The Metaverse felt more foreign than it had ever before, and Slaine knew it had nothing to do with the fact that he had never been in this Palace. The rest of the Phantom Thieves moved as quietly as they could, stealthier than expected of untrained high school students in thief costumes, but their movements still sounded deafening to Slaine. He was used to the noise of his own breaths, his muffled boots, his quiet thoughts. The chatter of the others was distracting.
“This Palace isn’t as creepy as the other ones,” Amifumi commented as Kaizuka went to pick up whatever the Shadow had left behind when it vanished. She was looking at the statue of a horse and rider that was sitting in the middle of the hall. It figured that Crutheo would have white marble and Vers red even in his own mind.
“Yeah, he just has what, a white knight complex?” Craftman guessed with a shrug. Slaine didn’t bother correcting them on the finer points of Cruhteo’s personality.
It was everywhere around them: the knights armed with cruel weapons, the horses’ reins pulled tight until their necks arched like they would break, the Shadows ranked and filed like little tin soldiers.
“We’ve seen some pretty creepy Palaces,” Klein supplied helpfully, unwittingly drawing Slaine into the conversation. “Do you think the longer it sits there, the uglier it gets?”
He very carefully didn’t flinch at the question. “It stands to reason. Your targets weren’t planning to change their ways on their own.”
If someone else had anything to add, they never got a chance to; Fenrir barked a warning that echoed in his head, and Klein was suddenly not standing beside him anymore, her Persona whisking her up with an echoing whinny and a whirl of blue flames. Klein was almost hidden behind the flowing robes of the goddess, leaning out far enough to look like she was going to fall. “Shadow incoming, Orange!”
Slaine braced for battle immediately, knowing before Kaizuka moved that they would be engaging. Kaizuka jumped up neatly onto the Shadow’s back and ripped off the mask, leaping off as it dissolved into bubbling red and black sludge. The Shadows emerged from it, revealing their true forms: emaciated humanoid shapes wrapped in billowing capes and stringy hair. The bared teeth of the horse head flashed under the straw hat, the rage filled screech matching the blood red it was covered with. Amifumi and Craftman instinctively took a step back in Slaine’s peripheral; Kumbhanda weren’t the worst he had seen in the cognitive world, but they never stopped being unsettling.
“R-Right. Come, Skadi!” Amifumi’s Persona loomed behind her for a moment before ice erupted under the Shadows, knocking them down - they barely had the time to even touch their guns before Kaizuka gave the signal for no mercy .
Slaine had already suspected that this was how they got this far; Kaizuka ruthlessly exploiting weaknesses as soon as they were found, quickly cleaning up unless they needed money or supplies. It was pragmatic.
It was what he did too.
He had only seen Kaizuka stop once to recruit one of the Shadows, soft voice only mildly warmer than the steel of the gun that was pointed at the Narcissus. The Wild Card was a definite boon to the team, considering the mechanical efficiency with which Kaizuka cycled through Personas to capitalize on weaknesses, but it was just as likely that they could have done fine without too. Maybe less progress, more caution.
“I think there’s a safe room nearby,” Amifumi supplied. The room to their right felt different from the others.
Kaizuka paused at the bulky door to look back at them, probably assessing their fatigue. Slaine could feel the others flagging, and he pretended to be the same. His arms hadn’t even started aching from his lance and his mind was still clear.
The brown eyes ended up on him and lingered there, unreadable. Slaine tilted his head in askance, but Kaizuka didn’t say anything, pushing open the giant ornate doors and walking in without looking back. The others followed him obediently, Klein already striking up a conversation with Amifumi and Craftman.
Slaine filed in last, gritting his teeth through the uncomfortable vertigo that came with every safe room. The walls flickered to a drab grey, cubicles appearing for a moment, before Slaine blinked and everything fell back to stone and tapestries.
Craftman dropped gracelessly into the closest chair, nearly toppling it, and both Amifumi and Klein lurched forward. They caught the back of the chair, only for Amifumi to hit Craftman upside the head herself.
He skirted around them to sit on the far corner of the table - close enough to not appear standoffish, far enough to not invite conversation - and carefully angled himself to keep everyone in his peripheral, pulling out his phone to pretend to read messages. Kaizuka was writing in a notebook again - a log? - and Slaine knew it would be at least a few minutes before the brunet would pay attention to the rest of them.
“We’ll stop here today,” Kaizuka said finally, putting the notebook away.
The room erupted in sighs of relief and wholehearted cheers. Kaizuka ignored the noise, pulling out his phone and thumbing through it with practiced ease. The Metanav deposited them where they had started, the alley behind the Vers building as deserted as it always was.
“You have now returned to the real world. Welcome back,” the app said politely.
“We should be at the Treasure soon.” Kaizuka turned to Klein. “Nina, get started on the calling card.”
“No problem,” she replied with a cheerful salute, “I’ll see you tomorrow, then!” The girl linked arms with Amifumi and the two of them left to a chorus of goodbyes, easily disappearing into the crowds in the main street. Craftman jolted and incoherently mumbled something about an errand, darting out of the alley in a flurry of panicked noises. Slaine stared after the other boy in a moment of confusion, and then made for the mouth of the alley himself.
“Troyard.” He stopped at the call of his name, turning around without any of his suspicions showing on his face. Kaizuka was still holding his phone, idly tapping at it. “Are you busy?”
“Not particularly,” he answered. He only had to murder one businessman before Thursday, study for the slew of exams coming up, and solve the three small cases the police station had begrudgingly thrown at him. It was a relatively quiet week.
Kaizuka nodded, pocketing his phone. “There’s a ramen shop down the street.”
It took a moment for Slaine to realize that it was an invitation, and then another to formulate a response around the unexpected warmth in his chest. “If you’re sure, I’d love to.”
The store itself was nothing special, a small family run place, but the food was good, and their conversation was surprisingly easy. It was obvious from his visits to the cafe that Kaizuka’s social skills were abysmal, but it seemed that strong-arming his way onto the team had ironically made their leader freer with words. Maybe Kaizuka wasn’t good at keeping secrets, and it was easier now that Slaine knew.
Only, that didn’t mesh with how carefully Kaizuka had hidden Deucalion’s activities outside of the calling cards, which he had been told had to be sent or the Treasure won’t form. Otherwise, the Phantom Thieves were ghosts. They never met outside in public. They didn’t talk on the phone. They left and arrived at staggered intervals.
The largest risk was their texting, and Kaizuka had shrugged when Slaine pointed it out, simply saying, “We don’t use target names or mention stealing hearts. There’s nothing incriminating.”
And Kaizuka was right: the chat log was useless as evidence. Even when the others expressed their worries over whether the change of heart would take place, it was always in the context of ‘Is the boss going down?’ or ‘This raid seems kind of difficult...’ or ‘You think the strategy will work this time?’ The most they could be accused of was being overly enthusiastic roleplayers.
He blinked. They had stepped out of the shop, and the air felt slightly chilly after the stuffiness of it. He put on a polite smile. “Yes?”
“You seem worried.”
“It’s nothing,” Slaine said automatically, and then caught himself, adding, “I’ve just never really played video games before.”
The brown eyes watched him for a moment, long enough for Slaine to doubt whether he had used the code correctly, before Kaizuka made a noncommittal noise. “There’s an arcade in Shibuya.”
It was hard to tell from the flat tone whether it was a simple statement or an invitation, so Slaine only nodded. The station came into view when he turned back to paying attention to where his feet were going and not whether there were reds in the brown of Kaizuka’s eyes.
“Thank you for inviting me, Kaizuka-san. It’s always nice to have company.” That much wasn’t a lie, at least.
Kaizuka nodded, pulling out a train pass as Slaine did the same. The other boy’s card was in a case, unsurprisingly, but the bright orange of it was unexpected. At least that explained the codename. A beat after they passed through the ticket gate with twin beeps, and still no response. Slaine opened his mouth to excuse himself. They were going in opposite ways-
“Welcome to the team, Troyard.”
The polite goodbye caught and died in his throat, and it took a moment before Slaine could find the words. “I- Thank you,” he said, and wasn’t surprised to find that he meant it.
“See you,” Kaizuka said in parting, tone bland, and turned to leave for the train line to Yongen-jaya without looking back.
Slaine took a deep breath before heading for his own platform. The rhythmic rattling of the train car was a familiar backdrop for sorting his thoughts, and there were a lot of them jumbled in his mind after the excursion. It was valuable information, on battle strength, on modes of operation - of course, there was the possibility that the team was hiding skills from him, but he doubted it. They weren’t very good actors. It was quite obvious, how they were wary of him.
That was fine. He hadn’t expected anything else.
His phone buzzed, and ingrained habit had him pulling it out immediately, tilting his head a fraction so he could read it under the cover of his school desk. The text was simple, only two words: Good work.
Slaine very carefully exhaled, for a slow count of three, and tabbed out of the conversation in the message app. It sat over the group chat for Deucalion, which had finally calmed down after Craftman’s batch of horrible jokes that morning, something about introducing them to Canadian humour. It was apparently a slow day at Shujin.
He locked the screen and slipped it back into his pocket discreetly. The teacher was a fan and wouldn’t have taken it away if he was caught, but Slaine prefered to tread carefully. Public opinion was fickle. It was better not to get used to it.
The bell rang for the end of school before his phone buzzed again with a message, and he paused in reaching for his briefcase to check it. It was only a location and a time, and he would have mistaken it for an information drop off if he hadn’t checked the sender’s ID. Kaizuka.
Are we meeting up? he typed back, expecting at least a few minutes before the reply, but his phone buzzed before he had even had a chance to put it down.
Slaine sighed. He wasn’t particularly looking forward to going into the Metaverse so soon after his solo run last night. At least when he went in with Deucalion the strain was fairly light in comparison. Alright, I will be there. He waited a couple of seconds in case Kaizuka had something to add, but the little Read tag appeared and his phone remained silent.
The address turned out to be the arcade on Shibuya’s central street. It took a moment to find Kaizuka in the crowd, but the brown eyes caught his immediately.
“Kaizuka-san,” he offered politely, getting a nod in return. Slaine scanned the crowd for the others, if only for an excuse to break eye contact. “Where are the others?”
“It’s just us,” Kaizuka answered, voice even, and Slaine turned to him in confusion.
“I thought we were dungeon grinding today?” he asked carefully, the code still foreign in his mouth.
Kaizuka shrugged. “Tomorrow.” That meant the calling card would be delivered the day after that, leaving the team two days to prepare for the confrontation with Crutheo’s Shadow. Sundays were good days for long fights in the Metaverse. He wasn’t too surprised that Kaizuka came to the same conclusion as he did.
“You said you haven’t played games before.” The other boy tipped his head towards the arcade’s doors. “We have time today.”
Slaine blinked. “Really?”
“It’s relevant to us,” the brunet started, “It improves hand-eye coordination, problem-solving skills, spacial awareness-”
“I see,” he interrupted with a shake of his head, “And you do this with all your teammates? I can’t imagine how you would find the time.”
“No, just you.”
It was silly of him to read into it, considering how the bland tone never changed, but Slaine could feel the lick of warmth in his chest and the heat spreading from the tips of his ears. “Lead the way, Kaizuka-san.”
The first thing that hit him as they stepped into the building was how loud it was, the floor systematically packed with machines and leaving narrow walkways between them. Most of them seemed to be playing cheerful music, the lights inside the glass almost too bright.
“How familiar are you with a gun?”
More than I ever wanted to be . “I’m sure you’ve drawn your own conclusions from the other day,” Slaine deflected with a carefully sheepish smile.
Kaizuka only gave a noncommittal hum, making for the narrow stairs up to the second floor. It was darker here, a different atmosphere, skewed towards action. There was even a machine that seemed to feature the cockpit of a giant robot in the far corner.
The one Kaizuka eventually stopped in front of had a neon sign saying ‘Gun About,’ which only confirmed the obvious. The brunet picked up one of the plastic guns, holding it loosely so that Slaine could see.
“The weight is sixty grams lighter than the MP443 unloaded,” Kaizuka intoned like it was common knowledge, thumb on the raised part of the plastic where the safety would be likely out of habit, “There’s no significant bullet drop and no recoil - the bullet goes where the crosshairs are.” With a shrug, Kaizuka handed the controller to him. “But there are useful techniques.”
Slaine nodded and curled his fingers around the grip, purposefully holding it too high. Kaizuka wordlessly corrected him, the warm fingertips running along where the slide of a real gun would have cut into his skin, and then picked up the second controller, slipping a coin into the machine.
“You seem awfully comfortable with this menu,” Slaine noted with a hint of amusement as Kaizuka breezed through the options before they had even fully loaded onto the screen. The brown eyes flicked to him, but there was a glimmer in them that might have been mischievousness.
“I train with a middle schooler every week,” Kaizuka deadpanned, before turning back to the game, “Don’t slow me down, Troyard.”
Slaine allowed himself to roll his eyes. “Hardly, Kaizuka-san.” The black loading screen shifted and split in the middle, and he purposefully took up a stance, relaxing his shoulders and overcorrecting his aim. He kept one eye on the enemy and the other on his score, letting it tick up higher and higher as time passed. Kaizuka’s soft voice supplied him with steady advice.
They wrapped up the round when Kaizuka’s phone beeped insistently in reminder, and Slaine surreptitiously checked his own phone. It certainly hadn’t felt like three hours. The brunet looked up after typing something on his phone - a text? - and he wondered how many other obligations Kaizuka had today. It left a bad taste in his mouth.
Envy was such an ugly thing.
