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There was a new student in Yusuke Kitagawa's class.

What had been an unassuming day thus far had turned interesting upon his finding the homeroom class full of buzzing gossip, instead of the more subdued chatter that usually greeted him as he went to find his seat. Being lonesome as he was, homeroom usually held little interest to him - t'was not as though he had friends there to speak with, after all. Yet this time, he'd been able to overhear something of note: someone new was going to be joining them today. Mid-term transfers were not common at Kosei, and usually spoke of a story… a story the likes of which the Phantom Thieves might have interest in. Yusuke would have to pay attention to this.

They had recently conquered the palace of Kunikazu Okumura, the, ah… what was it? The great profiteering sinner of greed. The man had confessed on national television; and while the Thieves had been anxious that the broadcast might still somehow end in scandal, it had passed with as little incident as a Change of Heart could. Yusuke's friend Haru, who happened to be Okumura's daughter, had been occupied since then with helping her father to restructure the company. She was stressed, but… well, as an artist, Yusuke couldn't help but spot the difference in her smile since her father had been delivered from his twisted cognition. Their mission had been accomplished: Haru was happier, the employees at Okumura Foods would no longer be mistreated, and the Phantom Thieves were once again the public's darlings. Everything appeared to be proceeding well.

Most importantly, all this meant that the Phantom Thieves did not currently have a Palace to infiltrate. And while the group were all on the lookout for their next big target, as it were, they each were left to focus on smaller matters as well - the ones that could be taken care of in Mementos. It wasn't that Yusuke saw himself as a defender of the Kosei student body, exactly… he could never claim to be capable of solving all of their problems, especially when so many of them struggled to view him as a peer. But then, it wouldn't be the first time that he had helped someone through the Metaverse because he had noticed them at school.

He was curious to see what type of student this transfer would be.

His homeroom teacher finally cleared his throat, and the chatter died down as Yusuke directed his attention to the front.

"Class, as you may have heard, a new student will be joining us today. I hope you will all welcome him as you welcome each other." He made a gesture, and a figure of average height entered the room - walking plainly to stand beside the teacher, then, upon prompting, bowing politely to the class. Yusuke watched, settling his gaze on the boy stood in front of the chalkboard-- and...

Oh…

Oh, he was beautiful

Alabaster skin sat over the smooth contours of his face. Dark hair a similar colour to Yusuke's own fell across half of his face from an almost-careless side parting; unlike Yusuke's, however, there was a certain texture to it, a volume which complimented the curve of his jaw, the soft curve of his cheek. His languid gaze fell somewhere into the middle distance, his blue-grey eyes almost hollow-seeming - while some might draw fear from such a sight, to Yusuke, it reminded him only of the unseeing stone eyes of marble statues from Western museums. So close to alive, and yet… in fact, this student seemed almost like a statue himself. Not that Yusuke expected to see him breathing from this distance, but there was a stillness from him that set Yusuke's artistic senses alight. There was something truly captivating about this boy. Yusuke was determined to find out what.

"Ah, then… please introduce yourself," the teacher prompted, after a few long moments of silence.
"Arisato Minato." Arisato's gaze did not shift. He offered nothing further.
"...well, then, Arisato-kun, I hope you'll settle in well. If you could take the seat over there…"

Yusuke's heart sank a little when it wasn't the desk next to his own. Well, then. He'd simply have to approach Arisato during the lunch period.

--

Arisato wasn't difficult to find. He was simply sat at his desk, taking out plain sandwiches that appeared to have been prepared by someone else - at least if Yusuke had to judge by the note. Perhaps he had simply moved here due to his parents' work..? Standing by Arisato's shoulder, he peered at it.

I hope these are to your liking.
Let me know if you want me to change anything.
- Seta-san

Seta-san… not a parent, then? Or perhaps he just had an unusual family...?

Hm.

"Arisato-kun?" Yusuke said gently. To his surprise, Arisato didn't jump. People usually did that when Yusuke addressed them. "Excuse me; do you have a moment?"

Arisato turned that cold gaze to Yusuke. Yusuke had to fight not to get lost in the stony depths of those eyes…

"...ah, do you speak Japanese? My apologies for assuming so…"
"Yes," Arisato said.
"Oh! Very well, then. I have a proposition for you."
Arisato said nothing.
Yusuke persisted: "As you may know, Kosei has many scholarships available, among them an art scholarship. I happen to be one such scholar, and therefore I have access to many of the school's facilities when it comes to producing artworks. I was wondering if you would like to model for one of my paintings?" He held his hands forth, making a frame through which to view Arisato's mysterious stare. "Of course, I would ensure you received a print of the finished work."

Arisato said nothing.

"I will be in the studio from six o'clock onwards," Yusuke continued. He had to admit he wasn't used to being met with total silence, but well - it wasn't a refusal . "I'd be very glad indeed to see you there, Arisato-kun."

Arisato continued to meet Yusuke's eye for a few moments longer, then slowly turned back to his lunch. There was no acknowledgement, and for all he considered himself not exactly an amateur in reading the emotions in people's eyes - he had to replicate them on the canvas, after all - he couldn't discern anything from behind Arisato's cool irises. Anything at all. And yet… and yet..! There was something there, wasn't there...? Something that captured Yusuke's interests, drew him in...

Damn it all. He had a talent for picking muses with difficult personalities, didn't he?

Chuckling softly to himself, he made his way back to his desk.

--

A.T.: Don't take photos of people in class, Yusuke. It's creepy.

M.N.: Ann's right.

I'm concerned he may not attend the studio, though. :Y.K.

A.T.: That doesn't mean you can just take photos of him like some stalker!

I suppose you're right. :Y.K.

R.S.: anyway, whaddya mean by odd? is he out of uniform or somethin?

No. His uniform is perfect, actually. :Y.K.

That's almost what's concerning me. :Y.K.

I've been watching him for most of the day. :Y.K.

R.S.: not helping yourself with the stalker thing, dude

He shows absolutely no deviation from instructions given to him. :Y.K.

If a statement is not clearly an instruction, he practically ignores it. :Y.K.

A.K.: That is strange.

M.N.: Are you going to talk to him about it?

I'm considering it. :Y.K.

I'm uncertain of how to approach it, though… :Y.K.

A.T.: Just be friendly!

A.T.: He's probably nervous to be at a new school where he doesn't know anyone.

A.T.: I bet he just needs a friend he could confide in...

You're right. Thank you, everyone. :Y.K.

--

The rest of the day passed uneventfully, but Yusuke couldn't get his concern for Arisato out of his mind. He had a feeling it would be difficult to find him again outside of class, so before the classroom emptied, he rushed to corner Arisato at his desk. Arisato put up no argument - sitting, passively as always, and only turning to look at Yusuke when he was addressed.

"Are you staying in the dormitories, Arisato-kun?"
"Yes."
"Ah! So am I. What building are you in?"
"North."
"Ah… I'm in the west one, but I'll see you at dinner, yes?"
"Yes."

Yusuke paused. Usually, he was the one giving answers which were too short for everyone's liking. It was… refreshing, he supposed, to have the situation reversed.

"Is there any particular food you like?"
Silence.
"The food at the caféteria can be expensive, but you can pick up a lot of rice or potato snacks for very little, I find."
Silence. No acknowledgement.
"Ah… but I can tell you're frustrated with the topic. Would you like to walk towards the dormitories together?"

The classroom was largely empty by now, and yet Arisato hadn't moved from his desk. Yusuke stepped away a little and tried again. "...Arisato-kun, let's go back to the dormitories."

Finally, Arisato stood up and began walking towards the classroom door. "Ah! Don't forget your things--" Yusuke picked up Arisato's bag and trotted after him, handing them over to the shorter boy. Arisato took it, but didn't acknowledge Yusuke any further afterwards. Hmm...

Yusuke smiled, but his heart was troubled. Perhaps it was merely his artist's intuition, but… he had a feeling there was something very wrong with Minato Arisato.

Chapter Text

Do you want to meet today? :A.K.

H.O.: I really wish I could, but we have so many meetings today…

H.O.: Would tomorrow be okay instead?

Sure thing. :A.K.

Don't worry about it, OK? We're all here for you. :A.K.

H.O.: Thanks, Akira-kun. I really appreciate it.

Not a problem. :) :A.K.

Akira Kurusu flopped back on the bed, letting the phone fall out of his hand onto the bundled-up duvet.

He wished there was more he could do.

It was a silly thought, really. He knew from the many, many times that Haru had told him so that the Phantom Thieves had already given-- no, helped her achieve something she never could have gotten any other way: the affectionate father she once knew, back in her life. Through the Palace they'd learned of her hardships, and through the Metaverse and their friendship with her they'd helped her face them. And of course not everything was magically solved, but… to be honest, most of it had been.

Her engagement with that awful man had been called off, to Akira's acute relief (while he, personally, had no qualms about punching the man in the nose, he didn't fancy another assault charge to add to his record). Okumura Foods was undergoing several restructures, first and foremost to ensure employee wellbeing - the opening hours of the Big Bang Burger outlets in town had already changed to that end.

And Haru… Haru was far from the composed yet subservient girl he'd met just a few short weeks ago. The longer she was in this much-improved situation, the more her true personality came out: kind and thoughtful, yes, but also sharp, witty, and opinionated. Not that he'd had anything in mind other than the injustice before him when he'd first become a Phantom Thief… but if he'd have known he'd be helping people like Haru, then it would only have cemented his decision further.

He rolled over on the bed and reached behind him for his phone, opening another IM window.

You awake? :A.K.

R.S.: its like 2pm dude, why would i not be awake?

Sometimes you aren't. :A.K.

R.S.: harsh.

R.S.: anyway whats up?

Wanna hang out today? :A.K.

R.S.: i kinda already promised Ann we'd hang

R.S.: wanna all hang out all three of us?

Works for me. :A.K.

You should check with her though. :A.K.

R.S.: sure

R.S.: she said yeah!

Nice. :A.K.

Where are we meeting? :A.K.

R.S.: underground mall

R.S.: she said she had something she wanted to pick up

R.S.: we'll be there around 3

Alright. :A.K.

See you then. :A.K.

He sighed, staring at the ceiling for a moment, then heaved himself upright. It's not like he had anywhere else to be this afternoon, so he may as well get ready now.
"Morgana," he said, and the sleeping not-cat perked their head up from their nap spot on the sofa. "I'm going out."

"I'm coming with you," Morgana chirped, suddenly wide awake in a way that Akira absolutely could not relate to at all.
"Uh. Okay. Just let me change my clothes."
"Sure."
"... out , you little pervert."
"Sheesh!" Morgana licked their paw briefly, then dropped onto the ground before sidling towards the stairs. "It's not like I'm gonna stare or anything…"

Akira shook his head, unable to stop himself from smiling as Morgana's fluffy tail disappeared down the staircase. He really did have the strangest friends.

--

"Man, why did I even agree to come here today??"
"Because you love me," Ann sang. "Come on, I want something from next door too."

It turned out, of course, that "pick something up", when spoken by Ann Takamaki, meant "pick several somethings up, and also purchase further items because she now has three pairs of hands to carry shopping bags back to her apartment, and by the way, her hands are the last pair she's going to use, because how else is she supposed to pay for all this?". Akira found it endearing, honestly. They may be desires Akira couldn't exactly understand, but it was clear that this whole process made Ann happy. Even if it didn't quite do the same for Akira's wrists, dug into by so many shopping bag handles… or for Ryuji, judging by how much he was whining.

Maybe whining was harsh. Legitimately complaining would perhaps be more apt, considering how much he was having to carry.

Mercifully, when Akira suggested they take a break after the next shop, Ann agreed. They found a bench to sit on and Ryuji flopped dramatically onto it, shopping bags taking up practically a whole other seat on either side of him. Ann couldn't help but giggle at the sight, and Akira - whose offering of shopping bags could at least fit into his lap - cracked a smile as well.

"You don't have to be such a big baby about it," Ann smirked. "But I do appreciate all your help today, believe it or not. I promise I'll make it up to you."
"You always promise that," Ryuji pouted.
"And I always make it up to you! Wait here," she said, nodding and taking off without waiting for confirmation.

Akira shook his head, laughing softly. "She sure is something."
"Yeah," Ryuji said, his tone non-committal. "Certainly somethin' . But she's our friend, yanno? I kinda knew I'd end up cartin' all this stuff around when I agreed to come here today, but…"
"But her smile is precious enough to be worth it," Akira finished.
"Man, you always make it sound so flowery!" Ryuji sat up a little, giving Akira a look equal parts amused and quizzical. "You swallow a book of romantic sayings or somethin'? No wonder you're swimmin' in girlfriends."
"Boyfriends too," Akira pointed out, grinning back at Ryuji. "What can I say."
"Haha, yeah." Ryuji's cheeks tinted and he looked away, glancing about. "Where's Mona?"
"They slunk off somewhere." Akira shrugged. "Probably eavesdropping for Mementos tips again."
Ryuji glanced back at him, then away… grinning a little wider. "Then… Say, uh… you wanna hang out jus' you an' me some other time? It's been a lil while…"
Akira smiled. "Yeah, I'd like that."

Ann returned. She was carrying three little boxes from a local bakery. "Hey guys! I told you I'd make it up to you! They had a special on these, so I got us one each!"
"Doesn't a special mean they were cheaper than usual?" Ryuji smirked, but he reached up gladly to take one of the little boxes anyway.
"Ryuji! Be grateful," Ann scolds, but her pout twisted into a smile mere moments later. She perched on the bench between them, handing Akira the other box and tucking in to her own.

Akira carefully slid the cardboard flap open, smiling as he saw the choice she'd made for him. Coffee-flavoured cupcake. Sweeter than Akira would usually go for on his own, but the hat-tip to his preferences was both noted and appreciated.

They ate in comfortable silence for a while, before Ann piped up again.

"Hey… have you guys been talking to Haru much since her father's confession?"
"Yeah!" Ryuji piped up, to Akira's mild surprise. "I had no idea she was so funny! I guess it's easier to show that when you ain't under threat of being married to some asshole, huh…"
"Yeah. It's so nice to see her acting more like herself… you know, in the real world," Ann hedged, glancing around them briefly. "It really seems like getting her dad back has helped. We did a good thing…"
Akira nodded, breaking off another piece of cupcake and popping it into his mouth. "She's been messaging me more, too." He swallowed. "Seems like she doesn't have to be as worried about being caught texting guys."
"Oh yeah, I kept meaning to ask if you two were dating yet!" Ann leaned forward, beaming.
"Haha, not yet! Things are still pretty early on. We don't want to rush."
"Awww, I guess that's fair… still, I guess I'm just happy she's happy." She sighed, smiling faintly. "Maybe I couldn't help Shiho in time, but… with each person we save, that's another incident like that prevented, right?"
Ryuji frowned. "Hey, we've been over this. You did your best with Shiho. You were a victim in that too, yeah?"
"Yeah, I know…"
"You can't keep blaming yourself, or Carmen'll whoop your ass!"
"Ryu-ji!"

Ann and Ryuji both laughed, and Akira couldn't help but join in. It was contagious; but once he had a moment to breathe, he wiped the crumbs away from his lips with one thumb and went to take another bite of his cupcake.

The alarm on Ann's phone broke the moment of quiet, and she gasped. "Oh! Crap! I need to go! I have to take the train to-- you know what, it doesn't matter." She began grabbing shopping bags. "Thank you both SO much for coming out today! You have no idea how much it means to me!"
"It's no problem," Akira smiled.
"I'll see you guys later!" Blowing them kisses all the way until her bag-laden form was out of view, Ann rushed off towards the train station.

Ryuji sighed contentedly, then heaved himself to his feet. "I better be off too, dude. You gonna be alright?"
"Yeah." Akira smiled.
"Alright! Here's to another successful change of heart!" Ryuji beamed, proffering up his empty cake box in a mock-toast.
"To another successful change of heart." Akira toasted his friend, then mimed drinking from the box - he managed not to spill crumbs down his front, but Ryuji wasn't so lucky. He dusted them off, laughing, then trotted off his own way - leaving Akira alone on the bench.

Akira's smile lingered; even as the winter sun began to set, and Morgana slunk back across the square and into Akira's own bag. The steady rhythm of his footsteps on the pavement amongst those of so many others, the gentle shunting of the train on tracks as he made his way home... for a brief moment, nothing was out of place.

Today was a good day.

Chapter Text

Yusuke wasn't sure if he was excited or nervous. It was five minutes to six o'clock. He knew he'd told Arisato that he'd be here from six onwards, but to be honest, he hadn't been able to afford anything for dinner anyway. Coming straight to the studio took his mind off the gnawing hunger, and it gave him a chance to prepare his materials for the event that Arisato actually showed up. Perhaps he'd paint something from a photograph if not. At least it would allow him to practice his brushstrokes… he was still leagues above his peers in such a respect, as his teacher would point out. But to be honest, he could still see places where he could improve. Working a little more on refining his skills certainly couldn't hurt.

He glanced up at the clock. Six o'clock. Ah… well, Arisato wasn't here yet, but perhaps--

The sliding door opened abruptly, and Yusuke gasped when the figure he saw stood in the doorway was actually Minato Arisato and not some fellow art student who was unfortunately about to get stared at.

Goodness gracious. Yusuke Kitagawa was a lucky artist indeed.

"Arisato-kun! You made it!" He set down the palette he was messing with and strode over, unwilling to hide the beam on his face. "You truly do my portfolio a great service. Are you ready to begin?"

Arisato turned his pallid gaze towards Yusuke, but no answer formed on his lips. A pang of concern rang out through Yusuke's chest, but-- well, Ann-chan had been right, he'd decided. Arisato probably just needed a friend. He'd persist in being friendly, then.

"You can change out of your clothes behind the screen there," Yusuke effervesced. "I'm so glad you could make it, Arisato-kun. I was worried you wouldn't be interested in aiding someone you'd only just--"

Arisato ignored him, simply walking behind the screen. Yusuke blinked. Ah… well, he supposed there wasn't strictly any reason for Arisato to respond to his smalltalk. He'd yet to prove himself, after all, hadn't he? And if Arisato was used to moving around a lot… well, perhaps he'd be slow to warm up. That was alright. If the Phantom Thieves had taught Yusuke anything, it was that sometimes, in order to help someone, you had to be persistent.

He adjusted his easel and set his pencils out neatly. It was important to him that he was able to capture Arisato's ethereal beauty in his initial sketches - after all, a building with bad foundations would crumble, and a painting made atop a bad sketch would do similarly. He needed to make several, of course, so that he could pick the best from among them. It was warm in the studio, accordingly - Arisato had been warned he would be here for a while.

To Yusuke's surprise, Arisato emerged from behind the screen without bothering to cover himself. He'd worked with professional models who were unabashed, of course - they wouldn't make it very far as models if they found shame in their natural beauty - but Yusuke had to admit this was the first amateur model he'd met who was happy to reveal himself like this.

"Ah… very well, then. If you could stand over on the podium…"

Arisato didn't nod, or even make eye contact, but he began to walk over all the same.

Yusuke nodded to himself as Arisato stepped onto the raised platform, pacing slowly around him as he tried to decide which angle might be best for the initial sketch. The side of his hairstyle which showed his eye might be best… he would ordinarily wish to capture both of his subject's eyes, but something about the careless way in which Arisato parted his hair added to his charm. Yusuke carefully lifted the easel over to where he wished to stand, then began working.

Arisato hardly seemed to blink. While conducive to Yusuke's work, it did begin to get a little unnerving after a while. His unnerving gaze seemed to be fixed on an invisible spot in the middle distance, just as in class; most models' eyes would flit around the room, especially amateurs, but Arisato was unflappable.

"Have you done modelling before, Arisato-kun?" he asked, after finalising the sketches of Arisato's jaw and lips. Most models couldn't get it back exactly the same way after answering a question.
"Yes," came the one-word answer.

Yusuke glanced between his sketch and the real Arisato. He hadn't moved at all.

"Goodness… that would explain it, then. You're very good. Almost like a statue! Haha."

Arisato didn't laugh.

Well, then.

Yusuke cleared his throat and went back to sketching. At first glance, Arisato's physique seemed typical for one of their age. Yet as Yusuke sketched further down, he found he was able to pick out the shadows of Arisato's ribcage. Although there was some musculature to his arms and chest, it wasn't as much as it ought to have been for how defined it was. Yusuke found his frown growing as he detailed the dips and shadows.

"Arisato-kun, you are severely underweight," he commented as he shaded in yet another of the boy's ribs.
Arisato didn't reply. Yusuke glanced at his face in the hopes of reading some sort of emotion - indignance, or embarrassment - but found absolutely nothing.
"...doesn't that concern you?"
Still no answer. Arisato remains still, expression blank as ever.
Yusuke frowns a little deeper. He glances between his sketch and Arisato's face; still completely the same… "Are your carers aware? I assume you have someone..."
"Yes."
Ah, at last. "You can talk about them a little, if you wish," Yusuke prompts cautiously. So openly soliciting personal information could backfire sometimes, but he wasn't getting anywhere with Arisato otherwise--

...when had he started treating this like a Phantom Thief reconnaissance mission?

