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The Inherent Danger of Cryptid Hunting

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Inaba was a small, quiet town. Traffic was minimal, the small talk was incredibly personal, and daily life seemed to as slowly and leisurely as the sun across the sky in the encroaching summer.  Relaxing walks along the few city streets were as common for young families and their kids as they were for the elderly. One of the town’s buses sputtered by the central shopping district, as if carefree in its own way. Momentum carried the bus the last few feet toward the front of the Junes supermarket. The wheels rolled to a smooth stop, and the driver released the pneumatic door before leaning back in his seat to relax for a lazy second.

Two figures clad in Yasogami High School uniforms bolted from the bus, cameras at the ready as they tore through the store to the food court.


Today was a scheduled, family-friendly meet and greet with the store's mascot Teddie in the Junes food court, which should be wrapping up soon. Akira Kurusu and Shiho Suzui had had this highlighted on their calendars for weeks. Today was the day they get evidence that Teddie existed to those in the outside world.

By the outside world, they meant Tokyo. And by Tokyo, they meant their two blondes who couldn't accept the truth, even if it was constantly waved right in front of their faces.

 

Ten days ago

 

Shiho attached IMG_12367.jpg

Shiho: It’s him.

Akira: It’s Him

Akira: He’s Here

Ryuji: whomst

Ann: are you telling me this blur is a person??

Akira: Yes??? It’s the Junes mascot

Shiho: He’s real and he’s here.

Shiho: You know.

Shiho: As we've just established.

Ryuji: junes doesn’t have a mascot :/

Ryuji: they make a point of not having one, don’t they?

Ann: yeah!! also i can’t even tell what that pic is supposed to *be*

Ann: it’s just a blur

Shiho: Okay, maybe it's a bad pic, but you can at least make out the shape of him.

Ann: ...no i can't????? it’s red and that’s about it

Ryuji: yeah no you're pulling one over on us

Akira: What

Ryuji: very funny country kids!!!

Ryuji: i'm glad we all had a fun giggle here, today, as a family

 

Seven days ago

 

Akira attached IMG_14469.jpg

Ryuji: pic number,,,, NICE

Akira: Nice

Ryuji: but what is this supposed to be

Ann: NICE

Akira: It's clear photographic evidence is what it is

Shiho: Nice!!!!

Shiho: (at both things)

Akira: Imagine me pointing directly at this thing with my begloved hand

Akira: That's A Mascot

Ann: begloved is not a word

Akira: It is now, I just did that

Shiho: Wait, I'm going to need a definition on that one, friend.

Akira: Begloved: adorned with a glove, pronounced like “be-loved”

Shiho: Hmm……

Ann: IMPORTANT

Ann: WHAT KIND OF GLOVE

Akira: Red, faux leather

Ann: HMMMMMM……….

Ryuji: imagine a hand that could be so equally begloved and beloved

Akira: Gay

Ann: INCREDIBLY GAY

Shiho: Akira, Ryuji, aren't you both bi though?

Ryuji: hella

Akira: Yes, but please also consider:

Akira: I'm gay

Shiho: Hmm, yes, I understand,

Shiho: Wait, we are SO FAR off track.

Shiho: Look at this evidence.

Shiho: Checkmate, atheists.

Ryuji: the lighting seems weird tbh

Ann: yeah with where the lights are at in that pic???? suspicious

Ryuji: like the geometry of that pic is screwy, this is 100% shopped

Akira: I have the second best camera phone of the four of us, I know what I snapped babe

Akira: If I'd taken that pic with your sasquatch phone then I'd Get It but nah

Ryuji: oh is that how it is sweaty?

Ryuji: keep that up and the only thing beloved for you on your next trip to tokyo will be your begloved hand

Ann: holy shit??????

Shiho: Oh my god, Ryuji…….

Akira: Fuck

Akira: Ladies and gentlemen of the group chat, I'd like to formally apologize for my past behavior,

 

Six days ago

 

Ryuji: HEY did you know there's a junes in ueno

Akira: No?

Akira: How many times did I go to Ueno and not know there was a Junes there???

Ann: not enough and guess where ryuji and i were!!!

Ann attached IMG_27745.jpg

Akira: Excuse me, quick question, are those red chinos on my boyfriend

Ryuji: ann said to take a page out of her book and i did

Ann: and i am PROUD of him!!!!

Akira: I already have a lot to think about re: This

Shiho: Ann.

Ann: but see…... we were there to investigate

Ann attached IMG_27746.jpg

Ann: i tried on so many store brand sunglasses, including these pink heart-shaped shades which were very cute!

Ryuji: yes, she made a lot of sacrifices for this trip, you two

Akira: Those glasses are cute, tho

Shiho: Ann.

Ann: you know what was a little disappointing though??

Akira: What's that

Ann: none of them let me see the imaginary bear around the store

Ann: SUPER weird tbh

Shiho: ANN.

Akira: Ann………

Ryuji: yeah i coulda sworn i heard something rummaging around the store

Ryuji: but those were just new hires, nothin to worry about

Ann: my gallant hero!! he helped me look by the way

Ann attached IMG_27747.jpg

Ryuji: there's nothing a mascot needs more than a massage y'know

Ryuji: so we figured hey, maybe it'll be here?

Akira: Ryuji, are you kidding

Ryuji: why would I joke about this

Ryuji: we even left an empty massage chair between the two of ours

Ann: you know

Ann: for our missing buddy

Ann: the fictional Junes mascot

Akira: What do I have to do to receive a modicum of respect in this group chat today

Shiho: ~ * ANNE MARIE TAKAMAKI * ~

Ann: WHAT!!!!

Shiho: I ate about a third of a crepe after class today and threw the rest in the garbage.

Ann: WHAT THE FUCK WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT

Shiho: Too sugary.

Shiho: And I knew you two were up to some shit.

 

Three days ago

 

Shiho attached IMG_11773.jpg

Ryuji: wtf is THAT

Shiho: THE BEAR.

Ann: this again………

Ann: PLEASE just admit there is no bear

Akira: He's real

Shiho: HE'S REAL!!!!!!

Ryuji: important question what's in the water out there that's making you hallucinate a bear

Shiho: Seriously???

Ann: seconded

Shiho: Oh, COME ON.

Akira: You know, my parents have pics of me with him when I was younger

Ryuji: WAIT FOR REAL

Ann: WHAT!!

Shiho: It's true, I've seen them!!

Ryuji: i am WAY more interested in akira's baby pics than your fake bear to be real

Shiho: Send me ¥1000 each and I'll post pics AND proof of the bear.

Ryuji: DEAL

Ann: DEAL!!!!

Akira: Now wait a sec, those pics don't leave the house

Akira: I certainly wouldn't say no to ¥1000 at the door, though

Shiho: That's *my* money, Kurusu.

Akira: It sure is

Ryuji: pfffff

Akira : All proceeds will go to the Shiho Suzui Lunch Fund

Ann: lmao

Ryuji: ok your pics are safe for now

Ryuji: but you better believe summer break means those pics will be seen

Ann: YEP screencapped and sent to all my contacts

Akira: Ann

Akira: Why did you send me a pic of this group chat

Ann: literally read two lines up

Akira: Ann

Akira: Ann, I'm *in* the group chat


Until Ann and Ryuji have an opportunity to make good on seeing Akira’s baby pics, Shiho and Akira tried to gather the best possible photographic proof of Teddie’s existence to push away the notion that the countryside is affecting their perception of reality.

