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On a rainy April day in Tokyo, Haru Okumura sits on her haunches under the small overhang of the roof, watching the rain pour down on the hastily-hung tarp over her prized potatoes. Despite the damp, the air is thick with the smell of cloves, the fragrant smoke only partially hazing the features of Akira Kurusu, the new student a year below her and the other occupant of the roof.

Despite the administration's near-nonexistent efforts to the contrary, rumors of his crimes were rampant across the school; violent assault, indecent exposure, weapons possession, moral crimes too grave to name (but not to grave to imply). She'd heard them all, and seen him in the flesh only on occasion. It’s easy enough to imagine why he might want to go to the off-limits roof. As for Haru, well—

She had special dispensation from the student council president to use the roof for her own purposes, as payment for her work on the school's beautification, and a favor to a friend; more of a way to silo her off, save the administration a few headaches and give Haru safe harbor from the school’s prying eyes. They’d never known how to deal with someone like her elsewhere, so why would it be any different here? She’d grown used to it, over the years and the prep schools.

“The door says no entry, you know.” Haru shoots a look up at Akira where he slouches against the wall next to her, cigarette dangling in one hand and lighter flipping through an intricate series of movements across his knuckles in the other.

“Doors propped open with chairs are rarely actually ‘no entry’, just ‘some entry’, in my experience.”

“But it—” She huffs out a breath in the cold air, turning back to her potatoes. Stupid argument to make. The only reason she has to do it is that the administration doesn't want to print her a key, and she hates bothering Mako-chan when she needs to change soil or aerate. Or anything at all. She had been taught well the benefits of a presence that is seen but not heard from her father. “Do you need to smoke so close to my plants?” Not that she always acted on those trained impulses.

“Nowhere else to smoke here. Unless you want me to move closer to you, instead.” Haru wrinkles her nose, and Akira laughs under his breath. “I'm not hearing a no.”

“…If you must. The smoke is bad for the leaves. If I get in trouble for the smell, I'll not protect you.” Haru pulls herself just slightly closer together as Akira shuffles closer, sitting down on the cold concrete next to her, one long leg stretched out in front of him and his cigarette hand resting on the uplifted knee of the other.

“So, Okumura, right? Like the foods? Galaxy burger or—” He makes a dismissive gesture with his cigarette hand. “I'm not from Tokyo, I'm sure you'll forgive me being unfamiliar with the local brands.” Akira smirk when Haru's lips tighten, but she says nothing, so he continues. “Does Daddy have you practicing up here so you can run the business someday? Real farm bred wisdom to conquer the urban markets. If you want some tips, my dad grows rice out near Inaba, I could—”

“That won't be necessary, thank you.” Haru cuts in, tone acidic. “I'm doing this because I want to. Nothing more.”

Akira laughs, nodding and taking a drag of his cigarette, blowing the cloud leisurely away from them both, as well as the tarp-covered plants. “I see. I didn't know they still armed princesses with tongues that sharp. Maybe I should cut it out and save the whole school some pain.”

Haru's heart stops for a moment until a sharp glance sideways reveals the lie behind Akira's words. His voice is full of malice, but…there's no steel behind his threat, just air. She’d learned the difference long ago. This criminal student just looks tired beyond his years, dark circles under his eyes that the eyeshadow he's applied only covers up from a distance. The last few years have taught Haru that monsters rarely cloak themselves in weakness, especially in private. They delight too much in the fear of others to look so…beaten.

Something about Akira Kurusu is deeply intriguing to her. Haru decides in that moment that she likes him. She smiles back at him, a smile she has practiced in a mirror for years to not show an inch of the true emotion that hides underneath; the trepidation of putting your hand on a revolver someone else loaded and spinning the chamber. “I'd like to see you try.”

The next day, as she is tearing down the tarp and taking stock of the storm damage, mentally calculating how many new sacks of soil she will need and how many pills of pain medication to help with the fact that she’s not supposed to be lifting anything heavier than a cup still, the door opens behind her. She turns, bundling the tarp folded neatly against her chest, and finds Akira in the doorway, frowning at her from under a hoodie, and two blondes she doesn't recognize behind him bickering in the stairwell.

“I thought I already told you about the no entry sign.” Haru keeps her expression cold, all too aware how defensive her posture is. Akira sighs, turning back to the other two and whispering something to them. The blonde boy mutters something just barely inaudible to Haru’s ears, but the blonde girl grabs him by the arm and drags him downstairs before he can say anything else. Akira turns once they're gone, putting his hands in his pockets.

“I'm a bad listener, I suppose.” He shrugs. “So, are you up here a lot, then? We were kind of making use of the facilities for awhile without seeing you.”

“I was…out of the country. Now I'm back.” She fights down the nausea that roils in her stomach at the thought, swallowing and tilting her chin upwards to meet Akira's eyes. “What exactly are you three doing up here? If you give me a good reason, perhaps I'll turn a blind eye. But it seems to me that I am well within my rights to be up here, and you are not.”

Akira's stony expression splits into a grin. “Wow. You've got the princess thing down, don't you? Okay…look. I really just wanted somewhere to smoke in peace without having to worry about the administration. They think only you're up here.”

Haru watches his expression, instantly suspicious. Surely the rumors can't be totally wrong. He must have done something. But…his demeanor is too strange for her to read. Interesting.

“Then smoke. Away from the plants, thank you.” Haru huffs and turns away, stuffing the tarp back under the AC unit behind her. When she turns back, he's already lit himself a cigarette, but is offering another to her. “No.”

“Oh, come on. For all I know, this is a sting to get me busted. Girl I’ve never seen shows up, and I hear she’s friends with the student council president…The only way I know you're not working for Them is if you smoke with me. Besides, it'll take me forever to clear this pack out on my own, and I'm getting my stuff searched at home Friday.” He holds it out a little closer, his smirk fading. “Help a guy out.”

She snatches the cigarette from him and looking skeptically from it to him, then puts it in her mouth. That grin that fits his features so well returns as his lighter appears in his other hand. “You might want to turn it around, Princess.” She flips it around endwise with a small scoff, locking eyes with him as he lights it in the fading afternoon sunlight. He stands closer to her, shielding her body and the lighter from the wind with his own, inches away from touching her but achingly close nonetheless. She can swear she can feel heat coming off of him like a fireplace, but puts it down to the chill of the roof air and the small lick of fire so close to her face.

A clatter at the door beside them reveals the two blondes returning with several plastic bags full of snacks. The blonde girl speaks first, dumping her load of bags on one of the spare desks. “Well, sorry it took so l— Hey, I thought you were getting rid of her.”

“Change of plans, we're off today. Just relax, and enjoy the company of our Princess. We’ve still got time to spare.”

Haru takes a small drag of the cigarette like she's seen her father do hundreds of times, like his business partners, and blows it down at the floor, away from her plants, dropping the hand holding it down to her side and ashing it into an empty pot. Haru blinks away tears as the acrid taste of cloves fills her throat and she locks eyes with the blonde girl. They stare at one another for a silent moment until the blonde girl raises an eyebrow, then shrugs.

“Does she like cola? Because Ryuji only got cola.”

“I did NOT!”

Haru is positive they're petty criminals. They (she does at least learn the names of the blondes, Ryuji and Ann; another misfit and probably Ryuji’s girlfriend, she figures) come up on the roof every few days together. They give her no more than a nod of greeting at best, and disappear off behind the AC unit where they can't be seen to talk about something or other in hushed whispers. Most days, they aren't even up here for more than an hour before they disappear back down the stairwell without a word. Regardless, Haru never leaves the roof while they’re there, and always checks out their spot after. It's spotless, except for the occasional cigarette butt left by their ringleader, stuffed in an old plastic bottle.

Akira comes alone on days that the other two do not. He doesn't seem to have anywhere he wants to be, so he's settled for a companionable silence with Haru. She doesn't mind it. Mostly, she watches him out of the corner of her eye while she works, the boy seemingly content to do the same. He shares another cigarette with her every so often, but never two days in a row, or in front of the others. “We're gonna run out if you go any faster, you know,” he quips. She runs extra dirt on her hands when she goes downstairs on those days, so she can blame her soil blend for the smell. No one asks.

They don't talk, but she learns more about Akira anyways, thanks to the incessant rumor mongering of the rest of the school. She does her best to filter out the truth (or what she thinks sounds right) from the noise. Assault, a country town, a family that shipped him to a relative or abandoned him entirely to clear their good name. If Haru were him, she'd just want to be left alone after that, too. Like she doesn't already want to be left alone as it is. Some very different circumstances can lead to the same feeling, it seems.

It's on another rainy day when he comes upstairs alone before school is over, as she puts the finishing touches on several extra tarps to angle the wind away from her garden before the storm gets stronger. She steps under the overhang of the building, wiping her thoroughly soaked hair out of her face and blinking to clear her vision.

Haru watches as Akira strips out of his equally doused jacket, wringing it like a towel onto the concrete. Underneath, his similarly wet and very not-in-dress-code orange tee shirt with a vulgar slogan that had been hidden clings to his chest, revealing so many hard angles that make Haru's breath catch in her throat, until her sight drifts up to his shoulder. There's a lumpy bundle under his shirt on one side, blood soaking through the dressing underneath and turning the vivid fabric a deep red.

“Oh my god, wha—” Haru freezes, caught between every thought that screams ‘run’ in her head and every empathetic impulse in her heart to rush to his aid, to find the ones who hurt him and break them and — All of these thoughts come to a crashing halt when a…cat? A cat walks out of his bag at his feet, caterwauling and howling, turning its head between the both of them like it’s trying to hold a conversation.

“Shut up, Morgana, holy shit.” Akira nods his head in sympathy to Haru. “Cats. You should probably go. I’ll be awhile.” Akira turns, picking up his bag and placing it on one of the desks under the overhang, Morgana (the cat, apparently) jumping up next to it and continuing its stream of chatter.

“Wh, but, cat, and your shoulder, and—” Akira shoots her a look over his shoulder that is pure ice.

“It doesn’t concern you. Go.”

A tone she’s heard a thousand times in her life, always from people who think they know better than her. It’s infuriating. She clenches her fist, fighting to keep her expression neutral and failing, eyebrows kitting together into a scowl. “The hell it isn’t. You came up here, at this hour, because you knew I would be here! I told you as much, don’t feign ignorance, you…” Eyes fixed on his bloody shoulder, she can’t help but soften. Such a bloody wound…

She sighs angrily at herself, tearing her eyes away from it and towards his face as he turns back to her, crossing his arms over his chest. “Why are you here, and what happened to your shoulder?”

“It—” He laughs, grimacing. “This is stupid. I’m not telling you anything. Just leave. It’ll be better for you that way.”

Before she has time to even think of what she’s doing, Haru charges forward, grabbing him by the collar with both hands and yanking him downwards, mashing her lips against his as she steals her first kiss from a boy she can’t make heads or tails of. After a few moments, Akira's hand on her shoulder very gently parts them, and she stares him dead in the eye, blushing and furious at how even his expression is despite the effect she had intended.

“Tell me.”

“Princess, that isn't how this works. I don't kiss and tell.” His awful, snide grin pops up again and she slaps him, hard, wiping it from his face in an instant. She steps away, clenches her stinging hand around the hem of her track jacket for stability, anything at all just to hold onto that isn't him. Why did she do any of that? What was the point? Why is he still holding onto her shoulder?

“Tell me or damn you, I’ll—” Haru works her jaw, searching for the right words. “I already involved myself, so your oh-so valiant attempts to protect me are pointless and egotistical at best.”

Akira doesn't bother to hold the rapidly reddening spot on his cheek, watching Haru's fury with a stare equal parts distant and focused. “Huh, sugar and spice….Well, I’ll give it to you, cat, you were right. It was a bad idea. Morgana, go home.” The cat leaps down to his feet, a nonstop stream of chatter broken by a wordless glance. The cat looks between them and shakes its head before disappearing into a gap in the roof fence and out into the rain. Akira finally releases Haru's shoulder and sits down on the edge of the table behind him. “Ask me again. So I give you the right answer, since I figure you probably got a lotta’ questions in that fluffy head of yours.”

“Where did you get hurt? Why?” Haru slowly releases the hem of her jacket, crossing her arms across her chest.

“At school. Technically. On school grounds. I slipped, and—” He grimaces. “I made a mistake, and I'm making those two pay for it, too. Suzui.”

“The jumper?” Haru had been gone the day it happened, sick to her stomach from post-surgical pain and the meds.

“Their best friend. She's in critical care now, and Kamoshida got her there.”

“The gym teacher?” Haru grimaces, memories of a dozen close calls with him in physical education flickering by. She fights the urge to wonder why she wasn’t a juicy enough target; too much trouble with the family name, maybe. “…Awful. I'm sorry. But that much blood doesn't just happen from a fight. A fight that he isn't reporting?”

Akira pulls his bag into his lap, rifling through it and pulling fresh dressings and tape from within, stripping out of his shirt without warning. Haru squeaks in surprise, turning away from him and staring at the wall and leaving him in her periphery. She can see his expression change, and hates herself for just a moment for having such a childish reaction to someone she just kissed.

“Something like that. He's holding expulsion over two of us, and Ann…”

“The rumors.” Haru finishes, shaking her head. “I never thought…” She sighs, shaking her head. “My trying to put in a good word with the class president would be pointless with this much against you, wouldn't it.” Akira grunts a response, teeth gripping the tape as he tries to get the dressing to sit correctly. Huffing, Haru turns and snatches the roll from his mouth, wrapping around his shoulder once so it'll stay put. “You must learn to ask for help eventually, bad boy. I thought you learned that when you started coming around here.”

“Maybe you could teach me sometime.” Her affronted scoff gets a chuckle from Akira, and he pulls his shirt back on. “You're soaked, you know. Really gonna hang out here the rest of the day looking like that?”

“I have clothes I can change into. Besides…What else would I do? I have to wait for the chauffeur.”

“Ditch. Come with me. I need more stuff for…stuff. Could always use a spotter.”

Haru squints up at him, instantly suspicious. “What sort of stuff?”

“Ask me no questions and I shall tell you no lies, Princess.” He bows elegantly, extending a hand for her to take.

Blatantly foolish. Father has made clear his opinion on the students of the high school, and that the only reason he considers even letting her stay is her education holds some bargaining power. Just a pawn on the board, slowly advancing for him. She will be a Queen on his board very soon, but not soon enough to change her fate before it’s too late.

Unless a black rook strikes and steals her away.

It’s not like it’s the first time Haru has ever been to Shibuya Underground Mall, or even the most eventful, but the entire afternoon is…energizing. To blatantly defy her father’s wishes, with a boy she is willing to admit she feels something for, even if the form of that feeling still feels strange to her, is undeniably exciting.

As is the shoplifting.

They move slowly, so as to be seen simply as gawkers or lookey-loos. Akira explains as he goes. “Watch the attendants, but not closely. Find something to look at and use that as a screen so it looks like you’re looking at it, but you’re watching them. Magazines, a box of pain medication, whatever.” He passes her a bottle of weak pain medication, turning it over. “I need stuff with naproxen or ibuprofen. Just a few bottles. I’m gonna go talk him up while you grab it. Don’t look around or look scared while you put it in your bag. Can you do that?”

She turns over the box again, nodding to herself.

“We’ll make a criminal of you yet, Princess. When you’re clear, walk to the cosmetics, pick something cheap, buy it, and leave. They’re less likely to question someone who bought something. I’ll come out after you in a few minutes, meet me by the jewelry store in the middle. If they come for you and ask you to stop, run. Don’t look for me, just run, get out of sight, and go home. Tell Daddy you forgot to tell him you wanted to go shopping today or something.” He walks away without waiting for a response, waving to the attendant and engaging them in small talk facing the other way.

It’s surreal, but she does as she’s asked, thinking all the while of the small vial of tramadol in her bag, hidden in a battered pink vinyl bag she’s had since she was 7. When Haru finishes, she stretches, biting her tongue to keep from groaning at the pain in her stomach. She knows shouldn’t be moving around as much as she has, lifting the things she has, but she’s also too stubborn to stop. She knows punishing herself for finally getting the surgery she dreamed of since she was old enough to understand what it was is childish in the extreme, as well, and yet…

She picks out black nail polish (she typically never uses the stuff, and always ruins every manicure she’s ever gotten within a week with her garden work) , and after a moment’s consideration a tube of eyeliner named Noir. Cheap, terrible stuff, barely 400 yen combined. She’s convinced she’ll break out if she uses it. The attendant doesn’t give her a second look as he rings her up, handing her the bag and smiling to the next customer behind her.

The jewelry store is more kitsch than she expected, an open-air stall full of steel and silver and bronze, leather and woven cloth and hemp. She browses, lingering by a display of silvered rings with intricate twisted designs worked onto them.

“It’s our first date, and you’re stuck on a ring?” Akira appears as if from nowhere beside her, leaning over her shoulder to look at the display. “I always wondered why celebrities moved so fast, maybe it’s the money.” He picks one up, rolling it between thumb and forefinger.

“Not really your style, I thought.” Haru nods towards his hand.

“The ring, or marriage?” Haru grunts noncommittally, and he grins. “Well, you’re not wrong.” He puts it down. “Pick something out. We can commemorate your first successful operation.” She whirls on him, eyes going wide in shock before she realizes the intended meaning. “What, embarrassed?”

“N-no, I—Nevermind. Must I?” She looks back at the stall, frowning.

“I must insist. All the better to blackmail you with when you’re rich and powerful. A man like me has to build connections, y’know.” Haru can’t help but snort, thinking of where she’ll probably be in 5 years. Wife to a waste of skin who owns Tokyo’s biggest fast-food franchise. Glorious.

“Don’t get your hopes up, bad boy.” She drifts past him to the necklaces, trailing a hand through the hanging metal until she comes to a stop on a metal pendant worked into the shape of a half-split-open pomegranate, the fruit painted to distinguish it. The pricetag is nearly double the cost of everything she stole for—with—him today. She picks it, holding it out to him with a smile. His good mood doesn’t vanish at seeing the pricetag, and that tells her everything. So does the way his hands linger by her neck when she asks him to put it on for her, fingertips brushing against bare skin leaving a tingling that doesn’t go away, and a persistent flutter in her chest. This wasn’t about money, or desperation. There’s something else going on with Akira Kurusu, and she has no idea what his game is, but she’s delighted to keep dancing along.

Anything to distract her from the other game she’s an unwilling part of.

“You know, it did start raining more once you came back. Are you a witch, perhaps, Princess?” Akira nods to the window of the cafe they’re sitting inside, rain is coming down in sheets against the glass.

“Have you run out of conversation starters already, bad boy? We’ve been together maybe two hours.” They had made several more stops after the jewelry store; bandages and tape, soft drinks, even some straight-up supplements from a Don Quixote they almost got caught in. “Here, try this one, maybe. ‘How is your pancake?’” She nods towards her empty plate, having long ago finished eating. She rolls the tube of Noir between her fingers, trying to emulate the trick Akira had shown her days ago with his lighter and flubbing it onto the table between them only to pick it back up and try again. Akira snorts, rolling his eyes. “No? How about ‘thank you for your help, Okumura-senpai, I never would have gotten all my cheap toiletries for the month without you!’”

Akira leans forward onto the table, cutting off another chunk of his own waffle with his fork. “Hey, keep your voice down.”

“Oh please, nobody listens to other people in cafes. I could say I’m the queen of Japan, and our waitress would thank me for my service to the country. So, if you can’t come up with a good conversation to have, I have one good one: what exactly was the point of today?”

Akira shrugs, chewing on his mouthful. “I needed stuff to get me by, you needed to get the stick out of your ass. Mission accomplished?”

“Bad boys should really know how to lie better, you know.” She plucks the silver pomegranate dangling in the hollow of her throat, waggling it at Akira. “This cost more than everything we got today, and you know it, and I know it. So please, let me answer for you.” Akira puts down his fork, gesturing towards her to continue. “You have tried at every turn to scare me off.” She holds up a hand, marking off fingers as she continues. “The smoking, the cronies and their stony silence, the constant loitering, more smoking, the demeaning nickname, the bloody bandage, the shoplifting, the threat of blackmail. Did I forget anything?”

“I bought you dinner, too.”

“You bought me dinner in the worst cafe I’ve ever sat inside. Points for effort, by the way, we walked by 3 Starbucks on the way here. So. You’re trying so hard to push me out, scare me off, cow me into silence or fear. Here’s my theory: you’re a very poor criminal. I don’t think you did anything, in fact. You…I think you took the fall for someone you loved, and now you’re here.” She props her chin up in her hands, smiling at him. “Am I right?”

Akira returns the gesture, leaning on one elbow and smirking. “Not even a little close. Points for effort, by the way, you took me past 3 false assumptions on the way there.” He winces when she stomps on his foot under the table with her heel, but neither of them move above the table. Eventually, Akira sits up, stretching and scratching the side of his head revealing the bright red blush of his ears under his black hair for Haru for only a moment before it falls back into its normal dishevelment. “We should probably go. Daddy must be pissed.” Haru digs her phone out of her bag, checking her phone.

“His personal assistant’s last call was an hour ago, so not very. Probably just mad I made his driver waste gas.”

Akira chuckles. “Not a very good Princess, are you?”

“Makes sense to me, mister good-bad boy. We’re a perfect fit.”

“That is not going to be my stupid pet name with you.” He stands, scratching his neck again and dumping a handful of yen on the table for the server. She can see a pink earlobe peeking out from under a lock of hair.

“You’re right. How about…Joker. You’re a good card or a bad card depending on when you’re drawn. And I’m…” She looks at the tube of eyeliner in her hand as she stands. “Noir?”

Akira stops to hold the door open as they walk out of the cafe, raising an eyebrow at Haru as she exits. “What does that even mean?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea. Some other language’s word for black, maybe.”

“It’s not really your color.” Akira grunts when Haru’s fist thumps him on his non-wounded shoulder.

“Say that again and you won’t be staying dry for long.” Haru says sweetly, smiling as she unfurls her polka-dotted umbrella and holds it just high enough for Akira to get under it—if he stoops.

Chapter Text

Breakfast the next morning is typical; they eat in silence punctuated only by the sound of knife and fork against tableware. Western food, as has been the norm since Haru was a child; She’s had to make an effort to keep practicing with chopsticks, because of how rarely she uses them at home. She eats her eggs in silence, never glancing up at Father. Meeting his eyes since she returned has been a struggle she’s not willing to make today.

“Next time you run off to waste my money on frivolity, tell my assistant, so she doesn’t waste my time.” Father speaks without looking at her, taking a drink of water.

“It’s not your money.” Haru replies sullenly, shuffling the last remnant of the curds around her plate.

One of the only mementos of her mother Haru has is a bank account in her name, the contents of which are added to quarterly based on a miniscule percentage of Okumura Foods gross profit for the period, and cannot be touched by her father otherwise; It’s primary use is her education and miscellaneous expenses, but she has access to it for anything she theoretically needs, and it hovers somewhere around 4 million yen after the year’s tuition. Shockingly prescient, her mother was. Haru often wonders what it would have been like to know her before she passed. Regardless, it’s a lifeline she clings to, some small bit of self-determination in a life filled with choices made for her.

“A pointless distinction. My company made it, you simply waste it. Do not make the same mistake again.” Her father stands, straightening his tie. “And stop pouting. You got what you had begged for, didn’t you?” He doesn’t wait for a response, taking his phone out of his pocket and leaving the room. Haru sets down her fork quietly, crossing her legs under the table without thinking.

Akira shows up early today, during lunch break. The roof is still spotty with rain puddles, so they sit under the overhang, passing a bag of chips back and forth.

“So. How did Daddy take your little act of rebellion?” Akira rolls his head to the side to look at her, and she sighs.

“…It was only a minor scolding. I’ve had worse.”

“Does he hit you?” Akira asks, his voice light.

“Never.” He’s not the one who would be doing it, of course. Sugimura would be only too pleased to step in with only a word from Father.

“Mmh.” Akira sets the bag of chips down to the other side of him, picking up his bag and pulling one of the bottles of pain medication from its depths. She sees a tail flicker out of the bag for a moment, and sighs.

“Must you bring your cat to our dates, Joker?” Haru says.

Akira looks at her out of the corner of his eye, unscrewing the bottle with one hand. “I didn’t know this was a date.” Haru can see yellow eyes watching her from the depths of his bag at his feet.

“You brought me food without asking and came up to eat lunch with me alone. What exactly do you think constitutes a date?” Haru says, rolling her eyes.

“Usually a little more class, I would think. Were we going on dates when you smoked with me, then? I want to know how low the bar is for rich people, because the proles usually have to put in some effort to call it a date.”

Haru sighs. “That’s different. A date is—an extended, private moment together. A cigarette is intimate, but a date it is not.”

“Ok, good.” Akira laughs as he pops the tablets into his mouth, washing it down with a swig of water. “I was worried you were going to say yes. We’ve had so many cigarettes together, we’d probably be married already.”

Haru titters, covering her mouth. “Funny! No, I don’t think we’d work out as a family, somehow. I get the feeling you’d simply make off with the silverware.”

“Not the family jewels?” Haru’s lip twitches with distaste, and Akira laughs. “Sorry, sorry. I’m just irritable from the shoulder thing. This stuff barely cuts the pain, but I’m not stupid enough to try to knock over a pharmacy.” Haru’s abdomen throbs in sympathy, reminding her how long it’s been since her last dose of pain meds. Sighing, she digs into her bag and pulls out her pill stash, opening it and doling out two tablets onto her palm. She holds it out to Akira, whose gaze flickers down to them for a moment before meeting her eyes, eyebrows arched.

“Look, just take them. I don’t have an unlimited supply of these, though.” He holds out a hand, and she presses them into his palm, holding his wrist. “And don’t breathe a word about it, or there’ll be trouble for you and me both.”

“Right.” He swallows them gratefully, then offers his water bottle to Haru when she swallows her own. She takes it and takes a small sip, closing her eyes. “Related to your little overseas trip?” She nods, passing the bottle back. “Interesting. What could someone as rich as you not get in Tokyo? We’ve got it all here in the city, I hear.” Akira quips.

Haru pulls her knees to her chest, wrapping her arms around them. “Some things…are easier elsewhere. Quieter. Less questions. But maybe that just raises more questions…”

“Right.” Akira shuffles closer, wrapping an arm around her shoulder. Haru suppresses the urge to squeak, feeling her heartbeat quicken when his hand settles on her arm. “It’s cold.”

Haru shifts against him, placing her hip in direct contact with his. “A likely excuse. Maybe if you did something besides smoke and sit, you wouldn’t be cold. I’m plenty warm, thank you.”

“That’s why I’m holding you, it’d be a shame to put all your heat to waste.” He shifts, pulling out his pack of cigarettes and holding them towards her. “What’s the daughter of a CEO doing playing in the dirt, anyway? When I heard about you, I thought I’d find you in the thick of the cliques, not alone on an off-limits roof growing potatoes.”

“I asked for it.” She lies, taking a cigarette from his hands and watches him as he lights it for her. “What’s a supposedly convicted criminal doing trying to get cozy with a CEO’s daughter?” She exhales smoke, watching it drift away.

“Oh, plenty of things.” He holds out a hand, and she passes him the cigarette. “How about this, Princess? Every time you ask me a question, and you want a real answer, you just have to kiss me.” He tries to blow a smoke ring, creating a hazy circle of grey in the blue sky.

“What happened to ‘ask me no questions I’ll tell you no lies’?” Haru says, plucking the cigarette back from him but not taking another drag.

“Oh, you’re very bad at not asking questions, I thought that much was obvious.” She glares at him, but there's no real anger behind it, especially not when she sees that grin of his. “Here, let me start.” He leans around her, brushing lips against her cheek on the way to her already-open mouth. He pulls her closer, and she grips his jacket with her free hand, the other holding the cigarette away from them both.

Nothing else matters right now for her. The dull pain in her guts, the worry about what she's doing with him, fear of when the other shoe will drop and he will leave, anxiety by proxy about his problems with Kamoshida. He's here now, with her, and that's all that matters. Akira pulls away first, plucking the cigarette from Haru's nerveless fingers and puffs.

“So. Do you want me to leave?” Akira asks, eyes fixed on the sky.

She breathes out, relieved at the triviality of the question. “No.”

Time passes quietly, the both of them watching the clear blue sky. They kiss again. A flash of tongue along Haru’s lip sets her heart on fire. “What happens if you get expelled?” Haru asks.

“I get arrested, probably. This is sort of my plea deal, so if I graduate I'm free, if I don't I'm a criminal.” Akira smirks. “Don't tell me you're worried about me. Kamoshida may be a bully, but we've got a secret weapon. It’s going to be fine. Hopefully.”

Time passes. They kiss, and Haru finds that she doesn't mind the taste of cigarette smoke in his mouth as much as she had. “Are you happy?” Akira asks.

“Now—yes. Generally…well.” She takes the cigarette, finishing it off and grinding it to a stub against the concrete. She kisses him again, and finds that her heart is still beating as fast as it had been since he put his arm around her. She wishes it would calm down, that she could slow everything down and make this moment last forever. “Why did you really come up here, that first day?”

“…I really did just want to be alone. This school is a prison, and everyone's already got a crew they run with, and there's no room for a person like me with them, and they all talk too much besides. So all I hear is about me, and I just wanted quiet.”

“Mmm, not very romantic.” Haru leans her head against his shoulder, sighing. “I was expecting some line about how sad I looked when you saw me the first time. Something like, the sun reflected in my hair blinded you, and you had to try and grab its fire for yourself, like a modern Prometheus.”

Akira laughs under his breath, releasing her and standing with a groan. “If you wanted me to lie, you could have just asked without kissing me.”

He visits less frequently for a while. She doesn't ask why, merely notes his absence and carries on regardless; she is an old acquaintance of loneliness, its presence merely a return to normalcy. Her pain gets better as the surgery grows further away, the tramadol in her bag dwindling away to a few spare emergency pills. The garden starts to bloom in earnest, potatoes shooting up healthy green leaves. And on May 2nd, an emergency assembly is called by Suguru Kamoshida.

She watches the man who she remembers as proud in the extreme, someone who always had a snide comment ready for the less athletic students and a leer you could feel on your skin when he turned his attention to you, get down on his knees and grovel for forgiveness for his crimes. So many crimes, in fact, that he had still not finished naming them all before the school president had ripped the mic from its stand and shouted that the assembly was over.

She doesn't have any way to contact Akira, but she knows he did it, or had a hand in it, and she really does want to know how he did it. Finds herself daydreaming as she pulls weeds from her rows of potatoes. Imagining a world in which Sugimura is on his knees in front of an assembly of all of Haru's loved ones and anyone who had ever even known her, side by side with Father, begging and screaming for forgiveness for all the things they’ve both done to her before the headsman’s axe comes screaming down

She snaps out of her reverie when the door onto the roof swings slowly open, Akira leading the way onto the roof with his twinned cronies in tow. They stare at her crouched over the garden, and she stands, wiping her hands clean of the fertilizer on the knees of her track pants. She waits until the door clangs against the desk propping the door open to speak.

“How did you do it?”

Akira turns to the blondes, eyes meeting both of theirs in turn. Akira shrugs, turning back to Haru. “Didn’t do anything, really, we just got out of class just like you. What do you think we did?” Akira says, pulling out his lighter and flickering it across his knuckles slowly, gaze intent on Haru. She folds her arms, shifting her stance.

“You’re blackmailing him. It must be big stuff, too, for him to just admit to all of that and not just try to live down the scandal.” She looks over at Ann, whose expression hardens when they lock eyes. “I hope he didn’t make you do anything, Ann. And I’m sorry about your friend.”

“…Thanks?” Ann murmurs, puzzled, probably having expected a verbal assault or an accusation.

“Ok, look.” Akira cuts in, stepping just slightly between Ann and Haru. “We just came up here to see if you wanted to grab a bite to eat. School is in an uproar down there, but it really isn’t pleasant, and it’d do you good to go get some fresh air somewhere else. Probably.”

Haru looks at Akira, then back at Ann. “Is this a double date, then?”

“Double date? Wait, you mean like—” Ryuji blurts, looking flustered. “No way! Me n’ Ann are like, brothers!” Ann flicks him on the ear, and he howls far louder than the pain would warrant. “Siblings, whatever!”

Akira gestures expensively. “Well, there you have it. Come on, are you in or not?”

Haru sighs, letting her arms fall to her sides. “Well, it can’t be any worse than the dinner you got me last time.”

“You know, I’m beginning to think you don’t know any other cafes.” Haru rests her chin in her hand in the corner of the booth, looking at the cafe menu.

“The coffee here is cheap, don’t be a prude.” Akira replies defensively next to her, emptying another creamer into his cup. Ryuji and Ann sit across from them, Ryuji clutching a half-dozen sugar packets he is methodically working into his own cup. Ann drinks her coffee black, and is already on her second cup. What Haru wouldn’t give for a metabolism like that; she loves coffee, but it makes her lose weight like a starving animal, which is a problem when you’re trying to maintain a bust that people are capable of noticing.

“Uh huh.” She sets down her menu. “What are you having?”

“Coffee.” Akira replies, not looking up from carefully swirling the creamer into the cup in slow arcs.

“Uh huh. How about you two?” She looks over at Ann and Ryuji, who are sharing a menu between them.

“Uhh, I’m kind of broke, so…” Ryuji looks to Ann, who groans.

“Do you ever have money? How do you even eat at school…” Ann shoves him, grumbling about one debt or another.

“I have lunch money, not dinner money!” Ryuji shoves Ann back, to an affronted gasp from her. “Usually just cook something at home when I get there.”

“Well I’m not pay—” Ann replies.

“Forget money, just pick something.” Haru interrupts. “I’ll pay, just please stop fighting.” She looks back to Akira. “You sure know how to pick cronies, Joker.” Ann and Ryuji freeze, looking over at him, and he sighs.

“Ignore it, you two. They get along fine, it’s just play-fighting.” Akira picks up his cup, taking a drink. “This was supposed to be a nice dinner, so let’s just have a good time and not worry about anything.”

Haru elbows him gently, leaning over and holding her menu between them. “Will you split a breakfast platter with me? I didn’t eat lunch, but I can’t finish that on my own.”

“Sure, whatever.” Haru can see out of the corner of her eye the look Ann is giving Akira, one slightly raised eyebrow, to which he shakes his head. Satisfied, Haru returns to her position, taking a sip of her lemonade.

“Whadda ya think, Ann? Split a steak and eggs with me?” Ryuji taps a tiny picture of a ribeye on their shared menu.

“Ew, no. I’m getting pancakes. Haru already said to just order whatever, don’t be weird.” The waitress arrives before Ryuji can provide a response, taking their orders.

“So. How did you two meet Akira?” Haru swirls her lemonade with the straw, looking at Ryuji first.

Ryuji laughs, scratching the back of his head. “Oh, uh, we met at the train station! I didn’t recognize him, so I figured he was the new guy I heard about. We really hit it off on the platform, and that was it.”

“You ‘hit it off’?” Haru looks sideways to Akira, who is holding his coffee cup in front of his face, staring into the middle distance. “With Akira? It took me two weeks of stony silence to get anything more substantial than a threat out of him.”

“Y-yeah! We’re men, it’s different.” Ryuji sputters, and Ann rolls her eyes.

“How about you, Ann? How did you meet your fearless leader?” Haru’s smiling gently, but Ann flinches when Haru turns to her.

“I sit in front of him in class. We chatted, and that was that. And I know Ryuji from middle school.” She tries to sound nonchalant, but her tone is just slightly higher than her voice usually is when she’s arguing with Ryuji.

“Oh, so he talked to you, then?” Haru looks to Akira, who sets his cup back down, watching her in return.

“Don’t make a big thing out of this.” Akira says quietly.

“You really have to coach them better on lying, Akira, if you want to make it through whatever investigation they put Kamoshida through.” Ryuji flinches, and Ann’s stony expression splits into a small grin. They pause as the waitress returns with food, and Ryuji dives in knife-first at his steak. Haru cuts off a chunk of pancake with her fork, holding up for Akira. “Here, eat. You’re still recovering from that stab wound. You know, you should probably report that he assaulted you, Akira, now that I think about it. If he’s confessing to all these crimes, though, maybe you won’t even need to. I certainly hope he remembers assaulting you.” She keeps her gaze fixed on Akira, who shakes his head.

“Enough already.” Akira holds up a hand. “This isn’t the time or the place.” Haru eats the forkful of pancake, smiling and setting the fork back down.

“Is it not? I'm keeping my voice low and even, so no one would notice it above the rest of the cafe. I'm also not interested in you lying to me anymore tonight, so…” She grabs a handful of his shirt, pulling him down to her level and kissing him. Even with her eyes closed, she can feel Ryuji and Ann watching, and hears Ryuji drop his knife and start babbling to Ann, who shushes him. Akira doesn't resist, and Haru pushes him away when she considers her point made. “Now will you tell me what you three are up to?”

“Dude, she kissed you! What the hell, you didn't tell me you have a girlfriend!” Ryuji reaches across the table to grab Akira's shoulder or give him a high five or something equally ridiculous, only to be swatted away by Akira.

“We stole something.”Akira sighs, taking the fork from Haru's plate and skewering a length of sausage, popping it into his mouth. “And she's not my girlfriend.”

Haru ignores the surge of joy in her chest at being called his girlfriend, even with Akira's flat denial afterwards. “What did you steal? How? And why did they know about the nickname I gave you?” Haru nods to the plate, and Akira cuts off a bit of bacon and places it in her mouth. She beams at him, chewing.

Ryuji looks deeply confused, but starts talking anyway. “Wait, you named him Joker? I thought we came up with that…anyway, it's our codename for him, we can't use names because then they'd know who we are.” He gestures towards Ann. “That's Panther, I'm Skull.”

Ann groans. “Don't ask.”

Haru hums to herself. “So you really are a bunch of criminals. Interesting.” She shrugs. “Do-gooder criminals, since your first target was utter scum. Wait, wasn't there a weird bunch of flyers posted on the bulletin board a day or two ago? That must have been you…”

Ryuji nods. “Yep, that was us. Me, mostly. I made the cards and Ann composed the message. Pretty good work, I'll say.” He sticks a chunk of steak and egg in his mouth, chewing around his words. “You can be amazed, it's okay.”

Ann stays silent, pouring extra syrup onto her pancakes, but the poisonous look she's giving Ryuji says everything it needs to.

“Hmm.” Haru holds out a hand for the fork, and Akira obliges. She digs into the breakfast platter in earnest, occasionally passing bits of egg or hash brown to Akira, who continues to nurse his coffee in as much silence as he can muster but accepts the food regardless. “What I don't get is what you could have possibly stolen that made a man like Suguru Kamoshida seek forgiveness for everything he's done. What could be that valuable?”

Ryuji opens his mouth, grinning. “Oh, easy, it—” He howls when Ann stomps on his foot, doubling over onto the table and groaning.

“Ryuji, shut up. She doesn’t need to know.” Ann goes back to eating, watching the other patrons who looked over when Ryuji shouted.

Akira clears his throat, once the commotion has died down enough that nobody else is watching them. “I don't want to talk about it. It's for your safety.” He holds up both hands in front of him when Haru grabs his collar again and she stops halfway towards kissing him, watching him with anger in her eyes and recrimination burning in her lungs. “That question is the only exception to our game. I seriously will not break this rule, Haru. You're involved, but I’m not involving you any further than I have to.” He places a hand on her fist, gently pulling her fingers off of his shirt until he is cradling her empty palm in both hands. “I’m not letting you in on what we’re do, it's too dangerous for you. I…” His expression contorts as he tries to find the words. “You deserve not to get stuck with me. I’ll just drag you down.”

Haru rips her hand out of his and slaps him as hard as she can.

“…Dude…” Ryuji whispers. Ann sits back in the booth, fighting to keep her expression neutral and failing as it morphs into a hysterical grin.

“Fuck you, Akira. Move.” Haru snarls, and Akira stands, moving out of the way for her to exit the booth. He doesn’t say anything as she grabs her bag and puts on her coat, merely watching. Finally, she throws down a handful of 1000 yen bills on the table and storms out into the dimming afternoon light. When she’s gone, he sits back down, placing his head in his hands, one hand covering redness of his slapped cheek that meets a blush that extends down his neck, past the collar of his turtleneck.

Chapter Text

Haru returns late, reading but not responding to insistent messaging from Father's assistant. Long past the scheduled dinner time when she returns, Haru finds that the house is quiet as a mausoleum. Which it is, in a manner of speaking. This was the home she was raised in, and the one her mother (an architect working for Okumura Foods at the time) had designed as her dream home with Kunikazu so many decades ago. It reminds her of her. One more place in Haru's life that has been touched by someone she never knew, but feels like she should. A cavernous, empty home for a cavernous space in her heart.

Slipping into her bedroom and locking the door behind her, Haru strips down to nothing and disappears into the attached bathroom, leaving her clothes in a pile on the floor. The shower water is always hotter than she’s comfortable with, but she turns it to its highest setting and luxuriates in the steam, scrubbing her skin with abandon. All her work in the garden leaves her sticky with sweat by evening, and she has long had an aversion to the changing room of any of her schools; She changes on the roof, in the shadow of both of the AC units to block prying eyes from the buildings that press in around Shujin Academy.

Emerging scrubbed red and clean, she pulls on a sleep dress from her wardrobe and sits down heavily on the bed, running a brush through still-damp hair. She's still incensed, but the trip home helped cool her down and see Akira's statement of denial in new light.

Mostly, she's furious with herself.

He called her Haru for the first time . And…how close to a confession of love he got—in his own self-effacing, guilt-tinged way. He's afraid of hurting her, or seeing her hurt, even though he knows, he surely knows by now why Haru doesn't mix with the rest of the class, has to have had the rumors and seen the signs for himself, poorly hidden as they are. He’s…sweet, in his own way.

Haru isn't giving forgiveness away to him, not quite yet. But she understands his motivation, has always had a keener eye for other people's moods and foibles than most. Mostly, she’s just tired, too tired to perform all of her nightly rituals, opting for an early bedtime. Giving a baleful look to the drawer where her dilators hide among her underthings, Haru crawls into bed and doesn’t fall asleep for hours, rolling Akira’s voice saying her name around in her head like a skipping record.

Haru’s heart leaps into her throat when she smells burning cloves during lunch break a few days later, immediately standing from her seated position between garden beds and turning to the door. Standing with the heavy door half-propped open is Ryuji, a cigarette held away from his body between two fingers like its poisonous. His mouth is pressed into a firm line, and he exhales through his nose when he sees her, and stubs it out against the wall. Before that moment, it had never occurred to Haru how badly she wanted a cigarette, the formless craving in her chest put down to bigger problems.

“Hey.” Ryuji says, stepping out of the shadow of the building. He’s so deeply nervous, Haru realizes, his shoulders tucked close to his ears, like a child expecting a scolding. She recognizes it from assuming the same position so many times in her youth.

“Did Akira send you?” Haru nods to the cigarette, which Ryuji holds up like he just realized he had it.

Ryuji approaches Haru, looking embarrassed. “No. Well, not really. He said he wanted to smoke, and I said you probably do too, and he rolled his eyes, and got up to buy us drinks, and I filched his pack. Morgana seemed happy to get the stink out of his bag.” He produces the pack from his pocket, pressing it into Haru’s hand gently like handing someone a bomb.

“Do you have his lighter, then?” Haru steps closer to him, plucking the crushed cigarette from his hand and popping it into her mouth. A little beat up, but perfectly smokeable. Ryuji fumbles pulling it out, nearly dropping it. Haru merely lifts her chin for him, looking up into his eyes and watching his expression as he lights it, taking it when he sets it down in her hand next to the pack of cigarettes. Haru steps back, inhaling and sighing a lungful of smoke away from them both. “Thanks.” Ryuji smiles an uneasy smile, scratching his head. “So, are you and Ann actually…” Haru trails off, gesturing with her cigarette and leaving a trail of smoke in the air.

She can see the question hit the mark when Ryuji flinches, then straightens up. “I…kind of? It’s complicated. Yesterday was the first time we ever went out somewhere together in awhile, but we…sort of were in middle school? Kinda.” Haru nods, and he looks surprised. “What, do we give off that vibe?”

“You argue like you’ve known each other for years. And she still looked mad after you corrected yourself yesterday.” Haru says, turning away to watch the wind play across the garden, leaves ruffling. The sun shines on the few remaining puddles on the rooftop, and the garden looks vibrantly green in a sea of concrete. Ryuji steps up next to her on her non-smoking side, putting his hands in his pockets.

“Did she? Jeez. I forgot, what with…Well, you really walloped him yesterday, you know. He had a handprint for hours after, you can still kinda see it if you squint. He’s got concealer covering it now, though.” Ryuji laughs.

Haru hums in acknowledgement, turning to the side and away from the garden to look at him, stuffing the pack of cigarettes and lighter into her pocket. The nervousness that had started fading is returning, and he scratches the back of his head.

“Look, like I said, he didn’t send me or anything, just…I hope you don’t give up on him. The first day of school, I met him, and he was…” Ryuji grumbles to himself. “I dunno. He wasn’t OK. He’s OK, or OK-ish now. I can’t get him to open up to me, that’s just how it is, but he does better, lately. He’s sharper. And I’m not saying, you know, that you gotta fix anybody, obviously, you got your own shit going down, but…shit, I don’t know where I was goin’ with this.” He shrugs, trailing off.

Haru laughs softly, covering her mouth with her cigarette hand. “Does that happen to you a lot, Ryuji?”

“Pretty much.” Ryuji says sheepishly, nodding for emphasis.

Haru blows more smoke away from them both, watching it drift away. “It’s fine. I think I get your point—or something like it.”

“Oh, at least one of us does then.” He grins, shrugging. “Well, I said what I wanted to say, or…whatever. So…I’ll see you around?” Haru nods, and his grin gets wider. “Cool. Later.” He heads back into the school, giving a small wave before the door shuts. Haru finishes her cigarette, walking to their little hideout and stuffing the butt into Akira’s old plastic bottle full of them.

The next day, halfway up the flight of stairs to the roof after the final bell rings, Ann comes bouncing up the stairwell behind Haru, calling out to her. “Got a minute?” Haru looks behind Ann, and finds no one but the usual third years milling about.

“…Sure. Come on, it’s quieter up here.” Haru steps up to the top of the landing, turning back to Ann once she gets up there. “Is Akira coming?”

Ann winces. “No. He’s…indisposed. Long story. I just wanted to talk. Can we go to like, Starbucks or something? I’m dead on my feet after math.” Ann yawns for emphasis, and Haru nods.

One trenta strawberries and cream frappuccino and a cup of hot chocolate later, Haru sits across a cafe table from Ann in a cafe near the train station. “So, are you and Ryuji a thing?” Haru starts while Ann is still swirling her whipped cream into the frapp, streaks of white standing out in the pink slush.

Ann grimaces, attention focused on her task. “It’s complicated. You really wanna hear about it?”

“Complicated usually means interesting, and since you’re both Akira’s friends I’ll figure it out eventually. This just saves us both time and misunderstanding.”

Ann gives Haru a look, one eyebrow just barely quirked. “Right.” Ann finishes her task, taking a long slurp of her drink before continuing. “We made out in middle school a few times, I let him touch my boob at least twice, probably more. He’s pretty good with his hands. Anyway, then we moved up to high school, were in different classes, and he got super into track. We drifted, and now we’re hanging out again.” She pauses, staring at her drink. “I’m seeing Shiho as long as she’ll still have me after everything, but he’s been so sweet and supportive and cool lately, so…I think I still like him. Don’t tell him I said I thought he was cool.”

Haru nods, smiling. “Well, that certainly is complicated. But…those kinds of feelings always are.”

“Tell me about it. I can’t tell if I wanna smush his face or kiss it, sometimes. He’s like a very terrible puppy. Just…unbearably cute, but also he just tore up my favorite Leboutins because I went to the corner store without him.” Ann gestures at the air as if brushing away that conversation topic. “So, anyway, I wanted to have some girl talk about your boyfriend.”

“Akira would grumble so much if he heard you say that word.” Haru muses, stirring her hot chocolate and sipping. Hearing it out loud makes Haru feel warm in a way she never imagined, a heat in her chest like a crackling fire.

“He can bitch all he wants, but we all saw what happened at the diner. You have him wrapped around your little finger, but he’s also a stubborn ass. I was talking to him yesterday so Ryuji could go talk to you, and he’s in total denial about how into you he is. So…”

“Hmm.” Haru sets down her cup, watching Ann. “What do I do about it?”

“Well, we should just bust his ass until he gets over it, is what I think. Teaching men to actually figure out what they feel about you is a lot like teaching a puppy where to pee—it’s all about positive reinforcement when they do something right.”

Haru covers her mouth, laughing. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with how often you use pet metaphors for men.”

Ann waves it off, giggling. “Oh, don’t worry about it, it’s just a coincidence. Anyway, we should go shopping! We got plenty of time today, and I’ve got…ideas. And an address.” Ann says, smiling deviously and slurping the remnants of her frapp in one go.

“I’m suddenly a lot more worried.” Haru says.

“This was a bad idea.” Haru moans, hands covered in a dozen hangers each that she’s struggling to hold up.

“No way, this is gonna be great! Trust me.” Ann says, laughing and laying one last one over her arm. “Here, this is the last bit. Come on, go try some stuff on.” Ann guides Haru by the shoulders into the dressing room. “Take your time!”

Haru sighs, hanging up the…eclectic…mix of fashions that Ann has picked out for her to try. At least three dresses are immediately discarded in her mind; she's always wanted to wear a gorgeous floral sun dress, and maybe will come summer, but these are more of the ‘up all night sleep all day’ dress, sharp curves like a knife and gleaming like one too. Too bold, too…dangerous for her. She turns to an easy, familiar answer: a simple low-cut v-neck sweater in a subdued grey that shows off her collarbones and a pair of dark black capris.

Emerging from the closet, Ann stands up and claps, nodding. “Not bad, not bad. Here, turn for me?” Ann twirls her finger and Haru obliges, turning in place until she's facing Ann again. “A little casual, maybe, but cute anyway. Here, you gotta—” Ann reaches up, mussing Haru's hair lightly. “Perfect. Just a little bit of grunge, slap some eyeliner on you and you could stop his heart for a second.” Ann smiles confidently.

“Are we trying to kill Akira or get him to admit he has feelings for me?” Haru mumbles, brushing a lock of hair out of her eyes.

“Those aren't mutually exclusive goals, hon. Go bigger, you're gonna need boldness to get through to Akira. Make a statement!” Ann shoos her off back into the dressing room.

Haru has never made a statement with her fashion in her life, she realizes. Understatement was always her watch word, looking for things she liked that wouldn't draw a ton of attention to her. The small brunette in floral print is nothing special to look at these days; she must have walked by a hundred girls dressed like her on the way to this mall in Shibuya. It’s just…easier. Like a leopard’s spots in the jungle.

But…maybe Ann is right. Boldness got her where she is with Akira, a spur of the moment kiss to get him to open up and repeated advances despite his vocal attempts at setting distance; he’s been using the understated version of saying how afraid he is. Maybe it’s time to show him she doesn't give a shit with a grand show, a power play.

She grabs the raciest things Ann picked out in the mess of clothes, a black crop top that is so sheer she can see the wall behind it and a pair of torn jeans that end just below the knees in ragged strips. Silently thanking her lucky stars for drawing her towards wearing a black bra today, she changes into the outfit and looks at herself in the mirror. She looks like a scared girl dressed like she's going to a bar and trying to scare people back. But…In a flash of memory, she dives for her bag, pulling out the tube of eyeliner from some forgotten corner and steeling herself with a deep breath.

She doesn't break out like she thought she would. When Haru finishes, she feels…strong. It feels kind of like war paint to her, like she’s going to do battle with Akira’s heart with a spear and shield. She puts on the pomegranate pendant she's been keeping in a pocket for fear of someone asking when or where she got it, craning her neck upwards to show it off to herself in the mirror.

