"A lot of this depends on Arisato's cognition of trains, but for now we'll assume it's roughly true to modern life," Mona had begun. "Which means the best way to do this is to get Oracle to take control of the signalling box, up in the control room. She'll use that to send one of the trains over to Maintenance Bay B."
Oracle was never sure what to make of Inari.
Sure, he was mega-annoying. Like, just super irritating. Just the worst. But she also missed him when he wasn't around. She sometimes wished he lived closer or had more money just so they could hang out more… not in her room, though, or her Featherman figures would just be in danger of being defiled again.
But he was super goddamn annoying. Like right now, when they were trying to sneak into the control room and he kept getting distracted by metal pillars and like, bits of the floor.
"But this is the work of-- listen! This place has all the hallmarks! It was clearly created by-- oh, you wouldn't understand. He was a very important 18th Century architect whose work is usually only viewable in Europe," Inari griped as Oracle physically dragged him along. "I may never get another chance to view the workmanship up close!"
"Arisato probably just saw it in a book or something," Oracle scowled. "It's probably not even accurate to real life. I doubt this architect included Principality Personae in his floor mosaics. C'mon."
"Ah…" Inari gave up resisting and traipsed forlornly after Oracle. "You're right, of course…"
Oracle lead them on in silence for a few moments before Inari added, "...I think that raises a bigger question, though—"
"Sshh!" Oracle gestured; ahead, they couldn't see anything. But Inari knew her well enough, evidently, to understand - he wordlessly grabbed her around the waist and pulled her into a hidden crevice, just as Joker had taught him.
The cognitive Mochizuki rounded the corner, whistling a haunting aria as he passed their hiding place.
Inari let her go when she signalled that the coast was clear. "...the bigger question," he continued, unphased, "is how Arisato-kun knows what a Principality is. It looks precisely identical to the one that Joker is able to call on… does it not?"
"...you know," Oracle said carefully, "that's a really good point, Inari. Remember that one."
"Over in the maintenance bay, Skull and Queen will be waiting to remove any cognitions or Shadows staffing the train, all out of sight of the surveillance cognitions on the main concourse. Together, Queen and Oracle will then guide the train out to Platform 12, with Skull on board to handle any interference."
"I still can't believe your sister's being such a massive jerk about it."
Queen kicked another Shadow onto the tracks, where it burst into dust. "She's been like that for ages. I think the stress of taking care of me just gets to her sometimes."
"You're like, the perfect kid, though," Skull frowned.
"Behind you!" Queen darted in the direction she indicated, uppercutting the Shadow there and throwing it onto the track again. The electricity in the rails shocked it back into the Sea of Souls.
"Seriously though. You're every parent or like… sister-parent-combo's dream. You're an honours student, you're student council president, you never cause trouble at home…"
"Where are you going with this, Skull?"
"I just-- You know it's super not your fault that she's a megajerk whenever you stand up to her, right? Like, you saved a guy's life , whether he's a criminal or not. And she didn't even tell you ya did a good job."
"I didn't," she said, before calling out the presence of another Shadow and sending it crashing onto the trainline once more. "His leg still got infected."
"And ya solved that too! Because you're a freakin' boss, okay? Don't let your sister make you think otherwise." He spotted a Shadow suddenly, looming down above Queen from the rafters. Before she could get hurt, Captain Kidd zapped across the room and intercepted it, exploding it unceremoniously.
Queen blinked, then beamed at him. "...thanks, Skull."
"Anytime," he said, rubbing the back of his neck and grinning lopsidedly.
Hi guys , Oracle said, her navigator connection crackling slightly. The next train to come through is our one. Could you guys hop on board and clear it out? I'll need help setting the onboard computer too; there's some manual controls I need you guys to operate.
"Sounds like we're almost done waiting," Skull said, turning to Queen. "Shall we, Your Majesty?"
"While that's going on, Panther and Noir will secure a route from Oracle's position in the control room to the main concourse."
"Are you really okay with him joining the team…?"
"I'd rather he be on the team than on his own," Noir said softly. "He seems lonely."
"But that's not the whole thing," Panther replied as she quietly dispatched a Shadow with her whip, "is it?"
"...you're always so clever," Noir smiled as she hefted her axe through a different one. "I want us to keep an eye on him too. If he's been using the Metaverse to commit crimes, and he was going to target my father… having him in the team gives us the best chance of knowing what he'll really do next."
"I'm not the clever one here," Panther said, curling her whip over her hip. "You're so calm about it."
"It helps that he really does seem to be in trouble. I didn't want to try and look into it myself, but Oracle said he seemed to be telling the truth…"
"I trust Oracle, but I still don't know if I trust him. He's still a real detective, right? Like, if he wanted to make something up, he'd know how to do it, right?" Panther led the way to the next hiding place along the corridor, Noir following close behind her.
