Sumire had never before dealt with a Shadow this stubborn. Usually, when their health reached a low point, they'd fall easily or beg for their lives– but this one was refusing to surrender, and although it was too weak to fight any longer, it had been dodging or resisting all of their attacks.
She was still getting used to Mementos. It was hard not to gawk at the strange, twisted scenery every time they entered. And it was downright bizarre to see the Phantom Thieves idly look on as Goro Akechi terrorized Shadows with maniacal fervor, as if it was something they were all used to. But then, Sumire reminded herself, according to Ren, it was.
Akechi was acting even more like a villain, now that he'd lost his patience with the Shadow. Breaking formation with the rest of the group, he stalked over to the Shadow and jabbed his formidable sword under its chin.
"Piece of shit," he said, voice low and full of fury.
The Shadow didn't move, but Sumire thought she saw it shaking a little, as if it was petrified.
"The worst kind of scum is the kind that won't accept when it's beaten. You're at my goddamn mercy. You'd better act like it." Akechi raised his sword as if to strike for the final time.
The Shadow flinched, its ghostly eyes wide and horror-struck.
"Crow!" The word tumbled out of Sumire's mouth before she could stop herself.
Everyone turned to her immediately, including Akechi. His eyes flashed as they met hers. "Yeah?" he hissed.
"That's– it's too much," Sumire managed. "It's scared."
For a moment, Akechi didn't do anything. Then he turned to look at Ren. "Leader?" he said curtly.
Ren was standing a little ways away, his arms folded. He smiled when Akechi looked at him. "Do you have a habit of playing with your food before you eat it?"
It sounded like a bizarre non-sequitur to Sumire, but something in Akechi's manner changed. "Whatever," he said, and even as the word was leaving his lips, he was reaching for his gun and shooting the Shadow dead.
Sumire watched its form dissolve into nothingness.
"Well… that was more difficult than expected," Morgana said. Without saying anything else, he jumped up and transformed back into a bus.
Akechi stalked over to the vehicle. As he passed Ren, Ren said, "Some things need a softer touch. I could teach you some negotiation tips, Crow."
"Bite me," was the response.
Sumire clambered back into the car with the others and felt as if she understood less than she had when she'd gotten out of it. She wondered if there was something she should say, but before she could open her mouth, Akechi suddenly spoke up from the front seat.
"I hope that wasn't too disturbing, Violet," he said. His manner had changed again– his tone was bland and neutral.
Sumire shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "Um…"
"But," Akechi continued, "you should be aware that there are times when it's necessary to harden your heart."
"I'm… not sure if I have the same ability for it as you do," she answered.
"Hey," Ryuji interjected, leaning forward. "Don't go teaching her anything weird."
Akechi ignored him. "That aside, you'll need to develop an instinct for knowing which times to strike hardest. And without exhausting yourself. You're capable of some powerful Bless attacks. I know just how much energy they take."
Sumire frowned. "But, Crow, I thought you didn't use Bless attacks."
"I don't," Akechi said shortly.
"I've been wondering," Sumire said, unable to help herself. "Since..." She looked at Ren in the driver's seat. "When I first saw you dressed like this, he asked if you were wearing that one . Do you have... another form?"
For a moment, nobody said anything.
Then Akechi broke the silence. "You know, there's something I've noticed. Before all of you ask other people questions, I think you'd do well to ask yourselves a few things. Things like– does this really matter right now? Will knowing the answer help us at all? Am I simply wasting everyone's time?"
Sumire bit her lip. "I didn't mean to–"
She felt someone else's hand squeeze hers, and turned to see Ann looking at her with sympathy. "It's okay, Violet," she said reassuringly. "Just let it go."
"Anyway," Ren said, tone neutral, "Violet’s capable of holding her own."
"She certainly is. It must be her strength of spirit. But there's always room for improvement, isn't there?" Akechi nodded at Ren, a callous toss of his head.
"If that's true, then I still think you should let me help you with negotiation." Ren sounded darkly amused. "If you just applied yourself, you'd be great at sweet-talking Shadows, Crow."
Akechi glared at Ren, folding his arms. "If you're keeping both of us on the front lines, I want to be sure that she won't hesitate when it matters most."
"I won't!" Sumire said. "I won't hesitate."
