrong thing. Ann's eyes are wide with horror, and Akechi has gone as pale as Makoto. "My God," he whispers and for once seems sincere. "That's the distortion in her heart. An inappropriate romance with a high school student. I worked beside her for years and she was always professional. I never would have dreamed her capable of such."
The others look at each other. "May we talk to Yusuke alone?" Akira asks Akechi. "This is probably a conversation he should have with people he trusts."
Akechi flinches. "Of course. But my demand that we steal Sae's heart will not change. If the true murderer is not caught, she as the prosecutor in charge is the obvious next target to continue discrediting the Phantom Thieves, and none of us want that to happen." He bows his head. "As far as Sae has fallen, I still wish to see her safe and happy."
The only sound is the shopkeeper's bell as Akechi leaves. Yusuke is going to be sick. Akechi is right about one thing: Sae would make an excellent next victim for his killing spree. And Akechi is monster enough to betray her. He'll go into Mementos and kill her Shadow and make her die a humiliating death. "We have to save her."
"Never mind that for a sec." Ryuji doesn't look much better than he feels. "Yusuke and Niijima have been carrying on some kind of affair for months and we're just now finding out about it. Isn't that kind of a big deal?"
"Kamoshida," Ann says softly. "I mean I guess I knew a woman could treat a guy the same way, but I never really thought about it. It's wrong to do that to a student, no matter who it is."
"I told you to stop!" He can feel Goemon rising up and ready to unleash a winter storm if it will force them to listen. "Sae is not Kamoshida, and I am not you. She feeds me and gives my name to her colleagues for commissions and asks for nothing but sketches she pays me for. Sometimes her hand touches mine. That's the only intimacy we permit ourselves. I enjoy it. I enjoy talking to her. Madarame abused me for years. Don't insult me by saying I'm abused now."
They stared at him. "You've got it bad," Akira murmured. "Way worse than me and—okay so you two have hearts in your eyes. That still leaves the Palace and Akechi."
"Akechi is a lying murderer, but we have to find a way to save her."
Makoto looks at the table. "He's not lying about the Palace. Sis has been so angry since Dad died. After we stopped Kaneshiro, I wondered..." She took out phone and pressed a button. "Sae Niijima, prosecutor."
Yusuke stares at the phone as the mechanical voice of the app seems to echo through Leblanc. A Palace. The woman who cares when he's hungry and who smiles at him, the only one besides his friends who makes him feel like he has a right to normal emotions like love has a heart so distorted that she has walled herself off from the human race and...
Don't you see boy? booms Madarame's voice in his head. You've been taken in again. She'll bleed you dry and leave you a husk just like I did.
"Oh, stop looking like that, Inari." Futaba's voice cuts through the air and forces Yusuke to look at her. "I had a Palace too. Her dad was murdered. That would mess anyone up." She softens. "Nobody should be left in that darkness alone. I think we should do what Akechi wants. He's got us on our last health bar, and we might as well do some good."
"I've got a better idea," Makoto says. "We'll pretend to and use the heist to beat Akechi at his own game." Yusuke tries to listen as she spins a plan that's so audacious and unlikely that some part of him—the part of him that can still focus on the world beyond his heart—knows he should object. The rest is focused on Sae's heart. Futaba is right. A good person could still have a distorted heart. Sae is melancholy. Perhaps it goes even deeper than he had realized. Psychiatric help was frowned upon after all.
Or perhaps the only people you can love are monsters.
"She can still see reason. I know she can," Makoto says. "She'll want to interrogate Joker after he's captured. It will be the perfect way to convince her of the truth."
"I don't know which is worse," Akira mutters. "That this plan has a really good chance of getting me killed or that I can't think of a better one. I'm in."
They all nod. Horror fills Yusuke. They want to do this, to venture into Sae's heart and hope that they can untangle the knots in her soul. He can stop this. The vote still has to be unanimous. He can go to the park just like always. Perhaps he will even dare to twine his fingers with hers. But he will always wonder what secret darkness lurks in her heart. And Akechi will kill her. Even if she's another Madarame, he wants her to be alive and whole. Funny. He finally has something in common with Akechi. "Me too."
"You don't have to," Akira says. "Black Frost gives me all the ice I need."
