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Fortune Favors The Bold

Chapter Text

Naoto & Akira

(Source. Image is by the fantastic BrinkOfMemories.  You can find this image, and many other great ones, at their tumblr.)

“They’re sending her?”

The voice on the other end of the line kept talking.  With each word, the SIU director’s brows furrowed further down, and any smile he had vanished more and more.  Sighing, he rubbed the bridge of his nose, pushing down his glasses.  This was turning into a headache.  “We already have Akechi-san here.  With all due respect, sir, what do you think she could possibly do to help?”

The voice went on.  Hiroshi wanted nothing more than to hang up and pretend he’d never had this conversation.  His fingers moved from his nose to the top of his desk, drumming the hardwood.  “I understand, sir, but I really don’t think this is necessary.  We have several promising new leads, an-”

More words.  More rising annoyance.  “Very well, sir.  I’ll make the arrangements myself.  She’ll have our full cooperation.”  He mashed the disconnect button and carelessly dropped his phone onto his desk, taking a moment to think about this hitch.

This was a problem.

He slowly rose from his office chair and stepped out from behind his desk, moving to his window.  Gazing out onto the bustling streets of Tokyo far below him, he mulled over his options.

Saying no clearly wasn’t available.  Neither was pulling some strings to get her sent away - people higher up than him had made it very, very clear that the continued activities of the Phantom Thieves were reflecting poorly on the government.  Though his collaborators could do many things, even this was beyond their power - this was the institution they were trying to topple, after all.

There was also the obvious solution, but doing that to a world famous detective would undoubtedly only bring suspicion upon them.  Those kind of hits were planned and calculated, and using them to simply get rid of an inconvenience was overkill - and it added more evidence to a subtly growing pile, one that would eventually be impossible to hide.

Burying her in red tape and procedure was possible, but ultimately wouldn’t lead to much.  She was famous for a reason, and her connections and reputation often let her fast track most things she needed, when she was able.  She knew the system inside and out, so anything he could do could be easily overcome.

Still, it was the only option he had available.

Hiroshi walked back to his desk and picked up his phone, dialing in a number..  Like or it not, his true employer deserved to know what was going on.  He glanced around to make sure no one else was in his office, then he hit the connect button.  It rang twice before someone picked up.

“It’s me,” he said when the line connected.  He heaved out a small sigh, then continued speaking.  “We...may have a problem.”

Naoto Shirogane was a long, long way from Inaba.

She was sitting at the desk in the corporate studio apartment that was her home for the next several months.  Dossiers of the Phantom Thieves’ ‘victims’ were spread out in front of her, and her laptop was open to her left.  She was typing the occasional note as she read through them.

Every victim directly targeted by the Phantom Thieves has experienced a sudden and out-of-character ‘change of heart’.  This ‘change of heart’ appears to be an unusual form of brainwashing or mind control, compelling the victims to confess their crimes and experience a massive influx of guilt.

Her mind raced through explanations, each of them as unlikely as the last.  Kirijo tech?  Some kind of hypnotism?  Very well done blackmail?  The police were long on questions and very short on answers, or even suspects.  To call the situation ‘desperate’ would not be incorrect.

She let out a slow breath and blinked, sending a pain through her eyes as they watered over - she’d been so deep in concentration that she’d forgotten to blink for the past few minutes.  Rubbing her eyes with her hands, she saw that sign for what it was.

Ugh...I need to take a break.  I can’t overwork myself before I’ve even officially started this case.  Rise would’ve dragged me away from this hours ago.

A smile graced her lips as she pictured Rise literally dragging her chair away from her desk, then spinning her around and frowning in that adorable way she does.  With a grunt of exertion, and extra motivation from the mental image of her disappointed girlfriend, Naoto rose from her chair and stretched her body out.  The grunt made her realize just how dry her throat was, so she walked over to the small kitchen area and poured herself a glass of tap water, sipping as she thought.

Then there’s the mental shutdown cases, which differ in two ways: first, they don’t get calling cards, and second, they actually harm the victim.  Are these shutdowns perpetrated by the Phantom Thieves as well?  Do they sort their victims into two categories and merit out punishments?  Why would they attack seemingly innocent people with shutdowns and genuine criminals with calling cards?

She stopped herself from going too far down this line of thinking - it would do little good now to get so obsessed with it.  Hopefully, her first trip to the police station tomorrow would help - there, she could get more evidence, obtain more complete statements, and link up with the SIU’s own investigators.

She made a mental note to get to the station early tomorrow, partially to make a good impression and partially to avoid any media presence - she was fairly certain her arrival had gone unnoticed, but if the news found out that both Detective Princes were working on the same case...

She shook the thought from her mind.  The media was more Akechi’s thing, anyway - she had no stomach for interviews and fame.  Glancing outside her windows, she saw only the lights of the city - the sun had long since set, and Tokyo’s nightlife had come out to play.  She glanced over at her work, considering going back to it.

As if on cue, her stomach grumbled, so she instead settled on calling it a night and grabbing some dinner.

The warm night air wasn't too uncomfortable to Naoto, and she took in the sights and sounds of Shibuya for a little while, walking up and down the shops near the station and central square.  Spotting Toranosuke Yoshida giving a speech in the station intrigued her - she knew his political career had ended in shambles years ago, but he had quite the focused crowd here in front of him.  She stopped and listened for a few minutes, his speech invigorating her more than she thought it would.

Her idle wanderings eventually brought her to a late-night beef bowl shop, which seemed as good a place as any to eat at - she didn’t make it a habit to eat out all the time, but she’d been too tired to go grocery shopping when she’d arrived.  This would tide her over for now.

She walked in and took a seat at the counter, glancing at the young man taking everyone’s orders.  He looked high school age, with short, fluffy black hair and large, round glasses.  His work outfit, she noticed, was not too far from the outfit she’d worn for the whole Midnight Stage incident - blue hat, blue shirt, dark pants...all he was missing were suspenders and a yellow tie.

I hope I never have to save the world through dancing again.  At least it was easy to dance in.  And Rise said I looked good with a tie.

“What’ll it be?”

She snapped out of her thoughts and glanced up - the boy was standing in front of her, ready to go.

“Oh.  Uh…”  She glanced at the menu in front of her, scanning it quickly.  “I’ll have a medium beef bowl, please.”

The boy nodded and scurried off, going to enter her order into the computer, but something seemed to catch him mid-stride.  He turned back to Naoto and did a small double take.

Naoto know that reaction all too well.  She’d been recognized, so she gently shook her head, then looked back down at the menu.  To his credit, the boy didn’t press, so her mind wandered back to the cases.

There must be a normal explanation, but nothing I know of can make people confess in this manner, overloaded with guilt.  Given the apparent lack of one, is it worth considering the possibility of something paranormal, or am I jumping to conclusions?

Her previous experience with events lacking mundane explanations is what was guiding her right to this idea of something normal.  The Midnight Channel, Midnight Stage, and A-1 Grand Prix fighting tournament had opened her eyes to an impossible world.  The Phantom Thieves sounded like they were performing impossible feats.  No one could figure out how they were changing the hearts of their targets, just like no one could figure out where the Midnight Channel’s subjects had gone.

The similarities admittedly could just be coincidental, but Naoto knew instinctively that something wasn’t normal with this case.  The mental shutdown incidents only compounded the situation - separately, the Phantom Thieves and the mental shutdowns would’ve flown under her supernatural radar, but so close together?

Something’s not right.  These confessions are too...poetic.

Justice, as she knew, was rarely so poetic in the real world.

The boy brought her dinner over, carefully setting it down in front of her.  “Thanks,” she said with a gentle smile as she looked up.  The boy merely smiled in return and gave her a short bow, then stepped away to resume his job.

Naoto picked up her chopsticks and was about to dig in when a decoration atop the food caught her eye - a small magnifying glass had been drawn in a light sauce atop the egg yolk.

The addition brought a wide smile to Naoto’s lips, and she glanced up to try and find the kid’s eye.  Noticing the movement, he looked up from washing dishes, and there was a moment between them as they saw into each other.

Good kid.  Perceptive, too, with the way he figured out what I’d laugh at so easily…

An image of Yu came unbidden to her mind as she started to eat.

As she took her time getting back, her phone buzzed - a text message from Rise.

> hey u!

Smiling wide, Naoto’s fingers flew across the keyboard.


> im so sry nao-kun, i cant call 2nite as usual.  mr mgr is being a butt! >_<


> ofc! i luv u, naoto-kun!


> \ (^◡^) /

Face flushed, Naoto put her phone back in her pocket and headed back to her apartment at a brisk pace.  For one, she didn’t want people to see her blushing, and for two, she had a big day tomorrow.  The Phantom Thieves were about to meet their match.

Chapter Text

The courthouse was busy when Naoto arrived, despite the early hour. She supposed that the city’s law enforcement was galvanized by the Phantom Thieves, spurred to action by their sudden rise to stardom and public favor in such a short time. That favor had only increased in the wake of Junya Kaneshiro’s confession, and the Thieves were riding that wave all the way to the bank - Naoto had seen more than one sticker with their logo on it slapped onto a traffic sign or onto the side of a wall.

Her early arrival had caught her yet-unknown partner by surprise, so Naoto was passing the time by sitting in the lobby, watching prosecutors, attorneys, and police move through the building. The lobby itself was attractive and spacious, with a polished gray stone floor, green and white marble columns in the walls, and windows that let the early morning light shine in. Soon bored with the people, Naoto let her eyes wander, and they naturally found the windows. Following the streams of light down, her gaze ended up upon a state of Themis, bathed in sunlight. Curious, she stood up and walked over to get a closer look.

It stood proud and tall over the courthouse lobby, carved from a much lighter stone than the dark floor. Despite the Greek name, the statue was clearly carved in the image of a Japanese woman, with long, straight hair and a rounder mouth and cheeks. In her left hand was a broadsword, pointed down, and her right hand held aloft a set of golden scales, equally balanced. Cloth obscured her vision, as it should - the ideal of justice was blind, meting out punishments to the deserving with complete impartiality. The scales were for sorting the wicked from the innocent, and the sword was for punishing those found guilty.

If only it was so simple in the real world.

Justice, while blind, was not impartial when humans came into this mix. Corruption in the government was a common affair - the number of exposed corruption scandals was nearly at double digits already this year - and the desire for the prosecutors to rise up lead to an aggressive criminal justice system. Convictions were what mattered over justice, and prosecutors often pushed for conviction, even when the evidence pointed elsewhere or there were strings very obviously being pulled. In an environment like that, it was so easy for truth to get lost.

So what, then, is the truth?

Her dedication to the idea of truth over justice had always been strong (her grandfather had always called her a little truthseeker), but it was heavily reinforced after her time with the Investigation Team. Had they stopped reaching out for the truth for even a moment, any number of terrible events would have occurred - Kanji, Rise, or even Naoto herself would’ve died. Namatame would’ve been left for dead in the Midnight Channel. Adachi would’ve gotten away with his crimes. Izanami would’ve flooded the world with fog.

What if the Phantom Thieves are like Namatame - instigators, yes, but well-intentioned, hiding a larger threat? Who are they? How do they choose their targets?

The targets were certainly deserving of their punishments, and therein was the conflict: situations where justice was rightfully served always created a clash within her. Her sense of law, reason, and procedure fought against her innate desire to see these monstrous men put behind bars at all costs. No one would argue that the targets were even moderately good men, and even Naoto found the idea of taking down criminals with no restrictions or red tape appealing, but...

If they continue to do things their way with no consequences, how long will it be before they go too far? Who holds them in check? Who gave them the right to decide punishments for the guilty?

Police and prosecutors had laws, rules, and restrictions to ensure that justice was only reserved for the wicked and deserving. The bureaucracy and red tape could be annoying, and occasionally harmful, but the methods were in place to protect both the public and the police. Circumventing these procedures could lead to thrown out court cases, bad convictions, and innocent people being sentenced to a lifetime of social stigma.

What will happen, I wonder, when they do go too far?

There was a moment as Naoto stared into the blindfold of Themis when the world around her faded. It was just her and Themis, each sizing the other up, each studying the other intently. Naoto didn’t know what she was searching for, but Themis did. Themis was testing her, making sure Naoto was ready for what was coming.

“What should I do?” Naoto whispered to the statue.

What you have always done, Themis replied without speaking, a familiar female voice echoing in her head. Seek nothing less than the final truth. Ruin is coming, awakened one, and the only one who can avert it may need your help. Find him, aid him, and turn the wheel of fate once more.

A flash of bright blue caught Naoto’s eye, and she looked up to spy a small blue-winged butterfly flying through the air above the statue. Another image came unbidden to her mind as Yu’s had last night, this one of wavy blonde hair and studious yellow eyes. Distantly, she heard gentle music with a piano, strings, and a single operatic singer.

The moment passed, and she was back in the courthouse, gazing at Themis. The butterfly and music had gone, just as quickly as they had appeared. How long Naoto had stood there, looking at the statue in the sunlight, was anyone’s guess.

“Naoto Shirogane?”

The voice got Naoto’s attention, and she turned around in time to spot a woman approaching her from the elevators. She was tall, and as she got closer, how tall became apparent - when she finally stopped in front of Naoto, she towered above her by at least a foot. Her outfit said all business, with a dark suit, black turtleneck shirt, and black heels. Her hair was long, gray, and pulled over to the left side of her head, giving her a very focused look to compliment the natural, sharp beauty of her features. It was a far contrast to Rise’s gentle curves and softer features, but this woman was no less attractive in Naoto’s eyes than Rise was.

Her mind must be as sharp as her cheekbones to walk around here with that much poise. Messing with her would be the last thing I ever did.

Naoto herself was dressed in a beige suit with black accents along the back half of the collar and on her wrists. She had an expertly tied gray-blue necktie to match, offsetting her dark blue hair that hung down to her waist. Her black, laced shoes were much flatter than Niijima-san’s heels, but clicked no less. A respectable-looking analog watch on a brown leather wrist strap completed her outfit - a gift from Rise for Naoto’s 18th birthday.

Her eyes sought out Naoto’s, and the power that she felt from the woman’s brown-eyed gaze would’ve given even Yu pause. The attitude and seriousness that resonated from her struck a chord with Naoto - it was appealing, both on a personal and professional level. Whoever this woman was, she was not here to waste time. There was a second between them as they each regarded the other, searching for anything they could use. Naoto was used to being the only person to do that in such situations, but it seemed that this woman was full of surprises.

“Sae Niijima, public prosecutor,” she said with a respectable bow. “I’m running the lead on the Phantom Thieves case.”

Courteous and dangerous, thought Naoto. Rise would’ve called her handsome. The idea almost made her smile, but she held it back for now. “Pleasure to meet you, Niijima-San.” She returned Sae’s bow. “Good morning, as well. I trust I’m not late?”

“The opposite, actually. You caught me by surprise.” Sae turned away and gestured with her head for Naoto to get alongside her. “Walk with me.” Naoto took one last glance at Themis before getting in step alongside Sae, who started to walk quickly away towards the elevators. “How much do you know?”

Naoto found herself almost jogging to keep up. Sae was clearly in a hurry. “Nothing beyond what the public knows and what your people sent me.”

“Brief me, then.” Sae’s tone was short and to the point, but there was some kind of undertone to it. Naoto couldn’t place it, but it irked her.

“The Phantom Thieves are a vigilante group that is responsible for exposing the crimes of numerous high-profile men. Their methods are unknown, and their targets turn themselves into the police, plagued by an immense sense of guilt and shame. Each target is sent a calling card, with a rough outline of their crimes and an assertion that the Phantom Thieves will ‘take their heart’.”

Sae nodded as they stopped outside of the elevator, and she tapped the call button. “That’s the basics. You’ve been paying attention to the news, at least. What else do you know?” She turned to face Naoto, casting a critical eye upon her.

What else does she want to know? Is this some kind of test? Regardless, Naoto continued. “So far, every target has been deserving of punishment, and the Phantom Thieves seem to know things few others do. Their target choice has made them immensely popular in the public’s opinion, and the people are inherently supportive of their actions. Everyone loves to see a villain exposed.”

Seemingly satisfied, Sae gave a curt nod as the doors slid open with a ding. She and Naoto stepped in, and Sae tapped the button for the fourth floor. “I’m afraid we can tell you little more than you already know. I’m not sure how useful you’ll be here, Shirogane-san, especially with Akechi-san already in town. Pardon my being so blunt, but you being here seems superfluous.”

Her honesty caught Naoto off guard, and it showed on Naoto’s face. That Sae was willing to be so up front about that so soon said something on how Sae felt about this entire case. Naoto wasn’t sure exactly what that was. “I appreciate your candor, Niijima-san, and to be perfectly honest with you, I don’t know how useful I’ll be either. If nothing else, it’s a fresh pair of eyes on the situation, and that never hurts.”

Sae didn’t respond, leading to a silent trip up to the fourth floor. The elevator opened up to reveal an airy hallway lined with doors - prosecutor’s offices, likely. Naoto followed Sae out of the elevator and into one of those offices, taking a look around as soon as she walked in.

It wasn’t very roomy, but it was nice, complete with an outside view. The whiteboard on the right wall caught Naoto’s attention, mostly because it was covered with photos, articles, and multicolored writing, all on the Phantom Thieves. Two tall filing cabinets were in the corner, set between the whiteboard and the window, which itself had a spectacular view of the city.

Sae’s desk was closer to the window, giving her lots of natural light. It wasn’t messy, but it was cluttered, covered in files and papers, with a laptop open atop the desk. Two framed photos sat on the desk, facing away from Naoto. It was fairly similar to many other prosecutor offices she’d seen. “Who else knows I’m coming?”

“I didn’t tell anyone,” Sae said as she sat down behind her desk. Naoto took a seat in a chair in front of the desk. “And the less people know, the better. It’s bad enough having one famous detective around, much less two. Akechi-san’s schedule here is...inconsistent, what with all his television appearances.”

Sae spat out the last sentence like a foul-tasting worm, making her distaste for Akechi’s media habits clear. Was Sae jealous of the attention Akechi got, or was she frustrated at his lack of work? Given her business attitude, Naoto assumed the latter - they had a case to solve, and he was busy playing PR.

“I have no interest in the media,” Naoto stated, waving her hand dismissively. “I only ever give interviews when a case is closed, or when I feel it will be useful in luring out the culprit, as I did in Inaba. My fame’s only real advantage is in striking an element of fear into the hearts and minds of criminals - aside from that, it does me little good. If Akechi-san finds his fame to be an advantage for getting on TV, he may do as many of those interviews as he likes. Meanwhile, there is a case to solve, and I have no desire to waste time by talking to talk show hosts and news anchors.”

Sae arched an eyebrow at Naoto’s unexpectedly emphatic words. Perhaps she had not foreseen such a clear disparagement from a fellow Detective Prince, or maybe she thought that Naoto would be the same kind of attention seeker that Akechi was. Even in her younger days, Naoto had rarely sought out the spotlight, finding all the attention a detriment to her actual work. Akechi was all too willing to go on TV shows and speak to reporters; Naoto preferred to bury her nose in her work and let the results speak for themselves.

Something changed between them. It wasn’t a big shift, but Sae relaxed a tiny bit, and Naoto saw the merest hint of a smile appear on her lips before it vanished to the mirthless abyss from whence it came.

“It seems were are of like minds, then,” Sae said as she rifled through the folders on her desk, pulling out three of them. “And perhaps you are right. A fresh pair of eyes might do us good.” She handed them to Naoto, who took them, glancing at the labels. They read, in order, KAMOSHIDA, SUGURU; MADARAME, ICHIRYUSAI; and KANESHIRO, JUNYA.

“These contain everything we have on each victim - personal files, signed confessions, and interview transcripts. Everything they told us, and that we found out, is in here.”

Naoto flipped through them idly. “Very well, I’ll get right to work. Thank you, Niijima-san.” She glanced up to see that Sae had already turned her attention to her laptop. “Shall I leave you be?”

Sae nodded, terse, but not rude. “If you don’t mind. I have other cases that require my attention.”

“Of course, I understand,” Naoto said as she stood, straightening her jacket with her free hand. “Can we discuss my findings over lunch?”

Another nod from Sae. “I’ll see you at noon in the downstairs lobby. Don’t be late.”

“I’ll be there. See you then.” With that, Naoto gave a small bow and turned, exiting Sae’s office and closing the door behind her. She let out a breath as she walked back down the hall to the elevator, intent on reading the files down in the lobby. She turned them over and over in her hands, examining their thickness. They were not as hefty as she would’ve liked them to be.

I don’t know what I’m looking for, she mused as she descended in the elevator, but I’ll know when I find it.

It was time to get to work.

Chapter Text

Ryuji: dude

Akira: which one?

Akira: there’s like three of us in this group message

Ryuji: the plural dude bro

Makoto: That would be “dudes”.

Ryuji: would you smartasses just turn on the TV and go to channel 6

Yusuke: Oh dear.  That can't be good.

Ann: (。´・д・)o

Ryuji: holy shit we’re so famous they called in the other detective prince

Makoto: As if one of them wasn’t bad enough…

Ann: (。ó﹏ò) what are we gonna do?

Akira: nothing we can do

Akira: anything we did would just raise our profile

Makoto: He’s right.  We’ll just have to wait for Futaba-chan to wake up and go from there.

Ryuji: o yeah

Ryuji: how’s she doin bro

Akira: still out

Akira: boss isn’t worried, so if he’s not worrying, i’m not

Ann: Well, at least one of us isn’t…  ( ̄ω ̄;)

Yusuke: He’s not lying, either.  Cool as a refrigerator on a warm summer’s day.

Ryuji: why didn’t you just say ice

Yusuke: Given my Persona's element, I thought such a comparison would be firmly in the realm of "egotistical".

Akira: his ego doesn't really need the help, tbh

Makoto: Don’t be rude to your boyfriend, Akira!

Ryuji: don’t tell akira what to do

Akira: yeah, listen to ryuji

Makoto: I don't think that would be a good idea.

Akira: listen to ryuji at least this one time

Akira: throw him a bone, he's earned it

Ryuji: y'all can just come up with codenames yourself next time

Makoto: You mean, "come up with the codenames yourselves".

Ryuji: did i stutter

Yusuke: Given that this is a textual medium of communication, stuttering is impossible.

Ann: (⌣_⌣”) I'm muting this conversation forever.

This was not going to be easy.

Naoto had known that from the moment her assignment had come in, and her first day on the job had only confirmed what she had feared: the police had nothing actionable.

Their list of suspects included every student on the volleyball and track teams at Shujin Academy, every pupil of Madarame, and every person Kaneshiro had ever stolen from.  This list was easily well over a hundred people, and no person appeared on all three.

The calling cards had no fingerprints, fibers, or anything at all that could be used.  No local printers had made the cards, and tracking everyone who had bought ink in the past four months was impossible.  Even the transcripts from the targets never named anyone directly, because they weren’t exactly focused on catching the Phantom Thieves - they had long since accepted their fates and were not exceptionally cooperative, far more focused on their own misery and guilt.

This case was one of the toughest she'd ever worked, and thinking on it consistently brought her back to the Inaba Murders.

It wasn't exactly the same case, of course, but the sense of mystery and distinct lack of evidence that defined the Inaba case were both present here in Tokyo with the Phantom Thieves.  Adachi had been responsible, directly or indirectly, for a string of murders that only stopped when Yu and the rest of the Investigation Team uncovered the secrets of the Midnight Channel.  During her solo days in that case, Naoto herself had been utterly stumped, only able to piece together a pattern based on TV appearances and the fact that all of the people on TV had gone missing.

Both the appearances and the going missing were just coincidences, but they were repeated over and over.  That made them patterns - narrow ones, at that - and it was what had lead Naoto to her conclusions.

With the Phantom Thieves, there were no discernible, narrow patterns that foretold their targets.  There was no predictor in place that Naoto could see.  The only pattern to their preferences was that their targets were adults, in positions of authority, abusing (among others) teenagers - hardly a pattern that would produce a small pool of suspects.  Keeping tabs on every corrupt adult in the city that had contact with teenagers would be impossible to start, much less maintain for any length of time.

Compounding the case were the mental shutdown incidents, linked to the activity of the Phantom Thieves by timing only - the kind of victims that were hit with mental shutdowns didn't match the profile of victims who received calling cards.  Sae had been gracious enough to provide Naoto with what the police had on these incidents, and Naoto suspected a connection, but couldn’t prove one - Sae was working the Phantom Thieves, and Akechi was on the mental shutdowns, and they talked often about them to each other.  Or, they did, when Akechi had the time.

The mental shutdowns in particular stuck out to Naoto because it seemed to resemble Apathy Syndrome.  Mitsuru had told her of the Tatsumi Port Island-specific affliction after they had met during the P-1 Grand Prix business, and Naoto herself had seen it during the Midnight Stage debacle. There, it'd been called Mass Lethargy Syndrome.  She and Mitsuru had concluded that they were the same affliction - at Gekkoukan, people’s Shadows weren’t being devoured, just their “psyche”, and with Mass Lethargy, people’s Shadows were being taken from them by Mikuratana-no-Kami.  With both causes, it was the same result, and the pattern was clear.

Here, though, the mental shutdown targets were often not turned listless or slothful - they were becoming enraged, driven mad, made to do things they normally never would have done.  Many of them recovered afterwards, having no memory of the incident, though some passed away.  Who lived and who died had no pattern, along with who went mad versus who simply went lethargic.

Still, it nagged at her - between Tatsumi Port Island, Inaba, and now Tokyo, every victim experienced emotional or mental changes with no real physical trauma.  In the former two incidents, Shadows were involved in some way, either people’s own individual Shadows or ownerless Shadows that preyed on innocent victims.

Naoto hated jumping to conclusions, but her sense that something beyond the physical world had changed in Tokyo was growing stronger and stronger the more she thought about it.  It was dangerous to go down this line of thinking, but she filed it away in a prominent place in her head.  Proving it would be hard, but if she could…

“Now arriving at Shibuya Station!"  The announcer’s voice snapped Naoto from her reverie, and she glanced out the windows to see the platform zooming into view.

Switch it off, Naoto.  Work’s over for now.  You deserve a break.

She took in a deep breath, releasing it slowly through her nose as the train came to a stop, metaphorically leaving her cases back at the courthouse.  For now, it was time to explore the city some more.  As she stepped out of the train and looked around the station, the underground mall seemed as good a place as any to start.

The mall itself was moderately crowded this evening, and Naoto took some time browsing the various shops carrying all sorts of wares - clothing, accessories, handbags, jewelry, sweets, foreign imports, records, video games, and a dozen other categories she didn't keep track of.  Her recognition got her a few stares and whispers, but no one approached her, and she'd long since learned how to tune the background chatter out.

She had packed light due to the short notice, so she only had a few sets of clothes, so she spent most of her time stocking up on clothes.  She'd brought precious little in the realm of entertainment, and to her disappointment, the mall did not include a bookstore.  she resolved to save that trip for the upcoming weekend, maybe pick up some movies as well.  She also needed to make a grocery run - her apartment had a kitchen, but no food yet.  The nearby convenience store would do fine for a few days, but she longed to cook for herself.  Yu’s teaching had not gone to waste.

She was only a little bit into her browsing when she happened upon a flower shop.  Curious, she walked over and gave it a cursory examination.  It was a small stall, but it was beautiful and colorful compared to many of the other shops.  The back section was stocked with many gorgeous flowers, and there were accessories all around - display stands, pots, and wire racks, among other things.  A young, cheerful woman was standing in front, likely to take orders, and another employee was in the back - they were facing away from Naoto, busying themselves with something.  Curiously, there was a cat sitting in the back, a beautiful black shorthair with a white mouth, white paws, and a white-tipped tail

The woman (Naoto guessed she was the owner or manager) turned to face Naoto and bowed, flashing her a bright smile as she straightened up.  “Welcome!  Can I help you with anything today?  Would you like to order a custom bouquet?"

The thought of Rise holding a bouquet of beautiful flowers and doing that sweet, warm smile of hers was all the motivation Naoto needed to move forward with the idea.  “Perhaps,” Naoto said, thoughtfully rubbing her chin with her left hand and setting down her bags.  “Do you deliver?”

“Yes ma’am!  We have a contract with an express delivery company to make sure your flowers arrive just as beautiful and healthy as you see them here!”

“Excellent.  I’m afraid I don’t know the meanings of many flowers, but I believe I can describe the colors I’d like, if that’s all right?”

The manager nodded, smiling wide as she reached over to the nearby stall and picked up a clipboard, starting to fill out a form.  “Of course. Kurusu-san!"

At her call, the employee in the back turned around to face them, and Naoto had to do a double take - it was undoubtedly the young man from the previous night at the beef bowl place.  Same short black fluffy hair, same big round glasses, same high school age.  The only thing different was the uniform.

He must be dedicated, working all over the place.  I wonder if he’s providing for someone.

“This young person would like to order a bouquet.”  The manager turned to face Naoto.  “This is Kurusu-san, my assistant.  Tell him what colors or styles you’d like, and if you can, who this is for.  The intention of this bouquet and the relationship you have with this person will help him choose the right flowers.”

Naoto and Kurusu locked eyes for a moment, and she saw something in the way that he looked at her.  It wasn’t lecherous or demeaning or anything of the sort - it was thoughtful, piercing, observant.  He was listening, that much she could tell, but he seemed perceptive beyond the normal.

It took her a moment to even get back to the task at hand, but she managed, kicking her brain into gear. “It’s for my-...dear friend.  She means a great deal to me,” she said with a gentle smile, and she couldn’t help the flush that colored her cheeks.  Thinking of Rise often did that.  “F-for the colors, I’d like, uh...pinks and blues.  Darker or richer blues, if possible.  Is that all right?”

Getting those sentences out had taken way more effort than she thought it would, but Kurusu nodded in understanding and got to work.  With some help from the manager (and the cat, given how often it meowed), he picked out some flowers.  Naoto, to avoid showing her flushed face as much as possible, turned her attention to her phone.

Soon, they presented Naoto with a gorgeous bouquet, made of a mixture of white, pink, and deep blue flowers of various sizes.  The colors blended perfectly, the pinks adding an element of playfulness and charm that reminded Naoto so much of her girlfriend, and the blues serving to contrast the otherwise light colors and add a richness to the entire ensemble.  Smiling, Naoto lifted it to her nose and inhaled deeply, delighted by the fresh scents.  She hadn’t said what Rise was to her, but Kurusu seemed to have caught on anyway.

She’s absolutely going to love this.  “This...this is perfect.  Thank you very much.  How long will delivery take?”

“Only a day or two.  Can I get the address and name of the recipient, and would you like to attach a note?”

Naoto nodded, taking the form the manager handed to her and filling it out.  She avoided using Rise’s real name for obvious reasons, instead using a pseudonym, and she had it delivered to their apartment.  For the note, she wrote:

I think pink and blue go well together, and I’m glad you do as well.  I miss you already, and I love you dearly.  I’ll be home before you know it.  Love, your Prince

She paid for the flowers and bid the stand goodbye before she turned and walked away, resuming her impromptu shopping.  She couldn’t shake the image of Kurusu, the way he seemed to look beyond what she presented.

Still, she tried her best to let him go as she ducked into a jewelery store, looking at the many rings and necklaces that were way above her price range, thinking of what else Rise would like as a gift.

