“There. Feel better?” Doctor Tae Takemi pulls a shirt down over Haru’s head, straightening and adjusting it with a sigh of satisfaction. “Your hair isn’t gonna dry for awhile, and I don’t exactly keep my blow dryer around the office, so it’ll have to do.” Haru doesn’t say anything, watching the doctor warily. She doesn’t remember how she got here. Her night has been a blur ever since Fath—
A crushing weight smashes that thought to dust. Instead, she stares up at the X-ray reader mounted on the wall over Dr. Takemi’s shoulder, at the shots of someone’s skeleton displayed up there. It feels good not to think. She’s free.
What a terrible freedom.
“Like them? They’re mine. I’ve always thought I had good bone structure.” Dr. Takemi says, having taken her gaze up at the x-rays for focus. Her hand is on Haru’s wrist, taking her pulse and making a mark on the clipboard in her lap. “It’s okay. You don’t have to laugh. Nobody does, anyway.”
Her tongue feels heavy in her mouth. Every part of her feels weighed down by the very act of being, creating insulating distance by piling on layer after layer of apathy until it crushes her. She doesn’t want to think anything, to say anything, to be anything. So she doesn’t.
Haru, you have to wake up.
A flicker in Haru’s vision presages the freeze that passes over her body and the whole world. Dr. Takemi’s mouth hangs open, the first syllable of a word trapped in silence. Milady steps through the door out of the clinic, her mask discarded entirely. Her yellow eyes are real, Haru realizes slowly, not a trick of the mask.
You haven’t spoken to me for hours, ever since Kunikazu—
“ —lood pressure is normal. Pulse strong and fast. Something gave you quite the scare, huh?” The world snaps back into motion, Milady wiped from existence like she had never been there. A protective distance settles over her senses again as she shoves her Persona and her thoughts safely back under a hundred more layers of frost and pouring cold dispassionate distance on top for good measure. She doesn’t need them, anyway. “Nothing, huh?” Tae nods to herself, making a note on the clipboard. The rational part of her brain, small though it has become in the face of recent events, notes that it’s typically a bad thing when your doctor does that. She doesn’t particularly care, though. This woman doesn’t hold any power over her.
Tae leans forward, taking Haru’s sleeve in both hands and rolling it slowly up until it no longer covers her hand, stopping once it’s around the middle of her forearm. She repeats the process on the other arm, humming to herself with satisfaction and sitting back again. Haru stares down at the sleeves, the familiar feel of heavily worn and washed fabric. This is Akira’s long-sleeve shirt, the one she borrowed when she was forced to slept over that first time. The surprisingly warm sweatpants, too, must be his.
“He brought those over for you after he got you to me.” Dr. Takemi watches her intently, the smile that she had worn so casually when she was joking earlier long gone. “You gave him quite the scare. I was about to close, but...well.” She shrugs. “I’m a bleeding heart. And not one to turn away a girl in need. I guess that’s a trait me and him share.”
Haru tries to say something, but only a hoarse cough comes out. When she tries again, she manages, “He brought me?”
“Gave him a hell of a scare, from the way he was breathing. Once he got you here, he went back for clothes. For the record, I changed you, not him.” Tae sighs, crossing her arms. “I’ll take care of your uniform for you. He tried to offer to do the laundry while you were in here. Figures that he’s soft for girls, huh?”
Her laundry...the only things she walked out of home with. She doesn’t have anything else. That thought pulverizes whatever comfort she had begun to feel from Akira’s gesture of kindness into dust. She has nothing. She has nothing. 17 years of her life have been instantly locked away by two doors and the eternally echoing words of one man. You will no longer be welcome in this home.
“Okay, look. I’ll level with you.” Tae slides around on her stool until she’s directly in front of Haru, not imposing so much as present. “I need to know if I should be filing a police report or not.”
“I wasn’t...it’s not like that.” Haru hears herself say, her affect flattened by the weight on her mind. The pain in her heart migrates to her throat. “My father disowned me.” Even saying it burns, but the pain vanishes the moment she stops thinking of it. She just has to keep doing that, then. She focuses on the doctor, watching every little movement as she takes in her statement. Anything to block the thought of her life from her mind.
“Ah.” Tae nods, exhaling through her nose. “I’m sorry to hear that.” She pauses, staring at Haru with a strange expression. “For girls like us, it’s not an uncommon story, but that doesn’t make it any better.” The doctor stares her down, probing for a reaction to the provided stimuli. The particular emphasis on that clause ignites something in Haru’s mind, pierces the thick layers of defense she’s surrounded herself with. The crack fills itself in instantly, reforming like a sheet of ice refreezing after a short thaw, but not before she realizes exactly what trait Tae and herself share. In any other situation, at any other time, in any other place, Haru would be thrilled to meet someone like herself. Instead...the brief excitement fades in an instant back to blank nothing. Maybe once things stop piling one on top of the other, like her life is just one slow trainwreck piling into station car by car, she could find some emotion to feel about meeting another trans woman for the first time in her life. “Probably not the whole ‘I’m a girl, dad’ conversation, if I don’t miss my guess.”
Haru looks down at her hands in her lap, clasped together. “I wouldn’t marry the man he chose for me.”
“Arranged marriage, in this day and age.” Tae clicks her tongue, making a note. “Just making a note on your chart that your father is a callous asshole, no big deal.” That breaks through too, and her lips twitch upward for nearly a second before the crushing weight of everything else crashes back down. “I saw that, you know.” She says with a smile, leaning forward again and propping her chin up in her hand. “Hmm. I know Sojiro is going to be ornery if you two bring up the idea of you staying with Akira long-term, so we should consider alternatives. But we’ll worry about that at your follow-up tomorrow. For now, lover-boy has you taken care of for tonight.”
“Follow-up?” Haru says slowly, looking back up at Tae.
