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Felo De Se

Chapter Text

August 21, Evening

You should steal Goro Akechi’s heart. He’s obviously trash if he’s opposing the Phantom Thieves. Make him change his mind!

Slender fingers drummed against the table, slightly shaking the pair of black gloves laying next to the computer After a moment, their owner clicked “ post ” on their message. Within an instant, replies began flooding in, like sharks circling blood in the water.

You’re right! They totally should!

Do it! DO IT DO IT DO IT!

Take out the trash!

The posts scrolled past, the background of the site turning eyes the color of dried blood to a more vivid crimson. Slowly, the writer of the post gave a painful, hateful smile, the red of the screen glinting on their straight, perfect teeth.

“The clock is ticking, dear Thieves. You’d best catch up.”

***

August 22, Day

[Text to: The Softest Moon] How’s my favorite webmaster doing?

Ren grinned at his phone as the text sent. Yeah, maybe he was a sap, but he liked being a sap. It was one of the few masks he wore that actually fit.

[Text from: The Softest Moon] I’m good! (^▽^) Especially since you texted! What about you?

It also got responses like this. He grinned, flopping over the edge of his bed.

[Text to: The Softest Moon] I’m great! d=(^▽^)=b Waiting for the study group.

He preferred to keep his references to the Phantom Thieves vague at best, just to be safe. Mishima understood, fortunately—something Ren could probably thank his sister for.

[Text from: The Softest Moon] Sounds like fun. By the way, did you hear about the commotion on the phansite last night?

[Text to: The Softest Moon] No? I should keep up with that better.

[Text from: The Softest Moon] That’s why you’ve got me, though! Anyway, a new request was put up, and the forums *exploded.*

Ren sat up again, blinking.

[Text to: The Softest Moon] Oh?

[Text from: The Softest Moon] It was for Goro Akechi.

Oh.

[Text to: The Softest Moon] …I’ll have to tell the others at the study group. They’ll find that fascinating.

[Text from: The Softest Moon] Yeah! I wonder if the Thieves will take it up…

[Text to: The Softest Moon] We’ll just have to see.

***

Somehow, Mishima had undersold the forums with the word “explosion ”. The Phansite was absolutely full of people screaming for them to steal Akechi’s heart, and with every passing second more and more comments were added.

Steal his heart!

He deserves it! Make him see the Phantom Thieves are right!

Bring that bastard down a peg or two!

The messages reflected off the lenses of Nozomi's glasses, scrolling endlessly as she flicked her thumb over her phone. It had the eerie effect of completely obscuring her eyes, which combined with her frown gave the terrible impression of a villainess researching her prey.

According to the news humming from the tv behind her, though, that was technically an apt description.

“The Phantom Thieves struck again with Medjed a little over a week ago, but now they seem to have a new target--Goro Akechi! Their fans have flooded the so-called Phansite, but there are concerns that they may actually go through with the attempt…”

Ren tore his gaze away from the TV and leaned back against the couch, resuming his search through the forums with a vengeance. "...They're screaming for it, aren't they?"

"Indeed. We've never had a response like this." Yusuke sighed softly, setting aside his phone in favor of watching the TV himself.. "And we only just freed Futaba…"

Ryuji turned to look at the sibling thieves. "How is she, anyway?"

“Better," Nozomi responded, not looking up from her phone. "She was even talking about trying to go to the supermarket later."

"Really?" Anne let out a relieved breath and grinned. "That's great!"

"Not so much for Morgana,” Nozomi replied, shaking her head even as her eyes stayed trained on her screen. "Futaba's decided that he makes an excellent teddy bear."

Ryuji rubbed his chin. "Huh. I thought it was quieter than usual 'round here.”

"I'm glad she's doing well, though. I was worried, since I remember how traumatized Kamoshida-san was." Makoto shook her head. “Though I suppose she didn’t actually commit any crimes….”

"He should consider himself lucky he was only traumatized." Anne's voice was dark, but after a moment, she sighed too. "But...yeah, Futaba definitely didn't deserve that."

There was silence save for the TV as the Thieves continued their research. Eventually, Ren grunted, then set aside his phone. "I can't even find the original post. There's just too much.”

His sister made an affirmative grunt, but continued to scroll stubbornly, listening to the news behind her. She stilled, however, when a familiar introduction burbled from the tv.

"And now, once again, we'd like to welcome Goro Akechi to the show—“

“What, again ?!" Ryuji groaned. "Are they f'r real? That's the third time this month!”

"He's a popular figure." Yusuke waved at Ryuji and leaned forward. "Now hush. I want to hear this.”

Nozomi finally turned, the scroll of her phone replaced by a reflection of her small TV's screen on the lenses of her glasses, and thus with the image of a smiling, pleasant looking boy. Speak of the devil, I suppose.

"Thank you for having me again." Akechi's face was media-perfect as always, straight and perfect teeth glinting in his pleasant smile that gave none of his true thoughts away. "It's always an honor to be on your show, Shimizu-san."

"It's always an honor to have you here, Akechi-san. Now, I know you're probably tired of being asked about the Phantom Thieves by now, but there have been some very interesting developments in the case recently!”

Ryuji snorted. "Yeah, like you bein' the forum's flavor of the week."

"Shh!" Anne elbowed the ex-track star before turning her attention back to the TV.

"...yes, Medjed's reveal was certainly a surprise, and we are looking into that as we speak, but it does not discourage me. If anything, it narrows down the field, so to speak—they have given me several clues with this reveal.”

"I see, I see!" The newscaster's bright grin fell away into a comically serious expression. "Speaking of the internet, it seems your name is coming into the forefront for the Phantom Thieves themselves! Their site has been flooded by posts calling for them to steal your heart!”

Nozomi was suddenly struck with the urge to text him in the middle of all this just to wipe that perfectly calculated expression off the young detective's face but, ah. No, that would've been suspicious, and he probably had his phone off. Besides, if the reveal that he was the next potential target of the Phantom Thieves didn’t shake him, nothing would. His eyebrows rose slightly, but other than that, he remained perfectly, inscrutably pleasant. "Is that so? I'm afraid I hadn't had time to check this morning. But if I am their next target, they are welcome to make the attempt—it will be a perfect chance for me to catch them in the act.”

"Why that lousy, arrogant sack’a—!" Ryuji made to get up and start shouting, only to be toppled by a pillow to the face. Nozomi hadn't even bothered looking over as she threw the instrument of silence; only a faint tilt of her head betrayed she was even mulling over Akechi's statement.

"...He's got a point, though." Ren tilted his head to look at Nozomi, ignoring Ryuji as he rolled on the floor cursing. "If we did take his heart, that'd more than show him."

"...But...are you sure that's such a good idea?" Makoto asked nervously. "He's a central figure to the case.”

"He's also an enigma,” Nozomi added, not looking away from the TV. "There's a reasonably good chance he'd catch us before we figured out anything we could use for the Meta-Nav.”

Yusuke frowned deeply. "If he is even in the app. His distortions, such as they may be, may not have made a Palace.”

There was a long pause. “Well," Nozomi finally said as she turned away from the tv, finally revealing her red eyes flashing underneath the glare of her glasses. "Only one way to find out."

She leaned back as she swiped at her phone again, the red of the Meta-Nav making the bottom of her thumb look blood stained. Nozomi paused for a moment, as if weighing her words, before finally uttering the detective’s full name.
"Goro Akechi.”

Target Found.

The mood in the room changed in an instant, like flipping a switch. Ryuji—having finally recovered from his beaning and returned to his chair—hopped to his feet, shouting again. Anne gave a gasp. Yusuke, having been bowed over in thought, looked up, every muscle rigid, while Makoto covered her mouth.

Ren just blinked. "...Well, there's our answer to that. I say we at least look deeper.”

"Indeed." Nozomi tilted her head to eye the tv again, where Akechi was still talking, face the picture of demure pleasantness, like a lamb unaware of the wolf coming up behind it.

In spite of herself, a smile began to tug at the corners of her mouth. My dear detective...Let the games begin.

Chapter Text

 

August 22, Day

"...well, that was a bust." Ren scowled at his phone in consternation. "Not the police station, and not Kosei--where else could his Palace be? The TV station?" If it was, he was going to have to ask Sojiro for a raise—his travel fund wouldn’t cover that. Not to mention that it might be the dealbreaker for Makoto and Anne, considering they were reluctant anyway. After all, it wasn’t as if Akechi had done anything overtly horrible.

But he has a Palace, so obviously there is something wrong.

"…No dice." Nozomi put her phone back in her purse and sighed. "Honestly. This man exists to perplex me, and he's not even here.”

"What man is that?"

“Gah—!" It was lucky Nozomi was strong and balanced, and thus had managed to keep her balance as her larger sibling latched on. Ren, for his part, felt he could be excused for jumping and clinging onto his sister. Even if Akechi looked less threatening than most puppies as he stared at them, he had still snuck up on them, and they had reason to be jumpy.

"...Are you all right?" Akechi tilted his head, and Ren hastily disengaged himself from his sister.

"Fine! I'm fine. I'm...going to go get a drink." He straightened his glasses, gave Akechi a blinding grin, then beat a hasty retreat to the nearest water fountain.

"...Your brother is...very strange sometimes.”

"Sayeth the man who just snuck up without warning." Nozomi straightened out her jacket and her glasses before looking up at the detective. "Goodness Akechi, you keep appearing out of nowhere and I'm liable to think you're stalking me.”

"I'm simply heading home to my apartment. It's not my fault that you didn't notice me." There was amusement in Akechi's voice, but Ren was more interested in the subtle vibration from his phone. He glanced down to confirm, and sure enough, there it was.

Target found.

Ren looked over his shoulder and gestured at his sister to keep Akechi talking.

"Your apartment?" Nozomi's eyes flickered, first to her brother, then to the complex to the side. "...Ah." She tucked her hair behind her ear. "...Odd. I always imagined you to live somewhere...ritzier. More Baker Street than downtown.”

"This location is roughly equidistant to both Kosei and the station. It's a little more...logical than somewhere ritzier." Ren saw Akechi shrug out of the corner of his eye as he began scrambling up a tree.

"Mmm. That's fair. And I suppose if I didn't think of it, no one else has. Speaking of—“ Nozomi's tone turned more concerned. "I'm surprised you're not being harassed by any Phans; I caught the news earlier. Sounds like they're out for blood.”

Now fully ensconced in the tree so Akechi couldn't see him, Ren turned his attention back to the detective in time for another shrug. "Let them be. I have full confidence that neither they nor the Thieves will be able to touch me."

We'll see about that.

Nozomi raised a brow. "My, detective. Careful, or people will start thinking you have an ego.”

Akechi chuckled. "A little pride never hurt anyone."

"TV station."

No candidates found

"Mansion?"

No candidates found

"Those bags under your eyes might." Nozomi leaned closer to the detective, adjusting her glasses and frowning. "I know you're at least 60% coffee now, detective, but yikes. My compliments to whoever did your makeup for your interview, and my extreme ire at whoever is keeping you from sleeping. ...Well..." She leaned back and smirked slightly. "Presuming it isn't the more enjoyable sort of bedtime activities."

Akechi spluttered for a moment, and Ren had to hide a laugh under his hand. True to form, though, the detective recovered quickly, and Ren saw him offer Nozomi a crooked smile. "What's the phrase? I'll sleep when I'm dead?”

"That's a little dark," she replied, smirk getting a little wider.

"My apologies. Working at the police office seems to have given me a bad case of gallows humor."

Beginning navigation.

Ren hoped his squawk as he fell out of the tree was covered by entering the Metaverse, because otherwise he was going to have a lot of explaining to do.

***

Nozomi's eyes flickered to the tree on hearing the branches snap, but her brother's sprawled body at the roots was distinctly missing.

Oh, lovely. She didn't like the implications of that at all.

Akechi had obviously heard the sound too, because he twisted around to try to spot the source, a quizzical, almost comically befuddled expression on his face. "What in the world was that?”

"Bird, probably." Nozomi shrugged casually, wincing internally. She was starting to get really annoyed at how good she had become at lying as of late. "You'd think after millions of years of evolution, they'd have grasped the concept of perching by now.”

"You would think." Akechi sighed, then checked his watch. "And sadly, obligation is calling me. I will see you as usual on Thursday?”

That, Nozomi couldn't help but smile genuinely at him over, regardless of the situation. "Well, the coffee shop isn't going anywhere, so that'd be on you.”

"As usual on Thursday." This time, the crooked grin seemed actually genuine as he nodded and turned away. "Take care, Nozomi.”

"You too, darling." The girl waved until Akechi left her vision, then turned quickly to check the tree. As she did so, she discovered her brother had reappeared, sitting at the roots in a tangle of his own limbs and significantly more pale than she had left him.

Grimacing, she trotted up, dropping to her knees beside him and pulling him upright and into her arms, tucking his head against her collar. "Not a very pleasant Palace for our friendly neighborhood pleasant boy, I take it.”

Ren swallowed hard. "N-no. It’s—we should get the rest of the team. You'll see.”

"...Lovely." She pressed a kiss to the top of his head and looked back in the direction the detective had vanished, wondering what nasty secrets Akechi held, if her brother's reaction was to be believed.

It was going to be a long week.

Chapter Text

August 22, Day

If it weren't an actual place, the Palace would be the perfect centerpiece for a horror story. It was huge, narrow at the bottom and wide at the top like a pedestal for the gallows they could barely make out above their heads. The white stone was bathed red by the windows set in its sides, the glow pulsing in an arrhythmic mockery of a heartbeat. Helicopters circled the top, washing out the top few floors with their overbright spotlights, save where a crack that ran through the whole building swallowed the light.

Above the ominous, iron-barred door that was presumably the entrance hung a rusted sign, labeling the hideous building as Belsavis Asylum.

Dahlia tipped her hat up to look at the sign, red eyes scanning it over and over behind her mask as if it'd provide an answer as to what such a morbid monstrosity was doing within Akechi's heart.

"...So," she finally muttered. "A jailbreak, of sorts.”

A couple of featureless figures stopped in front of the building and looked up at the top.

"Did you hear? The prisoner they keep here is finally going to be executed!"

"I did! Pity I couldn't get tickets—it’s going to be the event of the year, apparently."

"...Or a stay of execution." Joker swallowed audibly, and Fox laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Oracle? You sure you're ok for this?”

"I-I'm fine!" Oracle's voice squeaked through Necronomicon's speakers. "I just—wow. Is this how everyone joins the party...?"

"It's getting to be a trend,” Dahlia muttered.

"...And to be honest, your Palace wasn't...anywhere near this bad." Joker shook his head. "We need to get going. Mona? See anything?"

"I think so. Dahlia, who's back-up?”

Dahlia gave a soft hum, before clicking her tongue. "Fox, Mona, Panther, you're up front. Queen and Skull, you hang back in case we need a hard bail out.”

"Understood, Dahlia" Queen stood, keeping low. "We have your backs."

Of course, one simply did not simply walk into a Palace. The prison was surrounded by a tall chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire and shiny silver turrets. As they passed one, it fired on a small animal creeping in the yard, vaporizing it and leaving a black scar on the dirt.

Joker stared for a moment, then shook his head. "Fun. ...Hey, Mona, is that a hole up ahead?"

"I think so. Let me go check.”

