Makoto Niijima believed that she was a rational person. She was rarely the sort to make decisions without heeding logic. Her upbringing taught her the value of strict discipline and a stiff upper lip. She was, in her own mind, the very picture of the ideal student. Why else would she be elected as the student body’s president?
And yet, despite everything she had been raised to believe about the world and about herself, her view on life, once so strict and unyielding, had crumbled to dust in less than three weeks. It started with the impossible task of hunting the Phantom Thieves, a demand that made it all too clear that she was, at best, a mutt on a short leash to the authority she served under.
After a time of almost no leads, her goal switched to the somehow more impossible task of taking down a crime ring in Shibuya that targeted Shujin students. It wasn’t what her “superiors” wanted of her, as Principal Kobayakawa was still fixated on the debatable threat of the Phantom Thieves, but it was the threat to students Makoto found to be more pertinent.
Imagine her surprise when it was only the discovery of her first mark that lead her to the second. Well, “discovery” was a kind way of saying “blackmail,” but it was the only way Makoto could justify any of her actions to herself after becoming a Thief. In the span of two weeks, she had gone from a stand-up, if stressed- out, student to one of the leading minds of the most mysterious criminal organization in Japan.
In a way, though, it felt like it was reinforcing her view of herself rather than abandoning it. Only the threat of overt enslavement by a fat pig of a man made her eyes open to the implicit chains set on her by the fat pig sitting in that principal office.
Realizing that made her cast off the identity heaped on her by others and find the real Makoto waiting underneath. She didn’t expect that version of herself to be a nuclear motorcycle, but damn did it feel right. Now she was ready to really be the large, in-charge woman her sister raised her to be.
That was what Makoto believed, until she met Haru. It was almost happenstance that made the two meet on the roof of Shujin that day, but the butterflies spawned from a chance encounter can live long on the nectar of an awakened heart. Every image of the fluffy-haired third year that passed through her mind made Makoto’s iron discipline falter, and the constant stream of fantasies that assaulted her mind had her shaking from nervous energy.
She had known for many years what her taste in partners was, but meeting one that met her tastes in person was enough to make Makoto feel like a little kid getting chucked into the deep end of the pool with only the support of her infinitely patient friends to act as her water wings. What she did to deserve that kind of support after almost ratting all of them out to the police, no amount of logic could discern. But this was well beyond the point of logic, a depth her old self feared to acknowledge.
Her new self was still hesitant about pressing on. Akira, seeing this, set about formulating a plan. The irony of her asexual friend being the one to head her new elite unit of wingmen was lost to her, as fixated as she was on not screwing the plan up.
The guy had a keen eye for people, but that included Makoto. For every step meant to endear her to Haru, such as having Morgana act like an affectionate kitten towards her, he had another in place to push Makoto out of her bubble of comfort. She knew that he, somehow, made it so the two were next to each other in theater chairs that shared an armrest. She also had a vague hunch that he enjoyed seeing her go bright red every time Haru squeezed her hand out of reflex during intense scenes of the movie, but full knowledge of that fact was kept from her by her brain overclocking on the charge of proximity.
It didn’t end there, though. If the theater put Haru in a light that made Makoto want to be her support, then the trip to Big Bang Burger portrayed the exact inverse. Akira brought up wanting a Big Bang Challenge as casually as anyone else would bring up a normal burger, and, with Haru’s enthusiastic agreement, the two were seated to a pair of gargantuan stacks of meat, lettuce, cheese, and who-knows how many artery clogging sauces jammed between two relatively flimsy buns. A bell rang, and the feeding frenzy began.
Akira picked up his tower by the chunk and shoved his face right in, counting on his mouth to carve a tunnel. By this point, anyone familiar with his attitude in the Metaverse could tell that Joker had come to play. Haru, on the other hand, took to hers with a fork and knife, transferring segments down to a plate in order properly cut them. That didn’t mean she was going any slower, though. Where Akira’s speed came from savagery, Haru looked more like someone had just set footage of a meal being eaten normally on fast forward. The food in question being a burger only slightly dampened the image of this proper lady burning through her Challenge with all the speed of a starved beast without losing any of her noble poise.