Yu had once explained to Naoto how she was deeply associated with the Wheel of Fortune from the tarot.  This particular card, as she’d studied, stood for many things when used in divination:  luck, fate, fortune, opportunity, destiny, cycles, turning points.  In less commonly benevolent ways, it also stood for circumstances beyond one’s control and a fickle nature, changing often between one thing or the other.

Many of his friends, he'd said, were associated with some element of the tarot's trump cards.  As fantastical as it sounded to be linked with a mystical tarot card, it seemed to fit - Naoto herself had changed the way the investigation was proceeding when she'd joined Yu and the others, and she had seized her own destiny and changed the course of her own fate.  It was not to say that the rest of the team didn’t matter, but her entrance into the Investigation Team had caused a permanent shift in how they acted.

Perhaps it was this association with Fortune that lead to her meeting with Kurusu once again.

She was leaving the convenience store near the station with some food staples in tow when she almost crashed into someone as they were moving quickly out of a side alley.  Naoto stumbled with a yelp, nearly ending up sprawled out on the ground as the other person awkwardly spun off to avoid a collision.  They both ended up unbalanced and off-kilter as their bags fell to the ground, the contents spilling out.

Her hand found the other person's side, and their hand found her shoulder, and when they’d finally steadied each other, only then did Naoto look up and find that it was none other than Kurusu.  He was accompanied by the cat from the flower shop, perched on his shoulder and holding on tight.

“Sorry about that,” he apologized as he looked her over, checking her for injuries.  “Are you okay…Shirogane-sama?”

She smiled, waving her hand to indicate she was fine.  “We seem to keep meeting, Kurusu-san.  And I’m quite all right, nothing’s broken.  Here, let me help.”

She moved to pick up his bag as the cat meowed loudly, leaning down to push the contents back in, and that's when what had spilled out of his bag caught her eye: exceptionally well detailed airsoft firearms, including a revolver, a shotgun, and an assault rifle.  She pushed them back into the bag and picked it up, handing them back to Kurusu, who took it without so much as a blink.  Airsoft guns weren’t illegal in Japan, though the realistic quality of these weapons (not counting the orange tip, of course) was a little strange.  “Weekend hobby?” she asked, eyebrow raised.  Her tone was polite, far from accusatory

“Yeah, you could say that,” Kurusu replied, nonchalant as he straightened up and rotated his shoulders.  His cat meowed again, and he glanced over at it, shrugging in response.  It then looked at Naoto, watching her with unusually intelligent blue eyes.

"I'm surprised you have time with all your jobs, but I can respect your work ethic.  Can I ask why you work so much?"  She began gathering up her own things, and Kurusu set down his bag and knelt down to help.

He indicated the bag of airsoft weapons.  "I have hobbies, and I'm too young to work the street corners, so here we are."  The casual tone he used for such a statement made her grin, and once again, she was reminded of Yu - he and Kurusu shared a bone dry wit.

"I can respect that."  She had her own guilty pleasures, after all.  "A lot of the money from my first few cases went towards Phoenix Ranger Featherman figures."

Her bags gathered, she stood up and was about to bid Kurusu goodbye when the idea hit her.  Glancing back at him, she arched an eyebrow.  "Can I trouble you to walk me back to my apartment, Kurusu-san?  It's not far, but I'd like to speak with you for a bit, if that's all right."

This was as good an opportunity as any to learn more about how the people of Tokyo saw the vigilante group, and she had a more personal reason for wanting to speak to him - something about Kurusu still stuck out to Naoto.  There was some kind of air about him that she couldn't place.  This would surely help her place it.

The cat meowed, a low "mrowl" sound.  Kurusu glanced at it, then nodded to Naoto.  "Sure, I'm heading that way anyway.  Morgana's been whining for the last half hour.  I think he's hungry."  He got in step beside Naoto, and the two started walking back towards the station square.  From there, Naoto had a few blocks to go to her corporate apartment, and thus, home.  But until then...

"What do you think of the Phantom Thieves?"

There were probably subtler ways she could've asked him, but Naoto was nothing if not direct.  Kurusu looked down at her, perhaps thrown off by the question that came from seemingly nowhere, but he hid it well if he was.  "I think they're necessary," he stated.

The answer caught Naoto by surprise - she hadn't been expecting such a strong one.  "Necessary?"

"Someone has to bring these people to justice, and sometimes the police can't or won't."  He shrugged again.  "They're doing what needs to be done."

Naoto nodded, taking the chance to really scrutinize Kurusu.  He seemed to carry himself well, but he was hunched over, his free hand in his pocket.  He was making himself smaller, less notable - difficult, given his height.  He spoke quietly, too, despite his emphatic tone.  For someone who seemed so noticeable, he didn't want to be noticed.  He hid his opinions unless asked for them, it seemed.

"They're courageous, I'll give them that," she said as she looked ahead of them.  "Few people would be so bold as to take down a mob boss, a world-famous artist, and an ex-Olympian gym teacher.  All those targets had connections, authority.  They all were used to getting their way, and hurting others when they didn't - it was dangerous to take them down, and yet, the Phantom Thieves did.

"It makes me wonder if the Phantom Thieves are, perhaps, victims of these people.  I think they feel an obligation to help, a duty to the world that only they can fulfill - they want to make sure no one else suffers like they did."

It's how we felt back in Inaba...we had a purpose, a goal.  Someone had to stop the murderer, and it wasn't going to be the police.   We had to stop Adachi, because we wanted to ensure no one else was hurt.

"...and I was supposed to be listening to you talk about them, not ramble on myself," she said with a soft giggle.  "Apologies.  What do you think, Kurusu-san?  Do you think they feel an onus?"

"They feel something, all right."  Morgana meowed, and Kurusu nodded, reaching up to scratch behind the cat's ears.  "If what you say is true, and they are victims of those people...I think they want revenge.  I know I would."

"Revenge?"  The answer wasn't surprising, and she and Sae had discussed it.  Kamoshida had nearly killed a student, beat countless, and sexually assaulted several.  Madarame had stolen the life's work of many people, claiming it as his own, producing forgeries to drive up his prices.  Kaneshiro had ruined hundreds of lives, stealing and blackmailing with no remorse.

Naoto preferred to think of the thieves as more noble than stooping to revenge, given their apparent lack of injuring their public targets and their focus on redemption through justice.  Revenge and justice were two halves of a whole, the only thing separating them being a selfish desire to act for yourself as opposed to others.  Revenge was, Naoto knew, a selfish act.  When they had nearly thrown Namatame into the Midnight Channel, that would've been revenge.

But justice had found us the truth.

"I've seen what the victims of Kamoshida and the others have gone through, and I can see why they would want to make those men suffer."  She took a moment, thinking back through all the cases she'd worked on, and how many times she'd felt a fleeting urge to smash her fist into the face of a criminal for what he'd done.  "I've worked on many a case where it was genuinely difficult to arrest a subject and hand him over to the courts, knowing deep down that he was guilty but might get off anyway.  The rich men are the worst, so confident and cocksure, sneering and smirking as we force them into handcuffs.  It's worth it, though, to see their faces fall as the judge sentences them."

She sighed, turning her gaze skyward, admiring the gorgeous colors of the oncoming night.  She missed the quiet of Inaba, but she felt an odd sense of comfort here, like it was where she needed to be.  Kurusu said nothing in reply, instead walking along in silence for a few moments.  Whether he was thinking or just walking, Naoto couldn't tell.  She was so unused to being around someone who seemed to study her as much as she studied them - she'd caught Kurusu looking at her a few times as they walked, stolen glances that were observant, critical.

Kurusu finally broke the silence as they approached her apartment building.  "Why this case, Shirogane-sama?"

Her attention turned back to Kurusu.  He looked almost worried, so she gave him a reassuring smile.  "Because I was asked, for one.  Because it intrigues me, for another.  It seems...similar to another case I had, back in my hometown of Inaba.  Not in obvious ways, though."

They arrived at the entrance to her building, and she stopped, turning to face Kurusu fully.  "In more subtle, obscured ways.  The patterns are there, somewhere.  I just need to find them."

Kurusu blinked a few times, then handed her the bags he was carrying.  "Well...good luck, Shirogane-sama.  It was nice talking with you."

"Thank you, Kurusu-san.  And thank you for walking me home, and also for...indulging my curiosity.  The conversation has been quite enlightening."  She bowed slightly, and he returned it.  "Good night to you."

With that, she turned and went into her building, leaving Kurusu on the sidewalk outside.

Same quiet nature.  Same way of getting me to talk without knowing it.  Same observant habits.  I wonder if Yu has a long-lost younger brother he didn't tell us about.

An image of Kurusu stuck with her as she rode the elevator up to her room, and stayed with her for most of the night.

Chapter Text

Something was different about Goro Akechi.

It’d only taken a single conversation to figure that out.  In fact, it’d taken even less - all Naoto had needed was a good, solid look at him in person, away from cameras and reporters.  The opportunity had finally presented itself when the two had spoken for the first time at the courthouse, a few days after Naoto’s arrival in Tokyo.

She’d been sitting in the downstairs lobby, going over some case files related to the mental shutdowns.  Talking over the cases with Sae had given Naoto a hunch that there was some kind of pattern, and she’d dedicated her lunch hours and some other spare time to finding it.  Her primary goal was working with Sae to catch the Phantom Thieves, but the mental shutdowns were too interesting to fully pass up, despite the time pressure of wanting to find the Phantom Thieves before Medjed’s deadline in a few days.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw a constant movement, and she looked up to spot the famed heir to her former title Goro Akechi making his way across the lobby to her, coming from the elevators.  Deciding that the work could wait, she kept her eyes on him as he came towards her, taking some time to analyze his stride and attitude.

His eyes were quick, bright, alert.  He would occasionally glance away, but he didn’t dart around like someone scanning for threats would - rather, it seemed as though he was looking for knowledge, assessing everything he could with a single glance.  Naoto knew the habit well, it being one she herself had.

He was certain and assured in his steps, beyond what she expected of someone his age - he was older than she had been during the Inaba case, but he was still young for a detective working a case as high-profile as the mental shutdowns.  His stride possessed great confidence, and if Naoto were a more cynical person, she might’ve gone so far as to call it bordering on arrogance.  He didn’t think that he belonged here - he knew he belonged here, at the forefront of justice, as if he believed this is exactly where I deserve to be with his whole heart.

This kind of feeling, one of deserving one’s position, was something that Naoto had struggled with in her younger days.  She lacked the mental assurance that Akechi presumably had, the assurance that she belonged where she had been.  The constant negativity from the higher-ups that doubted her and told her she was too young had taken their toll on her self-confidence, and though she didn’t lack belief in her own abilities, she never felt like she belonged, like she was somehow faking it.  It was an odd position to be in - to be so sure of what she was doing, yet to be so unsure that she should even be doing it.

Akechi seemed to have no such doubts.  He was in the right place, he was the right person, he was doing the right things.  He had the blessings of the police and the SUI, and Naoto felt a twinge of jealousy.  She had blazed the trail for Akechi, and the world was ready to roll out the welcome mat for another detective prince, far more than than had been ready for the first.  Things had changed in the years since Inaba, and Akechi had the charm to take advantage of his fame - something Naoto lacked.

She didn’t fault him for his attitude, of course - it was better better that she had gone through that kind of struggle so no one else would have to.  Akechi had so far done incredibly well with the title of Detective Prince, and she was more than happy to give it up to a newcomer, especially one would take the attention away from her.  Passing on the torch had never officially happened, but it was something she had done with no hesitation.

His time as title holder was also noticeably different from her own.  Where her movements were careful and cautious, unless she didn’t want to be, Akechi walked around with his head up high.  Where she had scrambled and resisted the doubts from her superiors to push through, he was the golden child of the SIU.  Where she had avoided the media unless necessary, giving interviews at her whim, he had built up his reputation through talk shows and appearances.

As she thought about it all, it finally clicked - his walk, his attitude, his poise.  It wasn’t that he was cocky, or overconfident.  Rather...

He’s ambitious.

Ambition was a double-edged sword.  It served as a focus for goals and desires, a motivator for achieving what a person wanted.  Without ambition, there was no drive to succeed, to rise up and accomplish dreams.  Too much ambition could lead to overreach, overextension, and ultimately, a downfall due to their own twisted desires and goals.

It would be interesting to see which way Akechi would go.

Knowing that he would spot her analyzing him, Naoto halted her obvious observations as Akechi got closer, and she smiled when he stopped before her table.  “Shirogane-san,” he greeted, bowing at Naoto.  “I’m glad we finally have the pleasure of meeting.  You’ve been the talk of the courthouse since you arrived.”

The news of her name being on everyone’s lips wasn’t surprising.  Naoto had learned a long time ago to filter out such whispers and idle conversation - it distracted her, and she didn’t want distractions.

“I hope it hasn’t bothered you too much, Akechi-san.  It is good to finally see you in person,” she said with a smile as she got to her feet and returned the bow.  “I’ve been meaning to speak to the Detective Prince for quite some time.”

“Please, you flatter me with the nickname,” Akechi said as he waved his hand dismissively.  “I wear it with pride, and I hope I do it the justice it deserves. Do you have a few minutes?  Sae-san asked me to brief you on the mental shutdowns and psychotic breakdowns.  I’d also be lying if I hadn’t said I wanted to speak to you on a more personal level, as well,” he admitted, giving a small “what are you gonna do” shrug with his shoulders.

Naoto nodded as she got back into her seat, indicating the empty chair across the small table.  “I’d appreciate it. I was just now looking over some files she sent me, but if you can summarize what we know better…”

Akechi sat down opposite Naoto, setting his marked briefcase down by his chair.  The giant A caught Naoto’s eye before she turned her attention to Akechi again.  “I could, Shirogane-san, but your reputation precedes you, so indulge me, if you will?  Sae-san was quite impressed by your analysis of the Phantom Thieves, and I would like to know what your thoughts are.”  He leaned back and crossed his arms, giving her a small, confident smirk.  “Amaze me.”

Naoto arched an eyebrow, then placed her hands together and leaned forward on the table, meeting Akechi’s eyes.  “Very well.  There are two major event patterns that involve abnormal mental behavior, which I had erroneously categorized together - your own separation of the two distinct situations in your reports showed me that said cases should, in fact, be treated separately.  For that, I thank you.”

She raised a hand, fist closed.  “In the first case,” and out came her index finger, “the victim enters a state of catatonia and becomes unresponsive.  Death soon follows.  In the second case,” and out came her middle finger,  “the victim enters a fugue-like state where they become enraged or perform acts that are unusual for the victim’s normal temperament.  They eventually recover, provided their actions have not lead to their own death, but have no memory of the incident. Lastly, the rarest kind,” and she stuck out her thumb, “both things happen - the victim acts unusually, seemingly psychotic, and dies shortly after.

“The pattern for the victims so far appears random - or, at least, my own information is lacking something I could conceive as a pattern, which I hope to remedy by studying the case files and, ideally, your own private observations.  The later is, of course, up to you.”

Akechi nodded thoughtfully, stroking his chin as Naoto spoke.  He seemed impressed, or at least, satisfied.  Naoto continued, encouraged.  “Psychotic breakdowns happen more often than the mental shutdowns do, which are mercifully rare - fortunate, as they result in death.  That these cases have began increasing as the Phantom Thieves’ activities have picked up could be a coincidence, or it could not.  The Phantom Thieves are, of course, suspects, but I don’t think they’re causing these shutdowns and breakdowns.”

“An interesting conclusion,” Akechi said.  “What lead you to it?”

“What we know of the Phantom Thieves is that they administer their own brand of justice.  Even you would agree that their calling card recipients are villains who deserve to be caught, would you not?”

At that, Akechi nodded in agreement.  “True.  As you have no doubt heard me say, I find their goals noble, but their methods far from it.  They are not the law - they are vigilantes, criminals in their own way.”

“I agree.  As for the other victims, the psychotic breakdown and mental shutdown ones, they are not universally villainous people.  Some of them are certainly questionable in deed and word, but even innocent victims have been hit - the subway driver in April, for instance, was an honest man by all accounts.  These victims have received no calling cards, no chance at reformation on their own terms.  The Phantom Thieves’ methodology that we know of is starkly different from whatever or whoever is doing these terrible mental afflictions.”

“You seem convinced that an intelligence is somehow causing the afflictions, Shirogane-san,” Akechi said, regarding her with interest.  “I have found myself considering such a thing, and so I must inquire: what makes you so sure of this conclusion?”

She tapped the files next to her, smiling slightly. “All things have a pattern, Akechi-san, as you’ve no doubt discovered.  The only trouble is finding it.  Were it some kind of infectious disease or new mutation, there would be a pattern between the victims - a common place, a common person, a common food.  These cases are involve victims from all walks of life, with all kinds of diets and all kinds of habits.  The only commonality is that all of these attacks have happened in the Greater Tokyo Area, which means there’s something in the air, or there’s someone in the area.

“I could be wrong, of course, but my instincts tell me I’m right, and they have been my greatest ally as a detective.  I have confidence in my deduction, as I’m sure you do, that whoever is causing the shutdowns and breakdowns is indeed very intelligent.  There is someone behind these, Akechi-san,” Naoto declared with a certainty she rarely used outside of a courtroom, “and I will find them before I am done.”

Something changed in Akechi’s eyes as he listened to Naoto’s promise.  He had been focused on her before, but now he was focused on her, studying her as if for the first time.  He regarded her as not just as person, but as Naoto Shirogane, the ace detective.  There was a respect in his eyes that had been missing before, a certain level of regard for Naoto’s intellect that he hadn’t possessed.

She had gotten her foot in the door with him, as planned.

His expression lasted for only a flash before he sat up in his chair and smiled, clapping his hands together a few times in genuine approval.  “Impressive, Shirogane-san.  You have an eye for the unusual, it seems.  Your reputation is well deserved - just be sure to not focus so much on my case that you neglect your own.”  He smiled, his tone telling Naoto that his chide was more joking than serious.  He pushed his chair back and stood up, brushing himself off as he grabbed his briefcase.  “Regrettably, I cannot stay and chat longer, as much as I would like to.  Perhaps we can rendezvous next week, after this Medjed business is dealt with?”

Naoto nodded, smiling up at Akechi.  “Of course, Akechi-san.  Take care of yourself.  Good luck on your case.”

With that, Akechi turned and left, walking out the front door.  Naoto watched him leave, noting with some surprise that there was a difference in his stride.  He was still confident, yes, but something about their encounter had changed him.  Perhaps he thought he no longer needed to be as sure in himself.  Perhaps he was mulling on how to handle someone as sharp as he was in the same building, though Sae was more than a match for him in that regard.  Perhaps he was debating on what to do next.  Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

Naoto had bigger concerns.

She opened up one of the files and got back to reading.  She had some patterns to find.

Sae cut an impressive silhouette.

Naoto found herself transfixed, studying Sae as she was distracted, looking down at a file set on her desk.  The light of the setting sun coming in through the window bathed the office in a warm orange glow, gorgeously falling upon Sae’s hair and softly illuminating her face.  It gave her fair skin an unearthly, but incredibly attractive, glow - ochre-tinged gold, her naturally sharp features alluringly highlighted to Naoto’s focused gaze.

She’s...incredible.  Sharp as a blade, inlaid with silver and delicately polished to a mirror shine.

Sae was dangerous, but Naoto had played with fire enough to know the risks.  She didn’t take them unless there was something worth gaining.

...maybe there is.

Naoto stood and stretched, raising her arms up over her head and arching her back.  Sae’s eyes flicked up at the movement, then looked - very deliberately, Naoto figured - back down at the paper.  “Leaving, Shirogane-san?”

“Yes, I’m feeling a bit hungry and worn out.  You’re staying?”

Sae nodded, flipping over a page and looking back down to the file.  “There’s work to be done.  I’ll see you Monday.”

Naoto picked up her briefcase and turned to go, then turned back - all part of the plan.  “Are you hungry?  I was going to get some food on the way home.  Would you like to join me?”

Sae’s hand paused as she was flipping another page, and she glanced up at Naoto, her surprise evident on her face.  “You want to get dinner...with me?”

“Of course I do.”  Naoto made it sound casual, easy, matter-of-fact.  Who wouldn’t want to get dinner with Sae Niijima?  “There’s a good place not too far from here, great udon.  I know there’s, as you said, work to be done, but everyone needs a break once in a while.  You can’t do your best work if you’re exhausted and hungry.”

Sae hesitated, and Naoto could see the refusal on her lips, waiting to come out.  Naoto was halfway through mentally composing what she was going to say next when Sae glanced at one of the pictures on her desk, sighed, and nodded.  “You have a point.  Very well, I suppose I could use some time away from the office.”  She closed the folder and stood up, stretching in the same manner as Naoto just had.

This time, it was Naoto who stole a glance.  Fortunately, Sae didn’t seem to notice as Naoto finally tore her eyes away from Sae’s lithe, curved form.

...this could be a problem.

The beef bowl shop where she’d seen Kurusu several nights ago was open and sparsely populated, the few others who were there in the same position as Naoto and Sae - looking for a quick, but filling, bite to eat before heading home or back to work.  Kurusu wasn’t here this time, a high school aged girl working in his place, just as efficiently.

The two picked a more secluded booth near the corner, placed their orders, and waited in silence.  Sae, Naoto noticed, was as tense as she’d been in her office, almost like she’d never left.  Her back was against the bench, with her arms folded and her legs crossed, and she kept glancing at her watch.  All of it screamed that she didn’t want to be here, but Naoto was curious as to if it was a genuine desire to not be here, or a simple lack of experience in social interactions.

Being around the office for a few days had given her time to listen to the rumors and see how Sae interacted with the rest of the courthouse staff.  Sae was respected, despite her age and gender - that much was clear.  Respect didn’t always carry over well to camaraderie, and she tended to hold the rest of the office staff at arm’s length.  She knew the social niceties, but none of the staff talked to her except when they had to, and she wasn’t invited to any of the after-work socials.

Everything about Sae said business - her style, her demeanor, her body language, her word choices, all of it pointed to utter and complete professionalism.  Naoto was starting to wonder if she’d ever been relaxed a day in her life.  Surely she couldn’t always be like this.  She had to relax at home...right?

“Good work today.”

Pulled back to the present from idly studying Sae, Naoto blinked, then sat up, actually focusing on what she was saying.  “Hm?  Oh, thank you.  You’ve been nothing but helpful so far, Niijima-san, and I appreciate it.”

“Of course,” Sae said with a nod.  Another silence fell between them, but Sae was shifting in her seat, like she had something to say, so Naoto waited.  “I...must admit,” Sae finally began a moment or two later,  “when the notice of your assignment came through, I had my reservations.”  She glanced up, her eyes finding Naoto’s.

That look could melt steel.  Naoto was caught in her gaze, willingly stuck.

“After having to work with Akechi so much, I was worried that having yet another media celebrity detective on the case would only bog things down.  He’s helpful and smart, but…”  She sighed, slumping slightly in her seat, letting some of her stiffness out with it.  It was like she had pulled off a mask, and Naoto saw a trace of a more vulnerable, distraught Sae.  “I’m worried he’s more concerned about making sure he solves the case, as opposed to simply solving the case.  When I heard you were coming, I feared you would be the same way.”

Naoto nodded, leaning forward and placing her elbows on the table, smiling.  “I know what you mean.  And it’s reasonable, given all the media attention I got.  And, in some ways, still get.  I always make sure, though, that it never interferes with my work.  I got the nickname because I kept solving cases and before I knew it, I’d kind of...blown up overnight, turned into this wonder child.  Smart, handsome, talented, young…”  She shrugged.  “I never wanted it, but I found it handy to cultivate an image, so to speak.  Reputations go both ways, and I’d rather take advantage of it, if I’ve got one.”

“Why didn’t you just refuse media appearances?  You could’ve kept your anonymity, I’m sure.”

Naoto gently shook her head.  “I tried.  They kept coming, and if I hadn’t talked, someone else would have.  I decided that if it was going to be there, I’d want to be in control of it, as much as I could be.  My partner is much the same way - they’re a fairly high profile celebrity, and even when they quit their job and moved to a small town for a spell, they still couldn’t avoid the media tracking them down.  We bonded over that, initially.”

The memory brought a smile back to Naoto’s lips as she remembered some of her and Rise’s conversations and media stories.  Rise had it worse, of course, but Naoto had one memorable occasion where she had to duck behind the counter of a mall sushi restaurant to avoid a particularly tenacious photographer.

“As I said back when we first met,” Naoto continued as she focused on on Sae, “I have no interest in the media.  My time as the Detective Prince seems to be over, and Akechi has taken much of the attention that was on me, which I am more than happy to let him have.  It just means there’s more time in my day to work on the case.”

Movement from the corner of her eye drew Naoto’s gaze, and she looked over to see the working girl approaching with their meals.  The smells hit Naoto before the sights did, and her stomach rumbled in anticipation.  The counter girl set down their meals with a short bow and a “please enjoy!”.  After thanking the girl, Naoto and Sae picked up their chopsticks and dug in eagerly.  When Sae swallowed the first bite of her beef bowl, she sighed contentedly, some of the tension vanishing from her shoulders.

She deserves a break.

“I’ve noticed you staying late as well,” Sae said, approval clear.  “It’s comforting to know you’re putting your full effort into this.  The Phantom Thieves are particularly...vexing.”

Naoto finished her current bite before answering, washing it down with some water.  “I find it fascinating.  So many unknowns, so many mysteries yet to solve.  When it all becomes clear, I’m sure the picture it paints will be formidable and riveting, a true work of art worthy of a case this difficult.  Do you often stay late nights, or is that because of this case?”

Sae’s hand paused as it was going back to her bowl, the question making her think.  After a moment, she dug around in her food, letting that occupy her hands while she answered, staring into her meal.  “I always had a few, but never like this, with them being so close together.  I know it worries Makoto, but the sooner this is solved, the sooner I can go back to a normal schedule.”


Sae looked up now, topic sufficiently changed.  “My sister.  She’s the third-year class president over at Shujin Academy.”

“That’s where Kamoshida taught, correct?”

“Correct,” Sae confirmed.  “She’s maintained excellent grades and she’s well-liked by her peers, as I understand.  She’s going to university to become a prosecutor.”

“Follow in your footsteps?  Ambitious, but if she has even a fraction of your ability - which I’m sure she does - she’ll do very well.”

The genuine compliment gave Sae pause, and she took some time to eat before she spoke up again.  “You’re too kind, Shirogane-san,” she muttered, hurriedly going back to her dinner.

Naoto just smiled.

“Thank you for dinner.”

They had left the beef bowl place and were about to split up and part ways for the night.  Naoto had unbuttoned her jacket, letting it hang open as they walked back to the station.  Sae had a hand in her pocket and the other loosely holding her briefcase.  Her steps were smoother, her stance relaxed.  The meal had done her some good.

“And for taking me out of the office,” Sae continued.  “I needed that.  More than I knew.”

“Any time, Niijima-san,” Naoto said, looking up at Sae.  “I enjoyed myself.  It was nice to speak with you about something other than the Phantom Thieves.”

“It was.”  Sae looked down, the barest hint of a smile turning up the corners of her lips.  “Maybe someday you’ll tell me about your famous Detective Prince cases.  I used to read all about you, you know.  You were rising up while I was in college, and given my career path, it was only natural.”

That got a giggle from Naoto, who arched an eyebrow, curious and only slightly judgemental.  “Really?  What did you think of me?”

“I thought you were a hotshot young kid who kept getting lucky breaks,” Sae recalled, her casual tone at odds with her words, but Naoto appreciated the honesty.  “Someone who didn’t deserve the fame they were getting.”

“You wound me, Niijima-san,” Naoto said, words tinged with false hurt as she played up the offense.  “And now?”

Sae looked at Naoto, and there was another one of those moments.  A moment when something changed, something that Naoto couldn’t know, but she could tell that it was different.  “I think you’re a smart young woman who has earned her reputation,” Sae stated, truth ringing in her words.

The complement brought a tinge of red to Naoto’s cheeks, and she elected to stare at her feet, hoping Sae wouldn’t notice.  “Thank you, Niijima-san.”

There was a lull in the conversation, and a thousand things ran through Naoto’s mind as they arrived at the entrance to the train stations.  So many things she wanted to say, and couldn’t say, and almost said, as they stopped and stood there awkwardly, neither of them sure what to do here.

Do you want to come have a drink?

Do you even like girls?

Anyone special in your life?

Before Naoto could say anything, though, Sae cleared her throat and looked around, then back to Naoto.  “Well, uh.  See you tomorrow, Shirogane-san.”

“O-of course,” Naoto said as she straightened up.  Whatever had passed between them was gone.  “See you tomorrow.”

With that, Sae turned around and walked to her station.  Naoto watched her go, wondering if she should’ve said something, or if this was even going to go anywhere that wasn’t friendship.  Not that Naoto would mind a friend - Sae seemed like she could use one.  The thoughts refused to leave her head as she walked towards her apartment.

It wasn’t until she’d stepped through her door that she remembered tomorrow was Saturday, and the courthouse would thus be closed.

Chapter Text

Makoto Niijima had a love/hate relationship with this summer break.

Normally, Makoto didn’t enjoy any kind of break that much. The lack of classes, student council duties, and homework threw off her schedule, which was normally so dedicated to the school schedule that she often spent long hours during the summer days studying regardless. It gave her structure, and it kept aloft her competitive drive, pushing her forward to better and better things.

This time, though, she spent less time in the books and more time with the Phantom Thieves, Japan’s most popular and most wanted criminals. Makoto loved the oddness of that combination.

Looking back after she joined them, it was no surprise that her true self was wreathed in violent rebellion. Her life for the past three years had been full of falsehoods, stuffed with people who only wanted to use her or make her think she had some measure of control.

In becoming student council president, she had clearly earned some measure of respect from her peers, but she was now set above them, on a pedestal that made her more than a regular student, but still a far cry from a teacher. This left her in this quasi-student position, separated from the other teenagers by virtue of her position, a position that made them alienate her. No one really knew Makoto, and no one really wanted to. She still heard from the students, but she always found it hard to relate to them when they talked to her like they would to a teacher.

Being the student council president carried with it some prestige, but it didn’t take long for Makoto to realize that she had no real power or influence within the school. She was little more than a glorified telephone, a line of communication from the students to the faculty and vice-versa. She had no authority over the students and no guarantee that the teachers would listen to anything she said, making her nothing more than a figurehead with additional duties - like leading the principal’s asinine investigation into the Phantom Thieves, baited along by his promised letter of recommendation.

That she’d cared so much about that letter at one point made her sick. She’d always taken pride in her intelligence, but she felt scared of being seen as anything but the smartest in her class - her father and now her sister had emphasized the importance of good grades for her future, and when her father had died, Makoto had thrown herself headfirst into her studies as a way of coping with the grief and keeping her mind occupied. Her grades, already high, had soared even higher, further isolating her from her peers and giving her a complex about them being less than perfect. The thought of doing anything but studying in her free time used to drive her into panic attacks, and she doubled down to cope with them.

She was a false god, with false friends, a false reputation, and false power. She was top of the class, as popular as ever, and reported directly to the faculty - and yet, in all of that, she was useless. When push came to shove, she could do nothing and had no one.

