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Dodging and shit talking was fine and dandy. Hell, it was probably the closest thing to a specialty Ross really had, but even he knew this was a cowardly play. Strategy wasn't his thing, and even as he taunted Deacon just enough to keep the man both interested and yet more invested in playing to the crowd Ross heard Vin's voice in his head.
[i "You're never going to be the strongest, so be the fastest."]
Ross barely leapt over another sweep of the net, striking forward with his own taser even as he feet were pivoting him back out of Deacon's reach. Feint, duck. Let him come close and think he's controlling the situation.
[i "Your anger is good, but don't let it blind you. You of all people need to think three steps ahead of your opponent."]
At least the routine was easy enough to counter. Ross needed to keep it close and put on a show. The fight would start, but he was drawing this out. This fight wasn't the main event, and he needed to keep Deacon from Maryse and Zeff.
Deacon added an unexpected flourish, and Ross felt the net catch around his foot just as his stomach plummeted. A solid yank brought Ross off his feet but he was able to solidly catch Deacon on the side of his knee with the taser. The man grunted and Ross had the moment to get some distance between them again.
The screaming of the crowd had shifted, and Deacon was suddenly covering his eyes from something behind Ross. Taking the advantage to step a few more steps back from Deacon, Ross cast a quick glance of his shoulder. It was another abomination, but Ross was finding the appearance of random glowing children with questionable choices in fashion to not be an entirely bad sign.
"'Bout fucking time," Ross grumbled. "Did you stop at Starbucks on the way?"
As much as Ross wanted to chew Max out, he knew the kid arriving meant that at least he wouldn't be doing this fight alone. He was tempted to step back and leave Max to battle Deacon for a while-how better to waste time than to take turns?-but then of course shit got worse.
So Deacon wasn't even going all out on Ross. Ross wasn't either, but there was a pang of something dark, heavy and hot in his chest. An uncomfortable prickling heat that burned from somewhere deep inside. Max, the knight in shining armour and slightly too small underclothes, was the one saving the day.
[i "That's pride, Cap, the first sin. You're obsessed with perfection, but every time shit hits the fan you're the first to lose your head. You're not some emotionless robot, but you can] [b use] [i that."]
Ross was going to give Vin a good solid kick to the gonads next time he saw him.
"As you wish, Your Highness," Ross's grin was wide, a mockery of gritted teeth accompanied by a theatrical bow as he tore down the fabric from his own face and felt the increasingly more familiar crackle of Seupaki's energy spiral out of control.
Seupaki, disjointed as ever, was remarkably quick on the uptake. It skittered around, keeping moving in a circle about Deacon as it fired off shot after shot. Ross himself was feeling too fired up to be bothered keeping track of the thing and decided he still had a debt to pay to Deacon's ankles for the earlier comments on his size.
"Bet I can trip him up faster than you," Ross hollered as he charged forward, determinedly aiming for what on a person would be the Achilles heel.
This situation was seriously out of control. Annoyingly so! Not ten minutes ago, Max had been blithely getting into another fight and then just wave after wave of bullshit until here he stood in a fucking hoodie about five fucking inches too short to cover his abdomen. He swore, something tore as he flexed his shoulders. God damn it, didn't this defeat the entire point of suiting up for battle?! Now he looked like Zeff, whose torso was just barely covered by a swath of bandages which stopped on his ribs, and whose pants rode low enough to flash his fucking hip tattoo.
Max wiped his armor down cursorily. As long as there was a little padding, he was fine. He strapped it all back on, trying to ignore how idiotic he looked when his shirt couldn't even be seen beneath his chestplate. He looked like a slutty Halloween costume. He looked like a themed stripper.
Even from here, Max could hear it when the crowd went nuts with bloodthirst. He fumbled the last straps into place, seized his sword, and sprinted for the entrance to the stands. The noise was incredible, swelling louder until Max's pounding footsteps were lost entirely. Nobody even noticed him skid out onto the edge of the pit, too focused on what was happening in the bottom of it. Max craned anxiously.
Ross was essentially unarmed. Deacon was not only experienced in this kind of fight, but wielding some weird-ass net that could trip and catch, which Ross could basically do nothing to defend against even if he HAD been armed. Dude held all the power in this fight. He was going after Ross in showy, arrogant little rushes, stopping after each one to basically just mug for the audience. They were eating it up. They were in ecstasies of delight at watching this oiled-up jackass toy with a guy way smaller and way less prepared than him.
Wasn't that just like Deacon. Wasn't that just like what he'd done to--
For some reason, Max's first mental victim there wasn't 'Mrs. Nye', but 'Max'.
Mrs. Nye was the important one! he snarled at himself. She was humiliated, fired, her family left scrambling and in serious financial danger. SHE was the one left feeling angry, feeling powerless, feeling like she had no damn skills or resources to cope with a tragedy like this, not Max! It didn't fucking matter if Max couldn't help, if Max felt like shit, if Max wanted more than anything to just be able to do SOMETHING about the fact that he was the one who'd loaned Nina that goddamn date money and told her to go after the guy for once!
"Lying to yourself is a really adult thing to do," the childish voice in the back of Max's head said, mockingly. "Feel mature? Feel better? Are you really even angry at Deacon at all?"