“You’re my patient now, and I’m not letting a girl like you stay on the streets if I can help it. But, like I said, we can talk about that more when you’re feeling more like yourself.” A patient. She hadn’t realized until now how much that thought would normally scare her. She feels nothing, but knows beyond a shadow of a doubt how that would make her feel normally. Maybe that’s why she had been so very apprehensive of this woman when they first met, her own fear of the entire field born from long-forgotten memories of her mother’s death. What a farce, that it ended up offering her everything she ever wanted.
“Okay.” Haru says, though she doesn’t feel it. Tae stands, rifling through some bottles on her desk and returning to press a small amber bottle with two capsules in it into her hands.
“If you have trouble sleeping, and I suspect you will, take these. They’re not strong, but they’ll help keep you under once you fall asleep.”
“...What do I do?” Haru says, looking up at her, and doesn’t mean the capsules. Something in her heart roils under the layers of armor protecting her from the world, almost piercing the protection before it’s iced over again. This woman who has absolutely no obligation to help her, who is offering to help her survive her ordeal...for absolutely no promise of compensation in return.
If she can show such compassion to a stranger, then why couldn’t Father do the same for her own daughter?
“Well.” Tae sits back down, closing a hand over Haru’s in her lap. “This isn’t a medical opinion, so take it however you want to. But...for people like us, the best revenge is living better now than you did when they were in your life.” She squeezes Haru’s hands, gently enough to make her presence known. “So try to hang in there. I bet you’ve got more people who want to see you alive and safe come Sunday morning than you think you do right now.”
Akira. And everyone, Ryuji and Ann and Morgana...even Makoto. She can’t stay like this forever. She has to get back up. She has to keep fighting, to protect them from the circumstances she’s forced them into. After that...Haru puts the thought from her mind. She will worry for what the future holds for her when it arrives, and not a moment sooner. To do otherwise may prove disastrous.
“Thank you, Doctor.” Haru says, and means it. She can already feel a change coming over her, the thawing of the countless layers of ice that had rimed her heart into a glacier over the hours since she left home. She can only pray that it is over soon.
“I already told you, just call me Tae.” She stands, and Haru forces herself to her feet after a long moment of silence. “C’mon, let’s get you to bed. Akira’s probably tearing his hair out.”
Akira leaps to his feet the moment the door opens, trying not to let the depths of his worry show as Tae leads Haru back out of the room. She looks so timid in his clothes, her face curiously blank as she looks up at him.
“Well?” Akira crosses his arms, turning to Tae. He can’t help but glance past Tae at Haru every so often, confirming that she’s still there, that this is real and not a terrible, awful dream. Everything from the second Haru grabbed his shirt has felt so bizarre, unreal and strange.
“She’s gonna be fine, you baby.” Tae returns the gesture, crossing her arms at him. “Get her to bed and let her rest. Emphasis on rest , got it? Don’t make her stay up any later than you have to. She’s got something to help her if she can’t sleep, but it’s not gonna help if you keep her up. So be good. ”
“I got it already.” He sighs, relaxing infinitesimally when Tae steps aside, and Haru steps forward, looking up at him with that same blank expression. It hasn’t changed a bit since the moment she walked out of the exam room. “Come on.” He holds out a hand, and Haru takes it hesitantly, her hand held more by him than vice versa. Without warning, she pushes closer, burying her face in his chest and wrapping her other arm around him.
She is fragile, Akira. Be careful.
You think I couldn’t figure that out by myself?
Akira brings his other hand to her head, feeling the dampness of her hair and holding her closer. He can feel her breathing against his shirt, slow and steady.
I am aware you’re not a simpleton. That said, there is more here than the surface implies. I dare say she reminds me of someone I’ve seen in your memories. In fact, it is someone you met very recently, Akira.
Julien loves to talk in circles, twisting him in the wind until he gives up trying to piece together whatever the hell it is he’s getting at. Much easier to just cut the bullshit like this, in his opinion.
Why, yourself, of course. Does she not bear the same look that you wore when you looked in the mirror not so long ago? It is the look of someone who has just lost everything she thought she had in one fell swoop.
Haru’s words bubble up from where they had been buried by recent events, so quickly forgotten and yet said only a week ago. ‘Sugimura is not the first, but he will be the last. If we aren’t married, I’ll be removed from the family register. Disowned, lose everything.’
This is your chance to prevent what befell you to happen once more to another. To give succor to the wronged, aid to the damned. After all, was that not your wish?
“I want her back here for a follow-up tomorrow, when she’s feeling better.” Akira snaps out of his inner dialogue with Julien when Tae speaks. She gives him a look, but ultimately doesn’t seem to think much of it. “I’ll see what I can do about figuring out somewhere to stay long-term for her. Not a lot of great options around here, but I have a feeling that she’s going to want to stay nearby.”
“...Right.” Akira pauses, watching Tae open the door. More specifically, he focuses on the way she glances at Haru, concern that he’s never seen Tae display even once before plain upon her features. “What do I owe you?”
“Get me some curry for lunch tomorrow from Sojiro and we’ll call it even. I’m not taking your money for changing a girl’s clothes for you and telling her to go to bed.” Tae smiles, leaning on the door. A clap of thunder outside makes Haru clutch his shirt harder, and Tae winces. Outside the streets still smell of rain, the downpour stopped only shortly. “Maybe get her home before the next stormfront hits, yeah?”
“Right. Thanks.” Akira lowers his head, looking away from the doctor before he gets any more jealous of the way she looks at Haru. Why is it that everywhere he turns, people worry more for her than for him? The answer that leaps first to mind hurts like a knife to the chest until he yanks it out and forgets it.
“Don’t mention it. Now get out of here, I still haven’t eaten dinner.” Tae ushers them both out and closes the door behind them. Haru finally releases his shirt, sighing quietly to herself.
“C’mon. Let’s get home.” Akira says, and she only hums in response, but follows along at the same slow pace he sets nevertheless. “I was worried.”
“I’m sorry.” Her tone is curiously flat, the first words she’s said since he got her to Tae’s office. “I’ve worried everyone so much recently.”