“…Holy shit.” Ann whispers in shock when Haru emerges, hair askew and deep black eyeliner around her eyes, hopping to her feet and wolf whistling in a low tone. “Girl, you better have 119 on speed dial, he's gonna die when he sees you. Turn for me?” Haru puts a hand on her hips, walking a slow circle for Ann. “God, I'd kill for your proportions.”

“Oh, please.” Haru blushes, turning away.

“No, seriously! Your boobs are fantastic for your height. I’m pretty small for my age, honestly, but so are a lot of models, so I end up looking like I’m huge in photoshoots.” Haru frowns, watching Ann, but she can tell Ann how serious she is from how intently she's being studied. Haru realises she’s been comparing the size of her chest to people with 5 or 6 inches of height on her, so her own size might actually be large for her. It feels weird to hear from someone she only vaguely knows, but…good. She feels confident, all of a sudden.

“Okay, okay, stop. So this is it, huh?” Haru crosses her arms defensively, realizing how cold the shop is with so little on.

“This is definitely it. Here, you should go change and pay.” Ann picks up her bag and stretches. “We’ve got a bad boy to bring back to heel.”

“Mmm…I think I’ll wear it out.” Haru smiles, pulling on a flannel shirt from the pile of hangers and buttoning it up to cover her newest weapon.

They wander Shibuya for another hour, picking out accessories and small knick-knacks as they go, adding bracelets and taking a few minutes to apply the nail polish she got so long ago with Ann’s expert help on a bench. “I’ve had to redo my own nails before a shoot a hundred times, they always want something stupid for their specific thing they’re doing so I got really good at it. Kinda fun to do somebody else, actually.” She explains while the polish dries, stark black standing out against Haru’s pale skin. She looks at them in wonder, smiling to herself. “Having a good time, are you?”

“I…kind of am. Is that weird?” Haru asks, looking from her nails over to Ann. “It’s not like I really ever got out much before now.” She holds out her hand, looking at her nails in the fluorescent lighting of the underground mall and seeing herself reflected in the topcoat. Somewhere in the last hour, Haru changed out of the flannel in a side passage, tying it off around her waist and exposing herself for everyone to see. The looks she gets aren’t…bad, but they’re new. She’s not sure if she could ever get used to it, isn’t sure how Ann deals with everyone giving her the same looks for her shockingly luscious hair.

“Yeah, I get it. I, uh, full disclosure. I asked around about you when I heard Akira was hanging around with you, but…nobody really knows you? The only person who even had anything to say about you was the class president, and she said I shouldn’t bother you.” Ann shrugs. “So, I guess I’m ignoring that advice, but whatever. If you’re Akira’s girlfriend, as far as I’m concerned you’re good enough people to hang out around, y’know?You seem cool. Don’t tell Ryuji I said you were cool.” Ann mock-begs, smiling. Haru doesn’t have time to process the fact that no one had anything to say about her, which must be false. She knows it can’t be. But…

Haru giggles despite herself, covering her mouth with one hand. “Your secret is safe with me. You should probably clear things up with Ryuji, you know. He seemed very worried about you yesterday. And Akira.”

“Yeah, that’s Ryuji. I really did mean it when I said he’s like a terrible puppy. He loves you, no matter what, even if he’s just been a little shit 5 minutes ago and didn't even realize he was being terrible, and he loves getting himself into trouble for other people. It’s…god. He’s so…dumb and loveable, and I kind of hate that I love it.” Ann sighs, tossing her hair over her shoulder. “I wish this shit were easier. I wish I could just…mash him and Shiho together and kiss them both at the same time.” Ann smiles apologetically to Haru. “Sorry. You don’t want to hear about my bulls—”

“I’m the one who brought it up, so don’t run off on me just yet.” Haru smiles in return, genuinely. “Maybe you’re thinking about this the wrong way. They hang out around you, do they get along together well?”

“Ryuji and Shiho? They’re the biggest jocks in Tokyo, they used to compete with each other to hang out with me at lunch. Ryuji would sulk so much whenever Shiho won.” Ann’s eyes widen as the wheels turn in her head. “Oh shit. ” Haru nods, and Ann grabs her head. “Damn it, I’m an idiot! I’m so fucking blind! I was too gay to see the signs right in front of me! Ryujiiiiiii!”

A familiar voice pushes through the crowd, revealing Ryuji’s bewildered face emerging from the sea of bodies. “Ann? …Haru? What the—holy hell, what happened?” He pushes through the crush of people, stopping in front of the bench and squatting down in front of them to bring himself closer to eye level. “You look like a visual kei backup dancer.”

Haru cackles with glee at Ryuji’s response, kicking her feet. “Thank you! We’re going fishing for a Joker.” Ryuji gives Ann a look, and she shrugs.

“I already told you I was helping her with Akira today, what do you want from me? We’re waiting for her nails to dry, so we can go ambush him at work.” Ann says, brushing her twintails back over her shoulder again. “What about you, you dope? I thought you were going home early to hang out with Mom.”

“Nah, she’s working late, so I’m just burning time right now. Actually just visited, uhh, well…” He rubs the back of his neck “I visited Akira. He wanted to talk about…well, you know. That stuff. Said he wants to talk to you, too, but I didn’t know you were doin’ stuff, so…” Ryuji looks to Haru apologetically, grimacing. “Sorry. I really shouldn’t talk about this stuff near you. Just to be safe, until Akira gets over himself.”

Haru keeps her smile, even as she curses Akira’s black heart in her mind. Leave it to him to keep hammering the ‘don’t tell Haru anything ’ button on his cronies. Especially if they started hanging out with her. Just one more thing to add to her tally of problems Akira only made for himself.

Ann puts a hand on Haru’s shoulder, squeezing. “Look, once you get him to get off his stupid hangups, we can bitch about our part-time job to you until we’re blue in the face, okay? It’s gonna be great. We’ve got stories . Wait’ll I tell you about the time R—” Ryuji clicks his tongue and gives Ann a shake of the head, and Ann cuts herself off, wincing. “Right. Sorry.”

Haru tries to keep the disappointment in her heart off her face. She’s only known these two for a few days, she can’t expect things to just be that easy. “It’s fine.” She flounders in search of a change of subject, until she spots a riot of color sticking out from just behind Ryuji’s back. “Did you get some flowers while you were visiting him?”

Ryuji grabs his bag from behind him and brings it fully into view, revealing an eclectic riot of flowers and colors. “Yeah, I figured buyin’ something would make up for me stealing his time. He’s got a flair for flower stuff, he was quotin’ all this flower language stuff that was way over my head. I got a bunch of stuff about…shit, I don’t even remember, but they’re real pretty.” Ryuji blushes, rubbing his head. “I was gonna visit Shiho. I talked to her dad, she’s not awake, but…”

“That’s so sweet, Ryuji. Very thoughtful.” I’m sure she would appreciate it.” Haru comments. And, of course, both of them have their own problems. Kamoshida’s confession doesn’t fix everything in a moment. It’s not a magic bullet she wishes or dreamed it might be in her fantasies, and the human fallout of his actions still remains. But still, this conversation has been a rollercoaster. Akira…criminal florist? Ann…bi and possibly poly, thanks to her? Ryuji…The sweet punk? Shiho…the impetus for it all. And Akira, again, the catalyst that brought them all together into a perfect storm.

“…Ah hell.” Ann turns to Haru, who is already looking at Ann, watching her expression. Ann looks worried, on the verge of tears. “Do you think you’ll be okay alone?” Ann asks, very clearly begging for the opportunity to go see her girlfriend with her maybe-possibly-future-boyfriend. Her tone is controlled, but Haru recognizes it as a very tight control, clamping down on all her emotion until she can release it in private.

Haru puts on a smile that is much braver than how she feels right now for her new friend. “I’ll be fine. Go see her.” Ann looks like she’s ready to break into tears when she throws her arms around Haru and hugs her with all her might. Haru returns the hug with much less force, tentatively putting her hand on Ann’s back.

When she is finally released, Haru finds herself short of breath, and not just from the tight hug. Did she really just agree to meet Akira…alone, in a busy mall? Wearing this outfit, what’s left of her modesty covered by…a bra and some whisper-thin fabric? By the time she snaps out of her reverie, Ann and Ryuji have already stood up, Ryuji waving at her with one hand while Ann takes the other and winks to Haru, and just like that the crowd closes ranks around them and they’re gone.

At least someone here is getting the reconciliation they needed right now.

Haru sighs, checking her nails with her thumb. The polish is set, so she officially has no more reason to sit around here. She stands, gathering her bags and her wits, taking deep breaths and turning the corner towards the flower shop Akira apparently has a part-time job at.

And just like that, there he is, crouched down and arranging a grouping of flowers in a display vase while an older man watches and nods, says something to him and laughs, but she can see that Akira's expression doesn't change; if anything, he grimaces more deeply, trying to get the flowers to sit just right.

Haru approaches slowly, trying her best not to startle the curly-haired target in her sights. Luckily, he's crouched down and so intent on his flower arrangement that he doesn't notice her approach. She gives the shop owner a look with a finger on her lips, and he smiles back to her and nods, turning away and walking further back in the stall.

“I never imagined you the flowery type.” Haru says into Akira's ear in a dangerous purr, already feeling new confidence well from somewhere in her she never knew existed. Something about Akira wants her to take chances, live more dangerously. She feels alive around him. “It must be the country boy in you.”

He flinches back, jumping to his feet and away from her. “…Hey. Wow.” He says quietly, taking in her outfit. “You look…incredible.”

“Thank you.” Haru smiles, clasping her hands behind her back and tilting her head up to meet Akira’s eyes. “I just happened to be in the area,” Haru lied with a smile, “And I’m looking for flowers for a very significant person in my life.”

Akira raises an eyebrow, watching her. “What kind of ‘significant person’ are we talking about?”

“Oh, the most important of all. I’m looking to make a grand apology. Something like a…’sorry I was a bitch, but you kind of were too, so how about we call it even and move on’ statement.” Haru says, turning away from him and leaning towards his flower arrangement, taking a deep breath of the fragrant red flowers.

Akira can’t help but smile as he returns to a crouch, fiddling with the arrangement of the flower vase Haru was admiring. “You want purple hyacinth…They symbolize regret, or sorrow. You might need a few, considering how you treated that significant person. That slap hurt , you know, Princess.” Akira taps his cheek for emphasis.

Haru squats down next to him, tucking her arms under her chest and subtly moving it upwards as she watches him work. “I see we’re back to Princess and the Bad Boy already, then. Maybe you don’t need purple hyacinths after all…can you think of another flower I can use?”

“For the person you’re trying to apologize to, you want something that symbolizes yourself, symbolically giving them a part of yourself.” His eyes flicker towards Haru, and freeze on her chest for a moment before flickering back away, but Haru can see him watching her out of the corner of his eye. “I would say lavender for you, typically, the flower of royalty and femininity, but…your outfit screams asphodel. A flower for regret that lives on past death.”

Haru sighs, catching Akira’s eye and locking gazes with him. “Mm, morbid and overdramatic. That one suits you better than me. Maybe you should hang onto them.” She stands, picking up her bag and slinging it back over her shoulder. Haru turns away, her heart frozen in her throat as she walks into the crowd outside the stall, sparing only the barest backward glance to catch Akira standing up to watch her go, expression unreadable.

Akira doesn’t come after her, or chase her, or yell her name. He doesn’t come to the roof tomorrow, or the next day. Ann and Ryuji do, and spend the afternoon helping with whatever little tasks Haru gives them and talk shit to each other besides. Their company is welcome, but...she can’t help but feel like it’s a consolation prize, the lesser replacement for Akira. She hates that she thinks of it like that. She can’t stop thinking it, though, when Ryuji pays for drinks for everyone from the vending machine downstairs, or when Ann brings lunch for everyone from a cafe she passes on the way to school.

It’s raining a few days after their encounter in the underground mall when Akira opens the door onto the roof, finding Haru sitting on a platform made of spare desks under the overhang, redoing her nails for the third time since Ann had done it so well that evening. She keeps chipping it in small ways every so often, and hates herself a little more every time. Haru knows she needs to just buy gloves and be done with it, but it’s never that easy. Her eyes track up to Akira, widening for a moment before turning back to her task.

“You’re late.” Haru says it lightly, despite the turmoil she feels inside. She can see Akira walk closer out of the corner of her eye, but focuses all of her attention on getting the edges of her nails just right; with such a stark color, there’s no room for error, and she’s never been good at this particular activity in the first place.

“For what?” Akira sits down on the edge of the desk platform, one leg dangling off the edge. “I don’t think I’m late for anything. Didn’t know we had a date , anyway.”

Haru resists rolling her eyes. “It’s hard for me to believe that my little stunt was so easily forgotten, Akira. Don’t stall, just say what you’re here to say.” Haru’s voice creeps lower, practically growling the end of the sentence. She holds up her hand towards the sky, checking for any imperfections in her work.

“Right.” Akira opens his bag, pulling a tissue-wrapped package from it, long and thin. “This is for you.”

“Open it.” Haru nods to her still-drying nails, and Akira obliges, lifting the top off of the box and revealing a beautiful yellow and white flower.

“It’s a narcissus. They symbolize vanity, but, they’re also the first flower to bloom in spring, so they signal renewal and growth as well.” Akira sets the box at an angle against the wall for Haru to admire. “Something I think we could all use, right now. and I.” Haru finally looks him in the eye, turning away from the flower.

“You treated me like a toy you could put down without consequence. Something you could play with when it suited you, and lock away when it suited you.” Haru says quietly, blinking away tears and cursing Akira for coming to her now, when she can’t use her hands, can’t grab him and pull him close to her. “Should I forget that, and just trust you to break my heart again?”

“No. No, you shouldn’t trust anyone, I think.” Akira mutters, and Haru scoffs. “I’m serious. I’m sorry for what I did, but...I don’t know who I can trust in this school, not until the spotlight is off of Kamoshida. I can’t breathe here without worrying that I’ve just exposed myself. I—I’m asking for time. I think we’re still in danger for a little bit longer. So until I’m proven wrong, I can’t talk about it.” He crawls further onto the desk platform, pulling her to him with an arm around her shoulder. “But I won’t run away anymore, not from you or anyone else. I’m sick of running. And I’m sick of making you mad at me.” Akira says breathlessly.

“Cold when it suits you, romantic when it suits you. I’ll never meet a greater scoundrel than you, Akira.” Haru rests her head against his chest, luxuriating in the gentle sound of his breathing. His heart is beating so fast, but so is hers.

“Demanding when she wants something, unashamed when she needs it. Just like a princess should be.” He lowers his head, can feel his curls against her own waves. “I think we work better than either of us might be willing to admit.” Akira whispers, tone light. Haru presses her head more insistently into his chest, instead of saying a dozen embarrassing things that spring to mind in the moment. Instead, they both trail off into silence, the only sound on the rooftop of rain against concrete and vibrant green leaves, thriving in the spring storm.

Chapter Text

Haru stands and stretches, her hands sticky with the remnants of an assortment of squashed pests; the school would never allow something as dangerous as a pesticide on campus, so she’s grown used to the backbreaking work of handpicked pest removal. Humming satisfiedly to herself, she relaxes, swaying slightly in the afternoon sun. It’s been a good day. A good week, in fact, ever since their reconciliation.

So good, in fact, that she doesn’t bother to protest when Akira’s arms slide across her ribcage, pulling her gently back against him. Instead, she keeps humming, swaying from side to side and taking delight in his playing along when he tries to follow the tune along with her, falling in and out of key when the song shifts in ways he didn’t anticipate. Taking a peek behind her and up at him, she finds his eyes closed, the wind playing with his curls just so, blowing them in and out of his eyes.

“You ought to do something about that mess, Akira. It’s unfashionable.” Haru smiles when his eyes snap open and then narrow down at her.

“You’re one to talk, miss sweatsuit. Sometimes I feel like I could break into a sweat just watching you work in that thing all afternoon.” His lips quirk into a smile, and she tugs at his arm to get him to bring his face down to meet her own.

They kiss, lingering in a way that has grown more common by the day. Now, when Akira visits, he doesn’t smoke (thank you, Ryuji), or sit listlessly in the shadow of the building. Yesterday, he brought a chair out into the sun, sitting on it and watching her with the sort of quiet intensity that she’s grown to adore. When Akira isn’t trying to play bad boy, he’s a man of few words, and she’s grown to appreciate his silences for all the meaning that they hold. The same can be said for their embraces, the silent need they both show for each other in those quiet seconds without their usual verbal jousting or small talk.

“I’m serious, you know.” Akira’s fingertips brushes across her temple, tucking a lock of hair safely behind her ear. They’re still so close, speaking in whisper. “You have nothing to be afraid of up here, while I’m here. You could probably be nude, and it wouldn’t matter.”

Haru smiles, peeling his hands away from her with care. “If you want a private show, dear, you’ll have to ask much more nicely than that.”

Akira comes to an abrupt halt at the top of the stairway, catching a glimpse of something through the crack in the door for just a moment. Someone’s arm, totally uncovered. He’s never seen Haru without full sleeves, except for that day at the underground mall. Despite hours late into the night spent racking his brain to try to fix every detail of that moment in his mind, their meeting at the flower shop still feels like something unreal, like a perverted fantasy come to life.

He takes a breath to steel himself for whatever Haru’s prepared for him and gently pushes the battered door onto the roof open, just enough to not hit the rusty part of the hinges that produces such a tell-tale squeal of metal. All that time in Kamoshida’s palace has honed skills he never thought anyone could ever need, much less use. The sunlight today is dazzling, the unseasonable heat having already driven him to remove his jacket, but seeing Haru now is, to him, like looking into the sun.

Her back is turned, and she’s stripped to the waist, her sweatsuit jacket tied around her waist. Above, her upper half is clad only in a thin tank top already damp with sweat trickling down the crease of her spine. She’s cradling a battered yellow watering can, running it slowly along each plant bed in turn. But Akira’s eyes are firmly locked on her arms, unlike any he’s seen outside of fiction. No fat to spare, her arms are cut like stone, the sweat beading on them gleaming in the sunlight and highlighting their curves.

His mouth is suddenly a vast desert, untouched by moisture for the years he feels like he spent staring, cataloguing every facet of her that she’s gone to such lengths to hide. That she’s shown him, now, in her own way, when he asked.

From the moment they met, Haru has shown only the most well defended parts of herself. He can’t help but feel like a thief penetrating the defenses of a fortress (a Palace, some voice inside himself chimes), one built over years and years of sustained effort until no one has seen the center in years, the most carefully protected truth. One maybe even the builder doesn’t remember anymore, lost to time and the weight of the world. It feels illicit, some days, like he’s taking something important from her.

And then he remembers the look on her face when they met, the bitter wariness of a kicked dog. An expression he had grown used to seeing whenever he passed a mirror.

“See something you like?” Haru’s voice snaps him back out of his reverie, and he only just controls his instinct to jump back, separate himself from the danger. Haru stands just in front of him, arms clasped behind her as she looks up to him with the most falsely innocent expression he’s ever seen. He can’t help but take in the rest of her at the same time, the band of sweat across her chest that only emphasizes the black bra ( that bra again, that voice inside him notes), the way her stance is perfectly designed to show off the above by shoving her chest up and out towards him, arching her back as far as she can probably bend.

Akira curses every part of himself that reacts to those facts, even as those parts of him drown out his reaction with lizard brain thoughts. Haru got him, this time, just like she always seems to.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He rakes his hair down over one ear with his free hand, covering the evidence of his real feelings on the matter. If she knows for sure, it’ll be over for him.

“Oh, nevermind. You know, you were right! I sweat much less without the jacket. Of course, there are other benefits, I’m finding.” Akira freezes when she starts stretching in front of him, flexing those arms that have come to fascinate him so utterly and working out kinks in her joints with small murmurs that must be calculated solely for his benefit. He bites his tongue, watching all the while and making sure that above everything else, he remembers this moment, both for later payback in equal proportion and for less wholesome purposes.

“Still no clue what you’re talking about.” Akira finally breaks away with more difficulty than he’s ever faced in the real world, turning away to dump his bag and jacket in the leeward side of the building next to hers. That done, he instinctively pats himself down, remembering with a grimace that his cigarettes and lighter have been missing in action for several days. Hopefully Sojiro doesn’t miss the cheap lighter; the pack has long since been replaced with one filched from the Yongen-Jaya cigarette stand.

“Looking for something, darling?” Akira rocks forward on his feet when Haru wraps her arms around him from behind. Every coherent thought in his brain is blotted out by a sensation of something so utterly unfamiliar pressing against his back that he has to return to biting his tongue to regain enough control to speak anything more than babble.


“You haven’t smoked in days, I’d assumed you quit. It really is an awful habit, you know.” Her head presses against his back now, too, and she hums the tune from the day before, rocking him from side to side with her gentle grip on his torso. He sighs, humming along with her and trying to quiet the cacophony of thoughts in his head, replaced only with the sound of Haru’s voice and her lilting melody.

“You didn’t complain, before.” Akira’s pitches his voice low, placing a hand over one of Haru’s.

“I believe I did. Loudly, in fact. I just stopped complaining when it didn’t work.” She hums the last bar, then sighs. “I’m glad you stopped.”

“…Yeah. I’m going to get something to drink.” He starts to try to pry her hands open as she did, but finds her grip is like iron.

“Oh, thirsty , are you?” Haru giggles against his back. “Can you get me something, too, then? I’ve worked up quite a thirst of my own, teasing you.”

Akira sighs. “Fine.” She squeezes Akira hard for a moment then lets go, and he disappears down the stairwell as fast as he can, already feeling his blush creeping down his neck.

He’ll swear on his dying day that he could hear her laughter chasing him down the stairwell.

By the time Akira returns, Haru’s made herself comfortable by their bags, pulling on his uniform jacket and rolling up the sleeves before buttoning it up. Her mission complete for the day, she revels in victory for a silent moment, breathing in all the smells of the rooftop. The scent of freshly watered dirt, the mixed smells of city life dulled by distance. And new smells from Akira’s jacket; the smell of Akira’s sweat, the now-fading remnants of cigarette smoke nearly gone entirely, and a strong scent of coffee. Does he have more than one job, maybe? Akira’s quiet intensity would go to waste on only one part-time job, she supposes. She’s still searching for a way to get Akira to really let himself out of his shell; it’s been obvious from the start that he’s guarding every inch of his true self like a bank vault, patrolled and fortified.

She just hopes he finds it in himself to let some of those walls down.

A chirp comes from Akira’s bag, Morgana sticking his head out and looking to and fro before settling his eyes on Haru.

“Oh, hello…Morgana, right?” Haru watches Morgana wriggle out of the bag, shaking himself off and eyeing her warily. She holds out a hand, wiggling her fingers to him. He steps forward cautiously, nipping her finger to her surprise before retreating and watching her reaction. She pulls the hand back, sucking on the bite and holding out her other hand. “Ow…Come on now, you can’t be that poorly socialized if Akira takes you everywhere. I won’t bite, I just want to pet you.”

He charges forward, butting his head against her hand, rubbing as much of himself as he can manage against her in one pass then coming around for another, chattering to himself the whole time. Finally getting a good look at Morgana, she realizes how thin he is, how young he must be; He couldn’t be more than a year old, if even that.

She pulls her hand back, and Morgana gives chase up onto her lap, rubbing his head into her hand and purring loudly.

“So starved for affection. If you lay down for me, I’ll pet you, dear.” Her suggestion becomes reality instantly as Morgana turns twice in her lap before curling up on her thighs, huffing a breath out of his nose. “Cute…” Morgana looks up at her and meows once as she starts petting him. “Oh, do you not like being called cute.” He meows twice, shaking his head back and forth rapidly. “Okay, I will refrain in the future. Do you have something else you like to be called, then?”

“A pain in my ass, maybe.” Akira peeks back around the door with his drinks tucked under his arm, sitting down in front of them both and holding out a bottle of chamomile tea. “You didn’t say what you want, so I picked what I thought you’d like. Is that my jacket?” She takes the bottle, setting it down next to her leg.

“You didn’t expect me to wear a tank top all afternoon, just for you, did you? I said you had to earn a private show, sweet one.” She does unbutton the top button of his jacket, though, pulling at the collar to let more air in and give Akira a long glimpse of her cleavage. Morgana chirps at her, so she returns to petting him, watching Akira. “You really ought to lighten up, you know. That scowl can’t be comfortable to maintain all afternoon.”

“I’m not scowling.” His expression softens closer to neutrality when she stops teasing him, and he sighs. “I want to relax, but I don’t know if I can, yet. But. I owe you an explanation.” Morgana shoots Akira a look, meowing once. “Oh, calm down. She deserves to know, and the evidence is long gone. It’s unprovable.”

“The blackmail? Can’t Kamoshida just tell the police he was blackmailed into confessing?” Haru doesn’t bother to confront the fact that her boyfriend is talking to a cat like a person. The thrill of finding out, at long last, what happened is more than enough to overpower that strangeness.

“No. He doesn’t even know. It was just a whim of his, to realize the severity of his crimes. His heart changed, that’s all.” Akira takes another drink of his coffee.

“Or it was stolen. Am I right?” She found one of the calling cards discarded in a bin, the day after. Mister Suguru Kamoshida, utter bastard of lust…We will steal your distorted desires without fail.

“Yeah. We took a part of him, the part of his emotions that had run rampant beyond reason. When he came to his senses, he couldn’t bear his own crimes. As you saw.”

“Mm.” Morgana growls in her lap, and she pets his head harder until he stops. “Morgana isn’t happy with you, it would seem.”

“He thinks that me telling you is a bad idea. She’s already in danger for even being around me, idiot. Better she knows why than not.”

“Quite right. Thank you for telling me, Akira. Should I assume you won’t tell me the method? To protect me, of course.” She can’t help but feel a little disappointment when he nods as he takes a swig of his can coffee. If she knew how he did it, could it be replicated? Or…She doesn’t want him to know about her father. Not yet. The parts he’s inferred are bad enough. “So. Was that all you came up for, then?”

“Well…” Akira looks meaningfully to Morgana, who makes a very un-cat-like grumbling noise as he stands up out of Haru’s lap and stretches.

“Oh, come on. Running off already? I had so much more planned for today.” Haru pouts, her hands in her lap, tea forgotten at her side.

“Team meeting.” Akira finishes his coffee, stuffing the tin into the bag after Morgana crawls back in.

“Mm, actually…” Haru digs in her bag, pulling out her phone. A few moments later, Akira’s phone beeps.

“You better not have just done that.” Akira digs his phone from his bag, unlocking it and staring at the screenshot of a group message Haru apparently sent several hours ago to Ryuji and Ann. She told them both that Akira had cancelled ‘whatever boneheaded plan Fearless Leader has cooked up,’ because he can ‘come out to play tomorrow, when he’s actually relaxed for once.’ “Haru…”

When he looks up from his phone, she’s already halfway into his lap, straddling him and pushing his phone out of his hand and letting it fall clattering to the cement. His heart thumps in his chest as her fingertips brush against his cheek, thumb sweeping a lock of hair out of his eyes.

“You know, people named Joker used to exist for the amusement of royalty. Now, I know you love to act like you don’t have a fun bone in your body, but…” She reaches up, plucking his glasses from his face. “I really do want to find out for real if that black heart of yours can beat harder for me.”

"You did THAT to him?!" Ann barely manages to swallow a mouthful of Ryuji's curry bread before she bursts into laughter. Ryuji reaches out to steady her when she overbalances on the desk platform her and Haru are seated on, nearly tipping over his own three-legged chair in the process.

The first thing Haru knew when lunch started was Ann and Ryuji catching her in the stairwell as they charged upstairs to eat, Ann peppering her with questions about Akira's mysterious absence from school today, following their sudden cancellation yesterday. Ann actually lead off with a ridiculous line like "So, has he said he loves you yet?" to start the conversation.

The answer is no, but after yesterday, he might as well be. After an exhaustingly long game of kiss and tell, she feels like she has a new appreciation for his silences. Watching him in the long beats between his answers, where he stared at her like a painting to be deciphered. When the thumping of his heart against her chest told a finer story than his words ever could.

Once Ann's recovered and regained her balance, she leans against Haru, sighing. "Oh, Haru, you're my favorite."

Haru giggles, wrapping an arm around Ann's shoulders. "Whatever for, darling?"

"Uhh, everything? You slapped his ass into next week like, 4 days ago, and now you have him on a choke chain. That dude MUST love you. I wanna study at your feet until I can attain even a tenth of your mastery of male emotion."

"Ehh. I dunno. I kinda feel for Akira, y'know? You two are both demons, and we're the ones getting tortured."

"Oh, please, you love it, you're just mad I'm the one leading." Ryuji flips her off, then tears off another chunk of his curry bread for her.

Haru gasps while Ann takes it. "Oh! Congratulations, you two!" When Ann holds up 3 fingers while she's still chewing, Haru gasps even louder. "Shiho agreed?"

"Yep." Ryuji smirks. "She's been awake for a few days, and, well, we both visited, and..." He looks away, rubbing his neck. "It still feels weird, but maybe it's just cuz it's so new. And, well, Everything's still weird for everybody in general?"

"Anyway!" Ann butts in, clearly shifting the conversation from That Topic. "We're thrilled, and it's all thanks to you, Haru!" Ann throws her arms back around Haru, hugging with all her might and ruffling her hair when she releases her.

Haru can't help but laugh, and smile. It's...this is all so new, but her heart has never felt so full in her life. Friends who hunt her down for lunch to share their lives, a boyfriend who, even if his actions don't always show it, loves her more than she'd ever imagined someone being capable of. It's storybook, almost. One she never expected to be reading firsthand.

"So, uh. You should ask her, Ann, before we get too much further."

"Ask me what?" Haru holds out a hand, and Ryuji obliges her with the last chunk of bread.

"Well! We wanted to ask a favor. Kind of a big one." Ann holds up her hands. "Don't say yes immediately, this is like, really big. Just lemme lay it out and nod along and you can say yes at the end. Okay?" Ann's expression softens, and she chews on her lip for a moment before speaking. "So, it's our anniversary today. Shiho and me, that is. So..."

"We wanna break her out of the hospital!" Ryuji leans forward on the back of the chair, grinning.

"I thought you wanted me to ask her!"

"You were gettin' all antsy about it, it was making me anxious!"

"Ugh, whatever. So yeah, we wanna break her out of the hospital, do something special for her. She can't walk, so we have to wheel her out, and it's gonna be super obvious if me or him do it, so it's gotta be a third party, and not just somebody off the street, either."

"Yeah, luckily I got an ace up our sleeve. Show her, Ann."

"Stop pushing me, jeez." Ann holds out her phone, showing Haru a photo of Ann modeling some hospital scrubs. They're far too short for her, ending above her navel and cuffing at her calves like culottes. "We got an ID and a set of scrubs we borrowed from their laundry room, don't ask, but they're too small. So...we were thinking..."

"Ok, but here's a good part about this. Shiho wants to meet you." Ryuji grins. "She's been basically asking about you nonstop ever since she woke up and we filled her in on school stuff and what we've been doing. Well, the non-classified bits."

Haru hums, looking from Ryuji's plaintive look to Ann's carefully controlled expression, the only hint of her investment in Haru's answer the watery look in her eyes. It had never even been a question in her mind if she would help them out, but how invested in it she would be. She's always feared favors for friends turning into them relying on her for money, or one-sided requests that never get returned in kind. Not that she ever truly feared it from them.

Still, it's a little fun to make them worry. "Well..." Haru says, smiling and bringing her hand up to her chin.

Haru steps out of the stall in the women's bathroom, tugging at the sleeves of her new disguise with a frustrated look. She's the right height for them, but the stitching of the arms is too tight against her biceps, and the waist sits wrong, far too low on her hips. A lifetime of tailored clothing has saved Haru from the simple horrors of one-size-fits-most clothing design and its take no prisoners attitude to the infinite variety of shapes bodies come in. She'd read about it online, sure, but this is terrible.

She inspects herself in the mirror, fighting the urge to try to get the pants up higher somehow as she clips her newly-doctored namebadge to her hip like Ann showed her. When she walks back out into the hospital proper with a drawstring bag of her clothes over her shoulder, Akira's lessons mentioned only in passing in their shoplifting spree come to mind. Don't look directly at someone who's watching, she thinks as she tears her eyes from the security guard at the desk and heads for the elevators. Act like you're doing everything you're supposed to be doing, as she picks up a clipboard left unattended on an empty gurney, flipping back and forth between 3 pages of identically unreadable charts in case anyone walks out of a side hallway by her. Even with these snippets of near-useless vaguery, Haru feels comforted, somehow. She only worried a little bit about how easy it would be to bust her, if anyone paid attention to the 17 year old girl wearing someone else's uniform.

Haru the familiar fear of public spaces doesn't come, oddly enough. Maybe because she hasn't been expected to be packaged for public consumption, the utilitarian nature of her disguise (so many pockets! She's never seen this many pockets in her life on a single garment, and each one so useful in it's own way) lulling her into security. She knows people see only what they want to see, but remembering it is harder.

The hospital is dead silent, the only sounds Haru's equally utilitarian shoes (she had to buy them specifically for this, never having owned a pair of sneakers in her life) against linoleum and the distant crackle of the PA system in other sections of the hospital. The unearthly still of a building built for use in the hours when it finds itself bereft of that usage, as if it is merely waiting for the dam to break and 10 nurses to charge down the cavernous hallway past her, saving some poor soul's life as they go.

While she waits for the elevator to descend, Haru tries to steel herself for what's to come. Instead, she finds herself mentally reviewing what little she remembers of Japanese case law on identity theft. Thankfully, the elevator arrives before she can remember if a rough approximation of her current situation could be classed as a felony or merely a misdemeanor.

Inside the elevator, Haru leans against the back wall, breathing as slowly as she can. The stark white plastic of the elevator, the reek of industrial cleaner and ethyl alcohol bring back unpleasant sense-memories for her. She was too young to remember her mother's death, but old enough to remember the sounds, the smells. Her overseas trip had been almost too much to bear, even the single day she spent in the recovery ward had her ready to tear out her IV and run.

She breathes in, humming a tune she'll never forget, despite it all. A formless melody composed by her caretaker when she was still a child, not even 7. It dips low and stays there in her mind as the elevator doors open, continuing to play in her mind for her while she moves towards the rehabilitation ward, past silent room after silent room. Even the nurses station is unmanned, though Haru can hear the clatter of coffee paraphenalia in the room behind it through the half-opened door. Taking the opportunity for what it's worth, Haru slips into Shiho's room as quietly as she can, leaning against the door and breathing out, the tension in her shoulders relaxing infintesimally.

"Hello?" A thin, reedy voice calls from further down the room, from the only bed occupied bed in the room, light silhouetting the occupant against the curtain. Haru steps carefully towards her, noting with some relief the wheelchair Ryuji had placed there, backed into the corner of the room.

“Ah, I'm coming in…” Haru pitches her voice just high enough for Shiho to hear, waiting a moment for any protest and opening the curtain when none comes.

Haru had tried to prepare herself for anything she might see. She could't begin to dream of asking Ryuji or Ann (or Akira, for that matter) how bad the fall really had been. Nor had the incessant, impossibly inflamed rumormongering surrounding her suicide attempt produced anything but the most garish imagery. Certainly, jumping suicides conjure grotesque imagery in the imagination.

But all Haru found was a girl inside, her greasy hair tucked behind her ears and shining in the light of her lamp. She looked thin, but bears herself well, sitting fully up for Haru and watching her with eyes that are alert but ringed with all the signs of fatigue. She likely stayed up for Haru to arrive.

"Hi. Haru, right?"

"A pleasure. Ann told you the plan, yes?" Haru steps further into the enclosure, letting the curtain fall shut behind her.

"Yep." Shiho waggles the phone in her lap for emphasis. "Nurses don't know what won't hurt them. Ann snuck me in a bag this afternoon."

"Great. We're ahead of schedule, so should we just--"

"Actually..." Shiho scratches her cheek, smiling. "Can I ask a favor?" She pats the bed next to her.

Haru hesitates, then sits down. This is the girl who jumped, used the roof access Haru left open before she left. She would have been exempt from whatever was going on, on the roof as she always was, and--

No. That's not how the world works, Haru knows that. She couldn't just have saved Shiho simply by being there.

But she can still wish it could have been true.

"Anything." She's already tresspassing at the very least, anyway. What's one more favor?

"I'm not seeing Ann and Ryuji on our anniversary without cleaning up. I don't have a mirror, though, so can you do my makeup? Ann left me some stuff in the bag she brought."

"Of course." Haru smiles.

They spend the next twenty minutes in terse silence, washing her face and tying her hair back before applying a minimum of makeup; both of them are under no illusions about the late hour or how much Ann will be able to notice. From this close, Haru can see that Shiho has lost a significant amount of weight during her coma, skin hanging from her arms where once it was likely pulled taut by muscle.

But the fire in her eyes as Haru applies her lipstick, her chin cupped by Haru's hand, shows Haru the kind of person she is.

"How do I look?" Shiho flicks her ponytail back and turns to one side so the lamplight hits it just so. "Ann says this is my best side."

"She's right." Haru smiles when Shiho breaks into a grin. "Come on, let's go show both of them how lucky they are to be with you."

Shiho gasps in surprise when Haru lifts her into the wheelchair. "Holy crap, you're strong. You sure you don't secretly play for one of our teams?" Haru curses herself, wishing she’d put on the long sleeve she had bought for covering up her arms (her least favorite feature by far), but it had pinched far too much in combination with the tight scrubs sleeves

"Very sure." Haru murmurs as she eases the door open, wincing at every squeak of the tires. She's keyed up again, noticing every little detail as she moves Shiho down the hall.

"Ever thought about volleyball?"

"Ssh. The nurse is right there." They wheel past the nurses station, it's occupant nodding to them both as they go. Her disguise worked. Holy shit, her disguise worked?

"It's fine. See? This isn't a big deal. You may be the cutest nurse I've seen here, but you're not the only cute nurse, either. You blend in perfectly."

"Ann would be so jealous if she heard you." Still, Haru can't help but break into a grin as they continue down the hallway.

"...No, she wouldn't be the jealous one." Shiho mutters. "Can we stop for a minute?" Haru pulls off down an empty hallway, walking around to the front of the wheelchair.

"Is something wrong?"

"I, I gotta tell somebody, I feel like I'm gonna explode." Shiho starts in a rush, her face flushed below the blush Haru applied. "I, I'm moving when my physiotherapy is over, when they discharge me." Her lip quivers, and she stares down at her hands, eyes watering.

"Oh. Shiho, I'm so sorry. Are you staying in Tokyo? You know Ann and Ryuji would go anywhere for you..."

"I know." Shiho sniffles, a barely stifled sob following. "Fuck, I'm gonna ruin your mascara. "No, we're moving to the country. Someplace nobody cares about olympic medalists or prestigious high schools or even knows the name of the starters for a national volleyball-qualifying team. Hours away."

"I'm sorry." Haru places her hand on Shiho's knee, as gently as she can. "But you know that would never change the way they feel about you. Ryuji, he'd chase you across a mile of glass barefoot if he had to, and Ann loves you from the bottom of her heart."

"But. But what if they don't?" Shiho whispers, her hands clenched in her lap.

Haru chews on her lip. “Hand me your phone.” Shiho unlocks it, watching her warily as Haru thumbs through to her contacts, adds her phone number and favorites it. “If they ever stop loving you, if they don’t respond to a text you send them within an hour, if they don’t send you a photo when you ask for it. Tell me and I’ll kill them myself.” Haru holds out Shiho’s phone to her, but Shiho is shocked beyond words, mouth hanging open.

"I. Wow..." Shiho laughs, wiping her eye. Haru sets her phone down in her lap. "Ann wasn't kidding. There's nobody else like you, huh?"

"I'm sure i have no idea what you mean." Haru stands from her kneeling position, resuming their journey. She's just glad her poker face held until Shiho couldn't see her face anymore.

In the elevator, Haru hums above the low noise of the muzak.

"What is that song, Haru?" Shiho turns, looking at Haru over her shoulder.

“Just something that calms me down.”

“It’s nice.” Shiho joins the melody after a few moments of hesitation. They don't stop humming together, falling in and out of key as they move out of the hospital and towards the park a few blocks away.

They find Ryuji and Ann sitting in a gazebo, in the shadow of a massive tree already beginning to show the new green of spring on its branches. After a bit of shuffling and some help from Ryuji, they get Shiho's wheelchair up into the gazebo and situated in front of the small table the pair had set up. Everyone gathers around to the front of Shiho, blocking her line of sight to the table behind them and the pile of stuff covered by a lumpy white cloth.

“So!” Ann produces a red birthday hat from a stack somewhere under the cloth, strapping it under Shiho's chin. “Welcome to the fourth annual Shiho and Ann-iversary, everybody!” Shiho giggles when Ann shoots her with a party popper, covering her in a spray of glitter and paper.

Haru gives Ryuji a look, and he shrugs, pulling on his own teal birthday hat and holding a pink one out to her. Haru takes it, shaking her head to herself before putting it on.

“Now, I know things are weird right now, for a lot of reasons, and this isn't exactly ideal celebration circumstances. But, screw all that stuff! We're gay, and I'm not letting all the bullshit get in the way of that!” Ann makes a show of brushing dust off her hoodie.

“Wait...Are we still gay if Ryuji's dating us?” Shiho tilts her head, considering him in his teal hat.

“I…hmm. Wait. Is being in a poly relationship queer? You and I are still at least gay, we're dating each other…I guess we're bi?

“Oh, right, okay. Is he straight still, though?” Shiho taps her bottom lip, turning back to Ryuji.

“Oh, did you not know about Kitamura in middle--?” Ann starts grinning before she’s cut off.

“Ann! You breakin’ our pinkie promise, right now, for real?” Ryuji shouts, throwing his hands in the air.

“Oh, right, no, I remember.” Shiho nods. “Okay, so we’re bi and he’s bi, we’re all bi.”

“You remember? I didn't tell anyone but Ann!” Ryuji shoots Haru a despairing look, and she shrugs at him. This stopped being her event the second she got Shiho to them.

Shiho folds her arms across her chest and leans back in the wheelchair to look him in the eye. “Dude, you tripped in the hall every time he so much as walked by your class! You couldn't have been more obvious if your stupid shirts said HEY GUYS I'M SUPER GAY!”

“I'm not gay, and i’m probably not bi, I'm heteroflexible! Akira told me about it.” Ryuji sticks his tongue out at Shiho, who crackles with glee, covering her mouth with both hands.

“The mysterious new kid told you about heteroflexibility? Ryuji, honey, if I hadn't met his girlfriend finally I'd be worried about you hanging out with him.”

“That's right, you finally got to meet Haru!” Ann skirts around Ryuji and throws her arms around Haru, hugging her. “Ahhhh! I owe you the world, girl!”

Haru laughs, patting Ann on the back and extricating herself from the mop of blonde that had flopped onto her face. “Okay, okay, please let go, this is your day, you can worry about me later. What did you guys have to wait so late at night to set up for this, anyway?”

“Ooh, Ryuji, do the honors.” Ann gestures grandly to the cloth covering the table behind them. It's obvious how much she's enjoying herself, the obvious joy entering her voice when she takes Shiho's hand and kneels next to her. “So, we're kinda strapped for cash, and it's not like we can do a lot of stuff, since, well, wheelchair. But we both knew how much you hated the food at the hospital, and...taa-daaaaaaaaa!”

Ryuji makes a drumming noise with his mouth as he rips aside the tablecloth, revealing a truly Herculean amount of burger cut up into plate-sized chunks and spread out across a massive plastic platter that fills Haru with a confusing mix of humor and disgust. It's the Big Bang Burger special, of course. She can smell the special sauce aroma wafting off of it.

“Oh my God…” Shiho whispers.

“I know, right? I feel like I gained 5 pounds just looking at it.” Ann squeezes Shiho's hand and stands. “We had to bribe a night shift cashier to get it out of the building, but we made it! I figure we can split it three ways, make it last.”

“You mean four ways.” Shiho turns to Haru, grinning. “I may be starving and emaciated, but there's no way I'm finishing a third of that.”

“Oh, thank you, Shiho, that's really, truly sweet, but I don't want to intrude on your celebration—” Haru holds up her hands.

“Come on, look at all that burger! You're just going to watch us eat this gigantic thing?” Ryuji jogs over to behind Haru, steering her to the table by the shoulders. “Besides, you made this happen, you oughta enjoy the burgers of your labor! Well, burger singular, cuz’ there’s only one.”

It's heartwarming, Haru realizes as she sits down, watching her friends get situated at the table around her. She'd spent so much of this ordeal scared out of her mind, wondering why she agreed to this insane, flagrant breaking of the law and so many types of ethical boundaries people are raised to live their life by. But this, this is the payoff for all that grief and worry. Maybe even all the grief and worry she’s ever dealt with. The warmth of her friends company, time spent joking and laughing with people who love her dearly, all things rather foreign for Haru to be participating in.

This…this is worth it. No matter what the cost, the fear, the sleep deprivation to come tomorrow, Haru would choose this regardless of what happened next.

Haru returns home well after 1am, bloated and ragged and nervy and above all, tired beyond words. The Ann-iversary was wonderful, the burger only slightly less so. Far less wonderful was returning Shiho to her room before the next round of bed checks, stripping back out of the too-small pair of scrubs and dumping them somewhere they could be found before boarding the last train home.

Even as distracted and weary as she is when she arrives, Haru can tell something is different from the moment she steps into the house. The entryway is eerily spotless, totally bereft of even the small marks of her presence or the debris typically left behind by late-calling visitors from Okumura Foods or beyond. When she passes from the entryway into the main hall on her way to her room, her fears are confirmed by the figure slouched on the couch, flicking through his phone.

“Mm? Ah, darling, at last. You kept me waiting, for shame.” Sugimura tuts and stands, tucking his phone into his immaculately tailored suit jacket and makes a show of buttoning it back up before walking over to her. She remains still, forcing her hands to stay unclenched when he approaches. She doesn’t react when he brushes her bangs aside, the feel of his fingertips against her temple trailing a burning like acid where it passes. She slaps down the thought of Akira having performed the same slow, gentle gesture a dozen times only yesterday before it becomes tainted with Sugimura’s filthy presence. “Kunikazu has been so worried for you, darling, and I quite agree. After all, what could you be doing out so late…It’s enough to make a prospective husband worry about your commitment to our marriage.”

“Stop.” Haru whispers, shifting just enough to break contact with his skin. She can’t bear to look at him, nausea that had begun with the burger only swirling higher with every moment in his presence.

“Ah, you must be tired, of course. I won’t keep you any longer tonight, my dear Haru. Get plenty of rest in preparation for our long day, tomorrow. Your father has already made sure that Shujin is aware you’ll be missing class, bless him.” Sugimura adjusts his tie, craning his neck and watching her with that hideous smile, the one he can only muster when he’s placed her in a compromising position she has no escape from. It’s familiar, and all the worse for it.

“Why?” She looks up at him, biting her tongue to keep the insult on the tip of it from escaping. Baiting him will only make things worse for her now.

“Just a whim of mine. I’ve been fending off invitations left and right for our appearances and visits from friends and business associates, but perhaps it’s time we made ourselves public. Maybe then you’ll understand the gravity of your role in the next few months.” Haru watches his grotesque smile spread like an oil slick, creeping and repugnant. Disgusted, she turns to leave, only to be stopped by his hand around her wrist yanking her back around to find him on one knee, a black box in his other hand. The lust in his eyes nearly makes her gag. “Oh, before I forget, darling. One of the maids found our engagement ring buried in your bureau. Please don’t misplace it in the future, I’d hate for anyone to get the wrong idea.” The ring slips over her finger, and she tastes blood in her mouth. “And take care of that disgusting black nail polish by morning. It doesn’t suit you.”

He doesn’t stop her when she rips her wrist out of his grip and sprints towards what little safety remains for her in her own home.

It wasn’t worth it . None of this was.

Chapter Text

“Akira. Hey, Akira.” Morgana whispers, crawling on his belly up the bed towards Akira’s head. “You awake?”

“I am now.” Akira grumbles, fighting the urge to pull his pillow over his ears. They met Morgana again this afternoon, struck their mutual deal in the Metaverse. What he hadn’t expected…

“Why d’you think I’m a cat here?” Morgana, the black and white cat and not the little boy who saved their lives, is inches from Akira’s head, yawning and giving him the full force of some utterly rank cat breath. “I’m used to being small, but this is weird. I miss fingers.”

“I don’t know, Morgana.” Akira sighs. It’s not Morgana’s fault, none of this is. It certainly makes housing him easier, at least.. An unbidden vision comes to him of the look on Sojiro’s face if he had brought the Morgana he met in the Metaverse into Leblanc. Just a snotty little kid with black hair and a streak of white in his bangs, probably not even 8 years old, dressed in a weird stereotype of a burglar’s outfit; a black eye mask that only accentuates his unnatural yellow eyes, the black and white striped shirt and black shorts, the whole nine yards. The weird all-black elementary schoolkid bag covered in yen symbols would be pretty conspicuous, too, and presumably only raise more questions. Maybe he could be his brother, if it happens?

“Maybe it’s temporary.”

“Ooh, maybe. Like a curse? I know a little bit about curses. Your Persona can do them, I think. Did you curse me, Akira?” Morgana’s voice is so innocent, considering the strangeness of the accusation.

“No, Morgana.” Akira rolls over onto his other side, putting his back to the talkative young cat. “I need to sleep for tomorrow, so go to bed.”

“Okay.” Akira can feel the bed shift minutely as Morgana paces in a circle for a few turns before laying down again. Akira sighs with relief, praying he can return to sleep. The silence remains unbroken, until Morgana speaks again as Akira is drifting off to sleep.

“Hey, Akira? What happens if it’s not a curse?” That little hint of worry in Morgana’s voice breaks Akira’s heart. “What if i’m a cat forever in the real world?”

“I don’t know.” After Akira answers, Morgana stays silent after. Akira spends the rest of the night restlessly awake, wondering what he could possibly do for the poor kid if he’s right.

“Akira. Hey, Akira, are you listening?” Morgana‘s face peers out of Akira’s bag, eyes wide. “Where are we going? Are we gonna see Ryuji? I wanna get back to that Palace, see what’s going on.”

“We’re going to school.” Akira fights back a yawn, opening his cup of coffee and praying the steamy aroma alone will wake him up. He didn’t have time to eat, so he knows the second he drinks it, he’s gonna be wired like an electric chair.

“What’s school?” Akira shoots the cat (boy? catboy?) a look when he asks, but somehow despite the only vaguely expressive face of a cat, he can tell Morgana means it.

“It’s where young people go to learn things.”

“Ok, but why? Don’t you want to go to the Metaverse today?”

“Keep your voice down.” Akira hisses.

“They can’t hear me, they just hear meows, remember? You just look like a sleepy guy talking to his cat.”

“That’s not much better than the alternative. Young people go to school most days of the week so they can learn how to be functioning members of society.”

“What’s a society do?”

“Lots of stuff.” Akira takes a slug of his coffee, grimacing at the burned coffee he made for himself. Maybe if Sojiro just made it for him…

“What kind of stuff?”

“Everything people do. Cooking, working, relaxing. Make the world liveable for everybody else.”

“Oh, right. I get people, I just don’t get your weird words for it. Society seems nice.”

“Ehh...” Akira grumbles. “It could be a lot better, though.”

“I got this one!” Skull calls, ripping his mask off and pointing triumphantly at the small imp in the pot floating next to Panther. “Captain Kidd, blast his ass!” The crackling bolt of thunder cascades across the surface of the pot to seemingly no effect and deflecting into the castle wall, where it discharges with a crash. “What the hell! It’s a metal pot, that should totally work!”

“HEY, GUYS, LESS BITCHING MORE FIGHTING, PLEASE!” Panther narrowly ducks to avoid a blast of lightning issuing from the same pot, trying to bring her machine gun to bear.

“Dang it, Skull!” Mona charges forward, ripping his bandana off. “Zorro, blow him away!” The rippling hurricane of wind summoned by Mona’s Persona shreds the monster, leaving only motes of blackness falling down around them.

Mona comes to a halt, rounding on Skull and storming up to him. “What are agathion strong against?”

