Early June, 2017
“It’s peaceful here,” Ann commented, staring up at the sky. The last rays of the sun were barely visible over the horizon, blanketing everything in a deep blue hue. The sun had been descending slowly ever since January, and the lower it got, the more stars were visible, a vast expanse reflected in the water all around them.
The ruins of Cognitive Tokyo were nearly gone. Buildings still jutted from the water in places, but only the ones that had been the tallest originally. There were far fewer piles of debris, and the water had gone from constantly-moving like a real ocean to flat and smooth as glass. The day that Yusuke had fallen out of the boat and realized that they could walk on the surface was one of the weirdest ones so far. So now they explored on foot, and it was helpful to not have to deal with the lifeboat anymore.
Currently, all of them were sprawled out on top of one of the remaining buildings, taking a rest. Goro got tired a little more quickly than the rest of them, but Akira always made sure to call a halt when he needed it, refusing to let him strain himself.
“So do you think eventually this’ll all just be water?” Ryuji asked. “Everything just keeps sinking; eventually there’s gonna be nothing left.”
“Just an endless, empty sea…” Haru murmured.
The building they were on was nearly flush with the surface, and Goro was sitting on the edge, tapping his feet against the water and watching the ripples flow outwards. “That’s a good thing,” he said. “Mementos was a distortion. It wasn’t supposed to be there. Presumably, this ocean is what the metaverse is supposed to look like.”
“That means people really are recovering,” Makoto said wonderingly. “The more the city sinks…”
“The better things are,” Akira concluded.
Futaba beamed. “It’s really neat to actually see the healing process like this. Mom would have loved it.”
Morgana had wandered over to where Goro was sitting, but before he could flop down beside him, he spotted something out of place out in the watery expanse. “Hey, what’s that?” He pointed, and Goro frowned, trying to see.
“There’s something moving out there.”
“That can’t be right,” Makoto objected, as they all crowded around to look. There hadn’t been a single shadow since Christmas. The sea was empty. But now there were clearly figures moving around out there; four of them, human-shaped, picking their way over a heap of junk from the Casino. As the Thieves watched, one of the figures stopped and pointed right at them, and Akira stood up to his full height.
“We outnumber them,” he said firmly, slipping back into place as ‘Joker’ as easily as breathing. “But be on your guard. We don’t know what they are.”
The Thieves took up a defensive stance as the figures changed direction towards them. But as they got closer, it became apparent that these were people. They weren’t in masks, but they were wearing appropriate clothes for exploring and carrying weapons. And finally, Haru stepped up behind Akira and said quietly, “I know who that is. That’s Mitsuru Kirijo.”
“Ain’t she some kinda CEO or something?” Ryuji hissed. “What the hell is someone like her doing here?”
Mitsuru was flanked by a blonde girl in some kind of armor, another girl with a braid who wasn’t carrying any weapons, and a girl with an auburn ponytail and a vicious-looking naginata. The girl with the ponytail stopped walking first, pointing at them wildly. “Holy shit, it’s the Phantom Thieves! ”
That briefly confused all of them. She sounded so excited, none of them knew what to say. But then Akira took a deep breath and stepped forward. “We are. But who are you? And how did you get here?”
Mitsuru spoke then. “My name is Mitsuru Kirijo. These are my associates: Fuuka Yamagishi, Hamuko Arisato, and Aigis.” She studied Akira curiously. “We’ve been exploring the Sea since we regained access. It’s actually fortunate that we ran into you. We’re with an organization called the Shadow Operatives that deal with disruptions in meta-space. I have questions about what happened last Christmas.”
“Shadow Operatives?” Futaba said. “That sounds sketchy as heck.”
“...I wouldn’t phrase it like that, but I agree.” Akira leaned his hand on his hip. “I’m going to need some more info than that before we just start talking.”
“It’s a long story,” Fuuka said. “But we have time, since there are no hostile shadows here.”