“That’s not your fault.” Akira says, squeezing her hand. “Don’t torment yourself about it, Haru. You don’t have to own the things people do to you.” That last bit is something he hears quite frequently from Julien and Tae, as it turns out.
“That doesn’t make it right. That doesn’t make me feel better about scaring you so badly.” Emotion creeps into her voice for a fading moment only to disappear as quickly as it arrived. He unlocks the door into Leblanc and nods into it, but she stands on the doorstep looking up at him, her eyes shaded by the dim light. She holds his hand only by the most tenuous grip, like she’s afraid to take this step. Haru’s never been afraid to take a step with him before now...If his (or Julien’s) suspicion is true, then... “Is this really okay? I’ve asked so much of you already…” Haru says, looking down at her feet.
“Haru. This isn’t something you’re asking of me, this is something I’m offering you. There’s a difference.” He takes her hand more forcefully, closing both of his over hers. “I’d give you everything I have in a heartbeat. Don’t ever forget that.”
“What did I tell you about self-sacrifice…” She mutters, squeezing his hand in turn and stepping inside the shop, forcing Akira to catch up when she moves further inside. The door safely locked behind him to drive off Sojiro’s worries come morning, Akira takes her upstairs, sitting down on the bed and watching her mirror him, their hands still tightly linked between them. When Haru looks at Akira now, he sees something flicker to life, a spark of something that gutters before it can come fully to life. He’s just happy he left Morgana with Sojiro, out of fear of how Haru may have come back from Tae. Hard enough to explain what is going on twice over, let alone explain the exact nature of the awful things she’s gone through at their basest in front of her.
“He disowned you, didn’t he.” Akira says it without rancor, the churning in his gut more worry for her than anger at her father. The rage will come later. It always does.The way Haru looks away, he knows the answer. “I’m sorry.”
“I knew. In my heart,” Haru says, voice choked, “I knew there was no way for this to end. Either my life ended in Sugimura’s arms, or like this.”
“This isn’t an end.”
“Isn’t it?” She looks back at him, on the verge of tears. “I thought I could still salvage the life I had, build something worth keeping from what was left. And now it’s all gone.”
“Then fuck it. We don’t have to take the scraps they feed us, Haru. All they ever want is to control us, that’s all that matters to people like our fathers. But you’re free now.” The same revelation came to him during his arrest, after they closed his holding cell door on the night that changed his life. He was free. Freedom was without judgement, it could be whatever you made of it. An awful freedom could become wonderful, revelatory, with time. Only hope could keep him alive, then, and maybe that’s what Haru needs. The ability to believe in a tomorrow that still exists.
Haru wipes her eyes, forcing back her tears. “I don’t know where I stand anymore. What do I have left? A school uniform, my bag....” She trails off, looking away from him and sighing.
“You have so much more. A garden, friends who care about you, a...Morgana, who likes you a lot.” Akira pauses. “And me, who loves you more than I’ll ever be able to explain.”
“I know. I know that, but…” She sighs, looking back at him and away again just as quickly. “I feel so strange. I can’t explain it, I can’t even begin to understand it myself. I just, I feel awful but at the same time, I don’t. I don’t feel anything at all, Akira.” Her hand over his tightens, harder and harder. “I don’t feel anything anywhere but where you’re touching me, Akira. Everything else is just nothing, but you...” When he kisses her, she lets go of his hand, pulling him closer to her with both hands and pressing herself to his chest hard. When he tries to pull away for breath, Haru takes a hold of his shirt and pulls him back. “Don’t stop,” she says in a throaty whisper that wipes every thought from his mind in an instant. “I need you.”
She needs him. He always knew he would give himself to her utterly the moment she asked, body and soul. So he does. When she hooks a hand under the hem of his shirt and lifts, her fingernail dragging against skin, he slips out of it and casts it aside, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her into his lap. She clings to him like driftwood in a storm, fingers sinking into the flesh of his arm, but he notices only faintly over the feel of her breath on his shoulder, her lips at his neck. For a dizzying moment he feels her chest pressed to him, and then his hands slip under her shirt and the gratifying rattle of her intake of breath at what must be to her a pair of so very cold hands on her skin returns him to sanity. He is here for her, not the other way around. Do not get lost in sentiment, to petty sensation just yet. He can feel the rustle of laughter like a flurry of bat wings flapping from Julien at that thought, but his Persona is distant, stepped away to give him some measure of privacy.
“More,” Haru begs in his ear, and he obliges, her borrowed shirt hiking up inch by indecent inch, revealing the indescribably beautiful pallor of her skin in the thin moonlight from the window. He is going to remember the moment she gasped against his neck when a fingertip brushed the bottom of her breast for the rest of his life. Every thought he has denied himself comes home by turns, piling up in the face of reality, the realization that he could have all of this and more, that Haru truly wants this from him, anything he gives her she would gladly accept. “It’s not enough…” She murmurs, her grounding grip upon his shoulders now grinding bone against bone with only a moment’s notice. “Why isn’t it enough...Please…I can’t do this alone...”
Do you see it, now? Akira shivers, Julien slipping into his mind in a cloud of dark thoughts. The feeling you shared, then, was loss. Irreparable loss.
In the hours after his arrest, Akira felt lost. Trapped by everything: the world that condemned him, the life that led him here, but most of all trapped by realization of what his life would become from here. He could already feel the gap that was forming and defining itself more clearly by the second, delineating his life before that moment from what it became after. The final, total loss of that life crushed him more than everything else put together. It was a life that he had hated in the moment, but felt the loss of like losing a limb, something essential to his conception of himself. The weeks after, he drowned in his own rage, all of it turned inward at himself. His failure, his essentially crippled character that had led to this.