“Meeting someone else?” he asked pleasantly with a smile.
Kaizuka shrugged. “It depends.” The brunet didn’t elaborate, shouldering his school bag. Slaine followed, thoughts drifting to the studying that still needed to be done, but his mind felt clearer than it had all day. Maybe there was merit to the arcade, after all.
“Troyard.” Kaizuka was standing in front of one of the machines on the ground floor. Getting closer, he saw that it was one of the many claw games, with a snowman wearing a blue hat balanced precariously on two rails inside. A Jack Frost.
“The claw strength is set by the owners, you know,” Slaine commented casually, “It’s meant to succeed only after a certain amount of tries.” Kaizuka didn’t seem discouraged or surprised, merely nodding. “Are you going to try anyway?”
“No.” The brunet tilted his head before slipping into the impossibly narrow space between this machine and the next. “You are.”
“You’re serious?” Slaine stared at the coin that Kaizuka offered to him.
“Yes.” The brown eyes met his through two panes of glass, expression bland.
Slaine shook his head as he took the coin, putting it into the machine. It chirped cheerfully, and he looked at the buttons. Buttons, not even a joystick, so this crane was probably the ones that gave the player only one chance to move the claw in the two directions.
“Are you ready, Slaine?” Kaizuka’s voice was no different than it was in the Metaverse when giving out commands.
“As I’ll ever be,” he sighed, and eyed the toy. Its perch was less unsturdy than it looked, but maybe -
He pushed the button and the claw whirled to life, sliding smoothly across until he abruptly let go. A glance showed that Kaizuka was studiously focused on the toy, and he pressed down on the second button, releasing it immediately at the soft, “There.”
The claw descended automatically, and like he had thought it would, pushed against the left of Jack Frost’s head before closing around it. It reeled up, for a moment looking like the grip would hold, before the blue fabric slipped past the thin tines. That was fine- the damage was already done. The Jack Frost wobbled against gravity for a second, overbalanced, then took a headfirst dive into the chute.
Slaine felt a smile on his face as he knelt down and pulled the Jack Frost out. “We were lucky,” he said as Kaizuka extracted himself from the tiny space. He held the toy out, but the brunet shook his head.
“It’s for you.”
“For me?” Slaine echoed, his mind blanking on him for a moment. He looked down to examine the toy, running his fingers over it. The material wasn’t terribly soft, and the blue of its hat looked like it might run if it got wet. The smile on its face was just as wide as it was in the Metaverse, one of its little hands raised in greeting.
“Thank you,” he managed finally, and tucked it into his briefcase. Kaizuka didn’t say anything as they stepped outside, and Slaine lingered by the doors when the other boy did, not entirely sure what to expect.
“What is your favourite coffee?”
“Um,” Slaine started eloquently, “I don’t think I have a preference.” Kaizuka only nodded, typing on his phone. “Why?”
“Come to LeBlanc again.”
“Was there something you needed me to do?”
“No.” The brown eyes looked up and speared him immediately. “You’re more relaxed there.” There was nothing Slaine could say to that. Kaizuka seemed to take his silence as the end of the conversation, pocketing his phone. “See you tomorrow.”
Kaizuka didn’t wait for him to say it back, turning away to leave without another word. Slaine stood there for a moment more before making for the station. He might as well start the studying that he had been planning to do.
As he waited for the train - one had just left, of course - he pulled out the Jack Frost on a whim. It had a bead chain threaded through a loop on its head, but it wasn’t like he had any place to put it. He had a hard enough time getting adults to take him seriously without a children’s toy hanging off of him.
Slaine pinched the chain. Jack Frost smiled back up at him guilelessly.
By the time he was stepping onto the train, it was swinging off the handle of his briefcase.
“Oh, there’s a big one up ahead!” Klein called out, sounding far too cheerful for a warning. There was a mutter about unfairness and horses and Personas on horses from Slaine’s right, but he noticed that Craftman was also distinctly nowhere near her. Kaizuka only nodded, inching carefully around the corner to get a visual.
“Are we ready for it?” Amifumi asked anxiously. Slaine realized now that the flightiness was less a personality trait and more because she was ninety percent of Kaizuka’s impulse control.
Another nod, and Kaizuka broke out of the shadows, weapon out, leaving them to follow. This Shadow was larger, a gatekeeper, and its glowing red eyes instantly zeroed onto them. “I’ll grind you into dust!” it shouted without bothering with conversation, and Slaine watched the black sludge reform itself into a floating form, a man with a goat head and folded wings: Baphomet. They were weak to-
Slaine sighed inwardly at the codename, reaching for Tyr as they fanned out into a battle formation. He ripped his mask off in one smooth motion, the blue flames and black chains surrounding him familiarly as his Persona appeared, summoning light with a sweep of its arm. The spell struck the Shadow and knocked it off balance, and Slaine didn’t bother reaching for his gun, knowing that Kaizuka would signal for all out .
Baphomet recovered before they could kill it - as expected of one of Cruhteo’s guards. Its red eyes fell on Slaine, obviously recognizing him as a threat, and he braced himself. Baphomet prefered fire and ice magic, neither of which Tyr had a resistance to, making Fenrir bristle and try to shoulder to the front of his mind.
A familiar rush of energy - Sukukaja - surged through his body just as the frost gathered around him, and he managed to duck into a roll before it quickly solidified into ice. Klein’s warnings bounced around his head, and he scrambled to his feet, running as ice spiked up behind him, but his boots were slipping against the frost that was rapidly outpacing him.
Then the ground was gone from under his feet, a sturdy grip on his arm and waist lifting him easily onto horseback - Klein’s Persona. He couldn’t see the woman’s face under her helmet, but Gna didn’t waver as ice exploded around them, the horse’s gait swift and sure even as they turned sharply on a dime.
A flash of blue fire out the corner of his eye, Kaizuka’s voice uncharacteristically loud, and then Klein was calling to him, “Now’s your chance!”
Gna was skidding to a stop, but Slaine already had his gun in his hands and took three shots, hitting Baphomet right between its eyes, a stunned look on its face as it wobbled in the air. A battle axe glinting with the light of Assault Drive cleaved through its neck, and the Shadow fell apart.
For a moment, Slaine stayed unmoving with his gun pointing at nothing, chest heaving. Then Amifumi’s axe met the marble floor with a loud clunk that made him jump, and he tracked the girl from the axe, now embedded into the stone, to Kaizuka. “Cerberus is weak to ice!”
Slaine watched, baffled, as the scolding slid off Kaizuka like water. “Its attention wasn’t on me.”
“What if it was one of those multi-target attacks?!”
“I could have dodged it.”
Klein skipped up to stand beside Slaine, Gna fading out slowly enough to give him a chance to land on his feet, and gave him a comforting pat. Past her, he could see Craftman leaning casually against one of the marble horses lining the walls, and got a shrug in return when their eyes met.
“If Canary gets any angrier, she’d kill you herself,” Klein warned blithely, but she was obviously more preoccupied with reorganizing her bag of supplies than mediating.
“If she killed me, it’ll be bad for morale,” Kaizuka answered calmly, shrugging a shoulder.
Slaine surprised himself by snorting, and then he quickly turned his head to the side, bringing up a hand to pretend that it had been a cough. Klein didn’t buy it, if her laugh was any indication.
That seemed to break up the fight, because Amifumi sighed and retrieved her axe. Kaizuka was unruffled. “How far is the Treasure?”
Klein hummed thoughtfully, eyes flashing yellow so that it matched the elegant gold on her mask. “Right up ahead! There’s a safe room off to the right too.”
“Good.” Kaizuka started forward. “We’ll confirm the Treasure’s location and send the calling card tomorrow.”
Craftman made a show of rolling a shoulder with a sigh. “That’s good, I’m beat.”
“But you didn’t do anything,” Klein said teasingly - it must have been a reference to something, because Amifumi recovered her good humour at the quip.
“At least I walked ,” Craftman shot back, but his usual grin was still in place.
“You just wish you had a horse for your Persona.”
Kaizuka didn’t seem to be listening, but when Slaine caught a glimpse of the brunet’s face as he paused at the door, he could see a soft smile. The brown eyes watched him in return until Slaine averted his gaze, and the heavy doors cracked open with ominous silence.
It was a large room that looked like a strange cross between a ballroom and an arena; it had the lavish marble floors and vaulted ceilings, large pillars in between the glass windows, but also rows of ornate velvet covered chairs lining the raised sides like bleachers. At the far end, flanked on each side by a statue of a knight on a rearing horse, an indistinct shifting mass floated above a short altar.
“All clear,” Klein said, and Kaizuka walked into the room, making straight for the end. Slaine brought up the rear, feeling ill at ease in such an exposed room.
“The Treasure is just sitting here?” Amifumi asked, tone a bit incredulous.
Slaine shifted his weight, and decided it couldn’t hurt. “Cruhteo likely believes that no one can best his security.” He glanced around the room, and it was easy to imagine a tournament taking place. “And it’s likely a trophy, which means he would want to display it.”
“Ooh,” Craftman dragged the word out in a noise of understanding, “Makes sense that it wouldn’t be in a vault then.”
“We’ve secured the route to the Treasure,” Kaizuka said blandly with a shrug, “We’re done here.”
They all turned back for the safe room. Slaine half expected a Shadow to ambush them, but they made it back without being accosted. The Metanav congratulated them brightly for their work as Kaizuka brought them back into the real world. Slaine checked his phone, and relaxed a bit - no texts.
“Hey, you guys want to come eat with us?” Craftman’s voice pulled his attention away from the screen. The other boy was huddled over Klein’s phone along with the two girls. Kaizuka just shook his head. Slaine shifted his weight and put on an apologetic smile. Their lukewarm reactions had Craftman throwing up his hands with a groan. “Fine, party poopers. See ya tomorrow.” It said a lot that the words were still accompanied by a good-natured grin. Amifumi waved goodbye as well, but Klein had her phone out and shook it meaningfully. Was she expecting Kaizuka to report back to her?
When Slaine turned to look, Kaizuka’s expression was unreadable as always. “Come to LeBlanc.”
“Was there something you wanted to discuss?” Slaine tested the waters, trying to figure out what the other boy wanted from him.
“Just felt like curry.” The response wasn’t anything close to what he expected, and he found himself genuinely laughing for the first time in a long, long time.
“Don’t you live there?” he asked, but he was following Kaizuka out of the alley, “I would have thought you’d be sick of curry by now.”
“I cook my own food,” the brunet answered, “Curry isn’t nutritionally balanced enough to eat on a daily basis.”
“I didn’t take you as a health nut, Kaizuka-san.” The look he got in return was comically dry, and Slaine hid his smile behind a hand just to be polite.
“You can call me Inaho.”
Slaine turned to Kaizuka, a little startled by the sudden offer. “Oh,” he said eloquently.
“The others use my first name.” The brown eyes for once weren’t looking back at him, instead fixed on some point ahead of them.
“Then I would ask that you do the same, Inaho-san,” he agreed mildly, the name rolling off his tongue strangely, but not unpleasantly. The brunet nodded, seemingly more interested in digging out the train pass from what Slaine knew to be the most organized bag in existence.
He allowed himself a smile.
The buzzing hadn’t stopped all morning. Slaine finally gave in and checked his phone in second period, finding Klein, Craftman, and Amifumi arguing over what snacks to bring to the meetup. Unless they were planning to go shopping beforehand, Slaine had a hard time believing they could have all of that on hand. He offered to do a snack run, just to be polite, and got a bunch of happy emoticons in return, complete with sparkles.
If you work part-time, you can buy your own . Inaho, dry even in text form. Klein immediately took mock offence, You’re the only one who can magically juggle five jobs! (╬ Ò ‸ Ó) and the conversation derailed completely.
Slaine put away his phone with a shake of his head. When a classmate wandered over and chatted him up, he found that he was already wearing a smile.
The detour to the store wasn’t much of a detour itself, being only one street off from the one he usually took to the station anyway. Slaine looked at the shelf of junk food and decided to just choose according to what seemed to be most popular. He was more familiar with instant noodles and convenience store bento. The cashier didn’t bat an eye at his purchase, so it mustn’t have been too far off from what normal teenagers got.
The train was packed, as usual, and he slipped in to jam himself into a corner by the door. His briefcase gave him a small triangle of space as the other commuters were pushed against the metal casing, grumbling, and he plastered on a apologetic smile to appease them. He got to Yongen-jaya without being overly late or smothered, but he slipped into LeBlanc gratefully anyway.
Slaine greeted Marito behind the counter with a nod and a smile before putting the plastic bag on the table where the four were already sitting. He moved back to turn one of the stools around before any of them could invite him to sit at the booth, perching on the chair with a mild expression on his face.
A cup of coffee appeared at his elbow, and he looked up at the owner questioningly. Slaine came in here often enough that he had a clear pattern, but usually the man waited until he actually ordered.
“On the house,” Marito said with a lopsided smile before walking out to take a smoke, maybe to keep plausible deniability.
“So this is what I’ve come up with!” Klein brandished the calling card in front of his nose, and he took it carefully in his hand, only half aware of them descending onto the snacks as he skimmed it. It was the same format of the other cards, the wording grandiose as usual. The artistic touch he attributed to Klein, the wording to Craftman - probably after Amifumi had gotten to him.
“I’m assuming you’ll be mass printing them on a combini printer?” he asked as he placed the card back down onto the table, taking a careful sip of his coffee.
“Yup!” There was nothing dark in the smile she gave him, like she wasn’t mad that he had figured out their methods. “Inko picks it up for us.” It made sense; out of the four of them, Inaho and Amifumi stood out the least.