Zeff had been a Godsend. Mementos had been a dream come true. And the Phantom Thieves had been a crucible, a way to transmute all of this anger into justice, somehow--now punishing Deacon was a statement, instead of just a way to work off the guilt. It was the right thing to do. He could almost forget why his initial plan before all of this had been just to slash Deacon's stupid tires.
Max was so goddamn angry at himself.
"C'mon!" the little kid in his head chanted. "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon!"
It would be so selfish, to lash out at Deacon just to make Max feel more useful. He'd be a terrible person, for not thinking of Nina first, for not even factoring Deacon in as a person at all. It wasn't okay to act like that.
"...Just the once," Max murmured, staring into the pit raptly, deaf to the noise of the crowds that still hadn't noticed him. "After that, it'll only be for other people that I do this. Got it, shrimp?"
The kid was all impatient excitement, filling Max's head like sunlight. "I am thou, thou art I! Call me out!"
Max reached up to his metal mask and slipped his fingertips beneath it at the bridge of his nose. With one strong pull, he tore it off and up. "ROI-SOLEIL!"
Now the crowd took notice, as a fricking supernova of light exploded just above where Max held his mask aloft. Splotches of shadow dotted Max's vision for a few seconds, until a couple blinks determined that at least one of the spots was actually there. His Persona's body, pitch-black, the unmistakable shape of a human child though it was larger than Max himself, surmounted by a halo of painful light that seemed to form the shape of hair on its dark head. It formed curled up, knees to chest, face buried in a voluminous scarf apparently woven of thorny vines. As the crowd hushed, alternately staring and shielding their eyes against the Persona's glow, it lifted its face, revealing twin stars for eyes, and an enormous jack-o-lantern grin lit like magma from within.
In the pit, Deacon had paused along with the crowd. "What the hell is that?" he demanded.
Max grinned, wired and thrumming with bloodthirst. "You know what it is, bitch!"
Above him, Roi-Soleil let loose an eerie hyena cackle of laughter. The Persona leaned down to snatch Max's wrist, then zipped through the air like a bird, swooping both of them down into the pit with ease. Max's bare feet hit dirt. Roi-Soleil did eager hummingbird loops around his head, hair trailing fire like a comet tail as his scarf whipped dangerous thorns through the air. Max drew his sword and pointed it imperiously at Deacon.
"Ready for a real fight?"
Deacon smiled. "I am if you are."
Then, to Max's dismay, the human shadow began to warp just like the guards outside had. Before his eyes, the gladiator ballooned up and out, until he was as tall as the pit was deep, rippling with anatomically impossible muscles. The snake tattoos on his arms bulged along with those muscles, until the shadow was wound up with two huge, hissing pythons. Beside him, Roi-Soleil looked as small and fragile as a real child.
"Ross, get back and call Seupaki! Sol, go for the eyes!" Max barked.
Roi-Soleil obeyed with another cackle. He flashed upwards, quick as a bird, a winking spark that crashed directly into one of the python's strikes. Thorny fingers raked across the snake's face, mouth and eyes and hair flaring with heat, until the snake thrashed. Max couldn't stop grinning. He could do this. It didn't matter for who.
Zeff was a queer little thing. Ross had expressed his own wonderings about what sort of being Zeff was. Of course, his concerns had been more focused on whether canine Zeff retained all his mental functions and if there were others like him. Maryse was more curious how his apparently superhuman senses were compatible with what she assumed was a fairly human brain. The tail alone was still a point of fascination because while it was clearly enervated, he didn't have any apparent, physical changes to his spinal cord. He was fast, and she was fairly certain he was keeping himself in check for the sake of letting the humans keep up.
Superior physiology aside, Maryse knew Ross was more concerned about Zeff than he was letting on. Ross tended to size people up quickly, and while his instincts seemed to be right more often than not, he was also inclined to feel quite fiercely for others. Whether in a good or bad way, the sentimental sod wanted Maryse to keep an eye on the little hybrid more than he wanted her watching out for his own skin.
Zeff was more than content taking the lead, so Maryse stayed behind him, following his pace. The coliseum itself was like a maze, and Maryse had found herself hoping Zeff knew where they were headed. They had an absurb amount of grain stored up, it seemed they should have been able to sell enough to at least afford a label maker if nothing else.
"I don't know anything about gladiators," Maryse admitted. "But if I understood what Ross said, this is based on Deacon's perceptions of a coliseum right?" The new hall was gaudier than any of the others they had seen and if Deacon was the type of man Maryse assumed he was, it would make sense his mental dream would give him the 'best' decorated area. "Can't hurt to check this area out."
No sooner had Ross been satisfied they'd collected enough passable clothes to Max than he was already trotting down the hall toward the coliseum. "Get yourself cleaned up, I'll keep the old bastards attention till your ready. Maybe see if you can invite your Persona to the party this time."
The words called back over his shoulder were fairly blunt, but if this was going to be some sort of showdown, Ross really didn't think having Max alone as backup was a good idea.