Hence, the sprinting through the grocery section toward the back of the department store.

The infiltration of the food court was as much practiced as it was cautionary. The fuzzy bear was in the center of the court—a tactically weak position visible from multiple positions of cover surrounding the decently populated chairs and tables. The two slipped from cover to cover with the skill accrued by the many foiled attempts that preceded this golden opportunity.

Finally, they got into place behind the bulletin board directly across the court from Teddie. That was truly the ideal spot, since the mascot faced this direction most frequently. Akira poked out of the cover, armed with his camera phone as Shiho did the same, crouched low for another angle (to serve as irrefutable proof). Akira zoomed in to get the perfect shot. He wouldn’t be denied now.

A small child ran to chase after some birds collected around someone’s leftovers. The birds fled the scene, scared by the tiny, threatening human.

Snap.

Akira looked down in panic at his phone to see if the picture survived. By the audible gasp, Shiho had done the same. The image quality was sharp, and the Junes logos behind the stage were perfectly clear.

One of the birds blocked the damned mascot almost perfectly. The bear’s stubby legs were visible, but the rest of the body and head were covered by a frightened-looking pigeon.

“Oh, motherfucker.” The whisper came from beside him. Akira hadn’t seen a lot of angry Shiho, but she was terrifying when a fire lit under her.

“You too, huh?”

Laser-focused, Shiho put an end to the banter and swatted him in the knee. “Look alive, he’s getting away!”

Akira looked back up and saw the mascot jogging back into the staff area, escaping the scene once again, and leaving the two teens shocked and listless at their still-unfulfilled burden of proof.

Defeated, yet again.

Shiho groaned as she stood up, and Akira leaned on the pole of the bulletin board in dismay. As she pocketed her phone in a small gesture of petulance, she asked, “Bentos and dango?” Akira made a small noise of confirmation and joined his comrade to buy, and summarily stuff their faces with, their consolation prize.

Morgana received some sushi for being such a good sport through their covert operations, enjoying his reward for eternal patience in the seat next to Akira. Now that the meet-and-greet was over and the shop was due to close in about an hour, the food court had since emptied out.

That, of course, allowed Morgana to pitch in his questions. “Why does this even matter? They’re obviously doing all this to rile you two up.”

Akira swallowed his bite before responding, “That’s obvious, but the thing we get ribbed about is fixable. With proof.”

“That seems to be impossible to get, anyway.”

At that snipe, Akira shot a deadpan look at Shiho across the table.

“Shiho, I’m being bullied by my cat.” 

Shiho automatically scooted her chair and nabbed a piece of sushi and ate it quickly while Morgana was busy taking a blunt swipe at Akira for his nonsense. “I’m not some mangy cat!” Akira smiled a little at the banality of the situation and started to make peace with his not-cat friend.

All three were too wrapped up in their little tiff to hear the approaching footsteps.

Morgana recomposed himself and tried again, “I still don’t see what the big deal is, Akira. He’s just a tacky mascot.”

A figure jumped from behind a nearby pillar and all but shouted, “I am not tacky! That's bear-y rude, mister!”

Akira’s blood ran cold as he jumped, reaching down to his hip for the handle that wasn't there. 

He barely managed to redirect his fight-or-flight instinct as he quickly spun the move into a flourishing stand, the smile on his face hopefully not as outwardly detached as it felt. “That's something I'm trying to prove, actually! I have an artist friend whose eye is incredibly discerning, but highly questionable.” Akira rounded the table almost carefree, but made a half movement and shot a stern glance at Shiho, hoping that she would get his plea to play along.

Shiho was still piecing together the situation as she blankly snapped a pic of the seemingly angry mascot in front of her. At Akira's glance, she plastered on a fake grin (something she's not proud of having) and relaxed into her chair as she looked at Morgana. His feline eyes had blown wide and watched every move with precision. Something's wrong with both of them, but everything's developing so fast that she can only go along for the ride at this point.

Wait, Shiho realized. Who called him tacky?

Akira pulled a chair for the mascot invitingly and offered, “We're just having dinner, but we had a couple of questions for you, if you don't mind!” He took the mascot's earlier outburst and turned it into bait by adding, “Especially about your costume.” His grin had grown by the end of his thinly veiled demand.

The brightly-colored bear had had his eyes trained on Morgana, who was coiling on all fours and unconsciously swishing his tail low, but at the turn of Akira's invitation to talk about his costume, the mascot looked to him and shakily smiled as he replied, “Oh, of course! Anything for a little downtime, haha!”

Teddie sat down and scooted his chair in, slightly uncomfortable. Shiho offered him a piece of dango, which the mascot was forced to turn down to his continuing dismay—he'd learned his lesson about eating with the costume on around strangers with the Investigation Team.

Akira peered closely to the costume's material, feigning interest. “This seems like some high quality synthetic fur lining, doesn't it get hot in there?”

Teddie puffed up slightly before he responded, “It does, but this? This is all 100% real bear fur!”

Akira made a show of examining the “fur” as the mascot preened, eventually rotating around to position himself behind him. “There’s no stitches or seams anywhere, this is incredible handiwork.” Akira Joker hastily scanned the food court to check for any onlookers while Teddie couldn't see him. At the reassurance that no one was nearby, he forced his hand.

The leader of the Phantom Thieves knew how to trap someone and intimidate them. Shiho, in the back her mind somewhere, realized that this made sense, but it was still a shock when Akira’s face darkened as he placed his hands on both sides of the mascot's zippered head dome and leaned his weight into the hold, Morgana approaching slowly across the table, like a predator lining up their next kill.

Two piercing glares helped affix Teddie to the chair as the voice behind him asked, “Why can you understand my cat? I wasn't the one to call your costume tacky.”

At the unwelcome response, Teddie tried to back out of the conversation. “I'm sorry, I thought I heard someone saying something mean about my luxurious bear fur and I needed to defend my honor—”

Morgana hissed, “Your costume is terrible, but that's not why you have some major explaining to do.”

The pressure increased. “We get it, you have pride. Don't change the subject.” He didn’t want to scare Shiho too much with his proclivity for hostile negotiation, but the stakes became too high far too quickly for him to care.

Teddie started squirming in his seat, unwilling to talk. Akira lightened up a shade, but kept his hold firm—he didn't necessarily think the affable Junes mascot was a mass killer, but he didn't trust strangers in this specific situation so easily. He started again in a dangerous murmur, “Understand where I'm coming from. The last person who understood Morgana without me knowing about it first was a contract killer responsible for the deaths of several people. I need an explanation, and it better be the truth. I don't...”  Morgana’s tail swished dangerously behind him as Akira trailed off. “I don’t want to assume that you're just as homicidal, but I don't have many options. Make sense?”

Just outside Akira’s tunnel vision, Shiho tried not to think too hard about the darker quality her friend had taken on. She finally had an idea of the difference between knowing that Akira and his friends were the Phantom Thieves, and knowing what exactly that meant. 

Teddie started and stopped a few times before he said, “I would never kill someone! I’ve stopped people from getting murdered! I'm just a humble bear that wants to score with the ladies!”

