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The Childish Detective's Distorted Desires

Chapter Text

               “Come on, man! Tell me again why we gotta do this?”

               Discordant footfalls scratched to a halt as outstretched arms threw themselves up in aggravation. A few mutters rang out from the others, the blond-haired teen stuffing his hands roughly into his pockets as he turned his head to his classmate. “Why’re you being so damn nice to Ace Defective?” The accusatory tone wasn’t lost on the other boy, turning his head the barest amount to peer at him from behind the messy tangle of curls.

               “I’ve always been this way to him – if I change it now, then he’ll just end up figuring out that something’s changed, right?” As much as the other may have not liked it, he couldn’t come up with a rebuttal for the succinct words of his leader, trailing off with a disparaged sigh. The rest of them could only nod along, understanding the intentions and motives behind their leader’s words…

               As much as none of them wanted to sit through an hour and a half segment that the aforementioned ally was partaking in.

               “Why did you agree for all of us?!” Ryuji barked, running his hands roughly through his hair while they walked, watching the building rising up out of the urban sprawl around them. A small smirk had plastered itself onto the other’s face, causing a raised eyebrow or two from the rest of the members trailing behind them, still clad in striped plaid bottoms that marked them as Shujin students.

               “I figured we could have some quality family time, y’know; a party bonding exercise.” Ryuji’s groan drowned out the scoffs and chuckles of the rest of the members. Even the tuxedoed tomcat rustling in his bag was frustrated at the prospect, already having to have been subject to the stuffy bag that he was swiftly finding to be his own little slice of Tantalus torture, stuck in the stuffy fabric, with freedom just beyond the zipper.

               “If I have anymore ‘bonding time’, I think I’m gonna be permanently stuck to you all.” Morgana groaned, and the rest of the party shuddered, none of them having forgotten the nine-hour drive from Hell in Mementos following a spat between Ryuji and Ann. Akira, happily driving along and whistling the theme from the Big Bang Burger while the rest of the party skulked as the seats threatened to rub sores into their skin.

               Hardly two weeks ago, the memory and the threat that it carried was still more than enough to remind them to be glad it was this over plundering the depths of Mementos and scouring over every single floor until the leader was satisfied with the growth in the Thieves’ relationships from when they had arrived.

               Breaking from the cover of clustered buildings washed them aglow in a stray beam of sun glimpsed through the rolling cloud cover, the members savoring it for the moment it was there and missing it just as keenly when it was gone the next. Bright eyes picked out the familiar, sleek blue haircut of their final companion, picking their way through the throng of people filling the streets.

               Akira bounced his finger from one person to the next, counting and checking off each person who said they were able (not so much willing), nodding his head when all were present and accounted for, flashing a smile to the group.

               “Everyone ready to go?” He asked, fishing out the tickets that had been oh, so graciously pressed into his hands by the stricken detective. He would have given anything at that moment for his phone to be in his hand, rather than upstairs charging after an early day romp with the rest of the group. He wanted a recording of the brunet begging, almost pleading, with him to find people to fill up the seats, so at the very least there was someone there who didn’t seem wholly intent on finding a way to plunder the room at the studio.

               “Where’s Futaba?” Yusuke asked, the light lilt of a yawn creeping up his voice, until his chest expunged it from his lungs. Akira could see the remnants of paint under the other’s nails, keeping the little comment to himself for the other’s sake.

               “She’s not coming – doesn’t feel too comfortable being clustered together like that.” He was proud of the progress that she had been making, but he didn’t believe that that was the only reason. It was no secret that the girl hated him, keeping it together through their brief interactions with only thinly veiled snark sent in the other’s direction.

               Lucky excuse, won’t be one for long.

               The tickets spilled easily from his hands to the next, being waved in one after the other while fangirls pressed around, all assortments of gifts tucked in their arms. An elbow to his ribs sent Ryuji jumping, Ann’s grinning face at his side.

               “Wish those presents were for you, don’t ya?” She teased, the croon in her voice making the slight dusting of a blush that more prevalent across his cheeks as he turned his nose up at the thought, crossing his arms as they passed under the jet of cool air beyond the doors.

               “What?! No way! Like I’d want any of that crap; it’s… it’s just not fair though! How come we pick up the slack from these damn adults and we get spat on, but Space Detective over there gets to dance in the limelight, and have his own interviews…!” Ann rolled her eyes, a knowing smirk playing on her lips while Akira and the others couldn’t help but chuckle at the other proving her point.

               “You so are jealous.”

               “That’s a new one.”

               Akira’s breathless comment and Ann’s chiming voice mixed together, the party mixing in their agreements on both. Ryuji gaped at Ann, pursing his lips and turning to Makoto.

               “You get it right?! You wouldn’t want any of that would you?”

               “Well…” Ryuji sulked, looking around at the entire group and let his shoulders sag, stuffing his hands into his pockets and grumbling.

               “You guys are the worst.” Makoto’s hand came up, giving his shoulder a light pat in her attempt at placating the other, giving a small shrug as he looked up.

               “I don’t know, I think appreciate and acknowledgement in any kind would be nice… But, I do agree. I think that… that,” And she motioned to the crowd outside, the cluster of girls trying to make their way inside the building to snag a seat, the din barely quelled by the glass between them. “Would just be downright distracting.” That seemed enough to pull the blond out of his pout, looking to the other two as his chest puffed out, jabbing a thumb at himself.

               “See? Someone agrees with me!” Grey eyes glanced over to the girl, a smirk tugging at the corners of Akira’s mouth, coughing to try and rid himself of the smile.

               “You don’t have to placate him, you know.” Gibber babbled from the gaping blond’s mouth at the offensive notion, the words tumbling over themselves in an effort to make themselves heard, while the rest watched on and enjoyed the antics typical of the group by this point.

               “For someone with an impeccable poker face, you’re terrible at hiding your amusement, Joker.” The teasing tone forced the teen to turn, a smile gracing his face at the sight of his favorite subject to torment. He felt the jab at his skills as though the other had directly struck him in the side, despite never laying a finger on the other.

               “Thanks for the compliment, Crow – you’ve got quite the fake stage smile. You breaking it out today too?” All delivered with the oozing charisma that bled into his tone, the tongue and cheek grin he offered the other being met with a half-hearted scoff.

               “As always. I’m just glad I have a few less fans to deal with today.” He sighed, worrying the hem of his gloves with his other hand. “They’re bad enough already, as is. They’re practically trying to tear down the walls of this place.”

               “We’re all well aware.” Yusuke chimed in, his gaze slipping over to the sight outside of the clamoring fans. Ann targeted Ryuji with another friendly jab, the boy taking it in stride and darting his fingers out in a playful pinch on the girl’s side, sending her squealing and rounding on the blond who took the opportunity to dart behind their leader for cover. The comment hung in the air, Akechi taking in the entire group and the aftereffects of their jaunt here from their school, until Akira stepped forward, hands stuffed into his pockets.

               “Well, Mr. Detective, since you’re special enough to get your own makeup room, why don’t you treat your guests instead of letting it go unused?” The leader all but ignored the sharp look that was levied on him, his mask of passive amusement and the teasing glint almost hidden behind the curtain of his bangs met with an almost unasked disdain of his jeers.

               “Of course, silly me.” Akechi almost seethed, wanting to rake his hair out at how easily the other seemed to get up under his skin, especially in the short banter that they exchanged. He turned about on his heel, setting a brisk pace as a casual punishment for the nonsense coming out of Akira’s mouth. Of course, the bespectacled teen caught up easily to the other, not bothering to hide the pleasure he took in grating the other’s nerves.

               “You are a nightmare.” The mousey brunet hissed, side-eying the other who’s jaunty attitude and step hadn’t waned at all.

               “Only for you.” Came the countering croon, tipping his head the barest amount to let the glasses slip just enough for the dusky grey to peek over the black rims. Akechi scoffed, brushing the other away from where he lingered close to his side, the dark-haired teen retreating a respectable distance while laughing the other away. Pressing his glasses up once more hid his true expression, the smile dipping from a broad grin to the barest quirk of amusement in a flash.

               Why did I bother to invite him of all people?

               The sour thought had an easy answer, but it was wrested down before the other could even think about it, grabbing the clipped card at his breast and tugging it to the door. Light flashing green, he tugged the handle open. The afterthought of shutting the door close on Akira rushing through his head, barely managing to stave off the temptation until he, and the others, followed in behind him.

               The light inside was dazzling, even the detective squinted and covered his eyes for a moment as they adjusted to the luminescent bulbs that surrounded the mirror. Morgana finally slipped from the bag, hurtling himself to the solid ground of the floor with a pleased mreow, stretching languidly as his claws sank into the studio carpet. When the group had finally managed to adjust themselves to the contrasting light, a small whistle of surprise escaped Ann.

               “I didn’t realize how nice the dressing rooms were here.” It took a moment for her and the others to settle, each of perching in the room. Most of them had flocked to the couch on the far wall of the room, Makoto scolding Ryuji when the bottom of his foot had planted itself against the side of the couch. Akira stood, glancing over the room once more before cocking an unseen bro. His long strides took him to the other end of the mirror, plucking a small gift bag from a sizeable pile, turning his questioning gaze onto the detective. Instead of an explanation, he got the sight of the other pinching the bridge of his nose, a sharp, short exhalation rattling in his throat.

               “I just take them to… try and be nice.”

               “Ah, so saving face.” The dour look was not lessened by the snide quip, Akira’s fingers daintily plucking the sticker off of the small baggie, delighted at the small cookies inside. He popped one into his mouth, only glancing up when the other sighed once more.

               “You can go ahead and have them. I usually throw the food away.”

               “What?!” Ryuji exclaimed, jumping up from the couch, his face the same flustered red it had been a few minutes prior. “All those cute girls made you sweets, and you’re gonna just throw ‘em away like that?!” Makoto frowned, nudging Ryuji and trying to quell the shouts from him, looking over to the detective.

               “I do have to admit… doesn’t that just seem kind of cruel?” Haru nodded along, her fingers trailing the edge of her sweater.

               “Yeah, Akechi – especially after they went through all the effort to make them for you.”

               “What they don’t know won’t hurt them.” He said, shrugging noncommittally, picking up a few of the bags and tossing them to the couch-bound group. “I usually throw them out because I don’t know what’s been put in them.” At that, the group looked to the innocuous baggies with hesitation, pursing their lips as they debated with themselves on the worst things fans could possibly put into the baked goods.

               Akira just popped another cookie into his mouth.

               Akechi turned his head to lock eyes with the lazy stare that the boy had fixed on him, his brow twitching as the other teen popped another cookie in his mouth. His lips parted, and if the hint of a sneer on his face was any indication, Akira felt that the comment was probably an untoward once, but the sharp rapping of knuckles upon the door caught their attention.

