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CHERRY BOMB

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The thought had always been there in a distant part of his mind, but only now did Amamiya Ren realize how much he disliked everything about Mementos.

This place was grim, depressing, dark... Completely the opposite of what one's heart should be. An endless maze where hope was no more and light had been snuffed out, this was the reality happening within those oppressive walls.
... And the knowledge that this bleak, absurd world was the sight engraved in the very eyes of society itself made it all very much worse.

A frown creased the teenager's face. Yes, of all unpleasant details in here, this one definitely was the worst offender. After all, utter apathy in the face of life's trials was something a rebellious spirit simply couldn't wrap its mind around. Amamiya Ren looked down on this. He looked down on those bars and chains blocking the passageways. He looked down on those train tracks going nowhere. He looked down on those long corridors stopping at dead ends. And above all, he looked down on those crowds of people mindlessly stepping inside the subway cars, those vacant stares and lethargic manners that spelled out only one thing... They had given up. Given up so easily, all he wanted to do was scoff.

Because if there was one thing that could be said about the Phantom Thieves of Hearts, it was that even having their backs against the wall wouldn't be reason enough to make them give up.

"Yo, leader! You listenin'?"

The sudden call might as well have been a shout. Ren pulled himself back to the present time, leaving behind his true identity to don the one called Joker.

"Sorry, Skull. You were saying?"

Skull let out a loud cry of disbelief – ever the overdramatic one, Joker thought derisively – followed by a long exhale. His shoulders hunched over, making him appear even more stocky than he already was. "Man, you really weren't listenin'... We're talkin' about important stuff here!"

"Calm down, Skull." Queen commanded from the driver's seat, her voice that of a patient mother. "We know you're nervous, we all are. But what's the point in going on and on about it?"

"She's right. We can't keep pitying ourselves forever." Fox said as he observed the eerie landscape of Mementos pass by them, clearly occupied by his own thoughts but still very much alert.

Skull's combative spirit seemed to wisp away. He looked back and forth, from Fox to Queen and Fox again. But as he opened his mouth to protest, someone else stepped in, voicing everything he tried to convey more efficiently than he could have ever done himself.

"True, it is important we keep a cool head, but... " Panther conceded, her eyes downcast. "But I can see where Skull's coming from. We've never been in a situation like this before..."

A heavy silence fell over the group. The grim reality of their circumstances seemed to loom upon them akin to an ominous cloud – a cloud shaped like a guillotine.

Being treated like the scum of the earth, hearing the words "murderers" and "criminals" no matter where they went, witnessing the entire population hoping, no, yearning for their arrests... The fall of the Phantom Thieves of Hearts was a hard one. The public had carried them to the top once, the top of the mountain called fame – and before they knew it, they had already been pushed into the void, plummeting to their doom. It was almost like receiving the love of a sweet animal, only to witness it turn into a treacherous beast overnight. The ensuing feelings spun betrayal, hurt, and fear.

And even so, the Phantom Thieves wouldn't give up.

"It's alright, everyone... I'm sure we will find a way to prove our innocence."

All heads turned to the young woman who had chimed in. The girl who was the strongest, in the face of the harshest ordeal.

"And then... people will realize." Noir continued, a wistful, serene twinkle in her eyes. "They will realize we didn't murder Father."

There was something healing about her smile. Soon, each one of the thieves was wearing one of their own. Joker met her gaze, acknowledging her words with a determined nod, and against all odds, the atmosphere inside Mona's bus form lightened up – at least enough for the dark cloud to clear and faint rays of distraction to take its place. Rays that should really be called "venting one's frustration."

"And did you see Akechi on the news the other day? Man, I can't stand his smug-lookin' face."

"Ugh, tell me about it... Literally everyone is throwing himself at his feet everywhere I look. The staff of the magazine I'm working for is even considering asking him if he's interested in modeling for next month's edition, can you believe this?"

"Is that so? They can't be serious..."

Although its level was varying from person to person, the distaste – and eagerness to partake in mean-spirited but therapeutic backbiting – was unanimous. Only Joker's face remained impassive, his lip not curled, his skin free of furrows.

"He's also invading all the chat rooms and message boards I happen to visit. The way you hear his fans talk, it's like sunshine comes out of his mouth or something."

