He first met her in the rain, on the way to school.
They exchanged no words, just a glance, and she smiled at him before turning away. He remembers feeling short of breath at the sight of her.
Other memories flash past him. Watching her Awaken. Talking to her after a long day in a Palace. Being drawn to her in the dimness of his room, her arms enfolding him, simultaneously soft and strong. He breathes her in, sinking into her warmth, and abruptly realizes he is alone in his own bed, eyes open, staring at the ceiling.
Ren sits up, rubbing at his eyes. The sound of rain filters in from outside, and Morgana twitches at the foot of his bed. He feels mildly disoriented. The dream was so entirely real, but Ann is the one he met in the rain.
And he isn’t seeing Ann.
“It’s early,” Morgana groans, not even opening an eye. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” Ren murmurs, reaching for his phone. There’s no way he’s going back to sleep after that. He opens his texts and sees he has one from Mishima – some request about a powerful Shadow in Mementos – and one from Ann. She doesn’t, he decides, need to know that he had a very intense dream about her. He opens the thread, anticipating that she wants help studying, or for him to go shopping with her – really, to carry the things she buys while she goes shopping, but he doesn’t mind – and stops cold.
Enjoyed our date last night!
Ren stares at the message. He knows, for a fact, that he did not go on a date with Ann last night. He spent last night here, with Makoto, his girlfriend, before walking her home.
“Morgana,” Ren says slowly. “Who – who was here last night? With me?”
The cat rolls over onto his back, one of his hind legs twitching. “Ann, obviously. Why?”
Ren starts to sweat. “I – I’m not sure what’s going on. I feel disoriented.” He looks back down at his phone, blinking, and sees that he doesn’t have the thread with Ann open. It’s the thread with Makoto, and the text is the same.
He blinks again. Still Makoto. Still the same text.
“Ren, seriously,” Morgana says, opening one eye now. “Is everything okay?”
Ren nods, blanking his phone’s screen. “Yeah,” he says. “Just – woke up in the middle of a dream, I guess.”
Nor does the rest of the day get any less bewildering.
He meets Yusuke, as they agreed the day before, to see a movie. Without even thinking about it, as they find their seats, Ren puts up the armrest. He settles in and lets Yusuke lean against him, the contact familiar and comforting.
It takes him fully ninety minutes into the film to remember that he is not seeing Yusuke. But he doesn’t want to start acting strange, and anyway, he’s enjoying the human contact, and it’s not as though he’s doing anything to betray Makoto.
Then Yusuke’s hand comes to rest casually on his thigh, and it feels good, and a little exciting. And it takes another thirty minutes for him to remember that he’s not into men.
Or isn’t he?
The last song concludes, the credits begin to roll, and Ren murmurs something about needing to meet Makoto to study. Yusuke chuckles and shakes his head. “Your diligence is an inspiration, Ren. If only I could apply myself to my art the same way you apply yourself to your studies.”
He doesn’t lean in for a kiss, which both disappoints and relieves Ren. Some part of him knows they aren’t there yet – not in public, anyway – and another part of him wishes they were, and another part is quietly screaming about how this situation makes no sense and he has to get out of here, now, because he’s clearly going insane.
Ren pulls out his phone, flips past another text from Mishima about that Mementos request, and pulls up Makoto’s thread. He gets most of the way through tapping out a message telling her he wants to meet tonight when he sees that her last message – Enjoyed our date last night! – has disappeared.
He backs out of her thread, goes to Yusuke’s. It isn’t there.
His instincts tell him to go to the thread he has with Haru.
Enjoyed our date last night!
Ren stands there in Shibuya, the rain quietly falling on him, and wonders if he is losing his mind.
He starts as Morgana brushes slightly against his leg. “What’s going on with you?” the cat asks impatiently. “You’ve been acting weird all day.”
“Morgana,” Ren says, “who was I with last night?”
“You already asked me that question.”
“Yes, and I’m asking it again. Who was I with?”
“Haru. Just like I said this morning.”
Ren shakes his head slightly. “You – you said I was with Makoto.”
“Why would I say that?” Morgana asks, sounding genuinely puzzled. “Ever since you met Haru – you’re welcome, by the way – you two have been inseparable. Disgusting, actually.”
