A/N Apologies that this is coming out later than I'd wanted, but hey, hopefully it was worth the wait. I've just been busy with a lot over the summer, so I haven't had as much time to work on this chapter as I'd like. It's done now, though, so enjoy!

Disclaimer: I do not own Persona, or any of its characters, and I make no money off of this.

Chapter 45

"Hraaa!" Skull exclaimed as he ripped his mace out of a decaying Shadow.

Several sword strikes came crashing down towards him a second later, though he was more than ready. The thuggish Persona user rolled across the floor to dodge the attacks, then grabbing his shotgun and pumping the Shadows nearby full of lead. The bullets tore massive holes through each of their torsos, allowing Skull to smirk as they started to disappear.

Elsewhere, Mona was fast at work doing much the same.

"Persona!"

Zoro appeared and used a flurry of wind to tear apart a group of Shadows that had massed nearby, and when they started to fade away, he moved to Skull's side to get ready for the next wave.

"Not bad," complimented Skull.

"Not bad yourself," Mona replied. "But stay focused, we're probably not done here."

"Actually, uh… I think we're good," Skull thought aloud, taking note of the empty space around them. "You sensing anything, Mona?"

"Um… no, not at all. Honestly, I would've expected something to show up by now."

"Huh, go figure," Skull muttered. "So… guess we keep goin', right?"

"Looks like it, yeah."

Although it felt weird for both of them after what was a relatively easy fight, they headed towards the gate at the far-end of the room. As they approached, it opened automatically and revealed a large flat area of a dirt and dust.

A look of relief showed for a moment as they realized they'd reached the base of the castle. For a moment they hoped to see their missing teammates, but sadly all they really saw was empty space.

"Anything waitin' for us out there?" Skull asked.

"Nothing that I can feel right now," answered Mona. "Though that doesn't mean we can let our guard down."

"Any chance you sense Joker and Panther nearby?"

Mona hung his head slightly. "No, I don't. But I can sense the root of the distortion up ahead, and I'd bet any amount of money that's where they'll be headed."

"In that case, better we don't keep em' waitin' too long," Skull stated with a grin. He took another step forward, saying, "C'mon, let's go."

It was eerily quiet as the two started their way down the empty area outside the castle, and although they didn't encounter so much as a Shadow, the quiet only made them feel even more nervous.

Eventually, when they'd reached the center of the wide-open area, they started to hear a number of raspy growls that they were all-too familiar with. Shadows started to pop out of the ground in all directions, leaving the two Persona users almost instantly surrounded.

"Heh, can't say I'm surprised," said Skull. He brandished his weapon. "You ready to do this, Mona?"

"Do you even need to ask?" Mona said cockily.

The two sped off in opposite directions, one hand gripping their weapons while the other stayed firmly on their mask. When they were finally within reach of the Shadows, they each exclaimed just one iconic word.

"Persona!"

Both Zoro and Captain Kidd started to rip into the legion of Knights that had suddenly shown up. Dozens of Shadows were torn to pieces before they could even make a move.

'Too easy,' Skull thought.

He brought his mace across the torso of a nearby Knight, defeating it in just the one blow. However, as he looked around him, he saw several more pools of black liquid start to form. He had Captain Kidd launch a powerful lightning strike on his position, electrocuting the demons before they even saw the light of day.

A confident Skull stood proud as a large number of Shadows decayed around him, though in the end, the look was whipped right off his face as countless more Shadows started to pop out from the ground.

And several of them weren't exactly small fries.

In an instant, a creature that looked like Minotaur shot out from the pitch-black ooze, though unlike the ones he was used to seeing, this one had heavy armor covering its body, and there weren't a pair of shackles weighing it down. Its strange appearance was the least of his worries, though, as the second its fully formed, it started to charge directly towards Skull with the rage and force of a bull.

"Captain Kidd!" Skull exclaimed.

The legendary pirate spawned into existence and caught the Minotaur mid-charge. The Persona kept the beast at bay, then bringing up its canon-arm directly next to its face so as to land a point-blank hit and finish it off quickly. However, before he could, a powerful force slammed into Captain Kidd courtesy of a different Minotaur, and the hit was strong enough to the point that he was immediately sent flying.

"Ghh…!" Skull winced.

He could feel his entire body ache for a second, but he powered through it and did his best to make a tactical retreat. The Minotaur, however, didn't seem to be in the mood to let him get away.

"Hraaa!" one of the demons roared.

Literal steam started to come out of the Minotaur's ears as it started to race forward, though thankfully for Ryuji, it didn't get too far.

"Zoro!"

An incredibly powerful blast of wind knocked the Shadow off of its course and forced it to fall on its side, allowing a very grateful Skull to fall back towards Mona.

"Thanks for that, I owe you one," Skull replied.

"Thank me after we make it out of this," Mona replied.

There was a sense of worry in the cat's voice, and with good reason. Shadow after Shadow started to pop up with not a single light-weight among them. Armored Minotaur, Tables, Champion Knights—all of them were present in the force of Shadows that surrounded them.

"This ain't lookin' good," Skull muttered, feeling a cold bead of sweat drop down the back of his neck. "Mona, any idea how we get out of this?"

"There's no infiltration tool I can use to guarantee our escape. All we can do is try to fight our way out," Mona replied, sounding deathly-serious. "Our best bet is to put all our strength into punching a hole through one section when they charge. Then, when we break through, we make a run for it so we can regroup."

"Alright, sounds good," Skull replied. His eyes narrowed with determination. "So, you ready to do this?"

"As I'll ever be," replied Mona.

As the Shadows started to slowly inch forward, it was clear they were just seconds away from charging. In response, both Mona and Skull were gathering their strength for one big push and watched carefully to time their reaction as perfectly as they could. However, their epic climactic fight was quickly put on hold.

The loud revving of an engine sounded off from nearby, greatly confusing both the Shadows and the Persona users. All of the fighters stopped dead in their tracks and looked around for the source of the sound.

"The hell?" Skull wondered aloud.

Out of nowhere, a massive bike shot up from one of the nearby hillsides overlooking the open area. It landed a short distance in front of Skull and Mona, shocking both of them in the process.

They were so caught off guard by it that it even took them a few seconds to realize that the person riding the bike a few feet away was a familiar face, at least metaphorically speaking.

After all, neither of them had forgotten the sight of that bike, nor the black getup of its rider.

"W-Wait, isn't that…?!"

"The Black Biker…" Skull whispered, having finished the cat's sentence.

By that time, the Shadows had recovered from the shocking entrance and once again got ready to charge. The sound of their warped growls and hisses filled the air as they set off on their attack from all sides.

"Graaaa!"

Both Skull and Mona broke out of their stupor and got ready to defend themselves, but then, suddenly, the Shadows stopped moving. Without any warning, they'd just started to stand in place like statues. Then, just as quickly, their bodies started to fall apart as if their limbs and torsos had been sliced by the sharpest of steel.

A storm of black mist started to breathe into the air, but even as the Shadows faded away, they didn't react in the slightest. They were so still and silent that it was actually unnerving to watch.

It was as if they'd died so quickly that even they themselves couldn't even realize what was happening.

When the dust had settled, there wasn't a demon left in the area. Skull and Mona were left speechless, though when they'd heard the revving of a motorcycle once again, their eyes instinctively drifted back to the Black Biker.

The biker looked over his shoulder back at the two Phantom Thieves, though all he did was motion his head in the opposite direction. Once he was done, he sped off, leaving nothing but dust in his trail.

A speechless Mona and Skull stood in place for a time as each tried to wrap their head around what had just happened. In the end, neither really could.

"Okay…" Skull began blanky. "What the eff just happened?"

"I wish I knew," said Mona, sounding equally as lost. "But I, uh… I think the Black Biker just bailed us out. Again."

"But… how?!" Skull exclaimed. "I mean, you saw all that, right?! How the hell did he kill all those Shadows that quickly?! I didn't even see the guy move!"

"It's likely his Persona, but that's not important right now," Mona reasoned. "By the way, was it just me, or did it seem like he was trying to get us to follow him?"

"Nah, I think so too," Skull replied. There was a slight pause before he asked, "So, uh… should we?"

"…normally, I'd say we should think twice about it, but to be honest, I don't think we have a choice," Mona replied, his eyes narrowing analytically as he spoke. "He sped off in the direction that leads towards the heart of the distortion."

"Right, so basically where we'd be headin' anyway," Skull thought aloud.

Things went silent as the two realized what they needed to do. Without thinking twice about it, they ran off in the direction the Black Biker had stared to lead them, hoping only that doing so wouldn't give them any unwanted surprises.


Joker and Panther came to the bottom of a long stone staircase that was flanked on both sides by a massive rock formation. The fact that it was the first thing like this they'd encountered since falling into the valley made it a dead giveaway of what they'd find at the top.

"I'd bet anything we'll find Mika's stalker up there," Panther stated.

"And you'd probably win that bet," Joker replied in a serious tone of voice. "You ready?"

"Yeah, let's do this."

The pair stealthily moved up the stairs, only to be taken by surprise when they reached the top. In front of them was a moderately-sized square area that had the feel of an arena. Flawless, bright-white stones lined the ground, and large spires raised into the sky from each of the four corners. It all shined so brightly compared to the twisted wasteland and depressing skies of the Metaverse that it was almost blinding.

However, by far the most eye-catching detail was impressive throne placed on the far end. It sat atop a glimmering staircase lined with a red carpet while two dazzling marble statues sat at the base of each side. The throne itself was a bright white chair with gold trimmings and a deep-crimson cushion, and overall seemed fit for royalty among royalty.

Still, as impressive as the throne was, the mystery stalker was not currently sitting on it. The two Thieves glanced around in search of him, but neither had much luck.

"I don't see him anywhere," Panther remarked. "You?"

"No," replied Joker.

As if of one mind, the two cautiously walked forward to investigate further. Their obvious first stop was the throne on the far side of the platform, which they soon made their way up to. However, the closer they got, the more one eerily creepy detail stuck out to them—the statues that sat at the base of the throne.

Specifically, who they were statues of.

Joker's eyes widened in realization. "Wait a second, isn't that…?"

"Mika," Panther stated firmly, her eyes narrowing fiercely as she spoke. "There's no doubt about it."

