More than ever, Haru wished she had Ren by her side. That she had to have Akechi instead, here in a meeting room at Okumura Foods HQ, privately discussing their strategy at Takakura’s meeting in half an hour, only made her more nauseous with anxiety. She was all for pulling up the weeds in the board associated with Shido and her father, but to then take control of the company herself… Even if it was safe to do so, she didn’t have the experience to run such a huge company, or any company at all. For goodness’s sake, she couldn’t even manage to speak for herself; Akechi had had to offer to ‘represent’ her at the meeting and use that as an excuse to let her keep her mouth shut. At this point, they’d more or less wrapped up their strategy, but… she sighed, gaze bowed.
Akechi, seated two chairs away, regarded her with thinned lips. “Haru-san? May I offer you some friendly advice?”
She frowned at him. “What is it?”
“You need to project more confidence. As you are now, you’re too timid. I may not know anyone on the Okumura Foods board, but I can guarantee they see you as bait to be gobbled up.”
He was almost certainly right, but she glared at him anyway. “Do you have any useful advice?”
“Well… yes, actually, if you’re willing to accept it.”
That gave her pause. “Tentatively so.”
“Could you stand up then, please?”
She did, and he joined her. After he pushed the chairs in to give them both space, he regarded her with folded arms and a hand on his chin.
“Yes, you’re definitely too timid,” he remarked. “Not that projecting that image can’t be useful, but the board won’t take you seriously as you are. So, let me teach you a useful trick for dealing with adults.” He raised one hand. “Stand up straight, arms at your side. Take a deep breath—good—now square your shoulders as you breathe out. Lift your chin and keep your gaze straight ahead.”
Haru followed his instructions as he gave them. Mostly it left her feeling stiff and unnatural, but she had to admit, by the end she felt a bit stronger.
Akechi watched her, then nodded. He walked several steps away, then turned to face her. “Now walk towards me,” he said, “as if you intend to destroy me.”
That was motivating. She almost smiled, even. She fixed her stare on him, imagined she had her trusty ax in hand, and walked.
Halfway there and he beamed. “Excellent! You’re much more threatening this way! Practice that stance and stride until you’re comfortable with it, and—uh, Haru-san?”
She didn’t stop walking. When she reached him, she pressed a hand to his chest and kept moving forward. Akechi, now baffled, was forced to move with her, and he stumbled and retreated for several feet until she had him pinned to the wall.
At that point, she leaned in and gave him her most poisonously sweet smile. “Like that?”
“Er—yes. Like that,” he replied, blinking rapidly.
And that did feel good. That uncertainty, that intimidation that flickered in his normally smug, superior eyes… She liked the way it made her feel. Like she dominated him. Like she could crush him under her heel if she so chose. It sent a little thrill up her spine, made her want to push him down, down, all the way to the ground just to see the fear on his hateful, handsome face—
Then she realized she was experiencing attraction towards Akechi, Akechi, and sheer revulsion made her yank her hand off and back away a step.
In the intensely awkward silence that followed, he cleared his throat and straightened his tie. “I thought you’d have a knack for it,” he remarked. “You act sweet on the surface, but underneath simmers quite a bit of rage, doesn’t it?”
She frowned. Already the moment had passed. Whether that was a good thing or not, she didn’t know. “What makes you so sure?”
He smiled his toothpaste-commercial smile. “As they say, the devil knows its own.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Let’s try that walk again.”
Half an hour later, Akechi opened the doors into the 5 o’ clock meeting room, and Haru strode in. The rest of the board, which had already gathered, rapidly fell silent. She lifted her chin and slid her gaze across each member in turn (“look at them as if you’re deciding who will die first,” Akechi had advised her); then she smiled her best heiress smile, sweeter and more poisonous than ever. With grace and elegance, she floated down onto her seat, which Akechi held out and then pushed in for her, and sat with back straight like a queen surveying her subjects.
Already everyone looked confused and uncomfortable. Oh, this was exciting.
“I apologize,” she said primly. “Have I arrived late?”
“No, you’re exactly on time, Haru,” Takakura said, recovering from his own surprise to fold his hands. He sat in the CEO’s chair, opposite her own. How apropos. Glancing at her companion, he continued, “Goro Akechi-kun, wasn’t it? Why don’t you have a seat as well?”
“Thank you,” said Akechi, who remained standing at Haru’s right hand, “but I’m fine where I am, sir.”
He nodded, seeming unperturbed by this. Haru, however, noted more than a few frowns and dark looks among the rest of the board, including Sugimura, who sat at her right and thus now had an obstacle between him and her. She made a show of pulling out a notepad and pencil from her purse, flipped it open, poised her pencil, and turned her regard back to the board. The enemy, Akechi had encouraged her to think of them. It’s you and me versus all of them.
She smiled again. The drum of her heart wasn’t just from nerves this time. “Thank you for your patience, then, Takakura-san, everyone,” she said. “Akechi-kun will be speaking for me this meeting. Please, no one pay me any mind.”
That also got a round of surprise, which Haru found bitterly amusing. These men were all too willing to ignore her when she wanted to be heard, and now they were shocked when she invited them to do so? It really was easy to think of them as the enemy, even if her only ally was Goro Akechi.
“Haru-chan,” said one of her least favorites, one of the ones who liked to treat her like she was a scatterbrained toddler, “we all understand your grief over your father’s death, which we all share—” A round of assenting murmurs rippled through the room, none of which Haru trusted. “—but a detective? It really is too much. Things like this will only make the public lose even more of their faith in our company.”
Haru raised her eyebrows at him, then looked up at Akechi. When he met her eyes, she nodded him on in silence. Honestly, she even explicitly told these crusty old men to talk to him instead of her, and they take that as a cue to address her regardless?
“If I may,” Akechi said politely, “why do you think an open investigation to pursue justice for the late Okumura-san would cause the public to lose their faith? Don’t you think that this dedication to its former CEO, even weeks after his horrible death, would inspire them instead?”
Sugimura scoffed. “What’s the point in lingering on such unfortunate incidents? In my opinion, it’s better to press forward and rebuild. And the best way to do that,” and here he smirked at her—seriously, why did they only care about her opinion when she told them to ignore it?— “is to hurry up our marriage so Okumura Foods can instate a permanent CEO, isn’t that right, Haru?”
She said nothing. Akechi clucked his tongue.
“That’s one way of looking at it, certainly, Sugimura-san,” he said. “Personally, I would be impressed by a company that cared so much about justice for its CEO, especially given that this is a family corporation focused on food distribution.” He bowed his head, affecting sadness. “Simply ignoring Okumura-san’s death strikes me as unbelievably cold. As his successor, I’m shocked you don’t agree.”
“W-well, that’s…” he stammered.
“No one is saying we should ignore it,” another board member cut in, “simply that these are matters best left to the police.”
Nods and murmurs of agreement ringed the room. Takakura, as Haru noted, did not join in. In fact, he seemed to have decided to sit back and watch the room like she was doing now.
“Then you should have no problem with my presence,” Akechi countered, unperturbed. “I am associated with the police, after all.”
“Does it bother none of you,” he interrupted, tone doleful and eyes downcast, “that Okumura-san was murdered?” He raised his gaze, now sharp. “Does it bother none of you that any of you might be next?”
That got everyone’s attention. Even Sugimura was watching him, though having heard this already, he didn’t mirror the others’s shock.
“What are you talking about?” another board member demanded, slapping the table with both hands. “Why would the Phantom Thieves target us?”
