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The Crimson Masquerade

Chapter Text

The rituals of the morning played themselves out one more time. Wake up, a few minutes in the shower, getting dressed, shake the cat awake, make the bed and head downstairs. Steam rises, familiar, pleasant scents and the impromptu symphony of spoons and cups fill the air. Force of habit never wore out their importance, but there were different this morning. After each step, something of his sticks behind, a visual impression, an echo – a memento.

Silence at the table was nothing new to him. This time, it was different than all the other countless before, however. No longer due to a father’s quiet demeanour, no longer due to a tormenting shame hanging over the table like a storm cloud. He knew his mother had a better handle on situations like this. Dad could rely on her to steer the ship. Once again, Takahisa Kurusu would see his only son depart, this time to embark on a long voyage of his own, the longest. The young man had never seen his father weep before.

It plays itself once again. Tears in their eyes, a mother and a father wave at a black haired youth. They call out myriads of blessings, advice and urges to visit soon - all mixed into one single sound that sends an ache into his pulse. He hates goodbyes, always has. His travel companion has been silent most of the way: he hates goodbyes too. But the shadow over the young man’s heart can occupy only so large a region. On the other side, there is a light that does not wane. He feels its warmth beneath his skin, in the narrow of his bones, spreading slowly. It will take some time for the light to overtake the shadow, but that is a pain he is willing to take with serenity.

Akira Kurusu returns to Tokyo, this time to stay.

Seated aboard the train, he feels the weight of his cell phone in the pocket on his jeans. No incoming calls or messages. He fights the urge to browse through the conversations taken place eight hours ago. Texts from his friends, from his second dad, from the love of his life – all different but in some other fashion similar all as well. Hopeful, eager words on the future, on plans for the long run and instances of mundaneness becoming special. They have been waiting for him, just like he has for them. Yet he will not entertain his mood by reading them over; he did that enough while he should have been sleeping, much to Morgana’s chagrin.

He would rather let the expectation grow into urge, become an anxious air pushing his every step when the train arrives to its destination. It had not been that long ago that he saw last saw Ryuji, Ann, Yusuke, Futaba and Haru; only two months ago, and Makoto one week after that. And yet, he felt like there was a world of difference between then and now. It may well be a year of contrast, because that is how it felt to him.

He could feel it happen hours into the near future. Walking out of the station into the Shibuya crossing, scanning his surroundings while sailing the wild human river, taking in the colours, the changes. He would drop by at the diner, maybe the beef bowl shop, or the burger joint, for old time’s sake. Have a bite, perhaps ride the subway towards the Aoyama-Itchome station to pay his respects to his old high school. Perhaps give his new school, Hattori Nutrition College, an early visit to get acquainted. Then, as the afternoon passes and the sun burns low in the sky, walk his way home, to the alleys of Yongen-jaya to find a small, special place, secluded in some way against the urban continuum of its surroundings. LeBlanc. Akira tried to imagine Sojiro’s expression when he shows up, two days earlier than he told them. Even now, though his life was far from the perilous way of a Phantom Thief, Akira still had a penchant for theatricality.

Just a few hours to go. He hardly slept the night before. Now was a good time to catch up on rest. Akira tied the rucksack that carried Morgana to his forearm.

“Do me a favour, Mona. Wake me up when we get there.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean ‘why’? So we won’t miss our stop.”

“Well, if you’d listened to me, you’d be fine and awake to know that on your own.” Morgana replied.

“Oh, come on. Don’t give me that. I was gonna take a nap anyway.”

“’I was gonna take a nap anyway’” Morgana mocked.

“Well, that’s what people do in trains if they get a seat. They sleep. Now come on, do this for me.”

“Nuh-uh. What if someone approaches while you’re asleep…? And… pets me?”

“Why would they pet you? You’re a human.” Akira yawned.

“Are you blind? You know perfectly well that I’m a ca-.” Morgana caught himself. “Real clever, Akira. Real clever.” He hissed.

“Never saw you complain when my mum pet you, or Makoto.” Akira closed his eyes, oblivious to the cat’s smirk.

Though few, the people inside the car sat looking at the young man, mystified about the conversation he appeared to have with his cat. Stranger was how the black and white furball seemed to understand and reply through meows. And even more so, how the cat looked at them all with contempt.

“Heh, heh, heh.” Morgana chuckled ominously while Akira slept.

The train rode on towards Tokyo.

Akira woke up to Morgana’s paw and a fuller train car. Next stop, he would need to get off and get on another train to make it to Shibuya. The railway system’s proud history assured punctuality. He would arrive to his destination at noon. He was only half an hour away, but each minute still felt agonisingly long. The events he foretold himself were unfolding in a frenzy inside of his head. Morgana could not take his eyes off Akira’s expression, full of quiet enthusiasm, and some remaining drowse.

Finally, the doors slid open at Shibuya station. The tide of people gushing out of the car left only a second before new passengers flooded the car. Akira made his swift way out, bags in hand, feeling beside himself from returning to a world he dearly missed. The things he had planned for the day were well on their way, but all at once, they fell apart, shattered by the sight of a familiar silhouette at the centre of his vision, between him and the light from the sky outside. His eyes, still slightly sleepy, only suspected, but the rest of him, body and instinct, knew. That as soon as the silhouette turned, two eyes of brown so deep and intense it looked red, would have him running towards her.

His heart beat an anthem in his ears. The expectations built all morning released at once. A cool air clung to the space between his skin and his clothes as he ran. And there she was, dressed in a dark, long-sleeved top and a beige midi skirt, a bag slung across her shoulder. Braided hairband. Her hair was an inch longer the last time he saw her. And that time, he found plentiful charming words to say. Not so this time; he could hardly breathe steady, let alone speak coherently. He caught the scent of a familiar perfume off her as he ran into her arms, which surrounded the back of his head in the precise instant he was within reach.

And all at once, they melted together in the embrace. Such was the momentum driving him as he lifted her off her feet upon placing his arms around her lower back, dropping his bags into a skid. A sandal dangled loose from her left foot. Her breath was on his neck, sectioned into mirthful bursts. It had not been that long since they last saw each other. It was Valentine’s Day when she paid him a visit in his hometown, and she looked not too different then, either. But even the slightest nuances and details were paramount to comprise an image he could only describe as ‘royal’.

Makoto Niijima. His friend, his comrade, his love and equal. His Queen.

A few seconds later, her feet were back on the ground. They looked at each other in besotted silence while bystanders turned in their direction, some whispering to one another. It might have looked like a scene straight out of a rom-com, if not for the cat tidying himself in Akira’s bag, looking back at them with insolent eyes.

“H-h… How?” It was all Akira could say. Some people never lost their footing in face of surprise. Though he was devilishly cunning and savvy in his own right, this moment pierced through his cool.

“A mutual friend of ours informed me you were meaning to surprise us.” Makoto gave him a naughty, private smile. “I figured you were long time due for a surprise yourself.”

“Mona?” His exclamation was more of a whisper.

“It was quite brilliant, if I do say so myself.” She shared a look of complicity with the cat. “Getting you to clean some mess, leaving your mobile out in the open, primed for him to text me.”

“What.”

“It was a bit of challenge to make out the details. It was worth it, though.”

“The cat texted you.” Akira was digesting her words, attempting to make sense of them by uttering them out loud. Given the things his friends and he had experienced, he knew he should hardly be surprised. Still, there he was, imagining it happening. “And he was responsible for all of that curry, all gone to waste…”

“So worth it.” Makoto looked amused.

“So worth it.” Morgana agreed.

“Yeah, worth it.” The ridicule of his disbelief left his face. “I’m so happy to see you again, Makoto.” He picked up his bags.

“As am I.” She went ahead to carry the other bag, hooking her free arm around Akira’s. “I looked forward to this day, you know? You coming back, to stay.” A slight tint of red went up to her cheeks. “Everyone will be happy to see you. But…” She preened her hair, brushing a strand behind her ear. He knew this gesture. “I really wanted to have you all to myself, at least just once.”

“Maybe more than.” It was now Akira’s turn to blush. “Well then, Queen. Where will you take me?”

“Oh, Joker. What countless possibilities ahead.” Makoto led the way.

[ ]

Moments later, at the peculiar façade of an establishment located in a narrow street of Shibuya, Morgana excused himself, promising to join them later after reacquainting himself with old hangouts. Akira and Makoto both knew just what he meant by that. He truly was a very considerate being every now and then, they thought. Once he left, they walked inside.

“This place… is new.” Akira was quick to note, taking in the colours and furniture arrangement inside of the Arancia Soda Joint. True to its name, it was all very orange. The décor consisted of irregular mosaics painted on the walls in varied shades of orange, yellow and brown, along with several framed photographs and paintings. The result was a place with dimensions you could only truly know if you were a regular, which Makoto was.

“They opened about six months ago.” She said as they took seat in a couch near the back by the restrooms. A small coffee table lay in front of them. “It was fortunate, really. I needed a new place to unwind around that time. School was getting quite tough.”

“You did tell me about that. The curve was a challenge but you conquered it.”

“That I did.” Her smile was void of any arrogance.

“It’s a very interesting place. Something wrong with LeBlanc, though?”

“Not at all!” Makoto responded. “Thing is, I can’t bring myself to drink coffee too often, especially now that I have to study harder. Otherwise, I may end up drinking out of habit rather than taste proper. I can’t have that.”

“That’s very true.” He nodded. “Are you sure it isn’t because you missed my coffee?”

“I reserve myself the answer to that.” Makoto winked. “But I would like you to make me coffee again.”

“I think we can work something out.”

“Good afternoon! Sorry for the delay. Makoto-san, what will you have today? Ginger Whisper?” The waiter, a lanky young man with slick red hair and high-pitched voice, swung by their table.

“Yes, thank you.”

“And your companion…? What may I…” The words died in his throat upon seeing Akira who looked at him wide-eyed.

“Yasunori?”

“Stride- I mean, Akira?” His accent peeked from a hidden corner of his past. Long gone was Yasunori Kujo, the prisoner. But sometimes, a shade of Rooster flashed free as a memory of times both dear and dreaded.

“Yeah. Yeah!” Akira stood up to shake his hand. At that moment, both young men shared a look of disbelief, especially more so for Akira. For all he knew, the friend he made behind bars chose to return to crime when he was released. To his own surprise, he brought Yasunori closer for a hug.

“You two… know each other?” Makoto asked, curious.

“Yes, Makoto-san. It’s…”

“A long story.” Akira spoke ahead of him, minding his tone so as not to sound discourteous.

“Too true.” Yasunori smiled. “But man, to think we would meet again. And to think you’d know Makoto-san! This is nuts.” He smiled. Then, a sudden realisation. “Makoto-san… Makoto.” His gasp fetched the surprised gaze of everybody in Arancia. “She is Makoto…”

“Um, what’s going on?” Makoto looked worried.

“Yeah…“ Yasunori’s eyes fell on her. “I can see it, Strider. I definitely see it.”

“So, uh… I’ll be having what she’s having.” Akira hurried to place his order, looking to avoid the topic of his imprisonment last year from coming up.

“Yeah. Right on it, my friend.” Yasunori went ahead to bring the beverages, casting one last look behind at Akira and Makoto.

“That was interesting, Akira.” She cast a searching look at her boyfriend. “Anything you’d like to share… Strider?”

“It IS a long story. I’d like to tell you about it, but not right now.” He placed his hand atop hers. “Right now, I just want to hear about you.”

“Oh, what in particular would you like to hear?”

“Anything you want.” He leaned in for a kiss. Her lips met his, soft and wet. They had been wanting this for a long time. Makoto’s hand wandered towards his chest, sliding up towards his collarbones while his lingered about her neck. At the end of it, both knew they wanted more. There were a few weeks still to go before first term began in the country’s universities. Surely they would find a few more days all to themselves.

[ ]

“Well, that was not bad at all.” Akira remarked on the hours spent in Arancia. As per Makoto’s recommendation, he tried several of the soft drinks in the menu. Italian Soda, something he could explore in the near future as part of his career in gastronomy. Many tastes remained in his tongue and palate, including Makoto’s.

“Always one to undersell, huh?” Makoto walked close by his side as they walked along the street, with the dusk settling over the sky above. “I was hoping we could go somewhere else, but it’s kinda getting late now.”

“I don’t know.” Akira smiled to himself. “We could always go to the Red Light District for old time’s sake.”

“Ha ha, Akira. At least you didn’t say something like “the night is still young”.”

“The night’s still young.”

She gazed at him, entirely unamused. Nonetheless, Akira could not help but laugh at the stupidity of his own comment.

“Anyway. Since I took the very selfish liberty of withholding the information of your early return from everyone else, I can’t quite let you go to LeBlanc.” Makoto said playfully.

“It would be an unforgivable oversight if you did that.” Akira played along. “Whatever shall we do?”

“I was thinking, maybe… just maybe, you could spend the night at my place.”

“Interesting proposal. Or we could go to the Red Light District.”

“Stop that.” She gave the back of his head a light slap. “I’m serious, though. I’d like you to spend the night. Can’t let you brave the night out there like an alley cat.”

“Speaking of…”

“Took you two long enough!” Morgana joined them once more, hopping on Akira’s shoulder and finding his place in the rucksack. “It’s getting late. Where are we going?”

“Well, if there truly is no inconvenience, we’re going to the Niijimas’” Akira turned to look at his girlfriend. “Are you sure there truly wouldn’t be any inconvenience?”

“There is none. Please, do let me offer this hospitality.” There was a hint of old formality in her voice.

“Thank you so much, Makoto.”

“However… my sister will be home tonight. So, you will have to sleep on the couch.”

“Magnificent.”

“It’s a very comfortable couch?”

“I’m sold.”

“Also…” Makoto’s expression contained genuine embarrassment. “My sister is allergic to cats...” She slowly turned to look at Morgana. “I’d appreciate it if you could stay in the rucksack, Mona.”

“Ugh.” Morgana groaned. “It’s the last time I do something for you two love birds.”

“I promise to make it up to you!” Makoto said. “Fatty tuna?”

“I’ll remember this, Queen.” Morgana declared with a tone that brooked no leniency.

“So will I, Makoto. Thank you.” He planted a kiss on her cheek. “Wait… does Sae know you and I…?”

“Um… yes, she does. Don’t worry, she took it better than I thought she would.” She smirked. “Now she only wants to kill you in your sleep.”

“I’m really not sure if you’re joking or not. Don’t do this to me, Makoto.”

“Haha. It’s just a joke. She means you no ill fate, Akira. In fact, I get the feeling she already at least suspected it.”

“Hmm.” Akira wondered if something he said back in the interrogation room hinted at the affection he bore for Sae’s sister. Many memories of that day inhabited a foggy region of his mind. He then thought of something Sae told him the morning he turned himself in. Perhaps, Akira could dare think she would approve. Though his love for Makoto trumped outside objections, he truly wished for there to be no friction.

“Is something wrong?” She asked him with a tone of concern.

“No.” He smiled at her. “This day, it’s just better than everything I hoped for.”

[ ]

The Niijima sisters carried an aura of pulchritude and authority. Akira would never forget the first impression upon meeting Makoto and Sae; the former in the library during his first week in Shujin, the latter on a heated visit to LeBlanc. He was not surprised when entering their apartment, a place so routinely tidied, regardless of expected visits. The sight of polished surfaces and the subtle but constant scent of lavender made him hurry to remove his shoes; it also grew a sense of shame from every time Makoto visited his room. He would need to be obsessively meticulous when cleaning the attic at LeBlanc to purge the feeling.

They met Sae in the living room, her attention divided between a crossword on the newspaper and the news on the widescreen.

“Hi, Sis.” Makoto greeted her sister, her tone carefree, entirely different to the increasing worry in Akira’s heart.

“Hello, Makoto.” She replied without lifting her eyes off the paper. “Kurusu-kun.” Her greeting towards Akira was free of any discernible tone. It could well be a legitimate kindness as much as it could be a threat.

“Good evening, Sae-san.” Akira bowed.

“Sis, Akira will be spending the night in the couch.” Makoto said, putting her bag on a table nearby. “I’ll be right back.” She said, excusing herself to the bathroom down the hallway.

“He better.” Her sister said. “Make yourself at home, then.”

“I promise to behave, Sae-san.” He gambled a more affable tone to try and give some levity to the moment. “I appreciate this kindness. In return I will make the best coffee for you two.”

“Better than Sojiro’s, you’d say?” Some of the old trust between Sae and Akira returned to her voice. For a brief moment, at least, she spoke as the confidant, not as Makoto’s intensely protective sister.

“That’d be quite a challenge. Makoto seems to like my coffee at least.”

“Do you like his coffee, Makoto?” Sae called out to her sister.

“It’s not bad!” The young woman called out loud along the sound of a running faucet.

“Not bad. That sounds like a Niijima sign of approval.” Akira nodded.

“Speaking of approval…” The tone in the older sister’s voice fell one pitch, abandoning the previous affability. “I am very aware of the relation you have with my Makoto.” She waited for the young man to put up some kind of verbal barrier to defend or disengage himself. She took his silence as acknowledgement. “I’ll have a word with you soon. For now I’ll be brief. I will not object. Do not give me a reason to suspect I should.” The quiet force behind Sae’s voice could disarm a yakuza and make them yearn for a hand to hold on to.

“Understood, Sae.” Akira’s expression changed miles away from the young man joyful about returning to his friends. Rather than being a demeaning gesture, his foregoing of honorifics was a leap back in time, to the final minutes of his interrogation in charge of Sae Niijima. The one speaking now was the Phantom Thief who would not sell out his partners-in-crime, the one who defended Makoto at every turn whenever she came into the narrative. “I will not disappoint.” No defiance in his voice, only truth and unshakeable belief.

“I’m glad we’re on the same page here.” Sae nodded. “Now, I suggest you start defending your claim to your coffee being the best. While you do that, I’ll go find a couple of pictures of Makoto when she was little. I’m sure she’ll love you seeing them.” Sae cracked a grin that made Akira wonder how many people had seen it in their lifetime – less than he could count on one hand, he guessed.

“Aye, aye.” Akira took his place in the small kitchen a few meters away. From there, he could see the glint in Morgana’s eye, peering from the darkness of his rucksack. He surely heard the words coming from Sae’s mouth, including those regarding Makoto’s baby pictures. The young man did his best to suppress a perverse giggle about the evening to unfold. “Say, Sae-san. Are you in the mood for curry?”

Chapter Text

Though he felt the urge to go see the rest of his friends, Akira gave in to the temptation of spending another day with Makoto alone. Early that morning, he took the initiative to prepare breakfast for all at the table, including a small helping he furtively fed Morgana. Afterwards, he hurried to snatch all dishes and wash them thoroughly. In the meantime, he managed to catch wind of Sae whispering something to Makoto; resulting in a bright and bashful response on the latter. Akira quietly smiled to himself, remembering one particular evening at Shujin’s roof. He wondered if Makoto remembered also.

Taking his rucksack, with Morgana in it, the couple set out to do the things they intended to do the day before: Looking at the new sights, revisiting old favourites, lunch outside, a few moments for academic and professional catching-up, a stolen kiss here, a given one there. In the midst of it all, they experienced a slight thrill of secrecy, minding every place for the possibility one of their friends may catch sight of them somewhere. It was nothing quite like their studying sessions in the student council office, their leisurely strolls at the park, or the quick private trips to the underworld of Mementos, but it was something.

Eventually, they made their way to the planetarium; the darkness afforded them the discreetness they sought for. After some playful prying, Makoto got her boyfriend to tell her about Yasunori, the ‘Strider’ nickname and, by extension, his stint in the youth correctional facility after Christmas. He conveyed the gist of it, but there was much he chose not to tell. The name Shogo, or his doings, never once came up in the conversation, or the extent to which Akira opposed him and the resulting violence. He desperately hoped she could not tell he was hiding those chapters from her.

“But, why ‘Strider’?” Makoto asked, a quizzical eyebrow arching on the question.

“I don’t know. Maybe I walk fast, or have abnormally long legs for my build.” He suggested jokingly. Despite how he chose to talk about the Juvie days, he could tell she was not pleased. The past was no small affair for Makoto, if she sensed there was a wound in need of healing.

“No, I don’t think that’s it. They look… pretty normal to me?”

“Normal?” Akira showed a disillusioned face. “So… my legs aren’t anything special, you say?”

“They’re good legs, I reckon. I mean, they work. They’re part of you, so I rather like them.”

“Hmm.” Akira grinned at her. “They have nothing on yours, though.”

“Between you and my sister, I swear…” Makoto covered her face. Across the duration of those two days, Akira saw his girlfriend turn all sorts of red. A memory from last night pried a giggle out of him: Makoto turning pale as she realised what Sae was showing him to then turning beet-red. Then and now, he could tell Morgana was rolling his eyes as far back as they could.

“They’re part of you, so I adore them.” He planted a kiss on her head. A few minutes later, the spectacle began. Together, they watched the exposition on the birth of stars in music, light and colour. It seemed, from how the day went on, that the crisis was averted. Makoto made no further inquiry on what Akira experienced behind bars. Though neither could see it, Morgana’s expression was lamenting, knowing of the fact. Sometimes it seemed to him that Akira still dwelled on things past, but would never speak about them.

It was early evening by the time the show ended. The sky outside was meagrely starlit in comparison to the artificial sky vault inside of the planetarium, but neither Akira, nor Makoto, nor a slumbering Morgana in the former’s rucksack, minded at all. Like the day before, Akira was to stay at the Niijimas’. This time around, Makoto insisted to cooking dinner while her boyfriend took coffee-making duties. In the meantime, Sae just sat at the small dining table, taking in the sight that unfolded. Those two looked married already, she thought to herself. A frown crossed the elder Niijima’s face, remembering Makoto from several years before.

Makoto never gave the impression of remembering their mother. Sae herself has few, but deeply fond memories of her, having passed away due to illness when both sisters were very young. Regardless, Sae often thought that lack was the reason for which Makoto was such a withdrawn, lonesome child growing up. Their father’s murder etched a deep wound in the two, if it indeed it had not also cut deeper in her little sister’s heart. When Makoto entered high school, all she had was the values and habits her dad fostered, and Sae – whenever she actually was around. Beyond that, she was quite friendless. For a long, miserable time, it was unthinkable that Makoto would develop further bonds.

And yet, here she was now: actively pursuing her dreams, supported by loyal friends, and adored by a young man with whom she, simply put, saved the world. It was astonishing. Now, in the present day, Makoto belonged more to the world of the living than that of the dead. As she continued to look at the two, her expression softened into a half smile. The elder sister hoped this worked out for both. No other could keep up with them if they strayed from each other.

[ ]

Makoto’s sense of discipline accustomed her to wake up early every morning and rarely depend on an alarm clock. Today, for good measure, she set it up to trigger at quarter to six, at a precise volume only she could hear, right by her pillow. There was much to do that day; she hoped the rest were soon to awake as well. After sending the necessary text messages and getting dressed, she carefully stepped towards the living room. It was still dark outside, the dawn only beginning to stir. This much light was enough for her to see Akira carefree asleep on the couch under a warm Buchimaru-kun cover.

She smiled at the sight of him, breathing quiet and steady. His hair was as much of a tangled mess now as when awake. No trace of uncommon hardships endured. He looked innocent, paradoxically untouched. She swore to herself she would protect him, so he could always rest easy like this. It was tempting to stay for a few minutes more, but she carried on, awaiting the first of several replies.

“He looks cute when asleep.” Sae, an early riser herself, discreetly remarked behind her. Makoto’s startled gasp was almost imperceptible to the ear. “He’s also quiet. That’s a plus.”

“Sis!” Makoto whispered. “How long were you standing there?”

“Just a minute. So… you’re going to let him sleep in?”

“Yeah. Just a while longer. He may need it. Today is going to be a big day.”

[ ]

Akira, Makoto and Morgana made their way towards Yongen-jaya at half past noon. They went through the agreed narrative as they exited the apartment. Makoto was, just by coincidence, in the underground mall, where she ran into Akira and Morgana, after which, she decided to walk her absolutely just arrived boyfriend to LeBlanc where Sojiro expected him, according to the information Akira sent several days ago. Then, they would contact the rest and do something nice for the rest of the day. No words were necessary on his early arrival or his stay with Makoto – that would be a secret between he, she, and the cat.

As soon as they walked back outside from the subway near the Sakuras’ neighbourhood, Morgana excused himself to stretch his legs; after all, he spent two evenings cooped up in Akira’s rucksack to keep the ambience free from Sae constantly sneeze-and-sniffling. Thus, their feline companion walked off towards alleys he knew by heart, paws bouncing spry as he went.

“Hey.” Makoto said. “Don’t you want to buy something for Sojiro? It’s not nice to arrive empty-handed, you know.”

“Yeah, you’re right. It flew right over me. There is a store nearby. I’m sure I can find something nice.”

“Sounds good. Let’s go.” She held on to his arm, walking towards a humble second hand store called Yumenoshima. Without Akira knowing, she shot a sharp glance far into the distance, followed by a nod.

Five minutes later, both came out with a modest little present for Sojiro: a small sculpture of a baseball player, bat at the follow through. For all they knew, Boss may not be a baseball fan himself, but he appreciated little trinkets to decorate his office in his home – a quirk the Phantom Thieves, sans Futaba, were surprised to discover.

The sign on the front door read ‘Open’. Akira stopped for a brief moment, to both his and Makoto’s surprise.

“Is something wrong?” She looked at him.

“No. Not at all. It’s just…” His eyes were still on the café’s door. “I… really missed this place. You’ve no idea how bad I wanted to be here again.” He said only half of what he thought. Though he was slightly and joyously overtaken by his returning home, he had left another such place days ago. His sense of belonging would probably forever be sectioned into two – he had accepted that, but it did not wholly keep the sadness away. “Let’s go inside, Queen.”

“Let’s, Joker.” She said as he led him past the door, her arm still hooked around his.

And then, Akira went flushed and wide-eyed.

“HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!” Several voices called out loud in awkward unison. He saw colour all around the café. Seats were taken at the counter and the booths, some by regular, actual customers, the rest by his friends, his fellow Thieves. Sojiro, as usual, behind the counter shaking his head, along with Morgana who seemed to be rolling his eyes. They were all expecting him. Briefly, he turned to look at Makoto, and was surprised to find a mischievous hue in her red eyes.

“Hey? Really?” Boss said, arching an eyebrow.

“Shut up, dad! It’s the only thing we could agree on!” Futaba protested. Akira could swear she was no taller than the last time he saw her, but she was different somehow. Even though her choice of attire remained within her usual style, it showed more meat around her bones, and a slight tan on her skin. No doubt she still loved her indoors, but she definitely had acquired some good habits.

“If I recall correctly, only you declined all other proposals.” Yusuke chimed in to Futaba’s comment, as he always did. The difference in Yusuke was significantly more apparent, having grown taller, though somehow retaining the same lean build he had before. His dark hair was also longer, reaching down past his shoulders. It was now almost a certainty that he took better care of himself, which probably involved eating more than twice a day.

“Inari, don’t make me…!”

“Guys, guys, come on.” Ann assertively insisted from her seat. “Now’s not the time to bicker!” Ann was ever a lovely young woman. No surprise Ryuji and Morgana developed attraction towards her, or that she worked as a model. Now, her image left the old impression an opaque shade. She no longer wore her hair in large, generous pigtails, rather she let it cascade freely down her back and shoulders, and the demeanours of her profession were an extension of her natural mannerisms.

“Eh, it’s always fun to watch them.” Ryuji said, closely seated next to Ann in the booth. Last time they met, he told Akira he intended to let his natural black hair grow back out. It seemed now he did only partially, leaving the middle top part dyed bright electric yellow, while his natural colour graced the sides of his head. Unsatisfied by the contrast alone, he had lightning streaks neatly shaved above ear-length. He certainly no longer looked anything like a delinquent, but as someone intending to make himself famous his own way. “Don’t you think so, partner?”

“Yeah, it’s… fun.” The surprise was still in the middle of Akira’s wit and his tongue.”

“He looks quiet.” Haru smiled sweetly from the counter. Her appearance was still a delicate, graceful look. But there was something earthly also, in the marks on her hands as she toyed with her hair – which had grown thicker and fluffier - and the boots and jeans. She looked, to credit of her namesake, like somebody ready to greet the blooming spring fully with her hands. Her devotion to gardening and the goods that come from the soil made her more of a fair flower child than she was before. “He really didn’t expect it, did he, Mako-chan?”

“Not for a moment.” Makoto smiled in satisfaction. “He really wanted to surprise us all by arriving one day earlier.” Her hand surrounded his waist, pulling him closer to her. “I guess he didn’t expect us to want to do the same.”

Akira turned to look at his girlfriend, drinking fully from the naughty joy in her eyes. He mirrored her grin, realising she had fooled them as much as they fooled him. He wanted to let the laughter brewing in his chest fly loose, but as she said, it was their little secret. The young man turned to look at Mona, who had been the key conspirator in it all – from Makoto surprising him, to Ryuji and the rest following suit. He appreciated the setup of events, and made a mental note of adding a helping of fatty tuna to the one Makoto owed him.

“I really missed you all.” Akira said finally. “And you too, Boss.”

“Don’t get mushy on me, kid.” Sojiro took his hand to the back of his neck, suppressing a grin himself. “Sit your ass down already.” He turned to Makoto. “Take a seat, Makoto-san.”

“Thank you, Boss.” She said, following Akira to a vacant half of the booth. They sat across from Ryuji and Ann.

“Well, took you guys long enough.” Akira commented, looking at Ann and Ryuji and flashing a teasing smirk. “I think I speak on behalf of all when I ask, ‘why the delay?’”

“Huh?” Ann blinked in surprise.

“Yup.” Futaba agreed.

“Most certainly.” Yusuke joined in.

“I joined the group somewhat late, but it was obvious early on.” Haru added.

“Everyone could see it.” Morgana muttered without the slightest amusement.

“Yo, dude. Why are you all piling on us?” Ryuji protested.

“No such thing, Ryuji.” Akira said. “I’m just happy it finally happened… So, how did it happen?”

Their relation was no news to him, but they found little time to talk in detail throughout the visits across the past year. Akira was quite eager to hear it all. The events themselves were a simple matter, but the narration was muddled by Ryuji and Ann’s perspectives as each took over the storytelling at several points. Confusing as it was, Akira expected no less from those two than pure sincerity.

“Wow.” Morgana meowed with ambiguous tone.

“Hmm…” Akira brought two fingers to his chin in contemplation. “Well. What matters is that you’re happy together. I think that calls for a toast!”

“You might want to hold on a bit on that!” Makoto hurried. “You see, there are several motives to this little gathering today.” Her eyes turned to all of her friends as she spoke. “The year we met was probably the toughest one of the toughest times of our lives. We were all in the brink of losing our way, our futures, and ourselves.” Perhaps unconsciously, her voice summoned a type of solemn confidence as she spoke, an unmistakable signature to somebody who had once been a student council president, and who someday shall become a police commissioner. “We found our way once again when we all met. But there was so much more to it than that. We rescued each other.” She reached out to the cat, gently scratching under his chin.

Akira and Morgana looked at her, enthralled.

“It was something momentous. And the events that followed were no small matter either.” Her expression relaxed. “I’d say because of all that happened, and all we fought through, we simply forgot to enjoy just living.”

“Mako-chan.” Haru said, visibly moved.

“By my count, that year we forgot to celebrate, well, all of our birthdays. Actually, we only actually talked about that after Shido’s incarceration.” Makoto turned her eyes to her boyfriend. “And we couldn’t quite return to that kind of normalcy while our group was divided. So now that you’re here, it’s time we make up for all those missed birthdays. It’s time we celebrated us. All of us.”

“Yeah!” Ryuji called out.

“Keep it down, will you?” Ann scolded. “But yeah… yeah!”

“We cheated a bit on that, though.” Haru said before running to the back of the counter. “We did buy you a present, Akira-kun.”

“Guys…” Akira felt the blood rise to his cheeks.

“It was Makoto-san’s idea, I might add.” Yusuke said with a neutral expression.

“Yusuke!” Makoto shot him a gaze as red as her face.

“Please forgive my lack of discretion.” His smile was moderate. “On that, you are not alone. I have a gift of my own to give, but we can talk about that on another occasion.”

Haru and Futaba walked towards the booth, joined then by Morgana and Yusuke. The young woman with the fluffy hair carried a white, unadorned box of middle size, which she put in front of Akira.

“Before you open it, all credit must be given where it’s due.” Makoto said. “It was at Boss’ recommendation.”

“Really?” Akira’s tone sounded more juvenile than he may have been aware of. Sojiro’s response was a grumble after his typical fashion.

With measured movements, Akira unpacked the present, trying not to look like am eager child opening a present – which, in a way, he was. The packaging tightly held the artefact in the box, so he had to put some effort into pulling it out. As his hands felt the surfaces behind the plastic wrapping, an image of the gift started forming in his mind. He already knew what it was by the time it was out of the box. Yet that knowledge did not dull his surprise in the slightest. His own French coffee press.

“Guys…” He found himself speechless. The pleasure in his eyes said it all.

“I hope you like it.” Makoto kissed him on the cheek. “It may feel a bit redundant seeing how you can use the café facilities here, since… you live here, but this one is your own.”

“It’s also the one thing we could all agree on.” Futaba climbed on top of the booth to plant a kiss of her own on the top of his head. “We can’t go wrong with that. You’re essentially like Sojiro now – oh what’s with that face?”

The sudden cartoon-like sternness in Akira’s face from Futaba’s comment softened instantly. He took the bulky glass cylinder in his hands and held it up high as if looking at a delicate sculpture. Judging by the brand and the make, this was indeed a good purchase, nowhere as highly priced as its more luxurious competitors, but more functional. It was no wonder Sojiro Sakura would recommend it.

“This is my French Press. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My French Press is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I master my life. Without me, it is useless. Without my French Press, I am useless.” Akira spoke as he held the cylinder, a hallowed look in his eyes. Makoto was trying to hold her laughter in.

“Uh… what?” Ryuji said.

Akira looked surprised at his companions.

“It… it’s from that famous movie!” He looked utterly heartbroken from their lack of reaction. “Makoto, please tell me you know the one I’m talking about!” He looked at her like a lost puppy.

The only thing in the way of a response from her was a quick nod before she broke into open laughter. She indeed knew which film he talked about – they had seen it together after renting it from a video store in Kawasaki when she visited. Though she was not presently capable of saying, the reason to her amusement was imagining Akira in white skivvies, sitting at the bathroom while cradling his French Press, only to then throw hot coffee in the drill instructor’s face. Morgana offered Makoto a compassionate look, having watched the film himself and harbouring an approximate idea of what she was laughing at.

“Oh, my stomach…” She started to calm down. “That was only third of the creed. Were you really going to make the rest about coffee too?”

“I was thinking of winging it, but now all I want to do is make some coffee.” Before heading to the sink to wash his present, he confirmed what everyone would have. As if he had never left at all, the memory of each of his friends’ favourite came like a reflex, even Ryuji, whose palate was particular like a child’s.

“There’s something else, though. But that’s kind of a gift for all of us.” Ann said as Akira joined Sojiro at the counter. “We’ll tell you when you get back.”

“Hurry, Akira!” Futaba added.

“Thanks, Boss. I know it was also from you.” The black haired young man said to his mentor in the art of coffee.

“Think nothing of it, kid.” His smile was rough but warm. “It’s good to have you back. The attic is still yours to do as you please.”

“I’m glad to hear, Boss.”

“Good. Now, you heard Futaba. Hurry and take care of your own.” Sojiro urged him while he handled an order from one of his regular customers.

“On it, Boss.”

[ ]

When the afternoon turned to evening, the former Phantom Thieves climbed the stairs to Akira’s humble abode, just like old times. Yusuke and Haru insisted on catching up after taking care of the dishes. In a hushed comment, Futaba told Akira that Boss routinely came up to tidy the place. He even took care of Akira’s plant. Though she liked teasing her dad, this was something they agreed to keep between them.

All eight took seat in their spot of choice. The scene in Akira’s room, though different by the inevitable changes that come with time, conjured old memories of Phantom Thieves’ meetings, differing kinds of studying sessions, and industrious nights at the crafting desk. The air was free of the old tension from their double life. The purpose they had back then was consummated, and now the force that held them together was naught but loyalty and the deep affection they bore one another.

The hours passed, and it became evident they would all spend the night. Arrangements were agreed upon early; the girls would take the bed, the boys would sleep spread about wherever they may find a place. Between then and now, each found something to do in the room like they used to. Some played video games, others read, and others talked long into the night. As of late, it was rare for them to feel so free and careless like this, each crossing a threshold in their lives, so they seized the moment.

It was nearly time to turn in, the only people still awake being Akira and Ann. Unsurprisingly to the latter, Akira deviated his eyes from the book he was reading to look at Makoto sleeping away on his bed next to Futaba and Haru. Ann herself felt her eyelids heavy, head on a slumbering Ryuji who made a fair pillow for the Finnish blonde.

“Hey. So about that other present…” Ann yawned at length. “I guess we can talk about it in the morning. I mean it's not that much of a surprise, but you know.” In the mirth of the evening, the mysterious present from the retired Phantom Thieves to themselves went as something of an afterthought. Regardless, Ann felt prompted to say something, if at least to put one more smile on her friend’s face. “I heard you like Gorillaz…”

“Huh?” The mention of the British band’s name pulled Akira straight from the book.

“Nevermind. Night, night.” She huddled up against her boyfriend, comfortably laying on top of several covers and blankets they lay on the floorboards like a picnic.

“You’re sure you don’t want to go to the bed?” Akira asked, intending to go to sleep in Futaba’s gamer chair with Morgana on his lap.

“No, I’m good.” Ann fell asleep almost instantly.

Akira looked at the first human friends he made here over a year ago. They looked like two sleeping lions. Yusuke took the couch, the only surface long enough for him to sleep. Futaba slept next to Haru, head virtually laying on the fluffy cloud that was her hair. Makoto slept nearest the edge of his bed. Would be nice, he thought, if he could join her someday soon.

Chapter Text

The words fell on Akira’s ears like an anvil the morning following the sleepover at LeBlanc’s. The first Gorillaz album, an eponymous title, was released in 2001. He was too young to know them at the time; he was in fact too young to appreciate music beyond the instinctive joy he drew by osmosis from the albums his mother would listen to during pregnancy and his infancy. Aside from the Japanese City Pop and Jazz of the eighties, Masako Kurusu had a particular fondness for British bands and singers. Such was the reach of her taste that, at some point, she considered naming the little boy she and Takahisa expected Freddie.

Akira grew up surrounded by his mother’s taste in music. As time went by, he developed his own tastes beyond Masako’s inheritance, as it is common for all adolescents who ever lived and ever shall. The psychedelia and the mellow tempos were eventually drowned out by the daring momentum of Japanese punk rock. He never suspected that a strange, faraway descendant of her mother’s favourite artists would arrive to his life - to become an obsession.

He was thirteen years old when it rained one particular afternoon in Kawasaki. It was Saturday. His father had sailed out again and would not be back for several weeks, and his mother had work to do at the hospital during an understaffed season. Young Akira started to spend a lot of time on his own, walking outside, seeing the world pass by. The memory of that afternoon began with a gentle drizzle, a thing pleasant to walk under. It was sure to grow in intensity because of the season.

As he strolled by the neighbourhood, a sound caught his ear, penetrating beneath the sound of the rain. It was a beat; a slow, cavernous beat followed by the melancholic sound of a harmonica. The man at the local pharmacy had his radio on the counter. It did not seem like a sad song, even though the singer’s voice sounded tired and numb. He could not understand the words, but Akira tried to follow nevertheless. It was full of melody, of the sort he associated with dream-like sensation. The beat never changed, neither did the volume, but at every section of the song, there was something new, linked together by Damon Albarn’s sleepy voice.

Akira waited – or loitered, as far as the pharmacy’s clerk was concerned – at the pharmacy’s entrance for the radio DJ to announce the name of the song. He stood through fifteen minutes of other songs he did not particular care for just to know. Finally, it came. The DJ made an awkward effort to pronounce the name of the song in its original language, then the translated title.

“Tomorrow Comes Today.”

The black-haired boy rushed home to find out more from the computer in the living room. Six minutes running under the downpour. He got a cold that night, and was scolded by his mother. But it did not matter. The song played itself over and over in his head, and soon, so did the rest from that album, which he purchased with his savings. His fascination only grew when finding out the gimmick of the band – an animated ensemble of cartoon characters in odd, foreign design. For years to come, Akira followed the band’s career, picked up on what he missed out on, rediscovered his mother’s favourites, and found a few more of his own.

Years forward to the present day, the Phantom Thieves’ present to themselves were tickets to a musical festival at the Tokyo Dome, featuring Gorillaz, among others - several to the liking of the Thieves, others towards expanding their horizons. All were looking forward about their first time visiting the Tokyo Dome, but Akira’s expression upon hearing the news made him look a decade younger from all the excitement. Makoto guessed she would not need to ask his mother to send her his baby pictures for anything other than retaliation, after all.

“How on Earth did you guys get seven tickets?” Akira asked after enthusiastically chewing a mouthful of the breakfast Boss prepared.

“Take a guess.” Ryuji did not wait until he finished chewing.

“Boss, is there something you cannot do?” Akira turned towards the counter.

“Don’t ask questions you don’t want answers for, kid.” Sojiro replied coolly.

“There is a possibility he may not be able to walk on the roof.” Yusuke said, without the slightest hint of humour in his voice.

“Isn’t ‘may not’ a bit strong?” Makoto suggested. “I mean, he might struggle…”

Silence.

“Dad-kira, what on Earth did you do to Mum-koto that she now has a sense of humour?” Futaba squinted.

“Hey!” Makoto protested. “I can joke about things!”

“Yeah. I’m curious about that myself.” Yusuke changed his train of thought instantly, completely disregarding his previous point.

“What have you done, Akira-kun!?” Haru cried out.

“I swear I kept an eye on him all year. Have you been up to shady business, Akira?” Morgana looked at him accusingly.

“I just love how Makoto isn’t even protesting about being called ‘Mum-koto’.” Ann commented, seemingly to herself.

“Now that you mention it…” Sojiro rubbed his chin.

“Boss! You too!?” Makoto’s eyes grew wide.

“I think you are all missing the elephant in the room.” Ryuji spoke again, this time with an empty mouth. “How is it that Yusuke is taller than the building now?”

Everyone turned to look at the one formerly known as Fox.

“Hmm, it’s most curious. He still doesn’t eat much and yet he’s so much taller.” Haru observed.

“I’d wager he’s about five Futabas tall.” Akira concluded.

“And weighs how many?” Morgana said.

“Kitty!” Futaba yelled at him, flushed red from anger, embarrassment, or both.

“How many Futabas do you think could fit in Haru’s hair, though?” Ryuji returned to the conversation, knowing that at any moment he could be the subject of ridicule.

“I don’t know how many…” Makoto passed her hand through the cornucopia on their friend’s head. “But I’d envy them. It’s so soft!”

“What. There she goes again!” Futaba pointed at Makoto.

“It smells good also.” Morgana jumped onto the table to sniff Haru’s hair.

“Does it, really?” Akira inquired.

“Let’s all smell Haru’s hair!” Ann raised her arms enthusiastically.

Breakfast ended about an hour later than it should have. After apologising about their loud banter, Akira thanked Sojiro for obtaining the tickets. As per usual fashion, Boss told him not to think anything of it; this present was a favour he was owed – one of many, Akira silently guessed. The event was due for tomorrow, which was no trouble on anybody’s schedule since they were all still on break. It was just as well: though they started catching up on the time they were apart, they were not even halfway up to date.

“Boss. The rest wants to go out for a while. Do you need any help around the café? I can catch up with them later.”

“It’s a slow day today. It’s fine. Go with your friends.”

“Are you sure?”

“Save it, kid. You’ll be working your ass off here in a few days.” Sojiro did not seem to be joking. “Take the chance now while you still can.”

“Thanks, Boss.” Akira held back a smile, thinking how Sojiro had indeed grown to feel like a second father to him.

[ ]

The first advice Sojiro gave to Akira and his friends was to remain tight. It would surely be crowded when they got there, so they had to keep each other within reach and sight. This proved easier said than done when they arrived at the plaza between the stadium and the amusement park. Never in their entire lives had any of them seen so many people gathered in one place. Years inhabiting an already densely populated country ill prepared them for this human ocean and its loud, euphoric waves. It could only get worse when they got in the venue proper.

Akira and Makoto were at the front of the group, with Haru, Ann and Futaba right behind them, and Yusuke and Ryuji at the very end. For once, Morgana had no qualms about staying with Boss at the café. Though it would be fun to see a cat surfing in the crowd, Akira did not imagine it would be easy to retrieve him afterwards. On this occasion, it would only be seven people, all wearing overpriced T-shirts in varying degrees of oversized, which they purchased from one of the stands an hour ago.

“I look ridiculous.” Yusuke said, being the one less amused about the exceeding amount of cloth in his T-shirt to body ratio.

“You mean, like, in general or right now?” Ryuji followed, minding the perimeter of the group as they slowly advanced towards the entrance gate to the stadium.

“ZING!” Futaba interjected.

“Keep it down back there, guys.” Makoto was quick to control the situation.

“Yes, Mum-koto.” Everyone but Akira, Yusuke and Haru replied.

Makoto’s scowl was a sight both terrifying and endearing.

“Dad-kira. We there yet?” Ryuji called.

“Should be just a couple of minutes…” Akira quickly started developing an aversion to the multitude.

“This is more crowded that a baseball game!” Ann noted.

“I’ve never been to a baseball game before!” Haru said, the ends of her shirt almost dragging against the floor.

“We’ll take you to your first one, then.” Akira said, trying to keep his mood up. A slight ache in his temples began to intensify.

“Are you okay?” Makoto whispered in his ear, having noticed a sudden twitch in his eyebrow.

“Yeah, it’s okay. I’m excited, and a bit overwhelmed.” Akira smiled at her. The ache persisted.

“Not a fan of crowds, huh?” Makoto asked sympathetically.

“Nope. Wasn’t aware of it before. It’s alright, though. This is worth it.” He gave her hand a gentle squeeze.

“I agree.” Makoto nodded in satisfaction. “We’re almost there.”

“That we are.”

Akira had never gone to such a big event before, but he was still aware of the rules and procedures. What followed as soon as they arrived at the entrance was the infamous body checks. The feeling process was quick and as unintrusive as it could be, which was still uncomfortable. Fortunately, nobody had brought backpacks or purses, meaning they did not have to linger any longer than necessary. Although this was a measure designed to ensure the safety of all, Akira could not help but shoot an apologetic glance at Haru.

She did not appear to mind. In fact, nobody’s mood seem to change but his own, turning slightly sour as the minutes passed. Nothing was amiss. No reason not to feel excited beyond his wits. Still, he could not pinpoint just what he was feeling, let alone why.

It would pass. As soon as the lights turned out, and the first act came on stage. Gorillaz would not perform until much later, but by then, his mood would surely have improved. And afterwards, he would treat everyone to dinner, and they would have a good time, no – a great time – Akira thought to himself. Everything is okay.

Everything.

Makoto’s hand gently squeeze his. She was looking at him with those serene, loving, red eyes; a patient smile formed on her lips.

“Let’s go, ‘Dad-kira’.”

[ ]

The seats Sojiro got them were not the most enviable, but they afforded them a good view of everything that went on stage. At worst, they were rather far from the large circular stage set in the middle of the field. A series of pre-recorded songs filled the airwaves in the stadium. The attending people quickly filled the myriads rows of seats, and the place was soon full as far as the eye could see. Salespeople went through each row catching orders for food or drink; Akira had always been courteous and sympathetic to the work of waiters and small merchants, but seeing so few of them for such mass of attendance made him count his blessings about his own profession. In terms of fortune, it was even better that they got to sit together.

On his left, Yusuke gazed all around the stadium as if it were some alien thing that defied his understanding of the world. Whether he admired the feats of architecture that made this venue possible or found an unforgivable aesthetic flaw was a mystery. On Akira’s right, Makoto was in the middle of a lively chat with Ann. The rest of their friends were each engaged likewise, with the particular exception of Futaba, who appointed herself the group’s official photographer – she was not subtle about her ‘ulterior motive’: to take as many pictures as possible of JoJoJi’s bottom as she could manage. In all likelihood, she had modified her cell phone to enhance the zoom, the prospect of which slightly terrified Akira.

They continued to wait. At the end of every pre-recorded song, a brief silence teased the show’s start, only for another to follow. By Akira’s count, they had been waiting for nearly an hour. The stage in the arena was a wide circle covered by a tall, black curtain propped from a circular frame on top of the venue. By all appearances, it looked ready. So why was the show not starting? The first to note the annoyance of the wait was, of course, Ryuji. Futaba followed, and then Ann. Even the usually saintly-patient Haru seemed uncomfortable at this point. Makoto turned to Akira, with an awkward expression. Yusuke, in the meantime, continued to examine the unseen in the Tokyo Dome Stadium.

Then, a crashing sound. All lights gone out.

“What…!?” Makoto instinctively grabbed Akira’s hand, squeezing tight.

He leaned towards her, surrounding her nape with his left hand.

“I think…” Another crashing sound, the lights around the stage dying the arena blue as the curtain fell. “The show just started.”

His words were drowned out by the audience’s collective scream of excitement, as one figure emerged from a rising platform in the middle of the stage. It was the event’s opening act: the MC of Slime, JoJoJi. The collective howl was contagious. And judging by Futaba’s reaction, she either just had a religious experience, or fully awakened to puberty. The rest were similarly impressed as JoJoJi appeared on several large screens propped around the arena. He was dressed in a very peculiar fashion: a catching pastiche of the Phantom Thieves’ costumes. Akira and the rest turned to look at each other, sharing amused looks about the Shido Calling Card having a greater effect than they anticipated.

So, the festival began.

[ ]

“Turn around… come on….” Futaba aimed at JoJoJi with her cell phone. Pulse steady. Head beaded with sweat all over. “Fucking turn around, damn you!”

“Futaba!” Makoto scolded.

[ ]

“Akira… what was that?” Makoto asked with a very disturbed expression.

“That, my dear… was Pink Eye.” His face, often confident and irreverent, mirrored her feelings at seeing JoJoJi’s alter-ego take the stage.

Yusuke looked absolutely fascinated. Ann embraced Haru, who still would not take her hands from her eyes. Futaba looked to be enjoying the act no less than fifteen minutes ago.

“Turn around!!!” She yelled once more. Her phone’s camera was still on JoJoJi. Everybody prayed Sojiro never got to see the pictures his daughter was taking.

[ ]

The act that followed was more consistent in style, and arguably more family-friendly. Pop-Punk group Yellow Bumblebee, featuring the idol Risette. The male portion in attendance seemed particularly enthusiastic. Akira was moderate in his reaction. He had grown past his crush on Risette as soon as he saw Makoto in the library on the first week of his time at Shujin. Ryuji, on the other hand, was just as loud and eager as everybody else, earning a fiery look from Ann.

The idol seemed to have matured beyond the aesthetics she brandished during her peak. Now, her style was no different from the band, visually and musically. It was a pleasant surprise for many, yet plenty others still wanted the idol’s old look back, though such an act would have clashed with the theme and mood of the event.

[ ]

Then came a relatively unsung band. Makoto, of all people, looked forward to seeing them the most. They were an Austrian act by the name of Violet and the Apocalypse. Next to the Gorillaz’ cartoon personae, they visually stood out the most by four members of the band wearing macabre skull-themed costumes similar to four Personas Akira recalled summoning back in the day, while Violet herself looked like she sprang out of a fairy tale book from the old Germanic traditions. Akira noted how excited Makoto looked – she was summoning the same spirits with which she watched yakuza movies, to a smaller degree.

Their performance could only be described as baroque, theatrical even. Electric guitars, a cello, keyboards, smoke and pyrotechnics. While the Apocalypse played with intensity, a whimsical Violet pranced around the stage while masterfully playing her flute. In theory, the two differing styles should have been an acoustic mess, yet they complimented each other well. The result was a melodic wall of sound, something like an anthem of the Underworld. Akira realised how the music was inspiring strange, poetic thoughts in him. He could perfectly tell why Makoto was so keen on them.

[ ]

The Pop duo Peace House was next. Haru acknowledged this as her relaxation music, the thing she listened to when caring for her plants. Akira thought then of a way to describe it: it Haru’s hair could somehow be translated into music, it would precisely this. The young woman may or may not appreciate the comment, so he kept it to himself, and while he enjoyed their performance, he found his eyes straying to the rest of his companions.

Ann leaned her head on a bored-looking Ryuji’s shoulder. Oblivious or uncaring about his mood, she nuzzled into his neck, negotiating a kiss from him. His eyes grew wide awake on the moment she took a bite from his lips. He reciprocated, and soon enough, they stopped paying any attention to the music. Akira felt an equal desire to kiss Makoto, remembering something he had told her back on a bittersweet Christmas Eve. “We can’t lose to them”.

Yet he also knew this was Haru’s favourite act. To share the same breath with Makoto now would be a rude gesture. So, for the time being, he contented himself with feeling his Queen’s head on his shoulder. But soon…

[ ]

This was it. The wait for him was longer than the hours passed since they took their seats. He had waited to see them live since that rainy afternoon years ago. Now, an adult, Akira was giving resolution to that young desire; its intensity had not decreased with age. Gorillaz took the stage: Damon Albarn and an ensemble of five musicians on guitars, keyboards, and drums. The animated avatars that comprised the image of the band appeared in bright colours on each screen: 2-D, Noodle, Russel Hobbs, and Murdoc Faust Niccals. The setting was surreal, even for those who kept up with the inner narrative of the band.

But it mattered none. The event’s crowning jewel elicited a deafening response, even from the uninitiated. After a five minute introduction, narrated through animation, the strange odyssey of the British act led to the first song on the list. A familiar beat, slow and constant filled Akira’s ears, followed by a melody in keyboard and harmonica, and then… a sleepy, tired voice that sounded like rain.

“Everybody’s hear with me / We got no camera around to see / Don’t think I’m all in this world / The camera won’t let me roll / And the verdict doesn’t love our soul / The digital won’t let me go.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ll pay. When tomorrow comes today.” Akira did not realise he was singing along. Ann and Makoto had aided him on his English many times before; beyond that, all he knew on the language came from these songs, but their meaning, he still struggled to understand. He nodded to the beat, overtaken, possessed. His eyes were neither on the stage nor on the screens, but lost in some unspecific point in the venue, wherein he saw the Tokyo cityscape, grim under the overcast. He did not notice how Makoto looked at him, endeared and moved at seeing him so involved.

Several songs followed, some of them had once been singles, others were more obscure. Akira knew them all by heart. The upbeat ones, the gloom ones also. He waited for one song in particular, one he just knew could not be missing from the day’s repertoire. And soon, there it was, heralded by De la Soul’s insane cackling. Feel Good Inc. Akira sang along, devoted whole to the song, until the chorus, when he violently turned to look at Makoto.

“Windmil, windmill for the land / Turn forever, hand in hand / Take it all in on your stride / It is tickling, falling down / Love forever, love has freely / Turned forever, you and me / Windmill, windmill for the land / Is everybody in?” He sang to her, freed from the rest of the song’s hopeless verses. This was pure, this was his heart conveyed to her through song.

How he sounded at the moment was not his concern, but to Makoto, he sounded beautiful. He intended to steal a kiss after that chorus. She beat him to it, and aside from hushed breaths and quiet moans, their lips did not separate for the rest of the song, nor for several that followed. Lifting the armrest that kept each to their seat afforded them liberty to move, but both shouldered the effort to keep themselves from climbing on top of each other and downright make love in the moment.

Several songs followed, the lines of which Akira silently reflected could convey the contents of his heart. He no longer sang, but chose to revel in the music. “El Mañana”, and “On Melancholy Hill” spelled a flashback to early days, to fear under the guise of daredevil-like confidence, to the preying uncertainty and the promise of misfortune looming on his head. He was reminded of little pangs of worry that stung at his senses about Makoto, the disheartening picture of her not wanting anything to do with him beyond their duty. His sole defence: to throw himself with abandon and express what he meant. And hope she said yes.

On the next song, “Cloud of Unknowing”, a guest singer, Kiryu Majima took the role in lieu of the late Bobby Womack, who provided the original vocals. The mood was lowered to a melancholic trance. Akira’s arm was around Makoto’s shoulder, and its end, his fingers affectionately played with her hair. She found a comfortable position to cradle herself with his body, her ear on his chest, listening to serene heartbeats. There were countless lights – glowsticks, lighters and phones - among the crowd as far as the eye could see. They looked like fireflies scattered in the night, restless and wanting, mesmerised by Majima-san’s, deep, haunting voice.

A haunt. A conjuring of intent, of chance, or history, manifested through the uncanny. For the first couple of seconds, Akira felt as if the song was causing an effect inside of him, like unceasing ripples in dark waters. Music can alter moods, music can talk to you – this he knew. But was it music, artifice, or something else that summoned red in the corner of his eye?

Without realising he was doing so, he slowly turned to his left, eyes lost on the crowd as it was swallowed by a red curtain, no end seen to the sides, nor above or below. He was not quite sure whether it advanced quickly or slow. The endless, velvet-like crimson veil advanced transversally upon the crowd, drawing nearer and nearer.

“All the days of forgetting.”

In an instant, Akira realised he could not move, nor look away. He felt his breathing slow and steady, despite a growing horror in him, as if somebody else had dominion of his body. But the music was still there, so was time.

“They’ve gone out with the tide.”

Nobody in their seats noticed a thing. They could not feel or see what he knew to be there.

“Lost at sea somewhere, waiting.”

Not even his friends. Not even Makoto. He tried to speak. He tried to scream. The pain between his temples returned with a dull, low pulse.

“Like setting suns at the rodeo.”

A whisper in his ear? No, it was another kind of sound, the contact of some alien texture against skin. It was humid, and cold.

“Trying to find someone…”

Akira watched the red curtain draw closer. He never took his sight off it. Before he could make sense of it – the thing was already in the immediate vicinity. He could see Futaba, the left side of her already taken.

“… You’ll never know.”

Akira had complete control of himself. But his impression and memory of what he saw lasted only but an instant, and then it was gone. The people who were swallowed were still there, and Futaba was whole and undisturbed. The show went on, and Kiryu Majima sang the third and final verse following a wistful instrumental. Akira knew everything was fine, but he was left with the lingering sensation that had seen something so terrible it could chill his blood frozen.

The song was ending. Confused, Akira lowered his gaze towards his girlfriend. Makoto looked at him, searching in his eyes. He did not know if she suspected something was wrong, or if the song inspired something in her. The only thing he knew is she drew in closer to kiss him. He could not help but getting lost in her lips, and forgetting his restlessness.

The show continued until its end. At the end, Akira and his companions stood in loud ovation, fully enjoying every single second of the gift they knew they deserved, and under their breaths, they said a prayer to Sojiro Sakura’s welfare. Just as planned, they all went out for dinner afterwards. It was rather late to drop by at LeBlanc for coffee, so they parted ways at the subway station. Ryuji and Ann went off together. Yusuke accompanied Haru by the convenience of his lodging being on the way to Haru’s place. Akira managed to convince Futaba to accompany him on a detour to drop Makoto at her place.

After a kiss and goodnight at Makoto’s door, Akira took Futaba home.

Even the sensation of seeing something out of the ordinary was worn out into nothingness. He laid in his bed in the café’s attic, with Morgana snuggled on top of him that night. He messaged all of his friends, thanking them for the experience. Not a care nor a worry in his head.

That night, his dreams were empty.

Chapter Text

No matter how he spun the tale, Sojiro Sakura knew he should hardly be surprised by now. There were two young people in his life, and though neither was biological kin to him, he was a father to both. His daughter, once upon a time a doom-bound recluse, Futaba Sakura. His son, a young man who lived under his care for a year, Akira Kurusu. As fate or chance would have it, they both turned out to be Phantom Thieves, the strangeness of which Sojiro experienced by proxy, as their headquarters turned out to be the attic of his café. It certainly was not the type of after-school activity he pictured the young man doing, let alone Futaba.

Aside from that, Sojiro Sakura’s younger years were the kind of life authors imagine when writing their novels. His nickname. “Boss”, was well earned. Through intrigue in obscure sectors of the government, encounters with two mafias from different countries, long travels that inspired his fascination for coffee, and a love that never waned despite never being reciprocated, the lines on his face whispered the stories his tongue would not. It was something Akira’s father could attest to, having met him through troubled and unlikely circumstances.

Indeed, Sojiro “Boss” Sakura had seen much in his life – the mundane, the extraordinary, and things in between. And yet, for all that experience, he could not help but stare in confusion at the young man who walked into the café that day. He could tell he was no mere customer just from the way he approached the counter: his pace was resolute, but brief fidgeting motions about his hands betrayed insecurity. He did not come in to drink coffee or have curry; he came to talk to Boss.

“Good day, Sir.” The young man with short black hair bowed his side of the counter, almost smacking his head on its surface. “My name is Yuuki Mishima. I am a friend of Kurusu-san.”

Sojiro stared, unimpressed by his words, even far less so by the young man’s appearance. He wore dark jeans, loafers, a long-sleeved olive shirt, and a brown vest – nothing too offensive, and Sojiro would not boast himself knowledgeable on the current styles. But there was an item that did not fit in Mishima’s getup. It did not clash with the rest, it simply did not belong to his presence. A grey trilby hat.

“He’s not here today.” Boss said with a gruff voice.

“Actually, Sir. I’ve come to talk to you. Umm… Akira has told me about you.”

“Has he now?” Sojiro’s eyes looked past the flesh, observing the boy as a person. Boss often saw something of himself in Akira, which was an accurate assessment. Though he may not have known then, Sojiro and Akira were both extraordinarily good judges of character. Thus, the things Akira may have suspected when meeting Yuuki were obvious to Sojiro. “Go on.”

“Um, well… he says you educated him in the art of coffee and curry…”

“Hah, ‘educated’. He’s not wrong there.” Boss noted Mishima’s election in vocabulary. It reminded him of someone he knew years past; his name escaped him, but he had a word to encapsulate all that he was. A flatterer. But he was not sure this young man was indeed a flatterer. He obviously came here for a reason. He may as well let him speak his mind before sending him off with a piece of advice that would last him a lifetime.

“Yeah. He described you as Boss, Sakura-san.”

“People call me that, son.”

“Right… er, Boss-san. I came here because…”

“Let me stop you right there, kid.” Sojiro rubbed his eyelids with the tips of his fingers, nursing the headache that increased the longer he looked at the young man. “You’re obviously not here for a coffee…”

“Sir, I...” Yuuki looked flustered.

“Grown-up talking.” He noticed the young man’s dejected look. “I’ll let you finish. But first… take that thing off.” He pointed at the trilby Yuuki so liberally wore.

“M-my hat, you mean, Boss-san?” Yuuki looked confused.

“It’s just ‘Boss’. And yeah, your hat. Take that off. You’ve nowhere near the poise to wear a hat like that, let alone indoors. Only two people can do that and get away with it. Is your name Sojiro Sakura, or Minoru Suzuki?”

“No, Boss-s… I mean, Boss.” Yuuki hastened to obey.

“Good. Clothes don’t make the man. Clothes are just an extension of the man.” Sojiro meant to make himself a cup of altura after imparting a bit of wisdom the young man should heed. “Hey, hey. What’s that grin for?” He asked, unamused at the sight of the young man, whose eyes lit like firecrackers.

“Boss! I’m here to request that you teach me like you taught Akira-san!” He bowed again, this time certainly knocking his head on the counter with a loud thud. His motion as his head rose back up betrayed no sign of pain, but his face did not have as much composure.

Sojiro sighed in frustration as he looked at the dutifully polished surface on the counter. Fortunately, there was no Mishima face-mark left behind.

“Did the kid put you up to this?”

“No, Boss. I come here of my own volition and will.” An unexpected flash of conviction in Mishima’s voice. “I wish to learn how to brew good coffee and make good curry.”

“What for? Are you looking to get into the restaurant business? There are schools for that, kid.”

“That’s… not what I’m planning, Boss.” Yuuki looked down, as If reflecting on the choices that led him here. He had a lot to say, but the hierarchy to his ideas, which he had carefully built before coming was crumbling down fast. And still, if we could put it all down in a clear, succinct, definite way – would that suffice for Sojiro Sakura to accept? Yuuki realised it too late; the silence was drawing longer, and the look in Boss’ eyes was not easing down.

A sudden flashback of torment, of days under the yoke of abuse, contained in a frightful second. It has been longer than a year since he last saw, heard, or even thought about him. But the shadow of one Suguru Kamoshida manifested then by the notion of a long, unblinking gaze. There were two sides to Kamoshida; one kind of look, and one type of victim for each. Most of the students at Shujin were a victim to the P.E. teacher, though they did not realise it. Them he would regard with a smug impunity disguised as confidence. The rest, the unlucky few like Yuuki himself, and Shiho Suzui, knew the other Kamoshida, the one with the furious, lusting, hateful eyes.

The very way he looked at them was a silent foreword to his sinister designs. He would not blink, not even as the veins on his face pulsed thick and his mouth twisted into a crooked grin. Those eyes, they meant to break his prey before he even laid a finger on them.

Yuuki knew he got off easy. But Shiho, on the other hand… Before the Phantom Thieves began their work, the man and his abuses were untouchable, protected even by the Principal’s wish to elevate the school’s prestige. Kobayakawa seemed more than content with letting Kamoshida have his way - through violence and base lust - if quiet complicity was the price to pay. That all changed when the infamous delinquent transfer student arrived at Shujin. Everybody looked down on the young man, deeming him a lost cause, a dangerous outcast. Little did they know, Akira Kurusu was in fact the herald to joyous news: Kamoshida’s reign of hedonism was at its end.

Even now, the fact of the Phantom Thieves’ involvement was at the core of Mishima’s path, including his being here today. Boss’ eyes still looked at him unyielding, but his were not Kamoshida’s eyes. Yuuki breathed deep and prepared his response.

“I…”

“Look, kid. I don’t have all day. Tell you what – I’ll fix you a cup, on the house.” He pointed at one of the empty booths. “Go sit. You’ll have your coffee, and think on what you want to say.”

“B-but… thank you, Boss.” Mishima felt calmer, more secure about himself and the situation.

Four minutes later, Mishima was looking at his own reflection in the black mirror of his coffee. His hair looked rather messy by the way he wore and removed his hat, but it felt more fitting than an hour ago. He had not even planned it as part of the process, but he already learned something. He still had much to learn. The story he wanted to tell did not depend only on the events themselves, or how he presented them, but on his individual spirit as a creator and storyteller.

His reason was esoteric. The dream of writing and directing a documentary on the Phantom Thieves was still very much alive. But having been himself a beneficiary of their justice, and their collaborator, he could not simply present a formalist narrative of events. He had to acknowledge the emotional dimension and the psycho-social. He had to think in terms of faith, love, and hope, words that shattered any pretension of cold pragmatism. Yuuki Mishima needed to understand even the simplest of things, even if for security’s sake he would not actually talk about them in film.

Akira Kurusu was his best friend. And Yuuki knew he gave him no shortage of trouble during the year they met. Even now, he wanted to do him justice – to understand how he perceived the world, wounded, distorted in strife and injustice, from a humble place behind the café’s counter. But if he told Sojiro Sakura all of this, would he understand this as Yuuki did? Therein lies the root of his worry.

He took another sip. Yuuki was a complete neophyte when it came to coffee; blends, grains, it was all the same to him – a dark, bitter beverage he rarely drank for the joy of it. But the cup Boss fixed him was different. The bitterness was there, but so was a smooth, not-quite-sweet, chocolate-y taste. It washed over his palate, and lingered wanting until the next sip. Mishima did not want it to get cold, but he also would not drink it hastily. He needed all the time he was afforded.

One more time. He went over his train of thought, one idea at a time on a long chain of rationale, peppered with sentiment. Then, a loud voice derailed it all in an instant. A bespectacled flash of orange came through the café’s door, walking about like this were her home – which in many ways, indeed was. He knew her. It was a strange chance meeting at the diner. Akira was there as her companion, or a guide of sorts. He left that day with a lasting, and very awkward impression of the girl. It was like she spoke an entirely different conversation, no matter how accurately Yuuki made sense of her words.

Aside from that odd experience, all he knew about her was her alter-ego: Oracle from the Phantom Thieves.

“Sojiro! Curry! Pronto!” She called out loud, lacking every bit of the decorum Mishima used.

The man turned to regard his daughter. Yuuki could see the weary but affectionate look in his eyes. The relation became apparent.

“Hungry already? Didn’t Niijima-san tell you to have fruit if you needed something in between meals?”

“Yup. Both of them did.”

“So?”

“It’s pricey.”

“Not talking about melon, Futaba.”

“It’s bland.”

Sojiro sighed, rubbing his eyelids like he did a moment ago.

“It’ll still be a while. Go sit down.”

Futaba groaned loud and irritated.

“Fine. I’ll get out of your hair until then… like so.” Her voice shrank to a mocking whisper as her arms assumed a position commonly known as ‘dabbing’. She turned around, and in the very precise moment her eyes noticed Mishima, her expression lost all of its usual mischievous smugness. Yuuki could not tell whether her eyes betrayed confusion or embarrassment.

With her right arm still covering the lower portion of her face, her eyes squinted as if searching for some knowledge stashed away in old memories. Her eyes grew wide with a dawn of recognition.

“You’re the protagonist!”

“Y-yeah!” Yuuki said, with a tone that sounded more enthusiastic than he would have liked. The vivid memory of that meeting over a year ago smacked him with the realisation that he still had no idea what she meant back then.

“You two know each other?” Sojiro asked with apparently minimal concern.

“This guy is the protagonist. He hangs out with Akira.” Futaba finally put her arms down.

“So I hear.” Sojiro opened the refrigerator’s door, scanning for vegetables for the curry.

“Why is he here?” Futaba asked. Though her tone sounded more infantile than deliberately rude, her words caught the attention of her father, who looked reprimanding. She had no way of telling Mishima was not an actual customer. Though inconsiderate, her assessment was accurate.

“He wants me to teach him how to make coffee and curry.”

Her back was turned to Mishima, yet her silence hinted at her expression, mouth agape, eyes wide open from the revelation.

“Are you gonna?” Mishima could hear disapproval in her voice.

“Haven’t decided yet. Falls to him to convince me.” Boss responded nonchalantly.

Yuuki felt he should politely say something if at least to remind them he was there.

“Really, Sojiro? Really?” Her disapproval was starting to become more and more evident. Strange as she was, Mishima sensed she had a valid reason to disagree to the prospect, and judging by Boss’ mood about the whole thing, he was not seeing it from her perspective. Frustrated, Futaba climbed the stairs to the attic, where Akira lived.

But truly, would it be so bad if Boss were to accept? And if he did accept, Yuuki would make sure to prevent or redeem for any harm Futaba anticipated. But no – not yet. He was thinking far ahead of himself. He had to convince Boss, as well as Oracle now. But then again, that was not necessarily a bad thing. After all, considering she also had been a Phantom Thief, she would possibly understand his motivations, and he may also count on Akira vouching for him, but that was a resource Mishima would rather not try.

He was, after all, resolute to carry his own weight. And never again use a friend’s name to his own benefit.

Another sip. The cup was on the threshold of cooling down, but the taste remained rich. Sojiro Sakura was on the money. This cup of coffee certainly helped, but Yuuki was not actually sure if it was the beverage itself what inspired this level of introspection… or if it was the fact that Boss took care to brew the coffee and serve it. So much goes into film-making, far beyond the mechanical processes. A film made from heart, sincerity, and careful eye for detail resulted in the film reaching out to the viewer, and touching. Could it not be the same for a process such as coffee-making?

Yuuki Mishima smiled at the thought. Regardless of the day’s outcome, he already had a possible second lesson from Sojiro ‘Boss’ Sakura. He could try and wait on a third, but the words brewing in his mind risked overstaying their place in his tongue. He had it – his argument, the proper structure to his motives. One more sip, and Mishima stood up; he approached the counter with twofold the security he had at the start of the day.

“Boss. I have an objective. I’ve had it for longer than a year. I have the components to make it a reality, but I’m lacking one thing. Proper understanding.” Yuuki Mishima went ahead to explain his motives, only speaking openly about his interest in comprehending Akira’s position as a beholder to certain events. As he went on, Sojiro’s expression gave hints of knowing. One interjection on his part revealed that he was indeed very aware that Akira and Futaba were both Phantom Thieves. He may or may not be seeing the value Mishima placed on this apprenticeship, but he seemed less ready to turn him down.

“You want it that bad, eh kid?” Sojiro shook his head.

“I do, Boss.”

“One fuckup, and it’s over. Got it?”

“Really, Sojiro? Really?” Futaba said again at Mishima’s back. She was sitting at the top of the stairs, legs and hair dangling in the air. Yuuki could almost hear her rolling her eyes back.

“I promise I won’t make any trouble, Futaba-chan.” Yuuki bowed in her direction.

“Ugh, fine. I guess I can’t stand in the way of the protagonist’s questline.” She turned to her dad. “You’re not gonna pay him, are you, Sojiro?”

“Hell no.” Boss said with not the slightest humour. “Now, kid. I gave the kid no room to mess up. I’m giving you even less than what he got.”

“Understood, Boss.”

“Come tomorrow at eight. You’re a minute late, the deal’s off. You don’t bring an apron with you, the deal’s off.” Sojiro Sakura was starting to look like a drill instructor already. “You bring that hat, the deal’s off. I’ll be thinking of more things, don’t worry about that.”

“Yes, Boss.”

“Good.” Boss turned back towards the refrigerator. “Now, you’re gonna stay for your first lesson. You’re gonna eat this curry. And you’ll know why I won’t be having any goofing off.”

Chapter Text

Some things could not be escaped or denied. The natural forces of the world - heat, gravity, magnetism, etcetera – those are the more evident, the ones all organisms were subject to, whether living or not. There are other such inescapable forces that only exist in relation to conscience and instinct. Naught but the thinking observed time and how it passed. Naught but the aware beheld cellular decomposition and conceived mortality, and the notion of loss that comes after. And naught but the conscious looked at their surroundings to think of truth; something that could vary from heart to heart, but ultimately always stared unblinking, whether they could stare back or not.

His relation with truth was a stormy affair. But eventually, Morgana knew to face and accept it. He was a cat. Though his mind operated like that of a human, and though he was born as hope literally made flesh, he was and would forever be a cat. His friends extended their warmth and compassion, and they were willing to provide all the help they could so that he could achieve the form he believed was his original design. But they could not grasp just how intense his desire was – not even Akira.

By sole fact of being a Phantom Thief, Morgana – also known as Mona – had braved through great perils and eluded grim outcomes time after time. But all that courage and grit were dwarfed by his greatest feat of valour – accepting himself. With the help of his friends, Morgana become content, even happy with his feline reality. He embraced his core instincts and found joy in the things he could do only as a cat. Sleeping on top of Akira, riding in his bag, and being constantly pampered by his parents. Playing with Ann and Haru’s hair. Laying on Makoto’s lap and being scratched beneath the chin. Pestering Ryuji and Futaba, and effortlessly getting away with it. Modelling for Yusuke who felt his efforts were not sufficient to capture his Morgana-ness.

And there was Snow.

All around him, he saw only strangers. It was the day of the Phantom Thieves’ ultimate triumph – the fall of a God-Dictator at their hands. It seemed then, upon their victory, that Morgana was to disintegrate, to lose his body and become a thing incorporeal that living things felt, breathed and carried in their most intimate, but could never touch. He said a loving farewell, and saw his friends tearfully reach out. Everything around him was light, and his ears could hear the perennial tune of the Blind Pianist in the realm of the soul. It mattered none – their faces and their voices remained in his consciousness.

He vanished, but never quite ceased to be. Seconds, maybe minutes after, his flesh was again as whole as always. His make was different, but his form was wholly that which he inhabited in the measurable, ordinary world. But his friends were nowhere to be seen. He knew his surroundings from the many times he accompanied Akira, and from the brief divide in the Thieves’ numbers. Still, this was his first time in Shibuya in this state. It was all intensely disorienting. And the only thing that kept him from panicking were two big blue eyes that gazed at him from the shadow of a store’s awning. The rest of her was white, and Morgana could not tell how much of that fluff was cat and how much was long, long fur.

“Hello?” Morgana called out. He knew humans who had never been to the Metaverse would only hear meowing. But this white, feline cloud did not seem to understand his words either. It should have been no surprise – the strays in Yongen-jaya never understood him, and to Morgana, their meowing sounded like meowing. But for some reason, he hoped, he wanted this cat to comprehend.

She tilted her head to the side. Her skunk-like tail swayed slowly. Up until that moment, Morgana never actually thought of how his emotions translated into quirks like that. To any other cat, it was natural.

Morgana approached timid, one paw at a time. The she-cat stared without a blink, but nothing in the hind region of her fur hinted at any desire to run away. She did not trust this black and white cat, but she saw something in the blue of his eyes, dark whereas hers were light, penetrating and true. Without realising, Mona was but centimetres away, his head lowered to the height of his shoulder blades. Millimetres now, and the white cat drew just a little closer, sniffing away. Morgana felt a slight jolt when her nose touched his.

She smelled just like any other cat; in fact, she did not smell any different to himself. But to the white cat, Morgana’s scent was peculiar, foreign even in comparison to the grittiest of strays. She simply did not know whether to stay or to run away.

So she pawed at his face.

“Hey!” Morgana hissed. “What’s the big idea?”

She pawed at him again. Claws drawn in.

“S-stop it!” Morgana stood on his hind legs as an instinctive response. He expected her to paw him again, after which he would have to consider whether to return the gesture. But this time, she only stared at him, and let a long meow fill the air. It was clear by the way she licked her paw to tidy herself that there was a breach in communication. “Whatever.” Morgana said, returning to four paws, and turning around to make his long way back to Yongen-jaya.

Just thinking about the time it would take him to get there made him irritated, and hungry. As if to mock him in his hour of distress, the words ‘fatty tuna’ showed up in his thoughts. Several times in the past, he accompanied Akira whenever he tackled the Big Bang Burger Challenge. Perhaps, if he tried hard enough, he could find the burger joint, but like as not, he would probably be shooed away.

Then, from the corner of his eye, a white fluff. The she-cat was keeping up with a spry step.

“What are you doing?” Morgana asked.

Her response was vocal, not a meow per se, but it was the purriest hum his ears ever heard. Sweet sounding, but increasingly grating the more it bounced between the walls of his mind. Regardless, this was as far from a reply as it could get – or so it seemed. It took him a few awkward minutes to realise she was not following him; she was beckoning him to follow. Mona could not tell whether she understood anything he said. The point was moot, as she understood the most essential thing about him before he even cared to tell. She knew he was hungry.

After a few moments of venturing into a labyrinth of backstreets, the two cats arrived at their destination. The entrance to a modest restaurant that barely seemed to have any customers at all. There was a name above the door but the letters were too faded to make it out. It was thanks to his feline sense of orientation that he knew where they were, though this was a place entirely new to him. The view was lonely, and it subtly encouraged approaching with caution. After all, the Phantom Thieves had stopped a cat abuser in the past, and there was no telling another could not be prowling this solitude. Yet the white cat’s carefree canter was reassuring, and soon, Morgana learned the reason to her easy pace.

This place had even less customers than LeBlanc on a bad day, but the smells that emerged from within were similarly mouth-watering. Instead of the spice and the rich aroma of the coffee, Morgana breathed the hot mixture of steamed vegetables and grilled meat. He could almost hear the oily sound of meat and chicken sizzling on a grill, but the white cat’s almost-deafening meow startled the image away.

And out she came, a young girl wearing apron. She looked like she may have studied at Shujin. Wild black hair, and dark circles around her eyes, a strange air about her, like a subdued obsession. But there was still a distinct tone of kindness to her voice when greeting the cat.

“Snow, you came!” She crouched to scratch the white cloud of a cat under the jaw, then noticing Morgana. “And you brought a handsome gentleman!”

Her remark felt like a joke at his expense, done out of ignorance rather than malice, but a joke all the same. Regardless, he did not pull away as she reached forward with her hand, index finger extended, humid from what looked like grease. Mona’s stomach grumbled wanting at the smell.

“Stay here, you two.” The girl went into the restaurant, prancing like a besotted child. A few minutes later, she came back out with a plate full of tender chicken, boiled and without seasoning. She set it down in front of the cats are went back into the restaurant to sit on a chair as she watched them eat. Snow began wolfing down without hesitation, and after a cautionary sniff, Morgana followed her example. This was a feast, if a little bland. Morgana could not complain.

Thus began his strange friendship with Snow, and with Yumeko Mogami, by proxy. Every day Yumeko came to work to the restaurant, she made sure to set some food apart for Snow and Morgana. The latter was most grateful for this, especially on the days that followed, as his eventual odyssey to Yongen-jaya revealed an unsettling truth, one he fretfully put together from overheard conversations. Akira turned himself in to the police to ensure Shido’s prosecution. Alas, his friends were already hard at work to hasten his release. There was little he could do but silently watch over his friends during their efforts, and wait for his best friend’s return. Snow turned out to be a loyal companion during those days.

A year passed.

Today, Morgana could not feign surprise when realising she still remembered him. It has not even been a week since Akira and he return to Tokyo. Yet somehow, there she was, in his Yongen-jaya backstreets – a fluffy white cloud with big, blue eyes and a deafening meow. Though fond of the sight, she was the last thing he expected to see.

“Hi…” Mona was at a loss for words. “How have you been?”

Still nothing akin to a verbal response - not immediately, at least.

“It’s good to see y-!”Morgana started before being cut off by loud, long, almost reproachful meow. The feline jumped back, startled. Though lacking in words, he understood what Snow was conveying. After all, thinking back on a year ago, it was quite clear. He never actually said goodbye.

For his thoughtlessness, Morgana expected Snow to rightfully pin her ears back, to hiss and claw at him. A guilty pang fell at the pit of his stomach as Snow stood up and walked past him. He knew it was deserved, but it still ached. Yet he did not expect that, rather than leaving him to dwell on his shame, she walked a circle around him only to come back and rub her head against his.

All in all, she just seemed glad to have her friend back. And Morgana knew that if he was to remain in Tokyo for the long run, the least he could do was protect and nurture every bond he had. So the two cats went on their way to spend their day together, finding a suitable place under the sun to take a nap, as cats do. He only hoped not to run into any of his fellow Thieves, lest they looked on this as a date. They would never let him live it down - Ryuji especially.

The hours passed in an alternation of sunlight and shadow, nibbled houseplants in the open, and cobwebs sticking to their tails. It was still early afternoon, which meant Sojiro or Akira would probably be about to make some curry for lunch. Aside from the particular subtleties that went into that special curry, Morgana knew even a taste may not agree with his feline insides, but the smell of it alone was enough to arouse an appetite. It was fortunate that neither Boss nor Joker used all of the meat when cooking; whatever they did not use was Morgana’s lunch. Today, the two cats would share.

But that represented something of a problem. All Morgana had to do was put up his cutest self for Boss or Akira to serve him some meat, but to ensure that would be enough for two, they would inevitably need to see Snow as well. He could see it happening already. Sojiro was the preferable alternative; at worst, he would baby-talk him like he did when he thought nobody was looking, encourage Snow’s company with a conspiring tone, or both. That much he could survive. But if Akira was the one serving… Joker’s silent smirk would do what a year of Ryuji and Ann teasing would not.

Then again, the alternative to either outcome was a far lesser meal. The second better choice was Mogami’s chicken, but Shibuya was too far away for two cats in the city. After considering that, the choice was easy – keeping his cool was not.

Morgana and Snow headed to LeBlanc’s door. The sign said ‘Open’ in big letters. Inside they could hear a variety of subdued sounds. Two chatting customers, regulars both. The television. Water brought to a boil. A ladle stirring in a pot – curry in the making. Morgana stood on his hind legs and scratched at the rather dirty glass on the door.

“Heyyyyyyyy!” He called out loud. Whomever answered his call would decide the extent of his embarrassment. Snow merely sat next to him in clear view, swaying her tail slow and carefree.

Footsteps. The doorknob turned. It was Sojiro. Mona felt relieved.

“Back from your stroll, huh?” Sojiro always seemed somewhat pleased to see the cat. “And what have we here? Brought a friend along, did you?” Boss knelt to extend a hand towards the white cat to see if she would trust him. Snow timidly approached, smelling his index finger for a short moment before she started licking. Sojiro Sakura certainly seemed to have a way with cats. “I’ll have something for you two. Be right back.”

Mona was momentarily confused. This did not go as badly as he thought. Boss made no remark at all on the fact that he brought a girl cat along, no teasing, no mention of him taking after Akira’s way with Makoto. He rationalised that Sojiro could not tell Snow was female at first sight, something Morgana could tell by smell alone. Perhaps, all the motives to his worry where only in his mind. And indeed, had he an actual reason to overthink?

They were friends, simple as that. But he had to admit that thinking of this bond brought some uncomfortable reflections to the table, all reminding of his mental self, tip-toeing the frontier between human and cat. Though he had grown past his infatuation with Ann, the topic of love came to mind every now and then. He knew what love was; he understood that it was as much of a permanent awareness as it was a continuous action. It was something that sheltered and nurtured, knew no distinction and halted before no obstacle.

But did cats understand love the same way? Could the affection of a cat suffice on the day his heart remained wanting? And thinking of that future, there was so much Morgana still did not know about himself. With no access to the domains of his maker, these mysteries would probably remain unsolved. The wild train of thought that broke loose in his head was starting to dull his appetite.

That is, until Sojiro came back with lunch. Snow started munching away with particular glee. Soon enough, Morgana found that nothing made sense but to eat and hope she does not lick the plate clean by herself.

No use dwelling in these dark existential depths. “Whatever happens, happens”. Mona recalled overhearing that one night while Akira watched his favourite show. Morgana hardly ever paid attention when it came on, but his ears perked every now and then for these morsels of wisdom. The music was consistently good, at the very least.

Music… that was a thought. The other Thieves had gone to a music event of sorts the day before. They could not take him along, but Akira promised to find another gig to take him along. He rarely ever broke a promise, so at least he had something to look forward to. The two cats were halfway finished with the plate. Amidst the chewing, Morgana snickered at a devious thought. If the Thieves could not find the time or place, he could always go to Futaba and ask her to hack into Makoto’s phone to record whenever she sang – a habit she picked up during her final winter as a Shujin student. Queen was not half bad, but the real spectacle was imagining just what she would do if she found out others could listen in.

It would be like courting death, most likely. What thrill.

A less risky alternative would be listening to Haru while she sang to her plants. Her voice was a sweet sound, and she would probably agree to let the cats lounge as she sang, but she was as likely to sing something soothing as she was to perform something that could give him nightmares. To Haru, it was all the same.

The most likely scenario was Akira smuggling him into the karaoke bar. The more he thought about it, the better it sounded, especially if all Thieves were involved. He could not imagine Ryuji or Futaba would be any good at it, but at least they would all have a laugh.

Morgana lost himself momentarily in these brighter thoughts, and he did not realise Snow had stopped eating; something else had caught her attention. The white cat’s eyes were fixed on something above them. It moved in circles. Snow sat up straight, tail swinging anxiously. Morgana looked up in a rather human manner, acting similarly to Snow. It was well within the way of cats to observe small animals; flying insects were ever an effective catalyst to their hunting instincts. But that was not quite the reason Morgana could not look away from this tiny, yellow – almost orange – butterfly.

His deep blue eyes stared wide open. His thoughts evaporated, all but one. This was a butterfly, and there was nothing else to it. But there was something important, somewhere, at some point in time that looked quite like this butterfly. It was not a knowledge he possessed, rather it was something he instinctively knew. But why? His memories were all his now, and he never before saw anything remotely important in the appearance of a yellow butterfly.

A word began to conjure in his brain, becoming clearer the longer he looked upon the insect. A dawn of a realisation… it sparked suddenly in the moment its wing caught a sliver of sunlight.

Plaything.

Morgana jumped upward, pawing at the butterfly and missing. The plaything began to fly away, and Snow began to run after it even before Mona landed. He followed her, and the plaything, hopping over fences and small roofs. He caught up to Snow soon after, and together they chased the plaything, leaping and pawing to no success. This lasted for a long time. It may have been better if the butterfly flew well out of their reach, but the plaything was still within sight. So they continued to chase until the afternoon grew dark.

Exhausted, both cats napped together in the back of the Sakura residence. At this time, it would be inconvenient for Snow to return to Shibuya on her own. Morgana meant to ask Akira to do him a favour and take the white cat to the Mogumi restaurant the day after, as soon as naptime was over. As Morgana opened his eyes to see the dusk, he decided to just ask tomorrow.

The image of the yellow butterfly went forgotten.

Chapter Text

“What the hell is wrong with you, kid?” Sojiro asked as he went back inside the café after serving lunch for Morgana and what appeared to be a companion of his own – a fluffy white cat. Akira had heard the expression enough times before to know when Boss actually felt perplexed. His knowing, slightly mocking tone dispelled all ambiguity on the matter – he knew exactly what was going on. And it took only a little teasing for the young man to give himself away.

“Boss… please don’t do that again.” Akira nearly choked on the milk he gulped. It was customary for the café’s owner and his best apprentice to avoid keeping ingredients in the fridge if little remained. It was basic space optimisation. At the moment, they were preparing LeBlanc’s fabled curry and Akira helped himself to what little remained at the bottom of the carton after using the appropriate portion. His throat was quite dry from anxiety about the hours to come, and now – after a sudden, unforeseen question – the milk had gone back up through his nostrils, leaving a milky mess over his apron.

Sae and Makoto were coming for dinner later that day. The elder sister called early in the morning to request that they all had a talk. She also said something else: that in lieu of meeting Akira’s parents, she wished to talk with his guardian, Sojiro Sakura, on an important subject. The motive, yet unknown. Uncertainty when it came to the Niijima sisters was never a trivial matter. Sojiro’s question could not have come at a more delicate time.

“So, is that rubber yours?” Boss repeated the question, visibly amused at Akira coughing milk and mucus. “Kudos if it is, kid. Birth control is basic responsible behaviour.” The man leaned back on the counter and waited for Akira to regain his composure. He chuckled at a thought that he would rather keep to himself: that the brand was the same he used at Akira’s age.

“Y-yeah…” Akira crouched to pick his glasses from the floor. “Please, let’s not go there, Boss.” For all his devilish confidence, some things could still evidence the fool inside of him.

“Fair enough, kid. You’d do well to relax, though. I don’t want you messing up the curry you’ll be serving your girl and her sister.” He knew he was sprinkling salt on the young man’s open wound but the young sadist from Sojiro’s younger years was getting a rare chuckle. He could allow himself this, and Akira certainly needed to unwind his tension, even if at his own expense.

“Thanks for the reminder, Boss.” Akira straightened himself at last, going over to the sink to clean his apron.

“You’re doing fine, kid. Whatever Niijima-san’s got planned, it can’t be bad.” Boss sounded very secure. “But if I were you, I’d be more worried about overcooking the food there. I’ll gut you, I’m not even kidding.”

“That’s grim, Boss.” Akira smiled, finding no sliver of humour on Sojiro’s face. Despite wiping the levity in his face, the young man still harboured some amusement within, mostly concerning Yuuki and however he would manage under Boss’ tutelage.

Akira was yet to make a mistake on the curry. The preparation was one of the few things in which he did not allow bouts of creativity and showmanship. Every step was a close measure, a part of meticulous formula. It made sense to think of the dish in terms of scientific method. Its key nuances, after all, were conceived in the brain of cognitive researcher extraordinaire, Wakaba Isshiki, Futaba’s mother. That day, the stress added to his strict care while cooking. A mistake may well represent more than Sojiro’s subtle threat.

An hour later, two familiar silhouettes walked through the café’s door. The young man had long lost count of the times he has seen Makoto enter the scene, but every time still summoned the same juvenile enthusiasm she stirred in him the first time. Even the tension Sae represented could not dull the shine in his eyes. In due time, however, the preoccupation on Sae’s request to talk created a very palpable heaviness in his stomach.

Akira stepped outside the counter and greeted both sisters with a formal bow. Makoto seemed rather taken aback, but Sae seemed to be expecting it. Even after witnessing her strange, often hilarious means of breaking the ice, the former prosecutor could wear her commanding aura like a cloak, and that also never lost its shine.

“Good afternoon to you too, Akira.” Makoto bowed as well, to then approach her boyfriend and plant a kiss on his cheek. Though Sae knew of their relationship, open displays of affection such as this were kept to a minimum in her presence. Makoto was not blind to Akira’s unease. In fact, she guessed beforehand he may feel somewhat anxious when hearing what her sister had planned. This open, though innocent, gesture was her way to reassure him while keeping a little decorum.

She did, however, feel tempted to be as bold as they usually were.
“We’ve been expecting you two.” Sojiro made his entrance, gruffly placing his hand on Akira’s shoulder, slightly startling the young man. “Good afternoon, Niijima-san… and good afternoon, Niijima-san.”

“Good afternoon, Boss.” Makoto bowed.

“Thank you for agreeing to meet us, Sakura-san.” Sae’s demeanour was such that one could never have guessed some of her previous visits to LeBlanc were less than pleasant. Back then, she came in the full persona of the ruthless prosecutor. The antagonism was such that Sojiro broke into a cold, wrathful sweat following her visit. Now, a year and a half since, Sae was dressed as casually as her sister. Affable, but still resolute.

“We hope we’re not being an inconvenience.” Makoto added.

“Bah, an inconvenience? Never.” Sojiro took off his apron and set It on the counter behind him, thus ceasing to be LeBlanc’s owner for the occasion, and presenting himself as Akira’s legal guardian. “Just ask this boy here.”

Akira could not help but smile, sensing that the blood was running his cheeks red.

“Please, have a seat wherever you like.” Akira was also without his apron, but the air about him inspired a sense of service beyond courtesy.

“Thank you.” Sae nodded with a sober smile. Both sisters took seat at the booth by the window, closest to the door. In the meantime, Sojiro excused himself to brew four cups of coffee while Akira stirred the curry a little before serving.

Everything went without a hitch. Akira expected at several moments that something terrible and embarrassing would happen. Either he would trip as he served the curry, bathing Sae, or a hiccup would make an unwelcome intrusion. The possibilities were limitless when it came to the worst things occurring at the worst times. To his relief, all four were seated after a few minutes with food and drink, and no error made.

However, Sae’s words were fresh in Akira’s mind. She wanted to talk with Sojiro, the latter on behalf of his parents. Things could yet go wrong. Despite his usual Joker confidence and wit, unease ate away at him. Sojiro seemed unperturbed; from the way he managed himself even when quiet, he looked a few decades younger.