"I guess I shouldn't be surprised," Joker muttered. He walked up to one of the marble statues. "It's so detailed its actually kind of creepy. Well, creepier than it should be."

Panther moved up next to him to get a closer look for herself, though not even a second later, the two felt a mass of elemental energy start to form right above them. They looked up, seeing a blinding white light crashing down towards them like a star falling from the sky. Joker and Panther leapt backwards to avoid whatever attack was headed their way, managing to do so with time to spare before they then watched as the burst of energy finally slammed into the ground.

When the light finally cleared, however, they saw someone standing tall and gripping a sword that was planted directly into the ground overtop where the blast had hit. It was a young man whose average height and dark colored hair seemed more than ordinary, though unlike most men, he had bright white armor scattered around his body. His shins, forearms, hands, and knees were guarded by the immaculately-made armor, while his eyes were covered by a knight's vizor that looked more like a mask than anything else.

Lastly was the sword he kept firmly gripped in his hand. Every inch of the weapon radiated a light so bright most would've called it heavenly—a theme that was only shown more deeply by the sword's guard, which while a standard t-shape was styled in the form of an angel's wings.

The heroic appearance of the man didn't make Joker or Panther so much blink. They were ready for a fight the second they laid eyes on him.

"Sorry for attacking you so suddenly, though my intent was only to push you away from the fair lady's throne," the man spoke. He then ripped his sword from the ground, drawing it back as if to show he was ready to strike if he needed to. "I would prefer not to fight you, if I'm being honest. However, if you pose a threat to the fair lady, then my hand will be forced."

"Actually, it's just the opposite," Joker replied, speaking in a friendly manner despite keeping a hand firmly gripped on his knife. "Though I guess we should start with introductions. Who might you be?"

Just being asked that question prompted an odd response from the armored man. He looked away as if he didn't truly have an answer to give at first.

"…that doesn't matter anymore. But I suppose you may call me 'Knight', if you'd like. That's as good a name as any given my purpose," he replied, shaking his head as he spoke. "There, now you know my name. Kindly state yours."

"You can call me Panther, and he's Joker," replied the red-clad Persona user. "Though you may know us better as the Phantom Thieves."

At first, the young man clearly didn't believe her. However, as he took a closer look, realization seemed to hit him like a truck. His entire body language, previously rigid and focused, changed in an instant as he suddenly seemed relieved.

"Wait, those outfits… T-There's no mistaking it, you really are the Phantom Thieves of Hearts!" Knight exclaimed, a sense of excitement in his tone. "M-My sincerest apologies for attacking you beforehand! Had I known, I… I never would've so much as raised my hand against you!"

There was a strange reverence to his tone, and both Joker and Panther could hear it. They exchanged a look with one another, and it seemed they were both equally as caught off guard by it.

"Is that so?" asked Joker.

"Of course! You're living legends! Heroes of justice who raged against a vile, immoral society that did nothing but prey on the weak and innocent! To say I admire you is an understatement!" Knight continued on. He then seemed to realize something rather obvious. "Although… now I find myself confused as to why you're here. The Phantom Thieves of Hearts only go after criminals, deviants, and those who would harm others, am I right?"

Panther took a step forward, firmly stating, "Yeah, you are."

Again, realization hit the man, though this time around, it was an unpleasant one.

"No, but that's… I feel as if there's been a misunderstanding," Knight replied, sounding as if he were truly confused. "I can't think of even the slightest reason as to why you'd consider changing my heart."

"I can think of one," Panther shot back. "For instance, the fact that you're stalking Mika."

"What? Stalking? No, of course not," Knight replied dismissively, clear amusement in his voice. "What I'm doing could hardly be called that of all things."

"We beg to differ," said Joker.

"And so would Mika," Panther added, a bit of venom in her tone.

"But I assure you, I…!"

There was a pause as the man stopped to think. Then, all of a sudden, he seemed incredibly calm once again.

"You know what—perhaps it's better if I show you," reasoned Knight.

He snapped his fingers, and in an instant, several sizeable glass shards started to appear in the air around the arena. They were like dozens of mirrors floating in space, each of which were about as large as a fully-grown man.

Though each of the pieces of glass had a unique size and shape, each of them reflected the exact same thing: Mika. She was curled up in her bed holding onto a bat, and by the way she was frantically glancing around the room, it was as if she could somehow tell that someone was watching her.

The image of the brunette young woman sent a cold chill through Ann's body, and Ren was no better. There was a deep fear in the pit of Mika's eyes, and they could see her shiver almost every time she breathed.

She was afraid. Terrible, terribly afraid.

Of course, Knight looked up proudly as if the images proved his innocence as if he were possible the one human being that couldn't see the obvious.

"All I'm doing is keeping watch over the fair lady. My one and only wish to protect her and ensure her prosperity," Knight stated proudly.

Those words immediately set Panther into a fiery rage. Her fists started to shake angrily, and for a moment it looked like she was about to lunge right at the masked man with everything she had then and there.

"Protecting her?!" Panther shouted in furious disbelief. "Anyone with a working pair of eyes could see she's terrified! All you're doing is scaring her to death! She hasn't slept in days, and it's all because of you! Is that seriously how you want to 'protect' her?!"

"Well, there were bound to be growing pains. All she needs to do is accept that I'm watching over her, and I'm certain she'll be fine. I've tried to tell her as much before, but it seems it will take more than one attempt," Knight admitted. "I'm sure once she realizes I have her interests at heart, things will change for the better. I'll only need to remove a few more 'obstacles' for her, and I'm sure she'll understand."

There was a long pause as his words truly set in. Knight seemed to believe it was a good sign, though the truth was that the only reason Joker and Panther had kept quiet was out of pure disgust.

"So, now you surely must understand, right?" Knight spoke up yet again, his tone cheerful and friendly.

"The only thing I 'understand' is that you're out of your mind!" Panther roared, her anger nearly getting the better of her. "You're going to end up killing her! And even if you don't, I can guarantee Mika will never want your kind of protection!"

The armored man flexed his grip on the hilt of his sword.

"I would choose my words more carefully if I were you," Knight said, his voice calm but ominous. "You speak as if you know her, and I will not allow you to—"

"That's because I do know her!" Panther exclaimed.

Hearing the truth in her voice forced the man to freeze. He seemed beyond shocked to the point he was speechless for a time.

"Wait a minute… yes, I thought you seemed familiar. You're that blonde-haired girl—the one that's frequently paired with Lady Mika," Knight muttered to himself. "You're Ann Takamaki, isn't that right?"

Almost immediately, the blue-eyed Persona user lifted her mask to show her face and answered his question without saying so much as a word. It was difficult to say quite how Knight reacted as for a split-second there was genuine conflict in his eyes. However, it died within seconds, and his gaze became as cold as steel.

"You were better off keeping your identity hidden," said Knight. He lifted his sword towards her, adding, "Now I know there's no point in trusting your words, Phantom Thief or not. You know her, sure, but there's no way Lady Mika would ever share even a semblance of her thoughts with someone she so thoroughly hates."

"She trusted me enough to come to me for help," Ann countered, her gaze holding firm. "That's also how I know just how terrified she is of you."

"An obvious lie," Knight stated dismissively. "And at this point… I'm not interested in hearing any more of them."

An aura of red fire started to engulf the man's body, hiding his entire form from sight as his power continued to spike. Ann lowered her mask while Joker stepped up to her side, and each of them faced down the growing inferno prepared to defend against whatever was set to come out from it.

"Lancelot!" Knight exclaimed.

In one final burst, the fire shot out in all directions. It gave way to a towering man covered in knight's armor that was blindingly white. On its back was a red cape with gold trimmings that gave it an aura of nobility, and a red plume extended out of the back of its helmet. Lastly, in the Persona's right hand was a longsword that matched the color of its armor, and much like its master's, the sword's guard was also shaped like the outstretched wings of an angel.

"I hope you're ready," Knight stated, his words filled with venom. "Heroes or not, I don't intend to show mercy."

As if to stay true to his words, the body of both he and his Persona started to glow in the characteristic tri-colored aura of Heat Riser. Lancelot then slashed its sword forward, sending a massive condensed burst of holy light slamming directly into the Phantom Thieves.

A cloud of smoke and dust erupted, which Knight wasted no time in pushing aside to get a good read on his opponents. However, it became obvious that they'd completely dodged the strike.

Out of nowhere, Joker came lunging at his side with his knife brought to bear. Sadly, it didn't look for a second like he'd caught Knight off guard as the Persona user was ready and waiting to block the slashes with his own sword. There was a brief exchange in which sparks flew between the two, but in the end, they locked blades and came to a stalemate.

"…predictable," Knight scoffed.

With one powerful swing of his sword, the armor-clad Persona user forced Joker back. He then let loose a flurry of sword strikes in an effort to quickly overpower him, though each and every one of his attacks were flawlessly parried.

Knight soon gave up on brut-forcing his way through Joker and instead willed his Persona to swoop in from the side in an attempt at catching the infamous Trickster off guard. Lancelot quickly moved in with its sword primed and ready, but it would never get a chance to follow through with its strike.

"Carmen!"

A series of fireballs forced Lancelot to return to the sea of its master's soul to dodge the attack, and with his Persona now gone for the moment, Knight had no choice but to break off his attack on Joker. He put some distance between himself and his opponents, deciding to be cautious, though of course Joker and Panther took the opportunity to take advantage and move in for an attack of their own.

"Lancelot!" Knight shouted.

The shining Persona appeared once again and immediately slammed its sword down into the ground. It began to glow with a holy light, all the while a number of shimmering portals of the same color started to appear in the air around it, and shortly thereafter, countless shards of light started to fire out of them.

A storm of arrow-like projectiles continued to shoot towards Joker and Panther without any end in sight, though the two didn't let that distract them in the least. They evaded the attacks as best as they could as they continued to inch closer and closer, and in the end, Panther was the first to pull the trigger and make a stand even as the attacks continued to rain down on them.

"Persona!" Panther exclaimed.

Carmen appeared at her side, and although several of the incoming shards did hit her, she was still able to stand tall. She then launched a sizeable burst of flames towards Lancelot, and thankfully, landed a direct hit.