“It’s not that hard,” Amifumi instantly played it down, shooting up straight in her seat. He still couldn’t decide if it was because she distrusted him the most, or because she wasn’t enough familiar with him.
“Well, putting them up is!” Craftman offered cheerfully, grinning as usual. Slaine had to admit that he was impressed by how careful the postings of the calling cards always were, considering the usual carefree air that the boy gave off. Maybe Inaho had a hand in it, maybe not. He glanced over to their de facto leader and found the brown eyes watching him.
“The heist will be tomorrow,” Inaho said, putting down his phone, “We’ll meet at one, the same spot as last time, Interval E.” Slaine searched his memory for what arrival pattern that would be, blinking out of it when he caught a pack of rice crackers thrown at him out of pure reflex.
“Sorry,” Klein said, although there was a bit of amusement in her expression too, “Do you have anything to add to the card? If not I’m going to start washing the file and then printing it.”
Slaine shook his head, letting his hand drop back down to his lap. “No, I have nothing.”
“Okay!” She elbowed Craftman when the boy made no move to let her out of the booth, smiling sweetly even as she left Craftman holding to his side and mock dying on the table. “See you guys!” With a wave and a peal of the door bell, she was gone.
So was the calling card. Maybe he should reevaluate his view on her.
“We should go get ready too,” Amifumi suggested into the silence, poking the back of Craftman’s head with a box of pocky. “You said you wanted to study.”
“Why would I-” Craftman lifted his head with a whine, the grey eyes looking at her pleadingly before abruptly flicking to Slaine. “Oh, right. Studying.” Hands clapped together loudly as Craftman’s face met the table top again. “Save my grades, Inko!”
“Let’s go .” She grabbed her school bag in one hand and Craftman’s limp arm in the other. As Amifumi passed by, she gave him a smile much less confident than Klein’s. “See you tomorrow, Troyard-kun.” The way her eyes cut purposefully to Inaho wasn’t lost on him. “Don’t stay up late, Inaho!”
The only reply was a nod with a bland expression, and even Slaine could tell that was no promise. Amifumi rolled her eyes as she hauled her captive out of the cafe. Abruptly left alone with Inaho, Slaine shifted in his seat. He took a long sip of his coffee, and then cleared his throat when it was clear Inaho wasn’t going to say anything. “I suppose I should go prepare as well.”
Inaho tipped his head to the side. “There’s still time.” The brown eyes dropped to where Slaine had left his briefcase. “I’ll pay for dinner.”
“Aren’t you busy?” Slaine asked, the bag of rice crackers crinkling when his fingers tightened reflexively around them. Don’t you have something more important to do than spend time with someone like me? he didn’t say.
“No,” Inaho answered without hesitation, and Slaine could almost believe him. He dropped his gaze, staring into his coffee like he expected to find his answer at the bottom of it.
“Okay,” he agreed at length, and drained the rest of his cup.
The sun was still bright in the sky when Slaine found himself in the streets of Shibuya, heading for the restaurant that Inaho suggested. The streets were full of people, many of which were students still in uniform. It felt - normal.
“Is this one of the many places you work at?” Slaine asked conversationally.
Inaho gave him a side-eyed look. “Yes.”
“One of five?”
“They all have flexible hours,” Inaho answered, and it was the closest to defensive that he had ever heard in the brunet.
He turned his head at the sound of his name, and his eyes widen in surprise. “Asseylum-san?”
“It’s a pleasant surprise to see you here,” Asseylum said with a smile, green eyes shifting to Inaho. She dipped her head politely at him. “Hello! I’m always happy to meet Slaine’s friends - my name is Asseylum Vers Allusia.”
“Kaizuka Inaho.” It came with a nod, automatic. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Slaine shifted uncomfortably; she shouldn’t be meeting the leader of the Phantom Thieves, civilian guise or not. “It’s been a while.”
“Ah, yes.” The expression on her face fell. “There was a slight accident.”
Immediately his veins flooded with ice. “An accident?”
“Yes,” she answered, looking apologetic. “I felt a bit dizzy in the bath, and had a fall. It wasn’t serious, but Mr. Cruhteo asked me to stay in the hospital for a few days, for his peace of mind.” Slaine felt his hand tighten on the handle of his briefcase - how long did he have until it wasn’t an actual accident, and became something that she couldn’t wake up from? “Slaine?”
“I’m sorry.” Slaine snapped out of it, forcing himself to loosen his fingers one by one as he plastered on a smile. “I might be a bit tired.”
“It’s quite alright. Please take care of yourself.” She reached out to pat his arm comfortingly, and Slaine tried for her sake to make the expression on his face less plastic. “I’m sure you and your friend had plans; I won’t keep you. It was wonderful making your acquaintance, Kaizuka-san.” Asseylum nodded to each of them in turn with a pleasant farewell, and he returned the gesture numbly. Two men in suits peeled off from the crowd to follow her - her entourage of bodyguards.
Bodyguards who might have two paycheques instead of one.
“Slaine.” Inaho looked like he always did, expression unreadable and brown eyes catching Slaine’s with alarming frequency.
“I remembered that I have some business to take care of,” he managed, tongue feeling heavy in his mouth and only half aware of what he was saying, “I’m sorry, Inaho-san - maybe another time.”
Slaine ducked his head and pivoted on his heel without waiting for an answer, walking away as fast as he could without running.
The apartment was quiet and dim even as noon approached. Slaine sat at the dinner table with a mug of coffee that had long gone cold, staring listlessly at the blank wall. His phone started buzzing with an alarm, and he silenced it mechanically before pulling himself to the bathroom. The water from the sink was cold enough to make his fingers tingle, his face sting. He drew a sharp breath - it made his mind feel less like it was composed of fuzz.
It was a mistake to open his eyes; he caught his reflection, and the red, burning hate that seized him made his hand twitch with the need to drive his fist through the mirror. Breathing very carefully, he pushed the urge away, boxed and buried it beyond even where Fenrir stirred restlessly in his mind.
Slaine turned away from the mirror deliberately and went back out, picking up his phone and his briefcase before ducking out of the apartment. It was easy to switch his thoughts off and let his feet trace the familiar steps to the station and then to the alley behind the office building.
Inaho was already there, eyes intent on his phone, but the brunet looked up when he entered the alley. Slaine put on a polite smile, ready to offer a greeting, only to be cut off when Inaho held out what seemed like a wrapped sandwich to him. He blinked dumbly as he took it automatically.
“You haven’t eaten,” Inaho said, because it was too flat to be a question.
“You didn’t have to,” he murmured belatedly.
The brunet shrugged. “I wanted to.”
Eating at least meant Slaine had an excuse not to talk. He unwrapped it and tried not to think about how obviously homemade it was, or the way he could feel the brown eyes on him every now and then. The other boy couldn’t possibly know.
The others arrived closer together than they should have, according to the original plan. Slaine closed his eyes at the feeling of nausea from moving into the Metaverse, only opening them when his ears had stopped ringing from the shift. They were back at the last safe room in the Palace, right before the Treasure.
“Are you ready?” Inaho asked, but it was more a formality at this point. The brown eyes lingered on him for a second but in the end the brunet turned without a word and led them out.
The doors to the Treasure room were already opened. They immediately moved to hug the walls and stay out of sight, Inaho braced beside the door to peer into the room.
Slaine stiffened involuntarily at the familiar voice, a beat slower than the others to move out of his crouch. Inaho walked in without hesitation, Amifumi’s hissed warning going unheard, and the rest of them followed hurriedly.
The room had changed since the last time they were here. The empty chairs along the walls were filled with humanoid silhouettes that were faint and indistinct when Slaine looked directly at them, but out of the corner of his eye they twisted into large, disproportional Shadows. He found it more unsettling that none of them were openly hostile.
He turned his attention to Cruhteo’s Shadow at the end of the room, its hands resting deceptively loose on the head of an ornate cane. The man stood tall and immaculate in a grey suit, tie a slash of blood red around its neck. The red matched the handkerchief in the breast pocket, blooming like a gunshot wound. The yellow eyes were sharp with disdain.
That much was no different than in the real world, at least.
“So you are the ones who dared to challenge me.” The Shadow’s eyes fell onto Slaine, and Fenrir snarled threateningly in his head. “And you brought the useless whelp with you.”
“No one here meets that description,” Inaho said flatly, uncharacteristically curt, “I’m assuming you won’t just give up your Treasure.”
“You’re correct.” Cruhteo gestured behind it, drawing their attention to the marble altar. A shield with the Vers emblem as its herald sat where the indistinct mass had been floating before. “But I am fair and just.” Slaine felt his back burn with phantom pain. “You may claim it - if you are victorious in this arena.”
“The rules,” Inaho prompted.
“You and your friends, against me. You can use whatever you wish, and I will fight as myself.” The smirk on the man’s face was all sharp edges. “I have no doubts as to who will be the victor.”
The Shadow remained standing regally even as a reddish aura engulfed the man, twisting tighter and tighter until its form ruptured into rivers of black and red. A horse leaped out of the puddle of sludge right at them, forcing them to move out of the way as it twisted in a tight circle to face them. There was red on the horse’s white coat, from the dozens of lacerations that were still dripping blood. The knight on its back shone in silver, brandishing a whip and not a single flaw on its armour.
Slaine didn’t want to think about what the horse stood for.
“You will learn your place! Anyone who doesn’t adhere to the rules of the Empire will be punished by death!” The Shadow punctuated the words with a crack of the whip, nearly catching Craftman in the stomach; the other boy yelped and ducked, swinging his sword in retaliation far too late.
“Beast, fall back,” Inaho ordered, “Bat, with me.” Slaine couldn’t see what good his lance would do, but he bit the inside of his cheek and followed. The knight pulled tightly on the reins and the horse reared back, hooves lashing out as they approached.
It was the strange tang in the air that made Slaine push Inaho away, the lightning crashing down where they were mere seconds ago. Of course Cruhteo’s Shadow would use Zio spells.
Slaine summoned Tyr as Fenrir growled in his mind, hoping that Bless would be one of Cruhteo’s weaknesses, but the light barely seemed to bother it at all. Ice spiked as Amifumi attempted the same.
“Bless and Bufu are ineffective!” Klein confirmed, Gna nimbly keeping her away from the unpredictable whip. Craftman’s cry for Dellingr was warning for the fire that erupted under the horse’s hooves, making it whinny and bolt. “Agi’s neutral.” Three down, seven to go.
A shot rang out, stopping the horse in its tracks with a bellow of pain. The whip cracked the tiles on the ground right in front of Inaho, but the brunet didn’t flinch, eyes fixed on the monster in front of them, and fired another shot at the beast. The horse’s front legs gave out, and Slaine sprinted forward, ripping off his mask before leaping up, letting the strength of Tyr’s Brave Blade boost him as he stabbed his lance into the space between the helmet and the breastplate.
The knight screamed, layers of distortion over Cruhteo’s voice, but he could still hear it. He held on, boots finding little purchase on the armour as he perched on its back, before he had to tug out his lance and jump out of the way.
“That was so cool, Bat!” He had no time to acknowledge Klein before he had to move, the horse having struggled to its feet again and the knight bringing the whip around with a new vengeance. The floor was beginning to become more red than white, and Slaine took a running jump to avoid a trail of slick blood. A bolt of Ziodyne crackled mere breaths away from him and he flinched, slipping right across a puddle of blood to avoid the electricity that skittered over the floor.
“Eight o’clock, Bat,” Inaho called out calmly, “Canary, Beast, interference.” The brunet was leveling his gun at Cruhteo, the others moving in with flashy spells and loud shouts, and Slaine scrambled to get into position, cursing every time he lost traction against the blood.
Inaho didn’t say anything when he skid to a stop, but the gun’s retort was loud, ringing in his ears. Slaine took another leap, whispering Tyr’s name as his mask burned off in blue fire, and bore down on the Shadow again. Cruhteo was quick to knock him off this time, sending him flying towards a pillar and making Fenrir snarl and snap inside him.
A rush of healing hit him before he had even reached the ground - he looked up and saw Inaho already switching to another Persona, a gunmetal dragon unfurling its wings with a roar just as something with flowing blue hair and shining white wings faded away.
A shot skill was always less gun and more mortar. Slaine had been on the other end of this one before, and he wasn’t surprised that even the knight reeled from the hit. The horse staggered and collapsed, head hitting the ground with a loud thud, its rider slumped over its back. He watched the Shadow warily until he could see its outline waver and collapse into black and red sludge before fading away. The man left standing in its place seemed very small in comparison to the monster.
“How could this be?” the Shadow asked incredulously, knelt on one knee.
“You underestimated us,” Inaho said simply, racketing the magazine of his gun out and then back in, “Especially Bat.”
Cruhteo drew itself up to its full height. “The rules of the Empire are absolute.”
“You’re abusing your employees!” Klein stepped up, voice angry for the first time Slaine had heard it. “They’re working for you, not slaves to your empire!” Amifumi went to put a hand comfortingly on the other girl’s shoulder.
“Go back and make him confess his crimes.” Inaho’s attention never shifted to Slaine, but he turned away anyway.
“... Very well.”
The words were barely out before the whole fortress began shaking. Craftman let out a loud curse, sprinting to one of the statues beside the altar and scrambling up it. The other boy pitched the Treasure carelessly down to them and then jumped, almost landing on Amifumi who had rushed forward to catch the shield. Klein started herding the two of them towards the door, urging them until the three of them were racing towards it.