“About that...” Akechi began. He explained to them what he had to Sugimura yesterday: that if the Phantom Thieves hadn’t killed her father, that the culprit could be a corporate assassin sent by a rival company, and therefore any high-ranking member of the company could get targeted.
Haru watched everyone’s faces closely as he did. Most of the board, which was finally paying attention to him and not her, looked thoroughly, genuinely startled by this. Some of them, who were also genuinely startled, looked alarmed. She made notes of names and reactions, scribbling as fast as she could, keeping her eyes up so she wouldn’t miss a thing.
“...and of course, there is one other, impossible-to-ignore possibility,” Akechi said. “That is to say, that this murder wasn’t committed at the request of a rival company, but someone from within Okumura Foods. Possibly even someone in this very room.”
Oh, that caused an uproar. Even Takakura was stunned, though he still didn’t interrupt.
“That’s absurd!!” Sugimura burst out. “Who here would have any reason to want Okumura-san dead?! His brilliant business strategies were making the company filthy rich!!”
“It’s my job to figure that out, sir,” Akechi replied, demeanor placid even as several board members shouted out in support of Sugimura. “It’s not the only possibility, but as long as it’s a possibility, it’s one I can’t ignore.”
“Ignore it anyway!” Sugimura snapped. Several other board members shot him a surprised stare. “There’s absolutely no way anyone in this room is responsible for Okumura-san’s death!”
Akechi smiled blandly. “Oh?”
Haru could have just screamed with ironic laughter. Instead, she kept up her notes.
Paying attention to neither, Sugimura continued, “You had me a little concerned yesterday with your scare story about corporate assassinations, but Okumura-san was a figure of the utmost respect, and so is this board! You have no right to throw around baseless accusations!”
“Well, for one, I haven’t actually accused anyone, merely presented a possibility,” Akechi said mildly. “For another, Miss Okumura has given me that right by hiring me.”
Haru paused in her note-taking to flash her fiancé a sugary smile.
“You’re overstepping your boundaries, boy!!” Sugimura snarled, turning red in the face.
Akechi feigned dejection. “Oh, dear… Sugimura-san, are you all right? You’re taking this awfully personally… Is stress making you lose your temper? You should be more careful of your health.” His eyes, now calculating, flicked up. “It would be terrible if you collapsed in the middle of the street.”
“Don’t be absurd! I’m the picture of health!”
“Oh? Such collapses have been somewhat epidemic lately, though. Even reasonably healthy-seeming individuals simply… shut down. Isn’t that tragic?”
Haru scrutinized the board as the detective spoke. Most of them seemed puzzled; a couple, including Takakura, frowned, as if realizing something was amiss but unsure of what. But of the dozen-plus men who surrounded her and Akechi, three turned white as a ghost at his implications, fear so real and palpable that there was no question they understood what he referenced. Quick as a snakebite, Haru jotted down their names.
“Your concern is entirely unnecessary!!” Sugimura was shouting.
“Now, now,” Takakura said then, finally raising both hands for silence. Everyone looked at him—except for Haru, who shot him a glance and kept up her vigil of the group at large. “This is getting a little out of hand. Let’s all take a moment to breathe and calm down.”
Sugimura shot him a foul look, but adjusted his tie and sat back down, having half-risen. Akechi’s plastic smile continued unabated.
“To tell the truth, I’ve also noticed a pattern of strange deaths among the movers and shakers of the food industry, of which Okumura-san was only the latest,” Takakura continued, folding his hands. “For the sake of my own peace of mind as well as our clients and employees, I agree that an internal integrity search is a good idea.” He nodded to Haru. “Thank you for your transparency on this matter.”
“Of course,” Haru replied, giving him a genteel nod back. “It is of course my sincerest hope that no one on this board had anything to do with it. But as Akechi-kun says, it’s a possibility we cannot afford to ignore. If the press were to find out something so obvious had been overlooked, then the speculation that would cause would trouble the company far more than the investigation itself.”
Takakura nodded. “That’s wise. Well then, please allow me to offer you my support.”
About half the board chimed in offering their support as well. Haru blessed them all with a sweet smile. After her observations and notes, she had a much stronger idea of who was sincere and who was sucking up. “Thank you, Takakura-san, members of the board,” she said. “I look forward to everyone’s review.”
Sugimura scoffed. “What a waste of time. At first you had me thinking your fretting was cute, but you’re going too far, Haru.”
“What an odd sentiment,” Akechi remarked. “As Okumura-san’s successor, shouldn’t you be more concerned than anyone about the possibility of internal intrigue?” He waited for Sugimura to open his mouth, then cut him off: “Or else… let me think… A young, ambitious man eager to take over his fiancée’s father’s multimillion-yen corporation, who repeatedly expresses impatience and frustration with an unenthusiastic bride-to-be… who then takes a hard line against examination of the company’s internal affairs… Doesn’t that sound like a highly suspicious individual?”
The room went dead silent. Haru let herself indulge in a smile at the way Sugimura’s face went from red to mottled purple.
“How. Dare. You??” he seethed. “I’m Haru’s fiancé! Her father practically begged me to marry her! And this is how I’m treated?! I am owed this company!”
“Then surely you’ll share a copy of that arranged marriage contract with everyone? Since that’s the foundation of your claim.”
Haru’s smile evolved into a broad grin as Sugimura popped his mouth open and shut like a goldfish. When he was on one’s own side, Akechi’s despicable smarm really could be a delight.
So naturally Sugimura turned on his own smarm, leaning back in his seat and flipping his bangs. Haru glanced around; several of the board members were sweating. “This is why teen idols are so annoying. Obviously I don’t have such an important document right on me,” he scoffed. “It’s cute when a high school girl doesn’t know anything, but aren’t you embarrassed as a would-be man to parade your ignorance like that, Akechi-kun?”
“Do you think so?” Akechi wondered. “Personally, I’d be much more embarrassed to be so inept of an adult that I need to bully high schoolers to distract from my lies.”
“What lies?! What proof do you have that I’m lying?!” Sugimura demanded, banging a fist on the table. “If you’re going to insist on these outrageous claims, I demand you show proof right now!”
“Why should I show proof?” Akechi replied, eyebrows rising. “That burden, to verify that your engagement to Miss Okumura is legitimate, is on you.”
“Settle down, children,” said one of the senior board members, tone as patronizing as his words. Despite his condescending smile, Haru noted the sweat trickling down his face. “There’s no need for all this shouting. Is there really a need to bring out a copy right away? We all know Okumura-san had this agreement with Sugimura-kun, and obviously such a valuable contract would be kept somewhere safe. It might take some time to sort through all of Okumura-san’s things before we find the original copy. Fussing over it for now won’t do anyone any good.”
Several over board members nodded in agreement. Takakura, however, lowered his hands to the table.
“Interesting,” he said. “Because I believe I’m the most familiar with Okumura-san’s contracts and documentations, and I was under the impression his agreement with Sugimura-san was strictly a verbal one.”
The board member who’d spoken, Sugimura, and several others flinched. Akechi caught Haru’s eye and flashed her a smile, and they both went back to watching.
“Come now, Takakura-san, you must have forgotten,” the other man wheedled. “Okumura-san would never leave such an important agreement unwritten—”
“That’s true. Okumura-san was always a stickler for official contracts for major business maneuvers. Which is why I find it strange that I’ve never seen nor heard of this marriage contract before,” Takakura replied.
“J-just because you haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist!” Sugimura protested, eyeballs bulging.
“As acting CEO, I can assure all of you, I’ve become intimately familiar with Okumura Foods’s major contracts. If I haven’t even heard of this marriage contract, frankly, that means it doesn’t exist.”
