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a soldier in defense

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“KAMOSHIDA” bright red, crudely composed postcards are spelled out in kanji on the Shujin announcement bulletin board, right at the end of the third-year hallway.

“Phantom Thieves, huh? I bet this is just a prank.”

“Pretty bold one, though.”

A gang of Phantom Thieves targeting a teacher, specifically calling out his crimes in vivid detail- it really does seem fantastical, in the broader sense. But Niijima Makoto has no time to think about it in that way.

She knows a potential problem when she sees it.


 

This is most definitely a problem.

Murder- really, it shouldn’t have been a surprise, considering the call to action on every card had been ‘take your heart’. Read literally, there would be no alternative outcome.

But hearing about Kamoshida’s death, one with no obvious cause or motive other than the amateurish posting, still shakes her. It hasn’t really settled in since her briefing with the principal. Even after hearing the words repeated ad nauseum by student after student throughout the day, it doesn’t feel real.

Sure, Makoto knew about Kamoshida’s nature. Maybe not the extent and quantity of his disgusting actions, but how could that justify a murder? Does one wrong really justify another?  

Makoto pictures a girl, toes of her loafers dangling over the school’s roof. Maybe it does.

She pictures a van, and an unsuspecting victim crushed under its weight. Part of a corrupt institution, complicit in his silence, sure, but a victim nonetheless. Maybe it doesn’t.

“Niijima-senpai, is it really true?” A voice she doesn’t recognize asks, standing outside the opened door of the student council room. “Is he really…?”

“Yes.” Makoto answers, and it’s not until the girl leaves that Makoto realizes she was asking about Kamoshida.


 

Four days after Kamoshida’s passing, she’s called into the principal’s office.

It's almost absurd, really, the way Kobayakawa hangs college choice, letters of recommendation, and her sister over her head in order to get her to pursue a group of possible murderers.

‘Possible’ seems a little lenient; they’re the prime suspects, or they would be if the police weren’t so wrapped up in debate over whether this even is a murder case. Kamoshida was healthy and healthy people don’t drop dead out of nowhere, even if there’s no evidence of foul play.

And no one posts threats the day beforehand if they aren’t involved. It seems like an obvious enough conclusion, but apparently not for the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. Given the circumstances, the logical next step in an investigation is to put someone on the case in the most likely place the group would be. Or at least, that’s how Makoto tries to justify Kobayakawa’s request.

But then again, her justifications don’t really mean much. It’s not like there’s anything she can say to change Kobayakawa’s mind. She agrees to pursue the Phantom Thieves, and leaves.


 

The next day, she finds them. Or at least, she finds suspects.

It's not hard when they gather in a place that’s specifically off limits, and greet her with hostility when she points that out.

And, well, maybe her approach is a little...blunt. But it’s hard not to be on edge around them. Not when they seem to be on-edge themselves.

“So you think the Phantom Thieves killed him, huh? I didn’t expect you to be into conspiracy theories, Niijima-senpai.”

“Pretty shitty to be accusin’ us without any evidence, you know.” Sakamoto mumbles under his breath.

It’s quiet, but Makoto hears it, plain as day. She can’t blame his defensiveness-- she’d be on edge to, if she could even imagine being in a similar situation. But she can’t, and she won’t, and she quickly turns and leaves at the next opportunity.

Still, something about the group seems… off. Either the air around them or how they hold themselves, keeping the three of them closed off from everyone outside, but that’s not enough evidence to hand over to Kobayakawa. She’ll need more for that.

It only leaves her with one option, though she’d have to pull it off with absolute secrecy in order to be effective.


 

After a month of following Kurusu Akira around, Makoto is beginning to doubt her own abilities.

Of course, there’s also the question of why she was even assigned to do this in the first place. It’s less of a question and more of a footnote, something she keeps in little words in her thoughts but never dares to utter aloud.
She was asked. She was asked by the principal, and that’s apparently all it takes to sway her.

Regardless, she’s been given a task, and she is not one to back down. Even if it means potentially putting her life on the line, spending afternoons walking around the school hallways, the Ginza station, and wherever else this impromptu ringman goes.

It’s obvious when the group meets up; they aren’t even trying to hide it, really, when it’s in plain view of everyone. Though from the outside, it looks like just a group of teenagers hanging out. At least, that’s what Makoto assumes it looks like.

On the days they meet, they disperse soon after, serious and solemn looks on their faces, and Makoto loses them, again and again.

It’s not until she sees the news report in Shibuya square that she realizes where they go.

It’s solidified once she sees them meet up immediately after that report, the group’s composition changed, and a new faced added.

Kitagawa Yusuke. She can’t help but stare.

Pupil of renowned artist Maderame. Pupil of the recently deceased artist Maderame.

Makoto can’t decide whether the Phantom Thieves are incredibly bold or impressively stupid.

Not only are they gathering in public, but with two of the people most directly impacted by the deaths of their targets? It would take an idiot not to realize who they are.

She remembers Sae coming home, later and later and overhearing phone calls about how impossible to track the Phantom Thieves were. Sae is smart, capable, and diligent, and Makoto is just… Makoto. Maybe it’s more complicated than she expects.

At the very least, now there’s another connection, and with that info in hand, she figures it’s just a matter of time before she can get something real and tangible to pin on them.

The hungry stare against her back when she turns to leave the walk way goes unnoticed.  


 

“So, how are things going in regards to that matter we spoke of earlier?”

“I- I have nothing to report yet.” Why are you lying, her brain yells at her, You know exactly who is responsible . The very thought makes her cringe, but Makoto does her best not to show it.

“Nothing at all? If a group of students was out there killing people, I don’t think they’d be able to hide it very well.”

“I have a list of potential suspects narrowed down,” She responds, keeping her voice as calm and level as she can, “I just...can’t get any solid evidence.”

Principal Kobayakawa groans, and Makoto wonders, not for the first time, why she has been tasked with hunting down murderers and not the police. It’s not that she has a problem with it, but-

But. The thought that a teacher who was sexually harassing students apparently didn’t warrant the same sort of investigation makes her stomach flip.

“You knew.” She says before she can stop herself, “You knew about Kamoshida sexually harassing female students.”

Kobayakawa’s non-answer is as much a response as any.

“Sir!” She yells. Somewhere inside her, a voice echoes the response.

“What will come of you asking that?” The principal stares at her. Through her. “The man is dead. What he did then doesn’t matter now.”

“I-”

“I understand how flustered this must be making you. I’m sure it was truly shocking for you, as student council president, to witness a peer commit suicide.”

Makoto locks her eyes on her feet- of course it was shocking. The echoes of ambulances off the school’s walls and the empty seat she saw through the window of class 2-D in the days following aren’t things that will be scrubbed from her mind soon, if ever.

“Yes.”

“We have to create a school environment where all students can feel at ease.” Kobayakawa continues, his voice all business, “That is the most pressing issue we have to tackle at the moment. With all the wild speculation and rumors about the killings, that’s impossible.”

He’s right, you know. Makoto’s brain reels at her. There may be truth in what he’s saying, but- but what can she do by herself?

“I’m assuming you heard about what happened with that Madarame.”

“I did.”

“I would like to think that this has nothing to do with our students, but…”

“There was a similar calling card at the scene of the crime.” Makoto finishes his thought.

“Exactly. There’s no way we can create a peaceful environment if our students are out there, causing this drama. Not to mention the amount of negative press Shujin has already received. I would suggest you dedicate yourself to the task at hand and not unnecessary questions or hypotheticals.”

Unnecessary. The word jars a trip in Makoto’s brain. Unnecessary, unnecessary.

She nods, and leaves.


 

The next day brings an unwelcome surprise.

“If you are experiencing any hardships due to the recent news, please see your student council president, Niijima Makoto, for assistance.”

It’s a flyer, not bright red or crudely cryptic, but effective nonetheless.