Good, it’d be easy to fall behind, they wouldn’t notice his absence in the confusion -
Slaine started at the feeling of a hand catching his own, and he turned wide-eyed to look at Inaho as the brunet began pulling him towards the exit. His feet were moving without his input, surely. “Inaho-”
A look over his shoulder, and he could see Cruhteo’s Shadow was leaning heavily on its cane, yellow eyes staring at the marble floor. It would only take one bullet.
The hand around his squeezed once, and Slaine’s attention snapped back to Inaho and brown eyes. His breath came out in a rush, and he picked up the pace, running alongside Inaho instead of being pulled along.
They didn’t step out of the Metaverse so much as sprinted out of it. Slaine fetched up against the brick wall of the alley, his briefcase clanging against it as he caught himself awkwardly with one hand; his other was still stubbornly tangled with Inaho’s. A yelp and a chorus of pained grunts signalled where the others were.
“The destination has been deleted,” the Metanav informed them cheerfully. They were talking, lively and animated - it was all white noise to the thought repeating in his head.
I didn’t kill him.
There was no way back now.
Pressure on his hand, and then Slaine stumbled when he was abruptly pulled into motion, looking dumbly down at their still clasped hands and then back to the equally bewildered expressions of the others; he had no idea what they had been discussing. “Inaho-san-”
“Come with me,” the brunet said, like Slaine had any choice in the matter. He bit back his protests, not wanting to make a scene in the middle of midday Shibuya.
The station came into view - maybe Inaho wanted him in LeBlanc, thinking it would be easier to talk where he was more comfortable. The thought vanished when he felt the air shift.
Slaine had ripped his hand out of Inaho’s grip before Mementos could even settle around them. He took a few steps back warily as the brunet turned around to look at him. “Why are we here?”
Inaho looked like he was going to reply, but instead turned his head to the side, brown eyes fixed on something near the entrance - at the spot Inaho usually meditated at. “That would be best,” the brunet said in answer to a question that Slaine couldn’t hear.
He felt the ripple of power and fell instantly into a battle stance. The dull red around them turned to a deep blue, the turnstiles disappearing along with the rest of the station to give way to brick and mortar. A large symbol was etched in gold on the blue velvet under Slaine’s feet, framed by golden laurels.
There was something distinctly off about everything, in a way that was more than just the Metaverse.
“You’re set on a physical confrontation,” Inaho noted, like it wasn’t a natural reaction.
“What else could I expect?” He gestured meaningfully to bars in the archways just visible outside of the little circle of light they stood in. “You’ve trapped me in the cognitive world, with no witnesses.”
“You don’t trust me.”
Slaine didn’t reply.
The brown eyes flitted down to the ground for the briefest second before meeting his gaze again. “I already knew you planned to kill Cruhteo.” The words froze him in place more effectively than any Bufu spell. “And you planned to frame Deucalion for it.”
“You knew this whole time,” he said slowly. Inaho shrugged in that infuriating way he had. “Is that why we’re here?”
Fenrir came to him in a burst of blue flame, surging forward with open jaws. Inaho sidestepped it. There was nothing in the expression that wasn’t there before, even as the brown eyes took in the Vers red of his real thief outfit. The fancy suit felt more restrictive than any straightjacket could ever be. “You’re also a Wild Card.”
Slaine just brought his hand to his mask and ripped it off again, Fenrir answering his call with a howl. The tricoloured aura of Debilitate hadn’t dissipated when he lunged, but the spell had already taken hold - Inaho had to knock his lance off course, too slow to dodge. The brunet recovered quickly, blue flames dancing, and he saw white fur and a lion like mane before he was engulfed in fire.
He sprang back, shaking his hand to get the embers off his glove - Fenrir’s natural resistance made fire trivial. His footsteps were muffled against the velvet as he moved for another angle of attack, but Inaho thwarted his attempt with white wings and blue hair. The angel raised the scale in its hand and instantly the temperature dropped.
It was pure instinct that had Slaine twisting out of the way as the ground bloomed with a shatter of ice, letting Fenrir return the favour with a column of fire. He was moving slower than he normally did - they both were.
Whoever drew first blood would win.
Gritting his teeth, he reached for the searing hatred inside, letting it curl into the spell that he loathed the most. Call of-
The roar of the dragon Persona interrupted Slaine, forcing him to throw himself sideways out of the shot skill. He had gotten back up onto one knee just in time for a light spell to fall and impale him. Fenrir’s howl of pain matched his own silent scream, but his hand managed to find his gun through the agony.
He drew it and found himself looking right down the barrel of Inaho’s.
“You aren’t nearly as tired as you should be,” Slaine said conversationally, chest heaving from the pain.
“SP Adhesives.” The explanation meant nothing to him. “Stop this, Slaine.”
Slaine laughed, and it sounded bitter and hollow even to his own ears. If only it was so easy. He reached up and tapped his own forehead instead of giving an answer, letting the curl of his lip say don’t miss . And then he pulled the trigger.
A new hole got etched into the wall, just past Inaho’s head.
Inaho’s finger hadn’t even twitched on the trigger.
“You are insane,” Slaine hissed.
“I wouldn’t kill you,” Inaho said, as calm as if they were chatting in LeBlanc.
“You should.” The brunet had the audacity to tip his head questioningly. “I’m not some poor stray you found in an alley. I’m a murderer .”
“I know.” It was quiet, even.
“Then you should know I don’t belong to your little team.” Slaine made every word clear and slow.
“You have valuable experience and information. You’re an asset.”
Slaine barely managed to rein in the urge to throw his empty gun at Inaho’s head - he dropped it just so that the temptation wouldn’t be there. “I’m the one behind the psychotic breakdowns! The mental shutdowns! I tried to kill you! ”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Are you even listening to what I’m saying?!”
“Yes.” The voice was still infuriatingly calm. Equally infuriating was Inaho lowering his gun. “And it’s nothing I haven’t already considered.”
“You’re insane,” Slaine repeated. Maybe Inaho would get it if he said it enough times.
One of Inaho’s shoulders raised and dropped in a careless shrug. “I could say the same. You’re the one who wasn’t planning on being in the future you’re giving her.” Slaine went stiff at the bluntness. The brunet was always brutally honest. “You don’t have to kill him. You can achieve the same thing by stealing his heart.”
And that was the problem, wasn’t it? Slaine released the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, his limbs going slack like a marionette with its strings cut.
“It’s too late,” he said quietly, looking at his hands and knowing the blood that was on them. All the blood that could have been avoided, if he had known there was another way. He laughed, sounding hysterical and beyond caring. “Why couldn’t I have met you earlier?”
“I’m here now,” Inaho told him, and Slaine was in no frame of mind to figure out the tone of that statement, “I don’t care what you had to do. I want you with me.”
Even now, a part of him desperately wanted to read into it, setting his heart stupidly fluttering. The warmth coiling in his chest, the tingle of nervousness.
Inaho holstered his gun and stepped forward, offering his hand. “I need you. Come with me, Slaine.”
His eyes flitted involuntarily between the hand and the brown eyes. Of all the ways he had imagined this confrontation ending, this was not one of them. But how could he refuse?
What was one more mistake to the mountain that was his life?
His hand trembled as he reached up to grasp Inaho’s hand, half expecting it to be pulled back at the last second, but it remained there as he hesitantly wrapped his fingers around it. Inaho never was one to withdraw something after it had been offered.
He was hauled to his feet, and he caught himself with a hand on Inaho’s elbow when he stumbled. Fenrir hated Bless.
Inaho didn’t let go even after he found his balance. The contact made him feel warm, even past the gloves.
“Justine, release us,” Inaho said to the air. There was the shift again, the blue tinted brick and mortar dissolving back into the muted red of Mementos. It was as unsettling as the first time, and he glanced over to Inaho’s mediating spot. It was still empty.
To his eyes, anyway. It was the cognitive world.
“Did you tell him about us?” Inaho asked, and Slaine’s eyes snapped back to him. He didn’t need clarification to know that the brunet was referring to Saazbaum.
He shook his head. “I told him it was insurance.”
“Good. You can stay with me.” The offer was said so easily it took a moment for Slaine to process the words.
“There’s enough room.” Inaho’s expression didn’t change, seemingly content to let him reach a decision himself.
“If you’ll have me,” he murmured, but he couldn’t imagine how Inaho would be relaxed enough to sleep with him in the same room.
“You’ll have to leave your phone here.”
Slaine pulled it out and set it down on the turnstile nearby, screen side down. He huffed a laugh at the almost surprised look on Inaho’s face, like the brunet was expecting more of a protest. “It’s bugged. I didn’t survive this long by being stupid.”
“You won’t have the Metanav.”
Slaine shifted, feeling the tips of his ears heating up. “I’m going to trust that you won’t leave me here.”
Inaho studied his face long enough that he had to look away. The brunet didn’t say anything, to his relief, just activated the Metanav on his phone. The app’s customary message was lost in the sounds of the crowd as they materialized in a corner of the underground mall. Inaho still hadn’t let go, making a call one handed.
“Oh thank goodness. I was going to have to sit on Inko if you didn’t call in the next thirty minutes.” Inaho’s phone was close enough that Klein’s tinny voice was audible even to Slaine, and it didn’t sound nearly as panicked as the words made her sound.
“Nina,” Inaho said, “Copy the list of guild members.”
“I’ll be right there. Beginner’s area, right?”
“Yes. I’m going back with Slaine.”
“Ooooh,” Klein said, sounding intrigued, “So what-”
“Keep me updated,” Inaho cut in - the touch of exasperation was so unusual that Slaine turned his head away to hide his smile. The brunet hung up on her attempts to get more information. “Let’s go, Slaine.”
Slaine gave a nod, and they easily slipped into the crowd of teenagers milling about in the mall.
Inaho didn’t let go of his hand the entire way to LeBlanc.
Slaine woke up to the scent of coffee.
Sunlight was streaming in through the windows. He sat up and squinted at the clock sitting on the shelf above the desk, nestled between little mascot figurines. Barely six. His gaze shifted to the rest of the room, taking in the assorted knicknacks and the cafe’s supplies arranged with military precision. It was very ‘Inaho,’ and Slaine shook off the fondness that came with the thought.
The spare futon was folded, blanket and pillow piled onto the couch. Inaho was obviously already awake, likely the one responsible for the noise downstairs. Should he go, maybe see if he could help?
He lingered in the bed, glancing at his neatly folded clothes and the briefcase resting by the desk chair. The thought of putting them on made him slightly nauseous - he didn’t want anything to do with the ‘Detective Prince’ right now. The long sleeve shirt and the sweatpants Inaho lent him felt soft, warm.
Slipping on his shoes, he started for the stairs. The fourth step creaked in a way that was impossible to miss, and he wasn’t surprised to see that Inaho had twisted away from the stove to look at him. Was it alright to smile?
He decided he might as well, taking a seat at the counter. The brown eyes examined him, intent, before Inaho was satisfied with whatever he saw in Slaine’s expression.
Inaho set an omelette in front of him, and then a cup of coffee. It was pale with cream.
“You remember how I take my coffee?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Inaho rounded the counter to sit beside him, with an omelette of his own and steaming tea.
“Thank you,” Slaine said quietly, not sure how else he could reply to that. He picked up his fork and started eating. It was good, as if it could be anything but.
“Nina is looking into your contacts list,” Inaho started bluntly, “We’re determining who to target in Mementos, before we go after Saazbaum.”
He paused with his fork still in his mouth - ah. “You want to keep them busy.”
“Yes.” There was something almost pleased in the brown eyes. “Confusion in the ranks will leave them with fewer resources to look for you.”
The bell on the door rang as it opened, and they both turn to Marito stepping in. The man was flipping the sign on the door from Closed to Open , and then did a visible doubletake at the sight of them sitting at the counter.
“Good morning,” Slaine offered into the stunned silence, and Inaho followed his example blandly.
“‘Morning,” Marito returned, hanging his hat in a motion that looked robotic, but the man had recovered in the time it took to walk behind the counter. “You stayed the night?”
Slaine glanced at Inaho before answering, “Yes, Inaho-san was kind enough to let me stay. I apologize for not asking you first, Marito-san.”
“It’s ‘Inaho-san’ now, huh?” the man muttered, and Slaine blinked at the nonsensical question, “Is it too late for the Talk, or-?”
“There’s the Internet,” Inaho pointed out with a perfectly level voice.
Marito ran a hand over his face, looking very tired in a way that was more than just the early hour. “That’s great and all, but you’ve been mooning over this kid for months. I was seventeen once.”
Understanding was dawning on Slaine, and he felt his face heat up fiercely, accompanied with a fluttering in his chest that wasn’t entirely unpleasant.
“I’m just looking out for you.” The man leaned forward on the bar, and somehow there was nothing threatening in the posture. “And your sister would have my ass on a platter if she found out that I let you bring a boy over.”
That had Slaine shooting to his feet before Inaho could say anything else, his ears positively burning at this point. “Excuse us, Marito-san.” He blindly grabbed for Inaho and caught the brunet’s hand, quickly making for the stairs. There were no protests from his captive, and the fingers curling around his did nothing to cool the heat on his face.
Running back up to the attic - to Inaho’s room - hand in hand was probably the worst thing he could have done if he was trying not to give Marito the wrong impression, but well. Years in the Metaverse alone had him finely tuned to situations that could only be avoided with tactical retreats.
He cleared his throat and went to open his briefcase on the desk, just to have something to do with his hands. “Did Klein-san get back to you yet?”
“No,” Inaho answered, but indulged him by checking his phone again.
