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TheCharredDragon

One world, one love, shadows of mass destruction
Content approved by bobandbill
My thanks for approving this.
Rated R (or M if this was AO3 or M in ESRB rating) for mature themes, violence, strong language (usually shit, crap and damn, but up to fuck) blood, physical abuse, sexual themes, suicide (both attempted and past), partial nudity, alcohol references, drugs references and gun usage). Otherwise known as typical Persona 5 stuff.
Additional and approptiate warnings/reminders will also be added in appropriate chapters.
Summary: "You didn't have to fight for me, you know." "And you didn't have to curl your hair so we'll look even more alike." Ren stared before he softly chuckled, Akira joining him not long after. With one simple decision as a child, Ren Amamiya goes to Tokyo alongside his little sister, Akira. (P5R Sibling AU) (Ren/Ann, Akechi/Fem!Akira) (Updates bi-weekly)
FF.net version here.

Prologue: For Want of A Breath

{R}​

Screaming, shouting, and insults... Those were the only thoughts in Ren's head as he tried to make himself as small as possible in the corner of his room and covered his ears to block the noise. But it was no use. He could still hear Mom being mean to Dad. He whimpered and sniffed. It was probably over something stupid again, like Dad not buying the right drink or not putting his clothes away. Or, worse, it was something he did and Dad was taking it for him again. Why did Mom have to be so mean? Dad loved her but Mom just kept shouting and hitting him. And she was never nice to Dad or him. Wasn't Mom supposed to love Dad and him?

There was a crash and Ren flinched.

He didn't really think. There was only one new thought:

Run.

And he did. He went out of his room, past his parents in the kitchen, shouting for him as he burst through the front door. He felt the heat of the sun on his skin. He could hear the talking of people passing by. And he could smell the scent of wet concrete. But he didn't see any of it, shutting his eyes to try and stop the tears threatening to come out. He didn't care where he went, he just wanted to run. But it wasn't long before his body slowed, telling him to stop, and he was forced to listen to it. He ended up sitting on a sidewalk, his back up against a random building as he hugged his knees to his chest.

Ren didn't know how long he sat there. All he knew was that the ones around him only glanced at him before going on their way, and that the sun was starting to set. He knew he should head back, but he also knew there was still a good chance of Dad and Mom still fighting if he did, maybe even because of him. And he didn't want to go back to that. It didn't matter though as when he thought that...

"Ren!"

Dad shouted and he glanced up to see him run up to him. When Dad was beside him, he kneeled and looked him over.

"Are you all right?" he said.

Ren looked back at the ground.

Dad just sighed. "Come on, let's get going."

He gripped his arm and started to move him.

But Ren snapped his head side to side. "No..."

Another sigh. "Ren, please. Your mother is mad enough as it is."

He was going to speak again but his ears picked up the sound of coughing and panic. Ren turned to his left to see a woman in very dirty clothes shouting for help, asking for someone to call an ambulance. In her arms was a little girl, her clothes just as dirty and torn, who was shaking from her wheezing. It looked almost like the little girl was choking. Ren felt Dad pull him again, about to lift him up and carry him. But he thrashed in his grip. That surprised Dad into letting him go and he said, pointing at the girls,

"Dad! They need help!"

His dad followed his hand and saw them.

"What?" he said.

Why did Dad have to be slow? Ren just went for his dad's pockets to see if he had his phone.

"R-Ren!" he said, his big hands stopping him with little effort. "What are you doing?"

"They need help Dad! That girl can't breathe!"

He struggled to get his hands out of his dad's. Why didn't Dad get it? Why did he keep doing things that didn't make sense? Why did Mom do the same? He was tired of it. He wanted to help. He just wanted to help. Just let him help!

His thoughts were interrupted when the hold was suddenly gone and he saw Dad grab his phone, call the ambulance, and said,

"This is Souichirou Amamiya. There's this girl having a hard time breathing and..."

He went on to tell what the person on the phone needed to know as he went closer to the two, Ren following him. When the woman noticed them however, she looked like a scared puppy as she hugged the little girl closer. Not liking that, Ren said,

"We wanna help!"

The woman was shocked and she looked back and forth between him and his dad but eventually stopped to look at only Dad, who nodded at her.

"I have some questions I need to ask you for the caller. Can you do that for me?"

Despite everything, and also looking like she was going to cry, the woman smiled, nodded and said,

"Thank you."

(A)​

Darkness in her eyes.

Softness under her back.

And...air up her nose?

Akira gasped and opened her eyes to find that, no, she wasn't in Hell or Limbo or Heaven. Even if she didn't know what kind of place was so big and white and clean nor why she had a mask over her face, she knew this wasn't any of the places dead people would go. Not that she was sure which one of the three would she have ended up in. Good people went to Heaven after all and Mom said she was a good girl but people kept saying she was a demon, a curse. And she couldn't help but wonder if they're right...if all she caused her mom was pain and she couldn't even breath or see properly.

"Oh. You're awake," a voice said.

For a second, Akira thought that she was actually in Heaven after all and that was an angel's voice. But then there was rustling to her right and she saw the silhouette of a boy who had black hair and almost looked like he had black eyes, but it was hard to tell with the distance between them, too far for her broken eyes.

"You okay?"

"Ah. Yeah..." she said.

"Good," he said, Akira imagining him smiling from his tone. "I'll go get your mom."

He ran off, presumably towards the door as, after some grunting, she heard the slide of wheels on metal and the black of his hair disappeared while he leaned out to say something. Akira just blinked as another silhouette in grey clothes and Mom rushed inside. Mom was the first by her side with tears in her eyes.

"Akira... Oh Akira..."

Mom hugged her tightly and Akira did the same, feeling like she would cry too, glad she was back with her. They stayed like that for a while but then Mom leaned back, turned to the stranger and, for the first time she had seen towards anyone besides her, smiled.

"Thank you again," she said. "I...I don't think I could ever repay you."

"No need," the stranger said, a man from his voice. Akira could also easily hear the relief and slight smile in his tone. "I'm just glad your daughter is fine."

"But..."

"I'll say it again and again, it's fine."

The black puff then joined in and said, "We just wanted to help."

Her mom jumped a little before looking down to him with surprise, but it was for a moment, her happy expression soon back.

"Thank you very much for that," Mom said. "Can I know your name? Mine is Shiori Kurusu." She briefly glanced at her. "The one you saved is Akira."

The black puff once again disappeared but she assumed he was bowing since he came back up again as he said,

"I'm Ren Amamiya. Nice to meet you, Kurusu-san."

"Nice to meet you too, Amamiya-kun."

The peaceful moment, however, was broken when someone at the top of their lungs said,

"SOUICHIROU!"

Everyone jumped and looked to the door as there were sounds of a commotion outside. Then, just as sudden as the shout, Akira heard the door to the room slammed open and she scrunched her nose. In the doorway was the person who had shouted earlier. Whoever it was, all she could tell was that it was a woman with brown hair, she stunk of alcohol and had sounded ready to tear something into pieces. The man, Souichirou, seemed to know her but...

"Tomoko..." Souichirou said, apprehension dripping from just that one word.

But then the woman, who she assumed to be Tomoko, said, "What are you doing here in the hospital? Where's Ren?"

"Ah, well, about that..."

She seemed to have spotted the boy she was looking for as she said, "There you are, you little brat..." The brown dot went to the black puff, Ren. She seemed to have done something as he shouted in pain. "Where did you think you were going?"

"Tomoko, please..." Souichirou said.

"And you! You still haven't answered me! What are you doing here in the hospital?" she said, now with Ren struggling against her.

Akira frowned, and so did Mom too. Akira wanted to tell the woman to let him go, but then Ren said,

"We were helping Akira!"

"You! Shut up!" Tomoko said, sounding crazier by the second. "I've had enough of you! I am talking with your father."

"No you're not! You're shouting at him! And then you're gonna hurt him! Stop being mean to Dad!"

"Why you!"

Akira felt her breath freeze but not from her breathing problem. Even with her imperfect vision, she could make out that Tomoko raised her free hand and swung it towards Ren. But there wasn't the sound of flesh slapping flesh. Instead Tomoko gasped as Mom had jumped from the bed and grabbed the offending arm.

"Don't hurt him!" Mom said, sounding like an angry cat. "It's my fault they're here! So if you're going to hit anyone, hit me!"

"Stay out of this!"

Akira gasped. The crazy woman finally let go of Ren and was about to hit Mom, but once again...

"Tomoko! That's enough!"

...her hand was caught, this time by Souichirou.

"Souichirou... Let. Go..." the crazy Tomoko said, her voice now low and dangerous.

"No. I won't. I won't listen to you this time, Tomoko. I thought you would get better if I stayed and tried to help you. I thought it would be best for Ren to have his mother. But if a stranger has to protect him from his own mother, then I've had enough. We're done."

"What...?"

"You heard me. We're done. I'll ask our families for a divorce. Now get out."

Tomoko gritted her teeth. "Why you...!"

"Ma'am?"

Everyone focused on the doorway to find a nurse standing there.

"If you will continue to disturb the patients, we will call security to escort you out."

Akira knew it was only a second. It wasn't actually long. But it felt like it to her as the woman stared the down the nurse, scared she might just decide to turn into a wolf or something because she certainly acted like a monster and maybe she was secretly a werewolf. But that second passed, the woman muttered something Akira couldn't catch, and then she said,

"Fine. I'll go."

Mom and Ren's dad stoped holding on to her and she stalked out the door. But not before she said,

"You'll regret this, Souichirou."

"No, I won't," he said. "I only regret that you won't let me help you."

Tomoko once again said something Akira couldn't hear and then she was gone. The nurse stayed a bit to make sure she wouldn't come back all of a sudden before leaving with a good-bye. It wasn't until the nurse was gone did Souichirou and Mom relax. When they did, she and Ren said,

"Are you okay?"

She turned and stared at Ren, who she imagined looked just as surprised as her that they had said that at the same time. Their attention returned to their respective parents when they chuckled. Akira couldn't help but pout behind her transparent mask.

"What's so funny?"

"Aha, sorry sorry Akira. I'm just glad you and Amamiya-kun are okay," Mom said.

"Me too," Souichirou, Ren's dad, said. Then he turned a little towards Mom, his voice having lost its edge and now much softer. "And...thank you."

"Eh?" Mom said. "For what?"

"For protecting Ren."

"Ah, well, um...it's the least I could do... You've done so much for us already."

It was then Ren decided to tackle Mom's leg in a hug, surprising her.

"Amamiya-kun...?"

"Thank you, Shiori-san. You were cool."

Akira smiled. "Yeah! You were cool, Mom! You grabbed her arm like on the TV!" she said.

"Eh? Cool...?"

Akira was going to say more but those words turned into a yawn in the middle of opening her mouth.

"Akira?" Mom said with slight panic.

But Ren's dad said, "It's fine. Just tired, right?"

"No I'm not..." Akira said, but it wasn't very loud and her eyes started to droop.

Souichirou chuckled. "Come on. How about we leave and let Akira rest? We can call a nurse to check on her to be sure."

"But..."

"You need sleep too!" Ren said to Mom. "You look bad! Dad says a good sleep always makes you feel better."

This time his dad kept back his chuckle, only letting out a short snicker. Mom stared for a bit, looking back and forth between Ren and his dad. Eventually, she calmed down and said,

"Okay okay, Amamiya-kun. I'll rest too."

"Then let's go," Ren's dad said.

The three went to the door but Akira whimpered and said, soft from her body's want to sleep, "Wait..."

Only Ren heard as he turned but Mom and his dad went out, soon followed by their voices sounding like whispers as they talked to some of the staff. Ren, meanwhile, went back to her bed and, with the help of a chair, leaned against the bed to be near her.

"What's wrong?"

"I don't...wanna sleep..."

The boy just tilted his head. "Why not? Sleep makes you feel better."

"But..."

She didn't want to see the bad people in her dreams hurting her or Mom... She tried to say that, she really did, but her throat choked up as the nightmares came to the forefront again and she wanted to cry from them.

But, thankfully, Ren then said, "Is it bad dreams?"

Akira just nodded.

A moment passed before he nodded and sat like a shogun with a thud, his legs crossed.

"I'll stay until you sleep so that I can steal any bad dreams you have."

Akira pouted. "How can you steal bad dreams?"

"Because I'm a phantom thief."

"Huh? Phantom thief...? What's a phantom thief?"

"Phantom thieves are special thieves that can steal anything."

"Really...?"

"Really."

"But aren't thieves bad?"

"Yeah. But phantom thieves can be good. Because they can steal anything. So they can steal from bad guys and bad things like bad dreams."

Well, if he put it that way, it sounded very nice. And he and his dad did save her. If he thinks he could steal her bad dreams...

Akira nodded and leaned against the pillows, the surprising softness making her close her eyes as she said,

"Okay..."

No bad dreams came.

Author's Notes: Hello and welcome to Persona 5: Refraction.

This is more or less P5R but with a twist: we have both Ren and Akira.

The reason why stems from several things. One was my want for a FeMC for P5 which spawned from the speculation on Kasumi before she was properly revealed. Another was my love for the Akechi/Fem!Akira ship, which is because of the fic Wings of Rebellion by aiyumi (which you'll notice will have a lot of influence on this if you've read it). Yet another was wanting to make a novelization of P5. And because of those it led to me thinking of unique way of combining it from one simple AU that is common (as far as I know): Minato and Minako as twins.

And thus this was born. So there will be some self-indulgence in this but hopefully it won't be too much and/or you'll still enjoy reading this as much as I had writing this.

I was actually tempted to not make this prologue at all but changed my mind because there were several things I wanted to establish. One, what Ren's family situation is and how I imagine it to be for canon P5/P5R. Two, what changes to that situation because of deciding to save Akira. And three, a reason why Ren and Akira have the intense urge to help others, even a certain detective.

Yes, there will be pairings in this fic. The main one is Akechi/Akira as that is, well, kind of the one third of the point of this fic. Ann/Ren will also be in here too, with hints of others if I can sneak it in... But note, as I've said, the pairings aren't the main/only focus and are, if anything, a subplot (at least from the research I did on subplots...). Hence why this fic is in this section and not the Shipping Fics section despite there being ships in this.

Akira's asthma was slightly inspired by the time-loop-travel-fix-it-fic called Escape My Night by KhadeanVhaden on AO3. I liked the idea, especially since I'm someone who actually has asthma, and once I thought of Akira with asthma, it worked well with tying her into P5's story, or at least how I tied her into the story. I would recommend reading that fic. It starts out really dark (and I do mean dark) but ends very sweet.

The title of the fic, Refraction, is in part because it starts with R like Royal, but more in reference to the fact that it means that the path of light goes in a different direction when it deflects on something and colors are the light we see reflected from a surface, thus a reference to Colors Flying High, the opening song of P5R, which is all about "choosing your own color" aka "being yourself". So basically the title is reference to the canon divergence in this fic and the colors theme in the song of P5R.

Meanwhile, the title of the prologue is based on the trope For Want of a Nail and changing the end to breath in reference to Akira.

For anyone who might have noticed, the reason why Souichiro said "I'll ask our families for a divorce" is because of what research I could do on Japanese divorce and child custody. Short version: for the sake of my sanity on their backstory while keeping it realistic to what I researched, Souichirou kept custody of Ren thanks to both his parents and Tomoko's agreeing that Tomoko wasn't fit to be a mother anymore when they were divorced by them and the law.
 
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TheCharredDragon

One world, one love, shadows of mass destruction
Chapter 1: The Other Wild Card

(A)​

Akira observed the scenery.

She had always wanted to ride a train. There was nothing quite like seeing the surroundings go by so fast and yet feel like floating past it. It was made even better with all the landmarks on the way, thanks to the line they were on having quite a few of them on the way to Tokyo. But she couldn't really bring herself to enjoy it as she reminisced on how they got here.

"Please, Big Bro," she said that day. "Can you please come with me?"

"Hmm? Come with you?" her older brother by one year said. "Why?"

"Well, there's this book I want to get but it's..."

"It's...?"

"It's on the far end of town so it'll be close to dark when I'm heading back and..."

Her brother just sighed before shaking his head with a small smile. "Is it about swords, by any chance?"

"Hey! It's not just swords! It's an encyclopedia of weapons! I've been looking everywhere for it! And the only reason I know it's there is because—!"

"All right, all right, I get it. Let's go so we can get back soon," he said, shouldering his briefcase with an amused smile.

As grateful as she was, she still couldn't help but pout at that. But that was soon gone when they reached the bookstore and Akira finally got the encyclopedia she wanted.

"Thank you, Mrs. Akatsu," she said to the woman manning the old bookshop.

"Oh, it's my pleasure, Amamiya-chan," she said, her smile making her wrinkles prominent. "It's always good to see books off to new homes."

"Bye! See you later!" she said and they left the familiar bookstore.

As soon as they were out, Ren said, "You're sure that book is in top condition?"

Akira rolled her eyes and smiled. "Yes, I checked. Or rather, I had Mrs. Akatsu check. The pages don't smell."

Her brother was still hesitant, but sighed and said, "All right, if you say so."

"You can check it yourself when we get back if you want, you know."

"I think my little sister has had enough of my nagging, so no," he said, smirking.

She slapped his arm in retaliation but all that did was make her brother laugh and she, too, fell victim to it. When the laughter faded, they walked in companiablr silence, the little lighting not deterring them as they walked the familar path back home. However, about halfway home, they heard a woman shouting in distress. The two stopped, looked at each other for a moment, then rushed off towards the sound. As they thought, there was a woman and it seemed she was being harassed by a man.

Just as fast as they came, they intervened, telling the man to stop, her brother also pushing him away from the woman. Apparently, that was enough to make the man topple over. But considering Akira could smell the alcohol off of him so strong it almost made her wretch, she hadn't been so surprised.

What had caught her off guard was the man blowing his top off, threatening to sue her brother. And, as if on cue, the sound of police sirens were coming closer and the man told the woman to tell them her brother had assaulted him.

"What?!" Akira said, took a step towards him, ready to say more with a punch, but was stopped by her brother grabbing her wrist.

Then the police came and fearfully recognized the drunkard man, who then turned to the woman and said,

"Well?"

And the woman did it. She actually did it. She told them that her older brother, Ren, had attacked the man.

Next thing she knew, Akira was the one to blow her top, shouting as loud as her defective lungs would let her. How dare he falsely accuse him?! He had been drunk and fell on his a
ss! She tried to get closer, to see his face so she could find out who the hell he was she was going to punch, but someone was holding her back. And that woman! Why did she do that?! They had been trying to help her! Why—

"Aki?" Ren said, her memory interrupted. "You all right?"

Akira glanced around, realizing she wasn't at the street anymore. She shook her head and gave her brother a smile, weak as it was.

"Yeah, I'm fine," she said. "Just...thinking."

"About last month?"

She glanced away at that and only heard her brother sigh.

"You didn't have to fight for me, you know."

That made her look back with a smirk. "And you didn't have to curl your hair so we'll look even more alike."

Ren stared before he softly chuckled, Akira joining him not long after. When he was done, he said,

"Then I guess that makes us even."

It was then that the train announced the next stop, signalling that they needed to switch lines if they wished to reach their destination.

"Ah, looks like our first stop's coming up." Ren adjusted his fake glasses and bag then said, "Ready?"

"Yup," Akira said and pulled up her mask. "Just lead the way, Big Bro."

The train stopped like it hadn't been going several miles per hour and its doors opened wide. Akira had to hold onto Ren, otherwise she would've been pushed outside and away from him by the mass of people swarming out of the locomotive. Once they were out, and not being squashed, Akira let go and looked around the station.

One thing was for sure, it was noisy. Akira was half tempted to cover her ears from the constant thrumming of steps echoing off the pavement. Thankfully, the sound wasn't as deafening once they went up and into the streets, but it was still just as crowded, everyone rushing around like ants. Despite the relatively lower volume, she was still tempted to get some form of earmuffs later.

Ren was quick to find the next line to their destination and Akira started following him. But when they reached a crossway, she heard her phone ring in her bag and took it out, a reminder for her to drink her medicine on the screen. But she couldn't take it here, not wanting to risk losing it, so she snoozed the alarm. With that handled, she looked up to her brother and was about to ask him how long it would take to get to their destination when she noticed him staring at his phone with a blank expression.

Akira frowned behind her mask and said, "Big Bro? You all right?"

Ren blinked and turned his stare to her, as if not realizing what he had been doing, before he shook his head.

"Yeah, I'm fine. Just some weird app," he said. Then he moved his finger, recognizing the motion as him deleting it. "Our next train's in five minutes. We better hurry."

Akira decided not to question it since she needed to take her medicine soon. So they went to their next train, this trip sailing by just as fast, and then they arrived at Yongen-Jaya Station. Thankfully, this one had less people milling about, making it as peaceful as a city as big as Tokyo could be.

Yongen-Jaya itself was much the same with few people going about the residential area. But Akira couldn't help but stay close to Ren as he double checked the address. Everywhere she looked were buildings, buildings and more buildings, the only things breaking it up were the streets, the signs and the people. Not a single tree in sight. The best she saw were potted plants.

Soon they found themselves in front of an unassuming house, with the nameplate "Sakura" by its gate. Ren ringed the bell and they could hear the distinct sound of a modern and artificial bell but no one answered.

"You're sure this is the right place?" she said, unable to help it.

"Pretty sure," he said, his face showing he was just as confused and worried as she was.

It was then that a passing delivery man said, "Are you two looking for Sakura-san?"

They were hesitant, but seeing as they had no other leads, they nodded.

"He's usually at his café at this time. Just back down to the street and make a left at the second turn," he said.

Ren said, "Thank you."

As the man had said, they did indeed find a café with his directions, a place called "Café LeBlanc", from what Akira could read of the overhead sign. And she was glad that their caretaker was here as the inside was a welcome change. The brown colors and soft lighting made it feel like a lived in home. Though that impression was somewhat dampened by the news talking about a car crash earlier that day and an elderly couple mentioning they've been becoming frequent.

"I thought they were exaggerating it..." she said in a low voice.

It was then that a middle-aged man with a small beard and glasses noticed them. In a somewhat deep and definitely grumpy tone, he said,

"Ah, they did say it was today..."

Then he groaned and put away the newspaper whose sudoku he was trying to solve.

Coincidentally, the old couple stood up and the old man said, "Well, we'll be going now. The payment's on the table."

"Thank you for doing business with us," the bearded man said.

"Oh, it's our pleasure. After all, this café is in the back alleys so we don't have worry about cars crashing in here."

"A what now?" the small-bearded man said, eyebrow raised.

"Oh, didn't you hear the news? There have been more of those accidents lately. People apparently going mad or something and not remembering a thing," the old man said.

Akira shuddered. That sounded terrifying.

"That's none of my concern," the middle-aged man said.

"Ah, I see. Well, we'll see you next time."

Akira and Ren moved to allow the elderly couple to leave before turning back to face the man that remained, who groaned and muttered,

"Four hours for a single cup of joe..."

From the fact he was the only one left in the café and how he was acting, Akira could guess that this bearded bespectacled man was Sojiro Sakura. Especially as he turned his stern gaze to them and said,

"So, you two kids the ones?"

With a brief glance at her brother who met her eyes, she knew that Ren thought the same as well. She nodded, telling him in silence that she wanted him to answer. He returned it in agreement before turning to the presumed Sojiro Sakura.

"Yes sir. I'm Ren Amamiya. This is my little sister, Akira." He bowed then said, "Please take care of us."

That politeness, however, made the café owner look at them with suspicion as he said, "Uh huh."

Akira frowned, wondering if he was acting cold because of their record.

She didn't get much chance to dwell on it though as he said, confirming her first suspicion,

"Well, I'm Sojiro Sakura. You'll be in my custody for the year." And he cemeted her second one as crossed his arms and harrumphed. "I was wondering what kind of unruly kids would show up. But you're the ones, huh?"

"What? You didn't know what we looked like?" she said, giving him a flat stare.

"Akira..." her brother said with a frown.

Sakura-san looked unimpressed as he huffed again. "Of course not. It was a customer of mine who knew your parents and suggested to—" he said. But then he shook his head and sighed. "Well, not that that matters..."

The bearded man then turned and went to the end of the café, where there were stairs to the right.

"Follow me," he said as he went up it.

Akira pouted. The temptation to give him a hard time in payback was very high. But with a comforting hand from her brother in a reminder, she sighed in agreement. Since this was where they were staying, she would have to put up with it. So, tailing behind her brother, they went up the steps their guardian took in the back...

Akira's eye twitched.

...to find themselves in an attic that clearly wasn't used a lot. There were cabinets in various parts of the room, plenty of boxes stored in them. There were canvases covering many of said boxes. In the far left was a desk and the right a makeshift bed made from crates, with windows above them. Not too far from the bed, beside a cabinet, she noticed a potted plant that was beginning to wilt along with various other things, like a freaking ladder and bucket. And, worst of all, a layer of dust covered everything everywhere. The only thing that wasn't under the light grey veil was the box that had all of their essentials in it sent from home.

In other words: an asthmatic's nightmare.

"This is your room," Sakura-san said. "I'll at least give you sheets for your bed."

Akira groaned. You've got to be kidding me...

"Hmm? You wanna say something?"

Oh she did. And she was about to, but then Ren said, polite to the point of near emotionless,

"It's cluttered."

And that calmed Akira somewhat, glad that Ren was also, at the very least, annoyed at the man.

"If you have a problem with that, then it's on you to clean up the rest," Sakura said.

"My little sister has asthma."

Alarm flashed briefly on his face, but it soon returned to his previous stern expression.

"All the more reason for you to behave then," he said. "I'll be leaving you two alone at night after I lock up each day. I'll throw you both out if you cause any trouble."

Akira was glad for her mask because there was no way she could hide her frown otherwise as she gritted her teeth and held her bag tighter. Ren was, arguably, taking it better than her as his face became even more blank.

"I see," he said.

The man huffed and crossed his arms. "Look, I got the gist of your situation," he said.

Akira nearly scoffed but held it, if only because she knew her brother would scold her slightly. But she bet that the man only got the official repo—

"The kid protected some woman from a man forcing himself on her, he protected her and the man got injured then sued you, right? Then when you were getting arrested, you—" He looked to her. "—protested. So you got arrested and resisted, right?"

—what? He knew? But then why was he being so—

"That's what you get for sticking your nose in a matter bettween two adults. You did injure him, yeah? And now that you two got a criminal record, you were expelled from your high school. So the courts ordered you to transfer and move out here, which your parents also approved."

—oh. Now it made sense. She had hoped their intentions were enough to ease up his stance, but no, they were just being "troublesome brats" in his eyes. Even if it was to help someone. Just like everyone else. Just as expected of everyone else.

But then he said, with a freaking smug face,

"In other words, they got rid of you for being a pain in the ass."

Red.

Fist.

"You son of a—!"

"Akira!"

It was only when she felt a hand on her shoulder did she realize she had raised her own, ready to slug him. And, of course, Sakura-san was not impressed. Akira grunted and relaxed her stance, staring at the floor as Ren let go of her. Even if Sakura-san didn't think of them as criminals, that certainly solidified his impression of them being troublemakers. But at least it was even, seeing as she didn't have a good one of him either.

"You're lucky your brother stopped you or I really would've kicked you two out already," he said. "It's best you quit that attitude of yours and not talk about anything unecessary. I am in the restaurant business you know."

Not wanting to lose their current residence just as soon as they arrived because of her, Akira just nodded and glanced at Ren so he'd know she wanted him to talk for both of them. He nodded to her then at their "caretaker" and said,

"Understood."

"Right. I'll say this again: behave yourselves for the year. If nothing happens, your probation will be lifted. Cause any problems and you'll be sent straight to juvie."

She nodded.

"Yes sir," he said, tone back to extreme politeness.

"Well then. We'll be going to Shujin tomorrow."

"Shujin?"

The man sighed. "Shujin Academy. The school you'll be attending. We'll introduce you two to the staff there. There's rarely a place that'll accept someone like you, you know."

"Oh. I see. Thank you, sir," Ren said.

The man just scoffed before he groaned. He mumbled, "What a waste of my Sunday..."

Akira felt her eye twitch but then the man turned to the cardboard box sent from home in the middle of the room.

"Your luggage arrived earlier. I left them over there."

"Thank you," Ren said.

And with that, and another scoff, the ageing man with glasses went back down. It was only a few seconds after he left did she say,

"Saying stuff about us is one thing...but saying stuff about Mom and Dad..."

All Ren did was sigh and say, "Well, it's not like most parents would be happy about their children having a criminal record. It'd probably be hard for most people to believe our parents didn't do that with our situation."

Akira grumbled. "I know, I know, but still...this sucks..."

Her brother put a hand on her shoulder in comfort, giving her a sad smile. "I know. But we can't do anything if he that's how he will treat us," he said. "How about after you take your medicine you go look around while I clean up?"

Akira knew he was right, with both Sakura-san and needing to leave the room for now. But still, she groaned and said, "I wish I could help..."

Ren just gave an apologetic smile, as usual, before he said, "Well then how about you get dinner while you're out? And maybe see if there are any spots we can hang out after school."

That didn't sound too bad, even though she knew it was suggested so that she wouldn't breath the dust he would undoubtedly kick up while cleaning.

"All right then. I'll see you later, Big Bro!"

"See you, Aki."

Before she actually left, she took her medicine out of her bag and her water canteen to drink it. With that done, she then went down the stairs to exit the café. As soon as she reached the door however, the building's owner said,

"Where are you going?"

She paused her steps, took a deep breath, and then turned to him.

"I'm gonna look around and get dinner while my big brother cleans up our room," she said.

Sakura-san narrowed his eyes slightly but Akira kept her gaze locked with his, not backing down. Thankfully, he soon stopped and sighed. Then he said,

"Remember to come back before dark."

Akira allowed herself an eye roll as she finally exited the café. She couldn't tell if that was his attempt to make up for earlier or he just didn't want to deal with the trouble of a teen coming back late.

Which she hoped wouldn't be the case as there wasn't really anywhere else to get food besides his café in the area nearby. It wasn't "empty", as there was plenty of places to go, like a small market, a laundromat, and even a theater and a batting cage in the area. And, handily, she found there was a clinic that seemed to double as a pharmacy just a short walk away from Leblanc, which she made a mental note to check out if she could get her medicine from later. Which was good since it seemed there were plenty of stray cats in the neighborhood, as well as some neighbors with pets, wistfully reminding her she couldn't have one.

But besides Leblanc, there wasn't anywhere in the backstreets to eat and cooking a proper meal using the café's kitchen was out of the question. She was tempted to see the rest of Yongen-jaya considering what she's heard of the neighborhood, but she didn't want to stray too far from the area around Café Leblanc or the route they took between their new home and the station. That would add even more time, even with a map on her phone.

So with that, she decided to try her luck in nearby Shibuya, managing to take a train. Hopefully there would be some place to buy food not far from the station. Though once she stepped out of the packed elongated bullet and into the rushing tide of the Shibuya streets, she almost wished that she hadn't. She wasn't quite squished, but it was hard to keep an eye on her phone that had a map of the area and on her surroundings without getting jostled by people hurrying to their destinations. Seeing that was a disaster waiting to happen, she looked for a spot where she wouldn't be pushed by the flow, so that she could get her bearings and decide on a destination of her own.

As she did, all of a sudden her nose was assaulted with the nauseating stench of perfume, strong and decidedly minty. Her stomach churned, bile already threatening to leave her throat, and air struggled to get into her lungs as her airways clogged. In a quick and smooth motion, she pulled down her mask and reached for her pocket, taking out her rescue inhaler. But just as she did, she was pushed, the pungent perfume even stronger now, and her inhaler flew out of her hand.

No!

She moved, ignoring the gaudy and pungent lady, with only one thought in her mind as her air lessened with each step to find her savior.

I have to find it. I have to find it. I have to find it. I have to find it!

[G]​

Akechi sighed as he checked his schedule on his phone after copying the message that arrived to an encypted file and then deleted the original message. He had just recieved another mission to cause a psychotic breakdown, this time on the engineer for a train. He would have to leave it for tomorrow since not only did he have to go deal with "closing" the case involving the last breakdown he did this afternoon, he also had been asked by Sae-san for help on something. Which was annoying since the new mission was a simple one but it couldn't be helped. And Sae-san did ask for his assistance. It would be fun to see what it was. She was one of the few adults he knew that actually had a brain.

Akechi was pulled from his thoughts when something bumped into his foot. He looked down to see a bright blue inhaler. He furrowed his brow as he picked it up and returned his phone. From the label and L shape, it was a metered dose rescue inhaler for asthmatics. And if it was out, that meant someone was going to use it but dropped it...and most likely desperately needed it. That wouldn't do. If the owner died and someone found out he held the inhaler, he could be blamed for letting a bystander die, damaging his reputation as the perfect Detective Prince, thus ruining both his fame and his plan by consequence. He thought of quickly disposing it, after all it wasn't his business, but he heard the sound of wheezing over the din of steps and murmurs and he looked to find it was a teenaged girl likely close to his age, clearly having a hard time breathing and searching with what little strength she had.

At a brisk pace, he went up to her, put down his attaché case and placed the inhaler in her hands as he moved it near her face, knowing every second counted. The girl, despite wheezing, moved with quick and practiced movments, uncapping it, putting it to her mouth, and pressing the button in less than a second before inhaling, long and deep. After a few moments of holding her breath, she exhaled and let go of the inhaler. It was only then as Akechi waited while she took a few more tentative breaths, making sure her symptoms wouldn't rise again, did he realize what he had done. But before he could berate himself for something unecessary and impulsive, the girl sighed in relief and gave him a smile as she said,

"Thank you very much for that."

Akechi returned it with one of the charming smiles he was taught to give.

"Oh it's no trouble, I'm just happy to be of service," he said.

That warmed her expression, the corners of her pale blue eyes crinkling as she straightened her posture. Akechi followed her example and was a bit surprised to find she was more or less the same height as him.

"Still, thanks. I don't think words can really tell you how grateful I am for the help," she said.

Then her cheerfulness disappeared as her eyes narrowed and she pouted.

Akechi almost took a step back, wondering why she was making such a face. Did she recognize him perhaps? That wouldn't be too surprising but if that was the case then all the more reason he should leave soon. But it would be rude to just leave all of a sudden and that would be a slight to his persona of Detective Prince. So he said,

"Are you all right?"

And when she answered, he would make his exit. As he hoped, she did answer, but not in the way he expected.

"Do you like sweets?"

He blinked. "What?" he said, unable to stop himself.

And she just said it again. "Do you like sweets?"

Unsure where this was going, but not seeing the harm at the moment, he said, forgetting his persona, "Well not particularly. But I don't mind them."

"Oh," she said, slumping her shoulders in disappointment. Then she put her hand in her pocket. "Well, it's not much but..." The girl pulled out a bar of wrapped chocolate. "...here. You're on your way to work, right? I'm sure this'll be a good pick me up. Well, unless you're allergic to dairy or chocolate..."

Akechi raised an eyebrow. She actually recognized him after all?

"What makes you think I'm on my way to a job?"

The girl gestured to his attaché case on the ground with her chin.

"That doesn't look like your regular bag for school. So I thought you're off to some part time job," she said. "Hopefully I'm not making you be late."

So she hasn't heard of him and she noticed despite the asthma attack... Unconsciously, Akechi's smile got smaller but more genuine as he chuckled. He wasn't sure whether to be annoyed or glad she didn't seem to know him yet was observant.

"I see. Very well then, I'll accept it. Thank you," he said, taking it.

The girl's eyes lit up behind her glasses when he did. She pulled up her mask, but not before he saw her amused grin as she said, "Hey, I'm the one thanking you, remember? And it's not much anyway."

"Well I appreciate the thanks nonetheless," Akechi said, a little surprised himself that he meant it. He picked up his attaché case. "I'll be taking my leave now."

"Sure, go ahead. Don't wanna make you late because you helped. Good luck with it, whatever it is."

Unbidden, he said, "And good luck to you as well."

The girl with glasses nodded before taking steps to leave. But, once again to his surprise, she waved as she left, looking over as she said,

"Bye! Hope we can meet again!"

With that, she got swallowed by the crowd, not even her distinctive curly hair making it easy to spot her in the mass. And Akechi stared at the spot he last saw her for a few moments before staring at the chocolate in his hands. He didn't need it considering he already had a few snacks in his case for emergencies, and there was a good chance it was melted considering he didn't know how long it had been in her pocket, but somehow...he didn't mind that it was the best the girl could do in the circumstances. And though there was very little chance of it happening or it being sincere...

She was the first to want to see him again.

{R}​

Ren let out a deep breath before he scanned his progress.

The room was pretty clear now. Since they weren't his and there wasn't exactly a storage space, he piled everything—boxes, ladder and all—that wasn't theirs to the back of the room, behind the railing around the stairs, which, thankfully, still left plenty of space. The exception being the withering, but not dead, plant that he guessed was a palm tree of some kind. He had swept as much as he could reach that wasn't blocked by furniture too large to move by himself and then he cleaned the dusty areas he couldn't use a broom on with a wet cloth. Of course, he would have to change the sheets on the bed in the corner, but otherwise his makeshift cleanup would suffice for now, the darkening sky outside reminding him to stop. He would have to see if there was anything else that could cause an allergy or an asthma attack another time.

Sounds of footsteps made him turn to the stairs and, to his disappointment, found Sakura-san...and he was staring in surprise.

"Huh. I was wondering what was with all the noise, but I didn't think you'd actually clean up," he said. His expression made way for a smug one. "Pretty impressive."

Ren sighed quietly. He wasn't sure whether to feel complimented or insulted.

"Do you need something, Sakura-san?" he said, keeping his tone polite, as he walked up to him.

"No," Sakura-san said. "Just checking on you. I'll be closing shop soon, so don't stay up too late. I won't take care of you if you get sick." The middle-aged man glared. "And don't mess with anything in my shop. If I see anything out of place or gone, I will throw you to the cops."

Ren nodded, not caring too much of his words because of his tone...until he realized what he said.

"You're closing now?"

The slightly bearded man sighed. "Didn't you hear me?"

"Well, yes, but my sister..."

"I won't wait up for her. But you can let her in if she doesn't come back before I—"

"I'm home!"

Ren sighed in relief. Speak of the devil. He went past Sakura-san, down the stairs and said,

"Welcome home."

"Hey Big Bro!" Aki chuckled sheepishly as she said, "I hope you don't mind me getting cup noodles. I didn't want to stay in Shibuya too long."

Ren gave an inquiring look and went up to her. "You went to Shibuya?"

"I couldn't find anywhere else to get food," she said with a pout.

Ren smiled. "Just wondering. I don't want you hurt."

"Yeah yeah... I know..." Aki said as if exasperated but her smile showing she wasn't.

Sakura-san then cut in and said, "Well, since you're here, I'll be going now."

Ren wasn't sure if he was imagining his deep tone being softer than before.

"Good-bye, Sakura-san. And good night," he said.

Aki's face soured but Ren sent a silent threat with his eyes. She met his gaze then sighed.

"Good night, Sakura-san," she said, low on energy.

The man raised his eyebrow, pausing his steps. But then he said, before he stepped out, "Make sure not to get in trouble, all right?"

With those words, he left.

And Aki said, "Geez... I don't get him... Does he wanna be nice to us or not?"

"You know we won't get an answer to that, Aki. And even if we did, I'm sure you won't like it."

"But still..."

"Come on, while dinner's getting ready, let's call Dad and Mama," he said as he made his way to the stairs.

"Oh yeah!" she said, following him.

Once in the attic, Aki sat on the couch and pulled out her phone while he pulled out the electric kettle from the cardboard box filled with their belongings. When he started to boil the water, the familiar voice of Mama said,

"Akira! You're okay! You are okay, right?"

His little sister laughed and said, "I'm fine Mom! See?" Then she made a haunting breath that made their mother laugh.

"Okay, okay," she said. "Where's Ren?"

"Here," he said, sitting beside Aki. "How are you doing Mama?"

"I should be asking that to you two! Are you settled? Is the room fine?"

Aki turned unsure. "Uh..."

"It's fine," Ren said. "A little dusty but I cleaned it up."

"Yeah! And it's pretty cozy."

Mama, however, then said, in a tone usually accompanied by a stern stare, "Akira... Ren..."

"Really, Mom, it's fine."

"It could be worse. We could've been stuck in a closet."

"Very well, if you say so..."

"Is Dad there?" Aki said.

"Oh! Give me a second."

There was the faint sound of wind rushing around it with the phone being moved and her voice being faint.

Then Dad said, "Akira, Ren, how are you?"

"We're fine, Dad! We already said that!" Aki said, smiling.

"Ha ha. Is your mother bothering you again?"

"I'm not bothering her! I'm just worried."

Another laugh. "Sure sure. If you insist."

He and Aki couldn't stop themselves from laughing as well, not doubting that Mama was pouting at them ganging up on her. Unsurprisingly, she was the one who decided to change the subject, and said,

"So, how was your day?"

And so dinner was spent talking with their parents as if they were right there with them, telling them of the train ride, of the bustle of Shibuya and how their room was like. But soon enough, they were done and they wished them good night, with the promise of calling often. Ren moved the extra futon and put it on the floor beside the makeshift bed, making sure there was a gap between them. After a short discussion, they agreed that he would take the floor while Aki took the bed so she wasn't as close to the floor and dust. Before they turned in, Ren set the alarm on his phone...

...and found a red and black eyed stared at him.

Ren was confused. He was sure he got rid of the strange app from his phone. How was it back? He didn't give much thought on that though, his mind too tired, and just deleted it again. With his alarm set and the lights off, Ren pulled the blanket over him, turned to his side and said,

"Good night, Aki."

"Night Big Bro."


"A couple years ago, there was an incident where a cabinet member did very questionable behavior and caused a scandal that he didn't even remember doing. When it first happened, it was written off as a mere accident. The same treatment was given when a similar incident happened a month later, this time that led to a CEO's car to crash, leaving him heavily injured. It wasn't until it happened several times, most ending in major accidents and scandals but some in deaths, did people notice and it became a relatively common place event on the news.

Author's Note: Disclaimer, I'm not an expert in Japanese culture and the most I know is from some research and second-hand knowledge from someone who has done more thorough research on it, but there is something I do need to mention, and that is the treatment of Joker in the game by most people who know of his past.

Short version, because of Japanese culture, reputation is very important, and thus even if it was for a false charge, if you did something considered bad in that society, it brings shame on both the person and their family, hence why Sojiro's treatment, and everyone else's, is so harsh, besides the fact that, in the case of Sojiro, he has personal reasons for being that way.

That's also why, even if both Ren and Akira don't like it, they're not surprised by the treatment. So, as far as I know, if anything, the fact that I had their parents still be nice to them is probably an outlier with what I know. And if that is the case, then it's just more proof that their parents, having found one another, don't care about the usual rules anymore.
 

TheCharredDragon

One world, one love, shadows of mass destruction
Chapter 2: A Journey of a Thousand Miles...

{R}​

Trickster.

Welcome to my Velvet Room.

My name is Igor, the master of this place.

The state of this room reflects the state of your heart.

It involves your life as well.

Ruin awaits you.

You must be rehabilitated.

Know your place Inmate!

Caroline.

Justine.

They serve as wardens.

Do you have the resolve to challenge the distortion of the world?

Blue.

Chains.

Prison.

You truly are a "prisoner" of fate.


Ren froze, expecting to see deep blues and even darker blacks. But instead he is greeted with the dulled out colors of early morning and his futon on the floor beside his sister's bed. He groaned and pressed a hand against his eyes. It had been just a dream. A rather realistic one where he was somewhat lucid, but still a dream.

"You okay, Big Bro...?"

He looked to see Aki put on her glasses after trying to rub the sleep from her eyes.

"Yeah, I'm fine. Just a weird dream," he said.

Aki smirked, though the effect was slightly diminished with her eyes' droopy state.

"What? The kind you shouldn't be telling your little sister?"

Ren rolled his eyes but still smiled. He ran right into that one. But still...

"What time is it?" he said.

"Too early."

Ren huffed in amusement as he reached for his phone to see it was about ten minutes before six in the morning. He groaned once again. There was nothing worse than waking up mere minutes before planned and not sleeping to the maximum amount possible.

"Yeah, you're right. But might as well get up."

Aki grumbled but agreed nonetheless as she followed his example and they both got up. They did their routine as best as they could, Aki taking her medicine as they took turns using the restroom downstairs to change into their uniforms and do their business. When it was Aki's turn to use it after he finished, he decided to wait for her in one of the booths, getting their breakfast ready, once again cup noodles as Aki bought enough yesterday for such. Thus he saw, to his surprise, Sakura-san come in the café, dressed in a white suit and fedora.

"Oh, you're awake," he said when he came in.

"Good morning, Sakura-san," he said, putting on his stoic but polite mask.

The man raised an eyebrow but still said, no doubt only out of politeness as well, "Good morning." Then he saw what was in front of Ren. "Is that your breakfast?"

Though he felt that was obvious, Ren nonetheless said, "Yes."

The white suited man stared at it for a while. Ren could only imagine what he was thinking before he sighed, his posture suddenly lax. Then he said,

"Well then. I'll be waiting outside. When you two are done, I'll drive you to Shujin."

"Drive...? You're going to take us to school?" he said.

Though when he spoke, he wished he hadn't as Sakura-san's cold façade, stern gaze and displeased frown returned.

"Just for today. Don't take too long. I'm a busy man."

And just like yesterday, he left the café with little fanfare. Ren sighed and pushed up his fake glasses. He would admit it only to himself, but Aki was right, the man was confusing. He was acting cold and yet took them in. He didn't dwell on it long as his little sister came out of the restroom. Ren told her about what Sakura-san said so that they finished breakfast quickly and soon they were in his car. When he saw it, he couldn't help but be surprised of it, its condition pristine despite clearly being an older Porsche, the yellow paint and cloth on the seats not showing any age, giving no discernible scent. Which was good considering the last thing he wanted was having to argue over the smell of the car and Aki refusing to go in because she didn't like it.

Ren sat in the back while Aki rode shotgun, to Sakura-san's curiosity if his expression was any indication. But he didn't ask, and Aki certainly didn't feel like talking so the trip to Shujin in Aoyoma-Itchome was silent and made it feel even longer than the several minutes it took to get there. After parking, they were at the gate and Ren found that the building wasn't too noteworthy, despite its name in kanji.

The whole thing reminded him of office buildings, all practicality and no aesthetics, except not as tall or as small. The building was merely grey and square, like the windows marking each floor. A wall surrounded the place, just high enough that it would take a tall student to reach its top but not so tall it obstructed the view of the main building. At the metal gate entrance was a plaque on the right side simply saying "Shujin Academy".

Before they passed the gate, Sakura-san stopped and turned to them.

"Do me a favor and behave yourselves, all right?" he said, though it was clear it was more directed at his sister with his gaze.

Aki frowned in confusion and Ren had a feeling she wad about to speak. But Sakura-san seemed to have guessed what she would say as he then said,

"Don't get the wrong idea. I just don't want you causing me any trouble."

Once he turned his back to them, his sister rolled her eyes, and he couldn't help but be amused at her mood. That made her glare at him but that left as they went inside, which wasn't much better than the outside. It wasn't ugly by any means, the doors to the various rooms were of equally varying colors, the floor were smooth wooden planks, and the walls were pristine, but it almost felt like he was walking around in a hospital or, again, an office building.

Though, perhaps, it was for budget reasons as the principal's office was almost like a rustic but professional oasis in the sea of rigid conformity. Which made the principal himself stand out all the more and Ren had to do everything in his power to not show his discomfort at seeing the bald and obviously chubby, if not outright obesse, man. He didn't even have a neck. It was like he was wearing a collar of flesh. And paired with the checkered suit, the man reminded him of ventriloquists and contrasted with the surroundings. He nearly didn't notice the woman in a light orange shirt and the man in a black suit with a yellow scarf to the principal's left.

Pleasantries were said between the principal and their caretaker before they were signing papers for the school, the last one being done by Sakura-san. When that was done, the overweight man said to him and Aki,

"To reiterate, just so we're clear, you will immediately be expelled if you cause any problems."

Aki just nodded while he said,

"Yes, sir."

Then the principal said, "Honestly, I hesitated on accepting someone like you but there were some...circumstances...on our side..."

Only loud enough for him to hear, Aki said right beside him,

"Probably a sponsorship from a food company..."

Ren nearly snorted at her comment and sent her a glance in warning. It might be blocked from his view, but he knew Aki was smirking at him under her mask.

"You might have done a variety of things in hiding in your hometown but you will behave yourself here," the principal said, making Ren return his attention to him. "If you are thrown out from our school, there will be no place for you to go. Keep that in mind."

He was sure Aki had another comment in mind from the quiet strangled scoff he heard from her.

"Yes, sir," Ren said.

Aki nodded again.

The bald and wide man stared at them for a moment before gesturing to the two people beside him.

"This is the teacher in charge of Class 2-D, the one Ren Amamiya shall be in," he said towards the woman before moving on to the man. "And this is the teacher in charge of class Akira Amamiya shall be in, 1-A."

"I'm Sadayo Kawakami," the woman said.

"And I'm Kiritsugu Shimizu," the man said.

Ms. Kawakami held up two IDs as she said, "Here are your student IDs."

She put them down on the desk for them to get. Ren was about to reach for them, but he stopped and frowned. What was that pink paper under the IDs? Whatever it was, Ms. Kawakami noticed as well and was quick to grab it. He glanced at Aki, confirming that he did see it. But as curious as he was, he would have to let it slide for now. So he took both of the IDs and handed Aki's to her.

The floofy, wavy haired woman continued, pretending as if nothing happened.

"Be sure to read the school rules. Any violations will send you straight to the guidance office. And, if by chance you cause any problems, I won't be able to protect you at all."

Ren's face twitched as he stopped his expression from changing, now even more curious of the woman with her choice of words. He noticed Aki stared at her because of that, so he guessed she thought the same as well.

Ms. Kawakami looked to the seated bald man as she said, "That is your promise, yes, Principal Kobayakawa?"

The man nodded. "He is responsible for all of his actions."

This time Aki did react noticeably, but thankfully it was just a snort so it was ignored.

The orange shirt woman frowned and said, "But really though, why me...? There should've been a better candidate."

"It was a sudden transfer, and your class was the only one that had an opening."

Before Ms. Kawakami could say more, Sakura-san said, "If you're done explaining things, mind if we get going?"

Finally, the man, Mr. Shimizu, spoke, looking almost disappointed when he did.

"Do you not wish for a tour of the school?" he said. "It would be helpful for Ren-kun and Akira-chan to become familiar with the layout."

"I got a store to get back to."

Now Ren was sure the younger man was disappointed, as well as apologetic, as his shoulders slumped slightly and gave a small smile that reflected his mood.

"Ah, my apologies then."

The white suited man turned to leave but then Mr. Kobayakawa said,

"Sakura-san, please keep an eye on them. Don't let them cause any trouble outside..."

"Well, I'll be sure to have a serious talk about the situation they're in."

Aki stare turned flat, likely resisting the intense urge to roll her eyes. Ren gave her a smirk.

Ms. Kawakami then said, "Come to the faculty office when you arrive at school tomorrow. I'll show you to your classroom."

Followed by Mr. Shimizu. "The same goes for you as well, Akira-chan." Then he said, his tone surprisingly gentle, "And tell me if there's anything I need to know about the what medications you need to take so I can do my best to acommodate you."

Ren stared at him in surprise, much like his little sister.

"Oh uh...thank you, Mr. Shimizu. I'll keep that in mind," she said.

Though the principal didn't like that as he sent a stern glare at the man while Ms. Kawakami looked surprised at his words. Not that Ren was surprised at their reactions, seeing as Mr. Shimizu was being nice to outcasts who had shamed their family. Ren could only hope he would be able to keep it up, but seeing as the the man with the yellow scarf gave an apologetic look for his behavior, he kept his expectations low, if not outright non-existant.

"All right then, let's go," Sakura-san, already walking out.

Not wanting to get left behind, they followed their caretaker. It was silent on the way down. Though he briefly reminded them that he would kick them out should they misbehave before they were back in the car. For the most part, it was a repeat of this morning. The main difference was how long it took to get home, the traffic being as bad as the a clogged drain, to the disgruntlement of their driver.

"Gah, traffic's not moving at all..." Sakura-san said, fingers tapping on the steering wheel. "That's it. You're taking the train starting tomorrow."

Ren already knew that, considering Sakura-san had more or less said that this morning. But he wasn't going to mention that.

Then, to his surprise, though it was somewhat awkward, Sakura-san then said,

"So...how was it? The school I mean. Think you can manage?"

"Yeah," Aki said. "Probably."

The fedora wearing man gave her an inquiring, if somewhat suspecting, gaze.

"Probably?"

"Hopefully," she said, the tone of her voice giving the impression of a cheeky grin.

Sakura-san's frustration returned as he frowned. "Do you even understand the situation you're in?"

All mischief left Aki as she said, tone heated like a furnace, "What? That no one wants us around?"

Ren nearly missed it, but the man's face twitched and his hand on the steering wheel tightened for a brief moment.

"You were expelled once before. No one would think you would enroll in a different one. It's not like anyone will be sympathetic with you," he said.

He could've been imagining things again, but his tone sounded weary, almost as of speaking from experience.

Then Sakura-san sighed and mumbled, almost as if he forgot the car was rather cramped compared to more modern ones.

"If that's what it's like at the school people, might say stuff about me in the future too," he said then sighed. "What troublesome kids I've taken in..."

And before Ren could stop her, Aki said, ticked off, "Then why'd you agree to take us in?"

Sakura-san didn't answer right away. He looked elsewhere, back at the traffic which had moved just a bit. He inched the Porsche forward and then stopped. Ren thought he wouldn't answer at all. But then the man said,

"I was asked to do it, and I just...happened to agree to it." And like an afterthought, he added, "I've already been paid for it after all."

Once again, Ren readied to calm his sister, but as if to break the tension as well as answer the man's earlier frustration with the road, the radio announced that another train accident has occurred, the most recent of a string of them.

Aki shuddered. "Train accident...?"

Meanwhile, Sakura-san said, "So that's why it's so crowded." His posture relaxed with that but then he said, his tone somber by the end, "There's been a lot of those lately. In fact, there was a real sad one just last month." He took a deep breath. "If I remember right, the girl that passed away was only fifteen."

The silence became much more heavier with that, the words reminding Ren of how he met, and saved, Aki all those years ago.

As if to avoid it, Aki sighed and took out a familiar and well-worn book from her bag, Phantom of the Opera, and read it. Ren looked out the window to see that the compression of cars wasn't going to filter away any time soon. He leaned against the chair and closed his eyes. School hadn't even started and already they were having difficulties.

This was going to be a long school year.

(A)​

Yesterday had not helped her impression of Sakura-san, nor allayed her hesitance in going to school. Sakura-san had been as confusing as before, mostly dismissive of them and doing his job, like giving them a journal so they would record their activities and their "talk" in the car. Yet there were brief instances of warmth that looked like accidents, like the fact he drove them in the first place and that he, apparently, trusted them enough to ask them to flip the sign and close up the café at night. The school was much the same during their first visir, the few people there dismissive, with only Mr. Shimizu having any hint of human decency. But even he seemed cowed by the principal. Put all of that together and Akira didn't feel like going at all.

But she didn't want to bother her brother more than she already has with her attitude towards Sakura-san, so when Ren's alarm sounded, she did her medicine without a fuss, coming down with him to wait on the ground floor while he used the restroom first. However, as soon as they stepped down, they both stared.

Sakura-san was there...right in front of a pot over a lit stove.

He noticed them then and said, "Good, you are going to school."

"Sakura-san...?" Ren said, voicing both of their confusion.

"Aren't you getting ready? Go on. I'll feed you two when you're done. Just make sure to finish it before the customers come in," he said then returned to his cooking.

He and Akira stared for a few more moments before his little sister said, "You first or me?"

That snapped him out of it and he said, "You go first."

Akira nodded then went inside the restroom. While inside changing and washing up her face, she heard Ren and Sakura-san talk.

"Curry?" Ren said.

"Have a problem with it?" Sakura-san said, tone grumpy as usual.

Though she couldn't see, she knew her big brother was smiling in amusement as he said, "Not me. My sister. She's a bit of a picky eater."

So she said,

"I heard that!"

Knowing full well he would smirk. What she didn't expect, as she did the final touches on her uniform, she heard Ren said,

"I think she'll like this though."

Followed by Sakura-san in a less grumpy but still rough tone.

"Well good, because that's all I'll be cooking for you two for your breakfast."

"Thank you, Sakura-san."

If their caretaker said anything more, she didn't hear as she went out and told her big brother she was done. She waited before she ate he changed into his uniform and fixed everything else up. When he was done, they ate their curry breakfast, which she liked as Ren guessed, and then put the dishes in the sink.

"Thank you for the food," Ren said again.

Not wanting to disappoint him, and actually liking the food, she too said, "Thanks for the food."

All Sakura-san said to that was, "Hmph. So you really do have manners."

I could say the same to you, you grumpy chef, she would've said and she opened her mouth to do so. But then he continued.

"Now get going. You'll be late if you stay any longer."

Quickly followed by Ren. "Did you double-check everything, Aki?"

Momentum lost, she did as told and made sure she had her medicine, water and extra masks.

"Yup," she said, pulling up the mask she had put on earlier.

"All right, let's go."

At the door though, before they left, Sakura-san said, "Flip the sign to 'OPEN' on the way out."

Ren looked to him, confused. "You're open this early?"

Which Akira shared, considering most restautants, cafés and the like only started opening at ten in the morning.

However, Sakura-san acted as if that was a stupid question.

"Hmph. Early? If anything, I'm running late. Now go, flip the sign, and don't get lost. This isn't like the countryside."

"No kidding, Sherlock..." Akira said, her mask muffling it.

The city and the countryside were like night and day to her.

Her brother patted her back, telling her he heard and said, "Okay, Sakura-san, we will. Good-bye."

And finally, after doing what Sakura-san asked of them, they left for school. The streets were just as bustling and the trains just as packed as the last two days, making the trip feel cramped when they rode the subway and she was grateful when they were out of it. However, just when they left the underground station...

It rained.

"Oh come on!"

They ran to the nearest roof, which was the front of a clothes store. Akira took deep breaths, bracing herself on her knees, and hoping she didn't have to pull out her inhaler. Thankfully she didn't and she was back upright again, glaring at the rain.

"You don't have the umbrella with you, do you?" Ren said.

"Nope," she said. "You?"

"No, unfortuantely."

She groaned. "So we double checked everything...except the umbrella."

"Mmhmm."

"Of course it's the umbrella... What's the fun in it raining if you don't get wet, right?" she said, sarcastic.

"Not fun at all," Ren said, smug amusement in his voice. "After all, what other time would it be perfect for a water fight?"

She glared at him.

As she thought he would, he just gave a cheeky grin.

She groaned again and ignored that. They had more important things to worry about.

"Damn it..." she said. "How we gonna get to school now? It doesn't look like it'll let up soon..."

"Hmm... Maybe..." And then Ren said, "Huh?"

And Akira saw her brother looking at his phone...and a red-and-black app with an eye on it was on the screen.

"I thought I got rid of this," he said.

"What? It keeps coming back?"

Ren hummed. "This is the fourth time it's popped up already."

"Geez... I hope it's not malware..."

"The virus scanner didn't detect anything, and I hadn't opened any spam, so I doubt it is."

"Still creepy. And still need to get rid of it."

Before further discussion was done, the sound of footsteps made their gazes follow someone who ran under the nearby roof just like they did. Once under, the person pulled down the white hoodie they were wearing, revealing that it was a girl, about their age more or less. She was about her height, if not a couple inches shorter. And her hair was platinum blonde. She leaned out a bit and looked around, likely also checking if the rain will let up soon, at least until she noticed them. To Akira's surprise, when she did...

...she gave them a smile.

The blonde girl didn't do more than that though and returned to looking at the streets. Seeing she wasn't going to make small talk, Akira turned to her brother to talk about that app, or maybe even back to trying to decide how to get to school...only to find he was still staring at the girl.

"Oh you've got to be..." Akira took a deep breath and then she said in a sing-song manner, "Big Bro..."

"Yes, Aki?" he said, not moving.

"You're staring."

"Huh?" That snapped him out of it. "Oh uh..."

"Please don't tell me it's love at first sight or I'm calling bullshit."

Her brother's expression turned flat.

"Really?"

"You were the one staring, not me."

Before it could turn into one of their sibling banters, there was a giggle behind her and Akira couldn't help but turn to see that the girl was, indeed, finding their antics funny.

"Oh great, now she thinks we're crazy," Ren said.

Akira gave him a sideways glance. "And whose fault is that?"

Another giggle and the girl's smile got brighter. However, a car that Akira thought would pass actually stopped before them and the window rolled down to reveal a man with poofy hair, a square chin, and wearing what looked like a gym school uniform. As soon as the blonde girl saw that, Akira could've sworn her smile turned more strained.

"Hey, you're gonna be late in this rain. You want me to give you a ride?" the man said.

"Oh, uh, sure," the girl said and went in.

But as soon as she did, Akira saw her deflate, like she wanted to be anywhere but there. She was tempted to ask if they could get a ride too. After all...

"Oh, you can come along too."

...the man was offering. But when she pulled her mask down and took a deep breath, she nearly retched. Ren's hand was on her back, rubbing it in circles. She groaned. The one time she wished she didn't hate new car smell. If she felt like throwing up from this distance, then there was no way she would be able to stand staying in that car. Akira tried to speak, even with her breakfast threatening to come out, but thankfully her brother did it for her.

"No thank you," he said. "My sister is sort of allergic to the smell of new cars."

Both the poofy haired man and the platinum blonde girl looked confused, but the former seemed to realize what Ren meant as recognition was on his face.

"Ah, I see," he said. "Well, don't be late then."

With that, the window rolled up and they watched as they went off down the road, Akira wondering if the girl would be all right.

"God damn it!"

Akira jumped and then a boy with bright blond hair arrived, stopping only a foot to their left.

"Screw that pervy teacher," the boy said.

"Pervy...teacher...?" Ren said.

It was then the boy realized he wasn't alone and turned to them. Akira thought he kind of looked a bit like a delinquent with that blond hair, his blazer open and his undershirt being yellow with the word "ZOMG!" on it. That was definitely a shirt she wouldn't mind wearing.

But then he frowned and narrowed his eyes.

"What?" he said and stalked up to them.

Ren stepped forward and Akira stepped behind him.

"Are you guys plannin' on rattin' me out to Kamoshida?"

What the hell, man? Akira thought. She was tempted to say it but the last thing she wanted was getting in trouble on their first day.

"I don't know what you mean," Ren said, his voice level.

And then all of sudden, the punk's hostility evaporated, replaced with confusion.

"Huh? In that car just now. It was Kamoshida." He looked away, grtting his teeth, and said, "He does whatever the hell he wants. What does he think he is? Some king of a castle? Am I right?"

"I didn't see a crown," Ren said, flat.

Akira snickered.

"Huh? No, that's not... Wait, you don't...know Kamoshida? Are you for real?" he said. "You're from Shujin, right?"

"What makes you think that?"

"What? Come on, no other school's got a uniform like this."

"Well we're new here, so I didn't know," Ren said.

"Oh? You're a transfer student then?"

Her brother nodded and relaxed. But he still stood in front of her, just in case, she figured.

"No wonder you don't know him..." the stranger said, likely just thinking out loud from his tone.

But still...

Thank you, Captain Obvious, Akira thought but still kept shut.

It was very tempting though.

Then the punk did a once over on Ren and her.

"A second-year and first-year huh? You two siblings?"

She and her brother nodded.

"Huh, you guys are lucky to be in the same school." Akira really felt like laughing at the irony of that but thankfully she didn't when he said, "Well, how about followin' me? I know a shortcut to school. We'll be late at this rate."

"But the rain..." Akira said.