               “We need you on set! They’re going to be getting ready to start soon!” The shrill voice called from the other side, and the detective sighed, calling back.

               “I’ll be right there.” He turned back to the group, flashing them a smile. “Alright – sorry, you’re all getting evicted.” He said, the group muttering to themselves as they stood up with the bags, Makoto having left hers on the cushion.

               “We’ll go find our seats.” Makoto hummed, laying her hand against Akira’s shoulder for a moment, before slipping on by him with the rest of the group, leaving the two teenagers alone in the room. The crinkling of the empty bag jarred the brunet, watching as the other creased it down and slipped it into the garbage. His eyes sparkling with barely tempered mischief, his chin tilting up the barest amount in look that Akechi could only describe as infuriating.

               He lingered by the door, smirking in the way that only he could, sweeping his arms towards the door, proffering for the other to go first.

               “Such a gentleman,” No matter how abrasive he got, the smirk never disappeared from Akira’s face, even as he slipped on by him and out the door.

               “Gentleman thief.” He corrected, pulling the handle shut behind him. He moved to clap Akechi on the back, none deterred at the way the other side-stepped the contact. “Have fun out there, knock ‘em dead, Space Detective.” If the other was surprised at the new version of his moniker, it didn’t show on his face, only rolling his eyes and turning on his heel with a sharp spitting tone.

               “Shut it, attic trash.” He barked, but the words had lost their bite, evident to him by the chuckle that followed him down the hall, until the unsteady staccato of their footfalls were the only sound echoing off the halls. Akechi’s creased brow smoothed out, compulsively tugging on the edge of his gloves as he retraced the well-worn path from his room to the studio.

               Space Detective… that’s a new one.

Chapter Text

               The stage was almost blinding compared to the rest of the large studio, the curtain of darkness that started at the fringes of the set blocking off any sight of the audience that chittered away in their seats. The group was glad to find their seats set some ways back, having thought that they were going to be front and center for something they weren’t exactly enraptured by.

               Though, Akira was bummed to find out that he wouldn’t be able to terrorize the other by making faces.

               Ryuji sighed as he settled into his seat, slumping down in the chair as he threw a leg up over his knee. “C’mon man… this sucks, why can’t I just go bum in the bathroom?” He shot the group’s resident artist a sour look, after Yusuke had ratted him out to Akira, who almost drug the blond teen out of the stall hissing and spitting.

               “If all of us have to do this, you do too!” Ann countered from Akira’s other side, leaning partially over him to point her finger at Ryuji. While those two were arguing, he glanced over Ann’s shoulder, catching Makoto’s eye and giving her a light shrug, which she returned with a light laugh.

               “What can you do?” She hummed, almost missed between the buzz of excitement from the people around them along with the two squabbling almost directly in the leader’s lap. Akira held up a finger, the mischievous smirk on his lips spelling disaster for the two, as his arms came up to wrap around the two’s shoulders, hauling them up somewhat.

               “I didn’t know you guys wanted to go back to Mementos so much~! I’m sure our target’s victims appreciate that a lot!” He chirped, watching the color drain from the pair’s face as they jumped back to their own seats with forced smiles on their faces.

               “Th-That’s… really not necessary Akira – r-really!”

               “Yeah… yeah! It’s all good!” Their hands rose up, and Akira couldn’t help but smirk at the way they looked like children who had been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. He pulled out his phone, humming to himself, taking way too much pleasure in torturing the other’s for practically using his lap as their battle ground.

               “You sure? I’m positive we could make a day out of it – let me see how many I’ve got saved up.” He hummed, despite not being keen on going in there any time soon, but he was willing to milk this for all it was worth at this point. He opened up the app on his phone, about to swipe over to the missions for Mementos, his thumb just hovering over the screen until the sudden fanfare from the front of the room drew their attention away.

               The lull of conversation died away, the crowd watching with rapt attention as a man and woman stepped out from the sides of the stage. The woman’s hair bounced in voluminous curls, the ruffled blouse of her outfit swishing this way and that as he strutted across the stage. Her boisterous voice called to the audience, throwing up an arm as she greeted the crowd.

               “Helloooo~ Tokyo! I’m Igarashi Hotaru, your wonderful and lovely host for this evening – along with my partner, Hajime Shin!” She called out, her voice reaching to every corner of the room, but Akira suspected that the mic that was clipped to the neckline of the blouse aided her in that.

               Despite the additional thought that she could probably be heard from the back, even without it.

               Akira rested his phone on his thigh, the two blonds on either side of him sighing in relief, now that the immediate threat of being drug into Mementos was now over. Applause bubbled up in bursts around the room, until even the Thieves decided that it would only be polite to do it as well. The woman beamed at the audience, the bright lights surrounding the stage only amplifying the dazzling white of her smile.

               “Now,” She drawled, stretching her hand out towards the ground, as her smile only widened. “Are you all ready for our very special guest?” She called, and the sudden noise that filled the air was deafening, the clapping rising to a fever pitch along with the shrill calls from the audience. The announcer waiting until the worst of the noise had died down before her arm snapped to the side of the stage that her partner had come out on. “Introducing your favorite Ace Detective, Akechi Goro!”

               Akira only barely heard the familiar pitch of the computerized tone, steely eyes glancing down to the phone screen to glance at the name currently emblazoned in the field boxes. A chill ripped through his entire body, despite the warmth of his teammates around him, looking to the words beside the name:

               Match Found.

               He heard Ryuji’s scoff beside him, bringing his attention back to the world around him, despite the sudden dryness in his mouth. He glanced up to the stage where he saw the familiar mousey brown hair of their temporary partner in crime, the mahogany gaze blown wide where he stood, almost shocked at the fanfare that erupted around him. The cheers of the audience, the music that was almost inaudible in the background, along prismatic shards of confetti that fell around him.

               The sudden din as the crowd whipped itself into a frenzy was almost enough to drive him from the room, along with the unmistakable fact that the app itself confirmed. His shoulders lurched at the sudden touch on his shoulder, his head snapping up to lock with Makoto’s own worried currant gaze. He could feel the question without her even needing to voice it, giving a small nod and placed his hand over hers. He saw her brow cock dubiously, Akira wondering what she was unconvinced by…

               Until he realized is hands were shaking.

               He lifted his hand off of hers, shaking his head and mouthing the word ‘later’ to her. She relented, giving him an uncertain look before she turned her head back to the stage, Akira doing the same. Akechi had sat down at this point, his hands folded into his lap while his face bore the visage of a pleasant smile. The crowd began to die down, and once the others could hear themselves begin to think again the detective took that moment to address the crowd and the hosts of the interview.

               “You know – whenever I come onto the show, I always feel like I’ve arrived for a surprise birthday party!” The woman beside him chittered on something about his praise making her blush, being glad that he liked the fanfare. All Akira could hear was once more the app kicking on, and the blood drained from his face as he nearly couldn’t bring himself to glance down at the screen, watching the ellipses beside the words blinking in a row as the app processed the entered word, until once more, the damning words appeared next to it.

               Match Found.

               The blood had drained from his face at that point, and the cookies that he had been delighted to indulge himself in early felt like they were beginning to crawl back up into his throat. He clicked the power button on his phone, fingers fisting themselves into the fabric of his pants. Ryuji was the first to notice his new distress, the blond giving him an odd look before he leaned in to Akira, his hand coming to rest on his shoulder.

               “Hey man, you alright? You aren’t lookin’ so good.” Akira gave a slow nod, hesitating for a moment before shaking his head. He needed to tell the rest of the group, and he couldn’t do it surrounded by a bunch of other people. Ryuji’s hand slid to steady Akira as he got up, offering as much support as they could, slipping by the others. The questioning looks were met with silence, slipping by each of them until a pale hand snatched hold of his sleeve, Makoto raising up out of her seat just enough to close the distance for him to hear her.

               “I’ll get Akechi’s card to get into the dressing room, you can lay down and relax in there.”

               “…” The small, surprised breath escaped him, before he nodded, deciding that would be the best place to talk to the group. “Thank you.” She just nodded, sitting back down and watching the pair escape to the end of the row, Ryuji quickly explaining that the other wasn’t feeling good, and slipping out the doors.

---

               Makoto slipped out of her seat as soon as the commercial break hit, the rest of the group leaving their seats and heading to retrieve the other two from the bathrooms. The back was a tangle of cords, the girl stepping carefully over each and every one of them, until she caught a glance of cream fabric, and called out.

               “Akechi!”

               He had almost disappeared behind a corner, turning with confusion written all over his face until he saw who had shouted his name. His brow furrowed, looking around for the other’s as she picked her way across the equipment strewn about.

               “Akira isn’t feeling well, I was wondering if you’d let me have your card, so he could go lay down for a little while.” As soon as the words left her lips, the look of disappointment crossed his face, along with a sharp sigh. He lifted the keycard off of his jacket, handing it off to the girl.

               “I told him; you never know what they put in those.” Makoto had to will herself not to narrow her eyes, feeling that the other’s remorse was misplaced. After all, she knew exactly what the other wanted to do to him specifically. She wouldn’t even be surprised if the other teen had been the one to tamper with the cookies, hoping that Akira would have plucked one up to eat.

               “Well, I hope he feels better so that he doesn’t vomit all over my floor in there. If he does, tell him that he’ll be the one to clean it up.” He said, turning at the sound of his name being called, looking back to Makoto. “Sorry, I’ve got to head back. You’ll get to the room faster if you go out those doors, just follow the hallway to the left.” He said, nodding to the set of double doors right behind her. She nodded, giving him a small wave as she turned on her heel and pushed her way outside.

               Despite the back-handed words, she didn’t hear any true malice in his words; only the superiority of ‘I told you so’ ringing true. Besides, if there was already a plan set up to get rid of the leader, why would he go through the trouble of poisoning him here?

               She wondered if the cookies really had been tampered with.

---

               “What?! There’s no effin way!” The sudden outburst from the blond was met with a chorus of shushing, which he balked under, sinking back into the couch with a grumble. The rest of the group had clustered around Akira, looking at the screen of his phone in disbelief.

               “Is it really that preposterous? After everything that we know he’s accomplished, is it really that unbelievable?” Yusuke murmured, glancing at the phone while his brow furrowed with unease. “Still, it is quite the shock… I thought we as Persona users were unable to have such things?”

               “Yeah, well I’ve got a lot of questions for that cat when we get back.” Ryuji groused, scrolling through the group messages. It was only after they had entered the room when they realized that one of their members were missing. It only took a moment of prying to figure out that he had run back off to see Futaba, rather than stick around with the rest of them and suffer.

               “Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, maybe he doesn’t actually have a Palace?” Haru tried, but her typical earnest tone fell flat in the face of everything that they had been shone otherwise. Makoto shook her head, looking back to the screen.