From experience, Ross knew one of his greater talents in life was taking a beating. How to tuck in so a direct blow would just be glancing, when to relax to take a strike rather than tensing and risking greater internal injury. Max, on the other hand, while having proved he had some prowess also didn't look like the type who could take a hit . Max seemed more like the type to throw the first punch and succeed by never letting up that offense. Ross could be wrong, but he also knew even if it were true he wouldn't be able to defend Max in the upcoming fight. Not entirely. Max needed to get his ass in gear and bring out some real firepower.
There were guards ahead, and beyond them to door out to the Coliseum. Like last time, there was the dull roar of crowds of people already. Ross didn't bother slowing, and as their forms shifted into scaly, black darkness he ducked, barely skittering past the half-raised pikes as he took advantage of the short block of time the transformation occupied their attention.
Ross bellowed from deep in his chest, the single word bursting out of his mouth with enough force he bordered on screaming. Behind him the guards were still coming, so Ross threw himself down the stairs two at a time.
"Not man enough to take me on yourself?" Ross hollered next, and after getting partway through the crowd he was able to see the form of Deacon himself standing in the pit below. Ross figured this is the part, if he were sticking to script, that he should shout something about stealing the man's heart or some shit. However it was Max had phrased the borderline innuendo of a calling card. The adrenaline coursing through him had other ideas. "If you run I'm just going to hunt you down like the fat, cowardly bastard you are!"
"You again? You're a good deal shorter than the brat who challenged me," Deacon shot back.
The crowd was parting to let him pass, but Ross wasn't about to slow and turn to see if the Shadows were giving up the pursuit. He reached the brim of the pit, and skidded to a halt at the top. It was a drop. Oh boy that was a drop, and Ross was fairly sure Mementos's gravity would be just as painful as normal gravity.
Ross turned his head just enough to see that Deacon's had called off the shadows who [i had] been chasing after him and were now close enough they could have impaled him. Ross really wasn't liking being out here on his own.
"Bring the small fry down," Deacon smirked. "It will be a nice warm up."
Before Ross could get distracted by being called small fry and a warm up in one sentence, the Shadows were on him. Ross whipped his taser about, catching one of them in the hip even as the other caught his thrashing leg. Their claws were sharp, biting into his skin where they grabbed at him and while they took Ross's attempts at attacks they also managed to bundle him down the wall and deposit him roughly at the base of the pit.
He'd been spitting curses on the way down, but was now left spitting dirt and scrambling up to his feet. This cuts now littered his unprotected arms, and he found himself missing the safety of extra layers between him and what was likely going to be a very painful experience.
"You won't last five minutes against me," Deacon sniffed, lazily swinging what appeared to be a net in his left hand.
"Funny, I was thinking 3 for you," Ross growled out even as he glanced around the arena for something more substantial to use in his defense. Deacon didn't give him the chance, lunging forward with a battle cry and the duel began with a shrieking cry of approval from the audience.
O-Okay, they were stripping now?! Max could obviously see the sense in that, as the longer he stood there the worse his wet clothes burned against his skin, but… Okay. He tried to ignore the presence of Maryse as best he could, as he followed Ross’s example. He wasn’t quite soaked to the skin; the blast had been powerful, but short, and relatively shallow. Which was to say that—thank God—his underwear was dry. Also, this was the first time he’d consciously noticed that he was wearing modern underwear beneath his suit rather than some kind of, say, loincloth. Good news after good news here. He tried to hold onto that knowledge, as Maryse upended a water bottled over his face and then torso, aiming to sluice away the stinging acid. It felt a little like pouring MORE acid on himself, at first, but there was a definite downswing in the itchy-pain feeling afterwards in the spots where the water had hit.
In the background, Zeff was barricading the door with the iron bar left nearby for specifically this purpose. He kept throwing wide-eyed looks over his shoulder at Max and Ross. Damn it, he was probably killing himself over the acid thing. Whatever. It was really fucking annoying, but Max was going to bite his tongue for now. The plan came first. Hopefully in the flush of victory afterwards they could both let this pass under the bridge. In that vein, he said nothing as Maryse and Ross brusquely divided the labor, shoving a pile of clothes and the water bottle at Max, before turning to Zeff.
Zeff shifted again, fur prickling with discomfort. He was really not making his best impression in front of Maryse, was he? She probably thought he was some kind of idiot. That was why she was going along with him to the Treasure, even though it was Max who was going to need medical attention by the end of this. He was too off-balance and angry at himself to argue that point. Instead, he nodded to her, said, “Good luck, sir,” to Max, and then took off down the hallway. It only took a little effort to keep his nails up, making his footsteps essentially silent on the flagstone flooring.
Not that Zeff was complaining about this, but he thought that he and Maryse had the harder job. Max and Ross knew exactly where their target was going to be. All they had to do was show up in the ring and fight for as long as it took. Mentally difficult, maybe, with no set time limit, but ultimately simple. Zeff, meanwhile, had to locate the Treasure which could be anywhere in the coliseum, and could look like anything. He was certain he’d know it when he saw it, at least, in the vague, sourceless way that he knew what shadows were and how Palaces worked.
The coliseum’s hallways were mostly deserted, just like last time. Even more so, even. It seemed that any interior guards had been posted to the exterior, to prevent The Phantom Thieves from getting in. Occasionally, Zeff had to loiter around a corner until the sound of a servant’s footsteps faded. That was really the extent of their sneaking. The rest was navigating unlabeled hallways, looking for some kind of Treasure room.