Even Navi's heavy goggles couldn't conceal the disgust etched along her face. Fox gave a brief nod. "This is happening in my school as well. Everyone seems to have gotten obsessed with him, to an unhealthy degree."

"Same thing in Shujin. It's always Akechi this, Akechi that..." Skull retorted, spitting out the name like it was bitter on his lips. "They're all sayin' stuff like how he was right all along about us, how brave he was to call us out when nobody else did, stupid shit like that."

"Even though they were the ones showering him with verbal abuse in the first place..." Queen added somewhat wearily. A brief silence went by before she went on. "I can almost understand why he would feel so smug now that he's being pampered by the public and media again..."

Skull looked scandalized.

"C'mon, you can't be serious, Queen! That I-told-you-so face of his is so infuriatin' it makes me wanna punch a wall!"

"I didn't say I disagreed with you." she replied in a patient voice. "I'm just saying that... Akechi-kun sort of was in our shoes, once. Our shoes back then, but also our shoes now."

Her words ended in a sigh. Skull and Navi opened their mouths at the same time, clearly finding her doleful tone questionable at best, but before they could argue against what sounded way too close to pity–

"Drop it, Skull, Navi. I understand you two dislike him, but it's not Akechi's fault everyone turned on us."

Joker's speech was calm and dignified, befitting the leader of the Phantom Thieves of Hearts. Both Skull and Navi clearly were not convinced, however, prompting him to add in a softer tone and with a shrug, "He never said we were murderers."

This statement was met with ill-disguised skepticism that was hardly flattering, but nobody seemed willing to protest this time. Navi stared at him, her expression unfathomable, and then looked away.

"So that settles it... He's totally wrapped around Akechi's little finger..." she muttered to herself, though she clearly intended to be heard. "I bet next time he comes to Leblanc, you'll even give him his favorite blend free of charge..."

Another silence went by – this one filled with polite, measured incredulity. 

"Next time he comes to Leblanc? Are you talking about Akechi-kun?"

"Giving him his favorite blend free of charge?"

Noir and Queen looked as though Navi had dropped an entire mountain on them rather than the molehill Joker considered this matter to be. The redhead could have announced right there he and Akechi were best buddies forever and the result would have been the sa–

"Didn't you know? Akechi's been coming to Leblanc practically every week starting last month. He and Joker are basically best buddies forever now."

Joker groaned.

"For real? No way!" Skull shouted as he bolted up from his seat, very nearly bumping his head against the roof in the process.

"You are free to be friends with anyone, of course, but I'm not sure it's very wise to get close to Akechi-kun, Joker..." Queen reasoned, still focusing on the road. "He might figure out your identity eventually."

"I bet that's why he's been coming to Leblanc so much. He's totally trying to sniff us out by playing nice and friendly–"

"You guys are completely off the mark." Joker finally said, cutting off Navi before she could hammer it down even further. "Akechi and I aren't friends. We're acquaintances at best."

The teenager shot Navi a pointed look – which she decided to petulantly ignore. "And besides, we hardly even talk. He usually drinks his coffee in silence while reading a book, then pays up and leaves."

The group exchanged glances. Panther seemed to teeter on the edge of speech when someone beat her to the punch.

"Uh, putting the Akechi talk aside... Don't you find it odd there are no Shadows on this floor at all?" came Mona's voice, resounding all around them inside the bus. "It's like they are hid–"

"Queen! Turn around, now!"

It happened as suddenly as lightning striking the earth. Navi's warning cry was so unexpected the entire group went still on the spot. All faces locked onto her, some fearful, other tense.

"What? Navi, what's going–"

"We gotta flee, guys, it's coming! It's coming for us!"

Her voice was stricken with growing panic, the likes of which could only be inspired by imminent doom. The little skin visible on her face was sporting beads of sweat, and Joker was certain that hadn't she been sitting, her legs might have given out. Everybody exchanged uncertain looks. Her fear was contagious.

"What's comin', Navi?!"

