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CHERRY BOMB

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The thought had always been there in a distant part of his mind, but only now did Amamiya Ren realize how much he disliked everything about Mementos.

This place was grim, depressing, dark... Completely the opposite of what one's heart should be. An endless maze where hope was no more and light had been snuffed out, this was the reality happening within those oppressive walls.
... And the knowledge that this bleak, absurd world was the sight engraved in the very eyes of society itself made it all very much worse.

A frown creased the teenager's face. Yes, of all unpleasant details in here, this one definitely was the worst offender. After all, utter apathy in the face of life's trials was something a rebellious spirit simply couldn't wrap its mind around. Amamiya Ren looked down on this. He looked down on those bars and chains blocking the passageways. He looked down on those train tracks going nowhere. He looked down on those long corridors stopping at dead ends. And above all, he looked down on those crowds of people mindlessly stepping inside the subway cars, those vacant stares and lethargic manners that spelled out only one thing... They had given up. Given up so easily, all he wanted to do was scoff.

Because if there was one thing that could be said about the Phantom Thieves of Hearts, it was that even having their backs against the wall wouldn't be reason enough to make them give up.

"Yo, leader! You listenin'?"

The sudden call might as well have been a shout. Ren pulled himself back to the present time, leaving behind his true identity to don the one called Joker.

"Sorry, Skull. You were saying?"

Skull let out a loud cry of disbelief – ever the overdramatic one, Joker thought derisively – followed by a long exhale. His shoulders hunched over, making him appear even more stocky than he already was. "Man, you really weren't listenin'... We're talkin' about important stuff here!"

"Calm down, Skull." Queen commanded from the driver's seat, her voice that of a patient mother. "We know you're nervous, we all are. But what's the point in going on and on about it?"

"She's right. We can't keep pitying ourselves forever." Fox said as he observed the eerie landscape of Mementos pass by them, clearly occupied by his own thoughts but still very much alert.

Skull's combative spirit seemed to wisp away. He looked back and forth, from Fox to Queen and Fox again. But as he opened his mouth to protest, someone else stepped in, voicing everything he tried to convey more efficiently than he could have ever done himself.

"True, it is important we keep a cool head, but... " Panther conceded, her eyes downcast. "But I can see where Skull's coming from. We've never been in a situation like this before..."

A heavy silence fell over the group. The grim reality of their circumstances seemed to loom upon them akin to an ominous cloud – a cloud shaped like a guillotine.

Being treated like the scum of the earth, hearing the words "murderers" and "criminals" no matter where they went, witnessing the entire population hoping, no, yearning for their arrests... The fall of the Phantom Thieves of Hearts was a hard one. The public had carried them to the top once, the top of the mountain called fame – and before they knew it, they had already been pushed into the void, plummeting to their doom. It was almost like receiving the love of a sweet animal, only to witness it turn into a treacherous beast overnight. The ensuing feelings spun betrayal, hurt, and fear.

And even so, the Phantom Thieves wouldn't give up.

"It's alright, everyone... I'm sure we will find a way to prove our innocence."

All heads turned to the young woman who had chimed in. The girl who was the strongest, in the face of the harshest ordeal.

"And then... people will realize." Noir continued, a wistful, serene twinkle in her eyes. "They will realize we didn't murder Father."

There was something healing about her smile. Soon, each one of the thieves was wearing one of their own. Joker met her gaze, acknowledging her words with a determined nod, and against all odds, the atmosphere inside Mona's bus form lightened up – at least enough for the dark cloud to clear and faint rays of distraction to take its place. Rays that should really be called "venting one's frustration."

"And did you see Akechi on the news the other day? Man, I can't stand his smug-lookin' face."

"Ugh, tell me about it... Literally everyone is throwing himself at his feet everywhere I look. The staff of the magazine I'm working for is even considering asking him if he's interested in modeling for next month's edition, can you believe this?"

"Is that so? They can't be serious..."

Although its level was varying from person to person, the distaste – and eagerness to partake in mean-spirited but therapeutic backbiting – was unanimous. Only Joker's face remained impassive, his lip not curled, his skin free of furrows.

"He's also invading all the chat rooms and message boards I happen to visit. The way you hear his fans talk, it's like sunshine comes out of his mouth or something."

Even Navi's heavy goggles couldn't conceal the disgust etched along her face. Fox gave a brief nod. "This is happening in my school as well. Everyone seems to have gotten obsessed with him, to an unhealthy degree."

"Same thing in Shujin. It's always Akechi this, Akechi that..." Skull retorted, spitting out the name like it was bitter on his lips. "They're all sayin' stuff like how he was right all along about us, how brave he was to call us out when nobody else did, stupid shit like that."

"Even though they were the ones showering him with verbal abuse in the first place..." Queen added somewhat wearily. A brief silence went by before she went on. "I can almost understand why he would feel so smug now that he's being pampered by the public and media again..."

Skull looked scandalized.

"C'mon, you can't be serious, Queen! That I-told-you-so face of his is so infuriatin' it makes me wanna punch a wall!"

"I didn't say I disagreed with you." she replied in a patient voice. "I'm just saying that... Akechi-kun sort of was in our shoes, once. Our shoes back then, but also our shoes now."

Her words ended in a sigh. Skull and Navi opened their mouths at the same time, clearly finding her doleful tone questionable at best, but before they could argue against what sounded way too close to pity–

"Drop it, Skull, Navi. I understand you two dislike him, but it's not Akechi's fault everyone turned on us."

Joker's speech was calm and dignified, befitting the leader of the Phantom Thieves of Hearts. Both Skull and Navi clearly were not convinced, however, prompting him to add in a softer tone and with a shrug, "He never said we were murderers."

This statement was met with ill-disguised skepticism that was hardly flattering, but nobody seemed willing to protest this time. Navi stared at him, her expression unfathomable, and then looked away.

"So that settles it... He's totally wrapped around Akechi's little finger..." she muttered to herself, though she clearly intended to be heard. "I bet next time he comes to Leblanc, you'll even give him his favorite blend free of charge..."

Another silence went by – this one filled with polite, measured incredulity. 

"Next time he comes to Leblanc? Are you talking about Akechi-kun?"

"Giving him his favorite blend free of charge?"

Noir and Queen looked as though Navi had dropped an entire mountain on them rather than the molehill Joker considered this matter to be. The redhead could have announced right there he and Akechi were best buddies forever and the result would have been the sa–

"Didn't you know? Akechi's been coming to Leblanc practically every week starting last month. He and Joker are basically best buddies forever now."

Joker groaned.

"For real? No way!" Skull shouted as he bolted up from his seat, very nearly bumping his head against the roof in the process.

"You are free to be friends with anyone, of course, but I'm not sure it's very wise to get close to Akechi-kun, Joker..." Queen reasoned, still focusing on the road. "He might figure out your identity eventually."

"I bet that's why he's been coming to Leblanc so much. He's totally trying to sniff us out by playing nice and friendly–"

"You guys are completely off the mark." Joker finally said, cutting off Navi before she could hammer it down even further. "Akechi and I aren't friends. We're acquaintances at best."

The teenager shot Navi a pointed look – which she decided to petulantly ignore. "And besides, we hardly even talk. He usually drinks his coffee in silence while reading a book, then pays up and leaves."

The group exchanged glances. Panther seemed to teeter on the edge of speech when someone beat her to the punch.

"Uh, putting the Akechi talk aside... Don't you find it odd there are no Shadows on this floor at all?" came Mona's voice, resounding all around them inside the bus. "It's like they are hid–"

"Queen! Turn around, now!"

It happened as suddenly as lightning striking the earth. Navi's warning cry was so unexpected the entire group went still on the spot. All faces locked onto her, some fearful, other tense.

"What? Navi, what's going–"

"We gotta flee, guys, it's coming! It's coming for us!"

Her voice was stricken with growing panic, the likes of which could only be inspired by imminent doom. The little skin visible on her face was sporting beads of sweat, and Joker was certain that hadn't she been sitting, her legs might have given out. Everybody exchanged uncertain looks. Her fear was contagious.

"What's comin', Navi?!"

But Skull didn't need her to answer – the picture appearing before his eyes spoke for itself well enough already. Panther's scream to look out was lost amidst a clamor of surprised cries while Queen abruptly swerved before speeding forward, sending the entire group against the windows, but the resulting commotion was not one of complaint. Where they had been standing only moments before was now a huge crater, so wide it reached both sides of Mementos' long tunnel. Joker had only barely registered the thick trail of smoke left in their wake when time seemed to slow down for an instant, allowing him to truly see in that split second the thing Navi had been dreading so much, the thing whose sole existence meant the end of theirs.

The first detail he noticed was how tall the creature was. It was towering over them all, like an enormous human or a small giant, wielding a pair of long-barrel revolvers that looked too outrageous to be real – except this comfortable belief was shattered the moment it fired a bullet upward, like it was trying to intimidate them into freezing up. Its body, hovering in the air, was clothed in black, and where its legs should have been was only mere nothingness. Long sets of chains were wrapped around its chest, producing an eerie jangling with each of its strange movements. One of its eye was visible, bloodshot and impossibly wide, a white spherical thing staring down at them without apparently ever feeling the need to blink. But it wasn't the creature's grotesque appearance that frightened Joker so much. No, the worst detail of it all, the one that chilled his very core, was the dark stains splattered all over its body, from its black robe to the sack cloaking its face. Some splotches looked red, very red... too red. Too fresh.

"Hang on!" rang a high-pitched cry, and it took Joker longer than normal to realize it came from Queen. From his position, he could only see her back, but he had no trouble imagining her face – probably covered in sweat, scrunched in intense concentration, teeth clenched as she dodged bullet after bullet in what felt like an agonizingly long chase. But for all her prowess, the monster seemed even more formidable, even more determined not to let any of them go than they were to escape it. It was gaining ground, zooming behind the bus like death itself was coming for them, it was raising both weapons now, Mona was going to be hit, they were going to crash, they were done for–

"Arsene!" Joker bellowed while tearing his mask off his face the second he opened the hatch, his Persona answering his call at once. He didn't even need to shout his command – Arsene was already charging at the creature unprompted, almost like he was a bullet himself, to the point that Joker couldn't see him anymore save for a blurry silhouette. And then... the collision happened.

The explosion shook the air. It was messy and deafening, looking like a dome of black light getting bigger and bigger until it simply broke off. Someone inside the bus screamed, but Joker heard nothing. He was too restless, too anxious to discover the picture hidden beyond the clearing smoke even as they sped away. But then flashed a hint of red amidst the dark haze, and the black-haired boy felt a swell of relief like he had never experienced before – Arsene was the only one to emerge from the aftermath, flying off toward the bus victorious and coming back into his other self's heart. Only then did Ren realize how fast it was pounding.

Even as he remained rooted to the spot, the bus slowed to a halt. Behind him rang out the sound of a handbrake being pulled and the ignition turning off, followed by a collective exhale, and he finally crumbled onto his seat again.

"Okay... Can anyone explain to me what the hell was that..." Skull breathed out once everybody had somewhat calmed down – that is, as much as one could calm down after very nearly seeing the light.

"That couldn't be a Shadow... Could it...?" Panther stammered between heavy gulps of air, looking positively exhausted. All eyes turned to Navi, who took some time to collect herself before finally responding.

"I-It was. Just a Shadow, l-like the rest of them." she explained shakily, the toll of the ordeal clearly heavier upon her than anyone else. "But its power was... It was something else."

She seemed unable to offer anything more substantive. Queen looked at her for a moment, apparently yearning to press her for further information, but eventually ended up averting her gaze. The tension aboard was still alarmingly high, but soon enough, most pulses were back to normal, most legs feeling solid again.

"So what, did we run into the king of Shadows or somethin'?" Skull eventually grumbled, finally breaking the silence. Queen let out a weary sigh.

"I'm not sure king is the right way to put it, but one thing is for certain... It is much more dangerous than anything we have encountered so far. Thank goodness Arsene managed to defeat it..."

Perhaps it was because of the lingering shock, but nobody reacted right away. A brief moment went by until at last, the brown-haired girl's words truly sank in – and like that, Panther gave a nervous giggle. "Y-Yeah, you're right, he did defeat it... This means it's–"

"I can't sense its presence around anymore... but it definitely isn't dead." Navi cut off, suddenly focusing on data only she could see. "I'm getting weird readings somewhere else in Mementos... The same I got just before we ran into that thing."

This put a damper on Panther's already weak enthusiasm.

"Well, at least we're safe for now..." Noir said softly as she put a hand on the blonde girl's shoulder. "More importantly, Mona-chan... Are you alright?"

"Y-Yeah, I am..." responded his voice, though its pitch was slightly higher than usual. "I'm not sure if he could have hurt me while I'm in this form, but I can't say I was eager to find out. Good job, Que–"

"Ah! Wait a second!"

For the third time, everybody turned to Navi, who looked quite unnerved again. Skull was the fastest to react. "What now?!"

"W-We're not alone on this floor! There's someone else besides us, and they're very close by!... But, that's weird..."

"Don't tell me this abomination of a monster has already recovered and is now coming back?" Fox interrupted, his fingers instinctively tightening around the hilt of his katana.

"No, that's not it... This presence feels completely different. It feels super strong... but very weak at the same time..."

"Wha...? That don't make any damn sense..." Skull retorted shakily as the rest of the thieves glanced at each other, a mixture of worry and wariness floating upon all faces.

"Can you pinpoint that presence's exact location, Navi?" Joker wondered, his eyes serious. The redhead's response was hesitant, but it was there.

"Y-Yeah, it's just around the corner. Are you... thinking of checking it out?" she asked back, receiving a much more confident nod than hers in return.

"I know it might be dangerous." he said in a soothing tone of voice, giving words to everybody's thoughts. "But I think it's important we investigate, just in case." 

Although most of the group didn't seem too enthusiastic about their leader's intent, nobody tried to argue with him – they knew he had a point. Even so, Queen couldn't help but chime in.

"Fine... But don't forget. We're not taking any unnecessary risks." she compromised, although she didn't need to. Months of battling in the other world had already taught all of them the importance of self-preservation. "If something feels off, we're immediately running away. Alright?"

With a soft noise of agreement, Joker hopped off the bus and set off, the rest of the thieves cautiously following behind. Mona wasted no time in catching up once he reverted back to his oversize cat-like appearance.

It didn't take them long to stumble upon the presence Navi had been sensing around.
... For a body was sprawled further away on the ground, right in the middle of the tunnel. A human one.

Joker stared, like he had entered a trance-like state. Behind him, the rest of the Phantom Thieves was equally awed, unable to make so much as a sound. It wasn't the shock of discovering another human being besides them in the other world that was stealing their speech away. They were rooted to the spot because all of them knew, in that moment, exactly who that person was.

A dark, tight suit was covering every last inch of their body, patterned with swirling stripes while leather belts were bound around their thighs, shoulders, elbows, and stomach. The tips of their gauntlets were long and sharp, just like claws, and there was a strange ripple to their torn cape, as if it wasn't made entirely of cloth but also a nebulous hazy substance. A helmet akin to that of a twisted knight's concealed their face, upon which sat their black visor. Their black mask.

It took Joker an unusually long time to break free from his captivation. He threw a brief glance at his fellow thieves, and with a mutual nod, slowly, cautiously approached the figure. They didn't stir, or give any other semblance of reaction to his presence – they were clearly unconscious, if their absolute stillness and the way their lips were slightly parted weren't indication enough. It was only because their chest was still rising and falling, albeit almost imperceptibly, that Joker knew they were alive.

"So Kaneshiro and Madarame's Shadows weren't lying..." Panther muttered, keeping her distance somewhat. "There really was someone else besides us who could go to the other world..."

"And... they're wearing a black mask." Fox added in an undecipherable tone of voice. "The criminal responsible for the atrocities befalling the city... Befalling us."

"And... Mom's killer..."

Navi seemed rooted on the spot. But Joker knew it wasn't because of fear that her fists were trembling so hard.

"So, what happened to the poor bastard?" Skull asked in a glaring attempt at distraction while throwing a slightly worried look at Noir, who had brought her hands together, her eyes wide and blank. "Why's he out cold?"

"It had to be that Shadow we just came across..." Queen responded, her mind still very sound despite the obvious unease radiating off her body. "I'm willing to bet they ran into it by accident, but weren't so lucky during the encounter."

"Huh, makes sense. Wonder why that freaky Shadow didn't finish the job, though. I would've sent it flowers."

"It was probably about to, but then sensed our presence and likely thought it could finish them off later... Or maybe it–"

But Joker wasn't listening anymore – he was finally within arm's reach of the figure, kneeling carefully beside them and feeling his heart start to drum faster in the process. The anticipation was building up inside his very core, soon reaching such high levels that his stomach seemed to twist itself into a nauseating knot. Upon closer inspection, it was impossible not to notice how damaged the suit was, with tears here and there, or the numerous dents upon the hard helmet's surface. Cracks ran across the mask, which appeared to be made of glass, and the little skin it didn't conceal was covered in scrapes. Queen was right – clearly, the encounter between the dark figure and the Shadow had been rough. He extended a somewhat shaky hand, edging it closer and closer to their face. Thin slits glowing an ominous red allowed a glimpse of their eyes, which were of course closed. Joker's pulse quickened further even as his fingers were brushing the mask, the figure's eyelashes were particularly long, he had already seen them before–

"So? Who is it?"

Mona's question was laden with wariness. Joker could sense his and six other pairs of eyes burning into his back, inquisitive, silently demanding an answer. But whatever words his brain was still able to come up with in that moment were blown away by awe.

A long silence dragged by, and time began to move again.

"Ah, screw this! Lemme see!"

And before Joker could react, Skull was already crouching beside him, grabbing the glass visor and tearing it off without a single ounce of hesitation. The rest of the Phantom Thieves was peering with bated breath over their shoulders, staring agape at the truth and the truth staring back, imprinting itself into their sight, carving its way through the numbness of their stupefied minds.

"You... You gotta be shittin' me..."

This was all Skull could manage before going speechless once more. Navi opened her mouth and closed it again, her astonishment beyond words. It was Fox who at last broke the stunned silence, his breathing shallow, his brow furrowed. "Is this supposed to be some sort of joke...?"

Nobody had an answer to offer him. Nobody had a single answer to what they were witnessing in that instant, to this turmoil of emotions cluttering each core, to this wave of utter shock crashing upon them that only a revelation of this caliber could summon.

Akechi Goro.

Akechi Goro was the black-masked criminal the Phantom Thieves had been warned about.

Akechi Goro, the famous and charismatic detective, was the one they had been tracking all along. The one who held the keys to their innocence – because he was the one responsible for the crimes they had been framed for. He was the one causing people to go on rampages against their will. He was the one toying with their minds, doing whatever he pleased.

Including stealing their lives.

"Does that mean... that Akechi is the one who caused all this? He's the one who killed President Okumura and Navi's mother?"

Panther was seemingly too shaken to believe. Skull glanced up at her, then cracked his knuckles. The fury twisting his features was palpable.