He looks so warm and sympathetic that a lump burns in Yusuke's throat. These people love him, whatever happens. But he has shut his eyes to the truth for too long. He isn't a fragile flower who needs to be hidden away from sunlight lest he wither. "I swore an oath. How can I abandon you now?'
And that is that. Their lives are in Sae's hands.
They drift out of the café. Yusuke doesn't know where to go. The dorms are lonely, and the park is impossible. Makoto wanders beside him. She must have a thousand questions. She must want to hit him. Except her brow is furrowed, and the air lacks the tremor he associates with Makoto's anger. Best to rip the bandage off, get himself in the habit. "You may demand satisfaction from me if you wish."
"What? No!" Her voice drops and fumbles for the words. "Sis is in love with you?"
"I have little experience of romance. But she more than tolerates me, and the way she smiles—before today, I would have thought whatever strange assignations we share were fit subjects for art. We never spoke of such things, naturally."
"And those sketches. Even before Dad died, it was like she had a wall around her. She said she had to because people still have trouble taking working women seriously. But she lets herself look soft for you. She gives you money. If I didn't know better, I'd say she was a completely different person. Why you, out of all the artists in Tokyo? Why model at all?"
"Perhaps the gods of art wish to pay me a kindness. Or play a cruel joke." He shrugs. It's another mystery that lies in Sae's heart, and they will have more important business there. "It's been over four months now and she's never told me why she agreed that first day. Positively vehement in keeping it secret."
"Four months. June." Makoto's eyes widen almost imperceptibly. "That was when she started to really become obsessed with the mental shutdowns. We...argued about the Phantom Thieves."
"Strange. She hardly brought them up with me." How many facets of her life has Sae been keeping from him? Just what awaits then in the Metaverse? I cannot shut my eyes. No matter how much I might wish to.
The courthouse is...a casino. Yusuke exhales behind his mask. He had expected something more sinister somehow, but the worst he can say of the ground floor is that Sae's subconscious has a truly appalling taste in decor. Neon is everywhere. Shadows vaguely suggestive of pit bosses and cocktail waitresses roam between slot machines that jingle and flash. The gamblers stare at the screens and soft curses go over the pulsing backbeat. And the gamblers are people. Not robotic slaves or ATMs. People.
"Perhaps this will not be so bad," he says more to himself than to the others. "Given what happened to Akira, I'm not sure a courthouse as a casino counts as a distortion."
Akechi rounds to glare at him but before he can say anything, a white flash fills the room. When Yusuke can see again, Sae stands before them. Her cocktail dress puddles to the floor. Diamonds and amethyst glitter on her neck. Her shoulders are bare and pale and perfect. She twirls a yellow rose between two gloved fingers. Yusuke's mouth goes dry. This—she—is what he's dreamed of in the dark of night and told himself that he can never have. Only her golden eyes betray that they are in Sae's innermost heart and not his.
"You are here for the Treasure?" She even sounds like the Sae Yusuke knows. She gestures to the glass elevator. "It's in the manager's office, at the highest point of the casino."
Akira frowns. "That's awfully cooperative."
"I am a woman of honor. This should be the fairest contest possible, don't you agree?"
"You could just give us the Treasure. We want only to help you," Yusuke says. Maybe it's foolish, but if they can end this without violence at all, that would be ideal.
"You sound so familiar," the Shadow murmurs. "And the girl next to you..." She smiles again and that smile still glitters, but there's a tension in her voice now. "We must fight for what we want. That's the way it the world. The thousands here win or lose their heart's desire in fair battle every day. You and I are no different."
The hairs on Yusuke's neck stand up. Something is wrong here. Even honest casino games are designed so that the house turns a profit, and the bias of the justice system towards the prosecution is legendary. So why insist that the gamblers are playing a fair game? The real Sae had seemed to suspect corruption.
"Lady Niijima, have mercy on me!"
One of the cognitions breaks from the masses and beelines toward them. Sakura. His clothes are rumpled and stained, and cuts and bruises dot his face. He pushes past Ryuji and Akechi and drops to his knees before the Shadow. "Please, don't take my daughter from me!" There's a panic in his voice that Yusuke has never heard from the real Sakura.