A red flag went up in Shiho's mind.

Someone from behind Akira jogged over and broke into the conversation. Shit. “Hey, what's happening over here?” Akira leaned off Teddie slightly and was about to try and play off his obvious intimidation tactic, but the mascot spoke first.

“Yosuke! Great timing, we—”

“We were having a conversation about his costume,” Akira cut off, shortly. “I was asking about the reason for using nothing but primary colors. It certainly gives a visual pop, but I was surprised they're not Junes colors, you know?” The lie rolls off his tongue with a practiced ease. A quick glance to the man's name tag told him this was Yosuke Hanamura, Assistant Store Manager.

Teddie trampled right over it. “The cat is talking! I can hear him!”

From behind him, Morgana yowled, “I am not a cat!” 

“Yeah?” Hanamura squinted unbelievingly at the mascot and asked, “What did he say right then, Ted?”

The indignant response was immediate. “He lied and said he isn't a cat! I know a cat when I see one!”

Shiho was so far out of her element that she tried her best to magically turn invisible to no avail. Eating the last dango, long since cold, was her sole reward for her normalcy.

Akira tried a new tactic, wanting this middle manager to disappear. “I understand you're concerned, Hanamura-san, but this is a conversation between me and the talking mascot who can magically understand my cat.”

Hanamura quickly dismissed that idea as he admonished, “Any conversation that can happen with Teddie can happen with me, magic or otherwise.” He shook his head and continued, “Don’t think that I haven't noticed you two trying to sneak pictures of Teddie for weeks, either. If I need to ban you from the store, I will. So. Change your tune, wrap this talk up, or I'm calling security.”

Shiho looked like she was ready to bolt, but Akira inhaled a deep breath and made a leap of faith. 

He turned to Teddie and asked, “When did you enter the Metaverse? That's the only way you could understand.”

Hanamura rolled his eyes and stated flatly, “Oh, he's just crazy. Ted, you coulda said something.” He reached for his phone as he sighed, “I'm calling—”

“Did you ever kill someone's shadow?”

Akira barely fought off the shaking from every muscle in his body tensing in unison.

Hanamura stopped dialing as his eyes blew wide and shot to Akira. Teddie froze, flabbergasted. Morgana bore his claws. Shiho held her breath, afraid that even one movement could break the ice.

“No, we didn't.” The voice that came from Hanamura was quiet, but everyone heard it. “We subdued them, but we never killed them.”

There was a long silence as everyone slowly processed the situation.

Teddie visibly flinched and said slowly, “Hey, Yosuke? Can we show these two the fine deals Junes has on TVs right now?”

Akira gave the mascot a cold glare. “I'm not exactly in the market to buy a television.”

The manager, in return, had a look that neither Akira or Shiho could quite place. “Oh, we know. It's... just a change in scenery so that we can continue this conversation privately.” He beckoned toward the two teens and their companion cat, “Come with me.”

Shiho shot Akira a concerned look when she rose from her chair. As they entered the store, she asked hesitantly, “Akira, something weird is about to happen, isn't it?”

Akira was still laser focused on Teddie and Hanamura, adrenaline still pumping. Morgana, now perched on his shoulders, was doing much the same. He had just enough free brain power to flippantly respond, “Yeah, probably.”

The two Junes employees escorted the group through an increasingly empty store—past the home office furniture, kitchen supplies, futons and mattresses—to the TV section, into the last row against the wall. Akira noticed the lack of security cameras faced in this corner. In fact, a lightly discolored disc of the ceiling looked like a camera that did face this way had been removed entirely. That could only be deliberate.

Hanamura stopped in front of a ridiculous OLED display that was larger than some of the nearby doors, and turned to face Akira. “This is going to sound a little strange, but I want you to touch the TV screen.” 

Akira thought for a brief moment before he gestured towards the flatscreen and said, “After you, Shiho.” 

She blanched and gave Akira a withering look. “Is the screen… going to eat my hand?”

“I'll be right here. If I'm right, nothing will happen.”

Shiho approached the TV slowly, as if it could bite. She reached out with her right hand, inching it slowly forward toward the screen, wincing as her fingertip approached the glass, anticipating the contact.

Thunk.

Akira suppressed a snort at Shiho's sigh of relief, but that did not stop her from shooting him a sardonic glare for putting her through undue stress.

Hanamura looked expectantly at Akira. “Your turn. I believe in Teddie’s intuition when this kind of stuff comes up.”

That extra bit of volunteered information intrigued Akira as he stepped toward the gigantic TV. “That’s how often, exactly?”

The lone adult grimaced. “Almost never, which is still too often.” Teddie's sound of rebuttal went ignored as Akira reached toward the screen. There was little hesitation as he went to touch the screen.

Instead of meeting the cold pane of the glass, Akira’s fingertip phased through the TV screen, rippling out from the point of contact. His eyes shot to Shiho's in shock but he didn't dare to move his hand. 

“Weird enough for you, Shiho?” Akira's voice was the only thing calm about him.

She stared at the screen and nodded silently. 

“I know this might be breaking your brain a little,” Hanamura cut in, “but if we want to continue this conversation, we need to go into the TV World. I have some questions of my own.” 

Shiho started at his voice and reeled at his suggestion. “But I can't go in, we just proved that!” 

Teddie had clearly thought that through—with a flourish, he suggested, “If you hold onto me, I can get you in, Shi-chan!” 

There's a second red flag for Shiho.

Hanamura slapped Teddie’s head for his trouble and admonished, “Just go in already, you dumb bear!” He then redirected his attention to Shiho and gestured at Akira. “If you hold his hand, that should get you in. I'll watch for any other employees and come in behind you four.”

Teddie pouted, jumping in without hesitation. With Hanamura's reassurance, Akira turned to Shiho and held out his slightly trembling hand.

“Ready for things to get really weird?” 

She stared at his hand and, after a moment of thought, took it and prepared herself. “At least this'll help me understand Morgana, right?” That jab came too quick for Akira to choke down the small scoff made at the cat's expense. Morgana hissed and clubbed his human in the temple with his paw in retaliation.

Akira wore his smile like a mask and warned her, “Be careful what you wish for.” He then tugged lightly and stepped into the screen cautiously…

…only to lose his balance and fall backward, tugging Shiho in with him.

At least my arm broke the barrier of the screen with no issue, Shiho mused alarmingly as she lurched forward.

It was her last coherent thought, because gravity took over and one thing consumed her entire being. 

I'm falling.

Panic seized at her insides with its icy grip.

In an instant she felt herself go rigid, the muscles in her body tensing and quaking, controlled by the dreaded cocktail of adrenaline and fear inundating her mind, unwilling to cooperate as she fell like a rock. The vibrant, vertigo-inducing stripes of light made the episode feel like an eternity. Her hand crushed Akira's as she clung to something, anything in reach to ground her and rouse herself from this sudden, waking nightmare. She felt her extremities flash cold, grip becoming clammy and desperate. Akira responded by pulling her into a bridal carry as the stripes gave way to quickly approaching ground. 

Shiho slammed her eyes shut and whimpered at the sight she'd never wanted to see ever again: the earth accelerating towards her. Her lungs emptied involuntarily, trying for a scream of terror, but only a choking sound made it past the rush of blood in her ears. She attempted to will herself out of her own personal hell and failed—gravity, ignorant and uncaring in the face of her mortal fear.

