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Beneath the Mask (cover)

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Crow might not have the same ability as Mona, but even he could tell that the distortion was near. It was right on the next blind bend: a black and red vortex twisting the rails, a whirlwind that Mona immediately dived into. The cat vehicle forcefully braked when it reached that abandoned burrow in the Mementos, green taking over the floor and the walls just as rust takes over copper. The Phantom Thieves left the van, in the end of the road was their target: a vicious young man.

"He seems a little irritated."

"I heard he was abusin' animals just to take his anger out of them." Skull summed up the rumors that led them there.

"I can't let him get away with something like that!"

"You guys, don't go easy on him!" Mona clearly was pissed off.

"Cats? What about cats? Maybe they die when I use 'em to blow off steam, but the shelter was gonna kill 'em anyway. In fact, I bet those cats are happy to be so useful to humans!"

"What a poor excuse of human being." Crow muttered.

"I could never forgive someone like you!" Mona shouted, and the Shadow replied.

"Who cares?! I can do whatever I want!" The Shadow revealed his true self: a human-like worm with a mouth going all over its torso.

"Let's do it! I'll show the wrath of the cats!"

Mona attacked first, using his sword. Panther's Agidyne gave the Phantom Thieves the upper hand of the battle, and the others keep hitting the enemy with melee attacks or fire skills. The Shadow's health dropped to far below half. Crow was getting a bit tired, so he changed his Persona, using a less demanding skill.

"Taste my wrath!" Light burst out, Robin's Kougaon hit the Shadow's weak point. The enemy was taken down, and Crow performed a Baton Pass, giving his strength to Joker.

"Power!" Joker used the same skill, hitting the Shadow one more time.

 

That was her mistake.

 

 

Their enemy was one of the Death Arcana, and retaliated with Mudoon. Crow acted instinctively, pulling her out of the way, taking the blow instead.

"Argh!!!"

He endured the hit, but the Shadow attacked him again, knocking him out.

"They took out Crow! Someone cover him!"

"There!"

Joker wasted her turn using an item to restore his health. But the Revival Bead couldn't repair the crack on his mask, and he did his best to hide his injury. Panther landed a critical hit, an Agidyne that burned the walking corpse, leaving it vulnerable.

"Too late for apologies!"

Mona used his most powerful wind skill, Garula, finishing the Shadow with technical damage. The battle was over, the defeated Shadow returned to its young man form, begging for its life.

"Owwww, it hurts… please… don't kill me!"

"Did we overdo it?" Joker asked, felling almost sorry for him.

"Who cares? He's a scumbag." Skull replied.

"Yes. Do you remember the awful things that you did to those cats?"

"I done something terrible." the Shadow sobbed, still shaking in fear. "I'm even less than an animal. I'm ---"

"I won't tell you to give up your life. But you will spend the rest of your life in guilt. Maybe you can pay for what you did by taking care of homeless animals."

The Shadow accepted Mona's sentence, vanishing into light, a light that condensed and solidified into a weapon: a bloody sword for the cat.

"Aww yeah, there it is! The Treasure!" Skull shouted in joy.

"One step forward." Joker praised the effort of the group, but when she looked to her side… "Crow! What happened to your mask??!"

"It's nothing." he replied.

"But you're bleeding!!!"

The lower-left of his visor was broken, with a few hair strands showing. His cheek had a gash dangerously close to his eye. Even so, he commented nonchalantly.

"Don't worry. It will soon stop."

"I disagree, Crow. The wound is right below your eye. This is serious. You need medical treatment." Queen tried to reason with him, but...

"I said that I'm fine!!!" he shouted, angrily.

Most of them froze on the spot, scared of getting near him. Crow had lost his temper; he could become aggressive and easily attack them. But Joker extended her arm, blocking the others from moving toward him, quietly asking for silence.

"Could you go back to the main route of the Mementos while I try to persuade Crow to treat his wound? He's going to need some privacy."

"Joker! This can be dangerous." Queen objected.

"No need to worry. I trust him." Joker said, self-assured, lowering her arm. "Besides, if anything goes wrong, Oracle will notice that we summoned up our Personas."