No one except Sae, her blood sister, her closest living relative, who thought of her as useless and had said so to her face.

When Johanna had spoken in her mind that day, she hadn’t accepted the offer from her Persona - she had seized it, eager to prove herself and to throw off the shackles of her old life. She wanted to show Akira and the others that she was anything but useless.

Every impact of her knuckles against a Shadow’s face was sweet relief. Every blast from her revolver was her own will, weaponized. Every triumph over someone’s Shadow was validation that she was doing the right thing. Every group meeting and message sent in the group chat was a small boost to her, proving that she had real, honest, true friends.

A few months with the Phantom Thieves had done a lifetime’s worth of a good for Makoto. They’d changed her, given her new meaning, a new desire to live life. Though she still took pride in her intelligence, she no longer held it up as her raison d’etre. Though she was still on a pedestal to her peers, she had started talking to more of them, learning social skills from Ann and Akira and becoming closer to the Thieves. Though she was still ostensibly the faculty’s lap dog, she had been asserting herself more when talking to them, flexing her position’s muscles for all they were worth.

And then, of course, there was Ann.

Anyone looking at them never would’ve put them together in a romantic context. Makoto herself hadn’t until she’d gotten to know Ann past the same surface level that she knew most of the student body. Like so much of her old self, her sexuality had been chained down by public appearances and the expectations of others - it was only after Johanna’s awakening that Makoto had gained the courage to face her true self and admit that maybe her desire to be friends with Ann was rooted in more than just wanting to have more friends.

Their crepe date had turned into study sessions and more free time spent together, late night texting, “chance” meetings at school, then very deliberate meetings at school. When they were busy acting as the Phantom Thieves, they had started to move together, act together, fight together - more than one Shadow had been pulled by Panther’s whip into Queen’s waiting fists, dissolving them into a spray of black particles.

It had taken well over a month of them unofficially dating before Makoto had finally stammed out a confession after the fireworks festival. Her first kiss had been everything she’d dreamed of, and tasting the power that Ann held in such a physical act had made Makoto eager for more. Unfortunately for them, spare time alone and in private was a precious luxury for high school students, but they made the best of it.

Thus, the summer that Makoto spent as a Phantom Thief was, without a doubt, the greatest 
summer of her entire life. It was the only one she could remember where she did not look forward to school starting up for the next term, a term where she would get to spend time studying together with Ann.

And, when they were done studying, make out in the empty booths of Leblanc while Akira and Yusuke spent their own time alone upstairs.

“So you’ve been getting dinner with her?”

Curiosity rang in Rise’s voice, with a hint of genuine teasing, and it was exactly the kind of tone Naoto had expected from Rise. There had been a brief worry that Rise would get jealous when Naoto was telling her about Sae, but Rise was quick to reassure Naoto that she was anything but. They had both come a long way since their teenage years, when Rise had no shortage of jealousy and Naoto had been a kid in over her head - their time spent with each other and the Investigation Team had done wonders for them.

“Yes, several times since I began working the case. It’s nothing serious yet, love, but I…” She took a deep breath, anxiety telling her that it was terrible but her heart and head telling her that it was going to be fine.

It’s Rise. We’ve talked about this. It’s not that she isn’t enough, it’s that she’s not everything.

“I wanted to make sure it was okay if I, uh, went farther with her. Dating, I mean. I don’t know if it’ll happen - I don’t even know if she likes me, aside from a work associate - but I wanted you to know.”

Rise’s light, musical giggle lifted a weight borne from nerves from Naoto’s shoulders, and Naoto smiled on her end. “Aww, Naoto-kun! Of course it’s okay! So long as you tell me, which you just did, I’m fine with it. She sounds really interesting, and a lot like you.”

“Yes, she’s quite the prosecutor. Stellar case record, great reputation...really amazing eyes. She’s almost a foot taller than I am, too.”

Another giggle. Naoto smiled wider, the sound filling her with glee. “Sounds like you have quite the crush, Naoto-kun. I’d love to meet her next time I’m in Tokyo, which’ll be in...October? I believe October.”

Naoto considered it. If it was all over by then, of course they could, but if not… “I’m sure she’d love to meet you, but she’s very...stressed, to put it mildly, with the whole Phantom Thieves case. If the case is solved when you visit, I’ll be glad to introduce you to her.”

“I can’t wait!” The excitement in Rise’s voice warmed Naoto’s chest, and she felt now more than ever a keen longing to hear it in person. She missed Rise, she missed everything about her - her smile, her laugh, the feel of their fingers entwined, the gentle rise and fall of her chest in bed next to her, the way her lips feel, the sensuous tingle when her fingers run down Naoto’s bare back…

“Me neither,” Naoto mumbled, unable to shake her bashfulness about sex, even when they were separated by a great distance. “I miss you, Rise.”

The words weren’t said so much as they fell from Naoto’s mouth, harder and more honest than she wanted to be. No assignment had taken this long, and Naoto had known that it would be a lengthy one when she had accepted it. When Rise was on tour, Naoto could handle that - she’d catch Rise in other stops on her tour and see her then. Now, though…

“I miss you so much. The bed here is so cold without you, and there’s so few bottles in the shower, and the coffee isn’t the right brand, an-” Naoto stopped herself and let out a heavy sigh. “I just really miss you.”

“I miss you too, Naoto.” Rise’s tone was as wistful and needy as Naoto’s, and Naoto wished she could be there to hear it in person. “It’s different knowing you won’t be backstage after the shows, or when I wake up and you’re not sitting on the couch reading the news. I miss kissing you, Nao.”

“I miss kissing you.” Her voice lowered. “ things…”

Rise giggled again, and it brought a small chuckle from Naoto as she flushed, glad no one could see it. “Maybe I can come visit when I have a break and stay the night.”

“...I’d like that.”

“I would t-” Naoto heard someone call Rise’s name over the line. “Oh, sorry, hold on.” The line went quiet for a few seconds, then Rise came back, apologizing. “I’m sorry, Naoto, I’ve got to go. We’re about to start a rehearsal.”

“It’s fine, I should get going.” She sighed slightly, then rallied for the goodbyes. “Thank you for calling. I miss your voice, Rise.”

“And I miss yours, Naoto. And you, all of you. I love you. I’ll call you in a few days?”

“I love you too, Rise. Sounds good. I’ll talk to you then!”

“Can’t wait!”

And with that, she was gone, leaving Naoto alone with her desire to have a time machine.

She moved the phone away from her ear and looked at it for a moment, the call having laster well over thirty minutes. It made sense - she’d had a lot to say, recounting the past few weeks of activity.

She backed out of the call program to the home screen, revealing a selfie of her and Rise, cheeks pressed together as they smiled wide. Naoto remembered that moment fondly, a moment frozen in time from one of their dates last year.

I love you.

After one final glance, Naoto slid her phone into her pocket, opened up her umbrella, and stepped out of the Yongen-Jaya train station into the pouring rain. She had a place she wanted to check out, and she didn’t want to get home too late.

It was during one of the Phantom Thieves’ study sessions that Makoto first met Naoto Shirogane.

She and Ann were working on math homework, as were Akira and Yusuke. Ryuji had gone home early to help his mom, and Futaba was busy doing something in her room, having fled the scene when it became clear that the students would be doing homework for the rest of the night. Sojiro was sitting behind the bar, arms folded as he watched TV. The current story was Medjed’s failure to follow through on their threat - a threat that Futaba had negated.

Except for them, the cafe was empty, and likely to stay that way - heavy rain had made it a slow afternoon, and the rain hadn’t let up come evening. Makoto was looking over Ann’s trigonometry homework. Ann was waiting for her to finish, replying to a text from Shiho. Akira was idly checking his own work, skillfully spinning a pencil over his fingers. Morgana was curled up on the table, apparently snoozing. Yusuke was next to Akira, still working some geometry problems.

“Under normal circumstances I find these shapes lovely, but I despise them when they’re made into puzzles,” Yusuke said, setting down his pencil and pinching the bridge of his nose. “These angles are vexing me.”

“Your angles vex me,” Akira muttered, loud enough for the table to hear. That drew a smile from Yusuke, who went back to his own homework with a renewed vigor.

Makoto frowned, but not at Akira’s words - she was still focused on Ann’s homework. She circled one of the answers, then set the notebook down on the table and indicated it with her pencil. “How did you get this number?”

“Hmm?” Ann glanced over, setting down her phone. “I...uh…” She looked back over the problem, her own expression morphing from confusion to frustration before she sighed and hung her head. “I don’t know…”

Me neither, Makoto thought as she glanced at it again. “Then let’s start over. I’ll follow along, and we can figure out where the mistake is.”

With a sigh of frustration, Ann lowered her forehead to the table, finally slumped over in defeat. “Maaaaaaakooooooo, this is haaaaaaaard.”

“I know, Ann. Trigonometry can be very frustrating, but it’s all just formulas and ratios! All you need to do is find the right one. Come on,” Makoto encouraged, patting Ann’s back before slowly turning it into a gentle, affectionate rub. “Let’s get this done, and then we can relax the rest of the night.”

Ann took a few deep breaths before she finally picked her head up from the table and grabbed her pencil, ready to attack the problems once more. “Right. I’m not giving up. Bring it on, math!”

“That’s the spirit, Lady Ann!” Morgana looked up from his curled-up-ball form, ears perked up with interest. “Nothing gets the Phantom Thieves down!”

Yusuke nodded, glancing up from his own work. “I admire your attitude, Ann, even in the face of previous defeat..”

“Be sure to try approaching the problem from a different angle.” Akira said, not looking up from his paper. The rest of the table groaned or sighed, but Sojiro chuckled a little from the bar.

“You’re dating quite the jokester, Yusuke,” Makoto said as Ann started to work through the incorrect problem once more.

“He’s more of a trickster,” Morgana tossed in.

“Mmmm, true,” Yusuke mused, thinking it through. “Still, I believe foxes and tricksters are a natural match, wouldn’t you agree?”

Whether or not they were would have to wait - at that moment, the bell at the door rang, drawing everyone’s attention to the newcomer, hidden beneath an umbrella.

“I hope I’m not too late,” she said as she collapsed the umbrella, revealing the inquisitive face of Naoto Shirogane, former Detective Prince. “I’ve heard excellent things about this place.”

Sojiro, Yusuke, and Ann were staring, eyes wide. Akira gave Naoto a welcoming nod, which she returned. Makoto froze, starstruck by the sight of one of her childhood idols in person.

Makoto had grown up hearing stories about Naoto - she’d been ten or eleven when Naoto had started to hit the mainstream press, and though Makoto’s father had primarily inspired her to work hard and study harder, Naoto’s success as a teen detective had inspired Makoto as well. She’d even dressed up a few times in all blue with a blue hat, imitating Naoto’s outfit, solving mysteries that had been created by her father (or made up on the spot by Makoto, such as the Case of the Missing Cookies).

The death of Makoto’s father had changed all of that. The detective dreams vanished, turning into following in her sister’s footsteps as a show of respect for everything Sae had done for them. The newspaper cutouts about Naoto had gone into storage, with a lot of other things that had reminded Makoto of her parent’s careers - the careers that had gotten them killed.

Seeing Naoto here, and not just as a distant news story, was something Makoto had never expected. For years, Makoto had dreamed of meeting Naoto, telling the detective how she had inspired Makoto, what it meant to see someone so young be seen so highly. Then, her father had died, and with it, Makoto’s childhood obsession.

As all those memories came flooding back, Makoto found herself drowning in them, and feelings that she had pushed aside years ago broke free. Now, they refused to be pushed aside so easily.

She swallowed and looked steadfastly down at her paper, then started quadruple-checking her own homework, reverting back to what she always did when confronted with reminders of her father - schoolwork. The numbers blended together, and her brain was trying to comprehend them while dealing with all the things she’d repressed. Her hands began to shake uncontrollably, and her chest ached from deep inside as her normal breathing turned into fast, shallow gasps.

Ann and Akira picked up on it immediately, trading a glance before getting into action. Akira stood up and moved to get a glass of water while Ann scooted closer, taking the pen out of Makoto’s grasp and holding Makoto’s hands tightly in her own. “Hey, hey, Mako, I’m here. Stay with me, okay? Breathe deep, Makoto.”

No no no no no no no no no I can’t think I can’t breathe why is this happening he’s dead he’s gone h-

Breathe, Priestess.

Johanna spoke from the depths of Makoto’s mind, piercing the overwhelming fog that had clouded her thoughts and turned her entire process into a senseless blur. Ann followed soon after, her words reaching in, finding Makoto’s core despite the haze, and her touch helped ground Makoto, keeping her solidly with the group. Her chest still felt tight, but as Ann gently rubbed her fingers and Akira returned with the water, Makoto felt herself relaxing into Ann’s grip.

Ann pressed her lips against Makoto’s cheek and pulled Makoto into her arms, whispering quiet assurances. Morgana stood up and moved over, settling down in Makoto’s lap, purring. As her friends kept her present, she slowly but surely came back down from her panic attack, unexpected and terrible one that it was. When she no longer felt the severe pain in her chest, and her breathing had slowed, she loosened her grip from Ann’s shirt - a grip she didn’t even know she’d been holding.

“...sorry, Ann, I...I’m okay. I’m okay,” she mumbled, sitting up straight in the booth and taking in a deep breath.

“Good to hear,” Ann said, giving Makoto a gentle smile. “Everything all right?”

“Yes, it is,” Makoto said, a little annoyed that everyone had made a fuss over her, but appreciating it all the same. “...thank you. All of you.”

Morgana leapt out of Makoto’s lap and back onto the table. Akira just nodded, indicating the water in front of her, and Makoto took a long sip from it. Ann smiled wider, kissing Makoto’s cheek. Yusuke simply nodded as well, though he’d done little - not much he really could have done, and Makoto appreciated the thought all the same.

And thank you for being there, Johanna.

Always, Priestess. Your bonds are strong, and they serve you well.

“What happened? Are you worried she knows?” Ann’s finger began to draw little circles on Makoto’s arm.

“No, it’s not that,” Makoto said to Ann with a shake of her head. “It’s...many things. I idolized her when I was a child, and so did my dad. Her being here, in person, brought back some things I would rather not think about. It’s not her fault, it’s just associations.”

“Go talk to her.” Akira whispered, nodding his head towards Naoto. “Maybe it’ll help.”

Can I talk to her?

“...I’d just be bothering her.”

Akira shook his head. “She’s nice, I promise. She doesn’t bite.”

Only one way to find out.

She took another deep breath, then got up out of the booth, psyching herself up as she approached. When she got up behind Naoto, it took her a few seconds to finally get the words out. “Excuse me, Shirogane-sama?”

Naoto turned, at first curious, and then Makoto saw a flash of recognition in Naoto’s eyes. “You must be Makoto Niijima. Your sister has spoken very highly of you.”

“She has?” Makoto managed to repress some of the surprise, remembering that Sae was not really herself right now. Still, it was good to hear that she was saying positive things.

Naoto nodded, giving Makoto another look-over. "Yes, incredibly so. The family resemblance is clear. It's a pleasure to meet you, Niijima-san. I would introduce myself, but," and she flashed a gentle smile, "you already seem to know my name. I assume you’ve heard of me?"

"Yes, I followed you extensively when I was younger." Makoto looked over at the seat next to her, and Naoto indicated it was free. Makoto pulled it out and slid in, turning to face Naoto, who faced her. “I was...quite the fan of you and your exploits. I used to put on a hat like yours and go around the house, solving mysteries that my father put together.” She offered a smile to Naoto, who seemed delighted at that news.

“Your father was a good man, then.” Naoto’s face dropped, turning more somber. “Sae-san told me what happened to him. You have my sincerest condolences, Niijima-san - I never got the opportunity to work with him, but I wish I had.”

Her tone was genuine, caring. Akira was right. She was nice. “...thank you. He was an admirer of yours as well,” she admitted.

Speaking of him like this was difficult, and it showed. Her voice cracked slightly, and she felt a tremor go through her hands, but she took in a breath and pushed it back down for now. Here she was, finally speaking in person to Naoto Shirogane, and she was not going to waste this chance - even if Naoto was trying to figure out who the Phantom Thieves really were.

Makoto’s comment got a chuckle. “Thanks for your support back in those days. Truth be told, I was glad when Akechi-san rose to popularity and took over the name. I’ll take a quiet room and a case over a TV studio any day of the week.” Naoto looked over at Sojiro. “Whatever she wants. I’m paying.” She glanced behind her. “Actually, whatever they all want, too.”

“You’re very generous, Shirogane-sama,” Sojiro said as he grabbed some mugs. “The usuals, kids?” Everyone voiced their approval, then went back to work.

“We come here often,” Makoto explained, noting Naoto’s raised eyebrow of confusion. “He knows what we like by now. How’s Tokyo?”

“Crowded. I come from Inaba, a sleepy town a ways southwest of here, and we didn’t even have a rail system in the city. Everything’s stacked together here in Tokyo, and the streets are bustling. I’m used to the crowds by now, as I travel quite a bit, but I’ve never been in so dense a place for so long before. Do you like it here?”

Sojiro served up Naoto’s coffee, and she took a sip from it. By the look on her face, she enjoyed it far more than she was expecting. Makoto took the chance to speak, deciding to work in what she was sure was a common topic. “I like the bustle. It’s...competition, in a way. Not that I think of myself as a competitive person-”

Her eyes barely caught Ann’s expression of utter disbelief.

“-but I find so many people around encouraging, in a way. It reminds me of my goals, keeps me focused.”

Naoto nodded. “Silence does the same for me. I like having my own thoughts around, and not much else. Though your sister has proven to be a remarkably talented partner, especially on the Phantom Thieves case.”

Yes! An in!

That got the attention of the back table, who perked up. Makoto rolled with it, knowing they could use this. “I understand if you can’t say much, Shirogane-sama, but can you tell us anything about how the case is going? Do you have any suspects?” Her tone was as innocent as it could possibly be. Naoto seemed to suspect nothing, and Makoto wanted to keep it that way - if Naoto told them anything valuable, they could use that with Sae’s stolen data.

Sorry, sis…

“I have several, of course. So does Akechi-san, and so do the police. I can’t say who, nor would I even if I could. But the case is going well, to answer your first question.” She took another sip of her coffee, adding in a bit more sugar after. “It’s unlike any case I’ve ever had before, giving it a new, intriguing layer of uniqueness. Medjed’s attack on the Phantom Thieves went poorly, as you undoubtedly have heard, so we’re taking the chance to see what Medjed knows. It’s a tricky process.”

Futaba’s undoubtedly snickering to herself right now. Makoto could easily imagine the smirk on Futaba’s face as the police prowled Medjed’s servers, only to find nothing.

“And, if you’ll allow me an indulgence, I’d like to ask you something. All of you, though I believe I’ve already heard Akira’s thoughts on the matter.” She turned around to face the group, who looked up at her, interrupted from their work. “What do you all think of the Phantom Thieves?”

They all traded glances. Makoto felt a tinge of nervousness in the back of her neck, but it subsided quickly. Ryuji wasn’t here, and the others knew how to keep it subtle.

“Well...I really like them,” Ann stuttered out, nervously speaking up when no one else did and doing her best to sound casual. It didn’t work, as usual, but Makoto loved that she was trying all the same. “It’s not like anyone of their targets have been good people. Kamoshida, Madarame, Kaneshiro...they were all really mean people who took advantage of others.”

Naoto nodded. “True. None of them are what you would call sympathetic individuals, and I imagine seeing their confessions brought you some measure of satisfaction, correct?” Ann gave her own nod, then Naoto looked to Yusuke. “What about you? You’re...Yusuke Kitagawa, correct? Madarame’s pupil?”

“Indeed I am,” Yusuke said as he set down his pencil. “I would not like to comment on Madarame’s case in particular as it is very personal to me, and you will understand if I sound biased, but I find their goals and methods noble. Beyond the law or not, they’re helping people and bringing criminals to justice.”

Again, Naoto nodded. “Of course. My apologies, Kitagawa-san, I did not mean to pry.” Yusuke gave a nod of acknowledgement. “What about you, Niijima-san?”

Makoto found herself on the end of Naoto’s inquisitive look, and she then realized a part of what made Naoto such a good detective - she was focused, entirely, on what Makoto was about to say. Her attention was squarely centered on Makoto, and it was both intimidating and refreshing to be under such a critical eye.

Makoto nervously cleared her throat, then took a second to regain her composure. She wanted to choose her words carefully. “From a legal standpoint, I can see why you would want to catch them, but...morally, I find it difficult to justify any kind of action against them. All of their actions so far have been against adults who have deserved it, and Medjed is hardly innocent anymore.

“The Phantom Thieves are good in my book,” she concluded emphatically. “Especially with what their targets have confessed to doing.”

If even one person out there stops doing evil out of fear of us, it will all have been worth it.

Naoto considered Makoto’s words, sipping at her coffee thoughtfully. “Interesting. The law, unfortunately, cares little for morality, except as defined by itself. Still, you have given me some things to consider. Thank you, all of you.”

She finished off her coffee, then stood up and placed some money on the counter. “Keep the change, Sakura-san. This should cover everything.” She turned to face the group, then gave a small bow. “It was a pleasure to meet all of you, and I’ll look forward to seeing you all again - I’m sure I’ll be back here soon.” She picked up her umbrella and undid the binding, ready to open it the moment she stepped outside. “Have a good night!”

With that, she strode out the door, and was gone.

Makoto looked over at Akira, and then everyone looked at everyone else.

“Do you think she knows?” Morgana said, asking the question everyone was thinking.

No one wanted to answer, so no one did.

Chapter Text

Friday evening had come to Tokyo, bringing with it a golden light from the sunset and the departure of most people from the building, which pleased Naoto - empty spaces and less noise helped her think, and she wanted to think for this.  Her personal office was devoid of anyone except for her, the door was locked, and the only noises were the hum of the air conditioner and the occasional honk from traffic.

Naoto was currently gazing at a large case board in her office, and it occurred to her that the oft-seen movie or television scene of the detective standing in front of a case board was not entirely a fiction devised by writers.

The board’s background was a large map of the Tokyo Metropolitan Area with colored pins pushed into it, one for the site of every mental shutdown or psychotic breakdown, and three special ones for the Phantom Thief incidents.  Off to the side were a few empty suspect slots, empty because Naoto had no real suspects.

What she did have, though, were some leads - especially after her impromptu trip to Leblanc that had proved more fruitful than she could have possibly imagined.  Both Sae and Akechi had told her of how good the coffee was (Akechi more than Sae, the latter having mentioned it merely offhand), and Naoto had left with far more than just an appreciation for their coffee.

In the week since her trip there, she’d put together a few more pieces of the increasingly complex puzzle, and one thing above all else was clear:  the coincidences kept piling up, and she didn’t like where they were pointing.

She sighed, then stood up fully from leaning against her desk.  The evening sun was streaming in through her window, and it was getting close to quitting time for the weekend.  If she was going to talk through this, she was going to have to do it now.

There was a sense of hesitation to her as she brought up the recording program on her laptop.  Vocalizing all of this would make it more real, more actual.  Some of it she didn’t want to consider as real, because doing so would mean that whatever was happening was much, much more than just a string of people going crazy and a bunch of high schoolers changing hearts.

I can’t run from this anymore.  Let’s get it all together.

She started up a new recording, took a breath, and began to speak.

“Case log, The Phantom Thieves.  Today’s date is Friday, September 9th, 2016.  This is Detective Naoto Shirogane, working underneath the jurisdiction of the Tokyo Special Investigations Unit, alongside detective Goro Akechi and lead prosecutor Sae Niijima.

“The Phantom Thieves have targeted three individuals and successfully changed the hearts of each, as confirmed by the police department and the signed confessions.  If the Phan-site’s moderation team is to be believed and taken as fact, their targets instead number well over ten.  If we believe in every report we get, they instead number in the hundreds.  I do not believe in every report we get.

“Their methods are unknown, and their members are as well, though I believe them to be high schoolers - their first and third victims indicate that possibility, as both of those victims were targeting high school students, Kamoshida doing so exclusively.

“I believe I have located a group of students that is related to them.  How, I cannot say.  It is possible that they may be the Thieves, but I am not going to jump to conclusions without solid evidence.”

She glanced down at her desk, where she had copies of the school photos for Ann, Ryuji, Akira, Makoto, and Yusuke spread out, along with the school records for all of them - and, in Akira’s case, his criminal ones as well.

“First, Akira Kurusu.”  She picked up his photo and taped it to the wall.  “16 years old, second-year transfer student at Shujin Academy, class 2-D.  Criminal record, convicted of assault earlier this year.  Case details could not be gathered at this time, and I was met with an unusual amount of resistance in doing so, but I will see about pulling some strings should Kurusu remain a person of interest.  He, Sakamoto, and a third student named Yuuki Mishima were rumored to be threatened with expulsion by Kamoshida before the man’s change of heart.  Said expulsion never came to pass, if it was even real.

She picked up Ann’s photo next, taping it to the wall next to Akira’s.  “Ann Takamaki.  16 years old, second-year student at Shujin Academy, class 2-D, same as Kurusu.  Lived abroad for a time before coming to Japan.  Was named directly by Kamoshida in his confession at Shujin Academy to the assembled student body.  Has a close personal relationship to Shiho Suzui, who attempted suicide after being sexually assaulted by Kamoshida.  Suzui is recovering well at this time.

Next, Yusuke’s photo.  “Yusuke Kitagawa.  16 years old, honors student at Kosei High School on a scholarship, class 2-A.  Former student of Madarame, the second Phantom Thief target.  Madarame has confessed to plagiarizing several of Kitagawa’s artworks and enabling the death of his mother via seizure.  No connection to any other victims.”

Ryuji was next.  “Ryuji Sakamoto.  16 years old, second-year student at Shujin Academy, class 2-B.  Attended middle school with Takamaki, and was involved in numerous incidents with Kamoshida over Sakamoto’s high school years, including a physical altercation where Kamoshida provoked Sakamoto and used that as an excuse to break his leg, ending Sakamoto’s track career.”

Last, and most regrettably, Makoto.  “Makoto Niijima.  17 years old, third-year student at Shujin Academy, class 3-C.  Student council president and top of her class.  Younger sister of Sae Niijima, lead prosecutor.  Claims to have had no knowledge of Kamoshida’s offenses, and on that aspect, I believe her.  Her relationship to any of the targets is currently unknown, though some of Kaneshiro’s gang say a girl matching her description was in and around his headquarters a few weeks before his change of heart.

And now, the fun part.

“That Kurusu, Sakamoto, Takamaki, and Niijima are seen together is not unusual - they all attend Shujin and three of them are in the same grade level or have previously established friendships.  In addition, Niijima and Takamaki seem particularly close, being very physically and seemingly emotionally comfortable with each other.”

Just sitting next to each other isn’t enough proof of a relationship, but the way Ann acted during Makoto’s panic attack…

Naoto had been sitting close enough to hear them speak, and had politely ignored the scene going on - she figured Makoto didn’t want additional attention put onto her, and talking to her after had only reinforced that notion.

“Kitagawa’s presence among them is what sticks out to me.  It’s certainly possible that someone from a different school could be friends with others, but they have seemingly little in common and according to his teachers, Kitagawa is not very social.  Why else, then, would one of the victims of a Phantom Thieves target be seen with other victims of a Phantom Thieves target?

“It could be coincidental,” she said as she started to slowly pace the room.  “But the coincidences are becoming too numerous and familiar to ignore.  Victims of two targets, who are otherwise unrelated, meeting up together.  Other victims soon join up, creating a larger group.  Their group in particular bears much resemblance to the Investigation Team, especially with how much Kurusu reminds me of a certain friend of mine.  Whether or not they are the Phantom Thieves is not known, but I firmly believe that they are related to the Phantom Thieves in a significant way.

“In addition, the similarities of this group to the Investigation Team leads me to worry that there is much more going on here behind the scenes than just the changing of hearts.  How is such a thing possible, and why do the shutdown and breakdown cases bear such resemblance to other cases involving Shadows and other worlds?

“These questions are what I must focus on next - are Kurusu and the others the Phantom Thieves?  If not, why are they gathered together?  If so, how are they changing hearts, and what do they know about the mental shutdown and psychotic breakdown cases, if anything?  Beyond all of that, is something more sinister just on the horizon?

“End of recording.”

She stopped the recorder, than sat down in her office chair and looked at the photos on the wall, going over the case in her mind.  There was so much still to do, and little idea on how to do it, but she had to start somewhere.  She stacked all the personal files together and slid them into her briefcase, intending to work through the weekend on this.  The thought, normally an exciting one, was more dread this time around - this case, more than any other case she’d been on, was utterly exhausting.

She closed the laptop and packed it up as well, taking a last look at her office - and she stepped over, pulled down the photos, and slid them into a desk drawer.  If Sae were to find out that Naoto was thinking Makoto was involved…

That was not a conversation she wanted to have.

She stepped out of her office and closed the door behind her, glancing over at Sae’s office - the woman was, as always, in it, but she too was packing up to go.  Maybe she had somewhere to be, but Naoto had another idea.

I should have some fun tonight.  So should she.

She strode over to the door frame, mentally checked her appearance to make sure she looked as good as she could, and then rapped her knuckles on the steel frame.  Sae looked up, at first annoyed, but it vanished into a small smile when she saw Naoto.  “Leaving as well, Shirogane-san?  Would you care for some dinner before you go home?”

“I would be delighted, Niijima-san, and I was hoping you would indulge me in something a little more.”

That caused Sae to look up, eyebrows adorably arched.  “What exactly did you have in mind?”

“Drinks.  Just us.  Nothing heavy.  We’re both about to have long, work-filled weekends, and I wanted to spend some time unwinding before I wake up tomorrow and dive into the case.  Apologies if I’m crossing a line, but I was very much thinking you could use the same.”

As it was those months ago when she’d first asked Sae out for a meal, Naoto was now watching what Sae revealed about her internal thought process on being asked out for drinks.  She knew that Sae was hardly a popular drinking partner, but she tried to contain her hope, already setting herself up for disappointment.

“Hmm, very well.  I could use an easy night.”  Then, to Naoto’s great surprise, she reached up and pulled the hair clip from the right side of her head off, ruffling her hair some to let it hang down naturally, framing her face.

Naoto’s entire world flipped - Sae was always some level of professional and distinguished, but this new style just made her somehow more attractive, and it sent a shock of desire through Naoto’s spine.  Sae fixed her eyes on Naoto, one eyebrow arching up in curiosity as Naoto couldn’t stop herself from staring.  At some point, Sae’s lips moved, but Naoto was too busy staring at the rest of her to notice.

It was the one thing that could’ve possibly made Sae more attractive to Naoto, and here she was, doing it.  Naoto couldn’t stop the sudden swell of warmth in her chest, and she felt the red rising in her cheeks, so she ducked around the corner hurriedly, before Sae could notice just how stupidly attracted Naoto was to her.

“Shirogane-san?  Are you all right?” Sae called from her office.

“Just fine!” Naoto stammered out, clutching at her chest and breathing to try and calm down.  “I’m fine, Niijima-san!  Just...pack up, I’ll be waiting out here.”