“H-how dare you—”
As Sugimura blustered, Takakura turned his gaze forward. “Haru. Up until now, I’d been under the impression that you were happy with your engagement to Sugimura-kun. However, this meeting has made it clear I’ve had the wrong idea about a good number of things. May I ask you what it is you think about your would-be marriage?”
Haru’s back was already straight, but her shoulders practically rose as if tied to helium balloons. Aside from her private vent fests with Ren, no one had ever encouraged her to just come out and say what she thought about her detestable fiancée. She could almost cry with joy.
But she restrained herself and instead took an even breath to calm herself. “Sugimura-san is of course a bright man with a bright future ahead of him, thanks to his family. But I don’t feel as though the two of us are compatible as a couple, and think our marriage would end poorly,” she replied, enunciating each syllable like crystal. “In short, I have no desire to marry him whatsoever.”
Takakura nodded once, then looked around the room. “That’s that, then.”
Sugimura sputtered, “B-but Okumura-san promised me--”
“Nothing that was officiated or validated,” Takakura interrupted. “I don’t doubt that he had his own wishes in the matter, but the truth is that there is no contract, and with Okumura-san’s passing, any verbal agreement you had with him is null and void. Only Haru’s wishes in this regard matter anymore, and she has made those wishes unmistakably clear. So, my deepest apologies, Sugimura-kun, but you have no place here, nor are you owed any part of the company.”
Haru had to physically restrain herself from vibrating with glee. Sugimura made no such attempts to hide his rage. A moment later, he snatched up his coat and stormed out of the meeting room.
“This isn’t over!! You’ll regret making a fool out of me!!” he blustered as he went.
“Hmm. I wonder,” Takakura said once he was gone. “Incidentally, Tanaka-san, you seemed quite certain that this contract of his really existed. Why is that?”
The board member from before turned pale. “W-why, naturally because I thought Okumura-san wouldn’t marry off his only child based on word alone! He was keen for years on getting an heir to succeed him, don’t you remember?”
Takakura nodded. “I see. I do remember that.” He looked back to Haru and Akechi. “Thank you both again. It seems that Okumura Foods is even more need of an integrity search than I’d realized.”
About a third of the board members flinched, shifted, or otherwise looked uneasy. Haru finished up her notes, then made a show of snapping her notepad shut. “Oh, no, thank you, Takakura-san,” she replied, keeping her tone and expression pleasant. “It’s my sincerest hope that we can cooperate to make this company better than ever.”
He smiled and nodded to her, then looked around the room. “In that case, please continue to work with Akechi-kun to solve your father’s murder, for everyone’s sakes. I’ll handle internal affairs on my end and keep you updated on any developments, Haru.”
She stood up and bowed with grace. “Thank you very much.”
From there, the meeting was functionally adjourned. What an incredible feeling it was! Never before had Haru felt so accomplished, so respected at the end of one of these hell-gatherings. It was thanks to Akechi, too. She wasn’t about to forgive him for her father, but she might be willing to be cordial, even friendly after this. Ren was right; Akechi was trying to help now. She ought to acknowledge that.
After a brief discussion with Takakura, in which he encouraged her to pursue what (and whom, a topic that left her blushing) made her happy, she left with Akechi for the outside, so energized she opted to take the stairs. At the bottom, when he opened the door to the outside for her, she didn’t even find it annoying. It was a bit of a relief, honestly. She didn’t like being angry or holding grudges. If Akechi kept this up, maybe they could get along after all. As such, she favored him with a smile.
“Thank you, Akechi-kun. For everything, I mean. You really did help me a lot today.”
He smiled back. “I’m glad to hear it, Haru-san.”
But when they approached her limo, he paused. She thought he might open the door for her again, but he just stood there, gazing off into the distance, his profile pensive.
“Haru-san. About what you were saying about Amamiya the other day...”
She tensed as she came to a stop behind him. With the meeting just now, she’d completely forgotten about it. The instant he turned and met her eyes, she knew that was to her detriment.
“I won’t lose to you, either,” he stated, tone and stance and gaze all unyielding.
Haru clamped her jaw shut. The two of them stared each other down for a moment; then Akechi moved to the other side of the limo and let himself in. Stiffly, Haru climbed in on her side, and the chauffeur drove them to Yongen-Jaya in silence.
Ren had just finished doodling the last of the Big Four’s Palace foyers, filling in some details that Morgana pointed out that he’d missed or forgotten, when Haru and Goro arrived. That they were first of everyone was a pleasant surprise, and he looked up at them with a smile. Both of them looked a little stiff, and both of them relaxed as they returned that smile and sat on either side of him in front of the end table he’d set up for the meeting.
“Hmmm,” Goro murmured, peeking over his shoulder. “Not bad.”
“It’s not anywhere near Yusuke’s level, but it’ll do,” Morgana remarked from Ren’s lap. “How’d it go at the board meeting?”
“Actually quite well,” he said, looking over at Haru.
Haru nodded. “Yes. For once, I felt like the board was trying to keep up with me, rather than the other way around.”
“Good to hear,” Ren said. “What changed?”
Her mouth pulled diagonally to one side. “Akechi-kun gave me a few tips for how to handle the room,” she said, reluctance palpable in her tone. “The rest, he handled on my behalf.”
“Hmm…” He looked over at Goro to gauge his reaction. “Sounds like you two’re developing some good teamwork.”
Goro smiled brilliantly, the one he smiled when he thought he had the upper hand. “Oh, it was nothing. I’m only doing my fair share, since Haru-san has been a great help to me so far, too.”
Ren looked back at Haru. “Oh?”
Expression stormy, she said nothing. Goro meanwhile continued in that smugly pleasant tone of his, “Oh, yes. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t have realized at all that something important was within my grasp. I’m truly grateful.”
Ren considered his words and the way Haru grit her teeth; then he reached over and flicked Goro on the forehead.
“Ow!” He rubbed his bangs, bewildered. “What was that for?”
“You’re doing that thing where it sounds like you’re being nice, but you’re actually being a giant asshole, aren’t you?” Ren held up a finger at him. “Don’t do that.”
“I...” Goro stared at him for a second, then at Haru; then he lowered his gaze, abashed. “...I-I’m sorry.”
“Am I the one you need to apologize to?”
He grimaced. “I’m sorry, Haru-san.”
“That’s Miss Okumura to you,” she said loftily.
Ren turned to her, resting his chin on one hand. “Haru. Don’t rub it in.”
She looked stung by that. Ren straightened and looked back and forth between her and Goro.
“You two don’t need to be best friends or anything,” he said. “But you do need to be able to treat each other with civility and respect. If there’s a problem interfering with your abilities to do that, tell me about it. We’ll resolve it here and now.”
They met each other’s eyes across Ren’s face, then looked away. Huh. That felt unusual.
“There’s no problem,” Goro said. “Passive-aggression is just a bad habit of mine. I truly am sorry. I’ll do better at reining that in.”
“I’m just feeling tense, that’s all,” Haru murmured. “I’m sorry, too. I have been lashing out more than I should. I’ll also do my best to keep that in check.”
Ren looked back and forth between the two. Huh. That was… a lot easier than he’d thought it would be. “Good,” he decided. “Glad to hear it. But if there gets to be a problem on either end, make sure you let me know, all right?”
They each murmured their assent. Morgana shot Ren a knowing look, and he got his point, but things seemed fairly promising so far.
The others arrived not long after: first Makoto, then Ryuji and Ann, then Yusuke, then finally Futaba. After some chatting and munching on the snacks he’d laid out for everyone, the group settled in, and he set out his doodles. Morgana hopped up onto the table and tapped his paw on them.