But Skull didn't need her to answer – the picture appearing before his eyes spoke for itself well enough already. Panther's scream to look out was lost amidst a clamor of surprised cries while Queen abruptly swerved before speeding forward, sending the entire group against the windows, but the resulting commotion was not one of complaint. Where they had been standing only moments before was now a huge crater, so wide it reached both sides of Mementos' long tunnel. Joker had only barely registered the thick trail of smoke left in their wake when time seemed to slow down for an instant, allowing him to truly see in that split second the thing Navi had been dreading so much, the thing whose sole existence meant the end of theirs.

The first detail he noticed was how tall the creature was. It was towering over them all, like an enormous human or a small giant, wielding a pair of long-barrel revolvers that looked too outrageous to be real – except this comfortable belief was shattered the moment it fired a bullet upward, like it was trying to intimidate them into freezing up. Its body, hovering in the air, was clothed in black, and where its legs should have been was only mere nothingness. Long sets of chains were wrapped around its chest, producing an eerie jangling with each of its strange movements. One of its eye was visible, bloodshot and impossibly wide, a white spherical thing staring down at them without apparently ever feeling the need to blink. But it wasn't the creature's grotesque appearance that frightened Joker so much. No, the worst detail of it all, the one that chilled his very core, was the dark stains splattered all over its body, from its black robe to the sack cloaking its face. Some splotches looked red, very red... too red. Too fresh.

"Hang on!" rang a high-pitched cry, and it took Joker longer than normal to realize it came from Queen. From his position, he could only see her back, but he had no trouble imagining her face – probably covered in sweat, scrunched in intense concentration, teeth clenched as she dodged bullet after bullet in what felt like an agonizingly long chase. But for all her prowess, the monster seemed even more formidable, even more determined not to let any of them go than they were to escape it. It was gaining ground, zooming behind the bus like death itself was coming for them, it was raising both weapons now, Mona was going to be hit, they were going to crash, they were done for–

"Arsene!" Joker bellowed while tearing his mask off his face the second he opened the hatch, his Persona answering his call at once. He didn't even need to shout his command – Arsene was already charging at the creature unprompted, almost like he was a bullet himself, to the point that Joker couldn't see him anymore save for a blurry silhouette. And then... the collision happened.

The explosion shook the air. It was messy and deafening, looking like a dome of black light getting bigger and bigger until it simply broke off. Someone inside the bus screamed, but Joker heard nothing. He was too restless, too anxious to discover the picture hidden beyond the clearing smoke even as they sped away. But then flashed a hint of red amidst the dark haze, and the black-haired boy felt a swell of relief like he had never experienced before – Arsene was the only one to emerge from the aftermath, flying off toward the bus victorious and coming back into his other self's heart. Only then did Ren realize how fast it was pounding.

Even as he remained rooted to the spot, the bus slowed to a halt. Behind him rang out the sound of a handbrake being pulled and the ignition turning off, followed by a collective exhale, and he finally crumbled onto his seat again.

"Okay... Can anyone explain to me what the hell was that..." Skull breathed out once everybody had somewhat calmed down – that is, as much as one could calm down after very nearly seeing the light.

"That couldn't be a Shadow... Could it...?" Panther stammered between heavy gulps of air, looking positively exhausted. All eyes turned to Navi, who took some time to collect herself before finally responding.

"I-It was. Just a Shadow, l-like the rest of them." she explained shakily, the toll of the ordeal clearly heavier upon her than anyone else. "But its power was... It was something else."

She seemed unable to offer anything more substantive. Queen looked at her for a moment, apparently yearning to press her for further information, but eventually ended up averting her gaze. The tension aboard was still alarmingly high, but soon enough, most pulses were back to normal, most legs feeling solid again.

"So what, did we run into the king of Shadows or somethin'?" Skull eventually grumbled, finally breaking the silence. Queen let out a weary sigh.

"I'm not sure king is the right way to put it, but one thing is for certain... It is much more dangerous than anything we have encountered so far. Thank goodness Arsene managed to defeat it..."

Perhaps it was because of the lingering shock, but nobody reacted right away. A brief moment went by until at last, the brown-haired girl's words truly sank in – and like that, Panther gave a nervous giggle. "Y-Yeah, you're right, he did defeat it... This means it's–"

"I can't sense its presence around anymore... but it definitely isn't dead." Navi cut off, suddenly focusing on data only she could see. "I'm getting weird readings somewhere else in Mementos... The same I got just before we ran into that thing."