She heard rustling from Sae’s office, and she assumed that she had a moment, which was good - her heart was pounding in her chest, and she knew that her face was flushed.

Keep it together, Naoto, you’re acting like some lovestruck teenager.

Then again, maybe being lovestruck wasn’t the worst thing to be.

Naoto was lucky that the press had stopped stalking her in earnest after a few weeks, because photos of the former Detective Prince and the lead prosecutor drinking together in a bar would’ve been on the front page of every tabloid in Tokyo.

Starlight was a nice looking place, located far from Tokyo’s seedier sections and was apparently a favorite among the after-work crowd, given how busy the place was.  Brass accents, polished wooden countertops, and a well-dressed waitstaff gave it a sedate and soothing feel, starkly different from the more chaotic atmosphere of a nightclub or something for the college-aged population of Tokyo.

Men in loosened ties and removed jackets were gathered at the tables and bartops, bonding over a mutual enjoyment of alcohol and not having to be responsible for the rest of the night.  The occasional burst of laughter or applause would ring through the air, but the gentle smooth jazz drifting from the speakers and the soft, warm lighting kept the mood low-key.  It seemed like the kind of bar that someone like Sae Niijima would like.

Naoto and Sae were seated at the bar, having snagged two stools on entry.  Naoto had gone with mixed drinks, but she knew how to handle herself around alcohol and had thus paced herself.  She was currently feeling pleasantly warm and buzzed, dreamily smiling up at Sae.  Her chin was resting on her palm and her elbow was resting on the bar, with her free hand lightly clutching a tall glass filled with a milky blue liquid.  Sae was her focus point, animatedly talking about one of her previous cases that had involved a Santa Claus impersonator and a large snake.  The described case didn’t entertain Naoto nearly as much as Sae telling it did.

So much for nothing heavy.

Sae herself was well into drunk.  Naoto hadn’t been monitoring Sae’s drinks - the woman was a grown adult - but it was Sae’s demeanor that tipped Naoto off.  Excited, animated gestures and wildly varying tones had replaced her sedate and low-key movements and vocal patterns.  Naoto found this relaxed, inebriated Sae to be infinitely more fun than stodgy, normal Sae.  There was a color to Sae’s cheeks from the atmosphere and alcohol, and unlike the Investigation Team’s memorable trip to Tatsumi Port Island, actual alcohol was involved this time.

So invested in watching Sae was Naoto that she didn’t even notice she was staring until Sae had trailed off mid-story, now gazing right back at Naoto.  The sudden lack of noise and movements broke Naoto from her reverie, pulling her back to the present and away from fixating on her partner in solving crimes.  Sheepish, she sat up fully and cleared her throat, glancing back down at her glass and giving Sae a few seconds to start back up, pretending like nothing had happened.

Sae didn’t.

Finally, Naoto looked up again to find Sae still staring at her with an expression that Naoto couldn’t figure out.  Naoto swallowed nervously, blinking a few times, not wanting to avoid eye contact but also very much wanting to avoid eye contact.  “What?” she finally stammered out.

“You’re staring at me,” Sae muttered while staring at Naoto.  “Is something on my face?  What’s wrong?”  She rustled in her bag for her hand mirror, but in her drunken state, she could do little more than shift the contents around.

“Nothing!”  Naoto raised a hand to placate Sae as she turned on her stool to look at her.  “Nothing’s wrong with your face.  Nothing, at all , is wrong with your face.”

I could cut myself on her eyeliner and it would be amazing.

“I just, um…”  She trailed off while searching for the right words (or any words).  This was a delicate situation, and she needed to handle it with as much tact and grace as her alcohol-addled mind could manage.  “You’re so…”

Gorgeous.  Attractive.  Stunning.  Intelligent.  Driven.  Studious.  Amazing.  Determined.  Heart-stoppingly beautiful.

“...different, away from the office.  Like, here.  Drinking.  We should’ve done this weeks ago, I love spending time with you, all those dinners, you know?  So good.  The dinners.”  She then hurriedly raised her glass to her lips in an effort to shut herself up.

Sae tried to hide a smile as she looked away, but she wasn’t good at it.  “You’re not the only one.  I’m really glad you’re here, Shirogane-san, it’s really nice to just...relax for a while, and get away from the courthouse , and not worry about the stupid case uuuuuuuuuugh. ”  She brushed some hair from in front of her, giving Naoto a nice view of her side profile.

I want to run my tongue along those collarbones.

Naoto’s grip on her glass tightened unconsciously as she fought to keep the thought in her head and away from her lips.

“I’m starting to hate this case,” Sae mumbled as she swirled her glass, the brown liquid inside making small waves and glistening in the soft lighting.

Oh thank you, a new topic.

“Took you this long?” Naoto asked with a chuckle, body facing forward but attention still focused on Sae.  “It’s easily the hardest one I’ve ever been on.  And it’s me!  Naoto Shirogane!  Detective Prince!  The 2000 IQ killjoy detective! least serial killers are predictable!”

“Right!?  And with them, there’s usually so much evidence!  You just bring them in, convince the jury - which is super easy, by the way - and away they go!”  She gestured to the door, waving goodbye to the imaginary captured serial killer that she’d just sent off the jail.  “But no!  Phantom Thieves!  Who steal hearts !”  Sae sighed, placing her arms onto the bartop and flopping over to lay her head on them.  “How do you even steal a heart?” she asked rhetorically, words muffled by her arms.

“You’ve stolen mine,” Naoto muttered, a hair above a whisper.

“Hmm?  What?”  Sae glanced up, an eyebrow arched in confusion.

“Nothing.”  Naoto took a sip of her drink, to buy herself her time and because she was close to finishing it off anyway.  “I mean, I’ve faced a Phantom Thief before, but it was just my grandfather leaving secret messages for me.”  A smile graced her lips as she remembered the time she and Yu were sent all over Inaba.  “He loves doing that, making up cases and sending me on wild hunts to solve them across town.”

That got a trace of a smile from Sae, who seemed to slip back into her own memories.  “He sounds like my father.  Dad used to do those for me and Makoto before know.”  She reached out, found her glass, and took a long swig from it.

Even in her inebriated state, Naoto realized this was the first time Sae had ever mentioned her father more than in passing.  She had categorically refused to speak of the man, and any time he was brought up, she would change the subject.  Naoto had learned more from her small talk with Makoto than she had from her entire time working with Sae.

This is a chance.

“What was he like?” she ventured.   A good, safe question.

Sae was quiet for a moment, staring down into her drink as she seemed to be composing her thoughts.  Naoto, too, was quiet, preferring to let Sae think it out, but the longer she took, the more she could see that Sae was not happy with where her brain took her.  She shifted in her seat, her eyebrows furrowed, and her jaw clenched up.

“He was a brave man,” she finally said, tone wavering as she tried unsuccessfully to keep it level  Her fingers, wrapped around her now shaking glass, were turning white at the knuckles.  “He was a brave, stupid man,” she roared as she rounded on Naoto, eyes wrought with fury, “I wish he was still alive because I have some things I would love to say to him!”

Naoto was nearly forced back in her chair from the strength of Sae’s wrath, and she fought down the urge to start looking for an exit.  Sae was pissed, but Naoto was fairly sure she wasn’t in any danger.


“I was twenty-two , Naoto.   Twenty-two !”  She slammed her glass down on the bartop with a loud noise, causing some of her drink to splash out and startling the people around them, who started to edge away.  “He went and died and left us alone, even after mom died the same way!  He knew how dangerous his job was, he knew that he could...that he could die doing it!”  She wiped at the corner of her eye with her sleeve, getting rid of a tear that Naoto hadn’t seen.

“He knew , but he didn’t care, because justice had to be served .”  She spat the last part out like poison, the words dripping with distaste.  “Because his crusade was too fucking noble to give up.  Because he, and no one else, had to catch the bad guys.”

She raised her glass to the air, an ironic toast to the sky.  “So thanks, dad, for getting assassinated!  You asshole! ”  With that, she downed what was left in her glass and smashed it down onto the bartop, somehow managing to keep it intact despite the force.

The bar went quiet, what muted conversation there had been silenced by the sudden and undeniably angry outburst.  The only thing you could hear for a moment was the music still coming through the speakers, then someone at another table laughed, and the spell was broken - conversations resumed, the bartenders went back to mixing drinks, and Starlight was as it always was.

Except, of course, for Sae and Naoto.

Naoto was quiet, unsure of what to say or do as Sae silently fumed.  She wanted to embrace Sae, tell her it was okay.  She wanted to pat her on the back, tell her sorry.  She wanted to grab her and hold her and tell her that she wasn’t alone.  A small part of her, undoubtedly fueled by the alcohol, wanted to leave Sae here, to pretend this had never happened and to go call Rise.

That part was shouted down by the rest of her.  Sae had finally opened up to Naoto, possibly more than she had to anyone since the death of her father - leaving now would be the worst idea Naoto had ever come up with.  Naoto also understood - her own parents had died when she was a child, leaving her to be raised by her grandfather, with all of the pressure of the family lineage now left to her and her alone.

Sae was not only left alone, she was left with a younger sister to care for - twenty-two and fresh out of university is far from the best time to be burdened with a dependant.  Naoto had to carry her family’s name, but Sae had all of that and a sister.

If Grandpa hadn’t been around to take care of me...

Naoto looked up and over at Sae, sympathetic.  “I’m so sor-”

“Don’t,” Sae growled as she side eyed Naoto, tone low and dangerous.  “Don’t be sorry for them, or for me, or for Makoto.  I’m the one that got stuck with this, and with her , after Dad died.  I don’t want your pity, and I don’t want anyone else’s.”

“It’s not pity, it’s...condolences,” Naoto ventured, finding what she hoped was the right word.  She had a feeling that she was treading on eggshells here.  “Both of my parents died when I was young, and they were both detectives.  I...had a lot to live up to.”

Naoto expected Sae to finally meet her eyes again, maybe break into a different conversation or recognize that there was a connecting thread of tragedy.  She didn’t expect Sae to snort dismissively and shake her head.  “Lucky you.  You didn’t get to know them, so they couldn’t disappoint you.”

Okay, what the hell?

“Hey!”  Naoto jumped off her stool, temper flaring, and she fixed Sae with a hard glare as she got right up close to her.  “You’re mad.  I get that, but that doesn’t give you the right to say things like that!  I didn’t do anything, and neither did they!”

Sae opened her mouth, and Naoto’s already fierce expression darkened - she didn’t often bring anger to bear, but there were times and places for it, and this was one of them.  Sae looked ready to fight as well, and there was a moment between them, one of tension.

This is it.  This could be it.  Still, Naoto held her ground.  Sae’s troubles were not Naoto’s fault, and though Naoto was happy to listen to Sae explode over her own parents, she would not stand idly by as Sae passed the blame to others.

Finally, Sae relaxed, swallowing back her biting reply and looking away from Naoto, straight down at the wooden bartop.  She nodded a few times, and Naoto watched as the anger melted off of her form - her shoulders slumped, and the tension vanished from her back as the fight went out of her.

Naoto, too, let go of her anger, breathing it out and gently patting Sae on the back with her hand.  Sae met her eyes, expression devoid of any kind of malice, replaced with regret and melancholy.

“I’m sorry, Shirogane,” Sae mumbled, voice wavering.  “I know.  I know it’s not,’s just…”  She sighed, sniffing, clearly trying to keep herself from falling over the edge.  “I can’t do this.”

She needs to be home.

“Come on, Niijima-san,” Naoto said as she picked up her suit jacket from the back of the chair, again patting on Sae’s back.  “Time to go.”

“I’m so sorry,” Sae said, turning to face Naoto fully, on the verge of tears.  “I’m so sorry, to you, and to Makoto, and my dad, and my mom, and everyone, I’m so…”  And her words dissolved into unintelligible mumbling.

“Let’s get you home,” Naoto said.  “You are too drunk to be this sad, it will not end well.”  Sae continued to mumble something that was probably a protest, but Naoto ignored it.  She took Sae’s arm, set it across her shoulder, and pulled the other girl to her feet.  It took them a moment to get settled and steady, but eventually they did.

“I was so mean to her, Shirogane,” Sae said as they headed towards the door.  “I was so mean to her, I called her terrible things, and she deserves so much better. ”  She then suddenly seemed to realize they were walking, and she stopped, shaking her head.  “No, I...I can walk.  I can do this, I don’t need…”

“It’s okay, Niijima-san,” Naoto said soothingly.  “Let me walk you home.”

Sae shook her head.  “No, I can make it.”  She made a weak effort to step away from Naoto, but she couldn’t hold herself up.

“Please.  Let me help,” Naoto said as she put an arm around Sae’s torso for support.  Sae didn’t complain, but Naoto could see the flush of red in her cheeks.


Chapter Text

Supporting Sae was easier than Naoto had thought it would be - Sae was tall, but she was helping walk herself, and Naoto was stronger than she looked.  After getting kidnapped so easily (even though she’d been planning on it), she’d started self-defense classes and physical conditioning to make sure that next time, there was much more a fight.

Said classes had been coincidentally fruitful for the P-1 Grand Prix incident.

They arrived at Sae’s apartment, and Naoto rapped a few times on the door with her knuckles, praying that Makoto would be home so she wouldn’t have to root around inside Sae’s briefcase for her keys.  Sae herself was semi-lucid, mumbling incoherently to herself.  “I’m...sorry…” was the one clear thing she said.

“It’s okay, Sae-san,” Naoto grunted, shifting her and Sae’s weight.   Nope, not right.  She shifted her again, then grimaced.  Sure, Naoto was strong, but Sae still put them off balance, and their rather vast height difference didn’t help.

Where could Makoto be?  Is she asleep?  It was, admittedly, closer to tomorrow than Naoto would’ve liked, and no high school student should be up this late.  Still...

She knocked again, louder this time.  The door refused to open, and she heard no footsteps or gentle thumps to indicate Makoto’s presence.  With a heavy sigh, Naoto gently set Sae down to a sitting position by her door, then flicked open Sae’s briefcase.  Inside was an organized jumble of papers, pencils, her laptop, and sitting attached to a small fabric loop, her keys.

When Naoto managed to get the door opened, the sight of a dark, empty, and quiet apartment greeted her.  The landing made a T-shaped intersection with a hallway about two meters down, and Naoto called into the darkness.  “Makoto-san?  It’s Naoto-san.  I need your help.”


Grumbling, Naoto went back to Sae, crouched down, and slipped her arm over her shoulder, standing up and getting Sae to do so as well - with difficulty.  They stumbled as they stepped across the threshold of the door, and when Naoto reached back with a foot to close the door, it was enough to knock them off-kilter.  They both tumbled down, landing on the carpet with two heavy thuds, then two more as their briefcases landed as well.

Panting from both the exertion her annoyance, Naoto decided to just lie there for a second and contemplate how she got into this position.  It was a long train of events, but the largest contributor to this was that she was a sucker for beautiful women, and Sae Niijima was too damn gorgeous, and Naoto Shirogane was too damn weak.

She made a token motion to get up, but it went nowhere (as did she).  Not moving felt like the best thing in the world, and she was pretty sure she could and likely would have fallen asleep right there if not for the fact that Sae was still on the floor.  Naoto was not the kind of person that let their drunken friends sleep on the floor when they had perfectly good beds.

With an excessive amount of grunting, she pushed herself up onto her feet and fumbled for her lightswitch on the wall, flicking it.  A small dome light in the ceiling turned on, revealing a sparsely decorated landing with a wall mirror and a small table with a little basket on it.  To the right, the place opened up into a larger living room, while to the left was a hallway with a few doors leading off of it - likely the bed and bathrooms.

Sae’s gentle snores brought Naoto’s attention back to her sleeping crush.  With another heavy sigh, Naoto pushed off the wall and stumbled down the hallway, flicking on the lights of each room.  The closest bedroom was open and dark - the bed was made, and numerous posters for action movies decorated the walls. A Buchimaru-kun pillow sat adorably on the bed.

Makoto, it seemed, was not home.  Of course Sae would get drunk on the weekend of a class trip.

The farthest bedroom was larger and less decorated - it looked to be more Sae’s style.  Returning to Sae, Naoto hooked her arms under Sae’s and lifted her torso off the floor, gently dragging Sae to her bedroom.  She bumped open the door with her rear and kicked off her own shoes before stepping onto the bed, resting Sae’s torso on the bed with a heavy grunt.

We’re going to laugh about this in a week or two.  ‘Hey Sae remember the time I dragged your drunk ass home from the bar, literally?  Good times.’

She slipped off the bed and back around to the side closest to Sae and hoisted Sae’s dangling legs onto the bed as well, loosely positioning her on her pillows and in some kind of comfortable sleeping state.  She pulled off Sae’s shoes and went back to get her briefcase, placing it next to the shoes at the side of the bed.

With one last look and a gentle smile, Naoto flicked off the lights, grabbed her own shoes, and closed the door to Sae’s room.  Now, she just had herself to worry about.

For a moment, she thought about taking the train home.  She was feeling sober enough to walk back to the station, but the longer she leaned against Sae’s door, the more she realized that her legs would not hold out that long.

Surely Sae wouldn’t mind if Naoto made use of the couch.

She grabbed two pillows and a blanket from Makoto’s bed, silently apologizing for messing up the wonderful bed-making job Makoto had done.  The couch looked comfortable enough, and long enough, for Naoto to sleep on.  She plopped the pillows down onto it, pulled off her tie, draped her suit jacket on the nearby table, and collapsed onto her impromptu bed.

Sleep came to her seconds later.

Naoto awoke to a silent apartment.

Two things were immediately apparent: first, she had a headache, and second, she was not in her own apartment.

The moment of disorientation passed as the events of the previous night flooded into her mind.  The bar, the shouting, the trip home...


She sat up and immediately regretted it as her body ached in response to the sudden movement, limbs protesting their use and headache flaring.  With a pained grunt, she slowly leaned back, resuming her horizontal position on the couch, only now, she was staring at the ceiling.

She’s fine.  She was okay last night.  She’ll be okay this morning.

She took in a deep breath, taking the calming moment for what it was and using it to recenter herself.  She replayed the conversations from last night in her head, analyzing what she could remember, putting together what pieces there were.

It was obvious that Sae was troubled.  Naoto didn’t need to be a detective to figure that out.  Sae had always been a little short tempered and taciturn for as long as Naoto had known her, and both traits had intensified.  At least, at work - when they were away from it, having dinner or the rare lunch together, Sae was different. Warm.  Amicable.  Soft, on occasion.

And then the next day came, and she was back to business.

The case was weighing more upon her than anyone else.  Naoto had heard rumors of how hard Hiroshi was pushing Sae to find the Thieves, and Naoto had personally seen the work Sae was putting in - that, plus her normal caseload, was enough to overwhelm anybody.

Plus, she hated her father...or some part of her father.

And she resented her sister...or, some part of her sister.

I wonder if I can convince her to talk to a therapist.  Knowing Sae, she’d just brush it off and say that once the Phantom Thieves case was done, she’d be fine.

...least I can do is make her breakfast.

She sat up, slower this time, and checked her phone, sitting on the glass table next to her.  8:17 AM - a late morning by Naoto’s usual standards.  No missed calls or messages.  Good.

Looking around, the apartment was a little cramped for four, but it looked a good size for two. There was a nice modern theme to it, with sharp lines and muted but attractive colors and various shades of gray.  The wall ahead of Naoto was taken up by cabinets, cubbyholes, and a big flat-screen TV.  Books, photos, and a few decorative art pieces filled said cabinets and cubbyholes.  Behind her was the small kitchen and a dining room table with four chairs, all currently pushed in.  To her right was the hallway that lead to the bedrooms, bathrooms, and exit.  Next to her was the coffee table, topped with a few leather coasters and her jacket and tie.  The whole place was very tidy, bordering on spotless, which was undoubtedly due to Makoto.

Her stomach rumbled, reminding her of what she’d decided to do in spite of her protesting muscles.  Grunting, Naoto turned herself around and gently set her feet onto the cool floor, slowly pushing herself up onto her feet.  Balance established, she raised her arms above her head, balled up her fists, arched her back, and stretched one of the most satisfying stretches she’d ever had - and then she went light-headed, causing her to plop back down onto the couch.


Her second attempt at standing was much more successful, and she she moved towards the kitchen, she wiggled her fingers and toes to work the kinks out.

The kitchen itself was U-shaped, with the fridge, oven, microwave, and stovetop to the left.  To her right, the sink, with an espresso machine and a small water dispenser.  A black speckled granite countertop ran the length of the kitchen, which was impressive given that she was in an apartment.  White cabinets and drawers contrasted the countertops and appliances nicely, and a small potted plant at the right edge finished off the look.

I want to live here.  And for more than just the kitchen.

Another stomach rumble drew her out of the admiration, and she glanced over to the refrigerator.

No time to be jealous.  Time to get to work.

A quick scan of the kitchen her it was well stocked, and that whoever didthe  groceries (likely Makoto) was health conscious - lots of fruits and veggies (both frozen and fresh), nuts and whole wheat crackers, whole grains, a freezer full of meat, and plenty of staples and spices.  The only moderately unhealthy thing Naoto found in the whole kitchen was a pint of salted caramel flavored ice cream.

What would she like…?

Naoto had gotten a few cooking lessons from master chef Yu when he was in town - lessons that Naoto was now infinitely grateful for, because she knew that cooking was the number one way to get someone to fall in love with you.

Also because, she’d slept on Sae’s couch - it was only fair that she cook something for her crush.



She went through the mental list of recipes in her head, looking for something that wasn’t too complicated and was suitable for breakfast.  Something with eggs seemed fitting.

When her eyes fell upon the rice maker, she smiled and got to work.

The next half an hour or so resulted in a series of delicious smells and delightful sounds filling the apartment.  Naoto contributed to the latter by humming as she worked, looking forward to the delightful expression on Sae’s face as she took the first bite of her expertly prepared omurice.  Yu had even told her of his secret spices to add to the eggs to give them that extra little kick, and Naoto had tested it enough on Rise to know that it worked amazingly well.

A flash of movement caught her attention, and she glanced over to spot Sae peering blearily at her from around the corner.  It was all Naoto could do to stifle her laughter - her friend looked utterly bedraggled.  Tangled and mussed up hair, smeared makeup, a still-visible line on her cheek where she’d slept on some kind of fold.  She was still dressed in suit pants and her shirt, which was showing off more cleavage than she likely intended.

I guess she’s up.  Maybe a little too early.

For a moment, the only noise was that of the omelette sizzling on the stove.  Naoto could see the the different parts of Sae’s brain slowly waking up and putting the pieces together, recognizing that it was in fact Naoto cooking breakfast.

Slowly, Sae withdrew from the corner.  Naoto went back to the almost-done omelette, checking the progress.  She glanced back at the corner to find that Sae had returned, rubbing her eyes, staring at Naoto in disbelief.  She sniffed the air a few times, as if hoping that the scents would confirm what her eyes were telling her.

“Good morning,” Naoto said with a smile.  “How are you feeling?”

Sae let out a groan, leaning against the corner for support.  “ I dreaming?”  Her voice was throaty, sore, mystified.

It suits her.

“No, though given how odd this may seem, I can understand why you would think so.”  She folded up the omelette and set it on a plate to the side, then got to work on the second one.  Sae continued to lean against the corner, still in the act of waking up.  “Take a seat.  Breakfast is ready.”

Sae stumbled over to the table and sunk into a chair, sitting semi-properly in it for a second before slumping over to lay her head face-down on the table, hands pressed against her head.  She groaned, prompting a giggle from Naoto as she set down the omelette in front of her with utensils. “Eat up.  You’ll feel better.”

“My head is...exploding,” Sae mumbled, reaching out blindly for the plate.  She found it and pulled it a little bit closer to her, but refused to lift her head.  “I need some water.”

She reluctantly began to rise, but Naoto put some pressure on her back shoulders, causing Sae to look quizzically up.  “I’ve got it,” Naoto said as she gently patted Sae’s back, then turned away to make sure Sae couldn’t see her giggling smile.  She looked more unkempt than Naoto had ever seen her.

Naoto returned with the water and set it down by Sae, who was now up and slowly working her way up to eating.  The second omelette was well into cooking, and Naoto let the ambience of the kitchen fill the silence between them.  She felt no pressing need to talk, especially because Sae was still seemingly waking up.

When her own breakfast was done cooking, she set it onto a plate, got herself some juice, and sat down across from Sae, who was a few bites into her and staring down at the table, maybe intentionally.  All the things she said last night ran through Naoto’s head, and Naoto wondered just how much of it she remembered saying.  Was everything crystal clear?  Did she know how open and vulnerable she got?

“This is delicious.  Thank you, Shirogane-san.”

The comment brought Naoto out of her head, and she gave Sae a smile as she cut into her own.  “Thank you, Sae-san.  Cooking did not come naturally to me, but it did to a good friend of mine.  I think you’d like him.”  A beat, then, “Are you feeling better?”

She nodded, chewing a bite.  Her pace had increased since Naoto got to the table - it seemed as though her complement on the food, delivered through muddled words and tired lips, was sincere.  “Yes, thank you.  I...apologize for my lack of hospitality.”

The complement had been sincere, but Sae’s tone was clipped and terse.  The more Naoto looked at her, the more she saw how clearly uncomfortable Sae was - tense shoulders, hunched over, refusal to maintain eye contact.

...maybe she’s not a morning person?

“It’s all right.  I slept in your house without asking, it’s only fair I cook you breakfast.  When we got home last night, we were both in bad states.”

Sae tensed up at ‘last night’.   So it bothers her.

“I cannot recall anything from last night,” Sae said, short and precise.  “Not since we left dinner.”

Naoto waved her hand in the air, casual.  “We went to a bar.  We had some drinks.  We both had...a little too much.”

That’s putting it mildly.  Naoto didn’t want to be rude, though, and she wasn’t sure if Sae was the kind of person who liked to have reminders of her bad nights thrown back into her face.

Let’s hope she doesn’t look into a mirror anytime soon.

“I see,” was the reply.  Non-committal.  An acceptance, nothing more.  “Thank you, then, for assisting me home.”

“Of course,” replied Naoto, flashing Sae a small smile.  “It’s what friends do.”

As opposed to calming her, Naoto’s words seemed to be having the opposite effect on Sae.  The air in the room was different, far removed from the normal relaxed, lazy air of two friends having breakfast.  Naoto still couldn’t place what might have been bothering Sae, who was getting more off the more awake she got.

...what is she nervous about?  Is she scared of me?  Does she remember what happened?

Naoto decided to press a little.  

“Are you sure you’re all right, Sae-san?”

“Quite fine, thank you,” Sae said, unconvincingly.  She finished up her omelette and water, then stood with the bare plate and empty class and moved to take them to the sink.  “Thank you again for breakfast.”

“Glad you enjoyed it.  I’ll do the dishes and then be on my way.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Sae flicked on the faucet, washing off the dishware.  “I can handle it.”

Naoto cleared her own now-empty plate, feeling full.  This had been a good omelette - Makoto bought high-quality ingredients.  She’d have to pay her back later.  “Nonsense, I can’t dirty up your kitchen and then not clean it, it’d b-”

“Please,” Sae blurted out, dropping the silverware into the sink with a loud clatter.  Naoto looked over to find Sae leaning against the counter, hands balled into fists, determinedly facing away.  “I insist.”

Naoto gaped for a moment, processing, running over everything that had happened.  “A-”

Sae stiffened up the moment Naoto began to speak again.  Naoto let her words falter, then she hurried over to the couch to grab her briefcase and discarded outerwear.  Hoisting it over her shoulder, she glanced back at Sae, who was still facing away from her, head bowed, breathing deeply.

“I’ll see you on Monday.”

There was nothing more to be said.  Naoto left, closing the door behind her, doing her best to not look as hurt as she felt.

As Naoto went about the rest of her day, her every spare thought was devoted to analyzing that conversation.

Her trip to the grocery store made a muddle of her shopping list, and her distracted mind forgot nearly a quarter of it.  She’d stared at a milk jug for five minutes before realized that she’d been holding on the door the entire time.  Her number of mid-aisle near-misses was well above average as other people had to swerve to avoid her cart.

She couldn’t remember the trip home from the store.  She couldn’t remember putting away the groceries.  Her carpet had visible trails from her pacing when dinner time rolled around, and she still had no true idea of what Sae was so angry about.  If she didn’t remember what she said, then wh-

What if she did?

Well, that changed everything.

...think about her.

Sae was a private person.  She didn’t talk much about herself, her feelings, her past - at least, not initially, and even then not much to Naoto.  Even their nightly dinners had not revealed too much of Sae, despite her relaxed nature - their conversations tended towards current events or little tidbits about their childhoods, favorite shows or games, specific memories.  Naoto was much more open.

Last night, Sae had opened up more to her than Naoto had ever expected, but why would that be a reason to suddenly be so closed and angry?  Their dinner trips had revealed plenty to Sae from Sae herself coming forward and talking about her.  Was it that Sae had spilled too much too fast?

But if so...why would she care so much about that?  What did she have to lose?

In the end, Naoto swept the thoughts of Sae and her actions aside.  It would do her no good to dwell on it.  It would get her nowhere.  And maybe on Monday, things would be like they always were.

When the email from Sae arrived late Sunday night, Naoto was excited.  Reading it quickly sucked that excitement away, leaving nothing but a distant feeling of dread.

Principal Kobayakawa is dead.  Be in early tomorrow.

Chapter Text

Naoto did not often get nervous, but when she did, there was one person she talked to in order to calm herself down.

As she went to dial Rise’s number, however, a video call request came in - from Rise.  Smiling, Naoto sat down in her chair in front of her laptop and accepted the call.  Rise’s face materialized on the monitor, wearing the wide, gorgeous smile that had stolen Naoto’s heart the first time she had seen it.  It stole nothing less this time around.

She was dressed in fluffy pants with her own logo on them and a Neo Featherman tank top, likely about to go to sleep.  Naoto was herself in comfy clothes - a loose shirt and shorts.  When Rise appeared, Naoto waved, and Rise did the same.

“Long time no see,” Naoto blurted out, unable to contain her glee.

“You’re one to talk,” Rise replied with a giggle.  “How’s my Detective Prince doing in the big city?  Had any wild encounters?  Sipped some gin among neon lights?  Made out under an umbrella in the rain?”

She gave Rise a wry smirk.  “You should come here for that last one, but to answer your first question...not so great.  At least not right now.”

Rise’s smile died a little, and her eyebrows raised up as her mouth turned down into an expression of sympathy.  “Awww, I’m sorry, Nao-kun.  Case got you down?”

“It, plus...”  She sighed.  It’s not that she didn’t want to tell Rise about what happened with Sae, it was more that she was so unsure herself about exactly what had happened.  “I went out for drinks with Sae last night.”

She relayed the story, as she knew it, to Rise. It started strong enough, with the offer at the office (“She caught you looking?”  “Yes, I believe so.”  “How do you even function around her?” “Stop teasing me!”), the delicious dinner, the segway into drinks, the outburst, the talk, carrying her home, and everything up until when Naoto left Sae’s apartment.  Through it all, Rise listened attentively, lying down on her stomach and kicking her feet up into the air behind her.

“’s it,” Naoto concluded, a little worn out just from recalling the story.  “What do you think, Rise?”