The loud punk looked at her. "Hey, it ain't too bad."

"Still don't wanna get wet."

Ren added, "And it wouldn't be good for her asthma if she got wet."

"Asthma?" he said, surprised.

Akira felt her brother tense and she herself was getting ready to talk back but then he said,

"Well then, here."

And he took off his blazer and offered it to her.

"It's not much, but it's better than nothin', right?"

Akira didn't move. She actually felt her jaw dropped, not that anyone could see it with her mask.

"But what about you?" her brother said. "I don't mind giving my sister my blazer."

The blond boy grinned. "Heh, I'll be fine. 'Sides, you need to keep yours more than me, right?"

Her brother was silent for a few moments. Then he said with a smile,

"Thank you."

"Heh. No problem. Come on, let's go."

That was when Akira finally shut her mouth as Ren put the stranger's blazer over her like a blanket. Though as soon as he did, Akira felt another wave of nausea, but with the added thump of a headache. She groaned. She was starting to wonder if fate was making fun of them or something.

"Ugh... My head hurts..." the boy said. "Damn it... I wanna go home..."

Despite the mundaneness of it, the fact he had one too felt odd. But Akira didn't say anything, it was likely a coincidence after all, as they followed the kind punk down the streets. They weaved between the buildings, going through a couple of pretty narrow alleys. It reminded her of home actually, how they would usually go a seemingly roundabout way between houses to get to plenty of places. But with each step, a strange feeling kept nagging at her. It wasn't quite nausea, or even an itchy nose. The closest she could think was the feeling of being watched, like being self-conscious of every movement.

Ren stopped and Akira nearly bumped into him.

She was about to complain but the look on his face silenced her. He was looking behind them as if checking if they were being followed.

"You feel it too?" she said.

He didn't answer right away. Instead their attention was caught by the punk as he said,

"What the!?"

Akira had to agree when they caught up to him. That was a succint way to put it.

Author's Notes: I'll admit I was tempted to use an existing teacher as Akira's homeroom teacher but I had difficulty finding out if Japanese high school teachers taught in other grades besides their own, as that is how high school works for my country. So, to be on the safe side, I just made someone up.

Also I made Akira's class 1-A for one reason only: a reverse A1, as in A1, as in A1 Studios, the one who did most of the Persona 3 movies.

Also also, for my own sake more than anyone else's, Sojiro's car is a modified, yellow Porsche 356.
 

TheCharredDragon

One world, one love, shadows of mass destruction
Chapter 3: I am Thou, Thou art I

{R}​

It was not the cold and office-like building of Shujin Academy they saw when he, Aki and the blond stranger arrived at their destination. Instead it was a medieval castle that towered over them. It was designed like a stereotyped one, but it was colored in reds and yellows instead of being all grey. The walls protecting the castle, which were large in itself, were dwarfed by the structure it guarded. And the only way inside was a gate that was open with a drawbridge leading into it.

"Did we take a wrong turn?" he said.

"No, I'm sure we didn't," the blond said. "And it says Shujin on the gate."

Ren turned to see that the wall that was supposed to surround Shujin Academy that he saw yesterday was, indeed, still there, plaque and all, looking tiny in comparison to the castle. But that begged the question: what happened? It couldn't be some weird trick of the eyes for all to see, not so soon and not at this scale. The only possible "explanation" would be that the school changed.

"What? So you're saying the building transformed?" his sister said.

"I don't know! But this is where it's supposed to be..."

If that was the case...

"Then clearly," he said, making his voice as dignified as possible while trying to hold back a smile. "There's only one solution."

"Eh?" the blond said, confused.

"But thou must."

As he thought, Aki laughed at his reference and the truth of it, after all they wouldn't be able to figure out what was wrong if they didn't go in. The laughter got worse when the young man gave him a flat stare and said,

"Not that I disagree but...for real?"

Ren just smiled, no doubt looking cheeky as hell.

"Right... Let's just go."

Ren chuckled and at that point Aki calmed down as well. But their merriment left them as they took their steps up the drawbridge, across the stone courtyard and into the castle building. The inside was as he expected. The foyer was large and lit with candles and chandeliers. There were red carpets wherever appropriate, such as the round one in the center of the room. There were doors to the side leading to hallways while in front of them were two stairs, opposite of each other, the landings leading to other parts of the second floor, with some kind of portrait hanging above it.

Their blond companion stood in the middle of it and looked around in confusion.

"That's weird... Where's the school?" he said.

"Maybe it disappeared and got replaced by this castle," Aki said, tone not meaning it.

The boy frowned. "Then what about the sign at the front?"

"Then the building got replaced and the aliens were too lazy to make sure it's inconspicuous."

"What the? Can you stop it with the weird ideas?"

"Well something strange is going on, the reason could be strange too," Ren said.

The blond second-year grumbled and took out his phone. His expression turned more disgruntled.

"Out of service?"

"Wait what?" Aki said and checked her phone. From the look on her face, it was true.

The blond put his own away. "Man, where'd we end up...?"

"Well I don't like it," his sister said as she did the same. "Something's really wrong if we can't get a signal in a city."

"But what could cause such a thing?" Ren said.

Something supernatural, the part of him that read many stories told him.

He shook it off. There was no way. Those were just stories. This was reality. Which he returned to as their blond companion reminded him why Ren likened him to a punk at first as he said,

"I don't know! I wanna know!"

As if to answer his question, the sounds of clanking echoed behind them and they all turned towards it. For the second time, Ren stared, not believing his eyes while their punk acquaintance shouted in surprise.

Before him was an honest to goodness knight, armor, sword, shield and all.

What wasn't surprising though was Aki.

"Woah! Is that a real sword?!" she said and went right up to them. "Is that a basket-hilted sword? Nah, it looks more like a knightly sword... Is that a replica? It's a pretty good one. Unless that's real... Wait is it real?!"

That seemed to calm the blond down as he said,

"Uh, yeah, that costume's impressive." He sighed then he too closed the distanced with the knight. "But geez, you freaked me out. Who're you? Are you a student?"

All the while, Aki rambled and rambled. Ren, however, tensed, dread roiling his stomach and his instincts screaming.

"Come on, don't just stand there. Say something."

Ren's apprehension only grew as another identical knight came up. He strode over to his sister, who had been startled by the new knight, along with their acquiantance.

"H-Hey, what's goin' on?" the boy said.

"We need to get out," Ren said, loud enough for just them.

As if to prove his point, the two knights came closer.

"Damn it! Run!"

And they did. But they didn't get far. Even more knights came and surrounded them.

"Ugh, what's with these guys?!" the blond said.

The knights gave him no answer. Instead, one swung their shield at him. The clang made Ren wince. He thought of taking that opportunity to flee with his sister. But then quashed it. He hated that it even came to mind. Even more so as the teen screamed and complained. Ren wanted to help. They hadn't done anything to make them attack. They didn't even know what they did wrong, if they even did anything.

But then his skull rang. His neck snapped. And his face stung. Darkness began to knaw at him. But he heard another clang and the pain of his sister. Heat filled him. He forced himself to ignore the throbbing of his head to stand. They would pay. He would make sure of it. He had to—

Another clang. Another bash.

—protect Aki.

And the darkness swallowed everything.

(A)​

Aki...

Please...

Aki...

Wake up.


Akira groaned and she was met with blurred greys and blacks. When she found it wasn't from grogginess and that a familiar weight from her face was gone, she realized she'd lost her glasses. But she didn't have to look for it as her brother said,

"Here."

And it was right before her. She took it and groaned as she sat up. Once she was sure they wouldn't fall off and that she could see, she said,

"Thanks."

"You're welcome," Ren said. "How are you feeling?"

"Like I've been hit on the head."

Ren huffed but had an amused smile. That didn't last long though as someone's screams echoed around them. Her brother flinched and it was then she noticed their punk tagalong grimaced. Akira frowned.

"What was that?" she said.

"We don't know."

"But whatever this shit is, it's real and we gotta get outta here fast," the blond said.

"Or we'll be the ones screaming next," Akira said. Or even worse in my case, she silently added.

But she knew Ren thought the same from how his face turned more emotionless.

"Unfortunately there's no way out," he said, sounding calm.

"Oh come on! We didn't look everywhere yet!" the blond said.

"I doubt there's a secret passage in this cell," she said.

"But...we gotta do somethin'! We can't just sit here and do nothin'!"

Akira groaned. "Hey, I wanna do something too. But unless we can pick that lock, there's not much we can do."

Her brother nodded in agreement.

The blond punk slumped. "Ugh..."

But it was then that the clanking steps of metal boots sounded and some of the knights from earlier came to their cell.

"Be glad that your punishment has been decided upon," one of them said once in front of them. "Your charge is 'unlawful entry'. Thus you're sentenced to death. "

"What...?"

"Say what?!"

Snap.

"Death?! For unlawful entry?!" she said.

Akira crashed on the bars, the back of her mind faintly acknowledging the surprise of the punk and her brother's hand on her shoulder. That just made her rattle the metal and snarl.

"Unlawful entry my ass!" she said. "The door was wide open! With no guards! Why would it be like that unless it's public?!"

"This is my castle, not the public's. And no one's allowed to do as they please in my castle."

Her blood stopped thudding enough for her to notice that a man arrived...with a familiar square chin and floofy hair.

Except a red and white mantle covered his body and he wore a crown.

"What the...?" she said, all her rage replaced with confusion and questions.

She wasn't the only one.

Their punk acquaintance said, "Huh? Wait... Is that you, Kamoshida?"

"That's...Kamoshida...?" her brother said, voice filled with doubt.

Whoever that man really was, at the very least he knew the punk as he said,

"I thought it was some petty thief, but to think it'd be you, Sakamoto..." The "king" smirked. "Are you trying to disobey me again? It looks like you haven't learned your lesson at all, huh?"

Sakamoto, their acquaintance, grumbled.

The "king" then "graced" his attention on her and her brother.

"And you brought friends this time...because you can't do anything for yourself," he said.

His gaze lingered on her for a moment longer than on Ren. Akira didn't like that, and neither did her brother as she felt him step forward.

As she guessed, his smile twisted into a lecherous grin as he said, "Oh? Not only that, one of them is a girl. Hmm, not much of a looker though."

"This ain't funny, you asshole!" Sakamoto said.

Thankfully that got the pervert's gaze off of her. She hated she shivered and gripped the bars tighter.

"Is that how you speak to a king?" the strange Kamoshida said. "It seems you don't understand the position you're in at all. Not only did you sneak into my castle, you comitted the crime of insulting me—the king. The punishment for that is death."

Rage returned full force.

"Oh yeah? You deserve it, you piece of shit! What kind of a person kills someone over an insult!" She smiled with mockery. "Oh right. You're the king. Kings' egos are so bloated that anything'll pop 'em!"

Akira felt satisfied that the man looked absolutely pissed.

The "king" snarled. "I was thinking of sparing you and making you a part of my girls, but it looks like I'll have to do another execution," he said. "It's time for the execution! Take Sakomoto out first! We'll deal with the insolent girl later."

"S-Stop it..." Sakamoto said and Akira's heart twisted through the fires of her rage.

His voice had wavered in fear.

Damn it. She made it worse, didn't she?

Akira had to let go and back away from the bars as the knights opened the door. Ren stood before her as they came in. Lucky for them, they ignored her and her brother and focused on Sakamoto. But that just made her worry worse. The teen had his fists clenched as he mumbled something. And the knights were serious.

Which was why she and Ren jumped when Sakamoto shouted.

He tackled a knight and the knight fell.

"I ain't down for this shit! Come on, we're outta here!"

The blond was going to attack once more. She and Ren crouched to run. But another knight came and punched Sakamoto's gut.

"Gah! Agh..."

Akira froze as the blond hit the wall. She should go, she should escape. But she wanted to help. She hated seeing him hurt. Her brother didn't hesitate. He grabbed the knight that punched Sakamoto before they could continue their assault.

But Sakamoto just said, "Just go! Get outta here! These guys are serious...!"

"Oh? Running away, are we?" the "king" said with a smug smile she wanted to punch off. "What heartless friends you are."

"Ugh... They ain't friends..." He looked straight at them, teeth gritted, and said, "Come on! Hurry up and go!"

"What's the matter? Too scared to run away?"

Akira knew they should run. She knew she should run. She knew. There was no point in all of them dying. There was no point in his sacrifice being in vain. But...seeing Sakamoto down like that...hurt and telling them to go... She wanted to help. She wanted to save him. And she knew her brother wanted to too.

"Hmph. Pathetic scum isn't worth my time. I'll focus on this one's execution."

The "man" did as he said and ignored her and Ren, picking up up the blond only to hit him again and again like he was a punching bag.

"Take this!"

One punch.

"Lowly scum!"

Another punch.

"Useless pest!"

And one more.

"Hmph. Where'd your energy from earlier go?"

Sakamoto fell flat on ground with a groan. He tried to move but it was slow and it was clear it was painful.

"A peasant like you isn't worth beating. I'll have you killed right now."

Screw it!

She shouted and ran with all her might. She aimed to tackle the stupid king. But instead of hitting flesh, she hit steel and screamed. It all happened too fast. All she knew next was that she was pushed onto the wall, arms were holding on her shoulders, and her brother shouted,

"STOP IT!"

"Hmm? Don't you dare tell me you don't know who I am," the king said. Akira heard steps before he continued. "That look in your eyes irritates me." A pause. "Hold him there. After the peasant and girl, it's his turn to die."

A laugh that got on her nerves so much it burned echoed the chamber. Her brother thrashed and choked under the the hold of knights pinning him. And Sakamoto started to still, resigned. Akira wanted to punch the owner's face so bad but... She tried pushing against the grip that held her but it didn't even budge. She knew it. She wasn't strong enough. There wasn't anything she could do. Nothing... Nothing at all...

But then...

No, there isn't, a gentle, feminine voice said. But if my voice can reach you, then there may be a possibility open to you to change that.

Akira gasped, her head and heart thudding.

What was...?

"Execute him!" the egotistic king said.

A knight before Sakamoto raised their sword. Akira's breath hitched. But then the squirming stopped...and her brother said, his voice as smooth and cold as steel,

"That's enough."

Kamoshida froze.

"What was that...?" he said as he turned to her brother. "You desire to be killed that much? Fine."

Kamoshida signalled the knights. They moved with speed and efficiency. One hit her brother's face, knocking off his glasses.

No...

That let the knights that held him to switch to putting their lances across his neck, still pinning him to the wall, for a clear path so his executioner's sword would be a clean cut. The knight raised their sword. Akira struggled once again, tears threatening to spill.

No!

And then it happened.

Her brother opened his eyes and a gust of wind pushed all three off and away from him, including the "king". And when Ren did, a mask appeared on his face. Akira nearly didn't believe it, but her brother noticed it and was feeling it...before he dug his fingers...

And ripped it with a scream.

Red.

There was red on his face.

And a murderous smile.

Akira watched in stupefication as the blood turned into flames and engulfed Ren. A small part of her mind worried he would be burned. But then the blue flames took shape and seperated from her brother. If her mouth hadn't been hanging before, she was sure it would be now.

Ren was magnificent.

He looked like a gentleman with his black high collared tailcoat, grey shirt and black pants. Behind him stood a fallen angel, also dressed like a gentleman but in the red of his blood and a deep black top hat. Even its voice sounded like both a fallen angel and a gentleman.

"I am the pillager of twilight—Arsène!" he said, its voice smooth yet fierce.

"What the?!" Sakomoto said.

"I am the rebel's soul that resides within you," Arsène said to Ren. "If you so desire, I shall considering granting you the power to break through this crisis."

Steel was now his expression as Ren said, "Give me your power."

"Hmph. Very well."

And the two gentlemen turned together to face the cowering king who had backed up to the entrance.

"Who the hell are you?!" he said.

Neither spoke. Only glared steel.

"Tch! Guards!"

The knights stood. But then...

THUD

"Agh!"

A headache hammered her head as a voice rich in velvet spoke from within her.

See? There is something you can do, he said.

But all Akira could think was Make it stop.

Stop? Stop?! the velvet voice said, rage engulfing his words. Did you not see what happened before you?! You too can use your rage! You too can rebel against this unjust fate! You too can gain power! Now...

"Start by killing that one!"

...are you going to let your brother do it alone?

"Hell no!"

And Akira tore off her mask.

Good...

There was the woosh of wind and her sight was filled with blue flames. On instinct, she stopped breathing. The hammering in her head stopped to be replaced with a laugh from the velvet voice.

Do not worry, my lady...I will not hurt you, he said from within her. And then, "After all, I am thou, thou art I."

Akira opened her eyes, not realizing she had closed them, and turned around. She gasped. Before her stood another man—no, a mannequin in a tuxedo, a red-and-black mantle flowing behind him, and a black mask that covered his entire face. So Akira could only see the glowing golden eyes on the half-happy, half-sad mask.

"I am the Fantôme," he said, pulling out a lasso with his red gloves. "And I shall perform your ode of wrath!"

She stared at the man before her. The second felt like eternity even though it was only a second. With everything that happened, she should be wondering about what he meant, or how he appeared, or the fact that chains and fire were still surrounding them. But after that second, Akira smiled with savagery.

"Ready Big Bro!?" she said and turned to him.

Ren mirrored her. "Ready."

Both of them faced Kamoshida as he said,

"Don't think just because there's two of you that you can escape! You'll learn the true strength of my men!"

To her brief surprise, the guards didn't just charge at them. Instead, they shook before they burst into black and red goop that soon solidified into something else. That something, in this case, being four pumpkin ghosts holding a lantern.

Ren made the first move.

"Change your animosity into power and unleash it!" the fallen angel behind him said.

His smirk turned vicious. "Ravage them!"

And Akira followed him.

"Show your strength!"

It was a dance of black and red as they fought the four pumpkins, alternating between commanding their companions to using their weapons. Try as the pumpkins might, it wasn't long before they were all gone, her brother plunging his dagger into the last, screaming ghost. Akira breathed in and out, her shoulders heaving and her lungs struggling. She briefly closed her eyes at a flash of light as Sakamoto said from behind her,

"What... What was that just now...?"

Ren opened his mouth to say something but saw his gloved hand and started checking himself out.

Wait, we both summoned something. Does that mean...

She followed suit and said,

"What the?!"

Her uniform was gone. Instead of that, she wore a white long sleeved tunic, a slight weight telling her it was hooded, grey pants and a mask. But most of all, somehow she was holding two daggers, one black and one white. But then—

"You little..."

The voice of Kamoshida made them remember he was still there with them. He walked right up to them, only to be pushed over by Sakamoto. The "king" screamed and something flew off of him.

"Ha! You like that you son of a bitch?!" Sakamoto said.

"The key!"

Sakamoto was startled but looked where Ren pointed.

"You mean this?!"

He grabbed it and they followed him out. The blond then turned and locked the door. He backed off just in time to be out of reach of the raging Kamoshida.

"Damn you!" he said.

They let out a collective sigh of relief, glad they were alive. But then Sakamoto turned wide eyed again.

"Hey! What was that just now?" he said. He looked them over again, like not too long ago. "And...your clothes...!"

As if that was some sort of cue, there was a flash of light and whoosh of flames that made Akira jump. When it faded, the weight over her lifted and she checked to see that, yes, her uniform and extra blazer returned. But that begged the question of how it returned.

However, Kamoshida reminded them once again that he was still there, banging and cursing on the cell door.

With that, the punk threw the key away into the waterway beside them and they had Ren lead them. Akira hoped they would find a way out fast, but considering there were bridges, waterways and how big it was from outside, she could easily imagine it being huge and thus not making it easy on them.

So of course they had a few dead ends as they searched, forcing them to jump over both broken bridges and floating cages. They even had to go through a "tunnel" from one storage room to another. Sakamoto nearly got stuck there because of his bag. But from there, it seemed the dead ends would stop. Except the blond punk noticed some guards coming, so they were forced to find another way.

As they continued, they used a drawbridge and she heard Sakamoto say,

"Is that...a drawbridge? Dude...the hell is this place?"

"My bet? It's a dungeon. And I mean the castle kind," she said.

"H-Huh? A dungeon? Why'd you say that?"

Akira didn't know whether to be annoyed or let it pass considering the situation.

"We went in a castle," she said, settling on answering. "And castles usually have dungeons. Especially if it's where a king lives."

The punk was about to open his mouth, but then they had to hide again, this time her being the lookout while Sakamoto complained in frustration, thankfully not loud enough for the guards to hear. Thankfully, it wasn't long before they moved on and found some stairs, one that spiraled upwards. She didn't like the look of how high it was, which was only confirmed as they climbed and they all panted by the time they reached the top.

"Is this...the exit?" their tagalong said.

She doubted it.

"Come on, let's get the hell outta this place!"

The punk, re-energized, rushed through the door, she and Ren quick to follow him. As she thought, it just revealed even more waterways and bridges around them.

"Dude...you gotta be jokin'... This ain't the exit?! What the hell is this place?!"

Akira groaned. "It's...a castle... A...huge one... What'd...you...expect?"

"I-I don't know! I just wanna get outta here!"

"Then we keep moving," Ren said. Before they did though, her brother turned to her. "How are you feeling?"

Damn it. She held out her hand and took a few more deep breaths. When it didn't feel like her heart was going to explode, she said,

"Fine now."

Ren stared for a bit, probably not completely convinced, but knowing they were still in danger, nodded anyway. They set off with him at front, though now she noticed they went more at a jogging pace. Akira scoffed even with her ragged breaths, unsurprised her brother adjusted for her.

"Hey look..." Sakamoto said, slowing down to a stop.

Akira was about to snap at him for that, until she saw it.

It was a guy, about their age, stuck in a cage over a waterway.

"What the hell...?" she said.

She knew this was a dungeon. She had heard the screaming earlier. And yet... And yet... This just hit all the harder how close they were to death.

"We really did hear screamin'. So we ain't the only ones who got captured!" Sakamoto then noticed the prisoner's condition and said, "Is uh...is he okay?"

"What do you think?" she said in reflex.

But all she thought was that she wanted to help him out...yet she knew there wasn't anything she could do. Not even the voice within her from earlier objected.

"We...should go..." her brother said.

Akira saw Ren clenched his hand and set his jaw. She gave him a sympathetic smile. That relaxed as he returned it with a wry one. And it seemed the punk kid agreed with Ren as he said, his tone full of hesitation,

"Y-Yeah... We should..."

Ren started jogging again, with her and Sakamoto tailing him. But it wasn't long before they had to stop.

"Another dead end...?" Sakamoto said. "Damn it! How the hell're we suppos' to get outta here?!"

Akira panted, thankfully not as heavily as before, and nodded in agreement. They needed to find some map or else they were toast.

"...hey, you there," a voice said.

The three startled and looked to see if there were guards.

But then the voice, much louder and clearer, said, "Blondie! Frizzy Hair! Mask! Look over here!"

They looked and...

"What is this thing?!" Sakamoto said.

Well, it looked like a cat really. But she didn't feel like ribbing him for that since it looked like a chibi anthropomorphic cat dressed in black, and it was waving its white paws at them with a pitiful expression.

"You're not soldiers of this castle, right?" it said. "Get me out of here!" Then it pointed to a key not far for them but clear out of its reach. "Look, the key's right there!"

"We're trying to get the hell out of here!" Sakamoto said. "I mean, you obviously look like an enemy too!"

"It's locked up! Why would it be an enemy?" she said, incredulous.

"Exactly!" it said. "Now help me out!"

And then her brother said,

"...A cat?"

Akira snickered and calmed. Of course he did that.

"I am not a cat!" it said, glaring. "Say that again and I'll make you regret it!"

Akira had to hold back her laughter. This really wasn't the time for this. As if to prove the point, there was the sound of footsteps and voices meshing together to make a commotion.

"They're catchin' up already...!" Sakamoto said. He then pulled out his phone. "Shit, there's still no service. Isn't there any way to contact someone outside?"

"If this is a castle, probably not," Akira said.

While Ren said, "Maybe a flare?"

"Argh! How the hell do we get out?!"

The not-cat then said, "Hey you three! You want to know where the exit is? Let me out and I'll take you there."

"You know?" he said, suspicious.

"Of course I do!" it said, offended. "You don't want to get caught and executed, right?

Her brother was quiet for a second. Then, he said, "Can you really help us?"

"Of course I can. I'm a phantom thief after all."

Akira stared in surprise, and so did Ren. It was a phantom thief?

"This thing sounds like it's all talk..." their blond companion said.

Well, she would have to agree since it got caught but still...it had said it was a phantom thief.

The cat thief glared at him. "If you guys think you can get out on your own, then be my guest!"

Despite the warning, Sakamoto looked hesitant. "What do we do...?"

They all snapped their heads as commotion happened nearby, the guards clearly getting closer.

So Ren said, "We'll let you out."

"But...what if it's messin' with us?" Sakamoto said.

It was quick to point out though, "If you don't hurry, they'll catch you."

Ren stared at Sakamoto, and she joined him in his efforts, as he was the only thing delaying them. The punk looked unsure, but with each passing second, resignation appeared on his face until finally he said,

"F-Fine..."

With that, Ren unlocked the door and Sakamoto opened it for the not-cat, letting it out.

"Ahhh..." it said as it smiled and stretched...like a cat. "Freedom tastes so great."

"Now where's the exit, you monster cat?!"

It looked like a vein popped as it said to Sakamoto, "Don't call me a cat! I am Morgana!"

Morgana? Wait? So was it a girl? But it also sounded like a little boy...

"Shuddup and hurry it up! You wanna be locked up again?!"

Akira shook her head, reminding herserlf that, again, this wasn't the time for stuff like that. Though Sakamoto's outburst did cool down Morgana's own.

"A-All right... Sheesh..." it said. "Follow me, and stay quiet!"

And off it went, rushing past the punk blond. And if Akira didn't know any better, its legs turned into a cartoon white-and-black blur. It didn't take long to catch up to it. When she found they were at the bridge they just passed, Akira felt like smacking her forehead.

"What're you doin?" Sakamoto said.

Morgana looked annoyed. "What does it look like I'm doing? I'm lowering the bridge."

"What? Lowerin' it? But there ain't no lever."

"That's 'cause the lever's disguised," Akira said.

Her brother nodded before he reached out and pulled down the jaw. Sakamoto jumped as the bridge rumbled down and connected the two sides.

"Wha... How were we supposed to know to do that?!" he said.

All Ren just said was, "Spy movies."

Akira snickered, Sakamoto looked embarrased and Morgana looked impressed.

And then the phantom thief said, "I figured you two would pick up on things faster than Blondie from your looks."

"Hey!"

But before the boy could say more, Morgana then said, "Come on, let's get going!"

And he started off, Ren quick to follow. Akira did the same, not wanting to get left behind, but despite the fact that Sakamoto noticed last, he caught up with her brother and Morgana pretty quick. However, as soon as they left the bridge...

...a guard popped up from a door they hadn't seen from their distance.

"Ahhh! Shit shit! It's them!" Sakamoto said, trying to stop but he fell as his left leg gave out.

She would've asked if he was okay, but a flash of blue made her blink and all of a sudden, the weight of her white tunic and double daggers from earlier came back, along with the gentleman getup and single dagger for her brother. And then Morgana jumped forward.

"Tch. You amateur. Stay still!" it said then turned to her and her brother. "Hey you two! You can fight, right? Let's go!"

Before either of them could reply, it then faced the guard as it burst into goop. Then it said,

"Come! Zorro!"

Just like with them before, a flash of white and blue made her shield her eyes for a moment but when it passed, she saw a ridiculously buff and wide chested man with an equally ridiculous long mustache floating behind the not-cat. Its attire was black with intricate white lines and a long flowing cape. And, to top off the comical sizes, it held a tiny rapier in its hand.

"Y-You got one of those things too?!"

The phantom thief huffed, ignoring him as it said, "We will promptly shut them up! Now fight like your life depends on it!"

At that moment, the goop solidified to the two of those pumpkin ghosts earlier and...two pink devils, both with something very long between his legs. It looked lecherously at her. She snarled, ignoring her spine shiver, and struck at him. Thankfully his ogling distracted him enough for her to hit. As she did, her brother attacked the perverted demon as well. However, thanks to that, the pumpkin ghosts had plenty of time attack with their flames. Akira flinched then retreated with her brother.

"Hmph. I knew you were amateurs. This is how you fight!" Morgana said.

There was a shink and a green and white tornado burst from under one of the pumpkin ghosts, knocking its vegetable head off as it screamed. With that lantern maniac down, the not-cat called upon Zoro again and another tornado hit the other ghost. After that, it rushed and slashed at the first with its sword. Akira wondered what it meant with its earlier sentence, but then she screamed, kicked right in the face. Her vision was blurred but she could hear her brother shout,

"Ravage them!"

Followed by screams. Akira shook her head, thankful that her vision cleared, and saw that the pumpkin ghosts were gone and only one pink demon remained. That disturbing monster though slashed at Ren with its claws, making him scream.

She gritted.

"Fantôme! Annihilate them!"

The mannequin florished a white laser at the attacker and it screeched. Akira smiled as it fell to the ground and melted.

"That's what you get, you son of a bitch," she said.

"Thanks," Ren said as he rubbed his face.

Akira turned to him, frowning. "You all right, Big Bro?"

Her brother nodded.

"Not bad. Your Personas are pretty powerful," it said and they faced it. "But remember: strike the enemy's weakness to knock them down then use that opening to strike again. It's the most basic of basics!"

"Weakness?" Ren said, curiosity in his eyes.

Sakamoto though said, "Persona...? You mean that thing that comes outta you guys all dramatic-like?"

"Yes," Morgana said, not being snippy to her surprise. "You saw how they ripped off their masks when they summoned them, right? Well everyone wears a mask deep within their heart. By removing that..."

This time, when the blue and white light flashed, she wasn't surprised her and her brother's uniform returned.

"Huh? They turned back to normal..."

"Hmm. It looks like you don't have full control over your power yet.
The transformation shouldn't normally dissolve like that. After all—"

Sakamoto, however, just said, "Ergh, that's enough! This crap doesn't make any sense."

Akira definitely saw a vein pop as Morgana said, "Can't you sit still and listen for once, Blondie?!

"Don't call me Blondie! My name's Ryuji."

Before either of them could go further, Ren said, his tone sharp,

"Stop it. We need to go."

The not-cat blinked, like it only just remembered what they were doing, and shook its head.

"Ugh, you're right, there's no time for me to lecture! Let's go! It's not much farther to the exit."

Akira sighed in relief. That was good. She wasn't sure how much she could take it. Unfortunately, not too long after they passed through the dungeon halls, Sakamoto said,

"Hold on a sec!"

They stopped and turned just as the punk went up to one of the occupied cells.

"I feel like I've seen what this dude's wearin'..."

Akira gritted her teeth but it was Ren who spoke.

"We need to go," he said, Akira easily able to pick out the regret in it.

"Hold on, damn it! I'm tryin' to remember!"

"Well then make it quick!" Akira said with a stomp.

"Ugh! Damn it! That just makes it worse!" The blond shook his head. "I can't remember a damn thing!"

"We need to go," Ren said, his face now showing his regret.

Akira couldn't stop her own frown either.

"But...who are these guys?" Sakamoto said, looking back at the prisoner.

"Do you really think you have time to worry about other people right now?!" Morgana said. "Besides, they're—"

"There!"

The drawbridge that had been up lowered itself while the door raised, revealing a guard coming their way.

Morgana grumbled. "You should've listened to me!"

"Well, no choice now, right Big Bro?" she said and the weight of her hooded tunic returned.

Ren nodded with a hum and said, "Let's fight."

That made his own battle attire activate.

Their not-cat turned to them surprised for a moment, before it smiled and said, "I'm glad you stick to your guns."

The knight burst into other beings like before, this time into three fairies in a purple leotard. At this point, she and Ren knew they could take a few hits while they threw their own and the fight was done before long, especially since they seemed to particularly hate Arsène's shadows. Akira thought that, maybe, they could get out easy now. But with her lungs struggling, sweat dribbling down her forehead and their battle suits disappearing again, she reminded herself that, despite their chances, they couldn't fight enemies forever.

Especially her.

Thankfully Morgana spoke and her thoughts moved away from that trail.

"All right!" it said. "Let's get away before more show up!"

But Sakamoto said, "Hold on! We can't just leave these guys here!"

"Hrgh! You really don't get it do you? Argh, there's no time to explain."

Wait, explain?

"Look, I'm going," Morgana said. "If you don't want to follow, be my guest."

Then it rushed off, this time Akira was sure his legs turned into a white and black blur. But even though the phantom thief was right... She looked at the cell that held the boy, not that much older than them, if at all, flat on the floor with bruises all over. She clenched her fist and gritted her teeth. Akira opened her mouth and was about to say they should at least try...until she met Ren's eyes.

There was no other way to describe it. He was at war with himself. He couldn't decide whether to do the same as she thought...or get her to safety since they nearly died.

Akira felt the fire extinguish in her veins. She hated that she was the cause of his inner conflict. So she said,

"Come on... We should go." She glanced at the other cells. "'sides, we don't have a key for them."

The only consolation she had was that the blond just as hesitant as them to leave, looking back and forth between her, her brother and the prisoners.

But still, he said, "Damn it, fine! I'm coming."

Ren nodded and, as before, led the way. Thankfully for them, Morgana waited just a little bit and they caught up with it. When they did, it said,

"The entrance hall is right above here. The exit's close... Keep it up!"

Akira felt relief at that, her steps becoming rushed and lighter.

"We're here!" Morgana said after they ran from one side of the entrance hall to the other.

"Finally! We're saved!" Sakamoto said. "Wait, why aren't we passin' the front door?"

And Ren said, "We escaped. It's probably locked."

"Oh... So is this it then?"

He went for the door on the right but that turned out to be locked.

"Hrgh! It's not openin'!" Sakamoto glared at the not-cat. "D'ya trick us, you jerk?!"

"Don't jump to conclusions!" the phantom thief said as it went through the door on their left. "Over here!"

She and her brother walked after him, Sakamoto saying "H-Hey! Wait up!" as he caught up with them. The room they found themselves in seemed to be some sort of unused storage space, with empty shelves and vaults around them. And the grate covering a ventilation shaft.

Their blond companion looked around and said, "Where are we supposed to get out from here?! There aren't even any windows!"

All Akira could do was stare, her lungs still pumping a mile a minute. Did he really not see the ventilation shaft?

Morgana agreed with her as it said, "Ugh, amatuer... This is the most basic of basics."

"What? It somethin' to do with spy movies too?" the punk said.

"Yes," Ren said.

And Akira pointed as she said, "See that? It's the ventilation shaft."

It seemed he really hadn't seen it as he looked surprised.

"Exactly," Morgana said. "You should be able to go through it one by one."

"I see... Then we just gotta get that metal mesh off!" Sakamoto said.

Before any of them could do anything, the punk ran straight at and up the shelf before colliding with the grate. Akira flinched at the loud crash. And then again when there was a grunt and a thud.

"You okay?" Ren said, worried.

While she said, "You didn't have to do that. We could've just unscrewed it or somethin'."

"Ugh... I'm fine. It was faster, ain't it?" the blond said. "Agh... Crap... The enemy didn't hear us, did they?"

Akira froze but then went back at the door to peek through. She sighed in relief when she saw nothing but extravagance and stone.

"Coast's clear," she said.

Her brother's posture relaxed just a bit and Sakamoto said,

"Phew... We're finally gettin' outta here!"

But then Morgana said, "I would wait to celebrate until you actually get out."

Which, well, was true.

"But...what about you?"

"There's something that I still need to do," Morgana said. "We're going our seperate ways here."

"Thank you," Ren said.

And she said, "Thanks. Don't get caught again, you hear?"

Morgana humphed but still smiled as it said, "Heh, I could say the same to you. Be careful, okay?"

They nodded about the same time and started to climb up to the shaft. Of course, she was the last as she had trouble but beyond that, they had no problems crawling through the cramped space. Well, except that she needed both help to get down when they found themselves in the courtyard. And before she knew it, they left, a brief wave of nausea passed her, and her brother's phone said,

"You have returned to the real world. Welcome back."

Author's Notes: Akira's initial Persona is called Fantôme, better known as "The Phantom of the Opera" (or in French, "Le Fantôme de l'Opéra"). I originally named it "Opera Phantom", but after a suggestion I got after putting this up, I decided to change it to "Fantôme". It took a really long time to decide on who it'd be for several reasons, and some of the ones I had in mind are still tempting, but in the end, I decided on Phantom of the Opera because, originally, Akira was just going to be another Persona user, despite being the "female protagonist", also for several reasons, the biggest being a certain mastermind's plan. But that actually ended up also being the reason why I changed my mind and make her a Wild Card as well, and, well, along with the various twin AUs of the P3 protagonists where both of them are Wild Cards.
 
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TheCharredDragon

One world, one love, shadows of mass destruction
Chapter 4: Black Sheep

{R}​

"You have returned to the real world. Welcome back."

What did that mean? Oh he knew the actual words meant they had traveled to some other world, likely some kind of parallel one, which would explain all the fantastical elements they encountered and experienced. No, he wondered what did it mean that it existed at all and why was it so distorted. How was it related to their world? Was it related at all? And how did just a little app enabled them to do what scientists only dreamed of?

Those questions, though, stopped when Sakamoto said,

"Huh? Returned...? Does that mean we got away?"

"Probably," he said.

And Aki said, "Yeah. I mean, we're not in the castle."

The blond slumped and groaned. "I dunno what to think anymore..."

"Not surprised," she said.

Sakamoto glared at her. "What's that supposed to mean?!"

"Exactly what I said," Aki said, smirk evident even with her mask.

"Ugh... Seriously, what was that all anyways...? That castle, and Kamoshida, and that weird cat!"

"Phantom thief," he was quick to say.

After all, if Morgana was a real phantom thief, then they should treat him with respect.

Unsurprisingly though, Sakamoto-san just said, "Whatever! The hell's goin' on?!"

And that attracted attention.

"What's with the yelling?" a man said. "Are you students of Shujin?"

The police officers walked up to them, one pushing a bicycle along.

"Cutting classes are we?" the officer without the bicycle said, his aura exuding aggression.

"Huh? No!" Sakamoto said. "We were tryin' to get to school and we ended up at this weird castle."

The officers stared.

"What?"

Ren would have to agree with them. That was the last thing he wanted them to hear.

"Hand over your bag," the aggressive bicycle officer said. "You better not be doing drugs."

Case in point.

So before the blond could say anything more, Ren said,

"My apologies, officer. He was helping me with my sister."

Aki nodded and, catching on, made herself look more tired.

"She was having an asthma attack but it turns out we forgot her medicine so I went to buy some while my friend kept an eye on her. But then I was yelling at him for thinking one of the medicines was a snack," he said.

"U-Uh yeah! What he said!" Sakamoto said. But then he realized what exactly were Ren's words. "Hey! I'm not that dumb!"

"Well it...looked like a candy...so don't blame ya," Aki said, her speech lethargic on purpose.

The blond glared at her. "Why you...!"

So Ren gave a bow, deep enough for a "sincere" apology but shallow enough that it wasn't condescending, and said, "We'll be going now. We don't want to be even more late."

"Very well then," the bicycle office said.

But the aggressive officer was doubtful.

"Really...?" he said.

But he and Aki just nodded before he took his sister's wrist and she took Sakamoto's, which made him yelp in surprise. Thankfully he still followed them even when Aki let go of him after a couple of meters. Though the blond still said,

"Seriously, what was that?! I'm not dumb enough to mix up medicine with food!"

Aki glared at him. "But you're dumb enough to mention the castle to them."

"But that's what happened!"

His sister's gaze softened at that. "Yeah, but do you really think they'd believe that?"

That considerably calmed the blond down, any and all anger dissipating, as he frowned and his demeanor slacked.

"Yeah, you gotta point."

"I will apologize though," Ren said. "I couldn't think of anything else that was reasonable to our circumstances."

"Nah, it's fine," Sakamoto said. "You said that so we could bail, right? No biggie."

Ren frowned. "Still..." He could've come up with something else.

But Sakamoto kept up his smile. "Come on, let's go! We don't wanna be late, right?"

And Aki said, "Wait what time is it?" She took out her phone. "Shit! It's almost lunch!"

Shit indeed.

"Let's run," Ren said, holding on Aki tighter.

Thankfully, not only did Sakamoto catch up to them, he actually overtook them and led them through the same shortcut they took before. But unlike earlier, instead of a castle gate, they were met with the sleek and almost lifeless school gates of Shujin Academy. They didn't go inside right away however as Aki stopped and caught her breath.

Ren and Sakamoto stopped as well, which touched him considering he could just ditch them to get to class as soon as possible. But he looked just as worried as he was over his sister's health.

"Need anything?" Ren said.

"Just...short...on breath..." she said. It was then she noticed the other blazer on her and she handed it to Sakamoto. "Too...hot..."

Sakamoto laughed and took it.

"Don't worry 'bout it," Sakamoto said. "It ain't rainin' anymore anyway." His grin, however, left him as he looked at the school. "But still... I'm sure we came the same way. What's goin' on here...?"

Before either could give their suspicions that Ren felt they shared, a voice said,

"That's exactly what I wanted to ask you."

And they saw a man walk out of the school's front doors, arms crossed and his lips set in a frown.

"We recieved a call from the police," he said.

"Tch. That damn cop snitched on us after all!" Sakomoto said.

"It's rare to see you not alone," the man said. His gaze narrowed in accusation. "Where were you roaming until now?"

Before Sakamoto could say anything, Aki said, in a low voice, "Remember our cover."

"Ah, right..." he said, thankfully much more quiet.

And then his sister glanced at him, asking him to take over. He nodded then turned to the man.

"We were at the pharmacy and taking it easy on our way back," he said. "My little sister was having an asthma attack but the medicine we had wasn't enough and we ran out of the stronger one, so I went to get some after asking him to keep an eye on her. And I didn't want to push her too much after that attack."

The staff member locked his gaze with his, examining him and trying to make him crack. But Ren kept up his own, standing firm. It was a lie, but it wasn't as if the truth was any better, especially with his and Aki's background likely already known among the staff and faculty. He was sure they would've kept up the staring match if not for a now familiar voice saying,

"What's this about an 'attack'?"

And the "king" walked out to join them, except Ren felt something was different, and not just because he was wearing clothes expected of a gym teacher.

"Kamoshida?!" Sakamoto said.

The puffy haired man chuckled.

"You seem so carefree, Sakamoto," he said. "Quite the difference from when you did morning practice for the track team."

The blond gritted his teeth. "Shuddup! It's your fault that—"

But then the man said, "How dare you speak that way to Mr. Kamoshida!"

Ren narrowed his eyes. That was like...

Then he said, much calmer, "...there's not much leeway left for you, you know?"

"He's the one that provoked me!"

This wasn't good.

"Do you really want to be expelled? Anyways, you'll have to explain yourself! Follow me!"

"What? This is bullshit!"

So Ren said, "Sakamoto." The blond was surprised, along with Aki. "Just go. It's just as we said, right? Thank you for helping."

He looked reluctant, but after Aki sighed and gave him a sympathetic gaze, he too sighed.

"Fine... I'm comin'," he said.

Now it was the two men who were surprised, but theirs was quickly reigned in.

"Come now. I should have been more considerate too. Let's just say we were both to blame," Kamoshida said.

"Well, if you say so..." the man said, but he then glared at Sakamoto. "Still, you're coming with me. It's undeniable that you're extremely late."

"Yeah yeah, I get it..." Sakamoto said, following the man who went inside.

Though not before sending a quick glare to Kamoshida.

The puffy haired man seemingly ignored it in favor of him and his sister.

"By the way...you're the new transfer students, right? Ren and Akira Amamiya..." he said.

Rem just nodded and waited, Aki still catching her breath, which he could tell annoyed her.

Then Kamoshida said, "Have we met somewhere...?"

He and Aki glanced at each other. She was likely wondering if they should answer. But Ren saw no harm in it, since there was a truth he could give.

"You offered a ride to us after giving one to a blonde girl," he said.

Recognition flashed on his face.

"That's right. I remember now..." he said. "Well, I'll overlook this just for today. But..." The teacher glared and crossed his arms. "I'm sure you've heard this from the principal, but cause any trouble and you'll be expelled. Understand?"

"I understand," Ren said while Aki nodded.

Kamoshida seemed to contemplate their answers, checking their sincerity, before his earlier geniality returned.

"At any rate, hurry up and go to the faculty office," he said, tone light and teasing. "I'm sure Ms. Kawakami and Mr. Shimizu are tired of waiting." He smiled. "Good luck trying to enjoy your new school life."

And at last he left. He was going to just wait for Aki to catch her breath, but then she said,

"Let's go, Big Bro."

He turned to her and said, "You're sure?"

She nodded. He stared at her, making sure anyway, but as she returned his gaze with a challenging glare, it would have to be enough. So he nodded and led the way to the faculty office on the second floor, the chatter of students filling the background. Once inside, they saw Ms. Kawakami looking absolutely annoyed at her desk while Mr. Shimizu was pacing around, clearly worried, at least until he noticed them.

"Oh, Ren-kun, Akira-chan, you're here!" he said, making his way to them as they themselves walked up to Ms. Kawakami.

Ms. Kawakami, however, sighed and stayed in her seat.

"Unbelievable. Being over half a day late on your first day...?" she said under her breath, likely not intending for them to hear. She threw them a glare. "Can you explain yourself?"

Aki looked to him and he nodded and once again he gave their cover story. Ms. Kawakami softened only a tad while Mr. Shimizu's eyes widened.

"An attack?!" he said. "Are you all right, Akira-chan?"

Aki blinked in surprise and just nodded. The scarfed teacher sighed in relief and Ren's lips twitched, tempted to smile.

"I see," Ms. Kawakami said. "I heard that student happened to be that Sakamoto."

Ren and Aki's brows furrowed.

"That Sakamoto?" his sister said.

Ms. Kawakami sighed, exhaustion apparent in her frame, while Mr. Shimizu's worry returned.

"Ah, yes, well, he's..." he said.

But she said, "Don't get involved with him, okay? He's nothing but trouble."

"He was much different before however," Mr. Shimizu said.

"That was when he was devoting his time to the track and field team though..."

He was sure Aki was frowning behind her mask because he had turn his own expression blank, not wanting to hint at his worries and suspicions. Instead, he just nodded and said,

"Yes ma'am."

Once again, Ms. Kawakami sighed. "Anyways...break's almost over. Classes will end after fifth period because of the subway accident. I'll have you introduce yourself when class resumes. Follow me, Ren-kun," she said.

"You shall follow me, Akira-chan," Mr. Shimizu said.

Aki nodded but then faced him. He gave her a small smile and said,

"Good luck."

Though he couldn't see it, he knew Aki returned his smile. "You too, Big Bro."

And then she followed Mr. Shimizu out, who was smiling softly as well, while he trailed after Ms. Kawakami, whose expression hadn't changed. Before they went their seperate ways, however, Mr. Shimizu turned to him and said,

"Don't worry, Ren-kun. I'll be sure to keep an eye on her."

He wouldn't know for sure until later, but he was glad nonetheless so he nodded in reply and chuckled as Aki rolled her eyes but said nothing. After Mr. Shimizu left with his sister, they continued their way to their classroom. But instead of going inside right away, Ms. Kawakami stopped before the door and she said,

"By the way, when you introduce yourself..."

"Yes?"

"Be serious about it, even if you're lying to the class. Do not say anything unnecessary."

Ren frowned. "You don't believe me?" he said.

It was true he was lying but it was true his sister's life had been in danger, and he didn't like the thought that she might not care even if she was indeed about to die from an attack. However, Ms. Kawakami said,

"No, I do. I just..." She sighed. "Never mind. But I mean it when I say 'do not say anything unecessary'. I don't want any trouble."

With that, Ms. Kawakami opened the door and entered. Ren followed her and was already greeted with yet more murmurs that weren't quiet at all.

"Being super late on his first day. He really is insane."

"He looks normal though."

"But he might slug us if we look him in the eye..."

It took a lot not to show his confusion on his face. What made them think that?

"Settle down," Ms. Kawakami said as he stood by her desk. To his surprise, the class actually obeyed. "Well, I'd like to introduce a transfer student: Ren Amamiya. He attended in the afternoon since his little sister's asthma acted up this morning."

Yet more murmurs occured.

"Oh yeah, I forgot he has a sister."

"I wonder if they look alike."

"I bet she's a cutie."

"Nah, don't think about goin' after her, dude."

Ren, thankfully, only felt his eye twitch instead of making his displeasure known, but he was glad when Ms. Kawakami spoke again.

"All right. Please say something to the class," she said.

Oh he wanted to tell them to shut up. But not only was that rude, Ms. Kawakami didn't want any trouble. Perhaps she wasn't as openly concerned as Mr. Shimizu, but it was still certainly better than what he expected from the faculty. So he settled on bowing a reasonable amount forward as he said,

"Nice to meet you all. I hope we can get along."

Once again, that just made the class gossip.

"He seems quiet...but I bet when he loses it..."

"I mean, he was arrested for assault, right?"

"And his sister too..."

"Wait really?"

"Uh huh. That's why don't even think about goin' after her."

"Yeah, if he doesn't get you for hittin' on her, she probably will."

Ren froze. Now he really was glad his polite mask was on. The last thing he wanted was to have them see him rattled. After all, only the faculty were supposed to know about his and Akira's stained record. How did they know?

And, of course, Ms. Kawakami ignored the gossip. Or at least tried to.

"Uh...so...your seat will be...hmm..." she said, scanning the room. "Over there. The one that's open." Then she added, "Sorry, but can the people nearby please share their textbooks with him for today?"

There were groans in the room as some voiced their dissent with "This sucks..." but Ren ignored that to see that his seat was one near the window. He internally chuckled as he made his way to it, imagining Aki snarking at the fact that he was a high school student by the window like so many anime protagonists. Before he took his seat though, the one seated in front of him said,

"Hey..."

And he realized it was the same girl from this morning, the platinum blonde girl that went inside Mr. Kamoshida's car.

"Is she okay?" she said, worry in her face.

He blinked, surprised, but allowed himself to give a small smile in gratitude for the concern.

"Yes. Thankfully."

And she returned his smile before slipping it off. He, too, followed suit as he took his seat. Unsurprisingly, that set off a new chain of gossip around him.

"Did you catch that? Do those two know each other?"

"Does that mean he hit on her before transferring?"

"That means she's cheating on him with Mr. Kamoshida."

"Then again, this is Takamaki-san we're talking about..."

"For real, that side of the room is totally awful."

No, the rest of the room is awful, he thought. And he was sure Aki would agree with the exact same wording. Either way, it was clear his class, if not all the students in school, knew about his and Aki's criminal record. No doubt it had been leaked. That begged the question on who did it. But he didn't know much of the faculty or staff to make a guess...except for Mr. Kamoshida, but that, he knew, was only because of what he saw in that strange castle in that "other world". So he dismissed the accusation, even when the part of himself that sounded like his gentleman thief guardian protested at the thought.

"Oh right! The volleyball rally's in two days..." Ms. Kawakami said, pulling him from his musing. "Everyone's just changed classes. So be sure to use that time to get to know each other."

Ren internally scoffed, keeping his face blank and bored. He doubted they would to get to know him. If this class was any indication, no one would want to even stand a meter away from him after today.

"Well then, let's get class started. Who's on duty today?"

"Everyone, please rise..." a boy with a beat up face said.

Despite his mask, Ren let himself sigh as he did as told. He hoped Aki was doing better but he doubted that as well.

He also hoped she wouldn't explode before the day ended.

(A)​

Akira was glad she wore a mask because there was no way she had any energy to spare on resisting her frown on top of keeping her glare at bay. Her mood plummeting the moment she entered her classroom because everyone started talking, and it wasn't the usual "new student in class" talk.

"Hey, is that her?"

"The one with the assault charge?"

"Yeah that's her. I saw her with her brother earlier."

"She looks normal though."

"Normal? She's got a mask! She's gotta be a delinquent."

"Yeah, I mean, why else would she have an assault charge?"

The only one who hadn't mentioned anything was a red haired girl with a ponytail who was seated at the front. Everyone else just kept going on and on whenever they could. And as if to put the cherry on the top, the entire school just kept gossiping about her and her brother as she made her way to his classroom. Akira gritted her teeth, wondering who in the world let their criminal records leak. Only the teachers were supposed to know. But no, the entire school knew. She wondered if it was Mr. Kamoshida's fault. But she let that go as soon as she thought it. True, they had ended up in a weird world, but she had no proof that "King Kamoshida" had any relation to Mr. Kamoshida. It could simply be an alternate version of him that was evil after all.

Not only that, she was exhausted, every step felt like a chore, and she had occasional flashes of that castle they went to replacing the school around her. Now that worried her. Was she going insane? Or was she now being dragged into that world? She didn't like the thought of the latter happening. The last thing she wanted was disappearing mysteriously. Before she could give it more thought though, she stopped on her way down the stairs when she heard two familiar voices.

"Why did you allow a student like him to transfer? And not only that, his sister as well. They've already started associating with Sakamoto," the voice of Mr. Kamoshida said. "Two students with a criminal record and both of them culprits in an assualt case..." A pause. "At this rate, it'd be pointless how much I contribute to the school..."

Somehow she wasn't surprised the teacher version of Kamoshida also had a big ego like the king version.

"Now don't be like that. This school counts on you, Kamoshida-kun. You are our star," the voice of the principal said. "Still, a steady build-up is necessary behind such brilliance as well."

"Your troubles never seem to end, do they, Principal Kobayakawa?" Another pause. "All right, I'll continue to do my best to answer your expectations of me."

Akira waited until the footsteps faded before she went up the stairs. Thankfully, her brother was already at the top, so she didn't have to go too far.

"Are you okay?" he said when she reached him.

"That obvious, huh?" she said.

"To me? Yes." He frowned. "Do you want to go ahead?"

Akira's brow furrowed. "Ahead?"

"...Sakamoto asked if we could talk, you included. But if you're tired, I'll just tell him that."

She shook her head. "Nah, let's go talk to him."

"Aki..."

"I'm just tired, okay? A few minutes won't kill me. Besides, I want to make sure he's okay too."

He stared at her, gaze hard, but she just met it, daring him to say otherwise. As she hoped, Ren sighed and twirled one of his hairs as he said,

"Okay. But tell me if that changes, okay?"

Akira nodded. "Sure." Then she said, "So where's he want to meet us?"

"On the roof."

"Of course the roof."

Her brother smiled. "Any better ideas for privacy?"

"Okay, good point. But still, how'd he get to the roof? They're supposed to be locked.."

Ren chuckled and said, "Only one way to find out."

It was easy enough to find the way. They just kept going up thr stairs until they reached the highest floor. Though it was less of a floor and more a room. However, there was a sign on the door that said, in short, "off limits". Akira wondered if they got it wrong somehow, but considering he had told them to go to the roof, she just pushed the door. As she guessed, he had somehow unlocked it and the door gave way, showing the school roof. It wasn't anything spectacular, or clean for that matter. Farthest away from them were AC units and large fans. Before those seemed to be a simple, urban garden, with four rows of sprouts in long, rectangle pots. But most notably there were a bunch of tables and chairs all around them, particularly bunched up near the AC units on the right. And there, sitting on a chair, was their blond acquiantance, Ryuji Sakamoto.

"Sorry for callin' you up here like this," he said.

"It's okay," Ren said as they took their seats.

"Don't worry about it," she said.

"Really? But I bet Kawakami already told you stuff like 'don't get involved with him', huh?"

"Pretty much."

"She said you're trouble," her brother said.

The blond sighed and leaned back. "Figured as much," he said. "Then again, we're in the same boat."

She and Ren grew curious, though she had a guess on what he meant. And she was right.

"Heard you two got a criminal record. Everyone's talkin' about it," he said.

Akira groaned while Ren frowned.

"I know... That's all I've been hearing," she said.

"Do you have any idea how they know?" her brother said.

Sakamoto shared their frowned and hesitated. Akira almost thought he would say anything until he shook his head.

"Besides the internet? Nah. Not really," he said.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, people started talkin' about how some transfer students with criminal records were comin' to our school. I don't know who started it."

They both sighed at that. It had definitely leaked somehow. And they didn't really have much reason to spend a lot of time tracking down who leaked it, if they could even find out the source by normal searching.

And Sakamoto said, "Still. Even if they're rumors...it's no wonder you were so gutsy."

Akira glared at him. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Sakamoto was startled. "Uh, well, you know...how we almost got killed at a castle...?" he said, frowning. "I mean...It wasn't a dream...right? You remember it too, yeah?"

Oh. Now Akira felt bad for assuming he was about to insult her or something.

"Yeah," she said.

"We remember," her brother said, twirling a strand of his hair.

The blond sighed in relief. "Oh good..." he said, though he was soon somber again. "Though I guess just 'cause we remember it doesn't mean much though."

"I guess you have a point," Ren said.

"Well that just means we're all crazy!" she said.

The blond was surprised before he laughed. Akira, and Ren for that matter, couldn't help but smile at that. Even more so when he stopped and said,

"Well, even if it was a dream, you guys saved me from Kamoshida. So yeah. Thanks, Ren, Akira."

"You're welcome," they said.

But then they noticed something.

"How did you know my name?" they said.

Looking like a kid caught with their hand in a cookie jar, Sakamoto chuckled.

"Oh right, I forgot," he said. "I kinda...knew your names from the rumors, heh heh."

Akira rolled her eyes again. "Geez, how much do these rumors know?" But then she said, mostly to lighten the mood, "Actually, never mind. Probably don't wanna know."

"Agreed," her brother said.

But Sakamoto turned serious, if not brooding.

"Is something wrong?" Ren said.

"Nothin', it's just..." He sighed. "You prolly don't know about it, but there are some rumors about Kamoshida too."

"Kamoshida?" she said, foreboding feelings in her gut.

"The one we met at the gate, right?" her brother said.

"Yeah, the ripped mophead."

That was a moniker she liked more than poofy haired man or just Mr. Kamoshida. She would start calling him that, at least in her mind. But right now she had to focus.

"What about him?"

"The asshole who was all full of himself at the castle," Sakamoto said. "No one says anything against him cause he's some medalist who took the volleyball team to the nationals. The way Kamoshida was king of that castle felt crazy real 'cause of that."

Well that explained his big ego earlier. But if both had such an inflated head and the king version of Kamoshida acted exactly as Sakamoto described him... She glanced at her brother, who likely shared her thoughts. Did that mean he was not just another world's Kamoshida, but a parallel version? And if he was, and there were teens in those cells, did that mean there were students suffering in their world as well? The foreboding worsened.

Then Sakamoto said, "...I wonder if we can go back to that castle again..."

And she couldn't help but agree with him, even with the pit of fear deep in her stomach when remembering how they almost died meshing with her worry. But it wasn't like they even knew how they got there so they couldn't even try...

Could they?

She started to examine what had happened since she arrived until now but it seemed Sakamoto changed his mind as he stood up, startling them.

"Ugh. Forget it! It must've all been a dream! It has to be!" he said.

That just sounded like denial. But then he said, with an apologetic face and sincere tone,

"Sorry to drag you out here like this. That's all I had to say."

And Akira couldn't really get mad at him for wanting to forget it. After some thought, it made sense. They did just nearly die. And it was pretty strange. They would sound like they had been on drugs or something if they mentioned the truth.

So she said, "It's fine, dude."

Along with her brother nodding and saying, "Same."

"Good," he said, his cheer back for a moment. Then he crossed his arm. "You know, we might be pretty similar. I feel like we're gonna get along just fine as 'troublemakers'."

Akira gave him a flat stare. "Really?"

"Oh come on, Aki," Ren said, smug. "He's just being friendly."

"Yeah...right."

The blond laughed. "Anyways, I'm Ryuji Sakamoto," he said.

Taking the chance, she said, "We know."

The blond stared, his mouth hanging. "Wha—how?"

Now she grinned. "The castle," she said and nothing more.

And on cue, though also partially in concern, Ren said, "Shall we go? My little sister's tired from that."

"Uh, right," Sakamoto said. "Seeya then. I'll come talk if I see you around."

With that, the blond left, her and her brother watching him go. They just stared at the door where he went through for a while, gathering their thoughts.

Then Ren said, "Need any help?"

She was tempted to say no. But she very much wanted to lie down soon, so she said, "Yeah. I wanna nap."

"Okay," he said and wrapped an arm around her waist while she wrapped one around his. "We still have some cup noodles for dinner, right?"

"Think so. But hey, we forgot the umbrella, so who knows?"

Her brother chuckled. "True. Then let's get extra."

The time it took from school to the convenience store then the café passed surprisingly quick. By the time they made it back, Akira was able to walk on her own but still felt her eyes drooping. But what greeted them was a Sakura-san who looked annoyed.

Akira had a bad feeling as he said, "Hey, I got an interesting call from your school today." And she had been right as it followed with, "It's only your first day and you're already showing up hours late?"

Of course. The school had likely left out why they had been late, or rather their excuse as to why. Her brother expressed annoyance at that, not even bothering with being polite as he glared and frowned.

"Aki had an attack," he said.

To her surprise, Sakura-san's was shocked and he looked at her with worry. But just as quickly as it appeared, it was replaced with his usual grumpy expression. However, his tone was decidedly less harsh and had a hint of that concern from earlier.

"I...see..." The bespectacled man sighed. "Look, just...don't do that again, okay?" he said. "They're not gonna take that as an exucse every time if you don't behave yourselves. Your life's forfeit if anything happens. Both of you. You understand?"

Akira could only stare. She...hadn't expected that kindness, especially considering his track record thus far. She nearly didn't speak until her brother said,

"I do."

Then he glanced at her.

She tried not to look sleepy and nodded as she said, "Yeah, Sakura-san. We understand."

Another sigh, as if he was carrying the weight of the world.

"Okay then," he said.

Then the bearded man's phone rang and her brother took that as a cue to leave. He gestured to the stairs, she nodded and both walked to it. Though Akira still listened into the conversation. It was hard not to.

"Hey what's up?" Sakura-san said, his voice a whole lot warmer than anything she's heard from him before. "...Yeah, I just closed up shop. I'll be there in half an hour."

They were about to go up the stairs when he noticed them.

"Hey, don't forget to lock the door and turn all the lights off, okay?" he said.

Ren said, "Yes sir."

But the middle aged man was already back on his phone.

"No, I just hired a part-timer," he said. "Yup. I'm leaving now."

And with that, they finally went to their room and Aki just flopped on her bed. She knew she would have to get up to eat, change and take her medicine, and maybe even have to deal with a call from their parents, but right now she just let herself drift off.

However, her brother said,

"Aki?"

So she said, "Yeah?"

"What do you think about the castle?"

Oh she had a lot of thoughts. Like how they almost died, the "not-cat" phantom thief...and how they left a bunch of kids there...and how Morgana reacted to them. But most of all...

"You wanna do something about it, huh?"

"Mmhmm."

Aki groaned. "We don't know how we got there though and I'm way too tired to think about it... Can we just sleep on it?"

Her brother chuckled. "Okay, okay. You rest," he said, rubbing her head. "I'll get dinner ready and wake you when it's ready."

"Thanks Big Bro."

"Always, Aki."

{R}​

Bang!

"On your feet, Inmates!" a girl's voice said.

Ren opened his eyes and was greeted with black and blue. Where was he? He had noodles for dinner with Aki taking her medicine, changed to more comfortable clothes for bed and went to sleep. And now he was in a prison cell?

Another girl said, "Our master wishes to speak with you. It's for your sakes that you take his words to heart."

And then he remembered the dream from before. The one who last spoke was Justine, the first one was Caroline, and this was the Velvet Room.

But then a third voice, also a girl and also familiar, said,

"What the hell?!"

And his breath stopped. That couldn't be...

"Aki...?" he said, sitting up.

"Huh? Big Bro? Is that you?" Aki said.

Bang!

Ren jumped as Caroline said, "Quiet, Inmates! Did you not hear us when we said our master wishes to speak with you?"