“You’re the Wild Card, aren’t you?” Hamuko asked Akira with a grin. “I can tell. We’re persona-users, too.”
Being persona-users alone wasn’t enough to gain any trust; Goro, after all, had been a persona-user and an enemy, at first. But ‘Wild Card’ was a term that meant they had some familiarity with the Velvet Room, which made it a little more likely that they were on the same side. Akira rocked back on his heels, thinking it over. “All right,” he said eventually. “We’ll tell you ours if you tell us yours. Fair’s fair, yeah?”
“Fair enough,” Mitsuru agreed. She and the other Shadow Operatives made their way up onto the Thieves’ building, and everyone found a seat, watching each other attentively. “For general purposes, things began in 2009…”
Mitsuru took them through a summarized version of the formation of the Shadow Operatives: the Dark Hour and the Goddess of Death, the fog of illusions and the bitter murderer, the blood-colored moon and the re-formation of the Great Seal... It was the sort of bizarre tale that would only come from someone that was telling the truth. So the Thieves offered their truth in return, of Palaces and conspiracy and the false god trying to take over both reality and the Velvet Room. The talk filled in many blanks on both sides, and by the end, Mitsuru was nodding.
“It must have been an incredibly stressful year for you.” Her eyes drifted around the group, before landing on Goro. They hadn’t mentioned his part in the conspiracy. Just that he was their teammate. She regarded him searchingly for a moment, then said, “Your arm, and your eye… Lost during a fight?”
Goro recoiled a bit, resisting the urge to pull his cloak tighter around his arm. “I was trapped in a collapsing Palace.”
“We might be able to help with that,” Mitsuru said. “The Kirijo group has been working with experimental cybernetic prosthetics based on the original technology used in the anti-shadow suppression weapons, like Aigis—”
“You can give Crow a robot arm?!” Futaba blurted out.
“They function almost identically to flesh and bone arms,” Aigis said. “Except for being made of metal. But they possess a full range of motor control.”
The Thieves looked at Goro, who was frowning suspiciously. “Why would you do that for me?” he said. “You don’t even know me, and you would just give me something like that?”
“You’re like us,” Fuuka said simply. “You went through a lot.”
“And we might not have been able to help while things were happening, but we can make damn sure we support the new team in the aftermath,” Hamuko chimed in.
Goro chewed his lip. “I...would need time to think about it. How do I know that you won’t call in some kind of debt later?”
Mitsuru shook her head. “You’ve been through quite enough already. But it is an open offer. Take all the time you need. I’ll leave my contact information with you for when you make your decision.”
When the Thieves left the metaverse and returned to Leblanc, they were quiet for so long that Sojiro started getting concerned.
“Did...something happen?” he asked, bringing over a round of coffees and Ryuji’s soda.
Yusuke took a sip of his drink. “We met another team in the metaverse. Adults, with powers like us.”
“They’re from some kinda organization,” Ryuji added.
“Mitsuru Kirijo leads them, apparently.” Makoto was frowning.
Sojiro looked around at them all. “Okay… So, are these people a threat? Do I need to be worried that you all won’t come home one day?”
Akira shook his head. “I don’t think so… She wanted to know what happened at Christmas, and she was asking about the Palaces, and what happened to Goro. She said they could get him some kind of fancy robot prosthetic.”
“It sounded like something similar to a myoelectric prosthesis,” Futaba said, holding up her phone. “That’s the kind connected to your existing muscles. And there’s even more advanced ones than that. I dunno what kind of tech comes from an ‘anti-shadow suppression weapon’, but we’re talking about prosthetics that would cost between a million and six-hundred million yen. And she wants to just give it to Goro, apparently.”
Goro said nothing, staring down into his coffee. It was too good to be true. The Thieves’ kindness he could understand, but total strangers? No. There was no way they would do that without wanting something in return, and he wasn’t sure he would be willing to offer whatever they expected. But before he could speak, Haru set her mug down with a thump and declared, “I think you should do it, Goro-kun.”