It was, in fact, a small gap in security—admittedly, one Skull's broad shoulders and Panther's wide hips both briefly got stuck in, but otherwise was just large enough for the group to slink through one at a time. They paused, breathless, as Joker tested whether the path ahead would get them shot, but as he darted from shadow to shadow, the turrets didn't even tilt in his direction. When he got back, he whispered, "There's a guardhouse connected to the main prison up ahead, and I think it's empty.”

Dahlia nodded, then motioned for the group to form a line, one behind the other—a machine of ducking from cover to cover, bobbing and weaving in perfect synchronicity until every last one had gotten through the guardhouse door. From there, a trapdoor took them down, until they were sitting in a barely-lit corridor of dark, damp stone. Joker wrinkled his nose at the smell, then looked down at Mona. "So, what, we going up?"

"Yeah, the Treasure is definitely somewhere above us. Let's take it slow for a bit, and—“

"Hello, there."

Joker whirled, knife out and pressed against the throat of the person who had spoken before he saw who it was.

When he did, he froze, blinking at the bright yellow eyes staring right back at him.

"What the fu—“

Skull's shout was hidden in the sounds of gasps and weapons being drawn, but it was an entirely appropriate response to what appeared to be Akechi himself, save for the glowing yellow eyes, blinking through the gloom with Joker's knife at his throat.

"Hey that’s—" Oracle stammered. "That's like mine!”

Dahlia held up one arm, silently motioning for the others to hold from lunging, her other hand gripped tightly on the hilt of her sword as she stepped forward to try to get a better look at the creature. If it weren't for the yellow eyes, it would’ve been a perfect replica of the teen detective, albeit one who had fallen on exceptional hard times. He was wearing the usual uniform of a green peacoat and black slacks, but they hung loosely on him, torn and stained overcoat gaping at the shoulders and waist and skewed tie hanging low on his neck. His gloves were missing, revealing skin stained with blood and dirt, and his shoes had similarly disappeared. Heavy manacles circled his limbs, but the chains were broken, trailing into the dirt behind him. He looked frightful. He looked hungry. He looked broken.

Joker took a step back, slowly lowering his knife. "Uh...hello, detective."

The Shadow stared at all of them, eyes wide and innocent. "...Are you the Phantom Thieves?”

Dahlia swallowed the lump threatening to form in her throat. "...That's right.”

Shadow Akechi gave them a smile, equally bright and sad. "If you've come to steal my heart, you're going to be disappointed. My execution's already been scheduled.”

“Your—“ Panther spluttered. "So you really are the prisoner here?!"

"That's fucked up." Skull shook himself. "I mean that's...that's super fucked up, f'r real.”

"I am." Shadow Akechi tilted his head. "...I deserve it, though."

"No you don't!" Queen stepped forward, fists clenched. "Whatever you've done, you don't deserve to be executed!"

"...How do you know?”

Oracle—having had to get out of Necronomicon to fit in the small space and looking all the more nervous for it—piped in. "W-well...I mean...I th-thought I needed to—“ She shook her head. "But I was wrong! So're you!”

Shadow Akechi looked at her quietly for a moment. "...I will show you. We can go through the charnel house to get to the morgue.”

“The—what house?"

"It's where they burn dead bodies, Skull." Dahlia fixed the Shadow with a look, trying not to look slightly ill. "And I'm hoping only dead bodies." The Shadow seemed harmless, but in the context of the Palace she did not trust it.

"It's not even done yet." Shadow Akechi gave her another bright-and-sad smile. "If I'm wrong, you may feel free to kill me yourself."

“Let—let's not." Joker was pale again, and he looked away, down the hall. "...But if we're going to go, we should get going now.”

Dahlia swallowed again. “Right."

"Follow me, then." Shadow Akechi turned and started down the hall, and the Phantom Thieves scrambled to follow.

The hall led to a flight of stairs, which in turn led them to a partially boarded doorway. A yellow-and-black sign hung from one of the boards, reading "to be finished when the execution is carried out."

"...Well, that's...reassuring." Joker frowned at the door, then looked at his sister. "Think we should?”

She grimaced back. "Do we really have a choice?”

"You can always turn back." Shadow Akechi looked at them, quiet but earnest. "I do not want to force you to see my crimes—“

"Spread out! The prisoner's got to be here somewhere!" Shadow guards flooded into the half-finished charnel house, spreading themselves out through the large room.

"Ah shit,” Skull eloquently responded as everyone scrambled for cover. Everyone, that is, except for Shadow Akechi, who stared through the boards at the guards until Dahlia's hand reached out of the darkness she had hid herself within to grab him by the collar, yanking him into her hiding spot.

His quiet yelp as he tumbled backward against her was inaudible over the Shadows shouting at one another, and he ended up leaning against her shoulder, bare foot half-braced against the wall as he blinked up at her. She pressed a finger to her lips, then looked back at the scrambling guards.

They had set up a slow grid-search pattern, walking carefully around half-built ovens and chimneys as they scoured the area. Joker watched, then looked at Dahlia and pointed first at Shadow Akechi, then at Queen. Leave him here with her?

Dahlia nodded, getting her hand on the Shadow's shoulder to pass him.

“Wh—"

Queen covered Shadow Akechi's mouth and gave Dahlia a thumbs-up.

With Shadow Akechi safe, it wasn't long before the Shadow guards were eliminated. Queen guided him through the door, and he dusted uselessly at his coat before looking at Dahlia. "I'm impressed—the guards here are terrifying.”

"We're scarier,” she replied.

"I suppose you are." Shadow Akechi blinked slowly, then nodded to himself and started walking. "The morgue is just through here. The ovens shouldn't be hooked up yet, but be careful all the same.”

The walls of the morgue were lined to the high ceiling with panels, though only four were marked. Even then, the plaques were marred with rust and blood, making them illegible.

"...What in the world..." Fox spun around slowly, tail twitching. "There's so many of them."

"All of my victims are here." Shadow Akechi brushed past them, resting his hand on the closest drawer. "I didn't know all of them, though. Only four."

"...Your what?

"Victims?" Oracle’s voice quavered.

"My victims." Shadow Akechi didn't look at the Thieves. "This one is my mother, Mei Akechi." He stepped to the next labeled drawers, sitting side by side. "These were my last foster parents, Haruto and Kotone Minami." The final labeled drawer was just beyond them, and he stared at it for a long moment.

"And this is Wakaba Ishiki." He looked over at Oracle, eyes wide and terribly sad. "Your mother, correct?”

“...What...?"

"I didn't know she had a daughter at the time." Shadow Akechi turned back to the drawer. "I was just told that her death would be proof of my skills. So I performed a mental shutdown on her, and she died."

His gaze turned on Queen, who was looking faintly green under her mask. "I am a murderer. So I deserve to be executed.”

Oracle was locked up, arms wrapped around herself. "N-no, that's...you couldn't...it's not p…p..."

"Yo, what the fuck?!" Skull forced his way to the front of the group. "You can't just—you would've been what, like, twelve when Oracle’s—I mean that lady—I mean, the FUCK you'd be a kid at the time! A-and there's no way you'd be able to—“

Dahlia paled. "...That's how you heard Mona.”

Shadow Akechi frowned. "What do you mean by that, Dahlia?"

"...At the TV station." Mona's voice was very quiet. "You heard me mention pancakes and thought it was one of them."

"...Oh. I had almost forgotten.”

Dahlia's hands clenched into fists so tight she could feel her own racing pulse through the gloves. “...Why."

Shadow Akechi tilted his head. "Why what?”

"Why would you kill…anyone?"

"I did not mean to kill my mother. The Minamis were cruel and abusive. And Wakaba Ishiki...if I could prove my skill, then I could get close to my ultimate target and kill him." For a brief moment, Shadow Akechi's face twisted, furious and cruel, before he smoothed back into quiet sadness. "But the reasons don't matter. Only the actions.”

Dahlia opened her mouth to grill him; accuse, scream, hiss, something besides the choking silence threatening to invade the space.

A quiet thump from behind stopped her. Whirling around, she saw Oracle had hit the ground, holding herself tight, seeing nothing. Joker dropped to his knees beside her, carefully reaching out to touch her shoulder. "Oracle? Can you hear me?”

There was no response, save more shuddering and whimpering.

"Get her out of here!" Dahlia nudged Skull forward. "You, grab her and carry her out. Mission abort."

Skull didn't have to be told twice; he snatched up the small girl with ease and headed back the way they came.

Joker straightened and shooed the still-silent Queen after him, then stared at Shadow Akechi. "We'll be back."

The Shadow just smiled. "I won't hold my breath. I don't deserve your help.”

***

August 22, Evening

“Can Shadows lie?” Ren stared at the ceiling of Nozomi’s room. “Because…that’s kind of our only hope now.”

The rest of the Phantom Thieves were back at their own homes. Futaba had been explained with overstimulation, and once they’d been sure she’d recover with some time in the quiet and the dark, they’d retreated to Nozomi’s room above Leblanc. Now Ren was beginning to question if this was the right job for him.

Plagiarists I can handle. Yakuza I can handle. Suicidal little girls I can handle.

But…not this. Not again.

…again?

He shook his head, then realized that Nozomi had stayed silent, clicking her pen as she hunched over her notebook. Not a minute prior she had been scribbling away but she had suddenly stopped and begun clicking, like a noisy loading screen struggling to pull through on little bandwidth.

Ren tilted her head toward her. "...You ok?”

“No."

"...Good. I think." He tilted his head back, feeling as if the air had turned to molasses. “...What do you think?”

Nozomi remained quiet, save for the clicking of her pen.

"...Nozomi?"

More clicking.

"Nozomi. I don't speak pen."

More clicking.

Ren sighed, then rolled upright and fought through the still-molasses-like air to reach her. "Nozomi."

The clicking stopped. "Who did he have to prove his skills to?"

"...huh?" Ren blinked at her.

"He said he killed those people to prove his skills and to get closer to his real target. Who did he need to prove his skills to, and who did he want gone so badly he was willing to kill persons unrelated to get to them?”

"...huh." Ren sat on the edge of his bed. "That...is a really, really good question.”

"Exactly." Nozomi gripped her pen tightly. "Madarame and Kaneshiro both alluded to someone else slinking behind the scenes. We can now infer they meant Akechi, but if he's not calling the shots, then who is? And for what reason?”

"Power, probably." Ren's answer was immediate, but then he paused. "...Getting rid of dissent, and people who could be a danger to them. Like...Ishiki-san. ...Probably someone in the government, then.”

"Maybe. But then why go through the trouble of forging a suicide note that pinned Ishiki's death on Futaba? There have to be other ways to make it less suspicious. There's no strategic value in traumatizing a little girl.”

"...His Shadow said he didn't know about Futaba, so provided he's not lying, it wasn't him." Ren chewed on his lower lip. "...maybe it was personal?”

"We don't have enough information. Trying to interrogate the real thing would end poorly." She clicked her pen a few more times. "...We have to go back.”

"...I told him we'd go. But...is Futaba going to be okay?”

"...If she doesn't want to go, she doesn't have to." Nozomi took a deep breath. "I'm honestly not sure if I'm even making this mandatory for anyone. It is a horror to the eyes and mind." She gripped her pen so tightly her knuckles turned white. "But I can't let it end here. If I have to go alone, I will, but I can’t—!"

Crrk!

Her fist trembled as the ink oozed from her broken pen.

Ren reached out and gently opened her hand. "If it's just us, then it's just us. But we're going to fix this, one way or another. I promise.

His sister looked up, eyes bright with tears she refused to shed.

Ren met her gaze. "This is hellishly messed up. But we can fix it. And we will—we’re not going to let him stay like that.”

Nozomi bit her lip and managed a sad little smile, resting her hand on Ren's cheek. "...Oh honey. When did you get so gallant?”

"Probably when I fell out of a tree into your strategy meeting." He smiled. "Now, we've got your detective to save, don't we?”

Chapter Text

August 23, Day

“Are you sure you’re all okay with coming? It’s okay if you want to sit out with Anne and Futaba.”

There was awkward silence for a moment as the Thieves all stared up at Akechi’s apartment building. In the real world, it looked perfectly normal, but they all knew what lurked underneath.

After a long moment of silence, Makoto spoke up. “He’s been working closely with my sister for a while now. She could be in danger from him, and I’m going to protect her however I can.”

"That's fair." Nozomi turned to look at the rest of the diminished group. "Anyone else? Remember, this is optional; if you're not comfortable in coming..."

Ryuji scoffed, throwing his arm around her. "Oh please. We've been through the shitter the longest together and you think I'm gonna bail on you now? 'Sides," he added with a crooked grin. "When's the next time I'm gonna get the chance to punch this backstabbin' two-faced murderous douchebag in his stupid perfect teeth?"

Nozomi couldn't help but smile weakly at her best friend. "I think the phrase is 'through the wringer', Ryuji."

"Not for this shitshow, it ain’t."

Yusuke contemplated the building for another moment before he spoke. "You saved me from the darkness of my ignorance, and I will repay that." He turned to look at Ren, smiling ever-so-slightly and getting a surprised blush in return. "If you have need of me, I will be there."

“I-I—thanks, Yusuke." Ren hid his face in his hands for a moment, muffling his next word. “Morgana?"

"You have to ask?" The cat sniffed as he jumped out of Ren's bag. "Of course I'm coming! It's my sworn duty to see these things through to the end! Besides, if we steal Akechi's heart, he'll have to change, right?" Morgana gave the siblings a look.

Ren uncovered his face, pink still showing high on his cheeks. "Right. That's what we're hoping for." He looked at his sister. "You're in charge, Nozomi."

His sister sighed, gently removing Ryuji's arm from around her shoulders. "I know, dear. Everyone ready?" After various affirmations, Nozomi pulled out her phone to hit the app up.

Beginning Navigation

***

The prison was just as creepy the second time around. The only difference was this time, there was no Shadow Akechi to greet them in the basement.

Joker paused as they reached the place they'd found the Shadow the day before. "...Should we look for him?”

Dahlia chewed on her lip, looking around. "...Probably. He is our main source of information, like it or not.”

"...well, if he's a prisoner, maybe he's gotten captured again."

Fox's eyes narrowed. "So we look for the cells, then.”

Mona slipped ahead and looked around a corner. "I think I hear something down that way. Do you want to try that first?"

"...Yes." Dahlia tucked her hair behind her ear. "Lead the way, Mona."

As the others headed out, Skull hung back to talk to Joker. "Hey, you really okay?" He grimaced and corrected, "Well, y'know not okay but not super fucked up?”

"...I'm more worried about Dahlia." Joker's keen grey eyes followed his sister as she walked away from them. "He's not my detective.”

"Yeah. I mean—“ Skull gestured. "I told her he was a shitty idea but this—this is just way past screwed." He grimaced as he looked in Dahlia's direction. "Honestly? I haven't seen her like this since...hell, since Kamoshida."

Joker winced. "That...must've been worse than I’d thought, then." He paused. "But...for what it's worth, Skull...I think he's worth trying to save.”

"...I sure hope so, buddy. For Dahlia's sake, if nothin' else’s."

***

Mona's ears led them true. One twisted hallway later, they found two rows of cells. Each one was guarded by crackling red laser bars, pulsing in the same arrhythmic mockery of a heartbeat as the windows. The team took it slowly, peering into empty cell after empty cell until finally one that was actually filled was found.

