He’d changed. And not for the better.
The invisible mask Akira wore around his friends was beginning to break, revealing the sorrow buried deep within his heart, the sadness he tried so hard to disguise.
It all began after they defeated Shido. Akira began to barricade himself away in his room, isolating himself from his friends. He would lie there, seemingly for hours, staring at the chipped ceiling with a hopelessness ridden into his eyes.
Everybody knew something was very wrong with him and yet nobody wanted to confront the problem. Until now.
It was on the 17th of December when they’d finally decided to take action.
Morgana ran through the deserted halls of Shujin Academy, hurrying to the room as fast as his little legs could carry him.
It was at that time of the evening where the moon had just risen in the winter sky, looming over the silent school.
It wasn't exactly the ideal time and place to hold a Phantom Thieves meeting but what choice did they have? If Akira wasn't going to talk to them they'd just have to figure out what was wrong with him themselves...
The black cat scurried down the corridor, trying not to think about any ghouls creeping around in the darkness. Despite himself, he shivered in fear, even though the shadows he'd faced were probably much worse than whatever lurked in the dark. But without Akira he felt vulnerable. Exposed.
He pushed past his feelings and eventually found an illuminated classroom, contrasting against the other dark rooms like a shining star in the inky black sky. Morgana held his chin up as he sauntered into the room, though he could feel himself trembling from anticipation. Hopefully, this would all work out for the best...
"Finally you're here!" Ryuji exclaimed in his loud booming voice.
"We've been waiting for ages." Groaned Futaba, who was currently balancing her computer on one of the desks.
"Sorry about the wait. I needed to make sure Akira wouldn't come back here. Now I assume you've all noticed the changes in his behaviour?”
"Yeah what’s with him? It’s like he’s stopped functioning altogether. And Futaba said he’s become a shut-in." Ann replied, anxiously fiddling with her golden locks.
"And there were those nightmares he keeps having too.” Morgana frowned, trying to piece it all together.
"Our leader has not been the same. Not since..." Sighed Yusuke looking too distraught to continue his sentence.
"Not since the interrogation room...if my deductions are correct. Though his behaviour changed drastically after we stole Shido’s heart.” Makoto told them, chewing her lip fearfully.
"He’s not talking to us. And, as much as I hate to say it, he's not getting any better.” Stated Haru, her honeyed eyes wide with concern.
"I tried to get him to come out with me this morning but he wouldn’t even look at me," Morgana sighed as he recalled the event.
"He's stopped eating his meals too. Sojiro said he's stayed upstairs for the past week. Hasn’t come out at all, not even to take a shower.” Futaba swung her legs back and forth, refusing to look at the team.
"Dude, what’s up with him?”
"Well, there is his...palace." Makoto sighed.
"I can't believe he has one. I mean out of all the people..." Ann frowned, her shoulders sinking down.
"It is hard to believe. But if we don't do this then I fear he'll never get better."
"Yusuke's right. We have to help him!” Futaba pushed up her glasses, seeming more motivated than ever before.
"He'd never let us down. So we can't either!" Haru exclaimed.
"Yeah! Let's do this!" Ryuji yelled out in enthusiastically.
"You're right. If anything were to happen as a result of doing nothing..." Makoto brought her arms to her chest. She looked vulnerable then, so unlike the Queen they knew and loved.
"We should start looking for the keywords then," Ann suggested, shoulders drooping ever so slightly. Saying those words made this situation feel even more...real.
"The keywords are Akira Kurusu and...his memories?!” Futaba said in confusion.
“Wait...that can be a location?” Questioned Ryuji.
“But how is that possible, that’s not even a real place?” Ann asked, peering at the phone with a puzzled, almost comical expression.
”Well...it may be because he's a wildcard.” Morgana responded in an unsure manner, confusion written across his furry face.
”We may know more as we venture into the palace.” Yusuke furrowed his eyebrows in deep thought.
“Speaking of the palace, any ideas for the final word?" Futaba asked chirpily.
"Could it be mansion?”
"What about a prison?"
"Oh come on. Don't you guys know anything about Akira?" Futaba pried. It occurred to the Phantom Thieves that they really didn't know much about their own leader. They'd always talked to him about their problems but he never shared any of his own. He’d hid his past as much as he could from them, they’d just been too wrapped up in themselves to notice it.
"If it’s linked to what happened in the interrogation room then maybe it’s...hell?" Makoto wondered.
It was a match.
“Akira...” Ann sighed, eyes downcast to the floor.
“We must go at once!” Yusuke exclaimed unable to bear the thought of leaving Akira in the state he was in now.
“Yeah... let's go.” Futaba activated the app.
The thieves found themselves facing a cathedral lit up in flames, with only the upper half on the building unexposed to the red-hot fire. Only the highest tower wasn't engulfed in the flames. The window on it showed the fool tarot card plastered onto it. Something about it felt significant, though they wouldn't discover why until much later on.
The roof was decorated with a stone gargoyle. Creepy statues of weeping angels lay outstretched on blood-stained grass. The sky was a deep shade of purple, like the colour of a fresh bruise.
But everything else was stripped from colour, so the group stuck out like dark ink against pale skin. Weirdly enough they were already dressed in their vibrant thief outfits.
"Hey Mona, why are we already seen as threats?" The faux blond wondered, scratching his head in confusion.
"Most likely it's because Joker’s subconscious already notices our presence."
"Wait so if he knows we're here then why does he see us as threats?" Ann asked, whilst inspecting the stone grey walls of the cathedral. Somehow the darker shades of grey entwined in the brickwork was caused it to look like a face, making her shiver slightly in fear.
"Could it be because he doesn't want us to help him?" Makoto thought aloud, as sharp as ever.
"But why?" Ryuji looked even more bewildered.
Yusuke answered him in a clear, confident tone as he studied the sculpted angels engraved onto the main entrance.
"I suppose we'll just have to see for ourselves.”
Finally, he was alone.
He didn't have to pretend like he was fine. Faking his happiness, his wellbeing for all these weeks had been exhausting.
He hoped getting away from everyone would help keep his mind at ease. But no matter what he did he couldn’t forget what happened in the interrogation room...
He could still hear his interrogators cackles and those soft hands pressing down on his throat, causing him to gasp for air. He wanted to escape his grip, to call for help but at that moment he was frozen, completely and utterly useless. He couldn’t even struggle as the man tore away his spirit and body, violating and breaking Akira's heart and soul in only a few seconds.
When Sae finally came to interrogate him Akira was a snivelling mess, hunched up in the corner of the room. She’d come too late.
By then the Akira they'd all known was gone.
And in his place was a shell of a boy, alone in this dark world.
He closed his eyes trying to blot out the memory.
But how do you escape your own mind?