A/N: Hi guys, just a heads up, this chapter is unbeta'd. My beta reader has been a little too busy with summer stuff to get to this, and I figured that by this point, you'd much rather have the chapter. But it's entirely possible that this has typos, awkward word choices, missing words, and all the usual things we need second readers to pick out. Apologies!
An unintended consequence of living just above their chosen hideout was that Akira's room was usually full of people. People came to the meetings early and would come upstairs to hang out, play video games, read, or do whatever they wanted. Normally, Akira didn't mind this. In fact, he enjoyed it. He liked being in the company of his friends, and if he didn't feel like talking, they were more than happy to entertain themselves.
Today, however, was a little different. Because today, the two people who had arrived early were Ann—who was doing her nails at the table he'd set up for her—and Futaba, and whether she realized it or not, Futaba had an agenda. He'd been reading a magazine when she walked in, and she'd insisted—quite loudly—that he keep reading, because she just wanted to chill out here until the meeting.
He'd known from the way she said it that that had been a lie, but now he wondered if this might not legally qualify as a hostage situation.
"I mean," Futaba said, pacing the length of his room for what seemed like the tenth time. "It's not like I care or anything."
"Mm-hmm…" Akira said, shifting awkwardly in his seat as Futaba punctuated her sentence with an emphatic gesture. She did a quick about face, marching in the other direction.
"Because I don't, Akira, I really don't!"
He flipped the magazine he was reading a little too quickly, the paper making a snapping sound. Ann glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, giving him a knowing smirk before looking back at her nails. Akira thought that she seemed entirely too pleased with his predicament.
"It's just—," Futaba said, running a hand through her hair. "It's Inari! I mean—Inari."
She shot him a glare and Akira nodded quickly, wondering if the magazine he was holding would make a good shield if pressed to do the job.
"I didn't even think he was into girls!" Futaba said.
Ann turned away, laughing quietly where Futaba couldn't see. Akira raised the magazine to hide his increasingly-panicked expression.
"And it's not like I care, because I don't!" Futaba reminded him again. "But it's creepy! She's, what, in her twenties? She could be his teacher! Don't you think that's creepy, Akira?"
Akira made a strangled, high-pitched sort of noise, drawing his legs up onto the couch and wishing he could disappear into it. Ann, at this point, was practically doubled over.
"And sure, she's cute!" Futaba said. "But lots of people are cute. I'm cute! Right? Akira, do you think I'm cute?"
Akira shot Ann a helpless look. She straightened up, wiping a tear from her eye. "It's okay," she said, smiling at him. "You can answer that."
"Uh…" Akira began, turning back towards Futaba.
"I mean, what does Yukiko Amagi have that I don't have?!" Futaba demanded, cutting him off before he could come up with a coherent answer.
Akira fell silent, staring at her. Ann went quiet as well. Futaba stopped walking, looking between the two of them for a long moment before looking down at herself. Akira wasn't sure what he was going to answer, but it certainly wasn't whatever Futaba was thinking, because her hands went up, made grasping motions somewhere in the vicinity of her chest, and then clenched into fists.
"Ugh!" she shouted. "That perv!"
She spun around, heading down the stairs in a fury. Akira's eyes widened, and he sprang out of his seat to go follow her. Ann did the same, nearly upending a jar of nail polish.
As he was getting to the stairs, he heard the front door open.
"Ah, Futaba," Yusuke said. "Are the others here yet? I came a little early, because—."
Akira reached the stairs just in time to see Futaba draw her hand back, slapping Yusuke across the face.
"Shut up!" she said, pushing past him and out into the street. "Stupid Inari!"
"What did I do?" Yusuke demanded, straightening up with one hand pressed to the side of his face.
Sojiro sighed from behind the counter, staring at them. He put down the glass he was drying. "Oh boy," he said, walking towards the door. "Futaba? Hey, Futaba!"
Yusuke looked up at Akira and Ann, his expression equal parts confused and angry. Akira sighed, running a hand through his hair.
He had a feeling it was going to be an interesting day…
Yu and the others arrived at Leblanc to find an odd sight—namely, most of the Phantom Thieves standing outside the door, clustered around their van, occasionally bending over as if they were trying to coax some scared animal out from underneath it. There was no sign of Yusuke.
"Come on, Futaba…" Ann said, a smile on her face as she extended her hand towards the van. "You know you want to come out."
"I have sweets," Haru said.
"You see?" Ann said. "Haru has sweets."
"Dude, just leave her," Ryuji said, leaning against the wall of the coffee shop. "She'll come out when she's hungry."