“Well. As I said earlier, I have an important matter to discuss today.” Sae began with little humour in her voice. “That said, I don’t see why we should let this curry get cold. Let’s enjoy it and ourselves a bit, why don’t we?”

“That’s a woman after my own heart.” Sojiro smirked devilish.

“Food has always been joy to me.” The elder Niijima sister looked to be in a particularly good mood today. Akira had come to know a softer side to her since surviving his interrogation. Regardless, the contrast between then and now was astonishing. Judging by Makoto’s nonchalance, this was no surprise to her – rather it seemed like this was the sister she sorely missed.

The four started eating. There was little in the way of chatting around the table at first. It was only when Sae tasted the curry that conversation began.

“Makoto praises it often. I can see why.” Sae washed the mouthful with a sip of coffee. “I don’t suppose you’d let me in on the secret ingredient, would you, Sakura-san?”

“It’s not that much of a secret, really. Ask me at the end of a cigarette after coffee, though. I may just spill the beans all over.” Boss chuckled. “I taught this boy here, by the way. He’s pretty much the one to thank for the meal today.”

“Is that so?” Sae gracefully arched an eyebrow. This was a gesture of complicity only Akira could read. This was not the first time she tried the curry. The young man had already cooked for the sisters on his early return.

“Don’t praise him too much, though. His head is big enough as it is.” Boss’ comment got a laugh out of Makoto, who certainly thought so herself. Though the sound of her laughter was like air to Akira, it was not quite enough to set him serene. Choosing to present himself cordial and polite, he gave no indication of his worry. Or so he hoped.

Dinner went on in good spirits. In between the pleasant, casual conversation, and the glances Makoto shot his way, Akira finally managed to relax a little. The mysterious motive that brought the Niijima sisters to the café that day was but a distant echo. Later on, by the time that the plates were almost wiped clean, a sad thought came into Akira’s head. He wished his own father was as close to him as Sojiro was. That relation was mended, but it did not change the fact that the price Takahisa paid to provide for his wife and son was a scarce presence.

Then, as if having read his thought, Sae cleared her throat and steered the conversation to her purpose.

“I hate to change the tone of the evening, I really do.” Sae’s tone stiffened a little, ever so slightly to still be warm. “But I did ask that we met today for a reason.”

“Is the kid in trouble?” Sojiro asked.

“I don’t see a reason he would be. This is mostly to set my own mind at ease. And…” Sae turned to look at her younger sister. Makoto looked briefly hesitant, as if weighing the meaning and history of every word. She turned to Sae, and nodded. “Our family is big on tradition. I realise the… context is not ideal.” The very word appeared to taste bitter foul in her tongue. “But I want to be secure that the future will look favourable for my Makoto, and Akira-kun too.”

Sae took a moment to check on her sister. Makoto’s eyes were down, and her lips were a straight line, as neutral an expression as she could manage – yet there was still sadness in her face, subdued but very present. That is when Akira realised where this conversation was going. His eyes did not leave his girlfriend. He realised this situation was entirely different from the conversation Sae and he had on the night of his return, but it nonetheless demanded the same security he showed then. Thus, the unease that took hold of his heart before now turned to fortitude.

“Makoto probably told you about our father. He died under grim circumstances.” A quick grimace. Sae felt her choice of words was unsuitable for what she tried to convey. Much of what she truly wanted to say, she chose to keep to herself, for Makoto’s sake. “I know, had things been different, it would be him sitting here tonight, with his daughters at his side to have the talk with this young man. He would want to know that whomever walked alongside either of us was a good, industrious, reliable person. Naturally, he would also want to meet the parents…”

Sae took Makoto’s hand and gently squeezed.

“Things don’t always go as they should, as we wish they did. Sometimes they go terribly bad.” Sae’s voice rang with a sad candour. “But we still have to give our all and look out for tomorrow… I know I put you through an interrogation before, Akira-kun. This time, I will do the right thing, and ask you. Could you answer a few questions for me?”

“Yes, Sae-san.” Akira replied without a second thought.

“Thank you, Akira-kun. Then let’s begin.”

The so-called interrogation did not feel like so. In truth, it was more of an interview. Sae showed herself to be very patient, but also highly meticulous. She asked Akira to speak at depth on his plans for the future: what he intended to do with his education, his job prospects, and so on. She also asked him about his health, whether he exercised and if he slept a minimum of eight hours each night. He heard Morgana scoffing somewhere in a faraway corner of his mind. She went on to ask him if he had picked any habits, such as smoking or drinking. Akira denied so, but this was a lie – he did start smoking, but one pack was likely to last him a month. Up until this moment, the possibility of being caught in the act did not bother him.

All of the questions were centred on Akira alone. Sae made a mental note of everything Akira said. He intended to graduate from culinary school and start working full-time in LeBlanc to gain work experience. Depending on the potential from those prospects, he may enter a business relation with friend and fellow Phantom Thief, Haru Okumura. If his financial outlook was lacking, he had no qualms about taking on a second job, something he has already done in the past. Sojiro also seemed observant of the young man’s answers.

“Does Sakura-san give his blessing to you working as a paid employee under him?” Sae asked.

“He does.” Sojiro answered. Akira's expression lit up upon hearing it.

“Very well.” The elder sister nodded. “I think that would be it. Thank you for agreeing to this, Akira-kun.” The woman spoke with moderate demeanour.

For a moment, Akira was at disbelief. It was not that his anxiety proved far cry from the actual event. Rather, it seemed as if Sae had neglected to ask the most important question. The feeling was shared by Sojiro and Makoto.

Did Akira intend to, eventually, marry Makoto? The silence on the matter unleashed a myriad questions in both heads. The topic has already come into conversation at several points between the two. The desire and willingness to commit were there already: all it took was for the question to take flight.

It was yet a bit early to call it a night, so the dinner went on with a second serving for coffee. Sojiro and Sae took the conversation to more casual matters, but Akira had no ears for it. All he could apprehend was Makoto and how she looked away every time their eyes seemed about to meet. He berated himself in silence, as all day he had thought of the pressure this talk could represent to himself, but he did not think to reflect on what may be in Makoto’s head. One thing was clear: She wished her father were with them this evening.

He wanted, he needed to reach out to her – to know if she felt troubled.

There was no visible sign of them getting any privacy at the moment, until it mercifully came at Sojiro’s initiative.

“I don’t know about you, Sae-san, but I do enjoy a cigarette after a good chat. Would you like join me outside?”

“I haven’t smoked since law school, and I don’t plan on anytime soon.” Sae smiled. “But I would like to talk curry.”

“Curry-talk it is.” Sojiro and Sae moved out of the booth. “You two behave.”

Makoto and Akira both remained in silence for a while after Boss and Sae went out the door. Both minds were flooded with notions on the future, as a couple, and as individuals. Being Phantom Thieves, their social perspective was stripped from the prejudices and skewed views that collectively facilitated Yaldabaoth’s rise. But at the end of it, they were still young adults, citizens bound to enter the professional world and the workforce – just like everybody else. They would inevitably be subject to the pressure and expectations that rusted the cogs.

Growing up, in practical terms, is a most daunting thing.

“I’ll be right back.” Akira blurted out. He wished to break the silence in a warmer fashion, but he needed to examine his own thoughts for a moment. Makoto made as if to respond, but the words died in her breath, and she simply nodded instead.

The air inside the small restroom felt drier than usual, stifling even. Sojiro had changed the light bulb two days ago, but the 60 watts light looked only a clumsy step above gloom. His own reflection stared back at him, every shadow on his features digging deeper into darkness – it was as if he was not seeing himself at all. He turned the faucet and let the water running fill the room with sound. It was tempting to splash his face, as if that could magically wash away all his worries, but was that not a measure too desperate for something like this?

It was not such a big deal, the future. He had competence, drive, and enough creativity to make it work. Whenever he turned to anybody he knew in Tokyo, he saw a footprint of the Phantom Thieves. So many lives changed, defended, each one a reminder of what they did. Society may or may not change thanks to their efforts. They did. Only that mattered.

Sae did not pry open a door he had not crossed himself already.

So, Akira made up his mind.

He would walk out this door, and ask Makoto to tell him what bothered her. And as always, he would go to any length in her aid. At once, Akira turned the faucet shut and opened the door, expecting to find Makoto waiting at the booth. Instead, he met her two eyes only centimetres away.

And as always, she would do the same for him.

“Makoto. Is there something wrong?”

“I’m not sure there is… well, there is, but nothing that can be helped. It’s an old wound. I’ll be fine.” She tried to smile. “But, I think, I suppose maybe you needed some reassurance after Sis asked you all that. I’m sorry I didn’t say anything.”

“It’s no problem.”

“Are you okay?”

“I am. But, to be honest, growing up, or thinking of growing up can be a little scary.” He admitted, acknowledging his vulnerability.

“It is.” Makoto did not move, and neither did Akira. “Do you think we’ll be able to pursue our goals without losing our way?”

“Yeah. We did a lot of things. I’d like to think we’ll always have to remind ourselves if we’re ever close to forgetting.” Akira felt the words pushing through, and he found himself saying them before he could think of stopping himself. “And I’d like to think we’ll have each other to remind us too.”

Makoto’s expression looked then no different than the afternoon at Crossroads, more than a year ago. Eyes open wide, lips slightly parted upon hearing he liked her. The innocent bud that was back then had bloomed into deep, intimate affection. Yet the spirit of found affinity and attraction had not aged a day.

“Can you hug me?” She said, looking into his eyes.

He nodded, wasting not even a breath before Akira surrounded her body with his arms, gently bringing her towards his chest. Makoto’s hands found their spot of choice on his shoulder and the space below his ribs. In the closeness between the two, the temperature was no higher than their surroundings, but there was a warmth that rose at every second. They stood as one, kept under the quiet sound of their breathing and the soft lighting of the café. Then, without thinking, his lips sought hers, hungering.

The touch of their lips felt like biting on the ripest plum at the most whimsical hour of spring. They devoured, intoxicated, sucking on the juice. And before they knew it, their breaths were one and the same. The sensation was foreshadowed much the same on their first kiss. With time, their studying on the arts they craved to practice did away with the hesitation and the awkwardness. They came to know each other, inside out, a little more every time. And sometimes, they continued until they came upon a particular sort of intimacy; carnal, curious, wild though innocent in its refusal to judge or condemn. Giving.

This evening, they could not study on as much depth as they would have liked. But without needing to say it, they made one thing very clear to each other. Neither had any intention of letting the other face the uncertainties of adulthood alone.

Just before hastily separating, Makoto accidentally pushed forward a bit too hard. It seemed at first like Akira would end up sitting on one of the leather-cushioned stools, but his behind slipped on its surface, and he ended up falling straight on his ass.

“S-sorry!” Makoto brought her hands to her mouth. And despite herself, she started laughing.

Akira laughed too, but only for half the same reason. On the moment, his behind smacked the floorboards, he felt the thin bump of the condom Sojiro found in his jeans’ back pocket. He made no effort to start getting back up, engrossed by the sight of Makoto belly-laughing. The awareness that Sojiro and Sae could come back in at any moment only made it funnier.

[ ]

Outside, both adults could hear the contagious sound of Akira and Makoto laughing. Sojiro’s fingers were stained from the ash of the cigarette he lit but neglected to smoke as he talked with Sae. Alluding to the topic at the table, he wondered if small-talk turned profound was a Niijima thing – he also would have liked to meet the girls’ father.

“You know, Niijima-san. I think Makoto-chan is in good hands.”

Sae turned to look at Boss with a sad smile. It was a bittersweet experience to see her little sister growing up, reaching this stage in which everything seemed so fast – and thusly, as if she had missed on so much more than she actually had. But the reason to her expression was another.

“I’m worried about those two, to tell the truth.”

“How so?”

“They’re not just sweethearts. Not really. They were also comrades, united in a single, important cause.” Sae’s dark eyes lingered on the waning moon’s pale glow. “I can’t begin to imagine what they went through. I fear it may have been worse than they let on.”

“That’s possible.” Boss’ pitch dropped a little. This was a thought he tried hard to push down since the moment Akira returned from the interrogation. Maybe it was long time to acknowledge it.

“They look – no, they are so happy together. I think they may have helped each other survive it all.”

“Well, it was a pain we adults put those kids through. It was probably a good thing they met when they did. Who knows how things may have gone differently if they hadn’t.”

“True.” Sae felt a pang of remorse.

“Tell you what. Let’s make a deal. I’ll look out for the kids. You’ll look out the kids. Each from their own side. We kinda owe it to them.” Boss stretched his hand out to her.

“You’re not going to seal this handshake by spitting, are you, Sakura-san?” Sae smirked.

“People still do that?” Sojiro suddenly felt as old as he looked.

“Maybe. Wouldn’t be such a stretch if some people still believe in hope and happiness.” She shook his hand, sealing the deal.

[ ]

Sojiro and Sae came back into the café, finding Akira and Makoto in lively chatter. They looked as if a great burden had been lifted off their shoulders. Makoto’s sister saw this as well, and shot a gaze of complicity at Sojiro. She agreed – they did owe it to them. But not only Makoto and Akira; they owed it to their generation whole. Through the image of the young couple, she gazed at the spirit of a generation that had little choice but to do with the lot they inherited, all the while pursuing their own dreams.

Two people alone could not alleviate the load for myriads. But if they could for two, then it was worth it.

Conversation went on for a little under an hour until time came for the Niijima sisters to be on their way. Sae smiled at seeing Makoto abandon all inhibitions and steal a kiss from her boyfriend as if nobody were looking. This joy could be just what she needed before undertaking the struggles of growing into adulthood. Perhaps it could also be her charm to ensure she would be her own person, better than those who came before.

Akira looked wistfully at his girlfriend as she left with her sister. The night was not over yet – there was still cleaning to do, and though this felt like a dinner hosted at home, the place was still a business, and it needed to be ready for the next day.

Something Sojiro said caught his attention for a moment. He turned to look at him to address it. But as he turned back for one last gaze to the girl he loved, he noticed something strange. The two sisters were stepping outside through a thick red curtain, parted in the middle. It had no end on either side.

But neither Sojiro, nor Makoto or Sae seemed to notice any difference.

Chapter Text

I had an uncle who told me one thing: that a man only truly starts living his life when he turned 33. Even though he only started making a presence in my life after my father passed away, I quickly knew what he meant. He meant making money. You could smell the greed coming off of him like the plague. He’s dead now too, and I’m sure the lust for money clung to his bones still. Credit must be given where it’s due: He did make a lot of money during his lifetime. I was never too sure however he came into his money. He may not have been a self-made man as he claimed, but he certainly carried himself as such.

Did it truly matter?

It all depended on which brother I chose to heed.

That was my uncle. My father was an entirely different man. He never made much money in his life, and even he wouldn’t have called himself successful, not the way my uncle believed. To him, the best success in his life was my mother and I; we were the only riches he could ever want in dream or life. He gave himself whole for our sake. Even after my mother passed away, he stayed strong, for me. Cancer killed him. But in between the death of my mother and his own, the only thing he cared about was knowing I would grow up to be a good man, that I would reach whichever height I desired, never at the expense of others.

Never cowardly. Never cruelly.

Days like this, I tell myself the same story over and over - about the two brothers who could never get along, my two teachers. I keep wondering why I begin with my uncle every time. I’m guessing it is because every time I look at myself in a clear surface, I see more of his appearance in my reflection than my father’s. I swivel my chair, and all around me I can see the fruits of my uncle’s teachings brought into matter. I see the empire I’ve built. I see wide networks of influence depending on me. I see the promises of a profitable year. I see… success.

But then I look inside of me, and I search for the fruits of my father’s teachings… and I’m not sure I see anything at all.

And that kills me. I’ve hidden away the framed picture of my father and my mother I used to have on that drawer over there because I can’t look at it without tearing up.

Am I a good man?

I turned 35 a month ago. I don’t know if I’m a good man, and I don’t know if I can truly call myself successful. This money… is not what I want. My father knew the true riches – riches that I don’t have, riches that I can give, nonetheless. I thought this money could facilitate me to act with honour and justice, and encourage others into doing the same. I’ve spoken for compassion. And I’ve devoted my self to and my resources to charity. I’ve tried to appeal to the better instincts of the masses, out of the belief that mankind is, in its essence, good.

Because, after all, people like my father existed.

Then I saw the fruits of my labour. And I still remember my first thought at seeing what throve despite my efforts. I was naïve to think like that. I was so naïve. Just from remembering, I can hear my uncle snickering. His conviction outlives him. It’s like a beetle rustling in the bush. Would that I could pluck it out and crush it in my hand to never have to hear it anymore.

Hatred, ignorance, selfishness, avarice. In my own land and overseas, the men in power worked only to their own profit, and they encouraged others to follow their darkest impulses. Some would call it the base instinct – I know my uncle would.

My uncle, he was still in the wrong, however. There’s no better, living, breathing example of it than I. Success – it’s still not in my hands. But it will be. Because I still believe that human kind is, at its core, a force for good. But it’s easily strayed. It’s prone to bouts of weakness and pride. Yet we’ve intelligence and fortitude. And there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for the right reasons. Love. Protection. Faith.

And I know this to be a fact.

When I doubted… he came to me. A lean man in a dark suit. I can’t think of how he managed to get past security, or how is it his presence felt like thin air. But when I laid eyes on him, all petty concerns disappeared. And only one thing mattered. I needed to know what wanted of me.

He returned my question with silence. Nothing about his face betrayed any emotion. I didn’t see the air of superiority one of his position may wear – I saw nothing on my uncle, or my father in him. No intent to ridicule or intimidate. No warmth. Nothing in those shining yellow eyes of him I could place. On hindsight, I’d dare say he might have been friendly.

In the midst of my puzzlement, I felt like I could see through him, like he was a ghost of some kind. But though, I blinked repeatedly, he was still there.

And when he spoke, his voice was like a whispering chill in the dead of winter.

“Look out the window.”

So I did. On the months leading up to this moment, something was happening outside, a strange phenomenon that had enraptured the masses of Tokyo. I saw it all as a trifling matter – work had to be done. Nonetheless, I had a cursory awareness of who the Phantom Thieves were and what they did.

Before that day, their business was not my concern. Whatever means they had of “stealing hearts”, their identities and their targets – it was the easiest thing for me to dismiss it as a product of the wounded psyche that ails the Japanese society.

But then, like Lazarus himself… the one who led them had seemingly returned from the dead to deliver an ominous promise to one Masayoshi Shido. That man was adored by many. But those with true eyes to see knew him for the putrid sow he was. I knew he would be elected to become Prime Minister, and I felt dread on thinking of the future. The efforts I had invested into protecting the future would turn to damage control for the coming years. And that was the best scenario.

Yet, before my eyes, in the grand screens, the Phantom Thieves, stood tall and ready to prevent Masayoshi Shido’s design from coming true. In that moment, I felt something stir in me – something I thought stale and dead. I felt hope. I swear I felt my heart beating along with these youths, and my breath began to escape me. Across my adult life, I can think of no other moment in which I felt more vulnerable.

And this man, he was there to witness it.

I asked him again. What did he want of me?

And he answered: I want the same thing as you.

I asked him. No, I demanded… no, that’s not right either. I begged… that he explain himself. What I wanted to hear in that moment were the contents of my heart to reverberate back from the voice of another.

“A righteous world.” The man’s voice shifted. It was a change beyond his pitch, like he was somebody else entirely. But he appeared to be straining himself to speak, so he said no more on that matter. Truly, he didn’t need to.

“Await for my return.” He said before vanishing into thin air. I ran from behind my desk to where he stood to confirm what my foolish eyes refused to believe. He was gone now, but he was definitely there.

So, I waited. And as I did so, I observed the deeds, past and ongoing of the Phantom Thieves of Hearts. Whenever they came into thought, it was as if my father was looking at me, smiling.

I’m sorry. Just… give me a moment.

Yes. I waited.

Even as the end of times seemed to be upon us, and our worst nightmares took flesh, I waited with a full heart.

True to his word, the man in black returned after the Phantom Thieves saved us all.

He stood in the middle of my office as the day he first appeared. Eyes glowing as yellow as before. And he told me that the true ordeal was upon us.

And he would need my help.

Chapter Text

“Café Noir.” Haru Okumura savoured the words in her palate for a moment. At present, she did not know what she found the most delight in, whether the coffee she was sampling or the way those words perfectly encapsulated everything she wanted about her long-term project. In the midst of planning and studying the logistical nuances of opening a café of her own, she had lost sight of the aesthetic side of it. That was why she asked Yusuke Kitagawa to aid her in shaping the personality of the café, starting with the suggestion for a name. “I really like it, Yusuke-kun!”

“I am pleased to hear that. It was the first and only thing that came to mind.” Yusuke Kitagawa’s candour often came with a smooth obliviousness. Though he never meant to be blunt, he rarely weighed his words. “It felt as if I had the name before my very eyes.”

In a way, he did. Haru knew he did not mean anything by what he said, still she could not help but blush a little.

“I knew I made the right decision to ask for your help, Yusuke-kun. But this is only the first thing of many I’ll need you to help me with.”

“By all means. Given enough time, I’m sure I can think of many names for all types of places and things.”

“That’s good! Actually, I was thinking… and I won’t feel bad or angry if you say no… maybe you could, eventually, help me… what’s the word?” The young woman took another sip to stir her mind. “Imbue the place with character. Make a canvas out of the walls.”

Yusuke arched his eyebrows sharply. A genuine shade of surprise came over his face.

“Haru! You don’t mean…!?”

“Yusuke-kun. I’d like you to be a partner. I hope I’m not getting too ahead of myself, but you’d be overseeing every aspect of the café’s appearance and layout. If you accept, of course.” Haru’s words were met with silence. “Am… am I getting too ahead of myself?”

“No! No!” Yusuke cut in passionately.

“No?” Haru squeaked, giving away her hopes that her friend accepted the offer.

“NO! Gazing far into the future is the best sign of commitment, Haru!” The veil of hair strands that fell diagonally across his face swung and swayed as he spoke. “You honour me, my dear friend. Of course I will be your partner in this noble enterprise!”

Haru was speechless. Not even a sigh of relief escaped her lips. The joyful blush that rose to her cheeks said all that need be said.

“My dear friend. How may I start aiding you in this ambition?”

“O-oh! Um, I was actually thinking of commissioning a painting, to see this off to a good start!”

“I see.” His mind sprouted with ideas, the majority of which resonated after the French aesthetics surrounding the project and Haru herself. He made a mental note to inform his friend of a painting she had inspired several a year ago during a most tortuous dry spell.

“Would that be okay?” Haru slanted her head, a curly strand of cinnamon hair falling gracefully over her forehead.

“Yes. Yes. I would love to provide my capabilities to your project.” His voice shook slightly at the prospects for this first piece. Painting things for his friends was an equal joy to him as externalising the sublime figments that came forth from imagination. “In regards to price… I think, 30 would...”

“30,000?”

At the moment, Haru could not quite define the sound that came from Yusuke’s mouth, let alone guess the emotion behind it. Hours later, she would still be puzzled about it, and the only certainty was being thankful that her friend was not drinking anything at the moment for fear he may have choked.

“Haru! You’re kindness has warmed my heart. You’re... you’re too gracious. But no… as your friend, I cannot bring myself to accept it. I SHALL DO IT FOR FREE!”

“No! Yusuke! Let me pay you! You need to eat!” Haru insisted for several minutes more after that. Yusuke deflected every plea with steadfast zeal, even offering to add another unpaid painting to the agreement. The young woman would not have it.

And so, though begrudgingly, Yusuke accepted to be paid. Haru called for the waitress to serve them a second hot cup. It was the first week of studies, and though only few days had passed since, the fun days since Akira returned were behind them. Ahead lay only work gradually heaping, and the present moment may well be the easiest pace she would see for some time. To some degree, this was true for most of the former Phantom Thieves.

Haru and Makoto both were on their second year in the University of Tokyo, in the Economics and Law faculties respectively. Akira had recently begun his culinary studies at the Hattori Nutritional School. Ryuji and Ann both opted to take on vocational studies while working. Futaba would be spending her third and final year in Shujin, resolute to follow in on Makoto’s example and graduate valedictorian. As for Yusuke, he began his sabbatical year to hone his skills on his own through hard work; yet the Tokyo University of the Arts still sent him letters every month, attempting to encourage him to enrol.

Being socially and physically a cat, Morgana seemed the only one with relatively few cares as the year passed.

This would mark another instance of Haru wishing she were a cat herself. The wish only intensified when thinking of the other side of her affairs. The inheritance of Okumura Foods proved an ordeal, even if her close advisors and legal department were loyal and highly competent. A peculiar proposal mailed to the Okumura Foods’ staff a month ago only added to her worries, yet it offered an appealing counterpoint.

Haru told nobody of it, at both her own discretion and her people’s advice. Without thinking of it, she looked around the café and saw the clientele was rather scarce. She hesitated for only a moment.

“Yusuke-kun. May I vent to you for a moment?” Her voice was low, somewhat furtive to the ear.

“By all means, Haru.” Yusuke shared her tone.

“I’m so nervous lately. Um, maybe I shouldn’t be… but Café Noir may happen sooner than I thought.”

“That would possibly be a cause for celebration.”

“It would. It should. But I’m a bit scared Yusuke-kun. I don’t know if I’ll be able to handle all of this if it happens. I feel like it’s happening too fast.” Haru turned around as discreetly as she could to ensure that nobody was listening in. “Okumura recently got a proposal from another company, a partnership with White Pheasant.”

“White Pheasant.” Yusuke quietly repeated the name as if savouring the poetry in the words. “I believe I have heard that name somewhere before.”

“They’re not really a new company. They’ve been around for a while, mostly dabbling in healthcare and organic foods. Their numbers have been on the rise since last year, though.”

“White Pheasant.” The tall young man’s mind searched about his memory, trying to unearth the reason for which the name brought out certain familiarity.

“Yeah… They recently, reached out to Okumura Foods. They are interested in doing a partnership.” At this moment, the tension in Haru’s thoughts seeped out into her face. The present situation brought out unpleasant memories. It seemed as if the peak of torments was the demise of her father over a year ago, but the events preceding that loss were also a harrowing lot, and they all surrounded the dynamic of relations between collectives to achieve an end. Back then, Haru was seen by her father as little more than an asset to secure his political career.

The Okumura heir was resolute about the direction she wanted for her father’s company. She was secure and confident in her perspective, and her competence as a budding entrepreneur was higher than she gave herself credit for. Nonetheless, the suspicion of being deemed an asset was not an unfounded precaution. Behind the pretension of sober formality, the corporate world was no more civilised than an abattoir. Although this partnership with White Pheasant could turn out a boon for her objectives, it could still prove a poisoned chalice in the long run.

Yet again, this indecision could yet be an error. She did not know what to do.

“White Pheasant. Healthcare, organic foods, and…” Yusuke started.

Haru’s eyes started opening wide, anticipating the third item in the company’s favoured market.

“Sexual health.” He finally snatched it, that which eluded him.

“Y-yeah, they do that too.” Haru blushed. “Yusuke-kun. How is it you’re aware of that?”

“Oh, I’m something of an admirer of their products.” He said nonchalantly.

At a reflex, Haru brought her hand to her mouth, suppressing a gasp and shielding her increasingly flustered cheeks.

“The design, the colour and texture. I hope to one day be able to incorporate that voluptuousness into my work, the illusion of palpability, the way the light grazes those surfaces…” Yusuke sounded very much like himself.

“You… use them… for your paintings?” Relief was slowly settling warmly over Haru.

“I am not sure ‘use’ would be the proper word. I cannot begin to imagine the nuances of their intended use, but I rather appreciate the visual care of their make.”

Another couple of seconds in silence went by until Haru let out a giggle. For a moment, perilous images came into her mind’s eye. Her friends all were rather discreet regarding their intimacy. But for another to suddenly hint at something more graphic was unexpected.

“Oh, Yusuke-kun.” Haru said, endeared and amused at the young man’s innocence, laughing also at her own reaction. “I had no idea you had them for your art.” She said as a discreet means of apology.

“I am afraid they are out of my budget. But it is no matter! I am content with standing at the counter with my sketchbook in hand,” The young man looked rather proud of his own ingenuity. “I only wish the salespeople refrained from disturbing me while I work.”

“You go to the stores to sketch their products?”

“Yes… Sometimes for hours at a time.”

Haru’s lips slowly parted. She felt the breath of astonishment turn to laughter, and the ensuing tears forming in her eyes. She hoped she was not coming off as rude to her friend; and although she would apologise for her indiscretion, she could not help herself. Without meaning to, Yusuke had already helped beyond her expectations, and he has not even given his opinion on the matter proper.

“Thanks. I needed that.” Haru wiped the laughter tears from her eyes.

“I am not sure what I did, but I am pleased I did it.” Yusuke took a sip from his cup. “What is it about White Pheasant that provokes such unease?”

“I’m thinking it may be too soon to take on something like that, a partnership. And if I did, how can I be sure I’d be getting in bed with trustworthy people?”

“Hmm. That is something to consider.” Yusuke brought his fingers to his chin in contemplation of the matter. He knew as well as she, and the rest of their friends, of the darker side to entrepreneurship. Haru’s concerns were more than reasonable.

“Yusuke-kun. I just don’t know what to do.” The young woman’s eyes looked at him like a doe’s.

“My dear friend, I wish I had a more educated perspective about this.” He finally said, despite himself. A voice inside of him chided for admitting defeat from ignorance on the topic. He knew there was never a petty reason to meet with a friend. Haru would appreciate the occasion if only for being in good company. That was just who she was. But she also needed to find serenity from the view of others when she could find none in herself at the moment.

Her eyes went down with a sigh.

“I think.” Yusuke began. “I think a company takes after the person who leads it. Regardless of what Okumura Foods does, your company will operate in a certain way because of who you are, and the values you hold. You know White Pheasant as a company, but do you know it as an extension of the person who leads it?”

“Uh…” Haru looked as if her eyes had just seen a sudden, potent light. “I actually hadn’t thought of it that way, Yusuke-kun. Yes, maybe I should learn about the company’s chairman… You’re so insightful, Yusuke-kun!”

The young man felt curiosity about the warmth feeling spreading across his face. It was a rather pleasant feeling.

[ ]

Hello there, I hope you’ve been well.

I’m sorry that I didn’t write back last week. Things on my end have taken something of a turn. It’s a good turn, though. My boyfriend returned recently, and we have been catching up for a while. I think it’s our due, and I honestly couldn’t be happier. School also started just a day ago. I have a feeling this year won’t be as hard as the last one, but I’m anticipating a heavy workload for the coming months nonetheless.

Edward, I have to say I felt very glad when reading your last letter. When you next write back, I hope to learn that you are taking counselling and not just considering it. I know that loss is not easy to cope with. Given what you’ve told me, I guess I actually count myself lucky. But all the same, I bear you great respect for doing your best to stand tall for the people you hold dear. Please, hold them close, and never, ever let go.

On to somewhat lighter talk, I did look at that site your recommended. I found some great reading material. I even looked at some of the stories you recommended, most of which I really liked. But, speaking with candour, your favourite kind of disturbed me a bit. I will say it’s a very unique take on the mythical Lazarus, very Russian, I suppose (haha). I’d like to hear your interpretation of the tale, though. While I feel it’s supposed to be disturbing, I think my reading could do with some orientation.

And speaking of reading, I loved your last poem. You should think of finding a way to publish your written work. I found it to be very fresh, but not pretentious in the slightest, or (I hate this word) trivial. For one, I know I’d like to read more voices like yours. If you give me your permission, I’d like to share it with my friends. Several of them have quite the ear and eye for the arts, and two of them are fairly fluent in English too.

Again, I’m very sorry for breaking the rhythm of our communication for a bit there. I promise I’ll do my best to remain constant.

You stay strong, Edward.

Your friend in Japan, Makoto.

She would send the letter tomorrow. Since she met and became part of the Phantom Thieves, Makoto Niijima has pushed herself to break out of her comfort zone. She thus became enamoured with life and its limitless possibilities, trying and learning new things whenever she could. A month after starting her first year as a university student, she subscribed to a pen pals program for people around the world to get a fresh perspective from somebody overseas.

The correspondence was set at random. Her pen pal was an English man called Edward, four years her senior. Makoto was excited at the prospect of learning about England, and while the first bi-weekly exchanges painted a good picture, the most important things lay beyond the allure of cultural contrast. Two months later, they stopped talking about Japan and England, and began talking about themselves. There was only so much Makoto could tell on paper, and same was true for Edward. Yet they found a sense of kinship through misfortune, loss and strife.

She had the feeling that he probably would have become a Phantom Thief himself if the phenomenon had occurred in England instead. Though they would never meet, she wished him well. As she double-checked herself one last time, she made sure to paste a post-it on her desk to remind her of the letter to be sent.

She had plans for that evening. Ann had been talking about a double date for several months, and somehow it has not happened yet, not as the blonde beauty would have wanted anyway. Suddenly, the chance came up for Makoto and Akira to meet up with Ann and Ryuji at a hip new place near her workplace. It was spontaneous, but suitable. And it was a nice means of unwinding after a long day at the university.

As agreed earlier that day, Akira came to meet her outside of her apartment. Though the young man’s hair looked as messy as ever, the rest of him radiated a smart, stylish aura. It was as if he somehow managed to halfway incarnate Joker for the occasion. Makoto guessed either Ann or Boss took him shopping for some new clothes.

“How do I look?” He asked, smiling with arms stretched out to the sides, like a kid proud of himself.

“Very, very handsome.” Makoto said, planting a kiss on his lips. “How about me? Do I look okay?”

“Okay falls pathetically short of it, Makoto.”

Makoto laughed. “Just give it to me straight already.”

“You look ravishing.”

“Okay. I’ll buy it. Shall we go?”

“Let’s.” Akira followed his girlfriend towards her moped.

Her long term goal was to eventually buy a proper motorcycle. She had varied options in mind, and she hoped she could decide on one by the time she had enough money of her own to afford the purchase. In the meantime, a humble Fonda silver-painted model did nicely for times like these. Helmets on, Makoto sat at the rider’s seat, with her boyfriend behind, surrounding her waist with his arms.

“I’ve got something to confess.” Akira said before Makoto started the engine.

“Oh?”

“Back then, I really wanted to ride with you like this, but, you know, with Johanna.”

“Is that so?” Makoto blushed, not at the notion or the mental image of riding that state of her Persona with him. Rather, she did at how many times she had daydreamed about that herself.

They met up with Ann and Ryuji soon after, at what seemed like a small lounge club. The place was a dozen people shy of full; nonetheless, Ryuji had made reservations in the afternoon. Under the soft, red lights of the establishment, Makoto truly noticed Ann and Ryuji. It became apparent that she had taken him shopping; and although his head stuck out as the rowdy young man she knew from the Shujin days, he mingled well with the ambience. Furthermore, he seemed enthusiastic about his look.

“Guys!” Ann smiled wide. “It’s happening. Oh my God, it is happening!”

Akira and Ryuji turned to look at each other, and in unison, “Huh?”

“A double date, of course!” The blonde put a little impatience in her words.

“I must admit it is kind of exciting.” Makoto said.

“Feels like we’re grown-ups.” Ryuji said.

“That’s taking it a bit far, no?” Akira added.

“Shush! No ruining the moment you two!” Ann pressed her index finger against Ryuji’s lips. “Here, look at the menu.” She turned to the young woman. “So, Makoto. How do you like the place?”

“It’s lively. Um, it’s actually not as loud as I thought it would be.”

“That’s a good thing.” Akira said, distractedly as he browsed through the non-alcoholic drinks.

“Yeah. This way we can have a proper, nice conversation.” Makoto agreed.

“The music’s also not bad.” Her boyfriend tapped his fingers on her knee.

“Yeah, it’s kind of snazzy!” Ryuji said.

“Jazzy.” Akira rhymed.

Makoto turned to look at Ann, expecting to see if she would come up with a rhyme herself.

“Uh-uh. Don’t pin this on me.” Ann shot them down. “I actually really like this music too. Kind of makes me want to dance!”

“I can’t dance for jack.” Ryuji said slightly ashamed. “Joker, how about you?”

“I’m not a dancer myself.” Akira appeared to be focused on the menu. “I’m still taking Makoto out to dance, though.”

“What?” The young brunette turned to look at him. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Ann grinning.

“I’m gonna take you out to dance. Not today, of course. School tomorrow. But I am gonna take out to dance.”

“Screw it.” Ryuji interjected. “Ann, next time. We’ll dance.”

“Ooooooooooooh. This double date’s going better that I hoped.” Ann teased.

Makoto and Akira looked at each other. The word and the meaning, and the image that ensued was engraved in the mind. Dancing – something Makoto had never done in her life, or Akira if he was to be believed. Yet just like the fantasy of riding Johanna together, this was too delightful to ignore or dismiss for the sake of embarrassment. In that moment, under the same lighting and to the same beat, she could see it happening.

She wanted it to happen. And she could see it in his eyes. He wanted it too.

“Dance, huh? Is that a threat?” Makoto joked.

“It’s a promise.”

[ ]

Meanwhile, that night, Futaba and Morgana babysat Yuuki Mishima as he learned the ropes of coffee making. Though he was yet to make any big mistakes that would have Sojiro yelling at him, his nervous disposition was a sight to behold.

Chapter Text

Akira Kurusu thought of the year he first came to Tokyo as the most important time in his life. Much of what he experienced before felt inconsequential. Though suffering a rocky start, he found all of the things he knew missing in his life. He found a sense of kinship and communion, he found his professional calling. And indeed, as leader of the Phantom Thieves, he found a purpose greater than himself.

But for all the awe-inspiring things he and his friends did, his face before society had to be that of an unassuming, unremarkable teenager. He never truly got the chance to efficiently play the role, as he was still seen as an outsider by most in Shujin. His polite demeanour, calm behaviour, exemplary academic performance; it all failed to quell the whispers that followed in his heels. He eventually found ways to cope with the frustration. And soon, the gossip and the undermining by his peers bothered him none.

But he knew at every moment what he was: an outsider wearing a shabby mask of normalcy. Nobody, save his friends and beloved ones, would let him forget that, here in Tokyo.

And as it turned out, it was much the same when he returned to Kawasaki.

The truth on the night he was arrested was now public knowledge in his hometown, and the news of it spread like wildfire across the streets. Akira Kurusu had been falsely accused. His involvement in that infamous night followed the exercise of solid moral principles. He was innocent all along. On the day of his return, he was having such a merry time with his friends and his love that he failed to notice that the whispers and wary looks would not let go.

Even then, in the land that saw him arrive to the world, he was deemed an outsider - by neighbours, classmates, and teachers alike. His only support came from his parents, his friends, and Makoto. All things considered, he coped well. Yet at the end of the day, the truth could not be denied. He had been two years an outsider.

It was thus such a surprise to find that he no longer was an outsider when he started classes in the Hattori Nutritional College. No whispers, no wary looks followed him as he walked along the hallways, looking for the indicated classroom on his first day. The attention he got from other fellow students was no different than anyone else’s. There were no dubious pauses at the mention of his name during roll call, not even a passing remark on ever being seen as a delinquent.

The second day was no different. Even with senses honed by his stint as Joker, he caught no untrusting glance or hushed warning about Akira Kurusu. He remained attentive on the third day for good measure. Only one thing could be said about him: he was rather quiet. But that did not stop other fellow students from approaching. He did not put up any barriers. And for once, it seemed like school could be a place where he could make friends under normal circumstances.

The change was confusing, but pleasant.

For a time.

It was not long until Akira realised the hours meshed together under a dense feeling of sameness. There were a few moments amidst it all that stood out. Perhaps it would be a remark from Boss while the young man worked at LeBlanc after school. Maybe the sight of Morgana chasing “that damned flying bug” again. Futaba pushing Yuuki’s buttons while Yusuke studied the peculiar composition of the men working behind the counter. A double date with Makoto, and Ann and Ryuji.

A handful of hours that felt like coming out for air. Smells and tastes, intonations and lingering sensations that memory summoned warm on his skin. But when he plunged back into the haze, his only way to mark down the passage of the days were the plentiful notes he wrote down on the pages. Precise information, personal commentary here and there, a few quotable things that caught his attention. Quirky annotations of a devoted student.

It was his handwriting for sure. That much he could tell. But he did not remember having written any of it.

It was a quiet afternoon in LeBlanc, and the sun was yet to come down. It was the kind of day when one can afford to keep the lighting off; what sunlight pours in from the windows suffices. Boss was occupied instructing Yuuki on coffee types – so far, he had proved a relatively adequate apprentice. In the meantime, Akira poured himself into his notes. Sojiro allowed it, thinking he was studying, and deeming it positive influence from his girlfriend. On any other day, that would have been the case.

The young man passed his hand over a white page, filled from top to bottom with diverse notes. Akira had never trained the habit of writing the date at the beginning of each page, so naturally, that information was missing from this page as well. He felt the way the writing pressed down on the surface, and the stiffness of the paper surrounding the ink. He estimated having written his notes on the first rudimentary ways to preserve meat two days ago. These, and more recent ones, felt different to how his notes felt from high school. It was as if his hand had been tense while writing.

He never used to take notes as meticulously. The transition to college must have encouraged new habits.

“Hey.” Sojiro called to him. His voice felt like a distant reverberation.

The next step was more laborious. He would need to re-read everything he wrote to make sure it matched the information that was in his brain. If he were to find anything in there that did not belong, he would need to find a reason for its presence on the page. The prospect did not amuse him; there were other things he would rather be doing, or try to do, but he would rather take care of this sooner than later.

“Hey!” Sojiro called out again. Akira was unaware of the growing annoyance in his voice.

Line by line, thought by thought. The memory of that day dawned on his perception. Professor Nanakase sneezed twice in succession. Yukako-san two seats ahead found that amusing. Norimasa-san was seated next to Akira, and he mumbled something he did not quite understand. He made a note to ask him after class, which he forgot to do.

Akira did not hear the grumble, but he certainly felt the weight of Sojiro’s palm smacking the back of his head.

“Damn it, kid. You can study all you want, but you better not forget you’re still on the job.”

“Sorry, Boss.” He closed the notebook. “What did you need of me?”

“I need you to take this kid to the store so he’ll learn to place the order for when we run out of fresh produce.”

“The quickie?” Akira asked.

“That’s the one.”

“What’s a quickie?” Mishima asked.

Akira internalised his amusement at what Sojiro might have said in that scenario. An imaginary Futaba snickered in the booth for added effect. Somehow, what Boss did say still got an entertained smile out of him.

“Akira will show you.”

“Will do, Boss. Let’s go, Yuuki.”

Walking towards the door, the sun still shone high on the sky. The light dyed the inside of the place orange, even red at one spot near the back. Outside, the afternoon air was cool, making LeBlanc feel somewhat stuffy in comparison. Akira did not notice it until now, but he was sweating.

The young bespectacled man led his friend down the labyrinth of back alleys towards the Super Muramasa market.

“It’s a maze in here!” Yuuki said.

“Yeah. Took me a few weeks to find my way around when I first got here.”

“Ha. I bet you know the neighbourhood like the palm of your hand by now.”

“I’d like to think so. Then again, I’m not very sure this place hasn’t changed since the last time I came.”

“Lots of things can happen in a year, huh?”

“Yeah, no kidding. You with a hat, it’s like you’re a different person altogether.”

“Oh, come on! You’re not gonna give me crap about that too!?”

Akira chuckled. “No comment.”

When they got to the super market, Akira placed the order for the so-called ‘quickie’. The man at the counter acted at once. Akira explained a ‘quickie’ as an emergency order of sorts. When the café was close to running out of fresh produce for curry or other dishes, someone had to make a run to the store to get at least a modest batch to last the rest of the day. The clerk would know what to pick, and he only asked to be paid back at the end of the week. What remained back at LeBlanc was used for its staff’s consumption, such as breakfast, lunch and dinner.

In spite of the relative obscurity of his business, Sojiro Sakura ran LeBlanc like it was a luxury restaurant. Therefore, he was highly particular on anything and everything that went into what he served. It may be his obsession over apparent minutiae what allowed LeBlanc to maintain a loyal and steady clientele despite the rise of other food and coffee chains.

“Try to memorise the route from the café to the market. I can almost guarantee Boss will have you do this on your own.”

“Gotcha.” Yuuki nodded. “By the way, why does everyone call him Boss?”

It was not Akira’s feet what stopped dead in their tracks, but his thoughts. Only once before he had asked himself the same question, and he came up with no other answer than the man’s sole presence. Of all the adults whose authority he challenged, Akira could not see Sojiro Sakura’s as one such instance. The young man had some knowledge on his second father’s history, but he dared guess it was only the tip of the iceberg.

“I’ll let you know when I find out.”

The two got back to the café’s vicinity a few minutes later. However, they ran into somebody just outside who recognised them. It took Akira and Yuuki a moment to recognise her. The woman almost looked the same age as them, and her frame was somewhat voluptuous even under her casual, hardly-revealing attire. It was her eternally unkempt hair that matched her eyes what pried a name out of the two young men’s lips.

“Kawakami-sensei?”

“Well it was about time you two figured it out!” Their former teacher looked unamused.

“Please forgive us. You… uh, look healthier, no! I mean, you look… fresh?” Yuuki juggled clumsily with his words, only fumbling worse as Sadayo Kawakami arched an eyebrow at the young man. To Yuuki’s credit, Akira knew he was not mistaken to note Kawakami’s change. Quitting her job as a maid lifted a heavy burden off the woman’s already tired shoulders.

“Kawakami-san.” Akira made the save. “You look in good health.”

“Yeah, same.” Sadayo nodded humourless. Her face was dry only for a second longer before she cracked a smile. Not caring about the peculiar relation she had with Akira when he was her student, or perhaps because of it, the woman stepped forward to hug Akira.

“It’s good to see you.” He, in turn, did not expect this but returned the gesture.

“And you look good too, Mishima-kun.” Sadayo turned to Yuuki. “Staying busy, I see. Good.” She turned back to Akira. “I have a bone to pick with you, though. Why didn’t you let me know you moved here?”

“Oh! I…”

“I ran into your girlfriend the other day. She was the one to let me know!”

“Girlfriend?” Yuuki asked.

“Yeah! Remember the student council president from your second year? This rascal and she got together!”

Akira blushed a little, and then went pale at realising this was new information to Mishima. Knowing his curious nature, he could only guess what this meant for his research on the Phantom Thief’s experiences.

“Niijima-senpai!?” His voice broke at the end.

“Y-yup.” Akira confirmed.

“Niijima-senpai!?” Yuuki repeated. His face reflected the mental images unfolding.

“Hey, it’s getting kinda cool out here, and I did come for a cup of coffee, after all.” Kawakami took reins of the conversation.

It was a big surprise on its own to run into his former teacher. When walking into the café, Akira’s first thought was that another had been in store, waiting for him. But he quickly realised Tae Takemi was a regular herself. Unlike the teacher, the good doctor hardly seemed any different from the last time he saw her. She still wore the same punk-rock style, and she still radiated the same allure. In between a refreshed Kawakami and darkly appealing Takemi, Yuuki Mishima simply did not know where to look or how to stop the colour in his cheeks from rising.

“Took your sweet time, huh?” Boss spoke their way. His eyes shifted immediately towards Sadayo. “Hello there, have a seat wherever you like.” There was a vague tone and look of recognition in the man’s face.

“Hi there. Whoa, haven’t been here in a while.” Sadayo seated herself at the counter, two stools away from Tae. “I’m a coffee-amateur. What do you recommend?”

“That sound familiar to you?” Sojiro smiled at Tae.

“That’s how you got me hooked, if I recall correctly.” The doctor smiled with irony.

“Harsh.” Boss turned to Sadayo. “Well, Miss. Too much variety here to recommend only one thing. I’ll fix you a good cup.”

“That does sound familiar.” Takemi grinned.

Boss uttered a curt chuckle in reply.

“Alright, good timing you two. It’s time to work.” Sojiro pointed a thumb behind him.

The brewing and serving was muscle memory to Akira by now. But as usual, it was always the owner who brewed the cup for any and all first-comers. It fell to the two young men to start preparing the curry, which Tae Takemi had a particular soft spot for. Surely, Boss anticipated getting Sadayo to fall in love with it as well. True to his hunch, the young teacher had been in LeBlanc many times before, but never actually as a customer.

A few minutes later, Yuuki Mishima got an answer to the mystery behind Sojiro Sakura’s nom de guerre. And much like Akira, it was not something he could put into words. Without wasting breath or words, Boss engaged Sadayo in lively conversation. It was all small talk, but it carried promise of depth, and a guarantee for a second cup of coffee. Even Tae Takemi, who knew of the man’s ways was actively partaking of the chat. In the meantime, Akira and Yuuki stood awkwardly in the kitchen’s background.

“It’s almost like he’s a Phantom Thief himself.” Yuuki murmured to Akira, who met his comment with a chuckle.

“Maybe if you get good at coffee, he will teach you his ways.”

“You think so?” A spike of enthusiasm in Mishima’s voice.

“Fat chance of that.” Akira knew the true pulse behind Sojiro Sakura’s persona. Yuuki’s comparison was more accurate than he could know.

“You two.” Tae called out. “It’s starting to annoy me seeing you two like props over there. Come and have a cup.”

“Hey now, don’t spoil them too much.” Boss joked.

“Yeah, I agree on that. I was their teacher.” Sadayo played along.

“I’d say they’ve earned it. Come, sit next to me, friendo. Time for catching up.” Tae slapped the seat on the stool next to her.

Akira was more than pleased to join them. While he did want to catch up, he was starting to feel suffocated in the stuffy air of the kitchen. It was almost as if the afternoon sun still shone high in there. Boss served two cups for Akira and Yuuki. While they partook of the conversation, the former took this moment as another lesson for his budding career as a barista. It did not suffice to simply brew a cup and be done with it. He needed to be involved. While he may not yet wield Boss’ uncanny magnetism, he would soon need to think of the café as an extension of himself, or his self as part of the café.

The young man learned that, despite being liberated from the “Plague” moniker, Tae Takemi indulged her academic peers only sporadically. The prospect of joining a big medical institution or a hospital was appealing to an extent. But her heart, her calling belonged to the clinic. Much like Boss, she also desired to be closely involved with her business: the welfare of her patients. She went on to admit that if she ever got bored, she would probably volunteer to help people in rural communities, or perhaps abroad.

“Punk Rock Médecins Sans Frontières?” Akira joked.

“Don’t get cute, my former Guinea Pig.” Tae mock-slapped his forehead. A strange look flashed over her face for a moment. “But… yeah, something like… that.”

“You should go for it. Share your skills with the world.” The young man continued in good cheer, but for some reason, Takemi’s mood was noticeably darker.

A few minutes later, Akira excused himself and went outside for a moment. The sensation of steamy air lingered on his skin and around the air that went into his nostrils. It even seemed like his glasses had fogged up from the heat. He needed to escape the ghost of an afternoon sun that had long set; he needed fresh air. There was no wind out in the alleys of Yongen-jaya, but the air was still cool and crisp. He breathed in and out, loud and blissful.

It did not seem like Boss really needed an extra pair of hands at the moment, and closing time was drawing near anyway. So, Akira decided to take a brief walk a few minutes. As the lonely figure stepped into tight, familiar passageways, his thoughts returned to the days past. In between confused meditations, a thought rose shyly. If even Makoto had initially struggled with the transition from high school to university, could this experience actually be commonplace?

A headache every now and then, a sense of being extracted from the present moment. It might all be just him overthinking, he suggested to himself. It has only been a few days, after all.

And it has only been two weeks since the last cigarette.

“Why not?” Akira said to himself. He searched in his jeans’ pocket for the lean packet and the box of matches, both still rather full. For safety’s sake, he walked a few more steps further into a dead end nearby, further away from the café. The friction of the match produced a sound he rather liked, the reason for which he favoured matches over a lighter. And then, with care and discretion, he took two short puffs to get a soft taste of the smoke. He held it in for a few seconds while his eyes wandered to the night sky, searching for stars.

He let it out. The sound of his breath mingled with the projected smoke seemed to continue past the process, and before he could think to suspect, a peculiar feeling took hold of him.

The dead end was in front of Akira’s eyes; a wall of wooden boards, tightly assembled, and a few trees beyond. But for some reason, he did not know what exactly lay at his back. Even without wind, he felt as if the air behind him reached further and further without meeting anything at all – no walls, no plants or buildings. The sound that was once his exhalation turned into something else, a flowing sound, perennial but quiet, almost whisper-like. Like swaying fabric, like a gentle river of velvet.

The cigarette was slowly turning into a frail column of ash, untouched, pending from between his middle and index fingers. But Akira had no apprehension of this, or the wooden-board dead end with the trees on the other side. His world was reduced to a veil that lay behind him, moving with the air, brushing at his back like a teasing lover. The darkest, strongest colour from the afternoon sun returned, transformed into a red velvet curtain, parted in the middle, calling for him to turn and look.

He did not. As his breath became shaky and nervous, all he could think of was the curtain and what great unknown lay on the other side. A mystery. But the animal at the core of the human soul urged him with an instinctive, rudimentary message.

DO NOT TURN AROUND.

It was not mere curiosity what compelled him, however.

A sound, flowing along the stirring velvet. He knew, as it reached his ears, that it had gone on for longer than he started to hear it. A river of its own, borne out of a throat.

A scream of anguish, pain, horror. Running out of breath, the voice could only get enough air to plead, and break down into tortured sobbing.

Bad sounds. Akira was hearing the product of the evil that men do: the vile murder of a soul.

Beneath the fathomless suffering, something about the voice rang familiar in his ears, but he could not place it, not even as it started calling his name.

“Akira… Akira… Akira… Akira… Akira…”

DO NOT TURN AROUND.

“Akira… Akira…”

His body was catatonic, trembling in its inability to break free. Pulse rising. Teeth clenched so hard they might break. A scream of his own was birthing but could not be let out.

“Akira!” Tae’s voice brought him back. The woman stood behind him, piercing disapproving holes into the back of his head.

Liberated from the moment, the young man turned around to see Takemi standing behind him.

“Tae. I’m sorry. I just…”

“Quiet.” Her tone brooked no argument.

Akira complied, ashamed and fearful, but not knowing why.

Tae sighed a brief pause like she was choosing her words carefully.

“Look. Do you remember what I told you about myself, when I was little?”

“You told me you got sick often.” Akira’s response delayed a little.

“Yes. Still, when I was your age, despite my history, I still had to work and study, just like you are now. I can understand how stress can heap early, and how it can affect your health. It’s a more serious issue than many people think. Now, I’m going to ask you something, and I expect you to be honest… and you know I’ll see through the bullshit if you lie… Has Boss been working you too hard?”

Akira blinked in confusion, not expecting Tae to ask himself something like this.

“No, not really.”

Tae leaned in closer. Her eyes were like syringes, clinical and unblinking – a different kind of inquisitiveness than he has known from the Niijima sisters – terrifying in its own right.

“Okay. I’ll believe you.” She raised her hand towards Akira’s forehead, appearing to smack him again, but it lingered against the skin. “You need to take it easy. School and work are no joke, but you’ll need to find a way to make it work without it taxing on you.”

“Um, I don’t think it’s been that stressful for me.”

“Bullshit. Do you know how I know you’re bullshitting me?”

The young man shook his head.

“Because you have a fever, and I’m willing to bet you’ve had it earlier too.”

Akira did not know what to say.

“And that would explain… the other thing.” She nodded towards his fingers.

A tone of embarrassment fell over Akira’s face when he realised what she meant. His lips moved in an attempt to explain himself, but Takemi brushed him off.

“Just keep it easy. All of it.” The doctor suddenly sounded very tired. “I’m going back to the café. You coming?”

“Yeah…”

“Good.”

“Tae?” The doctor stopped to hear him. “Please, don’t tell Boss.”

She guessed it was more than one thing he meant.

“Don’t give me a reason to.” Tae Takemi said without humour.

Chapter Text

It was Sunday morning at the Niijima household. Makoto and Sae sat at the table in the apartment’s small dining room, having breakfast in silence. Although the scene was no different than many times before, there was a remarkable distinction, one as stark as night and day. The silence between the sisters was no longer heavy with tension. Instead, it was a peaceful silence; light from the burdens released over a year ago. After Makoto and her friends encouraged Sae’s shadow into changing her own heart, thus undoing the distortion within, Sae found herself free to pursue her goals as her heart’s true desire commanded.

The diametric contrast to her change of career helped further, though the transition from prosecutor to defence attorney was no easy matter. Even in this field, Sae Niijima encountered similar challenges to those she knew on the other side. On previous nights, she indulged in her sister’s willingness to hear her out to vent a little. Makoto, patient as always, listened attentive and offered as much advice as she could from her outside perspective. Sae weighed her words, and felt – to her curious amusement – that sometimes, her little sister seemed the older one.

Makoto also had a few troubles of her own, which Sae knew still lagged around from her first year as a university student. There was a classmate, Kyosuke Satake, who became infamous for constantly hitting on Makoto last year. Though insistent, the young man did not mean to harass her. After Makoto put him through a stern Niijima-style talk, her fellow student revealed the motive behind his actions. He was a homosexual young man, stranded in a family that would look ill upon him if he were to come out. The pressure of old taboo constricted mercilessly him while he pursued his calling, one hardly different to Makoto’s. Thusly, he did all he could to maintain appearances, though it still helped none.

On the other hand, there was also a faculty member, Dr. Isao Shinoda, who became a highlight for dinner conversation. His name was already known to Sae, and many of her peers, as a brilliant but unconventional prosecutor who retired from office in favour of teaching. As chance would have it, the man quickly took a shine to Makoto and began imparting onto her some personally-earned life lessons. But each morsel of experience he gave bore an edge to it: each word carried the man’s infamous reputation as a belligerent and spiteful man. At his core, however, Dr. Shinoda still believed in social responsibility. Neither sister was convinced his advice could be entirely heeded or disregarded. Perhaps, in reality he was a lonely man who needed to be heard.

The months passed until the present days, and still those names would come up every now and then, and with them, a tone of concern. Sae’s opinion, likewise, changed little: Makoto just cared too much sometimes. While that may prove an inconvenience in the long run, Sae guessed that was precisely why this choice of career was perfect for one like Makoto. It was in their blood to care, even through the stumbles suffered.

Caring. The word left a peculiar taste in Sae’s palate as she ate. A sensation that urged her to speak her mind. In truth, she had been considering the idea for a while. It started as a nebulous ‘what if’; her deep disappointment over the more recent times she has dated only made the idea more palpable. Sometimes, she lay awake at night wondering, spelling out the question. Now, she felt like she had an answer.

Sae waited till Makoto finished her mouthful to break the silence.

“I’m thinking of getting a puppy.” The older sister said casually.

Even though Makoto did finish her mouthful, she looked like she was about to choke on her food for a fraction of a second. Sae had a habit during her early adolescence, that she often found ways to fluster and shock her younger sister for a bit of fun. Years later, the considerably mature woman sometimes indulged in echoes of her juvenile mischief.

“I-I see!” Makoto looked neither pleased nor displeased, just surprised at the suddenness. “Why, though?”

“Hmm.” Sae neatly put the chopsticks on a napkin by her bowl. Her hands went into a contemplative gesture. “I’ve thought of it for a while. These changes in my life have made me look long and hard at myself, as a person, and the things that are missing from my life. Makoto, I think I might need a new friend, and honestly, I’m not liking the people I’m meeting lately.”

Makoto resisted the notion of quoting her friend Ryuji Sakamoto by words that were crude but fitting.

“Bad adults?”

“You could say that.” A half-smile formed across Sae’s lips.

“Well… when you put it like that. I don’t think it’s a bad idea at all!”

“It would certainly be a first time for me. Or maybe not, we did have Kino, after all.”

“Does a goldfish really count? How long did he live, anyway?”

Sae searched her memories about the fish, confined to a small world of a bowl with a shabby-looking underwater castle devoid of all royalty.

“A fortnight maybe, and that’s a generous estimate. I’m actually surprised you even remember Kino.”

“I remember he grossed me out.”

“Well, I think you’ll agree a small furry mammal could hardly gross anyone out. Cats are cute, but definitely out of the question. Just thinking of that cat that always accompanied you when Akira came by made my nose run.”

“Haha… yeah…” The younger sister hoped she successfully concealed the truth of those two nights.

“I hear divisive opinions on rodents, and I don’t think either you or I would like to search through tight places just to clean up after them. So, a dog would probably be the best option.”

“That’s true, but what breed of puppy would you want?” Makoto, a self-admitted fool for cute things, started to get more and more invested on the topic. Rather than only thinking of puppies, her mind started filling with images of her sister with dogs of all types, from puny to really large dogs, and then extraordinarily large dogs. The young woman could not keep her face straight.

“I definitely need to do some looking into, but I think a medium-sized breed would do. I don’t want a dog so small I need to watch my step when I walk around the apartment, and I don’t want a dog so big that it’d need to eat better than me. It’s not a must, but it’d be nice if it didn’t shed too much fur.”

“Fair. What would you name it, though?”

Sae placed two fingers on her chin. “Niko?”

“Doesn’t that sound too similar to ‘Kino’?”

“Fine, you come up with a better name, Makoto.”

Makoto’s cell phone vibrated on the dining table. A text message from Yusuke.

Yusuke: Makoto, We need your help.

Makoto: Who’s ‘we’?

Yusuke: Akira, beauty and I. The lighting is perfect.

The eccentric young man was as vague as ever, not that he ever really noticed. The young woman sighed a tired breath. Yusuke hardly ever asked for anything himself, so the request at least had to bear some considerable importance to him. It was Sunday, after all; while she could stay and review her notes and papers to be turned in throughout the week, she could also afford a chunk of the day for her friends. And Akira’s involvement was, as usual, a tempting factor.

Makoto: What do you need me to do?

Yusuke: We require your presence at Inokashira Park.

Makoto: Beauty, Akira and you?

Yusuke: And the lighting. It’s perfect lighting.

Makoto: Right. I’ll be over.

“So, Sae?” Makoto lifted her eyes from her phone. “How does lunch at Inokashira sound to you?” True to Yusuke’s insistence on ‘lighting’, it did look to be a bright day. She figured Sae could do with some fresh air and sunlight herself.

[ ]

Deep within, half of Makoto regretted coming to the park with Sae.

It did not take long for the two sisters to find Yusuke. His height made him stand out even among the trees. Next to him was Akira, who waved at the pair, and an easel, carefully set on the grass, oriented towards the pond. The shadow of the trees reached over the surface of the water, yet the gaps in the canopy made the sunlight filter through, like ephemeral golden spears plunging into the water. The scene truly had a hazy, vesper-like tone to it. If Yusuke wanted to paint it, he could do it well on his own; but the need for Akira and her hinted strongly at something else.

“Makoto! Perfect! Sae-san! Perfect!” Yusuke wasted no time. He hurried ahead of Akira to greet the two sisters. The young man always had a formal, traditional air to him for as long as Makoto knew him, which remained even after the bonds in the group forged tighter. To see him so cordially bowing towards Sae and her still caught her off guard. It seemed that this day was truly a momentous occasion to him.

“Good morning, Makoto. Good morning, Sae-san.” Akira joined them soon after. As usual, he kept public displays of affection to a minimum in Sae’s presence. “Thank you for coming on such short notice.”

“It’s a nice day to spend out.” Makoto smiled. “Hope it’s okay with you that I asked my sister to come along.”

“Always a pleasure, Sae-san.”

“Likewise, Akira-kun.”

“Ah, yes indeed! Makoto, a grand idea. A moment like this deserves a witness!” Yusuke went towards his easel. “I am honoured that somebody of such great standing will see it happening.”

“See what happen, exactly?” Sae squinted, slightly preoccupied.

“It dawned on me last night.” Yusuke’s voice dropped the fanfare to a moderate volume. “It is one thing to try and imitate life on a canvas. It’s all around us, after all. But there is a facet to it that does not settle with being… it expresses itself through doing.”

“Okay?” Makoto was starting to put the pieces together, and in doing so, bracing herself for the blow.

“Akira aided me in my previous attempt.” Yusuke reminisced wistfully. By the uncomfortable look on Akira’s face, he remembered it too. “It ended poorly. But the crux of the problem was only the wrong subject… Not this time.” The young man placed himself between the easel and the rest. “Makoto. Please, I need you and Akira to pose for me.”

Makoto’s lips slightly parted as reaction to Yusuke’s request. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Sae looking at her. Even Akira looked rather timid.

“If you say no, we can still have a picnic. I brought food.” Akira said to try and lighten the atmosphere.

“Delicious food.” Yusuke agreed with a pleased look in his face.

“U-um, well…” Makoto blushed. “I guess I’m okay with it.” She dared a bashful look at her boyfriend, who met her with a reassuring smile. Still, the image of her older sister remained at the edge of sight. Her eyes must be fooling her, she thought, but it seemed as if Sae was fairly entertained.

“Splendid. We’ll get started in a moment. But first, Akira, would you mind renting a boat for the day?”

“WHAT?” Makoto gasped. Behind her, Sae was trying her best to hold her laughter in.

[ ]

In all the time they had been together, it never occurred to Makoto to do something like this with Akira. For months, they would scour Tokyo in search of places to venture, sights to behold, tastes to savour; diverse ways to be together. Yet one of the more obvious alternatives went unchecked in spite of their meticulousness. The young woman was not at all opposed to it, seeing her boyfriend row the boat towards the perfect spot beneath the sun-pierced canopy. In thought, it seemed to fall on the cliché side of romantic, but out in the open, she could not deny the charm of it.

“Right… there.” Yusuke indicated from his position at the easel. Sae stood behind him, biting a chunk out of a ripe, green apple.

Akira stopped soon enough for the boat to remain in place without drifting further. He interpreted Yusuke’s silence as a way of approval. With a slightly bashful smile, the young man looked up to meet Makoto’s eyes. He silently mouthed a ‘thank you’.

“Stay like that, for a moment. A few seconds should… do.” Yusuke’s voice was now lower. His concentration was almost palpable as he quickly did a rough sketch of the composition; no need for details, save for those that truly caught his eye – these would be his annotations for things he would flesh out in colour later on. A displeased frown crossed over his face suddenly, as if instinctively detecting something amiss, something he could not quite place.

Makoto wished to turn and see the beautiful scene around them while she still could, but one sight in front of her held her eyes captive. Akira looked handsome as always, but there was something spectral, even unreal, about the way the sunlight bathed his skin and hair. It was as if she could see the soul that inhabited his flesh. It was then that, for a single moment, she felt like she could understand Yusuke’s quest to behold and create beauty. It was almost perfect.

Without thinking it, her hands delicately removed Akira’s glasses from his face. She could now see his eyes, dark and deep like oceans, looking at her, enraptured in much the same way Makoto was. Now it was perfect.

“Thank you, Makoto.” Yusuke said, realising what was amiss. Seven seconds later, he was ready. “Very well. Now, I want you to behave naturally, but be very still. Do what you would, but do it very still… Bask in your love!”

Akira and Makoto both turned to look at Yusuke with puzzled expression. There were many things they could do to ‘bask in their love’, but few they could do while staying still.

“Akira… what do we do?” Makoto whispered.

“Hmm, I’m not really sure what he means. But he’ll probably be fine if we do it very slowly.”

“… Do what now?”

“Bask in our love.” He smirked with a little devil at the corner of his mouth.

“But however are we gonna do that?”

“That’s the question, isn’t it? If you don’t mind, I think I’ll just lose myself in your eyes.”

“Dork.” Makoto blushed, thinking of the times he has said things as corny that could still somehow make her weak in the knees. “Then, I’ll do the same.” She carefully got closer to him and placed her hands on top of his. It was a comfortable position to do their basking for a while.

As the seconds passed, the sounds of nature became distant. Makoto had acute hearing, and she could hear even the strokes of the brush on the canvas, but soon that also sank in the silence. It seemed also as if her sister was no longer there either. Everything was quiet. There was nothing in the world but the two, the sun that bathed them ephemeral, and the space between.

But they were never truly alone, not even in a world they made their own for a moment. There was the notion of past, of affection borne from history and experience. There was an amorphous image of future, with countless variables unknown, and one discernible constant of togetherness. And then, the present, in which a peculiar kind of gravity slowly pulled them together. Though Akira’s eyes were fixed on Makoto’s, it was the mental image of her lips parting, of her tongue gently pushing, wanting, what drew him in. And her breath, which he now felt mingling with his own.

The silence was being slowly penetrating by the tempo of pulses growing restless. Gravity would pull them together at a jolt.

“CEASE YOUR FIDGETING!” Yusuke’s voice exclaimed from behind the easel.

A quick flush of embarrassment and frustration took hold of the two as they pulled back from each other.

“Why…” Akira groaned.

“Keep still! I must capture this moment perfectly! A great display of intimate passion between two youthful lovers! This will be my next masterpiece!” The young artist spoke on. “Yes! Like that!”

Sae shook her head in amusement as Makoto and Akira returned to their positions. Her attention had gone from the scene unfolding at the pond to the easel. Art had never been close to her calling; she had never shown a sign of even leisurely proficiency, and she never really developed an opinion on paintings or sculpture beyond whether they were visually pleasing to her or not. It was now, seeing a piece in the making by a devoted artist that she found herself more interested in art than ever.

“How do you do it?” Sae asked. “I could never draw more than stick figures in junior high.”

“It’s the easiest thing in the world.” Yusuke answered with passion in his tongue as he painted. “Stick figures are a solid foundation, Sae-san. One only requires practice and patience to build upon them, and create… marvels.”

“Marvels, huh?”

“Marvels indeed, such as the subject before our eyes.”

“They’re quite something, aren’t they?” Sae commented with subdued tone.

“That they are. Ever since I met them, art became the second highest concern in my life. The first is the welfare of my friends. I wish nothing but joy for them. And if they can be a more unflinching, tireless source for each other, then all the better.”

“I suppose they look… well together.” It seemed then to Sae that she struggled to find the right words as of late.

“Indeed. They bring out such beauty from each other when they are together.” For the first time in the day, Yusuke put his brush down to focus on his commentary. “Just look at them, how sweet their calm, tender but still powerful and uncompromising. I don’t need to see more carnal expressions, not when their shared silence says enough on its own.”

Sae said nothing. She observed Yusuke’s models. He was right. Those two said so much without words, even without movement. So many years the two sisters lived under the same roof that Sae could tell so much about Makoto’s mood just by the way she stood or sat, even the minutiae of angles were an open book to Sae. In a game of poker, she would easily give herself away. And Akira was no different, despite his abilities. The young man could be easily be read when it came to those he cared for.

She knew this personally, having been his interrogator following his capture. It may have been the drugs in his system at the time, but Akira revealed more than he might have been aware of. The attachment was evident when talking about Ryuji, Ann, Futaba, Haru, Yusuke, and even his cat. But there was something else in there where Makoto was concerned. Sae first chalked it up to the filial relation and the capabilities she exhibited as both adversary and ally.

On hindsight, the truth was sweeter than that.

But then, Sae remembered, something happened near the end of the interrogation, just a little while before he managed to give her the phone for their plan to work. The dizziness caused by the drugs provoked a few quiet spells in the young man; sometimes he even seemed to be spacing out. But this one instance was different. It was as if a terrible realisation dawned on him. It was easy to conclude it had something to do with his friends. The way his expression contorted into anguish and pain confirmed it. His face was that of despair; she saw it reprised back in the memory of people, of victims she had known throughout her career and life. And yet, it faded as soon as it came. He carried on, however addled, as if it never happened.

By that moment, the truth about the Phantom Thieves appeared too vividly to go back. Too much was at stake to stop and scrutinise the moment. She thought it was just the drugs. The situation improved at a good pace after Sae smuggled Akira back to his allies. There was no reason to dwell on the moment. But it was still there in her memory, rising back to the surface, when she least wanted it.

She wished she had never seen that.

[ ]

An hour passed. Yusuke had been hard at work throughout that time, only once putting the brush down. He was exhausted at the end of it, and his models fared no easier. In fact, Akira and Makoto looked ready to crumble down to dust in the little boat at the slightest breeze.

“It’s finished.” Yusuke said, with evident relief in his voice.

Sae peeked over his shoulder to look at the finished canvas. For a moment, her only response was the way her eyes opened wide.

“Do you find it satisfactory, Sae-san?”

“You’re severely underselling yourself, young man.” Sae turned to the couple in the boat. “You can come over here now!”

“Yep.” Akira said. His voice sounded strange.

“Are you okay?” Makoto sounded similarly.

“I can’t feel my shoulders.”

“Me either.” The young woman tried moving, turning her face into a pained grimace. “Wait. Let me try something.” She took a breath, and shook and her arms, while holding Akira’s hands, in turn, shaking his all the way to his shoulders.

“OH MY GOD!” The sense returned to his body with a jolt, a feeling he could not describe as pleasant.

“I’m sorry!” Makoto seemed to regret it as well.

“We’re going to need a massage after this.”

“I agree… ugh, come on. Let’s just disembark.” This time, Makoto took it upon herself to do the rowing.

After a few minutes, the couple finally returned to land. Makoto’s muscles were warm and nimble from the rowing, so she stepped off first, staying on the bank to anchor Akira, who still felt quite stiff.

“Easy there…” Makoto said as she helped her boyfriend, yet he still ended up tripping and splashing his leg on the pond’s edge. She could not help but laugh.

“I’m thinking maybe I should have done the rowing later rather than earlier.” He smiled, flustered. A rare sight to behold.

Makoto took his hand and led him towards Yusuke and Sae, who had set a blanket on the ground to have a picnic with all four. The light that charmed Yusuke so, remained above the canopy; there was still enough of a day for them to enjoy. Before joining them, Akira cast one final look at the pond, and wondered.

Was it the way Makoto held his hands, or the way the light joined her skin that eased him so? Or was it the mere fact of her being there that soothed his thoughts? If not for her, the hour that they spent in the boat would have felt like a decade. As per Yusuke’s demand, the two young lovers were as still as they could manage. But all the same, she managed to pour all the intention she would express with touching, kissing, hugging and biting into her eyes. Beautiful eyes that held his gaze captive, even as the world in Akira’s sight turned red – the sky, the trees, the water.

He had the vague sensation that he saw something similar sometime before, perhaps recently. And it bothered him, but he could not think of why. He looked ahead as Makoto walked with his hand in hers, and for only a fraction of a second, it looked as if she was leading him past a row of red curtains. His heart skipped a beat, but he continued to walk despite himself. Afterwards, he was not sure whether he actually saw anything.

[ ]

That evening, Makoto let herself into her bed, not knowing whether to cry or to giggle like a kid. It was as if she had dreamed it all, but there was no small heartbreak over waking up and finding it was all a dream. This perfect day happened, and it was real. She could not believe her eyes when Yusuke showed them his finished painting: the way she and Akira looked to him. He could not have described it better. It was a celebration of the joy two people he cared for found in each other. As they had lunch, he confessed to doing this as a commission for Haru. But now, looking at the finished work, he felt tempted to either keep it, or give it to them as a present for no special occasion.

In his words, everything was special forever.

It was still early in the semester to feel the pressure building at school. There was no great need to recharge before the week began, and yet, after this day, she felt like she could stride for the rest of the year, light as a feather.

She still had some time to revise her notes before turning in, but a sudden distraction came from her phone on the desk. It was a text message. The young woman was eager to read it, thinking it came from Akira. She blinked a few times in surprise at seeing the sender’s name. It was not a name that inspired trouble, still it was the last person she expected to get a message from.

Yuuki Mishima: Niijima-senpai! Hello. Do you mind if I called you? I need to talk to you about something.

Chapter Text

Haru Okumura took pride in one particular thing: her skills in gardening. Although she would never bring herself to show it, she did experience some irritation when somebody chalked it up to ‘having a green thumb’. She knew healthy, bountiful growth was not a matter of luck, or some innate talent to adequately handle plants; it was all about dedication and patience – something anybody could accomplish as long as they were willing to learn. Even Ryuji had proved capable with the little tomato plant Haru gave him on his birthday.

Then, there was her skill wielding an axe. But that was not quite something she could find any use for other than occasionally amusing herself when chopping fruit and vegetables. She received instruction on classical dance when she was ten years old, at the behest of her father; even if she barely did anything with that knowledge, muscle memory would prove her adept. She was fairly inept at team sports, though she had a way with darts. Calligraphy was every bit as easy as artistic drawing was not. Haru could count herself a competent student, but not necessarily a stellar one.

Still, as she dug up information on White Pheasant, beyond advertising already available to the public, she felt as if she was discovering a new skill – something she did better than team sports, but not quite as good as dancing, not yet. The first thought at heeding Yusuke’s suggestion several days ago was to ask Futaba to look into the company. However, she immediately shooed the thought away, knowing the girl was to stay focused on school. Besides, all of this effort was devoted only to ease her mind on the prospect of a possible business relation with White Pheasant. This was something she was to do on her own – by dedication and patience.

Her daily schedule did not leave much room for it, however. So, when she did find the time, she made sure to squeeze it for all it was worth, even if that meant losing a night’s worth of sleep. From her findings, she could gather that the company had been untouched by scandal since its inception. Its growth, while less impressive than the Okumura conglomerate, mirrored that of other companies with higher prestige, and promised to go beyond. Every bit of information she found, she ran by what she was learning at school. Still, she would have her advisor look at her work to be on the safe side.

The chairman, Susumu Kamiyama, seemed to mirror his company’s profile. He had, likewise, stayed well away from scandal and controversy. In fact, his public image was decorated with consistent charity work, even before White Pheasant launched as an ambitious enterprise. A picture search revealed him as a man in his forties with sober demeanour and completely free from the lavishness of other people in his line of work. Something about his close-cropped hair, the bags under his eyes, how some regions of his face looked older, how others looked younger made him appear approachable, humble even. At the end of it, Susumu Kamiyama could be described as a hard-working philanthropist who earned his station without trampling or undermining others.

He was the exemplary of a successful businessman – the kind of man her father might have been had the story been different. Haru did not allow herself to dwell on the thought, especially not this late, or early, as she found out when looking at the time on her phone. She knew how likely it was for her to sleep in, and miss a day of classes, if she were indulge on even a nap. Thus, she decided to start her day early. Before beating the cook to it and make her own breakfast, she felt the urge to contact Yusuke and tell him about her findings. Not sure whether or not to be surprised by it, she found him online.

Haru: I looked into White Pheasant’s chairman.

The young woman felt slightly uneasy at the prolonged dance of the dots signalling Yusuke was typing. She remembered something Ann told Haru and Makoto once, a few weeks after she and Ryuji started dating. A delay in typing like this meant they were either doubting what to say, or doing something they were not supposed to. Haru and Makoto could only guess what Ann meant, but neither pressed her to specify.

Yusuke: what did you find?

Haru: His name is Susumu Kamiyama. He looks like an honest man. Maybe it won’t be such a bad idea to consider the proposal.

The three dots again, this time for longer.

Haru: Yusuke-kun?

Another delay.

Yusuke: I’m pleased to hear. This could propel your projects to your desire heights far sooner.

Yet another delay. Haru stood nervously in the middle of her kitchen, wondering whether to set her phone down and just focus on breakfast, or wait on her friend. She was well aware Yusuke and Ryuji were very different people, but she still felt like she could hear a mini-Ann, propped on her shoulder, dispensing foreboding advice.

Yusuke: I apologise for the delay, I am typing with one hand only.

Haru let out a hybrid sound, of a gasp and a squeak, joined in mutual shock.

The three dots again. By this point, Haru was holding her phone with the tips of her fingers. Instinctively, her eyes looked around for something, anything that could work as pliers.

Yusuke: I’m being harassed by a cat. It’s extremely demanding of affection.

The young woman let out a sigh of relief. She continued the conversation.

Haru: Is it Mona-chan?

Three dots. Yusuke: Thankfully not. That would be off-putting. Another typing delay: This is, in fact, a gorgeous, elegant cat.

Haru: Can you take a picture??

After a short delay, the picture showed up on the conversation under Yusuke’s side of the messaging interface. Quite like he said, it was a beautiful, white cat with long, fluffy fur and large blue eyes. Without realising it, Haru squeaked at the thought of petting it, especially if it was as demanding for affection as Yusuke said.

Haru: It’s so cute! Is it a boy or a girl???

Three dots again, by which time, she no longer minded. This one was the longest.

Yusuke: I tried looking but I can’t see through that much fur. I’m thinking of painting this cat for the first commission. Not like this, however. I need the proper lighting. Late sun, perhaps. The light should colour the fur appropriately. I can see it already! In fact, I believe the setting sun against it will look like your hair. Glorious!

Haru stayed quiet. She did not know whether to see his message as a compliment or not. Yusuke lacked the malice to deliver a backhanded compliment, this much she could draw comfort from. After looking at the selection of adjectives he used throughout the conversation - gorgeous, elegant, glorious – she considered safe to accept it as a positive comment. Alas, now it was time for Haru to doubt as she typed. Three dancing dots on her end.

Haru: I look forward to it!

Then a quick, strange thought.

Haru: Where are you, Yusuke?

Yusuke: I’m outside LeBlanc. I’m waiting for them to open for breakfast.

The girl went pale. It was much too early to be out in the streets. The questions to ask all funnelled into Haru’s mind at once, and before she could think of which to ask first, she already heard Yusuke’s voice responding with a smooth, unperturbed flavour.

Haru: Why are you outside LeBlanc at this hour?

Yusuke: I felt hungry after I woke up. I reckon I overslept after yesterday. I was exhausted.

Even more questions bubbled up.

Haru: What were you doing yesterday?

Three dots again. Haru braced herself for a reply she was not sure she actually wanted.

Yusuke went into detail about the genesis of the idea, its pursuit and even the fateful way the light shone that precise day at Inokashira Pond. A bittersweet feeling rose inside of Haru as she read the message, on how he painted Makoto and Akira together in a boat. Every now and then, a lonely ‘what if’ poked at her thoughts. It was nothing that caused resentment towards Akira, Makoto, or now Yusuke. But it was there, nonetheless. In the end, Haru asked if she could see the painting.

He replied that he decided to give it to them as a present, but since they were unsure of whether to house it at Akira or Makoto’s, they asked him to keep it for them in the meantime. Regardless, he still took a picture on the day. Although it was an imperfect image, Haru felt more touched than envious when looking at it. The love between Akira and Makoto was more than clear, but something even clearer to Haru was the love Yusuke showed for his friends when painting it. She did not need to ask: Yusuke would accept money from nobody when it came to painting something like this. This unabashed devotion to his ideals and his own way to convey them was something Haru deeply admired of Yusuke.

Perhaps, Yusuke’s remark about the cat under the setting sun and Haru’s hair was more heartful than initially apparent.

Haru felt the time to let the conversation rest was nearing. After setting her phone down, Haru turned back to the kitchen, only to find out the cook had already beaten her to making breakfast.

“Now, now. Haru-chan.” The plump woman in impeccable white said with a smile. “You leave that to me. That hair of yours needs its time and care.”

[ ]

Futaba Sakura was a curious creature by nature. Having learnt to read at the tender age of three, and become a voracious reader at five, it seemed as if the girl was aching to see everything the world had to offer. Her mother, endearingly, called it ‘hungry eyes’. Wakaba imagined little Futaba would eventually develop the truest of wanderlusts, and that her life would be rich with wonders that would still fail to quench her appetite for words and images. Thus, it was a tragic irony that, after her mother’s death, Futaba’s life would turn a far cry from Wakaba’s hopes. Surrounded on all sides by scheming adults, and a neglectful uncle, her eyes were in peril of losing their hunger.

In the end, she was adopted by Sojiro Sakura, whose undying love for Wakaba Isshiki was a debt that turned into fatherly love. For all his efforts, all he could give Futaba was a room of her own, inside of which she made her tomb. Still, within the walls that kept her from a cruel world, she found a way to feast her eyes and her mind. In her own way, through video games, films, anime and illegally obtained music, Futaba stepped into a world of wonders. Then along came the Phantom Thieves, and with her regained freedom from her ghosts, she braved into another world that dwarfed the musings of both mother and daughter.

Yet, for all the amazing things Futaba has seen in her budding lifetime, sometimes cat videos captivated her about as much a wide starlit night sky. One afternoon, as she arrived home after school, the girl with orange-red dyed hair caught a glimpse of white and black chaos unfurling across a little patch of green in Yongen-jaya. Realising what it was, she went down on a squat to behold what looked like a lovers quarrel between cats. And much to her amusement, it featured Morgana.

The furious dance of growls and tails went on for about twelve seconds more before her feline friend caught wind of her presence, after which he promptly stopped. His companion, with ears pinned back, promised another pounce to follow.

“What the HELL are you doing!?” Morgana stared, protesting more than asking.

“Really? You are asking me that?” Futaba returned his stare with smug eyes. “Who’s your friend?”

“She…” Mona hesitated at seeing the girl’s face on the mention of a ‘she’. “She’s my friend, I guess.”

“Well, yeah. I can see that. But what’s her name?”

“Um… Snow.”

“Ooooh! Wait, she told you her name? DO YOU ACTUALLY SPEAK CAT?”

“No! I mean…” Mona titled his head. “I overheard her human call her Snow, and I went with that. I can’t really talk with her. All I hear from her is meowing.”

“Oh. That’s not good. How are you going to level up your relationship with snowy here?” Futaba raised her arms in exaggerated fashion.

“Uh… relationship?” The word came out as strange as it felt in Morgana’s mind.

“Duh. Social links, whatever.” Futaba’s gaze shifted towards Snow, who now regarded her with curiosity. The cat took kindly as the girl extended her finger for her to sniff. After that, Snow felt at ease to purr under Futaba’s affections. Distracted, Futaba only halfway noticed how Morgana stared off into the distance, set off by the word and the mental floodgate it opened anew. “Don’t blue-screen on me, Mona.”

“You ruined my day, Futaba.” Morgana said quietly.

“Come now. It’ll be o-“

“Snow! There you are!” Another girl’s voice snatched everybody’s attention. Futaba squinted up at her, vaguely recognising her wild, black hair and the frenzy-prone look in her eyes. Morgana, on the other hand, knew her as Yumeko, Snow’s human. It was a surprise to find her here, of all places, so far away from Shibuya

It was then that realisation smacked Morgana cold. He had never seen Snow go back to Shibuya, to Yumeko. Every day, it took only a few minutes for him to run into Snow. Had the white cat run away from home… to be with him? The notion made him dizzy.

“Naughty girl!” Yumeko said as she crouched next to Futaba to pet the cat. “Oh, hi.” She said finally, looking at Futaba and Morgana. “Sorry. Snow’s been a handful. We recently moved into the neighbourhood. She’s still getting used to the new place.”

“It’s okay. It’s a cool cat you got there.” Futaba squinted harder, trying to dig her face out from a heap of memories. “I’m Futaba Sakura.”

“Yumeko Mogami. Nice to meet you.” She replied carefree.

“Mogami, Mogami…” Futaba felt like she was about to come up with something. “Hey! Your family has a little restaurant in Shibuya, right?”

“Um, had… No, I mean, it’s still a restaurant. We just… um… moved it here.” Yumeko sounded somewhat uncomfortable.

“Why? This neighbourhood is a dump. Don’t get me wrong, I love this dump, but it’s a dump.”

“The rent was a bit high.” The wild eyed girl admitted with quiet embarrassment.

“Oooooh. Well, I’m sure you’ll end up loving this dump too.”

“Yeah… Hey, you got a cat too! What’s his name?”

“He’s Morgana. Mona for short. He likes it when you pull on his cheeks like THIS.”

Somehow, Morgana was so submerged in his own thoughts that he failed to catch a word of the entire conversation. It was only as Futaba pulled on his cheeks that he returned to the present, with considerable annoyance.

“Hey! What the hell!?”

“Don’t at me, Mona!”

“Hey, come here, Mona-chan… kun?” Yumeko reached out docile. The gesture seemed somewhat unfitting for the girl, but Morgana still played the part, if for nothing else, to avoid being rude. “What a handsome cat you are!”

“Yeah.” Futaba decided to join in on the affection. “He is. Don’t tell him that too much, though. Head big enough as it is.”

A third hand joined in, which nobody noticed until several seconds later. Startled, Futaba and Yumeko looked up to see Yusuke sitting cross-legged on the grass.

“Inari!” Futaba called out to him with her usual mischievous tone. His response was invariably some degree of irritation. But she found no response this time. “Inari?” She probed, finding only shaded pale skin peeking out of the parting of his hair.

“Is he your friend?” Yumeko asked. “Is he okay?”

“Hey, Inari! Smellyhead! Nerd! Crustacean Supreme!” The humour in her epithets for him diminished gradually as she met no response. She noticed the mechanical, uncharacteristic way he petted Morgana.

Morgana then stepped up on his legs and pawed at his face, seemingly breaking his stupor.

“Yusuke?” Futaba looked closer as the young man raised his head to meet her eyes.

She found nothing of his usual eccentric self in his face. Only a strange, confounded, almost defeated expression.

“I…” He finally, hesitantly, broke his silence. “I think I saw the most perturbing thing back at LeBlanc…”

[ ]

Makoto Niijima was known to be strict when it came to time management. Each activity in her daily life had its time apportioned, whether for work or leisure, yet she could still afford herself some small indulgences – for the right reasons, which almost always meant family and friends. She could not actually count Yuuki Mishima among her friends, even if he had proven a valuably ally to the Phantom Thieves in the past. Actually, she felt slightly ashamed about remembering mostly as his Shadow-self in Mementos. The fact that he had leaked Akira’s record helped matters little; yet again, she could not ignore Suguru Kamoshida’s role in that situation either.

All things considered, Makoto found no actual reason to deny his request, come from a text message the night before. It would not be much, but she could give him a small window in between after-class and her ensuing studying sessions at the University’s library. As she waited, seated on a bench by the shade of a tree, she felt some irritation about the weather that day. Waiting outside on a hot day quickly started to feel like the most fruitless activity imaginable. She hoped the tone in her text reply was clear enough – she expected him to be punctual.

Fortunately, Mishima did not have her waiting long. But within the five minutes it took him to meet up with her, Makoto felt rather bothered. Things on his side were not very different to hers. Whatever his reasons, they were probably of importance to need a talk with Makoto, herself almost a stranger to him. She went through several possibilities. Perhaps he was in need of a favour; maybe he knew of a task she was well suited for; could be that he wished to make a friend out of a mere acquaintance. Inside her thoughts, Eiko’s voice suggested he wished to declare his undying love for Makoto. As she caught sight of the young man waving at her from the entrance to the courtyard, Makoto prayed to all forces of faith and chance for the latter to not be the case.

Regardless, she did not feel enthusiastic.

“Good afternoon, Niijima-senpai!” He smiled as he approached, ending in a solemn bow. He looked as if he barely aged a day since the last time she saw him.

“Hello there, Mishima-kun.” Makoto greeted politely. “What can I for you?”

“Uh, well…” He rubbed the back of his neck, momentarily avoiding her eyes. “I just want to talk, really, about something.”

Makoto’s lips formed a straight line. Still, she maintained her demeanour.

“Could we walk for a moment?” A break of unease in his voice.

“Sure.”

Yuuki still would not look at her in the eye as they strolled about campus. His hands were deep in the pockets on his pants, and beads of sweat formed on his brow. Makoto was quite sure it was not the heat what caused this.

“Thank you so much for agreeing to meet with me, Niijima-senpai. I hope I’m not taking too much of your time.” He looked up at her apologetically.

“Not at all. But to be honest, I don’t have too much time today, Mishima-kun.”

“Right! Yeah, I better cut to the chase. Actually I’d been meaning to talk to you for a while. I’m sort of writing this script for a documentary on the Phantom Thieves and, well... No, sorry. That’s not the reason I wish to talk.”

“Take your time.” She said despite her tight schedule.

“I heard that you and Akira are dating. Is that true?” He no longer looked away.

“Yes, it is true, Mishima-kun.” The young woman replied cautiously. She started to feel the expected possibilities were all far off the mark.

“Okay, good.” He stopped on his tracks. He spoke slowly. “I think I need to give some context. These days I’ve been working with Akira in LeBlanc, making coffee and food, sometimes doing errands.”

Makoto stared at him in confusion.

“Boss let you work at the café?” Of all the questions that began sprouting in her head, she surprised herself asking this first.

“Y-yeah.”

“And you’re doing this because…?”

“It’s for my documentary. I hope to see how life looks from his perspective, to understand what led him to become a Phantom Thief.”

“Okay?”

“But, this is not about the Phantom Thieves...” He said it more to himself than to Makoto. “This is about Akira… Maybe it’s all just my imagination, but two are very close, aren’t you?”

“We are.” The young woman angled her face in quizzical fashion. Suspicion started yielding to concern.

“H-have… have you noticed anything off about Akira?”

“Such as?” An anxious, but slight pause in her words.

“I’m not very sure… like I said, it may be just my imagination. I really don’t want to cause trouble if it’s nothing at all. It’s just that he’s my friend, and I’m worried…”

“Mishima-kun.” Makoto urged him to get to the point.

“These days, I think I’ve seen him… spacing out?” Yuuki looked unsure if he was using the right word. “While he works, he never really messes up, but I get this feeling when I look at him, that he’s… well, not there.”

Makoto looked at him in silence. Within, she searched through her memories of the past few weeks.

“Like, he’s just staring ahead. Sometimes it’s like he doesn’t hear what Boss or I say to him. But, yeah, he doesn’t mess up or anything. I mean, it really may be nothing. Or, I don’t know, just stress?”

Deja entendu, or was it? A strange sensation took hold of the young woman’s frame like a sudden draft creeping up her spine, the uncomfortable feeling that she was overlooking something of vital importance. Unpleasant could not begin to describe it.

“I see.” Makoto felt Mishima’s concerned eyes on her. “Thank you, for bringing this to my attention, Mishima-kun.”

“It’s no problem, Niijima-senpai. I thought it’d be best to let you know.”

“By the way.” Makoto tried to speak a little levity into the tension. “I’m not really your upperclassman anymore. You can just call me Makoto.”

“Oh!” The young man appeared slightly flustered. “Then you can call me Yuuki.”

“It’s nice to make your acquaintance proper, Yuuki” She smiled as warmly as she could at the moment. “I’ll keep an eye on Akira. I’ll let you know if I see anything unusual.”

The two said their farewells shortly after. There was still a considerable stretch of the day ahead for both. Yuuki needed to work on the script for his film, even if he doubted he would get much work done. As for Makoto, her head grew heavy with concern. Before heading to the library, she returned to her seat on the bench and pulled out her phone. Her first instinct was to get in touch with everybody, but she reasoned she may be approaching the same trap Mishima avoided. It could indeed very well be stress. Then again…

Makoto bit her lower lip, dwelling in deep thought for a few minutes. School and work were nothing new to her boyfriend – no new hurdle to any of them, in fact. The stakes they once faced were exponentially greater, and yet they all carried themselves with relative constancy. It was truly a wonder that nobody’s health took a steep decline. But if Yuuki was on to something, it would be unforgivable to let it pass unchecked.