Slaine frowned, fingers fidgeting with the corner of one of his documents. They would have to start soon, before Slaine’s radio silence put their targets on high alert. It wasn’t terribly unusual for Slaine to be unreachable during the night, but he always answered within a few hours during the day.
“We have time.” Hearing Inaho’s voice so close to his ear made him jump, his hand coming up to cover it as his skin heated up again. There was amusement in the brown eyes, the bastard, but Inaho just reached past him. “You kept it.”
Inaho was fiddling with the Jack Frost keychain. Slaine looked away and hoped that the brunet didn’t notice how meticulously well-kept it was. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“What Marito said was true.”
Slaine tensed, saying quietly, “You know what I’ve done. You can’t possibly-”
“ You can’t, ” he said through gritted teeth, and he tried to step around Inaho only to have his way blocked. The brown eyes bore into his.
“I do,” Inaho repeated, level and calm. Slaine ignored Fenrir’s hopeful whine.
This would be so much easier if only Inaho was angry. If only he hated Inaho.
“There’s nothing to like,” he hissed, “It’s all a lie. The Detective Prince, Slaine Troyard: they don’t exist!”
“But you do.” Inaho reached for him, and Slaine had to lock up his muscles to not flinch away. The hand settled as a warm weight against his jaw. “You’re here in front of me.”
“And what do you see?” Slaine whispered. His hands were trembling.
“A survivor,” Inaho answered simply, like it didn’t require thinking about, “Someone trapped in hell and still trying to crawl out. The strongest person I’ve met.” The brunet tilted his head, thumb brushing against Slaine’s cheek. “The prettiest blush I’ve ever seen.”
Slaine let out a startled laugh, and he tried to muffle the others that bubbled up into his fist, to no avail. He took a step to sit on the bed when he couldn’t stop. It should be alarming, the tinge of hysteria. Inaho sat down beside him wordlessly, like Slaine having a sudden laughing fit was nothing out of the ordinary.
“You never act like I expect you to,” Slaine managed finally, one hand over his aching stomach.
Inaho shrugged. “I don’t have your biases.”
“No, I’m pretty sure that most people wouldn’t react like you do.” The brunet made a face like a disgruntled cat, and Slaine laughed into his hand again. He calmed more easily this time, and added quietly, “Maybe that’s a good thing.”
The hum that he got was noncommittal, but Inaho took his hand and laced their fingers together. Slaine looked at their joined hands, giving a tentative squeeze, and receiving one in return. “This won’t last, you know.”
“Dying won’t atone for anything,” Inaho pointed out bluntly.
Slaine shook his head. “I’ll have to turn myself in,” he said, taking a breath to steel himself, “I’ll be gone for a long time.”
“They won’t be able to prove the Metaverse.”
“Even so,” Slaine insisted, a thread of pleading in his voice. He didn’t want Inaho to talk him out of it. “My testimony is important.”
Inaho wasn’t looking at at him, instead staring thoughtfully at the desk - no, at the Jack Frost dangling from his briefcase. Eventually Inaho shrugged. “It’s not like I’m not a criminal too.”
Slaine huffed a laugh, feeling himself relax. “I almost forgot you’re the leader of the infamous Phantom Thieves.” Inaho gave him the flattest look.
“It’ll have to wait until after Saazbaum’s Palace.” Their shoulders brush when Inaho pulled him closer, and his breath hitched involuntarily at their new proximity. “We still have time.”
It was ridiculous how quick his heart was beating just with that simple gesture. “Isn’t this horribly cliche, a romance between a phantom thief and a detective?”
“Nina has a book with that premise,” Inaho said blandly, making Slaine laugh. Then the brunet tilted his head, and he realized they were a mere hair’s breadth away from a kiss, Inaho’s lips brushing his. “Do you want me to tell you what happens?”
“What happens?” Slaine murmured, soft and low and dangerous , and he knew Inaho heard the challenge in his tone.
Their lips met far gentler than he would have expected from all the tension, soft touch and soft pressure. Inaho kissed him slowly, languid like he had all the time in the world to savour every taste and sensation, and with every intention to do so -
Slaine closed his eyes and curled his fingers into Inaho’s shirt to ground him against the full body shiver at the thought. His imagination was getting ahead of itself.
The light weight and a slight pressure of a hand on his shoulder, and Slaine let himself be guided back onto the bed, heard their intertwined hands hit the mattress by his head. He felt hyperaware of the way the cotton of his shirt shifted against his skin as Inaho’s hand moved to rest against his neck, thumb on his jaw - he tilted his head back and parted his lips with a shuddering exhale that wasn’t quite a sigh.
Inaho shifted back, and Slaine slowly blinked open his eyes to find brown ones staring back at him intently, as if the brunet was trying to commit the sight of him dishevelled and flushed to memory. It only made his face warmer, sent a little thrill down his spine.
“You are aware there’s no door to this attic,” he whispered, not at all trusting his voice.
“Marito won’t come up here.”
Inaho’s thumb traced his bottom lip idly, a featherlight touch that left Slaine warring between wanting to nip at it impatiently or take it into his mouth needily. He shifted his hand up to the back of Inaho’s neck, a wordless question. Inaho indulged him, leaning down and kissing him, open mouthed and curious tongue. Slaine’s quiet whimper got him a comforting squeeze of their hands, and he let himself melt into the attention.
It took Inaho shifting away abruptly to cut through the haze, and Slaine opened his eyes, finally registering the insistent noise. Beeping. A message notification.
Inaho pulled out the offending device from his pocket, displeasure in the crease of his brow, and Slaine tried not to laugh. The brown eyes flicked to him once but scanned the messages dutifully and sent a reply - and then Inaho dropped it on the bed and tossed the pillow over it.
“It’ll ring three times if it’s an emergency,” Inaho informed him, leaning down to try and catch his lips again, but his brain was more coherent now. Momento targets. Saazbaum. Not the time to be making out.
Slaine turned his face away, and Inaho made a disgruntled noise - he couldn’t stifle his laugh, this time.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” he asked, trying to think past the press of a wet mouth against the neck he had unwittingly exposed, “A large network of shady connections hunting me? An influential crooked politician to take down?”
“It won’t take long.” The brown eyes were dark, and the promise made him shudder, heat tugging at his core. No, he wouldn’t last if Inaho kept looking at him like that.
“I think it’s better for us to go look at that list than have a few stolen moments now,” he said quietly, taking Inaho’s face into his hands so that he wouldn’t be distracted by the clever lips and the pattern that Inaho seemed determined to trace out onto his skin. It didn’t quite work, his fingers sliding into the brown hair. Soft, warm. Slaine smiled, tilted his head to the side innocently. “We’ll have plenty of time tonight.”
He could practically see Inaho weighing the pros and cons, but ultimately Inaho only turned his head slightly to press a kiss against his palm. Slaine froze. “If that’s what you want.”
It wasn’t a bribe - he could recognize the difference. It was just a gesture of affection, and that was why Slaine wanted to reel Inaho back in and kiss him senseless.
It was too bad that they didn’t have the luxury of indulging.
Slaine compromised by leaning in with a soft kiss, pulling back before either of them could deepen it. “Let’s see how informed you are of Tokyo’s underworld, esteemed Leader of the Phantom Thieves.”
Inaho’s expression was unimpressed. “I happen to be a part of it, detective.”
“Such a coincidence,” Slaine said with a smile, “So am I.”
It was well into the night when they emerged from Mementos; even Slaine was feeling exhausted, magical medical patch or not. He should probably be more worried that none of them actually knew how it worked , but he couldn’t deny that it did manage to lessen the mental strain of using his Persona. Somehow. Amifumi handed him a can of Manta, and he took it gratefully.
“That should give us enough time to finish the next Palace,” Inaho said, holding a Nastea but making no move to open it, “Be prepared to go in every day.”
Craftman groaned loudly, bonelessly slumped against the wall. “If I have to go to school, then the Metaverse, then study, for the whole week , I will die.”
“I told you not to cram,” Klein said blithely, taking a sip of her drink. She didn’t look any worse for wear, even though she had kept Gna manifested the entire time so that they could get to their targets in the most painless way possible.
“You reap what you sow,” Amifumi agreed, merciless, and Craftman groaned exaggeratedly.
Inaho looked unfazed, adding flatly, “I’ll rework our plan assuming Calm won’t make it.”
Slaine turned his head and pretended to cough into his arm to hide his laugh.
“You guys can stop anytime,” Craftman grumbled, sliding down the wall, and Slaine took pity on him.
“It’s getting late; we should go home and rest,” he suggested, “It’ll be another long day tomorrow.”
“Yeah, that sounds great.” Klein leaned around Inaho to look at Craftman. “Calm and I live in the same neighbourhood, so I’ll make sure he gets home alive.” There was a very sarcastic Thanks as Klein pulled the lump up by the arm, but Craftman was stumbling along by the time they reached the turnstiles.
“I’ll, uh,” Amifumi hedged, “I’ll see you guys tomorrow?” Her eyes dart between them awkwardly before she just turned with a wave, walking hurriedly away.
Inaho only shrugged at the questioning tilt of Slaine’s head, and they made for the train to Yongen-jaya. Their shoulders brushed every now and then, until Inaho just grabbed his hand on the train. His face heated immediately, but he didn’t pull away. There were only a few people in the train car with them, and it wasn’t like anyone would recognize Slaine in a lumpy hoodie and jeans.
They had been in LeBlanc for precisely three minutes when Marito looked up from the coffee beans and asked, “So, what are you going to do for a shower?”
“He can go to the bathhouse with me,” Inaho answered without hesitation, and the man gave him a flat look.
“You can use the shower in my house,” Marito offered, but the lowered gaze and the fidgeting hands had Slaine tilting his head. “But there’s something I gotta warn you about.” There it was. “I got a housemate. She’s not terrible, but.” A sigh, with a nervous hand through his hair. “Law enforcement.”
“Thank you for the offer, Marito-san,” Slaine said politely, properly bashful, “but I wouldn’t want to intrude. The bathhouse is fine.” Marito had a sheepish smile like that was the answer he expected.
The bathhouse was not fine.
Sharing toiletries with Inaho meant using the showerhead right beside the brunet. He kept his eyes determinedly forward as he scrubbed the grime from Mementos off his skin, but his face felt warmer than the humid air could explain. Inaho seemed amused, far too deadpan as he grabbed Slaine by the elbow and dragged him over to the baths.
He promptly forgave Inaho when he slipped into the water, sighing involuntarily as the heat seeped into his muscles.
“Do you know the enemies in the dungeon?”
Inaho’s voice cut through his thoughts, and Slaine blinked open his eyes. When had he closed them? “A few of them,” he answered quietly, even though the only other people in here with them was an old man at the faucet and two businessmen staring blankly at the wall. “I haven’t gotten that far in.”
“That would save us time.” The brown eyes watched him for a moment, and then Inaho moved closer, finding Slaine’s hand under the opaque water and holding it. He wondered how Inaho could stand to be so close to him, with all that he knew.
He turned his hand over and slipped his fingers in between Inaho’s.
The long soak did wonders to his aching muscles, and by the time he was pulling on his borrowed clothes he felt like he could probably fall into bed and instantly be asleep. Inaho’s expression looked as bland as ever, but he could tell by the brunet’s slightly unfocused gaze that he was tired too. Even their leader couldn’t have a full day of school and an intense trip down in Mementos without flagging.
There were two plates of curry waiting for them at LeBlanc, though. Marito gave one look at them and started taking off his apron. “Just leave the dishes for tomorrow. I’m going to lock up now.”
Slaine shook his head. “Oh, I can’t-”
The man only clapped a hand on his shoulder on the way out. Slaine glanced at Inaho to find that the brunet was already eating, and got a shrug in response to what had to be a baffled expression on his face.
Leaving the dishes in the sink only because Inaho pulled him away from it, Slaine trudged up the stairs after him. He sunk onto the bed, managing to stay upright for a few seconds before falling onto his side.
The mattress dipped by his head. He twisted slightly to see Inaho plug his phone in the charger, the brown eyes looking down and meeting his. One of Inaho’s hands left the phone, fingers carefully carding through Slaine’s hair.
“We should go to sleep,” Slaine murmured, already feeling his eyelids drooping.
Inaho hummed an affirmative noise. “Sleep with me.”
He shot up at the words, wide eyed and body tingling like it had touched a live wire. “I-” Slaine stuttered, throat dry, but he caught the mischievous glint in the brown eyes, and his heartbeat slowed. He gave Inaho a flat glare. “You’re horrible.”
“You were in the way,” Inaho said blandly, climbing up onto the mattress and lying down by the wall. The brunet patted the spot beside him in open invitation.
The way his pulse jumped at that was probably not good for his heart. Slaine shuffled up on the bed to lay down properly, his back to Inaho. He couldn’t look the brunet in the eye.
A click of the lightswitch, and the attic plunged into darkness. Inaho curled against his back, Slaine too aware of every point they touched, from the arm snaked around his middle to the way their legs tangled together. His earlier fatigue seemed to have left him.
He jolted at the press of lips against the back of his neck, but he relaxed with a huff. “You have school tomorrow.”
Inaho’s answering hum was quiet with sleep, and it didn’t take long before his breathing went slow and steady. Slaine settled back into the warmth and closed his eyes, his heartbeat calming to match Inaho’s.
It felt nice, not being alone.
The rattling of chains had him snapping awake, rolling off the bed in a crouch. There was something around his wrists, limiting his movement, and he glanced down to see manacles weighing them down. His clothes seemed to be striped black and white, threadbare, and for a horrible moment the thought that he had been betrayed-
No. Too early to jump to conclusions.