               “We only have two of the requirements.” She pointed out, not bothering to say anything more, considering she figured that everyone in the group had a pretty good idea of where Akechi thought of the party being at.

               The tension oozed into the air, nobody daring to breath as they watched as their leader typed out the final requirement for the app.

               T-V-S-T-A-T-I-O-N

               The group watched with bated breath as the app began to process the input, six pairs of eyes glued to the screen. The air in all of their lungs escaped as one, watching as the confirmation popped up next to the words.

               Match Found.

               Beginning Navigation.

Chapter Text

               The air around them was bathed in the crisp scent of summer, the skyscape dotted with perfect swells of cotton clouds that blotted out the pristine blue that stretched to the horizon. It was a strange color to see in the Metaverse that was for sure, considering how normal it seemed compared to the rest. To them, it felt like they had stepped straight into an imported American movie, standing in the middle of an upper-class suburb.

               Around them, the shadowed architecture of houses stretched up out of the ground, placed in neat little rows formed by planned development, stretching on farther than anyone in the group could see. But, before them was the only house that didn’t seem bathed in the same, undefined darkness that had enveloped everything else.

               In comparison, the manor was almost blinding.  The columned home was covered in a fresh layer of white, without any stains or imperfections. Stonework lined the front of the porch, white railing stretching up between each of the columns that supported the roof of the two-story home. The shingled roof was an almost heathered gray, and the only part of the home that sported any color was the door; stained a deep, bloody red.

               In front of them: manicured grass that was almost a too perfect shade of emerald green, and from behind Akira, he could hear Ryuji making a comment about it looking like AstroTurf. A white picket fence stretched the perimeter, disappearing into towering hedges each trimmed to perfect sharp edges. Two trees reached up into the air, thick branches casting shade onto the ground beneath them, encircled with dark shards of mulch.

               A nonexistent breeze rustled the grass and trees, the leaves shimmying on their branches, and the entire world in that moment was silent, until the creeping sound of music registered in their ears. They saw movement in the scaling windows that lined the home; shadows masquerading as men and women that passed idly by one another.

               The group passed their attention onto one another, surprised to find them still in the school uniforms that they had never managed to find the time to change out of before they had headed to the TV station for the interview.

               “Odd… should we not have donned our Phantom Thieves outfits?” Yusuke murmured, tugging at the collar of his shirt. They didn’t even have their masks, each and every one of them reaching out for the power that usually simmered beneath the surface – unable to bring their Personas to bear.

               “That’s strange, I would’ve thought that Akechi would’ve thought of us as his enemies.” Haru’s gentle voice pointed out. All of the Thieves turned to look to their leader, who had simply been staring at the sight before them for the last few minutes, taking in the area.

               “Maybe we should head back for now, before Akechi comes back and wonders where we’ve run off to.”

               “Don’t you have his card, Makoto?”

               “Well, I do…” She pulled up the keycard to the room from where she had clipped it to her vest. “But, if he comes back, he still won’t be able to get in, and he’ll know we either left with the card, or that we’re just not letting him into the room. And I’m sure that the front desk has multiple cards.” The rest of the group conceded to her point, all except for Akira, who had inched closer and closer to the front gate separating them from the Palace. His hand tested the gate which shook with the gentle pressure that he laid on it, giving it a nudge and watching as it smoothly swung open. The well-oiled hinges made hardly a noise, so it was only when the wooden surface tapped against the side of the fence that the others realized that he was walking towards the house.

               “H-Hey man, wait up! Don’t you think that’s a bad idea? I mean, Hell, who knows what this place is like?” The blond’s chest shaking behind his tacky graphic-tee with the sudden force of the spluttering words bursting out from his chest. He swung his head around, settling on each of the other members, looking for a sympathetic face and finding nothing but unsure demeanors and uneasy eyes. The blond gawked open-mouthed at the rest of the group, his head swinging between them and their leader; his long-legged stride placing him closer and closer to the home.

               “Akira!” He called, pushing himself over the threshold, stumbling over the cobbled path that lead to the elevated landing. The rest of the group were spurred on by the boy’s actions, each following at their own pace. The bespectacled teen didn’t wait for the others to catch up, ascending the steps one foot at a time until he stood before the open doorway, glancing up to the arching crown mold surrounding the frame.

               The inside seemed just as lavish, just as outrageously expensive as the outside had, especially compared to the austere furnishing of the attic he called his home. The furniture looked like it had never been sat on, the stained surface of the coffee table reflecting fractals of light beaming down from the chandelier above it. The wooden floors shone with wax, cut off by the shadows of finely dressed men and women, gliding over the veneer in stiletto heels and polished dress shoes.

               Akira’s foot slid towards the door, tempted to enter the house and see exactly what lie beyond those walls, wondering exactly what kind of place awaited them. Before his shoe could even touch the frame, a small figure blocked his approach.

               A petite child with a curious golden gaze, peering up at him through mousey brown hair.

               The last of the group of students filed up precariously onto the landing of the manor, those of lesser stature rocking up onto the tips of their toes to catch a glimpse of the boy. Whispers of confusion broke out, staring at the familiar, yet diminutive appearance of the newest addition to the Phantom Thieves.

               Each of them suffered through a scrutinizing gaze that they all recognized from the boy’s real-world counterpart. After the boy seemed to have his fill of the motley group of strangers on his doorstep, his eyes glanced to their hands and around their legs as though seeking something out. He eventually settled back onto Akira, their gaze locking as the boy’s mouth opened.

               “Welcome! Are you here for my birthday party?” The tiny doppelgangers voice and its boyish charm would have been comical to the rest of the group, were it not for the deathly serious implications of the boy’s existence.

               “Your… birthday… party?” Came the slow, halting words of the blond, his poor posture sinking lower and lower while his jaw jutted out, lips pursing as he tried to parse just what was going on. The waving locks bobbed with his emphatic nod, once more glancing around at the party with confusion etching harsh lines in his soft features.

               “Did you bring a present? You can’t come in if you didn’t bring a present.” His voice was matter-of-fact, almost chiding, as he swung his head side to side in negation.

               “A… present? Are you shi—!”

               “Ryuji!” The pigtailed blonde at his side took the opportunity to slug the boy in the arm, the vulgar teen yelping and hopping away from the source of his abuse, grumbling and moving to the other side of the group while he rubbed his arm. Akira looked away from the scuffle, kneeling down to meet the boy at eye level, the grey eyes placid behind their frames.

               “You’ll let us in if we bring presents?” The boy gave a solemn bob of his head, and the teen letting out an almost inaudible sigh before rising from his knee. He gave the cue to follow, and for a moment, Ryuji almost seemed inclined to argue, motioning with a vigorous swing of his arms towards the child, but his comments were quelled by the icy look that Ann leveled at him; leaving him with nothing to do but to stick his hands in his pockets and sulkily follow behind their leader.

               Once out of the gate, the air seemed to charge with energy, and they allowed the familiar oppressive feeling to envelope their minds.

---

               “What the eff, cat – I thought you said a Persona user couldn’t have a Palace?!” Ryuji brandished his fist at the feline perched on top of the table while pitch fur bristled at the other’s accusatory shouting. Him and Futaba had come over as soon as they heard what had happened, the group managing to get in and out before the show had even finished, making it back to their seats to ease suspicions. Akira had texted them vague details, promising a full explanation once they had gotten back.

               “Don’t you yell at me, I thought that’s how it was! How was I supposed to know?! I’ve never heard of it happening before, and if I have, I certainly don’t remember!” Flexing his claws, he hissed at the blond, until the other sitting at the table slammed her hand down.

               “Could both of you shut up? Obviously, it can happen, we’ve just seen it! We’re not going to get anywhere with both of you yelling at each other!” The teen’s scolding was enough to send the two sulking, Ryuji crossing his arms as he leaned up against the side of the desk by the table.

               “I couldn’t agree more with you, Ann. We should be focusing on the fact it even exists, and how to rid ourselves of this predicament.” Pressing back the sheaf of blue hair from his eye, his gaze turned to the rest of the group, flitting over to the brunette sat neatly in her chair, her hands pressed together on the table.

               “I still just… well, I can believe it. After all, we know he’s been colluding with Shido. Still… it’s bad enough that he has a Palace?”

               “I can’t believe I didn’t even pick up on it! I knew that slimy detective couldn’t be trusted!” The rest of the group felt the spectacled girl’s fury, justifiably angry at how the teenager had blindsided them all.

               “Do you think that he even knows that he has a Palace?” The rest of the group frowned, the same question having popped up in their heads plenty of times by that moment. The rest of the time that they had spent in the station had been tense, each and every one of them wanting to burst out the questions that lay coiling in their chests. But now, those questions drug like barbed wire up their throats, unable to escape into the air.

               “Well…!” Futaba’s voice caught in her throat, as though every single thought in her head were fighting to come out at once, piling and piling as her cheeks puffed out in aggravation, until her small, pale hands slammed onto the top of the table, startling Morgana. “I don’t care! All I know, is that Ace Defective wants Akira dead – and I’m not gonna let that happen!” She shouted, prompting the other members around her to try and quell her fury, while Akira and Ryuji shared a look, trying not to laugh at the nickname they had given Akechi. The ginger eventually flopped back onto the couch while she rubbed her abused hands, glowering over the frames of her glasses.

               Morgana looked up to the group around him after catching his bearings, ears pulling down as he stared at his white paws kneaded the table, small pinpricks from thorn sharp claws scuffing the veneer. “The fact he was talking to Shido might’ve… should’ve been our first clue.” The tuxedoed tom mewed, followed by a heavy sigh that shook his small frame. The rest of the group chimed in with varying sounds of agreement, most still looking in any direction that didn’t mean staring at a person.

               “Well,” Finally, Akira’s voice broke the air, having remained stoically silent the entire time the others had been talking. “Whatever the case, it’s up to us as the Phantom Thieves to stop it, right?” A few of the members openly gaped at the suggestion, Ann and Ryuji both stumbling over their words as they tried to remind their leader that this was the very same person who wanted him dead.

               Makoto’s attention was drawn to the demure girl who had so far-in remained quiet through the entire discussion, her lips pursed tight as if she had eaten something sour.

               “Haru,” she started, turning to face her. “What are your thoughts in all this?”

               The girl gave a start as she realized the attention of the entire group was on her now, even Ryuji and Ann who had given up on their attempt to make Akira see reason with trying to save the other teen. She shuffled in her seat, keeping her eyes downcast until she could manage to speak.

               “I… I don’t think I could do it.” She said softly, a bitter edge to her words that made it perfectly clear what her stance was, even if her words didn’t. She rose from her seat, dusting herself off slightly. “I’m sorry, all of you – but… I just don’t trust myself, after what he did to Father… I want his heart to be changed, but I can’t be a part of going in there.” She said firmly, turning and heading towards the stairs.