"That's true," Noir said, sliding in right behind Panther. "But he really did seem scared. Oracle said all the details of his story checked out, too… she made sure for me. After all, her mother might have been one of the victims too…"
"Oh shit, yeah… I can't believe I forgot about that. Oracle's definitely doing her due diligence. Not that she doesn't always, you know? Ugh, he's got me doubting everyone…"
"Akechi-san may not even be that bad of a person on his own," Noir whispered with a nod. "It sounded like he was under some pretty severe coercion… if you have to risk dying in order to stop doing something, I don't think you're doing it by your own free will. It's something my own father used to frequently forget about his employees as well. Akechi-san was very brave to come to us."
"That reminds me, though," Panther added as Carmen pounced on the next Shadow patrol. "What do you make of those creepy visions he talked about? Do you think they're real?"
"I think he believes they are," Noir hedged, before charging at one of the Shadows and slicing it neatly in two. "...I don't know if they have any basis in reality. But stranger things have happened over the last year, haven't they?"
"That's true," Panther grinned. "Like Skull getting more than a passing grade in his maths midterm."
"Aww, Panther, you're too kind," Noir beamed. Panther knew full well it was Noir who had helped him to study. "Perhaps we'll get to the bottom of Crow's mystery after all, then.
Panther giggled. "Right. Anything is possible now."
"Joker and Crow will secure the route from the main concourse to the actual platform. As soon as Oracle has set the signalling up so Queen and Skull are headed for Platform 12, Panther and Noir will help her and Fox get down to the concourse. Then, everyone will follow Joker and Crow to the platform."
Crow was nowhere near as talkative when they were on their own, somehow.
Joker almost understood it, but not quite. They were able to work together in total silence - setting up the WALKWAY CLOSED barriers from the staff warehouse while the station "employees" weren't looking. And, well. Dispatching any that interrupted them while they were picking up more from the nearby warehouse. They were trying to avoid finding out what Arisato's cognition would make of them starting a fight in the middle of the concourse.
But whenever they were in a group - even if it was just them and Sojiro, as it had been for the last few evenings - Goro Akechi always seemed so eager to make conversation with him. So why, Joker wondered, was he now so silent when they were alone together?
"The others will be here soon," Joker ventured. "Is everything ready?"
"The route's secured from staff building exit to platform," Crow confirmed.
"Then let's wait by the exit for Oracle and the others. If we're apprehended, I'll use a smoke bomb so the rest of you can get to safety. I'll catch up at the platform."
"How noble of you," Crow said dryly. "Is that so you can get out of standing near to me?"
Joker blinked. "No? It's so I can keep you safe. You and the others. It's easier for me to stay behind and cause a distraction because it's easier for me to regroup later."
Crow rolled his eyes. "Spare me your sympathy, then. I've taken care of myself in these places for years now. I don't need your coddling."
"But you shouldn't have to take care of yourself," Joker interrupted. "What Shido asked you to do wasn't fair on you in a lot of ways, not just the obvious. I know our abilities to fix your situation in the physical world are limited, but at least let us look after you in the Metaverse."
Crow stared. Then he laughed a little, wryly. "I think that's the most I've ever heard you say at once," he smirked. "Did I hit a nerve somehow?"
To his shame, Joker felt his cheeks heat up. "I just don't think you should have to be alone," he insisted. "Not unless you want to be."
"Maybe I do," Crow said flatly, although something in Joker told him it wasn't the whole truth. "I've already said I don't need you coddling me."
Joker sighed. "Then just look after the others if we do have to split up," he said, regaining his leader-like confidence. "It's only as deep as you want it to be."
"By that time, the train will be ready. It should automatically be scheduled to head to the Gekkoukan station once it passes through Platform 12, so all Oracle and Queen will have to do is operate the accelerator and the break.
"Once we're clear of the station, we'll be safe. Both Oracle's scans and mine seem to indicate that the troublesome cognitions only extend as far as the edge of the station, so we should be home and dry by the time we're… well, home and dry."
Keeping Platform 12 clear hadn't been all that bad. Just as well, since Mona was the only one on their own. The cognitions all seemed happy to obey the PLATFORM CLOSED sign Mona had dragged over from Platform 7, and the Shadows that did come to investigate were easily run through on Zorro's sword.
That said… it was still a relief to see the full group of misfits headed their way along the concourse - and the train coming along the tracks a few moments later, with Queen and Skull visible in the drivers' compartment.
"How'd it go?" Mona asked, hopping from foot to foot as the Phantom Thieves approached in all of their glory. Ahh, their dream team… they sure knew how to pick 'em. And Akechi was alright too, they supposed.
"Oracle was right," Panther smiled, giving Oracle the full beam of her grin. "The Shadows here don't put up much of a fight."
"I had a thought about that on the way over, actually," Oracle said, "but Inari and I will tell you about it on the train."
It pulled into the platform and came to a stop. "All aboard," Skull called out of the window, then, "oh, man, I've always wanted to say that!"
"Just get on," Mona said, rolling their eyes and bringing up the rear.
It had been a good plan, they preened. Montage or no montage.