“Why?” Makoto asks under her breath, when she’s sure no one is around to hear.

Yes, why. Her brain asks, You are in no way fit to deal with this sort of thing. You can’t even handle your own burdens let alone anyone else’s.

She brings her hand to the edge of the notice. Her fingers hover there, grasping and letting go of the thin paper in turn. It would be easy, really, to rip. Not any challenge whatsoever.

But you won’t, her brain responds, because you can’t. You aren’t strong enough and you never will be.

She walks away, the flyer still intact.


 

Pressing Kobayakawa gets her nowhere. Or rather, nowhere she wants to be.

He frames the posting like it was intended to ‘help’ her, instead of just throwing more work on her shoulders. It’s effective in the latter, when a student comes to her, telling her all about the money he’s been forced to give some vague mafia.

It’s another problem to solve when she’s already got her hands full.

It’s another problem that you can’t solve, her head rings, it’s another thing that’s totally out of your league.

The fact that Kobayakawa totally brushes her off when she brings these concerns to him shouldn’t be surprise, but Makoto can’t help being a bit taken aback. All he sees are loose strings to tie up loose ends, and she should have really known that this would be the outcome after their discussion on Kamoshida, but she can’t just leave it be.

“We received a request for help-”

It’s Kobayakawa’s turn to be surprised, “I-I’m rather busy at the moment. If you wish to do something, you will need to act on your own.”

“Sir?!” She responds, and as hard as she tries to keep it back, the next question falls from her mouth stained with insecurity, “Are you sure about this? I’m still investigating your case as well…”

Weak. It sounds like weakness coming from her.

The answer Kobayakawa gives is practically non-sensical, trying to tie the money launderers back to the Phantom Thieves as if extorting money is even anywhere near same level of crime as murder, whatever the reason.

It’s what he tacks onto the end that she listens to.

“Your sister would have solved all of this easily if she were in your position. My expectations of you are very high. I hope you don’t disappoint.”

Any argument she would pose dies on her tongue, and she says nothing, instead letting the echoes of what he says wash over her for the rest of the night.


 

It’s quiet after that, but not for long.

That Saturday, Makoto makes her big break.

Well, less ‘makes’’ and more ‘has it fall into her lap at another’s incompetence.’

It’s hard to believe that the Phantom Thieves would loudly proclaim their supposedly secret identities in a public place, especially considering the fact that they are the primary suspects in what is now, officially, being investigated as a serial murder spree, but Makoto has long since learned not to argue against facts.

Instead, she pulls out her cell phone.

“God, that Akechi really pisses me off.” She hears a voice, and can instantly place it as Sakamoto’s, “If he could think of something else to do to save people, I’d like to see him do it! Acts all high and mighty… If he was so great, we wouldn’t have to do this Phantom Thieves shit to start with!”

There’s footsteps, and Makoto tucks herself a little further around the corner, but the sound of skin slapping skin alerts her that no one has caught on yet.

“Can you keep it down? You’re being way too loud.” Takamaki. Makoto would recognize the voice instantly.

“Who cares?!” Sakamoto practically yells back. “Everyone’s always talking about this stuff. It’d be more suspicious if I was quiet.”

There’s bickering between the two of them, which they seem to fall into easily. It...almost feels like they’re normal high schoolers.

If you ignore the homicides with no obvious methods or evidence. Makoto shakes her head. Better to think of them as suspects.

There’s some meowing- a stray, maybe? It doesn’t matter, because as soon as it stops, Takamaki follows up with “So you think it’s true… I mean, we’re ultimately doing the right thing, aren’t we?”

“We can’t let the cops scare us out of bein’ Phantom Thieves.” Sakamoto answers with absolutely no tact.

“But… is it really that simple? Are you sure there’s no alternatives there that could end things differently?”

“We’ve been over this.” Kurusu, voice straight forward and level with calm, “We tried everything we could the first time. Nothing worked.”

It’s Makoto’s only chance and she takes it, stepping around the corner and pressing a button on her phone screen, the shutter louder than any of their voices.


 

The confrontation goes poorly, even though it results in some solid evidence.

If those Phantom Thieves are out there gettin’ rid of criminals, I’d root for ‘em, no questions asked. They’ve gotta be more dependable than...some people I know.

Makoto tries to focus on the afternoon lecture immediately following, but it doesn’t work, not with lines repeating in her head.

You’re student council president, right? That means you would have known about Kamoshida- so why didn’t you do something about it? If you had, maybe the Phantom Thieves wouldn’t have had to do something so messed up!

The sentence she’s scribbling to look busy veers off onto a tangent unrelated to the topic, and she doesn’t even notice.


 

Cram classes the next day bring the last voice she wants to hear.

“You’re Sae-san’s younger sister, correct? Do you mind if I talk to you for a moment?”

Akechi Goro. It’s a name she’s already tired of, between the constant news interviews and talk shows and hearing Sae mutter it at her phone after dinner when she thinks Makoto can’t hear. The few times she’s been home for dinner, anyway.

Still, Makoto can’t afford to show that annoyance. “Is it about the Phantom Thieves, Akechi-kun?”

“You’re very perceptive. I was wondering if you might have heard anything about Kamoshida’s case. You are student council president of his old stomping grounds, after all. Murder isn’t exactly something anyone should be taking lightly.”

It is only through years of self-discipline that Makoto is able to contain the molten rage Akechi provokes with his tone alone, let alone the content of his words. “Did my sister put you up to asking me this, or are you just enjoying playing the hero?”

Akechi smirks when he replies, “It wasn’t your sister. But you may be right about wanting to play the hero.”

“What?!”

“A group that calls themselves Phantom Thieves, leaving paper trails of calling cards, and succeeding in taking out their victims despite heavy surveillance around them beforehand… Finding them would prove to be quite the challenge, wouldn’t it? Isn’t it only natural to want to rise to the occasion, and be a hero against a group so clearly evil?”

She shouldn’t say anything, but the anger coalescing in her throat creeps past the gaps between her teeth anyway. “And I suppose there isn’t any room in your motivation for simply saving lives, is there?”

Akechi's grin doesn’t fade, “I would say that’s clearly a positive side effect, but if I’m being honest, I work best against competition. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with that-- not when I’m still doing my best to serve justice, like you are. Aren’t you?”.

Justice. The word weighs heavily on Makoto’s tongue, like a thick blanket on the grease fire of her rage and anger and yes, she’s doing what is just, and no, she isn’t, because she’s being selective in that pursuit, and it’s all so overwhelming that she almost--

“Ah, I see.” Akechi says, stopping her mental train derailing, “So you’re just the bystander who wishes they were playing the hero. That’s disappointing.”

“I-” Makoto can’t say a word, she can’t breath, the chemical makeup of her body turns to ash and emptiness and the physical strength to muster up an argument is just gone.

A phone dings and Makoto doesn’t recognize the notification tone, “Hm,” Akechi says, checking it, “I have to get going.”

When he slides the phone in his pocket, he gives her one last sickening smile. “Give Sae-san my regards, won’t you? I’m sure we’ll speak again soon.”

And he walks away, leaving Makoto standing alone, gasping in the hallway while the words why and justice ring endlessly in her ears.


 

The next day, Makoto decides to put an end to the game.

The clock in the student council room ticks loudly, and even though she’s spent countless hours here since the start of the school year, it’s the first time she’s noticed.

Murderer, her brain says, You’ve invited a murderer to meet with you. Alone.

Really, they need to replace that clock. Though, if she brought it up with the principal, he would probably just ask her how her investigation into the Phantom Thieves is going. Not that that will matter very much soon enough.

Yes, because he’s going to kill you here. Makoto mentally shrugs.

It’s at that moment the door slides open.


 

Kurusu Akira’s appearance is the perfect one for a murderer-- that is, totally unassuming. It makes it pretty easy to blend in, or at least, Makoto thinks so.