He'd opened about five doors that led to linen or grain storage before they hit a hallway that looked different from the others. Everywhere else in this place was utilitarian, stark. This hallway was decorated with wall-hangings, golden sconces, and rich red rugs on the floor.
Zeff paused to sniff the air. Nothing stuck out to him as particularly familiar, except for Deacon’s scent. But they wouldn’t have made a hallway like this just for the favored gladiator, would they? He looked over at Maryse, who so far had been following his lead as if he had any clue what the hell he was doing, or ability to make important decisions.
“Do you know anything about Roman coliseums?” he hissed. “Would a popular gladiator have his own room somewhere?”
Maryse risked only a few test shots before turning to the fight. Ross meant well, and he was thinking like a strategist but the situation called for a little long range support. In a way, it was like most situations for Maryse. Hanging back, assessing the field and pinpointing the immediate threats amidst a chaotic bundle of wills. It was always easier to see the ails and needs of others from a distance, and if felt fitting that Maryse was set back while Ross and his rambunctious comrades tussled.
Max was clearly in the worst situation. Ross was struggling with his own opponent, but he had tumbled to something of a secure distance. Zeff was hell on paws, but Max was all form and little consideration for his surroundings.
Maryse focused her fire on keeping the currently uncontesting things-Shadows?-from entering the fray, but Max was still taken down. She needn't have worried too much because Ross had spoken the truth about Zeff calling up a fantastic beast to do his bidding.
The creature, a shimmering beast swooped in. It cleared their path and the way to the door was temporarily open. Ross was looking for her, so she charged at Max's directions into the building beyond. The magical beast looked more than capable of covering their back, but Ross was still hovering to watch for pursuers, the refusing to step and further than the door as they hurried to barricade it.
Maryse, instead, saw that Max was not simply damp. Ross had mentioned Zeff's persona was acidic, and the poor child was coated. Maryse shrugged off her backpack, drawing out the water bottle within as she unbuckled the outer cloak of her new attire. "Strip off, we'll wash the worst off. Ross,"
If Ross was the one to normally give orders, he was still one to follow Maryse's lead when she called on him. He had already tugged off the outer jacket of his own outfit, tossing it down the hall and pulling off his shoes.
"Damn brats, taking the shirt off my back," Ross grumbled, but there was a smugness to his expression even as he said it.
Maryse hadn't taken stock of what clothing she had, but noted they all, excluding Zeff, seemed to have extraneous layers to spare. Ross had removed his outermost later, what appeared to be a sleeveless sweatshirt/coat and tossed it directly at Max with a barked order to wipe the poison off his skin, and Maryse had what appeared to be at least two outer half-skirt type garments. Yanking them each to a hip was more than enough cover, so she shimmied out of her trousers too as Ross started speaking.
"Zeff, Maryse will follow you so you have someone to watch your back. Once we get King Phillip resuited up we'll see if we can't raised hell to distract for the two of you." It was clear Ross was cutting Max's own accusations off in part. Damn softie liked Zeff. "Your highness, you take your sweet time getting that gunk off you and into these old rags. Whatever fits but doesn't hinder you fighting. I'll go ahead and buy you some time but you better be fighting fit and wiped off as much of that stuff as possible. If you're hurting during the fight with Deacon you're going to be a liability."
Maryse nudged Zeff, nodding toward the hall beyond them. "We'd better get going. If you know where we're going."
"Damn right you should, you're wasting time!" Ross snapped, shooing Zeff and Maryse ahead with a sharp shake of his hand. His other hand was preoccupied pulling off his shirt to add to the pile. Beneath he still had a close fitting undershirt and his wraps. The coat wasn't armoured like Max's original outfit, but it looked like a tougher leather than bare human flesh.
Maryse decided against leaving her pack as a last minute decision. Neither Ross nor Max were the type would take the time to sift through its contents for anything helpful, so it would be of greater use in Maryse's possession. She would offer to take a look at Max's burns later. This time without room for the slimy git to slip off.
"I--!" Max's face burned. "No! Just deal with it!" He'd thought the guards would just let them in, since it was a quasi-official match. He should have expected Deacon to try and stack the deck in his advantage.
Except... gladiators didn't run the coliseums they fought in, did they? There had been that CEO Emperor guy. Maybe Deacon's cognition of his boss was that of a man who prevented Deacon from having any fun. Or something. Ugh, Max hadn't wanted to spend this much introspection on the inner workings of Deacon's head, he'd just wanted to find the red self-esteem wire and yank it out!
Whatever. He was swordfighting a leopard. The feline's armor was leather, and not quite as sturdy as Max's steel. Max's hits were doing more damage.
Until he was blindsided by a completely seperate shadow, that was.
Max went rolling, just like Zeff had. The leopard shadow on his back scrambled for a grip, its teeth gnashing just above his face. Max was getting severely tired of being drooled on by shadows. Max got one hand on the thick, furry throat, and strained to hold it at bay.
"ZEFF!" He hollered.
Nearby, there was an answering shout. "Saihu, come!"