You were alone. In all the world, you had no one to stop you from crushing yourself under the weight of your newfound burden. He can feel Julien smile, a frisson of perverse joy forming in him, the ghost of his Persona’s feelings. Do you see the path? The woman who has given you her heart, who has time and again offered herself to you to pull you from the edge now stands on the precipice herself. Though it pleases me little, this shall be an opportunity for your rehabilitation. Show me that your ideals remain resolute.
“I'm right here.” Akira says, his hands withdrawing from under her shirt to pull her closer. “I'm not going.” The bone-crushing grip on his shoulders loosens instantly, Haru gasping not with pleasure but shock.
“I’m sorry.” Her voice is hollow, as it had been in the waiting room. “I don’t...I’m so lost. Nothing is right. Akira, what do I do?”
“Sleep.” He feels ludicrous saying it, like he’s imposing upon her for even asking her to rest. He hopes Tae forgives him for making her get less rest than originally planned, though. “Things will seem less apocalyptic when you wake up.” He can at least say that with some level of conviction. It had been true for him, at least in some ways. She doesn’t reply, only leans hard on him, all the tension falling from her body in slow increments. He lowers her to the bed carefully, situating the pillow under her and fixing her shirt as best as he can. The pill bottle of medication lies on the bed between them, forgotten in the moment. Akira sets it on the window sill for now and lays down in its place against Haru’s back. Her hand rises up to meet his as he wraps an arm around her, gripping his fingers gently. “Everything will be okay.” It almost makes him happy that she doesn’t reply to that either, leaving him to watch the gentle rise and fall of her breath slow over minutes to shallow flutters of air as she falls asleep.
Tomorrow will be better. He’ll make sure of it.
“So,” Tae leans back, stirring the curry to-go box that Akira entrusted her with for lunch, “how do you feel?”
“Fine, I suppose.” Haru says without conviction. “I slept well.” Better to leave her...indiscretions outside the doctor’s office. She could barely meet Akira’s eyes in the morning, let alone make it through a morning downstairs with Sojiro, so she had pled exhaustion and slept in until just before noon, the latest she’s slept in months. Years, maybe.
“Wonderful.” Tae takes a bite of her meal, smiling. “Sorry, I’m starved, it’s been sniffles and coughs all day and I don’t believe in breakfast.”
“But...you’re a doctor.” Tae will never cease to amaze her, on some level.
“Do as I say, not as I do. Anyway.” Tae shrugs and takes another bite, humming. “You seem better than yesterday, at the very least. Did you end up using the medication I gave you?”
“It...ended up not being necessary.” Please don’t blush, please don’t blush…Tae’s smile is dazzling and yet utterly without mercy, Haru finds, and the one she receives now is no different.
“I told that boy not to fuck around, but when I was his age I wouldn’t have listened to me, either. Have you two...oh, what’s the word I should use. Gained carnal knowledge of each other?” She’s having so much fun twisting Haru around her finger right now, but all she feels is a deep, profound lack of response. No shame, no horror. Though she does know that she would, if it weren’t buried so deeply. The ice is melting, but the blizzard buried her self deeply below, and it is not nearly excavated from the aftermath just yet.
“No.” The thought of last night disappears as quickly as it came, the sensation of feeling his hands against skin that has never been touched by another person before, the desperation that punched through every layer of her own existential ennui to beg for more, to crave so much more than this, to burn for it like a pyre made up of the self-denial that has so defined her life.
“Oh.” Her surprise is genuine, or seems close enough to the real thing to be indistinguishable. She closes her box of food, setting it on the table behind her and turning her full attention on Haru. “Hmm. Have you not...okay. Back to basics, Tae. How old are you?”
“17. I’m too young to have had my surgery in Tokyo, I was flown out of the country for it. My surgery was last month.” Oh, to realize just how little time has truly passed.
“Ah.” She can visibly see Tae deflate, disarmed by the reality of Haru’s life. “Okay. One moment, please.” She stands, crossing the room to the door out into the waiting room and opening it, closing it behind her. A barely-muffled ‘FUCK’ can be heard from the other room, followed by a short beat of silence before the door opens again and Tae walks through, smiling in a thoroughly practiced way that bears no resemblance to the previous one she unleashed on Haru. “I’m Dr. Tae Takemi, and I am very sorry for what your previous doctor, me, was putting you through.” Her voice is utterly changed, quiet and to the point. She doesn’t flourish or cross her legs or laugh. In fact, she leans forward, towards Haru, her hands clasped together over her knees. “She gets rather excitable and skips some of the more important parts of patient care when it suits her, and that is simply unacceptable in cases like your own where you have been chronically underserved and arguably abused by medical professionals and adults in your life.” She bows her head for a moment. “So. I’d like to start from the beginning and take a thorough medical history of your transition, if you’re ready for it.”
So she does. Starting from the very beginning, she recites the abbreviated story of her life, and feels absolutely nothing about the events she touches on as she goes. Not even the mention of Father makes her world distort and bend as it had last night, crushed under the weight of her denial. She feels cold, when she feels anything at all, but not now. Recounting everything from her daily life under Father to her medication regimen (she’ll need more of everything, she realizes), to the surgery and the names of her doctors, all of which Tae dispassionately notes with precision and asks questions only when Haru comes to a natural halt, it all happens at a remove for her, free from fear or worry. And finally, when she finishes relating the sanitized version of recent events, she stops and still feels nothing at all. It’s...freeing, to dispassionately view her own now-former life from without as well as she had from within.
“Have you ever been treated for anxiety or depression?” Tae’s question takes her by surprise, a pinpoint strike that pierces her newfound defenses with no effort.
“Why?” Haru hesitates to even reply, shocked beyond thought.
“Because you’re going to tear a hole in Akira’s only pair of sleep pants if you don’t stop twisting it like that.” Tae says gently, putting a hand over the fistful of fabric Haru hadn’t realized she was holding. Haru makes a small noise of shock, haltingly releasing her grip on it and biting her cheek. “Haru, I’m not going to start making you do things you’re not ready for. You have all the power in this office, not me. So, here’s what I think. You should take some time and think about what you want my help with, as your doctor. I would be happy to help you stay on your hormones, monitor those and that can be the end of it. Or. We can do more, if you want it.” She clears her throat. “That said, you need stability most of all, and that means housing.”