Futaba stretches out a hand. "Sojiro. Everything's fine. I'm right here."
Two Shadows in the shape of bouncers lumber after Sakura and haul him to his feet. "How dare you bother Lady Niijima! You lost all your coins and you have to pay."
"She's all I have left."
The Shadow tsks. "Then you shouldn't have wagered, now should you? Your coins will be mine. Take the girl. Take everything he has until we have enough to win."
Yusuke freezes. He's not as close to Sakura as Akira and Futaba are, but the man took him in when he had nowhere else to go. "This is base cruelty. Your quarrel is with us."
"My quarrel is with everyone who dares play the game!" The Shadow's voice is acid. She trembles, and blackness coats her eyes and mouth. The yellow rose in her hand vanishes, but tattoos of them etch themselves into her flesh until they cover her arms and shoulders. The necklace shrinks into a collar like a dog's. A dog. Her lips twist into a snarl. "You come into my domain and complain that my rules don't suit you! I own you! I own everyone here. Your purpose in life is so that I may win my heart's desire!"
Another figure hovered behind her. Madarame as he had seemed in the Palace, dressed in gaudy robes that parody all that Yusuke loves about the past. Cattle are raised for hide and meat. You are no different. One can hallucinate in the Metaverse as easily as the real world.
"Come," says the demon that wears Sae's face. "Fight for him if he matters so much." She snaps her fingers and the bouncers become great leopard men, snarling and their blades gleaming in the neon. Her eyes glitter, and Yusuke understands that this will be an infiltration like all the others.
Later, they stagger back to the real world. Akechi looks tired but insufferably pleased with himself for saving their lives. "I think that was a good beginning, don't you?"
Yusuke doesn't have the energy to glare. Sae's heart is dark in truth. He's been a fool, letting himself believe a con for a second time. Those dreams of gentle handholding and erotic sketches were wisps in the air. And if they do rip the distortion from her, what other pieces of her soul will be mangled along the way. Will she break like Madarame? If Akira is to survive, they must heal her heart instead of stealing it. If there's anything there to heal.
And yet, he cannot turn aside. They must try, for the sake of the country if nothing else. It seems Yusuke's fate will be to seek after what he cannot have.
His phone goes off, inevitably. May I see you? The usual place. I need your help.
Yusuke stares at the phone. His nightmares have been consumed by the Shadow, but he doesn't know what to do with the real Sae beyond the fact that he doesn't want anyone to die nor does he want to see her anymore than he wants to see Madarame. He doesn't need more ugliness in his life. But of course no one has told her that. And it means actively cutting off the woman who awakened parts of his heart that he didn't know he possessed. She should have buried her nose in her case files and forgotten him, like a normal success-obsessed prosecutor.
Haru looks over his shoulder. "Are you going to go?"
"Of course not! I can't fraternize with the enemy."
"The enemy." She sighs. "Is that what you really think of her?"
"You saw the demon." He won't be taken in again. This time he will believe the evidence of his senses. "Her true nature."
"Her hidden nature, at any rate. Don't tell Akira or the others, but I don't think it's as simple as saying we're fighting someone's real self in the Metaverse." She drops into the chair beside Yusuke. "In...in Father's Palace, I saw a thing that didn't care if I were the slave of a monster. But last year, I came down with a horrible case of pneumonia. We all thought that I was going to die. He didn't leave my side. That's real too, isn't it?"
"Next you'll be telling me that Madarame loved me deep down." He laughs, bitter. "I can't see the beauty in the world anymore. Perhaps it really is ugliness all the way down, and my mother was able to create Sayuri because she was skilled in self-deception."
They look up together at the painting. Yusuke swallows down the lump in his throat. His mother had loved him so much that she had created beauty. Just once, he would like to know that love and to have it be untainted. To see what she saw and have it be something other than a shimmering mirage.
"You don't believe that," Haru says. "Talk to her. If Akira is going to survive Akechi's trap, it will be because we persuaded Niijima to change her own heart. Maybe you can start something."
"Even if I wanted to see her, which I don't, have you forgotten who you are speaking to? I drive away everyone. I couldn't persuade a child to buy candy."
"You haven't driven us away." She touches his arm. "We want Niijima to be the person she was for you all the time. If anyone can save her, you can."