"Master?! What're you talking about?!" Aki said and he heard the bars beside his cell shake.

"Show some manners, Inmate!"

"I will when you explain why the hell I'm in a cell!"

"I will admit, I did not expect that you would awaken power, much less special ones," the long nosed bald man, Igor, said from the the desk before him, looking to his right. Then he looked back at him. "But, perhaps, because you have awakened your powers, ones that are special as well, it influenced her own." He chuckled, the noise as deep as his voice. "Now your rehabilitation can finally begin."

"My powers?" Ren said, frowning.

"Rehabilitation?" Aki said.

"There is no need to understand it all for the time being," Igor said. "You will be training the power of Persona, which you have awakened to. Personas are, in other words, a mask—an armor of the heart when confronting worldy matters."

"We already know that, baldy!" Aki said. "What I wanna know is why we're here!"

"Hey! What did I say about respecting our master?!" Caroline said as she hit Aki's cell bars again.

The old man himself looked shocked before his ever present grin got even wider.

"Is that so?" Igor said and chuckled. "Then I have high expectations for both of you."

"What do you mean?" he said.

Meanwhile Aki said, "I don't care about that! Answer me, damn it!"

"There is no need to worry. You will learn when the time comes," Igor said.

He heard Aki groan. He didn't blame her. She wanted answers but Igor wasn't forthcoming. They had no choice but to listen, like the prisoners they looked like.

Then Igor said, "By the by...have you come to appreciate the Metaverse Navigator?"

"Metaverse Navigator?" his sister said, curious but still annoyed.

The long nosed man nodded. "Using it will allow you to come and go between reality and Palaces."

"Palaces...?" Ren said.

"You mean that place we eneded up in?"

And then it clicked. That app, with its sinister eye, was how they were able to travel between the two worlds. But if that was the case...

"Why did you give it to me?"

And Igor said, "...I bestowed it to you as a means to train you as a thief."

Ren blinked. What?

"Thief?" Aki said, incredulous.

"Yes! The Metaverse Navigator is a gift from our master! You better take care in using it, Inmates!" Caroline said, harsh and high pitched.

"Devote yourself to your training so that you may become a fine thief," Justine said, cold and subdued.

And Aki was likely gripping the bars and glaring at them as she said, "Why you..."

Meanwhile, Ren frowned and gathered his thoughts. The dream from before wasn't a dream. Igor wanted him to be a thief and gave him the Metaverse Navigator for that. And he hadn't expected Aki to be here with him. In other words, he was still no closer to any answers for any of his questions, like what did Igor mean by "rehabilitation" or why was Aki here when she apparently wasn't supposed to be. He would have to settle for what Igor said...for now.

So he said, "What do you want me to do?"

The master of the room chuckled.

"Just continue your journey. You will reach it in time," he said.

And of course it was cryptic.

"No way am I gonna let him do it alone!" Aki said, rattling the bars once again.

The long nosed man stared at Ren's right for a moment. Then he said,

"I see. It must be disheartening to make use of the Metaverse Navigator alone." He chuckled. "Very well. I shall grant you the Navigator. And, as I have done with your kin, should you find anyone beneficial to you, I shall grant it to them as well." Igor's grin turned amused. "This is all for you to grow as a most excellent thief."

"Hey! Wait!" his sister said. "You still didn't—"

A alarm sounded, dinging repeatedly.

"Hmph. It's time," Caroline said, crossing her arms. "Go and enjoy what rest you might have..."

"I said wait!"

That was the last thing he heard before the blue faded completely from the black.

Author's Note: Fun fact: the school roof in Japanese schools is supposed to be closed off in real life (as far as I know).
 

TheCharredDragon

One world, one love, shadows of mass destruction
Chapter 5: Cat Got Your Tongue?

(A)​

Akira gasped and bolted up, panting. There was buzzing in her ears and her vision was blurry and all she could think of was, What the hell was that? Was she truly so angry at her situation that she dreamed of being trapped in a prison along with her brother with two pint sized guards and an old, balding, long nosed man as their master? No, that couldn't be it. She had dreamed of worse wardens and monsters than those three, a long, long time ago, when she had no brother and no father.

The buzzing stopped and she turned to see the blurry outline of her brother turning off his alarm on his phone. For a while, she just stared at him, her brain deciding to crash. And then Ren looked up to her and said,

"I think I would've called him rocket nose instead of baldy."

Akira laughed, long and hard enough that she held her stomach and fell back into her bed. Leave it to her brother to say something that was both completely unrelated yet totally related to whatever was going on. She shouldn't be surprised at this point, but she still was. She loved that. Thanks to that, they were both smiling, even though she couldn't really see it, and decidedly much calmer.

"Nah, carrot nose is better," she said. Then she glared at him. "Don't even think of the inappropriate one."

"You said it, not me."

They both chuckled and then content quiet came back. But Akira knew it wouldn't last. And Ren, as usual, was the one to end it.

"So you saw it too? The blue prison?" he said.

She sighed and sat up once again, putting on her glasses.

"Yup," she said. "And you have no idea what that place is, huh?"

Ren shook his head. "Not really. I only know the names of the ones there and the place."

"That prison has a name?"

He nodded. "It's called the Velvet Room. The master, carrot nose, is Igor, and the terrible twins are the wardens, Caroline and Justine," he said. "The one with the stick is Caroline. The one with the clipboard is Justine."

Wait really?

"Those are names from Frankenstein," she said. "Well, related to Frankenstein in Igor's case."

"I thought they were familiar...but I'm not sure if that'll help figure out the mystery."

Ren had a point. If they were truly named after characters from Frakenstein, then that implied their names were either appropriate or ironic. And considering the characters of Caroline and Justine in the actual novel, particularly the latter's fate, she doubted the names of the residents were important. However...

"Yeah, okay, but why's it called the Velvet Room? It definitely isn't velvet or a room."

Ren looked hesitant. But then he said, "Well, according to Igor, the room reflects the state of my heart, so..."

And then she got it. If that was true and the Velvet Room appeared as a prison...then that implied that Ren thought they were imprisoned in their circumstances. And he had somehow dragged her into it. Akira sighed and plopped down beside her brother, startling him, before she leaned on his shoulder.

"Hey, Big Bro?"

"Hmm?"

"Remember that you said you don't much about that room, right?"

"Mmmhmm."

"So don't think it's your fault I'm trapped too, okay?"

Ren chuckled and finally relaxed, leaning his head on top of her own, no doubt smiling.

"How'd you know?" he said, already knowing the answer.

"Because we're family," she said, giving it anyway.

They stayed like that for a while, just enjoying each other's presence and the calm quiet. At least until, once again, Ren broke it.

"There's one more thing..."

"The castle, I'm betting."

"Mmhmm," he said, nodding. "I...want to investigate it."

"And do something about it, yeah?"

"Yes. Even if it's some sort of parallel world, I want to find out why it replaced the school."

"And why ripped mophead and those kids were like that in the castle."

Her brother nodded.

"How we gonna back though? We don't even know how we got there."

"About that..." Ren said and showed his phone with that eye app from yesterday. "I believe this is how we did it."

Her brother, after messing with it, showed a search history for it, the words "Kamoshida's Palace" being the only thing in it.

"Wait, this is that Metaverse Navigator?"

"Most likely."

"How does an app send us to a parallel world?!" Akira said. But then she realized her words and remembered the Velvet Room. "Oh wait, supernatural. It's not supposed to make sense. Never mind."

Ren snickered and she glared at him.

"I was thinking we'd try after school," he said. "Is that okay with you?"

"Do you even need to ask?" Akira said, smirking. It was, however, replaced with a more somber one. "I wanna help too."

Her brother gave a warm smile. "Thank you."

Below, the café's door opened, ringing its overhead bell. Akira sighed, making a show of it, and said,

"Well it looks like our warden is here. Let's get ready before he gets more grumpy."

"He's not that bad, Aki," Ren said but chuckled anyway.

"Yeah yeah, I know. But I can still complain, can't I?"

With that, they went downstairs to change and get ready, Sakura-san cooking on the stove in the small kitchen. But just as she was about to go in the restroom, their caretaker said,

"You're not going to take a bath?"

Before she could think, she gave him a flat stare and said, "Does it look like I can take a bath here?"

It was only after that did she realize what she did but before she could apologize, Sakura-san just huffed and said,

"There's a bath house down the street. Just go left and then right."

Uh... Did he just...?

Ren smirked at her, reminding her of his words earlier.

She glared at him.

Of course that just made his smirk worse. But it lost its smugness as he turned to Sakura-san and bowed slightly.

"Thank you for telling us," he said. "Let's go, Aki."

She sighed. But she would admit, even if it was a bit rushed since they needed to go to school, it felt good to have warm water soak into her skin and her hair a lot lighter on her head. Somehow that made breakfast taste better and definitely made the compactness of the train less annoying, even with them carrying their umbrellas. Which was good, because as they were switching trains along with other students, a head of red hair tied in a ponytail caught her attention.

"Hey..."

"Hmm? What is it?"

"I think that's my classmate."

"Hmm?" Her brother followed her sight. "Her?"

"Uh huh," she said. "She was the only one who wasn't gossiping.."

"I see... I'm glad then."

"Me too."

After that, they got on the train and they happened to be standing right beside her redheaded classmate and thus saw when she stood up from her spot.

"Please, take my seat," she said to an old lady before her. "My station's coming up."

The elder looked surprised. "Are you sure? Then..." she said and moved to take a step...

...but was beaten by a man in a suit.

Akira gritted her teeth and felt Ren tense beside her.

"Oh wow, what speed!" redhead said but then she shook her head. "I mean—excuse me, that seat was for this lady..."

But the man didn't answer as he slumped and snored.

"Oh."

Akira couldn't help it.

She said, low and threatening, "You want me to 'wake him up'?"

Then Ren said, "You should at least say something."

The girl was startled from their words but then she said, "It's all right. I can understand his position as well."

Well, now that she said it, it was true. He was likely dead tired if he fell asleep that quick, but...

"It's still not fair..." she said, mostly just to grumble, while her brother was silent but with sadness in his eyes.

The redhaired girl seemed amused but gave a sympathetic smile at them before turning to the old lady.

"I'm sorry I couldn't be any help," she said.

The old woman waved it off with a smile. "It's all right, dearie. Don't you worry."

"Please allow me to carry your luggage, at least," the ponytail girl said, already reaching for the woman's bag.

"Thank you!" the woman said and handed it to her.

And the girl shook her head and said, "Not at all! I train plenty."

Akira shook her head as well, still upset at the guy who stole the old lady's seat, but let it go anyway, especially since the girl before her was still trying to be helpful despite the hiccup. It wasn't long before they reached their stop and Akira and Ren lost her in the flow of the crowd. However, just a couple of meters after they stepped off, they heard a,

"Pardon me."

And they turned to see that it was the same redhaired ponytail girl from before. When she got their attention, she suddenly bowed, just slightly, and said,

"Thank you so much for earlier."

Akira eyed her then looked to her brother to see if he knew what she meant. But he mirrored her expression, also confused, so she shrugged, answering his own unspoken question. He did the same and they both faced the girl again.

"What are you thanking us for?" her brother said, curling his hair.

And she said, tilting her head, "Yeah. What did we do?"

"For speaking up when I offered my seat on the train," she said, standing up straight and Akira noticing she was shorter than both of them. "You're a second-year at Shujin Academy, correct? I'm a first-year there myself."

"Yes," Ren said. "And we know you're a first-year."

The girl looked surprised before realization passed on her face.

"Oh right, you could tell, huh?"

She and her brother laughed.

"It's okay," he said. "It's not as if we were any better."

"Yeah," she said. "We only found out yesterday that Shujin's uniforms are unique. Though we probably should've guessed with its rep."

The girl giggled. "Well, either way, thanking you totally slipped my mind back on the train and I didn't want to be rude to my senpai."

"It's fine. Everyone forgets sometimes," Ren said. "Besides, I should thank you as well."

"Eh? What for?"

Akira grinned, knowing what her brother was thinking, said,

"For bein' nice."

"Huh? For...being nice?"

"Yeah. You weren't gossipin' yesterday when I popped in class."

"Yesterday? Wait..." Recognition flashed in her eyes. "Oh! You're the delinquent transfer student!"

Her eye twitched, resisting a glare, and Ren tensed, glancing her way. Akira wondered if she actually had the wrong impression of her, that her ignoring her yesterday was simply because she didn't think highly of them, until the red haired girl's eyes widened and she said,

"Oh, I'm so sorry! I mean Amamiya-san!" Then she turned to her brother. "So then you're...Amamiya-senpai, I presume?" She bowed forward considerably. "I'm so sorry for that. It's just that I remembered the class talking about you so much yesterday that I tried to ignore it."

And it was their turn to stare. Akira had thought she wouldn't be nice to them anymore now that she knew they were the "problem students". Instead, she apologized, and Akira smiled and relaxed alongside her brother.

"It's fine, and yes, I'm Aki's big brother," he said, amused.

"I see... But still, I shouldn't have called you that, Amamiya-san, after thanking you."

"Hey, no problem. At least you apologized," she said.

And she meant it. It wasn't everyday people ignored rumors.

But then Ren said, "We should get going, or we might be late."

"Oh I'm so sorry! Please, excuse me!"

"Wha—? Hey wait! Wanna go..." Akira said but the redhaired girl ran off. "...to...ge...ther..." She sighed. "Geez, we're headin' the same way..."

Ren laughed and she glared at him. It did nothing but make him smirk.

"Well considering how many times she apologized, I'm not surprised she didn't want to bother us. She seems like she likes being polite," he said.

Akira sighed again. "Yeah, that makes sense...but still..."

"Come on, let's go," he said, heading for the station exit and readying his umbrella.

With one more sigh, Akira readied her own and followed him, thinking about the redhaired girl with the ribbon. Akira had wanted to get to know her. After all, she seemed to be pretty nice, especially since there were rumors about her and Ren all over school and yet she didn't seem to not want them to cloud her judgement. But she guessed that would be later. Ren did want to figure out about that castle yesterday.

{R}​

After making sure he had all his new textbooks accounted for, Ren left his classroom and began head up to meet with Aki when he saw the platinum blonde from his class approached by Mr. Kamoshida.

"Hey there, Takamaki," the teacher said. "Looking for a ride home? Things have been pretty dangerous lately with all those accidents."

Ren frowned as he watched the teacher make thinly veiled advances on Takamaki-san and the girl did her best to rebuke them, offering both excuses with her modelling job and lies about illness.

True, his perception might be skewed by his first impression of the man being an egotistical king ,who he wanted to throttle for even thinking about laying a hand on his sister, in more ways than one, his "friendliness" came off as anything but, especially with how uncomfortable the girl was. And with the rumors about the plantinum blonde and Mr. Kamoshida... He knew he shouldn't take stock on them, but he couldn't help but wonder and worry if there was some truth to them.

He was thrown out of his thoughts when Aki arrived and said,

"Hey Big Bro. Ready?"

"Yes," he said and they left the school building.

He had been thinking on where they should talk when at the school gates...

"Yo."

...Sakamoto came up to them.

"What's up?" Aki said.

"I wanna talk about that castle from yesterday," he said. "I tried tellin' myself it was all a dream...but I couldn't do it. I can't act like nothing happened. It's all connected to that Kamoshida bastard, after all."

"For real?" Aki said.

"Yeah. I wanna find out what's up with that place, no matter what."

"Well that's convenient."

The blond blinked. "Huh?"

"We were gonna try lookin' in that castle too. Right, Big Bro?" his sister said, grinning.

He nodded.

"So let's go together."

The blond was shocked and Ren couldn't blame him. If Sakamoto was known as a delinquent, it was unlikely people were friendly to him, much less help him. So he gave a soft smile as Sakamoto recovered.

"For real?" he said. Now convinced, he grinned as well. "Thanks you two."

"No problem," Aki said. "You gotta plan? 'cause we got one."

"Wait, you do?"

"Uh huh." His sister glanced at him. "Big Bro?"

He nodded and took out his phone. "Do you remember hearing a voice after we escaped?" he said as he tapped on it.

"Yeah. Somethin' about returnin' to the real world, right?"

"Yup," Aki said. "And we think..."

"...we can use this to get us back."

Ren showed his phone to the blond, the screen displaying the app on "Kamoshida's Palace".

"Really?" he said. "So all you gotta do is click?"

They gasped.

"Wait!"

Ren moved to get it away but it wasn't enough. Sakamoto tapped it and a wave of nausea hit him as his vision distorted. But only for a moment, being brought back to reality as Sakamoto said,

"Look! It's that castle from yesterday!"

And he turned to see the same large gate, and castle...and Sakamoto went right in.

"Hey! I said wait!" Aki said and they followed him. "Don't just rush off!"

"You're not much better," Ren said on reflex. She glared at him for that. But he ignored her and said to the blond, "And you shouldn't have just pressed it. We don't know what it looks like to other people."

"Yeah!" Aki said, now glaring at the blond. "We probably looked like we vanished or somethin'.

"Hey, don't worry so much. No one was watchin'—" Sakamoto said.

And then he turned around.

"—yeargh! Those clothes!"

Their clothes? He looked to Aki and found that she was wearing that hooded white tunic again, its long sleeves and coat tails just as prominent as her contrasting grey pants and black Colombina mask.

"Huh. They popped up without a battle," she said, curious and checking Ren's attire.

"That happened last time too, huh?" Sakamoto said. "What's with that outfit?"

"I don't know," he said.

Aki, on the other hand, smirked and said, "You jelly?"

"I-I ain't jealous!"

"Sure don't sound like it."

"Aki," he said, tone admonishing.

"All right, all right," she said, not guilty at all.

"Ugh. What's goin' on here? This makes no effin' sense at all..."

Then...

"Hey! Stop making a commotion!" a familiar voice said.

"Ah! You?!" Sakamoto said, jolting back.

And, lo and behold, the "not-cat" phantom thief, Morgana, was there before them.

"The Shadows started acting up so I came here wondering what it could be..." it said. It sighed. "To think you guys would be back at the entrance when you barely managed to escape..."

It was brief, and hidden well, but Aki tensed for a moment before she spoke.

"We wanted to know more about this place."

"Yeah, what is this place?" their blond companion said. "Is it the school?"

"That's right," Morgana said.

"But it's a castle!"

Aki snorted. Ren knew she snarked in her mind. But he kept silent, listening to the cat burglar.

"This castle is the school. But only to the castle's ruler," the not-cat said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

"The castle's ruler?"

Ren wondered as well. It was clear that Kamoshida was in charge, but that meant Morgana could've just easily called him king, not ruler. So why the distinction?

Then Morgana said, "I think you called him Kamoshida? It's how his distorted heart views the school."

Ren furrowed his brows and glanced at his sister, who mirrored his expression. What was a distorted heart?

"Kamoshida... Distorted..." Sakamoto said, bringing them back to the conversation.

The blond also contemplated, his face scunched up like them...

"Explain it in a way that makes sense!"

...for one second.

Morgana sighed. "I shouldn't have expected a moron to get it..."

"What'd you say?!" Sakamoto said.

Ren frowned. He was about to tell the not-cat off as well. It wasn't like the words "distorted heart" alone explained everything. But then...

"AAAAAAAAHHHHHGGGG!"

They were startled and Ren scanned the area, looking for any sort of movement.

"What was that?!" their blond companion said.

"It must be the slaves captive here," Morgana said.

"For real?!" But when he realized it was serious, he said, "Oh shit...it's for real."

Memories of yesterday flashed in Ren's mind. Cells, prisoners, and near death. Guilt pushed at his insides. He nearly choked on it. But he swallowed it and set his jaw. That was why he was here after all. And he wasn't alone. Aki also had that stubborn look on her face now.

"Makes sense," she said. "We did see prisoners yesterday."

"You know, now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure they're guys from our school," Sakamoto said.

"But what are they doing here?" Ren said.

"Most likely Kamoshida's orders," it said. It continued in a nonchalant manner. "It's nothing out of the ordinary; it's like that everyday here. What's more, you three escaped yesterday. He must have lost his temper quite a bit."

Ren clenched his fists.

"That son of a bitch!" Aki and Sakamoto said.

"You two! Keep quiet!" Morgana said.

Aki's eyes widened, panicked, realizing what she had just done with how loud she'd been.

But Sakamoto would have none of it.

"This is bullshit!" he said before tackling one of the double doors. "You hear me, Kamoshida?!"

"Doing that isn't going to open it, you know..." the not-cat said, tone flat. Though it added, mumbling, "Still, it seems you have your reasons..."

"Tch. Hey, Monamona!" Sakamoto said, coming back to them.

Aki stared incredulously. "I'm sorry, what?" she said.

"Monamona...?" Ren said.

"It's Morgana!"

The loud boy ignored them. "Do you know where those voices are comin' from?"

"You want me to take you to them?" Morgana said.

"Yeah."

The phantom thief contemplated for a moment.

"Well, I guess I could guide you there," it said. Then looked at him and his sister. "But only if they come with us."

Aki scoffed. "Of course we're comin'," she said, unsuspecting.

Ren, however, was quiet, the condition making him curious. It was clear it wanted them for a reason. But what was it? Was it solely because they proved their potential for battle and thus wanted insurance considering the dangers? Somehow Ren doubted that was the only reason. But as he tried to think of any other reason that could risk them, Aki looked at him with curiosity and Sakamoto with worry, so he decided to say,

"Why us?"

As he hoped, Morgana answered his question in more ways than one.

"I just want to get a better look at your powers," it said, one ulterior motive now out in the open. "Even if you don't agree, I bet this guy'll go on even if he has to do it alone. Are you going to leave him?"

Ren glared at him. "I never said that," he said.

Morgana smirked. "It's settled then!" it said, pleased it got its way.

He wanted to wipe that smug face off.

But as Sakamoto said, "For real?!"

Ren couldn't bring himself to focus on something like that while Aki smiled and said,

"Yup. We said we'd go together, 'member?"

So Ren gave Sakamoto a reassuring smile and nodded.

"Thanks man," he said.

"All right, let's do this! Follow me!"

Morgana then jumped on a barrel and pointed up. "This is our infiltration point."

"Hey, ain't that where we escaped out of last time...?" Sakamoto said when they followed its paw.

"That's right," the not-cat said. "Not barging in through the entrance is one of the basics of phantom thievery."

"Let me guess, those are in spy movies too, huh?"

"Oh good, you're catchin' on, Sakamoto," Aki said.

"Hey, I don't watch those kinda stuff, okay? How am I supposed to know that stuff?"

"I'll make sure to teach you as we go. Now be quiet and follow me!"

The not-cat went inside. The three followed, after Sakamoto thanked them once again for coming, and they were back in the storage room. From there, passed the large foyer as they went for the dungeons. They were briefly held up by blurring surroundings that Morgana had no time to explain, but soon went down the spiraling stairs, Aki thankfully not breathing as hard as yesterday, and made it to the first dungeon floor in no time. However, not long after leaving the stairs, Morgana stopped and hid behind a steel bar door. At first, Ren was about to ask why it did so, until it said,

"Shoot... I had a feeling there would be guards here..."

"I thought that was a given," Aki said as she followed its example.

"I meant for this area, smarty-pants," it said, annoyed. "The guards used to patrol just around the cells but now it's all over the dungeon because you escaped." It sighed. "Looks like we'll have to fight our way forward."

"F-For real...?" their blond friend said.

"But phantom thieves are supposed to be sneaky," Aki said.

Though Ren was a bit surprised she did. She hasn't been this cheeky around strangers since...before the Incident.

Unsurprisingly, Morgana looked more incensed but, to its credit, kept its calm as it said,

"Errrg. Yes, they are. And that's why you always try to ambush the enemy from the behind. You'll need to pull of their mask to momentarily break the ruler's control over them. If you succeed, they'll get confused and we'll have a chance for a preemptive attack."

"Backstabbing? Sounds more like an assassin."

"Oh you've got to be...!"

Still, as glad as he was to see Aki sassing freely again, this was bad timing for it to rear its head.

So he said, "You have it memorized, Aki?"

"Yeah. Easy. Sneaky sneak then rip off mask and strike."

"Good. Then are we ready to try?"

"Yup."

Morgana sighed but still said, "Yes." Though not without adding, "And you better not forget about what I just taught you."

"Yeah, yeah, got it, Phantom Thief-senpai."

"Wha—?"

Before it could say more, Ren spotted a chance and said,

"Follow my lead."

Then he dashed forward and jumped on the guard's back. It only started to struggle just as Ren dug his fingers into the edge of its mask and tore it off. He backflipped as he felt the steel soften and landed just as the red-and-black slime solidified into two of those pyromaniac ghosts from yesterday, looking confused. Aki and Morgana thankfully caught up with him by that point. With the three of them, they dispatched the pumpkins in no time, Ren making note that they would lose their pumpkin heads when hit by Zorro's tornadoes. After that, they arrived at the cells Sakamoto noticed yesterday. However...

"Why ain't anyone here?" the second-year said. "Damnit! They were here before! Where'd they go?!"

All the people they saw yesterday weren't there anymore. However, Ren reminded Sakamoto that there was still more to the dungeon they could check. That calmed him down but just as they readied to search more, footsteps were heading their way. Morgana was quick to lead them inside a nearby room. It seemed to be a shoddy break room, with a couple of shelves, a table and a plenty of benches, big and small, literring the room, all made of poor quality wood. Sakamoto was catching his breath, likely from panicking earlier, and Morgana stood atop the table.

Aki questioned whether such a simple room would truly keep them safe but the not-cat explained it was because there was less "distortion" here, meaning Kamoshida had less control over this area in his projection of his heart. From that alone, it seemed his and Aki's suspicions were right. This place was parallel world reflecting the person's mind.

Ren didn't like what that implied.

But that begged the question: did the imprisoned students get dragged into this world as well?

Sakamoto, however, didn't understand any of it. Ren was tempted to explain, but Aki looked ready to simplify it for Sakamoto so he let her do it. But Morgana beat her to it, as well as adding more, as expected of the expert. He explained that this place was called a Palace, a world where one's distorted desires are made real. So since the school was a castle, that meant that was how Kamoshida saw it in his mind.

Sakamoto laughed in hyseterics and he and Aki worried for him. But then Sakamoto said,

'That son of a bitch!"

And they were startled.

"Seesh, not so loud!" his sister said. "Though I don't blame you."

"Me neither," he said.

"You must really hate this Kamoshida guy," Morgana said.

"Hate doesn't even cover how I feel. Everything is that asshole's fault!"

As curious as he was about that, and no doubt Aki as well, they had more pressing matters to attend to, like their plan of action. Even with their newfound power, there was only so much they could do. At that mention, Morgana took the chance to explain to them about their powers, Personas, and how it related to the Palace. Mainly that they would've been distorted by Kamoshida's will had they not had a powerful "will of rebellion", which manifested their clothes as the "image of rebellion" they held in their hearts.

With that information, Ren couldn't help but smirk and say,

"Guess that means your image is an assassin from Assassin's Code, huh? Seems a bit impractical for a thief to have white clothes though, don't you think?"

"Hey! You're not much better, phantom thief!" she said, glaring. "You look like you're a combo of a secret agent and a Victorian gentleman!"

"Ah! How dare you!" Ren huffed, still smirking as he flourished his hand. "Of course I appear this way! A phantom thief must be stylish, after all."

"Show-off."

"Why thank you."

"You're not welcome. I thought phantom thieves had manners."

"Ah! You wound me, dear sister, with your harsh words!" Ren said, leaning back and placing a fist over his heart.

And then Sakamoto said, interrupting them, "Ugh! I'm so fed up with all of this! I don't get any of this stuff! I mean, like, what the hell are you?!"

"I'm a human—an honest-to-god human!"

"No, you're obviously more like a cat!"

"This is, well... I lost my true form," it said. "I think."

"You think?" Sakamoto said, doubtful.

Ren was the same even as he said, "You have amnesia?"

Because if that was the case, it didn't add up with its knowledge.

"No!" it said, mad. But then it was depressed. "Well, not completely at least."

"Like what you know of these 'Palaces'?" Aki said.

"Yes. And I do know how to regain my true form," Morgana said. "That was the reason I snuck in here, for a preliminary investigation for those means."

"Then you got caught," she said.

"Er, well...yes I did..." it said. "But I was only looking around and yet I was tortured by Kamoshida for it! So I'm gonna make him pay for sure!"

"What is this, a comic book?" Sakamoto said. "This is seriously crazy..."

"The costumes didn't tip you off?" Aki said.

"Oh lay it off!"

Morgana looked at the door in alarm and said, "If we're gonna keep going, we should hurry along."

"Hey, it's not our fault you decided this was the perfect time for a lesson," his sister said, smirking.

"Hey! You're the ones who asked first!"

"If you say so."

"What kind of gentleman would I be if I didn't answer your question?" it said with a huff. "Besides, I'll be counting on your skills too this time rookies. Got it? So it's only fair I give something in exchange."

"Really? We're rookies but you're gonna make us do all the work? Geez," Aki said, her words belied thanks to her smirk.

But still Sakamoto said, "Hey, don't worry, I'm not gonna force it all on you two. I thought it might help so...I brought it just in case!"

He reached into his pocket...

...and pulled out a gun.

"What the hell man?! Where'd you get that?!" Aki said, scrambling away.

"Woah woah! Hey hey! It's just a model gun! So it only makes sounds."

"That's just a toy!" Morgana said.

"But it looks totally real, so it'll at least fake 'em out. I mean, it fooled her, didn't it?"

"Well excuse me for thinkin' it's real!"

Ren tried to smother his snicker but his sister still noticed it. Thankfully, Sakamoto then took out some pills and said,

"Oh, and I brought some medicine too. You know what they say, 'providin' is pre...somethin'.' Huh? Huh?"

His sister facepalmed, likely in disbelief over his mangling of the saying and that they forgot to bring supplies.

Ren just accepted it, putting it in his many pockets as he said,

"Thank you."

While Morgana said, "So you were planning this from the start..."

Ren suspected Aki wanted to distract herself from her hindsight realization, so she said,

"Yeah, why do you think we came back?"

"Hmm, I see..." it said, quiet for a moment. "Well fine. If you're ready to go, we'll resume our infiltration."

One problem however.

"We still don't know where the prisoners are though," Ren said as Morgana hopped down from the table.

"Yeah," Sakamoto said. "Where'd they go?"

"I don't wanna just roam around lookin' for 'em. That's askin' for trouble," Aki said.

And Morgana said, "That's why we're going to listen in on the guards."

His sister said, "What? We can do that from here?"

"Of course not! We have to sneak up to them."

"Then may you do it, Morgana?" Ren said "You are the most experienced and most suited for stealth out of all of us."

"Ah, you recognize my skills..." The not-cat smiled with smug satisfaction. "Very well! I'll do it." Then it said, "But you'll still be coming along. I promised to teach you as we go, remember?"

Ren was taken aback, considering that it was only helping them for its own gain.

"Thanks Phantom Thief-senpai," Aki said for both of them.

"Now come on! Follow me!"

It was actually easy enough to get the info they needed as the guards were keeping tabs with each other on status of the "slaves", as they called them, which made Ren's blood boil. Thanks to that they found out that the prisoners were being kept in the training hall, not too far from the floor they were on. They also confirmed that the guards were still searching for them, so it came as no surprise that there was a guard blocking the metal gate that led to the training hall.

"Tch! Think we can go around him?" Aki said, whispering, as they hid behind barrels.

"Unforunately, no," Morgana said. "There's a good chance we'd get spotted if we tried and that would raise the security level."

"Damn..."

"Don't worry, as long as you keep ambushing enemies and not get spotted when you do, we should be fine."

"All right then," Ren said. "Ready?"

With that, they got rid of the guard quickly enough and went down deeper into the dungeons, the hallway getting darker. But as they turned another corner, he made everyone step back, yet more guards blocking their way. Morgana wanted to slip past them to conserve their energy but it didn't seem like they would get the chance with the hallway too small. Sakamoto lamented over his lack of ability to help beyond the medicine he gave and the model gun he had. But that gave Morgana an idea.

"I think we might actually have a use for that toy." It then said, "Give it to Frizzy Hair! We're gonna use it to take down the enemies!"

"What?!" Sakamoto said, thankfully not too loud. "Didn't you hear me?! It doesn't shoot anything!"

"Don't worry. It'll work...I think. Just give it to Frizzy Hair. Then we'll ambush them!"

Sakamoto was understandbly reluctant, but Morgana insisted, so he gave in. Once handed the gun, Ren ran straight for the knight, tore its mask off and revealed the monsters within it.

"Point and fire!" Morgana said.

And he did, trusting it. He aimed, pulled the trigger and bang! Ren nearly dropped the pistol gun in shock. But the pumpkin's screams reminded him where he was. He held it with both his hands and kept firing, managing to take down one and hitting another. Then it clicked, the catridge empty. Ren was about to attack, but then Morgana pulled a oversized slingshot from its belt and let loose. Rapid fire pellets hit their opponents, taking yet one more down and chipping off the health of one of the last, leaving only two enemies left. At this, Aki took over and had her Persona finish them off.

"Woah! Did the toy gun just shoot real freakin' bullets?!" Sakamoto said when they fight ended.

"Yeah, how'd that work?" his sister said.

"This is the cognitive world. As long as the enemy thinks it's real, it will be real. It's a good thing it's realistic looking."

"Then why didn't you mention that earlier?" she said. She sent an accusing look. "Don't tell me you didn't know if it'd work and you had to test it, did you?"

"O-Of course not!" Morgana said, his shocked expression anything but convincing. "I, uh...had to teach you how to use it and the best way was to demonstrate it! That's all!"

"Right..."

Ren was tempted to say more on that, but then...

"Hey, what's that commotion over there?"

...a guard came and spotted them.

On reflex, Ren pulled out his pistol and pulled, only remember right then he didn't have ammo. But instead of a click, he got a bang, and the knight shouted as their head was knocked back. With that chance, Aki ran and tore off its mask. Unlike before, it attacked as soon as it materialized, sending Aki away from them. Not wanting to waste time, he aimed over his sister and fired, destroying one by the time his gun clicked. Morgana then Aki followed up and finished off the last of them, though they nearly hit each other in the process. Everyone stood tensed, waiting if anyone else heard, but after several moments of silence, they relaxed. And immediately, Aki said to their guide,

"Hey, what was that? How come Big Bro's pistol could shoot again?"

"Hmph. Simple: because they recognize it as a gun, they see it as having limited ammo, but also because of that, any enemies we encounter will expect us to have full ammo."

"Huh, so more mind over matter, huh?"

"... I don't get it," Sakamoto said.

Ren managed to stop his snicker at that time, but Aki didn't hold back and groaned at their blond friend.

"Don't worry about it," he said to his fellow second-year. "It just means we can shoot it in this place but not in each fight because of them thinking it's a real gun."

"Wow. That's real handy."

"Yeah. Means we don't have to carry ammo," Aki said.

But then Morgana said, "Although..."

His sister tilted her head towards it. "Although what?"

"That battle wasn't very coordinated."

"Hey, it's not my fault I almost hit you. That knight came outta nowhere."

"Exactly! We need a leader to coordinate our movements and roles in a fight, otherwise mistakes like that will keep happening."

"Uh, what you mean by 'coordinatin' your movements and roles'?"

"A leader is supposed to have a battle plan, which can be ruined if their allies do something to mess it up. So a leader should decide whether they want someone to do something specific or if they have free reign."

That was true. That would be for the best. Ren thought that Morgana would be best for that, but then Sakamoto said,

"Well if that's the case, I say we make Ren the leader."

Then he was followed by Morgana. "I agree. If you lead, I can instead focus on providing you intel on the enemies instead of ordering you around."

And, of course, Aki said, "I third that. If you don't mind, of course."

He hadn't expected that. Aki, yes, because she was his little sister, but not the other two, especially Morgana. But as he looked back and forth between the three of them, seeing their expectant gazes, he smiled, his chest swelling in confidence.

"Okay. I'll do it."

"Good. Now let's get going. It should be a straightforward from here on."

Ren nodded and started to lead, though not before he heard Aki say,

"I really should start a count on that phrase at this rate."

And he allowed himself a snicker as before long they encountered a couple of guards again. And, once again, they found another knight that made them stop in their tracks, this time from them guarding a wooden door.

"And...another one," Aki said as all of them peeked around the corner. "Let me guess, that's where we need to go, huh?"

"Yes, I'm pretty sure," Morgana said.

Sakamoto grinned and said, "So you guys gonna take it down too?"

"We don't have a choice," Ren said before Aki could be sarcastic about it.

But then their guide said, "Though if I'm right about what Shadow it turns into..."

"What?"

"Okay, I've decided! I'm going to teach you three a special way to fight enemies! Now go!"

With that, he dashed forward and struck the guard with his dagger and it dissolved then formed into two leotard fairies. Ren smirked, remembering their weakness.

"Ravage them!"

His protector laughed as his shadows attacked. It screeched in pain, its wings getting covered in black, soon followed by its fellow. With all of them down, Morgana said,

"Copy me!"

And they did, everyone giving their all as they struck and jumped. When the not-cat stopped, they followed and Ren turned to see blood gush from their chest before they exploded. He smiled and stood, pulling on his gloves as he said,

"Show's over."

Aki laughed in exhiliration.

"Ah man, that was awesome!" she said.

"Hmm, that went really well!" The not-cat smiled and said, "You two really are fit for this."

"Woah...what was that super move thing you just did?! You went all 'shoom', 'shoom', 'shoom'! I could barely see ya!"

"It's called an All-Out Attack," Morgana said. "When all the enemies are down, you have enough time to go all out and attack them all at once, so it helps finish battles quicker."

"Yeah, that was over quick."

"Well, it is a concentrated attack on defenseless enemies."

And Aki said, "Basically a finisher."

"Well, if that's what you call those kinds of things, then yes," Morgana said. "Since you're the leader, you'll decide when we'll use it from now on, okay?"

Ren nodded, put away his weapons and entered the next room, the sight of which made him tense. Oh it wasn't intimidating or menacing. In fact, it was like the previous room, except that it was colored all magenta, including the door, with there was a sash above it that said,.

"Kamoshida's...Training Hall of...Love...?" Sakakmoto then said "What kinda bullshit is this?!"

"Only one way to find out," Aki said, voice deep from anger.

Ren just nodded, his throat constricted, and went through it. As soon as they took a step beyond it, Ren and the others could hear faint voices from further in, getting clearer the closer they got to the bottom of the stairs. Across them was yet another bridge above a waterway, but at that point, Ren could tell it wasn't words that the voices let out.

It was screams.

Ren glared at the courtyard below. It looked like a volleyball court. There many knights in it and they beat students again and again. He wanted to just jump down and stop it. But with the steel bar door locked and his sister here, there was no way he would risk it right now, not without a plan. Though he was somewhat consoled that he wasn't the only one pissed.

"Damn it! This is bullshit!" Sakamoto said.

Followed by Aki. "This is a freakin' torture chamber!"

Of course Morgana tried to quiet them but they ignored it as they tried to find a way to get them out, Ren lending a hand. However, when they attempted to do so, a voice said,

"Stop it...!"

"Leave us alone...it's useless..."

"If we stay obedient, we won't be executed like you guys."

The blond growled and said, "You're tellin me you wanna stay in a place like this?!"

"Took the words right outta my mouth!" Aki said, also frowning.

But then Morgana said, "Wait a minute...were you planning on taking these guys out of here?"

Ren snapped his head and glared steel.

Aki said, "What did you think we were gonna do?!"

And Sakamoto said, We can't just leave 'em here!"

The not-cat just shook its head. "How stupid can you be?"

"What?!"

He was ready to throttle the cat for its insensitivity but then it explained that the people they saw were merely part of Kamoshida's mind and were not dragged in like they were. But because of that, it likely meant that the real world version of these people were being treated similarly. It was then Sakamoto realized the kids were the members of the volleyball team, the one that Kamoshida couches.

Yet still, the blond was in disbelief considering it was just rumors. But...

"If it's true, isn't this something that should be reported to the police?" he said.

Ren flinched, a flash of a small room and degenerating shouting passing his mind's eye. He shook it off just as Aki scoffed and said,

"You really think they'll take us seriously? Us? The delinquents?"

"Then I'll use those guys as evidence," he said, determined. "If all goes well, we can take down that asshole Kamoshida!" But then he took out his phone. "Huh?! It's not workin'?!"

Dubious, Aki pulled out her phone but found she had the same problem, everything but the navigation app worked. Curiously though, Morgana didn't seem to recognize it. Before Ren could question that, Sakamoto asked for hin to check his phone as well to be sure. Even though he knew the outcome, Ren did so and it was as he predicted, to Sakamoto's chagrin.

"Ugh...what are we gonna do?"

"Well whatever you do is fine, but we need to head back! We're gonna get caught if we stand like this," Morgana said.

"Hang on a sec!"

"Well sketchin's out of the question then."

"Not that either of us can draw," Ren said.

"There's no other way... I'll just memorize these faces before goin' home!"

With no time to waste, he had Aki and Morgana be lookouts while he escorted Sakamoto. First they saw a volleyball court, then a "track" that was more a conveyor, a roll of spikes ready to crush the runners should they fall. Then more cells holding despondent prisoners, telling them to leave them to their fates. And last, and worst of all, students being hung upside down from the ceiling, cannons firing exploding volleyballs at them.

"This ain't trainin'... This is just violence!" Sakamoto said.

Ren agreed, memories of his mother's abuse coming to mind. But he kept quiet so as to not break the blond's concentration. Unfortunately, Morgana came up and said,

"Hey, are you done yet?! We're cutting it close here!"

Ren glared at the not-cat while Sakamoto said,

"Don't freak me out like that you goddamn moron!"

"And it's been some time since we killed those guards, so we if don't go now, we will get caught."

He scoffed but still said, "Anyways, now I got all of 'em!

So Ren said before Morgana could get a word in, "Then let's go."

Then he ran, knowing everyone would follow him. They took the same path they used to get in, but with each step and adrenaline pushing his legs and lungs, there were also shots of anxiety. No guards were preventing their escape. And he was right to worry because as soon as they reached the foyer...

"You knaves again!"

...King Kamoshida and his knights stood in their way.
 

TheCharredDragon

One world, one love, shadows of mass destruction
Chapter 6: Whistle for the Lightning

{R}​

Ren gritted his teeth with anger, frustration and desperation while the king before him smiled with malice, ego and amusement.

"To think that you'd make the same mistake again," he said. "You're hopeless."

"The school ain't your castle!" Sakamoto said. "I've memorized their faces real good! You're goin' down!"

"Don't tell him that, idiot!"

But despite that slip, the king merely chuckled.

"It seems it's true when they say 'barking dogs seldom bite'." He sighed, almost as if he was sympathetic as he said, "How far the star runner of the track team has fallen."

"Track team...?" his sister said.

Ren was about to ask Sakamoto what he meant, but then the blond in question said,

"What the hell are you gettin' at?!"

And the king's smirk turned vicious.

"I speak of the Track Traitor who acted in violence, ending his teammates' dreams." He laughed. "Oh I can only imagine the pain of the others who dragged under with your...selfish act."

The blond flinched. "Ngh..."

Both he and his sister looked at him in concern and confusion.

"Violence?" he said.

"Track Traitor?" his sister said.

Of course, Kamoshida laughed again and they were back to glaring at him.

"What a surprise. So you're accompanying him without knowing anything at all?" he said.

"We know enough," Aki said, but Ren knew she had a tiny doubt now.

Not that she blamed her. It entered his mind as well.

But then the king said, "He betrayed his teammates and crushed their hopes, yet he still carries on as carefree as ever."

And Sakamoto said, his face full of pain and regret,

"That's not true!"

And Ren hated himself for doubting for even a moment.

So when Kamoshida said, "What a tragedy. You blindy trusted this fool, and he's led you right to your death."

He said, "If all fools are like him, then I would do so again."

With Aki saying, "Cause he's a whole lot more trustworthy than you, you two-faced asshole!"

Ren couldn't help but smirk as the king snarled.

"Tch. Hurry up and dispose them. I can't stand their stench," he said.

The gold knight beside him signalled the other guards to attack. He, Aki and Morgana brandished their weapons as not only were they in front of them transforming into large horned horses, those same horses came up from behind, numbering nine in total.

"Ugh... We're surrounded..." Morgana said.

"Get behind the three of us. We'll cover you," Ren said to Sakamoto.

The blond didn't look happy about it, but he still did as he asked, though not without a, "God damn it..."

Which was good as two horses charged at them.

"I'll kill you!" one said.

With the blond behind him, Ren took the hit. But he stabbed his attacker in the eye and it backed off as it screamed.

"I'll kill you cause King Kamoshida told us," one said behind him, likely dealing with Morgana from the sounds of gales and slashes.

"I'll kill you cause that's what he wants," a third said as it charged alongside others, aimed straight for Aki.

Ren heart froze. But Aki only got grazed then she retaliated. But that got him tackled to the ground with a scream. He heard Sakamoto shouting but he focused on his new attacker who was about to stomp him.

"Arsène!"

The winged gentleman kicked it away before dissapating. He was ready to payback but another replaced his enemy and he had to block it. With the amount of assailants and their seeming lack of weaknesses, the three of them were forced into the defense, blocking and parrying the strikes from all sides as they made sure nothing reached Sakamoto.

But Ren knew they couldn't stand their ground forever.

Aki missed her swing, stepped too far and made a gap in their formation. Seeing this, a purple horse charged at Sakamoto. Ren didn't think. He jumped right in front of the attack. Next thing Ren knew, his vision was blurred, his sister and Morgana screamed, and a foot was dug into his back, pinning him to the floor. He tried to resist, he had to protect his sister, but his body refused and the foot kept him in place. The only small blessing was that the screams soon stopped and his vision cleared. He saw that Aki and Morgana were facedown just like him, a guard holding Aki in place while Kamoshida did the same with Morgana.

"I bet you simply came here on a whim and ended up like this. Isn't that right?" the king said.

"No..." Sakamoto said.

And Ren turned his head to see him on his knees, panicked, ashamed and scared.

Kamoshida scoffed. "What a worthless piece of trash, getting emotional so quickly... How dare you raise your hand at me," he said. "Though it was only temporary, did you forget my kindness in supervising track practice?"

The blond glared, but his fear and guilt were still in his eyes and pulling him down.

"Wasn't no practice—it was physical abuse! You just didn't like our team!"

"It was nothing but an eyesore! The only one who needs to achieve results is me!" he said. His ruthless smile returned. "That coach who got fired was hopeless too... Had he not opposed me with a sound argument, I would've settled it with breaking his star's leg."

Ren froze.

Sakamoto said, after a long, loaded, pause, "...what?"

And Aki struggled, even when he heard her wheeze.

That man did that? He got another man fired because he had a good reason to oppose him?

Of course, Kamoshida went and rubbed salt in Sakamoto's wound and said,

"Do you need me to deal with your other leg too? The school will call it self-defense anyways."

And that was the last straw to make Sakamoto collapse on the ground, looking every bit as pitiful as Kamoshida thought him to be.

"Damn it... am I gonna lose again...? Not only can I not run anymore... The track team's gone too because of this asshole..."

Morgana looked with sympathy as it said, "So that's why..."

But glee glowed in the king's eyes at Sakamoto's despair. He laughed in twisted joy before he said,

"Once these two are dealt with, you're next."

No.

He won't die here.

They won't die here.

"Ryuji!" he said.

He won't allow it any other way.

"Stand up for yourself! Make him regret underestimating you!"

And neither would his sister.

"Don't let him win, damn it! Or I'll get your ass myself, Ryuji!"

Or Morgana.

"Ryuji!" it said.

The blond looked up, breathless as he stared at them. It felt like forever, the shock making his face almost comical before a fire burned in his eyes.

"You're right," he said. "Everything that was important to me was taken by him...I'll never get 'em back!"

Kamoshida saw no threat in any of their actions. He just kept standing there, looking down on them.

"Stay there and watch," he said. "Look on as these hopeless scum die for nothing because they sided with trash like you."

"No... That's what you are..." Ryuji said as he stood. Slow and unsteady, but he still stood. "All you think about is using people... You're the real scumbag, Kamoshida!

It was brief, but Ren saw it. There was fear in the king's eyes before annoyance covered it.

Kamoshida turned to Ren's direction and said to the guard,

"What are you doing? Silence him!"

The knight hesitated, as if in disbelief, thus Ryuji was able to walk up to Kamoshida and point an accusing finger as he said,

"Stop lookin' down on me with that stupid smile on your face!"

The man snarled, pissed, and Ren feared for him, worried Kamoshida would order an immediate execution. But then Ryuji screamed and gripped his head, thrashing against the ground almost as if he had a seizure. The king was confused then amused at his suffering. But Ren's eyes widened at the sight. It was a familiar one, one that happened just yesterday, in a situation just like this.

"Hmph. What can you do?" the guard pinning Ren said. "Cower in fear and watch."

There was the sound of armor moving, but it was in back of his mind as he saw it.

Ryuji had a mask.

And he tore it off.

Thunder, wind and fire barraged their senses. Ren could feel the knight behind him back off of him, along with the guards pinning Aki and Morgana. It was only when the wind stop did they stand up and look to Ryuji.

Ren smiled.

He looked like a thug with the black attire, red ascot and metal pipe he held. His Persona behind him even more intimidating, the skull faced pirate standing with pride and ease atop the floating ship it used like a skateboard.

Ryuji smirked.

The gold guard groaned. "Ugh. This one as well?"

The blond laughed. "Right on... Wassup, Persona," he said. "This effin' rocks!"

"Ha! Knew you had it in you," his sister said, smiling.

The thug laughed again. "Yo, I'm ready," he said. "Now that I got this power, it's time for payback."

Ren nodded and turned towards the purple horses and gold knight, along with Aki and Morgana. Ryuji stepped in line with them and said,

"Bring it!"

"Ngh. Don't mock me, you brat!" the gold knight said before it transformed into a red one riding a dark horse.

"Blast him away..." Ryuji said, aiming at the horseman. "Captain Kidd!"

The pirate said, "Aye aye, First Mate!"

Then he aimed his cannon arm and fired. Lightning struck the red horseman and he screamed. But he then shook it off and glared at them,

"What troublemakers that bother King Kamoshida with trifling matters."

"Heh, Kamoshida's cognition ain't changin', right?" the punk said. "Then I'll act like the troublemaker I am! Let's do this, guys!"

"Men! Get them!" the guard captain said.

The nine horned horses whinnied then charged. There was only one way they could possibly stop all of them. Ren just hoped luck was on their side.

"Ryuji! Try your lightning on them!"

"You got it!"

The caped pirate appeared once again, already aiming. When the lightning hit a horse, it screeched and toppled over, bumping into a fellow horse which then toppled over another like dominoes, while others stopped before it could happen to them. However, Ryuji took that chance and said,

"Go all out, Captain Kidd!"

"With pleasure!" the pirate said and it rapid fired lightning bolts, knocking down all the purple horses who hadn't fell.

The red knight was shocked.

"How dare you!" he said.

But before he could strike with his lance, Aki dashed between his fallen comrades and slashed at his steed's hamstring. The equine neighed in pain and fell.

"Let's do a finisher, Big Bro!" she said, smirking.

Ren smiled.

"All-Out Attack!"

And everyone ran fast and struck hard, hitting as many times as possible on as many of the enemies. When they stopped, every single one of the purple horses screamed and dissolved. The red knight looked around in disbelief.

"Looks like you're all alone now," Ren couldn't help but say.

"Argh! Fine! I'll do it myself!"

He swung his lance. Ren's heart stopped as Aki got hit on her ribs. But, to his and the red knight's surprise, she grabbed the lance tight. She smirked and said,

"Got you now!"

She summoned Fantôme and he wrapped his lasso around the knight's neck, pulling it off of his steed.

"Big Bro!"

He smiled, even though he was both panicked and pissed. He would have a word with her later.

"Everyone! Now!"

Everyone turned into a blur as they went all out. However, that wasn't enough to finish him off as his horse lifted him back on its saddle when they finished. But, thankfully, this time when the knight attacked, Aki avoided it and Ryuji used the chance to clobber him. Morgana had Zoro sending more peaceful winds Aki's way. Ren wasn't sure what it did, so he focused on supporting Ryuji.

It was only after he too got injured as they fought did he find out that those calmer winds were some sort of healing spell. So he said to Morgana,

"Focus on healing!"

"Very well!" it said.

"Aki! Guard Morgana!"

"Roger!"

With that, the red knight had an even harder time fighting them as even after hitting them, they were healed, and Aki would always make sure none of his strikes would land on Morgana. So, with them panting and sweating like crazy, it was inevitable that they took him down, Ryuji landing the final blow on his head and he fell alonside his steed.

"I am...a loyal subject...of the glorious...King Kamoshida..." he said as he and his horse slowly dissolved. "So why...have I lost?"

Ryuji panted, catching his breath with a smile. "It just proves that Kamoshida ain't anything special."

With that, he was gone for good, leaving a King Kamoshida who... Ren frowned. ...stood there utterly annoyed and unimpressed.

He didn't like that.

Of course, Ryuji just said to the king, "How about that?!"

While Morgana stared in surprise at the thug. "Whoa... So Ryuji had the potential too..."

"Even if you apologize, I ain't forgivin' you!"

"Took...the words...right outta my mouth!" Aki said.

The king scoffed. "I told you that this is my castle. It seems you still don't understand..."

Ren didn't like that one bit. Here was Kamoshida, all by himself, with four people capable of hurting him immensely even in their battered state, and he was just annoyed.

"Everyone... We should go."

But before anyone could move, someone came up to Kamoshida and he, Aki and Ryuji were shocked at the identity.

"Wh—Takamaki?!" Ryuji said.

While Aki said, "Why's she here?!"

Ren wondered as well, remembering the exchange between the platinum blonde and the athlete. With Takamaki here, dressed in only a bikini with cat ears, it increased his worry for her situation.

The only one who wasn't shocked at her appearance was Morgana. But...

"Oh..." Morgana said. "Wha...what a meow-velous and beautiful girl..."

...he glared at the stupid cat. This wasn't the time to be infatuated.

"Hey! Stop that!" Aki said. "This ain't the time to drool!"

But then Takamaki leaned against the older man, looking at him with half-lidded eyes and feeling him up, and Ren tensed as he glared.

Aki gagged at the sight. "Oh hell no."

"What's going on?!" Ryuji said.

Ren, however, grew more suspicious and said, "That's not her..."

"Huh?" both his sister and their friend said.

"What the hell do you mean?" Sakamoto said, not catching on. "Who else could it be?"

But Aki did when she looked back and facepalmed.

And as if to put the nail on the coffin, Kamoshida caressed the girl's chin with a perverted smile. The girl was pleased and squirmed as if to ask for more.

Aki gagged once again at the sight.

"Hey! Let go of her, you perv!"

"How many times must I tell you until you understand?" he said, unimpressed as he rubbed Takamaki. He smirked. "This is my castle—a place in which I can do whatever I want. Everyone wishes to be loved by me." He frowned and stopped petting Takamaki. "That is, everyone besides slow witted thieves like you."

"Takamaki! Say something!"

"Calm down, Ryuji," Ren said.

"Yeah, that Takamaki's just a cognition," Aki said.

Morgana nodded. "Yes. She's the same as those slaves—a being made by Kamoshida's cognition of her."

"That still don't explain why she's here!"

Yet another scoff from the king, and Ren felt a flare of annoyance then.

"Are you jealous?" he said, smug. "Well, I'm not surprised. Women aren't drawn to problematic punks like you." Then to Aki, "Though I wouldn't really want a problematic woman like you."

The blond flinched at the truth in that. "Damn it..."

Ren, however, just gave his own scoff, not caring much for attracting women like that, while Aki...

"The feeling's mutual, asshole!" she said. "I'd hate to stomp all over your fragile ego."

Kamoshida snapped.

"Clean them up this instant!"

There it was, the reason the ruler was so nonchalant. The empty foyer was filled with guards coming down from the second floor. But thankfully, they were only in front of them, from the stairs behind Kamoshida.

"Let's scram before we get surrounded!" Morgana said.

Unsurprisingly, Ryuji said, "We're not gonna do anything and just run?!"

"We can't die here," Ren said, as much as he wished he didn't have to.

Morgana sighed in relief. "Thank god you have a level head."

Aki glanced at him, no doubt noticing his displeasure, before she glared at the blond and said,

"Just shut up and let's go."

Ryuji grumbled, hesitant. But thankfully he gave in quickly. Though not without saying to Kamoshida,

"We'll expose what you really are, no matter what! You better be ready for us!"

Kamoshida was dumbstruck for a moment.

"Hahaha! I was beginning to get bored of torturing the ones here!" he said with a vicious smile. "Come at me whenever you want...if you don't care about your life! Haaaaahahaha!"

At that point, the guards stood right beside the king and began to transform.

"Ignore him. Let's go!"

Everyone began to run and Ren glanced back to see they had turned into the same horses from earlier. That wasn't good. He didn't want them to see where they would escape. So he turned on his heel, aimed his gun and fired several shots at the chandelier above Kamoshida, snapping its wires. All the castle guards shouted and protected Kamoshida as it crashed into the ground.

Thus they went through the vent with no one following them and seeing how they escaped, too focused on making sure their ruler was safe. Ren would've made them outright leave the "Palace", as Morgana called it, like yesterday, but as soon as they jumped out the vent, not only did Ryuji collapse on his knees after he landed, Aki did too, falling on her side.

"Aki!"

He went right by her side, checking on her condition.

"Fine, Big Bro. Just..." She flopped on her back. "...ran outta adrenaline...I think..."

He heaved a heavy sigh, glad it was just the weight of what they did catching up to her. Reassured, he looked to Ryuji and said,

"What about you?"

"Same. Just need to...catch my breath..."

That was good. All they needed to do was rest.

"Are they all right?" Morgana said, looking back and forth between the two.

Ren nodded. However, he frowned, another thought coming to mid.

"Morgana? Will the guards come outside?"

"Well, considering what you did earlier, as long as we don't make any noise, they shouldn't."

It was then Ryuji caught his breath, stood up and said as he looked over himself, "Huh. I don't remember changin' into this."

His sister tilted to see him and had her cheeky grin when she did.

"You look like a thug," she said.

Ren snickered. Ryuji glared.

"What was that?" he said.

He chuckled and said, also grinning, "It looks good on you."

"Uh...should I be happy about that if I look like thug?" he said. "Then again, it ain't as bad as yours."

Ren gasped and grasped his heart. "How dare you! These are the clothes of my soul! There is nothing shameful about them!"

Aki snickered. "You're just jelly, ain't ya?" she said.

"I thought I told you I ain't jealous!"

Any more words were cut off as someone said,

"Did you find them?!"

And Morgana said, "Quiet!"

"No. Search that way!" another voice said.

Everyone held their breath as they waited, the seconds stretching into minutes. But, eventually, no more voices were heard, and everyone relieved a sigh.

"Seriously, what's goin' on? I'm completely lost, man! Why am I wearin' this?"

Morgana sighed, exasperated.

"I told you before. When a Persona-user opposes a Palace's ruler and becomes a threat to them, this happens," it said. "It's to prevent you from being affected by distortion."

Ren frowned. "Other people can be affected by distortion?"

"Yes. After all, your cognition can both affect others and be affected by other cognitions."

"Like when someone you trust tells you their opinion on something and then you share that same opinion?" Aki said.

"You could compare it to that, yes, though it's not exactly the same."

"Huh. Okay," Ryuji said, Ren admittedly surprised he understood considering his track record. "But uh...if this is for protectin' me...why's it a skull?"

"Your appearance reflects your inner self. It's the rebel that slumbers within..." Morgana said. "...not that you'll get it.

"Nope."

Aki sighed. "Geez, you're hopeless."

"Hey, it's not my fault it's so complicated!"

"Then stop asking questions and accept what you see for what it is," their guide said.

Ryuji scoffed. "Easy for you to say."

"Yeah," Aki said, sending a glare, though a weak one. "If we did that all the time, that means we should just call you a talkin' cat."

Morgana looked like a snarling cat, back hunched and tail stiff, as he said,

"I'm not a cat!"

Aki smirked. "See my point?"

"Erk!" Morgana stared shocked before sulking. "Fine. You have a point."

"But still," Ren said. "It'd be hard to explain it simply. Though it makes sense. We are, as you said, inside Kamoshida's heart, and the mind has stumped people for ages. Of course something involved with it is confusing."

But then their calm mood was broken with Ryuji gasping before he said,

"Wait, we're in deep shit!"

"Geez! Don't scare me like that!"

Morgana glared at them. "I said to be quiet."

Ryuji, thankfully, did as told but still said,

"We might've gotten away from Kamoshida but we're still screwed with him at the real school."

Well shit.

However, Morgana smirked and said, "That's quite sharp of you! ...For being an idiot."

"Hey! This is serious here!"

But Morgana just said, "Relax. The Kamoshida in the real world can't possibly know about what happens here."

Aki looked at him, dubious, as she stood up. "Really?"

Ren agreed with her as he helped her steady herself. "But this is Kamoshida's mind. How could he not know?"

"It's because the ruler is a Shadow," it said. "A Shadow is the true self that is suppressed—a side of one's personality they don't want to see."

"Uh... So we're okay?"

"Did the Kamoshida in reality remember about the execution?"

Now that Ren thought about it...

"No," Aki said for him.

"Then there you have it."

"Phew... All right!" Ryuji said. He turned, beginning to leave. "Now that we know about that, all we gotta do is—"

At least until Morgana said,

"Wait."

"Huh?"

"I guided you as promised. Now it's your turn to cooperate with me." It put its hands on its hips, looking determined and cocky. "That's why I was super nice about teaching you idiots everything."

And Ren felt like slapping himself for forgetting. It only agreed to help them as it had ulterior motives, motives he knew now likely involved it wanting to be human.

"Huh? Cooperate?" Ryuji said.

As Ren guessed, Morgana then said,

"Don't you remember? I originally came here for an investigation."

"Yeah, we remember," his sister said.

"I need to erase the distortion from my body and regain my real form!
That's why we must delve deep into Mementos and—"

"Whoa, hold up. What're you goin' on and on about?" he said, putting a stop to the not-cat's ramble. "We never said anything about helping you out."

Morgana's expression turned comically shocked.

"Huh? Don't tell me..." It frowned. "...you're not going to repay the hospitality I showed you?"

"Well..."

Ren didn't mind the thought of helping it but...from the sound of it, whatever it wanted to do, it wanted to do it soon, if not now. But Ren wanted to prioritize the well-being of those students Shujin first. So he would have to help it later.

He was about to say such, but then Morgana got mad and said,

"Especially you! You're going to up and leave even though you're already part of my master plan?!"

And Ren's gaze turned cold, not quite glaring but very tempted to do so.

Aki, however, was more confused.

"What plan?" she said, frowning.

Ren remained silent as the cat whined then said,

"Is it because I'm not human? because I'm like a cat? Is that why you're making a fool of me?!"

To that, Ryuji said, "We're busy!"

And Ren just nodded.

Though, despite the blond's words, he squated before the cat and said,

"Thanks for everything, cat. You got guts, bein a cat and all." Then he stood and said, "See you around," before running off.

Ren made to follow, but he noticed Aki not moving and saw her upset and hesitating, while Morgana was shouting about not being a cat in the background. It was only one second, but it felt much longer as his sister said,

"Big Bro...?"

He knew what she was asking. She didn't need to say it. Her eyes were enough.

Are we really leaving him behind?

So he said, to appease both her and by consequence Morgana, "Let me think about it."

And then he left, the sound of Aki's footsteps and Morgana's outrage behind him. He felt the brief, but much lighter than before, wave of nausea signalling he had made it to their world just as Ryuji disappeared for a moment. When the sickness passed, both Ryuji and his sister were standing before him, hands on their knees as they panted. All three of them were thankfully in the alleyway in front of the school, so Ren didn't have to force them to move to avoid raising suspicion...well, too much suspicion rather.