               The rest of the group exchanged glances, before Morgana hopped off the table, shooting a glance over his shoulder. “I’ll make sure she gets to the train alright, I’ll be back.” He said, starting after the girl.

               “Anyone else who’s not okay with going in?” Akira asked, shooting a pointed look out of the corner of his eye towards Futaba, who, besides a small wrinkling of her nose, made no other move of disagreement. “Alright, so that leaves the rest of us. The Shadow said that we needed presents to get in, right? How are we going to get a present into the Palace?”

               Their bags always disappeared, and even though some items transferred along with them, most of them did not. The rest of the party looked as though they had been contemplating the same thing, most of them stewing over their own thoughts until Makoto lifted her head.

               “What if it’s something like with my sister? That we have to do something in the real world to affect the cognitive one?” She offered, the rest of the Thieves nodding along, before Ryuji piped up.

               “So? What are we even gonna get him? What does he even like?” The rest of the group looked around in vary degrees of bashfulness, realizing that hardly any of them knew anything that he might like. Akira sighed, pulling out his phone and tapping out a quick message, watching the screen for a few moments until his text tone rung out in the attic, and he stuffed the phone back into his back pocket.

               “There, he’s coming over tomorrow.”

               “What?! Tomorrow?! Are you outta your mind! There’s no way we’ll be able to get stuff for him on time!” Ryuji gawked, unenthused with the smirk that their leader had.

               “It’s Sunday, tomorrow. I’ll go out and get some goodies, throw it together, and it’ll be fine. I’ll even make him some coffee.” Akira shot Ryuji a small smile, which the blond only knew that he was up to no good. “Man, it’s like you actually care about him.”

               “H-Hey! That’s not true! I’m just not gonna have my name put on a shitty gift, alright?!” Ryuji huffed, crossing his arms and pouting as he tried to retreat into the couch, the tension in the room finally easing as laughter began to trickle out of them. Once the noise had died down, Akira looked over the group remaining.

               “So, it’s set – I’ll text you guys later tomorrow to tell you how he liked it, hopefully if it goes smoothly enough we can get into the Palace later tomorrow. We really don’t have much time to waste.” He glanced over to his phone, clicking the power button for a moment and taking in the date emblazoned on its surface.

               Fourteen days…

               They really didn’t have the luxury of messing this up.

Chapter Text

               The pen clicked shut with a sharp finality, the teen blowing over the settling, swirling ink of the recipient’s name. He pressed the envelope beside the neatly wrapped present, pausing for a moment to readjust the ribbon on top. It was what he could manage in the time from this morning until now, glancing to his phone to look at the time, and check from any would-be messages from his favorite detective.

               The coffee brewing in its stand filled the expanding silence, chasing it away for the moment. Returning to the pot that lay on the cooktop, Akira pulling up his phone and flicking to his notes, mentally checking off everything that he had put into the mixture, glad that he had chosen to write down the recipe that the other liked so much.

               He had to resist the temptation of the fluffed rice off to the side, reminding himself that, if he continued to sneak a bite here and there, there would be none left for his guest. He wondered if there was anything quick he could pop into his mouth before the other got there, but the moment the door cracked open the bell above the front door chimed.

               The tangle of messy curls nearly bounced with how fast the other straightened up, flashing an excited grin to the familiar face that had crossed into the café. Those inscrutable eyes pierced through Akira, looking from him to the box sat innocuously on the counter, and cocking a brow.

               “Alright, Kurusu – what is this?” Akechi asked, and the other teen couldn’t help but think that the other couldn’t be more guarded if he was clad in armor.

               “It’s your birthday present.” He loaded up the rice onto the plate he had nearby, missing the narrowed stare that was levelled on him from the other.

               “My…? Kurusu, did those cookies kill what remaining brain cells you had? Last time I checked, my birthday was a couple months ago.” Akechi mocked, despite sitting up in the stool next to the pile, reeling slightly at the smile that the other gave him when he set down the curry.

               “I know,” Next came the coffee, the cup clinking as he placed it down, leaning an elbow onto the counter. “We all felt bad that we didn’t know one another before your birthday, so we figured while you’re still a part of the group that we could do something special.” The leader couldn’t help but take some satisfaction as the stunned silence of the other became the centerpiece of the café, even as Akira turned on his heel to begin cleaning up the mess he had made.

               The sound of ripping paper met his ears, and glancing around where the edge of his glasses ended, he saw Akechi looking over the card that bore every member’s signature. He was thankful to Morgana, who had since collapsed upstairs in a ragged, complaining heap. He had rushed around to grab the signatures from all the members, even popping an inky pawprint onto the surface for his own mark. It was a simple card, one of those cheesy, goofy cards that you often get from your friends along with some money enclosed when they didn’t know what to get you.

               But, enclosed wasn’t money, but a developed picture.

               It was a goofy, cheesy selfie that Akira had snapped on a late-night subway ride. You could see everyone over his shoulders, crowded in with each other. Ryuji and Ann looked like they were half-way between bickering and laughing, Makoto had been taken completely off guard by everything, Yusuke and Haru had their reserved, dignified smiles like they always did, and Futaba was pulling the biggest, brightest grin she could with Morgana in her lap.

               He remembers the night.

               It was their second time into Niijima’s Palace. Everyone was tired, and even he had to admit that he was beginning to look forward to collapsing into his bed – if he didn’t decide his couch was good enough. Akira had taken the spot beside him, and the detective resigned himself to being pestered the entire ride home; but the other had simply reclined on the seat and shut his eyes for a tiny while, only opening his mouth to throw in his two cents every so often to one of the other’s conversations.

               The other’s chatter lulled into a hum that complimented the steady thrum of the train moving swiftly over the tracks. There was no chance of sleeping, not with the other’s around. He was just too high-strung, too distrusting of what could possibly happen if he wasn’t on guard. The cement walls of the subway passed too quickly to offer any sort of stimulating view, and every ad that he could get his eyes on he had seen more than half-a-dozen times.

               He figured that they should change them up, at least more than once every five years.

               His gaze had wandered to Akira, who hadn’t moved from his reclined position. His chest rose and fell almost perfectly, hitching right at the end from a bruised rib. The blow had knocked him clean off of his feet, and once all was said and done, Akechi had chewed Joker out.

               “Aw, Crow – you do care about me!”

               Akechi’s nose had wrinkled, and his lips pricked into a pout, trying to readjust himself in the uncomfortable seat. He wondered why he did care so much, especially when Akira knew he was at fault for his own injury.

               He wondered if he cared for the wrong reasons.

               Once the object of his attention shifted, he was knocked from his thoughts, once more focusing on the sight beside him. His hair had fallen away, and the horn-rimmed glasses had slipped just ever-so down to the tip of his nose. Akechi was almost tempted to liken them to a mask, for how much they hid. He had never even noticed the beauty mark that clung to the corner of his eye like a teardrop stubbornly clinging to his lashes.

               Lashes that fluttered open, a dusky iris’ peeking at him from the corner of its owner’s eye.

               Caught red-handed, there was nothing he could say or do to explain being caught staring – not that he wasn’t going to try. He spluttered, trying to find the words that would wipe that smarmy smirk off of Akira’s face, but the announcement of their station coming up cut him off. He rose to his feet, joining some of the others who did the same, including the grinning idiot beside him.

               That was when he had felt the arm around his shoulders, tugging him in close to the warmth that radiated off of the other teen.

               “Hey, guys~!” Akechi could see his shocked expression in the phone screen, the other’s turning their heads towards the commotion, piecing together what was about to happen.

               “Say: Phantom Thieves!”

               There was something charming about the silly picture, and Akechi couldn’t help but thumb the edge of the picture, flipping it over to read the looping handwriting of the thief in front of him.

               First heist with the infamous Phantom Thieves!

               Everyone’s moniker also decorated the back, some including little doodles by the name, most prevalently was the skull that had been scratched out no less than three times. He felt… he wasn’t sure what he felt. Part of him felt empty, as the careful walls he had built up on the walk to Leblanc sloughed away. He was pointedly aware of the grey gaze on him, trying to read his reaction to the pictures. When he lifted his head, he felt the stinging in the back of his eyes as he looked up to Akira.

               “Figured it would run a high price, once all this over.” Akira joked, trying to lighten the heavy atmosphere that had settled over the two.

               “I wouldn’t ever sell it.” The brunet couldn’t stop the words before they tumbled from his lips, pulling it and the card reflexively closer to himself. He flinched at the tone in his words, and the sudden stillness that came from the other. Akechi expected the other to poke fun at him for sounding so desperate, but the berating never came.

               “I’m glad.” Was the only thing he said, returning to cleaning the dirtied dishes, as though nothing had happened. “The other’s said they were sorry they couldn’t be here, they all had something they had to take care of. But, the presents are from all of them.”

               “Present…s?”

               “Open it up and you’ll see.” Akechi wearily eyed the box beside him, pushing it to the side in favor of enjoying the food before it got cold. Akira missed the surprised look on the detective’s face at the taste of his favorite blend of coffee and curry, the look melting into something tender, something delicate and defenseless. The warmth of both filled his chest and belly, Akira filling up the coffee when it ran low. The stinging in the back of his eyes had become a near-constant throughout the meal, surprised every time he took a bite that he was able to swallow through the constriction of his throat.

               The meal passed in silence, and Akechi couldn’t decide if he was more thankful or if he wanted to throttle the boy in front of him, undoubtedly keeping his mouth shut because of his own perceptions. If Akechi had to commend Akira on anything, it would have to be how easily he read the people around him.

               Which was as infuriating as it was helpful.

               Eventually, he managed to unwind the steady ball of tension he had become trying not to show weakness in front of the other, and finished the meal. Part of him wanted to be angry with how easily the other cut through his defenses but it was hard to sulk with such good food.

               Akira gave him a provocative wink, sliding the plate away from his grasp to place it in the frothing mess of bubbles that the sink had become.

               “All of my practice to be a good housewife finally paying off?” He teased over his shoulder, watching the other’s complexion light up in a furious fluster, dusting his cheeks in an embarrassed blush.

               “A good housewife wouldn’t run her mouth, attic trash.” The familiar biting tone brought a smile to Akira’s face, glad to see the other’s fire stoked once more by their back and forth banter – even if he could tell that the other didn’t mean it.

               Watching the other’s eyes gloss over as he stared at the photo had surprised Akira, especially knowing the other’s stance against all of them. He fought with himself about going over and comforting the other, not wanting to scare him off. So, he had bided his time, letting the other have his space while he existed nearby, just letting him get accustomed to it.

               He could see the other beginning to ease up, and he chose that moment to try and lighten the mood. Now, the tension had melted away, becoming a pale shadow of what it once was around the two. Akechi finally focused on the present, sliding it over to himself and beginning to carefully peel up the tape sealing the paper.