“Eh?” Caught off-guard that Haru, of all of them, was advocating for him, he fumbled for a second. “You do?”
Haru nodded. “They’re offering this to you and haven’t mentioned any conditions. Obviously you would need to get more information, but there’s no harm in expressing your interest and learning what would happen. If they never bring up any kind of condition or debt to be repaid, they wouldn’t be able to demand that of you afterwards.” She looked over at Sojiro. “Right, Boss?”
“As long as you don’t sign anything,” Sojiro shrugged. “That wouldn’t be legal anyway; you’re not an adult yet. But I don’t know how I feel about you agreeing to some sort of experimental surgery. You don’t know these people.”
“We wouldn’t let them just carry him off and experiment on him,” Akira said sharply. “They’ve got to prove they’re trustworthy, first. But…” His expression twisted anxiously. “I do think… Goro, if this can give you your other hand back… It would be worth it, wouldn’t it?”
Goro hesitated, and Ann chimed in quickly, “We wouldn’t let them hurt you.”
“Or take you away,” Morgana said, almost talking over her, and the other Thieves were quick to reassure him as well. It helped, in a way that he wasn’t expecting it to, and he sighed.
“I’ll hear them out,” he said, and Ryuji slung an arm around his shoulders.
“And we’ll be right here!”
Even Sojiro looked happy for him, despite his clear misgivings about the Shadow Operatives. Hope wasn’t something that Goro allowed himself a lot of, even though he lived with Morgana, but just this once he wanted to believe that this was going to work out. That he might actually have two functioning arms again. It would be worth whatever procedure it took.
It almost wasn’t worth it.
The Shadow Operatives were a lot more forthcoming with information than the Thieves had been expecting. Everything was frank and up-front. Mitsuru showed up at Leblanc with an entire binder full of information, and had even tolerated Futaba pawing through it and Sojiro’s protective questions.
They didn’t want any money. Technically the prosthetic was a prototype, so this was going to be more like a field test. All they were asking for was an appointment to assess how well it was working every two months or so. There were no forms to sign, nothing tying them together, and Mitsuru was very clear that she didn’t expect the Thieves to have any part of the Shadow Operatives in an official capacity unless they wanted to.
The procedure would be done in the morning, and ideally Goro would be home for dinner. It would likely take practice to train the new nerve connections, but that would hardly be different from the physical therapy he still did once a week for his legs. The only drawback was that because of the nature of the nerve connections, they couldn’t put him under general anesthesia, only local. So it was going to hurt, and he was going to be awake for it.
Goro’s response had been, “I can handle pain.”
Goro nearly broke Akira’s hand mid-procedure and was hoarse afterwards from yelling.
“I am sorry,” he said that evening, sitting on the couch beside Akira and eyeing the bag of ice on Akira’s hand with shame.
Akira laughed. “If the worst thing that happened was me ending up with a sore hand, I consider that a win. I hadn’t realized how buff your left arm has gotten.” In the background, Futaba was setting up the big TV for a Featherman marathon, but Akira’s attention was entirely on him. “What do you think? Any finger movement yet?”
Goro glanced down at the new arm, metallic and unfamiliar and a weight he was no longer used to. It was going to be bizarre, getting used to having an arm again. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t get his fingers to do more than twitch a little, but he wasn’t worried. They had told him that it would take time to learn how to move, training all of the new nerve connections. Like riding a bike, he had to learn how the muscles moved until it became instinctual. “I’ve only been home for a few hours, Akira. I’ll get there.”
“Yeah, he’ll get there, so shut up so we can watch Featherman,” Futaba chimed in. “We’ve got less than a month before the new season starts and some people are behind!”
Akira rolled his eyes. “We were saving the world. I didn’t have time to watch every episode.”
“We did,” Futaba and Goro said in unison.
“I’m sorry that I was too busy providing for the Phantom Thieves instead of watching Featherman on Saturdays.”
“Shut up so we can watch!” Futaba said, launching herself onto the couch on Akira’s other side.