"Yeah. That's exactly what it means." he rumbled, his voice husky, threatening. "That goddamn bastard detective... was behind it all the whole time."

Joker glanced back and forth, from Akechi to Skull and Akechi again, unsure what to say, what to do, what to feel – only for his heart to suddenly seize up. He was stirring, Akechi was stirring, Skull's close proximity was probably rousing him awake and he now was, he was waking up, his eyes were feebly fluttering open... The black-haired boy parted his lips, instinctively trying to speak, but he never got the chance to get out even a word. Because everything suddenly happened too fast.

Akechi's eyes, a split second before hardly more than cracks, opened so wide it looked as though he had been splashed with ice cold water. He let out a startled gasp and immediately sat up, the astonishment written all over his face replaced at once by a scowl, made all the fiercer upon noticing Skull was reaching for his wrists, intent on pinning him down–

"Back off!" he roared as he kicked him hard in the stomach, causing Skull to let out a weak groan of pain and curl up into a ball. But Akechi hardly seemed to care – he snatched his visor from the blond boy's hand, jumped to his feet and swirled around, sprinting away as fast as his legs could carry him, completely deaf to their shouts, utterly ignoring their pleas. Joker stopped thinking and flung himself forward, desperation and adrenaline fueling his energy, but it was no use – Akechi had had too big of a head start, had taken advantage of the confusion around, he was going to get away at this rate... but then, Queen's gun leapt twice.

The first bullet tore right above Akechi's left shoulder, resulting in a primal scream that made Joker's hairs stand on end. But it was the second bullet that stopped him in his tracks, for it lodged itself into his thigh before cleanly going through as easily as if his flesh was paper. Akechi immediately crumpled to the ground, writhing and thrashing in agony, his cries so loud Joker could hardly hear the exchange happening behind him even as he gained ground at a run.

"Did you really just shoot him?! Queen, what the hell?!" Skull yelled, throwing an incredulous look over his shoulder at the brown-haired girl while struggling to keep up with Joker. Queen, for her part, had stayed behind, Noir's worried gaze fixed upon her. She had dropped her weapon and seemed frozen in place. Only one thing was still moving – her trembling limbs.

"I... don't know how that happened..." she was mumbling as she stared blankly ahead. "I, I wasn't thinking... I wanted to stop him before he could escape, and instinctively reached for my..."

But the rest of her explanation was drowned out by another sound – a tiny whimper, barely audible. And even so, Joker never picked up on Akechi's voice more clearly than in that very moment.

"L... Loki..." he uttered, or so it sounded like, so weakly he might not have spoken at all, but the sudden appearance of what could only be a Persona proved the opposite. Time seemed to slow down again as Joker witnessed the details materializing before his eyes, from the black and white, erratic pattern upon its tall body to the glowing blade in its hand, not to mention that strange grin it was directing at him, the grin of a malevolent god–

"Joker, Skull! Look out!"

Navi's yell had the effect of a whiplash. Joker snapped back to his senses and barely had time to process her warning when a giant wall of fire suddenly sprang up between him and Akechi, completely obstructing his path. With a scream, he threw all his weight back, skidding toward the flames though hardly slowing down, the momentum too strong. But then, a powerful grip grabbed him by the back of his collar and pulled, finally causing him to stop in his tracks. Both he and Skull tumbled to the ground, the former stunned but grateful, the latter relieved and exhausted.

"Are you two alright?" came Panther's cry as she trotted up to them, accompanied by the rest of the thieves. "You're not hurt, are you?"

"Tch... We're fine. You don't need to nag." Skull retorted, laboriously climbing to his feet and helping Joker do the same. "But that bastard detective got us good. I bet he's gone to the upper floor and got away by now."

A heavy silence ensued at this. They knew he was right, and sure enough, their assumption was confirmed the moment the inferno died down. Akechi was gone, utterly and completely, with only a trail of blood left in his wake.

"... I'm just hopin' he don't drop dead on the spot. I mean, he did get shot twice."

Queen fidgeted nervously, but didn't respond.

Need to call... Need to call him, fast...

Akechi Goro was feeling light-headed. The pain across his shoulder and leg was excruciating, so searing it made him feel nauseous, his mind impeded by the agony and shock of those past minutes. It felt like a white-hot blade had pierced his flesh, twisting it and jostling it around, draining the last remnants of his strength fast, to the point that even keeping his eyes open was an ordeal in and of itself. In the end, he was merely able to drag himself into a sitting position, his body limp against the brick wall.

Panic was coursing through every last cell of his brain, consuming everything in its way and claiming whatever rationality still lingered in a distant part of his mind. But he couldn't afford to succumb, he couldn't allow that unspeakable exhaustion to win, because closing his eyes would mean eternal sleep. He tried to focus on the very feeble ray of light across the darkness of the circumstances, and felt by some miracle a tiny hint of relief swell within his chest. It was still daylight in the real world, the alley he found himself in was much too close to the main street teeming with people, he was slowly bleeding out, the pain was beyond the limits of the tolerable... but he did manage to leave the other world, did manage to avoid the worst-case scenario of being caught by the Phantom Thieves, and this was more than he could have asked for in that very moment. Now all he had to do was press the "Call" button, and he would be saved... If only his hands weren't trembling so much, he would have already–

"Akechi-kun...?"

In that split second after the hesitant acknowledgment reached him, Akechi Goro seemed to forget how to breathe. As he slowly lifted a trembling head at the newcomer, the fog clouding his mind cleared at once the space of a heartbeat, letting him fully realize it wasn't the Phantom Thieves who just caught up to him, but that other scenario was no less terrible – in fact, it was worse.

Oh no... Oh, no...

Niijima Sae took a step forward. If the idea to leave him alone and not ask any questions crossed her mind, it didn't show.

Chapter Text

It hadn't always been the case, but Akechi Goro often caught himself thinking about how lucky he was.

Lucky to stumble by chance upon the world that would soon make his greatest wish come true. Lucky to be born with good looks that made manipulating others quite effortless. Lucky to be flowing with a charisma that made the entire world at his beck and call.

Yes, that's right. Akechi Goro was lucky.
So lucky, in fact, that it seemed inconceivable those past fifteen minutes could have happened. Could keep happening right now.

"Akechi-kun...?" Sae Niijima uttered hesitantly once more, incomprehension etched deeply upon her face. But if she was dumbfounded by shock, then the brown-haired boy was completely, utterly stunned.

"A-Ah... S-Sae-san..." he quavered, eyes wide, body suddenly taken over by uncontrollable quakes. "Wh-What are... What are you d-doing he–"

"Never mind that! What in the world happened to you?!" she snapped, causing him to startle, but she hardly appeared to notice or even care – she had finally freed herself from her trance and was now closing the distance between them, even while he feebly recoiled. "You're hurt! You're bleeding!"

She seemed beyond herself, alarmed like he had never seen her before. Through half-lidded eyes, he saw her crouch beside him and hurriedly survey his injuries. "You need to apply much more pressure, or else the bleeding won't stop... Your leg and your shoulder, too? Those can't be stab wounds, they're too– Akechi-kun, were you shot?!"

Not waiting for the confirmation, she shakily reached into her handbag and produced her cell phone. Akechi Goro felt a nauseating sensation stir in his stomach, one that had nothing to do with his rapid blood loss. "We need to call emergency services, fast... Don't worry, they will be here in no time–"

"N-No! No, don't!"

Her entire body suddenly went very still. She lifted a perplexed gaze from her phone, meeting a pleading, distraught one.

"Please don't, Sae-san... N-Not emergency services..." he begged while releasing her arm from his poignant grip, the manic energy possessing him vanishing just as fast as it burst out. "Call... Call this instead..."

It cost him a terrible effort to raise his arm and present her with his own phone. His vision was getting blurry, but he knew she could see a number displayed upon the screen, ready to be dialed. Although not as much as his, her hand was noticeably trembling as well – and not because she was repulsed by his blood-stained phone, that much was clear.

"A private number...?" she muttered, the reflection of the screen brightening her eyes. "Akechi-kun, who is this...?"

But Akechi Goro was no longer in condition to answer. Everything seemed to be getting distant, from sight to sound, his eyelids inexorably drooping further and his movements fading. His grasp upon his shoulder slackened, too devoid of strength to remain secure. The same went for his face, previously scrunched up in pain, now softening little by little until all furrows vanished to leave behind a slightly dazed expression. His skin was slick with sweat, but he wasn't feeling hot anymore – and yet, the agonizing heat located around his wounds wasn't dying down, only spreading, burning him from the inside but providing no relief against the biting chill suddenly consuming him.

In the last moments before he succumbed, he saw her. Saw the worried eyes of the woman who now held his fate in her hands. Of the woman who was making him betray the one promise he had branded his soul with, several years ago.

"If you want to survive in this world, don't depend on anybody."

This lesson life itself taught him once was irrevocably crumbling down, but it was too late to salvage it. The next moment, there was nothing more. Whatever would happen to him from now on was no longer within his control.

"Akechi-kun..."

The powerful grip upon Niijima Sae's heart tightened further still at the brown-haired boy's lack of response. His body was entirely inert, like an inanimate object. Only the pulse pumping weakly beneath her fingers told him he was alive, and despite the circumstances, she couldn't help a tiny sigh of relief. She was used to crime scenes and had seen her fair share of grisly bodies since the start of her career, but something about said body belonging this time to someone she knew, a coworker and teenager no less, made her feel queasy. Unnerved.

For an eternity, or it might have been seconds, she silently watched him. He seemed almost peaceful now, his chest rising and falling in a slow pattern, looking vulnerable and defenseless just like a sleeping child. A child that needed her help.

Driven by something almost mechanical, she picked up Akechi-kun's phone and pressed the "Call" button. Her heart rate, already faster than normal, seemed to increase with each beeping she heard at the end of the line. This brief time spent waiting felt agonizingly long, almost as though seconds had become minutes, minutes hours. And then, when she was certain she was about to fall prey to the anticipation gnawing at her stomach... somebody answered.

Answered, that is, if picking up the phone only to hang up at once could fit the definition of the word. Niijima Sae blinked, dumbfounded, unsure what just happened, but just as she finally came back to her senses and attempted to call a second time...

"Good thing you're not too far. I'm on my way, so hang on until then, alright?"

... Akechi-kun's phone buzzed with a text notification. She checked it once, then twice, finding it easier to breathe with each reading. She had no idea who that person was, what they were going to do or even how long they were going to take to arrive, but one thing was clear – someone was coming.

Her chest feeling somewhat less heavy, Niijima Sae allowed herself to relax a little before attending to the detective again. The first thing she did was undoing his tie and wrap it tightly around his thigh so as to stop the bleeding. Another quick glance at his shoulder told her she didn't need to repeat the process – it wasn't bleeding anymore. Unlike the wound in his leg, perhaps the bullet was still lodged within. Although it was barely noticeable, he was definitely shivering, prompting her to unbutton her blazer and set it carefully on top of him by way of a makeshift blanket. The beads of sweat on his forehead, either drying or rolling down, were the next thing she took care of. But if she seemed physically aware as she wiped his face with a wet tissue – it was a good thing she had a bottle of water on her, she thought distantly – her mind was actually wandering elsewhere. Wandering to him.

Thousands of hypotheses were swirling inside her head, frantically attempting to shed light on the one question she had yet to find a definite answer for. Did he come across a bunch of thugs who retaliated upon realizing who he was? Did he try to arrest someone only to bite more than he could chew? Did he get shot in someone else's stead? Was it premeditated? In the heat of the moment? Were the shots destined to kill, or simply incapacitate? What about the motive? Was it for revenge? Because of panic? A mere accident? And perhaps more importantly...

"Who...? Who did this to you, Akechi-kun?"

Niijima Sae felt a tension settle around her shoulders. Given how fresh the detective's wounds were, the incident was more than recent. But whoever did this to him still had had plenty of time to put at least some distance between them and the scene, had perhaps blended into the crowd and were now getting away slowly but surely, never to be found again...

Hmph. Not on my watch.

Of course, this grim outcome didn't apply to someone of Niijima Sae's caliber. No matter the culprit, she would track them down, she would catch them, and then, once in court... there would be hell to pay.

A rush of determination flowing through her veins, the woman brushed away the strands of hair falling over her eyes and found herself contemplating Akechi-kun again. She wasn't sure what else she could do at the moment to help him, and soon had to yield to the facts – all that was left for her was to watch over him and wait. Without warning, her eyes caught a glimpse of his arms. The little skin visible between glove and sleeve was covered in goosebumps. It wasn't hard to deduce his hands were freezing.

... She wouldn't be able to put a name on whatever it was that suddenly drove her to behave this way and yet, before she knew it, she was hesitantly reaching out to his hand, unsure whether she had the right to cross this line or not. But something about how innocent Akechi-kun looked in that moment, how helpless he was, made her succumb to the strange instinct controlling her. By the time she truly realized what she was doing, she was already closing her hand over his, holding it tight so as to warm it a little... and also to let him know she was there, and wouldn't leave his side. But there was something else motivating her, something painful and sharp. A swift pang of guilt had breached its way into her heart at that memory of ten days ago, when she had accused him of stealing her data without any grounds to justify said allegation. They hadn't seen each other since, almost as if he had been avoiding her – a puerile reaction from her perspective, but then again... Akechi-kun was still a child...

Her throat tightened. Yes, it was easy to forget... and even so, the fact remained the young man she always bossed around, was often curt to if not outright rude, was just that – a seventeen-year-old boy. She ought to be more pleasant around him, she told herself, especially when he made it a point to be beyond reproach at all times, and the guilt ensnaring her heart gave way to pity. Despite being remarkably skilled at playing grown-up, Akechi-kun must have been so scared this past half-hour, so very scared... What would have happened if he had remained alone? What if she had found him too late? What would she have told to the public? To his fans? To his parents?

This was as far as that line of thought would go. The humming of an engine sounded in the distance, followed by the sight of a large, expensive-looking car slowly coming at her from the other side of the shadowy alley. Seconds later, a man was emerging and hurried to Akechi-kun's side, tossing her blazer away and examining his wounds with an expertise only a professional could possess.

"Shot twice, huh... Shoulder and thigh? Judging from the wounds' locations, looks like no organ or bone's been hit, there's at least that... Lots of blood lost, though. Oh man, the bullet in his shoulder's totally still in. That's gonna be a bitch to extract."

The prosecutor might as well have been invisible. The man, which she deduced was a surgeon or at least a doctor given his monologue and the lab coat peeking from beneath his long jacket, seemed too engrossed in his examination to pay her any mind. But this somewhat irritating belief was refuted the moment he lifted his head and met her wary, cautious gaze.

"You were the one to administer first aid, I take it? Good job, lady. This saved him quite a big chunk of time, just like it saved me some as well. Kid might have bled out on the spot if it weren't for you."

While he appeared to be genuinely impressed, there was something sleazy and patronizing about that man's behavior Niijima Sae definitely didn't like. Her eyebrow furrowed, and when she spoke, the aggressive bite in her tone was palpable. "... Who are you? How come you seem to know Akechi-kun? You don't look like the type of crowd he would be acquainted with."

"Whoa there, take it easy, tiger. Wouldn't want you to get the claws out so fast, now would we?" the man responded, raising his hands innocently in an obvious mockery of her. "Besides, shouldn't you introduce yourself before asking people for their name? Come on, ladies first."

The annoyance nestled in Niijima Sae's brain didn't take long to shift into a roaring outrage. But rationality stopped her from snapping back even as she opened her mouth to retort – now was not the time, and she knew it. Besides, she had a much better ace up her sleeve, and she played it with a confidence that was hard to conceal.

"Niijima Sae, public prosecutor." she said, reaching into her bag and practically shoving her business card to his face. But the one who emerged disconcerted afterwards wasn't him – it was her.

"A prosecutor, huh?" he muttered while grabbing her card and giving it a closer look. His expression then changed into one of recognition, albeit so slightly it was difficult to truly notice, given how disinterested he looked. "Oh yeah, now I remember. I hear about you from time to time."

Without further ado, he gave her the card back – or tossed it at her, more like – before standing up. Niijima Sae blinked in incomprehension, stunned by such nonchalance, only to snap back to reality upon watching him heave Akechi-kun onto his shoulder like he was some kind of large sack, then turn toward his car.

"What do you think you're doing?!" she cried out while climbing to her feet as well, her heart suddenly pulsing with fury again.

"Isn't that obvious? I'm gonna fix him up." the man answered without bothering to look back at her. "He's gravely injured, in case you forgot."

Niijima Sae clenched both teeth and fists in rage, and took a step forward. "He is, but I am not letting you of all people take him away. You may know him and I suppose he does as well given he wanted me to call your number, but I am not going to trust some suspicious man I never heard of before. Akechi-kun is going to the hospital in an ambulance. Now put him down."

But she could have talked to empty air with the same result – never did the man stop in his tracks. He merely kept pacing forward, about to reach his car. For the prosecutor, that was the last straw. "Are you even listening?! Put him down!"

"Man, aren't you the nagging type... Exactly like he told me that one time." she heard him mutter under his breath as he laid Akechi-kun down on the backseat. He then reached for the driver's door handle – her signal that words were now meaningless. She grasped his wrist, intent on stopping him by all means necessary only to feel a violent sting suddenly burn across her cheek, so unexpected, so unthinkable, all she could do was stumble backward a few paces, dumbfounded like she had never been before.

"Look, lady. You've done your part, now let me do mine in peace. Kid's going with me, and that's that." he said, glaring down at her before getting behind the wheel. "Good luck with getting rid of the stains on your jacket. Blood doesn't come off easily, you know."

With this, he closed the door and reversed across the alley before disappearing around the corner, leaving the prosecutor stunned and with only raw shock to keep her company. She simply stared ahead, wide-eyed, lips parted, her hand grasping her smarting cheek and her mind distantly working to piece together whatever just happened. The longer it went, the clearer the fragments became, until sharp and bright pictures finally lit up somewhere within her brain. Akechi-kun was gone, gone with a complete stranger and she had no idea where he was now headed, no idea what would happen from that point onwards, she had failed him, she had let him get taken away, get kidnapped–

It's alright, he's definitely not in danger, she thought in a desperate attempt at convincing herself, that jerk was undeniably suspicious but he seemed to know what he was doing... seemed sincere when he said he was going to help Akechi-kun...

Her breathing was shallow. Only then did she notice how fast it was. It took several gulps of air before she started to calm down, though only a little. Her sight fell down – on her business card, on her blazer... and finally, on the teenager's cell phone. The blood upon the case was still crimson red.

Niijima Sae stared at it for a moment, then cautiously picked it up, deciding to hold onto it for the time being before retrieving the rest of her belongings. She paused the space of an instant, then scurried toward home without ever looking back, heart heavy, hands shaking and throat tight.

"Here, Mako-chan. Your coffee."