“Hmmmm.”  She brought a hand to her chin, rubbing thoughtfully as she mulled it over.  “I think...she needs some time.  I think when she told you all that, it kind of scared her.”

Sae Niijima, scared?  Of what?   “What do you mean?”

“Do you remember back during the murders when you were still presenting male?  Think back to how you felt when your Shadow filled us all in.”

Oh, hell.  There weren’t really words for that kind of that feeling, aside from ‘all-encompassing dread’.

“...I felt terrified,” she mumbled, summoning up something to say.  There had been a very real fear on Naoto’s part that they would reject or abandon her, or worse, turn violent and threatening.  Their kind reactions had surprised her, in part because she’d expected something so much worse.  “If you hadn’t welcomed me with open arms, I don’t know what I would’ve done, especially when the entire school found out.”

“I think she feels terrified, too.  You didn’t shut yourself out after that, partly because that’s not who you are, and partly because we didn’t let you.  But I think she feels...embarrassed that she let someone in like that, that she was so open and honest when she didn’t want to be.”

“She can’t really be open at work,” Naoto noted.  “It’s hard for a woman in her position.  I don’t think she’s been emotionally close with anyone since her parents died, not even her sister.”

“I think she’s panicking, Nao-kun.  I think she’s backpedaling after that, and...I don’t know what you can really do, if she is.  Ultimately, she’ll have to decide to come to you.  Just be friendly, and...I think the faster you can solve this case, the better.”

“You’re right.”  It made sense.  Rise had always been a people person, more than Naoto.  Sure, Naoto could make friends, but understanding what made someone tick past wanting to catch them as a criminal…  “Thanks, Rise.”

“Anytime, love,” Rise said with her perfect smile.  “Aside from your romantic troubles, how are things going?”

Naoto giggled.  “Just the one trouble.  But...I think things here’s odd.  There’s this kid here, this high schooler who reminds me a little too much of Yu.”

“Oh?  Is he impeccably charming, delightfully witty, and beloved by all?”

“No to the third, he’s actually a criminal.  But the first two are true, and there’s something strange about him...”

As Naoto told Rise everything she knew about Akira, she realized how good it felt to be able to talk about this with someone that she not only trusted implicitly, but someone who would understand some of the weirdness that was going on.  Rise, ever the wonderful girlfriend, listened attentively and actively.

I love her for that.

When Naoto was done explaining everything, over half an hour had passed, and she was growing a little bit hoarse.

“And you haven’t told anyone else about this, right?” Rise asked.  Her face was adorably scrunched up, eyebrows close together in thought.

Naoto shook her head.  “I’m not sure who I could tell, honestly.  And It’s all just a theory at this point.  For all I know, Akechi’s the one doing all the heart stealing, and Kurusu is just a bystander with a lot of similarities to Yu.”

“You know your instincts, Nao-kun, and you know they’re too good for that.  You just need to dig deeper.”  She offered Naoto a gentle smile.  “You’ll find the truth, love.”

She put her head down on her arms, still smiling at Naoto, and in that moment Naoto felt a deep ache in her chest from the distance that separated them.  She flushed and looked away from the camera, causing Rise to quirk up an eyebrow.  “Are you okay?”

“Yes.  Yes, I’m fine, Rise, I...I miss you.”

Rise brought the laptop closer, nodding.  “I miss you too, Naoto. We’ll be together again before long, though.”  She made a kissy face, giggling.  “I think this is the longest I’ve gone without kissing you since we started dating.”

“Too long, then.”  She glanced down at the clock on the taskbar, then sighed.  “I’m sorry, Rise.  I should get some rest.  It’s going to be crazy tomorrow, if Sae’s email is any indication.  I’ll call you later this week, okay?”

“Looking forward to it,” Rise said with a nod.  “Good night, Naoto.  I love you.”

Naoto had heard those words many, many times by now, but they still caused a warmth in her core that spread throughout her in the most comforting way.  Rise wasn’t here, but she would be soon.

“I love you too, Rise.  Good night.”


The facts, as Naoto learned soon after arriving, were these.

On September 11th, at 17:41, Masaru Kobayakawa was struck by a semi truck in the middle of the street.  The truck had right of way, and due to the setup of the intersection, could not see the stationary Kobayakawa.  The event was witnessed by two police officers standing outside of a nearby police station.  They reported that Kobayakawa had frozen in the middle of the road, and did not attempt to avoid his death.

The autopsy revealed death was due to blunt force trauma from the impact with the truck and the ground, and given the circumstances, his death was ruled as a suicide.  A tabloid newspaper had leaked the full details of Kobayakawa’s cover up of Kamoshida’s abuses, and heavy criticism had come at him from all sides - angry parents demanded his resignation, and while there had been no talk of a criminal investigation, rumblings in the higher-ups had surely been felt from Kobayakawa’s seat atop Shujin.

To most of the police, this was cut and dry, if tragic.  He’d committed suicide, unable to handle the pressure of his position, and he was by this point a disgrace anyway.  His complicitness in hiding Kamoshida’s horrific abuses made him a target for the aftermath, and few seemed to feel sympathy for his loss.

To the three gathered in Sae’s officer, however, it was a different story.

Sae Niijima was seated behind her desk, finger on her chin, looking at the witness statements.  Naoto Shirogane was on the opposite side of the desk, studying at the autopsy report.  Goro Akechi was leaning against one of the cabinets, looking at an older case file.

With a frustrated sigh, Sae flipped the folder closed and slapped it onto her desk.  “I can’t believe this.  The Phantom Thieves are running roughshod and the public doesn’t care !”

“Why would they?” Naoto asked as she turned another page.  “They’re taking down bad guys the cops can’t touch.  Everybody loves a good vigilante.”

Sae fixed Naoto with a glare.  “Because this is about more than a few changes of hearts.”

“It’s about killing the principal of Shujin Academy,” Akechi said, following in Sae’s mental footsteps.  “You think they did it.”

Naoto’s eyes widened as she looked from Akechi to Sae.  “You can’t be serious.  What makes you so sure they did this?  What proof do we have?”

“Another Shujin target can’t be a coincidence,” Sae argued, looking at Naoto with a furious gaze.  “It’s revenge.  He was covering up the Kamoshida incidents, and they wanted to make an example of him.”

“You can’t just make wild accusations,” Naoto argued back, looking to Akechi for support.  “We need evidence, Niijima-san. The only similarity between this case and the known Phantom Thieves incidents is Shujin.  From what we’ve seen, the Phantom Thieves don’t kill.”

“They don’t.  At least, not publically, but it fits the theory I’ve been working on - one I shared with Sae a month or so ago,” Akechi noted.  “The Phantom Thieves as we know them are simply a front, a publicised arm of them that brags about their good deeds.  Meanwhile, they’re free to perform mental shutdowns and other acts of domestic terrorism.”

It wasn’t a bad theory, to be honest.  Naoto had to hand it to him that on one level, it made sense.  “Then you believe the mental shutdowns, psychotic breakdowns, and changes of hearts are all related, and perpetrated by the same group?”

Akechi nodded.  “As mentioned in our first meeting, I had considered the possibility - and now doubt, so had you, though you are of the thought that the Phantom Thieves are not the perpetrators of all three incidents.”  At that, Naoto nodded.

So he hasn’t changed his mind, and neither have I.  Both of us still lack proof, though.

“But,” he said as he turned his attention to Sae, “Naoto is right.  Would this accusation have anything to do with the Okumura Foods data you shared with me yesterday?”

Sae was silent for a moment, then she shook her head.  “There’s no clear connection, but if the Phantom Thieves are the ones performing these mental shutdowns on behalf of Okumura Foods, there’s bound to be some kind of link.”

“So you’re jumping the gun,” Akechi said as he put a hand over his face, disappointed with Sae.  “So unlike you, Sae-san.  Plus you threatened that cafe owner with a custody battle.”

That was news to Naoto, who turned to look at Sae.  She was determinedly not making eye contact.  “That was for the sake of the case,” Sae said.

“You’re too aggressive, Sae-san,” Akechi chided.  “We’re not police, and that’s police territory.  If this comes back to haunt you later, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“I don’t need your condescension, Akechi-san,” Sae said, a definite edge to her tone.  The tension in the room had thickened significantly, and at this point, Naoto wasn’t even sure whose side she was on.  “You’re far from the only person to have told me that.”

“Then you know how important it is that we stick to our methods.”  Akechi pushed himself off of the wall, arms folded as he looked over the other two.  “If we can just find out how the Phantom Thieves are doing it, we can get the police involved.”

Sae made a dismissive noise, brushing the air with her hand.  “They can’t be caught by following the rules, so why should we?  Our formalities have done nothing for us.”

Naoto could barely believe what she was hearing.  Sae Niijima, stickler for justice and procedure, now willing to throw that all away?  “Those formalities ensure that justice is delivered only to the deserving,” she declared.  “If we break the rules, our evidence is useless, and for good reason - they protect us as well as our suspects.”

“Willing to break the rules to catch the bad guys, all in the name of justice...that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?” Akechi’s rhetorical question went mercifully unanswered.  “We’re all on the side of the law, Sae-san.  Let me know when you remember that.”  Without another word, he picked up his briefcase and left, closing the door on his way out.

The silence reigned for a moment as Naoto waited for some kind of explanation, but none came.  Sae, for better or worse, was set in her course.  She was avoiding Naoto’s gaze, steadfastly looking down at the far edge of her desk.

“Very well then, Niijima-san.  Good luck with the case.  Call me if you need anything.”  With that, Naoto followed Akechi out the door.

He was waiting for the elevator to arrive, staring at the indicator lights.  Naoto got beside him.  His small sigh after that was impossible to miss, and he turned to Naoto, downcast.  “...thank you for your support, as unfortunate as the outcome was.”

Naoto nodded, looking up at him.  “I hate to admit she’s right, but she’s right.  They can’t be caught by normal means, or we would have by now.  We don’t know their methods, we don’t know their targets in advance, and...what was that about Okumura Foods?  And the cafe owner?  What does he know?”

“I’ll go in order.  Over the weekend, Sae noticed a pattern in the mental shutdown victims - many of them, directly or indirectly, benefitted the company in some way.  I mentioned to her earlier that I believed that the Phantom Thieves were also behind the mental shutdowns, but it was nothing more than a theory.

“Now, though...that seems to be her plan of attack,” Akechi mused, eyebrows knitting as he thought to a conclusion.  “As for the cafe owner, Sojiro Sakura was a former government employee who worked with a woman named Wakaba Isshiki on something called ‘cognitive psience’.  That’s p-s-c-i-e-n-c-e.  It deals with supernatural phenomena involving the cognitive world inside of the human mind.

“I normally don’t put stock in such things, but Sae-san believed it significant, so she went to speak with him.  It did not...go well, shall we say, so that was a dead end.  Regardless, I’m worried.  If she keeps up like this, she could ruin the entire investigation.”

Naoto hadn’t connected those dots about Okumura herself, but the bulk of her time had been spent on the Phantom Thieves themselves instead of the mental shutdown targets.  Sae deserved credit for making such connections, but if they lead her down this path…

I shouldn’t leave her.  She’s going to need help, or at least someone to talk to.

“...I’m going to talk to her.  I can’t let her just walk down this path and not try to stop her, at least.”  She nodded up at Akechi.  “We’ll speak again soon.  Good luck with the start of school.”

“Thank you, Shirogane-san.  I hope you can talk some sense into her.”

Naoto turned and headed back to Sae’s office, every step filled with hesitation.

Chapter Text

Sae was back to studying the case files when Naoto walked in.  Her entrance drew no reaction from Sae, not even as she closed the door and strode up to stand right in front of her, arms folded.  Sae, it seemed, was intent on ignoring the rest of the world.

Try all you like, you can’t ignore me forever - nor can you ignore the consequences.

Normally, this kind of ‘screw-you-I-do-what-I-want’ defiance was something she loved about Sae.  The level of determination it took to plant herself in the ground was impressive, borne from the struggles of the past few years - struggles she’d confided some about to Naoto on their many dinner dates ( Were those dates? she briefly asked herself).  Were Naoto not so determined herself, the sheer sense of “do not trifle with me” radiating from Sae would’ve chased her right out of the office.

That kind of attitude made doing what Naoto had to do all the more difficult.  Sae fought for her beliefs, and she had a stronger sense of justice than anyone Naoto knew.  Her convictions were solid, and to see her start to dive into the deep end because of this case disturbed Naoto more than she could say.

Someone had to stand in her way.  Being a friend meant supporting her, but it also meant metaphorically knocking some sense into her when she felt that Sae was straying from the path of justice.  Standing up to someone with such iron will wasn’t going to be easy, and her feelings for Sae only made it more complex.  Still, somebody had to.

Yu stopped us when we all wanted to shove Namatame into the TV world.  I have to stop her.

Or I at least have to try.

Naoto stood there for a moment, silent.  When it became clear that Sae was going to pretend that she wasn’t there, she sighed and leaned forward, placing her hands on the desk.

“What on earth are you doing, Sae?”

“What I have to,” Sae replied tersely, eyes fixed on her laptop screen.  “You made your view on that quite clear earlier.  Have you changed your mind?”

Naoto narrowed her eyes.  “No.”

“Then you can leave.”  Sae jerked her head towards the door.  “I have work to do.”


Naoto saw the small twitch on Sae’s face, and the withering glare Sae sent her way was thus not a surprise.

Leave ,” Sae growled.

“No!”  Naoto stood up, folding her arms in front her, a small act of defiance. “I’m not going to let you go down this path.  This is wrong , Sae, and you know it.”

The glare continued.  Naoto glared back, refusing to bend.  “It’s worse to continue to let the Phantom Thieves mock us in this way.  If this is what it takes to find them, I must do it.”  She looked away, at the laptop screen.  “I have an oath to uphold.  Criminals must be punished.”


“You have an oath to the law , Sae!” Naoto insisted, voice rising.  “It does not give you license to trample procedure and judicial due process when you are desperate, nor does it give you right to overstep your bounds!”

“I have no other choice, Naoto!” Sae stated, louder than she perhaps wanted.  Naoto could see the cracks in her facade forming.  “If they refuse to play by normal rules, than neither can I.”


Just her.


How can she not see how stupid this is?

“Do you even hear yourself?” Naoto asked, her own frustration bleeding through.  “We have to follow the rules!  That’s what makes us the law!  We follow them specifically because they do not, and if we throw them away to catch a criminal, we have already lost.”

Sae stood up now, temper flaring, anger aimed squarely at Naoto.  “The point is to catch criminals, Naoto!  A conviction is all that matters at this point.  I will solve this case, by any means necessary.”

None of this is making sense.  If she’s so desperate for a conviction, why would she risk one by going so out of line?  “It must be solved right , Sae!  If a conviction is all that matters, why would you risk methods that could throw…”

And then it hit her.

It never would be thrown out.

The Phantom Thieves were popular with the public, but no one else.  The government hated them.  The police hated them.  The judicial system hated them.  Even if they changed the hearts of criminals to be better people, it meant nothing to the people in charge.

The police would go along with whatever Sae told them.  She was new, but by now, they were enough of an embarrassment that whoever they caught, they would try and jail.

It’s just a theory.

But it fit.

Corruption in the justice system was not unheard of, especially for Naoto, who had seen firsthand that the rich and powerful tended to get their way.  Her own personal struggle against it had scored her a few victories in the name of justice, but just as many defeats.  It was a bitter war against the elites, fought by those with honest hearts and iron wills.

Sae, it seemed, lacked one or both of those.  There’s no way she could’ve missed the corruption from where she was, and here she was, speaking of using and abusing the system just like the criminals it was supposed to punish.

“You can’t be serious,” Naoto stammered.  “We’re on the side of justice.  If you force a conviction, if you falsify evidence and break every rule in the book, that makes you no better than them.”

“We don’t have the time,” Sae said, simply but firmly, putting a strength in her tone.  “We can’t afford to follow the rulebook as these thieves hurt innocent people and make a mockery of our justice system.”

The conviction behind those words was what finally put Naoto into a stunned silence.  Sae Niijima was willing to throw everything out the window to catch the Phantom Thieves, ethics be damned.

Why won’t she listen to me?  Was our friendship meaningless to her?  What is causing this?

Naoto didn’t know.  She knew Sae well, she thought, but not well enough to figure out where this sudden desire to throw out the rules was coming from.  It was completely against everything Sae had said before.

Or, almost everything.  Naoto knew that Sae didn’t like where she was - even without asking, it was easy to see that she was displeased with parts of her job, despite her stellar conviction rate.  She was young, taken for granted, and underappreciated, all things Naoto could relate to easily.  Even now, with a public following and an impressive caselog, she was still routinely dismissed for her age or gender.

If Sae was willing to resort to such measures, perhaps there was more at stake here than simply catching some thieves.

It’s desperation, then.  That must be it.


It was worth a shot to ask.  Naoto softens, anger giving way to some measure of pity, of empathy, of wanting to understand.

“Sae, where is this all coming from?  Is this because of the weekend?  Did something happen?”

Internally, Naoto was sure that nothing had happened - and that was, perhaps, one of the problems.  They had nothing.  Hunches, a few cards, and citizen reports that rolled in by the hundreds, each as unreliable as the last.  The Phantom Thieves were Japan’s most popular thing at the moment, and that meant hell on the police trying to catch them.  With no evidence and her superiors breathing down her neck, it was no wonder Sae was fixed on this road, for better or worse.

Sae was silent.

“Sae,” Naoto started gently, “If this is about Friday night, I-”

The mere mention of the event made Sae stiffen, and she flung her arm out to the door.  “Get out!”


The word leapt from Naoto’s lips before she thought it. If this was the last shot she had at helping Sae off this path, she was going all in.  She’d stood her ground once, and the wrath of Sae Niijima did not scare her enough to make her run from it.  She was not some poor assistant or newbie cop.  She was a detective, and more importantly, she was Sae’s friend.

“You can’t just decide to throw away everything we’ve worked for, give me a worthless explanation, and then tell me to leave!”  She leaned on the desk once more, out of worry rather than anger.  “This is what friends do, Sae.  They help each other, they lend a hand, and if needed, they call each other out when one of them is acting completely crazy!”

She took in a breath, using that time to think.  “If I did something on Friday, I’m sorry.  I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable, then or the next morning.  I’m sorry if I broke some kind of rule or went too far, but I’m not going to stand here and let you use that as an excuse to jerk me around.  That’s wrong, and you know it.”

Sae continued to say nothing.  Naoto was staring at her, studying every muscle, every microexpression, every twitch for an indication of what Sae was thinking.  What she saw was a mixture of melancholy and anger.

“We can either talk about this like mature adults - like friends - or you can shut me out entirely and keep going down that path.  If you do, I can’t stop you, but I will fight you every step of the way, because I’m not going to let you do this to yourself.”

Sae looked away from Naoto’s pleading gaze, seemingly bothered by it.

This was it.  This was the moment.

“I care about you, Sae.”  Anger and hurt gave way to vulnerability, a desperate plea.  “I can’t sit by and watch as you destroy yourself and everything you’ve worked for.  Please, talk to me.  Let me help.


For a moment - a brief moment - Naoto saw Sae’s mask drop, and there was pain.  There was pain, and anguish, and sadness, and worry, and all the things Naoto would expect someone in Sae’s position to have.  Hope flickered in Naoto’s chest that maybe, just maybe, she’d gotten through to Sae.

Then, Sae’s gaze hardened, and it was gone.

Sae stood, walked over to the door, and opened it up, staring expectantly at Naoto.  The message was clear.


There was nothing more to be said.  Sae had chosen her path, and Naoto had been left behind.  With one last longing look, Naoto stepped out of the office and walked down the path to the elevator, trying to contain the ache in her chest.

She was on her own.


Using work to distract herself was an old trick for Naoto, one she was eager to repeat in the wake of her sort-of break up with Sae.  The few attempts at communication she made went ignored, unless explicitly case-related, and even then Sae’s replies were short, terse, and all business.

There were now three people working on this case, and none of them were bothering to work together.  No wonder they hadn’t caught the Phantom Thieves yet.

It didn’t help that Akechi preferred to work solo by his own admission, something Naoto could understand.  He also had school and other cases to worry about.  Sae was a dead end, not even bothering to nod in Naoto’s direction when they passed in the courthouse halls, and she too had other parts of her job to do.  Naoto herself was consulting on a number of cases - the Phantom Thieves had been one of many things she was doing, but she made it a priority now.

Naoto also couldn’t afford to work with Sae, not if Sae was going to taint the case in some way.  Part of it was Naoto’s principles, and part of it was practical - she didn’t want to be implicated if it all went south, as unlikely as that was.

The thought of Sae in jail pained Naoto, but there was little Naoto could do.  In their time together, she’d seen Sae’s stubborn, unrelenting side.  Her best hope - her only hope - was to find the Phantom Thieves before Sae did.

It helped that Sae didn’t have the power she needed to brute force an arrest - she was a prosecutor, and she worked with the police, not as one of them.  No matter what Sae’s plan, she still had to assemble a case, however forged it was.

Still, the clock was ticking.  Naoto spent the next three weeks staring at computer screens, filing information requests, and collating as much data as she could manage.  Coffee became her drink of choice and her trash turned from food scraps into takeout boxes as she immersed herself into her work, determined to push this case forward with what she had.

Sae’s career, and their friendship, depended on it.

Kobayakawa’s murder had changed little aside from provide another Shujin connection to the increasingly large web, so Naoto put that aside and instead focused on her three new leads:  Okumura Foods, Sojiro Sakura, and cognitive psience.

First, Okumura Foods.  Sae had been doing some research, and Naoto had spent much of her time since the fallout with Sae gathering as much data about the mental shutdown victims as possible.  Published articles chronicling the sudden rise of Okumura Foods were cross-referenced with news pieces about mental shutdown deaths, and the police reports Naoto obtained provided greater insight.  Sae was right - there was a definite link between the mental shutdown victims and Okumura Foods’ rising fortunes, one that Naoto herself had failed to notice.

Given that she was focusing on the Phantom Thieves over the mental shutdown victims, that made sense.

Second, Sojiro Sakura, an ex-government employee who left the position to live and work at Leblanc Cafe.  While employed, he’d been the liaison between the government and a subcontracted research facility.  What exactly the research facility had been researching was classified to Naoto.

But not Akechi , she mused.  Admittedly, she had her own connections and could’ve easily found out.  It would only make sense for the boy to have his own.

Sojiro had left not too long after the death of one of the lead researches, Wakaba Isshiki.  Isshiki had allegedly committed suicide a little over two years ago, killing herself by walking right into traffic.

Not jumped, or pushed.  Walked.  Calmly, according to eyewitness accounts.  Had Kobayakawa not died in a virtually identical way earlier this week, such an unusual detail would’ve been seen as just that - unusual, but not important.  Once was strange.  Twice was a pattern.  Given the method of death, it seemed likely to Naoto that whoever had killed Kobayakawa had also killed Isshiki - and, potentially, caused every one of the cases linked back to Okumura Foods.

As for the the Phantom Thieves, they had only started operating in April of this year, at the start of the school year.  If Naoto’s hunch about them being high schoolers was correct, it was extremely unlikely that the Phantom Thieves were behind Isshiki’s murder.

Following Isshiki’s death, Sakura had worked exclusively at Leblanc.  Sae’s visit had not gone well, according to Akechi, and he had no reason to lie to Naoto.  Perhaps Sakura would speak with Naoto, if she asked nicely, on the third of her three areas of interest:  cognitive psience.

What Akechi said was true, as Naoto found out: Sojiro had been working with Wakaba Isshiki at the research center on this strange topic, one that Naoto could find no information on.  The project, and any findings thereof, was nowhere to be found.  The only way Naoto was able to even prove Sakura and Isshiki were at the building at the same time was by digging up tax and employment records.  Everything else was classified or simply not there, and Naoto wasn’t sure if she wanted to press her contacts for access.  All she had to go on was what Akechi had told her - it dealt with supernatural phenomena involving a ‘cognitive world’ inside of human minds.

The Midnight Channel was more-or-less exactly that, formed from the latent desires of humanity, and the places inside of it were created from the psyche of the individuals who went there (or were forced to go there).  These places were, in essence, the minds of their subjects - a sort-of cognitive world, one that housed the owner’s Shadow.  Given how heavily linked Shadows were to their owner’s mind, it wouldn’t surprise Naoto if they were involved somehow, as minds were being either shutdown or burdened with guilt.

The Investigation Team had never killed a person’s Shadow, or done anything other than defeat one and have it be accepted by their owner (or, in Mitsuo’s case, denied - at which point it merely vanished, leaving Mitsuo seemingly unharmed). What happened if they had fully defeated a person’s Shadow, turning it into the same black dust as all the other, unconnected Shadows?

Naoto didn’t know.  But she had an idea.

The more she started to draw the lines between everything, the more a clear picture began to emerge.  Whoever was causing mental shutdowns had began two years ago, starting with Wakaba Isshiki herself.  From there, they had perpetrated a large number of mental shutdowns, propelling Okumura Foods to prominence and success.

If the Phantom Thieves were aligned with this killer, then they were some kind of PR branch, meant to curry goodwill and give the police someone else to go after.  If they weren’t, that lead to even more questions, such as how the Phantom Thieves were changing hearts, and if they had anything to do with cognitive psience.

Three avenues to investigate, but all of them eventually lead to the same two people:  Wakaba Isshiki and Sojiro Sakura.

She decided to visit Leblanc on the upcoming Friday night, but not before sending off a quick email to a friend of hers.  Surely, Mitsuru would be able to shed some light on this.


It was a clear, cool night when Naoto pushed open the door of Leblanc, ten minutes before closing.  The cafe was empty at this late hour, something Naoto had been hoping for.  Electronic game sounds floated in from upstairs, and Naoto guessed that was Akira - his school files had this place as his residence.  Sojiro was watching TV, some kind of talk show panel on the Phantom Thieves.  That was all anybody was talking about these days.

Sojiro turned his attention from the TV as the bell above the door jingled, and at the sight of Naoto, he put on a warm smile.  “Well, if it isn’t the world famous Detective Prince again!  Can I get you anything?”

Naoto smiled as she moved over to the counter, taking a seat in one of the stools.  “Yes, but before you start making it, you should know that I’m here tonight on business.  I have a couple of questions I’d like to ask you, if that’s all right.  It’s about the Phantom Thieves.”

The smile died a little, and his suspicion was written clear across his face. “I’m not sure how much I can help you out about those, Detective.  I only know what I hear on the news.”

“Well, to be more specific, it’s not about the Phantom Thieves themselves so much as it is about potentially related matters.”  She hesitated for a second, mulling over her choice of words.  “As I understand, Sae Niijima was here some time ago to speak to you.  I also understand that she was somewhat belligerent and confrontational.

Sojiro scoffed, folding his arms and glaring down at Naoto.  “You got that right.  What are you, here to apologize for her?”

“No, I’m not,” she said as she gave a short shake of her head.  “We’re...not really working together anymore.  She can apologize on her own time if she wants.  I’m here with my own questions, and I was hoping you could provide some answers.”

Sojiro opened his mouth to speak, but Naoto quickly raised a hand to interrupt him.  “Before you say anything, I heard about what happened, and what she said.  I assure you, I will make no such threats, to you, your family, or your livelihood.  All I ask is that you hear me out.  If you still don’t want to tell me anything after, I’ll get my coffee and leave you in peace.  I promise you, Sakura-san, I’m not here to start a fight.  I’m only here to try and figure out the truth, and nothing more.”

I have to take a risk.

Sojiro studied Naoto for a moment, searching her, mulling over her words.  Naoto patiently waited, looking back at Sojiro, hoping he could hear the truth in her words.  The TV spoke on, talking about how Okumura held the number one spot in the Phan-Site’s rankings at this moment, and if that meant they would target him.

A small meow caught Naoto’s attention, and she glanced down to spot Morgana by her leg.  With a small smile, she reached down to scritch at his neck.  He rubbed up against her leg, purring, before settling down against her briefcase.

With a heavy sigh, Sojiro moved over to take a coffee mug from the drying racks.  “What’ll it be, Detective?”

“House blend, please,” Naoto said, giving him a gentle smile.  “And some curry, if there’s some left.”  Sojiro nodded, then stepped over to the beans to get enough for the coffee.

“What do you want to know?”  His distrust was still clear in his tone, but he wasn’t kicking her out.  That was enough for now.

“What was Wakaba Isshiki like?  Can you tell me about her?”

Sojiro paused, caught off guard by the question, and he looked back at Naoto.  Naoto was passive, the smile still on her lips.  It took a moment for him to answer her, and when he did so, he wasn’t looking at her.  “She was...brilliant.  Sharper than a sword and just as strong, she was so...talented, and generous, and caring.  She was always thinking of other people, on how to make their lives better.  She could talk about anything and make it seem interesting to you.”

A tiny smile crinkled the corners of his mouth as he slid the beans into the grinder.  “She was someone I wish everyone had gotten the chance to know.”

Naoto nodded.  “She reminds me of my mother.  I wish everyone had gotten to know her, too - I think you would like her.  She had that same kind of stubborn streak as you.”

“Stubborn?” Sojiro asked, glancing back.

“Keeping this place open as long as you have?  It’s admirable, Sakura-san.  Most others would’ve closed down by now, but I can respect your desire to stick around and keep doing your thing,” Naoto clarified.

Sojiro hmm d in thought, then gave a sardonic chuckle.  “I suppose that’s a nice way to put it.  After my last job, I figured it would be nice to unwind in a small, quiet part of town.  I like the big city, so I didn’t want to go too far from the bustle.”

“You were a government employee, yes?  You worked with Wakaba at a government-funded research facility?”

He nodded.  “Yep.  I was the bridge between the facility and the government, so I got regular updates and took care of anything that Wakaba needed for her research.  Why do you ask?”

“Because I can’t find out anything about the facility.  The only reason I know you worked there at the same time as she did was from tax and hiring records.  Everything else about the facility has been redacted, classified, or simply isn’t there.”  She leaned forward onto the counter, folding her arms.  “The only other thing I’ve found out about the facility is that they were researching something called ‘cognitive psience’, that’s P-S-I-E-N-C-E.  Whatever it is, there isn’t much on it.  I was hoping you could tell me what you know about it.”

Another suspicious look.  “If it’s classified, it’s for a good reason.  Why do you want to know?”

“Because I have a feeling that it’s related to the mental shutdowns.”

Another long silence.  Naoto said nothing, occasionally glancing over at the TV, the panelists voices mingling with the sounds of Sojiro’s brewing.  The smells from the process filled the already aromatic cafe, tinging Naoto’s nose as she waited.  Sojiro seemed to be mulling over the idea in his head, letting the time pass until he was ready to talk about it.  It made sense - the last time someone had asked about this, they had threatened his custody over Futaba.

“I never understood the details,” Sojiro finally said as he set the freshly brewed coffee down in front of Naoto.  “Wakaba understood it better than anyone.  I believe it had something to do with...cognitive worlds.  Ways about how the brain sees things and people, and ways to enter those places - and maybe even change them.  To be honest, it always sounded like science fiction, but they kept writing the checks to the researchers so I never complained.”

Change their cognition...that sounds like what the Phantom Thieves could be doing.