It was hard to tell at first. The figure curled on the cot was only barely visible against the weeping stone walls, and he didn't look up at their approach. But he was making noise—soft, hitching sobs into his knees, with all of the forlorn exhaustion of a lost child.

Dahlia was already at work at the number pad lock, preparing to fish her face powder out to dust for fingerprints and see which numbers she needed to start sequencing. Before she could, the heel of an elegant black boot hit the keypad, smashing it to pieces.

The laser bars fizzled away with comic finality.

She stared at her brother and his leg, blankly, before giving an almost sulky huff. "Oh, I guess,” she said, as if she still had a choice to let him be dramatic or not, before turning back to the cell and its prisoner. Joker gave her a crooked smile, then peered over her shoulder.

After a moment of quiet, Queen spoke up. "Um...are you okay?"

The Shadow's head popped up with the soft crack of tired tendons. For a moment, his eyes were wide in unreasoning terror, and even in the twin covers of dirt and gloom, his knuckles were obviously white.

Then he blinked. "...You...came back?”

Ignoring Skull's quiet 'what the fuck' behind her, Dahlia cleared her throat. "Yes." She considered saying more, but opted instead to shut her mouth, letting the flat monosyllable hang in the air by itself.

"Oh." Shadow Akechi blinked slowly, then stood. "So...you still mean to steal my heart."

"That's the plan." Joker was quiet for a moment, then added, "We could use some help, though.”

"Consider this a jailbreak!" Mona skittered up and around the Shadow, steps squeaking, until he was behind the disheveled creature and shoving along. "You're the only one who can explain anything about this place, and once it's over this whole Palace will be gone, and you can get on to being—“ he waved a little paw in a noncommittal gesture. "Well..."

"Not the actual worst?" Skull offered, dry.

"Yes, that."

Dahlia pinched the bridge of her nose, mask pushed slightly up to allow it, knowing no amount of reminding either her best friend or her cat of the word 'tact' would help.

Fortunately, the Shadow didn't seem to care much. He got to his feet with the insistent shoving, blinking, then frowned thoughtfully. "You need to get to the gallows, then. It won't be easy, but I can get you up there.”

Well, at least he was being compliant. Dahlia put her mask back in place and tucked her hair behind her ear before shooting the Shadow a look. "Don't think of trying to pull a fast one on us.”

The Shadow just tilted his head. "You're not the ones slated for execution. I don't want you to join me."

Fox blinked. “That's...reassuring?"

"Uhhhh no, I think it's like. The exact opposite of that." Skull snorted and then muttered under his breath, "Christ is he psycho or suicidal, pick one dammit."

Dahlia elbowed Skull in the ribs. The Shadow blinked at Skull, then gave a small shrug and slipped past them. "Follow me, please."

The charnel house had a new addition as they slipped through it—one of the ovens had been turned on, and a figure was burning inside. Joker stopped in his tracks, but the Shadow pressed on. "It's just an effigy. No need to worry.”

Dahlia spared a glance as he pushed on. Something about the silhouette seemed familiar, but in a way that did not bring on the need to go and do a headcount to make sure all her friends were still safe. It was…odd.

The morgue was similarly brushed past, and another set of stairs led them to another long hallway. A branch to their right made Mona pause. "I think there's a safe room down here."

That made the Shadow stop and look down. “A...what?"

"The place where your cognition is weakest and thus nothing that wants to attack us can get in." Dahlia paused and pinched the bridge of her nose. "...Akechi's, the place where the actual Akechi's cognition is weakest.”

"Hm. ...You're not wrong with the way you phrased that, but...nevertheless, you should secure it before we move on, yes?"

"Yeah. Uh...wait here." Joker gently pressed the Shadow into a dark corner behind a pillar. "If you're found, shout, ok?”

After securing Shadow Akechi somewhere reasonably safe, the team made their way down the branching path. It was rather short, but the door at the end was barred, riveted, and heavy, like the door to a vault. It took some pulling to open, hinges screeching hideously over being forced to give away its secrets every inch of the way. Beyond the door was the safe room.

Or, rather, beyond the door was a very sparse bedroom. There was a bed, a small table beside the bed, a desk, and a closet. For the most part, it looked barely used, but on looking closer, there were things here and there that identified the owner to the group—a school essay and a book on formal logic on the desk, and a Featherman alarm clock on the bedside table.

"...Is this...Akechi's room?” Queen asked, aghast.

"It...barely looks like anyone's ever in here." Dahlia walked around, studying, running her finger over the desk and checking it for dust. "It's clean, but besides that it—“

"Kinda looks like he just visits instead'a lives here." Skull grimaced and ran his hands through his hair, frustrated. "Ugh, what the hell? He really just keeps switching from sad to completely crackers. Isn't anythin' 'bout this place gonna be straight-forward?!"

"Doesn't seem like it." Dahlia paused, biting down on her lip, thinking.

Fox spun slowly. "...Nonetheless, it is safe in here."

"It is. Better than nothing, right?”

“Right."

"Let's get back to Shadow Akechi before—“

"Help!"

"...that happens.”

"Aw shi—“

The team rushed back down the hall, to find the Shadow surrounded by various guards, all of them looking far too pleased with the idea of using force to re-capture their prisoner.

Something inside Dahlia snapped.

"IRENE!"

As her mask melted away, Dahlia's first and true Persona burst to life. Though song would usually herald her, this time only an angry, ear-splitting screech sounded as the figure raised her mic-mace over her head and slammed it down, squishing one guard and sending out a wave of curses to choke the others.

Shadow Akechi curled deeper into his corner, hands over his ears, as Joker followed with another wave of dark magic courtesy of Arsene. Queen and Fox followed with a series of physical strikes, dispersing more Shadows into so much darkness.

One Shadow withstood the onslaught. "You want to aid the prisoner? Then you'll join him!"

"No!" Shadow Akechi’s voice cracking was more painful than it had any right to be. "Just run, Dahlia!”

Dahlia did no such thing. In fact she whipped around and brought her crossbow to bear, putting several arrows in the guard's throat.

The guard vanished into darkness as well.

Captain Kid smacked the ground where it had been pummeling one of the guards into the dust before finally vanishing, though Skull looked like he was itching to find something else to punch. Irene stood, imperious and stock still, mic-mace still dripping shadowy ooze.

Joker panted for a moment, looking around. "...I think that's the last of them.”

Dahlia took in a long breath, and her Persona finally relented, mask returning to its place in a brief burst of blue flame across the girl's face.

"...Are you okay?" Shadow Akechi slowly climbed to his feet, chains clinking.

"Not even a scratch." Joker smirked slightly, spinning his knife before he sheathed it.

"I'll be fine,” Dahlia responded automatically, cleaning her sword before slipping it back into her belt.

Mona sniffed, dusting himself off. "Like such weak creatures could hold a candle to me! I'd have more of a fight squaring off with this amateur!"

"Hey!"

Dahlia chose to ignore Skull and Mona's bickering as she turned to eye the Shadow, looking him over to see if he had sustained any damage.

He hadn’t—not so much as an extra smudge of dirt on his clothes. He just stared at her, head tilted. "...Thank you.”

Relief flooded her system for a split second, followed by a wave of self-directed dismay and nausea. She nodded, stiffly, before looking over the rest of her team.

Joker gave her a quick thumbs up, then looked at the Shadow himself. "So...where next?"

"The execution tests.”

Skull looked up from where he was arguing with the cat mascot. "The what who?”

"The execution tests. The tests for which method of execution should be used for me." Shadow Akechi's expression was disarmingly open. "They were too kind, or not grand enough, so they were rejected."

There was a long pause as the horror sunk in. Dahlia’s head swiveled slowly around, so she could stare at the Shadow, pale as a ghost. She began to try to form a sentence—

"Yo what the HELL?!" Skull once again summarized the whole situation in the only way he knew how, before she could even manage one word. "Are you even f'r real with all this horseshit?!”

"...Yes?" Shadow Akechi looked perplexed. "Why would I lie?"

"...think you can push through, Dahlia?”

Dahlia's mouth closed with a click. She gave a sharp nod, but try as she might she couldn't stop staring at the Shadow.

Joker sighed, then put a hand on her shoulder. "Come on. Sooner we start, sooner we get through it.”

"...Right." Even to her own ears, the word sounded thin, but Dahlia forced herself to turn around and face the rest of the passage. "Let's go.”

Chapter Text

August 23, Day

Joker did his best to keep his eyes fixed on Shadow Akechi's back, but it was hard. The tools they passed were shiny and clean, and each one sat under a red light, as if begging them to look. Vials filled with poison, the guillotine, the electric chair, the iron maiden—each one was more wicked looking than the last. Fortunately, Skull provided a distraction as he pushed his way to the front of the group once more, dipping down to try to catch Dahlia's expression from under her hat. After a moment of squinting, the ex-track star straightened and threw his arm around the smaller girl. She stiffened, then reached up slowly to grip slightly at his wrist.

Joker smiled slightly at Skull, then sighed. The silence was getting oppressive, and if someone didn't break it—

"A question."

Shadow Akechi looked over his shoulder at Fox. "Hm?"

"In the safe room, we saw evidence that...you...enjoy Featherman. I had wished to learn more, but Oracle refuses to talk to me about it—“

"Featherman?" Shadow Akechi's face lit up, and he turned so that he was walking backwards. "Of course I can tell you about Featherman!"

Mona blinked up from everyone's feet. "Wait what? That show that's on at the café on Thursdays?"

Dahlia stared blankly at the Shadow, then over at her brother. She needed to confirm she was actually hearing the anthropomorphic manifestation of the detective's hidden desires winding up for a spiel about a sentai show.

"...yes, Mona. That one." Joker stared back at Dahlia, then shrugged. It was better than the swinging from cracked to depressing, at least.

"Well, if you could start by explaining the color significance of each ranger, I would appreciate that."

"Oh, of course! Well, to start, Red is always the leader…"

The next several minutes became a loud, excited ramble about all things Featherman. Dahlia continued to stare, blankly, at the suddenly bubbly Shadow's form as he carried on.

After the first minute, Joker leaned over to her. "...you ok?"

"...No." It was honest, at least.

"...You...want to talk about it? I don't think he's going to pay attention any time soon."

Dahlia continued staring. “No," she said finally. "No, I do not want to talk about it."

"Dahlia, c'mon", Skull pleaded, finally snapping out of his own confused stupor.

“No," she snapped. She winced, then shook her head. "Not...not here, alright?" she tried again, softer.

"Okay, that's fine." Joker squeezed her shoulder, then looked at the Shadow, who was now excitedly discussing color theory with Fox. "But...hey. At least there's something in there that's still worth it. Right?"

"...Yeah." She blinked, and the slightest bit of stiffness bled away from her shoulders. "Yeah, I suppose so."

"I'm still punching him later,” Skull told her.

"That's fair."

"That's very fair."

"So if you come in on Thursdays to watch, it'll be a lot easier to explain some of this. There are nuances that you only get visually."

Joker looked away, both to check down the hall and shake the image of Fox and this Shadow sitting in a booth of Leblanc watching Featherman, then held up a hand. "Whoa, hold up."

A large metal door barred their way. Turrets stood deactivated at the top, and on either side was a red-illuminated keycard slit.

Dahlia looked it over. "Ah. Keycard filching,”she determined after a moment. "I suppose we have to do some stealing besides hearts every so often.”

"You're not wrong." Joker frowned at the keycard slots, then jumped as something clanged. When he turned, he found Morgana peering into a vent.

"I think we can fit in here. Maybe we can find the keycards through here!"

Shadow Akechi examined it as well, holding his chin in a familiar gesture. "I believe this leads to a guardroom—if the head guards aren't through here, there should be others.”

Dahlia shook off the nerves at seeing the detective's normal thoughtful gesture on such a disturbing parody and knelt down to examine the vent. "All of us going would be a bit much, I should think." She glanced at her brother. "And of course, given certain people's luck with heights…"

"Hey, this is different!" But Joker huffed, then looked around at the team. "...Take Queen and Mona? I can cover healing with Fox and Skull.”

She nodded. "We'll be back soon." With a jerk of her head, the three vanished into the vent, leaving the boys alone.

***

Once they were out of earshot of the boys, Queen spoke up. "It's...so strange. One moment he's like a child, and the next…"

"I know." Dahlia bit her lip. "None of it seems disingenuous either."

"Well, at least we know he isn't all horrible,” Mona piped up from the head of the line. Dahlia blinked.

"How do you figure?"

"His Shadow's actually helping instead of trying to kill us?”

Queen sighed. "He's had plenty of chances to—if this is his Palace, he should be able to call the other Shadows any time.”

"But the other Shadows seem more interested in hurting him than us,” Mona continued. "It's kinda...grim, but that means he really doesn't want to go after us.”

"...It's not like Oracle's Palace, though." Queen bit her lip. "She seemed...apathetic to it. He wants them to hurt him.”

"Futaba didn't really want to die,” the cat reminded her. "She just didn't see any other way out until we got there. If I had to hazard a guess, even with all the blood on his hands I think the only person Akechi really wants dead is himself."

Dahlia took in a short breath, but said nothing.

"...then we really need to steal his heart, before he can do anything rash." Queen crawled a little faster.

***

When they got back, slightly disheveled but with the keycards, it was to Joker and Skull watching Shadow Akechi poke at Fox's twitching tail.

Joker gave his sister a helpless look. "He's been like this since you left.”

Skull made a strangled noise and gestured, equally helpless and out of ‘what the fucks’ to articulate but still with plenty to give.

Dahlia blinked blankly. After a moment she finally asked, "...Why, precisely, is this happening?"

The Shadow looked up at her. "It twitches!”

"...Yes?" She had honestly forgotten how odd that was.

"You don't know why?"

"No-one does, Shakechi." Joker shrugged at Queen's look. "What? He needed a nickname.”

"..." Dahlia turned to the group. "All in favor of not letting Joker name things, say Aye.”

Fox and Joker were the only ones not to agree, which made Joker throw up his hands. "Fine, you have anything better?”

"Hmm." Dahlia paused, bit her lip, then turned towards the Shadow, who was still clearly distracted. "...We never use the detective's first name, do we?”

"...No, we don't." Joker bit his lip. "...You sure?”

“...Well," she answered after a moment. "I'm more sure about it than Shakechi.” Joker elbowed her in the side, then gestured for her to try it. She huffed, then looked at the Shadow again. “...Goro?"

Shadow Akechi—Goro—looked up. "Oh, you need to get going, don't you?" He stood, tugging slightly at his coat to shift it back into place. "After you, then."

"Holy shit, it worked,” Skull whispered, eyes wide.

Joker gave his sister a crooked smile, then held his hand out for a keycard. Dahlia tipped her hat down to obscure her expression and placed one of the cards in her younger brother's hand before stepping up to one of the slits, the other card gripped tightly in her fingers.

"On three. One, two—“

The corridor behind the door led to another set of stairs. Joker peered up them, then looked back. "Looks okay. Shall we?"

Dahlia gave a short nod, then gestured the group through.

***

There was another Safe Room at the top of the stairs, and after securing it, Joker called for a pause. “What’s coming next, Goro?”