Either way, Arisato didn't respond. "Well, are you eating enough?"
"Yes," Arisato said.
"Are you truly certain?" Yusuke frowned between the sketch and his model. "Have you seen a doctor about this matter?"
"Yes."
"And the doctor said there was nothing the matter…?"
"No."
Yusuke sighed, setting his pencil down to massage his temples. "Then there is something the matter. Are you following your treatment regimen?"
"Yes." Arisato still hadn't moved an inch, save to speak.
"Is it helping?"
No answer that time. Yusuke stared at the boy. Was he really so unflappable…? Most people Yusuke had taken this line of questioning with would snap back defensively, or shrink down, trying to look small. Arisato was hardly reacting at all.

"Very well… then I suppose there's nothing more I can do for now, at least. I will admit that there's a certain tragic beauty in your form the way it is… I was drawn to you, after all, albiet before your physique was revealed."

Arisato's gaze remained steady on the middle distance. Yusuke's frown didn't lessen.

He instructed Arisato to take a number of other poses. He took Yusuke's instructions without complaint - even when, out of curiosity, Yusuke suggested he take a pose that most models would have found uncomfortable, stretching his arm back at an unusual angle. Arisato did not complain. Although Yusuke could see the muscles in his arm straining to remain in position, his facial expression did not shift; not even in the tiny ways Yusuke was used to reading in a model, dutifully recording them on the page. He expected tension in the brow, tenseness in the lips. He found none.

Yusuke loyally sketched what he saw, then set his pencil down. Stepping back, he took another look at his sketch page. Yes… yes, some of these would do very nicely. He'd have to invite Arisato back for the painting stage at a later date, but for now, he could continue his work without forcing Arisato to stand in the cold studio.

"Thank you, Arisato. You may leave now."

Arisato stepped down from the podium and began to walk to the door.

"W-- Wait!"

His gaze turned to Yusuke.
Yusuke's voice caught in his throat momentarily. "You… ah. Don't you wish to put your clothes back on first?"
Arisato stared.
"We'll both be in trouble if you walk the corridors like that," Yusuke tried, his tone chiding.
Arisato stared.
"...Arisato-kun. Put your clothes back on."

He finally did so.

Yusuke turned his attention back to his sketches. In each of them, the same dead expression from Arisato; it was almost like the Mona Lisa in some ways, yet in others, it was fundamentally unsettling. And Arisato had held the exact same position between multiple angles of the same pose, too. It was as if he truly hadn't moved for the entire session, except when Yusuke asked him to. And now, as he emerged from behind the screen, Yusuke noted he didn't move for the studio door until he, once again, prompted him to.

Yusuke massaged his temples. It had been, by all accounts, a wonderful session - an ineffable subject, a compliant model, no annoying interruptions or distractions… and yet something didn't quite sit right with him about the whole thing. It wasn't a problem with Yusuke's artistic talents, of that he was confident - not after Akira had been aiding him recently to overcome his artistic slump. So then the only cause left was…

Yusuke's gaze settled on the one sketch in which he'd managed to capture his model looking directly at the viewer. Or, really...  through them, more like.

Minato Arisato was a very strange boy indeed…

Chapter Text

"I mean… if you're sayin' this, Yusuke... no offence, but the guy must be a total weirdo."
"None taken," Yusuke retorted, with just a hint of bitterness. "It truly was a most unusual experience… I don't think I've ever met an amateur model so eager to be in the nude. Perhaps he simply had a fetish…?"
"Yusuke! " Ann reached over and thumped his arm. "Don't be a pervert! He probably needs our help!"

The attic at Leblanc made a good hideout now Akira had gained Sojiro's trust. It had been a long journey, but as Akira leaned back in his chair and watched his friends bicker, he could only think that it'd been worth it. Their previous hideouts had served their purpose at the time, but with so many of them in the group now… well, he was glad they hardly had to worry about their gathering attracting unwanted attention any more.

"It is concerning," Akira offered, leaning forward in his chair. "His behaviour seems strange."
Makoto clasped her hands in her lap. "I agree. I think it might be worth looking into it a little more… as friends of Yusuke-kun's, if not as Phantom Thieves."
"Could he simply be ill…?" Haru ventured thoughtfully, but she shook her head. "It's impossible to know if this is normal for him without meeting some of his friends from his old school…"
Ryuji leaned back in his seat, tucking his hands behind his head. "I dunno, I still think it's possible the guy is just adjustin' to bein' at a new school."
"I know I wouldn't want Inari in my class," Futaba murmured, but the little grin on her face took all the barbs off the statement. Yusuke still glared, but it was playful.

Morgana's tail swayed. "He never expresses preferences, he's lethargic unless prompted with specific instructions… Perhaps there's something wrong with his Shadow."
"Somethin' wrong?" Ryuji rubbed the back of his neck. "Like what? Can people get, like… sick in the Metaverse too?"
"Not sick," Morgana said thoughtfully. "But things can happen to a person's Shadow that impact their behaviour in the real world."
Yusuke rubbed his chin. "Could that cause such behaviour as Arisato-kun has been displaying?"
"I think so…" Morgana hopped onto the table, as they were wont to do when making proclamations about the nature of the Metaverse. "A person's Shadow is the embodiment of their desires. As you all know, destroying a person's Shadow can kill them, since it removes all desires from them... including the desire to breathe. Now, I haven't seen this happen myself, but, perhaps... if a person's Shadow was to be suppressed somehow, then... it could cause them to walk around like normal, but without any conscious desires of their own."

"It did seem that he had no desires of his own - or even thoughts, to be honest," Yusuke sighed. "He answered my questions only when they had literal answers. And he followed my instructions, but once again, only when they were literal… and explicit , too. Other than that, he seemed content to stand in the centre of the room in the nude for an indefinite amount of time. Answering personal questions, too - even when I probed into the matter of his diet, which I've learned is a subject considered sensitive by most, he showed absolutely no signs of discomfort, nor any other emotion. Truly, he is the most compliant model I've ever had, even among professionals…"
"Yeah, that is weird," Ann said, "a-and I'm not just saying that because I didn't want to model! Just…" her tone softened, "doesn't it sound creepy? Someone doing everything you wanted… like those cognitions in Kamoshida's Palace…"

The silence that followed seemed to imply concurrence among the Thieves on that particular matter, at least. And Akira agreed too. There were people who were eager to please, and then there was what Yusuke was describing. Either someone who was unable to object… or, perhaps, someone who felt afraid to.

"Maybe he's being abused," Akira suggested. "If he was used to being punished for acting without being ordered to, he might start acting that way around everyone just to be on the safe side."
Yusuke's frown deepened greatly. "You're right… I briefly asked him if his guardians were aware that he was underweight, and he was reticent with details about them. Or perhaps I simply asked him in the wrong way..?" Yusuke shook his head. "It may be worth investigating. I haven't witnessed any obvious signs of abuse, even now I've seen him disrobed, but of course that doesn't mean we can rule it out."
Makoto nodded. "Well said. We should cover that base as well with whatever we decide to do here."

Yusuke was, obviously, first to volunteer. "I'll try and find out more about his guardians. Perhaps meet them as well, if I can. I already know one of their names. If we can rule out abuse, or at least learn more of his situation, then anything else we do can only be helped. And I'll keep an eye on him at school, too."
Makoto nodded. "As for the rest of us… he's not a public figure, so researching him will be a little more difficult… Futaba, can you see if he has an online presence at all?"
"Yeah. Inari, does he have a smartphone or something?"
"Not that I saw… he did have an MP3 player, so he isn't entirely technologically illiterate."
"Right. I'll see if I can find something, then."
"Hey…" Ann's voice was quiet. "Do you think we should check his name on the Meta-Nav? You know… just in case? Or is it too soon…?"

All eyes turned to Akira. He tried not to let his embarrassment show on his face. He slid his glasses back up his face; how was it that he, a youth convict, had come to be the group's moral compass?

"I don't see anything wrong with checking." He twirled his hair out of his eyes, then looked at the others. "He'll probably just be in Mementos anyway. If so, he won't show up. If he does show up on the Metanav, then we have a bigger problem. One we need to know about now, so we can work on solving it. It's fine as long as we don't go tracking him down in Mementos until we're certain we need to."

There was a murmur of agreement, so Akira drew out his phone and placed it on the table. He wasn't sure if everyone staring at it was much better at everyone staring at him , given some of the things hidden away in his local storage and browser history… ah, but he knew his friends. They wouldn't judge him even if they knew. Probably.

Deft fingers tapped the Meta-Nav icon, and he leaned in close to speak.

"Minato Arisato. The one that attends Kosei High."
"Result found. "

For a moment, there was silence.

Then the group exploded.

Ryuji immediately laid into his signature no frickin' ways; Yusuke merely covered his mouth, his face a picture of shock. Futaba's over-dramatic gasp easily drowned out Haru's little oh my. Makoto and Ann stared at the Meta-Nav like it hadn't apologised for farting.

"A Palace..?" Akira frowned, squinting at the Meta-Nav's screen. That's definitely what it seemed to be suggesting… "But…"
"It's probably more akin to Futaba's than anyone else's, from what we've heard," Morgana said, sitting next to the phone where it lay on the table. "It definitely sounded like something was the matter, and at least now we know what."
"Yeah." Akira swiped the Meta-Nav off the screen and pocketed his phone, his brow creased with concern. This… kid had a Palace…? Technically he was older than Futaba, but still - someone had purposefully forced her to form one. Was this part of a related incident? Or had Arisato-san been through something so terrible that he'd genuinely generated one on his own…?

It took a few minutes for everyone to calm down. Once the noise was more murmurs of concern and less swearing, Akira caught their attention once more.

"This is the first Palace we've come across where infiltrating it won't help us stay in the public eye," he pointed out. "Even infiltrating Futaba's Palace helped us take care of the fake Medjed, as well as helping her. We won't be getting anything out of doing Arisato-san's."
Ann twiddled with her hair. "That doesn't mean we should just leave him, though, does it…?"
Akira shook his head, a small smile gracing his face. "I don't want to do that."
"Our leader's right that we should consider whether to pursue other targets while we're working on this one," Mona piped up. "But if we're all in agreement,then  I don't see why we should leave Arisato-san to his fate."

Almost in unison, the Phantom Thieves nodded.

Akira loved them all.

"We stick to the plan," he asserted, getting his game face back on. At least, he hoped. He'd been practicing it in the mirror at the bathhouse. Fingers crossed it looked more like a game face now and less like he was constipated. "Yusuke will try to find out more about Arisato-san's home situation, as well as keeping an eye on him at school. Futaba will try to see if he has an online presence. The rest of us will carry on like normal. Keep an eye on the news, though. And be ready to head over to Kosei if anything happens with this case. Everyone happy with that?"

"Yeah. I guess it's prolly for the best that we get to the bottom of this, huh," Ryuji sighed, rubbing the back of his neck.
Ann nodded. "It seems like he could really use our help…"
"I'm prepared to do my best for Arisato-kun's sake," Yusuke confirmed.
"Let's learn the truth behind this situation," Makoto nodded in turn.
Futaba stared at the floor. "If he's trapped in his own mind like I was, then we'll be doing him a favour by getting him out."
"No matter what, if he's formed a Palace, then his cognition's definitely twisted beyond recognition. We'd be remiss in our duty as Phantom Thieves to turn our back on him," Mona declared.
And finally, Haru nodded graciously. "After all of your help, assisting you with this task is the least I can do…"

"Then it's settled," Akira said, standing. "Let's solve the mystery of Minato Arisato."

Chapter Text

I can't die here.

Fire lit up his lungs. Needles pried at his nerves. Spots danced in his vision, threatening to seize it. His thoughts jumbled; adrenaline cut through him like a knife, scattering everything into pieces except for one thing. One phrase.

I can't die here…!

Even though it went against his every instinct to fight, to struggle, to never give in, never, not even an inch - he let himself go limp. It was a difficult balance; hanging onto consciousness with everything he could, whilst still giving in just enough that it looked like he wasn't. His arms were numb anyway. It wasn't difficult to let them go limp. He left his eyes open a crack - knowing from too much experience that dead people didn't close them, not all the way.

"Piece of shit," his assailant murmured triumphantly. And then he dropped him.

He didn't give them time to realise what had happened. Against every screaming muscle in his body, he ran. His head spun, his vision blurred - he almost didn't make it out of the alleyway, but his honed instincts and his utter desperation guided his fumbling hands up the fence and tucked his body into a roll on the other side before they could catch up with him. He could see an area of parkland up ahead; he knew on the other side of it was one of the shadier shopping districts. Even at this time of the night, even in his current state, he could blend in there. If he could just…

He felt the ligature press around his neck once more. When had they caught up with him?! This time, though, they didn't have as firm a grip on him - he twisted and his elbow connected with something soft. His assailant cried out; but he could hear more footsteps. He tore across the road without checking - an indignant horn told him he'd narrowly avoided being hit by a car, but he ignored it. Being on the other side of it could only buy him time.

He didn't feel anything. Thorns snagged at his clothing. It didn't matter. He was never going to be able to look smart, tatters or no. He'd lost his tie days ago already; it was the first thing they'd tried to strangle him with. There was a fence on the other side of the parkland, mercifully away from the main road - so he scaled it. There was barbed wire at the top. He barely registered it, landing heavily on the other side and stumbling the last little way to get out of line of sight of the parkland. One last cautious glance told him that if he was still being followed, they were far, far behind.

He looked down. His head was spinning. He was bleeding. Ugh… he tried to straighten his shirt and adjust his trousers so the worst of the damage wasn't visible; so that people would only notice if they looked twice. Nobody would. Not in this part of Tokyo.

He wasn't exactly safe, but he didn't need to be. He just had to get where he was going.

I can't die here.

I need…

I need to determine the truth.

Chapter Text

"Don't you think it's strange that the address is in a residential area?" Yusuke peered over Makoto's shoulder at the little map on her smartphone.
"I had that thought as well… perhaps Arisato-kun is under the care of a relative after all." She sighed softly. "It was only a guess that he was a social worker, after all. Let's just hope the address listed at Kosei was correct…"
"And that Futaba-chan retrieved the correct record," Yusuke added dryly.

In the end, Makoto had decided to accompany Yusuke on his scouting expedition to meet Minato's presumed social worker. Yusuke was grateful for it. He'd been anxious about meeting the man by himself. Madarame had always taught him to expect the worst out of such people, and although he knew in his mind that it was largely to stop Yusuke from informing the authorities of the truth about his living environment… it was still difficult to find trust for the man he was going to meet. Far from everything Madarame had taught him was based upon lies, after all.

Any one of his friends was likely to be a tremendous boon in keeping Yusuke's feet on the ground, in that regard. That Makoto had volunteered only set Yusuke's mind further at ease: while he had direct experience of the types of abuse they were looking for here, she had more knowledge of the procedures and expectations that such a meeting entailed.

The apartment building loomed over them both, all clean lines and reflective windows. Upon entering the lobby, Yusuke quickly realised that the building likely doubled as an office building - and that perhaps Seta-san was working out of the address, and not just living there.

It seemed the same thought had occurred to Makoto. "Look," she said, walking over to one of the pamphlet stands by the unmanned reception desk. A brief flick through one of the cleanly-designed leaflets signified that the main clientele of this building was businessmen and women on longer business trips than could be covered by a usual hotel. Leases, it seemed, capped out in length at one year.

"Does Seta-san intend to return to his hometown once Arisato-kun finishes school, then…?"
"Seems so," Makoto confirmed.

Was this social worker - or… relative, or whatever he was - planning to move Arisato at the end of the year as well, then…? Shaking his head free of such thoughts, Yusuke checked the address on his own phone as they approached the lift. He idly shielded his phone's screen from view - despite the emptiness of the elevator car as they stepped inside - and texted the Phantom Thieves.

We are heading inside now. :Y.K.

We should be out within an hour. :Y.K.

Hopefully, their friends would come looking for them if Arisato's social worker did turn out to be the source of his distorted thoughts.

The upstairs landing was just as clean and utterly devoid of both people and personality as the rest of the building so far, and Yusuke found his nose wrinkling at the sight of the plastic plants that languished along the stark hallway as he strode along it to find Seta-san's unit number.

It appeared each unit had two front doors - one for its office, and one for its living area. Upon selecting the correct one, Yusuke knocked politely, and waited.

And waited.

"The décor here is very distasteful…"
Makoto stayed in position beside him - her hands clasped in front of her, head dipped demurely. "I've seen worse," she said quietly.
"I dread to think."
"Let's just say the people at the courthouse aren't very concerned with what you'd call aesthetics," she said, the tiniest hint of a smile in her voice.
"Really? I had thought their lobby was supposed to be quite beautiful…"
"Maybe it's just not to my tastes." She adjusted the skirt of her school uniform. "They just seem to pick whichever furniture is the most expensive-looking…"

Yusuke gazed out of the floor-to-ceiling window at the rest of Tokyo. The apartment wasn't terrifically high up, but he could still see over a few rooftops. There were some appealing views… whoever chose to build a highrise in this location had chosen well.

He checked his phone for the time. "Shall we knock again?"
Makoto nodded; then, to Yusuke's surprise, pounded on the door.

This time, he heard something from the other side. It sounded like a stack of papers falling over, followed by footsteps. An adult man's voice called out - "I'm on my way! " - and there was a little more crashing. "One moment, one moment-- "

Yusuke blinked. Was this Arisato-kun's guardian, or an overworked salaryman? Perhaps he'd gotten the wrong door…?

The door, wrong or not, opened. Behind it was a fresh-faced man with fine, stark grey hair which was falling flat against his forehead - present tense. He was wearing quite a smart suit, but it was rumpled, like perhaps he'd just been sleeping in it. Yusuke had a strong suspicion that's exactly what he'd been doing, in fact.

"Souji Seta?" Makoto stood up straight, looking every part the student council president.
"Yes, that's me," the man said. He looked between the two of them.
"I'm Makoto Niijima," she said, bowing politely. Seta-san returned it. "And my friend here is Yusuke Kitagawa." Yusuke took his turn to bow, glancing up at Seta-san as soon as he got the chance.

"That's a Kosei uniform," Seta-san pointed out, nodding to Yusuke. "Are you here about Arisato-san…?"
"Indeed we are," Yusuke confirmed.
"Then you'd better come inside."

Yusuke and Makoto exchanged glances, but followed Seta-san through his office into the residential part of the unit. Yusuke noted multiple photographs across both halves of the unit - on the walls, on his desk, on his side table. Most of them were of Seta-san with various groups of smiling children, but a few were of him with people his own age. In every single one of the latter, he was cuddled up with the same smiling man - he looked Japanese, but his hair was a vibrant shade of ginger. Yusuke idly wondered if Seta-san's silvery hair was dyed, too; he looked young, after all.

But... Arisato-kun wasn't in any of the photographs at all.

"Please, sit down," Seta-san invited. Yusuke and Makoto perched on the edge of his sofa; Seta-san went through to the kitchen unit. "I wasn't anticipating guests," he admitted.
"Oh, it's fine," Makoto hushed, giving a restrained-looking smile. "You had no way of knowing."
"I don't want you to feel unwelcome." Seta-san retrieved snacks from the cupboards and drinks from the fridge, then brought them through. "Just take whatever you want."
Yusuke's eyes widened. "Please, I don't mean to take advantage of your charity…"
"Really, it's fine," Seta-san insisted.

Well, even if they didn't get any information from this visit, at least Yusuke wouldn't be leaving as hungry as he arrived.

As he and Makoto ate the requisite amount of food so's not to appear rude, Yusuke took in their surroundings. In merciful contrast to the sanitised contrivement of the building's main décor scheme, the inside of Seta-san's unit actually looked like it had a person living in it. The photographs of Seta-san with who Yusuke could only assume to be clients of his were the most striking feature - not posed pictures, but candids of him helping them with schoolwork, taking selfies at restaurants with them, playing at the park with them. But the rest of his apartment was similar picture of human homeliness - in a word, it was messy, but there was almost something reassuring about that. Yusuke preferred it to the barren wastes of the front desk in the lobby, that was for certain.

"Oh, before we start," Seta-san said, setting down his mostly empty drink, "how would you each like to be referred to? You can call me Seta-san or Souji-san," he offered.
"Niijima-chan is fine," Makoto said, tucking her hair behind her ear.
Yusuke nodded in agreement. "Kitagawa-kun. Thank you for asking, Seta-san."

"Alright… what are you here to talk about? I imagine this isn't a social visit."
"You've already guessed, really," Yusuke started, "but we're here to talk about my classmate, Arisato-kun. He is your charge, is he not?"
"I had an inkling, yeah…" Seta-san smiled sadly. "I'm his social worker, yes. What's the matter?"
"His behaviour has been most unusual. I recently asked him to model for me while I sketched with an aim to eventually painting him. While his agreement was not so unusual in itself, the way in which he responded to my directions was very much so..."
"Ah… Yusuke-kun's not very used to people accepting his requests for them to model," Makoto supplied. "But from what he described, everything about Arisato-san's behaviour was unusual. Do you happen to know anything about why…?"