Makoto couldn’t quite say why at the time, but the sight spoke to her. Where the others only saw her keeping pace with Joker, Makoto saw something more. She saw in Haru someone who could balance ability with image. Yes, Haru was breathtakingly capable, but she was also completely in control, able to remain a “lady” while facing off against adversity. Compared to Makoto, who had to turn into a craven berserker to get anything more substantial than paperwork done, it was one of the most captivating sights she had ever bore witness to.
It wasn’t the last time Makoto found herself lost in Haru’s splendor that day. The group was ostensibly just hanging out around town, bouncing from place to place randomly, but Akira, after seeing what Makoto seemed to like about Haru, and hopefully vice-versa, took it upon himself to direct attention towards venues that let them display those qualities in full.
They spent an hour or two bumming around a bowling alley. While Ann and Ryuji goaded each other on to the left, and Akira and Yusuke held a more laid back competition to the right, Makoto and Haru had a lane all to themselves. They took turns taking scores for each other by the frame. This was the polite thing to do, but Makoto admitted to herself, begrudgingly, that she also relished the chance to take in Haru’s natural grace.
The fluffy haired lady had a lightness to her movement that Makoto was jealous of. She stepped towards the lane like a water sprite dancing on water, a comparison she was all the more certain of after seeing Akira command such a sprite in Mementos. The ball left her hand with the smoothness of morning dew dripping from a blade of grass. It skated across polished floor, and it struck the pins with a satisfying thwack and clatter.
When the lovely hail of pins subsided, though, an unfortunate result was made apparent. Two pins were left standing, and they weren’t adjacent. All that was left was the lead pin and the one in the back left corner. Makoto’s rapt gaze turned down in sympathy as she recorded the initial eight.
“A one-seven split. This could be tricky.”
“Oh well.” Haru shrugged, coming as close to a skip as possible while she took up another ball. “Sometimes, we have to work with the hand we are dealt.” She centered herself in the lane and held her new ammunition up to her eye. Makoto was intrigued by this, as she could almost see Haru’s thought process in the flickering of her pupil.
When the last of the numbers checked out, Haru stepped into her second throw. Makoto was confused at first. The ball swerved slightly to the right, its path looking to miss both pins entirely. Then, about two-thirds of the way down, the spin on the ball took effect, curving its path to the left. It sliced across the end of the lane, sweeping both pins down. Makoto looked on in awe as Haru clapped her hands together.
“Yay, I did it!”
How was this girl both perfectly calculated and disarmingly adorable!? It was just unfair! Makoto felt like a lump of ham that got kicked down the stairs by comparison, just barely picking her jaw up off the floor in time to note Haru’s spare.
“Your turn, Mako-chan.”
“Right. Let’s see if I can follow up your performance.” Makoto felt even more like a ham as she waddled up to the lane. The ball was heavy in her hand. What if her nerves locked up and made her roll a gutter ball? What if they stopped on her even sooner and made her drop it on her foot? So many things that could go wrong, and there were so few ways to mitigate the risks! What should she…?
“Hey, Makoto.” She jumped slightly before following the voice to her right. Akira threw his shot with all the nonchalance he could muster, scoring a respectable seven pins. “Hold up, stay calm, then go all out.”
The command broke through the ball of quivering fear that was Makoto and reached out to the Queen hiding underneath. Her other self looked back at the pins, and, instead of seeing a chance to fail, she saw a pack of enemies that needed to be laid low. At once, her posture hardened, and her tongue longed for the taste of recreational justice.
Besides the boost in willpower the transformation wrought, it also gave to her an awareness rivaled by no normal human. She felt the intent in the air around her. Ann’s heated fury intermingled with the sting of Ryuji’s barbed jabs at her. Yusuke’s cool con templation seeped across the entire room, noting every bump on the wall and divide between the floorboards. Akira gave a token of attention to his second shot, but she could feel the brunt of her leader’s focus on her. It wasn’t a judgmental force, though. Quite the opposite. The warmth of his camaraderie braced her against the cold of the uncaring universe. This was that beating heart of the Phantom Thieves.