Goro gripped his chin, tilting his head thoughtfully. “The Courtroom, I believe.”

Dahlia made a slightly disgusted noise in the back of her throat. She didn't have warm feelings towards the court on the best of days, much less here.

Goro looked at her, and thoroughly misinterpreted her noise. "They will have no interest in you, I assure you. I am being tried in absentia there.”

"Somehow I don't feel much better.”

Goro tilted his head, but before he could speak, Queen cut him off. "Let's just get through before we get spotted."

"Oh, of course!" Goro popped off the wall, then started walking.

Dahlia's expression did not lighten as she headed off, fists clenched tightly at her sides as she went. Joker frowned, then gently squeezed her shoulder. "Dahlia, deep breath.”

She snorted instead.

"Well, that's not quite what I meant..." He shook his head. "I know you've got every right and reason to be tense, but we need Dahlia, our level-headed leader.”

"..." She sighed, and pushed her mask up to pinch the bridge of her nose. "...I know. Give me a second.”

"You've got it." Joker kept his hand on her shoulder. "As much as you need.”

“...Thanks."

Joker nodded, then darted after Goro, leaving her to regain her composure before she followed. When she rejoined the group, she found the Shadow leaning on the wall, just out of sight of a grand pair of double doors. Two Shadow guards stood to either side, making it obvious why he'd stopped.

Queen was leaning out beside him to look. "Should we get rid of them?"

"We need to get through there to get to the next floor. I can't come if you don’t."

Dahlia blinked, then peered around the corner, calculating. Just above both Shadows were heavy looking sconces.

Heavy, poorly nailed in sconces, precariously dangling on the thinnest bits of their screws, waiting for a hard enough knock to come tumbling down and squish anything below them.

"I think I have an idea how to do this without blowing too much energy or ammo,” Dahlia commented, eyeing the sconces still.

Joker squinted, then grinned. "I see what you mean. You want the left or the right?”

"...Left", she said after a moment, a dark smirk that looked much more like Dahlia than she had for most of the Palace so far.

"Sinister. I like it." Joker's grin went crooked. "Back in a moment, then." He popped from their cover to a dark patch behind a pillar, and from there darted up to a ledge near the door while Dahlia cocked the crossbow on her arm and waited, smirk still in place.

Joker's red gloved hand flashed in the gloom. 3…2...1...

With perfect timing and precision, Dahlia turned around the corner and both siblings fired off their shots, arrow and bullet colliding with the sconces and sending them tumbling down before the guards could even react.

The Shadows dissolved into black goop, and after a moment, Joker rejoined the group, congratulating his sister. "Nice shot, Dahlia."

"That was very impressive!" Goro's eyes were wide and earnest. "Is that how most of your heists go?”

Dahlia looked up from where she was trying not to stumble under Skull's whooping and heavy shoulder slapping. “...Mostly," she answered neutrally. She was still uncomfortable with the Shadow and the setting, and didn't much want to admit to the usual shenanigans and yelling about homework in the catbus, but if Mona was right then—

Besides, he wasn't actively doing anything to get snapped at at the moment.

Goro gave her a bright smile, either not noticing the distance in her reply or not caring. "Wonderful!" The next moment, his expression went back to its pleasant neutral, and he walked to the doors. "This way, then."

The Courtroom was darker than it had any right to be. Three spotlights lit the judge, the empty witness box, and the prosecutor's bench. The gallery itself was in deep shadow, and dark figures murmured to each other in the seats.

"He's totally guilty."

"He won't even show up to defend himself!"

"It wouldn't matter even if he did."

"Shhh, the prosecutor is speaking!"

Queen paused in her steps. "...Is that…Sae?"

Dahlia had only seen fleeting glimpses of Queen's sister, with the most solid look having been on the student council president's phone while she was scrolling for some other picture. She wasn't sure if the cold, imperious figure standing at the bench was an accurate portrayal.

She hoped not.

The Sae standing at the prosecutor's bench paid them no attention as she opened her files. "It has come to the court's attention that there is new information pertaining to the Wakaba Ishiki case."

Goro froze, eyes wide. “But—that's already been decided!” Anything else he would have said was cut off as Dahlia quickly clapped a hand over his mouth and shushed him, looking around quickly to make sure no one noticed him for his outburst.

No-one even looked in their direction. All eyes were on Sae, listening to her explanation.

"According to the information given to the court, Wakaba Ishiki had a daughter at the time of her death. One Futaba Sakura, née Ishiki."

Fox frowned slightly, then looked at Goro. "What is she talking about?"

Despite the hand, the Shadow’s voice was understandable. "I didn't know Futaba existed when I killed Ishiki-san. I already said that.”

Dahlia blinked. "You...?"

Well. If that wasn't just a kick in the teeth.

"But that doesn't change the fact that I killed her!" Goro's voice rose, distressed, and a chorus of shushes met him despite the muffling hand.

"The prosecution finds that his ignorance does not excuse his actions and would like to ask that the charges be increased."

The judge nodded gravely. "Does the defense have a rebuttal?"

There was silence for a moment, then the gavel came down. "Then the court will see to it the charges are properly increased."

Goro sighed and went slightly slack. Skull took a breath to speak, and Dahlia quickly had to move her hand from covering the Shadow’s mouth to covering Skull's, with a flat 'you know better by now’ look to match.

"Let's...just go. Please." Joker was pale under his mask. Dahlia nodded towards the exit, pulling Skull around and pushing him ahead of her before heading onwards, trailed by the rest of the team. Goro followed in silence, relief and grief etched deep into his face.

Once they were away, Dahlia looked over her shoulder and frowned. "...You really didn't know, did you?”

Goro shook his head. "I killed someone's mother.”

She bit her lip, and said nothing else, so Joker filled the silence. "You still deserve a defense.”

Skull shook Dahlia off and grimaced. "...I hate t'say it, but yeah. Even you gotta have someone backin' you up." He paused. “...Right?"

"I don’t. And I don't deserve it." Goro wrapped an arm around his middle. "I've hurt too many people.”

The team looked at each other, mildly hopeless in trying to figure out what was the appropriate response to a madman who was so deep in despair.

Eventually, Dahlia paused in her step enough to get next to him, and placed a hand on his shoulder. He looked up, yellow eyes wide, and while her lips pressed thin, her hand did not waver. If anything, it squeezed a little, gentle.

The attempt at reassurance made his eyes go hard. "Why are you trying to help me?”

She blinked. That was actually a good question after seeing the morgue, but on the other hand...

If she didn't believe stealing the hearts of those mired in blood wasn't actually helping, then why was she doing at all, really?

"...Everyone deserves some help now and then,” she settled on, squeezing his shoulder. "Even you.”

"Even after I killed your teammate's mother?”

“Yes."

"I don't understand."

"You don't need to," Joker said softly. "You just have to trust her.”

"Or at least get over the fact she's stubborn as hell and gonna drag you kickin' and screamin' to a change of heart if you want it or not,” Skull added.

Such faith. Dahlia couldn't help but smile.

"...Very well." The Shadow straightened. "Then we should keep going before we're spotted.”

"Right." After a hesitant pause, Dahlia brushed the hair out of his eyes before stepping ahead, back into her spot in the group, leaving Goro to lead them on into the Palace.

Chapter Text

August 24, Day

The Phantom Thieves’ meeting started with their fearless leaders…distracted. Ren was facedown on the table, groaning softly as Yusuke hesitantly patted his back. Nozomi was slightly more productive, but her soft scribbling and pen clicking were no more communicative than Ren.

Anne grimaced as she looked at them. "Um...I'm guessing it just got more screwed up the further in you went?"

Dude," Ryuji responded, groaning from where he was flopped over on the couch.

"One could say that." Yusuke folded his hands, staring into the middle distance. "His Shadow is...uniquely unstable.”

"...I mean...we kind of knew that just from the first peek in?”

"We did, but..." Makoto shook her head. "He goes from childish to fully aware of what he's done in the blink of an eye.”

"That...does sound kind of creepy.”

"And to make matters worse, he's got an entire courtroom dedicated to putting himself on trial with no defense." Ren looked up from his spot on the table. "It's just sad.”

"Wait like...like a full trial?" Anne looked perplexed. "But...why?"

"He wants to be executed,” Nozomi replied finally, not looking up from her notes. "Any time anything new comes up, he just adds it to the guilt instead of sorting through it.”

"Even things out of his control, like Futaba." Ren sighed. "He doesn't think we should help him.”

"Wait, Futaba?"

"He really didn't know Wakaba was a mother,” Nozomi explained, quietly. "Or about the suicide note."

Makoto looked up at Anne, pale. "But when he found out, he decided that it made the crime worse. He had a cognitive version of my sister prosecuting him.”

Anne turned pale herself. "That's..."

"Horrible. Yes. We know." Sighing, Nozomi finally put her notebook up.

"But we're close to the Treasure." Morgana finally spoke up from his spot on Ren's lap. "We might be able to secure a route today, even. And then we can steal the Treasure and start setting things right.”

Nozomi wasn't so sure of that, but the buzzing of her phone—or rather the collective buzzing of everyone's phones—cut her off. Looking at it, the IM screen glowed a dull red as a single new message entered the group chat.

[Text from: Dorito Gremlin] Did he really not know?

Ren blinked. Then, when he spoke, his voice was gentle. "...His Shadow didn't, at least. And he thought it made things worse, too."

Futaba's "typing" alert played for several seconds before vanishing without any further comment.

Ren looked at his phone for a moment, then shook his head. "You don't have to forgive him, Futaba. We're never going to ask that of you." With that said, he looked up. "Are you coming, Anne?”

"I--" She hesitated, then grimaced, then nodded, grim. “...Yeah."

"All right, then." Ren got to his feet, then pulled a somewhat-surprised Yusuke up. "Let's get going, then."

***

"...It's strange, don't you think?" Makoto tilted her head back to stare up at the apartment building. "It feels like it should look different, but...it doesn’t."

Anne rubbed her arms, as if fighting a chill. "Seriously...you'd think there'd be like...at least a few dead plants or something...you know like, the place is kinda—barren of life and stuff?"

"Fuck that! There should be a bigass biohazard sign out here!"

"Subtle as always, Ryuji.”

Ren's lips twitched into a brief smile. "Well, maybe once we're done, we can put one up." He pulled out his phone, thumb hovering over the Meta-Nav.

Just before he could press the button, a loud wail of "WAAAAAAAAAAIT!!" cried from down the sidewalk. Turning, the group could see none other than Futaba, running down the sidewalk, orange hair billowing behind her and glasses completely askew as she scrambled to get to the team before they vanished into the Metaverse.

"What the--?!" Ryuji made to catch her as she nearly collapsed, having tripped on her poorly tied shoelaces at the last possible second.

"Futaba? Honey?" Nozomi pulled her back up by the shoulders, revealing the flustered hacker's eyes were doing what could only be described as "spinning".

"W-wait!" Futaba squawked again, "Wait wait, pause the level select! I wanna re-join the party!”

Ren blinked at her, then reached out to adjust her glasses. "...You sure? It's not gotten any better in there.”

Futaba nodded, fervent. "I-I'm sure! I want-- I want to see things for myself!"

Nozomi could not quite express how proud she was in that moment, save for a smile and gently patting Futaba on the head. She got a wide-eyed blink in response, followed by the hacker giving a crooked, slightly nervous grin to her and the rest of the team. "So...so I'm not too late, right?”

"Right on time, Oracle." Ren grinned at her. "Glad to have you along.”

***

As they stepped into the Metaverse, Joker frowned up at the top floor of the Palace. "Mona, how much further did you think we had again?”

Mona's squeaking steps traced his skittering to the forefront. "Just a floor or two more, I think!"

Necronomicon burbled behind the team. "Securing data from everyone...Got it!" came Oracle's voice. "Mona's right, you have one floor before the roof and the Treasure from the look of things!”

Joker gave Oracle a thumbs-up. "All right. Safe room time, then.”

"Damn, Mona,” Skull snickered, "New girl's already got your number."

"H-how rude! This isn't a competition!"

“Don't make me turn this party around,” Dahlia called from the front.

“Fiiiiiiiiine."

The hop from the front to the safe room was as simple as ever, and Joker took a moment to look around. "...He still hasn't added anything.”

"Is that a Featherman clock."

Dahlia turned to find Oracle hovering over the clock, making grabby hands but finding the thing immaterial.

"It is. It's been here since the first safe room, and please don't try to get us to steal the actual thing.”

"But--but--! They only made like, thirty of these!"

Oracle proceeded to go into a long winded ramble about the clock that eerily reminded Dahlia of Goro's spiel about Featherman in general during the prior excursion.

Joker shot Dahlia a baffled look, then murmured, "I didn't realize he was that into it." Dahlia gave a helpless shrug, then turned back to the hyper hacker, who was still talking.

"--essay about the franchise and cereal box tops--"

"Oracle."

"--TOTALLY unfair just because my favorite's in discontinuity--"

"Oracle."

"--like pretending the Star Wars re-cuts didn't happen just because they suck---"

"Oracle! Honey. I understand it's a very special clock but we kind of need to go."

"--huh?" Oracle paused, looking around like she just remembered where she was. "...Oh. R-right." She at least had the decency to look sheepish. "So uh...are safe rooms always someone's bedroom?”

Joker shook his head. "It depends on the Palace. Anyway, shall we?"

Once again, Goro was waiting outside the safe room. When he spotted Panther and Oracle, his eyes widened as he withdrew slightly. Panther frowned, warily, and for a moment, Oracle froze, staring.

The hacker took a deep breath, placing herself behind Joker and peering out. "...You...You're really..." She gulped. "...You didn't know about the note."

It was more a statement than a question.

"...the note? Oh." Goro looked at his feet. "That wasn't part of my role. I was just told to bring her down.”

"But you didn't know?”

"No."

"And...and you didn't know she was my mom."

"I wouldn't have done it if I had."

She paused, and sucked air through her teeth. "...You want to die."

The team tensed as a unit.

"I deserve to die." He blinked at her. "Do you not agree?"

She was quiet for a moment. "...I...don't know,” she finally answered, honest. "But that's not what I asked."

"...I deserve to die," Goro reiterated.

Oracle looked slightly distressed. "That's not--"

“Oracle," Dahlia interjected. "I think that's the best you're going to get."

The hacker looked at Dahlia, then back at the Shadow, before pursing her lips. “...Fine," she conceded. "Okay.  One more question..." She took another deep breath, then leaned out further from behind Joker a little further, pointing furiously. "How d'you have that special edition alarm clock?! That's not fair!"

Dahlia rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Honey, no.”

Goro took a deep breath, but Joker covered his mouth. "We should probably walk and talk, yeah?”

***

The excited chatter lasted until they reached another closed door. A line of glowing red text was emblazoned across it, reading CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS, and Joker gave it a long, suspicious look. "What's back there?"

"Reenactments, so the court could better understand the crimes I've committed."

Mona leaned forward, not wanting to touch the door. "I can sense...something past it."

"It's the stairs,” chimed in Oracle, suddenly much more sober. "That's the way we have to go to get to the roof.”

Goro frowned. "It shouldn't be occupied right now. The court's been over all of them multiple times."

Joker nodded slowly. "Well, we'd better get going before we get spotted.”