A sigh.

It may not be a great idea to create a chat group for all sans Akira as she briefly considered. If there was a consensus to be had, it should be discreet. Messaging Ann, and picking her words carefully to avoid panic seemed the best option. But before that, she needed to approach him, give him a chance to talk to her if there was a problem.

“Hi. Just got out of class. About to go to the library. Thought about you. How are you? Would you like to meet for dinner?”

She stared at the screen for a moment, her finger hovering over the ‘send’ button. She hoped he would not be able to discern the full intent behind the message. If Yuuki approached on his own to speak to her on the matter, it was safe to assume he did so without Akira’s knowledge. She needed to be careful so as not to cause tension between them. Finally, she sent the message, and hoped that he would not delay to reply.

A heavy sensation contained in her chest. Makoto thought about every moment Akira and she shared together since his return. Every word, sigh, touch and kiss – slowly dissected in search of a sign, an answer to a question that preyed on her thoughts.

Had she simply been looking at Akira, but not seeing him?

The sensation went from her chest to the pit of her stomach. Without thinking it, she typed further and sent without hesitation.

“I love you.”

Chapter Text

Irony is an art of deviants. You could call it the Devil’s boon, the essence of dualities that distinguishes humanity from human kind. We cannot live, we cannot engage in our existence without observing the inertia that keeps the machine from running on pure logic. Irony is knowing that ideas are less than air, yet they shape realms far beyond one’s own mind. Wealth is an idea; religion, beauty, morals – all ideas. Even the measurement units we use to comprehend the physical and chemical phenomena around us – ideas too. Isn’t it ironic that these ideas that define our world will evaporate on the day the last human dies, yet the world will continue to turn, regardless?

Our shining cities, our empires; these great examples of the human collective live and die by irony. We boast that our lights could make the stars blink from their shame, yet we cannot cast our eyes down without seeing the most vulnerable among us wallowing in misery and lack. And soon, the diseases our neglected foundations nurture will unmake our spires and monuments. Picture, if you would, the day when our broken temples will slouch amidst the wasteland. If there remain eyes to behold, all they will see is a pathetic memento of our arrogance – a crooked, toothless grin.

And the rest will be only dust in the wind. Nothing can care or dare to guess whether we lived to die, or died to live.

Oh, the irony…

The Phantom Thieves were on the cusp of taking the command from the powers that be, from our jailors invisible and ancient. Yet they too fell to the devil’s boon. And in the end, they relinquished the treasure they stole. The tragedy to this was their reasoning. They did it out of faith on us, perhaps even love. And this is the greatest irony, or the greatest tragedy, surely both – their deed was only carried out from the best, the highest of human instincts. If the world were ever to last, or to be remade, faith and love must survive. But their faith and their love have doomed this world to remain the same size, enslaved to the same old laws.

Yet I don’tt resent the Phantom Thieves for this. How could I?

Would that I could aid them in completing their mission. But that is no longer their concern. I fear that in time the world will devour them too. I must do everything in my power to prevent that from happening. My benefactor did not whisper false hopes into my ears. Seeing those youths through to their passage is no guarantee; they may too die when we create the new foundations. But though he has given me his friendship and his trust, I am still me. I know I can use his gift for even more than this great design we have planned. I will surprise him. I will surprise all.

From the great undertow, something beautiful will arise. Do mark my words.

An interesting development on these past few hours. I no longer see my uncle’s face when I look in the mirror. I do not see my father, either. For that matter, I do not see the slightest resemblance of the way I perceive my self. It is all unfolding as he said it would, and I see it all so clearly now. That was my past self, my false self – the one and the same most people are chained to their entire lives. I understand that the Phantom Thieves went through a similar process. That must be how they accomplished what they did. But an even greater wonder is what this new world could be if all of our kind knew their true selves.

What strange, imposing yet… somehow beautiful eyes stare back at me. My true self, I am still shaken to find that this is who I truly am. And my name… my true name…

No… not yet. I am getting ahead of myself.

The process will be long and painful. And it is not long that my benefactor revealed my true face to me. Hardly past a year, to tell it true. One step at a time – only the first one so far. But, the fruits are starting to bloom – I can feel it. Little by little, the template is taking flesh.

My benefactor… my friend, he told me he undertook a duty of his own. He said he would be working the field, make the soil rich and fertile, for the new, the beautiful world to eventually sprout. I believe in him. His goal and mine are one and the same. One and the same.

One and the same.

One…

There…

It is just as he said… another entrance. But… ?

Yes… It truly is as he said. It no longer flickers. I hear… I feel it beckoning me to cross over. This must mean the soil is ready.

I feel tempted to see it with my own eyes. But no, I cannot cross over, not yet. He, he was very clear on the matter. This is not my honour to take. Somebody else has to walk past the entrance first. Then, only then, may we begin to work on the foundations.

Soon. The young man who provided us with the template, soon he will too see the door. He shall cross over into that virgin realm, and he will aid us.

Yes, I know he will…

…!?

What is this…?

Pain, so much pain.

Young man, what are you doing? Don’t resist it. It can only do harm.

This pain. Is this yours?

Young man, please… give in.

Give in…

I will take your pain, your sorrow away… And together, we will undo the irony that keeps us bound.

Do not fight it…

[ ]

It is 2 in the morning, and the world is dark. Akira Kurusu wakes up in a cold sweat in his bed. Next to him, his feline companion Morgana sleeps curled up and undisturbed. The young man grasps at his body to find he has his sleeping clothes on. Whatever occurred on the evening, it came to an end as any other day. He could not remember the last six hours, and he was blind to the burn on his right hand. The silence of the café’s attic pressed on his chest with stifling uncertainty.

Naturally, he could not remember seeing his distorted reflection in the mirror, how the veins on his neck dyed black, how the foam seeped from his mouth, twisted into a vile grin. The voices, all familiar, and all lost to his memories. He could remember none of it, but there was no denying it anymore. He was not okay.

Akira sat on the edge of his bed, and searched for his phone. It was almost out of battery, but there was enough to see two messages sent to him earlier that day.

“Hi. Just got out of class. About to go to the library. Thought about you. How are you? Would you like to meet for dinner?”

“I love you.”

Makoto…

The warm feeling that spread was short lived. There were four missed calls from his girlfriend, one every two hours since she sent those text messages. The last one came in, unanswered, twenty minutes earlier.

His first instinct was to call her back, but he relented. He could think of no reason, no explanation for this sudden distance. In this moment, he thought, she must be sleeping, perhaps angry at him… perhaps worried and sad.

A pang of guilt struck at his pulse. He tried to contain it, but he could not keep the tears at bay.

He needed Makoto. He needed his friends.

But what to tell them?

Akira Kurusu did not go back to sleep. Rather, he decided to wait out the hours until dawn. Things might make sense then, he hoped.

Chapter Text

Akihiko Niijima had an ashtray on his desk in his small study, back when Sae and Makoto were still little. Many times, when peeking around the door always left ajar, little Makoto would catch her father smoking by the open window. She held her breath, and tried to make herself as small as she could so he would not see her. He did every time, but still let his daughter play spy. Just a moment later, he would put out his cigarette and cast a loving look at the door. That was when she would come out from hiding to sit on dad’s lap to keep him company while he worked.

Such a simple, quiet memory was a treasure to Makoto Niijima. For the longest time, it translated to her as a memento of her father’s diligence; until recently, it never occurred to her that those moments in solitude were for Akihiko Niijima to reminisce on the past, on the days when his wife was alive and healthy. The ashtray, a square, fogged thing cut from rough glass, became a repository for reflection. Makoto managed to fish it out of a sealed box in a cupboard rarely opened. It now sat on her desk.

This was now her repository for reflection. Staring at it for as long as she did unearthed memories, both fond and sad, about her father and herself. To her surprise, it invited her to engage in the same process her father did. This apartment had less windows than the one back in Akanedai, so her only recourse was to go outside and light a cigarette. She seldom smoked; it was something she kept for those few hard, restless days, all tied to the pressure even a brilliant student like her went through in the first year of university. This was one such day, for a vastly different reason.

It had been no more than two days since she last saw Akira. Somewhere within that period, hints of trouble reached her attention: the possibility that her boyfriend may be going through hard times. Yesterday, she messaged him, hoping he would feel comfortable enough to tell her if something was indeed wrong.

No reply. For safe measure, she called him afterwards, four times across the remainder of the day. No response.

After the first unanswered call, she messaged Ann, picking her words very carefully so as not to worry her friend. But as it turned out, she herself had troubling words for Makoto. Something happened in LeBlanc, early that day, according to Yusuke, who witnessed it when visiting the café for breakfast. A series of calls between the former Phantom Thieves followed, the ones to Akira increasing in urgency.

Silence. It was not the first time he kept something from her.

That morning, Sojiro Sakura left Akira in charge of the café while he met up with a restaurant owner recently moved into the neighbourhood. There were still a couple of hours before class, and Akira could make use of the experience. The thought that something could go wrong never crossed Boss’ mind. When Yusuke visited LeBlanc that morning, it was only he, Akira, and small talk. Suddenly, Akira fell quiet as he stirred the pot. Yusuke thought nothing of it for a few seconds until he noticed his arm was idle. The young artist stood from his seat and went to his friend behind the counter.

And he saw Akira’s hand, strongly clung to the pot’s burning-hot rim. Motionless, though the skin on his hand was well burnt when Yusuke saw it. Hardly a thought after the shock of what he saw, Yusuke ran to take Akira’s hand off the rim, violently tipping over the recipient and its contents all over the floor. Though he could joke on the travesty of wasting good curry, his only reaction was horror at seeing Akira drop limp before his eyes. His face, an absent, glass-eyed mockery of his usual self, lips trembling, head slumped like a stringless puppet, like a vegetable.

And somehow, a dried cascade of tears on a blank face. He was muttering something, words Yusuke could not understand however close he tried to hear.

Struggling to keep his rising panic at bay, Yusuke looked for the first aid kit and treated Akira’s hand as best he could. As Yusuke spoke to Makoto over the phone, it was as if he was reliving the episode. All he could think to do was grab Akira’s shoulders and shake him back to consciousness. It worked, after a few minutes. Akira was himself again, albeit confused and just catching sensation of his burned hand. Shame followed at seeing the mess on the floor, and Yusuke’s dire concern, painted all over his face.

Boss returned half an hour later. Although he had no way of knowing what transpired, he could sense something was indeed wrong. He noticed Akira only recently started cooking a fresh pot of curry, as well as the remains of a hastily cleaned floor. And ever the observing one, he noticed how the young man kept his hand stored in his pocket. Yusuke’s peaceless quietude made a dead giveaway. With only a raise of an eyebrow, Sojiro quietly pried an explanation out of Akira.

He claimed to have been distracted by the television while he stirred the pot, burned his hand and tipped the curry over. Yusuke recounted how coolly he tried to convey it. In a way, it was not entirely a lie, but Yusuke knew better. With a mixture of annoyance and concern, Sojiro looked at Akira’s hand and treated with a more practiced way.

“He said it was just stress.” Yusuke’s words return to Makoto, haunting her with an echo from an event past, something she could not quite place.

The young painter lost his phone in the commotion, and found no way to contacting anyone until he ran into Futaba in the afternoon. The word then spread along the intimate circle around Akira, and so did the shame. Had Yusuke not been there that morning, would anyone have noticed a thing? It all fell as a frightful surprise to Ryuji, Ann and Haru. There was a possibility Morgana was still in the dark about this. Makoto was not the only one, and yet she felt a stab twisting in her heart.

It mattered none that nobody could see. She told herself that she should have.

Anger grew from the sadness and the worry. She knew he would have kept this from her, from the rest also, in much the same way as he kept quiet on Christmas Eve. At the start of their relationship, it seemed as if the uphill battle would be figuring herself out, how she wished to live her life, how she felt about sharing a path with somebody. All throughout, and even before, Akira had been there for her, quietly confident, patient, reassuring. Despite the inevitable pain of distance, she had taken a deep breath and let him in with loving abandon.

Yet it seemed as if he could or would not let her in. Joker long stopped his baleful flourish in the Metaverse, but the mask stayed on. The worst came later, when she thought of calling Dr. Tae Takemi to inquire about him. The hesitation to her pause was all she needed to hear.

That is when Makoto made up her mind.

On one shoulder, she had an imaginary Eiko, and on the other, an imaginary Hifumi, each providing counsel as the young woman tapped on the spent ash of her cigarette. How was she to approach this? Jovial, irreverent Eiko told her to put him on the spot, shame him into admitting he had a problem. Discreet, passionate Hifumi suggested intimacy, corner him in the warm confidence between lovers. In the end, Makoto heeded them both.

With nimble, infallible fingers, she typed.

“Akira. Dinner tomorrow. Not taking no for an answer. I’m picking you up tomorrow at the café.”

Biting her lip, she debated whether to add something else to warm the tone of her words, something to remind him that he is cared for, regardless. To her surprise, he beat her to it.

“I’ll be here.”

A slight pause.

“I’ve missed you. And I love you too.”

Makoto stared at the screen for a few seconds. The presence of he, even through a text message, was a reminder that he was not lost to himself, not yet. She, and the rest - they would not let him, ever.

[ ]

Night gave way to dawn. Early morning thoughts began to dispel before the light.

Her self-scheduling was as strict as usual, even though Makoto knew she had plenty of breathing room. She had already gone through a considerable portion of the material to be covered that week, and the next. Her birthday was coming up after, and she knew she would have no way, or desire, to disentangle herself from the occasion. If not for Sae’s reminders and surprises after their father’s death, April 23 would have passed her like an unheard whisper. She did not celebrate her 18th birthday, but Sae made up for it at the end of the Phantom Thieves’ case. And Akira made her 19th the loveliest day when he visited her.

Her sister, her friends, her boyfriend – they made those dates matter again.

Would the same Akira be looking to surpass it for her 20th? Marked days on the calendar meant little now.

Shower, breakfast, checking her bag twice for good measure, a little preening, a spray of perfume for an important day, a kiss on Sae’s cheek – the morning ritual did not lose its significance over routine. The sunlight that accompanied on the way to her commute found her resolute. Makoto pulled out her phone aboard the subway car, and messaged everyone in a chatroom she created the night before. Her question met five answers, all confirming for dinner at Arancia.

Futaba: Btw, I told Mona.

Ann: How did he take it? Is he okay?

Futaba: not rly

Ryuji: I guess even he didn’t notice. This sucks.

Yusuke: I hope he’ll accompany us too.

Futaba: Yeah, I’m smuggling him in. Makoto, you sure the guys at Arancia have no problem with the hasty reservation?

Makoto’s eyes dropped at the visible lack of humour in Futaba’s messages. There was hardly a more poignant sign of the gravity to the situation. Though she paid it only a passing thought the day before, she realised how heavy the news must have been on everybody else, not just her. Surely, if they all worked together, he would be well.

Makoto: Yes. One of them is a close friend of Akira. He vouched for us.

Haru: That’s good. Will they be joining us?

Makoto: I’m hoping he’ll be able to. We’re keeping this close, but if we can have a little more help, then all the better.

Ryuji: Fuck!!! How is it that nobody could tell a thing??? What the fuck???

It was so much like Ryuji to express his frustration like this. It was he who, many times, expressed the collective emotions of the Thieves; whenever hopeful, whenever furious, whenever sad. Such lack of discretion was the price for wearing his heart on his sleeve. It was fortunate that Ann was at his side to comfort him, but being Akira’s oldest friend, perhaps not even her might soothe his inner storm. Morgana was another story altogether: he was Akira’s companion day and night, in Tokyo and in Kawasaki. All at once, the mental image of the cat’s sorrow made it impossible for Makoto to keep her face neutral.

Ann: It’s not use blaming anyone, Ryuji. And it’s not your fault either.

Haru: Guys, let’s just be ready. We will sort this out.

Makoto: Thank you, Haru. I’ll be seeing you later today. Please take care. I love you all.

The young woman put her phone in her bag. She closed her eyes and breathed slow and deep as she waited to arrive at the station. Prying some hidden serenity out of her heart to face the world outside did not come easy to her.

[ ]

Makoto worked a little of a sweat as she headed for the subway after class. Dinner was still a few hours away, but she yet hoped to have some time with Akira alone. He must be about to arrive himself at the café. She always felt a spark of excitement inside whenever she went to LeBlanc to see him, even before they started dating. It felt like it shone through her skin when she visited for her first Valentine. The look on his face - hopeful, a bit shy, but happy to see her when she walked through the door - was immortal in her memory.

The spark remained, even now.

She walked into LeBlanc, and the first face she saw was Sojiro Sakura’s. There was a shadow on his face that made him look older, but not out of age. Instead of his usual greeting, Boss only showed a sad smile, nodding towards the stairs to let her know Akira was expecting her.

Makoto stopped after a couple of steps.

“Boss…”

“Kid says he’s just stressed. I don’t buy it.”

“I’m sorry. I should have-“

“Don’t, Makoto-chan. Just take him out for some air, a laugh… something.” The man rubbed the back of his head. “Don’t care how. I’m getting Dr. Takemi to see him tomorrow.”

“I promise you, I’ll take care of him.”

“Yeah.”

With anticipation within, Makoto climbed the stairs to find Akira sitting on the edge of his bed, eyes fixed on a paperback with several bookmarks sticking out. She hoped it was the room’s lighting fooling her, but he looked pale. True to Yusuke’s account, his hand was bandaged, a thin sliver of warped skin peeked out at the upper end. He only seemed to notice her presence when she was a meter away. But when he did, the tint of exhaustion in his eyes gave way to that look – hopeful and a little shy, and in spite of all, happy to see her.

She wasted no words on questions. The young woman dropped her bag at once, and went forward to hold his head in her arms, pressing her lips on the top of his head. Her fingers tangled with unruly, black locks. And she could tell by the way he returned her affection that he felt a necessity to see her.

“How are you?” Her voice came out weaker than she expected.

“I’m doing fine, Queen.” He looked up at her, flashing a ghost of his puckish smirk.

“Is that right? Well, you do look like you could do with a bit of leisure. I know just the place.” She smiled as she spoke.

“Where will you take me?” He teased.

“You’ll see.” She mirrored his playful tone.

“You sure this won’t cut into your studying? It’s a weekday, after all.”

Makoto chuckled. “Really? You’re asking me this? I’ve read already like half of the curricula. I need this too every now and then. Otherwise, I may be become a robot.”

“Beep boop.”

Despite having designed the plan for that day, she momentarily wished they could just stay in and be together.

“Let’s go, Akira.”

[ ]

The air inside of Arancia at 5 in the afternoon was lively and carefree, tinged with the reverie of students and street artists. There was a second storey at the end of a tight stairwell. Though it was no less eye-catching than the rest of the place, it usually got filled the quickest because of the privacy it afforded. Makoto made sure to reserve it early. On his part, Yasunori Kujo, waiter and reformed delinquent, told her she only needed to ask and it would be done – such was the treatment he sought for any of Akira’s friends.

He had no way of knowing about Akira’s situation, but he still cast a worried look when he saw the couple walk through the door. The busy rhythm that day may have proven a good excuse for him to keep his distance. By now, Makoto thought, he may have heard something from the others.

“It’s a bit too loud down here. Let’s go upstairs.”

“Lead on.”

A slight squeeze around his hand, for both affection and worry. The sound of their feet against the steel steps rang in Makoto’s head like chains and gates smashing closed. They came onto the floor to meet the rest of their friends, all seated around the rectangular table, and two vacant seats. Makoto somewhat expected the rest to show some degree of enthusiasm, even if minimal. But even the smiles that were there betrayed inner turmoil. She was not the only one to notice a change in their friend.

Akira was quiet. The sum of the factors spelled it clear for all: this was an intervention.

“Hi, guys.” The young man spoke with a slight edge in his voice. “Good of you to join us… for dinner.”

“Akira…” Haru spoke hesitantly.

“Is… is something the matter? Why do you all look so down?” He tried to sound as calm and collected as he could.

Ryuji met his gaze with red eyes, visibly unsure of what to say. Ann clung tight to his arm.

“Akira. I think it’s best if we took a seat and had a talk.” Makoto tried to ease him into the moment.

“About what?” He turned to his girlfriend. His earlier ease had been replaced with suspicion.

Makoto was suddenly at a loss for words. Her lips trembled as she desperately searched for the right way to put it.

“About you.” Morgana came to the rescue, emerging from Futaba’s bag.

“Morgana? What is going on?”

“Dude… that’s what we want to know…” Ryuji sounded drained. “What the eff?”

“Please, let’s just sit down, Akira.” Makoto placed her hand on his shoulder. She sensed a hint of recoil in his muscles.

He took a step back, never removing his gaze from his friends’ eyes.

“I think I’m gonna go now.”

“No!” Ann sprung to life. “Please, we’re just making sure everything is okay! That’s all!”

Her words did not seem to make a dent in his apprehension. He made a more aggressive attempt to leave, prompting Makoto to hurry ahead and place herself between the stairwell and he. Forced into this perspective, Makoto felt a sting in her chest when seeing something she never thought would be directed at her in his eyes. She saw anger.

“Dinner, huh?”

“I’m sorry…” In spite of the distress, she did not avert her eyes from his.

“Don’t you…”

“Don’t take it out on Makoto!” Futaba yelled out loud, diverting all attention to her. “Look, this all got off wrong! We really just wanted to see you! We want you around, is that so bad? But… we’re worried, cause, maybe we think you’re not okay… you don’t look okay.”

“Akira.” Yusuke stood up. “I told them about yesterday morning. Should you take it out on anyone, it must be me.” Haru looked up at him as he approached to Akira. “I told them, and I would do it again, without a second thought. I saw you.”

“You saw nothing.” Akira shook his head. He was calmer now.

“I saw you hurt.” Yusuke approached, head high as if challenging. “I did a poor job of it, but I bandaged your hand, and shook you awake. There’s no truer seeing than that.”

“That’s just…”

“For eff’s sake, man…” Ryuji gritted his teeth. “Cut the bullshit already!”

“There’s no way you can convince us otherwise anymore.” Haru spoke dryly. “If that’s what you were trying to do. Dr. Takemi told us you haven’t been well for a while.”

“You told her to keep it a secret.” Futaba said.

“Just hear us out. We will back off if there really is nothing wrong.” Ann spoke with conciliatory tone.

“We promise.” Morgana said, sounded the smallest he has ever been.

Akira turned behind him.

“Please.” Makoto whispered.

Yusuke’s hand on his shoulder made him turn to look at everybody once more. The intensity of his gaze did not waver as he met all, not even as the shame flooded his stomach. Reflected in their eyes, he saw the object of his anger – he saw himself, and the petty, primitive way of his response. He saw his own fear, and sensed a myriad terrible thoughts lagging behind. For the past twenty four hours, the precise phrasing eluded him. He now had a closer approximation: he felt undeserving of his friends.

The weight of it all bent the vector of his gaze. He nodded and took a seat.

Elbows on the table, he passed his hand through his hair, apparently only now noticing how tired he felt. He took his time to begin. Though he could not bring himself to look at Makoto in the eye, he appreciated how she tangled her fingers with his.

He spoke slowly. They listened patiently.

“I’m not really sure when I first knew something was wrong. I’ve had this vague feeling that events have been missing. Like they’re passing me by… No, no, that’s not quite right. It’s as if they’re happening to someone else, but not to me. It hasn’t been that long, I don’t think. But I’m also not positive. I know it didn’t start before I came back.”

A pause. Nobody said a thing.

“I’ve been looking at my notes from school, at the way I look, and the way my classmates behave around me. And, it feels like I’ve been normal. Like everything’s going the way it should. I have the memory of things, but I don’t recall actually hearing or reading them. I figure there’s no harm if everything’s working properly. Most everything else is normal. When I’m around you guys, that feels real, like it’s happening to me. Exercise, music, gardening, that too. Cooking…”

As if reading everybody’s thoughts, he looked at his bandaged hand.

“I guess I am missing some of the important things…” He acknowledged. “It’s not all. Sometimes, I feel like something happened. I’m not sure I’m phrasing this appropriately. But I’m left with an odd feeling that I was sad or angry a moment ago. I know I felt scared the most recent time, but I don’t know why.”

“Was that before or after yesterday?” Makoto asked him.

“Before, as far as I know… I… I can’t even really trust what I think I feel or remember. It’s all just a….” For a moment, his eyes drifted towards some random thing in the room. He sighed. “I haven’t slept since I found out about my hand and all… I know there’s something wrong with me, guys.”

This is real. This feels real.

Please, let this be real.

“I’m scared.” He spoke with no discernible mood. From the corner of his eye, he caught the deep red of Makoto’s eyes, laden with compassion. He wished to throw himself at her arms. Instead, he gently removed her hand from his, and pulled back on his chair. “Excuse me. Be right back.”

Ryuji pulled back as well, the chair’s legs screeching against the floor.

“It’s okay. I just need some air. I won’t leave.”

The sounds of Arancia continued, but their ears only registered silence.

“I should have been there for him.” Morgana said. Futaba instantly took hold of the feline and embraced him, weeping bitterly against his dark fur.

Ryuji leaned his head against Ann’s shoulder, looking like he was about to follow suit.

“God damn.” An outside voice intruded into the scene. Lean Yasunori looked on in disbelief. “Sorry, guys. I really didn’t mean to overhear or anything. The manager just asked me to check up on you all. But… god damn. Strider is going through all this?”

“Who are you?” Yusuke questioned.

“Oh, name’s Yasunori Kujo. Akira and I were stuck in Juvie for a bit. Hell of a guy.” Remembrance got a sigh out of him. “I knew there was deep stuff he was dealing with, but never thought it’d be like this. You guys hear me, though, this won’t put Strider down. No way. I know him well.”

Everyone looked at him, finding nothing but conviction in his crudely adolescent factions.

“Was he cool behind bars?” Ryuji asked.

“The coolest. Fuck yeah. Even on his own. But with you guys around, not even God will break him.”

The unwitting accuracy of his statement fell on knowing ears. Makoto smiled bittersweet.

“We’ll be back.” The young woman said, gathering herself and climbing down the stairs.

She found the way to the entrance somewhat disorienting from this side, but it may have been the miasma of emotion what dazed her. True as he said, Akira was standing just outside the soda joint with his back towards the door. He was smoking a cigarette – his fourth since the day of the incident.

“Give me some light?” Makoto approached from behind.

“O-oh!” Akira was genuinely flustered by his girlfriend discovering his vice. “This, I don’t…”

“Neither do I. Don’t worry.” She smiled conspiring. She tapped on the bottom of the pack she carried. It was almost full. “When were you gonna tell me?”

“Never, if I could help it.”

“That’s very mean of you.” She put the tip of her cigarette against Akira’s and puffed. “You would strip me of moments like this?”

Akira chuckled. His mood was slightly brighter than minutes ago. He also had the perfect retort to her comment, and it was tempting to let it out just to see her expression. But now was not the time.

“You’re aware this changes nothing, yes? We’ll be by your side, no matter what happens.” She leaned her head on his shoulder. “I will be by your side.”

“I don’t wish to burden you, or anyone.”

“Love is not a burden. If this were happening to any of the others, to me, would you give up? Say yes, I dare you. I’ll smack you.”

“Maybe that’ll fix me.”

“I’d rather not. That’s a fine face you have, and I happen to like it a lot.”

Columns of ash formed between idle fingers.

“Akira.” Makoto closed her eyes. “I mean it. I don’t care what happens. I will be with you for as long as you want me around.”

“Makoto…” He began.

“Good days. Bad days. Health or illness. I will be with you.”

“That… sounded remarkably similar to wedding vows.” Akira turned to her.

“I know.” A kiss on his cheek. “Come. Let’s go back to the others.”

[ ]

Back upstairs in Arancia, the mood shifted. The gloom that hung over them and clung to their heels remained, but there was enough light to see that Akira Kurusu was still himself. Something ailed him, but his heart and will were unmistakably his. All chairs were pulled aside, and the eight made a circle of an embrace. Love was indeed not a burden, as a dark time of the soul may declare. Love was a promise. And all eight would uphold it.

After Futaba and Ryuji dried their tears, Yasunori climbed to take their orders. There was a certain pride in his expression at seeing how the atmosphere changed. Faith was one of the few things he could rely on throughout his troubled life, and he saw it recompensed.

The time for soothing the wound was past. Now was the time to know what was to come.

“In this time that I’ve stayed awake, I decided to look up what may be happening to me. Scaremongering aside, I think I found it. It’s called dissociation. It’s a mental health problem. In rough terms, it’s a process of disconnection from one’s memories, feelings, identity. There’s plenty of disorders around that spectrum, and they’ve been apparently on the rise.”

“Such is life in Japan, I suppose.” Morgana thought out loud, briefly distracted from the can served for him.

“Shit, dude. How are we gonna fight this thing?” Ryuji was more like his old self by now.

“Therapy, I guess. Seeing a psychiatrist. Sitting in one of those fancy chairs, and baring it all.” Akira smirked. “I can’t wait.”

“Baring it all. That sounds kinda filthy. What do you think, Mum-koto?” Futaba asked.

“Well, it does imply being emotional nude, so… maybe?”

“Nudity and red curtains. How fetching.” Akira mused.

“Red curtains?” Ann arched an eyebrow at her friend.

“Yeah. On my latest episodes, if you will, I’ve had this weird mental image of thick, red curtains, like velvet.”

“Doesn’t that sound an American director’s trademark?” Haru wondered.

“Yes. David Lunch.” Yusuke impregnated the syllables with a distinctive tone of admiration.

“Freaky. Nude mental Akira enveloped in red curtains.” Futaba considered. “Oooh, does that transition from freaky to kinky? What do you say, Mum-koto?”

Makoto was wide-eyed.

“Makoto… are you actually imagining it?” Ann teased.

“Guys…” Morgana stood on his hind legs.

“Yo, Makoto.” Ryuji waved his hand.

“Uh…“ Haru gulped.

“What is this…?” Yusuke looked above and around.

“WHAT THE HELL!?” Ryuji yelled in disbelief.

“Mona…” Futaba reached out for Morgana.

“Everyone. Stay calm.” Makoto’s voice rose over the rest. Though her words were clear outside, she did not know what to make out of it within. “Akira. You and I, let’s…” Her words faded in her breath.

“Akira?” Morgana climbed atop the table.

Their friend was silent, unblinking. The casual street attire that he wore was replaced with a very familiar number: the guise of the Joker, leader of the Phantom Thieves of Hearts. His mask rested steady on his face; the stylised outlines around the eye sockets of which only highlighted the fire in his eyes. They shot knives ahead in front of him, towards a slit in the middle of the thick, red curtains that surrounded them all. There was no up or down, only darkness in their stead.

Peeking from the opening in the curtains, there was bright light, beckoning.

Chapter Text

It may have been seconds, just as it could have been minutes. Everything seemed to unfold in slow motion; the spectre of light that shimmered from the parting of the curtains hued the air with a peculiar sepia-like tint. Makoto could hear her friends’ voices, their confusion and their fear. She could feel Futaba seeking shelter under her arm. And she could feel the tail on Joker’s coat slip just between her fingers as she reached out. Makoto was not sure he heard her calling – her own voice was muffled to her ears.

But though his movements were slow, they were free from all hesitation. Akira walked towards the light, brushing the edge of the curtain aside with a gloved hand. The table, the chairs, the gloom above and below, the shadow of the Joker; all then devoured by a blinding light.

When next they came to their full senses, they stood in an unfamiliar place, far removed from where they were before. The first thing they registered was the sensation of their soles against grass and dirt. From the touch of the surface underfoot came the wild scent of vegetation grown unbound. The air was warm, thickened with salt and rain after the way of stormy, coastal cities. The vault of sky above was a dark ocean of black, crimson and mauve, circled on all sides by cumulus clouds and the soft, orange shine of what appeared to be binary suns. Somewhere, sometime in between night and day, or a new, undiscovered hour for whatever this place was.

Around them, the plain of thick undergrowth extended far across all four winds, pockmarked everywhere with the presence of tall, rich, dark trees. There were mounts and ridges in the distance, some looked merciful, others treacherous. Aside from the most glaring differences, the scenery looked like a patch of prehistoric Central Europe.

Taking it all in, there was no asking whether they were even in Japan anymore. Their rising panic succumbed quickly before the haunting beauty in this impossible place. Awestruck, it was only through peripheral vision that Makoto kept count of her friends’ presence. Much like herself, their senses took their fill from the scenery - all but Akira, whose back was turned towards them.

“Is everyone alright?” Morgana was the first to break the silence.

“I think so.” Ryuji chimed in. “Ann?”

“Yeah…”

“I think I’m okay.” Futaba’s voice shook a little.

“Yusuke-kun?” Haru turned towards the young artist, who only regarded them with a distracted nod. “Mako-chan?”

Makoto felt all eyes on her. She wished to give them a response, but first needed to hear something out of Akira. His transformation and the transition into this place were an enigma, but the darkest incognita was still himself, his person. She placed her hand on his shoulder, hoping her touch would be felt past the black fabric on his coat.

Akira was quiet. He also seemed unable to feel Makoto’s hand on him. His silhouette looked a cold, alien thing even amidst the other outsiders and the dusk-dyed undergrowth. There were no traces of his self in sight; it was as if a stranger wore his body. The foreboding impression took captivity of the young woman’s breath for a moment, until his eyes met hers. They looked wistful.

“Come.” Makoto slid her hand down his arm, all the way to his hand, which she took hold of as they joined the rest. Then, a gentle, discreet caress of his thumb over her the back of her hand. A good sign.

“Dude, what the hell is this place?” Ryuji spoke for all.

“It’s so freaky, and not, somehow.” Futaba rubbed her arms.

“But like, how we were just in the soda joint one moment and then…” Ryuji kept on.

“And then the curtains.” Akira finished the thought. He lifted his mask from his face and fastidiously rubbed his eyelids. “I’m guessing dinner is off.”

“Haha, yeah.” Ann sounded anxious.

“We need to get back.” Makoto stated.

“Yeah.” Akira began scanning their surroundings. “Did we walk far from where we turned up?”

“I don’t think we did?” Haru’s face turned quizzical. “You did walk off a bit on your own, though.”

“I did?”

“Yes. It almost seemed as if you knew where you were going.” Yusuke finally pried his eyes off the skies.

“Curious.” Akira looked genuinely puzzled. “Mona. Do you sense anything in particular about this place?”

“Not… really. It doesn’t feel anything like the Metaverse. But it also doesn’t feel like, you know…”

“Our cognition of real?”

“Yeah.” Morgana hesitated to say. “Not distorted, but not ‘real’ either, I guess.”

“But cognition, nonetheless.” Makoto brought her hand to her chin in contemplation. “Everything changed when we saw the curtains back in Arancia, and that only happened when Akira told us about having seen them. And then, we ended up here after crossing them.”

“Maybe they’re a like a gate or something?” Ann suggested.

“Possibly.” Makoto bit at a fingernail. “By that logic, we should be able to return if we found… curtains… maybe.”

“Makes sense, I guess.” Futaba joined the dissecting of their situation. “But is that really all there is to it? I mean, this guy started seeing the curtains first, and out of nowhere. And… well, I mean, look at him.”

“Huh?” Akira looked up. “What do you mean?”

“Really? Like, the whole Phantom Thief gear out of nowhere doesn’t make jumpy?”

Akira went wide-eyed, groping at his clothes and face to find out he was dressed as Joker.

“Ah.” He frowned. “Well, this is unexpected.”

“You didn’t notice you had all that on, did you?” Makoto squinted. “I think that might just have given us a clue.” Eyes on the ground, she began pacing around, chasing thoughts and memories ringing in her brain like quotes in a book. Some things were fresh in time, reliable. Others were mere conjecture, notions that still fell within the plausible. But there was some dark and foggy else she could neither place nor ignore; a thing from the past that derailed her rationale onto speculation, into a claim for which she had little proof – to this, all she had was the foul sense that something had been done to Akira without his knowledge.

“Makoto?” Akira sounded restless.

“I…” She took a deep breath, dreading the words she was about to say. “I think our being here may be directly linked to you. It’s just a conjecture. I may be wrong. But it might be something like a subconscious cognition manifesting into reality… drawn from your mental state. What you’ve endured these past few days, or more – this place could be a reflection of that.” She cursed herself as she spoke. “It’s… just a possibility.”

“What?” Ann struck out in disbelief.

“Mako-chan, are you saying he created this world?” Haru approached the question cautiously.

“Not willingly!” Makoto’s quick answer was a riposte to kill any blame on him. Alas, she still squirmed within at the sight of her boyfriend’s expression as he considered her words. “But, I can’t just sum it up as mere coincidence.”

“Makoto, what the hell!? There’s no way he’s doing this!” Ryuji scolded. “I mean, yeah this guy’s going through a rough patch, but…”

“He’d never do this by his own volition. But it could happen.” Morgana said with conciliatory tone. “If that’s what’s going on, the principle is no different from developing a Palace. It’s still a subconscious manifestation of desires. Maybe what he’s been experiencing lately translates that into this.”

“You little…!” Ryuji snarled. Anger rippled on his face.

His emotional response was just the first signal of a storm brewing in their midst. Worry, fear, confusion, denial; all chained together across several minds, and all eventually leading to a question nobody wished to ask. Could their triumph over Yaldabaoth prove undone?

“Ryuji.” Akira sliced through the silence with a voice both smooth and peaceful. “It’s okay.”

“Dude!?”

“It is okay.” He reassured. “Makoto may be right. I don’t know what’s been happening in my brain for a while, after all. And… it’s not too far-fetched, given what we’ve lived” He turned to his girlfriend with as optimistic a face as he could manage. “It’s better to have an idea than being in the dark altogether. Whatever’s going on, we will handle it.”

Makoto felt cold in the pit of her stomach. She wanted to say all that was in her head, but how much could she trust her instinct on this? And would it truly be better if this was the work of outside intervention? There were too many questions in the air already, and the possible answers could be as troubling, if not more so.

“As far as I can tell, I brought you all here. Now, let me do my best to get us all back in time for dinner.” A smirk – the sign of the Joker. “Let’s start by finding a vantage point. I don’t see any curtains around.”

Akira started walking towards a grassy slope leading uphill. Makoto hastened to join him at the vanguard, while the rest followed. As she walked, she managed to catch Ryuji muttering.

“Bullshit. I bet somebody’s done something to him…”

She felt warm relief about Ryuji being Ryuji, ever one to speak his mind, never one to doubt Akira.. Perhaps it was not all in her head.

[ ]

They have been walking uphill for close to five minutes. The hilltop looked far away still. In spite of the anxious mood, several things – such as how poorly suited their clothes were for this impromptu hiking, and the surreal grace of their surroundings – help alleviate their spirits somewhat. Makoto kept her eyes on Akira consistently along the way with two-fold purpose.

First and foremost, she was looking out for him. In light of recent events, she would not be surprised if he showed less than he actually felt. Furthermore, her theory may have been the last thing he needed to hear. It hardly brought any ease to her thoughts, but he appeared to be handling himself with stoic sobriety. She intimately hoped it was not just an act for their sake. When thinking of the sum of their experiences together, Makoto concluded it could be indeed be either a mask he wears or legitimate grit.

On the other hand, she surprised herself at catching a distinct appeal about him at that moment. Makoto never did entirely get over the first impression of Akira as Joker. It was quite the experience to see him from afar, fighting and making his way throughout Palaces. Sometimes, she got to see him closer, when peeking from around a corner, waiting for the moment to strike. Makoto could hardly guess whether her pulse quickened from the anticipation of an ambush or from the physical proximity between them. It had been longer than a year since the last time he wore that attire, the image of it remaining in her thoughts during long nights.

It was quite the experience to see him like this again, somehow making it work though the look itself clashed with the surroundings.

“Shame we’re taking the kids hiking like this.” Akira said to her.

“Quite a shame.” She caught herself playing along. “We really should do it for real after this.”

Akira turned to her as he pushed himself on to the slope. His lips curled into a smile. She guessed it may have been the colours of the sky reflecting off his skin, but his face looked to have regained some colour. It was as if the changing into Joker helped him gain some footing. For the current purpose, it was a positive change; minutes ago, he was so vulnerable, yet now he had such a firm grasp on the reins. Despite the strange circumstances, things seemed to be looking up.

Why then did she feel so uneasy? Was there no end to these foul, uncertain notions?

She pulled herself out of inner turmoil by checking up on the rest as they slowly climbed the slope.

“Come on, guys.” Morgana’s child-like voice came out of Futaba’s rucksack slung across her shoulder. “You can do it.”

“Hey, hold up.” Ann turned to the feline, careful not to lose her already awkward footing. “Couldn’t Mona just make this climb and then come back down to tell us what he sees?”

Everyone gazed at each other in the ensuing silence.

“Uh… nobody suggested it?” Morgana spoke with timid caution.

“Well, we’re suggesting it now.” Ryuji, though handling the trek well, looked slightly tired. “Move those paws, Mona! Do it for Lady Ann!”

“You do it for Lady Ann.” Morgana shot back, sounding even more child-like.

“Hey! About that, why do I have to carry the cat around?” Beads of sweat gave off a bright sheen off the girl’s skin. In almost exaggeratedly cautious fashion, she took the rucksack off her shoulder. “Catch, Inari!”

Yusuke made no effort to catch the rucksack flung his way. The only break from his tired nonchalance was a slow blink.

“Mrrrrowwww!!!!” Mona complained.

“Don’t throw Mona-chan!” Haru spoke a little too late, only now catching wind of the exchange.

While Akira led a bit higher up the hill, Makoto took time to observe the others. It instantly caught her notice how everybody looked somewhat spent already. Come to think of it, she was starting to feel a red ache in her muscles. Her exercise routine did not warrant feeling like this so quickly.

Another important factor to consider. Could something about this place be affecting them physically? She made a quick recount of the past journeys into Mementos and each Palace they ventured into since she joined the Phantom Thieves. There were no notable exceptions in the way the Metaverse affected them, not even Futaba’s Palace, since its conditions were equal to its outside world’s counterpart. Maybe there was a difference in atmospheric pressure, ozone concentration… or maybe…

The most plausible answer glared back at her a few metres upward. Akira’s clothes, a Phantom Thief’s attire, an extension of the inner self, sprawled outward into a suitable fashion. It was much the same as a Persona, a means to face the world, a function pertaining to design. To survive and to thrive. While this train of thought led her to a probable reason for the way the climb taxed them so differently to Akira, it also reeled her back into an uncomfortable shadow that just would not let go.

Purpose.

Intent.

Their presence in this alien terrain, Akira’s transformation, maybe even his aliment. Does it all follow the command of one unseen?

“Makoto?” Akira’s voice shook her awake. He held his hand out to her, offering to help her up.

“Oh, um, yeah.” She took his hand and pulled herself. “Thank you.”

“It’s not long now. It’s starting to level out. Take the lead the rest of the way, I’ll help the rest up.”

Makoto nodded with deliberate motion. She made as if to hurry ahead to prompt her boyfriend to help the others, but she stayed still for a few seconds, trying to metabolise something clearer out of what her instincts told her.

[ ]

Looking down from atop the hill, the climb looked higher that it actually was. This was not a greater height than the skyscrapers back in Tokyo, and yet the vault of sky looked so dauntingly close when they looked up. The air up here was cool and playful, brushing and arousing strands of hair like careless fingers, but just the same it occasionally sent a tremulous rattle up their spines. The ground beneath was steady in a way only nature can be, still the prospect of falling rang too close, beckoning at the edges. Everybody, even Akira and Makoto, felt disoriented at the top of the hill.

However, there was something nobody could ignore. It was one thing to observe the distance climbed and the treacherous pull of vertigo, but another entirely to look how the land spread far and wide, seemingly boundless from up here. And the odd phenomena that gave this world its colour was somehow even more remarkable from this height. As the fear of an improbable fall subsided, a sense of wonder took hold. Whatever happened from that moment forward, they all knew they would never forget this view.

“Seeing this…” Akira began. “I’m not sure how I feel about ending up here.”

“It is quite something.” Makoto said, having joined him to scan for a landmark or a way back.

“I think it’s beautiful. Don’t you think so too, Yusuke?” Haru said.

“Many times have painters immortalised sights like this in their works. But I got to see one with my own eyes.”

“Wow, corny.” Futaba teased.

Ryuji and Ann were both transfixed, quietly drawing what joy they could from an uncertain situation, Morgana also said nothing, but the gracious serpentine motion of his tail hinted he enjoyed taking it all in, perhaps even more so, given his acute senses.

They afforded a couple of minutes in the unlikely peace of the moment.

“Alright.” Akira got their attention. “Let’s search for our way back.”

“Should everybody take a different direction to watch?” Ann suggested.

“Yes, that sounds good. Holler if anyone sees anything.”

“Red curtains, correct?” Yusuke checked.

“Yes.” Makoto responded. “Or anything resembling a landmark.”

“Got ya. Let’s do this!” Ryuji was the last one to speak before the eight started their search from above in silence, uncomfortable, fruitless silence.

Four minutes.

“Anyone has something they’d like to share with the rest?” Makoto probed. A series of one-syllabled negatives ensued.

“You know, the novelty of the place wears off quick.” Futaba dropped herself to the ground, cartoonishly landing on her backside. “It’s just grass, grass and more grass.”

“And trees.” Yusuke added.

“Shut up, Inari.”

“There really is a lot of vegetation. I don’t see any animals, though.” Both Akira and Makoto perked upon hearing Haru’s observation.

She was correct. The eight of them were the only animal life they have seen so far, which prompted two realisations. First: It would be perfectly within reason that the fauna in this place could be far different from what they know, meaning they were at a greater risk than apparent should there be a local predator out on the prowl. Second: In the event there was truly no fauna in this place, the methods of subsistence were greatly reduced, which put a grim tone on the possibility of staying here for long.

Getting back to their side became a more pressing concern, though neither Akira nor Makoto would say it, in order not to stir panic.

“You know, this land looks a bit too neat if it really doesn’t have animals in it.” Akira mused at his girlfriend.

“Maybe…” She lowered her voice. “There are, but we’re not seeing them.”

“That’s a possibility. But wouldn’t it be weird if there really weren’t?”

“Huh?”

“There’s a lot of vegetation around here, but it looks sort of... trimmed.” Akira turned to Makoto.” I guess a better word would be contained. Too contained to grow freely. It would make sense if there were animals to keep the ecosystem balanced.”

“But if there really weren’t…” Makoto’s squinted eyes started to widen.

“Then there would be someone or something to keep the plants and trees from going too wild. Don’t mind me that much. I’m just thinking out loud.”

“Something to consider, I suppose.”

“Yeah…” The young man’s voice became distant and quiet.

“Is something wrong?” His girlfriend asked.

“Hey, Morgana. Come over here a sec.”

“What’s up?” The feline walked up to Akira,

“I need you to lend me your eyes over here.” He pointed towards the direction he watched. “Can you something way over there?”

“Did you see something?” Morgana’s question gained the interest of all.

Makoto tried hard to find something in the horizon but she saw nothing, not even a hint of anything other than grass and trees. While her boyfriend held Morgana up high for him to watch, she studied his expression, wary of each subtlety.

“No, I don’t think… wait.” The feline said. “Lift me up higher.”

And so Akira did, unintentionally reprising a scene from an animated film about lions and Hamlet. The young man’s groan meant he was aware of it. Makoto discreetly covered an amused grin.

“What about now?”

“Well, it is a rock formation, but it doesn’t look like a mountain or a ridge. It’s more like… like a gate?”

“A gate, huh...”

“How on Earth did you manage to catch sight of something like that? Even I couldn’t see it at first!” Morgana asked.

“Not sure. A feeling, I guess.” His gaze dodged Makoto’s as soon as their eyes met.

“Right… Well, it’s really far away from here. If we head there to look for an exit, maybe we should take a rest beforehand.”

“Guys!” Haru called for everybody’s attention. If the urgency in her voice did not say all that needed be, her quick hops up and down certainly got the message across.

“Did you see anything, Haru?” Makoto went to her.

“Quick! Over there!” Haru pointed frantically.

Everyone stood at her sides to see that atop another hill, a few metres shy of a kilometre away, stood a lone shrouded figure, quiet and still. From this distance, they could not tell whether he was facing them. Regardless, it was a shock to find another person in this place. Maybe, Makoto thought, this place did indeed have a keeper to keep the vegetation from conquering all.

“YO! OVER HERE!” Ryuji yelled out loud, jumping up and down and waving his arms, trying to get the figure’s attention.

“Ryuji! You’re gonna freak them out!” Ann scolded.

“I’ll apologise later!”

“Ryuji’s right.” Akira noted. “We should try and get their attention. Surely they know more about this place than we do. HEY!”

Everyone joined in the shouting fest, including Makoto, who felt awkward as she joined their efforts. Shortly after, it seemed to have paid off. The figure seemed then to turn around and walk a few steps in the direction of the hilltop they stood on. If it regarded them in any way, they could not tell. Its expression, its appearance, all were concealed beneath the shroud, the silence and the stillness.

Then it turned once more and began to climb down, descending slowly but steady.

“Nooooo, we lost them!” Ann let out a groan.

“Whoa, we did freak them out, didn’t we?” Futaba remarked.

“They didn’t seem to be in that much of a hurry to get away, though.” Makoto said. “Maybe we can catch up to them still.”

“Sounds like a plan. Let’s go!” Ryuji was the first to begin the descent. Everybody joined with lifted spirits from both seeing another person, and from not having to go uphill this time. Akira, however, lingered briefly, with eyes in the direction of the ‘gate’.

He hurried to join the rest, careful not to worry Makoto or anyone else. There was no use showing it or talking about it, but he knew: they were stranded in this unknown location because of him. He did not will it, nor did he even know it would happen, but the line of cause and effect was clear and solid – he sensed it tied around his neck and tightening whenever he looked at his friends. They would never blame him about it, nor did they need to – Akira was already doing that well enough on his own. He needed to be especially careful around Makoto – she read him like a book.

Morgana’s observation provided a merciful distraction for his thoughts as he climbed down the hill. How indeed did he know there was something that far away in the distance? Truth is, he did not see it at all, but he knew something was there. Why did he know? Before the questions started multiplying, one alone intoxicated him.

What lay past that gate?

Now was not the time to find out.

 

[ ]

 

BONUS.

One of my readers is a close friend of mine. He was the one who convinced me to start taking my writing more seriously, and I respect him a lot of that, and for the fact that he started taking his own art more seriously as well. He goes by BRONSON OF GOD and he's recently started trying to make a name for himself as an artist. He mostly works with original depictions of Gods, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure-inspired stuff, and as of late, Persona and SMT. So, I paid him to do some stuff for this fic, which you'll be seeing at several points of the story from here on out.

As a first, here's his take on Akira and Makoto having a smoke. You can look at the rest of his stuff here.

 

Cheers, Bronson!

Chapter Text

It did not take long for Akira and company to start thinking the worst as they followed on the shrouded stranger’s trail. It would certainly be troublesome if he ran, taking advantage of his apparent knowledge of the land to elude them. They were convinced that, If he so desired, he could easily lose them in the undergrowth. The ground proved treacherous even in the plain - pockmarked with tiny valleys and hidden peaks, more than a test to the sturdiest of soles. To make matters worse, in this dark, unknown hour, the stranger mingled too well with the shadows. They also did not get much rest atop the hill, and the exhaustion they heaped on the climb still clung to their joints. By all means, everything worked against them if the stranger chose to run.

But he did not. Even as this shrouded figure hung precariously on the edge of visibility, he made no effort to elude them, keeping only a meagre hundred metres between them. They knew what this looked and felt like: a trap. Nobody said anything; there was little need for it when the glances spoke clearly in their shared silence.

And yet, there was something about this stranger that casted doubt upon that judgement. Instead of deftly keeping a swift but steady pace to keep them in tow, he walked slowly and clumsily. Akira found it similar to the intoxicated ambling of a few select regulars from Crossroads back in Shinjuku. Yet even when they hurried up to catch up, this slow pace seemed to suffice for him. This made no sense, but there was no room for such talk at this point.

There was no telling what his intentions were. Akira had an acute sense for judging character. More often than not, he could tell when he could trust another and when suspicion was a sound precaution. But now, he could sense neither good instincts nor ill will. It felt to him, if only for a moment, as if the mysterious individual was not a person at all.

A non-presence.

Every ten steps, Akira cast a quick glance behind while Morgana kept unblinking contact on the unknown figure. Not only was he ensuring his friends were all following, he also watched the distance between the closest, Yusuke, and he. They had no time to test their theory, but if Akira had access to his Joker alter-ego, he could likely also summon a Persona should they need to defend themselves against a threat. At the very back of the group, their lieutenant Makoto had her eyes alternating between the front and the back with equal caution. There was no telling if a potential predator could suddenly be on their heels.

The eight trekked this way for what felt like an hour. And much was different then. They were all tired to the point of dragging their feet across the undergrowth, trying not to stumble and fall over the slightest variation in the terrain. The wear and tear even got to Akira, whom could only halfway disguise it under the mask. The concern Akira and Makoto discussed earlier proved a reality, as hunger weakened all, caving a hole that needed be filled soon. Thirst and the dehydration that would surely follow was yet another problem. By now, several wondered if it truly was worth it to follow this individual. For all they knew, he could be driving them in circles, draining them of stamina, rendering them an easy prey.

Suddenly, Akira stopped. Yusuke was caught unaware, and his thin frame bumped brusquely against Akira’s back. He, in turned was sandwiched between Akira and Haru behind him, then Futaba, then Ann, and finally Ryuji. Makoto caught enough of the situation ahead to stop in time and scratch her head in the confusion.

“Is something wrong?” She called out the front.

“He’s gone.” Akira responded.

“What?” The young woman could hardly believe her ears.

“He just vanished.” He did not bother to hide his exasperation. Secretly he wondered if his eyes were fooling him and his decision to stop was a ruinous call.

“Akira’s right.” Morgana joined. “He disappeared, in the blink of an eye.”

“Are you saying you blinked, cat!?” Ryuji was not amused.

“It’s a manner of expression!” Morgana.

“Save it you two.” Makoto sounded stern. She rushed ahead to join Akira at the vanguard. He turned to look at her, looking rather flustered.

“Makoto…”

“Akira.” She pulled him aside, far from their friends’ ears. She whispered for good measure. “I know we’re not here by choice. And nobody blames you. But we need to do something about sustenance.” Her voice broke at the last word, giving away how drained she felt.

“You’re right. We need to do something about food and water. I don’t think we can go on for much longer like this.” He brought thumb and index finger to his chin as he thought. The only theoretically edible things in sight were grass, and the moss and fungi that clung to the trees – none of which were viable choices. Just as before, there was no sign of animal life aside from them. No source of water either.

“Any ideas?” Makoto’s eyes looked clouded.

“I think I do. Gather the rest.” He raised his mask to rub his eyes.

While his girlfriend motioned the others to join Akira, he took a few deep breaths and began to concentrate.

“What are you doing?” Morgana asked.

“Something I should have tried far earlier.” He answered with distinct self-reproach. “Alright. All of you, bunch up together. Yeah, like that.”

Another deep breath. He relaxed his core, from his abdominal region to the every end of each limb. Eyes closed, he dove into the ocean of his mind, swimming through waves of memories, in search for one image. He had a latent hope that this place operated by the same rules as their side and the Metaverse, that cognition could be shaped by a sufficiently powerful will. But with each hope, there also was the looming of despair to fall upon him in the face of failure. He tried to keep both possibilities, good and bad, out of his head – they were unnecessary distractions, averting focus from his effort.

Akira dove deeper even. The waters he explored were thick and murky, like a swamp leagues wide, unfathomably deep; but that would not deter him. He searched for a figure to embody his intention. Nurture, heal, preserve. All verbs he easily associated with Makoto. This was a good start. Now he tried to link the thought of her to a memory, or several, however many he needed to find the colour and the shape.

Another deep breath. Outside, his friends looked both concerned and expectant. Makoto guessed at what he was trying to do. She wondered if holding his hand would help him, but she relented, opting to let him concentrate.

He liked her from the first moment he saw her. Only his fifth day in Shujin, and suddenly her face became engraved in his thoughts, appearing uninvited at any moment. She was at the library, eyes fixed on her notes, occasionally wandering off to the pile of books she set at the circular table. Whereas nearly everybody else would murmur false, terrible things about him, she offered him shelter in her silence, in her indifference. That was the charm she gave him unknowingly – what allowed him to stay focused while studying, while trying to be what he was supposed to be. At the end of the session, he stood up, hopeful to see her on his way out, only to find her gone.

Akira did a lot of growing since. He was forced to mature faster than a boy his age was supposed to. When she finally noticed him in her efforts to unearth the truth about the Phantom Thieves of Hearts, his exterior was that of a discreet, calculating, somewhat aloof young man; but inside, her presence still captivated him. He knew he should be wary of her – she could be their undoing, a word from her could doom him for life. But against the expectations of a self-serving intent, she demanded for them to prove their justice. Her heart was in the right place, and soon, she had a place in his. And the day she joined them, when she awakened to her Persona, lived on inside of him ever since. It was such a powerful sight it dispelled the fear and anxiety of the unyielding ‘what ifs’, the many ways their lives could be destroyed.

Her awakening was borne out of repressed anger and a yearning to break free from her bindings. But beneath the intimidating first impression, Johanna represented her wish to defend and protect those she cared for and the ideal for which she lived. Whenever the cool, devious Joker was close to bending, this iron-clad maiden was there to unleash pain upon the adversaries, to guide where he could not see, and to heal their team when the enemy rained hell on them.

Heal.

She trusted him to show her the things that she missed out on, to house her grief on the loss of her father, to join her as she looked out for a friend another person would have given up on. She trusted him to lead the team to victory. She trusted him to understand that she looked at him with a different kind of regard as the others, that in her inexperience she wished to learn alongside him. She trusted him her thoughts, her fears, her calling, her fascinations, her intimacy. Her heart, for him to keep and protect.

Protect.

And there it was, when the dark waters in his mind made the world around him black. First a tiny, azure light shimmering in the gloom. A spark travelling in the mental composition of his surroundings, bonding one molecule to another, until the whole ocean was made of light and the familiar burn embraced the skin on his face. His muscles tensed painfully, and the air rushed into his lungs, as he roared into the perennial dusk.

“CYBELE!”

The air exploded into bright blue light, scattering embers and ash on the soil. From the ethereal burst, a nude woman with violet and white skin rose high with an aura of dignity and dominance. Hair and horns of ebony against the ivory sabres in her hands, this was Cybele, the protector of cities, nature, and all that inhabited within. The image of the Goddess gazed upon Akira and company. Her eyes rested on Makoto, as if knowing she was bonded with the purpose that gave the Goddess form in this place. Cybele closed her eyes and inhaled the air around her, and when she opened them, she exhaled a shimmering cloud that bathed all eight.

The pain under their feet, their hunger and thirst, their exhaustion, and their dread – all gone. Cybele vanished slowly, gracing them with a smirk of satisfaction.

“Whoa.” Ryuji blinked several times, as if in disbelief. “Dude, that was amazing.”

“Amazing. Yeah…” Ann trailed off. “Speaking of, I feel kind of amazing.”

“Did you just revitalise us?” Haru titled her head.

“He literally healed us and cured our aliments!” Futaba jumped.

“I don’t understand why you are surprised. He has done this many times before.” Yusuke spoke as per his usual demeanour. “That said. Thank you, Akira.”

“Hey, I’ve also done this many times! Where’s my parade?” Morgana protested.

“Come now.” Makoto crouched next to the feline, scratching affectionately under his chin. “Thank you for all the times you’ve done this in the past. And Akira…” She began, only to be cut by her boyfriend doing a hushing gesture, behind which she saw a smile and a slightly flirty look in his eyes.

Or she thought it was flirty, for a brief moment. That changed when his right eye twitched closed and the strength vacated his knees. By the time Makoto could react, Akira was nearly on the ground. Fear rose in her throat, that she was about to witness something like what Yusuke saw the day before. Yet Akira managed to break his fall with his hands.

Makoto, Ryuji, Morgana, Ann, Futaba, Yusuke, and Haru. They were all on him, worried speechless. He raised a hand in reassuring manner while he panted loudly, trying to catch a breath that had suddenly escaped him.

“Akira!” Makoto exclaimed, a bit louder than she meant to.

“I’m okay.” His voice sounded wearier than before, despite him being also showered in Cybele’s spell. “It’s just been a while.”

“No wonder, though. Wasn’t that a really powerful Persona?” Ann asked.

“The most powerful I could think of to help us.” His spoke in intervals while he caught his breath, “I mean it. I’m okay. Just give me a few minutes and I’ll be up like nothing happened.”

“Sure, if you say so.” Ann did not sound convinced.

Makoto said nothing. She looked on sadly as she sat next to him, noticing how he avoided her eyes.

“Thank you for what you just did. You really did save us. But… you are blaming yourself, aren’t you?”

He said nothing. All he could do was give in to an internal yearning. After all, it was the memory of her what helped him find Cybele; it only made sense that he would want to look at the person he loved. But he could also not suppress a tinge of annoyance at how easily she read him in the moment. True, he was blaming himself. Had things been alright about him, they would not be in this predicament. He felt the awareness of his latest deed in his friends’ gratitude and regained vitality; he also felt in his body, more exhausted than before. But he knew this was only a temporary measure. There was still no way back. And by fruitlessly following the shrouded stranger, they estranged far away from their ‘entry location’, for lack of a better word.

They were lost, and it was all because of him.

“Don’t.” Makoto did not even wait for him to reply. “Just don’t. You are guilty of nothing.”

“But you said it yourself. I may be the reason we’re here right now. You’re not going back on what you said, are you?” He said bitterly, too quietly for anyone to hear but her.

She could not think of a word for a response. Akira’s eyes opened wide at her expression. She looked hurt.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”

“I wish I had never said that.”

“It’s a strong possibility, though.”

“Who knows… Maybe I’m to blame. If I had been more aware, this wouldn’t be happening.” She still felt she was missing something important. The sensation was slowly becoming certainty. But her inability to cast light on the enigma only brought her frustration.

“This self-blame gig isn’t fun at all.” Akira tried to sprinkle some humour into his words, but they came out sour.

“I agree.” Makoto smiled sadly. “Can we stop it?”

“Yeah. You’re right. This won’t get us anywhere. I’m stumped fine without it as it is.”

“I guess you are. Tell me the truth, though. How are you feeling?”

“I’m just a little spent. I think it stands to reason.” Akira sounded slightly more motivated. “It’s been over a year from not summoning anything, and the first thing I do as soon as I can is call forth a powerful Mother-Earth Goddess. Really, I kinda brought this on myself.”

“And you did it for us. So, cheer up.” Makoto smiled as way of an example.

“Would be easier if you sat next to me.” A familiar smirk.

“If we gotta, we gotta.” She felt some of his demeanour rubbed off on her.

Without a sign of another presence in the area, the eight felt confident enough to rest for a while, or at least until Akira regained his strength to continue the search for a way back. By looking at the sky above, it was impossible to notice a change in the hour of the day or night. Time drew on unmarked, stripped from all meaning. It was more from habit than actual intent that Akira pulled his phone out to look at the time.

21:36 PM

He stared at the screen dumbfounded for a matter of seconds, which then regained their meaning. The realisation hit him like his own hand slapping his forehead. Figuring out whether he could summon a Persona in this state was not the only thing they should have done earlier.

“Guys. What time do you have on your phones?” He inquired with slight urgency.

“Umm, 9:36.” Futaba started.

“Same.” Ryuji followed.

“Yeah, that’s the same I got.” Then Ann.

“9:36.” Makoto raised an eyebrow. She was nearing the same conclusion he came to.”

“9:36… No, make that 9:37.” Haru said.

“9:37, indeed.” Yusuke confirmed.

“Is there something weird about the hour?” Morgana asked.

“Not at all. That’s the thing. The clocks advance forward.” Akira spoke distractedly.

“I do believe they are designed to function that way. A clock that would not advance would be unacceptable.” Yusuke remarked, without the slightest sarcasm.

“Yeah, but what about it?” Ryuji asked.

“In the Metaverse, and in Mementos, our phones didn’t work properly, with the exception of one thing…” Akira commenced.

“… the Metaverse Navigator.” Morgana perked his ears.

“The time on our phones was never synchronised, so Makoto came up with the idea that we could keep track of the time in the Metaverse by looking at an analogue watch. Something mechanical, something that could not be tampered with, except manually.”

“I’m flattered that you remember that… but now that you say it, all our times are synchronised now.” Makoto observed. “And we don’t have the Metanav. That means… “

“We are not in the Metaverse. That much we already suspected, but this may also mean other functions on our phones may work properly.” Akira’s tone rose.

“Such as making actual calls…” Ann’s eyes dilated.

“Holy...!” Ryuji resisted the temptation to hop up.

All eight exchanged looks.

“WHY DIDN’T WE THINK OF THIS BEFORE?” Ryuji yelled as he clutched his head with his hands.

“We can slap our foreheads later. For now, let’s give this a try.” Morgana walked towards where Akira and Makoto were sitting.

“Who are you gonna call?” Makoto asked her boyfriend.

“I don’t think we should call Boss or Sae-san. That would only worry them.” Haru noted.

“That’s true.” Ann said, then shuddering at the thought of Boss and Sae worried over their sudden disappearance. One at a time was enough.

“No, we need to call someone who would swear to secrecy. An ally. An NPC.” Akira threw a mischievous look at Futaba.

“You don’t mean…!?” She responded in exaggerated fashion.

“One Yuuki Mishima.” Akira grinned. He did not notice his girlfriend’s uncomfortable expression, or how she regained her façade for the moment.

Everyone pressed their ear to Akira’s phone as he pressed on the ‘call’ icon. There was not an audible breath, only the contained non-sound of anticipation, and the young man’s own heartbeats drumming in his ears,

Silence on the other side. One. Two. Three. Four. Five seconds.

And then, a sound too familiar and commonplace to raise any attention, and yet his friends’ faces still took on cariscaturesque masques of joy. A sliver of voice escaped Ryuji as he mouthed the words “IT’S CALLING!” at his girlfriend, while Ann suppressed a squeal. Haru pressed her hands to her lips, yet her cheeks still betrayed the biggest smile. Futaba threw herself enthusiastically at Makoto; the latter reciprocated by putting her arms around the young hacker’s small shoulders. Yusuke and Morgana looked the most composed, but their eyes shimmered.

It was three tones until the recipient picked up with a brief crackling sound.

No words on the other side. Or at least no sounds that could be pieced together into discernible words. Yet Akira still distinctly recognised Yuuki’s voice, cut by interference and fleeting moments of silence. He tried for a good twenty seconds to get a message across. To his relief, despite the possibility his friend was also unable to hear him, he did not hung up.

“Yuuki. I cannot hear you. In case you can hear me, we’re stranded in some strange place. We’re trying to find our way back. Don’t tell Sojiro!” He tried summing up the brunt of the message in short sentences. The call lasted for a minute and a half before Yuuki hung up. The experiment ultimately yielded no result. But it was not all a wasted effort. If only by a small margin, they were closer to understanding the nature of this place.

“Fuck, man…” Ryuji was forlorn. As it was often the case, he expressed what most of the group was thinking, albeit in his usual, crude manner.

Alas, Akira’s expression proved a striking contrast to the dejected mood. He was smiling. The confident warmth in his eyes took Makoto off guard as he offered his hand for her to grab as she got up.

“What’s on your mind?” She asked him.

“Well, I’m disappointed that didn’t work as we hoped.” He said for all to hear. “Perhaps we got awful reception down here. But even if that isn’t the issue, we at least know this place doesn’t have the same restrictions as the Metaverse. In a way, perhaps this place is closer to our side in comparison. This is all conjecture, though.”

His eyes went settled for a moment on each of his friends.

“I can’t exactly prove it yet. But there’s something about this place, something I know we can shed light on. And I can’t wait.” He beckoned his friends to follow him as he began walking back into the greater expanse of the plain.

Makoto hurried to catch up before the others.

“Wait. Where are we going?”

“Higher ground.”

[ ]

The eight continued to travel across the territory. They had no way of locating the places they had already set foot on, except perhaps the great plain that seemed almost a continent alone; it was not an effective landmark to speak of, so their only choice was to find and name one themselves. The first such landmark was ‘The Lighthouse’: the first hill they climbed since regaining their strength and their resolve. It only made sense to name it that way. It was a comparatively high spot, and its purpose was ultimately to provide orientation.

And it also happened to look out to sea.

The strand looked to be about 2 kilometres away from the Lighthouse. The shore, gently caressed by the low tide, was a lonely, almost peaceful view; however, the reflection of the skies’ colour made the visible stretch of sea an unsettling, ominous sight. For all they knew, the beach and the waters were also devoid of animal life, but it was hard to truly believe so. Land was one thing. The depths of the ocean were something else entirely.

“Place looks pretty deserted, no?” Ann observed.

“Shouldn’t be a surprise, I guess.” Makoto said.

Akira looked at the time on his phone. 22:20. He tried calling Yuuki once more, though there was little improvement in the state of communication. This time, his friend stayed on the line for a longer time, which may be a good sign. If he was one to chalk up the call as a prank, or a mistake, he would probably have hung up after just a few seconds. Whether he considered getting in touch with Sojiro, or the police, that was something Akira preferred not to dwell on.

“No curtains in sight either, man.” Ryuji looked in every direction.

“It looks like quite a walk up to that beach,” Akira joined him.

“Yup.”

“You up for it?”

“You even need to ask?” Ryuji smiled at his best friend.

Although Akira imagined some would choose to stay atop the Lighthouse, everybody echoed Ryuji’s disposition. There was no sign of anything noteworthy beyond the change in setting from their vantage point, but they could think of nothing else to do, and to simply stay idle after Akira helped them was just wasteful in their eyes; they had still more than enough energy to spare.

If for nothing else, they would have one more landmark for reference. They decided, as they walked, to name the lookout to sea ‘The Puddle’ in Morgana’s honour, whom marked a tree atop the Lighthouse as an extra measure. Makoto was not terribly pleased with the name choice, but she could indulge at least for humour’s sake. Knowing her friends like she did, this was probably one of the most harmless names they could come up with.

The walk to the beach was easy, even leisurely. They even afforded some accustomed banter. Ryuji and Ann were as loud a couple as ever. Futaba noted every single thing she saw, teasing Morgana along the way. Something Yusuke said got a charming giggle out of Haru. Neither Akira nor Makoto knew if this mood would last, but they would not bring themselves to rain on their parade.

But the mood died all the same as soon as they reached the sand.

The shrouded figure stood just a few metres away, his back towards them, and no apparent intention to walk away. From this minimal distance, they could see some things in greater detail. For a start, they saw how ragged and torn was his cloak, which looked like it was fashioned out of a discarded sack, worn for years and never cleaned. It could well be a miracle that the seabound wind did not tear it to ribbons.

Despite the unflattering look resembling a long-time homeless person, they perceived no odour. And regardless of the sound of the wind and the crashing waves, his presence dropped a notion of unbreakable silence. Nobody could utter a sound, not even Ryuji, whom would have been the first to speak.

The hesitation to speak extended to even an unwillingness to move. Somehow, it felt safer when they followed him in uncertainty from a distance. But now, a pervading sense of wrongness emanated from the unknown one. They all were frozen where they stood.

Except for Akira.

Makoto fixed her gaze on him as he watched the shrouded person. Considering the possible link between this place and he, she expected to find hesitation and anxiety written on his face. Instead, she found an almost child-like curiosity in his eyes. Her jaw was shut so tightly it hurt. And she wished now, more than ever, that she was able to summon her Persona.

Akira took two steps in his direction. A sudden, dauntingly quick movement stopped his third. The cloaked figure turned to face them.

And they instantly wished his very presence had gone unknown forever.

No shadow granted the mercy of covering his features. The hue of his skin was cadaverously pale; a pestilent green mixed with white that did not disguise the bruised blotches on his chest and legs, hints of necrosis, organ failure, coagulating blood, movement where there ought to be stillness. Nude beneath the cloak. His eyes clouded white over, blind only in appearance. They still gazed forward, unblinking, finding each and every one of their gazes, and holding it just enough to leave an unforgiving burden on them.

Beneath the black of his hair, tangled in unruly locks, his face was very much that of Akira.

Chapter Text

The gate is before me. Of this I’m certain. I wish to cross to the other side and see it with my own eyes, the raw materials for the new world we’ll all inhabit once we’re awakened, and the template to make it a reality. There’s nothing between me and that virgin soil but a red curtain. It’s funny. I’ve seen red curtains in all kinds of places. I’ve seen them in restaurants, in the houses of the rich and the powerful, art galleries, and… yes, the theatre… My father liked the theatre, and so did my uncle. Yet they could never agree on anything: one liked the theatre, and the other hated it. No, I don’t either liked it very much. But I do.

Oh yes, I do like the theatre. I remember that staging of King Lear I saw tomorrow in Stratford-upon-Avon, a few centuries behind me. I left early, but I adored it. Even the rabble couldn’t spoil it for me – I swear those quill boys keep cheapening their script for the sake of the vermin, but I digress. How could I complain when I still had the opportunity to sample this dish? All that hopelessness, the loss, the betrayal… the despair. The old wise men used to say that a tragedy worked on one principle: the fall of superior men. I frankly disagree – there is no such thing as superior men. Everybody is as lowly as the drunken lout, as the jester, as the madman who communes with his own refuse.

What’s going on?

A tragedy… that’s merely another word for comedy. And I do love me a good, sweet comedy. That’s why I always used to laugh, although… to be honest, I hadn’t gotten to do much of that for maybe a decade, or was it less? I can’t quite remember… Exile can do horrendous things to your perception of time. But then, is time not a folly created by hairless vermin? There’s your dilemma right there.

Time… what time is it? I think I need something to drink. My throat is so dry. But how long have I been looking at that gate? My benefactor told me I’d only get to cross over myself after the young man had. The Wild Card, he called him; apparently he’d still have a role to play. Although he supplied with a promising template, he needed to… what was the word?

Feed.

He’ll feed me… He’ll break the chains that bind me.

Feed the new world… with his suffering. Break human kind asunder…

What!?

No, something’s wrong. He said I’d know when he was on the other side. I think, no… I know he is over there. But something’s not quite right… Is he okay? That young man, I felt his pain earlier… how long ago was that? Dear God, how long have I been awake!?

Awake… I am awake. At last.

No. He’s not okay. What have I done? That young man, the Wild Card – he’s there now, but is he safe?

Where’s my friend?

He’s nearby, as nearby as one could be.

I need him. I need his counsel. I need to know how to help this young man. It’s too great a burden that rests on his shoulders, too great a pain. I feel it inside, I feel it in my bones!

Feed.

Feed.

Feed.

NO!!!

That’s odd. I’m looking at myself in the mirror, but I don’t recognise who that is. I’m positive I’ve stayed awake too long. I need rest. I need to feed. No, I need rest. I need to close my eyes and dream of the new world, and dream of death, disease, deception, degeneration.

NO!!!

It’s not right. These thoughts, I’m not sure they’re mine.

Oh, there you are, dear friend. How long have you been standing there? Listen, I believe in what we’re doing. This is just and necessary. We’ll save everybody. But I need to see that he’s alright. I have a rotten feeling that he’s been suffering and I’m only now realising it.

He is suffering indeed. It’s been a long time, but he too is only now realising it, the Fool.

I’ll make it up somehow. You said I’d know when he was on the other side. I’m not sure if I feel it the way you said I would, but something tells me he is. I’m going over there. I’ll make it up somehow if it’s too early. I just need to be sure that it’s not too late.

Not too late.

Not too late.

Too late.

[ ]

The discovering gaze of it rolls over him like an avalanche. He did not expect the blueprint to the new world to look like this. A land so rich and wide, so full of life, and yet so vacant. Somehow, it is the solitude that takes him aback, rather than the twin suns above, and the strange colour of dusk blanketing everything in sight. There is wind blowing and waves breaking, but the lordship of silence reigns supreme in this new Eden. Then, a disturbing thought hammers at his temples. He remembers what he came here to do.

It will be no easy task locating the young man. He needs to prepare himself. The office attire is ill-fitting for this kind of terrain. There weather is neither hot nor cold, but the jacket can only burden him, so he takes it off and lays it on the thick, wild grass. His father – and he is certain it was his father – would sometimes take him hiking during his infancy, and that is how he learned of the importance of a sturdy sole. His shoes were no good. So the man took them off and laid them next to his jacket. He discarded his socks also, if only for the pleasure of feeling the soil beneath his feet.

He afforded a wistful smile. His benefactor kept his word, and fashioned this place out of a dream he had as a child, of a hidden land awaiting behind a curtain – an unknown place at the side of a fathomless ocean, kissed by impossible stars. No matter where he stood, there would always be seaborn salt in the breeze and the dew. Despite the fond memories his surroundings inspired in him, he could not remember whether he did tell his benefactor about that dream.

Unnecessary items discarded, the man sat down and concentrated. Focusing on his objective, he thought of everything he knew about the young man. It was not much, but every minimal inkling of knowledge was most precious.

The young man, the Wild Card, was called Akira Kurusu. He was the victim of great injustice. Rather than allow it to bury him beneath spite and a dead-end future, he took the reins of his own fate and delivered justice upon an unjust paradigm. This grand enterprise was not a task of one. He made allies who shared his goal, and together they undid the corruption in the hearts of influential men. Through their deeds, they named themselves known as the Phantom Thieves of Hearts, and the young Kurusu was their leader. He developed deep bonds with his allies, which nurtured him as a person, as well as his power.

This was the power of an aware soul, able to act upon the invisible, intangible make of the world. This power was required as spine for the New World, one in which all individuals would be awake to their own souls. Surely, a civilisation built upon that fundament would thrive in peace and prosperity. Utopia would no longer be merely a dreambound no-place. This was the design shared by his benefactor, a man of mystery who educated him on matters he sensed but never saw, thus opening his eyes to a truer manifestation of his own soul.

A Persona, he called it. All of this was knowledge his friend in the dark shared with him, claiming gained from being a long-time observer.

Kurusu’s Persona was unique, rare amongst the many who were rare themselves. His power was needed, even after his role in saving the world from an arrogant God. But he would not use the young Kurusu as an instrument to this endeavour. So his benefactor in the dark suggested an alternative, to make one like him – fed by dream, incubated for a year, to finally awaken and fulfil that purpose. Despite the young man never knowing it, Akira Kurusu was made to provide with the template for his replica, which would awaken in the moment he himself set foot in this world.

And he had. But something had gone awry. The man could not know what it was, but he knew it had – he could feel it deep inside of him. He then thought back to his friend’s words – every step of the process, and every detail within. For he had knowledge that Akira Kurusu was a Phantom Thief, and a Persona user, the young would have access to that gift in this land. But the extent of what he did with his abilities, if he had, would have a consequence.

Yet his benefactor did not say what that would be.

Regardless, one thing was clear. He would be able to know if young Kurusu were to use his Persona.

The dreamer of this new world was not a young man like Akira Kurusu. As the days passed, he found some things taxed him more than the day before. Every time he used his Persona, terrible headaches would ail him for hours afterwards, sometimes days. He would avoid this were it any other occasion, but there may be too little time to search for the young man on his own. So he took a deep breath, and began to channel the power his benefactor awakened.

Beads of sweat appeared across the man’s forehead as he focused. His muscles were relaxed, but the blood rushed restless nonetheless, making veins on his forehead leap in tension. His breathing began to feel feint, yet he did not ease his efforts, however tiring. As his Persona burst out of the ether behind him, a precise location appeared in his mind.

A peculiar ‘footprint’ of sorts, a remnant of power borne from intent. This was where Akira Kurusu used his Persona – he could make it if he set off now. His path was outlined for him to follow, but his feet were momentarily precluded by what the man in the shadows told him – the summoning would have, for good or ill, a consequence. But then again, there must have been a reason for the young man to summon his Persona – that alone was cause for alarm.

Something else came to him shortly after: an awareness made possible by his Persona.

Akira Kurusu was not alone.

Could it be…?

When the man came into this place, he felt a strange, intangible weight leaving his self. Now, as he ran towards the ‘footprint’, he felt it return, making every step and every breath feel like the effort of another.

Not his own.

[ ]

Whichever configuration this place took, there were always three constants.

Wherever the eye looked, it would see blue. Wherever the ear listened, it would hear the poem for the souls of all. Wherever the spirit would seek guidance, it would find the Master’s presence - a man of uncanny appearance, and his name was Igor. The lack of any of these three constants was a cause for alarm, a call of calamity approaching.

The only soothing Lavenza could find on this day was that the Velvet Room remained blue. But the poem had gone silent, and the master of this realm catatonic. The girl-shaped entity had spent the last two hours in tears and impotence – this was her only method of time reference, for she could not tell when the song stopped and when Igor froze like stone in his seat.

This garden was Lavenza’s favourite shape. She never needed to look after the myriad types of flowers that grew in this place, but she liked to do so anyway. But the majestic life that throve from millennia before her suddenly seemed dead without the song, and without her Master to watch over her.

Another sobbing spasm rose up her being, shaking her whole. She could feel the two halves that once made her being divide from each other within her. Temperamental Caroline was her denial on the terrible things to come, while calm Justine was her inevitable acceptance; the contrast between them caused her so much pain. And in her time of need, the first name that came to her head was Akira, whose name she called out amidst her sobbing.

She then called out to all of her siblings, hoping any of them would hear and come to her calling. Most of them were older than her, but even the few that were younger would do. She simply could not stand to be alone in this moment.

Alas, nobody came. Not a single one of the other attendants. Not Akira Kurusu.

Lavenza was well and truly alone.

One more hour would pass by before she dried her tears, rubbing so desperately that she poked her own right eye.

There must have been a reason nobody came when she called. Whatever unforgivable wrong had been done to affect the Velvet Room like this, the rest would surely be working to mend it. And she would not forgive herself if she sat idle to weep on.

On this day, she decided to follow in the footsteps of her eccentric older sister Elizabeth, and truly set foot out in the world of human kind. She would seek Akira and his friends. The Phantom Thieves were needed.

[ ]

Meanwhile, in the world of perennial dusk, under the distant light of binary suns, a being in between something and somebody stirred from beneath rock, dirt and grass.

A black heart of unnatural make increased its tempo, but only slightly.

The incubation itself was complete, but there was much feeding yet to be had.

Pain, sorrow, anger, hatred, hopelessness.

Despair.

What magnificent nutrients indeed.

 

Chapter Text

Shock. Revulsion. Pity. Loathing. These were all emotional responses that pulsed in the thoughts and senses of they who once were called the Phantom Thieves of Hearts. And another one, that expressed each of those emotions as part of itself, but yet exceeded them all. The impression of seeing the shrouded stranger bear so exact a resemblance to Akira Kurusu, however distorted, submitted even the most outspoken to baffled silence. Beneath the wind and the waves at this baleful strand, the only sound was breath, restless and confounded.

Despite the dreadful mix of sensations festering in each of Akira’s friends, nobody could bring themselves to look away. One of them in particular, Makoto Niijima, could very acutely feel the nausea clutching her insides. For her, this was not merely a horrendous sight; it was a discreet, but sinister nod to the possibilities she feared true. This place was indeed linked to her boyfriend; and this being was the irrefutable proof unless similar mockeries of the others were to join. She could not begin to think of the design and purpose, but a more immediate calling guided her movements. She sensed danger.

As soon as Makoto made towards Akira, the gangrenous imitation looked up and fixed them both with an expression-less slant of the head. Despite the detail of its appearance, the very human nuances of its core make, its presence felt particularly animalistic, like a feral stray defending its bounty. She could not move, and neither could the young man, who stood closest to it.

An unpleasant sound emerged from ‘Akira’. It was long, and quiet, so quiet, almost to the point of being imperceptible. But they all heard it, and felt a tremulous chill bite at their spines. It sounded as if it was borne from the bottom of corrupted lungs, rising up a wart-infested throat and coming out barely open lips as a faint, salival and bloody snarl. Its lips. Even when deathly discoloured, they looked so much like Akira’s – those lips that produced his beautiful voice, those lips she loved to kiss and nibble on, those lips that knew her deep all over. The distorted reprisal of his lips were shaped into something like a grimace, slowly looking more like a smile – one meant only to show teeth.

Pale, yellowed teeth.

Makoto’s breath went right out of her as Akira jumped backwards, barely eluding his double. The stranger did not seem to need momentum to attack. It threw itself at the owner of its design, right arm curving inward into a slash with a rotten claw, missing only by millimetres, falling and rising a cloud of sand on impact. Makoto and the rest stepped back, instinctively seeking each other’s proximity. Akira went into fighting stance, ready to meet his bizarre reflection, when it got back up.

And it wasted no time. Its shroud did not quite fall from its shoulders from its crude offensive. Clinging to only one side, the eight were unpleasantly afforded a better view of his physicality, the destroyed, black veins running across its arms and legs, maimed genitals. If Akira found himself, in any way, perturbed by its appearance, he did not show it. Not even as it glared at him, opening and closing its jaw like a rodent; the sound of its teeth as they rattle together was crude, and louder than it should logically be.

It threw itself forward once more, slashing at Akira, who deflected the attack with the strike of an elbow, then moving in for a clean, unobstructed punch to the creature’s jaw. A kick to the side of the knee to stagger. A knee strike with the other leg to tenderise the mid-section. And finally, a punch straight to the solar plexus at full force with the momentum of his hip turning. Yet the double barely seemed to feel any pain from the blow, as it took hold of Akira’s retreating arm, keeping him in proximity, ripe open for a claw with its other hand at Akira’s head. Horror spread throughout Makoto’s being as she saw, how the creature attempted to jab its finger deep into his eye.

She rushed forward, with Ryuji just behind, to fight this creature. Summoning Queen in all but attire, she delivered an unforgiving kick at the stranger’s midsection, also to no avail. Alas, it deflected its attention to her, leaving it open for Ryuji to lock both of its arms. Makoto needed not be told what to do next. With a long, furious war cry, she unleashed a flurry of fists all over the stranger’s face and stomach until she ran out of breath.

Panting heavily, she looked at ‘Akira’, Head down and limp. No longer a threat.

… If only for a second. Its head slingshot back against Ryuji’s face, knocking him down, and then turning to Makoto. The young woman could not look away at seeing the stranger’s face, a cross between Akira and a rabid beast, funnelling all of its violent intent against her.

“It’s not him” She repeated to herself inward, time and time again. “He would never do this to me.” She prepared to meet its pounce and make full use of her prowess in Aikido.

But it was not to be. Akira, back on his feet, intercepted his double as it reached Makoto, like a bird of prey swooping in for the kill. The viciousness of his tackle was quite a sight, as was the sheer fury he unleashed upon the distorted stranger, not any different to what Makoto did before, but there was one thing that made a world of contrast. There was hatred in Akira – hatred towards this thing that threatened his friends, and stared at him with his own face as he did so. Every spiteful blow sunk the young man’s knees one bit deeper into the sand. He felt each tiny speck of a grain clinging to the fabric of his clothes. And soon, the smell of sea, of the soil they left behind and the air atop the hill filled his nostrils.

It was intoxicating in a peculiar way. Not as some alien fragrance that held his senses captive, but as some familiar thing he had left somewhere behind him, forgotten.

At the end of his assault, Akira still straddled his – now almost motionless – double. Panting. Snarling. In the midst of it all, Ryuji was helped by the rest, who nursed his broken nose as best they could. Surely Akira would try healing him soon, but the present moment still needed to pass.

A brief while later, Makoto laid her hand on his shoulder, and felt the body beneath the coat shaking,

“Akira.” She lifted the mask off his face to look at his eye, and felt great relief to find it unharmed. “Come.”

“Yeah…” He sounded ashamed. As he climbed up from his double’s unconscious body, the only look he deemed it worthwhile was to make sure it would not get back up anytime soon. His eyes were hidden by the shadow of his hair, but the loathing in his glare seethed clearly from his being.

His hand in hers, Makoto took Akira to their friends, all looking at him with concern, still shaken by everything transpired in the last harrowing minutes. She knew she could try and say something to reassure him, but whatever smiling response he would give her would only be a well-meaning lie. It was no time for words, only patience.

“Are you alright?” Akira asked Ryuji as soon as he was within earshot.

His oldest friend seemed hesitant to even look at him. No doubt, Makoto thought, Ryuji’s experience when confronting ‘Akira’ was no different to her own. Regardless of all the glaring differences, neither could shake off the feeling that they legitimately were attacked by one they deeply care for. And as a consequence, they were forced to defend themselves. Makoto could count herself lucky that she emerged unscathed, but Ryuji had a cascade of blood coming out of his nostrils a moment ago.

“I’m good, I guess. I’ll feel way better when we’re out of here.” He stood back up and met Akira’s face, eye to eye. “Your zombie clone hits like a truck, though.” And there it was, a hint of humour to lighten the atmosphere. Ryuji knew first-hand how terribly damaging a schism can be. He would not let something like it occur again, especially not now.

Akira said nothing, but he did at least return the smile.

“Getting out of here. That does sound pretty good.” Futaba thought out loud.

“The question is how. With all that’s going on, it seems like it’s going to be even harder now.” Haru said.

“Not necessarily.” Akira’s words turned all eyes to him instantly. “Our plan hasn’t changed. This was just a distraction…”

“Are you kidding me?” Morgana scoffed.

“… A scary distraction.” Akira conceded with a little humour. “Regardless, this distraction still gives food for thought. There’s no denying it now…” The tone of his voice darkened.

His friends hung on what he would say next. Makoto and Yusuke exchanged an uneasy gaze, feeling his words before he spoke them.

“This place really does exist because of me. I can’t exactly prove it, but that thing back there is a strong hint. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle.”

“Dude, a puzzle?” Ryuji did not notice his nose was still leaking,

“Yes, a puzzle. We can get out of here, as long as we can put the big picture together. The distraction back there was no accident at all…”

“There was an intent behind it.” Makoto thought out loud.

“Then, we need to find how to work against that intent.” Haru added.

“And without running into any more trouble. It took the three of you to put that guy down.” Ann said.

“We will need both the creativity to subvert whatever is happening, and the strength to defend ourselves should we encounter another threat.” Yusuke mused.

“I bet Prometheus would come in handy right now. It’d be so much easier if we could summon our Personas.” Futaba finished the thought.

“Heh.” Ryuji chuckled, still leaking. “Your Persona is so broken it would have made a speedrun out of this. You’re not wrong, though. I bet Seiten Taisei could be hell of a scout here. How about yours, cat? What cool stuff could you do with Mercurius if you had him right now?”

They were right, Akira thought. Their Personas were mostly suited for combat, but if they put imagination into it, they could surely come up with ways to find an exit. As he looked at each of them, discussing further, Akira thought himself lucky for having them as friends. They were committed and smart, brave and patient, deeply loving of one another… including himself. They were not only now bringing their best to the table; they did it every day, whatever may come, even when putting together an intervention for him disguised as an assuming dinner.

Akira felt guilty for even thinking of keeping them out of the loop.

Guilt. An old feeling making an unwanted return. It was like an oily substance coating his heart, making it brittle, ripe for rupture at his own hands. But no love was a debt, be it amongst family, friends, lovers. They were clearly no exception. Whatever guilt he felt was no match for this pack. Akira found it amusing that they called him Joker, for they were all aces – each and every single one of them.

From where he stood, it was so easy to blink once and see them in their Phantom Thieves alter egos. So easy to feel the fiery, luminous aura that radiated off them when they faced and conquered hundreds of Shadows in the Metaverse. So easy, he could almost hear the sound of their masks breaking to unveil their true selves, their Personas.

But he did.

Behind him, the air shifted electric. A run of cold sweat traced a line down his back as he turned his head. And he cursed to himself from what he saw. His double was back on its feet, glaring straight at them with eyes so clear and vivid; so mismatched to the rest of its face, mangled beyond recognition. At its back, a black silhouette flickered into being, standing tall from the embers of a fiery cloud.

“Ch-ch-ch…” The decayed double struggled to articulate.

A terrible dread travelled from one to another.

“Ch-ch-ch-ch…” The being continued to flash its teeth, like a rodent still, but the sounds it produced sounded less and less animalistic.

It tried to speak.

“Ch… Ch…”

Akira shook his head in disbelief. The more it uttered, the more its voice mirrored Akira’s. The snarl turned to human grunt. And finally, the spoken word dawned fretfully on the situation.

“Chernobog.”

In a burst of dark, blue flame, the silhouette materialised fully. Akira was well acquainted with the name Chernobog. It belonged to a Persona he remembered from the sea of his soul. But the image he saw before him now was very different. Instead of the death-knight from Slavic myth he knew, this incarnation looked more beast than human. It towered bipedal over them, clad in a long black coat with tattered sleeves, at the end of which he saw long, crude claws. Two rabid wolves’ heads sprung out from the collar of its coat, and above them, a third – the closest thing to human about this God of Darkness – wrapped blind in dark cloth, with a silver dagger sunken in its skull.

‘Akira’ took one step closer. So did Chernobog. That was as far as the dark God replicated the stranger’s movements. Akira thought to react too late. One blink later, Chernobog left three bloodied lines diagonally across the young man’s chest.

He did not know if his friends, if Makoto were reaching forward. There was no time to look behind.

“Get back!” He commanded. His instinct to fight prevailed over the pain of his wound and the disturbing notion of what Chernobog truly was. If only to keep the thought at bay, the only word in his brain was ‘defence’. Despite not having the luxury of time, the sole desperate necessity was enough to summon another Persona, a protector for him and his friends.

Zaou-Gongen burst forward from the ether, blocking Chernobog’s second swipe with a golden vajra. Though he prevented what would otherwise have been a grisly coup de grace, a frightening difference in strength became quickly evident from how suddenly Akira felt the strain in his own arm. Zaou-Gongen counterattacked with a powerful punch to the side, to little effect. As the Protector went for a second punch, Chernobog caught its fist with an open palm, tightening the points of its claws into the space between the knuckles. Akira felt his Persona’s strength quickly ebbing away, and thus his own to follow. Chernobog drew in closer, prepared to let his wolves turn Zaou-Gongen’s resistance into its own demise. But the chains around the Protector’s limbs awoke in fury, lashing at the dark God’s limbs and heads like wild serpents. This gave the optimal opening. With his hands free, Zaou-Gongen landed a devastating backfist directly on the hilt of the silver dagger, sinking it grotesquely deeper.

Chernobog felt that.

And by all logic, so should Akira’s double.