His wasn’t the most potent intent in the room, though, at least not to her. No, her attention quickly went to the one pair of eyes that didn’t belong to a Thief. Haru’s focus on Makoto suddenly redoubled, as if she could feel the change that overcame her. It wasn’t a reaction of sheer shock, more one of instant magnetism. Makoto could almost see her own actions reflected back at her. Being on the other side of the transaction stoked her flames further, and Queen grinned.
The ball in her hand was no longer just a sphere of hardwood. Now, it was her implement of domination, a way to extend the might of her fist. She pulled back, and she threw her shot with the weight of a punch. The air shattered like a brick wall, and the ball barreled towards its defenseless foes at mach-1. When the attack landed, it was a miracle that the pins didn’t break. They were all caught by the straight shot with a force that launched them from their posts, sending them into the wall at the other side of the repository. They fell in with a cavalcade of cracks, like a field all alight with thunder, and Queen cocked her head back in stalwart pride.
‘ Justice has prevailed. ’
“ That was incredible, Mako-chan!” Queen turned around, and, in the spotlight that was Haru’s sparkling gaze, the terribly nervous cloak of Makoto concealed her once more. Was that admiration in her expression? Oh gosh…
“It was nothing, really. Just a little… luck, I guess.”
“Luck only varies as much as you allow it to, and you left no room for it.” Haru merrily recorded the result, a large ‘X’ in the score box. “Composure like that only comes from practice. What is your secret, if you don’t mind my asking?” She didn’t intend to, but Haru happened to step a few inches into a territory she really didn’t want to be in. Everyone caught wind of the question, and their eyes were on her, with various degrees of intensity. (Note for later, Ryuji needed some discipline lessons of his own.) Makoto was left to fish for an answer that didn’t blow the lid on their entire operation. Fortunately, this was the kind of pressure she could operate under.
“ I practice Aikido. My sister is a firm believer in self-defense.”
“Wow, martial arts!” Makoto always thought she wanted the respect of others, but now that someone was actually looking up to her, she had no idea what to do with it. She wasn’t helped by the fact that it was a beautiful girl. Scratch that, the beautiful girl. “I have always wondered what it must be like to have that kind of refined control over yourself. Your sister is wonderful for giving you the chance to find out.”
Queen was practically hammering at the inside of Makoto’s head. Opportunity, take it!
“I can show you a trick or two sometime, if you would be interested?” If the redoubled shimmer of Haru’s eyes didn’t tell her the line landed, then the catty whistle from Ryuji would have. The retaliatory thump across Skull’s thick skull shut him up before Haru seemed to notice.
“I would love to! Oh, if it’s not a bother?”
“If it was, I wouldn’t have offered.”
“Thank you very much, Mako-chan! I’ll try to find an opening in my schedule that we can work with. Speaking of, I suppose it’s my turn again, isn’t it?” Haru excused herself to claim another ball.
While her back was turned, Makoto glanced over to Akira, the one person whose social sense she trusted in this situation. His thumbs up confirmed what Queen was trying to say through the haze of uncertainty. To borrow a Ryuji-ism, she had freaking nailed it.
The day was a long one. Akira repeatedly and insistently dragged Makoto out of her comfort zone, and she couldn’t have been more grateful. Between the bowling alley, the batting cages, and the arcade, he had put her in situations that showed off her best sides, barring her academic sense. At least, she trusted that this was his intent. Either way, Haru had fun at each locale, so Makoto wouldn’t complain.
When the sky started to turn yellow, reflecting gold off the tall skyscrapers of Tokyo, the approach of curfew rang heavy in the group’s ears. It was time to disperse. They rode the same subway lines for a spell, during which they exchanged jokes and observations about various events throughout the day.
After a while, though, the lines started to diverge. Yusuke, Ryuji, and Ann were the first to be sent on their individual ways. Sometime before Akira got off, Morgana scampered across the seats to sit between her and Haru. While the latter was more than happy to start scratching behind his ears, the cat himself had a message for Makoto.