"K-Khh…!" Knight winced as pain shot through his body.

Lancelot visibly recoiled and lost its balance, and with its focus broken, its rain of holy light stopped in an instant. More importantly, however, an opening had just been created as both the Persona and its master were still recovering, and Joker was more than ready to take advantage. The black-clad Thief of Hearts was at Knight's side within a split-second, his hand already placed on his mask as he readied to land a powerful blow.

"Yoshitsune!" Joker shouted.

The legendary samurai began to swing its blades at Lancelot, though surprisingly, even as it appeared the knight had yet to fully recover, it grabbed its sword and began to defend itself. Lancelot began to parry each and every attack so perfectly it genuinely took the Wild Card by surprise, and shortly thereafter, it even seemed to get the upper hand.

Joker watched with widened-eyes as Yoshitsune was pushed back. Despite its speed and strength, Lancelot had somehow started to overpower it, and in the end, the legendary knight was able to land a blow straight across Yoshitsune's torso. The attack itself didn't do any damage, though that it even managed to hit Yoshitsune in the first place was shocking in and of itself.

A split-second later, Knight moved in to attack Joker with his blade, which once again forced the Wild Card back. He regrouped next to Panther a fair distance away, causing the fight to enter a stand-still for the time being.

It was a break that one of them in particular sorely needed, too. Joker's breathing was already a bit heavy, drawing a concerned look from his teammate.

"Are you okay?" Panther asked in a hushed voice.

"I'll manage," Joker replied. "More importantly, it looks like physical's out."

"But Carmen clearly did some damage," Panther replied.

"Yeah, seems like it," said Joker.

The two shared a look, and without even the need to say so much as another word, they understood what the plan was. Joker immediately lunged towards Knight, using all his speed to rush right up to him from across the battlefield.

"Yoshitsune!" Joker exclaimed.

With a self-assured smile, Knight called out Lancelot yet again. A storm of sword swings launched off from both sides, though yet again Lancelot was the Persona to come out on top.

Knight himself moved in to attack Joker, a cocky smirk marking his lips as they locked blades yet again.

"Did you really think that would work?" he asked.

In response, the Wild Card gave him a cocky smirk of his own.

"It wasn't meant to," Joker replied.

Before Knight could even respond, the ground beneath their feet started to glow. By the time he realized what was going on, it was already too late. A massive sphere of fire erupted and consumed both the two combatants and their Personas in a shocking display of destructive force.

It looked like a decisive hit had just been landed, but before the fires even died down, Knight leaped out of the blazing inferno. His eyes immediately set themselves on Panther, and he wasted no time charging at her with everything he had. It happened so quickly, in fact, that the blonde herself was completely caught by surprise.

"Persona!" Knight roared.

Lancelot appeared on the battle fiend yet again, this time coating his blade in ice before it swung it forward and launched it in a concentrated wave. Panther recalled her Persona and moved out of the way to dodge, and even though she'd barely managed to do so, both Lancelot and its wielder were still coming straight for her.

"I won't let you get away that easily!" Knight shouted.

His Persona was preparing yet another ice attack while he moved into attack alongside it. However, a sudden stinging sensation shot out from his back as several spheres of pure curse energy slammed into Lancelot. He winced, then choosing to back off instead of taking a risk and continuing his attack.

When he finally looked back at his opponents, his eyes went wide as he saw Joker taking his place at Panther's side with a different Persona now hovering overhead. He of course had thought Yoshitsune was his only Persona, so to see him now with what looked like a red-coated devil was a surprise to say the least.

"I see," muttered Knight. "So then, you have the power to wield multiple Personas. My, my, you're just full of surprises, aren't you?"

"So they tell me," Joker replied cheekily.

"That's quite a frightening ability," Knight stated, his voice calm as he raised his sword yet again. "In fact, if you were at your peak, I might not stand so much as a chance against you. However, you're clearly running out of energy. That last attack was proof enough of that."

The fact that Knight was monologuing like he was made Joker want to roll his eyes. Still, he couldn't say he was wrong.

"He's right, you're clearly getting tired," Panther whispered, concern showing clearly in her voice.

"…I know," Joker stated, albeit begrudgingly. He then glanced at his teammate, adding, "And I don't think you'll be able to keep this up for much longer, either."

"You're not wrong," admitted Panther. "But all that means is we need to finish this fast."

"I completely agree," Joker replied. "If we can land a solid all-out attack, that should do it, but we'll need to do enough damage to keep him down to pull that off. I can distract him, and—"

"Absolutely not," Panther firmly interjected, her eyes narrowing as she spoke. "If either of us is going to take him head-on, it should be me. I'm less drained than you are, and I'm sure I can keep his attention on me."

It was obvious Joker didn't agree, though just before he was about to respond, he turned towards Panther and saw the look in her eyes. When he noticed how steely her beautiful blue eyes were, he knew it would be a mistake to say what he was about to.

This wasn't one of those times he was meant to argue with her. This was one of those times he was meant to have faith she could do her part.

"Problem?" Panther questioned.

"No, not at all," Joker replied. "I… I trust you. Just be careful, okay?"

Hearing that brought a smile to Panther's face. That was what she'd wanted to hear, after all.

She just wasn't sure it was what he'd actually say.

"Don't worry, I will," Panther replied.

Joker gave a nod of understanding before he started to pull back. Seeing this only made Knight feel even more confident to the point he allowed himself a slight condescending laugh.

"Running away? Even under the current circumstances, I'm surprised," Knight said in a snarky tone of voice. "Well, I suppose that's just fine. You're the only one I need to get rid of anyway."

"Like you did with Yorinobu-san and Kurasawa-san?" Panther shot back.

"Of course, though I'm surprised you knew about that," Knight replied, his voice almost cheerful. "They just wouldn't get out of Lady Mika's way, and you're no different. You're always trying to outshine her, and even though it's beyond obvious she's superior, there are a good number of people that can't see that. At least, there are enough that perhaps one day, people may start seeing you as something other than second-best, and I can't allow something like that to happen."

"And let's say you get rid of me. What then?"

"Isn't it obvious? I move on to getting rid of everything else that would stand between Lady Mika and her dream of standing as at the top of the modeling world!"

A frustrated Ann let out a tired sigh. Even if it was an answer she'd honestly expected, she could still hardly believe it.

"…you seriously don't get it, do you?" Panther uttered, shaking her head a she spoke.

"I'm afraid you're the one who doesn't get it," Knight stated. "But in the end, you don't really need to."

He called out Lancelot yet again while Panther responded by summoning Carmen. The two Personas launched elemental attacks at one another, one of ice and one of fire, which ultimately collided with one another and resulted in a sizeable explosion.

Knight himself then came roaring through the smoke that breathed through the air, his sword drawn back as he made his way towards his opponent. Panther's whip was there to meet him, and he expertly pushed away her attacks. Eventually, he was right next to her and brought his sword swinging across her body.

However, Panther was more than ready to react. She ducked under the blade, then rolling away while pulling out her submachine gun. The blonde pointed the barrel towards the armored Persona user, then emptying an entire clip of ammo without giving it a second thought.

In the end, Lancelot was forced to plant its blade into the ground in front of its master to block the shots. Once the bullets had finally topped firing, the legendary hero retracted its blade, revealing a very agitated Knight standing behind it.

"…you're annoyingly persistent, do you know that?" Knight grumbled. "But I suppose that'll just make Mika all the happier once you're gone."

Yet again, Ann couldn't help but find herself annoyed by his choice of words.

"Unbelievable," Panther stated plainly. "Even after how closely you've been watching her, you seriously don't know a damn thing about Mika at all, do you? Tch, of course you don't. If you did, you'd never say anything like that in the first place."

This time, Knight didn't bother to give a verbal response. He just picked up his sword and went on the attack, immediately going for the blonde's head with his first strike. He continued to swing his blade, but Panther proved to be too quick and sidestepped each and every blow.

"You think Mika would be happy if you just got rid of me? You think she'd be happy that you hurt those two people just because they didn't like her?! How much of an idiot can you be?!" Panther went on.

"Stop talking like you know anything about her!" Knight exclaimed.

With one powerful swing, he slammed his blade into the ground with so much force that it sent Panther skidding backwards a fair distance. Still, she remained standing tall, and the same determined look still shined in her eyes.

"I may not know everything about her, but at least I know something about her that you clearly don't!" Panther stated.

"Shut up!" Knight hissed angrily. "Persona!"

Lancelot came to his side and launched a sizeable blast of ice across the battlefield. Yet again, Panther managed to dodge, only adding to the armored Persona user's anger.

"I'm honestly amazed you never realized something so obvious! Mika might be underhanded, sly, and she's so full of herself sometimes I'm surprised it doesn't cause her to put on weight… but above everything, she has her pride as a model!" Panther shouted. "Her dream is to become a top model by being the best there is! She works harder than anyone I know to become a better model, so all you're doing right now is making all her effort completely worthless! In fact, if she knew, I'm sure she'd be so disgusted that she'd—"

"SHUT UP!" Knight roared.

With an aura of unrivaled fury, Lancelot started to charge with its blade coated in ice. It moved so quickly that it seemed to catch his opponent completely off guard.

"Carmen!" Panther exclaimed.

Her Persona sent a series of fireballs directly at the approaching Lancelot, and though several of them hit their mark, he somehow didn't slow it down in the slightest. Soon enough the shining knight was right on top of her and swinging its sword with everything it had.

Although Carmen certainly dodged to the best of her ability, it wasn't able to keep up the dance forever. Eventually, Lancelot's sword hit its mark and panted itself firmly into the alluring beauty's shoulder.

"K-Khh…!" Panther hissed in pain.

The red-clad Phantom Thief could feel an agonizing sting in her own shoulder, and it was so overwhelming that she nearly fell to her knees. She stayed standing, though she could barely bring herself to move so much as a muscle.

In the seconds that followed, Knight started his approach. Each step he took had an air of sadistic pleasure to it as his eyes stayed glued to his paralyzed opponent.

"I'll admit, you put up a good fight. However, this is over. We're done," Knight stated, his voice completely devoid of emotion.

The response he got took him by surprise. Panther looked up, and though it was clear she was experiencing a great deal of pain, she smirked back at him defiantly.

"I couldn't agree more," Panther replied.