He’s also incredibly reserved, unlike Sakamoto, and he’s able to keep up the Phantom Thieves cover, even when Makoto plays back the recording she took of Sakamoto admitting the truth. Loudly.

It’s a shame that Sakamoto still ends up blowing it for him, on a very loud phone call. Makoto’s almost disappointed-- to have such a huge case resolved so easily, by chance...it’s almost too perfect.

She doesn’t get an answer on their tactics, but it’s almost a moot point when Kurusu begrudgingly agrees to bring her to the rest of them.

Congrats, her brain says, Now you’re almost half the person your sister is.

She tries to block it out, instead focusing on following Kurusu through the crowds of Ginza station.

It’s a simple enough hideout, one she had stumbled upon before, though the audacity of a group of murderers meeting in plain sight of the public is still astounding.

None of them are particularly happy to see her, their expressions ranging from surprise to confusion and anger. It’s not unexpected, though that still doesn’t make it particularly pleasant.  

The main subjects aren’t unexpected either- in fact, they line up exactly how Makoto pictures them. It isn’t a hard conclusion to come to, considering they’re a group composed entirely of who would benefit the most from the elimination of both of the Phantom Thieves targets thus far. She tells them all as much, and sees their guards rise instantly.

“What do you intend to do? Have you simply come to say you’re going to report us?”


She can’t fault Kitagawa-kun for thinking so- in fact, if she were thinking logically, that option would make the most sense. However, turning them in with no evidence of how they actually perpetrate their crimes would result in nothing but her looking like a fool, or like she has a personal grudge against each and every one of them.

You appear foolish enough already, her brain hums, no need to give everyone more evidence of that fact.

She doesn’t get a chance to say as much before Takamaki speaks.

“I bet someone told you to find us. The school can’t have any negative press, after all.” Her voice drips with malice and anger and Makoto feels herself shrink just hearing it, “I mean, that’s why they ignored Kamoshida for so long, isn’t it? They’re just using you, you know- I almost feel sorry for you.”

The words sting, not in their content, but the way they rattle inside Makoto’s brain, filling spots with words she didn’t have the courage to say for herself.

“I-I know…” The admission is small, but she still hears Takamaki and the others gasp, and the next words slip out of her mouth before she has a chance to stop them, “That’s why I want to verify the justice you claim to act with. I’m the only one who knows about you, and I can’t...agree with what you’ve done.”

She steels herself before looking up, eyes making contact with each of them, “But I can accept it if you prove the means justify the ends. If you do, I can… overlook all of this.”

Surprise turns to intrigue on each of their faces, and, oh god, Makoto is really striking a deal with a gang of murderers. She can’t decide what’s worse-- the fact that she actually offered a deal to them or the small joy she feels when they take it.


 

Meeting alone with a group of potential murderers once was a stupid enough idea- so Makoto isn’t really sure what part of her figured it would be okay to do so a second time, especially considering the ‘potential’ descriptor no longer applies. They’re just murderers, now.

Her stomach twists standing on the rooftop, and she can’t help but feel her face burn even though the sun isn’t shining. While the meeting itself is a poorly thought out idea, the absurdity of what she’s going to request they do is even worse. If she doesn’t end up chopped into pieces and thrown behind the school when she suggests it, it’ll be a small miracle.

She’s torn from those thoughts when the door clicks open, and Kurusu, Takamaki, and Sakamoto walk onto the roof.

“I was thinking you might not show.”

“So, whose heart do you want us to take?” Takamaki jumps straight into business- Makoto can appreciate it, or she could, if their business was anything else.

Instead, she answers, “A mafia boss.”

“Huh?!”

“W- what? Mafia?”

“That’s what they call themselves. They’ve been scamming Shujin students, apparently. Though it’s been mostly swept under the rug with...everything else that’s happened.” Makoto ignores that she’s been putting it there, too. “What’s worse is that once you’re targeted, they threaten you until they get what they want, and there’s no limit to what they’ll take from you until they’re satisfied.”

The looks of shock on the faces around her is unignorable. But isn’t taking life the ultimate extortion?

“Well, what’s the name?” It’s Sakamoto who asks.

“I don’t know. And neither does anyone else.”

“Oh, great. Peachy.” Sakamoto groans.

“How do you expect us to go off of that?” Takamaki asks, though it’s more like a reprimand than a question.

“Aren’t you the Phantom Thieves? You should be able to handle it. To be honest, I’m surprised you haven’t already heard of this.”

“Well,” Kurusu pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose, “We have been busy.”

There’s a coolness behind the words, inexplicably nonchalant, and it sends a shiver up Makoto’s spine, resonating in each limb.

“You have two weeks.” She says, weakly, “If you can’t.... ‘steal their heart’ by then, I’m turning everything I have into the police.”

She waits for any acknowledgement from Kurusu. When he nods slightly, she steps towards the door, brushing by the de facto Phantom Thief leader on the way.

There’s a whisper, and it’s hard to trace exactly where it belongs, but it leaves Makoto feeling numb once again.

You’re welcome to try.

She maintains her composure until she opens the rooftop exit, sprinting down the stairwell and hallway until she reaches the student council room, and hears the lock on the door click.


 

“I can’t believe this…” Another day, another lecture by Kobayakawa, though the level of desperation in his voice is far more real than ever before. “It’s been weeks, and you still haven’t caught those money launderers? With how little you’ve done, I’m surprised half the staff isn’t wrapped up in this! This is a disaster!”

“I’m...doing the best I can.”

The words barely make it past her lips.

“And I’m supposed to trust you? When things have already gotten this far?”

Makoto doesn’t respond, because what answer could she give that could possibly satisfy him? What could she say that would even remotely let on to her plan, without spilling everything?

Thankfully, Kobayakawa takes a deep breath and doesn’t wait for her.


“You’re the only one I can rely on in this place. Do not disappoint me.”

It sounds so final when he says it, as though this truly is life or death. Though, one wrong step and it very easily could be, Makoto supposes.

That thought scares her less than she expects.

She barely hears Kobayakawa when he mutters, “From the rumors that are floating around, I think even the other students are starting to be dissatisfied with you. At the rate things are going, both of us stand to lose everything. Do you understand?”

“I- I do. I just need more time. Please.”

They might not save you within two weeks. The voice ringing in her head sneers, and she swears she hears a condescending laugh follow.


 

She watches them as they scramble the streets of Shibuya, and is starting to lose hope.

Only a little, though, because despite her initial doubts, they are working incredibly hard to trace any leads. Being turned in for murder is a pretty good motivator, she thinks, and shivers.

She tries not to dwell on it, though.

Makoto lingers in an alley off to the side of the busy main street, careful not to make it obvious she’s watching them, but when Kurusu finds her, it’s a lost cause, and she throws out secrecy for small talk.

“Ah, it’s you.” She starts, “Have you had any luck finding the boss?”

“It’s surprisingly hard to find the leader of a large branch of an organized crime syndicate. Figured I could have found him in Big Bang Burger, but no such luck.”

Makoto rolls her eyes, “I don’t know what kind of response I expected. You know, it’ll be a lot harder if--”

“Hey, you kids looking for some easy cash?”

A man interrupts her, waltzes up to the two of them with an easy gait, and Makoto has to keep from cheering aloud.

“It’s just a delivery job. Super simple. Like working at a restaurant, except you’ll get a lot more money.”

“Is that so,” Makoto shoots Kurusu a look, though he’s staring at the man in front of them, “and what kind of delivery are you suggesting? Something perfectly legal, I’m assuming?”

“Very funny. What it is isn’t important, because you’re not the ones opening the stuff.” The man says, brushing his hand under his nose.

“So you admit I’m right, I--”

Her sentence is cut off by him taking steps closer, until he’s so near to her that he’s baring down, and she can smell the faint scent of sandalwood mixed with the stronger smells of cigarettes and sweat.