“Our plan’s down to the last step. You got this, Queen?” In place of responding directly, Makoto acted like she was petting him, too, and traced her reply along his side with her pinkie finger.
‘Hope so. Thanks for help.’
“Anytime. Now go get her.” Akira saw that his stop was next, and when he stood, Morgana bolted into his bag.
“We should hang out more often. The extra attention does Morgana some good.”
“Agreed. Take care, Akira-kun, and if you ever need a break from the crowds at school, feel free to come up to the roof. It’s always nice and quiet in the garden.” Akira wasn’t expecting the kind offer, but it earned a genuine, soft smile from him.
“I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks.” Akira departed, and when the doors closed, it was down to Makoto and Haru. Somehow, they managed to have an entire car to themselves, and it was at least fifteen minutes before the next pertinent stop.
Makoto wracked her brain trying to find something to say. Actually, she knew what she wanted to say, but not how to say it. Haru liked the bold approach when she offered Aikido lessons, so maybe firm confidence would work? Or maybe that was because she thought it was a platonic offer, and not the date Makoto hoped for. Well, she would be alright with it being platonic, if worst came to worst. She didn’t like rescinding offers. If that was the case, then…
“Thank you for inviting me to meet your friends, Mako-chan. They truly are lovely people.”
“Yeah. They are.” Okay, a conversation at all was better than the exact one she wanted.
“They’re all quite bighearted, and honest. It’s a breath of fresh air.”
“...Compared to what?” With one offhanded comment, Makoto’s yellow flag had gone up. Haru kept herself under control, but it was clear that she was putting up an air of composure. Her expression had gone from serene to false serenity, as though the way she presented herself had frozen to keep how she really felt under wraps.
“You know, Akira-kun mentioned something to me when you and the others went to order lunch. He said...” Haru looked at Makoto, her gaze lingering, hunting for a reaction. “...That you have a crush on me?”
Makoto’s heart stopped. Was the lack of honesty Haru indirectly brought up her own? Oh God, she screwed it up! Before Makoto could let the apologies flood out, Haru lost her poise, jumping up in a fluster with her hands raised innocently.
“Oh, no, I’m not mad about that, honest! In fact, it’s the opposite, I’m flattered!” Makoto’s heart started again, though her head was still a little fuzzy from the unexpected blow.
“I’m really, truly not angry. I think I understand why you might want to be a little guarded about your… is ‘preferences’ the correct term?” Makoto nodded, her voice momentarily lost to her. Haru was relieved. “People care far too much about others’ preferences in our society. Keeping it secret is a matter of protecting your social standing. I understand that.” Haru’s gaze drooped, shame sullying her appearance. “It’s my own deception that I’m upset about, as I fear it might hurt you.”
“What?” Johanna’s eyes opened. She didn’t have any hard information, but her gut was spelling out a vague, but telling impression. “What do you mean?” Haru took a deep breath, her forced calmness, tinted by revealed guilt, returning to her.
“We were patrons of a Big Bang Burger earlier today. Are you aware of the controversies surrounding its upper management?” Confused, but still following well enough, Makoto nodded.
“My sister mentioned that the corporation behind the chain, Okumura Foods, has been accused of disreputable handling of competitors, and it appears that it funds predatory practices by overworking and underpaying employees.” Every word from her mouth garnered a response from Haru like a knife plunging deep into her heart. Makoto’s hands clenched on her lap. “May I ask what this means to you?”
“It… It matters to me, because...” Haru gulped, her composure failing. “My full name is Haru Okumura.”
“My father is Kunikazu Okumura, the CEO of Okumura Foods. Many of the business decisions under investigation came directly from him.”
“I see.” Haru withered, as though preempting some tirade that she expected to wash over her. This guilt, this helplessness, it all rung as familiar. Haru expected a response of anger for stepping out of line and revealing herself. Anger was precisely the emotion sparked in Makoto.