               “Huh,” The currant eyes slid over to Akira, narrowed the slightest bit. Before he could ask him what he was so curious about, the teen pulled out his phone and began to type.

               “Looks like I owe Ryuji ten-thousand yen.”

               “Dare I ask… why?” The detective pulled his hands off of the parcel to pinch the bridge of his nose, preparing himself for the ironic reasoning that he knew lay behind the bet.

               “Ryuji bet that you pull up each piece of tape before opening it, I said that you would just rip it open; it’s more efficient.” Akira laughed at the other rolling his eyes in response.

               “I just rolled my eyes so hard, that they hurt.”

               “Keep it up and they’ll pop out of your head.”

               Akechi simply shook his head, returning to the present in front of him all the while the other leaned on the counter to watch. Eventually, he pulled the wrapping paper free, glancing to the unremarkable cardboard box, eyes flitting to Akira who fingered the edge of the top. He had to lean up in the chair to look inside the box, blinking owlishly at the gifts inside. He pulled out the box of assorted KitKats, throwing a questioning look to the teen, who gave a small laugh and took it from him to set on the counter.

               “Ryuji said that you really needed to take a break sometimes.”

               He couldn’t help but roll his eyes at the dumb joke, despite the warmth that was beginning to spread through his chest at the presents inside. He pulled them out one by one, glancing to Akira for who it was from, along with why, if it was needed.

               When Akira had run out of ideas earlier, he had turned to the others, somewhat surprised at the amount that the others had to give. Yusuke had suggested a fancy fountain pen and a small notebook, one you could fit in a jacket pocket for easy access. Haru had sent a quick message about small planting kits, leaving it up to Akira to find the flower – settling on yellow buttercups. Him and the owner, his part-time boss, shared a knowing look as he bought it, her smile especially bright that day.

               Ann had suggested a kit of different colognes for him to try, Akira managing to find ones that were worth more than one spritz. Makoto had suggested a new band for his watch, having heard him lamenting his own being worn down and having broken at one point. Finally, Akechi pulled out Akira’s gift, the gift inside of the sleek black box having easily cost triple the other gifts.

               “Who’s this one from?”

               “Me.” Akira said simply, leaning his chin into his hand as he watched the other slide his hands over the surface, finding the corners and lifting. Closing his eyes, he was satisfied by the sudden sound of the other’s breath catching in his throat. When he opened his eyes, he watched as Goro gently picked up the pair of gloves. The inky leather nearly absorbed the light in the room, the threading a rich cream color that contrasted starkly with the pitch-black leather.

               The small paper booklet that had been hidden in the silken lining of the box almost went unnoticed, baring the golden filigreed words ‘Artisanal Leather Gloves’.

               “How much did this cost?” The words were almost squeaked out in a voice that Akira deemed was so unlike the detective. He met his questioning gaze and shook his head, offering him nothing more than a close-lipped smile.

               “Not important. Do you like them? I saw that yours were getting a little worn down, you were picking a loose thread the other day.” He had, it had irritated him, considering how attached he was to the little article of clothing. He had had them for longer than he could remember it seemed, and it seemed recently that they were becoming more and more run down as the days passed.

               He held the new gloves as if they were a child, looking from them to Akira and back, not bringing his eyes off of them as he spoke. “I… I love them.” Akira’s face split into a wide grin, clapping his hands together in excitement.

               “Why don’t you try them on?” The idea of taking off his gloves in front of the other seemed… intimate. That it would leave him vulnerable. But, he would be a liar if he said he didn’t want to try them, and he could help but want to indulge the other and his excited smile. He thumbed the edge of his glove, taking a deep breath as he carefully slid it off, pressing it and it’s sibling onto the countertop, his fingers curling into his palms as he felt Akira’s eyes on his hands.

               Despite the attention, he didn’t say a word, only watched as Akechi slipped on the new gloves. They were a little tight, but he knew once he wore them for a little while they would be perfect for his hands. Time around him seemed to stand still as he looked at his hands, the smell of new leather tickling his nose, and the familiar feeling of stinging in the back of his eyes. The movement in front of him brought him out of his stupor, looking at the small cake, obviously homemade from the messy attempt at fancy letter on its surface. A single candle’s flame flickered in the air, reflecting in Akira’s glasses.

               “I thought I saw flour on your collar earlier.” Akechi choked out, his voice roughened with the constricting feeling coiling in his chest. Akira just laughed, pressing the confection closer to him, his eyes kind and smile genuine.

               “Make a wish.” His emotions still running hot, and the flame blurring to a vaguely orange shape casting its light on the countertop, he felt a tear trace its way over his cheek, slipping to darken a spot on his jacket. His lips parted, the bottom trembling as he squeezed his eyes shut.

               I wish I didn’t have to do this.

               And the candle guttered out, extinguished by his shaking breath.

Chapter Text

               It was strange, after only a few short hours how accustomed he had become to the sound of someone else’s voice – and how unaccustomed he was to be without.

               Quiet music lulled in the background, pairing with the steady hum of the train passing over its tracks. His head had lolled back against the window, casting his dour features in a wash of yellow light intermittently when they passed by a solitary light in the subway tunnel. The bag between his legs rustled and jostled every so often with the jarring of the train. He ran his thumb over the handle, making a mental note to return the tote.

               Akira had managed to find it after wrapping up the rest of the cake for him to take home. Akira, who had sat there patiently as Akechi collected himself, offering him a napkin to wipe the tear trail from his face. Akira, who had cut their slices, and had tapped a dollop of frosting onto his nose to lighten the mood, and then bolted to the back closet with an unbecoming squeal when the gloves had come off. Akira, who had jolted from his side of the bar, nearly choking on a piece of cake as he realized he had never sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to him. Akira, who had sung to him, subdued and silken, in the low light for the first time in over a decade…

               “Happy Birthday dear… Goro.”

               It had taken everything in him to not be reduced to a quivering heap on the shop’s floor. That small little hesitation when he had met Akechi’s eyes before that infuriating smile passed over his lips.

               If he didn’t like it so much he would’ve knocked it clean from his face.

               His head jolted down at the thought, and his hand gripped tightly at the tote’s handle, the locks curtaining off his eyes from sight. He wanted to hate Akira – with every fiber of his being he wanted nothing more than to loathe him… But, he couldn’t. Not now, not when he could still smell the frosting that he had smeared on his nose.

               He thought of the picture that he had slipped into his wallet, his fingers itching to hold the small memory in his hands. His fingers trailed over towards the wallet, feeling the outline of it through his pantleg until the music overhead came to a staticky end, and the woman’s voice announcing his station cut through the air. His hand slid back to the tote’s handle, gripping the railing beside his seat and rising.

               The gelid November air shocked his body, shivering after the cozy ride from the other side of town. He tugged on the crisp leather of the gloves, wilting slightly at the thought of who they were from. Akechi felt his mood sink lower and lower as the route home blurred into a solid span of time, filled with nothing but his own thoughts to occupy himself.

               Before he even realized, he was greeted with the landing of his apartment. With a practiced fluid motion, he pulled out his keys, only to realize as he attempted to unlock the door that he had no need. His entire face flushed as he entered the apartment, slipping his keyring onto a hook by the door.

               Was I really in that much of a hurry to get over there that I left my door unlocked?

               He shook the thought away, reasoning that it was something everyone did, at least once. He preoccupied himself with giving the apartment a once over, eventually deciding that nothing had been stolen in his absence. He placed his tote on the bed, pulling out the container with the cake, looking at the two deep gouges that had been scored through the icing layering the top. He walked over to the small kitchen, tucking it into the back of the fridge, hoping he could forget about it.

               Next came the gifts, glancing into the box and realizing as he looked around to try and find a place for the items how… empty his room seemed. Part of him balked at the idea, wanting to keep up the façade of maturity… despite no one having breached this far into his inner sanctum. He indulged himself; pressing the pen and notebook on top of his desk, the small planter on the windowsill with the most light, the box for his gloves on his dresser. His fingers danced over the edge of the card, feeling once more the stinging sensation in the backs of his eyes.

               “You know, Akira,” His voice reached nothing more than a whisper, his fingers trailing over the edge of the card that hadn’t moved from where he had placed it on the counter. “This is the first card I’ve gotten in so long… The last one was from my mother.” He expected sympathy, pity, any other saccharine and empathetic expression to cross the other’s face.

               He wasn’t expecting a smile.

               “I find that hard to believe with all the fans you’ve scrounged up.” He teased, Akechi opening his mouth to scoff at the other, finding the words escaping him when Akira’s smile melted into something less taunting and more gentle – genuine. “I’ll make sure to get you one every year then – even after we disband.”

               He placed the card upright on his dresser, trailing his finger at the edge before sitting back down, fishing the picture out of his wallet. There was so much love in the one picture, and he realized, he could even see Akira’s eyes. They sparkled with amusement, and his fingers were clutching the fabric of Akechi’s jacket. The whole picture had a blurriness at the edges, and if he had to guess, it was from Akira jostling the detective to his side. A whimsical smile played over his features – until the sharp sound of a notification crossed over his phone.

               He wondered if it was the group, wishing him the same sentiments as their leader, but the contact’s name made him flinch, staring at the phone screen as the harsh reality set it. He set his jaw, looking to the picture and the gloves on his hands, before tossing the photo with a snarl to the trash. He ripped off the gloves harshly, flinging them into the bin with the same carelessness as the other gift.

               His chest rose and fell sharply with the wild breaths he sucked in, running a pale, ragged hand through the messy locks. He gripped tightly at the roots, unsure of what hurt worse, the pull on his hair or the tension in his knuckles.

               “Stupid, stupid, stupid...!” He had one job, one thing above all others that he had to do, and he couldn’t get it right. The message on his screen reminded him now, more than ever, he was close to accomplishing his goal. He hung his head, his hands loosening their hold and falling between his knees – the teen hanging there, like a marionette with his strings cut.

               When he lifted his head, his eyes were ringed with red, the glossy veneer of tears coating his cherry gaze. He slipped off of the side of his bed, trudging over to the trash can and picking up the abused gloves and photo. His back hit the wall, and he slid down its length, clutching both to his chest.

               The sound of a wounded animal escaped in a choked-off whimper, his body shaking as the tears leaked freely over his cheeks. A sob burst from his lips, and he tucked his head into his chest, clinging to the remaining warmth from his gloves.

               Crying like the child he never truly got to be.

Chapter Text

               “You all brought presents for me this time?”

               The small voice asked, golden eyes shimmering with excitement at the sight of the neatly wrapped gifts in their arms. When the cognitive world had melted into existence around them, they saw the brightly colored parcels laid at their feet. Each baring their names next to the ‘from:’, there being no mistake what was from who. Ryuji had let out an indignant squawk at the size of his present – or rather the lack thereof.