However, what respite Akira and Zaou-Gongen gained was short-lived. In the blink of an eye, Chernobog recovered and overpowered Zaou-Gongen. In the immediate aftermath of the Protector’s defeat, Akira fell to the ground, ripe for Chernobog’s claw.

There was nothing in Akira’s head as he saw the beastly, black hand approaching to end his life.

Then, it was a silver flash what ignited thought back in his mind. But those words did not reach his tongue. A blade had pierced through Chernobog’s hand, violently halting his murderous intent. Akira followed the tip of the sword with his eyes, across its length and to the hand that wielded it. A familiar and powerful figure had joined the fray: a transformed Goddess of fertility, the one who ventured into the land of the dead, the slayer and the lover.

Anat.

He could feel his heart about to break through his chest as he looked further behind. And he saw her.

Makoto advanced, clad in dark leather, spikes, white gloves, and a black scarf dancing in the wind. Beneath the steel mask, the red of her eyes sparked with wrath.

“Leave him alone.” Queen’s voice was pure venom.

Anticipating the beastly assailant would not simply heed her command, Anat pushed the blade in deeper through his hand. Though Chernobog seemed impervious to pain, it still put enough distance between he and Akira. And now, for the first time in the long encounter, the double almost looked as if it hesitated; but its eyes were not on Akira and Makoto only. It was looking past them: shadows grew tall on the sand.

Skull, Panther, Mona, Fox, Oracle, Noir. The Phantom Thieves of Hearts marched forward in full glory. One by one, their Personas rose back from the depths of their psyches. One by one, they each took position at the sides of Joker and Queen.

“Took us some sweet time, huh?” Skull said to Joker as he helped the latter back up.

“Let’s call it dramatic timing.” Their leader responded with confidence despite his injuries. The nagging questions and the pressing concerns were dwarfed at seeing his friends in full capability standing by him. It was such powerful sight it could bring the back to life, he thought. “Oracle, what can you tell me?”

The hacker extraordinaire was whisked up by Prometheus. From inside her Persona, she hovered around Chernobog while keeping a sensible distance. Seiten Taisei and Hecate advanced to keep the dark God at bay, while Mercurius healed Joker’s wounds. Astarte and Kamu Susano-O took Chernobog’s back, effectively surrounding the enemy.

“Not much, Joker. It’s not a Shadow, that much I can tell.” Oracle informed.

“Alright. Queen, how are you holding up?” Joker turned to his second-in-command.

“He still has fight left in him, Joker.” There was strain in her voice. “We need to take him down quick.”

“Heard loud and clear. Noir, Fox, immobilise him!”

“On it, Joker!” They said in unison.

Anat released her blade from Chernobog’s hand and immediately leapt back to regain some breathing room. No later she did so, Astarte began her psychic assault to keep the pressure. They could not know whether he was vulnerable to Noir’s attack, but Kamu Susano-O joined in by slashing a blizzard on the beast’s lower section for good measure, creating an icy prison for its legs. Little by little, Chernobog and ‘Akira’ gave visible signs of being worn down, the summoner being the first to kneel.

But having felt the adversary’s offence first-hand, Joker knew the perils of taking chances.

“Panther, Mona – charge up. Release on my signal. Fire first, wind second. Oracle, keep them buffed!”

A vortex of wind and fire began turning, gaining speed around Hecate and Mercurius while Prometheus’ light kept their strength building.

“Skull, Queen. Let’s go to town.”

“Aye, aye!” Queen nodded resolute.

“Let’s mess him up!” Skull flashed a vicious grin.

Seiten Taisei, Anat and Zaou-Gongen began their attack. Each rushed by Chernobog landing a quick but powerful blow, dashing away just in time to avoid his reach as he flailed. They felt by the resistance on impact that Chernobog still stood strong; they were but chipping away at him. However, that was enough for what Joker had in mind. He was only waiting for the right moment, and he knew it by the very instant his attempts at counterattacking slowed down.

“All clear out! Panther, Mona, NOW!”

Anat, Seiten Taisei, Kamu Susano-O and Astarte all leapt away, leaving the target the only thing in sight for the coup de grace. Hecate released the infernal flame she amassed, quickly enveloping Chernobog whole. An instant later, Mercurius shot a vortex of wind in a specific angle and velocity, nurturing the fire, triggering the explosion. A column of black smoke elevated from the remnants of the blast radius as waves of sand blew by. There was a measure of shared uncertainty in the while it took for the smoke to dissipate. Was this attack enough to put Chernobog down? Even if Joker kept his doubts to himself for his comrades’ sake, he was confident that the stark change of temperature from Panther and Mona’s joint attack against Fox’ crystalline bulwark must have crippled Chernobog.

And, as the air began to clear, the sight eased their pulses. Chernobog knelt defeated on the sound, heads down and out; thick shards of ice were imbedded everywhere beneath its midsection. A metres away, the stranger that wore Akira’s features was sprawled out on the ground, but still conscious. It made no difference. Despite its groans and grunts, it was powerless to stand back up.

They won.

“Are you alright?” Akira asked his friends.

“I’ll… I’ll get back to you on that one.” Makoto panted exhausted.

“Man. It’s a good thing we got our mojo back! Yo, anyone else is hungry as hell?” Ryuji let himself fall, hind first onto the sand.

“Hey, is no one wondering why we suddenly got our Personas back?” Morgana, head bobbling, was the first to openly address the big question. “But yeah. Food would be nice… Sushi, I’ve earned it, Joker.”

“I’ll treat us all when we get back.” Haru smiled through the sweat on her face. “Can we rest a little before we search for the way back?”

“Yeah. Let’s do that.” Akira looked at all of his friends with great relief. But he quickly noticed Futaba was not in the sand with them. She still hovered above inside of Prometheus.

“Oracle?” He tasted something bitter in his palate.

“G-guys…” Futaba sounded as if she hung on the verge of a panic attack.

A hissing sound. The stirring of sand. Akira grinded his teeth as he straightened up. He turned around and looked at where his double lay defeated.

They had won indeed. And it took a lot out of them to achieve that victory.

But that was only one adversary.

Seven more heads emerged from under the sand. All bearing Akira’s own likeness, each with respective grotesque imperfections, each tiptoeing the fine line between man and beast. Each with murder in cataract-plagued eyes. But as they clawed their way out into the surface, one thing was very clear. They were not about to take the same time their fallen one had.

Dark, blue clouds came into vision behind each of them. Dark silhouettes appeared, quickly taking full form.

With a burst of azure flame, they materialised fully before the exhausted Phantom Thieves.

“No…” Makoto let out despite herself.

“Dude… is this for real?” Ryuji could not conceal his distress.

“Can we even take them all on?” Ann’s voice shook.

The sound of his friends’ voices called out to him, but Akira could not turn to them. Boundless rage sent sharp pain in the shadow of each heartbeat. And one word took dominance above the rest.

Akira’s word was borne as a low, almost primitive-sounding grunt. Each syllable granted clarity onto the uttering, shedding light on the full extent of its meaning. Punishment. Damnation. Vengeance. These were all crude approximations to the word.

“SATANAEL!”

Chapter Text

Lavenza had her reservations about venturing out into the world of human kind. This was nothing unheard of in the history of the Velvet Room. One of the older siblings, Elizabeth, was infamous for whimsically doing so; Lavenza herself had to do it during the final gamble for the autonomy of mankind. But that was then: the menace was known and the world was suitably doused in its influence. Now, over a year later, she had not the slightest suspicion of what terrible wrong loomed over them, and the world she stepped out into was a troubling incognita.

For it was the world of humans, free from all outer influence. It mattered not that she was born and raised somewhere inextricably bonded with the human soul; all she knew about them she read in the heart of one boy dear to her, and his friends. And she was aware - to her detriment - that those seven were unique in a world that would shun them. How much could have truly changed due to their deeds? No matter how she looked at it, today she was about to set foot into a completely different and foreign world.

And all she had to arm herself with was the knowledge that the Phantom Thieves were her only hope.

Her first timid step from the azure threshold was met with the sensory flood of a day like any other in the Shibuya Crossing. The people came and went, from all directions, in such thick droves and with no immediate destination for her to see. All her studied notions of North and South out in this bustling city were robbed of meaning. Lavenza tried to follow one current, only to doubt herself and change to another, loosely guided by the monotonous tune coming from the traffic lights, also entirely oblivious to the looks she was getting from the few people who noticed her.

She was soon to decide on one current to follow, only to make a critical mistake: looking up.

It was not the first time her eyes caught sight of the famous big screens. She started to rummage through her memories to recall whether they shone as bright and colourful as they did now, boasting of appliances, electronics, and edible items of all sizes, shapes, and types of superfluous. There was little appeal for her in that kind of variety; she found it all quite chaotic, as a matter of fact. It was as if each programme was tailored to fetch the human eye in a competition with no apparent winner. And with a little more observation, she found that few people actually bothered to look at the images flashing on the screens, with the exception of a news broadcast taking over a second later. No matter how she looked at it, Lavenza found a small margin of purpose to these screens; hardly even a distraction at all.

But, she mused, could that not be the purpose of it all? To compound multiple kinds of chaos in order to create a different harmony? Lavenza quickly remembered an image from a book Igor procured for her long ago; a tome written in a forgotten language, rich with detail on nearly every aspect of human life across the ages. This image was a reproduction of a wooden carving, a scene from the Great Bazaar at one extreme of the Silk Road during the zenith of ancient trade. It was only an imperfect reproduction, but one thing was very clear about it: its chaos. The humans in this carving shared little to group them under one single collective. Different folk, different tongues, and no doubt, different purposes to mingle amidst the human colony.

The more she walked by herself in this new face of civilisation, the more she could guess to find similarities with the Great Bazaar. In just a matter of seconds, she would plunge deeper into the streets to this peculiar city and find familiar scents stirring in her memory as a two-fold entity of food joints and alley murk. Truly and well, a new Great Bazaar for human kind to boast of.

Beautiful, in its own way, every bit of it – except for the sudden cacophony of car horns and annoyed protests headed her way that pulled her stark out of her thoughts. Somewhere along the ride, Lavenza forgot to keep walking, and found herself stranded in the very middle of the crossing, just as the motored vehicles were meant to travel in their share of the chaos.

“Moron.” She heard the word fading as she ran towards a safe end to continue her quest. The sudden change in the flux her pulse spike for a moment. She guessed it would not be the last time this happened on this day. For the sake of the Velvet Room, and possibly even this strange human world, she had to keep her composure.

Lavenza took a deep breath and concentrated. If somewhat scatterbrained big sis Elizabeth was able to locate a guest with hardly a thought, she could too if she really put her mind to it. Lavenza stood in the middle of the street, oblivious to the bothered, hindered pedestrians, and instantly reckoned how much more difficult it was when the guest had not been received in the Velvet Room for a long time. All she could sense was a faint trace of his footsteps, roads walked time after time, day after day. The ghost of his presence was all she had to go by, but it would have to do.

The girl in blue followed the trace into dodgy alleyways without a care for anything but her mission. But that was not the whole truth, a voice in her head suggested a bit more knowingly than it seemed. Even now, she still was a little infatuated with this guest. A more cynical pitch to that voice remarked how ridiculous it was that she sought him out to essentially be her knight in shining armour, but gave little objection beyond.

Then, she felt it, a place where the trace resonated strongly. Akira had been here, many times. Lavenza looked up and read the word spelled in big, green letters.

UNTOUCHABLE.

Without a second thought, Lavenza walked into the airsoft store, wholly unknowing of the murky nuances to this place. Even if this place was not as labyrinthine as the streets she travelled through just a moment before, she still felt a little disoriented as she navigated through the aisles, eyes brushing the contents of each shelf. She did not need to read much about human nature and history to know the items on display had a questionable reputation, but the merchandise’s design and craft could not be denied: each fire arm shone under the soft light with a kind of artistry. It looked as if these guns and knives were not made to kill but to look the part, even better than the real thing. Then, it hit her: it would make sense if these were merely replicas, seeing how the guest occasionally requested imbuing the power of Personas into varied fake weapons. Judging from the look on the young man’s eyes on one occasion, he saw one such empowered revolver as if it were a present rather than a tool.

Lavenza nodded, satisfied by her conclusion. That only served to confuse Iwai Munehisa even more as she stared wide-eyed at the strange child that just walked into his store. It had been a long time since he had an unusual customer – the last one had been a strange young man who turned out to be a Phantom Thief. He knew it was only a matter of time till he got another. But this he would have never expected.

Finally, the girl’s eyes landed on the man behind the counter, and she froze in sheer fright.

“….” Iwai made his silence heavy the way only a Yakuza could. But his silence was not his tried and true method of interrogation from days past – he merely did not know what to make out of Lavenza.

“…” And likewise, the girl did not know what to make out of this man. Even the spherical shape of the lollipop under his lower lip did not alleviate the weight of Iwai’s presence.

“… What the hell are you doing here?” Iwai spoke in a sharp flurry after several, very awkward seconds.

“Akira Kurusu.” Lavenza croaked, sensing the bond this man had with the guest.

“What?”

“I’m looking for a boy called Akira Kurusu.” Lavenza’s breathing rhythm started to normalise as she mentally gripped her purpose.

While Iwai was a hard man to read, his doubtful squint strongly suggested that he doubted whether to divulge anything about the young man. To his knowledge, his return to Tokyo would have him lead an ordinary life, far from the perils he encountered as a Phantom Thief, as well as the risks involved in being Iwai’s acquaintance. An doubtless red flag would be if it was a police officer asking, but this little girl? She too wore blue, but for all the police department’s flaws, he doubted they recruited children yet. Then again, the bright yellow hue of her eyes was more than uncommon – it was unsettling.

“What do you want with him?” Iwai decided to play it by ear.

The way he phrased his question brought out a bit of red in Lavenza’s incredibly pale complexion.

“Umm. He’s a friend of mine. I wish to see him.” She responded awkwardly.

Iwai did not blink as he judged whether to say anything or not.

“He works at some coffee joint in Yongen-jaya. You might find him there.” The man shifted his lollipop to the other side of his mouth.

“Where is that?”

“You can get there on the subway. There should be a station nearby.”

“How do I ride the subway?”

“Really?” Iwai sputtered with bitter amusement and disbelief after a moment. A suppressed bout of laughter followed, sounding more like an animal growl. Unease and embarrassment both grasped at Lavenza’s composure. “Really?” He repeated, calmer, humourless.

“Y-yes.”

Iwai sighed long and loud. He froze in contemplation of everything occurred in the last thirty seconds. The girl could almost hear the machinery of his mind at work.

“Kaoru!” He called out loud suddenly.

“Yeah, dad?” A small bespectacled boy peeked his head out from a door at the back of the store. He also had a slight remnant of Akira’s trace.

“Watch the store. Won’t be long.” Iwai lazily walked from behind the counter, motioning Lavenza to follow him.

“Who is that, dad?”

“Hell if I know. Order some food in the meantime, will you?”

“Okay, dad.” The boy called Kaoru shrugged and took seat in his father’s chair. His hand reached under the counter and pulled out a lollipop which he put in his mouth after discarding the wrapper.

“You. Don’t stray.” That was all Iwai said to her. He made no remarks or questions on the train ride to Akira’s neighbourhood. Despite all logic, the eyes that would follow a duo like Iwai and Lavenza stayed off of them for the entire trip.

[ ]

“This is Yongen-jaya.” Iwai finally said. “This is where the kid works. As far as I know, he lives here too.”

Lavenza took in the new surroundings in full colour and vitality. The place was far smaller than Shibuya but still followed her theorised template on chaos. The overall effect, however, was a quiet functioning harmony. Here and there, she saw adults minding small stores, elders gravitating together around a dingy contraption she identified as a radio, children playing and small animals travelling about the asymmetry.

The trace of Akira was far stronger here. It was intoxicating, in fact. Wherever she turned, Lavenza felt she could catch the outline of the guest’s lean build through multiple ephemeral silhouettes. There was nothing about this neighbourhood that did not resonate with his presence – still, it was nowhere near his actual person. It made no matter to Lavenza: if she was to find the guest, it would be here.

“You good on your own?” Iwai grumbled.

“Yes, good Sir. Thank you so much for your kindness.” Lavenza bowed deeply, smiling warmly at this man. Nothing was changed about Iwai, but there was no way she would ever feel unease around him again.

“Alright.” The man seemed as dry and nonchalant as ever, but there a slight, almost imperceptible kindness about his “Take care.”

And so, Iwai left for the subway back to Untouchable.

Lavenza spent close to an hour slowly navigating through the alleyways in search of Akira Kurusu, with no success. Despite her thorough efforts, all she had was his phantom, but if he was not here – where else could he? There was some comfort in introspective reasoning, but she could not afford it at present. For all she knew, the Velvet Room was deteriorating further while she was here. She needed to be more precise in her search. It was imperative for her to have an accurate lead before sunset.

The girl decided then to gather all the things she knew about the guest and build a direction to follow from there. Akira Kurusu had a lot of pride, but also a wide dash of vulnerability, a yearning to belong but also a yearning to provide; even as a prisoner, the guest did not withdraw in fear inside of his cell. Rather, he reached forward despite Lavenza’s mental resistance from being divided into Caroline and Justine, as if despite them being his jailors, he wished to be their friend. In a way, Caroline and Justine did become his friends, in their own way – that is, Lavenza’s own brokenness.

Friends… could he be in the company of friends?

Likely, she thought, but still too broad an approach. Lavenza returned to Iwai’s words. He said Akira worked in these parts, but where, and doing what? She thought harder.

Now and then, he mentioned a few things from his cell. Things about work – they were only passing comments, but she could finely recall something about flowers, drunken patrons, and food.

Food.

Akira Kurusu did worry a lot about food, but he did not look malnourished himself. There was probably little reason to cogitate so much over that – unless it was not just for him to consume. It made sense when looking at it that way; he was, after all, the leader of the Phantom Thieves; it was only natural that he would concern over his teammates being well fed.

The image was still fresh in Lavenza’s mind. She did get to meet the rest of the Phantom Thieves. At one occasion they too became guests after a terrible fashion, having just been erased from the public cognition, becoming prisoners of a cruel God’s machinations. She vividly recalled their physiques. Some looked like they were getting a fair influx of nutrients, yet others looked like they were in dire need of better nutrition. Whether to preserve a rhythm of growth or to prevent snapping in half at the blow of the gentlest breeze, food must have been vital for the Phantom Thieves.

Unless there was another purpose to it.

If Akira Kurusu needed to procure fake weapons to defend against the Shadows that plagued the Metaverse, he likely needed food to maintain their strength as they did so. By sheer cognition, instruments of make-believe became lethal – then, food became a potent invigorating agent. Thinking along those lines, the better the food, the more effective it would be for their needs.

It was only a hunch constructed on fragments of plausibility, but it was a ground more solid than her aimless wandering minutes ago. Wherever there was delightful, tasty, delicious, mouth-wateringly scrumptious food, she would find Akira – maybe.

For the next few minutes, Lavenza followed her nose. And sure enough, an alluring scent caught her senses. Spicy and hot. She could almost taste it herself, and the appetite she had no mind for was now stirred to the point of discomfort.

She passed several small stores on the way as the scent got stronger. Most of them were open at this hour, but a notable few were uncharacteristically closed, including a small café down a narrow alleyway called LeBlanc. The trace was the strongest here, but there seemed to be nobody inside when Lavenza knocked on the door. She peered inside through the glass and saw only darkness and complete absence. It was as if chance conspired against her, for there was no mistaking it: Akira not only worked here. He lived here.

Lavenza knocked one more time, more out of caution and politeness than anything else; her mind was already made. It took only a tiny sliver of effort to turn the knob all the way in spite of the lock. She did not make a mess when she opened the door, but the lock would still need to be repaired. The blue-clad girl took her time carefully scanning the inside of the place. There were multiple cylindrical recipients lined neatly on several shelves, each calling with a distinctive, strong scent.

Her mind’s eye constructed Akira’s silhouette in the kitchen. This is where he probably funnelled all his concerns about food into action, she thought. Lavenza rode on aboard her earlier train of thought, concluding he probably was a good cook. Curiosity got the better of her, and she looked in the refrigerator and cupboards, finding varied ingredients and many hints at delightful flavours, all of which escaped her reach by never learning how to cook. Perhaps big brother Theodore would know.

After a brief surge of bashful hesitation, she climbed up the stairs towards his room. It was a small place, touched unkindly by age and use; still it looked as tidy as one such place could be. Just like downstairs, this room radiated with his presence, but not only his: she could feel that of his friends as well, moving about the place, taking seat practically everywhere, forming different configurations of togetherness. This trace was not overwhelming, but Lavenza still felt her chest swelling with a wistful sigh. There was definite joy clinging to the afterglow, but there was also a considerable deal of sorrow.

As she sat on the edge of Akira’s bed, little legs dangling, she imagined herself in their midst, turning each silhouette into a real image. There was the hopeborne scion of the Velvet Room, Morgana. A brutish but kind boy with dyed hair, Ryuji. A beautiful girl with Northern European factions and plentiful pigtails, Ann. A delicate-looking young man whose eyes drank fully from the beauty within each thing, Yusuke. A young lady with spring within and without, Haru. A walking oxymoron of fading anxieties and thirst for life, Futaba.

Across from the shelves boasting small mementos, on the couch, there were two others. There was the guest, but there was another somewhat similar to him: a young woman with both war and peace pulsing in her heart, Makoto. Everybody and everything in the room unfolded under their love and protection, pursuing the next stop in the narrative with their promise of success, even Lavenza herself.

Just her imagination.

She did not truly belong in this scene from the past. This was a present that unearthed ghosts by necessity. She was as much a part of the scene as a ninth presence, a live guided early from lacking into tragedy. Goro Akechi, the other guest, the one she tried not to think about, regardless of the myriad questions she had about him.

Disillusioned, Lavenza hopped down from Akira’s bed, ready to leave. Before leaving the café, she noticed a book carelessly dropped on the floorboards. It was a cheap paperback: A Japanese translation of “The Double” by Fyodor Dostotyevsky. There was nothing particularly special about the book itself, but the girl noticed a few things about it. The number of bookmarks left between its pages was eye-catching, but so was the diagonal bend across the back cover; it was as if the reader handled the book with a certain violence.

Lavenza left LeBlanc defeated. Behind her, the door left ajar echoed with her own forlorn walk, and the restless, hasty stride of another. Knowing her best chance led nowhere, she walked back into the main avenue of Yongen-jaya. The sun was about to set.

Before she fell in despair, two blue eyes caught her attention, staring at her metres ahead. Attached to those eyes was a fluffy white body with pointy ears. The white cat looked at her curiosity, swaying its tail slowly. The more Lavenza stared at it, the more peculiar it seemed. There was nothing about the cat that should stir her attention like this; Akira had nothing to do with it. But there was still a different kind of trace, growing more pungent by the second - it radiated from somebody approaching.

And then she came into view. A girl with long, wild black hair, and really big eyes. She wore an apron as white as her cat. A rich, spicy smell clung to her, reaching Lavenza’s nostrils despite the distance, which the latter did not realise was decreasing as she approached without thinking it.

“Hi.” Yumeko greeted with a little caution upon seeing Lavenza’s unearthly appearance.

Lavenza was quiet. She squinted as she tried to figure out just what kind of energy this girl carried. Whatever it was, Yumeko seemed fairly unaware of it. But a distant past echo of lovesickness, obsession, and a ‘bloodstorm’ made the girl from the Velvet Room shudder. And yet, that phantom was merely a subdued chant from a heart that rang quite like any other. Could this girl be someone whose heart was changed by the Phantom Thieves?

“Hello.” Lavenza finally responded, still wide-eyed.

“U-um, cool outfit. I like all that… blue.” Yumeko was getting nervous herself.

“Thank you. I like your attire. Very white. It smells a lot.” Lavenza said without thinking.

“Oh.”

“It’s a good smell. Very fresh. Spicy.”

“I see.” Yumeko seemed slightly less off-put. “It’s from the chicken my father cooks. It’s pretty good!”

“Could I have some?” The mental image of the Great Bazaar, of Akira’s untasted cooking, filled her empty stomach with hunger.

“S-sure. I’ll get a seat ready for you.”

[ ]

One hour later, Mogami’s was depleted of chicken and beef. All eyes inside of the place were nailed to Lavenza and her monstrous appetite. Judging by her pace, she was nowhere near close to being filled, though it could read in her expression that she greatly enjoyed the flavours. Furthermore, she looked somewhat saddened when told they had no more food to serve her.

“That’ll be…” Yumeko’s father, Hideo was trying his best to gauge the total bill. A little voice inside yelled at him, demanding a rational answer to why had they served her this much food without making sure she would be able to pay. “Damnit!”

“I…” Lavenza looked embarrassed and ashamed of herself. She was not aware of the problem her consumption caused, but the glances she caught from the other patrons gave her a hint to having done something wrong. “I hope this will cover it.”

And out of her dress’ pockets, she pulled out handfuls of notes and coins from all manner of currencies. There were yen, yuan, dollars, rubles, pounds, rupies, pesos, francs, and even coins ages-old that could fetch a great amount from an appraiser. It was obvious to the Mogami family that the girl covered the total of her bill; she had in fact paid a small fortune without knowing it. They offered no argument.

Hunger quelled – if partially – Lavenza was again more aware of her surroundings. It was then that a strong sensation made her turn her head to the door. A young man walked in, visibly surprised upon looking at Lavenza. Much like Yumeko, he also carried an old remnant of a desire subdued before it became corrupted, but that was not all; also like Iwai, he had some trace of a bond with Akira.

The sun had already set, but Lavenza would soon realise she just found a vital lead towards Akira Kurusu. On his part, Yuuki Mishima would experience profound disappointment to find that this strange little girl just put Mogami’s out of business for the day. After the past few hours, he truly needed some comfort food – especially after seeing Sojiro Sakura storm out of LeBlanc in search for Futaba and Akira.

Chapter Text

Once upon a time, a group of eight gathered, united by the pursuit of freedom from the chains that bound them, to change the world, and deliver justice for the unheard. Their tireless struggle against the distortions that corrupted the shadow selves at the core of every human heart led them eventually to face the conflict’s author. And his name was Yaldabaoth, the God of Control. The eight Phantom Thieves closely met a tragic fate, but their end was not to be. At the end of this saga, human kind – through its hopes and drive to autonomy – nurtured the form of the vanquisher, the reverse equal to the Lord of Control.

And his name was Satanael. This was the hidden form of Joker’s Persona, Arsene. Its power, imbued by the rebellion of the masses, unmade the paradigm of submission. If this was the true might of a Trickster, it could surely suffice to defeat the foes that stood now before the Phantom Thieves in a foreign, strange world. Joker’s corrupted double was a formidable adversary alone. When seven new copies sprouted from the soil, each one as tainted as the next, necessity begat desperation.

Akira did not get to see if the ultimate trickster’s power could indeed ravage all eight of their foes. The Demon Lord never materialised to his command, instead mocking Joker with an ephemeral flicker, and an excruciating wave of pain extending from his chest, outward to every limb, which drained him suddenly of all power. It could have been a dubious boon for him to lose consciousness from the experience, but he remained awake and aware as he doubled over. He got to see how each of his doubles summoned another being into matter.

Personas, the like of which he had never seen before. Each looking as menacing, as broken as the feral summoners. One by one, their names infected the air, uttered from diseased throats: Apollo, Artemis, Konohana Sakuya, Chronos, Polydeuces, Devi, and Nike. It took great effort and cooperation to defeat dark Chernobog; now in recompense, they were to defend against seven just as powerful as he.

As Akira desperately tried to regain his strength to counterattack, he got to see how each enemy, borne in his very likeness, used their might against his friends; against his love. In this state, the events appeared to play out quickly – too quick, in fact, for him to do something about it, but with the just detainment for him to feel powerless. The corrupted Personas invoked the cruellest, most vicious iteration of the old adage ‘divide and conquer’, by picking one Thief each and vanquishing them one at a time.

Ryuji, his oldest friend, was the first to fall.

Akira only saw it from the corner of his eye when it occurred, but it was then as if all his senses were playing him the cruellest joke – for he heard it, and almost felt it himself, all too close. Skull was not as drained as he. He still had a lot of fight inside of him after doing his part to bring Chernobog down. Determined to make himself a wall of defence for the rest, Ryuji clung to Seiten Taisei’s cape as he rode his furious stormy cloud.

“Blitzkrieg!” Ryuji roared out a war cry, distorted, turned monstrous by the crackling thunder of his Persona. If for a few seconds, it seemed as if his intent would prove successful. The crash of thunder and the powerful swings of the gargantuan club hit hard and fast enough to catch their adversaries off-guard before they got a chance to mount an offensive. There was no room for tactical discussion beforehand, but the scenario was clear: retreat while the enemy is confused among the black clouds, the sound and the fury.

But the veil of storm that impeded the enemy’s swift advance also blinded him to the flight of Nike, ascending, bound to meet him, like an arrow. Skull never saw her coming, and did not feel the collision; in fact, he did not feel a thing even as he fell to the ground, eyes on the sky above, the right side of his abdomen fried by a dash of blessed light.

Nike hovered above as Ryuji fell, poised in arrogant, spiteful manner. Though in a pure, untainted incarnation, the surface of her skin looked an immaculate chrome, this Nike was covered all in rust so thick, it almost looked like creeping veins all over her body. The aircraft-like wings on her bag spouted thick, dark smoke, amassing around her, concealing her intent from the others. It was not obvious, not until her form appeared from beneath the smoke, plummeting down towards Ryuji to deliver a fatal strike.

“RYUJI!!!!” The sound of Ann’s scream in horror was one nobody could forget, not even after the following, deafening seconds. Had she delayed an instant longer, Ryuji would surely have been killed by Nike. But Panther blasted the aerial Persona out of the sky with a powerful burst of flame before she could make the kill. In order to save one who so many times had put himself in the line of fire, Panther funnelled everything she had left into this one spell, and left herself vulnerable to Chronos’ gale as he led the vanguard out of Seiten Taisei’s barrier of storm and thunder.

She did not make a sound as Chronos – broken, twitching clockwork-faced – put her out with a vortex of grey wind. Akira saw it all too clearly. Ann’s face, frozen in a non-expression, eyes distant with long tearful traces, mouth agape as if her breath had left her. The beating of her heart was there still; but outside, she fell to the ground as if devoid entirely of life.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no.” Oracle’s panic poured out of her voice. “J-Joker! Joker!” Futaba, the sister Akira never had, called out to him. “Get up!”

Through the pain and the exhaustion, through the grief and the loathing, Akira managed to regain balance. The sounds of battle called for his attention all around him. Without knowing if he would even be able to summon a Persona, any Persona at all, he charged towards the first one he saw.

Haru did not fight alone. At her side, Yusuke cast spikes of ice at their foes while building an ice barrier to keep defence. Together they stood, and together they fell before the dual onslaught of Konohana Sakuya and Polydeuces. The former was a bird-like feminine figure, boasting a bountiful fan of red feathers on each arm, each ending in a hue uncannily resembling dried blood. Her dress fluttered in tatters at every sway of her fiery dance, tirelessly casting flame and embers at even the slightest motion. Meanwhile, Polydeuces’ mighty, soot-tainted build stabbed manically at Fox’s glacier of a shield, all the while he unleashed countless thunder strikes, wearing the two Phantom Thieves down, little by little.

Fox attempted to protect Noir with his body at the losing end of this war of attrition. Haru did not know him beaten until Kamu Susano-o disappeared into the ether. With Yusuke’s limp, unconscious body in her arms, Haru’s wrath was made manifest through Astarte, unloading a flurry of artillery and psychic waves made dangerously tangible by fury. But in the end, and not too long after, she too followed in defeat, having only managed to stagger Konohana Sakuya and Polydeuces.

At some point amidst the chaos, Oracle’s Prometheus took ahold of Mona, hovering all over the battle field as the feline summoned Mercurius to heal their friends and cast a wind shear of an offence whenever he had the chance. But the enemy surrounded them all too quickly after Seiten Taisei’s barrier of smoke dissipated that neither the navigator nor the healer could know where to focus their efforts first. To make matters worse, Devi noticed them and immediately cast her gaze upon them.

Devi’s finned armour shone sinister, reflecting the lights of war around her, and beneath the marine-fashioned plates of her body, the machinery of her interior heated and shimmered in preparation of a coup de grace. Light flowed up her metal veins, dying her copper eyes bright violet. She took a second to aim, and that was all she needed. Sensing danger, Mona decided to take the brunt of Devi’s attack. In spite of Futaba’s tearful, screaming protests, Morgana let go of Prometheus, falling to intercept the psychic rail gun’s trajectory.

And the world faded out of view, with no pain or awareness. It was only a guess, a gamble with no observable evidence to it. Morgana was not like the others; he was a being borne out of hope. As long as he were remembered and loved by his friends, he would not die. This was the theory gone untested until now. Had Futaba been the one to take the impact, she would surely have perished immediately.

“Mona…” She sobbed into everyone’s field of communication as Devi’s beam faded.

All this occurred in a matter of seconds.

Akira was back on his feet - still weakened, but standing. His insides twisted and contorted as if he was being unmade from within. Something felt broken in his mind. Still, he brought himself to think, and he cursed himself following the first words that came into his mind.

Who was still left?

Makoto was the only one still standing. But he was about to see the end of her resistance about to unfurl. Anat’s silver clashed with Artemis’ grey and blue; the sound that resulted from the ongoing exchange was unpleasant to the ear, like metal bending out of shape, screeching, screaming in a mindless, inorganic way. There was a brief moment of hope to be had, as Queen’s defence met every blow flawlessly, even going on to anticipate the attacks, and parrying with deadly skill. But at some point, Artemis’ hand penetrated through Anat’s stance, reaching Queen herself, closing tightly around the lower half of her face. Makoto could only let out a muffled groan upon realising her back was against the ground. That is when temperature plummeted dramatically.

Akira saw it all. He ran as fast as he could, but it was too late now, as it would have been too late a minute ago. They were ruefully outmatched from the moment Chernobog appeared. No matter what variables he took into consideration, the battle would have ended the same way. And soon, the naiveté of imagining some way they could have made it became a distant sound, slowly dwarfed by one voice speaking to him only.

It was his own.

It was his fault.

Because of him, they were stranded in this alien world. Because of him, they went through exhaustion in foolish search for a way back. Because of him, they were brutally attacked by these spurious copies of himself.

Because of him, Makoto was now encased in a coffin of ice.

Akira was now back on his knees, next to the ice-bound body of she who was his everything. The pain and the impotence she felt was frozen, preserved on her factions. A testament to his failure. He could not help himself from embracing her in a hopeless attempt to free her, protect her as he could not do for the others.

And he wondered, of all the things he failed to do, could he accomplish this one?

Just this one?

No response came to him in a manner he could understand. He did not see faded, crimson Apollo looming over him, fixing him with bright yellow eyes. Akira marked his presence only by the nuclear storm the corrupted Persona unleashed upon him. Joker made no attempt to resist, to counterattack, to do anything but cover Makoto’s frozen body with his own. The pain he endured but moments ago after the whiplash of failing to summon Satanael seemed a fond memory next to the pain he felt from Apollo’s rage.

He was slowly frying Joker alive.

I deserve this, a strange awareness dawned on him. It felt alien, like a new set of memories and knowledge. His and at the same time not.

I deserve this.

I failed them.

I failed you.

Please wake up. Take the others and escape.

The words echoing in his brain were hushed instantly by the loud sound of the ice breaking. First one crack, then another, and another, until Makoto’s icy prison could not keep her trapped longer. Chunks and shards slid off her body until she was finally freed. But her awakening was not the Queen’s heroic resurging from the brink of defeat. Colour was not returning to her skin. Her breath was faint, normalising too slowly for her to move on her own. She spent too much energy breaking out of the ice; she was vulnerable.

Joker did not leave her side. He still shielded her body as best he could, taking most of Apollo’s scorn. Despite the intense burning, he only held her tighter. By this point, he no longer perceived a thing; his senses all surrendered to the present horror.

Funny, he thought. He was sure he felt something; it was similar to the sensation of Makoto’s hand on his shoulder, gently squeezing. It must have been his imagination.

“Akira…” She said weakly. Her eyes opened only a slit, perceiving something that did not make sense. She could not think fully yet, connect one incomplete notion with another, reach a conclusion. She could not even attain the awareness that Akira, wounded and broken, was dragging her across the grass in search for the rest of their friends. His body moved on instinct, independently from thought. The human animal compelled him to seek and defend those who were important.

Those he has lost.

“No.” The first glint of awareness came back to her, only increasing at every instant, and eventually putting the big picture back together. Makoto started to weep bitterly.

Just his imagination. The nuclear fire burned and disintegrated everything but the now. His make, his thoughts, his memories, his past and future - all frail pages consumed in the fire of hate.

His consciousness soon followed with a few twitches of resistance.

His final thought before his mind receded into the dark: Why is this happening?

“STOP!!!” A voice echoed like thunder in the distance. It was so intense that it well could have been heard on every reach of this world. His command was heeded. All adversaries ceased their attack with no hesitation or protest – Akira’s corrupted replicas merely stopped moving, with no sign of thought on the matter. Without the external stimulus of the searing pain, Akira’s body fell to the ground, still holding Makoto, just a few centimetres away from reaching Ryuji.

Futaba could not stand keeping her eyes open to the scene below, but she forced herself to zoom in on the stranger that joined the scene.

Nothing about the individual looked noteworthy at all. A middle-aged man dressed in office attire, hair neatly cut close to the scalp, forgettable features. Aside from the fact of being barefoot, nothing about the man made him stand out in appearance. But that was exactly what made him stand out in this new world, where the dreadful extraordinaire took the stage. If there was anything to note about him, it was the look in his eyes.

Knowing, devoid of surprise but not of confusion. A touch of sadness loomed over him as he scanned the area, the maimed soil, the smoke, and the bodies lay prone all about. The landscape was that of a war, of a carnage.

“No, this is not how it’s supposed to be.” The man said absent-minded, barely minding his own voice. Then, he noticed the look of the bodies. They all looked so strange, but somewhat familiar, closely resembling shadowy images that appeared on the screens of Shibuya, one evening of the dying breaths of autumn. He knew who they were on the very moment his eyes got to Akira. He knew who this young man was, he recognised him all too well. “The Phantom Thieves?”

Susumu Kamiyama’s heart skipped a beat upon realisation. A tidal wave of conflicting emotions rolled over him. He felt excitement, shame, surprise, horror. There was still much about the setting he did not understand: Akira Kurusu’s replicas and their Personas. The very presence of all eight Phantom Thieves in this place was unintended, as per the design of his Benefactor and him. But they were gravely hurt, and they desperately needed help.

It would be a long time before he could deliver the new world he believed the Phantom Thieves of Hearts envisioned. But in this moment, he would atone for the world their generation inherited by aiding and protecting them in this unforeseen turn of events.

“Ozymandias.” He called out.

Futaba attentively observed this new stranger’s actions. Her most immediate reaction was dread, seeing a new Persona come into being. But she sensed nothing in common with the tainted Personas. In fact, this summoning felt very similar to her own Prometheus. This Persona was an overseer.

An enormous fallen idol carved in dark stone appeared behind Susumu. A massive crack along the King’s sternum travelled across its body like a gate crudely opening outward. And from that gate, a shining, golden figure emerged, a spectral Susumu Kamiyama risen from the lifeless idol.

The crimson lights of the sky were penetrated by Ozymandias’ light, bathing every square centimetre of the battlefield with warmth. Futaba felt it as well. What relatively minor injuries she got throughout the ordeal were all healed. The defeated bodies of her friends began to float upward, leaving injury and hurt below. Makoto felt Akira’s body slide off of her as she started to float up. She panicked thinking gravity was pulling her away from him. But then relief settled in when seeing him follow shortly after – the bruises, the cuts, the burns, all faded from his skin.

But he was not waking up. She could hear her friend’s voices, mystified and scared from coming back to consciousness like this.

But not a sound out of Akira’s lips. No reaction to the sharp turn of events. Nothing but the slow, nigh imperceptible rise of his chest and midsection as he breathed. Like he had fallen in the lowest depths of sleep.

Gravity normalised soon after, and they were all back on the ground. No sooner she landed steadily, Futaba ran towards Makoto, crying her eyes out. Queen embraced Oracle with one free arm as the girl poured her sorrow out; the other cradled Joker’s head. Futaba was soon joined by the rest. Though all of their wounds were undone, there was still pain lingering around them. Something more bitter than the taste of defeat – absolute powerlessness.

Then, they noticed Makoto and Akira.

“Is he…?” Panther’s voice was shaky. She did not wish to even think of asking.

“No. He has a pulse.” Queen answered with no comfort. “But, he’s not waking up.”

“No… this can’t be.” Mona said.

“Joker! Joker!” Ryuji called out his friend’s codename more frantically every time. “JOKER!”

“You…” Susumu Kamiyama approached with hesitation, unsure of his role in this scene. “Are you the Phantom Thieves?”

“What’s it to you!?” Ryuji lashed out, violently affected by his friend’s state.

“Skull.” Futaba placed her hand on his shoulder. “We could have died. This guy saved us.”

“Then why is my friend not waking up?” His voice broke.

Makoto bit her lip in an attempt to contain herself.

“Are you… Susumu Kamiyama?” Haru asked.

“Do you know him?” Morgana questioned.

“Something of the sort.”

“Yes… I am… I am him.” He said uneasy. Susumu mouthed a few words, as if he had trouble deciding on the most appropriate thing to say. He thought to err on the side of caution and offer all the support he could, but something else took priority. “You are not supposed to be in this world.”

“To that, what is this world?” Yusuke asked dryly. “And what are they?” He pointed towards Akira’s doubles.

“You see…” Susumu began.

“Before you say anything further. Does this place, does this world…” Makoto interrupted aggressively, putting a spiteful inflexion on ‘world’. She was finally giving in to the flood of emotions drowning her within for so long. “… have anything to do with him?”

“Yes.” The older man said after a moment of silence, which was a suitable affirmation on its own. His eyes were downcast, as if he harboured a great shame within.

One white-gloved hand cradled Akira’s head with care, the other gently pressed against his cheek. All of her love was focused on those two ends. But the rest of her vibrated with anger.

“How?” Her brevity struck like a bullet.

“His is the template.” The word sounded odd in the man’s voice.

“The template? What do you mean?” Morgana pressed him for a response.

Susumu Kamiyama’s eyes strayed into the distance for a moment.

“It is a long thing to explain. And seeing this with my own eyes, there are aspects of it I am failing to comprehend. I can tell in this moment that it is wrong for all of you to be here, and it is wrong for this violence to have occurred. The process was always meant to be without harm. You see, this young man – he is important, he is essential for the creation of the new world. He was never meant to suffer.” The tone in Susumu’s voice changed. There was no shame or hesitation, only conviction and sober acceptance. This voice was his worldview conveyed into sound, his faith and his karma – it is with the spirit of this voice that he drove every mean towards the end he pursued: a new, better world. “You need shelter. Your wounds are not healed completely. Once they have, I will tell you everything.”

“You will.” Makoto said. Her voice was a sharp like a blade, and every bit as menacing.

Cold anger helped her suppress the shudder she felt as her suspicions poked. Having her boyfriend in her arms like this, unconscious in unnatural slumber; it looked so alike another time, when they were far from each other. Memory started to become clearer, hailing back to a call from Sojiro Sakura, one that froze her insides. Something happened to Akira back in Kawasaki, and she doubted it was actually stress as the medical consensus claimed.

Maybe she was losing it. Maybe it was all mere coincidence, a random succession of misfortune.

But, could that incident and this world be somehow related?

Chapter Text

Sojiro Sakura still remembers. The sensation of tile and cobble against his soles, the way a suit fit on his shoulders and the constricting hold of the microphone-rigged tie. He remembers the sour taste of tension that lingered on his palate before and after. And he remembers the way he would examine his own reflection on the silver lighter he used to carry, simply to know if the shadow of his scowl lingered at the end of the day. Sojiro Sakura remembers these fragments of a past life years ago: they inevitably return sometimes, when anxiety and dread compel him to action.

It got this bad only once before, when he found a Phantom Thieves’ calling card in his daughter’s room. The weeks that followed felt like an extension of that initial moment, with a few spikes and a few merciful valleys in-between. After his surrogate son was released from Juvie Hall, Sojiro believed he may never again feel that ghost of his walk alongside him. But then Futaba and Akira disappeared, as did their friends on the evening of their latest get-together. He felt foolish, naïve – and the shadow of his former self ridiculed him for it.

It has been three days now since the former Phantom Thieves disappeared. Even if he tried chalking up those first few hours past the time as youthful carelessness, his gut made him suspect early. It felt wrong, from the moment Makoto picked Akira up at LeBlanc, from the moment Futaba made her way hour before that.

It felt wrong from several days ago. And Akira would not tell him a thing.

And now, because of perceived as his own carelessness, Sojiro Sakura stood before the Niijimas’ apartment, steeling herself for the audience with the elder sister. Makoto could easily intimidate; Sae could demolish with just as little effort. The conversation on the phone beforehand did not paint a promising picture. Sojiro “Boss” Sakura was prepared for anything once the door was opened.

Anything but what he actually saw. Sae Niijima looked as if all life had been sucked out of her. The look in her eyes and the wear in her voice when she actually spoke was a tragically far cry from what he expected. He knew it would be frivolous and useless to try and comfort her; he wasted no time finding words he could not believe himself. Both were stuck in a point where nothing short of the kids turning up would be of any help. There was nothing to say or do but address the imperative essential.

“No news?” Sojiro asked.

“None.” Sae stared at her own clasped hands on the dining table. One hardly needed to notice the paleness on her skin and the bags under her eyes to know she has not slept since day one of their disappearance. Due to the Niijima history in the Police Force, the procedure to file and search for missing persons was hastened beyond the common standard. Hearing those words from the Senior Commissioner was hardly reassuring. Sae interiorised a baleful reply, wondering if such urgency was only a luxury afforded to a select few.

Without that preferential treatment, would they even care to find her little sister? With it, would it make a difference?

Sae’s thoughts wandered briefly, to their father, Akihiko Niijima. A man of a rare breed, some would say. What would he say now if he were alive? It was an untold understanding that Sae was to take care of Makoto, but he never pressured her with it, not even after his wife’s passing. But now that things had gone this way, would he be disappointed on her for failing, would be hate her? What about Makoto, wherever she was at the moment? In her time of need, away from her sister, is she calling Sae’s name? Is she crying for her like she did when waking up in the middle of the night and seeing nothing but darkness around her?

Is she disillusioned on her sister for failing her once again? Is she hurt? Is she…

“I went to that joint the cops visited. I did some asking of my own.” Sojiro spoke gruffly, a few decibels louder than before, breaking the silence in just the right way to pull Sae out of her own thoughts.

“Anything we didn’t know already?”

“They said the same thing the cops old us when they went over. The kids were at the table they booked. And one hour later, they vanished. It was a big group. Nobody say them leave together, or one at a time.” The man did not need the decorum of being offered a seat at this time. As he walked over to the dining table, he picked the chair right across from Sae – unbeknownst to him, Makoto’s seat. Feeling the remnants of his old life permeating his senses, he focused on the words he was about to say. “But I caught something interesting from one of the waiters.”

Sae looked up at once.

“Turns out one of those waiters is a friend of the kid, from Juvie.”

“I see.” Amidst the deathly concern for Makoto, a pang of lingering guilt assaulted her about Akira Kurusu.

“Far be it from me to mistrust law enforcement, but it seems to me they weren’t very thorough. This waiter kid, Yasunori Kujo…”

“That name rings a bell.” Sae rummaged through her memories. “Small time juvenile criminal. Multiple offences. Nothing big, but his name had a tendency of coming up in association with mafia-related cases. A reliable patsy by the sound of it.” She clung to the line of thought to distract herself from her own abyss. “And now he landed himself a job as a waiter? Curious…”

“Very. Now that you say it.” Sojiro acknowledged. “I’d be thinking this could be mafia-related, if not for one thing he said when I told him I knew the kid.”

Sae lifted an eyebrow.

“He never went into details about his history, but he did say that he decided to go legit because of Akira Kurusu.” Sojiro leaned back. “I’m just paraphrasing what he said, but Akira was the only one to stand up for him when something happened in Juvie. Even since, he vowed to look out for the kid and his friends. That’s why he did a little bit of eavesdropping that afternoon, he said.”

“Eavesdropping?”

“According to him, there was a strange mood around the table from the beginning. Like something was wrong with Akira. Futaba, your sister, and the others were trying to help him. He said things got heated for a moment, but they got better. Way he says it, Makoto got Akira to cool down. That’s when the kid says something strange. This Kujo fella was a bit vague here but he overheard something about Akira not feeling like himself and red curtains.”

“Red curtains? What’s that supposed to mean?” Sae’s expression turned inquisitive.

“Beats me. But apparently, everyone at that table vanished shortly after. Said he didn’t see it happen himself but they were gone by the time he went to check up on them, two or three minutes afterwards.”

“Quite incredible, even if one were to believe it.” The older Niijima expressed cynically.

“I’m not sure I don’t believe it myself, if I’m honest.” Sojiro prepared himself. “I’m starting to think this is not merely a case of missing persons, or even a crime-related disappearance.”

“What else could it be?”

“You’re not telling me you haven’t contemplated it yourself, Sae-san?” Boss allowed himself a little smirk. “It took me a while since I heard this guy out, but I may have to accept this has something to do what with whatever the kids did as Phantom Thieves.”

“Stealing hearts, exploring a world of altered cognition, seeing and doing things few others can do?” Disbelief gradually faded from Sae’s voice with every word. An actual methodical understanding of what the Phantom Thieves did in the Metaverse was beyond her, even when the plan to elude Goro Akechi’s scheme to murder Akira was disclosed at LeBlanc. But despite having no observable evidence for it, the truth behind their disappearance may truly fall within that realm of the uncanny. “… The police won’t be able to do a thing if you’re correct in your assumption.”

“Same for us, unless we somehow understood what goes on in there, wherever there is. If it would be of any help, I'm perfectly willing to let you have all of Wakaba’s research. Maybe you could make sense of it. And I may as well camp where the kids were last seen. It’s not like that business is precisely booming in that place right now.”

“It could also be a waste of time, you know.” Sae dropped her gaze back to her hands.

“Perhaps. But it’s still an alternative. Our hands are tied otherwise.” Boss stood up and took the liberty of heading towards the kitchen to put the kettle on the fire. “I’d do it all to keep those kids safe, and happy. Two of them see as my own, you know. My daughter and my son…” He paused as he browsed through the recipients of instant coffee. “Would you really leave any road unexplored for Mako-chan?” He asked rhetorically, already knowing the answer.

Sojiro eyed the coffee mugs neatly lined up behind the small window on a cupboard. Most of them unadorned, coated in warm, suitable colours – safe for one of them: a white mug with black polka dots, and a panda bear face at the bottom. Sojiro could brew a cup for Sae in that mug, fully aware of the leverage it could represent – cruel and shameless, but efficient. He saw no necessity for it.

“I got the heap down in my car, in case you’d like to start early. I’ll help out here as much as I can, but I’ll have to visit the soda joint again before it closes.”

“Alright.” Sae went towards the mugs on the counter, ready to pour the boiling water. Despite Boss choosing two orange mugs, her eyes still gravitated towards that Buchi-kun mug in the cupboard. Once upon a time, it was merely a souvenir from a leisurely outing between sisters. It was not until Makoto developed a proper taste for coffee that she actually started to use it. Given the timing of events, she started drinking from that mug after she became a Phantom Thief - after she met Akira Kurusu.

That young man.

Did he have a role in all this, given Yasunori Kujo’s claim?

While Sojiro went to his car to retrieve Wakaba Isshiki’s research, Sae allowed herself a moment of quiet reflection. The multiple faces of Akira Kurusu crossed her thoughts like cars on a train. The unassuming transfer student who wished only to keep his head down, the glowing young man whenever Makoto was around, the daring rogue in the mask, the vulnerable and wounded victim of interrogation.

Beneath that face lay another hidden layer, an episode that lasted only a few seconds during his interrogation: a face of unfathomable horror and grief, a thing most ill-fitting for a person his age, or perhaps for any person at all. Events followed their course afterwards, leaving the bizarre distortion forgotten. But why was this memory being brought back now?

To some extent, great or small, Akira Kurusu had a favourable effect in Makoto’s life. If not for him, and for the fold that gradually assembled around him, life as Sae knew it would probably be no more. If not for him, Makoto may be aimless, empty of the resolve that guides her every day. If not for him, Sae may remain a prisoner of her own misguided obsession with success. After a certain point, there was no denying it. Akira Kurusu had done nothing but good.

She could repeat this line of thought countless times, but at the end of it, a bitter thorn of blame pierced through every time.

It surely was not so simple so as to reach a conclusion this quick.

Sae Niijima could not help it: If it was all true, Akira stood responsible for Makoto’s disappearance.

She poured herself into the stirring of the coffee to get some needed distraction from the cruel duality of whens and ifs, and from the shadow that hung over Akira’s name. Sae correctly guessed Sojiro was undergoing a similar inner tempest. For all the ways he had to keep his cool, his brain twisted over the possibility that something was happening to his surrogate son right under his nose.

During times like these, when the wrong thoughts came at the worst times, both guardians could only resort to activity to keep themselves from tipping over. Pouring oneself into a purpose, however important or trivial. Her time would come to fully put her shoulder to the wheel, but for now, stirring the coffee would suffice to keep her mind focused on the activity itself. Makoto was the only thing she could not shut out – everything else had receded, both in thought and sensory reception.

It stands to reason that she never once noticed the flickering image of red curtains at her back. Gone as swift as it came.

[ ]

For a long time, Yuuki Mishima considered himself the unluckiest boy who ever lived. He now looks on this with some levity through the power of hindsight; but at the time, it felt much worse than that. All that experience should have prepared him for the events that kickstarted his second year at Shujin, but that somehow made the past torments seem trivial in comparison.

Every day was an ordeal, from the moment he woke up to go to school to the final exhausted seconds before he gave it to restless sleep. His torturer (and that of many others) was one Suguru Kamoshida, and during the peak in his reign of terror, he menaced to leave a permanent mark in everybody’s lives. It heinously happened that way for some, for Shiho Suzui - but not for Yuuki himself.

Then the Phantom Thieves happened, and Yuuki Mishima thought he may not be the unluckiest boy who ever lived after all. He, Shiho, everyone, now had a group of champions to protect them. Some wounds could not be undone, only cared after, but with the possibilities the Phantom Thieves made possible, all could at least look at a tomorrow to hope for. That was just what Mishima did. He found his own purpose in that tomorrow – and the luck that may have once shunned him now gazed in his favour.

But fortune was not what he saw after the strange girl in blue finished speaking. At the end of this awkward, outworldly inquiry, he saw responsibility. Akira and the others saved him. They gave him, and many others, a future. He helped them already once; he would do so again without a second thought. All he needed was to understand the situation.

There was no point holding the conversation at Mogami’s now that Lavenza had eaten everything in stock, and LeBlanc was not an option either at the moment. They spoke on the matter outside of a convenience store nearby while Yuuki humbly ate from a bag of crisps.

“So, this place, the ‘Velvet Room’ is in danger, and you need the Phantom Thieves to heal it, otherwise something bad could happen?”

“A very bad thing.” Lavenza eyed the bag of crisps, allured by the colourful design and the feint smell of salt.

“But what is this bad thing? Do you know?” Yuuki discreetly kept the crisps away from Lavenza.

“Hmm…” The young assistant went quiet in contemplation. “I do not fully know the extent of what could happen if this problem went unchecked. But the Velvet Room is a place connected to the human psyche, and the human soul through the space between conscious and subconscious. It exists because man thinks and feels, and dreams. If something bad happened to a place so intimately linked to humans, consequences for you all could be terrible.”

“That… does sound bad. And the Phantom Thieves visited this place?”

“Yes. But most of all, it is where their Leader amplified his powers.”

“By strengthening his Persona.”

“Personas.”

“I see.” Yuuki still could not entirely comprehend what a Persona was, but he felt intrigued nonetheless. It was this budding fascination that took hold of him for a moment.

“You do not believe me.” Lavenza took his silence as scepticism.

“It’s… it’s not that. Everything about the Phantom Thieves defies science. It’s almost like magic, fantasy made real. I’m just wondering if that has anything to do with their disappearance.”

Lavenza blinked mystified.

“Disappearance?”

“Yeah.” Yuuki’s expression turned sour. He decided he could not bring himself to digest anything but this situation, so he let Lavenza have the bag of crisps. The bag went ignored as the girl fixed him with big, yellow eyes. “Akira, and the rest. They just vanished. Not a trace left behind.” His voice broke. “It’s been days now.”

“This cannot be…” Lavenza shook her head, suddenly looking very much like a little girl, as if he held back tears; vulnerable and human, and completely at a loss on what to do.

Just looking at her, Yuuki himself felt so much smaller and frailer. There was no denying it upon verbally acknowledging it, which he had not done until now. The last time anyone said anything was when Sojiro’s concern started turning cold and harsh. Something inside of LeBlanc’s owner went dead after he received the phone call from Sae Niijima. Yuuki overheard it all, and he dreaded just being around him as he grew more and more tense. He was sure Boss would trash the place in anger, but his reaction was not what he expected.

Leave. That is all Boss said. It sounded like a word come out of an old grave. LeBlanc was dark and closed the next time he came by. Where life once varnished the walls and the air with warm vigour was now empty and dead. It was wrong, all of it. In principle and outcome.

Mishima could not allow it to be this way.

He thought days back, about Akira’s strange behaviour, about meeting up with Makoto to discuss it, about their plan...

…. Which led to the place of their disappearance.

“No…” Yuuki said with hands balled into fists, trembling. “No, no. I mean, yes. You’re right. This cannot be. It just cannot!” He stood straight, as if shaking his frailty off his shoulders. “This place, the Velvet Room. From what you’re saying, it’s beyond our world, right?”

“In a way.” Hurt was still in Lavenza’s expression.

“Close enough. Then, maybe, they disappeared off to a similar place? Somewhere outside our world? The cops say nobody saw them leave the building. It’d make sense, right? That they could somehow crossed over somewhere else?”

“Somewhere else… Possibly.”

“If we look at the place they were last seen, m-maybe you could find out how they disappeared and to where!” The volume in Yuuki’s voice increased, both to face his own fear and doubt, and to open a way forward, just like the Phantom Thieves did.

Lavenza fell quiet, pensive. Mishima’s words made more sense to her than he may have guessed. Everything is cognition, after all; the right mentality and the right eyes could possibly find a way where physical procedures and means have failed. The small girl stood tall, with the veil of welled tears clinging to her yellow eyes.

“Take me there.” The girl said with stoic vigour. As if to seal the resolve of her future actions, her hand plunged swift into the bag of crisps for a large, decisive, salt-sprinkled handful.

[ ]

Yuuki’s sense of temporality felt violently tampered with after Akira and friends’ disappearance. The hours felt longer than they were supposed to, and night still seemed to catch him unaware since. The lights of Shibuya did nothing to soak him with the collective energy of countless strangers, each a world of their own, each far extracted from the mystery taken place in Arancia’s second floor. Fortunately, Lavenza looked to have energy to spare for both.

The little assistant’s words were fresh in his mind. He was no closer to fully understanding it, but he sensed the urgency and the rise of the stakes as a conflict of his own. He should be prepared to accept, and if necessary, confront the unexpected. But in spite of this alertness, seeing Shogi sensation and former idol Hifumi Togo lounging by the soda joint’s entrance visibly threw him off balance.

His most immediate, and most inappropriate thought was that she looked even better in person. She radiated a traditional, dazzling kind of beauty, even with trouble written on her face. As if seeing the rising celebrity was not a shock on its own, the moment when he turned to look at Yuuki and Lavenza made the former break out into a sweat. The young man correctly guessed Lavenza’s strange appearance could get attention from even the briefest glance.

“Why are you stopping?” Lavenza asked with a frown. “Have we arrived?”

“Y-yeah. We’re here.” The way he broke eye contact from Hifumi was a most deliberate action. “It happened on the second floor, I think.”

“Very well.” Lavenza said nothing more. With no further instruction or questions, she walked into Arancia. Yuuki thought it best to go after her to keep her from making even more of a scene than she already, surely was. Furthermore, neither thought of any preparation or plan to justify their presence in Arancia. The establishment still provided service, but there was nowhere near enough of a clientele tonight to mask Lavenza’s presence.

“Excuse me.” Hifumi stopped suddenly. Yuuki swallowed audibly. “You mentioned something about this place’s second floor. Something happened in here, correct?”

“Um, yeah.” The young man stared wide-eyed despite himself.

“Do you know if it has something to do with one Akira Kurusu, or Makoto Niijima?”

“Well…” His hesitation to say was an answer in itself, and so was the fact that if he opened his eyes any more, they might fall out of the sockets.

“Are they okay?”

“I don’t know, to be honest.” Yuuki looked down. He was unbearably anxious, not only because of Hifumi herself, but from knowing there was only so much he could tell. “Are you friends with them?”

“Yes. They’re my friends. Akira was my pupil for a time. I thought I overheard something last night when I passed through here. I tried asking, but nobody would tell me anything.”

“I see… Yeah, he and some of his friends went missing in here.” Yuuki carefully picked his words. As admin of the defunct PhanSite, he had a relatively close knowledge of their activities. He knew now that Hifumi Togo was a friend of Akira and Makoto, but he guessed she probably was not aware of their other facets as two of the Phantom Thieves. Since their disappearance could be linked to that second life, Mishima’s breathing room was also restricted on the event itself.

The young woman went silent for a moment as she processed this information. “Are you their friend also?” Unbeknownst to Yuuki, Hifumi also weighed her words carefully. She knew Akira was a Phantom Thief, but she had no way of knowing how many others had that knowledge. For that matter, she did not know if his girlfriend knew it herself.

“Yeah. I came here to help them, somehow.”

“How do you intend on doing that?” Her voice cut with a little bit of an edge – a shade of her inner spirit, often translated into competitiveness.

“Uh, well, I… I thought I could start by getting some information.” He managed to improvise an answer both vague and sensible.

“I wish to help as well.“ Hifumi said, as if ignoring his response. The young woman fixed him suddenly with a look not at all unlike a wild cat ready to pounce and kill their prey. “I will help find them, no matter what.”

From this moment on, Hifumi would add her own efforts to his. But in gaining her as an ally in the search for the vanished Phantom Thieves, he was confronted with a daunting fact. She would inevitably find out the truth, one way or another. Perhaps that knowledge was essential if they were to succeed, but the uncertain consequences would surely await. Yuuki Mishima could not see past the menacing shadow of those consequences, but in this present moment, there was something he knew at his core: Hifumi Togo was terrifying.

[ ]

Sojiro Sakura still remembers. The sensation of tile and cobble against his soles, the way a suit fit on his shoulders and the constricting hold of the microphone-rigged tie. The sour taste of tension that lingered on his palate before and after. The way he would examine his own reflection on the silver lighter he used to carry, simply to know if the shadow of his scowl lingered at the end of the day. Night hangs over him, and exhaustion takes its toll. The man has not rested for a minute since the kids went missing. But as the wear and tear of the days past blackmails his eyelids into giving in, the mementos of his past cling to his senses.

They are a harsh reminded of the kind of man he was once – the kind of man that he needs to be now. A man of action, cool and sharp. Nothing would escape him then, not like Akira’s troubles escaped his attention now. And now Futaba and the rest were paying the price for his complacence. He would not stand idly by and let them pay for his negligence.

He came back to Arancia while Sae went through Wakaba’s research to try and find a way to rescue the kids, to try and find something that went unnoticed to other, more detached eyes. But this place had nothing to tell him, and if it did, he was too tired, too dulled-down to catch it.

Nothing to go by, except for how odd this place felt. The furniture and its arrangement was no less peculiar than anything downstairs. Colours were the same. But the atmosphere was different. It was as the air in this room belonged to different altitude, as if the sounds outside this place were more distant than they should be.

Was there actually something wrong about this place, or was it the feeling of loss permeating the room, left behind by misfortune?

One by one, the mementos of his past faded to obscurity. Boss was giving it to sleep, nodding as he tried to fight it. The orange around him became dark red, and the surfaces of the walls looked as if they were made of velvet.

A chill in the room.

Something wrong.

He knew it was there, but he could not put his finger on it.

Whatever it was, along with every single thing beneath the spectrum of visibility, was eluding him now.

The last thing Sojiro “Boss” Sakura thought he saw before the world went dark under the coat of sleep was a small blue form with big, yellow eyes.

Lavenza would have looked at him for longer. Same as Iwai, same as Yuuki, this man was close to Akira – she could sense it almost immediately. But no sooner she would, another sensation took over. This was alien and oppressive. Though her eyes sat unblinking on one place, the dreadful invisible surrounded her like a beast of a thousand eyes coiling with her at the vulnerable centre.

And beneath it all, the trace belonging to the Phantom Thieves of Hearts.

Lavenza reached one hand forward, slowly and very carefully, as if fearing the slightest excess would give her away to the hunting senses of some unseen predator. A gloved index finger poked hesitant at the air, causing a small ripple in front of her eyes.

There was no mistaking it now. This place was unlike any other she ever experienced before. It may have once served a much different, much more mundane purpose, but that was forever changed, altered. Beneath the stifling sensation of forbidden otherness in this room, the trace of the Phantom Thieves of Hearts’ fading presence pulsed the strongest. Lavenza could not tell if something incidentally caused them to vanish here to some other place, or if they were plainly snatched away.

If she concentrated the right way, if she put all of her intention into it, she may be able to fashion a door out of the ripple, a path that led her to Akira and the others.

But even with the menace that hung over the Velvet Room and the uncertainty of their well-being, would it be wise for her to simply cross over? Lavenza formulated an answer to that question by factoring in all she knew. The Velvet Room has never been compromised like this. The Phantom Thieves disappeared in this place, where cognition has so limited an influence. But if she could already feel its wrongness from this side, what would she be facing when she, inevitably, braved into the other side?

Everything is cognition.

Lavenza bit her lower lip with apprehension. She knew what she had to do; she only prayed it would not be too late by the time she reached them, wherever they were.

The little assistant cast one glance back at the ripple, fading now into stillness, as if it had never been there at all. When next she returned to this place, she would be prepared, in excess if needed.

Lavenza left the room, making towards the stairs down, but not before laying a compassionate palm on Sojiro’s hand. She did not need to ‘look’ to see how troubled this man was – how badly he was hurting right now, even in his sleep.

Chapter Text

The battle died down, but there was no peace to be had. Behind thick walls of dark soil turned to warm granite, the Phantom Thieves were safe from all harm outside. Still, something about the way Susumu Kamiyama commanded his Persona to erect this fortress struck them oddly; a brief, but obvious change in demeanour, a blink of self-indulgence, a touch of glee so poorly suitable for the bleak urgency at hand.

His words seemed to echo in the air, even within the confines of the structure.

“Look upon my works, you mighty, and hope!”

The rapturous face that conjured this shelter into being was gone as soon as it had come, leaving behind the humble, sober features of Susumu Kamiyama. The weariest lines of his face stood out from the flame Ann summoned to bring warmth and light within the fortress. Whenever he looked up, the Thieves could see the shame and the concern in his eyes. But most of the time, he observed Akira, slumbering still – his head carefully cradled on Makoto’ lap. Keen observation skills and battle-hardened instincts kept her aware of all that surrounded them, but her eyes did not leave her boyfriend. She watched patiently for even the slightest variation in his face. A twitch of the mouth, the subtle motion of dreaming beneath eyelids, something, anything to tell her that he was there, surfacing from sleep.

Susumu Kamiyama’s momentous words were not the only thing lingering in the air. Though the tears stopped, Ryuji’s furious sobbing stuck in fresh memory. Despite the countless ordeals the Phantom Thieves endured, the notion of Skull breaking down into tears never crossed their imagination. But there was no holding it back when he realised his best friend was not waking up.

“What did you do to my friend!?” He cried out on the first association of Kamiyama with this alien world. “What did you do to him!?” Ann and Makoto were ready to hold him back if his rage led him to attack the older man, but grief rendered him too weak for that.

Makoto bitterly thought Ryuji may well have wept for them all. But that was not true, for she was on the verge of breaking down at any moment. It took all of her fortitude to keep tears at bay; she could not afford them, nor any distraction, however slight and insignificant. She needed to catch every single word that came out of Susumu Kamiyama’s mouth, any problem, explanation, or clue, anything that could lead to Akira waking up.

Anything that could lead to Akira healing.

“Kamiyama-san.” Haru was the first to break the silence. “Are you the chairman of White Pheasant?”

All sans Makoto looked at her. Yusuke seemed particularly taken aback by her question.

“I am.” The man acknowledged without the least bit of pride.

“Noir. Do you know him?” Futaba asked.

“Something like that.” The young woman looked sombre. “It’s not important.”

It was with great discretion that Yusuke placed his hand on Haru’s, as his mind went through some of their past conversations. Whether the young woman appreciated the gesture, there was no telling, but only an instant later, she looked up towards the older man with steel in her gaze.

“Kamiyama-san. I believe it’s due time you told us about this place, and your role in all of this.”

“Yes… indeed, Okumura-san.” The man approached candour with some degree of modesty. This directness served a purpose beyond acknowledging how Haru’s mask hardly concealed her identity without her hat on; perhaps he could convey his purpose better by summoning a truth he still remembered – and hopefully Haru did as well.

The young woman only frowned on Susumu’s addressing, but said nothing. She only urged him to speak with a nod.

“In order for me to best communicate the reason to this world, I first need to tell you about myself, and about the late Kunikazu Okumura. Miss, I knew your father, and I know, as well as I hope you do, that he was once a very different man. You see, he and I shared a philosophy from the earliest days of our friendship. We believed that it was every man’s duty to help their fellow somehow. We were both initiated early in entrepreneurship, and as our enterprises grew powerful, we each chased this philosophy. But all throughout, we knew that sacrifices needed to be made along the way. The success that would allow us to fulfil this purpose would always come at a great price.”

The man sighed with painful remembrance.

“I believe Kunikazu lost sight of this purpose somewhere along the way, and the sacrifices he was willing to make were no longer bound to it. Perhaps, he merely reached the vanishing point much sooner than I did…” Susumu rubbed his eyes for a few seconds, only now realising how tired he felt – not from the events occurred on the last hours, but for the life he had led for the over a decade now. “In time, I too realised how naïve we were, both of us. In this world, there’s only so much one man can do, even with power and money. One will alone is powerless when few others care to put their shoulder to the wheel. From where I stood, seeing my old friend go down a dark path, the country, maybe the world was without a hope.”

He turned to look at the Phantom Thieves with eyes twenty years younger. “Until you came along. In less than one year, you accomplished far more than I could have hoped for in twice my lifetime. You forced the wheel to start turning. Society could be reformed, after all. The world could be better…” Kamiyama looked into the fire, looking lost. “What happened? Why did you stop?”

“Kamiyama-san?” Fox asked, taken aback by the suddenly vulnerable tone in the man’s voice.

“No… I’m sorry. You must have had a reason to leave the process incomplete.” The old man sounded like he struggled to convince himself. “Regardless, the good you’ve done would eventually be undone. And things would regress to how they were before. That was when he showed up in my office.”

“He?” Panther asked with suspicion.

“My benefactor. A friend, I suppose. He shared my beliefs, on the state of the world and on the influence you had through your deeds. He was very… passionate about it. He fervently said there was still much to be done to heal the world. You may not have gone through with it, but you still provided with the tools to make it possible. He had power of his own. Not much, he said. But it would do, given time.”

“This benefactor.” Queen said. Her voice had not smoothed down since she last spoke. “Who is he?”

“He is…” Susumu Kamiyama fell quiet. “I know his name. He… he told me it. But it escapes me.”

“That’s some bullshit. I’m not buying.” Skull snapped.

“Skull.” Oracle tried to pacify.

“Name or not, did this benefactor and his power lead to this?” Mona straightened out the line of conversation.

“Yes. We agreed that the solution was simple, in theory. We needed to create a new, different world, parallel to our own, but free from certain burdens, certain… nuances that constitute our society, yet keep the individuals chained. Without such contradictions, human kind could thrive, be happy and free.” Subdued enthusiasm and faith coloured his voice. “He could create that physical world, provide it with the necessary elements to sustain life. But that alone would not do. He… we needed a paradigm to guide us all. He explained that a specific worldview constitute make that paradigm. A special individual was needed to shape the reason of this world.”

The Thieves followed the man’s eyes to Akira’s slumbering body.

“No…” Queen whispered in dread.

“He said we needed one who rejected the contradictions that kept our society going. A compassionate, brave individual.” Susumu’s voice trembled slightly. Tears started welling up in his eyes. “A rogue to break the chains that bind us.”

“What did you do to him?” Only Joker’s body kept Queen seated. But her desire to beat the answers out of the man radiated off of her very presence.

“His method was to replicate him. Make a template out of his inner self to be our guide and to give this world its reason. The template was made one year ago and it has slept since, growing into his own being, his own self. That is how the new world will dawn. This way, no harm would come to this young man.”

“No harm...? ARE YOU SHITTING ME!?” Skull stood up, walking menacingly towards Kamiyama.

“Ryuji!” The word slipped by unchecked from Panther’s lips as she tried to stop him. In spite of her need to keep violence at bay. She was one of a mind with her boyfriend – all of the Phantom Thieves were.

“No! Do you have any idea of what this guy’s been going through because of your new world fuckery!?” Skull growled.

“Skull… we don’t know if those two things are related.” Oracle said dejected.

“I know they are. I know they fucking are.” Fury and grief mixed in the young man’s voice.

Through it all, Queen fell into dark silence. Considering what Susumu had told them, the relation between his plan and Akira’s condition was dubious. Or so it would be, if not for one thing in particular he said. The template was made one year ago. Akira was still in Kawasaki then. The love between Makoto and he bridged the distance on a nearly daily basis, but one day, he simply went silent. He went dark; in fact, all of Kawasaki did.

This was the missing piece – the one that had been eluding her.

Makoto remembers the infamous Kawasaki Blackout, but not by the event itself. She remembers it by what happened to her boyfriend that night, when he slumbered deep for four days after sleepwalking throughout town. This incident was chalked up to stress, even after the follow-up with a specialist. The fury of the Queen was slowly defeated by the memory of Akira’s voice on the weeks afterwards; how he tried to reassure her that everything was fine, how she believed it. They buried the incident so deep down, it was all but forgotten by the moment she surprised him in the subway on the day he returned to Tokyo for good.

And now, the darkness of those four days sprouted out from the soil to haunt them.

Makoto heard Ryuji’s voice in the distance, yelling at Susumu Kamiyama, while Ann and Futaba tried so desperately to calm him down. But the cacophony fell soundless on her ears. All she could hear was Akira’s voice in a dearly preserved memory.

“I’ve slept enough, my Queen. I dream of you a lot, and I feel terrible when I wake up to find I no longer have you in my arms. But that’s okay.” He smiled warmly on his side of the screen. “It’ll be no dream when I finally return to you.”

The righteous anger that had been building inside of the young woman, consuming her from within, was drowned in the tears that poured out.

“… Makoto.” His voice reached her from beyond the confines of memory. She almost could not believe it when her eyes met his. Open. Awake.

The nerve of him, she thought, that even now, he would reach out with a hand gloved crimson to wipe her tears away.

“Guys! GUYS!” Morgana yelled eagerly – too eager for him to think of saying anything else. And one by one, as the other Phantom Thieves peered over Queen’s shoulder at Mona’s behest, they shared in the cat’s mirth and relief.

Little did they know, Joker’s own relief reached deeper even. It was not the first time he had seen his friends becoming undone. They literally ceased to exist before his very eyes when Yaldabaoth removed them from the world’s cognition. However horrendous that tightly-escaped demise was, this was somehow worse. Akira Kurusu got to see his friends resist their executioners, and fail, being unmade one by one. And he could do nothing to stop it.

Their being all here safe and around him momentarily robbed him of his ability to say more than the name of she he deeply loved.

They were fine. He was not, but that was the smallest of his thoughts at that moment.

Akira managed to lift his head off Makoto’s lap. It took him a greater effort than he imagined, but he figured it must be from having just woken. However, as he tried to standing up, his legs gave way, and he fell to the ground, rousing a dusty cloud off the fortress’ stone floor. His wounds were healed, but he still felt drained of all energy. Around him, the shadows of his friends shielded him as they helped him up; through a small gap between Yusuke and Futaba, he caught sight of the man who halted the onslaught. He too, had stood up from his seat on the other side of the improvised bonfire, fixing him with saddened eyes.

“Stay the fuck away from him!” Ryuji shouted at the man.

“Ryuji, there’s no need to…” Ann tried to ease him down again.

“No.” Susumu said. “Young man, you are right to be brash. I did you wrong, Kurusu-kun. Despite our intentions, what we did was so wrong.”

“What are you talking about?” Akira asked confused.

“It’s… a long story.” Makoto placed her hand on his shoulder. “Let us help you first.”

Susumu Kamiyama retold his story to Akira. What links he made to the late Kunikazu Okumura he now replaced with a more direct approach to the young man himself. Much like Makoto did herself minutes ago, he too was now piecing the truth together. But though he was at the centre of this scheme, he felt like he knew even less than before.

All unwilling visitors to this world were now up to speed about its origin and purpose, but too much was still a mystery, especially when it came to Akira’s doppelgängers. When time came to address this hideous blotch in the composition, even the surrogate host to this world appeared hopelessly mystified.

“There’s still too much you’re not telling us. I can feel it.” Joker sounded uncharacteristically stern. “This ‘template’, as you call it. Is it supposed to be another me?”

“Yes, Kurusu-san. Another you, crafted on the same heart, the same values and drive. He is to lead this world into an enlightened future.”

“Momentous, but too vague for my liking.” Fox remarked.

“So true. Kamiyama-san. What exactly does all of this entail, and how do his strange doubles figure into this?” Panther pressed, taking the initiative where Queen traditionally took the lead. Quite unlike her usual self, the Phantom Thieves’ second-in-command remained ominously quiet.

“I… I’m afraid I cannot say regarding Kurusu-san’s doubles. I had little more than a brief glance when I reached you. But I have no reason to doubt what you say. Something must have gone terribly wrong for more than the template-born-replica to exist.”

“And they all wielded Personas.” Morgana added. “Could that be because Joker can summon multiple Personas himself?”

“Most likely. This is what is called the Wild Card, is it not?” Susumu inquired.

“Precisely!” The feline confirmed, instantly noticing something peculiar about the man’s words. “Wait, how is it you know about the Wild Card?”

“That was knowledge imparted unto me by my benefactor. He assured me, this would be instrumental for the template. You see, the ultimate, concrete goal is for all who inhabit this new world to live fully aware of their selves, including the most intimately subconscious. When living in acceptance of the shadows that dwell within, they will be enlightened, illuminated… just like you. One who is able to explore multiple facets and planes of the soul would be the ideal guide for one such paradigm.”

The Phantom Thieves all exchanged uneasy looks, save for Joker who seemed absorbed deep in thought, eyes fixed on the fire.

“Earlier, you mentioned something about us not being supposed to be in this world.” Mona continued. “What did you mean by that?”

Kamiyama sighed.

“This is something else my benefactor told me.” By the look of the man, he was well aware that sole mention of this mysterious personage filled the air with vague unpleasantness. By now, he too started to feel apprehension at the very thought of him. “As you may surmise, this world is still young. It’s barely a step above a blueprint. For it to begin growing, it needs a very specific stimulus. That is, your presence, Kurusu-san. When sensing you, your perfect double will rise and manifest… but only in your presence, none other’s.”

“Did you make it so I’d be meant to set foot in this place?” Joker asked dryly.

“Yes. In time, the gateway into this world found you. Only one moment would be enough. I never meant for you to be lost in here for as long as you did. The same goes for your friends. I promise I will see to all of your well-beings, but I must stress: the rest of you being here may be causing unforeseen consequences.”

Akira remained silent. Susumu Kamiyama’s responses said so much and yet so little. The only true light the man’s words shed on his thoughts were the matter of Akira bringing his friends into this world, to feel fear and to suffer the cruel wrath of aberrations bearing his likeness. Though this was only an accident, to Akira, it was as if he had harmed his friends himself. Far over the questionable ramifications to Kamiyama and his benefactor’s plan, deep, dark guilt was all in his mind.

It took him little imagination to feel, to know that Boss was hurting about this incident, to know Sae blamed him – but nowhere near as intensely as he blamed himself. He could sense Yuuki, Hifumi and Yasunori’s concern. And strangely, he could also feel Lavenza’s distress. And he felt himself responsible for it all.

In his deep, dark introspection, Joker failed to notice Oracle’s sudden look of alarm. It was at the girl’s discreet sign than Queen finally spoke again.

“Group meeting.” She said curtly. “Please excuse us.”

While unable to look at the others in the eye, he joined his friends swiftly, and quickly noticed how much distance they put between themselves and Kamiyama.

“Guys…” A distinct tone of alarm could be heard in Oracle’s hushed speech. “I’m getting a reading, a really, really bad one.”

“An enemy?” Noir said quietly.

“Yeah… but that’s not all. I’m getting a really weird vibe around us. It feels dangerous. Really dangerous.”

“I think I know what Oracle means. I can smell something outside… I think it’s Shadows… and something else.” Mona spoke.

“Shadows? In here?” Skull questioned.

“Maybe that’s one of those unforeseen consequences that guy is talking about.” Panther suggested. “What are we gonna do?”

“The walls in this place look quite unbreachable.” Queen said. “Strictly speaking, there is no reason to go outside. We could well be safe inside. However…”

Joker finally looked up, finding her eyes first.

“I don’t trust that man.” The lieutenant acknowledged.

“Joker, what should we do?” Fox asked their leader.

This time, the Wild Card’s response delayed little.

“For all we know, there are only foes out there. Those… things may still be lounging about, and I’m not sure the so-called template means good news at all. But we should be ready to head out, regardless.”

“Don’t trust that fucker, either?” Skull flashed a gnashed grin.

“No. I certainly don’t.” The more Joker reflected on Kamiyama’s words, the more he suspected.

“He and his so-called benefactor have done this without your consent or knowledge.” Queen’s eyes seethed intensely beneath the iron mask. “I don’t care if his long-term goals could be noble. I see no reason not to think of him as a menace on his own right. And he speaks of his end goal for this world, but what does that mean for ours?”

“Indeed.” Joker nodded. “Oracle, I will need you to play it discreetly for a moment. Mona and you will scan for the path of least resistance. We may need to dash off soon. In the meantime, I will try and get him to tell us where…"

“He rises.” Susumu cut in from his place around the bonfire. His voice sounded distant and off-kilter. “He rises.”

A faraway sound penetrated the thick walls of the fortress like a grave, perennial hum. Tremors; the earth was warping. Not a grain of displaced dirt fell from the joints that united the walls with the ceiling. The place would hold, regardless of what happened outside.

Why then did Joker feel like they were in close proximity with the greatest menace yet?

Then, for a moment, the beating of his own heart felt like another’s, slightly off-rhythm, quicker despite his own pulse remaining constant. Or was it the other way around? Was the running of his blood through his veins unbelonging to the beat of his heart? Akira did not even wish to blink for fear of what he would see in the dark of an instant.

“Joker?” Queen called.

“Joker…” Susumu spoke with a voice that was not his own. “He rises.”

He did not sound human at all.

Sensing danger, all Phantom Thieves took their accustomed battle positions, with Joker and Queen at the vanguard.

Though the dwindling fire left the sight of Susumu Kamiyama receding into the shadows of the fortress, two bright, yellow irises bridged the gloom and the distance, staring straight ahead.

Susumu Kamiyama grinned wide.

Chapter Text

Time ago, Yuuki Mishima would daydream about sneaking a girl home. Two years back, his friends and he attempted something similar by hiring a maid for the night. It was not quite what he had hoped for, but the prospect was too tantalising to reject. Before that night came to a close, their escapade met an awkward derailing. He never did let go of the prospect, nonetheless. Now, circumstances compelled him to truly sneak a girl home. But once again, this was far from what he had hoped for.

If there was any consolation, it was that Lavenza was small enough to sneak about the narrow hallways in the Mishima household. The young man’s frame did more than enough to shield her from his parents’ eyes as she made for his room, as quiet as a shadow. While he kept up some small talk to buy Lavenza enough time to creep along the hallways, he mentally prepared himself for what would no doubt be a long night sleeping on the floor of his cramped up room. His back felt stiff already.

Lavenza spoke too quickly for Yuuki to keep up with everything she meant to say. All Yuuki and Hifumi understood was that she had a plan, but she needed plentiful provisions beforehand. The girl in blue did not regard Hifumi Togo any different than Mishima, sensing the same familiarity with Joker in her; therefore she relayed all of what she gathered in her presence as well. Yuuki noticed Hifumi was relatively unfazed by the subject of the Phantom Thieves, which hinted that she also knew who they truly were.

Perhaps, he thought, others knew about the Phantom Thieves’ true identities also; people who would care if they came to know about their disappearance. Furthermore, something very serious was occurring aside – something that needed the Phantom Thieves’ attention, judging by Lavenza’s words. It was very clear to Hifumi and he that they could not stand idle while this strange, blue-clad girl did her duty. The last thing the two did before parting was exchanging contact information and be ready for the following day.

One day having Hifumi Togo’s phone number was one thing far beyond Yuuki Mishima’s wildest imaginings, but it was no occasion to feel glee over such a thing. For that matter, thinking of the next day’s works was also out of the question when he had a very clear problem glaring straight at him in the present moment: keeping Lavenza, a formidably curious individual, from disrupting the logic to the chaos in Yuuki’s room. All of his filming equipment was out in the open, as were his reading materials on film theory and multiple drafts in the narrative screenplay to his documentary on the Phantom Thieves.

He knew his passion project was of minimal importance in face of the current threat, but there was no reason to endanger his undertaking just to give Lavenza a roof for the night. Quite as he feared, the girl took notice of it all as soon as she entered the room. Lavenza was nowhere near as quiet as he would have liked when she asked about these artefacts. She seemingly ignored his fidgety explanation as she went over to the desk and focused on the things she believed she could readily understand: the stacks of paper containing several drafts of the film’s narration, all belonging to the auteur’s reflections.

“Very eloquent.” She said, as her eyes dashed through the lengthy paragraphs at inhuman speed. “What’s all of this?”

“It’s, uh, something about the Phantom Thieves.” Yuuki rubbed the back of his head.

“That much I can gather, but what’s the purpose? All these objects, they’re to be applied on your writings, are they not?”

“Well, yeah. But, I guess it’s something of a complicated question.”

“Why so?”

“What?”

“Why is it a complicated question?” Lavenza repeated herself patiently. Mishima was somewhat accustomed to people punctuating each word with a slightly hostile inflexion, as if they were diminishing him. To hear a departure from that was as reassuring as it was surprising. “What is your reason?”

“My reason…” Yuuki did not need to give this much thought. The answer was an immediate awareness, bonded close to his work. “I want to tell a story about what the Phantom Thieves mean for the people they helped.”

“Did they help you?” Lavenza was curious to know if that was why she sensed such strong connection to Akira in him.

“Yes. Yes, they did.” A flash of times past brought a shadow to his brow. “In many ways. I know I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them, and I know it was the same for many others. I wish to tell all their different stories. But I also wish to understand the Phantom Thieves’ sense of justice. I cannot be a Phantom Thief, but I want to live with justice… with dignity.”

“So this is an effort to communicate to others, and to your self?”

“I think so.”

“Good.” Lavenza said, her voice sounding a little distant. It was one thing to contemplate Akira and his friends’ deeds on a general sense, but to observe it all on a closer, more intimate scope was to acknowledge the individuality of the human soul, in all its countless variants, its transformations and expressions. Limitless paths to one place located in the spaces between. Yuuki Mishima’s reason was a gloom reminder of Lavenza’s own.

“What can I do? How can I help?” The young man asked, unknowingly aiding her from dwelling.

“I’ll need you to help me procure resources. Great, energising food, and weapons.”

“W-weapons?”

“In great quantities. Should I err, I will on the side of safety.”

“If you say so…” His mood slightly deflated. He then wondered if it would truly be a good idea to get Hifumi to help them. “What exactly are you going to do?”

“The site of the Phantom Thieves’ disappearance, that place is…” Lavenza squinted as if the right way to conceive the place and situation escaped her. “... can be a gate, leading somewhere. I don’t know what is on the other side, but I’m certain the Phantom Thieves are there.”

“But the weapons… do you think it’s dangerous over there?”

“I’m certain of it.”

Deep, constant worry was not a state foreign to Mishima. But years of precariously living on the edge of his nerves were still poor preparation now. A sense of hopelessness settled over him, knowing he might not fully comprehend all the nuances to Lavenza’s plan. All he could do was do his part, and hope for success. It was too late to turn back, and even if there was a chance, he did not think he would pick an easy way out of this.

“Alright, then. If it’s gonna be dangerous, maybe you should get an early night.” Yuuki suggested. “You can have the futon. I’ll… sleep on this… rag.”

“Sleep.” Lavenza squinted at the mention of the word.

“Yeah.” Yuuki repeated awkwardly. Every minute she spent asleep would be one minute she did not spend potentially scrutinising through his film equipment and drafts.

Yet he already suspected it would take some time for the girl to turn in. The notion of sleep was a peculiar thing to Lavenza. It was not a need to her, or her siblings; just a thing they did every now and then when they could think of nothing else to do. Margaret did it the most, but never when the others were awake. Theodore had a tendency to ‘take naps’ at uneven intervals, and Elizabeth never slept at all. Lavenza wondered if those patterns would translate into the ways each was approaching the trouble around the Velvet Room.

Lavenza never did observe her own sleeping habits, so the equivalence could well be lost on her. It mattered none: she knew what she was going to do on her end, and that sufficed. But perhaps Yuuki Mishima was right, sleep could be a sensible measure before the long day ahead. She took him as an example, as despite being incredibly uncomfortable, he managed to fall asleep. She stated without blinking for a moment, and wondered if sleeping was something she could do at will, whenever she pleased.

Her last waking moment on the dark side of morning had her thinking of Akira’s sleep on the days since he said his farewells to the Velvet Room. She hoped he slept well, wherever, however he was.

[ ]

Yuuki still felt baffled when morning came, as his parents seemed blissfully unaware of Lavenza’s presence in the Mishima household. It was not that she brought any attention to the young man’s room, incidental or not, but somehow he felt that her very being summoned eventfulness towards her. But as if his guest was not outlandish enough, seeing a message from Hifumi on his phone early in the morning made him question whether he was awake or asleep.

Hifumi: I’m available and ready. I await your response.

It was sent twenty minutes ago. Yuuki practically fumbled with the device for around two minutes as he hastened to reply.

Yuuki: About to feed Lavenza. I’ll let you know when she’s ready to go out.

The young man mentally kicked himself after sending the message, out of how much it sounded like Lavenza was a pet of sorts, but having witnessed the aftermath of her visit to Mogami’s the day before, the phrasing may not be entirely unfitting. The girl, however, did not seem dissatisfied with the half portion Yuuki managed to smuggle into his room. Just a few minutes for a quick shower, and the unlikely duo was out in the streets, ready to carry out the plan.

Following a brief text conversation, they agreed to meet with Hifumi at the Ginza subway line under Shibuya. One awkward ride after, they met up with the young woman in the subway station, wherein Lavenza relayed the ins and outs of her plan, including the nature of the Velvet Room and the possible dangers at hand. There was no telling whether Hifumi understood anything beyond the need for her to procure good food and weapons, but she certainly seemed attentive and interested in Lavenza’s words, stopping her every now and then for some clarification. At no point did Yuuki hear disbelief or sarcasm in Hifumi’s voice.

“Food and weapons.” Hifumi repeated to herself. “I don’t suppose any type of food will do.”

“If I’m right, any type of food could have some effect. But delicious, truly delicious food would yield better results.”

“Then, perhaps fast food won’t quite do the trick. I mean, those burgers over there are nice, but I wouldn’t go as far as calling them ‘truly delicious’.” Yuuki scanned their surroundings in search for viable options. “Maybe food from a diner or a restaurant?”

“I think she will want something handmade, something with ingredients chosen and cooked with the utmost devotion to the craft.” Hifumi brought a hand to her chin.

“When you put it that way…” Mishima’s thoughts immediately went to Boss and Akira. At this time, it would be their curry what best suit Lavenza’s needs, and it also happened to be the least viable option at present.

“There are many possible alternatives. But the other need worries me the most…” Hifumi said.

“There is no need for concern regarding that.” Lavenza smiled confidently. “There is an individual around these parts that can provide us with a grand arsenal.”

“Huh?” Yuuki and Hifumi uttered in unison. They shared a look of apprehension as they each thought dreadful images, cariscaturesquely akin to bloodthirsty thugs, smugglers and hitmen.

“Follow me!” Lavenza ran off into the streets of Shibuya, following the memory of the previous day and the invisible trace that led to one individual in particular. Though these sights were no longer unfamiliar to her by now, she still walked the streets like an outsider – this time with careless abandon, earning looks of astonishment and suspicion by becoming a blue and white blur plunging into the alleyways.

Her companions had no choice but to run after her, and pray. They gained the luxury of stopping for breath when they saw her walking into a somewhat unfriendly-looking establishment by the name of UNTOUCHABLE.

Promising.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me…” A man growled within. From outside the airsoft store, Hifumi and Yuuki overheard his deep, gravelly voice reacting to Lavenza. Regardless of their reluctance, they walked in and immediately froze at seeing the man behind the counter, whose appearance was somehow more intimidating than his voice.

And yet, Lavenza did not seemed fazed in the slightest.

“I’ll have all your merchandise, please.” The girl said with an easy smile on her face.

And of all the possible reactions one could possibly expect to follow such request, Iwai Munehisa only looked moderately annoyed.

“You’ll what now?” Iwai grumbled. “You two come with her?” He turned to the two frightened youths, who were only now taking notice of the merchandise around them. Iwai could basically smell their fear.

“W-w-w-w-w-w-w-w-we were just, oh god, we w-w-w-were just leaving, I swear!” Yuuki stuttered his way towards Lavenza, feeling intense fear at every step. Behind him, Hifumi’s lips quivered as if she also were stuttering, but no words came out – not at first, before they stopped moving.

With a quick, very audible sniff, the young woman stood straight, and steeled herself for the moment.

“Yes, Sir. She’s with us.” Hifumi all but marched her way to the counter next to Yuuki and Lavenza. “Please, supply her with the materials she requests. It’s of the utmost importance.” Having said this, she bowed in ceremony, and stayed like that.

Yuuki was too busy staring at her to continue shaking.

“Damn it, kid. What the hell is going on?” Iwai asked Lavenza.

“You see, Sir. There’s a lot at stake. I need all the resources I can procure to-“ The girl began.