"Good," Akechi said, sounding bored again. "After all, it's not just your life on the line here."
People looked visibly happier in the new reality. It made Sumire feel even more out of place. Now that she remembered being Sumire again, she remembered, too, how much people would scold her for her usual expression. They'd ask her why she couldn't be as cheerful as Kasumi, why she always seemed so gloomy and meek. The people in this new world seemed as if they were cursing her with their smiles.
That was why she was staring at her feet in the middle of the Shibuya station during the afternoon rush, trying to seem as inconspicuous as possible on her way home. But despite her best efforts, it wasn't long before she bumped into someone.
"I'm sorry," Sumire said quickly, and tried to duck past, but the person in front of her wouldn't move. Confused, she looked up.
"Ah," Akechi said. "Yoshizawa."
Of all people. Sumire wondered if she should curse her luck.
"Even this anpan tastes better now," Akechi said. "I always wished they'd use fresher ingredients. I suppose my wish came true."
Sumire stared at the baked goods in the glass case in front of her. Being at the bakery in the station with Akechi felt slightly surreal. "I'm not sure if I'm carrying enough change," she said.
"Two anpan, please," Akechi told the woman behind the counter, and went to pay.
"Oh," Sumire said, surprised. "Akechi, you don't have to…"
"Whatever. It's not as if it matters.” As he handed her the bun, Akechi's voice was laced with so much apathy that Sumire hardly felt as if he was really speaking to her. “This is a false reality, after all."
Sumire took it. "Uh… but you're still spending real money."
Akechi glared at her, so Sumire decided not to argue. "I thought you didn't actually like sweets, Akechi," she said instead, after they'd retreated from the front of the shop to stand in a less-crowded corner.
"Red bean doesn't taste overly sweet, so I'm partial to it."
"Kasumi liked red bean, too." It was still nearly impossible to mention her sister without feeling a lump well up in her throat, but Sumire was managing. Somehow.
"That sister of yours seemed like the type who always left a strong impression," Akechi commented.
"Where–" Oh, right. Those video screens in Maruki's Palace. "Yes. She was always catching people's eyes, but she never stopped being kind to me."
"Is that so?" Akechi examined his nails. "Yet kindness from someone who seems so flawless can sting worse than cruelty."
"That's…" Sumire sighed. "That's true."
"Oh, you think so too?" Akechi still sounded bored, but now he looked more intrigued. "Fascinating."
"I can never–" Sumire hesitated. "I know it doesn't make any sense. But when people are kind, part of me always thinks they're only being spiteful."
"I'll save you the trouble, then," Akechi said, and smiled brightly. "You can always assume I'm being spiteful."
Sumire couldn't help it– she smiled. "Actually, that's a little... refreshing."
"...You're an odd one," Akechi said. "I bet you're feeling the same way about the Thieves. Wondering if they really accept you, even now, aren't you?"
Sumire felt her grin fade.
"You don't have to say it," Akechi said. "I can tell just from your face." He scoffed slightly. "Being easy to read is a weakness, you know. In the Metaverse, it'll get you killed."
Sumire frowned. "What do you mean?"
"The stronger the Shadow, the more adept it is at sensing our weaknesses. And targeting them, of course. Battles are something of a psychological game as well." Akechi sounded as if he was speaking from a wealth of experience. "You won't always have the energy to fight, so sometimes it's necessary to terrify Shadows into surrendering. It's about maintaining an aura of invincibility."
"Then the way you behave in the Metaverse. Is it just an act?"
Akechi scowled. "How many times do I have to repeat myself? That man in the black mask is the real me. The things I say, what I do– all of it is genuine. You called me ruthless. How do you think that ruthlessness came to be?"
Sumire swallowed and glanced away.
"Hm," Akechi said. "It's better to refrain from asking questions you don't want to know the answer to. That's another thing you'd do well to remember." He took a bite of his anpan, somehow making the action seem as grim as if he was a character from an old film taking a drag of a cigarette. "That said, you shouldn't let baseless worries about their feelings impede your performance. That Ren is a bleeding heart." He smiled, short and sardonic. "All of them are. There's no way they're feeling any ill will. For you, at least.”
"Akechi-senpai." Sumire hesitated, then steeled herself. "There's a question I do want to know the answer to. Your other form. What is it?"