There was a cot to his right, cell bars up ahead. Everything was a deep blue, from the lights to the walls. The desk was in the centre of attention in the room beyond, some sort of gangly humanoid with a hooked nose seated at it, bloodshot eyes on the cell beside him. Blue and gold on the ground.
He recognized the symbol.
Slaine nearly threw himself at the bars, cranning his head to see the cell on his left. He caught sight of blond hair, neatly braided into buns, a blue warden uniform on the small form like a child playing dress up. His body locked up at the familiar crackle of a stun baton, the metal clanking loudly against the cell bars.
“How dare you talk back to our master, Inmate!” The girl was holding an expandable baton, body language irritated.
“You said my role was to bring change to mankind.” Inaho’s voice. Slaine felt a rush of relief. “Recruiting Slaine to my cause only raises the probability of me succeeding.”
“And yet you have changed nothing in all the months since I have granted you that power,” the thing at the desk said, “It seems the task was too much for you. Humans are more apathetic and more foolish than I had thought them to be. The world will soon see its ruin.”
“The assistance that we provided was all for naught.” Softer and sadder, another girl’s voice.
“In accordance to the game’s rules, the defeated must pay a price.” Slaine recognized that tone. He knew what was next. “Your life is forfeit. I sentence you to be executed.” The bloodshot eyes cut to him as the girls gasped, and he knew the calculating look hidden deep in that gaze too. “You, and your fellow Wild Card.”
The girl with the buns turned and wrenched open the door to Slaine’s cell, pulling him out with a strength far beyond her size. The yellow of the single left eye that looked down on him was explanation enough.
“Are we really going to kill him-?” the other one murmured, dragging Inaho out of the other cell. They looked like mirror images of each other, if not for the braided ponytail and the eyepatch on her left.
“Don’t falter now! It’s all his fault for losing the game!” The words were tinged with doubt, threaded with worry. He knew that feeling. These girls weren’t killers.
Shouldn’t be killers.
There were two guillotines waiting. Slaine jerked out of the girl’s grasp and staggered to his feet, the threadbare prison outfit burning away to the blood red of his Vers suit. Inaho was already in his thief outfit.
He put on his best TV smile. “I apologize, but I don’t feel like dying today.” Not because of that thing. Not by innocent hands.
“How insolent,” the girl who had manhandled him hissed, “To think you’d still show your rebellious will after all that. Ready, Justine?”
“If our master orders so,” the other answered, clipboard held so tight in her hands that her pale knuckles were bloodless, “then it cannot be helped…”
“Death to the criminals-!” they both chorused.
Slaine braced himself for a fight, but barely a second later he felt his body freeze up, unresponsive. Caught. The girl with the baton made an exaggerated flourish, and he heard the physical skill go off beside him, heard the hit land home and knew that Inaho couldn’t move either.
He wouldn’t let Inaho die here.
Fenrir’s rage was palpable from being chained down again like this, like Gleipnir’s soft and silken deception, and Slaine took it and weaved it into his own desperation. The black and red threads surrounding him was lost in the blaze from the Inferno that Justine had cast onto them, and by the time he slumped over clutching his head from the pain of his spell, Fenrir had snapped his chains.
Call of Chaos .
His vision went red.
His body was moving without much of his input, vision hazy and mind even hazier. The guttural scream from his throat sounded like it was from far away, the dark grey shape of Fenrir shifting in and out of his sight as he surged forward, scattering the two yellow and blue blurs with the wolf’s snapping jaws and his claw tipped gauntlets. They smelled like Shadows, but not blood. Not putrid darkness. Not rotting desire.
He twisted away from the loud mortar shot and leaped from one spike of ice to the next as it spiraled up to the ceiling, claw sinking into the guillotine underneath him when he landed. Not them. They were dangerous, but not them.
His eyes landed on the thin figure at the far end of the room, past the yellow-blue blurs, past ally-friend-love , and his lips curled. Fenrir burst from him in blue flame, teeth bared and fury condensed, and covered the distance in one leap. The skill left a smoking crater on the brick floor, but the thing was still standing. Floating, now, smelling of blood, and dark twisted desires.
It was speaking, but he couldn’t understand any of it, the words white noise against the red of his mind. Angry high voices and a soft even one said something in answer. The bloodshot eyes met his for a moment, meaningless words falling from its mouth, and then it vanished, leaving behind a disgusting scent.
Fenrir paced in his mind, anger reined in but not gone. Hitting the illusion had been unsatisfying, but there were no enemies here. He cocked his head to look down; the three were talking amongst themselves now. Eventually Fenrir’s pacing stopped, and his Persona sunk back deep into his mind with a displeased huff.
Slaine shook his head to clear the fog left behind by the spell, leaving his eyes closed until the nausea and vertigo faded away. It never got easier, being in a mindless frenzy.
When he finally blinked them opened, it was to see Inaho looking up at him. “Come, Slaine.” He hopped down to the ground with a distinct feeling of sheepishness, and then froze.
The thin figure was back behind the desk.
Inaho’s hand wrapped around his wrist, and shook his head when Slaine glanced at him.
The being bowed its head in greeting, but there was something brittle in its expression, something that wasn’t just fatigue. “Welcome to the Velvet Room. My name is Igor. I am pleased to make your acquaintance.” Slaine nodded cautiously. The twins were each standing on one side of the being, each one clutching the dark fabric of its suit with one small hand.
“He is the rightful master of this Velvet Room, the true aid on your journey,” Justine supplied, a slight waver in her voice, “The scoundrel who swindled my master’s name has left.”
“Turning yourself psychotic was idiocy, you incompetent prisoner!” her sister snapped at Slaine, yet her yellow eye flitted away from him immediately, “But I’ll let it slide this one time. And you, inmate!” Inaho didn’t even flinch from the yell. “You almost did well, refusing its offer.”
“It wasn’t very convincing,” Inaho said blandly.
Slaine glanced between them, feeling quite lost. “Did I hurt you?” The twins seemed surprised at his question.
“We are fine, thank you for your concern,” Justine answered mildly, and glanced over to her sister who was still stubbornly glaring at the floor, “My deepest apologies, for our behaviour earlier. Caroline?”
“We finally remember.” The single golden eye was blazing when the other girl turned back to them. “How we were torn ‘apart.’” Igor moved its hands to settle over the girls’, showing a concern that was hard to reconcile with the being’s unsettling face. Slaine couldn’t find his voice.
“Torn apart?” Inaho prompted.
“We were originally one.” Justine fidgeted with her clipboard. “Yet we were torn asunder into halves, by a malevolent god.”
Caroline started tapping her baton rhythmically against her palm. “Listen up! We’re giving you your last jobs.”
“You must release your teammates, who have been trapped here by the malevolent god. And you must fuse us together, with your own hands, so that we may reclaim our true form.”
Slaine blinked in confusion. “Fuse?” Inaho tipped his head towards the guillotines, and his veins turned to ice.
“Do it with care!” Caroline pointed at him with the baton before the twins dash off hand in hand, and he looked at Inaho in absolute horror.
“Those are what they use to fuse my Personas,” Inaho said before he could even ask, voice level, but it softened slightly, “I’ll do it. Go get the others for me.”
Slaine’s eyes darted to the sharp hanging blades, and the two girls bundled under them. No, he couldn’t do that to Inaho. “It’s better if you go find them. I’ll fuse her.” Inaho studied him intently for a moment before giving him a nod, slipping out the door that shimmered into being in the cell that Inaho had been held.
“This place exists between dream and reality, mind and matter,” Igor told him, nothing but gentleness in its tone.
“It will work.” Justine was completely calm with her head through the stock.
Caroline waved an arm impatiently. “Hurry up, Inmate!”
He sucked in a deep breath and steeled himself, moving over to the lever. The twins were Shadows, and Igor was the master of this place. They knew this better than he did. Their word was better than his doubts.
It didn’t stop him from looking away as he pushed the lever forward, hearing the rattling of the blades as it slid down its grooves and then hitting home. There were no screams, no telltale drip of blood.
“My name is Lavenza.” Slaine turned. The girl standing in front of the guillotines looked older than the twins, long blond hair fall over her shoulders, her blue dress fitting her demeanor better than the warden outfits did. “Thank you, for restoring me to my true form.”
“And I thank you, Wild Card, for returning her to me.” Igor reached out with gnarled fingers to pet Lavenza on her head, touch gentle. The girl smiled. Slaine nodded jerkily, throat closing tight at the familial affection.
“Whoa, what is this place?”
Craftman, Klein, and Amifumi filed out of the cell behind him, all three looking around with wide eyes. Inaho shuffled past them and stood beside Slaine, shoulder brushing his.
“Who are they?” Amifumi asked in nearly a whisper.
“My name is Igor,” the being answered patiently, “I am the master of the Velvet Room.”
Lavenza’s blond fall of hair swung forward as she dipped her head in polite greeting. “I am Lavenza, a resident of this place as well. We have been waiting for you all.” None of the others looked like they understood any of it. Lavenza either couldn’t tell or ignored their confused expressions. “My master has just been released from a long period of imprisonment. Though it may be presumptuous of me, I will speak on his behalf.”
“You mentioned a ‘malevolent god’ and this place being taken over?” Slaine ventured.
“Yes.” Lavenza’s yellow eyes landed on him. “The entity that calls itself a god is a malevolent will that forces man into everlasting servitude; after all, it is the masses’ distorted desires incarnate.”
“Wait, ‘distorted desires’?” Klein cut in, “You mean it’s a Treasure?”
The slightest flicker of irritation passed across Lavenza’s calm expression. “That is correct. The malevolent god, the Holy Grail, is the Treasure from the palace of everyone’s hearts.”
Amifumi gasped. “Mementos!”
Lavenza paused for a bit, as if waiting to see if they had any more interruptions, before continuing, “The evil god believed in the powerlessness of man. My master believed that a Trickster would rise among the people and accomplish change. So it dragged both Slaine Troyard and Kaizuka Inaho into the Metaverse and forced them to participate in a game to decide the fate of the world. Slaine was to incite the masses’ distortion. Had he won, the world would’ve been destroyed and remade. Inaho was to stand against this. If he won, the human world would be left as is.”
Slaine felt his hands ball into fists. It was much worse thinking about every murder he had committed, every Shadow he had driven mad, as part of someone’s game . All the blood on his hands, because a god wanted to be right about mankind’s fallibility.
“Inaho had great potential.” Lavenza’s voice had lost its matter-of-fact tone. “It attacked the Velvet Room and mentored him under the guise of my master, with the intention to cast him into despair using the masses who would reject their saviour.”
None of the others spoke, but they shifted uncomfortably. Slaine shattered the silence with a quiet sentence. “The Phantom Thieves were supposed to be framed for Cruhteo’s murder.”
The girl nodded, brutal in her honesty. Slaine felt Inaho take his hand, thumb rubbing comforting circles on the back of it. “This was likely its means to nip in the bud had anything that would pose a threat.”
“So it rigged this game because it was afraid to lose!?” Craftman yelled, all of them whipping their heads to him at the sudden outburst. “What the hell!”
Lavenza blinked owlishly at Craftman. “I am glad that you feel so strongly. With its champion now in alliance with Inaho, the Holy Grail has decided to have the Trickster challenge him directly. Your real world has already been fused with Mementos. It can be said that the world is one step away from the evil god’s machinations. Are you up to the task of defeating this entity?”
“Of course,” Inaho answered blandly. The others agreed in their usual noise, but Slaine could only nod.
“Excellent,” Igor said with a hearty chuckle, “There is nothing to fear. You already possess the strength to oppose this evil god.”
“The exit is just beyond the cell,” Lavenza said, gripping her book to her chest. “I wish you good luck with this task.”
Even years in the Metaverse didn’t ready Slaine for what was on the other side of the heavy quarantine doors. Shibuya was as busy as it always was, full of crowds and noise. Not one of the people noticed the giant bone arches and protrusions that marred the cityscape, or the strange red liquid falling from the sky and pooling around their feet.
It could be blood.
“You guys seeing what I’m seeing?” Craftman asked incredulously, and Slaine could hear the other boy raise a foot and drop it back into the puddles. Their aghast silence was probably enough.
Inaho was the first of them to shake off the shock, turning to gauge their responses. Slaine was about to answer the wordless question when he jumped at Klein’s sudden yelp. “You!” she said, moving to circle around him in a way that made him think of a shark. “You weren’t wearing this before.” Her eyes glowed yellow. “Ooh, and that’s a different Persona!”
“Navi!” Amifumi grabbed Klein and pulled her away from where she had been examining the buttons of his uniform up close.
“Oh yeah, I didn’t even notice, with everything going on.” Craftman gave him a thumbs up. “Classy, man!”
Slaine shifted his weight from one foot to the other and cleared his throat. “Orange and I have the same powers. But I can’t get Shadows to join me, and I only have two Personas,” he added quickly, hoping to head off any questions.
Klein still looked like she wanted to start an interrogation, a determined glint in her eye.
“Let’s go,” Inaho cut in with a touch on Slaine’s arm, moving towards where one of the arches met the ground distinctly like a path. Slaine hesitated only a moment before following, tipping his head to follow the twists of bone overhead. It led to a giant circular building that towered ominously over the skyscrapers in the distance.
The sound of their shoes against the material raised the fine hairs at the back of Slaine’s neck. He didn’t want to think about the irregular protrusions along the edges of the path as ribs and fingers, but there was nothing else they could be.