There was an awkward pause while no one dared move closer.

"Fuck it,” said Skull, muscling to the front and throwing the door open. Behind the door was an empty street that looked a lot like Yongen-Jaya. Harsh floodlights lit the scene, making Joker wince slightly.

Dahlia stepped in and turned, looking around, eyes wide. "This is--"

"This is where you live, ain't it?" Skull turned to Goro to scowl, made all the deeper as Oracle cowered further behind Joker. "Yo, what the HELL?!"

"It's where the murder of Wakaba Ishiki occurred." Goro stepped past Skull, frowning at splotches of black on the pavement as he walked. "It must have been re-examined after the additional information was discovered, but it's not in use now."

Oracle burrowed into Joker's back, whimpering slightly. Joker reached around to pat her, then started after Goro. Luckily, the set was reasonably short, a door sitting at the other end of the road leading to another portion of the recreations.

This one was a darkly lit room of a typical suburban house. It was outwardly pleasant, but there was something chilly about it. Joker drew Oracle a little closer, looking at Dahlia.

Dahlia looked at Goro. "...Your...foster parents, I take it?”

"Yes." Goro's face, already flat, was now cold. "It was not a pleasant place, whatever it may look like.”

Panther shuddered, before nudging Skull forward, making the ex-track star start heading towards the next door. Queen, however, stopped in the middle of the room. "...how did you...?"

"Kill them?" Goro stared at the room. "I sent my foster father psychotic. He stabbed my foster mother to death, then slit his throat."

Queen covered her mouth. Skull stumbled, and made a noise that was obviously choking down a retch. Dahlia took a sharp breath through her teeth and gripped her fists tightly.

"They were not kind people.” Goro stared at the room for another long moment, then shook his head. "We really should keep moving, though."

"Yeah." Joker shook his head, then strode toward the next door.

The final room was a kitchen. It was a nice kitchen, if it wasn't for the mannequin dangling in the middle of the room by a rope, chair toppled over under it.

Naturally, everyone's attention was rather drawn by that.

"...what is...."

"My mother." Goro blinked slowly. "It seems that they still don't understand it properly."

"Th-this..." Oracle gulped from behind Joker. "Th-this is how your m-mom...?"

Dahlia turned, staring at the Shadow. "...Why would they not understand it properly?”

There was a moment of silence. Then the silhouette of a small boy came through the door, whistling softly. When it rounded the corner so it could see the hanging mannequin, it froze, then screamed.

"My mother was never very happy. Frequently I would find her crying, though she would never tell me why. Eventually, the despair ate away her will to live, and she hanged herself in our kitchen one day while I was at school.”

The air seemed to freeze.

"That's--" Dahlia swallowed. "...How could that be your fault?”

The lighting in the room changed, from afternoon to evening, and another silhouette entered. This one was an older woman, and she screamed as well, then struck the boy.

"Her sister had been helping us despite the wishes of her parents. When she saw that my mother was dead, she told me why she had killed herself."

The woman silhouette screamed at the boy. "You killed her! You bastard, you KILLED HER!"

"As it turned out, it was my birth that had driven her to despair. I was her greatest shame. My very existence had poisoned her.”

"That's..."

"Th-that's not right!" Oracle lurched out from behind Joker, trembling.

Goro stared at her. "What do you mean? Of course it's right.”

“NO IT’S FUCKIN—" Skull noticed Oracle cringe at his own bellow and lowered his voice, though was no less vehement for it. "No it's fuckin' not! You were a kid! You didn't even get to vote on if she had ya or not! If it was such a damn strain on her, she coulda just not had you, or found you a home that could actually, shit, I 'unno, care for you.”

"Skull, I am an illegitimate child. No-one wants to take care of that." Goro shook his head. "But I wish she hadn't had me. I'm nothing but a stain on the world.”

"Sure they do! Shit, my dad ran out on us, but my mom sure didn't go blamin' that on me! And--" He hesitated, not sure how to pick his next words.

He didn't have to; Oracle stepped up again, still trembling. "M-my mom,” she started softly, then got louder, "My mom never told me who my d-dad was, and I g-got blamed for her death, but that doesn't make it right. Even if—“ She gulped. "Even if it had been because of me it wouldn't have been right—!"

Goro was silent for a moment, staring at the tableau frozen in front of them. Then, so quiet as to be inaudible, he murmured, "My worthless father shares much of the blame for her death. But...I cannot ignore my part in it. If...If I had just helped a little more, or...or wanted a little less..."

Joker shook his head. "No, Goro. That doesn't make it your fault either.”

Dahlia gripped her hands tightly. "You were a child. Children come into this world knowing nothing and wanting to be loved. That's all."

"Yeah exactly!" Skull snorted. "Kids don't know shit 'cept that their parents oughta love 'em! Ain't nothin' else to it!”

"...And Goro? You're not a stain on the world." Queen stepped close enough to set a hand on his shoulder. "You've got something to contribute, just like the rest of us."

"...Even after everything I've done?”

"Yes!" Oracle seemed to even surprise herself with such vehemence, but she took several steps forward, pushing her mask up to reveal the purple, teary eyes underneath, even as her mouth pressed down into a stern frown. "Even if—even if you've been terrible up to now, as long as you start over, really start over, and try to make up for things, then you can! It doesn't have to be like this forever!”

Goro stayed silent. But after a moment, one of his hands came up to cover his face, while the other wrapped around his middle as if to hold himself together.

Joker gently nudged his sister forward.

Dahlia did not need the nudge. In a few striding steps, the team leader was standing by the Shadow, fingers itching to reach out to him. They were not wanting long; her arms snaked around him, allowing to slither in under the arm he was holding his face with and to duck in under his chin, her hat tipping back and off while spilling her hair everywhere.

Joker followed, reaching up to pull the hand away from Goro's face. "We're not denying you've done horrible things. But your mom wasn't your fault. You don't need to blame yourself for her anymore."

"As he said." Fox hesitantly put a hand on Goro's back. "Joker is wise—listen to him.”

Oracle pulled her mask back down, but skittered up, her fingers twitching for a moment as she hovered, indecisive, at Goro's side. After a few seconds she deigned to join the group hug, jittery though she was.

Panther looked towards Skull to ask if they were really group-hugging the confirmed murderer, but he was already gone; one arm set against Dahlia's back and the other looped over Goro's shoulders. He looked back at her and shrugged. She sighed, but after a moment Panther herself walked over. She didn't feel comfortable holding him—not yet—but her hand joined Queen's on his shoulder.

A protesting set of squeaky footsteps came from down around everyone's knees as Mona tried to find a way to squeeze in.

Goro just stood frozen. It wasn't until Joker gently wrapped the hand he was holding around Dahlia that he finally broke and buried his face in her shoulder. "I...I'm sorry."

"We know. You can make up for it.”

Dahlia said nothing, but squeezed him tighter, rubbing his back with what little room she had in the tightly packed group.

Silence reigned over the sad little scene, as the Thieves did there best to comfort the Shadow. Eventually, though, Queen broke it. "Should we keep moving?”

"...Yes." Dahlia gave a significant look to her brother.

Joker nodded, then tapped Mona and Oracle. "Think you can get us to the roof so we can scope things out?”

Oracle let go rather quickly. "R-right! C'mon Mona!” One by one, the Phantom Thieves let Goro go and followed Oracle and Mona, until it was only Dahlia left.

Dahlia took a deep breath and leaned back to look at Goro for a long moment. He just blinked back. "...shouldn't we follow them?”

"...In a moment. First..." Slowly, her hands reached up, and without much fanfare started to slowly work at fixing his tie.

Goro just blinked.

"...It's been bothering me this whole time,” she offered quietly, as she continued to work at the sorry thing.

"Oh." He smiled, but the expression was painful. “I'm the part of him who acknowledges he never really had a mother. And that's the sort of thing mothers do. …Right?"

"I wouldn't know", she answered honestly. "My own mother never really worried about it as long as I was comfortable; I was always more fussy about it than she was. My step-mother was more concerned with what I was doing rather than what I was wearing.”

"Oh." The smile fell as quickly as it had appeared. "I...I had hoped…"

"Shhhh." She finished with his tie, and started to work on his coat, sighing in dismay as she realized a few of the buttons were missing on it and she would have to figure out a way around them. "It isn't your fault. My actual mother is sweet, if overly demure. My step-mother I could not care any less for. It hasn't bothered me in some time.”

He let her, watching her work."...would you do this for the me in your world?”

"...I would.”

"...Good." Goro closed his eyes. “Good."

Her hands paused as she straightened the last creases in his coat. Her fingers began to itch again.

Slowly, she reached back up, towards his face, to his hair, and carefully began carding her hands through it, intent on straightening that too.

The action got an amused half-smile in return. "This is about as neat as my hair ever gets, Dahlia.”

She made a frustrated little grunt and continued to fuss over it anyway.

"Dahlia." Goro reached up to take her hands. "It's all right.”

She froze for a moment, red eyes going wide as he took her hands. After a moment, her shoulders fell slack, a long sigh passing through her lips before her forehead fell onto his chest with a slight thump. A gentle kiss was pressed to her hair; her body couldn't decide if that made her more tense or relaxed.

She gave a helpless, mirthless laugh. "You are the most perplexing man I've ever met, I hope you know that.”

"I'm sorry." He gently pulled her back, smiling sadly, then crouched to retrieve her hat. "You may want this.”

She watched him, then sighed again. She had the patience to wait for him to straighten again before taking his face in her hands, pulling him down just enough to bump her forehead against his.

That got a soft laugh. "Save your kisses for the other me."

"Mm." She gave a faint lip quirk. "I think I'm meant to let Skull rough him up a little first.”

"Well, I can't say it's undeserved."

"Hah. Just a tad earned I think, yes." Even so, she pressed a kiss to the Shadow's forehead before finally letting go to take her hat back.

The surprised blush she received in return was adorable, even though the dirt.

It was a sad state of affairs, perhaps, that she had finally ascertained that no, she still cared deeply for Akechi despite knowing what he did, but it was at least something she had finally processed and accepted it.

Damn it all, if she was not a sucker for tragedies.

Chapter Text

August 25, Evening

Nozomi admittedly almost had a heart attack when she looked towards the ringing bell and saw Goro Akechi coming through the door. For a moment she expected to see yellow eyes, and dirt, and Shadows. For another moment, she expected his gun to be drawn.

And then she remembered, Oh yes, it's Thursday. Of course. This was normal. This was routine.

This was also something that would be much easier to get the Card to him than breaking in to the police station and finding his office, and slightly more legal besides. Presuming he didn't catch her in the act.

Akechi was oblivious to her musings as he slid into his usual seat with a media-perfect smile. "It's nice to see you, Nozomi.”

Oh good, the media face. That was it, this man was mocking her.

She managed a twitch of a smile, at least. "Hello, detective. The usual, I take it?”

"You know me too well." His smile softened around the edges into something almost genuine. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you're looking straight into my heart.

Nozomi blinked, then remembered that while they had confirmed that he had their number from day one, he certainly wasn't aware they knew that. She hoped.

"Mm." She set his coffee in front of him and smirked a little bit more. "Or maybe you're just predictable."

His tie was crooked. Of course it was.

"Only when it comes to you." He sipped the coffee, and his eyes closed in pleasure. "You're coming to rival Sakura-san.”

"Careful, detective, or I'll start thinking you've figured out how to flirt." Her fingers itched. She managed to distract herself by changing the TV to the appropriate channel and working on food.

"That implies a lack of honesty about my words. I assure you, they're nothing if not genuine." Still, a slight blush rose up on his cheeks as he turned to the TV.

"Uh-huh." She changed her mind. He wasn't the most perplexing man she knew. He was objectively the most perplexing man on the planet.

She looked at his crooked tie again and got an idea. While he was distracted and she was in an obscure corner, she tucked the Card up her sleeve, then went back to working on his food.

Akechi remained oblivious as he watched the show. "...did you watch Featherman as a child?”

"Hm?" She blinked, then suddenly remembered the Shadow's spiels.

The many, many spiels.

"...No", she admitted, having the feeling she may have just invited a lecture into her cafe. "After the Joker Incident at the turn of the century, it got banned back home. Something about encouraging arson.”

There was a beat of silence. Then Akechi turned to her, outrage and confusion mingling comically on his face. “Arson?"

"I think so. The details of the whole thing were always—“ she waved her hand, non-committal— "sketchy, even looking at the newspapers at the time, and the further away you get from it the more unclear it gets. You learn to read five or six years afterwards and all you get is ghost stories. I shudder to think what kids must be hearing about it now, honestly." She reached for some of the spices she needed. "Either way, something about Featherman and Arson always came up, so it got banned.”

"Well, that is patently ridiculous." The outrage was winning out over the confusion, and he set his cup down with an emphatic click. "How in the world could Featherman induce people to arson? The nerve!”

"Well, it is Sumaru. Who knows?" We have wish granting radio hosts, apparently, she considered saying, but she could feel Ryuji shouting at her from somewhere else in Tokyo and decided against it.

"It doesn't matter!" The detective shook his head. "Featherman is many things, but to blame it for arson—“

"I don't think I've heard you this passionate since our argument at the TV station.”

"Yes, well, if there is something I care about as much as my work, it is Featherman.”

She looked up from her own work, raising an eyebrow. "A sentai show is as important as whether or not the Phantom Thieves are menaces to society?"

"To me, yes." There was flat, unshakable certainty in his gaze as he stared at her.

She blinked, then snorted, amusement taking hold in spite of herself. She shook her head as she picked up his plate, taking it over to him. "You know, you're much cuter when you don't have your media face plastered on.”

Whatever he was going to say next was lost to a startled blush. He opened his mouth, but only a quiet squeak came out.

"Case in point." She smiled as she set the food in front of him. She wondered how often anyone had told him something like that and meant it. She wondered if before the cafe he had huddled, alone, in his apartment, isolated save for the dull thrum of crisp, unrealistically bright superheroes.

She wondered if he was plotting her murder even as they spoke, or if his wish to die had consumed any use as an assassin.

Whether he was or not, he ducked his head and took a bite of the food, obviously covering his embarrassment. "...Well. We can start fixing your lack of Featherman tonight, yes?”

"I suppose,” she sighed, dramatically, before fixing a smile on him. Her fingers itched. "But first, if you don't mind--" She leaned forward, hands curling around his tie as she began to fix it. "That's been bothering me since you came in.”

"Mmm?" He hastily swallowed his second bite, then looked down. "Ah, askew again?”

"Yes." She sighed. "Honestly. All that time on TV and you can't keep your tie straight, detective?"

She slipped the Card into his jacket with magician-like ease as she continued straightening his tie.

"I've never been able to get it to stay straight." He smiled gently. "But...thank you.”

"Hopeless." She paused, then smiled back, softly. "You're welcome." Finishing, she pressed a soft kiss to his forehead without thinking about it, then turned back to head back up the counter to re-sort the cups on the other side. "Now go on, your food's getting cold.”

He squeaked again at the kiss, his face turning a brilliant red, and again, she had to wonder how little he had been exposed to even the smallest affection if that was his reaction.

Before she could comment, though, he hastily shoved another bite of food into his mouth, ducking his head to hide his face. She couldn't help but laugh a little at that, which garnered her a soft grumble, and he pointed to the TV. "Just--watch with me. Please.”