“Change their...cognition?”  Sojiro nodded, then stepped back into the kitchen to get the curry.  “Interesting.  These...cognitive worlds, as you called them.  Would everyone have one?”

The man shrugged.  “I don’t know.  As I said, I never understood the details, just bits and pieces from what Wakaba told me.”

Naoto nodded, thoughtfully rubbing her chin.  “I ask because...well, I’m sure by now you’ve heard about what happened to Shujin Academy’s principal, yes?  Kobayakawa?”

“Yeah.  Suicide, right?  They talked about it on the news.”  Sojiro set the curry plate down, then got to cleaning up his mess..

“Correct.  That’s what it was ruled.”  She glanced to the door, then reached down into her briefcase and pulled out a file, sliding it onto the desk.  “I’m showing you this because I trust you.  It’s confidential for the time being.”

Cautious, but also curious, Sojiro set down his rag and picked up the file, flipping it over to read through it.  In the interval, Naoto started to eat.  After a single bite, she did so with enthusiasm - she hadn’t realized just how hungry she was for something that wasn’t take out.

Eventually, Sojiro looked up at her, eyes narrowed.  “A mental shutdown?”

She nodded, swallowing her current bite, and washing it down with a sip of coffee.  “I found Wakaba’s autopsy report.  I apologize for prying as much as I did, but the more I read into her death, the more I started to see the connections.  She and Kobayakawa both died in the same manner, under equally odd circumstances - suicide-by-traffic from previously stable people who had shown no signs of it, both of them seemingly indifferent to their oncoming deaths.  Someone walking into traffic isn’t unusual enough to warrant an investigation, but…”

“But two people doing so under the same suspicious circumstances is.”  He set the report down, staring at it as he processed everything, connecting his own dots.  “You mean Wakaba was murdered?”

Naoto gave a slow, clear nod.  “It’s my hypothesis.  We know what mental shutdowns are - had Wakaba died a month ago, we would’ve known what to classify it as.  Surely you had your suspicions immediately after?”

Sojiro frowned, but he looked more sad than angry.  “I...yes.  It was too sudden, and the suicide note blaming seemed wrong.  It didn’t sound like her, and it made no sense, and…”

He sighed, then looked away, out the window.  “Wakaba...right before she died, we went out drinking one night, and she told me that she might die in an odd way.  I laughed it off, of course - who wouldn’t?  That kind of thing was so...unlikely.  So out of the blue.  Then, when it happened…”

Naoto leaned forward, meeting Sojiro’s eyes.  “All the more reason that I need to find this killer, Sakura-san.  I now believe cognitive psience to be at the center of it.  This isn’t just about the Phantom Thieves anymore - this is about a murderer running loose, killing people using that research.”

And now, the key question.  “If possible, I need access to Wakaba’s findings.  The government has classified everything from that facility.  If I could get my hands on it, it could be the key to unlocking this entire case.  Can you get me in, or do you have a copy somewhere else I can look at?”

Sojiro’s gentle shake of his head sent a cold feeling through Naoto.  “I’m sorry, Shirogane-san.  I can’t help you.  That research was stolen from the facility, and I don’t have access to the backups, if they even exist.”

The cold feeling settled in Naoto’s chest.  “Stolen?”   Shit.  “How long ago?”

“Around two years now.  Not too long after Wakaba died, right before I left.  With no research and a dead lead, there was little point in keeping the facility open.  They closed it and classified everything.”

“Of course.”   Typical government response .  Naoto’s fingers tightened up into fists as the cold feeling turned hot with a spark of frustration, but she took in a breath and let it out slowly, and with it, as much annoyance as she could muster.  She had feared that this would be the case, but expecting it didn’t make it any easier to process.  “A dead end, then.  Thanks anyway, Sakura-san.  I may have to look into chasing the Thieves more than this killer - they may provide answers.”

Sojiro nodded.  “I…to be honest, Detective, I’ve had my suspicions for a while now.  Wakaba would sometimes talk to me about changing someone’s cognition.  That it could theoretically cause...changes in people, but that doing so was impossible - cognition couldn’t be altered by anyone except the self, as it relied on how…’how one perceives the world, and those in it’, to quote Wakaba.

“When the Phantom Thieves started becoming famous, I sounded so similar, but there was no way it could be the same.  Just a coincidence, right?  And yet now there’s so many coincidences.”  He sighed heavily.  “I’ve been running for so long from all of this.  I guess it had to catch up eventually.”

He glanced over at Naoto, giving her a rather father-like smile.  “I’m sorry I can’t help you more, Detective.  That’s all I can remember for now.  Do you have a number I can call if I think of anything else?”

Naoto nodded, then pulled a pen out of her briefcase and scribbled a number onto a nearby napkin.  “This is my personal cell number.  Call me anytime, Sakura-san.”

Sojiro nodded. “I will, but I want you to promise me something in return, Detective.  If you find the bastard who did him no kindness.  Lock him up, throw away the key, and, uh...give him a good punch for me, will you?”

Naoto smiled up at Sojiro, frustration ebbed away by now.  Sure, it was a dead end, but it hadn’t been entirely useless coming here.  The coffee was fresh, the curry was delicious, and she’d gained an ally who had given her theory more weight.  “Of course, Sakura-san.  Thank you for the help.  Would you mind me staying a bit past closing to finish the meal?”

He shook his head, then got back to cleaning.  “Take your time, Detective.”

As Naoto finished the food and drink, her mind wandered to how she’d even heard about cognitive psience in the first place - Akechi had mentioned it.  Why, then, did Akechi not make the same connections as Naoto had?  He was surely a clever man, or he wouldn’t be where he is.  Had he bothered taking this lead to the end, as she now had?

He must have, and he must have come up just as empty handed as she had.  No research, no access, no way to go forward.  All she had now was a working theory - albeit, one aided by Sojiro’s information.

Whoever had stolen the research had killed Wakaba and used it to cause mental shutdowns by altering cognition - something that was supposed to be impossible.  How they got that ability, she didn’t know, but the Phantom Thieves had it too.  The Thieves were changing hearts and reforming criminals, while the killer was causing mental shutdowns and breakdowns.

She had to find the Phantom Thieves, and fast.  The longer they stayed in the shadows, the more danger they were in.

It was time to set a trap.


Akira: bad news everyone

Ryuji: did morgana fall down a well

Akira: ryuji how do you even know about that show

Ryuji: how you YOU know about that show

Akira: anyway, there’s good and bad news.

Makoto:  If the good news is just a photo of you smiling and winking with the caption “I’m here to steal your heart and your cats” again, I’m deleting this conversation.

Haru: i’m a little sad I missed that!!

Yusuke: I’m thinking about having it framed.

Akira: long story short, shirogane doesn’t think we’re the killers, but she’s stepping up her game to catch us.

Ann: (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

Ann: Ugh, can’t we catch a break?!  This is hard enough without her breathing down our necks!

Akira: she might need a stepladder to reach that high

Futaba: heheheh!

Makoto: If she’s stepping up her game, we have to be more careful.  This is our biggest target yet.  We can’t afford to take chances.

Ruyji: what do you mean?  its not like they’ve had any luck catching us yet.  whats the big deal?

Makoto: All the more reason to be more cautious.  Haru’s dad is the top of the board.  They’ve got to be expecting us to make a move on him and Okumura Foods.

Haru: oh geez.  i’m so sorry for all the trouble, everyone!!

Yusuke: Not to worry, Haru.  It’s not your fault - this is all just part of the job.

Ryuji: since when is this a job

Ryuji: do you get paid

Yusuke: Yes, in affection and confidence boosting.

Akira: ;)

Futaba: gross

Ryuji: dudes, take it to dms

Ann: Or at least be more subtle about it…  (・へ・)

Makoto:  Regardless, we need to be less predictable for this Palace.  We should seriously alter our entry times and points.  How about late Friday night for the next one?  9, maybe 10 PM?

Ryuji: that seems almost too late

Futaba: it’ll be fine, we have plenty of time left before the deadline

Ryuji: we’d have a lot more time if we’d gone with my idea.  just saying

Makoto: Ryuji, we already went over why that would be a bad decision.

Akira: and where the hell were we going to get a steamroller on such short notice?

Ryuji: i never said it was a good idea

Ryuji: i just said it was an idea

Makoto: I appreciate the effort for creativity, if nothing else.  Anyway, Friday, 9 PM.  We’ll meet at the cafe nearby.  That good with everyone?

Ann: That works with me! (≧∇≦)/  I’ll be done my modeling job before that.

Futaba: so much for friday night raiding.  though this is more fun, tbh.

Haru: that will be just fine!

Yusuke: I will be able to attend.

Ryuji: i’m down

Akira: all clear.

Makoto: That settles it.  On Friday, we begin.

Akira: [Attachment: lupin_the_III_theme.mp3]

Ryuji: nerd

Chapter Text

Eight figures walk down a catwalk that stretches the length and width of the long hallway ahead of them.  Safety rails line the sides, and large pipes and metal grates decorate the walls, the monotonous gray and brown broken by the occasional strip of black and yellow caution tape.  Dismal green lights illuminate their path, reflecting off of small puddles of an unknown liquid.  The air itself is stale, but sterile, smelling of used oil and strong bleach.

No two of them are feeling the same way.  One, nonchalant.  One, guarded.  One, eager.  One, scared.  One, curious.  One, alert.  One, intrigued.  One, serene.  They are silent as they walk through a pair of thick, iron double doors that part with the sound of cranking machinery and hissing pneumatics.

Together, they emerge into a large, open room.  In the middle of the room is an operating table, with a single person sitting atop it, relaxed, waiting.  This person is Naoto Shirogane, dressed in her gray suit and wearing a pair of blue-framed glasses.  When she sees the eight figures, she smiles gently and beckons them closer

“Hello, Phantom Thieves of Hearts.  Thank you for coming to see me.  I apologize for the theatrics, but I needed to get your attention - you see, we have much to discuss.”

Two Weeks Earlier

Kunikazu Okumura was dead.

He had died on live television, his final moments broadcast live to several million people in Japan and around the world.

Naoto Shirogane was watching the aftermath, stone-faced as they cut the transmission.  She hadn’t exactly been expecting it, but Okumura’s death did not surprise her.  The dog had turned on its master, it seemed, and Okumura was perhaps more useful to the killer dead than alive.  Now, the Phantom Thieves would take the blame.  Now, the government had to act.  Causing a scandal and murdering a prominent businessman on live TV?

The Phantom Thieves could no longer be casually ignored, and so, it was time to begin.  She had too much to do, and she didn’t know how long she had to do it.  The SIU would not sleep on this - not now Okumura’s death had been broadcast to all of Japan.

She turned off the TV, opened up her laptop, and began to type.

 “I’m sorry to have to do this, Okumura-san.”

Naoto was seated alone with Haru Okumura, Kunikazu’s only child, in one of the sunlit sitting rooms of the Okumura residence.  She had volunteered to speak to the orphaned girl while Sae and some police investigators searched the house because she was didn’t feel like wasting her own time searching for evidence that didn’t exist - the only evidence they were sure to find would be a calling card of some kind.  She also wanted to follow up on the basic police questioning that had taken place the night before, as Haru herself attended Shujin Academy, putting her on Naoto’s list of potential Phantom Thieves suspects.

Haru, of course, didn’t need to know that.

“It’s no trouble,” Haru said, as demure as expected from the heiress to such a wealthy company.  She was gentle and appeared sunnier than she presumably actually felt - the death of her father had hit her hard, from what police had put in their notes from the previous night.

“If a question makes you uncomfortable, or you need a moment, please tell me,” Naoto said in a gentle tone.  “You are more than welcome to refuse to answer anything I ask you here, but understand that such an act may hurt our investigation.  I should clarify that you are not a suspect in the murder, so this all for my own personal notes.  Do you understand?”

Naoto pulled out a notepad as Haru nodded.  “Let’s begin, then.  Your alibi for the murder was that you were at Destinyland, correct?”  Another nod.  “The security tapes we have corroborate that, and that you were there with a few other teenagers.  Can you tell me more about who you were with?”

“Um...I was with some friends from school,” Haru said, stammering slightly.  “I attend Shujin Academy.”

“Yes, you mentioned so last night.  Can I get their names?  They’re not suspects, but if we need to contact them for further details, we’d like to know who they are.”

“Yes, of course.”

And then she proceeded to name every member of Naoto’s suspected Phantom Thieves, plus one - Futaba Sakura. Naoto remembered the name from the details on Sojiro’s files - Futaba must be his adopted daughter.  It could have been a coincidence that Haru was with the Phantom Thieves the night her father was killed, but it likely wasn’t one.  At this point, there weren’t any coincidences.

“And you were at Destinyland to celebrate something?” Naoto asked, turning the page over in her notebook.

“Yes, we were.  Exams are coming up, and I suggested a trip there to unwind before we all began studying in earnest.  My father’s company had booked it for the night, but ended up cancelled it due to all the recent scandals.  It was too late to get the deposit back, so I figured, why not make use of it?”

Naoto nodded.  It made sense.  “Good enough for me, Okumura-san,” she said with a gentle smile.  “Regarding Kamoshida, did you hear anything about his abuse of the volleyball and track teams?  Rumors or the like?  Again, this isn’t to place guilt or anything, and you don’t have to answer.”

“It’s okay,” Haru said with a sigh.  “I’d rather talk about that, to be honest.  I heard nothing more than rumors.  I don’t play either sport, and I’m not very involved with the other student organizations, so I didn’t hear much.”

Another nod as she took down some notes.  Or, pretended to.  She’d already gotten everything she needed.  “Last one.  Can you think of anyone that your father worked with who might have wanted him dead?”

That one gave Haru pause.  After a moment, she shook her head, looking up at Naoto.  “No, not right now.  I’m sorry, Detective.  If I think of anyone, I’ll be sure to let you know.”

Naoto stood up, scribbling something onto a page in her notebook, and then tearing the page out.  “Thank you, Okumura-san.  I’m very sorry for your loss, and I know this can be a hard time.  I felt the same way when my father passed away.”  She handed the page to Haru.  “Here’s my cell number.  If you need anything - or you just want to talk - give me a call, okay?”

Haru took the paper and looked at it, then back up at Naoto.  “I will.  Thank you, Detective.”

With a small, sympathetic look, Naoto turned and walked out to rejoin Sae and the investigators.  Sae looked up as Naoto entered, fixing her with a curious look.  “Did you find out anything new?”

Haru Okumura is likely a Phantom Thief.

Naoto shook her head, folding her arms.  “No, nothing.  Anything new on your end?”

“As a matter of fact, yes,” Sae said, handing Naoto the calling card.  “We found this in Okumura’s office, but I was also informed by an investigator that they found a calling card in Principal Kobayakawa’s office.”

That got a reaction from Naoto, who raised her eyebrows at the news.  She didn’t know that Sae had ordered the principal’s office to be searched again.

No...why would they leave one for him?  Unless it, like Okumura, was all part of a false flag operation, there to frame the thieves...Sae must be trying to gather evidence.   Maybe she did listen to me.

There’s little time to waste.

“Another Shujin connection.  And it means it wasn’t a suicide - it was a murder.  I was right to suspect them,” Sae said, a note of triumph in her voice.  Haru emerged from the side room, and Sae turned to her.  “We’re just about done here.  I’m sorry to ask again, but your father hadn’t said anything about the Phantom Thieves, correct?”

“That’s right,” Haru said as she moved to the couch and sat down on it, a heavier motion that Naoto was expecting. She must be exhausted.

“If something catches your attention, no matter how trivial, please contact me.”  Then, as if realizing how dispassionate that sounded, Sae added, “Don’t force yourself, though.  Just if anything comes to mind.”  Haru nodded in reply, then leaned back onto the couch and closed her eyes, sighing.

Naoto and Sae traded glances, then both of them walked out of the room and into the reception hall.  They were silent as they left the residence, following the path through the front back to their cars.

Naoto was hoping Sae would say something, anything to her, but they split apart in silence.  The card for the principal would be more than enough to connect any Phantom Thieves Sae got to his murder as well as Okumura’s.  Whoever they caught, by whatever means, would likely be put to death - Okumura and Kobayakawa were the keys to associate them with every mental shutdown.

This find had renewed Sae’s vigor, but she was still limited by her power as a prosecutor.  The actual investigation was still the police’s territory, and Sae couldn’t step on their toes without running into a whole host of jurisdictional and bureaucratic problems.

Naoto hoped that would be enough to stop her.

 Sae’s bed was empty more often than not as of late.

Makoto was okay with the occasional night alone, but the empty apartment was becoming increasingly unsettling.  On more than one night this past week, she’d invited Ann over to break the otherwise ambient silence of her home.

And because she just liked spending time with Ann.

One night, about a week after Haru’s father died, Sae arrived home in while Makoto was halfway through eating her dinner.  Surprise, Makoto rose from seat, readying herself to fix her sister a plate if she was hungry.  “Hi, sis!  Should I warm up dinner for you?”

“No, it’s okay.”  When Sae walked into the living room, though, Makoto tried to hide her dismay - Sae looked awful .  She had bags under her eyes and had let her normally-straight stance go, her exhaustion showing in her slumped shoulders as she stood in the doorway.  She seemed unfocused and tired, a lack of energy in every motion, every step.

“How about a bath?” Makoto offered, a light tone to her voice.   Something to get you some energy.

“No need,” Sae said with a gentle wave of her hand.  “I just came home to get a change of clothes.”

Makoto’s dismay was obvious as she sat back down and stared at her food for a second.   Alone again.  I hope it’s not too late for Ann to come over…  “Are you going to stay at work then?”

Sae nodded, setting her bag down on the floor and stretching, rolling her shoulders.  “I’ve been entrusted with a very important task.”

She’s been at her wit’s end for weeks, and they do this to her?  Why?  Makoto frowned, then looked up Sae with pity-filled eyes.  “You look awful, though...aren’t you tired?”

Sae sighed.  “As an adult, there will be times when you will accept an assignment where failure is not tolerated,” she said with a resigned acceptance.  “It’s all over for me if I can’t win this.”

What on earth are they making her do?  Are they going to fire her?  “Still, if you were to collapse from exhaustion…”

“This is my one chance to get a promotion!” Sae spat back, only to realize her mistake as the words left her lips. Makoto couldn’t keep the shock from her face, and withdrew into herself from the sudden outburst.  “I’m sorry, Makoto.  It’s been a long day.”

“It’s all right, sis,” Makoto said with a small smile, shoving down the sting of the dismissal.  “I’m just worried about you.”

“Please don’t worry, it won’t be this way for long.”  She narrowed her eyes and folded her arms, straightening up a bit.  “I’m going to catch the Phantom Thieves myself.”

There was a slight glint in Sae’s eyes that Makoto didn’t really like.   Sis is coming after us?  This is bad.  But is it just her?  “Alone? Are Akechi-san and Shirogane-san not helping you anymore?”

Sae hesitated for a moment, as if suddenly caught in a lie. “They are…no longer assisting me.  They are busy with other things.  Other people.  We had a professional disagreement, and I can no longer rely on her.  Them.”  She paused for a second.  “It’s...complicated.”

So she chased her, or them, away. I’m not surprised, given how she’s been recently.  “I’m sorry to hear that.  I met Shirogane-san once at Leblanc.  She was very generous.”

“She is.” Sae’s expression softened for a moment, but she shook her head and steeled up.  “Regardless, catching the Phantom Thieves now falls to me.”  Another bout of hesitation from Sae.  “ alone.”  The words seemed to slide from her lips, unwilling and difficult.

Makoto eyed Sae, weighing her options.  Nudging her sister to get help from Japan’s greatest detective seemed like a bad idea for the Thieves, but Makoto was far more concerned with helping her sister.  She’d seen the effects that Naoto had had on Sae, and for a while, it seemed like Sae was back to her old self - serious, yes, but caring, smiling, laughing.  She and Makoto had even gone out on a motorcycle ride back in August, something they hadn’t done since April.

Then, sometime while Makoto was away in Hawaii, something had changed, and Sae had gotten worse.  Makoto had guessed there’d been a fallout, but she hadn’t known the details.  Now, she know enough - Sae had likely said or done something and chased Naoto away.

Her sister’s well-being versus the continued existence of the Phantom Thieves.

It wasn’t even a choice.

“She can’t help you at all?  She was with you so long, I’m sure there’s something she can do, however minor.  I’m sure she would do it if you asked.  She spoke very highly of you, you know.”

“She did?”  Makoto nodded, satisfied that the idea was now planted in Sae’s head, going past the barriers her own pride kept up.  There was a moment as Sae seemed to mull the idea over.  Then, “Maybe there is.”

Nine days after seeing Sae at the Okumura residence, Naoto spoke to her for the first time in a long time.

Sae had been appointed as the head of a SIU unit to catch the Phantom Thieves, giving her exactly the kind of power she needed to do whatever she thought was necessary.  Naoto learned this upon entering the courthouse that morning.

Her initial reaction was small shiver of dread.  This would only be more pressure on the already put-upon Sae - Naoto had heard her snap out at a clerk of court for a minor mistake last week, and everybody could tell that she was getting worse and worse as time went on and the Phantom Thieves remained uncaught.

Naoto had been doing her own research since their visit to Okumura’s house, and she was well into formulating her own plan for how to end this.  This news presented a unique opportunity - one that could both help her and Sae, while dealing with the errant Thieves at the same time.  It was too good to pass up, if it worked.

She needed to strike a deal with Sae.  She immediately pulled out her phone and sent off a text.


The reply came far sooner than Naoto had been expecting.

> Noon, Hibiya.

As she thought, when Naoto showed up at the stated nearby restaurant at noon sharp, there Sae was.  She was looking down at her phone, typing out some kind of message, having not noticed Naoto’s arrival yet.  Even from where she was, halfway across the room, Naoto could tell that Sae was holding in some tension.  She was sitting up straight, her eyes were narrowed, and she seemed jumpy - every scrape of a chair or clink of a plate got a brief but noticeable glance from her.  This field promotion had made Sae jumpy, not confident.  It seemed that getting what she wanted was not really what she wanted.

It so rarely is .

Naoto walked up to the table and took a seat across from Sae, who set down her phone.  Neither of them said anything for a few moments as they looked over the menu, and she decided to see if Sae would start them off and set the tone for this.  In between reading the menu, she stole looks at Sae, gauging her thoughts about all of this.

Aside from tension, Sae seemed frustrated - she was avoiding eye contact, pursing her lips, and making quick, jerky movements when she moved at all.  This new assignment seemed to have tightened her strings even more.  You couldn’t have music without tension, but too much and you risk ruining the instrument.

Naoto was not going to let Sae snap if it was the last thing she did.

As the silence stretched on, Naoto grew tired of it, so she changed her mind and spoke up.  “Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” Sae replied, her words clipped and tight.  She sounded like she would rather not talk about it.

“Your own unit, correct?”  Naoto continued on, undaunted.  “Special jurisdiction, the police under your’s everything you need.”

“It is.”

A pause stretched on.  A waiter came by, got their orders, and left.  The other patrons quietly eating lunch and having their own conversations filled the air.  Sae seemed to waver between wanting to talk, and not wanting to talk.  Nervousness, perhaps, or pride.

“What’s the first move, then?”

Sae looked up, a little surprised that Naoto even asked.  Perhaps she wasn’t expecting Naoto to want to help, or even ask about it.  “I...are you…”  She didn’t finish the sentence, instead just shaking her head and moving on.  “Shujin is the obvious connection.  We’re going to start there by interviewing the students.  I already have a few suspects in particular.”

Kurusu, Sakamoto, and Takamaki, no doubt.

Still, it was a good way to begin to catch them.  “Smart.  You may flush them in the open by simply appearing.  What if you don’t find anyone conclusive?”

“We will.”  Simple, dismissive.

Naoto was unsatisfied.  She narrowed her eyes and pressed.  “But what if you don’t?”

“We will ,” Sae said, an edge to her tone.  She was sure they would, it seemed.

Naoto was having none of it.  “Sae, yo-”

“Naoto-san!” Sae pounded a balled fist on the table, stopping Naoto’s words in their tracks.  She looked up to meet Naoto’s eyes, and in her expression, Naoto saw several things.  Desperation.  Determination.  A desire for justice.

Most surprising, however, was the fear.  It wasn’t much, but it was there - an odd tremble to Sae’s lips, a tiny wavering tone in her words, a miniscule tensing of her eyelids.  Sae was scared, and she didn’t want to show it.   What on earth could scare Sae Niijima?

“We have to.”

And then Naoto got it.

Sae’s idea to break the rules to find the Thieves was apparently just a power fantasy brought on by both her experience as a prosecutor and a desire to end this case - the kind of thinking anyone has when frustrated and dreaming.  Now, it was an order from her superiors.  Getting this assignment meant that whatever Sae had been planning now had to become a reality, no matter what that meant for justice and honor.

There would be no evidence they could find, Naoto knew that much.  Not even she knew exactly how the Phantom Thieves were changing hearts, and she had more insight than most.  Whoever had given Sae this assignment had given her a fool’s errand, and they didn’t care what happened as long as somebody was going to hang.

The government was up against the wall, and they were going to make Sae take the blame if anyone found out.  It was the perfect scenario for them, because no matter what, they got off with no black marks.  Sae was in no such position; if the conviction in court held up against future scrutiny - and Naoto had little doubt that it would hold up - Sae would likely be hailed a hero, given a promotion, and make all the papers as the person who caught the Phantom Thieves.  If it didn’t, she would be forever branded as the woman who helped send innocent people to their deaths in her desire to end the Phantom Thieves

The trace of fear Naoto saw in Sae told her everything she needed to know.  Sae wanted to do this before now, but it was always just an impossible dream, borne of frustration.  Now that it was a reality, it was much scarier.  How much of this fear had come from the opposition she’d gotten from Akechi and Naoto when she’d voiced the idea?  Had Naoto’s proddings and pleadings all those weeks ago turned Sae’s heart away from wanting to genuinely pursue this course of action?

Sae was now between a rock and a hard place, and the more Naoto thought about it, the more furious she was at Sae’s superiors for this.  Sae was not the enemy - the ones who gave this to her were.  Naoto had seen too many good people get destroyed by their higher-ups for her to let this go without a fight.

“Okay,” Naoto mused, leaning back in her chair, mind racing.   The SIU must be turning up the gas on this.  Is this malicious, or are they just covering their asses?  “I understand.  I mean, I fully, completely understand.”

Sae relaxed in her chair - not much, but enough that Nato noticed - and fixed Naoto with one of her usual piercing gazes, expectant.  Naoto knew that the woman was too full of pride to simply ask for help.  They had to figure this out together.

First, how long do I have?  “What can I do to help?  How long until the investigation likely concludes?”

“No more than a month.”  Sae sat back up in her chair, taking a sip from her water glass.  “It will take at least that long to find the necessary…evidence.”  That she was originally going to say something else was not lost on Naoto.

“The director himself impressed upon me how important this assignment was,” Sae continued.  “He gave it to me because I asked them to search Kobayakawa’s office again on a hunch, and that found new evidence.”

She’s probably wishing she hadn’t.  “And what’s the price of failure?”

Another one of Sae’s steely looks, but she said nothing, eventually looking away.   Failure isn’t possible, then.  Tall order, but I have the time I need.  If I start now.

With a nod, Naoto rose, straightening her jacket.  She had much to do.  “You said a month, correct?  That should be fine, but I need you to stall as much as possible.  Sorry to cut this short, but...”

“It’s fine.  I’ll do what I can.”  She opened her mouth to say something else, but nothing came out.  Naoto patiently waited.

And waited.

And waited.

It became clear that Sae couldn’t quite phrase it right, so Naoto decided to prompt her with something.  “Sae, when this is over…”

Sae just nodded, relief gracing her features.  “Yes, of...of course.  What are you going to do?”

Naoto smiled slightly, then shook her head.  “It’s better if you don’t know.  Do you trust me?”  It took a few seconds, but Sae gave her a quick nod.  “Then keep at what you’re doing.  You’ll hear from me soon, I promise.”

She turned to go, but stopped, and looked back.  “...we’ll get through this.”

With that, she faced the door and walked out.  She was a block away before she realized she’d forgotten to stay, and pay, for her meal.

The next two days were a flurry of writing, filming, and editing. Her plan would require more than a few new discoveries as to the nature of the cognitive worlds, and a small bit of luck.  She wouldn’t know if her theory was correct until it was almost too late, but she had few other options - the Phantom Thieves needed to be found as soon as possible.

Calls to Marie, Teddie, and the rest of the Investigation Team went well enough - they deserved a heads-up.  She sent an email to Mitsuru that would take some time to reply to, but it wasn’t necessary to get an immediate reply for what was coming up next - she’d handle all of that later.  As it was, she had more than enough to do - and based on Marie’s assertion that there was something weird going on in the Midnight Channel, she was about to have even more on her plate.

On the eve of the second day after her meeting with Sae, she placed a single call to a contact who worked at one of Tokyo’s largest news organizations.  It lasted only a minute or two, and when it was done, she set her phone down and slumped in her chair, sighing deeply.  That was it - everything was in place.  Now, all she had to do was wait.

With luck, she would be meeting the Phantom Thieves in just a few days.  She was, after all, putting herself squarely into their crosshairs.

About time.

She stood up with a grunt, walked over to the kitchen, and poured herself a glass of some whisky Rise had sent her.  She swirled it gently around the glass as she walked over to a nearby window and looked out at the busy metropolis below her.

So many people, so many lives, and all of them had been touched by the Phantom Thieves in some way.  They had leapt from a minor case of interest to an international cultural phenomenon in just a few months, capturing the hearts of victims and fans alike.  Naoto believed them to be on the side of true justice - she knew that the law could not always be there when it needed to be.

Still, whether they were truly just and righteous or not, Naoto would find out soon.  She took a sip from her glass, enjoying the slight burn of the alcohol as it went down her throat.  The moment was calm, and she savored it.  Coming up, there might not be many like it.

Let’s see what you’ve got, Kurusu.

Ryuji: holy shit dudes

Makoto: Ryuji, pay attention in class.

Ryuji: shirogane called us out

Makoto: Wait, she what?!

The broadcast showed several times over the course of the day.  Clips were up on Youtube within minutes and it hit every major news outlet before noon.  By that night, everyone in Tokyo, and likely most of Japan, knew that Naoto Shirogane had issued a challenge to the Phantom Thieves.

The video was simple.  It showed Naoto standing at a podium in the court house, the statue of justice behind her.  She was wearing her usual gray suit, and she was looking straight at the camera, serious and focused.

“To the Phantom Thieves of Hearts,” she began, “I, Detective Naoto Shirogane, offer you a warning.

“Your flagrant ignorance of the laws and rules of justice has made you an enemy of the state.  The murder of Kunikazu Okumura was yet another step on your path of crime, one that I will no longer permit you to walk unhindered.  As of today, I have gathered enough evidence to find you, arrest you, and see you all imprisoned for the rest of your lives - and after over a dozen murders by way of mental shutdown, your lives are in serious jeopardy.

“But I have come today to offer you a deal, as well.  It will be one you’re familiar with, I’m sure - you’ve already changed the hearts of many people, so what is one more?  If you can change my heart, I will drop my case against you.  I will leave Tokyo, and I will never trouble you again.