A tidal wave of gloop swept across Max. He flinched, spluttered, shut his eyes reflexively against the instant painful sting in them. The force of the wave tore the leopard off of him with its own splutter. Max struggled to push himself up against the torrent, blinking his pained, running eyes open to squint around. In another second, the wave had subsided. It was a kind of torus shape of liquid a couple feet deep, which had blasted outwards from the epicenter of Zeff, standing tall and maskless. The acid, as Max watched, curved up off the ground to collect back above the center, pouring down like a waterfall to re-form in the shape of Saihu, standing with her feet planted to either side of her counterpart.
"Go, go!" Max coughed. He pushed himself soggily up into a doubled-over crouch, jogging as best he could into the cleared doorway. The shadows had been knocked back by the force of the wave, but they were only a little stung and blinded like Max was. They'd be back up and attacking again in another minute. Zeff followed Max, piling into the doorway behind him, leaving Saihu outside. Max waved frantically for Ross and Maryse to follow them in so he could barricade the door. His skin prickled all over, sensitive and irritated and painfully itchy. The places where wet fabric rubbed against bare skin were agonizing. A pinprick of intense pain flared as a drop dripped from his hair to the tip of his nose. Everything was blurry blocks of light through his slitted eyes.
"Zeff, what the fuck?" Max snarled.
Zeff hurried to wrap his mask back on over his eyes. "I'm so sorry, sir! I was just trying to get it off you! Saihu didn't--" He stopped, unable to articulate whatever disconnect had just occurred. It wasn't like Saihu hadn't CARED that Max was in the line of fire, so to speak, since Zeff cared a whole hell of a lot. She'd just been... focused. Eager. He'd hardly thought of the order before she was enacting it.
It was amusing, how Maryse's frank questions were putting Zeff on edge so quickly. If they were going to be working together he'd have to learn to get over his bashfulness. As they set off for the doors, Ross hung back but let Zeff do the talking. He'd already explained what he knew of the plan to Maryse in detail but she was listening just as politely to Zeff as she had to Ross. The woman had patience to spare.
Ross let Zeff explain the gist of the plans to Maryse, but cut in at the suggestion of how they were going to split up. "She'll go with you," Ross stated easily, glancing to Maryse to see her nodding without hesitation. Ross felt a surge of pride she trusted in his so well, but also thankfulness to every god and deity out there that Marcus hadn't been the one in her place. "Deacon doesn't know about Mar-[i Medic]-and this way you'll have someone to watch your back."
Maryse would also be able to describe later to Ross exactly what it was they were stealing looked like. Ross had a grasp of this concept now but he wasn't so sure exactly how they intended it all to work out.
He was going to speak again, but was halted by Max being an idiot. The kid had no grasp of common sense did he?
"You two hang back-"
Ross didn't bother finishing, Zeff already darting forward toward the small army of shadows. He sighed.
"I hate kids," Ross finally said, drawing out his taser. "Will you at least please hang back?"
Maryse nodded, drawing out her bow and giving the string an exploratory twang. "Are you asking me not to fight at all?"
"I don't see why you can't, but focus on getting a feel for that first. See what sort of range and power you're working with before drawing attention to yourself," Ross suggested, turning and running back toward the fight.
She apparently didn't need too long, because the first arrow found its mark beofre Ross had even cross the distance to where Max was dueling what appeared to be a large black cat. Ross, making the decision he didn't want to be any part of that, veered toward a different target. A shadow, a bulbous thing that leapt at him just as a set his momentum to tackling the thing and then he wheeling his arms around to strike it as many times as he could.
"Was this part of the plan, King Arthur?" Ross growled out, sucking in air after the shadow had struck the breath from his lungs with strike to his stomach.
Max nearly laughed at the startled, deer-in-the-headlights look that came over Zeff’s face. The dog-boy shifted awkwardly from paw to paw, now consciously swishing his tail.
“I control it,” he said, haltingly, “but it’s… body language? It doesn’t just go limp when I’m not actively moving it.”
He was visibly relieved when Ross cut off the conversation. Max himself was occupied eyeing the woman’s shiny new thief outfit. She looked like some kind of medieval European archer, with an additional metal faceplate acting as mask. She matched him a lot better than either Ross’s punk or Zeff’s beastman. He hadn’t had a lot of time to think about it, not having expected her to be coming along today, but he hadn’t predicted that she’d be one of them. This might be troublesome, or it might work out to help them immensely. Time would tell which. This group was rapidly ballooning beyond Max’s control.
Focus. It was showtime. In a matter of minutes, he’d be in the pit, facing off against that smug, awful face. He remembered Mrs. Nye’s tears. He remembered that disgusting trophy room. If he got angry enough, maybe his Persona would just explode right out of him like a chest-burster.
“Okay, Alpha, give her the rundown,” Max ordered, striding towards the back entrance they’d used the other day. Zeff hung behind him, to speak to Maryse.
“Prince issued a challenge to our target two days ago. That fight will keep Deacon occupied while the Captain and I sneak in and steal his Treasure, which should be physical since Captain issued the calling card, putting the real Deacon Hammond on guard.” He eyed Maryse and shrugged. “You can… go with us or not. But it would be a good idea to stick with the Captain or Prince, since they’re the ones with the Nav app that will get us back to reality.” Even if Zeff could carry a phone in either of his forms, smartphones weren’t exactly designed to respond to big, thick dog toe-pads. It would be impossible for him to work the app. And that was assuming whatever mystical cyber-force permitted the app to be downloaded would deem a shadow worthy of its use.