She blinked innocently. "But I'm working.”

"If another customer comes in, I won't complain when you go back to work, but no-one else is here.”

"Oh, fine." She walked around to sit on the stool next to him. "Though, my dear detective, if Boss yells at me for slacking off later, it will be on your head.”

"I will defend you to the end." He gave her another genuine smile, then took another bite of his food. "...And thank you, for the food."

"...You're welcome.”

***

For a little while, the world was nothing more than the cafe, and their soft discussion as they watched the TV. But eventually, the food was eaten, the show was over, and Akechi was standing to leave. "Same time next Thursday?”

"That's up to you." Presuming everyone was still alive next Thursday.

"Well, then I will look forward to it." Despite his words, there was something a little flat about his smile as he stepped to the door. "Take care, Nozomi.”

"...Wait, Goro." The name came unbidden, ironically, and got an honestly surprised expression out of him. But it was his name; even if they had been using it for that sad-eyed mess in his mind, that mess was still him, after all.

She stepped up and fixed his tie again. "You...really can't keep this straight can you?" She shook her head.

The first touch to his tie made him smile, if sadly. "I can't, I'm afraid. ...Thank you.”

"Mm." She leaned up and kissed his forehead. "Stay safe on your way home, mm? Wouldn't want those horrendous Phantom Thieves stealing your heart before I do, huh?" She winked, but then smiled, softly. "...See you later, detective.”

"...No, I suppose we wouldn't." His smile became pensive, but he nodded gently as he stepped to the door. "See you soon."

***

Once outside, he slipped a hand into his coat and withdrew the slim red card.

Dear Detective,

It has come to our attention that your fervent hunt for us is not truly based on a just and true sense of the law, but a distorted desire trapped deep within your heart. We have seen your darkest wishes and most cruel ambitions laid bare, and have taken it upon ourselves to steal them away and cleanse your mind of such impurities. You can try to catch us, if you dare, but our games of cat and mouse are drawing to their close.

And we promise you, Goro Akechi, that we are not the mouse.

He read the words once, twice, then three times, before slipping it back into his pocket. The smile that crossed his face was a foreign one to anyone but himself--full of self-loathing and hatred.

"My dear Nozomi," he murmured as he walked away. "I'm sorry I had to use you so thoroughly, but don't worry. I'll be out of your misery soon enough.”

Chapter Text

August 26, Day

"...Well, you've certainly got a crowd for your execution."

Joker stared out over the roof from his spot on the air conditioning tower. The gallows was surrounded by black figures, excitedly chattering in between selfies and texts.

"I can't believe we managed to get a spot!"

"The poor Detective Prince, finally going to fall on his face! Boo-hoo--ahahahah!"

"We're going to have to go to the afterparty too!"

Goro looked out over the scene as well, then sighed and shook his head. "I am not surprised. The public loves a false tragedy.”

Panther shuddered. "Or a real one."

Skull put a hand on her shoulder, the looked down. In front of the gallows was a picture, shrouded in a black veil, that had not been there the day prior. "So...is that it?"

"Confirming...yes. That's the Treasure." Oracle hummed, thoughtful. "Didn't you guys do a picture already?"

"There is literally no bad excuse to make off with art, honey," Dahlia replied, adjusting her hat.

"How are you not actually a thief?" Skull asked her.

"How do you know I'm not actually a thief?"

"You're too broke."

“Wow."

"Children." Queen sighed loudly. "Mona, do you see any guards?”

"No, that's what's bugging me." Mona gave a soft "mrr" as he crouched down. "There's no security or anything."

"The only thing I'm getting is some of the guards on the lower areas talking about an ‘executioner'," Oracle added from where she was hidden in Necronomicon.

"That might be the boss, but--" Mona glanced at the Shadow and squinted. "...Is there something you're not telling us?”

Goro frowned. "I have no idea what they might be talking about." He paused. "Unless..."

"Unless what?"

"...No, it's unlikely. Forget I said anything." He looked around, then pointed to a ladder. "That way?”

As unease creeped into the team's bones, they slipped towards the ladder, one by one, save for Oracle, who took her Persona out to orbit the perimeter of the building, keeping her ever watchful eye on the entire area.

Goro led the way, golden eyes fixed on the Treasure. The figures parted for him easily, and the Thieves followed in his wake, all tense and watching for trouble.

"Almost there," murmured Fox. "All we must do is take the Treasure, and--"

"Oh crap--" Oracle's voice rose into a loud warning cry. "Everybody DUCK!"

The group barely managed to hit the floor before the gunshot went off.

Crack!

Goro leaned to one side as the gunshot echoed around the gallows, silencing even the whispering Shadows gathered around the platform.

"What the FUCK?!", Skull squawked, scrambling back to his feet.

"It's not a Shadow!" Oracle stammered. “It’s--How did he--"

As the team got upright and turned, they understood why their mission control was so completely perplexed, for there in front of the door, gun still raised, was the real Goro Akechi.

“Thank you for your help. I can handle the rest—you should leave.” The normal Akechi stood in the doorway they had just come through, smoking pistol leveled at his Shadow.

“Oh, you can, can you?” Goro grinned, but for the first time since they had met him, there was nothing endearing about the expression. “I beg to differ.”

"Okay no, what the-- No!" Skull gestured wildly. "Are you-- okay we know you're crazy now but what the fucking fuck--?!"

Dahlia suddenly remembered the word ‘executioner’ and felt ice form in her veins. "...It was you."

Panther glanced at her. "What was him?"

Dahlia called out, louder. "It was you. You're the one that put out the request, aren't you? So we'd clear the way up for you."

"Indeed. And I really suggest you leave--it's never pretty after a Shadow is shot in its own Palace."

Goro laughed. "Do you truly think that will work?"

"I don't see why it shouldn't."

"I do." The Shadow walked forward, ignoring the gun leveled at his forehead. “Because, you see, I am you.”

"Wait, stop!" Mona squirmed up to the front, stubby paws up like they could keep man and Shadow separate. "You can't shoot your own Shadow! If you do that you'll--"

"He knows, Mona, he knows." Dahlia grimaced. "That was the point. "

"Exactly." Akechi tilted his head. “This is new, though--I’m afraid I’ve never had the time to talk to a Shadow before.”

“Because you’re too busy killing us for your shitball of a father, trying desperately to get him to love you before you kill him too.”

That got Akechi’s attention. His gun wavered and his eyes widened, and he swallowed. “How—“

“I. Am. You.” Goro leaned forward, his broken chains punctuating the statement with a clink. “I am a Shadow, the true self, and you are pathetic.

"Whoaaaaaa okay." Skull was far better at keeping the two apart than the mascot-like creature Mona was in the Metaverse. "Let's maybe turn down the psycho here for a second."

"Indeed." Dahlia stepped forward, blocking the way even further. She leveled a hard look at the real detective. "You don't really think we'd let you kill yourself, do you?" She looked at the Shadow, and squinted. "...His father? That's who was ordering the murders?" It was bad enough when it was just some nebulous figure of power, but a mother who couldn't love him and a father using him as a weapon was a whole new level of fucked, frankly.

"Oh, yes. I forgot to tell you." Goro's smile fell for a moment. "An assassin for his father, just for a crumb of affection." The smile came back, and he leaned away from Skull's restraining hand. "But that's not all--shall I explain?"

He didn't wait for an answer. The clinking started again as Goro began to walk, eerie punctuation to his words. “Goro Akechi, Detective Prince. Beloved celebrity, with your pleasant face and your pleasant words. But we know differently, don’t we? Your grades, your voice, the foods you eat, the clothes you wear—everything about you is fake. You manufactured it all just so someone would want you around. But the world doesn’t want you, and you know it—they just want your image.”

The Shadow approached the Phantom Thieves with a sharp and crooked smile. “But wait! Someone does want you!” Goro stopped in front of Joker, cupping his chin in his hand, ignoring the flinch as his fingers dug into either side. “Someone wants to be your friend despite your moods.” He dropped the boy’s face, only to turn on his heel and wrap his arms around Dahlia’s waist, the girl tensing as he bent down and nuzzled into her neck. One golden eye peeking out to continue his eye contact with his true self unabated even as he did so. “Someone wants to love you despite your actions. They’ve seen the very worst of you, and they’re still reaching out.”

Goro released Dahlia before she could force him off herself and whirled to stalk back toward his counterpart. “Oh, but you can’t accept their help. You’re a bastard, and worse, you’re a murderer. No-one wants that. No-one needs that. Not your mother, not your father, and certainly not them. There’s nothing left in you to be a person to care for. There’s nothing left in me to be a person to care for. We should just die!”

Dahlia shuddered, fixing her hat from where Goro’s nuzzling had knocked it askew. The Shadow had clearly gone around the bend. She remembered Oracle's had gotten more aggressive with her presence, but nothing this...wicked.

Then again, Oracle hadn't killed anyone.

Speaking of, the mission control had found her voice again. "H-hey! Suicide is permabanned! Even weird cognitive suicide! Didn't we just talk yesterday about as long as you start over you can make up for things?! You can't do that if you're dead!”

”It’s not up to me now, Oracle.” The Shadow's gaze was focused on Akechi with almost hypnotized focus. "Well? Are you going to deny it?"

Akechi stared at his Shadow, eyes wide and face pale. Then his eyes narrowed, and he raised his gun again. “No, that is indeed true. But I’m afraid it doesn’t change anything—I’m still going to kill you. Right here, right now.”

The gun fired again, but Goro avoided the second bullet as easily as he did the first. Mad laughter bubbled out of him, and Joker stumbled back as red mist began to enshroud the Shadow’s form. “Are you, now? We’ll see about that!”

The mist expanded and rose, eliciting screams from the crowd surrounding the gallows. It coalesced inward, then vanished, revealing the Shadow's new form.

A hulking, black and white striped form glared down at them. A heart-shaped hole was cut out of his chest, and inside Goro was suspended by chains at his wrists and ankles, stretched as if on a cross.

"What the..." Fox breathed.

“Fuck," Skull finished, equal parts a question and statement.

Oracle's warning cry sounded from above again. "Everybody down!"

Dahlia didn't even have to think about dragging the detective down with her as everyone once again had to hit the floor, this time to avoid massive claws.

Joker didn't quite manage to hit the floor, and his frightened shout echoed across the roof as he was swept away along with the gallows and spectators.

"No!" Fox sprang to his feet, racing for the edge of the roof after Joker.

Necronomicon bobbed over the edge, Joker caught in it's tentacles. "I got him!" Oracle called out. " Buckle down, guys, I think this is gonna be one of those kinds of boss fights!" Her Persona set Joker back down on the roof and ducked back down, just out of reach, continuing its orbit. “Everything about his data is going NUTS; it’s like something else ate the Shadow we were just talking to--!” A few screens popped up around Necronomicon as it flew about, with stats, hostility levels, and a blood red Sathanas labeling the profile that was compiling. “Square up, guys, it’s coming!”

Joker shot Fox a crooked grin to soothe any remaining worries, then snatched his mask from his face. "Arsene!"

As dark magic slammed into the Shadow, Akechi began to struggle to his feet.

"Oh no you don't." Dahlia barely brushed her mask, just long enough to Irene to burst into life behind her, before pinning Akechi back down. "You stay down and be quiet. You've caused enough havoc for one day.”

He fought her, hand reaching for his gun. "If you would just let me finish this—!"

She rolled her eyes and kissed him hard, fire in her veins as Irene began to sing, overriding any nerves or concerns.

Irene, for its part, let loose a wave of curses, even as its voice curled in the air and into the other Thieves, urging them to stand and fight.

"My heart is a furnace,

It’s hot as hell in my world of conflict

One goal is what keeps me going

Take back what I lost to

The bosses of fear and greed, yeah…"

As the song echoed around them, Akechi stared up at her, eyes wide and a little lost. Dahlia looked down at him, soft, but her next words weren't directed at him.

"Oracle? Grab this idiot so we can finish saving him, will you?"

"Got it!" A tentacle lurched up around the edge, snatching the detective as Dahlia got off, brandishing her sword as she headed into the battle.

Akechi yelped, instinctively clinging to the tentacle. But surprise didn't hold him for long, and he was soon clawing at the tentacle clutching at his chest. "Let me go!"

"Haaaa no." In fact, Necronomicon put a few more tentacles around him. "This is for your own good, Akechi! You'll thank us later. Maybe. If we live." Oracle turned her attention to the battle. "Okay, looks like this thing is really weak to Curses, so Joker, Dahlia, you keep that up! Queen and Panther should both be on white mage duty, 'cause this guy's gonna hit hard!"

"What's that mean?" said Panther as she dodged a wave of arrows that seemed to spawn out of thin air.

"Spam healing and don't die!"

"Oh. Well why didn't you say so?"

"I did!" Oracle huffed before getting back to work. "You don't need to go into heals too, Mona, just keep buzzing it with wind spells to distract it! Fox, Skull, for the love of God don't let anything hit Joker and Dahlia--they're the only ones with Curses and we're sunk if they get taken out.”

"Understood, Oracle. Joker, move!"

Akechi watched the fight with wide, borderline-horrified eyes. "I told you to run! If you'd just left me—"

"You'd be dead,” Oracle informed him. "Which is the opposite of the thing we want. Hush or I'll carry you upside down.”

Akechi glared up at her. "Why are you even helping me? I killed your mother, for God's sake!”

"You didn't know she was my mom." A beat. "I mean that's not why, but your Shadow told us that. You didn't know about me or the suicide note, and it was someone else's idea. You still suck, don't get me wrong, but we gotta find the real big bad if I'm gonna get all revenge-y. You're more like the smoking gun.”

"You'll figure the real culprit out with a lock of my hair and a DNA test.”

"Yeah I was kind of paying attention to the whole Oh No Your Dad's The Supervillain thing a few minutes ago—I’m just kind of busy trying to keep us not dead.”

"You can keep the rest alive and leave me to die. Why are you helping me?”

"Because you can't get better if you're dead." Oracle quieted slightly. "And some part of you wants to get better. Why would your Shadow help us otherwise?”

Akechi went rigid in her grip.

"...Look. I know...I know what it's like, wanting to die because...because of your mom and everything else. But it doesn't help." Her voice was soft now. "Besides, Dahlia loves you. Bad decision, all told, but she's never been wrong about caring about someone before. I don't think she'd start now.”

Akechi was silent for a long, long moment. "...It's a terrible decision. But...I'm not going to hurt her more than I already have.”

"Then stop trying to die." She paused. “...Duh."

"I will."

There was no sense of time in the Palace, but it felt like hours before the fight finally wound down. The Shadow lurched and stumbled, swiping at the tiny figures at its feet.

One of the chains holding Goro in its chest cracked.

Joker's head shot up, and he pointed. “Dahlia!"

Dahlia's head snapped up, and with little effort, the next swipe of the Shadow's hand got a small Phantom Thief scrambling up its arm like it was little more than a moving bridge. Irene moved over its owner, blocking any attempt to swat the team leader away while still crooning.

"A heartbeat for a tin man

An oasis in a strange land

Remind us what we're here for:

Creating new life

Creating rivers in the desert--!"