Ren abruptly feels extremely woozy. He sits down, hard, on the pavement, nearly dropping his phone in the process. His vision fuzzes and there is a sudden throbbing in his head. Without thinking, he reaches a hand to wipe his nose, which has begun to run, and his hand comes away the bright red of arterial blood.
He blinks, and it is not blood, but his glove. He is Joker, in Mementos, and he is staggering back to his feet after a particularly vicious attack from a Shadow knocked him to the ground. Mona stands over him, looking concerned. “You okay, Joker? You were out for a couple seconds there.”
Ren shakes his head, looking around and seeing that Makoto and Haru are the other two members of the Thieves on the advance team today. Whatever Shadow he had been fighting is gone, undoubtedly killed by his teammates. “I just – I was in bed, having a dream, and then…” He trails off, realizing how ridiculous this sounds. “I was unconscious?”
“We were really worried,” Haru tells him. She comes over and lays a hand against his cheek, and he smiles, secure in the knowledge that this, this is right. Her touch is warm and soft, and she smells faintly of coffee and earth. He reaches up to lay his hand over hers.
“I’m all right,” Ren assures them. “Thank you.” He pauses, then reaches for his phone. “Which request are we here for, again? I can’t remember –”
When he thumbs the screen on, all he sees is a text from Ann.
Enjoyed our date last night!
His first instinct is to hide it, because Haru might see it and get the wrong idea, it must have been a platonic thing, it must have, but it comes to him in a flash: him and Ann, alone on the Ferris wheel. The red of her letterman jacket. Her chiding him for complimenting her with such nonchalance, telling him it flustered her.
She said she loves me.
He looks up and sees that it isn’t Haru with a hand resting against his face, it’s Ann. She, too, is smiling at him. “Ready to get going?” she asks.
Ren drops back to the ground.
“I think,” he says, “that there’s something happening to my mind.”
Mementos falls away. His mask disappears, his clothes transforming in a flash of blue flame into the familiar white and black stripes of his prison uniform.
He is in the Velvet Room.
“Not again, Inmate,” Caroline snaps.
Ren looks up at the Twins, his shackles clinking with the movement. “Again?”
“There is something happening to your mind,” Justine tells him. “You are correct. But every time you arrive at this conclusion, you retreat from it. To here.”
He blinks, then looks past them toward where he expects to see Igor. The strange, long-nosed man is not there, however. “Where’s your boss?”
Justine idly looks at her clipboard, seeming disinterested. “Our Master is not interested in dealing with those who have failed in their rehabilitation.”
Ren rubs at his eyes. “Failed? How?”
“You’re dead, Inmate,” Caroline sneers. “Or at least so far gone that you might as well be dead.”
“I don’t believe it,” Ren counters. “I’m here, talking to you two. You have the power to send me back out.”
Caroline slams her baton against the bars of his cell. “We already tried that, Inmate! You’ve ended up back here twice already. You can’t deal with it when we send you back! Your mind rejects it and can’t hold onto the memories of what happened. It’s time to give up.”
“If you really believed that, would you be here, talking to me?” Ren asks.
The twins exchange a look. “Maybe we just want to gloat as you disappear!” Caroline snaps.
But Justine smiles, a mischievous look in her one visible eye. “He is right, Caroline.”
“Shut up!” Caroline barks. “Don’t encourage him, Justine! The inmate is on his way out.”
Ren crosses his arms as best he can while they’re manacled and chained. “I’m not going anywhere. If you can help me, do it. If you can’t, we’ll sit here until I die of thirst.”
Another look flashes between the twins. “Stubborn,” Caroline growls. “That’s not a very endearing quality, Inmate.”
“But perhaps it is the one required,” Justine points out. “I think the inmate stands a chance – if we bend the rules just a little.”
Caroline regards her sister with frank astonishment. “Bend the rules? To help him?”
Justine’s smile turns disconcertingly evil. “You like him, Caroline. Don’t deny it.”
It takes him every ounce of willpower to prevent himself from laughing when Caroline’s face turns bright red and she practically shrieks. “How dare you! I’ll never, ever forgive you for this!” She rounds on Ren, who is keeping his poker face intact like his life depends on it – which, he reflects, is probably the case. “Go back out then, Inmate! I hope you forget everything and DIE!”