"You have returned to the real world. Welcome back," his phone said from his pocket.

"Thank god. We're back."

"Yeah, I can tell..." Aki said. "Seriously, is it always gonna make me wanna almost barf every time we do that...?"

"I don't think so," Ren said. "That wasn't as bad as before."

"Ugh. I hope so... Maybe my asthma makes it worse..."

The blond turned apologetic as he said, "I dragged you guys around a lot, huh? Sorry man."

"You better... I thought I'd collapse a lot sooner."

"Ugh, yeah, me too. I'm dead tired." Ryuji then said to him, "How about you? How you holdin' up?

Admittedly, though he could still stand... "I could use a nap."

"Yeah, I know right? I'm gonna sleep like a rock when I get home."

"Not if you sleepwalk before you get there."

"Ha! Yeah," the blond said with a grin. "But damn, if what we saw was for real, this is gonna get good! I totally remember the faces ofthe guys Kamoshida was treatin' like slaves."

"For real? That's impressive," Aki said, her tone genuine.

"Yeah, and once we make 'em fess up to physical abuse, Kamoshida will be done."

His sister snickered like a villain. "Oh that is gonna be good," she said, her grin just as scheming.

Not that Ren blamed her. He was smiling similarly as well. Kamoshida will be done for.

Then, all of a sudden, the blond was hesitant as he said, "Um, so...you wanna help me look for those guys or any witnesses?"

His sister's expression was incredulous. "Are you kiddin' me? What makes you think we won't?"

Ren laughed at Aki's exasperation. "What my sister is saying is, yes, we'll help," he said after he was done.

"Now that's what I'm talkin' about!"

"Good. You get it..."

She and Ren checked out of the alleyway and saw there were still some students around, but less than when they went into Kamoshida's Palace.

"Should we wait until the students are gone before we go?" Aki said.

After a quick deliberation on the pros and cons, Ren said,

"Let's just go. It's less suspecting if we go now."

Before either of them did that, Ryuji said, "Hey."

They both looked to him, curious, but Aki was the one to say,

"What is it?"

"Well, if you're thinkin of layin' low 'cause you got a record, I don't think that'll help..." he said. "I mean, everyone already knows. They totally got you pegged as criminals."

Ren looked down. It was true but...

"That doesn't mean we should make it worse."

Aki sighed. "I still wonder how'd that happened though..."

"What you mean 'how'? Kamoahida opened his damn mouth!"

Well it seemed that Ryuji thought the same as he did, and Aki as well from how she frowned. But, once again, he disagreed and said,

"We don't know that."

"But no one else but a teacher could've leaked it that fast!" Ryuji said. "You saw how he was like in that distorted-heart-thing! It doesn't matter if it's a student or a club, that asshole just wrecks things he doesn't agree with. Just like he did with me!"

But then Aki said, "But even if that's true, who'd seriously believe us about that? We don't have evidence for that."

The blond hung his mouth for a moment, speechless, before he deflated.

"Yeah, you're right. No one'll take anything I say seriously either," he said. But then he was determined once again. "Still, those rumors about him gettin physical might be real. And after seein' Kamoshida's distorted-heart-place in person, there's no way I can sit back!"

His sister rolled her eyes. "Hey, we didn't say that we were gonna back out 'cause we don't know for sure Kamoshida leaked our record," she said. "Right Big Bro?"

"Of course."

The blond laughed and smiled sheepishly. "Sorry, just can't believe it. I'm countin' on you!" he said. "Don't worry—I'm hyped for this too!"

Both he and Aki laughed. His enthusiasm was infectious, to say the least. But he froze at the sound of glass clinking, everything around him stuck in space, and a feminine voice, soothing yet strange, spoke from into his mind.

I am thou, thou art I she said. Thou hast acquired a new vow. It shall be the wings of rebellion that breaketh thy chains of captivity. With the birth of the Chariot Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power.

After that, it was gone. Ren stilled. What was that? Movement in his peripheral made him glance to see Aki also astonished. But his thoughts derailed at a rumble and Ryuji said,

"Oh... I haven't eaten anything since lunch."

Aki laughed at that...until her stomach complained as well. The blond snickered and Ren hid his snicker with his hand. His sister still glared at them, embarrassed.

"Don't you dare say anything," she said.

"Anything," he said.

Aki groaned.

He smirked.

"Heh heh. Well, since we're hungry, it'd be weird to split off now. So why don't we grab a bite somewhere?"

"Sure," he said.

While Aki looked in suspicion and said, "What kind of food?"

The blond just grinned and said, "Just follow me."

And he walked off, not saying anything else. His sister was hesitant to go, which made him smirk even more. She didn't appreciate that and glared at him.

"Hey, he's offering isn't he?" he said. "Just think of it as that favor he owed us."

She kept up her glare, but then Ryuji noticed they hadn't come along and said,

"Hey, you comin' or not? It'll be my treat. I promise."

That broke her hesitancy as she sighed and said,

"Fine." Though not without adding, "But if we end up goin' to Big Bang Burger, I'm makin' you buy more dinner."

Ren laughed. "Okay, okay."

It turned out it that not only was the place Ryuji wanted to take them was not the burger focused fast food chain, it was a beef bowl shop in Shibuya. They had to wait a bit before they actually got their meal as there were plenty of customers, most of them adults, but it was well worth it, mostly because it meant he got to be smug with his sister when she obviously tried to not eat as fast as she wanted to while also being glad that they found a place that has one of her preferred foods.

It was in the middle of their meal that Ryuji, who sat to Ren's right, said,

"Hey, can I ask you somethin'?"

After chewing, he said, "Shoot."

"How'd you guys get a record? It's hard to imagine you two doin' anythin' illegal."

Ren frowned and settled his hands against the counter, remembering the dark night the Incident happened.

Aki scoffed from his left. "We got falsely accused by an asshole who's got the police under his thumb, that's what."

"WHAT?!"

They startled at the outburst.

"The hell, man! How much shittier can that asshole get?!"

His sister groaned. "Calm down, dude, you're being loud."

Ren sighed. "Besides, it's in the past..." he said as he resumed eating.

"Are you for real man?! If it was me, I wouldn't calm down until I punched that dick in the face!"

Ren huffed in amusement and smirked. "Sounds like you found a kindred spirit, Aki."

His sister gave a displeased glare once again. "I was tryin' to get back at the asshole for that shit he pulled."

His smirk was replaced with a somber smile as he said, "I know. But I still wish you hadn't been arrested too. A city's not exactly good for your asthma."

"Eh? You guys ain't from here?"

Ren shook his head while Aki said,

"Nope."

"So...you guys left your hometown...and you're livin here now, huh?"

He nodded.

Aki said, "Yup."

They stared at Ryuji turned quiet and pensive. Ren waited, having the hunch that he was going to say something. As he guessed, he did after he ate some more of his beef bowl, facing forward but his eyes distant.

"We might be more alike than I originally thought."

Ren stilled, admittedly surprised he made that observation.

"You may be right," he said because, after some thought, Ren found he was.

They were both outcasts, being branded as delinquents after being falsely accused of something they didn't do yet had done something that was enough to incriminate them, especially with the backing of someone with high authority.

"You know I never really thought about it 'till now."

At that, Aki had her cheeky grin as she said, "Not surprised. We've already established you have a thick skull."

"Wha—hey! I'm being serious here!"

Aki chuckled, her smile sheepish. "Sorry. You walked right into that one. I couldn't help it." She then said, "What made you think that though?"

Ryuji paused, formulating his words.

"I guess it's how we're treated like a pain in the ass by the people around us, like we don't belong," he said, hitting really close to home. "I did something stupid at school before too."

Aki frowned, and so did he.

"You mean that thing Kamoshida mentioned?" she said.

The blond nodded, not saying anything. He just lifted his bowl and swallowed all that was in it until it was gone. After that, he sighed and put the bowl down. It was clear he didn't want to say more on what happened with his leg as he said,

"The place you're livin' now is in...Yongen, right?"

He glanced at Aki, asking in silence if they could just let that slip. She nodded. So Ren said,

"Yes."

"It's rush hour in the subways. I suggest killin' some time before headin home."

"What? Oh come on... I was lookin' forward to gettin' back home."

Ren couldn't help but laugh at his sister's plight. "Well, we could stay here for a while then look around."

"Yeah, I guess..."

It was then that Ryuji noticed their bowls still had their beef in it.

"What the hell man. You barely touched your food," he said.

Ren was startled as Ryuji then opened the container of pickled ginger and put some on both his and Aki's bowls.

"What are you doing?" he said.

While Aki said, "Hey! I can do that myself."

"Come on, just lemme do it. I gotta thank you for helpin' me."

"Well you can thank me by not putting whatever you want on my bowl!"

Ren internally sighed and said, before a shouting match could be had,

"Calm down, Aki. He's just trying to be nice."

Aki grumbled and said, "My point still stands..."

To Ryuji he said, smiling with amusement, "Sorry for my sister. She's a picky eater."

"I am not," Aki said, as Ren predicted, while she ate more pieces from her bowl.

The teen boy laughed again. "All right, all right, I'll keep that in mind. After all, I got your backs like you got mine from tomorrow on," he said. "As long as we do somethin' about Kamoshida, I'm sure we'll both feel better about bein' at school."

Aki huffed, pausing in her meal as she said, "I'll hold you to that then, Ryuji. 'Cause I doubt anythin' would make me feel better about goin' to school."

Ren expected the blond to say something at his sister's quip. But when nothing came, they shared a confused look before turning to see him staring at them.

"You okay?" Ren said.

The teen seemed to have realized he had been in a daze and shook his head.

"Ah, sorry, just didn't expect you hear you guys call me by my first name again, that's all," he said. "I mean, I thought you guys just said that 'cause of the moment, ya know?"

"Oh."

Ren had forgotten about that, nor noticed that Aki did the same.

He was apologetic as he said, "Would you prefer we call you Sakamoto?"

The teen's grin returned. "Nah, Ryuji's fine. We got each other's backs, remember? 'sides, I'm gonna call you Ren and Akira anyway since it'd be confusin' to use Amamiya, so we're even."

"Well at least someone gets it."

"Huh?"

"Don't mind her," he said. "Inside joke."

"So, does that mean you're gonna do that in your contacts too?"

"Oh yeah!" Ryuji took out his phone as he said, "Give me your numbers, I'll give you guys mine. Chat ID too."

After a bit, all numbers and contact info were exchanged. With that out of the way, they put their phones back in their places and Ryuji had a determined look on his face.

"Just you wait, Kamoshida..." he said to himself then turned to them. "We're gonna start right away tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" Aki said.

"Yeah. First, let's hit up those guys that were kept as slaves."

"All righty."

Ren, however, remembered the date. "Isn't the volleyball rally tomorrow though?"

"Right..." Ryuji said, frowning. "Shit's recommended by Kamoshida."

"The rally is because of Kamoshida?" Ren said, surprised.

Though he probably shouldn't have been as Aki scoffed and said,

"Probably just wants to show off."

"Yeah. Makes me wanna gag," Ryuji said. "But thanks to that, we got no classes in the afternoon and we can walk around unnoticed."

"You sure though?"

"Yeah."

Ren said, "How will we talk with them? By ourselves or all three of us?"

"Uh... I, uh...didn't really think too much 'bout that..."

His sister sighed. "Why am I not surprised?"

"Well I guess we can work out the details tomorrow..." Ryuji said, not bothered at all. "But first you guys gotta eat more. There's tons of ginger here."

"Hey! I'll eat what I wanna eat, thank you very much!"

And that set the topic of conversation between the two for a while as Ryuji kept trying to have Aki taste other things, more specifically other ways to eat the beef bowl, and utterly failing at it, Ren laughing at his attempts all the while.

[G]​

Akechi had been on his way to work when he encountered Sae-san. She had been doing the same so they decided to just walk there together, no conversation being had. He was somewhat surprised the prosecutor hadn't brought up the case she had been investigating, but he assumed that just meant she didn't need anymore insight from him...for the time being.

As such, with nothing to distract him, it was even easier to pick out a familiar presence on the street, one he hadn't expected to see.

He stopped, not quite believing his eyes, as he said, "Is that you?"

"Hey, it's you," the girl from before said, her blue eyes shining and, if Akechi would guess, smiling under her mask. "I didn't think I'd see you again."

She wasn't alone though. She had two people with her, both boys in their teens, and they both looked confused then surprised upon seeing him. However, they didn't say anything, not yet at least, so he focused on the girl with glasses.

"Neither did I," he said, once again surprised at himself for smiling genuinely.

The girl laughed, which startled him but he didn't let it show. For a second, he thought she had been mocking him somehow, for hoping to see her again when it was such a small, practically impossible, possibility. But then she said,

"It's good to see you. Guess my hope of seein' you again came true, huh?"

He couldn't stop himself from chuckling at the silliness of that. It wasn't true of course, it was mere coincidence. Yet, from the confident glint in her eyes, despite knowing that was the case, she still said it, making it clear that even though they only met a moment and it was pure chance, she had wanted to see him again. He would admit that it boggled his mind. A mere stranger was happy to see him again, and not because of his reputation or his looks, if her words were any indication, but because she just wanted to. Though, then again, it made sense. He did save her life after all, more or less. Of course she would be happy to see him again.

"Perhaps it did," he said, deciding to amuse her.

That made her chuckle.

But of course the moment had to be interrupted by Sae-san, no doubt glaring at him, as she said, her tone annoyed and accusatory,

"Who is this, Akechi? Is this a fangirl of yours?"

Akechi kept up his smile even though he really wanted to rip into the woman for that.

However, to his surprise, the glint in the bespectacled girl's eyes turned mischievous and she said in a teasing lilt,

"Oh? Fangirls? Girls like your looks at your school?" She laughed. "I'd guess they're annoying for you, huh?"

Akechi tensed, managing to stop himself from staring at her in surprise and ruining his image in front of Sae-san. What kind of a response was that? He had expected her to assume he was some...philanderer...because of Sae-san mentioning his fans. But instead...she made fun of it? Not only that, she had assumed correctly that they bothered him, even though he did like the attention.

His hesitation was long enough that the girl said to the older woman,

"No, I'm not. We just met on the street. It was in Shibuya."

The boy that looked like the girl's copy—the only thing distinguishing the two being their slight height difference and eye color—looked at her inquisitively.

"When was this?" he said.

"Oh, a couple days ago."

Knowing he, Sae-san and the blond boy that was likely their friend would ask the circumstances of the meeting, Akechi said before they could,

"She had dropped her inhaler while she was having an attack. I just happened to see it, so I brought it to her."

That made the curly haired boy's eyes harden before he directed them at the girl.

"You had an attack and you didn't tell me?" he said, tone just as accusatory as Sae-san's earlier and just as sharp.

The girl tensed, looking absolutely sheepish and guilty.

"Eh heh heh heh... I...forgot...?" she said, her tone making it easy to imagine her smile was just as sheepish behind her mask.

Akechi found that amusing but he couldn't exactly show that. It was rude after all.

But just as fast as the boy was displeased, he turned exaspersted, sighing and shaking his head.

"We'll talk about it when we get back home, yes?" he said, any trace of hostility gone.

The bespectacled girl laughed, not because it was amusing, that much was clear, but because there really wasn't any other way to react, except for perhaps shame, as she said, "Okay."

Then the curly haired boy turned to him, his smile small but his eyes warm as he said,

"Your name is Akechi-san yes? I know it is a bit overdue, but thank you for that, Akechi-san."

Akechi kept up his smile, surprised at the gratitude, but unsure what to feel over the fact that, well, it was genuine. That much Akechi could tell. It was difficult to think of a reason for them to be anything other than grateful, especially since they only just learned his name and thus would have no ulterior reason to act that way. But he still couldn't quite accept it. After all, he was just a stranger, and they would have likely been just as grateful were it someone else who did the same thing. But he knew what he was supposed to say. So he said,

"It was no problem."

Because, in the grand scheme of things, it wasn't a problem at all, especially if it meant that this interesting girl still lived because of him.

Seeing the opening though, Sae-san finally said something and interrupted them.

"I see," she said, her annoyance still present but noticeably lessened, to his surprise. "Then if that is all, we will be going now."

Akechi really, really wanted to throttle the woman now. He wanted to at least know the girl's name, but the girl in question said,

"Oh yeah. Sorry, Miss. You two are probably on your way to work, right?"

And the curly haired boy said, "I see. Then we will go as well."

Finally, after staring at the whole exchange rather dumb looking, the blond boy said, "Uh, yeah. See ya."

The blond walked off.

The curly haired male gave a slight bow.

"Thank you again, Akechi. Good-bye," he said then he left.

And lastly, the girl with shining blue eyes gave him a small wave and said, "Bye, Akechi! I hope next time we meet, it'll be longer!"

Then she, too, walked off, catching up with the two boys. Akechi watched as she went down the street with them, the three of them talking but not loud enough for him to hear even snippets of it. He would've kept an eye on her until she vanished from his sight, but Sae-san would become impatient if he took any longer. So he forced himself to look away, give her an apologetic smile and say,

"Shall we go?"

The woman just nodded and started her way down the street. With that, Akechi trailed behind, doing his best to put his thoughts on the masked girl in the back of his mind.

He would agree with her though, he hoped he would see her again and for a much longer conversation.

Author's Notes: Fun fact: the title comes from the phrase "whistle for the wind", which, at least according to a Google on nautical sayings, basically means "hope for the impossible". I just switched it to lightning because of Ryuji's element.

And yes the Akechi interaction is yet another self-indulgence, but also partly because that's how I view the scene would go now that Akira has met Akechi much sooner.
 
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TheCharredDragon

One world, one love, shadows of mass destruction
Chapter 7: Digging for Dirt

(A)​

Blue room, black chains and hand cuffs, just as they hoped. Akira walked up to her cell's bars to see the rest of the round prison, a simple desk in the center of it all with Rocket Nose at the helm.

"Welcome to the Velvet Room," he said. "I thought about resuming our conversarion tonight. That is why I summoned you two."

"Well good, 'cause we got questions for you," she said, her and her brother suspecting he might have some answers.

Bang!

"Ack!"

She jumped back and looked down at the pint-sized warden with hair buns, Caroline if she remembered right, who said,

"How many times must I tell you to show respect to our master, Inmate?!"

"Well maybe if he answered some of our questions, I would."

The warden would've retorted, but Rocket Nose let out a deep chuckle and said,

"Then how about I answer a question for a question? What are your thoughts? Are becoming accustomed to this place?"

Akira frowned. "What do you think?"

While her brother said, "Yeah."

"Ah, glad to hear it. It seems you both have nerves of steel."

Akira scoffed and said,

"So now that we answered your question, I got one: what's up with this Confidant thing?"

The master of the velvet room chuckled again.

"The goal of your rehabilitation is to thwart the fated ruin," he said, answering a completely different question.

"Fated...ruin...?"

Please don't tell me the world's gonna end... She hoped she was overthinking things. She hoped it was just a disaster that, at most, involved her and Ren, nothing world ending. She wasn't sure how to feel about that if it was true.

It also made her think Igor wouldn't actually answer until he continued.

"However, such a feat cannot be accomplished by you alone," he said. "Today you entered a partnership with someone who awoke to the same power as you, did you not?"

"You mean Ryuji?" Ren said.

She said, "A partnership? Is that what this Confidant thing is?"

"Indeed. Involving yourself with others is an important foundation for your recovery. You've done well."

There it was again, this "recovery", their "rehabilitation". It made it seem like he thought of them as criminals, just like everyone else. She didn't like that.

"That said, I am not advising the formation of superficial relationships," he said. "It must not be of frivolity, but a ring of those who, by morals or faith, lend you their power."

Huh. Akira was surprised he would say such a thing. He certainly didn't come off as the type to believe in the value of a genuine relationship, to her at least. She blamed being in a prison for that previous impression. With that revelation, she listened to Igor go on.

"In other words, they are bonds with those who have been robbed of their places to belong," he said. "The expansion of said ring will, in turn, help you mature as well."

Then Justine joined in.

"Personas are the strength of the heart..." she said. "The stronger the bonds around you, the more power your Personas will gain..."

And Caroline as well.

"There are countless people in the city with talented a weakling like you doesn't. You better rack that noggin of yours and get those people on your side. We'll turn that into power."

Of course she was much more demeaning about it.

"Indeed," Igor said. "You should prepare to use even myself, or your ambitions will not come to fruition."

Akira frowned. She didn't like the thought of "using" Igor, or anyone really. Not only that...

"What are you talking about? What ambition?"

"What is our rehabilitation?" Ren said.

"Yes, your rehabilitation...and any other ambitions you wish to pursue. You cannot reach any of them should you fail."

Akira tensed. In other words, if they failed, there was a good chance they'd die, if not worse.

So, basically, Igor was saying they needed to become strong Persona users and have a team backing them up, otherwise they would die, or even worse, and not be able to do anything, like exposing Kamoshida. Yeah, that sounded easy...not. Still, it wasn't like they had a choice to not do whatever it was Igor wanted, not that she would have chosen otherwise. If Igor said something bad was going to happen, she was going to do something about it. And if he offered to help if they did something for him, then she won't refuse.

Besides, she doubted he would give a straightforward answer now.

"All right then," she said.

And her brother said, "Very well. We'll help you, and you'll help us."

The master of the room chuckled, pleased. "We have a deal then."

Then everything froze and a feminine and calming voice spoke from in her mind.

I am thou, thou art I she said. Thou hast acquired a new vow. It shall be the wings of rebellion that breaketh thy chains of captivity. With the birth of the Moon Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power.

But this time, she felt something surge in her chest, making something within her open yet she felt nothing hurt, something that whispered it was new abilities for her to use.

Then just like that, the feeling left and time resumed.

"Well, you will understand it all in time," he said, confirming Akira's suspicions that he wouldn't talk more. "Devote yourself to your rehabilitation."

"Now, this conversation's over! Get lost, Inmates!"

With that, sleep pulled her eyes close...only to open them to a wooden ceiling. For a while, she lay there, her emotions a bit of a mix. Though perhaps she shouldn't be too surprised. After all, she had been pretty mixed on a lot of things since she came to Tokyo, except for one.

"Aki?"

She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and put on her glasses. As she sat up, her brother said,

"You saw it too this time again, yes?"

"Yup," she said. "Looks like you're right. Igor does know about Personas and Confidants."

"Even if he didn't exactly explain everything."

That was true. It was almost like... The realization hit Akira and she groaned.

"Don't tell me he's going to go all 'tutorial mode' on us..."

Ren smirked. "Well, tutorials exist for a reason."

"Yeah, but good ones let you 'do' instead of 'show' or 'tell'!" Akira said.

Of course, that just made him laugh.

"Well, nothing we can do about a boring tutorial," he said. "It's still a tutorial and so there's important things in it. So we should still pay attention."

"Ugh... I know, I know..."

"Still...I hope we learn more soon. We know that Confidants form because we can become friends and that Personas are powered by friendship."

"Or emotions."

"Or that. Anyways, they're powered by emotions...but we still don't know what he wants from us."

"Besides wantin' you to be a thief and be rehabilitated? Which is really contradictory."

Ren smiled and rolled his eyes. "Yes, besides that."

"Well if he's being cryptic now...I'm betting he'll only tell us little by little."

"Probably. Especially if he's the 'tutorial'," he said with air quotes. "So we'll have to wait."

"Ugh... Where's the skip tutorial when you need it...?"

Ren laughed as he stood. "Locked until new game plus probably. Now come on. We have a mission to complete. We promised after all."

"Oh right," she said, getting off her bed.

They would think more on the specifics of Personas and Igor's deal later. Right now they had something more immediate to deal with: unmasking that mophead's abuse.

{R}​

Ren arrived relatively late in the gymnasium after meeting up with Aki, the volleyball players on both the student and teacher team ready, and students on seats and on the floor near the walls. It didn't take long to find Ryuji among the crowd, even more so with his blond hair, not wearing the red jacket of their gym uniform and him waving them over. As such, not long after they sat on the floor with him—Ryuji on his right, Aki on his left—the game between Kamoshida and the teachers and the school's male volleyball team began.

To say the least, Aki was glaring at Kamoshida the entire time. Ryuji was obviously bored yet hadn't spoken. And himself? He watched the match, trying to observe Kamoshida's behavior and...it seemed like a normal game. There wasn't anything wrong with it. It was just a game between the adults and the male volleyball team. And yet...with what he learned from the man's Palace, things that he would've previously dismissed as nothing but happenstance now felt off. It felt like Kamoshida arranged this to show off at the students who were cheering for him, it felt like he was aiming for specific members, hitting the ball too hard, and it felt like some of the students were holding back.

Ren couldn't tell if his observations were revealing the truth hiding the under shining cover or just his growing hatred of the man that made him see those things as such.

He was pulled from his musings when Ryuji said,

"Still sticks out. Hasn't changed a bit."

He turned to follow his gaze, Aki no doubt doing the same, and was somewhat surprised to see Ryuji had been speaking of Takamaki. Upon seeing her though, Ren frowned, remembering the "fake" Kamoshida conjured the day before. If that was from within the man's mind, that meant he saw Takamaki as... Ren didn't even want to finish that thought. So he said to Ryuji,

"You know her?"

"Huh? Oh uh..." Ryuji said, just realizing he spoke aloud. "Nah. Not really."

"But you do know her, right?" Aki said.

"We just went to the same middle school. I don't really know her."

"Oh..." his sister said, dissapointed.

"But man..." The blond stretched his arms. "This is borin', isn't it?" he said with a grin.

However, they all turned when a particularly loud strike hit the volleyball.

And that ball hit one of Ren's classmates straight on the head.

For a long, weighted second, Ren thought someone would move. But when that second passed and the boy's teammates only hovered over him with Kamoshida coming to him, apologizing, he moved at the same time Aki did.

"Someone take him to the nurse's office," the former athlete said.

"We'll take him," he said as they came up to them.

Everyone turned and stared at them.

Ren both regretted and revelled the fact that they did.

"Uh..." one of the volleyball members said, looking to his teammates for guidance.

But the others were just as unsure as he was.

So it came as no surprise that Aki then said, "Come on. The sooner, the better, right?"

Just as other students came and said, "We'll handle it."

And they were the ones to lift Ren's classmate and carry him to the nurse's office. He watched them for a moment before looking at Kamoshida, who stared at them with a neutral expression that Ren felt was hid his true feelings, something that both he and Aki were doing as well. It almost felt like a staring match. But the last thing he wanted was for Kamoshida to get suspicious, so he put a hand on his sister's shoulder and said,

"Let's go, Aki."

She glanced at him then back at Kamoshida, before she said,

"Okay, Big Bro."

With that, they walked back to Ryuji, who looked absolutely pissed. Ren was surprised he didn't blow, but it was good he didn't, for now, anyway. Which Ren guessed right because, as soon as lunch came, ate and went, Ryuji took them to the "snack area" in the courtyard—with vending machines, benches and a table—and said,

"Rgh... That asshole's actin' like a king here too. Get to know each other my ass. It's just a one-man show for him to stroke his ego. And how he acted like he was worried for Mishima! What an abusive d-bag."

"Ugh... My thoughts exactly," his sister said. "I thought I was gonna punch him in the face for doin' that..."

Ryuji was surprised but then grinned. "You and me both."

Ren sighed, though he couldn't fault them. It was tempting but...

"Calm down, you two. We have something important to do."

"Oh yeah. Now's our chance to look for the guys we saw slaves as yesterday."

"You sure you remember 'em, Ryuji?" Aki said. "We'll have to do more lookin' if you didn't."

"Hey! I did! They should all be here since they're from the volleyball team."

"All right. Let's go, everyone." Ren pushed against his glasses and said, "Operation: Confession, commence."

Only to realize what he just said when Ryuji stared.

"Uh..."

Ren chuckled, sheepish as he curled one of his hair strands. "Sorry. I got carried away."

Aki rolled her eyes but still smiled. "Get used to it. He's gonna do it again later."

"Uh, no. I ain't got anythin' against it. Just surprised."

Ren was caught off guard but then smiled.

"Okay," he said, grateful.

Aki too smiled but then she turned serious as she said,

"All right. Operation: Confession is a go. So who's first?"

"Oh right," Ryuji said. "The first guy's from Class D. Your class. Hopefully you won't have trouble talkin' to him since everyone's been avoidin' me lately."

Aki gave him a flat stare. Ren didn't blame her.

"Ryuji?" she said, tone just as flat. "You do remember we're in the same boat, right?"

"Oh. Right. Uh..." Ryuji said. "Well, they're still from the same class. I'm sure it'll be better than me."

She sighed. "Never mind, let's just go..."

Thankfully, when they approached the student Ryuji mentioned, he did talk to them, even with the blond accompanying them. But the first thing he said was,

"What? Are you skipping the volleyball rally?" He scoffed, though the effect was somewhat disminished by the bandages over his head. "I guess I expected it from you, transfer."

And that ticked Aki off.

"Hey, you're here too," she said. "So with that logic, you're skippin' out on it too."

"E-Er... I'm on break!" The volleyball member narrowed his eyes. "Wait, you're the transfer's sister, aren't you?"

"And if I am?"

"Guess I should've expected you'd be like this too. But it's hard to believe a girl would be so tough, you know?"

"You son of a—!"

Ren snapped his arm on Aki's shoulder and stopped her just as Ryuji said, in a whisper to Ren's surprise,

"Ah, hey! Calm down! This is definitely the guy I saw from the castle."

Then the guy noticed him. "What? You too, Sakamoto?" He frowned and said, "What do you three want?"

He needed to be quick before Aki exploded. So he said, with a part of him hoping it wouldn't be true, "Are you being abused?"

But that made the boy freeze like a deer in headlights and Ren felt his gut squeeze as the student said, not very convincing,

"W-What? What're you saying?! No, of course not!"

Ryuji just said, "It's Kamoshida, ain't it?"

If the fear in the boy's eyes was bad before, it was worse now, being absolute terror. But then the blond said,

"Look, we ain't gonna tell anyone you squealed. Right guys?"

They nodded.

"See? Just tell us how Kamoshida's been abusin' you guys."

Instead of calming him down though, he tried to mask that fear and said,

"I-I don't know what you're talking about!"

And Ren frowned, sadness flooding him at seeing such familiar fear in his eyes, fear he, too, used to see in his own. He also felt Aki's body relax immensely, no doubt sharing his expression.

So he said, sympathy and worry lacing it, "Are you afraid?"

But the male was having none of it, staying defensive. "I'm not! You're talking nonsense."

Understably, that irritated Ryuji and he said,

"Don't try an' hide it! We already know!"

For a moment, the male was both hopeful yet disbelieving. "You...You know?" he said. "You have any proof?"

But as Ryuji struggled to answer, that hope was gone, his annoyance returning.

"Ugh, this is ridiculous!" he said. "Go away! You're really bothering me!"

"But—" Aki said.

To their surprise, Ryuji said, "All right, that's enough. C'mon, let's go. He ain't sayin' anythin'."

So it was a relief when, as soon as they stepped out, the blond grumbled and messed with his hair.

"Damn it. That injury ain't normal! And he still won't fess up," he said, frustrated as Ren thought he would be.

His sister sighed again, this time is sympathy and sadness. "I know. At this rate, we're gonna get nothin' before the game ends."

"Crap. You're right. It's gonna take forever."

"Then let's split up," Ren said.

"Oh yeah! That's a good idea. Divide and conk 'em, right?"

"It's 'divide and conquer' not 'conk them'!" Aki said.

"Whatever. I'll head for the practice building. You guys handle the classroom building."

"You sure you can deal with it yourself?" she said.

"Well I think it's fine." Then Ren smirked and said, teasing, "Besides, who else is going hold you back if you blow?"

"Hey! I'm not that bad!" she said, glaring at him.

At least until Ryuji snickered.

Thankfully he held back his own.

"Anyways, try looking for this guy in third-year. I think it was...class 3-C," their blond friend said, "ignoring" her. "He should be pretty banged up since he got pretty beat back in the castle."

Ren said, "All right."

"Okay. I'll hit you two up if I find anythin'!" he said.

"Hey wait!" Aki said, but by then Ryuji was far off. "Damn it, he didn't tell us what he looks like..."

"Well he did tell us he would likely be injured."

Aki grumbled and said, "Still..."

Ren shook his head in amusement. "Let's just go."

They went to the first floor to Class 3-C, but when they looked inside, they didn't find anyone with bandages anywhere. Aki was unamused at that fact. But Ren ignored her expression and said to the person closest to the classroom's entrance,

"Excuse me, is there a volleyball member from this class here?"

The student was startled before he said, frowning, "No. He went out."

Then he went back to his phone, pointedly ignoring Ren. He sighed and adjusted his glasses. He looked at the others in the room, but as soon as he made eye contact with anyone, they would go back to whatever they were doing, like talking to friends or reading a book.

"Well we're not gonna get anythin' out of them," his sister said in a whisper.

No, they weren't. But still, he would have to try because they didn't have the time to search the whole building. So he went and asked each and every one of the students of class 3-C that were there but they all told him the same thing, they didn't know where the person they were looking for was. But just as he and Aki left the classroom with heads hung low, someone said,

"Excuse me?"

And they looked up to see a fluffly, light auburn haired girl at the doorway.

"Are you looking for someone?"

Ren stilled, surprised at how friendly she seemed.

"Uh..." Aki said, unsure whether or not to answer.

So he said, "Yes. We were looking for a volleyball member who is part of class 3-C."

"Oh, Suzuhara-kun? I believe I saw him with his friend at the vending machine near the school store," she said, pointing in the direction needed. "I don't know if they're still there though."

Aki stared, befuddled that this girl was answering them. Ren didn't blame her. He was in the same boat. So of course his sister gave a bright smile and said,

"Thanks!"

And he gave a slight bow and said, "Thank you."

The auburn haired looked startled at their response. Ren had thought that it was because that, perhaps, she had known who they were already, but it didn't matter in the end if she did, as she returned their smiles with her own small and soft one.

"You're welcome. It's no problem," she said.

With that, they left the girl and found the volleyball member they were looking for, talking with his friend as they got drinks and snacks. Unfortnately, he wasn't forthcoming with info either. He even said to "not believe everything Sakamoto says" while his friend feared of them pulling out a knife in rage. Ren had to give a customary good-bye and pull Aki away by the shoulder. Once they were in a relatively secluded place, he let go and nodded.

"God damn it!" she said. "The nerve of that guy! 'He's dedicated to training us' my ass! I don't know shit about sports training but I know training when you're injured ain't normal!"

"Or being beaten in the first place," he said. "That's just corporal punishment."

Before Aki could actually rant, their phones buzzed and Ren saw Ryuji was asking for a status update, his end not going so well. After telling him the same, Ryuji gave them another lead while he went for a few more, this time a first-year either from 1-B or 1-C. With that, they went back to their search. This time it didn't take as long to find who they were looking for as he stood outside the class 1-B room. Unfortunately, their attempt at interrogating him was only marginally better than the last two as while he denied any abuse going on, once again saying it was normal for Kamoshida to be so tough on them, he did mention another possible lead: Mishima as Kamoshida apparently went overboard with his "special coaching".

"Attention, attention," PA system then said. "All matches have concluded. Please get ready to go home for today..."

"Damn it, they finished early?" Aki said.

"I guess Kamoshida isn't all talk," Ren said, not liking that it came from his mouth.

"Bleugh... I hate that that's probably true," Aki said, just as displeased.

Once again, their phones buzzed and, after moving to a spot with less people, they opened chat.

Ryuji: Damn it, we're outta time.

Akira: You can say that again.

Ryuji: How'd it go for you guys?

Akira: Take a wild guess.

Ren: No good.

Ryuji: So you didn't have any luck either...

Akira: Nope.

Ren: No.

Ryuji: Mmkay. Let's regroup for now. See you in the courtyard!

Akira: Hey wait. We're supposed to go home.

But Ryujj didn't reply and Aki sighed.

Ren chuckled and said, "Let's just go. We have to pool our info after all."

His sister sighed again. "Fine..."

Though, ironically, they arrived at the "snack" area in the courtyard before Ryuji did so they waited on a bench. It wasn't long before they heard footsteps coming towards them, but the arrival wasn't Ryuji.

"Takamaki?" Ren said.

The platinum blonde stood before them, her expression neutral. The only hint of emotion was brief warmth when she glanced at Aki.

"Can I talk to you for a sec?" she said, that warmth gone.

Ren wasn't sure on what to say. They likely were pushing their time with Ryuji. But whatever Ann wanted to talk about was likely serious.

So compromising, he said, "I don't mind. But what is it?"

"It'll be quick."

Well, if she insisted, and she seemed sincere... "Okay then. Go ahead."

Yet even with that, Takamaki hesitated, looking unsure as her eyes flitted between him and his sister. Of course, Aki being Aki, said, her voice warm despite her words,

"Come on. You can spit it out. It can't be that bad."

That seemed to have made it worse as her expression darkened. Ren thought his sister had irritated her and was prepared to apologize but then Takamaki said,

"Are you really okay?"

Aki, at first, didn't understand what she meant, but eventually recognition flashed in her eyes.

"From my attack a few days ago? Yeah, I'm fine," she said. Then she gave the blonde an appraising look. "But is that really it?"

Takamaki flinched then turned somber.

"No," she said. "There's this weird rumor about you two."

Ren's heart clenched as Aki's eyes narrowed, suspicious and guarded, likely thinking that Takamaki was here for less than friendly reasons. For a brief second, he, too, thought the same. But remembering her concern for Aki, Ren put a hand on his sister's shoulder, startling her. She stared at him but he gave her a comforting look before he faced the platinum blonde.

"What is this weird rumor?" he said. "If you have something to ask about it, we don't mind answering."

That caught the girl off guard. "Uh, well..." she said, glancing away for a second. But then she lookef back with a hard gaze. "I heard you've been hanging out with Sakamoto."

As if on cue, the man himself said,

"Whaddya want with him?"

And arrived. Takamaki frowned.

"Right back at you," she said. "You aren't even in the same class as him."

Ryuji mirrored her expression. "Neither is Akira."

Takamaki huffed. "She's his sister, of course they're hanging out together. You're not related to them."

"Well we just happened to get to know each other," he said, each word gaining more edge.

"Huh. So what're you planning to do with Mr. Kamoshida?"

He and his sister tensed, Aki cursing under her breath. Ren had hoped their efforts wouldn't be obvious so soon, but he had been too hopeful. Though he probably should've seen that coming considering how fast their criminal record was spread around the school.

"Huh?" Ryuji said, surprised for a moment. His hostility returned just as fast. "...I see. I getcha. You're buddy-buddy with Kamoshida after all."

Ren was afraid he snapped his neck with how quick he turned to Ryuji, but he could care less as he gave him a dumbfounded stare.

Before Ren could say anything though, Takamaki said,

"This has nothing to do with you, Sakamoto!"

Then he said, "If you found out what he's been doin' behind your back, you'd dump him right away."

Ren realized then why Ryuji thought Takamaki was colluding with Kamoshida: the rumors about her dating the teacher.

"Behind my back...? What's that supposed to mean?"

The fake blonde sighed. "You wouldn't get it."

Takamaki shook her head, as if dismissing his earlier words, then said,

"Anyways, people are talking about you three already." Her expression turned disapproving. "I don't know what you're trying to pull, but no one's gonna help you." Then into concerned and sad. "I'm just warning you, that's all."

Having said her piece, she left, Ren watching and wondering. Maybe what Ryuji thought was true and that was she was warning them to stay away to keep Kamoshida safe. But all he could think of was yesterday, Takamaki lying to Kamoshida and trying to hide her discomfort. He couldn't shake the feeling she had warned them out of concern for them, not for Kamoshida. He suspected Aki thought similarly as she was not as tense as when the blonde arrived. Ryuji, on the other hand, was the exact opposite of her.

"Why's she gotta be so aggressive all the time?" he said.

"Aggressive...?" Aki said. "Well, it might be just me then 'cause she seemed more..."

"Worried for us?" Ren said. "I think so."

"Really?" Ryuji said, disbelieving. But before either of them could say more on that subject, he changed it. "Anyways, you're sure you got nothin' on your end?"

Ren was tempted to not let it slide, but as Aki said,

"What about you? You sure you got nothin'?"

Ren decided against it.

"Nope. Not even a name or another lead."

"Well..." Ren said. "...the first year mentioned that Mishima goes through 'special coaching'?"

"Special 'coaching', huh?"

"Oh yeah! I forgot about that!" Aki hopped off and said, "Come on! We gotta go before he leaves school!"

"Ah, right," Ryuji said as his sister dashed past him.

Ren rolled his eye before he and Ryuji ran after her. Just as Ren thought, instead of looking into his classroom, his sister went straight for the front door, which was good as Mishima was almost at the doors.

"Hey! Wait up!" she said.

The boy jumped and pivoted to meet them with wide eyes.

"Huh...?"

"Hey, got a second?" Ryuji said when they caught ul.

"Sakamoto?!" he said. "And you two?!"

This wasn't good. He was already agitated. It was a long shot, but Ren said, in hopes of calming him,

"We just want to talk."

The boy turned doubtful. "Talk...?"

Good. That was better than angry.

But then Ryuji said, "Kamoshida's been 'coachin', huh? You sure it's not physical abuse?"

And Mishima panicked, body and speech jittery as he said, "C-Certainly not!"

Aki scoffed. "Don't have to be polite to us," she said, tone dripping with mockery. "Not like most are anyway."

Ren frowned at the truth of that.

Thankfully Ryuji made up for his earlier blunder as he said,

"Anyways...we saw you got spiked today. Right in the face."

The boy flinched and Ren's anger flared, but he took a deep breath and had it simmer away. The last thing they needed was Mishima being startled because Ren wanted to scream and punch at Kamoshida. But just like with the ones before him, his classmate just said,

"I-It's because I'm not that good at the sport..."

"Oh come on!" his sister said, his words the last straw. "Even if that was true, that don't explain all those bruises on you."

The boy glared in equal measure. "They're from practice!"

"Really?! You're seriously tellin' me that you're so bad you got bruises all over instead of just your elbows and knees?!"

"T-That's not...!"

Knowing this wasn't going dissolve, Ren put a hand on his sister's shoulder once again and said, tone admonishing,

"Aki. You're going to draw attention."

She snapped her head at him, still glaring. But he kept his gaze locked with hers and, eventually, she relaxed her body and looked down in shame. Ren frowned and squeezed her shoulder, not wanting her to feel that way. Aki only gave a small but appreciative smile at him.

Meanwhile, Ryuji had said, "Is he forcin' you to keep quiet?"

"That's..." And that made Mishima also quiet and look down.

Unfortunately, the worst possible consequence of Aki's shouting occured and the last voice they wanted to hear said,

"What's going on here?"

Everyone tensed as they, slowly but surely, turned to face the mopheaded teacher examining each and every one of them until he spotted the bruised boy.

"Mishima, isn't it time for practice?" he said.

It was minute, but Ren noticed the boy in question shrunk in on himself. "I-I'm not feeling well today..."

"Oh? Then maybe you're better off quitting. You're never gonna improve that crap form of yours unless you show up for practice."

"Didn't hear him? He ain't feelin' well!"

The teacher only spared Ryuji a brief glare before looking to Ren's bruised classmate.

"Well Mishima?" he said. "Are you coming to practice or not?"

Both he and Aki looked to Mishima, waiting for his answer. Though Ren had a good guess as to what it would be, he still wished he would be wrong.

He wasn't.

"I'll go," Mishima said.

With that, Kamoshida focused on Ryuji, who didn't look away, not caring to be polite with him. At least until the teacher said,

"As for you, cause any more trouble and you'll be gone from school for sure."

The blond made a strangled noise and looked away.

"Bastard..." he said under his breath.

The teacher then turned his attention to him and his sister.

"Same goes for you two. Didn't the principal tell you to keep in line?" Kamoshida said.

"Yeah," Aki said, her tone the one that had more to say.

Before she could do it, Ren said, "We were just about to get our things."

Unsurprisingly, Kamoshida wasn't convinced, but it was enough.

"Hmph. Just don't be in the way of my practice." Then he said, almost as if he was holding back his satisfaction, "All these unsettling rumors are making the students anxious, you know."

"That's your own god damn fault," Ryuji said.

Ren tensed and held his breath, fear gripping them in its cold claws, his sister doing the same under his hand. He didn't know what Kamoshida would do, or even could do. For all he knew he could hit Ryuji right there and then. He had done it before. But nothing like that happened. Instead, the teacher glanced at the blond and shook his head in exasperation.

"This isn't going anywhere," he said. "Mishima, let's go."

The man began to walk off but stopped as his sister said,

"Of course it ain't goin' anywhere! You don't even listen to others!"

The mophead glared over his shoulder. "Shujin Academy is a place where those with aspirations have come to learn," he said. "Unworthy students like yourselves have no right to be here but we are generous, so we gave you a chance. Now get with the program!"

"Yes sir," Mishima said.

And finally he left them, each step filled with confidence at both himself and the assurance that Mishima would follow.

Their blond friend grumbled. "That asshole... He's gonna pay for this!"

But Mishima said, "Don't bother."

"What?!"

"Proving that he's physically abusing us is...meaningless."

"It's not meaningless," Ren said, letting go of Aki.

"Yeah," she said. "Sure, maybe the police'll take forever, but that mophead's goin' down as soon as he gets exposed."

Then Mishima, blank and resigned, said, "Everyone knows."

And Ren lost his breath.

"What...?"

"Everyone...?"

The bruised boy nodded. "The principal, our parents... They all know and they all keep quiet about it."

"This has gotta be a joke..." Ryuji said.

"...Don't be a pain. You don't understand what I'm going through."

Flashes of the distant past flitted through his eyes and Ren's rage boiled, remembering the pain and suffering of both himself and his father.

But then Mishima said, pain filling every word,

"Shouldn't you of all people know that nothings gonna help?!"

And just as sudden as it flared, Ren's temper cooled, now remembering his helplessness and his father's wish to help his mother. Meanwhile, Ryuji flinched as Mishima left as fast as his injured body could let him and Ren watched him, even after he was gone. But then Aki said with concern,

"Ryuji..."

And he saw the blond staring at ground in shame and guilt.

"Damn it..."

Damn it indeed. If everyone knew, that would explain how the abuse has been easily covered up. After all, if everyone involved was "fine" with treatment, it can't be reported. And just like Mishima, all the volleyball team members thought it pointless to speak up if not even the ones they were supposed to trust would listen.

"Are you gonna quit?" he said to Ryuji, worried for him.

He wouldn't blame him if he wanted to stop.

But, as he hoped, the blond said, his passion returning, "I ain't givin up."

However, Aki then said, "But what are we gonna do?"

And once more, silence returned. Ren tried to rack his brain for other ideas, but none would come, none, except the one Ryuji said he would do.

"I'll try one more time to persuade the other guys. That's...all I can do."

With heavy steps and burdened breath, Ryuji left them, likely getting his stuff from his desk and locker. When he was gone, his sister said,

"What are we going to do now, Big Bro?"

"Like Ryuji said: we keep trying. That's all we can do."

(A)​

She and Ren had been silent since they left school. Neither of them wanted to believe it the teachers and parents were letting this happen. It was like giant punch to the face, not only because it was reality, but also because of being reminded of how harsh it could get. Though she did end up noticing, and appreciating, that when they came back, Sakura-san seemed to have noticed their mood as he said nothing more than a good-bye and a reminder to close up. As such, dinner and preparing for bed was a quick affair...

...and they jumped when their phones buzzed.

"Probably Ryuji," she said.

And she was right.

Ryuji: Hey this don't make any sense.

She looked to her brother, seeing if he had a guess as to what the blond was talking about, but he shrugged.

Ren: What doesn't make sense?

Akira: Yeah, a lot of things don't make sense.

Ryuji: The principal and even the parents know about the abuse.
Ryuji: Why ain't anyone speaking up about it?!

Oh. That. Well she agreed with him on that but that didn't answer the question.

Ren: They're afraid of Kamoshida.

Akira: Or they they don't care it's happening.

She felt her brother's concerned gaze on her but she ignored it. Yes, she was upset, and she was just saying that because she was upset, but damn it, it could be true and she wanted to punch everyone involved.

Their blond friend, though, was surprisingly astute.

Ryuji: That can't be the only thing keeping the principal and the parents quiet though.

That...was also true. There was no way none of the teachers or parents care. That was like saying all people were terrible. She chuckled and smiled at her idiocy.

Akira: Yeah, good point.
Akira: Thanks for that.

Akira glanced to see Ren also smiling, no doubt glad she was feeling at least a little better.

Ryuji: Uh...you're welcome?

Ren: But still, what could keep them all quiet?

Akira: Well Kamoshida's basically why the volleyball team's famous, right? It could be that.

Ryuji: That still don't give him the right to do whatever the hell he wants!
Ryuji: He's beating up kids and all they're allowed to do is endure.

Now she really was glad for Ryuji.

Akira: Took the words right out of my mouth.

Ren: Likewise.

Ryuji: Not only that, that follower don't seem to give a shit about any of it...

Once again, she gave an inquisitive look to her brother. This time he was somber as he nodded to her unvoiced question.

Ren: Do you mean Takamaki?

Akira yelped as her screen then showed "Mom" and her ringtone played. She groaned at the unexpected jump scare and sighed at her memory.

"I forgot she was gonna call today..." she said, remembering that Mom was going to check on them a couple days after the first day of school.

"Oh right. I forgot," Ren said.

He typed something then put his phone away before he took a seat beside her on her bed. With that, she took a deep breath to compose herself and said,

"Hey Mom! How are you?"

"Oh, same old, same old. Your father's fine too," she said. "How about you? How's school been?"

"It's..." She looked away.

She should say something, but what could she say? That the school was shit? That would worry Mom more than she had been when they left. That the school was great? She couldn't bring herself to lie about that...not when that mophead was doing horrible things.

"We had some trouble settling in but we're fine," Ren said. "We even made a friend."

Akira gave him a grateful smile, which he returned with a sad and sympathetic one.

"Oh really? That's good... I was worried for you but if you already made a friend, then I don't have to worry."

Now she was sure she wouldn't tell her. She was troubled as is about her two children being forced to be so far away.

"Yeah, I know right?" she said. "He's pretty nice. Though he's a bit hotheaded."

"Like Aki," her brother said with a smirk.

"Hey!"

Of course, they laughed at the truth of it and the conversation was light, but brief, as there wasn't much to tell her in the first place...well, things that weren't unbelievable or worrying that is.

"So, talk to you later Mom?" she said.

"Okay okay. Call you tomorrow?"

"Mom..." Akira groaned in a way only a complaining child to their parent would do.

Thankfully, Ren, once again, saved the day.

"How about every Saturday night?" he said. "So we can catch up however long we want since the next day is Sunday." He paused. "Well, unless of course we're going out with friends on Sunday."

"Hmm...okay. I can agree to that. I'll tell your father when he gets back."

"See you Saturday then."

"Good night Mom!"

"Good night, Mama."

Akira imagined her mom smiling as she said, "All right, good night you two. Good luck at school!"

With that, the call ended and Akira sighed. As ironic as her mother's mood was, they were were going to need all the luck they could get.

{R}​

Ren sighed.

What were they going to do?

That questioned had repeated itself the moment Ren stepped into the school. It was clear from their last conversations that they would eventually hit a wall with their question. What to do then? True, it wasn't their business but... Memories of shouting that rivaled screeching chalk, batterings that left his father sore all over and tears that ran even though he tried to stop them only made him want to end their suffering all the more, especially with Mishima's words.

"Don't be a pain. You don't understand what I'm going through."

Ren sighed, his gaze on the blackboard but not seeing it. He really should be listening to class but that was all he could think of. Not to mention... He glanced at the girl in front of him.

He also worried for Takamaki. He felt she must not have it easy, not with there being just as many rumors of her as there was of him and his sister and her being a "hafu", just like Aki. And even if it was true that she was dating the teacher, which he doubted, there was just as good of a chance that she had a reason to not speak up about abuse. The why, though, he couldn't guess...

His phone vibrated. Ren's heart clenched as he discretely checked it, scared something happened to Aki. To his immense sigh of relief, it was just Ryuji.

Ryuji: So about witnesses...

Akira: Da hel?! Y u txt in class?!

Ren: Agreed.

Ryuji: What'd you mean?
Ryuji: And why's Akira talking like that?

Akira: so it quik idiot cuz we r in CLASS!

Ryuji: C'mon. It's not like nobody'll notice.

Akira: Now we r screwed.

It was hard to maintain his bored look, even if he agreed with it. So he did what any good big brother would do...and annoyed the hell out of her.

Ren: Oh don't be so pessimistic. We'll be completely fine.

Akira: UR MAKIN IT WORSE!

Ryuji: Uh...anyways...
Ryuji: I was thinking of trying to get something outta Takamaki.

Ren frowned.

Ren: But she's not on the team.

Akira: And you said yourself that Kamoshida's "doin' stuff behind her back" so I doubt she knows anyway.

Ryuji: Just hear me out.

Akira: All right.

Ren: Okay.

Ryuji: You know how we couldn't get a thing outta the volleyball team?
Ryuji: I figured it'd be a good idea to talk to someone who knows them.

Akira: Huh. That's actually a pretty good idea.

Ryuji: See?

Ren: But what does this have to do with Takamaki?

Ryuji: Takamaki's BFFs with a starter. A girl named Suzui.

Unable to contain his surprise, Ren briefly glanced at her.

Akira: Wait really?

Ryuji: Yeah. I tried talkin' to the girl during the break, but I got nothing.

Akira: Why am I not surprised?

Ryuji: That's why we should have Takamaki talk to her.

Ren: I'm not sure it'll work.

Akira: Yeah. I mean, she DID tell us to stop yesterday and all.

Ryuji: Oh yeah... I guess it'd be hard to get her to help us...
Ryuji: Sorry, let me see what else I can come up with.

With that cue, Ren knew Ryuji stopped chatting. However, he got another notification for another thread, this time from Aki.

Akira: What you think?

Well, the points were already made about Ryuji's plan. But...

Ren: We should try.

Akira: Takamaki or Suzui?

He glanced at the girl once again, remembering their interactions so far, especially where she poured her heart out.

Ren: Suzui.

Akira: Okay.
Akira: But how we gonna find her tho?

Ren: Look for bruises.
Ren: Meet me like usual.

Akira: Roger.

(A)​

Akira gritted her teeth.

They had searched for Suzui-san, checking for bruises, but it was not just one girl they found with bruises, or two, but several, and none of them were even Suzui-san. With each one they spoke to, Akira felt her body tense more as she tried to not scream at the injustice. The last thing they needed was more obstacles to their "investigation" and she didn't want to be one of them.

Especially since they couldn't seem to find Suzui-san anywhere. Akira and Ren had just about given up and told Ryuji to meet them up at the courtyard where the vending machines were...when there was a girl standing before the door to the area, holding a phone and covered in bruises. Akira glanced at her brother who shared her hopeful look before they walked up to her.

"Excuse me?" Ren said.

"What?" the girl said, staring at them before she looked around. "Oh, I'm in the way, aren't I...?" She put her phone away as she faced them properly. "Sorry."

"It's fine," Akira said.

"We were just wondering if you are Suzui-san."

"Huh? Um, yes, I am," she said, once again taken aback. "Did you need something?"

"We...wanted to ask about your bruises."

"Uh, that's..."

Hesitation. That wasn't good.

They were about to speak and hoping to persuade her to talk when Suzui-san turned thoughtful and said,

"Wait, neither of you look familiar... Could you be the new transfer students? Is one of you in class 2-D?"

Akira held back a sigh as she nodded. Of course she changed subjects and brought up their reputation. No one cared about them because of that, worried they would turn hostile not too long after talking to them, if not immediately... Meanwhile, her brother deflated and nodded as well, losing any hope of getting anything out of her and expecting her to become hostile.

To the contrary though, Suzui-san said,

"Um...this might not be any of my business, but don't let any of those rumors get to you, okay?"

Akira couldn't help but be stunned. She shared a look with her brother who matched her expression. But that quickly changed to grateful smiles.

"Yeah, we know," she said. "But thanks for that."

"Thank you as well," Ren said, curling a hair.

The volleyball girl returned their smiles and said, "Good. That would be for the best. I'd hate to see you down because of them."

"Why do you say that?" Ren said, curious.

The girl glanced away, her cheer gone as she said, "My best friend is often misunderstood too, all because of her looks. So I know rumors can exaggerate a lot."

"... Including the ones involving Kamoshida?"

It was brief, but Suzui-san flinched.

"Ah sorry, I didn't mean to drag on like this..." Then she said, "Anyways, I have to go to practice. I'll see you around."

"Wha—hey wait!" she said, reaching for her.

But as expected of an athlete, she was quick in disappearing down the hallway and out of her grasp. Akira groaned.

"Damn it... We got nothin' from her either..."

"Unfortunately..."

Another groan. "Damn it."

"Let's just meet up with Ryuji," he said, turning to the doors.

"Yeah. I hope he was a little luckier than us with ideas..."

As Akira thought, their friend was there waiting for them with a frown on his face, tapping his foot in irritation.

"Did you find someone?" her brother said.

Ryuji's frown deepened. "Is that what it looks like?"

Slam!

Akira yelped and Ren jumped as the punk punched the vending machine.

"Watch it!" Akira said.

"Argh! But I can't stand it!" he said. "All of 'em keep saying the same shit Mishima was talkin' about!"

Akira frowned. "So you were talkin' to the volleyball members too, huh?"

"Yeah. You too?"

Ren nodded. "We spoke with some of the female volleyball team, including Suzui-san. They said the same thing as Mishima-san."

The blond screamed in frustration. "Damn it! Kamoshida had to have told 'em somethin'!" he said. "At this rate...we're gonna have to go to him directly."

Akira shook her head. "There's no point," she said.

Her brother nodded. "If the volleyball teams are denying it, how much more for the perpetrator himself?"

Ryuji let out a long and deep suffering sigh. "I know..." he said. Then he looked at them with determination. "But seriously, isn't there somethin' we can do? No way I'm gonna give in like this!"

Akira gritted. "Hey! I don't want to either! But..." There wasn't much else they could do, she left unsaid.

"C'mon. Can't you two think of anything?" he said, pleading.

"Well normally you're supposed to call the cops but..."

"We don't have any evidence or even a testimony from a victim," Ren said.

"Ugh. Yeah... And they'd never believe us if we told 'em about the castle..." Despite that, he still looked hopeful as he said, "You got any other ideas?"

The reminder of the Palace brought forth the memory of her outfit, and thus assassins, and thus a silly idea popped up.

Akira scoffed. "Sneak attack?" she said, mostly joking.

But then Ryuji said...

"I guess that'd be fine if we don't get caught...but we'd be in serious trouble if we did."

And Akira stared at him incredulously.

"I was kidding, Ryuji." she said. Then she narrowed her eyes. "Don't tell me you were actually thinkin' of doing it, were you?"

"What? No! Didn't I just say we'd be in big trouble if we mess up?!"

"That's not..." She sighed. "Never mind..."

The blond sighed as well. "So you got no other ideas...?"

As much as she didn't wish it was true... "Nope."

"Ugh... What do we do?"

"I...don't know..." Akira sighed.

It was then she realized her brother hadn't spoken until then as he said, as serious as he's ever been,

"Maybe we can do something to the king."

"Huh? The king?" she said, curious, until she remembered. "You don't mean..."

"You mean that other world's Kamoshida?" Ryuji said for her. "I didn't think of that but...is there any meaning to—"

But then someone said,

"I finally found you..."

"Hmm? You say somethin'?" Ryuji said.

She and Ren shook their heads just as a black tuxedo cat jumped onto the table in front of them.

Author's Note(s): Yes I know the class 3-C student is just outside his class in the game but that Haru cameo just popped up in my head outta nowhere as I was writing, okay? I had to add it. Especially since Haru needs all the screentime she can get.
 
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TheCharredDragon

One world, one love, shadows of mass destruction
Warning(s): suicide attempt and implied off-screen rape.

Chapter 8: Breaking Point

(A)​

"Don't think you can get away with not paying me back for helping you," a familiar high pitched and youthful voice said.

"That voice...is that you Morgana?!" Ryuji said.

Reasonably, the now-an-actual cat was vexed.

"How dare you, up and leaving me the other day!" it said.

The blond's eyes widened. "The cat's talkin?!"

And, just like before, Morgana said, "I am not a cat! This is just what happened when I came to this world."

What kind of logic was that?

"That just means you're a cat right now, Morgana, and you used to be human," she said.

But that just made the "not-cat" say, "All the more reason to not call me a cat!"

"Huh? Wait? You're hearin' this too?"

"Uh, yeah," she said to the blond punk.

Ren however...

"Meow."

Akira tried, and failed, to muffle her snicker.

"This is no time to be jokin' around!" Ryuji said.

That was true. They still had Kamoshida to deal with.

"All right, all right, if you say so," she said, though she still kept her grin.

Ren, on the other hand, put up his neutral face and said, "Sorry. Couldn't help it."

She was a bit worried about the shift but then the not-cat said,

"Honestly. It was a lot of trouble finding you three."

And Ren's voice gained an edge as he said, "Trouble?"

Ryuji, however, said, "Wait...you came to our world? Does that mean you've got a phone?"

Ren stared. Akira facepalmed.

"Does it look like it's got a phone?" she said, unable to rid the sarcasm in her tone.

"What? How else would it come here?" the blond said, annoyed.

And as if Morgana didn't complain enough, then "it" said, "Hey! Don't just call me an 'it'! I might not be a cat, but I'm not just a 'thing' either!"

"Hey! It's not like we know if you're a guy or a girl! Your name's a girl but you act like a guy!"

"What?! I act like a guy because I am one!" "he" said. Then he shook his head. "And here I thought you were quicker to catch on things than Ryuji."

A vein snapped.

"Why you little...!"

She stepped forward to thrash the stupid cat.

But then Ren said,

"That's enough."

And she stopped and looked at him.

"We're all upset. So let's take a deep breath and apologize."

She flinched, realizing what she almost did. She frowned and put her hands in her pockets. Damn it. She almost went ballistic again.

"Sorry," she said, giving a bow to Ryuji. "I shouldn't have made fun of you."

"Uh, hey, it's fine," the blond said. "I'm sorry too. I shouldn't have made a big deal over a joke."

They were quiet for a moment, waiting for one more to speak. But when no more was said, they looked to the "not-cat", who jumped at the sudden attention.

"W-Well, I'll admit, as much as I am still annoyed at you all for leaving me yesterday...I'm sorry as well." Then he said, "But only because it was ungentlemanly of me to cause an argument over something so minor, got it?"

Akira rolled her eyes. How were they supposed to not think of him as a cat when he acted like one?

Still, she said, "Yeah yeah, whatever you say."

"Good. Now that we have that settled..." His unamused look returned as he said to the not-cat, "I believe we were wondering about how you got out of that world, Morgana."

"Yeah, seriously," Ryuji said. "How'd you get here without a phone?"

"Hmph, you don't need one when you're at my level," the not-cat said.

She said, "So you got out with your own power?"

"Yup," he said. "Though I did get pretty lost making my escape though..."

"How did you get lost? The school is the castle, isn't it?" Ren said, colder. "Wouldn't you just end up where the school is?"

The not-cat shook his head. "That's not how it works. You can only leave where you entered and I entered far away from the Palace. So when I came back to this world, I had to find the school."

"Oh yeah," she said, remembering their first Palace trip. "Didn't we pop up not far from school the first time?"

"You're right..." her brother said. "I had my phone out before we even stepped foot at the school gates."

"Oh yeah... But wait...if you're in the real world...why can you talk?! You're a cat!"

A vein almost seemed to bulge on Morgana's forehead. "How should I know?!"

Her brother was quick to point out, that slight edge still there, "You're the one who knows about the other world."

"Uh, well... That doesn't mean I know everything! Do you know everything about your world?!"

