It was just after Sojiro had dropped off his ward for his trip back home that he came to notice something off about the probation journal the boy had handed over: Some of the pages near its middle were not actually bound to the notebook.
He had considered opening the shop as soon as he got back, but decided against it. Sojiro wanted - no, needed - time to mull on the events of the past year. From the look of the pocket-sized sheets scattered atop the countertop, the boy who'd lived in the attic until that day had decided to give him a hand with that.
It was a letter, concealed in the pocket-sized record like a tree hidden in a forest, addressed to him.
Plopping himself down in one of the booths with papers in tow, Sojiro took a deep breath before adjusting his glasses and perusing the message.
I owe you an apology, don't I?
You deserve as much, yet I cannot bring myself to give you one.
I remember that day in the chapel; the request you made as you fretted over Futaba's future.
But by that point, there was no turning back for me.
Without realizing, I had already fallen for Futaba.
Sojiro sighed before pinching at the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses. It wasn't like he didn't already know those two were awfully close (he'd have to be stupid not to notice), but reading something like that about his daughter - from the youth who became family to him, no less - certainly made him feel conflicted. On one hand, his protective paternal instincts immediately kicked into overdrive; on the other, the boy was reliable and cared for Futaba like no other. A far cry from Sojiro when he was his age, who had fashioned himself a dandy lady-killer.
Perhaps he should thank his lucky stars the young man interested in his daughter never took up Sojiro's offer for "education" in regards to dealing with the opposite sex. Karma would've liked a word then.
Resigning himself, he kept on reading.
It all started when she came to me with a peculiar request: she wanted me to help her work through a "promise list". Basically, it was a list of objectives she'd commit to fulfilling and when they were all complete, she'd get a reward. She used to do it all the time with her mother, and all of the promises were meant to help her reintegrate into society - how could I ever say no to that? Honestly, I was touched she would decide to rely on me for something so personal.
And so, I became her "key item". Honestly, it was a little embarassing to be called that...but it made me glad, too. It was just too endearing.
Little by little, Futaba made her way back out into the world. I couldn't help but find her brave to face these issues head-on so soon after we'd stolen her heart, even if others might have found her little victories as something to take for granted. Seeing her smile so brightly every time she completed another promise infected me with her cheer.
But sometimes, my heart would be wrung and twisted. Like the time she told me about her experiences at school, how the other kids would bully her, and about her only friend...
And then you told me about the treatment she received from her uncle after her mother passed away. I still remember how my blood bubbled as if it had caught fire.
Sojiro closed his eyes. Back then, the boy's expression had remained neutral for the most part, but his eyes spoke a different story. Anger, sorrow, and determination blazed within the pools of grey all at one. How could he forget such a sight?
I'll be completely honest. When that scum tried to hit Futaba, I almost lost it. I shielded her by merely stepping out of the way, but...what I really wanted was to break him. To punch him until my knuckles ran red, and his face was a bloody unrecognizable mess. I wanted to repay him hundredfold for the pain he made Futaba endure.
I only managed to stop myself when I considered how it'd add to Futaba's grief.
After he'd threatened to sue and left, I wanted to rush to her and make sure she was all right, but your concern brought me back down to reality. Thank you for that, by the way.
It was also around that time that I realized that what I looked forward the most every day was the opportunity to spend time with Futaba. I didn't think much about it at first, and attributed it simply to her boundless enthusiasm. But unbeknowst to me, she was becoming far more precious to me than anyone else.
We had managed to help Futaba's elementary school friend when she made another odd request. She wanted me to pat her head, like her mother used to do, for completing a promise after many years. Strange, to be sure, but I couldn't bring myself to say no.
Her reaction was, in a word, startling. She kept talking about how her heart was beating so fast, and how her face was all flushed; and then...her descriptions made me feel the same way. My heart started racing. Once she left, I tried to push it out of my mind.
But then, it was your words at the chapel that made everything click. That night, once we made our way back home, I came to a single realization:
I love Futaba.
...It feels really good to write that.
It was at this point that Leblanc's owner knew he needed a moment. Shakily, he stood up from the booth seat, headed behind the counter and began to brew a blend. He was an unthinking coffee-making automaton at work, the preparation of the beverage so ingrained into his muscle memory he allowed himself not to think as he prepared a cup for himself. Of course, he eventually had to finish, and in turn, face the reality of the situation once more.
With bitter concoction in hand, and letter in the other, he braved on.
I want to write it again.
I love Futaba.
I love Futaba so much!
"Geez," Sojiro spoke for no one but himself. "Try to keep it together, kid. Remember who you're talking to".
While his inflection carried annoyance and disapproval, the upturned corners of his mouth told the empty cafe everything that needed to be said.