His chains yank him backward, and he is suddenly falling through the dark, falling –
Ren feels a hypnic jerk and wakes sharply. He is still in bed, and it is barely light out.
He shakes his head. It must have been a dream where he was falling.
“Good,” Morgana says. “You’re awake.”
Ren looks at the cat, and realizes with a start that something is off about him. It takes him only a moment – the cat’s eyes have turned the bright gold of someone summoning a Persona.
“What’s going on?” he asks.
“I’m your cognition of me,” Morgana replies. “But I’ve been given a little spark, an extra bit of consciousness, by some friends of yours.”
Ren frowns, and a moment later vague memories fall into place. The Velvet Room. The Twins. Caroline flushing bright red – he couldn’t remember the why of that, however. They had said…
“They’re bending the rules,” he murmurs. Then he wonders why he thought to say that.
“That’s right,” Morgana says. “Right now, something’s happening to your mind. I can’t tell you what that is, because I can’t know what you don’t know. But I can hold on to the memories you already have, and keep them safe from the disruption that’s been purging them and mixing them up.”
Ren looks around. “You said you’re my cognition of Morgana – of you. So, we’re in the Metaverse?”
Morgana rocks his head from side to side. “Yes… but also, no.”
“Those are the two options.”
“Shut up. It’s complicated, all right, Joker? Think of it like nesting dolls, one inside another inside another, except that eventually you realize that the biggest doll is also inside the smallest doll, and it goes forever in both directions.”
“That’s not helpful.”
“We’re in a part of the Metaverse that’s inside you, and you’re inside the Metaverse, so the Metaverse inside you is in the Metaverse, which is inside you… Make more sense?”
Ren gets out of bed, the cold feeling of the wooden floor beneath his feet helping to bring him fully awake. “No, but I’ll take your word for it. So, something’s happening to my mind, and we’re in the Metaverse. I have to figure out what’s happening, so you can know it?”
“Exactly. And once I know it, I might be able to help you break out of it.” Morgana also leaps to the floor and starts padding silently around the room, gaze averted, while Ren dresses. “Can you remember anything?”
“It’s fuzzy,” Ren replies, pulling on the last of his clothes. It belatedly occurs to him that if he’s in the Metaverse, he should just be able to summon his Joker outfit, but when he tries, nothing happens. Rules must be different in this part of it. “I had a date with… someone. Last night. I can’t remember who.” He pulls out his phone to see if there’s a clue in his text messages. He flips past an unread one from Mishima – another Mementos request, he notes – and sees that the most recent thread is with Futaba. He opens it, and sees a message from her telling him she enjoyed playing video games with him last night.
“Futaba?” he murmurs. “That doesn’t seem right, somehow.”
Morgana leaps atop the television. “Well, let’s see what happened.”
It is as though the world is an old-fashioned VHS tape, and someone has pressed the rewind button. Ren sees a ghostly shadow image of himself break away from his body, undress, get back into his nightclothes, and climb backwards into bed, all at great speed. The six hours of sleep he got pass quickly, and then his shadow-self repeats the process of undressing, dressing, going backwards down the stairs alone…
Then the world snaps back into focus, and Ren is sitting with Futaba in front of the television, playing an old-fashioned fighting game with her. He suddenly is his shadow-self, with no transition between watching the world rewind and being back in it. It is disorienting enough that he completely misses his opportunity to block Futaba’s character from grabbing his and beating it to death.
“Ha!” Futaba cackles. “Five for five. You want to lose again?”
Ren shakes his head, putting down the controller. “I’d like to think I’m gracious enough to be able to admit defeat.”
She snickers and turns the console off. “Don’t blame you. It’s like you weren’t even there for the last one.”
“Sorry. Got distracted, I guess.” Ren furiously runs through the possibilities of the mechanics of this situation. Is this what happened last night, and his responses are predetermined, and he’s just experiencing them again? He decides to scratch his nose, and does, successfully. Of course, if I decided to scratch my nose last night – but, no, I decided to do it to test whether I have control of my actions or not. So, I do. Am I overwriting the past?
It comes to his attention that Futaba is waving her hand in front of his face. “Helloooooo, Ren? Anybody there?”
“Yes. Sorry.” Ren rubs at his eyes. “I think I’m just tired.”