At the back entrance, another guard had been stationed. Or the same one. Max couldn’t tell and didn’t care. He strode towards it boldly, making no effort to conceal himself. Circlet, mask, cape, and all… it was pretty hard to mistake him for anyone other than Prince, the leader of the Phantom Thieves. The guard scrambled at the sight of them, fumbling his spear level with one hand and reaching for something on his belt with the other. Max stopped just out of range of his spear and rested his hands on his hips.
“I issued a challenge to your Champion yesterday. Are you going to stand in my way?”
The guard inched backwards, still trying to get some item off his belt and into his hand without taking his eyes off the group of thieves. “Th-the Champion said to st-st-stop you at the door!”
“A whole lot of people will have showed up for a show that isn’t going to happen, if you don’t let me in,” Max commented, jerking his head at the distant crowds. “Is that really something your boss wants?”
“I have my orders!” At last, the man fumbled up some kind of horn to his lips, and gave a ringing blast on it. From the door behind him, a half-dozen more guards poured out, spears at the ready. Then, as one, the assembled guards burst out of human form and into the shape of the shadows they were. Even now, they were uniform in a way shadows often weren’t. They looked like leopards in Centurion armor.
Max pulled his sword free. “Looks like we’re getting a warm-up before the big fight.” On cue, the leopard-guards surged forward. Max got his sword up in time to ward off the foremost guard, forcing him to zigzag to avoid impaling himself. He came at Max’s side, vulnerable while his sword was thrust forward against his charge. At the last second, a yapping blur of brown fur bowled into the feline shadow, tumbling both of them to the ground. Zeff proceeded to writhe and claw and bite at the leopard, exactly like two cats locked together, tumbling over and over like a tumbleweed.
Max turned his attention to another leopard. This one had dropped its spear, but somehow retained a legionnaire’s saber in its feline paw. It met Max’s cross with a textbook parry-and-riposte, and before he knew what was happening, he found himself fencing with a leopard. It was… absurd. But very fun!
Ross had given her a vague description of what Mementos looked like, but he was still defensive on having to describe a reality that should just be a figment of his imagination. Maryse was inclined to believe Ross was telling the truth, and she was not so critically minded as Marcus to need explanations on how a place like it could exist. Marcus had gone on and on the previous night about alternate dimensions, black holes and the mysteries of the universe.
Maryse didn't need a scientific explanation. The world was too vast to not have abnormalities. And Mementos appeared to be quite abnormal.
The world around her had changed. Darker, and though the people were still there they had all changed from weary businesspeople to what appeared to be the world's largest toga party. There was a festive air to their words and Maryse was amused to hear that Ross's hadn't been exagerating apparently about the robot in his head.
"Codenames?" Maryse raised an eyebrow toward Ross even as she followed them behind the statue. Her attire felt suddenly heavier, sturdy with thick cotton, banded leather and crude metalwork. She also had to readjust her backpack, as a large bow was now strapped to her back as well.
"You're- Well, guess you're in the same boat," Ross grinned, clapping Maryse on the shoulder.
Maryse herself was still more interested in Zeff's pecuilar form. She supposed it made sense he'd need to have some human qualities to be able to speak. Even as a dog his intelligence was better suited to a young man than a canine but seeing the combination of the two was a little unnerving. Anatomically impossible. She wondered how his spine worked. "Interesting. Do you have control over your tail in this form? Does it caused any lower back discomfort?"
"Later," Ross cut in. "No real names, got it? What should we call you then?"
Maryse shrugged, tearing her eyes from Zeff and back to Max. "Not actually a doctor."
"Chief Medical Officer?" Ross smirked.
"Codenames probably aren't meant to be that long, [i Captain,]" Maryse replied to the taunt easily. "Medic will do. It's what the Tykes call me anyway."
“You know about the solar eclipse ritual?” Max pulled an exaggerated face of shock. “Why, golly, you hardly need me at all, huh, smart guy?”
Zeff shifted from paw to paw. “Sir…”
“Oh, can it, furface. Yes, we’re going in now.” Max pulled his phone out and activated the Nav app. He cast a glance at Maryse as he lifted the phone to his mouth. “Hope he warned you about this part. Deacon Hammond, Summersun Insurance building, coliseum.” Keywords inputted, the world wavered sickeningly around them until settling into the strangely-dark landscape of Mementos. As before, the coliseum loomed overhead, the statue was now of Deacon himself, and the whole area was littered with passersby in togas. In fact, the square was truly packed, and everyone was chattering with boisterous excitement. Max swore he caught a few shouts about The Phantom Thieves mixed in with the general adulation of the Champion. And one or two people describing the day before yesterday’s great debacle with the robot and liquid animal. Max hurriedly ducked behind the statue before anyone could catch sight of him, hauling Zeff and Ross by the elbows behind him. Once there, Zeff gave an awkward nod at Maryse.
“Hello. I’m Zeff, but please call me Alpha while we’re here.”
“Yeah, codenames, we really need to be better about that part,” Max agreed. “Call me Prince, and, well, this guy’s Captain, as you already know. You want your own codename or should we just call you Doc or something? It’s safer not to use real names, in case there’s anyone else like us who can take our identities back into reality.”