“Uhh, I dunno, dude.” Skull shrugs as Panther and Joker walk over, brushing motes of the destroyed demon from their clothes. “They’re little dudes in metal pots, so I thought lightning would be good.”

“Wrong!” Mona turns to Joker, throwing his hands in the air. “Who taught this guy, I thought you went to school to learn basic stuff like this!”

“Uhh...Mona, I didn’t know that either.” Panther chimes in, ruffling Skull’s hair to clear out the dust. “Why don’t you just tell us, if you know?”

“I thought everybody knew! Agathion are familiars created by Judeo-Christian magicians, sealed in trinkets to hold them until they’re released! The pot isn’t part of them, it’s just representational. They torment you with lightning, so they’re strong against it, but they’re weak to wind-aspected magic.” Mona puffs his chest out, grinning. “You know, like mine.”

“Wh...Judeo-Christian?” Skull gawps, looking from Mona to Joker for guidance. Joker shrugs, so Skull’s frown deepens.

“What, do I have to explain everything to you guys? The Old Testament, the Bible, the second biggest religion on the planet?!”

“Mona, what’s two plus two?” Panther squats down, hugging her knees and tilting her head at him.

“Four, duh!”

“Okay...who’s the prime minister of Japan?” 

“What’s a prime minister? Actually, what’s Japan?” Mona tilts his head in response to match Panther’s, and she turns the other way, looking up at Skull and Joker.

“Mona, what kind of flowers would you give to someone in mourning?” Akira crosses his arms, frowning.

“Oh, can you be more specific? Hyacinths are good for mourning, but you could do forget-me-nots to say that you’ll always remember the person who died, or you could use lilies to symbolize the loved one, to provide hope and encouragement.”

“What.” Skull crouches down next to Panther, resting his elbows on his knees. “How long is a kilometer?”

“How am I supposed to know that?” Mona crosses his arms defensively. “Just because I know stuff you don’t doesn’t mean you can ask me all these weird questions.”

“Alright, alright, let the kid breathe.” Joker claps both Skull and Panther on the shoulder, and they stand up. “We’ve got a lot more ground to cover before we can rest, so let’s get back to it.” Everyone gives Mona a lingering look before they fall back into formation behind Joker, moving deeper into the castle.

Mona watches them in turn for a moment before running after them, shouting, "It isn't nice to pick on kids, you know!"

“Hey, Skull. Why’s Panther wear a catsuit? Is this something I should know too?” Mona’s sitting on a couch in Kamoshida’s castle, kicking his legs back and forth and watching Ryuji at the other end of the couch mess with his phone. Akira disappeared out of the room awhile ago to go scout ahead, leaving everyone behind.

“Huh? Oh, right. It’s like...A female villain thing, I think? Kind of a femme fatale, a girl who could kill you.”

“Couldn’t all girls kill you?”

“I...guess?” Skull raises an eyebrow and stuffs his phone back in his pants. “You should really be asking Joker about this stuff, I’m not that knowledgeable.”

“Yeah, but you know Panther, so I thought you’d know more about her. Has she killed someone? She’s kind of scary sometimes. A lot of the time, actually. Girls are spooky, I think. I can hear them talk in class, and it’s always weird stuff I don’t follow, like makeup and idols and a period? I don’t get what punctuation has to do with being a girl.”

“Oh, man. That one I’m not touching.” Skull frowns. “Wait, did you say you’re afraid of girls? Why?”

“Aren’t you? I’ve seen you staring at Panther, like you’re waiting for her to turn around and hit you.”

“What? No, I’m not s—Hey, what’s that look for, kid? I’m serious, I’m not staring.” Mona looks terrified, legs frozen mid-kick and staring somewhere behind Skull.

“Oh, are you not?” Panther purrs into Ryuji’s ear, leaning over the arm of the couch behind him. “I don’t mind if you do, Skull, just tell me so I can make sure I do something extra sexy-like for you.”

“Oh, shit.” Ryuji hangs his head.

“Hey, language.” Panther tuts, flicking him on the ear. “Not in front of Mona, okay? You remember what Joker said.”

“Oh, I already know that word, it’s okay.” Mona smiles, and Ryuji groans. “Panther, have you ever killed someone? Ryuji said you’re a femme fatale. I guess that means you’re a girl who can kill people?”

“Oh, did he...No, for the record, I’ve never killed anyone.”

“I didn’t mean it like that! It’s like, a trope or whatever, girls who kill with their looks! Mona’s afraid of girls, so I was trying to explain that it’s just a vibe, not like, the real you.”

“Uh huh. Mona, don’t listen to this dope. I’m just a normal girl who loves clothes and also whips, apparently. Dunno what that says about my subconscious, but…”

“Does Haru like whips too? She reminds me of you, Panther.”

Skull and Panther both look at each other, then burst into laughter, leaning on each other for support.

“You know who would be a great person to ask, Mona? Joker, when he gets back.” Ann can’t help but cackle after saying that.

“What are we asking me?” Joker slipped through the safehouse door like a shadow while they were laughing, leaning against it and smiling.

“Hey, Joker. Skull and Panther said I should ask you, so do you think Haru likes w—” Mona’s innocent question is cut of by the both of them piling onto the poor child, cutting him off.

“Nevermind!” Skull and Panther chorus.

The bell marking the end of lunch break blares from over their heads. Haru breaks the kiss with a click of her tongue before absently pushing Akira away to collect her things.

“I need to get back to class,” she says, pulling her school bag over her shoulder. Haru pulls the door open and glances back to where Akira still sits on the desks. “You’ll just have to answer my question after school, okay?”
Akira watches her disappear down the stairs, still blinking out of his daze. He leans back against the wall, fishes his lighter out of his pocket, and tries to remember what Haru had even asked him.

“Hey!” Morgana wriggles out of his bag next to him, looking up at the stunned Akira. “I know girls are scary, but you don’t have to fight her alone, Akira. Just give me the signal and I’ll scare her off good.”

“NO.” Akira shoves Morgana’s face back into the bag, zipping it almost entirely shut and throwing it onto his shoulder. “You’re not touching her, you’re not scaring her, you’re not doing anything to her. Got it?”

“...Okay. Sorry.” The hurt in Morgana’s voice makes Akira’s heart ache in a new and agonizing way, different from the ache of just moments before in Haru’s embrace, her mouth against his.

“It’s...whatever. Just be nice to her. She deserves at least that.” Akira leaves the rest of his thought unsaid, that he’ll probably do a good enough job of scaring her off on his own, soon enough.

“Hey, Akira?” Morgana lies at the foot of the bed, his eyes glowing in the night. Akira’s laying on one side, uncomfortable and upset by the fact that he can’t lay on the other side tonight; the slap mark on his cheek still hurts too much to let him sleep. “Why do you hang around that girl? She hit you. And she’s really close to figuring us out, too...”

Akira sighs, trying to form an answer that doesn’t sound monumentally stupid. ‘Because I do’ will just get them stuck in one of Morgana’s ‘why’ infinite loops. He hasn’t even sorted out his own feelings towards her, how is he supposed to explain it to the catboy wonder? The kid can talk circles around him about all manner of ridiculously vague occult topics, but he doesn’t get what love is. It’s...sad, in a way.

“I deserved her hitting me.”


“Because...because it’s not nice to hide things from people.”

“You hide stuff from me all the time. I haven’t found where you stashed my candy yet, and Ryuji won’t tell me.”

“That’s different. Candy is one thing, Haru is another.”

“How are they different?”

“Candy is...sweet, but it doesn’t fill you up, you’ll still be hungry after you eat it. This…” The analogy that springs to mind is entirely not safe for a kid. The way that Haru fills him up with light, smoothing in the divots and holes that have been bored into him by the last few months of his life. Akira groans. “You’re making me think too much for this late at night, Morgana.”

“C’mon, I wanna know. About the girl, not the candy. Why is she so important to you? She could get us busted, and then you can’t fulfill our deal.”

“Because she won’t. I know she won’t.”

“She loves me.” Just saying it aloud makes him furious with himself. She loves him, and he keeps abusing that trust. Maybe it would be better if this really was the end, a messy breakup in a diner and finding a new hangout for...whatever the hell they do now.


“Because I was kind to her. Because...I...shit. I love her, okay? I trust her, and she trusts me, for whatever insane reason she cooked up, and now we’re both too deep to burn the other without setting ourselves on fire, too.”

“If you love her, then why did you tell her no? Why not just be nice to her?”

“Because she shouldn’t love me. I’d rather burn myself now than hurt her worse later when she realizes she saddled herself with a burnout wannabe criminal.”

Morgana doesn’t speak for awhile, and Akira stares at the wall, trying to will the tears running down his face away.

“That’s dumb.” A weight settles against his stomach, Morgana laying down against him. “If you love her, then just tell her. If you trust her, Ann and Ryuji will. And me too, I guess, even if she is a girl. And if she loves you, then she won’t care if you’re whatever you said or if you aren’t.”

Akira sniffles and wipes his eyes with his sleeve. So fucking dumb and blind that I have to be consoled by elementary school kid stuck in a cat body , he thinks to himself. He places his hand against Morgana’s flank, hesitantly petting him. Morgana makes a soft noise when he touches him, just at the edge of a normal cat’s chirp, followed by a low, slow purr that continues when Akira keeps petting. It’s kind of ridiculous, to pet someone you’ve fought with, but it’s calming. After awhile, Morgana’s purrs begin to get quieter, as he drifts towards sleep.

“Hey, Akira.” Morgana murmurs. “When I’m normal in the real world again, what’s gonna happen to me?”

“Nothing. I won’t let anything happen to you, Morgana. That’s a promise.”

“Okay. ...Thanks, Akira.” His voice is fading,

Akira takes a breath to reply, then thinks better of it. Better to let the kid rest. Who knows what he’s gone through before now—Not even he does.

Chapter Text

Haru slams her bedroom door behind her, snapping the deadbolt into place and letting out a sob, forehead pressed to the door. He didn’t chase her, but he’s never had to. Holding all the cards makes him cocksure and confident in his ability to strike at her, even in the safest room she’s ever known. Her own home is no sanctuary to her when Sugimura enters the equation. Even with a surfeit of deadbolts and omnipresent soundproofing (thank you from the bottom of my heart, Mother, Haru thinks to herself), her safe spaces are anything but.

Adrenaline fading, the exhaustion of the night passes over her like a crashing wave, and she slides down the door into a hiccuping heap, crying tears she knows are pointless. They won’t make things better, her problems more distant. Looking at the ring on her finger, she knows they’re closer than ever before. Her pointless little rebellions have earned her this fate, sealed her in with Sugimura further than she had been. Crying about it will only make her feel better. She needs solutions, not the empty solace of catharsis, as much as she craves it.

So she wipes her eyes and stands, checking the time on her phone (4:33AM) and planning out her options. Throwing the wardrobe open, she searches for the most disarmingly feminine dress she can find. A quick search of her drawers ends with her complementing the dress with a pair of opaque tights, tossing them on her bed. She won’t have time to sleep for more than an hour before he comes calling, so the time will be better spent preparing for him.

Haru has always considered the way she dresses a camouflage, hiding in the collective eye of the city by adopting the colors and patterns of her peers, to become unassuming and small for them.

It is also armor, in some ways.

An inveterate misogynist like Sugimura finds her endlessly enticing, harboring lascivious and frankly disgusting thoughts even with the most chaste outfits imaginable. Exploiting it and his tendency to fixate on anything that stands out makes her feel sick to her stomach, but if she knows what he will react to, he’s at least predictable. Armoring the most vulnerable parts of yourself is a central tenet of combat doctrine, and she follows it carefully: the dress chosen is conservative in the extreme, with full puffy sleeves and billowy top section to hide her true bust, combined with a high collar that covers her throat. It’s the closest she can get to body armor without enraging him with coats, parkas and the like. She’s long since learned where the line is in his twisted mind, and toes it with every moment.

Haru hates every second of having to think like this. She chose and embraced femininity as the only way she could see herself in the mirror without wanting to disappear from the world without a trace. To have to then be forced into a parody of it by nothing less than an invader into her home, her life, her very wellbeing is disgusting. She’s thought of escape any number of times, to close the door on her family and try to live well, free from their schemes and burdens and ever-present disapproval.

Only one thing stops her.

She stops digging for accessories in the bottom of her bureau, opening a drawer and removing a small diary from it, well-worn leather that creaks with age. She has a little time to spare…Sitting down on the bed next to her partially-assembled outfit, she flips through it, lips pressed in a tight line.

Her grandfather is another presence in her life that has defined itself by his absence, like her mother. He died before she was born, but as the previous owner of Okumura Foods before her father he defined his company by its compassion and care, both for their employees and their customers as well as the general public. A small chain of cafe restaurants, the Okumura brand was known for providing an atmosphere unlike any other company at the time, homely and calming. It was also known for contributing to community projects in the area around their cafes, bettering the neighborhood and strengthening bonds with the community. His journal, this journal, is a chronicle of his struggles to keep that attitude at the forefront of his company, fighting with every turn the ever-present greed of his shareholders and the struggles of raising a son alone. The number of entries when he spends most of his days working until midnight to make the company stay true to his ideals, only to get back up at 5am to continue the fight beggars belief. She sniffs, wiping away more unbidden tears before they damage the journal’s pages.

She found this years ago, in a storage room she had used for privacy more than once in that awkward stage of life where she felt even her bedroom wasn’t safe enough for her, when only the anonymity of no one knowing where you were was safe. A box full of his things laid next to her, marked with his name, and curiosity overrode her own fear of discovery. The journal is the only thing she was able to keep, the box disappearing some weeks later. The only memento of a man she never met, but has come to agree with more and more as she’s watched her father chase the demands of the board with increasing fervor, ignoring the reports of workplace hazards and frankly deplorable conditions at every turn.

How two men whose personal lives are so similar, so closely connected could arrive at so diametrically opposed of routes to running the same company, she’ll never know.

Haru can’t help but wonder if their family was destined to be like this. The last 2 generations, growing up with absentee fathers and lost or dead mothers, could things have been different if…

Pointless. She closes the journal, returning it to its hidden resting place under several scarves. Worrying what could have been, if her family could have been happy, if the company could have maintained its philosophy under its new doesn’t matter, any of it. Only where they are now matters, and where they go from here. The only thing keeping her here is the faint, distant hope that she can find some way to wrest control of the company from Sugimura following their marriage, to oust her father somehow and show him the error of his ways.

But first, she has to make it through today intact. She returns to her work, doing what little she can to protect herself.

She starts with her nails.

When Haru gets in his car, Sugimura takes one look at her, the only skin showing on her hands (now free of the black nail polish she had grown so accustomed to reapplying), and looks back out the window with a small huff of distaste to tell her the initial gambit worked. She folds her hands in her lap, watching the building retreat as they pull away.

“Where are we going?” She only says something several minutes into their drive, when Sugimura offers nothing.

“Somewhere a great many people can see us, my princess.” Haru flinches when he touches her cheek, biting the inside of her cheek and trying to keep from lashing out, screaming that no one can call her that but Akira.

Akira. Fuck, he’s going to notice she’s gone. She can’t hide this for long...Especially if Sugimura is going to try to publicize their marriage ahead of it, to score a few extra points for himself. Disgusting. A man his age marrying a 17 year old should be a scandal, not a point of pride. She leans away from him to try to break the contact, but he simply moves closer, so extremely, uncomfortably close.

“You won’t act like this in public, when they can see it.” Sugimura says lightly. “Or there will be consequences.” He stresses the final word, as if he’s never threatened her in his life before now.

Haru turns to him, finally meeting his eyes with a defiant look for the first time since last night. “As if this isn’t consequence enough.”

“You say that as if I couldn’t punish you much more severely.” His voice darkens, fingers wrapping painfully around a handful of hair. “The only reason I allow you to protest here and now is that it pleases me, my pet. Don’t ever forget that.” He releases her, pushing her away from him with a ‘tsk’. “There are men far worse than I that you could be marrying. Kunikazu protected you from them, but if you ruin this opportunity for yourself, you’ll regret it.”

Haru doesn’t answer, merely clenches her jaw more tightly and stares out her own window, watching the first drops of rain strike the glass. When Kunikazu brought up that he would be arranging a marriage for Haru, she reacted poorly. Every suitor who came calling was summarily sent packing, until Kunikazu gave her no uncertainty towards her place in his life; if she would not make herself useful for his ambitions, she would be cast aside, summarily cut from the family register, and abandoned like trash.

He wasn’t the man who raised her, after that moment. The man who looked at Haru crying in front of him one day after school, telling their father they didn’t want to grow up into a boy, and took them into his arms disappeared that day, replaced by a man who sees her as nothing more than a commodity to be sold for his gain.

She’s still grieving the loss of that man, in some ways.

Their destination is as gaudy as Sugimura’s white Italian suit would suggest: a buffet placed in the first floor of a five-star hotel downtown, catering to exclusive clientele by being exorbitantly expensive to keep everyone else out. She watches Sugimura press a thin stack of yellow 10,000 yen notes into the hand of the maître d', who ushers them over to a seating area more akin to a visiting room than a restaurant, an array of chairs and loveseats centered around a table. Sugimura drags her bodily to the loveseat, sitting her down and primping as his goons who trailed in another car set about making themselves obvious and imposing despite the gap between Sugimura’s tailored suit and their own baggy, ill-fitting replications thereof. When he finally sits down, he snaps his fingers for their attention, crossing one leg over the other languidly.

“Food, and wine. We have to keep our guests fed, of course.” He tugs his sleeve aside to check his watch, grinning smugly to himself. “The first one should be here soon. Remember what I said, my sweet.” His smirk widens when she lifts her chin, assuming the mask of polite civility that women in positions like hers learn early in life, or suffer for it.

It only took her 2 years of pain in middle school to master it.

The day unfolds as a nightmare come to life.

Every single person to come before them is worse than Sugimura in every way. Lascivious lackeys, sycophantic suck-ups and charming charlatans come and go with dizzying speed, each of them eager for a moment with their smug liege.

Or a chance to touch the goods of his wife-to-be. For luck, they say.

All of them are eager to touch anywhere they can, give her saccharine smiles and promises of riches and wealth if only they can help them out just once—Sugimura humors them and only seems to grow more emboldened by every passing compliment they pay him with, growing more possessive of Haru until he can hardly stop touching her to pay attention to their weedling requests and promises.

Being forced to play the part of the shy yet willing fiancée is disgusting, galling in the extreme. Having to bear his and his lessers’ touch everywhere they can manage is worse. Hands on the nape of her neck, around her waist, brushing across her cheek like a razor blade ready to cut her for the slightest movement, all of it is equal parts threat of retaliation and promise of more to come. Worse is that her exhaustion only grows worse as Sugimura denies her even the slight comfort of coffee or green tea, or even food, yet also grows more furious every time she displays any signs of her exhaustion or hunger. Every time she falters for even a moment, a hand both steadies and scolds her with the same movement, reminding her of what he has the power to do, if only he exercised it. The sickness in her stomach only grows every time she’s reminded of it.

The worst are the few women who come in tow with these disgusting cavalcades of men looking for favors, who look at her with barely-disguised pity and move on without even attempting to provide comfort or solace. They surely have their own problems, Haru knows, but she hates them the most. She hates all of them the most, actually, everyone in the building. Everyone in the room who is paying attention pays them at least a glance of confusion, watching this farce unfold throughout the day.

None of them do a goddamned thing. Not a one.

They look, and she sees some of the staff give each other conspiratorial looks and whisper while Sugimura tries and fails to draw her into a kiss, his lips bouncing ineffectively off her neck and chin. He reeks more and more of the wine that continues to be refilled by one of his goons, the empty bottles disappearing as quickly as new ones arrive. The taste of it is still clinging to her lips after his last awful attempt at a romantic moment, a cloying reminder of the life she’s been forced into.

The life that could remain hers, forever, if she doesn’t do something about it.

But what? Resistance has earned her nothing but grief and damage and promises of more to come. Only a fool would continue to stoke their ire, to drive them into a frenzy of anger.

The image of a prideful, lustful man on his knees in a gymnasium begging for forgiveness springs to mind from nowhere. Akira’s miraculous reversal of fortune that managed to bring down an abusive monster of a man to a sobbing wreck, begging for permission to kill himself in front of an assembly of his victims and bystanders.

Oh, what a dream that would be. She’d happily hand him the knife herself, if it were Sugimura in that position.

Next to her, Sugimura coughs after finishing yet another glass of wine, checking his watch. “About time for a break.” He snaps his fingers, pointing at the ugliest of his minions. “Watch her, don’t let her sleep for even a second. No coffee, no tea, not even a fucking bit of chocolate. Nothing, until she begs me for it.” He stands, not even bothering to look at her as he wanders off with the majority of his crew in tow. Still talking about her like she’s not even here, or worse: that she’s his toy, an amusement he can abuse and break and move on from without remorse.

Once Sugimura’s out of eyeshot, the grunt sits down in a chair opposite Haru, popping an entire sushi roll into his mouth in one bite and reclining with a sigh of relief. She watches him warily as she pulls her bag from under the loveseat, retrieving her phone and turning it on (Sugimura has a strict policy about electronic devices near him, especially towards Haru; protecting himself from blackmail for the endless list of threats and promises of violence he’s given her, likely). Immediately, a flood of notifications crashes to life on the screen with a cacophony of competing audio alerts. She gets text messages and LINE messages one after another, and even a single phone call from Akira’s number.

She hesitates, caught in that moment between wanting so desperately to know what Akira said, and knowing that even just hearing his voice right now might make her break down. A quick glance tells her that her chaperone is currently scrolling down his social media and rapidly clearing out the hours-old sushi on the table between them, so she raises the phone warily to her ear, steeling herself for whatever may come.

“Hey.” Akira’s voice is quiet. “You’re not at school, and somebody said that a guy called you in sick, but I asked Kawakami and she said it wasn’t your dear old father. And Ryuji and Ann told me about last night, so…” She bites her lip when she hears him swear under his breath, the raw, ragged tone in his voice breaking her heart more and more by the second. “Call me. Text me, if you can. Anything.” He pauses, only the sound of his irregular breathing on the line. “Please. Shit. Be safe.”

“Hey, no calls.” The goon mutters, not looking up from his phone.

“My apologies. Just checking messages.” He snorts an acknowledgement when she pulls her phone away from her ear, cradling it in her hands and staring at the list of notifications: So many from Akira with his no-nonsense demands for information and her safety, a mix from Ryuji and Ann inflected with guilt, worried they caused this. And even one from Shiho, thanking her profusely for her help last night.

Last night, when this started, the event that ignited the tinder she had been piling over herself that led to this result.

But Haru won’t blame anyone else, none of them had a hand in this. She won’t blame anyone but Sugimura and herself. The others didn’t cause this. Just us, her and this monster she’s been chained to. But she can’t fight him alone, without support, so she fires off a mass text to Akira, Ann and Ryuji.


Haru: I’m at the Hilton downtown, the buffet on the ground floor. I’m not alone. He’ll be back soon, with friends.


She barely manages to mute her phone in time as a new flood of notifications sets her phone vibrating wildly in her palm.


Ann: WTF

Akira: When he comes back, wait 5 minutes then cause a scene. If you can, run for the fire exit.

Akira: And stay safe.

Ryuji: we got you, girl!!


“Phones stay off, my pet. You know the rules.” Haru’s phone is tugged from her hand, and Sugimura’s hand clamps down on her shoulder to keep her in place as he sits back down next to her, his other goons spreading out around the sitting area again. “I’ll just hang onto this for you. Until you’ve shown me you can be a good wife, of course.” He smiles and flicks out his tongue for a moment, and Haru suppresses a shiver. “And you, you fucking ape, get off the furniture. Fucking disgrace.” He barks to his crony, who leaps to his feet and stuffs his phone back in his pocket.

“Sorry, boss.”

“Whatever.” He turns back to Haru, pressing himself closer to her. “You haven’t had a single thing to eat all day, my sweet. Meager protests like those move some hearts. Some.” He holds out a hand, and a glass of wine, freshly poured, is placed in it. “I’m growing tired of you resisting at every turn. If you only played along, things would be much easier for the both of us. This need not be unpleasant.”

“I have played along.” Haru mutters, refusing to even look at him. She marks every face that looks at this scene, sees her and this drunken fool trying to fondle her and moves on without acting. She won’t remember them, but it gives her something to think about that isn’t his hand drifting from her shoulder down to her hip. “What do you want this time?”

The wine glass moves under her nose, Sugimura swirling the disgusting drink gently under it, the earthy scent filling Haru’s head. “Drink with me.”

“What? They’ll throw you out. Imagine if your family found out.” Haru makes excuses, jaw clenching. She won’t drink. Not for him, not in a million years.

“No one will find out. No one will care. I’ve already spent so much money here, the manager herself would come out here and force a bottle down your throat if I told her to. Not to mention the connections I have with the hotel, and a certain influential politician who owes me for taking care of something for him.” Sugimura laughs, light as air despite the rapidly darkening mood in the sitting area. “So drink. Or I might have to take you somewhere private next time I need to punish you. Suites here are oh so easy to rent for weeks.”

Haru finally turns, searching his cloying, smug expression for any sign that he’s playing.

He’s not.

So, this is what it’s come to.

She reaches up, placing a hand on the glass, and Sugimura lets her take it, his grin widening. “The whole glass, my pet.”

She can’t quite fit all of the wine in her mouth at once, so she settles for taking as much as she can and spraying it in Sugimura’s face before dumping the rest on his suit. She springs to her feet as he howls in anger, grabbing her bag and running as fast as she can towards the fire escape, shoving and shouting her way through the crowds until she runs headfirst into someone in a bright purple hoodie that takes ahold of her and lifts, pulling her behind a pillar.

“Hey, hey, it’s—ow, okay, ow—Haru, stop, damn it, that hurts!” She stops beating her new assailant on the chest when she realizes it’s Ryuji, taking her to safety. They keep moving, Ryuji setting her down and tugging her at an oblique angle away from the fire escape.

“You okay?” Ann bends down next to her, brushing hair out of Haru’s face and smiling tightly. “Did he do anything?”

Despite the filthy taste of rotten grapes on her tongue, she shakes her head. “I’m okay. I’m okay, but we have to go, I really pissed him off...” She looks around, trying to find Akira, but only sees her two blonde compatriots. Ryuji never stops moving even as he strips out of his hoodie and throws it over Haru’s shoulders, flipping the hood up.

“Don’t worry about it. We’re getting you outta here, Akira’s working on our exit. C’mon.” Ryuji actually straightens himself up to his full height, walking ahead of them and keeping his head on a swivel while Ann leads Haru behind him, making for the front door.

“How did you even get here so fast? 5 minutes from wherever you were to here is too fast…” She keeps looking for Akira, trying to spot the familiar head of hair in the crowd and failing. “We can’t have that much of a lead on them, why are we going so slowly?”

“They saw you run for the fire door, and—” Ann starts explaining, until the fire alarm starts blaring and drowns herself. She nods to herself, shouting to be heard over it. “There we go! Bait and switch, Akira’s really good at it! He’ll meet us outside, he’s gonna start some shit with them and play distraction!”

“‘Really good at it’? How do you get good at something like that?” Haru bites her lip in worry, every nightmare she can imagine springing to life. Most of them involve Akira versus 4 goons and Sugimura, beaten bloody.

“We’ll talk about it later!” They get outside into the rain without trouble, Ryuji moving ahead of them and scouting the way for wherever they plan to meet back, disappearing down an alley after a wave to Ann. When he doesn’t come back for a few seconds, Ann swears under her breath. She parks Haru against the building, putting both hands on her shoulders. “Wait here. Home’s not safe, right?” Ann tsks to herself when Haru nods. “Okay. If I’m not back in 2 minutes, you’ve got your purse, get a taxi and go to a cafe named Leblanc, it’s in Yongen-Jaya. Got it? Okay.” She pats Haru on the head once then follows after where Ryuji went. Haru catches a glance of Ann’s face right before she disappears around the corner, doesn’t look like her. Like she’s put on a mask, became someone else.

Both of them feel so much different than they usually do. What exactly has Akira had them doing, to make them suddenly good at what amounts to kidnapping and stealth?

What happened to the Ann and Ryuji she knows? They didn’t even make fun of each other once since she’s seen them.

She counts the seconds since Ann left, wearing Ryuji’s hoodie draped over her in the pouring rain and feeling so deeply out of her depth. Can she even really listen to Ann, go to this unfamiliar place and hope they show up? She doesn’t have her phone, so she has no way to contact them now. Maybe Ann thought she still had it, what if her plan hinged on it?

Fuck. Fuck this, fuck waiting, fuck doing what she’s told. They probably even need her, and she’s afraid? She’s already dug herself as low as she’ll go, what’s a little further? She steels herself, following after Ann into the alley.

The echoing alarm issuing from the fire escape door she had been running towards makes the alley a cacophony, drowning out the sounds of scuffling as Akira and Sugimura beat each other bloody in the rain, Ann and Ryuji occupied past them fending off two of his goons. Sugimura has a wild look in his eye, his white suit stained dark with not only wine but blood. Akira’s sporting a few bruises and cuts, but he fights hard, grabbing Sugimura by the collar and driving him back into the wall despite the differences in their sizes. He hauls back and throws a right hook that he repeats again, and again, Sugimura’s head jerking back with every hit. The fight goes out of Sugimura more and more with every strike until he can only scramble for a handhold against the wall, the only thing keeping him standing Akira’s grip on him. Water pours off of them both, and she can see the hot clouds of Akira’s breath as he pants.

Haru can’t speak, watching it unfold. It’s horrifying, but it’s also a dream come true. Still, though...She approaches hesitantly as Akira pants for breath, watching Sugimura’s head loll against the wall. When she touches his shoulder, he flinches, looking back at her with wild eyes. She jumps back, and Akira drops Sugimura, turning back to her and taking her by the hand.

“Are you okay? Did they hurt you?” He pulls her tight to him for a moment, then starts checking her face for bruises, cuts, anything. She watches Sugimura behind him, arms flailing uncoordinatedly as he tries to get to his feet, hate burning in his eyes.

“I...I’m ok. We should go. The police…” She looks over at the fire exit, the commotion of people inside the venue still confused by the alarm.

“She’s right, we gotta move.” Ann and Ryuji arrive then, Ryuji hocking loogie full of blood onto the building while Ann clicks the taser in her hand back off, the still-hot prongs sizzling whenever the rain strikes them. Behind them, their foes are sprawled out on the floor, one left twitching spasmodically by Ann while the other slides down the wall like a sack of bricks from Ryuji's beatdown. 

“You fucking pissants!” Sugimura slurs, leaning heavily on a dumpster for support. “You-you’re not going anywhere with her!”

“Sugimura, stop.” Haru watches the way his legs shake, clenching her fist. It’s...awful. “You’re hurt. Just...stop.”

“Shut the fuck up, you whore! This is YOUR FAULT! Worthless little bitch, I should have fucking known that fucking cunt of yours would—” Sugimura is cut off when Akira forces him against the wall with a forearm to the neck, shoving him as high as he can. Sugimura struggles weakly, fingers clawing at Akira’s face.

“You don’t ever get to talk to her like that again, you miserable prick. I could kill you right now, you know that? Don’t ever presume your money or your family or anything matters. Nothing can put you outside my reach.” He presses harder, and Sugimura gurgles for air. “Apologize.”

“I—m, sssssorrry…” Sugimura manages despite Akira’s forearm, face greying. Akira steps away, jaw clenched, as Sugimura falls to his knees, gasping for air.

“He...has my phone.” Haru, too stunned until now to speak, finally manages as Akira starts to walk away. Sugimura hastens to empty his pockets out, scattering her phone along with 2 others and his wallet onto the pavement. Akira turns, picking up Haru’s phone and the wallet, digging Sugimura’s ID out.

“Sugimura Yokoyama. I’ll remember that.” He drops the ID onto the asphalt, putting the wallet and phone into his hoodie.

“What’s...your name.” Sugimura slurs, rubbing his throat.

“Ren Amamiya. I hope you remember it, too. I ever find out you’ve done anything to Haru, past or future. I’ll be back. She’s under my protection now.” Akira says, staring Haru in the eye.

He still can’t even struggle to his feet, but he sits back on his haunches, grinning in the dim alleyway. “Ren, Ren Amamiya. Why don’t you ask her about that surgery she disappeared for. I bet your cock missed her whore mouth then, huh? No, no, you probably got a taste of that new pussy after she came back and got hooked. Well remember this, Ren Amamiya. You don’t come between a man and his fiancee.” He smiles hysterically, blood flecked across his teeth. “No, you don’t, you don’t you don’t. I will bury you, you fucking punk. A man and his wife are sacred, you fucking hear me? My family will blot out your name from HISTORY!”

Akira snorts, kicking Sugimura in the chest with a grunt of effort, watching his head bang off the asphalt with a sickening thud. Haru winces when he hits the ground, turning away.

“You done yet, dude?” Ryuji calls from the end of the alleyway, leaning around the corner and watching for trouble.

“Yeah, lets go.” Akira nods towards the alley, putting an arm around Haru, and she can’t decide if she’s terrified or comforted by it in that moment.

Who is this man, and what did he do with the boy she fell in love with?

They head for that cafe Ann mentioned, arriving just before dark. Ann and Ryuji wait with her around the block, while Akira goes in and does...something. She’s not entirely sure, but an older gentleman leaves a few minutes later, and Akira lets them in.

“We should probably go.” Ann demurrs once Akira comes back out, to everyone’s surprise.

“Yo, what about food? And he’s got all the medical supplies, and I think I broke my nose.” Ryuji whines, pointing to his face. Ann promptly seizes his face in both hands, setting his broken nose with a quick motion that results in Ryuji howling in pain.

“Fuck, warn a guy!”

“It hurts less if you don’t expect it. How many times have I had to do that for you now?” Ann turns to them both, smiling. “He’ll be fine, I’ll drag him home and baby him. See you tomorrow?”

Akira shrugs, and Haru tries to smile and finds herself faltering at the thought of school tomorrow. It’s already nearly 10, and she hasn’t slept since the day before that. Still, though, she nods for Ann, and watches the two of them go, hands linked and bickering quietly the whole way.

Akira leads Haru in, taking her up a flight of stairs in the back into an incredibly bare attic, the only real flourishes an apparently fake bowl of ramen on a shelf next to the bed. Morgana is asleep on the bed, but startles awake when they come up the stairs, meeting them in the middle of the room and chattering animatedly at them, jumping up and trying to climb Akira’s leg.

“Stop, Morgana, fuck. That hurts.” By the time Akira protests, Morgana is perched on his shoulder, still meowing incessantly as Akira wanders away from Haru. After a minute of silent digging through a box, Akira produces a familiar bag of medical supplies, taking it over to the bed and sitting down on the edge. “I’ll tell you about it later, Morgana. Just be quiet for me for now.” He looks up at Haru. “You can sit down, you know.”

“What was that, back there?” Haru remains still in the center of the room, all too aware that she’s in both uncharted and dangerous territory.

“What was what?” He doesn’t look up from digging bandages out of the bag and immediately tearing into them, setting about covering several small cuts on his fingers.

“You nearly killed him.”

“Would you have preferred if I did?” He looks up, an eyebrow raised. “I didn’t see you as the bloodthirsty type.”

Oh, if only he knew.

“I’m not. But you, I…” She hesitates, hands opening and closing in front of her. “You scared me so much, then.”

Akira pats the bed next to him, and Morgana jumps down where he touched. “No, her, you doofus. Move.” Akira shoos Morgana out of her spot as Haru sits down, face grim.

He doesn’t say anything for a moment, staring at his raw knuckles. “...Sorry. I. You know I love you, right?”

Haru blinks, surprised he finally managed to say it. “Of course.” Like he hasn’t been obvious since the day they met.

“When you didn’t answer anything, I worried. When Ann and Ryuji came to me at lunch like they were telling me they broke the cookie jar, I got scared. Then…” he sighs. “When you texted me, I thought I was gonna break my phone.” He laughs dryly to himself, shaking his head. “I was positive I was going to kill him. It’s why I volunteered to play the rabbit.”

“Like a greyhound race.”

“Right. I didn’t count on him being that tall, but he couldn’t fight for shit anyway.”

“He’s the son of a political powerhouse, not a bodybuilder, Akira.”

“Right.” Akira finally gives up, dropping the bandage he was holding. “God, this sucks.”

Haru points to the bandages. “Those were never going to work. Here, hold your hands like this.” She demonstrates holding her hands out limply, and digs out a bottle of peroxide along with gauze and athletic tape, setting them out in her lap and turning to face him. “Hold still.”

“You know something about taking care of fistfight wounds, huh?” Akira hisses through his teeth while she cleans his cuts with the peroxide.

“Mako-chan’s been doing Aikido since elementary school, and this is harder to do when it’s your hands that are hurt. You didn’t answer the rest of my questions.”

“Team meeting. Yes, without Morgana, I know. Sorry, kid.” He gives a nod to Morgana, who shakes his head from his position curled up next to Akira’s thigh and chatters. “We all about blew our tops when you said you were there. And we’ve run bait and switches all the time, know.”

“Crime stuff.”

“Crime stuff.” Akira nods confidently. Haru continues to wind gauze between his fingers, going over it with athletic tape. “Mako-chan, though?” He smiles as he says it, like he can’t believe someone would be friends with Makoto.

Granted, these days that’s more understandable.

“We went to the same middle school. Same class, even. She used to come to class with her hands torn up from hitting clay tiles, or whatever it is they do.” She doesn’t want to think about the actual reason for all of those split knuckles and broken fingers right now.

“Ah.” Akira grows silent, watching her work. “Can we talk? About Sugimura.”

“If we must.” Haru can already feel exhaustion creeping up on her, fingers moving with less dexterity as she winds the athletic tape tight enough to hold the gauze down. “My fiance. Father arranged a marriage to give him an in to Tokyo politics.”

“He really went with a guy like him?”

“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.” Haru says it all with a measure of distance, leaning on her exhaustion to protect her from the utter shame and fury it makes her feel to think about it.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t. It’s my problem, not yours.” Haru releases his hands, and folds hers in her lap, staring down at them. She startles when a bandaged finger brushes her cheek, just the barest contact.

“Hey. Your problems are my problems. Don’t ever think otherwise, okay?”

Haru sighs, leaning into his touch until the fingertip becomes his whole hand against her skin. “I’m not used to having an ally on my side.”

“Makoto’s your friend, right? Besides, you got Ryuji and Ann. And Shiho, somehow. You’ll have to tell me about that some other time.”

Haru grimaces. “ different. I don’t want to get into it.” Into before. And during, in a way.

“Okay.” Akira scoots closer to her on the bed, and Morgana crawls into her lap, making a circle before lying down. “Do you want to talk about what he said?”

Haru blows air from her nose, smiling bitterly. “No, but we should.”

“We don’t have to. I don’t care, Haru. I’m still…I still...yeah.” Akira pauses, swallowing, and she knows exactly what he’s trying to say.

“I know. I started in elementary school. Middle school was...hard. High school has been better.” Just thinking about the why of why middle school was so hard and high school has been better gives her a headache, so she sets those aside.

“And the surgery.” Akira trails off, unable to form the words.

“Had always been on the table, but Sugimura’s demands accelerated it. I’m a year younger than protocols state is safe to receive it. Hence...overseas. Some things are easier that way.”

“I...I’m sorry.” Akira’s gaze lowers. “I don’t know what to say. Sorry doesn’t really cut it.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for.” She pulls herself into his lap sidesaddle, cupping his cheek. “You saved me today. And likely will again, if you make good on your promise.” She closes her eyes, leaning heavily on him.

“Always.” Akira kisses her so softly she barely realizes he’s doing it until his hair brushes against her forehead, and finds herself smiling as she returns it. The fearsome Joker has been banished, leaving only her Akira, the most loyal and caring person she’s ever met. Despite all the thorns. When he pulls away, he drags her down to the bed with him with an arm around her waist, smirking. “I meant every word I said. Then and now. Akira’s done lying to you, now and forever.”

She hums contentedly, sprawled against his chest. “I haven’t slept in over a day.”

“Do you want to stay?” Akira asks quietly, and Haru prays he doesn’t notice how hard her heart beats when she even thinks about that.

“If it won’t cause trouble.” Haru settles on, not removing her face from his chest.

“Well, Sojiro will probably pitch a fit, but I’ll live. As far as sleeping arrangements go...I suppose the floor isn’t too bad.”

Haru peeks up at him, frowning. “I am not making the boy who came to my rescue sleep on the floor.”

“Oh, no, I meant for you.” Akira laughs, even after Haru thumps him on the pectoral with a fist. “Sorry, sorry. It’ll be tight.”

“I’m small, it’s fine.” Haru smiles, and she can see his ears turn as bright as a fire with only that provocation. “Oh, if you blush this much from this, how are you going to survive when I have to change into your clothes in a minute?”

“...oh, fuck.” Akira whispers.

Haru doesn’t have the heart to remind him that she’ll be sleeping next to him the whole night in his clothes right after that.

Chapter Text

Long after Haru has fallen asleep against his back, Akira remains wide awake in bed.

What the fuck did he get himself into? This all started so easily, just a game on a roof with a beautiful girl. Then...Kamoshida, and Morgana, and Palaces and stealing hearts and confessions and realizing just how much he cares about Haru. Now....this new asshole, Sugimura, ready to fuck everything up for the both of them.

Sojiro warned him to stay out of trouble and this would be fine. Now here he is, in bed with a girl he just beat a man to a pulp for. He’d do it again in a heartbeat, but...that part of him that just wants things to be normal, a voice that grows quieter by the day, just wants everything to stop for a minute. No Palaces, no talking cat, no looming threat of what to do with this bullshit power he’s got. Just go to school and come home every day, work a little, hang out with friends, treat Haru to everything she deserves.

The other part of him that speaks more clearly every day, the part that awakened that day in the castle, screams for him to take what is owed to him, to show society his worth and humble the mighty.

Maybe he can have it both ways.


“Akira. Akiraaaa.” Morgana thumps onto the bedding over Akira and Haru (tucked as tightly against his back as she can manage, and so very comfortably warm against his skin), digging surprisingly heavy paws into his already-aching arm until he lays down on Akira’s shoulder. “What happened?”

“Long story. Short version is Haru got...kidnapped, basically, and we rescued her.” Akira keeps his voice as low as he can. Haru doesn’t move, her arm (clad in his long-sleeved shirt) draped across his bare chest under the comforter. He resists the urge to scratch his chest, the everpresent itch of his scars alongside the slowly growing pain of newly forming bruises.

“Wow. Who kidnapped her?” Morgana tilts his head, eyes that seem so strangely guileless even as a cat.

“...A scumbag. Utter scum of the earth.”

“Did he hurt you? Is that why your hands are all banged up?”

“No. Well, almost. I got him more than he got me.” Three on one hadn’t exactly been fun, and by morning he’s probably going to be covered in bruises from his lackeys and their unskilled thrashings. Ryuji and Ann showing up when they had was a good evening of the odds, though. After that, well...the fight left Sugimura pretty quickly. Hitting most people in the face ends a lot of fights faster than you’d think. “Hitting people in the real world hurts more than in the Metaverse, apparently.”

“Well, yeah. The Metaverse is all about thought, so your strong will does more work than your arms. I think? That’s probably why I can cut stuff as well as you guys can.”

“Right.” Akira sighs. “Now, it’s been a long day. I need to get to sleep.”

“Okay.” Morgana rests his head on his paws, eyelids falling almost shut. “Can I ask one more question?”

“Just the one.”

“Why did you give Haru your shirt? You look cold.”

Akira, in that moment, can’t think of a single thing in his life he wouldn’t give her, if she even implied she needed it. Besides, he’s got a furnace in bed with him, and the heat in his chest from her presence shows little sign of burning out. “Because she wanted it.”

He wakes up to the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs. Keeping his eyes closed, Akira can still imagine the look on Sojiro’s face when he curses under his breath upon reaching the landing. Sojiro must be standing there, jaw agape, totally stunned. Akira continues to feign sleep when he finally moves quietly across the attic.

“C’mon, kid, move.” Sojiro whispers when he plucks Morgana off his shoulder and sends him scampering somewhere under the bed. Finally, Akira steels himself for a shout only to find a hand on his shoulder. “Up, Akira. We need to talk.” Sojiro’s voice is as acidic as his coffee, so Akira scrambles to his feet, sparing a glance to Haru who barely reacts to his disappearance. She doesn’t wake, instead pulling the pillow out from under her own head and pulling it to her chest in his place. Akira stoops, scooping up an abandoned tee-shirt he hasn’t worn in years (had been using it as a dust rag for cleaning the attic, in fact, the white stained a light dusky grey) and throwing it on just to delay Sojiro’s wrath. “Look at me, kid.” Finally, Akira meets his guardian’s eyes, jaw set. He’s ready for anything. Well...most anything.

“Anything to say for yourself?” Sojiro keeps his voice low, eyes locked on Akira’s face.

“This isn’t what it looks like.” Akira starts, only for Sojiro to hold up a finger.

“Oh, I don’t mean this. This,” Sojiro waves over at the bed. “We can talk about in a minute. Now, what did I tell you the day I met you?” ...What is this? His deadly calm is throwing Akira off.

“Listen to what you tell me to do.”

“Exactly. I asked you to lock up, when you came home late . You didn’t lock up , Akira.” Ah, there’s the familiar anger, so like Akira’s father it almost puts him at ease. “All night, that front door was unlocked. You put my restaurant, your girlfriend there, and yourself in danger.” Sojiro finally looks Akira over then, mouth hanging open for a moment as he sees the bruises that have appeared up and down both arms in the night, the bandages on his hands. “What the hell? Tell me what happened, now.”

“It’s a long story.”

“Then you better tell it fast.” Sojiro folds his arms across his chest.

“We went out for dinner at this place downtown, and as we were leaving, a drunk guy was grabbing Haru on the train platform, trying to drag her off or keep her from getting on her train, or something, I don’t know. Everybody else had left by then, so it was just us on the platform, so...I stepped in. He got me a few times. I’m fine.”

“More than a few times. Shit, Akira, I told you to keep your head down. Is this Haru, then? Do you even know this girl?”

“Yes, okay? She’s in third year at Shujin. We know each other. It was a total fluke. She missed her train, so I got her on mine, and...well.” He shrugs. “I’d rather ask forgiveness than permission?” Akira tries a smile, but Sojiro’s grimace doesn’t flinch.

“Yeah, well, you better grow out of that with a quickness, kid.” Sojiro sighs, running a hand through his hair. “You are a piece of work, you know that? I can’t decide if I’m mad at you for getting yourself into trouble or proud of you for getting someone else out of it. Did he hurt her?”

“No.” Akira would have beaten much worse things into Sugimura if he had.

“Good. Get dressed and come downstairs when you’re both hungry.” Sojiro holds up a finger once more. “No fooling around while the cafe is open. I catch you, I will make you wash dishes for a week, bandages or no bandages. Got it?”

“Got it.” Akira nods vigorously for emphasis. Morgana emerges from the bed, purring and rubbing on Sojiro’s legs. “Oh, He’s probably hungry.”

“Oh, well then.” Sojiro stoops with a groan, scooping Morgana up in his arms. “C’mon, kid, I got some leftovers with your name on them. I take in one kid, and now I got three to feed. You lot seem to be multiplying by the day, huh?” Sojiro heads down the stairs, talking quietly to Morgana the whole way down.

Akira turns back to the bed and sighs, debating the pros and cons of waking his sleeping princess trying to get back into bed. No fooling around is one thing, but he’s trying to catch another hour or two of sleep, that’s all…He sits down on the edge of the bed, watching Haru’s slow breathing, face half-masked by the pillow pulled tightly to her. With utmost care, he leans down to her, brushing scattered strands of hair away with a hand and softly kissing her forehead.

“That’s very sweet.” Haru mumbles into the pillow, eyes still closed.

“Sorry, my girlfriend was very pretty just now.” Akira smiles when Haru buries her face harder into the pillow.

“Flattery will get you nowhere, mister.”  Her eyes flutter open, and even the pillow can’t mask her gasp of surprise. “Akira, your arms…” She shoves the pillow aside, holding out her arms towards him. “Come here.”

“It’s not a big deal.” He scoffs when she wiggles her fingers, her look so intense despite the ridiculous gesture. “Okay, okay.” He slips under the covers, and she pulls him into a tight embrace, resting her chin on his collarbone.

“You really did save me, you know.” Haru whispers against his chest. “I...things could have been so much worse. Thank you.”

“Cut it out, already.” Akira murmurs, his hand looped around her side. “Are you hungry?”

“Very.” Haru takes a deep breath. “Coffee and curry is a very eclectic combo.”

“It’s good. You get a taste for it after awhile.” Akira starts to get up, but Haru clings to his chest until he gives up. “C’mon, Sojiro said no fooling around.”

“Such a nasty criminal brought low by his grandfather telling him no. As if you’ve never broken a rule in your life. Five more minutes, that’s all I ask.”

Akira sighs, smiling. As if he could ever say no to her anymore. “Not my grandfather, but...Okay.”

“Thank you.” Haru sighs with relief, burying her face in his chest.

By the time Akira counts 5 minutes, Haru has fallen back asleep.

When Haru awakes next, Akira is gone, another pillow having replaced him in her arms. Stretching under the covers, she pulls it tighter to her chest, breathing deeply of all the smells of the room. Akira’s bed, musty and probably ancient, his pillow lightly scented by his hair, and the spices and ground coffee wafting up from below along with the distant, tinny voice of a television. The unbearably utilitarian room Akira lives in, as old as dirt and only barely furnished. The only thing that doesn’t look like it was made in the sixties is her dress and leggings, hanging from one of the rafters by a battered wire hanger.

It’s too idyllic, somehow, even if looks like it’s the wrong century. Everything has felt so unreal since she saw Akira beat Sugimura within an inch of his life, starting the moment that they just got on the train without speaking, the empty train echoing with the deafening silence that lasted until they got to Leblanc. Going home on the train with the grim boy who forgave her for all of her sins that night, who only hours ago threatened death on a man with the utmost sincerity. She should have been terrified, but she wasn’t. Akira, for all his prickly faults and their fights over her safety, has never shown anything but the utmost care for her. She knows without a shadow of a doubt that he would never hurt her...not intentionally.

No, this feeling of utter dread in her chest is not from Akira, but the consequences of her own actions, and of his rescue. How do you go back to life as it was when the man who holds your life in his hands has been laid so low that he cannot have any other choice but to retaliate? Without a shadow of a doubt, Sugimura will strike back and it is only a matter of where, and when, and how dangerous he will be in doing so. She squeezes her eyes shut, trying to banish thoughts of all the awfulness he has shown himself capable of in the past, all the evil he must be capable of now.

Why is her life like this? Was her life meant to be like this, defined by tragedy and pain and neglect, speckled by bright shining moments of joy that only serve as punctuation between the nightmares and trauma? She clutches the pillow tighter, as hard as she can, crushing it to her abdomen. Her stomach hurts thinking about even facing her father after this, knowing that Sugimura surely could not keep quiet about this, humiliation or no. She may already even now being written out of the family register, her only lifeline to the family and the life she tried so desperately to uphold being summarily cut.

It’s too much. All of this is too much. All she ever wanted was to have a normal life, to smile and make others smile in turn, to keep the spirit of her grandfather’s company in all things. She’s watched all of the things she holds dear torn down brick by bloody brick, until now the final, crippled wall is finally smashed down, leaving only the awful reality of this country, her city, her family and her life laid bare. Burying her face in her pillow, she lets out a sob, praying that no one downstairs can hear her as the dam breaks, every awful thought she’s harbored finally crashed down upon her like a black tsunami of hate, and fear, and blind fury at her life, the bastards who have made her this way, forced her through degradation after degradation and expected her to smile the whole way down.

Fuck that.

Her chest burns as she cries for the life she thought she could have had, counting injustice after injustice and throwing it on the pyre in her heart, letting the flame of hate burn higher and hotter within.