“What’s with all the smug fuckin’ questions? What’s your deal?”

She braces herself, sets her stance before she hears a nonchalant voice, “Just relax man. She’s got a superiority streak, but it’s nothing personal.”

And, God, Makoto’s already irritated, but it causes the man to back off, “I was just fucking around anyway. Like I’d waste energy on some stupid kids.”

The man starts to walk away before it really hits Makoto that she needs to do this, that this might be the only chance, “Wait!”

He turns around, the sneer evident on his face as she says, “If you don’t want to bother with us, we could always talk to your boss ourselves.”

The man laughs, a resounding noise that bounces off each wall of the alley, “As if. If you ain’t worth my time, you sure as hell ain’t worth his.” He turns around again, and this time, when he walks away, nothing stops him.

“Well,” Makoto turns to Kurusu, “I think we’ve found a lead, although I couldn’t get him to admit to anything.”

“I’m impressed he was able to avoid falling for your excellent and lowkey line of questioning.”

If they were closer, Makoto might have punched him. Instead, she settles for a huff, “Your sense of sarcasm doesn’t get scared, does it?”

Kurusu smirks at that, adjusts his glasses, “I wouldn’t be a very effective thief if I got scared, now would I?”

Makoto’s mood instantly drops, and her self-defenses raise, because it’s just her and Kurusu alone again, and she has to get out of here, “Just be sure to take care of yourself, then. I have to go.”

She leaves Kurusu behind, but his words stay with her, step-by-step.


 

“I received a call from Shujin today.”

Sae’s voice stops Makoto in her tracks. They’d barely exchanged words since Sae managed to get home at a reasonable time for once, and now…

“They were asking if you’ve made any lifestyle changes recently.”

“H-Huh?” Makoto can’t even begin to comprehend what that could mean.

“I covered for you, but are you having some sort of issue at school?” Sae’s visibly stressed, hunched over a laptop and Makoto can’t help but kick herself, because of course everything would come back to her.

“N-No. Not really. I’m sorry for the trouble I caused you.”

“Well, then.” Sae goes back to typing, and doesn’t look at Makoto when she says, “Try to avoid Shibuya at night. There’s been more frequent reportings of crimes in that area. I know you know well enough to not get involved in that, but it’d be better to just stay away from it entirely.”

There’s no emotion in Sae’s voice, and Makoto nods, “Of course.”

“I’m incredibly busy with cases,” Sae says, and her point is emphasized with several more clicks of the keyboard, “I would hate for something to happen to you.”

It doesn’t come off as concern for Makoto’s personal well-being, but she tries not to think about it as she walks out of the living room.


 

“Aren’t you going to help me? I t-thought you said you’d keep it quiet, but now everyone knows…”

The boy in front of her is genuinely terrified, and and it’s hard to find words to answer him because she certainly hasn’t been out spreading rumors.

“It wasn’t you, was it? You didn’t tell people about me, right?”

“No-- just, hold on a minute, they’re still going after you?”

“Everyone knows, even that Kurusu, and who knows what he’ll do with that info! He’ll probably try to blackmail me-- please! You have to help me, Niijima-senpai!”

It’s his fault for putting faith in you, you know, but that’s not something Makoto can exactly say. It isn’t something she wants to say, either.

“I have a few leads, I just need more time.”

“Y-you’re actually going to help? Everyone thinks you’re only out doing this for a letter of recommendation…”

“Huh?” That’s not at all why she’s doing this-- any of this-- and she wants to be insulted. It’s an insulting assumption, but… “That’s not true… I care about this school and my peers. I don’t want anything but to help them.”

The words sound hollow in her voice, and the boy doesn’t seem any calmer when he leaves the student council room.

If you cared about your peers, her brain says, voice nonchalant, you would have done something about the murderers in their midst. You would have done something about Kamoshida.

She tries to block it out, grabs the edge of the table so tightly that it creaks, but it doesn’t help.


 

Is this right? Makoto’s ceiling, cast in shadow, all of the city lights blocked out by the shades covering the windows, holds no answers, Is this really helping anyone?

The topic of the question is unsaid, though Makoto can fill it in just fine. The Phantom Thieves. This investigation. Herself. Any would fit.

She halfway wants to say no; she almost wants to admit that she’s doing nothing to help. That in fact, she’s actively hurting others. It would be an easy explanation, one that she could wave away with a hand. If she were actively hurting people and she could say it, it would mean she’s a bad person, and that would be that.

But she’s not. Her father wasn’t. Her father was killed by horrible people, and she wasn’t one of them. In fact, she’s dedicated her life to this point to being against horrible people.

Theoretically, at least. Good people don’t abide by murderers who commit their crimes with no trail, don’t cover up criminals simply to protect everyone else’s view of them or for what they, personally, stand to gain.

Good people don’t try to solve others problems only because they’re forced to. Only because they’re asked. Good people don’t accept excuses that allow harassment and assault to thrive. Good people don’t have blood on their hands.

She sighs, presses her palms to her forehead. What had she done to this point? What had she done to stop this? If anything, she’s only let it go on longer. If she had said something about the Phantom Thieves before, she could have saved a life-- the life of a cheat and a scammer in Maderame, but still a life. But.

But, they’re her only chance at catching whoever is behind the mafia ring taunting Shujin.  They’re her only chance at saving dozens of people from extortion, blackmail, and who knows what else. Without them, she’d have to sit by and idly watch as the lives of those around her fell apart.

Without them, Kamoshida would still be around, destroying student’s lives, and everyone else would be content to sit and watch. Or wouldn’t be strong enough to do anything about it.

The city buzzes just outside Makoto’s window. It’s alive, filled with people and their stories, both the horrible and the great things they’ve done carried with them.

What if their lives are cut short? What if Makoto could stop it?

Everyone thinks you’re just doing it for a letter of recommendation.

So you’re just the bystander who wishes they were playing the hero. That’s disappointing.

You would have known about Kamoshida- so why didn’t you do something about it?

She sighs, the emptiness of the room almost overbearing in it’s pressure. It’s not a problem in a textbook, there’s no rules for this.

She wonders what her father would have done. Makoto bets he would have an answer.


 

The next night, sitting across the dinner table, Sae’s stare is irritated at best.

“Sorry, I shouldn’t have brought this up.” Really, Makoto shouldn’t have said anything. Bringing up her father to Sae was always a bad move, but even more so when she’s been chasing their other topic of conversation for the past two months.

Surprisingly, she replies, “No, go ahead.”

Makoto’s half-tempted to shut up. There’s no way that what she says will end well, but, but.

She needs to know. There has to be an answer, and maybe Sae has it. It’s better than any answer Makoto can provide herself.

“I just… wonder if Dad would’ve seen some good in the Phantom Thieves. That’s all.”

Sae takes a sip of her tea, and puts the glass down calmly before she says, “How ridiculous.”

“H-huh?"

“How can you even entertain that thought? It’s only because I’ve been providing for you for so long.” Sae shakes her head, “I’ve been far too kind. If you had to take care of yourself, you wouldn’t have time for such useless thoughts.”

“That’s not what I meant--”

“They’re wanted for murder, Makoto. What could possibly be good about them?”

“Sis, I--”

Sae stands, and Makoto instinctively shrinks, “The only reason I’ve been forced to take care of you is because Dad died believing nonsense like that! And you have the audacity to sit there and ask if there’s something good about a group of killers as though they haven’t been haunting my every step. Aside from taking care of you , of course. And you do this, like what I’ve done for you means nothing. You’re entirely useless. All you do is eat away at my life. I--”

She looks away with a sigh, rubbing her forehead as she says. “I’m going back to the office. Don’t expect me for dinner from here on out.”

“Sis!” But Makoto is stuck in her chair, and watches Sae go, taking any sense of righteousness Makoto has ever felt she’s had with her.


 

There’s no more time for waiting.