“I can afford to pay rent myself.”
“But no apartment owner in the city will take any renter without a guarantor, especially a 17 year old. So...given that Sojiro is probably going to be a bastard, and you don’t have anyone else…” Tae trails off, looking only mildly embarrassed. “I’d rather see you in a decent place than homeless. Obviously. So, I’ll step in and sign, if you need me to.”
“Right. I’ve got a few friends of friends I can reach out to in the area, they should be able to come up with something. That said, this isn’t a super fast process. Do you have anyone you can stay with besides Akira? I spoke with Sojiro this morning, and he isn’t going to let you and Akira fly solo again.”
“Maybe.” Ann leaps immediately to mind. “I’ll make some calls later.”
“Great. Worst case…” Tae gestures towards the cot under Haru.
“You’ve been wonderful, Doctor, but I’ll figure something out before I impose any further.” She can get a hotel room somewhere, if it comes to that. Better that than anything else.
“It’s not imposing if I’m offering, kid.” Tae shakes her head. “Anyway.” She turns away, digging a bag out from under the desk and holding it out to Haru. She can see her pink sweater through the thin plastic, along with the rest of her clothes and her bag. “Might as well get changed now. We all love the boyfriend clothes look, but sweats and a baggy top aren’t exactly fashion forward looks, even on you.” She picks up her food, stirring it and taking a bite. “And while you do that, I wanna pick your brain about what Akira is like outside the clinic.”
“Haruuuuuuuuu uuuuuuuuuuuuu!” Ann bursts through the front door of Leblanc, homing in on the smaller girl and crushing her under the strongest hug she’s ever experienced. Finally, when Ann’s grip releases her, she sits down in the booth next to her. “You’re gonna love it, I got the guest room all set up, and I’ve got a futon if you want to do this like in a manga, and the fridge is full of all sorts of great stuff, too! You don’t have to worry about a thing.” Haru can feel eyes on her back, but puts it down to Sojiro, given the utter lack of customers besides her.
“Sorry you couldn’t stay longer.” Sojiro says, coming out from around the counter. He really does look apologetic, as if he didn’t have any choice. Maybe he didn’t, somehow. Or maybe he still just doesn’t trust Akira fully.
“I felt bad taking advantage of both of your hospitalities, Sojiro.” Haru nods meaningfully to Akira behind the counter. “His bed really isn’t made to fit two, anyway.”
“Hi Ann!” Morgana leaps to the table, brushing himself against her sleeve. “Did you know Haru was here last night? And I got to sleep in Sojiro’s house! It’s realllllllly big,, and his bed is soooooo soft...”
“Oh, that’s great.” Ann says with a smile, scratching Morgana’s ear. “Haru and Akira sleeping all alone must have had a good night without you.” Ann laughs under her breath when Haru elbows her. “Sorry, sorry.”
“Havin’ anything, dear?” Sojiro says to Ann.
“Oh, cup of your finest, 3 creams 2 sugars, please.” Ann smiles.
“Put hers on my bill. And a refill, please.” Haru says to Sojiro, who nods with a smile and plucks her empty cup from the counter.
“Coming right up. You heard the ladies, kid.”
“It’s our last day before exams, and you’re working me to the bone?” Akira sighs, already pulling more beans to grind.
“It is? Oh shit, it totally is.” Ann says, looking at her calendar app and covering her eyes with a hand.
“Language!” Morgana chirps, moving over to Haru for attention. “What’s an exam?”
“Exams are bullshit.” Akira says, coming around the counter with two steaming cups of coffee.
“Hey! Languageeeeee, Akira!” Morgana turns in a circle and stares up at Akira, eyes narrowed.
“But,” Akira continues without replying, “they’re important, so we have to put our best foot forward.”
“That’s true. Should we get together to study sometime this week?” Haru says, her cup held halfway to her lips. “I’m going to be at Ann’s house anyway.”
“And I did just buy a ton of food that I can’t eat alone. Well, that I could probably eat alone, but definitely shouldn’t.” Ann nods sagely. Haru makes a note to watch Ann’s snack intake.
“Ooh, can I come too? I wanna exam too!” Morgana hops to his feet again, bouncing around the countertop excitedly until he misjudges a jump and lands on the other side of the booth seating from the girls. He springs halfway back up, his front paws perched on the countertop and looking for all the world like Leblanc’s smallest patron.
“Is it okay for Akira to be out late?” Haru turns to Akira’s guardian, who shrugs.
“I dunno, you tell me. I can’t be bothered to keep a leash on him, so I figured you might as well.” Well, Haru happens to know that she palmed the key to the cafe to Akira the very night she received it, so that particular secret is still in Akira’s pocket, it would seem.
“I’ll be sure to keep him in line.” She fakes an ‘ah, of course, how could I forget’ smile for Sojiro and nods.
“Good.” Apparently satisfied at that, Sojiro sits down by the bar, picking up his newspaper and folding it open.
“So it’s a double date study date! Great!” Ann whoops, her coffee that had only just arrived already half-gone. Haru sips hers much more slowly, smiling sheepishly up at Akira. She’s feeling a little more herself, but the glittery look in his eye when he looks back doesn’t inspire anything, when she knows it should. “Ooh, Haru, we should probably go.”
“Already?” Akira looks surprised. “You just got here, hang out for a bit.”
“I wanna, but if we don’t go now, we won’t have time to make all the stops Haru’s gonna need. A little bit of clothes, at least some pajamas, toiletries, miscellaneous stops for snacks…” Ann is counting off on her fingers, grinning. The combination of caffeine and sugar in Ann Takamaki shouldn’t be legal, in Haru’s opinion. That said, she would not relish borrowing someone’s pajamas a second time in two nights, so her planning is appreciated.