Curse his foolishness. "It would be suspicious if I didn't respond."
Sae is already at the park when she arrives. She sits on the bench, her shoulders slumped and her hair coming subtly askew. Her face is lined. Try as he might, he can't see the Shadow's ranting in her exhaustion. Yusuke isn't sure if it's another manifestation of the defects in his powers of observation or if there's something to what Haru said. He tries to temper the hope in his heart. It doesn't work.
She turns and sees him. "Kitagawa!" The exhaustion sloughs away, and true beauty is before him, blazing brilliant and unguarded. "I was beginning to think I wouldn't see you again. Work has been—oh, nevermind that now." She pats the bench. "Sit with me?"
Yusuke edges toward her. Once he would have been thrilled with the intimacy, but now he wonders which Sae awaits him and just how he's supposed to get through to her when Makoto apparently can't. He sits down, and Sae...slides closer. Her hand barely brushes him, and heat spirals through him. Remember what she is. Remember those yellow eyes. He clears his throat. "You need my help."
The light vanishes from her eyes. "You saw that I'm in charge of apprehending the Phantom Thieves? I believe that I've found a plausible suspect." She removes a photograph from her suit pocket. The man is about sixty, with dirty grey hair and yellowing teeth. "Yohei Kiritani. Former mercenary. Have you ever seen him before, particularly when you were living with Madarame?"
"Are you certain?"
Sae was silent for a long time. "I wanted so badly to keep you and Makoto ignorant of my world," she whispered. "Before I was assigned to Special Investigations, I was a homicide prosecutor. There was a serial killer that we were never able to catch. Kiritani. We all knew it was him but my superiors were so afraid of marring their perfect record that they preferred to leave the cases unsolved. If I were to have evidence fingering him as the Phantom, that would be a kind of justice."
Yusuke understands. "You want me to perjure myself and help you frame an innocent man."
"He's not innocent! A murderer is walking the streets of Tokyo." She takes a deep breath. "Does it matter which murder he hangs for?"
He gulps. Hanging. What a lovely way to bring to mind the stakes. "It wouldn't be just to convict him for the murder he didn't commit. And it's your job to see that justice is done. Convict him for what he did do if you must."
"Justice?" Her laugh is as bitter as his own. "There is no justice in this world, Kitagawa. There's only the powerful crushing the weak while the rest of us scramble for safety. My job is to please my superiors and to rise high enough to—would you rather both of us starve on a technicality? You're an artist. You should know that sometimes we have to give the client what they want, no matter our own feelings."
How dare she? How dare she compare his commissions to a perversion of justice? His vision blurs and yellow roses are everywhere. "Then you would be no better than Madarame, having me prostitute myself for your greed and vanity. I fell in love with you because you were kind to me, but you were just waiting for the right time to use me. To gain your precious heart's desire."
Silence. Yusuke claps his hand over his mouth. I fell in love with you. For months their relationship had depended on what couldn't be said. He blurts it out when he will have to plumb the darkness of her heart. There truly is no end to his stupidity. Better that his heart remain closed and chained.
Sae's face crumples, and her eyes are bright with...tears? "Yusuke, I—"
Yusuke bolts to his feet. "I should go." He will stay away from her in this world. Leave Sae's redemption to Akira or Makoto. An artist who doesn't know if he believes in beauty and a prosecutor that doesn't believe in justice. What a pair they are. And he loves her and he has made a fool of himself.
It's not until he slams the dormitory door behind him that Yusuke allows himself to weep.
A maze wreathed in darkness. There's probably some arcane legal symbolism to that, but Yusuke just wants to find the exit and get on with it.
"No offense, Queen." Yusuke can almost hear Ryuji grinding his teeth. "But when we find her, I am going to punch her so hard that the dog on her back will bark."
Laughter fills the air. "My, you do get frustrated so easily. You shouldn't have wagered all your coins if you didn't have the persistence to win. Looks like I'll have even more when I'm done with you."
"What is it with you and the damn coins? You run the place. Or are you just a sadist who enjoys picking on kids?"
"Don't speak of what you don't understand!" The Shadow's pants are like those of an animal preparing to charge. "I'm playing for the highest stakes. Far more than a mere child like you has to deal with. Happiness is within my grasp, but you miserable thieves want to take it." She chokes. "You don't like wandering around like I did for years? Fine, I'll entertain you."