Not that there ever should have been. Makoto should have taken things into her own hands in the first place. She can do it. She can.

She finds them in the usual spot, because of course they haven’t thought of moving their hideout, as though they’re at all difficult to find.

They aren’t thrilled to see her, “What do you want?”

“I saw you standing here and I figured it’d be a good time to check in. It seems like you’re having some trouble making progress.”

“So that’s all this is, huh?” Takamaki says, voice dripping with venom, “You think you’re all superior just ‘cause you’re the student council president, but when it comes to what we do, you’re completely useless.”

The word strikes her. She’s not. Makoto is not.

“Honestly, you think you’re some hot shit, but all you ever do is spy on us. And you ain’t even good at that.” Sakamoto adds.

She wants to speak, but she can’t even open her mouth before Takamaki follows up with, “Just stay on your high horse and watch while we solve all your problems so you can run off with your pretty little letter of recommendation without even lifting a finger.”

It’s too much and she can’t filter the words before they escape her mouth, “So you want to get in contact with this ‘Kaneshiro’. You just need to find out where he is, right?”

“Not from you.” It’s the first time Kurusu speaks.

“Akira, you don’t need to entertain her.” Kitagawa replies, and Makoto can barely hear him over the sound of her own heartbeat.

Makoto is not useless. She is not useless. She’s not. She can deal with this herself-- she can kill off two birds with one stone. What kind of pushover can catch a mafia boss and a group of murderers in the same day? What kind of useless person could do that?

No one.

“If that’s how it is, I’ll take care of him myself. And then I’ll take care of you.”

She doesn’t wait for a reply before turning on her heel, and heading for the back alleys of Shibuya.


 

It’s easy enough to find them, a pair of henchmen, one skinny and spry and the other more mature-looking. Really, there is no excuse for the Phantom Thieves taking as long as they did.

She’s half-tempted to storm in immediately, but her rush to get here served more than one purpose, and the brief bit of exercise is enough to clear her head. At least, enough to make sure she gets recorded evidence.

Makoto had managed to snag Kurusu’s number when the group was still running around chasing after Kaneshiro. It had been remarkably easy, but she finds herself with her thumb hanging over the ‘dial’ button.

Useless. Useless. Useless. Of course, you can’t do anything on your own.

She tucks the phone back into her bag.

“Do you know Kaneshiro?”

“Huh?” The two men turn to her, interrupted from their private conversation, “Who’s this broad?”

“I heard I could find him if I came here.” Her voice doesn’t waver, and one of the men in front of her crosses his arms.

“What do you think you’re playin’ at, huh?”

“He’s extorting money from students. Don’t you think that’s something a student would notice?”

“I don’t think you have any idea what you’re gettin’ into, little lady.”

Her voice rises, and she does nothing to stop it. “You better tell him to agree to meet with me. Unless he wants a face to face meeting with a jail cell instead.”

The two men exchange a look, before the skinnier of them says, “You got a lot of fucking attitude for some punk ass kid. I think we’ll need to teach you a lesson.”

His partner-- or co-conspirator, or whatever he is, grabs him by the shoulder, “Not so fast, idiot. I think we should let the boss hear her out.”

He turns to her, stares her directly in the eyes before continuing, “He’ll have somethin’ a lot more fun in store for her, anyway.”

She barely registers before the scrawnier man grabs her by the arm, whispers in her ear, “You’ll get what you want, lady.”

“Enough,” the other says, but doesn’t make a move to do anything. The scrawnier one puts a foot of space between them, but the grip on her wrist is locked tight as the other makes a call.

She could break out of his hold if she wanted to. She could kick them both in their slimy faces if she didn’t need to use them for something else. Right now, she can do anything. She is the opposite of useless.

“He says he’ll meet ya.” The man declares with a nod of the head, and a rough push against her back directs Makoto to the backseat of a car.

“You better be taking me to Kaneshiro.” She doesn’t break eye contact with him, and it’s not until the man behind her says move and practically slams her into the car that her gaze goes anywhere else.

The door shuts, one man taking the driver seat while the other sits immediately next to her, but it doesn’t matter. The sound of the engine starting signals there’s no turning around.

Makoto knows she’ll get what she wants. Or she won’t be coming back.


 

Kaneshiro’s office is on a high floor of a non-descript skyscraper, exactly the kind of setting Makoto had seen a dozen times over in movies. The inside is anything but plain, the floor and ceiling drenched in a deep purple dye, every piece of fabric and furniture pristine in appearance but dirty by proximity.

She can barely stand to look at the man, sitting in front of her, stout and slick, not that it makes much difference when one of his lackeys pushes her to the floor.

“So you’re playing a little game, huh? You know, I can play games too. I even know how to win.” Kaneshiro snides, and she hears him wrap his arm around some woman at his side as one of the men behind her digs his heel into her back and wraps something tight and restricting around her wrists. “I can’t wait to have fun with you.”

Makoto tries to wiggle out of the restraint, but it’s hopeless as she instead ends up squirming against the floor and making no progress whatsoever, “Where do you want ‘er, boss?”

“Hm…” He chuckles, and Makoto hears the table above her head rattle. “Let’s leave her like this for now. She makes a pretty good sight when she’s hopeless. Did you take her things?”

“Of course.”

“Toss me her phone-- I want to have even more fun.” She hears a shuffle of what she assumes is her school bag, and the sound of her phone’s plastic hitting unfamiliar hands.

“It’s pointless. It’s passcode protected.” She manages through grit teeth, only to have the heel between her shoulder blades dig in.

“Ah, shuddup!”

“You really are stupid.” Kaneshiro scoffs, “You think a little thing like a passcode can stop me?”

She hears the click of the unlock, and then, “Let’s just see what you’ve been up-to, shall we? I think your messages would be a good place to start. Dumb brats always think they can hide things there.”

Makoto gives another retaliatory jerk, knowing it won’t help her out of the binding but it’s more about the gesture than anything else.

“Kurusu Akira, huh?” She can hear his disgusting smirk as the words pass by his lips, “Someone’s got a boyfriend. That’s a shame. I hope you didn’t send anything naughty in this thread.”

Every word he utters makes her more and more angry, but the next ones do the complete opposite, freezing her in place and stopping the beating of her heart and the reckless thoughts of her brain.

“The Phantom Thieves, huh? Now this is interesting.”

What had she said to Kurusu? It couldn’t be anything incriminating-- she couldn’t have been that stupid, so she plays it off, “They’re the talk of the town, you know. I assumed you would know that, considering all the teenagers you swindle.”

Another pressure joins the first, this one more sharp and pointed and Makoto draws a breath.

“Stupid bratty bitch.” Kaneshiro mutters under his breath, and there’s a burst of Sakamoto’s voice, and Kaneshiro hums before continuing, “So it was just a bunch of high schoolers. I had heard rumors, but I always figured it had to be someone else. High schoolers are so sloppy…”

There’s a click, and suddenly the pressure from behind her is gone, and she catches her breath.

“You can let her go."

“What?!” She doesn’t mean to sound disbelieving- if anything, she should be grateful, but, “What did you say?”

“Maybe instead of chasing criminals, you should get your ears checked. You’re free to go.”

“B-Boss?” The shock is even evident in his goon’s voices, and he rolls his eyes before offering any explanation.

“Isn’t it obvious? With this evidence, we can turn those damn Phantom Thieves in and make off with the cash. We’ll be set for life with the reward the cops are offering up. And we can get this pest off our backs.”

He gestures shooing Makoto away, but she can’t-- she can’t just walk away from this, but the door is right there, and--

Aren’t you forgetting something? Of course, her brain, always so helpful, chimes in. And she is. She came here to get this done, to take matters into her own hands, after all.

“What about the students of Shujin Academy?”

“What about them?” he stares at her, taps her phone against the fat of a cheek.