“So yesterday morning, Ren and I investigated the entrances to the four Palaces we need to hit,” he said. “They all look tough, but not any tougher than, say, Shido’s Palace. With the strength we’ve all built up until now, we should be able to take each Palace on simultaneously with teams of two, like we discussed the possibility of in the meeting the other day.”
“I’ve given a lot of thought to the breakdown of the four teams,” Ren said, hands folded, elbows on the table. “Since we won’t be able to communicate once we’ve split up, it’s crucial that each team be able to function on its own. Therefore, each team will have a ‘leader,’ who’ll be responsible for making the calls during the heist, and a ‘partner,’ who’ll back them up.”
Ryuji shot a hand up. “Ooh! Ooh! Me! I’ll be a leader!”
“No you won’t.”
“Because I’ve already picked who the leaders will be, and these choices are non-negotiable. I can explain the logic behind the decisions if anyone wants to know, but I won’t change my mind.”
“Be aware that Ren and I put a lot of discussion into this, so they haven’t been chosen on a whim,” Morgana added. “If you’re not satisfied, just keep that in mind.”
“Who partners with whom is negotiable,” Ren continued, “as long as the resulting team is balanced. In other words, the two people in a given team need to be able to easily handle physical offense, magical offense, support, and healing with or without items. Morgana and I also put in a lot of discussion on who goes with whom, but there were a few different reasonable match-ups. So if you’re a partner and you don’t like your leader, you can ask to get switched to someone else within reason.”
Makoto pursed her lips. “Hmm.”
Goro’s frown also gave the impression like he’d clued in on where Ren was going with this too. Ren thus wasn’t surprised when he tapped his shoulder.
“Excuse me,” Goro said. “I hate to interrupt now of all times, but before you go on, there’s something I need to say.”
Ren nodded him on.
Despite the permission, he hesitated as he looked around at everyone, whose attention was now on him. He seemed flustered. Very cute. “Well, er… how do I put this… I realize this is highly overdue, but, uh…” He coughed into one fist and scooted back. Hands on his knees, he then bowed so low his forehead nearly touched the table. “…I wronged all of you deeply. I won’t ask for anyone’s forgiveness, as I know many of the things I’ve done are beyond forgiving, but please allow me to offer my sincerest apologies for my disgraceful behavior up until today, especially over the last few days.”
“W-woah, for real?” Ryuji uttered, gaping.
He wasn’t the only one. Everyone, even Ren, was visibly stunned by the sudden display of contrition. It wasn’t that Ren thought he was acting—quite the opposite. It was just…
“No kidding… I never thought I’d see the day Akechi would humble himself,” Makoto breathed, summing up at least Ren’s feelings on the matter.
“I thought I would need to go at least this far if any of you would believe me,” Goro murmured, not rising. “I’m sure many of you still don’t trust me, especially after, ah… I threatened you all for seizing Shido’s Treasure without me. But I’ve had time since then to cool off, and… looking back, I’m ashamed of how I behaved after you all saved my life twice over.”
“C-c’mon, Akechi-kun, you can lift your head already,” Ann stammered, hands palm-out. “It’s embarrassing just watching you.”
He did sit back up, but he kept his gaze down, bangs casting long shadows over his eyes. “Um… that’s basically it. I apologize again for the interruption, and, er… in general.”
“Well… Your apology is appreciated,” Yusuke said, regarding him thoughtfully. “To be honest, I’d thought you would let the matter get swept under the rug.”
“That’s d-definitely the ‘you’ thing to do,” Futaba muttered.
Goro laughed weakly, but didn’t protest.
Morgana meanwhile hummed thoughtfully and looked up at Ren. Ren, who by then had let a corner of his mouth lift, caught his glance and nodded back at him.
“Apology accepted,” he said. “Though I can only speak for myself.”
Goro shot him a glance, relief reflecting off his eyes and faintest of smiles.
“Still don’t forgive you,” Futaba said flatly.
Haru’s mouth likewise remained a thin line. “Mm. Agreed.”
Goro averted his eyes. “...Yes, I understand. I didn’t think either of you would.”
“Well, it’s good you accept that,” Makoto remarked. “For my part, I don’t have nearly as heavy a grievance as they do, so… I’ll accept your apology, too.”
Yusuke nodded. “After Futaba and Haru, Ren is the one with the most right to hold a grudge. If he isn’t going to, I see no reason to do otherwise.”
“I admit, I side more towards Haru and Futaba,” Morgana said. “That being said, I’m willing to accept the spirit behind it… if, of course, you keep up the penitent attitude.”
“Hey, what’s the point in making him bow and scrape forever? He’s already helpin’ us out,” Ryuji pointed out, folding his arms behind his head. “Thanks for the apology, Akechi. It took you freakin’ long enough, but I get needin’ to cool your head first before you can say what you gotta say.”
“Mmm… I’m kinda divided,” Ann admitted, expression clouded. “Ryuji’s got a point, but I don’t think it’s right to forget about Futaba’s mom and Haru’s dad that easily, either...”
“That’s fine,” Goro said. “As I said before, I don’t expect anyone’s forgiveness. I understand if you can’t accept my apology, either. I just felt that if I’m going to be part of the team, it shouldn’t be left unsaid.”
“Well… okay,” she conceded, nodding. “I’m definitely glad you did that much, for what it’s worth.”
His faint smile returned. “Thank you. And thank you, everyone. I’ll do my best to not let you down going forward.” He cleared his throat. “Now, ah, if you would please continue, Amamiya?”
Ren nodded, giving him a slight smile back. “About the team leaders, then—I’ll lead the first. Morgana will lead the second. Makoto will lead the third. And the fourth...” He nodded to Goro. “Akechi. I want you to do it.”
A minor uproar rose among Ryuji, Ann, and Futaba, who all chorused, “Eeehhh?!” while Yusuke and Haru gawked, taken aback.
Makoto, however, was unfazed. “Hmm. I thought so.”
“Wha—seriously?!” Ann uttered, staring at him and her both.
“He wouldn’t need to stress the part about partners not being fixed to a given leader otherwise,” Makoto pointed out.
Goro nodded. “I’m the only one anyone might not want to work with, right? I’d actually planned on waiting until the end of the meeting for that apology, but when I heard that, I thought I’d better do it immediately to help reduce problems.”
“...And Makoto and Akechi demonstrate why I picked them,” Ren said, pleased. He hadn’t coordinated that with either of them, but they took it as smoothly as Morgana, who’d already known. “Any questions?”
“Oh… Yeah, that makes sense,” Ryuji said, one eye shut. “Yeah, okay, I get it.”
“Hmm. This might go more smoothly than anticipated,” Yusuke commented with a smile.
Futaba grumbled wordlessly as she oozed halfway under the table. But she didn’t protest, so Ren took that as a win.
“Obviously, everyone else is a partner,” Ren continued. “I’ll share my tentative assignments, and if anyone’s not satisfied, we can discuss my logic and possible other arrangements.” The other nodded him on. “Ryuji, you’re with me. Yusuke, you’re with Morgana. Ann, you’re with Makoto.”
“Oh no,” Haru uttered.
Ren laughed a faint, rueful laugh. “Sorry. But you and Akechi are already working together in the real world, and that part of the plan will have you both busy. It’ll be easier for both of you to coordinate Palace dives if you stay partnered.”
Goro cleared his throat. “I’m all right with it if Haru-san doesn’t mind,” he offered tentatively.
Haru lanced him with a glare of pure dislike.
“…but if you hate the idea that much,” Ren continued, “you can switch with Yusuke to partner with Morgana instead, if that works for Yusuke.”