"I don't like the sound of that," Akira says. "And is it just me, or is she downright obsessed with getting these coins?"
"This case is her meal ticket," Ann says. "We were really famous when we were hunting down Okumura. It's got to be ten times better for the prosecutor who catches us."
"Whatever her other defects, Sae has never been a glory hound. Though she does earnestly desire both recognition from her colleagues and wealth. I remember her often lamenting that she couldn't afford a better cram school for Makoto. It's tragic that she can't see how much she's in danger of losing." Akechi's voice is sympathetic. Maybe he even means it.
"Sis..." Makoto swallows. "Fox, do you know anything that might help?"
"No." Yusuke wishes he did, that he could untangle his muse and the woman who fed him with the one willing to smash the law to pieces. Maybe then his own emotions would be steady instead of whipsawing like a pinball. "I—"
"Guys, not to interrupt the psychoanalysis, but you've got a really strong Shadow heading your way." There's real panic in Futaba's voice. "Like 'I could have all your personas for breakfast and still have time for coffee' powerful."
Sae's Shadow laughs. "I did promise you entertainment. I believe the cat with you is familiar with this Shadow. The common name is Reaper. Find the exit before he finds you. And since you seem to think I cheat, I'll offer you an advantage. Only one of you needs to find the exit for me to call him off."
"Well, this is an obvious ploy to get us to split up," Yusuke mutters.
"I think we have to." Morgana sounds just as frightened as Futaba. "That Reaper thing is why I'm always telling you to hurry in Mementos. We aren't strong enough to fight it. We've got to find the exit as fast as we can."
Akira freezes and puts his fingers to his temples. "An eight-way intersection? This is definitely a set up." He sighs. "I hate it when the target has the upper hand. Everybody pick a path and start running. Signal if you find anything that looks remotely like an exit."
They break off. Yusuke takes the northernmost path and tries to ignore the dampness of his gloves. He's never liked confined spaces—all those times Madarame locked him in the closet. He presses on for the sake of his oath and for Sae's sake. It doesn't take him long to decide that the exit can't be this way. The solution to her game would be heavily defended, but there are no Shadows prowling the halls. There's nothing: a void of negation that makes his stomach clench, as if even the fragments from the Sea of Souls are forbidden this place.
Finally, Yusuke comes to a set of double doors. PRIZE ROOM flashes the sign above. Prize room? So all those coins they've been collecting could be exchanged here just as easily as the counter. Maybe the exit is here, or the Treasure itself. It wouldn't be the first time Sae has lied. He tries the door and it swings open.
Yusuke blinks against the sudden light. When his eyes have adjusted, he finds himself in some kind of gallery or trophy room. Paintings, plaques, and boxes locked behind glass cases line the walls. Deputy Director Niijima, reads one plaque. 250,000 coins. Punish sexual harassers: 170,000 coins.
So this is what Sae is hoping to gain by capturing them. He turns his attention to the paintings and forgets how to breathe. They are in his style, delicate shading contrasting with bold highlights. The first is of Makoto, taller and thinner. She wears a police officer's uniform. Behind her is the staid bustle of Hiroo. Most people there earn more than a month than Yusuke will see in his life. One million coins.
Another painting, of the interior of Ryutari. He and Sae sit opposite each other. Sae is wearing the same dress and diamond necklace the Shadow had the first day. Yusuke wears an elegant dinner jacket. He's broader than the real Yusuke has ever been, and there's enough sushi on his plate to feed every orphan in Tokyo. Both he and Sae are smiling.
"So, what? You think that if you're promoted, you can make sure Makoto has a safe patrol as an officer and that you and I can go to dinner?" His knees buckle, and he braces himself against a case. The prosecutor who ended the Phantom Thieves could do as she pleased. Even...manipulate police assignments and court a high school student while the world looked the other way. "No. Don't be doing this for us."
But there is yet another painting. Sae reclines on bed, naked and glorious. The silk sheets are draped around her, so that she entices more than showing her sexuality directly. Her gaze is fixed on the viewer and her expression is almost playful. A woman certain of both her power and desirability. This...this is the painting he has always wish to create. Beauty of body married to beauty of spirit. More than that. It's a painting an artist could only create for and with a lover who trusted him absolutely. "No. No. No." He sobs. "What have I done?"