“Maybe you should get some extra sleep tonight, then. We’ve got a busy day tomorrow.” He wonders what she means, but with typical Futaba abruptness, she asks, “So, why aren’t you getting with Haru?”
Ren frowns at the non sequitur. “Sorry?”
“You’re apologizing too much tonight,” Futaba says, only half-teasingly. “I was talking to Haru the other day, and she’s obviously into you, and I guess I’m just curious why you aren’t interested? I mean, pretty, rich, kind, uses a grenade launcher?”
That makes Ren laugh a little. “I like Haru a lot,” he says, trying to figure out what his actual answer is. It comes to him, natural as breathing, all of his self-examination and furious thinking totally unnecessary. “But I’m – well, I’m ace.”
Futaba quirks an eyebrow at him. “No, you’re not an ace, you’re Joker.”
He pinches the bridge of his nose in amused frustration; he should have seen that coming. “It means asexual, Futaba. I’m not interested in sex. Or romance.”
Her mouth forms a silent oh of understanding. “So that’s why. Oh. This was really personal, wasn’t it? This got really personal. I’m sorry. I should have – I’m sorry. Now I’m the one apologizing.”
Smiling, he waves the words away. “It’s fine, really. I don’t mind telling you. You’re basically my sister, after all.”
She grins broadly. “Yeah, I guess I am.” For a moment, she hesitates, clearly weighing her next words – which is unusual enough for her that he sits up in anticipation. “Is it okay if you’re still my key item? I feel like I’m really close to being okay without you, but – I’m not ready yet.”
“Of course it is. Why wouldn’t it be?”
Futaba shrugs uncomfortably. “I’m not good at people stuff, Ren. Anytime something changes, I need to make sure that everything else stays the same.”
He gently lays a hand on her shoulder. “I understand. It’s no problem.”
The world comes to a shuddering halt. Ren stands up, leaving his body behind, and looks at Morgana. “So that’s what happened last night?”
“Yes,” Morgana says.
“But I’m not ace.” Ren pauses. “At least, I didn’t think I was.”
“I remember going to the movies with Yusuke,” Morgana tells him. “And it was very much a date. And I remember going on the Ferris wheel with Ann, and telling each other we’re in love.”
“Those seem hard to reconcile with me being ace.” Ren makes a face. “And it’s strange having you tell me that you remember doing things I did. Vessel of my memories or no.”
“Fine, fine. I won’t say stuff like that again.”
Ren thinks about it. “What just happened felt right. I knew I was telling Futaba the truth when I said I’m ace. But you saying those things – I have vague snatches of them now, too. And in my memory, they also feel right.”
“So what is the truth?”
“I don’t know.” Ren considers a new idea. “Can I experience other things again? The way I experienced this conversation with Futaba?”
“Sure. They’re your memories, after all, and I have all of them. Even the ones you think can’t all be true together. But why? Genuine question, I’m as in the dark as you are.”
“I have these seemingly-contradictory memories,” Ren says, thinking out loud as he begins to pace the room. “They keep sliding over one another, and it’s bad enough that I’ve ended back up in the Velvet Room more than once. Justine and Caroline said I was dead, didn’t they? Well, if I can figure out which of these memories are true, maybe I’ll be able to remember what happened.”
Morgana bobs his head in a nod. “That’s a thought, for sure. And if you remember what happened…”
Ren starts to reply, but then he feels the hairs on the back of his neck rise. Something compels him to turn around.
It’s Morgana, padding up the stairs, but not the golden-eyed Morgana he’s been talking to. This is the Morgana he knows from the real world, and he should have been frozen with the rest of this memory.
“You really shouldn’t still be up,” he says, walking toward Ren. “I think it’s time to go to sleep.”
Ren looks back at the cognitive Morgana, who is arched up in a defensive posture, hair standing on end, teeth bared. “Careful, Joker,” he says. “That’s not me.”
Not-Morgana seems to grow larger as he keeps walking toward Ren. Space around it distorts, the attic stretching to absurd lengths as the apparition continues its asymptotic approach, never quite reaching Ren but getting endlessly closer. By now, it is the size of a tiger, and it only vaguely looks like Morgana. It wavers around the edges, and its eyes are deep pools.
“Sleep,” it says.