This put a damper on Panther's already weak enthusiasm.

"Well, at least we're safe for now..." Noir said softly as she put a hand on the blonde girl's shoulder. "More importantly, Mona-chan... Are you alright?"

"Y-Yeah, I am..." responded his voice, though its pitch was slightly higher than usual. "I'm not sure if he could have hurt me while I'm in this form, but I can't say I was eager to find out. Good job, Que–"

"Ah! Wait a second!"

For the third time, everybody turned to Navi, who looked quite unnerved again. Skull was the fastest to react. "What now?!"

"W-We're not alone on this floor! There's someone else besides us, and they're very close by!... But, that's weird..."

"Don't tell me this abomination of a monster has already recovered and is now coming back?" Fox interrupted, his fingers instinctively tightening around the hilt of his katana.

"No, that's not it... This presence feels completely different. It feels super strong... but very weak at the same time..."

"Wha...? That don't make any damn sense..." Skull retorted shakily as the rest of the thieves glanced at each other, a mixture of worry and wariness floating upon all faces.

"Can you pinpoint that presence's exact location, Navi?" Joker wondered, his eyes serious. The redhead's response was hesitant, but it was there.

"Y-Yeah, it's just around the corner. Are you... thinking of checking it out?" she asked back, receiving a much more confident nod than hers in return.

"I know it might be dangerous." he said in a soothing tone of voice, giving words to everybody's thoughts. "But I think it's important we investigate, just in case." 

Although most of the group didn't seem too enthusiastic about their leader's intent, nobody tried to argue with him – they knew he had a point. Even so, Queen couldn't help but chime in.

"Fine... But don't forget. We're not taking any unnecessary risks." she compromised, although she didn't need to. Months of battling in the other world had already taught all of them the importance of self-preservation. "If something feels off, we're immediately running away. Alright?"

With a soft noise of agreement, Joker hopped off the bus and set off, the rest of the thieves cautiously following behind. Mona wasted no time in catching up once he reverted back to his oversize cat-like appearance.

It didn't take them long to stumble upon the presence Navi had been sensing around.
... For a body was sprawled further away on the ground, right in the middle of the tunnel. A human one.

Joker stared, like he had entered a trance-like state. Behind him, the rest of the Phantom Thieves was equally awed, unable to make so much as a sound. It wasn't the shock of discovering another human being besides them in the other world that was stealing their speech away. They were rooted to the spot because all of them knew, in that moment, exactly who that person was.

A dark, tight suit was covering every last inch of their body, patterned with swirling stripes while leather belts were bound around their thighs, shoulders, elbows, and stomach. The tips of their gauntlets were long and sharp, just like claws, and there was a strange ripple to their torn cape, as if it wasn't made entirely of cloth but also a nebulous hazy substance. A helmet akin to that of a twisted knight's concealed their face, upon which sat their black visor. Their black mask.

It took Joker an unusually long time to break free from his captivation. He threw a brief glance at his fellow thieves, and with a mutual nod, slowly, cautiously approached the figure. They didn't stir, or give any other semblance of reaction to his presence – they were clearly unconscious, if their absolute stillness and the way their lips were slightly parted weren't indication enough. It was only because their chest was still rising and falling, albeit almost imperceptibly, that Joker knew they were alive.

"So Kaneshiro and Madarame's Shadows weren't lying..." Panther muttered, keeping her distance somewhat. "There really was someone else besides us who could go to the other world..."

"And... they're wearing a black mask." Fox added in an undecipherable tone of voice. "The criminal responsible for the atrocities befalling the city... Befalling us."

"And... Mom's killer..."

Navi seemed rooted on the spot. But Joker knew it wasn't because of fear that her fists were trembling so hard.

"So, what happened to the poor bastard?" Skull asked in a glaring attempt at distraction while throwing a slightly worried look at Noir, who had brought her hands together, her eyes wide and blank. "Why's he out cold?"

"It had to be that Shadow we just came across..." Queen responded, her mind still very sound despite the obvious unease radiating off her body. "I'm willing to bet they ran into it by accident, but weren't so lucky during the encounter."

"Huh, makes sense. Wonder why that freaky Shadow didn't finish the job, though. I would've sent it flowers."