Suddenly, Carmen placed one of her hands directly onto Lancelot's arm. A shocked Knight watched as a red glow started to emanate from the palm of the Persona's gloved hand, and though he knew what was coming, he couldn't do anything to stop it.

'Her Persona can still move?! B-But how?! She shouldn't even be able to so much as…!' Knight thought in disbelief.

A large blast of fire shot straight into Lancelot's torso at point-blank range. Knight started to recoil, though impressively, he still kept himself from losing his footing altogether. He tried this best to rally, and knowing he couldn't afford to go on the defensive, he brought up his own sword in an effort to attack Panther and finish her before she could press the advantage.

However, as he began to swing his sword, bullets flew at him from out of nowhere. They crashed into his armor with frightening accuracy, hitting every weak point they needed to in order to throw him off balance. Out of the corner of his eye, Knight could see that the shooter had been Joker, who was quickly making his way over towards his teammate.

Knight made an effort to regain his footing, though before he could, the Panther's whip came crashing towards him. The tip was lit with a blazing ember, and when it reached his body, it erupted in a fiery explosion that he was powerless to stop. He started to fly across the battlefield, though he jammed his blade into the ground which eventually brought him to a stop. He could feel unbelievable pain all over his body to the point he could barely focus, but his iron will at least kept him conscious for the time being.

"Annoying little…!" Knight growled angrily.

As he stared across the arena, he saw Joker rejoin Panther's side. He knew they were both about to attack while he was vulnerable, though he still needed more time to recover.

And time was something they didn't plan on giving him.

"Let's do this," Panther stated.

"Took the words right out of my mouth," Joker replied.

The duo's weapons began to glow with elemental energy, Joker's knife holding curse and Panther's whip blazing with flames.

"Lancelot!" Knight roared in desperation.

Although the legendary knight of the round did appear by his side, it didn't get to make so much as a move before the Phantom Thieves started off their attack.

Fire and curse danced across the battlefield as Joker and Panther moved in perfect harmony. Blow after blow slammed into both Knight and his Persona as they became trapped in a never-ending flow of elemental energy that constantly bathed the air.

When the time for the grand finale finally came, and as Joker and Panther had finally stopped their own attacks, Arsène and Carmen made their appearance. The two Personas stood side by side, shoulder to shoulder, and each raised their leg before slamming their foot down towards the exact same spot on the ground. Just like their wielders, they moved in perfect synchrony to the point it was almost as if they were finishing the last steps of a dance, and when their feet finally touched the ground, a fused sphere of flame and darkness shot out across the battlefield in all directions.

It was a frightening display of raw power and force, though at the same time, it was an astoundingly beautiful sight to behold.

When the blast finally died down, a near-exhausted Joker and Panther were left standing while Knight was lying flat on the ground, his armor cracked and his body burned and beaten to the point it was clear he could no longer stand.

"Looks like it's over," sighed Joker, relief washing over him as he did so. "Nice work, by the way. That was pretty impressive."

"Thanks," Panther replied, her lips curling into a genuine smile. "I can't take all the credit though, especially for what we did at the end."

"I'm still trying to figure out how we really pulled that off," Joker mused. "I didn't really plan on it going like that if I'm being honest…"

"Same here," said Panther, chuckling nervously as she rubbed the back of her neck. "I was just kinda going with the flow. Still, it worked out pretty great, right?"

"That it did."

"So… what should we call it?" Panther asked.

"Hm?" uttered Joker.

"I mean, we should name, it, right?" Panther stated. "It's like a super badass finisher move! Something like that's gotta have a name, don't you think?"

"Fair enough," said Joker. "Any ideas?"

"Hmm, how about something like… 'Scarlet Masquerade'!" Panther exclaimed.

"Any particular reason?" Joker inquired.

"Well, I mean… there was a lot of red, so 'scarlet' kinda works, right? And the way it finished was kind of like a dance, so it made me think of a ball or something. Plus, they're our Personas, and we've got masks and stuff, and a 'masquerade' just kinda sounds very Phantom-Thiefy, so…" Panther replied.

The more she talked, the more self-conscious she started to feel about the name. That was mostly because Joker didn't seem to react to what she was saying, though.

"Hmm," hummed Joker in thought. Eventually, he nodded and flashed a smile. "I like it."

Panther eyed him skeptically. "Do you actually like it, or are you just saying that?"

"No, I like it."

"B-Because that was just the first name I came up with, you know! We can totally call it something else!"

"…do you want to call it something else?" Joker asked amusedly.

"No! I-I mean, only if you're fine with the name!" Panther replied.

"Relax," said Joker through a laugh. "The name's great. No need to change it as far as I'm concerned."

The two suddenly heard footsteps hitting the staircase on the opposite end of the arena. They turned to see that it was Skull and Mona, who practically dove up the final set of stairs to enter the room.

When they did, however, all they saw was the end result of what had clearly been a tough fight.

"Looks like you two finished up without us," observed Skull.

Mona quickly added. "A-And you're both okay, right?"

"Yeah, we're fine," Joker replied. He playfully added, "Mostly thanks to Panther. She ended up doing most of the work."

"Ignore him; both of us took him down. He's just being overdramatic," Panther stated dismissively, giving the raven-haired teen a teasing smirk as she spoke. "Either that, or he's just sulking because he didn't get the chance to be a showoff like usual."

Joker shrugged. "Two things can be true."

"Uh-huh," Panther uttered with a telling smirk.

At first, Skull was surprised by the somewhat playful back and forth considering how they were the last time he'd seen them. However, right now they were acting just like they usually did. He no longer saw or sensed the awkwardness he had before, and although he didn't know how or why, but he didn't care. It was a sight for sore eyes regardless.

Skull smiled widely, saying, "It's whatever. The important thing is you two are all good, right?"

"True," said Joker. "Anyway, how were things on your end? Run into any trouble?"

"We were fine… w-well, mostly," Mona replied.

The uncertainty in his tone earned him a set of curious looks.

"He's just talkin' about how we ran into the Black Biker again," Skull quickly explained.

"Wait, here?!" Panther uttered in shock.

"Yep, saw the dude with my own two eyes," Skull answered. "He showed up outta nowhere and bailed us out when we were surrounded by a bunch of Shadows. He might've also cleared our way here to meet up with you guys, but we ain't really sure on that one."

"He was a lot faster than we were because of his Persona, so we never really caught up to him," Mona added.

"Well, as strange as that is, we can talk about it later," Joker stated. "Right now, we should focus on dealing with Mika's stalker. If we—"

The sound of a sword digging itself into the ground caught their attention. Their eyes then drifted over towards Knight, who despite his obvious and severe injuries was trying to stand back up on his own two feet. He wasn't quite able to do so, however, and only managed to bring himself up on one knee.

"This… this isn't… over…!" Knight said through strained breaths.

He again tried to stand up, and again he failed.

"You're wrong about that, but something tells me you knew that already," Joker stated as he causally stepped towards him, his weapon not even drawn.

Knight's fist balled. "No, I…! I can still…!"

"No, you can't," stated Panther in a tone of finality. "Just give it up already. There's no reason for you to keep pushing yourself like that."

"That's where you're wrong…" muttered Knight. "If it's for the sake of Lady Mika, then even if my body breaks down beyond repair, I—"

"Would you just give it a rest already?!" Panther exclaimed tiredly. "I don't know how many times I've tried to get this through your head already, but I guess one more won't hurt…!"

The blonde-haired young woman knelt down in front of Knight and looked at him dead into his mask. She simply wanted him to know from the look in her piercing blue eyes that what she was about to say was the absolute truth.

"Mika doesn't need you or anyone else watching over her. She wants to walk on her own two feet and hold her head high, and even if she gets knocked down, she'll get right back up and keep moving forward because that's just who she is," Panther stated firmly. "She doesn't want someone handing her success on a silver platter; she wants to be the one to go out and take it for herself. All you're doing is pushing your own selfish desires onto her so you can act like a knight in shining armor even though you know deep down she doesn't need one and that she'd never want one in the first place!"

At first, the same rage that ran through Knight beforehand started to flare, but in the end, it vanished after only a few short seconds. No matter how much it hurt to hear, he just couldn't bring himself to keep denying the truth of her words. His arms went limp and his head hung low.

"…you're right," Knight whispered, his voice barely audible. "I know that, but… but I want nothing but the best for her. She brings such joy to my life with what she's able to do that I just want to do everything I can to repay that kindness. I could never do that when I was just a plain, ordinary guy named Shinsuke Harada, but I just thought with these powers that… that I might actually be able to do something for her."

"You already were even before you got these powers," Joker spoke up, earning a curious look from the masked man. "I'm sure Mika would be happy to have you as just an ordinary fan. That might not have been enough for you, but for her, I'm sure it was."

"He's right," Panther stated. "You'll need to answer for everything you've done, but once it's all over… if you sincerely apologize to Mika, I'm sure she'd be more than happy if you just supported her just like all her other fans."

Panther stood up yet again and allowed Knight time to take in both her and Joker's words. The armored Persona user remained perfectly still as if frozen in place, though eventually, thin streams of tears started to fall from his cheeks. In the moments that followed, the armor that had covered parts of his body started to shatter and the sword started to fade away. As the metal fell to the ground, it vanished in a cloud of black dust, as did the sword, leaving just an ordinary dark-haired brown-eyed young man kneeling on the ground.

"Your kind words are more than I deserve," he said, his voice breathing honesty. His eyes shifted towards the two Phantom Thieves he'd just recently fought. "I'm truly sorry for everything I've done. Of course, I'll confess to everything; you have my word on that."

"Glad to hear it," Joker stated.

"You know… I only wish I was half as strong-willed as all of you. Maybe then, when that thing gave me these fantastic powers, I wouldn't have used them for my own selfish reasons." He laughed dryly, adding, "But I guess that's what makes you the Phantom Thieves."

The dark-haired man smiled, though it was bittersweet, and then his body was consumed by a flash of light. In an instant, he'd vanished, and so too had his world. The Phantom Thieves found themselves once again standing outside the building where the portal had originally opened.

"Okay, so… what just happened?" Skull wondered aloud.