“Leave them out of this. Stop harassing them, and I’ll let you keep the evidence.”

His mouth transforms into a sly grin, as greasy and shady as any backlit alley in Tokyo, “Oh, little miss hero are you? And what motivation would I have for complying with that?”

“Or else I take the phone from you. By force.”

He stares at her for a quick second, before breaking out in laughter, and all at once her rage is at the surface again, “Oh, that’s precious! You know, it’s bad business to abandon old revenue streams just because a new enterprise is profitable. And what about the Phantom Thieves? Aren’t they your classmates too?”

“I--” And Makoto can’t answer, because they are. But they’re also monsters. But--

But she couldn’t have even gotten here without them. What’s right and what’s wrong has been blurred, and if she leaves and turns a blind eye to this, how is she any better than every person complicit in letting a sexual predator run rampant? How is she any better than someone who takes advantage of others for their own gain?

“How much is the reward they’re offering? And how much do you make in a month from Shujin’s students?”

Kaneshiro stops moving, and the smile on his face drops, “You can’t match it.”

“How much?”

“The only thing you can offer that would even be a tiny fraction of what this could buy me is your body. Offer refused.”

“I said, how. I didn’t give you an option”

“You really are a pain.” He’s twirling the phone in hand. “But why don’t we make some fun out of this?”

He clicks open the suitcase in front of him, stacks of yen, more money than Makoto has ever seen, laid out in neat little piles.

And, promptly, scoops them out, tossing them to the floor.

“Two weeks. You refill this case, and I’ll delete all evidence. You fail, and I’m keeping it. And you.”

“You sure about this, boss?” One of his cronies asks over his ear. “What if she runs?”

Makoto hears her phone ping. “There’s no need to worry. I have her number in my contacts. And you know,” Kaneshiro makes sure to have eye contact with her for this, and even looking him directly in the eyes makes her want to vomit, “we always catch runners. One way or another.”

“This doesn’t help the students of Shujin, I--”

Kaneshiro’s mood transforms instantly, from one of conniving smugness to one of blatant irritation, “It’s the only deal you’re going to get, little girl. If you don’t want to take it, I have plenty of other things I can use you for that would be much easier.”

Makoto’s spine stiffens, her fists clench with anger, but even like this, her logic and reasoning rings out that three on one is no good.

“I’ll accept your deal. And I’ll get you your money.”

“Hm,” Kanshiro hums with a smirk, and tosses her phone back at her, Makoto catching it out of the air, “You had better start taking customers, then. You’ll need to get used to it, after all.”

The door slams open behind her, several pairs of footsteps hustling in, but it’s too late. Makoto’s fate is already sealed.


 

“You what?!"

“I’m having trouble accepting that a student council president could be so impulsive.”

She winds up on the streets of Shibuya with what would look like, to anyone else, a group of her friends. It definitely doesn’t look like a group of murderers, but then again, she doesn’t look like the kind of person who would strike a deal with a mobster, either.

“This is freakin’ crazy!” Sakamoto kicks at the ground, “Now a friggin’ mob boss knows who we are?!”

“I know, I - I was reckless. I’m sorry, everyone.”

“Saying it was reckless is being a bit kind to yourself,” Kurusu says, and pushes his glasses up. “but I guess it doesn’t matter. You were just going to turn us in anyway, right? What was it you said-- ‘then I’ll deal with you’, or something?”

Makoto stares at the ground, and feels her face burn despite the fact that the sun has long since set, “I’m sorry.”

“I guess you aren’t really great at everything after all, huh Miss Prez?”

Takamaki. Her voice stings, more than the others. If anyone was justified in their outrage, it would be her.

“I’m sorry.” It’s quiet, quieter than Makoto means it to be.

“Huh?”

“I said I’m sorry.” This time, Makoto looks up, and sees the surprise on Takamaki’s face when she continues, “Of all the people here, I’ve been the worst to you. And I feel awful about that. I’m sorry.”

“Niijima-senpai--”

“Let’s table this for later,” Kurusu intrudes, with little grace, “Right now, I think we have bigger issues to deal with.”

“Don’t worry about Kaneshiro, I can handle that--”

“And just how do you intend to do so, Niijima-san?” Kitagawa interrupts, “I don’t believe you’ve ever seen anywhere near the 300 million yen you promised him.”

“No, but--” But, well, there was the life insurance payout still sitting in a bank account somewhere that had to be a small fraction of that, right? “--I’ll think of something.”

“We could just take care of it, if we could figure out a way to get into that friggin’ bank.”

Ryuji!” Everyone yells in unison at him.

And Makoto is jumping to conclusions, maybe, but-- “You-- you rob banks?”

Her confusion is only compounded when a black cat jumps off of Kurusu’s shoulder, turns to the group and starts to meow. In and of itself, that might not be impressive- Makoto had heard rumors about someone bringing a pet to school, after all- but it’s then that everyone starts reacting to it that she gets concerned. “Um, are you all alright?”

“I guess we’ll just have to take her with us, then.” Kurusu’s tone is even, a complete contrast to Makoto’s rising panic.

“Take me? Is- are you planning on kidnapping me? And what does a cat have to do with this?”

Her questions go unanswered as the world around them begins to morph, and she swears she sees Takamaki look at her before everything fades to black.

When she opens her eyes again, something is off.

No, not just something-- everything. Shibuya is still there, the shops lining the streets, but the street lights are an erry shade of green. There are no pedestrians, either, just-- walking ATM  machines? And that’s not even touching on the giant, floating bank in the middle of the district, hovering ominously.


She barely even has time to process before she hears footsteps, and looks up to see a group of people in uniform, each one masked. No two uniforms are the same, but they all seem to share a common color scheme of red and black.

The Phantom Thieves.

There’s no mistaking them-- even with individual masks and outfits, when they stand together like this, there’s no question who they are.

“How did you change so quickly? And where are we?” She scans the group, but it’s nearly impossible to tell who is who.

“That’s kind of a loaded question, but let me explain.” It’s a voice she absolutely doesn’t recognize, and she doesn’t see any of them talking. She looks around, and it’s only when a figure is hopping off the ground that she realizes--

“The cat talks?”

“I’m not a cat!” the cat mopes, “And yes, obviously.”

“I’m-- I’m not following any of this.”

“Calm down,” The cool, collected voice could only belong to Kurusu, and as he takes a step forward, there’s no missing the strength in his stance. “and let us try to explain as best we can.”


 

They throw everything at her, and Makoto can barely make heads or tails of it.

None of it makes sense. She follows it as well as she can- tries desperately to connect dots between cognition and shadows and Personas, how it plays with the concept of cognitive psicence she had read about one summer, and how all of that ties out to impacting people in the real world, but it’s all just theory, fantasy.

That is, until she actually enters the Bank- a Palace- with the group, who are immediately confronted with...humanoid creatures who appear out of nowhere.

“Those are the Shadows we were talking about. They attack us here.”

“I see.” Her patience is running thin after everything she’s been through today, and before she can stop it, she says “Bring it on.”

Really, she’s faced a mafia boss and been taken captive into another world by a gang of murderers. What’s there to fear?

“N-No, don’t say that!” She hears a voice say, before she steps up to one of the Shadow guards.

“Where is Kaneshiro? I need to speak with him.”

She barely has time to react when he swings at her, just managing to duck out of the way. Instead, the baton is met with a metallic clang , and when Makoto turns around, she can’t believe what she sees.

Sakamoto isn’t….Sakamoto. He’s nowhere to be seen. Instead, in his place stands a large skeletal figure, suited in armor and an ascot, eyes covered with patches and breathing heavy. It’s an incredible-- and inhuman--- sight.

His forearm holds against the strength of the Shadow, and once his head turns down to her, Makoto freezes.

The roar that follows is loud, almost deafening as Sakamoto pushes the Shadow off balance with a shrug of his arm. There’s no follow up attack, but it doesn’t matter as soon as Makoto feels a pressure against her collar, her body being pulled away.