Seta-san sighed deeply, but it was a sigh of concern. "It's a mystery I've been trying to solve as well. I can't apologise for him if he's done something to offend, but Arisato-kun's had a complicated life, so please go easy on him."
"I assure you I have no other intentions than to be his friend," Yusuke said earnestly. "I'm concerned for him, nothing else."
That seemed to set Seta-san at ease a little, though his shoulders were still hunched in a way that reminded Yusuke oddly of Akira. "What else can you tell me about his behaviour? It might help me better understand how he behaves in a normal environment, instead of when he's around me."

Yusuke looked to Makoto, who nodded reassuringly. "Ah... well, Arisato-kun followed all of my instructions, but he took no initiative of his own. Most concerningly, when our session was over, he almost walked out of the studio without dressing himself again. I've never seen anything quite like it..."

"He's been acting like that for a while now..." Seta-san frowned, looking between his young confidants. "His circumstances are... unique. You'll understand I can't share any of the details, but I can at least assure you that this state of affairs isn't new... we're doing everything we can to try and help him."
"Is he like that with you as well?" Makoto asked softly, but Yusuke noted that sharp Niijima gaze fixed on Seta-san's face.
A gentle sigh and a sad set to his gaze. "Unfortunately, yes. I haven't been able to get through to him at all. I was assigned to him because I'm the only one with the right training who can understand his circumstances, but I haven't made any progress. I was hoping a new start at Kosei might help him open up, but that hasn't been the case."

Yusuke took in what he saw. Even Makoto seemed relaxed in Seta-san's presence. And although he'd lived under Madarame for years without protest… it wasn't as if he hadn't known about the abuse. He'd known. His heart had screamed itself raw over that knowledge. He'd just chosen to ignore it. But his heart wasn't screaming now; he had to admit it was far from foolproof, but his instincts told him clearly: Souji Seta… was genuinely worried for Arisato-kun.

"If it's any consolation," Yusuke said gently, "I believe that Kosei is a good environment for people like Arisato-kun, who might be a little unusual." He offered Seta-san a smile. "I myself am from some quite unusual circumstances, and while I have few true friends at Kosei, there are many in my classes who welcome my presence and respect my experiences. I have yet to witness any evidence of Arisato-kun being bullied or taken advantage of, although I must admit that the latter is a fear of mine that drove me here today..."

"It seems he at least has one friend," Seta-san said gently, smiling genuinely at Yusuke. "I'm very grateful that you're looking out for him, Kitagawa-kun. If anything happens to him, could you let me know...? Confidentially, of course."

Yusuke looked at Seta-san's face. If he was a liar, he was a very good one - Yusuke wasn't always very good at picking up subtleties like sarcasm or irony, but his artist's eye could see that Seta-san's eyes spoke of the truth. His earnest concern pervaded his entire expression. Then, he looked to Makoto; she looked back and, simply, nodded to him.

"I could," Yusuke said, returning Seta-san's smile. "May I have some method of contacting you?"

--

If he's a liar, he's a very good one. :Y.K.

I'm not ruling out the idea that he could be abusing Arisato-kun. :Y.K.

But I would be very surprised. :Y.K.

A.K.: Right.

A.K.: I trust your judgement.

I appreciate your confidence. :Y.K.

Have you heard anything from Futaba-chan? :Y.K.

A.K.: Yeah.

A.K.: Let's meet up and talk.

Chapter Text

It had been too long since Souji had found time to ring home.

Despite only having one charge right now, the fact that said charge needed to be directed on everything from getting up in the morning and eating his breakfast to remembering to go to the bathroom on time was… well, it took up a lot of his day. Souji was sure he'd find it rewarding eventually - often with cases like this, persistence was one of the most important factors. You had to gain the child's trust; prove yourself as a steady presence, and if nothing else, you'd start to learn more about how it was they came to be this way.

That didn't mean it wasn't exhausting in the meantime… But! Minato was at study group tonight. For a few hours, Souji wouldn't have to send out text reminders at regular intervals, and he wouldn't have to meticulously record every response (or lack thereof) in Minato's casebook either. So, for most of those few hours, he'd been ringing around.

Nanako first, of course. Her 12th birthday wasn't long ago, and while Souji had made time to ring her on the day of, it had been in the morning. Chie and Yosuke had taken her out for a day trip to the zoo after that, and Souji wanted to hear about it. He couldn't help but smile as she enthusiastically filled his ear with which sorts of animals she'd seen and all the silly antics that Auntie Chie and Uncle Yosuke had gotten up to for her amusement. School was going well for her, too - she was starting middle school next year… but it sounded like she was making plenty of friends her own age now, and that Kanji and Yukiko were helping ensure she didn't have to do so much housework that her homework suffered. So good news, all in all.

Next had been Yosuke. Back when Souji first moved away, it'd surprised him when Yosuke had decided to stay in Inaba rather than travel to Tokyo with him; after all, Yosuke was a self-professed city boy. But they weren't exactly legally married, which meant Souji's work wouldn't pay for both of their accommodation, and Souji had to admit having two people here would have been a bit of a squeeze. And he appreciated Yosuke staying back to look after Nanako for him, too. They hadn't talked about that tonight, though - they'd talked about what had been on TV that week, and how work was going for each of them, and how much they missed each other. Souji promised to call back once Arisato-kun was in bed, too. You know. (Yosuke didn't. And Souji took great delight in explaining.)

... but , he had other people to phone first. His finger hovered over the contact for his parents' house phone, but… well. They'd probably not even be home. He hadn't phoned them for nearly a year now. He wondered if they'd even noticed his absence.

...He didn't want to dwell on that, though. He could think of someone else he needed to phone, anyway - one of his best friends, yes, but also the only other person with a specific and professional vested interest in Minato's welfare. They'd definitely want to hear the good news.

"Naoto-kun?"
"Hello?"
"It's Souji."
"Good evening, Souji-kun. Is something the matter?"
"Does there need to be?"
"Haha, no. Just an intuition."

Souji smiled to himself, leaning back in his armchair as the gentle haze of streetlights from down below filtered through his curtains. Naoto-kun was just as astute as ever. He'd be worried if they weren't, really. They'd always been bad at separating work from the rest of their life - and while that was usually a negative trait, it'd saved Souji's skin a few times over the years.

"You're not still at work, are you?"
"No, I'm at home. We just finished dinner."
"Ah, good. I didn't want to interrupt. I did want to tell you about something, though."
"After your answer to my earlier question," Naoto said, but Souji could tell they were smirking, "it better be good news."

"It actually is good news," Souji grinned - settling deeper into his chair, shirt riding up and chin tucked into his chest. "I had some visitors today. A couple of kids from Kosei and, ahh… Shujin, I think? Our little mystery man has made some friends, if you can believe it."
"That's very good news," Naoto said, their voice cheery over the faintly crackling line. "I'm surprised he managed to do so, though. Is he still the same?"
"Same as ever…" Souji sighed - half-exasperated, half-fond. "But these kids seemed to understand. They'd actually come to see me because they were worried about him."
"It's good to know kids can still be so earnest," Naoto said. "Do you think they'll be good for him?"

Souji was glad to have Naoto alongside him on this. It had been a complete mystery when a boy approximately in his late teen years had appeared, entirely nude and apparently out of nowhere, in a field on the outskirts of the town of Iwatodai. He'd been of unknown name for a number of weeks, especially due to his odd behaviour; he seemed reluctant to do anything of his own accord, only responding to clear commands from others. He was assumed to be simple and bundled into the care system - until, that was, the unusual case had made its way far enough the police chain that the Detective Prince, Naoto Shirogane, had caught wind of it.

Recognising the potential for the case to be related to… well, cognitive psience , as the modern term was, Naoto had stepped in and taken over the investigation related to where the boy had been before he was found in that field. Within a year, Naoto identified the boy's real name: he was named Minato Arisato, and his strange reappearance was related to a cognitive psience event. But he was an orphan, which meant even if he was removed from the care system, he'd need caring for elsehow than family… which was where Souji came in, by now a trained and qualified social worker with a speciality in difficult children. Who better to be the boy's guardian than someone both trained in the care of oddly-behaving children, and with experience of the unusual world of Personas?

But, for all he seemed perfect for the job, it had been another year now and Souji still hadn't been able to make a breakthrough with Minato. Souji had managed to determine that Minato was, in fact, of average intelligence, if not slightly gifted; his behavioural issues were separate from his academic capabilities. They'd manage to learn that he'd started his second year at high school before he disappeared, too - but never finished it. And yet several schools later, Minato had still yet to graduate the second year.

Souji might long have given up - as ever, were it not for the support of his friends. Naoto's support in particular meant a lot to him: with many of the details being classified, they knew far more about the situation than he did. But if the eminent detective, the cleverest person Souji knew, had faith in his ability to help Minato… then Souji knew not to give up hope.

"Yeah," Souji smiled. "I think they'll be good for him. They seemed like good kids. Kitagawa in particular seemed very invested in making sure--"
"Wait," Naoto interrupted. "Was Kitagawa the Kosei student?" The change in Naoto's tone from friendly discussion to detective interrogation almost gave Souji whiplash, and even after having been friends with them for all these years, the hairs on the back of his neck still stood up in anticipation of the relentless scrutinisation to come.
"...yeah, he was," Souji said cautiously. "Why?"
"What's his name? His full name?"
"What's this about, Naoto-kun?"
"The name, please."
Souji sighed, but Naoto sounded so serious. "Yusuke Kitagawa."
"You said the other one was from Shujin," Naoto demanded, without pausing for breath. "Who?"
"Uh, a-a girl. The Shujin uniform is black and red plaid, right?"
"Yes , Souji-kun. What was her name ?"
"Niijima… Mako? Makoto? I-- I think. I only met them for half an hour, Naoto-kun. You can't expect me to remember everything."

Naoto sighed.

"Wh-- What ? Is something wrong with them?"
"No… not per se," Naoto relented. "But I can't discuss it with a civilian. They're… known to me, yes, but my honest assessment is that they have good hearts. Just be careful."
"Careful?" Souji repeated, deadpan.
"Yes," Naoto said, ignoring Souji's half-joke. "Careful."
"I thought you knew me better than that," Souji teased, letting a little smile find its way back onto his face.
"I mean it." But Naoto sighed again. "Just don't expect me to come and bail you out if they end up getting you into trouble."
"I'd ask how you think kids would do that, but I remember what we were like at their age," Souji smirked.
Naoto was grinning, too; Souji could tell. "Exactly. But you're a good guardian for Arisato-san. Even if Kitagawa and Niijima do become a problem, I'm sure you'll know how to protect him."

"I appreciate your faith," Souji said; and it came out sounding a little sardonic, but he meant it. He really did.
Naoto seemed to understand - just like always. "Then you'll be glad to know it isn't even close to wavering."

"Thank you, Naoto-kun. Now…" Souji glanced over at the wall clock. "I should probably call my husband back. I think he'll be wondering where I've got to."
"That's my cue to leave, then."
"Arisato-kun's at study group tonight and the teacher already agreed to walk him back to his dorm, so I only have to take care of his bedtime routine. Until then--"
"I don't want to hear it, Seta."
Souji laughed. "Fine, fine! I'll talk to you later, then."
"Yes. Bye."
"So cold! See you," Souji laughed, just before Naoto cut the line off.

Well… that conversation had certainly given him something to think about. Known to Naoto, were they? He'd have to keep an eye on them... and have a think about why a high-ranking police detective could possibly have cause to know two apparently random high school students, from half way across the country, by name.

...and he'd think about it after he got done phoning Yosuke back.

Chapter Text

Akira wasn't sure if it was right of him to enjoy days like this. They were here to do a job, after all. They'd all learned very quickly after the incident with the out-of-hand Medjed members that being a Phantom Thief really wasn't a game, and it wasn't something they could do lightly. But still… seeing all his friends crammed into his little attic hideout like this, chatting and smiling and working together… it was difficult not to wish it could go on forever.

"Is everyone here?" Morgana interrupted Akira's thoughts, hopping up onto the table.
Yusuke stood up, being the tallest, and glanced around the little attic in a quick headcount. "It seems so," he nodded, then took his place back at the table. "Shall we begin, then?"
"Yeah." Morgana's tail curled neatly around their feet. "We wanted to hear about your findings regarding Arisato-san. We'll start with you and Makoto-chan, then hear from Futaba-chan, okay?"

"Of course," Yusuke nodded. "Very well, then - Makoto-chan?"
Makoto nodded, sitting up straighter. "We visited Seta-san in his apartment, where he conducts his duties as a state-employed social worker. We spoke with him for around an hour. He was hospitable and kind during our interactions and, in my opinion, professional; he didn't reveal any personal information about Arisato-kun that we couldn't easily have gleaned through other methods. My intuition is that he has no ill-will towards Arisato-kun, and my observations regarding Seta-san's behaviour during our visit corroborate that." She looked to Yusuke.
"...I agree with Makoto-chan, although I did make one further observation. Seta-san's apartment was filled with various photographs of himself with family and friends his own age, as well as what appeared to be clients from his social work career. However, I couldn't see Arisato-kun in any of the photographs. It could simply be that Arisato-kun is a very new client of his, but it seemed strange to me otherwise."

Akira pushed his glasses up his nose. "What's your honest assessment, then?"
"Honestly?" Makoto tucked her hair behind her ear. "It'd surprise me if he turned out to be abusing Arisato-kun, but I can't really rule it out either…"
"I feel the same," Yusuke added, casting his gaze down to rest on his hands where they set in his lap. "My instincts tell me he has Arisato-kun's best interests at heart, and yet I could not find any evidence that conclusively disproves our initial suspicions. We, of all people, know that signs of abuse can be far from obvious. I suggest we pursue other means of determining the truth."

"Right…" Morgana's little head swivelled to regard Futaba. "Futaba-chan, how are things on your front?"
"Awful," Futaba said immediately, flopping forwards with her arms on the table. "I didn't know it was even possible to have such a tiny digital footprint in this day and age! This dude is like a ghost! Inari said he'd seen him with a smartphone but the thing's a dead end… it's not connected to anything but basic telephone services, so I can't get any information off it at all, especially remotely. And he hasn't got any social media accounts, either, so it's not like I can snoop that way…"
Ann frowned. "Nothing at all?"
"Nope." Futaba sighed, perhaps a little dramatically, but… well, things did sound fairly bleak. "I looked into his school attendance records at Kosei and everything. It doesn't even look like he transferred from anywhere. They placed him in Inari's class by making him do an aptitude test…"
"Did he do well on it?" Yusuke asked, perking up.
"Y-- It doesn't matter, Inari! That's not what we were looking for!" Futaba's little hands smacked the table lightly and even so, Akira caught Ryuji out of the corner of his eye, flinching. A gentle hand on his knee seemed to calm him easily enough.

"So…" Ryuji rubbed the back of his neck. "No offence, but if Makoto an' Yusuke didn't learn much from their visit, and Futaba's not learned anything about him either, then… what do we know about this guy?"
"Not much," Makoto admitted. "Not about either of them."
"We can't exactly gain access to Arisato-kun's Palace without his Keywords, but we haven't tried Seta-san yet," Morgana suggested, thoughtfully. "The chances of both of them having a Palace are… well, they're there, but chances are we can find Seta-san's Shadow in Mementos somewhere and ask it a few questions. How about it?"
Makoto folded her arms. "We have to be careful of using the Meta-Nav to solve all our problems for us… but we can't just leave Arisato-kun be, either."
"I think it'll be fine," Ann said, leaning forward. "We're just checking, right? It's not like we're gonna force a Change of Heart on Seta-san or anything. Not unless he needs one."
"We've followed up on smaller things related to Phan-Site requests," Yusuke pointed out. "As you say, we cannot simply leave Arisato-kun to his fate. If tracking down Seta-san's Shadow will help us at least know where to look for further information on Arisato-kun's distortions, then I cannot imagine why we wouldn't pursue it."

"Well…" Makoto sighed. "Remember… we still don't know what Akechi-kun is up to, other than that he's planning something…"

Akira sat up a little straighter. He felt dour silence descend on the group, as well. Akechi was a sensitive topic - they'd known for months now that the detective was lying to them, and that he, too, was a Metaverse user. To what end, however, they had been unable to determine…

"I would have expected him to have made his move by now," Makoto continued. "We must move with caution. Assuming it was him who's been trying to set us up, anything we do that could be brought into the public eye is dangerous in more ways than the obvious. I… agree that pursuing Seta-san's Shadow for an interrogation seems like our best option here, and I'm not using my veto this time, but I want us all to remember that we can't just blindly charge ahead with things like this…"

Akira decided he should say something. "She's right," he nodded. "We can't be complacent or flippant. Either we're the Phantom Thieves of Justice or we're not."
Ryuji heaved a sigh. "Yeah, I get it. Don't worry. I know I can be kinda a goof-off sometimes, but Akechi's makin' me nervous too… Makoto's right, he shoulda made a move by now. The fact he hasn't is weirdin' me out. We gotta be serious about this shit from now on."

The other Phantom Thieves murmured their agreements. Joker raised his hand briefly to catch their attention - "So are there any objections to searching for Seta-san's Shadow in Mementos to interrogate him?"
A lot of heads shaking. Akira nodded. "Alright. It's decided, then."
"We should go tomorrow," Morgana suggested. "That way we have time to prepare. Even if we don't find Seta-san, we should make the most of our time down there."

Talk turned to the other targets that they'd been researching for Mementos trips, but Akira couldn't concentrate. Something about this case seemed strange to him. Given they'd just been talking about ensuring Akechi didn't snare them in a trap of some sort… could it be that Joker's Third Eye was trying to tell Akira something he hadn't noticed? Or was there something else about this that was strange?

He sighed softly, twirling his hair out of his eyes. He didn't have the head for mysteries that Makoto or… or Akechi had. He supposed they'd have to find out if this was a trap by springing it. Not the most elegant of methodologies, he had to admit, but at least they were going in cautiously. He was sure Akechi would admonish him for it, with that TV smile on his face all the while. I didn't know you could be so reckless, Kurusu-kun , or somesuch.

"Hey, what you smilin' about?" Ryuji's voice broke his train of thought.
Akira gaped for a moment. "...nothing much," he said, pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. "We're going to Mementos tomorrow, then?"
"Yeah. Makoto said she's gonna make a list if you send her the deets, but you were spacin' out." Ryuji grinned at him. "You daydreamin' about one of those girls you're seeing?"
"Something like that," Akira shrugged, self-conscious now.

"If we're done," Morgana said mercifully, "then should we get takeaway or something? You guys still owe me fatty tuna!"
"Mona-chan, will you ever let that go?" Futaba rest her chin on her hand, grinning.
Morgana groomed their paw. "A gentleman thief never gives up on such a fair bounty."

Akira wasn't sure if it was right of him to enjoy days like this. His friends chattered and laughed; the waning sunlight filtered through his window. And while his heart was light, his mind was heavy with thoughts. Thoughts about Arisato-kun, Seta-san, Akechi-kun… and about why he couldn't shake the feeling that there was something important about all of this that he was missing.

Chapter Text

Makoto Niijima enjoyed her bedtime routine. She used to find it boring - a tedious reminder that she'd have to redo her makeup in the morning; that this was all to please others. But her days had been so strange recently. Risking her life in the Metaverse, changing the hearts of evil men, helping Akira to ensure their diverse group of Phantom Thieves didn't implode due to simple misunderstandings... it was hard, satisfying work. So the process of getting ready for bed suddenly became an opportunity for relaxation; to refresh herself before the next day's surprises.

Tonight, however, it seemed like the surprises wouldn't wait.

It was around midnight. She'd already showered and prepared her bag for tomorrow. Her homework was all ready to be turned in; her school uniform was laid out neatly for her, but so were her workout clothes. Since becoming Queen, she'd taken to jogging in the morning, and lifting weights, too. The apartment building she lived in with her sister had a gym. She'd never used it before becoming a Phantom Thief.

The spirit of rebellion was good for her, wasn't it?

She was about to tuck herself into bed when she heard the doorbell. She checked the time. Who the hell could be visiting at eight minutes to midnight?

Probably a cold-caller of some kind... right? Disregarding it, she began to climb into bed. Only… the doorbell rang again. And again. Someone was frantically hammering the button, again and again…

Hey, is anyone awake? :M.N

A.K.: Morgana said I have to say no.

R.S.: Yeah... This homework ain't happenin'. S'up?

Our doorbell just rang. :M.N

Several times. :M.N

R.S.: The fuck?

I know. :M.N

We never get visitors, let alone this late... :M.N.

Makoto heard her sister move towards the front door. The doorbell rang yet again, and this time there was thumping, too. Whoever was on the other side was desperate to be seen, but why? Was this someone Sis had angered at work?

Makoto steadied her hand against the bottom of the door and carefully slid it open, just enough that she could peer at the front door. Sis was checking the peephole…

"Akechi-kun?!"