Akira used their angled trajectory to the ground to his advantage. He got his feet under him and used the balls of his feet to control his fall and convert his momentum into forward motion, leaping forward from his landing spot like a springboard. He had to flip to get himself under Shiho so he'd take the hit from the fall. He landed in a slide to try to kill their momentum, dirt and grass gritting his coat (what?) but managing to keep Shiho safe from a hard landing.

It was over all at once for Shiho. As soon as she felt Akira hit the ground and sensed that she had stopped falling, her body felt far away as she limply curled in on herself. On reflex, she took a deep breath, unable to curb her wracking, wailing sobs. She was cold, she felt pale, and unbearable phantom pains shot through her legs. She barely registered the tremors still shivering through her core as she kept her eyes firmly shut. 

But she wasn't alone. She felt herself get swaddled in some kind of coat (from where?) as she heard Akira's calm voice saying, “We're here, we're safe, it's okay, you're fine, we're on solid ground. We'll get answers, and we'll be alright. Deep breaths, okay?” Shiho gave a weak nod as she attempted to control her breathing. Akira continued calmly, “What do you need?”

She managed to grit out between ragged breaths, “Contact, contact, ground me here, please.”

Akira obliged calmly, carefully wrapping her in an embrace as she slumped into his shoulder, heaving sobs calming into a quiet stream of tears. She weakly brought up her own arms to wrap around Akira like a buoy in raging seas, thankful for the friend currently massaging soothing patterns into her back. Little by little, she felt her anxious energy sap from her body. The purring coming from behind also helped, as a second tiny set of arms hugged her calf from behind.

Shiho then realized she had her eyes squeezed shut this whole time. She slowly opened her eyes and gasped lightly at the beautiful, serene scene around her.

They were lakeside, the water only moved by the tranquil breeze and cascading waterfalls coming from the rolling, green hills nearby. Lily pads floated along the surface of the water, following the gentle current—the dew drops upon them glimmered in the light. The verdant forests in every direction thrived here. Flowers of all sorts were in full bloom around them, reaching toward the heavens with a lust for life.

Little signs of humanity spotted the landscape, too. An elegant swing hung off the branch of a sturdy tree in the distance. A pristine bicycle was left leaning against the tree itself, but both were unattended. There was no lock on the bike, and the swing looked to be easily accessible; whoever left those there obviously had an immense trust in everyone else. If this was the wrong part of Tokyo, that bike would be gone in a matter of minutes.

Shiho’s survey of the new landscape jolted to a halt when she saw... Is that the bench from the Samegawa Flood Plain? Poised right at the bank of the lake in the exact same position relative to the water. Shiho felt a sense of deja vu as her eyes fell on the simple public seating. That’s where she and Akira began to pour their hearts out to each other, each in desperate need of a lifeline away from the city. The sudden wave of fondness that welled up inside her made her feel warm. She felt the last of her anxiety slowly leak away as her heartbeat returned to normal. 

Then, something poked her in the scalp. 

She let go of Akira to find him dressed like someone who has lost their mind. “...Akira?” He smirked, but she then saw movement at his feet and then quickly shifted her line of thinking—maybe she lost her mind. “Morgana?”

“In the flesh! Please, in this world we do codenames: I'm Mona, and this guy is Joker,” gesturing up to Akira who sported a lopsided grin and nodded. 

Without his trenchcoat, Akira—no, Joker—looked halfway between a magician and a card shark, certainly ready to part fools with their money either way: crisp white dress shirt, sleeves neatly rolled past the elbow with a perfect pleat, black silk vest to complement the coat, perfectly fitted black slacks, and heeled platform dress shoes to match. Beyond the main elements of his dangerously sharp look, two things immediately stood out.

First was the black and white domino mask, which was absurdly effective for what it was. Shiho thought to herself, How does that work so well?

Second, though, were the stark red gloves. She couldn't stop staring at the pop of color in his otherwise black and white ensemble once her eyes landed on them.

Offhandedly, he commented, “I didn't think I'd miss this as much as I did.”

Shiho made a small sound to get Joker's attention. When he looked questioningly, she weakly pointed at his hands and asked between calming breaths, “...faux leather, right?”

His eyes widened in recognition and he gave a breathy laugh and nodded wordlessly.

“Do you… want your coat back?” Shiho was still processing everything.

“If you don't need it, sure,” Akira replied with a calm smile. “I like to have a complete look, but I like to think I look damn good without it, too.”

Shiho snorted, slowly feeling herself return to form as she watched him swing the coat on in one fluid motion. “Pretty and humble? No wonder you're a catch.”

Akira's cocky grin didn't quite reach its full size. “It's a shame we're both spoken for, huh?”

Shiho laughed, but she had known Akira long enough to hear the words that weren't spoken. They were going to have a talk, later.

She was saved from acting on that instance by a prodding at her thigh. Shiho jumped, so absorbed in Joker in front of her that she forgot about the curious case of Morgana, who was…

“...not a cat?” Shiho wondered aloud, crouching to examine Mona's form.

Mona had hearts in his eyes as he leapt forward and gave Shiho a clingy hug with all four tiny limbs. He started purring lightly as he turned to Joker and said, “See, Joker? Somebody finally got it on the first try without calling me a monster cat!” 

“That won’t last long if you crowd her.”

Mona blanched and immediately hopped off of Shiho, who was still taking everything in as fast as her brain, almost fully recovered from her attack, would allow. The not-cat grinned up at her and pointed emphatically, “You're my new third favorite.”

Shiho raised an amused eyebrow. “Third favorite?”

Mona held out a paw and began to list. “Well, Joker's my second favorite,” he paused, “even if you two are horrible influences on each other…”

Joker butt in, “We make phenomenal decisions, Mona.”

Mona ignored him completely and continued, “...but Lady Ann will always be my favorite and nobody can change that.”

Shiho barely contained a chuckle at the odd title. “Lady Ann, huh?”

Joker attempted to cut that line of conversation off completely. “It's just a thing he calls her, don't worry about it.”

“Are we talking about ladies!?”

Bounding from the other side of the clearing, Teddie entered the conversation at the worst possible time. 

Shiho cringed before quickly forcing a neutral, friendly expression on her face as she turned around to face the mascot. She took another deep breath before she said, “We're talking about my lady specifically, before you get any ideas,” annoyance driving her past any instinct to not out herself to a stranger in a bear costume.

Teddie's eyes widened a little as he proclaimed, “Well, you should bring her by Junes, then!”

Red flags three and four in quick succession… Shiho internally prepared to defend herself.

Blissfully unaware of Shiho's tensing stance, Teddie closed his eyes dramatically and continued wistfully, “It's one of my goals to score with as many ladies as possible—oof!” His sentence was punctuated by a right hook to the gut from Shiho, knocking over the mascot as she held her fists up in a decent fighting stance.

Mona slipped in front of her, protectiveness radiating off him in waves. Joker casually sidled up to Shiho's left, confident that those two could handle themselves as his demeanor began to sink into his interrogation mindset again.

Teddie started to scramble into a defensive stance, but the atmosphere was interrupted by a yelp behind him as Hanamura botched his landing and came rolling to a stop just behind the mascot.