“Haven’t you learned anything?!” Takamaki props her back up, and stares down at her, “Sometimes you have to think before you do stuff, you know! Especially here.”

“Wha- What is that?”

Her voice shakes, and when she looks over, Sakamoto-- or whatever has taken his place-- is idle, staring daggers at the Shadow across from him but not moving to attack.

“Ryuji’s Persona.” Kurusu steps beside the pair, “Where we draw our power.”

There’s another ground-shaking roar, and the Shadows shrink a little in the face of it before somehow, Sakamoto morphs back into his normal self, his disguise suddenly making more sense given the theme of his Persona.


“I don’t- they actually take over your body?

“We did explain it that way, yes.”

She had thought it was a metaphor. But Kitagawa’s dulcet voice conveys no sense of sarcasm whatsoever.

“It’s not something we consciously decide to do. Or ever have.” Kurusu continues his explanation, “It’s just who we are. Manifested.”

“Who you are…” Makoto’s thoughts go a million miles a minute, but soon the stomping of metal boots across tile distracts her.

“Why’d you have to go and do that for! Can you stop being a dumbass for one second-”

“Ryuji!” Takamaki scolds him from over Makoto’s shoulder, and then turns down to look at her, “He’s right though. You’ve really gotta stop doing that.”

“I-I’m sorry.” She’s not very apologetic. It’s hard to be when she just saw one of her classmates transform into a monster like it wasn’t a big deal.

A buzz of static fills the air, and a voice rings out from a hall leading to the upstairs balcony of the bank’s lobby. “It looks like we have some visitors.”

Makoto’s brow furrows. Kaneshiro.

“Let them through. It doesn’t make sense to go attacking paying customers, after all.”

The Shadows seem to take note, and step aside from the main path. Makoto feels herself being lifted, and soon she’s back on her feet with Takamaki’s assistance. She takes a second to wipe the dust from her clothes when she feels a hand against her arm.

“You okay? Sorry about Ryuji. He’s got a big mouth, but no brains to go with it.”

“I’m fine.” As fine as I can be given everything that’s happened today.” Let’s go.”

The group is led through the winding hallways of the bank-- a massive structure, impressive in its realism. If it weren’t for the guards, the way something is off about each of them, and the patrons, Makoto might have mistaken this for a functioning building.

The illusion is further broken when they enter the decided upon room, the table at its center buried in cash. More yen than she’s ever seen in her life.

“Whoa!” Sakamoto’s mouth gaps at the pile, “We could buy so many bowls of ramen with this.”

“Aren’t you thinking a little small?” The cat-- Morgana, as he’s been introduced to her, though Makoto is still a little too overwhelmed by the fact that he’s a talking cat to really remember the name proper, says, “We could start an entire company with this! Phantom Thieves Enterprises-- I like the sound of that!”

“I wouldn’t get your hopes up that high.” The room buzzes as the screen at the front crackles to life, Kaneshiro clearly visible. “Besides, last I remember it was you who owes me that money, wasn’t it, Miss President?”

There’s something off about him-- more so than just the seediness that pervades his entire existence. No, now there’s something more, but it’s not something Makoto can put a finger on just yet, “You’re correct.”

“That’s what I thought,” The smirk on his face spreads like an infection, “It’s going to be awful tough to gather that much money in just two short weeks. So why don’t I cut you a deal?”

Makoto glares at the screen, “And we’re just supposed to trust your ‘deal’?”

“Why not? It’s not like you’re going to be able to gather the money anyway.” He replies with a laugh, “And it would be just awful if something were to come up and I’d need the money sooner-- in say, one week instead of two. Wouldn’t that be terrible?”

Makoto doesn’t answer- she hears Sakamoto mutter something about a scumbag under his breath, but she can’t muster up the strength to respond proper.

“Well, it’s not like we don’t have options if the need arises. After all, Niijima Sae would make for some beautiful collateral.”

“What?” Makoto can’t believe what she’s hearing. Even the idea of her sister’s name coming out of this disgusting man’s mouth is unacceptable.

“Oh, yes, I won’t be able to make up this tremendous debt with just one of you-- so both of you will have to do.”

“You’re a pathetic person.” Kitagawa’s voice is over her shoulder before Makoto can even process what she’s just heard, and Sakamoto chimes in, too.

“You sit there and keep yappin’ away like your threats are gonna do jack-shit. Don’t you know who we are? We eat guys like you for breakfast!”

Kaneshiro scoffs, “You’re welcome to try, but this isn’t the nursery, little boy. This bank has the most extensive security system money can buy installed in it. I had planned to collect the reward money from turning in you stupid brats, but…” As he speaks, several puddles of liquid rise from the floor, and form humanoid creatures, the same guards that lined the hallways. “I’ve given my men the go-ahead to kill you on sight. And they always do as I say.”

The TV turns itself off, and suddenly the guards around them are morphing into something else entirely. Makoto takes a step back-- but they're surrounded.  There’s no way out, and if Kaneshiro knows who Sae is, there’s no way Makoto can’t make it out of here. She needs to make it out of here, she needs--

There’s a hand against her chest the moment she steps towards the monsters, and Takamaki looks over her shoulder with a smile. “Just stay back. We’ll take care of this.”

And what can Makoto do but stare in awe as the girl in front of her morphs into something completely unrecognizable, skin pink with voluptuous curves, a flowy dress and a crown of flowers weaved into her hair, covering her eyes.

None of that is quite as impressive as the burst of flame that she follows up with, and as the room lights up in bolts and blizzards and thunder, Makoto can’t look away, even after the battle ends and blood sprays across the walls, limbs torn from torsos-- they’re monsters, they’re just monsters, Makoto convinces herself as Takamaki’s sharpened teeth rend flesh from bone, the noises so distinct and visceral that Makoto can’t help but wretch.

“What- What…”

She’s all but backed into the corner when the second wave of guards arrive, and are met with the same violence as the first. This time, it’s Kurusu- or whatever is left of him, whatever remains in high heels, gigantic claws and a dapper body of sharp edges- that takes the lead, followed up by something more artistic, a body of softer, flowier lines, but that makes the climax of the battle that much worse. The rich red of blood doesn’t compliment Kitagawa’s blue color scheme. Not in the slightest.

Before she even has time to digest what she’s just seen, Makoto’s being pulled up by Morgana and propped up on shaky knees.

“What even was that? What were those monsters? What did you do?!”

“Does it look like we have time for questions like that?” Kurusu- back to normal now, though his eyes are still razor sharp- turns on a heel. “We need to get out of here before they ambush us again.”

“Over there!” Morgana points down the hall, back towards the lobby and the entrance and Makoto can’t possibly think straight as her legs follow the others, because nothing this insane can possibly exist back in the real world.

They nearly make it to the door before being stopped by a line of guards coming out of seemingly nowhere, trapping them in on all sides.

“Well, well. Leaving so soon? What a shame.”

The voice could only belong to one man, and turning around, Makoto finally sees the full visage of him in this weird distorted world, and the only word that comes to mind is disgusting.

“Sneaky bastard.” Sakamoto mutters under his breath.

“I think that’s my line. Regardless, I really should be thanking you guys. You’ve brought the product right to me, and made yourselves easy to identify. Well,” And his gaze, warped and green with greed, turns to Makoto, “I should really only be thanking you.”

“What?”

A line up of guards appears next to the morphed, Shadow Kaneshiro as he explains, “Yes, without you, their identities would have remained a secret. And I wouldn’t have to do what I’m going to do right now.”

The guards start to advance, and in the moment, the only thing Makoto can think to do is jump in front of the others, “Stop!”

“Niijima-san!” the chorus echoes behind her, but she can’t listen to that when Kaneshiro speaks once more.