It's Akechi-kun. :M.N

I don't know why. :M.N

Sis slipped the door open just a crack, the chain still on. "What-- Akechi-kun! Please tell me that's make-up. "
There was an unsettling rasping noise. It took Makoto a moment to realise it was supposed to be a laugh. She couldn't see Akechi, but... was he sick?
"Akechi! What--" Sis silently glanced about the corridor, then unhooked the chain and grabbed for Akechi. " Get inside! "

Sis yanked him in, then quickly closed the door behind him. Makoto slid her bedroom door shut silently while Sis still had her back turned. Hopefully, Sis was stood between Akechi and his view of Makoto's bedroom door.

She heard Sis bolt the front door, then set the chain. "Did anyone see you coming here?!"
"No... I made quite certain of that." Akechi's voice was hoarse and weak. Makoto's heart hammered in her ears. What was going on?

I think he's hurt… :M.N

A.K.: Hurt how?

I don't know. I'll try and see. :M.N

Sis doesn't know I'm awake. :M.N

A.K.: Right.

A.K.: Do what you think is best.

Makoto listened carefully as both sets of footsteps moved into the main apartment space. She moved across her floor to slip the other side of her door open. She couldn't see them, but it was easier to hear like this.

"Akechi! Get down from there!"
"I need to check for surveillance," Makoto heard him croak.
"It's all taken care of," Sis said firmly. "Get down from the sofa."
"Why were you checking for surveillance?"
"I have competitors. Rivals. And there are underhanded people on the defence, as well. You know this." There was a pause. Makoto strained to hear. "Why are you here?"
"I'm... sorry, Sae-san... I wouldn't have bothered you if I had anywhere else I could turn..."
"Answer the question."
"I'm..." He sighed audibly, and it sounded strained, desperate. "I desperately wish to tell you, Sae-san, but it's a very long story. Might I trouble you for a drink first?"
Sis was quiet. "Fine," she said. "But I'm cleaning your wounds first. I don't want you to bleed on the carpet."

Sis says he's bleeding. I'm going to offer help. :M.N

She pulled her dressing gown on, pocketed her phone, and walked through.

Akechi looked awful. His clothes were tattered, his face filthy. There were twigs in his tangled hair. His left eye was swollen shut, the most obvious of his bruises consuming most of the left half of his face; his tie was missing, and Makoto spied angry purple ligature marks criss-crossing his neck. His wild gaze fixed onto hers.

"Niijima-chan..."
"Makoto, go back to your room."
"No, Sis... I want to help," Makoto insisted, clutching her hands neatly in front of herself. "I'm good at first aid..."
"Makoto." Sis drew herself up to her full height. Makoto kept her back straight, envisioning her Queen clothes as she did so. Her sister's voice was stern. "Go back where it's safe. I don't know what this is about yet, and you aren't getting tangled in his mess."
"Sis," Makoto said, mirroring her sister's steel-cold mannerisms, "remember that time I scraped my knee and you didn't know how to clean it properly, so it got infected and I nearly ended up in the hospital? Let me help ."
"Ahaha…" Akechi put his hand through his tangled fringe, tugging it free roughly when it got caught in the knots. "Is that true, Sae-san?"

Both sisters turned on him. " Shut up. "
"Oh… right." Both hands raised, but was that genuine fear that Makoto spied in his eyes…? He didn't make eye contact with either of them, holding himself small. "M-My apologies."

Makoto glanced to Sis, then went to fetch the first aid kit from the bathroom. She heard Sis tell Akechi to sit there and don't move , then heard clattering in the kitchen. As Makoto moved back through, it became clear Sis was preparing coffee. Akechi was sat in the middle of the living room on one of the dining table chairs, his hands neatly placed in his lap. He was staring at his knees, a blank expression on his face. The way Sis had set it up made it seem like she was preparing to interrogate him... and maybe she was.

Makoto approached Akechi, soft-footed. "Hey."
He startled nonetheless, looking up at her with that fearful gaze. "Oh… Niijima-chan. It's you," he said, quietly. His voice sounded awful. "Sorry. I don't know who else it would be… and I call myself a detective, haha--" he was interrupted by a  horrible  hacking noise that welled up from his bruised throat. He almost fell out of his chair; Makoto quickly set the first aid kit down and steadied him with both hands.

"Akechi-kun, don't talk. Your throat is… really badly bruised. Let me get you some ice chips… and… a whiteboard to write on." Makoto checked Akechi was steady in his chair, then turned to her sister. "Sis, can you make his coffee iced?"
"It's November, Makoto," Sis frowned, but she paused.
Makoto's fists curled, but she forced a pleasant smile. "His throat is badly swollen, and heat will make it worse. If it swells too badly, he will stop breathing and die Please make his coffee iced."
"..." Sis frowned, but went for the freezer all the same.

Makoto nodded, then trotted to her bedroom to fetch her dry-erase whiteboard. Sis was out of the freezer by the time she returned, meaning she could fetch a cup of ice chips and bring both items to Akechi. He was shaking; whether from shock or from cold wasn't clear. The swelling in his airway was Makoto's chief concern right now anyway, so she handed him the ice chips anyway.

She shook her head. He was an utter mess. How had she ever viewed him as a threat?

"Suck on the ice chips and use the whiteboard to answer my questions," she said calmly. "When were you injured like this?"
「Which set of injuries?」
Makoto glanced up from the first aid kit to read his answer, then sighed. "Write down each set as best you can remember it."
He nodded, with a semblance of that smile that Makoto hated when she saw it in his TV interviews. Then he started writing.

「Bruises on neck - some days old」
「Black eye - some hours ago」
「Cuts from brambles - all this week」
「Other bruises - all this week」
「Haven't eaten properly since last week」
「Haven't eaten at all since yesterday」
「Haven't slept since yesterday」

The longer Akechi kept writing for, the deeper Makoto's frown got. She cracked an ice pack to go on his black eye - hopefully the bone underneath hadn't been broken, although she wasn't sure there was anything they'd be able to do about that without taking him to a hospital. She fetched him a blanket after that, in the hopes he'd stop shivering and that she could work on cleaning his cuts a little better. He took it without a word, and without eye contact.

Sis brought the coffee over while Makoto was cleaning actual mud out of some of the bramble cuts on Akechi's legs. It brought a smile to her face, though, to see that Sis had made Akechi's iced… like Makoto had asked her to. It had been a long time since Sis had done anything Makoto suggested.

"So," Sis began, sitting cross-legged on the sofa. If it weren't for the fact she was wearing pinstripe pyjamas and a dressing gown instead of a work suit, Makoto would have thought she was sitting down to interview a witness… or perhaps a perpetrator.

"Who's been chasing you? Tell me the truth."
「Masayoshi Shido」
「His henchmen, anyway」
"Masayoshi Shido…?" Sis frowned deeply. "What on earth does he have to do with you?"
「This is a long story」
「You might not believe all of it」


Sis inclined her head. "We've got all night, Akechi-kun." She gestured. "Start writing."

Chapter Text

Makoto Niijima was having an interesting evening.

For months now, she'd been aware of Goro Akechi as a threat. She wasn't there for his now-infamous "pancake mistake", but she trusted her teammates, and they had singularly informed her that he was definitely a Metaverse user and, furthermore, their current prime suspect for the mental shutdowns case. After their summer encounter with him at the train station, she at least had the former confirmed for herself - perhaps Akechi's ego suggested otherwise, but she found it unlikely that even the best of detectives would come up with something so accurate merely from simple speculation. And she'd had her own share of run-ins with him since then, too. They shared a cram school; she had quickly become the prime target for his saccharine charm and barbed questions. He had become one of the many irritating sources of pressure in her life.

So…

It was interesting to see him sat in her living room, shoulders hunched, hair messy, clothes tattered and muddy, flinching with the eye that wasn't bruised shut as she dug grit and heavens knew what else out of a gash in his leg.

She didn't think she'd ever seen him so vulnerable before. And her sister hadn't even started the interrogation yet.

He took a long sip of his iced coffee as she finally started applying the butterfly stitches. It was an old wound, but it had never scabbed properly, so she assumed it was okay to do this…

"Fine, I'll begin with a question," Sis suddenly announced. Makoto glanced over; Sis had fetched a notebook, although not her work one. "Why are you in this state, Akechi? Answer truthfully."
Drywipe pen squeaked on plastic as Akechi wrote his answer. Makoto glanced up at it as he held up the whiteboard to show Sis. 「I was attacked」
He lay the whiteboard down, rubbed it out with his sleeve, and wrote something new.「Several times」
"Attacked by who?" Sis's voice was sharp. Makoto wished she could say she'd never heard this tone before. "And why?"
「Various henchmen」
「Why is a bit complicated」
"Henchmen." It sounded like Sis's patience was already evaporated after this singular evasion. "Whose henchmen, Akechi."

Akechi hesitated. He winced as Makoto began cleaning a wound she hadn't worked on yet; Makoto didn't stop.

Eventually, he wrote something. Makoto's heart stopped in her throat as she glanced up at who.

「Masayoshi Shido」

Sis voiced her thoughts for her. "The politician who's running for prime minister?"
Akechi nodded.
She leaned back, her expression contemplative. "It seems far-fetched, but assuming for a moment that you're telling the truth. Why would Masayoshi Shido's henchmen be after you?"

Akechi made an awful noise. It sounded like he was… maybe dying. Makoto's eyes widened and she sat up a little to steady him; but it became clear after a moment that he wasn't dying. The noise she was hearing was his attempt at a laugh . It took all of her decorum not to pull a face.

「Far-fetched」 he wrote. 「Just you wait.」

He erased it and started writing something new. Makoto frowned and shoved the little cup of ice chips at him anew. He blinked at her, briefly; she smiled. "After all, you can't tell us anything if you stop breathing," she said, smooth as silk.

He took one of the ice chips that hadn't completely melted yet, his lips twitching in an awkward smile. Makoto made a mental note to fill the cup up with fresh ice.

「Didn't you ever find it strange that I rose to fame in so short a time?」
「That a department as specialised and high-security as yours」
「Would take on a high schooler as an intern」
「No doubt you've seen my family registry, too」
「That must have raised your suspicions」
"I don't recall anything suspicious at the moment," Sis frowned. She tilted her head. Makoto would be surprised if she'd actually looked at it… but Akechi obviously thought there was something wrong on there. "Remind me," Sis pushed.
「Someone like me shouldn't have a position at your workplace」
「Yet here I am」
「Masayoshi Shido has been paying me to accomplish certain tasks.」
「Not within the police, actually」
「My position in your department is part of my payment.」

"Hold on," Sis said, raising a hand. "What do you mean? Someone like you?"

「Throwaway child」 was the simple declaration. Makoto remembered reading in some gossip magazine someone had left on the train that Goro had been sighted with someone who was potentially his mother, but she'd been pretty sure from the photograph that it was Sis. She wondered if perhaps it wasn't better to let the press believe that, though, if Goro was telling the truth now.

Sis paused for a few moments, processing this information. Then finally nodded. "Continue."

「This is the part that's far-fetched」
"I said to continue."
Akechi nodded, then let out a rattling sigh before beginning, once more, to write.

「Did you know that if someone's desires are strong enough」
「There's another dimension in which they can manifest?」
「It's called the Metaverse.」
「Only certain people can enter it though.」

Makoto almost missed Sis' response for how much she was focussed on controlling her reaction to this. Was Akechi about to implicate her?
"That is far-fetched," Sis said flatly.
「I assure you」
「If I wanted to lie I would have picked something more believable」
"I'll believe you for now. Go on."
「In that dimension, one can take certain actions that affect the real world」
「And the people in it」
「Masayoshi Shido would order me to undertake tasks like this for him」
「And I quit」
Nobody said anything. Akechi added, 「So…」

Makoto paused and looked up at him. He looked… pitiful, to be honest. Dejected and small. The black eye that consumed most of the left half of his face ruined any chance of his usual television charm shining through. But most of all, he looked like… like a kid. Like someone Makoto might have seen at school, although hopefully not in this state. In his day-to-day life, he always seemed like some untouchable celebrity, even when he was sniping at her like a middle schooler in the corridor at cram school. Not here. He finally looked his real age…

...and when he looked his real age, covered in horrific injuries like this, Makoto couldn't find it in her to see a scheming enemy. Ever since Kamoshida had been outed, and especially since she'd joined the Phantom Thieves herself, she'd made a better effort to look out for signs of ongoing abuse among her student body. It was her duty as student council president, she told herself. And looking at Akechi right now… she wanted to help him.

Was this all part of his plan?

Sis sighed harshly. "I hope you don't expect me to be satisfied with that alone," she said. "Why quit now ? Why come to me now ? Something must have changed."
「He sent me after Kunikazu Okumura」
"Okumura," Sis repeated. "Didn't he undergo a Change of Heart not long ago? Was that your doing?"
「Yes」, Akechi wrote simply.

Makoto stared.

Akechi… was taking credit… for her crimes. For the Phantom Thieves' crimes.

Why was he lying now, when telling the truth would no doubt help his case?

She could only think of one realistic reason…

"Then why are you here now ?" Sis pressed, leaning forward in her seat. "Why not as soon as you completed the Change of Heart? Why not before then?"
「I was able to stall him into」
He suddenly erased what he'd written, and started again.
「He didn't order a Change of Heart」
「He ordered me to terminate his Shadow entirely」
「Which causes a mental shutdown」
「But Okumura was different」
「He had a daughter.」
「Until this week I was able to stall Shido into thinking the shutdown would happen later」
「But he finally called my bluff」

"Wait," Sis said, holding up a hand. "Akechi. You do know what you're admitting to here? The mental shutdowns, the Changes of Heart… were the psychotic breakdowns your doing as well?"
「Yes」, he wrote, but Makoto could see his hand was shaking. [ All at Shido's behest ]
"The cases," she practically growled, "that you were helping me to investigate… you were the perpetrator in them, all along ?"
「Yes」 he wrote again. 「I know」「I know」
"The entire investigation," she said, standing up, "was compromised from the start because of you . You knew what you were doing! You willingly lied to me every time--"
" Sis! "

Makoto stood between her sister and the target of her ire, arms spread in both protection and defiance. Behind her, she could hear Akechi's ragged breath as he struggled to hold onto his emotions in his exhausted state. In front of her towered a sister she barely recognised.

"Makoto," Sis said, firm and harsh. "If you interfere, I'll send you back to your room."
"I'm not interfering with anything," Makoto returned, quiet but otherwise matching her sister's tone of voice. "It's gone midnight, Sis! This isn't anything even resembling an official interrogation! Akechi-kun is badly injured and clearly upset. Not to mention you're forgetting that he's my age ."
"Age has nothing to do with this," her sister almost sneered .
"Age has everything to do with it," Makoto snapped. "Even if some aspects of his story seem a little… well, strange… it's clear he's being taken advantage of by someone . He's a vulnerable minor . Why can't you see that?! It's like you're not thinking logically at all !"

To Makoto's disappointment… but not her surprise, her sister didn't seem persuaded. But she did collect her notepad and stalk off towards her bedroom. "I'll deal with both of you in the morning," she intoned. "Make sure he gets a shower. Looking at him is giving me a headache."

Sis' bedroom door slid shut, and there was the sound of the lock turning to keep it in place. Makoto let out a breath she didn't realise she was holding.
"Are you okay, Akechi-kun?"
"Why…" He choked on the word, but repeated it regardless. "Why?"
"Be quiet," she said, kneeling down beside him and passing him the cup of what was now simply ice water. "Just drink this."

It gave her a chance to check her phone. It had been buzzing in the pocket of her dressing gown for a while now, but she hadn't really had a chance to look at it.

A.K.: Is everything OK?

R.S.: Yeah, don't leave us hangin' like that!

R.S.: Makoto?

R.S.: Makooooooo?

R.S.: Dude, seriously, do you think she's OK?

A.K.: I'm sure she's fine.

A.K.: She can handle herself.

A.K.: She'll let us know if she needs help.

R.S.: Right.

R.S.: D'you think we should get dressed just in case?

A.K.: Maybe.

R.S.: Dude, I am TOTALLY down for rescuing Makoto if we have to.

A.K.: She probably won't need our help, though. She's tough.

R.S.: You're such a party-pooper sometimes!

R.S.: Rescuing pretty girls is what bein' a Phantom Thief is all about!

A.T.: What's going on?

A.T.: You guys woke me up with all your rapid-fire messaging…

A.T.: Wait, RESCUING PRETTY GIRLS?

A.T.: Ryuji!

R.S.: What!

R.S.: Admit it! You like to rescue pretty girls too!

A.T.:

A.T.: You got me there…

A.K.: Makoto still hasn't replied.

A.T.: Wait, is Makoto in trouble?

A.K.: Akechi showed up at her apartment unannounced.

A.T.: Shiiiiiit.

A.T.: Any idea why…?

A.K.: She said he was injured, but nothing else yet.

Everything's OK for now. :M.N

Sorry for causing alarm. :M.N

She paused, glancing up at Akechi - the injuries he couldn't possibly have faked… the whiteboard that he'd mixed potential truth with definite lies on. Lies to protect the Phantom Thieves. Lies to protect her .

Something's come up that'll change the plan, though. :M.N

Chapter Text

If Phantom Thief meetings made him feel bad for enjoying his undercover work, then Mementos was worse .

Joker could barely stop grinning as they made their way down the halted escalators and into the depths they'd spent the last several months charting. A part of Joker was fascinated simply by the structure and the processes Mona had described that must have brought it about - a deepening of the public consciousness as it retreated further and further into itself, for purposes unknown… but the rest of him simply appreciated it as a convenient repository for all the people whose desires weren't warped enough to warrant a Palace.

Even if exploring it was a pain in the arse all on its own.

At least they knew the upper levels fairly well by now. In order to get better reception on the Nav, they'd gone down a few levels to start with - the Shadows there barely even troubled them any more. Joker was proud to see how his team had grown over the months.

"Alright, check the Nav again." Mona rest their paw on their hip.
Joker flipped his phone out and turned the screen on, then spoke clearly into it. "Souji Seta."

No candidates found.

"What? Still??" Skull scratched his head. "C'mon, he's gotta be down here somewhere! Everybody is, right??"
"Everyone is supposed to be," Mona shrugged.
"Everyone except the Palace owners, right?" Panther shifted her weight. "But we'd know if he had a Palace… right…?"
"Right," Joker nodded. "Even if we couldn't guess his keywords, the Nav would have picked it up."
Mona shook their head. "I guess all we can do is get looking."

Joker was driving today. Technically, Mona could drive themself , but they preferred to focus on navigating. Queen would have been a better driver, considering she was actually taking lessons in the real world… but she'd had to stay home today to watch over Akechi. He was still injured, and… they still weren't sure what to make of him, so bringing him here had been out of the question in more ways than one. They needed to focus on the task at hand.

He glanced down at his phone on the dashboard. No candidates found, the readout still said. They needed to go deeper…

Much deeper, apparently.

What felt like hours passed as they sliced their way through enemy after enemy, checking corridor after corridor to see if the Nav could pick up on Seta yet. Joker had to admit the places all looked pretty similar to each other, which didn't help with not getting lost… especially without Queen. Oracle had taken the front passenger seat, at least; at least she was better at reading the maps than some of the other members of the party.

"Man, how much further do we gotta go ?" Skull's boots kicked the back of the driver's seat. Joker pulled the seat lever and let the seat drop back; Skull cried out in indignation.

"Quit whining, Skull," Panther sighed. "It'll take however long it takes…"
"We have been at this for quite some time, though," Fox stated. "Are we getting anywhere at all?"
Oracle leaned over to look at Joker's phone. "Still says 'no candidates found'..."
"What the hell…" Panther flopped back dramatically and groaned. "It's been hours . We'll be late for curfew at this rate…"
"I'm sure we'll get results if we just keep looking," Noir said, but Joker could sense the worry in her voice. "As long as we take care to avoid getting caught up in too many more battles on the way… I'm not sure how many more supplies we have left."

"Then," Joker said, turning the steering wheel, "we should be able to access the next floor down by now. Let's try that, and if he's still not there, we'll give in for today."

"Where else could he be ?" Skull whined.
Mona's voice came, thoughtful, through their stereo speakers. "Where else indeed…"

--

"Man, I'm beat!" Skull sprawled out over the back seat, his head falling into Fox's lap. Fox seemed too tired to care. Even Panther and Noir, piled in the middle seat and usually so full of optimism, were beginning to flag.

They were done for today.

"He really isn't down here, is he," Noir sighed.
"Yeah, but he's gotta have a Shadow, right…?" Panther pouted, her elbow leaning on the windowsill. " Everyone does! He can't be different just because , right?"
"Well…" Oracle adjusted her headset. "There is one group of people who don't have Shadows."
"Who's that?" asked Fox, making eye contact with her in the rear view mirror.
"Well… we don't have Shadows, do we?"

"Huh?" Panther tipped her head.

"Right." Mona spoke through the stereo, serious. "You're thinking what I'm thinking, then, Oracle?"
"Yeah… it's the only option, right? He doesn't have a Palace and he's not in Mementos, so either he's creating a Palace right now and we just didn't notice somehow, or…"
"Or what?" Joker cut across, pulling the van up at the next escalator back up.