He quickly stood up and dusted himself off, like he didn't just fall from the sky. Finally, he surveyed his surroundings and saw the trouble brewing and sighed in defeat. “I swear, I leave you alone for five minutes… What did you do, Teddie.”

The bear sputtered, “I'm being attacked from all angles, here!”

Joker cut off his whining. “He told her that he wanted to score with her and her best friend.” 

At that, Hanamura simply shook his head and chopped Teddie on the dome from behind. Teddie let out a yelp and ducked away as he continued to complain.

“Lit-rrrrr-ally attacked from all angles!”

Hanamura went for another swipe and missed as Teddie zoomed out of slapping distance. He harrumphed, “Stop harassing the high school girl and I'll stop trying to smack you silly. And that pun wasn't even close, either.”

Teddie sulked as the lone adult began to repair the situation. “Okay, let's start over. I'm Yosuke Hanamura, this is my cohort Teddie, and both of us awoke to the power of Persona about six years ago at this point.” He gave the leather-clad boy in front of him a look. “Are you…”

One single eyebrow barely raised above Joker's mask as Yosuke instinctually checked over his shoulder before he leaned forward and whisper shouted, “Are you a Phantom Thief?”

Shiho tried to run interference. “Oh my god, you can't just ask people if they're Phantom Thieves—”

“Summon your Persona and I'll tell you the truth.”

Mona turned to Joker incredulously and said, “Joker, what are you playing at, here?”

He spoke a little louder to make sure everyone heard. “Maybe this time we can see all the cards on the table before I have to fake my death again." Joker looked straight at the man. "Mona, you know I have trust issues with adults.”

Yosuke examined Joker carefully. “Show me yours if I show you mine?”

Shiho slowly shook her head in confusion when Joker simply nodded, looking between them. 

Satisfied, Yosuke extended out his left hand to show a spinning tarot card. He let the card hang in space as he fished out a switchblade from his pocket, flicking his hand to brandish it in one swift movement—only for it to nearly nick himself as he panicked and let it drop blade-first into the soil. Sheepishly, he picked up the blade and slashed the card, shouting, “Come, Takehaya Susano-o!”

Shiho was drawn in by the glowing blue of the card, but the card broke like glass when Hanamura cut it in two. She wasn't prepared for the rush of wind to surge forth at the summoning of an… actual Japanese diety?

Behind him, a massive humanoid figure appeared wearing neon yellow robes and red pants, clashing against golden boots and gauntlets. The figure was surrounded by hovering saw blades, and their head was simply missing, replaced by a gaseous orb that reminded her of the sun. It exuded power from its very being, and Shiho looked at Joker to make sure she wasn't supposed to be bowing to this… thing.

When she didn't see him so much as flinch, she pinched herself. Shiho didn't trust many of her senses at the moment. She surely didn't believe the sight in front of her one bit.

She thought it was a figment of her imagination when the trusting, compassionate, lovable idiot of a friend beside her shouted, “Satanael!”

So, when she saw Joker grab his mask and rip it away to leave the top half of his face a bloody mess, she screamed. She forced herself to watch as his eyes flashed gold before the blood on his face washed away in a blue flame. The flame grew like it took to kindling, and expanded to shape into a portal from Hell.

That became a little too literal when a three-story tall, six-winged, horned monster rose, baptized by the flames from which it emerged. It stretched out its arms and wings, and let out a roar that could only be described as unholy.

Satanael, the fallen firstborn son of God.

She dared to look away and, upon seeing the stilled forms of Hanamura and Teddie, felt slightly better about nearly fainting from the sight of the demon in front of her.

After a very long moment, Joker slipped his mask back on and Satanael disappeared from behind him. Hanamura, across from him, dismissed Susano-o without a word, pocketing his switchblade stiffly and silently.

Joker approached quietly and put out his hand for a shake. “Joker, former leader of the Phantom Thieves.”

Hanamura took the offered handshake and bowed to him. “Yosuke Hanamura. Member of the Investigation Team.” Joker looked slightly confused as he was about to interject, but Yosuke continued, “I know you might have questions, but I have so many questions about Christmas Eve.” He pressed on quickly, “A few of us were able to summon our Personas in the real world, which would be cool if it wasn't a really bad sign! What the hell happened?”

Joker’s cool was being tested as the barrage of questions rained down on him. He heard Shiho quietly murmur, “Christmas Eve…” as he sized up the situation and tried to figure out exactly how much information to divulge. Instead, he figured out how to buy himself some time and fill in the missing pieces of his mental puzzle first. 

“I'll answer your questions, but i need more from you first. How did you get a Persona? Did you have some impossible task as well?” 

From his flank, Mona quickly chirped, “And how did you manage to get a Shadow into the real world?”

Teddie immediately jumped in alarm and deflected, “That's a bear-y long story! We have other pressing grr-estions to deal with first!” 

Yosuke shot a pained expression at Teddie, “We both know that one's a stretch, Ted.”

“Oh, just let me have it!”

Shiho tried not to laugh, thankful for the bit of levity after their staredown. Mona, on the other hand, was not ready to let the topic drop. Sensing this, Joker waved his partner off with a hand signal: wait

Eventually, Yosuke started, “Were you two in Inaba about six or seven years ago?” 

Joker nodded, and Shiho shook her head. 

“In 2012, there was a string of murders in town that didn't seem to have any rhyme or reason. No obvious murder weapon, motive, suspects… the only thing connecting them was their appearance on daytime TV, and then showing up on the Midnight Channel.”

Joker cut in, “Wait, wasn't that an urban legend? I thought that was about soulmates or something.”

Yosuke made a shaky motion with his hand. “That was the rumor, but it was also the destination for people who were being kidnapped and put into a very dangerous situation.”

“Wait, destination?” Shiho was already lost.

Yosuke gestured widely, “This place is the remnant of the Midnight Channel. It's a place built by the collective dreams of humanity.” He winced a little before he continued, “Or… something like that. Marie is better at this spiel than I am.”

“And she’s cuter, too!”

“Shut up, bear!”

Now Joker was lost. “Wait, Marie, the weather lady?” Shiho turned and fixed him with a confused look.

Yosuke ran a hand down his face. “Yes, I'll have to introduce you sometime, but that's not now, because now is story time.” He spotted a nice picnic table by the lake and shepherded everyone towards it. “We may want to take a seat, because this is a pretty long one.”

As they strolled over to the table, Shiho shot Joker a playful glare and wondered loudly, “Joker, why do I feel like every story involving your absurd magic ends up being ‘a long story’?” adding large air quotes to drive the point home.

For his part, the glib remark bounced right off Joker. “Nothing's ever easy, Shiho. Being a Phantom Thief, climbing trees, pranking an entire school, rainy day beef bowls…”

“Getting a good picture of Mr. Cryptid over here—”

Hey!” the cryptid in question tried to butt in.

“So you do know the struggle my magical life continues to be!” Joker said, bumping Shiho on the shoulder with his own. His grin was unrepentant in the face of Shiho's withering look. 

When they settled at the picnic table, Yosuke started, “This place didn’t look so nice when my partner and I got our powers. In fact, it was made up of this dense fog you couldn’t see through without special glasses. The landscape would change and adapt to the people who were thrown into the TV against their will and usually, those places were molded around their… insecurities.”

