What does my sister think of me?
Niijima Makoto stared out over the casino floor. Sis's version of Akechi Goro had been different from the real thing, but all too similar at the same time. Sis so easily saw through the phony image he projected for the media. If a version of Makoto existed somewhere among the sea of slot machines and gamblers, what would she be like? Her gaze shifted from cognition to cognition, but what she found wasn't her image. It was that of another.
"Dad...?" An older police uniform. Neatly trimmed hair. A familiar silhouette.
"Mako-chan?" Haru stopped moments after Makoto did. The others, Futaba, Yusuke, and Morgana, were only a couple of seconds behind.
"I-It's nothing," Makoto shook her head, but her eyes kept darting to the crowd, to the figure retreating through it. It couldn't be. "We should-"
"Go." Haru was short, firm, perhaps even desperate.
"We have to get out-"
"GO." Haru put her hand on Makoto's back and pushed. Makoto looked back at her friend. Haru balled her hands into fists. "You'll regret it if you don't!"
"I'll go with her!" Morgana was soon at Makoto's feet.
Makoto looked at Haru's wide eyes, realizing the girl's urging wasn't only for herself. "You won't have any-"
"We're well-stocked," said Futaba.
"We'll see you outside," added Yusuke. "Be quick."
With that, the other three took off for the exit. Makoto watched, hand balled in a fist over her chest, before spinning around. She proceeded to again search through the crowd, her eyes finding their target. He moved through the other patrons like a ghost, hard to keep focus on, as if he could vanish and reappear. Makoto started weaving through the people, nearly tripping over her own feet and those of others, trying to catch up.
"Where is he?" Morgana was at her side.
"Over there!" Makoto extended her arm, having to retract it too soon to make her way through masses. "The one in the police uniform."
"I don't see him!" Morgana hopped.
"Follow me!" Makoto didn't have time to turn to her smaller friend. She rushed past countless cognitions, reminding herself they weren't real—it was okay to be a little rude. She kept losing sight of the one that mattered only to zero in on him once more just as she thought she'd lost him for good. Before she knew it, he was in the elevator, being lifted to another floor. "There! In the elevator!"
"Huh? I don't-"
Reaching the elevator shaft, the glass pillar that reached into the heights of the casino, Makoto stared up. She reminded herself to breathe as she awaited the car's return. When the doors finally began to part she slipped through, jamming her finger to the button for the top floor. Dad would surely retrieve his journal.
Just as she had entered, Makoto slid out of the elevator as soon as she was able, barely catching a glimpse of Dad's back as he disappeared behind the grand double doors to the scale bridge. She crossed the same distance in a blur, not even pausing to prepare as she yanked open the final door to the manager's suite.
It had changed since the Phantom Thieves fought Sis's shadow earlier that night. Gone were the casino decorations and the vault-like elevator doors that had led to the roulette wheel. Instead, Makoto found herself in her apartment, at home. At the end of the entryway, a woman, an older version of herself stood waiting.
She wore an apron over a long skirt. Her hands clasped together, resting at the bottom of the V formed by her arms. She was slim, on the edge of gaunt even. Her hair was longer, extending a few centimeters past her shoulders. It was kept in check with her signature braid headband.
What does my sister think of me?
Makoto took a step back, raising her arm before her. She saw her fingers, her skin, the cuffs of her turtleneck. She was no longer wearing her Phantom Thieves costume. She was back in her school uniform.
"What the..." Morgana was similarly regarding his paw, having reverted to his real world cat body.
"Maybe we..." Makoto looked across the room. Though it seemed like her apartment, most of the furniture and decorations were missing. There was no sign of Dad, only the imposing figure standing opposite her. "Maybe we shouldn't..."
"Makoto...?" The voice didn't sound like her own, but there was something familiar about it. "Is that you?"
Makoto squinted before opening her eyes fully and blinking. What did this mean? Did Sis...? Her gaze shifted rapidly, searching, trying to assemble an understanding of her sister's still distorted mind. Why would Sis imagine she was...
That's not me.
Makoto looked up, facing the cognition head on. "Mom?"
Of course... of course Mom wouldn't always look like she did in the photo in the family altar. Makoto took a tentative step forward. It could be a trap. Where was Dad? What had happened to Sis's shadow?
Before she knew it, Makoto had closed the distance with the cognition. Her eyes were open wide, as if they could ask all the questions she could ever come up with. She knew not which the most important ones were. It took time to put her thoughts into the simple query that underscored it all:
Who are you?
The obvious questions were what she liked to do, how she spent her time, what were her favorite things. However, these were all facts Makoto could ask of Sis and the answers would be the same. This wasn't her mother. This was Sis's cognition of her mother. She best not forget.
What was Mom really like? Makoto's lips remained parted, unable to put to words all she wondered—needed—to figure out.
"You don't remember me, do you?" Mom cast her eyes downward, just for a moment, her lips pursing equally briefly.
Makoto shook her head.
Mom brought her hand to Makoto's cheek. It was warm, so very warm. "So you're the real one, aren't you?"
"...The real one?" Makoto managed to mumble, almost to herself. She had gotten distracted, examining Mom's face up close. Her eyes looked dark and tired, her skin pallid, and yet somewhere beneath all of it she seemed to glow. A rested smile seemed to effortlessly draw attention away from the indications of fatigue that crept along her eyes.
"For a cognition to be so aware..." Morgana whispered. "Joker must be-"
"Did you want to see her?" Mom tilted her head, motioning in the direction of Makoto's room.
Makoto turned her head to follow. The hallway was devoid of doors, save for the one to Makoto's room. However, in place of her simple wooden door was a large metal slab with a wheel sticking out and small glass window. It was like the kind one would imagine in bank vaults.