Even though many miles separated them, the atmosphere inside the attic of the Leblanc coffee shop was just as somber as the one surrounding the prosecutor. The faces of the Phantom Thieves of Hearts conveyed eight looks of anxiety, weariness, and unease.

"Ah... Thank you, Haru."

Makoto's gaze was the lowest of all. She accepted the warm cup with trembling hands and brought it to her lips, but hardly seemed able to drink more than a sip. She looked pale, almost sick. Ren couldn't blame her for feeling this way.

"Relax, Makoto." Ryuji said quite clumsily, even he noticing just how heavy the toll was on her. "There's no way Akechi'd die so easily. I mean, we're talkin' about the guy who's apparently been to the other world for what, two, three years now? Bet he's seen worse–"

Either he realized it himself or Ann's glare helped a little, but he suddenly cut himself off, clasping his hands over his mouth while throwing Haru and Futaba a sideways glance. Both of them stared back blankly, but didn't respond. The ensuing silence was painfully awkward.

"Uh, just so we're clear, I wasn't tryin' to praise the bastard, alright? I was just sayin' that, uh, since he got some experience, he... No, wait, that ain't what I mean..."

Ryuji clearly was trying his best to salvage the situation, except all he managed was making it worse somehow. Yusuke caught Ren's gaze before shaking his head in utter lassitude.

"Thank you, Ryuji. That was uplifting, really." Makoto replied after a short while, finally breaking the silence. Whether she was being sarcastic or genuinely grateful was anyone's guess. "... I think I'm going to head home. I still have several assignments to finish for school."

And without another word, she stood up and climbed down the stairs to the shop area. The following chimes were the sole indication she was gone for good.

"Mako-chan really is taking it hard..." Haru muttered, deaf to the bickering that erupted between Ryuji and Ann the second Makoto left. "It was done in the spur of the moment, she shouldn't be so harsh on herself..."

"Agreed. She didn't wish for this to happen any more than we do." Yusuke added wisely.

"Hmph. Speak for yourself, Inari."

The air suddenly felt thick, so heavy Ren could feel it press upon his lungs. Slowy, he turned to look at her.

"Akechi's got what he deserved." Futaba went on, her expression hidden behind her bangs. The way her hands were balled into fists, however, conveyed more than enough. "That stupid, horrible two-faced liar, with his ditzy air and those charming smiles of his... I would've been happy if he'd died on the spot. Really happy."

Her tone was chilling, completely unfamiliar with the chipper girl all of them once knew. Ann and Haru traded looks, but as the blonde girl was about to respond–

"Stop it, Futaba. You know you don't really think that."

Ren wasn't talking to her in that moment like two friends usually would. He was talking to her as the leader of the Phantom Thieves. Futaba looked up at once, startled, and then glanced down again. She seemed on the verge of arguing, but ended up keeping her retort to herself. Ren's expression softened.

"It's getting late. How about going home for now and try to clear your head?" he told her in a more gentle tone, and then addressed the rest of the group directly. "We all had a rough afternoon. Let's call it a day."

For a moment, nobody moved. It was only when Futaba finally left the room without a word that the magic spell holding everyone in place broke, and soon, they were all gone.

"Man, everyone really is tense, aren't they." Morgana remarked as he curled up into a ball on Ren's bed – it was the first time he spoke since they returned from the other world. "I just hope they all can get some proper rest tonight..."

"The sames goes to you." Ren replied, sitting beside him. The cat suddenly looked very flustered, as much as a cat could be, prompting him to chuckle. "It's easy to tell, you know. You're very concerned about them. Don't worry, I'm sure they'll be alright."

Morgana nodded slightly, but didn't respond. Although he seemed reassured somewhat, Ren knew there was something else weighing heavily upon his heart. The one issue that mattered the most.

"As for Akechi..."

Morgana lifted his big, blue eyes at him. Ren gazed back, a sad smile spreading upon his lips.

"We'll talk more about him... tomorrow."

It was almost seven in the evening when the door to the Niijima household unlocked. Makoto looked up from her notebook, and while she did make an effort to sound normal, her enthusiastic greeting to her sister was subpar at best. The answer she got was surprisingly equally forlorn, prompting her to push her rumination at the back of her mind for the time being and plainly focus on the moment. "What's wrong, Sis? You don't look so good."

Her sister breathed out a long, heavy sigh. Clearly, Makoto had been spot on. "I suppose it shows, doesn't it? Then again, after what happened today..."

"What is it?" the brown-haired girl insisted, now torn between curiosity and a growing sense of worry. Did her sister run into trouble at work?

But the second the thought crossed her mind, Makoto's eyes fell on the blazer her sister was holding in her hands. It was stained with dark splotches here and there, and she felt her heart flip.

"What happened, Sis?! Are you alright?!" she cried out, jumping from her seat and rushing to Sae's side. The prosecutor looked at her in confusion, then cracked the weakest of smiles.

"Oh... don't worry, Makoto. I'm fine." she assured, and whatever relief the brown-haired girl could have felt upon hearing this crumbled away the instant her sister continued. "This blood isn't mine. It's... It's Akechi-kun's."

Makoto felt something inside of her stop. She stared blankly without seeing anything, mouth opening and closing and opening again, but no sound ever came. She was certain it was thanks to a miracle that she was able to recover her speech so fast. "A-Akechi-kun's...? Wh-What do you mean, Sis...?"

"This might sound utterly preposterous to you. Even I have trouble believing it really happened..." her sister went on, and Makoto was thankful she seemed too upset to notice how unnerved her little sister suddenly was. "I still have trouble, but I know this wasn't a dream... I know Akechi-kun's really been shot, and taken away..."

Makoto's heart was beating so fast she suddenly got an urge to throw up. It took her all her willpower not to rush out of the living room. "... What are you talking about, Sis...?"

"Ah... Sorry, I am not making sense at all, am I?" she replied with a self-deprecating smile. "I'll start from the beginning. I was able to leave work early today and went through the shortcut I always take, you know, the alley one that cuts around ten minutes of walking time... and this is when I ran into him. Into Akechi-kun."

The longer she spoke, the less strength she seemed to have. Soon, she was letting herself fall in the sofa, looking entirely spent.

"... And then, that man put Akechi-kun in his car and... left. I have no idea where he brought him... I'm very worried. I'll contact the station right away..."

As astonishing as it may seem, whatever nervousness eating away at the brown-haired girl's mind dissolved away the further her sister went on. Traces of clarity were glowing across her brain like flashes of light, until her capacity to reason was made intact again.
Makoto blinked. She was back.

"So you're saying Akechi-kun and that man are acquainted? I mean, they have to be, if he asked you to call him of all people..." she muttered, more or less to herself, brain thundering at full speed. "Sis, did you happen to write down the license plate? Maybe we can find out who that person is and learn about Akechi-kun's whereabouts..."

Sae blinked at her, looking awestruck, then let her gaze fall at the floor. She suddenly seemed quite ashamed of herself. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but... it completely slipped my mind. I... I wasn't exactly thinking straight when they left, you see... It didn't even occur to me to check the plate."

Makoto looked at her curiously. It seemed as though there was more to this story than her sister was letting on, but she wouldn't press her further.

"I did keep Akechi-kun's cell phone, though... That man's number is in there. I'll submit it to the police tomorrow..."

All of a sudden, time seemed to go still. A brief silence went by before Sae spoke again.

"Still, putting that aside... I can't believe Akechi-kun really was shot. I will personally see that whoever did this pays the price."

Uttering her resolve aloud appeared to renew her usual poise somewhat, making her sound very much like herself again. Makoto swallowed, her eyes thin like slits, intently fixing the bloody cell phone her sister held tight in her hand even as she spoke.

She truly hoped none of her fellow Phantom Thieves had already turned in for the night.

Chapter Text

There was a slight chill in the air accompanying the gloomy sky of mid-October as morning finally broke over the dark streets of Yongenjaya. Ren woke up to the smell of humidity and a cold draft running inside the Leblanc attic, slipping through every nook and cranny he forgot to seal off. Judging from the little furball shivering by the edge of his mattress, he wasn't the only one to have had a less than stellar night.

But it wasn't the frosty weather and the unpleasant air currents that had deprived him of a restful sleep. No, what had kept him awake for most of the night and then followed him into his dreams started only with a single message.

My sister found Akechi-kun in the real world. He's been apparently taken away by a man who claimed he would attend to his wounds. His whereabouts are currently unknown.”

This had led to a lengthy exchange of worries and speculation that didn't end until hours later. Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, Ren straightened up and groggily reached for his cell phone, the memories of the late night conversation made vivid again through the brain fog.

For real?!” “Was that guy a doctor?” “How could he find him so fast?” “He totally used Akechi's phone as a tracking device. Textbook stuff.” “Yes, that makes sense…” “Sis also said he refused to let Akechi-kun be taken away by an ambulance. I assumed he wanted the incident to be kept under wraps.” “Of course he did. Think about the unwanted attention it would attract.” “Still, what's that guy's deal? Where's he coming from?” “Well, if Akechi has been working as some sort of hitman in the other world, he must have suffered injuries from time to time. It is safe to assume whatever organization is backing him up has an underground practitioner at their disposal in case of an emergency…”

Ren felt an uncomfortable rigidity upon his muscles. Yusuke's insightful reply had left a tense moment of silence in its wake, cementing the frightening concern looming over everybody's minds – yes, Akechi may be the culprit behind the strange deaths and incidents shaking Tokyo, but he definitely wasn't acting as a lone wolf, that much was certain… The scale of the trap laid out for the Phantom Thieves was much bigger, much viler…

“You're awake already? Talk about being an early bird…”

Alongside the remark came the soft sound of bed sheets rustling about. Ren didn't look away from his phone when he responded. “Morning, Morgana.”

The cat let out a big, long yawn, stretching his front paws all the while. He maintained the posture for several seconds before straightening up again, and only then did the teenager put his phone away before asking the question the answer of which he already knew. “Slept well?”

Morgana said nothing, but the forlorn sigh he breathed out was enough of a confirmation. Ren's gaze softened.

“I'll take that as a no,” he murmured, the hint of a smile on his lips, and brought a comforting hand to the cat's head. The fact that Morgana didn't try to pull away and spew a flow of protests was more than telling. “How about sleeping in a little longer?”

“Hmph, like this is the time for that,” the cat retorted, and Ren was glad to hear the familiar haughtiness return to his voice. “Everyone should be arriving soon!”

“I haven't forgotten,” the teenager replied serenely, and under the glare of a watchful Morgana – who evidently didn't take too kindly to his apparent nonchalance – he finally got out of bed.

Of course, the supernatural cat was wrong in his assumption that Ren didn't treat the matter with the proper concern. Even as he freshened up, went through his workout routine and got dressed, an uncomfortable knot was gnawing at the inside of his stomach, made all the tighter by the gradual recollection of details his now awake mind conjured up once more.

Oh, it’s you. How have you been?”

I’m sorry for imposing again. It’s just that I particularly enjoy talking to you for some reason.”

Haha, and that’s how the police came banging at your door, am I right? No worries… I’ll make sure they let it slide.”

…For a moment, the spark glinting in the teenager’s eyes dulled to an empty grey. His face was blank, completely unreadable.

It was only when the chimes downstairs rang out that the spell broke off.

“Ah! They’re here!”

Akin to a speeding bullet, Morgana hopped off the desk and climbed down the stairs leading to the shop area of Leblanc. Ren followed at a more laid-back pace, hands in pockets but expression no less serious than the tight lips and narrow eyes the Phantom Thieves greeted him with.

“Yo. D'you manage to get some rest?” Ryuji asked as he dragged himself to the nearest booth, practically collapsing on the spot. “Couldn't get any shut-eye myself…”

“Same for us,” Ann specified before Ren could talk, though she didn’t need to – the dark circles corrupting each face already spoke for themselves. “I kept tossing and turning while thinking about all that stuff… Haru called me at around three in the morning, too

“I just couldn’t fall asleep, no matter how much I tried…” justified Haru, her arms wrapped around herself, “I had to talk to someone and clear my head, or else I would have probably stayed awake all night long…”

Instinctively, all gazes turned to Makoto, who didn’t speak a word despite the silent concern prompting her to. She looked surprisingly better than Ren would have expected given the circumstances. While clearly as tired as them all, there was something new beyond her weary gaze, something Ren hadn’t seen shine in her eyes for a while now.

…Looks like you’re finally up and at ‘em, Queen.

“First, we should all try to calm down,” he said, one corner of his mouth lifted slightly. “I’ll make us all some coffee, so get yourselves comfortable in the meantime.”

“Excellent thinking. I could absolutely use a strong cup of coffee,” Yusuke approved as he massaged the space between his eyebrows, and nobody else needed telling twice. Moments later, everyone had joined Ryuji at the booth, all enjoying a warm drink that managed the considerable feat of bringing a relaxed smile to their lips, however small.

“So, where’s Futaba?” Makoto wondered between two sips, finally breaking the peaceful silence that had fallen over the group. “She’s still not here…”

“Maybe she’s still snoozin’,” Ryuji offered with a shrug. “Remember how long she crashed during summer?”

“That girl…!” Morgana hissed, his frustration all the more evident next to Ryuji’s indifference. “I told her not to be late! I bet she’s been playing video games all night and went to bed at dawn!”

“Perhaps someone should go fetch her?” Haru suggested in a soft tone of voice, but as Ren was about to comply and stand up, Makoto stepped in.

“No, let’s just send her a message. I don’t have much time,” she said, earning inquisitive looks from her friends which she immediately addressed. “I need to be back home before Sis wakes up.”

The rest of the thieves traded glances. The topic of Makoto’s sister was always a delicate one, given the tidbits they knew about her.

“Wait, you sure you’ll be okay?” Ryuji asked, a furrow knitting his eyebrows together. “You ain’t gonna get in trouble, right?”

Makoto didn’t immediately answer. Her face remained impassive, but the way her eyes flitted aside for a brief second didn’t get past Ren. “I told her yesterday that I would go for a run this morning, so I should be fine… But that’s not the point. What matters is that I get back home before she notices this is missing.”

Ren’s body reacted faster than his mind.

His heart jolted, like he had missed a step, but he didn’t comprehend the sight just yet. He simply stared in astonishment, alongside his equally baffled friends.

“Dude…”

Only when Ryuji spoke up before awe stole the rest of his speech again did Ren realize – he realized it was a mixture of adrenaline, nervousness, and excitement that was pumping through his veins.

“Did your sister find it?” Yusuke asked in a display of perceptiveness, prompting Makoto to nod.

“She did, and she’s planning to bring it to the police station today. That’s why we must hurry…” she replied while picking up Akechi’s cell phone from the table and fumbling with the lock screen. Then, she held it out to the group again, and for the second time, Ren felt a thrill course up his entire body.

“Oh man… That’s the nav.”

“Yes, I suppose it is…”

“There is no mistaking it.”

A short silence settled over the room, allowing everybody time to digest the brunt of the blow. And it was a blow, because while they did stumble upon Akechi in the other world, while they did confirm his identity as the black-masked criminal responsible for countless deaths and incidents, a tiny part within their cores still hadn’t been able to truly process the truth of what they saw, too hindered by disbelief to comprehend the reality of the revelation to its full extent. But that last shred of incredulity ended now – because that one proof made everything finally irrevocable.

Ren could sense it. He could sense the red, ominous icon of the Otherworld Navi brand itself into his eyes.

“Is there something else of note in there? Text messages, contact list?” Haru asked as she took hold of the phone, examining it herself.

“No… Nothing,” sighed Makoto, her disappointment plain as day. “Akechi-kun is prudent, I’ll give him that… I didn’t find anything suspicious about his contact list, and the only text message he has is from some bakery notifying him about their new business hours… I bet he clears his inbox regularly.”

“Damn, that weasel…” Ryuji muttered through gritted teeth, prompting Ann to lay her hand over his shoulder. The gesture made him unclench his fists somewhat, though his expression still smoldered with contained anger.

“Makoto, when you say you didn’t find anything suspicious about his contact list…” Ann began after throwing him a worried glance, “does that mean there really isn’t a single contact that caught your eye? No one?”

“No, no one… There’s my sister’s number, several members of the police force whose identities I have already confirmed, the co-workers and superiors from his agency, and that’s pretty much it…”

“I see…” Ann responded, her gaze falling on her lap.

“How peculiar…”

At the end of the booth, Yusuke’s eyes were low as well. All heads turned in his direction, but when he elaborated, his murmur made it seem like his words were meant to be kept to himself.

“Makoto’s sister, co-workers, superiors, connections… only adults. Not a single youth,” he mused, his gaze distant. “How odd…”

The rest of the thieves glanced at one another. Ann was the first to speak up. “You know, now that you mention it, it is odd…”

“You would think he would have his friends’ numbers, or at least his classmates’…” Makoto chimed in, her eyebrows furrowing in thought. “I wonder if—”

“Guys, we’re freakin’ morons!”

Ryuji’s yell was so unexpected it caused everybody to startle. Morgana especially jumped about a foot in the air, letting out a frightened yelp that nearly instantaneously morphed into a cry of outrage, but Ryuji clearly was past caring. “We’ve got a genius hacker on our side, remember? We just gotta ask Futaba to dig Akechi’s data until it spits out the juicy stuff! There’s gotta be tons of compromisin’ info in those text messages he deleted, she just needs to do her magic and we’re golden!”

“Nope. Not gonna happen.”

Ren never knew that the words ‘wiping someone’s grin off their face’ could be taken literally, but as he witnessed Ryuji’s triumphant expression turn into one that didn’t make him look terribly clever, Futaba might as well have rubbed his face with a towel. He found it hard to stifle the amused smile rising dangerously to his lips, but the redhead’s next words immediately helped with the process.

“If Makoto needs to give the phone back this morning, then I won’t be able to collect Akechi’s data. This stuff takes a lot of time,” she said while pulling a chair from the counter and sitting into a squat. Makoto frowned.

“How do you kn—”

“And for your information, kitty, I haven’t been playing video games at all last night. Do you really think I’m in the mood?” Futaba cut off, glaring at Morgana who suddenly looked as sheepish as a cat could get. Lines creased Yusuke’s face alongside realization, and he gave the redhead a severe look akin to that of a disapproving older brother.

“Don’t tell me… You’ve been listening in again, haven’t you?”

At this, the rest of the group stood immobile for a few seconds, then let out a collective sigh. Only Haru appeared to be out of the loop, blinking at them several times.

“For real? You still haven’t removed the bug?” Ryuji grunted, but Futaba merely stuck out her tongue at him defiantly, not out of mischief but pure spite.

“Like I’m going to remove it. How else do you think I’m going to spy on Sojiro?” she retorted, her cheeks puffing out in irritation. “Anyway, the reason I’m late is because I’ve been busy looking up every single surgeon in Tokyo and its suburbs. Tried to check if one of them had a connection to our two-faced, darling little detective. Made me pull an all-nighter, too.”

Ryuji’s whistle of admiration was only the tip of the iceberg. Ann and Haru’s eyes lit up, and even Makoto’s rather dull gaze brightened ever so slightly.