Max from a distance wasn't particularly striking. Zeff at his side was, and upon seeing the two Ross's felt the intensification of his itch for the cigarette he knew would be confiscated immediately. It was becoming a pavlovian response with these brats. Max's dramatics didn't help his levels of stress.
"There was no invitation involved," Ross said evenly. Maryse had come of her own accord despite his best warnings and reasoning. Marcus was one thing, but having Maryse along in case of injury would be better. Seupaki may not have injured Max with its stunt yesterday, but Ross remembered the blood on Zeff and knew he'd trust all their lives in Maryse's hands before any others.
"This stunt you're pulling sounds dangerous. I'm just here to make sure no one loses any important limbs on the way," Maryse explained. Ross was impressed how collected she sounded about the whole thing, and found himself, not for the first time, hoping her reaction to Mementos would be amusing. With how jaded she was, he wasn't getting his hopes too high.
Zeff's putzing forward to sniff at Maryse was normal for a dog, but Ross was perhaps too intensely aware of the fact there was a sentient mind in that floopy-eared head.
"Of course I delivered the fu-" Ross cleared his throat. "Card. I delivered the card. No bothered me. And Marcus, he's free to be bothered by whoever he chooses."
Ross wasn't a fan of the topic of what Marcus got up to last night any more than he was of Max implying Maryse couldn't make the decision to come on her own. "The card went through, can we just do this? Or do we need to wait again? Perhaps for a solar eclipse this time?"
The next day at school was exactly as infuriating as Max had expected it to be. He was actually pulled out of his first period class so that a school counselor and one of the assistant principals could tag-team lecture him about his attendance record. Apparently, his grades were now permanently stuck hovering around a C or something, and he couldn't bring them up without... Yeah, he wasn't really listening, so who knew. His parents had been mentioned a few times in the mix. He remembered that because it made him laugh.
The lecture he got through lunch period from Reese was similarly-themed but naturally way more emotionally traumatic. Reese actually knew what to say to upset Max. And he sure didn't bring up Max's parents as if they would even try to stop him. Even Reese's more cutting tactics couldn't really put a dent in Max's disinterest, though, since this time he wasn't actually skipping to get into a punch-out with a classmate or local thug. He was doing this for Reese. For Reese's family. Ah, he couldn't wait to see the look on Reese's face when Deacon came crawling back to Mrs. Nye, apologizing. He daydreamed about that while Reese hissed at him through their shared History class.
At last, the bell rang, and Max was free to make a beeline for his bike and dog. He blasted through the halls, elbowing other students aside, hoping that Reese wasn't going to catch him before he made it out. Luck was on his side. There, by the bike rack, making everyone around him nervous, was Zeff. The dog leaped to his feet as Max approached. Max didn't bother to slow down as he snatched the handlebars on the way past--he hadn't locked the bike, knowing Zeff would be out here waiting for him all day. Zeff broke into a jog next to him as he threw his leg over the seat and began to pedal for the mall.
His good mood lasted about as long as it took to get there. As the statue came in view, he braked sharply, grin falling away.
"Seriously?!" he snapped, as he dismounted. "After what happened yesterday, after you were all on my case about the danger, you brought someone else in?!" It was uncomfortable to realize that Max no longer had sole control over who knew about Mementos, and even worse that he no longer had sole control over who went into Mementos. Even so, he couldn't believe The Jerk would pull something like this after everything that happened yesterday!
Zeff trotted up to the new woman and sniffed her hand. She wasn't NEW, per se--she was the one they'd seen briefly the other day at Ross's apartment building. The one Max had walked out on when she'd tried to treat his burns. Awkward.
"Did you deliver the calling card safely?" Zeff asked Ross once he was done determining the woman's identity. "Nothing went wrong, nobody bothered you or Marcus?"
Ross hadn't been particularly thrilled to have Max putting contacts in his phone but bit his tongue to keep from hurling anymore unnecessary insults. At this point, Ross was more concerned with getting home and making sure everything was okay. This afternoon had been exhausting enough for the entire day, his mild hangover from the night before still clinging onto his conscious thoughts in a dull pounding despite the painkillers he'd taken before coming out.
Before departing, Ross remembered Maryse's strict orders. He didn't have the stomach for it himself, but he opened his bag and pulled out the plastic-wrapped sandwiches Maryse had sent along in Marcus's bag. They look to be some manner of ham or turkey.
Ross tossed the sandwiches to Max. "From Maryse," He said, before turning back toward the station and pressing the button to take him back to the real world.
He needed a nap, and to see if he could reschedule that job interview for earlier in the day. Thankfully Marcus couldn't afford to take more than one day off so he wouldn't have to contend with him as a tagalong tomorrow. Based on Zeff's state after that fight, Ross was set on not letting anyone else come along ever again.
After clarification on what exactly Max's thumb seizure of a text had meant, Ross found himself loitering by the curb at approximately 3:50 pm the next day. He'd swung by the previous night to drop of the letter. The receptionist, a sweet older woman, had been more than happy to pass the letter along when Ross insisted it was a personal thank you to the man following his donation just weeks before. Ross made up something about school grants and a particularly warm smile, perhaps a compliment or two for her jewelry and the message was passed right along to Deacon's incoming mail for the next day.