Joker put his head down in thought, hand raised to his chin. “Whose shadows would show up there?” It was a leading question, sure, but he needed to confirm his hypothesis.

Across the table, Yosuke saw through him. “You sound like you already know the answer. What do you think?”

Joker blinked a few times. “Well, whenever we went somewhere that was themed like that, there was always someone’s shadow that lorded over the area. But the rulers of the Palaces we sacked never had access to the Metaverse itself, so they had no idea what was happening.”

Yosuke make a shaky hand gesture. “That's sort of right? We encountered my shadow in the fake version of Konichi’s grocery market, which was about to close because of the new Junes in town. I…” He trailed off as he tried to avoid reopening an old wound. “I had some personal ties to the market, and my family were the franchise managers for the Junes having a grand opening down the street. I felt bad about being indirectly responsible for the Konishi family having their livelihood threatened, and…”

At the older man’s hesitation, Joker waved him off. “You don’t have to relive that for my sake, I can relate.” At Yosuke’s puzzled look, “There’s more than enough personal trauma among the Thieves surrounding each of our awakenings that I wouldn’t want any of them to have to revisit it more than necessary.”

Shiho tried not to think about the story Ann told her about her awakening. She felt a slight headache pierce her concentration, but the sensation was gone mere moments later.

Yosuke nodded solemnly at Joker. “In the end, I faced myself and accepted that those ugly parts of me were exactly that. Part of me, that is.” He took in a deep breath through his nose to clear his mind. “That was the case for all of us. The most important thing to us, and our Personas, was staying true to ourselves and doing our utmost to find the truth. It sounds kinda cheesy when I say it like that, but that’s sort of what it boiled down to for the entire team.” Yosuke looked nostalgic, but then his face soured as he looked into the distance. “Plus, when we didn’t accept ourselves, our shadows rampaged and had to be tamed before they killed us.” 

Teddie piped in, “We think that’s why people died in the TV World when they were tossed in by the culprit.”

There was something about how easily the threat of death spilled from their thoughts that seemed a little too familiar to Joker. “Almost everyone in the Phantom Thieves awakened to their Personas in a life-or-death situation involving the shadow who owned the Palace.” Joker scowled as he reminisced. “We had to rebel against them to get out alive. We really saw the worst of people. You kind of look at everyone different because of that.”

Shiho, distractedly listening, jumped into the conversation. “The Thieves never had to ‘face themselves’ the way he's describing, right?”

He looked over to her and considered. “Oracle did, but she was the only one of us that had to. She awakened to her Persona in her own Palace, but that’s more a special case than anything else.”

She nodded, and that seemed good enough for him to continue prodding the other two for information.

Shiho looked into the distance, thinking about her conversation with Ann from Golden Week when she had learned the whole story. She couldn’t help but think about what she told her now.


During Golden Week...

They were laying on Ann’s large bed, strewn across the mattress in ways that felt fine now but would hurt later. Shiho had been peppering Ann with questions all night.

What did your costume look like?

Are you still good with a whip?

Is that something you intend to keep up with?

Did you regularly tell the shadows to “squeal like a pig”?

The most innocuous-seeming question made Ann freeze. “How did you awaken to your Persona?”

“I almost died.”

Shiho’s body froze before she whipped around to stare at her new girlfriend. Ann shifted and pulled Shiho into her arms and ran fingers through her hair. Shiho murmured, “Don’t let me step onto a landmine, Ann. If you don’t want to go back to that, you don’t have to.” That was a common sentiment between all of the Phantom Thieves. It was easy to see, even as an outsider, how much they cared for each other. They didn't outwardly say it, but she could tell they skipped a lot of details when talking about his palace.

The listless carding of Ann’s hand through Shiho’s hair continued. “I need to say it out loud. It was a terrible experience, but extremely liberating. I have no regrets. Just know that no matter how dire this sounds, I beat him with my two hands, okay?” Shiho nodded into Ann’s touch.

She started again, “That bastard had taken me prisoner in his shitty castle, and I had no idea I’d been teleported to the Metaverse. He had me chained to a torture rack of some sort. He came in with these walking suits of armor and his… skimpy idea of what I was to him. He had his guards hold me at swordpoint when Joker, Skull, and Mona came to rescue me.

“I was a hostage. That’s exactly when I realized those three weren’t going to be able to help me. I almost gave in, too. With... everything that had happened in such a short period of time, it all began to crumble.” Ann gave herself time to breathe. “Then, Joker told me not to give in to his shit, and this…”

Her hand stopped.

“This fire lit in my soul and spurred me into action without thinking. It was like an out-of-body experience. I was so angry. A voice echoed in my head offering a contract, acknowledging my hatred, the need for revenge, and the desire for power to help the others eradicate him.

“I accepted the contract from Carmen without hesitation and I was filled with this... unending rush of power. I muscled my way out of the rack, stole a broadsword, and sliced his cognitive little hoe version of myself right in half, directly in front of him.”

Shiho turned around in her girlfriend’s grasp. “I didn’t take you for a sword lesbian.”

That shocked a laugh out of Ann, dissipating the heavy air in the room with one precise joke. “Please. You of all people know exactly how bi I am.”

Shiho shot her an amused grin before she continued, “So, Carmen is a part of you now?”

“Hecate, now, but yes. She is me, but it’s kinda hard to explain. She’s like a fun house mirror version of me, but it’s undeniable. She is my fury.” Ann moved her hand to start idly scratching Shiho’s scalp.

Shiho made a noise of affirmation, begging her to continue. “My persona is the realization that I couldn't be a pushover anymore. Revenge pushed me to be a different version of myself and accept that rebellious side that was buried deep… if that makes sense.”

Shiho batted away the hand on her head, scooted up, and gave her girlfriend a kiss on the temple. “It makes perfect sense.”


She may have been seated at the picnic bench with the other four, but Shiho had zoned out of the conversation, reflecting on herself. Between Ann and Yosuke’s stories, she had given herself a lot to think about. She thought about that sort of out-of-body experience, facing the form of everything you consciously rejected. After that particular conversation with Ann, that thought—that what if—consumed her idle time. Was she truly at peace with herself? What would she have to face if she wasn't?

She allowed her eyes to drift along the scenery.

Shiho saw herself sitting on the lakeside bench, facing the water.

Wordlessly, she pushed herself up from the picnic table and calmly started toward the bench. From behind her, she heard Joker attempt to stop her only to hear Mona hold him back. From the stories, it sounded like Mona had a well-honed intuition.

That’s good. With every step forward, she realized she’d needed this.

Shiho sat down without a word on the other end of the bench. Her Shadow was still in her tattered Shujin uniform. She took a few calming breaths as she stared at the gently rippling water. Then, she slowly dragged her eyes to her left. 

Two unnatural, yellow eyes stared back, directly through her—spotlights shining on the recesses of her mind.

“I've wanted to have this conversation for a long, long time.” She sounded just like her, with some weird flange to it.

However, Shiho didn’t like her tone. “I can tell. At least you were polite about it.”

Her shadow scowled. “Fuck politeness. This is about opportunity, since you didn't listen to me before.” 