“Haru? Haru, I’m here.” Akira’s voice in her ear does nothing to slow her sobbing, curling up around his pillow, her only lifeline in the world. Even with him here, what can he do? One boy, magic that can steal hearts or no, can’t save her from the crushing weight of society bearing down on her. Still, though, his hand on her shoulder steadies her. “Just let it out. It’s okay. You’re safe here.”

Cold, comfort, that, but it’s enough for now. She’ll not let this be the end of everything. Finally, at long last, the only thing Haru has left to feel is empty and tired once more. Mopping her face with Akira’s pillow, Haru sighs with relief and Akira kisses her forehead.

“Sojiro’s serving lunch right now, if you’re hungry.” Haru looks up at Akira, sitting on the edge of the bed, in a grungy t-shirt under a green apron. “He’s got me brewing all day so I can’t eat until later, but he said it’s on the house for you.”

“I’d like that, I think.” She sits up, stretching and cursing that feeling of exhaustion that seems to linger over her.

“Does that mean you’re giving me back my shirt? I hate this thing.” Akira stands and tugs at the greying formerly-white tee-shirt collar. “Haven’t worn it in years, I don’t know why my parents shipped it here, except to mess with me.”

“Mm.” Haru stands, stretching up into her tiptoes and giving him a quick kiss on the lips. “Thank you for the offer, but if you want it back, you’re going to have to take it.” She takes hold of both his hands, planting them firmly on her hips at the hem of the shirt. “I’m not wearing a bra, though.”

The look of simultaneous surprise and terror only grows more delicious when Sojiro shouts for a hand from downstairs, Akira’s mouth hanging open in awe.

Haru breaks into a smile when Akira turns to call down the stairwell. “Just a minute!”

After a plausible amount of time to alleviate Sojiro’s suspicions, Haru heads downstairs, taking in the ambiance of the cafe for the first time. Precisely as old fashioned as the attic would imply, wood paneling on the walls and creaky leather booth seating, and a wall covered top to bottom with labeled jars of coffee, behind the expensive set of machinery to make it, where Akira is working to pull a shot of espresso for one of the customers in a booth, while his guardian fusses over a steaming pot in the back. She can even spot the black tail of Morgana draped down the end of one of the booths. When he spots her standing at the foot of the stairs, the elderly man nods to her with a smile.

“Welcome to Leblanc, young lady. Grab a seat at the bar, I’ll get you a plate in a second.” Sojiro finishes ladling out curry onto a bed of rice and holds the plate out to Akira. “Order up.”

“I got it, I got it…” Akira says, balancing the plate in one hand, two mugs of coffee held in the other. He smiles to Haru as she passes, sitting down at the bar and picking at her dress until it lays just right. She already lost the initiative on giving Sojiro a good impression, so she’ll just have to put that much better of a foot forward. Sojiro comes over, setting down a plate heaped high with rice covered by a rich, brown curry studded with beef, carrots and potatoes.

“Dig in. There’s more, if you’re still hungry after that. Now, the boy probably said my name by now, but I doubt he introduced me proper. I’m Sojiro Sakura, his guardian.” He holds out a hand, which Haru takes and shakes lightly.

“Haru Okumura.” She smiles when Sojiro’s eyebrow rises minutely. “Thank you for your understanding, Mr. Sakura. I’ll be out of your hair as soon as possible. And I apologize for making Akira skip school on my behalf today.”

“School?” That eyebrow raises higher. “It’s Sunday, dear.” He shoots a look to Akira, who shrugs. “You’re welcome here as long as you need, don’t worry about running off just yet. And it’s just Sojiro, there are no misters around here.”

“Oh.” Haru blushes, covering her mouth. With the whirlwind of activity starting in the dead of night, she lost a whole day to Sugimura’s awful plan. “My apologies, I must still be a bit sleepy. Thank you for your hospitality, then, Sojiro.” She picks up her spoon, digging in with a heaping spoonful of rice. He nods in reply, heading back to tending the pot and keeping an eye on the small, ancient TV in the back playing the news.

The curry itself...remarkable. That first bite isn’t nearly enough, awakening the yawning maw in her stomach from well over a day without food, and only a lifetime of etiquette keeps her from shoveling the entire thing into her mouth as fast as she can. She’s only dimly aware that the other customer’s long since left behind her by the time she finishes her plate.

“What’ll you have?” Akira leans down on the counter next to her, eyeing the plate hungrily. “Gimme a bite, I’ve only had toast today.”

“There’s a reason for that.” Sojiro pipes in, leaning over Akira with a hand on his shoulder. “Our last customer just left, so get her coffee, and I’ll fix you a plate. Another for the lady, too, then?” Sojiro releases Akira when Haru nods, smirking. “Back in a flash.”

“Darkest roast you have, please, dear. Two sugars, three creams.”

“Don’t you dare give her the instant coffee, kid.” Sojiro warns Akira without looking, his hand halting halfway towards removing a jar from the very top shelf.

“Did you give him the instant coffee, this morning?” Haru rests her chin in her hand, smiling up to Akira as he pulls a different jar sets about grinding the beans.

“You bet I did.” Sojiro laughs. “I’m surprised he noticed, to be honest. The boy guzzles it like water, I didn’t even know he could taste it.”

“Yeah, yeah, very funny.” Akira grumbles, fussing with the espresso machine until it starts hissing. “I could just change the box, you know, you’d never know the difference.”

“Uh huh. Because that would go so well for you.” Haru chimes in as Sojiro sets down two plates on the bar, one next to her.

“See, she gets it. Now, tell me, Haru.” Sojiro leans on the counter. “How do you even know this kid? Troublemakers like him shouldn’t be hanging around sweethearts like you.”

Haru giggles, holding up a hand to shade herself from him. “Please, I’m not that sweet. It just...happened, one day. I do some of the campus beautification, and he commented on my work. We hit it off, I suppose.”

“Now, are you two…” Sojiro trails off, eyes darting from Akira to her as he places a mug on the counter for her.

“Well…” Haru looks over to Akira as he sits down, smiling and looking for some guidance.  He looks as he usually does, carefully neutral.

“Does it matter?” Akira replies, shrugging as he takes a bite of curry.

“It does, actually. Now, no offense, Haru, but you’re the daughter of the CEO of Okumura Foods, yes? Big Bang Burger and so forth?”

Haru takes a steadying breath that draws Akira’s eyes to her for a moment. “I am, yes.”

“And has Akira told you about why he’s in Tokyo? Why he transferred from the country?”

“Yes, he has. He may have a habit of sticking his nose into business that doesn’t concern him, but he may very well have saved my life last night.”

Sojiro holds his hands up in front of himself defensively. “Okay, okay. I understand that much, at least. I just think that you need to be open about these things, if you’re going to be...well...seeing each other.”

“And what business is it of yours, then?” Akira slaps his spoon to the bar, glaring at Sojiro. “You’re just my guardian, not my—”

“Don’t you take that tone with me, you little ingrate.” The savage tone in Sojiro’s voice startles them both after the light conversation before it. He holds a finger up, pointing it at Akira. “It may have slipped your mind, but that plea deal of yours required that I report in to the police about your activities!” Akira flinches at Sojiro’s retort, breaking eye contact and staring down at the bar. Sojiro sighs. “Damn it. Just...Akira, think about the position you’re putting me in, here. If they ask, I can’t just lie to them, especially not if whoever you assaulted in public goes to the police. If they figure out who you are, somehow, then I can’t protect you. Do you think this guy can figure out who either of you were, come looking again?”

Akira shakes his head, and Haru realises with a start that Akira must have lied to him about the circumstances of her rescue. “No. It’s going to be fine.” Akira grunts, tone bitter.

“We’ll see. Just remember, alright? I’m not your accomplice. I’m just making sure you make it through the year fed and warm. Don’t bring trouble to me, and we’re good.” He turns to Haru, giving her a tired smile. “Not that you’re trouble, you understand.”

“...Of course.” Haru slowly returns to eating, watching Akira stare down at his plate for awhile longer before picking up his own spoon. Sojiro walks away, plucking an ancient phone from his apron and flipping it open.

“Hey, what’s going on? ...What? What do you mean, it doesn’t work? I just bought it! Did you do something to it?” Sojiro sighs. “Well, how am I supposed to know? I just bought the damn thing, I don’t— Okay, okay. I’m coming right over.” Sojiro slaps the phone shut, sighing. “Akira, lock up for me? I have to go take care of something. Haru, it was nice to meet you, I wish it had been under more pleasant circumstances.” Sojiro pulls a white trilby from under the counter, perching it on his brow and heads out the door without another word. Akira stands, locking the door and flipping the shades down over the glass before returning to his seat, his head in his hands.

“I’m sorry.” Haru starts, placing a hand on his knee.

“I’d do it again, a hundred times if I had to.” Akira sighs, straightening up and placing a hand over Haru’s. “He doesn’t know the truth.”

“I gathered. You didn’t have to cover for me.”

“If I hadn’t, he’d have thrown you out on the spot.” Akira stands, pacing and rolling his jaw. “We can’t stay on the back foot, we need to do something about this before he makes a move.”

Haru remains seated, looking down at her hands. She doesn’t want Akira throwing himself into this again, not so very soon. She won’t give in to despair, not so soon after her last breakdown, but…

“Hey.” She turns when Akira speaks, only to find him on his phone. “Yeah, we’re fine. How soon can you get here? Good. See you then.” He stuffs his phone into his pocket, looking down at her. “Ryuji and Ann are headed over in a bit. We need to talk about all this. Those two are as involved as we are, now.”

Oh, right. And, they know, now, too. Haru looks down at her lap, closing her eyes and trying to banish thoughts of the last time people found out about her. She doesn’t like thinking about middle school. “Do well do you know them?”

“I’d stake my life on them. Hell, I have.” She can hear the leather squeak under Akira’s weight on the stool next to her. “You’re worried they’ll treat you differently, huh.”

“How can I not?” The leather squeaks again, and a hand closes over her own.

“I guarantee you, they won’t.”

“How do you know?”

“Come upstairs.” His hand tugs gently at hers, until she comes off the stool, looking to him. “I’ll show you why.” She follows him up, hand locked tightly around his own, until he sits her down on his bed.

“Akira, what is this?” She doesn’t know where this is going, that lingering fear of what Ryuji and Ann could possibly think growing into a formless dread eating a hole in her.

“I’m gonna show you why I know Ryuji and Ann are going to treat you like they always did.” He reaches behind himself, untying his apron and dumping it on the floor. Her heart skips a beat when he slips out of that long sleeve, seeing once again his bruised skin in the afternoon sun. Standing out further than that, though, are two long crescents of scar tissue under his pectorals, stretched across his chest.

“Akira…” She slips off the bed, kneeling with him. She can’t tell if she should look at him or at his scars, but settles for him and the smirk he gives her melts away all that anxiety in a single moment.

“I took a serious hit, one day, ripped me up bad. The Metaverse lets you get away with some shit in it, but I still needed first aid after we got out, I was delirious and no help at all. Ryuji got me somewhere quiet and cut me out of my shirt, saw them, and kept going. Ann was right there next to him, and she just held my hand while he slapped gauze on it and taped it up. He brought it up the next day, and I told them both, and that was it. He said ‘oh, okay’, took a big drink of his soda and burped. Ann had a little more to say, but it was basically the same answer. It’s not a big deal.”

Haru reaches out a hand between them, hesitant until Akira takes it and places her fingers against the knotted flesh, so very warm and inviting, somehow. “Why didn’t you tell me, before?” There’s no hurt in her voice, no accusation.

“I...Would it have helped you being afraid of me if you knew, last night?”

“...No.” Haru shakes her head.

“Yeah. I knew I had to tell you, after that. But not then, not there.” His chest rises and falls with the beat of his breathing, calming her in a way that Haru cannot articulate. “So. Do you believe me about them now?”

“Yes.” Haru lets her hand fall, fingertips sliding down his stomach until she finally pulls away with a sigh. “Thank you.”

“Honestly, I thought I was gonna have this conversation sooner. You saw my chest the day you bandaged me up.” Akira smiles when Haru huffs at him.

“I...well. The bloody mess your shoulder had been turned into was much more eye-catching.”

“Right.” Akira smirks, and she thumps him on the shoulder, right on one of his yellowing bruises. “Ow. You know, Haru, you’re crazy strong. That actually hurt.” Akira stands, rolling his shoulder and holding out a hand to her.

“Or you’re crazy weak, maybe.” She takes his hand, rising to her feet with it. “Hardened criminal, you are not.”

“Oh, please. Rich girls like you never see us coming. Look what happened, after all.” He squeezes her hand, pulling her to him and holding her to him with a hand on her back. “I stole your heart, and you didn’t even know it.” Haru scoffs, but she blushes deeply all the same, that same warmth of his skin pressing against her cheek as she looks up at him sideways.

“I love you, Akira.” Haru’s throat goes dry as the realization that this is the first time she’s ever said that to him, to speak her heart into being with him without dissembling or the artifice of their faux-catfights.

“Yeah. I love you too, Haru.” Akira squeezes her to him, sighing in such a contented way that Haru melts further into his embrace.

“I don’t have anything to pull you down for a kiss by like this.” She pouts.

“Well…” Haru squeals in surprise when Akira stoops, hauling her up by her thighs up to eye level with him. “Am I still crazy weak?”

“N-not at all.” Haru is too shocked for words, to have Akira flirt so brazenly back to her after so much cat and mouse, the porcupine routine repeated again and again. Now, though, he kisses her with intent, and she takes wraps a handful of hair around her fist to anchor them both through it all, until three sharp raps at the door downstairs echo in the near-silent cafe. Akira breaks their kiss and clucks, grimacing down the stairs.

“In a minute!” Akira calls down, and Haru laughs and laughs until he kisses her again, and Haru becomes certain that they’ll be at this for a lot longer than a minute.

Chapter Text

When Akira finally unlocks the door into Leblanc (several minutes later than intended), Haru is surprised to see only Ann in the doorway, looking as radiant as ever with her hair fully unbound and spilling down her shoulders. She throws a glance over her shoulder before walking in, folding her arms uncomfortably in front of herself when the door shuts behind her.

“Hey. So, Ryuji’s gonna be here in a second, I just wanted to talk to you two before he gets here.” Ann grimaces, unwilling to meet either of their eyes.

“What’s up?” Haru can detect the note of worry in Akira’s voice the moment he speaks, see it in the way he resists mirroring Ann’s gesture, his arms starting to go up and falling into the pockets of his apron.

“Nothing, nothing.” She sighs. “It’s just. He’s got his cane today, and I know he never uses it at school, so I wanted to warn you. Please don’t make a big deal about it, I know he hates thinking about it.”

“A cane?” Haru brings her thumbnail to her mouth, worrying at it immediately. Was he hurt last night, and didn’t show it?

“Yeah.” Ann unfolds her arms, glancing over her shoulder at the door. “He can still walk and run fine if he doesn’t stress it too badly. But there are some days it’s better if he wears a brace, and some days he needs help with balance. It’s usually fine, these days. He hasn’t needed it since physical therapy, or so his mom says, but…”

“He took a hit.” The matter of fact tone Akira takes hurts Haru’s heart, and she finds herself worrying at her thumbnail even harder.

“Yeah. Right on the knee. He would have come without it today if I didn’t make him take care of himself. So…yeah. Just don’t make a big deal about it, it’s the last thing he would want.” Ann fixes Haru with a look that isn’t unkind, more tired. “This isn’t your fault, either, so please don’t blame yourself. It happened, it’s done. He’s gonna be fine.”

“I know.” Haru pulls her hand away from her mouth, grimacing and trying not to meet Ann’s look. She’s had enough crying for one day already, no need for more. It’s for that reason she’s taken by surprise when Ann hugs her with all her strength, Haru’s world blanketed in blonde. She can hear the door jingle behind Ann as she returns the hug as best as she can. When the yellow curtain recedes and she’s free, she wipes everything from her expression but a calm smile to give Ryuji, only to find Akira and Ryuji shoulder to shoulder talking under their breath to one another.

“Here, c’mon, lets get a seat. Boy talk always takes forever.” Ann moves to one of the booths, scooting in to one side. Haru lingers on the other, her hand on the back of the seat as she watches the boys. What could they possibly be going on about? Finally, they separate, Ryuji leaning on the jet-black cane in his left hand slightly as he walks to the booth.

“Hey, Haru, what’s up? You got bedhead something fierce, does Akira not keep a brush around here?” Haru ignores the joke (and prays that Ann doesn’t realize that something other than bedhead could be to blame for her messy hair and rumpled dress), instead charging forward and hugging Ryuji around the middle, her face pressed to his chest. “Wha…Hi, nice to see you too?”

“Thank you.” Haru says into his torso, breaking the hug and looking up at him. “I never properly said thank you, last night. For your help, the both of you.” The look of surprise on both of their faces is gratifying, in a way. Even if it does make her heart hurt more to think that they didn’t expect to be thanked for doing something so selfless, so dangerous, so unthinkingly brave.

“No big deal.” Ryuji says with a smile even as he blushes, hooking his cane over the coathook on the bench and sliding in next to Ann. “You needed help, we gave it. It’s kinda our thing, I guess, we just don’t get to do it so directly most of the time.”

“Right. Do I get any thanks, then?” Akira trots up, the hint of a smile on his lips.

“You got plenty of thanking already, mister.” Haru shoos him towards the bench while Ann and Ryuji snicker to each other. Scooting in next to him, she pats him on the thigh under the table in silent apology.

“Alright, alright.” Akira raps his knuckles on the table. “Enough. We got better things to talk about than who thanked who.”

“Or how.” Ann grins to Haru when Akira scoffs, and the blonde mouths ‘tell me everything’ to her.

“Right. What’s up, then?” Ryuji leans on his elbows foward eagerly, grinning. “We doin’ what I think we’re doin’?”

Haru places her hands in her lap like she was taught as a girl, gripping her wrist in a white-knuckle grip. They’re going to talk about Sugimura, now, and that’s just going to have to happen. It’s okay. This doesn’t have to be bad. They’re your friends.

They won’t abandon her. They won’t.

“I’m not letting that scumbag walk around Tokyo a day longer than I have to. We’re taking Sugimura’s heart.” The hate in his voice is bitter, furious in a shockingly measured way. The hatred of someone with familiarity with situations like this, perhaps? “The only reason I didn’t just ask you to meet us at the station so we can go take care of this immediately is that I want a day or two to rest for all of us. We can’t come at this the wrong way.”

“And, we agreed to only act if we’re in agreement, right?” Ann pipes in.

“Right. So, are you in?”

“Hell yeah, I’m in.” Ryuji’s grin is almost infectious, even in such a terrible context. “We’re gonna clean that dude’s clock so bad he’ll be on his knees begging for his life in no time, Haru.” The warring feelings of revulsion and utter thrill at the thought of that churn away in her stomach. She manages to smile for Ryuji in turn, but it falters only a moment later. Can she even forgive Sugimura? Or will it even matter? She still has to marry him, if she wants to remain an Okumura. Or can that change, as well?

“So…where’s Morgana? He gets a vote, right?” Ann saying his name seems to summon the cat immediately, to Haru’s surprise. She always thought only dogs come when called, but sure enough, the tuxedo cat leaps onto the table with a single yowl, looking at everyone seated intently. Haru laughs when he jumps onto the table.

“You have him trained so well, for being so young. I’ve never seen a cat respond to their name so readily.” Haru’s remark ends with Morgana rounding on her, warbling angrily at her and staring her in the eye.

“Oh. Right.” Akira scratches the bridge of his nose.

“Wait…did you not tell her?” Ryuji leans further in, laughing in disbelief when Akira doesn’t answer.

“Tell me what?” Haru looks to Ann and Ryuji, who are cracking up.

“It didn’t come up! How do you bring that up apropos of nothing?” Akira throws his hands in the air.

“Tell me what , Akira?” Haru turns on him, now, and he holds up his hands defensively between them.

“That Morgana’s not a cat.” The look she gives him makes him sputter. “Okay, okay, no, I know what you’re thinking, but seriously. He’s a cat right now, but he’s not a cat . We met him in the otherworld, he’s a boy there but a cat here. It’s weird. He’s part of the team, too.”

Haru turns back to Morgana, who chirps cheerfully to her. “Blink what the answer to 2 + 2 is.” Sure enough, Morgana blinks 4 times and runs directly into Haru’s hand, rubbing his face into her knuckles as hard as he can. “…Wow.”

“Yeah. He’s something else. Can’t be a day older than 8, I think.” Morgana chirps to Akira. “Oh, right. I figured you’d vote with me, but, yeah. Morgana, are you okay going after a bad guy who wants to hurt Haru?”

Morgana stops headbutting Haru’s hand into submission to think for a moment, and chatters while turning from Akira to Ann and back.

“He’s right.” Ann replies instantly, straightening and letting her hand fall to the table. “We should. She deserve this chance to get the closure I got.” Akira scrunches his face like he bit into a lemon, and Ryuji just looks dead shocked.

“Now, hang on. This isn’t on the table. We’re just talking—” Akira starts.

“What did he say?” Haru cuts in, leaning onto the table.

“You should tell her, Akira.” There’s a fire in Ann’s eyes that Haru has never seen in her before, a bonfire contained in blue.

No, that’s wrong. She saw it last night, right before Ann waded into the brawl in the alley. Determination.

“He asked…if you were coming with us when we go after Sugimura’s heart. As part of the team.” Akira bites out every word, his voice clipped and dry. He looks…conflicted.

“…Oh.” Haru sits back in her seat, her hand clutching the fabric of her dress over her chest. “I.” Words fail her, trying to process every implication in that sentence. Akira never truly explained what exactly they do in the other world, simply that the minds of warped individuals warp Tokyo in their image. Does Sugimura have one of these warped places? He described a false Ann in Kamoshida’s world…

Is there a false version of her in his fantasy world?

Will she have to kill that Haru, too?

“I think she should get this chance.” Ann says, somewhere out in the real world, away from Haru’s grotesque vision of the future, of her standing over herself with an axe, blood-splattered and laughing.

“Haru.” Akira’s hand on her shoulder brings her back to reality, her own hyperventilation echoing in her ears. His hand closes over hers, as warm and gentle as when she was in his arms only minutes ago. “Haru, you don’t have to do this. I…I can’t say no. I won’t say no to you anymore, I promised. But you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. This doesn’t have to be your life.” He breathes out, carefully unfolding her fingers one by one from her dress and clasping her hand between his. “You’ve got time to think about this. Just remember that I love you, and I want you to be happy. If this will make you happy…” He trails off, squeezing her hand and releasing it.

Even Morgana is silent. Everyone seems to have understood the gravity of what just happened, even him. Outside, the sun has dipped low in the sky, the afternoon already coming to its conclusion. Haru feels like everything is happening at once, and not at all at the same time. Only then does she realize that she truly does have to go home, now, if she wants to go to school tomorrow. Not that she does, but any alteration to her schedule would betray some change in her to her father. If Sugimura has not already given him some hint as to what’s going on. Or, what if it’s already too late, their plans are for naught?

No. Haru takes a breath, banishing such useless thoughts. If all is not lost, she will gain nothing by acting as if it has been.

She turns to Ryuji and Ann. “I apologize for what you’re about to see. Ryuji, be a dear and cover Morgana’s eyes?” Ryuji grins and obliges, picking up Morgana with both hands and pulling the yoweling child to his chest, laughing and talking back to the cat while Ann leans against his shoulder, distracting them both.

Satisfied, Haru seizes Akira’s face with both hands and kisses him for as long as either of them can stand. Embarrassment or shyness doesn’t even enter into her mind, only the solemn wish to convey how happy Akira’s trust makes her. In a world filled with men who have shaped her life to be a certain way, look a certain way, do things how they say it should be done, Haru had despaired of ever finding someone who cared for her as unreservedly as Akira does now. That day on the rained-out rooftop, she felt something she had never before, a connection inexplicable by anything but the purest gut instinct. She had long ago lost faith in such feelings, but chased it down anyway out of some forlorn hope. At every turn, she was sure this would be the moment he reveals himself for what he truly is, and every time she has been wrong.

Haru Okumura has never been happier to be wrong about someone in her life.

Getting home was, somehow, no issue. Father (or rather, his assistant) made absolutely no mention of her absence, nor of Sugimura. He’s nowhere to be found, in fact, and Haru is not one to question gift horses she is given. And so, she finds herself at school once more, somehow blessedly free from outside influences.

“Okay, forget whatever you two did in bed, we have to talk about that kiss.” Ann passes Haru the open box of jagariko across the desk, grinning.

“Is that really the thing that we must discuss?” Haru sighs, crunching one of the potato sticks between her teeth. Snack food has started to take a dangerous hold on her from hanging around Ryuji and Ann, but the salty kick of flavor is so much better than she expected. Instant ramen, too, is far more delicious than its 180 yen pricetag might indicate. Only the bottle of green tea they’re splitting is saving her from feeling like her heart is going to leap from her chest with the volume of sodium she’s had today.

“Okay, we still gotta talk about whatever y’all were up to all night, then. There’s no way you slept separate, right? I know he sleeps on a single, he complains about the mattress all the damn time.”

“He’s right to.” Haru takes a sip of tea, more to buy time than anything. “No, he was a perfect gentleman. I had to convince him to put an arm around me, even.”

“He spooned you?” Ann rests her chin in her hands, sighing dreamily. “What must that be like.”

“I’ll refrain from answering, thank you.” Haru can’t help but smile, though, when Ann laughs like she’s telling a particularly funny joke.

“Okay, okay, I’ll leave some mystique. Sorry if I’m being crass or whatever, I’m just…Akira was so closed off before you came around, I could barely get sentences out of him. He had a whole soliloquy waiting in there, just for you!” Ann laughs. “He really is different, now. Seriously. I’m glad he found you.”

“I’m glad I found him, honestly. I can scarcely imagine what my life would be like without him. Or…I can, and would much rather not, perhaps.”

“Yeah.” Ann grows quiet, frowning. “Hey. Can we talk about yesterday?”

“Of course.” Haru spent all of last night talking to herself about yesterday, no reason not to with Ann. Her thoughts on the matter are still jumbled, hard to pin down. She would love nothing more than to be there when Sugimura’s heart is taken, whatever that entails, but some part of her quails at the methods that would be involved. From Akira’s stories and his own injuries she’s witnessed, the process sounds violent in the extreme, dangerous and terrifying.

And another part of her begs for the chance to partake. The chance to take her pound of flesh she is owed directly from the man, or his monstrous equivalent.

“So…Okay, look. If you do this, I want to give you some advice. It’s gonna be really insane for a bit, just roll with it. Morgana is seriously a little kid, he talks like one and thinks like one but he also knows what he’s doing, he knows more about this place than any of us so please listen to him. It’s gonna be like, really draining to run around and do shit in there. You’re not just using your body there, our brain and our determination to make shit happen makes us strong. But it’s hard. It’s really hard.” She beckons for the box and pauses to eat more jagariko, chewing and looking up to the sky in thought. “When you see him, he’s definitely gonna say some shit. Nasty shit, the worst things you’ve ever heard. He’s pure evil in there, all the worst parts of him magnified ten thousand times. It’s…It’s awful.” Ann trails off, holding the empty box of snacks. The cardboard crinkles under her grip, unthinkingly crushing it between her hands while she stares off into nowhere. “Akira probably didn’t tell you, but I got separated from them. I wasn’t supposed to go in there, I just kind of lucked into it. And he caught me. Tied me up to a big cross and chained me there. And the shit he said…” She shakes her head. “I’ll never forget it. If I ever see him again, I don’t know if I’ll want to kill him or…I don’t know.”

“Ann…I’m sorry. But it’s over, now. He can’t hurt you again.”

“I know. I know it, but it doesn’t feel real. Two weeks ago, I was ready to do anything for him if it would keep Shiho safe. Now, it’s all over. He’s gone, and Shiho’s gonna be gone soon too.”

“But not gone forever. Remember? She still loves you. She won’t just leave you permanently.” Haru reaches out, hesitantly placing her hand on Ann’s. “I promised I wouldn’t let you fade out of her life, no matter what. And I know she would never ever do the same to you.”

“Fuck.” Ann wipes her eye with her free hand, leaving the now-crumpled box on the table. “I was trying to help you be ready for it, but you’re the one helping me. Sorry.”

“Don’t be. I appreciate your help, more than anything.” Haru maintains her hold on Ann’s hand. “I’m going to do it. I…I was afraid, but you’ve given me some measure of hope, Ann. That I can be as strong as you have been, that we can end this for good. Things don’t have to be like this for anyone, and we’re going to be fighting for the chance to make sure it never happens to anyone again.”

“Right.” Ann smiles, even as more tears threaten spill down her cheeks. “By the time we’re done with Tokyo, it’s gonna be a paradise for girls.”


Ann sighs, closing her eyes and relaxing. “God, it’s gonna be so nice to have another girl on the team.” Her eyes fly open. “Oh, shit. Uhh, please don’t read into my outfit.”

“What about it?” Haru leans around the desk, confused. “You’re wearing the same thing you always do.”

“…Nevermind. C’mon, the bell’s gonna ring any minute. I wanna hear what Ryuji got out of Akira.” Ann stands, wiping her face with the sleeve of her hoodie. Haru stands, falling into step besides her friend as they head back inside.

“Ann. Did you con Ryuji into asking Akira about what happened after you two left?”

“Of course not! He wanted to know how he slept with you in the same bed without going crazy. He gets so red whenever we try it, I think he’s gonna die.”

“There she is. At long last.” Sugimura’s voice sends a chill up Haru’s spine as she steps out of her father’s car. The driver takes the cue from the acid in his tone and steps back into the soundproofed car, closing the door with a thud. Sugimura stands at the entrance of the house, leaning against a column like a cheap imitation of a yakuza tough from an old movie. His face is very much worse for the wear, with a chunk of tape over the bridge of his nose and several bandaged cuts on his chin and jaw. “They said you finally came home Sunday night. Off giving your boyfriend the marathon victory fuck of his dreams?”

Haru raises her chin and meets his half-crazed gaze with a defiant look of her own. “Does pretending that I am only fucking him to piss you off help your ego?” Oh, the way his face twists in fury when she says that makes it immediately worth it.

“Listen, you fucking whore.” Sugimura pushes off the column, getting down into her face with a sneer. “I know your boyfriend isn’t really that bullshit name he gave, Ren Amamama. But you know who does? The principal at Shujin. Your fuckboy’s days are numbered, and then there won’t be anyone to protect you.”

She quells the fear in her stomach with the image of him on his knees, begging for forgiveness for everything he’s ever done to her, to anyone. “I don’t need him to protect me from a coward like you. A man whose only use in this world is attached to his last name?” Haru lets out a hollow laugh.

“I don’t need my name to make you beg for forgiveness, bitch. All I need is this.” Her heart stops when he reaches behind him and she hears a heavy metal clack. He pulls a small silver pistol from the small of his back, gleaming red in the setting sun.  “That’s right. Next time I see that Ren bitch, he’s gonna be bleeding out in a fucking alley. And then we’ll see who’s laughing. No one touches my woman and lives to laugh at me about it. ” He stuffs the gun back in the waistband of his pants again, leering cruelly. “Come Friday, there won’t be anything to stand between us. See you then, my darling.” She watches speechlessly as he walks right past her, stepping into the car and disappearing into the evening.

Skipping dinner using the all-too-real nausea churning in her stomach as an excuse, Haru sits down heavily on her bed and taps away at the secure messaging program Akira had her download.


H.O.: He has a gun. He's threatening to kill A.K.

A.T.: wtf!

R.S.: motherfucker


Setting her phone down, Haru tries to take a slow breath and finds herself hyperventilating instead, tears welling in her eyes. He's gonna try to kill Akira. This can't be what it comes down to, can it? Abandoning her phone, Haru dashes into the bathroom just in time to make it go the toilet before she throws up her meager lunch. Spitting to clear her mouth, she climbs to her feet and retrieves her phone, returning to the bathroom to brush her teeth and check for more responses.


A.K.: it's fine. He's not gonna find me anytime soon.

R.S.: thats for damn sure

R.S.: nobody is touching our boy


Haru wants to believe that, but…She finishes what she was doing and leaves the bathroom, typing as she goes.


H.O.: He's saying that he's going to talk to the Shujin principal. He said ‘by Friday this will all be over’.

H.O.: It's worrisome.

A.T.: shit!!! Well, good thing we're going in tomorrow.

A.K.: Like I said, it'll be fine. We change his heart and this ends.

H.O.: How long do these changes of heart typically take?

R.S.: well…

A.T.: we kinda don't know?

H.O.: Oh.


Haru falls backwards onto her bed, seething. Their surefire way out of this mess, and they don't even know if it will arrive in time to save Akira from him. Her phone buzzes again in her hand.


A.K.: Trust me, H. It's gonna be okay.

A.T.: Yeah! We got this.

H.O.: I still have my reservations…but okay. So be it. I shall see you all tomorrow.

R.S.: atta girl, we got this! Gonna fuck him up good


Haru sighs, staring at the messages and willing them to come true. She lingers over those from Akira, willing them to reveal his thoughts as easily as he does to her when they're alone. His tone, his utter lack of care at Sugimura’s very real threat, scares her as badly as the gun had. Unfortunately, she is far from a soothsayer, or a hacker. So she opts for the direct approach, opening a private message with him.


H.O.: Why don't you take his threats more seriously?


She waits for a response, but none is forthcoming. Grumbling wordlessly about Akira’s intransigence, she drops the phone on the bed and strips out of her uniform, changing into her sleep shirt and laying out clothes for tomorrow. Skipping over her tights, she picks out a hard-wearing pair of leggings and sets them out with her school skirt. To match, she pulls out a far hardier canvas coat to replace her sweater. It’s been well over a year since it saw use, as it had been reserved for home gardening before Father banned her from performing such vulgar activities in the home. Hanging it from a hook by the door, she can hear her phone buzz on her quilt. Dashing back to bed, she lies down on top of the covers and reads the long-awaited response.


A.K.: Because I don’t care. Any threat to me is one less threat to you.

H.O.: That’s not how that works, you realize that? A threat to you terrifies me beyond all reason.

H.O.: I don’t believe you, by the way. You care. Or maybe I just wish you did.

A.K.: Maybe.

A.K.: Sorry if I’m worrying you.

H.O.: I suspect I’ll grow used to it sooner rather than later.

A.K.: Ouch.

H.O.: If it’s any consolation, I do still love you, even when you’re infuriatingly calm about things like this.

A.K.: I’ll keep it in mind.

A.K.: Morgana says hi, by the way.

H.O.: Does he know how to read?

A.K.: He got very mad when you sent that, so apparently yes.

A.K.: Currently chewing on my pinky and growling.

H.O.: Very sweet. What else are you doing?

A.K.: Laying in bed, mostly. Sojiro closed up early, so I’m locked in.

A.K.: Still chewing. You could apologize, you know.

H.O.: Send me a selfie and I’ll apologize.


The conversation halts there, and Haru abandons her phone on the bed to turn out the lights. If she’s skipping dinner, no point staying awake much longer, anyway. As she’s crawling back under the covers, her phone buzzes on her quilt. Tapping the thumbnail that’s popped up in the conversation, it expands into a waist-up bare torso shot of Akira sprawled on his bed. One arm is laid above his head where Morgana has wrapped himself around Akira’s forearm, teething ferociously on his thumb. He’s even making a faux-pained expression, but his smile is ruining the effect. While it’s cute, she finds herself lingering much longer on the rest of him. A now-familiar tension thrums in her stomach, but she banishes it by reminding herself what the stakes are. The best cold shower you can get is thinking about your murderous fiance, it turns out.


A.K.: Well?

H.O.: I’m sorry, Morgana, I should have known you could read. You’re incorrigible, by the way. I’m still mad at you, even if you’re trying to flirt.

A.K.: What flirt?

H.O.: You know what you did.

A.K.: I plead innocence. We both know I don’t know how to flirt.

A.K.: You should try to sleep. We’ve got a big afternoon ahead of us.

H.O.: Right.

A.K.: I love you.

H.O.: I love you too. Even when you drive me mad.


They exchange emoji for a few more message before Akira starts replying to everything she sends with sleeping sign emoji, forcing her to give up. He is infuriating in such odd, specific ways. She’s still not forgiving him for his attitude towards Sugimura, though, as blatantly fatalistic as it seems. Maybe Ryuji or Ann have some insight there. Putting ‘ask about Akira’s mood re: death’ in her agenda for tomorrow is a very morbid activity, but this is her life now, she supposes.

“So, how exactly does this work?” Haru leans towards Akira’s phone, squinting. The hustle and bustle of Shibuya’s crosswalk passes in a dull roar behind them, commuting office works and students headed home or to a late work shift. The four of them stand in a loose circle in a corner off to the side, all looming over Akira’s phone held out to all of them. He has an unfamiliar app up, which only has a microphone button in the center and an unblinking eye at the top.

“Well, the way it works is that we have to know the person’s name, a physical location, and…what was it?” Ryuji scratches his chin.

“Their delusion of what they imagine their place in the world as. Kamoshida saw the school as the castle he ruled as king. But, he was special, if Morgana is to be believed.” Akira clears his throat. “Sugimura Yokoyama. Mementos.”

“Mementos?” Haru quirks an eyebrow at Ryuji and Ann, who shrug.

“We’ll explain in a minute.”

The phone in Akira’s hand chirps, a robotic female voice speaking.

“Partial match found. Please confirm directions and resubmit.”

“…It’s never done that before.” Akira murmurs. “I thought Mementos wasn’t supposed to do that.” Morgana meows from his seat inside Akira’s bag at his feet. “Hmm. Maybe.”


“Can you think of something Sugimura would associate his delusion with? A physical location, somewhere he would feel strong.”

Haru starts to raise her thumb to her mouth in thought, making a fist when she realizes what she’s doing. “Mmmm…” Where does Sugimura feel strong? What defines his particular brand of delusion of grandeur. In so much of her interactions with him, they have met in his home. The visit to the buffet was their first public meeting together.

It can’t be…

“The buffet. It’s the only place we’ve ever gone together.”

“…That’s depressing.” Ann sighs.

“Focus.” Akira taps his phone again. “Sugimura Yokoyama, Mementos, Buffet.”

“Match found. Beginning navigation.” His phone buzzes in his hand continuously, and everything twists. Haru blinks, and the world takes on a gangrenous red tint. The din of speech and movement behind them is gone now, the silence of wind blowing through skyscrapers. Turning, she finds only the faintest outlines of people walking where the crowds once were. When she turns back to everyone…she suppresses the urge to shout.

“I tried to warn you yesterday. Okay, seriously, did you warn her about anything , Akira?” Ann flicks a pigtail over her shoulder. She’s clad in a shiny red vinyl catsuit. Emphasis on the ‘cat’, with a metal-tipped tail dangling between her legs and a cat-faced red porcelain mask over her face, making her already striking blue eyes even more dazzling in contrast. The only other mark of color on her outfit is the pink fingertips (toe-beans?) of her blood-red gloves. “It’s us, this is just…yeah. Akira, talk.”

“Give me a minute. Ryuji, explain it?” Akira’s turned away from them both, a massive black trenchcoat covering whatever he’s doing in the corner.

“Alright, so, these are our garments of rebellion? Cause we’ve chosen not to accept the status quo, we’re rebelling, or somethin’. I only sorta get it. Everybody’s brain marks us as bad dudes when we come in here, and we turn into badasses to match.” Ryuji says from behind his metal, riveted skull mask. It does nothing to hide his giddy grin, which still matches him at least. He’s got a leather coverall and a bright yellow ascot, with gloves to match. “S’cool, right?”

“Do I not rate this treatment, then?” Haru indicates her plain clothes from school, still firmly in place.

“Oh, right. So, you aren’t rebelling yet? You gotta have a Persona.” He nods when she raises an eyebrow. “It’s…yeah, it’s weird. I only kinda get it. Akira knows more, and Morgana knows the most. What the hell are you two doin’ over there, anyway?” Ryuji crosses over to Akira, leaning over his shoulder. “Oh.”

“What’s wrong?” Haru doesn’t move, afraid of intruding on something.

“It’s fine. Morgana forgot to get out of my bag, and…well.” Akira turns, hoisting a child in his arms and setting him down in the middle of the circle. “Just wanted to make sure he didn’t break anything or hurt himself in there.”

The boy in front of her is absolutely no older than 7 or 8, with a terribly choppy and uneven mess of black hair poking out of a similarly black flat cap, save for a single lock of white hair draped down over his face. His eyes are masked by a folded bandana, and he looks more than a little embarrassed staring up at Haru. His shirt is striped black and white, and the black pants to go with it make him look for all the world the stereotype of a burglar she’s seen online. The only difference is that where he would be carrying a bag with a dollar, he instead has the traditional black randoseru adorned with yen and cat-face symbols alternating across its surface.

“H-hi.” Morgana squeaks out at last, fidgeting with his hands. “Nice to meet you, H-haru.”

Haru squats down on her haunches, smiling. “It’s so good to meet you at last, Morgana. I’m sorry, I’ve likely been very terrible to you in the past, not knowing about your situation. I hope we become friends, okay?”

“You’re not terrible!” Morgana practically shouts. “You’re super nice to Akira, and work hard! We’re gonna beat up that bad guy for you! Then everything’s gonna be great!”

Haru stands, smiling. “I’m in your hands, Morgana. Let’s do our best, okay?”

“O-Okay!” Morgana grunts when Akira pats his head, ruffling his hair through the cap. Turning her attention to Akira, Haru’s heart skips a beat for a moment as she takes his ‘garment of rebellion’ in.  That massive trench coat with its high collar, billowing slightly in the seemingly ever-present wind. Gloves as red as blood splatter, a strange turtleneck and a masquerade mask to finish it off. It’s…she won’t say sexy, though it has sex appeal. He looks dangerous. Dashing, certainly, in his own way. He gives her the faintest hint of a smile, one she returns gladly.

“Come on, we’re pressed for time.” Akira releases Morgana, heading into the subway.

“So, how exactly does this work, then? What is Mementos, why would Sugimura’s heart be in the subway?” Haru trails after the rest as they head down the stairs into the subway. These seem…longer than they were coming up from their station.

“Okay, well…” Ryuji shrugs. “I dunno?”

“Very helpful. Morgana, can you give her the basics?” Akira says and gives Morgana a nod which is eagerly returned.

“Okay! So, the Metaverse is the world of people’s cognition, where thought shapes reality. Mementos is part of the Metaverse that’s affected by subconscious thoughts, the stuff you don’t even realize you’re thinking about until your brain tries to think about them. Desires are a subconscious thought, like hunger or anger.”

“How old are you, again?”

“We don’t actually know.” Ann stops to catch up to Haru, taking up their pace at the back of the pack. “He doesn’t remember, and well, kids grow fast, so he looks like he’s middle school age, but…there’s weird gaps in stuff he knows. Mona, what country are you in?”

“How am I supposed to know that?” Morgana huffs, rolling his eyes.

“That’s…something.” Haru hums to herself. “Mona?”

“Oh, codenames. He’s Mona, I’m Panther, and they’re Skull and Joker.” She indicates the backs of the boys further ahead.


“Anyway.” Morgana clears his throat. “Mementos is the foundation of the Metaverse, spreading out under it and giving it structure. And people who have messed up thoughts end up in here, too. Like Kamoshida, he probably started out in here. They’re drawn to it, somehow.”

“What is ‘here’, then? Is Mementos a train station?” They finally come to a halt at the bottom of the stairs, the ticketing plaza silent as a tomb except for the clicking of heels on tile.

“Yep! This’ll take us anywhere we wanna go, whenever we need to find someone with distorted thoughts who isn’t strong enough to have formed a Palace in Tokyo.”

“Strong in the way Kamoshida was strong?”

“Yeah. He had a lot of people at his beck and call, so his delusions got way stronger, and altered the Metaverse around his focal point. Most normal people don’t get as bad as him, so they end up down here.” Morgana gestures grandly. “Mementos!”

Akira walks back to the trio, holding his phone out in front of him. “We’re going on a bit of a hike, I think. It wants us to take the ‘Yokoyama line’ to Yokohama station, last stop. I'm positive that train doesn’t run underground, but it says its down on the same platform as usual.” He gives everyone but Haru a strong look. “Be ready for anything. We’ve got a long ride ahead of us.”

“Right.” Ryuji hits his palm with a fist, grinning.

“Roger.” Ann nods.

“Got it!” Morgana puffs his chest out

Haru holds up a hand to stop the conversation. “Sorry, hold on. If this is as dangerous as you’re implying, how is Morgana going to defend himself?”

“My Persona! And this!” He reaches behind him into his backpack, drawing…a curved cutlass as long as he is tall from its depths (how had she not noticed it, it’s far longer than his backpack…). He flourishes it for emphasis, grinning. Haru starts to protest but sees the subtle shake of Akira’s head behind Morgana and closes her mouth. She’s still not clear what a ‘Persona’ is, but perhaps it will be revealed in time. Better, for now, to just go along with this strangeness until more is revealed.

“Okay, Fine. Shall we go, then?”

“Right. Stay to the back, Noir.” Oh. Oh, right, he remembers that. What a strange way for such a bad joke to stick around. “Mona, I need you on defense.”

“Got it!” Morgana balances his cutlass on his shoulder, turning to Haru and grinning. “You’re safe with me!”

Akira—Joker—takes the lead, slinking down the empty walkway towards the train platform. Pocketing his phone, he hops the ticketing turnstile and continues. Ryuji hurdles it at a jog, moving past Akira and down another flight of stairs. The distant shout of “clear!” can be heard before he jogs back up the steps. “Train’s not here yet. Might have to wait a bit, sign says 5 minutes.”

“Great. We’ll probably have commuters, too.”

“C’mon, Noir, let’s find a safe spot.” Mona leads her down the stairs, taking her to one of the pillars near the train embarkation area. “I’ve got you, just shout if a Shadow gets near you.”


“Oh, right. So, bad people get like Sugimura, but the average person doesn’t have enough bad or overwhelming desire to form a coherent form in here. Most Shadows are just undifferentiated feelings, good and bad all mixed together, and they wander around here.”

“Yeah.” Ryuji turns, balancing a pipe (where did he even get that?) across his shoulder. “They attack when they see us, since we’re rebels. Most of ‘em look like salarymen but weird here. They got faceless masks, too. Real creepy, honestly.”

Haru sighs. “Wonderful.”

“Ryuji, go scout for me? Ann, cover the left wing, I’ve got the right.” Akira cuts in, all business. Ryuji nods agreement, jogging up the stairs without even a wave goodbye. Ann moves to one side of the stairs, racking the slide on a machine gun? Morgana looks back at her, sees the look, and waves for Haru to calm down.

“It’s fine, the gun isn’t real. Because the world is based in thought, if it looks real enough the Shadows act like it is.” Morgana says like it’s totally normal for this to be a thing. Even if it’s a replica, the sound of a metal slide sounds incredibly real to her, especially after last night.

Ryuji comes jogging back down the stairs, panting. “Incoming, big crowd of em. I saw maybe 8. Probably more where that came from, if things work out like they usually do.”

“Get ready. Haru, the second that train gets here, get on. We’ll be right behind you.” Akira draws a knife from his coat, a pistol eerily similar to Sugimura’s in his other hand.

Descending the stairs comes a crowd of inky black figures, bearing suitcases and bags and looking at their hands held out in front of them. They’re wrong, their posture bent over in unnatural directions. Some of them have sprouted additional limbs from the wrong places, arms from their back and legs from their chest. At the bottom of the stairs, they look up, see everyone gathered, and let out guttural roars that raise the hairs on the back of Haru’s neck. As they charge, the Phantom Thieves meet them head-on, a cacophony of gunfire and metal on metal echoing in the tight space. From his position in front of her, Morgana is placing precision shots with a slingshot in the foreheads of these Shadows, driving them back away from Haru and towards the melee where Akira and Ryuji fight side by side, wheeling and dodging even as they cut great rents in the Shadows with strikes and gunshots. Every hit makes them reel, but they keep getting back up.

“Panther, fire support!” Akira shouts, cartwheeling away from his current target.

“Got it! Carmen!” Ann drops her aim, seizing her mask by it’s bottom and ripping it upwards in a spray of blood. A bonfire erupts behind her, an enormous figure resolving into a tall woman in a red dress smoking a cigar. Flourishing with the mask still in her hand, the Shadow erupts into flame, burnt to ashes in a single moment. Akira pushes through the smoke cloud, striking at another Shadow from behind.

“Skull, crowd control!” Akira calls next, firing at precise targets  to drive them back into a herd and using his victim as a shield from reprisals.

“Roger! Captain Kidd, bring the storm!” Ryuji bats a Shadow back from him, mimicing Ann’s movement and summoning a massive skeleton riding a miniature boat. The stink of ozone fills the platform as lightning arcs between several of the monsters, leaving them stunned and twitching.

“Press the attack, Joker! Sweep them all in one strike!” Morgana shouts over the din of battle, drawing his cutlass and striking a Shadow as it wanders towards them in its stunned state.

“Got it. Julien.” Akira whips off his mask, blood arcing out across the platform with his flourish. “Condemn them.”

A flare of blue flame passes over Akira, making Haru cry out in shock. When it passes, he too is flanked by a massive figure with a cape in the shape of long diaphanous bat wings, bearing a chain-bound book in its clawed hands.  It’s face is utterly blank, and their black cassock flutters without wind, revealing a blood-red inner lining. The figure looks up from their reading and snaps the book shut with a hiss. It’s blank face erupts into flame, and Haru can swear she sees a hideous grin splitting the black fire that it pours from its face. The eerie flame spreads across the platform in a flash and consumes every Shadow in a furious blaze. When the wave clears, not even ash remains.

“Guys, come on! We gotta go before more come!” Haru snaps out of her shock as Akira’s monster (his Persona?) dissipates in that same blue flame it was summoned in, turning to see Morgana pointing towards the train that has pulled into station. It must have arrived during the melee, she didn’t even hear the arrival bell.

“Go go go!” Ryuji jogs up to Haru, taking her by the shoulder and leading her into the car. “C’mon c’mon, there’s more where that came from!” He pulls Ann in after Haru is safely in the car, leaning out of the door to grab Akira by the hand and tug him in. With him inside, he starts providing covering fire with a shotgun he’s firing one-handed. Morgana slips in last, still firing slingshot pellets back as he ducks under Ryuji’s legs. He only steps fully into the car when the chime begins to sound for the train departing. As they begin to pull out of station, a wave of Shadows crashes against the side of the train, clawing and slamming the glass to utterly no effect.

“So many.” Haru murmurs, covering her mouth in horror. She sits down heavily in one of the many empty seats, adrenaline still burning in her chest.

“Whew. That’s the most we’ve seen in here before.” Ryuji wipes his mouth with his ascot, grinning. “Pretty good workout, though.”

“Don’t forget, it’s not over.” Akira thumps Ryuji on the shoulder. “We’ve got 5 stops left, so don’t get complacent.” Crossing to Haru, he sits down on the bench next to her. “You okay?”

“I think so.” Haru looks to Akira, frowning. “This is so much. How do you do this so casually?”

“It’s anything but casual.” He takes her hand, placing it against his chest. His heart is going a mile a minute, thumping hard against her hand. “I’m fucking terrified. But we’re gonna make it work. I won’t let you down. Not now, not ever.”

Haru leans against his shoulder, keeping her hand against his chest. Across from them, Ryuji and Ann shoot the shit about the battle, both of their hands on the same grab handle dangling from the ceiling. Morgana has his backpack in his lap, the picture of an elementary school kid headed to school on the train. It’s…something.

For how reassuring it is to be surrounded by people who would do anything to keep her safe, Haru can’t help but feel as if all of them are tragically out of their depth here.


Chapter Text

“Now arriving at—” The train arrival bell rings discordantly over the speakers, blotting out the name of the station with staticky noise. “Next stop, —” A second, louder bleat of static follows, making Haru flinch.

“Does it do that every time?” Haru turns to Akira— no, he’s Joker, here. If the Metaverse is thought made flesh, do they have to dissemble even in their thoughts to protect their identities? A question for another time. Joker stands, holding the grab bar tightly.