“I don’t mind,” he said.
Haru dropped her gaze and bit her lip. “...No, it’s fine,” she said, reluctance palpable. “What you say about coordination is true. It won’t look suspicious to those in the know if Akechi-kun and I are together even in strange places, either. I’ll do it.”
“Are you sure?” Ren pressed. “The partner assignments are ultimately suggestions. I don’t want to force you to do something you don’t want to do.”
Her gaze gentled, matching her soft smile. He couldn’t help but smile back. God, she was beautiful. “Thank you. But it really is all right.” She sighed, and her breath took her smile with it. “It’s just two weeks. I can endure it for that long.”
Ren could practically hear Goro ellipse behind him. He felt a bit bad for kicking him while he was down, but he pretended not to notice and nodded, then looked at Futaba. “Futaba. You’ll be rotating teams as we go so you can get a feel for all of them, just in case. But for the day of the heist, I want you to support Akechi and Haru.”
“Eeeeehhhhhh?” she groaned. “Why him?”
“Because I trust Akechi,” he replied, “but that’s a decision I actively made that flies in face of our actual experience with him, so I want an extra pair of eyes on him. Just in case.”
Futaba flew upright so fast she might’ve been spring-loaded. “Oh, I get it. I’m Haru-chan’s back-up, for when your stupid decision to trust stupid Aketchy blows up in everyone’s faces, again.”
Technically neither he nor any of them had ever trusted Goro before now, but he nodded regardless. “Exactly.”
That got her to grin and snicker. “Yeah, okay. I’ll do it, then.”
By then, Goro’s ellipses were practically deafening. Ren looked over at him to see a distinct downward slant to his handsome lips. He quirked a half-smile in return.
“It’s only a stupid decision if I turn out to be wrong. So make sure you prove me right.” His smile faded. “I’m counting on you to protect them.”
For a moment, Goro said nothing, though the edges of his frown eased back. Then he nodded once. “Understood. I’ll do that.”
Ren nodded back, pleased. From there, he and Morgana led the group into a discussion of the details of the Palaces themselves. This discussion was punctuated by Futaba opening up a bag of wasabi peas and throwing them, one by one, at Goro’s head, punctuated each time with her saying, “Whap.” Reactions ranged from amused (nearly everyone, including himself) to exasperated (mostly Makoto, and even then she was smothering a smile).Goro himself tolerated this mostly with grace, if punctuated by the occasional longest-suffering of sighs. The first time he did was hilarious, sinceat that point he’d been enduring Futaba’s Futabaness for no longer than precisely ten seconds. Eventually, though… well. One thing at a time.
The TV station president’s Palace was located at the station HQ and took the distorted form of a Roman coliseum. Entering had been easy; it was open to all spectators, and was filled with cognitions. (“Whap.”) Once inside, though, they’d had to evade capture by the many guards, who grabbed anyone who made a scene and threw them into the arena to fight—and ultimately get killed by—Shadows. They’d spotted a cognitive double of Shido in the Emperor’s seat (“Whap.” Sigh.), while the station president’s Shadow appeared as a local magistrate running the coliseum and currying favor with “Emperor” Shido. The layout was fairly simple with few signs of traps, but the Shadows they’d observed in the arena were strong, easily the strongest of the four Palaces (“Whap.” Assorted laughter.), and after a certain point they needed authorization to proceed further, so they had to turn back.
The IT company president’s Palace was his corporate building (“Whap.”), which took the distortion of a ninja mansion. This one they hadn’t been able to plunge into very far; they’d first needed to find a meandering path around the side, and the walls and roof had both been trapped. (“Whap.” Sigh. Some chuckling.) There’d been ninjas everywhere, and while they were weak individually, it made progressing undetected extremely difficult. They hadn’t been able to spot the company president’s Shadow, but they’d overheard a mention of “Shogun” Shido having “fallen ill.” The entire Palace had had an air of tension to it (“Whap.” A certain tension in Goro’s neck), unlike the coliseum, where things seemed to be mostly business as usual.
The former noble’s Palace was at his private mansion in the heart of Azabu, one of Japan’s wealthiest precincts, and took the form of Hollywood, red carpet, spotlights, glitz, glamour, and all. Security had been nearly as rough as at the ninja mansion, but it was easier to sneak in the side. It’d been rife with cognitions of nubile, half-naked twenty-something women. (“WHAP.” Three peas at once. Goro went ugh as the others laughed. Ren glanced at him and the clench in his jaw, and thought hard.) While it hadn’t had the traps of the ninja mansion, it was rife with “Hollywood magic” illusions, so it’d been difficult to navigate; he and Morgana had gotten lost more than once. That’d served them well, though, because they’d found the ex-noble’s Shadow (“Whap.”), who was a sparkly superstar, and his cognition of Shido, who was a big-name director, in one of the dressing rooms. The Shadow had been wheedling the cognitive Shido for bigger and better roles, while “Director” Shido had moped about losing his blockbuster-making inspiration. (“Whap.”) After watching the Shadow damn near have a meltdown over what he’d do if he couldn’t get another starring role, Ren and Morgana had discreetly let themselves out. (“Wha—”)
(Ren snatchedFutaba’s latest hurled pea out of midair at this point, then crunched on it as he made direct eye contact with her. She stared back, then held both hands up in surrender. After that, all further wasabi peas went nowhere but her own mouth. For his help,Goro looked at Ren with an unreadable expression… but his neck and jaw relaxed.)
The last one, for the politician Ooe, had been in the Diet Building like Shido’s had been. However, his Palace took the form of a cathedral, crowned by a massive clocktower that housed a bell to match. Ren and Morgana had had to climb up the carved and decorated walls to find a way inside, but beyond that, it had seemed simple at first. They’d come across a sermon from Shadow Ooe, who took the form of a pope, thundering a fire-and-brimstone sermon about the sins of mankind, how humans were inherently evil and needed a firm and commanding hand to guide them, how God would visit divine punishment on those who dared to step out of line, etc etc etc. It made Ren want to puke. This feeling only intensified when Shadow Ooe had turned the topic to his cognition of Shido, who took the form of God. Literally, just, fucking God. As “God,” Shido was the one who brought down retribution on the wicked, and there was some other bullshit about how a lack of faith was diminishing him and that if people didn’t want to all be judged as sinners they’d better fall in line, which was pretty funny considering according to Goro he’d straight-up refused to work for his real-world self.
Goro offered a lot of useful information, too. The coliseum had underground dungeons that were accessible in the back parts, and they connected to aqueducts that lead all over the place; the ninja mansion’s traps changed constantly, but in a pattern that he wrote down next to his doodle of it, along with how to disarm them; the Hollywood illusions were all movie-themed, and as long as you played along with and then took control of the ‘role’ it forced you into, it was easy to navigate through; the bell in the cathedral clocktower rang on the regular, and if you heard its chime, it would paralyze you with fear, so you when you heard the clock gears start to grind, you had to immediately plug up your ears or dive into a safe room; and so on and so forth. He also explained that the IT president’s Shadow took the form of the boss ninja who’d pledged his blade to “Shogun” Shido. By the end, everyone had a smooth, clear idea of the challenges they’d face and how to bypass most of them.
From there, they discussed who to send where. Though Futaba would cycle through the groups so she’d be familiar with all the Palaces, they agreed that it was best to have the individual teams focus on one each. Ren and Ryuji would take the coliseum; Morgana and Yusuke, the ninja mansion; Makoto and Ann, Hollywood; and Goro and Haru, the cathedral. Futaba said she’d start with the ninja mansion since it sounded like that was the kind of Palace where a thief would need an extra edge. Ren agreed.