What does my sister think of me?
"I-it's probably better if I don't," Makoto brought her hand over her chest, balling it in a loose fist. The other followed shortly, covering the first. "I shouldn't p-pry like that... I... I want to know more about you. I-"
The sound of air rushing brought Makoto's attention back to the vault door. It was opening, revealing that its heft was real. From it stepped a version of herself made entirely of glass. Her uniform, her school bag, everything was colorless and clear. She was only discernible by how she refracted the light and distorted the world seen through her.
There was something off-putting about watching the glass figure move. It was just fundamentally wrong, an existence that should not be. It felt like part of her would snap off at any moment. No amount of movies with computer-generated effects could have prepared her to accept the strange creature. Even if it didn't share her face, Makoto would have found herself disturbed.
The glass version of herself stopped in front of Makoto. Both girls' lips were parted. Both pairs of eyes alternated between searching and squinting. Makoto found no flaws in her other self, no scratches or clouds, everything was smooth and pure.
They came to a stop at the same time. The glass Makoto looked into the eyes of the real one and nodded. As she closed her eyes, the hint of a smile began to appear. She turned and headed towards the door. "I'll be heading out now."
Makoto watched as her cognitive self walked down the hall and departed. She then turned back to the vault door. It had once again been shut tight.
"Interesting," said Morgana, his tail slowly waving back and forth. He tilted his head up towards Makoto. "Not as bad as you feared, right?"
"No..." Makoto bit her lip. It could have been much worse... at least at first glance. There were so many facets to analyze, elements to unpack. "I-I'm not sure what to think yet."
"When you are..." Mom began. "Don't think ill of your sister. It's my fault."
"Eh?" Makoto turned to once again face her mother.
"I asked Sae to take care of you after I was gone," Mom's eyes were lidded. "I didn't mean for her to-"
"If you're saying that, then she must know it as well," said Morgana.
Mom looked down at the cat and smiled. "I suppose that's true."
"Then why...?" Makoto sensed she was missing something. She turned around, away from the hallway with the vault door. In the opposite direction was another, only this one was bright with red carpet and golden casino decorations adorning the walls. Poker chips were haphazardly scattered on the floor, piles forming in the corners. Makoto's room was missing from this hallway, but Dad's wasn't. She glanced over the facsimile of her home once again. There really was nothing else.
"We'll clean it up," Mom leaned forward, catching Makoto's view. "Me... and the you that belongs here."
"No," Mom shook her head. "That's not for you."
Makoto opened her mouth to object but closed it shortly thereafter. Mom was right. She shouldn't be altering Sis's cognition unless she had to.
"We can't stay here much longer," said Morgana. "It's been too long. The others..."
Makoto turned to her mother, but the cognition spoke first. "It's better this way. You can't stay. Your world is out there."
"I know," Mom ran her hand along Makoto's hair. She turned towards the distorted hallway. "Don't you want to see him?"
Makoto stepped into the hallway. She looked back. Mom nodded. She turned to the door once again, taking deliberate strides, vaguely aware of Morgana at her feet. Their costumes had returned. She was Queen anew.
Entering Dad's room, Makoto first noticed the faint glowing cloud floating above a dark wooden desk. It was smaller and more hazy than when she had last seen it, barely illuminating the space around it. The yellow tint of a few lamps and the matching wooden bookshelves made the room seem all the more cozy. Dad was half-sitting on, half-leaning against the desk, still in his police uniform. He had a manila folder open in his hands, likely a case file. He appeared to be reading its contents.
"Dad!" Makoto pulled up her mask and ran over, ready to embrace him, but hesitated, not wanting to disrupt his paperwork.
"Makoto?" Dad looked up from his file. He closed it and put it down on the desk. She felt the weight of his hand patting her on the head. "What is it?"
Tears pooled at the corners of Makoto's eyes. His voice, his face, the feel of his hands... everything was as she remembered. She raised her arms and wrapped them around him. "Dad I missed you!"
Dad continued to pat her head, his other arm wrapping around her shoulders. Makoto just wanted to stay like that, just like that. This feeling... it was probably why Futaba's mother had set a firm boundary. She had to remember that this wasn't really Dad. Knowing this, she no longer felt like voicing all the things she had wanted to say, as if doing so would cheapen them. Yet still...
"Makoto..." Morgana's voice sounded small. "We have to go..."
Makoto pulled back from the cognition of her father. She wanted to linger. It was akin to getting out of a warm bed on a rainy day, but worse. However, it stopped there. This wasn't Dad.
The cognition smiled. "So you understand?"
"I do." Makoto smiled in return.
"I knew you would figure it out for yourself. You've become a everything we hoped you would and more."
The tears spread along the bottom of Makoto's eyes in full. It wouldn't take much more for them to well over.
Behind Makoto, the door opened. It was Mom. When Makoto turned to her, she spoke. "It's time."
Makoto nodded. As her mother stepped into the room, she walked past her, stopping at the door. Mom had her arm on Dad's shoulder. They were watching her. Framed by the desk and the muted glow, it was almost like a family portrait.
"Goodbye Mom," Makoto took a deep breath. "Goodbye Dad."
Makoto let the door close as she brought her mask back over her eyes. She looked at Morgana. In unison, the two Phantom Thieves began their dash to the Palace exit, taking cover when available. They were soon outside the casino. Both stared up at the glowing structure for the last time.
"I'm glad you got to hear your Dad say those things..."
"Mm." Makoto closed her eyes. If Dad were alive, she hoped he would think of her that way, but it was Dad's cognition who had spoken. Makoto smiled as her shoulders began to shake. The tears that had threatened to fall earlier spilled over.
Those words had come from Sis.