“Man, what kind of supermachine are you?” gushed Ryuji, with Yusuke nodding his approval beside him.

“So? What did you find?” Morgana asked eagerly as he put his front paws on the table, voicing the question lingering in everyone’s heads aloud. Futaba looked at him for a few moments, and Ren knew they were going to be disappointed the moment she opened her mouth.

Nothing. Not a single clue.”

As expected, whatever spark of hope had lit inside the thieves’ hearts instantaneously fizzled out. Soon, there wasn’t a single pair of eyes that wasn’t downcast. In spite of all, Futaba continued. “I still managed to find out something, though.”

“Which is…?” Yusuke prompted, not so ready to get his hopes up again judging by the caution upon his face.

“I’m absolutely positive the guy who took Akechi was in the data I checked. Even underground surgeons leave traces on the outside eventually. No, the problem is that I couldn’t find anything related to Akechi himself… as if all the traces he might have left medical-wise had been wiped out. Which makes it next to impossible to link him back to a specific surgeon or facility and whatnot. And I don’t believe for even a second that he’s never been to a hospital before.”

Ren felt his insides tighten somewhat. He had a feeling he already knew what she was about to say next, but he couldn’t pretend he was looking forward to hearing it.

“Meaning… If someone’s powerful enough to have a person's medical data completely erased from existence… then whoever we’re going against is even more dangerous than we thought.”

A long, heavy silence ensued. They all knew she was right, of course. But that didn’t mean they had to like it.

Several minutes passed, spent in complete stillness. Then, Makoto shook his head, looking supremely defeated. “We’ll continue this discussion later… I have to go. Sis doesn’t stay in bed very late even on her day off…”

“So that’s it?” Ryuji grumbled as he watched her stand up. “We’ve been crackin’ our heads over this for nothin’, basically?”

He threw the cell phone a deadly glare, like it had personally insulted him. Ren said nothing, but he couldn’t help sharing Ryuji’s state of mind – Akechi’s phone very possibly held all the answers they sought, dangling them right under their noses… and then snatching them out of their reach at the very last second. An unbidden vision of himself suddenly crossed his mind, one in which he finally found canned food after a journey spent starving, only to realize he had no can opener and couldn’t break them open for the life of him. His frustration only rose up.

“Well, we’re running out of options, but there is one thing we can do…”

A sly little smile had sprung to Futaba’s lips, destined to Makoto, who tilted her head aside in confusion. “We already established the guy who took Akechi used his phone as a GPS to track him, right? Well, two can play at this game. Let me see his phone.”

Not waiting for Makoto to comply, she grabbed Akechi’s phone from her hands and her eyes immediately disappeared behind the screen’s reflection on her huge glasses. The Phantom Thieves watched her in slightly awed silence even as she retrieved her laptop – she had forgotten it in the shop two nights before – and proceeded to do what she did best.

“Nice firewalls. Very 2013,” she cackled to herself, and the rest of the group exchanged looks. “Gotta make sure to connect it to my phone, too… Yeah, that should do the trick…”

She seemed like she was suddenly part of a world other than theirs, very far from Tokyo, much less Yongenjaya. Ren had already witnessed a similar scene before, but there was no getting used to the strange trance overtaking Futaba each time she flipped her internal switch from normal girl to genius hacker.

“I understand you’re installing a tracking device of your own on Akechi-kun’s phone, Futaba, and it is possible that I’m missing something…” Makoto said at last, evidently unsure how to proceed, “but what’s the point? What good will it do when his phone isn’t with him?”

For the first time since she tackled her task, Futaba looked up. Her eyes were more serious than ever when she responded. “Your big sis’ gonna bring his phone to the police station, right? This means that sooner or later, either they will find Akechi and bring it to him, or Akechi will come retrieve it himself.”

Ren’s gaze was fixed on her. Her frown conveyed a lot, probably more than she suspected. Her eyes were deep, blazing with a flame of determination he had already seen before – on the day when she awakened to her Persona.

“I know this is a total shot in the dark. I know it relies only on luck or that it could fail for a number of reasons. But that’s the only thing we can do for the time being… and on the off-chance this plan works, we’ll be one step closer to getting our hands on Akechi. That’s why I’d rather we try our luck rather than not at all.”

With this, she promptly snapped her laptop shut and held out Akechi’s phone to Makoto. Her expression didn’t change. “It’s done. Now all you need to do is give it back to your sis, and then we wait. Deal?”

Makoto swallowed, and glanced at her fellow thieves. All of them were now standing up, their jaws set alongside their resolve. This seemed to steel hers as well, for she finally took the phone back, and simply said…

“…Deal.”

The tension surrounding the Phantom Thieves wasn’t one of a kind. There was another place filled with the very same sort of oppressive air miles away from them, stuck between bland buildings and hidden from view. It was a large storage room, furnished with a jumble of objects that didn’t belong together, cardboard boxes left here and there, files locked behind glass shelves, a small desk in the corner atop which sat a lamp. The shutters were closed, and the fine layer of dust upon the blades suggested they had been this way forever.

“Surgery went smoothly overall, better than expected. He should pull through, but he sure got lucky none of the bullets hit anything vital. Now all we can do is wait for him to wake up.”

A grunt rang out, the only thing passing for an answer.

“I wonder if it's a good idea to keep him here, though… People are going to notice his disappearance sooner rather than later. We could maybe transfer him to one of our hospitals, making sure whoever’s in charge of him keeps their trap shut… So long as the general public doesn’t find out he's been shot, we should be fine. The media will be satisfied with something as mundane as overexertion, no problem here, maybe pretend he fell down to justify the bandages if anyone asks… That's your call to make, though.”

This time, there was no response. The surgeon looked up, his brow furrowed.

“So, what should we do? Shidou-san.”

His interlocutor took some time to reply. He merely stood there, features entirely unfathomable.

“…I suppose we might as well do that. I’m counting on you not to let word of it get out, however. Make sure the staff knows who they’re up against, or else there will be consequences.”

“Of course. They’ll play along if that’s the last thing they do,” the surgeon replied airily, and then gave a brief nod. “I’ll take care of that right now. Are you leaving as well?”

The man didn’t turn to face him. Once again, his answer was delayed.

“…Go on ahead. I’ll follow shortly.”

With this, the surgeon was dismissed. He gave a brief nod and spun around, gripping the door handle. “I’ll come back to check up on him in a few. Need to bring him another blanket, too. He’s freezing.”

The door groaned shut behind him, leaving the man alone in the room. The silence was absolute, all-encompassing.

As much as he liked to think he always had everything under control, Shidou Masayoshi couldn’t deny he had been taken aback by the current situation.

No, it wasn’t the first time Akechi had been hurt in the other world. No, it wasn’t the first time their underground doctor had to take a look at him or fix him up.

But what was a first was that never did Akechi return riddled with bullets, managing to survive only by sheer luck. He had never come in such close contact with death before.

Shidou’s gaze hardened. This wasn’t supposed to happen. This wasn’t part of the plan.

And if there was one thing Shidou Masayoshi couldn’t tolerate, it was the unexpected.

Everything had to go exactly as he dictated. Everything had to submit just like he decided. For chance and contingencies, he held nothing but contempt. Losing Akechi too soon was unacceptable.

And the ones responsible for this nearly premature loss… it didn’t take a genius to figure out their identities. None of those monsters over there carried firearms, Akechi had told him as much. Whoever did this to him was human, and he knew it. A human being – or a group of them – who had access to the other world. Like the Phantom Thieves of Hearts.

“…Tch.”

Shidou scoffed, internally correcting himself at once. Running around doing what they pleased, meddling with matters that did not concern them, overstepping their bounds behind one’s back… they were no Phantom Thieves. They were closer to worthless little rats. Rats that needed extermination.

A pulse rose to the surface of his clenched fist. His eyes still didn’t leave him.

Akechi was sleeping in the sole bed in the room, a thin mattress resting atop a basic frame of pipes. His right sleeve had been rolled up, allowing the drip to pump into his veins the contents of a blood bag hanging by the side of the bed. A medical ventilator had been strapped to his face, concealing his nose and mouth but not his expression. His eyes were squeezed shut, and a fine sheen of sweat had broken over his forehead. His breathing was difficult and heavy, confirming what Shidou already knew – he was in pain, that much was obvious.

With this realization came something he wasn’t aware of. Something he didn’t need to be aware of. Akechi had always done his best to be worthy of him as his right-hand man, had always shown nothing but prowess and capability. This is the side Shidou had been used to for more than two long years.

And now… Akechi was showing an entirely different side to him. A side in which he was utterly vulnerable, his guard down and broken. As defenseless as a kid.

The sight was new, and it intrigued him.

It intrigued him because he shouldn’t care.

And yet, perhaps for the first time in his life, Shidou Masayoshi cared.

Right away, he scoffed at his foolishness. Of course he would care. Akechi was a vital part of his plan, after all. The entirety of its success relied on him. The kid himself was not important. His power was.

A pitiful whimper dragged him out of his thoughts, and he focused on Akechi again. The bridge of his nose and the space between his eyebrows were more wrinkled than before. Perhaps he was having a nightmare.

This is when Shidou noticed.

Akechi’s right hand… it was twitching. His fingers shook once, twice, then became motionless again. Whatever he was seeing in his dreams, he seemed desperate for comfort.

Shidou stared. It meant nothing to him.

He had nothing to do here anymore. Jerking his head impatiently, he whirled around and left the room at a brisk pace, forcing himself to discard the image of Akechi’s goosebumps-covered arm from his mind.

The rats needed taking care of.

Chapter Text

Through a never-ending tornado, fragments whirled round and round, spinning into focus for a split second before vanishing again in the nebulous haze.

He was four years old, being told he wouldn’t see his mother anymore for a reason he didn’t fully comprehend at the time.
He was seven years old, led briskly by the wrist to yet another place he was supposed to proudly call home.
He was eight years old, begging the orphanage staff to let him keep his favorite plush toy, only to witness it being thrown in the trash.
He was eleven years old, barely holding down his tears as he retrieved his ruined belongings, the group of boys who had knocked him down into the icy puddle of water cackling among themselves all the while.
He was fourteen years old, seeing Shidou Masayoshi’s face on television for the first time.
He was sixteen years old, his finger tightening around the trigger like it did so many times before.
He was—

“It appears I have overestimated you.”

Even as the days, months, years reeled about still, a voice managed to worm itself through the blur of pictures and sounds, dragging him to the frontier separating slumber from distant awareness. His eyes fluttered open, lids feeling so heavy all he could see through the narrow slits was a faint hue of blue.

“All the cards were in your hands. All the conditions were reunited so that you would win the game. It turns out this was… not enough.”

The voice sounded slow and deep, an ominous monotone. He turned his head toward what he pinpointed as its source, but could see nothing save for a few wisps of smoke floating amidst an inky darkness.

However, as he squinted his eyes in compliance with his brain issuing the command despite the lead slowing it down, he was able to make out a silhouette in the distance, a mere blurry shape beyond the unknown.

“That is truly an unexpected turn of events, and yet… As in all games, a winner and a loser must be determined eventually. And now that the Trickster has gained the upper hand over you, holding you to too great a disadvantage for you to ever outclass him back… I believe the game has been decided. You… have lost.”

A distant part within his mind stirred. He remained entirely motionless, his eyes still fixing the nothingness in a wary, half-open gaze.

“What… are you talking about?” he asked laboriously, a crease surfacing in between his eyebrows. As his senses slowly returned all the while, he realized he was actually lying face-up on a hard surface, likely wood. He instinctively sat up—

“And as the rules of the game dictate…” the voice continued, deaf to his interference, “the loser shall pay the price. Your road ends here.”

—or would have, rather, hadn't a resistance prevented him from doing so. Heart lurching and mind suddenly very much freed from its daze, his eyes flew open, reflecting in their fearful depths a long set of chains restraining his arms apart. A spontaneous attempt at wriggling his legs yielded no better results. The cold sensation coiled tightly around his ankles almost seemed to bite into his flesh.

“It is futile,” said the voice in that same chilling tone as his struggling became more and more pronounced. “Soon, you shall be left with nothing… Become less than nothing.”

The words hung in the air, piercing just as a needle. And like adding fuel to a fire, the emotion controlling him crossed the threshold of something beyond mania.

“Let… me… go…!” he rumbled defiantly through gritted teeth in response, every last ounce of his strength striving against his binds to no avail. His body jerked violently, not squirming so much as thrashing around.

…He immediately froze for the space of a heartbeat, however, upon catching a glint of steel hanging over him. A glint that aligned perfectly with his neck.

No!” he bellowed from the top of his lungs, shaking his head wildly in utter denial at the sight, but the picture of the guillotine remained branded into his eyes. “Don't! Don't!”

His screams echoed across the room, reverberating back tenfold. He writhed madly as if possessed, the terror distorting his face made manifest through his body by a series of uncontrollable quakes shaking his very core. His overwhelmed brain was rapidly succumbing to the thousands of stimuli cluttering it, consumed by dread, its last traces of rationality sucked out. The angled blade almost seemed to be purposefully delaying its retribution, taunting him, toying with him, relishing the reaction it inspired, taking delight in watching him go mad from the mental torture—

This isn’t right, he thought distantly through the delirium, it just isn't, this can't be happening, what am I doing here…

The shock was such that he felt himself getting faint, his consciousness waning by the minute – only for panic and terror to shoot up a new wave of adrenaline into his veins at the vision of the blade slowly ascending by an inch or two. He jolted again, letting out a primal scream nobody should ever have to hear, let alone produce.

“You ought to accept your punishment with greater grace,” came the voice, managing to reach the one remaining lucid part within his mind even as he kept twisting in desperate agony. His chest heaved alongside each of his quick, shallow breaths, accompanied by helpless whimpers that would grant him neither mercy nor remorse, and he knew it. But this was wrong, he didn't understand why this was happening, he couldn't die here, someone had to help him, any—

One slight chill upon his throat later, and Akechi Goro knew no more.




“His condition is still stable, Doctor. Pulse is slightly lower than normal, but not alarmingly so. Yes, his bandages have been changed already… Also, I wanted to inform you that several people working for the news have once again been trying to pry this morning. I shut them down as per your instructions, but— Ah!”

A startled cry of her making interrupted the woman’s call, though it was incontestably outmatched by the one leaving Akechi Goro's throat as he sat bolt upright, eyes bulging out and beads of cold sweat flying off his face. Within seconds, dozens of painful jolts lanced throughout his body now that the slumber keeping him blissfully oblivious lifted, but for all the notice he took, they might as well be nonexistent. The atrocity of his nightmare had been too much, utterly eclipsing whatever mundane and insignificant signals his body was sending out, rendering him blind and deaf to everything but the ingrained memory of the blade crashing down, the squishy sound it produced just like a knife cutting through wet meat, the vision of his own headless torso spasming one last time as he saw himself rolling across the flo—

A huge tremor overtook his shoulders, and Akechi Goro could take no more. Insides churning, he rolled over the side of his bed and vomited a mixture of bile and drool onto the floor, attempting to gulp down large quantities of air once he straightened up, only to retch again and force out whatever contents his stomach still kept in. He could vaguely sense a presence fussing over him, but who they were or what they were doing exactly was beyond his capacity to reason. A few long seconds dragged by before he managed to get a precarious hold of himself, though the entire ordeal left him a panting, disheveled mess. Weakly, he wiped his mouth on his sleeve, his throat sore from the burning acid.

“All right, take it easy now,” said a soothing voice, and Akechi Goro slowly looked up to see who could only be a nurse watching over him, a pager peeking out of her breast pocket. There was something rather motherly about the soft, mature wrinkles around her eyes and the quiet tone of her speech. “Don't worry, I'll take care of that…”

Cutting his embarrassment short before he had even brought it up, she walked to a shelf nearby and produced a large floor cloth. “Do you need a basin? Yes, I'll give you one, just in case you’re feeling nauseous again…”

And by the time Akechi Goro blinked, she was already mopping the puddle away. He watched her through a weary gaze, subconsciously letting himself fall back into his pillows, until his sight hovered to the rest of the room.

“Where am I…?” he asked, though the question was unnecessary – anybody could recognize a hospital room. “What happened to m—”

But he didn't need her to answer, not when it all suddenly flooded back into him as violently as a giant waterfall. Venturing into the other world with the intent to gather intelligence about a target… Stumbling upon that dreadful monster and engaging in battle, ready to fight for his life… Rapidly losing the upper hand… Forced to flee, a great shockwave knocking him off his feet, an agonizing pain, utter darkness… And then—

Back off!”

Did you really just shoot him?! Queen, what the hell?!”

Never mind that! What in the world happened to you?! You're hurt! You're bleeding!”

Please don't, Sae-san... N-Not emergency services…”

Call... Call this instead…”

Akechi Goro swallowed hard.
A tight knot formed inside his stomach, one that had nothing to do with his nausea.

“This is Roppongi International Hospital,” the nurse answered absently all the while as she checked the monitors by his bedside. “You were brought in after suffering two gunshot wounds, one in your shoulder, the other in your thigh, and other minor injuries. The emergency intervention occurred in another facility, however… You were transferred here afterwards as per their request. An acquaintance of the chief physician – my superior – was the one who found you.”

She interrupted herself briefly, tidying up his blankets. “You are a very lucky boy, you know. What are the chances that a surgeon of all people would be the first person to run into you when you needed it the most? Life truly works in mysterious ways.”

That last comment was as offhand to her as it was crucial to him. So it appeared Niijima Sae did fulfill his request in the end…

A strange sort of twinge pinched at the teenager's heart. He wasn't sure what to make of that.

“You are going to be all right, in any case. All you need is plenty of rest and you will be good as new in no time.”

But Akechi Goro was hardly listening anymore – he was looking away, sight long unfocused as his mind was reviewing the facts. From what he managed to grasp, Shidou's underground practitioner was able to get a hold of him, treated his wounds, and then had him transferred into an unrelated hospital. He was only starting to ask himself why that was when his answer came unprompted.

“We got some very specific instructions regarding you…” the nurse said, now checking his pulse. “Notably that we cannot divulge to the general public why you were admitted in here, especially not to the media. To them, you are officially recovering from exhaustion caused by overwork. Your surgeon said you didn't need unnecessary gossip clinging to your back, and I must say I agree with him. It must be hard, being scrutinized at all times, especially when you’ve been the talk of the country those past weeks…”

It was like Akechi Goro was startled awake. He blinked several times, his big, round eyes stopping on the nurse once more.

“Weeks…? Wait, how long have I been…” he began in a very quiet tone, and was interrupted with a patient answer.

“About five days or so,” she replied while standing up. “Today is October 24th.”

Something about his expression must have caught her eye, for a sympathetic glow flickered onto her face. “Don't worry about your obligations or school. The only thing that matters right now is that you clear your head and try to relax. Is there anything you need?”