With that, the meeting was adjourned—or so it seemed. Goro had one more thing to bring up.
“If there are members of the conspiracy left on the Okumura Foods board,” he said, “does anyone object to using Mementos to find them out?”
Haru blinked rapidly. “Using Mementos?”
Makoto frowned. “What do you mean by ‘find them out’?”
“Exactly what it sounds like,” Goro replied. “If you input the names of a list of suspects into the Navi app, eventually one of them will get you a hit. Then you just have to go in and question the Shadow and apply the information you get to the real world. No one needs to die, I assure you.”
Ren and the others looked around at each other. It sounded reasonable enough, but…
“Now that you mention it, I’ve been wondering something for a while,” Morgana said. “Akechi, how did you learn about Mementos? I get the impression you knew about it even before you forced yourself onto the team.”
“I got a tip from someone knowledgeable about the Metaverse. Does anyone object or not?”
“It feels unethical,” Makoto said slowly. “Like we’re using our powers for our personal gain.”
Goro laughed for some reason.
“Not that I’m siding with Aketchy or anything,” Futaba said, “but I don’t see what’s so unethical about it. We need info to take the conspiracy apart. Questioning Shadows doesn’t feel much different from hacking into a private server, where I stand.”
“The difference is that one of us—me—would personally benefit from it,” Haru murmured. “Makoto is right. The idea of it makes me uneasy...”
Yusuke bowed his head. “Mm. I understand how you feel, but… as I understand it, you all found out about Madarame by getting information from a Shadow in Mementos, correct? And the actions you took thereafter directly benefited me as well as the group.”
“Well, yeah,” Ann said, “but that was after the fact! Nobody knew you’d turn out to be a Persona-User and join the team! At the time, we weren’t thinking of anything but saving someone in trouble and punishing a rotten adult! Right, Ryuji?”
Ryuji scratched his head. “If I’m bein’ totally honest, at the time, I was mostly thinking about how we could score even more popularity by goin’ after a big target—ow!”
Ann withdrew her smacking hand. “You only had to say ‘yes’!”
“It seems like you’re all divided on the matter,” Goro observed before they could descend into bickering. “I’m sorry, I’m not trying to make any waves. If it helps, I don’t see this as necessarily benefiting Haru-san, but rather, a way of decreasing the conspiracy’s influence. If, for example, the current acting president is a member, then it’s inevitable that if Okumura Foods recovers as a company, they’ll start funneling funds towards Shido again. And quite frankly, we’re nine teenagers against a Tokyo-wide organization composed of an array of rich and influential men. The Metaverse and our Personas are the only weapons we have that gives us a real edge against them. Wouldn’t it therefore be best to use every related resource we have at our disposal to take them down?”
Morgana’s tail curled. “Hmm… When you put it like that, it sounds reasonable, but…”
“I think we ought to be cautious of any course of action that Akechi-kun thinks is reasonable,” Haru said flatly.
There was a general noise of agreement, even from Futaba. Ren remained silent. Goro must have noticed that, because he sighed and looked his way.
“What do you think, leader?” he said.
Ren held his chin as he met Goro’s gaze. “Is that how you got your start?”
“As a detective. Going into the Metaverse and interrogating Shadows.”
“Ahh, ahaha. You’re as insightful as ever. Yes, it was.”
Ryuji’s face screwed up. “I thought you got your start from makin’ people go psycho and ‘solving’ the murders that doin’ that made happen?”
“That didn’t come until later,” Goro said, tone a little testy. “Granted, I suppose it makes no difference in the end, but still. Did you really think I immediately resorted to murder?”
“I mean… yeah?” Ryuji said, to more general sounds of agreement.
He peered around the room. “…If you all thought I was that bloodthirsty, why did you even let me come back?”
No one had an answer for that. Ren watched Goro for a moment; then he turned his attention to the group at large.
“I agree with Futaba,” he said. “We need information. Questioning Shadows doesn’t strike me as inherently more unethical than hacking servers, and we’ve never been bothered by her doing that when it was convenient for us. As long as we take care in how we use that information, I think it’s fine.” He looked over at Makoto and Haru. “That said, I also think this should be unanimous, like the rest of our decisions. So if you two really insist against it, we won’t do it.”
Makoto looked at Haru. Haru pursed her lips, looking troubled.
“I don’t know...” she murmured. “I don’t think I’m capable of making an objective decision about this.” She looked up. “To be completely honest, I kind of want to do it. I want to know who I can trust. But the fact that it was Akechi-kun’s suggestion makes me reflexively want to reject it. So I’ll abstain instead. If everyone else agrees it’s all right… I’ll go along with it.”
“I stand by my earlier assertion,” Yusuke said. “I agree that we should hold ourselves to a certain standard so as not to fall into corruption, but no matter how I look at it, this isn’t about personal gain; it’s about protecting one of our own. We should always make that a priority.”
Ann perked. “Yeah… yeah! Yusuke’s right! If we don’t steal anyone’s heart, then we’re just doing what we can to keep Haru safe! I’m all for that!”
Ryuji grinned. “Same here!”
“Likewise,” Morgana said, nodding.
“Hmm… If we do this, who’s going to do the interrogating?” Makoto said. “We don’t have much manpower to spare.”
“Haru, Akechi, and me,” Ren said. “Haru has a right to hear that information herself, and Akechi has experience with this. I’ll go to make sure he stays in line and doesn’t kill anyone.”
Goro’s head sank. “Again, I don’t automatically resort to murder as a first option...”
“No stealing, either,” he continued, ignoring him. “It’ll be purely for information.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “All right. If those are the terms, I’ll agree to it.”
With that, it was unanimous. After some more discussion, the team agreed to all get together at Mementos the next day after school. Ren, Haru, and Goro would focus on questioning the Shadows of those among the Okumura Food board who got back hits, while the others would work on clearing requests from the Phan-site, which had built up during the time Ren had been “dead.”
Friendship, Akechi began to conclude, was exhausting. At the very least, he sort of wished he hadn’t agreed to let Futaba ‘mess with him’ however she wanted. Letting her throw wasabi peas at his head was irritating enough without everyone else laughing at his expense.
Still, it would be worth it in the end, he told himself as the others gathered their things to leave. Ren had even come to his rescue, as it were. It ruffled Akechi a little to have to be ‘rescued,’ but… he did like that Ren cared enough to do something about it.
Before he descended the stairs to Leblanc proper, he indulged himself one last lingering look at their leader, who was cleaning up everyone’s empty snack bags. He considered offering to help him out, but Haru beat him to it by going ahead and doing it. Goro tensed as Ren smiled at her, then left Leblanc with his back straight. Let this one go. He’d have another chance.
Most of the others dispersed once outside. Goro made sure to exchange goodbyes with the rest of them, but one he didn’t need to; Makoto walked with him to the train station. That was only mildly awkward. He glanced at her on occasion, and so caught her doing the same back. When they swiped their transit passes and settled in to wait for the next train, they stood an almost personable distance apart.
They might have spent the entire wait in silence if Akechi hadn’t cleared his throat, drawing her attention. “So,” he murmured, keeping his eyes forward, “since we’re here, there’s something I wanted to ask you...”
He glanced her way, meeting her wondering eyes. “Were you really jealous of me?”
She grimaced. “I should have figured you’d ask something like that.” She pushed her hair back and faced forward. “…Yes, it is. Like I said, my sister respects you and spent so much more time with you… It’s hard not to compare the two of us, especially since we’re the same age.”
Akechi breathed a faint laugh. “You honestly think your sister respects me?”