               Especially when the box at Akira’s feet was almost too big to wrap his arms around.

               The rest of the presents varied in size, but none quite reached the diminutive size of the blond’s, who grumbled in dissatisfaction. The small boy seemed the most interested in Akira’s, splaying his hands eagerly across the colorful surface, and beaming up at the teen who couldn’t help but smile back. The little Shadow spun on his heel, tossing up the long locks of mousey hair as he hopped over the threshold and beckoned them to follow.

               Akira could feel his heel sticking to the floor as he walked, making a note of it being over-waxed, a problem he had come across while working at Leblanc a handful of times. The furniture and pictures seemed so vibrant, almost over-saturated, and the Shadows mulled about, their vague features turning to watch as the group passed by. Goro’s smiling features never seemed to wane as he brought them over to the pile of presents. Each of them set their presents down, Ryuji looking over to the some of the larger presents with disdain.

               Small hands pressed themselves together, the boy looking up at them with a pleasantly polite smile, sucking in a deep breath as he readied himself to speak. No sooner had he opened his mouth to address the group, a woman’s shrill voice called out for the boy. The polite stiffness that had permeated the boy’s being melted into something more, his limbs suddenly coil tight as he turned to look over his shoulder at the sound of the voice.

               When he turned back to them, Akira could see the tightness in his expression, the mask hiding the discomfort that the small Shadow felt. “That’s my mother, I should… I should go see what she wants.” He stumbled, his loafers squeaking across the floor as he drug his foot, freezing under the attention of the Shadows turning to look at him. The boy bowed stiffly, murmuring an apology before hurrying off to some unseen corner of the house to placate whatever he had dubbed as his ‘mother’.

               The rest of the Phantom Thieves glanced at one another, the unease beginning to seep through the entire party. The longer they were here, the longer they had to confront the fact that any of them could harbor twisted enough desires. They wondered if there was any possibility that their justice wasn’t as just as they had first through.

               A tense atmosphere that was ruined at the sound of ripping paper.

               “Shit.” Ryuji swore, the blond looking up to the rest of the group, managing the decency to look at least partially embarrassed as they glanced the ripped wrapping paper surrounding one of the presents. His label sat on his finger, and he chuckled nervously, using his foot to nudge the box away from himself.

               “Ryuji!” Ann disparaged, walking over to the teen and hauling him up by the ear. “What are you doing?” You don’t know if that’s just gonna tick off one of the Shadows!” Ryuji withered at the admonishing tone, pouted much like a child as he glanced to the other denizens of the Palace who seemed to be wholly ignoring their presence.

               “What? Why the hell do I have to have such a small, shitty present! Wouldn’t it make it easier on us if he found a bigger one from one of us?” He griped, smacking her hand away as he stumbled out of her hold. “It doesn’t matter anyway, they’re empty.”

               “They’re… what?” Makoto picked up the torn through present, pulling up one of the edges of the box and peering inside, finding absolutely nothing in the box. Akira nudged another one of the boxes, cocking a hidden brow at how light it appeared to be, until he kneeled down to carefully peel the tape away, glancing in and finding much of the same thing.

               “I… I think they’re all empty.” The brunette murmured, picking up more and more boxes, finding each of them lacking any sort of heft to them. Each of them looked to Futaba, who had crouched down beside a few of the smaller presents, who simply shrugged.

               “I can’t analyze them without Necronomicon.” Akira nodded, deciding that it was up to him to figure out if any of the boxes hid goodies for the small Shadow. He tightened his focus, knowing that if any of the boxes held anything valuable inside of them that they would light up with ease… Except they didn’t.

               Not a single box held anything – not even their own.

               Ryuji, still rubbing his ear from the brutal assault Ann had given him, frowned as he pressed his label back onto the small box. “Why the hell would someone have presents with no… presents?” He murmured, earning him shifting, similarly befuddled looks from the rest of the party. Akira shook his head, giving a small shrug.

               “It’s a Palace – they hardly ever make sense.”

               “But it’s his cognition, yeah? You’d think a little kid would want presents.” Ryuji pointed out, crossing his arms as he struggled to answer the question that all of them had on their minds. Morgana scoffed, patting Ryuji on the leg.

               “Don’t think too hard, you’ll pop the last two brain cells in that empty skull of yours.” The blond spluttered at the insult, spinning on the cat and jabbing a finger towards him.

               “Shut it cat – I don’t hear you trying to figure out anything!”

               “How many times have I told you, I’m not a cat!” Morgana hissed, the pair bristling at each other while the group looked on in disinterest. Sparks flew between the two, eyes burning with a fury that waiting on each’s tongue, until a Shadow pressed its way uncaringly between the two. Another followed, and another, until a whole line of vaguely suited figures had pushed their way between the two squabbling Thieves, each carrying a dome covered plate.

               A confused look passed between the two, looking back to the rest of the party members who watched the Shadows disappear into the next room. Akira took the first steps towards the room, peeking his head around the corner and blinking at the luxurious sight he saw. More presents, every single one of them as empty as the first batch lined the walls of the windowed room. A large dining table stretched on in the center, crimson balloons swaying back and forth on the back of each of the chairs. Plates and napkins littered the surface, silverware and party hats who’s surfaces reflected under the bright light of the chandelier. A tiered cake sat in the middle, each of the candles burning with a never-ending flame, realistic drips of wax covering the surface, but never falling onto the iced surface of the confection.

               Finger foods covered the table, sides and full entrees accompanying, placed there by the butler facsimiles that had since disappeared back into the depths of the house. Blond hair brushed against the underside of Akira’s chin, ticking his neck as he glanced down to his friend who had taken point directly under him.

               “Dude, sweet! Free food!” He called, hopping out from underneath the leader. Yusuke also peered around the corner, much in the same fashion as the blond, only made easier by the slick style of his hair.

               “Do you think that’s such a smart plan?” He asked, glancing up at Akira for some sort of agreement on the matter.

               “Who cares? We’re guests here, right? Guests get to have free food!” His voice carried all the way back to them, looming over the table for some unseen snack as Yusuke moved to instead stand beside Akira. The rest of the team watched as the teen began to eat, jolting at the sudden coughing and hacking coming from his mouth.

               “Ryuji!” Their voices mixed together as they cried out in unison, each of them rushing over to the blond’s side who was childishly spitting the food into a nearby napkin.

               “Dude, it tastes like plastic!” He whined, pawing at the surface of his tongue. Akira picked up the piece of chicken that the boy had bitten into, looking into the middle of it. While the exterior glistened with butter over the golden, herb-crusted batter, the inside was beginning to slog out – an unappetizing grey mush that plopped with a wet smack straight onto the surface of the table.

               The rest of the Thieves let out a chorus of disgusted noises, Akira himself dropping the food back onto the table. His nose crinkled in disgust, looking at the rest of the food that seemed just as innocent on the surface, picking up a little finger cake and pulling it apart to reveal the same colorless insides.

               “Dude…” Ryuji murmured, glancing over Akira’s shoulder at the confection, lips still curled in disgust. “What the hell is goin’ on here?”

               “It’s like all the stuff’s just for show.” Ann murmured, watching as Futaba plucked up the plate that held the oozing foods, tilting it this way and that as the gears in her head began to turn to figure out the mystery. Morgana jumped up onto the table, walking along the plates with his ears pulled back in disgust, able to smell the repugnant odor of the slop. He got to the end of the table, looking up to the room around him and perking his ears up.

               “Hey, there’s stairs over here!” He called, leaping off of the table and crossing over to the curving stairwell, his tail flicking behind him. Each of the members plucked their way over, Futaba having to be drug away from the plate by Akira. The entrance to the second level of the house seemed to yawn open before them, and each shied away, already treading warily at the existence of the very world around them, and how normal it had seemed on the surface.

               Morgana hopped up onto the first step, looking to the others and rolling his eyes. “Come on, the stairs aren’t gonna bite.” He huffed, rolling his eyes at the others. He continued to ascend until the others had no choice but to follow his lead, easily catching up to the landing the cat found himself on.

               Upstairs was just as lavish as the bottom floor, each doorway painted a pristine alabaster. Their shoes scuffed against the polished wood, glancing around and sighing at the familiar sight of the safe room. The entrance shimmered faintly with the distortion around it, the Thieves marking it off for later use. The space opened up into a sitting room, large windows stretched from the floor to the ceiling. The team took a collective step forward, intent on taking a peak outside through the windows to see if there was something to gain from going to the back.

               And as soon as they stepped past the hall, a large rumbling rasp seemed to shake the ground they stood on.

               All of their attentions fixated on the large, ornate door that lay further beyond, the rasping sound continuing now to reach their ears. They all creeped forward, wondering what it could possibly be inside.

               “What… the hell? Is that a Shadow?” Ryuji murmured, looking over to Yusuke who shrugged at him. The rasping rise and fall of its breath unnerved the entire group, Akira beginning to creep forward towards the door. The rest of them followed, waiting for one of their footfalls to set the beast off, but the shock never came. Each of them watched as Akira made his way across the doorframe, standing up to his full height before turning around and looking to the rest of the group with a noncommittal shrug.

               Another door caught their attention at the end of the hallway, a kiddish sign hanging off of its surface. Makoto peered around their leader, having to stifle a small giggle.

               “Is… Is that Akechi’s room?” Each of them let out their own quiet laughter, some of the tension beginning to melt from the group. Akira himself walked in to get a closer look, jolting at the sudden plume of smog that surrounded him. His cough rung out, swinging his arms to try and dissipate the thickened air, until he saw the small hands attached to his body. He snapped his head around to look at the rest of the group, looking into the slightly pudgier face of their local loud mouth. His hair was a frizzed mess of dark locks, and he looked at Akira strangely.

               The rest of the group was much in the same situation, even Morgana had turned into a small kitten. Ann’s pigtailed hair bounced as she hopped forward, a crooning noise coming out of her mouth until she cried out in joy at the sight of the small Morgana.

               “Kittie!”

               Morgana scrambled to get away from the little girl’s hold, both of them suddenly transforming back to their full height once the smoke had settled. Both of them blinked owlishly at the rest of the group, looking from one to the other.

               “You’re all…”

               “Kids…”

               Akira drug the rest of the members back over the threshold, the group as a whole sharing a confused look, wondering exactly what was going on. Akira stepped back over, watching his vision swim as his perception changed again and again as he hopped over each side of the area.

               “That’s… weird.” Ryuji murmured, Makoto watching with an amused smirk, turning her attention to Akira.

               “You know, you were an awfully cute kid, Akira. What happened?”

               “Yeah, now you’re just a punk.” Futaba chimed in, watching as the teen in question crossed his arms with an exaggerated pout.        