"That's no need. I can keep going." Crow replied.

"I insist." Joker's tone was more incisive, imperative. The rest of the Thieves withdrew to the initial area of Kaitul, there was only her and Crow left in that eerie place.

"Please, Crow. You'll have to take off your mask so I can take care of that wound."

"No!" he yelled, but his voice turned back to normal as suddenly as it had risen, apologetically. "There's no need. It's just a minor injury."

"You're overlooking the pain, overlooking the risk, only because you fear exposing your identity, right?" she said softly. "That's why I asked the others to withdraw. You don't need to fear me. I will not judge you".

"I…"

"I'm going to take off mine too. More than fair, don't you think?"

She took off her ivory mask, sliding it up until it was on top of her black hair, exposing the identity he already knew.

"I'm Akira Kurusu. Nice to meet you, Crow."

She held out her hand in a friendly greeting. But he didn't mind that, his awareness was elsewhere. He never saw Akira without her glasses or her mask; it was impressive how much her face looked different with nothing covering her eyes. Her eyes were dark, but nothing on them reminded darkness. They're deep and yet, warm.

A reflection of her soul.

But darkness would soon fall upon them, upon her. It was inevitable. He was trapped, with no way out, no way to run away. Sooner or later she would know.

"We already know each other, Akira." he sighed in defeat.

"Hm? Really?"

"That's why… That's why I'm afraid to reveal my identity. I don't want to lose your…" Esteem? Friendliness? Affection? "…regard."

"I will not judge you, Crow."

"No. I fooled you all this time. This is my true self --- the face beneath the mask is my disguise. I'll show you… how much I've lied to you. "

Slowly and hesitantly, he took off his black helmet, holding it in his lap, keeping his head low with shame. She would recognize that shaggy brown hair, those reddish-brown eyes, those delicate features, anywhere… even if they were stained with blood.

"Ah! A-Akechi…" she gasped, unable to believe what she saw. "You… you still bleeding..."

She lifted her hand, advancing slowly, as if her intent was to touch his face. But Akechi walked away, stepping back until he collided with the wall. He raised his head, staring at her insistently and yet frightfully.

"I can take care of myself. You can leave me here with no problem. Just… go away. Go back to the others."

"No. I will stay. I'll stay here and take care of you. Would you let me, Akechi-kun?"

He closed his eyes, unable to withstand the girl's insistence on taking care of him, taking care of something that was worthless. She was only wasting her time.

"It will sting a little, but it's necessary to clean the wound. Can I ...?"

"I don't mind the pain."

Carefully, she spread the salve over his wound. It was a searing pain, a burning sensation, fueled by the strong smell of alcohol and something else. The detective just clenched his teeth.

"Sorry, Akechi-kun. Here, this will close the wound. I hope it doesn't get scarred.

The sensation was now strange, the pain had suddenly subsided, even the smell of blood and alcohol was subsided. It must be one of those Metaverse's ointments, whose effects were far beyond those found in the real world.

He felt a light and hesitant touch on his face, Akira was gently holding his chin, probably afraid of touching the former injury.

"Does it still hurt?"

The detective opened his eyes, he could feel her breath against his face. She was really close. He looked into her eyes, there was no grudge there, she seemed genuinely and strangely concerned about his well-being. Akechi felt almost dizzy, embarrassed with her closeness.

"N-no."

"Thank goodness."

Akira smiled, seemingly unaware of how close she was. Without warning, she gently kissed his cheek, her lips lightly touching his skin.

"Why?" He didn't deserve that. It wasn't fair. Just being her friend was already much more than someone as despicable as him deserved.

"'cause it helps healing. At least that's what they say."

"You should stop this. I don't deserve your friendship. Not after what I did. I'm a monster --- a cursed beast."

"So, not everything is lost, Akechi-kun. Have you ever heard that it is possible to break a curse with a true love kiss?"

She grinned mischievously, and he closed his eyes. Something made him forcefully close his eyes, something that hurt, blinded, a sudden light ----

The sudden light of the breaking dawn. Sunlight streamed through his bedroom window, spreading through the room.

It was only a dream.

It could only be a dream.