“Yeah. Mona, get her to cover. We’ve definitely got commuters.” In his other hand, Joker grips his sleek little pistol, jet black metal gleaming in the fluorescent light.

“Come on, Noir.” Mona gets up and slings his backpack back on, holding out a hand to Haru. “There’s a good spot over here, it’ll make good cover.” She takes his hand, looking back curiously to the others as they begin to crouch lower.

“What’s going on? Commuters?” Haru lowers her voice, leaning out to get a look at the station as the train slows to a stop. The first thing she sees is too big to fit into the window, a grotesque parody of the human form the size of a smart car, its blank-masked head dangling perilously off of its shoulder thanks to it’s hideously long neck. Thankfully, Haru manages to clap her hands over her mouth before she screams. Reaching up, Mona pulls her down by the elbow into a small crevice between a set of seats.

“We gotta stay quiet, okay?” Mona murmurs under his breath as the door chimes. She can feel the train shift dangerously towards the station under the weight of the Shadow trying to force its girth through the entrance doors. “Commuters are what we call the Shadows that try to board the train. In such a small space, we can’t fight as effectively as we can elsewhere. So…we fight like thieves.”

The Shadow, having forced its way through the door (and broken its own shoulder and arm in the process, Haru realizes with a gut-wrenching wave of nausea) begins to wander through the car away from them (is it trying to find a seat?). Joker and Skull move as a team in its wake, their weapons clenched in gloved fists while Panther stalks behind them, unspooling her whip. The departure alarm chimes and the doors close again, the Shadows outside obediently stepping away from the train as it begins to pull out of station (are they waiting for another line?).

On cue, Panther slings her whip forward around one of the Shadow’s legs, wrapping it tightly and tugging with all her might. Skull leaps forward while the monster is off balance, striking it in the back of the knee to force it to the ground and again against its massive back to knock it prone, the hideous beast flailing as it falls. Joker strikes last, seizing its upturned mask in one hand and ripping it away with a spray of black gore before firing round after round into whatever had lain under it. For all that has been said about the false nature of their firearms, the gunfire still echoes in the train in much the same way she would imagine the real thing to. With one last writhe of its limbs, the Shadow dies.

“Clear!” Joker calls, the magazine of his pistol falling into his hand as he reloads. Mona gets to his feet, offering Haru another hand up. Dusting herself off, Haru sits back down in her original position and clasps her hands in her lap to hide the shaking that won’t go away. When Joker sits down next to her, she smiles tightly to him.

“I’m fine.” She lies, but the concern in his eyes behind the mask tell her that it doesn’t pass muster.

“You don’t look like it.” Joker tugs one red glove off, placing his bare hand over hers. “That doesn’t happen every time. It usually only happens on the first stop, where the Shadows like to congregate. As we get further out from the center of the city, there’s fewer of them. And once we have room to move, we avoid fights as much as we can. I don’t plan on having any more fights like that tonight.”

Mona sits down on the other side of her, leaning over to look at them both. “Right. Joker’s super stealthy, he’s never gotten us caught yet. The train is just too dangerous to try to hide on for the length of a ride, especially since you’re here, Noir.” She still can hardly believe that they have somehow managed to make that stupid joke of a nickname stick. She does know now that it means black in French (thank you, Wikipedia).

“Okay.” Haru nods to both of them, to give them at least a token show of confidence. And they’re right, there are no more fights on the train. But Haru can’t stop thinking about the flash of something she saw between Joker’s legs, on the Shadow beneath it’s mask.

She thinks it was a face. And she swears upon all that she holds dear that it had curly brown hair, matted down by the black sludge of the Shadow.

With every stop, fewer and fewer Shadows mill about on the platform, and none of them attempt to board. Finally, after 3 more stops the announcement states the next stop is at Yokoyama Station.

“Why wasn’t it staticky?” Haru turns to Morgana and asks, trying to focus on anything but the upcoming ordeal.

“So, Shadows are sort of territorial when they start displaying individuality. Strong Shadows that start to mirror their real-world counterpart are strong enough to be a threat to even a station packed full of shadows. Weaker Shadows congregate, but strong ones build territory that is all their own.”

“So…a pecking order, like chickens. They’re higher social status, so they control more space, get better food.”

“Right.” Mona nods vigorously, then scratches under his bandana. “I thought a chicken is a food, but that other part is correct.”

“No, they’re— “ Haru sighs. “Nevermind. So you’re saying that station is just Sugimura’s, no other Shadows. Is he going to be on the platform waiting for us, then?”

“Yes. Well, sort of. The entrance to his proto-Palace is here.”

“Hey, yeah, what was up with it needing a form for the Palace?” Panther moves across the train to stand next to them, holding the grab bar and swaying as the train takes a hard turn. “We’re in Mementos, we’ve never needed that before in here.”

“I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I don’t know a hundred percent, but I have an idea. So, the thing we know about Palaces is that people who have a lot of social standing or the ability to touch a lot of lives and twisted desires have Palaces, yeah?” He looks to Panther and the others, who all nod together. “And we know that people with twisted desires have fully-formed Shadows but not Palaces. That’s how we got our other lead for our next target after this.” More nodding, though Haru is a little confused. New lead? “So, maybe Sugimura is in the middle. He’s got twisted desires and a lot of social standing, and maybe he’s about to get a lot more? Enough to push him from being in Mementos to having a Palace, but not enough to actually move him from here to there.” Ah. There it is.

“…We’re set to be married soon. He’s going to be gaining control of Okumura Foods once he does. Father intends to step down.” Haru says quietly, staring down at her hands. She’s been so occupied by the events of the last couple days that she realizes she’s still wearing her engagement ring. Plucking it from her finger, she closes a hand around it and wishes she had the strength to just drop it here, let it vanish into this other world. But…what if he found out? Instead, she leaves it in her bag. Just until she can throw it back in his face.

“That’s definitely it, then.” Panther says as she squeezes between Mona and Haru, putting an arm around her shoulders. “It’s gonna be okay. He’s never gonna know what hit him.”

“Hell yeah.” Skull calls from his seat across the train, grinning under his mask. “That prick is gonna get what’s coming to him.”

“Right! We’re gonna beat the crap out of him!” Mona’s moved to be back in Haru’s view, slapping his white-gloved palm with a fist for emphasis. Beside her, Joker places a hand over her own, his silent support after so many affirmations all she needs.

Haru sighs, leaning against Panther’s shoulder. “Thank you, everyone.”

“Now arriving at Yokoyama Station. This is the end of the Shadow Yokoyama line.” The remainder of the message slowly descends into static until it’s unintelligible. “Please disembark here while the train undergoes maintenance. The next train will leave in—” With a chime and a burst of static, the doors open as the train pulls into a wholly empty station.

“This is it. Game faces, guys.” Joker stands, giving Haru’s hand one last squeeze before letting go. “We don’t know what to expect once we’re in there. Mona, I still want you on bodyguard duty, can you do that?”

“Roger, Joker.” Mona salutes smartly, grinning to both him and Haru.

“Good. If this goes like a real Palace, Skull’s on scout duty, Panther has overwatch. Bounding advance, got it? And warn me if you need breaks, we’re all worn out.”

“Right.” Skull nods, stretching his arms over his head and then switching to doing leg stretches with the bench.

“Got it.” Panther gives a thumbs up.

“Noir. Be careful, listen to Mona. Stick to the plan, and everything will go okay.” He pauses, reaching up to brush something from her cheek. “I love you, no matter what happens in there.”

“I know.” She seizes a lapel in her grip, pulling him down for a brief kiss. His mask is cold against her skin but worth every moment. “Okay, I’m in your hands, everyone.”

“Seems like you’re just in Joker’s hands, but alright.” Skull snickers until Panther punches him on the shoulder. “Ow, ow, okay, sorry.”

“Keep your mouth shut before it gets you in real trouble, bud.” Panther winks to Haru and heads out of the train with Joker, Skull trailing just behind her with an apologetic smile to Haru.

“C’mon, Noir, let’s go.” Mona tugs at Haru’s hand as she watches everyone disembark.

“Right.” Time to confront the absolute worst parts of her fiance’s mind given form and power. This will be fine.

They find Sugimura’s Palace in a perfect replica of the Shibuya Underground Mall. The entrance twists and shifts like a desert mirage, a heat-shimmer haze passing over it just as it began to settle into a single form. It becomes a western mansion, a Japanese-style estate, a revolving door, and the VIP entrance to a club, flickering between these and other fantasies every few seconds. Some last longer than others. The one that it keeps returning to the most, because of course it would, is the storefront of the buffet restaurant Sugimura took her to. She can see silhouettes moving inside all of them, walking and talking and eating. At least the ‘buffet’ part seems to be sticking. If it weren’t for the flickering, his Palace would look for all the world like a restaurant built into the Shibuya Underground Mall. The rest of the mall itself is barren, empty stalls and stores everywhere. It’s…eerie. Disconcerting beyond words for a Tokyo native to see an echoing hall where they have seen nothing but crowds before. Haru can’t imagine what the streets of Shibuya look like without the everpresent press of people.

“This is bad.” Mona says, staring up at the phantasmal facade with arms folded across his chest. “His desire isn’t strong enough to commit to a single idiom. We could run into anything in there…”

“An idiom?” Haru glances away from the painful display and back at Mona.

“The thing that defines the nature of their delusion. A Palace is a place of power for them, the way they define the place they feel most strong in. Kamoshida thought of the school as a castle, and himself as the king. It’s…kinda like a theme. If he can’t commit to an idiom then the interior may shift with every change he makes. We can’t rely on our sense of direction or being able to backtrack safely.”

“That’s…not good?” Skull manages.

“It’s really bad. We need to get this done in one shot, then.” Joker tugs at his gloves for the fifth time since they started standing outside the entrance, observing it for any movement. He’s nervous, more than he’d ever admit. The others are too, Skull kicking his steel-toed heel against the concrete of the concourse and Panther pacing beside him, casting a glance at the entrance every so often when it changes.

“Are we doing this, then?” Skull looks up, cracking his knuckles.

“We have to. Keep on your toes, everyone.” Joker claps Skull on the shoulder and heads into the doorway, pushing through the glass doors of the buffet. Once he passes, they shift into a shoji screen, and Skull throws it open and follows. Every entrance seems to make it shift, too, with Panther pushing through the revolving door and Mona and Haru getting an automated sliding door.

Inside, the building is dimmer than she remembers the buffet being, the lights turned down low and spaced out infrequently along the vaulted ceiling. The only indication there is any light, in fact, is the shafts of it visible in the pall of smoke hanging over the whole room. Haru coughs out her first breath inside it, wheezing and bringing a cloth to her mouth from her bag.

“What a fucking dingy piece of shit. I thought this dude was rich?” Skull peers around a planter into the rest of the room, squinting. “I can see two doors, there and there.” He points to the north and west, marking two brighter rectangles in the dim haze. “Think one of em’s the kitchen, the other must go to more seating. I guess? If this is a restaurant they’d only have this and a kitchen…”

“Heads down, incoming north.” Joker barks. “Two Shadows, waitress dress.” Everyone freezes in place against their cover, watching two humanoid figures walk past them carrying large trays that sparkle with drinks. As they walk by, the drinks shift from martini glasses to highballs before finally settling into wine glasses as they pass back out of sight into the haze. Haru gets a good look at them as they pass; both women in waistcoats and dress pants, smartly dressed and coiffed. And both wear that mildly disturbing mask the Shadows seem to all bear, though neither of them looked anywhere near as misshapen or hideous as the subway Shadows.

“Why do they look so different from the Shadows from before?” Haru whispers to Mona once they’ve passes far enough away.

“They’re subsumed by Sugimura’s will. Stronger Shadows command weaker Shadows, and ones with Palaces naturally shift to match their surroundings. Sugimura must think of anyone who works under him as nothing more than servants for them to take this form.” Mona scratches his chin in thought. “Are they all girls, then?”

“Ugh, probably. What a pig.” Panther groans. “Which way are we going? They’re just walking a circuit of the floor, it should be easy to get past.”

Joker hums thoughtfully to himself, then nods. “The kitchen could have more of them...let’s see what else there is to the building. If it’s still nascent, it might be small. We’re looking for safe storage, somewhere exclusive he could hide something he values. A manager’s office, a private room, conference space maybe. Skull has point.”

“Roger. Move up along the wall, I’ll check the hallway. Back in a flash.” Skull flashes a smile and a badly-done salute before ducking by a table and crouch-running his way out of sight and into the haze.

“You’re good at this.” Haru can’t help but marvel, ending up next to Joker as they move at a much slower pace towards their destination. On her left, the buffet table is covered in a spread that is startlingly eclectic; desserts rest next to fried rice, sauteed fish and salads commingle and before her eyes dishes shift into new forms with that same heat-shimmer the entrance had. The smell changes so quickly and so abruptly to new forms that it ends up leaving her dizzy and with the beginnings of a killer headache as she passes.

“We’ve had practice. You’re in good hands.” Joker moves up then, taking point for their small group and holding them from moving when Shadows pass too close. They’re single-minded in their duty, walking a straight circle around the room. As they pass through the haze, Haru can see faint humanoid figures, but as she gets close she realizes they’re only the vaguest outlines of people, insubstantial black shapes more like shadows than Shadows. Is Sugimura’s mind creating false people to populate his fantasy? The vaguest sounds of conversation fill the dining room as they move through it, yet none of them are real but the Thieves. It’s...eerie.

“Hey. So, I got good news and I got bad news.” Skull meets them just before they reach the hallway, crouching down on one knee.

“Start with the good news.” Panther moves up next to Joker, crouching. God, that catsuit really does leave nothing to the imagination. How does she stand it?

“Okay, good news, the Shadows are pretty much blind in here with the smoke. They can kinda hear so we gotta be careful about noise, but it should be fine to slip past ‘em.”

“And the bad news?” Mona calls from the back.

“The room is basically identical and has 2 more doors. I think one of them is another kitchen.”

“Shit.” Joker sighs. “Well, we’re off to a bad start. Mona, any ideas on the Treasure?”

“It feels close. It’s still kind of indistinct, though, and feels funny. Like...brain freeze.”

“Oh man, I hate that. Well, I guess we just keep going, then?” Skull shrugs. “I got nothing.”

“I’ll make a map as we go, if you’re okay with stopping every so often.” Haru offers, stuffing her cloth back in her bag and pulling out a notebook to replace it. She sets about to draw two small squares, making doorways and the theoretical kitchen attached to the first room they haven’t visited.

“...Alright, fair enough. Let’s move, people.” Joker stands, nodding to the doorway behind Skull. “We’ve got a lot more ground to cover, apparently.

Minutes blend into hours. The rooms blur together figuratively and literally, the gauzy haze of smoke lending the rooms a nauseating timelessness. Dishes change by the minute, the seating and tables change with every room, even the lightning and heat in the rooms vary from time to time. The only certainty is that the room has two doors, and one of them leads to a kitchen, while the other leads to another buffet room just like it. Even the kitchen leads to another buffet room, a dizzying non-euclidean array of rooms that Haru gave up on properly mapping within 20 minutes.

The first time the light jazz behind the ephemeral voices cuts out and is replaced by Sugimura’s voice, Haru stumbles into a table out of sheer shock.

“No, sir. There’s no problems with the Okumura job. Everything is proceeding as expected. The girl is acting out, but it’s nothing I can’t handle. I’ve kept the kid gloves on for the sake of her father, that’s all. Once we’re married, she’ll learn her place. She just needs a reminder that a woman’s place is on her knees.” With a blurt of static the jazz kicks back in where it left off, leaving Haru with a hollow pit in her stomach. He said ‘sir’. Who was he talking to? Did someone put him up to this hideous marriage? Why? She flinches when a hand settles on her shoulder.

“Hey,” Panther’s voice reassures her from behind her. “Remember what I said, okay? Don’t let it get to you.”

“Right.” Haru looks back over her shoulder, managing a weak smile and nodding.

“Atta girl. C’mon, let’s go.” Panther keeps a hand on her back as she leads her back to the group, deeper into the Palace.

“Anything, Mona?” Joker nudges the boy once they’re all joined back up.

“No, nothing. feels wrong. Like it’s bouncing around the place. Something really isn’t right here. Could it be this half-formed Palace is messed up, somehow? Like we’re too early?”

“Oh, like we haven’t tripped the event flag for the boss fight.” Skull says, punching his hand with a fist. “So we gotta make a racket to get the big guy’s attention.”

“No...well, maybe. Palaces are supposed to be an expression of their owners’ obsession. But, what if he doesn’t have one?”

“So...he doesn’t have a Treasure?” Joker takes his chin in his hand, humming.

“Maybe.” Mona copies his gesture, scrunching up his nose as he thinks. “Or maybe he has too many Treasures, he can’t narrow it down to one. And maybe that corresponds with his Palace, too. It’s still too nascent to be navigable, so it just keeps repeating architecture.”

“I hate wishy-washy dudes like that.” Skull grumbles, and Panther nods in agreement. “So what do we do, then?”

“We need his attention. He’s got to be afraid of us as a legitimate threat to coalesce his Treasure. Maybe we need to do something similar to crystallize his Palace into a single form. It’s never been needed before. I think…”

“So...we gotta make a racket to get the big guy’s attention.” Skull repeats his gesture from before with more emphasis.

“...Yeah, I guess?” Mona shrugs. “This is hard, I don’t know. It’s all uncharted territory, I only know as much as I do about Palaces from poking around Kamoshida’s for so long.”

The music above cuts out, and Panther groans as Sugimura’s voice picks up in its place.

“Yes, Sir. Okumura was at wits end before I showed up, the poor sap. He’s just lucky our families have such a long history of cooperation benefit.” He laughs with the sort of lugubrious charm of the permanently rich, a laugh that says he has never had to work to earn anything he’s received. “Well, it started with Grandfather. I’m sure you know all about the Yokoyama family’s humble beginnings as construction contractors? Well, Grandfather helped Okumura’s father expand into its second cafe location. A few years later, Grandfather leverages his knowledge of zoning into a political position, and the rest is history. Okumura paid for some of the best locations in Tokyo over the years, you know. How do you think he managed to get a Big Bang Burger in Shibuya back in the lost decade? With a business like his, he needed high-traffic locations and nearby warehousing for bulk goods to be shipped to and from. Both things a little helpful bump from a friend can give, no? He really had no other choice. Or maybe Grandfather just made sure not to give him one.” His laughter is cut off when the music cuts back in, and Haru has to concentrate hard to remove her grip from the ends of her coat.

Grandfather, in bed with slime like Sugimura’s family? Could it really be true? There was no hint of anything of the sort in the journal she had, but it began after Okumura Foods was a household name, as her father was beginning to take control of the company.

“Haru.” Joker’s voice brings her back out of herself, to reality, or as close to reality as the Metaverse is. “Are you okay?”

“No.” Haru shakes her head. “But we can’t stop. What are we going to do?” What is she going to do? Has everything her Grandfather built been set on a foundation of crime and dishonesty, graft and theft? Was there ever any truth to his wishes for a company that cared for its customers as well as its employees? Can there be such a thing, with how the world truly is?

You're learning. Very good, girl.

Haru looks back over her shoulder at the unfamiliar voice speaking in her ear, but finds nothing but ephemeral movement and the milling Shadows. Hmm.

“We’re going to keep moving.” Joker pushes off the wall he leaned against, stretching. “I want to confirm something before we swap to Plan B.”

“What’s Plan B?” Panther asks.

“We start shooting things and see what comes out.”

It’s not much longer after that when they stop to rest, Haru’s legs complaining mightily of the distance they’ve covered in only an hour. The combination of that, the ever-present smoke and the unreality of watching so much of the world shift around you with every passing second combining to give her a fearsome migraine. With somewhere to sit, Haru finally gets a chance to breathe and relax.

Until the jazz cuts back out again.

“Taking over a failing business like Okumura Foods is gonna be great. I make some big grand claims to change, hire all my buddies to come in and consult on how to unfuck their distribution network or workplace conditions, then I pocket half of what I pay them. Maybe I sell off a few locations at a premium to land developers who want to drop a high-rise there and make some noise about belt tightening, and in a few years I declare bankruptcy and walk away. Do you know how much money they've tied up in property? I'll be set for life after that, easy.”

It makes her furious to be forced to listen to him. No, furious isn't enough. She's beyond furious. Curled under a table for a 5-minute break and all she can dream about is holding an axe over Sugimura's head while he begs for his life.

You deserve so much more than that. Sugimura is only the beginning of a bloody swathe of revenge you could cut through Tokyo, dearest.

Haru hardly has time to calm down or interrogate the voice she’s been hearing before the music cuts out again.

“Hah, are you kidding? Marrying young is fantastic. That tight little body…she tries to hide it but I've seen enough to know better. Marrying a high school girl is such a fantasy come true. You should try it sometime, Father.”

“Fucking pig !” Panther roars, snatching up a wine glass that morphs into a tumbler in her hand and hurling it at the speaker, shattering both of them with a crash.

“Thank you.” Haru mumbles, her head buried in her arms. She just wants it all to stop. No more of this. Just...stop. For just a moment. Please. When she looks up, she can see Joker coming over through a haze of tears.

“Hey.” He kneels in front of her, stripping a glove off one of his hands and brushing hair from her face. “I’m here.” And that’s all it takes for her to break, to fall into full-on sobbing here in a nightmare designed purely to torment her. Even with her friends surrounding her, this is all too much. She can’t even give them any support now, the map long since abandoned when it began looping in on itself uselessly. All she can do is be forced to listen to her abuser reiterate all of the joy he derives from destroying her life piece by piece.

“Fuck this.” Joker’s voice grates like metal on gravel, fury barely contained. “Plan B starts right the fuck now. Mona, guard Haru. Skull, Panther, make some noise.” She can hear someone rack the slide of a shotgun above her. They’re doing this for her. They’re going to put an end to this. She curls up tighter under the table, sobbing into her knees and failing to calm down. Mona puts a hand on her head, whispering to her.

“It’s gonna be ok, Haru. He can’t hurt you, we won’t let him.” Behind him, the sounds of fighting echo in the room while the murmur of voices and the distant jazz continue to play as if nothing has changed. This goes on for what feels like forever, and she can’t stop herself until a strange feeling passes over her. “...Oh no.” Mona whispers above her.

Haru sniffs, looking up to where Mona was and finding another pair of legs in his place, clad in...flowery tights. She recognizes the brand, in fact, one she wears often. What?

“I found her, darling!” Her own voice calls, a manicured hand wearing a gaudy engagement ring grabbing her by the elbow and hauling her bodily out from under the table and to her feet.

“Hah! Haru, Haru, Haru, always hiding from your problems.” Sugimura calls, walking through the buffet with long, slow strides. His eyes are wrong, visible even through the smoke in glowing, sulfurous yellow. Worse, his clothes change with every step, shifting between some of the gaudiest, most disgustingly colored suits she’s ever seen. Turning to her captor, Haru sees herself in a bright, low-cut dress smiling beatifically to Sugimura. This false her spares not even a moment to look back at her. Behind Sugimura, the Shadows have pinned her friends to the tables, all of them turned to face the scene unfolding before them.

“Did I do good, darling?” The false Haru asks with glee as Sugimura stops just short of them both, grinning. His nod makes her gasp with joy, bouncing on her preposterously tall heels. “Do I get a reward, darling?”

“Of course, my sweet.” Sugimura ignores her in favor of his pet, leaning down and kissing her for a disgustingly long time before he pulls away with a click of his tongue. The false Haru sighs with longing, wiggling her hips as he turns away from the false Haru. “Run along, my love, Daddy has business to take care of.”

“If I must.” The false Haru steps back, releasing Haru’s elbow but remaining in her line of sight. She looks...content. Like this is all she has ever wanted.

This could be the fate that you consign yourself to, if you so choose. An eternity of lifeless smiles and false cheer. Pathetic. You could be so much more, my dearest.

“You conjure up a fantasy of me to satisfy yourself, Sugimura? Pathetic.” Haru wipes her eyes and raises her chin, hoping her show of defiance isn’t in vain.

“Pathetic? Maybe if the situation were reversed. I hold all the cards here, you little bitch. You’re simply an idiot girl who doesn’t know when she’s in over her head. It’s time you learned what happens when you meddle in things beyond you.” Sugimura produces a pistol from his suit, the same gleaming silver one from the real world that shines even in the smoke. “Let’s play a game, my love. Submit to me.” He lifts the pistol, pointing it behind himself at Skull’s head. “Or I give your friend there a very large new piercing.”

“Fuck you, man! Coward piece of shit!” Skull calls back, struggling against the Shadow pinning him unsuccessfully. “Don’t listen to him!”

A false choice if there ever was one. He will betray you at the first sign of disloyalty. Don’t give in, dearest.

What? Haru turns to the left and right, taking a ragged breath. How can she not give in? Skull can’t pay for her mistakes. None of them should. This is the only w—

“Hmm. Not enough stick, is it? How about this, then.” Sugimura walks back to the false Haru and giving her the pistol. With no more than a look, she walks over to Joker and places the pistol’s barrel against his mask, smiling with glee to Sugimura. “Give yourself to me, body and soul, or she will kill him. You have 5 seconds to decide.” Sugimura holds up a hand with all 5 fingers held out to Haru.

Listen to your heart, dearest. You’ve been beaten and tricked by your own family time and time again, and it’s time you returned the favor. Don’t bow to an ant when you have the power to be so much more. You deserve so much more than this, it’s time to take hold of the reins of your destiny.

4 fingers.

“Haru!” Joker calls. “I trust you!” The false Haru slaps him with the butt of the gun, the maniacal grin never leaving her face.

3 fingers.

Accept me, the part of you that you have hid from and denied for as long as we both can remember. In this world where you must carve out a place for yourself in blood and deceit, accept the strength to fight. Accept the power to betray those who think you mastered.

Only 2 now.

“Haru! Catch!” Mona, disappeared until now, throws something to her that she can only barely see out of the corner of her eye. Without missing a beat, she catches it and racks the slide of the shotgun, a spent casing spiralling out of the chamber. It’s weight feels right in her hands. The whole world slows to a crawl.

1 left.

Say my name, and begin your revolution against the world that hates you! Become the black musketeer of the downtrodden, the abused and the scorned of this city, and their savior! Become Noir!

A flicker of blue flame passes over her vision, a domino mask settling over her eyes. “I’ll never be your subservient puppet, Sugimura!” Lifting the shotgun to her target with one hand, she grips the mask with the other and tears it upwards with a spray of blood. “Milady! Execute them!”

As you wish , Noir. Something materializes behind her, buzzing like a massive, malevolent hornet. The sound amplifies a hundred times when she begins firing, bright tracers flying wildly past her and obliterating the Shadows pinning her friends down in one fan of fire. Haru levels the shotgun at her false self, seeing her eyes widen in the sights. When she pulls the trigger, her world is engulfed by blue flames.

“No!” howls Sugimura.

“Zorro! Scatter them!” Mona calls, a massive gust of wind blowing through the room and clearing the flames from her vision. Haru catches the last seconds of her false self silently falling apart into a cloud of black smoke, her expression still one of utter contentment before it too dissolves. Around her, the Shadows are scrambling and brawling with the Phantom Thieves, and she spots Sugimura sprinting deeper into the Palace. From the doorway he ran into more Shadows pour into the room, sprinting towards the melee.

Despite the chaos, Haru is serene. For all the turmoil in her heart only minutes ago, there is only calm. Her place in the world is one who changes it for the better, not one who is acted upon by others, and the knowledge comforts her more than she can express. Milady is in sync with her every desire, laying down suppressing fire that chews through wave after wave of Sugimura's lackeys. The borrowed shotgun bucks against her shoulder with every shot, flinging Shadows away and bursting their bodies like water balloons full of black goo. The kick isn’t even noticeable to her. When it clicks dry, she swings it overhand like an axe chopping wood and knocks a charging Shadow to the floor where it liquefies into nothingness.

With her surroundings clear, Noir turns to watch Milady lay down covering fire with the massive gatling gun sprouted from her skirts. The blistering, bone-shaking volleys evaporate Shadows by the dozen, but not fast enough. “We need to go!” Noir shouts over the din.

“Where?! We’re in a maze!” Panther cries back, casting her flames wildly into the crowd and barely avoiding getting pulled down by their tide.

“I’ve got an idea! Noir, blow out the window!” Joker backflips away from a tide of Shadows rushing to tackle him at the last second, pointing at a large window behind him.

“Milady!” Noir calls and spins on her toes, pointing to the window and instinctively grabbing the brim of her hat before it flies away with the sudden movement. A snap-fwoosh of a rocket launching ends in an ear-popping explosion, exposing...the Shibuya Underground Mall? Were they never truly deep in a maze? Her Persona disappears in a puff of gunsmoke as Noir sprints for the new opening and everyone else follows.

“I knew it!” Joker shouts. “Everybody out, get to the train!”

The speaker above crackles to life. “DON’T LET THEM ESCAPE! I WANT THE GIRLS ALIVE!”

“Oh my god, this fucking pig doesn’t give up!” Panther cries, firing at the speaker as she runs until it dissolves to static.

“Just go! He can’t follow, the Shadows won’t obey him outside his Palace!” Mona calls, catching up to the group and running as fast as his little legs will take him. He throws a glance back over his shoulder. “What?! He’s crazy, they’re gonna turn back to normal outside his Palace!” Throwing a glance back over her shoulder, Noir sees a stampede of Shadows hot on their heels, baying and slavering and becoming more monstrous by the second.

“He wants us dead, big surprise! Just run!” Joker shouts, panting as they mount the stairs down to the platform. They skid to a stop inside the train, turning back to see the horde crash against the doors as they close.

“Express Service to Shadow Shibuya Station now departing.” The calm voice of the train chime clashes horribly with the screaming nightmare outside the train, rubbing and clawing and smashing against the windows yet leaving nary a scratch. Noir doesn’t breathe easy until after they’re fully into the tunnel, free from any threats. All at once, the exhaustion that had been present for hours crashes down upon her with the added force of the exhaustion of fighting, of summoning her Persona for the first time ever, of becoming a Phantom Thief of Hearts. Of killing her doppelganger in cold blood without a second thought. Her knees give out from under her, but the last thing she remembers is not a crash to the floor but two arms and Joker’s voice.

“Get some rest, my love.”


Chapter Text

Ah, you’re awake, dearest of mine. I wish to speak to you.


Haru groans, her head throbbing like machine-gun fire. She tries to sit up from wherever she finds herself laying, but her limbs aren’t playing along, her arms folded across her stomach. All she can see is the sparks dancing behind her eyelids, her mind’s eye replaying everything that she remembers.

Sugimura. Her false self, the mere thought of which makes her stomach rebel, a feeling that doubles when she remembers what came next, the bodies of Shadows rent in twain by machine gun fire and shotgun blasts. She can’t move to retch, can’t think to try to turn away, but nothing comes up. In fact, she doesn’t even gag, though she feels on the edge of puking. What is going on?

Opening her eyes is a struggle. Once she manages to get them open, Haru finds herself on the train in Mementos, lain out on the seating. Her head is elevated, held in someone’s lap, but she can’t turn her head to see. Instead, she faces the far wall, where...the tunnel does not speed by the window. In fact, it’s frozen in time in the dark. Skull and Panther sitting across from her don’t breathe, both of them watching her body with worried expressions locked in place.

Fear not. Everyone is safe. We have more pressing matters. A vast expanse of purple brocade passes in front of her, the only thing moved in the stopped car. We must speak of your predicament.

Can you explain what’s going on, first?

Milady turns to face her, responding to her thoughts in kind. The first long look Haru gets at Milady, she realizes the being, the Persona she saw in battle is different than this. Milady would barely fit in the train car, for one, this Milady is smaller, human-sized. She has a head, too, covered by fluffy brown hair. To cover her face, she holds a mask on the end of a stick not unlike opera glasses from which bright, shining yellow eyes watch her. She is Haru, but she isn’t, either.

You are dreaming. When we finish speaking, you will wake. The mind is quite capable of thinking quickly when it matters. Milady crouches down until her face is level with Haru’s. Now, let us speak of something far more important. Trapped between a man whose greatest wish is your worst nightmare and a father who would sell you in an instant for the chance he seeks, you are at the precipice of losing everything. Remember that you are a thief, who will steal her happiness from the jaws of monsters time and again.

Why are you telling me this?

Haru can’t look away, forced to face herself and finds the prospect more daunting than she expected.

Milady smiles behind her mask, eyes crinkling.

Because I am a Shadow, the true self, the parts of you that you would deny yourself. I am your anger at injustice. I am your sorrow at society’s ills. I am the thrill that passed up your spine with every shot fired in battle, the burning in your chest you feel when you are denied your rightful earnings, the tears of rage that fall when you can do nothing but grieve another’s loss. I am you, in every way that matters. And I will not allow myself to be a blind little girl any longer, so long as I draw breath.

I understand.

Haru sighs, or something like it, a break in thought as she tries to grapple with so many new sensations at once. How does it feel to speak to a version of yourself that doesn’t fear her family, fear discovery and hatred and society’s judgements?

I, we both fear all of those things, Haru. More than you could ever know. But they will not rule us.

The train begins to move, slipping millimeter by millimeter until they become centimeters, then meters. Milady looks away, and something like a grumble of frustration comes from her, chewing her lip.

We’re out of time. I am with you, Haru. Always. May you find the strength to stand tall, as I know you can. We will speak again if you wish for it.

Milady stands, staring down at Haru for one long moment before walking back out of frame as Ryuji and Ann stumble over to her, talking over each other in a confused jumble as time returns to normal.

“Yo, she’s awake! Mona, c’mere!” Ryuji babbles, waving an arm over. Haru can move her head now, closing her eyes tightly against the noise doubling the pounding of her headache.

“Oh, Noir, I was so worried about you, nobody’s ever collapsed like that before and—” Ann stops when Haru holds a hand up, waving it weakly. She opens her mouth to speak, finds it painfully dry and manages to mouth nothing more than a weak ‘I’m OK’. She sits up slowly, aided by Joker’s hand on her shoulder. It’s only once she is fully upright that she realizes he had been gently dragging nails up and down her scalp and instantly misses the almost sinful feeling it brought to her heart. Instead, that hand produces an uncapped water bottle (from where?) that she accepts gratefully, downing half and sighing with relief.

“How long was I out?” She manages after finishing the bottle, cradling it in her lap.

“About 5 minutes. Long enough to worry us, you know?” Panther sits back down across from her, smiling with no small amount of relief. Everyone’s masks are off, shoved up to the side of their head or entirely gone in the case of Joker.

“Right. You sure as hell know how to make a statement, Noir. Kick so much ass, then fall on your ass. What a Persona…How come Captain Kidd doesn’t get cannonballs. It’s not fair, I tell you…” Skull folds his arms and slouches in his seat, ignoring a thump from Panther.

“He’s just jealous.” Mona says from her other side. He worms his way under Haru’s arm, wrapping both of his around her midsection and squeezing with all of his little might. “I’m glad you’re okay. Awakenings can be hard on the Persona user.”

“Well, I’m sorry I worried you, dear.” Haru pulls him tighter to her side with her elbow, returning the hug as best as she can from such a strange angle. “...Oh, my. This is new.” Somehow, in all the fighting and fear and exhilaration of combat, she seems to have gained those...what did Joker call it? ‘Garments of Rebellion’? Little mauve shorts, tights and sensible shoes that almost perfectly mirror her favored pair of low-heeled shoes she wears to school, and...some kind of underbust corset. Hmm. She looks up at Panther and Skull with a raised eyebrow, who both shrug in unison.

“At least it’s not all skintight. I sweat like crazy in this thing.” Skull plucks at his leather bodysuit, frowning.

“I keep trying to get him to change it, but I think he likes it too much.” Panther elbows him and receives a mumbled curse in response.

“Change it? If your clothes transform when you enter the Metaverse, how do you change it?” Haru tilts her head, and Panther smiles.

“Check this out.” When Panther flexes her pink-and-black-gloved hand just so, a set of wicked-looking metal claws flicker out from the back of the glove down to the fingertips. “Back a few weeks ago, I had these super-ugly pink dishwashing gloves. Super nasty. Mona said that our outfits are products of our own idea of what a Phantom Thief is, so we can change it with concentration and practice.”

“Yep! Our minds are our most powerful tool in the Metaverse.” Mona choruses from under her arm.

“If you don’t mind...why not change into something more practical? Red shows up terribly well in the dark.” Haru tilts her head in confusion when Skull guffaws, slapping his knee.

“I-I, well, I...!” Panther crosses her arms across her chest defensively, blushing.

“I keep trying to get her to change it, but I think she likes it too much. Ow! Damn it, that hurt!” Skull rubs his bicep where Panther just unleashed a 4-hit combo of haymakers.

“Now arriving at Shadow Shibuya Station. This is the end of Express Service. This train will undergo maintenance until—” The doors open as the announcement chimes in.

“Well,” Joker stands, helping Haru to her feet. “It’s time we figure out Plan C.”

“You must be doing this on purpose.” Haru grumbles once they’re seated at the same eclectic Shibuya cafe.

“It’s the only place still open this late that has free coffee.” Akira shrugs when Haru whaps him with the menu. “Seriously, this is a strategy meeting, not a double date.”

“It can be both. I’m starved.” Ann opens her own menu, strategizing with Ryuji what to get.

“Next time we go somewhere I choose, or there’ll be hell to pay.” Haru tuts to herself. “Free coffee. I ought to tell Sojiro the sort of swill you drink without him knowing.”

“Oh no, please, anything but that. I’ll pay, alright?”

“No you won’t.” Haru states matter-of-factly, having decided on her order and folded the menu shut. After the waitress takes their order, Haru takes a sip of Akira’s coffee before passing it to him. “So. What is Plan C?”

“That’s...We’ve never even had a Plan B before.” Ryuji shrugs, taking a long drink of his Coke.


“We’ve still got a trump card, though!” Morgana pops his head out of Akira’s bag between him and Haru. Hearing that little boy voice come out of a cat opening its mouth is...something else. It’s like something out of a dream.

“And that is?” Akira looks down at him, raising an eyebrow.

“The calling card! If it can crystallize his Treasure into a tangible form, it can probably fix the layout, too. Once we send it, we can blitz through his weakened defenses and snatch it!”

“I dunno...Isn’t the calling card our one shot at the Treasure? What if it doesn’t work? We still have no idea where anything is in there.” Ann taps her chin in thought.

“Our deadline is Friday.” Haru folds her arms on the table, taking a breath to keep them from shaking. “What if...we give him what he wants. Temporarily. To crystallize his desire, whatever it is. Then we give him the calling card.”

“That’s actually worse than Morgana’s idea? There’s gotta be something else we can do.” Ryuji glances to Ann as he speaks, the both of them looking worried for her.

Their food arrives then, but it’s clear that nobody’s heart is in it. Between the bone-deep exhaustion and the worry turning her ravenous hunger into a gnawing pit of nausea, Haru can barely touch her soup. Akira drinks his coffee, getting a refill and finishing it by the time she pushes the bowl away from herself, giving up on the doomed enterprise.

“What are we gonna do?” Morgana mumbles from his spot curled up inside Akira’s bag.

“We have to get the calling card to him tomorrow. We have to change his heart Thursday, or that’s it.” Akira sets down his cup. “Can you two get the card ready tonight?”

“Count on it.” Ryuji says with a nod.

Akira turns to Haru, then. He doesn’t look happy. “Figure out how to get Sugimura to as public a place as possible. Whatever it takes.”

“Okay. What are you going to do?”

“Calling cards have to present not just the knowledge that we’re going to steal his Treasure, but also that the outside world will know about their crimes, too. So we make the whole world know that he’s a crook who did something awful, and then we steal his heart and he confesses.” Morgana says with a yawn from inside the bag. Is it past his bedtime? ...Does Akira keep a bedtime for him, if he’s drinking that much coffee this late at night? Oh, the last 12 hours have opened up so many new problems in Haru’s life. She can worry about the care and diet of a growing young man (in a cat body) after things have calmed down.

“Right. We give him what he wants then take you away. It’’s our only carrot for him.”  Akira’s tone says everything about what he thinks about this plan. Haru places a hand on Akira’s shoulder. He meets her eyes, stormcloud grey and just as ready to crackle with lightning at any given moment. “We’ll be there. If he—” Akira stops himself. “We’ll be there.” Haru tries not to think about what Akira might do if things go poorly. She won’t allow him to, she won’t allow herself to even entertain the notion he might do...that.

“That’s right.” Ann chimes in, breaking the tension. “And this knucklehead, too.” She throws an arm around Ryuji’s neck and pulls him over.

“Like I’d wuss out on something this important! Jeez.” Ryuji rolls his eyes but doesn’t stop grinning.

Everyone falls silent, waiting for Morgana to chime in. Nothing comes, except...the faint sound of snoring inside Akira’s bag. A quick peek by everyone reveals the young cat curled up and fast asleep in its depths.

“He’s got the right idea. I gotta get to work on that card…” Ryuji squeezes out of the booth, stretching.

“You mean we, right, dork?” Ann follows, pushing her bag into his arms. “Your mom is gonna be okay?”

“Yeah, she’s got something going on with work so she’s busy till Saturday. Like she’d ever care if you came around.” Ryuji loops his arm around hers so very casually. Apparently Ann’s worries about his propensity for PDA have been at least partially resolved. “We’ll see y’all tomorrow, alright?”

“Goodniiiiight!” Ann calls with a wave as they head out into the night. Both of them return the wave, falling back into silence when she’s gone. Paying the bill as quietly as they can, they head out into the late-night Shibuya streets.

“Well. You should get Morgana home. Get some rest for the both of you, okay?”

“I will. Don’t forget, you need rest too.” Akira reaches up, fingers brushing through her hair as they had on the train, and her eyelids flicker shut for just a moment as she leans into his touch. “I love you. This is going to be okay.”

“I know.” She closes her eyes, taking a deep breath. Forget everything else in your life. Akira is here and now. Enjoy the moment while it lasts. “We still have a lot of milestones to go. I won’t even consider dying until at least the first anniversary.”

“Don’t get too far ahead of yourself, princess. We haven’t even made it to a full month.” He keeps running his fingers through her hair, and she knows how ridiculous it must look but nothing in the world matters to her now but this feeling this boy is giving her.

“Oh, so you’ve been counting.” She murmurs, standing up on the balls of her feet to shove his hand into her head.

“Like you haven’t.”

“Every day still feels like the first to me.”

“Oh, come on.” Akira withdraws her hand and Haru suppresses the urge to whine, instead seizing his hand with both of hers.

“I’m serious. Every day I spend with you feels like something new beginning.” Akira remains silent, rubbing his neck with the other hand and revealing a hint of a deeply red ear.

“Is every kiss like the first, then?” He manages, a tight smile on his lips.

“Oh heavens no.” Haru laughs then, remembering that rainy day when she first mashed her lips against his, desperate for any chance to grow closer to him. “I should think we’ve come a long way from that.”

“Show me?”


Try as she might, Haru can’t sleep.

Tossing and turning, she just can’t stop turning the events of the day over and over in her head. She’s anxious over tomorrow, of course, but she’s also questioning the mechanics of the Metaverse (she really must start a list at this point, she’s forgotten half of the questions she wants to ask Morgana now that she has some basic understanding of its underpinnings). And...she keeps returning to the smallest things from Sugimura’s subconscious in his Palace. Why would it broadcast his thoughts so readily (if they even were that, perhaps they were memories?), why would it choose those memories? Was Grandfather really who Sugimura portrayed him as, a willing participant in shady business that got him to where Okumura Foods is now? Is her desire to take over the company and return it to its roots nothing more than a dream based on false information and wishful thinking?

Damn it. She can’t sleep like this. She has to at least try and find out. Even if she has turns the whole house upside down, she knows that Grandfather’s things must be around here somewhere. Throwing off her duvet, Haru gets to her feet and pulls her jacket on over top of her sleep dress, if only to have somewhere to put her phone.

The austere house seems even more eerie at night. High vaulted ceilings echo the sound of her own footsteps on the cold tile back at her. She tries the room she found the journal in so long ago, finding it converted into a guest bedroom (so very many guest bedrooms in this house, yet no guests have slept here in years…). She tries nearby, knowing the volume of boxes must have precluded them being moved very far...and finds nothing in any of the other guest bedrooms, or the storage closet, or the now-empty servant’s quarters next to them.

Father couldn’t have thrown them out, could he? Did he find out what happened in the past and destroy all evidence Grandfather left behind of his crime? Haru sighs in frustration, hitting the wall with the flat of her hand. No. It wasn’t so long ago, and he couldn’t possibly know if Grandfather documented anything. Of course, neither can Haru. Perhaps this is just a diversion that will leave her tired and distracted for tomorrow’s events. Her own fear of what power the past holds over her life ruining the future already.

Fuck this. She needs something to drink. Padding back through the house to the kitchen, she pushes the swinging door open and walks directly into the back of the chef, stumbling back with a shriek of surprise.

“I’m so sorry, I was just—”

“No harm, miss Okumura, it’s fine.” The chef turns, the elderly man holding up his hands between them. “You startled yourself more than anything. Need a late-night snack?”

Taking a steadying breath, she starts to decline right as her stomach growls like a truck engine. “...Maybe not a bad idea.” She says with chagrin.

“I’ve just the thing. Please, have a seat. If you’re up this late, you must be worried about school, yes? I’ll brew something to help you sleep.”

“Thank you.” Haru crosses to the small table set up in the kitchen for the servants to eat at (so old-fashioned, they don’t even have more than a single maid anymore and she’s not allowed to eat in the dining room?), sitting down and watching the chef pull on gloves and remove a piping-hot loaf of bread from the oven.

“I’ve been trying a French recipe for artisan bread. I hope you don’t mind sampling some of the experimental bakes.” He retrieves a pad of butter from the fridge and sets up a tray of sliced bread and butter, bringing it over and setting it down in front of her. “Let it cool a bit, it’s hot.”

“Yes, thank you.” Haru takes a deep breath, the smell of freshly-baked bread filling the room. “Do you do all of your testing in the dead of night?”

“Well, not all of it. But some nights you can’t sleep, you keep thinking about how you would change something, and…” He shrugs with a smile as he sets the kettle on the boiler. “Have you ever had chamomile tea?”

“Yes, many times. It’s a favorite of mine, actually.”

“Wonderful. May I sit?” He indicates the chair across from her with a hand, and Haru nods emphatically. “Thank you, miss Okumura. These days, a cup of chamomile is the only thing that allows me to sleep at a reasonable hour. Stubborn man that I am, I try not to use it some nights, and then here I am, baking bread at 4 in the morning.” He laughs boisterously. Haru grabs two slices of the bread, spreading rapidly-melting butter across both and holding one out to the chef. “Oh, thank you, dear.” He takes an eager bite, humming to himself in delight. “Oh, yes. The extra salt works wonderfully.” Haru takes a bite herself, eyebrows rising in surprise at how flavorful a simple piece of bread can taste, especially after most of a day without much food at all.

“Oh, this is magnificent. You’ve outdone yourself.” Haru takes another bite, savoring every bit of it.

“Thank you.” The kettle starts whistling and the chef stands, crossing to the burner and setting up two cups of tea, returning to the table with them balanced on one arm. When he sits down, he finishes his slice of bread and takes another, buttering it with a flick of the wrist that leaves the entire surface coated. “To tell the truth, it gives me a lot of pride to know that I’ve worked with the same family for 2 generations and been praised by all of them for my cooking.”

Oh. Oh, of course.

“Did you cook much for Grandfather?” Haru takes a sip of tea to hide her trepidation. If she can’t find a journal…

“Of course. I worked with him quite closely to create the menu for the Okumura cafes, actually. He kept me on after the business transitioned to food distribution and other avenues. The 70s were a wild time. The business grew so quickly back then.” He takes a sip of his tea, smiling wistfully. “Why do you ask?”

“I...found one of Grandfather’s journals, some time ago. I never met the man, but I’ve been very interested in learning what the business world was like back then.”

“Ah.” He puts his cup down, expression falling from jovial to something more contemplative. “Your father isn’t very...happy with how your grandfather did things. It was a different time.”

“I understand. But...perhaps there is some lesson to be learned from it all.”

“You may be right there.” He sighs, rubbing his chin and staring at Haru. “Before he passed, your grandfather left some of his personal items with me, for safekeeping. I have them at home. Some old journals, watches, that sort of thing.”

Haru’s eyes widen. “Please, anything you can do to help would be incredible. I can’t express how important it would be to me.”

“Say no more, miss Okumura. But let’s keep this between just us, yes? I’m too old to go job hunting in this economy, you understand.” He smiles when Haru nods. “I’ll see if I can get them here by this weekend. Until then, I think I need to get another batch of this bread ready for breakfast, don’t you?”

“Father would quite enjoy it, I think.” Haru stands, finishing the last of her tea. “Thank you for your hospitality.”

“Please, it’s your house, miss Okumura. I just cook in it.” He smiles, standing and collecting the dishes. “I hope you have a good night, dear.”

And she does. The second her head hits the pillow, she falls right asleep.

“Haru? Haru, class is over…” A gentle shaking and a familiar voice rouses Haru from her sleep, her chin falling from its perch on her palm.

“Wh?” Haru snaps awake then, blinking sleepily and looking up at her visitor. A brown blob resolves into the short-cropped hair of Makoto Niijima looking rather concerned at her.

“Are you okay? It’s not like you to fall asleep in class.” Makoto smiles softly.

“Oh. Sorry, I didn’t sleep well last night.” Haru stands, gathering her things and shoving them in her bag as quickly as she can. Not that she isn’t happy to see Makoto, of course. But…

Maybe she isn’t. Not today.

“Are you doing okay? How is your father?” Makoto folds her arms, the concern on her face deepening.

“I’m fine.” Haru lies. How could she ever explain what her day has been like? ‘I haven’t eaten since I managed to devour three pieces of bread in the middle of the night because I’m ready to throw up at the thought of what I’m going to have to do tonight’? ‘I slept through my last class because I’m so afraid that my birthright is tainted fruit and so am I that being awake was going to end in a panic attack?’

“Okay.” Makoto steps back as Haru tugs her bag over her shoulder. “Do you...want to get something to eat? Like old times.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Haru meets Makoto’s eyes and the wince is visible. They both remember her sister’s ultimatum given before they moved up to Shujin.

“...Sorry.” Makoto lowers her eyes, looking away. “I...yeah. You’re right.”

“I need to get home. It was good to see you.” Haru means it this time, and Makoto looks back at her for a moment before nodding.

“You too. Have a good day. And try to go to bed early, okay? You’re operating on a deficit, you need to catch up.”

“Right.” Haru says with a nod. Makoto always did watch out for her, in more ways than just physically. It...the feeling in her chest is hard to quantify. An old, familiar warmth that she hasn’t had in a long time. She missed it. Misses it still. “See you.” But those times ended on a humid summer day, Sae Niijima furiously berating them both while blood soaks into the bandages on Makoto’s knuckles.

She has bigger problems to worry about right now than the girl she was once in love with.

“So, what’s the plan?” Ryuji yawns, stretching. They’ve met up in Akira’s room, Haru having stopped at home for a large black bag slung over her shoulder and changed into something more germane to their destination of the night. Ryuji arrives last, passing around drinks for everyone from the grocery around the corner.

“There’s a party tonight downtown being run by Sugimura’s father. A benefit banquet for a homeless shelter.” It had been relatively easy for Haru to get herself an invite by asking Father’s personal assistant, under the guise of making her apologies to Sugimura for her behavior. It was harder to make some concessions with her dress to draw Sugimura’s eye to herself more readily. It’s the first time she’s shown cleavage to anyone but Akira (ignoring her display in the underground mall to get his attention again) and it’s not a particularly pleasant thought for her. “I have an invite with a plus one, which gets Akira and I inside.”

“Okay, but what about us?” Ann pipes in after taking a drink of her barley tea.

“Well...the easiest way would be for you to pose as wait staff.” Haru says with no small amount of embarrassment.

“Man, seriously? That sucks.” Ryuji slumps, his cola already finished.