Fatigue crashes down on Ren like a lead blanket. He feels his entire body tremble, and he barely manages to stay on his feet. He has to brace himself against his chair, and the effort is almost more than he can bear. He feels blood begin to drip from his nose, and his head throbs even as his eyelids droop.
“I can get you away from it, but you need to tell me to!” Morgana snaps. “Don’t fall asleep!”
“Ann,” Ren gasps. “Get me – back to – Ann!”
The evening wind is cool, and it whips through the Ferris wheel’s pod as they are raised to the top. Ren watches Ann adjust her letterman jacket to better shield her from the bite.
It becomes immediately obvious that she’s said something, and is waiting for his response, and whatever she said is very important, and it would be incredibly impolite to ask her to repeat herself, and the tension is only increasing for every second he doesn’t reply. So he opens his mouth and blurts the first thing that comes to his mind.
“I love you, too.”
Her entire face lights up. Then she gives him a light punch on the arm. “You had me worried for a second there!”
“Sorry. I was – overwhelmed by the moment.” Trying to be nonchalant about it, Ren casually brings up a hand to wipe at his nose. There’s no blood, which is good, and for a moment he has trouble remembering why he even thought to do that.
“She can’t see me,” Morgana says – his Morgana, the golden-eyed cognition – as he leaps down into the pod with them. “Just keep going. We lost that… thing when we left your memory with Futaba, but it’ll find us again. Keep talking and figure out if this is true too.”
The full import of Morgana’s words blossom in Ren’s mind, as does the memory of playing video games with Futaba and coming out to her. But as Ann slides across the seat to kiss him – softly at first, and then with increasing urgency – he decides that is definitely interested in sex and romance with her.
He begins to feel a little self-conscious, knowing that Morgana is sitting there watching them, so he pulls away from Ann just enough to break the kiss, but not so much that she takes it as a rejection. “Do you remember when we first met?”
Ann smiles and nods. “It was raining. I ran to get under some cover and you were standing there, looking lost. And I realized you were looking at me, and – what?”
“I thought you were the most beautiful person I’d ever seen,” Ren tells her, knowing that every word is true.
“You’re just trying to flatter me,” she teases him.
“No. I really did.” He rests his fingers against the softness of her cheek. “And when I got to know you, I realized I was right.”
She gives a little squirm. “You’re making me feel embarrassed.”
“Why? You’re a model, Ann. People tell you you’re beautiful all the time.”
“But they don’t mean I’m beautiful. Me, the person. They mean my face, and my clothes, and body. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love being a model. But… I think you’re the only person apart from Shiho who’s ever really meant it when you’ve said that. About me.”
He wraps an arm around her and she melts against him, warm and safe.
Ren gets up, leaving his body behind. He and Ann remain cuddled together in the Ferris wheel’s pod, frozen in that moment. “That’s true too,” he says. “No doubt about it.”
“That whatever-it-was which nearly killed you by being near you – it didn’t fake this?” Morgana asks.
The mere mention of the thing seems to be enough to summon it. The fatigue hits Ren, his head throbs, the nosebleed starts again. He desperately looks around for the thing, pure animal terror gripping his limbs, knowing that he cannot allow it to reach him.
It does not take him very long to find it.
Tokyo’s skyline warps and fades out. It is bigger than skyscrapers, vaguely feline, but all blurred edges, black void, two points of light that might be eyes piercing him.
Ren hits the floor of the pod, his body failing him. His vision begins to fade out.
“Tell me where to go next!” Morgana snarls at him. “Tell me, dammit! I don’t want to die any more than you do!”
Somehow, impossibly, he summons the strength to croak, “Yusuke.”
He is back in his room, sitting in front of the TV with Yusuke. Cognitive Morgana appears a second later, and at the sight of his golden eyes, Ren remembers everything again – Ann, and Futaba, and the Velvet Room, and the thing stalking him through his own mind. The transition is smoother than either of the previous times he’s jumped memories; it seems like he’s getting better at this.
“It is a remarkable achievement, to create so many masterpieces,” Yusuke says. “But to do so, he had to live and die in utter solitude.”
Ren relaxes into the memory-experience, letting his instincts guide him. Again, it comes more easily than before, because he isn’t overthinking it. The two of them had been watching a biographical DVD about a famous artist – it’s telling to Ren that his memory does not include the man’s name.