“At least it’s not fleshy?” Klein supplied cheerfully. Slaine could see the despairing look Amifumi gave the other girl out of the corner of his eye.
The path ahead of them levelled off into a large platform, and his instincts immediately screamed for his attention. “Inaho-”
“Shadow reading!” Klein called over the whinny of Gna’s horse, “descending, t-minus three!”
It was all shiny gold and sharp angles, floating to a stop a few metres off the ground on immovable wings that looked like blades. Slaine brought a hand to his eyes when it twirled in a flash of light, blinking away the streaks it left behind to see its true form.
“Absconding from your cells is forbidden,” the blond angel said in a tone that brooked no argument, “Return to your prison posthaste. Those who wish to disturb society shall be slain on the very spot they stand.” The sword in its hand was certainly supposed to be incentive.
Inaho studied the Shadow, and then dropped into his battle stance. “No Bless attacks.” Slaine nodded, bringing his lance to bear.
It frowned down at them. “Dissenters must be destroyed.”
Slaine dashed forward and jumped over the dark twisting hands from Deathbound instead of dodging, aiming for centre mass. He got parried, and as he skidded on his landing he ripped off his mask. Fenrir’s Debilitate was a splay of colours against the white and gold tabard of the angel, making its pale blue skin glow unnaturally.
“Skadi!” Amifumi’s voice warned him to the ice, shifting to the side instead of charging in. It didn’t seem to be bothered as the Bufudyne hit against its pink armour with a clang. He pulled off his mask, Fenrir’s snarl right beside his ear as the shadow under the angel bubbled and rose to lance through it, the wisps almost forming a screaming face before dissipating.
The angel faltered slightly, but not like a Shadow crippled by an attack at weakness - it was probably just the difference between his and Amifumi’s strength. It turned and dove for Inaho, and Slaine watched the brunet backflip out of the way with the blandest expression. Inaho retaliated with razor sharp wind, Garudyne whipping the tabard of the angel about and slicing off feathers from its wings.
“Go down already!” Craftman yelled, and Slaine didn’t expect the other boy to come flying out of nowhere, sword plunging deep into the angel’s back. Inaho wasted no time signalling for an all out attack as the Shadow dropped to the ground.
It dissolved into nothing just like any other Shadow, which only confirmed what Slaine knew. He was too used to lies to be taken in by angelic appearances.
Slaine took a deep breath and tugged his lance out of the platform. “They’re totally panicking down there.” Klein’s voice caught his attention; the girl was perched on her Persona, just centimetres from the edge. “It looks like the whole city had stopped functioning.”
“Let’s hurry,” Amifumi said. Her hands were wrapped tightly around the handle of her axe.
Inaho only nodded and led them onwards. Their path was less linear now, forcing them to climb onto the ones higher up or take leaps across to different routes. It would be more worrying if they weren’t in the Metaverse.
He anticipated another fight as the slope of the bone under them became shallower, and Klein proved him right when she summoned her Persona.
The angel this time was in purple armour that seemed strange against its pink skin, blond hair sticking upright oddly on its head. Like the first, its sword was already drawn. “Halt, rebels! I shall not allow you to continue forth!” it bellowed, and at least this one was straightforward enough in its hostility.
It also immediately casted a spell of tricoloured lights onto itself. Klein made a loud angry noise. “It improved all it’s parameters - next attack will be big!” There was no time to counter with Debilitate, the summoned swords catching with a strength that surpassed anything Slaine had dealt with before. Inaho had to disengage briefly from the fight to cast healing onto all of them.
Amifumi landed the final blow this time, her axe cleaving through its armour, and Klein met the other girl with her hands posed for a high-five. Inaho waited until they’re done before starting off for the next twist of bone, the four of them trailing after him.
The pattern was obvious enough by now that even Craftman and Amifumi had their weapons ready when they approached the next platform. The angel to form out of the shining light this time was green-haired and green skinned, orange armour half hidden by flowing skirts. A gold flower was in its left hand, and a sword in its other.
“Hold. I have no intention of fighting you, children of man,” the angel said, tone gentle. Slaine didn’t buy it. “Return from whence you came. Proceeding further shall only serve to shorten your lives. I advise you not as a guardian, but out of the mercy of my heart.”
Inaho looked distinctly unimpressed. “We don’t need your mercy.”
“Ah,” it sighed like it was hurt, “Greet me with weapons in hand? Me seemeth I have no choice- I shall take personal responsibility for the misconduct of my children!” It was a split second thing, a barely there tell. Slaine flung himself at Inaho. The crackle of lightning made his ears ring, but he didn’t feel electrocuted, so he must have made it. Fenrir was determinedly forcing him to his feet with mental nudges.
Well. Now he knew the angel was most definitely lying.
Slaine pulled out his gun and ran to keep its attention on him, taking liberal shots. It was Inaho who recovered first, blue flames twisting until a blond man in red leather armour dashed out of it and cut into the angel, the sound of steel against steel reverberating like the shot from a starter pistol. The Shadow’s face looked much less serene now.
They exchanged mostly spellfire, the angel forcing them back every time they tried to engage in melee. He was especially leery of the Bless skill that involved a giant gavel; the hair on the back of his neck stood on end each time. He couldn’t afford to switch to the weaker Tyr, weakness against light be damned.
Fenrir barked once, sharp, and Slaine freed him - the wolf lunged past the curtain of ice in an opening Slaine hadn’t seen and closed his jaws around the angel’s sword arm, throwing it down onto the platform with a violent shake. The gunmetal dragon from before materialized, and the shot skill reduced the Shadow into flakes of dust.
Slaine caught Inaho’s eye across the platform. He let himself grin, Fenrir’s vindictive satisfaction warm in his chest. Inaho stilled, staring, and Slaine self-consciously looked away. His face felt warm for no reason. He fiddled with the medical patch on his wrist as they regrouped and began moving again.
“You don’t usually smile genuinely,” Inaho said, low enough that only Slaine could hear, “It suits you.”
“Please stop,” Slaine said, ducking his head so that the horrible flush in his cheeks wasn’t so obvious.
“I was told that giving compliments is something a boyfriend is supposed to do.”
Slaine only had one free hand to cover his face. It was probably clashing horrible with his suit. “I don’t think now is a good time. Saving the world, was it?”
The hum he got in reply was unconcerned. “Time is something you have to make.”
Inaho didn’t say anymore, thankfully. The next platform had an angel in gold armour and orange skin, short blue hair standing out as much as the spear in its hand. Its lower half was only covered by thin linen like a wordless boast. “How unexpected. To think you would slay every archangel that arrived before me. Dare you destroy the very ruler you wished for?” it said with a frown.
“That’s an overgeneralization,” Inaho intoned flatly, “The probability for the whole population to have the same wish is close to zero.”
“Since the dawn of time, man hath failed to put an end to quarrel. Now they finally desire a strong ruler.” The angel was playing the world peace card - there was something mechanical in its methods, its understanding. “What justice have you in disturbing that wish!?”
“We’ll stand up to you just because we want to!” Amifumi surprised Slaine by stepping up, clutching her axe and eyes blazing. “We don’t need any other reason than that!” Craftman gave a cheer beside her.
“So, you commit any degree of sacrilege for your justice,” it said angrily, “You are beyond salvation!”
“Let’s go, Dellingr!” Craftman’s Persona clotheslined the angel, taking away the gravity of its words. It was ridiculous.
But no more ridiculous than the five of them going to challenge a god.
Slaine made for a better angle, drawing his gun and shooting right into the meat of its wings, distracting it for Amifumi to take over with her axe. Its gaze was still fixed onto him, and instinct had him summoning Fenrir on reflex. His Persona’s jaws closed around him none too gently before the wolf leapt straight up between the glowing swords that appeared above them, kicking off the blades as they fell.
Fenrir deposited him onto the ground with a few scratches, but it was nothing compared to being impaled again. The green light of a healing spell fell over him anyway, and he spared a second to flash a smile at Inaho.
Their lucky break came when Inaho’s Ziodyne crashed down on the Shadow, locking up the angel’s muscles and leaving electricity sparking all over. They fell onto it with a vengeance, and as the dust settled it dissolved into nothing.
Inaho took a moment to look them over. “Navi, what’s ahead?”
“One really big reading,” Klein supplied thoughtfully, “but there seems to be a lot of people, too.”
Inaho nodded. “Let’s go.”
The bridge leading off the bone platform was made of some dark rock, square like the cell blocks that made up the circular building - storey after storey, purposefully stacked so that it left a spiral opening like a gaping wound. The eerie red light that bathed everything came from the cells, the people trapped in them nothing but silhouettes, their voices a cacophony that Slaine had no hope of deciphering. No individuality. No identity.
In the middle of the floor, in the centre of attention, a stout metal cup was chained to the ground, looming over them like a house.
A cup - the Holy Grail.
It was so elaborately decorated with wings and feathers that there wasn’t a centimetre that was empty, so bright with gold that it looked unnatural. Lines filled with red liquid spiralled down from beyond their sight into the cup, pulsing like arteries. Coupled with the two hands on its either side, mounted wrist up on the ground, it gave the impression that something was trapped underneath.
“Rebels who choose to deny the Prison of Regression,” the voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. “Why do you mere humans still dare oppose me!? Fools.”
“I don’t want to hear that from a pot,” Klein piped up with a frown.
“Do you still not understand? Your actions shall not save a single soul. How do you think it is that I became a god to begin with? The freedom not to choose - the freedom not to think. If every person pushed the burdens of their lives upon others, nobody would have to act for themselves. And who should be there to receive those burdens?”
Craftman groaned. “I’m really hoping the answer isn’t you.”
“Precisely! Humanity itself wished for the Holy Grail to be a god that would rule over them! If you continue to reject that order, there will no longer be a place for you in this world!”
“And?” Inaho asked flatly.
“Hmph. So you wish to reject me, even if it means forgoing praise from those you want to ‘save.’” The Grail’s disdain for the word was palpable. “If you are not going to obey, then you shall suffer yet again. I shall bring down the hammer of judgement upon you who dare disrupt my world order! I’m the one who grants the desires of the masses - I give life to their voices!“
They all braced for battle, scattering at the ray of focused light that scored the ground at their feet. Slaine didn’t bother with his lance, calling and maintaining Fenrir for as long as he could. The main body required more than teeth and claws, but the delicate array of gears running on thin rails around the cup, those he could demolish.
The wolf had just torn off the lower ring, the gears falling out as Inaho and the others focused on the main body, when the red lines pulsed strongly with the sound of a heartbeat. Slaine instantly brought his lance up in a guard position.
He felt his eyes widen in incredulity as healing light bathed the gold cup, the metal knitting itself back together, the gears returning to their positions and spinning perfectly, the dents in its body smoothing out as if nothing had happened. Waves of healing continued to pour over it even after it was pristine.
“The masses that praise the Holy Grail are infinite. Their desires and power in turn grant me immortality,” the Grail said, tone smug.
“The human population of Earth is estimated at 7.6 billion this year,” Inaho corrected blandly, pausing with one hand on his mask, “It’s far from infinite.”
“ Not now , Orange!” Klein chided impatiently, “We need to do something about those supply-lines!”
The gunmetal dragon appeared in a burst of blue flames, making a steep dive for the lines, but it was forced to bank away from the Grail’s arrows of light. Inaho had turned to Slaine, but he was shaking his head before the brunet could even start; Fenrir was large, but even the wolf can’t just jump two storeys. There were no doubts in Inaho’s gaze, just calm confidence. “Bat.”
It was the same way the brunet said his actual name. The ass.
Slaine pivoted sharply and sprinted for one of the hands, the clawed gauntlets materializing around his hands weighing him down. He reached for the finger joints and hauled himself up as fast as he could, sinking his claws into the metal. The moment his feet touched the top, he pulled his mask off, Fenrir lunging forward to shred the lines.
The Grail made an enraged noise. “I am no longer receiving the strength of the inmates! You repugnant rebels-”
The gold chains on the floor strained and snapped with a crack like gunshots. Blue light cut through the floor and the cells as the whole building rumbled, and then shifted to a bright bloody red as it all began falling away from the Grail.
Slaine hurriedly leapt off the hand, running for Inaho and knowing he would never make the gap that was opening between them. “Fenrir!” His Persona picked him up, claws scrabbling against the rock as he launched them across. Slaine tumbled onto the ground, and he let Inaho pull him up to his feet without thinking, steadying himself against the other boy as he looked up.
The Grail had broken apart - no, what they had thought was the Grail had opened up, the elaborate wings on its side unfurling into a halo and revealing a triangular, smooth face. The metallic being rose from where it had been hidden beneath the rock floor, acid etched silver shining warmly in the morning sun. It was all sharp angles and metal wings, silver and perfection.
Now the angels’ sharp mechanical forms made sense - they were made in this image.
“I am the administrator born of the collective human unconscious. The god of control, Yaldabaoth,” it told them, wings upon wings turning on its pivots. Behind the hexacombs of its lower body and the array of metal feathers, a giant pair of organic wings flared out, red and black and sickening. Its true nature.
“That’s a building !” Klein cried petulantly, “This is crazy!”
“The administrator must guide mankind towards proper development. And now that the foolishness of man has been proven, it is the administrator’s duty to purge them.”
“That’s absolutely bull!” Craftman yelled back, “This is just a game you rigged because you were afraid of losing!”
“I am the entity which governs the world. Its future depends wholly on my leadership. Those who dare defy this natural order shall be met with punishment raining down from the heavens.” A blast of wind - just normal air - threatened to push them off the platform, so strong Slaine had to lean into it to keep his balance.