"His heart changed, so the distortion vanished," Mona simply explained. "As for what happened to him, my guess is his powers left him, and so he couldn't keep himself present in the Metaverse any longer."

Skull scratched his cheek. "Wait, so the Metaverse, like, kicked him out?"

"Seems like it, yeah," said Joker.

"That's a bit annoying," Mona grumbled. "I'd have preferred if we got a chance to ask him about where he got his powers from."

"I'm sure Yu will have that covered," Joker replied. "More importantly, we—"

A sizeable explosion erupted from deeper within the city, and the force was so great that the winds reached the Phantom Thieves even as they were still a good distance away.

"That's gotta be Yu and the others," Panther reasoned.

"Looks like we're not exactly done after all," Joker mused.

"We should head over there and back them up," Mona stated. "Ah, wait, before that…"

The feline reached into his bag before throwing taking out a large shimmering orb. He then threw it into the air, after which it erupted and bathed all four members of the group in a serene blue light. Their energy returned to its peak with Joker and Panther in particular feeling the difference.

"Thanks, Mona! That's much better," Panther chirped.

He smiled proudly in response.

"It was my pleasure, Lady Ann!"

Skull sighed at the display. "Anyway, let's get going, yeah? I feel like we ain't got much time to waste."

"R-Right."


The Shibuya cityscape in the Metaverse was quickly turning into a sea of destroyed buildings with rubble and dust scattered as far as the eye could see. Constant explosions sounded off as the team of Persona users continued to fight back against the Reaper, though despite the length of the fight, neither side had come out with any real advantage.

"Raaaa!" roared the twisted Shadow, its chains rattling as it primed its gun barrels forward.

The Reaper launched two wide-reaching fire attacks at Akihiko and Chie, which seemed to catch them both off guard. When the flames finally reached them, they slammed against an invisible surface, and though the barrier that had formed shattered once the blast had died down, it had more than done its job.

Oracle hovered overhead, then buffing the two Persona users as best as she could to give them an opportunity to counterattack.

"Persona!" Akihiko and Chie shouted in unison.

The police officer duo moved in and let loose a barrage of physical attacks on the Reaper before it was fully ready to react. Tomoe and Caesar slashed their weapons across its torso without any resistance, though soon enough, the Shadow recovered and forced them back by launching a powerful burst of wind into the air from one of its pistols.

However, just as Chie and Akihiko were backing off, the others were prepared to move in.

"Sukukna Hikona!"

"Astrea!"

"Helel!"

A massive unison of almighty power slammed directly into the reaper, causing a sphere of intense, blinding light to shoot out in all directions. Building after building was consumed and turned to ash, all the while the blast continued to burn brightly. However, when the light finally died down, the Reaper was still there. The creature had lost an arm and its body was scorched and burned, but it still clung to life despite all that.

"That thing is seriously still standing?!" Sae asked in disbelief.

"But it appears to be on its last legs," Naoto mused. "We should move in quickly and…"

Before the detective finished her sentence, the Reaper's body started to twist and turn in ways that made her skin crawl. Its arm regrew itself and its clothes reappeared out of nothing, and after only a few seconds, the pistol-wielding demon seemed to be at full health yet again.

"You've gotta be kidding me," Yu uttered in frustration. "Since when can it even do that in the first place?"

"Since now, apparently," said Rise.

She came rushing up to the trio alongside Chie and Akihiko, all while Oracle made her way towards them from the skies above.

"Just our luck," sighed Chie.

"Although this is certainly annoying, complaining about it won't change anything at this point," Naoto pointed out. Her eyes shifted back to the twisted Shadow. "Our best bet is to destroy it completely. Given that, Sae-san, Yu, and I will likely need to go in with the same attack again, only this time with each of us at full power."

"I mean, that might work, but do you really think it'll give you the space you need for that?" asked Oracle.

"It does sound pretty risky," agreed Yukiko.

"My thoughts exactly," said Yu. "It'll be safer if just one of us gets ready to take it down while the others keep it busy."

Most gave Yu a curious look when he'd said that. Clearly, he was talking about himself, but everyone present had already seen his most destructive Personas at one time or another, and none of them were capable of doing what he was talking about.

However, most soon realized he was referring to the one Persona that they'd yet to see.

"Guess we'll be leaving it up to you, huh, partner?" Yosuke reasoned.

"Sensei's got this!" Teddie exclaimed energetically.

"…very well then," said Naoto. "In that case, we'll buy you the time you need to prepare."

"Thanks, I appreciate it," Yu replied. He then turned towards the redheaded idol. "Rise, Oracle—I'll be counting on you to put up as strong a barrier as you can before I attack. Speaking of which, when I make my move, everyone needs to retreat to her position. Got it?"

Firm nods were all he received in response.

"Wraaaaah!"

The Reaper's bone-chilling wail echoed as its energy started to spike once again. The Persona users outside of Yu and Rise started to run forward to grab its attention in order to buy the time that they needed. Oracle, meanwhile, joined her fellow navigator on the ground so she could help create a as strong a barrier as they could.

"Do you want me to help you focus up quicker?" Rise offered.

"I appreciate it, but I'll be fine," replied Yu. "Besides, your priority should be the barrier. I'm counting on you two to make sure everyone's safe."

Rise nodded firmly. "Right."

"Got it," said Oracle.

Up ahead, burst after burst of elemental energy shot across the air. The Persona users surrounded and started to circle around the reaper like a twister, pulling its attention in every direction possible. Whenever it would focus on attacking just one of them, the others would take advantage and hit it from a different angle, causing an endless loop that had the creature twisting and turning without anything to show for it.

The Reaper tried to force himself away several times, but his opponents reacted far too quickly. No matter where it went, it couldn't break the surround, promoting it to raise one of its pistols high into the sky in sheer frustration.

"GRAH!" the Reaper shouted.

A colossal sphere of pitch-black Curse started to shoot out from its body. The radius was so large that everyone had to break formation. When the Reaper appeared yet again, it was clearly somewhat wounded as a result of hitting itself with the attack, but clearly it didn't care. All it had wanted to do was break free of the hold it was in, and it had just done exactly that.

The Shadow's second pistol whipped around and blasted off a wave of ice, aiming towards Akihiko and Yukiko specifically. Just before the blow landed, Tomoe intervened—placing herself squarely in front of the duo and blocking the attack. Although it clearly did at least some damage, Chie herself was more than fine as she rushed up to the two.

"You two okay?" asked Chie.

"For now," Yukiko replied with a smile. "Ask me again in another few minutes and the answer may change, though."

The Reaper's guns soon reloaded, and as the demon raised their barrels up, it was obvious it was about to go on the offensive yet again. However, before it could do any more damage, a pale blue light caught its attention.

Across the battlefield, Yu was approaching the Reaper slowly and deliberately. With each step he took, the raging blue aura that surrounded his body became stronger and stronger to the point that the demon couldn't afford to ignore him. Its entire focus shifted, and of course the other Persona users took advantage to make a tactical retreat.

"Graa…!" the Reaper softly hissed, its lone eye focusing in on the Wild Card.

It appeared that the demon was about to make its move, though before it did, Yu's energy started to reach its peak. The flames became a sea of raw power that shot out in all directions, and the force of it was so intense that even the Reaper found itself backing away at first.

As a tarot card finally appeared in front of the Wild Card's body, he wasted no time crushing it within the palm of his hand.

"Izanagi no Okami!" Yu exclaimed.

A bright light appeared in front of him, but the creature that eventually came out of it was even more radiant. The legendary god of creation had appeared in all its white and golden glory, and it seemed even the Reaper could feel the power radiating from it.

"Hraah!" the Reaper grunted.

It brought up both its pistols and let loose a colossal wave of bless and curse towards Izanagi no Okami. The Persona made no effort to dodge it, and in fact the attacks completely hit their mark. However, when the energy finally died down, the god was still standing tall with barely so much as a scratch on its person.

"My turn," said Yu plainly.

Izanagi no Okami held its keyblade into the air, after which three glowing white orbs left the blade and started to race into the skies. Once they were hovering above the reaper, the spheres grew in size and began to radiate absolute power to the point that even the air started to become heavy.

"Myriad Truths!" Yu shouted with authority.

With that, the three orbs descended downwards at the remarkable speeds. The moment they hit the ground, a massive explosion shook the earth, all the while a blast of bright white light consumed everything in sight. It kept growing and growing, taking down a massive chunk of the city before it had finally reached its peak.

Inside the barrier with the others, Rise and Oracle could feel the strain on their shield as the sheer force raged all around them like a violent storm. Everyone could only marvel at the blast until it finally died down, and when the light finally vanished, they could see that the entire section of the city had been completely flattened—buildings and all. It was more of a barren wasteland now than anything else, and standing at its center was Yu alongside his Persona.

The Reaper, however, was nowhere to be seen. It seemed as if not even a shred of it remained.

Yosuke stared out at a near loss for words.

"…woah."

"I second that," Chie said in amazement. "I mean, just… wow."

Suddenly, the sound of a roaring engine caught their attention. All eyes turned to see the Mona-bus pull up, shortly after which Joker, Panther, and Skull came racing out the doors before the feline himself transformed once again.

"Oh thank god, looks like you guys are okay," Skull said, letting loose a deep sigh of relief as he spoke. "After we saw that blast, we got kinda worried. The hell was that, anyway?"

"Sorry, that one's on me," said Yu.

All eyes turned to the Wild Card as he stepped towards the group with Izanagi no Okami at his side. Almost immediately, Ryuji took a few steps forward to get a better look, though he was far from the only one to do so.

"W-Woah, that thing's awesome! It looks so cool!" Skull exclaimed, childish excitement in his voice. "Wait, so… what is it?"

"It's his 'World'," Joker said. He gave his fellow Fool a knowing smile. "Right?"

Yu nodded. "Izanagi no Okami, yeah."

"Hmm…" hummed Sae.

"H-Hm? What is it?" Yu asked, sounding almost a bit nervous after hearing her tone.

"It's nothing, really," Sae replied, then giving the silver-haired young man a slight smirk. "I was just thinking that its appearance suits you."

Rise giggled. "I was just thinking the exact same thing."

"…I really can't tell if you mean that as a good thing or not," Yu muttered.

In response, Rise playfully brushed up against his side, flashing him her trademark smile as she did so.