“Like most of our work colleagues, Sae-san can’t stand me. She only tolerates me because she has to.”
Makoto gawked at him. “What? That can’t be true.”
“Can’t it? Have you ever heard her say anything positive about me?”
“In truth, she resents me,” Akechi continued, turning his gaze forward. “She sees me as ballast weighing down her career—a child she was forced into babysitting because she’s a woman.”
“How do you know that?”
“You know she has a Shadow, right?”
Makoto fell silent.
“She’s not exactly wrong, either.” His grip on his briefcase tightened. “It’s absolutely true I was shoved onto her. None of the male prosecutors wanted to deal with me, so they had me work with Sae-san because they saw her as ‘more naturally inclined’ to dealing with minors.”
Her eyes narrowed. “...I take it they had Shadows, too.”
He shrugged. “It’s amazing how many people do. So you see, you have nothing to be jealous of. Your sister almost certainly likes you better than she does me.”
She bowed her head. After another moment of silence, he looked over at her.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “I thought you’d be happy to hear it.”
“How could I be happy about that…?”
A train rushed into the station, then slowed to a halt. It wasn’t Akechi’s. Makoto didn’t move either. The crowds flowed around them like a stream around a pair of mossy rocks. A moment later, the air settled, leaving the two of them alone in the station.
“Sis sees me the same way too, actually,” she murmured.
“As ballast. As a child she has to babysit.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because one night at dinner, around half a year ago, she snapped and said basically that.”
Akechi almost said something; decided not to at the last second.
She looked up at him. “…But I don’t think that’s the only way she feels about me.”
He met her gaze with a slight frown.
“It’s ironic,” Makoto continued, “but ever since she spoke to Ren last month, she’s gotten more relaxed, and we’ve gotten closer. Maybe she does feel that way when she’s stressed and frustrated, but people can often have complicated feelings for those in their lives. So… even if she does resent the way you came into her life, I still think she respects you as a detective.”
Akechi averted his eyes. Considering she had to know by now that his solved cases had been a sham from the start, he wasn’t so sure about that.
After a moment, Makoto pushed her hair back and cleared her throat. “Hey… you know how we used to do study sessions together?”
“If you’re not doing anything after this, would you like to join me for one at my place? We both have entrance exams to worry about, after all.”
He blinked at her rapidly. Though her voice had been soft, her gaze was unswerving. He smiled slightly, relaxing. He’d planned just to get on her good side and nothing more, but this…
“All right. Thank you, let’s do that,” he said, nodding.
She smiled back. By all appearances, it was sincere, like she was pleased to have the opportunity to spend time with him.
…this wasn’t so bad.
The next train came soon after. Makoto and Akechi boarded. Half an hour later, they walked into her apartment, the city lights already twinkling through the windows. As usual, the place was fastidiously clean, to the point it almost seemed unlived-in. Most of Akechi’s apartment was little different, admittedly. They sat together at the dining table, brought out their textbooks, notebooks, and study guides, and got to work. Studying together like this, something they hadn’t done in ages, gave him a not unpleasant sense of nostalgia. A key difference jarred it, though, and that was—
“You’ve gotten much more assertive,” Akechi observed once they reached a break point.
She blinked up at him as she set out a pair of steaming cups of tea for them. “Hmm?”
“You used to be a meek goody-two-shoes who did whatever she was told. Now you have steel in your spine,” he clarified. “This isn’t a new observation, mind you. It just struck me all over again.”
She smiled as she sat down. “Thanks for noticing.”
He chuckled. “You’re cheekier, too.”
“Well, I am a rebel with a cause now,” Makoto said straight-faced.
His chuckle turned into an outright laugh. “It’s a good look for you.” He took a tip of green tea. It was rather soothing. “…And it’s all because of Amamiya, huh.”
She nodded once, taking a drink of her own. “If I hadn’t met him and the others, I wouldn’t snapped and started standing up for myself.”
“‘Snapped,’ huh? Come to think, I do recall hearing about your motorcycle rampage in Kaneshiro’s bank.” He smiled. “You had the Shadows in quite an uproar.”
Her lips thinned as she set down her cup. “Oh, right… You were skulking around, too. As the ‘man in the black mask.’” She shook her head. “It’s… still strange, to think that you had these powers since far longer than I did.”
“…It’s strange for me too, but in a different way,” Akechi admitted.
He took a longer drink, mulling on his own words. He’d always held Makoto in contempt for being a ‘good girl,’ one of the few things that consistently shone through his pleasant mask, but… after encountering Shido’s cognitive version of himself, he’d come to realize it was because Makoto back then had reminded him of himself. A good little child who jumped to obey the demands of those who looked down on them, all out of a meager hope of praise and approval…He saw that part of himself in her, and he couldn’t stand it. Seeing how much stronger she was now after having met Ren?
It made him hate his weaknesses that much more.
“How so?” Makoto prompted then.
But he only laughed and drained his cup. “Isn’t it obvious? If things had turned out a little differently, maybe you would’ve ended up my partner in crime.”
She scowled. “You mean, done mental shutdowns with you? Sorry, but I would never do that.”
“True.” He peered down at the dregs at the bottom of his cup and wondered what fortune it told. “Knowing who you are now, it’s likelier that you would’ve pulled me back from the brink.”
Her eyes widened.
He set his cup down and forced a smile. “But that’s a rather depressing topic, isn’t it? We ought to get back to our studies before we get too distracted.”
“Hmm.” But Makoto didn’t argue with him, and they resumed their review of entrance exam materials.
Before they could get much further, though, the apartment’s front door opened and Sae walked in. She took off her shoes in the foyer and beelined to her room without paying either of them any attention.
At least, not until Makoto said, “Sis? What’re you doing back so early?”
Sae paused long enough to glance at them. “Hmm?” When she saw him, she did a double-take, blinking wide. “Akechi-kun? ...Now there’s a sight I haven’t seen in a while.” She looked over at Makoto. “There’s something I needed to pick up, is all. I’ll be heading right out again.” Then she looked back at him. “So you two are studying together again?”
“For tonight, at least,” he said. “Entrance exams and all.”
She shook her head, a pair of fingers on her forehead. “It is that season, isn’t it. What a shame… I could have used your help down at the prosecutor’s office.”
“Oh?” Makoto said, shooting Akechi a look. “You need him that much, sis?”
“At the very least, it would make things easier. But I’m not going to steal him from you, Makoto,” Sae said dryly. “Excuse me.”
She left for her room. Makoto gave Akechi a knowing smile. Akechi, however, was not impressed.
When Sae reappeared a moment later, he called to her, “By the way, Sae-san, I needed to discuss an issue with my savings account with you...”
“Can it wait until tomorrow? The taxi’s waiting,” she said, pulling on her shoes.
“Mmm, normally I would say yes,” Akechi said, shooting Makoto a furtive look, “but it’s something I can’t handle without you, my legal custodian...”
“Your what?!” Makoto uttered, jaw dropping. “I never heard about this before!”
“Oh, I never told you? I suppose it wasn’t relevant,” Sae said, adjusting her coat. “Since Akechi-kun’s a minor and has no parents, when he was accepted onto the force as an outside liaison detective, someone had to be appointed his legal guardian for the paperwork.” Her lips pursed. “And that was me.”
“I… I had no idea…”
“Well, I couldn’t very well have a boy living here with you, could I?” She looked at him. “In any case, I can spare a couple of minutes if need be. Can you give me the quick version?”
But he held out a hand. “Thank you anyway, Sae-san, but it’s a little too complicated to condense that far. I’ll make do until tomorrow after all.”