Akira opened her mouth to protest, especially with that attitude of his, until his words settled in...

"Hmm. Good point," Akira said.

Her brother didn't look the same though.

But still, he said, "Very well." Before he asked, "Then why are you here?"

The not-cat smirked. "You guys are having a rough time of this, hm? I heard you mention something about witnesses."

Akira pouted. Thanks for the reminder...

Ryuji eloquently said, "Oh shuddup."

And her brother's gaze now turned to steel.

"And?" he said.

"You know...I could tell you a thing or two about what to do about Kamoshida."

What? Kill him with your cuteness? Akira thought as she gave the not-cat a glare, tempted to say it aloud. But she didn't want another argument to pop up so soon, especially since their bright blond friend nearly did so.

The tuxedo cat looked at her brother. "You were pretty close a moment ago."

But her efforts in restraint were in vain as Ryuji went and said, "God that condescendin' attitude. This thing's gotta be Morgana."

"You were still doubting me?!"

"Ryuji!" Akira and Ren said at the same time.

Instead of apologizing for his actions though, the blond said, "Ack! Quiet down!"

Akira was ready to snap back but then someone in the distance said,

"We really have to look for a cat at a busy time like this?"

Oh shit! They can hear us!

But then one replied, "I just heard a meow somewhere near here. Didn't you hear it?"

And yet another said, "Make sure to check every nook and cranny around."

Wait what?

"Meow?" Ryuji said.

"So only we can hear you talk?"

"Looks like it."

The blond punk groaned. "What the hell is goin' on?" he said, Akira imagining his brain overloading.

In hopes of easing it, she said, "Well we're the only ones who went to that world, so that's probably why we can hear him."

Ren hummed in agreement.

The blonde just groaned then said, "Anyways, what you were sayin' earlier... Is it for real?"

Morgana seemed to mumble something, but from his disgruntled as hell expression, it was probably a good thing they didn't hear it. It was likely an insult at Ryuji.

"Hey, tell us more."

But Ren then said, "We should talk somewhere else."

Akira tensed and frantically checked around the area. Thankfully there were no other teachers or disciplinary committee members...for now.

"Oh right. This probably ain't the best place..."

"Yeah. They could come back," Akira said.

"Then let's go to the roof then," Ryuji said.

She and her brother looked at him dubiously. "Isn't it supposed to be locked?"

"Trust me. We can go there," he said. Then he grabbed the not-cat, who sqeauled as the scruff of his neck was pulled. "Hey stick him in your bag for now! He should just be small enough to small enough to fit."

Ren was ready to protest, but then he glanced to the side, no doubt spotting someone coming their way, before he sighed and, quick and precise, took Morgana and put him in his bag.

"Hey! How dare you treat me like—" the non-feline said before he got cut off.

With that, they followed Ryuji up to the rooftop and, just as he implied, the door was still unlocked.

"Seriously?" she said, staring at the lock. "Who's keepin' it unlocked?"

The blond shrugged. "I don't know. It just is. It's kinda an open secret, I guess? No one comes here unless they want trouble."

Well that was fitting. They would get in huge trouble with Kamoshida should he find out what they were doing.

Akira turned her attention to her brother as the boyish voice of Morgana said while he was pulled out,

"Don't be rough with me!"

Ren frowned. "Only because you're squirming."

The blond however said, "Enough of that! You said you know how we can do something about Kamoshida, right?"

Only after he was put down on his feet did the non-feline thief answer. "It has to do with what this guy said earlier," he said, indicating Ren. "You need to attack his castle."

Ryuji frowned and his brows scrunched. "What do you mean?" he said, as Akira expected.

And so the not-cat explained that, though Kamoshida doesn't remember anything that occurs in the Palace, it was still deeply connected to him. So, if it was gone...all his "distorted desires" would disappear, and the man left behind would have to deal with the weight of his sins. He would wish to repent.

It was just what they needed.

But then Ren asked the most important question.

"So how do we get rid of the Palace?"

And the non-feline answered, "By stealing the Treasure held within."

Akira stared.

Ryuji stared.

Ren stared.

Why am I both surprised and not surprised? she thought.

"What do you mean by that?" her brother said.

But the not-cat dodged the question, insisting it was part of his "secret plan" and he wouldn't divulge it until they agreed. It was annoying, and not only that, Ren was hesitant to agree. But as Ryuji pointed out, they had no other options so they were fine with it. With those words, her brother acquiesced. Now that they were in agreement, they decided to start tomorrow. However, before they could head home, Morgana said,

"Oh right. There's one more thing I should tell you."

"One more thing?" she said.

Ren, however, narrowed his eyes while Ryuji said,

"What is it?"

And Morgana said, as if he was just talking about the weather, "If we erase a Palace, there is no doubt their distorted desires will be erased as well. But if all those yearnings were to vanish, they'd be no different than someone who's completely shut down. They might even die if not given proper care. So..."

"What?!" she said.

"They might die?!" Ryuji said, similarly wide-eyed.

They had just agreed to helping this stupid cat and only now he told them that this "change of heart" that could help the volleyball team could also kill that mophead?! True, she didn't like Kamoshida, but the last thing she wanted was him dead. That just... Akira shuddered. No.

Morgana said, still nonchalant, "Will you listen to everything I have to say first?"

And Akira snarled and said, "What more is there to say about 'oh hey, if we do this we might kill him'?!"

While Ryuji, his bluster gone for moment, said, "Yeah...their death would be our fault, right?"

"Aren't you determined enough to face those kinds of risks?" the cat said.

"No way," Akira said at the stupid black cat.

As she knew he would, Ren said, "I don't want to kill him."

And Ryuji, thankfully, said, "Yeah, me neither..."

But Morgana? He was actually disappointed, his ears drooping and all.

"Seesh... I come all this way and this is what I get..." he said. "It's not like anyone will ever find out..."

What.

The.

Hell.

"That's not the point!" she said, startling Ryuji. "If we do that, we'd be just like Kamoshida! Doing whatever the hell we want because no one'll catch us."

"Yeah! Exactly," the blond said.

And her brother nodded.

However, that didn't deter Morgana in the slightest and he said, "But isn't this your only option?"

And everyone turned silent. That was true. But...the possibility of killing him...

Could they live with it if it went downhill?

To her relief, Morgana didn't push them despite their previous agreement. He just said,

"I see you still need time to think. I'll come back later. Make sure you made your decision by then."

With that, the not-cat was gone the same way he left, quiet and fast, leaving behind three sombered teenagers trying to solve their problem. Well, two somber teenagers as Ryuji said,

"Aaaahg! Man, we're gettin' all worked up for nothin'... Damn it!"

And Akira couldn't do anything else but laugh at the broken mood.

"I'll try and see if I can figure out another way."

She and Ren nodded, her brother saying, "We'll try too."

"All right. C'mon, let's get outta here."

And so the three of them headed for the school exit. But on their way out, Akira heard the whispers around her. Plenty of them were about her and her brother, some of them even thinking they were only pretending to be nice only to lash out without warning. But a couple of them...were about the volleyball team, from their little "interrogation" on them to Kamoshida's "relationship" with Takamaki to how Suzui-san was the athlete's new "favorite".

"Oh yeah, some of the guys in my class were talkin' about that Suzui girl too," Ryuji said when they passed by some students discussing that. "Looks like rumors are goin' around 'bout her and Kamoshida."

"Guess that's another reason why we couldn't get her to talk."

"Indeed."

"Still...something about that doesn't seem right."

"What? Besides the fact the volleyball team's keepin' quiet?"

Ryuji shook his head. "No not that. I mean Takamaki and Suzui and Kamoshida. It's just impossible. I've known them since middle school. There's no way Kamoshida's their type, you know?"

"So...you're wonderin' how the rumors even started?"

"Yup."

"Oh." That was a good point. "When you put it that way, that is weird."

But that made Akira frown, remembering Kamoshida's Palace and Cognitive Takamaki. Could it be that the reason they're keeping quiet was because Takamaki was...? She shook her head. She didn't even want to finish that thought.

Besides, Ren said as they exited the school, "Let's leave that for now. We don't know if that will help us in any way."

"Yeah, you're right. I guess we'll get to it tomorrow." Their blond friend grinned and waved as he left and said, "See ya!"

"Bye Ryuji!"

"Good-bye Ryuji."

Akira took a deep breath in, then heaved a deep breath out. Ren chuckled beside her.

"Tired?" he said with a small smile.

"You bet I am..." She glanced at him with worry. "But seriously...what're we gonna do?"

Her brother mirrored her expression, not answering right away. That made her sigh again.

"We really don't have a choice, do we...?"

It wasn't like they had any better ideas.

"Let's...head home and rest. We'll think about it tomorrow, okay?"

Akira sighed for the third time in a row and nodded, following her brother as they boarded the train at Aoyoma-Itchome Station. Akira hated all of this. There was injustice being done, no one was doing anything about it and there was nothing they could do to change it. Well, nothing except a supernatural means that may or may not kill the culprit. Even if she didn't want to kill him, him dying was the worst possible outcome in her opinion.

How could he possibly repay for his crimes with his death?

Akira was pulled out of her thoughts when, not long after they reached Shibuya Station, she bumped into her brother.

"What the...?" she said, about to question him, but then she followed his gaze...

...and saw Takamaki on the phone.

"Will you please give it a rest? I told you, I'm not up for it," she said, her face the picture of tired. At least until she said, "Wait what?! That's not what you promised! And you call yourself a teacher?!"

Well that just narrowed the suspects of who her caller was, though Akira already had a guess even before she said that.

Then Takamaki said, "This has nothing to do with Shiho!"

And, unfortunately, her guess was ninety-nine percent right, which then bumped into a hundred as whatever the mophead said on the other end made the platinum blonde look like the world ended. Then she crouched down, curling in on herself when the call ended.

"Shiho's...starting position..."

There was no way they could ignore this.

Ren was the first to react.

"Are how okay?"

Unsurprisingly, the girl jumped straight up and stumbled back a bit.

"Uh, sorry. I didn't mean to surprise you."

Akira would've facepalmed over his manners had it been any other time. Instead, she stood by her brother and said,

"Seriously, you okay?"

"Wait... Were you listening?"

"Not on purpose," Ren said.

And she said, snappish, "Haven't you heard of privacy?"

Haven't you heard of public transportation? Akira nearly said, but held her tongue, especially as her brother said,

"Sorry."

Which she was grateful for because as soon as Ren said that, the twin tailed blonde was regretful.

"No, I was out of line," she said. "Sorry."

Akira let out a hopefully discrete sigh while her brother smiled, warm and comforting.

"It's okay," he said.

Despite that, it was clear she was still uncomfortable as she shuffled her feet.

"So...how much did you hear?"

Akira glanced at Ren, telling him to handle it, and he nodded.

He said, "Something about a friend."

"Shiho..." The blonde shook her head. "It's nothing at all," she said. "Nothing..."

But it was certainly nothing if she then wiped her eyes of unshed tears...

...before running off.

They stared.

Then they ran.

They did their best to avoid people, giving swift apologies to the few they didn't, as they gave chase. For a second, Akira thought they lost her as they arrived in the Shibuya underground, but Ren walked away from her and she spotted the twin tailed girl standing not far from a drink stand. They were quiet as they stood near the crying girl. It didn't take long for her to notice their presence and when she did, she tried, in vain, to rid of her tears as she said,

"Stop following me... Just leave me alone!"

Akira flinched but still said,

"No way."

While her brother said, "I can't."

That did nothing to calm her, instead it added confusion to her broken expression.

"Why... Why do you keep worrying about me?" she said, sobbing at the end.

"You're crying," Ren said, as if that explained everything.

Well, it made sense to her, but understandably it wasn't enough for the girl.

"What the heck...? I really don't get you..."

Akira smiled sadly behind her mask. She could only imagine why Takamaki found kindness from strangers, well, strange. No doubt Ren thought the same from his brief frown, but he quickly slipped a comforting smile as he said.

"Let's go somewhere safe."

The girl didn't say anything as she eyed them warily. In hopes of easing her, Akira added,

"Don't you wanna sit down? You have been runnin' and all."

Thankfully that was enough for her to agree, though the girl sighed, resigned to her fate. Akira didn't like that, but right now she was hurt and they wanted to help. And so they found themselves seated at a Big Bang Burger joint in Shibuya, to her chagrin but she wouldn't complain. The girl before them was still upset, having been silent since they arrived. Ren, of course, had no problems with that and kept up a patient gaze. Akira couldn't help but shift every once in a while, but she kept her mouth shut and did nothing else, though tempted to read Phantom of the Opera while waiting.

Then Takamaki said, "I don't have anything to talk about with you." She glanced away. "It was just an argument..."

With a few glances and gestures, she had Ren continue leading the conversation so she just watched the exchange.

He started off with, "Was it a teacher?"

She was astonished before she gave a self-deprecating smile. "You heard every last word then..."

"Sorry."

"It's fine," she said, her smile more genuine before it disappeared with her comtemplating. Eventually, she decided to continue. "You heard the rumors...haven't you?"

"Depends. Which ones?"

"The ones about Mr. Kamoshida..."

Her brother nodded with sad realization, Akira much the same as she also nodded.

"Everyone says we're 'getting it on', but...that's so not true... That was him on the other line... I avoided giving him my number...for the longest time..."

With each word that spilled from her mouth, the more her tears threatened to follow.

"He told me to go to his place after this..."

Akira gritted her teeth, ignoring the brief shudder at Kamoshida's "request". Her brother beside her looked the picture of calm but Akira knew his polite mask slipped on as he gripped his pants, clenching his hands into fists.

"Then don't go," he said, not letting any of that anger seep into his voice.

"But...he said if I turn him down, he'd take my friend off as a regular on the team..." she said, crushing a tissue in her hand.

Are you kidding me?! No, wait, of course... Why wouldn't he use blackmail?

"Off the team?"

Takamaki nodded. "Shiho... Shiho loves volleyball," she said. "So I've been telling myself this is all for Shiho's sake..."

"But...?" her brother said, voice soft.

"I can't take it anymore..." With that, the dam broke as she cried. "I've had enought of this! I hate him! But still...Shiho's my best friend...she's all I have left in that sorry excuse of a school...!" Takamaki sobbed, trying to control her tears. "Tell me...what should I do...?"

And both she and Ren stayed silent, unable to say anything.

What could they say in the first place?

They weren't even sure if they would try stealing Kamoshida's "Treasure".

As it died down though she sajd, "Sorry... I shouldn't have asked..." Then, more softly, "It's not your problem..."

"It's okay. We asked," Ren said to reassure her.

It seemed that it was only then did she realize she poured her heart out to them, or at least a part of it, as she said,

"What... What am I saying...? I've barely even talked to you before..."

"Sorry," her brother said again.

Akira was both against and agreeing with that sorry. They were strangers and her problems were private, but still, she wanted to help damn it, just as much as Ren did.

The twin tailed blonde shook her head. "No... It's all my fault."

Then Ren said, "No, it's not. It's ours. We did ask."

The girl didn't seem to know how to take that as she sniffled, almost scrutinizing them now.

"... You're so weird. Usually everyone just ignores me."

Akira scoffed, unable to help but say with some bitterness, "Well if bein' a weirdo means we help people, then I'm fine with that."

Ren nodded, his smile and chuckle hollow from bitterness.

"... You know...I've heard people talk about you two, saying you're actually pretty bad people."

Akira was ready to snap at the sudden attitude were it not for her next words.

"But...I just don't see it."

Akira relaxed, letting out a breath she didn't realize she held. Her brother, however...

"Oh I'm bad to the bone."

Now she wasn't amused. Ren, of course, returned it with a slight smirk.

At least it got a small smile from Takamaki, who said, "Is that supposed to be a joke?"

"I'm completely serious," her brother said, keeping up his smugness.

Akira rolled her eyes but grinned nonetheless. "Sure you are."

The girl sitting before them actually giggled. Akira was glad she felt well enough to laugh.

And then she said, "I thought so. I kinda had a feeling they were all just exaggerations."

Her brother kept up his light tone as he said, "Oh? Why?"

But that left him, and the twintailed blonde, as she said, her gaze soft and compassionate,

"Well... You seemed lonely—almost like you didn't belong anywhere..."

Akira couldn't help herself scoff. That was true, but...

"It's not so bad. I've got Big Bro with me."

"That's right. While you have your best friend."

She blinked, as if she had only realized something so obvious now, before she laughed in disbelief. When she stopped, though it was tinged with sadness, there was at least a genuine smile on her face once more.

"When you put it that way, yeah, we're the same in that regard." Then she said, "Maybe that's why it was so easy to talk to you."

She and Ren both smiled.

"I'm just glad to help. Even if it's a little," her brother said.

"Me too," she said.

They settled into silence after that, just letting it hang until Takamaki decided to speak once again. Understansably, though she had felt better earlier, she was wistful as she thought out loud,

"Is there really no way for me to help Shiho?" She sighed. "I wish he'd just change his mind... Like, forget about me and everything..." She scoffed, smile now self-deprecating. "As if something like that would ever happen..."

Usually that was what Akira would call "tempting fate", but in this case, with what Morgana offered to them earlier...

Akira decided.

"It could happen."

She could feel Ren's frown towards her, but she ignored it in favor of focusing on Takamaki, who was taken aback.

"I wasn't asking for a serious response."

Akira was about to speak, but her brother said,

"Oh she's completely serious."

Had it been any other time, she would've assumed he was keeping up a joke, but she snapped towards him to see, as she guessed, his critical gaze. But she wouldn't shrink from it, wondering why he was making it seem like she was joking when she wasn't. On the bright side, it did make Takamaki laugh once more, reminding her she was still there, so she put off questioning him on it...for now.

"Well either way, I do feel a bit better now," the twin-tailed blonde said. "So...I'm gonna head home."

Takamaki stood up, took her bag and the water they got for her. Before she left though, it was her turn to give a hard stare as she said, tone just as grave,

"Don't tell anyone what I told you, okay? I'll try and think of a way to persuade Kamoshida."

On one hand, that meant a chance at stopping him without possibly accidentally killing him and that was great, but on the other hand...how much of a chance that had to work?

Good thing Ren spoke for them and said,

"Okay."

"Thanks," she said and left.

They watched her go, neither of them saying anything. It was only when Akira was sure Takamaki was gone did she say,

"Think it'll work?"

"I... I don't know," he said. "But I want to believe in her. If she can somehow convince Kamoshida, we won't risk the chance of, you know..."

Of course. That made sense. Well, if that was the case...

"So we won't try Morgana's suggestion then?"

Her brother nodded. "For now. It'll be our last resort."

Akira couldn't help but chuckle. "Last resort huh?" she said, smiling wryly. "Well let's hope we don't have to use it."

Ren nodded.

But they jumped as her phone shook. She picked it up, only to groan.

"Great. Only fifteen minutes until my meds..."

Her brother chuckled at her annoyance. "Shall we have dinner here then?"

"Blech..." She was already imagining the weird taste of cheese with meat and vegetables. But still she said, "Yeah. Sure. We're here already anyway."

"I can just take all the cheese if you want," Ren said with a smirk.

She glared. "Not if you're gonna be smug about it."

"Well then I guess you're just going have to suck it up..." he said, voice sing-song.

She wanted to slap him so much, but the lingering weird taste that remained in her memory was already bad enough...

"Fine... But I'm ordering two then!"

Dinner wasn't as bad as it could've been thanks to that. But she still couldn't shake off that bad feeling she had about Takamaki's plan. She really hoped they wouldn't have to do their last resort.

{R}​

"Takamaki-san...?" Ren said as he took his seat.

The girl jumped in her seat before she turned to him and said, "Huh?"

"Any luck?" he said, hopeful despite the chances.

Takamaki pouted for a moment but then realized what he meant.

"Oh, you mean...what I said yesterday?"

He nodded.

The platinum blonde frowned and Ren feared she wouldn't answer. But she said,

"I...haven't tried yet."

"Oh."

Well, it wasn't like he didn't expect it, but still...the sooner she tried, the better.

He was pulled from his thoughts as she said,

"Why?"

"Why...what?"

"Why do you ask?"

"I'm worried for you. And your friend," he said, somewhat saddened that she still found his worry weird. "I want to help you both."

Even more so as she was astonished once again, staring at him slack jawed and wide eyed.

He couldn't stop himself from pouting. "Is it really that weird?"

For whatever reason, that made her cover mouth as she giggled. Before he could ask what that was about, she stopped, showied her small smile and said,

"Maybe. But...it's not so bad. Thank you." She turned back to the chalkboard, Mr. Ushimaru finally arriving. "I'll let you know, okay?"

"All right."

Class went by uneventfully, just him taking notes on the lessons. Well, at least until a familiar someone said,

"Have you made up your mind?"

Ren nearly fell off his seat when fur brushed against his hands and he flung them away from Morgana. Thankfully that didn't get the teacher's attention, which he defintely would've had he also shouted. And...the cat continued nonchalantly, as if it was completely normal for a cat to hide in the ten centimeter space for textbooks in a desk.

"No amount of thinking will change your option. You'd be better off just listening to me."

He glared.

"Don't. Talk."

But it was too late.

"Huh? Did I just hear a cat now?"

"M-M-Meow!"

Oh you've got to be... There was no other choice. Ren put all of his anger towards the cat into his glare, giving one to each and everyone in the class who wasn't Takamaki. Thanks to his reputation, they all were terrified and pretended to be mystified as to the source of the meowing, looking this way and that.

"I wonder if the rumored cat is nearby..." Mr. Ushimaru said, searching as well. At least until he noticed the class, well, not paying attention. "Settle down class! We're in the middle of an important lecture!"

Everyone turned to the teacher, though Takamaki merely glanced, seemingly bored. Not that he blamed her. Social studies wasn't exactly an exciting subject to most and Mr. Ushimaru certainly didn't attempt to make it interesting for them.

But as if his heart needed even more of a workout, his phone vibrated. It skipped a beat in worry for Aki until he guessed it was most likely Ryuji. As discretely as he could, he took it out and saw that, yes, he had guessed right once again.

Ryuji: It's no use... I can't think of any other way.

Akira: And you're telling us DURING class WHY?

Ryuji: Hey! I can't concentrate on that shit right now! I mean, what're we gonna do about Kamoshida?!
Ryuji: Do we just go with what that cat says?
Ryuji: Ugh, that damn furball...

Ren was inclined to agree with his friend as the furball said, "If only he knew I could see what he said..."

He was ready to tell the stupid cat off for talking again when a classmate said,

"Hey... What's that?!"

Of course their social studies teachers said, "Enough! This is a classroom!"

"Wait... She's gonna jump!"

Ren froze.

Next thing he knew, Morgana complained about jostling his desk and he was at the window in the hallway. There, where he, Aki and Ryuji had been yesterday, stood Suzui-san on the roof, standing on the other side of the fence that stopped anyone from falling off.

He ran.

He pushed past students, skipped steps on the stairs, and ignored the protests of his muscles.

He had to reach her.

He had to help her.

He had to save her.

But just as he tackled the door to the roof...

"No!"

...he saw her fall.

Despite that, he ran to the fence, wanting, hoping, wishing, to catch her.

But instead he saw her body splat on the ground, limbs splayed, face down, and blood all around her.

"No..."

He collapsed on his knees, his thoat choking on a sob and tears threatening to burst. He hadn't been fast enough. No, he hadn't been decisive enough. The abuse had been too much for her. He had been too late. He didn't reach her. He didn't help her. He didn't save her. She was dead. All because he had been worried about killing Kamoshida.

It was all his fault. It was all his fault. It was all his fault. It was all his fault. It was all his fault. It was all his fault. It was all his fault. It was all his fault. It was all his fault.

It was all his fault.

"Big Bro...?"

Ren gasped and turned to see his sister, concern splattered on her face as her eyes gleamed from held back tears.

"Come on," she said, shaking his shoulder. "Let's check on her."

Ren swallowed and only then did he realize his own tears had wet his cheeks. He took off his fake glasses and wiped it away. He swallowed once more as he stood, putting on both his glasses and his mask as he said,

"All right."

Aki's concern worsened but she said nothing. Instead they made their way down. On the second floor, they met Ryuji and tried to reach the courtyard. However, in the time since he left the classroom, practically everyone had come out and now the way to the courtyard was blocked by a mass of students. He and Aki tried to get through, but when they made no progess, Ryuji said,

"C'mon, let's try through the practice building."

The amount of students there was still numerous, but it was less enough that, with their combined strength and delinquent reputation, they finally managed to reach the courtyard and through the crowd that formed there to see that the paramedics had arrived and put Suzui-san in a stretcher.

"Shiho!" Takamaki said amongst the crowd.

Ren stared at the prone girl. He couldn't tell whether she was breathing or not, especially with the blanket that covered her. And it certainly didn't help that the teachers shouted at the students to return to their classrooms. But not only did they go ignored, the students...took out their phones and recorded the sight like it was a show.

"What the hell's wrong with these people?!" their blond friend said.

Aki said, "Hey! Put those god damn phones away! If you ain't gonna help, get outta here!"

Those near them were startled, mumbling and unsure about the "delinquent", but those farther just ignored her, the sight of a suicide apparently much more fascinating. He moved, ready to give them a piece of his mind, when one of the paramedics ran up to the crowd and said,

"We need someone to go with her... Are there any teachers around?"

And he had to ask. "Is she alive?"

"Yes, but we need to go before she gets worse."

Relief flooded him and he heaved a sigh. But then a teacher he didn't recognize said,

"I-I'm not in charge of her class though."

"W-We should leave this Principal Kobayakawa..."

Ren was stunned. A student had nearly killed herself and they were doing nothing. It just... He hated it. How could anyone be so callous?

Thankfully Takamaki said to the paramedic, "I'll go."

And he said, "Please hurry."

Then he prepared to lift the stretcher with a colleague. Takamaki knelt beside her, seeming to speak to Suzui-san who was now conscious. Whatever she told Takamaki though, he couldn't hear as Aki had stomped and closed in on people, saying,

"Didn't you hear me?! I said get outta here! Does this look like a show to you?!"

She didn't have much success this time either, but people did back away from her in fear. However, Ren saw someone run off. He wasn't the only one to notice.

"Hey, is it just me or was Mishima actin' weird?" Ryuji said.

"He must know something."

"Then let's go."

Ryuji went ahead. Ren tapped on Aki, who was livid at first, until he gestured to follow their friend and left without waiting for her answer. As he hoped, she tailed him as they ran after the volleyball member. Unsurprisingly, the blond caught up and grabbed him by the wrist. Mishima cried out in pain, but Ryuji ignored it and dragged him to the lockers at the practice building's first floor.

"That hurts!" Mishima said when their friend finally let go.

"Then why were you runnin' like that?!" he said.

"I...didn't run."

Ryuji slammed his fist on a locker. "She jumped and tried to kill herself!"

His classmate cowered away. "L-Leave me alone..."

Aki growled and said, "Suzui-san almost died! She still could be dying! We ain't leavin' until you tell us somethin'!"

While he said, softer than either of them but just as serious, "Just tell us. We won't tell anyone you told us."

"Yeah," Ryuji said, surprisingly calm. "We ain't tryin' to bust you. We promise."

Thankfully, that was enough to convince him, regret all over his face.

"Suzui...She got called out by Mr. Kamoshida!"

Ren heart stopped a moment.

"Called...out...?" he said, dread building.

"What the hell does that mean?" Aki said, her slight tremble belying her harsh tone.

Mishima didn't look at any of them. "I was called by him a number of times too...to the teacher's room," he said. "It wasn't just me or Suzui. He'd call for someone if he was in a bad mood...and hit them."

"So the physical abuse was for real then..." Ryuji said.

Ren never thought he would be hopeful over rumors of physical abuse being true, but he was, because for a moment he thought that that was all Suzui-san went through.

But then Mishima said, "But yesterday, he called Suzui out of the blue. She didn't make any mistakes or anything... And yet, Mr. Kamoshida seemed really irritated that day. So it...must have been worse than usual."

And that hope was shot as he took a breath and steeled his features.

"He didn't...!"

Oh but he did. That much was clear from implications, more so for them after seeing his Palace...and after Takamaki refusing his "rendezvous".

"That son of a bitch!" their blond friend said...

...and ran off.

As well as Aki.

Ren's heart raced with panic.

"Wait!" he said and made to grab his sister.

But he barely missed and he cursed under his breath. He followed but found both of them already gone from sight. Ren cursed again and nearly did it a third time when Mishima suddenly said,

"I-I think Mr. Kamoshida's in the PE faculty office. It's on the second floor of here."

"Thanks," he said before he went off.

He had to be quick. He had not one, but two people with explosive tempers to deal with. Mishima, despite his state, was able to keep pace and Ren was just fast enough that he saw his sister and Ryuji get in the practice building's faculty office. So as he went in, he heard the former athlete saying,

"You bastard! What the hell did you do to her?!"

"What are you talking about?" Ren heard Kamoshida say once he got inside, uninterested.

"You know the hell what we're talkin' about, mophead!" Aki said, her eyes almost feral.

While Ryuji kicked one of the chairs and said, "Don't play dumb with us!"

The "teacher" turned and said, "That is enough!"

"Like what you did was 'enough'!" Aki said.

Then, before any of the four of them could speak, Mishima said,

"What you did...wasn't coaching..!"

He, Aki and Ryuji turned to him, astonished, but he was definitely happy that his classmate was speaking out. And not only that, they finally had someone who was willing to testify.

If Kamoshida's expression earlier wasn't angry, it most definitely was now.

"What did you say?" he said.

And Mishima didn't back down. "You...ordered me to call Suzui here..." he said. "I can only imagine what you did to her...!"

Aki smirked, also happy he was standing up. However, instead of worrying the athlete, he just shook his head like they were utter fools.

"You're going on and on about things that you have no proof of..." he said. "Basically, you're simply making these claims because you can't be a regular on the team?"

"That's not what this is about...!"

And a splash of reality woke them as he said, "Even if everything is exactly as you imagine, hypothetically speaking... What can you do? We just got a call from the hospital. Suzui is in a coma and her chances of recovery are slim... How can someone like that make a statement?" To add salt to the wound, the man said in mock-sympathy, "I hear there's no chance of her getting better... Ohhh, the poor girl."

Suzui-san was in a coma? No... That meant... Takamaki...

"No...that can't be..." Mishima said, devastated.

"You god damn...!" Ryuji said.

"You asshole...!" Aki said.

Both looked ready to punch him, but while his sister trembled in anger, it was Ryuji who got visibly ready as he took a stance.

Kamoshida focused on the former runner because of that.

"This, again?" he said. "Does this mean we need to have yet another case of 'self-defense'?"

"Shut up, you son of a bitch!" both Ryuji and Aki said, ready to punch.

Ren grabbed both before they could, stopping them mid-swing.

"Grr... Let me go, Big Bro!"

"Why're you stoppin' us...?!"

It took everything Ren had to stop them. It took everything to blank his face. It took everything he had to not lash out as well. It took everything he had to focus on keeping his sister and new friend safe and say,

"Don't let him get to you."

"But still!" Ryuji said, pulling himself out of his grip.

But he made no indication of making another attempt.

"Oh? You're stopping them? I'm surprised," Kamoshida said, genuine for once, but his smug face soon returned. "There's no need to hold back. Why not attack me?" He paused, as if only realizing the reality. "Ohhh, you caaan't." He laughed and Aki strained against his grip. "But of course you can't!"

Aki growled and Ren moved his hand to her shoulder, squeezing it in comfort and reminder. She relaxed, thankfully, but she still kept up her burning gaze on Kamoshida.

Though Ren didn't blame her for exploding again when Kamoshida said, as he took his seat again,

"Everyone present right now will be expelled. I will be reporting you in the next board meeting."

Ren stared.

Ryuji and Aki said, "What?!"

"You can't make a decision like that!"

"Yeah!" Aki said. "And why Mishima-san too?! He didn't do anything!"

"Hs threatened me too, so he's just as responsible."

"What?! Now you're just giving false charges!"

Ren gritted his teeth. Kamoshida narrowed his eyes. Ren moved to stand in front of his sister, fearing the man would lash out. But instead he said,

"Oh but I'm not. He may act like a victim, but he leaked your criminal records, didn't you, Mishima? It's all over the internet, correct? How terrible."

They all faced him, caught off guard.

"Mishima...?" Ryuji said.

"You're the one who did it?" Aki said.

"Why...?" Ren couldn't help but say.

Mishima, unable to take the weight of their gazes, sank to his knees, his face in agony from regret and shame.

"He told me to do it... I had no choice..."

Kamoshida scoffed. "To think you didn't know why I kept someone as talentless as you on the team..." he said. He turned away with a dismissive wave. "Now are we finished here? You're all expelled! You're done for: your futures are mine to take. Now get out of my sight."

Yet another reason to hate the man, as if they needed more. But there was no need to dwell on that. Ren helped Mishima up and said,

"Let's go."

Aki grumbled but said, looking utterly defeated, "All right..."

Meanwhile Ryuji said, absolutely frustrated, "Argh! Damn it! I can't believe this asshole's gonna get away with this...!"

And Kamoshida just ignored them, going about like he hadn't just nearly caused the death of one person, ruined the futures of four people, and made it a living hell for even more. He didn't care about any of the lives of others.

Ren made his choice.

"He'll eat his words."

Aki, of course, was perplexed before she slapped her forehead in annoyance for forgetting Morgana's offer. Ryuji was similarly confused for a moment as he said,

"Huh?" But then he too realized what he meant. "Oh right! We have that!"

Mishima looked at them curiously as he said, "'That'...?"

"Huh? Have you lost your minds?" Kamoshida said.

"Ryuji!" Aki said to the blond, whisper-shouting. "Don't just say stuff like that!"

"Oh crap," he said, sheepish.

Ren briefly put a finger over his own mouth and gave Mishima a significant gaze. Though it was clear he didn't fully understand, he knew it was important not to ask questions. With determined eyes, Mishima nodded and stopped leaning on him.

Thankfully, Kamoshida's arrogance was their saving grace as he scoffed again and said,

"You worthless kids aren't making any sense, but sure, go ahead and try. After all, you'll have plenty of time to kill until expulsion..."
 

TheCharredDragon

One world, one love, shadows of mass destruction
Chapter 9: Don't Say the Scottish Play

{R}​

"We'll meet at the couryard," Ren said as soon as he took his seat.

"Oh?" Morgana said, flicking his tail. "Have you made your decision then?"

"Yes. Now keep quiet until then please."

"All right then." The non-feline yawned then took a nap.

Ren stared at the now empty seat in front of him. He felt terrible for Suzui-san jumping off the roof. He could only imagine what it was like for Takamaki right now. Did she also blame herself for it? For refusing Kamoshida and thus enraging the man to go after her best friend? He wished he hadn't been so indecisive. Maybe he could've prevented her attempted suicide if they dealt with him sooner...

The bell rung to signal the end of classes and Ren stuffed Morgana in his bag. He ignored his complaints as he made his way to the courtyard, where Aki and Ryuji were waiting for him. Now, this time, he was more careful when deposited Morgana on the table.

"Ugh. Be more careful when you're handling me next time."

"Never mind that," Ryuji said. "We gotta go to Kamoshida's Palace and kick his ass!"

"We're not beating him up, we're simply going to steal his distorted desires."

Aki grumbled. "Yeah, yeah, whatever! All that matters is that he'll face justice for what he's done."

"So I assume that you will go through with this then? Even with the chance of a mental shutdown?" Morgana said, making sure once again.

Ren was annoyed at the repeated confirmation, but considering they had backed out for a moment, he couldn't blame him.

So he nodded and said, "Yes."

Aki said, "Uh huh. Someone almost died 'cause of him. She won't be the last if this keeps up."

"Yeah, I don't give a rat's ass on what happens to him," Ryuji said.

Ren felt a twinge of worry but he ignored it. Kamoshida lost all sympathy. He shouldn't worry if he lives.

"Good," Morgana said. "First, before we start, we should go somewhere secluded but nearby the school so that no one will see us enter the Palace. We will draw suspicion if they notice."

"There's that alleyway in front of the school," Aki said. "Unless you're lookin' straight at it, I doubt anyone would notice."

"Will that suffice?" Ren said.

"Hmm. You want to do this right now, right?" Morgana said. They all nodded. "Then it will have to do for now."

"All right then, let's go," Aki said, beginning to leave.

Morgana followed her, but then Ryuji stopped and said,

"Oh hey, I almost forgot. Is takin' down a Palace hard?"

That was a good point. Ren almost wished he was the one who asked such an important question.

Especially considering that the non-feline said, "Hmm. I don't know for sure, but it shouldn't be too hard with my skills and our current manpower."

Ren leveled a stern gaze at him.

"You're not sure?" he said.

"You've tried it before, right?" Ryuji said.

And Morgana said, nonchalant tone back again, "When did I ever say that?"

A beat.

"WHAT?!" both Ryuji and Aki said.

With the blond following it up with,

"Were you just pretendin' to know?!"

Before anything more could be done, and before Ren could shake the stupid cat, a now familiar voice said,

"Is it true you're getting expelled?"

And they were all startled to see Takamaki standing nearby.

"Huh? How'd you...?" his sister said.

"Everyone's talking about it..."

That explained things. And it was obvious now who was the culprit this time, their friend mumbling curses at the teacher under his breath.

Aki sighed. "Of course everyone is..."

Their blond friend's expression hardened as he said,

"So you came all this way to tell us that?"

And she said, "If you're going to deal with Kamoshida... Let me in on it."

Ren stared.

Aki stared.

Ryuji reeled.

"I can't just sit by and do nothing after what happened with Shiho!"

Well, it wasn't that surprising but... His sister looked to him with a question in her eyes. He frowned and looked away. ...Even if he did want to bring her, which he felt she deserved, they couldn't exactly do that, especially now that Morgana revealed that he hadn't done this before. Who knew what other dangers there would be and they brought her along? They had gotten lucky in gaining powers and escaping those fights.

So he let Ryuji say,

"This has nothing to do with you. Don't butt your head into this."

Ren was both glad and mad that the faux-punk could say that so easily.

Of course Takamaki said, "But it does! Shiho's my—"

But Ryuji said, "I said don't get in our way!"

Takamaki grunted, upset. When she glanced his way, her eyes were questioning, almost hopeful. It hurt his heart to deepen his frown and deny her request with a shake of his head. It only got worse when that simple gesture seemed to convince her and she left in a huff.

And as a cherry on top, Morgana said, "... That was harsh."

Ren slumped, defeated over the choice but comforted that Aki and Morgana hadn't wanted that either.

Their blond friend though said,

"We can't take somebody like her there."

"Yeah, yeah, we know, Ryuji," Aki said with a sigh. "Don't mean we have to like it."

"I hope she doesn't do anything crazy," Morgana said. "Women can be bolder than men at times."

Well now he was worried about Takamaki even more. In a attempt to distract himself, he said, giving his sister a look,

"That is true."

"Hey! Don't give that look!"

"Then let's hurry up and go deal with Kamoshida already!" Ryuji said. "C'mon."

Their new friend left and Ren could only sigh. He certainly hoped they could steal Kamoshida's desires before Takamaki did something.

If she was anything like Aki in any way, there was no way she would take this quietly.

(A)​

Once again, they were at the alleyway in front of the school. Before they activated the MetaNav though, Morgana said,

"Rememeber that once we cross over, we will treat each other like phantom thieves, so I hope you're ready."

"You bet."

"Yes."

Unsurprisingly though, Ryuji said, "Huh? Phantom thieves?"

And, of course, Ren was more than willing to explain.

"Phantom thieves are those who can steal anything," he said with a smirk. "With style."

Akira rolled her eyes but smiled at him.

"Oh? That sounds kinda cool!"

Her brother gasped, affronted, with a hand on his chest. "'Kinda cool'? They are the definition of cool!"

"All right, Mr. Phantom Thief, that's enough," she said. "We have a mission to do."

To his credit, her brother turned sheepish as he adjusted his glasses and cleared his throat.

"Ah yes. I'm sorry."

"Heh, no biggie." Ryuji then took out his phone and said, "So, we just gotta say use that search history thing, right?"

Akira said, "Wait, you have the app too?"

"Oh right. Forgot to tell ya. I got it a couple of days ago."

Akira shared a look with her brother. So what Igor said was true.

Still, she said, "Well yeah, pretty much what you said."

"Though that was only after we had accidentally said the keyworda for his Palace." Ren reminded them.

"It was...school, castle and Kamoshida, right?"

"Yup."

"Seems useful enough," he said. "Though it's kinda creepy. I mean, did someone make it or something?"

Pretty much.

Meanwhile Ren said, "So you'll activate it then?"

"Sure."

"Then let's go."

"Right! Let's get that effin' Kamoshida!"

With that, the world warped around them, the nausea that used to accompany it gone and the weight of her thief suit returning, almost like a comforting blanket. But just as they turned towards the Palace...

"What is this?!"

They all startled.

"Takamaki?!" Ryuji said for all of them.

Shit.

They jogged out of the alleyway to see that, yes, Takamaki was there and staring at the castle, slack jawed. Well, at least until they came out anyway and her attention turned to them.

"Sakamoto?! Is that you?!" she said. "And...wait, Amamiya-kun?! And your sister too?!"

Akira groaned. "Great, we already messed up on the first go..."

Her brother smiled sheeepishly and, with hands raised in surrender, said, "Guilty as charged."

"What?! What's going on here?! Why do you all look like that?!"

"We should be askin' you that!" Ryuji said. "Why're you here?!"

The natural blonde glared at the faux blond and said, "How should I know?! You're the ones who did...whatever you did on your phones!"

Wait. Their phones? And she had been nearby? Aki facepalmed and groaned again.

"Of course it can bring others nearby with us..."

"A-Ah, I see..." Morgana said, almost as if he awoke from a daze. "That does make sense. If it can bring multiple people, it would have a radius from which it does so."

"For real?" Ryuji said.

"Whoops," Ren said.

Akira facepalmed. Again.

What a mess.

Meanwhile, Takamaki grew frustrated as she looked around.

"Where is here anyway? Isn't this where the school's supposed to be?" she said. "Wait, is this the thing related to Kamoshida?"

Well, all they had to do was fix this.

"Doesn't matter," she said. "You gotta go."

"Yeah, you can't be here," Ryuji said.

She was back to glaring in defiance as she said, "No!"

Akira sighed. Of course.

Morgana pointed out, "The Shadows will find you if you come with us or you make a scene."

Takamaki stared.

Three, two, one...

"No way! It talked!" she said, just as Akira expected. "Oh my god... Is it a monster cat?!"

Morgana looked absolutely crushed as he said, "Monster...?"

Ouch. What a burn.

Of course her brother further derailed the conversation and said, "No, he's a phantom thief cat."

So Akira cleared her throat to get her attention and said, "What he means...is that it's not safe here. You gotta get outta here before we cause a scene."

As she hoped, the "monster cat" was completely forgotten as Takamaki turned to her...with a hard and defiant stare.

"Oh no you don't! I'm not leaving until you guys explain everything!"

Of course. Again. Akira groaned for the third time.

"And...we gotta force her to go..."

"Yeah, looks like it. But...how do we do that?" Ryuji said, surprisingly keeping his voice low.

Akira already knew the answer but Morgana told him for her, saying, "Remember what I said about where I had to leave the Metaverse? It should be the same for the app, assuming it's using the same power as mine."

At the very least Ryuhi had the decency to look embarrassed over not remembering such an obvious fact as he said, "O-Oh, right."

Meanwhile, Ren hummed in agreement, but frowned in hesitancy, which didn't surprise her considering how he acted when they had denied her before. But she had to agree with Ryuji. They has to do this...and now, before she changed her mind.

So she said to the skull masked blond, "So we do this together?"

"Sure."

And then they walked up to her, with Ryuji saying,

"We'll explain everything when it's over!"

"Huh? What're you—hey wait!"

One kerfuffle and several body parts sore from the sturggle later, Akira let out a sigh of relief when she and Ryuji managed to get her out but not step through themselves.

"We should be careful from now on when we use that app," their blond friend said.

Morgana glared in annoyance. "You should've checked before you used it!" he said. "Why do I, the one who's just watching, know more about it than you do?!"

Akira glared back. "Hey! We're not the ones who have teleporting powers like you do, monster cat!"

"I am not a monster! Or a cat! And you should've still checked anyways! What if you had dragged more than just her? We could've been in serious trouble if we had witnesses."

Akira flinched and looked away. She...had nothing to say against that.

Ryuji just said, if a bit sheepish, "S-Shuddup."

Then her brother said, "All right, all right, we get it, Morgana. We were careless. We'll promise to be more careful next time, okay?"

Morgana eyed him and her and Akira could only hope she looked sorry...because she certainly didn't truly feel like apologizing when he had been rather snooty about their MetaNav mistake.

"All right, if you say so," he said.

"Ugh, geez... Still doesn't change the fact that Takamaki found out just as we got started," Ryuji said. "We gotta deal with this fast."

Akira frowned in disbelief at him.

"Do you see how big this castle is? I don't think we're just gonna do this in a couple of days."

"But we got these powers right? It shouldn't take that long."

"Can you please stop tempting fate, Ryuji?"

"Huh? Tempting fate?"

"Anyways...even if Takamaki-san saw us, we should still try to do it as quickly as possible," Ren said, bringing the topic back on track. "Kamoshida is treatening to expel us after all."

"Right..." Akira said.

"Then c'mon, let's go!" Ryuji said, swinging his arm in anticipation.

But just as he took a step to do that, Morgana said,

"Wait, there's one more thing we need to do."

"Oh come on!"

Ren shushed her and Ryuji.

She flinched. "Sorry Big Bro..."

Ryuji was embarrassed as he said, "Ah sorry..." but that left him as he pointed out, "But seriously, what is it now? We gotta go!"

"Not until we can settle on code names for each other," Morgana said, serious.

Code names? Well, as cool as the thought was... "Do we really need them?" Akira said.

"Kamoshida already knows us," her brother said.

The not-cat jumped in frustration as he said, "What kind of a phantom thief doesn't use a code name?!" He cleared his throat and regained his composure. "Besides, even if he does, there's no telling what'll happen to his cognition if you're the ones to say your names and not his Shadow. It's just a precaution."

Okay now Akira felt like an idiot.

So to get her mind off of that, she said, "So I'm assuming you have ideas for that already?"

"He'll be Joker," he said at her brother.

Wait what?

"Really?" she said, giving Morgana a questioning look. "Why Joker?"

"Because he'll be our trump card in battle," he said, as if it was obvious.

Her stomach clenched and she frowned.

"What? Trump card? Then what does that make me?" she said, annoyed and hurt.

Apparently her brother was their "ace" even though, according to Igor, they have the same special powers.

It was probably because she was less physically able than him, wasn't it?

But then Morgana said, "Simple. You're Rogue."

Her earlier feelings were replaced with bewilderment.

"Huh? Rogue? Why...?"

"While Joker's our trump card, you're our wild card," he said, still sounding as if it should be obvious. "No one would expect you to do much and so they'll underestimate you."

Akira gave the stupid cat a deadpan stare. "Gee, thanks for the backhanded compliment."

"Well I like them," Ren said, smiling with a hint of devilishness. "Very fitting. Me, the joker, my sister, the RPG class."

Well put in that way, she didn't mind.

She still didn't like the backhanded compliment though.

"Huh. Okay. Then how about me?"

"Hmm...you'll be..." Morgana said, humming in deep contemplative thought. "Thug."

"Hell no!"

Akira and Ren snickered.

"Then what would you want to be called?"

"Well...you named them somethin' that fits 'em so..."

"Blondie?" Joker said.

The blond gave an unamused look. "Ha ha, very funny, Ren."

They snickered again.

"Well other than that, when it comes to me, it's gotta be this mask." He smiled. "I really like it. So can it be somethin' from this?"

"Skull then," Akira said, going simple, though she's surprised Ryuji didn't think of it already.

"Ooh! That sounds awesome!"

"So you like it then?" Ren said, smiling in amusement.

"Yup! I'm Skull!"

"While I'm Rogue," she said.

"And he's Joker," the now christened Skull said.

Said brother though said, "So what'll Morgana be?"

Everyone looked to the not-cat, waiting for him to speak. He just looked back and forth between the three of them, curious.

"What?"

"You don't have a codename for youself?" Akira said, incredulous.

"No."

"You're kidding me right? How come you came up with names for us, but not yourself?"

To her surprise, the phantom thief turned somber as his ears drooped.

"I'm...not sure... I just can't bring myself to think of another name besides my own..."

"Well then..." Akira said, trying to divert the mood away from that. "No Morgan then, that's for sure. A bit too lame for a code name."

"Mask then?" Joker said. "Like Masked Rider. He looks the part."

"Uh, Big Bro? We all have masks," she said to him, unsure if he was joking or not...

"My reasoning still stands."

He wasn't.

Then Skull said, "How 'bout Mona?"

Rogue tilted her head. "Mona?"

Joker snickered. "Like the painting?"

"Huh? Painting? Uh...no? Just thought it's pretty close."

"Gee, real creative."

"Hey! I don't see you comin' up with anythin'!"

"Let's just go with that, if Morgana's fine with it," Joker said.

"Very well. I'm fine with it."

"Now can we go?" Skull said, already sounding tired.

"Yes," Mona said. "Lead the way, Joker!"

Her brother nodded and thus, finally, they made their way inside the castle, going through the vent they went through last time. As soon as they were in though, there was the faint sound of commotion, so they peeked into the foyer and saw King Kamoshida giving orders to tighten security and kill them on sight.

"Well, looks like we're not going this way for now," she said in a whisper.

Of course Skull said, "Can't we just beat the crap out of him and call it a day?"

"Look how many soldiers there are, idiot!" Mona said."I don't want a repeat of last time."

"And we're here to steal something, remember?" Rogue reminded him. "Not beat the crap outta him."

"Oh right..."

"Let's try the other door and hope it's unlocked this time," Joker said.

The door he meant being the one Skull originally thought they would get out through the first time they were here, but it turned out to be locked. This time it wasn't and, after putting his ear against it, the room past it was clear...until they literally entered the same time as a knight did from another door went in.

It stared.

She stared.

The rest stared.

"Wait a second!" the knight said.

But then it spasmed apart when Joker struck its chest. Thankfully, it was easy to get beat since it was just one of those fairies in a purple leotard, but just when Joker was about to give the signal for an All-Out Attack, Mona said,

"Wait, this is the perfect chance to show you!"

Rogue said, "Huh? Show what?"

But then the fairy girl said,

"You're seriously the intruders that Kong Kamoshida's talking about?"

And of course, Skull easily answered, "You bet we are."

Rogue groaned mentally as the surrounded enemy continued.

"Ugh...this is just the worse... What are you going to do with me?"

Joker frowned, not liking that sentence. Rogue wasn't any better.

But then Mona said, "This is what I mean. Negotiate with her. If we use opportunities like this, we can get plenty of things, like money and items, as well as make sure they keep quiet."

"So...extortion?" Rogue said, flat.

"Hey! Even though they're Shadows like Kamoshida's, these are just fragments from the collective unconscious. They're not actually Shadows of specific people."

Rogue grumbled, still not liking the thought despite the fact that, well, they were trying to steal Kamoshida's Treasure. But it was the somewhat more peaceful option, and from the look on Joker's face, he was going to take it.

"I'll let you go if you give me an item," he said.

"Huh? Really?" the girl said, staring in disbelief.

Joker nodded.

"Uh...sorry... I don't have anything on me..."

"What?!" Mona said. "Uh...then...how about money?"

"Tch... I used it all on that stupid ex-boyfriend of mine before I broke up with him..."

"WHAT?!"

"Uh...is this what's supposed to happen?" Skull said, looking back and forth between everyone.

"Don't think so," she said, flatly pointing out the obvious.

"Ugh...never mind..." Mona said. "Looks like you'll be going to hell then."

Joker also gave him an unamused look. Rogue glared at the cat, annoyed.

"Really?" she said.

"Sorry, but we're in a hurry."

That was true but still.

But then the little Shadow said, "N-No! Wait! Isn't there anything else I can do to let me go?"

Her brother glanced at her and, unfortunately, nothing came to mind, so she gave an apologetic shrug. He sighed minutely but nonetheless smiled in thanks before facing the fairy again.

"Sorry girl, but your word won't cut it," he said with a pained smile. "Guess I'm just gonna have you go to hell, huh?"

To her surprise, the fairy groaned, "Ugh...that was so lame... Was that the best one liner you could come up with?"

Joker pouted, no doubt not liking the sudden change in mood at his expense. Rogue snickered and Skull was clearly trying, and failing, to hold his back.

But then the fairy sighed. "Though I guess I'm not much better. You know, if this were any other situation, I think we'd get along..."

Rogue didn't think so, but Joker still said, playing along,

"A shame then. It would've been interesting to know you."

For some reason though, that made the fairy jolt and Rogue was afraid she was offended and got a second wind for that offense.

Instead she said, "Wait! Something's different!"

Rogue was about to ask Mona what in the world was going on...but the non-feline in question said,

"What the...?! What's going on?!"

And that blew out her possible source. Though not for long.

"I remember now!" the Shadow said. "I'm not just a minion of Kamoshida! I'm an existence that drifts in the sea of humanity's souls... My real name is...Pixie! From now on, I'll live on inside your heart!"

And...the Pixie turned into a ball of light, then a familiar white mask...

...and then got absorbed by Joker's mask.

Rogue stared.

Skull stared.

Mona stared.

Joker noticed them.

"Um...success?" he said.

"What was that?! What just happened?!" Mona said, jumping in a tizzy.

"Dude, the enemy just got sucked in by Joker's mask! What's that all about?!" Skull said.

"I-I don't know," Mona said, now calmer. "I wasn't expecting that..."

"I doubt any of us were," Rogue said.

"Hey, what's going on?!"

Everyone jumped as another came in, this time separating into those purple goats. Because of that, it had landed quite a few hits on her and Skull and, by god, did it hurt. But thanks to that, Joker had the chance to attack...

"Pixie!"

...with the very thing that was absorbed into the mask.

"What the?!"

The goat screeched, bumping into its comrade, letting her brother follow his lightning zap with another and another for the remaining purple goats, letting them end them all in one fell swoop. They stood, waiting and ready for another fight, but when no more came, they relaxed. Well, more or less.

"Hey Mona, what was up with that?!" Skull said, staring at her brother. "What did Joker do?"

"He sealed the enemy into his mask and made it a Persona..." the non-feline said, though it sounded more like it was him thinking out loud. "Is that even possible? I've never seen anyone pull that off."

"Well, you have amnesia." Rogue was quick to point out.

"But...that's good, right?" her brother said.

"Of course it is! Normally a person can only have one Persona because they only have one heart. If you can have two...no, maybe even more..."

Joker shared a look with her. Was this what Igor was talking about how their Persona powers were "special"? Then if he could do it, maybe...

"Nyaha! Incredible!" Mona said, breaking them from their thoughts. "This will be a huge advantage for us. You should do that as often as possible."

Joker glanced at her again, likely telling her to wait for some kind of cue, so she nodded and he returned it.

"Got it," he said.

Then Mona said, "You better help too, Skull!"

"Hell yeah! We'll hold every last one of 'em up!"

Joker chuckled at the enthusiasm and Rogue couldn't help but smile at that.

"All right, let's go!" she said.

After checking again as well as waiting to be sure that no one was in the hallway, they exited the room. Seeing as one of the nearest path was blocked off by steel bars, they passed it and went further down to find a door that opened to what appeared to be the armory, since there were racks on the walls and ground filled with weapons, though it could've easily been the mess hall since there was long tables with benches. There were a couple of guards in it and, though they managed to surprise attack them, they still got hit plenty of times during the fights, particularly Skull, forcing Joker to use medicine on them. They still managed to beat them, dwindling their numbers to just one purple horned horse, stunned defenseless thanks to both Joker and Skull's lightning.

"I give up! I give up! Geez, give me a break..." it said.

Her brother gave her a look and nodded and she took that as her cue.

So she said, "Join our cause then."

"Huh? Join you? That's why ya left me alive? I don't know..."

"What would convince you then?"

"What are you doing?" Mona said.

The horse just said, not heeding him, "Heh, I don't know. Personally would've preferred we just forgot all of this and got a drink. Hell, I wouldn't mind buyin' you one. Wouldn't you like that too, missy?"

It was subtle, but Rogue knew Joker flinched at the mention of drinks as he hid it with the shift of his footing.

Rogue glared at the stupid horse. "No thanks. I'm underaged." And not exactly a fan of the smell of alcohol, she wanted to add but didn't.

Which was a good thing as the equine said, "Huh? That so? Then let's have some when yer older then."

"Sure, if I can make it."

"Ha! I like that attitude of yers... Kinda reminds me of me... Hey wait a second..." The horse shook its head as if awakening from a daze. "I remember now! I ain't some Shadow from here! I come from that there sea of humans!" It looked to her and said, "Name's Bicorn. No need for honorifics, missy."

And just like with her brother, the enemy glowed and changed into a mask, this time hers, before being absorbed. Rogue took a deep breath in as she felt warmth wash over her and Bicorn's voice within her mind saying,

"By the way, nice meetin' ya, missy. I sure hope we do get to have drinks at some point."

She was jerked from her thoughts as Mona said,

"W-What?! It went to you instead?!"

"Woah! Akira can do it too?!"

"Skull, codenames," Joker said, scowling at his error.

"Oh right. Uh, Rogue, right?"

"Yeah, and yours is Skull, if you didn't hear Joker say it," she said, smirking slightly.

"Yeah yeah! I get it!"

"Still, we have not one, but two people who can use multiple Personas?" Mona said, awed for a moment before he was smug. "Nyaha! This really is my lucky day! I knew you two would be useful."

Her smirk got worse as she said, "Damn straight."

Though she noticed her brother frown deepen at the not-cat's words. Before she could ask about it, Mona's ears perked up and he said,

"Oh no. We got company coming."

And Joker said, "Let's go."

He went for the door on the other end, the rest of them following. And it seemed their phantom thief sensei really was lucky because a safe room was right in front of that exit. They made their way in, closing the door just as the clanging steps of knights passed them by. They sighed in relief and took seats around the small room.

"Seems like there's more Shadows than yesterday," her brother said.

"Yeah...what's up with that?" Skull said, flopped against the table in the middle of the room.

"Well we did piss off Kamoshida last time we were here..." she said to him.

"Hmm, while I do agree with that..." Mona said. "He still seems a little more on guard than I thought he'd be."

Rogue said, "What makes you so sure?"

"The Shadows that would've noticed us earlier? It shouldn't be that quick. It takes much longer for more to replace the ones missing."

"Ugh, then how are we gonna deal with the Treasure like this?" their faux blond friend said.

"Don't be so hasty. It'll die down...eventually."

Of course.

Then Mona said, "Besides, we need to secure an infiltration route first."

"A what?"

"A path to the Treasure. Once we have that, then we can steal it."

"Geez...you say you got no memories, but you still remember this stuff?"

"You have a problem with that?"

"Course I do. You say you got amnesia but can still do this stuff. It's suspicious when you get down to it. Right Ren?" he said, glancing at her brother.

"Codenames, Skull, codenames." Her brother reminded him, miffed he fumbled. But nonetheless he said, "I agree though. Amnesia doesn't work like that."

"That's what you think of me?!" Mona said, the picture of an upset cat.

That was true. But...

"Hey, he said that the Metaverse distorted his memories didn't he?" she said. "If he lost it here, maybe the reason why his amnesia's like this is because that's how most people think it works thanks to shows and stuff."

Joker blinked in realization. "Oh right. That would make sense, especially since this is a mental world..."

"Well I'm glad at least someone believes in me..."

"Still, even if that's true, you'd think he'd remember something, right?" Skull said. "What if we just find out he's some stray cat?"

"What? No! I can't be that. I just...can't..."

"Still, to find the princess in such an odd place..." a voice said.

They jumped and brandished their weapons at the door. The clangs of footsteps echoed as another guard spoke while Mona leaned on the door to eavesdrop.

"I could have sworn we were pursuing the readings of an intruder..."

"It doesn't matter now. We have to take her back to King Kamoshida!"

Rogue barely suppressed a shudder. She didn't like that sound of that. Girls plus him meant bad things. Thankfully, the metal sounds soon faded along with their owners' voices. But as soon as that happened, Mona said,

"I should look into this."

"Huh? Mona? Where—" Joker said, reaching out to Mona...

...who left them.

"—are you going..."

"Aaaand yet another question goes unanswered..." Skull said, thumping his head on the table.

"That's kinda the thing with amnesia charcaters," Rogue said to him.

The thug sighed. "Well I wish it wasn't then..."

Rogue snickered. "You and everyone else who don't like amnesia plotlines."

Joker snickered as well behind his hand.

The bubble burst though when Mona barged and said,

"This is bad! This is bad!"

"Hey, Mona, calm down," her brother said. "What is it?"

"Your friend...Lady Ann..."

They all looked at him with varying expressions of confusion.

"Takamaki?"

"She's been taken by Shadows!"

Rogue froze. Joker was the same. Oh no... Don't tell me...

Of course, Skull just went, "Huh? But we sent her home."

Which was understandable that time, there was a cognitive version of her in the castle, but...

Joker said, "Mona, lead the way. Let's not waste time."

"Right! This way!"

And they ran...sans Skull.

"Hey wait for me!"

{R}​

Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid!

Igor had told them he would give the app to anyone who could help them, and Takamaki-san most definitely wanted to help. He should've remembered that. If he did, he wouldn't have sent her away. Damn it all!

Before he knew it, Mona had led them back past the armory and where the hallway that had previously been blocked by spikes was, the obstacle gone and the sounds of Takamaki shouting beyond the door at the end. Without breaking his stride, he burst through it...

...and stopped in his tracks.

Oh, the room itself was pretty normal for this castle. Just very, very red. What made him stop was what was in it.

There were girls everywhere, lying on the floor in various seductive positions, clad only in gym shorts. The only reason he didn't look away from their half-bare state was because they looked less like people and more like pink mannequins.

"What the?! This is how he sees the girls on the volleyball team?!" Skull said.

"If it wasn't obvious enough..." Rogue said.

"This is effed up..."

"Tch. Just when I was about to have some fun..." an unfortunately familiar voice said.

Joker turned towards it and gritted his teeth at the sight.

There stood Kamoshida, still mostly bare save his pink underwear and red cape, looking at them with displeasure. Near him were guards of both the steel and gold variety, Cognitive Takamaki who looked as dumb as before...and the real Takamaki, tied very suggestively on a golden x cross.

"You guys?!" she said.

"How many times are you going to keep coming back?" Shadow Kamoshida said.

"As many times we need to, you asshole!" Rogue said, brandishing her daggers.

In that instant, Kamoshida gestured with his hand, fearful until his guards held their swords across Takamaki's neck and his sister stopped in her tracks. Of course the Shadow ruler smiled with smugness.

"Ah ah, one more step and she dies," he said, his tone just as full of it.

Damn it. Joker had hoped he would be too dumb to think of that, but it seems he had overestimated his stupidity.

Rogue growled and backed off, but she still kept her weapons out, glancing his way. He met it briefly before he took note of everyone's positions. He, Rogue, Skull and Mona were about two meters or so from Kamoshida, who had one golden guard and two regular guards close to him, ready to chop off Takamaki's head. Standing to Kamoshida's left was the cognitive version of her, still ditzy and wearing the bare minimum, cat ears atop her hair. There was no way they would be able to handle them all at this distance without Takamaki getting killed instantly...except one way.

He didn't want to though. It would mean using his sister for crying out loud, but when he unconsciously glanced at the writhing mannequin women to their sides and then Rogue again, she noticed it with a flinch. She seemed to have come to the same conclusion as he did because she looked him in the eyes with a nod, silently telling him that she would go along with him. One second longer he held her gaze, but she didn't back down. Well, there was his choice made.

Joker took a deep breath.

He stood straight and took a step forward, giving a slight bow as he said, "Pardon me, your Majesty, but we're actually here to give you a peace offering."