The Phantom Thieves piled out of the Monabus, and Mona stood before them, arms folded.

"Well," Fox asked, "what is it?"
"I think Seta-san has a Persona," Mona said firmly.

"Wh-- How ?" Skull scratched his head.
"The same way we did," Oracle shrugged. "Probably. We don't know any other Persona users yet, but that doesn't mean they don't exist."
"Does that mean he has the Nav and everything?"
"Maybe," Mona said. "Or maybe he's accessing the Metaverse another way. We still don't know how the black-masked Persona-user is doing it, after all…"
"C'mon," Skull said, "we all know that's Akechi. You can just say it."
"We don't know for sure ," Oracle trilled, "we just know beyond all reasonable doubt!"
"That's like, the same thing, dude."

Joker rubbed his chin. "I think we should retreat for today," he said. "This isn't a good place to wait and discuss things. We should go back to Leblanc and see if we can get Queen on video link."
"Right," Noir nodded. "I think we could use her insight…"
Skull frowned. "What if that creep's listenin' in on her?"
"That 'creep' may be joining our team before long," Fox pointed out.
" Or he might turn out to be a creepy creeper and get slam-dunked into prison by Prosecutor Niijima!" Skull hit back, folding his arms and pouting.
"That's enough." Joker shook his head. "Queen can wear headphones if need be. Let's just get out of here."

--

"He's sleeping right now," Makoto whispered. She angled her webcam so the group could see. Behind where she was sat on the floor, curled up in a little ball on the sofa and clearly fast asleep, was Goro Akechi.

It was the first time Akira had actually seen him since he disappeared from the public eye without so much as a whimper. He found himself covering his mouth… Makoto had described his injuries to them, but actually seeing the ugly bruise marring the celebrity's face was another matter. The adults he was supposed to be able to rely on had done this to him. He'd been punished for doing the right thing.

Arsene spoke into Akira's heart: Pawn or no; this, he did not deserve.

Akira agreed.

"...right." Akira shook his head to clear it. "Is everyone happy to conduct the meeting like this?"
A chorus of yes and sure rang around the attic tabletop; so Akira nodded, and set his phone up at one end of the table so Makoto could see all of them.

"So," Morgana began, "we still weren't able to locate Seta's Shadow, even from inside Mementos. We stayed down there 'til these guys were all exhausted, and even though we looked manually as well as checking the Nav, he wasn't anywhere to be found. I did some thinking while we were looking for reasons why we might not have been able to find him. It's possible he could have been hiding, but even then the Nav would have picked up on it… but then I remembered something important."

Futaba leaned forward. "You remember how when you guys helped me with my Palace, my Shadow transformed into my Persona once I accepted the truth?"
"Yes," Yusuke said, "but what has that got to do with Seta-san?"
"Well, when I got my Persona, my Shadow turned into it, right? So I don't have a Shadow any more, 'cos I've got a Persona instead. If you put my name into the Nav right now, it'll say 'no candidates found' just like it did with Seta."
"Oh, that's why Mona-chan said Persona-users can't have a Palace?" Ann recalled, glancing at Morgana.
"Right," Morgana confirmed.

"So then," Makoto's voice crackled over the connection, "you think Seta-san's a Persona user too, right? Morgana. Does that mean he can't have any distorted cognition?"
"It makes it unlikely," Morgana nodded. "Theoretically, someone with bad intentions could still have a Persona, as long as the bad intentions reflected some sort of truth about their life. But what you guys found out kinda made it seem like Seta-san's life was…"
"It was almost idyllic," Yusuke said. "He seemed to find a lot of value in his job."
"Right," Makoto nodded. "And the way he spoke about Arisato-kun with such concern…"

Silence prevailed.

Akira broke it. "Seta-san isn't responsible for Arisato-kun's distorted cognition," was all he said. It was phrased like a decision; the nods from around the table - and on the little phone screen - made it unanimous.
"Right." Morgana looked at Akira. "So… we need to look elsewhere."

Chapter Text

It was a quiet night at the Niijima household.

Makoto glanced over from where she perched at the dining room table to the pile of blankets on the sofa. Somewhere under it was Goro Akechi. She'd had to be diligent in caring for him - even going so far as fighting with her sister over bringing a doctor in to look at his leg. Even Makoto herself didn't trust anyone with Akechi but the Phantom Thieves' go-to medic, Tae Takemi; but Sis, paranoid as she was, didn't want anyone in the apartment at all if it meant her "star witness" might escape or die. It was a small miracle that Makoto managed to win her over.

And then Akechi's wound was infected. Takemi had said if Makoto had left it much longer, he would have lost the leg. Or worse. So Makoto was vindicated in the end; she didn't miss Sis' look of mixed indignation and regret.

That night, with his fever rapidly encroaching on his consciousness, Akechi hadn't been in much of a state to answer any further questions from Sis. Takemi had left him with antibiotics, and some other drugs to bring down his fever if it went too high. Makoto had stayed home since then to make sure nothing strange happened between Akechi and Sis, but… all that had happened was Akechi convalescing on the sofa. His fever had broken this afternoon; she wished she'd gone to Mementos with the others. At least this way she could keep tensions between him and Sis low.

Sis had been short with her ever since Takemi had confirmed Makoto's suspicions, and Makoto was glad that Sis had gone to bed early tonight. No doubt she was still scheming on how to make Makoto feel awful about having been right… no, no. That wasn't fair. But she still doubted her sister's ability to see the situation clearly.

Whether Sis saw it or not, Akechi right now was in a really sorry state. Regardless of his crimes… it was clear he needed help of some kind.

As if on cue, Akechi began to stir.

Ugly little noises welled up from his bruised throat. The swelling had gone down somewhat, by now; he could speak, but the grunts and whines that emanated from his throat as he slept still had an eerie ring to them… he sounded like a monster out of a film.

The good side of his face twitched; his dishevelled hair fell over his face. (At least it was clean now, if somewhat tangled from the lack of conditioner.) The scratchy whimpering grew louder, more urgent. Makoto frowned, moving over. This wasn't the first nightmare he'd had since he got here… just what was he dreaming about?

All of a sudden, his eyes snapped open. Utter terror seized his expression, unlike anything Makoto had seen from him before, even in his prior nightmares. Thinking quickly, Makoto clapped both hands over his mouth - just in time - before he screamed .

" Akechi! " she hissed, clamping her hands down firmer as his terror turned to panic. "Akechi, it's me! You're fine. Be quiet."

His eyes locked on hers; then finally, the tension ebbed away from his face. She quietly removed her hands, idly wiping them off on her shirt. He was still breathing hard through his damaged throat as he stared wildly about the room.

"Is, ah…" His voice was more raw than it had been. Understandably, considering the screaming. "Is Sae-san…?"
"She's asleep," Makoto supplied.
"Oh." Akechi relaxed. "Good."

Silence prevailed as he sat up properly, reaching for the glass of water that was kept on the coffee table next to his makeshift bed. He sipped at it. Makoto frowned deeper.

"Did you have a fever dream?" she eventually asked.
He regarded her. "I don't have a fever any more," he said simply.
"...you obviously had a bad dream about something," she pressed. "Or is it normal for you to wake up screaming?"
"Quite normal," Akechi said, suddenly deadpan. His dead-eyed TV smile graced his face.
"That isn't normal , Akechi-kun," she sighed. She tried to sound annoyed with his attitude, but honestly, she just felt sorry for him. "Maybe we could talk to Takemi-san about a sleep aid…?"
"I don't need a sleep aid." He rolled his eyes. "I just need your cooperation."
"What?" She recoiled a little. "Akechi-kun, what are you talking about?"

He sighed; a nasty, rattling sound. Ran his hand back through his tangled hair. Even with the TV smile a moment ago, there was something so different about his mannerisms that it was almost throwing Makoto off. This wasn't the confident boy who sneered at her across the cram school corridors; neither was it the sad pile of injuries that had begged sanctuary from her sister. This was…

"...they aren't dreams," he said. "They're prophecies."

"What," Makoto said.

"I know I sound crazy," he said, and his gaze was on hers so suddenly and so piercingly that she felt her shoulders draw up defensively. "But I mean it. My recent cases may be a sham, but my grades at school aren't. I'm intelligent enough to be able to notice when the things I see in these nightmares start occuring in the real world."
"Wait," she said, holding one hand up. "...calm down, Akechi-kun. Start from the beginning. When did you begin having these… prophecies?"

Akechi sighed, then spoke slowly, as if explaining to a simpleton. Makoto tried not to let him get her frustrations up. "I began having these nightmares at the beginning of the school year. At first they involved seemingly unrelated scenes from around the city. In each, the scene would suddenly be overshadowed by a creature of unfathomable horror. Then, they got more specific. I dreamt that something would occur at Shujin shortly before the first Change of Heart," he explained. "Only in the dream, the creature destroyed the school."

"...is this what lead you to follow the Phantom Thief case?" Makoto frowned, watching Akechi's expression carefully.
"Perhaps." He shrugged. "Anyway. Eventually, I realised the visions were all related to things taking place in the Metaverse. Things I could affect. And so I wondered… was this nightmarish creature simply a manifestation of my own childish hesitation to carry out my plans?"
"Get back on topic, Akechi," Makoto said, her voice a little harsher than she meant it to be.
He gave a rasping laugh. "You sound just like Sae-san…"
Makoto decided not to grace that with an answer, tilting her chin up and regarding him coldly.
"...Well, that's when it started hurting me! If it grabbed me in the dream, I'd wake up with claw marks or bruises. I was pretty sure it was going to kill me before I could reach my goal anyway…"
"Your goal ?" Makoto pressed.
Akechi shrugged. "It doesn't matter," he said airily. "What matters is that my next dream was of the creature biting off the head of Okumura's Shadow before I could shoot him before setting after me, I decided it was time to try and change the future."

Makoto sighed. "I should have known the reason you gave Sis wasn't true. Unless you're lying now, of course."
"Oh, yes," Akechi rasped, sarcastic. "I'd definitely tell you a lie that makes me look schizophrenic. That really helps my case."
"Of course. You'd pick a more egotistical lie," she shot back. "You're a really rude person underneath it all… but that's besides the point. Even if I believe you, what about the nightmare you had just now? What did that show you?"

Akechi paused, for a moment. His broken smirk faultered; he looked genuinely haunted. Averting his gaze, he murmured something. "The end of the world."

Makoto squinted, trying to be skeptical. Maybe Akechi was simply an excellent liar, but…

"...fine, assuming I believe you, how do you prevent it this time?"
"I'm not sure," Akechi said, his voice less confident this time. Less smarmy. It made it easier for Makoto to listen to without wanting to verbally wipe the misplaced grin off his face. "Most of what I could see was the creature. It's still hunting me, I think. Apparently almost dying in an effort to escape Shido wasn't enough to sate it," he added, the biting sarcasm making its return.

"Well," Makoto said. "That's wonderful. The end of the world, and we have no idea how to avert it."

"I have one idea," Akechi admitted. His voice was small, though.
"Not your favourite?" Makoto observed.
"No," Akechi said, giving that flaky laugh. "I don't think it'll be yours, either."
Makoto sighed. "Let's hear it."

Akechi regarded her. Seriously. No smirk; no sarcasm.

"I want to join the Phantom Thieves."

Chapter Text

He'd never dreamed that this would actually work out.

But somehow, Goro Akechi found himself sat in the Phantom Thieves' attic. Wearing thrifted clothes and fidgetting with a burner phone, he glanced around the room at each member in turn. Even the cat. They were all waiting for him to say something.

"Well… ah…"

His voice was a little better than it had been, at least.

"...hello, everyone. It's been quite a turn of events, hasn't it?"

--

It wasn't even a case of deceiving anyone this time, but somehow, telling the truth had turned out to be harder than telling lies ever was.

You could make lies that someone wanted to hear. You could tailor them so they'd be easy to swallow. You could make sure there were no holes in them; no parts that didn't make sense. You could ensure they fit the person's expectations of you, and that you would come out of the encounter looking better, not worse.

Telling Sae Niijima that he was, in fact, the very criminal she'd been seeking for months was maybe the hardest thing he'd ever had to do.

But it was difficult to know where to turn when your corrupt father seemed to own most of the government already and you didn't have any friends. He'd considered going to Leblanc for a last cup of coffee, but the place would hardly afford him any protection - as absurd as it was, he didn't want to die yet. Not until Shido was brought to justice. Or, if not justice, at least until the smug idiot was made to feel even one consequence for some of the boundless misery he'd imparted into Akechi's life.

Akechi had spent three days settling on going to Sae Niijima, and a further four trying to slip the people trailing him for long enough to actually go there without being seen. Maybe someone who hadn't worked quite as closely with his father wouldn't have been able to do that, but Akechi could. The working patterns of Shido's "tracker dogs" was one of the first things he'd learned after beginning to work for him - in anticipation of this exact scenario, in fact. What he hadn't anticipated that most of his challenges would lie beyond the Niijimas' door.

Makoto had been an unexpected ally; yet a welcome one. He'd gambled in lying to cover up her involvement in the Phantom Thieves, but it had paid off beautifully. The younger Niijima not only heard him out, she believed the things he said as well. Sae had been more difficult - considering she had a Palace and everything, that wasn't so surprising. Makoto couldn't say too much without incriminating herself, and that was something they both wanted to avoid; after all, if the only lie Akechi had told while essentially turning himself in were to crumble, then any validity to the rest of what he'd said would, too.

But Makoto's allegiance was more important, at the end of the day.

Even if Sae didn't believe him… then perhaps the Phantom Thieves could still help.

As it happened, it took a few days, but he was able to talk Sae around. The consistency of his story, the level of detail - she was a skilled prosecutor, after all. As fantastical as the story seemed, she'd said, she could tell when someone was lying; and if nothing else, Akechi believed what he was saying. Nothing he'd said contradicted the facts Sae had, either. It was, as strange as that might seem, believable.

She'd agreed to protect him as best she could. He gave her the list of everyone he knew in the prosecutor's office who was compromised, to build her trust; she used it to have him transported, safely, to somewhere that actually had space for him to sleep. Leblanc. He'd been certain to keep Shido off the trail of the place. He'd never been sure why he felt compelled to do so, to begin with, but now it was clear: it made a perfect bolthole. No wonder Kurusu had managed to hide there for so long.

He had Sae-san on side. He had Niijima-chan on side. He had Kurusu on side, somehow; and Sakura-san, too (even if Akechi knew that his support was delicately predicated on keeping him in the dark regarding the, well… the identity of Wakaba Isshiki's murderer). So now he just had to convince...

He glanced around the room of blank, hard stares.

...everyone else.

"Is it true that you were going to kill my father next?" The Okumura daughter's voice was quiet, but stern.
"Ahaha... you don't waste time, do you, Okumura-chan?" Akechi scratched the back of his neck. "That was true, yes. But I averted the mission at the last second."
"Akechi risked a lot to do what he did," Niijima-chan said, glancing carefully between Akechi and the Okumura daughter. "He made the right choice in the end."
"He's still a murderer tho', right?" Sakamoto fixed Akechi with an accusational stare.
"His decisions were made under extenuating circumstances." Niijima-chan's voice was firm. "He may be older than us as he sits before us now, but when Shido entrapped him, he was only fourteen years old. It took a great deal of strength for him to reach out to us."
"Please, Niijima-chan," Akechi said softly. "Don't give me more credit than is due. I reached out due to fear, not strength."
"It takes strength to admit fear," she replied - never missing a beat, as per usual.

Akechi didn't know what to say to that, so he ignored it. "But to elaborate on why I defected now … I have been seeing visions of the future for months now. At first I met them with skepticism, but they continually proved themselves true. Yet none scared me quite like… quite like the one I saw awaiting us if I followed Shido's orders regarding Okumura. Which brings us to now. I reach out to you all now for... help. Help bringing Shido down."

Kitagawa sat forward. "To me, it is clear that this Shido character deserves our attention. But I'm loathe to simply abandon Arisato-kun to his current state..."
Akechi raised an eyebrow. "Excuse me... Arisato-kun? I haven't heard that name before."
"He's the person whose Palace we were going to explore next," Takamaki explained. "He's a classmate of Yusuke-kun who's been acting strangely. We wanted to help him."

Kurusu stroked his chin. "Both are important," he stated, and the entire group turned to listen to him. Akechi marvelled at such an unassuming boy's command of the room. "We're closer to gaining access to Arisato's palace, so we should focus on that first. But we should speed up our research on Shido as well."
Akechi blinked. "Speed up...?"

"We've… had our eyes on him for a while now," Niijima-chan admitted. "But it's been difficult getting information on him."
"Well..." Akechi habitually went to adjust his gloves, only to find he wasn't wearing them. He cleared his throat. "Perhaps I can help you with that. I may be able to assist you in gaining access to Arisato's palace, too. I am a detective, after all."
"Weren't you a fraud?" Sakamoto shot. "Solvin' crimes you caused an' all?"
"I am a real detective as well," Akechi replied, forcing a smile. "Allow me to prove myself, then. The keywords are his name, the real-world location of his palace, and his cognitive distortion, yes?"
"That's right," Kitagawa said, staring Akechi down.
"I assume you already have his full name, if he shares a class with Kitagawa-kun. What else do you know about him?"

Kitagawa leaned forward, tenting his fingers and resting his chin upon the steeple. "He is an orphan who seems to have been shunted from place to place throughout his childhood. It was difficult to find more information on him due to his lifestyle."
"Hmmm... does he live in a boys' home, or at the dormitories?"
"The dormitories," Kitagawa confirmed.
"Have you tried 'Kosei dormitories' as the location? It sounds as though he moves around a lot; it makes sense that he would have pathos surrounding his place of residence..."
Candidate found.
Akechi allowed himself a half-moment of smiling. He didn't know why they hadn't tried that one already, to be honest. Maybe they really were just stupid.

"Very well. Then the nature of his distortion..."
"He must be lonely," Takamaki suggested. "It doesn't seem like he has anyone he talks to apart from Yusuke and his social worker..."
"Yeah, he probably moves around too much." Sakamoto rubbed at the back of his hair. It's not like he could mess it up any more, but he was still trying, apparently. "So maybe... isolation?"
Conditions have not been met.
"Lonely?"
Conditions have not been met.
"Think more about what he would view the dormitory as," Morgana suggested. Akechi felt the Phantom Thieves glance to see if Akechi could understand the creature, but well... if they'd been watching him as Niijima-chan had said, then they already knew he could understand Morgana's speech perfectly well.
"A prison?" ventured Kurusu.
Conditions have not been met.
"Isolation cell?" Takamaki tried. It was the same thing, Akechi thought.
Conditions have not been met.
"If he isn't planning to stay in Tokyo long, maybe it's something about how transient his home is..?" ventured the Okumura daughter. "Hotel?"
Conditions have not been met.
"Lodge?"
Conditions have not been met.

"You might have something there," Akechi rubbed his chin, mirroring Kurusu's mannerisms. If he was going to be working with this group, he may as well try to gain their trust - mirroring someone they already respected was a fast-track solution. "Perhaps something travel-related?"
"Terminal," Sakamoto guessed. "Station!"
Conditions have not been met.
Akechi decided to take a different tack. "Transient," he suggested. "Ephemeral. Liminal."
Conditions have not been met.
"Temporary."
Input accepted.

"Woah..." Sakamoto leaned in. "It took it?"
"Seems so," Kitagawa conceded, nodding to Akechi. "At the very least, if Akechi betrays us now, he will have given us something invaluable beforehand."
"That's pretty grim, Yusuke..." Takamaki rest her cheek in her hand,
"He's right though," Sakamoto scowled.
"Haha," Akechi forced, "you don't like me very much, do you?"
"You were going to kill my father," the Okumura daughter said, coldly.
"That's enough," Niijima-chan interrupted, but it was Akechi she was glaring at.

The others' frustrations rolled off his back. He was used to this.

Kurusu fidgetted with the phone. The Meta-Nav blinked invitingly on its screen. "Well," he broke the silence with. "Should we go there today?"
"We have time," Kitagawa pointed out. "And there's little to lose from scouting the place."
"You're correct, of course, but... is Akechi really going to come with us...?" The Okumura daughter glanced sympathetically at the girl Akechi knew to be Wakaba Isshiki's daughter.
"He ought to," Niijima-chan said. "If he's to prove his worth to the group before we go after Shido. Besides, unless you want me to stay behind as well, it's the best way to monitor him."
"Whaddya think, leader...?" Sakamoto looked to Kurusu, and so did everyone else.

"I say we give him a chance."
"Does anyone have any objections?" Morgana asked.
The party was silent.

They really did respect Kurusu, didn't they?

Too much, maybe. It was a good thing for them that he seemed to be a nice person.

Chapter Text

SEVEN YEARS AND TEN MONTHS PRIOR.

 

All was quiet in the Iwatodai dormitory, save the sound of running water.

It had been a strange day.