At the teenager's hesitant but eventual shake of the head, she gave him a reassuring smile and stepped back from his bedside. “You can call me anytime you want using this button right here. I'll inform the doctor you woke up… Ah, before I forget.”

Akechi Goro watched her in silence as she approached a coat rack near the exit, upon which rested his uniform. Nothing seemed to be missing, as far as he could tell – his blazer, shirt, belt and tie were there, his pants folded neatly on a hanger, his socks and shoes stored by the rack base.

“It was your surgeon who pulled some strings to get you a brand new uniform,” she said absently, oblivious to the huge bound suddenly shaking up Akechi Goro’s heart as realization swatted his conviction away. “Unfortunately, the one you were wearing during the incident was apparently beyond salvageable… It was thrown away.”

“Thrown away? Everything?” he cried out while bolting straight, wincing slightly at the swift prick of pain digging at his wounds, yet urgency allowing him to shrug it off somewhat. “Even the… the two pins that were—”

“Don’t fidget around so much. You will only rouse your wounds,” she interrupted, shooting him a disapproving look that somehow compelled him to lie flat on his back again. She then reached into one of his blazer pockets and presenting her open palm in which sat a pair of silver jewels. “Do you mean those? No worries, they're here. You care about them a lot, don't you?”

Akechi Goro said nothing, but the tiny bubble of relief swelling up within his chest told no lies. He was grateful that the nurse didn't press the issue.

“Your cell phone is in there too,” she added as she put the jewels back into his pocket and slid out his phone from the other. “Your surgeon held onto it before you were brought here.”

And like on cue, a weight he hadn't been aware of until then slowly lifted from the teenager’s shoulders.

“May I… have it?” he asked meekly, unsure whether he was pushing his luck. But the nurse’s kind – if a bit concerned – reply told him otherwise.

“Of course… But make sure not to strain your eyes too much,” she said, putting his phone on his nightstand. “We don’t have a problem with patients using their phones during their convalescence, but staring at those screens all day long is never good for a quick recovery.”

“…I’ll keep that in mind,” he promised genuinely as she turned on her heel and made for the exit.

“Your phone had to be turned off so that the battery wouldn’t run out,” she explained, catching his mildly confused expression as the dark screen offered him no response. “I’m going to check if we have a charging cable somewhere… You’ll probably need one.”

With this, she gave a brief nod and closed the door gently behind her. Akechi Goro stared at where she had stood just moments before, and relaxed against his pillows again. Perhaps it was her company that allowed him a moment of distraction, but her departure enabled in its stead the return of a dull pain located all over his body, pulsating warmer around his shoulder and thigh. The hospital robe he had been changed into was loose enough to allow a glimpse of the gauze constricting his chest, to the point that he wondered whether his blood circulation wasn’t being cut off. A strong pressure around his head and arms suggested they were bandaged as well, and his cheek was apparently sporting a compress of its own. All in all, he probably looked – and definitely felt – terrible.

But in spite of that acknowledgment, there was something else gnawing at him from the inside, something much more worrisome in his book than sustaining a few injuries, no matter how serious they were… and the longer he thought about it, the tighter the knot twisting his stomach was. Years of working in the underworld had prepared him for things he couldn’t have even wrapped his mind around back then, but what on Earth was he supposed to do now that the Phantom Thieves discovered him in the other world…?

The electrodes taped to his chest registered an increase in his heart rate. A mixture of anger surged from deep within as well, however, slowly but surely overpowering his nervousness until all that remained was a determination burning white-hot. Yes, he thought fiercely, the Phantom Thieves did gain an advantage they weren’t supposed to have… but they weren’t the only ones to know who hid behind the mask.

Okumura Haru, the girl with the large hat and curly hair. Sakura Futaba, the one wearing those heavy-looking goggles. Niijima Makoto, the one who looked like some sort of biker. Kitagawa Yusuke, the tallest of the bunch. Takamaki Ann, the one dressed in all red. Sakamoto Ryuji, the only blond guy. The strange-looking cat thing… and…

“Hey, Akechi. Make yourself at home.”

Here you go. Your favorite blend.”

Long day, huh? I’m here if you need to vent.”

A frown etched itself across his face. He wasn’t going to think about him, not now. Not ever.

With an impatient shake of the head, he pushed the picture floating inside his head aside for the time being and attempted to dredge up the little scraps of good news amidst the bad, starting with his retrieved phone. It would be a lie to claim he wasn’t relieved Niijima Sae didn’t keep it, he mused as he switched it on. The prospect that she – or worse, her sister – snooped around was one he didn’t like to entertain, even if he made sure to dispose of all compromising traces. The only possible problem would have been the discovery of the Otherworld Navi's existence, but—

Huh?

Akechi Goro froze. All he could hear in the sudden, deafening silence, was his own heartbeat.

Huh…?

The air felt thick, nearly suffocating.
His mind was scrambling to make sense of the sight reflected in his eyes. This couldn't be happening. It couldn't be real.

“Ah… A-Ah…”

His chest rose and fell faster and faster, in rhythm with his erratic breathing. A cold layer of sweat dripped out through every last pore.

And then… the floodgates opened, and the tidal wave came crashing down.

“R-Robin Hood! Loki!”

There was no response. No presence, no stirring. Nothing, save for a sensation of cold, inescapable emptiness within his core, wide like a gaping hole.

Loki and Robin Hood were gone. Just like the Otherworld Navi.




Meanwhile, hidden away in a room where shone across the obscurity only the vivid brightness of computer screens, a girl suddenly looked up from the imageboard she was lurking in. The opening song of a popular TV show was chiming from her phone, prompting her to check it out. A devilish grin then played up across her lips.

“…Heh. Roppongi, huh?”

She tapped at the screen once, then twice. A snicker escaped her throat.

“That’s not too far at all…”

Chapter Text

“You’ve got to eat your meal, Akechi-san.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“At least a spoonful of miso soup.”

“I really don’t feel like having anything.”

Akin to a video set to rewind over and over, the scene happening inside Akechi Goro’s hospital room seemed to be stuck in an infinite loop, showing no signs of breaking the pattern anytime soon. Nearly a week had gone by since he first woke up within those naked walls, but it might as well have been a single never-ending day – each morning began with the nurse knocking at his door, and ended with her being disappointed.

“Oh, Akechi-san…” she muttered alongside a sigh. “You will never recover your strength at this rate. You already lost so much weight as it is since you were brought here…”

The weariness of her words was palpable, to the point that Akechi Goro couldn't help a small pang of guilt. Rather than being the sort that compelled compliance, however, it really only served to add yet another weight to the heavy charge already pressing down on his heart.

“I'm sorry,” he simply said, and the nurse knew she had lost the battle once again – that is, if she ever had hope to win a losing battle in the first place. Her gaze fell on him even as he avoided eye contact, and at last, she took the food tray off his lap.

“All right. I’m leaving the tray here, in case you get hungry later.”

With this, she stood up, laid her foldable chair aside, and turned around to leave. She was about to exit the room when she paused for a moment, casting a glance over her shoulder at him.

“You know… If there's something on your mind, I am sure talking about it would make you feel better.”

Her expression was kind, patient – and with all that, inquisitive. Their gazes met.

“Well? Is there something you would like to get off your chest?”

Akechi Goro kept quiet. Dozens of fragments jostled one another inside his brain, each trying to overpower the last in a muddled swirl of fleeting pictures. He thought about being found out by the Phantom Thieves, and the enormity of the consequences it entailed. He thought about Niijima Sae being the one to discover him in such a critical state, dangerously shortening the gap separating his public life from his real occupation. He thought about the reputation he tried so hard to preserve, and how missing so much as a single day of school or work was nothing like the perfection that was always expected of him. And above all, he thought about Loki and Robin Hood, worth more than the invaluable, gone without a trace, leaving him completely, utterly powerless…

“No… Nothing in particular.”

The nurse merely gave him a weak smile in response. A smile spelling out she wasn’t convinced.




“What should we do, Doctor? That boy hasn’t been eating a proper meal in days…”

The corridor to the patient ward was as always busy with the ebb and flow of human life – visitors coming and going, employees traversing the hall at a brisk pace to attend to whatever obligations required their expertise. The nurse was part of them, only stopping after she found the person she had been seeking.

“Today too? Did he offer an explanation?” her superior asked, running a hand across his stubble.

“Just that he isn’t hungry, as usual…” the nurse answered while nodding at a passing co-worker. “I suspect he is anxious about something. He has been withdrawn ever since he woke up, much more than I expected given how outgoing and sociable he appears to be in public…”

“Well, he’s been through a lot. We can’t expect him to act all sunshine and rainbows after he was shot twice.”

“But Doctor! His weight is dropping at an alarming ra—”

“I know. I’ll go talk to him.”

Sliding his glasses up the bridge of his nose, the man shuffled to the teenager’s room, the nurse on his heels. A buzz coming from his pocket interrupted him before he could knock, however.

“Yes, what is it?” he groaned once he picked up the pager. “Huh, talk about interesting timing. I was just about to check up on—What? He’s got visitors?”

As his expression darkened, the nurse suddenly looked as happy as could be.

“Seven people? They’re not family, are they? Last time I checked, the kid has no relatives to speak of…”

“That’s wonderful,” the nurse marveled in passing, her features soft. “Here’s what Akechi-san needs to finally cheer up—visitors! About time he got some, too… I can’t believe nobody except that prosecutor lady came to see him, and he was still unconscious when she did. He must be feeling very lonely.”

“I don’t know…” the man replied gloomily, covering the receiver with one hand. “We can’t afford to let people know he got shot… the instructions hammered it on. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to allow those people in—”

“You already said that when the prosecutor announced herself, and everything went well, didn’t it?” she cut off with a shake of the head. “The boy is in serious need for distraction. It’ll be fine.”

His optimism didn’t seem to match hers, but after several long seconds of silent deliberation, he apparently judged her conviction persuasive. With a small sigh, he brought the pager to his ear again. “Why not, I guess… Have them brought to the patient’s room. I’m already there.”

It took only several minutes before the visitors showed up around the corner of the hallway. Their arrival was met with a kind smile from the nurse – and a wary frown from the doctor. They were seven all right, three boys, four girls, all around high school age.

“You’re here to visit Akechi-san, correct?” he said curtly without so much as a greeting, eyeing each of them through a narrow gaze. The nearest kid of the bunch, a blonde girl with huge pigtails, addressed him a beaming grin, wide to the point of looking fake.

“That’s right. Thanks for having us, sir!” she chirped, letting out a high-pitched giggle. Beside her, the other kids were glancing away. “How’s Goro? We missed him so, so much!”

“…He's doing all right. Still a bit weak,” the man replied as he leaned slightly closer. “So… I take it you’re his friends?”

“Sure are,” responded another youth, this one a stocky boy with bleached hair. “The gang ain’t complete without Ake—Goro.”

Like the girl, he grinned at him, arm out and thumb up. The man didn’t smile back.

“Funny,” he remarked, his lips barely moving at all, “we’ve asked him about his friends and classmates, but Akechi-san hasn’t mentioned you kids at all. In fact, he hasn’t mentioned anyone.”

“Doctor…” the nurse muttered on a tone of reproach, but he merely kept staring at them in silence. They were taken aback, no doubt – until another girl spoke up.

“I understand you are being cautious, sir,” she said, inclining her head slightly at him, “but I assure you we are acquainted with Akechi-kun—I’m sure he’ll be able to confirm it himself. Incidentally, I was wondering… Is he truly all right? I mean, I’ve never heard of a patient staying in a hospital for nearly two weeks simply because of overexertion…”

The way the man’s fists tensed up was subtle, but he was certain she didn’t miss it. He contemplated her for a long moment, as if to challenge her to even dare go there, but deep down, he knew she would without hesitation if the need came to be. The nurse, for her part, merely tilted her head to the side in confusion.

“And who might you be? Miss?” the man muttered, not liking at all how much of a smartass that brat was.

“My name is Niijima Makoto. Pleased to meet you,” she replied without smiling.

“Niijima… That’s familiar…” he whispered more or less to himself, prompting the nurse to chime in.

“That’s the name of the prosecutor who visited him last week, if I recall correctly,” she explained before turning a soft smile to the one concerned. “Are you two related?”

“She’s my sister,” said the Niijima girl with a nod. “She and Akechi-kun are co-workers, which is how I came to know him myself. I can give her a call right now if you’d like… she'd be happy to back that up.”

Perhaps he was imagining it, but he was almost positive he saw a fleeting victorious curve lift her lips the space of a heartbeat before leaving an expression of polite neutrality behind. He could sense her reading his thoughts, she knew he was looking for an argument to offer, anything to doubt the legitimacy of her claim, only to find none.

“Very well… I guess you are acquainted with the patient after all,” he groaned suspiciously, but he did step away from the door to the hospital room.

“You could’ve just let us in right from the start and asked him directly, y’know,” muttered the boy with bleached hair under his breath. “Coulda saved us all a lotta time.”

“Ryuji!” hissed the blonde girl as she elbowed him, though the doctor didn’t notice, busy giving the nurse instructions.

“…And make sure to cut it short if it drags out too long. It’s almost time for the patient to sleep.”

On this, he turned around and disappeared in a room nearby. At first looking somewhat disconcerted, the nurse didn’t take long to recover and address the whole group a smile.

“Forgive my superior, he is slightly on edge for personal reasons… but enough of that,” she said as she knocked on the door. “For my part, I’m glad you came to visit Akechi-san… He could definitely use some company. To be honest with you all, he has been feeling slightly under the weather lately… I’m sure you’ll be able to help him take his mind off things…”

The teenagers exchanged long, meaningful looks. She didn't notice.

And as soon as she opened the door, Akechi Goro looked up.

The first thing he noticed was how radiant the nurse appeared to be. Her features seemed to be glowing with some sort of uncomplicated delight, one he had already witnessed before, yet never experienced himself. He recognized it just fine, however – the kind of light only truly selfless people could ever radiate, the joy born not for oneself, but for someone else’s sake.

“Yes…?” he asked, a bit taken aback.

“Good news—you've got visitors! Please come in, everyone.”

Time stopped. His breathing froze. Sound was no more.

It immediately became clear to him why she was looking so happy. She was happy because she thought she had a nice surprise for him. Something he would be sincerely grateful for.

And it certainly was a surprise, he couldn't deny it. But a nice one… Now that he definitely could.

“Those young people said they are your friends,” the nurse went on, and her light tone of voice almost felt alien compared to the sudden heaviness suffocating the room. “They were very eager to—is something wrong? You look very pale all of a sudden.”

What his frantic heartbeat was screaming, his voice failed to convey.

The Phantom Thieves’ faces were tight and set, just like stone. They stared down at him in silence, letting nothing filter through the thick blankness permeating their features. His stomach tied itself into a nauseating knot.

He wanted to tell her he had no idea who those people were, but—

“Is the head nurse here?” a young woman wondered as she stepped into the room, her eyes sweeping the surroundings and stopping on who she was looking for. “Ah, good morning. The patient of room 207 wants your assistance… Says he won't see any other nurse but you…”

“He does? Oh, the whims of some patients…” the nurse replied, rolling her eyes. “I'll go see him.”

Looking a bit weary and very much annoyed, she still managed to plaster a professional smile on her face as she addressed the teenager again – who, for his part, was sitting there frozen stiff, his mouth still wide open with words that wouldn't come out anymore.

“I'll come back to check up on you as soon as I'm done, all right?” she said soothingly, apparently moved at the idea that the emotion of finally getting visitors would render him speechless. She then turned around and flashed a smile at the rest of the group. “If you'll excuse me.”

It might be his reeling mind playing tricks on him, but the appalling sense of finality she closed the door with sent a shiver down his spine.

A long, leaden silence fell over the room. The air was thick with tension, so abound one could almost drink it. He desperately tried to avoid their gazes, but there was no failing to sense them – seven pairs of eyes were piercing through his skin, penetrating each layer until they branded themselves into his very soul.

And then the wick of the cherry bomb was lit, set aflame by a casual tone.

“You look much skinnier since the last time you came to Leblanc, Akechi.”

It was like he was being greeted by an old friend after returning from a one-month period of absence. Maroon eyes left the bedsheets to meet light grey ones, which were partially concealed behind large glasses. He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know how to react. And so, instinct took over.

“Go away,” he muttered, pointedly looking elsewhere again.

“No,” replied Amamiya Ren, his stupid friends shifting slightly by his side.

“Go away!” he snapped again, his voice rising to a shout.

“Not until we got what we came for.”

Amamiya stood tall and straight, his adamance overwriting whatever carefree nature he might have exhibited in the past. Akechi Goro swallowed, though he managed to hide his unease underneath a defiant frown.

“I have nothing to tell you. Just leave alrea—”

“You’re the one responsible for all those incidents, aren’t you? The people going on rampages, acting out uncontrollably without warning?”

Amamiya’s words came hard and fast, like a great wave. The young man flinched for the space of an instant, finding it hard to keep his voice even when he responded. “I… have no idea what you’re talking ab—”

“You don’t? Lemme spell it out for you then,” cut off the teenager with yellow hair, an embarrassing hothead whose name Akechi Goro had never bothered to memorize. “Madarame and Kaneshiro’s Shadows spilled to us how some guy wearin’ a black mask was usin’ the other world to force people into causin’ freak accidents or even outright killin’ them himself. Hell of a coincidence that your weird getup sports a black mask, too.”

Beneath the covers, Akechi Goro’s nails dug deep marks into his palms.

“You’re not going to pretend you don’t have access to the other world, are you?” chimed in Niijima Sae’s sister, taking a step forward. “The validity of one eyewitness may be questioned, but casting doubt on eight testimonies is another story, you know.”

She stared at him, her gaze narrow with caution, his flashing in hatred.

“…I suppose there’s no point in denying it,” he said at last, each syllable ringing bitter and slow. His brain was working at a tremendous pace, conjuring up whatever it could find to extricate himself from this dangerous bind. He did consider several possibilities in the past in case the unthinkable happened, but none of them involved him being stripped of his powers or being shot twice, let alone having the Phantom Thieves knock on his hospital door…

Even so, he wouldn’t admit defeat, not ever.

“I can go to the other world, I’ll give you that,” he went on defensively, his eyes dark and face somber. “But I’m not the one causing the incidents… I’m not. Because I found out about that world only recently… about a month ago, and the incidents have been going on for much longer than that. The one responsible for them… is someone else.”

This was a pathetic lie, and he knew it. However, he didn’t care.
The Phantom Thieves had no proof. They couldn’t do anything.

“Talk about lying through your teeth…” commented a voice that caught him very much off-guard. Because even as the thieves responded to it with murmurs of approbation, it wasn’t any of them who just spoke. He threw the group a look of half-confusion, half-wariness, searching each face to no avail.

But then came his answer without warning, shaped by the sudden shaking of Amamiya’s school bag and what seemed like a flash of black leaping onto the floor. Akechi Goro stared in incomprehension, lips slightly parted as the creature’s tail swished left and right.

“That cat… Did it just…?” he muttered, only to be forcefully dragged back to the present by the hothead’s sneer.