"What?!" Skull said. "What are you—?"

Thankfully Mona said, "Shh Skull! Play along!"

While King Kamoshida raised an eyebrow in intrigue.

"A gift? From a thief?" He scoffed. "Why would a thief such as you give me a gift? Not that there is any you could possibly give me."

Another bow, this time with one hand out and one on his chest.

"That is very true, your Majesty," he said. "But we have realized the error of our ways and wish to show for it. That is why we wish to offer my sister as a gift, if you would have her."

The king perked up and his eyes gleamed. "Your sister?"

Caught him on the bait.

Yet one more bow, but this time gesturing to Rogue, who did a curtsey in synch with him after putting away her daggers.

"Here she is, your Majesty," he said.

"It is an...honor to meet you, your Majesty," Rogue said, thankfully hiding most of her distaste.

The king hummed and looked her up and down for bit until he frowned. As Joker hoped, instead of disatisfaction, he gestured with his hand and said,

"Come here, let me see you."

"Yes, your Majesty."

And as Rogue took shy but deliberate steps, Joker eyed Mona and slightly twitched his finger. Mona nodded subtly and tapped Skull before the non-feline mimicked his slow, and hopefully hard to notice, advance towards Kamoshida. Thankfully, one look from Mona to him had Skull realize what they were doing and he copied them.

When Rogue stood before Kamoshida she did another curtsey and said,

"Am I...satisfactory, your Majesty?"

The king hummed again, examining her, and Joker put everything he could into his steps...otherwise he was pretty sure his twitching fingers would be mauling the man by now for looking that way at his sister.

"Take off your hood girl. Don't hide your face from your king," he said.

"Yes your Majesty."

She did as told and pulled it off. But when she did, she hovered her hands over her daggers' pommels and glanced at him. Joker looked at everything around them then met her gaze.

"Now!" he said.

Everything erupted in a dance of chaos.

Rogue took her daggers out to attack Kamoshida. The king screamed and backed away. The regular guards moved to defend him. Skull and Mona moved to intercept them. He took his eyes off of that and on Ann. Ann stared wide-eyed in shock. He readied his own dagger to slice her bindings. And then she screamed.

"Look—!"

"Stop where you are!" the gold knight said before hitting him straight in the gut.

"Argh!"

He thudded on the ground, the sword pushing him away. He ignored the pain and rolled over as the commander swung down. Now that he was close, he tore off its mask to reveal...

...a classical demon on a floating toilet.

If this had been any other situation, Joker would've stared in surprise and cracked a joke.

Instead, he said,

"Persona!"

And Arsène sent shadows as it roared. Unfortunately, it was unfazed by the darkness biting into it and summoned torrents of wind. He stood his ground but Skull wasn't as lucky, the wind twisting his bad leg too quickly for its limit and knocking him down. The toilet demon took advantage and hit him with a tornado of wind again.

"Mona! Heal Skull!" he said, noting with gratitude that at least the other two guards were gone.

"Roger!"

Meanwhile Rogue rushed forward and said,

"Bicorn!"

The equine burst out of flames and neighed before it charged at the toilet demon. Unfortunately, that, too, seemed to do little as it merely flinched from the strike, the Persona fading now that its order was done. Ren gritted his teeth. They needed to find a weakness.

"Pixie!"

The winged girl shocked it but it was the same result. And just like before, it attacked with strong gusts, stressing Skull's leg too much. Mona healed him and he was back on his feet along with the rest of them, but at the rate this was going, they wouldn't be able to defeat it before—

"Try anything funny again and I really will kill her," the king said.

—damn it!

As Joker thought, Kamoshida was holding the sword of his fallen knight and pointing it right at Ann's throat.

Rogue growled.

Skull grumbled.

Mona said, "No! Lady Ann!"

And that was all the floating toilet demon needed to get them all lying face first on the ground.

"Well? What's it going to be?" Kamoshida said, his smugness from earlier returning.

Everyone wasn't pleased with it, that much was clear from their faces, but no one struggled.

Damn it... Joker tried to think of what to do, but unless they could figure out a way to beat the golden guard turned uncleanly demon, they were back to square one. They won't be able to save Takamaki. He won't be able to save Takamaki.

"Ha, I knew I shouldn't have trusted you thieves," Kamoshida said. Then he smirked at Takamaki. "Heh. I bet that you're just like them, aren't you? Coming here to get back at me."

"Gee, no shit Herlock," Rogue said. "Did you really think we were just gonna let what you did slide?!"

The mop head king glanced their way once and huffed.

"What I did? Ah...that..." Then his smirk turned vicious and he looked back at Takamaki. "You know it's your fault that she jumped, you know? Whatever her name is."

Joker froze.

What.

He didn't even...

Takamaki was much the same. "What...?"

The king continued on. "You were so reluctant to throw yourself onto me that I had her take your place."

Takamaki struggled and glared. "You bastard!"

"And not only that, it seems these people came to save you. But now they're going to die for it."

That took the fire out of her, horror and guilt spreading on her face as she said,

"No..."

No no no... Takamaki, no, don't...

The king laughed. Joker clenched his fist.

"Though, I guess I'll let them live long enough to enjoy the dismantlement show, to remind them of my power," he said.

And thus, Takamaki was put in despair, her eyes losing their brightness and her demeanor losing its vibrance.

And of course Kamoshida laughed.

"Ah, there it is. I like that look on your face. Should've been like this from the beginning," he said. Then his perverted smile appeared full force. "Now how should I start? Heh heh... Maybe I'll start with her clothes... Heh heh heh..."

"N-No... Is this..." she said, her voice now guilt laden. "...my punishment for what happened to Shiho...?"

Snap.

"No it's not!" Joker screamed.

"Yeah! Like hell it is!" Rogue added.

Takamaki startled and stared at them. "Huh...?"

"Are you really gonna listen to this guy's bullshit?" his sister said. "After what he did with Shiho? After not even remembering her?"

"It's not your fault, Takamaki," he said, pleading, hoping she would listen. "Please. Don't give in. Please. I..." He nearly choked up. "I want to help you."

It was only a moment, but that moment felt like an eternity as the girl stared at him in disbelief, as if kindness towards her was strange.

But then that moment moved on and Joker's chest soared at seeing her beight eyes burn with determination.

"You're right," she said. "What was I thinking? Letting this asshole manipulate me..."

And then she screamed and struggled and everyone stared and for one moment, one heartstopping and stomach churning moment, Ren thought she was dying.

But then she erupted in flames and broke out of her melted chains. There, he saw it, a red mask over her face.

And she tore it.

"Persona!"

The flames burst around her, making Kamoshida, shout and back off, the demon's toilet pop and send its occupant flying with a screech, and them free to stand.

"W-What are you doing?!" the king said. "A slave like you should—"

"Shut up!" the blonde said.

A whip appeared in her hands and she used it to catch the sword in Kamoshida's. The king squealed and let go and Ann swung the her whip to hurtle the blade straight through her copy.

"I'm not some cheap girl you can toy with, you scumbag!" Takamaki said, her Persona standing tall and proud behind her.

"Oh yeah! You go Takamaki!" Skull said, fist bumping.

"Yeah that's the spirit!" Rogue said.

Joker smirked, proud at seeing her stand up.

"You're the one who stole everything from Shiho... You destroyed her. Now it's your turn!"

However.

"How dare you! I won't allow it!"

They all dodged the barrelling toilet demon, who now stood between them and his king. Takamaki was not pleased about that.

"I won't have you stop me now!" she said. "Let's give 'em hell, Carmen!"

"With pleasure," her Persona said.

The rose dressed woman flourished her skirt and flames followed her will, spinning towards the demon. The demon seemed unaffected, until his toilet popped like a fizzled soda bottle and he was sent flat on the ground.

"All Out Attack!" Joker said.

And everyone except Takamaki obeyed. As he expected, it didn't go down from that strike. But now that they had Takamaki's flames, all Joker had to do was coordinate everyone so that the demon would consistently be dazed from his exploding toilet and before long, one more all out attack finished it off with a scream. With his guard gone, the king stared in horror.

"Oh shit..."

And ran off.

"Wait!" Takamaki said.

But as soon as she took another step, she fell to the ground.

"Takamaki!" he said, kneeling beside her.

He checked to see if she was injured when Skull said,

"Hey! What were you thinkin'?! Why'd you come here?!"

Joker was ready to snap but Rogue did it for him.

"Skull! This ain't the time to be shoutin' at her!"

"Exactly! That is no way to treat a woman!" Mona then stepped closer to Takamaki and said, "Are you all right Lady Ann?"

Joker stared.

"What," he and his sister said.

"Lady Ann...?" the girl in question said, similarly confused. At least until she saw Mona and stared. "What the? What is this thing? Is it alive? How can it talk?" She glanced around her. "And where in the world are we?"

"C-Calm down. Everything will be fine. Don't worry," Mona said.

"How am I supposed to calm down?!" she said as she tried to stand...and saw herself in the process.

"Huh?! What am I wearing!?" she said. "When did I—uuugh! What's with this?!"

She crouched on the ground and tried, in vain, to cover herself up.

Not that he blamed her. She was wearing a very form fitting red suit that left nothing to the imagination, which wasn't helped by it being latex and having an opening on the chest that...showed it off a bit. Or her cat mask and tail. Or the many, many zippers. There were three zippers alone for the front of the suit. So he decided to test and see if his coat could be taken off. To his relief, it could.

"Here," he said as he put it over her.

"Huh? Uh, thanks..."

He smiled and said, "You're welcome."

"Huh, I'm impressed Joker," Mona said.

He looked at him in confusion.

"What for?" he said.

The not-cat just shook his head and said, "Never mind. We don't have time to explain things to her. We need to retreat before the guards come."

"Yeah. We did let Kamoshida get away and all," Rogue said.

Skull groaned. "Aw man... I was gettin' so fired up too... You just had to get in the way..."

He and Rogue glowered at the thug and said,

"Skull..."

"Huh? What? We ain't goin'?"

They both sighed and shook their heads. Never mind.

"Here, let me help you," Joker said as he held and pulled Takamaki up.

"I-It's all right, I can..."

But then his sister said, "No way. You just fell earlier. We're not takin' chances."

"Damn straight," Skull said as he moved to support her other side. "We need to be quick too."

Though Takamaki was reluctant, she still said, "Fine..."

Thankfully it wasn't long before they all made it out, reappearing in the alleyway they started in.

"Thanks..." Takamaki said as soon as he and Ryuji put her down.

"Looks like we made it back," Ryuji said with a brief glance. "Hey, you okay?"

"Yeah, I think so..." She shook her head. "No, wait, I lied. I'm still so confused about this..."

"Don't blame you, a lot happened back there," Aki said.

"True, even though you're safe now," Morgana said. "But we should still keep going."

"Huh? Why?" their faux-blond friend said.

"We stand out too much here. And we still have a lot to tell her."

"Ah yeah, don't want Kamoshida hearin' us," Aki said.

With that agreement, they began to make their way out of the alleyway and down the street. But then something pricked at his consciousness and he looked back. He frowned. Nothing was there except students of Shujin and yet... What had made him turn?

"Big Bro?" Aki said.

He looked back to see his friends worried. Ren shook his head. They needed to get going.

"I'm sorry, I wanted to make sure no one followed us."

His sister didn't look convinced but he went and stuffed Morgana into his bag, the not-cat complaining at the roughness, and led the way, allowing no protest.

(A)​

The underground subway probably wasn't the best place to explain about Palaces, the change of heart and Personas and Shadows to Takamaki, but the noise was enough that only they could hear each other at their volume and close enough that they could explain to her sooner, which she most definitely needed. Well mostly she, Ren and Mona did the explaining. Ryuji just answered any questions related to him specifically. When that was done, Takamaki asked for a drink and Ryuji went to get it...without Takamaki mentioning what she'd like. So when he came back soon enough with two choices in his hands and said,

"Which one you want?"

And she said, "Whichever's not carbonated."

Akira wasn't surprised the fake delinquent said,

"Uh... They both are."

Takamaki sighed at the choice.

Luckily for her, her brother said, "I have a spare water bottle if you want." Though maybe not as he added, "It'll have cat fur covering it though."

Mona popped out of Ren's bag and said, "How many times do I have to tell you I'm not a cat!"

"And how many times do we have to tell you that you look like one?" she said.

"Aki... Morgana..." Ren said, giving them both a look.

Akira just raised her hands in surrender while Mona grumbled about being scolded.

"Uh...it's fine, I'll just take this one," Takamaki said as she picked the cola.

"You sure?" Ren said. "I can clean the bottle. I'll need to when I get back anyway."

"Yeah, I'm sure."

While Takamaki drank from it, Ryuji offered the other one. She and Ren shook their heads.

"No thank you. We don't usually drink soft drinks," her brother said.

"Well, except maybe juices but still," she said.

"All right then. Suit yourselves."

"What about me?" Mona said.

Ryuji stared. "Uh...but you're a cat..."

"Do I really have to repeat myself?"

"Yes," she said.

Thankfully by then Takamaki had taken a good gulp of her drink and Ren said,

"Feeling better?"

The natural blonde nodded and said, "Yeah. I am."

And Mona said, "That's good to hear, Lady Ann."

"Lady Ann" was startled at his words again but said, "Uh...Morgana right?"

"Yes, that's right."

"Wow, I...really am talking to a cat. This feels so strange..." Aki worried she'd get scolded by the not-cat but then Takamaki said, "Oh wait, you said you're not a cat, right? Sorry."

And Mona said, in a suspiciously gentlemanly tone, "It's fine. It's only natural you're confused. Demanding that you understand all of this right after you went through is asking too much."

She and Ren shared a flat look.

If his huge crush wasn't obvious before, it was now.

"Yeah, I honestly still can't believe it... What happened...and this power... Persona..."

"That's your will of rebellion, Lady Ann. With it you can fight in the other world."

"So if what you're saying is true, that means we can change Kamoshida's heart?"

"According to Morgana, yes," Ren said.

"It's pretty much our only option with the volleyball team keeping quiet and us bein' 'delinquents'," she said.

"Then let me help. I want him to pay for what he did to Shiho," the natural blonde said, a fire burning in her eyes.

"Takamaki..." her brother said, a bit worried.

"He's just going on like nothing happened, even after what he did... I can't forgive him."

She really was making her case.

Akira and her brother shared another look as Ryuji said,

"Wait, did you just say 'let me help'?"

"Don't act like I'm gonna drag you down! You saw me earlier. I can fight too!"

She and Ren nodded and then he said,

"We would be glad to have you."

"Huh?" both blondes said.

Akira smirked behind her mask while Ren smiled.

"I said you can help. You'll be a great member," he said.

"I agree as well," Mona of course said. "Any extra manpower is always good."

Ryuji grumbled, still not on board.

So of course Mona also said, "Don't worry, I'll protect her."

Oh Akira was sure he would, which was both a good and bad thing in its own way.

But she did want to convince their new friend so she said, "And we need fire spells anyway. Big Bro and I don't have any yet."

And to add the cherry on top, Ren said, "Yes. We would've been finished if she hadn't awakened."

"Rgh... Fine..." Ryuji finally said.

Takamaki smiled and said, "Thanks you guys."

She and her brother returned it.

"You're welcome."

"No problem."

"Well I hope we get along." Takamaki's smile turned into determination as she said, "I'm going to make Kamoshida pay for what he did."

Once again Akira and Ren shared her look with a nod.

Then it happened.

The world froze and a serene voice said,

I am thou, thou art I. Thou hast acquired a new vow. It shall be the wings of rebellion that breaketh thy chains of captivity. With the birth of the Lovers Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power.

Then it faded and the world marched on.

"Just let me know when you're heading back in...oh wait! We don't have each other's info."

"Oh yeah," Aki said and pulled out her phone in tandem with her brother.

"So number and chat ID?" he said.

"Uh huh."

Contacts were shared between all of them, sans Mona, and with that, Takamaki had officially joined.

"I'll be counting on you then," she said afterwards. "You too, Morgana."

"The pleasure's all mine, Lady Ann."

Oh Akira figured as much.

"Will you be all right heading home?" her brother said.

"Yeah, I'm sure. I'm tired but I can make it," Takamaki said.

"Okay then..." He paused. "Then can you tell us you made it back fine?"

The blonde stared in surprise before she smiled and said, "Sure."

Then she finally left.

With Mona going on and on about her wonderful qualities. Which Akira giggled over.

"Dude," Ryuji said, offput by the display.

Ren chuckled along with her before he said,

"Well we should be going now. We don't want to upset our caretaker."

Oh right. Mr. Grumpy Chef.

"Yeah we should..." she said.

"All right, see you dudes. We'll meet up tomorrow?"

"Yes."

"Okay. Wait...where we gonna meet?"

Now that was a thought.

And Mona added to it as he said, "Well we should pick somewhere that we can use as our secret hideout to discuss such things."

The faux-blond smiled. "A hideout huh? I like the sound of that."

"Where would that be though?" Aki said. "We need it to be close to the school, don't we?"

"The school's rooftop should do it then for the time being," Mona said. "Nobody seems to go there. It should work for our secret hideout."

"All right then, school rooftop it is!" Ryuji said.

"We'll tell Takamaki to go there when we get together then," Ren said.

"'Kay then, I'll go for real this time."

"Bye Ryuji!"

"Good-bye Ryuji!"

"See ya guys!"

That left one last person to say farewell.

"See you tomorrow then, Morgana?" Ren said.

"Well..."

"Well what?" Akira said, curious.

"I can't contact you from inside the Palace so I'll stay in this world. But...I need someone to take care of me," he said. Then he grinned as best as a cat could. "I personally nominate you to be my caretaker! You should be honored."

"What."

"I thought you said you're not a cat!"

"I'm not! But I don't exactly have a home to go back to or a way to get food."

Okay when he put it like that it made more sense and Akira felt bad for not even thinking of where he'd be staying. He still had amnesia after all. It wasn't as if he was going to remember where he lived and he probably wouldn't have been able to stay long should any neighbors notice the owner was gone.

Akira sighed and said, "Okay fine. Let's go then."

"No, not fine," Ren said.

"Huh?"

"Aki... What if his cat fur triggers an allergy? Then your asthma's going to be triggered too."

"But I'm not a cat!"

"Yeah Big Bro. It can't be that bad," she said. "We've been hanging with him this whole time with plenty of chances for the fur to get up my nose and I didn't have any reaction, right?"

Her brother opened his mouth to protest, but it sputtered down into a grumble and a sigh.

"No."

"Then it should be fine."

Ren sighed again. "All right, we'll let him stay," he said. "On two conditions."

"Huh? Conditions...?" Mona said.

Her brother turned his head to give the strongest glare he could give and said,

"One, you can stay in our room but you clean yourself outside. Two, you let me bathe you every other day, got it? If you don't agree or break these and Aki has one attack because of you, you're stuck outside. Got it?"

Mona tensed and Akira actually heard him gulp before he said,

"R-Right. I got it loud and clear."

With that, all of Ren's hostility left him with a third sigh.

"Good. Now let's finally get home."

"Got you, Big Bro."

Author's Notes: The chapter title comes from the superstition that saying the name of the play, MacBeth, when you don't need to while inside a theater would lead to disaster. So instead they would call it the Scottish Play or the Bard's Play.
 

TheCharredDragon

One world, one love, shadows of mass destruction
Chapter 10: Barrels, Barrels! Any Barrels to Sell?

{R}​

Ren was tempted to walk with long strides to make Morgana's "ride" as violent as possible but Aki had made good points and the not-cat agreed to his conditions, so he resisted the urge to do so. Besides, as if the fates wanted to assuage his worries, the only customer that happened to be at the café when they arrived was, according to Sakura-san, a doctor at a nearby clinic. He would have to double check if she's truly safe though considering he also mentioned bad rumors about her.

Surrounded by rumors he may be, he wouldn't take his chances on such rumors as far as Aki was concerned.

They did almost get caught though as Morgana was impatient.

But it turned out to be in vain because as soon as Ren let Morgana out and on the floor, the cat said,

"Wait, this is where you live?"

"Got a problem with it?" Aki said.

"Hmm, well it could be worse. At least it's clean." He looked to see the junk and such piled up on the side behind the stairs. "Well, mostly."

And Sakura-san came up.

"Hey, are you—" he said, then he saw Morgana. "Ugh. No wonder I heard meowing. What did you bring it here for?!"

To his surprise, it only took a minimal amount of effort to convince Sakura-san to allow Morgana in their home, as long as they made sure he stayed quiet during business hours and that they would be solely responsible for him. Though maybe they wouldn't have to worry too much about feeding Morgana since not long after they convinced Sakura-san, he came back with a plate of food for the not-cat, "complaining" about his "cute meowing". He even hoped he would get to name Morgana, but of course he couldn't.

So all Ren had to worry about for dinner was his and Aki's. Which he was glad for. A simple evening was a nice way to wind down after the marathon his heart went through from...Suzui-san's attempted suicide to the discovery of his and Aki's ability of summoning multiple Personas to Takamaki nearly dying in Kamoshida's Palace. After he and Aki cleaned whatever utensiles they used, they changed into their bed clothes and he made sure Aki took her medicine after the meal and before she slept. However, just before they turned off the lights...

"Wanna sleep in my bed, Mona?"

"Aki!"

"What? I doubt he's gonna sleep on the floor, right?"

"What do you think I am? Some kind of animal?" Morgana said.

"See? So I wanna call dibs."

"Aki..."

Did he really have to explain himself?

"Hey, I haven't had a reaction at all. So I wanna prove it."

He stared at her, unimpressed.

"Okay, also because he's cute, but still!"

"Cute?!"

"Well yeah," she said, turning somber. "Look, I know you're not a cat, but you look like one and...I've always wondered what it'd be like to hug a pet, so...heh heh, sorry, I couldn't help but want to take the chance."

Ren frowned. "Aki..."

So that was why she wanted dibs. Now he felt sorry for wanting to deny her. After all, if he really wasn't affecting her, Morgana was probably her only chance to try that.

Speaking of the not-cat, his ears perked and he stared at his sister.

"I-I see..." He huffed and looked away, seemingly offended but when he said, "W-Well since you insist, I'll sleep by your side. You better be grateful."

Ren knew he was just embarrassed, even more so as Aki smiled and scooped the little not-cat in her arms.

"Thanks Mona."

"O-Of course," he said. "A gentleman never upsets a lady."

So with Morgana by her side, Ren turned off the lights and got back on his futon to sleep.

However...

"Hey...you two? Are you still awake?"

"Something wrong, Mona?" his sister said.

"I want to make myself clear: your taking care of me won't be for nothing. It'll be give and take."

"Give and take? What're you talking about?"

"I have intel on making infiltration tools thanks to my knowledgeable and dexterous nature."

"Wait really?" Aki said, perking up in the moonlit room. "You mean things like lockpicks and smokebombs?"

"Really...?"

"What? Am I wrong?

"No. That's more or less what I mean."

"Yes!"

Ren rolled his eyes but still smiled.

"So do we have a deal then? In exchange for taking care of me, I'll teach you two how to make these tools."

"Big Bro?" Aki said.

"I'm fine with it."

His sister smiled and fistpumped."All right, let's do this!"

"Heh heh, I like that answer," Morgana said.

And then, for the second time that day, that voice spoke again.

I am thou, thou art I. Thou hast acquired a new vow. It shall be the wings of rebellion that breaketh thy chains of captivity. With the birth of the Magician Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power.

That probably shouldn't have surpised him considering the pattern for the previous Confidants, but it still did. He was almost tempted to ask Morgana if he knew anything about it. Almost. Right now, he had an excited sister to deal with.

"Not right now Aki," he said.

"I know, Big Bro, I'm not that stupid," she said.

Oh he knew. But still he said, "I beg to differ."

Before he and Aki could dissolve into banter, Morgana said,

"All right now you two. Go to sleep. I kept you awake long enough."

Ren and his sister rolled their eyes but still listened to the not-cat.

"Good night Aki. Morgana."

"Night Mona. Night Big Bro."

"U-Uh... Good night to you too."

That night no velvet blue dreams came.

(A)​

"Don't say a word."

Akira didn't. She stared.

Before her stood her brother with a nasty red spot on his forehead.

"What happened?" she said.

"Didn't I just say not a word?"

"You really expect me to ignore that?"

"Yes."

Really, sometimes she couldn't believe her brother.

"He got hit by Mr. Ushimaru throwing chalk at him," Takamaki said.

"What."

"I thought I told you not to mention it Takamaki..."

"And I'm not gonna let you just brush off you getting hurt."

Ren sighed and slumped against the wall.

"Why?" Akira said.

"Prolly 'cause he looked like he wasn't payin' attention," Ryuji said. He sighed. "He always does that when someone ain't listening in his class."

She and Ren turned their stares at their faux-blond friend.

"He does this all the time?"

"Yeah pretty much. Whenever someone doesn't listen he just throws chalk like he's some kinda ninja."

"And the school just lets him?" she said, then remembered Kamoshida. "Actually, never mind. That makes total sense."

Ryuji sighed. "Anyways..." he said. "Everyone's here, so let's go!"

"Uh...go where?"

"Wha—the Palace, obviously!"

"Hold on," Mona said. "It's still too early to go to the Palace."

Which she wasn't surprised about. They were basically a party with no items and starting equips. So of course they discussed about getting better equipment for them and medicine for their forays. Ryuji actually had the former covered, but considering he was the one that brought a model gun with him, that made sense. Mona and her brother apparently had an idea for medicine, and Ren wanted her to tag along, not just for an excuse to get medicine for their trip but also to see if they could get her medication as well as a new regular doctor.

So that was where they were now, at Takemi's clinic, being examined by her. Akira going first, Ren going last.

Akira knew they could've probably just given their copies of her perscriptions to get her medicine, even if it was from their old doctor, but she figured it was because of that and that this was the only way Ren thought of to get medicine for their heist, by saying it was for him, was why he didn't pull them out.

"Huh...so you do have a chronic disease..." the doctor said, likely looking at her results.

Akira was a bit uneasy at that, unsure why she said that.

At least until she said, "And here I thought you were here because of the rumors."

Akira tensed. Her brother remained stoic but she could tell he was only pretending from how blank it was.

Takemi glowered a smidge. "I'm not as dumb as I look you know," she said. "I know more or less what people say about me. So? Is that really why you're here? You thought you could get away cheap with my medicines?"

"Well..." she said but stopped.

What was she supposed say?

There was some truth to it.

"That's right," Ren said unexpectedly. But he added, "We did come here because of the rumors... But only because you're nearby and...our old doctor won't see us anymore."

Akira clenched her fists, trying to subdue her anger at their old doctor who had just dropped them because of their newly gained reputations. The doctor in front of them, meanwhile, quieted and looked at them, her expression thoughtful. She stared long enough that Akira had calmed down and relaxed. By then, Takemi said,

"I guess high school students these days have it rough, huh?"

Akira scoffed.

Ren smothered his.

The punk-looking doctor sighed. "All right, fine, I'll perscribe medication for the both of you. But only for your asthma and to help recover your health, got it?"

"Okay."

"Got it."

"Hmm. You two are pretty earnest, huh?"

Akira...wasn't sure how to take that, and nether did her brother as they both just stared back at Takemi.

"Well then, remember that this is my private practice so all the medicine I use are my own," she said. "I have a license to make and sell them, so you've probably seen them in hospitals. So it's your responsibility to take care of yourself. If you're fine with that, you can drop by anytime."

So, in other words, as long as they didn't complain about her medicine and anything that might happen because of it, they can keep using it all they want and she wouldn't stop them.

Even if it felt like a deal, Akira was glad it worked.

"Thanks."

"Thank you as well. This will help us a lot."

The doctor smiled. "Quick on the uptake I see. Good. Saves me the hassle."

Now Akira wasn't so sure anymore.

Especially as Takemi looked at them curiously as she said, "You two are pretty weird though. I wonder what you'll use the medicine for."

Not wanting to reveal the truth, Akira said, "Can we have our medicine now?"

And they purchased what they could afford. So Akira was set for another week of her daily medication and they had medicine for the Palace. However, just as she was following her brother out the door after they made way for a man entering, there was a shout behind her.

"Enough of this!"

Worried the man might do something to the doctor, she was ready to barge inside when she heard the man say,

"You're the only one who could've developed that type of medicine."

Akira froze and listened.

"I'm afraid I have no idea what you're talking about..."

"Don't play dumb with me. Rumor has it that it's so potent that it can give person unlimited power."

Unlimited power? What kind of rumor was that? A nerd one?

"Really? That's news to me."

"Developing experimental drugs, medicine and herbal remedies violates all health regulations. Are you attempting to make a super-stimulant? A drug like that will only become a social issue."

Super stimulant? Was it like steroids or something?

"You're persistant, you know that? I'm just a quack..."

Akira's heart sank a bit at the doctor calling herself that so easily. She wondered why.

Her curiosity only increased as the man said,

"The police may not have taken action, but the media will soon pick up on it. You intend to ruin my reputation again, huh? You're a disgrace to the medical community."

The doctor very audibly, "Tsk...!"

And the man followed it with, "What's with that look? That was your mistake, was it not? I won'tbe resposible for your criminal actions. Dispose of that 'medicine' immediately and resign. The name Tae Takemi will never—"

It was that moment her anger at him boiled over with her bumping the door.

"Hey, who's there?!"

Damn it!

She rushed at the clinic exit to meet a bewildered Ren saying, "Aki?"

Then he shouted as she dragged him away as quickly as she could until they were in front of Leblanc.

She definitely wasn't going to mention that to Mom tonight.

{R}​

Just as Takamaki told them yesterday in chat, she wasn't with Ryuji when he and Aki arrived at Station Square. Ren still wished he had gone with her to see Suzui, but he reminded himself that he wasn't really her friend. Besides, if things had been different, she would've been in a coffin instead, so he probably shouldn't see her.

Instead he was tagging along with his sister and their first Tokyo friend to this "weapon shop". He assumed it was legal, but with Ryuji...a part of him worried that he might have been mistaken. Which wasn't helped by the fact that it was in a back alley and the sign above the door said "Untouchable".

"You sure this is the place?" he said, turning to Ryuji.

"Sure I am! This is where I got your gun."

He had hoped not. But there was nothing to be done about it now.

"All right then. Let's go—"

The door's bell tinked and he heard Aki from the inside say,

"Woah! It really is an airsoft gun shop!"

He rushed in to see that she was bouncing back and forth in front of the various guns, commenting that some of them were models she wasn't familiar and some looked similar to those that she was. And behind the counter on his right was a rather rough looking man with a bewildered look.

Ren laughed sheepishly and said, "My apologies for my little sister. She likes weapons."

"Wait there's combat knives here too?! And swords?! And even axes?!" said sister said, looking further in the shop. "This place gets better and better!"

"Really likes weapons." He turned to Aki and said, "Calm down, Aki. You're making a scene."

His sister froze then laughed in embarrassment. "Uh, whoops?"

Ren sighed though he wasn't truly annoyed. It was nice to see her this excited.

But still, he said to the receptionist, "Again, apologies for my little sister."

"Yeah...sorry for makin' a big deal. This is my first time in shop like this."

"It's fine," the man said. "Not every day I get fresh faces. You all enthusiasts?"

"Me?" Aki said. "Yeah, though I'm still new to guns."

"A little," Ren said. "Only because of my little sister."

"Hey!"

While Ryuji said, "Oh uh totally! Totally!"

That seemed to convince him as he then said,

"Well then since it's your first time, let me make a few things clear."

They all nodded.

"Don't go 'round pointin' 'em at people. Keep 'em in a bag or somethin' if you're outside. And don't let the fuzz catch wind of you havin' 'em. I don't need 'em snoopin' around in my store. Got it?"

The suspicions from earlier came back full force, even more so now that he noticed the tattoo on the man's neck and he was the store's manager, but the pistol Ryuji had bought was legitimate and Aki had no objections, so Ren just said,

"We'll be careful, we promise."

"Loud and clear."

"Yeah, same here."

"Damn well better," the man said with a hard look. After a moment it relaxed. "Right then, now...you guys lookin' for anythin' specific?"

Ren looked to his sister. Aki pointed to herself. He nodded. She returned it. Then they both looked to the shop owner.

"Got anythin' really realistic?"

The man gave an inquisitive look. "Oh? You guys plannin' a nice, big bank robbery or something?"

Ryuji backpedaled and said, "What? No! W-We just like the look is all!"

To "back it up", Ren thumbed at Aki and said, "More like she likes the look and won't accept any other kinds."

His sister glowered. "Hey, I don't only like accurate depictions."

"Says the one who complains that people keep using 'greatsword' wrong."

"Only if it's so obviously wrong that it gets me outta the story."

"Only for you."

"Uh..." Ryuji said.

Ren chastised himself for getting a bit carried away.

"Sorry," he said.

"Anyways...so, got any?" Aki said.

"Yeah I got 'em. But even if they look real, you can tell they ain't if you look real close. Real guns feel...different."

Aki's shoulders lowered in disappointment.

"Oh...so they won't look like how some guns look like?"

"Nope. Not as long as I don't wanna deal with copyright."

"Okay then...can I look at some of them then?"

"Sure. But you'll get the beginner selection for now. I'll go get them."

"Beginner selection? So there's more than that?" she said. "Is the one that looks like a Dragunov sniper rifle part of the higher level?" Aki pointed to a barrel that was sticking out of the side door.

For a moment, the manager looked impressed before he shifted back to neutral. Ren did his best to resist his proud smile as the tattooed neck man said,

"Huh, you got a good eye, kid," he said. "Yeah it is. Maybe I'll show it and other good stuff to ya someday. Not today though."

With that, he finally went into the storage and got several kinds of airsoft guns. After some discussion and debate between him and Aki, as well as Ryuji mentioning his preference, they settled on an SSG 69-like sniper rifle for Aki, a shotgun akin to the Benelli M3 Super 90 for Ryuji, and a submachine gun that resembled a Sterling Mark 4 without its stock for Takamaki. On top of that, they also had to buy a bag large enough to carry all of that, all of which were bought with them combining their allowances, Ryuji's included thankfully. That, unfortunately, took the rest of their afternoon, so even if Takamaki hadn't still been with Suzui, they had no more time to do it that day.

So Ren made sure to tell Takamaki and Ryuji his plan on going tomorrow after Takamaki told them about Suzui's condition in chat. Now all they needed to do was dodge Sakura-san's questions of the bag so that he wouldn't know its contents. He doubted they had gained enough of his trust to let it pass that they were models. Though that reminded him that they would have to hide it better when they went to school. So instead of the bag they bought, he put his pistol in his pocket, the SMG in Aki's jacket over her uniform, and her sniper rifle in his bag with its barrel detached. Mona insisted he could easily put it together since it was just a seperated barrel instead of, say, a completely disassembled gun. After making a few lockpicks with Aki that night under his guidance, he decided to trust him on that.

Though Ren made a mental note to figure out a better way to bring their weapons to school.

Scattering them across their bags and clothes was almost like they were asking to be caught.

(A)​

Once again, after a brief explanation from Mona about Treasure's being the core of a Palace and it would likely be hidden deep in it, they were in front of the tall and red-tinted visage of Kamoshida's castle as they activated the MetaNav in the alleyway.

And of course as soon as they arrived Skull and Mona were staring at Takamaki, who was staring at the castle.

"Well damn..." the thug said.

She and Joker scowled.

"Skull... Mona..." her brother said.

They startled.

"Uh...what?"

"What is it?"

"Really?" Rogue and her brother said, glancing between him and the Palace.

Thankfully both had the dignity to be sheepish, with Skull saying,

"Oh. Right. Sorry..."

And Mona saying, "Yes. My apologies."

"Hmm? Sorry for what?" Takamaki said, curious and seemingly oblivious.

Skull took it as an exit and said, "N-Nothin'. Just thinkin' about what should be your codename."

Rogue sighed at their behavior but she let it slide for now. Hopefully they remembered to be a bit more courteous. If they did it again, well... She was sure her brother could come up with a fitting retribution.

Takamaki continued unawares and said, "A code name?"

"Yeah. I'm Skull, he's Joker, that's Mona and she's Rogue."

Joker, of course, raised a hand and said, "I vote Catgirl."

Rogue snickered.

"What? Is that what you're calling me?! I am so not down for it!"

"Oh come on. He's naming your after a comic book character."

"Who also steals stuff like we are doing with Kamoshida's Treasure," Joker said, twirling his hair.

Takamaki grumbled. "But I want something better than just a little cat..."

Good point. "So what you want then?"

The twin tailed blonde pondered for a moment. "Maybe Panther?"

She and Joker smiled.

"Nice."

"I like it."

Skull, however, said, "Uh, why?"

"'Cause it sounds more ferocious...?"

"I'm with her there," she said.

"Me too. Tiger or Lion doesn't really fit her."

And then Mona purred—actually purred—and said, "She's a cougar..."

"Mona!" she and her brother said.

"Don't call me that!"

"Er, my apologies Lady—er, Panther!"

"All right then, let's go."

"Wait a second! There's one more thing we need to do," Mona said.

Joker and Panther looked to the not-cat, curious. She on the other hand groaned while Skull said,

"What? For real? Come on."

"It's important. Now that we have Panther, we should have Joker choose our starter lineup."

"Huh? What you mean by that?"

"A group of four is pretty large already. Any more would make us stand out. The fifth one should be assigned as backup."

Rogue frowned, a small part of her glad it was hidden by her other mask.

"Backup? What does that mean? Does backup have to stay outside?" she said.

Because if that was the case...it should probably be her that should be left, shouldn't it?

"No. They should still come with, but be a reasonable distance from us. In other words, the starting lineup is our first wave of our infiltration force."

Rogue relaxed in relief. That was bit better than she thought it'd be but...that was all the more reason it should probably be her. Her stamina was terrible after all.

Especially since Skull pointed out, "Then I guess we always gotta have our leader with us, right?"

"Exactly. We'll leave the team composition to you, Joker."

"Okay then..." Joker said as he twirled his hair again.

Rogue wanted this over with so she said, "Hey Big Bro, just put me on—"

But then her brother said, "Rogue, Panther and Skull will be our starters. Mona will be backup."

Rogue stared. "Huh?"

"You're sure?" Mona said.

Her brother nodded. "You have the most experience out of us, right?"

"Hmph. Naturally."

"Then you can focus on teaching us instead of fighting when you're backup."

"Heh. As expected of our leader."

"Now can we go?"

"Yes. Let's."

And they did...at least until Justine appeared in front of her and her brother, a deep blue and glowing jail door beside her opening.

"My master would like a word with you two," she said.

Rogue groaned. Joker laughed. She glared. He laughed harder. But not wanting to make it any longer than it already was, she followed him into the Velvet Room, back in their own cells and prison clothes. Igor seemed rather pleased with their "progress" and finally explained what the room was for: executing Personas. Akira frowned. Yes they were just "personalities" and thus "not alive", but still...she didn't like seeing her Personas, especially the one that first answered her call, get beheaded just to make a new one that had a lot more "skills" than it would normally have. But unfortunately, Igor didn't seem to want them to leave until they did, so she had to say good-bye to Fantôme and Bicorn while her brother did the same with Arsène and Pixie.

Before Fantôme and Arsène faced the chopping block though, they turned to them.

"Worry not, my lady. Though I may be gone now, I shall not be erased from your heart," her first Persona said.

"Indeed! I shall remain by your side, young master. We shall meet again, whenever you wish," her brother's first Persona said.

And then the two turned into a green maid called Silky and a demon in a pot respectively.

Having done that, there was one more thing Igor wanted to do with them before he let them go and that was gifting them...the Third Eye. Rogue worried for a second that it would be literal considering this was a mental landscape, but thankfully it really just was a "third eye" in the sense that they now had access to "special vision" to "see things that which are hidden," as the long nosed master put it. When they left the room though, they found themselves surrounded by worried friends.

"Hey, you guys okay?" she said.

While Joker said, "Is something wrong?"

"I was going to the say the same thing," Mona said. "You two were just standing still all of a sudden."

"Yeah, why's that?" Skull said.

Wait what?

Well, on one hand it was good that they didn't have to explain the Velvet Room door and its inhabitants, but on the other hand...it meant they would definitely look crazy if they tried to tell the truth of their "standing still".

She and her brother shared a look. Well guess that meant only one thing.

"Just thinking of something," Joker said.

"Just was makin' sure something wasn't wrong with him."

"I thought that was my job with you."

"No, that's my job with you as your little sister."

"I'm pretty sure that's supposed to be for older brothers."

"Uh..." Skull said, unsure.

She and Joker smirked.

Panther giggled.

That made their smugness worse.

Thankfully before it could get derailed even more than it was, Mona said, "Well if you're sure, let's get moving then."

And they went back in the castle, for real this time and they learned plenty of things as they went through the Palace.

For one, both Mona and the MetaNav were able to teleport them to the safe room they found past where Panther awakened. It would've been nice if they could teleport anywhere, but Mona basically told them that probably wasn't possible because of the distortions from the Palace ruler.

For two, the most convenient thing so far about this mental universe, the guns they brought basically get "absorbed" by their thief suits until needed. She asked Mona if that also applied to items and it seemed it did...to an extent. They couldn't test how much they could store in their "inventories" then, or how would the stored items would appear in the real world afterwards, but mainly Rogue questioned Mona how come they seemed to be able to do that without any consequnce. Unsurprisingly the non-feline wasn't sure but guessed it could be a cognition of the general public that anyone can carry a lot of things without needing a bag.

Rogue guessed she would have to thank video games for that.

Which she also blamed for why the enemies would drop cash, both paper and coins, all the time and the occasional items.

For three, Mona taught them about Baton Passes and hiding behind objects. The latter was pretty straightforward, use the environment to get closer to the Shadow even safer before ambushing them. The former was similarly easy to understand, after dazing an enemy, they can pass their power to someone else and repeat if they can, going on until the enemy was gone or they couldn't daze it.

For four...

Rogue collapsed on the couch and panted, trying to catch her breath and ignore the burning of her muscles.

"Are you okay?" her brother said, a hand on her arm.

"Let...me...breath..."

...she had absolutely terrible stamina.

From the safe room on the first floor, they had several fights, pillaged a couple of chests, found a map after trying out Third Eye, and found another safe room on the second floor after going from one landing to another by using the scaffolding and chandeliers as a bridge. That was it. From the map they got, it wasn't much progress and yet still she wanted to collapse. In comparison, the others were tired but not as much as her, while Mona showed little fatigue.

She hated it.

"How about we stop for today?" Joker said. "We found a safe room. It should be a good stopping point."

"Yeah, I don't mind."

"Me neither."

"Rogue?"

She grumbled. "I can...keep going... Just gimme a break..."

"Rogue..."

"C'mon...we gotta...finish soon..."

"I know. But we also don't know how much time has passed in the real world. We could be pass curfew."

Rogue groaned, imagining their caretaker scolding them.

"Fine..."

Thankfully for her, her muscles were a lot less sore when they left the Palace, but she was still way too tired than she wanted to be. Because of that, the group decided to rest tomorrow and come back the day after. But Akira worried if they kept going at that pace with the amount they explored today, they might not be able to finish it before she, her brother and Ryuji get expelled, especially since they had no idea how many "mini-bosses" there would be in the castle.

Akira cursed her low stamina. There had to be some way to fix it, especially in the Metaverse. Maybe something that would change her cognition of her stamina?

"Aki? Your medicine."

"Oh right. Thanks Big Bro."

Akira paused.

Wait. Right. There was that medicine Takemi supposedly had.

If the Metaverse was affected by cognition then maybe...

Well now she was glad that they wouldn't go tomorrow.

{R}​

"I'm gonna go ahead and go back," his sister said.

"Oh okay. See you at home."


With that, Ren had...nothing to do. Well, not really. He could check out the school library to see what its fiction selection was like, if it even had one. He could check out more of Tokyo and maybe find a part time job to fund their Phantom Thief escapades. He could even go and deal with the mess that was the items and cash they got from the Metaverse and put them in a better hiding spot in Leblanc. If anything, that one should be a priority but...

He had hoped to spend some time with Aki after yesterday. She seemed a bit morose last night so he had hoped to cheer her up by going out together. But it seemed she was much more tired than she let on and wanted to be alone. She would've asked if they could go together if she wanted otherwise.

"Something wrong, Ren?"

"Hmm, not really," he said, which was true.

There wasn't anything particularly wrong going on at that moment.

Besides the problem of Kamoshida that is.

He just didn't feel like doing much.

"Well, if you have nothing to do, maybe you could join Ryuji? He did ask if you wanted to help him train."

Maybe he would. He hadn't gotten to spend time with the faux-blond after all, plus Takamaki took today's break to visit Suzui again.

"Okay then. I'll do that."

"All right. I'll be walking around then. Tell me when you're done, okay?"

He nodded and the not-cat left him to find Ryuji. It didn't take long to do so, and when he did, his friend said,

"Huh? Where's Akira?"

"She went back home."

"Oh... I was hopin' she'd still be with ya."

He titled his head. "How come?"

"Well she didn't look too good yesterday and I'm tryin' to get in better shape, so...I thought maybe I could help her get better too."

Ren smiled. "I'll tell her when I get back then," he said. "Thank you."

"Huh, what you thankin' me for?"

He chuckled. "Nothing. So, shall we go?"

"All right! That's what I wanna hear! C'mon, let's get changed."

Ren tilted his head again. "Changed?"

It turned out that when Ryuji meant "help", he meant he wanted someone to run with him. Which, well, made sense but Ren had thought Ryuji wanted him as his spotter or something like it. Though it wasn't all bad. He did have a point in that if they trained their bodies in the real world, it would better their performance in the Metaverse. When they arrived at Ryuji's "former secret training spot"—which was just the courtyard between the main building and the practice building—but before they started, he asked Ryuji why he wanted to exercise when he was already in good shape and he said,

"Well, fightin' in that other world was a shock. I couldn't move my body how I wanted. It felt...lame. So I thought I'd build my muscles back up! I mean, anything's better than this body, right? Maybe then I'll help out a little more."

Ren frowned, not liking how his friend was talking about himself.

"You help a lot, Ryuji," he said. "If anything, I'm counting on you."

And everyone else too.

To his relief, the faux-blond smiled and said, "For real? Well then all the more why I gotta wreck your expectations."

Ren smiled back.

But then Ryuji said, "All right! Let's go! I'm gonna do knee lift sprints! You should stick with the normal ones."

And Ren flinched. He might not know what exactly a knee lift sprint entailed, but just the name alone sounded exhausting. Still, he ran with Ryuji all over school and barely managed to keep up with him despite the difference in how they ran. Ren figured the only reason Ryuji didn't outright leave him in the dust was because of his leg, which Ren chastised himself for forgetting about. Now it made sense why moving around didn't feel right for Ryuji and yet...

If this was Ryuji not at his best, what had he been like at top condition, before everything?

So he couldn't but ask after they caught their breaths,

"What was it like?"

"Huh? What was what like?"

"The track team."

Ryuji was quiet for a bit. But then he went on to explain the track team's former status, how it was then placed under Kamoshida's nonsense supervision, and how he brought up Ryuji's hard-working, single mother and alcoholic and abusive father. That was when Ryuji exploded, giving the man an excuse to shut down the track team and give reason for all the other members to hate him.

As if Ren needed another reason to tear into the king of the castle.

Or another reason to sympathize with Ryuji's plight when his father reminded Ren of his mother.

But he ignored his spike of anger, noticing how morose Ryuji had gotten, his eyes distant as he gazed into his memories.

"Do you...want to go back?" Ren said.

Ryuji probably could when the business with Kamoshida was all over.

"You mean the track team? Nah... How could I, after all that?"

Well, that was true, especially since his reputation was ruined but...Ren felt the faux-blond was stubborn enough to push through.

But then he said, "C'mon, don't ask me tough questions like that! I ain't smart, y'know."

And Ren chuckled.

"Anyways! That's all in the past! I'm looking at the future now. And that's what we gotta do! Build it."

"If you say so, Ryuji."

Then he just had to say, "So you're all warmed up, right? Let's go on another run! You're better at runnin' than I thought you'd be." He grinned. "Not as good as me though!"

And Ren groaned.

He was going to be as exhausted as Aki when he got back, wasn't he?

(A)​

"Got any...uh..." How should she say it? "...'special' medicine?"

That sounded stupid.

But it seemed to work as the doctor was startled then looked at her in suspicion.

"Oh right. You were the kids at Leblanc," she said. "Your medication isn't working?"

"No it's not for my asthma. My meds are fine."

"Then won't regular medicine do?"

"No. I...have my reasons."

That she hopefully won't have to actually explain and instead just give her an excuse or two.

The doctor was quiet for a bit so Akira was caught off guard when she told her to go to the examination room. She felt apprehension coil her throat but she ignored it and went in. She needed the medicine. Of course, Dr. Takemi knew she had been listening in on the conversation with the "special medicine" and asked why a high schooler needed it, especially one who was already taking daily medication. Akira just went with "exams", which didn't really work, the doctor advising the health reasons against it. Akira then insisted on it so she could pass exams for her family, which made her call her annoying and that it was way out of her allowance.

"Can I work for it then?" she said.

Dr. Takemi sighed and didn't speak.

Well that was a little better than denying her again.

Then the doctor eyed her a bit before she said, "Then are you someone you'd consider to have a good amount of stamina?"

Crap.

"Yeah," she said, hoping Dr. Takemi wouldn't notice the tone or speed.

"I've been looking for a person around your age to help me out. I even put out an ad for it but no one's answered yet. Are you up for it?"

"Will I get that medicine if I do?"

"If you show results, I'll consider it."

Well, this was the best she was going to get.

So Akira nodded and said, "Yeah. I'm up for it."

The doctor didn't seem too convinced but still said, "Okay then. You'll be participating in clinical trials for my medicine. Wait right here."

She left the room through another door and came back with a cup that was so bitter she could smell it from a good distance away.

"Here you go."

Akira stared at the small cup in her hand. Her stomach was churning and she was surprised her asthma wasn't protesting at the smell.

"Worried about the side effects? Well you can relax," she said.

For a second Akira was hopeful.

"Rest assured my autopsy is guaranteed to will figure out exactly what part of it killed you."

Akira grumbled. She didn't like the possibility of dying to medicine of all things.

But it was an experimental one...so she should've expected it.

Maybe she should try and renegotiate the terms...

But then Takemi said, "What? Aren't you going to take it? The exit's right there if you aren't."

And Akira tensed and glared at her. Oh she was definitely messing with her now, trying to stop her. Well she wasn't going to let a little nervousness stop her.

She took a deep breath and gulped it all down.

"Huh?"

"Blegh..." Akira said, smacking her lips in an attempt to get rid of the taste.

It was so sour it made lemons seem sweet. But she wasn't throwing it back up so that was good.

"I can't believe you drank it."

Akira smirked, even if it was a bit hard to keep up.

"How's that?"

"Wow. Still doing okay, huh?"

"Yup." Well mostly.

Her tongue was dead now but that was fine all things considered.

"Hmm. Not bad for a high schooler."

"Heh. Told you I'd be up for—"

She burped and a smell even worse then rotting fish and garbage went up her nose.

"... Welp. Game over, I guess."

Everything turned black.

{R}​

Ren sighed and put away his phone, glad both he and Ryuji were able to make it back after to their homes despite how much running they did. He couldn't wait to lie down on his bed.

"Aki, I'm home," he said as he stepped in.

But then Sakura-san said, "Oh. You're back. If you're lookin' for your sister, she's not here."

He froze. "What...? You're sure?"

The bespectacled man frowned. "Yeah, I am."

He rushed outside and dialed Aki's number, hoping that he was just being paranoid. But when the call didn't go through, his heart raced even more as he tried to think of where she could be. He hadn't seen her while on the way home. He couldn't think of where she would go. And he wasn't sure where to start looking. She could be having an asthma attack for all he knew.

"Hey," Morgana said.

"What?" he said, gritting his teeth.

"Maybe Akira's at the clinic. She did stay behind for some reason the other day."

He ran straight for the clinic. He froze when he pushed into the examination room.

There, on the examination table, was Aki knocked out.

He glared at the startled doctor.

"What did you do...?"

"Let me explain," she said.

He stepped forward. "Oh I hope so."

But almost as if on cue, his sister groaned and said, "Big Bro...Shut...up..."

He gasped. "Aki!"

"Ugh...noisy..."

Thankfully, it turned out that his sister was indeed fine. However, as Takemi not only told of the results of Aki's "trial", but explained what she was doing and why, Ren directed his anger from the doctor to his sister.

"Aki..."

His sister just stayed silent with her arms crossed.

Ren sighed. "I'm sorry for getting mad earlier," he said to Takemi.

"As long as you understand."

"I do. But I would prefer if Aki didn't do these clinical trials."

"What?! Big Bro! But what about—"

"That medicine isn't worth your life, Aki."

"I was fine! She wouldn't have given it if could've killed me!"

Takemi cut in and said, "Well I didn't think you'd drink it. There's always a slight chance of death with untested medicines."

He silently thanked the doctor then as Aki cowed, even if it wasn't completely, as she said,

"But I need it for...you know... And the deal was I'd test her meds and she'd give us more powerful meds for us to use."

Ren sighed. That was a fair deal. But he still didn't want Aki to do it specifically. Who knew how would the medicine affect her?

So he said, "Then I'll do it."

"Huh?"

"Oh?"

"I'll take Aki's place for your clinical trials," he said to Takemi. "If you don't mind that is."

"Hmm...you're sure?"

"Yes."

"Then sure. I'm fine with that. I'll have to test this on you as well though next time."

He almost grimaced at that. Almost.

It helped that the soothing voice froze time and said,

I am thou, thou art I. Thou hast acquired a new vow. It shall be the wings of rebellion that breaketh thy chains of captivity. With the birth of the Death Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power.

So he was composed when he said, "Thank you."

They then settled on a few more details about the "deal", mainly when the next trial will be. With that done, they stepped out of the clinic...and he sighed, followed by his sister. He glanced at her. She met it.

"What?"

His anger seared at the danger his sister could've put herself, but remembering how she kept looking away, it died down and instead he said, worry lacing his tone,

"What were you thinking, Aki?"

And his sister deflated even more. "I know, I know, it was stupid...I get it but..."

"But...?"

She faced him with a worried frown. "But what if we don't reach the top in time?"

Oh. That was why? Then...

"We will," he said.

"How do you know?"

"Because I know everyone's going to their best."

"But..."

"But...?"

"What if my best isn't good enough?"

Oh. That made more sense.

"Then I'll help you, of course," he said. "That's what big brothers are for."

Aki laughed. "Yeah. You're right."

"So promise you won't do anything stupid?"

"Nah. Can't promise that." Ren was taken aback. But then she said, "I'll promise to do my best though and help you too. That's what little sisters are for, right?"

They laughed.

"Yeah, they are."

And then everything froze again.

I am thou, thou art I. Thou hast acquired a new vow. It shall be the wings of rebellion that breaketh thy chains of captivity. With the birth of the Hunger Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power.

He stared at Aki. Aki stared at him.

"Did you...?"

"Get a Confidant...?"

He nodded.

She nodded.

Ren wasn't sure what to think of that. So he said the first thing that came to mind.

"I really should look into these cards. I think they might be Tarot but I've never heard of a Hunger card before."

Aki frowned. "Hunger? What are you talking about?"

He also frowned. "Didn't you get a Hunger Confidant?"

"No... I got a Fool Confidant with you."

Ren startled. "Wait, Fool?" he said. "Then...what did you get for Igor?"

"I...got the Moon..."

Now this was curious. He hadn't thought their Confidants with the same person could be different "cards". But if that was the case...

"Then what did you get for Ryuji?"

"I got Chariot."

Now that didn't help. "That's the same as mine."

"Okay that's weird..."

Before they could say more though, Mona said, "What's weird is what you're talking about. I don't understand any of it. What do cards have to do with confidants?"

They both startled. Ren forgot Mona was with them. He was tempted to explain since he was confused but...it would take a bit and he wasn't sure if he would even understand anyway.

So he was fine with Aki saying, "Uh...just a way for us to keep track of something."

Which was true to an extent anyway.

Ren, meanwhile, just nodded.

That seemed to satisfy Mona as he said, "Okay then. Now let's go home. You two need your rest for tomorrow after all of that."

Neither of them argued with the not-cat. They were still not sure what to make of the different Confidants between them after all.

A good night's rest always made things better, even if only a little.

[HR=3][/HR]
Author's Note(s): Did I go the convenient route with the weapons and items? Yes. Yes I did. I was scratching my head on how to make it well...make sense any other way. However I do have some limits in mind for it. Mainly that how everyone has their own set amount of "space" because of the kinds of suit they wear. Thus Joker, Mona, and Rouge have lots of space because of their trenchcoats, fanny packs and pants, Panther has next to none because it's a form fitting suit, and Skull has so-so space as he has a coat and pants.

The chapter title comes from a chapter from The Phantom of the Opera. Well not the grammar but more or less it's the same.

Also I was tempted to make it Lust, as that is the actual name of the Arcana from the Thoth deck as well as the Japanese name of Hunger in Golden, but decided to keep the name Hunger so that it will be easy to guess for anyone who doesn't know that it is indeed the same Arcana a certain someone in P4 has and, well, I didn't feel like having Ren and Akira comment on the name of Lust.
 
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TheCharredDragon

One world, one love, shadows of mass destruction
Chapter 11: I Think This is the Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

{R}​

That evening was spent looking into the Major Arcana in Tarot and...in truth neither were sure how to interpret the fact they represented their Confidants. The Major Arcana all had meanings, yes, but while some of them made sense, like Chariot's drive and confidence for Ryuji, and some of them were almost funny, like Hunger's passion for life for Aki, the rest...made them worry for the ones they made the Confidant with, like the choice between right and easy for Lovers for Takamaki. They could ask Igor but...they both agreed he wouldn't give much in the way of answers. So for now they put that to rest. In comparison the morning was mostly uneventful, save the brief annoyance of being woken up by Mona doing something with the tool bench in front of Aki's bed. The not-cat denied doing anything while they slept. So of course in the afternoon...

Ryuji: Man, we need cash.

Ann: Sure, but why bring that up now?

Ren: Agreed.

Akira: U 2 TAKAMAKI?!

Ren: Oh calm down.
Ren: It's not a big deal.
Ren: Texting in class is just Phantom Thief practice.

Akira: Says the one who got hit with chalk.

Ren: All the more reason to practice.

Akira: AAAAAAAGGGGGGGHHHH

Ren saw Takamaki smother a giggle. He smiled both at her reaction and Aki's.

Ryuji: Uh...anyways...
Ryuji: It's just that it just hit me that we got weapons and meds and all sorts of shit...
Ryuji: But we can't more if we don't got dough.

Ren: We'll earn some then.

Ann: Yeah. We could get part-time jobs.

Akira: Yeah. That's probably the only way.
Akira: Can't grind for cash when we could get exhausted then caught.

Ryuji: I dunno... Do we have to?
Ryuji: Shit ushimarus lookin here gtg

With that, their friend left chat.

Akira: Geez, this was what I was talking about.

Ren: And like I keep saying, we'll be fine.

Akira: YOU. Stop. GINXING IT.

Ren: You were the one who brought it up.

Another giggle from Takamaki, but this one seemed...sad.

Ann: You two really get along huh?

Akira: Only when he's not being an idiot.

Ren: Pot calling the kettle black.

Akira: STOP IT. WE'LL LOOP FOREVER.

Ren: Then someone has to stop it first.

Akira: Then I will. Bye.

Now his sister left the chat. But Ren didn't forget about Takamaki's mood moments before. So he opened a thread to her.

Ren: Takamaki? Are you okay?

Ann: I'm fine.
Ann: Just can't wait until we go back to the Palace.

Finally Takamaki put away her phone, not wanting to talk about it further. Ren sighed and did the same. He was worried but he pushed that into the back of his mind as they went about their day so that he could, more or less, focus when they gathered at the hideout.

"Everyone ready to go?" he said.

Everyone said their affirmatives, including Aki.

He glared at her. "You're sure?"

"Yeah, I am. I'm pretty sure."

He kept it up.

Aki rolled her eyes. "Really Big Bro. I'm fine. The meds yesterday didn't do anythin'."

"Huh? Meds? What meds?" Ryuji said.

"The untested medicine she took so that we could get better, and tested, medicine for Palace use."

"Wait what?!" both blonds said.

"Would you tell them, Aki?"

She glowered. "Is this payback for that?"

"Yes."

Of course he was going to get back at her for scaring him like that.

Aki sighed. "Fine..."

And she did just that, retelling the events with the clinic. Though in less detail, she at least did include the fact that she gave him a heart attack and apologized for it.

"Well glad to hear you're all right but, man, you got guts..." Ryuji said.

"I'm with Ren though, are you really all right?"

"Yeah, I'm sure," Aki said. "If I wasn't, you'd hear a lot more complainin'."

Wait, did Takamaki just...

"Did you...call me Ren?"

Everyone, bar Mona, was startled.

"Oh my gosh I'm sorry. I just thought that..."

"Oh it's fine. I was just making sure."

"So...you're fine with that...?"

Aki smiled. "Sure we are. It'd be a pain to call us both 'Amamiya'."

"Well while we're at it, I'm fine with just Ryuji."

Takamaki was surprised. Then she smiled and said, "All right then. If we're doing that, call me Ann, okay?"

"Okay, Ann."

"Sure Ann."

"No problem Ann."

"As you wish Lady Ann."

The lady in question laughed.

Then Ren said, "All right then. Let's go."

They went into the Palace, this time with the plan of avoiding as many fights as they could. Well, that was the plan at the very least. Unfortunately the hall beside the newest safe room they found had nowhere they could hide to sneak around the guards. Thankfully the room afterwards seemed to be a dining room, so there were plenty of spots to hide in there. Even with the bars in the doorways stopping them from progessing quickly.

However, despite their stealth efforts, there were still a few Shadows they couldn't avoid, like one in the room they arrived in after going through a vent. On the bright side though, they had another way of negotiating...even if it involved beating the Shadow within an inch of their life left and have them beg for their lives. And the chest it guarded had a ring that allowed them to use a wind skill. He gave that one to Ann since she had good magic.

When they left the room though...

Everyone looked up.

...they found themselves in a stairwell with busted stairs.

"Uhh, I don't think we're goin' any further this way..."

"Seems so," he said.

"You'd think he'd take better care of his castle with how much he loves it..." Rogue said.

"Should we check somewhere else?" Panther said.

"No, wait," Mona said. "Look over there!"

They did and all Joker saw was another goat ornament like the switches for the bars so far, this time gold plated, stuck to the floor quite a way above them.

"What about it?" Rogue said.

"Are we throwin' a rope over it and climbin' it?"

"Do we even have any rope?"

"No, phantom thieves do things a bit more stylish than that..." Mona's eyes gleamed. "And I have know just what'll do the trick."

Mona then pulled out some thick, black bracelets from his bags...and put one on his and Rogue's wrists each.

"What the—woah!" his sister said.

He almost shook the cat off but by then the bracelet was already on him.

"Mona, don't just put stuff on us."

"But I need to make sure those fit you. There's no use telling you what they are if they don't."

Joker sighed. That was a good point. So he strapped it properly along with Rogue without further protest. When they made sure they were snug and comfy, Mona smiled.

"Good. Seems it does fit properly."

"Yes. Now will you tell us what these things are?"

"Nyaha. Those are grappling hooks."

"Wait grappling hooks?! Really?!" Rogue said.

"Yup. It'll let you zip to hard-to-reach places in a flash."

Now that caught Joker off guard. "When did you get these?"

Because if he already had them, then he felt a little annoyed about not having it sooner.

"I didn't get them. I made them. It was a little something I worked in secret."

"Secret...?"

Was that what this morning was all about?

Before he could question Mona more, Rogue said, "So how we use it?"

"Just give it a try. I'm sure you're smart enough to figure it out."

Rogue glared at the not-cat and said, "Is that a challenge?"