She nodded. “Tomorrow, then.” And then Sae was out the door.
Akechi watched her go. Then he fixed Makoto with a knowing look of his own.
She stared back at him, still visibly stunned. “Sis… is your guardian? But I thought…”
He shrugged. “It’s a bit complicated. In any case, as you see, it’s not like she does it out of any sense of affection. It’s more like she’s my legal representative until I come of age. Our relationship is purely professional. So, like I told you before, you really have nothing to be jealous of—”
She shot to her feet, cutting him off, and stormed past the foyer and out of apartment. Akechi followed her in confusion, careful to prop open the door on the way so they didn’t end up locked out. He caught up with her as the elevator doors opened for Sae. Hearing the two, she turned towards them, blinking in confusion.
“Sis!!” Makoto demanded, stopping a few feet away. “Did you really leave Akechi-kun to fend for himself, even though he was a minor and you were his guardian?!”
Oh god. “That isn’t why I told you that,” he protested, embarrassment heating his tone. “It wasn’t a big deal.”
“Akechi-kun didn’t mind,” Sae added, sounding taken aback. “He said he was fine on his own.”
“Bullshit!! Did you really think an orphaned kid would actually be fine living alone?!”
“Please go on ahead, Sae-san,” Akechi said hastily, attempting to pull Makoto back by the shoulder. “I’ll clear this up with her.”
“Or was it me?!” Makoto insisted, swatting him away without looking at him. “Did you think I was such a burden that you couldn’t let another kid my age move in?!”
To Akechi’s surprise, that actually seemed to strike home, from the way Sae flinched. “It’s true I was having trouble balancing taking care of you with my career,” she admits reluctantly. “There also just wasn’t space for Akechi-kun. If he’d been a girl, maybe the two of you could have shared a room, but he wasn’t, so it was out of the question. I didn’t want you getting distracted from your studies by boys.”
“Well, joke’s on you, because I’m a lesbian!!”
Dead silence. Makoto’s face slowly filled up bright scarlet. Sae stared, apparently too stunned for words.
But Akechi, who had figured this out a long time ago, coughed discreetly into one fist. “I don’t know that it makes a difference now,” he offered, “but while I do find some girls attractive, I largely prefer boys.” He flicked a hand towards Makoto, side-eyeing her. “…and of those girls, no offense meant, but your sister is absolutely not my type.”
“Well. That’s. Er,” Sae uttered. She cleared her throat as she shifted her weight. “I-is this really the time to discuss this? What’s done is done.”
“L-look, that—that wasn’t the point!” Makoto protested hotly, still bright red. “The point is that if you were his guardian, you should have actually looked after him!”
“I told you, it’s fine,” Akechi insisted, touching a pair of fingers to his temple. “It’s not like Sae-san wanted to be my guardian. She was forced into it.”
She whirled on him. “That’s no reason not to take it seriously!! If she had, then maybe you wouldn’t have—”
Makoto cut herself off, which was good, because Akechi had been about to do it for her. Silence as tense as a coiled snake curled around the three of them. Then he cleared his throat.
“Look. I appreciate what you’re trying to do,” he said, more stiff than gentle. “But it’s as Sae-san said: what’s done is done.” He nodded to Sae. “Sorry to hold you up. I’ll walk Makoto back to the apartment.”
“...Thanks,” she said, stepping inside the elevator. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”
Makoto stomped back to the apartment before the elevator doors had finished closing, so Akechi had to hurry after her. Once they were both inside, she turned to him, hands clenched.
“Why are you okay with this?” she asked, voice low.
“It’s not that I’m okay with it, per se. But both of us were forced into a situation we didn’t want, and it’s all in the past now. There’s no reason to get bent out of shape over it.”
“Bullshit!! You spent the last two years murdering your way towards revenge against a man who wasn’t even in your life anymore for being a failure as a parent! There’s no way you didn’t hold a grudge against Sis for being a bad guardian!”
Akechi gave her a flat stare and said nothing.
She held his stare in defiance. After a few seconds of silence, her eyes widened in realization. “Wait. Is that why you had us raid her Palace in the first place? Was that your revenge against her?”
He rubbed his temples. “No, of course not. ...is what I’d like to say, but I can’t deny there were elements of that there. Mostly, though, it was because she was a convenient target for the plan to catch Joker in the act.”
“...I see.” Makoto bowed her head. “Then what about now?”
For a moment, Akechi mulled it over. It was true he’d resented Sae for being just like the other adults who treated him like a burden. But while she’d been emotionally neglectful, she’d performed adequately in the technical aspects. Of course, even Shido had ended up paying for his schooling and apartment once the mental shutdown business started, but this was this and that was that. Sae’s anger at having to deal with him had been nigh palpable at times, but she’d also habitually taken him out to dinner, introduced him to her sister—a girl his own age, for all that was worth—and she talked to him seriously about cases.
“I don’t hate her,” he said slowly. “I don’t like her, either. I’d go so far as to say I dislike her, even. But I don’t hate her.”
Makoto shut her eyes, grimacing. “I see,” she repeated.
“Why are you so hung up on this?” he added. “It’s unlike you.”
“You think so?” She frowned up at him. “Maybe it’s unlike the me you used to know. But the situation you described, where Sis is your legal guardian but left you to fend for yourself, is just so flagrantly unjust to me. I’m shocked that the two of you see nothing wrong with it.”
“Is it? Then let me ask you this. Would it have been okay for Sae-san to leave me to my own devices so long as she’d never been appointed my guardian?”
He lowered his eyes. “I’ll admit it would have been nice to have a warmer, kinder guardian. But...” He met her gaze. “Living alone has its own advantages: privacy and freedom, for example. And if Sae-san had let me move in with you two, it would have only caused friction, even if we’d moved into a larger apartment to accommodate for my presence. I promise, the matter of my living arrangements was something we discussed and mutually agreed upon.” It’d been a rather one-sided agreement, admittedly, but he hadn’t wanted to live with Sae anyway, then or now.
“Oh… I see.” Makoto pursed her lips. Then she sighed. “I’m sorry. I do see your point, now that you’ve laid it out. I got carried away.”
“It’s fine,” he said, and was surprised to find he meant it. Because of that, he added, “Actually, on some level, it was nice. It’s not often people jump to my defense so passionately. I… appreciate it.”
“Akechi-kun…” Her expression warmed. “You’re welcome.” She paused a beat. “So… you’re, um, also gay, then?”
“Technically, for me, the term is bisexual. But we do seem to be birds of a feather, yes.”
“Ah.” An awkward pause. Then she let out a nervous giggle as she pushed back a lock of her hair. “It’s funny, really. At the start of this year, I never thought we’d be this… open with each other.”
He smiled a little. “You’re right. Amamiya’s one thing, but I wouldn’t have imagined we’d get this… friendly.”
“Oh? Is Ren that special to you?”
“Amamiya’s special, period, and you know it.”
“True.” She paused, gaze searching. “Do you...” She paused again, seeing him tense; then she shook her head. “No, never mind. On another note, I’m a little surprised it’s so rare for you to have people stick up for you. Don’t you have legions of adoring fans on your side?”
He sneered. “Oh, you mean the fans who turn on me the second I’m not perfect enough for them? Fuck them.”
Her eyes flew wide. “Akechi-kun!!”
“...But keep that sentiment between you and me.”
Makoto gawked a second longer; then she broke into laughter. “Fine. I will.” She half-turned towards the table, smiling at him. “Let’s get back to studying, then, all right?”
He smiled back. Strange. He’d planned just to curry favor with her, but now… he could sense the stirrings of a real bond between them. “All right.”