“Rebels who dare defy my rule.” It didn’t have eyes, but Slaine could feel the heavy hostile weight of its attention. “You shall perish.”
Of course . Slaine rolled his shoulders back, fingers reaching for his mask. This was on a completely different scale than he had ever fought before, but -
“Let’s win this,” Inaho said beside him, the crackle of blue fire framing his words. Slaine nodded and called for Fenrir.
It was now or never.
They did as well as expected against a creature the size of a skyscraper, their melee weapons nearly useless against the metal plating of its body, forcing them to rely on their Personas to do any visible damage.
Then Yaldabaoth spoke, a faint whirring of machinery under its voice, “I release upon you the deadly sin of lust. You have no means of escape, humans. The insanity of mankind shall bring forth the demise.” A metal arm unfolded from behind the wings, long golden beams held together with puppet strings and pulleys. It reached down to the hexacomb that had began glowing, pulling out a gun.
A swirl of shadows tinged purple encased Amifumi, who yelped and almost doubled over. “I-I’m okay,” she managed, but her face was flushed, eyes slightly unfocused. The healing spell that should have removed the effects didn’t seem to make a difference.
“Fall back, Canary,” Inaho said calmly, “You’ll miss.”
Amifumi didn’t argue - missing a target several hundred storeys above ground wasn’t worth testing out. She joined them a few minutes later when the spell ran its course, blazing anger in her eyes, and she broke the gun with a few well placed hits.
“I release upon you the deadly sin of vanity.” Another arm appeared, this time on its left, reaching down to pull out a bell. “You have no means of escape, humans. The fraudulence of mankind shall bring forth ruin.”
It rung, and orange tainted shadows closed around Inaho, the brunet pulling back from the frontline even as Klein yelled, “Look out for our Leader! He’s weakened to all elements!”
Inaho looked unimpressed, sidestepping a ray of light trying to hit him. Slaine shook his head - that was one way to deal with it, he supposed. The brown eyes met his and Inaho gave him a shrug.
Impatient, Yaldabaoth extracted a sword with a new arm, monologuing about the selfishness of gluttony and summoning a flash of light. “Be careful with your Persona skills!” Klein warned them. Slaine didn’t understand, not until Fenrir’s next attempts to ravage one of the arms left him feeling almost drained.
“Stand down,” Inaho commanded, taking out his gun. There was nothing else they could do, not unless they wanted to exhaust themselves.
A few frustrating minutes passed until Klein told them the effects had worn off, only for Yaldabaoth to produce yet another arm, pulling out a book and casting a spell on Craftman. It was unsettling to see the cheerful boy’s face scrunch up with uncharacteristic rage, pulling out his shotgun and sending slug after slug into the creature. Slaine could only keep Fenrir out of the way.
The reappearance of the gun had Yaldabaoth call upon greed, and Slaine stomach clenched painfully - familiarly - the sensation so strong it made his throat dry. The hunger sapped his strength, but he straightened back up and called for Fenrir again. Being half-starved was nothing new to him.
A sharp pain lanced through his head for a moment and he grit his teeth. He wasn’t used to maintaining Fenrir’s form for so long, especially under this sort of pressure - it was one of the reasons he was wary of Klein and the way she did it effortlessly.
His thoughts were scattered by the ringing of the bell, and he felt the purple shadows sink into his body. His mind became hazy, the teal light of a healing spell making his head whip around. Amifumi was thanking Inaho, and he felt his lip curl up into a snarl. Inaho was his , how dare he pay attention to someone else. He should drive his lance through the bastard’s cheating heart-
Slaine’s hands tightened on the lance.
No, he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t wouldn’t wouldn’t -
By the time he felt the spell release him, his hand was bleeding from his nails digging into the meat of his palm, and when he opened his eyes, Inaho was watching him. Slaine looked away, ashamed, and fixed his attention back onto Yaldabaoth.
“The abyss of the unconscious yearns for ultimate ruin.” The creature’s four arms abruptly moved in sync, pulling out all the weapons and objects and holding them to form a cross of black and red energy. “You have no means of escape, humans. Punishment shall strike you all - as you pass through the gates of destruction!”
“That’s really bad, the power is off the charts!” Klein said.
Inaho nodded calmly. “We’ll knock him out of it.”
Each time he summoned Fenrir, his head throbbed and his chest constricted, but he had had worse before. They kept up a barrage of attacks in turns, and managed to shake Yaldabaoth enough to break its concentration. The ball of energy that had been forming between its arms dissipated.
“My control shall not bow down to ruin,” it said, a note of rage in its voice now, “My control is the ultimate truth of this world!” Black and red shadows gusted across the platform like a typhoon and knocked them off their feet, leaving the sky laced with tendrils of darkness. “Since you’ve been forsaken by the world, there is nowhere that you can belong.”
Slaine wanted to laugh; he had never had a place to belong. The lightning that crashed down onto them seized up his body before he had a chance to draw a breath and speak, pressing him down against the floor. Yaldabaoth laughed sadistically and sent another bolt crashing down. “Not even one sliver of unpredictability can be permitted under my control. Do you hear the voices of the masses? They mock you for revolting against a god.”
He couldn’t hear anything - but even if he had, he couldn’t care less about what they thought.
“Humans are naught but clumps of desire. Logic dictates that a world filled with them will decline. The sin of rebelling against a god is severe. As punishment, you shall taste pain everlasting.”
“Screw you!” Craftman was somehow managing to speak. “Like we’re going to let you do what you want - we’ll steal the freaking world from you if we have to!”
“You need to get your ears checked,” Klein said, tone chipper even through the exhaustion, “They’re rallying against you.”
“They’re all praying,” Amifumi added determinedly, “that something like you don’t exist!”
Beside Slaine, Inaho pulled himself to his feet, and he found the strength to as well. “We’re saving this world.” They turned to each other, and he nodded in answer to the unspoken question in the brown eyes. They were two humans against one god.
His mask burned off his face, and he felt Fenrir’s warm presence at his back. The chains from the blue fire shifted through his fingers, and he gripped it with both hands, tearing the links apart in the same instant an identical metallic shriek came from beside him. Fenrir vanished, but the warmth from Inaho’s hand finding his would have chased anyway any lingering doubts in him.
“So you have failed to harness the power,” Yaldabaoth said smugly, “No matter how many prayers of those foolish masses come together- Hmm!?”
The sky was churning, sparking with lightning. The black storm around them calmed into something brighter, tinted blue.
Breaking through the clouds, their Persona descended behind them, sandled feet almost obscured by the hem of a flowing robe, the glint of metal on the leather armour matching the shine of the winged helmet. Silver hair with silver beard, the eyepatch on its face standing out starkly against wizen skin. With a spear in one hand and the other resting on the hilt of its sheathed sword, the Persona considered Yaldabaoth with a frown on its solemn face, and seemed to find the metal creature wanting.
Healing light fell onto each of them, smoothing away their exhaustion.
“Fools!” Yaldabaoth bellowed, incensed, “This is why man is doomed-!” The black and red shadows surged around the platform, but it couldn’t touch them now. “Impossible!” Yaldabaoth’s voice was panicked. “Preposterous; you dare rob the people’s wishes!?”
“We don’t need a god like you,” Slaine said quietly, taking strength from the warmth at his side. He threw out his free hand and felt the Persona respond, lifting its spear. “You’ve picked the wrong pawn.”
In a single thrust, the spear sheared through Yaldabaoth’s body like it was little more than paper.
“What power- It surpasses mine own, a god born from the wishes of the masses.” A giant hole had opened up in its chest. “Damn that Igor; it seems he wasn’t spouting nonsense.” The outline of the creature began to dissolve into glowing light, scattering on the breeze until there was nothing left.
In the next blink, they had returned to the ground, the blood from the rain now up to their waists. Slaine looked around, taking in all the people frozen in time. The sun from the clearing clouds landed onto them, and the blood’s surface cracked like a sheet of ice, disappearing into shards of light.
No, everything was beginning to glow and fade, the shapes breaking apart and floating off like fireflies.
Slaine whirled around to face the quarantine doors, and was relieved to see Lavenza standing there, waiting. “Well done, dear guests. You have woken to your true potential and connected with The World.”
“What’s happening?” Inaho asked, voice calm even now.
“The entire world is a product of cognition. It can be freely remade- just as the Metaverse, or you, or anyone else, can be remade.” She gave them a reassuring smile. “Soon a new world will come. One where mankind is not captive.”
The world was becoming too bright to look at, and Slaine was forced to close his eyes. When he opened them again, they were standing on a sidewalk in Scramble Crossing, the crowds moving and the city buzzing with life. He was back in the long sleeve shirt and the sweatpants he had slept in, barefoot.
Frankly he was beginning to feel like he had been shunted between places one too many times.
“I’ll call Marito,” Inaho said, the displeased furrow between his brow. Slaine automatically gave Inaho’s hand a comforting squeeze, and then realized he hadn’t let go through everything that had happened.
“The app is gone,” Amifumi murmured, staring at her phone, “It’s really over.”
Craftman’s loud groan startled them all. “I’m going to sleep a week .”
“Nuh-uh, we’ve got exams this week!” Klein reminded cheerfully, and the boy whimpered.
Slaine felt himself relax at the exchange, leaning a bit into Inaho. The brown eyes flicker to him, something warm in them, and when Inaho was finished with the call, Slaine said, “I’m going to sleep the moment I get back.”
“I’ll stay with you,” Inaho said, and Slaine felt the brunet’s weight settling against him too, “I usually make lockpicks during lessons.” He laughed at the sheer audacity, and caught sight of Inaho’s small smile; it made him feel warm, even with the snow that was starting to fall softly around them.
Marito picked them up in his car with confusion written all over his face, but dropped each of them home without complaint after a glance down to their feet. The man even made sure Inaho and Slaine managed up the stairs without tumbling back down after he let them into LeBlanc, throwing them a wet towel for their feet. Slaine thought he managed to mumble a Thank you before Marito left with a skeptical look at their tangle of limbs on the bed.
“Slaine.” Inaho’s voice was soft and low against his ear, and he shivered, turning onto his back. Inaho hovered over him, eyes intent. “Sleep with me.”
Slaine reached up and rested his hand against the side of Inaho’s face, smiling at the way the brunet leaned into his touch. A hum of agreement and an inviting tilt of his head got Inaho to kiss him, hot and hungry, and he melted into it.
He would let Inaho do whatever he wanted, today.
If it was going to be their only time together, he could let himself be greedy, for once.
“Nina is mad at you.” It was the first thing Inaho said, before Slaine had even sat down. The soft voice filtered through the holes in the glass sounded muffled and distorted. “She said she’s going to kill you.”
He found himself smiling genuinely. “Please tell Klein-san I’m sorry.”
“You can tell her yourself.”
“How are things?” he asked softly instead, looking down at his hands on the table.
“The empire is breaking up,” Inaho answered him blandly, “You chose the targets on our last mission well.” Of course Inaho had noticed; their last Mementos run was meant to gut the most influential parts of Saazbaum’s network and turn it against him.
Slaine’s testimony was just the final nail in the coffin.
“Are you angry?” That I left without a word? That I didn’t tell you what I was going to do?
“No.” The word cause a weird cocktail of disappointment and relief in Slaine’s chest. “You’re getting released today.”
His head snapped up, eyes wide. “What-?”
“No prosecutor would try to make a case against you.” The soft voice was calm as always, even as Slaine’s head spun and his limbs went cold. “You gave them the names of all the victims and the motivation for each hit, but the evidence against you is circumstantial at best. Saazbaum has solid paper trails, clearly benefits from each death or psychotic episode, and has sixteen accomplices testifying against him. It’s easier and less fantastical.”
Inaho continued when Slaine stayed speechless. “The system isn’t capable of giving you the punishment you want. There are other ways for you to atone.” Brown eyes searched his face, gaze soft. “Come with me, Slaine.”
It took a long moment before Slaine could even process the request. After all he had done, and Inaho was still asking him to be by his side. He jerked his head into a nod, and Inaho gave him a soft smile.
His release took most of the day, the sun already setting by the time he stepped through the door and outside the high walls of the juvenile hall for the first time in weeks. Marito was there with the car, giving him a lazy wave, and Inaho turned to face him. Slaine took his outstretched hand without much of a thought, standing in front of the brunet in a bit of a daze.
“You should leave Tokyo until we know no one’s looking for you,” Inaho started, eyes searching his face before dropping to somewhere around Slaine’s shirt collar, “I’m going back to my hometown at the end of the month. You could come with me.”
Slaine blinked, not sure he heard correctly. “Your hometown...?”
“It’s quiet there,” Inaho said, “Nothing ever happens.”
His chest ached with how much he wanted to, but he shook his head. “I can’t - where would I even stay?”
“Yuki-nee already agreed to let you live with us.”
“You’re too kind,” Slaine murmured - if his voice was any louder it would break. It hurt so much, but he couldn’t keep taking and taking from Inaho. “I can’t-”
“You’re the most valuable Treasure I’ve stolen,” Inaho cut him off, resting a warm hand against Slaine’s jaw. The brown eyes were meeting his again, warm and bright and honest. “Let me help you.”
His breath came out as a laugh, because otherwise it would have been a sob. Slaine tipped forward and buried his face against Inaho’s neck, free hand coming up to clutch at the back of the brunet’s shirt. He felt the fingers on his face move to thread carefully into his hair, and he couldn’t hold it back anymore.
Slaine let himself cry, for the first time in years.