That stunned Shiho. The only other time she heard own voice with this kind of tone was…

“...so that was you, in my head. Back then.” 

“Of course it was.” Her shadow turned to face her with a look of disgust. “When I told you that you had a choice to either break free from letting other people get what they want from you or accept the consequences of your inaction, I did not want you to take the second one.” 

Shiho soured and looked out at the water to help maintain her remaining shred of calm. She was running out of patience in record pace. “You of all people should know what kind of mental state I was in at the time.” 

Her shadow was, too. She pointed aggressively and spat out, “And you, of all people, should know that the adults who did this to you couldn't give less of a fuck about your ‘mental state.’ Your other friends are going to tiptoe around it, but I'm going to tell you what they won't. Look at me.” Shiho kept her eyes to the coastline, not wanting to look at her own face twisted in anger. That only pissed her shadow off more.

“Goddammit, look at me.”

Shiho dragged her eyes to her shadow’s golden irises.

Her shadow’s voice settled in a low, final tone. “You heard it yourself when the Thieves finally told you the whole story. The fix was in for a game larger than you, and you got played like a pawn, without a single ounce of personal consideration. You need to accept that.” 

Shiho again attempted to maintain some sort of emotional balance. “It doesn't matter how it happened. What matters is that that bastard will rot in prison for a very long time, and that's the end of it.”

Her shadow snapped petulantly, “That might be the end of it, but you sure did glaze over a lot in the middle there.”

Shiho’s focus on emotional balance was promptly discarded. “Fuck off. You certainly didn't help by pushing me to the edge.”

Her shadow leaned slightly closer. “The finest diamonds are made under intense pressure. I didn't expect you to take the coward's way out.”

The resounding slap echoed in her mind more than it did across the water. 

She didn't remember standing up, and she knew her hand should have stung, but she didn't think about either. Her shadow raised a hand slowly to her face, gently grazing the fresh red mark delivered by her counterpart.

“Shut the fuck up.” 

Shiho was fueled by a newfound righteous anger stoked within her. The only things that mattered right now were her and the enigma in front of her.

The shadow went to open her mouth but was forcefully cut off by Shiho. “No, shut the fuck up. You don't get to tell me that. Yes! I fucked up! I know that!” She turned and shouted out to the lake, “I FUCKED UP! I UNDERSTAND THAT!” 

She wheeled around back to her shadow, hot tears on her face. Already going hoarse, she roared, “But you know what happened because of that? I got away from him. If I wanted to twist this bullshit like you do, you could say my desperation pushed the Phantom Thieves to make sure I was avenged and that set them on their path to saving Tokyo!” She was shouting with her entire body at this point, unable to control her arms and legs as she exploded in her shadow’s direction.

“I finally understood how much I loved Ann when she visited me, time and again, when I thought I was less than useless! She understood how much she loved me, too! And I'll always love her for being with me through my worst days!” She pointed right in her shadow’s face. “She pulled me out of the pit that you helped dig for me.” 

She pointed in the direction of the picnic table. “I learned about how caring and admirable of a person Akira is, and I cherish that every day I'm out here! I'm thankful for every single day he helped Ann and Ryuji survive the Metaverse! I became thankful that Ann had broken out of her shell, reunited with Ryuji and made some genuine, incredible friends along the way! I was and continue to be proud of her and happy for her! Even while I'm away from her, she's not alone.”

Shiho took a few ragged breaths. “I might never play volleyball ever again, but that in exchange for everything else I just laid out? With that knowledge and that hindsight? I can't bring myself to regret that. Not even a little bit.”

She stuck her finger in her shadow’s shoulder. “And you know that, too. I know you know. I went back to the rooftop and stood on the fucking ledge again, to prove that I could after all those months of absolute hell. Do you remember that? I’m not sure if you do, because you were nowhere to be found, and that was one of the happiest realizations of my fucking life.”

On the bench, her shadow looked concerned. “You're delusional if you try to pin all of the Phantom Thieves’ work on your dumb decision.”

Shiho took a step away with a grimace. “I'm not that stupid. Mishima might be a nerd who thought he was along for the ride, but I was in a fucking wheelchair for a lot of it!” She had a glint in her eye as she sidled closer to her shadow. “Even though it was inadvertent, I pushed them to the edge. You remember how the finest diamonds are made, right?” Her voice rose again. “You heard about how brightly they shine, right!?”

Her shadow began to tear up. Shiho’s voice quieted back down, but lost none of its intensity. “I know I made the worst decision in a bad situation. I'll never fully recover from that. I know that in my heart of hearts.” She took a deep breath. “But, knowing so many good things happened in the aftermath of that, and that I get to live to see those play out, helped me come to peace with it. It took a long time and a lot of help to get there, but I got there.”

She grabbed her shadow by the shoulders. “Look at me.”

The shadow wiped away some tears and stared into her. 

“I know you know this. You're me.”

Her shadow sobbed, but Shiho wasn't expecting to be pulled into an embrace by her. It felt real, in an ethereal way. A waking out-of-body experience.

When her shadow found her voice again, it was a low murmur. “Have you truly learned about who to let in, after all this time?” Shiho simply nodded, so her shadow continued. “Will you refuse idle acquiescence to those that would use you, tear you to shreds and toss you aside?”

Shiho found her voice. “Yes.”

“Vow to me. Vow to me that you'll never let yourself down that path again.”

A steady flame grew within Shiho as the words effortlessly formed in her head. “No one will ever derail my life like that, ever again. There are those who will try, but they’ll never get the chance. That's a promise.”

Her shadow squeezed slightly in response. Eventually, she murmured, “I will always want you to be the best you can be… even if I have extreme ways of showing it.” She pat Shiho’s back lightly a few times and sniffled. “You've always had a big heart, and I feel it swell so often. Once you master the instinct of discovering who to let in and how to guard it properly, you'll be unstoppable.”

“I said it earlier. I'll always love Ann. She's the best of us.”

Her shadow stilled for a split second before tightening the embrace briefly and then letting go. She wore a small grin and said simply, “I think your heart is a little bigger than that.”

She began to glow with a soft blue light. A second voice had blended in when she began to speak.

“I am thou… Thou art I. 

“You were taken in spirit from those you loved, but you returned to them after quite a long journey.

“And now, your commitment to your inner strength is as indestructible as their commitment to you.

“You will discover the true intent of others, and the truths of the worlds around you. 

“Never forget those commitments, and I will lend you my power in dealing with those who would harm you.”

Shiho watched with wide eyes as her shadow dissipated in a shimmer of blue with a gentle breeze. A floating card appeared in her shadow's place, yearning for her to reach out to it.

She picked it out of the air without a second thought. “Thank you, Helen.”

And then she collapsed onto the bench in a fit of exhaustion and suddenly she felt like she could sleep for an entire day.

The others rushed to the lakeside once the shadow disappeared. Mona jumped onto the bench and set a paw on her shoulder.

“Are you okay, Shiho?”

She groaned and nodded, involuntarily reaching out for a full body stretch along the length of the bench. “I feel great. I felt alive a few seconds ago, but now I'm ready to be dead to the world for a few hours.”

“Shiho.” Joker stepped forward wearing a small smile. “I'm incredibly proud of you.”

Her beaming at his encouragement was stymied by her current jelly-like state.