They made it through the first few episodes, and Futaba and Goro gleefully pointed out several possible candidates for Feather Gold Osprey from background characters. But when they reached episode 6, they ran into a point of conflict during the explanation of the Feather Stones.
“I’m just saying that having fourteen potential rangers is too many,” Futaba said. “That’s like...twice as many as any other season. Why do that if you’re not even going to show them all?”
“It’s a sequel hook. They announced Feather Gold as the next ranger, but that doesn’t mean the others won’t make an appearance in season 2,” Goro countered. “Neo and Advent both had eight rangers, and honestly, even if Gold joins as their ninth, it’s possible that the other two will end up as villains like Navy and Crimson.”
“Other three,” Futaba said.
“Other two. The magenta stone is broken, remember?” Goro replied. “And for all we know, so are Bronze and Amber.”
Akira was looking back and forth between them as they discussed from either side of him. It was like watching a tennis match while perched on the net. “Have they ever had a team of evil rangers before?”
Goro shook his head. “Not actual rangers. There have been a few episodes with some form of doppelganger or brainwashing, and there was a team of cyborg rangers during Neo for a while that were villains, but this is the first time it has explicitly been people with the same powers.”
Futaba almost dropped the remote as she gestured. “Yeah, this is totally new territory! This is like in the last arc of Soldier Luna where the villains all have soldier transformations, too. Instead of protecting their planets, they turned evil!”
“We still don’t know if Navy and Crimson have been brainwashed or if they’re actually evil, though,” Goro pointed out.
Akira laughed nervously. “I still haven’t even seen Crimson. We’re only on episode six, guys.”
“But, Goro…” he continued. “Jeeze, I didn’t know you knew so much about Featherman. I bet there’s a wiki somewhere crying for attention.”
“I have been known to edit the wiki occasionally. People have a bad habit of mistaking fanon for reality,” Goro huffed. “There was a point where I considered writing up episode analysis for the new series, but I never had the time for something like that before.”
“You should, when the new episodes start again,” Akira said. “I bet they’d be great. And you always sound so happy when you talk about Featherman.”
“Vlog, vlog, vlog!” Futaba began to chant, and Goro’s eyes widened.
“Why not a regular blog?” he asked.
“Because obviously a vlog gives it a more personal touch!” Futaba said. “Besides, you have a nice voice. Why do you think people wanted to interview you all the time?”
“Because I was a celebrity?” Goro said, baffled. But then he conceded, “I’ll...think about it. It’s just...my face.”
“There’s nothing wrong with your face.” Akira wrapped an arm around him, pulling him in, and Futaba laughed.
“Besides, you know Yukari Takeba now, you can interview her for a video~”
“I don’t think that… She came to see me in the hospital, but…” That had been the weirdest part of his day. After the surgery, several of the Shadow Operatives they hadn’t seen before had checked in, curious to see two of the notorious Phantom Thieves. One of them, to Goro’s great astonishment, had been the current co-writer of X and former Feather Pink Argus, Yukari Takeba. He’d made an absolute fool of himself trying to talk, but thankfully he’d been able to blame most of it on pain meds. And when Sojiro and Futaba had come to pick them up from the hospital, Futaba had practically screamed when she found out that she’d missed it.
“Guys, we’re not going to make it to the mid-season finale before bed if we don’t keep going! We’re wasting the golden opportunity of Morgana spending the night at Haru’s,” Akira whined, and Goro pounced on the chance to go back to the show instead of continuing the discussion.
“That’s right, come on, there’s six more episodes, let’s go,” he urged, and Futaba gave in.
In the end, all three of them dozed off on the couch in the middle of episode eleven, with Goro and Futaba using Akira as a pillow. Sojiro found them like that just after midnight when he came down for a glass of water, and shook his head with exasperation. He made sure that none of them were going to wake up with strained muscles, cut off the TV, then threw some extra blankets on them and went to bed.
He’d make them a good breakfast in the morning.