“I suppose you’re right.” Haru sighs. Before Ann can try to stop her, Haru gathers up both of their cups and holds them out to Akira, who accepts them and heads into the kitchen. If she’s to spend the next few hours with Ann alone, better to have her at 150% thanks to the caffeine and not 400%. She stands, gathering her bag and giving Morgana one last pet for the road before turning to Sojiro. “Thank you, once again, for your hospitality.”
“Try not to make a habit of it, alright? It worries me when I have you kids coming in and out of here at all hours of the night.” Sojiro smiles softly. “I hope everything works out for you, Haru.”
“Thank you.” Haru nods, a spark of warmth flickering to life in her chest for just a moment.
“Haru.” Akira says, having rushed back to her side, his hands still damp from finishing up the washing. “I’ll see you soon.” She nods and he leans down, kissing her briefly. That flicker of warmth blossoms into fire, a flash of heat and the events of last night flickering across her mind for an instant before vanishing.
“Not while you’re on the clock, Casanova. Back in the kitchen with you.” Sojiro grumps, and Akira turns away to return to his work, but not before they share an exasperated look together at the old man’s griping.
“Bye, guys! Have a nice night!” Ann calls, taking Haru’s hand as they exit the cafe. “Ahh, I feel great. Okay, I know things aren’t great, but that doesn’t mean we can’t look on the bright side! Sleepover!” Ann’s excitement would be infectious, were she a little more herself. She can feel herself waking up bit by bit, but the process is still far too slow for her liking. “And I set up a meet with Yusuke! We’re gonna go over to his studio next Sunday for the thing, try to get some info out of him.”
“The artist?” It took Haru a moment to connect the name and the face, the boy from...only last night? Life has been far too much for her of late.
“Yep. He showed me some stuff, and let me follow his private Insta profile.” Ann thumbs her phone open, swiping through apps and humming to herself until she pulls up the right one. “Here, look.” She holds out her phone to Haru, swiping through a collage of photos of canvases and sketches, as well as the odd selfie. His post dates are infrequent, rarely more than one a week, more often several between posts. His comments on the posts themselves are mordant when they aren’t downright morbid.
“What is this?”
“Insta. You know, the ‘gram, all that?” Ann looks shocked when Haru shakes her head. “It’s—Oh my god, even Ryuji has a freakin’ Instagram, Haru.”
“It’s not as if I’ve had anyone to share photos with before now.” Haru says, unperturbed.
“Not even Mako-chan?”
“No.” She must explain all of that to Ann later. At least she knows Ann won’t have a problem with the nature of their prior entanglement.
“Ah. Well, you do now! C’mon, let’s get a seat on the train and I’ll help you set it up. I’m calling first post first selfie dibs, by the way!” By the time they get to their stop, they’ve set her up with a profile and taken about half a dozen photos together on the train, all of which Haru rejected out of hand. Her smile is all wrong in every single one.
It looks altogether too much like a mask to her.
The minor downer of their failure to set Haru up for Instagram stardom is paved over by their shopping trip. They end up at a fairly average department store, picking out clothes and essentials first (underwear shopping still activates the hypervigilance center of Haru’s mind, even like this) and moving on to the more boring prosaic shopping, of deodorant and body wash, lotion and toothpaste. Ann has to be gently reminded that Haru doesn’t need certain things, which is gratifying in it’s own way. A reminder to herself that not everyone lives in her head. And when they emerge from the store, laden down with bag upon bag upon bag of necessities and a lighter bank account balance for them both, the sun is low on the horizon, and they are both exhausted and ready to head home.
“Thanks.” Ann says as she fumbles with the front door lock, having just handed Haru the remainder of her share of the shopping bags from their department store trip. She’s got just about everything she could ever need to live, stuffed in a surprisingly cute duffel bag (in royal purple, thanks to Ann flagging down a bored-looking attendant), along with just about anything else Ann could think of to get her so she could properly live alone in the future. Ann hasn’t made direct reference to Father or her disownment, in what must surely be a full-hearted attempt to keep her from reliving past events, focusing solely on what she would need now that she was living independently. Haru didn’t realize how much she would appreciate the gesture until it happened.
Inside, Ann’s home is much like any westernized but still thoroughly Japanese home, which Haru has only seen in catalogues and stock photos before now. A small wooden genkan as she walks in, a raised wood walkway through the side of the house, opening onto fully enclosed rooms along the left side. A light is already on further into the home.
“Is someone home?” Haru asks as she carefully steps out of her shoes.
“Oh, I forgot to turn that off! Haha, silly me.” Ann says, her voice just a hair too high for her normal speaking voice. She sheds her shoes lightning-quick and power walks down the hall, grabbing the bags Haru set down. “C’mon we better go get these put away before they spoil!” She says, holding bags of toiletries and not the set of snacks Ann picked out specifically for Haru (so she won’t poach them, she explained at the time). Definitely lying, then. Is she planning...something? What could she possibly be planning at this hour? The light still being on is the only reason there’s any light at all in the entryway, the sun having fallen below the horizon at least an hour ago. She follows after Ann shortly after, and catches a whiff of something as she rounds the corner at the end of the hall.
“Heyyyyy! Dinner’s just finishing, y’all!” Ryuji Sakamoto waves from next to the dining room table, wearing a white apron dusted with flour and various old and new stains. Arrayed in front of him is a heaping platter covered in carefully fried gyoza in various piles, interspersed with little dishes of soy sauce and other liquids. And right next to him is Akira, wearing his apron from Leblanc, carefully doling out heaping bowls of rice and setting them around the table from a steaming rice cooker. And before she can open her mouth to say anything, Ann envelops her in another hug, one that bears half the strength of the first one and is many times more gentle for it. It’s all she can do not to collapse into her arms, to let her legs give way and fall against her and just let go of holding herself together for one moment.