“You understood him, huh? Course you did. I mean, that’s how we’ve known you were shady all along.”

The confusion upon Akechi Goro’s face gave way to the return of his scowl. There was something about that mock laid-back attitude that made him want to beat the loudmouth to a pulp. “What…?”

“You heard Ryuji,” said the girl beside him, the one who looked foreign. “The only people who can understand Morgana are those who’ve heard him talk in the other world… Just like you understood him almost five months ago.”

Akechi Goro’s gaze became glazed, watching straight ahead without seeing anything. Almost five months ago…? What the hell were they talking about?

“So much for finding out about the other world only recently,” chided the disapproving voice of whom he recognized as Madarame’s pupil, Kitagawa Yusuke. “Try as you might, you most definitely won’t weasel out of this.”

“You’re the one Kaneshiro’s Shadow was talking about, and that’s a fact,” Niijima chided, accusation plain in her speech. “The rampage incidents, the inexplicable deaths… You’re the one causing them.”

“It doesn’t help your case that both sorts seem to have come to a sudden halt,” another girl added, speaking for the first time – Okumura’s daughter. “…Starting with the day we found you injured in Mementos.”

That one statement was the one to finish the job. The last pounding of the hammer. The final nail on his coffin. There was no point in playing pretend anymore.

Akechi Goro snorted. If the situation hadn’t been so grim, he might have found it hilarious.

“Hmph. Fine, you win. I’m the one behind the incidents, rampages or otherwise,” he confessed, the slight, ugly smirk on his face a complete heel turn from his previous act. “So?”

“So?!” bellowed the loudmouth, drawing himself up to his full height. “We’re talkin’ about human li—”

“You killed my father! Does that mean nothing to you?!”

The shout tore the room like thunder. Everybody jumped, startled by the unexpected outburst, turning to stare at its source. Okumura’s entire body was trembling with rage, made all the more manifest across her legs and fists. “Don’t you feel even a shred of remorse? A tiny speck of guilt?!”

Akechi Goro stared at her. Whatever outrage she was spewing out only reminded him of an untamed dog’s annoying yapping. “…Your father had it coming. He was the one who requested my services the most in the first place. All I did was take out the trash.”

“How dare you…” she whispered, shaking her head slightly in denial. Her fellow thieves looked equally disgusted – not that he cared.

“And not just him. They’re rotten, all of them,” he continued as though she hadn’t interrupted. “The only thing you can accuse me of is giving them a taste of their own medicine.”

“Are you including my mom in this, too…?”

Like fog had fallen over the room, everything seemed to go muffled, swallowed in a thick, oppressive blanket. It was the first time Isshiki Wakaba’s daughter spoke. Akechi Goro merely looked her up and down. He had nothing to say to her.

“Yo, leader—can I beat the shit out of that smug asshole yet?” spat the hothead, cracking his knuckles and leaving the object of his frothing unimpressed.

“You know this isn’t what we came for,” Amamiya responded, raising his arm to prevent his friend from acting out on his stupid idea. His eyes then fell on the teenager, who stared back in what he wanted to be defiance.

“So what is it you actually came to do? Blackmail me? Ask me to turn myself in?” Akechi Goro scoffed, his voice dripping with venom. “Don’t bother. Unlike you, I have evidence of your little group coming out of the other world… It would be a real shame if the police caught wind of—”

“You mean those pics and videos I deleted from your phone…?”

Akechi Goro felt as though he had been slapped across the face. The redhead’s mutter echoed barely over a murmur, but had sounded eerily loud against his eardrums. “Huh…? This isn't funny, you stupid girl…”

But even as he spat it, a terrible, ghastly grip suddenly squeezed around his heart. He instinctively reached out for his phone, unlocking it with a somewhat shaky finger, then opened the—

“What is the meaning of this? Why didn't you say you found compromising evidence about us in his phone sooner, Futaba, let alone disposed of it?” Kitagawa scolded, but Akechi Goro hardly heard her response, neither noticed her shrug – his heart was pounding against the inside of his ribs alongside a wave of nausea, but the sight was real. The pictures were gone. The videos as well.

“Wh-What the… Where the hell are…” he stuttered in utter confusion, the arrogance etched along his face gone as if physically wiped away.

“Sorry, Akechi,” came the distant, emotionless tone of Amamiya’s voice, as though coming from a mile away. “Looks like we’re the ones who got the dirt on you, not the other way around.”

Within his mind, a spark caught flame, threatening to burst into a raging inferno. His deadly glare met him. “…Don’t make me laugh. You have no evi—”

"Hmph. Fine, you win. I’m the one behind the incidents, rampages or otherwise.”

Akechi Goro's eyes shot open. The whole world seemed to go silent. There was no longer a sound, absolutely none.

Nothing, save for his own voice.

"Hmph. Fine, you win. I’m the one behind the incidents, rampages or otherwise.”

He had been played like a fiddle. Outsmarted in every single way.
From the beginning to the end, the Phantom Thieves had been one step ahead. Or two, or perhaps three.

“Hmph. Fine, you win. I’m the one behind the incidents, rampages or—”

“Stop it!” he cried out from the deepest part of his core, pressing his hands hard against his ears. The Phantom Thieves exchanged looks, until Niijima finally gave a nod.

“I'll keep those recordings safe… just in case,” she said quietly, putting her phone away. Akechi Goro lifted a feral scowl at her, teeth clenched hard, wrinkles of half fury, half humiliation corrupting his face into the unrecognizable. He was about to snap at them when—

“I want you to tell us who you are working for.”

For the third time, sound was sucked out of the room. The atmosphere was oppressive, the air heavy.
Of all the things he asked, it had to be the impossible. A slow drop of sweat trickled down Akechi Goro's back.

“Wh-Who I am working for…? No… No one in particular…” he answered blankly, but Amamiya would have none of it.

“There’s no way you're acting as a lone wolf. We just know there must be someone ordering you around, gaining the most from your actions,” he shot back, and Akechi Goro hated it, he hated how spot on he was, always perceptive beyond his own capacity to reason—

“And so long as they’re out there, getting rid of you won't accomplish a thing. It’s like cutting one spider’s leg… Makes no difference if the head's still in place.”

Akechi Goro’s fists tightened to the point of hurting himself. Amamiya Ren was an eyesore, he had always been. But those words just now, the nerve of his as he spoke them, were the ones to turn the warm blood rushing through his veins into a boiling stream. Was Amamiya really going there? Was he truly calling him, of all people, disposable?

“You know nothing about me, you piece of trash…” he snarled, his voice dangerously close to a growl. “Don't you dare imply that I… that I'm…”

His voice receded into a long silence, heavy with implication. Amamiya stared, his expression unreadable.

“Name?” he asked again at last. Several seconds dragged by – until Akechi Goro jerked his head away.

A great deal of whispering broke over the Phantom Thieves – the small fry – though Amamiya quelled them down with a mere gesture of his hand. He nodded briefly at them, and took a step forward. “So you won't tell us, huh? Guess we’ll have to ask him then.”

Very slowly, Akechi Goro lifted his eyes at him. The caution upon his features remained. “Ask who…?"

“You. Your Shadow. And maybe see what we can do about that heart of yours while we’re at it.”

The next moment, Amamiya was holding out his phone to him. The application upon the screen was familiar.

“Right? Akechi Goro?”

This is when it happened. When the world truly started crumbling under his feet. Everything that went down so far was utterly insignificant in the wake of this robotic, feminine voice.

“Match found.”

Akechi Goro's head spun.

This couldn't be happening. It couldn't be real.
This had to be some kind of sick joke. Someone had to be playing a prank on him.

His body shook. The electrodes detected a massive spike in his heart rate, to the point that the monitor gave a warning beep.

From the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of the food tray the nurse had left behind.

He wasn't going to accept this. He wasn't going to let any of them do as they pleased.
Even if it meant ending this right here, right now.

“Whoa, what’s he—Ren, watch out!”

But Amamiya didn't need the warning shout. He had already leapt backward, managing to dodge the flash of metal and narrowly the next as Akechi Goro swung the knife like a madman, burning to plunge it into every last inch of the other's chest. His skin tingled where the electrodes had been torn off, the ache around his injuries roused from its slumber, but he was impervious to the pain – feral instinct was possessing him, driving him to do whatever it would take to defend himself until the outcome ended with someone dead.

“Don’t you… Don't you dare… Don’t you even think about it…” he snarled, his bloodshot eyes a clear testimony that the threshold separating the sane from the unhinged had been long crossed. Specks of spit flew away as he kept hacking at the air, each swing fiercer and faster, more and more desperate. “I won’t… I won’t let—”

But whatever he was about to say next was never uttered – only a surprised yelp rang in its place as Amamiya clasped his wrist with one hand and threw the knife away using the other, well out of his reach. This only served to fuel his desperation, his recklessness, his hatred more, and finally tearing down the last chains of rationality keeping his heart restrained, he wrenched himself free from Amamiya’s grasp and lunged at him like a ferocious beast, aiming for the neck, desiring nothing but to wrap his hands around it and squeeze—

“Akechi-san? What’s going on in—dear God, are you fighting?!”

A collective startle ran through the Phantom Thieves while the door swung open. The head nurse rushed to Akechi Goro’s side, only to cover her mouth in shock at the soaring frenzy possessing him as he threw himself at the black-haired boy, the rest of the group struggling to split them up meanwhile. Like on cue, she whipped out her pager at once, her hand shaking slightly. “Doctor! Doctor!”

Her next words were lost on the teenager, whose eyes were so wide he nearly looked demented. He kept kicking and clawing at whoever was foolish enough to get close to him, the madness consuming his mind lending him strength he shouldn’t have possessed. This went on for what felt like an eternity, but it was really a matter of seconds before the nurse’s superior barged into the room, stopping dead at the sight. The next moment, he was on him, tightening his hands around the teenager’s wrists and pushing him toward the bed. Akechi Goro gasped, feeling himself fall backward onto the mattress and kept pinned there.

“No! Let me go!” he screamed, writhing and thrashing wildly, but the man only leaned over further, his full body weight trapping him down. “Let me go! Let me go!”

“Tranquilizer—fast. Highest dose,” the other ordered through gritted teeth, his breathing strained with effort while the nurse scrambled to obey. The Phantom Thieves, for their part, could only watch from the sidelines, each wearing not jubilation but some manner of horror – or perhaps even pity – on their faces.

“Let me go! Let me—ah!” he gasped instinctively, sensing something prick the crook of his arm and a cold sensation being injected into his veins. “Don’t! Don’t! Stop it!”

His screams left his throat torn and bloody. Even so, he wouldn’t stop, flailing like a desperate animal. But the pressure around his wrists didn’t lift.
And as much as he felt this physical need to squirm, to break free, to jerk away – his body was inexorably beginning to fail him, refusing to obey his commands when he needed it most. His strength was seeping away ounce by ounce, his movements slowing down, his lids weighing more than they ever did.

“Let me… go…” he managed through the exhaustion, his glazed eyes a shadow of their former selves. “P… Please…”

By the time complete darkness claimed him, his plea hadn’t been fulfilled.




“So… That didn't go so well, did it.”

Late afternoon had fallen over Yongenjaya, enveloping the air in a murky grey that didn't do much to convince people to leave their homes. The morose atmosphere matched the one inside Leblanc, if the dejected aura surrounding the Phantom Thieves was anything to go by.

“Tell me about it. I thought that old guy was gonna pop a vein or somethin’,” Ryuji mumbled as Morgana sat straight on the counter. “D’you see his face when he went all ‘Out, out, out’ at us? And when he screamed at us to never show up again… Dude looked like a freakin’ demon.”

“Well, that aside, I did expect the encounter with Akechi-kun to be rough…” Makoto said wearily, “but I definitely didn’t think he would try to attack us…”

“He truly is unstable, isn’t he,” Yusuke remarked, looking quite tired as well. “It seems we may have underestimated how warped he is.”

Ann let out a tiny sigh at this, though her hesitation upon witnessing seven pairs of curious eyes turning to her suggested she didn’t mean it to be heard. Ren knew from her expression what she was going to say before she opened her mouth – and if he were honest, he very much shared her sentiment. “To be fair, he did have a good reason to freak out… I bet all of us would’ve reacted the same way if we’d been in his place.”

“Good thing we ain’t got blood on our hands, huh?” Ryuji responded, a certain brusqueness to his speech. “Seriously, what’s wrong with you? Are you freakin’ pityin’ him?”

Ann couldn’t help but flinch. Although barely noticeable, the flush on her cheeks was there. “Of course I'm not… But…”

“But?! Are you outta your mind?! You heard what he said when Haru called him out on his BS—that guy don’t give a shit about any of his victims!”

As if to cement his point further, he jerked his chin toward Haru, whose head was downcast. Futaba didn’t seem to fare better.
The tension surrounding the group was at its peak. Ann looked uneasy, but it was Makoto who spoke up in the end.

“I sort of understand where Ann is coming from…” she muttered, risking Haru and Futaba a glance. “It did feel rather cruel, cornering him like that…”

“Because what he did to Haru and Futaba’s parents wasn’t?” Ryuji shot back right away while bolting upright, his eyes turning to slits. Yusuke quelled him down with a long stare before stepping in.

“It was a harsh strategy, we already established that when we discussed it. However, I thought we all agreed desperate times call for desperate measures.”

“Not that this measure worked, though… He didn’t throw us a single clue despite all that pressure we put him under, not even a slip-up.”

Morgana spoke out what they already knew, but their disappointment wasn’t any less vivid. It did have the merit of easing the electric atmosphere a bit, though the unanimous feeling of reaching a dead end it conjured wasn’t much better.

As a long, hopeless silence was about to settle in—

“Let’s do it, guys.”

Everybody jumped, startled from their inner thoughts. The light reflected upon Ren’s eyes could be interpreted as nothing else but the glint of determination. “Let’s check out Akechi’s Palace.”

A brief moment of stillness greeted his statement. Unsurprisingly, Ryuji was the one to break it. “His Palace…? And how’re we supposed to do that? Y’know we were bluffin’!”

“Ryuji’s right,” Ann said, looking concerned. “We have no idea what his keywords could be…”

“You say it like it’s stopped us before,” Ren replied with a small smile reminiscent of his personality in the other world. It might be his optimism, or perhaps his charisma as their leader – either way, a newfound vigor lit up within everybody’s minds, and their quest to gain access to the place that likely held the keys to their ultimate victory was a fervent one.

“His Palace’s gotta be a crazy-lookin’ hotel, come on. He’s always hangin' out at those fancy-ass places!”

“It says no hit, though…”

“It’s totally a five-star restaurant! Huh, that’s not it?”

“Maybe a plane, or an airship? Since he looks down on everybody.”

“Or more simply, a police station?”

As eager as they were, their discussion proved to be quite unfruitful. All eyes turned to Ren, silently asking for his input.

“I think we might be going in the wrong direction,” he finally said after giving himself some time to think. “Maybe his Palace has nothing to do with his fame or personality. Maybe it’s closer to…”

He interrupted himself suddenly, falling into another thoughtful silence, while the group waited with bated breath.
The longer it went on, however, the clearer it became that Ren wasn’t going to humor them just yet.

“…What do we know about Akechi-kun, anyway?” Haru asked, shooting him a perplexed look. “Perhaps summing it up will help us progress.”

“Well, he’s an asshole murderer who—”

“And I do mean the unbiased version,” she interrupted, though a part of her seemed to root for Ryuji. He apparently didn’t notice.

“Don’t see what’s biased about it…” he grumbled under his breath, but he did quiet down as Makoto spoke up.

“Akechi Goro… He’s a teenager juggling between being a third-year in high school and a private detective, but also happens to be some kind of hitman causing all sorts of crimes through the other world. He’s very famous and makes frequent appearances on TV, magazines and papers. He’s often been compared to idols and such because of his good looks and ditzy personality, though this might be an act. He often frequents expensive restaurants and seems rather well-off. He is a co-worker of my sister’s, and interestingly enough, he doesn’t appear to be close with anyone his age given his contact list—”

“Except Ren,” Futaba muttered, pulling an exaggerated expression of disgust.

“—except Ren. He ranked first in the national mock exams and is reputed to be a honor student. He’s apparently taken a liking to Leblanc, and often comes there to—”

“Relax,” Ren interrupted as Makoto was about to keep going. She blinked at him, a bit caught off-guard.

“I was going to say ‘to drink a cup of coffee’… What’s this about relaxing?”

She seemed curious to know – just like all of them were. Ren threw a look at Morgana, and then turned toward Makoto again.

“Do you know what Akechi always says when I get back to Leblanc and he’s there? I’m sorry for making myself at home so much,” he recited, remembering those exact same words Akechi had told him many times before. “It was especially apparent when everybody turned on him for speaking up against us. He said Leblanc was the only place of comfort for him. That in here, he could remove his detective mask and go back to being his true self, or something like that.”

He leaned in closer, his eyes serious. “Doesn’t that sound like what everybody feels after a hard day at work? How we all want it to be over so that we can go and rest?”

Some eyes widened. Some heads nodded in understanding. They realized what he was driving at. “You can’t mean…”

Ren looked at Makoto, and then grabbed his cell phone.

“Akechi Goro. Home. Leblanc.”

Everybody stared at the screen hungrily, waiting on the edge of their seats. The application was etched inside their eyes, branding itself like an indelible mark.
And then—

“Huh? It’s wrong?!”

“That’s bullshit! C’mon, that was totally it this time!”

A thunder of outrage roared across Ann and Ryuji’s side, while either weariness or dejection instead claimed the rest of the group. Ren blinked at his phone, dumbfounded like he had rarely been before. He had been absolutely positive he would have gotten a hit, and the denial was as brutal as being slapped in the face.

“It’s back to square one, isn’t it…?” Haru lamented, while Yusuke cast her a sympathetic look.

“Perhaps one of the keywords is correct,” he said in an attempt at soothing her. “We would simply need to determine which one.”

“Or maybe both are wrong, and we’ve been completely off the mark this entire time,” Futaba groaned, leaning forward as she propped her chin atop her arms. Another long silence cloaked the room, until—

“Mask…”

Makoto had spoken so quietly that only Haru, sitting right beside her, managed to hear. “Mako-chan? What is it?”

But rather than answering her, Makoto faced Ren instead, a frown creasing her face. “Didn’t you say something about Akechi-kun being able to remove his mask and be his true self while in Leblanc?”

At Ren’s silent but cautious nod, her features seemed to illuminate, as if realization itself was dawning on it. “Then… Maybe we weren’t wrong about his Palace being linked to his status and fame after all… Maybe we were spot on all along…”

“Dammit, Makoto. If you’ve got somethin’ on your mind, just spill it already!”

Ryuji’s outburst had the effect of a wake-up call. Makoto startled and blinked at him, but it wasn’t long before she found her composure back. “Well, if Akechi-kun really thinks that he’s wearing a mask at all times… In what sort of place would he feel the need to keep this mask on the most? What do you all think?”