"I'll leave that to your imagination," she replied.

"Well, I think it's totally badass!" Skull stated.

"Considering the attack it just set off, I'd say that's as accurate a description as any," said Mona. "Although speaking of which, why'd you need to go that far in the first place? Was it Mephisto?"

"Sadly, no. Short version: we ran into the Reaper," Akihiko replied, earning a few curious looks from the four that'd just arrived. "The long version can wait until after we're in the real world again."

"And speaking of which, we should certainly head out sooner rather than later," said Naoto.

Most could only nod in agreement.

Tokyo – Western Shibuya: Upscale Apartment Complex

Mika sat on her bedspread looking down at the sheets. Despite the fact that she was so tired she felt like she was going to collapse, she simply couldn't bring herself to lay down and fall asleep. The feeling of eyes staring directly at her simply made her feel too paranoid to do so.

With a deep sigh, she stood up and headed to the kitchen, taking her combat-tested bat for good measure. She headed straight for the sink and washed her face with cold water, which gave her a slight boost of energy that she sorely needed. Of course, she could've just gone into her own bathroom, but doing that would've just put her in front of a mirror.

And that was the last thing she wanted right now.

The brunette beauty then spent a minute or two just standing over the sink, her eyes shut as if she was just trying to get a few seconds of rest before she took another few breaths and headed back to her room.

As she opened the door, however, she felt something change. Suddenly, the eyes were gone. She no longer felt like she was being watched. With surprise written in her eyes, Mika started to look around the room. It was beyond strange, and even though she couldn't explain it, she could still feel it.

'But is it actually 'real'?' wondered Mika.

A part of her started to think she was just tricking herself into thinking things were fine when they weren't—that she was so exhausted her mind was playing tricks on her. Still, there was one way she assumed she could find out for herself.

Mika stepped towards the massive mirror she kept in her bedroom, though she approached it cautiously and with her bat still gripped in her hand for obvious reasons. When it looked as if things were safe, she reached out her hand and lightly grazed the glass surface with her fingers.

And when she did, she felt nothing.

The bat slipped out of Mika's grip as her hands fell to her side. She felt a wave of relief wash over her as tears of joy tears started to fall from her eyes.

"It's really over…" Mika whispered to herself.

It seemed impossible, but she somehow knew that her words were true. With that, she stepped away from the mirror and towards her bed, though she didn't make it more than a few steps before she fell flat onto her mattress.

The aspiring model became lost to the world as her eyes closed and she entered a deep, deep sleep.

Tokyo – Shibuya: Central Area

The Persona users that had left the Metaverse had decided to rally at a cafe in Shibuya, which by that point in the night was completely empty apart from their own group.

"…the inside of that portal really looked like that?" Rise asked in disbelief.

"Yep," said Ann with a tired nod. "That's why it ended up taking us forever to make it through to the end."

"Made me miss when it was just as easy as walkin' through one of those portals into a small room to fight some dude's Shadow," Ryuji grumbled. "Makin' it through all those different floors of Shadows was tough."

"Fighting Mika's stalker wasn't exactly easy, either," Ann stated pointedly.

Akihiko perked up. "Speaking of which, was it just a Shadow or was it a real person?"

"Person," Ren answered. "He also had a Persona, and before he vanished from the Metaverse, he mentioned 'that thing' gave him his powers in the first place."

"Oh, right, he totally did!" Ryuji said as he recalled the man's final words.

"No surprises there," Naoto uttered absentmindedly. "Though on that topic, did you find out the name of Mika-san's stalker? I'd like to track him down as soon as possible for questioning."

"His name was Shinsuke Harada," Ann stated. "But I don't think you'll need to worry about finding him."

Her words earned a few curious looks.

"I'm positive we managed to change his heart," Ren explained, drawing everyone's attention. "He'll confess to what he did and try to atone for his crimes. If it's anything like usual, he'll probably turn himself in first thing in the morning, if not sooner."

"Glad to hear it. That makes this a lot easier on us," Akihiko thought aloud.

"So, anyway, what happened with you guys?" inquired Ann.

"Other than the Reaper, you mean?" Yukiko asked through a giggle.

Chie gave her a half-glare. "How could you possibly find that funny? That thing is so creepy it freaks me out every time I see it!"

"Right, you guys ran into the Reaper," muttered Ryuji. "So, like, how'd that even happen? Were you guys just tracking that Mephisto thing and that thing just showed up outta nowhere?"

"Pretty much, yeah," Yukiko replied.

"I highly doubt that was a coincidence," Sae remarked.

"It wasn't," said Naoto. "Mephisto himself seemed to indicate as much when we briefly made contact with him."

Akihiko sighed. "Though of course he ran away and let the Reaper do his fighting for him."

"Well, that hardly comes as a surprise. That just means we'll have to try again when he shows himself next time," Yu stated in an attempt to reassure his old friend.

"True," admitted Akihiko. "Still, if history is any indicator, we'll be stuck waiting a while. You know that as well as I do."

"Uh, say what now?" Kanji questioned.

"…did we not mention this before?" Akihiko asked back.

The fact that everyone seemed confused by his words was enough of an answer.

"I guess not," he muttered to himself. "To put it simply, there tends to be a lot of downtime between each target that Mephisto chooses to give power to. We don't know the exact reason, though."

"So, what, he just gets exhausted or something?" Yosuke wondered aloud.

Yu gave him an uncertain look. "That'd make sense, but like Akihiko said, we're not entirely sure."

"Hang on, does that mean we've just gotta sit on our asses and wait for him to make another move?" Chie asked, sounding a bit concerned.

"Sadly, it seems so," replied Naoto.

"Actually… I don't think that's true."

All eyes turned to Morgana, who'd spoken up even as he remained deep in thought. He looked so serious that many didn't speak up out of fear they'd distract him from whatever was on his mind.

"What do you mean, Mona?" asked Futaba.

"Well, I can't say anything about tracking down Mephisto, but I think there's definitely something else we can do. And if I'm right, it'll still be a more than effective use of our time," Mona stated.

Most were confused or curious, though one person in particular seemed to pick up on where the Phantom Thieves' mascot was going.

"…those smaller distortions in the Metaverse, right?" Ren guessed.

The feline smiled with his eyes as they looked up at the Wild Card.

"That's Joker for ya. Yep, that's exactly right," said Mona cheerfully. "To make a long story short, when we were in the Metaverse earlier, I could sense those lighter distortions were similar to what we're used to seeing in Mementos. All of them belonged to Shadows of people who already held twisted desires, and when I was thinking about it just now, it hit me—how Mephisto might've found our stalker in the first place."

"You mean to say he found the stalker's Shadow already in the Metaverse and sought him out because of that," Naoto reasoned.

Mona nodded. "Exactly. Think about it: wouldn't it make sense for him to go after an easy target? Someone that's already vulnerable and just looking for a push to fall off the deep end? Those portals in the Metaverse may as well be a menu for him to pick off of whenever and however he wants."

"Well, that sure as shit makes a lot of sense to me," Kanji stated. "So, then, you're sayin' while we're waitin' on him to show up again, we should take out those distortions, yeah?"

"Right. Also, even if I'm wrong, it's still the correct move for us to deal with those latent Shadows and close those portals anyway," said Mona. "Worst case scenario, we've changed the hearts of people that are a few steps away from doing something horrible, and best case, we're getting in Mephisto's way before he makes a move."

Ryuji nodded. "I gotta say, I think Mona's totally right on this one. No matter how ya look at it, that does feel like what we gotta do."

He was completely right, of course. Everyone was already thinking it, but he'd been the way to say it out loud.

The cat-like Shadow gave an appreciative look towards him.

"Thanks, Ryuji. I appreciate that you can at least accept my genius insights for what they are," Mona replied.

"…when the hell did I say 'genius'?" Ryuji muttered. "And by the way, you should probably—"

The sudden buzz of his cellphone cut him off. When he saw that it was his mom, he immediately answered.

"Uh, mom? What's up?" Ryuji asked confusedly. He seemed even more caught off guard when a response came from the other side, and an angry one at that. "W-Woah, calm down, mom. It ain't that late. I mean, it's only…"

He brought his phone away from his ear and looked at the time just to be sure, and when he had, his eyes nearly popped out of his head.

"Oh shit, it really is that late!" Ryuji exclaimed. He quickly brought the phone back up to his cheek. "S-Sorry, I'll be home in a few! Promise!"

The thuggish Persona user hung up and started to check himself to see if he had everything, and when he knew he was all set, he headed for the exit. He did, however, look back at the others to say one last thing before he left.

"Sorry, you guys! I gotta get home before my mom kills me! See ya!" Ryuji hurriedly shouted.

A few laughs could be heard as he flew out the door.

"Well, it certainly is getting late," said Naoto. "Let's call it for tonight. It seems as if we were just about finished up anyway."

"I'll catch Makoto up on what happened tonight and what we've just discussed," Sae stated.

"And I'm sure she'll tell Haru if she's not there listening in when you call," Ren mused.

"My thoughts exactly," said Sae. "In any case, I'll be heading out. Have a good night."

One by one, everyone started to leave the cafe and head out into the streets of Shibuya. Several splintered off into different groups and headed their separate ways, one of which was the remaining members of the Phantom Thieves who were all heading towards the train station.

"Man, I'm beat…" Futaba said through a yawn. "I think I'll actually go to bed when I get home instead of going straight to playing games."

"You say that, but…" Ren trailed off with a cheeky smirk.

Ann fought back a laugh. "Oh come on, don't tease her."

"So, then you think she'll actually go to bed straight away?"

"Well…"

"What's with the lack of faith?!" Futaba pouted. "It's like you two think I've got no self-control or something!"

Both the blonde and the raven-haired teen had about the same reaction. They both looked away with Ren putting in no effort to hide a teasing smirk while Ann at least seemed to feel a bit guilty about it.

"Ah, I see," said Yusuke with an observational nod. "It appears quite obvious to me that they do not, in fact, believe you possess self-control of any kind."

Futaba sighed. "I knew that without you saying anything, Inari!"

"Did you? My apologies, then," Yusuke said, though there was a noticeable smirk across his lips.

The orange-haired teen, of course, noticed. To see that Yusuke of all people was messing with her didn't feel real even when it was happening right before her very eyes.