“Hold up, hold up, hold up.” Iwai rubbed his eyelids. “Save it. Just answer me this. Does this have anything to do with Akira?”

The mention of his name made Hifumi’s posture ricochet straight. Both she and Yuuki were wide-eyed and pale at the apparent connection between this man and their friend.

“You know him?!” Yuuki asked a bit louder than he intended.

“Something like that.”

“I can sense a very strong bond between this kind man and Akira.” Lavenza nodded. “I know he’ll do what he can to help us find him.”

“Find him? Wait, what? Something happen to him?” Iwai looked at them all with alertness, suddenly looking uncharacteristically humane.

“He is… missing.” Hifumi answered. “As is Makoto Niijima, and several of their friends.”

“Shit.” The man took off his hat and put it despondently on the counter. “You there.” He spoke to Mishima. “Flip the sign.”

Once UNTOUCHABLE was ‘closed’ for the time being, they were at freedom to bring Iwai up to speed. Yuuki prepared himself to hear Lavenza’s narrative for the third time, hoping to understand further than he did the two times before. Hifumi’s interest did not wane in the slightest though there was nothing different about the girl’s words this time either. Neither of the two youths could read Iwai’s expression. They could not tell if he believed Lavenza, or if her words were causing him to lean in favour of their request.

The man’s expression did not change at mention of the Phantom Thieves either. Yuuki approached the possibility that this man knew their true identities with caution.

“So that Niijima girl is a Phantom Thief also. Figures.” The man chucked. “Alright, so… going off what you say, they were spirited away, somehow, and they may be trapped. And you think they’re in danger.”

“Indeed.” Lavenza said calmly.

“And you need them to save this Velvet Room place, but you don’t really know what exactly is wrong with it, right?”

“I don’t. But if something were to happen to it… It’s a place of vital importance for you as well, even if you’ve lived unaware of it, it’s a haven for the human soul beneath the plane of the conscious. It exists for and because of it.”

“And you need my stuff because it will turn real on the other side…”

“I believe so.”

Silence. Yuuki and Hifumi exchanged nervous looks.

“Alright… I’ll just-“ Iwai began, but Lavenza enthusiastically cut him short with the brightest smile he had ever seen.

“Excellent! You’ll be well recompensed for this, kind Sir!” Lavenza dug into the pockets of her coat, pulling out obscene amounts of money in countless currencies, and putting them in careless handfuls on the counter, just like she did back at Mogami’s.

“Wait, wait, WAIT!” Iwai exclaimed, seeing the amount piling up exceed the quantities of a small fortune. “Keep your money. Just…” He paused, and fished out a couple of notes that would equate to a box of lollipops, and a replacement for the mirror in the store’s restroom. “Just stay put. I’ll be back in a minute.”

The man went to the back of the store and brought a large cardboard box with him.

“Here. Kurusu gave me a lot of stuff when he left Tokyo. Said it was a thank you, that I could fetch some money with it” He opened the box and pulled out several artefacts, guns and blades of all types, the likes of which he had only seen in his son’s cartoons and manga. Despite their uncanny appearance, they all looked as real as the rest of the things he sold. “These others, though, he only asked me to keep since he couldn’t take them with him. But even the ordinary stuff… never could bring myself to sell any it, you know?”

“Is this the stuff they used…?” Yuuki asked.

“Yes, it is.” Lavenza’s pupils dilated as she held up a shining revolver. “Judge of Hell… Michael.” Lavenza remembered the day he asked her – back when she was split into Caroline and Justine – to fuse a powerful Persona with a base gun model he found, to make something grandiose out of it. She scanned each item, remembering the occasion like it was only yesterday Akira stood in the Velvet Room, pushing and fighting through his rehabilitation.

Behind her, Hifumi stared at every weapon with awe and wonder, feeling an old vigour kindling.

“Stuff like this, turned real, must pack a punch.” Iwai chuckled.

“Thank you so much for your help, Iwai Munehisa.” Lavenza spoke warmly. “I will never forget your kindness.”

“Think nothing of it. Just… er… keep me updated about Akira, alright?”

“We shall.” Hifumi said with enthusiasm.

In the meantime, Lavenza carefully took every item in the box and deposited in the inner pockets of her coat. Sometimes, she would struggle with getting a grenade launcher or an axe through, at which point, Yuuki had no alternative but to help her, all the while Hifumi and Iwai stood mystified. When Lavenza was finally done, there was not even a lump sticking out in her blue coat.

Suspension of disbelief was a thing much altered since the days of the Phantom Thieves. Still, it was quite the spectacle to see this strange little girl defying the laws of physics like this.

Next was the subject of food, which as Lavenza explained, would serve as a resource of reinvigorating properties if needed. The better the food, the more lasting the effects. If things were as bad as Lavenza feared, the Phantom Thieves would need food – rich and hot, and lots of it. Despite Yuuki’s earlier concerns, this proved the most troublesome step, seemingly making little more progress than when they discussed it earlier.

However, in the end, their inability to decide on one thing proved to be the solution. Quality was a necessity, but diversity could only prove efficient. Thus, Lavenza tasked Hifumi to buy food from the best places she knew in the area, providing her with enough money to make the purchases, and then some – a quite large some. Meanwhile, Lavenza and Yuuki would get food on their own somewhere else. Mishima knew what she was talking about as soon as she brought it up.

And indeed, quite as he expected, this meant Lavenza wanted to return to Mogami’s to clear the place out again. The owner of the small restaurant visibly panicked as soon as they walked in, his anxiety peaking as once again, the girl in blue far overpaid for a week’s worth of food. His daughter Yumeko showed great diligence in trying to calm her father down. This episode would have his regulars know him as Howling, Screeching Mogami. Regardless, this time Lavenza showed considerable restraint, consuming only one helping for herself; Yuuki got to eat as well, as they remembered to buy one for Hifumi as well. But everything else the restaurant had to offer was destined for the Phantom Thieves of Hearts.

As they walked out, Mishima looked in the direction of LeBlanc, and saw it closed. Sojiro Sakura was probably not at home either.

That evening, Lavenza, Yuuki and Hifumi reconvened at Shibuya, the latter carrying plentiful plastic containers, each with a delightful, carefully picked, culinary choice.

“I really don’t know what to make of all this.” Hifumi told Yuuki as they witnessed Lavenza stuffing her inner pockets with the food. This proved far less difficult than storing weapons, but just as laborious in terms of quantities.

“You mean as in, being able to do that, or… in general?” There was a hint of exhaustion in the young man’s voice.

“Everything has been a shock these past few days.” Hifumi looked up at the purple-turning-grey in the sky. “Do you think it’s silly of me to think like this after Akira and the rest?”

“Not really.” Yuuki thought his response. “I think there will always be one thing to be surprised about. I think it’s a good thing. Keeps life from getting boring, or hopeless.”

Hifumi hummed in acknowledgement. Neither denial nor agreement. Now that their mission for the day was coming to an end, she was alone with her thoughts and her increasing worries. At the end of the day, everything was oriented to saving the Phantom Thieves, to saving two of her dearest friends from an unknown menace. But perhaps, she dared to suggest herself, things were not actually as bad as they seemed.

But when did that ever hold true?

Lavenza was finished packing everything she needed. She approached Yuuki and Hifumi with decisive steps. The girl they saw was unchanged in appearance, but her eyes no longer gave off the same aura. She was no longer some alien little girl lost in the city. She was now a soldier, ready to march a battlefield, not knowing and not caring for any guarantee of her own safety. Yuuki Mishima hardly knew her, but he was saddened to see her about to give her farewells.

“Thank you so much, Yuuki Mishima, Hifumi Togo.” Lavenza bowed in a manner more belonging to European aristocracy. “For all you have done for me today, and for the help you have given Akira Kurusu throughout his journey. You two have proven a vital part of it, and I, as well as my siblings and my Master owe you a debt of fathomless gratitude.” Lavenza looked at them with tenderness. “Fare well.”

“Wait.” Yuuki stopped her. “There has to be something else we can do. Please, tell us how we can help them, help you.”

“All I can think of is… “ The girl in blue slanted her head in contemplation. “Be well, be kind. And keep your friends in your thoughts always.”

The echo of her words kept the two youths in place as they saw Lavenza disappear into the crowd. Neither of them knew just what to make of the hesitation each felt, but they shook it off and walked into the rivers of people, knowing she made for the second floor of Arancia.

Shortly after, they arrived at the soda joint. Hurrying to climb the stairs leading to the haunting site of the Phantom Thieves’ disappearance.

“Lavenza!” Hifumi called out loud, but all she and Yuuki got was a fleeting glimpse of blue disappearing into the invisible. She thought she saw something like ripples cast in the air, distorting the view of the room. At this point, the young woman doubted she imagined that.

“Who was that just now?” A low, familiar voice reached Yuuki’s ears. As he turned to the stairs, he saw Sojiro Sakura, standing tall and looking exhausted. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“That was…” Mishima processed Lavenza’s explanation, heard three times across the last two days. But try as he might, he could not hope to faithfully relay the same information as effectively. So he decided to speak from the heart, not caring how compromising the information may be. “She’s a friend of the Phantom Thieves, of Futaba, and Akira, and Makoto, and Ryuji, Ann, Yusuke, Haru… and the cat, I think. She’s trying to find and help them. As are we.”

Sojiro remained silent. He dragged his feet towards the table where all eight sat days ago, and dropped himself into a seat.

“Boss… are you okay?” The young man was worried.

“Do I look okay to you?” His made as if to reach for a cigarette, but they had run out again.

“Boss, it’s complicated. But they may have disappeared into another world. I don’t know why, or how. Still, there must be a way to get them back. I mean, Lavenza, that girl in blue just went in. I’m sure she’ll make it. But there’s something else going on, and I’m not sure I understand it well myself. We’ll need the Phantom Thieves.”

“Haven’t those kids been through enough already?” Sojiro said.

“Yeah, they have. But they won’t be alone, whatever it is they have to do. I’ll do all I can to help, Boss.” Yuuki spoke with a resolve that took even him by surprise.

“I’ll help as well… Boss.” Hifumi said, adding her will to Yuuki’s, and Sojiro’s.

“Alright…” Sojiro Sakura conceded. “I’ll be counting on you.”

“Thanks, Boss.” Yuuki bowed no differently than Hifumi did earlier for Iwai Munehisa.

“Now…” Hifumi took a seat at the table. “There are things you need to know, things I didn’t know about myself days ago. I think we are to understand them if we mean to aid our friends. But first… “ Hifumi pulled out a plastic container with food she set apart for her own consumption. “Please eat, Boss. You don’t look well.”

While Hifumi encouraged Boss to eat this hasty dinner, Yuuki thought about the things he has learned so far. If there was one thing he understood clearly, it was that several people knew the Phantom Thieves in a more intimate scope than most people, all of whom appeared to be friends of Akira Kurusu. If the Phantom Thieves of Hearts had managed to work anonymously for as long as they did, it must mean these people were trustworthy enough to safeguard the knowledge.

At this moment, Yuuki Mishima himself did not know a concrete way to aid Akira and the rest. But others may. He vowed to reach out to others like Hifumi, like Iwai, and himself. The young man had not the slightest doubt they too would put their shoulder to the wheel.

Chapter Text

As the flame in the fortress danced its last, the shadows that surrounded the lone figure of Susumu Kamiyama leapt and shifted as if they were extensions of his own body. The intangible appendages encroached from the man’s meagre frame towards the Phantom Thieves. All eight stood prepared for a possible enemy attack, especially their leader, who sensed ominous oppression in his very veins. The fact that he still felt weakened did not dull his resolve.

The memory of what occurred when he tried summoning Satanael was harrowingly fresh in his mind. He did not know if he could summon Arsene, Cybele, or any of his other Personas without facing the same outcome. But these concerns he pushed out of his head with inflexible certainty. Regardless of his spoken intentions and the apparent nature of his character, he was a threat.

“My apologies.” Susumu spoke, still grinning wide. “I do not mean to put out the flame around which we gather for warmth. Kingdom, palace, dusty cave… Every abode man has inhabited necessitates a gentle light of care to keep the horrors at bay.”

“Kamiyama-san?” Noir said cautiously.

“Yes, Kamiyama. That is certainly me, and that is certainly my name.” A flash of doubt crossed his factions. “What would you have of me? Would you like me to rekindle the fire? My pleasure.” The man approached the flame Panther had ignited. He only needed but one sloppy snap of his fingers for the small fire to come alive in a grand column; the embers that sprung forth all spiralled outwards and faded after.

If for only a moment, the humble expression of Susumu Kamiyama returned to his face as he looked upon the fire. Three seconds of uncertain respite, before his lips again curled into a disgustingly wide smile.

“Fire is what makes a home. A fine fire this is... a home, a nucleus for the new world….”

“Oracle, Mona.” Queen spoke hushed. “Have you detected the path of least resistance?”

“We’re not entirely sure if it’s the best option, but we’re sensing a lighter concentration on our twelve.” Morgana responded.

“Meaning we’ll probably need to fight our way for an escape, right?” Panther confirmed.

“A chance for an escape, more like.” Oracle remarked.

Though dire circumstances made their attention on the details sparse, seven of the Phantom Thieves recalled how the fortress came to be. By the power of his Persona, Ozymandias, Susumu Kamiyama erected the structure around them, so there was no route outside to run for. If they meant to flee, rather than fight, their best chance would be to burst through the fortress walls. But that raised an alarming problem in Itself: if this sheltering edifice was purposed to protect them from Akira’s doppelgängers outside, could they even hope to make a dent on the surface?

“What is the matter?” Susumu asked, completely without reverence. “Is there something wrong? Do you suspect I may be a threat you? Do you… wish to leave?”

The Phantom Thieves said nothing, but their body language betrayed their intent.

“Do not look so surprised, my much esteemed Thieves of Hearts… fear is something I can recognise at the most imperceptible shudder of the mind. You could say fear is as much part of me as it is part of you.” If only for a split second, the man’s face was entirely different. Joker was not sure how could it be, if it was something beyond a cruel jest of his imagination, that Susumu Kamiyama’s face suddenly resembled his own father’s.

The only constant in that flicker of perception were the man’s bright, yellow eyes – similar to a Shadow’s.

Was this man in reality a Shadow?

“That can be arranged for.” The man said with Susumu Kamiyama’s moderate tone, only to shift back into his distorted, menacing demeanour. “Through Ozymandias, I built this shelter. Through Ozymandias, I can provide a way out into the fields of mauve and dusk… Let’s give that a try, shall we?”

With a snap of his fingers, Ozymandias materialised at Kamiyama’s back. The composition of the scene was the last thing of relative calm before the fortress violently mutated. Joker felt the floor beneath him shake with a jolt. The young man instinctively turned to look behind, and found only his lover standing at his side, but the rest of his friends was nowhere to be seen. The scream came afterwards, before anybody could try and make sense of what was happening.

“WHAT THE F-!?” Skull’s voice could be heard briefly before a rush of distance muffled it mute.

“J-Joker!?” Queen noticed they stood on a narrow strip of floor with an abyss in front and behind them, which was not there a second ago. The sudden shock made her lose her balance, but Joker caught her hand before gravity pulled her down. No sooner he did so, the patch of ground in front of them surfaced upwards at a daunting speed. A flash of red and blue indicated that Panther and Fox stood on this patch. Makoto turned to Akira and only got a fleeting glimpse before the ground under his feet sank.

Queen precariously stood alone on top of a column, vertigo pulling her from all directions. Despite the situation at hand, her inner fortitude and physical strength kept her standing, even as blocks and columns of granite flew around her with no discernible order. It was as if the fortress was reassembling itself into something new. Makoto no longer possessed notion of above or below, left or right. The confused and scared cries of her friends came to and from, flashing by and then disappearing just as quickly.

But amidst the chaos, one small platform floated down, slowly landing in front of her as if it was an elevator about to reach her floor. From their attire, Makoto recognised this individual as Susumu Kamiyama, but the head she saw standing on his shoulders was one she pined to see in her dreams, but never imagined she would see again: She saw her father, Akihiko Niijima, staring straight into her eyes as the platform descended further, soon to vanish from sight.

But this was a depraved mockery of the man who raised her. She was greeted with spiteful joy instead of the warmth and stoic fortitude she remembered in her father. His eyes were bright yellow, rather than the deep, reddish brown she and her sister inherited. Though instinctively aware this was a terrible – perhaps deliberately so – mirroring of Akihiko Niijima, the sole impression took her balance from her. And she fell from the column, thoughtless.

All around Makoto Niijima was the pitch black of the abyss. Her friends’ terrified voices were nowhere to be heard. The young woman kept her eyes open as her body travelled through the abyss, falling or rising, she did not know and she did not care. Even as her eyelids began to ache, she would not blink for fear of seeing that man’s face in her mind’s eye. She found herself mindless to the likeliness of perishing soon, but a small speck of dust in the distance retained what focus was in her.

Little by little, the speck grew bigger until it became a small square. That too grew bigger, and she reasoned the increase was actually proximity. Then, in the very centre of that square, she started to see red, black and white.

It was Joker, gloved hand reached out, dire urgency in his factions. In his eyes, there was a plea.

Do not give in.

Queen closed her eyes to bring one image into thought. Her father, the real man, the author of her illusions of the future and her principles. She let that image, that warm smile fill her insides as she felt her boyfriend’s fingers entwine with hers. They held tight, linked against the chaos.

The perception of her body in relation to her surroundings returned gradually, and soon she realised they were falling. The air resistance beneath filled her nostrils with speeding, overwhelming wind.

“Dad.” Makoto uttered, feeling this may be the last word she would ever speak.

Then, the ground met them both, impacting against their chests, and expelling the air from their lungs. The break of the fall was unpleasant, but far from the fatal outcome physics dictated it would be. Makoto opened her eyes and saw her lover struggling to stand up, grunting under his breath, isolated on top of a block hovering over the void. As she turned around, she caught sight of all their friends, each standing on a platform of their own. Judging by their faces, they too experienced something nobody could put into words.

A dim, yellow light appeared amidst the darkness. It radiated no warmth. Lines slowly began to appear around it, seemingly random at first until their placing and shape revealed it to be originating from inside a vaguely human-looking mouth. Two dark fingers delicately plucked the light out as if it were a small egg. The Phantom Thieves gravitated around this puny sun laying atop the palm of a hand; they were all transfixed, clinging to the one certainty they had: that all eight of them were there, alive still.

The palm closed around the light, audibly crushing it. Instead of the absolute dark, they found themselves in the interior of the fortress, standing before the pillar of kindled flame. Their surroundings unchanged, as if nothing happened at all.

But they knew something happened. And Susumu Kamiyama knew that as well. His face shone bright with cold sweat, as if he just woke up from a terrifying nightmare. But the quivering of his lips, and the feverish, bulging look of his eyes hinted at something worse – a terrible experience they could only guess at.

“There’s not much time…! You must leave!” Kamiyama yelled out. His eyes shut in painful strain as he commanded Ozymandias. A tunnel started to form nearby – a way out.

“No…” Joker said seething. “Not until you answer our questions. Who… what are you?”

“I am… “ The man opened his eyes – they were again an ordinary, earthly, human shade of brown. “I am Susumu Kamiyama. I am Susumu Kamiyama. I am Susumu Kamiyama!!!” His words turned into a scream. “Quick! You must go! He is coming!!!”

“Who is coming?” Queen demanded.

“The life made from the template… the other Joker.” Kamiyama’s knees gave way. “That’s what he wants… that’s what he’s wanted from the beginning!!!”

“He? Are you talking about your ‘benefactor’?” Joker asked.

“Yes…. He lives in me. I feel him taking over.” His voice broke. “I don’t know what he seeks. But this world, his Joker… they suit his purpose. He… he must be…. No, no time…. I made a way out… Take it… Please go…”

“His Joker…” Akira repeated the words, as if savouring for a hidden meaning he could also know a hint of.

“Akira.” Makoto placed her hand on his shoulder, urging him to run into the tunnel.”

“I’m sorry… I’m so sorry, young man…” Susumu Kamiyama’s face contorted sorrowfully, as if he was being broken from within, twisted beyond mending by the weight of his own actions. Akira had no words to give the man in response. The young man was empty of all things but the drive to get his friends to safety, and the pervading sensation of being somewhere, somebody else at that moment - a feeling experienced with increasing frequency on recent days.

The way out of the fortress was long and arduous. The Phantom Thieves ran as fast as their legs allowed them, with Skull at the lead. The path ahead was a straight line, but the low visibility and the rumbling sounds of warping stone imbued the trek with labyrinthine confusion. Eventually, a distant smudge of purple and red marked the way out. With each step, and each pant, Joker felt the sensation of displacement with more intensity, translating thus into a loss of synchrony with his own limbs. Only by sheer will and dominion of his own body could be keep up.

“We don’t know how much resistance we’ll encounter.” Joker yelled loudly. “We’ll need to split into two groups and surround the fortress, and we’ll meet on the other side. Skull, Mona, Noir – we’ll go left. Noir, Fox, Panther – you’ll follow Queen to the right. Understood?”

“Got it!” Mona spoke for them all.

The risks of Shadows spawning outside notwithstanding, the plan operated on simplicity. If they were swift enough, they could make a clean getaway towards safety. But as they soon found out, this could only work on the assumption that things remained the same as before Kamiyama built the fortress around them. Their plan met early failure when the shock of seeing the world outside the fortress made them all stop dead in their tracks.

The landscape had changed. The plains, the slopes, the valleys, the strand, and the distant mountains – all shifted into strange, impossible forms. The boundless ocean they dubbed a landmark drained its waters by torrents that spiralled out into the skies. The mountains rippled waves that somehow did not even shake the ground around them. The trees, the grass itself twisted into swirling tendrils. And the clouds beneath the foreign constellations receded past the horizon, past the reaches of sight.

Behind them, the great stone structure was also changing. It grew taller, wider as it reached greater heights. And soon, the fortress became something else; castle, ziggurat, an alien hybrid of olden constructions, titanic in size, and unmakeable by human hands.

And true to Oracle and Mona’s assessment, the immediate region in this mutating landscape was populated with Shadows, the very same shapes they remembered from the voyages into Mementos. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them. But not one of them seemed to notice the Phantom Thieves. The Shadows all gazed immobile in one direction; those who were closer to the ongoing shifting of the land were sooner crushed or swallowed than disrupting of the collective behaviour.

Far away, the atrocious figures of Akira’s doubles also stood still, gazing in the same direction as the rest.

At first sight, this represented a golden opportunity to escape somewhere calmer. But was there such a thing as ‘calm’ in this world anymore?

Chaos is all there is. That, and one question nobody dared ask or contemplate to depth. The Shadows, adversaries by design to the Phantom Thieves; the gangrenous replicas of Akira Kurusu, who made easy prey out of the mighty. All were subject to some great unknown lost in the distance. What could case such menacing beings to gaze so intently?

Morgana climbed Yusuke’s shoulders, seizing the considerable growth spurt the young man experienced upon turning eighteen, and watched.

“I don’t like this.” The feline said. “It’s quiet and still.”

“What are you saying, Mona?” Ryuji snapped.

“Everything around us is changing quickly. But this one place far out, it’s still. It’s not moving or changing.”

Akira said nothing, but he suspected. And as soon as the words formed in his mind, it came into view.

The world went silent, and the light of the stars was put out. A lone silhouette rose in the distance like a flare elevating. A blanket of what looked like black flame extended outwards, edging on a luminous circular crown. A dark sun.

“In the beginning of what you may call time, the Earth originated from a cosmic phenomenon. A burst of immeasurable proportions that gave way to creation out of destruction.” Kamiyama’s voice broke the silence. He was unseen amidst the almighty darkness. “It was a random, highly specific set of chemical configurations what spawned the first life forms on the planet. The rest I’m sure you can surmise… But thought, consciousness, the notion of self, it existed an awful long expanse of time before. And its name was Chaos.”

Akira felt a spike in his pulse. Though he could not tell by sight, he knew the figure in the distance was starting its approach.

“Do you know the first thing Chaos’ disembodied awareness did upon encountering the first thinking human being, huddled by the fire, instinctively staying its eyes from the darkness at his back?” A pause. “Chaos chuckled, on the art of deviants, on the irony that this being, this living machine, specifically fashioned so, was begotten on millennia of disorder - of random, spontaneous occurrence. From that day on, Chaos sired human kind forevermore, until the last living thing that thinks and feels expires.”

The uncanny star’s approach was slow, but at every millimetre of its movement, Akira felt a strange pull towards it.

“No matter what some may stubbornly think, there is no denying the pull humanity feels towards the Chaos that fathered it.” Kamiyama let loose of a tone of spite. “With or without me, breathing, thriving in this paradigm, Chaos continues to guide humanity. That said, I have been kept away long enough. I couldn’t let that continue, my dear puny playthings. When this world is complete, and the other is rendered obsolete, I will again take my rightful place.”

“What do you mean? What are your intentions!?” Morgana demanded to know.

“Wouldn’t you love to know, you sweet, sweet aberration?” Kamiyama snickered. “The uncertainty from withholding something so desperately pined after is such a delightful sampling. But I’ve taken a shine to you, righteous agents of Chaos, Phantom Thieves of Hearts, reforming society through subversion.” He mocked. “I’d say you deserve to know… after all, these Shadows, my children, you opened the gates for them to join us when you accompanied your Leader on his way through. And he, your Joker… just precious. I had one of my own, I tell you. To see such… unique incarnation… it fascinates me so.”

“Speak!!!” Akira spouted angrily. “What do you want!?”

The dark sun’s approach increased its velocity. The light returned to the world as it drew nearer.

“What I want… is to exist once again. To walk amidst the galaxies and observe the countless and the fathomless. To assert my will as perennial force, drive, causality. To make my voice heard across all creation so HE will know that his sacrifice was in vain.”

“Sacrifice? What are you talking about?” Queen called out loud. “You are not human. What are you?”

“Ah… that’s an answer I’ve been dying to declare since my banishment.”

Against all laws of physics, the spurious star that rose from the depths of this world did not consume the surface with its approach. It gave off not even the slightest warmth, and its dim light illuminated little; still, in a proximity of one kilometre, it sufficed to bring light to the structure around which the world transformed. The Phantom Thieves looked up and identified the figure in the guise of Susumu Kamiyama standing on a ledge. Yet each of them saw a different face at the same time, sometimes more than one, but in every instance, the very sight made them shudder to the core.

“I have a variety of names. Sadly not as many as the archfiend of the human mythos.” The individual looked down on them no different than a God gazing on vermin. “Before making my home in the soul of Susumu Kamiyama, I was known as the Man in Black, the Pharaoh, the Messenger of the Outside, the Faceless One, the Stalker among the Stars. the Fear of the Dreamer, the Father of all Shadows, the Maw, the Crawling Chaos...”

Bright yellow eyes looked ahead, shooting across the distance, directly to the silhouette at the centre of the false star. Its eyes then opened, and the world knew light once more.

“I AM NYARLATHOTEP.”

Chapter Text

The world that once was momentarily sunken in premature night slowly met the light once more. The Phantom Thieves stood before the false sun that was birthed from the depths, and observed the figure at the centre of it descending. Its silhouette was at first distorted by the smudge of unnatural, black flame. But soon enough, each of them saw the outline of its frame, the hint of its features, the intricacies to its bearings. It stood a meagre twenty metres away – one more copy of Akira. But this one was not like the horrors that preyed on them moments ago.

From the way the three-tailed black coat sat on his shoulders, to the gentle ruffling of the wind on his hair, this was a perfect replica. Its arms reached out to its sides, and each finger stretched with adept grace befitting of proficient hands. Even beneath the white mask, its factions highlighted the Joker’s bold demeanour. When it came to physical design, the only differences were its eyes, whose sclerae were pitch black in contrast to bright, yellow pupils. And its skin looked both smooth and hard, as If masterfully carved out of pale, slightly pink marble.

Regardless of the uncanny resemblance, they all knew this being was nothing like Akira beneath the mask.

“Welcome to life, my dear Joker.” The one who had been Susumu Kamiyama spoke. The voice of Nyarlathotep sounded like many, different voices speaking simultaneously; each variation expressed covetous claim to this final replica.

As way of response, ‘Joker’ sighed, and the world shuddered with a cold breeze that shook the grass and the Phantom Thieves’ spines. It looked up at the ledge on the fortress and found his Master’s baleful, though strangely affectionate regard.

“Not much of a speaker… It’s a shame, but I’ll live.” Nyarlathotep grinned. “I live… I live. I live!” The Crawling Chaos started to cackle with sick glee.

“This thing doesn’t look like the others…” Panther remarked, mystified and unaware.

“A fine observation, young lady. That is because this Joker, my Joker is not like the other aberrations. This is the promised one, the one incubated in the heart of the world I created, nurtured by your…” He turned to Akira, looking at him with an expression that clearly spelled repulsion. “… Joker. Or, I should say, the template built from the shadows in his heart.”

“The shadows in Joker’s heart?” Queen turned to Joker. She could not bring herself to ask what Nyarlathotep meant by that, but the briefest hint of a question she had in her eyes was quickly met by an answer in her boyfriend’s. He was squinting in self-inquiring fashion, digging into his own psyche in search for an answer; yet there was enough distress in his eyes to hint at suspicion of a truth most horrifying.

“All other replicas… I suppose we could deem them Failures. Imperfections sprung out of the soil.” The man of many faces spoke. “Unintended, unwished… but they may yet prove useful…”He smiled.

“Guys!?” Oracle’s voice broke in. “I’m sensing another presence! It’s powerful!”

Futaba’s words went ignored in face of the next few seconds.

“Joker… Dear, dear Joker.” Nyarlathotep declared. “My very own agent of massacre. I command that you set foot on this crowded soil… AND OBLITERATE YOUR BOTCHED SIBLINGS!!!”

His words still echoed by the time his Joker was on the ground, dashing towards the first of Akira’s doppelgängers at a daunting speed, with clear, murderous intent. Sight took a while to catch up to sound, or perhaps it was the mere lasting impression in the Phantom Thief’s ears, as the only thing left after the sickly crunch of bone and muscle torn apart were several chunks lying on the ground, incomplete remains of an Akira-shaped replica.

Two more were made short work of with similar brutality before the remaining doppelgängers started to fight back with their strange, flawed Personas. The legions of Shadows summoned into the shifting landscape joined the fray, lashing out at Nyarlathotep’s Joker, perhaps instinctively regarding it as a target of priority over the Phantom Thieves.

But despite being massively outnumbered, ‘Joker’ steered the carnage to its despicable whim. At one turn, he eliminated Shadows at a frightening speed. At another, he focused on slaying his kin, waving off all magic attacks and riposting with death at the tip of its limbs. And all throughout, his Master delighted on the view from his leisurely spot, cackling, pressing a hand against his stomach, and pointing like deranged Caligula.

The reception of the spectacle in the rows beneath was vastly different. Even if Akira’s replicas had nearly killed them earlier, to see them torn asunder thusly was not a pleasant experience for the Phantom Thieves. Some looked away, others shut their eyes. This moment was especially hard on Makoto, for even if these copies were disgustingly flawed, they still bared sufficient resemblance to the man she loved. It took painful little imagination to change the scene, and witness this Joker violently murdering Akira – her Akira – time and time again.

And even when she shut her eyes, nothing could save her from the sounds that hardly wore off memory. Her horror - and the others’ - was such that it took a while for them to find their Leader’s sight to undo this harrowing spell. For this reason, nobody noticed Akira’s face as he beheld the bloody spectacle. He did not share their horror; his own mind at that moment was a more unforgiving torturer. At the end of this train of thought, he extrapolated that ‘he’ was ‘killing himself’.

Part of him felt it was fitting.

“Wait!” Nyarlathotep regained his composure for a brief moment. “Those two! Take your time with those two!” He spat. “GO TO TOWN!!!”

The unholy laughter continued as ‘Joker’ prolonged his work on the last two of Akira’s replicas – the ones who commanded Apollo and Artemis. It was by this moment that the Phantom Thieves summoned enough fortitude to seize the moment and make their escape. Though there was no chance to stick to the original plan, all eight were still divided by waves of Shadows that finally noticed them with hostile intent. They had no choice but to fight for their chance to get away.

The dark, sludge-like masses burst into varied forms, demons and spirits, most of which were familiar to them.

“Damn it!” Skull growled.

“It appears we’ve little choice but to fight.” Fox cupped the hilt of his sword in preparation.

“Listen everyone!” Queen called. “The plan is still on! We’ll need to clear a path through all these Shadows!”

“Roger!” Mona was the first to summon his Persona for this new fray. “I can see an emptier patch that way!”

“Alright. We’ll need to keep it attack quickly and make a run for it as soon as we make up room.” The team’s lieutenant confirmed before turning to their Leader, who stayed uncharacteristically quiet when he would usually take the initiative. “Joker?”

He nodded in acknowledgement; no words from a voice Makoto desperately needed to hear at that moment. As Akira advanced to meet a pack of Archangels, she realised with alarm that there was one thing she had not accounted for: could he fight in his current state? His capabilities to summon a Persona were likely impaired, if his attempt at summoning Satanael was anything to go by. Even after the healing touch that undid the damage from a losing battle, he took a long time to wake back up. By this moment, she suspected that just being in this place drained Akira of his strength. Words of caution began forming in her throat, but not quickly enough to stop her boyfriend from launching his own offence.

“Arsene!” Joker called. Unbeknownst to Queen, he himself did not know if he had the necessary vigour for the present conflict. Nevertheless, his original Persona burst forth from the ether in powerful, infernal fashion with little problem. The Trickster decimated the unfortunate pack of Archangels with ease.

The potency of his attack was quite the fond sight for sore eyes. But the silence preceding it was not like him at all. Now was not the time to dwell, however. Their Leader had effectively sounded the war horn. It was time to stand their ground and give no quarter.

In face of familiar enemies, the Phantom Thieves’ collective attack had no weakness or hesitation. All eight, working as one, constituted a relentless force, so mighty that the prospect of suffering such a crushing defeat earlier would seem unthinkable. But as the seconds drew on, the resistance they faced only increased.

The seconds turned to minutes, and the distance they covered was woefully little. Soon enough, two things became feasible. One, the clear patch Mona saw in the distance, their desperate bid for a haven in the midst of chaos, would likely be no more if the battle drew on for too long. Two, the number of Shadows that swarmed around them was not decreasing; there was no guessing when, but they would surely be overwhelmed unless there was a drastic change in the tide.

And there was also the glaring factor of Nyarlathotep’s Joker. It could be surmised that this copy of Akira could also summon a Persona, or several. Yet, its own hands sufficed to destroy Akira’s flawed replicas. What that meant in relation to the Phantom Thieves was a thought too frightening to entertain. It truly was Nyarlathotep’s own, seemingly arbitrary cruelty what kept his Joker’s attention away from them. But even the sickly show of violence was bound to run its length.

All they could hope to do was escape before that happened. This meant fighting harder, meeting their limits and somehow push past them. It was then that instinct of self-preservation took over, and every angle to every thought ended in ‘do or die’.

Joker knew his friends were not falling like before. He could feel them, he could feel their fight. But he could not see or hear them. Everything to the outer reception of his senses was a smudge from which he could discern nothing. Inside, pain and exhaustion strained every muscle and nerve inward, as if his core were being crumpled into a bloody lump, pulling every limb into its messy centre.

And still he fought like his and their lives depended on it. Because they did.

His friends, each shared the same experience, with the small variations pertaining to their individual ways to war. The situation also demanded them to brave out of their comfort zone. Even their navigator had to somehow weaponise means fashioned for support, transforming abilities that would improve her peers’ performance into raw gravitational force.

But even these extraordinary efforts were starting to prove fruitless. Nobody wished to think of the failure that glared at them with cruel glee. Instead of that, one member of the Phantom Thieves in particular caught something in the corner of her eye, something that stood out from the leaping dirt, the sand and the broken pieces of Shadows flying about.

Queen saw a blue butterfly crossing her line of sight, fading out as soon as it appeared.

It was only a second, but the trace it left in her would long outlive the moment itself. The light it gave off barely illuminated beyond a radius of three centimetres; it radiated no warmth, but she still felt a cool breeze grazing her skin, even beneath her Queenly bearings. And for as long as the butterfly was there, she thought old, familiar smells and sounds were summoned all into that one second, mingling with one another until the boundaries of sense were undone.

A moment, in itself uncanny amidst the strange, which left her unprepared for a strike against the side of her head.

“Makoto!!!” Akira’s voice fell distant on her ears. There was no pain. For that matter, there was not much of an injury. Still, she was knocked down and unable to stand back from the weight of an Oni’s foot against her ribcage.

She looked at the shape of the Shadow took, into its eyes, and somehow they seemed different to her now. It was as if there was something hidden beneath this brutish form, a mind, a will pulsing behind the monster’s eyes, a mind – intending to harm her, but a mind all the same.

The strange moment was cut short by Joker pouncing the demon off of her. The young man’s face betrayed his own physical state. Still, he pulled her back on her feet with seemingly no effort. This brought Makoto fully to the present. And so began an assault in tandem at the hands of the team’s leaders. Together, they vanquished the Oni that had knocked Queen down, and a score further for good measure. Even if their efforts met severe adversity, fighting together was a peculiar, unspoken joy, one that could at least keep their spirits up.

“Did… did you hear that?” Queen asked Joker.

Astonished, he turned to her, wondering if she meant the same thing he believed he heard just an instant ago. It was not a sound he perceived with his ears. Joker heard her call inside of his head.

“Did it happen to sound like someone we know?”

“I think it sounded like Lavenza…”

Their eyes met in the middle of battle. No words were wasted on wondering how. All they knew is they needed to reach her; for if they heard correctly, it must mean she was in this world as well. Had Lavenza somehow found a way into this world, she may also find a way out of it.

No more than conjecture; alas, a better means than what they had. Joker and Queen nodded to each other as they sealed the plan.

“Everyone!” Joker called out loud. “Disengage, and follow us!”

“Huh?” Mona perked his ears.

“Where’re we headed?” Skull grunted as he threw a small battalion of puny forest spirits off of his shoulders.

“Somewhere safer.” Queen answered. “Please, trust us on this.”

“A hunch, would that be?” Noir’s voice rang tainted with venomous anger. “Fine by me!” With those words, she had Astarte clear the immediate vicinity of the direction the team’s leaders pointed towards.

“Let’s go!” Joker gave the command. And so, the Phantom Thieves began their hasty exodus.

In less than a minute, the distance cleared by Astarte’s artillery was filled once more with Shadows. Joker and Queen could still hear Lavenza’s calling, but they would not risk it fading at their delay. They could not afford to waste any more time or energy fighting off the Shadows.

“Hey, I got an idea!” Skull’s eyes lit beneath the mask. He stopped running only for a moment to summon Seiten Taisei. “Hop on!”

The young athlete was the first to jump aboard the cloud on which the monkey rogue surfed the heavens. Panther, and Fox climbed aboard next. Oracle put Skull’s idea into practice and beamed Noir and Mona up into Prometheus’ compact spherical dome. Joker and Queen were the last to hop aboard Seiten Taisei, clinging to its right shoulder. And away they flew towards some unknown destination only they could sense.

Their airborne advance was not as agile as they would have liked. It could hardly be, given how Seiten Taisei had to carry five passengers in a means designed for one. And it was no stretch of the imagination that Oracle, Mona and Noir were squished together inside of Prometheus. Still, the dangers they had to stave off was greatly decreased. The winged Shadows were not as many, and whichever managed to get near was repelled with relative ease. Soon, these too grew in number, and began their aerial chase.

“Alright. Um, you guys can tell us where we’re going anytime.” Panther said.

“Just… a little further.” Joker could still hear Lavenza’s voice in his head. They continued to cover ground, and they saw that the Shadows now dominated everything in the extension of land that remained whole. The landscape was a grim confirmation about the futility of their original plan. At one point or another, all eight would have been overcome in the mayhem. And so would Lavenza. “There.” He pointed.

He did not see her with his eyes, but he knew she was there, decimating Shadows with the Personas in her compendium. Akira remembered Lavenza’s test back in the day, when she was divided into two aspects of her personality, united then by a desire to test his mettle. Besting them was more than a challenge. Lavenza’s power could probably be greater now that she was whole, but even she may not endure indefinitely.

From the corner of his eye, he spied Makoto. She too was focused on the same direction, as if knowing the precise spot, long before the girl in blue came into view. She was engaged in dire combat against scores of Shadows. It seemed as if she was reaching her limits. They needed to rescue her quickly. Prometheus’ abilities, while precise, were not quick. There was only one alternative to assure their getaway.

“Yo! Is that…” Ryuji lifted his mask to get a better view.

“Yeah.” Akira climbed down from Seiten Taisei’s shoulder, landing next to Yusuke. “We need to get a little lower.” Carefully, he made his way to the edge of the cloud, and poised himself ready to snatch Lavenza with them. They needed to be careful so as not to fly her by. Should this fail, a second attempt would have them turn around and face the flying Shadows in pursuit. “A little more…”

“Shit, be careful.” His best friend concentrated to control the flight in its very minute details.

Joker’s upper half hung from the edge of the cloud, with his arm stretched as far as it could to the ground. Lavenza was still about twenty metres away, but it did not seem like he could reach her. He edged a little further out. Yusuke and Ann gripped one leg to anchor him as he hung almost to the point of falling over. While Ryuji managed flight control, Makoto stood vigilant for any incoming threat. And sure enough, it proved a sound decision, as Shadows began to climb aboard. The team’s lieutenant risked spreading herself thin as she struck each one down. She did not once entertain the notion of failing.

The close overview of the ground was a blur of countless forms populating the area, all familiar to Joker, who had at one point or another wielded each as a Persona. One of them stood out from the others. It was Bugs, a favourite of Caroline and Justine’s. This was his cue to reach out for the blue.

It happened in a fraction of a second. His fingers closed into a fist and his arm pulled upwards as Seiten Taisei regained altitude. If Joker momentarily felt like his hand caught only air, it was because the girl weighed hardly a thing. Exhaustion made her look limp, almost lifeless. Joker held her for fear that the wind resistance would blow her away. In another time, in another form, she had been his jailor and tormenter. When time came to show where her loyalty lay, she heeded her instincts and picked him over her false Master. Hence she became something of a little sister to Akira, quite like Futaba. But for all her might, she seemed now even frailer than Futaba before her awakening.

“I knew I’d find you…” She uttered weakly.

Akira said nothing. He wore shame on his face, feeling responsible, as if he himself had pulled her into this twisted world as well. Makoto kneeled at their side, looking at Lavenza with deep concern. She carefully brushed a lock of hair away from the girl’s face to reveal a red gash. It did not look deep.

Lavenza’s eyes moved over to Makoto. Her expression changed instantly.

“Could it be… You too?” She blinked. For all the uncanny things the girl in blue had experienced, she seemed well and truly surprised.

“W-what do you mean?” The team’s lieutenant caught her lover’s eyes and attention out of the corner of the eye. His lips were slightly parted, as if he anticipated Lavenza’s words to echo his thoughts.

“You have the po-“ Lavenza began, but her voice was immediately drowned out by a gargantuan booming sound. The Phantom Thieves and Lavenza all turned towards the source, towards Nyarlathotep’s nightmarish abode. The building was growing larger, impossibly stable considering its strange proportions. Thick columns of stone reached past the clouds, twisting upwards like lashing tentacles. The fortress that once provided respite was now a cathedral of unspeakable horrors.

The sombre lord stood tall on a high ledge in the building, arms crossed behind his back in calm, demeaning fashion. Through the great distance, his eyes found each of the Thieves’ as well as their hearts; and though neither saw the same face as the rest, all shared the same conclusion about him. He was an evil that must not be allowed to thrive.

Finally, his Joker soared to his Master’s side, having completed his sickly drawn-out task, with indiscernible remains of the final two replicas in his hands. In his eyes, there was profound hatred towards the individual who provided his design. To Akira, it was like looking into a mirror, but the resemblance was not merely bound to the physical properties. The sombre king in his still mutating castle had his knight, and he too had to be struck down.

But vanquishing these enemies was beyond their capabilities. To face them now, in their current state was to invite grim death upon them. Neither Nyarlathotep nor his Joker made an effort to pursue them as the Phantom Thieves and Lavenza flew away. In their eyes, these nine were little more than insects whose demise was set in stone, regardless of the means; time was inconsequential.

Nyarlathotep grinned with perverse delight. In his maddeningly long existence, he knew there was ever one constant to the chaos that is humanity: hubris. The Phantom Thieves would not flee forever. They would inevitably follow their impulse to assert their importance and attempt to make a stand. When that time comes, this world would look very different than the shifting landscape. Perhaps even their own world would be thusly altered.

“Hey, uh… Not that you guys will like to hear this, but…” Ryuji breathed heavily through his words. “I’m getting kinda tired. Dunno how long can Seiten Taisei take us.”

“Ditto.” Futaba said. “And it’s hella stuffy in here.”

“This is bad.” Akira summarised. He turned to Lavenza, who was still cradled in Makoto’s arms. “Lavenza… you found a way into this world, do you happen to know a way out?”

“I do… But we probably need to land.” The girl in blue seemed to have regained some of her strength. “Anywhere should do.”

“Anywhere, huh?” Ann remarked. “That looks a bit difficult.”

There was no stable ground anywhere in sight. Whatever terrain stayed whole still was crowded with Shadows. Everybody observed as far as they could in search for a way to clear this last hurdle.

“Hey, over there!” Morgana hopped and pointed, making Prometheus stagger in flight. “That looks kinda steady.”

The feline signalled towards a small patch of land that warped slowly.

“That looks quite small.” Makoto could not help sounding somewhat insecure where she found the spot. “Can we make it?”

“I see no other choice.” Akira said. “Ryuji, you up for it?”

“Sure, why not?” The young athlete sounded worn down. “Give me some good vibes, everyone.”

“I shall pray to your success as vigorously as I can.” Yusuke nodded, his voice shaky from motion sickness.

“Do your best, Ryuji-kun!” Haru’s words of encouragement were the last thing anyone said before the shared silence of tense uncertainty.

Prometheus hovered only a few centimetres above Seiten Taisei’s shoulders, following the latter’s agile lead. The ground looked ever closer by the second, and so did the Shadows, whose collective turmoil made the air thick with unease. Every instant to come was a risk that a foe may bring them down into the chaos, and the menace of winged pursuers did not relent entirely. As Ryuji became more spent, his Persona lost speed and altitude; at times, it felt slightly less tangible, as if he could disappear at any given moment. But nobody dared voice their fears, not even Futaba, who was on the verge of hurling from heaping anxiety.

Finally, the patch of stable land came into view, smaller than initially apparent. It became clear then that this spot would not remained uncompromised for long.

“Guys… I think we’re in for a crash landing.” Ann felt Ryuji’s strength leaving his muscles as she held to his arm.

“Everyone. Brace yourselves!” Makoto yelled, preparing for the crude landing about to occur.

Everything blurred into chaos on the twenty seconds after Seiten Taisei vanished. Though the pain of a hasty landing was an indication of success, there was still the matter of making a way out of this world. It was this purpose and Makoto’s own instincts to protect which had her become a shield for Lavenza as they fell to the ground. The young woman was certain something broke when she stopped rolling, but she did not fully comprehend the ache in her ankle when other necessities took priority.

Dazed, she quickly looked around her to make sure everyone made it. To her relief, everybody was accounted for. It was upon finding Akira last that she became aware of her own injuries. Despite being close to liberation from this place, his expression was completely mirthless, absent. There was something written on his face, a thing unfamiliar that made her want to be at his side to comfort and heal. Her left leg gave way as soon as she started to get up, and she felt furious at not being able to reach him as soon as she saw him, or reach anyone else at all.

Suddenly, he noticed her, and his expression returned to normal. He hurried her way, but Haru reached her first.

“Are you hurt?” The young woman asked, looking only slightly better.

“M-maybe. It’ll be alright.” Makoto got up with Haru’s aid, the latter helping her walk towards Akira and Lavenza. The rest joined them soon after.

“That was fun. Let’s not do it ever again.” Futaba groaned.

“I do not mean to hasten. But I do not think this place will hold for long.” Yusuke said.

“Lavenza… if there’s something you can do, please get on it.” Akira called to the small figure behind him. His eyes, full of shame and worry, were fixed on Makoto.

“Don’t worry about me.” She reassured him. “Please, look out for the others. They need you.”

Akira nodded. He did not wish to leave her side, but knew she was correct. Despite the very special affection Akira and Makoto shared, all meant the world to him. He swiftly gathered them all and led them to Lavenza, who was occupied finding an exit from this place. Her palm was spread wide – a close aura of blue light radiating on the outline of each finger. Small beads of sweat slid down her forehead as she funnelled all of her concentration into making a gate. The process itself was no different to how she found a way in, but finding a way out turned out to be far more difficult. Her focus on this colossus of a task was such that she held her breath without noticing it.

She started to feel faint. But then, the light stirred a ripple in the air, followed by another, and another. A black hole was then borne out of thin air, with no sight of a thing on the other end.

Lavenza gasped loudly. “It is done.” She struggled to catch her breath.

“Are you sure? It doesn’t look very inviting.” Ann peeked out over Ryuji’s shoulder.

“I am positive. This will lead back into your world. It will be a long walk, but we will be safe from harm.” Lavenza spoke with certainty.

“Works for me.” Akira said dryly. “Lavenza, please lead the way. Makoto, Haru. Follow her. Don’t rush it.”

“Come along, Mako-chan. Easy does it.” Haru and Makoto walked slowly into the darkness, while Akira motioned their friends to follow. The two lovers’ fingers brushed as they passed each other. Makoto felt an urge to grab his hand before going into the path Lavenza opened.

One by one, the Phantom Thieves walked into the darkness. Akira being the last one to make his way. But before heading down the path, he paid one last look behind, at the world that housed their torments. Far into the distance, Nyarlathotep and his Joker possessed cruel dominion, and Akira himself – though unwilling – had apparently provided the raw matter.

The template that created this final, sinister double. If Nyarlathotep spoke true, it was made out of Akira’s own Shadows. He suspected knowing what that meant, but it was no certain knowledge.

There was something else. From this nebulous, intuitive awareness and suspicion, he sensed that there was another region in the landscape that was uncompromised, whole. He could not see it from where he stood, but he felt a pull towards that site.

Finally, he joined the rest of his friends in the dark path, as the gate closed behind him. They were safe now.

Chapter Text

In the history of Shujin High School, the department of criminal law in Tokyo University and certain academic circles, the name Sae Niijima carries considerable authority. Even if her sister looked to match such astonishingly high standards, the woman’s own reputation was an indelible mark for many. Even the shallowest of acquaintances knew she excelled at every field Sae took even the most passing of interests. In the eyes of others, there was virtually nothing she could not do.

Alas, Wakaba Isshiki’s research notes still left her stumped.

Sae pried her eyes off the folder she currently studied to look at the time on her phone. Within around eleven minutes, it would mark the sixth day of Makoto and her friends’ disappearance. As feared, there had been no progress on the matter with the police’s efforts. Any breakthrough on that side seemed unlikelier every time she thought about it. At some point, during a particularly dark moment in her solitude, she approached the possibility that their disappearance might have been orchestrated by guilty parties exposed by the Phantom Thieves. Thankfully, this too seemed hardly plausible.

But the obscure nature of the alternative was not exactly comforting either.

Feeling unpleasant dryness around her eyes, she reached out for her cup of coffee on the dining table. What little remained in there had long gone cold, which made Sae search her memory for the time when she brewed this cup. Was it she who poured it, or was it Sojiro Sakura?

Sae was uncertain also on the time when she last saw him, but the moment itself was engraved in her mind. She was consulting Isshiki-san’s thesis at the time, in hopes it would somehow serve as an introductory text. As he had been doing on the past two days, he stopped by to bring food and drink. But the briefest glance at his appearance as he walked in sufficed to pull her attention in full. The man looked thinner, that was for sure. He looked incredibly tired, and wore the mask of someone who never smiled in his whole life. Sae guessed she did not look much different herself.

But beneath the bags of his eyes and the exhaustion-pale hue his skin had, there was something else about Boss – something unbelonging to a man in such state. Resilience was not the word for it, even if that kept him standing. It was something along the lines of confusion, and the curiosity it invites. When asked on whether there was anything on his mind, he waved it all off as not sleeping well. It was a credible answer, given the circumstances; but Sae Niijima knew there was more to it.

Rather than deeming Boss’ answer as dishonesty, she thought he merely found no way to accurately word it. Again, Sae herself had been prey to this type of impotency before, with profoundly unpleasant results, such as making Makoto cry after a poor word choice.

Sae still remembered that night. She could not approach the memory without feeling profound shame. If she were to think of it now, she would instantly collapse into grief beyond mending.

Sojiro Sakura left an hour later after lunch, dinner, or whatever in-between.

Work continued with neither disturbance nor breakthroughs.

Time blurred along; minutes forward in unrecognisable succession, hours rendered meaningless.

The darkness of an apartment without her sister in it pressed on Sae. The light of the lamp hanging reflected on the white of the papers, but it blinded her rather than illuminating the path ahead.

“Sis…”

Nothing was certain.

“Sis…”

No question met a response she could work with.

“Sis…!”

All she had was Makoto’s irrefutable absence. The apartment, the world; all was dark without her.

Nonsensical passages travelled about her brain. Assessments operating on conjectures only marginally observable, even with the means available to Isshiki-san. Interdisciplinary boundaries torn asunder, leaving only one path ahead: a maybe.

A nothing.

Sae glares at the paper in front of her, burrowing deeper to attain comprehension. The white surface glared back with the defiance of a mystery that would not be solved. The riddles started to break one who never before tasted defeat like this.

All is violent. All is bright. Sae Niijima starts to lose her mind.

The gloom that existed behind the woman changed its colour, this much she garnered from her peripheral vision. But she would not pry her eyes away from the object of scrutiny. Not even as the air begat new sounds from the quiet of the apartment. The air itself breathed and groaned like a waking predator.

The surface of its skin rippled velvet red.

“SIS!”

Sae Niijima opened her eyes and gazed frantically around her with vestiges of alarm. She had fallen asleep, for how long, nobody could say. Wakaba Isshiki’s papers were still spread all over the dining table. The cup near the edge was almost full; the coffee was cold and neglected for at least half a day. Her lower back ached with a dull pain she had not experienced for at least one year.

The woman felt the tears that left warm trails across her face. She did not need to touch her own face to know, because the echo of her sister’s voice remained inside of her head. Makoto was calling out to her somehow, but not in fear – not for herself, anyway.

Was it her imagination playing a cruel jest at this bleak hour? Or was her sister truly somehow reaching out to her?

It would have made sense to imagine fear in her voice, but there was none, even in the faintest reverberations fading now into silence. The distance that muffled Makoto’s non-presence could never mask the young woman’s strength.

Just where was she, and what was she doing?

Stubborn habit drew Sae’s eyes back to the paper closest in sight. Her dark eyes fell on one single sentence near the bottom. A conclusion, so succinctly expressed.

Everything is cognition.

Sae could not take it any longer. Without a care, she grabbed her keys, her jacket, and her phone – now dead, and walked out into the street. The nightly wind greeted her with bittersweet liberation, meeting her face and hair, and squeezing some more tears still welled up.

She walked aimless for little over ten minutes. Despite her fathomless distress, she did not seem to attract particular attention from other city dwellers transiting Tokyo after dark. But though she looked like any other roaming soul from a bird’s view, her walk was much different.

She could not deny it - not even convince herself through a sceptic eye. It was not her imagination taunting her. Sae wasted no time with disbelief. While this uncanny moment could have her ruminating for hours to come, only one thing truly mattered. It felt real, truer than any attempt at grounding herself in a perception of possible. Makoto was indeed calling out to her. To be strong, and constant – to not give in to the despair gripping her so tight.

Once again, her little sister was the voice of reason in a sea of non-sense. If Sae was to heed her voice, she needed to change her perspective, take on a different stance, one that would allow her to reach out and find Makoto. Not everything was at it seemed – even a conviction that has lasted for all of human history could crumble in one moment. Wakaba Isshiki understood this. Sae Niijima needed to understand this as well, at its core, despite the obstacles.

She passed several stores along the way, each one beckoning with a modest spectacle of light. But the invitations to quell the thirst and hunger built up for most of the day would not pull her. She navigated the streets with the skill of a long-time city dweller. There seemed to be no need to see where she was going. All of her attention was drawn inwards.

So many hours spent dissecting Wakaba-san’s work, when in the end, she only needed one a handful of words to push her in the right direction.

Everything is cognition.

How was it that Makoto and the rest could access another world, and walk into it from thin air? Sae never once saw the Phantom Thieves in action, but she knew they must have possessed outlandish powers in that world to accomplish all those amazing feats – powers they did not possess on this side.

She thought further back, to the night she interrogated Akira Kurusu. She virtually dismantled his machinery as leader of the Phantom Thieves, examining the skills he acquired so mundanely, and how these translated into something else. When the dust of conflict settled years ago, Sae afforded some amusement at how the daring Joker learned advanced marksmanship from a child and a video game. But thinking of it now, those trivial means must have had great significance in what they called the “Metaverse.”

His – no, their own mentality, their rebellious worldview made it possible.

In the Metaverse, the Phantom Thieves must have been a force to be reckoned with, while on this side, they were ordinary teenagers. But that was not entirely true either. Aside from the physical conditioning they acquired in battle, there was something else they carried back every time they left the Metaverse, something with big, blue eyes.

Sae kept her distance most of the time, out of her allergy to cats. But she always noticed how Makoto and the rest could seemingly hold full-fledged conversations with Akira’s cat, Morgana. The attorney guessed the transition into the Metaverse opened this means of communication, permanently.

Selective as it was, some things prevailed in both worlds. Sae thought back on the Phantom Thieves’ explanation about the Metaverse, about Shadows and Personas.

Sae began to slow down as a new perspective dawned on her.

The Metaverse was not a world apart, not in the traditional sense of the notion. The collective unconscious shaped the other world; the other world in turn distorted the behaviour of certain individuals. But deep understanding of the self, and epiphany created a Persona out of a Shadow – the means to undo the distortion. This she knew already. But what was learned in the Metaverse did not vanish upon return. Once Makoto, Akira, and the rest got to hear the cat’s voice, they could never become deaf to it.

Strong deliberate will could shape reality outside of the Metaverse. If so, could the same will shape the other side?

Sae stopped dead in her tracks. She needed to talk to Boss.

[ ]

The first thing Yuuki Mishima thought upon returning to his room was how badly he needed a shower and a change of clothes. No sooner had classes ended for the day, he virtually scoured the city in what some would consider a wild goose chase. It was indeed a rather hot day, and his rides back on forth on the subway did not help things any. He basically had to peel his shirt off at the end, but it was worth it.

The day before, Hifumi and he agreed to work together, or as she unexpectedly put it, join forces in the daunting quest ahead. They each set out to find people who were helped by the Phantom Thieves, and also those who shared in friendship and knowledge of Akira’s role as leader of the fold. The more the merrier.

Hifumi showed great enthusiasm as Yuuki relayed the plan, but the airy determination deflated when she brought up an important matter.

“What are we supposed to do once we find them?”

She was right. The young man knocked his head against the tiles in the bathroom out of frustration, slightly harder than he intended. The ensuing dizziness did little to wobble the relevance of the question. Just what could they do once they formed this network of Phantom Thieves’ allies, cheer them on?

Lavenza seemed the only one able to actually locate them, and she had already gone to them. With all the resources the trio gathered, she would probably fine – so he thought. But he was not content with standing idly in uncertainty.

“I don’t know.” He admitted. “Maybe this could all be useless. But could you really just sit and wait for our friends to show up again, just like that?”

He needed not say anything further.

The lukewarm water, turning cool, felt like a balm on his back, and on his nerves. Even if he was more street-smart than ever before, visiting Shinjuku still struck a vein of unease in him. After scrolling through a backup of text messages, which he had initially preserved for his documentary, he found one possible lead through a name that conjured strange, slightly unpleasant memories.

Ichiko Ohya. The woman interviewed him back in the day, at Akira’s apparent recommendation. While the experience itself was nothing to shudder over, the initial impression of a world he wanted nothing to do with soured the conversation. He vividly recalled how easily the woman picked up on that, after which she teased him with spicy glee.

But the motive of interest then was the same reason he decided to pay her a visit now. She addressed him as admin of the PhanSite, which implied Akira had told her about the Phantom Thieves to some degree. That was something worth looking into, especially after he did some quick research on the woman, finding her to be a journalist of strange, but high repute.

He knew from the beginning that he may not find her in the same place as back then, but the bartender at Crossroads seemed to be a close friend. She may know of her whereabouts, Yuuki thought. Little did he know, Ohya was the first person upon entering Crossroads. She and Lala-chan were engaged in lively conversation, cut short by what they might have thought to be a somewhat early customer.

Lala-chan still carried the air of authority and composure he remembered, but Ohya looked different somehow, aside from the updo on her hair. The devilish glee was still in her eyes, but her person looked cleaner, more measured. Yuuki learned later that day that the journalist had gone sober. Though he did not think to ask, he suspected Akira might have had something to do with that.

The woman squinted, motioning at him, as if recognising him but failing to remember his name.

“Uhhh… Mishima, eh?” She smiled like a pixie.

“Y-yeah!” The young man did not expect to find her so quick, or to be remembered.

“Lala-chan, remember him? He’s that guy!”

“I see him, Ohya dear.” The bartender nodded. “Young man, are you old enough to be in a place like this?”

“Technically, I think. But… that’s not why I’m here today.” He breathed deep. “Ohya-san, may I have a word?”

Ohya and Lala-chan exchanged a curious look.

“Sure?”

He bowed in reverence to both women before making his way with nervous steps. He sat on the stool next to Ohya.

“Ohya-san. Do you happen to remember one Akira Kurusu?”

“Boy, do I.” She smiled. “I hear he’s back in town. He messaged like two weeks ago, but he hasn’t paid us a visit! Lala-chan, do you believe that guy!? Jeez!”

Yuuki’s eyes widened. Akira was certainly friends with both Ohya and Lala-chan. He would soon wonder if they knew what Hifumi, Iwai and he did. But before that, he needed to prepare to bring the bad news.

“Actually, there’s a reason for that…”

Both women turned to Yuuki. His tone gave it away. Ohya reached for her glass containing mineral water and lemon juice. She took a small sip, and her entire demeanour changed drastically.

“Go on.”

The young man ended up spending a longer time than he anticipated talking with Ohya and Lala-chan. Much like during the interview back in the day, the journalist appeared to take notes on everything Yuuki said, but this time with much more evident urgency. The mood quickly turned grim and hopeless, but Yuuki knew he had to turn the tide in order to find a more active position. So he approached the subject carefully, probing how well Ohya knew Akira. Then, he decided to make a gamble.

And he came out the winner.

Ohya and Lala-chan - they also knew Akira was one of the Phantom Thieves.

The nature of the conversation took on a different turn after that was disclosed. Ohya returned to her chipper self. She went through every note, both mental and written and asked for further details. At the end of the process, she declared that she would use whatever resources she could to help. Whatever Yuuki and Hifumi failed to see, Ohya would not.

This was as great a triumph as one could get in times of trouble, but there was still a lot of work ahead. The next step was to compile the requests on the PhanSite, weed out the trifles from the substance, and approach those whose hearts were changed. This, Yuuki thought, would surely prove a challenge on its own merit, one he would tackle with no hesitation.

[ ]

“So, you were one of Akira’s buddies behind bars.” Sojiro’s tone was more of an affirmation than a question.

“Yeah, you could say that.” Yasunori Kujo took a seat next to the older man in Arancia’s now infamous second floor. His shift had ended an hour ago, but he felt less and less compelled to head home as the days went by.

Despite the filed case for multiple missing persons, and the added pressure by former prosecutor Sae Niijima, there were little grounds to halt activities in the soda joint. It was not hard to see why, given the strange nature of the disappearance. The most management could do was bar public access to the second floor, which was deemed a crime scene mostly as a formality; forensic analysis unveiled nothing beyond the fact that seven people, and a cat were there.

Technically, neither Sojiro Sakura, nor Yasunori Kujo should be here. Yet nobody even approached to remind the former after whatever conversation he had with the manager in his office. The young man had treated with criminals of all standings throughout his life. He knew, by intuitive comprehension, that Boss did not belong to that kind of life. But he was also not the average law-abiding citizen. Yasunori did not imagine Sojiro’s disposition could go easily contested.

Yasunori knew he did carry a certain authority, that of a parent whose children were missing. But the young man himself had a share in the pain. Akira and Makoto were both his friends – Kujo had a personal debt of gratitude to the former, Akira being the one who stood to defend him back in Juvie Hall.

“I may already know the answer, but tell me…” Sojiro slouched forward on a chair. “He stay out of trouble?”

“Well…” Yasunori did not know how to answer to that question. Every time he came by, he appeared ever less like a person, and more like an opaque shade of one. But the change was not wholly gradual; tonight, he looked as if a month passed him by. “Not really.”

“Knew it.” Sojiro chuckled.

“He probably did his best, ya know? There were some bad kids inside, though. They kinda wouldn’t let him just mind his own business.”

“Trouble just keeps finding that kid, eh?” The older man reached for the pack of cigarettes in his breast pocket. It was a miracle that there were any left, but it was hardly self-restraint what limited his smoking. Mostly, he was too tired to do anything besides talking to the police for updates, checking up on Sae, and coming here at the end of each day, as if waiting for their arrival. “Like father, like son.”

“You get in a lot of trouble when you were younger, Boss?”

“I’m not Akira’s dad, boy.”

“Really!?” Yasunori gave him light, despite the no-smoking indoors regulation.

“You see any resemblance?”

“No. I figured he got the looks from his mum, though.”

Boss laughed out. He could not quite remember the last time he did, but it could not have been more than a month away. Distress has a tendency to misplace times of mirth, scatter and alienate them.

“You’d actually be right on the money there too.” Sojiro let out a wistful sigh. “I know his folks. Good people, but too busy to be around… for Akira, I mean. Maybe it’s no wonder he turned out a little… odd, and unlucky.” He took a moment to taste the smoke.

Sojiro noticed a peculiarity. That despite not being Akira’s actual father, trouble still found him. He had hoped to avoid the subject, but here it was glaring at him straight. It was a hard task to talk with Ryuji’s mother and Ann’s parents on the matter, far more difficult than talking with Makoto’s sister. But the hardest thing was still on the horizon. He had not yet told Masako and Takahisa. He knew that they deserved to know.

But something kept him quiet. A writhing mass of shame and doubt tearing him inside out. They loved Akira, there was no debating that. But how closely did they truly know their son? Were they aware of the things he went through since the night of his arrest? Even before he was transferred to Tokyo, Takahisa’s work kept him constantly at sea, and Masako’s hours at the hospital left barely any time for her to see Akira grow into a man. A gap was groomed between them, and the rest was mere momentum.

In the end, it turned out just as he had feared, from the day of their wedding, when a much younger Sojiro Sakura toasted to the welfare and future of the Kurusu family. And he vowed to aid whichever the rage of the tide, which he suspected may be formidable.

The very thought that Akira may have reached out to Sojiro with the trust of a son tugged painfully at his heartstrings. For now it felt as if he failed the young man, as if he failed Takahisa and Masako when they trusted him with his well-being in the city.

And Futaba… that was another mountain altogether, to climb and to fall from.

Another vow, which Sojiro swore to the woman he loved, another vow that he was failing to uphold. But more important than that vow was the present – the love he had for Futaba, the love of a father. By itself, losing her mother was too terrible a wound for a child, but the loss was distorted into blame by despicable parties, and the result was trauma from which she might never have recovered – if not Akira and the rest. She emerged from that living death. She began to live and to experience happiness. And now…

“Boss. Akira never told me that much, where he came from and why he landed with the rest of us in Juvie. But trust me, he did right inside, and he never gave up. He kind of helped us be better than we thought we could be. He’ll be alright, and so will his buddies. So will your daughter, Boss.”

The man ached. His eyes, though completely dry, were filled with sorrow.

“You just gotta have faith. Isn’t that why you’re here, really?” Yasunori showed a broken, toothy grin – ugly in appearance, but still somehow soothing. “The cops have given up on this joiny. But you haven’t. You keep coming to this place every evening, cause you know they’re gonna show up.”

Sojiro did not say a thing for a while. Never once during this silence did Yasunori think he said more than he should have. The young man could not begin to think of what exactly caused the disappearance, but by now he was certain it was beyond conventional laws. Even if the police doubled their efforts, they would not be able to solve this mystery. For all of Sojiro’s seemingly fruitless efforts, Yasunori believed he was far closer to the truth.

“Just how much do you know about Akira and his friends?” Boss asked cautiously.

“Only the things he has told me.” Yasunori did not lie, though he did grew to suspect a few things. Nothing he could put a name to, but it still held his thoughts every now and then. “That aside, I don’t think he’s an average guy. Makoto too.”

“Right…” Sojiro sat back, contemplating the surroundings. His eyes fell on the décor’s orange motif. “Red curtains, you said…”

“Yeah. Well, he did. I was just around to hear.” Yasunori hesitated as he spoke. “Weird, huh?”

“I feel like I’ve gotten to see those lately.” Boss told the young man. It was the first time he actually thought to speak of it. Every time, it was like a fleeting sight, gone away as soon as it came. He slept few hours throughout the last week, he remembered dreaming even less – but there they were.

“I… I see.” Boss’ words caught him off guard. He did not dare suggest it might be because he thought of it so often. It would be an idea Yasunori himself did not believe, for he too started to catch red glimpses.

Even now, the image menaced to creep into his line of sight.

“Kujo-kun.” Boss rubbed heavy eyelids. “I appreciate you being there for Akira, but you really don’t have to lounge around here for long. I’ll see myself out in a bit. Go on, call it a day.”

Yasunori said nothing. He appeared to weigh the man’s words. Boss was right; there really was not much he could do to help. Sojiro Sakura knew little about the situation, but Yasunori Kujo knew even less. There was no use staying behind as the night thickened its mantle. He stood from the chair and made for the stairs.

Only to circle around and sit next to Boss again.

“Suit yourself, kid.” A vibrating sound pulled his attention. A call from Sae Niijima. “Gotta take this one. Be right back.”

Yasunori nodded. His expression changed, as if he managed to shake off the wear of a day’s work by sheer will. He was no longer here to keep a troubled man company. Now, he wished to comprehend to the degree the older man did, to find a way to help Akira and his friends.

He stared intently in the vacant places where the eight had once been, scrutinising, wondering, seeking.

“Boss?” Yasunori called despite himself.

Did he just see a ripple in the air?

Chapter Text

Though the passing of time was uncertain, it felt close to an hour. This may be how long they have been walking since the ‘gate’ closed behind them. Upon first sight, it seemed as if they were about to walk a long road in the dark, but that was not the case. Before their eyes began to adjust to the pitch black, wayward clusters of light shimmered around Lavenza and the Phantom Thieves. But these did not look quite like the unknown constellations back in the other world. It was more like embers, warm, humble lights that died within seconds.

These myriads of little lights could not truly illuminate the path ahead. Akira and the rest relied on the blue shine in Lavenza’s hand to be their guide. All eight walked in a close chain, with their Leader at the very end, watching their backs. Every now and then, he delayed for a moment, as he searched in the dark for reassurance that Nyarlathotep’s realm was indeed far behind. But at the same time, he wondered why he was still feeling such a strong pull to that place, even after all the terrible experiences.

At some point, he failed to notice he tarried a longer time. If not for Lavenza’s voice breaking the silence, he may have just stayed there, drowning in his own mystified thinking.

“We need to stop for a moment.” The girl in blue said. “I feel the exit near. But you cannot return to your world like this.”

“Like… how?” Ryuji asked. “Sweaty and frightened?”

“And exhausted, I presume.” Lavenza added.

The first thing the Phantom Thieves did upon escaping was healing themselves. The injuries they suffered were undone, but nobody truly felt well. Their thoughts were countless, most of them unpleasant. Whatever relief they felt at escaping was neutralised by the awareness that they would have to go back. Nyarlathotep clearly had ominous designs, and powerful means. The fact that neither he nor his Joker pursued them had alarming implications. In their eyes, the Phantom Thieves were likely only a nuisance, one they could afford to let slide, for now. The woeful comparison of might with Akira’s ‘failed doubles’ made it plausible since the other Joker made quick, easy and cruel work of them.

How could they hope to stand against one such foe?

Despite the overwhelming thought, the team’s lieutenant dwelt on something else. Something mentioned by Susumu Kamiyama, then repeated by Nyarlathotep. Only Akira was supposed to come into this world, as per their scheme. Why was that?

To Makoto’s relief, there was some visibility in this passage itself. It allowed her to scan her surroundings, and account for each of her friends. She found Akira last, noticeably further from the core of their group, as if he were not there at all. She could not see his eyes, but she suspected he was avoiding even looking at them.

“Well, I do feel rather spent myself.” Yusuke said.

“Me too.” Ann agreed.

“Please, sit down everyone.” Lavenza called. “We may only be able to do this now.”

“Huh? What’s she talking about?” Ryuji said to his best friend.

“I’m not sure. But it can’t hurt, probably.” Akira sat on what appeared to be the floor. He was followed by the rest of his friends.

Lavenza pulled a container out of her coat’s pocket, and then another, and another. “Please pass it along. I believe it’s still warm.” She continued to pull out containers well beyond count and necessity, along with several thermos.

“I don’t mean to be rude.” Makoto said as she opened one of the containers to find a steamy bundle of grilled chicken and sauces before her. “But I don’t have much of an appetite at the moment.” She wagered few of the others did.

“That’s understandable. But you’ll need energy for…” Lavenza sighed. A flavour of shame lingered at the end. “I haven’t had much time to talk to you. But I came looking for you all, because I need your help.”

“Is something wrong?” Haru asked.

“Extremely so.” The little attendant said.

“If it ain’t one thing, it’s another, huh?” Ryuji remarked without humour in his voice.

“Tell us.” Akira spoke.

“There’s… something wrong with the Velvet Room. I… you’d need to see it for yourselves. It’s something the like of which I’ve never seen before… and… my Master. He…” Lavenza was on the verge of tears.

“I see.” The young man said curtly. And without saying anything further, he began to eat and drink. The rest followed his example in unspoken agreement.

Makoto placed her hand on Lavenza’s shoulder. The little girl, in response threw herself at her and quietly wept against her chest. She, like the rest of them had to summon incredible strength to survive, with little chance to unwind. She probably could do also with some food. The young woman patiently encouraged her to eat.

And though nobody openly said it, they did relish on the food and drink. And each ate a bit more eagerly as the minutes went by. Even graceful Haru literally starting biting more than she could chew. It turned out that Lavenza was correct in her theory; the food she provided did more than satisfy a neglected appetite – it reinvigorated them, little by little until they eventually would be back at full potency.

“You’ve been quiet, Mona.” Futaba spoke with her mouth full. “Sup?”

“Um… he said his name was Nyarlathotep, right?”

Lavenza stopped chewing.

“I feel like I’m supposed to know that name.” Morgana said.

“Well, this guy Lovecraft wrote about him, so… that’s why?” Futaba said before gulping down Calpis water.

“No, that’s… that’s not what I mean.” The feline sounded strangely confused.

“Weird.” Ann also spoke with her mouth full. “Oh God, this is so good.”

Makoto felt the moment when Lavenza’s shoulders went stiff.

“Is something wrong, Lavenza?” She asked.

“I feel the same way… Nyarlathotep. That name sounds… peculiar.”

“We’ll get to the bottom of that.” Ryuji responded to the sudden tension in the air. “It’s like you said, right? You need us at full strength to help you, and we’ll need that to mess that Nyancat guy up too.”

“Y-yes. You’re right.” The girl in blue nodded, still somewhat unsure. She continued with some hesitation.

There was little chatter during this improvised, unplanned picnic. But something else hung at the end of what little words were spoken, and all throughout the pervading silence. Of the many things of likely import that Nyarlathotep said, one stuck forebodingly in their memories. His Joker was begotten from Akira’s shadows.

That was an oxymoron, based off the things they knew about Shadows and Personas. But there was doubt that he said this gratuitously. Makoto approached Akira as the hasty dining approached its end. She hoped her company would do him good, as ally, friend, significant other; if there was such a response in him, it was well-buried beneath the expression on his face.

Makoto said nothing. She did not hide her concern and her sadness. But she did not walk away either.

Akira let out a sigh. He gave her hand a gentle squeeze, an affectionate way of appreciation for her concern. But no words for her alone.

By now, she knew him well enough to imagine what he was doing.

“Alright. Let’s wrap this up.” He called out. “Lavenza, we’ll help you with whatever you need. But first, we need to return to our world for a moment.”

“True. There are people waiting for your return. If I understand correctly, it has been close to a week since your disappearance.

Everyone turned to look at each other, enduring each the brunt of realisation. The temporal disparity was certainly a shock. But that was not their main concern. There was no way they could chalk this up as mere incident. An uncomfortable flurry of explanations awaited them all.

“Dude.” Ryuji nudged at Akira. “What’re we telling our folks?”

The young man blinked. One could easily picture the cogs turning frantically in his head.

“Sojiro’s gonna be pissed.” Futaba thought out loud, echoing Akira’s fears. Makoto was of the same mind, already dreading Sae’s response once the relief wears off.

“This could be a problem.” Yusuke nodded. “I could easily tell my guardian at the conservatory some falsehood, but…”

“D-do we have to come up with an explanation right now?” Haru spoke with uncharacteristic apprehension. Though her father was no longer alive, there were still people whom cared for her, who likely awaited her return anxiously. On the other hand, there was still the inevitable portent of a meeting with the board at Okumura Foods, and that summoned a different kind of dread altogether.

“I’m not sure if it would be such a good idea, but… the truth is an option.” Makoto suggested.

“I guess?” Ann cursed the timing of this event. Perhaps if it had occurred two weeks before, she may have been let off the hook. But at present, her parents were in Tokyo. She still remembered the colossally awkward moment when she gave herself away as soon as the topic came into discussion. She planned to keep that secret for a long time, if not forever. But her parents read her like a book – they knew she was a Phantom Thief. She could not even imagine what they would say now if she told them about this latest ‘event’.

“I’m not sure if the board would take that well, or believe it all. Nobody in the company knows about… um, me.” Haru said.

“Yeah, and… I haven’t really told my mum either.” Ryuji scratched the back of his head.

“What? You haven’t told her?” Ann scolded her boyfriend.

“Hey, chill! Why would I?” He sighed. “She worries enough as it is.” He turned back to Akira. “Boss knows what went on, but do your folks, you know… know?”

“No.” Akira spoke slightly embarrassed.

“I think you should plead ignorance.” Morgana chimed in. “None of us really understand the full nature of what’s going on, so it’s not necessarily a lie. Besides, you don’t want to get compromised. Just… um… chalk it up as a… freak occurrence?”

“A freak occurrence.” Ryuji sounded unconvinced.

“It’s not such a bad idea.” Akira nodded. “Strange things happen. We may just get away with it.”

“If we’ve been missing for a week, I suspect we’re deemed disappeared, victims from a legal standpoint.” Makoto spoke. “We may even be spared heavy pressure as long as we all stick to the same version.”

“That sounds kinda devious!” Ann smirked.

“Yes, it does. I like this idea.” Akira smiled. The sight was a refreshing one.

The Phantom Thieves discussed their alibi for a few minutes until they all agreed on the simplest version. No ambiguities, save for the feigned uncertainty of their disappearance. It may not serve as effectively when they were to brave back into the other side, but they would cross that bridge when the time came.

Nobody looked forward to that. In face of dreaded inevitability, the moments in between were usually a solace. But from where they stood, even that time loomed with trouble.

The eight continued to follow Lavenza for around five more minutes until the tiny fragments of light began to coalesce together. The darkness they had been navigating slowly became undone, revealing there was no path at all. In their eyes, it was as if they walked on thin air.

“We’re almost there.” Lavenza’s voice trembled slightly. “Things may get slightly… odd.” Unbeknownst to Akira and the others, Lavenza’s ordeal began much earlier than having to defend herself against scores of wayward Shadows. She only had remnants of the young’s man presence as a guide. It proved a very thin lifeline across a path of uncanny sights, even for her.

Suddenly, a sound exploded above, slightly drawn out, faded quickly. Something akin to a heartbeat, followed by a gargantuan flash of amber light.

“Whoa! What was that!?” Ryuji exclaimed.

“Please, keep walking.” Lavenza’s voice was strained.

A second ‘heartbeat’.

Then another. The pulse of the in-between quickened, grew erratic, unstable. And soon, it felt as if some catastrophe would fall upon their heads anytime soon.

“Guys, this is freaky.” Futaba instinctively clung to Makoto’s arm.

The group’s lieutenant held the young girl tight as they advanced. Without a word, her free hand reached out to Ann’s, whom reached out to Yusuke, and so forth until they formed a tight chain. Akira was still at the very rear of the group, with Morgana hitching a ride on his shoulder. His eyes no longer glanced behind. Instead, he focused on his friends ahead. Despite their increasing worry and fear, they kept going, even as the flashes of light converted into a constant ominous shine. Everything was illuminated; soon his friends’ silhouettes were devoured by the light.

Akira’s heart skipped a beat.

He no longer felt Morgana on his shoulder, nor Ryuji’s hand in his grasp, or his friends ahead. No Lavenza as a beacon to follow. No Makoto to calm his rising pulse.

A thought snuck in uninvited. A parallel, of sorts. For the present sight of all-consuming light summoned a memory of all-consuming dark – beckoning, inviting, welcoming, sheltering. But it should not be.

It was for only the briefest moment, but Akira felt as if long, squirming tendrils constricted his limbs, pulling him back. Why was his body not eluding or resisting them? Why did it feel like it did not want to?

In the midst of the amber, the young man started to make out vertical lines, which came together into a more distinguishable shape – one he grew to loathe: red curtains at his sides, fashioned like a corridor in crimson; swaying, resisting the overwhelming intensity of the light.

“No more… no more.” Akira pushed forward, against the pull. A snarl of defiance bubbled in his throat, soon to become a furious growl. His eyes cast a decidedly spiteful look at the scenery. For this disaster began with the image of red sneaking into his field of sight, the call of a dark beyond penetrating his life, and now that of his friends.

The curtains shook violently, in a much deliberate fashion. The velvet hue gradually turned darker, and the fabric began to swirl into another shape, into thick, fleshy, black tendrils – into tentacles lashing wildly as he continued to advance.

Once dark, then light, now a harrowing chiaroscuro. Strange figures began to form ahead; their features Akira could only get hints of through the squirming appendages. He knew well what they were within seconds, even if he could not see them – even if he would not. May have been a year ago, give or take some days, or weeks. These six figures were the same as back then. They were bathed in dark. But now, under the revealing light, there was no denying or forgetting them and the night he saw them.

The night of the blackout. Where it all started. Where he was to return.

Akira closed to his eyes, devoted to keep going, but he still could not lay eyes on the figures. He walked past them, feeling their touch grazing him.

He could swear one of them grasped at his coat. The young man held back a scream.

Though his eyes were closed, he felt the light intensifying through his eyelids.

A sound came slowly into clarity, a distinct voice he recognised.

“Boss!!! Boss!!! Get here! Quick!”

Yasunori Kujo.

“What the…!? That’s… that’s a kid!!!”

Sojiro Sakura.

“Look, is that…?”

The light faded all of a sudden, a breeze clashed against his face at the same time his breath escaped his lungs, and his thoughts disappeared without warning.

[ ]

All was a blur in the moment Akira opened his eyes. He mostly saw darkness, but the angle of objects and surfaces had him realise he was not standing. There was a source of light in the corner of his eye, it barely lit the surroundings, but it was bright enough to make him wince. His head felt heavy, as did his eyelids, but his only concrete thought in the moment was a necessity to stay awake. He noticed his hand was against a soft surface, and as the sense of touch returned to the rest of him, he realised where he was.

His room. Back in LeBlanc. He lay on his side on top of the mattress.

Weakened, Akira struggled to turn face up. Then, he realised he was not alone in his room. Futaba was sitting in his chair, with his back against him, quietly doing something at his desk. Next to him, in the mattress, he caught sight of two pale, bare feet. Makoto was next to him, sat up on the mattress, sleeping without comfort or peace. He barely needed to scrutinise the setting to know his girlfriend and his little sister were both looking after him.

Then came the sound of paws against the floorboards. Morgana climbed up the stairs, and found him awake.

“Akira!” The cat said, making Futaba turn quickly.

“Did we make it?” The young man groaned.

“Yeah.” Futaba sounded like she was about to fumble with her words. “How do you feel?”

“Terrible.” He tried to convey a little humour through his voice, but the attempt seemed futile.

“You took a while to come out. When you finally did, you looked like…” Morgana started.

“Like you were sleepwalking. You literally keeled over when you did come out.” Futaba said. “Good thing Sojiro was there. He caught you.”

“Damn it.” Akira felt ashamed. “Is everyone else okay? Are you two?”

“Yeah.” The feline answered. “Um, actually they’re all downstairs. Sae too, and your buddy from Juvie. Want me to tell them you’re up?”

“No. I’ll…” The young man made great efforts to sit up, taking special care not to wake Makoto. “I’ll come down… in a bit.” His eyes fell sadly on her.

“Alright.” Futaba stood up, stretching her back and arms. “You coming, kitty?”

“Yeah…”

It took Akira a bit over five minutes to summon the strength. In that length, he looked at Makoto, unsure of what to do. On one hand, he wanted to get her to lay in a comfortable position, so that she could gain some of the rest she probably forewent to watch over him. But at the same time, he did not wish to risk her waking up.

He did not feel he could look at her in the eye.

Akira made his way down the stairs, as quietly as he could manage. His strength was returning, slowly but surely.

To his surprise, LeBlanc was fuller than he had ever seen it, even on a busy day. Ryuji, Ann, Yusuke, and Haru were there, alongside Morgana and Futaba. Sojiro and Yasunori were also present, which he expected by Futaba’s words. So was Sae, which he could have easily surmised. Tae, which made sense from a sensible point of view. And then Yuuki, Hifumi, Sadayo and Iwai. All of their eyes were on Akira, fixing him to the spot on the middle of the stairs. Their quiet concern was almost painful on him.

Makoto’s hand on his shoulder broke him off from his transfixed state. With both hesitation and want, he turned his head and met her eyes. She looked at him warmly, with a patient smile that looked so belonging, so natural and true.

A pain snuck into his pulse at the wrist, a bite of guilt from the heart, and his legs gave way under him. He managed to break his fall with the wooden railing, but the moment was enough to draw everyone gathered in the café closer to him.

“It’s okay… I’m okay.”

He raised his head, and instantly saw Makoto’s sister only a few centimetres away. The sight made him recoil with instinctive fear. But despite his expectations of blame upon him, he saw something else in Sae’s face. She was worried, not only for the situation that snatched her sister away, for him also. That was the last thing he expected, having somehow sensed that she blamed him while on the other side. That was not the only thing he sensed: he felt Sojiro’s fathomless torment, and Yasunori’s unease. And Akira felt responsible for it all.

“Sae… I’m sorry…” His voice shook.

“Sshhh… Do not be.” Sae placed both hands on the young man’s arms. She looked immensely relieved.

Akira himself could not know it, but he was the only one who emerged back into the second floor in Arancia in his state. While the rest were standing, albeit spent, he was in some kind of vegetative trance. His face was frozen in an expression between sorrow and horror, the same expression Yusuke saw during that unsettling morning in LeBlanc. Sae arrived to Arancia a few minutes afterwards. Her heart nearly broke out of her chest upon seeing her sister. The two sisters wept in their embrace, nearly as much as Boss did when holding his daughter, and Akira’s unconscious body.

The very fleeting glance of the latter snatched Sae’s attention suddenly. She tightly held Makoto’s hand, as she approached the young man. It was then that she identified his expression as a cold reprisal of a moment she long wished to forget: Akira Kurusu’s interrogation.

Somewhere in the midst of it, the drug-addled youth broke the flow of his testimony with what appeared to be a moment of silent realisation. He said nothing of it. But the break itself clashed with the tone of everything he said, with his certainty and his unyielding conviction.

It lasted only eight seconds. And then, his speech returned, wholly oblivious to whatever unfolded in his mind.

She could not bring herself to blame him at the end of the interrogation back then. She could not bring herself to blame him now. Much like once before, something or someone took callous advantage of him now. Even though they were missing, she could feel both Makoto’s resolve from a great afar, her friends’ struggle. And Akira’s own pain.

Sae Niijima could not begin to guess just how correct she was in her assumption.

“Strider.” Yasunori approached.

“Partner.” Ryuji stood up from his seat at the booth.

“Akira.” Makoto sat the bottom of the stairs, next to him, locking her fingers with his.

Everybody present, those he expected to see, and those he did not – all approached to let him know he was not alone.

Akira quietly grasped for words until he finally decided on the most important thing for the time being.

“… How much do you know?”

“We know the version that the police and the media involved will hear. We know you are the Phantom Thieves…” A sigh of defeat. “We know you plan on returning to… wherever you’ve been these days.” She raised her eyes towards her sister’s. “You do know we cannot let you do that… not like this.”

“Sis…”

“Please, Makoto. Listen.” Sae’s voice rose in volume. “You already saved us all once. And I cannot bear to think of how it almost cost you everything, and that you had to do it alone for most of it. If you have to do this again… let us help you.”

Akira lowered his head, feeling uncertain that there is anything Sae, or even his friends could do to help. He said nothing, but his thoughts were oriented in a very particular direction: the task of undoing this horror fell square on him.

Meanwhile, Lavenza sat alone, hidden in the café’s restroom. Back in this relatively more tranquil world, the link to the Velvet Room felt more vulnerable. It was getting worse. But that was not all: the more she thought of the name Nyarlathotep, the more foul it sounded. Despite her profound learnings, there was key knowledge she could not adhere to the name. All she possessed was an instinctive awareness she could not shape into finer terms.

She wondered if this sinister personage was responsible for the Velvet Room’s current state.

Her Master, Igor, would surely know. She could not talk to him now, much to her grief and desperation. But there had to be someone else in the azure realm between the conscious and the subconscious. Someone beyond her siblings, whom she could not reach. Someone who knew who Nyarlathotep truly was.

Lavenza’s eyes lit up as the idea came into her head. It was not a certainty. A blind guess, but it was better than nothing.

Chapter Text

A few hours prior…

Everything had happened so quickly, from the moment she got the call from Boss to her uneasy walk to LeBlanc. The café was usually a sight for sore eyes, but the tone of recent days made a horrorshow of it. The people gathered in the ground floor made it look no different to the waiting room in a hospital, where a patient’s loved ones were kept in suspenseful tension for news to come. Tae Takemi prayed silently as climbed the stairs.

Many eyes laid their weight on Tae’s shoulders. Their silence lingered, waiting for any utterance on her part. Any groan or sigh, or even the slightest variation in her breath could break the levee, and give way to panic. She was aware of this, so she kept quiet like a grave while she worked. The lighting in Akira’s room was too dim for her liking; it did not make her work easier, and she hoped her expression would not be misinterpreted by his friends, and Sojiro.

“Hmm… He doesn’t appear to be unconscious, so there’s that. He’s responding to stimuli. It’s more like deep sleep.” Doctor Takemi spoke. Her voice in Akira’s room was quieter than she may have intended. “Not the first time I’ve seen something like this.” She turned to Futaba with a discreet smile. “I’d really like if this was the last time, but there’s just not knowing with you guys.”

The slight reproach in her voice was lost to nobody. If there was any comfort to be had, is was that Akira no longer seemed to be frozen in the strange trance from when they came out.

“I…” Sojiro Sakura began.

“Just let me know as soon as he wakes up. Even if this is just exhaustion, I have to make sure he suffered no brain damage.” Despite her calm exterior, Tae experienced an intense struggle within. She may have tested the flexibility to the Hippocratic Oath during the days when Akira Kurusu was her ‘guinea pig’, but she feared she had downright ignored it by not speaking out sooner.

A strange conduct led to a fever, and a fever led to this moment. But in between the last two, something else had occurred: Akira’s and his friends’ disappearance, something that did not seem the main priority in this moment. She suspected that even if she said something, it would not have mattered. She was prepared to accept that something was occurring beyond the coldly observable.

If, or when Akira proved sound, she would hear the truth to it all. But there would time for that. Though awake, the rest of his friends looked a few steps beyond concerned – they looked affected, and vulnerable.

“Alright, kids. Time for a quick checkup, just in case.” Doctor Takemi prepared herself for a long night.

Meanwhile, a small, feline sentinel kept watch over Akira. Makoto and Futaba would be joining him later that night.

[ ]

Sadayo Kawakami accrued the wear of several years within a short span from blame wrongly placed on her shoulders, and a tortuous sense of obligation that followed suit. Aside from her job, from her calling as a teacher, she had to take on a second gig – as a maid - to make ends meet. Despite stress and taboo, she stayed on this path without a second thought, all the while strictly maintaining both occupations separate. She would have hardly thought so back then, but this pace may have broken her eventually.

She knows it came dangerously close at times.

Looking at herself in the mirror every morning, the first thing that fetched her attention were the bags under her eyes. When she could bring herself to joke about it, she wondered if that was where she stored what remained of her dreams – if her path to guide a generation of young people to becoming competent, responsible adults had turned to sheer exhaustion. She never once considered that the greed of Takase-kun’s relatives was corrupting her attachment to her dream, for she had long accepted that responsibility. She never once turned to resent Shujin’s principal for pressuring her to help the young man no more…

… Because all she saw was a young man who needed her help. A young man who died in tragic solitude.

It was actually by chance that Taiki Takase passed away, and it was by chance that she came to truly know Akira Kurusu. She could have never guessed at the peculiar symmetry of circumstance about to unfold one night, when three Shujin students decided to call for a maid. In the ensuing turn of events, the only one she saw was Kurusu-kun, the alleged delinquent she was initially so unenthusiastic about supervising. But he became the guardian of her secret and her guilt, and her friend.

Throughout those days, she felt the story with Takase-kun repeating itself. She feared a similar outcome, but she could not turn him away. For even if this shunned kid was truly what everyone claimed to be, he was still a young man who needed his homeroom teacher’s help. And in the end, he lifted the fruit of blame off her shoulders, and helped her begin to heal… with a little help from his friends, his fellow Phantom Thieves.

Akira Kurusu entered her life a little over two years ago. Upon first impression, the first thing that came to mind was quiet. Now, at the end of a carefree day after work, quiet was the first, the only thing come to mind when she saw him.