Mm. Perhaps that downplayed the previous weeks. Snow had covered Iwatodai like a blanket and with it, most of the city had lost its will to live. And then, somehow, Minato Arisato had found he wasn't among them. Maybe a year ago, he would have been. But this was now.

Now…

Ryoji had his back turned. He ran his washcloth under the cold water, then cleaned himself with it. Minato stared at him. His smooth white back, red marks streaking across it where Minato's fingers had dug in. His hair, messy where Minato had clutched his hands in it. His scarf, somehow not displaced despite the absence of all other clothing. His shoulders; the kiss marks which Minato had left on them.

Minato had already cleaned himself up, so he leaned on Ryoji's side, resting his head softly on Ryoji's. Ryoji didn't look at him, focussing on what he was doing.

Minato wanted to be close to him. He felt like he needed him. Now more than ever.

 

Even…

Even after…

you saw what i've become, haven't you?

and as he gazed up at Thanatos, Minato thought, a Persona is the true self,

please, kill me

and as he gazed up at Ryoji, Minato thought, you really are me,

i'm begging you…

and as he gazed up at his other half, Minato thought, if you really are me, you'll know my answer.

the. answer.

 

They'd gone for the little deaths instead.

Now, as they cleaned up, Minato listened to Ryoji's breathing. His breaths were soft, short, hesitant. Minato took his shoulder in one hand, turned him so he could see him… gently wiped his tears away with the backs of his fingers. More kept coming. The ocean poured from Ryoji Mochizuki's beautiful eyes.

"I know I can't change your mind," Ryoji wept, "but I wish I could…"
"Why?" Minato kissed Ryoji's cheek.
"You're going to suffer so much. I wish I could save you… I wish…"

He kissed Ryoji's lips, but was met with stiffness. Minato paused.

"Together," Minato said, softly. he stroked Ryoji's cheek. "I know… it's difficult. But we'll do it. Together."

Ryoji closed his eyes, his pretty brow wrinkling with a frown. He shook his head.

"We can't."

 

Minato's heart trembled in its lighthouse cage.

What?

 

"Together," Minato repeated. "Together."

Ryoji shook his head again. This time, he pulled away. The tide was coming in on his full-moon face, flooding its plains and valleys. " I can't. After tonight, I'm going to lose this body… I can't change that."

"Together," Minato heard himself say, and once more he was holding the full moon in his hands, pressing Ryoji's cheeks between his palms and not wanting to let go. It's what everyone wanted, wasn't it? Bring me the moon . Minato had it and he couldn't let it go or he'd die. This was half of him. He'd die.

 

He spent so long learning not to want that. Not to want this.

Would he have to do that all over again?

 

"We can't," Ryoji sobbed, and he was melting into Minato's touch, but Minato could feel the hesitation all the same, "I can't stay, Mina-chan. I'm going to disappear anyway-- please let me make it easier, please-- for you and Junpei and--"

Minato hated him talking like this. He kissed him. Ryoji sunk into it, finally. If Ryoji was his moon, then was Minato the horizon? If they kept going, would they become one again?

 

(it would have been an illusion. it always was. every night.)

 

Ryoji pulled away again and he was sniffling. It was ugly and so very human, just like the faces and the noises Ryoji had made as he shone so beautifully above Minato. Ugly. Human. Beautiful.

He put his clothes back on and Minato supposed he should do the same. He didn't want to. There was something so final about all of this. (He did it anyway.)

They stood face-to-face. Minato wanted to take Ryoji into his arms one more time and start this all over again, but Ryoji was standing out of arm's reach. Like he knew. "We should go downstairs," he said. "If you won't let me help… then I need to tell you guys how to meet Nyx, at least. But… I can't come with you after that, Mina-chan. I can't."

 

Minato remembered, all at once, something else about the moon: it was always further away than it looked.

 

"Please… Mina-chan." Ryoji couldn't meet his eye. "Hold my hand one last time."

Minato hadn't cried in ten years. Not since that night.

one last time.

The sea surged behind Minato's eyes, but it never breached the sea-wall.

He placed his hand into Ryoji's.

 

--

 

Ryoji didn't look sad any more by the time they reached the bottom of the stairs. His hand slipped from Minato's. Minato almost grabbed for it again.

"But if you came down together…"

You all know me, Minato thought. You know my answer. You knew my answer before we went upstairs.

Minato's eyes lingered on Junpei. He'd been so angry. He'd felt so betrayed. Minato hadn't known what to tell him. Minato hadn't known how to beg him for sympathy. Now, Junpei's face split into a grin.

Akihiko cracked his knuckles. He was smiling, too. Had Minato made them happy?

 

--then Aigis moved. Her bullets almost hit Minato. He didn't flinch; couldn't look away. Part of him expected to see Ryoji Mochizuki torn to ugly, beautiful, human pieces. Instead, it was the proof of Ryoji's godhood that made him feel sick.

Ryoji didn't touch him again after that.

"I want to respect Minato's decision," he said.

Minato . Not Mina-chan. Minato.

Minato knew his face was blank, even as the ocean threw its furious waves.

"Together," Minato repeated. "Together. I've decided we'll fight. Together. Survive together."

Everyone agreed. Everyone but Ryoji.

 

Didn't he promise?

Minato looked down at the ring on his finger. The one from the school trip. The one he and Ryoji bought together. After Shinji-senpai. After one more storm in the ocean that threatened every day to tear Minato apart and scatter him to the seven seas, leaving nothing but a rotting body and a lot of paperwork. Ryoji had taken a bucket down to the shoreline and started to bail.

He promised.

 

"Goodbye, Minato."

 

The seawater raged, but even the pull of the moon wasn't enough to leap the stormsurge over and onto Minato's stone face.

Chapter Text

Ryoji quietly closed the dormitory building door.

It wasn't fair… none of this was fair. Not what happened to them ten years ago, not what was happening now, and not what was going to happen in a month… it wasn't fair on Minato most of all, though. He should never have been on that bridge. He should never have had the Shadows put inside him. And Ryoji should never have made friends with him in the first place, either, even if all of the other things had to happen. He could have saved them all this trouble! If he'd just remembered sooner…

Ryoji vaguely registered his feet moving, crunching prints into the fresh snow. He could feel wetness on his face again. This was the last time… the last time he'd be able to feel any of this… he took another step, focussing on every molecule of snow that collapsed under his feet into ice. This was his effect on the world, in the end. He watched drops of water fall from his face into the snow; those, too, sent the flakes into oblivion, melting them into deep pits where each tear fell.

It wasn't fair. This wasn't fair.

But he knew that fair wasn't really something Nyx was concerned with. He'd told Minato and his friends what he needed to tell them; everything was in their hands now. He couldn't do anything else… either to help or to hinder them. It was all up to them.

That had really been the last time… that he'd ever see Minato, hadn't it?

He expected another sob to come, but his lungs felt empty. His feet slowed to a stop.

He'd never felt tired before… even occupying a human body all these months, he hadn't slept very much. It was like he was trying to pack sixteen years of life into his time. Maybe he was…? Maybe he'd known, deep down…

But then why…

His thoughts slowed to a stop, too. He registered, faintly, his body sitting itself down in the snow; propped up against the outside of the dormitory building, but otherwise limp.

His eyes felt heavy…

He blinked… but they only opened again a fraction. The last thing Ryoji Mochizuki saw was the world being flooded green.