Sorry, I just...at this moment, I feel like the luckiest man alive. Meeting Futaba, meeting you, becoming friends with everyone - who knew something like a criminal record could bring so much fortune; so many precious things into my life? Had I ignored what was happening in front of me that day, my life wouldn't be what it is today. Enduring the pain was worth it.
Back to my history with Futaba. To be honest, when I came to recognize my feelings for her, I was...apprehensive. She's been through so much, I was worried she would not be ready for a sentimental relationship. I figured that was fine with me, as long as I could help her and keep her from harm.
That was the plan, anyways - Futaba kind of blew it wide open when she asked me straight out why I treated her like I did.
I thought about lying, but...I couldn't bring myself to ever lie to Futaba. So I told her the truth: "Because I love you".
Her reaction to that was the cutest thing. She stood there, paralyzed, for what I'm pretty sure were minutes! I was afraid I had just overloaded the poor girl. But she was happy - that's all that mattered.
That's how we started dating. My feelings since then have become even stronger, and they've kept growing each day, even when I was locked in juvenile hall. Reminding myself I was enduring that punishment to protect Futaba and the others kept me going.
I'm so proud of her, too. She's come a long way. We all helped her to get started, but her progress these last few months - that's all her. Little by little, she's built back the life that was taken from her. She said I gave it back to her, but the truth is she's the one who's been putting it together all along.
What I'm trying to say, Sojiro, is that I could never apologize to you. That would imply even just a tiny little bit of regret for loving Futaba, and I won't ever regret how I feel for her. I just want you to know one thing.
I want to fill Futaba's days with happiness.
The youth's signature followed, signifying the end of his message. Having long since finished his coffee, Sojiro stared at the brown circles on the bottom of the cup, lost in thought.
"Well," he finally thought to himself, "I did mention having him call me 'dad' might not be so bad... should it come to that".
With a contented grin on his face and a sprightly spring on his step, he headed to the entrance and flipped the sign to "Open", all whilst wondering what his children were doing.
It was unanimous - they'd stop by the shore and enjoy the sea, if just for a short while. The journey home for the leader of the Phantom Thieves could wait a little longer.
The cool, salty sea breeze played with Futaba's hair and caressed her face with a touch as gentle as her lover's. Speaking of which, he walked in front of her, bare feet digging into the sand underneath, pants rolled above the ankle.
A little further in, Ryuji spiritedly ran on waves, kicking up water and earning a spiteful scolding from Ann betrayed by the glee in her eyes. Elsewhere, Haru cradled Morgana in her arms, scratching under the cat's chin. Makoto had decided to join her, chatting spiritedly with her fellow senior, and even joining in showing their animal friend some affection. Yusuke, by his lonesome, created a rectangular frame with his fingers and boxed his friends within, his expression perhaps the most content his friends had ever seen.
"We should join them," Joker, her Joker, turned to her and gestured idly at their precious friends with his head.
Futaba, however, paused his advance by tugging at his sleeve. "Hey, hey," she said. "I-I want to make one more memory with you before you go back home," the reddening of her cheeks was unmistakable, and the boy wished he could embrace her right at that moment.
Which he would've done, but their relationship was a secret from the other Phantom Thieves, partly to preserve their group's dynamics, and partly because Futaba would've probably died of embarrassment.
"Want to slip away for a second?" he asked, scanning their surroundings for a possible exit strategy, but the girl nervously shook her head.
"N-no. Not this time. I want to...I want to be open about us".
The boy beamed. "You sure? You might get teased a lot about it during the ride back".
She shifted on her feet and shrugged. "I think I've gained enough levels to handle the final boss now".
He raised an eyebrow playfully. "That so? Well, one more memory for the road, th-"
"Hey, you two! Get over here, we're gonna take a picture!" Ryuji's booming voice interrupted as he waved at them from his position next to an expensive-looking camera perched atop a tripod. It was pointed at the the ocean, and in turn, at their friends, who had already taken positions for a picture.
The raven-haired youth spied a small black remote in his buddy's hand, and a dangerous smirk made its way across his countenance. "Oh, have I got a plan".
She caught on immediately and her nervousness mixed in with excitement. "As expected of my Joker - always doing everything in style".
"Showtime?" he asked.
She nodded. "See you at the post-credits scene".
It was time to spring their most daring plan into action, just the two of them.
They approached their friends and stood in their midst. "Hey, what were you two talking about back there?" Ryuji asked.
Their leader paid the question no heed. "Can I do the honors?" he requested, and Ryuji was more than happy to oblige, handing him over the wireless shutter controller.
"You still haven't answered my question, though," Ryuji insisted, but that was soon drowned by Ann speaking up.
"Wait a minute," the blonde model interjected. "Are you guys holding han-?!?"
The shutter of the camera closed with a telltale click, forever committing to film the bewildered expressions of the other Phantom Thieves as the two young lovers kissed.