“I wonder,” Yusuke continues, “what I might produce if I emulated him.”
“This is maybe a bit selfish,” Ren says, “but I don’t want you to do that.”
Lifting one shoulder in an elegant half-shrug, Yusuke replies, “I do not see the selfishness of it. You are right. Living alone would only narrow my artistic perspective, when I am trying my best to expand it.”
Ren shakes his head. “That’s a good reason, Yusuke, but not the one I’m thinking of. I’m being selfish because I want to keep exploring what we have.”
With a chuckle, Yusuke asks, “And what might that be?”
“Us,” Ren tells him, not letting Yusuke’s obvious needling get to him. “I’m not going to lie, Yusuke. The past six months have been hell. Getting arrested, getting sent here to go to Shujin, everyone thinking I’m some kind of dangerous criminal because of Kamoshida…” He waves a hand to indicate his general frustration with it all. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to have met everyone, and I feel like the Phantom Thieves are making a difference. But you have been the brightest spot in all of this.”
Yusuke tentatively reaches out and lays a hand on Ren’s knee. “Truthfully, I feel the same way. Having Madarame’s lies and illusions ripped away was difficult, but I am the better for it. Still, I could not have come through this without you.” His lips curve into a faint smile. “If I am obtuse, it is because I do not know how else to be.”
They sit there, bathed in the soft glow of the silent television, for a few seconds, neither saying anything. Ren feels his heart hammering in his chest, but he knows that this is the moment he has been waiting for. “I think,” he says, “I want to kiss you. If that’s okay.”
Yusuke blinks, thinks about it, nods. “I believe I want that as well.”
Ren starts to lean forward, then realizes their chairs are too far apart. He scoots his closer, its legs scraping noisily across the wooden floor of his room. He feels awkward and clumsy, but pushes those feelings aside.
Their kiss is tentative at first, a faint brushing of lips, and Ren isn’t sure whether he should close his eyes or not. Yusuke does, and it feels strange for him not to reciprocate, so he lets them fall closed and focuses on the sensations of the moment. Yusuke’s lips are slightly chapped, but as they both lean in, opening themselves to one another, the detail is lost in the warmth of that timeless space. He feels safe, and understood, and pleasantly turned on.
Ren drops out of his body and slams against the floor, feeling like someone is driving a spike through his forehead. “It’s coming!” he gasps.
“Was this real?” Morgana demands.
“Yes!” Ren says, blood pooling beneath the side of his face. The pain is indescribable, and he knows with dreadful certainty that it will only continue to get worse. He blurts the next name that comes to his mind, not because he has any more doubt about the veracity of his memories, but because if he moves on from this one he buys himself more time. “Makoto!”
The transition is entirely seamless now. He is on a bench in his swim trunks, sitting with Makoto, who is wearing her white two-piece. They look out over a beach at the sunset. His mouth tastes faintly of garlic. We had shrimp together, he remembers.
“I suppose I can’t complain about that,” Makoto says, her voice edged with mischief. She nestles herself beneath his arm and sighs.
“Do we need to spend a bunch of time on the two of you making out, or are we already convinced this is real too?” Morgana asks, leaping up onto the bench with them.
Ren glares at the cat, because while he knows time is short on an academic level, in this memory his hormones are up and he desperately wants to press himself against her, feel the warmth of her body against his –
“No,” he mutters, half to himself and half to Morgana. “This is real too.” He stands, leaving his body behind, and instantly feels more rational. “I don’t think any of these memories are manufactured. The thing chasing me through my mind isn’t interested in tricking me, it’s interested in making me to go sleep – which I assume is a metaphor for death, or surrender, or whatever.”
“Or whatever,” Morgana agrees.
“So why do I remember being with so many different people, and not just that, but literally having different sexual orientations? That’s not a choice you make, that’s just who you are.”
“Again, I can’t know anything you don’t know. You can bounce things off of me, but unless you figure this out for yourself –”
Pain. The sun literally flares out and dies. The stalking thing strides over the horizon, bigger than worlds, seeming to swallow the ocean and sky. Ren screams and drops to the sand of the beach, clutching his head. “RYUJI!”