 

~~~

 

Ryoji Mochizuki opened his eyes.

He was almost blinded by bright light. His eyes screwed shut again and he realised all at once that this meant he had eyes . The last thing he remembered before this was being forced to give them up, so why-- he blinked a few times; his eyelids felt heavy still, like they were still catching up with being real again. (Was that what this was?) His hand flew up to his face, clutching his head. His skin was real-- his skin was real!! Skin?? He had skin???

It took him a few long moments of patting excitedly at his face and limbs and hair to get over the novelty of, yes, having skin. He was even wearing clothes! Like a real human!

But… wait…

So then…

Did something go wrong…?

Where was Minato…?

Ryoji's eyes finally adjusted to the brightness. He realised he was sat in some sort of office. He'd fallen asleep in a chair… was he doing something? There was nothing on the desk in front of him, so he had nothing to go on… the room was decorated in a western style, although it was a little old-fashioned all the same. He didn't remember ever having been here before, though.

This wasn't the inside of Nyx. It was too well-lit, shimmering sunlight streaming in through the skylights. So where was he?

His reverie was interrupted when the door opened. He sat up straight, then belatedly fixed his hair as he saw it was a young woman who had entered. She was in very smart business dress - a tailored blue jacket and skirt, her white hair in a sharp bob cut.

"Conductor Mochizuki," she addressed, then checked her clipboard. "Why are you still here? You were supposed to be on Platform 7 ten minutes ago."

Ryoji stared at her. She seemed familiar somehow… "Sorry, I forgot what I was doing…"

"Well, don't." She smiled serenely, but there was something sharp about it. "Platform 7. Before the problem gets out of hand. And put your uniform on, for pity's sake."

She shut the door behind her a little harder than she needed to. Ryoji blinked, then looked down at himself. He definitely wasn't wearing a uniform, no… but what did she mean? Did she want him to find a Gekkoukan uniform or something?

He stood up out of his chair and began searching the room. One of the cupboards in the wall turned out to lead to a wardrobe, and there was a uniform in there, so he put it on. It fit him like it was made for him - and, indeed, the nametag on his breast read Platform Conductor Ryoji Mochizuki. He settled the hat on his head and looked in the mirror. He looked smart and in charge.

And he had no idea where Platform 7 was.

He left through the door that the woman had come in through and found himself, all at once, in a huge train station. People bustled back and forth - all of them were talking on their flip phones or looking at something important on a pager or reading things off a clipboard while carrying a briefcase in the other. Some of them looked like Gekkoukan students, but Ryoji didn't recognise any of them - not even the girls.

He managed to reach the main concourse, at least, but the signage here was so confusing… it was in a Western language that Ryoji hadn't learned, and he was starting to panic. He'd forgotten being human involved things like this. Part of him revelled for a moment in how much it all mattered! Aaand the rest of him just frantically looked around for someone who wasn't too busy to ask for directions. How funny that the platform conductor didn't know where the platforms were!

There were timetable noticeboards, and growing around the base of each were neatly trimmed box bushes. His eyes settled on a boy who was crouched down by one of the bushes - he must have lost something in there, but the fact he was looking for it rather than rushing off right away meant he might have time to answer Ryoji's question. Ryoji waved to him, and when he didn't immediately turn away, rushed over to him.

"Excuse me," he said, crouching down to more of the boy's height. "It's actually my first day on the job. Could you tell me where Platform 7 is?"

The boy blinked at him. He was wearing a long coat and there was a mask on his face. Some sort of cosplay thing…? He examined Ryoji for a few moments, noting his name badge, then nodded. "It's just that way," he said, pointing.

"Oh! Thank you so much!" Ryoji beamed at him. "Can I help you find what you dropped? In the bushes, I mean."
The boy blinked. "...no, I'm fine. Thank you."
"Alright! Have a good day!"

Ryoji trotted off in the direction the boy had indicated. What a nice young man… everyone else here so far had been so busy that it felt like they were ignoring Ryoji's very existence, but that boy had been friendly enough to help him out. He was glad to know there was at least one friendly face in this strange station.

Upon arrival at Platform 7, Ryoji slowly realised he didn't know what he was supposed to be doing here. He looked around a little. Everything seemed to be in order… the waiting shelters on the platform were all clean and empty, the ticket barriers were in place, the track itself seemed undamaged. He looked around a little more. There were more of those elegant box bushes growing in the central avenue between Platform 7 and Platform… err, whatever the next platform was, where he'd just come from. Platform 6 or Platform 8, he guessed? Or maybe it was like western street numbers and it'd be 5 or 9…? Anyway, neither of the next-door platforms those had been vandalised, either.

His eyes scanned upwards towards the old-fashioned departure board, where flaps with more of that unfamiliar Western text on them flipped over depending on what information was to be displayed, to see if there was anything wrong with that. But… in the end, that wasn't what caught Ryoji's attention.

No - what he ended up staring at was the glass dome that covered the entire station.

Beyond it wasn't sky, like he'd assumed - it was sea .

The sunlight rippled through the surf. The ocean couldn't be too deep here - Ryoji could see the surface, after all. But they were definitely underwater! How had he not noticed that before?! Staring upwards and towards the central ticket office, he could see that the underwater station was attached to an island. One of the train tracks wound around the outside of the tiny hump of land, heading up to--

"Conductor Mochizuki," rang a strict voice, and Ryoji stood up straight. "You are far too late! They already got away!"
"Sorry," Ryoji said, turning to face the scary lady and dipping his head. "I'm sorry, Ma'am! I wasn't sure who I was supposed to be looking for!"
"The thieves , of course!" She was smiling, but it was like she thought he was stupid. "The fare-dodgers! They snuck in here this morning and they've been causing trouble ever since. You're supposed to keep things like this under control. I shouldn't have to tell you again."
"Yes, ma'am," Ryoji said, but he felt himself frowning. Tell him again? She didn't tell him the first time!

He glanced up at the ceiling, briefly. At the way the waves calmly danced between the sun and him.

"Don't lose focus again," the lady's voice said, sharp but sweet.
He snapped his attention back to her. "Yes," he squinted at her name badge, "Deputy Manager Elizabeth, ma'am!"
"Very good," she said, tucking her clipboard back under her arm. "Don't let me catch you stalling again."

She left, and even though he had no idea what was going on… Ryoji still got a small joy out of being able to feel his relieved sigh pass his lips again.

Lips. He had lips.

He chewed the bottom one and glanced, idly, up at the ceiling.

 

Wherever he was, he hoped Mina-chan was okay…

Chapter Text

The Palace was absolutely beautiful.

Yusuke was captured almost entirely by the glinting light, refracted through the shallow tropical sea that seemed to cover the exterior of the Palace. Although he knew that they had no problem breathing in "space" in Okumura's Palace, he still found himself glad that they had found themselves inside to begin with this time. Who knew if Arisato-kun's cognition would be as conducive to their continued survival?

That said, their infiltration wasn't exactly progressing as it usually did. There were relatively few aggressive Shadows in this Palace. Futaba seemed to think it was something to do with the core distortion which had caused this place to form. It didn't lessen their chances of detection or, indeed, of ejection, as there were very much still cognitions that would chase them down and try to get rid of them - just their chances of, well, becoming deceased. It was certainly something different, at least.

The basic structure of the Palace was closely reminiscent to western European train stations of the 19th Century - either French or English. It was primarily rendered in cast iron or steel, the tremendous roof towering above as one great arc covering the multitude of train lines and platforms. The representation in the Palace was really very accurate to life, right down to the cognitions that populated it - ordinary people, their faces true to life and likely reflecting real people that Arisato-kun either knew or had seen. Even the decorative flourishes on the steelwork that made up the roof were period-accurate, even if the things they depicted - Shadow-like monsters - were less so.

"Either Arisato-kun is a scholar of 19th Century European architecture," he observed quietly as they ducked behind another decorative box-bush to avoid a security guard, "or this Palace is based upon a real place that he knows of."

"Not unlikely," Crow supplied. While not at peak health, he had been compelled to accompany them by Queen, who wished to take his measure. As long as he didn't take on a front line role, he would be fine - and indeed, it seemed their gamble had paid off, because they were able to observe him in a low-combat environment. Indeed, Arisato-kun's Palace was downright peaceful.

"Assuming he is an ordinary high schooler," Crow continued, "as he seems to be, then a place from his past would make sense as a basis for a vision such as this. It could also be an amalgam of several places and times, as one might expect to see in their dreams. Palaces are very similar, after all."
"For someone who's just having his first time in a Palace, you sure know a lot about them," Skull glared.
Crow turned to him calmly, the red eyeguards in his mask glinting as he did so. "Who said it was my first time?"
"Shut up, both of you," Panther hissed. "We're supposed to be hiding."

Crow's outfit - that is, Goro Akechi's - was… well… a bold choice, if it was indeed a choice of any kind. It was made up of ugly black and violet stripes that somehow represented rebellion to the Second Detective Prince, with belts befitting a character from one of Futaba's games winding around his limbs in various places - useless, on a body suit - and a bold knight-like mask covering his face.

Yusuke, with his plunge v-neck, probably couldn't judge.

With the security patrol passed, they moved into the crowd again. Only one cognition that wasn't wearing a security uniform had acknowledged them so far, and he'd still been wearing a uniform - a boy about their age who had approached them asking for directions. He had been wearing a conductor's hat and badge, yet none of the other platform conductors would give them the time of day; they were brushed off again and again with statements about being busy or needing to focus. So, in lieu of any other leads, they were searching for the strange young conductor again instead.

Yusuke had well known the maze-like properties of the average train station even before Mementos had drilled it into him twofold, yet there was somehow something triply maze-like about this particular station. They would constantly lose track of their orientation in the crowds, even with Futaba navigating. Half an hour ago, they had known where Platform 7 was - now, just like the boy they had helped before, they were unable to find it. Or, indeed, anything else. At this stage, they didn't even know which way to start heading.

In other words, they were lost.

It really did feel after a while that they were walking in circles. Yusuke didn't mind it himself (it gave him the opportunity to admire the architecture some more, after all; the period-accurate signalling posts and platform announcement boards were simply gorgeous) but Skull and Panther quickly grew tired of the stagnation.

"Man, why are we even still here? We ain't gettin' anywhere…"
"Joker, he's kind of got a point," Panther added, although in her grace she at least tried to sound less childish about it than Skull had.

Joker rubbed his chin. Yusuke saw in his eyes that he was having flashbacks to their search in Mementos for Souji Seta's Shadow. "I don't want to go back until we've at least worked out why that particular cognition was different," he said, after a short while. "Oracle, Mona. You're sure neither of you can trace him?"
"Not… exactly, no," Futaba said. "There's something not right about the recordings I took of his stats, but I think I'm missing something about what…"
"Do you need more time?"
"No, it's not that. I kinda wish I could show our local friendly murder-Crow and see what he thinks, hehe."
"Do not call me that."
"I'm having trouble finding that particular cognition too," Mona said, ignoring Crow. "But I can find a similar-feeling one. Do you want to take a look at it?"
"We may as well," Queen shrugged, arms folded. "It's not like we have any other leads."

So off they went. Were it not for the risk of being thrown out of the Palace entirely by its security if they did so, Yusuke had half a mind to ask for the Monabus so he could sketch on the way. He supposed, in the end, they really did need to do this by foot. Such a shame.

As they closed in on the feel-alike cognition, it became clear that it was indeed the same one that they had met earlier. Yusuke could clearly see his deep azure conductors' uniform, his distinctive swept-back hair with the endearingly blatant ahoge, the striking azure eyes and the hauntingly familiar face. Yusuke couldn't place where he'd seen this boy before the Palace, and yet Goemon nagged at him with it as though it were vital. He knew better than to dismiss that.

"Excuse us," Queen called out, in the elegant tone she usually reserved for teachers. "We were wondering--"
"Oh!" The boy turned to them, smiling brightly. "Have you come to turn yourselves in?"
"W-- Wha?!" Skull took ire immediately. "But we helped you, dude! Doesn't that count for anything?! We haven't even done anything wrong!"
"I don't recall you doing any such thing," the cognition replied, the smile becoming eerie in its unwavering presence. "Only that Deputy Manager Elizabeth informed me of several hoodlums running around in cosplay outfits of some kind, who needed to be taken in for questioning regarding the sabotage of some of the ticket gates."
"We didn't do anything like that," Noir pleaded. "We give you our word. Do you truly not remember us at all…?"
"Will you all please come with me," the cognition persisted, joyfully. It was like he hadn't even heard her… just like all of the other cognitions.

Joker grunted.
"Let's go, everyone."

A smokebomb later and they were all free of the potential ejection, but not of their confusion. At least, on Yusuke's part.
Futaba frowned thoughtfully behind her visor. "I don't think it was lying about not knowing us from before," she said. "The longer I look, the more I think that's a different entity than the one we talked to before. They just happen to look the same."
"But," Noir frowned, "if the cognition refers to a particular person in Arisato-kun's life, wouldn't its behaviour remain the same even across a second version of the same cognition? Unless Arisato-kun's cognition was changed in real life somehow…"
"That's right," Futaba nodded. "I think the one we just met was the actual cognition of that dude. Like, ninety-nine point nine percent. I think the guy we met earlier was something else that thinks it's part of the Palace, but it isn't. Not really."

She shrugged into the silence. "Or that's what I get from looking at the readings, anyhow."
Yusuke frowned. "Something else. Such as what?"
"No idea," Futaba said, nonchalant. "A demon from the Sea of Souls, probably. Like the ones Joker recruits."
"Probably doesn't really help us in aiding Arisato-kun," Yusuke said.
"I'd like to see you do better, Inari."
"You--"

"Children," Crow interjected. He made it worse.
"I'm not a child! He is!"

Joker sighed deeply. "Please stop arguing inside the Palace."

Yusuke dropped it, but only for Joker's sake. Futaba and Crow seemed to do the same.

Joker looked at the strange underwater ceiling, then around at his teammates. "I think we've learned enough for today. There's nothing else useful we can do. Let's head back."

Chapter Text

Returning to the real world always felt like surfacing from underwater, but now especially. Yusuke breathed deep, then checked he still had all his limbs. He didn't know why. It comforted him, anyway. He checked the same for his friends.

The Shujin five, all present and correct. Futaba, and Morgana. And Goro Akechi, back in the casual hoodie and ripped jeans that Makoto had thrifted for him.

And Ryoji Mochizuki.

Yusuke remembered what he was called from the nametag he'd been wearing in the Palace. And it was certainly him.

He did a double-take, and by the time he had, the others had all noticed him as well. Futaba took a deep breath in; Yusuke moved and clapped his hand over her mouth, stifling her uncouth scream.

"Wait," Ryuji said, "why-- how's he here?!"
Mochizuki-san turned, looking at them. He wasn't in his conductor's uniform any more - he was wearing a simple white shirt with suspenders and black trousers, with a long, oversized, yellow scarf. Simple but striking. Assuming he dressed himself, he had vision.
"Don't yell," Ann chided. "Ahem… excuse me, Mochizuki-san?"

Mochizuki-san brightened and waved, moving towards them. "Ah, it's the cosplayers from before! What's happening now? I thought I was lost before, but now I really don't understand what's happening…"

Only once Futaba had calmed down a little did Yusuke remove his hand. Ah… she'd slobbered on him…

"It's him," she hissed. "It's the weird cognition guy! But he wasn't a cognition at all, he was just a guy! He was just a guy all along!"
"I'm not so sure," Morgana murmured. "There's still something about him…"
"He's here, isn't he?!"
"Don't shout," Yusuke insisted with a frown. This was his school, and his guests. He was the one that would get in trouble if they didn't stop.

He was about to ask Mochizuki-san how he perceived what was happening here - whether he knew anything about the Metaverse or if he just happened into it, and if he remembered anything about what happened before he got here… when Mochizuki-san's attention was entirely and wholly captured by something else.

"Minato…?"

Indeed, Arisato-kun was coming down the corridor towards them. Probably on his way from lunch to do his homework in the dormitory, if Yusuke had deduced his routine correctly. Mochizuki-san stepped into his path and Arisato-kun stopped; Yusuke was struck inexplicably by how similar they were in height. It really wasn't worth noting. And yet he did.

Arisato-kun didn't answer. His eyes didn't even move. Yusuke was used to it, but it seemed to disturb Mochizuki-san.

"Minato?"
"Good evening," Minato said quietly.

"Ah! There you are! Mina-chan! I was so worried about you! I thought you weren't going to-- I thought you were ignoring me!"

"Mina-chan?" Ryuji repeated, doubtfully.
"Just wait for it," Ann said, putting her hands behind her head and watching Mochizuki-san. "Arisato-kun only answers to direct questions and commands. It's weird."

"That doesn't sound like Mina-chan at all," Mochizuki-san said, crestfallen. "He's standoffish and rude and a little bit mean sometimes, of course, but he's also really kind on the inside… and really funny… um… are you alright?"

Akira, who had been watching like a hawk as the two interacted, pushed his glasses up his nose. They caught the light. "I'm just listening. We need to know everything we can about Arisato if we're going to help him."

"Every… thing…?" Mochizuki-san paused. "Help him?"

"Do you know anything about what happened, Mochizuki-san?" Makoto stepped forward, tilting her head sympathetically.

"It's… it's just…"

He sighed, downcast. "A really long story."

"Maybe so," Akira said, "but we have time."
"We kinda don't," Ryuji pointed out. "At least not for today. It's only afternoon but we need to work out what we're doing about this guy…"
"Me?" Mochizuki-san looked at them with big, round eyes. "What about me…?"
"Well," Yusuke butted in. "Do you have somewhere to stay tonight, Mochizuki-san?"
He opened his mouth to say something - then stopped, and closed it again. "No," he said eventually.
Akira seemed to make a decision. "Then for now let's head to Leblanc. The boss can keep Mochizuki company while we discuss what to do."

 

--

 

"That's completely bizarre, though," Ryuji frowned. "Like, we've never had anything like this happen before. Not since Mona, anyhow."
"Hey! This is not the same!" Mona arched their back. "I don't know a lot about it, true… but it's not the same."
"They're right," Futaba hummed, without looking up from her laptop. "Mona and Ryoji aren't similar at all. But there is something strange about Ryoji. He isn't a normal human."
"You don't say," Yusuke drawled. "But he is connected to Arisato-kun."
"Well, yeah. The one thing I can say for certain is I don't think we found him in Arisato's Palace by accident. He was definitely there for a reason."

"That is significant, yes," Makoto said. "It wouldn't be the first time a stranger had been caught up in a traversal to the Metaverse, but the fact Arisato-kun had a cognition of him as well strongly suggests we found him there for another reason."
"Like what?" Ryuji frowned. "It's not like you can just hide out in someone's Palace whenever you like, and didn't Futaba say he doesn't even have a Persona? How would he get there by himself?"
"There are other ways of getting to the Metaverse," Mona reminded him. "But you're right. Until Futaba-chan finds out who he is in Arisato's life, it's unlikely we'll be able to piece this together."

"Are you making any progress on that?" Akechi asked, curiosity lightening his tone. He'd been so serious since joining the team--not at all like his TV self. But the investigative nature of their current conundrum seemed to be heartening him.

"No, but it's weird. I told the others about this earlier. It's like he's a ghost," she said, her brow furrowed. "He doesn't have any kind of legal or online presence at all until basically just a few months before he showed up in Inari's class. He just kinda materialises out of thin air in 2014 and starts showing up enrolled in different high schools every few months without ever graduating or going up a year. He kept getting shifted around for some reason."
"Seta-san said something similar," Makoto added. "Apparently he kept being bullied at school as a result of his… ah, well… odd temperament."
"That makes sense, yeah. I can't work out where he was before Gekkoukan in 2014. He must have some kind of transcript from somewhere, because he started in the second year, but I can't even find evidence of him graduating middle school. It's really weird."

"So he's eighteen years of age now, at the very least… Is any of that even legal?" Akechi frowned. "Surely he can't just start at high school unless he transferred in from abroad."
"Yeah. I tried looking at immigration too, especially since he had a bunch of French writing all over his Palace."

"You're really good at this, Futaba-chan," Haru effused.
Futaba went red. "R-Right… UM, so, the, uh, the-- that's pretty, uh, pretty much--"
Akira found himself smiling. "I think it's more or less everything we can cover right now in terms of intel. The only other question is where Mochizuki-kun can stay until we work out what to do with him."

Makoto sighed. "I don't think I can bring home another stray so soon… sorry, Akechi-kun."
"No offence taken," he shrugged. "Needless to say, I cannot host a guest at the moment."
"As much fun as sleepovers are," Akira confirmed, "we're already pushing it having Akechi-kun in the attic with me."
"There's no room in our flat," Ryuji said. "It's pretty cramped with just me and my mum."
"I think my parents would flip if they found out I had a boy in the studio with me," Ann shrugged. "Besides, we barely know him… he could be a total creep for all we know."
"I'll admit I was concerned about that too, or I would have volunteered one of my own rooms… I'm sorry," Haru said, ducking her head. "We simply don't know enough about him for me to be comfortable hosting him."
"And it's technically up to my dad, but I bet if he won't let Akira stay in the house then he's not gonna let some rando from a Palace stay either," Futaba said.

"Then perhaps for now I can make a case for him being permitted to stay in my dormitory for the time being," Yusuke said. "My classmates have been granted such permissions before now to have friends and relatives stay over, as long as they do not cause damage to the dormitory structure. Perhaps I could make a case for him being a visiting cousin or somesuch…"

"They know you don't have any living family, Inari," Futaba said nonchalantly. "I'll just fabricate some transfer documents and make him a student. Akira, you can pay for like, a term using the Mementos money, right?"
Makoto pulled a face. "I'm not sure it stretches that far, not while still paying for equipment."
"And fusion…" Akira added.
"I'd be happy to pay." Haru seemed pleased to have something to offer. "I'll speak with my father as soon as I get home."
"Neat. I'll launder it, so don't even worry," Futaba said with startling nonchalance. Makoto was visibly concerned. Akechi was visibly amused. "It should all be sorted by tomorrow."

"I'll try and get him in Inari's class so you can keep an eye on him and Arisato's interactions," Futaba said, already typing away.
"Well, thank you for asking," Yusuke scowled, but there were no teeth to it. "As long as he brings no harm to Arisato-kun, I shall observe him as you wish."

Chapter Text

Yusuke found himself called upon to provide Mochizuki a place to stay for the night. He was, after all, the only Kosei student present who was also capable of expressing himself in a functional fashion… so while it had been difficult to persuade the residential assistant at the front desk that Mochizuki ought to be allowed to share a dormitory with Arisato, at least for a day, Yusuke had managed it in the end. Being a Phantom Thief had helped his abilities in the real world a surprising amount; even six months ago, he wouldn't have been able to convince him, he was sure of it.

"You don't have any belongings at all?" he asked Mochizuki as he walked with the odd pair to the top of the north building. Arisato had taken the last dormitory in the building, so of course his room was the furthest from the entrance. It was a two-person room - it seemed, then, that the roommate Arisato probably hadn't wanted had finally arrived to bother him.

"I don't," Mochizuki smiled, pensieve. "I don't really need very much."
"Not even clean clothes?"
"I'll have a uniform, won't I?" His smile was unshakeable. "I suppose I could keep that here! Although…" He chewed his lip, tapping his chin. "I had some souvenirs and things at Gekkoukan… do you think they'll have kept them?"
His question was likely directed at Arisato, but Yusuke took it on himself to reply. "You went to Gekkoukan as well?"
"I did," Mochizuki chirped. "I was in Minato's class."
"Ah! Is that so? Is that why you recognised him so immediately?"
"Yes, it is." Mochizuki gave a sunny smile. "We were pretty close!"
Yusuke frowned. A hunch had suddenly taken him. "How long ago was that, Mochizuki-san?"
"Ah, we're here!" The odd boy pushed Arisato's door open without waiting to be invited in.

Arisato's dormitory was as unassuming as one might expect, considering how few preferences the boy had expressed in other areas of his life. There was a trunk on top of the wardrobe with his name attached, but if Yusuke had to take a guess, he would assume it had gone unopened - because the dormitory looked as though Arisato had moved in earlier today. Just as well if he was getting a new roommate, he supposed.

Mochizuki perched on the unmade second bed. "This is where you've been staying? It's very clean! I should have known you would take care of yourself like that."
Arisato stared at Mochizuki.
"...what, did I say something wrong?"

Awkward silence prevailed.

"You didn't say anything wrong," Yusuke eventually supplied. "He's just quiet like this."
"Really?" Mochizuki glanced between them. His smile faultered again.
"Yes." Yusuke pulled up a chair and sat, then looked to Arisato. "...Arisato-kun, you should sit on your bed."
Arisato did so. Mochizuki visibly bristled.
"Is something the matter, Mochizuki-san?"

Mochizuki moved over to Arisato, ignoring Yusuke's question entirely. "Minato, you didn't tell me what happened to your headphones! Did you lose them?"
"No."
And then silence.

He tried a different tack. "How have your classes been?"
"Successful."
"Yeah? Did you like them?"
More silence.

Mochizuki tried again. "Have you been in touch with Junpei-kun and the others?"
"No."
Mochizuki huffed, then thought for a second before sitting himself down on Arisato's bed. Then he shuffled closer, staring at Arisato's face. Closer… closer…

Silence.

Yusuke caught a glint in Mochizuki's eye just a moment before he seized Arisato's shoulders and shook him. Arisato's head lolled back and forth; "Minatoooo! Minato, come on! It's me, Ryoji!"

Arisato sat how he was placed as Mochizuki's movements stilled. Yusuke found himself part way across the room - he'd been concerned that had Mochizuki not stopped, he might have hurt the boy, but now he was able to see Mochizuki's eyes glimmering with genuine upset.

"Minato…?"
Yusuke frowned. "Mochizuki-san…"
"Is he even in there at all?" Mochizuki bowed his head; the bottom half of his face disappeared into his oversized scarf.

Yusuke looked between the pair. Arisato showed absolutely no change in his demeanour. For all an onlooker might have guessed, he was simply sat in a particularly boring class, wiling away the hours until he was released. He seemed unaware of the strange friend beside him.

"Mochizuki-san," Yusuke said softly, stepping into Mochizuki's field of view. The boy looked up at him. "May I ask you a strange question?"
"Is it to do with Minato…?"
"In a manner of speaking. Where do you think we are?"

Mochizuki blinked. "Ahh… I notice Minato has moved dormitories, so the new one!"
Yusuke shook his head. "The full address. City and prefecture."
He smiled, but it seemed vapid somehow. Yusuke sensed danger lurking beneath the placid surface. "If I might ask, how does this relate to Minato's current state…?"
"I'm afraid I shall have to ask you to trust me, and answer the question," Yusuke insisted.

Mochizuki laughed… then his face contorted into a frown, and he was quiet for a few moments. He glanced to the window. "...I would say somewhere near the docks," he said simply. "In Iwatodai."

Yusuke took a deep breath, then breathed out again. "Mochizuki-san, we are in Tokyo."

A series of rapid blinks. "...ah," is the response he musters.

"Have you hit your head at all?" Yusuke decides he ought to cover all bases. "I can take you to the nurse if so, but I suspect another cause behind your confusion. Am I incorrect?"
Suddenly, Mochizuki sat up straighter. He met Yusuke's gaze, tilting his head just a little. "What makes you think that?"
Yusuke decided that, at this juncture, discretion was the better part of valour. "Nothing in particular," he hedged. "Simply a hunch of mine."

Mochizuki stared Yusuke down… then seemed to relax a little. "Alright… ah! Sorry, what was your name again?"
"Yusuke Kitagawa."
"Kitagawa-kun. I'm sorry if I've been rude today! I'm just concerned for Minato… we're very close."
"I understand…" Yusuke thought of Ann and Shiho. "You should encounter no problems staying here tonight, and by tomorrow you shall be enrolled as a student. I should contact Seta-san and notify him of your appearance, however… would you permit me to do so?"