“That is my deal, Phantom Thieves.  I give you 72 hours to send me a calling card and change my heart.  After that, I will come and find you with as many members of the SAT as I can manage - and have no doubt, I will find you.

“Good luck.”

“So you got her number?”

The Phantom Thieves were gathered in Futaba’s room, who had just finished her priority task.  At the question, Futaba turned to Makoto and smiled, pointing to a phone number on the screen.

“Yep!  She gave it Haru earlier, I didn't even have to get it the way I got Akira's!  Not that that would've been hard.”  She clicked a few times and brought up a messaging protocol, entering Naoto’s number as the recipient.  “Should I send her a message?”

“Well, she doesn’t have a Palace, and her Shadow doesn’t seem to exist in Mementos,” Akira said.  “Do we have any other options we haven’t tried?”

“I’m still confused about that,” Ryuji said as he scratched his head.  “Mona said everyone’s got a Shadow in Mementos, right?  Why can’t we find hers, then?”

“I said everyone theoretically has a Shadow there, if it’s not in a Palace,” Morgana corrected Ryuji, shooting a glare at him.  “Mementos is the Palace for everyone’s hearts, so her Shadow should be in there.”

“And yet, she doesn’t seem to,” Ann countered.  “Futaba couldn’t find a trace of her in Mementos, and she doesn’t have a Palace, so the only option left is to be more thorough.”

Ryuji shrugged.  “Just seems like a waste of time, is all I’m sayin’.  We could be searching more Mementos floors right now instead of hopin’ she can lead us right to her.”

Yusuke looked over at Ryuji.  “I’m in favor of that, but this is worth a try.  If it fails, we go to plan C.”

“Which is to take her into Mementos and talk to her there.”  Haru glanced at the rest of them from her spot next to the desk.  “Correct?”

Akira nodded.  “Correct.  Let’s do this.  Send her the message, Futaba.”

Futaba typed out a message to send and waited for everyone to crowd around before sending it.

> Detective Naoto Shirogane, this is the Phantom Thieves.  We saw your message and have chosen to accept your offer.

What felt like the longest minute in the world passed before a reply came.


The Thieves blinked, staring at the message.  “Futaba, not to doubt your amazing hacker skills, but are you sure you got the right number?” Makoto asked, looking down at the girl.  “There’s no way she texts like that.”

Futaba glared up at Makoto, irritated by the doubt.  “I triple checked my process!  That’s her!”

“The world’s greatest detective texts in all capital letters and with abbreviations,” Yusuke mused, rubbing his chin. “What a strange mind we’re dealing with.”  Futaba typed out another message.

> To steal your heart we need something from you first.  Humor us.

> OH?

> We need to know where we can find you.  Somewhere important to you.  Somewhere your heart may lie.


“The Midnight Channel?” Ryuji looked at Makoto.  “The hell is that?”

“According to the internet, the Midnight Channel was an urban legend from about five years ago,” Haru said, scrolling through a website on her phone.  “It came on at midnight on rainy days, and if you watched it, it would show you your soulmate.  Apparently it was localized to a small town named Inaba, west of here.”

“Well, does it work?” Ann asked, nodding to Akira’s phone.  “Naoto Shirogane, Midnight Channel?”

To everyone’s surprise, Akira’s phone buzzed.  The soothing female voice of the Metaverse Nav came from Akira’s phone: now searching new region:  the Midnight Channel.  Please wait.  Then, some kind of gentle song began to play, a piano accompanied by a single female vocalist.

“For real?!”

“What does that even mean?” Makoto wondered aloud.  “Are there other parts of the Metaverse under different names?  Morgana, any insights?”

Morgana shook his head, perched on Futaba’s lap.  “This is news to me too.  I’ve never heard of this Midnight Channel.”

The music stopped and Akira’s phone spoke up, again surprising everyone: candidate found:  Naoto Shirogane.

“Intriguing,” Yusuke said, pondering the results.  “There are yet many mysteries for us to discover regarding the Metaverse, it seems.”

Morgana pawed at Futaba’s arm.  “Keep going!  Get the last keyword!”

Futaba nodded and typed out a text.

> And what do you see this place as?


> When you think of this place, what is it to you?


“Her…’secret laboratory’?” Makoto read from the screen.

Location found.   Akira’s smartphone buzzed once more as the Nav confirmed their destination, prompting another wave of reactions and another “for real!?” from Ryuji.  Akira, having mentally prepared himself to not be surprised, was nonplussed.

“This might be easier than we thought,” Akira said, looking at the rest of them.  “Is everyone ready to go?”

“Right now?” Ann asked, caught off guard.

“We can’t really afford to wait,” Makoto said. “This is a rush job, as much of one as we’ve ever had.”

“I get that, but...where are we going to enter?  Where is the Midnight Channel?  We can’t go to Inaba tonight,” Ann protested.  “It’s too late to take a train there and not spend the night.”

Futaba was already typing.

> And where can we find this Midnight Channel?


Futaba looked up at Akira.  “She’s joking, right?”

“She seems to have been dead serious thus far.  I wonder if something got garbled during transmission.  Still, it’s worth a shot,” he said with a shrug.  “Boss has a TV in the living room, right?”

“Yeah, but...wait, you’re seriously gonna try this?”

“I cannot believe you’re seriously gonna try this.”

A minute later, Akira was standing in the living room in front of the large TV set.  It was more than large enough for his hand to fit in, if such a thing was even possible.

“Fortune favors the bold, Futaba,” he said with a nod.  “Okay, ready?”

“Why are you asking us?” Makoto arched an eyebrow.

“If something terrible happens, I may need you to help me pull my arm out.”

“Hmm.  He’s right,” Yusuke said, moving closer to him.  “We don’t really know what’s back there.  Be careful with the hand, Akira, I’d hate for you to lose it.”

“They really are perfect for each other,” Ann said with a sigh.  “Okay, it already!”

With a dramatic flourish of his hand, and a collective intake of breath from the group, Akira shoved his arm towards the TV, where it doinked against the screen and stayed resolutely put.  Everyone let go of their collective breath as a chorus of sighs washed over the group.

“Okay, now what?” Ryuji asked, looking to Makoto.  She put her hand to her chin and stroked it as she thought, going over the possibilities.

After a moment, she snapped her fingers.  “Oh, of course.  Akira, activate the Nav.  It needs to be on for us to access the Metaverse.”

Akira did so, tapping the START button.  His phone chirped out “ Beginning navigation ” and there was the usual flash of purple as they moved into the cognitive world, and then...nothing.

Undeterred, Akira placed his hand on the TV screen and pushed, sinking his hand wrist deep into the screen, ripples moving out from his point of entry.

“Holy shit!”

“Ryuji!” Ann scolded.  “Language!”

“She’s right, Ryuji,” Futaba said, eyes wide.  “This at least deserves a what the fuck .”

After falling, almost literally, into Sojiro’s TV set, the Phantom Thieves found themselves lying in heaps in an utterly unfamiliar environment.

They were standing on what looked like a soundstage in the middle of a grassy field at night.  Spotlights were hanging overhead from various girders, providing plenty of light to see the immediate area.  The floor itself was checkerboard patterned with red and blue squares, and the center of the soundstage was a weird collection of human silhouettes lying on what looked like a shooting target.  Three CRT TVs stacked on top of one another were sitting in the center of the floor.

The first thing everyone noticed after all of that was the weird-looking mascot character standing in the corner and jumping up and down with joy.  “Hooray!  You made it!,” they said.  “I’m beary glad to meet you, Phantom Thieves!”

“Did that dude just make a bear pun?” Ryuji asked as he stood up, rubbing his rear end.  “Ow, I think I broke my ass…”

“Looks fine to me,” Yusuke said as he also got to his feet.  Ryuji shot him a suspicious look before shrugging and taking the compliment.

“Bear-y?” Makoto glanced at the leaping newcomer, on guard but not obviously so.  “We already have one animal mascot, I’m not sure we can handle two.  Who are you?”

“Iiiiii’m Teddie!”  He spun around and struck a celebratory pose.  “And welcome to the Midnight Channel!”

With a hissing noise and a threatening meow, Morgana sprung to his feet and ran over, putting himself between Teddie and the others.  “Careful, everyone!  This is a Shadow!”

His announcement sent almost everyone into defensive fighting stances.  Yusuke, however, tilted his head and framed Teddie with his fingers.  “A Shadow?  Intriguing.  What manner of Shadow are you?”

Haru looked over at Yusuke.  “Should we be talking to him?"

“Woah, hey, easy!” Teddie protested, trying to calm everyone down.  “Yes, I’m a Shadow, but I’m a beary friendly one!  I’m here on bearhalf of Naoto!  We’re good friends, you know!”

At the mention of Naoto, the Thieves relaxed - she did, after all, tell them how to get here.  “So...we made it then?” Futaba asked, looking around herself at the soundstage.  “This is it?”

Ryuji nodded in approval as he glanced around for the first time, admiring the landscape.  “Cool lookin’ place, bear.  Weird part of the Metaverse, though.”

“Indeed,” Yusuke agreed.  “Aesthetically confusing, too.”

“The red and blue is a little tacky…”  Haru looked up from the ground.  “But I like the mural on the floor!”

“Everyone, focus please,” Makoto ordered.  The rest of the thieves, save Akira, snapped back to relative attention.  Akira was looking at the CRTs  “We’re still in our normal clothes, don’t see us as enemies.  You really are a Shadow, Teddie?”

Teddie nodded, turning to face her.  “Uh huh!  I was born here in the Midnight Channel, but Yu and Naoto and the others helped me become a real boy!  I actually live in the human world!  I worked out really hard and grew my own human body!”

The Thieves fell silent.  How do you respond to that exactly?

“Good job,” Akira said with a nod of approval.  “I bet that wasn’t easy.”

Teddie flashed a wide smile.  “It took me a while, but I got it eventually!  Now who are all of you?”

“I’m Joker.  With me are Skull, Panther, Queen, Fox, Oracle, and Noir.” He pointed out each of them in turn.  “The cat is Mona.  You said this place was the Midnight Channel?”

“Uh huh!”  He gestured around, pointing to the entire area.  “The Midnight Channel is a land of human dreams and desires!  You already know about Shadows, so I’ll go ahead and skip that part.  I’d love to tell you more, but Naoto asked that I bring you right to her, so let’s get going!”

“Wait, hold on,” Makoto said.  “I’m still wondering how you can be a Shadow.”

Teddie smiled and half turned away, making a ‘let’s go’ motion with his arm.  “That’s a story that I’m really not prebeared to tell you right now!!  You need to go talk to Naoto right away!  Follow me!”

With that, he started to walk off down one of the catwalks, every step accompanied by a strange cutesy noise.  The Phantom Thieves looked at each other, gave a collective shrug, and clustered together to follow him.

“Are we sure this is a good idea?” Ann whispered to Haru.

“We’ve been in weirder places,” Haru whispered back.  “What’s the worst that could happen?”


Naoto stood up from the operation table and took a few steps towards them.  “I imagine you’re very confused on several things, so I’m going to explain everything I know to you.  After that, I’ll answer any questions you might have that I can answer.  After that ...well, I’m hoping what to do next will be obvious.

“First things first, I want you to know that I’m on your side.  I did what I did yesterday to get your attention - it was the fastest possible way I had of finding you.  Unless I’m completely wrong about you all, and you are a bunch of murderous high schoolers, I can assure you that I’m not going to arrest you and throw you in jail.  In fact, I want to help you.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but you are not responsible for the murders of Okumura and Kobayakawa, right?”

The Thieves nodded, their faces honest.  Naoto saw enough of the truth - there was no way that all of them could be practiced at deception enough to fool her.  “Then, as I suspected, you’re being framed.  For what reason, I don’t know yet - but I’m going to help you figure it out, because if I’m right about this next part, I’ve been through something startlingly similar to what you’re currently going through.

“I have a hunch that sometime over the past few months, all of you have awakened to a strange new power - a power borne from your own mind, from something that is part of you, and you are part of it.”

She put her left arm out in front of her and held up palm-up, opening her fingers.  From the palm of her hand, a glow blue tarot card appeared, floating in midair.  Suffused in gentle light and shimmering with arcane energy, it slowly revolved in the palm of her hand, the glow sweeping over the stunned and surprised faces of the Phantom Thieves.  On the face side, it bore a single X near the bottom and had a picture of a wheel with a sword running through it.

Then, with a single swift motion, she drew a revolver and shot the card, shattering it into a thousand tiny pieces. With a rush of blue energy and a flash of light, Yamato Sumeragi materialized behind Naoto, sword held up and at the ready position.  There it stayed for just a second before the Persona swung it down to the side and settled comfortably in the air behind Naoto, looking down at the Phantom Thieves.

A smile graced Naoto’s lips as she holstered her revolved.  “You have all awakened to the power of Persona, have you not?”

Chapter Text

There was a moment of stunned silence as the Phantom Thieves saw their same power manifested before them by Naoto Shirogane of all people.  Naoto remembered the feeling - when she had first met Mitsuru and the rest of the surviving SEES members, it was like finding family you didn’t know you had, one you got past the initial shock of it all.

And they looked quite shocked.

“Woah, woah, woah!” Ryuji suddenly yelled, and everyone turned to face him as the awe of the moment was unceremoniously shattered.  He straightened up and fixed Naoto with a glare.  “This is effin’ crazy!  How the hell can we trust her enough to tell her anything ?!  She’s supposed to be huntin’ us, there’s no way we can just start blabbin’ about everything we’ve done and seen!”  He pointed a finger at her, squinting in suspicion.  “I know what you say when you arrest people!  ‘Anything you say or do can be used against you in a court of law!’  Well, I ain’t gonna say anything!”

“While you do have the right to remain silent, I’m not arresting you.  Still, you have a point,” Naoto agreed as she folded her arms, clearly relaxed about the situation.  “How can you trust me?  I am, after all, publically attempting to find you and arrest you.  In normal circumstances, you’d be foolish to trust me, but I’m sure you can tell these are far from normal circumstances.”  She raised her hands to indicate the space around them and Yamato Sumeragi, who did another blade flourish.

Ryuji made a disgruntled noise, but no further protests came from him.  He instead slouched down more, but continued to stare at Naoto and her Persona, as if searching them for a shred of ill intent.

“It has become increasingly clear to me that you are not the killers,” Naoto said, “And I am far more interested in finding out who is.  You don’t have to trust me, but if what I think is going to happen has even a slight chance of’ll want to trust me.”

Morgana took a step forward, and all eyes turned to him.  “As loathe as I am to agree with Ryuji, he’s right.  We only really know you as the ace detective trying to catch us.  Right now, you have all the power in this situation.  How can we be sure that you’re telling the truth about wanting to help us?”

Naoto nodded in a ‘fair enough’ style.  “Well, let me see how much of your story I can guess.  One day, probably in April, two of you - I’m going to guess Kurusu-san and Sakamoto-san - found yourselves in an unexpected, strange, decidedly otherworldly place.  A world of dreams, in a sense, populated by Shadows - manifestations of human ego.  In that world, you ran into a natural denizen of it that was friendly,” and she gestured to Morgana, “who told you a little bit about it and helped orient you to the new place.

“During the course of your adventure, you were accosted by Shadows and were almost hurt or killed before one of you - I’m guessing Kurusu-san - manifested the power of Persona.”  She indicated her own, who was still floating in the air behind her.  “It gave you the strength to fight back and escape from the world, a little worn out but not seriously injured.  At a later point, likely when you intentionally went back to that same world for noble or curious reasons, Sakamoto-san gained his own Persona.  How am I doing so far?”

All of them looked surprised at the fairly accurate summation of events.  Ryuji and Akira traded glances, then cast their eyes back over to Naoto.  “That’s, uh,” Ryuji stammered out, “That’s kinda freaky.”

Naoto flashed a knowing smile.  “It’s freaky because the story I just told you is what happened to one of my best friends., Yu Narukami.  As a bonus, he too was new in town, same as Kurusu-san is.  Just as you were gathered as allies along the way, so too did we eventually join him.  Like us, I imagine that all of you were in some way personally wronged by one of the people the Phantom Thieves have subsequently targeted.  Takamaki-san with Kamoshida, Kitagawa-san with Madarame, and…”

She puts her hand up to her chin, looking out over the Thieves.  “...admittedly, I don’t know which one of you Kaneshiro was after, but based on the timing, I would assume either Niijima-san or Sakura-san.  As for you, Okumura-san, I believe you are having some trouble with an arranged marriage?  I apologize for prying,” she said with a small bow, “But it is the job of a detective to know such things.”

“It’s all right,” Haru said with a gentle smile.  “But I believe that’s a discussion best left for another time.”

“Indeed.  As for Okumura’s death…” Naoto paused, again thinking.  “If I had to guess, you went to change his heart and something went terribly wrong?”

“As far as we knew, nothing had,” Makoto said with a nod.  “But something did.  Our best guess is that someone came in behind us, or after we left.  Before his Shadow faded away, Madarame spoke of a man in black.  We believe he was the one who killed Haru’s father.”

So they’re already on it.  Good for them.  “A wise suspicion,” Naoto confirmed, “and I believe that working together, we can fill in some gaps that the others have - but that’s all in due time.  We have a more pressing issue to discuss, as I’m sure by now that you’ve figured out that you have gained the ire and attention of some very powerful enemies.”

Naoto leaned back against the table, resting her hands behind her on the flat top.  “I’m not sure how high up they go, but at the very least, you have politicians and directors of police operations coming after you.  They are willing to capture you by any means necessary, and they are not going to bother with a fair trial.  They are going to find you, nail you to the wall, and exploit your case for all of the public opinion that it is worth.  They’re not looking for the true culprits of the mental shutdowns - they’re looking for someone that they can burn.”

There was a moment of uneasy silence as the Thieves regarded Naoto, the true consequences of getting caught running through their heads.  All of them seemed to deflate a bit, dark clouds and dim expressions appearing on them in various fashions.  She kept going, figuring that all the bad news at once was best, like ripping off an adhesive bandage.  “I’m not sure if you’ve been told, but there is an operation in the works to find and capture you, one headed by the justice department and the police working in tandem.  They don’t have enough evidence for a conviction - and they never will - but they’re not too concerned with evidence.  If I can find enough to suspect you, so can they, and they won’t be so nice as to announce that they’re coming for you ahead of time.

That, of course, only made the Thieves sink even more into a depression.  Naoto offered them an understanding smile, despite the dour air of the conversation, and she stood up once more.   Now for the good news.

“In conclusion, I want to help you, and I think I can help you - not just against the police, but against whatever is coming for you down the line.  If what happened to me is the same as what is happening to you, things are going to get serious - far more serious than just the Tokyo police after your heads.

“Thus, I offer you a deal:  Let me join you.  I bring with me my own considerable prowess as a Persona user and a network of friends and allies who are the same, and I will also share what I know of the case, along with what I suspect is coming for you down the line.  In return, I want you to include me in on your meetings, activities, and tell me everything you know about how to change a heart - along with a summary of your deeds thus far.  I’m not going to take over leadership, as it seems to be that your dynamics are already well established, but I’m sure that you could use the help of an ace detective and experienced Persona user on your team.

There was a moment of silence as she let them digest it, and they looked at each other, trading glances.  Naoto went on.  “Before you say anything, know that you don’t have to accept this deal.  If you tell me no, there are no hard feelings.  After we leave here, I will act as though I had my heart changed, I will go on camera and profess the dangers of my pride and ego, and I will bow out of the investigation accordingly - however, I can promise you that such actions will only further enrage those who are looking for you.  I will do everything in my power to obstruct them, but believe me when I say that it is only a matter of time.

“What do you say, Phantom Thieves?  Do you accept my deal?”  Speech finished, Naoto regarded the Thieves as one, searching their faces for reactions and clues as to their next move - and then, she caught herself, and stopped.

She already knew that they were going to say, but she wanted to hear them say it.

Akira, looked back at the group, silently asking for their opinions.  Makoto, the closest one to him and the seeming second-in-command, spoke up first.“I believe her.  And I believe I know who is heading the investigation.”  She looked past Akira to Naoto, and the hesitance in even asking the question told Naoto just how much it was hurting Makoto to even ask the question. “It’s Sae, isn’t it?”

Naoto nodded, keeping the pain in her heart off of her face.  “We can talk about her after you all reach your decision.  I want to help her, Niijima-san.”

“Yeah,” Makoto said, quietly.  “Me too.”  She sighed, then looked back at the group, composed.  “We know that we got duped with Okumura.  What she’s saying makes sense, and I trust her.  If we had to be caught by one of the Detective Princes, I’d much rather it be her than Akechi.”

“I believe her too.”  Haru gave Naoto a small nod, one Naoto returned.  “And I want to know who killed my father.”

“For revenge?” Ryuji asked.

“Revenge does not imply the true amount of suffering I will bring into his life, but that’s as good as word as we’ll get for it, I suppose.”

There was a moment as everyone, Naoto included, pondered Haru’s bloodthirstiness.  Still, her dad was killed.  She had every reason to be angry.

“I’m in favor,” Yusuke said, breaking the silence.  “She hasn’t lied to us so far as I can tell, and her experience will be invaluable in the Metaverse - and, indeed, if there are darker clouds on the horizon.”

“She’s squeaky clean and, as a bonus, she has a public rep for honesty,” Futaba said with a resigned sigh.  “Count me in.”

“Ah, what the hell.”  Ryuji shrugged.  “I ain’t got no reason not to trust her, other than her being a cop.  Not like we can fight off every cop in Tokyo, eh?”

“It sounds like a better idea than getting caught in some kind of weird forced investigation.  I’m in,” Ann said with a nod.

Everyone turned to Morgana.  He looked up at Naoto, then strode forward, stopping just a few steps in front of her.  “Swear to me,” he said, staring right into her eyes.  “I want you to swear to me that everything you’re saying is the truth, and I want to hear you say it.”

A power move.  What a unique cat.

She nodded, then got down on one knee to be on the same eye level as the mysterious cat.  She didn’t break his gaze as she spoke.  “I swear to you that everything I have told you is true as far as I know, and my intentions are as genuine as they could possibly be.  Truth be told, I like the work you’ve all done,” she said as she flashed a charming, genuine smile.  “There are few feelings more frustrating to a detective than watching a criminal get away on a technicality, or get released on a lack of evidence when we just know they’re guilty.  Hearing that you all had gotten to Kaneshrio was a dream come true for me.”

She stuck out a hand.  “I believe in the Phantom Thieves,” she emphatically declared, “And I believe that they are just.”

There was a pause as Morgana regarded Naoto’s extended hand, and then with a lopsided grin, Morgana stuck out his paw and shook Naoto’s hand as best as he could.  Naoto stood up, hand extended to Akira.  “That sounds like unanimous support.  Do we have a deal, Kurusu-san?”

He smiled, then stepped up and shook Naoto’s hand as Morgana had just done.  “We have a deal,” he said.  “Welcome to the Phantom Thieves, Naoto Shirogane.”

After releasing Naoto’s hand, he placed it over his face.  In a flash of blue fire, a white mask appeared and covered the top half of his face.  It was visually striking - black eyesockets, a pointed nose, and wide flairs out on either side of his face gave it sharp angles and contrasting colors.  With a single smooth motion, he tore it off, leaving behind a bloody smear on his eyes and nose.  In another flash of blue flames, a figure materialized behind him, bound by chains - tall, gangly, and dressed in a red and black tuxedo, with long black top hat and black feathered wings.

The others did the same motion, tearing off their own unique masks and summoning their own Persona.  Naoto looked over them, all of them - manifestations of their own souls, turned into fighting spirits and rebelling against the natural social order that had hurt all of them in some way.

They look a lot more...punkish than ours did.  No wonder they’re Phantom Thieves.

“Excellent,” she said as she dismissed her own Persona.  “Now, we can truly begin.  Follow me out of here, Phantom Thieves. We have much to discuss.”


The Phantom Thieves returned to Leblanc, where they sat down with several good cups of coffee while Naoto told them her story about Adachi, the Midnight Channel, and the Investigation Team.  She told them of the murders, Teddie, Namatame, and Am-

“Wait, let me get something straight,” Ann said from a booth bench, stopping Naoto in the middle of her explanation.

Ryuji snickered, opposite Ann in the booth.  “That’d be a change,”

Ann shot him a look, but Makoto placed a hand on her girlfriend’s shoulder, sitting behind her.  “He’s right, you know.”

“ANYWAY!” Ann rerailed the conversation and turned to face Naoto.  “Some god was actually behind all the fog and everything?  You were all in a play, as you said it said?”

So Naoto went on and told them of Ameno-Sagiri, how their Persona evolved, and the true nature of the Midnight Channel.  Up until that point, it had been a semi-believable story, if a little strange, but nothing that Akira and the others hadn’t kind of experienced themselves.  But when a literal, actual god entered the picture, things went from a tiny bit odd to full-on crazy.

And she still hadn’t gotten to the end.

“So, you beat a god with the power of friendship?” Ryuji asked, summing it all up rather nicely.

Naoto smiled.  “That’s a way to put it, but yes.  I suppose the real power was the friends we made along the way.”

“That’s fucking sick,” he said with a wide smile as half of the Phantom Thieves groaned.

Makoto, though, was silent.  She was thinking about something, her hand on her chin.  “Ameno-Sagiri said it gave you all the power to enter the Midnight Channel after you all gained Personas, correct?  Then what about-”

“Yu, Adachi, and Namatame?” Naoto finished with a grin.  “I knew you would catch that - you’re as clever as your sister.  We did too, as we sat down and talked about all of this the day before Yu left to go back home.  Even counting what Ameno-Sagiri said as true, things didn’t quite add up.  Adachi himself noted that he didn’t get the power until he arrived in Inaba, and Namatame said something similar in his statements - and both of them heard rumors of the Midnight Channel before it became widespread.  Someone was spreading it deliberately around town, and someone had given the three of them the power to enter the TV world.  Plus, the Midnight Channel itself was still filled with fog.

“So many elements that previously were unrelated seemed related now, like it was all part of some master plan.  Someone, or something, was pulling the strings behind the scenes, and we’d barely noticed it.”

“But you beat the final boss, right?”  Futaba then gasped.  “Unless...there was a super secret final final boss!”

Naoto nodded. “There was.  You’re all in high school, so I’m sure you’ll all recognize the name Izanami…and I see from your reactions that you do,” she said to their slack-jawed faces.

She continued on, telling them of Izanami’s plan, what her three chosen represented, what she knew about the Midnight Channel, where the rumors came from, and how they ultimately defeated her at the eleventh hour, with a little help from the truth.

There was silence following Naoto’s words.  She had told them quite the tale, and she wasn’t sure what conclusions they would draw from it.

“Why are you telling us all of this?” Haru asked, voicing the question on everyone’s mind.

Naoto sighed, looking down at her cup.  It was good they asked, but it didn’t make this any easier.  “Because if my hunch is right, I suspect that your own group may be facing a similarly supernatural situation.  I can’t prove it, but I strongly believe that there are forces at work behind your rise to fame and, indeed, your strange powers at all.  Such abilities do not come from nowhere - they have to earned or granted, as ours were.

“And now that I’ve told you mine,” she said, looking back at the Thieves and turning around so she could lean back against the countertop, “I’d like to hear your story.  We still have some time, and I want to know everything that’s happened.  Leave out no detail, if possible - everything could be important.”  She pulled her notebook from her pocket, flipped it to a fresh page, and produced a pencil from her suit jacket.

“From the top, if you please?”

Akira began, and told the majority of the story, with the others filling in details as needed.  He told Naoto about his arrest, his arrival in Tokyo, and his first day of school.  He told her about Ryuji, Kamoshida, Ann, Madarame, Yusuke, Kaneshiro, Makoto, Medjed, Futaba, Okumura, Haru.  He told her about Akechi, Morgana, the Metaverse, Mementos, the assassin in black, the Velvet Room and Igor, the strange ma-

“Wait.”  Naoto cut Akira off mid-sentence.  “Igor?  Big nose, well past middle aged, lives in the Velvet Room?   That Igor?”

“That’s him.  There are two short women with him, Caroline and Justine.  They’re...wardens, in a sense.  There’s a prison theme.”

Naoto leaned back in her seat, the implications of Igor being here rocketing through her mind.  That was it.  If she needed any further proof that there was something larger at stake then the Phantom Thieves and a murderer, she just got it.  She had never been in the Velvet Room, the one that Aigis, Yu, and Akira had been in, but she had been in one before...

“You’re familiar with him, then?” Akira asked, eyebrows furrowed as he watched Naoto think her way through the conclusions.

Naoto nodded.  “Yes, Yu described him to us, along with the Velvet Room - a place only he could ever go.  Yu didn’t have Caroline and Justine, though, he had a woman named Margaret - and before that, Minato had Elizabeth.  We went to a Velvet Room once, but it was...a temporary one.  Different.  Does that mean you have the Wild Card ability as well, with the power to summon multiple Persona?”

She continued on after Akira’s nod.  “That means two things.  First, there’s definitely much more going on here than it seems, and I need to talk with my friends about it. Second, try not to think about that, because there’s a far more immediate issue that requires your attention.”

“You can’t talk with us about it?  If there’s something coming for us, we have the right to know,” Makoto said, crossing her arms.

“You absolutely do,” Naoto agreed, “But I don’t know for sure what’s going on - there’s only a hunch.  I promise you that when I know more, I’ll come to you, and we can figure this out together.  But as I said, we have a pressing matter to deal with first - namely, your sister’s investigation.”

Naoto then filled them in on what details they didn’t already know from Makoto, creating a more complete narrative on their situation.  When she was finished, there was an uneasy tension across the room.  This was no longer a game - this was, conceptually, life or death.

“So, now that you all know what’s going on behind the scenes, I have an idea,” Naoto said when she was done, “and I want to hear what you all think.”

“Rrrgh!  I think it’s bullshit that she’s even being forced into this!” Ryuji said, slamming his fist on the table.  That he had held in his anger this long was surprising.  “Why the hell can’t they just leave her alone?”

“Because somebody has to take the fall.”  Haru shook her head, looking down at the table.  “They can’t afford to just leave us be anymore, not after…”

“We’re too big, and we’ve done something worth prosecuting now - or it looks like we did.” Makoto said, sighing.  “We have to do something to help her, and I think I know what that is.”  She looked up at Naoto.  “You want to change her heart?”

“Right idea, wrong person.”  Smiling, but shaking her head, Naoto reached into her briefcase and pulled out a photograph, handing it to Akira.  He looked at it, and the group passed it around as Naoto spoke.  “This man, Hiroshi Kuromaru, is the director of the SIU, and Sae-san’s superior in the investigation - he’s the one who put her in charge of it.  Changing Sae-san’s heart would help, but she’s reluctant to be doing this anyway, and it isn’t addressing the root of the issue.  Despite her earlier fervor to catch the Thieves, I believe she now feels trapped.  Rather than go after her, I believe we should change the heart of the man putting pressure upon her in the first place.”

“Because if he gets rekt, so does the case!” Futaba said, smacking her palm with her fist.  “We forget about the dragon and go right for the real bad guy!”

Makoto nodded, then pulled out her phone.  “Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s see if it’s possible.”  She tapped with her fingers a few times, opening up an app on her phone.  “Hiroshi Kuromaru.”