“Yeah, but it’ll let us get the calling cards in, too, since we’ll have props.” Ann muses. “I’ve got clothes that should work for both of us, actually. Dad’s about Ryuji’s height, I think. How much time do we have?”

“It’s not until after dusk. We can meet up there, I’ll text you the address.” Haru says.

“Got it. See you then!” Ann drags Ryuji off back towards the trains, chattering animatedly about what will work for his disguise.

“I don’t exactly have soirée-ready outfits laying around, you know.” Akira says once they’re gone. “And what am I going to do with Morgana? They probably check bags as you go in.”

“I can take care of myself!” Mona shouts from the bed, standing up and stretching.

“...Can you leave him with Sojiro?” Haru bites her thumbnail, frowning.

“Hey! I said I can take care of myself!”

“I guess. That doesn’t solve clothing, though.” Akira looks to the large black bag at Haru’s feet. “Unless you already took care of that.”

“I did.” Haru lifts the bag, placing it on the table and opening it. Carefully folded inside is an immaculate black suit, complete with tie and cufflinks. “One of Father’s old suits.”

“Wearing someone’s father’s clothes usually happens before you start transitioning, you know, not after.” Akira walks over, lifting it out and holding the sleeve up to his arm. “Hmm. Your dad is pretty short.”

“It runs in the family.” Haru says with no small amount of relief. She’s had fantasies of being the taller person in a relationship, but gets the distinct feeling it would cause more trouble than it’s worth. “Try it on.”

Akira grimaces, turning to the bed. “A little privacy, maybe?” Mona charges down the stairs at that, disappearing into the cafe.

“I’ve seen your bare chest, your underwear isn’t that much further down the decency scale.” Haru smiles when Akira groans and removes the suit from the bag.

“You’re not nearly as proper and gentle as you make yourself seem, you know that?” Akira gripes as he unbuttons his school shirt, hanging it from the rafters from a coat hanger dangling off it.

“Oh please, you love it.” Haru crosses to his loveseat, sitting down and enjoying the view. The afternoon sun playing across his torso and highlighting the curls of his hair does make him look quite dashing.

“Whatever.” He pulls the dress shirt on, buttoning it back up and tugging the suit jacket on over it and fiddling with the cufflinks. “Feel like I own a hedge fund wearing this shit.” He picks up the pants, locking eyes with Haru. “You’re seriously going to watch me take off my pants?”

“You’re seriously embarrassed about this? If it’s a problem, I’ll preserve your decency.” Haru covers her eyes with both hands. “Okay, pants off. I’ll have to fantasize until I see the real thing.”

A finger hooks over top of her hands, tugging them down. “I swear, I never know when you’re gonna turn sincere when I’m trying to mess with you.” She looks up to Akira as he smiles to her. “I thought you wanted to look at my legs, not my face.”

“I’m quite enjoying myself right now, thank you.” She returns his smile. “You can put your pants on, now.”

“...Jeez, you’re a pain sometimes. You’re supposed to be blushing or something.” Akira grunts, stooping and pulling the suit pants on, threading his belt through and buckling it.

Haru’s smile fades. “We can save being madly in love for after we’re done stopping you from being killed.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Akira slings the tie that goes with it over his neck, straightening it and then staring blankly down at the ends. “I don’t have a fucking clue what to do with this.”

“Terrible.” Haru stands, taking the ends and pulling them level before tying a very quick half-Windsor knot. “Father had me tie his tie for years. One of the things a man is supposed to know how to do backwards and forwards, he said.” Haru laughs under her breath. “So much for that.”

“How did he take it? When you told him.” Akira raises his chin as Haru fits the tie just so against his throat, her fingertips brushing against his skin.

“...Better than I thought at the time. I was still in elementary school, like I told you. I was positive he was furious, so furious he couldn’t speak. I found out, years later, that he walked out and had an adopted child added to the family register, with my same birthday. A girl named Haru, the name I told him I wanted to be called that day.” Her hand falls to his chest, the warmth of his skin under the cloth helping her maintain a level head about talking of such things.

“Huh.” Akira reaches up, closing a hand over hers at his chest. He doesn’t say anything more, but she can feel it on the tip of his tongue, the look in his eyes. ‘What changed to make someone so kind become so callous?’ She doesn’t know. She can’t even begin to tell you what goes through her father’s head anymore. Maybe she never truly could.

“Well.” She pats his chest and steps back, taking in his look with the suit and nodding. “You look presentable.”

“Thanks. You look radiant. You always look incredible, even in a tracksuit.” Akira pulls his glasses off, mussing his hair and parting it to the right. “How about now? Dashing?”

“Very handsome. Can you even see me, though?” Haru waves a hand in front of his face, only for Akira to snatch it by the the wrist and kiss her palm.

“They’re fake glasses.” He releases her hand, pressing the glasses into them.

“Oh.” Haru puts them on, frowning. “So you pretend to be the unapproachable smart boy with a hint of sadness as a defense mechanism.”

“I’m not sad.” Akira counters, plucking them from her face and tucking them in his suit jacket pocket.

“You could have fooled me with the makeup you wear to school. Your eyeliner is very dramatic.” Haru picks up her bag. “We should head over there now.”

“It’s not...dramatic. It’s supposed to be intimidating.” Akira protests as Haru takes his hand. “Boys in eyeliner are intimidating. Straight boys don’t talk to them.”

“How did Ryuji ever start talking to you, then?”

“He’s bi, it’s different.” Akira mumbles as they walk out the door, waving weakly to Sojiro.

“Going somewhere?” Sojiro looks up from his crossword as they come down the stairs. An eyebrow goes up at their clothes, but he reserves comment.

“Out to dinner.” Haru answers for him, smiling.

“Better take this then, I’m locking up soon.” He holds out a key to Haru. “And keep him out of trouble, yeah?” He directs that last bit to Haru, grinning wryly.

“Of course.” Haru nods, taking the key and slipping it in her bag.

“Then have a good night.” Sojiro waves goodbye, turning back to his crossword.

Once they’re outside, Akira groans. “Why do you get the key? I live here.”

Getting in is no problem. Their names (with Akira using the Ren moniker again, out of some misplaced sense of nose-thumbing at Sugimura no doubt) are on the list, they pass through coat check and bag check easily, and find themselves on the floor.

“We should split up. I’ll be keeping an eye on you from afar, just find Sugimura and try to placate him. Stay safe. You’ll know when to get out, just head straight to Leblanc.” Akira leans down and kisses her, then walks off without another word, leaving her alone in the shifting mass of people. No one recognizes her, which is a blessing. She heads to the refreshments, paying an exorbitant price (to charity, she can only hope) for a cup of weak punch and sets about hunting for her target. Actively seeking Sugimura’s presence in her life out feels so utterly wrong, but there’s nothing to be done for it. Thankfully it doesn’t take long: she only has to look for the ugliest suit in the building. She finds him standing near an elevated podium with an elderly looking man in his 60s who could only be his father, chatting and gesturing with their drinks.

This is it. The moment of no return. She’s doing this not only for herself, but for Akira. She has to seize the happiness she desires from the jaws of her greatest enemies. So she plucks the engagement ring from the depths of her bag and slides it on her finger. And so she lifts her chin, takes a deep breath and walks right over to them, smiling like this disgusting man wouldn’t gladly ruin her life without a second thought. “Hello, Sugimura.” Haru says, keeping her grip on her glass as carefully controlled as she can lest she shatter the flimsy plastic.

“Friend of yours?” The older man says, nudging Sugimura.

“Quite so. Father, this is Haru Okumura. The youngest daughter of Kunikazu Okumura.” Sugimura says, stepping quickly over to her and placing a hand on her arm. Youngest daughter? She opens her mouth to say something, but his father speaks first.

“Ah, yes. What was the name of her sister, your fiance? Haruka? Haruma?” He rubs his chin while ice water floods Haru’s veins. Does he not know?

“Haruka, father. If you’ll excuse me, I must speak with Haru. Marriage arrangements, you understand.” Sugimura seizes her by the elbow and leads her into the crowd, over to a seat not taken by others. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Do you have any idea—”

“I came to apologize.” Haru interrupts him before he gets a head of steam built. “For Ren, for my behavior, for everything. I, I just want this all to stop.” She takes a shuddering breath, wiping a very real tear from her eye. “I was stupid, and wrong, and I know that now.”

Sugimura stares at her, disbelief evident in his eyes for only a moment before it is overwhelmed by a slimy leer. He takes a drink of his glass, laughing. “You think an apology is going to be enough? You come to a family event, nearly reveal everything to my family and think an apology will cover everything you’ve done?”

“Please.” Her stomach clenches when she realizes what she has to say. “I’ll do anything, Sugimura. I don’t care anymore. Please. I just want a normal life.” She looks up at him, arching her back just a little to puff out her chest for him. “Can we go back to what things were like before?” God help her, it works. He practically salivates, staring down at her.

“You mean that. No more games?” The scent of alcohol on his breath is cloying. “You’ll listen to what your man tells you to do?” He has been looming over her in her seat, but she stands, placing a hand on his chest.

“I said anything, didn’t I?” A little fluttering of eyelashes and he’s done. His hand closes over hers, plucking her hand off his chest.

“Not here. They don’t know about this. You can come home with me tonight and prove how sincere you are, then we’ll talk about letting your fuckboy live.”

“Thank you. Thank you.” Haru says. “What do we do now, then?”

Sugimura finishes his drink, holding it up in the air. A blonde-haired waitress plucks it from his hands and places a new glass in his hands, with...something taped to the side. It’s a red card of some kind, but she can’t see anything written on it. “Enjoy the party.” A hand brushes by Haru’s shoulder as the waitress passes, and she feels immeasurably calmer.

“Your attention, please!” A voice calls over the loudspeaker. Standing on the podium is Sugimura’s father, with Ryuji standing at his side holding a red card. “We have a special message, thanks to an anonymous donor. He would like to thank you all for attending, and speak directly with you now.”

“Thanks, man.” Ryuji steps up to the podium, clearing his throat directly into the mic. “I’m here on behalf of someone who couldn’t be here today, who asked me to pass on this message. Everyone who’s gotten a glass in the last few minutes, you’ve got a special message attached to your glass. I’m gonna read it now, too, for everyone.” He clears his throat again as everyone peels the message from their glasses. Haru watches Sugimura begin to pull it off of his glass.

“I’m going to get something to drink.” Haru excuses herself, walking quickly away from the ticking time bomb.

“Don’t go far.” Sugimura mutters, fumbling with the tape holding it in place.

“To the Abusive Coward Sugimura Yokoyama,” Ryuji begins, to the consternation and general uproar of the crowd. “Your immoral attempt to seek marriage to a teenager and your abusive need for control over her life have not gone unnoticed. Worse, you hide behind your family's power and threatened to shoot the only person strong enough to stand up to you. We have decided to steal these monstrous desires from your heart. You will reveal all of your sins to the world with your own mouth tomorrow. We hope you enjoy these last moments before then.” He clears his throat again. “Signed, The Phantom Thieves of Hearts. Well, seeya!” Ryuji hops off the platform and goes dashing through the crowd for the exit.

“Time to go, dear.” Akira’s voice in her ear is more reassuring than anything else she could imagine. Throwing a quick glance over her shoulder, she sees Sugimura and his father arguing animatedly in the crowd. They slip out of the party without issue, Sugimura’s fiance long forgotten. Ryuji and Ann meet them at the train station.

“Whew! Haven’t had to run that hard in awhile. Security musta thought I was just stealing appetizers or something, they didn’t chase me.”

“You probably coulda walked out, you know.” Ann thumps him on the arm. “Woulda scared the shit out of me less to see you walk out like a normal person.” Ann sighs. “So. Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow. We have to stop off for Haru first, then we’re good.” Akira scratches his head. “Meet up in Shibuya at the usual spot for breakfast?”

“Great. See you then.” Ann ducks past Akira to hug Haru, and Ryuji pats her on the shoulder. “You were brave, Haru. I couldn’t have done that ever.”

Haru smiles awkwardly, hugging Ann back until she pulls away. “I’ll see you two tomorrow.” Once they’re gone, she turns to Akira. “Why are we stopping for me tomorrow?”

“We have to replace Ryuji’s shotgun, for one. For two, you don’t have any weapons.”

“Oh. Right.” She’d forgotten her hasty decision to break Ryuji’s shotgun over the head of a Shadow. “I’ll pay for that.”

“Probably a good idea. So, let’s get home.” Akira starts to walk down towards the train platform, tugging the knot on his tie loose from his neck.

“Should I…” Haru pauses as she starts to follow. “Is it too forward to ask to stay the night?”

“Well,” Akira drawls as he turns back to her, “You’re the one with the key to Leblanc. I kind of need you to stay the night. And you’re crazy if you think I’m gonna let you go home after we just told Sugimura what we’re doing. So no, not really too forward.”

“You could be nicer about it.” Haru links her hand with his, frowning.

“I’m always nice to you about everything.” Akira scoffs. “I’ll even let you borrow my shirt again tonight.”

“What a high honor.” Haru squeezes his hand to put the lie to her sarcasm. “I hope you’re ready to be big spoon, darling.”

“As if I would ever say no to that particular pleasure.” Sitting down at the platform, Haru doesn’t release him, running her thumb along the back of his hand.

“Thank you. For being yourself.” Haru murmurs, staring at the far wall. “I can’t tell you how much it helps.” Sitting here like this, waiting for the train and dressed to the nines, feels so utterly strange. But so utterly right, too. She could see herself doing this for years to come, somehow. If they make it through this.

“I could say the same thing. You’ve been… an anchor. Something to look forward to. I haven’t had that in a long time. Ever, maybe.” Akira clears his throat. “So… thank you back.”

Haru leans against his shoulder, breathing out. She could stay like this forever, if she had the choice. It would be wonderful, just to be close and calm and okay.

But some part of her yearns for something more.

Chapter Text

“Like it?” Akira leans over Haru’s shoulder, looking at the rifle in her hands. Solidly built with a cherry red wooden stock and a shiny brass receiver, finished by an octagonal barrel tipped with a sight peg. It rests against her shoulder, a weight that is both noticeable and negligible in her hands. It feels more right than anything has any right to.

When Akira had told her they were going to buy guns (replica guns, but guns nevertheless), she had felt no end of trepidation. All night, she had thought about it. All morning, she had spent hours researching firearms, the ways they are built, the terms and mores of gun owners. Know thy enemy was how it started. Now, she has a jumble of half-remembered words bouncing in her head. Muzzle velocity, feed ramp, kickback.

“I…think I love it.” Haru breathes out, imagining the roar of firing it, the gust of muzzle flare from its barrel. It doesn’t scare her. It feels more like a part of her than anything ever has before.

“Try the action. There’s spare brass in it, it’s not built to fire but it’ll still release like it did.” The owner of the shop, Munehisa Iwai, says from across the counter. He’s taken an interest ever since they walked in his shop. The way he greeted Akira implies this is far from the first time he’s been in here. Ratcheting the handguard forward, the spent brass spirals through the air out the ejection port as promised with a satisfying click of metal on metal. Outside her line of vision, she feels Akira shift slightly to catch the brass and pass it back to Iwai.


“I’ll take it.” Haru unseats it from her shoulder, setting it down on the counter next to a wood axe and Ryuji’s replacement shotgun, a stockless sawn-off that Akira picked out for him.

“Here.” Iwai pulls a rifle sling from a box behind the counter, throwing it over the gun. “Gratis, since you’re a new customer.”

“Much obliged. I’ve never gotten one of those, though.” Akira says with a hint of chagrin.

“You’re a cheapskate who buys the cheapest shit I sell. The lady has an eye for quality. Took me 3 weeks to get that Winchester just right. That’s a high-grade replica, cut down to 3/4:1 scale.” Iwai winks to Haru. “Anything else I can do for you?”

"Akira?” Haru turns to him, only to stop cold when something catches her eye. In a display case over the door out into Shibuya hangs a display case of black velvet, against which a gleaming white grenade launcher rests. She turns back to Iwai, pointing up at it. “Do you have another of those?”

“I…yeah, one sec.” Iwai disappears back into the depths of the shop while Akira gawps at the display Haru pointed out.

“I…Don’t think this is a good idea.” Akira says, leaning in front of Haru against the display.

“I do. You have no heavy firepower to speak of, if you hadn’t lucked into me having something heavy enough to blow the wall out behind that window, you’d have died.”

“…Alright, point taken.”

“What are you two muttering about?” Iwai returns, cradling a glossy black grenade launcher more like a child than an instrument of destruction. “Here. Try it out. I’m not selling the white one, this is its sister piece. Everything on it works, including the— well, there you go. Where the hell did you find this one, kid?”

“I’m just unbelievably lucky.” Akira says with a smile while Haru ratchets the collapsable stock out and seats the weapon against her shoulder. It’s heavy, an all-metal beast, but if anything it feels even better against her shoulder than the rifle had. Telescoping the stock back in, Haru sets it gently down on the counter. “This too, please.”

“Alright. 300,000 yen.” Haru pulls her charge card from her pocket before Akira can even begin to reach for his wallet.

“You really don’t have t—” Akira starts, until Haru fixes him in place with a frown.

“Yes I do. It’s my fault I lost that shotgun, so I’ll pay for it, too.”

“Still not sure how you ‘lose’ a shotgun…” Iwai mumbles as he keys the purchases into his register and hands the card back to Haru. “Here, might as well give you this too.” Iwai produces a business card from his G.I. Jacket, holding it out. The business name Untouchable (a name better suited to a Yakuza movie than a legitimate business, in Haru’s opinion) is flanked by hole punch squares. “5% off for 5 maintenances or purchases, 10% for 10. And…” He stoops, pulling a like-new duffel bag from under the counter and stuffing their purchases into it along with a second sling for the grenade launcher. “Also gratis. Don’t raise too much hell with this shit, alright? I’m trying to run a business.”

“Of course.” Haru slings the bag over her shoulder with ease, smiling genuinely to Iwai. His shop may have a name like a bad Yakuza flick, but he seems to be a genuinely good person to her despite it. “May this be the beginning of a fruitful business partnership, Mr. Iwai.”

Iwai doesn’t reply, instead looking to Akira with a raised eyebrow. “You sure you’re lucky? Cause…” He gestures to Haru, as if there’s something off about her. It would be insulting if it weren’t genuinely funny. May the man without gecko tattoos on their neck cast the first stone, in her opinion.

“Oh, I’m very sure. Later, Iwai.” Akira waves and walks out of the store after Haru. “Jesus, Haru. You’re a walking armory now, you know that?”

“Fitting, given Milady’s armament.” Haru shrugs, reseating the bag on her shoulder. “When do we meet the others?”

Akira checks his phone. “30 minutes. Coffee?”


“Great. I know just the place.” Akira holds up his hands when Haru whirls on him, an accusatory finger poised at him. “Not at the diner.”

“Better not be.” Haru drops her finger, smiling.

“It could be worse, you know. I could love Big Bang Burger coffee.” Akira laughs at Haru’s look of utter revulsion.

After they’ve gotten their coffees (breaking her no-coffee diet rule in favor of remaining sharp in Mementos), they find an unoccupied stretch of storefront and linger in front of it, drinking and peoplewatching.

“Were you ever scared of guns, Akira?” Haru breaks the ice, staring off up at the cloudy sky.

“Not really. I’ve seen some, but it’s never really crossed my mind.”

“Hmm.” Haru takes a drink of her coffee, thinking. Nothing about being in that shop scared her. Honestly, it had been something of a thrill, in it’s own way. The scent of old cloth, stale air and metal didn’t bother her in the least. Even walking around Shibuya with a big duffel bag full of weaponry (replica weaponry, she reminds herself) wasn’t that bad. These replicas hold no great power over her, though Sugimura’s real pistol had.

Why does she feel such an affinity for these things? Is it Milady’s influence upon her? Or, perhaps this is but another part of herself that had been undiscovered or denied and forgotten years ago. Until this predicament, her opinion on guns was somewhere between nonexistent and milquetoast; guns must exist for the regulation of a just society, as a deterrent to criminals who acquire the same. But…

In a revolution, the ability to project force is everything. A gun is merely a force multiplier, turning a single fighter into a deadly opponent.

Thank you, Milady, for confirming that particular fear. So, this is the path she walks now. She’s accepted it, but realization of exactly what that entails has been slow coming.

Still, she doesn’t regret it.

“Just gonna trail off there?” Akira asks, bumping her shoulder with his.

“Oh, my apologies.” Haru sighs. “I had no opinion until recently. I was afraid of guns the second I realized that Sugimura could have one. But…I’m not afraid now. Honestly, they feel…there’s something about them. Is that strange?”

“Mm, not really. Ryuji likes his, too. Ann could probably go either way.”

“And you?”

“I…don’t know. It does what I need it to. That’s all.”

“So, there’s no meaning in it for you. You are a mercenary fighting with tools, nothing more.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

“Do you believe in something, then? Some cause that motivates you to do this.”

“Yeah.” Akira drains his cup and throws it in the trash can next to him. Looking out at the morning commuter’s crowd passing them by, his face is lit in profile by the still-dawning sun. “I want to make sure nobody ever lives the life I’ve had to ever again.”

“Okay.” Joker announces after the stomach-churning shift into the Metaverse passes. “Haru, give the grenade launcher to Mona.”

Grenade launcher?!” Skull shouts, rounding on her, his eyes big enough that they look like they’re liable to push his mask off his face.

“Why?” Noir unslings the duffel bag from her shoulder, setting it on the ground and crouching over it. Removing the grenade launcher, she can’t help herself but to lift it with one hand and spin the chamber, delighting in the metallic clacking of it spinning to a stop. Once she’s done playing, she digs one of the cloth slings out of the bag and sets about attaching it to the mounting points.

“It’ll weigh you down a lot, and between the rifle and the axe you’re probably going to be the loudest of us already. We’ll save it for emergencies.”

“A rifle too? Damn, Noir’s strapped.” Skull squats down next to Noir, gazing with wonder at the shiny black device.

“How is Mona supposed to manage the weight of this along with everything else? Oh, here, Skull.” Noir digs in the bag, removing his new shotgun and holding it out to him. “Sorry I lost the original.”

“Oh SHIT! It’s sawn off, hell yes!” Ryuji whoops and hops to his feet, racking the slide and cackling. “Panther, check it out, I look like the fuckin’ Terminator.” Skull holds it up next to his head, doing a bad fake-deep voice. “Come weeth me if you vant to live.”

“Oh my god, you dork. You wish you were as ripped as the T-800.” Panther scoffs, laughing.

Mona walks over to Noir, holding his bag open in front of him. “It’s okay, Noir. My bag’s special!”

“Special how, exactly?” Noir cradles the grenade launcher in her arms, now fully understanding why Iwai was so gentle with these. She’s developed a strange sort of affection for them she never expected to, given the knowledge of its destructive power it’s real world equivalent is capable of (she spent most of the rest of their time waiting googling how to load her new toys, finding some delightfully strange videos on Youtube of Americans disassembling them, and a long video about firing it that she couldn’t follow thanks to all the jargon being in English).

“Oh, it can hold anything! It’s super-light and I can hold tons of stuff!” He digs into the bag and starts yanking out a familiar duffel bag of medical supplies that barely fits through the mouth of his schoolboy bag. “See! Because we don’t percieve it, the Metaverse lets them all coexist at once and whatever you intend to find is what you pull out of it!” Mona stuffs it back in the bag.

“…Well, alright.” Noir holds out the grenade launcher to Mona, who struggles to lift it and shove it into the bag where it disappears without a trace. “Thanks, Mona.”

Mona salutes, grinning toothily. “No problem, Noir!”

“Still getting used to that name…” Noir mutters as she pulls her rifle from the bag, affixing the sling to it and throwing it over her shoulder. Finally, she lifts the axe out and hefts the familiar weight. Mona grabs the bag and stuffs it in his bag, too (is there truly no limit to what it can hold? Do they even need a bag inside a bag, at that point?). When she stands, an unfamiliar clink at her hip makes Noir look down. Around her waist is a bandolier of grenade shells that hadn’t been there last time she was in Mementos, with a second belt looping with it in the opposite direction full of bullets. “Oh. Hmm.”

“Weird, right? Your brain knew, so it made it so you had what you needed.” Panther nods to her waist, where a few magazines for her own gun dangle from a similar belt by small clips attached to the ends. She points to Skull’s hip, where a similar bandolier of shotgun shells hangs.

“Aha. So this is a manifestation of our ability to modify our garments of rebellion, then?” Noir asks.

“Somethin’ like that.” Skull shrugs, resting his shotgun on his shoulder.

“Right. Which is why we have to conserve ammunition. We only have what we come in with.” Joker crosses the plaza to them, crossing his arms. “We’ve got another long train ride ahead of us, so be ready for anything. Remember, we need to conserve resources for the Palace, so avoid using guns if you can help it.”

Everyone agrees with a nod, heading down into the train station together. Noir holds the axe close to the head, trying to keep her breathing from spiraling out of control. She’s with everyone. This will be fine. There’s no reason that this will be anything like last time. Mona can fight now, too, everyone is ready. Even she’s ready.

Even if she doesn’t feel like it.

As they step onto the platform, they find a train already waiting for them. “Express Service to Shadow Yokoyama Station departs in 1 minute.” The speaker announces.

“…Well, alright. That’s never happened before.” Joker scratches his cheek. “Whatever. Everyone in.”

And just like that, the knot in her chest unties. They’re safe for just a little bit longer.

The train ride is uneventful, the station as empty as their last visit.

The Palace, however, is not. The frontage has settled on a replica of the buffet. Down the hall from the Palace stands a large placard surrounded by the roses. It reads “~YOKOYAMA RECEPTION INSIDE - JUST MARRIED~” in looping cursive ink.

“…One track mind much, asshole?” Panther gripes, kicking over the display with a grunt.

Around the corner, a crowd of Shadows stands outside the doors. Next to the door, some dressed as bodyguards stand with their arms crossed behind their backs, while crowds of shadows wearing sludge-stained dresses clamor on the other side of a velvet rope barrier to enter. Every so often, one or more of them convulses horrifically, and Noir would swear she saw something press out against the fabric of one of their dresses for a moment before receding.

“What’s wrong with them?” Noir turns to Mona from their safe observation point.

“They must be at the very edge of his influence. They’re on the verge of being unchained, reverting back to free Shadows.”

“So if we distract them enough to get them to move, they would revert?”

“Probably. We could slip past them, then.” Mona turns back to Joker behind him. “Can I do the honors?”

“I don’t like it. If he knows we’re coming, the front door is too obvious. We don’t know what he has set up inside.” Joker sighs, rubbing his chin. “Restaurants like this need back entrances, even in an underground mall. The service entrance is a few doors back, we can check that and see what we can find.”

A minute’s searching and more than a few failed entrances gets them into the back entrance of the Palace, directly in the kitchen. Here, Shadows in chef’s garb complete with tall toques and short knit caps stir away at bubbling pots of food, dishing it out carefully for waitress Shadows to come and collect. Everyone is so focused on their work that they don’t look up from it when the back door opens, or when they make a cautious advance inside. Haru comes in last, clutching her axe by the shoulder, close to the head, a wary eye on the back of the Shadow closest to her. At the front, Akira makes a silence gesture with his finger and gestures out of the kitchen with two fingers. They file out of the narrow workspace one by one, stepping lightly past the monomaniacal Shadows and out into the dining room.

Here, things have changed, too. The smoke is gone, leaving only the dim light to mask visibility. The contents of every table doesn’t shift or change, remaining as a variety of simple but exquisitely high-quality food that looks like it belongs on the front of a magazine. Skull swipes a lick of buttercream off a slice of cake, holding it out to Panther who accepts it with a languid lick of his finger. The face that she makes when she finishes is legendary, going from confusion to indignance in a split second.

“It doesn’t taste like anything?!” Panther whispers incredulously. “It’s, it’s nothing! How do you make food that doesn’t taste good?”

“It’s probably because Shadows made it, Panther. They don’t know what food tastes like, so they just reproduce the look and feel of it, but none of it is real.” Mona shrugs.

“What a rip-off. I’m getting a double helping of cake tonight.” She mutters to herself.

“Quiet. I can hear someone talking.” Joker shushes them, creeping along in the shadow of a table. Once they move closer to the center of the room, they can see why.

“Not good enough yet. This is supposed to be our big day, you fucking idiot!” Shadow Sugimura is holding a Shadow aloft by its mask, where it dangles lifelessly from his grasp. “I want her taken care of, NOW!” He hurls the Shadow bodily away, crashing into a table and knocking food everywhere.

“Darling, stop. This is our wedding, it’s a happy time. You scare me when you get like this.” The cognitive Haru from before steps into view, placing a hand on Sugimura’s chest in a perfect echo of her own gesture from last night. “Our happiness isn’t worth this pain.”

“I know, my dear. I just want it perfect. Go with them, and I’ll see you at the altar.” He leans down, kissing her on the forehead. She nods emphatically, helping the Shadow to it’s feet and following it out of the room down a side hallway. With her gone, Sugimura pulls something from his pocket, staring down at it.

“Treasure. I can feel it, it’s there! Treasure Treasure Treasure!” Mona babbles behind them, wiggling with nervous energy. “We just gotta get it and get away, and we’re good!”

“Mona, stop.” Joker seizes him by the collar, dragging him back behind cover as he tries to sprint for it. “He’s got it on him. We need to separate him from it, then we can get it and go, okay?”

“But….But!” Mona whines, flailing.

“Somebody wanna help me out, here?” Joker groans.

Noir kneels in front of Mona, taking off his hat and patting his hair down. “Mona, Joker’s right. We need to move cautiously, or we could end up in a situation like yesterday. Let’s slow down and think, okay?”

Huffing, Mona blows hair out of his face and crosses his arms. “Fine.”

“We’re still getting the Treasure. It’ll be fine. We just need to get close enough to take it without a fight, okay?”

“Okay.” Mona looks unhappy about it, but he nods.

“That’s my boy.” She pats Mona one last time and turns to Joker. “We need to go after my doppelganger.”

“What? Why?” Joker tilts his head.

“Because she’s not just fawning for him anymore, she wants him to calm down. His perception of me changed. I…think I can change it further.”

Joker pauses, staring at Noir for a long time. “Damn it. Fine. No Parent Trap stuff, alright?”

“I mean, isn’t that an It Takes Two situation? What the hell is Parent Trap?” Skull scratches his head, confused.

“I was thinking it’s like Princess Switch. I don’t know either of those movies.” Panther leans in, adding in her two cents.

“What’s a movie?” Mona asks.

“Alright, can it. Y’all give me a headache.” Joker says, shifting his mask and rubbing his forehead under it. “We go after the cognitive Haru, flip her, get the Treasure and bolt. Got it?”

“Got it.” Noir nods. Joker leads the way, snaking past tables laden with drinks and punchbowls and down the hall the cognitive Haru entered. At the end of the hallway is a door marked PRIVATE PARTIES, hanging just slightly ajar. Creeping up to the door as silent as the wind, Joker pauses before returning to the group. “There’s 2 Shadows. I need silent takedowns. Noir, I’m putting you on doppelganger duty. Keep her under control, yeah?”

“Right.” Noir unslings her rifle, slipping her axe through her grenade belt and letting the head hold it in place on the leather. She’s going to have to figure out a better sheathing solution for it sooner or later…

“Okay. On 3. I’ve got left, Skull go right. Mona, lookout, Panther play anchor, cover whatever needs covering.” They stack up outside the door, Haru just behind Skull. “1. 2. 3.” Joker pushes forward, throwing the door open and leaping onto the back of the shadow to the left of a half-dressed Haru being helped into an oddly traditional wedding dress. After a moment’s struggle, the Shadow collapses like a puppet with its strings cut. Meanwhile, Skull clobbers the other on the back of the head with his pipe, putting a foot on it’s back. Noir enters last, raising her Winchester and pointing the octagonal barrel directly at the false Haru’s chest. With the room cleared, Panther shuts the door and leans against it, her submachine gun resting in the crook of her arm.

“Don’t call for help. I won’t hurt you, but if you call for help…” Noir looks to Skull meaningfully.

“I understand.” Not-Haru says. She shivers, her dress half-on over an ornate corset.

“Good. You know who I am.” Over Not-Haru’s shoulder, Noir can see herself in the mask, lips peeled back in a snarl that she never would have imagined herself in. She hadn’t realized just how utterly furious she is to see herself act out being Sugimura’s pawn again until this precise moment.

“Yes.” Not-Haru’s eyes are so very wide, pupils flickering from her to Joker and Skull and back again. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see Skull playing up to Noir’s provocation, leering and leaning his Shadow-stained pipe on his shoulder. “He told me about you. The real Haru. Everything.”

“He told her? Do Shadows know what the real world is? I thought they only cared about their uh…whasitcalled, Idiom?” Panther calls from the door.

“It doesn’t matter.” Noir slings her rifle, stepping closer to her false self and removing both her hat and her mask.  “Do you understand why I’m here, then? What I have to do?” Noir asks her doppelganger, hanging her hat on the head of her axe at her hip.

“You’re…you want something from him, to stop him from marrying you. Why? Why can’t you just accept this?” Not-Haru is on the verge of tears, sniffing loudly as she finishes speaking.

Hearing those words in her own voice makes her blood boil.

“Because I never asked for this. I never asked for my father to sell me off like a milk cow to better himself.” Haru lets her fury burn off of her like steam, using every ounce of self control she’s learned from projecting calm in the worst situations to stop herself from screaming herself hoarse at what is essentially herself.

“And what’s wrong with that? At least then someone will finally love you.” Not-Haru looks away from Noir, a hand over her chest. It hurts so badly to see a gesture she’s used to steady herself so many times before repeated by her doppelganger. She’s…so real. “I’ve been so lonely, all my life I’ve been alone. My only wish has been for someone to show me the smallest kindness.”

This is his perception of you, dearest. He knows nothing of you but what little he has gleaned from his scant time with you and what your father tells him is true. A gesture copied, a sentiment shared matters little. It’s time you prove how very wrong he is about you.

Milady’s right. She…this isn’t her. But it’s like her. And…the lessons she’s learned can still save her, even if only for a moment longer.

“You’re right. It was my only wish for years.” Noir steps forward, tugging Not-Haru’s half-on dress all the way into place with a sharp yank. “All I wanted was for someone to look at me and feel anything at all. To see me as a woman, to see me as desireable, as someone worth love. I didn’t think I was worth it. Turn around.”

“Are you going to shoot me again?” Not-Haru asks, fear in her voice.

“No. I’m dressing you, not killing you.” Noir takes a breath when Not-Haru complies, tying strings and zipping up her bodice. “Sugimura made it worse. Told me how worthless a woman such as I really was, with his words and his actions. He has no love in his heart, only gluttony for the things he craves. Women, money, power. I know you are not foolish enough to have blinded yourself to this.”

“…What am I to do? I am not even the real thing. A copy, acting out his fantasy.”

“Find your own happiness, wherever you can. In stolen moments, acts of defiance. Your life is worth something, even in a place like this.” Noir swallows, holding herself back from crying. Not now. “The only way forward for you is to steal your life back from the jaws of your enemies.”

Not-Haru turns to her, tears in her eyes. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because…so long as I draw breath, I will not allow myself to be the blind little girl I once was. I know you have the strength to stand tall. I know you can.” Noir steps forward one last time, wrapping her arms around her false self to hug her as her doppelganger begins to cry.

“It’s too much. I was never meant for this. Why me?” Not-Haru sobs. “I just wanted to live a normal life!”

“I know. We don’t choose the circumstances, the world we are born into. We can only fight to get the life we want. Are you ready to fight?”

“No.” Not-Haru sniffs, the tears subsiding. “But tell me what you want anyway.”

They lie in wait as the wedding comes together. Moving from place to place in the room as the Shadows set our tasteless refreshments and garish floral arrangements, sprucing up the room into a veritable garden, yet there is no smell to them at all. The ersatz flowers are as real as the food, physically there but only that.

“Tch. When the fuck is this gonna start? We’ve been waiting forever. My back is killing me.” Skull gripes, scratching his back.

“Soon.” Noir says. She’s spent the entire time watching the arrangements come together like a hawk, the Shadow florists disappearing one by one until only the waitress Shadows are setting out the last dishes. The makeshift pews of folding chairs are wholly empty, the Shadows avoiding like the plague. Servants are not important enough to attend their master’s wedding, it would seem. “They’re practically done. The Shadows have been thinning, too.”

“What, is he sending them away? Why?” Panther leans up over the top of a table, watching a Shadow ladle gravy over a gigantic, steaming turkey. “And why is he wasting so much effort on all this spectacle if nobody’s gonna see it?”

“Because it’s all for him. Conspicuous consumption in both material goods and food…It’s ridiculous.  His gluttony and greed are at war with each other. This asshole.” Joker actually looks as mad as his voice would imply, his teeth clenched tight.

“Scummy fuck.” Skull spits. Up on the elevated platform the room has been recentered around, Sugimura paces endlessly, his classically white tuxedo still somehow tasteless anyway. Occasionally, he shouts at the service Shadows, who pay him no mind except when he veers from a vitriolic diatribe into actual orders, which they instantly obey.

She wishes the serenity that came over her confronting her doppelganger would have stayed. After they laid out the plan for Not-Haru and left to give her time to prepare herself for what’s coming, Noir has been gripped by a growing dread as the moment approaches. Can they truly pull this off?

The light jazz that’s been playing over the speakers abruptly cutting to a wedding march does nothing good for her mental state, making her jump so badly she nearly knocks over the table she’s hiding under with everyone else. Well, no more time to worry about it.

“Positions.” Joker takes a long breath, exhaling and nodding to everyone. “Be careful, wait for the signal.”

“We got this.” Skull pats Noir on the shoulder, grinning. “Fucker’s not gonna know what hit him.” He ducks out, followed shortly by Panther after she’s done planting a kiss on Noir’s cheek. Mona exits their hideout last, scuttling out from under the table and disappearing without a word.

Joker pauses, those stunning grey eyes of his locked on her. “Breathe.”

“I am breathing.” Haru frowns at him, but makes a show of taking a slow breath in and releasing it. “Better?”

“I’ll be better when this prick is in a prison cell.”

“You’re not the only one.” Haru takes another breath, trying to relax her arms, stretching and clenching her hands. “I don’t know if I’m ready for this. I don’t know how any of you feel like you’re ready for this.”

“Remember the first time we got on the train, the horde of suits charging us? I was fucking terrified then. I’m scared shitless now.” Joker grins, his smile all Akira. “You’ll never know. It’s a leap of faith.”

Haru laughs, a single hollow sound. “How do you do it?”

“The way I see it, a leap of faith had me land in your arms. If I can get that lucky once, the rest of them can’t be all that bad, right?” A muffled voice speaks over the speakers, the beginnings of a pastor’s speech. “We better go. I’ll see you on the other side.”

Damn it. How she would love to dig into such an insane statement he says with utter sincerity, but now’s not the time. Noir will just have to pray that it remains lodged in the back of her mind until she can properly disabuse him of his notion that he can just risk his life for someone else like it is worth nothing. She grabs her axe from its resting place on the floor, crawling out from under the table and moving to her position, as straight down the red carpet to the raised platform as she can manage.

“—To all our guests, we are pleased to share this moment with you.” Without the table muffling the sound, Haru realizes the voice in the speaker is his own. The Not-Haru has already made it to the platform, only her and Sugimura present upon it. Is he officiating his own wedding? “Your presence in the life of the groom has been known and enjoyed greatly.” The seats stand empty, every single one. Who is he talking to? “You have given to him greatly, and received little, as is your right. Would that you give more of your time to him today, to see him wed to the object of his desire, Haru Okumura.” Not-Haru is staring up at him, and it hurts her heart to think of enduring such a thing. It’s too much to ask. She’s had plenty of time since Noir asked her to do it to reconsider if this is worth the pain, if they couldn’t find some other way. And she’s sure her doppelganger, so very like her now, has considered the same. But…they have to seize their lives from the jaws of their enemies. It is their only chance. “Sugimura would like to acknowledge the contributions of his family, who have set him upon the path to greatness and given him the tools to make this spectacular union possible, though they didn’t know it. He would also like to thank Kunikazu Okumura, who couldn’t be bothered to show his face to his daughter,” Sugimura’s voice laughs richly in the tinny speaker, “but sends his sincerest regards.”


Noir grips her axe tighter, only to set it down on the floor and unsling her rifle instead. Her anger can’t consume her, now now. She has to be ready for her cue, not twisting in the wind over insults.

“The bride has no friends to call upon to attend the wedding, but if they existed she would wish them her deepest love for making it to the ceremony.” Sugimura’s tinny voice laughs, and so does the Shadow Sugimura, doubled over for a moment in hysterics.


“As we are joined here today, the groom has reflected upon what it is he loves about his bride. Her bountiful wallet, her significant assets both monetarily and personally, her yielding nature that will only find itself growing under his tutelage. And honestly, there are too many things to love about the groom for the bride to pick, so we’ll skip her listing them all, or we could be here all night.” More laughter from the speaker. “The groom has many happy days ahead of him robbing the Okumura fortune blind to line his pockets. Their future certainly looks bright, plated in gold. Even the chain around the bride’s neck will be 24 karat!”

Before Noir can think she feels herself freeze in place, gun halfway raised and only stopped by some unseen force.

He knows you’re here. The calling card declared as much. This could only be provocation, do not rise to it, dearest. Only one more trial before absolution. Slowly, agonizingly slow, Noir lowers her rifle again, panting with fury.

He has no right to this farce.

Tis true. And you’re going to punish him for it. Have faith in yourself, and your loved ones. Listen to the object of your desire. Take the leap of faith.

“With that rigamarole out of the way, let’s move on to our to-be-wedded exchanging vows. The groom has elected to skip his vows, deciding that he would rather get on with it. The bride would go now, if she had written any. Ah, hell. Go on, my lovely bride, just try some off the cuff. We promise we won’t laugh.”

“…I don’t know what will become of me, when this is over. I know I am not real. A figment of your twisted mind. I…the only things I remember are what you have done to me. But…I remember other things, now. Things I have done to you. The real me. And it is my dearest wish that before I fade from this world, I get to make one more memory, when she steals that twisted heart from your bleeding chest.”

“…Well, those certainly were something. Such passion, from a puppet!” The speaker cackles hideously. Sugimura draws something from his pocket, a black box held in the palm of his hand between him and her doppelganger. “Doesn’t amount to much, though. Groom, do your thing. Should anyone wish to object, they may go fuck th—”

With a crash, Skull kicks over a table and shoots out the speaker. “I OBJECT, MOTHERFUCKER!”

Noir rises from her crouch, releasing her breath and firing the shot that takes his hand off at the wrist, the dismembered hand hitting the floor with a meaty thump. It doesn’t bleed, only leaking inky blackness from his stump and the hand. He barely reacts, turning more towards Skull than Noir.

“You miserable little fuck, that display was perfect!” Sugimura roars, gesturing with his stump. Not-Haru ducks under his arm, crashing to the ground and scrabbling for his hand and the Treasure held in it. Sugimura’s heeled boot stomps down on her hand viciously, twisting his heel as Not-Haru screams and Joker and Ann rush in to try to secure their prize. “So, this is how you want it, huh? You miserable little glory-chasers would try to push down a man on the rise! So be it! Let me show you just how strong the Yokoyama name makes me!”

Noir racks her rifle and plants a bullet square in his forehead, then another a moment later.

With a hideous roar, Sugimura’s hand sprouts from his severed stump, clawed and furred. Then a curved horn erupts from his forehead, coated in the same black gore, followed by another. His suit ripples and splits as his whole body expands, growing larger by the moment. When he steps forward towards the Thieves, Not-Haru wrenches her arm away and disappears behind the raised platform, out of Noir’s sight.

“Get back! It’s happening again!” Mona shouts, waving off Joker and Panther.

“We need the treasure!” Akira leaps forward, and Noir fires again, raining a hail of lead over his ducked head against Sugimura, followed by Milady’s staccato roar of gunfire. Bullets spatter off him like rain, tracers glancing uselessly off his suit even as his chest puffs, tearing the fabric and revealing thick black fur. His pants don’t survive as he gains height, revealing cervine reverse-jointed legs ending on cloven black hooves. Milady vanishes then, banished so Noir can concentrate on striking vital points with her shots. They’re having little effect, but she can’t help but hope one lands in a weak point.

“You think this will stop me? I am so much more powerful than you fucking ingrates, you little people! Hahaha, look how little you are NOW!” The beast-Sugimura swipes at Akira as he dives between the monster’s legs, tucking and rolling and sprinting away on the other side, diving off the stage and knocking another table down on his landing. “BASTARD! Watch where you walk, that food was worth more than your life!”

“He’s a Satyr!” Mona calls. “They don’t really have any weaknesses!”

“Wail on him, then! Got it!” Skull jumps onto a table, firing his shotgun in the air. “Hey, Asshole, over here!”

“Get your fucking feet off the table, you miserable shit!” Sugimura whirls from his pursuit of Joker,  his every step shaking the room as he approaches Skull.

“Got em! Captain Kidd, wallop him!” Skull rips his mask off, his Persona crashing down from above with a direct ramming attack using the ship’s bow. Sugimura staggers back a step, placing a claw on the ship and pushing it away like he’s throwing a toy away. The ship spirals away until it vanishes in a flare of blue flame, Skull cursing and hopping back. “Yo, he takes hits like a champ!”

“Something’s definitely up!” Panther lays into him with her gun, it having as little effect as Noir’s own.

“He’s gotta be getting power from something! Watch for tells!”

“Hey, a little help here?!” Skull ducks a swipe from the beast and gets a hoof to the chest for his trouble, knocking him across the room and onto a table, a wedding cake exploding out from under his back and splattering over his suit.

“I’ll kill you for that!” Sugimura howls, clutching his head.

That’s it.

Noir drops her gun, letting the sling hold it as she snatches up her axe and sprints for Mona. “I need the grenade launcher!”

“It’s not gonna do anything, he’s too strong! I’ve never seen anything like it!” Mona wails, pointing at Skull. “Hang in there, healing wind coming!” Zorro appears behind him, rending the air with his blade and sending a shower of green wind over Skull that seems to help him get to his feet faster. Cursing under her breath, Noir gets behind Mona and flips the bag open herself, reaching her whole arm down into it and wishing with all her might for an explosion. Instead, she feels a handle and grabs it, yanking it bodily out of the bag and spinning the chamber of her grenade launcher into battery. In the interim, Sugimura has lifted Skull bodily, his whole torso enveloped by the beast’s hand.

“It’s all a trick! Sugimura’s never had any power someone or something else didn’t give him! He’s built a temple to himself of all his favorite things and it’s made him strong!” Noir turns, yanking the stock out and slamming it against her shoulder. “We just have to destroy it all to bring him down to our level!” She pulls the trigger and the beastly launcher kicks hard against her shoulder, a thoomp of rushing air followed by a bloom of explosive fire over the largest table.

“No! Damn it, that took days to make!” Sugimura drops Skull like a dead weight, charging Noir until he’s forced back by a hail of gun and sling fire from Panther and Mona. “Miserable little people, tearing the greatest of us down for a piece of garbage like her?!”

“Shut the fuck up, man!” Skull roars, Captain Kidd slamming into him from behind and throwing Sugimura to the floor. “Tired of you blaming other people for your fucked-up shit! Noir, fuck him up some more, I wanna kick this dude’s ass!”

“I would be happy to oblige!” Noir shouts, spinning a fresh grenade into the breech and firing it as quickly as the cylinder’s spring will allow her to. Noir paints a field of flame across the room, shattering the backs of tables and consuming others whole. Sugimura wails with every shot, climbing to his knees and clawing his way towards her under the barrage of fire and strikes from the team. Joker plays close, silently cutting away at Sugimura’s arms and exposed back and darting away before the lumbering brute can strike him back. Panther’s flames roar behind Noir over him, bathing the rest of the room in cinders and the smell of burnt fur.

“Reloading!” Noir calls, levering the grenade launcher open and thumbing grenades from her belt into place. “This is over, Sugimura, give up!” She snaps it back into place with a flick of the wrist. When she turns and sees what has become of him, all her anxiety is gone. The rage, the utter fury at this beastly man has disappeared. When she looks at him now, clawing inch by pitiful inch towards her, she feels nothing but disdain. He’s shrunken with every bit of the room she’s demolished, until now he is simply a hairy man in a tattered suit, two little nubs pocking out of the crown of his head. The gunfire stops when Noir walks into the line of fire towards him. Joker steps back, his knife still in his hand and the other wrapped around the Treasure.

“I—I worked for this, I fought for so long and so hard to become the man I am, and you bitches are ruining everything! I’ll die before I give in to you cocksucking little fucks!” Sugimura howls, his voice hoarse. Placing a foot on his head, she spins the chamber one last time for emphasis.

“Everything that you ever got was handed to you. It could have been destroyed at a moment’s notice. And now…it finally has.” She raises the grenade launcher, firing it one-handed and blowing the last intact table in the room away in a fountain of fire. She drops it, then, and yanks her axe from its place on her belt. She shoves him backwards with a foot, picking it up and turning him over with another boot in the side. “You don’t have a fucking thing in the world to protect you. No one would cry for Sugimura Yokoyama.” She crouches over him, making sure the head of her axe is in view. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I—I did what I was told. They said I would be important! I just wanted to be important. I wanted to be the man my grandfather was. The man people came to when they wanted something. Power. I wanted that power.”

Noir straddles his chest, pinning his arms in place and bringing the axe just under his chin. His eyes water, snot flowing down from one nostril and bleeding from a dozen small cuts across his body, the only remnants of the gunfire he stood against so tenaciously.  “Do you know what you became? A boy playing at king amassing useless people who think you can give them something and casting them aside the moment they come to you for help. The kind of man who thinks the world owes him something.” She presses the axe to his throat, enough to feel how sharp the edge is. “The only thing in the world a person is owed in life is their death at the end of it. And oh, you’ve earned it.”

Sugimura sobs, weeping like a child. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t—I just wanted—”

This isn’t worth it, Haru realizes. His death here would serve nothing, change less. If he dies, what happens to the real Sugimura? Does he die too? For all her fantasies, for all her idle daydreams of exacting revenge, the actual thing feels hollow. She can’t be the only person in the world Sugimura has hurt. If he can be brought to justice, then more the better. But…no. No but. This is the end, but not for Sugimura. Only for his part in her life.

She stands, stepping away from him and looking at the others. They look back, the looks on their faces like they all understand what she’s going through. And how could they not? They’ve made this choice before, haven’t they. Ann, or Ryuji, or Akira even, one or all of them spared Kamoshida, so that he could suffer the consequences of his wicked life properly.

“We should go.” Joker says, holding up the Treasure in his hand before disappearing it into a pocket. As if to punctuate his statement, the whole building rumbles on its foundation. “That’s oddly well-timed. This place is going to collapse soon without the Treasure in his hands.”

Noir gestures to Joker, stooping to pick up her grenade launcher. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees something in white disappear out the front entrance. With everyone’s focus on Noir, they couldn’t have noticed it. “Lead the way.”

She doesn’t look back at Sugimura once as they leave his Palace. She doesn’t see her cognitive self out on the platform, or anywhere else, either.

“Can cognitive versions of people survive without the Palace they were created in?” Noir asks on the express train back to the real world.

“No. Well…” Mona takes his chin in hand, humming. “Maybe? I dunno. Taking down Palaces is new stuff, and some of the weird stuff I don’t really have an answer for.” He shrugs. “Sorry.”

She nods, smiling. “Thank you.” Looking out the windows as the train speeds by platform after platform, Haru can’t help but hope that the cognitive version of her survived her ordeal, that somehow she can find something approaching a new life. Even in a world such as this, made from the worst excesses of the human psyche, she can’t help but hope for a happy ending.

And maybe it’s her imagination, but she could swear that on one of the platforms, for just a split second, she sees a girl in a white dress waiting for the train that will take her somewhere safe.

Chapter Text

Akira has lost count of how many times he’s kissed Haru now, but the amount of affection he’s gotten since they got out of the Metaverse after taking down Sugimura might actually eclipse that number. On the train, in the station, on the street, in the diner (though those had been more grudging than the rest), again on the train. And now, sitting together under an awning in his neighborhood while rain pours down around them, she kisses him with vigor.