               “Hey, I’m still cute.” He groused, the group now unable to contain their laughter. Akira kept up the façade of offense for a moment longer before sighing and flashing them all a grin.

               “Yeah, yeah… laugh it up. I’m so glad that you all take pleasure in my despair.” He chastised, pushing past them all to move back to the main seating area upstairs. He noticed the flight of stairs off to the side, the rest of them beginning to debate. It felt like they had already been inside for ages, and the intel they gathered seemed to be more than enough for all of them for the day. Downstairs, it seemed like the party had never ended, the shadows still mulled about, including the small boy who kept raising onto the tips of his toes until he found them.

               Akechi crossed over to them, and Akira couldn’t help but notice the mottling of a bruise on his face, just beginning to fade.

               He wondered if it had been there before.

               Akechi pleasantly clasped his hands, beaming one of his signature smiles up at them. “I thought I lost all of you – would you all like to play a game with me?”

               Each of them shared a look, most of them wanting to be out of the cognitive world by that point. Akira kneeled in front of the boy, raising a hand to ruffle his hair.

               “We’ve gotta go – but we’ll come back, so we can play the next time we come, okay?” The boy seemed crestfallen for all but a moment, beginning to nod at the teen’s proposal, holding out his hand with his pinkie extended.

               “Pinkie promise?”

               Akira hooked his own pinkie and linked it with the boy’s.

               “Pinkie promise.”

Chapter Text

               If there was anything that Akira could be thankful for, it would be slipping past the child unnoticed. It was easy enough to traverse the inside towards the safe room, keeping an eye out for the miniature version of the detective. In fact, there didn’t seem to be any sign of the other, and while that might have been comforting would this have been any other Palace – but the realization of the other’s absence left Akira’s stomach wrapped into knots.

               As soon as they stepped through the threshold of the room, their outfits returned, and Joker’s hand clenched in the leather of his gloves. The feeling was a comforting one, one that reminded him that, just like every other Palace so far, they were going to make this right. Stretching hallways were their first roadblock, unsure of the path forward. Even Futaba had some troubles beginning to navigate the inside of the Winchester-esque mansion that they found themselves in. Shadows lurked around the corners, large beaming eyes settling on the leader and his cohorts, forcing them into standoffs with the horrid creatures that they had come to know so well in their time spent fighting them.

               The floor, walls, and ceiling had nearly bled together after all this time spent walking through the corridors, each of the members beginning to feel the drag that the place had on their bodies. Futaba was the most frustrated, trying to make sense out of the nonsensical layout of the labyrinthine maze they found themselves walking through.

               “Do you think it’s something to do with the cognition?” Queen murmured, after they had once more stopped for a break. Skull crouched by the wall, resting his chin in his hand as he tried to think of some solution, finding that he was bored more than anything by the constant scenery that refused to change no matter what they did.

               “It could be, that would mean we would have to retreat, and come up with a new plan of attack, however…” Fox murmured, his brows pinched behind the mask.

               “And that would mean precious time…”

               “Time that we don’t have.” Akira’s voice drew them out of the stupor that they found themselves in, the leader not once having stopped thinking about whatever they could do to try and figure out a way deeper in.

               “Should we go ask Akechi? I mean, who would know better?” It was Futaba’s voice that cut through the silence this time, and the rest of the group nodded along, unable to think of a single other thing to try in the meantime.

               The way back seemed to take no time at all, the frustration evident on everyone’s faces at how the Palace seemed to function. It was easy enough to find the boy, the little doppelganger poking his head out of his room as soon as the Thieves found themselves back in the main house. Akechi’s eyes lit up as soon as he saw the dark-haired leader, bouncing up to him and holding up his pinkie expectantly. Akira blinked, unsure of what to do, and the longer he stood there in confusion, the more the little boy seemed to wilt.

               “Our… pinkie promise?” He tried, hoping to jog the other’s memory. Akira lurched as the memory of promising the little boy a play date reached his head, and he let out a small gasp, smiling to cover up his blunder.

               “Right! We can play together,” He started, watching as the little boy jumped for joy, bouncing on the balls of his feet as he waited for the other to finish. Akira leaned down to the little boy, moving to ‘whisper’ in his ear. “But I’ve gotta go… potty.” Akechi nodded sagely at Akira’s words, crossing his arms as he pursed his lips.

               “The potty… very important…” He continued to nod.

“But, I don’t know where it is. And I’ve gotta potty before I play.” He pressed, and the boy continued to nod along without uttering another word. Before Akira could say another word, the boy was racing off to his bedroom. His rummaging could be heard clearly through the small crack he had left, but before any of them could catch a glimpse, out came the eager child.

               “Here!”

               And he presented Akira with a shoddily made map for the other to inspect. Akira’s heart melted at the cute child-like nature of the drawings on the paper. It wasn’t the best representation that they had ever gotten, but it would certainly work for what they were looking for. Akechi rose up onto the tips of his toes, a red crayon in hand as he drew the route that would ‘get them to the potty’ he had explained in an emphatic tone.

               “There! Gotta hurry back, so we can play!” He waggled a finger at Akira and the teen nodded, intending to make good on his promise to the little boy. Akira handed off the paper to Futaba once the little boy had retreated back to his room, the girl comparing the map to the data she had collected during their escapade in the deeper reaches of the home.

               “I get it now… there’s a particular way to get around in the home.” She stated, pointing out the path that they could use to get deeper within the Palace. “But, something does worry me.” She murmured, pointing out the place that they were trying to reach after all this time. The child shadow had taken the time to draw pictures on the map, various people and objects, but the one on this part of the map was… disconcerting.

               A large, black creature had been scribbled into the margins, seeming as though it was oozing into a pool around its feet. The rest of the group looked around, unnerved by the creature.

               “Let’s hope he’s just got a crazy imagination…” Ryuji murmured, though it did nothing to soothe any of their worries about what they might find waiting for them, lurking in the depths of the Palace.

               “Well… at least we know where we’re going now.” Makoto supplied helpfully, the rest of the group nodding along in agreement. It was the first time that things were seeming to look up since they had gotten inside, and Akira was willing to take the opportunity and run with it as fast as he could. Passing back into the depths of the home, the group seemed to be revitalized with energy, their steps carrying them farther than they had before, each of them hanging off of each of Futaba’s directions.

               The grey of the hallways seemed to change with every passing moment, the harsh surface of concrete was soon peppered by peeling wallpaper. It started off with tiny rips that had been left by bigger pieces, until soon they became larger and larger, until the whole section of the wall had become covered by the decorative paper.

               And before them, lay an unassuming wooden door.

               The air of tension that had wormed its way through the group now dissipated, as each of them felt the relief of finally making progress. The labyrinth didn’t seem so dauting any longer, but what lurked inside still gnawed at their bellies, wondering what sort of creature that they would find within.

               The knob turned easily, if noisily, as though they were the first people to set foot within for a long time. The group didn’t know what to expect when they had entered, maybe that they would find it falling apart by ages of disuse. That the place would be as though tainted by the memories that had been made within its walls.

               But for all the speculation, all that seemed to be out of the ordinary was a thin layer of dust that coated the surfaces in the room. The living room barely gave them the space to spread out, and there was no way that they were going to be able to fit more than one or two of them down the hall at a time. Akira had thought that his room at Leblanc chafed at him with its size – but it was nothing compared to the little attic he had learned to call home. The only word that he could think of that would be fitting enough for it –

               Was cage.

               The kitchen lay off to the side, just big enough for a woman and her toddler son to squeeze through to make dinner. The fridge was completely devoid of food, the only things that they could find being empty cartons and boxes, left behind after so long. Akira looked over the surfaces, and could only imagine that upbringing that the other had inside of these walls, with the threat of his father looming over their heads. He didn’t doubt that his mother tried her best at first, but as the stress of everything had begun to drag her under…

               It was no excuse for her behavior, but Akira couldn’t help but feel pity for the victims created inside these walls.

               “Akira? There’s… somethin’ you need to come and see – er… hear.” Ryuji’s voice drew him from his thoughts, and the disgruntled blond poked his head into the kitchen. It was an odd expression to see in his eyes, and Akira wondered what the other might have found. The rest of the Thieves hung back, a few of them already having heard what they were waiting for him to experience. He was ushered through the bedroom, a small box of a living space, a bed that seemed even smaller than the one that he had back at Leblanc. Moth bitten curtains fluttered in a nonexistent breeze, and the wood of the dresser was scuffed and had suffered water damage, destroying the once beautiful veneer.

               “Try the door.” Ryuji murmured, nodding to what Akira could only guess led to the bathroom. His hand closed around the knob, but even attempting to turn it was impossible. He jiggled the handle for a moment longer, until the sound that cut through the air made his blood turn to ice.

               A horrid, drawn-out and guttural growl seemed to echo out around the small apartment. That, and the slickened sound of shuffling scales that rung against the porcelain tile of the locked space. Akira could hardly even breath for fear of the creature within hearing him, but for all the noise that the entity seemed to make, the door didn’t budge in the slightest.

               All the blood had disappeared from his fellow Phantoms face’s, and Ryuji beside him looked as though he was going to be sick. Akira snatched his hand away from the doorknob, and turned to the others, taking a moment to remember how to breathe.

               “Okay…” He said, trying once more to steady his breathing. “I think I may actually need a potty.”

               He was pretty sure the rest of them needed one too.

               “In all seriousness… no more touching that door.” The rest of them nodded, needing no other encouragement to make good on the idea. “Was there… anything else that you guys found?”

               “Well…” Ann motioned to the door beside her, and Akira felt his heart ache for the aged sign that hung off of the door. The scrawled, messy characters that spelled out the child’s name were the same on the door to his room earlier, but the passage of time had not been kind to the poor piece of wood.

               The room was almost completely empty, only furnished with the sparse necessities, the same as his mother. A small, faded blanket hung off of the bed, and a small teddy bear rested atop it. One of its eyes was missing, and it had been patched with a stray piece of fabric at one point. It had been well-loved, surviving the tantrums and roughness of a child who had not quite learned that he had to be gentle to beings who’s only security was the threads holding it together.

               Two sliding, paneled doors hid away the boy’s closet, and Akira wasn’t sure if the lack of clothes was thanks to the cognition… or if it was a direct memory of his early life. A glint caught his eye however, and Akira stooped down to retrieve a small, copper colored key.

               “I think… it’s a master key?” Makoto murmured, watching the curious eyes that turned to her. “It’s a key that unlocks all the doors in the house – my sister had to use ours when I locked myself in my room when I was younger.” She admitted, partially embarrassed from the admission.

               “Hey, what’s that?” Futaba murmured, kneeling down to get a better look. Akira watched as she shuffled up to a small crawlspace door, each of them staring at it while Futaba tried to think of a way to get it open. “Maybe we’ve gotta do something?”

