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“Our trip wasn’t as productive as I’d like, but I’m glad we were able to return safely from our first trip as teammates.”

Sakura smirks at him, “We just took it slow ‘cause we didn’t want scare off the newbie.”

“If Crow’s still this full of energy, I suppose we could have kept going longer.” Makoto muses, zipping up her coat while she talks.

Wait, “Hm? That would have made us miss the last train, wouldn’t it?”

Sakamoto shoots him a sympathetic look. “You know time doesn’t pass in the metaverse right?” He speaks slowly, and the intonation leaves Goro feeling insulted.

“What? Of course it does, we entered during the midday and it’s clearly evening now, don’t try to fool me with such ridiculous lies.” he huffs.

“No dude you don’t get it man, like, have you ever wondered why we always get outta the metaverse just before dinner?”

Sakamoto looks frustrated, and casts his gaze around, looking to the others to help him explain.

“I’d imagine it has something to do with the fact that our fearless leader has been timing your trips to avoid making his subordinates arrive late getting home.” Akechi’s voice could easily be mistaken as playful when he refers to Akira.

“Nah”

“-It would be a great waste of time if we were to lose members to exhaustion or their parents being suspicious.” Akechi double takes as he realizes Akira had spoken in the middle of his theorizing. “Wait. what?”

“Bold of you to assume I’d remember to do that.” Akira chuckles.

“Then... surely the vice commander?” Goro’s eyes cast desperately to Makoto, but she just shakes her head.

Ryuji sighs,“We ain’t gotta time anything man.”

“That’s-” Akechi breathes, “Impossible. The metaverse is formed by the cognition of the public, time should move just as the public perceives it to.”

Takamaki cuts into the conversation with a thoughtful question “But people don’t really pay much attention to the time, right?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, like, we go to school, and then we get off school, and then we go home for dinner or the adults start to get off of work,” she explains, not paying attention to the confused look on Akechi’s face. “We think of time passing like checkpoints in our routines, right?”

“What does that have to do with the metaverse?”

“What Ann means is that we think that the metaverse follows these “checkpoints” and so each ‘action’ only moves us forward one checkpoint in time.” Makoto tries to simplify, but Goro's more confused the more either of them add to the subject.

“That makes no sense.”

“Well duh, pulling a giant monster out of your ass to fight other giant monsters that are actually other people’s brain juice or whatever doesn’t make any sense either, but it still happens.”

“That is... very true. How did you all discover this though?”

Takamaki, Sakamoto, and Akira share uncomfortable gazes. Leaving Akechi even more curious.

“We kinda got… trapped?” Ryuji gestures vaguely, “in Kamoshida’s palace I mean.”

“I thought I was gonna die. That place was horrible.” Takamaki groans.

Akechi looks to akira for clarification, only to find him looking embarrassed and avoiding his gaze. “I didn’t mean to…”

“If you hadn’t pulled that lever then it wouldn’t have happened.”

“Neither of you tried to stop me at the time.” Akira says, crossing his arms over his chest and looking away.

“We were down there for a week .” Takamaki throws her hands in the air exasperatedly.

“Hey! We’re just wasting time like this! Hindsight is twenty twenty and we can’t change what’s already happened.” Morgana snaps. “We gotta leave before someone starts asking why there’s a big group of kids loitering in front of the courthouse.”

The other three all snap out of their squabble, leaving Akechi without the answers he asked for and more questions than he started with.

“That aside, we’ve been using the Metaverse to the best of our abilities when we have the extra time.” Makoto states meaningfully.

Akechi swallows anxiously. The look in the “vice commander’s” eyes leave him worried about the future. “-What exactly do you mean by that?”

 


 

“We’re sleeping here?” Any permutation of the flat question made sense in this situation. We’re sleeping here? We’re sleeping here? We’re sleeping here ?

The so-called “safe zone” resembled a subway platform the way a cabin in the woods resembled a cottage in a forest - that is to say that the flickering lights humming overhead and deep red shadows had all the comfort of a serial killer’s lair.

Yellow eyes and grotesque shapes moved in the strange twilight beyond the platform.

“Yeah, tbh we’re not going to to finish in time if we go home.” Oracle responded, tucked up between the wall and the chair at the end of the row with a laptop on her knees. Her hand periodically disappeared into a bag of chips. How she could relax within an arm’s length of an open door eluded him.

Queen and Panther spread out a row of sleeping bags with the ease of practice and it was only then that Goro noticed that there were other things stowed neatly under the subway seats. Joker was in the process of pulling out a tiny camping stove and packages of ramen.

Fascinating. “How did those get there?”

“Yeah, I dunno. We just leave them in the first safe zone and they show up at all of them.” Skull hadn’t even bothered unrolling his sleeping bag. He just sprawled across the seats with his hands folded behind his head, one of his boots tapping an irregular beat against the worn plastic. “Weird, right?”

“It’s kind of fun isn’t it?” Noir piped up from another of the seats. “It’s just like camping.”

“I don’t know if fun is what I would call it.” Fox was so hunched over a notebook that it had to be painful, his pen flying over a fresh white page. “Artistically stimulating, perhaps.”

“Nobody but you would call it that.” Panther laughed, pulling a handful of fashion magazines from behind a chair.