Once again, it was only by chance that she became involved. She ran into Yuuki Mishima, another former student of hers, that evening in Shibuya, after visiting a fortune teller in Shinjuku. Mishima always was a somewhat awkward boy with a transparency that made him easy to read, yet he bore a shine to him, like untapped potential waiting to spring. And he did begin to show some of this brilliance, specifically after Suguru Kamoshida turned himself in for abusing and molesting students. Though Mishima was now far more confident, he was still just as transparent.

Sadayo read him easily.

No effort on his part could hide the urgency of a serious matter. The beads of sweat on his forehead, the look in his eyes, and the tremble that ran him through were unnerving confirmation. And all he offered as means of explanation was that a friend needed his help. Despite his insistence against it, she accompanied him to a little soda joint nearby.

Everything then took a turn for the surreal.

Outside the place, she saw a small group of people gathered near a side entrance leading to a dark alley. All had worried, tense expressions, and at the same time they seemed intent to avoid unwanted attention. They acknowledged Mishima with a discreet nod. Sadayo approached with caution, and instantly caught sight of two familiar faces. Ann Takamaki and Ryuji Sakamoto, former Shujin students both.

Then the door of the side entrance creaked open, and Sadayo’s heart toppled over. And fear took cruel hold of her heart.

Out came Akira Kurusu, feet dangling in the air, eyes wide open but unseeing. Limp. Quiet, like a dead person. Sojiro Sakura and a lean young man she did not recognise carried him along quickly but carefully. Others followed close behind - mostly former Shujin students. She instantly recognised Makoto Niijima and Haru Okumura. Futaba Sakura, who was currently in Sadayo’s homeroom was also present, as well as up and coming artist Yusuke Kitagawa. There was also a cat who accompanied them a bit too precisely.

They got Akira inside a car parked nearby in the alley. Makoto climbed in the back seat with him hastily, followed by most in the group. A man in a long grey coat took the driver seat and started the engine.

Many things burst forth in Sadayo’s head, the first one was how decidedly certain she was that Akira did not look drunk out of his mind.

“Where are they taking him?” She asked Mishima with barely contained alarm.

The young man hesitated for a second, unsure if it would be sensible to tell.

“LeBlanc.”

Next thing she knew, she was riding a taxi with all who were not in the car, bound for Yongen-jaya.

An hour later, reality dissolved into a cacophony of footfalls inside of LeBlanc. People came and went, compelled by the same sense of uncertainty and worry. Some exchanged guessing looks only to turn away immediately. It was becoming clear that everybody knew, but nobody thought of saying it out loud: This event was no ordinary occurrence. Akira was one of the Phantom Thieves, and suspicion rose that the circle of friends gathered upstairs were peers of a roguish kind. By that logic, a great deal of things suddenly made sense to Sadayo.

Ryuji, Ann, that boy Yusuke from Kosei, Haru, Futaba, even former student council president Makoto – it was strange that such a diverse group came to be after Akira first came to Tokyo. It must have been more than affinity at work. It had to have been purpose. Sadayo could kick herself for failing to see that beating heart past the shallowest of appearances.

She could hold herself in place no longer. Sadayo made for the stairs up to Akira’s room, a place she knew more than she would care to admit. But a hand on her shoulder stopped her. She turned around and a sensation both hot and cold ran all throughout her body. Her eyes followed, tracing a line across the long, grey sleeve, to then find the sombre face of the man who drove Akira and his friends to LeBlanc. Sadayo could not describe how she felt; whether she was intimidated by Iwai Munehisa’s imposing appearance, or if it was something else altogether.

That was only the first impression. It was the gaze he threw her way what held her feet to the ground. He was not smiling, but he looked at her as warmly as he could manage, shaking his head to tell her that she should be patient. Sadayo’s presence, his own, and that of all gathered in LeBlanc tonight was not a one time commitment. Time would come to put their shoulders to the wheel. For now, all they could do was wait.

A few minutes passed.

One by one, several of Akira’s friends climbed down the stairs, followed by the café’s owner and the neighbourhood’s doctor. Their expressions were undecipherable; they were clearly joyless, but also devoid of total defeat. Ann in particular caught her eye. When their eyes met, Sadayo felt as if the young woman tried to convey something: a plea for help, a call for reassurance? But from where the professor stood, she could not really tell who of the two needed it most.

The youths mingled quietly amongst the rest, no doubt catching everyone’s eyes from the conclusion everybody was reaching. Boss took his usual spot behind the counter; he looked at each face, examining their mood and guessing at their uncertainty while he searched for the right words to say. His eyes lingered on a woman with long, silver hair. She nodded at him with the gravity of somebody who has just made a difficult decision.

Sojiro cleared his throat loudly to get everyone’s attention.

“Thank you, all of you for coming. It’s been a rough patch of days, and I appreciate you all getting together to help. It seems Akira… will be fine.” This expression of gratitude alone seemed to take a lot of him; the sudden collective relief brought a sad smile to his face. “I’m not gonna beat around the bush. We all know that something bad happened and it’s not something I can easily make sense of. It’s bigger than what we can do, and that also goes for the police, it seems.”

He bit his lower lip for a moment, metabolising the explanation Makoto and company gave him back at Arancia. While he did not doubt them, he still could not begin to truly believe it - that a strange enemy used Akira to create an almighty enforcer, luring the young man into this world to facilitate its awakening. The details on Shadows, on Akira’s clones, and Nyarlathotep’s abilities and intentions could well make his head spin. But at the same time, he had the disappearance to consider, his present state and his behaviour before they went missing.

And something else, that by now he was not convinced he actually was imagining the red curtains.

“D-does this…” Sadayo stammered, instantly making everybody turn in her direction. All at once, she wished she could take her words back, unsay them and shield herself under the comfort of apparent uncertainty. But the image of Takase-kun pulled at her sleeve every time her eyes lingered on the staircase. “…. Have anything to do with the Phantom Thieves?”

Akira’s friends all turned to look at each other. They looked surprised, but they knew it was not use hiding their role now.

“Yes.” The silver-haired woman answered without a hint of doubt. Sadayo noticed how much the woman resembled the former Shujin Student Council President. Somewhat intimidated, she realised this was her older sister, Sae Niijima. “The situation at hand seems to be drastically different from their activities from over a year ago. But this is most definitely within their field.”

“What exactly is this ‘thing’ we’re talking about?” Iwai asked brusquely.

“It’s… complicated.” Boss admitted.

“I’m sure we can all hear a fully nuanced explanation soon enough.” Sae spoke. “For now, all we can know is it’s urgent.”

“And the cops can’t do a thing?” Tae asked sourly.

“It seems so.” Sae lowered her gaze.

A discouraged murmur ran through the café. All the while, Sadayo felt like ravenous, impending doom was lingering above them. The memories of Takase-kun were compelling to run, to lock herself in her apartment and drink herself to oblivion.

“I don’t like to say this, but it seems only the Phantom Thieves can fix this.” Sojiro spoke once more. “And if I understand what the kids tell me, it can get pretty bad if they don’t. And this means…” Anger pushed a sigh out. “It means they’ll have to go back into… wherever they hell they’ve been.”

Tae looked at Sojiro in disbelief. Everything about Iwai’s body language was a curse with no end. Sadayo felt a shudder running her frame through.

“Is there something we can do?” A young man spoke. He seemed to be an Arancia employee.

“Well…” Sojiro began, rubbing the back of his head with his hand.

“There may be.” Sae snatched the response from him. Boss looked at her in a shock, and in response, he got a look from Sae that doubled as a reminder. She had meant to talk to him about her epiphany, but the sudden reappearance of Makoto and her friends took priority. “It’s not a huge certainty yet. There is still… much to do, and discuss. But if I’m right on my assessment, they won’t need to face this threat alone.”

Everyone’s eyes were on her. Sadayo stared agape.

“I also am very thankful that you all are here. It’s a gracious gesture. But… I won’t pressure anyone into this… but if you would want to help us, and help the Phantom Thieves, I’ll recommend that you stay in contact.” The elder Niijima said.

“Sign me up.” Iwai spoke without delay. Everybody echoed the man’s words in quick succession. Everybody but Sadayo, whose eyes were still on the foot of the staircase. Nobody noticed that she stayed quiet. The scene at the café turned livelier as everybody exchanged numbers. The idea was immediately voiced that they should make a chat group to keep planning orderly and efficient.

The parallel of a new group chat to help the Phantom Thieves was not lost on Ryuji and the rest. Yusuke, in particular, seemed to struggle as he held tears back. For good and ill, he had been afforded a closer perspective at the way this conflict began; and even then, things had progressed too far for anyone to stop the disaster. It had been tortuous to see one who saved him from tyrannous bondage falling like this. It was no surprise that Akira’s closest friends would fight for him. And now, others outside that intimate circle were so intent to help – and not just Akira: these people wished to help all of them.

There was no celebration to be had at the end of the evening. But the spirits were reinvigorated by work of duty. Though almost nobody would leave the place for a couple of hours to come, Makoto, Futaba, Yusuke and Haru would be staying the night at the café to keep watch on Akira. They would also talk with Boss and Sae about the latter’s idea. Ryuji wanted to stay the night, but he desperately wished to see his mother, to tell her the truth about him, about being a Phantom Thief, and all that would likely entail soon. The young man knew she would understand, but it would be insurmountably hard. Ann decided to accompany him to give her boyfriend support. In a few hours, Iwai would be driving them both.

But one person stood transfixed in a cold sweat of torment. Sadayo Kawakami could not even think of going home after hearing what was discussed. And to her further sorrow, she could not shake off a haunting image, how Akira and Taiki suddenly started to resemble each other so much. The last time she saw Akira, he looked more dead than alive, and the last time she saw Taiki, after Kobayakawa coaxed her into stopping tutorship…

Suddenly, something burst inside of her.

“Let me stay. Let me hear and understand, all of it! Whatever you are planning, please let me help you!” The words came out of her mouth like demons exorcised out of her body. She had to do this, and not only for Akira – she would do it for Ryuji, for Ann, and everybody whose pain she could not, or would not see.

Nobody told her no. In fact, she seemed quite welcome into the discussion at the booth with Sae Niijima and Sojiro. The last thought in her head before plunging headlong into subject was amusement at how Futaba Sakura would get to see a different facet to her homeroom teacher, similarly and not at all like Akira Kurusu once did.

Little she did she know at that moment, she would be glad to have stayed. Had she given in to her fears, she would not have seen Akira climbing down the stairs later that evening, safe, and alive.

[ ]

“Shit fuck.” Ichiko Ohya rubbed her eyes, grown weary from staring at the screen for so long. She would be damning Yuuki Mishima if not for the importance of the affair. It sounded like he was on to something concrete when he contacted her, but that seemed so terribly short-sighted now. He meant to find everyone who had been directly or indirectly helped by the Phantom Thieves as a way to help them find their way back.

Even if they did find that information, what could they actually do with it? True, there was the probable notion that perception was no small matter in the world of the Phantom Thieves, if her subtle scrutiny of Akira Kurusu’s words was accurate. But that was hardly of any use now after reading Mishima’s latest text.

Akira Kurusu and his friends were back.

That put a bright note to her day. In fact, it made the past few days, the sleep deprivation, and stress worth it. And yet, the boy found a way to put a damper on that by failing to reply to her messages demanding for an update, to know if they were alright. Yuuki’s sudden silence rubbed her the wrong way, especially considering how swift and long his messages were every other time.

This made her suspicious, and concerned.

Was Akira alright? Were his friends?

Had something happened to Mishima?

Ichiko shook her head, dashing away this inner line of questioning before she scared herself into paranoia. She would pay him a visit after sunrise. For now, she may as well distract herself since she may not be able to get any sleep for a few hours to come.

Her thoughts returned to Mishima and his plan, or rather, ghostly semblance of. Gather information, and somehow use it to guide his friends back after disappearing out of thin air, no traces left behind. Despite his link to the Phantom Thieves, could Yuuki Mishima have been out of his depth in his attempt to help them, after they disappeared like this?

That kind of thing just does not happen, she thought to herself, interpreting the electronic buzzing of the equipment in her office as discreet agreement.

Something like that could only happen to extraordinary people like the Phantom Thieves.

For curiosity’s sake, she browsed for the news post on the disappearance occurred at Arancia. She was hardly surprised to find it brimmed with the cheap, sensationalistic tone she expected modern media to approach it. But then, one thing caught her eye, not in the article itself, but on a similar topic posted just below.

The disappearance of a businessman. One Susumu Kamiyama, Chairman of the company White Pheasant. Ichiko herself bought some of those products, so the news was somewhat relevant to her. But as soon as she clicked on the link, her keen eye focused on one very particular bit of information: the date. It was the same as the day Akira and friends disappeared. There was no statement from any spokesperson in the company, or rather, nothing alluding to Kamiyama-san actually having disappeared. This could all be a vulgar invention of the website to get more traffic – clickbait, plain and simple.

The date could also be a mere coincidence.

But why go through the trouble when there are far better ways to encourage views on a news website?

She had no reason to look further into this, but she knew herself well. She could not stop herself when she got going; that was how she developed a habit she struggled hard to kick. When translating that behaviour into her line of work, she came upon an idiom of her trade which she found distasteful: it was called following on a hunch.

And this, in spite of herself, was certainly one. Quite sharp, and annoying, at that.

Another search result revealed something she found quite surprising. Whereas many entrepreneurs and people with deep pockets had a negative, or neutral stance on the Phantom Thieves of Hearts, Susumu Kamiyama belonged to a distinguished few who openly supported them. A statement of the sort could be considered counterproductive during the economic and political climate of the time. White Pheasant’s public image has always been a clean, sober one. Subversion as means of niche-oriented PR does not fall in line with the company’s ways.

And yet, this statement was very clearly the man himself. It was even recorded on video.

As Ohya began to explore other search results, the idiom transformed into another she liked even less.

She was now following the white rabbit.

Chapter Text

Nobody had restful sleep on the night of the return. It was only by consequence of mental wear that the interior of LeBlanc was so quiet. But though the sleeping faces were tense and dark, no one stirred in the slightest until daybreak. A long day awaited hence. They promised they would help Lavenza ‘mend the Velvet Room’, whatever that actually meant. It was for that reason that she sought, and then rescued the Phantom Thieves. It was only just that they lent their aid; and if they had to face Nyarlathotep again, they would surely need the Velvet Room’s resources.

And after that, they still needed to follow on the spark set alight by Sae Niijima before everybody called it a night. By the attorney’s own admission, most of Wakaba Isshiki’s work on the mutable configurations of the cognitive world were beyond her grasp. But she still comprehended the core fundamentals, seemingly from how she could feel her sister Makoto while the latter was missing. In a similar way, both Akira and Makoto were able to ‘sense’ the emotional distress of those who cared for them in this world. This meant that, despite the barrier between worlds, a means of influence and communication remains. Sae’s conjectures all fell acute within the Phantom Thieves’ own experience in the Metaverse.

By Sae’s logic, there could be a way to aid them from this side when the time came to cross over once more. She put special emphasis on this after hearing about their experiences on the past few days. Even if she could not begin to picture what occurred, Sae understood the urgency of it all with grim sobriety. It was both reassuring and daunting that she would be so steadfastly willing to help them. But behind this gritty initiative, there had been horrible, horrible moments of realisation: that she could not protect her sister from what took her, that she was not safe yet. That failure could well signify losing her little sister for good.

Boss and Sadayo took on the role of listeners that night, but they shared Sae’s intent, as well as her fears.

And when the time did come, when Sae, Boss, Sadayo, and all the rest did their part, would it suffice?

Akira Kurusu reflected on some of these things, and then some that night. It was 4 AM, and he could not go back to sleep. Morgana slept at the side of the mattress, while Makoto slept on the couch in his room, and Yusuke laid spread out on a modest air mattress on the floorboards; everybody else camped downstairs. Even before he offered his bed, he knew that his friends would brook no argument about him sleeping on his actual bed. He thought to himself that he would surely be able to sleep the night through if his girlfriend was next to him.

The young man breathed out silently. His eyes were fixed on the ceiling. Everything was dark, save for a few lights pouring in from outside. But even if all of Tokyo was without light, his eyes would still be able to see the things they were not meant to. They were not there before, or they could have been, but he did not know how to see them.

Akira reached a hand out, and closed it into a fist, gripping only air.

The first time Sojiro spoke during the discussion earlier was when Sae acknowledged the red curtains, which she started to see after hearing about them. Boss also saw them a few times, experiencing a foul sensation every time that he could not put into words. Akira told them he believed the red curtains to be more than a passage to the other world, but also a fringe of it, a memento that accompanies those who know about it. He theorised that the reason his friends were pulled into the other world was because he told them about the red curtains.

That was assuming Nyarlathotep spoke true.

Those words bothered him. Was he truly meant to cross over into that world alone?

Why would that be?

The mention of their foe unearthed an aspect they momentarily forgot about – that their tormentor had another name, Susumu Kamiyama. Sae was quick to notice the mention of that name bothered Haru.

It went as thus.

“Not to put you in the spot, Haru, but…” Makoto summoned as much tact as she could. “You mentioned something about knowing him over there. Please, explain us. Do you really know him?”

The Okumura Foods’ heiress looked uneasy.

“Not personally. Rather, he is the chairman of a company that sought a collaboration with Okumura Foods not too long ago.”

Everyone looked suitably confused. Yusuke had an apprehensive look in his eyes.

“I totally never saw that coming.” Futaba remarked. A silent spell followed for a moment after.

“I don’t get it. Why would that guy be doing all that shit in the other world?” Ryuji said.

“Could he be wanting to… I don’t know, take over your company?” Ann suggested with little faith in the idea.

“I don’t think so. None of what he said sounded especially entrepreneur-like.” Morgana remarked, after which Futaba translated for Sae.

“True.” Haru bit her lip in hesitation. “He seemed only interested in Akira.”

That led to Nyarlathotep’s claim of Akira as his ‘template’, which resulted in the making of the other Joker. This relation was the clearest and most simple thing they had to work with; everything else was plagued with troublesome incognita. But then they realised just what they had in their grasp. The fear for their lives and the fight for survival had blurred the thought, but on the moment Susumu Kamiyama confirmed his identity, they were given the possibility of an answer, a solution.

“Susumu Kamiyama…“ Sae repeated, writing down his name on a notepad. “I’ll need to look into him further on my own, but for now, tell me all you can about him. Did he say what his motives or goals were?”

Everybody turned to look at one another with uncomfortable expressions.

“He said he wanted to create a new world, somewhere everyone can be happy and all that jazz.” Ryuji said.

“Really?” Sae raised an eyebrow at the young man’s response.

“It is a rather crude paraphrase, but not an inaccurate one.” Yusuke added.

“A new world. Doesn’t sound like a simple enterprise.” The elder Niijima remarked. “That’s where this Nyarlathotep individual comes in, correct?”

“His benefactor…” Akira thought out loud.

“Excuse me?”

“Kamiyama talked about Nyarlathotep as his benefactor, but it seemed as if he didn’t know his true identity. He claimed the name escaped him.” The young man continued.

“A strange thing to say.”

“Didn’t it seem to you guys like everything he said was kind of mixed messages?” Futaba suggested.

“Yeah… He was very polite one moment, and real creepy the next.” Ann said. “Like they were two different people in one…”

Ann’s words summoned a most disturbing memory, reflected in the faces of all her friends, for there was more to this adversary than the duality between Susumu Kamiyama and Nyarlathotep. Makoto looked especially troubled. Though her sister asked that they tell her everything, she could not think that revealing Nyarlathotep suddenly looked like their father would cause anything but harm. Even now, the image gripped cruelly at her insides, and twisted without mercy. But that kind of pain was not hers alone; every one present in the other world had seen the Crawling Chaos wear their parents’ likeness.

The hateful, unnatural yellow in ‘Akihiko Niijima’s’ eyes was an attempt against Makoto’s very foundations as a person.

Sae could tell by her sister’s expression that something in the retelling was too hard to bring back up. She said nothing, but even her silence was a firm request for them to carry on with the testimony.

Akira saved Makoto the ordeal of having to tell it herself, instantly reviving some inner turmoil he still had about his father Takahisa. Sae Niijima took her time to digest this, to acknowledge without imagining. Everybody stayed quiet for a minutes, to let the foul taste of it pass. Sojiro looked quizzically upon his daughter, wondering if Nyarlathotep had taken his appearance. Futaba’s face alone answered his question, and it broke his heart.

“But yeah…” Ryuji interjected, trying to push past the moment. “Everything was weird with that Kamiyama guy. Like, he even screamed at us to escape after putting us through some weird Escher maze-like mindshit.”

“That was very strange. He seemed repentant after he showed us a way out.” Haru mentioned. “I don’t think he was truly intending to hurt us. He even disowned his so-called benefactor in the end.”

“It was as if he didn’t know his intentions.” Makoto’s words still echoed in Akira’s head.

Futaba suggested that Susumu Kamiyama was somehow possessed. Though the conjecture sounded unfitting at first, nobody could put a better name to it. Sae double-checked their testimony, asking for further details on the things the older man said, and how he said them when he was docile. After some more discussion, the hypothesis was that Susumu Kamiyama had been influenced and deceived by Nyarlathotep, somehow. The former apparently sought a new world for the betterment of human kind, whereas the latter aimed to use it for his own benefit.

Yet it did not seem like Nyarlathotep sought mere all-encompassing dominance as Yaldabaoth had. He spoke of retaking his rightful place, of having been banished, and showing the futility of an unknown party’s sacrifice. The sum of it all hinted vengeance. The Phantom Thieves knew a motive like that could make a foe extremely dangerous, but also careless. Knowing the recipient of Nyarlathotep’s hatred could be a valuable resource when they took the fight to him once again.

The notion took form in Akira’s head. It was almost audible, to nobody but he.

They called it a night shortly after discussing Nyarlathotep’s motives. Everybody was quite exhausted by then, and the next day would surely need to start early. Farewells were said, and a taxi was called for Sadayo to get home safely. There was also a very serious warning, disguised in a jocular tone, for Sae, Sojiro and Sadayo.

Stay away from red curtains.

Everybody turned in shortly after. Nobody really thought of asking whether anybody still saw the crimson path into the other world, not even Akira.

Especially not Akira.

The red curtains that had been haunting him were no more. But his line of sight was not free of their reach either. Rather, they had changed in appearance, and they lingered surreptitiously on the corner of his eye no longer. There was no need for the other world to disguise its presence anymore. On the last moments before Akira crossed over, he saw the red curtains devolving, mutating back into their true form. And with it, he attained a cold sense of familiarity and certainty.

Akira again reached his hand out, and closed it into a fist, gripping only air. He knew there truly was nothing there that could be felt with his skin, nothing tangible to probe, tease, or damage. The thing would not unravel, no matter how hard he tried, or how insistently he pulled. His hand merely go through it, feeling nothing, as if he were passing it through a streak of light.

But this long, black vine was very much real, as was the shapeless mass of tentacles attached to it, equally as ethereal. The initial shock an hour ago was short-lived. By now, he felt somewhat accustomed to it; he knew the countless tendrils attached to him, going to and from in his room were the true appearance of the red curtains. And it was not the first time he had seen them, either. They hailed back to one night a year ago, give or take a few days.

He thought it only a dream, a very bad one. But the things he saw during a stroll in the dark were real, on the night Kawasaki had a blackout. It was apparent that Nyarlathotep had his clutches on him back then.

Unable to tolerate the stagnant feeling from lying down too long, Akira sat up on his bed and observed his room, invaded by untouchable limbs. His eyes found Makoto, sleeping on the couch, as peacefully as one could after the horrors. The tentacles spiralled around her body, concealing her eyes and mouth from view; but they did not touch her. There was too some fair distance between the black tendrils and Futaba and Morgana’s bodies, also sleeping in his room.

The attachment to the black limbs was for Akira alone. And yet, he knew those he cared for were still at risk.

A sound made him turn his head in a heartbeat, away from Futaba and Morgana. Makoto groaned in her sleep, otherwise completely unperturbed by an alien presence she could never see or feel. The young man still could not shake the feeling that she and his friends, and everybody present at LeBlanc earlier were Nyarlathotep’s hostages.

The quiet anger inside of him led to a vow, which he spoke out loud. It was a thing barely above a whisper.

“Now I see you for what you truly are. You will not hurt them. I will not allow it.”

Nimble feet made the floorboards creak not even a little as he turned around in a circle.

“I promise I will end you, no matter what.”

There was only silence after that, but Akira knew his words warranted a response. He felt it, in a way that could not be code through physical senses. A world away, the Joker smirked cruelly, sensing the young man’s defiance, deeming it a child’s pouting tantrum.

[ ]

Makoto’s back was stiff when she woke up, and her mouth tasted of morning breath. Unbeknownst to most people beyond her sister and her boyfriend, she was a heavy sleeper. The young woman relied on her phone’s alarm every morning, but this time she slept right through it. Neither Akira, nor Futaba or Morgana were in the room. The dreaded shame of oversleeping crept up her face, but at least she had one comfort that morning. It was one of two problems she could handle with more ease and calm than fighting for survival.

The other was slightly more embarrassing. The last time she showered was a few hours before Akira’s ‘intervention’. She wore perfume also. Most everything since that moment had been impromptu physical activity with hardly a break. And it showed. She knew this applied to her fellow Phantom Thieves as well, but it did not help.

She could hear the morning sounds of LeBlanc downstairs. She guessed it may be the first time in a while anybody used the French press, or stirred the pot for a generous breakfast. Makoto desperately wished to come down and see the facsimile of a normality she loved, but she wondered if she could maybe make it to the restroom unseen. The sink and toiletries would suffice for a quick washing and tidying; it was not the first time she had done so, after all.

“Good morning, Makoto.” Sae spoke as soon as her sister came down the stairs. She sat in a booth, with Yusuke, Haru, and Ann, with a hot cup of coffee in front of her and clean plate.

Akira turned to her just as Sae marked her presence.

“Makoto! Good morning! Did you sleep well?” He sounded like he was making an effort to show a brighter mood. The younger Niijima could tell even if she went deaf.

“Morning.” She smiled. “Sae, Akira, Boss, Mona… um…” She discreetly made her way to her left towards the restroom, concealing her embarrassment.

“Breakfast will be ready in a minute.” Sojiro looked her way. “Restroom’s free, by the way.

Her façade broke a little.

“Thank you, Boss.” Makoto did her best to play down her hurry.

She flicked the light switch on. But the light bulb was not the only thing that illuminated the inside of the small room. There was also a pair of big, yellow eyes, looking straight at her. It was a miracle that she limited her reaction to a gasp that took the air of her lungs. Those eyes were attached to a face, and a long cascade of bright hair and a thick concentration of blue.

“Lavenza!” Makoto said the girl’s name, suddenly horrified at the realisation that nobody checked up on her after they returned to Arancia’s second floor. One moment, she held Akira as he fell unconscious, and the moment after, she was gone from everybody’s attention.

“Good morning.” The mood in the little attendant’s voice could not easily be discerned.

“I’m so sorry! Did… did you spend the night in here?”

Lavenza squinted, slanting her head in inquisitive fashion.

“Lavenza, this is terrible. We shouldn’t have neglected to find you better accommodations. After all you’ve been through, I can’t believe we were so careless so as to let you sleep in here.”

The girl in blue opened her eyes wide.

“No, I… I didn’t sleep in here. I only…” She pointed to a blue door at the very back of the room. It was not there before, but Makoto knew where it led. It was an access to the Velvet Room. The way Akira used to talk of it, they showed up anywhere Caroline and Justine thought suitable.

“Oh… um, good!” A brief, but very uncomfortable silence followed. “Lavenza, I know for a fact that Akira and that kind man with the beard outside are very good at cooking. Wouldn’t you like some breakfast? It would do you good.” She said, sounding more motherly than she realised.

Lavenza’s eyes lit at the prospect of tasting Akira’s cooking. She did a quick manner of a curtsy and exited the restroom to Sojiro’s very audible shock. The following sound of running water drowned out the voices outside the restroom – surely Akira explaining in full detail who the little girl in blue was. Makoto could only imagine what it must be for her sister and Boss to suddenly be in this close contact with a world so alien to them, yet so strangely familiar to Makoto herself.

Without further delay, she made do with what she had available, if at least to feel better prepared to tackle the day. But in spite of the quickness of it all, she still indulged in shower thoughts – brief reflections on the events transpired. Soon enough, she came upon something alarming. Sae and Sojiro mentioned that they too started seeing the red curtains after the Phantom Thieves’ disappearance. There was a potential risk that they could cross over into that strange world, even by complete accident. Furthermore, they started seeing the curtains, merely after hearing about them from Yasunori. It was as if even a cursory awareness of the other side cast ripples on their world.

It went without saying the night before. But everybody agreed to keep the nuances of this affair within the closely-knit group. Sae and Sojiro knew better by now, but more people could be in danger of crossing over if word somehow spread out. Discretion and control of information became all the more important within an instant.

Makoto finished her impromptu shower in a matter of minutes. She came of the restroom slightly more refreshed, but her appetite vanished as soon as she started dwelling. Once again, she considered the common factor between Susumu Kamiyama and Nyarlathotep’s words. Each had a different attitude regarding the issue, but the two of them remarked on the same thing.

Only Akira was meant to cross over.

Was this marginal spread of the red curtains somehow a consequence of that? If so, was there some way to turn this into an advantage?

Yet, for all anyone could tell, this too could prove to Nyarlathotep’s favour.

Around her, the strange banter between Lavenza and Morgana was muted by her train of thought, derailing every time into considering the worst case scenario. As if by instinct, her eyes found Akira’s. She saw his exceedingly affable mask crumble. But beneath she did not find dread or damage, as she feared. Instead, she found sharp intent as the shine of his dark eyes. It was quite akin to the lead characters in the Yakuza films she enjoyed so much.

Like them, she would need to keep her temper, mind, and knuckles sharp.

She decidedly took a mouthful of Boss’ curry, and savoured it. Only for a moment, she would let the normalcy speak louder than the worst case scenario.

Breakfast went by quickly. It was time to travel into the Velvet Room.

Chapter Text

Joker could not presume to speak for his friends, but their silence itself spoke volumes. He himself found no words to rationalise what unfolded before his eyes. After the harrowing experiences in Nyarlathotep’s dominions, Akira felt well equipped to handle whatever problem was occurring in the Velvet Room. Now, he found how woefully wrong he was. He mentally scolded himself about not being able to heed Lavenza’s call sooner.

Maybe no more than ten seconds ago, they were all still in LeBlanc. There was some banter in the air about Lavenza having conjured the door to the Velvet Room in the café’s restroom. Ryuji and Futaba were each proportionally amused in relation to Boss’ bemusement. Makoto was not very keen on the embarrassing implications, but she seemed at least somewhat pleased that the spirits were high. It felt like a distant echo of days past; the mood that preceded every venture into Mementos.

Lavenza ushered them in, one by one, through the blue door. A moment later, they were on the other side, wearing their Phantom Thieves’ attire. And the spirits they carried all plummeted in an instant.

In a way, this visage was not any more disturbing or foreboding than many of the perils they encountered before. But the way this place had changed was no easy thing to process. With the exception of Joker and Morgana, they set foot in this place only once before. This is where they regained the strength to carry on after absolute defeat. In the briefest while, they partook of the Velvet Room’s grace, and they knew in their hearts that this was a sanctuary for everybody’s souls. This was a sacred place, one which not even Yaldabaoth could truly corrupt.

But the Velvet Room had been something more for Akira. This was the cradle of his rehabilitation. He could not attempt to count the times he visited this place. Despite Caroline and Justine tormenting him, and the false Igor’s ominous presence, Akira grew to think of this place as a peculiar kind of home, safe and inviolable.

Yet the Velvet Room now lay defiled and broken.

The light bulb above was dimming and crackling like it could go out at any moment, but they did not need to see with their eyes to know. They could tell by the mere layout of the place that this was the Velvet Room they knew. The cells had been replaced with tall bookshelves, the guillotine and the speakers were gone; Igor’s desk was still at the centre of the room. But all else was different. There were missing tiles on the floor and the walls, too many to count. The resulting hollows revealed a fathomless nothing that nibbled away at what still remained whole. The edges of stone, steel and wood blurred in and out of sight, as a clear indication that the place itself struggled to keep existing.

And Igor sat at his desk. His unnerving countenance looked much the same as they remembered it, yet his large, eternally bloodshot eyes stared without blinking at some random spot on the surface of his desk. His posture, from the angling of his back to his arms spread forward, was without motion. The one distinct sign of life was the faint sound of his breathing. He was catatonic, and much like his surroundings, existing at the verge of lifelessness. At that moment, Akira desperately wished to hear his voice, gentle and docile like the archetype of a sagely, loving grandfather. But no matter how strong his wish, no words would come out of Igor.

He was silent like the grave, silent like the rest of the Velvet Room. The absence of the aria to everybody’s souls was a change nobody noticed until they felt its lack within themselves.

Morgana walked towards Igor’s desk, looking like a lost child. The feline looked uncharacteristically clumsy as he climbed on the desk. He fell flat on his own behind in a way that would have otherwise looked amusing. And he stared at Igor’s eyes, quietly prying for a response that would never come.

“This… this is so wrong…” Panther said.

“How long has this place been like this?” Fox asked.

“I’m not sure. It’s been harder to tell how the time passes since it began. Maybe no longer than a fortnight…” Lavenza sounded distant.

A haunting notion glared straight at them through the girl’s vague approximation. She probably sought them after as soon as the Velvet Room started to deteriorate. But they were nowhere to be found. They would have dwelt in guilt for longer if not for the other obvious matter. It might well be a coincidence, but the timing was suspiciously close. If the current state of the Velvet Room and their disappearance were not isolated events, then Nyarlathotep could be the reason behind the place’s corruption.

“We’ll take care of this, Lavenza.” Queen placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder. Oracle held the attendant’s hand. “We promise.” The young woman searched Joker’s eyes, trying to snatch his attention.

“We do.” He nodded, shaking off the feeling of palpable desolation from the gaps in the room.

“Thank you.” Lavenza smiled sadly.

Noir approached the desk on which Morgana sat spellbound in bewilderment. She pressed her cheek against the cat’s head while she hugged him tight. Much like Lavenza, witnessing this could not be easy to endure. In no small manner, this was his birthplace. Even if his birth happened hurried and desperately, the attachment between the Velvet Room and Mona’s heart was strong. And that said nothing of the man sitting at the desk, alive by the thinnest thread. Igor was essentially Morgana’s father.

“Alright.” Skull spoke loudly, but audibly affected. “We’re here for you. What do we do?”

Everybody turned to Lavenza, awaiting her command. The resolve in the eyes beneath the masks was a sweet sight for her to behold. Even Joker’s uncharacteristically cold expression was a steadfast encouragement. Before, the girl felt insecure and unprepared. When this began, all she could think of was gathering the Phantom Thieves, but she had no actual plan of her own. It was only after she braved the streets of Tokyo that she knew the next step to take. She wondered what would the Phantom Thieves do.

They would wake up, and get out there. They would explore every path ahead, and plan their route to the treasure. And if there was no path to take, they would somehow make one.

So quite like their feline companion, she let herself be guided by curiosity. There was already a door ahead that she hesitated to take. And therein lay the path.

She took a deep breath before relaying the plan.

“First and foremost, we need to know the cause of this deterioration, and if it has anything to do with Nyarlathotep” The name still left a noticeably strange taste in her mouth. “I’m not sure my siblings will know more than I do, but there is someone who may. To find them, we’ll need to reach a suitable configuration of the Velvet Room. I believe this is our best chance. The corruption doesn’t appear to reach far beyond the confines of this room.”

The Phantom Thieves all turned to look at each other. Nobody said anything for a moment.

“You got siblings?” Oracle was the first to talk. “Oh my God, are they all moe like you?”

“That’s quite the revelation, but is it truly what we ought to focus on?” Queen said.

“Another configuration of the Velvet Room…” Joker mused. “What exactly does that mean?”

“The Velvet Room takes on many forms. It depends on varied factors. Be it the guest’s unconscious or the state of the world they inhabit. Since they all exist in between mind and matter, it is possible to travel between them. But each one is different. Some are kept by attendants, and others are not.”

“Those attendants are your siblings, correct?” Fox wondered.

“Yes. We may encounter them along the way, but it is somebody else we seek.” Lavenza suddenly looked strangely bashful. “They have been with my Master for longer than any of us attendants. I know not why they keep their presence hidden, but I have a strong feeling that they still exist.”

“You don’t sound a hundred per cent certain.” Oracle remarked.

“I’m sorry.” The attendant lowered her gaze.

“No! That’s not a problem at all! I mean, it’s an option, right?”

“I think she’s correct.” Morgana hopped down from the desk. “I myself am not sure if they are who she’s talking about, but I think I feel another presence. It’s far away, really far away, but it’s there.”

“Well, this is kinda where you were born, so yeah, maybe Lavenza here is on the money.” Skull smiled eagerly.

“Sounds good to me.” Joker said, to which Lavenza lit up instantly. “Let’s go.”

“Thank you. Please follow me.”

With their friends at their back, Joker and Queen followed Lavenza up the stairs that sectioned the dome in half. In the past, they all climbed these stairs after regaining their full sense of self to defeat Yaldabaoth. Now they climbed them once more on their way to defeating a new enemy. Corruption aside, this place was much changed, having become something of a den of wisdom as opposed to the prison it once was. The Phantom Thieves also underwent changes with clear ramifications; but others carried consequences yet to be understood.

As for Joker, he had a strong suspicion about one such change occurred in him throughout the past weeks. It was no less daunting now than when he first started noticing. But he believed he may be closer to understanding it. Even now, as they ventured into the light past the open door, it continued to drain and feed off of him. Somehow, he would shatter the link between Nyarlathotep’s Joker and he, lest it break him and claim those he loved.

His eyes darted into the blinding light that awaited, the transition between one Velvet Room and the other. He hoped it would burn away the horrible memory that lingered in his eyes.

Even if just for a moment.

[ ]

It took some time for their eyes to adjust. But even before they were able to perceive the blue of this place, they knew just where they were, merely by the scent. All except for Lavenza stared agape at their surroundings. Noir seemed especially enraptured by this form of the Velvet Room. It was a greenhouse, wider and higher than any they had seen in television or magazines. No patch of soil was vacant.

The flora that grew in this place was otherworldly diverse and rich. The group’s gardening connoisseuse could identify only a few specimens, and half of them she was not fully certain she knew. Everything else was a new shape, a new palette of colours, and new smells that could be pleasantly inebriating should one linger. And Haru certainly wished she could.

A thick, ash-coloured tree grew at the very centre of the place, with old roots and sturdy branches that made an impenetrable canopy of a ceiling. Tall blue windowpanes framed the place in a circle, and at the tallest end, they seemed to meld together with the leaves and the branches on the tree. Outside the windows, it was dark, but not quite like the Velvet Room they knew. This was the darkness of the night-sky, pockmarked with stars everywhere and long curving stripes of what looked like aurora borealis.

Even if silence reigned still, there was no sign of corruption in this place.

Akira’s dry mood instantly began to change. He never imagined the Velvet Room could be this outwardly beautiful. Makoto noticed the shift in his expression, and smiled. She was well aware of the urgency to the situation, but she wished to indulge at least for a handful of seconds.

Yusuke looked to be on the verge of tears from the sensory impact. His lips and fingertips trembled like he was undergoing a religious experience, which it was for him.

“This is… a Velvet Room?” Ryuji asked.

“It is a form of the Velvet Room, yes.” Lavenza seemed particularly insistent in the wording.

“Wish this was the one we got.” Ann managed a chuckle, and soon noticed the seats hanging from the branches closest to the ground, like wide swings ; they were roped by beautiful wreaths and vines. She figured this would be where Igor and the attendant would sit if they were here.

“My Master accompanied me here sometimes.” Lavenza looked like she wished for a boost to sit on one of the swings. “Sometimes it was Elizabeth, Margaret, Theodore, Percival, Magnolia…”

“Are those your siblings?” Akira asked.

“Yes…”

The Thieves’ leader said nothing more. He laid his hand on the girl’s shoulder with dear manner.

“We should carry on.” The attendant walked around the tree, motioning for the rest to follow her.

At first, it seemed as if they were merely going in circles around the base of the tree. But before anyone could begin to feel dizzy or silly, they saw the tail of Lavenza’s blue coat disappearing into a dark hollow in the tree that was not there before. It was not a small space per se, but they could only crawl in one at a time.

It was a disorienting experience to navigate the space between one form of the Velvet Room and the next. Nobody saw the path ahead, but the way the air travelled hinted that there was only one tight way ahead that could not be missed. It was uncomfortable, but nowhere nearly so as coming out on the other side.

The door Lavenza opened for them was somehow even smaller than the path they just traversed. For some strange reason, it was quite cold near the exit. A succession of grunts followed as each of the Phantom Thieves, except for Morgana, struggled greatly to come out on the other side. All jokes were spared as even Futaba had a hard time coming through.

Now, on the other side, the wonder only increased. This form of the Velvet Room was not as majestic to the senses as the last, but it was a most unexpected form for the Velvet Room to take. They were inside of a limousine, with long and luxurious seats on all sides, and the cool, blue light radiating from an artful fixture on the vehicle’s ceiling. Gazing back at the entrance, they realised they came into this place through the limousine’s mini-bar.

“For real!?” Ryuji exclaimed.

“Wow, this is a way swanky car.” Ann looked around her. “Don’t tell me… this is the Velvet Room too?”

“Indeed.”

“I don’t wanna be ‘that girl’, but does a car count as a room?” Futaba asked.

“Um, guys.” Makoto called. “Maybe it’d be better if we actually sat down?” Up until this moment, everyone except for Lavenza and Morgana were standing, awkwardly bent with their heads grazing the ceiling.

“Right.” Akira agreed, taking a seat near the centre. “Where is this limousine going, by the way?”

“There is not a material destination to speak of. Not for us, anyhow. This was the Velvet Room for a Wild Card of the past, I believe. It must have led them ‘somewhere’ to fulfil their purpose. But for ours, I’ll need to find the next door. Please wait a moment, I’m sure I had it spotted the last time I was here.” She stood from her seat and began searching through the limousine.

“Take you time.” Joker removed his mask and took in the details of their surroundings as they waited.

“Quite a journey so far, huh?” Makoto said.

“True. Never imagined I’d be in a different vehicle other than the Mona-mobile for something like this.”

“I guess that’s expanding your horizons.” His lieutenant smiled at him. “How are you feeling?”

Joker opened his mouth, knowing what he wanted to say. But the words that came out where different; they were the truth.

“I think I’m feeling a little better now.” He kept his volume low and far from the others. The rest of their friends all started to have conversations of their own. “Still far from being okay, but I have high hopes.”

“Thank you for being honest.”

Joker nodded. His eyes went down to the proximity between Makoto and he. The smirk on his face did not come at the thought of intimacy, but amusement at the overall lack of comfort. Everybody was packed uncomfortably close together inside the vehicle, and it was worse for Yusuke as he had to bend forward even while sitting down. And for once, Morgana did not seem too joyous about sitting on Ann’s lap. Meanwhile, Lavenza continued to search, oblivious to it all.

“I really do prefer the Mona-mobile.”

The feline’s ears perked at once. He stood up on Panther’s lap, nearly hitting his own head against the ceiling.

“Guys… you hear that?”

“Huh?” Haru uttered.

“Something wrong, kitty?” Futaba asked.

“I think I hear something.” The feline said, the pupils on his eyes narrowing.

“I don’t hear nothing.” Ryuji shrugged.

“No, wait. He’s right.” Akira spoke, gesturing for the others to keep quiet and listen.

Makoto’s eyes widened. She nodded to her boyfriend, confirming she heard it too. The reaction was replicated by the rest, one Phantom Thief at a time.

“Isn’t that…?” Ann whispered.

“It is.” Morgana said. “It’s the music from the Velvet Room!”

“Lavenza! Does this mean we’re getting closer?” Akira called.

The girl did not answer right away. One could judge by her expression that this was the first time in a dreadful while that she heard the aria once again. Her lips moved as if she was searching for an answer.

“It means… yes! We must be on the right track!” This said, the limousine slowly came to a stop. Shortly after came the sound of the lock disengaging on the door. With some initial hesitation, the girl opened the door. And on the other side, they all could clearly see a setting of deep blue. Lavenza all but hopped out of the car, followed by the rest.

This other incarnation of the Velvet Room was considerably wider, but still smaller than the greenhouse. It was a far simpler composition, with a set of ornamental screens and old carved frames on the sides; one circular table draped in blue, and a long chair behind. But there was yet one oddity about this place that quickly stuck out. Behind the table and the seat was a tall, latticed gate, fashioned like those of old-fashioned elevators.

It was then they realised they were actually in an elevator. Just like how the music came slowly into perception, so did the sense of movement. But there was no telling whether this elevator was going up or down. It was not enough to throw anyone off balance, but the passing of light outside the latticed gate hinted at a high velocity, suitable only for extremely tall buildings – given the nature of the Velvet Room, they doubted that was the case.

The mechanical sounds were smothered by the song of the Velvet Room, which slowly increased in volume. It still sounded somewhat distant, but it served as a sign that they were closing in on their destination. Hope started showing in the Phantom Thieves’ faces.

And within seconds, the elevator stopped, and the gates retracted to the sides with a thunderous clank.

“Before we go on, there’s something I should tell you.” Lavenza spoke. “This is as far as I’ve gotten on my previous explorations. I’m sure there is another version of the Velvet Room on the other side, but I cannot know what it will be. Please stay close.”

“We will.” Joker turned to his friends. “Let’s go.”

True to Lavenza’s words, a different configuration of the Velvet Room awaited them on the other side. This time, it seemed to be an archaic radio station, which gave way to the next form: a clock tower. The Phantom Thieves and Lavenza navigated through the nuances of each form, finding passage through a variety of means, some obvious, and others as unlikely as a cask in a wine cellar. And every time, the song played just a little closer. After opening the hatch on what appeared to be a sea capsule, they encountered the most basic of incarnations so far. It truly was nothing for a blue room, draped on all sides by blue curtains.

“We’re definitely on the right track.” Morgana said. “I can feel them really close.”

“It’s through here.” Lavenza motioned towards a seemingly random parting in the curtains. By now, she was looking very flustered. The way, she spoke of the people she sought, they brandished a great deal of authority. And she most likely was not in great familiarity with them as she was with Igor.

They crossed through the curtains, but what they found on the other side was an unexpected surprise.

This place felt, looked, and sounded different. This was a kind of enormous multi-tiered library, with long balconies and lacquered railings. It was a scene out of a European film, and it felt oppressive whereas the previous places were soothing despite their strangeness. Visibility was low, and everything seemed tinted with a murky filter of dark sea-green. The soulful aria of the Velvet Room was still in the air, louder than ever, but it sounded out of key, heavily distorted.

And above all, this time they were not alone.

Numerous masses of Shadows wandered along the hallways and lounged mindlessly at the bottom of stairways. Some crept from the ceilings, and others even looked like they slumbered.

“Shit!” Ryuji sputtered.

“Shadows!? Here!?” Ann added her own astonished take.

“Could this be… Nyarlathotep’s doing?” Haru suggested with dread in her voice.

“No.” Akira’s unexpected response had all eyes on him. “I’m not sure how I know, but this doesn’t have his disgusting prints over it.”

“I think he’s right.” Morgana added. “This place is gloom, but I see no signs of corruption. Maybe it’s just an anomaly.” The feline did not sound overly secure.

“Lavenza, do you still sense our destination nearby?” Makoto asked.

“Yes. The way must be somewhere nearby.”

“Then we must stick to what we’ve been doing so far. We find the way forward, and advance.” The lieutenant declared.

“There also aren’t that many Shadows. We can clear the path to give you room to search.” Akira said.

“Alright, we may as well get a little exercise done before the main event!” Ryuji grinned.

“You know how we do it. We spread out and clean house.” Akira reciprocated, looking more like his deviously daring self. “ARSENE!”

Each of the Phantom Thieves summoned their Persona. Though their leader still felt considerably drained, he made short work of multiple Shadows that attacked as soon as they noticed them. These adversaries were about as potent and able as the dwellers of the lowest reaches of Mementos. There were even types of Shadows they never encountered before, which forced them to improvise and remain on their toes while Lavenza devoted all of her attention to her search.

This fray was a different affair to the last time they had to fight Shadows. Even if they were fighting on unfamiliar ground, the Phantom Thieves encountered no problem to steer the battle in their favour. In fact, the rush of battle was mending their confidence, previously shaken by Nyarlathotep’s sinister designs. Every Shadow vanquished was one moment stolen back, one chance to assert their true selves and start gaining momentum against their greater adversary.

This felt right.

While her friends fought each on a different direction, Makoto’s Persona, Anat, struck a definite blow on a Shadow of daunting appearance and strength. It was muscle-bound, and heavily armed, with a different artefact in each of his eight arms. The War Goddess moved in for the coup de grace, but a moment from the not-so-distant past began to reprise in front of Queen’s eyes.

It was looking straight at her, eye to eye. The Shadow stared with intent, ego, and intellect – so similar to that Oni back in Nyarlathotep’s world. Despite her pragmatic ways in battle, Makoto stayed her hand, and waited in silence.

“You…” The Shadow spoke with a deep, thundering voice. “I’ve never faced one like you. You are a mighty woman! If you’re to end me today, so be it. But if you let me join your cause, you will have my unrelenting might at your command! O mighty woman, what is your answer?”

Makoto felt her legs trembling. She has seen this happen many times before, when the Phantom Thieves controlled the flow of battle in such a way that victory was a guarantee. In spontaneous response to dominance, the Shadows spoke with intent and autonomy, and thus became masks for Akira to add to his repertoire. Owning different Personas was a skill only he had.

But now, here she was, as recipient of that dynamic. Try as she might, she could not metabolise her thoughts into an answer. But she did not need to, for she had already answered the question.

“Good choice, mighty woman. I am Atavaka! Yaksha Protector of the Southwest! From this day on, I will fight alongside you!” The Shadow lit up in blue flame and transubstantiated into a mask, which landed on Makoto’s face.

The young woman felt many things at once over the fleeting burning sensation that reminded her of Johanna’s birth. She felt euphoria, shortness of breath, anxiety, a dash of panic… and power, pulsating hot in her veins. When she finally caught her breath, she turned around frantically, looking for Akira.

But his eyes were on her as soon as this occurred. He was wide-eyed, and his lips were parted in surprise.

Barely a second later, his expression changed into a smile – one that only Makoto knew. The young woman did not know what to say or do. Part of her wondered if this really actually happened. But within that small time frame, one thing pushed her back into the present. It was how her boyfriend nodded enthusiastically, almost as if saying…

Do it again, Queen.

Chapter Text

Ichiko Ohya consistently measured the nuances of every situation she found herself in. Beneath her seemingly careless attitude, and her deliberately outdated fashion taste, she was a highly analytical person. It was this mix of diligence and acute attention to detail what earned her reputation as the top freelance journalist in Tokyo. But there was something else to her: a strong, even overbearing sense of curiosity, which led her to unforeseen, but highly rewarding scoops.

Today, she followed in her usual modus operandi, but it was not a scoop what she sought. The things she was about to learn would not see the light of day, and would not boost her clout in the business. She was not doing this for fame, or even for love to her craft. She was doing this for someone she cared about – for a young man called Akira Kurusu.

She barely managed to hide her smirk at the strange turn of events that evening in Crossroads. In pursuing a revelation for a young, bespectacled man with messy hair and bad posture, she was about to interview another bespectacled man with messy hair and even worse posture.

His name was Tomohiro Higashi. On paper, he held a small position in the human resources department of White Pheasant – a company devoted to organic foods, sexual health, and skin care. More importantly, she found him to be the closest link to the company’s chairman, Susumu Kamiyama, who went missing under mysterious circumstances. It took Ichiko quite the effort to search past the wall of public relations, and find someone who would talk about the chairman with true honesty. She made it very clear that her line of inquiry would be unconventional. She cast a morsel of suspicion, and somebody took the bait.

Higashi was visibly nervous about the whole affair. It was understandable given how things must look from his perspective. Walking into a joint in Shinjuku that had closed early for the occasion was not the most appealing of activities. On top of that, he was about to have a chat with somebody who appeared to know more than they should about a matter nobody was supposed to know about. For a moment, Ichiko considered buying him a drink if that would put him at ease. But, being a recovering alcoholic, this still put her in too close contact with a vice she struggled hard to kick.

Lala-chan read the situation at once, however, and poured a watered down whiskey for Tomohiro without her friend’s involvement. The man thanked her, his voice too quiet for comfort, and quietly sipped his drink until the glass was half empty.

“Thanks for agreeing to meeting with me, Higashi-kun.” Ichiko began. “This must all be quite the shock, I imagine, with your boss going MIA, and all.” Her approach fell on a very specific tone, slightly aggressive, a little playful, with a subtle hint of concern. “How are you holding up?”

“We’ve been quite shaken, Ohya-san.” He spoke formally, as she anticipated.

“No wonder, but is that the company… or you yourself speaking?” Directness was one of her tools of choice. Headline culture was the norm; precedence of the collective over the individual when it came to people at the helm of grand enterprises. Subverting it was the way to go when unearthing controversial opinions. But today, she was trying to find the kind of thing often relegated to gossip and rumours.

“Both.” To her surprise, his answer was quick and doubtless, like a reflex.

“Oh? A loyal employee, I see! That is a good thing, I’ve looked into Kamiyama-san himself. A man of fine repute…”Ichiko feigned scrolling through notes on her phone. “No PR damage control, no scandals… hah, not even a mistress to speak of. It’s not that rare, mind you. But it’s nice to see.”

Tomohiro stayed quiet. Ohya kept ‘reviewing’ her notes while discreetly observing his body language. Even the way he kept his silence reminded her of Akira.

“Alright, everything seems to be in order… now, first question. What do you, Tomohiro Higashi, make of Kamiyama-san’s many contributions to charity?” She put her phone down, near his field of vision, and made sure to close all applications for him to see. Then she linked her hands under her chin, foregoing all intent of recording his answers.

“Kamiyama-san wants to do something for the world. He believes things can and should be better for everybody.”

“Very noble. Have you considered he may be doing this to shine White Pheasant’s reputation?”

“Never. Kamiyama-san’s cares are genuine.” Higashi sounded slightly offended.

“I don’t mean to imply anything, Higashi-kun. You know how it is, though. It’s a jungle out there. The best entrepreneurs aim for a position of advantage, and everybody loves a hero at the top, after all.”

“No. Kamiyama-san is not a hero. He’d never accept being called such. He just… wants to do right.”

“Hmm, maybe he wouldn’t call himself a hero, but it seems to me you would. Call him a hero, that is.”

Tomohiro looked flustered.

“You truly believe in him, don’t you? This isn’t just loyalty to your employer. I mean, I don’t think he personally hired you. There’s a pretty huge gap between his position and yours. The way you speak isn’t that of a star employee, or a partner. Why is that, Higashi-kun?”

“He did a lot for me.” Tomohiro said, after a brief silence. “I mean, not especially for me. He’s loyal to all of the people under him. He’s looked after us all when others would see just a… mass of people who work for him.”

“So the hype is real…” Ohya mused. “It’s pretty early still, and we have plenty of time. Why don’t you tell me about the things he’s done for you and your colleagues?”

She did not truly need to know of the chairman’s unsung, laudable exploits, but this was her way of easing him into her territory. She was still only following a hunch. If it proved misguided, this evening would end up merely a dead end with nothing lost. But if she truly was on to something, she would definitely need to earn his trust before going in for the strike.

Tomohiro made good use of the time Ichiko gave him. He expressed himself fully on the things Susumu Kamiyama did for the people, and not only for those working under him. Despite Higashi’s candour, he did not pour his heart out like many of Crossroads’ regulars often did – something for which Ichiko was very grateful. Yet, every now and then, his voice rose for the briefest moments, hinting at a personal regard for the company’s chairman; not as Tomohiro’s boss, but as a human being.

The journalist theorised from his words that life for Tomohiro Higashi would be far bleaker thing if not for White Pheasant’s leader. The sum of context and testimony confirmed that the reputation around Susumu Kamiyama was a very real thing. This made the following step harder to approach, and all the more baffling to conceive.

“Well, Higashi-kun. I appreciate your testimony. Seems Kamiyama-san really has earned the loyalty of his workers.” She allowed herself a blink of heartfelt sincerity. “It’s a good thing, you know, working under someone you can really look up to. That’s rarer than you’d imagine, you can quote me on that.”

She lifted her eyebrows on the pause that followed. A non-verbal manner of saying she knew something did not fit the narrative. Tomohiro’s bashful expression confirmed that he also knew. Despite the distance between his and the chairman’s positions in the company, Susumu Kamiyama was the closest thing Tomohiro had to a friend. This closeness allowed him to see the man in light, and in the shadow.

“You know what I’m getting at here, don’t you? Now, before I ask you more on that, let me just tell you… from what I’ve looked up, there was no harm at all to speak of. No incidents reported, no damage or grievous harm on the populace. This was a victimless… well, technically yes, a victimless crime. So, uh, clean conscience, you’re with me here?”

Tomohiro nodded.

“Over a year ago, Kamiyama-san pulled a very peculiar arrangement. The chain of command on this thing is unbelievably long, you don’t even wanna know… but to put it simply, your boss called for the purveyance of electrical service to be cut for a couple of hours in a small town out in the coast.” Ichiko picked up her phone, pretending to look through notes on it. “Kawasaki, it seems…”

The bespectacled man said nothing. He looked very uncomfortable.

“Like I said, there was no real consequence to any of this. It’s kept under serious wraps, as if it was some huge eyes only kinda thing, but all in all, there’s really nothing for me to gain out of bringing this to the light. At most, it may fetch me kudos in some conspiracy theory message board.” Ichiko disguised her tension on following the white hare beneath a carefree smile. “But it’s still weird. You can deny it if you want, but I get this aura from you - that you think it’s weird too.” She drew near “A man like Susumu Kamiyama, the man at the top of his market, who earned his position and his people’s faith through hard work during rough times, he wouldn’t do something like this for no reason at all…”

Tomohiro reached for his glass, and finished what remained of his drink.

“Higashi-kun. Do you know why your boss did that?”

“I don’t know…” The words that came out of his mouth were like pained whimper. He looked troubled, and so very different from the young man for whom she was doing this.

“I believe you. But now I have to come clean here. The thing I said about that blackout in Kawasaki, that nobody was affected. That was kind of a lie. I’m not positive on this, but somebody may have been deeply affected by that blackout. I’m talking about a friend of mine, and I owe him a lot of gratitude, just like you do Kamiyama-san. I can’t prove a link between this and that, but if there’s the chance for some truth, you bet your ass I’ll poke and poke until I see it clearly.”

Ichiko’s mask slid down for an instant.

“You agreed to meet up with me, a sketchy-ass journo, for a reason. You may not know why Kamiyama-san made that call, but you have something you’ve been wanting to say. I only told you about my friend so you’d be aware. But I don’t need to appeal to your conscience any longer, do I?”

Higashi spoke slow and quietly, as if privately unwrapping hearsay before privileged parties. Both Ichiko and Lala-chan listened attentively and refrained from making any interjections.

That night, Tomohiro Higashi told them about a strange change that started to occur in the company’s chairman. The difference was not as stark as night and day, but one who knew Susumu Kamiyama could suspect something was going on. There were a few subtleties like a sudden feeling of disengagement to the man’s usual warmth, and it only became easier to notice in a few days. Higashi had been in White Pheasant’s payroll for several years, during which there had been easy and hard times. He knew how Susumu Kamiyama looked and acted during times of duress.

But this was different. It was not stress, nothing that could be chalked to the company’s performance, anyway. Things were going well; there was even a possible partnership with Okumura Foods in the horizon. It simply made no sense. The chairman’s personal assistant, a woman called Ai Fukuda, had apparently noticed something as well. Hushed word around the company was that she managed to convince the chairman to consult a specialist on work-related mental wellness.

One day, Kamiyama called for an impromptu meeting with all personnel. He spoke before the crowd gathered in White Pheasant’s courtyard regarding the specialist’s assessment: nothing was wrong with him. He went on to address and dispel the rumours regarding his well-being, and even took the chance to talk about mental issues related to stress from work, and encouraged all of his employees to be very mindful of their own mental well-being as well. Something was evident throughout this event – he truly looked as if nothing was or had ever been wrong with him. He was his usual kind and committed self.

But Tomohiro suspected still. Perhaps this was a façade he put on to keep morale high amongst his employees, because try as he might, Higashi could simply not forget the change. It was subtle, but it had been there. And hiding troubles from the people working under him was something Kamiyama would definitely do. But the young employee knew he would gain nothing from talking about this with his co-workers. The machinery of gossip would merely start again, to no effect.

So one evening, he decided to venture out of his work station, and discreetly make his way to the top floor of the building. Ai Fukuda had gone home for the day, but the chairman was still in his office as he was occasionally wont to do. Tomohiro hesitated to knock on the door, but something strange took place within this brief period.

On hindsight, this hesitation may have saved his life.

He heard Susumu Kamiyama’s voice reverberating inside his office in a most peculiar way. He could not precisely make out the words, but the chairman’s tone oscillated between anxious and eager. Fearing a bad situation may be occurring, Higashi may have simply turned the doorknob if not for the sound that interjected in the chairman’s voice.

Tomohiro paused for a moment. He tried to find a halfway adequate way to describe what it sounded like. The closest thing he could come up with was a pair of massive stone doors, at least a century old, creaking open to a wide maw of a cavern. But even within that long, drawn-out sound, there was a semblance of articulation, like words muffled by a storm. Furthermore, Kamiyama seemed to respond to this impossible sound. And seconds later, he seemed to be having a conversation with the void.

But stranger than the actual sound was what Higashi himself felt as it ‘spoke’. It was not pain per se. But every time, he was flooded with a harrowing, sickly sensation, like his own insides were trying to climb out of his mouth. Somehow, Higashi was able to eavesdrop for a couple of minutes more, but he soon brushed his limits and ran away, not caring whether that gave his presence away. That night, in his apartment, he was left with a lingering sensation, like something of his was lost and could never be retrieved again.

Come the morrow, that sensation faded and everything was apparently back to normal. Tomohiro considered the possibility that he merely dreamed this episode. But that was a falsehood he could not believe. For several days after, he stayed after work hours to listen on the other side of the chairman’s door. These bizarre exchanges continued, leading up to the day when, according to the gathered information, the Kawasaki blackout took place.

The mental exhaustion from the experience, and from keeping quiet about it for over a year was clear to Ichiko and Lala-chan. Tomohiro’s common sense urged him to talk about it, to get the authorities involved, but who would believe him? At one point, he even considered trying to put a request on the PhanSite, but the forum was long defunct. Higashi afforded a sad chuckle on this: he contemplated asking for the Phantom Thieves’ help, and Susumu Kamiyama happened to be their outspoken, faithful supporter.

Tomohiro noted that something changed during these ‘conversations’ after the Kawasaki blackout. Susumu Kamiyama’s tone sounded much different while talking to the other ‘presence’. The anxiety was apparently gone, and he started sounding more consistently enthusiastic, rapturously so even. The other party started communicating less and less, and with that, Kamiyama’s own voice began to distort. Then one night, the conversations between the two ended. Tomohiro guessed this may be the time to quit this habit.

But every now and then, he stood outside the chairman’s door, and listened carefully. Susumu Kamiyama had taken to apparently having conversations with himself, as if he were speaking for the two parties. These strange verbal bouts were far easier to hear through the door than the ones before. Sometimes they were long speeches on Kamiyama’s personal philosophy, and sometimes they were just ramblings. Often, he alluded to some kind of scheme, which involved somebody ‘crossing over’, but he never went into much detail on that. Whichever the topic, Tomohiro Higashi noticed that one word became a staple in the vocabulary of those evening sessions.

Benefactor.

[ ]

For a few moments, the only thing in Sadayo Kawakami’s head that made any sense was how lovely of an evening this was. Her ears were deaf to the bustling sounds of Shinjuku after sunset; in their stead, she kept remembering a song she was obsessed with during her adolescence.

“The Real Folk Blues” by Mai Yamane and The Seatbelts.

Her mother used to say that jazz always made a comeback during times when it was exciting to be alive. Sadayo was unsure whether this held true, but things were certainly eventful as of late. Springtime laid a cover of violet and red over the sky, giving the city a strange, lonely feel. The people walked the streets, transfixed in their own sense of mundaneness, oblivious to the things unfolding behind closed curtains. She count have counted herself among those people several days ago. And it was only by chance that she got a peek through. And rather than turn away from something that appeared so dark and unpleasant, she chose to stay.

Sadayo was very passionate when actively joining her efforts to the Phantom Thieves’ objective. Her heart and mind were so hotly moved to the cause that she rid herself of all doubt the previous night. Only her mood changed come the next day, while her intent remained. But now that she actually sat down with the Thieves, Sojiro Sakura, and Sae Niijima, she realised she might be somewhat out of her depth.

Nobody really pressured her into contributing anything. Functionally, she was only a close witness and moral supporter. That seemed to be enough to help the Phantom Thieves, according to what Makoto’s sister suggested. If she understood it well, Sadayo’s support literally translated into power on the other side. That sounded bright and hopeful, but the professor could not ignore the contrasting tone during that late night discussion.

Despite their powers, the Phantom Thieves suffered a great defeat in the other side. This made Sadayo wonder if her unyielding support actually sufficed to make a difference. And it made her shudder to think of the menace they were facing, and the consequences, should they fall. It was something so unconceivable, but she knew that word meant little anymore, for good and ill.

Funny, she thought. She decided to go on a stroll to clear the noise out of her head, and now she was staring at everything that was said in LeBlanc all over again. Soon, the evening’s wistful melancholy was not enough to kill her unease. She needed something to cool her thoughts, maybe someone to talk to.

Sadayo looked a few stores ahead at one rather colourful establishment. She considered going in and buying some smut, despite the risk of being recognised after the last time she indulged a month ago. She could also maybe go for a drink, but some reason, her place of choice had closed early today. Then again, she could catch a train to Ichigaya and spend the rest of the evening at her usual fishing spot, but it may already be a little late for that.

At that moment when appealing choices seemed few, Sadayo thought to look past the river of faces into a little, unsung spot in Shinjuku. It was out in open, but one would not see it unless they knew where to look. For most people – Sadayo included - that met Chihaya Mifune for the first time, it was truly a matter of chance. After a couple of sessions with the fortune teller, Sadayo understood things had not always been this way. By her own admission, Chihaya used to be more of a con-artist than an actual practitioner of her craft. The teacher presumed there was more to the story, but she did not pry.

Sadayo did not actually expect Chihaya to be here today outside of her regular schedule. And yet she was. Chihaya noticed Sadayo at a glance, but did not greet her until she finished doing a reading for the old woman in front of her. Once she was done, she immediately broke her quiet, mysterious demeanour and greeted Sadayo with loud cheer. Sadayo could not keep her smile hidden; it was virtually impossible to keep a straight face when hearing Chihaya’s thick country accent.

“Kawakami! Good to see ya! Come, sit!”

“Hello.” Sadayo adjusted the back of her skirt as she sat on the cushion by the makeshift table. “Nice to see you too, Mifune-san. It’s actually kind of a surprise. Isn’t it your day off?”

“Well… yeah! But, you know, I was feeling kind of… what’s the word?”

“Bored?”

“Close, but fancier-sounding. Um, restless? No, listless!”

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah, it’s no big deal. I get like this sometimes.” A flash of gloom passed over the fortune teller’s face. “What about you? What brings you to Shinjuku today?”

“I was just taking a walk. It’s a very pretty evening, and I didn’t want to spend it cooped inside.” This was not a lie in itself, but there was much more to the reason than she felt comfortable telling.

“It really is. Kinda reminds me of home, you know? You city folk don’t know what you’re missing out on.” Chihaya produced a thermos and two plastic cups. She served some her homemade mugicha for the both, having decided to call it a day. “So, did you meet him?”

Sadayo froze for a second.

“Huh!?”

“Did you meet him? Or wait… really Kawakami? Did you forget our last session? I told you that you were soon to meet a handsome stranger! Tall, dark and all that! Did you?”

“U-um, do you mean meeting the guy, or forgetting the last reading?”

“Either?”

“Well…” The teacher felt a little less flustered by now. She realised how on edge she truly was, just by how the question reminded her about the situation with Akira and the rest. In a way, it still did, as the reading proved rather accurate. Sadayo’s thoughts momentarily returned to the day before, to the small crowd assembled inside of LeBlanc. Their eyes met for only a moment; after that, she consciously made an effort to avoid looking at him.

Iwai Munehisa did fit the vague description provided by Chihaya - to an extent, at least. He seemed to tilt the scale more on the side of ‘dark’ than the ‘all that’, though. Regardless of the imposing first impression, Sadayo felt a little relieved that meeting did not necessarily equate to getting to know him. And yet, she still wondered.

“So?” The seer pried, with an enthusiastic look in her eyes.

“Yeah? Something like that?” Sadayo realised she had been playing with her hair during her short reflection about Iwai Munehisa. She stopped immediately.

“You gotta tell me all about that, Kawakami!” Chihaya was giddy, almost bouncing up and down in her cushion.

“Ha, maybe I will, but later. Right now, let’s just talk about something else. It’s been a really long day, and I just want to keep my mind off of things.”

“Okay, if you say so. You really do look kinda tense, though. Barley does wonders for that, ya know?”

Sadayo and Chihaya began to chat the evening away, talking about all kinds of things, and straying further and further away into trivialities. This accomplished what reading smut, drinking, fishing, or any combination of the three could not: Sadayo’s head was clear and light. She did not even care to remember the days when she was a student when she used to meet up with friends and take each day as it came, certain that this brightness of spirit would last forever. In feeling such serenity in the now, Sadayo proved to herself that her teenage self was neither wrong nor naïve to think so.

“So, what do you think of these?” Chihaya pulled out a strange object and put it in front of Sadayo. It was a small figurine of clay, vaguely shaped like a light bulb with bright colours painted on.

“What is that?” The teacher squinted as she picked it up.

“It’s a souvenir! Well, not yet. It’s just a thing I made yesterday. I was bored as all hell and I thought I might as well put my hands to work. But I’m thinking of making a bunch and sell them as a something of a side hustle. I used to sell some salt stones bullshit back in the day. That eventually turned out poorly, but I’d like to try something new.”

“It kinda looks like a…. bear?” The face of the figurine had large eyes and a thin line of a mouth. Its body below the face was red, and its ears and nape were blue. “I don’t know why but I’m getting some dirty vibes from this.”

“It really does, huh? It’s just a prototype thing, really. Between you and I, that salt stone thing was a trick I had to sell as some sort of important artefact that could legit improve your luck. Ugh, I’ll tell you about that someday. But I got to thinking, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to sell souvenirs aside from doing tarot readings and palming. Maybe that would get me a bigger clientele even!”

“Maybe. I mean, many people do like to collect trinkets and little things. I know I do. And handmade stuff is starting to become trendy. I think you should do this, just a little less… pervert like.”

“Yeah. I do kinda like this little depravate, though.” Chihaya passed her fingers over the figurine’s surface. “I didn’t see it at first, but I do see it now. This really does look like a bear with base instincts, if you get my meaning. But I think that’s the beauty of souvenirs. You can kinda give them a meaning of their own. People sell them as a piece of some place, but you add a little more when you buy them because they become part of your trip or experience or whatever.”

“Hmm…” Something sparked in Sadayo’s head.

“If you think it this way, you don’t really need to sell them as lucky artefacts. They become that because you choose to get them, because in some way, these trinkets start mattering to you.”

“Eureka.” A suddenly wide-eyed Sadayo muttered.

“Eh?”

“Hey, Chihaya! This little pervert looks pretty well made… can you maybe teach me how to make stuff like this?”

Chapter Text

There is no practice or discipline exempt from the rule. Everything begins with one step through the veil. Confidence is attained through a certain degree of courage. Unitiated become neophyte; practitioner become proficient. And the earliest prospects of mastery are but a fool’s dream.

Each of the Phantom Thieves was compelled to take that first step through a scream of resolve, a waking burst of rebellion. Purpose and survival led them through a gradual dominion of their Personas, slowly becoming familiar to their nuances, their strengths and their weaknesses – all extensions of their own selves. A second awakening marked the point insurmountable challenges became conquerable. But for one of the Phantom Thieves, the art of a Persona was a road of constant trouble, of countless stumbles and heaping new obstacles.

Such was the trick to the Wild Card’s power. Infinite potential at a price: the never-ending search for comprehension beyond his own self. Despite his devious, cocky demeanour, Joker never lost sight of the basics. He realised every single human being was a world of their own; the tiniest of differences contained unfathomable depths. By reaching out to others, by understanding another soul, he could conjure virtually any Persona. And the process was no less daunting on the hundredth day than on the first.

In the heat of battle, Queen was forced to make hasty use of this same potential. She improvised, faced success and failure, gained new masks and endured vicious backlash. If Anat’s powers failed to penetrate into the enemy’s defences, another mask would do. But changing her Persona took a little out of her every time.

In between the resistance she and her friends were facing, her increasing exhaustion, and the menace that led them to this place, she had no time to wonder why she was now able to acquire new Personas. Regardless of all unknown factors, something seemed very likely. The strange brood of Shadows that swarmed them began to multiply. Unless Lavenza found the way forward within the next few minutes, she may soon fall in battle.

One more Shadow fell at her feet, and her vision was little more than a blur of dark hues. The grace of her battle-honed instincts was the only thing keeping her ready for another attack. She suddenly sensed another presence coming her way; it was quick and direct like a bullet. But neither her own fists, nor Anat’s went up in resistance. Another second passed, and she could see no longer, but she knew it was Akira.

“You’re driving yourself thin.” He grunted as he intercepted a Shadow dashing in. “Take it down a notch, Queen.”

“It’s not like you haven’t done this before.” A break in Makoto’s voice betrayed her own exhaustion.

“Never on my first time, or this quick!” Arsene’s wings shielded them both from an enemy strike, gaining room for a counterattack. “You’re not looking well.”

“I’ll be fine.” She said. Her voice echoed with grit and confidence, as on many different occasions. For that moment, Akira believed she truly would rise tall from her wear and tear and decimate all.

But not a moment later, Makoto collapsed. Anat vanished in a dying flame. Her fists crudely broke her fall, cracking the floor beneath.

“Makoto!”

“Akira… I… I can’t see!” The young woman shouted in frustration. “And these voices… they’re too many, too loud!”

“Damn it. Those are your Personas, I take it. Sometimes they are a bit… rowdy when they join.” Akira helped her up, holding her close as they groped their way to an alcove a few metres away. “My senses would occasionally react badly. It should pass soon.” Akira somehow managed to keep his increasing concern from Makoto’s ears. Though he spoke true on his experience, he had never recruited this many Personas in such short time. There was a dreaded possibility that Makoto may not recover so quickly.

This was not something she needed to hear in this moment. Once they found temporary refuge from the battle, he encouraged her to breath slowly in order to regain her footing – this was something she occasionally helped him with in the past, during exercise sessions together. But the security she possessed then was entirely absent now. She was angry, and powerless, even if for only a moment.

After a few seconds, she attempted to ease down. But the sound of the air slowly exiting her lungs gave way to a hiss in her voice.

“…. Why now?”

“Makoto?”

“Why is this happening to me now?” The team’s second-in-command felt ridiculed by the turn of events. What good was a power like this if it would render her unable to fight? In her mind’s eye, she replicated the look of her boyfriend smiling at her as she exhibited the same power as he. The rest of their friends began to notice afterwards, one by one. And each of them provided their own version of Joker’s pleased surprise. In between then and now, Makoto Niijima did not care about understanding why she had this ability. All she cared about was using this power to make their job easier.

The last thing she did before falling was clear out a bulwark of Shadows. Now she was rendered unable to pose any proper resistance. She felt toothless. She felt useless.

“Why…?”

“Because it’s your first time.” Akira said firmly. “You didn’t know this could happen. And I didn’t warn you it could.” He sighed. “I’m very sorry, Makoto… I haven’t been such an effective leader lately. It’s long time I got my act together.”

“What?” She felt Joker standing up.

“You’ve always picked up the slack when I’m lacking.” The flames around Arsene rekindled to the crack of Akira’s back muscles. “I remember every single time, you know? I’m grateful for it. Queen, allow me now… to reciprocate.”

A tide of pressure crashed against the walls of his mind. The stakes were no lighter when they came into this strange place between Velvet Rooms. Two of his friends guarded Lavenza as she scrutinised through every nook and cranny, searching the way forward. The rest, including Makoto and he, were tasked with drawing the enemy’s attention, spreading them thin to keep Lavenza untouched. They seemed fresh enough still. But how long could they keep repelling the accumulating Shadows?

Sooner or later, the possibility of being overwhelmed would loom over their heads, even with Oracle’s support above.

And now, with Queen incapacitated, it no longer sufficed to simply put up a stable defence.

Joker breathed deep, with Arsene at his back. He took one step forward, away from the alcove and Queen. The footfall against the floor was deliberately firm, as if burdening his own centre of gravity against the entirety of this non-place. He looked inward for something more than gritty resolve; he reached for old confidence. Only this would make the difference he sought.

Akira Kurusu counted his blessings. Ryuji and the others still had a lot of fight to give. Makoto was safe behind him. And somehow, there was no sign of Nyarlathotep’s reach in this place.

One more step. A small cluster of Shadows drew near. Arsene could likely make quick work of them, but that is not what Joker had in mind. With the peculiar exception of Satanael, he could summon any Persona he had acquired in the past from memory alone. But this was taxing, and Akira was already drained from Nyarlathotep’s constant hold. The solution was clear to him: he needed to re-fashion the battlefield to his own strengths. Rather than force a new mask out of his psyche to attack, he would earn them out of these Shadows.

Moderate bursts of Arsene’s black magic did the trick against these weak forms. But the true weapon at Joker’s disposal was his silver tongue. In the ensuing moments, as the Shadows crept towards Akira and Makoto, Joker intimidated, cajoled, and even flirted his way into gaining new Personas. Some of these were familiar to him; others were entirely new beings.

This improvised repertoire was far from the impressive arsenal he once had, but it sufficed to repel the encroaching Shadows. Through it all, Joker paced himself with nigh obsessive thought. He struck only if negotiations failed, and thus he weighed every single word during his communion with the Shadows.

If he were to fall now, the balance of their stratagem would be compromised.

Akira no longer looked at Lavenza as he handled this portion of the battlefield. His trust in the little attendant would do. Whatever thought or reaction unfolded in his mind was devoted to one single intention.

Hold the line.

Meanwhile, somewhere, in a corner hidden from view, the walls and the floor slowly began to vanish.

[ ]

Tokyo.

This was a place he never truly set foot in until now, yet he knew it like the palm of his hand.

Kawasaki.

He was not born here, but every sight murmured childhood fancies and memories.

There was a considerable physical distance between the two places, but he capriciously travels between them at the speed of thought. Incorporeally, not truly in the world, but able to perceive it all the same.

Joker was a knight of chaos in every world, continuity or paradigm. In the perverse tradition of his design, his hand was forever bound to his master’s intent, whether the Joker knew it or not. But even the latest iteration shared a distinct characteristic with Nyarlathotep’s plaything: he got easily bored.

This is why ‘Joker’ took a stroll outside of Nyarlathotep’s domain.

He shared the same knowledge as Akira Kurusu, up until the moment of his awakening. But this Joker’s psyche was fashioned much differently; it was grotesquely bent out of shape, distorted to the point of being unhinged beyond remedy. His thoughts were his own, and he possessed no inherent wish to aid Nyarlathotep. But acting upon his designed nature would aid his Master regardless. This Joker lusted for destruction, and Nyarlathotep would provide him with plenty of ‘materials’.

But that would take time. At present, ‘Joker’ could not yet walk tangibly in the world. For him to be able to manifest fully, he would need another final encounter with Akira Kurusu – once he was eliminated, the world would become the ‘Joker’s sandbox to do as he would. That was what Nyarlathotep said. For now, all he could do outside was wander like a ghost, unseen and unmarked. But that is not to say he cast no influence himself.

Wherever he roamed, people would turn their heads, thinking they saw a strange shadow passing them on the corner of the eye. A few unlucky ones experienced other things; an unprovoked impulse to pick a fight, an inexplicable temporary desire to harm those they held dear, or a crippling, sudden wave of sorrow out of nowhere.

A wide grin shimmered beneath the mask at the realisation of the countless ways ‘Joker’ could cause mayhem once his time came. It was tempting to unleash misfortune with no rhyme or reason, but he was greatly appealed by the notion of deliberate, wilful work. This was the reason he ventured past the red curtains into a world ill prepared for his presence. Every place that Akira Kurusu set foot on was a fresh trail for ‘Joker’ to follow. And at the end, there was always someone whom he had a connection with. The predator that wore Akira’s face relished on the thought of forcefully severing each bond.

His time would come, to bring the night that initiated his existence to its natural consequences…

Meanwhile, this unearthly presence visited every person Akira Kurusu knew, starting with his mother. Masako Kurusu was hard at work at the hospital as usual. She would return home later that evening with the vague sensation that none of the patients she looked after would live to see tomorrow. This would be proven wrong, but the feeling was very real for as long as it lasted. ‘Joker’ then paid Takahisa a visit while he worked at the pier, loading the fishers’ bounty to be shipped. Despite reconciling with his son, the man’s evening smoke would be invaded by the overwhelming sensation that he had failed his son, and that true forgiveness was unattainable for him.

Looking out to sea from the ship’s railing, Takahisa wept bitterly. And not even the burn of the cigarette extinguished in his palm could kill this pain.

‘Joker’ left Kawasaki with a spiteful look in his eyes.

Few of the people he visited in Tokyo felt the ripples caused by his non-presence. Most of them seemed particularly occupied one way or another, like they were all desperately pursuing some end. Despite his broken mind, this Joker confidently guessed that they were united in an effort to help Akira and his friends. He experienced mocking contempt at their daring to think anything they did would matter in the slightest. For their gall, he would ensure they perished contorted and unforgiven.

Especially the silver-haired woman. Sae Niijima.

‘Joker’ did not understand why. But he could not look on her as he did everybody else. He detested her, but the reason escaped him. The animosity did not follow a relation of cause and consequence, or at least not in a way he could see or understand. He only felt it, like something compressing inside of him, warping, forcing him to mend a fragmented picture in his mind. This sudden, unexpected loathing caused him to return to Nyarlathotep’s domain, dragging a sentiment of powerlessness and defeat behind him.

He silently vowed to make this boundless scorn manifest in due time.

[ ]

“I’ve found it!” Lavenza’s voice made everyone turn their heads. A tiny, blue light shimmered just below her hand in the middle of a bookcase row on the wall. The little attendant hastily pulled books out to clear the way forward. But despite her efforts, the path was still buried deeper than it seemed. Behind countless books of forgotten knowledge lay older tomes that barely held together, crumbling to dust at her touch.

Still the light of the Velvet Room peered out like a beacon. Little by little, the song they knew so well was stripped from its distortion.

“I think we’re close!” Skull yelled out loud enthusiastically as Seiten Taisei fried another Shadow with thunder.

She frantically dug into the bookcase, revealing a little more of the blue light with every motion.

“Keep going, Lavenza! The Shadows shall not pass!” Noir exclaimed, slightly inebriated by the fierce joy of battle as her Persona kept the perimeter clear from the incoming Shadows. But every time Astarte blasted one apart, two more seemed to take its place.

“Mona! Panther! Fox! Oracle!” Joker called out loud. “Start gathering around Skull and Noir! We’ll join you in a bit!” Akira began to turn to Makoto, but his perspective violently shifted before he could find her.

It took him a couple of seconds to start working out what occurred. He was on his back, and his left leg was pinned against the ground. There was dull pain on his side. A Shadow began to stand from the reckless pounce that knocked Joker down. The blue light of the path shone through thin strips of darkness by his head, just centimetres away from the balcony’s edge. He realised how far his body slid from the Shadow’s surprise attack, and how another, shaped like a grotesque snow creature, seized the chance to finish him off by pinning him against the ground.

Despite the obvious disadvantage, it was only a temporary one.

“Fenrir!” Akira called forth a Persona he acquired only a few minutes ago, quickly dispatching the Shadow keeping him down. Despite the pain on his side, Joker stood back up prepared to remove the coming threat of his initial attacker to then fetch Makoto and join the others.

But he did not expect the Shadow that pounced him to be formed in such hideous, voluminous manner. It was a serpent-like creature with disturbingly large eyes, ashen white mane, and bat wings on the side of its head; its bulk was large enough to occupy most of the passage. It twitched and heaved sickly as it approached, too quickly for Joker to pose as effective a counterattack like he intended. The Shadow’s speed in spite of its bulk, and its ability to sneak up on Joker were only a hint of even more menacing capabilities.

This was certainly unlike anything he faced before on his own. His chances would look better if not for his current state, but there was no wasting time dwelling. Joker braced himself for impact.

“Morrigan!” He heard a fond, familiar voice.

Akira barely blinked at all. But the interception occurred too fast for him to register. He stood frozen in his spot for a second afterwards, experiencing only a remnant of a gust. All he knew was that a winged woman clad in black armour gored the Shadow before it even touched him. The serpent-like creature had no eyes for Akira; its attention was fully on this blackbird nuisance – one of the Personas Makoto acquired during this impromptu first ride as a Wild Card.

Then his eyes found her. She was slouching, panting heavily, but standing. Queen was back in action.

They nodded at each other in tacit agreement. The song of the Velvet Room sounded perfectly clear, which meant it was only a matter of seconds before the way forward was open. Delaying the advance was tempting fate for enemies as menacing as this to join the fray. Akira and Makoto stood on the balcony across from Lavenza and the rest. The objective was clear. They only had one very significant obstacle in front of them, a gargantuan serpent that shrugged off Anat’s nuclear fire and Arsene’s black magic – Queen and Joker’s weapons of choice.

The path was finally open. There was no negotiation possible with this Shadow. They needed to slay the beast.

Joker changed from Fenrir to another recent recruit: Tokisada, the beheaded swordsman. By land and air, the Phantom Thieves’ leaders began their attack. The encounter was brief, but violent. The serpentine Shadow stood no chance against Tokisada’s sword and Morrigan’s spear. In the end, it became little more than pin cushion, expelling black smoke out of every carving.

The Shadow perished, but it was not the only thing that vanished.

As the blue light of the pathway flooded over the dark, swampy green, the surfaces of bookshelves, railings, and the floor itself began to fade. They were not being swallowed by the dark; they were merely ceasing to exist.

“Guys, you need to get over here! RIGHT NOW!!!” Oracle yelled.

“Damn it. Let’s go!” Joker grabbed Makoto’s wrist, and they sprinted towards the balcony across from them, dodging and jumping over wayward Shadows, driven wild.

“Hurry, damn it!” Mona shouted.

“Lavenza, lead them on! We’ll catch up!” Queen commanded just over ten metres away.

The girl looked hesitant for a moment, but complied soon enough. One by one, the Phantom Thieves followed Lavenza into a hole in the middle of the bookcase. Ryuji stayed behind to yank them in. This position allowed him to witness the unmaking of the library in the middle of nowhere. Joker and Queen eluded its reach too closely at every step.

“Here!” Skull reached out, grabbing Joker’s hand and pulling him into the passageway, with Queen in tow.

But for a moment, what the three heard was not the song of the Velvet Room, but a cacophony of multiple voices, all different and distant, like sounds borne worlds away.

“The Ambassador has launched the ICBMs!”

“What is it that people seek? To create a millennial kingdom of order rules over by God as promised by the Messiah? Or the destruction of God’s kingdom, and with it, the birth of a world of chaos?”

“Was this all… just a dream…? A nightmare…? No… it was a good dream... Goodbye.”

“Death upon death… nothing but death in this barren land. Who can we pray to? There are only demons and fiends here…”

“We, the ones cast into darkness, shall face those that live in the light…”

“I’m doing much better. I think I’m ready to leave the hospital pretty soon.”

“…. I… I am defeated… I… I… No! It’s not fair…”

“No one can escape time; it delivers us all to the same end. You can’t plug your ears and cover your eyes.”

“I am the shadow of humanity. As long as there is darkness in your hearts, I’ll never go away! Behold the Crawling Chaos’ final ordeal!”

Every voice they heard came from a different heart. Some rang with rapturous conviction, others with defeat and sorrow. Some were young, and others old. But one in particular they recognised with grim sobriety. It belonged to Nyarlathotep. It echoed with the same intonation of vile triumph they came to know so harrowingly. Yet, as its dark pitch faded, a series of voices followed in stark contrast, like a chiaroscuro of despair and hope.

“Heh, you know what? I’m glad we met again. Next time, you’re gonna join my band. Got that? It’s a promise. Don’t forget.”

“Chinyan, remember me, no matter what. I love you!”

“I won’t forget, not my sin, not you. Not anyone. We’ll meet again, and together… we’ll save Maya. So, I won’t say goodbye, only… thank you.”

“Guys, don’t go… Don’t leave me alone.”

And then, silence and the darkness of the hollow. Akira, Makoto, and Ryuji lingered on the edge between existence and the vast nothing.

“What the fuck was that?!” Ryuji said all of a sudden.

“… There’s no way to know. Come. The others must be waiting.” Akira said sombrely.

Makoto stayed silent, unable to get the linger of one voice out of her head. But it was not Nyarlathotep’s voice she struggled with purging.

It did not take long for the three to catch up with the rest. In their faces, Joker saw the truest relief that they all made it safely. Despite what he heard, he could do nothing but smile at them, for the feeling was mutual. Nobody wasted even a word. Lavenza led all eight towards the other end of the azure path, ending in a plain-looking door, before which the song sounded loud, but muffled.

But rather than pulling or pushing, Lavenza bashfully knocked on the door. The rapping of her knuckles against the unassuming surface barely seemed to produce a sound.

“Are you alright?” Ann said, patiently placing a hand on the girl’s shoulder.

Lavenza gave no immediate answer. But it was clear that she was not. She took a deep breath and placed her hand on the knob, but she would not turn her wrist. Her lower lip trembled with fearful anticipation, as if fully knowing what was on the other side. By the way she expressed it before, this would not be just any Velvet Room.

Akira approached her placed his hand over hers, and together, they slowly turned the doorknob and pushed open.

The scenery before them was no less blue than most they had seen so far. It was a lounge, and not a particularly unique one by itself. There was a stage, and several tables spread about. But what marked this place as their definite goal was the fact that they were not alone. Seated at one of the tables, the Phantom Thieves saw several people, all dressed in blue, pale and yellow-eyed as Lavenza.

There was a slender young woman with a whimsical look on her face. Next to her was a slightly older-looking woman who radiated a mature kind of beauty. On the other end of the table was a young man with a slightly naïve-looking expression. And behind them stood the one oldest in appearance, cane in hand, a jaded shadow beneath his eyes.

Just below the stage, there was a man with long, black hair and dark shades. He smoked a cigarette while apparently adjusting the positioning of an easel.

On the stage, two people. A blindfolded man playing the piano, and a woman singing soprano at his side.

They performed a song to your soul and mine.

The arrival to this place caused no small surprise to the Phantom Thieves, but nobody could bring themselves to utter a word.

Except for the performers on stage, and the painter, all eyes were on them and Lavenza. These faces were new, but they regarded them with the familiarity of a fond relative. And even though Akira and his friends never set foot in this configuration before, they felt safe now - for the first time since this began. But there was no true peace to be hand in the composition, for it still missed one important figure.

It still missed Igor.

Lavenza ran weeping towards her siblings, throwing herself into the irreverent looking one, hugging her with the spirit of one sorely missed for years. The whimsical one, in turn, held Lavenza tightly, whispering “there, there” into Lavenza’s ear.

Chapter Text

Akira and his friends stood utterly dumbfounded in the room’s threshold. Even after traversing countless iterations of the Velvet Room, and the Shadow-riddled no-place which they had just overcome, the final destination was still the thing most uncanny - despite the relative normalcy of its design. It was merely a wide lounge with a bar, a stage at the centre, and several tables spread about. This was virtually an amalgamation of places like LeBlanc, Arancia, and several others he had seen in pictures or films – dyed blue. He got to see other similar shapes of the Velvet Room in the past hour, but none quite like this one. It stood out by its occupants and the purpose it represented for them.

The young man guessed they were intrinsically connected. Yet there may be something else to it, something he could not put a finger on, but certainly felt inside of him.

Far back at a table on the left from where they stood, Lavenza was being comforted by three people dressed in blue. All yellow-eyed and pale skinned like her; each bearing a distinctive kind of otherworldly beauty. They seemed to be the siblings she talked about. But the fourth, the elder one with the cane and the dark circles around his eyes held his gaze firmly on the Phantom Thieves. And he was not the only one. On the right, three other figures regarded Akira and his friends with slight detachment, never once removing themselves from their activities. It felt like a disinterested answer waiting for the question that hung on everyone’s tongue.

Ryuji usually was the first to break the silence. But even he would not say a thing now. The rest shared in his silence.

The blindfolded pianist continued to play. The soprano continued to sing. The song went on - that which yielded soulful vitality to the Velvet Room, even as a prison. Akira remembered how it looped in on itself ad infinitum, but he never once got tired of it. This composition was not merely a thing one could perceive through the senses. One experienced it no different than the tempo of the heart: generally taken for granted, captivating when truly listened to, terribly alarming when missing.

And yet, seeing it performed live was something else altogether. Akira suspected this could not be reprised elsewhere. Maybe it was due to the Velvet Room’s nature; or maybe it fell to the performers themselves, which begged the question: who were they?

Below the stage, the painter amused himself by blowing out smoke rings from his cigarette. He cast a grin of self-satisfaction their way.

“From where you kids stand, this must look pretty crazy. But trust me, those getups… now THAT is really crazy.” The painter’s voice was slightly nasal, and more youthful and sanguine than his appearance would suggest. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anyone come in, and I do mean a long time. Tell you what, you go take a seat; I’ll try to talk these two into taking a break for once.”

“Who are you?” Akira asked with an uncharacteristic edge in his voice.

“Introductions, huh? I’m not usually this chatty, but if it makes you happy…” He nodded towards the people on stage. “That woman there is Belladonna. The pianist is called Nameless. I am the Demon Painter.”

Futaba arched an eyebrow. The girl discreetly glanced at her friends to confirm they were as taken aback as she was. Throughout her adolescence, she has read and seen all matters of uncanny personages across countless media. But somehow, even the strangest fell short to these three. Interestingly, she perceived a slight similarity between Yusuke and the self-addressed Demon Painter.