"Seta-san?"
"Arisato-kun's social worker. He has been taking good care of him, insofar as I can discern… he may be able to aid you, if that is what you wish for."
Mochizuki seemed to have deflated, now, but he was holding Arisato's hand. "If that would let me spend more time with Minato, then I'd like that."
"I'll call him in the morning, then," Yusuke nodded.

Chapter Text

Yusuke ended up sending Seta-san a text, rather than phoning him. His morning was rather busier than he had initially anticipated.

Futaba had sent him a message in the night letting him know that Mochizuki was now enrolled in his class. Yusuke had an inkling that this would be a bad idea when the idea was first suggested at Leblanc, and his trepidation had grown as he went to fetch the pair of them from their dormitory that morning, but…

Well, he hadn't anticipated this level of a fuss being made. Really, he thought, Mochizuki-kun was overreacting.

The entire journey to homeroom, he'd bounced around Arisato - before losing steam and properly recognising that Arisato was barely acknowledging his bizarre questions, let alone responding to them. Then he'd regain his zeal, and begin anew. They were a good five exhausting-looking minutes into waiting for their homeroom teacher by the time he finally flopped dramatically over Arisato's desk, begging him to answer.

"Mochizuki-san," Yusuke said stridently, fully aware of the stares of their classmates. "Please. I told you he isn't himself at the moment. Will you stop harassing him?"

Mochizuki looked at him, absolutely distraught. "But he has to remember me!" he pleaded. Yusuke physically lifted him; he struggled as Yusuke hefted him to his own desk, back across the room. "But Yusuke! You don't understand! He has to remember me! He has to! He can't not!"
"Maybe he just doesn't want to talk to someone who's having a meltdown in the middle of the school he's trying not to get bullied at," Yusuke hissed. "Now sit down."

That seemed to get through to Mochizuki a little more, although he still had a pout on his round, pale face. "...But I get to try and talk to him again at lunch, right?" he said, as if bargaining.
"Only if he wants to talk to you," Yusuke said firmly. If he wasn't allowed to pester the beautiful Arisato into modelling for him, then neither was Mochizuki allowed to pester him into talking - something that was, at most, less than half as vital.

Yusuke stalked back to his seat just in time for the homeroom teacher to arrive. She had Mochizuki introduce himself, and he decided to use the opportunity to drop a pick-up line aimed at the girls of the class. None of them were impressed, although Yusuke appreciated the poetic way he'd chosen to deliver it. The exuberant boy had a sense of aesthetic, it seemed… even if there was no sense of manners to go with it.

Their classes went by slowly. Yusuke barely concentrated - he felt he needed to watch Mochizuki to make sure he wasn't skipping out on schoolwork to try and pester Arisato some more. He became increasingly distracted the closer they got to lunch; after all, if previous was anything to go by, then Mochizuki was going to launch himself at Arisato in a sprint as soon as the bell went. It would be up to Yusuke to intervene, lest Arisato be sent flying.

Mochizuki did manage to restrain himself in the end, although Yusuke suspected that was a near thing and more to do with Yusuke spending the last five minutes of class staring him down than it was to do with him having learned any kind of lesson. As the teacher released them for lunch, Mochizuki cautiously approached Yusuke's desk, not Arisato's.

"Kitagawa-kun… would you…"

He swallowed, and ducked his chin into the scarf he insisted on wearing with his uniform. "Would you help me talk to Arisato-kun…?"

Yusuke sighed, but looking up at Mochizuki and seeing the genuine distress in his eye, he couldn't bring himself to deny him. "I'm uncertain how much help I'll truly be, but I suppose we can do our best," he resigned.

They approached the desk and to Yusuke's surprise, Mochizuki began to lag behind the closer they got. It was left to him to take the lead.

"Arisato-kun," he began softly. "Did you do well in classes this morning?"
"Yes," Arisato said, his tone as level and disinterested as always. He barely looked up from the bento that Seta-san had evidently made for him.
"You got him to reply," Mochizuki said, with mixed reverence and sadness.
"You have to ask very simple questions," Yusuke explained. Arisato didn't react. "If you ask him for any opinions, he simply shan't respond."

"Mina-chan" Mochizuki hesitated, then tried, "...did you get all the answers right in maths?"
"Yes," Arisato said.
Mochizuki began to tear up. "That's just like you," he said. "...Mina-chan… do you remember what happened to you?"

"Try being more specific," Yusuke offered, when Mochizuki seemed devastated by the lack of response.

"...ah… Mina-chan… do you remember what happened to you before you arrived in Tokyo?"

There was a pause. Then Arisato said, firmly, "No."

He said it firmly.

It was the closest thing to a tone of voice that Yusuke had ever heard out of him. So much so that Yusuke somehow, strangely, had the sensation that Arisato was lying.

Mochizuki stared, haunted. Then he quietly backed away. "I'll see you later, Minato-kun," he whispered. Then added, barely in earshot, "I won't give up on you."

"He was lying," Yusuke said as they returned to Mochizuki's desk. He was mystified. "He lied to you. He does remember. Mochizuki-kun… do you remember? What happened before Arisato-kun and yourself arrived in Tokyo…?"

Mochizuki sat quietly at his desk, staring out of the window. "...only a little," he said quietly. "I'm not sure how much you'd believe, though."
"I may be the only person who would," Yusuke said. "But for now… let's get something to eat."

He checked his phone on their way to the caféteria. Seta-san had replied.

So.Se.: What's the matter, Kitagawa-kun?

Yusuke stared at the back of Mochizuki's head. How should he put this…?

There's been a development. :Y.K.
There's someone I think you should meet. :Y.K.

So.Se.: What do you mean?
So.Se.: Do you need help?

Not exactly. :Y.K.
You may not believe me when I say this, but… :Y.K.
Someone claiming to be a friend of Arisato-kun's has arrived in our class. :Y.K.

So.Se.: And are they behaving like a friend would?

He is. :Y.K.
His name is Ryoji Mochizuki. :Y.K.

Chapter Text

"Souji-senpai," Naoto said fondly. "What could it be this time?"
"There's…" Souji paused. "There's been a development."

He stared at the photo that he'd taken only about an hour ago, on his impromptu and somewhat emergency visit to Kosei High. In it, two identical faces stared at him - two boys, one with his arm around the other.

One of the faces was impassive. The other one was… smiling.

He hadn't known what to expect when Kitagawa had sent him that text. Honestly, with how cagey Naoto had been with the details on why Kitagawa and Niijima were known people in one of their open investigations… and then with the sudden message from Kitagawa… Souji had half expected a trap. Of what kind, though, he didn't know. That was the problem when one of your friends was required by law to keep secrets from you, he supposed.

He'd tried to call Naoto before he made the trip to Kosei, but it'd gone to voicemail. That probably meant Naoto was in a briefing, and it could be any length of time before they were free… and anyway, it wasn't the first time Souji had thrown caution to the wind, so he had decided to go anyway. This time it didn't even involve a serial killer.

Probably.

"What sort of development?" Naoto hedged.
"Well…" He breathed in. "I may have… found one of the names you told me to look out for."
"Which one?"
"The Mochizuki boy."

The line crackled with silence for a few long moments. Then Naoto said, "it's definitely him?"

"Well… he calls himself by the name, to start with. But he looks just like Arisato, exactly the way you said to watch for. I-- I asked if I could take a photo and he said yes; should I--"
"Send it. Now," Naoto demanded.

"Okay…" Souji emailed the photo, then waited while Naoto's mouse clicks filled his ear. There was another long pause, presumably as they examined the picture. Then they said, "can I ask you something, senpai?"
"Of course."
"It's a little hard to see, and I don't want to presume. Did Mochizuki have the beauty mark?"

Souji stared at the photo. He didn't need to - meeting the absolute spitting image of his charge was an experience that had lodged in his mind - but the sheer level of similarity still captured his attention. He'd worked with identical twins before but he'd never seen two separate humans look so similar to one another. Except… except in that one year. The line of the jaw, the orbit of the eye, the slight curve of the nose… but the eye colour…

"He did," he said.
"You remember it from the autopsy photographs," Naoto said, their tone serious.
"I remember it."

They'd both seen Minato Arisato's autopsy report. With a case as strange as this, Naoto had insisted. Souji had found it upsetting, to see the boy entrusted to his care laid out on a slab like that. But it was useful. It helped confirm their suspicion that the Arisato they had with them was the real Arisato, or at least a supernaturally accurate clone - not some sort of impostor. And in those photos, on Arisato's right cheek - usually hidden by his long fringe - was a beauty mark just like the one on Mochizuki's left.

They were mirror images of each other.

"...I want to come and see this for myself, senpai. This is the first major development in this case since Arisato's initial appearance, and the fact he had just become acquainted with two other known individuals hasn't escaped my notice."
"You think they're involved? The kids from the other day."
"It's possible," they stated. "They may even own up to it when questioned. We shall see."
"You're going to call them in?"
"Perhaps. I want to see everything in person first. I wouldn't want to jeopardise anything by being too hasty, or risk missing an important opportunity because I was too quick to tip my hand."
"Alright. If you do talk to them, I want to be there as well."
"You doubt my ability to interact with adolescents?"
"I'm sure you'll be fine, Naoto. It's the fact they're involved with my charge that's important to me. I want to know how much they're aware of, and how they've been treating him."

"If I take them to a formal interview, then I shall endeavour to have you seated in the observation room. T'would largely be up to the director of the investigation, though."
"Is that still…"
"...Mitsuru-san's nominated stand-in, yes. I haven't made any progress regarding the whereabouts of the Shadow Operatives."
"...sure thing. Thanks for keeping me updated, Naoto."

"Where is Arisato now?"
"I brought him back to mine for the weekend like normal. He's the same as always."
"Did Mochizuki object?"
"To me taking Arisato-kun home? At length, yeah. He was pretty upset."

Naoto breathed in, then out. "Alright. We shall see what happens. Do be aware that Mochizuki is more akin to Teddie than he is to you or I."
"Is he a Shadow?"
"In a manner of speaking. He is not Arisato's Shadow in the same sense you and I are familiar with, if that's what you mean, but he is not human. I don't know what will happen, but… we should not expect him to be beholden to human limitations. It may be that he disappears when separated from Arisato, or that he appears by Arisato's side during the night. Be prepared for the possibility and let me know what happens either way. I should be with you by tomorrow morning."
"That soon?"
"That soon."

Naoto was taking this seriously. They wouldn't abandon their other cases without due cause.

So this really was big.

"Alright," Souji said. "I'm still at the same apartment. Let's meet for coffee at the same place as last time. Arisato may have to come too if he isn't still asleep when you get here."
"Let's hope that he is, but we'll manage somehow either way." Naoto sighed - a deep sigh that Souji knew too well. It was the sigh of someone who had wanted to get ready for bed, but now knew that they had a long night ahead of them. "See you then, senpai."
"Yeah. See you in the morning, Naoto."

Chapter Text

Souji let out a deep, deep sigh, then sat back up at the laptop.

Arisato was staying over at his tonight, which meant the bedroom was occupied. Souji had plugged his headphones into the television while he took over the coffee table with his paperwork. He had to write this month's status report to Arisato's case supervisor in Iwatodai, and he wasn't really sure what to put.

Arisato was doing better than he had in his previous locations, after all - his grades had picked up, and he hadn't been bullied at school so far. He actually had friends; no less, friends who had gone out of their way to check in with Souji. They'd cottoned on that Arisato wasn't the best at making any problems known, and wanted to make sure. And yet…

...there'd been no improvement in his condition. No resurfacing of his personality. Or his Persona, Souji reminded himself - Minato Arisato was supposed to have several. According to the little machine Naoto had lent him, the boy currently sleeping on the apartment's only bed didn't have a single one.

And that was before Souji considered whether to make mention in the report of Mochizuki's appearance.

Maybe Arisato-kun was still an impostor somehow? No-- that was a cruel way to speak about him. He was clearly a living, breathing boy who needed to eat and sleep. That meant he needed care, love, and understanding, just like any other teenager. Even if he didn't seem like it, and even if it turned out he wasn't the same Minato Arisato who had died all those years ago.

If only they could consult Arisato's old schoolmates… but Souji and his friends had been unable to contact them for over two years, now. Calls to Yukari Takeba were deflected by her agent; likewise Mitsuru Kirijo's rotating roster of secretaries fielded all enquiries with obfuscations and excuses. Even Ken Amada, the most reliably positioned of the former Specialised Extracurricular Execution Squad, had apparently moved to an overseas school. Souji had briefly been hopeful that Mochizuki's reappearance would help with this particular problem… but that had faded when he'd realised that whoever or whatever Mochizuki was, he probably couldn't be considered a reliable witness on matters concerning Arisato.

Having a baseline for what Arisato's personality used to be like would help Souji to pick out moments when it shone through, if it did at all… and knowing more about what happened to him when he died, and at such a young age too, might pin down exactly what manner of boy was slumbering on Souji's bed.

He closed Arisato's case folder, then the laptop. He wasn't getting anywhere with this. He'd have to do it in the morning while he supervised Arisato with his schoolwork--

...the doorbell rang.

Souji checked the time on his phone. 11:47… aaaaand then he saw the three missed calls and the nine unread text messages.

Yo.Se.: yoooo partner
Yo.Se.: partner
Yo.Se.: is ur kid asleep yet
Yo.Se.: are u home
Yo.Se.: soouuuujiiiiii
Yo.Se.: souji souji souji
Yo.Se.: u better be home
Yo.Se.: also alive
Yo.Se.: i stg if uv bin murdered im gon murder em back

Cringing, Souji texted back:

I'm not dead :So.Se.
What's going on? :So.Se.

The doorball rang again. Crap! Souji had almost forgotten about it!

sec :So.Se.
doorbell :So.Se.

Not wanting to wake Arisato-kun, Souji didn't call out to let the person at the door know he was coming - instead, he simply made sure the chain was on, then opened it.

"He-- Yosuke?!"

He scrambled to get the chain off, flinging the door open and himself into his husband's arms.

How was Yosuke here?! Souji buried his face into his husband's hair, breathing deeply. He smelled like outside. Yosuke's gorgeous laugh soothed his worries like honey over the tongue, and although Yosuke was only returning the hug with one arm, it still felt like home.

"I had no idea you were visiting," Souji mumbled into his husband's shoulder. "The apartment's a mess and Arisato-kun's asleep on the bed…"
"That's fine, partner," Yosuke murmured, stroking Souji's back. "Can I come in? We're kinda stood in the hallway…"
"Oh right," Souji nodded. He grabbed one of Yosuke's bags and his suitcase, hauling them inside. Yosuke grabbed the other bag, and it was only then that Souji realised he was holding flowers in one hand.

"How did you get here?" Souji said slowly as he nudged open his office door, putting Yosuke's bags down gently by his desk. "You're supposed to be in Inaba managing the store, aren't you?"
"I got here by bullet train, duh," Yosuke beamed. Souji could feel his cheeks flush; Yosuke still gave him butterflies, even after all this time. "It was payday last weekend, and you sounded really bummed out on the phone, so… I dunno, I couldn't sleep last night thinking about it. So I just kinda booked the ticket. Uh, and I brought flowers!"

"I saw," Souji smiled, putting his hands on Yosuke's shoulder. "I have a windowsill they could live on, I think, as long as they don't need too much sun…"
"Nanako had too much schoolwork to come with in the end, but she helped me pick them," Yosuke beamed. His smile radiated love; Souji basked in it.
"You're amazing." He leaned in, pressing a tender kiss to Yosuke's lips. "How did you know this is just what I needed…?"

"Partner's intuition," Yosuke smiled, setting the flowerpot down so he could wrap his arms around Souji's waist. It was so good to be close to Yosuke again. He'd missed him more than he realised.

"How long are you in town for?"
"Just the weekend," Yosuke admitted. "I couldn't really afford more time off work than that, but… I really wanted to see you." He gave the bashful smile that Souji first fell in love with when they were teenagers, and Souji fell in love with it all over again.
"Naoto's coming by tomorrow morning, but it's for work. I know it's a pain, partner, but you'd be doing me a huge favour--"
"I'll babysit the kid, no problem," Yosuke smiled. He rest his hand on Souji's cheek. "Whatever you need."

He kissed Yosuke's forehead, then his cheek. "I wanted to see you too," he admitted. He brushed Yosuke's hair back gently. "I'm tired tonight, though. I imagine you are too. Did you book a hotel, or…?"
"I know you just have the one futon, but I was kinda hoping I could share it with you…" Yosuke blushed, and Souji found himself unable to stop grinning even if he had wanted to.

"I usually set it up in the office." He cupped his husband's cheek. "Let's get it sorted out so we can rest."

Falling into the futon at the end of a long day was so much easier when Yosuke was in it, waiting for him. Souji gladly nestled into the hug Yosuke offered. He was asleep moments later.

The morning's troubles could wait until, well. The morning.

Chapter Text

'Before school' was fairly early for a Saturday, especially for Futaba to request a meeting. She had demanded Yusuke come by Leblanc before classes started to see herself and Akira about something; although he'd asked for clarification, she'd refused to provide it.

That was fairly typical of her, honestly. She had an odd fixation on being mysterious. It was just that, well… usually, her mysterious and wise Oracle episodes were limited strictly to between the hours of 3pm and 3am. 6am was an anomaly. This had to be something important.

Yusuke scrounged change together for the train, took one of the commuter services over to Yongen-Jaya, and walked briskly to the café. He slid into the booth opposite Akira and Futaba without stopping. By the looks on their faces - and the fact they had closed the café - he was right about the importance of the matter.

"So," Futaba began immediately, without so much as saying good morning, "at first I can't find anything, and I think maybe he's just a luddite, especially since he's so weird. But then I keep looking and I see some older blog entries posted by a Minato Arisato. Like, 2009, 2010 old. They're all really short and kinda impersonal, more like a diary... but they're there, and I'm tracing them back to this school dormitory in Iwatodai City over in Hyougo Prefecture. It was a communal router with basically no consistent IP differentiation 'cos this is like 2009, so I go digging to try and find the list of people staying in that dormitory to make sure it's not someone else and who do I go and see?"

She slipped a print-out across the table. It was a list of students receiving school accommodation from a place named Gekkoukan High, in the very same Iwatodai City that Mochizuki had mentioned. Futaba's finger tapped at one particular name.

"Minato Arisato," she said. "But here's the thing. Seventeen years old. No legal next of kin. Sex M, nationality Japanese, eyes blue, hair dyed blue. So then I look at Kosei's student listings from this year and it's Minato Arisato, legal next of kin Souji Seta, the social worker guy. Sex M, nationality Japanese, eyes blue, hair black. But Arisato's still listed as only nineteen when he should easily be in his mid 20's by now."

"What?" Yusuke frowned. "How can you be certain it wasn't a case of mistaken identity...?"
"That's why I wanted to talk to you." She slid another print-out over. "Do you recognise anyone from this photo, Inari?"

Yusuke looked down at it. It was a class photograph from Gekkoukan High, dated as being from 2009. It was a relatively small class size, so it didn't take long for him to pick out a familiar glassy gaze…

"...that's definitely him," Yusuke said, in awe. Arisato's signature blank expression was there... but there was more of a glint to his eye. He was almost smiling.

What had happened to him since this photo was taken…?

"But how?"
Akira leant in. "We don't know. But we think we might be able to find the answer in his Palace."
"Do you think I should ask Seta-san about it...? I did inform him of Mochizuki's appearance."
Futaba shook her head. "You said it yourself, Inari; we can't rule out the possibility that Seta's involved. Until we can be sure he's innocent, we can't tip him off that we know."
"Alright." Yusuke sighed deeply.

There was a brief silence. Akira broke it.

"Okay," he said, setting his hand on the table. "Futaba. Keep looking through Arisato's old archive and see what you can learn about who he was back in 2009. Yusuke. Can you continue to keep an eye on him at school? Look after him. See if you can learn anything else about him or his situation. And we should go back into his Palace after school today."
"Yes sir!" Futaba sat up straight, saluting Akira.
"Understood," Yusuke nodded.

As Yusuke left Leblanc and headed back across the city for morning classes, he found himself reflecting on the week's turbulent events. So much had happened in such a short span of time, and yet that seemed to be par for the course this year. It wasn't even his busiest week so far.

With Arisato's Palace as docile as it was, the most dangerous thing they'd done this week was… well, probably going to the private residence of someone they were pretty sure, but not absolutely certain, was Arisato's social worker. It could easily have turned into another Kaneshiro situation; thankfully, luck was on their side this time, and Seta-san seemed to be a perfectly ordinary person. The more Yusuke thought on it, the more he couldn't see Seta-san as anything other than a genuinely concerned party.

But then, he had himself been deceived by Madarame... Futaba's caution was probably for the best.

And then the photograph from 2009... how would Arisato react when confronted about it?

Would he lie again?

Once again, Yusuke was struck with the profound sensation that the Phantom Thieves were the only ones truly perceiving the full breadth of this problem. Persona user or no, Seta-san clearly didn't have access to Arisato's Palace, or Futaba would have sensed him there. No one else - not even Mochizuki, it seemed - could begin to perceive that angle of things. So once again, Yusuke felt very strongly that, as the Phantom Thieves were the only ones seeing the full problem... they were the ones who would have to fix it.

Arisato was being homeschooled today. Seta-san had texted Yusuke to let him know, lest he worry, which was nice of him. Mochizuki was devastated about it; Yusuke's classes that morning were punctuated thoroughly with deep, despairing sighs. More than once, he noticed Mochizuki staring longingly at Minato's empty seat. The degree of pining was a little absurd, really.

A thought occurred to Yusuke. They didn't really know… what Mochizuki was to Arisato. He was obviously important to him - important enough to have a prominent cognition in his Palace. But he hadn't seen Mochizuki's name on the old Gekkoukan dormitory register. Arisato couldn't very well testify himself, and if Mochizuki was acting in bad faith, it would be all too easy for him to lie about their situation to gain the advantage…

And even if he was just an ordinary boy who had somehow become trapped in Arisato's Palace and survived without being killed or ejected by the Shadows there, then why was he so… clingy towards Arisato? Were they simply lovers? Brothers, perhaps? There was a resemblance. Or was there a deeper connection? What ends might Ryoji Mochizuki go to in order to be reunited with the object of his fascination…?

All things considered, Yusuke wasn't sure if leaving Mochizuki alone while they went to the Palace was a good idea… Equally, he couldn't really think of a good reason to ask Boss to watch over him at the café, nor a good excuse to get Mochizuki there in the first place. It was just a risk they'd have to take.

Class let out for the day at lunchtime on Saturdays, so he left Mochizuki at the school caféteria and went to let his friends into the north dormitory building. They'd solve this one way or the other.

They had to.

Chapter Text

They didn't really have a choice but to leave Mochizuki in the care of the Kosei staff for the afternoon. He'd not done anything untoward so far. And Arisato was safe with Seta-san until Monday.

Akira made the call just before they re-entered the Palace. It would keep things simpler. For all they knew, Mochizuki was a completely ordinary human, and taking him back into the Metaverse would only prove a liability.

The good news was they had a direction to head in now; no more aimless Palace exploration. Crow and Queen both agreed: Arisato's Palace being based out of his current boarding school. The anomaly with the timeline of his past schooling. The fact that Mochizuki had specifically mentioned the city of Iwatodai. All of it suggested the name of Arisato's previous school, Gekkoukan High, was a good destination within the Palace train network to try and aim for.

"Gekkoukan High is a destination name on the schedule board," Panther nodded, pointing to the printed timetable that was posted up on the side of one of the brick buildings that littered the station. "It's on Platform 12. I guess we head there?"

"Can I help you?"

The voice's cheeriness belied the Thieves' reaction to hearing it. "How did he even find us?!" Skull hissed as they all turned once more to face Ryoji Mochizuki.

"Did you follow us here?" Panther asked, but Oracle was shaking her head. "It's not the real one," she said, "uh, ignoring for a sec we don't know if the other one is real real or just-- it's the cognition, okay?"

The cognition either didn't, or pretended not to, hear Oracle's exposition. "Not here to cause trouble today, are we?" it said, accusation faintly haunting its cheery tone.

"We would never," Queen simpered. Joker always thought of this as her best talking-to-cops voice. "Would you be able to help us find Platform 12? We're looking for our friend, you see…"

"Well, you're all known troublemakers," the cognition explained, as though this were both obvious and reasonable, "so I don't think Deputy Manager Elizabeth would be very pleased if I helped you out. Especially if something happened afterwards."

It folded its arms, raising an eyebrow at the group. "After all, once you went around to Seta-san's house, he started asking all sorts of questions. He even tried to get the lighthouse keeper to answer them. Don't you know that's not his job?! All he needs to do is stay in the lighthouse and ward off danger!

"Or else we'll all die. So stop trying to bring him down here, alright?"

It smiled sweetly at them, then turned sharply on its heel and stalked off. All before the Thieves could get another word in.

"Well…" Oracle squinted. "If the Gekkoukan train ends up taking us to the lighthouse, I guess we know we have the right one. And if it isn't, we can just try again, right?"

"Unless the cognition decides to kill us all," Noir said cheerfully.
"Er… yes," Queen tentatively agreed. "Unless that."

They had to look for Platform 12 on their own - but with Fox, who knew Arisato-kun best out of the Thieves, and Oracle working together… well, it would have taken them longer otherwise. Platform 12 was an unassuming part of the station identical to the others in every way except the number - written in the Roman numerals, like a clock, rather than the Arabic numerals the other platforms used. The current itinerary for the next departing train displayed on old-fashioned flapboards. Naganaki Shrine; Iwatodai Dormitory; Moonlit Bridge; Tatsumi Port Island; and the final destination, Gekkoukan High School.

"Something tells me we're in the right place," Crow said. "The number being written differently has to be significant in a place like this."
"Let's board the train when it comes, then?" Panther said, rocking back on her heels.
"Yeah, but if we just go right up to it, we're gonna get stopped by that weird cognition again," said Oracle, but there was a sly grin on her face.

The grin spread to Skull. "Train heist," he chanted.
Panther joined in too. "Train heist," she repeated, and the two of them began chanting it. "Train heist, train heist… "
To more or less everyone's shock, possibly his own included, Crow joined in too.
"Train heist, train heist, train heist--"

"Alright, alright," Joker conceded, grinning at his friends. "Are we being sneaky Thieves or not? Shut up."

Everyone laughed. (Quietly.)

"Considering everything, the train heist sounds like the most realistic way for us to get over there. Let's do it."

--

If this was a movie, Mona lamented, this whole sequence would be displayed through the clever use of simultaneous narration and film. It would cut down the anticipation time for the audience, and streamline the whole process into one smooth sequence of satisfyingly shot vignettes…

Unfortunately, this was real life. They regretted that Oracle hadn't been able to tap into the collective consciousness and somehow take advantage of the trope; they'd had to explain the whole plan manually. With words. Like some kind of… regular person, instead of a cool phantom thief. Lame.

"Once we're clear of the station," they concluded, "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."

"Any questions?" Joker asked, looking around the group. Mona definitely expected Crow to have some, but he stood there, sanguine as anything. He had, they supposed, helped to come up with the plan in the first place.

No one else had anything to say, so they proceeded to their respective positions. Mona hated to admit it, but they were excited to see this in action. It had been a masterstroke of Phantom Thieving expertise, if they did say so themself.

"Hey," Panther said as she turned to leave. "What about you, Mona?"

"Me? I'll wait at Platform 12 and keep it clear," they said, grinning and patting their chest. "Don't you worry about me, my fair lady. You'll see me soon enough!"

"Riiiiight… c'mon, Noir," Panther responded, taking Noir by the hand and leading her off. Joker snickered - but scuttled off with Crow, after Mona shot him what they liked to imagine was a withering stare. It wasn't their fault their stubby little felinoid body was bad at conveying human emotions.

Chapter Text

"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.