“Candidate found.”

“That’s a start,” Ann said, flashing Makoto a thumbs up.  “But what do the others think?”

“I’ll be surprised if anyone disagrees.”  Yusuke looked at Naoto, handing the photo back to her.  “How long do we have?”

Naoto slid the photo back into her briefcase, clicking it shut after.  “Unfortunately, I don’t have an exact date, because I don’t know.  If I were to give an estimate, it’ll take a few weeks for everything to be lined up - even ramming it through the system requires the proper paperwork and arrangements with personnel.  I was hoping I’d never have to say this, but bureaucracy is our friend here.”  She put her hand to her chin for a moment, doing some mental math.

As one, all of the Phantom Thieves except Makoto studied Naoto’s pose, then looked at Makoto, then back at Naoto.

“It’s not our exclusive thing, you know!” Makoto mumbled, disgruntled.  “Other people hold their chins while they think.”

“They do, but not in that specific pose,” Yusuke said, studying Naoto.  “It’s a very distinctive stance.”

“Today’s the 26th, so...I’d say three to four weeks.  Let’s call it exactly three weeks, just to be safe - November 16th.”

“Aaah, that’s plenty of time,” Ryuji said.  “We’ve done it in less than that before.”

“Then we should take a vote,” Morgana said, looking around at the others.  “If everyone agrees, our next target will be Hiroshi Kuromaru, leader of Japan’s Special Investigation Unit, for putting excessive pressure on Sae Niijima and for being complicit in a fraudulent, face-saving investigation by the SIU to find and arrest us.  This isn’t our normal kind of target, but this is for our survival. All in favor?”

A chorus of affirmations followed.  “Anyone against?”


“Then it’s decided.”

“Good, cause it’s gettin’ pretty late,” Ryuji said with a nod to the clock.  “I gotta get home, my mom’s gonna get worried.”

“Meeting adjourned for tonight,” Makoto said.  “We’ll be in touch, Shirogane-san.”

“Call me Naoto,” she said with a smile.  “We’re equals now.”

“Then….Naoto it is.  We’re all on a first-name basis with each other, so don’t worry about formalities,” Makoto said, brushing her hair from her face.  “I never thought we’d be doing this together.  To be honest, when we heard you were coming to town, we were a little scared that you’d find us out.  How long have you known?”

“About two months now.  I got the hunch after I saw some of you here, as a matter of fact - it reminded me so much of the Investigation Team, of people so separated otherwise coming together.”  She smiles.  “Had I not been through all of that, I doubt I would’ve figured it out so quickly.”

“Two months!?” Ann groaned and slumped over, head on the table.  “But we were so careful!”

Naoto nodded.  “You were, and there’s no physical evidence, but the connections can still be made.  I’m not faulting your methods here, but there is no such thing as the perfect crime.  I must also confess that I didn’t know all of you were part of the Thieves - Futaba was not on my list except in name, and you, Haru, were only added when I spoke to you recently at your house.  It’s unfortunate, biding forever was never an option.  Sooner or later, you were going to get flushed into the open and captured.”  A small, humorless smile.  “You’ve made a mockery of the police and the SIU for too long to be ignored.”

“Yeah, well, bastards deserve it sometimes,” Ryuji muttered.  Makoto shot him a dirty look.  “C’mon, Makoto, you know what I mean.”

“If we’re all done here, I need to be going,” Yusuke said as he stood up and stretched.  “I still have to take the train home.”  Ann rose as well, along with everyone that wasn’t Futaba and Akira.  “After school tomorrow, in the usual spot?”

Akira nodded.  “We can take a Mementos trip, as planned, and show her the ropes.  Though, it sounds like you may not need the help.”

“It’s been a while," she assured Akira.  "I could use a refresher.”


It had been a very long day.

Naoto’s hair was fanned out in the bathwater to her sides, and the soothing scents of lavender and vanilla filled the air from the steaming water, calming her fast-running brain and soaking into her skin.  She was reclining, and while it wasn’t as spacious as it could be in the tub, she was compact enough to have room to spare.

Shame Rise isn’t here to join me…

She managed a smile at the thought of her lover with her, and she permitted herself a few minutes of idle dreaming - what better time to indulge in them than now?  After the sheer insanity of today, it was nice to have an anchor for her mind, in the form of her beautiful, charming, intelligent, talented, lovely girlfriend.

Sometimes I still don’t know what she sees in me...but I can guess.

The heat of the bath and the intimacy of her own thoughts brought a flush to Naoto’s face, and she covered it with her own hands, even though nobody was around to see her.  She couldn’t even see her reflection in the mirror due to the angle, and she was kind of glad of that fact.

If she saw me now, she’d just say it was cute, and I was cute, and she’d kiss me.

The flush spread up to her ears, and it didn’t stop there.  Naoto had intention of doing so, so she enjoyed her time in the warm, calming water, staying in until her fingers were well past the prune stage.

By the time Naoto had gotten out of the bath and brushed her teeth, there was still over an hour to go before her usual bed time. Still, she had nothing else to do, so she decided to turn in after one last check of her email.

Nothing from Sae, Akechi, or work - but there was a new one, marked priority.  Upon seeing the sender’s name, she smiled and opened it without a moment’s hesitation.

It had been quite some time since she’d spoken to Mitsuru Kirijo.

Chapter Text


Regarding your requests: matters concerning the politics and connections of the Kirijo Group are obviously confidential, and though we are friends, I am of course unable to comply with your request.  I sincerely apologize, but rules are rules, and security matters are no joke.

Good luck with your investigation.


Mitsuru Kirijo

P.S. While I understand what you asked for is time critical, I prefer physical correspondence whenever possible.  I have taken the liberty to order a wax seal and some starting stationary to your current address. I will inform you when it ships - such things take time and care to properly fabricate and assemble.

P.P.S  In addition, please come by the office next time you are in the area for tea.  We must catch up.

If Goro Akechi had such a crude thing as a shit list, Naoto Shirogane would definitely be on it.

From the moment she had arrived in Tokyo, Akechi had kept an eye on her - she was, perhaps even moreso than the Phantom Thieves, the one person who could unravel his plans.  She was clever, perceptive, and had well-earned the title of “Detective Prince”. Her exploits were not quite the stuff of legend, but her reputation was, and so Goro made very sure to play the clever, amicable detective whenever she was around.

It was thus unfortunate that her mere presence angered him.  She was the wunderkind from the boonies of Japan, a sob story ready to be told and retold and used as the opening act of some movie eventually made on her life.  It was a perfect story of someone who had overcome all manner of hardships and setbacks to take the world by storm and serve as an example for the future youth. Even her nickname was a sign of royalty, a moniker she had adopted to bring her fame and fortune.

What made Goro sick was that she had done it first .

The story he told of his own past was much like hers, as much as he wished it wasn’t.  They had similar upbringings, similar sparks of genius, similar desires to ferret out the injustice of the world.  It should have been his story, his origin, his underdog rise to fame and glory, but since he came after she did, all he was was the copycat. The new Detective Prince.  The second coming.

In doing second, he had lost the novelty of originality, and with it, some of the attention and rewards he very well deserved.  Nonsensically, she had chosen to reject all of the fame and fortune that came with it. All the benefits that came from her position and her reputation, and she threw them all out.  The level of change that she could make if she just accepted a higher position, turned her reputation and personage into a media darling…

But she refused all of them.  No interviews, except when informing the press of a case closure.  No appearances, no talk shows, no radio programs, no nothing. No marketability.

And yet, the people adored her.

She was now no longer the newsmaker she once was, having settled comfortably into a university program and a consulting job for the police - at least, consulting until she could join them.  She was, if you asked Goro, irrelevant. Her time had come and gone. The Inaba murders were done with, and she was supposed to fade from the spotlight for whoever came next.

Yet the moment the media got wind of Naoto Shirogane showing up to hunt the Phantom Thieves, she was the talk of the country once more.  With it came an implied message, Goro felt - one that plainly stated he was not good enough.

She was the true detective prince, and she was here to do what he could not.

Thinking back, it made him more than sick.  It made him furious.  He was Goro Akechi, widely proclaimed as brightest detective in the entire country by papers and TV hosts all over!  He had solved unsolvable cases, he had caught uncatchable killers. He had built his reputation from the ground up, with some help from the criminals themselves.  The Phantom Thieves were an opportunity, one he was not willing to let slip by - it was, undoubtedly, going to be his career-defining catch on his path for revenge against his scumbag of a father.

And then she came along, stealing all of his thunder.  Not only did she take away the headlines shortly after his own arrival, but as the Thieves grew in popularity, her media silence worked in her favor.  For all his posturing and pretty words, people didn’t want to hear that he was against them, that they were still breaking the law and acting as vigilantes.  As his own rep had fallen, hers had risen. The calls for appearances stopped coming...and he was fairly sure they were going to her instead, despite her refusal of them.

On one occasion, he thought about taking her out.  One trip to the Metaverse, and that was all it would take.  One shot, one dead Shadow, and she would be out of his way forever - and the Phantom Thieves would take the blame.  Who else would want her dead, if not the very people she was hunting?

As the case progressed, and he saw her brilliance for himself, he decided against it.  Truth be told, he still wasn’t sure who the Thieves were. He had suspicions, of course, but no concrete suspects, and he wasn’t one to jump the gun without solid evidence.  In the long run, it was better to let her do all the hard work, dropping hints as needed, until she uncovered them. When that happened, it would be all too easy for him to swoop in, take care of her, and steal all the credit while lamenting that he sadly could not prevent their final kill.

So he bided his time.  He watched as she puzzled through it, making impressive logical leaps.  He fed her tidbits sometimes, disguising them as his own musings - or Sae’s, on occasion.  He withstood all the insults and jeers the public and media threw at him, knowing that it would all turn around someday.  All he had to do was wait.

When he killed Okumura, his waiting was done, his fortune reverse.  The Thieves were wanted criminals once more, and Akechi - who had quietly stood by his opinion the entire time - was back in the favored position.  The calls came once more. His supporters returned in droves, trusting him to find them.

And yet, they still trusted her.  Her perpetual silence had worked in her advantage - it was easy to forgive an opinion that nobody knew she had.  As he noticed his stature rising once again, he figured it was time to begin the endgame.

He chose his words in the media carefully.  He didn’t want to act as though she was less capable - it would not do him well to badmouth a fellow Detective Prince, after all - but he did slide in a few words of a potential competition, a rivalry between them.  Detective Prince vs Detective Prince, both racing the other to secure the Thieves and save Japan from their murderous rampage.

The media, as expected, ate it up.

Websites began having polls on who would win.  Naoto, as planned, declined all media invitations, leaving only Akechi to take them and speak on them.  He spoke of her with only glowing praise and respect, some of it genuine, for doing so only stoked the rivalry.  It was friendly, he maintained, even if he never outright said they were competing.  It was two detectives testing their skills, benefiting the other.

It was just the thing he needed to stay in the spotlight while the case developed.

When Naoto released her video calling out the Phantom Thieves, the media waited with bated breath.  Would this act of sacrifice doom her to a confession of her misdeeds? Did she even have any misdeeds to confess?  Akechi had never considered exposing her like that - not, at least, while she was still useful. He hadn’t found anything to expose her over, after all, so why would he risk torpedoing her?  The move Naoto took surprised him - he had sensed a small rebellious streak within her, but nothing so bold as her deciding to paint a target on her own back.

He, like everyone else, waited.  While he waited, he thought. How could he handle this?  What did he need to do to move forward? She was still too much of a wild card, unpredictable in her abilities.  Sae was already under the Director’s thumb, but Naoto remained free. He hoped it would only be a matter of time before she broke, but had to plan for otherwise.

Naoto Shirogane had to be handled, one way or another.  The best way to do that was to find out what she knew. And the best way to do that was to propose an alliance between them, an exchange of information.  When he had all he needed, he would strike, leaving the Thieves caught and Naoto braindead - or better, insane and untrustworthy.

The competition between the Detective Princes was about to get much more interesting.

Naoto’s challenge to the Phantom Thieves did not go unnoticed.

This had the unfortunate side effect of publicly undermining their credibility, at least for a bit - they eventually released a statement on the PhanSite saying that while they appreciated the opportunity, Naoto had done no crime worthy of having her heart stolen, and so she was judged as innocent.

Had the general public known Naoto had instead joined the Phantom Thieves, the headlines would’ve been quite different.  Naoto was thankful they were not. She never did like the attention, unless it was useful to her.

It was on Friday morning of that same week that Akechi approached her while she was enjoying some coffee and a bagel, reading a news article.  With a slight, closed-lipped grin, he sat down across from her, setting his briefcase down beside him. “I see you’re alive and well this morning, Shirogane-san.  The Phantom Thieves were true to their word, then?”

She offered him a gentle smile in return, setting down her phone.  “I have no real skeletons in my closet, Akechi-san. My gender is old news by this point, and I have nothing else to hide.”   Or, nothing that anyone can discover, at least.

“That’s good news, then.  I’d hate to have to investigate you.”  He delivered the line with a small chuckle, which Naoto appreciated, while figuring that he already had.  She had, after all, done the same for him. “Though, I find it curious. You don’t seem like the kind to throw yourself into the line of fire so easily.”

Naoto’s smile grew mysterious.  “To be fair, Akechi-san, we’re hardly close friends.  I hesitate to call us more than acquaintances - not out of malice, just simple fact.  Still, you’ve raised a valid point.”

She sat up more in her chair, getting comfortable.  “You’re familiar with the Inaba murders?” He nodded.  “During the course of that investigation, I discovered the pattern that the alleged killer was using, in the form of people who had recently appeared on television.  Knowing that, I appeared on it myself, knowing that he would come for me. Waiting for him to strike wasn’t an option, and after discovering this part of his methodology, I took it upon myself to force his hand.

“We know the Phantom Thieves methodology, to a point.  We know their kinds of targets. I wanted to force them into the open, see if getting them to come after me would reveal things we don’t already know.  Unfortunately…”

“...they didn’t take the bait,” Akechi finished, nodding.  “So we’re back where we started. In that case, Shirogane-san, I have a suggestion.  We’ve been working this case separately, but you and I both know that we’re running short on time.  Why not work together?”

Oh, finally.  Naoto had been waiting for this kind of suggestion, even moreso since being enlightened on the Phantom Thieves’ suspicion on Akechi.  Overtly, he had done little, save be smug and superior about his own suspicions when Okumura had been killed, but they mentioned one incident above all else - a conversation where he seemed to hear Morgana speak.

‘It’s not all the proof we need, but we’re pretty sure he knows more than he lets on,’ Makoto said.  ‘If he’s as smart as everyone thinks, he must be onto us in some way.’

It helped that Naoto had been getting a stronger vibe from Akechi ever since Okumura’s murder.  His ambition had been clear to her when they had first met, but Akechi had contained it, hidden it behind his smiles and self-deprecating jokes.  Now, with his stance on the Thieves seemingly vindicated, he was more ambitious than ever, taking little care to hide his desire to bring the Thieves to justice.

It was the motivation for such ambition that made Naoto curious.  Every detective wanted to be good, but few of them wanted to be famous.  The best ones, Naoto found, were those who funneled their ambitions into a desire for change, a fuel for their natural sense of justice.  They didn’t want to be known so much as recognized for their reputation, which would help them to gain favors and access. Akechi, though, wanted to be famous.  He wanted to be known, to be admired and praised.

He had an ego, and an ego was a dangerous thing for those who worked on the side of the law.

This team up was thus the perfect opportunity to get to the bottom of all of this.  Either Akechi did know more than he let on, or his incident with the Thieves was some kind of strange coincidence.  In any case, Naoto would get access to his case files, research, and hopefully, private thoughts on the matter. It was a win-win.

She smiled at him and nodded.  “Of course, Akechi-san. Truth be told, I was starting to consider the idea myself, but I had thought you to simply be too busy with other cases and your personal life.  How about we meet up after lunch and figure out what we both know?”

Akechi rose with a nod.  “Sounds good. I look forward to seeing what you’ve discovered - with both of us after them, they won’t be hidden for long.”  He picked up his briefcase, adjusted his tie, gave her a short nod in goodbye, then turned and strode away.

Naoto watched him leave, and the moment he rounded the corner, she picked up her phone and opened up her messaging app.


Akira: yeah, we’ve got time before we head into mementos.  why?


Akira: whatever he said, i didn’t do it.

Naoto: WHAT??

Akira: nm.  yeah i’m free.  meet at leblanc’s after school’s done for the day, we can talk before mementos.

Naoto: OK

Akira: also hey naoto

Akira: why do you text like that?


Akira: all caps, abbreviations


Ryuji: shes gotta be fuckin with us

Yusuke: I am inclined to agree.

Makoto: I don’t know, I can see her point.  Capital letters are distinct. Everyone knows abbreviations by now.

Akira: i’m just gonna start not using vowels.

Futaba: 1’/\/\ 601|\|6 b4<|< 2 |-|4r|)<0r3 1337

Haru: I’m so lost…

Ann: I’m blocking all of you. (¬_¬)

Ann: Except Haru and Makoto.

Makoto: <3

Haru: <33

Akira: wait ann did you get another girlfriend

Ann: That’s not what I meant!

Haru: I mean...I wouldn’t say no…

Ann: I’m not having this conversation right now!!!  ლ(ಠ益ಠლ)

“What do you wanna know about Goro Akechi?”

Naoto was sitting on the couch up in Akira’s room.  Akira himself was seated on the bed, Morgana close by.  They were both looking at Naoto, who was thinking about her answer, hand on her chin.  She’d long-since shucked her jacket and loosened her tie, the work day over.

“He approached me offering to pool our resources so we can catch the Phantom Thieves together.  I find his timing not unusual, given what just happened, but I wonder if there’s an ulterior motive.  Something just bothers me about him, and I want to know what you think of him before I get too deep into it.”

Akira sighed, slouching more.  Morgana looked at Naoto, tail swishing.  “We know he knows something,” the not-cat said.  “We just don’t know what. It’s possible he’s using you to get to us, even if he doesn’t know you’re part of the team - you said yourself that you’ve been suspecting us for months. No way he hasn’t done the same.”

“But why wait?” Naoto fired the question back at Morgana.  “If he knows, or even suspects, why does he wait? What does he have to gain by doing so?  Catching you would be the biggest case of his career. It would get him any position in the country.  The police will go along with whatever he says, eager as they are to have someone behind bars.”

“I don’t think it’s just the fame he wants,” Akira said quietly.  “I think there’s something more. It almost feels like he’s trying to prove something, the way he used to talk about finding us on TV.  Is that just a strong sense of justice?”

She tilted her head from side to side, making a ‘sort of’ gesture.  “I felt the same way as he did about you. Any good detective has that desire to see wrongdoers punished for their crimes.  Still, you might be right. There must be something more. Makoto said before that you all suspect him of knowing more than he lets on, correct?  What prompted that?”

So Akira told her the full details of their first meeting at the TV station, of him seemingly hearing Morgana.  Naoto reacted to that with a raised eyebrow, and her mind tried to process the implications. If he heard Morgana speak, that meant he was in the Metaverse.  It meant he knew how it worked...and, potentially, that he could use it as the Thieves did.

Does he have a Persona?

“I’ve seen him a few more times.  We’ve...become friends, I guess. He’s different then.  Quieter, more personal. I think…” He sighed, then shrugged.  “I don’t know. I do know that he’s not who he appears to be. He’s hiding something.  Maybe a lot of things.”

“Or maybe just one really big thing,” Morgana added.

Akira smiled at him.  “Or one really big thing,” he repeated.  “He’s thoughtful and observant, but I sometimes the mask slips.  He’s talked about his dad before, who abandoned him, and his mother, who died right after.  He clawed his way up from so little.”

“Yes, I read as much.  I...can somewhat relate,” Naoto mused.  “My grandfather was a good man, and Akechi had no such comfort.”

There was silence for a moment as the three pondered what this all meant, where it could go.  “What are you going to do?” Akira asked, breaking the moment.

“I’m going to do what I do best, Akira.  I’m going to reach out to the truth in all of this and grasp it as best I can.  There is a something much larger at work here, and I believe that Akechi is in the center of it - willingly or otherwise.”  She stood up and stretched, picking up her jacket and briefcase. “We’re meeting soon to go to this...Mementos place, correct?”

Akira nodded.  “Yeah, in a while.  I’ll add you to the group chat we have.  It’s how we keep track of things.”

“A group chat, eh?” Naoto asked with a sly smile.  “Knowing you all, I’m sure it’s for more than just that.  I’ll go get some coffee and wait downstairs. Get me on your way out.”

[NAOTO SHIROGANE has been added to chat NASTY CRIMEBOYS]

Akira: okay, she’s here

Akira: everybody say hi

Yusuke: Greetings, Detective Shirogane.

Naoto: IM ONLY 21 U KNO


Futaba: speak for yourself.  21’s super old. you’re ancient.

Futaba: is your persona a wheelchair?

Futaba: makoto’s got the makotorcycle, i have a ufo, it’s not totally out of line


Ryuji: awww

Ryuji: lame

Ann: Hey Naoto! :3c

Naoto: HELLO

Makoto: Hello Naoto!  Glad you could join us.

Haru: hello naoto!!

Akira: okay, so now that there’s an adult in here, everyone has to be very serious, all of the time

Akira: no more memes

Akira: futaba

Futaba: good luck asshole, i’m behind seven proxies

Akira: i will come to your house and punch you if i must.

Yusuke: “Makotorcycle”?

Futaba: get with the program, inari

Yusuke: I’d rather not get with your terrible murder of language.



Makoto:  We are not!

Akira: makoto

Akira: makoto i love you

Akira: but she is absolutely right

Haru: i still do not fully understand why we are all boys!

Futaba: [meme_trash.png]

Ryuji: why is that not in comic sans

Futaba: [here_you_go_ryuji_you_meme_trash.jpg]

Ryuji: eh close enough

Yusuke: Is Makoto a boy too?

Makoto: Actually, before Naoto’s gender came out, I pretended to be her while she was still a ‘him’.  So...does that count?

Akira: that’s the most adorable shit i have ever heard.


Akira: even more adorable than your buchimaru-kun pencil case.


Makoto: Yes!  I have an embarrassingly large amount of Buchimaru-kun things…




Ryuji: holy shit

Akira: i bet he gives the best piggyback rides.


Yusuke: Is he single?  Because if so…

Akira: babe you’re not single.

Akira: but honestly? same.

Haru: if he is, i call dibs!!

“So what does he know that you don’t?”

The Phantom Thieves had gathered at Shibuya Station following work and school.  Naoto was gently drumming her fingers on her leg, eager to get back into the swing of fighting Shadows.  It had been some time since she had set foot into a place infested by humanity’s collective demons, and she was hoping that her time spent away had not diminished her combat abilities at all.

Also, it was kind of fun.

“We didn’t get that far,” she said as she looked over at Makoto, giving the girl a small shrug.  “Today, we recapped everything we both knew - the details of the kills up to now and what we know about the cognitive world.  I’ll have to spend more time with him to know more. With luck, I’ll find out everything.”

“Keep at it, then,” Makoto said as she brushed a stray hair behind her ear.  “We’re running on borrowed time.”

“And speaking of time, can we get started?” Yusuke said, standing and stretching, looking around at the group.  “I do have to be home at a decent hour tonight.”

Akira stood as well.  “Everybody ready?” A chorus of nods followed, so he pulled out his phone and opened an app, tapping at the screen a few times.  “In we go.”

As Naoto watched, the world tinged purple and ripples of reality appeared in the air - they got wider, filling her vision, distorting anything and everything that she could see from their isolated corner of the station.  As they moved through the air, the station changed in their wake, walls melting away and coming back...and looking very different when they did.

The world of Mementos was nothing short of disturbing.  It was recognizably the subway station, but twisted and corrupted - patches of what some kind of black mold-like substance were splattered onto the signs, walls, and ceilings of the area, and a dark red glow suffused everything she could see.  Ahead of them, broken escalators descended ominously into the depths, and from where they lead, Naoto heard the barely-audible - and somewhat terrifyingly familiar - clinking of chains.

The whole place felt wrong - it smelled old and stale, and there was a distinct sense of looking at the world through a dark, dour lens.  Yet, everything seemed clearer than it ever did before - what colors there were were more vibrant and popped.

It took Naoto to moment to see that everyone was in different outfits.

As Naoto surveyed her newfound friends, they truly did look the part of phantom thieves - rebellious, the lot of them, and each in their own way.  Akira looked like some kind of gentleman thief, with a long coat and a vest. Ann was a literal cat burglar, and Naoto could sympathize with her outfit - she seemed to have the same general build problem as Naoto did.  Ryuji looked like a street punk. Haru was undoubtedly a noblewoman, likely French in origin. Yusuke was a whimsical, mystical fox from a folk tale. Makoto looked like a wrestler crossed with a knight. Futaba looked like she had come straight out of TRON.

Naoto gave a low whistle at the Thieves as they readied their various weapons and adjusted their new clothes.  “Quite the crew you’ve got, Akira. I wish we’d gotten new outfits. All we got were some glasses.”

“It’s Joker.  In here, we use code names.” He put on a wry smile and pointed at her.  “And you’re one to talk.”

Confused, Naoto looked down and nearly jumped out of her new outfit in surprise.  Gone was her gray suit and dress flats, replaced by black pants with white pinstripes and black laced-up combat boots.  A tight black undershirt sat beneath a dark blue waistcoat and thigh-length overcoat, looking just like one stolen from Lupin III himself, but with a higher collar.  A black belt with a bright gold buckle held it all together, something decidedly reminiscent of something from Phoenix Ranger Featherman R. A waist-length hooded blue cape rested atop the overcoat.

She held up her white gloved hands, surprised that she’d gotten some new clothes, just like the rest of them.  It felt real, like anything else did to her, despite it having just materialized on her body.  “Can someone-”

And Ann was already on it, handing Naoto her phone with the selfie camera on.  "Photos don't work, but the camera does."

Naoto nodded, then got a good look at herself, checking her outfit out from a few angles and smiling.  “I look like some kind of comic book detective superhero crossover. mask.”

“Well, you already have a Persona, right?” Anne said, taking her phone back and stowing it...somewhere.  “You don’t really call yours by pulling it off. That’s how we summon all of ours,’re a little different I guess.”

“Symbolic.”  She felt around her neck and found some bunched-up loose cloth, a part of the shirt.  Thinking about it, she slid it further up her face and it held fast, creating a mask that covered her nose and mouth.  She reached back and flipped up the hood, adjusting it and pushing her hair back behind her to hide it inside the jacket.  “Well?” she asked the Thieves, indicating her face. How do I look?”

Ryuji grinned and flashed her a thumbs up.  “Lookin’ good, detective. All you need now is a code name.  As Joker said, we all got one. We’d be pretty bad thieves if we used out real names.  I'm Skull.  The rest of us are Panther, Queen, Mona, Fox, Noir, aaaaaand Oracle."  He pointed out each team member in turn with their nickname.

Naoto nodded. Using a code name made sense, in a weird way, and they all had pretty cool ones.  “Hmm. Does anyone have suggestions?”  She went over some potentials in her head, but she wanted to hear from the others.

“Well, Ryuji had a good idea with the ‘detective’ nickname.  How about Conan or Sherlock?” Makoto pitched out.

“Zenigata?” Ann added.

“Adler, if you want to go the Sherlock Holmes route,” Yusuke said.  “Perhaps Cape?”

“Anonymous,” Futaba said, snickering.

Naoto shook her head.  “At this point, I’m not much of a law-abiding detective.  Joining with the people I’m supposed to be capturing? I’m culpable now.  Fu-...she had the right idea,” she said, indicating Futaba. “I am, for all intents and purposes, a vigilante.”

“Well, how about that?” Morgana said.  “Vigilante?”

She thought it over.  It had a nice ring to it, as a base name.  Descriptive. Stylish. Unique. “I like it, but that’s too long, so let’s go with Vigil.”  She patted around her body, trying to find her revolver - and sure enough, there it was in her shoulder holster.  She also felt a few somethings on her waist - it seemed her ordinary belt had turned into a real life utility belt complete with pouches, and strapped to her right hip inside a holster was a collapsible baton.  With a flick of her hands, she pulled it out and extended it, admiring it. “ you all do much fighting?”

“Oh yeah, it’s pretty hands on,” Ryuji said, hefting a dumbbell-looking thing over his shoulder.  “We tag-team with our Persona, fighting alongside ‘em. Our advance team leads the way, and the reserves mop up whatever’s left and jump in, in case the advance team is struggling.”

“Speaking of which,” Ann said as she turned back to Joker.  There was no way she was comfortable in that get-up, Naoto mused.  “Who’s in the advance team today, Joker?”

“Let’s give the newbie a shot,” he said, adjusting his gloves.  “Queen and Fox are with me as well. Mona, you’re up.”

Morgana flashed a wide grin.  “Roger!”

And then Morgana turned into a bus.

(Looking back on it as she told Rise about it all later, Naoto realized that, subconsciously, it just kind of made sense that Morgana could turn into a bus.)

“ we...are we just gonna…”  While Naoto was sputtering, the rest of the Phantom Thieves were boarding, and Joker was sliding into the driver’s seat.  “Wait, do you even have a license?!”

“No, we’re criminals,” Ryuji answered unhelpfully.

Chapter Text

“Hey Vigil, is that...a real gun?  All of ours are fake.”

“...then I suppose mine will be even more effective.  Now I’m excited to try it out.”

“This is the collective Palace of humanity, correct?  What sin is it?”

“Liking pineapple on pizza.”

“Everyone else has mythical tricksters as their Personas, so Oracle, can you explain yours to me?”

“Nah, not really.  You’d have to bring it up with Lovecraft, and he’s suuuuper dead by now.”

“Yo Vigil, can you sign my shotgun?”

“Of course, unless that’s a metaphor for something else, in which case, absolutely not.”

“You know Noir, I’ve fought alongside a number of other Persona users, but none of them quite match up to your...brutality.”

“Thank you, Vigil!  That’s very kind of you to say!”

“Joker, are you a big eater?  Skilled at fishing? Top of your academic class?  Just curious.”

“Yeah, all of those.  Why are you looking at me like that?”

“You fought Shadows in your school uniforms?  How did you manage to bring in weapons and stuff?”

“With...considerable difficulty.”

“I have to say, you all have a larger flair for the dramatic than we did.  The outfits really help with that.”

“Didn’t you greet us by waiting in an abandoned laboratory and calling us out on public television?”

“Feels kinda weird havin’ an adult in here with us.  Like suddenly we got a chaperone.”

“I’m only twenty-one!  I’m not that old! You’re all just young!”

“Oracle, you have got to get some more sleep.  That’s the fourth time you’ve yawned in the last ten minutes.”

“But raaaaaaaaaaaaaids…”

“Hey, Vigil, you know a lot about Persona.  What can you tell me about bofa?”

“Bofa?  I’m not familiar wi...wait, why are you all snickering?  Is something f-...oh, you imbeciles.”

“You can talk with Shadows?  Intriguing...we never seemed to get that chance.”

“Oh, yeah, it’s pretty rad.  Sometimes they give us money, sometimes we get placenta water.  The Metaverse is effin’ weird.”