“Mister.” Makoto spoke. She was usually the one to most accurately vocalise the crux of affairs. Though her mind was bloated with questions on why she now possessed similar powers to Joker, Nyarlathotep’s rise and the Velvet Room’s deterioration took precedence. “There is a serious problem with the Velvet Room, and…”

“Come now. Yes, we do know there is something happening that should not be.” The painter cut in, sounding slightly rude. He pointed distractedly towards Lavenza and her siblings. “That kid in blue came with you all, right? Why don’t go you partake of the family reunion over there for a bit? Trust me on this one, it’s best for all of us if we… Damn it, what’s the word I need here?” He slurred for a moment. “Yes, compartmentalise the questions. That whats, the whos proper, and the whys. Those will need some preparation. It’s never a good sign when too many people are in the same place at the same time.”

The painter turned to a stool next to his easel. With his back against the Phantom Thieves, he discreetly gulped another glass down to calm his nerves. This would make his eleventh drink on the past two hours. Three individuals knew of his habit, and how hard he struggled to kick it – but only two of those people were around to see him stumble. The painter cursed inwardly.

“Besides, I think your little friend there may need some time to… you know…” The painter withdrew to the apparent safety of the stage, leaving the Phantom Thieves to observe their feline companion, who sat full on his behind – pupils widened into full black circles, seemingly extracted from everything other than the thoughts this place provoked in him.

“Hey, Mona Mona?” Ryuji called, waving a hand in front of the small one’s eyes. “You okay?”

“Uuuhh…” There was a semblance of willingness to speak on Morgana’s behalf at the end of his uttering.

“Nah, don’t you turn mumbler on us now, kitty!” Futaba’s attempt at levity was not convincing. A tone of concern hung at the end of her remark.

“He is looking rather stupefied. This is not normal, is it?” Yusuke said.

“Meooowww?” A sound eerily familiar to his reaction around Treasure escaped his lips.

“Nothing has been ‘normal’ in a long, long time.” Ann responded. She crouched into a squat, positioning herself at eye-length with Morgana. “Are you gonna give me a fright, Mona?” She purred as she scratched behind his ears. But the affection that would normally send him into an infatuated frenzy had no effect now.

Haru kept her hands pressed against her mouth to muffle the sound of her shaky breathing.

Akira tried to keep his cool as he hoisted the bobble-headed cat up. He maintained silent, unblinking eye contact on his friend, as if trying to unearth a solution to the puzzle Morgana suddenly became. But in truth, he also searched desperately for a sign of life stronger than a few mindless sounds.

Even if the tendrils of Nyarlathotep’s influence did not reach this place, he could not help but considering the damage itself extended to this place like a much delayed aftershock. A harrowing flashback of dark visions in his subconscious began to play out in his thoughts: catatonic Igor, a familiar place doomed beyond repair, the people he loved – ruined and broken, and at the centre of it all, one single individual bearing the guilt for it all. Akira’s pulse hastened; a cold sweat broke out on his lower back. He imagined himself as a building about to collapse…

“AAAAAAAAHHH!!!” A sudden scream escaped Morgana’s lips, sending the fur of his tail into a spike and his friends to the ground. “Wha-wha-wha-what? Guys, what is… why are you...?” The cat stuttered his way through a question, confused as to why his friends looked so scared.

“What the hell, cat!?” Ryuji protested.

“We thought you blue-screened!” Futaba scolded Morgana.

“Don’t… don’t do that again.” Makoto breathed loudly as she tried regaining her composure.

“What are you all talking about? I’m fine!” The cat turned to Akira, who still held him. “Right, Joker? Um… Joker?”

“Yes.” Akira smiled with relief, his voice coming out too quiet. “Yes. You’re fine.” What could be seen of his forehead under a wild fringe of black hair hinted at a layer of sweat.

“I would not necessarily deem his state ‘fine’.” The younger man in blue spoke affably. “He is safe and sound, but his reaction initial reaction is to be expected. I can tell he was born in the Velvet Room, but this configuration is quite unique. If homes had homes of their own…” He helped Akira and the rest get back up. “My name is Theodore. It is my profound pleasure to make your acquaintance, Phantom Thieves of Hearts. Our dear Lavenza speaks highly of you.”

“The… pleasure is ours, Theodore.” Makoto saluted.

Theodore blinked in apparent disbelief in the moment he saw Makoto. A spark of wonder and curiosity shimmered in his bright, yellow irises.

“Y-yes!” He awkwardly motioned to the table with Lavenza and the rest of their siblings. “Please, come join us! I am sure you have taken quite the long road to reach this place. Perhaps you could do with some refreshments!”

“And you may be efficient interpreters to our dear sister. Her current composure seems to fail her ability speech at present.” Theodore was joined by a woman of elegant, though somewhat demure styling. “I am Margaret, fellow attendant to our Master Igor, same as Theodore. Pleased to meet you.” Despite her contained, harmless speech, Margaret carried an almost palpable air of authority which reminded them of Sae Niijima. She elicited a response somewhat more formal than they were accustomed to as they bowed. With their heads down, Akira and Ryuji turned slightly to each other, very much aware of the awkwardness at play.

“Please, follow us.” Theodore’s voice loosened the tension Margaret placed on them. But another mood whiplash waited for them at the table, in the form of the seated attendant who showered Lavenza with affection. Even a passing glance was enough to hint she was especially different from Margaret, Theodore, and even Lavenza when she was twofold.

Instead of the consistently formal way of her siblings, the other sister’s attire was more reminiscent of a stewardess. But even when sitting idle, her sole presence vibrated with the lively air of a flapper from the twenties. Beneath the fringe of her ashen blonde bowl cut, her two yellow eyes scanned the Phantom Thieves, one by one, with keen interest. Not once did her attention stray from Lavenza sitting on her lap, however.

“I am Elizabeth!” She said, her voice free from her siblings’ decorum. “And you! Oh my, who may you all be? Such uncanny, colourful bearings you bear! Must be telling of what grand might, what nimbleness and panache that dwell within!”

“We are the Phantom Thieves of Hearts.” Morgana said after climbing onto the table. “Are you the attendants that kept Igor company before Lavenza?”

“Picaresque!” Elizabeth clapped quickly while holding her sister. “And yes, we are. We gave our assistance and our company during the times we were needed, to the best of our capabilities. We helped Master Igor see each ordeal through.” Her tone suddenly took on an unexpected formality and a hint of melancholy. “No matter how long, no matter the narratives that distance us, we always feel the bond to our Master, even after our role comes to an end.”

“Have you felt that bond to him recently?” Akira asked.

“Yes.” Theodore replied. “But something feels… different. Like a distance that should not be there.”

“I presume that is the motive behind this impromptu gathering. It is an agreement amongst us should any irregularity occur.” Margaret approached Lavenza, and placed a hand on her head with motherly tact. “Gather in a place close to us all… so this begs the question…”

“Is Igor alive?” The final attendant asked bluntly. The old man’s voice was deep and gravelly like the fiery bowels of a slumbering volcano. His arm pressed a stiff line upon his cane, and it looked as if at any moment, the carpeted floor beneath would shatter.

“Don’t be so direct, Percival!” Margaret scolded.

“Is he, though?” Elizabeth reprised a little more discreetly. Lavenza hugged her sister a little tighter.

“He’s alive, as far as we can tell.” Makoto answered. Her eyes ricocheted between the gaze of all attendants. “But he seems to be in a state of catatonia. We believe it’s directly connected with the state of the Velvet Room… the one Lavenza inhabited.”

“Please elaborate.” Theodore urged them politely, but slightly impatient.

“Something happened to that Velvet Room.” Akira said. “It’s as if it were affected by some kind of corruption.”

“The place looks like it’s falling apart.” Futaba added.

“Ceasing to be even, absorbed into nothingness.” Yusuke punctuated.

Every addition to the description troubled the attendants further. Even Elizabeth looked utterly devoid of merry now.

“Something like this does not happen without a reason.” Percival growled.

“It has never happened before… not to my knowledge.” Margaret’s voice shook.

“Lavenza. Is this true?” Elizabeth asked the smallest sibling. But she got her response without necessitating any words from Lavenza. Once the aftermath of survival and yearned arrival wore off from the girl’s heart, all she had was bleak reality glaring at her.

“We’re sorry.” Ann said, feeling the burden of guilt from bearing bad news.

“We may know the reason.” Akira said after a brief delay of hesitation.

“Dude…?” Ryuji turned to his best friend, suspecting he knew what he was about to say.

“We’ve come face to face with a strange presence. We don’t know the entirety of his motivations or his end goal, but we know he means us harm…” The young man began.

“His name is Nyarlathotep.” Haru said, hammering in the suggestion that she too had come to the same conclusion as Akira and Makoto.

Not a second after the adversary’s name was uttered, something changed in the ambience of this Velvet Room. It took them a brief while to pinpoint what it was, and even the attendants seemed unable to figure it out for a moment. When they did, they realised the song had changed somehow. The notes from the piano and the soprano lingered in the air, as if they continued to exist somewhere far away, never truly fading out. The song continued there, in some unreachable time and place.

But not here.

Nameless no longer played. Belladonna no longer sand. They, and the Demon Painter all stared at the Phantom Thieves. The pianist held his breath. The singer was deathly pale. The painter’s lips trembled as he attempted to put his thoughts into words.

“… the hell did you just say?” The artist managed finally.

“Nyarlathotep… she said Nyarlathotep...” Belladonna muttered.

“She’s gotta be joking… she’s gotta be! Right!? Right!?” The painter’s voice rose as he began to panic.

“No… she spoke true.” Nameless spoke with a deep, clear voice. “It had been 90,000 and 155 nights before their wager… I’ve lost count of the nights since.”

“So… he has really returned.” The artist fell defeated on his stool.

Belladonna began to weep bitterly. Her had pressed against her chest, as if she was feeling her heart breaking.

“So, you know who he is.” Makoto confirmed.

“I am afraid so…” The pianist replied. He rubbed the fabric of the blindfold over his eyes in anxious fashion. He did this for a several seconds until he gave up in his compulsion. With sobering demeanour, he undid the knot on the back of his head, and the silky band fell thus at his feet. Still he kept his eyes closed, even as his non-gaze shifted towards everybody in the room. “All of you, gather around. I will tell you about Nyarlathotep, and through him, the history of the Velvet Room, of the Heir who you know as Igor, and this place’s original master. Whatever you choose to do… whatever we are obligated to do, you must know what we are facing. You must know that there is no greater, no viler enemy than the Crawling Chaos.”

[ ]

A few minutes later, everybody was sitting at the tables in front of the stage. Akira turned around to look at the overall setting, and he could not shake the notion that they were all about to behold a most horrifying show. Before his mind could get any time to dwell, he found Makoto at his side, looking at him with all-encompassing warmth. White over red, she placed her hand over his in covert fashion. The countless words they had for each other would have to wait, however.

On stage, two lonely souls gathered their thoughts. Belladonna placed her hand on Nameless’ shoulder in kind manner, while he held it with gratitude. The Demon Artist sat below the stage, discarding the bottle from which he had apparently been drinking. What past history there was between Nyarlathotep and the Velvet Room demanded his sobriety.

The soprano nodded quietly at her friend. And thus it began.

“I am sure you have noticed. You can hear the song, even if we are not performing at present. The reason for that is the song itself is extracted from time and space. It has already been played, and will be forever played – if forever indeed is to exist. You will need to comprehend that before anything else. If there is a being with a soul anywhere, in any paradigm, the song will continue.”

Makoto raised her hand at once.

“Yes?” Nameless addressed even without seeing her.

“What precisely do you mean by ‘paradigm’?” She asked, suddenly feeling like she was back in school – a feeling she missed.

“You may understand paradigm as what you and all living beings on the planet experience through history. Past, present, and future.”

Haru was the next to raise her hand. The pianist turned to her next.

“You said ‘any paradigm’. Does that imply there are multiple paradigms?”

“Indeed. Time is not linear in truth. Human experience, its history, and even the planet that houses it are not one single phenomenon, but a reprisal of many others like it, unfolding in parallel, simultaneously, if you will. Some are alike. Others are vastly different. But all have access to the Velvet Room.”

“This sounds like a multiverse!” Futaba conveyed her excitement in a whisper.

“Yes… if that helps you better understand it.” Nameless sighed. “The Velvet Room is not truly bound to any paradigm. Our presence and agency are limited, but we are afforded the luxury to observe. That may be all we are ever able to do.” A vague semblance of a smirk crossed the pianist’s face. “Perhaps you would appreciate knowing that the Phantom Thieves of Hearts exist also in other paradigms. In some, their roles and their members are no different than yours now. In numerous others, the mantle had a different name, a different guise, but the same purpose. In another, their work was undertaken by your elders.” The pianist went quiet for a brief moment, after which his words carried an aching tone to them. “There is one particular paradigm in which you never met at all.”

Akira’s hand twitched, slightly squeezing Makoto’s hand. He was momentarily haunted by the very notion that somewhere in the limitless canvas of existence, the people he loved would be strangers.
“All these paradigms can hear our song. But for one of them, there will only ever be silence. And that is Nyarlathotep’s doing. Fourteen years back, in another Earth, he brought about the doom of human kind. He unleashed untold catastrophe for the mere sake of his pride.” Nameless’ voice shook with anger. “But his was not the only role in this…”

The pianist breathed deep.

“You know poor Igor as Master of the Velvet Room. We three know him as the heir to the task. The original Master was an individual known as Philemon. He is… was a perennial companion to humanity, has forever been since man became aware of their self beyond and beneath the flesh. He represented the higher will of mankind; the forces that lead it to create, to marvel, and preserve. In a way, he himself was a part of humanity, and as such, he was susceptible to drives and desires of his own. It was his faith in humanity’s better instincts what drove him to accept a wager against one similar to him.”

“Nyarlathotep…?” Akira wondered out loud.

“Yes. The Crawling Chaos is as much a part of human kind as Philemon. He is the embodiment of man’s destructive impulses, of its potentiality for entropy. Man, as a species that thinks and feels, is whole with the two. But this balance was not enough for Nyarlathotep. He lusted to prove that humans will ultimately bring about their own destruction by command of their natural impulses. Philemon believed that human’s deliberate will can overcome the unchecked impulses of their basest instincts. Therefore, they wagered, each betting in favour of their own. But Nyarlathotep tampered with the game field.”

Nameless, Belladonna and the Demon Painter all seemed to brace themselves for a terrible memory come back to life.

“He manipulated the paradigm to benefit his intended outcome. He knew well to manipulate key personages, some of which he gently pushed. His methods were not as discreet in other instances. Plainly put, he used his power to turn the power of suggestion into reality. His end goal was encouraging human kind to fulfil a prophecy that would bring about the end of days. And at the centre of it all, he used a group of friends… hardly different from you… to come out the victor.”

“Like you, they were Persona users. They took the rules set by that loveless cunt, and turned it against him…” The artist spoke, pouring his heart out like one unaccustomed to. “They did their best, you know? They fought like hell, and they came this close to stopping Nyarlathotep… this close….”

“But in the end, Nyarlathotep still won by tying the prophecy to the death of one in this group. Her name was Maya Amano. By provoking her demise, the prophecy was fulfilled, and calamity befell the world. Maya’s friends were left alive to witness it all... the destruction of the world they knew and loved, the Crawling Chaos’ despicable triumph. But there indeed was one thing Philemon could do. He could undo the disaster by branching the paradigm out to a new one. But in order to avert the same outcome, he was to take the group’s memories of ever having met, of every being friends.”

“Only in a world where they would be strangers would Nyarlathotep be kept from repeating his deed.” Belladonna spoke. “But one of them could not forget. Tatsuya Suou. His drive to protect the bond with Maya, and his friends… that was all Nyarlathotep needed to take a second victory in a wager that held no meaning.”

“Bastard relished in the thought, I’m sure.” The painter added, his voice worn out. “Turn the boy’s affection into a pathway to the apocalypse. Turn Philemon’s faith into his own defeat… But he didn’t get away with it. Not this time. The kids made it this time. They beat him…”

The Phantom Thieves felt their breaths pending on the artist’s words.

“Indeed. But all they could do, all anyone can do, was banish Nyarlathotep into the void… A temporary solution, as I realise now.”

“How, though!? How did they beat him!?” Ryuji asked loudly. None of his friends criticised him for his outspokenness.

“By using all the strength they had… how else? That’s probably what you’re gonna have to do.” The painter said.

However, the Phantom Thieves and Lavenza could not conceal the unease in their expressions. The Velvet Room dwellers were quick to pick up on this.

“There is something we must tell you…” Akira said sombrely.

[ ]

Akira and his friends relayed the tale of their crossing into Nyarlathotep’s world, of his disguising as Susumu Kamiyama, and of the other Joker. Though the room’s dwellers did not make as many interjections as the attendants, they looked just as troubled.

“This will require a lot of thought.” Nameless said. “Some of his methods are similar to what we have known… the possession of another, wearing appearances to make you vulnerable, and the usage of a ‘Joker’. And judging by what you tell, he still means to defeat Philemon by using human kind as his raw matter.”

“Fat load of good that will do him if so…”

The pianist contemplated quietly.

“You say he has somehow replicated the Wild Card to be his Joker.” Belladonna sounded concerned. “This is most troubling. This is power he should never have at his disposal. Sheer strength may not suffice now.”

“… Do you know what the gift of the Wild Card truly is?” Nameless broke his silence.

Makoto held her breath in anticipation.

“It’s the ability to hold and summon multiple Personas.” Morgana answered.

“Yes. But that is only the consequence of its true power. It’s the ability to draw strength and vigour out of one’s bonds to another. Igor’s attendants know this by heart, but I would wager Igor has kept the origin of that power from even them.”

Elizabeth, Margaret, Theodore and Lavenza all turned to each other, sharing in the confirmation. But Percival sat static in his chair, an island all of his own, with a forlorn shadow upon his brow. His siblings noticed this, and inquired in silence, but they obtained no response from him.

“Although Philemon won the wager in the end, the outcome tasted hollow to him. The victory against Nyarlathotep had too great a cost. In all the great number of paradigms, no disaster of this scale had ever occurred.” Nameless continued. “It did not matter to him that the lives lost and broken were given a new beginning in the new paradigm. He held himself as responsible as his adversary, and could no longer think himself suitable to be the guide you need. Henceforth, he delegated the role to his most reliable and capable of friends. Igor became the Master of the Velvet Room, and Philemon joined Nyarlathotep in banishment.”

“And yet, he left two parting gifts.” Belladonna continued. “He left portions of his own soul to manifest into the attendants that would aid the new Master. And he left his power with human kind to awaken the potential of the Wild Card in them, whether by design, or fate as you may call it, by urgency and necessity, perhaps even through sheer will.” The singer offered a little smile. “I see there are two among you.”

Everyone turned to Makoto, who went red, and somehow pale at the same time – from both the shift of attention, and from the revelation. This was the answer she sought regarding her newly obtained power, but it still told her scarce a thing. She wondered if it was the will to defend the people she loved, or the desperate fear of seeing them go under what awakened this new potential.

“With two Wild Cards, you may yet stand a chance, in theory. You may fell the Joker, but Nyarlathotep’s powers must be growing as we speak.” The pianist said. “I am certain he has observed humanity develop since his banishment. His methods may be similar as back when, but I doubt it is all he has concealed in his sleeve.”

“You guys say he wants to make your world obsolete while completing his own. Then he’ll take his rightful place again.” The Demon Painter spoke. “That tells us little.”

“Regardless, it all ties together, apparently.” Belladonna said. “The Velvet Room’s corruption, this young man’s experiences, the other Joker… It all links to Nyarlathotep.”

“But why did Master Igor have to be harmed like this!?” Lavenza broke out suddenly, slamming her hands against the table. “Why?”

Elizabeth tried once more to console her, to no avail.

“Perhaps only a matter of unfortunate timing. If the Crawling Chaos took this young man as a template, the very bond to Igor probably bound him and the Velvet Room to his detestable yoke.” The pianist suggested.

Joker lowered his gaze towards the table. He could not bring himself to look at anyone in the eye. He vividly imagined Lavenza looking at him with blame in her eyes. In fact, he believed there may be a little of that in everybody’s eyes. Even in Makoto’s.

All your fault.

His own voice echoed in the walls of his mind.

You failed them all.

You’d be better off dead.

“Please tell us, what should we do?” Lavenza asked. Her voice was entirely without bitterness, which took Akira by surprise.

“You will need to find out how Nyarlathotep would accomplish his end goal. And you will need to hone your powers. And above all, you must not let him turn your bonds against you.” Nameless placed special emphasis on the third point.

“You’re on your own on two of those. But to improve your Personas, I’ll help you all with that.” The artist stood up from his seat, firmly resolute. “My skills are at your service.”

“And so are ours.” Percival’s growling voice startled the Phantom Thieves. The old man stood up, joined by his siblings. Lavenza looked weary of crying; she silently vowed the next tears she shed would be from joy over Igor’s recovery.

“Thank you.” Akira said curtly.

“From the bottom of our hearts.” Makoto joined in.

The Phantom Thieves of Hearts spent yet another hour in this place. Lavenza, Theodore and Margaret spent that period creating a door that would lead directly back to LeBlanc, primed for their return to the lounge. His friends mingled with the Velvet Room’s inhabitants. Morgana talked with Nameless while he casually scratched behind the cat’s ears. Yusuke stood behind the Demon Artist with eyes fixed on his easel, clearly enraptured by the painter’s skill. Makoto and Futaba stood with Belladonna – the girl with the dyed hair was very much enamoured with the singer, as she bounced up and down. Ann and Haru spoke with Percival, who appeared to show a kinder face to his usual blunt demeanour. Ryuji stood by the piano, very tempted to press a key or two.

Akira stood in silence, watching them all, letting their voices and the distant, perennial song to everybody’s soul fill his self, drowning out the voice of blame in his head. The young man sighed with a touch of nostalgia pressing on his chest.

“They are a lovely fold you got with you.” Elizabeth’s voice startled him. The peculiar attendant stood next to him, looking wistful and a little sad. “You are lucky to have them.”

“I certainly am.”

“You have also a nice head full of hair. You are lucky to have that too.”

“I… I am.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Akira could see Elizabeth’s eyes looked forward, but they did not appear to see anything at all. He suspected there was history behind those eyes, but he held his words back.

“Take care of them. And of yourself as well.”

“I will.”

[ ]

Akira and his friends returned to LeBlanc, coming out of the restroom door, which was thankfully vacant. Sojiro and Sae were in café, both hugely relieved to see them back unscathed. The Phantom Thieves were quite tired in the middle of the afternoon, but it was the kind of exhaustion they had not experienced in a long time – something akin to a long outing for leisure, even though it was nothing of the sort. Akira and the rest told them of what transpired on the other side, of the nature of their enemy, the history between Philemon and Nyarlathotep, and Makoto’s Wild Card abilities.

They did not go into fine detail, as they would still relay that information in greater nuance during a meeting the following day. For the remainder of this day, they would go and get a taste of the mundaneness they had been denied since crossing over to Nyarlathotep’s domains. Ryuji and Ann went out for lunch, dinner, and a session at the gym. Yusuke and Haru stayed for coffee. Futaba threw herself into a serving of curry. Morgana went out into the neighbourhood to visit a certain white cat at Mogami’s.

Akira and Makoto kept things simple. They walked out the café’s door, and sat outside against the wall, together with nothing to say or think. For once, Akira’s head was clear, despite the presence of their foe’s reach in the young man’s view. He felt light and weightless. His girlfriend anchoring him to reality, to the notion of the now, and a tomorrow that was yet to be written.

[ ]

Back in the Velvet Room, Nameless resumed the song, with his dear friend Belladonna accompanying his performance. Percival walked slowly towards the stage. The old attendant closed his eyes and listened to the song, entranced by it, but still extracted enough to keep his own centre of gravity.

“You didn’t tell them the whole story.” Percival said.

“What good would that do?” Nameless asked rhetorically.

“I suppose you got a point there.” The old man nodded. “Knowing their world is the one created after what Nyarlathotep destroyed – that can’t be good for their spirits.”

“It would be like dragging a ball and chain, insurmountably heavy. I am curious… who are you?” The pianist asked.

“I am the first one.” The old attendant replied.

“Did poor Igor tell you everything?”

“I believe so. Not that it did any harm to know, but he vowed to never tell another soul.”

“A harsh discovery for your siblings.”

“Indeed. It’s probably for the better. We folk in blue all got a little of the Old Master in us.”

Chapter Text

Makoto woke up from dreamless sleep at 3 in the morning. The subdued, droning light of the cityscape seeped into her room like a cold, furtive presence. The young woman greeted the faceless amalgam of wayward occupation with heavy eyelids and tired indifference. Her arms and legs, spread out on the mattress, felt numb and stiff. She thought it strange, as she usually associated the feeling with the aftermath of a hasty but strenuous workout. But it had been a rather long time since she last got some proper exercise.

On the other hand, it was not as if she had been idle since.

The darkness was not her friend. It never has been. The source of her fear reached far back into her past, long before her father’s untimely death. Yet the courage that compelled her to push past, plunge in, survive in the dark had an even longer reach – it spanned her present, her past, and her future. That was something her boyfriend said once during a pleasant, lazy afternoon spent just lying together on his mattress. Hearing others say it often helped her assert the belief. But whenever she heard it from her sister or Akira, something felt warm and gently swelling in her chest.

As if the memory itself could shape reality, a shadow on her right gave the peculiar impression of being something else: a head of thick, black hair, wildly tousled. She could count the times he spent time like this in her room on one hand. But each of those times had a special, unique charm to it – something about him huddled next to her in her single bed. Close, intimate in a kind of way that needed little more than each other’s company. For most other things, his room offered ample space - his bed and couch for their indulging; the floorboards for the one kind of mess she loved.

But what kind of mess did she leave him in when they parted earlier in the evening?

He looked calm enough – that was as best as it got during more recent days. His ‘intervention’ in Arancia shed new light on one of his worst habits: secrecy towards his friends whenever something was wrong about him. By now, they knew his increasingly severe dissociation was caused by Nyarlathotep’s hand. But all the same, the way he handled it was cause for concern. Makoto knew he would have kept it from their eyes forever if he could help it.

This secrecy was a divide sectioning Akira. One side was he clinging to the security of a road they all paved together as Phantom Thieves: the hope for a bright future in a society reformed. The other was he unable to ignore the truth any longer. This was Joker casting himself fully into the fire. But neither side was he complete. Whether here or on the other side, the man she loved seemed only half of himself.

But that afternoon, after their voyage into the Velvet Room, he seemed more whole. The comfortable, immanent silence they shared outside of LeBlanc led to something Makoto did not expect. It began with a slight fidgeting on his part, as if he doubted whether he should say it. She was so thankful he did; very confused on what he said, but thankful regardless.

“I’ve been seeing his presence all the way here since we escaped his world.” He said.

“Do you mean…?” She sat up straight, eyes gone wide.

“Yeah. It’s like some vague, intangible shadow teasing in the corner of my eye.” This was, unbeknownst to her, a major understatement. “I see it too often. It’s really annoying.”

“Are you seeing it right now?”

“Yes.” The tremor of telling such a truth allowed him to mask the trouble of it. She would be aware of his ability to see the bond Nyarlathotep forcefully created between Akira and him. But he would not let her know how this truly looked in his eyes. How his reach manifested into thin ends that swirled around her face and body, teasing to snatch Makoto away from him. How this ghost of a presence turned his reality into a hideous palimpsest.

“Akira… how are you feeling?” There was so much she wished to know after knowing about this, but all she was truly interested in was his welfare.

“To be honest, I feel angry.” This caught her off guard. It was not as if she did not expect him to be upset in this situation. But anger was something she hardly ever associated with him. That image escaped both her knowledge and her imagination. “But it may not be all bad. Perhaps this could work to our advantage.”

“Seeing his presence in our world, you mean?” She asked him.

Makoto felt him nodding. His held her a little tighter.

“A little insight. Maybe a trail of breadcrumbs... possibly.”

“I… suppose we could use that. We do have to return to that place for intel. No asset is a small one.” She smiled. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

She turned to him, linking the line of her eyes with his.

“For being honest.”

“Doesn’t sound like something you should be thanking me for.” He said, with a little humour in his tone.

“It’s not. But, right now… I can’t be bothered to care”

“Me either…”

Their conversation ended with a kiss, the first one in what seemed to them an eternity. Sae and Makoto left LeBlanc an hour later. The younger of the Niijima sisters looked forward to just spending some time with her sister. Dinner at their apartment would do the trick – as far as she was concerned – but Sae was of a different mind. She spoiled her little sister that night, something she did only when there was occasion to celebrate. The sole fact that Makoto was alive and well was enough.

She had a great time. But in the back of her head, she retained the mental image of Akira as they said goodbye that afternoon. He looked vital, whole, and calm. Something struck her oddly, nonetheless, like there was something else beneath his face. She could not put her finger on it, even now as she lay awake in the late night side of morning. All she had was the slight impression that Akira looked distant; further away than he physically was, further away than the distance he closed between them.

Makoto knew they would all meet again later in the day for a meeting. She would see him, and his face would unmake her anxiety. The morrow could not come soon enough. But right now, she was stranded in the midst of sleeplessness. She suspected she would not be able to fall back asleep so easily, and let out a groan that fell only of the inert ears of her beloved Buchi-kun.

Soon enough, something took her from this listless daze. A faraway glint gently calling from her desk. Makoto narrowed her eyes to make it out, but its shape did not reveal itself fully to her until she got up from her bed and made her way over

Her breath got caught up in her throat, and her eyes welled up in an instant. There, by her laptop and her favourite pencil case, was a square old thing, cheaply cut from glass, its surface fogged by age and use. Her father’s ashtray. She had neither used it, nor even noticed it since the day of their crossing over. A butt remained in the square from a cigarette she smoked in the course of a terrible night. It left her then a taste of desperation; she could perceive a peculiar taste on her tongue in this moment also, but it was different. It tasted like an amalgam of memories. Of her father, of her sister, of countless joyous days long passed.

The memento left behind by Akihiko Niijima, the thing she dubbed her repository for reflection reserved something for her.

What would dad do?

This was the question she asked herself on multiple times when she started questioning her path. When life was carrying her along, with no true autonomy on her part, her moral compass eventually led her to take control. Even if she should defy the established order and the coherence of the world around her. Thus, she rode her path on her own terms since, pursuing justice for all, punishing evil, protecting what she loved.

The question itself no longer represented doubt or uncertainty. It had been answered through her actions within and without the guise of a Phantom Thief. But now, when revisiting the notion, Makoto Niijima was compelled to answer the question once again.

What would dad do?

He would do the very same thing she had been doing, the same thing she would be doing on the future, both near and distant. Like father, like daughter, they would never give up or give in – they would seek justice, punish evil, and protect the people they loved, forever.

Though it pulled a pang of sorrow out of her heart, she became wide aware of it now. She had surpassed her father, in turn changing the question.

What would Makoto Niijima do?

Then her thoughts were filled with the sound of breaking glass, startling the young woman. Then, a multiplicity of voices followed, the sound of which rooted her where she stood.

I am thou, thou art I, Thou hast renewed an old vow. It shall become the wings of rebellion That breaketh the yoke of thy heart.

She could understand the language spoken, but the overlapping of the voices made it hard to follow in its entirety. Some of it sounded as if were spoken by herself, some of it by Anat; but then, it also sounded as if it were being said by the several new Personas she acquired. Sometimes it sounded like the voices of people she knew. Regardless, there was no extracting a single line from the rest, only a set of words that became etched in her heart.

The Fool…

The echo of the word produced an image of Akira Kurusu in her head.

The Magician, The Priestess, The Empress, The Emperor, The Hierophant, The Lovers, The Chariot, The Justice, The Hermit, The Fortune, The Strength, The Hanged Man, The Death, The Temperance, The Devil, The Tower, The Star, The Moon, The Sun.

The voices dissipated from her mind, but a warm feeling remained in her chest. Makoto was no longer rooted to the floor, and she lost her balance instantly. The young woman fell to the ground with a thud, but she did not mind it in the slightest; her mind was occupied on different matters. She definitely needed to understand what just happened, but that was not her chief thought.

Her mind was in the future, in the days that awaited somewhere beyond the barricade – a world she longed to see. This feeling manifested into an idea, which she would propose on the meeting at LeBlanc. However, she could not help but wonder if it was indeed a good idea; if it could be interpreted as a mere distraction, or if they would really be capable of carrying it out if they agreed.

There was no helping it right now. Tomorrow, it was all about tomorrow.

[ ]

The Phantom Thieves reconvened at LeBlanc the next day around 10 in the morning. The familiar faces began showing on the other side of the door, starting with Makoto and Futaba, as the first serving regulars went about their day, Sojiro noticed the quiet air about the three almost instantly; even the cat that normally would never stop meowing was strangely silent today. Then again, he figured some quiet was to be expected all things considered.

As Boss had anticipated, things got a little livelier when Ryuji and Ann entered the café. They afforded a little unwinding even after Haru arrived, and then Yusuke. But all throughout, Makoto looked somewhat extracted from the situation. This was quickly noticed by her friends, but she insisted nothing was wrong. There was merely something on her mind, and she would wait until later to put it forward. Meanwhile, she had other thoughts to work through, namely the strange epiphany from the night before.

Sae Niijima joined them soon after, while business at the café was still slow. The woman brought her profession’s sharp ways to the table as she and the Phantom Thieves each put together the pieces of all they had learned. Their allies’ efforts out in the streets, and the fruits of the latest voyage into the Velvet Room. Throughout it all, Sojiro never left his place behind the counter, but he caught every word spoken. Like Sae, he also learned about the Velvet Room’s peculiar inhabitants, about Nameless, Belladonna, and the Demon Painter, and the history of its original master, and its conflict with Nyarlathotep.

This naturally led to the latter’s motivations, and the need to acquire a better understanding on them. Regardless, everybody present shared the dreadful conviction that he could only mean harm, on an impossibly large scale.

“This is… not an easy thing to believe.” Sae commented. “It shouldn’t be radically strange, all things considered, but a world so irretrievably compromised in a bet…?”

“I don’t know.” Sojiro interjected. “People and Gods? I don’t think they’re all that different. And we all know people listen to their vanity too much. A bet that ended the world, I’ll buy that. So, these folks, they gave you any useful info on how to beat this guy?”

“Well…” Akira began.

“We kinda just have to pummel his ass…” Ryuji said.

“…to the ground.” Ann added.

“A given. But from what you’ve told us, that’s easier said than done.” Boss spoke.

“The people in the Velvet Room offered all their assistance to help us improve our abilities.” Haru said. “It’s an advantage, but I wonder if might alone will be enough.”

“That is true. There’s not knowing if stronger Personas can defeat the other Joker, let alone his master.”

Futaba translated for Sojiro and Sae.

“Ugh, I forgot about that guy. We’ll have to face him all over again, right?” Ryuji said with frustration in his tongue.

“I am not looking forward to that.” Yusuke admitted.

Akira did his best to conceal his discomfort on the matter.

“Would that truly be necessary, however?” Sae asked.

“Sis?” Makoto turned to her sister at once.

“You described in disturbing detail what that… Joker… did over on the other side. I can see the benefit of planning in basis of that possibility, but it may be best looked at as a worst case scenario.”

Though nobody present had the courage to outright contradict the former prosecutor, the Phantom Thieves were not entirely convinced. Facing Nyarlathotep would inevitably have them face his knight as well. Even if their new allies could help them bridge the margin between their current power and that of the Failures, the latter still met a gruesome defeat at the Joker’s hands. This comparison put words to a dreaded possibility: that this Joker may actually be stronger than Akira. Then again, the young man’s powers were currently impaired. But even if Akira’s abilities were somehow fully revitalised, nobody wanted to hazard that duel on account of a ‘maybe’.

In that moment, Makoto silently considered the new variable in the equation: herself. She was now a Wild Card, just like Akira. Potential for further power was within reach now, and she was also unshackled by Nyarlathotep’s grip. On the other hand, she had a chasm of inexperience ahead. Overconfidence, and a lack of understanding of her gift could prove fatal. But if they saw no other choice…

“I think you’re on to something, Sae-san.”

Everybody turned to look at Akira. His eyes were lost on the black surface of his coffee.

“I think our approach is all wrong.”

“What are you suggesting?” The feline asked from his vantage point on the headrest of the leather seat.

“We’re not playing to our strengths. When we first got into that place, we were out of our depth and we didn’t know the rules.” Akira explained.

“Yeah, that weird asshole held all the cards too.” Futaba added colourfully.

“Yes, he did. But now we know more than we did then.” The young man momentarily showed the cheeky confidence he wielded in the guise of Joker. “I think we have enough to make our way under our own terms.”

“Do you mean…?” Ann’s blue eyes opened wide.

“An infiltration!” Morgana spoke, ears and tail perked up.

“Yo… can we actually do that?” Ryuji wondered out loud.

“Does not seem like the most stable of environments to navigate through.” Yusuke added.

“It sounds better than just charging forward into the fire.” Makoto stated. “Besides we do have a magnificent navigator of our own to guide us.”

“What, who? Oh yeah! Me!” Futaba bounced in her seat as much she could without actually leaving the surface. “We do it quietly and the job must be way easier!”

“Well, this certainly is starting to look more manageable.” Sae turned to Boss.

“I suppose. So long as they keep to the thieving ways…” Sojiro Sakura was never wholly comfortable with the notion of the people he loved most plunging into peril.

“Then, the next step will probably be reconvening at the Velvet Room to prepare ourselves.” Haru said.

“... And find out what Nyarlathotep’s game truly is.” Akira punctuated.

“NOT SO FAST!” A woman’s voice followed the clinking of the bell on the front door, piercing the moment instantly. Even Sae looked startled as the journalist clad in 90’s-screaming clothes walked up to the booth.

“Ichiko-chan?” Sojiro greeted, sounding more confused than pleased.

“As she lives and breathes!” The woman replied. “Akira! This a bad moment?”

The young man blinked, dashing the shock away.

“Yeah, kind of.”

“No surprises there. Everything’s bad lately, according to one Yuuki Mishima. Kid’s been putting me up to a load of work just to help you guys with whatever sketchy business you’re up to.” Ichiko Ohya looked playfully at everyone present in the café, including Sae Niijima. For some reason, the journalist did not exhibit any signs of being intimidated by the famous former prosecutor. It was as if Ohya’s craft and persona were Niijima-proof.

“Excuse me, Ohya-san.” Makoto spoke carefully. “Have you been… um, working with Mishima-kun?”

“You betcha, Mako-chan!” The journo’s response was confident. “See, we’ve been looking up some info that may not be for everyone’s eyes. He does his bit. I do mine, you know how it is. Anyway, I thought I’d run into a dead end, but I came upon a name that may be familiar to you all. Does Susumu Kamiyama ring any bells?”

Haru stood up immediately, taking Ichiko off guard.

“I guess it does...” The woman pulled out a dossier out of her equally outdated handbag. “You could say I followed my gut. I talked with a charming little nobody, and found out some interesting stuff about the man’s activities. Of course, this info comes at a price!”

“Ohya… please…” Akira said.

“That price being a cup of joe. Black as tar, and bitter as me.” She said to Boss, her demeanour instantly turning serious.

“Figures…” Sojiro chuckled before picking a blend for Ichiko.

“Well, kiddies. There’s a lot to unpack, and it will probably make more sense to you than it did to me, but it looks sketchy as all Hell.” Ichiko spoke as she stood next to the booth, placing the dossier on the table for all to see.

The journalist presented all of the information she gained from Tomohiro Higashi several days ago, all of which she looked further into by checking with the electricity purveying services in Kawasaki. It took some pressure and some flattery; but in the end, her efforts were rewarded with confirmation on the nature and the deeds of one man: Susumu Kamiyama.

Through his network of connections, the Chairman of White Pheasant gave the order for the Kawasaki’s power supply to be briefly suspended. This was scheduled to take place on one specific night over a year ago. The man’s influence suppressed any inquiry on the blackout and its possible motive. And the lack of any actual incidents helped bury the event into hearsay until it was soon forgotten. However, this information was anything but vague for the Phantom Thieves.

Where most would see a somewhat strange but otherwise mundane happening, they saw purpose.

They saw a thread that led to Akira’s infamous night over a year ago, his ‘stress-induced sleeping disorder’, and his wandering across Kawasaki under complete darkness. At several points during disclosure, Ohya spoke one word, which struck her attention during Higashi’s interview. And that word sealed the affair into a full circle.

Benefactor.

The image was clearer now. They could almost picture it happening, the intent congealing into action; one stage at a time. Nyarlathotep influenced Kamiyama into provoking the blackout in Akira’s town of residence - to obtain his template, the resources to create a Joker of his own. The story unfolded on its own after that, in violence and terror of the present threat.

“Well, now we know how Nyah-nyah got this crap show rolling.” Futaba remarked.

“Yeah, but is that really useful?” Ryuji questioned.

“I think it does.” Haru reflected. “It’s a long string of events, and Kamiyama-san appears to have pulled a lot of the weight rather than his benefactor.”

“It’s almost as if there’s not that much Nyarlathotep could do on his own.” Ann nodded. “Does that mean… he may not be as powerful as he seems?”

“Possible. This resembles what Nameless told us in the Velvet Room. The method is not that different. This dark lord either indoctrinates or possesses a suitable victim, and utilises them as a tool to enforce his will through human means. Nyarlathotep – truly a despicable entity.”

“Whoa, whoa. Nyarlathotep. Like, the Lovecraftian guy?” Ichiko interrupted with a wave and a snicker. “I know already you’re knee-deep in Phantom Thieves stuff, but… what exactly are you up to?”

Everyone exchanged a preoccupied look, which clearly spelled a question of whether or not they should tell the journalist.

“Look, it’s cool if you don’t want to talk. I won’t sing if you do, though.” Ichiko took a sip from her coffee. “Plus, I’m not sure you’re legally entitled to disclose that information.” She flashed a slightly mocking smirk at Sae Niijima.

“Given the peculiar nature of this situation, I don’t think there are any proper legal boundaries to speak of.” Sae replied dryly. “It’s up to them.”

After catching a nod from each of his friends, Akira gave the journalist the same retelling given to the rest involved in aiding them, while keeping certain details from her. By the end of it, with their deep foray into the Velvet Room and a summary of the things they learned from its dwellers, the leader turned to his lieutenant and held his gaze on her for a moment. The pause did not go unnoticed; neither did her expression, or the way she gently squeezed his hand. Her expression dismissed the moment as a mere show of affection.

Ryuji and the rest turned to each other in confusion.

“Akira… there’s something you haven’t told us, yes?” Morgana asked.

“There is.” The young man responded. “For what it’s worth, this I haven’t kept to myself for that long.” He went on to tell them about Nyarlathotep’s presence in this world, how he was able to see it, and its marginal reach at present.

“Well, at least this time you told us about it.” Ann said.

“This is serious.” Yusuke added.

“Very.” Akira acknowledged with a nod. “This could mean one of two things: that his plan for this world is already under way, or his world is somehow anchored to me.”

“Both are plausible.” Makoto said.

“Agreed. But whichever the cause, I still see the one way ahead of us.” Morgana declared.

“Man, that cat meows a lot, huh?” Ichiko whispered to Boss.

“You don’t know half of it.”

“I’m definitely glad I’ll be getting a puppy.” Sae commented, careful to keep her distance from the cat sitting several metres away, lest it snap her allergies awake.

“Get to that freaky place, get the truth out of that guy, and break his hold on our world. No problem.” Ryuji spoke.

“Just that easy, huh?” Akira smiled at his oldest friend.

“You bet!”

After this discussion, Akira saw something more than Nyarlathotep’s ethereal tendrils hovering around each person in the café. He saw a clearer path than before, a more solid approach to the menace that held the chain around their lives. Learning about Susumu Kamiyama’s more earthly role in all this has provided with a certain insight. Nyarlathotep’s renewed presence in this world initially amounted to nothing more than a whisper in a hopeful ear. His powers may increase, and his knight was still bulwark to climb, but the mortal vessel of the Crawling Chaos could be a vulnerability.

Susumu Kamiyama was a potential chance to separate Nyarlathotep from his power, one they could reach as long as they took command of the shadows on the other side – as Thieves.

“Hey.” It was Akira’s turn to squeeze Makoto’s hand. “There was something you wanted to say, no?”

“O-oh! Umm, it’s… it’s nothing.” The thought reappeared fresh in the young woman’s head. Even after the time she had to metabolise the idea, she was unsure of how to put it forward. It seemed superfluous in the grand scheme of things. But she could not put it to rest easily.

“Please, Mako-chan.” Haru smiled at her friend. “You looked troubled earlier.”

“Is there something wrong, Makoto?” Sae approached the booth, despite the cat’s proximity.

“I… had the idea last night. Before I tell you all, please know that I will understand if you are not keen on it. And I believe this is a decision we must make as a group.”

“Makoto?” Her boyfriend uttered with worry.

She experienced the same kind of unease she did when being forced to spontaneously speak before a crowd. The words already sounded awkward inside of her head. One deep breath later, she went ahead and said it.

“I think we should come out of our status as ‘missing persons’.”

“Do you mean…?” Her sister was surprised, as was everyone around her.

“Yes. Get back to school, work, whichever. Just let the world know that we’re here. I know it’s probably not the best time to approach this, considering what we’re up against… But just staying in cover all the time, waiting for the moment to strike, I can’t see it doing us any good. We need something of our own, even if it’s just routine.” Makoto expressed herself as best she could. She wanted to say more, but many of the things she had reflected on the night before did sound better under the cloak of night.

Then it was she who was surprised. She initially expected some conflicting views coming at her swiftly like a reflection. But at that moment, everyone stayed quiet, like they were indeed considering what she just said, thinking it over. Or perhaps it was something they had already considered themselves. There would be questions to come shortly; but for now, vague notions of agreement began to manifest into gesture.

“I think the girl is on to something.” Sojiro broke the silence, smirking in a way not to dissimilar to his foster son.

“I do kinda miss work.” Ann confessed.

“Same.” Ryuji nodded. “’Sides, after we beat this thing, our lives may be a bit of a mess. I mean, they’re not gonna go easy on us even if we go all ‘Hey we’re the Phantom Thieves of Hearts and we just saved the world again.’, right?”

“Ryuji talking discretion…” Akira brought a hand to his chin. “Is this for real?”

“Ha ha. But yeah, it’s for real.”

“Going back to our daily activities may help us gain a sense of structure also!” Haru seemed rather enthusiastic.

“Guys, I don’t dislike this idea. But, you can’t just pop back out there and return to school and work. People are going to ask questions.” Morgana said. “And there’s still the time management factor…”

“True. We would need an alibi to explain our disappearance, as taking care of our responsibilities as well as facing this threat will not be easy to accomplish.” Yusuke reprised the feline’s words.

“I think I can help you with that…” Boss spoke, shifting all gazes in his direction. The smirk remained on his face.

Chapter Text

At first glance, the plan seemed as sound as it could get. It even had Sojiro Sakura and Sae Niijima’s approval – despite their unavoidable misgivings. Looks of quiet enthusiasm lit their faces with each time they went over the procedure. There were two dynamics at play: infiltrating back into Nyarlathotep’s domain to obtain information on his long-term intent, and returning to the world and their public personas as students and employees. But there was a set of problems to each undertaking.

For one, they could not go blindly into that dark, mutable world and simply hope to hold a civil audience with its Master. And they also could not merely show up out of the blue, back at their respective places in university and the workforce. There was also the glaring hazard of possibly encountering the other Joker. The latter threat came down to a matter of fight-or-flight, of which retreat was preferable, and highly perilous all the same. However, Akira and his friends now had a way to handle the first two problems.

Strictly speaking, the five-part plan’s layout was nothing new to them. In fact, it was well within their M.O. as Phantom Thieves. But nuance made it a shinier prospect.

Phase One - Preparation. They would go into the Velvet Room and have their Personas strengthened by Lavenza’s siblings and the Artists. The objective was not to hone them for battle, but to facilitate the swiftness of their movement. If they were to face Shadows, they would cut them down with ease and speed. And if they were to find ‘Joker’, retreat would be more effective than the last time. Considering that the Failures were eliminated by Akira’s vile doppelgänger, the higher danger was decreased to only one party.

Phase Two - Reconnaissance. The success of this part ran on the validity of one theory borne from a wildly made assumption. Despite the chaotic geography of Nyarlathotep’s world, there were two fixed locations: the centre, where his fortress was erected, which remained despite the violent shifting of the landscape. And a rock formation shaped like a gate; the place from which ‘Joker’ had sprung. This place too seemed to hold during their hasty evacuation with Lavenza. Proper reconnaissance of their surroundings was likely impossible, if the place continued to morph after they left. But these two sites may serve as landmarks to plan their way ahead.

Phase Three - Infiltration. This was virtually self-explanatory, but the ghost of their previous impromptu visit continued to haunt them. They deemed it dangerous and ineffective for all eight to travel to towards the fortress. There was some reluctance leading to the decision, but they all agreed that it was best to divide into two groups; one to reach Nyarlathotep with stealth as their leading tool, and the other to guard the way out and to provide assistance should any problem arise. This begged the question on how to divide the team, leading to…

Phase Four – Engagement. Though they set out to find Nyarlathotep, it was truly Susumu Kamiyama whom they needed to talk to. By piecing together what they learned from Nameless in the Velvet Room, and Kamiyama’s stark changes in character, they believed that the two were minds and intents apart. In the end, it was most likely that Susumu Kamiyama was every bit a victim of Nyarlathotep as Akinari Kashihara had been in a world past. The infiltration team needed to seize that divide by appealing to Kamiyama himself. This logic shaped how both teams would be divided.

The infiltration team would be comprised by Akira, Haru, Ann, and Morgana. One way or another, Akira and Haru both had a connection to Susumu Kamiyama; therefore it would be easier for them to reach the man himself. Ann and Morgana would fulfil support duties, and negotiation if it came to it. As for the safety team, it would be led by Makoto, with Ryuji, Yusuke to safeguard the way out, and Futaba to maintain communication between both teams.

Whether they succeeded or failed, it would all inevitably lead to the final part of the plan.

Phase Five – The Getaway. This was largely, and by far the most dreaded part. Previous experiences during their heart-stealing days have made evacuation an infamous and unavoidable run for dear life. After each Treasure was stolen, the Palace would invariably crumbled into nothingness, ceasing to exist. But the ensuing destruction was still very much real. They had several close shaves with death when escaping a Palace, in fact – often giving Ann the fright of her life by Ryuji either putting himself in danger for group’s safety, or by his leg giving way in the worst possible moment. This time, they did not expect to escape as the fortress came down, but Nyarlathotep may attempt to trap them. For this reason, a lighter Mona-mobile was preferable to join the safety team at the entrance.

However, merely getting away from Nyarlathotep’s dominion was not the end of the plan. The getaway this time would be different. Rather than merely getting back to this side, they would return to the same place, from which they first were taken: Arancia’s second floor. This was Boss’ chief contribution to the plan. To his daughter’s surprise, the man was an avid reader of the paranormal and the inexplicable. He cited several instances of people going missing out of thin air, with no tangible evidence to explain the occurrence. A few such cases had taken place in Japan. The Phantom Thieves could add to that number, with nobody knowing the truth but themselves.

Naturally, Yasunori Kujo would be enlisted as their insider to sell the act.

By returning all together to that same place, wearing the same clothes they did when they went officially missing, they could offer a solid reason for their sudden absence, however paradoxically incredible. This way, they could take care of two problems through one process. Their reintegration into society would be a gradual process if they simulated the need for psychological aid to cope with the experience – though Makoto insisted Akira did indeed seek help. As for collateral damage, Sae Niijima vowed to take care of any legal implications to keep the situation contained.

If successful, the fruit of this plan would allow them stable footing, something they sorely needed. A chance to plan accordingly for the coup de grace against Nyarlathotep. Nobody wished to even consider the potentiality of failure – being pushed back to square one.

The Phantom Thieves set out the following day with uncompromising vigour. But their spirits deflated somewhat on the first stage, as the Velvet Room’s logistics did not prove as agile as they had anticipated.

[ ]

“Surely there is a… faster way?” Makoto inquired. Considering their hosts’ willingness to aid them, she felt less that comfortable being demanding. But the means presented were a test to her, and her friends’ patience.

“There’s lots of ways, trust me.” The Demon Artist sipped on what appeared to a glass of milk. “But right now, this one is the quickest.”

“Had you let us know of this plan of yours in advance, we may have been able to make preparations to suit your needs.” Percival stood at the bar, preparing beverages with entrancing skill. His mood was considerably less sombre while he worked.

“Seems our…” Ryuji began. “Shit, what’s the word? Foresight…? Yeah. It seems our foresight has failed us.” The young man spoke with levity.

“Can it, Skull.” Futaba said, entirely unamused. Ryuji had little in the way of a reply; he was busy holding back his laughter at Oracle’s inability to remain still for longer than ten seconds.

The Demon Artist sighed with audible irritation. This was the seventh break in the process since the girl sat on the stool for the artist to ‘polish’ Prometheus on his canvas. He silently cursed his luck, suspecting Yusuke and Morgana were as good as it would get. Even the team’s lieutenant seemed prone to fidgeting more than initially apparent.

“Is this really gonna help our Personas get stronger, though?” Ann asked as she peered over the painter’s shoulder.

“Absolutely. You see, I look at you all, I see your Personas. Every stroke revitalises their shine. Flames burn hotter. Ice chills colder… you get the drill.”

“A composition’s true strength lies in the subtleties, in the nuances…” Yusuke mused while he observed the artist at work.

“This guy gets it… Anyway, this is just a quick retouching. Should make your Personas stronger for this plan of yours. Could do much more with a few hours of work, though… Whatever, it seems it’ll take that long anyway since THIS GIRL CAN’T SEEM TO SIT STILL!”

“Hey, I’ve sat still for long enough in my life, thank you very much!” Futaba protested.

“Futaba.” Makoto bargained.

“Ugh, fine, Mum-koto.”

“Whatever works.” The Demon Artist sighed, armouring himself with patience. He carried on highlighting the hues and shades on Oracle’s Persona, masterfully reprised on the canvas.

Meanwhile, Lavenza sat quietly at a table, looking at the scene without actually seeing it. Her mind was elsewhere, preoccupied on the duty that waited ahead. She had taken only a sip from the beverage prepared by Percival. It was made from fruits and blooms untasted by man; the lingering taste on the palate was supposed to calm her nerves. Yet her knuckles continued to dig into the fabric of her dress. She would not even dream of turning away from it, but she truly did not want to see that place ever again.

“Only you can do this.” Margaret sat next to Lavenza. The woman’s demeanour tiptoed the delicate line between distance and discretion, but she still found room for warmth, somewhere in that insurmountably small space.

Lavenza just nodded.

“I cannot begin to imagine what you must have seen.”

“…”

“Elizabeth believes the corruption is bound to expand, maybe to the other faces of the Velvet Room. The ones that are, that have been and that will be. Theodore feels the same way. The advance is slow, but it will reach this place eventually.”

“…”

“I came here to let you know, but it’s probably something you already suspected. Therefore you know that, for everyone’s sake, and for Igor also, there must always be attendants keeping station.”

 

“…”

“Judging by what you’ve told us the last time, the Shadows may too get stronger. But…” Margaret took her little sister’s hand. Her fingers were just as pale as hers, but the tension showed on the otherwise unblemished surface. The woman studied Lavenza’s hand like it were a delicate, fragile thing. “… I think three attendants should suffice to hold the fort.”

Lavenza looked at her sister with eyes wide open.

“I’ll accompany you, of course. But you should be ashamed to have thought that you had to light their path on you own.” A tone of severity permeated her words. “Do not do that again. You have us, forever.”

Intimidation flashed briefly over Lavenza’s face, quickly followed by the kind of smile shared in the closest kinship. Though the attendants were not human in the strict sense of the word, their heart beat to the same tempo of sisters who lived under the same roof for years, who cared so much for each other despite a barrier that once separated them.

Indeed, Lavenza and Margaret reminded Akira of Makoto and Sae. Having overheard the conversation between sisters, a sad smile crept along his face. Makoto had joined Yusuke and Ann over by the painter’s easel as he continued to work on Futaba’s Persona. She could not notice the look on his eyes, and Akira was thankful for it.

[…]

“That took long enough…” Morgana said with as bemused an expression as a ‘monster cat’ could have.

Everyone turned to look at Futaba.

“Hey, don’t look at me! That painter guy took way longer with Haru!”

“He did spend some time praising her hair…” Makoto remarked. “Understandable, but…”

“Inevitable.” Yusuke interjected. “He wished to faithfully capture the majesty. A simply recolouring simply would not do.”

“O-oh my…” Haru blushed.

“Okay good! Can we get on our way already?” Ryuji said eagerly, no doubt wishing to test the power of his Persona.

The Phantom Thieves, with Lavenza and Margaret, stood now at the threshold of the Velvet Room, beyond which there was only darkness. Though it started off awkwardly, the plan’s first phase ended with success: each of the Phantom Thieves already felt a surge of vitality thanks to the efforts of the Demon Artist. For the Wild Cards, the constraints of time only allowed for Arsene and Anat to be reinvigorated. Regardless, this sufficed to inspire confidence as they navigated through reaches of nothingness towards Nyarlathotep’s embryonic realm.

The darkness ahead receded at Lavenza and Margaret’s approach as they lit the way. There was uncertainty in their step, but Akira knew their guidance was sound, for even in the void, he could begin to see the slimmest appendages. These would retain their size for a long distance to come, but he was already able to sense them growing wider as they led to their Master. This was not something his friends needed to know with certainty, though they already probably suspected.

Nobody voiced a thing on the matter.

The notion of measureable distance was meaningless in this non-place. Yet the way felt much shorter this time. It felt as a surprise to no one, considering the difference in circumstances. Before long, the first signs of their destination manifested through an unpleasantly familiar sensation. Even Margaret seemed wary to take another step. Despite possessing greater experience than her sister, this was her first encounter with ancient, fathomless entropy.

A dim light ahead marked the end. Nyarlathotep’s tendrils twisted into thick roots around the exit, something which only Akira could see. The young man took a deep breath and asked his companions to halt.

“There it is.” He said calmly. “We all remember our parts?”

His friends went over the plan once more for good measure. Despite everything they agreed upon, nobody looked forward to splitting up. This was a sentiment Akira shared, a heap of anxiety clutching at his insides. But the brunt of his will was not focused on the task itself – rather on faith that his friends would succeed. They would surely do their best; therefore he shall do the same.

“Whenever you’re ready, Joker.” Queen prompted.

A quick, resolute nod sufficed for the next stage of the plan to unfold.

[ ]

The confidence attained through the crafting of the plan suddenly received a significant blow. It was not strong enough to debilitate their resolve. But it certainly breathed new life into past anxieties.

A new first impression of the place did not confirm their suspicions right away. The form the landscape had taken snatched their attention upon coming into the light. Only small patches of green field remained scattered across the land; most of it was swallowed by the underground, leaving a handful of solitary trees as surviving beacons of the disaster. The wounds in the soil brought mineral innards to view, crystallised surfaces in multiple colours, and earthen semblances of human faces – too many to count. The totality of it was held together by Nyarlathotep’s appendages, gone from thin, frail-looking to mighty, stone-like tentacles of ebony.

The same sanguine sky hung above, with likely the same unknown constellations.

And at the centre of it all, an eerily familiar sight: a place that had been refuge and torment. The fortress had transformed into a structure undeserving of such names. Castle. Cathedral. Temple. This structure defied being called such, and yet somewhat incorporated something of each into its make. Nyarlathotep’s dwellings looked more like a grotesquely oversized den, architectured by willing, living madness. And yet, despite its enormous proportions, there was a vague incompleteness to it all. It was if further change was yet to occur.

Morgana and Futaba began a quick preliminary navigation for confirmation on the place’s landmarks. To the east, with their current location as reference, the same rocky gate still stood untouched.

“This place… it’s vile.” Margaret broke her usual nonchalance with venom in her voice. The attendant knelt on the ground and placed her hand against the soil. “A complete affront to all that exists!”

“Indeed. But it looked quite different when we first were here.” Joker spoke. “It looked somewhat… virginal, and lush.”

“Nyarlathotep changed it.” Mona joined. “We managed to escape in the heat of it all. We should have expected something like this, but…”

“It’s horrendous.” Noir punctuated with revulsion.

“Then, the sooner we finish this mission, the sooner we can leave, right?” Panther walked forward.

“Right. We know there are two places that don’t change. That’s one of the plan’s stages, no?” Skull spoke eagerly.

“Yeah, then…” Queen turned to her friends. “It is time.”

Her words fell awkwardly, but there was little hesitation to follow. The Phantom Thieves split into two groups, as planned. A few seconds later, both halves stood in front of each other. The addition of Margaret allowed for a Velvet Room attendant to accompany each team. This meant more resources for offence and defence according to the situation; but it did little to assuage the collective unease.

“We will not let you down. I promise you, with all of my being.” Fox broke the silence. His voice urged everyone to wish success and safety to the other team. It soon became obvious that words alone were not enough. Oracle may have deemed it ‘tempting fate’, but even she had to be pried away from her older brother at the end of it.

“I love you, so, so fucking much.” Skull spoke in Panther’s ear. By the trembling of his arms as he held Ann, it was obvious that he was afraid. He was not without reason. From where he stood, she may well be walking into her doom, same as his best friend. “Please be okay.”

“I love you too. Now, don’t jinx it!” Panther was on the verge of tears. The situation was not too different on her side. “We’ll be back!”

The team’s leaders regarded each other in silence. Joker and Queen were the leaders of their respective halves. Neither was against openly showing the affection they had for each other, but the responsibility on their shoulders called for a cool head. There was no passionate kiss or tight embrace, nothing to leave a memento of each other on their clothes and skin. Instead, they quietly fought the increasingly inertia, otherwise they would never let go.

Akira and Makoto stood in silence for that moment of parting, and finalised it with a nod. There was much they wished to say. They expressed it all through their eyes.

“Do your best.” Queen spoke.

“We will.” Joker promised.

And so the Infiltration team took their first steps towards the structure. Soon they would run. Within seconds, the safety team would see them no longer, as their shapes disappeared into the contorted path. In between the now and the nearby future when they reconvened was a gap of suffocating uncertainty. The waiting game was never an easy thing to experience. There was always the chance that the future they wished for might never come. This situation was all too familiar.

As soon as Akira’s coat tail disappeared from view, Makoto felt an explosion in her chest. Without anticipation, she ran towards the path, catching a surprised Joker. She took quickly his hand, and held it so tightly, desperately even.

“You will come back. This is not a question.” Makoto spoke sternly and unyielding. She was angry at herself for failing to come up with the words she wished to say. This had already happened before - on the night of the heist in Sae’s Palace. He walked into uncertainty then too, into another close encounter with death. And Makoto was left to be preyed upon by the worst case scenario whispering into her ears. How she wished to say something to him back then.

Something to seal his success, to ensure triumph despite all incidents and dangers unaccounted for.

Something to guarantee that he would be back in her arms.

Akira looked at her wide-eyed. His thoughts were at a loss. No words were coming. All he knew was that his hand ached from the strength of her grip.

But this was a pain he welcomed. It was a life-reassuring stimulus that defied all perils ahead. There was no room for failure. Defeat was unthinkable.

“I’ll return to you, Makoto. I’ll forever return to you.”

Makoto’s hand let go of his. It found a place on her chest above her heart, and remained there until Queen reunited with her half.

She prayed in silence as Akira and his half made for Nyarlathotep’s den. Every line she started, Akira finished.

The safety team looked at their leader with concern. Queen gave no verbal response. She nodded, and that sufficed. Oracle and Margaret began their watching duty.

Chapter Text

As expected, the road towards Nyarlathotep’s dwellings was long and disorienting. Akira’s ability to discern the Crawling Chaos’ reach was now redundant, as the black ‘fingers’ were solidified into the place’s architecture – plain for all to see. Morgana’s nose and Lavenza’s abilities could hardly pinpoint the true way ahead, but they still managed to detect the many Shadows that lurked about. This was the best advantage they would get, and they seized it fully. The infiltration team never once engaged the Shadows in open combat. One by one, each was quickly eliminated without so much as a cry.

The Demon Artist’s work on their Personas certainly paid off, and Lavenza possessed a generously built compendium. Together, they made quick work of the Shadows. And sometimes, all that was needed was a silent axe emerging from the dark, or a confident, furtive knife to clear the way ahead. But such ease implied an unlikely risk: they needed to ensure they paced themselves. There was ever the peril of a surprise at their expense.

“You’re doing great, guys!” Futaba’s voice reached their Personas.

“Thanks.” Akira said quietly. “Everything okay on your end?”

“Yeah, I guess!” The navigator spoke with levity.

“More like boring!” Ryuji interjected.

“Don’t be tempting fate, Ryuji!” Ann called with a whisper.

“Okay, damn it! It’s true, though. There’s no resistance or anything around here.” The young man said.

“Let’s hope it remains that way.” Margaret’s voice, mature and soothing, sounded remarkably unfamiliar in the line of communication, but not unwelcome.

“We don’t know how far or how close we’re from the objective. But we’ve faced no challenging enemies so far.” Morgana said.

“They’re given no time to beg or scream.” Noir spoke nonchalantly.

“Well, maybe this will be a breeze!” Oracle said, audibly disturbed by Haru’s propensity for carnage.

“I do believe Panther said something about ‘not tempting fate’” Fox made his input following Oracle’s, as was his habit.

There was a definite comforting effect in hearing his friends and comrades bicker and banter, but Joker quickly noticed a lack in the whole. It was the voice he looked forward to hearing the most whenever the channel of communication was open. Hearing nothing from Makoto put him on edge.

“Is Queen okay?” Akira asked transparently.

“Yeah… she’s just, uh…” Oracle sounded unsure.

“Really, really focused.” Skull emphasised each word like only he could.

“Abundantly so…” Fox underlined the sentiment.

“Your lieutenant seems quite the intimidating young woman.” Margaret remarked with undefinable tone.

“Is she ever...” Joker expressed privately, with a smile. “Good. We’ll carry on. You stay safe over there.”

“Roger…. You too…” Queen finalised.

The channel was then closed, and each team resumed their respective half of the mission.

[ ]

The infiltration team reached the base of the fortress moments after – twelve minutes, by Oracle’s monitoring. There was no longer any resemblance to the plain structure first erected by Susumu Kamiyama and his Persona Ozymandias. In its current state, the building was far wider and taller. But it hardly seemed like it had been constructed further, rather having grown like living creatures do. This made for a disturbingly plausible case, judging by its foundations’ reach even into the outside world.

Akira shuddered at the thought, but he could not bring himself to think otherwise, let alone put it into words. They were not merely about to climb a building. The walls and paths they would navigate were a physical extension of its master. They were about to climb Nyarlathotep himself in order to reach his vessel, Susumu Kamiyama. The Dark Lord probably already knew of the Phantom Thieves’ in his domains. Their skill, therefore would need to trump the home advantage.

After all they have been through, he was confident. The enemy could only have the upper hand for so long. Astounding comebacks were in their expertise. And it was well past time for one.

“We’re about to climb.” Akira opened communication with the other team. “Everyone, stay close. Lavenza, mind our six.”

“Watch those tooshies!” Futaba responded. “All’s good here. Do your best guys!”

“We will.” Haru smiled. “I promise we won’t disappoint.”

“It may not be the best time for this, but I could do with some fatty tuna when we get back. I think I’ve deserved it for a long time now. Can we make that happen?” Morgana blurted out.

“Consider it done.” Makoto’s voice on the other side kindled the fires in Akira’s spirit, while her words stirred the want in Morgana’s stomach.

“Yes, we’ll celebrate, because we’ll succeed!” Ann said.

“Indeed.” Akira looked at his friends and nodded. He could tell that quiet conviction was not enough for them either. They each needed to actively see this saga through, to visualise triumph and to snuff any doubt in their hearts. An outside observer might call it ‘tempting fate’. To them, it was one more stretch in their escape from the shadow of days past.

Of a timeline past, by Nameless’ words.

“Are you ready?” Lavenza asked.

“Let’s go.”

[ ]

Silence reigned outside in the vicinity of the door leading back. Although Futaba and Margaret handled surveillance, each of the Phantom Thieves in the Protection Team stood vigilant through their own eyes, with undivided attention. In the minutes since the other team began their climb, Makoto and the rest observed their surroundings, finding only stillness.

“Queen.” Yusuke called, briefly interrupting his own watching. “You look tense… exceptionally so.”

“I do?” Makoto said awkwardly.

“Yes.” The young artist’s voice was blank.

“Yes, I guess I’m tense somewhat… but something feels off.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s all too quiet. Too tranquil. It’s so different from the last time we were here.”

“Do you think there may be a reason for that?”

“I can’t tell. It’s just as if… my gut is telling something.”

“I can understand, and sympathise also. I do also tend to feel strange things in my abdomen.”

Queen turned to Fox with vaguely amused expression.

“Fox, I swear I’m going to get you to eat at healthier intervals, even if I have to drag you to it.”

“It is true, that I do not eat as well or as often as I should. But if the ordeals I impose upon my metabolism have helped you feel less tense, then it cannot be all bad. I worry about what you say, however. I imagined we would be facing some resistance ourselves. Not to speak of…”

“Oracle. Margaret.” Makoto called. “Are you entirely sure there is no sign of any enemy nearby?”

“Nope.” Futaba shook her head aboard Prometheus.

“Not even ‘Joker’?”

“I sense no fiend anywhere. Or anything of comparable strength.” The attendant turned to Makoto. “That is most…”

“… Weird as shit.” Skull joined the conversation.

“Now that you put it like that, that frickin’ monster was too strong to play it quiet.” Futaba said. Her voice seethed with disgust over the being that took after the likeness of her big brother. “I’m looking real hard for him, now that you mention it, but I honestly can’t find him, or Nyarlathotep either…”

“What?” Makoto turned quickly.

“I mean, I never could actually read that guy. Maybe he’s immune or some crap. But I know I could sense his Joker the last time.”

“Distant Shadows are all I can sense.” Margaret spoke. “But the other one… feels as if he is not in this world.”

“But if he’s not here…” Ryuji began.

“… then where the fuck is he!?” Futaba began to panic at the sudden realisation.

Makoto’s eyes snapped to Nyarlathotep’s dwellings. Her fingernails dug through the leather on her white gloves as her fists tightened. She felt a terrible urge to run in that direction, to join Akira and the rest, and pull them back, far away from Nyarlathotep. Her darkest thoughts pointed towards a trap, to which the other team was ripe for its springing.

Yet Futaba’s voice pierced through the drumming of her heartbeat.

“Futaba…” Makoto broke protocol, her voice falling motherly in the girl’s ears. “Don’t worry. They’ll be fine, even if something unexpected happens. Just remember, the mission is to talk to Kamiyama. Battle is out of the question. They’ll come back to us. I promise you.”

And with that, the lieutenant quelled her own fears as well. She could give in to dark misgivings, and jeopardise the mission. Or she could stand strong, like the rest of her friends, and have faith. No matter how many times she reviewed the thought, the answer was clear.

Somewhere, in an enshrined recess of her mind, the face of his father smiled proudly. This face was much unlike the mockery portrayed by Nyarlathotep. This, the memory of Akihiko Niijima, was true and uncontestably mightier. Then, without knowing why, Makoto Niijima felt stronger.

[ ]

The ascent begins with a chill in the spine.

As opposed to the transformation of the world outside, little had changed about the structure’s inner layout. There were somewhat labyrinthine passages and staircases in sight, but the walls and floor remained crude stone and soil. Even the air carried a peculiar density, like it was pregnant with the aftermath of heavy rain. It smelled of fertility; a pleasant, comforting sensation turned disturbing by their present location.

It was no stretch of the imagination that, at any given turn of a corner, they would encounter some site familiar to them. Each of the Phantom Thieves saw a different place when separated by Nyarlathotep’s machinations. The Crawling Chaos gazed upon each with a unique face, tailored to pry open wounds that never quite healed. The only ones not susceptible to this fear were Morgana and Lavenza, but the collective tension was quite palpable.

Waiting for a sight that never came was as heavy a burden as seeing the horror once again.

The Infiltration Team quickly noticed the absolute lack of resistance inside the building. It was a far cry from minutes ago, and even those fleeting encounters felt suspiciously lenient. More than a benefit to the task, this felt like a trap about to spring. Lavenza kept close eye on their surroundings. She confirmed there was a large amount of Shadows in the vicinity of the structure, but none whatsoever inside of it. But more importantly, she could sense one soul somewhere in the fortress. The little attendant acknowledged it as a familiar presence. It was a soul in turmoil, and possessing of great power.

This was all they needed to know they were on the right track. The ascent continues.

“Hey, does it seem to you like we’ve been here before?” Panther scanned throughout the walls with the light of her flames.

“It definitely feels that way.” Noir looked around the floor, which indeed resembled the same setting they had seen ten minutes ago. “We are either going in circles, or every floor follows the same pattern.”

“I believe it’s the latter.” Lavenza said. “I can’t tell how far we are from the top, but the bottom is definitely further below than moments ago. I sense the host is somewhere else in here, but I can’t tell exactly where.”

“Does your nose tell you anything?” Joker asked Mona.

“Nothing new. Still no Shadows. I don’t like it, guys.”

“Agreed.” Panther nodded. “It just doesn’t feel right.”

“Let’s keep going.” Joker said. “Five more floors up, we’ll take a break to update with the others.”

Everyone nodded in agreement. As they continued to climb, the monotone they journeyed through began to sap their momentum quicker than constant battle may have. Regardless, Lavenza continued to closely examine their surroundings on arriving at a new floor. She still sensed the ascent, but Susumu Kamiyama’s location still changed; sometimes it felt somewhat near, only to then appear more distant than before. The girl thought of what this constant changed implied. Perhaps he already knew that they were here. But if so, why was he not attacking them?

They took a break as previously agreed five floors later. There was still no further progress on the actual mission. Morgana opened up the communication channel with the Protection Team for an update.

“Joker?” Futaba’s voice crackled into communication.

“Oracle. We’ve climbed a stretch, not sure how long. Nothing to report so far.” Akira said.

“Roger. Much pushback?”

“Not at all.”

“Huh, really?” Oracle’s tone caught everyone’s attention.

“Yeah. No adversaries inside the building.”

“Not a single one?” The navigator inquired.

“Not a single one.” Joker confirmed.

“Oracle, is something wrong?” Noir joined the conversation.

“No… but actually, yeah… No, scratch that. It’s just really weird, because it’s the same out here. No Shadows anywhere. Margaret can’t sense anything near the gate.” Futaba said.

“This can’t be good.” Panther added. “Smells like we’re walking into a trap.”

“Agreed.” Queen spoke. “Nyarlathotep must know we’re in his domains. He must be planning something.”

“Would it be wise to continue?” Fox thought out loud with slight hesitation.

“I dunno. I still remember how it was the last time.” Skull followed in. “If his powers have grown, then he’ll do much worse this time around. But then again… it’s now or never, right?”

“You’re right, Skull.” Joker spoke. “It’s risky, but our powers have grown too, and we might not get another chance. I think we should continue.”

The confirmation followed majority vote, as per the Phantom Thieves’ procedure. However, this time it was little more than a formality. Everybody voted to carry on.

“Very well. Please exercise caution.” Queen said, her words sounding briefly distorted in the channel.

Morgana’s ears and tail perked up suddenly.

“Everyone!” Lavenza exclaimed. “There’s a presence nearby!”

“Is it him!?” Skull’s voice boomed in the channel.

“I… I think so! But it’s… strange, like it’s blurred somehow!” The attendant went on.

“Noir!” Mona yelled, seeing Haru disappear behind down the stairs, back to the floor they had just come up from.

“Damn it. Call you back.” Radio silence for the Protection Team followed after their Leader hastily cut the channel. Futaba felt a strong urge to reopen the channel, to know what happened. Makoto’s presence helped assuage her panic. Though there were still no enemies in sight, Queen’s team remained actively on guard, prepared to act upon whichever words came their way when the channel was open again.

[ ]

Nobody wasted a breath calling after Haru as she ran through the fortress. They caught up only a moment after. With her companions in tow, Noir pursued this elusive presence, with no sense of direction except for the ethereal blur it left behind as it ‘glided’ over the floors, down and up the stairs. To everyone’s confusion, despite it moving away from them, it did not seem as if it truly wished to escape them.

Which meant it could well be leading them to the trap they began to expect.

“Kamiyama-san!” Noir shouted.

“No! No!!!” A familiar voice emanated from the being, which looked to them like a creature made of white smoke, vaguely shaped as a man. Behind a tone of distress, this was clearly the voice of Susumu Kamiyama.

“Please! Stop!” Joker called as he ran.

“We need your help!” Mona put the whole of his feline capabilities into the pursuit, and yet he still could not reach him.

“Why are you here!? You must escape!” For a moment, the man’s factions showed through the veil of smoke.

Lavenza pulled out her compendium and clumsily flipped through the pages in search of a Persona that could help them close the distance. The options were abundant, but in the anxious heat of the moment, they all seemed to escape her memory. Finally, her finger landed on a name she recognised. It was not the ideal option, but it would hopefully prove quick enough to catch up.

“Come forth! Cu Sith!” In a bright flash of light blue, the hound came into being, running swiftly among the Phantom Thieves and Lavenza. Its legs were nimble and powerful, and it was fresh on stamina. However, Cu Sith was proving too quick even more Lavenza to hop on its back and continue the chase.

“No! Come back!” Lavenza started to lag in exhaustion. Her next thought was horror towards the inevitable fall as she tripped, but before her face met the stone ground, she was crudely lifted off her feet by someone hoisting her up by the armpits. And the next thing she knew, she was flying towards the hound. The girl’s rough landing on Cu Sith’s back did not break its advance on Kamiyama.

“You shouldn’t throw children either, damn it!” Mona reprimanded Panther. His voice faded from hearing as the hound with Lavenza on its back outran the group.

“Please, Mister.” Lavenza pleaded, clinging to the hound’s neck; its long raspy tongue slapping her cheek. “We came here of our own volition… to seek you.”

“I cannot help you… nobody can.” Despair gushed out of the man’s voice.

“You can! He’s inside of you! You understand his scheme! We know what he is, what he did. You do also! Mister, I know you do! Please, tell us what he intends to do.”

“No… No. He’s unstoppable, and unforgiving. And I… I let it all happen.”

“He’s not all-mighty. You’re resisting him. Is this not why you’re running from us?”

“He… he could come out and take over at any time… He made me find you! I’m doing all I can to keep him contained since you entered this world! You need to leave now! I cannot hold him back for much longer!”

“We will never. We’ve grown stronger, and we can still go further! And Nyarlathotep, his power at present must be limited. That is why he needed to use you as a vessel. He’s still weak! We can still beat him! But we need your help!”

“What?” The man’s voice broke suddenly.

“He appealed to your core instincts. He used the guise of a benefactor to help you accomplish a noble goal. Were he truly unstoppable, he wouldn’t have needed to use you!”

The smoke began to fade around the man’s body.

“You wished to save the world. It’s not too late to save it from him.”

The man’s eyes flashed yellow for an instant. His advance stopped abruptly, making him fall and tumble violently against the ground, no different from a man falling from a speeding vehicle to be smeared against the asphalt. A sinister aura wrapped his body, keeping him whole and unharmed. The cruel grin of the Crawling Chaos met Lavenza as soon as she caught up. But the fright lasted little. It was with a painful-looking spasm that Susumu Kamiyama appeared to take control, if only for a moment. One second sufficed.

“OZYMANDIAS!” The man screamed, summoning his Persona. The Fallen King trapped the man’s body in shackles of stone, clasping shut in such a manner that the bones on his extremities were now surely fractured. Susumu Kamiyama groaned in pain, though he had a look of relief on his face. Since becoming fully aware of the situation Nyarlathotep bound him to, Kamiyama discovered that concentrating on physical pain kept the loathsome guest in his body quiet for a moment.

The Phantom Thieves were greeted with a perturbing image of Susumu Kamiyama bound in stone upon finally catching up. To them, a mixture of suffering and calm on his face were the only indication that he was still alive. They silently cursed Nyarlathotep, convinced that he had done this to him.

“Kamiyama-san!” A horrified Noir hurried towards the man.

“Stay away!” He broke his panting with a cry of desperation. “There is little time. Young lady, I feel him clawing his way out. Just… just tell me what must be done.”

Regardless of the man’s words, Haru held his hand in tender, caring fashion.

“Kamiyama-san.” Noir spoke sorrowfully, profoundly resenting the present circumstance. “We believe we can stop Nyarlathotep. Brute force alone won’t suffice. We can craft a plan, but we need to know exactly what he intends to do…”

“And how he intends to do it.” Joker finished, crouching in front of him. The young man removed his mask, fully revealing the look in his eyes, free from malice and distress – both of which he had seen in two different semblances of his face. Susumu Kamiyama believed he was only now seeing the true Akira Kurusu for the first time.

“Young man… What Nyarlathotep pursues is…” Kamiyama struggled. “To bring all human souls into this world, to make his… hegemony the only one… for all time.”

“Is that what ‘making our world obsolete’ means?” Panther asked.

“Yes. To do this, he will corrupt every soul in the world outside, violate them into coming here… out of their own free will.”

“Does he truly have the power to do this?” Mona spoke.

“Not by himself… That’s why he needed…” A shade of sorrow twisted the man’s factions as he turned to Akira. “You… the Wild Card. He fashioned his own enforcer after you… to begin corrupting everybody.”

Akira had no words. His eyes were clouded from the avalanche breaking out in his mind.

“Nyarlathotep’s power will grow as his Joker accomplishes this. It will take time… but everything he does outside will be reflected here. When Nyarlathotep grows stronger, so will the Joker…”

Susumu Kamiyama’s expression changed in the blink of an eye. Gone were the pain and the torment. He was calm now, and entirely not his true self, as confirmed by the colour of his eyes.

“… And you know what that implies. Don’t you, young man?”

Akira and his companions backed away instantly.

“Relax.” Nyarlathotep chuckled. The stone that imprisoned Kamiyama’s body shifted in slow and elaborate manner, transforming into a hefty chair under his arms. The fractures of his body were now healed. There was no telling of what torments he would unleash now. “There’s no need to be so stiff. You didn’t break into my humble abode for a fight. I won’t give you any. You came and you got what you sought after, quite like the Thieves you are! Bravo!” The lord of the fortress clapped.

Despite the plan to avoid all confrontation, the Infiltration Team stood in defiance, driven solely by the contempt they felt towards this being of the dark.

“Well? What are you still doing here? Go home. I’m sure there are people out there waiting for you. Not to mention, the rest of you. Surely they wish to know of all the dirty little secrets you obtained.” Nyarlathotep turned to Akira, looking straight at the young man’s eyes. “I’m certain that Queen of yours would be relieved to see you return.” The cloud in Akira’s eyes was dispelled at the mention of she. “Then again, she’s probably well occupied by the little ‘entertainment’ I provided on their end… right about… now.”

Lavenza gasped audibly. She sensed it. A strong foe quickly making its way from their location, towards the other team.

“We must go!” The attendant yelled.

“Yes! You must! I’ll even make it easier for you! The Moon Howler is one of my old forms. A little dusty, but it does have a bite still.” The Crawling Chaos snapped his fingers, and everything to the structure behind them transformed into a clear path, straight and wide enough for the Monamobile to travel without a problem. “Come back… anytime.”

There was no time wasted on a reply. There was only the screeching of tires against stone, and a thick cloud of fear accumulating inside of Akira’s head.

[ ]

True to Nyarlathotep’s words, the way back to the gate was made easier and quicker. Joker felt his heart almost bursting through his chest as he saw Makoto and the rest gathered nearby – they stood before the gargantuan figure of the ‘little entertainment’ the Dark Lord sent their way. The Moon Howler, once a facet of Nyarlathotep years ago, was a hideous creature – a gigantic, black mollusc vaguely shaped in anthropomorphic design, with deadly appendages.

The creature moved too quickly for its size. It charged ahead with the combined ferociousness of every Shadow they may have faced. There was no safe ground, no place to hide. The Phantom Thieves and the two Attendants had no choice but to fight it.

The two halves of the team reunited, primed for battle.

The Moon Howler’s size, speed, and murderous intent were daunting, but every lung and slash proved futile. The Phantom Thieves were still much too agile and organised to prove an easy target, and the Sisters in blue were quickly catching up with their tactics. The battle was not an easy or a short one, and it demanded a lot from all, in might and creativity. But the magic from the reinvigorated Personas, and the combined might of the two Wild Cards proved too much for the creature to withstand.

Finally, the Moon Howler was defeated. It lay inert on the soil, like the great bounty of a hunt. And with it, the way back was unobstructed.

During the way back, several of the Phantom Thieves secretly smiled at a colourful idea. Defeating this old avatar of Nyarlathotep was a most encouraging way of sealing the mission’s success. And indeed, every phase of the plan met with success; even the evacuation phase they had learned to dread. The return was a safe one. The new power of their Personas proved efficient. And they had the required intel to start crafting a definite plan to rescue Susumu Kamiyama, and stop Nyarlathotep, once and for all.

All across the board, a successful mission.

But for all that, Joker was still troubled. He wondered if it truly had not dawned on his companions yet. Or if they merely suppressed the thought in order to keep their spirits high. Perhaps seeing the way Susumu Kamiyama struggled with Nyarlathotep was bad enough. It did not matter, either way. They did not need to hear it said. If he could help it, they would not need to even feel the slightest worry about it. As far as Akira was concerned, Nyarlathotep’s words were for him only.

The ‘Joker’ was the key to defeating Nyarlathotep.

No matter what plan they came up with, they would inevitably need to face the Dark Lord’s knight. Though they defeated the Moon Howler, the beast was not the strongest weapon in Nyarlathotep’s arsenal. Could they hope to stand a chance against his best card?

All of a sudden, Makoto pulled Akira straight out of his thoughts. Relieved, the young woman afforded a moment of closeness as she held tightly to his arm, her head against his shoulder - just like she would during a stroll in the park. He never could resist her whenever she did this, and this time was no different. Akira then allowed himself to reminisce. And he specifically remembered the same gesture from a date in Destiny Land during his first year in Tokyo. That day, she said something to him that stayed in his heart and mind, which would never fade from the core of his being.

Please stay with me forever, Akira.

“I’m happy we managed this.” Queen smiled at her boyfriend.

“Me too.” He smiled back, summoning everything that was good inside of him into the now. Valour. Patience. Diligence. Commitment.

Love.

Akira needed all of it, as a way to prepare himself. He disguised the true sentiment behind his sigh as simple exhaustion. Makoto and his friends would likely believe that easily; while the unholy bond with Nyarlathotep and his servant remained, Akira’s power and endurance would still be limited.

Whichever form their plan took mattered little to him. Akira Kurusu already knew what had to be done. This mission only confirmed the inescapability of his role. When the time came, and it surely would, he only hoped that he proved strong enough.

And that Makoto would forgive him. He was tired of breaking his promises.

Chapter Text

The Lord sat in his throne in the middle of some hazy non-site. The situation was nothing new to Akira Kurusu. For the better part of a year, he was continuously summoned to audience with a mysterious individual from the discomfort of his cell. Same as back then, Akira was now also called forth from dream by someone who violated the integrity of the Velvet Room – just like Yaldabaoth.

“Nyarlathotep.” Akira spoke calmly, standing tall in the fog that separated him from the Crawling Chaos.

“Young man Akira Kurusu.” Nyarlathotep spoke affably. He wore the face of the young man’s father, as per his disturbing habit. Akira was no longer affected by this.

“What do you want?”

“Want…” The Dark Lord prolonged every portion of the utterance. He gauged the word, contemplated it, as well as any possible answers he could give to the young man’s question. Or so it may have appeared. Akira already knew he was only toying with him. “In all candour, I have no wants anymore, ‘Kurusu-san’. All I yearned for is already prepared for, and it is only a matter of time till the world your kind inhabit and all that dwell within is within my reach.” He chuckled. “What more could anybody want?”

Akira did not entertain him with a response.

“My Joker is in your world now, young man. Want is no longer in my nature. But there is a reason for which I called you here. Can you guess it?”

No reply.

“Why, it is gratitude, and only that. I wish to thank you – that is where all the want in me ends. It is all thanks to you that I was able to craft my knight to do my bidding. The fate of your kind, the ultimate defeat of Philemon. None of it would be possible without you.”

“I would never help you. And I never did! You did something to me to make your so-called ‘knight’” Akira snapped. “And your plans will end in ruin, I promise you. We will defeat you.”

“Please, young man.” Nyarlathotep smiled widely, in a way Takahisa never had in his life. “Do not waste precious energy on promises that cannot be acted upon. It is over. My knight already walks in your midst. He will bring me your world, and his success is a guarantee. True, you did not provide the ingredients knowing, or willingly. But its power, its potential, and its mortiferous drive, it all comes from you.”

“I will destroy it.” Akira seethed.

Nyarlathotep rose his hand in diplomatic fashion.

“Exactly. That cold, sharp anger in you. That was as golden to me as the power of the Wild Card. And the fear and despair you experienced in that awe-inspiring moment! I knew right there and then… That was the make I pined after for so long, compound with the power of the Wild Card, and the circumstances that made it happen… Well, you could say that my victory was assured from that very moment. And, though you claim you did not help of your own accord, your very deliberate actions as a Phantom Thief led to that moment. So, in a way, you did.”

The young man’s silence was almost loud with the hatred pulsing fast through his being.

“But please, back to the reason of this little chat. Since you have been such a useful asset to me, it is only fair that I reward you! And I know precisely how.”

Akira’s legs grew weak inside of the dream, translating into subtle spasms in his bed. The last he saw of Nyarlathotep in this spell of night was the same face he chose, familiar to Akira and simultaneously alien, bearing a crooked grin that reached far beyond the physical confines of flesh. It was a sight to brand an individual’s sanity for life. But for Akira, it only fuelled a toxic fire inside of him further.

I have a present for you, young man Akira Kurusu.

I know you will be pleased.

[ ]

Day in and day out, life became a dull affair for Masayoshi Shido behind bars. Years ago, the very notion of not being at the top filled him with a revulsion he could tangibly experience in the pit of his stomach. It was like hunger constantly turning to nausea; something too revolting to constantly live with. Everything he did to make it to the top ultimately amounted to suppressing that feeling, and ironically it all led to his downfall. He was now so far removed from the summit that he may well be a different person altogether – one never destined for greatness, never destined to captain the fate of Japan.

But in truth, he never was. Masayoshi Shido, once the most prominent candidate to become the nation’s Prime Minister, was not destined for greatness any more than anyone else. This is something he realised after his change of heart. By then, the compound of his deeds fell on him through their own weight. And all that was left of his future was a life sentence. He faced the years ahead of him with calm acceptance.

This was, after all, the road he paved himself, even if he had not realised it at first. His ruin began with hubris, on one night of excess. In his pride and whim, Shido tried to destroy a young man’s life without a care. But that same young man eventually spearheaded the equivalent comeuppance. It was the sort of ‘poetic justice’ so lauded by an outsider, and so loathed by a recipient. However, Shido could not resent Akira Kurusu; he had no grounds to.

Sometimes he was not sure Akira Kurusu resented him for bringing about such a forceful detour in his life. On the other hand, there was one other young man who undoubtedly resented him, whose life was destroyed by Shido’s will. And that was none other than his own son, Goro Akechi. The Black Mask may have taken lives, but behind each death was Shido’s command. He probably would never have been a good father to Goro. But he could have steered the young man away from the murderous craft, allowed him as a normal a life as he should have had.

That chance was lost forever. Goro Akechi was dead, killed by Shido’s cognition of him as an expendable asset. From where he stood, with life in confinement ahead of him, Masayoshi Shido may well have pulled the trigger himself.

These are reflections that have been occupying his head for the past few days. His life, present and future – they were linked to the lives of two young men. He did great harm upon them – something from which he could and would not turn away. It only made sense that he felt like this. So guilty, yet so hollow. But not quite alone, despite the seclusion of his imprisonment.

For lately, when day becomes night, and the walls of the cell appear to close in on him, the phantom guises of Akira Kurusu and Goro Akechi have taken to visit him. They never say or do a thing as they quietly roam about his cell. The two barely seem to look at Shido, but there is a fleeting glance every now and then, and that screams louder than even the masses in the immediate aftermath of his trial. To the prisoner, it was a strange, though fitting shape for his conscience to judge him.

Day in and day out, life and time lose their meaning. There is no fear, desires, or future. His present becomes his past as the days go by. There is nothing else, not even the slow, constant wear of the routine. He is content with this.

[ ]

The iced coffee beverage sat on the desk, next to piles of notebooks and DVDs. Yuuki Mishima thought the cool, sweetened caffeine jolt may help jumpstart the necessary ideas, but the glass remained untouched, and the inside of his head was a formless cloud. But even if it took him all night, he would come up with one idea at least – a way to help out the Phantom Thieves.

The information gained from the latest meeting was good material to work with, but the sum of it was hardly encouraging. Nyarlathotep’s plans and means were known, and so were the ramifications. On the other hand, the objective was clean and neatly outlined. And therein lay the problem: to save Susumu Kamiyama, and prevent the cursed exodus into Nyarlathotep’s world, the Phantom Thieves would need to defeat his enforcer.

This posed a perilous incognita. They had never faced Nyarlathotep’s Joker themselves. The only notion of his power was a frightening, seemingly effortless display against Akira’s botched replicas. Though the Phantom Thieves could become stronger to face the challenge, the Joker certainly would if left unchecked. Time and uncertainty were against them. Only one other alternative remained, but to face Nyarlathotep himself in a world of his own design could mean suicide, even if his power was considerably diminished after his exile.

Akira seemed quite confident when explaining it all in LeBlanc; almost too confident. Nobody outright seemed to share in Yuuki’s suspicion at the café, but Makoto Niijima afforded him some candour later in the day through a text conversation. It appeared that the team’s lieutenant shared Yuuki’s concerns, to some extent at least. The aftermath of the mission was a harsh dawn for the Phantom Thieves. The ecstasy of victory over the Moon Howler wore off, and they had no choice but to finally see the menace waiting over the horizon. And yet, Akira seemed strangely calm about it all.

He must already have known, she said through her text message.

Most of the team were fairly cheery on the way back. Makoto partook of the small celebration in her own way: by holding Akira, discreet and closely, in that particular way she sorely missed. Nobody knew, but she later chided herself for not realising sooner. Akira must have been dreading the battle to come against the spawn borne of his torment. Makoto thought that maybe his eagerness was a way to fight his own unease.

Or maybe, it was to quell his friends’ unease as well.

Makoto remained close to him throughout the remainder of the day, open for anything he wished to express. He insisted there was nothing to say. But his confidence felt grey and hollow to her; it seemed a mask all too elaborate. She was in the dark about what to say or do. So she hoped that following the path ahead without a stumble would suffice.

And that is why Yuuki Mishima could not allow himself to rest until he came up with something.