               Akira looked to the key in his hand, and Ryuji’s flustered expression was suddenly in his face.

               “No way, man! You said it yourself, we are gonna leave that damn thing alone! We don’t even know what it’s doing here, let along what the eff it is!” Morgana scoffed, rolling his eyes at the blond as they turned to look at him.

               “If it’s here, then it’s here for a reason, duh! Do you know any other way forward? It’s gonna be something connected to that thing!” Ryuji’s face puffed up indignantly, but other than that he didn’t offer a retaliation to the cat’s point. The rest of the group couldn’t think of an argument either, standing around and looking uncomfortably at their feet. Even Akira had some reservations about investigating what the creature was, but he had no doubt that it was necessary to confront it, in order to investigate further.

               “It’s alright – I’ll go first.” He hummed, walking back through the apartment with his entourage in tow, until once more they were stood in front of the door. No sound escaped past it this time, and even when Akira took the handle not a peep came from the vocal creature that they had encountered earlier. The key slid home with an ominous ‘click’, and Akira couldn’t help the step back he took before pushing open the door. The rest of the Thieves had their hands on their weapons, ready to take out any creature that appeared before them.

               But no such thing existed.

               The bathroom was empty, completely unremarkable at first glance. The mirror was cracked in one corner, and the sink had a familiar hard water stain surrounding it, along with the toilet.

               “Uhh… A-Akira?” Makoto’s voice held an edge of panic, which sent a chill up his spine. She pointed to the tub tucked along the side of the wall, and once more Akira felt his chest constrict against trying to breathe. Looking over the edge of it, he couldn’t even see his reflection…

               He couldn’t see anything.

               It was as though liquid void had seeped into the water, and warmth radiated off of the tub. Not only that, but the foul stench of sulfur and rotting fish filled the air, leaving some of the members gagging with every breath they took. Akira turned around to the members, unsure of what to do at that point. There was nothing that he could see that would be of use to him, so was he mistaken. He opened his mouth to ask what they thought their next pan of action should be, but between the scream of horror, and the sudden pressure and weightlessness, the words never even made it to his lips.

               He could hardly move through the sticky substance surrounding him, unable to see any part of his body through the thick void that had enveloped him. The pressure was so insistent, that it made the simple act of breathing difficult for him. He swung his head around, trying to find some way out, but everything looked the same. There was no way to orient himself, and nothing beyond the same unending darkness that stretched beyond his perception. Until one, huge glowing eye blinked out of the darkness, then two –

               And a maw of narrow, razor edged fangs opened up before him.

Chapter Text

               Lantern-like eyes bored into him, the glowing bulb that hung like a deadly lure bobbing with the creature’s motions. Each tooth was easily the size of him, gnarled and stained yellow, outstanding in the viscous black that continued to surround him. His thrashing served no purpose, hardly able to move in the oppressive atmosphere that surrounded him.

               The rest of her spectral body came into view, ghostly transparent skin revealing pulsing organs and her skeletal frame beneath. Dots of bioluminescence freckled her skin, turning the surrounding water into a starry skyscape. Long nails, jagged and torn inched their way closer and closer to him, and Akira could no longer fight the panic that threatened to choke him, along with the tarry water surrounding him.

               His hand that had inched its way closer and closer to his face finally gripped at his prize, snatching his mask off and fighting to try not to inhale.

               “Norn!” The call came out garbled, and the thief wondered if the person would heed his call, relieved at the sudden flash of light and the familiar shape of the Persona. “Ziodyne!”

               In the moment before the crackle of electricity came down in all its fury, Akira panicked, unsure of how the magic would work in such a strange environment. At least I won’t die being eaten, he thought morbidly, squeezing his eyes shut in the anticipation of being struck, along with the leviathan in front of him. No pain struck his body, only the assault on his ears at the sudden, ungodly shriek that the creature let loose in equal parts fury and agony.

               Those eyes narrowed in on him, and a sudden panic washed over his body as he felt her body shifting in the water, and the spectral appendage of her tail racing towards him, faster than he could ever try to dodge. The impact rattles his bones, the force sending him pinwheeling through the water. He could hardly think, the muffled sounds of the creature moving paired with the sudden high pitching ringing that threatened to drive him mad. Her serpentine body writhed in the water, spinning him like a helpless top, lips pulled back into a toothy snarl.

               His back hit something solid, and he prayed that they were the only two things here, peeking his eyes open, finding that he had simply hit the bottom of whatever they were in. Two massive hands slammed down on either side of him, her looming figure leering down at him, the skeletal tail whipping through the water in a frenzy of excitement as she bore down on the leader of the Phantom Thieves.

               Akira watched his life flash before his eyes, regret and sorrow and happiness rushing through him, along with terror, that he would die in this watery grave, and that there might be nothing left of him to be buried. His friends would retreat and have to live with the horror and guilt of surviving where he didn’t. At least Akechi won’t have to kill me, a small, strange part of him whispered.

               He heard the rattle of water being pulled through her gills, and the sudden scream of triumph as she lunged forward towards her prize–

               And the sudden shriek as she reeled back, flashes of gold and electric blue, and the frosty chill that lanced through the water.

               “Joker!” He heard the familiar shout, watching the loud blond as he sank through the water, the familiar faces of the rest of the Thieves sinking through the water. Makoto reached him first, the visage of Johanna would have been comical if the adrenaline pumping through him didn’t have him feeling as though his heart was going to explode. The Energy Shower cast on him loosened the oppressive grip that the water had on him, and he felt lighter than he had previously, turning to the rest of the group as they rounded on the creature.

               The crackle of electricity that Seiten Taisei let loose spooked the creature once more, her hideous visage thrashing in the water as the rest of the group retaliated for the beating she had levied at their leader. Ice and lightning crashed through the void, nuclear and wind, battered the monstrous siren, while Ann’s steadying hand beside him led Carmen through healing his injuries.

               The assault had the beast on the defensive, until her harried shriek stunned the group, each of them gripping their heads, trying to force away the sound that seemed as though it was echoing throughout each of their minds.

               “Get away from me you little brats!”

               The distorted voice shook each of them out of their stupor, along with the sudden sound of tearful sniffles coming from somewhere off in the distance.

               “Children, ungrateful inconveniences! Nothing but a drain on your money, that scream and cry at all hours of the night. SHUT UP!” She shrieked, and the sobs only grew louder in the background of the scene, the rest of the thieves stunned at her words, and the unfortunate reality of who, rather than what, they were facing sunk into them harshly. The sudden outburst had caught the Thieves off guard, and the sudden claws and fangs that were bared at them struck, the group recoiling with a smattering of surprised and outrage cries.

               Each retaliatory strike that each side levied against each other was met with a hailstorm of curses from the monstrous woman, head whipping back and forth in a frenzy, her words striking just as harshly as her blows. For the Phantom Thieves, to say they were ‘green around the gills’ was an understatement. Some of them were reliving the horrors that they had heard growing up, and each lashed out in their own way.

               Ryuji’s blows became harsher, his anger becoming more and more apparent with the insults hurled their way. Futaba could only remember the horrid, monstrous form that her mother had taken within her own Palace. And Akira…

               The leader powered through his emotions, the steely mask that he wore under his true mask never truly faded. His façade of indifference overpowering the pity, and the kindred feeling to the boy that they were trying to save.

               Her movements became slower, with each round of pounding that she took, until the frenzied cries change in their direction. She reeled back from the party, hissing and snarling as a cage animal would, fins splaying out threateningly.

               “Why me?! I never did anything wrong!” She screamed, as the group advanced towards her. “Nothing, nothing! I was the one saddled with that… that burden! He was the one that cut off our money, how was I supposed to do anything?!” Her massive head swung between each of them as they surrounded her, her eyes settling on Akira, lunging toward him with fury in her eyes.

               “I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING!”

               There was no sympathy for the echoing shadow of a woman long since dead, and Akira thought for a moment of mocking her in the last moments, but his anger snuffed his voice, and the last sounds that resounded in the inky space, was the cry of anguish, and the sharp, piercing sound of gunfire ringing out.

 


 

 

               Unceremonious, would be an exaggeration for how they were dumped out of the tub, landing nearly one on top of the other, spilling into the bedroom beyond. Poor Akira ended up at the bottom of the pile, the breath knocked out of him every time that another member plopped onto him. Amidst the groans and grunts, a gasp could be heard from Ann, everyone looking up together to take in the new appearance of the rooms around them.

               Where dust had been the only sign of neglect and age, now, rot and decay were evident throughout. Cracks in the drywall, and paint was peeling throughout the room. Shattered porcelain threatened to cut the Thieves remaining in the bathroom. The mirror was in a similar state, refracting misshapen sights, and repeating the same picture over and over. The furniture was in disarray, rotting wood and burst cushions, covers devoured by moths. The stagnant air in the place drove the group away, headed back to the small boy’s room, wondering if their path had been opened up any further.

               The room seemed in the best condition, which was still decrepit. The well-loved teddy bear looked just as eaten up as the rest of the fabric in the house, and Akira gently rubbed his thumb over the surface, feeling a wave of remorse wash over him, and if he could simply bring the small item back with him, he would. It was a monument to a harsh childhood, and a reminder that the rest of the Palace would probably usher in an even worse condition that the other had suffered through.

               Not a single one of them made a comment when Akira cradled the bear to his chest.

               A long breath later, he placed it gently among the remaining pillows on the bed and turned his attention to the tiny crawlspace that had opened. It was barely big enough for them to crawl through, and as each stood observing their path forward, Akira turned to the rest of them, trying to lighten the mood.

               “Anyone claustrophobic?” He joked, and slowly the rest of the group let a nervous laughter trickle out. The tension began to unwind, and among the small discussion that broke out, an agreement to return another day was reached.

               The way back seemed calm, the group licking their wounds after the harsh encounter that they had suffered. The scenery change was a welcome one, as their outfits changed back to their normal attire. Winding hallways finally seemed to melt back into the pristine walls of the home, finally stepping through the threshold. They could hear the mingling going on downstairs, and once they walked down into the dining room, the Thieves got a good look at what was going on.

               Akechi was sat at the table, hands placed daintily in his lap as he waited. His head swung around at the sound of their footsteps, his eyes settling on Akira, and with a gasp, he went to jump out of his chair with a cry of the other’s name. But the scrutiny of the surrounding shadows suddenly leaning forward at the boy’s movement kept him rooted in his chair, and the look of shock and fear melted back into the placative smile.

               One of the chef shadows came out, balancing a large cake in its arms before placing it down on the table in front of the boy. A slice being placed in front of him, and the small boy was forced to ignore the group staring on behind him, as he forked a piece into his mouth, smiling through the chews.

               Despite the oozing grey matter that seemed to make up all of the food laid out upon the table.