"Y-You…!" Futaba stammered, her cheeks going red from embarrassment.

Both Ann and Ren fought back a laugh at her expense, prompting her to cross her arms and pout as they continued walking.

Eventually, the group had nearly reached the train station, though they stopped suddenly when it was time for one member of their group to go their separate way for the night.

"My house is down that way, so I'll head off here," said Ann.

"Cool, we'll see ya later," Futaba replied.

Before Ann even started to head off, Ren found himself stealing a glance at her. Their earlier conversation was still fresh in his head, and how could it not be? He knew she was about to leave, but what would come after had him worried. She'd go home, hop into her bed, and once she'd closed her eyes, the nightmares would come again.

At least, that's what he was afraid of.

It tore him up inside to even think about that happening. He couldn't stop himself from worrying, but the truth was he wasn't sure he could do anything to stop it. Of course, Ren hoped that their talk earlier had helped, but he still wasn't sure.

One way or another, there was just something inside of him that needed to know she was okay.

"…actually, Ann, do you mind if I walk you home?" said Ren, earning a surprised look from the blonde.

"H-Huh?" she uttered in surprise.

"Well, it's pretty late, so I'd feel better about it if I made sure you got home safe."

Just the idea of that made the blue-eyed young woman a bit nervous, though she did her best to not let it show.

"I mean, my house isn't that far away, so you don't really need to," Ann replied.

"Let's say I want to," Ren said with a smile. "But if you'd prefer I didn't…"

"N-No, not at all!" exclaimed Ann. Her cheeks started to heat up as she realized she'd said that much louder than she'd wanted. "I mean, um… yeah, that's fine."

"Glad to hear it," Ren said with a nod. He then turned his sights over to the orange-haired teen. "Futaba, would you mind taking Mona back with you?"

It took less than two seconds for the feline to pop his head out of the bag, his ears pointed and his eyes as wide as they could be.

"What?!" Mona exclaimed, his voice practically squeaking as he spoke. "Why can't I go with you?!"

"You put in a lot of work today, so I'd rather you get your rest," Ren replied plainly. "And two minutes ago, you were about to pass out in my bag."

The cat's ears fell as if to confirm his words were true.

"B-But…!"

Futaba started to rub the side of his head with her hand, causing him to purr against his will. Even when her hand pulled away, his head chased it as if he didn't want it to stop so suddenly.

"Humor him just this once, okay, Mona?" said Futaba. "Besides, I'll appreciate the company."

Although the black-furred Persona user clearly wasn't happy about it, he seemed to give it up.

"…fine, fine," Mona sighed, a bit of disappointment in his voice.

"By the way, I'll be counting on you to make sure Futaba gets back to Yongen safely," said Ren. His eyes then shifted to Inari. "Both of you."

Yusuke nodded solemnly. "I'll ensure she makes it home safe."

"We'll ensure it," corrected Mona. "And you can leave it to us, Ren."

"Thanks," replied Ren.

"And on that note, let's get goin' already. I'm beat," said Futaba as she stretched her limbs. "See you guys later!"

She alongside Yusuke and Mona waved their goodbyes before walking off towards the train station. Things stayed quiet until they were finally out of eyesight, at which point Ann somewhat shyly turned towards Ren.

"I think I know the answer, but do you just want to walk me home to make sure I get back safe?" she said as if she couldn't hold back the question. "N-Not that I don't appreciate it, but…"

"Well, I do feel better walking you back since it's so late, but you're right, that's not the only reason," Ren replied. His expression softened as he said, "I'm more worried about what happens after."

It didn't take much time at all for the blonde to take his meaning.

"…right, I figured it was something like that," muttered Ann. She gave him a reassuring smile, saying, "I get why you'd feel that way, but you don't need to worry. After we talked in the Metaverse, I… I feel a lot better about it. I can't say for sure what'll happen tonight, but I'm… confident, I guess?"

"I'm glad to hear it," Ren replied. "But I'll still walk you home all the same, and of course, if you wanted to talk some more, I'm all ears."

Hearing that, Ann could only smile. seeing that soft, genuine look of concern he had in his eyes whenever he simply wanted to be there for her always touched her heart no matter how many times she saw it.

"Thanks," Ann replied. She caught herself staring and turned her head away, saying, "A-Anyway, my house is this way, so just follow me."

Ren nodded. "Lead the way."


Yusuke and Futaba walked towards the train station in relative silence. Even the usually crowded, obnoxiously loud streets of Shibuya were quiet at that time of the night, though neither of the two were complaining, nor was Mona as he sat inside the bag Futaba was carrying.

The two continued towards the center station in a comfortable silence. They entered the platform after a short while and were right in front of the line that was headed back to Yongen-Jaya.

"Welp, this is my train," said Futaba. "I'll catch ya later, Yusuke."

"You will, though not before I make sure you arrive home safely," Yusuke stated plainly.

He then casually waked past her towards the train, completely ignoring the shocked expression on her face. In fact, he'd done it so casually that Futaba thought he was ignoring her at first. He wasn't, but it certainly seemed like it.

"W-Wait, what?!" Futaba exclaimed.

"Hm?" Yusuke uttered curiously. "Have I said something strange?"

Futaba shook her head. "No, wait—you're coming back to Yongen with me? But you live—"

"It's a short train ride out of my way at worst," Yusuke interjected, his voice calm. "And I did promise Ren that I would make sure you returned home safely."

"I-I mean, well… you don't have to, you know," said Futaba.

"I don't mind in the slightest."

Then he simply walked onto the train. Futaba, at a loss for words, could only follow in his footsteps and take a seat next to him. She was still a bit caught off guard, and it showed by how stiffly she appeared to be sitting.

Moments later, the doors closed and the train started to move.

"Hmm," hummed Yusuke in consideration as he looked around. "I don't think I've ever seen so few people on a subway train before."

"Now that you mention it, me neither," Futaba replied. "Is it really that late?"

Out of curiosity, she took out her phone and looked at the time, and when she did, she had a reaction similar to the one Ryuji had earlier when his mom had called.

"Damn, it really is super late," remarked Futaba. "It's like one in the morning already. I'm shocked I don't have a thousand calls from Sojiro at this point…"

"I'm sure he likely trusts you're safe given you're with us," Yusuke thought aloud.

"True," said Futaba, nodding her head along. "Although there's no way I can tell him about that fight with the Reaper. He'd lose his mind!"

"I'd say justifiably so," said Yusuke. "Although I must say, you handled yourself remarkably well."

"Come on, I wasn't anything special," Futaba replied.

"I disagree," Yusuke stated casually. "In fact, I was genuinely impressed."

"G-Geez, you can stop with the compliments already," Futaba muttered shyly.

"Are you certain?" Yusuke said through a slight laugh. "And when did you get so humble?"

Futaba looked away, saying, "It's more like it's just weird hearing stuff like that from you of all people…"

"Be that as it may, I felt it was something I needed to say," Yusuke thought aloud. "Your movements are quicker, and it seems your endurance has even improved in battle as well. It's so noticeable that I'm certain that others have picked up on it as well."

Futaba fidgeted nervously, but there was a proud smile pulling on her lips.

"W-Well, I've been working hard at a gym recently. Ann's definitely been a big help, but I'm still putting in the work myself!"

"You've started going to the gym?" asked Yusuke, true shock in his voice. "You, of all people?"

It took less than a second for him to receive a glare, though the blush on Futaba's cheeks made her look much less threatening.

"Yes, and I'll have you know I've been going regularly!" Futaba shot back. "S-Sort of! Well, mostly!"

"…I see," Yusuke said.

He cupped his chin with surprise still written all over his face, which of course only got under the famous hacker's skin even more so.

"You got somethin' to say, Inari?" Futaba half-growled.

"Hm? Oh, no, not really," he replied. "I was just silently admiring your dedication. I know you detest physical exercise, so for you to go that far is quite something."

"T-There you go again making it weird," Futaba stated.

Yusuke smirked. "What is it you always say to me? Just take the compliment and don't ruin the moment?"

A laugh escaped the orange-haired teen's lips.

"Shut it, Inari," she replied.

A comfortable silence set in soon after, and while Futaba was fine with it staying that way for the rest of the trip, eventually the young artist spoke up yet again.

"By the way, there's something I've been meaning to ask…" Yusuke muttered offhandedly. "Did you find it strange that Ren insisted on walking Ann home back there?"

It took less than two seconds for Futaba's posture to stiffen. Her body language became so awkward that just about anyone else other than Yusuke would've been able to tell.

"S-Strange? What d'ya mean? That's totally something he would do, r-right?" Futaba replied. "He was probably just super worried since it's so late at night."

Yusuke sighed. "You're certainly right. However, didn't it seem more…"

Futaba held her breath. "More what?"

It seemed that the blue-haired teen was deep in thought about how to phrase his response, which only made her even more nervous.

"There was just this odd tension between the two of them, don't you think?" Yusuke went on. "Perhaps 'tension' isn't the right word. Maybe just a strange air of sorts? To be honest, I don't quite know how to describe it. Regardless, I've been sensing it quite a bit between them for some time. Have you happened to notice it as well?"

A panicked Futaba looked over towards Mona and was already trying to come up with a way to smooth things over and then change the subject. However, she wouldn't need to as the feline was out cold in Joker's satchel.

"Oh thank god…" Futaba sighed in absolute relief. "He's asleep."

"Who?"

"Mona," said Futaba. She then gave a half-glare at her teammate. "Wait, so you said all that without knowing he was passed out? That tactless even for a blockhead like you, Inari."

"I-I beg you pardon?!" asked a shocked Yusuke. "Blockhead? But I…!"

"Keep your voice down, otherwise he'll wake up!" Futaba whispered annoyedly.

"I… I'm now incredibly lost," Yusuke thought aloud.

"Yeah, well, you shouldn't be!" chastised Futaba. "But for real, do you seriously not get why bringing up that subject in front of Mona might be a bad idea?!"

"That subject being…?" Yusuke asked. "Are you referring to the strange tension between Ann and Ren?"

"Um, duh," Futaba replied, rolling her eyes as she did so.

"I don't see why that would disturb Mona in the slightest."