But it was not aimed where Haru thought. To her great fortune, Makoto was among the few people who knew what it was like to be puppeteered by unseen, uncaring hands.
“It’s not your fault.”
Where harsh words would have made Haru hunker down further, the kind sentiment that took their place was the more shocking slap. The false front she put on for protection was shattered, revealing the prone girl whose only known line of defense has been torn from her.
“Come again?” Her voice was soft, vulnerable. The only thing that kept Queen from tearing her way into reality was the physical impossibility of Thievery in the real world. Even then, the margin that kept her at bay was thin. A swell of her newfound grit coursed through her to the sound of Johanna’s screaming engine.
“What your father has done is entirely on him, not you. I admit, I’ve only known you for a few days, but that time has been enough to say that you don’t deserve any of the blame.” Haru’s shoulders firmed up from their prior deflated slouch, as though her whole frame was being pulled up by the heart.
“That’s… It’s very kind of you to say that.” A shaky smile pushed onto Haru’s face, but it was submerged by a second tide of hesitation. “But you should also know that Father’s actions also include a… an, arranged marriage. For me.” The words hit Makoto like a bullet through the soul. It would have broken her had she stood unaided, but the stiff upper lip that had long been trained into her was finally useful. It let her weather the damage long enough for Haru to add onto her statement. Filling dead air was the standard response for uncomfortable situations when fleeing wasn’t an option, after all.
“I truly regret having to inform you of it. I actually think I feel something for you.” Haru sprung up, the implications of her statement hitting a moment too late. Before she could attempt to correct herself, Makoto found the opening she needed to bring in a second wind.
“That implies you don’t feel anything for your fiance?” Haru clamped her lips together. Where before she was held back by guilt, now it seemed that fear limited her. It was a horrible reaction, no matter how Makoto looked at it. She gently set a hand over Haru’s, careful to not put too much pressure on her. “I promise, whatever you tell me now will stay between us. I won’t tell a soul.” Haru settled back into her seat, looking Makoto over for the slightest hint of deception. When she found none, only firm, ardent support, she let the last scraps of her reserve fall.
“If I may speak plainly, I feel only disdain for that horrid man.” Her words were barbed, laced with venom that could make exposed flesh smolder. Makoto listened intently and drank deep of the toxic brew that long boiled unseen. “He looks at me like a trophy, something to possess for the sake of his own hubris.” By this point, thick streams of tears had broken free, flowing from a reservoir she had been forced to hide away. “Hearing him speak makes me feel used, and I dare not think of what intentions he holds for me once the marriage is finalized. Had I a way out, I would take it, but I’m trapped by my station as an Okumura daughter.”
“You’re only ever as trapped as you allow yourself to be.” Haru choked back a sob, looking up into Makoto’s eyes. What she found there kept her from turning away. “You’re letting others build your future for you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t build another for yourself.” Her mind pulsed with a hundred legal clauses. She knew how much business loved bending rules to its favor, but she was furnished to unravel the labyrinths of law as well. “Have you signed anything yourself?”
“N-no, no I haven’t...”
“Then nothing is set in stone as of yet.” The plan started coming together. It was rough, tentative, but it would work. “Your father only holds the right to sign in your stead until you are an adult, and even then, he cannot sign it without your express acceptance. If we can prove your fiance’s ill intent before...”
“No!” Haru grabbed Makoto’s hand in both of hers as though trying to hold her in place. “Sugimura’s family is highly influential. If he has any reason to suspect you of getting between him and me, then… I don’t want to imagine what he could do to you.” Makoto’s brow dipped dangerously low. “Please, don’t do anything rash. I don’t want to be the reason you’re hurt.” Makoto’s iron will was set. This was no longer about herself. Now, it was both personal and professional.
“Very well, then something a bit more covert. I think I can do that.” Makoto added her last hand to the growing pile, both girls now holding the other with everything they had. “If you’ll let me, I can work something out to get you away from him. It won’t be anything large enough for him to retaliate against. All I need is your approval, and then I can start drafting plans.” Haru blinked, now entirely out of the depths she knew. Makoto felt her cling all the tighter.