And then another pair of arms encircle her, and another, and she can hear Morgana chirping up at them excited greetings and her brain blocks out the rest, everything whiting out except this moment, etching every event into her mind. Her friends are here, her friends are here for her, they will always be here for her, she asked for none of this and they have freely given her all of their love anyway. She’s not sure if she is capable of crying right now, but she can feel the urge, the pavlovian need to show how she feels to the world.
“I love you all.” She whispers it, clutching onto Ann’s jacket for purchase and letting go, letting herself fall limp in their arms and be held aloft purely by their strength and the depth of their care for her.
Test week is grueling. Especially for Ryuji Sakamoto, who has never considered himself the most academically-minded guy in the world. Not to mention, even if they did study afterwards, him and Ann and Akira spent Sunday night cheering Haru up with food and laughter and that takes a lot out of a guy. So Monday, he shows up maybe a little late, but not super late. Like 5 minutes, tops. It could have been worse. And he doesn’t think anything of it, because his teacher just rolls their eyes and sets the test down in front of him. No big deal, obviously. And nothing comes of it, so he leaves at the end of the day feeling alright about the test, and everybody meets up to study some more. Sure, it’s just cram stuff, but hey, it helps.
Haru’s still pretty quiet though. It worries him, a little. Ann says she’s doing okay, and is making sure she gets food at home and takes care of herself, which is great. He’s super glad that Ann agreed to help Haru out, not like he ever thought she wouldn’t, but he’s glad anyway. He just wishes he could do more.
The days pass pretty quickly when you spend all day looking at test sheet after test sheet, wrecking his brain trying to remember what a hypotenuse is and how you use it, or what Meiji-era politico fucked everybody up so bad. And then he goes right out of school to study for the next thing, and it just never ends! He goes for jogs on the way home just to give himself some cooldown time between thinking, thinking, and the next day of thinking. Akira tags along most of those nights, nearly as quiet as Haru has been but good company anyway. They’ve got this comfortable silence thing going on lately, and it’s pretty cool. He’s glad Akira feels comfortable enough to just...not make a big deal out of being around him.
It’s not a crush. He’s sure, he’s happy with Ann and Shiho and getting to talk to them and visit Shiho now that she’s moving around a little better. And being with Ann is by far his favorite part of recent events. But...well, it feels like it, sometimes. When he’s around Akira, something feels funny. When he sees Akira stare off into the middle distance when he’s done drinking from Ryuji’s water bottle, there’s something there.
Ann thinks it’s just the feeling of wanting Akira to be okay. Ryuji’s an empathetic guy, after all, which she constantly reminds him of whenever he gets fucked up about Haru’s life when they were figuring out the Sugimura shit. It’s okay to be mad for someone else, you just gotta put it aside when you’re trying to live your life. And he’s not so good at that, yet. He hates seeing people treated bad, always has. And...okay, he’s seen Leblanc, so he knows Akira can’t be living that good.
The week passes fast. And then it’s Friday morning, he’s on time, everything’s great. Just two more days of tests left. He even wore an actual button-up shirt, and has been since little miss Principal’s Girl made a big deal about uniform violations. It even fits, since Ann got it for him ages ago and he just never wore it except when they were out on weekends.
But when he sees Makoto Niijima waiting at the gate, he feels something in his gut that tells him he’s walking into trouble.
It’s only once she turns to look at him that he sees the box of black hair dye in her hand.
“Fuck this!” Ann hisses, stomping around the tiny landing at the top of the stairs, still obeying Makoto’s silent edict that they not disturb the roof. Haru can’t help but stare at Ryuji behind her, leaning against the wall and utterly silent.
His blonde hair has been fully supplanted by black. The work of Makoto, apparently.
“She can’t do this shit! It’s total bullshit!” Ann keeps ranting, pacing furiously.
“But they can.” Akira, perched on the desk next to Haru, points out. “She’s just exercising the rights Kobayakawa gave her.”
“You’re agreeing with her?!” Ann rounds on Akira, fury burning in her eyes.
“Ann, c’mon, stop.” Ryuji says next to her, grimacing. “He’s not bein’ like that. He’s saying she’s not breaking the rules punishin’ me.”
“Right.” Akira nods. “She has every right to crack down. So we can’t fight back, without getting expelled, or giving up to her demands. Which is for us to stop hanging around Haru.”
Haru’s lip twitches, and in her mind she feels something shift. Something old, that hurts to move.
“Fuck that.” Ann says. “She doesn’t rule our lives any more than the school does. I’m not abandoning my friend.”
“Seriously.” Ryuji agrees, folding his arms across his chest. He doesn’t even seem mad, honestly. Just...sad.
“So, what do we do?” Akira says, hugging his leg to his chest, the other dangling to the floor. “Can she even have a Palace at our age?”
“Maybe.” Morgana says, emerging from Akira’s bag next to him. “We’d have to test it and find out.”
“Whatever. I don’t wanna make this a big thing.” Ann stops moving at last, sighing. “I honestly wanna just kick her ass.”
“Down, girl.” Akira smirks. “Just let it go, for now. We can’t retaliate. Yet. Focus on our other job, alright?”
“Man. Yusuke is gonna be pissed, he made such a big deal out of our hair whenever we’ve talked about it.” Ryuji sighs. “Maybe I just dye my hair back for a day?”
“No way, your hair is crunchy enough as it is.” Ann leans against the wall next to him, and Haru is startled by just how strange they look together without Ryuji’s matching hair color. She hadn’t realized how much it contributed to her image of him until it was removed.
Akira looks at his phone, groaning. “Sojiro wants me home for coffee lesson crap. I just get done with test week and now he’s gonna quiz me about soil acidity. See you tomorrow?” The last bit is directed to Haru, smiling softly.
“See you then.” She gives him a brief kiss and a pat on the shoulder. “Don’t let the old man get to you.”
“He won’t shut up about coffee long enough to say anything that’ll piss me off these days. Text me, okay?”
“Bye, Haru!” Mona shouts out of the back of Akira’s bag as they descend the stairs.