At last, Dahlia had drawn close enough to leap down, bringing her sword to bear on the weakened chain. It snapped, the part previously holding him dangling listlessly. She grabbed it, swinging herself to the other side, slicing the second chain. She grabbed this too for long enough to get in a good position to drop, slicing the third chain on the way down. Irene got the last itself before catching its owner, who herself was concerned with catching Goro. She was still holding him tight as all three fell, covered by the Shadow's dying scream and collapse into the red mist that had brought it forward.

There was silence for a moment. Then Goro coughed softly and opened his yellow eyes, peering around. "...Where is..."

"Over here." Akechi tapped the tentacle holding him. "Let me up, Oracle."

Hesitantly, Necronomicon set him down on the roof.

Dahlia, petting Goro's hair, looked up at him, eyeing him even as Irene vanished and her mask reappeared in a flash of fire. Akechi walked over to them, then stared down at his Shadow. "...Did you really help them all the way through the palace?”

"Yes." Goro tilted his head. "We...we deserve to be punished. But...maybe we don't deserve to be executed.”

"You don't." Dahlia looked Akechi square in the eye. "You really don’t."

Akechi was silent for a long moment. Then he held out his hand to his Shadow, and received a small smile in return. When their hands touched, blue flames surrounded Akechi, and for the briefest of moments, his clothes flared black and white as a beaked red mask covered his face.

The vision faded, and he gave the Phantom Thieves a tired look. "Well? Are you going to steal it or what?”

After a moment of silence, Dahlia stood and made her way to the veil-covered picture. She fingered the veil for a moment, glancing at the others for confirmation, before pulling it off, finally revealing the Treasure in full.

It was a small picture, all told—a simple eight-by-five probably taken with a disposable camera. Akechi's face was in front, and the picture taker judging by his arm, but behind him were the Phantom Thieves, frozen in various goofy ways, and two adults—a man with golden eyes and sunglasses, and a woman who could only be Akechi's mother.

They were all smiling, and Akechi's was the brightest of the lot.

“Dude," Skull whispered, soft. Panther gave a soft gasp, hand going over her mouth. Oracle set herself down on the ground, nigh-silent, Necronomicon vanishing as she tucked herself behind Joker.

"...I see," Mona muttered, quiet, by Dahlia's knees. "More than death, what he wanted was..."

"Such a terrible crime, to want to be loved." Akechi's voice was gentle and sad.

Dahlia stared for a moment and then glanced at Mona, smirking in a way that was in no way happy. "It must be serious, if you're not already making over this."

"H-hey! I'm perfectly capable of self-control!"

"Mm." The team leader sighed, looking at the photo once more before finally picking the picture up.

As soon as the picture was in Dahlia's hand, there was an ominous rumble. Akechi gave a startled squawk and looked down. "What the—"

"Oh shit that's right,” Skull said, grimacing.

"Palaces COLLAPSE?!" shrieked Oracle. "Why do the lairs always collapse?! I don't wanna get squished after beating the boss!"

"Everyone to the stairs!" Dahlia barked. Unfortunately, the collapsing prison was already two steps ahead of the team. They had  made it not one yard towards the stairwell before the whole thing collapsed, blocking their exit.

“Uh-oh—" Mona backpedaled and looked around, wildly. “Uh—Oracle, can you—?!”

"Necronomicon can't carry everyone! It'd be too much!"

“Right—uh—well—"

"Ohhh, this is going to suck!” Panther grimaced, grabbing the cat-mascot by the scruff unceremoniously and tossing him. After a loud yowl, he came back down in his bus form.

"What have we said about throwing animals like that?!"

"I can't believe we're drivin' off the roof again,” Skull groaned, scrambling into the bus without acknowledging Mona's fussing.

"Again?" Oracle looked dismayed as Panther hustled her in. "Again? As in we have driven off the roof more than once?"

"We'll explain later,” huffed Panther, "Hurry and get in!"

Dahlia grabbed Akechi by the scruff and dragged him in with her as she hopped in. "Queen's driving so we don't die in the meantime.”

"This is the second time off a roof, I think." Joker held the door open for Akechi and Dahlia, then slammed the door shut and sat down beside Fox. "Go, Queen!"

There was no verbal response, but the cat-bus's engine roared as they shot forward.

The plunge after going past the edge was long, slow, and full of the sound of screaming teenagers.

Queen kept going as soon as they hit the ground, dodging lasers as she barreled for the chain-link fence. They hit it and burst through with a jangling screech, and a moment later, a huge chunk of masonry hit the ground behind them.

Akechi could be excused his frightened yelp.

Dahlia's shoulder hit the side of the bus with a grunt. "God damn we really need to actually remember about the Palace collapse one of these days."

"You think?!", squawked Skull from the seat ahead, followed by a yelp of his own and a series of swears.

Oracle buried in Panther's shoulder, muffled scream sounding incredibly like "aaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaaa" in a long, continuous pattern.

"This is normal?" Akechi's voice was two octaves higher than its usual register. "I thought this just happened when you killed Shadows!”

"There is so many things wrong with everything about that statement but NO!", shouted Panther, holding Oracle tight and trying her hardest to keep herself braced so as not to jostle as much. "This is what happens when a Palace busts, period!”

"Everyone shut up and let me drive!"

Akechi wisely shut his mouth.

***

August 26, Evening

The snap back to reality was a tumble of limbs, a chorus of pained noises, and luckily late enough in the evening that this time the pile of collapsed teenagers didn't attract any attention.

"Stop the ride, I wanna get off..." Futaba moaned, laying flat on the ground.

Ryuji groaned and sat up, looking around before spotting Morgana, who was splayed flat on his belly, unmoving. "Guys, I think the cat's dead again."

“Same," Nozomi groaned from where she was flat on her back.

Ren reached out to poke said cat. "...Still breathing."

Akechi's face was pressed into Nozomi's stomach, concealing his face and muffling his voice. "...We should probably go somewhere to regroup.”

Anne sat up, helping Futaba to be semi-upright before scooping up Morgana, who groaned gratefully as she held him in her arms. She looked towards the station and grimaced. "It's kind of late for anywhere we'd usually go...wouldn't Boss notice if we all limped in to the cafe, too?"

"Sojiro can know nothing,” Futaba stated quickly, looking around as if just talking about her adopted father would summon him.

"Yeah, I'd rather not get reported today on top of everything else, if that's alright with everyone." Nozomi slowly pulled herself up, arms instinctively coming around Akechi to move him carefully. A small, framed picture fell out of her hands, softly hitting her lap before rolling gently onto the sidewalk; the Treasure.

Akechi came up with her, and he shook his head slightly before picking up the Treasure and getting to his feet. "You can use my apartment.”

Nozomi paused, bit her lip, and glanced at the rest of the team, gauging their reactions. Ren glanced at Yusuke, and they both shrugged. Makoto rubbed her face, then fixed Nozomi with a tired look. "I need to clean up before I go home, so his apartment is ideal."

"You can use my bathroom." Akechi wobbled on his feet.

“...All right. Lead the way, dear.”

Akechi's footsteps were slow and dragging as he led the way into the building. Ren watched him for a moment, then murmured, "Are you--"

"Fine. Just tired." Akechi opened the front door and started for the stairs. "My apartment's only on the second floor--the stairs are faster.”

Morgana, while still in Anne's arms, had recovered enough to pay attention and look at Akechi. Really look, before whispering to the others, "I think the change of heart is already taking effect. We better hurry before it hits in full and the weight of everything takes him off his feet.”

"All right. Yusuke...?"

Yusuke didn't need more than that. He slipped up to walk behind Akechi, ready to catch him when he fell.

The door to the apartment was the same as those to either side of it. Akechi fumbled at his keys, then opened the door to a dark room that looked larger than it had any right to be. When he turned the lights on to bathe it in harsh white light, they could see that was because there was barely anything in it--a TV and an armchair were the only furniture present.

"Make yourself at—ghn—"

Akechi dropped his keys, and one hand came up to hold onto the wall. A moment later, he slid to his knees, eyes wide and unseeing the world around him.

“Wh-wh—who are you?”

Chapter Text

?????

“I am thou, and thou art a fucking idiot.”

Akechi blinked. He wasn’t in his apartment anymore. He wasn’t sure he was anywhere, truth be told—everything was a hazy shade of blue, except for the massive white figure in front of him.

He blinked again, and the figure resolved itself. Akechi hesitated to call it a man, but it was certainly masculine in appearance, with its broad shoulders and truly massive chest. It was leaning on a giant golden bow, glaring down at him with its glinting golden eyes half-hidden by its helmet. Akechi’s eyes lingered on the golden RH emblazoned on its chest, and he frowned as something clicked in the back of his mind. “…Robin Hood?”

“Good, you finally remembered me.” Robin Hood grumbled, standing up straight. “Took you long enough.”

“I…where are we?”

“Your mind. You and I need to have a serious talk.”

“…Right.” Akechi looked around again, then spotted a chair to sit in. He settled himself in it carefully in case it decided to vanish out from under him. “Before we start, I must ask—have I gone insane?”

“You’re talking to the anthropomorphic manifestation of your desire for personal justice.”

“Fair enough.” Akechi crossed his arms. “Go on, then.”

“First, you need to stop listening to Loki.”

Akechi frowned. “I’m afraid I’ve never spoken to him like this.”

“Doesn’t mean you’re not listening. You haven’t used me since…”

“The Minamis.” Akechi swallowed, looking down.

“Hey.” Akechi looked up to find Robin Hood looking at him. “Personal justice, remember? I agree that killing them wasn’t right, but I also agree they deserved it.”

Akechi nodded quietly, then tapped his fingers. “So, what do you mean by listening to him?”

Robin Hood gestured expansively. “Well, this whole business with Shido, for a start. Loki’s the part of you that decided that it would be a good idea to go up to the man you thought to be your father and offer him your services as an assassin who can kill people without anyone knowing. Obviously, this was a terrible idea.”

“I needed to get close to him—“

“You wanted to get close to him so he would know who you were. Putting the question of killing him aside, you could have ended him with ease before you proved to him the cognitive world existed. As soon as you proved that, though, any guarantees went out the window. Now, not only are you entangled in his web, he’s probably got protections against you. He’s a smart man.”

Akechi crossed his arms. “What’s the line from Poe? A wrong is unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself known?”

“And there are ways to do that that without working for him and killing people for him. For example, going straight, tearing his empire from below him, and waving at him as he falls?”

There was silence for a moment. Then Akechi looked down. “Mayasoshi Shido is also…”

“Your father. And your last chance to get the positive acknowledgement of one of your parents.” When Akechi gripped his arms, Robin Hood sighed softly. “You don’t need his acknowledgement. It’s not going to actually help you.”

“…Then why does it feel good when he gives me even the most perfunctory thanks?”

“Because you want it. But it’s keeping you trapped in his web.”

“Then what do you recommend?” Akechi snapped, making Robin Hood chuckle.

“You’ve got friends now—or, at least, people who could be your friends. Let them help you.”

Akechi stared for a moment. Then his eyes hardened into a glare. “Are you trying to get them killed? You just explained exactly why they shouldn’t go after him! I don’t want them dead!”

“Then make sure they don’t go after him until you’re certain that he can be taken down.” Robin Hood tapped his foot. “You’re capable of figuring out if it’s safe or not, and in the meantime, they can wreck the rest of his Conspiracy and weaken him that way. Who knows? He might slip enough that you can take him down without resorting to stealing his heart.”

“…That’s…a very good point.”

“That’s my job.”

“Be that as it may, they may not want my help.” Akechi scowled “What then?”

“Then you do what you can from behind the scenes to help them, and otherwise try to get away from Shido.” Robin Hood tilted his head. “But I don’t think that’ll be too much of a problem. They were pretty gung-ho about helping and giving you a second chance.” Akechi looked up, eyes wide, and Robin Hood nodded. “So long as you mean it.”

“I do.” There was confusion in Akechi’s voice, but he looked hopeful. “They…really want to be my friends?”

“Ren and Makoto, without a doubt. Yusuke…he seems fairly neutral, but he also seems like he’ll follow Ren’s lead. Ryuji wanted to punch you, but he was also one of the most upset at your Palace. Anne was weirded out, but she’ll come around, I think. And Futaba…well, she hasn’t forgiven you, but she also wants you to redeem yourself.”

“…And Nozomi?”

Robin Hood gave him a flat look. “You know good and well what she thinks.”

Akechi flushed a deep red. “Yes, well—“

“Well nothing. You’re going to need to do something about that sooner rather than later.”

“I’m still a murderer.”

Robin Hood shook his head. “That doesn’t mean she can’t love you.”

“…I’ll talk to her. Later.” Akechi huffed. “Now is not a good time for declarations of undying love.”

“…You have me there.”

Akechi gave Robin Hood a smug look, then raised an eyebrow. “Anything else?”

“What are you going to do about Shido? He obviously can’t be told, but you can’t keep working for him.”

“…I start calculus classes when we go back to school, and math has always been a difficult subject for me.” Akechi held his chin thoughtfully. “I can use that to forestall him for at least a bit—I’m not of as much use if my grades start dropping and my reputation suffers. That will also give me time to find out whether the Phantom Thieves want me on their team or not, and plan for either of those contingencies. It’s not a perfect plan, all told, but it is flexible. And if worst comes to absolute worst, I’ll just throw myself on my sword.”

“That had better be an absolute last resort.”

“It is.” Akechi stood. “I want to be with Nozomi. I want to help her at her side. That would be rather difficult from a jail cell or dead.”

“Good.” Robin Hood stepped forward and put one huge hand on Akechi’s shoulder. “It’ll work out.”

“I sincerely hope so.” Akechi looked around at the dim blue space. “So…how do I leave?”

***

August 26, Evening

The last thing Akechi remembered of the real world was standing in his apartment entrance, watching his TV and chair fade to black.

This was not his apartment entrance. This looked to be his bedroom floor, and for some reason, he was hanging over it by someone's hands. He blinked, then tried to ask who was holding him, but a soft croak was the only noise he made.

"Goro?" As the hands pushed back to straighten and stabilize, Nozomi's wild mess of black hair and wide red eyes partially obscured by her thick glasses came into view.

Akechi blinked again. “...Nozomi?" His voice still sounded horrible, but this time, he actually managed a word.

She gave a relieved sigh, shoulders sagging. "Oh thank God. Come here--"

She led him to his bed and sat him down, carefully, and he let himself be maneuvered,  rubbing his forehead. “...What..."

"You've been arguing with yourself for--" She looked at the Featherman clock on his bedside table. "--the better part of an hour, now.”

“An hour?" He shook his head, putting off the consideration of time for later. "I was talking to Robin Hood.”

“Who?"

"My...my Persona. The one I received from my Shadow.” He was still trying to wrap his mind around that—and until he had, he wouldn’t be explaining the full truth of it.

Fortunately, Nozomi didn’t press. "Oh." She was quiet for a moment, then added, softer, "You weren't responding to anything else.”

"I didn't realize there was anything else." Akechi swallowed, trying to ease his hoarse voice and dry throat. "What is everyone else doing?”

"Futaba's googling a few of the things you mentioned, since you weren't responding, but otherwise everyone else is out in the living room, trying to figure out what to do next." She bit her lip as she paused. "We...told most of their guardians that they were over at someone else's for a study date. Ren, Yusuke, and Makoto had to go home anyway for a bit, but they should be back soon." She paused again. "...We thought...it was probably best if I kept an eye on you while you were like that.”