Everything else had gone to plan, and Ross would have been content to smoke a cigarette in peace if one part of his personal goals had not been met.
She must have known he was thinking about them because Maryse's gaze turned just then from crowdgazing to meet his eye. She was a peculiar site, the tattoos and dark eyeliner far from matching the quiet confidence she carried with her. Ross knew for a fact she was functioning on less than 3 hours of sleep but there was no exhaustion in her stance. Years of practice, most likely.
The backpack, Marcus's from the previous day, was on her back now. The various tools from the previous day had been removed, Ross caught only a glimpse of its new contents but he knew there was a trauma kit amongst other things.
"Stop it," Maryse said.
"You're regretting bringing me."
"Marie, I brought you nowhere," Ross reminded. "You followed. Aggressively."
"Then stop thinking so loudly about it."
[i "Thinking?"] Ross demanded incredulously.
"Yes. It's written all over your face."
Ross grumbled to himself, careful not to entirely pronounce any of the cusses that came to mind. Maryse would have let them slide, but it was a manner of personal respect for the woman that kept even Ross's exasperation in check.
"Perhaps we should have stopped for coffee on the way," Maryse spoke again, gracefully changing the subject to something they had discussed earlier. For Ross, being less than 10 minutes early was tardy. Maryse was not so punctually inclined and had only downed a quick mug of tea heavily diluted with milk to cool it enough to drink immidiatly before they had had to leave.
"Or maybe the kid needs a watch," Ross grumbled.
That was... a surprise. The Jerk was being NICE. Kind of. Max took back his outstretched hand and folded his arms.
"Of course I'll help. Someone gave me this app, and Zeff. Everything that happens as a result... It's my responsibility. Here." Before Ross could leave, Max shoved his phone at him and forced him to input a number. As soon as he had it, he texted a single exclamation point. "Text me if there's trouble."
After that, Ross was stalking away, vanishing in a red shimmer somewhere near the lightrail. Max blew out a sigh and tugged at his uncomfortably-clinging collar. Zeff had one ear twisted backwards.
"Sir, are you sure it's a good idea to take responsibility for those people? You don't know them; they might take advantage." He sounded doubtful even as he suggested it. Marcus really hadn't seemed like the taking-advantage type. Ross a little more so.
"Honestly, Zeff, I WANT the Cap to take advantage of me. That's the whole idea, if he's got a heist in mind he wants to pull off. I'll even let him be in charge of it." Which reminded him. Max pulled out his phone again and tapped out a text to the number he'd just gotten.
'Rmbr, statue by SS tmrw @ 4'.
Belatedly, it was sinking in that Ross had just left with the calling card to be delivered. They were one step closer to getting revenge for Mrs. Nye. Max felt a little shaky. Tomorrow, he was going to get into a gladatorial arena and fight a Shadow for as long as it took until Zeff got away with Deacon's Treasure. This was really going to happen. It was unbearable to wait that long--Max was going to go to school in between then and now! He was going to have to deal with teachers asking where he was today, and Reese asking the same. Ugh.
He hit the app, dropping Zeff and himself back into reality. Thank god, the saliva went with Mementos, even if the bruises and cuts didn't. Zeff's fur between his ears was matted with blood. Max was going to have to let the big animal in his bathtub tonight. Double ugh.
"C'mon," he patted his leg. "Let's go see what the Nyes are having for dinner tonight."
The beasts were gone, Ross finally had a chance to breathe and to check if he'd gotten a text from Marcus-Of course he hadn't, his phone contract was with the real world and even then had a limited number of messages- but at least the Shadows were gone.
Seupaki was standing back, but Ross had run toward Max's landing and only slowed upon the realization that he'd survived. Ross didn't envy the grime on Max's person but he felt immensely better to know his unintentional strategy hadn't cost the [b kid] his life.
A part of him knew he was guilty. He hadn't wanted that reaction, but he'd sarcastically made the order and his Persona had followed. It was his fault. His doing. His demand. His result. [b His order.]
There they stood. Zeff fixing Max's suit. Pretending this was under control. Like this was normal and Ross hadn't just almost sent a child to his death via gravity. A child. A [b child].
All this change and nonsense. Ross was stuck in the middle of shifting elements but it struck him that he was responsible for his actions. His [i Persona's] actions.
The words came slower. Max's explanation? Even slower. Marcus wasn't in as much danger as Ross thought. It made sense that rules were different, but as Ross stood there he had the sinking feeling he still owed the brat. He was Ross. Only Ross, and so much had happened that he owed this kid. This brat hadn't hurt him, or Marcus, and if any measure of this exchange would come back to haunt him in the future he'd need the help to protect his own in the future.
Ross's hand hovered over the pocket the held the message. "Sod off, I said I'd deliver it and I will," Ross grumbled. "I will take it there myself. I said I would. But do I have your word you will help my friends in return if it comes to it? This all seems like bullshit but if I'm doing something for you, you better be willing to help me in return."
Magical beasts weren't largely his concern. Ross just wanted to ensure the safety of his own. Stalking away from the group, toward the lightrail, he pulled out his phone and addressed the peculiar new app to take him back to the real world.
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