“Hey. Not to question why, but—” Akira is silenced by Haru’s finger on his lips.

“Don’t finish that sentence, darling.” Her eyes glitter in the dark, focused solely on him. Her fingertip leaves his lips as she cups his cheek in one hand, her thumb tracing the line of his jaw. “Let me enjoy this a while longer.” The tension that had felt like it had become part of Haru’s very being for the last few days is gone, now. She’s still stubbornly clinging to her guns on staying near him until they know Sugimura’s threat has passed, but the weight off her shoulders after confronting the sobbing Shadow of him is obvious just from looking at her. The way she smiles so gently, the gentle parting of her lips to draw breath. Her other hand rising to touch his neck, falling to his shoulder as she leans up and kisses him once again. How is it that she always manages to predict the way that he would want to be treated? Haru knows instinctively what way to touch Akira that makes him feel held and grounded and safe.

A lot has changed between them since that first kiss in the rain. Akira never felt safe anywhere in this godforsaken town, not a single place. There isn’t even a fucking door on the stairway to his room, not an ounce of privacy. The public baths that he can only use like a damned criminal, slinking in when no sane man would still be bathing, always looking over his shoulder in case he needs to make an exit quickly, before questions are asked. The school, where his name is on everyone’s lips, where a new crime is invented every sentence until the story of his life muddies into unrecognizability.

That roof was safe. Nobody but him, a few planters of slowly-blooming potatoes, and then a quiet girl who seemed to hate his guts, who barely tolerated his presence. He had been ready to write that moment of safety off as a fluke, and then...that beautiful, terrible first kiss. More like getting punched in the mouth with someone’s lips than a kiss. These kisses are nothing like that. The soft brush of skin on skin, murmured half-words of encouragement, the sound of their breath over the crash of rain against asphalt, the heat of her skin warding off the evening chill. The crushing weight in his stomach that craves more than this, so much more.

Ah, you feel it, my boy. Love is never enough. Humans are carnal creatures, driven by base needs. She feels it as much as you do.

Akira opens his eyes when Julien grates in his ear, his words a harsh dissonance with the rest of the world. The look Haru is giving him can only be described as awestruck, and even with Julien’s intrusion on the moment it’s hard for him to not feel the same way in turn.

“We should get to Leblanc.” Akira says, swallowing hard.

“Do you have a bath there?” Haru runs a hand through his hair, pulling something out and flicking it away. “I want to wash the sweat off, and I swear I've found new bits of food in your hair all night.”

“...there’s the public bath next door, that’s it.” Akira says, the joy he had felt turning sour in his mouth. Fuck. Fuck his fucking shitty life.

“Wait. What about Leblanc’s bathroom?”

“It’s got a toilet and a sink with brown water, that’s about it.” He hates this, hates dwelling on just how the life he’s gotten stuck with really is just a pile of misery. When he’s with Haru, it’s like he’s been able to set the nightmare of his life aside and live happily, like the problems are a distant memory.

“And Sojiro? He must live around here, I’ve never seen him drive…” Haru brings her hand up to his face again, her expression so very concerned. She can tell how pissed just thinking about it is making him. The worst part is how badly he wants to reject her touch right now. He never wanted to show her this, his life.

Julien chimes in again, slithering into his mind like the proverbial snake.

You have pledged yourself to truth in all things with your beloved, Akira. The things that you fear, your darkest sins and deepest wounds are as much a part of you as the virtues you exalt. Remember that.

Fuck off, Julien.

As you wish, Joker.

His presence fades, and Akira sighs involuntarily.

“I’ve never been inside his house. Never asked, either.” He says, leaning into her hand, focusing on the feeling and not the rising anger at his own situation. “He doesn’t know about me. Probably wouldn’t give a shit either way, either.”

“Akira…” Haru falls silent, pulling away and watching him. He turns away, can see the intensity in her eyes out of the corner of his eye and refuses to meet them. He's not cried in a long time, tonight isn't the night he's going to start. “We'll go to a hotel.”


“What? Akira, it's not a problem, I—”

“I said no.” Akira says, clenching a hand. Fuck. Why tonight? “Sojiro will notice when we're not there in the morning.” He lies, already seeing the holes in his thinking that Haru will shoot through like a marksman. Tries not to think about the fact that his own thoughts betray him at the prospect of spending any amount of time in a love hotel with Haru. “The public bath is enough. It's late. There won't be anyone but us. I've done it plenty before.” There, now that will do. Please drop it, dearest, before you notice all the cracks in the ice you walk on. Just…let it be.

“...Fine.” She stands, brushing hair over her ear and staring down at him with hawk eyes, intent on her prey but unprepared to dive. Yet. This isn't over, he'd be a fool to think it, but her backing off is enough space to move for now. He'll…he'll figure something out. He has to. The lugubrious laughter of Julien only grows louder in his ears as he steels himself for a long night.

Haru stews in the public bath, staring at the far wall and puzzling over Akira. Only the prospect of someone pushing into the steamy room is keeping her from descending under the water entirely and blowing frustration bubbles until she feels better.

Why the hell is he so resistant to her help? He is the one living in someone’s attic without a bathroom, and now she’s the one who’s mad about it. Damn him. What happened to being tired of making her mad? It’s ridiculous! He has done nothing but be kind to her at every turn when she was sure that this time would be the limit, that this line would be where he balks. Akira Kurusu, damnable man that he is, pledged to steal her fiance’s heart to save her from being forced into an arranged marriage, after beating the bastard within an inch of his life to save her from him! She tries to return the barest minimum favor possible, and yet…

Damn it. She gives in to childish impulse, putting her mouth under the water and screaming, a furious stream of bubbles rising to the surface of the water. After everything they’ve been through together, Akira truly is still that prickly bastard. Will he simply not accept help from anyone, or is his manly pride called into question by it being her providing the help? She’s loath to have Ann or Ryuji intervene for fear of wounding Akira’s pride, on top of a worry about the propriety of doing so. Even if she knows all of them separately, her friendship with them is still fairly nascent. Is it gauche to ask your friend to try to help your boyfriend, simply to see if he rejects them? So much social maneuvering. Haru blows more bubbles under the water, finding herself longing for the days when her biggest problem was the amount of sunlight her plants got.

“That’s not very ladylike, you know.” A woman pushes through the hanging fabric between the dressing room and the baths, smiling wryly as she speaks. Haru shoots upright, tamping down the spike of fear that passed through her at the very concept of being considered ‘unladylike’ by a stranger, the old terror at being seen not as a woman but a pretender crushing her heart until she can remind herself that to all but the most determined observer she is unimpeachable. Old fears don’t disappear instantly.

“M-my apologies.” Haru replies, watching the woman sit down to rinse herself off by the faucets. She’s short, almost as short as Haru and deathly pale, nearly the same shade of white as the tile surrounding her.

“Do you apologize to every random woman who talks trash to you, or just the older ones?” The woman calls over her shoulder over the water she scrubs herself with. “Don’t answer that, or I might have to start charging you for medical advice.”

Oh, I like this one.

Milady laughs musically in her ear, and Haru straightens up in her seat as the woman walks over. She’s still smiling in that wry, ‘I’m funny but only if I’m not the one being made fun of’ way that Haru hates so much.

You’re overthinking this. Breathe, dearest.

Haru looks away politely when she climbs into the bath, but does catch a glimpse of the same unnatural blue shade between her legs as the brilliant blue of her hair. Relax, Haru thinks to herself. Finally, she takes a breath and smiles along with her attacker, as she learned so quickly to do long ago. “Are you a doctor, then?”

“Yep. Tae Takemi, endocrinologist turned general practitioner. You’re not from around here.” Dr. Takemi doesn’t phrase it as a question, crossing her legs in the water. “Visiting our lovely bathing facilities on a lark?”

“Oh, no. I’m staying the night nearby with my boyfriend.” Haru tucks a still-damp lock of hair behind her ear. “I wasn’t aware there was a doctor in the area. You said you were an endocrinologist?” Now there is a technical word she knows the meaning of very well indeed. It could simply be that she is good at treating diabetes, but…

Former endocrinologist. Now I just look at coughs and bad knees. Not much call for my skill set out here, though that’s started changing recently.” The doctor shrugs. “So, how is Akira doing, then? He skipped our last appointment.”

“How did you…” Haru says with astonishment.

“There’s only so many boys your age in the neighborhood, miss.” Tae smiles wider. “And I saw you two making out earlier when I was locking up.”

Oh, god. She’s thankful the heat of the room hides her blush, though she’s sure Dr. Takemi can see how badly she takes that revelation. She’s been too bold by far once again, making a fool of herself in public. How many more people saw them in the train, at the cafe? What if it gets back to Father?

“Okay, okay, I’m being mean now. Sorry. I’m used to Akira tearing me a new one when I tell him to eat something besides curry or drink something that isn’t caffeinated, I figured you'd have a sharp a tongue as him.” Dr. Takemi clicks her tongue. “Poor kid.”

“Do you...know Sojiro well?”

“Eh. His coffee is good, and his curry is dirt cheap but filling. I get lunch there a lot.” Tae laughs. “Gruff old bastard, isn’t he? Never would have thought he’d adopt another kid.”

Wait. Adopted...and another child? ...Hmm.

“Mm.” Haru smiles. “How long have you known Akira?”

“Couple months. He’s my patient, so don’t expect me to drop any juicy details. Besides, the only measurements I know are his blood pressure and weight.”

“That’s not why I’m asking.” Haru glares at Dr. Takemi, who laughs at the intensity of her look.

“Alright, cream puff, settle down. I’m not violating doctor-patient confidentiality, but I’ll play along.” Tae folds her arms over her chest, looking to the ceiling as she thinks. “I met him back in April. I see him once a week ever since, like clockwork. Why?”

“Do you know his family?”

“I know Sojiro, but you mean his birth family, don’t you?” Tae sighs. “No, I don’t. Probably know less than you do. I just know he’s got a temper and a chip on his shoulder against authority figures. The only reason he still deals with me at all is that I have access to...things he needs.” She must mean his hormones. “I’ve wondered, though. How does someone his age get so bitter? I know the adoption system in our country is harsh, but it must have been something else.”

“...Yeah.” Haru stands, hopping out of the bath and picking up her towel. “Thank you for your candor, Dr. Takemi.”

“So proper. Just call me Dr. Tae. Working with kids like you makes me feel old enough already without having to hear my last name all the time.” Tae doesn’t turn to watch her leave, waving with one hand as Haru exits the baths with more questions than she entered with.

Akira knows there’s trouble when Haru emerges from the bath house scrubbed clean and new, but with the same complicated look on her face she had before.

“What are you doing?” Haru says, walking into the laundromat and shaking the last bits of damp from her hair. Even in this unkempt blank slate look, she looks phenomenal, save for that twitch of her lips when he meets her eye.

“Waiting for you. I don’t soak in there.” He hops off the washer he’d been seated on. “Come on.”

“Can we talk, first?” Haru blocks his way, looking up at him with that same hawkish expression.

As clever an investigator as her could only be found in the fairer sex. They have a talent for ferreting out our weaknesses, don’t they? Julien chimes in. Would that you could turn her attention elsewhere. Or perhaps you don’t want it anywhere else?

If Julien is supposed to be his Shadow, his true self, then apparently Akira’s true nature is a witty, insightful asshole.

“Haru, come on.” Akira says, but she doesn’t budge. “This is stupid. There’s nothing to talk about.”

“You’re right, it is stupid that you think there’s nothing to talk about.” She snaps back. “Being mad at you is so unbelievably frustrating, and yet here we are.”

“Then stop being mad! This is my problem, not yours.”

“That’s so ridiculous!” Haru scoffs. “You have done nothing but give me every courtesy, and the moment I try to repay that even a little, you implode!” He winces, looking away and squeezing his hand holding his bag tighter. “Look at me, Akira.” He turns back to her.

Ahahahaha! Oh, look at her. She’s determined to get through to you. Can she do it? I think yes, but not before you make a hash of things and piss her off again.

“Why are you so resistant to accepting help? What happened to you?” The tone in Haru’s voice is so plaintive, pleading for anything from him. Some kind of explanation, some justification for his disregard for help. “Please, Akira.”

Look at her, Akira. Really, look closely. Julien crows, delight evident in his grating voice. His every word sets Akira’s teeth on edge, a grinding noise like a whetstone sharpening a guillotine. This is what your ideals get you, a furious woman in your path. Sacrificing yourself for another person will end with two dead bodies if you keep this up. Tell her. Lay your heart bare. You’re already too far beyond cutting her or any of them off without hurting them. Some forms of surrender are more palatable to men such as us than others, no?

“Not here.” Akira croaks, his throat tight. “I’m not doing this here.” Haru takes his hand, pulling him gently but insistently to Leblanc, fumbling the door’s lock open one-handed and taking him upstairs. She sits him down on the loveseat, Morgana having occupied as much of his bed as it is physically possible for the tiny cat to cover when they dropped him off here. Haru sits down next to Akira, never releasing his hand.

“I want to know. Nothing you tell me could change anything between us, Akira.” She squeezes his hand, smiling tightly in a way that doesn’t reach all the way to her eyes.

“I know. I...look. I don’t do talking about myself well.” A hollow laugh he wasn’t expecting passes his lips. “What do I even start with?”

“What happened to you? Why are you so afraid to accept help?”

Akira sighs. “There’s a lot. I guess I’ll start easy.” He takes a breath. “I had a fight with my Dad. We argued, I walked out. Figured I’d go down to the river and back, cool my head. Didn’t even get 5 blocks before I hear a girl screaming bloody murder. I come running and what do I find? Piece of shit’s got her pinned to the front of his luxury car, leaning over her and screaming right back to get in the car. She’s looking right at me, begging me for help.” He stops, staring at the wall. Anger wells up in him thinking about it again. “I did what Ren Amamiya would have done. I kicked his ass.”

As is just. Your treatment was not. Those in power are ever ready to make examples of those under them. You were merely a particularly good example.

“The assault charge. Did the woman not speak up?” Akira can’t look at Haru right now, won’t take his eyes off the old wood paneling he’s focused on across the room. If he does look at her, he knows he’ll break. He did the right thing. It’s a fact. He reminds himself of this every time he looks around him, at the squalid attic, the garbage he’s fed, the shit he’s put through.

What else could he have done? He did the right thing.

“She said I jumped out of the alley, threw her against the car and ‘went berserk’. Somebody has to have paid her off, I don’t know who. The guy, I guess.” Akira closes his eyes, breathing in the way that Dr. Takemi taught him after his first breakdown in her office. Breathe in for a three count, hold, release for a three count. He’ll be okay. He’s safe. “The prosecutor threw the book at me. Dad had...I didn’t have anyone on my side. They released me into a Catholic orphanage for a few months, just to put me somewhere. Then the prefectural prelate got in contact with me, offered me a deal. Guess he worked out something with the judge. Probably didn’t like the hit me hanging around was doing to their reputation.” Akira gestures broadly across the room. “This, all of this, Sojiro and finishing school without a black mark on my record was the only way out of juvie.” Haru’s hand tightens on his, pulling him back from his memories. The worst moments of his life.

“I’m sorry. You don’t deserve to be treated like this.” The hurt in her voice is genuine, and he can hear tears on the vinyl of the seat, falling in ones and twos. He can’t open his eyes. He can’t, or the dam will break.

“Tell that to everybody else. Sorry, not funny.”

“What happened with your family? Did they not…”

“No.” Akira sighs. “Dad...that was the last straw. He was so happy, the day I told him I wasn’t a girl. The only child is finally a son, someone he can trust the family business to.” Bitterness creeps into his voice with every syllable. “He supported me from minute one. It was just...all he cared about was making me his perfect little businessman clone, an upstanding member of the community who smiles and nods and absorbs all the bullshit people say in a small town like that. I didn’t let shit go, and he was always furious with me. Turns out, he really did mean everything he said about what he would do if I didn’t fall in line.”

“He disowned you?”

“Yeah. He visited when I was in holding. Told me that I ‘threw away my chance to be someone great’. Dickhead.”

“...I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine. Nobody’s fault but my own.” He falls silent, his eyes still shut but burning now with tears. Haru slips closer to him, an arm wrapped around his back. None of them has anything to say as Akira silently cries, not even Julien’s typical snide insinuations coming to call. It’s the first time he’s talked about this, about the things that happened to him in Inaba. He left so much out, but he knows Haru can read between those lines and see something so similar to her own experience. The expectations, the performance and the demands of being forced to play the role you were placed in against your will. He never wanted to be his father’s successor, to be put in a place not of his own making. All he ever wanted...he’s never wanted anything in particular, but the torturous confinement that came with his father’s expectations made him crave only one thing: freedom. Any kind of freedom, anything at all. Even just the smallest moments of getting to control his destiny, to defy his father’s expectations.

Finally, after he’s finished crying and wiped his eyes, Haru speaks. “Who is Ren Amamiya?” Akira laughs hoarsely, to Haru’s puzzlement. “What’s funny?”

“It’s...okay. Why not. Stay right here.” Akira raises the hand holding his to his mouth, kissing Haru’s knuckles and wiggling out of her grip. Squatting down in front of the box that holds the only things worth saving from home, Akira produces a stack of battered old composition books, returning to his seat with it. “This is gonna sound really insane.” He flips open the first book, paging through old math homework in search of his first drawings. “When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a manga artist. I never really thought about what kind of work that was, but I did. I was always thinking of stories, little garbage plots. always stuck, though. Ren Amamiya.” He finds the page he wants, then, holding it up to the light for Haru. It’s terrible, a poorly-rendered human holding a knife in a reversed grip. He was still in elementary school, he has an excuse. “It sounds so ridiculous, but I was really invested in the idea of someone who did the right thing, even when the right thing wasn’t the good thing. The guy who beats up bullies for little kids. I got more sophisticated as I grew older. The kind of criminals the police can’t fight, or won’t. Guys who harass girls but don’t get physical, corrupt businessmen, whatever came on the TV and I hated but nobody seemed to do anything about.” He moves to another composition book, showing Haru the evolution of Ren Amamiya from a crude figure to a dashing rogue, a flowing black cloak lined with red ink, a pistol in one hand and a blade in the other. “You probably see where this is going.” He flips to the last book, his composition book from 1st year English. The last page that has anything on it is a full-page spread of Ren Amamiya, posing for the imaginary camera. His gloves are a brilliant red to match his cloak, the grey patchwork vest rendered in pencil. The only difference between him and Ren is Ren’s slicked-back jet-black hair.

“You...This is Joker.” Haru looks from the composition book to him, astonished.

“No, this is Ren Amamiya. Joker is me. I just look like him because, well.” He gestures at the page. “I’d already done all the hard work of coming up with what my rebellion against the world looked like before I became a Phantom Thief. My mind did the rest, once Julien came for me.”

“Then, this is your model for your rebellion? For what you do?”

“Yeah. Well, mostly. We target the people who get away with their crimes. Unrepentant criminals who are ruining lives with their every breath.” He closes the book, breathing a little easier. “We’ll change this fucked-up hellscape we’re trapped in, or die trying.”

“I didn’t mean as the thieves.” Haru says, voice tinged with sadness. “I mean as yourself. Akira, I’m not blind. The first time I saw you in action, you put yourself at the mercy of 3 grown men to keep me safe and got hurt for it.”

“Yeah, but I hurt them more than they hurt me.” His hands are scabbed over now, healing better than he had ever expected them to. Reaching over, Haru’s finger traces the ridge of one of them, whisper-soft.

“You were hurt, regardless. In the Metaverse, you take the biggest risks of any of us, fight with more boldness and recklessness than anything I could have ever imagined. Why?”

“If I get hurt, that’s one less wound on one of them. It's better that way, you know?”

“Don’t ever say that.” Haru says, unmoving at his side. “I never want to hear you belittle the value of your own life like that. Never again.”

Akira remains silent, watching her caress the back of his hand with a fingertip. He knows why she says that, but...why does he want to argue with her? His life is worth less than theirs, any of theirs, by every objective measure. His family cut him loose, the only reason he’s not in prison right now is that a friend of a friend of a priest saw a hard-luck kid and gave him a shot and is clearly regretting it. What little he has left could vanish at any time, and he would be in a cell. Better to spend this resource helping someone then languish in purgatory.

“The world is not a zero-sum game, Akira.” Haru’s voice is quiet, scarcely a whisper. “A wound on your body is a wound in my heart. I know the same is true if I were hurt, and I won’t allow you to say otherwise.”

“I won’t.” He can’t lie to her, not now. Maybe not ever, anymore.

“Good. I’ll slap you again if you ever say something like ‘I’ll only drag you down’. You've no idea how infuriating that was.” Haru takes a shaky sigh. “I understand. I am not happy with that fact, but I accept that you are like this. That doesn’t mean you will remain such an incorrigible idiot, so long as I draw breath. If the Phantom Thieves can change a person’s heart, then so too can I. I am going to steal those self-sacrificial ideals from your heart without fail.” Akira doesn’t reply, a glance from the corner of his eye at Haru tells him all he needs to know of her determination.

What a minx. And so noble, like the empress issuing a royal decree. Thou shalt not harm a hair on the head of thy empress’ love. Very sweet. I hope you don’t plan on breaking her heart yet again, Akira.

Julien actually sounds pleased, for once. Like this was the resolution he expected.

No. Akira thinks, closing his eyes and savoring the strange feeling of relief in his chest. I won’t. I swear it to my bones.

Haru stays the night, as she knew she would. Sojiro reacts without surprise when she comes down the stairs. For someone Akira clearly thinks hates him, he has shown remarkable candor regarding Haru’s presence in his life. Once they’re out of the shop, they head for the subway, the both of them dressed for classes they have no intention of going to. The plan for this Friday? Go find somewhere inconspicuous to while away the day. If Sugimura’s heart hasn’t changed, he’s hunting Akira now, so they need to stay out of sight. They had planned to go find an out-of-the-way park in Tokyo and make a day of it. The world’s worst picnic date, without the picnic and a lot more anxiety about guns.

As they head for the train station, Haru’s phone rings with a particular ringtone. One she set a long time ago to keep herself warned in case he came calling when she wasn’t expecting it.

“We need to talk.” Sugimura says without a hint of malice. In fact, his voice wavers, an unmistakable tremor that Haru has never heard in him before.

“Then talk.” Haru nods when Akira mouths ‘is it him’? She can’t help the sick feeling in her stomach, but Akira being by her side for this lessens it, his hand slipping into hers.

“Not like this. They could find out. I don’t...fuck.” Sugimura hisses. “They’re going to kill me, but I can’t do this anymore. I can’t. I won’t.”

“What are you talking about? Who?”

I can’t tell you. It’s bad enough, the things I’ve done to you. I won’t get you killed too. These people are dangerous, you have no idea what they’re capable of.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Throw myself at the mercy of the iron maiden of the prosecutor’s office. It’s my only chance.” Sugimura takes a breath. “I did a lot of things that are beyond anything an apology can fix. The only way I can think to make it even a little right is to take down the man who put me up to everything.”

“Who put you up to it? What is going on, Sugimura?”

“This is bigger than just you and me, Ms. Okumura.” That’s a shock, hearing her family name out of his mouth for the first time she can think of. He’s always addressed her as Haru, or those cloyingly possessive my darlings and my sweets. He really has changed, heart and mind. “There is a man who rules Tokyo from the shadows, and we dance to the beating of his heart. The horrible drumbeat that moves society to a crueler path is all his doing. He twists us as he wishes, in the name of his greatest plans. Oh, what a cruel monster we are locked in with, in this prison named society.”

Is he losing his mind? He’s so unlike the awful man she knew, but...this can’t be right, either. This isn’t quite Sugimura, even without his grotesque lust for power and control. Did the change of heart change him so radically? “Speak sense, Sugimura.”

“I’ve said too much already. This will be the last time we speak. Please...consider everything I do from here on to be my apology, Ms. Okumura. My life will be lived in penance until my dying breath.” The phone clicks dead before she can speak. What just happened?

“Haru?” Akira squeezes her hand, drawing her eyes from her phone up to his worried expression. “What just happened?”

“I...don’t know. I think it worked. He was apologetic, but...there’s something deeper going on. He spoke of a man who rules Tokyo, people more dangerous than we could understand. And he didn’t sound right, like something had changed in his mind. Something was badly wrong.”

“Shit.” Akira sighs, releasing her hand and scratching his neck. “We can’t do anything about that right now, though. Did he say what he was going to do?”

“‘Throw himself on the mercy of the iron maiden of the prosecutor’s office’? He spoke in metaphor several times…”

“Forget it. If he’s going to the police, they’ll do whatever they have to. If he’s got dirt on someone, they’ll at least try to protect him.”

“Yes.” Haru nods. “What now, then? Do we...actually go to school, then? The threat is over.”

“Mm…” Akira takes his chin in hand, thinking. “Nah, fuck it. I just want to sleep, now.”

He holds up a finger when Haru opens her mouth. “No.”

Clever boy. Haru can feel Milady’s mirth as the feeling of silk shifting against skin. Mayhap we should take a different approach.

“I wasn’t going to suggest a hotel.” Haru gripes, frowning deeply.

“Right.” Akira smirks at her displeasure. “What were you going to suggest, then?”

“Feign food poisoning and convince Sojiro to close for the day to protect himself and his patrons.”

Akira laughs, incredulous. “Yeah, no. He’d make me scrub all his kitchen if I did that, I can feel it in my bones. Let’s just go get breakfast. My treat.” Haru resolves in that moment to ensure that Akira never pays for a single thing he does in her presence.

Bereft of anything to do and still maintaining the fiction of being out sick from school, they part ways in the afternoon, to the significant regret of both of them. Haru has to go home, to face anything that may come calling. Her excuses with father's secretary have passed muster somehow (the matter of her friendship with the student council president is common knowledge even in her own home, though their estrangement is not, so it had been a simple matter to lie and ensure that she couldn't be fact-checked by giving them Ann's phone number), and so when she returns there is no waiting punishment, only deafening nothing. Even in her own home, the silence is oppressive, the sound of her shoes on the tile entryway echoing endlessly into the living room.

Nothing awaits her here. No great welcome. No happy celebration of her victory (their victory, she chides herself) over Sugimura surprises her in the dining room. The hallways are as still and granite grey as the day they were raised, chiseled and shaped by hand at significant expense. The whole house reeks of many hands lifting the Okumuras upwards, demanding to go ever higher with the soaring expectations of capitalistic greed.

Had her grandfather been caught in the mire of that world, the rush of an economy that had never been seen before in Japanese history drive him to illicit ends? Oh, God, she wants to believe he couldn't. That his business ethics were as ironclad behind closed doors as they were to the public, the incorruptible Okumura Foods, where everyone was respected like family in their humble cafes.

Does it even matter? Can the actions of one man a generation ago be allowed to inform her life and her choices, or is this merely sentiment? An easy way to absolve herself of guilt, of complicity in her father's own attempts to keep the company afloat in the wake of the Lost Decade, when so much of the Okumura empire was lost?

Standing outside her room, her hand on the knob, she feels something in her bones, some unknowable intuition that she has something to do. Turning, she retraced her steps to the kitchen, hearing the low scrape of a scouring brush on a pan and tubeless humming. Pushing into the kitchen, she finds the chef from what feels like a lifetime ago, his back turned to the door as he sways in time to the beat of his own song, rasping away at a saucepan in the sink.

“Hello?” Haru calls, stepping into the room.

“Oh! Look who it is!” He laughs, shutting off the sink and grabbing the towel slung over his shoulder to wipe his hands. “Just in time, Ms. Okumura! Come, come, I was trying a new recipe for cheesecake yesterday and I didn’t see you, so I saved a slice. Sit, sit.” He waves her over to the same table they sat at that night, digging in the fridge for a plate wrapped in plastic wrap. By the time she’s sat down, he has it unwrapped and on the table in front of her with a fork balanced on the edge of the small plate. “It’s a fairly straightforward cheesecake recipe, but the cherries are fresh from Yamagata, and there’s a dusting of granulated sugar.” Indeed, she can see the crystals sparkling in the ruby-red glaze containing the cherries spread over the surface of the dish. “I’m not much of a baker, so I’m trying to brush up on it. Let me know what you think.”

“Thank you.” Haru picks up the fork and takes a bite, trying to savor the delightfully tart flavor as long as she can. Regrettably, it is impossible to chew forever, so she’s forced to smile and nod her thanks to the chef. “It’s delicious.”

“Oh, good. Your father isn’t much for sweets, so it was very hard to tell if he was being diplomatic or not with his answer last night.”

“Mm.” Haru slices off a second bite, pausing for a moment to speak before eating more. “How long have you known my father?”

“Well,” The chef groans as he sits down across from her, motioning for her to keep eating, “I worked for Okumura Foods directly for 10 years and another 10 under your grandfather, I’d say. I knew your father when he was just a baby, born a few years after I started working with his father directly.” Haru chews thoughtfully, taking a quick third bite. She has to restrain herself from devouring it more quickly, to at least maintain the barest sense of propriety. It simply is just that good. “And I’ve cooked for your family since then. Near on 40 years, now. Why?”

Haru swallows, covering her mouth politely for a moment before speaking. “What was he like, before I was born?”

“Well. There’s a question.” The chef smiles. “He wasn’t much different. Less pressure, sure, but he was always that stern man, even as a child. He had a way he wanted things done, and if they deviated, then that was that. He was never spectacular at making friends, you know.”

“Mm.” Haru nods. “That’s what I thought.”

The chef smiles sadly. “Not much of an answer, I know. People in his position, their ability to hold things together even in the darkest times, they’re a rare breed. The company may not be in the same shape it was before the 90s, but the same can’t be said for a lot of it’s old competitors. The rest of them are but a distant memory. Okumura Foods stood against the tide, and that was thanks to your father and the groundwork placed by your grandfather. It’s simply a fact.”

“Even if he did so in the wrong way?” Haru pushes away her plate picked clean of its contents and places her fork facing right in the center of the plate.

“Hm. I’ll be honest, Miss. I’m not a master of ethics, by any means. But in a world like ours, is there any room for this sort of thought in a business environment like Tokyo? Cutthroat is the nicest word for how it can be. Everyone does it, and not taking that advantage is asking for the board to oust you without a second thought. They very nearly did so before he took action directly.”

“So it’s true, then, the bribery under my grandfather? Do you know what happened?”

“I do. Because I told him to do it.” He sighs. “Haru, your grandfather was going through the same crisis of conscience back then as you are now. But this world looks much different to you now than it will when your livelihood, your life is on the line.”

“That doesn’t mean we can abandon our beliefs.” Haru says, staring the chef down. “That doesn’t justify giving up and accepting an unconscionable world without a second thought.”

“We’re getting a bit heady for this late at night, Miss Okumura.” The chef stands, taking her plate and dropping it in the sink with a clank. “I want to agree with you, I truly do. But I’ve seen so many men and women who believed the same thing die in gutters the world over.” He walks over to a cabinet, opening it and withdrawing a small canvas bag, returning to the table with it. Haru stands as he arrives, looking up at him.

“That doesn’t mean they were wrong. It means that they weren’t given a chance to prove they could change things.”

“...Maybe so.” He nods, slowly. “As promised. This is everything your grandfather left me for safekeeping. I hope it holds what you’re looking for.” She accepts the bag, feeling the weight of history in her hands, the same feeling she has whenever she opens the journal she found.

“Thank you.” She pauses, realizing something. “I...I’m sorry, this is ridiculous, but I don’t know your name.”

The chef remains silent for a moment, then guffaws. “There’s a good reason I’m only called Chef around here, Miss! Your father may like my cooking, but he has mixed feelings about being named after a servant, no matter what his father’s opinion of me had been.” He doffs his white knit cap with a bow, smiling. “Chef Kunikazu Suzuki, at your service.”

Haru sits in the garden, the contents of the bag spread out on the bench to her side. Two journals, a small collection of loose-leaf papers bound with twine, and some old novels she doesn’t understand the significance of. She’s got one of the journals in her hands, breathing slowly to calm herself. What awaits her, here? Chef Suzuki confirmed everything she needed to know, but...surely, that cannot be the end of it. Is her father the man he is because of the man his father was? She realizes, then, that the truth of her grandfather’s criminal activities are irrelevant to her. She wants...she doesn’t know what she wants. An opportunity to find common cause against her father, a chance to understand her father and his life, what shaped him into the man who he is now.

She sets the journal aside, picking up the stack of papers instead and untying the twine. Start small.

Breathe, darling. Nothing here can hurt you, unless you let it.

Milady hovers in her mind, a gentle touch to calm her further.

The papers are legalese, documents regarding the transfer of property rights to...Kunikazu Okumura. A house in Sendai, the corporate headquarters, and a plot of land at a very familiar part of Tokyo where the Okumura mansion was built. Nothing spectacular, mostly curious. Where is this house in Sendai? She’s never been there, knows next to nothing about it save for the Edo era castle and some vague history from the period. Hmm. She ties them shut again and picks up the other journal, leafing through it. The journal is very old, the pages yellowed and water-damaged. She turns them carefully, scanning through paragraphs and whole pages of nothing interesting, from the very early days of grandfather’s first cafe opening. The minor gripes of business ownership, staffing problems and the odd emotional outburst to vary the content. There’s nothing here for her, save the most mundane details of life.

Maybe the other journal will be better. She picks it up, the old leather creaking as she folds it open. Further along, well into the late 70s now. Her father is born, still a child, and Haru notes frequent reference to both Kunikazus (differentiated by ‘big’ and ‘little’ as an honorific next to each) throughout. Arguments, mainly with the big Kunikazu, documented without reference to the content, merely how furious it made him. Could this be it, then? She keeps turning, looking for anything.

And then she sees the name Yokoyama. Her heart leaps into her throat as she keeps reading, praying that the awful truth is wrong somehow. Their first meeting in his office, the anger at Yokoyama’s blatant disregard for his goals, his business. Then another meeting with him, and another. And another. References to money changing hands, the sick feeling it gave him. And then...nothing. Haru slams the journal shut, slapping it to the bench and rubbing her eyes to try to stop the tears that won’t stop coming.

Heroes do not exist in this world, darling. Men are simply men, nothing more, nothing less. Our grandfather was human, and he bowed to the world he was faced with, chose assimilation over opposition.

Shut up. He...he…

Haru hiccups, drawing breath in ragged gasps.

Haru, he was the man he was born to be. We all struggle in the roles life casts us in, but not all of us escape. People live their whole lives doing what they were told is right, and your father was no different. He couldn’t change the world. No ordinary person can. Milady’s voice drops low, taking on the rattling purr of a gatling gun cycling. You are not an ordinary person.

Haru breathes hard, staring down at the damp stone at her feet.

I am a Phantom Thief. I steal my victories from the jaws of my enemies.

Yes. Remember it, always. You can go further than anyone ever has before. The power to change this disgusting city rests in your hands.

Haru stands, gathering up everything back in the bag. Following the narrow stone path deeper into the small garden, Haru pushes past a withered rose bush, finding the incinerator next to a pile of logs. It’s been years since the incinerator was used, a throwback that her mother had always insisted to be a central part of the Japanese life. Kunikazu disagreed.

Throwing the bag next to the incinerator, she hefts the axe laying across the pile of logs, selecting one and setting it on the stone at her feet. Stepping back, Haru splits it in half in a single swing with a grunt of fury. She splits it again, and again, and again, until only the smallest chunks of kindling and the embers of her anger remain. Swinging an axe really is cathartic, she has always found. Piling kindling in the incinerator, she throws the bag in and pulls lighter fluid and a box of long matches from a compartment under it. Spraying the lighter fluid over the whole thing, she tosses the empty bottle aside and lights a match.

Let this be the first spark that ignites your determination. Before, you were but a girl trapped, looking for a way out. With this, you reject the past that has failed you and become the master of your own destiny. Tear out the sins of the past buried so deep beneath this city and burn them, root and branch. Show people yearning for freedom that the world is not one way but another, a better one than they had ever dared hope. Build a pyre of your naivete, and make your will burn brightly enough to make the world take notice.

Haru flicks the match into the incinerator, the reek of butane, burning wood, and cloth filling her nose. She stays and watches everything burn, steeling her determination until the fire fades to embers and ash.

We’ll start anew. With everything. A new Haru, a new Okumura Foods. A new world, one of our own making.

Chapter Text

Makoto Niijima can tell something is wrong the moment she steps through the Shujin Academy gate. Principal Kobayakawa is out on the front steps, personally greeting students as they come up the stairway into the school. Across from him is Ms. Chouno, smiling and nodding along with him with every greeting. Ladder-climber. She thinks, crossing the threshold of the school gate and instantly feeling both of them looking to her. Fantastic.

“Ah, Niijima-kun! Right on time.” Principal Kobayakawa booms, sounding far more amused than he has any right to be. Ugh. “Walk with me. Chouno-kun, carry on.” He nods to the teacher, who smiles in the most saccharine way she’s ever seen before. Still, though, Makoto has no choice but to follow Kobayakawa into the school, up the stairs and into his private office. “So.” Principal Kobayakawa sits down heavily, rifling through his papers on his desk before he pulls out a printout of some god-awful gossip blog, holding it out to her. “Take a look at this.”

“Mysterious Threat Against Yokoyama Successor?” She looks up from the page, frowning. “I don’t understand.”

“Keep reading.” Kobayakawa leans back in his chair, his mood already turning foul. “We have a problem.” Makoto keeps reading, scanning through the terrible journalism and seizing on the nugget of information she would never have expected to see: a black and red calling card, adorned with a hastily-drawn top hat and some serial killer pasted kanji spelling out a recitation of some fool’s crimes. It’s signed by the Phantom Thieves of Hearts.

“Ah.” She sighs. This again.

“You see? This Phantom Thief business is spreading, just as I told you it would.” When it had first popped up, the threat against Kobayakawa’s prized Olympic volleyball captain was a novelty to him, a joke at best. But now, Suguru Kamoshida has not only confessed to but been conclusively proven to have abused his team and sexually harassed students for years. Ever since then, the principal has done nothing but declare the sky is falling with every new revelation. The storm of media inquiries there have been have had him ranting and cursing, jumping at shadows for the next one. He’s had her running down spurious accusations in what few hours she has to herself for the last week, to her utter disgust. So far, every one of them has been true. “What do you think?”

“I think they’re expanding. They succeeded once, so why not again?” Makoto shrugs. It’s obvious.

Kobayakawa holds up a finger. “ And they’re drawing attention to themselves. A school is one thing, but a charity ball for one of the biggest names in Diet politics in Japan? The second anyone looks on the web for these Phantom Thieves, they’ll find us!” The way he says ‘us’ as if she is part of his little problem makes her stomach twist in fury. “More media attention is the last thing I need! God damn it!” He slams a meaty fist on his desk with impotent fury and pointing a finger at her. “ You need to make this go away .”

“What am I supposed to do?” Makoto drops the paper on his desk and crosses her arms. “You have no idea who they are, and if they’re reaching this far up, are they even at this school?”

“Then find out!” He slams his fist down again, papers jumping slightly off the table from the impact. “Do you think I kept you around for your sparkling wit? Go, figure something out! Or the next student council president will.” Kobayakawa grumbles something under his breath, spinning his chair around to stare out the window behind his desk.

Fuck. Walking out to the hallway, Makoto seethes. This asshole, this utter bastard. He’s never going to stop, is he? Two years of this. Ever since the entrance ceremony.


Her face burns remembering everything as she ducks into the student council room to compose herself. Thankfully, she can always trust that there isn’t anyone else here. It’s a wholly empty room, save for what little comforts she has afforded herself. After all, it’s not as if there would be anyone else using it. There are no other student council members. There is no student council, only a president. Kobayakawa’s muzzled dog. Nobody talks about it. Probably, they don’t care.

Once upon a time, she had been happy to come to school. Now, it’s nothing but grief and pain for her.

Makoto had been thrilled to hear that the only friend she had ended up making in middle school, a young girl named Haru Okumura, had not only decided to go on to high school, but chosen the same school as her. They talked about it for months as the entrance ceremony approached, hoped and prayed they would end up in the same class. Daydreamed of what high school would be like. Spent afternoons together all summer, chatting about it and their lives, the pressures of their lives so much simpler when they had someone to share them with. And after the entrance ceremony, they wandered the school grounds, talking about what they wanted to do now that the dream had come true. Makoto had thought about asking permission to form an Aikido club, even if it would be small. Haru, entranced by the gardens by the gate, had wanted to find the groundskeeper or the horticulture club and pick their brain. They wandered the school. They talked, about inconsequential things and then consequential things. One thing led to another, and...well.

“Are you…is this okay?” Makoto asked Haru, brushing her bangs back nervously. They had slipped into the gym’s changing room, the room utterly silent except for them standing in the middle of the aisle. The distance between them is centimeters and falling, the tip of Makoto’s nose brushing Haru’s.

“Of course it is. I like you, Mako.” Haru kissed her, her lips feather-light and softer than anything Makoto can think of. She cursed her chapped lips, the callouses on her hands that she knows Haru doesn’t truly mind, her own inexperience. Even now, two years later, Makoto wishes Haru had found someone better than her. Someone who knew how to treat her better. Knew how to protect her properly.

“Ooh, so sweet.” A voice that was not either of theirs cooed from behind them. Haru and Makoto split instantly, spinning to find two girls walking into the room, cigarettes dangling from their fingers and third year pins on their lapels.

“A pair of little baby lesbians. It’s like something out of a manga, huh?” One of them laughs, taking a long pull from her cigarette and blowing smoke in their faces.

“Hahaha, totally!” The other laughs, walking closer and circling to one side while the other covers the other side, blocking them in. “Shujin is a very exclusive school, you know, ladies. We want people of a certain class, people who know the rules. And we have rules about dykes.”

“What are you saying?” Makoto snaps, clenching a hand into a fist.

“Oh, she wants to know.” The one closest to Makoto says, turning to her compatriot. “Should I tell her?”

“Hell yeah.” The other takes Haru by the arm, digging her fingers in hard. “Listen to her, you little freaks.”

“We teach dykes there’s consequences to being freaks.” She swings at Makoto’s stomach with a fist, and Haru screams. Makoto doesn’t remember the rest, only the sensation of blood dripping from split knuckles and the taste of more in her mouth. Once they weren’t going to hurt Haru any more, she went to find a teacher.

Sae met them in the nurse’s office, while the school nurse finished bandaging Makoto’s hands and moved on to Haru’s burns. Haru hasn’t spoken a word since she screamed, when the other girl started pressing her cigarette to Haru’s arms. The sense memory of fingers snapping in Makoto’s hand comes to her then, cracking like dry kindling. That girl wouldn’t have been able to hold a cigarette or a lighter for a long time after that.

“What the fuck were you thinking, Makoto?!” Sae looms over her, furious and practically bouncing in her heels. “The first day of school and you start a fight? If you were going to waste my money and time, you could have told me.”

“I didn’t start it.” Makoto says, staring down at her aching hands.

“That’s not what the other girls are saying. Do you know how the justice system in this country works? Do you know who those girls are the daughters of? You don’t stand a chance. Now you’re just another loser at the game of life, too stupid to follow the rules.”

“If the rules mean I have to let people like that say what they want...then fuck the rules.”

“See how far that gets you, Makoto. We’ll talk later, if you don’t ruin your life any further.” Sae turns to Haru, then. “This will be the last time I’ll see you and Makoto together. Understood?”

“Yes.” Haru says without looking up from her lap.

What? No!” Makoto stands, interposing herself between Sae and Haru.

“Mako, stop.” Haru says, voice hollow. “She’s right.”

“You’re lucky I’m not transferring you out this second, Makoto.” Sae remains resolute, staring Makoto down until she balks before her older sister’s iron will. And with that, Sae leaves them to their shared misery, one of the last times Makoto spoke to Haru anything more than a pleasantry. The school nurse left not long after without a word. Maybe she knew they needed to say goodbye.

“I’m sorry.” Makoto says, unable to meet Haru’s eyes. “For everything.”

“It’s my fault. I pushed you into something we shouldn’t have done.” Haru can’t, or won’t, look up at her either.

“You weren’t wrong. We didn’t do anything wrong.” Makoto means it with every bit of her heart, even as she feels it begin to break in two when Haru finally meets her eyes and she sees the despair in her expression.

“If we weren’t wrong, we wouldn’t have been punished for it.” Makoto winces at the despondency in Haru’s voice. She should never have to feel like that. Makoto would do anything to make this right. She deserves better. “I’m sorry, Mako. I truly am.” Haru stands, walking out of the room and leaving Makoto wishing for any way to make this right.

Her cursed wish came true the next day, when Principal Kobayakawa called her into his office.

“I have a proposition for you, Niijima-chan.” Kobayakawa laces his fingers together across his massive belly, reclining in his chair. “We have need for a leader for the student council. And you have need of a situation to, ah, disappear, I believe.” He smiles with every single one of his teeth.

“I don’t understand.” Makoto lies, refusing to rise to his bait. If those girls think that dykes like her get beat down, then what would the authority figures they get their cues from think of her? Fuck him. Fuck all of them.

“Don’t play coy, dear. It’s already taken care of. You won’t find those two girls in attendance at our prestigious academy any longer. Losers don’t last long within our walls. And they have been sworn to silence about the events after the entrance ceremony, for their own good as much as yours.”


“As I said, I have need for a new student council president. You will have full authority over the student body in disciplinary matters and the latitude to take unilateral action, within reason , in matters concerning the student body’s overall health and well-being. But you answer to me, and I have matters that will require attending to that will need discretion. Understood?”

Makoto’s head spins. This scummy, obsequious fuck wants to give her exactly what she dreamed of. The chance to change things, to keep Haru safe. And all she has to do is sign her soul away.

It’s not a choice, really.


Makoto shakes her head, opening her phone and starting a series of searches. This Sugimura is the scion of a political family, but is there some connection to Shujin that connects these lonesome points of data together? What do a volleyball teacher and the 30-something year old son of a Diet member have in common with one another?

It doesn’t take long to find out in the worst way possible.

A gossip blog not unlike the one Kobayakawa used for the initial report has been documenting the ascension of Sugimura. The most recent post was one much like she had read, but the one before that…

The post’s header is Sugimura posing proudly with Haru in some lounge, his arm around her and a hand on her shoulder. Haru smiles thinly for the photo, but it’s clear how offput she is by this, all of it. Or, at least, it is to Makoto, because the gossip article lauds how happy the couple is, and their imminent marriage. This is the first time they’ve been sighted in public, evidently. Married? She’s never once spoken of it. Haru’s never worn an engagement ring, either.

Fuck. The timestamp was last week. Haru missed a day of class then, hadn’t she. Something about a family engagement? She was gone yesterday, too. Leaping to her feet, Makoto storms into the teacher’s office, confronting the first teacher she finds, the second year teacher Ms. Kawakami nearly running into Makoto as she enters the room.

“Do you have the attendance records for yesterday?”

“What?” Ms. Kawakami raises her eyebrows. “No, what do you need them for?”

“Something for Principal Kobayakawa. And any absences that have been reported today too, please.”

“Jeez, one second.” Kawakami turns, shuffling back to her desk and calling to one of the other second year teachers for it before returning to Makoto, holding out a clipboard of absence marks. “Mention I helped you to the principal, alright? He’s been a pain lately, it’d really help me out.”

“Right.” Makoto says absently, leafing through the pages. “Thanks.” She nods to Kawakami and walks back out of the teacher’s office. Yesterday, Haru was absent, as were a few other names she recognizes from third year. None of them are remarkable, none of them interact with Haru. Haru doesn’t interact with anyone, really. Except Makoto, and only in pleasantries and small talk now. In second year, though...Sakamoto, the former track star turned near-dropout. And Takamaki, the girl with so many rumors swirling about her regarding Kamoshida and the circumstances regarding Suzui’s suicide attempt. And one other, Kurusu, the new transfer student with twice as many rumors about him as Takamaki. There are marks next to each of their names. And today, Sakamoto and Takamaki are in attendance, but Haru herself called in, and Kurusu too, the both of them blaming illness.


Makoto storms upstairs, pushing through the ancient door onto the roof propped open as it has been for months. Her first act as student council president had been to secure Haru a place all to herself, though Kobaykawa had balked at allowing her a key to the door. Still, though, Makoto had gotten her a garden of her own to tend, and access to the groundskeeper’s resources as well. Anything to keep her safe, in case the school heard something about what had happened. Makoto hasn’t been up here in months, obeying to the letter Sae’s warning. Her own punishment for failing Haru so badly, in her mind.

The roof is cold, damp from recent rainfall. The plants in their planters are thriving, green shoots rising from the earth. She has no idea what Haru’s growing, she realizes. She had assumed she would grow flowers, but...hmm. She ranges around the roof, searching for anything, any sign of something amiss.

And when she finds it, her heart stops cold. A water bottle, battered and old but recently used, stuffed full of cigarette butts. Lifting it, she can clearly see the faintest traces of lipstick on some of the butts, rust-red on some, brown on others.

And one, near the top, the same pink lipstick that Makoto had encouraged Haru to use more often.


Haru, what have you gotten yourself into?

“What do you make of this?” Sae Niijima holds out her phone across the table, a gossip blog on the screen. Mysterious Threat to Son of Diet Politician.

“Hmm.” Goro Akechi takes it and flips through the article, raising an eyebrow and laughing to himself. “I didn’t know people still bought enough magazines to make these sorts of threats.”

“Take it seriously.” Sae plucks her phone from his gloved hand, scoffing. “This is the second report of something like this.”

“Oh, really? From such a reputable source, too.” He shakes his head. “Where was the first threat, then?” Of course, he knows already, but Sae doesn’t know that he knows. It’s far easier to play the fool to confirm her biases about someone his age. This way, he gets to surprise her all the more when he shows her what he can really do. So smart, but so willing to believe that the youth these days aren’t up to snuff. Goro’s always wondered if she treats her sister the same way.

“Shujin Academy. The volleyball coach there. Olympic medalist revealed as a pervert and sadist. Very dramatic.” Sae returns her phone to her pocket, picking up her chopsticks and plucking a sushi roll from the conveyor belt as it passes. “Still, it makes me wonder.”

“Same modus operandi, same name, same distribution method.” Goro does likewise, spearing a nori roll and popping it in his mouth. God, what he wouldn’t do for actual half-decent sushi. It’s hard to get good food at home these days, he’s so busy with his work for the department and his other boss. “Seems like it’s pretty cut and dried. Have they made any demands?”

“No. The strangest thing, actually, is that the first blackmail case ended with him confessing everything. He’s in custody now, and a great deal of his victims have come forward with more accusations, all of which he has corroborated to the letter. Normally, this would be a boondoggle, but he’s sewing himself up tighter with every new accusation. I hardly have to do anything, honestly.”

“Hmm.” Goro shrugs. “Guilt does weigh you down eventually, I suppose. It must be relaxing to have such a simple case.”

“It’s not so simple anymore, if there’s another blackmailing. An isolated case is a breeze, a string of blackmailings is a headache.” She massages her temple, grabbing more sushi with her free hand. “I’ll have to see if he’s willing to give up anything about the blackmailer.” Good luck with that, Goro thinks to himself. Sae stands, leaving a fold of bills for the check. “Keep an ear to the ground, okay? It would look good for you to nail such a strange case.”

“Right.” Goro resists the urge to roll his eyes as Sae picks up her bag and leaves. She’s always trying to do this shit. He doesn’t need her charity case completions. He’s a celebrity, not a real detective. “See you, prosecutor.”

“Detective.” And with that, she’s gone. Once she’s out the door, Goro plucks his phone from it’s spot nestled in ballistic foam in his briefcase, thumbing it open and dialing a number he memorized this morning.

“What?” The voice on the other side picks up, already irritable.

“I believe you have a package that needs disposing of.”

“What?” The SIU director barks, incredulous. “Who leaked?”

“No one. Call it a hunch. The boss will want to speak with the Yokoyama boy.”

“How did—” The director growls, cutting himself off. “Show some respect, boy. The only reason I even picked up this phone is because of who you work for.”