"What's going on?" Yu asked, approaching Akira. The teenager sighed, running a hand through his hair.
"Futaba and Yusuke got into an argument this morning," Morgana said from the ground below Akira.
Akira nodded, wincing. "She slapped him and ran out of the store. Now she's in hiding and won't come out."
Kanji blinked. "Wait, she's hiding in the van?" he asked. "She'll fry on a day like this."
"She's not a dog, Kanji," said Yosuke. "I'm sure she'll come out if it gets too hot, right?"
Yu looked back at the Phantom Thieves, but from the looks on their faces, they weren't entirely convinced.
"I'm going to give it a try," Makoto said, walking up to the car. She took a deep breath, then knocked on the window. "Futaba, you really should come out. The heat in there can't be good for your laptop."
"I've got a cooling pad!" the van responded.
"Okay, well…don't you want to come inside anyway?" Makoto asked. "There's internet inside."
"I can get into Leblanc's Wi-Fi from here."
"If you come out," Makoto said, "Akira will make you iced coffee."
"Sojiro already made me iced coffee!" Futaba said.
As one, the Phantom Thieves turned around to face Sojiro Sakura, who was standing just outside the door of his shop, watching the proceedings. He blinked, looking around at them.
"What?" he asked. "It's hot in there."
"Let me try," Rise said, walking up to the van. She knocked on it. "Futaba-chan, you really need to come out."
"Give me one good reason!" Futaba said.
"You can't join the meeting if you're in there," said Rise.
Yu heard the sound of several phones ringing at once, including his own. The group exchanged looks of confusion, reaching for their phones. Yu pulled his out, noticing a message from an unknown number. He didn't know where it had come from, but it said only one thing:
Yes I can.
"How did she even getmy number?" Yukiko asked, incredulous.
"No clue," said Chie, staring down at her own phone with the same spooked expression. Rise, undeterred, slipped her phone back into her pocket. She clasped her hands behind her back and said, in her best 'idol' voice.
"I'll give you tickets to my next show~"
"Okay, one," Futaba said. "I'm not really into idols. Two, I don't really like crowds. Three, I can just download your shows off the internet. Master hacker, remember?"
"Agh, this is going nowhere," said Yosuke. "We're gonna be out here forever!"
"I can get her out!" said Teddie.
"Uh, no you can't," said Yosuke. He looked back at Yu. "Any ideas, partner?"
Yu shrugged, looking back at Naoto. The detective looked at him, then glanced at Kanji out of the corner of her eye. Yu followed her gaze, the two of them turning to look at Kanji.
Kanji blinked, looking up at them. "Huh—?" he asked, eyes widening. "Oh, uh—yeah! Okay."
He put a stern expression on his face, walking up to the van.
"Hey, uh—," he said, knocking on the door. "You like cute things? Stuffed animals, plush toys, that kinda stuff?"
There was silence from the inside of the car.
"…Sometimes…" Futaba said, her tone quietly calculating.
"What about—uh, whassitcalled," said Kanji. "Cosplay. You into that sorta thing?"
"If you come out of the car, I'll put your next costume together," Kanji said. "Anything you want."
Kanji's phone buzzed again. At the same time, the door opened and Futaba stepped out of the van, holding her laptop under one arm and an empty glass of iced coffee in the other. "I've sent you the details," she said, not looking at Kanji. "The con isn't till December, so you've got time. What are the rest of you looking at?" she asked, looking around at the others. "I thought we had a meeting to get to or something?"
The meeting was routine as far as those things went. The sixteen of them sat around Leblanc's booths and tables, rehashing everything they knew so far. At the end, the decision to investigate the tower more tonight was made, and the group broke up to get ready with instructions to meet outside the house later that night.
There was only one thing that was out of the ordinary.
At the end of the meeting, Akira announced, with a significant glance at Morgana, that there was somewhere he wanted to go before they entered the remnant. Yu volunteered to accompany him. And that was, in a roundabout way, why Ryuji and Kanji were standing in a shady alley in Shibuya, waiting for Naoto and Makoto to finish the shopping at Untouchable, or for Yu and Akira to exit the strange door they had just come through, whichever came first.
"Hey," Kanji said, making Ryuji look up from the game he was playing on his cellphone. The two of them were standing on opposite sides of the alleyway, Ryuji leaning against the wall while Kanji stood around with his hands in his pockets. "What d'you think they're doing in there?"
"Buying stuff, I guess," said Ryuji, glancing back at his cellphone. "Why's it matter?"