"It was probably about to, but then sensed our presence and likely thought it could finish them off later... Or maybe it–"

But Joker wasn't listening anymore – he was finally within arm's reach of the figure, kneeling carefully beside them and feeling his heart start to drum faster in the process. The anticipation was building up inside his very core, soon reaching such high levels that his stomach seemed to twist itself into a nauseating knot. Upon closer inspection, it was impossible not to notice how damaged the suit was, with tears here and there, or the numerous dents upon the hard helmet's surface. Cracks ran across the mask, which appeared to be made of glass, and the little skin it didn't conceal was covered in scrapes. Queen was right – clearly, the encounter between the dark figure and the Shadow had been rough. He extended a somewhat shaky hand, edging it closer and closer to their face. Thin slits glowing an ominous red allowed a glimpse of their eyes, which were of course closed. Joker's pulse quickened further even as his fingers were brushing the mask, the figure's eyelashes were particularly long, he had already seen them before–

"So? Who is it?"

Mona's question was laden with wariness. Joker could sense his and six other pairs of eyes burning into his back, inquisitive, silently demanding an answer. But whatever words his brain was still able to come up with in that moment were blown away by awe.

A long silence dragged by, and time began to move again.

"Ah, screw this! Lemme see!"

And before Joker could react, Skull was already crouching beside him, grabbing the glass visor and tearing it off without a single ounce of hesitation. The rest of the Phantom Thieves was peering with bated breath over their shoulders, staring agape at the truth and the truth staring back, imprinting itself into their sight, carving its way through the numbness of their stupefied minds.

"You... You gotta be shittin' me..."

This was all Skull could manage before going speechless once more. Navi opened her mouth and closed it again, her astonishment beyond words. It was Fox who at last broke the stunned silence, his breathing shallow, his brow furrowed. "Is this supposed to be some sort of joke...?"

Nobody had an answer to offer him. Nobody had a single answer to what they were witnessing in that instant, to this turmoil of emotions cluttering each core, to this wave of utter shock crashing upon them that only a revelation of this caliber could summon.

Akechi Goro.

Akechi Goro was the black-masked criminal the Phantom Thieves had been warned about.

Akechi Goro, the famous and charismatic detective, was the one they had been tracking all along. The one who held the keys to their innocence – because he was the one responsible for the crimes they had been framed for. He was the one causing people to go on rampages against their will. He was the one toying with their minds, doing whatever he pleased.

Including stealing their lives.

"Does that mean... that Akechi is the one who caused all this? He's the one who killed President Okumura and Navi's mother?"

Panther was seemingly too shaken to believe. Skull glanced up at her, then cracked his knuckles. The fury twisting his features was palpable.

"Yeah. That's exactly what it means." he rumbled, his voice husky, threatening. "That goddamn bastard detective... was behind it all the whole time."

Joker glanced back and forth, from Akechi to Skull and Akechi again, unsure what to say, what to do, what to feel – only for his heart to suddenly seize up. He was stirring, Akechi was stirring, Skull's close proximity was probably rousing him awake and he now was, he was waking up, his eyes were feebly fluttering open... The black-haired boy parted his lips, instinctively trying to speak, but he never got the chance to get out even a word. Because everything suddenly happened too fast.

Akechi's eyes, a split second before hardly more than cracks, opened so wide it looked as though he had been splashed with ice cold water. He let out a startled gasp and immediately sat up, the astonishment written all over his face replaced at once by a scowl, made all the fiercer upon noticing Skull was reaching for his wrists, intent on pinning him down–

"Back off!" he roared as he kicked him hard in the stomach, causing Skull to let out a weak groan of pain and curl up into a ball. But Akechi hardly seemed to care – he snatched his visor from the blond boy's hand, jumped to his feet and swirled around, sprinting away as fast as his legs could carry him, completely deaf to their shouts, utterly ignoring their pleas. Joker stopped thinking and flung himself forward, desperation and adrenaline fueling his energy, but it was no use – Akechi had had too big of a head start, had taken advantage of the confusion around, he was going to get away at this rate... but then, Queen's gun leapt twice.