The rest of the group traded glances.

“His school?”

“His detective agency, perhaps.”

Ren and Makoto’s gazes met. He looked straight at her, his mouth set in a tight line.
This time, he knew he wouldn’t be wrong.

“The TV station.”

And like a button was flipped, something seemed to click inside everybody’s minds. They all started talking at once.

“Do you mean the one in which he usually gives his interviews?”

“Oh yeah, we went there for our field trip! Come to think of it, that’s where we met Akechi, too.”

“I believe it’s the one located in Akasaka Mitsuke, isn’t it?”

Ren, Ryuji and Ann nodded in unison. Concentration emerged upon Haru’s face at their response, and she edged closer. “Then, if Akechi-kun pictures the TV station as a place where he has to wear a mask…”

“Well he don’t see himself as a thief, that’s for sure,” Ryuji said, crossing his arms behind his head. “Lemme think about it… What kind of people wear masks except thieves?”

“Plenty of them,” replied Makoto. “But considering the information we have, there can only be one solution.”

“You’re thinking of actors and comedians, aren’t you?”

The way Futaba spoke so nonchalantly made her appear very much aloof. Even so, Ren knew she was as invested in the conversation as they were all.

“That’s right,” Makoto confirmed, nodding at her. “Now, the place actors and actresses gather at would be…”

“What about a cinema?”

“Nah, it’s prolly a movie set.”

“A theater.”

They were used to the phenomenon and yet, it happened so unexpectedly that they couldn’t help but let out exclamations of surprise – the world pulsed around them for the space of a heartbeat, sending a thrill of excitement prickling the inside of their stomachs.

“Looks like you’re right on the money, Ren,” marveled Morgana, his eyes taking on a crescent shape.

“So Akechi views the TV station as a theater, huh… I suppose it makes sense, given he is constantly in the spotlight,” Yusuke mused as Ryuji pounded his fist against Ren’s in victory. Haru, for her part, joined her hands together, clearly enthusiastic.

“How about we go investigate now? It’s still quite early.”

The thieves didn’t need telling twice.

As three, two, one subway station remained until their destination, the adrenaline pumping inside Ren’s veins shot up.

“I know we already discussed this before, but…” Ann was saying, looking uncertain. “I still don’t get how come Akechi has a Palace. I mean, Palaces are ruled by the host’s Shadow, right?”

She caught a lock of her hair and began twirling it around her fingers without her notice. “But then, how can that work? Futaba showed us that our Personas really are our Shadow selves, and so Akechi’s Shadow shouldn’t be around anymore. Doesn’t that contradict what you told us, Mona?”

“It does, but I’m sure I’m right when I say Persona users can’t have a Palace for the reason you explained, Lady Ann,” Morgana replied, his head sticking out of Ren’s bag. “The first explanation I could've thought of is that Akechi is not a Persona user despite being able to go to the other world, but we did witness him use one in Mementos, so you can rule that out. The second one would be—”

“That Akechi lost his power somehow, right?”

Morgana nodded, pleased with Ren’s perceptiveness. “Yeah. That’s exactly it.”

“Lost his power…” Haru said softly, gazing into the distance. “I wonder how that came to be…”

Nobody had an answer to that.

The rest of the ride was spent in silence. From the subway exit, it took only a five-minute walk to reach the TV station. But it wasn’t a TV station, at least not in the eyes of one person. The person who had opposed them since the very beginning. The person who turned out to be a greater danger they ever thought could be.

The person whose entire face seemed to glow each time he saw Ren coming home.

“Whenever you’re ready, leader,” Ryuji prompted. Ren looked at them, at his fellow thieves, and took his phone out.

“Akechi Goro. Theater. TV station of Akasaka Mitsuke.”

The effect was immediate. As if entering a dream, the world began to ripple all around them, until right became wrong like they had witnessed it so many times before. A glorious night sky had replaced daylight, cloaking the earth in its deep blue expanse. Where the TV station once stood was now a magnificent architecture the likes of which none of them had ever seen in person before, not even Haru who was used to such eccentricities. It wasn’t a theater so much as an actual palace – perched atop a set of marble stairs, sumptuously adorned with rows of ornate columns, golden embellishments running across the white stone walls, and even several statues, gargoyles and other strange creatures subliming the edges. The most remarkable part of it all, however, was the four giant banners displayed across the front facade, all of them showing off the same picture of Akechi from the waist up. Gold and red highlights contrasted greatly against the princely white of his garments, completed with a scarlet, pointy mask he held in his gloved hand. The timid smile playing across his lips was the finishing touch.

“So that’s Akechi’s Palace, huh…”

Skull made it a point not to sound too amazed, but the way he stared in captivation betrayed him.

“It looks spectacular… It reminds me of Palais Garnier, the famous opera of Paris…” Noir remarked, unable to tear her eyes away.

Even Navi seemed to share the general awe, given her parted lips and fixed gaze. She was about to speak up when—

“Come on, when are they going to let us in? The play’s starting soon!”

“I can’t wait to see Akechi-sama on stage… I bet he will be brilliant, as usual.”

“D’you think they’ll let us take pictures with him after the play’s over? Oh, I hope they will!”

A loud chatter reached their ears, coming from the massive crowd gathered in a giant line. It seemed to extend upon miles after miles, linking the horizon to a series of grand gates forbidding them access inside the theater for the time being.

“They really are eager, aren’t they?” Mona commented as the nearest people watched the group cautiously, one of them whispering something in the other’s ear. “Well, that place looks huge, so we’d better not waste any time.”

“Main entrance’s out, huh?” Skull said, shooting them daggers. “Looks like it’s stage door for us.”

And on this the thieves went, each sensing a different but similar level of apprehension twisting their stomachs, yet not less eager to find out what Akechi’s heart had in store for them.

Starting with the very core of the Palace, where a boy’s golden eyes suddenly opened wide.

Chapter Text

Amamiya Ren prided himself on his ability to remain collected at all times, but even he couldn't deny he was feeling rather tense as the Phantom Thieves sneaked through one window of the magnificent structure that was Akechi’s Palace.

Everything had gone smoothly so far – they distanced themselves from the crowd in a discreet fashion, ran along large boards upon which had been plastered dozens of the same poster, found a back door that was surprisingly left unguarded, and made their way in without a single hitch. Yet, Ren’s pulse wouldn’t drop to a more normal rate, no matter how much his rationality urged it to settle down.

Perhaps it was the thrill of exploring a brand new Palace. Perhaps it was the anxiety of having no idea what lay ahead. Perhaps it was the prospect of finally quelling the questions that roared inside his head. Perhaps it was a mixture of the three.

One thing was crystal clear within his mind, however – never had the stakes been so high. All the targets they previously dealt with seemed like small-time in hindsight – they were inside the world of someone who had no qualms about killing people or otherwise spreading life-threatening chaos regardless of the consequences, someone who had the Phantom Thieves in his crosshairs and managed to turn the entire population against them overnight. Someone whom Ren might have called a friend once.

Someone he found he couldn't bring himself to hate despite it all.

“Hey, check this out.”

Skull’s voice broke through the thick rumination cluttering Joker’s brain, compelling him to shake his head so as to clear it. He promptly approached the group as they huddled closer together, their frames concealing from view whatever had caught their eye.

“A pamphlet advertising the performance, huh…” Panther said as Joker tiptoed, towering over the thieves and realizing she was right – on a carved, ornate counter lay a discarded pamphlet, probably left behind by a previous visitor. Noir being the nearest, she reached out and began skimming through it.

“A new play that is taking the entire country by storm… Starring Akechi Goro, teenage prodigy and rising star in the entertainment world… Acclaimed by critics and spectators alike… In a not too distant past, a brave but incomplete prince sets off on a grand journey to find the one thing he lacks… They are some pictures of the play, too.”

Sure enough, multiple snapshots of Akechi’s performance painted the pages of the pamphlet, each managing to capture even in stillness the graceful movements and radiant smile that were so characteristic of him. His attire was the same they had witnessed on the giant posters dressing up the outside of the building – the eye-catching red, gold and white accents befitting a prince, alongside a glossy mask which concealed nearly his entire face.

“Apparently, the play is scheduled every night at 7 pm,” Noir went on, putting the pamphlet back on the counter and turning to face her team. “Since there are so many people crowded outside, I suppose it's almost time…”

But she turned out to be wrong – and the realization provoked an unanimous confusion to rise over each mind. There, at the top of the grand staircase ruling over them, a clock was embedded in the wall, circled with intricate details. Awe-inspiring as it was, however, it wasn’t its appearance that grabbed their attention, but the time it displayed. When Fox opened his mouth, he voiced out everyone else’s thoughts.

“7:17…? The play should be well underway by that point, but the visitors are still outside.”

“Yeah, that’s weird…” Panther said as she glanced over her shoulder, at the great gates behind which the group knew the crowd was waiting. They were indeed still closed, preventing anyone from entering the structure, let alone attend a performance that should have started nearly twenty minutes ago. As if on cue, a distant chorus began to echo beyond the other side, and Joker had to prick up his ears to make out what those countless voices were chanting again and again, thousands of them and yet resonating as one.

“It sounds like… they're calling for Akechi,” Navi muttered, her speech somewhat slow. “They're probably getting antsy.”

That was rather a major understatement. The edge of yearning in the crowd’s mantra was unmistakable – they sounded desperate, sick with worry at the idea that they could miss Akechi’s performance, their adoration so great it seemed almost obscene. Great bangings shook the gates now, though to no avail, and muffled as they were, it was easy to pick up the rising frustration ringing across the human cries.

“Man, it's like they're worshippin’ an idol…” Skull mumbled in an undertone, until a voice erupted over the chatter of the crowd, outright sobbing Akechi’s name. The Phantom Thieves exchanged slightly uneasy looks. 

“…Or a god, more like.”

A long silence fell over the group at Navi’s remark. Akechi’s cognition oddly appeared to back up what they already knew about him… but like with each Palace ruler they encountered so far, the excessiveness of it all once again took every last one of them very much aback.

“It sure is way quieter in here…” Panther remarked, her eyes sweeping their surroundings. Beside her, Queen nodded.

“Too quiet. We haven't run into any Shadows at all, even though we’re definitely considered a threat…” she said as she glanced down at her tight attire. “You’d think the Shadows would be on high alert.”

“It does appear to be completely deserted,” Noir added, and the glint of apprehension alight within her gaze was very much visible. “How unsettling…”

The air looming overhead felt ominous. Navi gulped, and even Joker couldn’t ignore the slight prickles gnawing at his stomach. The atmosphere surrounding them was oppressive, made all the heavier by the eerie sensation of timelessness this Palace seemed to be ruled by. The stillness was absolute, the silence whole.

It took only a single moment for the bewitching spell to break.

“C’mon, we came all the way down here and you're gonna pussyfoot ‘round now?” chided Skull’s gruff voice, snapping them all back to their senses. “Let's get goin’ already.”

Like one, the Phantom Thieves blinked at him, then gave a resolute nod. Although the place both felt and seemed huge, it was almost obvious to them where to head first – the tall staircase might as well be a guiding light across the relative darkness within the Palace’s walls, compelling them to follow it. As they ascended, only their footsteps resounded through the majestic room, loud like gunshots. What greeted them on the landing was a door, tall enough to allow a small giant easy access. A quick pull and shove revealed it was locked.

“Stand back,” Skull barked while taking a step forward, and in the same motion reached for his mask. “That's a job for you, Captain Kidd!”

His summon ending on a shout, Skull watched with a devilish grin his Persona take aim using his stump of a right hand –  a grin that effectively faded as the picture materializing from beyond the smoke remained the same, no matter how many cannonballs Captain Kidd shot away. The door refused to budge. In fact, it was entirely intact.

“Bullshit!” Skull hissed, looking almost scandalized. “There’s no way Captain Kidd didn’t even make a dent!”

The Phantom Thieves traded perplexed looks. On either side of the floor stretched out a balcony, forming a semi-circle that oversaw the main entrance below. A door stood at each extremity, smaller in size but still very much ornate. However, any attempt at breaking them down ended with the same result – or lack thereof.

“Akechi’s defenses truly are up, aren’t they…” Queen said in an undertone, while Skull expressed his frustration with an eloquence that could seriously put a sailor’s to shame. “No wonder, after what happened…”

A veil of realization fell over the group. When Fox spoke, he gave words to everyone’s silent concern.

“Don’t tell me…” he began, his gaze hard and narrow. “Are we to assume Akechi’s cognition is barring us access to the deeper parts of his Palace? Like Madarame or even Futaba’s did?”

Joker shifted around uncomfortably. He knew Fox might have hit the nail on the head, if not extremely close to it – if Akechi had truly, unconsciously set up barriers to stop them on their tracks, they might as well leave right away. With the stunt they pulled, there was no way they could change Akechi’s cognition in the real world, let alone even approach him anymore… He had to be too guarded now, too closed off…

“How about going back downstairs for the time being?” Queen suggested after a moment of silence, as short as it was heavy. “There’s not much point in staying here…”

With no other choice, the Phantom Thieves retraced their steps downstairs, the print of defeat apparent through their hunched shoulders. Joker let out a sigh unbeknownst to the rest of them even as they discussed what to do next. He was still silently brooding over the prospect they might not figure out anything about Akechi’s secrets after all, making the entire trip a waste of time… but there was something else Joker was feeling. An edge of disappointment, he believed, one he couldn't really explain.

“So what should we do? Every passageway we came across is either blocked off or going back outside,” Panther said, looking anxious. The group shrugged, having no more of a clue than her – until they noticed something was off.

“Wait a minute. Where's Noir?” Mona asked right away, and the unmistakable note of worry in his words reminded Joker of an overprotective knight. His state of mind was contagious, but before it could truly spread over them and settle inside their stomachs—

“Ah! Everyone, come here!”

As if to ease Mona’s concern, Noir’s surprised squeak suddenly reverberated throughout the vast entrance, though there was nothing reassuring about the urgency she was summoning them with. Every head whipped to the direction they poinpointed her to be, and some tilted to the side as the Phantom Thieves skirted around the great staircase, discovering a metal grate hidden in the darkness it cast. Beyond the bars was all but a pitch-black void, making it impossible to tell what lay ahead.

…Save for the shadowy figure kneeling on the marble floor, that is, busying themselves with something the Phantom Thieves couldn’t see.

“Is that… a person?” Panther asked, wariness and apprehension mingling together across her voice.

A frown creased Joker’s features. It was a person all right, their frame barely standing out from the darkness. The Phantom Thieves remained alert, and while silent, their presence apparently managed to grab the figure’s attention – for they slowly, almost dramatically climbed to their feet, their half-cape draping over their back like a veil. The bullion fringes of the golden epaulettes seemed to glisten under the tiny light they could capture, the well-groomed, chestnut hair reached their shoulders – and also the pants, white and short garments revealing bare calves, way too skinny to belong to an adult, just like their tiny frame already conveyed, that didn't make any sense… but when Joker met this golden, eerie gaze, all of his thoughts stopped dead.

Akechi’s Shadow stared at them, an unreadable expression on his face unlike anything a child usually showed, let alone should.

“Uh… Well, that’s awkward…” Skull muttered after what felt like an interminable silence, though his remark only contributed to the sensation of unease all of them felt. Joker opened his mouth before he could even figure out what to say, but was cut very much short.

“…Why did you come here?”

Judging from how high-pitched his voice sounded in addition to his appearance, he didn’t seem any older than five or six years old. Each syllable came out slow, quite close to the feeble meowl of a kitten. Yet, there was nothing feeble about the way he was surveying them, if not outright glaring.

“Um… Take it easy, all right?” Panther replied, trying to sound soothing, though the Shadow’s unchanging expression suggested her attempt fell flat. “Why don’t we—why don’t we introduce ourselves first?”

Her smile was fake, just like the little giggle she forced out. The entity’s stare remained hard as steel, and Joker couldn’t help but feel genuinely impressed at her unbroken composure despite all. She was about to continue when—

“…Bullies.”

The mutter was spoken so quietly that Joker wondered for a brief moment whether he had imagined it. But Akechi’s Shadow narrowed his gaze, and that was enough of a confirmation – no, there were no minds playing tricks here.

“‘xcuse me?” Skull said, less aggressive and more perplexed. Akechi’s Shadow eyed him for a brief moment, then simply turned around and let himself fall back down on the floor. Now that Joker paid closer attention, he could make out many doodles scribbled all around him, drawn with a red crayon he was now nonchalantly picking up again.

“You’re bullies,” he repeated without bothering to look over his shoulder at them. “I know, because you all ganged up on the other me.”

This was close to the last thing Joker expected to hear. If the rest of his fellow thieves’ expressions were indication enough, they were telling themselves the same thing. The awkwardness was such that nobody spoke, too thrown off to think of anything to say in response to so blunt a truth.

The seconds of silence were about to stretch into minutes when—

“…Red Hawk.”

The Phantom Thieves exchanged looks.

“I’m sorry, we didn’t quite catch that,” Noir said as she leaned toward the grate, her voice gentle. “What did you say?”

“I’m looking for Red Hawk,” echoed the Shadow, still immersed in his doodle. “I lost him and I don’t know where he is…”

Once again, the group glanced at one another. The gears within each mind began turning.

“Lemme guess. So long as we don’t bring you what you want, you won’t open this grate for us, right?”

Akechi’s Shadow neither confirmed nor denied, but Joker knew that Skull had been spot on. Queen took a step forward, her hands on her lap. “The thing you’re looking for… Do you know where it is?”

“…Upstairs,” the Shadow mumbled in return, and Joker found the display of cooperation unexpected.

“Upstairs? But all the doors over there are locked,” Fox said, his words backed up by a few “That’s right.” Akechi’s Shadow, however, didn’t seem too moved – he merely kept drawing.

“Hey, d’you hear him? We can’t bring you your thing back if you keep us out of whatever room it’s layin' around!”

But it was futile – the Shadow didn’t respond. Joker knew, in that moment, that they wouldn’t get anything else out of him.

“You little—” Skull began, reaching for the bars as if intending to shake them down, but he stopped in his tracks the moment Queen laid her hand upon his shoulder.

“You’re wasting your energy. Let’s go back upstairs, there might be something we overlooked…”

Akechi’s Shadow remained quiet even as they resigned themselves and left. His eyes flickered to the side for the space of a heartbeat before falling to the floor once more. The motion was entirely lost on them.




“That damn kid! What are we, a bunch of caretakers?”

As Skull grudgingly dragged himself across the staircase, the rest of the Phantom Thieves were one step ahead. More than the circumstances, it was perhaps the general aloofness that fueled his venom the most. “We ain't got time to mess around like this!”

“Will you give it a rest?” Panther shot back, glaring down at him. “It’s much better than him being hostile!”

“I wouldn’t say he’s exactly friendly either…” Skull grumbled petulantly, before raising his voice to its usual level again. “I mean, c’mon! We came here to get freakin’ intel, not run some stupid errand for a bratty kid!”