Mona didn't get to answer as his sister then flicked her wrist like a certain thief at the goat and pulled, the grapple flinging her all the way to the floor the ornament was attached to.

"Ha! Take that!" she said.

Joker shook his head in fond exasperation.

"Woah! That was awesome!" Skull said.

But Panther pointed out, "Uh...but how are we supposed to get up?"

Mona said, "Uh..."

Ren thought so.

"It's probably best you two hold onto me. Mona can climb the wire before I pull myself up," he said.

"But, can it hold all three of us?"

"Only one way to find out."

Thankfully for all those involved, his grappling hook did stay intact with both Panther and Skull holding onto him after Mona used the wire to get up. But, after getting the chest on the top of the stairwell, the next room they found there was an enemy mere meters away from the doorway. His heart spiked before they hid behind cushions and corners. Only then did it calm down, but the feeling of danger still remained, the faint sound of Arsène warning him of the enemy before them.

And he wasn't the only one.

"Yo, this guy looks like bad news..." Skull said, thankfully low.

"Yeah, he does look tough... Not only that, it seems like he's more aware of his environment than the others. We'd better proceed with caution."

Joker was thinking of retreating actually. To his luck, behind him there was a safe room. So when they headed in, he said,

"I think we should head back. We made some good progress."

Rogue unsurprisingly grumbled. "I can still...keep going."

He looked at her and found that, yes, she seemed a lot better off than yesterday, but she was still pretty tired. Which he was glad for, but still he said,

"We've been inside for a good amount of time. This seems like a place to stop before it gets dark."

Rogue didn't look entirely convinced but said, "Fine... We can head back."

"You?" Joker said, glancing at the rest.

They told him they were fine with it so they left the Palace. Before they went their separate ways though, they discussed on when next they were going to go. After some discussion, it was decided they would go on Saturday, not only so that he could get the money to restock their items, but if it was on the last school day, they could stay much longer and spend the next day resting. As such, they went their way home, with Ann telling them she planned on seeing Shiho tomorrow. Ren had been tempted to ask if he could come along, but again he stopped himself. Besides, he needed to check for part-time jobs.

Ryuji, meanwhile, said as Ann left, "How about you, Akira? Wanna train tomorrow?"

"Huh? Train?"

"Oh right. I forgot. Me and your bro trained yesterday 'cause I wanted to build my muscles back up. Since you were havin' trouble in the Palace...I thought it'd maybe you'd wanna join."

His sister frowned. "You know I probably can't keep up with you, right?"

"Ah yeah... Still, you should try exercisin'. Even somethin' simple, like takin' a long walk."

"Really...?"

"Yeah. Don't matter what kind it is. Long as you're pushin' yourself a bit more than usual, then you'll get better in no time."

"Huh...thanks Ryuji. I think I'll do that then."

"Hey, no problem. Anythin' to help."

Ren smiled. It was a warm sight to see.

(A)​

Of course on the day when she wanted to have a long walk around Shibuya, it rained. So of course her brother was worried about her over something so simple. Not that she blame him...much...for being like that considering what she did a couple of days ago. But still, it was just rain. If anything, it was a good thing. It meant that most scents wouldn't spread so easily. Or at least she thought it'd work like that. She needed to double check.

Thankfully she managed to calm him down and not be too worried over her walk in Shibuya.

With umbrella in hand, she explored one of the most famous wards of Tokyo. She had already seen a bit of it thanks to the first day she arrived, but she didn't really look beyond the convenience store she found. Just Central Street alone had so many places for food of all kinds and shopping of all items. The one she especially liked was this bookstore not too far from the station. She made a note of its location in both her mind and phone. But after walking from one point of the street and then back to the station, she could already feel her feet sagging.

So she sat down on a bench by the Buchiko statue and pulled down her mask, the surface moist from the rain beginning to soak her skirt. Ren was definitely going to scold her for that but Akira didn't really think it would be a big deal. A slightly wet skirt was better than completely drenched clothes from collapsing on the ground. The place was relatively empty, none of the other benches were occupied and all the people just passed by with their umbrellas. And there the Buchiko statue stood, tall and proud in recreation of the dog who previously waited in the area. It looked so...

...alone.

She almost wanted to put a coat over the Buchiko statue so it wouldn't be soaked but that was definitely something she wouldn't do. She didn't want to add that to her "criminal record". It would be embarrassing. Besides it was a statue. The coat would be better served on something else.

"Is that you? Uh, ah..."

Akira startled but excitement bubbled as she turned and found that, yes, it was who she thought it was.

It was the brunette boy from before, still holding his attaché case as well as an umbrella of his own. His name was Akechi if she remembered what that woman with him said right.

"Hey! You're here! It's good to see you," she said with a smile.

He gave a smaller one in return. "It's good to see you too," he said. "However, it just occured to me that I don't know your name."

"Oh yeah..." she said. She'd forgotten that. She laughed sheepishly. "Sorry about that. Name's Akira Amamiya. What about yours?"

He gave her an inquisitive look. Likely remembering she used his name last time as she bid him farewell, even as he prepared to answer.

So she said before he did, "Yeah I know that I know your name already, but I'd still like an introduction. It's only fair."

It startled him and he stared. But then he chuckled, soft and quick, before he said, "Very well then. My name is Goro Akechi."

"Goro Akechi, huh?" Akira tried, and failed, to suppress her giggle. That was interesting. "Are your parents big fans of Kogoro Akechi or something? Cause it'd be cool if that's why they gave you that name."

It was slight, like his chuckle before, but Akira saw Akechi tense and his smile widen in jarring contrast with his sad, half-lidded eyes.

"Actually yes, my mother was a fan," he said, his tone more pleasant than before.

Akira wondered why was that. But that didn't matter much when it seemed he was trying not to appear bothered, thanks in part to her comment on his name.

So she said, "What about you?"

"Hmm? What about me?"

"Do you like to read?"

Akira had a feeling he knew she was purposefully changing the topic despite the transition, but he nonetheless took it and said,

"A bit. I used to read more often before."

"Really? What kind of books do you like?"

"Well..."

And then they ended up talking about that, Akechi admitting he did like mystery novels like his mother did, liking the challenge of solving them before reaching its end. Akira admitted she has a soft spot for fantasy and sci-fi because of her love of weapons and the worlds they came from. Both of them read plenty of everything else, especially in relation to their favorite kinds of books. And both of them also haven't been reading for pleasure too much recently.

But then Akechi looked around them and said, "Oh, it looks like it's getting pretty late. I should start getting to work."

Akira blinked and looked away from the boy. "Oh yeah. I probably should head back home."

"Is your home far from here? I can escort you back."

Akira smiled and chuckled. She had found another gentleman like her brother.

"Nah, it's fine. My home's not that far. It's just in Yongen-jaya's backstreets, so I should be fine."

"I see. I'm glad to hear that. Then this is good-bye, then?"

"Yeah." Akira realized something. "Oh wait." Since that was the case... Akira took out a chocolate bar from her school bag and handed it out to him. "Here you go."

Akechi stared. "Huh?"

Akira smirked. "It's for you. Can't say good-bye without giving it to you."

"As much as I appreciate it, I don't quite understand why."

She laughed. "For a snack of course."

The brunette stared again before he gathered his composure and said, "Then thank you."

Akira smiled. "No problem. I'll see you later, Akechi!"

[G]​

Akechi watched as Amamiya-san pulled up her mask and left. He...hadn't expected to have a conversation with her about books. Oh he had expected, and wanted, a conversation, so that he would finally know her name, but how she led into it... It seemed she noticed and changed the topic and yet...she also seemed genuinely curious of his preferences while sharing her own. Throughout the whole interaction she seemed so...happy. Why? He wondered. It clearly wasn't because she knew he was a famous young detective if her comment on his name was any indication.

Perhaps she really has grown fond of him because of him saving her. She did give him another chocolate bar.

He wasn't sure on that though. And the only way he could find out was to speak with her more...

She had mentioned her home was in Yongen-jaya. And not just that, it was in its backstreets, just like the café Sae-san frequented for its coffee, praising its taste.

It seemed he would make a trip to it sooner than he thought he would.

There was a chance he could meet her in such a place after all.

Author's Notes: FINALLY a much shorter chapter. Thank you my love for chapter titles because that's partially why I split it from the next chapter. That and I wanted to split it that way.

Chapter title is a quote, more or less, from the 1942 film, Casablanca. The only thing missing is the name.
 

TheCharredDragon

One world, one love, shadows of mass destruction
Chapter 12: Pushing Forward

{R}​

The two days passed quickly for Ren. He managed to make a "hiding spot" in Leblanc by organizing then using what was there, actually finding a bike in the process, and thought of a better way to bring all of it for their trips, having had Mona stash a bag on the roof in a spot only the not-cat could reach. The day before he had another training session with Ryuji as well as, at Aki's suggestion, bringing a lot of drinks and sodas. That also included them trying to make coffee on the café's coffee machine, which they unexpectedly got permission for. And now it was the day for another infiltration and they were back in the safe room that was surrounded by crowded hallways filled with enemies, including the incredibly strong one.

For the moment, they sneaked passed them to try out the door behind the strong enemy but found the lever wouldn't work, a necklace with a divot hanging from the goat's neck. Since it was clear they needed some kind of "key" for it, they went in the room with no enemies inside that was nearest to it to hide, the room that was actually closest having a guard in it.

"A library, huh? Seems fishy," Mona said when they entered.

"Took the words right outta my mouth," Rogue said.

"Agreed," he said as he followed his sister in looking at the shelves.

"Huh? Whaddya mean?"

Mona said, "Come on. A library in a castle? There has to be some sort of secret mechanism here."

"Yeah. There's always one."

"Or more."

"Uh huh. And since this is cognitive... Ha! Thought so," Rogue said.

"Here as well," Joker said.

"Huh? Found what? There's nothing there."

"Exactly. The perfect spot to put a key book," his sister said.

"Now we just need to figure out what to put in it," Joker said as he examined the shelf before him to see if there was a clue with the titles.

He frowned and glared.

Shiho Suzui: The Pliant Bunny, one of the book titles said.

Ann Takamaki: The Charming Doll, another of the books said.

Akira Amamiya: The Exotic Waif, yet another book said.

Yet more reasons to go after Kamoshida.

Almost as if to draw him from those thoughts, the girl in question said, "Hey, I think I found another one!"

He turned and went to where Panther was, Rogue, Skull and Mona doing the same. As he did with the shelf earlier, he looked at the books on this one.

"'Tracing Kamoshida's Steps'... 'Kamoshida's Heroism'... 'Kamoshida's Law'? The hell? All these books are 'bout Kamoshida."

"Hmm, so we got one shelf with the names of the boys on the volleyball team, one about Kamoshida and one that's..." Rogue glanced at him.

Right, he hadn't said anything. "It has the names of the girls at school."

His sister's eyes shifted and he felt her gaze soften in worry. Ren smiled in embarassment and sadness. She probably had a guess to what names were specifically on the shelf. Yet she didn't say anything about that. Instead she said,

"So we have to find something about Kamoshida, the boys and the girls."

"Okay...but how're supposed to know which ones are the right ones?" Skull said as he glanced back at the room.

Joker followed it to the tables, some of which had books. He shared a look with Rogue and they nodded. He turned back and focused, using the Third Eye Igor gave him. There, he found it. One of the books was glowing, the wear much more prominent than the others. He stopped as he went and picked it up.

"The King Book..." Rogue said.

"Did you two figure it out?" Mona said.

"Maybe," Rogue said. "But we only found one so far."

He did another sweep with his Third Eye before he said, "Let's try the other rooms."

The other rooms turned out to indeed have other odd books—one titled "The Queen Book", the other "The Slave Book"—and just like that first room, there had been guards in all of them. Thankfully none of the knights in the halls noticed the screams from the fights. When they returned to library, it was easy enough to guess where they went. Just as they thought, when they were all put in the empty places, something clicked and two of the shelves moved to reveal a hidden room.

He froze at the threshold.

"Ugh, the hell...?" Skull said. "There're tons of pictures of Suzui here! Wait...they're all pics of her?"

But then he noticed the pain look on Panther's face and he turned to her in concern.

"Are you going to be okay?" he said.

Rogue was looking at her with the same worry.

Panther looked at them both before she took a deep breath. "Yeah." Then her gaze burned as she said, "If anything, I feel even more motivated now."

Joker was still worried she was pushing herself too much. But with that look in her eyes, he knew he wasn't going to be able to stop her.

So he said, "Okay. Just remember, we're doing this all together, okay?"

"Yeah. Exactly," his sister said.

To his relief, Panther smiled, even if it was small. "Yeah. Thanks."

Then Mona said, "Then let's search this room. I know it'll be awful, but if it was hidden like this, something important must be here."

They all nodded. Thankfully for their sanity, they found it quickly enough. There was a medal the same size as the divot from before, and not only that, there was a map under it. With that, they were able to determine where the Treasure could be and how much was left to get there. Because of that, and that they weren't that tired, they pressed onward. But just as they exited the room...

"Hey! Who're you?!"

...a guard came in.

It was a relatively quick fight, thanks in part to taking advantage of the thing called a Disaster Shadow that was with them, the Shadow a walking bomb.

Joker didn't want to think too much about the fact that the explosion didn't affect them but its "allies".

After that, they snuck past the guards, put the medal and went down the hallway past the unlocked door. At the end, there were two more doors. The one on the right led to a safe room, the one on the left...

Joker stared at the carpet before taking careful steps inside. Past the doorway was a large space, rows of chairs that looked suspiciously like pews and stained glass windows on each end of the room. And...

"No guards in sight?" Mona said. "That seems suspicous..."

"But the Treasure's ahead right? We got no choice but to keep goin'."

"I guess that's true...but let's make sure we're ready for anything."

Rogue leaned to him. "Mini boss room?" she said, low.

"Mini boss room," he said just as quiet.

With them in agreement, they brandished their weapons. It startled Panther and Skull but then they did the same as they followed him into the altar where a giant statue of Kamoshida stood. As he and Rogue guessed, a knight appeared, a golden one at that, mad at their intrusion on the king's holy ground before transforming into an armored angel. And to say the least, it deserved its armor.

Like the toilet demon when Panther awakened, it had a lot of health, but unlike it, the knight angel had no weaknesses they could exploit, or at least to the skills they had on hand. Not only that, it seemed to have some sort of charging skill. When it did that, its next hit was pretty much an instant faint on any of its targets. Joker had to burn through the few revive items they had. But after finding out that it had a habit of aiming for Skull, he had him lure out attacks and guard against them while he and the rest attacked it. Slowly but surely, they whittled at its health until it screamed and dissolved.

However by then...

"Incoming! We have a lot of enemies coming our way!" Mona said.

"From where?" he said.

"Both sides!"

Steel footsteps echoed.

"What?! What are we supposed to do now?!" Panther said.

Joker cursed under his breath and searched for an exit. Then his eyes met the statue again and he looked up.

"Rogue!" he said and pointed.

His sister followed then she nodded. "Right!"

"Mona! Skull! Hold on!" he said.

"Panther! C'mere!" she said.

Each of the ones called were startled but still listened and held on to their respective caller. He and Rogue flung their grapples on the arm of the statue and pulled just as they guards moved to surround them. Joker breathed a sigh of relief as the guards looked around in confusion, as if they pulled a disappearing act.

He was glad they made it through.

"Mona. Can you please make more grapples? We can't carry them with us all the time..."

After catching their breaths, and Rogue making Mona promise to make more grapple hooks, they continued on, using the pillars and arches to reach areas with items and chests before moving on. Though they made a brief detour in the hallway leading to the stairwell up. Skull had noticed an overgrown door on a balcony across the hallway's own and so they grappled their way to it. Behind the door covered with vines was a...potato shaped like a skull.

"Hmm...to be or not to be, that is the question..." he said as he held it in one hand and put his other under his chin.

"Huh?"

Rogue snickered.

He couldn't help it.

After that little joke, Mona "explained" that it was something called a Will Seed. And by "explain", he meant that Mona told them how they came to exist but not what they actually did or how it'd be helpful. But since it was a rare treasure, it was only fitting for the thieves they were to take it. So Joker kept it, once again thanking the large amount of inventory space he had. With that done, they made their way up the stairwell to the castle's rooftop, where many, many strong enemies were patrolling.

Understandably, Panther and Skull were worried about getting past all of that when these were the more self-aware Shadows. But Rogue pointed out the perfect platform for them: the roof of the gazebo in the center of it all. From there, they grappled their way to the roof of the room leading into the large tower and climbed the edges of it, as well as going through vents. On their way on trying to find more than just single rooms with no exit, they found yet another Will Seed. Eventually they did find the proper way inside.

To say the least, if the place hadn't hammered in on how distorted Kamoshida was, the tower definitely drove the last nail in.

Gone was the gold, red and white extravagance, replaced with magenta tints, slime covered blocks that sometimes moved like pistons, and pillars shaped as solely the torso of women, the head, arms and legs gone and their backends...constantly following his sights, even in his peripherals. It made his skin crawl with goosebumps. Skull made gagging sounds of disgust. Rogue just glared at them like she was hoping to burn it with laser vision. He wished she could. But as tempted as he was to let Panther burn them, he stopped her since it would attract attention on them.

So he was glad that there were only two enemies on the floor they entered, especially when it turned out one was particularly savage, and that there was another safe room. Yes they had passed by an elevator, and everyone didn't look as exhausted as last time, but he didn't particularly feel up to exploring any more. Thankfully for him, his sister and their friends agreed to his wish of stopping that day, though he did make a point of wanting to come back very soon. So Monday was the day they planned on finally reaching the Treasure.

(A)​

Akira smiled and stretched her arms. She had fared much better yesterday. Instead of outright collapsing at the next safe room, she just sat down. True, she had still been incredibly tired, both in and out of the Metaverse, but it was an improvement nonetheless. So she still went on her walk, but for the most part, she stayed at the café so that she would be in top form for tomorrow while her brother made preparations, buying and selling items and such. He was also likely taking another medical trial from Takemi while he was at it.

Though she wasn't exactly spending her time resting at the café.

"Thank you for your patronage," she said as another customer left.

Upon seeing she had free time, Sakura-san put her to work. Since he had let them use his coffee machine the other night, Akira did so without complaint. Though she certainly felt like doing so towards the more annoying customers, and unfortunately did let slip a few times with snarky remarks. She had to hand it to Sakura-san for not blowing up on them. He was a lot more patient than she gave him credit for. It made her guilty over the memory of nearly punching him on her first day here even worse. So she renewed her efforts to reign in her temper.

As she was putting away the cutlery, the bell rung.

Akira put on a polite smile and said,

"Wel—" She stared. "Akechi?"

Akechi stared. "Amamiya-san?"

She smiled wider. "It is you! I didn't think I'd see you so soon," she said. "What brings you here?"

The boy cleared his throat and tugged on his collar. "Oh a colleague of mine likes to come here," he said. "Do you remember the woman that was with me on our way to work?"

"Yeah. She comes here?"

"Yes. She says the coffee is quite delicious here so I wanted to try for myself. So when I managed to have some free time, I thought I would use the chance to come here."

"Well I'm glad you did." Since that was the case, she said, "So what do you want to order?"

Akechi gave her an inquisitive look as he sat by the counter and put his attaché case beside his chair. Whatever that expression was for though, she was pretty sure it wasn't for what he said next.

"Hmm..." He looked at the menu above. "What blend would you recommend?"

Still, even with the inkling on what he actually had wanted to say, she just chuckled sheepishly as she walked to the kitchen. She would bring it up after a bit.

"No clue." She turned to her caretaker and said, "What about you, Sakura-san?"

"I'll just whip up today's special. You fine with that?"

"I believe so."

"Want anything else with it?"

"Hmm. Well since there's curry, I'll have that as well."

"Got it."

While Sakura-san did the coffee, Akira washed the dishes. When he started cooking the curry, she had finished cleaning them and acted as his gopher, even though most of the utensiles were within arm's reach. But then when he was finished preparing the meal, he let her serve both the food and drink. She wasn't sure why but she took the plate and cup the few steps towards Akechi and placed it before him.

She smiled and said, "Here you go."

"Thank you."

As he ate, Akira was about to head back to work but then Sakura-san said,

"What are you doing?"

"Uh...working...?"

"Just talk with him. There aren't any others around anyway. You can sit on the chairs if you want."

Akira couldn't help but stare. Sakura-san was...giving her a break?

The man turned unamused. "What?"

Akira just smiled, barely making it not a smirk. "Nothin'." But she still said, "Thanks."

So she took a seat beside Akechi and said, "So? How is it?"

The boy chuckled softly and said, "The coffee certainly lives up to my colleague's praise, but I didn't expect for it to mix well with the curry."

"Heh, yeah, me too. But the curry's so good and the coffee too. No complaints here."

"Indeed." Then his face turned a bit more serious as he said, "Though not as surprising as seeing you here. My colleague never mentioned about anyone besides the café owner."

And there it was. It turned out her guess was right, he was wondering about why she was here.

"Makes sense," she said, smiling. "I did just move here and I haven't seen that co-worker of yours since I first met her."

"Oh? You live nearby?"

Akira smirked. "Yeah. Just upstairs."

"You live here?"

She laughed. "What? Something wrong with that?"

"No. It's just that it's not every day one makes home in a café with such a wonderful atmosphere," he said, smiling as well, though much smaller. "I'm quite jealous that you get to drink coffee like this everyday."

Well, when he put it that way... Akira looked around the café. She was pretty lucky. And for all the gripes she had of Sakura-san, he wasn't that bad.

"Yeah. You got that right." She gave him a mischeivous smile. "But if you really want the coffee that much, you can just come every day you know."

The boy chuckled. "Well, maybe not every day, but I think will come back," he said. "I think I've found my go-to café after all."

She smiled. "Glad to hear," she said. But still... "Not everyday huh? Work keeps you that busy?"

"Pretty much," he said after yet another bite. "I work rather irregular hours."

Akira couldn't help but giggle as a thought came to mind.

"Oh? So the boy named after a detective turns out to be a detective himself?"

"Ah ha ha, yes, actually."

She stared. "Woah, really? Can you tell me about it?" she said then she flinched.

Oh wait. He was here to relax from that, wasn't he?

"Uh...if you don't mind, I mean. We can just talk about something else if you don't wanna talk about work on your break..."

Akechi just stilled, holding his spoon mid-air and, once again, stared at her, this time with a blank expression. Akira frowned and fidgeted, worried she upset him. But then he shook his head, put his spoon down and gave her a small smile.

"I don't mind," he said. "What do you want to know?"

"Hmm..." Akira gave it some thought. "Oh, I know!"

And so they talked about his job. Unsurprisingly it wasn't as cool or glamorous as most shows and anime made it to be, but that was exactly why she listened, both fascinated and impressed. Fascinated because she got a bit of a glimpse of what it was really like, with the info searching, questioning and much, much paperwork like reports, and impressed because Akechi didn't seem that much older than her, if he even was, and he already had such a job, even if it was pretty much a part-time one.

Before she knew it, Akechi had finished his coffee and curry and said to Sakura-san,

"Thank you for the food."

"No problem."

"Here," he said as he paid for it.

He then took out his phone to see the time was pretty late into the afternoon and he seemed to mutter something. She looked at him with curiosity and Akechi met it with an apologetic face.

"My apologies," he said as he lifted his attaché case. "But I'll be taking my leave now."

Oh. Well, "It's fine," she said. Then she remembered something. "Oh, hey, wait."

Akechi looked curious until Akira held another chocolate bar before him.

"Huh?"

Akira smirked. "What? Did you think you were gonna leave without it?" she said. "No way I'm gonna stop a running gag."

The boy looked shocked before he laughed, a complete and full one that made him close his eyes, smile and bend a little forward from the surprise. Akira joined in his cheer, happy to see him smile. When he was done, he still had it on as he took it.

"Very well, Amamiya-san, I accept," he said. "Thank you."

"No problem. See you later, Akechi."

And so he left and Sakura-san broke her out of her reverie as he said,

"Hey, clean up will you?"

"Uh, got it!"

She managed to clean the dishes and utensiles Akechi used just as another customer came in. After that, time went much the same way it did that morning, helping out in the café. At least until her brother showed up, then he joined in with her. Soon enough, evening came and Akira sighed as she finished the last dish. She wiped the sweat from her forehead.

"Man, I wish I could take a bath..." she said.

"Hmph. Didn't I tell you already about the baths?" Sakura-san said.

She gave him a flat look and said, "Oh? You'll let us out at night to actually take one?"

He softened slightly. "Well, you're the only ones here, and you've been taking school seriously, so I see no problem with that."

Akira stared. She looked to her brother to see if he would tell her she was imagining things, but he just met her gaze, similarly wide-eyed. She turned back to their caretaker.

"Really?"

Sakura-san was back to frowning as he said, "But only around these parts, all right? Go back on your word and I'll kick you two out."

Akira couldn't help it. She laughed. There was the Sakura-san she knew.

His frowned deepened. "Keep that up and I might change my mind."

Akira smothered it as best she could before she said, "Sorry." Then, with a smile, "Thanks Sakura-san."

The man just huffed in reply. She, meanwhile, rushed upstairs, giddiness fueling her movements as she got her change of clothes. She was glad Sakura-san was giving them a bit more leeway now.

{R}​

Joker knew he shouldn't rush that much, but it got harder the longer they explored the tower, the limbless women pillars and ooze on the floor tile towers unnerving him. As such, his first order of business was seeing where that elevator went. It turned out it led to a staircase. The floor they arrived in led to a hallway behind the painting from the foyer, while the stairs itself led to another elevator, this one thankfully with no women pillars. But it didn't work. However, after some investigating and shortcut opening in the foyer, they found the switch to activate it.

What greeted them was a giant slime in front of the door to another Will Seed.

He quickly learned it was susceptible to Arsène and Carmen's sleep effects and so it was relatively easy to get rid of compared to the angel in Kamoshida's Cathedral. Once it was gone, they found out that when three Will Seeds were brought together, it formed a Crystal Skull and when he held it, he could hear the whisper of Arsène telling him he could use a new skill because of it. Seeing as it was a healing one, he had Mona hold onto it. From there, they finally explored the tower proper. Thankfully, it was rather straighforward...

...until they ran into a hallway of swinging scythes.

"Really?" Rogue said.

Joker smirked. "Can't have a booby trapped castle without them."

She sighed. "Of course." She looked to the Kamoshida bust. "And it's probably not gonna be that easy to stop it."

As they both guessed, it wasn't. The bust had no eyes so it was no surprise the jaw, when pulled, didn't stop the blades. But with all of that, it was logical enough to assume they needed to find some eyes to put in. It was easy enough to do with the use of Third Eye, finding the items they needed in the hands of certain golden guards. Said guards were the same red cavalrymen from before, as such they were handled without any trouble. Once they acquired them, they put the eyes in the sockets, made it across when the scythes stopped and reached the top floor. They went into the safe room before, unfortunately, using a woman pillar as a stepping stone to get inside the locked throne room.

In it was a fuming Kamoshida and a bunch of guards.

Rogue snickered. "He'd flip if he knew we were in the same room as him," she said in a whisper.

Joker allowed himself a brief smile before he said, "Let's go. We're almost there."

"Right."

They walked past him, keeping low to the ground, and went inside the door behind Kamoshida and his throne. From there, it was just another hallway with a much more ornate double door. They took a moment to catch their breaths before they found themselves past those and in a treasury.

"Woah, what is this place?! Holy shit!" Skull said. "That Treasure thing's gotta be here somewhere."

Joker agreed. It was like out of a cartoon. Everywhere around them were gold coins, piled together like they were sand, with a couple of gold cups and regular barrels here and there with even more in them. But that wasn't what he was the most interested in.

In the middle of it all, a strange orb floated, flowing like water and glowing with a rainbow aura.

"Hey, what is this?" Panther said as they moved closer. "It's...floating in the air."

"Is this the Treasure?" Rogue said, tilting her head.

"Heh heh, yup. That's the Treasure. We finally found it!" Mona said.

Joker frowned. "Then how are we supposed to get it out of here when it's like this?"

"Don't worry. I was going to tell you how if we got here."

If. Joker wasn't amused about that implication.

But he kept his mouth shut as Mona was going to explain and he didn't want the non-feline to stop.

"Just finding the Tresure isn't enough. We need to make it materialize before we can steal it."

"Is it because desires are an abstract concept?" Rogue said, the same thing he thought of.

"Exactly. So we need to make the real person aware that these desires are, in fact, a Treasure. Once we make them conscious of that, its physical form should show itself."

"But how do we do that?" Panther said.

"We warn them. By saying 'we're going to steal your heart'."

Joker smirked. Well that gave the phrase "take your heart" a whole new meaning.

"Oh! We're gonna send 'em a calling card?!" Skull said. "That's totally what a phantom thief would do!"

"Oh now you know about phantom thieves, Mister 'I-don't-watch-spy-movies'?" Rogue said.

"Oh shuddup."

Joker and his sister snickered. But they stopped as Mona then said,

"Uh huh! Once we do that, the Treasure will appear for certain! ...I think!"

Joker smiled at Mona with amusement and exasperation, Skull perfectly encapsulating it with,

"That again?" Before he said, "Eh, sounds like it's worth a shot anyways."

"Not like we have any other ideas," Rogue said.

He glanced at the others to see if they would speak up against it, but when they gave non-verbal dismissals, he nodded back in acknowledgement.

"All right then. Let's head back before Kamoshida finds us. We'll talk about the calling card tomorrow in the hideout, okay?"

Everyone gave their agreements and they headed out, Joker confident they managed to explore every nook and cranny of the castle. Before he knew it, it was already the afternoon of the next day, all of them gathered once again at the hideout.

"All right, all that's left now is to send out the calling card and take Kamoshida's heart," Mona said.

"Why didn't we just send it from the start...?" Ryuji said.

"A Treasure won't stay materialized forever. Once the impression is gone, the Treasure will disappear."

"Yeah. You'll only be scared for so long," Aki said.

"And doing it again won't have as much impact if we fail because nothing happened the first time, yes?" he said.

"Right. Not only that, the effect will only last for about a day."

"So we gotta send the calling card and steal the Treasure on the same day, huh?"

"Yes. It'll be too late otherwise."

"All right...so when we gonna send it?"

"Tomorrow."

Aki looked at him in surprise, but Ann's eyes burned and Ryuji shouted in excitement.

"Yeah! I was hopin' you'd say that!"

"Ryuji! Quiet!" Aki said.

"Uh, whoops. Sorry..."

"Okay, we have that decided. So who will write the card?"

"Oh pick me!" Ryuji said.

Ann looked at him dubiously. "Why?"

"Why...? Why wouldn't it be me?"

"This is important. Can you handle the pressure?"

Predictably, Mona said, "I agree."

Ren was inclined to agree with them considering how Ryuji was normally but...

"I really wanna get him good! C'mon, please. Lemme write it."

...he wanted to believe in Ryuji.

Ren glanced at Aki, asking. She nodded. He returned it. Then he said,

"I'm fine with it. As long as you make sure we won't caught."

"I know, I know! I'm not gonna screw this up," he said. Then in a more somber tone, "Not like I did when he broke my leg."

That convinced Mona and Ann.

So the not-cat said, "All right then. Tomorrow it is! You better not slack off on this."

With that, the meeting was adjourned. However, just as everyone but his sister left them at the gate, he said to her,

"Chances of a boss fight?"

"Probably something like ninety percent."

He was glad she thought the same. As such, they both spent the rest of the afternoon getting ready. First by buying and selling what they could with the budget and items they had gained from the Metaverse, which was a lot but Ren made sure to save up a good chunk of the money for later. Second by fusing, summoning and re-fusing their Persona selection until they both had a good amount of varying skills across them, alongside their resummoned first Personas. And third by making a couple of infiltration tools with Aki, Mona guiding them through it as usual. With that, they were as ready as they could be for tomorrow.

Ren hoped they were actually ready for it.
 

TheCharredDragon

One world, one love, shadows of mass destruction
Chapter 13: Luxuria

(A)​

"Sir Suguru Kamoshida, the utter bastard of lust. We know how shitty you are and that you put your twisted desires on students who can't fight back.
That is why we have decided to steal away those desires and make you confess your sins. This will be done tomorrow, so we hope you will be ready.
From, the Phantom Thieves of Hearts."

The twin-tailed blonde frowned.

Akira stared.

"Wow," Ann said.

Wow was right.

They went right back to Ren, Ryuji and Mona, who were a couple of meters behind them, and said,

"Damn. Not bad, Ryuji." And she meant it.

It was certainly better than she thought it'd be.

"Heh heh, thanks," her friend said. "I looked up a bunch of stuff like it online for reference."

At that point Ann caught up and said, "Really?" looking at her in disbelief.

Akira pouted behind her mask. "What? I like the name and the logo."

"Cool right?"

She smiled. "The best."

Then Ren said, "While I agree on that front, I'm with Ann on that it could've used a little polish, especially the words."

"Yeah..." Ann said. "I mean, I know what you wanted to say, but the way you said it makes it sound like an idiot trying to be an adult."

"O-Okay, y'know what? That ain't true!"

"Yeah, it's not that bad," she said.

"Only because you like to swear," Ren said with a smirk.

She glared. "Don't act like you don't swear at all."

"That doesn't change the fact you do it more than I do."

"Why you little..."

Before she ended up proving his point, the chatter of the students in front of the annoucement board caught her attention, wondering and speculating about the cards and the contents of it. Before long, their intended recipient came, Akira easily imagining steam bursting from his ears as he said,

"Who's responsible for this?"

Akira snickered. Ren smirked. And Mona said,

"Look at that. A predictable reaction for someone who knows what we mean by distorted desires."

"Did you do this?! Or was it you?!" He snapped and stalked right to them. "Was it you three?!"

"And if it is?" Ren said.

"Not like it matters, right? You'd still blame us if you wanted to," she said.

The mophead grumbled and said, "What garbage." He shook his head. "Never mind. It's not a problem. You'll be expelled soon enough anyways."

Then all of a sudden it wasn't the teacher that stood before them, but the king, and he said,

"Come... Steal it, if you can!"

And then he was back to normal and left them in a huff.

That was their cue.

With that, they were back in the castle and warped to the safe room near the throne room. But just as they were about to sneak in, they found that the doors to it were wide open. Rogue frowned.

"What the hell?"

"What's goin' on?" Skull said. "The door's open and there're no guards anywhere..."

"It's likely understaffed because they've all been assigned elsewhere."

Rogue doubted it. This reeked of trap. And they were going to have to trip it. She looked to her brother, who had a half-grimace, half-smile, and knew he didn't like it either. But nonetheless he led them down the hall and into the treasury where...

"Awwww yeaaah! The Treasure has appeared!"

...a giant crown was floating, one that looked like the one used for coronations in England.

"Man, it's huge!"

Rogue resigned herself for Skull saying the obvious.

"What do you think?!" Mona said, jumping in joy. "It's just as I said! Now we can steal it! Ahh... The shine brings a tear to my eyes..."

"It kinda pisses me off..." Panther said. "Why's it so pretty? Isn't this Kamoshida's desires?"

"Well maybe 'cause if it's his desires, then it's gotta be something he wants?" Rogue said.

"To be king and do whatever he wants?" Joker said.

Then Mona said, his eyes gleaming, "T-Treasure..."

"Uh...the cat's awfully excited."

"What's wrong? Is something—"

And then he jumped onto the crown and meowed.

They all stared.

"Uh..." she said.

Thankfully her brother said, "That's not catnip."

And that snapped the totally-not-a-cat out of his trance.

"Ugh...forgive me for displaying such an insolent display in front of a lady..."

More like embarrassing himself in front of his "Lady Ann", but Rogue wasn't going to say that.

Instead she said, "Never mind that, what was that all about?"

"Yeah, you were being completely out of character," Panther said.

Mona frowned and his ears drooped. "I don't know... And I couldn't stop it either..." he said. "To think I'd be drawn to human desires this much..." He suddenly smiled and perked up. "Doesn't that prove I'm human?"

"How should we know?!"

Rogue groaned. "Never mind. Let's just steal it already."

"Agreed."

"Uh...but how are we supposed to do that?"

"Carry it, duh."

"Yes! Get right to it!"

"Ugh...all you do is bark orders..." Skull said as he joined her and Joker in lifting it. "Still though, that was easier than I thought. Thought there'd be some insane trap or something."

"Oh come on!" Rogue glared at him. "Now you're just askin' for it!"

"What? What are you talking about?"

"Come on guys," Joker said as he put his hands under the crown. "Focus."

As Panther came up to help, she said, "If we take this, Kamoshida's Palace will disappear, right?"

"That should be the case."

Rogue certainly hoped so because it would be rather anticlimactic and troublesome if stealing this did nothing to Kamoshida. Especially as the longer they took to carry the heavy crown, the more worried she got that Shadow Kamoshida would come or some kind of trap would be triggered. So it came as no surprise when someone said,

"Go, go! Let's go! Ka-mo-shida!"

And the crown was knocked off their hands with a volleyball.

Rogue gritted her teeth alongside Joker as the king flew over and landed before them, standing in front of his throne. He held out his hand and the crown not only went to him, but shrank to a comfortable and portable size.

Cheater.

"I won't let anyone take this!" Kamoshida said as Cognitive Ann came and draped herself over him. "This proves I am the king of this castle—it is the core of this world!"

"That's how he sees me, isn't it?" Panther said.

Rogue and Joker frowned and nodded, keeping their eyes on the Shadow.

Meanwhile Skull said, "Yo pervert! Were you waitin' to ambush us?"

"I just made it easy to find you. I'll dispose of you myself. Right here, right now."

"That's our line, you sexually-harassin' d-bag!"

"Hmph. What a selfish misunderstanding..."

Rogue glared. "Misunderstandin' my ass! We know how much of an asshole you are!"

Panther did the same. "And you've been keeping what you're doing a secret from others!"

But then Kamoshida clarified what he meant by "misunderstanding" when he said, "The ones around me were the ones who kept it secret."

And Rogue's heart sank as she tried to focus on anticipating an attack.

It turned out Skull was right about a lot more people knowing about the abuse.

"Adults who want to share in my accomplishments, students who have the drive to be winners... They willingly protect me so that we all may profit from it. There are too many who don't understand that!"

Focus. Focus. Don't lash out.

The king looked straight at Panther and said,

"Including naive brats like you and the girl who tried to kill herself!"

Panther sombered. "Yeah...she's a total idiot...letting you manipulate her, trying to commit suicide..."

Don't lash out. Don't lash out. Don't fricking shoot him between the eyes for saying that to Panther. They needed a better chance to steal the crown. She had to stay strong. Especially when her brother's face was slowly but surely becoming more and more blank and cold.

To her relief, Panther said,

"And I'm even more of a dumbass for not realizing that!"

Rogue allowed herself to smile, not only for Panther, but for seeing Joker's poker face defrost with a smaller smile.

"Drop that attitude, you mediocre peasant! There is no wrong for using my gifts for my gain! I'm a cut above other humans!"

"'Above'?! You mean beneath. You're a goddamn demon obssessed with his sick desires!"

She was so glad Panther was saying that. That meant she could focus on reacting to Kamoshida instead of getting mad at him.

Which turned out to be soon as the Shadow suddenly chuckled low.

"That's right..." he said. "I'm not like you! I'm a demon who rules this world!"

And...shit.

"Of course he has another form!" she said.

Before them was the demon he said he was, with four arms, curved ram horns, eyes that moved like a chameleon's and a tongue twice as long as he was tall, and he towered over them, four times their size. In front of him was a cup with squirming legs. Behind him were several baby dolls chained to weight balls.

"Fire!" Kamoshida said.

"Everyone! Back!" Joker said.

Everyone barely managed to dodge the volleyball assault of those dolls. When Rogue landed, she brought out her rifle and shot back. The demon king grunted from the hit but otherwise looked unharmed.

"You goddamn, no-good, shitty brats! Haven't you been taught not to point at people?! Huh?!" his distorted voice said.

This time the volleyballs were too quick for her to avoid and she shouted in pain. She dug her boots into the ground to stop her skidding.

"Everyone! Fire your spells!" Joker said, readying his mask. "Arsène!"

"Dance, Carmen!"

"Come on, Captain Kidd!"

"Come, Zorro!"

"Show your strength, Fantôme!"

The spells landed their mark but none of them made him stagger as he soon retaliated with a volleyball assault, this one aimed all on Skull.

"Mona! Heal Skull!"

"On it!"

Meanwhile, she tried ice from Silky but this too didn't stun the boss. Rogue cursed. All they had left were physical attacks.

"Fantôme!" she said.

"As you wish."

Her Persona attacked with his lasso and it only hurt the distorted Kamoshida, bruises showing. In that time, Joker had lowered Kamoshida's defense, Mona was assigned to healing duty, and Skull boost her brother's, Panther's and her strength. Rogue cursed again. The only way they were going to stun him for an All-Out Attack was hitting criticals.

As if to make her swear even more, the demon plunged his fork in the cup of squirming legs and...ate one. And all of his wounds disappeared.

"Mhhmm, that hits the spot..."

"Oh come on!"

"Everyone! Change targets! Go for the cup!"

Of course Kamoshida wasn't too happy about that. But as Mona put it, "When someone tells us not to do it, it makes us want to do it even more", they still did it. The demon drank from his wine glass, chomping on the Cognitive Ann that had been in it, before spitting her back out and a red aura flashed over him.

"His attack is up!" Mona said.

Ignoring her disgust, Rogue called on Fantôme to lower it and designated herself as the debuffer while Joker and Panther continued to whale on the cup. Kamoshida tried to stop them, but before long the cup shattered and the demon slumped as if drained.

"Ack! No! This was when I won the nationals..."

"Well boo hoo for you," she said.

"Now! All-Out Attack!" Joker said.

The pink demon screamed as they jumped, slashed and bashed across him until he was back up.

"Grr... you think you can get away with such a thing?!" he said. "Do you realize who I am?! I am Kamoshida!"

He swung his knife. Rogue took the hit for Mona.

"Ugh. So what?" she said, silently thanking Mona for the heal he did just then.

"Huh? I just said I'm Kamoshida! Doesn't that mean anything to you?!"

He swung his knife again but this time at her brother, who also tanked it.

"Hmm, maybe?" he said. "I'll think about it later."

"Why you little...!"

Another volleyball assault but Joker dodged it. Skull followed it up with Captain Kidd lunging straight at the king's eye.

"Gaaaaaah!"

"Y'know I always saw you as a condescending hotshot," Skull said. "But right now...you're just a pathetic loser."

"You'll pay for that!"

"That's my line!"

Skull took the hit like a tank. With Kamoshida focusing on him, Rogue took over buffing duties for a moment while Panther aimed for the crown on his head. Just as she was about to fire, the demon noticed and moved his head so that the shot hit his face instead of the Treasure.

"Grgh! Stop it you stupid brats!"

Panther groaned in annoyance. "We came all this way to steal that! Will you just give it up and hand it over?!"

"Silence! I won't let the likes of you have this!" Kamoshida said.

He cracked his whip for another barrage of balls, but Arsène landed a nasty hit on his arm, adding to the growing collection of bruises and wounds that thankfully weren't disappearing.

"You still have the energy to say things like that?!" Mona said.

"Grrr... I'm the king! If I'm not, then who is?!"

"Then we'll just have to overthrow you," Joker said and fired his gun.

The demon shouted again in pain. "How dare you keep defying me...! Time to bring out the big guns! Slaves! Bring out you-know-what!"

All the dolls behind him were let loose. Worried, Rogue aimed her rifle and tried to hit them but they were already gone. She cursed.

"Everyone! Avoid damage and heal up!"

All of them did as told, using their healing items so that Mona wouldn't have to use up all his energy. They did their best to avoid the swings from his knife, but sometimes the large size made up for its slow speed. Of course Kamoshida got frustrated and said,

"What's the holdup?! Where's my ball?!"

And then they all stared as Mishima came from behind them.

"I-I'm so sorry, King Kamoshida," he said, as bruised and meek in the real world, not taking a step into the battlefield. "I-I have it right here."

"Too slow! Worthless chump!"

"Wait what?! Why's he here?!" Panther said, staring.

Thank goodness Kamoshida was also just as distracted by the boy.

"Calm down!" Mona said to the red clad thief. "It's just his cognition of him!"

"Yeah, it ain't the real one," she said.

Meanwhile the demon said, "Good. Now pass it to me Mishima! Don't tell me you can't do something as simple as that!"

So of course Mona said, "But more importantly, it looks like he's about to do a big attack. Keep your guards up!"

"Everyone!" Joker said.

They all braced themselves. Mishima launched the ball. And Kamoshida jumped and spiked it. Rogue gritted her teeth as fire, light and wind exploded and engulfed the entire room. But because they were ready, she only felt a little bit tired and overheated from the explosion.

"Okay! Now! Old roles!"

Mona healed them. Skull buffed them. Rogue debuffed Kamoshida. And then Joker and Panther whaled on the king with force and flames. The king screamed as scorch marks now covered him and he glared.

"I knew I couldn't go all out with Mishima as backup," he said. "Hey shit-for-brains! Get off my court!"

"S-Sorry..."

With that, Mishima left and Rogue thought he wouldn't be doing that "super volleyball spike" again. But then the demon said, cracking his whip stick,

"Next slave, get out here! Hurry up with my damn ball!"

And everyone gasped.

Walking in from the entrance in a scanty bunny suit outfit...was Shiho.

And she smiled seductively as she said, "I've brought your ball, King Kamoshida. Just like you asked."

The king had the gall to seem soft and affectionate as he said, "Aw, now that's a good girl. All women should obey me like this—ain't that right, sweetheart? Now come here."

"Yes King Kamoshida," she said and went closer, ignoring the fact that there were at least five enemies in her way.

Though then again...

"N-No way! What's Shiho doing here?!"

"Panther, calm down! That's not the real one!" Mona said.

"Y-Yeah, you're right," she said, grimacing. "But this is just..."

"Damn it, even Suzui too! You've gone too far you piece of shit!"

And her brother...

Her brother just froze and stared at Cognitive Suzui passing by them, even if his pain and indecision wasn't so plain on his face to her, she could feel it in her, her heart having an ache that wasn't her own.

If she was still alive, she could help Kamoshida much better than Mishima if he still viewed her as a good volleyball player.

But to get rid of her...meant "killing" her.

The answer was easy.

"Fantôme! Get her!"

"With pleasure," her Persona said.

His lasso wrapped Cognitive Suzui's wrist and pulled her to Rogue. When she was close, Rogue grabbed her arm and flung her back at the walls near the entrance. The girl screamed in agony. Rogue wanted to tear apart Kamoshida even more.

"Huh? Hey! Give her back! She's mine!" the demon in question said.

"Rogue?!" everyone except Joker said when she did that.

"I'll deal with her! You deal with that cesspit asshole!"

And Rogue turned around and put all her focus on her swings.

Left, right, left, right, up, down, cross, cross. Again and again and again. Rogue attacked and attacked and attacked. Until Suzui gave one last scream and faded into dust. Rogue panted, staring at the last spot the cognitive double had been.

And then Kamoshida said,

"Hmph. Even Suzui's useless. Looks like I'll have to give her special lessons later... One-on-one!"

Red.

CRACK.

"Burn in hell."

Fantôme flourished his cape and arrows of light shot straight at the king. Now her attention was on the stupid, pink, too-many-armed, naked, gaudy, selfish, perverted, pigheaded, disgusting, piece of—

"Aki!"

Rogue paused. Big Bro?

BAM

"Ack!"

She was whacked right in the torso and flew, but instead of thudding on hard tiles, she felt someone catch her and stop.

"Sorry," her brother said as he held her. "You were ignoring your wounds."

As soon as he said that, all those hits she took and ignored while doing the same to Kamoshida crashed on her and she groaned from her full body soreness.

"Ah shit..."

It wasn't for long though as the cool night of Joker's brand of healing soothed them. Rogue breathed a sigh of relief. Then her brother said,

"Come on, we have to distract him from noticing Mona."

She had been curious what he meant by that, but she obeyed her brother nonetheless, confident of whatever his plan was. It was back to her and Skull mainly providing support while Joker and Panther attacked, but this time she doubled as a healer with Mona missing from their lineup and Skull occasionally attacked as well. Thankfully, without his slaves, all Kamoshida could do was swing that large gold knife of his while they could easily hit him with his huge size filling up most of the room. All the while the Shadow kept spouting nonsense about the school staying afloat because of him and that the women came to him instead of the other way around, until he said,

"Wait, is there one less of you?"

Shit.

"Mona!" Joker said.

A black blur tackled the crown and sent it flying behind them, putting them between it and Kamoshida.

"No! My...my precious..." the Shadow said.

He flailed around in a vain attempt to find it, but upon seeing it was nowhere near, he turned dejected, any motivation sucked out of him.

"Everyone! Full assault!"

Rogue smirked.

Fire, lightning, and wind in tandem with light and dark assaulted the demon and with no energy devoted to holding his ground, he screamed and fell, his form turning black and dissolving. Once again, they all stood still to see if he would come back. But when it continued to shrink, they relaxed and went to the crown behind them. Rogue picked it up and smiled.

"Mission accomplished," she said. "Now let's—agh!"

Rogue let go as something pushed her and everyone shouted in surprise and anger. When she righted herself she saw Kamoshida was back in his scanty clad human form and was stuck between a balcony and the rest of the team. As Rogue moved closer to them, Panther said,

"What's wrong? Not running away?" Her voice turned low and cold. "Why don't you run? Aren't you a great athlete?"

"Grr, it's always like this!" he said, upset despite the slight panicked tone to his words. "All those goddamn hyenas, forcing their expectations on me!"

"Now you're makin' excuses?" Skull said, unimpressed.

Rogue scoffed. "Course he is. It's always someone else's fault."

"I'm doing this all for them! What's wrong with demanding a reward for that?!"

"Rewards are treated better than how you treat people and they're not even alive," Joker said. "But people are and you treat them like garbage. We won't stand for that."

"Yeah. We'll do something about that distorted heart of yours."

The king whimpered and Panther said,

"Scared?" She took a step forward. "Right now, you're seeing the same view Shiho did." Another. "I'm sure she was scared too..." She put a hand on her mask. "...except she had no choice but to jump." She tore it and Carmen appeared. "So what will you do? Will you jump?" Fire burst. "Or would you rather die here?"

Rogue stared. No...she wasn't going to actually—

"Do you want to finish him off?" Mona said. "It's your call."

"Mona!" she and Joker said.

"No wait, please! I beg you!" Kamoshida said. "Just forgive me!"

And Panther just said, "Shut up. I bet everyone told you the same. But you...you took everything from them!"

And fired.

Rogue froze. No no no was she—it hit the wall near Kamoshida. The man shrieked and whimpered and fell to his knees and he said,

"I accept defeat... You want this? Take it."

He threw the crown towards them and Joker caught it. But all Rogue did was say,

"Panther... Come on, let's go. We got the Treasure."

"Please, Panther," Joker said, stepping close to her. "Don't do it."

That seemed to calm her somewhat, her shoulders relaxing, but she was still glaring up a storm at Kamoshida and she still had one more fireball ready to burn him. She and her brother were about to say more but then the man said,

"Go ahead and finish me off..." he said. "You do that and my real self will go down too... You have the right since you've won..."

And Panther clenched her fist and fired.

"Ann!" they all shouted.

There was a big bang...but no scream. Only a bewildered, cowering man staring at the scorched wall behind him.

"If his mind shuts down, he can't admit his crimes," Panther said.

Rogue and Joker sighed, glad she wouldn't kill him.

Then Mona said, "You're kind, Lady Ann."

And Rogue wondered why he let her name slip but shook that thought away. That wasn't important right now.

Right now Kamoshida looked utterly defeated as he said, "I've... lost. You're through when you lose... What am I—what am I supposed to do now?"

Those words easily explained a lot about Kamoshida in her mind. He kept wanting to win, and feeling like a winner, no matter the consequences. Which likely made the fact that he was just a teacher now a gigantic blow to his pride and he tried to compensate for it. But now...

"Atone for your sins," Joker said.

"And don't you dare back out like now, coward," Rogue said.

To her shock and disgust, the man actually looked...peaceful as he said as he faded into light, "All right... I will leave now and return to my true self. I'll make certain I—"

With that, he was gone, this time for sure, and everyone relaxed...

THUD

...until the place shook.

"What the hell?" Rogue said.

"Hey, just so you know, we don't have time to waste," Mona said, nonchalant. "This place is about to collapse."

"What the hell?! You knew?!"

"To the safe room!" Joker said.

"Ergh, got it!"

"No! We have to go straight out!"

"Why would we do that?!"

"Teleporting won't work!"

"Oh you've gotta be fu—!"

Rogue dodged a falling ceiling block. She'll complain later. Right now they needed to push their already sore muscles even further. And be incredibly glad they had grapple hooks because that saved time on at least half their trip by using it to just fall safely down. The rest was just running and jumping over debris. However...

"Gah!"

"Ryuji!"

Behind them Skull had tripped and insisted he was fine. But Rogue would have none of it and dragged him with her until he could run again. Thankfully by that point they were at near the foyer and when they reached the landing, they all just jumped from it, hoping to dive right out of the exit. With a combination of adrenaline and Metaverse physics, they made it and found themselves back in the alley.

Or in her case flat on her back, panting like a fish out of water.

Everyone else wasn't much better though.

Ann panted before she said, "That sucked..."

"Yeah..." she said, taking in as much air as her faulty lungs could.

She heard Ryuji pant to her side for a bit then he said, "Look at the nav!"

The rest took out their phones and they said, slightly out of synch,

"The destination has been deleted."

"It's true. We can't go there anymore," Ann said.

"What about the Treasure?!" Mona said.

At this point, she sat up just as her brother brought out a medal from his pocket.

"What the..." Ryuji said.

"A medal? Wait, where'd that crown go?"

The answer was simple for Akira. "That's it, isn't it?" she said, looking at it.

"What?! That's it?! Why's it a medal?"

"Because it's the source of Kamoshida's distorted desires," their Metaverse guide said. "To him, that medal is worth that crown we saw in the Palace."

Thankfully Ryuji got that as he said,

"Huh. An Olympic medal..." He turned contemplative. "So that perv kept clingin' to his past glory and couldn't let go..."

"Where do you think he got his big ego from?" she said as she readied to get up.

At least until her brother offered his hand. Then she got up properly as Ann said,

"But...this means that Kamoshida's heart might have changed right?"

Mona went back to being unhelpful and nonchalant. "Probably."

"What?! Our expulsion's on the line!"

"Hey, this is the first succeeded example for me too," he said. That explained a lot. "However, there's no doubt this has affected Kamoshidas personality a lot.
The entire Palace disappeared after all."

With that reminder, she glared at him and said, "Which you should've told us would happen."

"But I did tell you."

"You didn't say it was going to collapse! You just said it'd disappear."

"Er, well..."

"And how come you think teleporting won't work?"

"Oh that's simple. I tried. I suspect it's because those safe rooms don't exist anymore when it turned back to normal."

Akira groaned. "So basically the warp points are gone..."

"Yes, simply put."

"Ugh! Never mind that. You sure there ain't no way to check now? I'm already antsy..."

"We'll see soon enough," Ren said, putting away the medal.

Then she said, "Unless you wanna go straight to Kamoshida's house?"

"Okay okay, I get it..."

"Come on, why the gloomy faces?! Be happy! We completed this with great success, you know."

"It's not a success until Kamoshida's heart is changed," her brother said.

"Yeah, we just don't know if everythin's okay yet..."

"I'm pretty sure it'll be fine," Mona said. "Remember what his shadow said? We all know he's scum, but it looked like he regained his conscience somewhat before he disappeared."

Oh Akira saw. She was still mixed on that. But, "Yeah. It'll work. I'm sure of it."

Because as mixed as she was at seeing Kamoshida like that, Mona was right, it was a good sign that it worked.

"Exactly. There are definitely those who have been saved thanks to what you did."

"Yeah..."

"Ugh...guess we do gotta wait... But man, it all boils down to if his heart changed...or we get expelled for real..."

Akira didn't want to think about the latter. And it seemed almost as if Ren picked up on it as he said,

"Let's go home."

And Ann said, "Yeah, let's go home."

Author's Note: The title is the Latin word for "Lust". Or at least one word for it from what I could tell.
 

TheCharredDragon

One world, one love, shadows of mass destruction
Chapter 14: Patience is a Virtue

{R}​

Ren breathed in, and breathed out, relaxing on his bed while waiting for Aki to finish up in the bathroom downstairs.

To say that the day had been eventful would be putting it mildly. He was glad they had been prepared for what was basically a boss fight. Even if it wasn't video game logic, the instant he saw the throne room's doors open, he knew it was very likely a trap of some kind was in place. So it went relatively smoothly.

Key word: relatively.

He frowned at the memory of Aki taking charge to ki—defeat Cognitive Suzui. He had felt a surge of hot rage in his heart that wasn't his when she went after her, and that burned more when she then attacked Shadow Kamoshida. If it had been anyone else, he would've thought she mad at both the Shadow and Cognitive Suzui, but he knew she was only angry at the former and he had a guess on why she handled attacking Suzui. She had seen him after he tried, and failed, to stop Suzui's suicide. As much as he was thankful for her doing that, especially since it meant no nuke spikes from Shadow Kamoshida...he still wished she didn't need to, especially after feeling just how enraged she was.

His attention was pulled when his phone notified him and he checked to see it was a direct message from Ann.

Ann: Thank you so much.
Ann: Seriously I don't think I could've done anything without you.

Ren smiled self-depractingly.

Ren: Don't forget Ryuji.
Ren: Or Aki.
Ren: Or Mona.

Ann: Oh yeah! I should do that too.

Ann: Still it's unbelievable we stole someone's heart...

Ren: Well you weren't dreaming it, that much I can tell you.

Ann: Haha. Yeah.
Ann: That reminds me, why did Mona turn back into cat even though we were still in the Palace?

Ren startled as Mona said, "Lady Ann's sharp!" He turned to see the not-cat peeking above him. "Basically the Treasure changes the shape of things. So when it's gone, that effect stops. But the real reason I changed back quickly was because I'm skilled!"

He rolled his eyes but still typed.

Ren: He says he's amazing.

Ann: Oh yeah, I forgot Mona can see this...
Ann: Btw thanks Mona.

"Nyaha, you're very welcome, Lady Ann," he said.

Ren: He says you're welcome.

Ann: Hehe, I'm glad.

With that, he shifted to lie on his belly and look directly at him as he said, "Now shoo."

Mona actually looked shocked and said, "Huh? Why?!"

"I think you're smart enough to figure it out. Now shoo."

"Hmph... Of course I am! I was just trying to be helpful..." he said and thankfully left his side and jumped onto Aki's bed.

With that done, he looked back to see Ann had sent another message.

Ann: I think I feel better after talking to you. Thanks.

He smiled.

Ren: You're welcome. I'm glad to be of service.

Ann: Though I know we still haven't seen any results, it feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders...

Ren frowned. Ann...

Ann: I hope you don't mind me talking too much.

Ren: Not at all. Like I said, glad to be of service.

Ann: Hehe, thanks again.

Ren: You're very welcome.

Ann: Well, see you tomorrow.

Ren: Good night Ann.

When she didn't reply right away, he thought she had left. But then his phone pinged and he smiled.

Ann: Night Ren.

(A)​

Well, it seemed at least something happened to Kamoshida, thanks to Ms. Kawakami telling her, her brother and Ryuji in tandem with a schedule change because of the man's absence. So again, that was a good sign. But understandably Ryuji was still antsy so he wanted to run it off with Ren. Since she had nothing better to do, she just decided to tag along, even though the gap between their speeds and endurance was made very obvious. She was very tempted to push herself to catch to Ryuji's speed, even if she'd probably feel like how she did after her first proper trip to Kamoshida's Palace: exhausted to the bone.

On the bright side she could actually keep pace with her brother, more or less.

Despite Ryuji outperforming them, when they met in the courtyard between the class and practice building, all of them panting and sweating, he said,

"Ugh, damnit... I wanna move better, but I just can't..."

"Are you...kiddin' me...?" she said. "You move...a whole lot better than us..."

"Yeah, but...I was trainin' for nationals back in the day. Now I totally suck balls..."

Okay that was a good point but... "Didn't you say...that you just gotta...push yourself a bit more than before and...you'll get better in no time...right? So you...just gotta keep pushin'."

Ryuji was surprised then laughed. "Yeah, I did," he said, smiling. "When you say it like that, don't seem so bad anymore."

She and Ren smiled back. But then someone said,

"What the hell do you think you're doing?"

She frowned as a bunch of guys, also in PE uniform, came up to them. From how Ryuji said their names, and their words, it was obvious it was the former track team. And it was also obvious they had a grudge against him and thus didn't like how Ryuji was doing. She wanted to tell them off since they were making their friend uncomfortable, but Ren just said,

"Let's not fight."

And Ryuji just said, "We ain't fightin'..."

"Yeah. This isn't anything like a fight. Not even close."

No it wasn't...yet.

"Which is why I don't want it to escalate."

"Huh... Wait, hold on, you're the transfer students, right? Are you really hanging out with this loser?"

Now Akira glared and said, "Why? You havin' a hard time seeing us in front of you?"

"Hey, I'm just tellin' you to watch out. He'll hit you the second he gets pissed off," he said. "I heard his dad's the same way. Like father, like son, right? Now that's some scary shit."

Snap.

"This don't got anythin' to do with this."

"Scary? I'll show scary you pieces of—"

"Aki. Ryuji. Calm down."

Akira flinched and realized she had moved forward, ready to punch, just like Ryuji. And they all turned scared. On one hand, that was what she had wanted but... Damn it... She looked away, ashamed at being looked at like that.

"You're right," Ryuji said, his words easily applying for the both of them. Then to his former teammates, "Look, back then I..."

But "Nakaoka" would have none of it and made it quite clear he felt betrayed from Ryuji breaking the team up when everyone was suffering. Akira took deep breaths to calm her impulse to rage but was glad they left before that would fail. Ryuji, however, looked at them leaving with a dejected expression. She wondered why until he said,

"I haven't changed at all..."

You ain't the only one... she thought with a sigh. She was still that same stupid girl that got them arrested...

Wanting to ignore those thoughts, she focused on Ryuji as he said,

"But y'know...you actually helped me calm down a little. I'm glad you were here. Thanks man!"

He gave Ren a high five, who smiled at the action, before turning to her and saying,

"And hey, thanks for standin' up for me too."

Akira was startled and just said, "Don't thank me for that. I almost got us in trouble..."

But the faux-blond only laughed and said, "Hey, 's fine. I prolly was gonna do the same if it weren't for your bro."

She chuckled. "Yeah, I could see that."

And so the next days were spent much like that for her and Ren, taking the time to hang out with their Confidants and, for the most part, having a good time. Well mainly with Ryuji and Sakura-san—who became the Hierophant Confidant—for both of them, while her brother had Takemi's clinical trails on top of that. And she would admit, from how Ren was after them, she was glad she ended up not being the guinea pig. During that time, they couldn't spend any time with Ann as she wanted to stay with the comatose Suzui by herself and Ryuji told her what he had already told Ren, about his parents, what the track team was like and how Kamoshida made it all crash down. To say the least, she almost wished she had punched those track members for being insensitive and stupid for having a grudge on Ryuji. And she also wanted Ren to insist on comforting Ann at this time but he told her the girl needed her space so she let that go.

But each day passed and before she knew it, it was the day before the school assembly and she couldn't help but be worried.

Other than that initial, and unintentional, report from Ms. Kawakami, there had been no other news of Kamoshida. It made her wonder if the change of heart failed somehow. Because if it did, then that would mean they would be expelled tomorrow. And then what would they do? Two expulsions wouldn't be good for their record, making it even harder to get into another high school, if they even could. It was a death sentence for any kid. Their chances of a job dwindling to near zero, if not decimal percentages. So, since she didn't want Ren to notice her worry and thus be worried as well, she declined his and Ryuji's offer to exercise together again and instead walked around Shibuya, no destination in mind.