He rubbed at the back of his neck with his free hand, wincing at the slick feeling of his skin. It was too damn hot to be standing out here waiting for the girls to finish shopping. He'd much rather be in the arcade, or even in the underground mall. But Naoto had gotten it into her head that since the 'mysterious entity' or whatever had shown that it was capable of affecting the minds of the people it had corrupted, it probably wouldn't be a good idea to walk around the city alone while it knew who they were.
That entire thing could have been avoided if the Investigation Team had come up with codenames for themselves, but they hadn't, so here they were. Playing bodyguard for two people who could unquestionably take care of themselves.
"No, not them," said Kanji, scowling at Ryuji in annoyance. "I meant Senpai and Akira."
"Oh," said Ryuji. "Them." He let his eyes drift to the side, to the corner of the alleyway where he knew the door to the Velvelt Room stood. Or at least, he'd have to take Akira's word for it. He still couldn't see it. "I dunno. Probably talking about Morgana. Why's it matter?"
Kanji shrugged. "Just curious," he said. "I still don't really get how that room works."
"You and me both," said Ryuji, glancing back down at his phone. "You and me both."
"So," said Kanji, making Ryuji look up again. "What's your story?"
"My story?" Ryuji asked, blinking at him.
"Yeah," said Kanji. "Blond hair, punk clothes. You tryin' to be some kind of biker or something?"
Ryuji snorted. "I wish," he said. "No way in hell I could afford a motorcycle. Makoto's more the biker type."
"Yeah, she's pretty tough," said Kanji, wincing and rubbing at his side as if in memory. "The two of you are—what, a thing?"
Ryuji coughed, nearly dropping his phone. "What?" he asked. "No way! She's just helping me study for college, that's all."
"Yeah?" Kanji asked. "You got one you're thinking of applying to?"
"I've got a couple," Ryuji said. "I just haven't decided on anything yet—and why are you so interested anyway?" The last was said with narrowed eyes, Ryuji watching Kanji with renewed suspicion.
Kanji shrugged. "You remind me a little of myself, I guess," he said. "Used to dye my hair too. Drove Ma insane."
"Yeah, Futaba mentioned," Ryuji said. "She found your old high school pictures."
Kanji snorted. "Yeah, those're from when I even bothered to show up. School and I didn't get along for a bit."
"Yeah?" Ryuji asked. "You seem like you're doing okay now, though."
"Well, I had the textile shop lined up, and then Naoto…" Kanji trailed off, shaking his head. "Anyway. S'not a big deal." He went silent for a moment, giving Ryuji a serious look. "At the beach yesterday," he said, "Ann mentioned your dad wasn't in the picture."
Ryuji's mood darkened. He scowled, sliding his phone back into his pocket. "Yeah, so what?" he asked. "Who cares about stuff like that? I don't need him."
"You and your ma live alone, then?" Kanji asked. "I was like that, 'cept my dad died. It was tough for a bit. I got really angry. Didn't know how to deal with it, or anyone."
"Yeah, well you can stop, okay?" Ryuji asked, looking up at Kanji. "I'm not you. I don't act this way 'cause I've got some—some anger issues or whatever, alright?! I just—I just want to get into college, so I can get a job and help my mom out a bit, okay? And I would've already been there, if it wasn't—."
He stopped, realizing that he was tapping his bad leg on the ground again, his hands clenched into fists.
"If it wasn't for what?" Kanji asked.
Ryuji let out a breath. "Look, I was on the track team, alright?" he said. "I was pretty good. For a while it looked like I might even get a track scholarship or something."
"And then it didn't work out that way," said Ryuji. "And I really don't want to talk about it."
"Fine," said Kanji, shrugging. He dropped the subject, going quiet again. Ryuji's hand inched towards his pocket, but he didn't feel like playing games anymore. He let it drop away, scowling as he leaned back against the wall.
"It's a really good thing you're doin', you know," Kanji said.
"What is?" Ryuji asked.
"Helpin' your ma out," said Kanji. "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do."
Ryuji blinked at Kanji, unsure what to say. "Uh…thanks, I guess. I'll keep at it."
"Yeah," said Kanji. "And between you and me…" His eyes moved away from Ryuji, landing on the doorway that led into the airsoft shop. "If you do like her, I wouldn't go thinkin' she was too good for you, or something like that. Nearly missed out on a great thing thinking that way." He offered Ryuji a smile. "Just a piece of advice. Take it or leave it."