The first bullet tore right above Akechi's left shoulder, resulting in a primal scream that made Joker's hairs stand on end. But it was the second bullet that stopped him in his tracks, for it lodged itself into his thigh before cleanly going through as easily as if his flesh was paper. Akechi immediately crumpled to the ground, writhing and thrashing in agony, his cries so loud Joker could hardly hear the exchange happening behind him even as he gained ground at a run.

"Did you really just shoot him?! Queen, what the hell?!" Skull yelled, throwing an incredulous look over his shoulder at the brown-haired girl while struggling to keep up with Joker. Queen, for her part, had stayed behind, Noir's worried gaze fixed upon her. She had dropped her weapon and seemed frozen in place. Only one thing was still moving – her trembling limbs.

"I... don't know how that happened..." she was mumbling as she stared blankly ahead. "I, I wasn't thinking... I wanted to stop him before he could escape, and instinctively reached for my..."

But the rest of her explanation was drowned out by another sound – a tiny whimper, barely audible. And even so, Joker never picked up on Akechi's voice more clearly than in that very moment.

"L... Loki..." he uttered, or so it sounded like, so weakly he might not have spoken at all, but the sudden appearance of what could only be a Persona proved the opposite. Time seemed to slow down again as Joker witnessed the details materializing before his eyes, from the black and white, erratic pattern upon its tall body to the glowing blade in its hand, not to mention that strange grin it was directing at him, the grin of a malevolent god–

"Joker, Skull! Look out!"

Navi's yell had the effect of a whiplash. Joker snapped back to his senses and barely had time to process her warning when a giant wall of fire suddenly sprang up between him and Akechi, completely obstructing his path. With a scream, he threw all his weight back, skidding toward the flames though hardly slowing down, the momentum too strong. But then, a powerful grip grabbed him by the back of his collar and pulled, finally causing him to stop in his tracks. Both he and Skull tumbled to the ground, the former stunned but grateful, the latter relieved and exhausted.

"Are you two alright?" came Panther's cry as she trotted up to them, accompanied by the rest of the thieves. "You're not hurt, are you?"

"Tch... We're fine. You don't need to nag." Skull retorted, laboriously climbing to his feet and helping Joker do the same. "But that bastard detective got us good. I bet he's gone to the upper floor and got away by now."

A heavy silence ensued at this. They knew he was right, and sure enough, their assumption was confirmed the moment the inferno died down. Akechi was gone, utterly and completely, with only a trail of blood left in his wake.

"... I'm just hopin' he don't drop dead on the spot. I mean, he did get shot twice."

Queen fidgeted nervously, but didn't respond.

Need to call... Need to call him, fast...

Akechi Goro was feeling light-headed. The pain across his shoulder and leg was excruciating, so searing it made him feel nauseous, his mind impeded by the agony and shock of those past minutes. It felt like a white-hot blade had pierced his flesh, twisting it and jostling it around, draining the last remnants of his strength fast, to the point that even keeping his eyes open was an ordeal in and of itself. In the end, he was merely able to drag himself into a sitting position, his body limp against the brick wall.

Panic was coursing through every last cell of his brain, consuming everything in its way and claiming whatever rationality still lingered in a distant part of his mind. But he couldn't afford to succumb, he couldn't allow that unspeakable exhaustion to win, because closing his eyes would mean eternal sleep. He tried to focus on the very feeble ray of light across the darkness of the circumstances, and felt by some miracle a tiny hint of relief swell within his chest. It was still daylight in the real world, the alley he found himself in was much too close to the main street teeming with people, he was slowly bleeding out, the pain was beyond the limits of the tolerable... but he did manage to leave the other world, did manage to avoid the worst-case scenario of being caught by the Phantom Thieves, and this was more than he could have asked for in that very moment. Now all he had to do was press the "Call" button, and he would be saved... If only his hands weren't trembling so much, he would have already–

"Akechi-kun...?"

In that split second after the hesitant acknowledgment reached him, Akechi Goro seemed to forget how to breathe. As he slowly lifted a trembling head at the newcomer, the fog clouding his mind cleared at once the space of a heartbeat, letting him fully realize it wasn't the Phantom Thieves who just caught up to him, but that other scenario was no less terrible – in fact, it was worse.

Oh no... Oh, no...

Niijima Sae took a step forward. If the idea to leave him alone and not ask any questions crossed her mind, it didn't show.