Without missing a beat Queen nudged Fox in the side as she passed with what looked suspiciously like a textbook in her hand, and Fox straightened with an inarticulate mumble. “If you keep slouching you’re going to complain for days.”

“...You got any manga back there?”

“Bring your own stuff, Skull.” Panther flopped back on her sleeping bag and crossed one ankle over the other. In near tandem Queen settled in roughly even with Panther’s hip and rested an actual textbook on her crossed legs to better see in the dim of the station.

Skull turned hopefully to Noir. “What about you H - Noir?”

“Sorry, Skull. I only brought one book.” Her voice managed to sound completely absent and sympathetic in the same breath. She was already sucked into her novel.

“Aww, man.”

“Take this and stop whining.” Oracle held out a Swap game system, which Skull snatched from her hands with a broad grin.

“I fuckin love you, man!”

“I know.”

To be frank Goro assumed they were soft children lacking in conviction. At a glance the Phantom Thieves were an existence unlike his - warmer and brighter and without darkness. Voices whispered on the impossible wind, shadowy hands and twisted faces pressed to the windows of their sanctuary, figures crowded around the open doorway. They didn’t even flinch.

Goro nearly jumped out of his seat at sudden movement in the corner of his eye. The threat turned out to be a tin mug of ramen in a red-gloved hand.

“You should eat.” Akira said quietly, his voice slipping into the higher register of the gentle barista rather than Joker’s intimidating baritone. “It helps.”

Goro’s hands cupped gingerly around the mug and found that it was cooled down to the perfect temperature. For a moment they could both be back at the cafe, and it was shocking how much that eased the anxiety curled tight in his throat. A sip filled him with warmth from head to toe, banishing his weariness like magic.

“...Thank you.”

Akira smiled. “Any time.”

 


 

“How much time have you all spent in the metaverse?” He asks once they’re once again rumbling over the tracks in Mona’s… in Mona. It’s weird no matter how you phrase it.

“I dunno, it’s not like we can keep track.” Oracle answers, not looking up from her screens.

Panther sees Akechi’s unsatisfied response and peers over her magazine to add, “A few days here, a week there, it all sorta blends in after a while.”

Akechi regrets asking.

“Hey maybe if we stay in here long enough we’ll start lookin’ like adults!” Skull exclaims, drumming his palms on the back of the seat. “That’d be so cool , and then we could wander ‘round Shinjuku without the cops naggin us.”

“That’s -” Goro sputters. “Why would you want to go there?”

“What are you, a cop?” Joker calls from his position in the driver's seat.

“Oh can it Joker, you just don’t want him to find out about your news lady girlfriend at the bar.”

“She’s not-!”

Skull laughs at Joker’s expense “Fine fine, fake news-lady-girlfriend.”

“Joker frequents a bar to visit an adult woman?”

“He doesn’t just frequent man, he works there.” Ryuji drawls, his shit-eating grin drawing Akechi’s attention.

“Ooo, careful there Skull, you know what they say about snitches.” Oracle teases.

“... The fact you all evaded capture this long just goes to prove that the police department is in shambles.” Goro rubs the bridge of his beak, already feeling a headache forming from extended exposure to lack of common sense.

“Or maybe they are actually secretly on our side?” Panther exclaims excitedly.

Goro sputters, “Wh- how did you come to that conclusion?”

“Well, you just said it was weird we haven't been caught.”

Maybe she’s messing with him. Or, maybe, Occam's razor applies here too. After all,  like Arthur Conan Doyle said, the simplest answer is usually correct.

Joker, of course, can’t resist stirring the pot. “I wonder if the police chief isn’t a secret fan.”

“Dude that would be awesome ” Skull crows.

Goro cringes, “... I wouldn’t bet on that.” he remembers the things the chief said while he was interrogating shadows, the faceless cognitions of the ‘thieves’ that still wrench a shiver when Goro remembers them, but of course he can’t mention that.

“I imagine our constant evasions of the police put quite the stress on him.” fox muses. Goro nods. “Mind your movement crow, I’m nearly done with this sketch.”

“When did you-?”

Fox cuts him off “Approximately an hour ago, now sit still.

Goro breathes a sigh, steeling himself for the next few hours, days, weeks he’s forced to spend with these people.

Well, it can’t be too bad.

Noir looks up from her book, “Joker, do we still have some of the tea that boss gifted us?”

“Hey! No hot drinks back there! I still haven’t forgot last time.” Mona yells.

“Hot drinks?” Goro questions, “we don’t even have water, much less any thermoses of tea.”

“Oh, haven’t you heard?” Oracle grins like a cat, “Fox can I have some ice?”

Fox proceeds to pull off on of his gloves and summon a mid sized chunk of ice, all without looking up or removing his mask. Goemon remaining nowhere to be found.

“Thanks,” she places the ice into a… metal tea kettle? “Panther?”

Goro thinks he knows what comes next, and he’s proved correct when, in the next moment Panther seizes the kettle and catches on fire . (just her hands, but it is the concept of the thing. )

The ice melts and is quickly brought to a boil. Just as it does, Noir hands back a jar of loose leaf tea. Goro stares on in a mixture of awe and fear, feeling like, for the second time in as many days, he’s underestimated the teens that call themselves the Phantom Thieves.