Akechi's brow furrowed. "Senpai?"
"Ah." That had been instinct. "You're acting like a senpai, so…"
"Ha." Akechi seemed amused by this. "Regardless, it seems like you simply don't know when to quit."
"Please," Sumire said. She wasn't sure why she was being so insistent. But she felt a conviction that she would risk Akechi’s wrath, his disapproval– anything for the chance to see.
"Well, there's hardly a point in keeping it to myself. If you're that eager to know, I'll show you." Akechi stood up. "Care for a brief sojourn into Mementos?"
"Just you and I?"
"Don't worry. The two of us are strong enough to take out any low-level shadows near the entrance." He smiled at her. "Unless you don't think you can handle it."
A few minutes later, they were standing in Mementos, just past the entrance turnstiles.
"This should be interesting,” Akechi said blandly. Then he lifted his chin. "Come, Robin Hood." He took off his helmet.
And then his form seemed to flicker, and Akechi… changed.
Someone new stood before Sumire– someone clothed in white, looking noble, like a prince, but powerful. For a moment, Sumire saw another Persona, too, looming behind Akechi, before it faded away.
Sumire had to stop for a moment and stare. She couldn't believe how different he looked– although there was still something about this Akechi, something immensely strong, that indicated to her that he was capable of the same kind of violence.
But… “Your mask is still… sharp.”
“...And?” Akechi put a hand on his hip.
"Er, nothing. I was just thinking. You have more than one Personae," Sumire said slowly. "You're like Ren-senpai."
"Yes. We have… similar abilities.”
"I've wondered about Ren-senpai, too. If a Persona is an image of your heart– and you have more than one… then…"
"I'm quite multifaceted," Akechi said dryly.
"Loki,” Sumire said. “And… Robin Hood, you said? Which one… Which do you feel closest to?"
"I don't know," Akechi said sharply. He seemed to falter slightly. "When I summon each one, I… I feel the same way. The same sense of… self. I don't know which one is more me. "
Sumire took a breath. “How do you… put up with it?”
Akechi didn’t reply, but he was watching her, so she kept talking. “Being torn in two,” Sumire said. “Sometimes I catch myself doing something I never would have done before. Something I can’t remember ever doing. But all my memories feel hazy now. Everything is… I can’t tell what I am.” She heard the waver in her own voice, felt tears start to prick at her eyes. “I don’t remember. It hasn’t been long at all, so why is it that I hardly remember how to be Sumire anymore?"
And then the tears were falling. It had been a long time since she’d been able to cry, so it was difficult to hold back from sobbing. She put her hands to her face and let her shoulders shake.
After a moment, the sound of a short, irritated sigh reminded her that Akechi was there. Suddenly embarrassed, she looked up, quickly. He was standing right there, and holding something out to her. It took a moment before she could tell what it was– a handkerchief.
She took it from him, a little bewildered. She hadn't expected Akechi to have something like this, least of all in the Metaverse. The precise stitching and the off-white fabric– it seemed wildly out of place here. She stared at it blankly for a moment.
“It doesn’t get easier,” Akechi said, “if that’s what you’re wondering. But you get used to it.”
Sumire nodded, slowly, and dabbed at her eyes.
"Are you done crying?" Akechi said abruptly.
"Yes. Sorry." Sumire moved to return the handkerchief, but Akechi held up his hand.
"Keep that." He glanced away. "We should get going."
When they stepped into the real world– the fake real world, at least– Sumire saw how late it had gotten. "I'm sorry," she said. "I can't stay out for very much longer."
"That's fine. I need to be going home, too." But then Akechi considered her with a long look. "Yoshizawa," he said. His eyes looked different– serious and grim. "It doesn't matter how either of us feel. We have a goal to achieve, and we have to pull our weight. Do you understand?"
"Yes." Sumire nodded quickly. "I understand that better now. Thank you, Akechi-senpai."
Akechi shook his head slightly, an exasperated look on his face. "No need for the honorific. I'm not a good example to follow. And I don't plan on becoming a role model for your sake." He ran a hand through his hair. "Take care," he told her, and turned to leave. "Until we meet again."
Sumire watched him walk away for a moment, and looked at the crumpled handkerchief in her hand. Then she put it in her pocket and went to find her train.