"Get away from there!" The Shadow's voice barely sounds human. She roars and charges into him. Even in this form, she's stronger than any mortal, and Yusuke goes flying backwards onto the wooden floor. Her teeth are bared, and spittle drips onto his mask. "You miserable Thieves. You had the whole world before you, but you want to take the only thing that makes me happy away from me. I'll kill you."
She draws back a gloved fist. Yusuke is going to die here because Sae is in love with him. He can't help it. Laughter rips through his body. The Shadow freezes. "What's so funny?"
"You...us... I never wanted to hurt you."
"You have the strange way of showing it. I know what you did to Okumura. I won't die when I've finally found someone who loves me and who I love in return. He loves me, you know. He even said it despite the scandal. The poor boy. The whole world has been so cruel to him. I'm going to give him the world. All I need to do is end you."
"Do you really think that's what Yusuke and Makoto want from you? For you to frame an innocent man and become no better than the criminals you fight?"
The Shadow recoils as if she's been slapped. "What would you know about it?"
"More than you might think." He wishes Sae had fallen in love with someone possessed of a silver tongue. But there is only Yusuke, and he can think of only one way to save this woman he...loves. "Sae, take off my mask. Please."
"So familiar." Her eyes go wide. "It can't be. It can't." She removes the mask with trembling fingers, and Yusuke feels Goemon sink within his heart. "Yusuke?"
"Me." He lifts a hand and notices he's back in his school uniform. I'm no threat to her and she knows it. Perhaps there is hope. "Could you get off me?"
The Shadow jumps back as if she's been hit with an electric shock. "You're the Thief? I almost killed you."
"Almost. I'm unharmed." He hauls himself to his feet, but the Shadow seems to hardly notice. Her yellow eyes are vacant as she stares at the painting of the two of them together. "No harm done."
"All this time... I'll never be able to give you this. Not without finding someone else to pay." She blinks and there are tears in her eyes. "I'll have nothing else to give you."
"The food and the money were very nice, but that was never what I wanted from you." He puts a hand on her bare shoulder, and she's as warm and soft as the real Sae must be. "I told you: I love you because you are kind."
"Kind. The other me tried to be. She hates what I've become. She thought it would help to do a good deed, so when this poor, obviously underfed artist wanted a model, she did." She shakes her head. "And now I'm even more firmly entwined with her. I can't even love without corruption."
Envy is opposed by kindness. "Oh, Sae." Tears are warm on his face. "I do love you. Your beauty. Your courage. Not what you can do for me. You can catch the true murderer, and you can do it honestly."
"Murderer?" Her eyes come back into focus, though her voice is still distant. "Why are you here? Why are you trying to take my heart? Have I fallen so low that even you think I'm better as some neutered half-human?"
Yusuke looks at her and takes a deep breath. There's a very good chance that what he's about to say will get them all killed, but he's come this far. Anything to soothe the pain in her eyes. "I don't want to take your heart. I want you to help me heal it. This isn't who you want to be, is it? That's why you were so glamorous at first? That's what you really want."
"Heal my heart? It's not possible. I've been poisoned ever since Dad died. The world is too cruel, and I am..too weak."
"Weak? You know how I see you." He gestures to the nude painting of Sae. "Does that look like weakness to you? Let go of your envy. Help us set a trap for the true murderer. You can get everything here that matters." He extends his hand. "And this time I won't leave you. I promise."
The Shadow looks at his bare hand. Yusuke holds his breath. Please be what I first thought you were. Slowly, like a frightened animal, her hand edges toward him and he thinks it might be enough. But then she shakes her head. "I...cant."
"Of course you can." He will not give up now, not now that he knows that he's loved and loved in return.
"No, I mean I can't. What you want...the other me has to make that choice. Real reformation is an act of the will."
All this and nothing has changed? They're going to have to keep the same plan? Yusuke would laugh if it wasn't so tragic.
"Of course it makes a difference." Her smile is so much like the real Sae that Yusuke feels tears threaten again. "There's hope now."