“I told them about the cryptid thing.”

“Oh god, why…”

“It was only fair. And… we got our photo op once we get back to the real world.”

She groaned in place. “I promise I'd be more thrilled if my bones weren't made entirely out of twizzlers right now.” To prove her point, she flopped onto her chest and deflated further.

Joker poked her in the scalp. “You're gonna sleep like a queen tonight, I promise.” She let out a muffled cheer before he continued, “But the order of operations is first photo, then ride home, then bed. Gotta do the first two first.”

A dismayed muffle escaped the bench as she slowly forced herself onto her feet.

Slowly, and with the two men helping Shiho walk a little faster than her current trudge, the five of them made it back to the stack of TVs near the area where they entered. Shiho looked at Teddie and asked bluntly, “Do these have a long fall, every time? I'd rather not do that ever again.”

Teddie looked proud of himself. “Nope! The exit only involves you falling from the TV screen in Junes to the floor!”

“Great,” she drawled back. For her part, Shiho just resigned herself to it possibly hurting.


Thankfully, Teddie was right about the return trip being much shorter. Unfortunately, now she was exhausted, slightly hurt, and nauseated. That sleep was sounding more and more incredible with every passing second.

The sun was still low enough in the sky for a quick picture with Teddie, one of them on each side of the mascot holding peace signs, Morgana lying lazily on top of Teddie's dome of a head (much against his loud protests).

Snap.

Yosuke managed to grab a pic with his and Akira's phones.

He's got some detectives to taunt with this photo.


Akira attached IMG_14478.jpg

Akira: Yall wanted proof so we got you the damn proof

Akira: Never say I don't get shit done

Ryuji: holy shit,

Ann:

Ann: well, that certainly looks like a mascot,,,

Ryuji: wait doES THIS MEAN NO BABY PICS

Ann: YEAH HOLD ON

Ann: YOU CAN'T KEEP THOSE AWAY FROM US

Akira: What? No

Akira: As long as you pay the entry fee, the pics are yours for the viewing

Ann: good

Ann: good

Ann: hold on, why does shiho look like she ran a marathon, but everyone else looks fine???

Ryuji: why hasn't she chimed in yet either????? she was in this as deep as you were

Akira: Let's, uh, hop chats real quick

Ann: ???

Ryuji: okay??????

 

---

 

Joker: Okay

Joker: So

Joker: Remember how we basically said Shiho was an honorary member of the Phantom Thieves back during Golden Week

Joker: You know, after we told her everything

Queen: Yes?

Skull: ye

Oracle: uh oh what happened

Panther: you're leaving us hanging here for a little bit, joker

Fox: If you've got Oracle guessing, you must really have pulled off something egregious.

Skull: lmao

Oracle: shut UP, inari!!!!

Joker: I'm just trying to figure out word this

Noir: don't worry, take your time!

Panther: nah something's up with shiho and you haven't told me yet????

Panther: and we're talking about it in this chat??????? not with her?????????????

Joker: There's uh

Joker: There's been a development out here in the countryside

Panther: JOKER

Panther: WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED TO MY GIRLFRIEND

Joker: Turns out that there's not only a purified version of the Metaverse out here, but also a group of older Persona users

Queen: What?

Panther: WHAT

Oracle: omfg??

Oracle: THAT'S why your phone disappeared???

Skull: holy shit

Joker: More importantly

Joker: Shiho confronted her own shadow and awakened to a Persona?

Panther: WHAT THE FUCK

Skull: WHAT THE HELL!!!

Oracle: WHAT

Noir: oh, good!

Queen: Wait, really?

Fox:

Fox: Paint us a picture, Joker.

Oracle: really inari :/

Joker: It happened under the Midnight Channel style of confronting yourself, which is more similar to Oracle's awakening than anything

Queen: What does that mean?

Joker: No cognitions, but her shadow was a LOT more antagonistic

Joker: One of the Inaba Persona crew told me that their shadows would basically wait to be rejected by their real selves and then rampage because of it

Joker: Like a truth-seeking quest but for your ugly self

Fox: Even the most beautiful work can have elements of macabre. We certainly did.

Skull: ??

Joker: Exactly

Joker: That's her story though, it's very personal and I'd rather let her tell it if she decides to share

Panther: wow… i should call her right now

Joker: @Panther she literally passed out on the city bus on the way home

Panther: WHAT WHY DIDN'T YOU TELL ME

Joker: She’s fine, but she is Guaranteed dog tired and will probably be unresponsive till tomorrow

Panther: okay. Okay

Queen: Deep breaths, Ann.

Panther: okay, I'm calmer now

Joker: She did slap the ever-loving shit out of her shadow, though

Panther: WHAT

Oracle: LMAOOOOO

Skull: YOU CAN'T LEAVE OUT DETAILS LIKE THAT

Noir: ooh! how was her form?

Joker: Full wind up and swing, including hip and shoulder rotation with zero warning

Joker: You and Queen would have been immensely proud

Noir: i'm proud of her right now!!!

Queen: I mean, she did play volleyball. She does know how to hit.

Noir: mako-chan!

Queen: I didn't say I wasn't proud of her. Of course I am.

Queen: She is just primed to know how to make a slap count much better than most of us.

Joker: So, now for the crux of why I came here

Joker: Now that she has a Persona, I would like to propose bringing who I'm tentatively calling Scholar into the Phantom Thieves. All in favor?

Joker: Aye

Panther: AYE

Skull: AYE

Joker: Aye from Mona

Noir: aye!!

Oracle: I!!!!!!!

Queen: Does she want to?

Joker: I'll have the chance to ask tomorrow, but I'm pretty sure I know that the answer to that question is yes

Fox: She has finally began to paint on the canvas of life with new, vivid colors, and who am I to deny that?

Oracle: damn, inari, you could've just said “aye” like the rest if us

Fox: What's the fun in that?

Oracle: -_- zzzz

Joker: No one against?

Joker: Then it's decided. I'll get this sorted out in the morning

Joker: WAIT I almost forgot something

Joker: Queen

Queen: …yes?

Joker: Did you know that Naoto Shirogane not only has a Persona but helped solve the serial killer case here in Inaba?

Queen: YOU DIDN'T *LEAD* WITH THAT?

Panther: omg...

Queen: HOW DID YOU EVEN FIND THAT OUT?

Joker: Despite tripping face first into this mess, I made some new friends

Joker: Hey, unrelated, but do you and Noir want to make a weekend trip out here in about a month?

Joker: I'm sure Shirogane would love to know the specifics of the Shido case when we have dinner with a few of them at the Amagi Inn

Queen: UH

Queen: I

Noir: goodness, you've nearly broken her!

Skull: OOH a queen bluescreen, thats REALLY rare

Noir: she hasn't moved an inch in about a minute!!

Fox: If only I was there. That sort of stillness is perfect for artistic study.

Oracle: INARI

Oracle: they are probably both very naked, that's a no go zone >:(

Noir: we'll be there, Joker, don't you worry! :)

Joker: :)

Noir: Hey, Fox? Oracle?

Noir: ;)

Fox: What on earth…

Oracle: hhhhghhgkgkll i have to leave, i have to go RIGHT NOW

Joker: :) gn yall


Akira set his phone aside, and he was asleep before his head hit the pillow.