“Okay. Bye, Morgana.” She waves at Akira’s retreating back. They’ve exchanged messages nearly every night since she’s started staying with Ann, and it’s done wonders for her, as has the constant studying and get-togethers. Having something serious to focus on has given her time to recover somewhat, though she still feels so beyond strange, in so many ways. The rest of the school looks at her the same as it has before, but she feels like an alien in her own skin, more often than not.
“I’m gonna go. Got a lot on my mind.” Ryuji pushes off the wall, giving Ann a quick kiss on the cheek before hurrying down the stairs. Ann groans angrily and slouches harder against the wall. Haru moves over to her, leaning on the wall and pushing her shoulder against Ann’s.
“You’re taking this very hard.” Haru observes, watching her friend closely. They’ve spent plenty of time together over the last few days, even outside of their group gatherings, and it’s frankly been some of the best days of Haru’s life. Ann fights to make the day as positively normal as she can. She’s not much of a cook, but she gets up early and gets toast ready for them both for their train ride to Shibuya where they meet everyone else. Haru would honestly do anything to help her out, even just a little.
“It’s just...ugh.” Ann crosses her arms across her chest, sighing. “Ryuji started doing his hair in middle school. He thought it was fucked up, his words, that kids would say shit to me about my hair or my looks. So...he just started bleaching, one day. Ran up on a pair of girls calling me a whore and started shouting if he was one too. They ran off.”
“That’s certainly...Ryuji-esque.” Haru manages, smiling.
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s definitely him. Shiho was pissed when she found out, because she’d been trying to find a wig that looks enough like her hair that she wouldn’t have had to bleach it to do the same thing. Jocks think alike, I guess.” Ann’s wan smile makes something in Haru’s heart lurch again, another stab of pain filling her chest.
“Did he ever stop, when you weren’t together?”
“Nope Not even once..” Ann says, pushing off the wall. “I even asked one of the teachers if he would ever have to, first year I was here. They haven’t forced a student to dye their hair black like the charter requires since the 90s. Fuck. I have to do something, but…”
That painful part of her heart shifts, snapping something in half. Haru realizes then that she has been thinking of her heart the wrong way up until now. Before, she had imagined the distance from herself as a layer of ice just beneath her skin, separating her heart from her body as armor. But she realizes as it shatters that it was not armor but shielding, pushing her roiling emotions deeper and deeper until it formed a circular mass of pain and hurt in the center of her chest, contained by a thick sheet of frost, protecting the rest of her from what was within.
And when it breaks, Haru finds that the only thing left in it is rage.
“I have an idea. How willing are you to step out of your comfort zone?” Haru says.
“For him?” Ann pauses, grimacing. “I’d do anything for him.”
“Okay.” Haru thumbs her phone open, tapping a contact number she hasn’t had occasion to use in months. “Hello? Yes, this is Haru Okumura. I’d like to make an emergency appointment for a color and style. Yes, for two.”
The last day of exams finally comes, and Makoto Niijima is waiting at the gate for it. With this sort of thing, she’s always busy, what with exam cheaters, the odd answer key she has to hunt down, and the same general moral degeneracy she’s come to expect from the student body. She actually caught a student Friday with some unidentified pill he was taking by the sinks in the practice building. He didn’t even look surprised to see her, like he’s just too out of it to process her presence. He definitely reacted to her taking it, though, and to his summary suspension.
It’s worrying, frankly. This didn’t used to be a school that had a problem with drugs. It’s the first since she started here, but she can’t help but wonder if it won’t be the last.
Oh well. She has other things to worry about. Namely, she’s definitely looking forward to seeing if Sakamoto was stupid enough to think he could just dye his hair back that night. She’s got a second set of black hair dye in her bag for just such an occasion. Mostly, she just wants to know that he’s gonna take the hint and stay gone. Haru doesn’t need him hanging around, and he should just give up trying to stand out. After all, look where it got him: an injured knee and a near-expulsion? Makoto learned her lesson about standing out a long time ago and now it’s his turn, that’s all this is.
Honestly, she doesn’t want to get these three arrested for blackmail, like Kobayakawa wants. If she can warn them off and let this fade from the public eye, then all the better. The only thing they did wrong was teach scum like Kamoshida a lesson he apparently needed. That said, she will do anything to keep them away from Haru. She doesn’t need trash like that corrupting her. Maybe if she has to, she’ll appeal to Haru’s father. Kunikazu would surely see her reasoning and ensure her safety.
Surely one adult in their lives will see reason, right?
“Sup, prez?” Makoto startles at the jovial voice in her ear, leaping to the side and instinctively raising her hands and falling into her aikido stance before she sees who is talking to her and relaxes. It’s Ryuji Sakamoto grinning at her, his coat slung over his shoulder and the sleeves of his uniform shirt rolled up to the elbows. His hair is still as black as it had been when he emerged from the private bathroom she locked him in. “Waitin’ for someone?”
“Us, probably. How’s your morning going, miss president?” But Ann Takamaki next to him looks nothing like she was expecting. The golden cascade of curly hair down past her shoulders has disappeared. Instead, her hair has been razored severely short, styled and mussed towards the top in a feminine echo of Sakamoto’s hairstyle and clipped just as short on the sides. In fact, on one side it is shaved deeper than the other, with long horizontal notches carved into the side past her ear. And every bit of it is dyed black.
“...What did you do?” Makoto breathes, too shocked to stop herself.
“Just showin’ a little bit of solidarity with my boyfriend, miss president.” Ann pulls Ryuji close, grinning and leaning her head against his. “Look, we match again!”
“You...you didn’t have to, to do that…” Makoto trails off, her jaw dropping as a third person emerges from behind Ann, a smile from Makoto’s dreams on her lips. No...no no no. It can’t be.
“Oh, but we wanted to. We don’t accept punishment lying down, after all. Consider this a declaration of intent,” Haru Okumura says, brushing glossy raven-black hair that almost sparkles in the sunlight back behind her ear, “Mako-chan.”