“Oh, still playing the hero, are you? Haven’t learned anything? That’s a shame.” He scoffs, “But don’t worry. I won’t touch you . After all, what sense would it make to damage my own goods? No, I’ll squeeze every penny out of you I can. Your sister, on the other hand, might be suited for a more personal role.”

Not again. She’s not going to let him bring Sae into this. Makoto may have gotten everyone into this mess, but if she’s going to do anything right, it’s this, “My sister has nothing to do with this.”

“That’s what you’d like to believe, isn’t it? It’s easier that way, right? Oh, your poor sister.” Kaneshiro mock cries at that, and Makoto can feel her blood boil, her hands shake with tension as she clenches her fists. “She could have really made something of herself, if only her younger sister wasn’t so dumb.”

“She’s not--” Her composure is slipping, and she can feel it, waves at it as it passes her by, “I won’t let you involve her in this.”

“Then you better start to get to work. You’ve got some catching up to do, if you can at all. But it’s simple- just follow the rules and do as you’re told, and you’ll make that money back in no time.”

Follow the rules. Do as you’re told. Obey.

“Of course, to get it, you’ll have to do things that’ll destroy your life forever, but that’s a small price to pay.” He can’t even finish the sentence without breaking into laughter, and there’s a fire roiling beneath the surface of Makoto’s skin.

Follow the rules. Obey. Do what you’re told. Useless. Useless. Play the hero. Useless.

She is not useless. “I’ve heard enough.”

“Hm?” Kaneshiro looks up with a grin.

She’s sick of looking at him. “Shut the hell up, you sick bastard!”

You have decided to tread the path of strife.

The voice is out of nowhere, her skull cracks in half, she doubles over and screams.

You, who have lost your own heart.

Burning, she’s burning, she’s on fire and this is the worst pain she has ever felt, like her heart is being shredded with claws as she screams until her lungs can’t push out the sounds anymore.

I will lend you my strength.

A slam of her foot against the tile, she feels it break, fracture under her heel. Her breaths come fast and heavy and she’s finally regained enough composure to look ahead of her, at the pathetic excuse for a man that is Kaneshiro.

You hunger for justice.

“Yes.” She says aloud, and there’s a moment where she feels almost normal, no pain, no screaming. Her anger is poignant and direct and by God, she’ll make him pay.

Rend.

A beat, and her limbs break, one by one.

Slaughter.

Another. She sinks to her knees and claws at the ground, fingernails sharpening by the second.

Devour.

Skin rips itself from her, layer by layer.

You cannot escape your hunger.

Her skull shatters, she can’t breathe, she can’t speak.

YOU CANNOT ESCAPE YOUR HUNGER.

In an instant she can feel everything, feel herself mold into something else, feel her brain expand and contract and meld itself, each and every organ reconfiguring and reshaping to fit and work within a foreign vessel.

DEVOUR.

Eyes up, on Kaneshiro. He’s shaking.

DEVOUR.

Makoto rises from her knees. She’s not.


DEVOUR.

She sprints, and her world goes white.


 

She walks through the door of the Niijima apartment and is barely able to drag herself into her bedroom and shut the door before succumbing to her own exhaustion.

“What have I done.”   she repeats to herself. Her head pounds. With Sae out, the only sound apart from her breathing is the hum of engines outside, a constant.

You did what was right , a second voice answers, it’s tone distinctly different from her own thoughts.

“Johanna.” She whispers. It’s odd, giving a human name to such an inhuman...thing.

You did what you could. What you must. Who else is going to seek justice, if not you?

Makoto shifts to lay on her side, burying herself a little more in her pillow. “I’m not sure eating people’s subconscious desires is very...just. Especially not when means they-”

Her stomach clenches. She feels nauseous, yet starved, at the thought of exactly what happens and how Phantom Thieves ‘change hearts’. Her atma burns, spreads against her shoulder.

“I- I can’t-”

You must.

“No- I, I can find some other way-”

You cannot.

A spike of pain shoots through Makoto’s skull, and she brings both hands to her head, curling into herself on top of the bed, and the second surge is accompanied by a scream she wouldn’t stop if she could.

Your hunger has grown too visceral to ignore, young one.

Makoto’s breathing is short and shaky, and her chest, her stomach contracts, emphasizing the emptiness, and her brain can only focus on one thing.

In this world, there is only one way for you to survive. This a truth you cannot escape.

Makoto heaves, but nothing comes up, her whole existence is hot, hot, burning.

Accept it!

The voice booms like thunder concentrated in her skull and it leaves her a crippled, shaking mess atop her bed and then just as abruptly it’s gone, leaving her sobbing with the aftershocks of pain and the lingering hunger she can’t will away.


 

Makoto is only vaguely alert when Ann asks to meet in the student council room the next day. She halfheartedly listens to an apology, spits out one of her own, and ditches formalities.

No point in being formal when she’s seen your true self , the now much quieter voice in brain responds, and Makoto can’t muster the heart for an argument.

She accepts an invitation to get crepes after school. The afternoon is filled with whispers and rumors about a mafia bosses death. Nothing has ever felt less appetizing than crepes, but what she needs is a distraction and maybe this could serve that purpose well enough.


 

It doesn’t.

“I’m sorry. This is a bit soon, isn’t it?”

“No- no, it’s fine. I needed something else to think about, anyway.”

It’s not fine, her brain yells back, it’s not okay to act like this is normal.

Ann smiles, and it’s washed away in the bright light of the afternoon sun. “I’m glad you agreed to come with me. I felt awful about everything I said to you.”

Makoto waves her off, “It’s in the past now, isn’t it? Besides, it’s not like I didn’t say my own share of terrible things.”

But you didn’t drag her into becoming basically a cannibal. Makoto’s skull throbs.

“Right,” Ann says, and takes a bite of her crepe. “Mm- I told you, they totally stuff their crepes.” she says, mouth full.

The crepe drips in her hand, running down her fingers. Melted cream ticks off her knuckle, hits the asphalt when Ann notices it. She brings her hand up to her mouth, running her tongue against the stream.

Makoto sees it all- the way her tongue curves against each bump, the glisten it leaves behind. She wonders what that would feel like. She wonders, if that her were tongue, what Ann would taste like, and-

No, she’s not thinking like this. Ann starts a little, and it’s only then that Makoto realizes she’s been staring.

“Sorry- that was totally gross, huh? But I couldn’t let it go to waste!” Ann is blushing. She’s adorable, supermodel looks with the personality of a small town girl. Makoto hasn’t talked to a girl her age like this in years, and it’s contact she’s sorely missed.

Her stomach rumbles.

“Makoto!” She hears her name and then Ann’s hand is over hers, adjusting the crepe so it sits upright in her grip. “Jeez, you totally zoned out there. You sure you’re okay?”

Contact. It’s just her hand over Makoto’s. It doesn’t matter. It sets off an electron surge in her brain, shooting through nerves and neurons to the center of her palm and the pit of her stomach.

Hunger. It hasn’t left since she awakened, but it typhoons it’s way over her, engulfing her. It’s different now- more visceral, not the desire to force a shadow apart limb by limb but the kind that wants to trail her mouth up Ann’s thigh, wants to use lips and tongue and teeth teeth teeth , wants to taste Ann, wants to fuck her make her scream her name in ecstasy in pain in-

Makoto’s gut twists and before she knows it she’s running. Passes by unfamiliar scenery and unfamiliar faces, the sound of nearby silverware clanging and it doesn’t matter when she just barely makes it to the Diner toilet before heaving and vomiting everything she’s eaten.

It leaves her empty, gasping for air, even when there’s nothing left to lose her abs contract and force up bile, as if through enough effort they could eject her stomach, end this hunger, end ever having to feel this way again.

There’s a dull voice outside the bathroom. Makoto’s vision blurs from exhaustion and the edges are watered down with tears and she wonders, for the first time, if this will end and if she’ll even be able to live with herself if it does.