His outburst didn’t fall on deaf ears. Having reached the landing, the Phantom Thieves stopped, letting a heavy silence cloak their surroundings. They knew Skull had a point.

“I’d rather he told us everything we want to know at once,” Fox ended up admitting, “but as Panther said, we should consider ourselves lucky Akechi’s Shadow hasn’t shown outright ill will toward us unlike our previous targets. Perhaps we can reason with him later on when we find what he’s looking for.”

“But our clothes changed!” Skull barked in return as he gestured at the group’s garments, his outrage unwilling to back down. “Maybe he didn’t shoot lasers at us or open a trap door under our feet now, but he definitely sees us as a threat! Hell, he could turn into one of those freaky monsters Kamoshida style and jump us next minute for all we know!”

Both Queen and Panther opened their mouths to respond, only for a voice to cut them off, its owner’s sarcasm a testimony of their thinning patience.

“When you’ll be done arguing…” Navi mumbled under her breath, though still loudly enough to be heard, “maybe we can get a move on. It’s open.”

All eyes whirled around, stopping on the giant door that stood inflexible in their way. Though it couldn’t really be called ‘inflexible’ anymore, Joker thought – Navi pushed it only a crack, but the door definitely was open.

“Well… It seems it wasn’t Akechi-kun’s cognition that was keeping us locked out of the deeper parts of his Palace after all,” Noir remarked, her soothing tone accompanying her gaze as she glanced at Skull. He threw her a sideways look back, and while he made it a point not to let go of his annoyance, the relief that they didn’t run into a roadblock just yet did soften his frown.

“I’m just wonderin’ how long our luck’ll last…” he muttered gloomily, but at last dropped the subject and trailed over toward the rest of the thieves. Navi, apparently losing her nerve in the face of the unknown awaiting them beyond the door, hastily stepped back to let someone else take the initiative – like Fox.

“Get ready,” he warned, though he had no need to. With one last glance over his shoulder at the group, he pushed the door completely open, and Joker held out his breath.

What he saw rooted him to the spot.

“H-Hey, what the…”

Skull seemed too stunned to properly convey what he felt with words.
The others were no different. Months of exploring people’s deepest feelings had rendered them more impervious than most to the bizarre, but what greeted them was easily beyond anything their suspension of disbelief, well-trained as it was, could handle. Before them stood a massive room the structure and architecture of which so jarring it felt like a whiplash – a disorienting, impossible area where dozens and dozens of stairways mingled with doors, some upside down, some turned sideways, the ground becoming walls, the ceilings changed to floors. The normal laws of gravity were gone, discarded in favor of a confusing, surreal layout that could be contemplated for years and it still wouldn’t be enough. Each stairway laced throughout the room, going nowhere and everywhere at once – the one just above their heads was turned at a perfect 90 degrees angle, steps covering both upper and underside.

“We’re… We’re still inside Akechi’s Palace, aren’t we?”

Panther’s concern was understandable. The room was so disconnected from the rest of this world, it was easy to think they stepped into a different one altogether. Even so, something in Ren couldn’t help but feel it was fitting despite all.

Twisted.

This is what he made of this room. Of Akechi’s heart.

“Where the hell’re we supposed to go…?”

Skull’s confused grumble sounded remote, like it was coming from a mile away. Joker promptly cleared his head and forced himself back to the present, among the rest of the Phantom Thieves.

“Well, there is really only one path we can take, so…” Queen said hesitantly, gesturing at the nearest staircase of the bunch. It looked like a perfectly normal path – could in fact be mistaken for one were it not for the strange landscape surrounding it. The thieves nodded at one another, then began their ascent. The steps led them to a wooden and worn down door, quite unremarkable compared to what they had seen so far. Joker grabbed the handle, paused the space of a heartbeat, and pushed it open.

Once again, he found himself stare – this time in perplexity, rather than amazement.

It was a room, a very dim one, lit only by the faint sunbeams that filtered through the decaying planks obstructing the sole window. Particles of dust swirled in the stripes of light, and coupled with the strong, musty smell lingering about, it wasn’t difficult to figure out this place had seen no living presence for a long while. Against the opposite wall could be made out the outline of a cupboard, which served as the single piece of furniture around – that is, unless one considered the dozens of birdcages laying and hanging everywhere across the room to be furniture.

“Damn, what’s up with those things…” Skull groaned, nudging one of the cages at random and causing it to sway briefly. “Don’t look like there’s anythin’ in there…”

“That one’s empty too,” Noir said, examining another one with caution. “I wonder what the point is…”

“And look—aren’t those feathers?”

Joker blinked, not understanding Panther’s input, until his gaze met with the source of her confusion. White feathers flecked the wooden floor like large specks of paint, but not just there. Some of them spotted the inside of the cages as well, while others were stuck between the numerous bars. Now that they had been brought to its attention, it was impossible to ignore how vivid they were, scattered against the darkness – in fact, they were now all Joker could see.

“Ain’t that creepy,” Skull muttered as he wrinkled his nose in distaste.

“It is creepy,” Queen admitted, a note of unease in her words. “All those empty cages… It feels off, somehow.”

Fox said something in return, but Joker wasn’t listening anymore. Something else caught his attention – and then dragged it in its embrace.

On the cupboard stood the telltale dome-shaped silhouette of yet another birdcage. Draped in a large, white sheet.

Joker stared. He couldn’t tear his eyes away for some reason, as though he were being hypnotized. Then, gaze never wavering, he took a step forward.
When he reached it, his hand stopped midway for the space of a minute. A slow drop of sweat trickled down his back.

Finally, he pulled the sheet aside.

It was only when the sight truly sunk in that he realized how fast his heart had been pounding – the remnant traces of it still a hammer inside his chest.

“Is that… a plush toy?”

Queen had come behind his back to join him in his discovery, soon followed by the rest of the Phantom Thieves. Everybody huddled closer together to catch a better glimpse while Joker swallowed in half-relief, half-embarrassment. Relief because what the cage contained was definitely less unpleasant than the crazy and morbid possibilities his frantic brain had conjured up, embarrassment at the reluctant admittance that his fearless façade might be just that – a mere act.

Shaking his head feebly enough that the others wouldn’t notice how rattled he had been just moments before, Joker squinted and focused, forcing his eyes to adapt themselves to the dimness faster. Sure enough, inside the cage was simply a plush toy kept locked in. A teddy bear, in fact.

“It looks kind of beat up,” Panther remarked, which was rather in Joker’s opinion an understatement. The stuffing of the toy was visible here and there, not to mention one of its eyes had loosened up to the point of hanging pitifully over its face. It looked thoroughly used, as if played with by a careless child for years before falling apart at the seams.

“Judging from its appearance, the owner of that toy was probably quite fond of it,” Fox said in a neutral tone.

“…Or never had any other toy to play with.”

Joker cast Navi a glance. It was impossible to tell what kind of expression hid behind her goggles.
The discomfort etched along the other thieves’ faces, however, was apparent.

“…D’you think this was one of Akechi’s toys?” Skull asked at last, breaking the tense silence that was threatening to settle in. “Y’know, from his childhood?”

“Who knows,” Mona replied, a serious frown on his face, “but I don’t think it’d be far-fetched to believe that’s the case.”

Yet another stillness befell them. Nobody seemed to know how to greet this statement.
In the end, it was Noir who broke their grim train of thought.

“Um, everyone… I found something.”

All heads rose up to meet her concerned gaze. She was standing by a small bed Joker hadn’t noticed before in the corner of the room, pointing at the rather large square box sitting evidently on top of it. Like the rest of the surroundings, it looked thoroughly battered. But it wasn’t its appearance or its suspicious location that intrigued Joker the most – rather, the message scribbled on a torn piece of paper and taped to the lid was the one to send a newfound jolt of unease through his veins.

There is a bird trapped inside this box. If you don’t hurry up, it will suffocate and die. You don’t want that on your conscience, do you?

The note was short, accusatory even beyond time and space. Whoever wrote this could have been part of a history long gone and their ominous sarcasm would remain palpable through the ages. Joker’s pulse, only now starting to steady, began to trot faster again.

“H-Hey… You don’t think that note’s for real, right?”

And apparently, his stomach wasn’t the only one to be plagued by a sudden tangle of knots. Skull put up an acceptable front, but there was no concealing that slight stutter in his voice.

“If it was, that would be… quite in bad taste,” Fox murmured, his pitch much lower than usual.

“I’m not certain this note is meant to be taken literally.”

The atmosphere changed all of a sudden. It would take several minutes before Joker could figure out exactly in what way it did, but as Queen continued, he finally took notice of the relative lightness of his heart – certainly much less heavy than it was moments before, at the very least. “I think it’s supposed to be a clue. A clue that lets us know we’re making good progress in finding what Akechi’s Shadow asked us.”

It was like a lightbulb lit up over everybody’s heads. They all came to the same conclusion at once—

“You don’t mean—”

“Of course! Red Hawk!”

…but Futaba was the fastest. She hopped forward, her clenched fists raised against her chest. “Hawks are birds! It’s not a real bird inside the box, it’s Red Hawk!”

“That does make sense…” Mona muttered, a serious frown on his face. “Only problem is that the box’s locked.”

If the Phantom Thieves’ excitement was the football, then Mona’s statement was the needle that caused it to deflate into a shapeless lump. True to his words, there was indeed a padlock keeping the box secure – a tiny, cheap one, but a padlock nonetheless.

“Geez, he’s not gonna miss a single opportunity to make it harder for us, huh,” Skull grunted, jerking his head impatiently.

He cracked his knuckles, ready to do what he knew best – but was cut off short by Queen. “No, you shouldn’t summon Captain Kidd… What if he destroys the toy alongside the box?”

Skull opened his mouth right away, but his reflex was faster than his mind – several seconds went by as he rummaged for a good counter. He ended up merely scowling without a word.

“Let’s look for the key,” Mona suggested. “It can’t be too far…”

While his suggestion was met with lukewarm enthusiasm, the Phantom Thieves got a move on and spread throughout the room, searching every nook and cranny they laid their eyes on. As small as their search zone was, Joker had the unpleasant feeling they might be better off looking for a needle in a haystack. And unfortunately enough, he ended up being right – what felt like over twenty minutes of intense combing turned up nothing.

“Dammit, this is a waste of time!” Skull cried out at last, startling Panther who was the nearest. Her deluge of reproaches fell on deaf ears. “We’ve looked everywhere and that stupid key’s nowhere to be found! What the hell’re we playin’ at here?”

“Calm down,” Queen urged, a disapproving yet understanding look flashing over her face. “It’s got to be somewhere…”

“And like I said, there ain’t a stone we’ve left unturned!” Skull shot back without letting even one second of silence set in. “We’re just wasting our—”

“Skull.”

All of a sudden, the room went very quiet. Everybody slowly turned to their leader – to Joker. He didn’t need to speak more. It was perfectly clear what his intent was. Skull blinked at him, opened his mouth in defiant stubbornness, then finally closed it and looked away. And like there had been no interruption, the search for the key resumed.

“By the way…” Joker continued, his gaze still fixed on Skull’s back. “What are you doing, Navi? You’ve been very quiet.”

He threw Navi a glance. Unlike the rest of them, she had kept her distance from the argument between Skull and Queen, instead merely staring intently at the decayed plush toy still trapped inside the birdcage. She stood entirely still, to the point that it was almost unnerving. His call left her unresponsive. Joker had to walk up to her and lay a hand over her shoulder to finally grab her attention while freeing her of her strange trance all the while.

“Huh? Oh, um, Joker…” she mumbled, jerking her head at him as though startled awake. “It’s just… There’s something bothering me about that teddy bear…”

“There is?” Joker asked as he leaned to take a closer look. General eeriness aside, nothing about the toy struck him as particularly strange. “Let’s try to get it out of here and see.”

Joker slipped two fingers through the narrow bars and easily dragged the toy toward him. Retrieving it was another story, however – he had to twist, turn, and wrench any way he could to get the huge head out. The rest followed, but the whole ordeal didn’t leave the teddy bear unscathed. It was practically torn in half by that point, the head only loosely connected to the body thanks to a piece of fabric that remained stubbornly intact.

As Navi hid behind him and peered around his back, Joker took the teddy bear in both hands, examining it from every angle. Once again, nothing seemed out of the ordinary – an assessment he quickly reevaluted upon catching a very faint twinkle among the stuffing of the torso. Pulling it out produced an antique-looking key.

Mona, who had been watching from afar, let out a contented mewl that drew all heads to him. His eyes morphed to a huge crescent shape as he hopped on the spot in victory. “That’s gotta be the key for the box! Let’s—”

“You little brat!”

The sudden yell echoing off the room sounded like thunder. Joker startled, and whirled around so fast he nearly lost his balance – only to jump again despite himself.

By the bed stood a man, imposing not only by his stature but also his manner. He was towering over a young boy, cornering him with such a dagger in his eyes it could have made most recoil. Sure enough, the child was cowering from head to toe, not daring to meet his gaze. Clutched in his arms was a worn down teddy bear, looking very much the same as the one they just retrieved. It might be done unconsciously, but the way he was trying to hide behind his toy made it painfully obvious he wanted to put up a physical barrier between him and that brute of a man.

“Been forgetting all about respect again, huh? Lesson’s still hasn’t got through your thick skull, has it? …Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

With a bark – that would probably sound more like a roar to the ears of a child, Joker thought –, the man shot out his hand and wrenched the teddy bear off the young boy’s arms in one brusque motion. The child’s eyes widened, just like Joker’s did. The rustle of fabric tearing resonated as clearly as a gunshot across the room.

Then ensued the sound of sobbing, mere sniffles at first, now outright wails of distress accompanying the pearly tears rolling down that pale, reddening face.

“Now let me make one thing very clear,” the man began venomously as he tossed the bear’s torn head into the darkness. “I don’t want to hear about your little acts of defiance ever again. When an adult tells you to jump, you say how high, got that?!”

If he cared even a tiny amount about the huge sobs wracking the child’s chest, it didn’t show. The boy sniffled, hiccuped and gasped as he nodded fervently, the bear’s headless body hanging limply in his hand as he wiped his eyes with his sleeve to no avail. Each whimper he let out felt like another nail pounded into Joker’s heart. Even so, the man’s glare wouldn’t melt.

Then, without another glance spared at him, the child was left alone, the sound of the door being locked clicking in the man’s wake. And this is where the strange scene ended.

Joker blinked. He was back.

“What… What did just happen…?” he heard Fox mumble somewhere to his left, which caught him very much off-guard – but before he had time to voice his surprise, somebody else beat him to the punch.

“That was… Akechi, wasn’t it?”

Panther asked it to no one in particular, but everybody whirled to face her all the same. A chorus of inputs exploded in her wake, each pressing, all frantic.

“Wait… You saw it too, Panther?” “That’s what I saw, too!” “Yeah, a guy yelling at a kid Akechi…” “No way!” “The hell? Did we all have the same vision or somethin’?”

An uncomfortable silence cloaked the room. Everyone glanced at one another, uncertainty plain across all faces.

“It wasn’t a vision,” Queen finally replied after what felt like forever. “As in, it wasn’t our brains that conjured up what we all saw.”

Joker knew where Queen was leading the conversation, but he didn’t resent Navi for jumping one step ahead of him even as he parted his lips to reply. Cognitive psience expertise was in her blood, after all.

“You’re basically saying it was the Palace then,” she said, her big red lenses reflecting the thieves. “Scenes born from the host’s own mind.”

“That’s right,” Queen confirmed with a nod, until her features took on a sympathetic expression directed at Navi. “In fact, it’s sort of similar to what we witnessed in your Palace… When we saw those murals depicting the moments of your past that affected you the most.”

Navi stiffened up for a moment. Clearly, this was a topic she wasn’t too keen on having brought up again.
Fortunately, Noir came to her rescue, though what she brought to the table wasn’t any more of the cheerful kind.

“Putting Navi’s Palace aside… Could that have been a memory of Akechi-kun’s childhood?” she wondered, a touch of sorrow permeating her gaze. “Something he experienced a long time ago…”

“The probability does seem quite high,” Fox replied slowly, his own eyes instead two narrow slits. Beside him, Panther’s head hung low on her chest.

“That’s horrible…” she muttered, so quietly her words nearly couldn’t be made out.

A pause ticked by. The tension was at its highest by that point.

“Who was that guy anyways?" Skull asked at last, in an obvious attempt for distraction. “His old man or somethin’?”

“Can’t be. He’s an orphan.”

All sounds seemed to be sucked out of the room in that moment. Slowly, each gaze shifted to meet Navi’s.

“…He told us about it. Me and Joker,” she explained, complying with their silent prompt. “He said he was passed around from orphanage to orphanage as a kid, all because his mother died after his father left her behind.”

Nobody spoke up at this. A certain awkwardness floated in the air, one that none of them seemed to know how to break.

“That man must have been an adult working at one of the orphanages Akechi went to,” Joker said finally, his voice even. “What we saw was definitely a manifestation of his memories, no doubt about it.”

“…Just like this room?”

The group raised a collective eyebrow at Queen.

“It is too much at odds with the rest of the Palace, yet feels incontestably real—as opposed to the staircase area, I mean,” she went on, grasping her chin in her hand. “This leads me to believe this room is also based on Akechi’s memories, rather than part of his distortion. Maybe slightly different from the reality he lived, but…”

Her voice trailed off. Joker swept his eyes around, taking in the dust, the filth and the mold saturating the room one more time. Suddenly, the click of the door being locked – locking Akechi in – reverberated across the recesses of his mind.

“Dammit, just what sort of life did he have as a kid…” Skull mumbled, his tone laced with a very faint drop of growing disapproval.

His answer was a heavy silence. Expression unfathomable, Joker finally turned around and walked up to the bed where the box lay. The key caught a ray of light, gleaming a soft copper as he inserted it into the hole and unlocked the box with a satisfying click. The sound seemed to attract everyone’s attention, for they blinked at Joker in confusion before straightening up all of a sudden.

“Right! It’s open!” Mona chirped as he bounced atop Joker’s shoulder, twinkles lighting in his eyes. “Let’s get—”

As if someone had pressed a pause button on a TV remote, Mona stopped, both mid-sentence and mid-motion. The way his eyes turned to saucers was light years away from Joker’s blank features and yet, both expressions were ruled by utter disbelief.

Because if there was one thing none of them had expected, it was that the box would open to reveal a smaller, different box altogether rather than what they coveted in the first place.

“You gotta be shittin’ me…” Skull muttered through thin lips. Nobody dared speak out the unanimous thought swirling inside each mind, because it was much more appealing to cling to a comfortable lie – but when Navi opened her mouth, their fear came true.

“Let me guess. That one’s locked too.”

Her flat tone just about summed up what all of them felt in that moment. A collective sigh ran down the group. They were not out of the woods yet, that much was clear. In fact, Joker couldn’t help but think they might have only just left the main road to get into said woods.

He figured this was a thought best kept to himself.