The ramen shop in Ogikubo. Ryuji asking him what he thinks of the soy sauce flavor. “I’m in love,” Ren says, and Ryuji tells him he’s a real Tokyo boy now. As they leave the ramen shop, without thinking about it, Ren takes Ryuji’s hand and gives it a squeeze.
The transition is still seamless, but Ren is in such reeling shock that it takes him a minute to pull himself out of the memory and resume his conversation with Morgana. “The pain’s getting worse,” he says. “And that thing keeps getting bigger.”
“You remember all these seemingly-contradictory things, but you say they’re all true,” Morgana tells him. “Is there anything that isn’t contradictory?”
“There’s always a text from someone saying they enjoyed last night, whether it was a date or just friends hanging out,” Ren replies, pulling out his phone. He wonders which thread the message will be under in this memory. He flips past the text from Mishima –
He opens Mishima’s message.
The target is a truly charming individual – a serial rapist who has avoided prosecution by expertly gaslighting his victims, both inside and outside of court. Drugs, alcohol, blatant lies – he has been accused of every disgusting trick in the book, and still he hasn’t been stopped. When Ren tries to read his name, he finds the characters impossible to parse; they scramble themselves before his eyes, and the pain begins again.
They harvest the last of their latest crop together, the November air bitter and the soil cold. Haru relaxes against him, and he smiles, enjoying the moment, the smell of earth and her perfume. She suggests something to him, shyly, and he tells her he would love to. The blurry vagueness of the memory jolts him back to his task, and he sweeps his gaze around the roof, looking for Morgana.
“I’m starting to lose focus,” he says.
Morgana nods. He knows, just as well as Ren does, that this can’t be a good sign. “What did you find in Ryuji’s memory?”
“Not just his. In every memory, there’s a request from Mishima,” Ren replies, pulling out his phone. There it is, though he doesn’t open it up. The target’s name is enough to help the thing catch him. “There’s a serial rapist, a real ugly customer. I saw his name and it cut my time with Ryuji short.”
“That’s a sign,” Morgana says. “You must have gone after his Shadow.”
The knowledge hits Ren like a hammerblow to his head. He actually staggers as it comes back to him. “Yes,” he breathes. “I went after his Shadow. It hit me with some kind of psychic attack. Stronger than anything we’ve ever dealt with before. That’s the last thing I remember.”
He is suddenly Joker again, and he is facing down a dark, feline shape, its edges ill-defined, its eyes twin points of light in a black void. He tightens his grip on his knife, looking around for his friends, but he is alone.
He is alone with the Shadow in Mementos.
“I’m dead right now, aren’t I?” Ren asks.
“And you killed me?”
For a dead man, Ren feels oddly fine. There’s no more pain in his head, no more nosebleed. He considers attacking the thing with his knife, or summoning one of his Personas, but that feels wrong.
“Only I’m not completely gone,” Ren says. “I’m too strong for you.”
The thing advances on him, but again, there is no pain. Ren drops his knife. It hits the unnatural ground of Mementos with a soft clang.
“Morgana?” Ren calls. “I think I know what happened.”
Morgana is abruptly there with him, looking up at him with golden eyes. “Good, because I have no idea what’s going on right now.”
“Mementos is the Palace of our collective subconsciousness,” Ren says. “What we’ve never understood is that it’s the Palace for all of them. All possible versions of us. Not just the versions of us that are a result of our choices, either. In some memories I’m ace, and others I’m gay, and others I’m straight, but I’m still me in all of them. Just a different me.”
The cat-thing takes two more steps, bringing its vaguely defined head to within a foot of Ren. He stares at it, unafraid, and crosses his arms. “I took a request to hunt you down and change your heart,” he says to it. “And when you hit me with that psychic attack, it broke some kind of wall in my mind. Being in Mementos, in everybody’s Palace, it blended all these different versions of me together. All my memories are true because they did happen.”
IT DOES NOT MATTER
FOR EVERY ONE OF YOU THERE IS ONE OF ME
AND I AM STRONGER THAN YOU
“No,” Ren says. “For every one of me, there’s someone else I love. Actually, there’s more than a couple versions of me who love more than one person, and everyone involved is okay and happy with it. And you know what?” He steps forward, bringing himself nose-to-nose with the thing.
“I’m the Trickster. My bonds are my strength.”
He brings up his gun, presses it to the cat-thing’s face, and pulls the trigger.