Despite the clarity of their objective, and the diverse means available to them, the Phantom Thieves may still be in the dark. And they would be the ones to fight off this evil and perhaps even put their lives on the line. Yuuki could not even stomach the notion, unavoidable as it may be. He swore to put his shoulder to the wheel, for the sake of all, even if his contribution were only a puny, flickering light.

The young man thought about the people who put requests on the PhanSite back in the day. He wondered if the Phantom Thieves were a light for them as well. A shimmer of hope, so small at first, but increasingly strong and bright as the months passed.

What must it have been like, for the first people who submitted a request? They must have been doubtful, sceptical – but above all, desperate. A change of heart must have been the last resort for some of these people. One of those first requests was a woman relentlessly stalked by her ex, one Natsuhiko Nakanohara, who in turn suffered by the deeds of another. Had things gone differently, perhaps he too would have eventually put a request in the PhanSite.

And the curious thing is Nakanohara eventually led to exposing a man who put many others through terrible torment: Ichiryusai Madarame. The Phantom Thieves stopped the predatory abuse he inflicted on many young artists, and brought justice to these ruined people. The providers of Madarame’s spurious collection were in the dark, and suddenly there was light.

It must have been a rush to see Madarame confessing to his crimes in live television, broadcast to the entire country. The Phantom Thieves then stepped into the spotlight, from under the shadow of rumour and gossip. They could no longer be ignored, and they would only get more popular from then on. It was such a big display for the Phantom Thieves on the day of Madarame’s confession – it may as well have become a national holiday.

Suddenly, Yuuki Mishima sprung up from his bed, crudely landing in front of his desk to frantically look through the log he maintained from the now defunct PhanSite.

He had something.

Only a rough idea at the moment, but he could not wait to flesh it out, and for his friends to hear it.

[ ]

Takahisa Kurusu was all alone at the port that day.

It was a rare thing for activity to die down like this in Kawasaki, and it was only six in the afternoon. Most of the ships were docked, but there was always work to be done. The boys who played basketball in their makeshift court well into the night always showed up around sunset, and they too were nowhere to be seen or heard.

The hulking fisherman thought of going home, but he found little reason to. His wife Masako was on duty at the hospital tonight. And his son Akira was in Tokyo, building a life of his own; the cat was over in the city with him.

It had been a while since he last heard his son’s voice, the man thought.

Sojiro Sakura never did tell him or Masako about Akira’s disappearance, much to his own shame. As far as the young man’s parents knew, their son was living well and happy. But though Takahisa’s thoughts were devoid of fear about his son, they were not joyous either.

In fact, he missed his son quite terribly.

If he went home for an early night, he would not merely find an empty house. The fisherman was sure he would encounter a host of memories clinging to everything, like ghosts. Akira’s toddler laughs held on to the walls and the furniture, as well as his long and peculiar conversations with the cat during his final year as a high school student. But between those two stages in the young man’s life, there was a chasm of silence. The young man had always been provided for, but Takahisa knew food and a roof did not keep a person whole. It was an acknowledgement long due for him, and each day that went by made it only harder.

Akira grew up a lonely child.

Takahisa could never reproach Masako for it. Yet it dawned on him how bad it must be for one’s parents to be workaholics. And that was not even the worst Akira had to endure. When the young man was wrongly accused of assaulting someone, Takahisa would not say a single word to Akira. And for this, he could and would reproach himself all of his life, and it still may not undo the harm it must have done his son.

What did Akira feel then? Like he was abandoned, disowned by a father who would not show him any support during his darkest hour? Akira was not guilty of a thing. The punishment was not his to bear, and neither was the burden of Takahisa’s ghosts. The fisherman could never ignore the kind of life he had come from, growing up labelled a lowlife, a thug, a thief - and eventually believing it all.

Meeting Masako Kurusu made him believe in miracles, and providence. Her presence in his life deafened him to the voices that sunk him into the dirt. And soon, all he had ears for was her. He married her, and took her surname so as not to sully her with his own. And when Akira was born, Takahisa vowed to devote everything to keeping his son from the life he knew as a child and teenager.

But at the first fallacious sign of Akira turning out like he, Takahisa turned his back on his own son.

God knows how the young man lived the following year, feeling betrayed by his father. It was not without friction, but Akira seemed to have forgiven him upon his return to Kawasaki. Their bond started to mend, awkwardly but surely. And every step of the way, he had the support of friends who deeply cared for him. He even had gone and gotten himself a girlfriend, and she loved him no less. But such a wonderful turn of events did not justify Takahisa’s loss of faith on his son.

Akira may have truly forgiven him – but could he forgive himself?

An evening chill ran him through. Takahisa instinctively looked behind. There were no people anywhere in sight, and only a few lights were on. The office building was in full gloom, which meant there was nothing to be done for the rest of the day, or whatever little remained of it. And still, Takahisa Kurusu could not go home.

Funny, he thought. He could swear he has just seen Akira walk by through the corner of his eye. It was only his imagination, he said to himself. None but his own son had that ‘birds’ nest’ for a head, and he was far away. This was only a daydream, his longing and sadness taking the form of his child. However, he did not recall ever seeing him wear a long, black coat like that.

There was no helping it, the mind worked in mysterious ways. Still, Takahisa wished this figment of his imagination had stopped for a little while. He did not, but that was hardly a surprise. Takahisa would walk out on himself too.

The fisherman took a few steps towards the edge of the pier. He could not really guess why, but he did not wish to stop. Moments later, Takahisa was looking out to sea. He could taste the salt in the spray, and he could hear the waves like they were voices. They were calling for him.

Takahisa Kurusu never felt older than in this moment. His muscles felt stiff and cold to brittle bones. And whatever light was inside faded quick. There was a word for how he felt, it was a name for an old creature. He struggled to remember it; he read it in one of his son’s strange books, which he collected even before he left.

A golem, he finally remembered. A thing in the shape of a man, made from clay, herbs and lost science. It was a creature sturdy and strong, but it had no spirit or learning of its own, so it is given an artificial soul through a word carved on its forehead. And the word is truth. In removing the word, the creature returns to its base components. It dies, if it ever could be called alive.

All his life, Takahisa Kurusu was made to work, to build and fight. As a child in the humble soil of Okinawa. As an adolescent full of anger. There was little reason for him to change as he became of age until he met Masako. With the birth of their child, the man obtained the truth that had been hidden to him all that time.

But he renounced that truth on the day he abandoned his son.

The rest is science.

Looking out to the seemingly boundless waters, he thought of his wife. She would be returning home that night, and would not find her husband. Absence would only get longer until it was simply the way things were. Time was sure to pass unforgiving beneath that roof. But Masako was always the stronger of the two, the fisherman thought.

“You’ll be okay.” The man said out loud.

One thought for that Makoto Niijima girl, who reminded him so much of Masako.

Please take care of my Akira.

One thought for his boy, for his lost truth.

I love you, son.

Takahisa Kurusu closed his eyes.

Chapter Text

Akira Kurusu made a phone call after class to excuse himself from the appointment he had with the psychiatrist that day. Early afternoon still; he was out of class earlier than usual. It was a warm day, but not too sunny – the kind of day he was very fond of.

The Phantom Thieves all had adhered to the agreed narrative about their ‘reappearance’ days ago. College and workplaces agreed to give them some leniency to properly reintegrate into everyday life. There hardly was a protocol for cases like this, after all. Their legal advisor, defence attorney Sae Niijima proposed weeks of therapy under the eye of a qualified specialist to aid their recovery. It was a sensible and credible measure in itself. That aside, nobody wished to argue with the former prosecutor.

This afforded them flexibility of time to plan for their coup de grace against Nyarlathotep. Yet it still carried the uncomfortable fact of a harsh catching up afterwards, as well as some highly unwanted attention. The latter seemed the most aggravating as of late, with surprise attempts for interviews, and accosting from interested, unsavoury parties. When Akira and his friends could not elude them, they were forced to put up their best act as victims, shell-shocked, and vulnerable. Exaggerate if necessary, even.

But in Akira’s case, he needed to act the least. Sessions with the specialist were open for all seven. But for him, they were mandatory.

Everyone around him was highly insistent, but it was Ichiko Ohya who truly underlined it, being the one to obtain the specialist willing to keep the act. Akira was surprised, but not unpleased when he attended the first session. He did not bother to remember the name on the numerous certificates and diplomas inside of the psychiatrist’s apartment-office. That name belonged nowhere; it was a testament to the foul prejudices and toxic politics that plagued the medical institution in the country.

To Akira, she would forever be Lala-chan.

Calling to tell her that he would not make the session that day felt like severing off a piece of his heart. His only comfort was knowing he was not actually lying to her. He was indeed ‘not feeling it today’. In fact, he barely could concentrate in class at all. That morning, he woke up with the vague feeling of having had an unpleasant dream, but all images and words were lost to him.

However, he still considered that it may be more than a bad dream. His connection to Nyarlathotep was a burden on his mental and physical fortitude. Being able to see his reach in the world, wherever Akira turned, already made waking hours a nightmare. But whether his current state was because of Nyarlathotep or the heaping stress, the young man was nonetheless fatigued. He felt listless, and had no desire to be home at the moment. In fact, he could not think of being anywhere at all.

The closest thing to normal right now was browsing through his text messages under the shade of a tree in campus. He avoided the mission’s group chat, even though the thread was basically engraved in his mind. Yet the messages from his friends slowly but surely put a smile on his face. There were plans for outings, memes, aimless banter – it was no different from how things were before. And it was something he so desperately yearned for. It was concrete and real, and today it was what kept him anchored to reality.

He browsed through the latest messages from his girlfriend. Makoto unfailingly messaged him every morning to wish him a good day, and every night to send him off to healthy, restful sleep. They both knew it was a poor substitute for the times they did it face to face, under the same roof; but still it was a sliver of routine he never got tired of. Her latest message came at noon. She apologised for missing lunch that day, and maybe tomorrow too. There was a plentiful lot of catching up for her, which Akira understood. She promised to make up for it on the weekend.

And Makoto Niijima always keeps her promises.

But in between now and then, Akira could only see a chasm of nothing. The thought depressed him. This was not like him. But his state of being throughout this month was something entirely new to him. Despite its causes and uncertainty, even his forced transfer to the city did not compare.

Sighing, the young man stood up from the bench, ready to head to LeBlanc. Perhaps a little work may help him feel some ground beneath his soles, even he did not have a shift today.

“Akira!” A voice jolted him out of his stupor. The familiar sight of brightly dyed hair almost made him shield his eyes. But seeing his best friend may well save him today.

“Hello, Ryuji. Good seeing you here.”

“Yeah. Thought I would drop by and catch you for a bit before you head over by the shrink’s. Is that okay with you?”

“Always.” Akira smiled. “But to be honest, I’m not exactly feeling up to it today.”

“Why? Something wrong?” Ryuji’s tone instantly showed concern.

“I don’t think so. Didn’t sleep so well last night.”

“Oh… Well, you do look like shit right now.”

Akira laughed for a moment.

“Wait… I do?”

“It’s not that bad. But you’ve looked way less shit before. Did you eat breakfast even?”

“Probably?” Akira meant it as a joke, but he was not entirely sure he had. “I’m not really hungry, so there’s that.”

“That doesn’t tell me jack.”

Despite Akira’s smile, he looked uncomfortable, and somewhat ashamed. Ryuji was quick to notice this, and immediately tried to lift his spirits. The solution presented itself in a flash of inspiration, borne out of fond memories.

“Hey, tell you what. I got today off, and seems like you do too. What say you we just hang out, you and I?”

“Alright, why not.” It was a habit of Akira to deliberately try to play it cool whenever he was flustered. This was never as effective as he wished, though it was a very fond sight for the two people who knew this side of him. The young man simply did not expect that his best friend would come and save him today.

The afternoon they spent together was nothing overly elaborate or different from the things they used to do. It was precisely what Akira needed. A meal in good company, and a workout.

[ ]

It was almost five in the afternoon, and Haru Okumura once again was made to neglect her garden. There was no comfort in knowing her vegetables and flowers were looked after during her absence. She needed the contact of the soil against her hands, and she instinctively knew that her plants needed her touch alone. By the time the meetings were over for the day, she was too exhausted to do anything but lie on her bed.

With eyes on the unblemished white ceiling, she tried to vacate her head from all thoughts surrounding business management. Alas, her mind was caught between her career and the consequences of her disappearance on her company. There was no peril on either side, but the upcoming times spelled a lot of work to be done. She could and would not slack, even when the passing mention of Susumu Kamiyama shook her spirit for business.

But truth be told, she needed to get away, for just one moment even.

Sleep slowly crept up on Haru. The prospect of a long nap, and again waking up at 4 AM did not entice her, but she knew it would be this way. She resigned herself to it, and so did her eyelids.

Suddenly, a buzz jolted her eyes open, followed by the sound of a distinctive ringtone. It was a bit too loud for her liking at the moment, but she could not ignore this. Her eyes lit up at seeing the sender’s name.

Yusuke Kitagawa.

Good afternoon. I visited a Korean BBQ restaurant today, since I had some money left from a commission. I was wondering if you would like supper.

As usual, he had a way of saying so much and so somehow so little at the same time. Haru wondered if he was even aware of it. She also knew that beneath the weight of drowse and stress, she was in fact quite hungry. Skipping meals was something she did occasionally – and she could not allow this to become a habit.

I would like that very much, Yusuke. Where would you like to meet?

If you please, we can eat it in your home. I am outside.

Haru opened her eyes wide in between his messages.

Or we can eat somewhere in the vicinity if you would prefer.

I’ll come right out.

Haru was initially surprised at the fact that Yusuke had come all the way here, with no apparent anticipation. His tendency to act spontaneously could sometimes be inconvenient, even somewhat frustrating, though he never meant ill. Preparation was something he kept for his craft as an artist and a Phantom Thief. However, the Okumura scion thought, perhaps it was this spontaneity what she needed during days like these. Her strongest desire before she began to fall asleep was to somehow get away from it all.

Something she may not be able to do at this stage. But perhaps she could learn something from Yusuke, to be unbound at her own design, to choose her own restrictions. Despite awakening to her Persona, and undergoing catharsis on her path, there was always something new to learn.

After they successfully vanquish Nyarlathotep, she will need a strong, but flexible hand to command her path. To be mighty and firm – warm like oak, never cold like steel. It was something her father used to say. Yusuke would probably call it tasteful and true, regardless of how things turned out in the end.

But that shade of grief soon invited a darker memory, too recent and too cruel. Of Nyarlathotep taking on her father’s appearance to stir chaos in her heart. And yet, there was no fooling Haru Okumura. The deed was as malicious as it was fraudulent. Though she acknowledged it for what it was, she could not easily dismiss the thought. Then, to fight it off, she clung to the prospect of dinner with a dear friend, and the countless wondrous things and ideas he may share with her.

However, things were not as she expected upon meeting Yusuke at the entrance of her home. Nothing about his complexion hinted a lack of nourishment or sleep. In fact, there seemed to be slightly more colour to his skin, and more meat around his bones than a week ago. By all accounts, he would be expected to look a healthier version of his usual eccentric self. But something was missing about him; any of his close friends could tell, but few could truly pinpoint what it was.

Haru instantly thought to ask him whether he had painted anything recently, but chose not to bring that up so soon.

“Hello, Haru.” He sounded cordial as ever.

“Yusuke. It’s good to see you.” Haru smiled. “How are you?”

“Frankly, I have been feeling somewhat lonesome. But I am well. And you?”

“Also to be frank, I’ve been pretty tired.”

“I do not imagine your responsibilities as a student and heir to a company are a light task.”

“Very true, Yusuke. C’est la vie, I suppose.” The young woman let out a giggle for the sake of a lighter mood. “Please, come in. Make yourself at home.”

Those words were no mere formality in Haru’s lips, and Yusuke knew it. But though the artist always indulged moderately, his reluctance to make himself comfortable had a different reason. Haru did not pressure him to speak his mind. She occupied herself in the meantime by putting some plates and cutlery at the dining table; the food was cooling down, so she heated the food as well. Yusuke did not look any different when Haru returned to the table. From then until they were almost done eating, everything was silence.

The young woman weighed Yusuke’s words earlier. He claimed he had bought this food with money from a commission. But Haru knew the restaurant, and how it priced its delicacies. They were not something one could casually afford. Furthermore, the young artist had a tendency to carry himself distinctively after finishing a painting. Simply put, he usually glowed with quiet joy. But not today.

Haru decided to bring up the matter of her suspicion.

“Have you painted anything recently?” She asked, already knowing the answer.

“No.” Yusuke was unusually curt.

“Something is wrong, isn’t it, Yusuke?”

“I think so. I am not sure where to put myself lately. Nowhere feels particularly… welcoming. An art is honestly the last thing on my mind lately.”

“Yusuke…”

“All I could think of was being with a friend.”

“This delicious food, you bought it with the money from the commission you made for me, yes?”

“Indeed.” Yusuke hesitated to admit, though a timid smile showed on his lips. “I did not want to spend any of it, to be honest. But if I was to, this was the best use I could think for it.”

“Well, I’m happy that you came to see me today. I too needed this.”

Moments later, they both received a text message on their phones. It was Yuuki Mishima, asking if there could be a meeting soon to discuss ‘an intriguing idea’ that might be of help for the Phantom Thieves. Ann was the first to respond in the thread, saying Futaba, Morgana and she would be in LeBlanc that night. Sae Niijima was the next to reply. After that, Haru and Yusuke confirmed their attendance for this impromptu meeting. Ryuji often delayed to read his messages, but he would likely join them later as well.

Akira and Makoto, however, stood out through their absence in the conversation. Nobody thought much of this. It was perhaps a moment of privacy stolen away. They would surely reply to Mishima’s message soon enough.

[ ]

Makoto Niijima scolded herself with silent fury upon waking up. A neat, but plentiful pile of books lay on her desk, hardly touched. Her plan for the day was catching up on her studies, despite the leniency afforded to her. But there was bit of a drowse lagging behind her from the moment she woke up that morning. She thought there was little harm in taking a brief nap to better focus on the materials. Otherwise, she probably would not be able to focus entirely. The young woman had set up an alarm for fifteen minutes after she closed her eyes, and then a series of five minute intervals between alarms, just in case.

Despite her precautions, she slept right through six renditions of “Speed of Flow” by The Rodeo Carburettor. When she finally woke up, she did so with a sense of shame and regret. This is why she hated naps; most of the time, she felt like she had let the whole day pass her by, with nothing to show for it. The one time she did not regret it was last winter, when she fell asleep while studying at LeBlanc, only to end up spending the night with her boyfriend.

Makoto missed out on her catching up, and put off lunch with Akira because of this. At this point, she thought of coming clean and letting him know. Before that, she looked at her messages, and found that Yuuki Mishima called for a meeting at LeBlanc that night. Several people had already replied, including her sister. Immediately after confirming her attendance, she noticed that neither Akira nor Ryuji had even read the message. That was somewhat expected from Ryuji, but not from Akira.

This was strange, she thought.

She decided to call Akira. Perhaps they may at least have a quick dinner after the meeting. She pressed call, and waited for him to answer. Except he did not. After one minute, she got the answering recording.

She tried again. No use.

Third time was the charm, she said to herself. But Akira still was not answering. She started to feel anxious with the fourth attempt. Suddenly, the day became a reprisal of the days before the event at Arancia. Akira seemed to have gotten better since then, but she could not honestly say he was entirely well.

“Damn it… Akira, pick up the phone, please.” Makoto felt her own pulse rising.

She stopped herself before a fifth attempt, and set her feet on the ground. Perhaps there was a harmless reason he was not picking up – neither he nor his best friend had answered to the message thread. Maybe they were together. So she called Ryuji instead.

And to her relief, he confirmed that she guessed correctly. Akira and he were at the gym, having a workout. Ryuji said he was coaching him on a new routine he has been trying - that was the reason neither of them had checked their phones. Makoto tried to disguise the tremendous relief that ran her body through by claiming she was still rather tired. She did not think that ominous displays of concern would be good for morale. While on the call, she informed Ryuji of the meeting at LeBlanc. Ryuji still had to inform Akira, but he already confirmed their attendance.

Makoto allowed herself a long, deep breath after the call ended. Her boyfriend was simply occupied. He was not withdrawn within himself, under the merciless yoke of a vile puppet master. She was convinced that he would greet her with the same smile she adored tonight, and with that, all of her dread would vanish like it had never been.

But somehow, a strange sensation lingered within. It started vaguely, but she felt that somehow things were not alright; that despite the moment of reassurance, there was still cause for concern. As minutes passed, the sensation grew to the point of Makoto feeling something was severely wrong.

There was no shaking off this feeling. It was the unpleasant side to a Niijima trait, inherited from her father: her gut was telling her something terrible had happened. And it stuck with her throughout the rest of the afternoon. From the moment she stepped into the shower, to the uneasy ride to Yongen-jaya, all she wanted was to cross the door of LeBlanc and see Akira.

Finally, she was outside of the café. It was dark outside, and through the glass on the door she could see that there already were several people inside. She could not tell if her boyfriend was among them. She could not read the mood on the silhouettes within. Makoto did not feel ready, but she turned the door knob anyway, and stepped inside.

[ ]

It was a slow day at the gym today. At this time of the day, there usually were around six or seven people. But on this occasion, it was only two friends seizing the most they could before the patrons poured in after work.

“Hey, your girlfriend called. Says there’s a meeting at LeBlanc today.” Ryuji said to Akira, who was almost done with the demanding cardio routine his friend showed him.

“Okay, good.” Akira said in between breaths. “I’ll better look extra nice at the end of this, then.”

“Yeah, you better. She sounded a bit weird.”

“Huh?” Akira stood up from the plank position. He passed a hand through the mat of his hair, made even thicker by the sweat. He went wide-eyed when it finally dawned on him that she might have been calling him. At once, he checked his phone to see the text message in question, and four missed calls – all from Makoto. “Oh no.”

“Something wrong?” Ryuji asked.

“She’d been calling. And I didn’t pick up.”

“That doesn’t sound like a big deal, though.”

“The last time this happened was when I blacked out before the whole thing at Arancia…”

“Oh, shit.”

“Yeah.” Akira faked a chuckle. “I’m an idiot.”

“Eh, sometimes, I guess.” Ryuji joked. “But not this time, dude. You were busy sweating, is all. I’m sure Makoto is cool now.”

“I hope so.”

“She totally is. Or what, are you doubting Queen?”

“Not in a million years.” Akira smiled. His eyes wandered off to a familiar corner in the gym.

“I think we got a pretty good session today. And you’re looking way better than earlier. Wanna wrap this up?”

“Just a bit longer.” The young man walked towards a spot that was somewhat underutilised by the rest of the gym-goers. It seemed to him that he was the only one who constantly practiced with the punching dummy during his first year in Tokyo, and the notion remained now. There were some marks left on the cylinder’s surface. Akira wondered if some of them are remainders from those days. He searched his memory further to see if he still remembered the full kata. But his limbs were acting far ahead of his brain.

It took a few testing strikes, but before he knew it, his hands and feet were performing the full form, flawlessly.

“Shit… Wing Chun? Seriously?” Ryuji voiced his amazement at Akira’s kata.

“Took me a while to get my head around it.” Akira spoke in between strikes. “Thought I might have forgotten it, but it came back easily.”

“I guess that’s another thing Queen and you got in common. Does she know?”

“Not really. I think I may make a fool of myself if I told her.”

“Yeah, she’d totally wipe the floor with you.”

“So true.” Akira grinned as he repeated the form. “Also, it was Morgana who taught me.”

“No fucking way…” Ryuji sat back and watched his friend go over the kata once more. By now, he was perfectly content with cooling down and let his best friend unwind a little more; they still had time before the meeting, after all.

A few minutes passed, and Akira decided to experiment a little. Sneak a couple of quick punches to the chest area, kick a little higher or a little lower. This led to imagining how an opponent would react in hand-to-hand combat. Adhering to the traditional style in an actual fight would likely result in a losing effort, but there were principles and techniques he could apply nonetheless, especially in close range, when defence is breached and a duel is decided on who lands the finishing barrage first.

Akira pictured this opponent as himself. The same height and frame; the same competence and skillset. He imagined the dummy as his own shadow moving in front of him, throwing strikes for him to dodge and counterattack. But there was only so much he could do with that. The imaginary adversary started to get a little more aggressive, quicker and more willing to play dirty. Akira moved accordingly.

Then he imagined eyes on the shadow, fixing him fiercely, just like a real opponent would. Akira involved himself more and more on the sparring session, blocking out everything around him. There was no gym, no Ryuji – nothing but an adversary who did not exist, who taunted him with wild, hateful, yellow eyes.

The shadow fighter attacked more ferociously. Less and less like a person. Akira’s instincts did not imbue his enemy with a voice, but he nonetheless heard him snarl with each movement. Its fists immaterial turned to claws, and the shadow grew strange appendages. Its frame thickened somehow, and the range of the transformation was seamless until Akira could fully see its new shape.

It was the Joker, slashing to kill.

Something vague and hidden followed the sound of every attack and counterattack. A hiss, a low growling. A word repeated over and over, pried messy and bloody from the soil of Akira’s thoughts.

“Present… present… present… present…”

For you.

The monstrosity in his likeness grinned with murderous glee. It glared at Akira, like it were standing true in front of him, invading his world with a clear purpose. To deliver cruel knowledge, and to gloat on a deed fulfilled.

Akira screamed furiously, breaking free from the trance of the false duel. He fell to the floor, as did the dummy, brought down by Akira’s stray fist. Though he was back in the present, he was in a daze of horror.

“Akira!” Ryuji was at his side, alarmed out of his wits.

But his words were not reaching Akira.

He had no recollection of what was said or done, but he knew in his heart that the dream was reality conveyed in sleep. And it pointed to a terrible deed performed by Nyarlathotep’s Joker as he ethereally influenced the world, little by little. And it was done to punish Akira.

What could have Nyarlathotep done through the hands of his knight?

The only answer Akira could come up with was harming the people he cared for.

Frantically, the young man looked through the messages on his phone, searching every bit of interaction he has had with friends, both in and outside of the Phantom Thieves. The grim prospect of harm, or death on any of them had panic and anger rise up his throat in bile and foam. But it was only after looking at the final name in his contacts that it dawned on him.

His parents.

Perhaps he could find a way to protect the people he loved in Tokyo, by presence alone. But his parents were far away, in Kawasaki, stranded away from any chance of protection.

It took Akira all of his fortitude to dial the number of his parents’ landline phone. And further even to stomach the wait. Every second, every tone of the ringback was a stake to his heart. There was no answer.

“Man…” Ryuji mouthed, suspecting with heartrending accuracy what was going on in Akira’s head. He partook then of the same fear. His face mimicked Akira and his expression turned from alarm to despair.

Mum… dad….

I’m sorry. It’s all my fault. It’s all…

A brief crackling sound. A sudden break in the wait.

“Hello?” It was his mother’s voice. “Hello?”

Akira felt completely staggered, pulled out from the dark by his mother’s nonchalant tone.

“M-mum?”

“Akira? Akira, is that you?” The subtle change in volume told him she was smiling. Picturing it brought out tears in his eyes.

“Y-yeah. Yeah!”

“Akira! How are you?”

“Uh… I’m, I’m okay! Everything is okay! I just called to know if you’re okay.”

“We are. Things are okay on our end, Akira. Well, not entirely. You could call more often, you know!”

“Yeah, you’re right about that. I’m sorry. Things have been… busy.”

“Busy busy busy. The Kurusu way, no?” Masako laughed. “Don’t push yourself too hard, you hear me?”

“Yes, mum. Hey, is dad okay?”

“Yeah! You want to talk to him?”

“Yes.” Akira replied without a delay.

Never before had the deep, cavernous voice of Takahisa Kurusu inspired such relief and mirth in his son. It melted the sorrow away. The man was still not used to talking on the phone, but he at least tried to make conversation. That alone said much to Akira.

“I’m glad things are okay, Akira. Are your friends taking good care of you?”

“Yes they are.” Akira looked at Ryuji. “They’re the best.”

“I’m happy to hear that. I’m happy too, that you called. I’ve missed you son.”

“I’ve missed you too, dad.”

“I love you. Give us a call more often, yeah?”

I love you too, dad.

[ ]

“What the fuck are you doing!?” Masako exclaimed, scared and angry in equal measure.

Her husband said nothing for a moment. He barely seemed aware at all. From the very moment she set foot on the port, with dinner for two, she saw the hulking figure of her husband walking to the edge of the pier, arms hanging at his side like he was asleep. And yet, the scene was very clear for her.

“I… needed to fart.” He said, vaguely aware of what he was doing. His thoughts leading to that moment remained in memory - his sorrow and his shame. He improvised an answer that he knew Masako would not believe. But that was better than acknowledging what he was about to do. He no longer felt any drive to let the sea take him, but the torment that led him would not go away.

“Don’t give me that! Just… why?” The woman’s voice echoed loudly, with only one other person to hear it.

“I was feeling melancholic. The sight of the sea helps.”

“’The sight of the sea helps’ my ass!” Angry tears pended on the corners of her eyes. “What the hell were you thinking!?”

“Akira.” He said. “I failed him, didn’t I? I failed our son…”

Masako knew exactly what he was talking about, because it was something she held against herself as well.

“If you did, then so did I.” The woman stayed silent after that, looking out to sea next to Takahisa.

“You don’t usually get off work this early.”

“Nothing’s happening at the hospital. Thought I’d surprise you for once. Bought dinner and all…”

Masako unpacked the food she bought for the occasion. She was not particularly hungry, but she did not think she would be feeling hungrier later, either. Together, Akira’s parents ate while looking out to sea, thinking both of their son.

“We will not fail Akira again. We’re not that old yet, meaning we can still be better. So get rid of that shame, and stand tall. He’d want you to.” Masako said. She noticed a grain of rice trapped in the man’s thick moustache. “Don’t leave me, you big stupid, dumb… man.”

Behind them, a dark ethereal figure vanished into thin air, compromising from this one defeat.

[ ]

Makoto turned the doorknob to the café’s front door. A restless heart loudly sent the drumming of her pulse to her ears. She guessed she must have opened the door a little too forcefully, because everyone was looking at her as she appeared, including Akira. Though he looked about as tired as she felt, she wanted to throw herself at his arms, to extinguish the feeling of dread in his embrace. She walked towards him, knowing she would hold back – not out of a sense of decorum. But because they could not yet indulge like they wanted.

There was a matter to be discussed this night.

Makoto greeted everyone present. Her sister, Akira, their friends, Boss, Kawakami-sensei, and Munehisa-san. As far as she could tell, this was a respectable number of people for the meeting, but there was a notable absence: Yuuki Mishima, the very reason they were gathered here. By the way he phrased the request for a meeting, he had an important breakthrough that would help the Phantom Thieves vanquish Nyarlathotep.

She learned from Sojiro Sakura that Mishima had called a few minutes earlier to apologise for his delay. There had been a slight incident at his parents’ home. Though it was nothing serious, it would take a little time to mend. He should arrive in roughly ten minutes. This left some time for the people present to mingle for a moment, and take their minds off of things.

With a few dishes and cups of coffee out in the counter, the lively conversation, and the television on, this seemed a more leisurely activity than it was. Everyone anticipated a change in the mood with Mishima’s arrival, and then perhaps a return to a more festive mood if his idea turned out a promising one. Expectations were high.

“Makoto.” Akira spoke discreetly to his girlfriend.

“Hi.” She smiled. “Everything alright?”

“Yeah, quite so. Looking forward to tonight.”

“Me too.”

“Called my parents earlier, by the way. They’re asking about you.”

“Are they?” Makoto blushed. “That’s lovely. Um, how are they…”

“Hey. Hey! Everyone! Quiet!” Sojiro interrupted, loudly calling for everyone to hear. After a few seconds of confusion, everybody present turned to the source of Boss’ attention, a piece of breaking news on the television regarding an event occurred no less than one hour before.

Former candidate for Prime Minister in Japan, Masayoshi Shido, has committed suicide in prison. Apparent cause of death: head trauma from impact against the wall of his cell. No foul play suspected as he was alone. The man, in his fathomless pride, almost succeeded in steering the nation to ruin. His schemes would have yielded fruit if not for the Phantom Thieves. In a curious turn of events, he turned out the architect of his own downfall when he had Akira Kurusu arrested and shunned.

He was, by all means, an enemy. The sum of his deeds deserved lawful punishment – from the manipulation committed upon the masses, to the death of his son, Goro Akechi. There were no tears to be shed over Masayoshi Shido. But there was no mirth to be had, for this was not the right end to justice.

The public would surely metabolise the news with varying perspectives. That was the way of the world. But at least inside of LeBlanc, the air was heavy with shared unease.

Especially Akira Kurusu. He had no concrete evidence, no clues or clear connections; only a pervading conviction in his heart that Nyarlathotep was involved in this.

“Present… present…present…“ The silence begat a low hiss, fashioned into a word. And only he could hear it.

Chapter Text

Yuuki Mishima never felt secure when talking to a crowd. His confidence decreased the more people in the room. Inversely, he felt most in control through visual communication and text. His more pressing concern upon coming out of his house was to somehow translate the same ability into the meeting at hand. Being late did him no favours, though he knew Akira and the rest would be understanding. Awkward pauses and stutters were only minor obstacles. He would push forward without flinching. Much was at stake.

He finally made it to Yongen-jaya. He was almost out of breath from sprinting across the neighbourhood as soon as the train made it to the station. There was light inside of LeBlanc, though the sign spelled ‘Closed’, which meant the meeting would probably start as soon as he walked through the door.

But upon crossing into the cosy little world of LeBlanc, the dark mood greeted him like he walked into dense mist. Sadayo Kawakami was the one to inform him of the news. Masayoshi Shido was dead. Like the rest of everyone present, Mishima knew him as one of the Phantom Thieves’ chief foes. There was little room for mourning, considering the fate he would have brought upon the nation, and the grief he inflicted upon Akira. However, the news still fell bitterly on all.

Not even five minutes have passed, and Yuuki already felt inadequate to present his idea. The words became disjointed, and the overall sense of it began to blur. Self-doubt followed soon. The young man waited, sunken in the low murmurs coming and going about the café. It was like a miasma, pungent and debilitating, slowly numbing his senses, until the firm weight of Sojiro’s hand on his shoulder shook him awake.

The older man said nothing. He did not need to.

The hardest thing was to actually begin. But everything came naturally once he cleared his throat.

“Everyone. I need your attention here, please.” Yuuki’s voice drew all eyes towards him. He caught view of a very selective palette of emotions. He could not let it bring him down.

Sae nodded subtly, encouraging him.

“I think you all know why I requested this meeting. I have an idea that may help the Phantom Thieves. It’s just a basic principle for now. I hope you can help me flesh it out, so we can find out how to put it to work, together.” The young man spoke a little quick, and for a moment, he felt as if he may trip over his own tongue. But the immediate reactions confirmed the clarity of the message.

“What do you propose?” Akira Kurusu asked.

“It’s something kind of simple. If emotions like worry or anxiety can have an effect on the other world. Perhaps the opposite could also have an influence. Excitement and confidence might make you stronger.”

“Sounds feasible.” Yusuke acknowledged.

“And that’s not all.” Excitement showed in his voice as went on. “I was thinking, what if these positive emotions towards the Phantom Thieves were multiplied, all at once? Wouldn’t that make them even stronger? If dozens, no, hundreds of people actively rooted for them, I think they would have a better chance to put the enemy down.”

“You phrased it kinda weird, but I like how this sounds.” Futaba remarked.

“I was thinking of somehow gathering lots of people, sympathisers, if you will. On one day, during which the Phantom Thieves will make a definite stand against Nyarlathotep. I know this is a gamble, and that we’ll need to come up with some way to test my theory. But if you approve of the idea, and we can make sure it works, then we should go all out. Fuel the Phantom Thieves with the spirit of the masses.”

Silence. Everyone in the café was thinking on Mishima’s words.

“That’s all I got. I know it’s just an idea, but I honestly think it could work. The Phantom Thieves are important to many people, even if nobody has heard anything about them in over a year. I can vouch for this, I’ve looked up fan sites and forums, and they’re still being talked about.”

“Did you come upon any weird conspiracy theories?” Ann wondered.

“Um, yes. Lots of them. Best not talk about that, though.” Yuuki wished he could forget a specific lot of what he read online during his research. “The Phantom Thieves live in the public consciousness still, in a manner of speech. Just imagine how the cognition of the other world could change if all those people were to… actively believe.” If only for a moment, the young man found himself unsure of the way he expressed his idea.

“Assuming the basis of your idea works, this could really help.” Sae Niijima remarked. “Perhaps even demolish the home advantage.”

“I like it.” Makoto added. “And I think the idea has merit, going by what we learned in the Velvet Room. Rumours were once Nyarlathotep’s device to alter reality. His own world is linked to ours, so it’s probably vulnerable to the same influence.”

“Good going, Yuuki. It’s a good idea.” Akira said. His words somewhat detached, but the praise still made Mishima light up.

“Thank you. I know we still have to test it in principle, but I thought of a few ways…”

“This is gonna be interesting.” Morgana’s anticipation fell a lively meow on several ears.

He risked running far ahead of himself, but nobody stopped Yuuki from figuratively spilling out his brain that night. There were a few variables to the outline, but all followed the same logic: set up a public event in honour of the Phantom Thieves to harness their collective faith and directly influence Nyarlathotep’s world. As the night went by, everyone present helped shape the notion further. The idea sounded better and better with each passing minute. And soon, Yuuki’s own enthusiasm was shared by all. The gloom and dread no longer intoxicated the air inside of LeBlanc.

For a blissful while, Akira himself stopped thinking about Shido’s death, and how convinced he was that Nyarlathotep had caused it. His sudden, inexplicable fear for his parents’ well-being also began to subside. However, the scene in his eyes was not the same as everybody else’s. Even in the soft light of the café, Akira could see Nyarlathotep’s reaching presence through countless black tendrils, ethereally penetrating surfaces and spiralling around nearly everyone Akira saw. The young man could never get used to seeing that, but everybody’s obliviousness helped mitigate the horror somewhat. The warm contact of Makoto’s hand on his anchored him tighter.

Every once in a while, Makoto threw him an encouraging gaze. It was soothing, and life-affirming. It reminded him that he was not alone. That she loved him back, and that she was safe and happy with him.

It killed him to tear himself away from her as he excused himself to go out for air. Her affection, and that of his friends and family kept him whole and solid. But there was yet something that did not belong, something which he thought may be just in his head. He needed, desperately needed to know his mind was fooling his sight - that the fleeting image of the Joker’s mask outside of LeBlanc was a figment of his troubled imagination.

The air outside was colder on his skin that it should have. And the night was full of shadows that ought not be there. Yongen-jaya was plunged into darkness, but Akira could still somehow see the way ahead, but not all. The black coattail disappearing on turning one corner may not have been there at all. It was tempting to pursue it, to venture the alleyways of a neighbourhood he knew like the palm of his hand just to root out this presence.

To expunge this detestable evil.

And he knew already how familiar tonight would feel to him, as when the blackout occurred in Kawasaki, as when Nyarlathotep lured him into his trap.

In Akira’s head, the vague impression of a worried look on Makoto’s face kept him rooted to the ground. Guilt ached inside of him, stronger by the second. But then, two arms gently surrounded his waist. And behind him, Makoto’s forehead rested against his back.

“Hey.” She said. “Are you alright?”

“I… I think so.” He responded.

Makoto said nothing for a moment, but she did not leave him.

“Did I cause a scene?” Akira asked.

“Not really. LeBlanc get stuffy easily. To be honest, I was worried you may have come out to smoke.”

“I’d rather not make a habit of it.”

“I’m happy to hear that.” A soft squeeze. For a moment, Makoto’s hesitation trapped the air in Akira’s lungs, until she did speak. “Are you seeing them?”

“Yeah. It’s easier to stomach the sight when there’s few people around.”

“Akira. We’ll end this. You will never, ever have to feel dread over this again. I swear to you.” Makoto’s voice was almost a whisper, and yet her voice was as mighty as thunder. “Never fear. I’m always with you.”

“I know.”

The two stayed outside for a few minutes, shivering under the chill that ran the neighbourhood through. Makoto did not pressure him into going back to the café, but he did not stay outside much longer. They returned to LeBlanc, and the night went on undisturbed, with ideas bouncing back and forth. By the time the meeting was adjourned, they all had a clearer picture of the gambit than a way to test the core idea.

They even had a tentative name: Project Masquerade.

A public event would take place in Shibuya, on June 5, the anniversary of Ichiryusai Madarame’s confession. The day a high profile party confirmed the Phantom Thieves’ existence and purpose to the greater audience. In the eyes of many, a new hope was born on this day. Should the basis behind the plan prove accurate, the Phantom Thieves will return to that other world and deliver a definite counterstrike to forever halt Nyarlathotep’s plan for the world. Roles were divided amidst all present on funding, logistics, spread of information, and even talent to put up performances at the event.

This whimsical, picaresque day would manifest into the ultimate gambit on the other world, the spear against the Crawling Chaos.

At the end of the night, everybody said their farewells with a fuller heart. Akira saw each of his friends make their way home. Makoto seemed reluctant to go, but not out of fear; in truth, she wanted to spend the night, doing nothing but watch Taiwanese police thrillers, and Yakuza flicks before turning in. The furtive, yet daring way she pulled him aside for a kiss put a genuine smile on his face. The kick she sent into his pulse was almost enough to eclipse the nagging feeling that somewhere out there, in the darkness of night and of troubled hearts, his counterpart prowled with ominous intent.

Akira was not convinced he had indeed seen him earlier. But he felt him.

He felt the Joker’s anger. His pain. His hatred.

The young man planned to get in touch with a friend in politics, former Diet member Toranosuke Yoshida. Akira knew he would join their efforts without being asked twice. That was the least the Phantom Thieves’ leader could do for the faith he had on Project Masquerade. In his thoughts, the plan was sound. It could work wonders, and perhaps secure their success.

But the date in question was still far away. In between then and now, there was a gulf of chance for the Joker to walk the Earth. Even now, Akira Kurusu could not shake off the conviction that it caused Masayoshi Shido’s death. The fallen one may prove the first in a string of casualties, assuming he was indeed the first one. From this moment on, everybody was at risk, including Akira’s friends.

Could he afford to wait?

A plan of his own began to crystallise in the young man’s head. It hurt to just think of it. But every time he looked out the window, into the streets of Yongen-jaya, he was convinced of the painful necessity. This was something he needed to do. Alone.

[ ]

3 AM.

The numbers and letters on the phone’s screen were a blur in Makoto’s exhausted eyes. Her sleep was ordinarily deep, but tonight she could not keep her eyes closed too long. Her head was barely able to contain the storm of thoughts flying in every direction. Anything may have woken her up, even if Ann had not texted two minutes ago. Makoto did not blame her friend, but she was not exactly in a good mood.

She read the text message, and it took her a few moments to comprehend it. But once she did, Makoto shook off all remnants of exhaustion.

“I know how to test Mishima’s idea. I need you and Futaba to meet up with me TOMORROW”

Makoto did not even think of asking Ann what she meant, or how she arrived at the answer to the conundrum. Her response was swift and doubtless.

“I’ll be there.”

The young woman managed to get some sleep after that. All questions were laid to rest, until they rose back to the surface of her mind after dawn. Time felt like it slowed down to a crawl until the hour came to meet with Ann, with only a few messages in between to discuss the time and place. The two would meet at a small restaurant they occasionally frequented. All questions would be answered then. And perhaps, the Phantom Thieves would have their way forward.

However, to Makoto’s great surprise, Ann and Futaba were both waiting for her at the campus’ entrance.

“Ann? Futaba? I thought…”

“Heyyyy, Makoto!” Ann approached quickly, with an equally enthusiastic Futaba at her heels. “Did you have a good day?”

“Uh, y-yes, but wha…?”

Futaba clumsily squeezed Makoto’s breath out with a hug, quite probably using all of her strength.

“This is so cool. Surprising the Team Mum-koto when she clearly never saw us coming!” The girl briefly choked on her own hair, somehow ending on her face as she hugged Makoto. “Never saw us coming!”

The younger Niijima could do nothing but cast a desperate, quizzical gaze at Ann, which the latter met with a wide smile, much to Makoto’s increasing confusion. She took a few seconds to gather herself after Futaba let go.

“Okay… it’s always a joy to see you two… But honestly, what is going on?”

“Heyyy, Makoto! Have you eaten?” Ann asked, completely disregarding Makoto’s question.

“Um, no? But…”

“We brought you lunch!” Futaba pulled out several plastic bags, seemingly from nowhere. “Eat it!”

Makoto looked helpless, but Ann’s sunny smile could be breached by nothing she said or did. Defeated, she saw no alternative but to concede.

“Can we at least go eat somewhere with a little shade?”

Several minutes later, Makoto felt more at ease. Neither Ann nor Futaba would answer to her question, but they at least did not spend that portion of the afternoon only watching her eat. The young woman noticed that they ate rather quickly, however. By the time she savoured the last bite of fried mackerel, Makoto decided she had enough. Both Ann and Futaba jumped startled from the very sound of Makoto putting her chopsticks down.

“Lunchtime is over. What are you doing?”

“Just making sure you’re having a good time. It’s for the plan, after all.” Futaba said.

“Explain yourself.” Makoto was not pleased to find she was in the dark about Ann’s idea.

“Alright…” Ann sighed. “Here’s the thing. Last night I noticed that everyone was super excited about Mishima’s idea. It was honestly great to see everyone so on board with this. And I’m really looking forward to pulling this thing out myself. Even if nobody really knew how to test if it would work, everyone was in high spirits. And that got me thinking. We don’t know if Project Masquerade can actually take off, but it doesn’t seem to matter. So, wouldn’t this mood itself alter the cognition in the other world, even just for a moment? Everyone in LeBlanc is hyped for us, the Phantom Thieves. That probably has to have some effect on how strong we are over there. Maybe even how we feel ourselves.”

Makoto put her fingers on her chin, savouring the idea.

“That’s actually a really good point, Ann.” The young woman smiled. “I’m surprised.”

“Hey, just because my boyfriend’s can be a moron sometimes doesn’t mean I’m one too!”

“Yiketh, Panther.” Futaba chimed in.

“No! That’s not what I meant! And neither of you are unintelligent! …It’s just, how could we miss something so obvious? It makes perfect sense. Nyarlathotep wanted to take Akira alone and vulnerable because he could get what he wanted on his own terms. He’d be free to influence people on this world through his Joker, unchallenged, because nobody else would know he was pulling the strings. But since we were taken with Akira, his means were compromised, and the influence between worlds would no longer be one-sided. Without knowing it, we made it a free-for-all.”

“I’m getting shivers.” Futaba said. “Anyone else getting shivers?”

“That is, assuming you’re correct, Ann.” Makoto stated.

“That’s true. I say we make a quick trip over to evil land to see if there’s something to this. One field Persona user, one Wild Card, and one Navigator to measure things and bail us out if needed. That sounds to me a good way to test Yuuki’s theory.”

Makoto could barely contain a vaguely mischievous smirk.

“What say you, Queen. Wanna go find if I’m right?” Ann raised her eyebrows.

“Just point me in the right direction, Panther. Oracle, on me.”

[ ]

That evening, Makoto, Ann, and Futaba got in touch with their close circle, and then with the rest of their allies through text messages. They bore great news: the principle behind Yuuki Mishima’s idea was successfully tested, and preparations for Project Masquerade could begin in earnest. In truth, there had been little in the way of fighting Shadows, but their very presence, fuelled by the spirits of the small collective around the Phantom Thieves, made the unholy ground quake at every step. Oracle’s analysis on the ten minutes spent in Nyarlathotep’s realm also vouched for this change. Queen and the rest were ready to present this information when next they met.

Tonight, however, Makoto slept. As carefree and peaceful as she could have it.

Outside of her window, a black silhouette hung immaterial in the dead of night. Beneath its mask, bitter tears flowed from distorted, yellow eyes. Its concealed heart sent a sorrowful pang into its pulse, making its entire frame shake with pain.

The Joker watched Makoto for that moment, peaceful, beloved and protected. An image that violently rattled its psyche. A snarl was birthed at the base of its throat, coming out an inhuman howl for no one to hear.

As it vanished, Akira Kurusu woke up in a cold sweat, not knowing why.

Chapter Text

Hi, Edward.

I’m so sorry. I do realise it’s been a while since I last wrote. It’s not necessarily that I’m such a terrible pen pal, but to be honest, things haven’t been great around here lately. When I sat down to write, I didn’t even know where to start. In the end, I decided to begin with the most trivial.

For starters, I’ve fallen out of habit with some pastimes. It’s not really that important an issue, but these gave both a sense of structure and diversity to my days. I’ve known how damaging it can be to focus single-mindedly on one thing. Back in my final high-school year, I swore I’d never fall back into the same vice. I’m not convinced I’m there yet, so that’s something.

Next item: School has been quite tough lately… No, you’re not misreading. My education really isn’t the greatest of my concerns right now. The world must be coming to an end, huh? I have to say, even the joke doesn’t feel very funny to me right now. The transition from high school to university admittedly wasn’t the easiest at first, but I did eventually get ahead of the curve. And now, I feel like I’m back on square one. Don’t get me wrong, this hasn’t deterred me from pursuing my dream. But it feels awful – I really have no other way to express it.

And then there’s my two chief concerns. In a way, one correlates to the other. I hope you can forgive me, but I’m going to be a little vague here. I don’t feel very comfortable getting into details. I’m sure you’ll understand, my fellow comrade in misfortune.

My friends and I, we have this event coming. Preparations are underway, and they’ll take a couple of weeks. I’m really out of my depth, but my friends each do their part to perfection. I’m actually a little jealous of some of the skills they’re showing, but I digress. The thing is, this event is important, VERY important. And a lot of bad things could happen if it didn’t go as planned. Safe to say, I’m extremely nervous.

My boyfriend is also participating in this event. In a way, he’s been shouldering a lot of involvement even before it was put on paper. He tries not to show how much it taxes him, but I suspect it’s a lot more than he shows whenever he lets his guard down. Sometimes it feels like he’s building this wall around him, and he deliberately keeps us away. And sadly, it’s not even the first time he’s done this. Anyway, we had a bit of a fight yesterday. And it all stemmed from this infamous event. Things are calm now, but we haven’t spoken since.

I know we’ll be okay. But what truly worries me is whether he will. I just want to put this damned event behind us, and move on with our lives. All of us.

Again, I’m so sorry. Not a word from me in weeks, and now I’m pouring all my troubles on you. I really hope you’ve been well, and I hope I’ll have better news for next time. This goes without saying, but don’t hesitate to tell me about your troubles. When life turns around so drastically, it’s always a joy to have a friend to confide in. For this reason, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

If it’s not too much trouble, I have a favour to ask. Could you keep my friends and me in your prayers?

Sincerely, your friend in Japan, Makoto

[ ]

Makoto slid the letter into the envelope, ready to be sent the following day. She poured herself into writing a reply to her friend immediately after reading his latest letter, neglected a week. The young woman would never admit it, but she only thought of looking at this late correspondence to distract herself from the memory of recent hours. She was tempted to write that she actually cried after that argument with Akira.

Nothing they said would remain a lasting wound. But this loathsome saga had driven them to this point. And to think it all started as a peaceful afternoon in her apartment. Things went south as soon as they approached the subject of the latest venture into the other side.

“What the hell were you thinking, going there alone!?” He said all of a sudden.

Makoto was shocked speechless for a moment. It was the first time he ever raised his voice at her. She was even more confused when considering he barely made a visible reaction when the group got the news the previous day.

“Didn’t it occur to you that you may attract Nyarlathotep’s attention, or…!?”

“First off, Akira.” There was a little edge to her voice when she shook off the initial impression. “I wasn’t alone. I went there with Ann and Futaba. And you know it better than anyone, we’d never stay there for long. We’d retreat at the very first sign of trouble. And as soon as we got the information we sought after, we did just that.”

“You underestimate them.”

“Maybe, maybe not. In either case, this was information we desperately needed. One way or another, we needed to make one more trip to know if the plan would work.”

“Whose idea was it?”

“It doesn’t matter whose idea it was.” Makoto did not wish to bring Ann up. Her intentions and thoughts were sound, and she did not deserve to be a recipient of his ire. “And you must realise that we are Phantom Thieves. You know this better than anyone: we’ve always had to take risks in order to accomplish the goal.”

“Like you did with Kaneshiro?”

She could not tell whether he meant that as a low blow. It certainly felt that way to her, and she would not take it lying down. Makoto felt the anger move the muscles in her face.

“You did not just…”

“You should have brought this up with the rest of the group.” He said, undaunted.

“I had good reason not to let everyone know, especially not you.”

“What?”

“Because…” The reasoning also came from Ann. Makoto actually suggested they did let everyone know. However, her friend made a strong case. Not only did they not have the luxury of time to prove her theory, there was another factor to consider. But the sadness in Ann’s words translated into anger, coming from Makoto. “… too much of this weighs on you.”

She instantly regretted saying that, and it was that same harrowing feeling what kept her paralysed as Akira walked away. It came as a grim realisation that those words did not sound quite the same to either of them. To her, it was just an acknowledgement that he should not bear the weight alone. But to him, compounded by the heated tempers, it sounded like an acknowledgement of blame. As it is, he already held himself at fault for everything that has happened with Nyarlathotep and the other Joker.

And for all that he held against himself, he never expected her to echo the same bitter feeling.

Please don’t go. I didn’t mean that. Please. Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go.

But the words just would not leave her lips.

And then he was gone.

[ ]

Makoto woke up in her room two hours later. She ran outside minutes after Akira left, desperate to find him and apologise for what she said. Her common sense told her he was surely back at LeBlanc, but her body moved on its own devices. The search met a hopeless end, and she had no remedy but return to apartment as it began to rain. Makoto locked herself in her room, and crashed landed on her mattress. She reached for Buchi-kun, the one Akira gave to her, and hugged it tight against her chest.

The young woman then dreamt a restless dream, waking up to the vibration of her phone, and a message from her boyfriend.

I know you didn’t mean harm by what you said. I wish I didn’t say anything about K. It was wrong of me to act like this, even if you should have let us know before going in. I promise I’ll never be such a disgraceful guest again.

I’m sorry. I love you.

A second message arrived a few seconds later.

I’m proud of you, and everything you do.

Makoto stayed there for a moment, her thumb hovering over the keyboard on the screen. She wanted to give him a response to bury the trouble between them. But a peculiar feeling within kept her transfixed in the moment. It was violent, but benign at the same time. It felt like her heart was breaking free from some unknown yoke, and while this was not the first time she felt something like this, it was the strongest yet.

Lately, time spent with the people she cared for conjured this sensation. If she had to make an estimate, it began to occur upon returning from the other side for the first time. The young woman dwelt on this for only so long before she started thinking of a reply.

Something to soothe the air once laden thick with anger and worry.

[ ]

Akira received Makoto’s goodnight several hours ago. Imagining those words spoken with her voice helped him somewhat. But there was no true calm for him that night. He knew in his heart what was real, and what the world outside his window was like. And he knew that if, rather when he walked out the door, it would not appear that way to him. His eyes would tell him he was back in Kawasaki, on a lifeless, black night - much like when Nyarlathotep first got his hands on his thoughts and memories.

Though a mockery of reality, the distortion was genuine in its own, unlikely way. The progression of Nyarlathotep’s influence was slow, and gradual; but such a sudden transformation was no accident. Something provoked this change, for good or ill.

Perhaps it was Makoto who forced this change, without her knowing it.

Akira could continue to be angry at her, to fear for her. But even now, he could not deny she may have given him an unexpected boon.

Like I need anything more from you. Your love is all I could ever need.

There was a sudden dull ache in his temples.

You, and the others. To me, you’re worth dying for. No… living for.

The sensation grew more intense, like a vacuum inside of his head.

Being with you all forever. That’s all I ever want.

The confirmation was there, translating into pain that travelled across his body like blood running through his veins. His other self, replicated under the Crawling Chaos’ design, was nearby. What’s more, it responded to his thoughts. Though the doppelgänger had been invading this world, it was now Akira who caught him in the act. And his approach now was much different than before.

The Joker did not feel like an unstoppable threat looming into the world. Its approach was more akin to that of a wounded animal, rabid and bleeding out – but not any less dangerous for it. All things considered, it would be unthinkable to try and engage it. And that was precisely what Akira intended to do. The only precaution was to take his coat so as not catch a cold.

I love you.

One step down the stairs of LeBlanc. One thought. One jolt of pain.

I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.

Akira’s hand was on his chest by the moment he walked through the café’s door. His heart felt like it would burst, but that was something he would simply need to cope with as he walked through the streets of a false Kawasaki, in search for his other self.

Metres ahead, things started looking more and more like that infamous night over a year ago. First one figure, frozen in horror, and then another. Akira knew them well, but he still could not bring himself to look at them directly. The strangest thought came into his head: that perhaps he may at least come upon with a name for them, something that none else but him would know.

Then came the sound.

The groan that bordered the divide between human and beast. He found it more than unsettling that it sounded indeed like it was his own voice, even if altered by the means that birthed it. And even more so, that Akira could not tell whether it was far or nearby.

Though reckless, he saw no other choice but to make his presence known.

“I am here.” He said, pushing all fear deep below.

There was no response.

“Listen.” A little louder this time. “I am here.” Akira continued to call out to his other self. The first hints of a reply were the vibrations in the airwaves, something similar to a growl that slowly intensified.

Then, in the midst of the dark, he saw two bright, yellow eyes.

Staring wild and hatefully.

“Yes. Come to me.” He called out more confidently. “What you were made for, that’s not all there is to you… am I wrong?”

Only loud breathing as acknowledgement.

“Beneath that Joker casing, there’s a heart that beats. I’m only seeing it now, but I’m sure it is true.”

Akira swallowed a fearful breath and slowly approached the light of the eyes.

“You hate this place, don’t you? You hate what it’s in here. And what it means.”

“Ma…. Mak…” The doppelgänger uttered. It was a most weary voice; as painful to hear as it likely was to speak.

“Yes.” Akira probed. While he did not entirely comprehend what led to his double’s response, the pieces in his head came together.

But before he could silently claim a victory, the air was pulled right out of his lungs as he fell to the ground. The next thing he knew, barely a second later, was that his stomach felt like a train had smashed against it. And in the distance ahead, hasty footfalls scraped against the asphalt in a harsh getaway. The groan turned into a bloodcurdling scream in the unseen distance.

“I’ll make you free.” Akira managed to say with what little voice he could muster in that moment. He could not know whether Joker heard him, but that mattered none. His mind was made up. Nyarlathotep may be incredibly powerful, but the extent of his might was still bound to his “knight’s” success. Without his Joker, the Dark Lord would be looking at another exile from this world.

There was a certain, strange irony to this epiphany. None of the Phantom Thieves stood face to face with the other Joker. The only reference behind the fear was how easily he cut down the failed replicas, who struggled none to defeat the Phantom Thieves. The dread was construed around a relation of vulnerability. And it is another one such relation what may just be the key to victory.

Akira had the foundations of his plan already set. They started as suspicions, eventually leading to belief. And now his conviction was engraved in stone. In method, he was close to achieving it tonight. But he could not hope to accomplish a thing in here. This dark, false Kawasaki was just an outburst, an illusion projected onto Yongen-jaya. There was only place where any significant change could occur, and stick.

There were only two physical constants in Nyarlathotep’s realm. One was his palace. The other was a place hidden amidst a rocky formation. The latter was the one that mattered, for it was the Joker’s cradle. In order to free him and cripple Nyarlathotep’s schemes, Akira needed to turn him in the other side. In a way, he had to somehow steal his double’s heart.

Easy as that.

But he could not let Makoto know, or Ryuji, or anyone else. If they knew, they would brook no argument against accompanying him. That was tactically sound; it was exactly the kind of thing for which he would need support. But he knew what awaited in that dark place. Considering the volatility of the place in relation to anyone outside of Nyarlathotep’s initial design, bringing anyone else could yield unpredictable consequences. Perhaps they would end up facing great perils, or Joker may feel more compelled to directly engage them. A one-man operation with less variables may well be a better option in the end.

But in truth, Akira’s reason was far baser.

He simply did not want them to see what was in there.

Akira was back in LeBlanc a few minutes later. There was some solace in Sojiro being home at that time of the night. Less explanations to be told, and Boss would surely pick up on it if he lied. Unfortunately, Morgana was in Akira’s room, and he was every bit as sharp as Sojiro.

“Where were you?” The feline’s demand came under the thin guise of a question.

“I was outside. I needed some fresh air.”

“In the immortal words of one Ryuji Sakamoto, that’s bull.”

“Fifty-fifty. I was outside, yes. But I needed some time to think.”

“On what?”

“The masquerade. It’s a lot of logistics, and I feel like I absolutely need to wrap my head around every step of the way.”

“You’re not wrong. It’s a lot to do. But you shouldn’t burden yourself needlessly. Our work is cut out for us, Phantom Thieves. The others have their role to play, and I believe they’ll deliver. You should too.”

“I do.”

“You know that in this context, that means getting some rest, which you should be having right now.”

“Yes, mum.”

“Who loves me, by the way. And speaking of love, I think you should take a look at your messages.”

“Huh?” Akira’s phone lay on the mattress. A few notifications showed on the screen when he passed his thumb over it.

“I didn’t read anything, but I did catch a glimpse of a name on the screen. Just thought that may help you cool your spirits a little.”

“Yeah…” Akira looked a little troubled, remembering the most recent events between his girlfriend and he. “I think I’ll read this before turning in. Be right back, I’ll go change.”

A couple of minutes passed, and all lights in LeBlanc were off. The inside of the place somewhat resembled the quiet streets outside, but one soul remained awake, his face lit by the glow of his phone. It was 2 in the morning, but he found little harm in reading Makoto’s latest text message one more time. And just like Morgana said, that certainly helped take his mind off a few things.

His wished her goodnight one hour ago, and to his surprise, she replied when she ordinarily would be asleep.

Things were on the mend between them now. Things would start fresh come the morrow, as they walked the path towards the Masquerade, and the future that lies past that day. But despite himself, one thought lagged in his mind, and refused to leave, like a persistent connection between what he could share with those he cared for, and the things he had to keep to himself.

The one word Joker said, or was close to saying. The thing that confirmed Akira’s suspicions. A conjuration of love and fear.

Makoto.

Chapter Text

June 5. Saturday night. The Masquerade.

The word spread like wildfire. First, it began as a spark, as the joint effort of Futaba Sakura and Yuuki Mishima to send the first mutterings through the internet. Soon enough, the public took the reins. Whispers and hearsay. Posts on social media and lonely red flyers travelling across the cityscape. Cryptic messages and relentless theorising. No matter the medium, the collective eyes of Tokyo were fixed on the date.

Some saw this as a frivolous marketing ploy; others saw immanence – a nigh-hallowed manifestation of words and sounds. But no matter where each citizen stood, nobody was indifferent towards the coming event. It was a fitting reaction. After all, for good or ill, the work of the Phantom Thieves of Hearts brooked no indifference either.

Deep inside, everyone wondered if the mysterious fold that saved the country would make an appearance. Was the Masquerade merely a tribute, or were they in for something else? The latter summoned the wildest imaginings, but none came close to grazing the truth. The Masquerade was a design crafted by many – by the Phantom Thieves of Hearts, and those closest to them - purposed to save the world from a capricious and dark vendetta.

Even in its preliminary stages, the sole aftershock of the idea had an effect in Nyarlathotep’s domains. Day by day, the embryonic world of the Crawling Chaos yearned for their presence, for all uncanny eight, and no longer just the wild card that led them. The formless nature of the world’s make recognised their aim for dominance. This went against Nyarlathotep’s plan, but the Dark Lord was hardly worried. For even as the Phantom Thieves’ power in his world grew, so did his Joker’s.

The chaos and unpredictability they added into the mix with their unexpected incursion was still an asset to his favour.

No matter what happened, what gambit Akira Kurusu and his friends concocted, his knight of chaos was crafted after human nature unveiled. It was in their design to shape their existence around confusion, suffering, and fear. If his Joker was cradled from a moment of fathomless despair, even the things that may challenge that outlook will only make it stronger.

Whether it was the construct of entropy, or the hope bearers who proved stronger, one thing was a guarantee: they would inevitably come to face each other. The success of Nyarlathotep’s plan for the world, and human kind’s existence in a world of their own pended from that moment.

From the Masquerade.

Weeks passed, one by one…

[ ]

Sadayo Kawakami’s true calling was teaching. She would do nothing but, if she had the choice. But through a rough, and strange period of her life, her duties as a professor were temporarily sidelined by a job as a maid in a somewhat unsavoury line of work. Free to devote herself to her profession, however, she found herself straying an hour or two a week, in search of a new hobby.

And she found it in a most fortuitous way, in the crux of desperate need and inspiration. Truly, it was her friend, and local fortune teller, Chihaya Mifune who inspired this new undertaking. A crude clay statue resembling a bear with vulgar thoughts eventually led to more refined attempts at shaping a better souvenir. Chihaya, also wishing to help realise the Masquerade, joined her thus. And together, they set out to craft a very special artefact in large numbers.

Something hand-made.

Something that inspired a sense of belonging; something anyone could have.

An invitation of sorts.

Soon enough, the idea clicked. And they set out to work right away. On hindsight, it made perfect sense. After all, the Masquerade was for everybody to partake.

No matter who you are, you’re welcome to join. Just put this on, and come dance.

Chihaya Mifune certainly had a way of making the simplest of things sound momentous, Sadayo thought. The fortune teller seemed to have undergone a burst of holy inspiration when looking at their first piece. The educator felt like she was soon to follow on the experience.

On the table before them lay a ballroom mask with a simple, but catching design. Painted red.

The first of many.

[ ]

Izumi Sasahara was living the dream. In high school, she threw herself fully into her vocation by being the school’s newspaper greatest asset. Now, in her first year in college as a journalism student, she came upon a gold mine. But she was not quite going after a scoop when looking into the coming Masquerade. Her pursuit was a more personal matter. She wanted to see what the Masquerade was, in a way only she could – with the eye of a truth-seeker.

She followed her nose to what became her first lead: two boys. They looked to be sophomores with a busy schedule after school. But rather than gaming the afternoon away at the arcade nearby, they spent that time in the centre of Shibuya, drawing eyes to themselves with their breakdancing act. Even though their moves were still fairly basic, they were nimble and bold enough to earn attention, and even a few tips. Izumi caught the act in the middle, and stayed until they took a break.

Their eyes lit up when she told them she was journalist, although their enthusiasm had them miss the ‘student’ part. Regardless, they introduced themselves, as the Champions of the Street Performance Club. The one in the red hoodie and cap was Shinya “Warrior” Oda; the one wearing black was Kaoru “Gangster” Munehisa. Both were very forthcoming in the style and purpose of their act, to Izumi’s joyous surprise. They had come to one of the most public places in the city to be seen and heard, to make their message clear: the Masquerade was coming.

Warrior and Gangster, Izumi found out, were only one of the many acts to take place that day. Through the boys she discovered that many amateur artists and musicians were gathering for the event. Some did for the free exposure, and some did as a gesture of gratitude and appreciation. Shinya and Kaoru admitted doing it for both reasons, but something about the latter struck her oddly. She probed the line of question a little, and got no open answer from either of them. But there was a peculiar, underlying hint that neither Warrior nor Gangster could completely hide from her.

Izumi suspected. No, she knew that they were acquainted with the Phantom Thieves of Hearts. There was no proof, not even a halfway reliable semblance of a lead. But she knew.

And she pressed no further.

She may have gotten either to stumble with a carefully laid trap. But this was not something she wished to take advantage of. Though seeking truth, unveiling and showing it was her duty, she still had something of a Hippocratic Oath. Trying to expose the full picture here might only dampen the boys’ spirits.

As the sun set on the cityscape, Izumi said goodbye to Warrior and Gangster, promising to come and see their act in its full red and black glory. But even if she decided to leave this stone unturned, there was still a raging curiosity within. There was yet more to find, more to understand…

[ ]

The scenario, in its location and company was awfully familiar to Iwai Munehisa. But tonight, there was no dread in his heart, only conviction. The Gecko was not one to wear his heart on his sleeve, but his oath-brother Tsuda could easily see the fire in his eyes. Despite the steep business they were to discuss in their restaurant-of-choice, the two men knew already Iwai would get the assets he requested. In fact, Tsuda knew he would get away with it, even without needing to explain what he needed them for.

It could not be anything truly questionable, Tsuda thought. That was not the kind of man his oath-brother was, despite his bloodied past. But the sudden need for manpower was no small favour to ask.

There was one more peculiarity to the occasion. Daigo Igarashi had joined them for the evening. He was quite the unique fellow in the clan. Despite his young age, he had earned himself a reputation as loyal and frighteningly competent. As it happened, he had been tasked with ensuring the safety of a person of interest in Juvie Hall nearly two years ago, also at Iwai’s request. The task ended in success, despite whispers of a situation that escalated quickly. The young man was not known to be a social individual, but here he was, vouching for Iwai Munehisa.

Much like back then, this too pointed to being a favour for a friend. Tsuda conceded in his heart already. But at the very least, he would pose a degree of resistance, if only for potential listeners to know that he tried. After that, they would be free to indulge in their sake of choice, all the while poking some fun at Daigo, who was old enough to drink, but never indulged.

Hours later, when all was decided, Tsuda still dwelled on what Iwai needed the men for. Even as the world in his eyes became a foggy mess, the sake could not soften the gravity of his friend’s words. Tsuda laughed when Iwai told him he needed men to make sure nothing bad happened during the Masquerade event to come in a few weeks’ time. Even for a reason such as this, the evening felt like an ill-fitting formality. Nonetheless, Iwai Munehisa was as serious as a grave. Daigo also was not amused in the slightest.

Tsuda questioned why the Gecko would care so much about an event like that, which he himself doubted would gain much traction with the masses. There was no direct answer. But Tsuda garnered enough on his own from the shared attitude between Iwai and Daigo. There was nothing more to discuss. It was idle work for an evening, for which they would still be paid. Tsuda could well make it happen out of his own pocket.

Whatever happened, no matter how big or little, the attendees would have some unlikely guardian angels. He would have liked for his boys to dress in the Yakuza way, if only to amuse himself, but one could not have everything in life.

[ ]

Depending on the specific time in his life, Toranosuke Yoshida considered himself either blessed or cursed. He had a calling since he was a boy, and he exercised the skills needed since then. But even though he succeeded in becoming a politician, his career was fraught with scandal – little of which was of his own true making. Years later, coming out on the other side of a tarnished reputation, he thought himself the luckiest man in the world. From misfortune, he obtained experience. From isolation, he made the dearest, most loyal of friends.

And the Dietman knew one of such friends was in trouble on the day he called.

Akira Kurusu and he stayed in touch since the young man returned to his hometown. Strangely, his return to Tokyo brought forth a brief gulf of silence between them. Yoshida initially chalked it up to the demands in the life of a first year college student. But strange tidings reached his attention, and his fears soon proved true. His young friend and former apprentice would not go into details. And what little he could convey sounded strained by shame and reluctance. That was very much unlike the Akira Kurusu he knew.

In Yoshida’s line of work, there were few ways to interpret ‘any way you could help’. But this was not the world of politics and money. Far from it. This request pertained to something more complex, and at the same time purer. That is how Toranosuke Yoshida added his efforts to the Masquerade, and his young friend needed not insist.

In the following days, he learned from Akira how the event was being funded. Toranosuke was surprised to find how humble the event truly was, in terms of logistics. The aim was clearly different from that of many public events, so no sponsors or mass-appeal marketing factored in the equation. Even so, it took joint savings from he and his close circle to fund it. Little did Toranosuke know, most of it came through uncanny forays into a world of Shadows and Personas. A considerable, hidden slice also came from Okumura Foods. Regardless, Toranosuke thought he may well add some of his own savings to the pile, and state it a ‘passion project’.

Because it was.

The beat of his own heart led him to interpret Akira’s request in ways beyond the conventional world of politics. Too many politicians fell for the same trap, one that led them astray. They lost touch with the submission to duty and the commitment to the people. Sometimes, to remain a proper politician, one had to work the soil, and to walk with the masses. This is how Toranosuke Yoshida returned to being a public speaker.

In the streets and in the airwaves, he talked of the coming Masquerade, and invited others to do the same.

He knew this would bring out the true colours of his peers. Some would support it, and its significance; others would condemn it. Most, he guessed, would seek to gain favour with one demographics or another. But no matter the inclination, everybody in every strata would talk about the Masquerade.

And when the day of the event came, the formerly known “No Good Tora” would be there. Not as a politician, or a public figure. But as friend, and a believer.

[ ]

Dr. Tae Takemi was well known, both in the medical community and in the urban underworld of Tokyo. But the nickname of “The Plague” conjured vastly different views and emotions in both worlds. Even after her ruined reputation was redeemed, many of her peers looked on with mistrust. But in the whimsical, black underbelly of music and light, Tae Takemi was the one of its most precious members. The good doctor did not think her credentials as physician could much help Akira and friends for the Masquerade. But maybe the Plague could bring something else to the table.

For starters, she could bring people to the event. The Phantom Thieves were well respected, and even beloved, in the underworld, after all. But she felt there was more she could do. More than that, she could not tolerate the notion of being a mere on-looker, of helping only in a logistic manner. Every time she contemplated the coming event, she thought of Akira and the evolution of his ordeal. She had seen its beginnings, and stayed quiet. And even if there was nothing she could have done, she was angry at herself.

And anger was just the thing needed, as events unfolded.

First, she went through the entirety of her little black book, and carefully decided where and how to send the word. It was not stated outright, but for all intents and purposes, the Masquerade was a family event. Some flavours of the underworld would likely touch some sensibilities afoul.

Nothing too extreme or wild, she thought.

After careful consideration, she decided to approach her oldest friends below. A Punk Rock act that started as a Gas Chamber cover band, and eventually developed a style and identity of their own. Saint Doom – An all-girls band. Tae was there when the band came together, and saw them grow every step of the way. They were the perfect choice to take a share of the stage in the Masquerade, and bring the cloak of night from beneath the city with them. No sooner she approached the band that she was faced stark with a significant roadblock.

The lead singer was abroad, and the band was currently on a break. It has been a month since the girls last picked up their instruments. They were keen on the idea, however. Getting back into the flow of things was possible, as long as they found a replacement for their frontwoman. Dr. Takemi needed to think no more than a second before stepping up to the call.

She knew all the songs, originals and covers. She possessed the look and the spirit to represent Saint Doom. And she even secretly entertained the idea of performing, sometimes even indulging in the mimicry when nobody was looking, in the privacy of her little clinic. Her voice was not as practiced as the lead singer’s, but she had the other key ingredient in spades.

She had the anger.

At her peers, who made hell out of her professional life.

At the system, which begets the masses’ pain and lackings.

At the hidden Gods, who kept making humans their playthings.

At herself, from letting things get so bad for Akira.

The first burst of this pent-up wrath was a fine new beginning for Saint Doom. Rehearsals began the next day. Their resurfacing would be out in the open air, in the Masquerade - with The Plague at the helm.

[ ]

Two months from this day would make a year of sobriety for Ichiko Ohya. Spending most of her time in the company of her best friend in Crossroads never truly tempted her to drink again. However, the stress and exhaustion built over the past few months were making a perilous incentive. It was especially on the hours after sundown when she gently drowned her melancholy until the past became a lighter burden on her thoughts. The present moment felt eerily similar. Her prominent role in the early stages of the Masquerade and overseeing its growth in the media alongside Futaba Sakura and Yuuki Mishima made her so very tired, and susceptible.

However, the fact that she could barely keep herself awake was an unlikely advantage over her old vice. So was having one more interview to handle before mercifully calling it a night. She only hoped he would not take long to arrive after the end of his shift. Through this agonisingly slow passage of the minutes, Ohya could at least rely on Lala-chan to keep the coffee running, and the bottles far away.

Thankfully, the next person to come through the door was just who the journalist was waiting for. Yasunori Kujo, once a Yakuza courier, now reformed into a law-abiding citizen. Though appealing a story in broad terms, the devil was in the details. It was his friendship to two of the Phantom Thieves of Hearts what changed his path, without the need for a change of heart.

It went without saying, but the young waiter agreed to the interview as long as all names were blotted out. At first, Ichiko thought it was merely to protect his friends’ identities in relation to their alter-egos. But she then realised there was much more to his story as he went in a different, unexpected direction. His story began in Juvie hall, with the coming of a lean, harmless-looking boy named Akira Kurusu. Their friendship started off on the right foot from the first day, but Yasunori only truly knew Akira on the day two letters arrived for him. One was from his friends outside; the other was from his significant other, whom Yasunori eventually befriended too after reforming.

There was another young man called Shogo who bullied Akira on a daily basis. He never gave in, despite Shogo’s constant provocations, not even when he intercepted the letters meant for Akira. Alas, one straw finally broke the camel’s back. It sent Akira charging right into the fray breaking out, and revealed the character he had concealed from the beginning. And all for Yasunori’s sake. Alongside one Daigo Igarashi (whose name would also be kept anonymous), Akira Kurusu saved him, and even the bodily injuries he sustained delayed him not.

Yasunori only found out the truth about Akira Kurusu and Makoto Niijima’s other selves recently, only days after the mysterious incident at Arancia. But that violent day in Juvie Hall spoke volumes about the kind of person Akira Kurusu was, and the loyalty his friends inspired in him. Finding out they were the Phantom Thieves of Hearts was a simple exercise of logic after that.

Both Ichiko and Yasunori concluded this was something important – something that the public should hear about, without actually removing the veil. Even without the masks and the uncanny abilities, they were still people, driven by principles and the core understanding of right and wrong. Deep inside, no different than anyone else, as long as they brought themselves to care.

The story would be transmitted the day after through one of the channels available to the Phantom Thieves’ hacker extraordinaire. Subtly, but surely, the story would be read.

Ichiko, Lala-chan, and Yasunori toasted with orange juice. And the journalist was free to fall asleep in her best friend’s workplace like she used to. There was comfort in knowing she would not wake up the next day feeling like death warmed over, resenting herself.

No, Ichiko would be proud of herself, as Lala-chan certainly was.

[ ]

The owner of Mogami’s was too accustomed to deviate from the norm by now, and it was not by choice. The events transpired since his family moved location to Yongen-jaya have made his hair a little greyer, and his funds considerably more abundant. Still, he pined for that peculiar national sense of normalcy. Still, he could not think of closing store yet, not while his daughter Yumeko was still so enraptured by the impromptu shogi lessons, courtesy of Hifumi Togo. He simply had not the heart to cut the moment short.

If there was one thing he wish he could change, however, it was the awkward silence between he and the young man. Yuuki Mishima felt the same way. He could do nothing but pet the family’s white cat on the counter. This was disallowed for sanitary reasons, but nobody really cared while they were the only customers remaining.

From where Mishima stood, the days grew shorter as the date approached. Even when he tried to block the stakes from his mind, he found himself more nervous than ever in his life. His moments of greatest inadequacy could not match his current unease. Curiously, in times like these, a nice cup of coffee set his nerves at peace. LeBlanc had not been open for some days now, however.

The owner, Sojiro Sakura had become more involved with helping the Masquerade take form, just like Hifumi and he. If all went as intended, LeBlanc would open again, and life would go on.

If not…

No, Mishima did not even want to consider the possibility. Every time, it was harder to push the fear below. Going off the principle he came up with, now proved true, fear and negative emotions could have an effect as well, perhaps diametrically opposite and just as significant. His plate was empty, and the aftertaste of the dish was not enough to occupy his mind now.

All he had was the contact of Snow’s feline tongue against his hand. It was not a pleasant sensation, but it was somewhat comforting that the cat wanted to clean him. Yuuki clung to every inkling of a positive thought. And like trail of crumbs, each led somewhere, eventually ending in a spontaneous idea.

He took his phone and typed a message for Akira and his friends.

“Hi. I was thinking, we’ve all been hard at work for the past few weeks, and things are looking pretty great. Would it be okay if we all met tomorrow, just to unwind a little? I think we’ve all earned it.”

His phone buzzed a few minutes later with a reply.

“Sure. You’re right. Everyone’s been so hard at work. We need this. LeBlanc will be open tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

Days, weeks, months – how long has it been since he was no longer one in his own mind?

It made no difference to Susumu Kamiyama. Time lost its meaning inside of Nyarlathotep’s dwellings. The same could be said of the forces that held the coherence of the physical world. Gravity, magnetism, heat, sound – all meaningless. Even the constructs which human kind clung to in order to comprehend its existence were without importance, here in the Crawling Chaos’ twisted abode.

For a time, even Kamiyama’s own sense of self was overshadowed by Nyarlathotep’s will. He was practically ceasing to be, as his once ‘Benefactor’ asserted himself through the businessman. In the beginning, Kamiyama thought he had found the means to change the world for the better. Next thing he knew, he was but an instrument to the Dark Lord, only realising it through violent lapses of awareness.

Susumu Kamiyama was surely doomed… but the young man at the crux of Nyarlathotep’s plan, and his friends had changed that somehow.

Nyarlathotep still inhabited his body, but somewhere in the deep black beneath the flesh, the businessman idealist remained his own self. His thoughts, memories and drives were again his own, powerless as they were. He knew Nyarlathotep’s plans, his assets and limitations. And no matter how he looked at it, the picture was bleak. From the cold, analytical viewpoint of business-running, the Dark Lord had won already – it would be a simple matter of time for that loathsome victory to be evident.

But Kamiyama knew time no longer meant a thing in this world. And neither did the plain logic of cause, consequence, and probability. The Phantom Thieves would return to these domains; and when they did, Kamiyama would be ready to lend a hand, however he could.

He could not afford to waste a single moment.

His efforts in the infinite black expanse of chaos could best be described as ‘meditating’. What he sought was not something he could grasp in a physical sense, but it was not alien at all. In fact, it was very much part of himself, despite the circumstances.

At some point, he managed to make something out, translating the incomprehensible into something he could visualise inside of his head.

Then, he found himself a lone wanderer, hopelessly trekking across dunes in an endless desert. If he were to look up, he could either see a pitch black sky, or something so strange that his search would be irreparably halted. Thus, Susumu Kamiyama kept his gaze as far from the nocturne vault as possible. Eyes fixed on the sand, he continued to search for the colossus in ruins; the broken remains of what once had been great. Nothing could deter him from this quest.

However, other sensorial experiences soon followed on the heels of sight and touch. Susumu Kamiyama began to feel thirst, exhaustion, and the wear of cold and drought. Impossible sensations that nonetheless felt very real.

Days, weeks, months – how long has it been since Susumu Kamiyama embarked on the search for the fallen mighty one? With every inch his feet sunk into the sand, he felt himself closer to defeat. A familiar voice whispered on his ear, telling him that he would be a cadaver in the moment his strength gave in. And that ended up happening shortly after, with the sudden, harsh kiss of the desert on his face.

The businessman could make no sense of up or down. All he felt was his parched tongue, and the numbness of his limbs, which would strip him of all feeling if he stayed down a moment longer. But such terrifying sensations were nothing next to the despair that encroached on him.

[ ]

Izumi Sasahara’s personal quest continued. Each day she obtained something for her understanding of the Masquerade. In most cases, it came from random bystanders with a few minutes to spare; but sometimes she happened to run into some familiar face. There was occasionally an air of detachment in the former, but the latter always had something to say. She could not help but notice that many Shujin alumni were especially involved.

It made sense since the first known ‘stolen heart’ belonged to Suguru Kamoshida. But it still struck her oddly that such outlandish phenomena had started in a high school. And even stranger was the wild possibility that the Phantom Thieves were actually Shujin students; it was a notion she always entertained but never dared to fully pursue. For once, the mystique was too appealing to peek behind the curtain.

Anyone could have been one of those uncanny Phantom Thieves, if that were true. For example, Ann Takamaki, who sat in a table nearby while Izumi enjoyed her lunch. This was a perfect opportunity for the journalist-in-training. So with the professionalism of her craft, and the decisiveness of an assassin, she swooped in smooth and without delay.

“Takamaki-san?”

The bored look in the model’s face was dispelled instantly, leaving behind an air of vague recognition.

“Yes! Can I help you?”

“Possibly. I don’t know if you remember me, but I also used to attend Shujin. I’m Izumi Sasahara.”

“Sasahara… Oh, you were in the newspaper club!”

“That’s right!”

“Yeah, I remember. Sorry it took me so long to recognise you. You were literally in front of me just now. I remember I tried to join the club once. I was turned down, but you were very tactful still.”

“I’m sorry about that…”

“It’s okay! I was kind of unsure of what I really wanted to do for extracurricular stuff, and it probably showed. But, Nevermind all that. How have you been?”

“Well…”

The conversation on Izumi’s part felt like a ball of yarn being unmade. And all it took was Ann Takamaki gently pawing at the surface for the budding journalist to tell her whole story since graduating from Shujin. Ann was quite attentive, and showed genuine interest as opposed to the poorly-masked etiquette she was wearily used to. By the end of it, Izumi felt as if friendship had just blossomed between them, and she did not even realise how it happened. It was a rather scary notion.

“Takamaki-san… I mean, Ann. I apologise. I think I’ve taken up too much of your time already, but there’s something I’d very much like to ask you.”

“Sure thing. But take your time. I’m just here to meet up with a friend.”

“Well, if you really don’t mind, I’d like to ask your opinion about the Masquerade event about to happen.”

“Oh! Well that was kind of unexpected. Is this for Uni, or…?”

“To tell you the truth, I did very briefly consider using this for one of my practices. But it doesn’t feel right to me. The best way I can put this is… I wish to see how this develops. It just fascinates me. The people look so united over an event that’s not accompanied by great sponsors or anything. It’s not merchandise, or celebrities, at least not in the traditional sense. That’s quite a rarity these days, you know. The Masquerade just feels… sincere, just like the Phantom Thieves.”

“I think I understand what you mean.” Ann looked slightly serious. “Well, I do happen to feel strongly about the Masquerade myself. You can write it down if you wanna.” A friendly smile returned to her lips.

“It’s okay. I’ll record it in my head if it’s necessary. Just… speak with your heart.”

“Alright. I don’t think the identity of the Phantom Thieves was ever actually released to the public, but that doesn’t really matter. As far as I’m concerned, they could have been anybody. A relative, a friend, maybe even the stranger right next to you in the everyday commute. And that’s because we all live knowing how wrong things can be. Injustice, abuse… those things have gone unpunished for so long, and nobody can do anything about it. Even now, I bet. But then one day, these people find a way to help everyone, to do away with this apathy and all, and they keep at it despite persecution. That’s brave, but I honestly think anyone out there would have done the same if they could.”

Ann took a sip of her drink.

“That’s why I’m looking forward to the Masquerade. Nothing’s actually being sold, and for all I know, it’s just gonna be a couple of talent shows. But I feel like the heart of this event lies elsewhere. It’s not just a tribute to the Phantom Thieves, but a tribute to what we all wish we could do.”

“Which is?”

“Good things.” Ann smiled bashfully. “Despite all, you know… how most people seemed content with just going with the flow, I do believe everyone wants to be good. Sure, many thank the Phantom Thieves… me included. But the real show is probably seeing Tokyo gathered in one place, knowing these are people who know right from wrong, despite legality and habit. That’s very encouraging to me. Yes, we would all support the famous Phantom Thieves, but I think, given the chance, we would also support one another. There are still bad things out there. We cannot let up, Izumi.”

Izumi took a moment to digest everything that Ann said. Some of it echoed the gratitude displayed by most people she has talked to. But no one else thought of reflecting the better aspects onto the attendees.

“Takamaki-san, I mean, Ann.” Izumi began. “I never imagined you as an idealist. Not that it’s a bad thing.”

“I sure hope not. To be honest, I’ve wanted to get this off my chest for a while.” This was not a lie. She tried to stay strong after the events of the last month. The stakes and Nyarlathotep’s mind games had a way of eroding on her peace of mind. She could not imagine how it must be for the rest. Through it all, she desperately hoped they did not lose perspective.

“I can kinda tell… Um, Ann. I know I said I didn’t want to use this for anything, but hearing you now, I really need to ask you. Would it be okay with you if I write about this?”

“Sure! Go ahead, and while you’re at it…” Ann’s eyes strayed towards some unseen place behind Izumi. “How about another input from a Shujin veteran?” She waved lively at her friend Makoto, who agreed to meet up after school to kill some time before seeing Yuuki Mishima later.

“Oh!” The budding journalist looked behind her. “Niijima-senpai!”

Makoto recognised her immediately.

“Sasahara-san! Good to see you. Have you been well?”

“Yes, very well in fact. Oh, I hope I’m not taking too much of your time, but could I ask you a question?”

“Sure.” Makoto smiled awkwardly as she sat down.

“Did you and the transfer student get together?”

The former student council president said nothing, but there was a very audible cut in her breath. And to Ann’s amusement, the young woman became flustered at the suddenness of the question.

“Um… yes.” Makoto answered quietly.

“They’re still together, by the way.” Ann added.

“Lovely.” Izumi moved past this little whim with a giggle. “Okay, now I need to ask you, as a journalist, what is your take on the upcoming Masquerade?”

Though the while spent was not very long, it was valuable. Ann and Makoto got an insightful look into the trajectory of the Phantom Thieves’ gambit from the perspective of the public. Izumi got some food for thought and a very quotable input to help spread the word. The three also agreed to meet again someday soon after the event, which was something else to look forward to. Even contemplating small commitments helped their confidence before tackling on such gargantuan enemy as the master of chaos himself.

The two Phantom Thieves left for a restaurant in Chinatown, where they would meet up with the rest for perhaps one final chance to rest up before the date was on their doorstep. Along the way, Ann reflected on this brief interview with Izumi, and on a special few words the journalist-to-be said near the end. Perhaps she should consider a change of career. Being a spokesperson does not sound too bad a vocation.

[ ]

Despite the intended plan, not everyone showed up at the restaurant in time. Some arrived later, and some did not arrive at all. It made much sense to Akira Kurusu, seeing how quick and sudden this little outing was put together. Nonetheless, he was very grateful for being in the company of his closest friends. Boss and Sae’s presence kept the thoughts of the foreboding inevitable at bay, and seeing Yuuki nodding off in his seat was more amusing than he would admit.

There was a quick toast with tea in the middle of the evening. And it rekindled the shared warmth among friends. Gulping it down, Akira allowed himself to be mirthful for once. He almost could see those he held dear through Nyarlathotep’s tendrils in his view. Despite the bitter feeling of such dear sight being tainted by their foe, Akira committed this image to mind. He made it an indelible print, only for he to see.

The nightmare was at its end, regardless of the price it took. And he was willing enough to pay it in full.

Though he was adamant in his resolve to never let his friends know, he felt a cry within. The urge to call for help was unbearable, it burned and it bubbled uncontrollably. But the only thing that kept him set in his plan was knowing they would come with if they knew where he was going. They would brook no argument, marching on undeterred into the unknown, regardless of what risk it posed to them.

Akira could not deny that unity was their greatest strength. He would have never made it to this day on his own, after all. Operating on his own meant going against everything that made their modus operandi so effective. But from a less pragmatic point of view, it felt like a plain, vulgar betrayal.

Gulping down another mouthful, he convinced himself that this was the best course of action. They would be safe if he had his way, which led to the other thing that troubled him. He had the plan, but he needed to disengage from the others, get the chance to make it to that ‘place’ on his own. This was virtually as much of a challenge as the more ominous part of the plan.

But ruminating on the means only wasted the now. There would be time later to come up with a solution, even should he stay up all night. In this very moment, Akira Kurusu, in mind and presence, belonged solely to the people he loved.

Little by little, the mental chiaroscuro of peace and catastrophe faded from view. And only then did the party begin. There was no alcohol involved, but Akira was well inebriated anyway, and sufficiently bold to shower Makoto with affection in between sneaking food beneath the table for Morgana. Tonight, the fear of punishment by Sae Niijima did not deter him for a second. What’s more, his girlfriend reciprocated his gestures, going as far as stealing a kiss from him, which made him happy to be alive.

The feast continued hours into the night, when concerns over transportation and the bill tend to be more frequent. Though it gave no sign of slowing down, one thing became clear to everyone: not all carried the same energy into the occasion – namely Yuuki Mishima, who snored quietly despite the surrounding merry. He seemed nowhere near as disengaged when he replied to the text from Akira the night before.

Ryuji reacted almost as soon as he saw how deeply Mishima slept. Akira would have stopped him if not for the fact that he was too entertained to do anything. Straw in hand, Ryuji began tickling Mishima’s ear with the grace of a drunken worm. Yuuki groaned as the young athlete pulled him from the wall of sleep, not quite waking up yet. But inevitability struck with a loud, yelping sound that turned all eyes in the restaurant.

“Oh God!” Ann exclaimed, immediately sinking to laughter.

“Wha…? Where am I?” Yuuki mumbled, a thin line of nap-drool glimmering against the lights in the restaurant.

“Hey you, you’re finally awake. You were trying to cross the border, right? Walked right into that Imperial ambush same as us and Inari over there.” Futaba mimicked the rocking of a carriage.

“Hmm?” Yusuke was too distracted having his fill to notice what happened.

“If we were in a hospital, we could have pretended he’d just woken from a ten year coma.” Haru remarked.

“Come on, guys. Don’t tease him.” Makoto said, though she seemed quite amused herself.

“No, really… what’s happening…? How did I get here?” Yuuki looked rather unsettled.

“No need to worry, young man.” Sae spoke. “We’re in Chinatown, having a little outing. You’re in good company.”

“I should say so.” Sojiro said. “You agreed to come, after all.”

“I… I did. Oh snap!” It dawned finally on him. “Sorry everyone! This was so rude of me!”

“It’s okay, man.” Ryuji put some food on his plate. “We’re all just having a good time. Kinda weird that you picked now to take a nap, though.”

“Feeling tired, Mishima?” Akira smirked, as he poured some tea for him.

“Yeah, to be honest. Haven’t had much sleep these days. I swear I need to learn some organisational skills.”

“I suppose at some point you were bound to fall asleep, probably anywhere.” Haru said.

“Here, for example.” Ann suggested.

“Or the restroom.” Futaba added.

“Or a pharmacy.” Yusuke mused.

“Or in the middle of coming traffic.” Morgana mumbled as he chewed.

“Really, Mona? That one sounds more in Haru’s ballpark.” Makoto scolded.

Yuuki now joined them in stomach and spirit as he tried making the most of the time they still had left. Akira could not help but smile, for although the event had a couple of stumbles, it was a good way to celebrate. They deserved it, he thought, for all the work and dedication. But really, he thought they deserved this gracious ti