As she spoke, the front door opened and closed, and a quiet chorus of greetings announced the arrival of the rest of the team. Akechi frowned, then looked at Nozomi. "...Was I a danger to anyone?”

"I don't think so; you were too far into your own head for that. But we couldn't know, so…"

"Better safe than sorry." Akechi leaned back against the wall.  "What is Futaba googling?”

"Various things. You talked a lot.”

"I'm aware." There was a note of irritation in his voice, even though his face was neutral. “I’m also aware that I'm not trustworthy, but if you're not going to turn me in, I'd still like to be some help.”

"I understand. But we'd like to do our own fact finding first before asking you." Nozomi gave him an askew look. "Failing trust, you're also not exactly the sharing type.”

"There are reasons for that. Still, humor me.”

"Mm." She paused. "You mentioned a man a few times.”

"...Mayasoshi Shido?”

“...Yes."

Akechi swore loudly and emphatically, briefly silencing the chatter from the other room and causing Nozomi to raise a brow. "Oh good, googling it before you got a chance to shut us down was the right decision.”

"If you wanted to make my life harder, yes." Akechi lurched to his feet. "We need to speak with the others.”

"No." Nozomi's hand flattened against his chest and pushed him back down with ease. "They can hear us just fine, and again, you just came out of an hour of mad ranting. You sit and try to get your bearings back.”

"Nozomi, while I understand that, I also understand that Shido is not someone you can take on right now. If he were, he would already be dead.”

"Honestly not really comforting either way.”

"It's not meant to be." Akechi grunted. "Are you going to let me up?”

“No.” Nozomi fixed him with an unimpressed gaze.

Akechi gritted his teeth, trying to suppress the urge to try to just push past her. She would have no problem tripping him and sitting on him, and he didn’t have the energy to physically fight her. "Then get everyone else and bring them in here.”

Nozomi maintained her unimpressed expression. "They can hear fine. How do you think Futaba knew what to google?”

Akechi's responding glare could freeze mercury as he finally lost his patience. “I am not shouting through my door at them, Nozomi. Let me up.”

"Who said that was why they could hear?" Her phone buzzed in her pocket. She took it out to glance only briefly before holding it up.

Emblazoned on the screen was a "Welcome to today's episode of Wire Tap!" and a cartoony caricature of Futaba sticking out her tongue.

"She really needs to stop bugging my phone.” Nozomi sighed, shaking her head. "But it does have its uses.”

Akechi looked at the phone silently. When he spoke again, his voice was a little gentler. "I also want to thank everyone, Nozomi.”

"...Mm." She put her phone away in her pocket. "Maybe." She stood up and put herself in front of him, hands on his shoulders, eyes searching behind her thick glasses to make sure he was entirely cognizant. He blinked back at her, quiet but entirely focused, and after a moment, she sighed, and pressed a kiss to his forehead. “Truly the most perplexing man on the planet,” she muttered to herself before taking his hands and pulling him to his feet.

He wobbled slightly, but when he was certain he wasn't going to fall over, he gave her a tiny smile. "My apologies." He paused, then leaned forward to press a kiss to her cheek, giving her plenty of time to stop him.

She did not.

When he pulled back, his smile had grown, as had a blush. "...Thank you.”

Nozomi's smile was thin and tired, but no less a smile. "You're welcome.”

He nodded, then led the way out to the rest of the team.

Chapter Text

August 26, Evening

Since Akechi had only the one chair, he wasn't surprised to see the rest of the team scattered across the floor. A distant part of him was surprised to see that Ren had cuddled up into Yusuke's side, but he pushed it away as unimportant and cleared his throat.

Surprising no one, nobody actually looked up to pay attention, aside from Futaba's mutter of acknowledgement.

Nozomi sighed, cleared her own throat, and then brought down one of her heels with a solid clack! "Alright, listen up team--!"

The whole group jumped, looking much like it was time to throw down with a large Shadow before remembering where they were. Ren gave his sister a tired glare as he settled back under Yusuke's arm. "Nozomi, that was mean.”

“Asshole," Ryuji agreed, flumping back down.

"Well, that's what you get for not paying attention, kids.”

Akechi shook his head, then gestured for Nozomi to take the chair. Nozomi, however, flopped down between her brother and Ryuji, close enough to check over Futaba's shoulder if she was alright.

Akechi blinked, then tucked his hands in his pockets, remaining standing. "...First, I wanted to both thank you and apologize. I'm the one who placed the request on the Phansite, and I both appreciate the work you did in stealing my heart and am unhappy that you were placed in danger because of what I did."

Ren waved a hand. "We still would've done it even if we'd known.”

Anne nodded, leaning on the wall and tucking her feet a little closer. "That is what we do. Though a few more warning signs would have been nice..."

Morgana stretched in Futaba's lap, yawning, before settling back down. "Bah, warning signs. We would've handled it if we had just been thrown into the building with no lead up at all."

"Uh, how about we don't imagine that sudden mood whiplash?" Futaba shuddered.

"Still, I am both sorry and grateful." Akechi sighed. "...Now, to cut to the chase. Futaba, what have you found out?”

"This guy is super gross," said Futaba, still not looking up from her screen. "I mean his official pages are all nice and all, but there's some old stuff you can get to in the wayback machine that's disgusting, and a list of paid-off chicks on his lawyer's computer—“

Nozomi glanced over her shoulder again and did a double take. "...That's Shido?”

"That isn't even the half of it. I presume my actions aren't on there because I'm not on his payroll, but..." Akechi sighed. "Anything that has been labeled a psychotic break or a mental shutdown that actually made it onto the news in the last three years was my doing, at his orders."

There was silence for a moment. Then Makoto spoke, red eyes solemn. "So your cases..."

"Most were faked in some way, yes.”

Ryuji made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat. "So, like, this dude was using you to clear people out for him? Is that what we're gettin' here?"

Nozomi was hardly paying attention; she glanced up for a moment to acknowledge the conversation before going back to glaring daggers at Futaba's screen. Akechi frowned quizzically at her, then sighed softly. "...In essence, yes."

A dark, almost violent look passed across Yusuke's face. "He should be our next target."

Akechi blinked, rocking back on his heels. "...I appreciate the...protective sentiment, but...no. He shouldn’t."

Anne gave him a severe look from her spot, and he elaborated, "Going after him now is...not a good idea. I still don't know what protections he has in place, or how much he knows about the cognitive world.”

Morgana wriggled out from Futaba's lap to stare at him, managing to frown despite being a cat. "The dangers around him shouldn't be a deterrent. If we topple him, we topple a lot of what he's done, yes?”

"Not if you die." Akechi began to pace again. "I'm not asking that you allow me to join you. God knows I haven't earned that. But I am asking that you at least let me attempt to help, and part of that entails letting me find out if going after Shido will cause you to die before you even get into his Palace.”

Anne watched him, still frowning. "...So...what, you're offering to be like, a double agent?”

"Yes." He looked at the ground. "...If you would have me on the team...I would do my best for you. But...even if you won't have me, I'd at least like to make up for some of what I've done."

Ren frowned at him. "...Why aren't you just going to kill Shido?"

"That would be counter to the change of heart you just enacted.”

"Meaning you still want to.” Anne frowned, and Akechi shrugged slightly.

"I do, but I am also cogent of the fact that won't help at this point."

"...Changing my heart didn't make the outside not scary, so..." Futaba muttered.

"...A question,” Nozomi cut in, still glaring at the screen over Futaba's shoulder. "You said Shido was the one ordering things, correct? But your Shadow mentioned your father.”

He looked at Nozomi, then raised an eyebrow. "Come now. I'm sure you can figure it out.”

"Wait so--" Ryuji did a double take.

Nozomi however looked unfazed. "I see." Her voiced turned iron. "Alright, then. This is what we're going to do: this man could not get to where he is alone. Futaba already mentioned a lawyer, but he'd need backers as well. People to fund him, people to put him in the eye of the populace, people already in politics who can give him a leg up. I want their names, and I want them knocked out from under him."

Anne looked at her, a little unnerved by the sudden intensity. "Uh...Nozomi? Are you okay?"

"..." Nozomi sighed, finally looking up at the group. "You remember what I told you about? With my arrest and the disgusting lush who sued me in the first place?"

"Yes but--" Anne's eyes went wide. "Wait, are you saying--?!"

Ryuji was over in an instant, also staring over Futaba's shoulder and pointing fervently. "This guy?! This guy is also that fucker?!”

Ren looked at Futaba's screen. When he spoke, his voice was full of undiluted venom. "I'm going to enjoy tearing his empire apart."

"Names won't be hard,” Akechi said. "I was...on loan to others in his organization at his discretion, and he wasn't careful about concealing that from me."

Futaba hunched and gave everyone hovering over her a look, resulting in Ryuji limping back over to his spot and Nozomi finally straightening, pulling Ren up along with her.

"Sorry, honey,” she grimaced.

Futaba huffed, settling down again once she had a proper amount of personal space. "Even without that,” she added to Akechi's statement, "I already got like, his main lawyer right here, so finding the rest of his minions would probably only take a day or so.”

"His lawyer won't be the best target, but it's up to you." Akechi sighed. "Nonetheless, whatever you may need, I am at your disposal.”

The team looked at each other, then huddled together, whispering amongst themselves. Akechi took the hint and wandered back toward his bedroom, out of earshot.

***

"He would be a great asset on the field,” Morgana pointed out, "He has intimate knowledge of these people and if he's been active for three years..."

"Yeah, but he's been active for three years killing Shadows,” Anne pointed out, frowning. "He didn't know Palaces collapse in general if you stop what's causing them, remember?"

"I ‘unno," Ryuji shrugged. "I mean I don't exactly want this guy armed near me, but like. We changed his heart, right? It should be chill."

Futaba shifted uncomfortably. "He's not really chill,” she replied. "He should have an actual chance to have his redemption arc, I'm not going back on that, but I'm not...sure I'm comfortable with the idea of him on the party yet.”

"While I understand that, Futaba, if he's with us, we can also keep an eye on him," Makoto murmured. "He's far less a risk on the team than off."

Yusuke nodded. "And he may backslide if he's not given proper reinforcement."

"...I say trial basis--try him in Mementos, see how we work together," Ren said slowly.

"I agree,” Nozomi said, nodding. "But we don't have to do anything immediately. Much as I would like getting on with cutting Shido's legs off, we've had quite a trial as of late. We should rest." She glanced at Akechi through through the group, where he had paused in whatever busy work he was doing to lean his head against the wall. "We should all rest." She paused, thoughtful. "...We have a school trip coming up once it starts again, don't we?”

"We all do, though Kosei's going to LA. I think some of the older students are coming as chaperones, though, so if Akechi comes, we can hang out.” Ren looked at Yusuke, who nodded.

"Well, there. We can wait until after that before trying anything. It would give us all time to cool off." Nozomi looked at Futaba and Morgana. "Does that sound alright to you?"

"Why are you asking me?" Morgana inquired. "I'm coming with you."

"I can't sneak you onto a plane, Morgana."

"Whaaaaaaat?"

"So it'd just be me and Mona at home?" Futaba squished the cat to her chest, eyes wide as she thought. "...Y-yeah, I think that'd be a good cool-down period.”

Ren smiled at her and gently squeezed her shoulder, then jumped as his stomach growled.

"Honestly." Makoto shook her head, then stood. "I wager the rest of you haven't eaten either.”

“Uhhh,” Ryuji said eloquently.

“H-hey, I did!" Anne protested.

"I can't leave the cafe without feeding Morgana something,” Nozomi drawled.

"It's not enough!" The cat fussed, wriggling in the hacker's arms, and was thoroughly ignored.

"I hunger!" Futaba cried, wide eyes now focused on Makoto. "Can we order pizza?? I want pizza!”

"Akechi?"

Akechi poked his head out of his bedroom. "Yes?"

"Is there anywhere that delivers pizza here?"

"I...should think so..." Akechi frowned, and Makoto buried her face in her hands.

"Are you kidding me…"

“Dude," Ryuji said, giving him a look. "How do you not know if there's a pizza joint near your own place?”

"I don't order pizza?" Akechi blinked at Ryuji, then shook his head. “I don’t know why I’m justifying myself to you…”

A frenzy of typing and the soft yowl of Morgana being dropped a small distance suddenly went off before Nozomi found Futaba making grabby hands for her bag, where the little gremlin was well aware she kept her notebook. As soon as Nozomi opened it for her, Futaba snatched the notebook up and scribbled a number down fervently before handing it to Makoto.

“Pizza," she announced triumphantly.

Anne looked around the group and frowned, quietly. "...Are we staying here overnight?"

"Uh..." Nozomi frowned, glancing over at Akechi. "...It'd probably be wise for at least a couple of us to, all things considered.”

Akechi looked around at them all, eyes wide and a little startled. "...You are welcome to stay. I don't mind."

Anne considered this, then looked at the incredible lack of comfortable places to lay or pajamas. "I'm gonna run home for a sec, then,” she announced. "Ryuji, could you come with me?"

"Huh? Why?" The tall girl leaned over and whispered in his ear. His eyes went wide, then he grinned. "Ohhhh, oh yeah, cool, I'll come."

At Nozomi's questioning look, Anne whispered in her ear too. She smiled and nodded her approval at the blonde. Anne smiled back, and she and Ryuji turned towards the door.

"Be back soon!"

"Don't eat everythin' if the food gets here first,” Ryuji yelled over his shoulder as he followed her out.

Makoto gave Ryuji an amused look as he left, then began to order. "Yes, hello, I would like to place an order for delivery…"

***

A few hours later, the pizza was mostly eaten, everyone who needed them had borrowed pajamas from Anne (save Yusuke, who had borrowed from Akechi to avoid the indignity of being stuck in pants that barely reached to his ankles), and everyone was settling in for sleep. Akechi watched Futaba begin to build a truly ludicrous pile of pillows from his new spot at Nozomi’s side, then grunted softly as Ren’s calves ended up in his lap. He glanced over to see Ren’s feet in Nozomi’s lap, then looked the other way to find that Ren had settled his head in a pleased-looking Yusuke’s lap

He pondered the pair for a moment, then leaned over and murmured in Nozomi’s ear, “Are they dating?”

"Strangely, no.” Nozomi leaned around Akechi to give Ren a look that could only be described as Significant, and Ren squinted at her, then crossed his arms and looked away with a huff. Nozomi poked her little brother, pointedly, before leaning on Akechi a bit more.

Futaba looked up from her computer, mouth stuffed full of pizza like a chipmunk. "Wait they're not??"

Ryuji laughed, while Ren growled, "No, we're not, and if you keep asking me about it I'm going to put ice down your shirt." Ren proceeded to bury his face in Yusuke's stomach.

Yusuke blinked down at him, then gave Anne a confused look. Anne shrugged helplessly, then went back to reading her news feed off her phone.

Akechi stared for a long moment, then carefully rested his head on Nozomi's shoulder and closed his eyes. The quiet breathing of exhausted teens surrounded him, and he smiled slightly. ”…Thank you for staying.”

Nozomi did not respond verbally, but her hand came up to pet his hair, and that was enough of an answer for him.

~Fin~