Silence. Then a voice, familiar: “Keep trying!”
“I am! This was the fifth one! I don’t have many more in me!”
Another voice. “Please, Mona! Just… please!”
Ren gasps, eyes snapping open. He starts coughing, expelling minutes-old air from his lungs. He is on his back, staring up at the distorted ceiling of Mementos. Blood, probably from a nosebleed, covers the lower half of his face, and his head pounds like someone tried to shove a spike through it.
The first thing he sees, apart from the ceiling, is Morgana’s face – blue-eyed, the real one, he thinks. “He’s alive!” Morgana says. The proclamation is greeted by sounds of relief. “What happened, Joker?”
Ren sits up, wiping at his face with his sleeve. Everyone is standing over him: Ryuji, Ann, Yusuke, Makoto, Haru, Futaba. Beyond them, lying against one of the tunnel walls, is a black, vaguely catlike shape. The floor and walls have been blasted with magic and bullets, and ichor runs from multiple wounds in the Shadow’s form.
“It hit me with… something,” Ren says. “I was gone, wasn’t I?”
“Well, nobody else has ever needed six Samarecarms to get back up,” Morgana says. “You had us all worried.”
Ren gets to his feet, smiling despite the pain he is still in. “I appreciate you not giving up on me.”
“You’re our wild card, man,” Ryuji says, giving him a slap on the back. “We’d be screwed if you bought the farm.”
“Don’t scare us like that again,” Futaba warns him. “I mean it.”
Makoto nods. “I second that motion.”
“We all do,” Haru says.
“Your loss would be the diminishment of us all,” Yusuke agrees.
They turn their attention to the Shadow. It tries to rise to its feet, fails, slumps back to the ground. As Ren approaches, it seems to shrink, growing smaller and more human, until he is looking at a man, lying in the fetal position.
“Please,” the Shadow gasps. “Please don’t.”
“You’re going to confess what you did,” Joker says, crouching over him. “You know it was wrong.”
The Shadow nods up at him, pathetically eager. “Yes! Yes, I will. I’ll serve my time, I’ll accept whatever punishment is called for. I – I’m ashamed.”
Ren lays a hand on the Shadow’s brow.
“Sleep,” he tells it, and it fades away.
Justine and Caroline are waiting for him when they return to the top of Mementos.
“So, Inmate,” Caroline says with a glare. “Looks like you managed to weasel out of this after all.”
Ren glances back at his friends, wondering if they are seeing this, and realizes that time has come to a halt again. They are frozen in various poses of movement as they head for the exit to the real world.
All except Morgana – the cognitive Morgana, with golden eyes, who is now with them too. He hops over to join Justine and Caroline.
“Yes,” Ren murmurs. “It does look that way.”
Justine lays a hand on Morgana’s head. “You have done well,” she says. “Are you ready to return?”
Morgana looks up at her, then back at Ren. “I liked being alive,” he says. “Even if it wasn’t for long. So, thanks.”
“Thank you,” Ren says.
Turning to Justine, Morgana clears his throat. “I’m ready.”
Justine makes a note on her clipboard. The golden glow disappears from Morgana’s eyes, and then he fades away.
“I appreciate you bending the rules for me,” Ren says to the Twins. “I wouldn’t have gotten out of this without your help.”
Caroline sniffs. “Whatever, Inmate. It’s not as though we actually care.”
“You are welcome,” Justine says, seeming to ignore Caroline. “Your rehabilitation is not yet complete, after all. And it is supposed to be our job to help you through it.” She hesitates, then asks, “Do you know which one you are?”
The question makes no sense for a moment, but then it clicks. “No,” Ren says. “I remember all of them. All my experiences. They’re all me, and I’m all them. I just don’t know which world this is yet.”
“The others will fade with time,” Justine tells him. “The gestalt you formed to resist the mind-death brought by the Shadow is not how human beings are meant to exist. It will pass.”
“That’s a little sad. I might not remember the other versions of me, but I think I’ll still miss them.” He shrugs. “But it doesn’t really matter which one I am, right? I’m still me. Whoever that is.”
Caroline scoffs. “You’re not worried about this at all?”
Ren turns and looks at the faces of his friends, the people he loves most.
“No,” he tells her. “I’m not.”