The orange-haired teen was ready to lay into him yet again, but when she noticed there was genuine confusion in his voice, she stopped herself.

"Wait, you really don't get it, do you?" Futaba muttered to herself. "So then… you don't know, right?"

Yusuke quirked a brow. "There are many things I don't know, so you'll need to be more specific than that."

"Okay, yeah, you definitely don't," Futaba concluded with a nod. "Geez, for a second there, I thought you knew."

"Ah, you mean regarding Ann and Ren?" Yusuke mused.

Yet again, Futaba looked at him strangely. His face was completely plain and so unreadable it was almost like Fox was doing his best Joker impression.

"Okay, seriously, do you know or not?" Futaba inquired.

"What is it you think I seem to know?"

"That depends…" Futaba replied, still eying him skeptically. "What do you think I think you know?"

"This conversation is gradually making me believe I truly know nothing at all," Yusuke admitted blankly. He began to rub his temples. "In fact, I believe I need to rest my eyes for a moment…"

A second later, he did just that, leaving Futaba to watch over him in what was essentially an empty subway car. Still, as impossible as it seemed, she was sure he had no idea what she was talking about.

'Thank god he's an idiot,' Futaba thought. Her eyes then narrowed. 'But for some reason it kinda pisses me off he really can't figure it out…'


Ann and Ren found themselves walking down the streets of one of Shibuya's many residential areas, and there wasn't a soul in sight as far as the eye could see. All of the houses were dark as well, though that wasn't a surprise given the time.

That silence, however, only made Ann feel even more awkward. The closer they got to her house, the more she couldn't stop thinking about how she was walking home alone with Ren of all people.

It got to a point that she just couldn't take the quiet anymore.

"So, um…" Ann began.

She drew an immediate blank on what she was going to say, which only resulted in a silence that was more awkward than she possibly could've imagined.

"What's up?" Ren asked in an even tone.

"S-Sorry, I kinda forgot what I was going to say," Ann replied. "I, um… this is the first time I've ever waked home with a boy before, so I'm kinda nervous."

Ren gave her a teasing smirk. "Am I really that intimidating?"

"No, no! Like I said, I just…!" Ann exclaimed.

Yet again, she trailed off without really knowing what else to say, and her embarrassment only got worse when she heard a slight laugh come from Ren. Her face went crimson in seconds, though she hid her blush behind one of her twintails by pushing up her shoulder a bit to make sure he couldn't see her cheek.

The pair continued on in silence for a while until they'd finally reached the Takamaki household where they stopped in place for a time.

"Well, this is it," said Ann. She turned towards the Wild Card, still seeming a bit nervous. "So, um… do you want to come in to talk, or…?"

There was a silence that followed, which made Ann even more nervous given she thought she'd somehow said something weird. However, when it was finally broken, she realized that wasn't the case at all.

"…to be honest, I don't know if there's really anything I can say that'll make things better," Ren admitted. "I'm just worried about you, Ann. I don't want you to have that dream again. Knowing what it did to you, I just… I just really don't want anything like that to happen to you. Not now, and not ever again. I don't really know if there's anything I can do help make sure of that, but…"

There was so much uncertainty in his eyes and in his voice that Ann wasn't used to seeing. Then again, it made sense. Ren was the type of person that always seemed to know just what to do, and right now there was just no way he could know. It was clear he was trying to desperately on the inside to come up with something to say—something to do—but still he was at a loss. In the end, all he could do was worry, and even though it came from the very bottom of his heart, he remained unsure if there was anything he could do to help.

Although in a way it was difficult to see him like that, Ann found herself feeling just the opposite. Her chest started to tighten upon seeing his genuine emotion.

"Come on, don't give me that look," Ann said quietly. "I wasn't lying earlier when I said I feel a lot better after I got all that off my chest in the Metaverse. That, and… seeing you keep your promise when you rely on me earlier in our fight against Mika's stalker really put my mind at ease. I know it sounds dumb, but that really meant a lot to me."

"It's not dumb at all," Ren stated with a shake of his head. "Also, for the record, I think you're plenty strong. Always have, too. There's never been a doubt in my mind about that. The whole reason I was going out of my way to take on most of the Shadows earlier—"

"Was because you didn't want me to get hurt," Ann muttered, sounding ever-so-slightly annoyed. "But like I said, I feel the same way about you. You already said you thought I was strong, so just make sure you prove it, okay? I wasn't kidding when I said I wanted you to rely on me more."

"I rely on you plenty. And not because you're Panther, but because you're you, Ann," Ren replied pointedly. "You're important to me, and I hate the idea of you getting hurt. I always have, and I always will. Honestly, when I saw how much pain you were in… it tore me up inside that it was because of me—that it was because of the way I am."

It was at that point that Ann started to feel herself getting choked up.

"Ren, you—"

"Sorry, but this is something I have to say," he interjected, giving her a small smile. "I made you a promise, and you have my word I'll keep it, Ann. I'll try harder not to put everything on my shoulders as best as I can… but I won't lie to you. If I ever think you're in serious danger, I won't hesitate to do everything I can to save you. Even if that means putting my own life on the line, that's what I'm going to do no matter what."

There was a pause as Ren made a point of locking eyes with the blonde. Whatever he was about to say, it was clear that it was going to come straight from the heart.

"And that's because just as much as you don't want to lose me, I don't want to lose you," said Ren.

Up until that point, Ann had been able to keep her emotions in check. However, when she'd heard him say that, she couldn't hold them back anymore. Without warning, moved up towards Ren and wrapped her arms around him in a sincere embrace. Although he was surprised at first, it didn't take him long to wrap his arms around her in response.

"…I'm really happy to know you feel that way, but seriously, are you trying to make me cry again?" Ann stated, her voice heavy with emotion that she was clearly trying her best to contain. "And I'm fine with that just as long as you can accept that I… that we all feel the same."

"And I can live with that," Ren replied.

He felt her squeeze a bit harder after he'd said that, but he didn't call attention to it.

They came apart somewhat quickly, at which point Ann smiled up at him with her blue eyes practically glowing under the moonlight.

"I think I'll be just fine tonight," Ann stated, doing her best to reassure him.

"I really hope so," said Ren. "But if you end up having that nightmare again, and if you feel like you want to talk about it… feel free to call me, okay? I promise I'll pick up."

"You don't have to go that far. There's no reason both of us should lose sleep," Ann replied good naturedly.

"We both know I couldn't care less about that," Ren countered.

The Wild Card seemed so serious when he's spoken that Ann could feel her face heating up again. That look of subtle intensity always caught her off guard no matter how often she saw it.

"Alright, then. If it happens again, I might take you up on that," Ann replied.

Ren nodded. "I'll be ready to pick up the second you do. That's a promise."

There was a comfortable silence that passed between the two, though in the end, everything that needed to be said was said.

"I'll talk to you tomorrow, Ann," said Ren, then giving her a sincere smile. "Good night."

"Good night, Ren."

A second passed and the two had gone their separate ways. Even as Ann reached the door to her home, however, she stole a glance at Ren when he was walking way. She smiled warmly, then turning back towards the door and entering her home.


Ann walked through the front door of her home and headed straight up the stairs into her room. She changed into her nightwear and got ready for bed the same way she always did, eventually laying down on her pillow so she could drift off into a hopefully dreamless sleep.

However, even though she was more tired than maybe she'd ever been, she couldn't bring herself to close her eyes. Her talk with Ren was still racing through her mind. Everything from the words he said to the intense look in his eyes when he spoke them made her chest start to feel heavy.

She remembered the feeling of being in his arms—how tightly he held onto her and how tightly she held him back. Just remembering it made Ann's face start to heat up and her heart start to race, but strangely, she didn't feel embarrassed.

If anything, she found herself wishing he were still with her then and there.

"Ugh, come on, get a grip!" Ann groaned. "I just saw him, so I shouldn't miss him already!"

Despite her words, she started to feel a sinking feeling in her chest. She did want to see his face again—to hear the sound of his voice. It was a deep longing that she couldn't bring herself to ignore.

Although Ann tried to stop thinking about it, she couldn't. No matter how hard she tried, his handsome face, his frustratingly charming smile, and his compassionate eyes kept popping into her head.

I rely on you plenty. And not because you're Panther, but because you're you, Ann.

Those words echoed in her head, and with them came a familiar tightness in her chest and butterflies in her stomach.

You're important to me, and I hate the idea of you getting hurt. I always have, and I always will.

Again.

I won't hesitate to do everything I can to save you. Even if that means putting my own life on the line, that's what I'm going to do no matter what.

And again.

And that's because just as much as you don't want to lose me, I don't want to lose you.

And again.

They were just words, but they felt like so much more.

"How can you even say stuff like that with a straight face? It's so unfair," Ann quietly pouted, her face a deep crimson. She sighed, saying, "But… that's just who you are, isn't it? That's why I…"

The blonde suddenly trailed off and her expression became blank. She knew the words she was about to say, and it was as that realization set in that a sense of indescribable joy washed over her—one that warmed her from the inside out. That, and she could feel her heart filled with a burning desire and a deep sense of longing that were so intense that she didn't think it could have been anything else.

In that moment, as Ann gazed out her window up at the night sky, there was one thing she knew from the very bottom of her heart and soul.

"…I'm in love with Ren," Ann whispered to herself.

A/N And with that, we're done. The next chapter shouldn't take me too long since it's a bit of a shorter one, but I am pretty busy the next few weeks so we'll see when it actually comes out. Either way, hope you enjoyed this one. It was a lot of fun to write, so hope it was fun for you to read.

Explanations:

What's Next?: A close-out chapter for the stalker mini-arc.

Phantom Masquerade: From this point forward, I want the Wild Cards to start getting Unison Attacks with other members of the party. Obviously, Joker now has his with Ann, expect one definitely with Ryuji and probably Makoto, too. Yu's will come a bit later, but you can bet he'll have one with Sae. Rise might be difficult, but I'll probably make one between them. Then there's the one I plan on him having with Mitsu—you know what, never mind, we'll get to that soon enough.

The Reaper: Hopefully the fight against it lived up to expectations, but also just as an FYI, this is a juiced-up version of the Reaper. It also won't be the last time it shows up.

The Black Biker: Back and definitely not Akechi.