But her feet did eventually lead her to the Buchiko statue and there...

A chuckle. "We meet again, Amamiya-san."

Akira was surprised but then smiled. "Hey Akechi. Good to see you," she said.

He returned her smile with a smaller one. "I'm glad to see you as well," he said. "I was on my way to Leblanc actually. Shall we go together?"

"Sure."

She and Akechi chatted a bit, mainly him telling her about his attaché case and the sign on it, but it eventually turned into more mundane topics and thus he said,

"So? How have you been?"

And her frowned at the reminder of why she had left her home.

"Fine..." she said.

Which was technically true, but...

"Is something wrong?" he said.

...that was also true.

She sighed as they stepped on the train to Yongen. After they settled in the carriage, standing close to each other, she said,

"It's not much, really, I'm just...worried about tomorrow."

"What is it about tomorrow you're worried about?"

"There's...a good chance I might get expelled. And my big brother."

For a brief moment, his expression hardened but it passed when he said, "Expelled? Why is that?"

Another sigh. "'Cause there was a stupid teacher who...made fun of the suicide of a student we knew and we talked back at him for that."

"What?"

Akira laughed at it all, because she wasn't sure how else to react besides crying over it.

"Yeah. That teacher said we'd be expelled for that when school assembly's started but another teacher told us that might be put on hold. So I have no idea if we'll be expelled until tomorrow."

"Of course they don't care..." And for the first time, she saw Akechi glare and his frown get worse. "If only I could help prevent that somehow..."

She stared, but then smiled and chuckled. "Thanks for the offer," she said. "But it's all right. There's not much you can do in one day, right?"

"I'm sure I can still do something. I have police connections after all, in case you forget."

Now she laughed again, but this time because she was glad he was confident and willing.

"I don't think this is serious enough to call for police, but if I need any help, I'll call you."

Akechi's frown was less enraged and more confused as he said, "Call me...?"

And she remembered. She facepalmed. "Oh right!" She chuckled sheepishly. "I forgot we didn't give our numbers to each other. Mind if we share?" Then her excitement rose as another thought came. "We can still talk even when you're not at Leblanc."

For some reason, Akechi stared, bewildered for a moment, but when the announcer said the Yongen-jaya stop was coming, that shocked expression was replaced with a pleasant one and he said,

"No I don't. But let's do it when we get to our stop, okay?"

"Sure."

As soon as the train stopped and they weren't being pushed by the tide of passengers leaving, she and Akechi shared their contact info and...

I am thou, thou art I, the feminine voice said as time stilled. Thou hast acquired a new vow. It shall be the wings of rebellion that breaketh thy chains of captivity. With the birth of the Justice Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power.

Akira stared.

She had formed a Confidant with Akechi.

Before she gave much stock into it though, the boy in question said,

"Amamiya-san?"

And she shooked her head. "Eh heh, sorry, got lost in thought for a moment."

There was a flicker of some emotion on his face, but this time it had been too fast to tell what it had been. "I see. Shall we get going?"

Akira said, "Yeah. Come on. I wanna try making your coffee for you this time."

"Oh? You've been practicing?"

"You bet I am!"

They soon arrived at Leblanc and she managed to have Sakura-san let her make the coffee for Akechi's order. What she hadn't expected was spending rest of the boy's free time trying to get him to be honest about her efforts so she could perfect it to his taste. It took making a bad coffee on purpose to get him to finally be honest about her previous brews earilier and told her they were rather plain, as in it was more like store bought coffee than the rich and varied aromas and flavors that Sakura-san made. Which, well, stung, but that just made her more determined and she said,

"I'll make the best coffee you've ever tasted. Just you wait!"

"You gotta a long way to go, kiddo," Sakura-san said with a smug smile.

She glared. "Think that's gonna stop me?" Then back at Akechi when he tried to smother a chuckle. "You hear me? I don't care how long it takes, I'll show the both of you!"

So when Akechi left, she spent the rest of the afternoon practicing her coffee brews, her worries for tomorrow all gone.
 
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TheCharredDragon

One world, one love, shadows of mass destruction
Chapter 15: Confessions

{R}​

There was no order to the lines formed in the hall, other than they were straight, Ann having put herself close to the stage while he, Ryuji and Aki stayed a little farther back. As per usual, the students around him were murmuring about all sorts of things, from idle conversation to gossip to speculations of the reason for the assembly. Many of them thought it was because of Suzui's suicide, not that they cared to remember her name, and just as many thought it was due to their calling card. It seemed the former would be "true" as Principal Kobayakawa said into the podium's microphone about how they should try to not do the same.

Well, was going to say until the gym's doors were slammed opened, startling everyone.

There stood Kamoshida, looking absolutely drained. He seemed to say something before he went up on the stage, standing in front of the Kobayakawa's podium. Now with the acoustics of his location, Ren could hear what he said much clearer.

"I have repeatedly done things that were...unbecoming of a teacher."

Everyone but his sister and friends were confused.

But then Kamoshida went on to say exactly what he had done: physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual harrassment and abuse, and being the reason Suzui committed suicide. Now the conversations were reignited as the students reacted to this. The teacher wasn't done though as he then also admitted to expelling students he didn't like, as well as insulting himself, until he fell to his knees, grovelled and said,

"I will take responsibility and kill myself for it!"

Ren froze.

His heart raced.

Everything became static.

And he readied to dash forth.

But then Ann broke through the fog and said,

"Don't run, you bastard!"

And this time Ren froze in his steps and he looked at the furious girl, along with everyone else.

"Shiho's still alive even after all the things that made her want to die!" she said. "You have no right to run from this!"

And that convinced Kamoshida and, at last, he admitted that Ann had been among the people he had harrassed in return for Suzui's spot on his team. He went on to ask for the police and the teachers around them scrambled to get everyone back to classes.

"Wow..." Ryuji said behind him.

"You can say that again," Aki said.

It was only then did he realize that both him and his sister had been ready to stop Kamoshida from killing himself. Ren took a breath to settle himself and adjusted his fake glasses as the teachers directed students. Of course, he ignored it, along with the rest of the gang, to the point that they were among the last, if not the last, in the gym.

Ann stared at the stage.

He couldn't help but stand beside her and say, "Are you okay, Ann?"

"Oh, yeah, it's just..." she said, glancing at him before returning her gaze at the stage. "I can't believe it. His heart really did change."

Ryuji was similarly somber and said, "But was this really for the best?"

He had a guess why he was unsure. Kamoshida did try to kill himself after all.

But still, he said, "I think so."

Because, as Aki said,

"Not like we had any better ideas."

"Yeah, you're right." Then Ryuji said, "Huh? What the...?"

And Ren turned to see two girl classmates and Mishima walk up to them and...apologize to Ann. Mishima on behalf of the volleyball team ignoring what Kamoshida was doing to her, the girls on behalf of all those making it worse with rumors. To that, Ann just said,

"No, it's okay. The same goes for me too... Besides, that's all in the past now."

A teacher soon found them though and ordered them back to class. The girls left, but Mishima stayed behind with them. Ren wondered why until he said,

"I can't apologize enough for what I did to you two."

"Huh? Us?" Aki said.

"Yeah..."

And then Mishima left, the teacher waiting for hin by one of the gym doors. Unsurprisingly, that same teacher didn't seem to care that he, Aki, Ryuji and Ann weren't coming just yet. But that fact did little to dampen the smile he had at the apologies. He knew it wouldn't be everyone in school but it was still nice to hear at least some were willing to try and apologize to Ann.

"Looks like Kamoshida ain't the only one who had a change of heart," Ryuji said.

Aki chuckled. "You can say that again."

"Man, I'm glad for you," the faux-blonde said to Ann. "Looks like those weird rumors are gonna go away."

"Me too," he said.

"Me three," Aki said.

Ann shook her head, as if deflecting their words, and said, "We made Kamoshida apologize for Shiho... That's more than enough for me."

"You should hurry and tell her about it then," Ryuji said.

"... Yeah."

Ren frowned, worried for her but let her be. He could only imagine how hard it was staying happy when her best friend was comatose. Though he did make sure to ask if she would meet up in the hideout after school to discuss what happened as she was going to see Suzui, her hospital not too far thanks to the subway, and that Ryuji would come too. So with those assurances, he and Aki went up to the roof ahead of them. They were startled to see that it was occupied though.

"Oh I'm sorry," the auburn haired girl said, feeling vaguely familiar. "Did you want to use the roof?"

"Oh, uh, yeah, but..." his sister said. "If you're busy, we can just go."

The girl smiled and shook her head. "It's all right. I just finished what I wanted to do, so I was about to go anyway." She stood and bowed to them then said, "If you'll excuse me."

Aki made a protest, but the girl just left, though not without bumping into Ryuji, whom she apologized to. Their friend was curious and asked about her but they didn't have much to tell. Though glancing at the spot she had squated at, he suspected she was checking the plants on the roof. After that, Ryuji dropped it and instead, while waiting for Ann, started off by saying,

"I totally freaked out. He really did have a change of heart... And we were lucky his mind didn't get messed up either! This was an A plus job!"

"Guess that means mental shutdowns only happen if their Shadows are dead then?" Aki said.

"Yes, it seems to be the case. As long as the Shadow returns to its real self, then the Palace disappearing won't cause a cognitive collapse."

"So we can get 'em to confess with no bad stuff? That works for me!"

"Ryuji!"

While Aki was scolding the blond boy, the door creaked and Ren snapped alert. But upon seeing it was just Ann, he relaxed and smiled.

"Welcome back," he said.

"Hey," she said to him with a small smile. But to Ryuji, "Do you have to be so loud?"

"Hey you two, don't worry about it."

"Of course I'm gonna worry about it!" his sister said.

Wanting to both derail and ignore that, Ren said to Ann, "You're back soon. Is everything all right with Suzui?"

Because he couldn't help but worry something had happened.

But to his shock, Ann said, "She's regained consciousness!"

"Really?!"

"For real?!"

Ren stared.

Suzui was... Suzui was fine. She would recover. She was going to make it.

He didn't fail.

Ann sniffled, close to tears, and then she looked like she fell. Ren stood but it turned out she was just crouching as she said,

"Yeah... It was only for a little bit, but I got to talk to her! I was able to tell her that...Kamoshida admitted to what he did!"

He knew she was mostly fine but...Ren couldn't help but crouch with her and put a hand on her shoulder, rubbing it to soothe her. Her slight tremble left her as she wiped what little tears she allowed to fall. Better composed, she stood up and he did the same. But while she talked, he went to get a seat for her.

"Shiho, she...she told me she was sorry..." she said. "Looks like she found out I was flirting with Kamoshida for her sake... And here I was, wanting to apologize to her."

"Kamoshida's at fault for all of this."

"I know..." Ann said.

It could've been avoided if we had acted sooner though... Ren thought. What he said was,

"I'm glad she woke up." Then he gestured to the chair he put behind Ann. "Here."

"Oh, uh, thanks," she said and took it.

"No problem."

He smiled at Aki's good natured eye roll as he took his place back on top of a vent.

"Yeah, I'm glad too," his sister said. "She'll wake up and get better in no time at this rate."

Whatever joy Ann had left her at that and Ren's worries returned once again. "About that..." she said. "Shiho's mom is thinking of transferring her to another school after she recovers."

He and Aki frowned. He wasn't surprised but...

"Really...?" his sister said for the both of them.

...it was her best friend planning to leave after all. When that comes through, Ann was likely going to miss her. But as she herself put it:

"Yeah... The whole sexual harrassment and attempted suicide... People will label her after that. Sounded like Shiho had the same idea too."

There was no way she could recover from her experience if she also had to deal with being ostrasized on top of it.

Still, he agreed with Ryuji when he said,

"It's gonna get lonely..."

Yet still Ann said, "But I think it's for the best... I'm sure it'll be hard if she stays here..."

"She's alive. You can see her anytime," Ryuji said in reminder.

"And talk with her through your phone and stuff."

Which was true, but...Ren was still worried for Ann.

Especially when she nodded and he caught her mumbling, "I need to change too..."

He wondered what she meant by that. But then Aki said,

"Well...you got us at least, right? I'm sure the four of us combined can make up for when Suzui's gone. Well, half of her anyway."

"Half...?" Mona said.

"What? Are we really gonna compare us with her best friend?"

"That aside..." Ryuji said before Ren had to redirect the flow. He was actually impressed at that. "I was surprised you could hold back against Kamoshida's Shadow."

"It wasn't like that... I just wanted Kamoshida to apologize himself," Ann said.

Ren thought so, considering what happened in the Palace.

Just like in the Palace, Mona said, "You're so kind, Lady Ann..."

And Ryuji said, "No matter how much of a shitbag he was, finishing him off woulda left a bad aftertaste, huh?"

While Ren agreed with that...

"Huh? That's not it," Ann said. Her expression turned as hard and burning as back in the Palace. "I just think revenge is better served if I make him repent." She glared. "Realizing what he's done, he'll grovel for forgiveness for the rest of his life, you know? I just believe there are fates worse than death."

...he also understood Ann's actual reason for holding back.

And he was fine with it. It was better than the alternative of Kamoshida's death.

He would admit that he did like Ann's determination though.

Ryuji though stared in shock before he looked to him and said, "Holy shit..."

Almost as if he couldn't believe it.

Ren just tilted his head in curiosity. What was so hard to believe?

"A-Anyways, that's all settled..." he said with a slight tremble that amused Ren. "There's one thing I was wonderin' 'bout."

"What's that?"

"Why was Kamoshida the only one to have that whole Metaverse thing?"

As usual, Mona was the one to provide the answer. "He isn't the only one to have a Palace," he said. "It's something that anyone can have if their heart is distorted by their desires."

"Anyone..." Ann said, likely voicing all of their thoughts.

That...was something Ren didn't like that was most likely true.

"Wanna check it out?" Mona said.

Ren shook his head. "No. That wouldn't be for the best."

"Yeah, people are still talkin' 'bout Kamoshida.'

"And I'd very much like to have a break from changin' hearts, thank you very much."

Ren looked to Ann and said, "What about you?"

She shook her head. "No, I don't think I want to either."

"Then again..." Ryuji said. "It's totally impossible for someone to find out what we did in the Palace."

"For once I can say you're not jinxing us with that."

Ren smirked at the chance. "No. Because you're the one doing it instead."

Aki of course glared. "Ha ha, very funny."

"Uh about that..." Ann said.

"Told you."

"Oh shut up."

"Uh...weird rumors about you guys are already going around."

"Oh great," Aki said as she flopped her back on the table. "What stupid thing are they sayin' now? I hope it's something that makes us sound cool at least."

"It's stuff like the three of you getting together and threatening Kamoshida with something close to physical violence."

"The hell?!"

"Oh shit."

Ren sighed. Of course. Though he was glad that at least he knew where that sprung from.

"People aren't going to easily believe phantom thieves exist like that," Ann said. "The calling card's being treated like it was a prank by someone who knew what he was doing."

Aki stared. "Oh," she said. "That's it? Then I guess it's better those rumors are flyin' instead."

"Ugh... Makes sense... I mean, we're the ones who did it and even I still can't believe it."

"Yeah, that was wild, huh?"

"Then we'll wait a bit before we do anything more with the Metaverse?"

Everyone nodded. With that done, they soon discussed on what to do with the medal. After a brief argument between Ryuji and Ann about money the former owed her, Mona's suggested they celebrate their mission and so they decided to spend the money that would be earned from the medal for that. Ann offered to arrange where they would go and they all agreed to it, even though they didn't know where it would be. But like how Ryuji didn't complain since he owed Ann money, Ren didn't object since Ann mentioned it was somewhere she and Suzui had wanted to go to. Once a date was set, that being the fifth of May, they all went their seperate ways and had assigned him and Aki to be the ones to sell the medal. Well, the team wanted to pawn it actually, but he just wanted to outright sell it since he wasn't planning on paying the money from pawning it off back. So he had them agree to selling it.

Not that he minded doing it.

Though he did wish that they had sold it the next day but not long after he and Aki got ready for said day...

"Hey, you can hear me, right?" Sakura-san said. "You don't have plans, do you? Come help me out instead of sleeping your life away."

That led to an annoyed but determined Aki wanting to help, mainly by insisting on doing the coffee. Since their celebration was still two days away then, he decided to go along with it. But as the day went on, he noticed Aki spending a lot of time making coffee, and not just when customers were around. When it wasn't her turn to clean up or do dishes, she was trying her hand at things like temperatures, different ratios of water to coffee beans and the timing of it all, of course with the cheaper beans and all of it written down. And she would either have him or Sakura-san taste it, though mostly the latter since it seemed she wanted critique. Curious at her seriousness, he said,

"Practicing to be a barista?"

Aki looked surprised, as if she forgot he was even there, before she said, "Nah. That ain't it."

"So what is it?"

"Blame Sakura-san," she said with a flat glance at the man.

"Hmm? Sakura-san?"

"It's not my fault you didn't make the coffee to the kid's taste."

That...just made it more confusing. "Who?"

"Oh right. Forgot. Well..."

And so Aki told him what had happened two days ago while he had been exercising with Ryuji. Simply put: she had wanted to make coffee for her new friend, Akechi, the boy that had saved her when they first arrived in Tokyo, and then it spiraled out of control when Akechi not only refused to be honest with her but was also taunted by Sakura-san.

"Really?" he said, though he wasn't surprised.

"What?"

He chuckled and said, "Nothing."

Aki pouted. "That doesn't sound like nothing."

"Your coffee's boiling."

"Gah!"

That distracted his sister as he hoped and he returned to doing the dishes with another chuckle. He hoped Akechi won't get annoyed at all of Aki's taste tests and prayed he would survive them. It was going to be a while until she was satisfied.

(A)​

Akira sighed.

Okay, Sakura-san liked that one... That's good. One down. Now I gotta nail the others since I don't know which one Akechi likes...

She was deciding on which of the selection of beans she would practice on next when Sakura-san said,

"Sorry for pressuring you into this."

She rolled her eyes but grinned at him and said, "It's fine. I get to practice anyway."

"Heh. Yeah, I can see that."

Before they could chat though, the news said,

"Onto our next topic... Fall from Grace: the story of a dishonored Olympic medalist."

All three of them focused on the TV as it went on to explain the details, all of which she already knew of. Well, except for the interviews of course, but because those were with students, as soon as that segment was over, Sakura-san said,

"I knew it, this is your school, wasn't it?"

Akira sighed.

While her brother said, "Seems so."

Sakura-san also sighed and whatever good will he had earlier left him as he remimded them to stay out of trouble and worked them even harder, now including cleaning up the entire café instead of just the counter and tabletops. By the time it was over, all Akira wanted to do was lie down, which she very much did when they finished.

"Geez... Cut us some slack..." she said, muffled by her bed.

"He's just worried."

"Well that doesn't come off like he is that way."

Almost as if to show an example of proper worrying, her phone buzzed at the same time Ren's did. Confused, they pulled out their phones and she found it was Mom calling hers. She answered and said,

"Hello?"

"Akira! Are you okay?! Please tell me you're okay?!"

"Agh! Mom! Too loud!"

"Sorry sorry sorry, it's just..."

Akira frowned. "What's wrong?"

"I just saw the news about the abusive teacher. That was Shujin, wasn't it?"

Ah...that explained it.

"Yeah. Saw the uniforms, huh?"

"Akira..." Mom said, her tone foreboding then back to pleading and worried. "Are you fine? Please, I...I..."

"I'm fine, Mom. Really. I wasn't one of the students he hurt."

Well in the real world anyway. But that didn't really count in her head.

Even through the phone, she could hear her mother sigh in relief. "Thank goodness..."

Akira smiled. "Sorry to worry you. Want me to give my phone to Big Bro?"

"Yes please. If he's done with your father of course."

Ren met her gaze and nodded.

"Here Dad, I'm giving the phone to Aki," he said.

"Here Mom. Here's Big Bro," she said.

They switched and as soon as she put it by her ear, her dad said,

"How are you feeling, Akira?"

"Fine. Like I told Mom."

"That's good...but..."

"But...?"

"Can you tell me what happened in your school?"

"Sure Dad."

And so the Akira told him about what happened, though not completely, making sure that Ren could hear her and vice versa so that their stories would match. It wasn't like they could just tell them they had done a very strange yet life threatening method to make Kamoshida confess. That would lead to the consequence of the century. After that, they once again reassured them that she and Ren were fine before they hung up to get ready for bed, Akira smiling the entire time.

As exasperated as she was at their worry, she was glad they called.

{R}​

This time, when Sakura-san asked for their help, Ren told him they would be busy for the morning because they wanted to get ready to hang out with their friends tomorrow but could help in the afternoon. With that promise, he just asked them to help him open up shop before letting them go and do as they wished. After he and Aki changed into appropriate clothing, and getting a bag for Mona to stay in, they went downstairs, ready to leave Leblanc.

"Remember to do the dishes," Sakura-san said.

"Yeah yeah, we will," Aki said.

"Don't get cocky with me, kid."

He just said, "Don't worry. We'll do it when we get back."

Just then, the store bell rang and a long haired woman in a business suit walked in.

"Welcome," Sakura-san said when she did.

"Hmm? Am I interrupting something?" she said.

Ren frowned. She seemed familiar...

"Not at all."

With that answered, the woman sat down by the counter. At that point, the news started talking about the subway accident caused by a psychotic breakdown. With what he knew now about the Metaverse, a part of him wondered if that world caused those breakdowns like how Palaces were formed by people with distorted desires.

"Oh, is that the thing everyone's talking about?" Sakura-san said.

To his surprise, the woman said, "Doesn't it make you curious?"

And he couldn't help but listen. He was glad that Aki seemed to think the same since she hadn't complained yet.

"People living normal lives suddenly going mad or deranged out of the blue..." she said. "Not to mention them happening one after another... Could they really be coincidence?"

Ren glanced at Aki to see she shared his worried frown. That...was a plausible possibility, especially since they had done something similar but with different results. Though there was also no proof of that being true either. For all they knew, it could be some strange kind of Shadow causing it.

"Leaving that aside..." Sakura-san said. "What would you like?"

"Hmm... The house blend please."

The man nodded and went to do her order. Since the woman had nothing more to say, he tugged on Aki's sleeve to get her attention before he started walking towards the door.

However...

"Excuse me..." the professional woman said.

"Yeah?" Aki said.

"I think we've met before, haven't we?"

They met?

"Oh yeah!" Aki said, smiling. "You're Akechi's coworker, right?"

But with that, he remembered the encounter in the Shibuya streetd. No wonder she felt familiar.

"Yes I am," she said. "I didn't think I would see you again. Are you two part-time workers here?"

"Er, not...exactly..." Sakura-san said.

"Yeah." His sister smirked. "He just forces us to work since he's takin' care of us."

"Watch your mouth, kid..."

Thankfully before it could get worse, the woman then said, "So are you high school students? Where do you attend?"

So he said, "Both of us go to Shujin Academy."

"Oh? Someone I know goes there as well. I've heard that things are rough there right now." Then she said, though it seemed more thinking out loud than actually talking to them, "A teacher named Kamoshida acted like he was a completely different person, supposedly. And it happened 'all of a sudden' one day..."

And Ren did his best to keep his face neutral and polite, covering the apprehension he had over the thought of her figuring it out. It was unlikely, true, but still he said,

"We'll be going now."

And they left just as the woman asked if her drink was done. Ren put any of his worries out of his mind as they made their way to Central Street. However, they resurfaced when just before Untouchables, two men were talking a couple meters away from the door, one of them mentioning a "search warrant". Urgency now fueling his movements, he went inside, put the medal on the counter and told the surly owner he and Aki wanted to sell it. To his relief, after reminding them he didn't take fake or stolen goods, he was willing to buy it for thirty thousand yen. Though it was clear he knew not to ask how they got it. It made all of Ren's worries about the place being shady return, which worsened when he gave them a paper bag that he suggested that they shouldn't open. Had it been any other situation, he would have refused, and told Aki to return the bag that was in her hands, but after buying the medal from them, Ren decided to bury those worries and trust him.

Which only increased once again as the two men from outside came in and were revealed to be detectives by him. Ren had worried for him, not trusting the two men to stop short of doing something drastic, especially when one of them obviously distrusted and egged "Iwai", as the detectives called him. But Iwai took it all with a smug smile, being courteous and cooperative. The less aggressive and more stern of the pair began to doubt his coworker, but he insisted his lead had been legitmate.

Were hoping to arrest a resisting criminal, huh? Ren thought with bitterness.

Almost as if he heard his thoughts and got offended, the vulgar detective turned his sights on them and said,

"Hey you! What's in the bag, huh? Show us!"

"The kid's just a regular ol' customer," Iwai said. "You can check the tapes if that'll convince you. They'll show everything's that gone down today "

Ren chastised himself for staying. If the officers saw that, they would see him and Aki bringing that medal. And he certainly didn't want them still here when they saw it.

"I won't let you go easily! Show us what's in that bag!"

"Yeah, no thanks. But thanks for making it very clear with your shouting though. Might've misheard ya if ya didn't."

Ren nearly snickered.

Iwai most definitely did with that look on his face.

Thankfully the other detective convinced him to leave them alone and they finally got to go. Ren sighed when they made it to the station.

"Well that was something..."

"That's one way of putting it..."

"Hey..." Mona said, popping out for the first time since before the trip. "Aren't you curious about what's inside?"

"Well...yeah, but...if he didn't want us to look, I'd rather check it out when we get back home," his sister said.

He nodded. "I agree."

"Ugh...fine..."

It actually wouldn't be a while until they did that though because, as promised, he and Aki helped Sakura-san with the café when they got back and didn't have much free time until it was after dinner. Which, well, he was glad for because when they opened the bag, Aki shouted.

"What the—mmph?!"

Ren covered her mouth, tensed as he waited to see if Sakura-san heard.

When no middle-aged voice spoke, he relaxed and let go.

"Sorry," Aki said.

"It's fine." And to lighten the mood, he said with a smirk, "I thought you would since you did that when Ryuji brought out my first gun."

His sister glared. "My point still stands: it's very realistic lookin', okay?"

"I agree," the non-feline said, leaning over the bag. "If anything, this is even more realistic than the one Ryuji got. Almost too realistic for just any old model shop..."

Ren frowned. That was true. As much passion there was for plenty of model gun makers, it was still pushing the limits of "legal" with making it look realistic. But...when Ren remembered the attitude of those detectives compared to Iwai's, he couldn't help but want to trust the man. For all he knew, Iwai was very much like them: seen as a criminal when he wasn't.

And it seemed Aki was of the same mind.

"Well just means we got lucky and got a really good model makin' shop. I mean, the more real it looks, the better in the Metaverse, right?"

"Oh yeah! That's right!" The not-cat gasped. "I just had an idea. Why don't we buy this gun from him next time?"

"Uh...but we've been buyin' guns from him already..."

"No, I mean, try to see if we can get more guns like these. That look like real guns instead of obvious tells that they're replicas made with plastic steel."

"Hmm, well he did say he was givin' us a beginner selection..."

Ren sighed. He didn't like where this conversation was going since the items discussed could get them in trouble...but it wasn't as if it was any worse than what they already had. So he was glad his phone rung. He "excused" himself from his sister and Mona's conversation then stood at the corner right of the stairs. When he saw the caller was Ann, he chuckled and smiled before he said,

"Good evening, Ann."

"Oh, uh, hello. Good evening too."

"Any specific reason you called?"

"I saw the news. You know, about Kamoshida," she said. "It's getting a lot of coverage."

It was. Even the lady who was Akechi's coworker knew about it. Though Ren wasn't surprised. He was a former Olympic athlete and a teacher, both prestigious in their own ways. But that wasn't what he was concerned about.

"How do you feel about it?"

Especially since she had left Kamoshida alive for this exact reason: forever shamed for his sin.

But instead of any kind of happiness, he just heard her say,

"I don't know..."

And...he wasn't sure what to say to that.

Ann continued despite his silence. "The reaction's bigger than I expected... I guess I'm just...surprised. But I don't think we did anything wrong though."

Ah, mixed feelings... That made more sense.

"I wonder if we helped those people speak up about it..." she then said.

"I'm sure we did," he said.

"That's pretty amazing, huh? I didn't think we'd actually do it! And yet, look at us now! This calls for a celebration!"

Ren chuckled. "Oh? So we're having two celebrations? I'm not sure we can afford that."

There was a grumble then she said, "You know what I mean!"

Ren covered his mouth before he laughed.

"Oh yeah, that reminds me. Let's meet in front of Shibuya Station at noon tomorrow. Don't be late!"

"We won't."

"And you did sell that medal, right? You didn't forget?"

"No I didn't. Thief's honor."

Ann chuckled on the other end and said, "All right. See you tomorrow!"

"See you tomorrow."

With that, she hung up and Ren went to tell them the schedule. Mona and Aki got excited at the news and so the time as they fell asleep was spent discussing what kind of restaurant it would be.

"As such, when an incident involving a teacher in Shujin Academy, a former Olympian at that, coffessing his crimes happened, it was just one of many scandals that was, at that point, commonplace in Tokyo. There was only one detail that made it stand out from the rest: it was supposedly caused by the Phantom Thieves of Hearts, who had put up several dozen calling cards all over the school's announcement board the week before his confession.
 
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TheCharredDragon

One world, one love, shadows of mass destruction
Chapter 16: Thick as Thieves

(A)​

"Woah! This is where we're eatin'?"

"Good taste, Lady Ann!"

"Hey, quiet, you stupid cat! We don't wanna get caught!"

"I am not a cat!"

"Quiet you two or we'll get caught because of you."

"Uh..." Akira said.

When they planned on celebrating, she had been hoping for a nice restaurant, something a little expensive but the menu would be a bit down to earth or simple.

Not a freaking buffet in a freaking five-star hotel.

"Something wrong?" Ann said to her while Ren settled the two bickering boys.

"Uh, not really just..."

"You don't like it?"

Akira flinched. "Kinda...?" she said. "I just...don't know if there'll be something I'll like to eat here..."

Because she usually didn't find anything hotels served for meals all that...appetizing.

"Oh. Well, I'm sure we'll find something! It's a buffet after all. There has to be at least one thing you'll like."

"Well I don't know about that...but thanks anyway."

To her surprise and relief, after tasting bits of a good amount of the meals offered in the buffet, Akira did find some things she liked the taste of, including desserts. So for her meal she had meats, greens, and rice and for dessert she was going to have a chocolate cake and pancakes. The rest, while she could bear, wasn't exactly anything she'd want to eat a lot of, like the hams or berry flavored desserts. Meanwhile Ann got mostly desserts, having only one non-dessert meal to go with them, and Ryuji had all meats. Ren was the only one besides her who had actual variety in his meal, though some of them was because of feeding it to Mona.

"Hmm... It's so good..."

"Of course it's good! It's a famous hotel after all."

"Famous doesn't always equal good," Akira said. "But I'll agree this time."

"Well now I know it's good if it has something for Aki's picky tastes."

She pouted. "I'm not that picky."

"I beg to differ."

"Hey, Ren," Mona said in a whisper. "Can I have some more?"

"Oh, right."

Her brother went back to feeding Mona.

But she said, "Hey, let me. I'm done eating already."

Well minus her desserts but they just were that, desserts. It wasn't as important as the main course and they weren't ice cream so she could afford leaving them alone.

Ren was hesitant for a moment but said, "Okay."

And so she was feeding Mona while he went back to eating. In the middle of it though, Ann told them the police were going to investigate their school and interview people.

"I was wonderin' when we'd see 'em," she said.

"This is troublesome though..."

"Our names are gonna come up for sure with all the rumors about us and Kamoshida..."

"Nothin' we can do 'bout that."

"Yes. The best we can do is not act suspicious," Ren said.

"Yeah... But hey! At least we got the school pumped up! I keep hearin' things like 'The Phantom Thieves really stole his heart!'"

Akira thew him a questioning look. "Really?"

"I didn't hear anything about that."

Ryuji took out his phone, fiddled with it, then held it out as he said, "I got it from here."

They all leaned forward to see something called the "Phantom Afficionado Website" up on his browser and well... Akira stared. ...it was pretty impressive. It not only looked pretty professional, with a page that was convenient for phones and clean graphics, it was stylish. The wall was red and black, the posts looked like speech bubbles, and the text for it looked bold and like a calling card. But the best part...was that Ryuji was right. There were quite a lot of posts thanking them and congratulating them.

"Pretty cool, huh?" Ryuji said with a huge grin.

"Wow," she and her brother said.

"I was just desperate to solve my own problems, but seeing people say all this feels...strange."

When she put it like that, it would seem strange. But as she took out her own phone to see the site herself, all Akira could feel was smiling at it all. They really did help more than just themselves.

In the middle of her browsing though, Ryuji said,

"Hey... What do we do now?"

"Huh?"

"You mean besides eating? I don't know," Ren said.

That somehow made Ann and Ryuji remember that they had a time limit of one hour and they panicked...despite the fact that they had fifty minutes left. Akira would've told them that was plenty of time to eat, if Ren didn't beat her to it, but...

"I'm not gonna eat all the beef dishes at this pace!"

"I need to eat my way through the entire dessert menu!"

...with how they went off to do just that, she doubted that would've calmed them down.

Though not before Ryuji said,

"Look after our stuff! We'll snag something for you two!"

Akira and Ren sweatdropped.

"Should we tell them we got all we wanted?"

"What are the chances they would've listened?"

They thought on it. And remembered they were in a buffet.

"Close to zero."

"Exactly."

So they just waited until they returned. As expected, Ann got even more sweets and Ryuji got even more meats and they began stuffing themselves and moaning about how delicious it was. There was something out of place though...

"What the hell is this?" she said, staring at the procured plates.

Akira was picky but even she would admit that if something was properly plated and looked appetizing enough she would at least give it a try.

But this...?

She knew what she was looking at should be a variety of foods, but...they were all put together with no rhyme or reason and mixed as if they were ingredients instead of the finished meals they were.

If she didn't know any better, she would've thought it was lethal Mystery Food, complete with capitalization.

"Yeah, where is our share?" Mona said.

"Oh I didn't know what you wanted, so I just got you some beans."

"Beans?"

"There were some pretty bizarre things there, so I got you a variety of those... Like fried banana, preserved eggs and...some kind of beans."

"M-More beans?"

"We put so much on the plate that it got mixed up, but it should probably taste good," Ann said, with the biggest and most innocent smile.

Correction, it was definitely lethal Mystery Food.

"This is just plain grotesque..."

"Maybe we should've just told them not to get anything," she said, whispering to her brother.

"Yeah, we should've," he said, whispering back.

Then Mona said, "Let's go you two. These two just don't know what fine dining means! We'll show them!"

She was tempted to complain that she wasn't needed, but looking at the Mystery Food again made her say,

"You got it."

"Leave it to us," Ren said.

Unsurprisingly, Ann and Ryuji didn't really notice them leaving and continued to gorge themselves on their delicacies. Meanwhile, she and Ren just picked out food that Mona wanted to eat. But while they did so, they heard the adults around them gossip. Akira frowned and pulled up her mask. While most of it was what she expected, like how TV, the police and people outside of Shujin thought of what happened with Kamoshida and the existence of the Phantom Thieves of Hearts, the rest just made her wish the fifty minutes would be done sooner. The patrons sneered at their presence, the staff of a TV station were more worried about ratings than what happened and some detectives were doing the same, saying they couldn't treat the Kamoshida case "seriously".

She was almost glad to be back at their table.

Almost.

"Don't you think you're eatin' too much, Mona?" Ryuji said.

"There's no..." Mona gulped a piece. "...knowing when we'll get to come here again."

"Sure, but you guys brought loads of food back... It'd be a shame to let it go all to waste..."

"You're the ones who brought most of this food!" Akira said, pointing to Ann and Ryuji.

"Uh, well...Ryuji, why don't you help finish it?"

"What? Well then we should both help."

"Oh me? I'm way too stuffed! I couldn't possibly help!"

"Yeah...stuffin' your face with cake..."

"Traitor..." Akira said under her breath.

"Whatever! Let's deal with this ourselves!"

Ren just chuckled before rolling his neck. "Bring it on then."

And so her brother, their faux-blond friend, and their not-cat began to eat was there. She didn't want to eat more than what she picked, but she wanted to at least help a little, so she picked out a few of Ryuji's meals. But when Ren saw that, he paused in his stuffing and said,

"You don't have to, you know."

She gave an unamused look. "Yeah I know, Big Bro. Just let me help."

Ren frowned with worry. "But can you really stand it?"

Akira glared. "I'll show you," she said and began reaching out for as many things as she could get.

And she did. Twenty minutes later, though she felt absolutely stuffed, she only felt a little bit queasy as she leaned against the couch.

"See...? I can do it..." she said, glancing at her brother with a smirk.

Ren, also laying prone against the back rest, grinned back and laughed, though it was weak.

"So will you eat more foods now...?" he said.

She laughed as well. "Not...gonna happen..." she said.

Because she doubted that part of her was ever going to change.

"Good job guys!" Ann said. "How about one last dish to cleanse your palette?"

Urk!

Akira slapped a hand over mouth and groaned.

"Noooo..." Ren said for both of them.

"Stop..." Ryuji said. "I don't wanna hear about sour stuff..." He burped then groaned. "This isn't good... I gotta go to the bathroom..."

Well she was going to have to go too at this rate if they kept reminding her how full she was.

Though on the bright side she wouldn't be alone if that was the case as Mona said,

"M-Me too... Please...carry me gently..."

"Ugh...stop it..."

But then a woman said,

"My, look at that table..."

And Akira frowned. She tilted her head back to see a man and woman behind her.

"Come now, pay them no attention," the man said. "I'm sure they must not normally have the chance to eat such exquisite food."

"But look at their manners... I can only imagine what their parents must be like."

Akira snarled.

"Oh yeah...?" she said with a glare.

"What was that?!" Ryuji said but then she heard him gurgle.

Akira, however, followed them with her gaze, ready to give them a piece of her mind, when something gripped her hand hard. She startled and turned to her brother and saw him stare in the direction the couple left with a blank expression.

"Let's go to the bathroom," he said then looked to Ann, his gaze only slightly softening. "Do you mind watching our stuff?"

Ann looked concerned but still said, "It's fine. I can stay."

"Thank you."

Big Bro...

She felt a bit better that her brother was almost as ticked off as she was at the couple's behavior, but that wasn't much when she felt sad at Ren being hurt from their words. In hopes of comforting him, on their way to the upper floors in search for a bathroom, she held his hand tighter and leaned against his tense shoulder. As she hoped, he relaxed from the touch, but still kept his pace steady and brisk, for Ryuji and Mona's sake if anything else.

After going in the girl's bathroom to pee, and stopping herself from mimicing Ryuji when she heared his puking all the way from the boy's bathroom, the four of them returned to the elevators. Unsurprisingly their friends ended up arguing a bit about how much they ate but thankfully they didn't draw it out, Ryuji wondering which was the floor they came from. While they were discussing that however...

"Ugh."

"Ow!"

"Tch...!"

...someone just shoved them away from the elevator.

"What the—?!"

"Hey!" she said. "Watch where you're going!"

But the group of men didn't apologize for what they did. In fact, they didn't say anything at all to them. Instead, the man in the middle, a bald one with glasses and a goatee, said to who she assumed were his bodygaurds,

"There's no update on the case?"

THUD.

"Ack!" Akira grimaced and held her hammering forehead.

"Aki?" her brother said, holding her.

"I'm...fine..." she said, focusing on her breathing as the pain lessened.

Meanwhile, Ryuji said, "Hey! You're cuttin' in line!"

And one of the bodyguards turned to them, uninterested and annoyed.

"What do you want?" he said.

"We were here first," her brother said still supporting her.

"We're in a hurry."

"Oh I'm sorry. So you can butt in front of other people if you're in a hurry?" Ryuji said.

The bald man finally turned, only just realizing they were there.

"Hmm. It seems the customer base has changed since I was here last," he said. "Have they started a day care?"

"What?"

THUD.

Akira gritted her teeth as it flared again. Was she having a migraine? She hoped not. Ren was going to ban her from going all out on buffets if that was the case, or at least close to it.

"Sir, we don't have time for this."

"I know."

The elevator dinged then and by that point she was lucid enough to see Ryuji step forward, likely hoping to push through. But a bodyguard pushed him back. Akira was ready to return the favor, but then bald man spoke again.

"Don't bother with them!"

THUD.

She gasped, trying to not shout at the sudden spike of pain in her head. The only thing she could make out was her brother groaning beside her and vaguely of Ryuji and Mona talking. Otherwise all she could feel were the thuds of her brain, pounding as if trying to escape from her head, and the maelstrom of emotions she felt from The Incident at March.

THUD.

"Wh...w...ng...?"

THUD.

"...on't...worr...bou...it..."

Thud.

"...gonna ma...worry more, y, know."

thud.

"Aki?" her brother said, ignoring Ryuji. "Aki?"

Akira stared, waiting for another thump. But when none came, she took a deep breath and sighed.

"Yeah...?"

"How are you feeling?"

"Like I wanna punch everything," she said.

Because she hated how that stupid man made her remember that stupid night when they were just enjoying themselves but it all went downhill.

Ren sighed in relief. "Good. You're okay."

"Ugh, yeah, that 'sir' bullshit makes me sick...actin' all high and mighty..." Ryuji said. "Damnit..."

"You can say that again..." she said.

But he didn't. Instead they were silent as they made their way back to their table. But as soon as they made it back, Ann said,

"What took you so long?!"

Akira flinched but then stared. "What the..."

"Why're you all pissy?" Ryuji said.

Whatever hostility she had left as she turned shocked at her own behavior.

"Sorry," she said. "I...had a run-in with some woman a second ago..."

"What happened?" Ren said, his tone souring.

Not that Akira was any better.

The blonde sighed. "She bumped into me but then said it was all my fault she dropped her plate..."

"Sounds like a real bitch..." Ryuji said.

She and Ren nodded in agreement.

"Yeah...thanks though." Ann smiled briefly but that left her as she said, "But...all the restaurant workers all looked at me with this disapproving expression..."

Everyone's mood fell at that. Ren's especially as he kept up his stoic mask when he sat down. Nobody said anything for a while, just letting the people around them bustle and time continue to flow. What could they say after that? At least, without making it seem like a poor attempt at brightening the mood.

But then Ann said, likely thinking out loud, "I wonder if we're out of place here..."

Akira glanced around for show before she said, "Gee, I wonder why... There's nothing odd about regular teenagers in the middle of a fancy buffet. Not at all..."

"It shouldn't be odd," Ren said, letting some of his melancholic annoyance through. "But as far as the regulars here are concerned, anyone who isn't an adult and rich shouldn't be here..."

That made Ryuji ask Mona to confirm that anyone could have a Palace.

"Why bring that up all of a sudden?" Ann said.

But Akira had a guess.

And it was right as Ryuji said,

"...I was just wonderin' if we could change those kindsa people too."

Ann stared. "You mean...you want to continue as the Phantom Thieves...?"

"I wouldn't mind," Ren said.

"Me neither," she said.

"Huh? Really? But...why would you want to do that?"

Akira and Ren glanced at the one who suggested it in the first place, hoping he would continue. He looked surprised they were waiting for him but he took the hint and said,

"Well we put a lot of work into changin' Kamoshida's heart but nobody believes us." He paused. "Plus...those people who had no other choice but to deal with it are thankin' us, us of all people."

With that, she and her brother turned back to Ann.

"That's our answer too," Ren said.

Akira nodded.

"Yeah, that's true..." Ann said. "And if we ignore people who are in trouble, I'd go back to being the same as I was before..."

"Well...that's true..." Mona said.

"So shouldn't we be able to help them?"

"But...that means we'll have to fight Shadows again, right?"

"Indeed. That can't be avoided."

Akira flinched. She...forgot about that. All she thought about was the fact that they could change people's lives by doing that, never mind how they're risking their lives to do it. It was understandable that Ann was scared. And yet...

"Eh, I'm sure we'll manage," Ryuji said. "Hehehe, right?"

"I...want to help people," Ren said, unable to look Ann in the eye.

"Me too," Akira said.

...she knew that wasn't going to stop her from doing this. Not when she could only imagine the people who had been in situations like they all had been in: powerless to change their circumstances.

"Then I'm in too."

"Then it's settled!"

And so it was decided. After a short discussion about the name, where Akira learned that Ryuji was actually the one way better with names than Ann and especially Mona, they were officially the Phantom Thieves of Hearts, thanks to her essentially being the deciding vote. Though with that issue done, Ann then went for another and said to Ren,

"Are you okay being our leader?"

Which she wasn't surprised of.

But Ren was and said, "Me...?"

She lightly ribbed him with her elbow.

"Of course she'd pick you, doofus. You were leadin' us back in Kamoshida's Palace. We're pretty much used to it by now."

"No objections here!" Ryuji said. "I can't handle all that responsibility stuff."

Akira snickered. That was very true.

"Where's my say in this?" Mona said.

"You just did."

"You know what I mean," he said, unamused. He sighed. "But Lady Ann did make the recommendation, so I'll allow it as well."

"Hey, you were the one who agreed to make him leader back in the Palace."

"T-That was because we had no time to argue."

"Yeah yeah, sure, whatever you say."

"So...?" Ann said, looking hopefully at him.

Ren looked at each and everyone one of them, Akira giving him a reassuring smile when he faced her. Once he did that, he returned the smile, much more confident, and said,

"Leave it to me."

"Well now that that's set...who's our next target?"

That...was a good question. Especially, as Ryuji pointed out, there were likely plenty of targets in a city like Tokyo. But after a bit of talk, they decided they would try to go after more big names, like CEOs and celebrities, when they found any so they would be more well known to people. And even then, they instated a unanimous vote rule: they wouldn't go after any target unless they all agreed to it. The former decision she was a bit hesitant on, being famous always was a double-edged sword, but with the latter choice, she agreed to it. After all, with that rule, if she didn't like going after a target, they wouldn't go after them.

"Oh no!" Ann said just as they ended the discussion.

"What?!"

"What's wrong?"

"Our time for the buffet ran out..."

They groaned.

{R}​

...I'd like to congratulate you.

To think our master would give out words of praise...

...treasure this moment, Inmate!

(Yeah, whatever. What do you want now?)

You have encountered allies who share your ideals and you have found your place in reality.

(And of course no straight answer...)

{What do you mean?}


The time has come...your rehabilitation will soon begin.

(What rehabilitation?)

You have a special potential...that must be refined into a useful power...refining it shall grant you the strength to stand against the coming ruin. That is the rehabilitation cast upon you.

(What is this ruin anyway?)

...various means by which you may gain the power...

...gaining experience is one of them.

...the fusion process...is another.

...we have words of wisdom as well.

...you better hone your relationships with those you have contact with!

Thanks to the contacts you've formed your hearts are steadily gaining the power of opposition. It seems...going well. This is a joyous occasion... I shall grant you an ability... Consider it a gift.

And don't forget your contractors, Inmates!
 

TheCharredDragon

One world, one love, shadows of mass destruction
Chapter 17: A Little Suspect

{R}​

Gossip used to be background noise for Ren and, for the most part, it still was. But now that he was a phantom thief, he kept an ear out for anything interesting. It was all he could do since a quick check on the Phan-Site during lunch provided no leads for another target. Unfortunately, there wasn't much difference in the current topics from before Golden Week. People were still talking about Kamoshida and them, the Phantom Thieves of Hearts. Well, except for one thing: exams.

Ren internally groaned at the reminder.

With everything that happened, he had forgotten to study in that time.

He would have to remedy that, and remind the rest as well.

But just as he was about to do that after the day's classes ended, Mishima came up to him and said, "Hey."

Ren looked at him curiously. "Hello, Mishima," he said. "How are you?"

"Oh, uh, I'm fine. Just...have you seen the Phantom Aficionado Website?"

Ren tensed but kept his face even. "Yes."

"I'm the one who started it."

This time, he couldn't keep it up and stared. "What?"

"Surprised?"

Ren paused. "More like...why are you telling me?"

"Um..." The boy looked around before he leaned in and said in a whisper, "You guys are the Phantom Thieves, aren't you?"

Ren should've known. He had hinted to Mishima that they would do something after all. And Kamoshida had suspected them too when they sent the calling card. But still, even if Ren saw no harm in telling him, he still had to be careful. So he glanced around, spotting Ann with Ryuji and Aki, before he gave a subtle nod for the truth but said,

"I don't know what you're talking about."

Thankfully Mishima understood as he nodded and said, "Ah, right...sorry about that... Probably shouldn't have said it like that..."

"It's okay."

"But really...I wanted to tell you because, well...it's my way of apologizing," he said.

"Mishima..."

"Kamoshida used me and I did some horrible things to you guys," he said, sullen. But then he turned determined. "But he's not the only one. There are tons of rotten adults out there. And I'm sure the Phantom Thieves will do something about it. So I made the forum so people can post about their problems."

"I see..."

"I know this isn't much...but I...really wanna help the Phantom Thieves' acts of justice. So if there's anything I can do to help, just let me know!"

Ren allowed a small smile and said, "Thank you. I'll be sure to let you know."

The boy returned it. "Heh. No problem," he said. "I'm glad to hear that."

The world paused.

I am thou, thou art I. Thou hast acquired a new vow. It shall be the wings of rebellion that breaketh thy chains of captivity. With the birth of the Moon Persona, I have obtained the winds of blessing that shall lead to freedom and new power.

Then it resumed with Mishima saying,

"Oh I've also implemented an anonymous poll too. 'Do you believe in the Phantom Thieves?'"

Ren grew curious. "Why did you do that?"

"Well I wanna work on it so it'll be filled with tons of supportive posts. There are probably a lot of people with high hopes about their next move. So if they see people supporting the Thieves, then more people will post their problems here."

"Smart," Ren said, especially since they were already using it as a source for targets. "I'll be looking forward to your work."

"Heh. Thanks. I'll live up to your expectations. I promise."

"Anything else?"

"No, I don't think so. But I'll let you know if I see anything interesting."

"Thank you again."

Mishima smiled brighter. "All right. See you," he said.

And then he more or less ran off.

Ren sweatdropped in amusement at the awkward exit.

"We heard all that," Ryuji said as he and the others came up to him. "Geez...it was awkward tryin' to figure out when to walk in..."

Ann said, "So that forum is Mishima-kun's..."

And Mona said, "Has he figured out our identities?"

"Really? You couldn't tell?" Aki said, flatly looking him. "I thought you said you were smart."

"Hey! I'm worried he might spill about us!"

"Even if he does know, I think it'll be fine," Ann said. "He was playing it cool."

"I agree," Ren said.

"And he made that forum for the Thieves," Aki said.

"I guess we should have a little...chat about this later."

"I thought you said you're not a thug."

"Wha—no! That's not what I meant! I just meant talkin' 'bout that forum, that's all!"

Aki snickered but before Ryuji could protest more, Mona said,

"Still though...a forum where people can post problems is unexpectedly useful."

"Yeah, it'll be useful for info," his sister said.

The faux-blond sighed. "Anyways, we gotta look for our next target."

"And stay sharp until then," Ann said. "When we do find one, we'll have to go to a Palace, so we need to get ready for it and—"

"Wait, oh crap!"

Everyone was startled and got mad.

"What the hell, Ryuji?!"

"Indoor voice."

"Yeah! What is with you?!"

"Don't we got an exam comin' up?"

Oh right. "Yes we do," Ren said. "I was actually going to remind you."

"Damn it!"

Ren sniggered.

"You're going to have a hard time with this one too, aren't you...?" Ann said to the faux-blond.

"Like you're any better! All you're good at is English!"

"I'd rather that than be bad at everything!"

But then Mona said with a smirk, "Even your Japanese is questionable, Ryuji,"

And the boy said, "What's questionable is if you're even human." Then he smirked and said, "Heh. Good comeback huh?"

So of course Mona said, "Let's discuss this with our fists!"

"Bring it!"

"Stop it you two," Ren said before it could devolve into a proper argument.

"Yeah knock it off," Ann said, backing him up.

The two grumbled but still locked in a heated gaze.

Ren sighed. Well, he might as well kill two birds with one stone.

"Come on. Let's go and study."

"Huh?" everyone except Aki said.

His sister meanwhile said, "Yeah let's do that. There's this diner in Central Street I wanna try. I hear it's quiet and I wanna get somethin' to eat while we're at it."

"I'm fine with that." He said to the others, "You?"

"Uh..."

As surprised as the two were, they agreed to study together at the diner. And it proved that, yes, Ann and Ryuji were...quite academically challenged. Ren's heart swelled with pride over his friend's surprise at how easily Aki learned her subjects and even understood their second-year material. So he spent half his time tutoring them, Aki joining when she was on her breaks. He laughed all the while with her as Ann and Ryuji both thanked and complained about their smarts.

(A)​

Akira sighed and wiped the sweat off her brow. After they came back from the study session—that was half studying and half teasing Ann and Ryuji—Sakura-san asked them to help with the café, the traffic for the afternoon busier than usual. It was a little annoying they had to do that just as they got back, but Akira didn't mind.

"Here," Sakura-san said.

Akira stared as Ren caught a key thrown at him.

"Sakura-san...?" her brother said, bewildered.

"That's the key to this place," he said. "You get to lock up from now on. I can't keep waiting for you to come back."

She and her brother looked at each other than back at their caretaker.

"Did somethin' happen?" she couldn't help but say.

The man glowered. "Nothing happened. It's just as I said."

Once again, Akira shared a look with Ren before they broke into grins.

"Thanks Sakura-san."

"Thank you Sakura-san."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever. You're welcome. Now make sure not to start any fires, got it?"

"Got it!"

With that, the man left and they went to bathhouse nearby to wash. When they finished though, Akira wanted to go out to Shibuya at night, despite having just cleaned up. Luckily for her, Ren was of the same mind and readily agreed. They locked up Leblanc with Mona in tow and toured the streets and tunnels of Tokyo at night. Though it didn't seem too different from day, the amount of people about the same. Ren found a few places where he could get stuff for Palace trips while she spotted a job opening for the beef bowl shop Ryuji took them to, Ore no Beko. She remembered that Ren had been looking for part time jobs he could do but not landing any yet. So she decided to call it, hoping to get an interview over with. When she told Ren this, he reminded her customer service was hard but...

"I'll be fine, Big Bro. If I can handle Grumpy Chef, then I can handle a bunch of grumpy strangers."

He laughed then and conceded, only once again cautioning her.

On their way back though, Akira noticed an older man, close to Sakura-san's age, talking near Shibuya Station. He seemed to be some politician campaigning or something, if his talk about society's problems and its need to reform was any indication. Akira scoffed and then followed after her brother who had waited for her.

As much as she wished his words were earnest, she doubted that man actually meant it.

{R}​

Once again, Ren kept an ear open for anything interesting. But the best he got was news on the train about some famous artist opening up an exhibit soon. And on top of that, Ann confirmed that the police were at Shujin to investigate the Kamoshida incident. Unsurprisingly, after classes were over, Ryuji begged to not have a group study session like yesterday, saying he studied last night and was completely burnt out. Ann, too, begged for a break. Amused, Ren decided to be merciful and had everyone gather at the hideout to relax as well as see if they could find any leads on the Phan-Site. Which...

"None of these posts are good. It's just people bitchin' about their parents or their boyfriends..."

...wasn't going well, to put it mildly.

"What'd ya expect? A tip on a silver platter?"

"Course not, but...there's not even a hint of a hint of a Palace."

It was probably a good thing they didn't have a target yet though. Exams were coming up in a few days. Even if they did happen to find a target, it wouldn't do good to cause another commotion so soon. The police were in the school right now after all, looking into the Kamoshida incident. It would be easy for them to notice if they made their move now, especially if their target was a criminal they overlooked.

Just as that conversation ended, the door creaked and everyone tensed. Then Mona ran off and they tried to play it cool as it opened. Ren hoped it was that auburn haired girl that seemed to take care of the garden here, but unfortunately it wasn't. Instead it was a brunette girl with a dark hairband and a stern countenance. And the first thing she said was,

"This place is off-limits you know."

"Yeah we know," Aki said. "Exactly why we're here. No one wants us to bother them and all."

Ren smiled bitterly at the truth of that.

"But if us being here is bothering you, we'll leave," he said, his tone the same as his "smile". "But only after we're finished talking."

"Yeah," Ryuji said. "'Sides, what's Miss Council President want with us?"

Ren tensed and put up a polite, but neutral, façade to hide it. This wasn't good. The student council president was here... He could only imagine the reasons, none of them good.

Especially as the girl mused "aloud". "The troublemaker, the center of gossip and the infamous transfer students. Hmm, interesting combination..."

That alone was enough for him to guess that she was suspecting their true connection to the Phanton Thieves, as well as piss off his sister and friends who glared at the girl.

Ann said under her breath, "Great way to start a conversation..."

While Aki said, "I think the words you're lookin' for are 'the outcasts everyone hates'."

Ren hid his snigger while his friends didn't hide theirs upon seeing the slight flinch of the brunette. But the girl wasn't deterred. If anything, her resolve hardened as much as her tone as she said,

"By the way... It seems you got to know Mr. Kamoshida pretty well."

"Not really," he said, because it was true.

They didn't really know Kamoshida well enough to care. Not that he wanted to beyond not wanting him dead.

That however upset the girl as she glowered and said, "Are you playing dumb with me?"

"Nah we ain't," Aki said. She smirked. "Now if we really wanted to play dumb, we'd have said somethin' like...'who's Kamoshida?'."

This time none of them restrained their chuckles as the student council president grew miffed at his sister's words.

"See?" Ann said, a bit smug. "Just goes to show how little we really know him."

The council president was persistent though, despite the brief humiliation.

"I heard Mr. Kamoshida used a volleyball team member to spread details of your past record," she said after composing herself. "Don't you hate him? Mr. Kamoshida I mean."

He and his sister glared.

"Course we do," she said.

"You would have to be heartless to not hate him after what happened with Suzui," he said.

Silence. No one said anything. The air tightened with tension after the girl outright flinched. Then they stared each other down. In his case, he let the implications hang in the air for her to ruminate. In her case, she was likely recuperating and planning her next move.

It was broken by Ryuji being impatient. "What's all this about? My friends here are upstandin' guys."

"I don't mean to offend," she was quick to say.

And Aki was quick to follow. "Sure you don't. And I've got twenty-twenty vision."

The brunette ignored her, to Ren's amusement. "Many students have been shaken up by what happened with Mr. Kamoshida," she said, serious. "The rumors about that calling card-esque posting aren't going away either."

Now Ren was sure she suspected them to be the culprits behind that. He cursed their luck. But since Mishima figured them out, he shouldn't have been surprised.

"Yeah, so?" Aki said.

"Yeah. I didn't expect someone like you to care about tactless stuff like that, Niijima-senpai," Ann said, acting all "surprised"...not.

Before "Niijima-senpai" could say more on that, Ryuji mumbled then said,

"Anyways, we done here? We ain't leaving if you keep talkin' to us."

"We'll be finished soon," Ren said in hopes of convincing her.

But then she said, absolutely annoyed, "At least try to understand my position. Being forced to deal with this horseplay..."

"Horseplay?!" Ann said, matching the other two's outrage.

And Ren frowned, boring straight into her eyes as he said, "Then how about you understand our position first, Miss President? If my sister didn't make it clear enough...no one likes us. So unless you're nice to us first, we're not going to bother being nice to you. Do you understand?"

The girl was taken aback, almost looking hurt, but Ren wouldn't take back his words. They didn't cow under Kamoshida's influence. A student council president's power was nothing compared to that.

After another short staring contest, the brunette composed herself. But of course, she wasn't going to make it easy to rattle her.

"Very well...which reminds me. It's been dictated that this place will be closed off due to the incident," she said, now smug despite everything. "I heard some people are coming up here without permission, after all."

Everyone glowered at her attitude but Ren couldn't help but say, "What about the garden?"

And her smugness was replaced with confusion. "Garden?"

That calmed Aki down enough for her to say, "Oh yeah. Someone comes up to take care of it. Does that mean she's gonna be banned too? It'd suck if these plants are gonna die 'cause of that..."

Once again, Niijima was caught off guard, but instead of being stern or annoyed, she was unsure as she looked at the garden in contemplation.

"I...believe she will be given an exception..." she said. Then quickly added, "I'm sorry to have interrupted you."

Then just as fast, she left the roof, turning on her heel without so much as a glance back. Once the door thudded close, Ryuji said,

"What was that all about?"

"Ain't it obvious? 'The troublemaker, the center of gossip and the infamous transfer students. Hmm, interesting combination... They totally don't have any connection with Kamoshida at all...nooo...'" Aki said, mimicking the older brunette's voice well in a mocking tone.

Ryuji and Ann stared at how much it sounded like her before joining him in his chuckle at her mimicry.

"What Akira's trying to say is that she's on to us," Mona said, jumping back down. "That girl seems rather sharp. We should be cautious of her."

He and his sister nodded in agreement, serious once again.

Their friend groaned. "She really pisses me off!"

"We'll have to be more careful now," Ren said.

Aki said, "Yeah, since she's basically figured us out..."

Ryuji sighed. "Talk about a pain in the ass..."

Indeed it was.

"We're going to have to move the bag," he said. "Mona, do you mind?"

"Of course not."

While the not-cat did that, his sister said,

"Great. We're gonna have to pick another hideout then."

"I think it's fine we don't for now," he said. "We still have exams after all."

"Exactly," Mona said, muffled from holding their inventory bag in his mouth before Ren took it. "Make sure you all study hard. Especially you, Ryuji. There will be traps that need brains to solve them. Everything you do everyday will affect your abilities in the Metaverse."

"True," their blonde friend said. "Studying won't be so bad if we think of it like that."

The boy groaned. "I get it but...it's so lame. I was all pumped up to help people, not study."

Ren and Aki laughed.

"Well it ain't gonna be all glitz and glamour, bud," she said.

He said, "It is a double life after all."

Ryuji groaned again. This time Ann joined him and his sister in their humor.

However, Mona then said, "Well I do have something interesting to show you. You did promise to help me with my mission after all."

And Ren remembered their deal.

"Mission?" Ann said, confused.

"Oh right," Aki said, echoing his thoughts. "You weren't there when we promised to to help Mona..."

"He agreed to help us if we help him become human again," Ren said. "But weren't you looking into Kamoshida's Palace? How are we supposed to learn more about it if it's gone?"

"No. That's not all," Mona said as he went in Ren's school bag. "Just go to the station. I'll show you when we get there."

Ren sighed. Knowing Mona won't say more, they all agreed to head to the station by Buchiko. When they got there, the non-feline told Ryuji to bring out his phone and put up the Phan-Site. They were confused about that since there had been no hints of any "big shots", but Mona insisted on looking, specifically for a full name. There were plenty of posts with them, to their unease, but most of them were in the same vein as the boyfriend and parent complaints Ryuji mentioned before. But eventually Ann found a more serious post with a name on it. A former teller from City Hall named Natsuhiko Nakanohara was stalking his ex-girlfriend. After they agreed to target him, Mona asked for the MetaNav to be put up. But as Ryuji entered the name and prepared to guess the keywords, the non-feline said,

"Actually, we don't need the location. Just enter exactly what I say. The keyword is...'Mementos'."

And reality warped as they entered the Metaverse and everyone around them disappeared. While Ren wondered why no one was dragged with them this time around, the faux-blond said,

"Is this that Nakanohara guy's Palace?"

"That's half-right and half-wrong. This is a type of Palace, but it's different from the normal ones."

"Different? How's it—"

"Come on. Follow me. The Shadows here lurk underground," Mona said and then ran off into the subway tunnels.

"Hey! Wait up, cat!"

And Ryuji followed after him.

Aki sighed. Ren chuckled. And Ann said,

"Come on. We're gonna lose him."

Then they trailed after the non-feline and faux-blond into Tokyo's underground.
 
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