“You would do all this, just because you have a crush on me?”
“It’s not just about that anymore.” Makoto thought for a moment of telling Haru everything then and there. The only thing that stopped her was her duty to the other Thieves. Instead of opening them up, she could instead expose her own vulnerabilities.
“I know what it’s like to be used. My whole life, I’ve been groomed for this role and that. The moment I actually try doing anything, I’m reprimanded and told that I’m just a child who doesn’t know any better.” Her burning anger gave way to the deep, boiling pit from whence it came. Haru could almost feel its arrival, the thick steam rolling from it and encircling her, pulling her closer to Makoto. “I’m sick of it. I’m sick of being used. I’m sick of seeing other people’s lives getting turned into tools for those who came before them. We’re worth more than that, and I’ll be damned if I let that happen to you.” Haru gasped at the sudden surge of fury.
“Please, Haru.” Makoto held onto Haru with all the desperation she could muster. “I don’t care if you like me that way. I don’t care if, after all is said and done, we never see each other again. What I care about now is making sure that you don’t fall into the same trap that I almost fell to.” Haru’s hands felt cold to the touch. She soaked in Makoto’s heat as though she had just stumbled to her from the vengeful clutches of a blizzard. “Please, let me help you.”
Haru sniffled. Makoto’s rage abated, letting her see the sorrow that contorted her face. Her lips quivered, her eyes squinted to hold back what few tears they could, and her whole body was shaking like a wind-battered leaf. Suddenly, that shaking, frightened mass was huddled into Makoto’s neck, the wet spots trailing down her cheeks rubbing off onto her blouse.
“Please, help me.” The surge of hate petered off, and Makoto allowed herself to become a warm hearth for Haru to rest at. She wrapped her arms around her, slowly, carefully tightening until her support kept the fearful jitters away.
“I promise, I’ll find a way to make your future yours again.”
“Thank you. Thank you.” Haru, her arms almost stuck against her own body as she curled into herself, tried to wrap them around Makoto. She only managed to barely reach her back, but it was enough. She sniffled and sobbed into Makoto’s shirt for a time, until she felt her voice again. “And, I would love to see you again sometime.”
“Of course. I’ll keep you up to date on the plan as it’s...” Haru couldn’t stop herself from giggling, to Makoto’s confusion. The girl was stuck firmly in professional mode. Haru looking up at her, face tear-slicked but lit by a modest smile, made her realize what she was suggesting. “O-oh! Um, you mean like…?” Haru nodded and pushed her arms out enough to encircle her completely. Her efforts were greeted with her personal hearth warming up another few degrees, enough to turn Makoto’s cheeks a dusty pink. “You know, I honestly forgot about that for a minute there. I mean, I accept! Gladly! But, you know...”
“You weren’t focused on your own feelings, but mine.” Haru pushed herself up enough to be face-to-face with her embarrassed partner. “I would call that a good thing. If you care about how I feel, that means I can afford to care about how you feel. That’s how a relationship should work, yes?”
She leaned in, and Makoto found out that pressure on her lips was enough to shut all of her conscious systems down. The signals in her head were crossed, every sensation her brain controlled going off at once. She felt tingly, like there was an electric current running across her skin. She never expected that ‘spark’ to be so literal, so real. It was overwhelming, flustering, kind of embarrassing.
But it was the best thing she had ever felt.
She pressed back into the kiss, contributing something other than just sitting there dumbly. When the two pulled apart, both were flush, and neither was willing to let go. For all the words Makoto knew, only one came to mind.
“You felt it, too?” Haru leaned in again, this time propping her chin on Makoto’s shoulder, taking in as much of the hug as she could. “My only regret is that we can’t do this openly yet. What a day that will be, right?” Makoto acclimated to the contact, but that didn’t mean she was tired of it. She pulled Haru in closer and set her head on her shoulder as well. She didn’t think this would be how her day ended, but she welcomed it all the same.
“I’ve been in the closet for a long time. If you’re here with me, I think I can wait a little longer to come out.”