Ryuji hesitated, staring at Kanji. The denial came easily to him, but he paused before he could say anything, thinking. He drew in a deep breath.
"Sure, okay," he said, reaching for his phone again. "Whatever."
Lavenza and Margaret were waiting for them when they entered the Velvet Room, the two of them standing on opposite sides of Igor's desk. They each carried a book with them, golden eyes shining as they turned to face Akira and Yu. Their expressions were nearly identical, something that—if Akira hadn't already been familiar with the Velvet Room and its quirks—would likely have been unsettling.
Margaret smiled, inclining her head towards them. "Well," she said, "I see that you've found each other."
"Yeah," Akira said, glancing at Yu. Yu returned the glance. "Somehow."
Yu looked past the two attendants, his eyes landing on Igor. "It would have saved us a lot of time and trouble if you'd mentioned that there were two of us," he said.
"Ah, yes," said Igor, fingers threaded together. He watched Yu and Akira, smiling. "But that would have interfered with the necessary order. The Velvet Room exists only to assist you along our chosen paths. We do not…generally…intervene in these affairs beyond the offering of our services."
Akira glanced down at Morgana, who was standing between him and Yu, his posture solemn.
"You've intervened before," Akira said.
"A special case, as I'm sure you're no doubt aware," said Igor. His smile widened. "Rest assured, the time has not yet come for us to intervene again."
"Fair enough," said Akira, "I'm here to talk about Morgana."
"You're here to ask what can be done for him, yes?" Lavenza asked. She set her book down on the desk, approaching Akira and Yu. "As promised, I discussed the situation with my master. We've decided that we can assist Morgana in regaining his abilities."
Morgana's eyes widened, his ears immediately perking up. Akira blinked in surprise. He wasn't expecting an answer that soon.
"That's great—," he began, but Lavenza raised a hand, cutting him off. There was a look in her golden eyes that warned him he may have spoken too soon.
"There is, of course, a catch," Lavenza said.
Morgana's posture went from excited to wary, his eyes narrowing. Akira frowned, nodding slowly. He'd been a Phantom Thief for long enough to know that there was always a catch.
"What is it?" he asked.
"It will take some time," Lavenza said. "The process is…not trivial. We will essentially be restoring that which once was, that which has been stripped from all consciousness and cognition. Morgana will not be able to leave the Velvet Room until that process is complete."
"I'll have to stay here?" Morgana asked. He looked back at Akira. "But—."
"It's your choice," said Lavenza. "It has always ever been your choice. We can restore you, but it will take some time."
"How long?" Akira asked.
"I'm uncertain," said Lavenza. "This isn't something that's been attempted before."
"But when it's finished," said Morgana, "I'll be able to use my Persona again? I'll be able to help Akira and the others?"
"That depends entirely on the strength of your soul," said Igor, breaking in. "But yes, I see no reason why that wouldn't be the case."
Morgana hesitated, looking back over his shoulder at Akira.
Akira echoed Lavenza. "It's your choice," he said.
Morgana nodded, letting out a sigh. He looked up at Lavenza, eyes narrowed in determination. "I'll do it," he said. "I'll stay, for as long as it takes."
Lavenza smiled. "Good," she said. "I will assist you with this transformation." She looked up at Yu and Akira, offering them both a polite curtsy. "In the meantime, my older sister will attend to your needs."
Akira nodded. He looked down at Morgana as the cat stepped forward, approaching Lavenza. Morgana looked back just as Lavenza reached down, patting him lightly on the head.
"Good luck," Akira said.
Morgana nodded. "Stay out of trouble," he said, his eyes moving from Akira to Yu. "I'll be back soon."
"Yeah," Akira said. "I'm looking forward to it, Mona."
Lavenza led Morgana away, the two of them disappearing through a doorway that had not been there previously. Akira waited until the door had closed and vanished before letting out a sigh, looking back at Yu.
"Time to head back?" he asked.
"I have some Personas to fuse," Yu said, already turning to face Margaret. "I'll be there in a minute."
Akira shrugged. "Suit yourself," he said.
He let his eyes sweep over the room one more time, landing on Margaret, Yu, and Igor. Then, he turned, leaving the Velvet Room.
Phantom Thieves Group Chat – 08/01
Yusuke has been added to the group.
Futaba: Inari is now conditionally allowed back onto the chat.
Ann: Welcome back!
Ryuji: How'd you manage that, Akira?
Akira: Bribery mostly.
Yusuke: Thank you.
Futaba: You're welcome.
Yusuke: I was talking to Akira.
Yusuke has been removed from the group.