“Do you want him off your hands, or not?” Goro doesn’t bother to scrub the glee out of his voice. He has so much fun with these useless stooges, sometimes. Just another man who thinks he’s someone because he has some power.

Goro Akechi knows better than anyone what real power is. Real power is holding the world’s life in your hands and deigning to let it keep on living. He could crush this corrupt city under his heel with one bullet, but it’s more fun this way, isn’t it? Besides, he has his own plans in motion.

“Just get over here.” the SIU director snaps, hanging up on him. Just another day at work for Goro Akechi, the Second Detective Prince. Not that he buys into his own branding.

“Oh, Sugimura, how good to see you.” Masayoshi Shido smiles as Goro shoves the older man into his office, tripping him over the coffee table and spilling him to the floor. “Please, be nicer to my guest.”

“Of course, Sir.” He hauls Sugimura to his feet, muscling him over into a chair and shoving him down.

“Thank you. How are you, son?” Goro snaps down on the twitch of his fingers when Shido says that, knowing all too well that the remark isn’t directed at him. Every time. Every god damn time . Shido can’t know, of course. He’d be a fool to know and still let him get this close.

“Shido, Shido-san, we have to talk.” Sugimura says, breathing hard. He’s been like this the whole way over here, sitting in the back of the car Akechi drove him over in and rambling on and on and on about his feelings. How he can’t go on, can’t live with himself. Coward. Who the fuck do you think you are? Just another of Shido’s failed little schemes he has to clean up, that’s all.

A weakling. Nothing more, nothing less. The world is filled with depravity and cowardice.

A scratching at the back of Goro’s mind growls.

“I’m sure. How are things with Okumura? Going well?” Shido says with a smile, crossing his leg under the desk.

“It’s about that. Shido-san. Sir. I can’t do this anymore.” Sugimura leans forward, cradling his head in his hands. “It’s too much. The marriage, I’m calling it off.”

“Now, let’s not be hasty, son.” Shido stands, crossing out from behind his desk and standing in front of him and leaning back onto the rich wood. “You’re getting cold feet. These things happen to many of us. You’re in a stressful position, as well. I understand that there’s been a threat to reveal some dirty laundry of yours, is that right?” He smiles when Sugimura nods emphatically, tears spilling down his cheeks.

Goro moves to the side, leaning against the wall and crossing his arms. How many is this, then? Two? Remarkably fast turn around from threat to confession, faster even than Kamoshida. They’re getting better, and quickly.

The other half of the chessboard moves. Will you remain idle so long?

Quiet. I’m trying to listen.

“I understand how terrifying that must be. You’re in a very vulnerable position right now. But I need you to stay strong. This is only temporary. They won’t really make good on their threat. They’re preying on your fear.”

“I know. I know. And they won. I can’t , Shido-san, I would rather die. I’ll do anything but this. Please. Find someone else.” Shido looks up from Sugimura, meeting Goro’s eyes and smirking at him before he moves to Sugimura, taking him by the shoulder. For such a powerful man, Masayoshi Shido is also an inveterate sadist. He’s enjoying this, every second of it.

Do not dissemble, Goro. I can feel you. This excites you, the same as him.

For different reasons, maybe. Like seeing a lion devour a gazelle.


“Think about what you’re saying, son. Are you sure about this? This is an easy task. Once this is over, you have control of a major family conglomerate, all the money in the world to make this disappear or disappear yourself into safety. Now, I have other things you could do, but I want you to sleep on this, okay? Let my associate take you home.” He meets Goro’s eyes again, giving him a slight nod that the boy returns. Sugimura Yokoyama won’t be making it home tonight.

“...Okay. Okay. We’ll talk soon?” Sugimura looks up at the most powerful man in Tokyo with wet eyes.

Shido smiles and nods. “Very soon. You’ll feel better once it’s all over.” He pats Sugimura one last time and stands, crossing back behind his desk. “It’s been good working with you, Sugimura.”

God, this asshole. He’s as bad as the SIU director. Powerful, and thinks he’s got it all figured out. He can’t wait to see the look on his face when he finds out the power behind the throne has had a gun pointed at his head the whole time.

“Come on, Mr. Yokoyama.” Goro heaves him to his feet, taking his arm in an iron grip. “Let’s get you home.” Frog-marching Sugimura out and down to the parking garage, Goro knows he’s going to have a late night tonight. At least he never has to worry about taking care of the body afterwards. Shadows truly are wondrous creatures, Goro thinks.

The low cunning of beasts and fools both deserve admiration, boy. Do not forget that you are not the only one with these gifts, even if they are only beginning their journey.

Shut up, Loki. Don’t forget you’re as replaceable as these stooges are, too.

You can no more kill me than you can kill yourself, Goro. But very well.

Every nook and crevice of this twisted subway teems with beasts, but Haru Okumura will not be deterred. She’s going to make it out of this abyss or die trying. The true Haru would expect nothing less. With nothing but the tattered wedding dress on her back, she makes her way through the labyrinth of Mementos, bereft of support but her own determination and the strange placidity of the Shadows that hemm her in on all sides. They never strike, seem to ignore her utterly. She has watched them war for territory, devour one another and shamble in hideous ways, and not a one of them has come within a foot of her. She is untouchable, somehow exempt from their bestial urges.

At first, it had been harrowing. Now, it’s rote. She hunts for routes, the seas of teeming Shadows on the platforms parting before her. She saw the train run by once, just after she escaped the Palace, but it flew past the station without stopping and has not been seen since. The stations are disconnected from reality, descending into bizarre metaphor and pastiches of things she can only begin to understand. So, she follows the tracks, stepping carefully around the cables and rail ties as she goes, taking no superfluous breaks. She never does seem to get tired, here. It had been easy to believe that she was the real thing in the Palace, but the evidence only mounts. Hunger does not gnaw at her, thirst eludes her. She attempted to sleep in one of the stations but found it a futile exercise. She is not human in the way that her memories, Sugimura’s memories of the true Haru Okumura would imply. So she continues, tirelessly forward.

Why did the true Haru let her go? Her life is a joke, a pale parody of her own made by a monster for his own pleasure. She shudders to think of the things she remembers, the awful indignancies imposed upon her in the real world by the true Sugimura and the grotesque parodies thereof she experienced herself. This freedom, can she truly make anything of it? It matters not. She will escape from this abyss or die in so doing. Nothing more, nothing less.

Hours pass without number in the dark, guided only by the surety of one foot after the other. She will make something of this chance. She will find freedom. Some unnameable yearning in her heart begs for freedom, to see the world as it truly is, not as she had been shown it. To find the thing she longs for.

After so long in the dark, she emerges into the light of a station, and knows something is different. It’s empty, devoid of Shadows. Climbing up to the platform, a juddering, artifacted screen states she has arrived at Shibuya Station. From there, it’s a short ascent to the streets, the true Tokyo unfolding before her under a moody grey sky. It’s devoid of ornament, steel and concrete and glass. Withered trees line the streets she walks through where they exist at all, and the light filtering through the cloud cover feels harsh and darker than it should. She has never seen sunlight herself before now, but this is wrong. This world, the one she was born into, feels wrong, broken and strange.

Still, though, she will find a place for herself in this world. That yearning doesn’t go away as she wanders the streets, aimless but drawn ever in one direction, something she cannot name moving her forward. Not even trash blows in the streets, the howling wind passing between the buildings the only sound save her footsteps. Until, she begins to hear something carried by the wind to her, somewhere in the distance.

Finally, turning a street corner and coming to a corporate plaza, Haru Okumura knows she has found home. A massive building stretches into the sky, scaffolding surrounding a staircase spiraling into the sky, incomplete. Shadows scamper across the building, hammering signs and metal into place. At the bottom of the staircase, a stately building stands, ancient and well-kept, with marble accents and cold grey stone holding it together. Even now, as she watches, Shadows tear at parts of the building, holding them aloft and carrying them up the staircase and hammering them into place. A stairway to another plane of existence, built from the cast-offs of the estate. Walking towards it, she finds a sign at the gate leading up to the state. Another sign hangs below it, nailed into the stone. Seeing them, she knows that she has found the place she was looking for, and heads up the driveway. To home. To her father.

Okumura Residence - Est. 1975.

Estate Sale Ongoing

Inquire Inside

Chapter Text

“You what?” The placid Saturday morning atmosphere Makoto had been enjoying is shattered when Sae shouts from the other side of the apartment. Within moments, her sister storms into the front room half-dressed in an undershirt and pants, ranting at her phone. Makoto hardly looks up from her breakfast, but keeps listening anyway. It pays to know why Sae’s in a foul mood around here. “What the hell do you mean, then, ‘he’s gone’? You booked him! We have custody of him until he goes to a bail hearing, and he’s gone?”

Just another Saturday morning in the Niijima household

Makoto thinks to herself, taking another bite of her toast. As one of the top prosecutors for the Tokyo police and a woman on top of that, Sae often gets some of the most ridiculous, hard-to-close cases in the city. Call it institutional bias, call it blatant misogyny, whatever. She doesn’t get softballs often, and it looks like whatever she’s picked up this morning is no different.

Frankly, she just hopes Sae doesn’t take it out on her any more than usual.

“Put me through to the director. No, I don’t care, just do it!” Sae barks, disappearing back down the hall and returning with her top and jacket slung over her shoulder. She stares at the wall in silence while she waits, breathing hard through her nose. She won’t stop clenching and unclenching her free hand as she stands there, rattling her keys in her hand every time. She’s got as much of an anger problem as she says Makoto has, but God help you if you imply she has any problem coping with stress in her presence. “Director? Care to explain why I’m currently missing a booked and processed high-value person of interest? Yes, the calling card case.” Sae’s voice is icy cool at the start, only to boil over as she finishes her thought.

Calling card cases? Oh shit, has she been working on the Kamoshida case before this?

Then…Yokoyama turned himself in, too? Makoto looks dutifully away from her sister while still listening as hard as she can. Anything she can get could make a difference in her own investigation. She stomps out the spark of joy that she gets for at least knowing Haru is safe from him. No distractions, pay attention.

“…Yes, sir. No, sir, I’m not saying that. I’m not—” Sae cuts herself off, growling. “How am I expected to make anything of this investigation, Sir? The principal victim can’t do anything but admit to everything he’s done at the school, and then the next lead worth anything disappears from holding? I have nothing to work with!” Out of the corner of her eye, she can see Sae throw a hand in the air at whatever response is forthcoming. “Fine! I’m requisitioning officers to question people related to him, then! And I want budget for a consultant, since I apparently can’t trust anyone from the Tokyo Police to do their job right.”

Locking her phone, Sae sighs angrily and throws her clothes on hastily. Makoto flinches when Sae throws open the fridge door behind her against the chair she was sitting in, pulling a jug of orange juice from its depths and a cup from the cupboard.

“Morning.” Makoto says lightly, wiping the remnants of her toast off of her hands.

“Funny.” Sae says, taking a drink and scowling at her. “What a fucking mess. I don’t know how they expect me to try to muster a coherent investigation like this.” She sets her cup down hard when she’s finished, pouring herself another cup and shoving the jug back in the fridge before slamming the door home.

“What happened?”

“The son of a Diet politician just turned himself in claiming he’s been targeted by the same group that hit Shujin and that he, quote, fears for his life, endquote. He was booked and placed in protective custody, and then he wasn’t in protective custody. No signature, no bail, no nothing. Not even a fucking ID badge swipe. Fuck.” She shakes her head, sitting down across from Makoto and massaging her forehead. She looks unbearably tired, the only thing hiding her exhaustion the carefully applied and thoroughly understated makeup she wears. Her only real concession to femininity is a dramatic, dark eyeliner. For a strange moment, she wonders if she could carry off the same look. Maybe someday.

“You should eat something.” Makoto offers, getting up and putting more toast in the oven. “It sounds like today is going to be a long day for the both of us.”

“What would you know about long days…” Sae mutters, and Makoto remains silent. Outwardly, at least. She would love to lay into her sister, to shout and yell and scream about how long her days are when she has to spend her nights hunting down the sexually harassed students of Shujin Academy and try to swear them to silence at Kobayakawa’s orders, lest yet another black mark appear on the school’s record. She could tell Sae in perfect detail every second she has spent hounding the physically abused, battered and broken students who want nothing more than to be told that it wasn’t their fault they were treated that way. The hours of her day she spends telling them that if they spoke out, then the school would withhold recommendations for colleges, increase tuition, monitor them for drug use or whatever else their demented principal can justify at the moment to keep the ‘troublesome elements’ in line.

But she doesn’t, only stares at the toast browning in the oven until it’s how Sae likes it, removing it and spreading strawberry jam across both slices. Because she’s tried before to get through to Sae, to remind her that her problems aren’t any better or simpler or more childish than Sae’s just because she’s still 17. The world, Makoto has learned at Shujin, is a cruel place. And she’s trying as hard as she can to not let that cruelty harden her any further than it already has. Most days, she knows she's probably not going to make it. But she can try, God damn it.

“Thank you.” Sae mumbles, picking up a slice and eating. “I need to make another call, and you should get to school.” She unlocks her phone on the table, flicking through her contacts and tapping one with a large English A as the icon. Makoto suppresses a sigh, turning away and hunting for her bag and shoes.

“Right.” Makoto pauses at the door. “Have a good day at work, Sae.” The grunt she gets in reply will have to do for a response. She tries to put all of that out of her mind. At home, her sister’s moods are one thing, but she can’t let them taint the rest of her world. It’s fine. She can take even more than this, and has.

Instead, she focuses on figuring out her line of attack for approaching the Haru Problem while she waits for the train.

Makoto’s been mulling over her options since Friday afternoon. The rumors around the transfer student and a copy of his criminal record attached to his student transcript point to violent tendencies and outbursts of rage, so she’s disinclined to go for direct confrontation. The same goes for Sakamoto, given how his tenure under Kamoshida as coach of the track team went. Takamaki seems innocent, though who really knows, given her close association with Sakamoto and the principal victim of Kamoshida? She probably hates everyone in the school for letting what happened continue for so long, and doubly so for faculty and those associated with them like her. Talking to Haru directly is both her safest and most dangerous approach, relatively speaking, if they hang around her. She has to make it through her dangerous new ‘friends’, if that’s what they are. And the kicker is that If Sae finds out about any of this, she’s fucked. But she categorically won’t allow Haru to come to harm if she can help it.

Makoto is stymied by the crowd pushing into the train and the situation she finds herself in. Everywhere she looks, she finds roadblocks, danger and threats rising up one after the next. She only has so much power at Shujin to push forward with her own agenda, and all of it is backed by Kobayakawa. She never uses it without being forced to. But she’s out of options.

If she has to break some rocks to make a path to keep Haru safe, she’ll gladly pound her knuckles to dust doing it.

“Here you are, dear.” Chef Suzuki beams as he sets a plate before Haru laden high with a variety of English breakfast foods. With Father missing in action for reasons that elude Haru, she has the reins this Saturday morning. Small and surprisingly spicy sausages, scrambled eggs, a small portion of imported bacon and a set of toasted rounds of that same crusty, delicious bread that he had been prototyping only a few nights ago, all artfully arrayed on the plate in the way only someone with passion and experience can manage.

“Thank you, Chef.” Haru nods and digs in, scooping a forkful of liberally seasoned eggs onto the bread and devouring it in only a few bites. She smiles at him as she chews, nodding vigorously to mark her extreme approval. Without Father, she’s free to be as improper and loud and unladylike as she wishes, and by God she’s going to make a point of it this morning. “You should sit, you’ve worked enough for one day.” She nods to the seat across from her at the dining room table, which Chef Suzuki looks incredulously at for a moment before the sunny smile returns and he obliges her. “Have you made extra, by any chance?”

“Mr. Okumura’s assistant failed to warn me that he wouldn’t be making it, so I have an extra plate in the kitchen, if you’re looking for seconds.” Suzuki smiles, well acquainted to Haru’s appetite over the years. It’s been a while since she’s ever had seconds in Father’s presence, but when she was still growing she had been voracious.

“Oh, no, I meant for yourself! You really must eat something, Chef, you’ve outdone yourself today.” Not that she wouldn’t love a second plate of his impeccable cooking, honestly.

“Mmmm…” He locks eyes with her, his expression a comically exaggerated scowl that lights up like the dawn into a beatific smile. “Ah, what the hell!” He throws up his arms and stands, bouncing off to the kitchen. After a few late-night meetings in dimly lit kitchens, seeing Chef Suzuki in the warm light of a spring morning is quite the experience. Haru wonders if she’s missed out on the nuances of his witty repartee without the benefits of seeing every bit of his expression before now. His face is almost like putty, molded easily into whatever expression he wants it to be in the moment, which thankfully seems to be firmly placed in the happier side of the spectrum. She first noticed it when she popped into the kitchen to say good morning, and was greeted by the most calming smile she’s ever received at such an hour. Rather than spend her morning studying, Haru ended up spending her time in the kitchen, absorbing Suzuki’s banter and wit in equal measure as he dashed around the room, cooking a full meal at the same time without a drop of sweat. It really is marvelous how he moves around the kitchen with an agility all his own, still spry despite his age and unhindered by a body type that Haru would place in a neighborhood near pudgy, or perhaps portly.

When he returns to the table, Suzuki sits down opposite her again with a grin. “So, what’s on the agenda today, Ms. Okumura?” He’s adopted a perfect imitation of Father’s personal assistant, the calmly suited man who manages his schedule with precision and sends quietly nitpicky emails about her attendance at events and not wasting their driver’s gas.

“Well…” She hums, finishing off the sausage she had plucked from the plate with her bare hands, “ After school, I was planning on seeing where the afternoon took me. No real plans, honestly.” She still hesitates to mention Akira or the others, even with Suzuki. Her home is not truly her own, and even with only a smattering of servants working under Father, any of them could hear something and report back. Discretion is the better part of valor, until Sugimura’s marriage prospects are at an end definitively.

“Ah, the delight of a high schooler. A relaxed afternoon, what a joy.” Suzuki copies Haru’s earlier move with the eggs on his toast, taking a bite and falling into blissful silence. “Oh, heavens, that tastes good. I cooked this, and I never thought bread and eggs would create such a heavenly medley.”

“It’s magical, isn’t it?” Haru finishes off her eggs with the same maneuver, chasing it with a sip of tea. “I warned you, you really did outdo yourself.”

“The compliment is appreciated, dear.” Suzuki laughs. He falls silent as the sound of footsteps in the hallway echoes into the dining room, standing and picking up his plate. “Be right back.” He ducks into the kitchen again just as Haru begins to hear someone talking animatedly on the phone.

“Did you— Okay. Find him, please. He has to hear this.” Father’s assistant steps into the room, tapping his phone call to an end and fixing Haru with a harried look. “Did Mr. Okumura say he was going to be anywhere this morning?”

Haru shakes her head, confused. “I thought he was at a shareholder meeting.” There had been a note at the table for her when she got to the dining room, written in simple block letters. At a meeting—breakfast is yours. Unusual, certainly, but not wholly unheard of.

“No, the shareholder meeting is in an hour, and nobody can find him. Did he say anything, anything at all?” He grimaces when Haru holds out the note, reading it and cursing under his breath. “Okay. Wonderful. Thank you, Miss Okumura. You should get to school.” He turns away, walking back the way he came, only to stop and turn back, a finger pointed at her. “If anyone in the media contacts you for anything, say nothing.”

“Why?” Haru tilts her head, confused. What the hell could possibly be going on? The assistant grimaces, mulling over his options.

“A little bird I know warned me that Mr. Yokoyama was picked up by the police, and is now missing from their custody. Give them my phone number if you have to, just say nothing. Got it?” It takes Haru a long moment to recover herself enough to nod, at which point he leaves, shoes clicking on the hard stone hallway. She takes a shaky breath, trying to slow the trilling beat of her heart. He’s still out there? Was the change of heart only temporary, or false somehow? How could the police simply let him disappear?

What in the hell is going on?

Breathe. You are safe.

Milady speaks in her mind, soothing words and a feeling of calm settling over her.

He cannot hurt you. The world knows his crimes after the calling card and he cannot escape justice. Trust yourself, and your friends.

Right. Right.

Haru breathes, closing her eyes and focusing inward on that feeling of inordinate calm. It feels like when her weapon was in her hand, facing down Sugimura. No room for doubt or fear, only certainty that she was in the right place, on the right side. She can only pray that it lasts.

“Are you okay, Haru dear?” Suzuki’s voice doesn’t make her jump but startles her nevertheless, her eyes fluttering open to see his look of utterly sincere concern for her as he leans onto the table.

“I’m fine.” She nods, smiling more strongly than she feels. “Just a bit of surprising news, that’s all.”

“I’m sure your father is fine. He always was forgetful when he was younger, running off and getting lost and making your grandfather overturn the whole house to find him reading manga in some bookstore.” He pats her on the shoulder, smiling. “You should get to school, I think. I’d hate for my cooking to make you late.”

“It would be worth it.” Haru says, standing and picking up her bag. “Thank you for a wonderful meal. I think it’s going to be an interesting day, and I needed it.”

“At your service, my dear.” Suzuki bows. “And have a good day at class!” He calls out after her, waving back when she turns to him before slipping out the hallway and towards what promises to be a very long, strange day.

“Maaaaaan, what the fuck? So he just left, then?” Ryuji holds out a bottle of tea to Haru, which she accepts gratefully. He pops the cap on his own cola and guzzles a third of it in one drink, making a satisfied noise when he finishes. “That’s bullshit.”

“It seems sketchy.” Ann tears open her own big bag of snacks, sitting it on the table they’re all arrayed around and taking a handful of chips for herself. “Like,” she says around a mouthful, “did they let him go? He said missing, right, so he must have disappeared.” Akira takes a few for himself, too, holding some out to Haru until she shakes her head. Breakfast was amazing, but perhaps a little heavier than she was expecting.

“But how does someone disappear from police custody? He must have been in a holding cell…” Haru says, staring down at her tea for a moment before popping it open and drinking. She’s been mulling it over all morning, having warned the others via the secure messaging app on the way to school. They had gone round and round a bit at first, but decided to meet for lunch to discuss it properly.

“Somebody took him, probably. The bigger question is why, then.” Akira says, pouring some of his water into a paper cup he got somewhere (the cafeteria?) for Morgana, who laps at it rapidly. “And why would they do something so big and obviously criminal? Sugimura is nobody, relatively speaking. His father is still healthy and in control of the family, it’s not like he’s expected to take over for another decade, if not two.”

“…How do you know that, exactly?” Haru frowns.

“Google, mostly.” Akira crunches the rest of his chips, chewing thoughtfully. “Lotta people with opinions on the elder Yokoyama online. But if they’re protecting him, it could be his own family.”

“They were being lied to by him about how old I was. His father was furious with him after Ryuji read the card aloud.” Haru says, the night of the calling card springing to mind. Haruka Okumura. What a thin cover he crafted for himself. “Could they be protecting him from prosecution for the sake of the family name?”

“Maybe.” Ryuji shrugs. “Seems like a big favor to pull, even for a big shot politics guy. But like…they set bail for shit like this, I think. Why wouldn’t they just buy him out and make the charge disappear after? This just makes it reek of somebody pulling strings hard. If it’s even legal.”

“Yeah, he’s right.” Ann says, wagging a chip at him and placing it in his happily waiting mouth. The pang of jealousy that strikes seems odd, but she accepts it in due course. A quick sideways glance shows Akira has no food left, and thus nothing to con him into giving her, so she instead plucks a handful of her own chips from the table instead and helps herself to them. If she can’t have a small romantic gesture, she can at least have empty calories. “This stinks. Something’s definitely up.”

“We should lay low.” Morgana concurs, leaping onto the table and sniffing the bag of chips until Akira picks him up and pulls him into his lap. “Come on, I wanna try! It smells so salty, it’s gotta be good…”

“I’m not letting you eat chips, it’ll make you sick.” Akira says, patting his head. “We’ll go get something decent for cats on the way home.” Morgana purrs, leaning into Akira’s hand and sitting down. A little prince getting petted by a different kind of prince. Without giving herself time to think about it, Haru drags her chair closer to Akira’s, bumping shoulders with him with a smile that he returns. Between the blondes and Akira, this conversation has her in a much better mood than she started the morning in. Okay, granted, her possibly-murderous still-fiancee is missing in action. But…

“The change of heart still happened, didn’t it? He turned himself in.” Haru says, worry evident in her voice. Akira switches hands he was using to pet Morgana so that he can take her hand, linking his fingers with hers.

“It’s going to be fine.” He says with finality. “His heart changed. This is someone else, it has to be. Nobody bribes their way out of lockup on their own.”


“Yeah, definitely.” Ryuji nods in time with Ann. “He still confessed, that’s gotta stick, right?”

“If they got it on paper before then. If he signed it.” Akira shrugs. “Having experience getting booked has more benefits than I thought it would.” He laughs when Haru bats at his head with her free hand, only brushing his hair with her fingertips thanks to the awkward angle.

“That’s not funny.” Haru huffs. Ryuji and Ann don’t seem to concur with her, giggling awkwardly at their little tizzy. “Well. What are we to do, then?”

“Not much to do, I think.” Akira takes a pull from Haru’s tea, holding it out to her and grimacing. “Ugh, green tea. We wait and see and lay low, but I don’t know if—” He stops mid-sentence, eyes flickering over to the door onto the roof. As if on cue, someone pushes the heavy door open with a resounding squeal of metal.


Haru doesn’t have time to process her coming up here for the first time since second year before she crosses the roof and comes to a halt just behind Ryuji and Ann.

“Uniform violation,” She points at Ryuji, then Ann and Akira, “Uniform violation, and…yep, uniform violation.”

“Aw, come on. You let me in the gate this morning and it wasn’t a big deal!” Ryuji cries out.

“The roof is off limits to you three, too. Pick a charge, whichever you like.” Makoto shoots back.

“Makoto?” Haru manages, recovering enough to speak. “They’re here because I invited them.” Makoto’s gaze locks on her for the first time when she speaks, flickering down to her lap where Akira continues to hold her hand, and back up. Thankfully, Morgana seems to have disappeared into Akira’s bag none too soon.

“Yeah, what she said. We’re just eating lunch up here, you know?” Ryuji says, leaning hard on one knee and looking up at her.

“I’ll overlook you breaking so many school rules if you leave right this second. All three of you.” Her voice is so cold, winter stone under a rime of ice. She keeps her look fixed on Haru, ignoring Ryuji entirely.

Ryuji stands, even with his perpetual slouch still several inches taller than Makoto, leaning into her vision. “Is that a threat?” Only then does she look at him, and the steel in her eyes makes Haru fear for what might happen next, but she can’t bring herself to move. Thankfully, Ann stands, putting a hand on his arm and turning a placative look at Makoto before anything else happens..

“It’s not that big a deal, dude. We’ll just go.” She takes him by the hand, gathering both of their bags and giving Haru a lingering look before they push past Makoto and down the stairwell.

“Seems to me like my uniform isn’t violating any of the school rules.” Akira says, keeping his hand firmly linked with Haru’s, glaring defiance up at Makoto. Makoto snorts, looking him over and sighing.

“Right. I was just trying to see if I could get a rise out of you. Angry guys like you usually jump at a chance to stick it to authority.” Makoto crosses her arms, returning that same look he’s giving her in full.

“Not this guy. So, I’m good to stay. Haru invited us up for lunch, after all.” He raises her hand to his mouth, kissing the back of Haru’s hand, and both of them see the way Makoto’s nostrils flare when he does it.

“Don’t give me a reason to bust you, Kurusu. You won’t like what comes of it.”  Makoto snaps.

“Makoto, why are you doing this?” Haru reluctantly pulls her hand from Akira’s, standing.

“I need to talk to you. Privately.” She glances back at Akira, still glaring. At the very least, her voice and expression soften for her. Some lost echo of what they had before, severed so cruelly, still must remain in her, Haru realizes. She had cut that part of herself off a long time ago, taken her father and her tutors lessons on the invisibility of civility to heart. Haru had made herself small for all the world to see that she was never going to step out of line again. That isn’t her, anymore, but she knows all too well that it’s too late to take back how things went, to try to change them. Even if Makoto still loves her, she doesn’t deserve it for the way she accepted what happened so meekly.

Don’t be so quick to be hard on yourself. There is a time and a place for battle, and you would have been defeated in an instant. Save your fretting for battles that remain to be won.

That doesn’t make me right.

“Alright, alright. I know when I’m not wanted.” Akira stands, shouldering his bag and eyeing his opposition. “Just some advice, Makoto? You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”

“You’ve got 15 seconds to get back to the second floor before I report you smoking to the faculty.” Makoto says, not even bothering to look back at him.

“Hmph. See you later, Haru.” Akira crosses past Makoto, slamming the door into the desk propping it open with entirely more force than is necessary.

“What is this, Makoto? Those are my friends.”

“Haru, please. They’re not your friends.” The disdain in her tone ignites the smoldering anger from last night anew.

“And how exactly would you know? This is the first time we’ve spoken in months. You have no idea what goes on in my life, and you think this is protecting me, somehow?”

“Yes!” Makoto uncrosses her arms, pointing at the table. “Sakamoto is a delinquent circling the drain, Takamaki is just getting dragged down by him, and Kurusu is just looking for a chance to break his parole and take someone else down with him! I can’t believe I walked up here and saw you holding his hand, Haru! You have no idea what his rap sheet is like, do you?”

“He told me everything, Makoto. I know exactly what happened.” The anger burns cold in her, spreading through every limb and deadening her to the world. Why had she expected this to be any different? Of course Makoto, the daughter of a police officer, sister of a top flight prosecutor wouldn’t care about Akira’s humanity, only his crime, which obviously must be true because a judge and a system that she thinks infallible said so. God, it infuriates her all the more just thinking about it. Imagining Akira standing alone in a court of law, without family or friend or any help at all, judged for doing what he thought was the right thing.

“Like he told you the truth.” Makoto actually laughs, coldly shaking her head. “This is just a ploy, just like whatever he did to Kamoshida to escape his expulsion.”

“Akira had nothing to do with that.” The lie comes out automatically, delivered with the confidence that she has lied about so many other things in the past. To men like Sugimura’s advances, to teachers and curious adults that she was fine. Makoto actually laughs at her, then, utterly in disbelief.

“Haru, listen to yourself. It’s obvious, once you connect the dots. They got something compromising on him, and now they’re free and clear because nobody cares to finish punishing them.” Makoto takes a breath, grimacing. “We’re getting off topic. This is about you.”

“What?” That startles her.

“Why didn’t you tell me about your fiancee?” That softness returns to her voice, a distant ache awakening underneath the turmoil in Haru’s heart. “I had to find out from Kobayakawa, of all people.”

“It’s my business and no one else’s. Besides, what would Sae think if you let on?” Haru says bitterly. How did Kobayakawa know? What circles does Sugimura move in, that he would find out so quickly?

“It’s my business now, too.” Makoto walks around the table, growing closer to Haru than anyone but Akira has, within inches of her. Makoto’s voice is scarcely a whisper, her eyes locked on Haru’s. “The principal has me investigating the people who blackmailed Kamoshida, and I know their trail leads to you, too. Your fiance got targeted too, didn’t he?”

How does she know so much?

It would seem several cats have left the bag. From whence, I wonder...

Makoto reaches up hesitantly, fingertips brushing Haru’s cheek, and she’s pulled between her own loyalty to the Thieves and the spark of something that once was returning to her heart for a brief moment. The paradoxical desire to help Makoto, to make things right between them again, and to protect Akira as much as she can.

“What does Akira have on you, that you play along so willingly with him? You can’t feel anything for him.” Makoto’s red eyes bore into her own, the unsaid statement hanging in the space between them. ‘Because you love me’. Haru can’t explain this to her, not now, not like this. So she steps back, breaking the contact between them, and feels her on heart wrench at the stunned look in Makoto’s eyes. Slowly, Makoto’s hand falls to her side, clenching slowly to a fist. Haru wishes so desperately this wasn’t happening.

“I don’t know what you think is going on. But you’re wrong, Makoto. Please, believe me.” A part of her hates that this is their first real conversation in oh so very long. Her first visit to Haru’s sanctuary in over a year, and it’s to threaten her friends and tell her she’s wrong about everything she knows about them. What a romance.

“All the evidence I have says otherwise, Haru. I’m sorry.” Makoto turns away, pausing. “I’ll give you some time to untangle yourself from them. It’s the least I can do.”

“This isn’t what you think it is!” Haru calls out after her, but she doesn’t look back as she pushes through the door and back out of Haru’s life.

“Man, this is HORSESHIT!” Ryuji growls, kicking a vending machine next to him.

“Dude, keep your voice down!” Ann hisses, cuffing him by the ear. “Shit. He’s right, though, this freakin’ sucks.” Not even the elation of hearing Ann talk like a sailor can reach Haru as she is now, with her mood as black as her alias. They’re meeting in a less-used (by relative measures) corridor of the Shibuya underground, near a display of vending machines holding some truly bizarre foods and drinks.

“What the hell are we gonna do?” Ryuji says, leaning against the freshly kicked vending machine. “If she knows shit, then we’re fucked.”

“She doesn’t know shit. That’s why she’s trying to scare us, instead of rolling us all up now and taking the win.” Akira says, pacing despite his calm tone. “We have to focus on what we can work on, not what we think might happen.”

“Ann.” Haru had fallen silent for a while after explaining what had happened, still in some level of disbelief about the events of the afternoon. Now, though, she's had an idea. “You asked her about me several days ago, right?”

“Makoto? No, I don’t— ooh, shit, yeah! She gave me hella stink-eye back then, but I think she just thought I was some weird underclassmen trying to get a leg up with the rich girl.”

“That was before Sugimura threatened Akira. So she only knew about him after the calling card was sent.” Haru fetches her phone from her bag, googling Sugimura's name and ‘benefit’. And there it is. But she doesn’t see any results for any of the typical news sites. “The story of the calling card is all over the political gossip blogs, but nowhere else.”

“Seriously? The news isn't picking it up at all, I've been refreshing all the big names like crazy. They took Kamoshida super seriously…” Ryuji hangs his head, groaning.

“It must be because he hasn't been officially charged or released yet.” Haru returns her phone to her bag. “The police are burying the story while they look for him.”

“Sugimura Yokoyama, Mementos, Buffet.” Akira holds out his phone, the Metaverse navigator active and pulsing unpleasantly.

“No match found. Please refine search criteria and try again.” The phone chimes.

“Well, that's an easy test. No palace, so his heart changed.” Akira shrugs. “He's gotta be holed up somewhere, crying his eyes out.”

“Cold comfort, given the circumstances.” Haru sighs, crossing her arms over her chest. “I don't know what to do, then. If he's still out there…”

“I know. It's an unsatisfying end.” Akira puts an arm around her, pulling her close. “It's going to be okay. This is over, we can move on. He's already repented, so we need to look forward. Not back.” He always knows what she wants to hear.

“ We didn't really eat lunch.” Ryuji grins, scratching his head.

“I'm paying.” Akira blurts before Haru can even open her mouth, holding up a finger to shush her. “And we're not going to the cafe.”

Oh, thank God, he's learning. She'll have to slip the waiter the check before he gets a chance to, though. Maybe she can pin him in the booth with a kiss first…She wraps an arm around his and sighs in contentment. It's time to forget their problems and just live for an hour or two. Makoto and Sugimura can wait for one afternoon, surely.

“Ah shit. I kinda wanted a steak…” Ryuji slumps against the vending machine. Ann leans on his side, patting him on the shoulder and soothing him with ideas for other beef options.

It turns out that Akira doesn’t actually know any restaurants in Shibuya besides the cafe. Then Ryuji had an idea, so they spent about 30 minutes wandering the main street and various side alleys fruitlessly searching for a hard-to-find ramen shop that turns out to have a line going around the block, thanks to an obscure promotion none of them knew about. By the time they were ready to settle for the beef bowl shop by the station, it was packed and impossible to get into.

“About time!” Ryuji whoops, hopping up from the stone bench he’s sitting on and helping Akira and Ann divide their spoils from...Big Bang Burger. When the hungry get hungrier just looking at a wait time for dinner, the hungry get garbage, apparently. Haru accepts her own bag of chicken and fries with much more trepidation, smiling tightly to Akira. Not her idea of romantic double dates, but she’ll have to settle.

For now.

“What’s with you giving Ann money, exactly?” Akira gripes, sitting down with his own dinner (a Triple Bang, hold the onions, extra Galaxy Sauce) and opening the bag. Morgana circles hungrily at his feet, not even talking but actually meowing at him for a bite. Poor boy must be hungry after not getting much for lunch. Haru ends up breaking up her chicken into bits for him, stripping breading and leaving it in a pile in the bag before feeding him a piece.

“Because I don’t think you should frivolously waste your money on us when it could be better spent on yourself.” She takes a bite of the other half of her chicken, holding up a slightly greasy finger to him. “We’ve both seen the state of your living conditions, and frankly if you keep insisting on this absurd state of affairs then I will simply start having furniture delivered to Leblanc.”

Akira tsks, unwrapping his burger and taking a bite. “Fine, fine. I’ll buy a TV and a DVD player.” Past Akira on the bench, Haru hears Ryuji laugh uproariously at something Ann said, slapping his knee and coughing. Their seating arrangement and public space takes up space and leaves much to be desired, but the cool evening is calm and only a trickle of travelers passes them by as the afternoon waxes, the street lights flickering on and spotlighting them in the square.

“This is nice. Given the circumstances.” Haru says, wiping her mouth with a napkin and frowning at how much lipstick came off with it before scrubbing her lips entirely clean. Terribly messy meal, but there really is nothing like the Universal Chicken Meal for the soul, some days.

“We could be eating vending machine food.” Akira points out, returning to a topic of discussion from their abortive search for something decent to eat. Both Ann and Haru had shouted him down in unison before he got any ideas about the feasibility of the idea, of course, but the fact remains that he thought he could build a proper meal for 4 from prepackaged snacks and bottled tea. What has Akira been through in the past, to make him turn to such a dire salvation…

“We could not.” Haru shakes her head definitively. “I would rather die than survive in such a manner.”

“We’ll see how you feel when you’ve been in the places I’ve been, dear.” Akira crumples his wrapper up, shoving it in the bag and picking up Morgana. “I’m not giving you leftover fries, I’ll get you something decent when we go home.”

“Salty…” Morgana groans, staring at the bag. “It smells sooooooo good. Can I just have one?”

“One. If you ask for two, I’ll close the bag on the train, got it?”

“Okay!” Morgana, in a move that looks so unbearably odd for a cat, nods vigorously. It’s a bit like when they shake their head side to side rapidly, but far stranger. He squeals with joy when Akira pulls from the bag’s depths two fries, giving him both and patting his head.

“You spoil him as bad as Sojiro.” Haru sighs, leaning against his shoulder and scratching Morgana’s side. Staring at her nails, she realizes she can paint them black again at long last. So many avenues are opening to her, it boggles the mind. New vistas, and new problems.

“I do not. He gets water and whatever protein I can sneak out of the cafeteria for lunch, it’s terrible. But I’m not smuggling cat food and a can opener into school. Think of what little miss Makoto would do if she found out.”

“Mmh.” Haru sighs again, drawing her legs up onto the bench and hugging them. “I’d rather not. I don’t like this, being pitted against her.”

“I know. It’s not exactly my favorite thing either.”

“Did I tell you about us?” Haru pauses. “Mako-chan and I. We...” She trails off, grumbling incoherently. How do you contextualize this relationship so long dead and suddenly revived in the strangest of circumstances? She doesn’t not love Makoto, but...she had thought that time in her life had ended. Unburying memories hurts more than she thought.

“What?” Akira bumps her hand. “If you don’t want to talk about you and her, I get it. It doesn’t have to be out in the open.”

“I think it does. She…” Haru takes a breath, in and out. “Mako-chan loves me, and I...loved her. Maybe I still do. I don’t know. It’s…”

“Hard to put into words.” Akira puts an arm around her, Morgana curling up in his lap. He always gets quiet when they fall into this conversational back and forth, watching them both with an intensity that she would find off-putting if she didn’t understand the startlingly keen intellect that lies behind it.

“Yes. In middle school, I was still beginning my transition. Even in a school for the privileged elite, or perhaps especially in such spaces, I was not welcome. An oddity, laughable and strange. Makoto was in many ways the same, having earned her schooling there on a merit scholarship rather than familial largesse.” Haru doesn’t like the flat tone she speaks of these events with, but anything else puts her dangerously close to tears, and she’s had enough crying to last her a lifetime in the last 2 weeks. “We banded together. She protected me from people who thought money insulated them from civility. There were fights, and she protected me then, too. So...we got close. In the end, we agreed to continue to high school together. And when she passed Shujin’s exam with flying colors, we celebrated. On the day of the entrance ceremony, we…” A lump forms in her throat.

“Something happened.” Akira says. God bless Akira for that instantly incisive mind of his, seeing her pregnant pause and taking her around it entirely. She doesn’t know if she can ever explain to him properly the events of that day, the hideous sensation of burning skin and nails splitting skin and the unearthly howling of the girls as Makoto laid into them both, one after the other. Here and now, even as she is after everything she’s done in Mementos, thinking of it sends a chill down her spine and flips her stomach in loops.

“We were forbidden from seeing each other again, after. She became Student Council President a few days later, and when I returned to school, she told me about the roof. I’ve been going up there ever since. No one talked to me. Mako-chan was limited to pleasantries and greetings, nothing more.” She swallows the lump in her throat, the last 2 years of loneliness welling up in her and forced back down without a word.

Akira squeezes her tighter, and says nothing more. What can he say to her that would make any of that better? Nothing, really. Empty platitudes about it being over, that he won’t allow her to go back to such a hell again. Instead, he simply remains there, present and reassuring. No matter what happened, he is here now, and in the moment this is what he can offer her. It helps.

“Excuse me.” The comfortable silence they found themselves in is pierced by an unfamiliar voice to their side, towards where Ryuji and Ann are sitting.

“What do you want, dude?” Ryuji stands, rising into Haru’s vision above Akira’s head. Leaning around him, she gets a look at the other speaker. He’s gigantic, taller even than Ryuji, his hair a deep sapphire blue lit into a reflective sheen by the sodium lights overhead. He’s definitely around their age but he’s not wearing a uniform, clad instead in a carefully pressed dress shirt and pants, and in his hand is a large pad of paper.

“I apologize for bothering you, but...I simply must request a favor. It would mean so much to the world of art if you were to accept.” Ann stands next to Ryuji, staring quizzically up at him and the blue-haired stranger, and Akira and Haru end up standing purely just to match the moment. Arrayed around this stranger, they must seem rather intimidating in all matching uniforms to his own regular streetwear. Curiously, his clothes remind him most of all of handmade pieces, especially since she can’t spot any form of insignia, though Haru can’t confirm anything in the less-than-adequate light.

“You ask people minding their own business for weird favors a lot?” Ryuji says, straightening himself up so that the difference in their height is less pronounced by his slouch.

“I do not make a habit of it, no. But, if you’ll let me explain, this could be a very mutually beneficial arrangement. You see, I am a street artist by trade, but one in training. My master had sent me out in search of inspiration, to chase the cobwebs from my talents, so to speak. And here, I have found you.”

“What, me?” Ryuji’s eyebrows shoot up in shock.

“And your companion.” He nods to Ann, who seems similarly surprised. Shouldn’t she be used to the ‘you look like a model’ routine, by now, one part of Haru’s mind wonders fruitlessly as she watches. “I was struck by the ways that your features complement one another. The violent shade of your hair highlights the softness of the golden texture of hers, the jagged cheekbones and jaw drawing the eye to the gentle curves of her face…” The artist grins, almost like he’s out of practice with it, one side of his mouth lurching upwards before the other rises to meet it.

“Uhh…” Ryuji hesitates, looking from the stranger to Ann and back.

“He’s saying we look good together, Ryuji.” Ann says, inserting herself into the deliberation. “So, wait, what do you want, then?”

“I have hit a wall in my work, so to speak. Portraiture is not my strong suit, and my master is emphasizing the shoring up of my weaknesses as an artist. For the benefits it will bring to my other work. I wish to paint you in a formal setting, as I feel the sketch I have created is inadequate.” He holds out his pad, flipping through several pages of sketches. All of them are Ryuji and Ann, in various states of conversation and comportment. He must have been at this for quite some time. The final one the artist settles on is ridiculously intimate, the both of them gazing into each other’s eyes as Ryuji brushes one of Ann’s pigtails back over her shoulder. Ryuji is rendered in jagged slashes of graphite, sharp and angular in a way that makes him look hewn from stone, and Ann is all gently swooping strokes, yet the expression is wonderfully accurate to one Haru has seen her in many times, of unguarded fondness. For whatever this young man says of his lack of skill at portraiture, he has done a remarkable job, given the limits of the environment and his tools.

“Man, that’s fucking weird. You’ve been drawing us all night?” Ryuji scratches his chin, leafing back through it. “And I look so weird. Why am I so angry looking? My eyebrows aren’t really that small, right?”

“In this environment, I cannot properly render you as you are, and I may have exaggerated some traits in my mind as I recalled them for these sketches. Forgive me if they are unseemly.” He sounds actually apologetic, and bows as he hands the pad to Ann.

“That’s...weirdly polite.” Akira mumbles.

“Ssh.” Haru shushes him, absorbed in the events. What a fascinating person this boy must be.

“So, do we get paid?” Ann asks, holding out the pad back to him once she’s satisfied flipping through it and pursing her lips.

“ not have much I may offer in monetary compensation. If my master accepts the painting as adequate, I fear that I plan to sell it on the open market and turn the proceeds towards my work. And a properly sized fee for my models, of course.”

“I mean...if you’re gonna sell it, just give it to us and we’ll call it even.” Ann says without missing a beat.

“What?!” Ryuji jumps back nearly a foot, shock clear on his face.

“We can send it to Shiho, you dope!” Ann elbows Ryuji hard. “It’s a deal.”

“Very well.” The boy nods, plucking a battered metal case from his pocket and withdrawing a business card for Ann. “Thank you very much for your understanding. Contact me at this location at your convenience, and we can discuss things from there.” Without another word he turns and leaves, nodding once to Akira and Haru as he passes them heading towards the station.

“Well, that happened, I guess...” Akira says, circling around to Ann’s side to get a look at the card. “Who is this dude?”

“Yusuke Kitagawa.” Ann says. “...Oh, shit. ‘Apprentice to Ichiryusai Madarame’. Is this just his home address?”

“Oh, fuck, him?” Ryuji says, shocked. He leans in on Ann’s shoulder, leaning on her and reading. “Fuck, it is. We got him!”

“What exactly do we have, now?” Haru almost flinches when they look up at her as one.

“We should probably tell you about our next target.” Akira says, the steel of Joker’s voice alloying his own.

Finally, at long last, Haru returns home, slipping in at a late hour once more. Only now does she stop to wonder if Father was found, or what manner of strangeness has taken place in her absence. Her phone had been curiously silent, even from the typically micromanaged messages of Father’s assistant. Not unusual, but strange given the lather he had worked himself into this morning. It has been a day for strangeness, and it only seems to be continuing in that vein.

The first sign that something is wrong is when the doorknob to her door won’t turn. Rattling it in the frame, she feels only the handle lock engaged, and frowns mightily. She doesn’t have a key to the knob, having traditionally used the deadbolt built into it to ensure her solitude. Worrisome. Without thinking, she pulls her phone from her bag, tapping out a quick message about something strange at home and sends it directly to Akira. If father is home, then he would be in his office in the other wing. The house has never felt more empty than it does in this moment, as she walks across the house in the dead of night. Not even Chef Suzuki is here in the kitchen, the house utterly silent save for her.

The door to Father’s study is open, warm yellow light spilling out into the dark black-and-white hallway from within. Pushing the door open, she finds him reading a paper, flipping it to it’s back side and signing something before feeding it into a file. His eyes flicker up to her sharply, and he sighs.

“Sit.” She follows his command, placing her bag in her lap and staring at him.

“What is going on? My room—”

Father cuts her off with a loud clearing of his throat. “It is not your room. It is a room in my home, filled with things I paid for, where you sleep and bathe.” Father places his hands on the table with exaggerated calm, knitting his fingers together into a dome on it. “Do you know where your fiance is?”

“No. He hasn’t contacted me once.” Haru lies, staring into his eyes. What is this? Father blows air from his nose, shaking his head.

“I thought as much. Haru, you’ve made a grave mistake.” His stare doesn’t waver.

“I haven’t done anything!” Haru protests.

“Then whatever fool thought to blackmail the boy has made the mistake for you. Do you remember the exact words I used when we last spoke of your marriage? If you do not marry Sugimura, you will no longer be welcome in this home.”

“You can’t be serious.” Ice runs in Haru’s veins. Everything feels distant, like she is interacting with the world through a layer of plastic. “He ran away.”

“He ran away because of your actions, or the actions of another. My terms were clear. You have time and again wasted my company’s resources and energy that should be devoted to my work. A parasite who cannot contribute to the betterment of the family is better off removed from it.”

“You’re not the man who raised me.” Haru says, voice cold. “The father I had would never have even imagined this. What happened to you?”

Kunikazu Okumura slams his hands on the table and stands, but she doesn’t flinch. Nothing rises up in her, no fear, no anger, not even shock or betrayal. Milady is silent, too, the reassuring presence of her confidence and warmth gone. Everything is blanketed in nothing at all, an absence of pain. “You have no idea what I have done to ensure your future, and you have done nothing but spit in my face for it. I will not brook your foolish little rebellions any longer. I have greater things to face than a spoiled child who thinks her father a monster for showing her the way of the world."

“You are not my father.” Haru repeats herself, staring at him and feeling nothing at all. After a moment, her feet move under her and she stands, though it feels strange, like she isn’t in control of her body. Everything is distant, her mind blank as she walks out of the home she grew up in for the last time. The slam of the grand front door closing is mirrored by the clash of thunder overhead, rain pouring down on the empty driveway.

Akira jiggles his foot against the bar at his seat in Leblanc, staring alternately at his phone and the door. Haru texted him 2 hours ago about something strange at home, and no response to his many requests for clarification or phone calls have gotten him anything. Sojiro, busy rearranging the beans on his shelf by growing region (Blue Mountain goes on the left, now, and all the robusticas on the right), throws him a withering look that reads as ‘if you can sit, you can clean’, if Akira cared to look at him. Instead, he unlocks his phone one last time and sends another message, a simple plea for information and a directive to come to Leblanc if she can get there.

“What are you so anxious about?” Sojiro says when he gives up on getting the robustica tins to all fit on one shelf and sets them down on the counter.

“Tests. They’re next week, and I’m all studied out.” Akira sighs, his concern a real one. With the Sugimura Problem in full swing, he had no time to study, and now here it is, Saturday night before a week of tests and he can’t focus. The book is open in front of him, his phone laying atop it.

“Then stop texting your girlfriend and go to bed, kid. I’m not keeping the store open for a late-night rendezvous. Go flip the sign for me, will you?” Sojiro sighs, untying his apron and getting out of it with painstaking slowness.

“Ugh.” Akira hops to his feet, glaring out the door at the oppressive downpour that started the moment he got home. Slipping quickly out, he hugs the building while the door closes, trying to flip the sign without stepping out into the rain and failing. Finally, infuriated and worried, he steps out into the rain for a thoroughly wet moment and throws the door shut fully, grasping the sign and spinning it.

A hand grabs a hold of the hem of his shirt from behind, freezing him in place facing the door.

“I don’t have anywhere else to go.” Haru says from behind him, and when he spins he sees her soaked to the bone, staring shell-shocked at him. Without thinking he steps into the rain with her, pulling her to him in a tight hug. He can’t think of a single thing to say, only that he knows how badly she needs support right now by the look in her eyes. It’s a look he once saw when he looked in the mirror, only a few months ago. When he regained some level of sanity, he swore to the bottom of his heart he would never let someone else feel the way he felt, alone and broken. So no matter what happened, he will be here for Haru.


Chapter Text

“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’’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.

Who? 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.”

“’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.”

“Thank you.”

“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!”

“ 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. 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.”