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Tower of Jewels

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Makoto woke up late. Her alarm—all three of them—had gone off on her phone, but she had slept right through them. Haru wasn’t in bed, but she had left a pair of clean underwear for Makoto. Her uniform had been pressed and laid out on the bed. Makoto briefly wondered whether Haru had ironed the uniform for her, or if she had someone else do it; it seemed strange to associate Haru with the domestic when so many of her household affairs were taken care of by others.

In any case, she wasn’t going to quibble about free underwear. She wondered whether it was one of Haru’s own pairs. The elastic snapped against her skin. She tried to not think about it while she brushed her teeth.

Makoto found Haru in the garden, dressed in her tracksuit. She was smacking a pot of soil with a hand rake.

“Oh, good morning,” she said between thwacks. “Did you sleep well? Oh no! Are we late?”

“I’m late,” Makoto said. “I have to help setting up the graduation ceremony. And I’m supposed to decorate my classroom.”

“Mako-chan, you’re the class rep, aren’t you?”

“I am.” For some reason, this pleased Haru a great deal. “Did my alarms wake you up?”

“I was already out of bed when they went off. I used to practice piano or finish my homework around this time, but once I started gardening, I found it’s much better to work before the sun’s too hot.”

“Huh. That’s an admirable habit.” She had known Haru was an early riser for a while; Haru usually stopped responding to texts fairly early in the night, and she tended to respond to texts early in the day, unless she was busy. She supposed that in the future, she should get used to Haru keeping early hours.

Haru looked ready to go on about why it was best to garden early in the day and maybe something about soil, but, sensing Makoto’s eyes on the clock, she said, “I’m sorry, I should be helping you along. I’ll bring you a breakfast so you can go to school right away.”

“I can pick up something along the way, it’s fine.”

“I know. But won’t you let me?”

She couldn’t ease herself into the prospect of letting herself be taken care of. She didn’t want to let it become an unthinking habit, especially right at the moment when she was supposed to set out on her own adult life. She spent a moment too long thinking about whether to accept and saw Haru’s cheer falter.

“I’d like that,” she said. “Thank you. Sometimes I worry that I’m taking advantage of you.”

“You would never.”

“Not like that. I mean in the sense that I’m leeching off of you, or making you go out of your way for me, or…” It was depressing how hearing Haru’s total confidence in her only made her feel scrubby and low. And, aware of her appetite and the advancing time and her incoherence in a painful way, she said, “I might not be in the classroom by the time you get to school, but I’ll let Shimano-san in my class know where I am. I’m going now.”

 

***

 

She got to school fifteen minutes late. Remembering her conversation with Akira from the night before, she checked for a tail, but didn’t spot one. It didn’t make her any later than she would have already been, but she was annoyed with herself when she walked in and saw that the assistant class rep, Shimano, had already gotten most of the decorations up.

“Slacking off on the last day?” he said.

“I was busy,” she said.

“I bet.” He rolled his eyes. He was one of those people who would always see her as a suck up.

Neither of them were particularly skilled at making impressive chalkboard designs. They settled for writing, “Congratulations!” for their classmates and “Thank you very much!” for their homeroom teacher. It was so incredibly low-skilled that they might as well have asked some elementary schoolers to have done it.

After she finished checking her classroom, she went to the assembly hall to make sure everything was prepared. When she walked through the doors, half of the chairs were in place, half of them were apparently flattened on the floor. The back half of the assembly hall stank of something sour and manure-like. The vice-president and treasurer were scrubbing at chairs with a level of frenzy that made them seem mad. The secretary was frantically writing the character for “person” into his palm with his tongue.

“What’s going on?” Makoto said wearily.

“The chairs smell like poop!” the vice-president hissed.

“Are you going to have enough time to finish?” Makoto said. “We can ask some of the other members of the school for help.”

“No, no, we have this,” the vice-president said. “We can do this! We won’t fail you, senpai!”

“That’s kind of you, but I can’t walk away from this now.” Makoto looked at the secretary and pulled his arm down to his hip. “Stop that. Please, do something useful. Air out the room, ask the school band to help out—they were supposed to be here by now. And get something to cover this smell! Where did you get these chairs? I’m going to look for others.”

She found another stash in a storage building, in the very far end of the school, and returned to the gymnasium to report this to the vice-president. The band members were here now, and they ran out to fetch the chairs, all of them looking glum to be doing this much work so early in the morning.

“You should go, president,” the vice-president said. “We won’t falter now, we swear it!”

“How sure are you?” she said. The gymnasium had the grim air of an impending disaster. Making sure a boring graduation ceremony went well—that was to say, properly bored people and made them wish they were back in class—was more effort than she would have thought. Was it her or them? The rest of the council eventually asked her to leave, since she was distracting them from actually getting ready. She left for her homeroom.

Haru spotted her in the hall and came over with a potato and beef croquette and a small thermos of coffee. Makoto nearly burned her tongue eating the croquette.

“I was told it was freshly made, but I wasn’t sure. It’s nice to see proof,” Haru said.

“Ah! Yes,” Makoto said, sipping the coffee. It, too, was very hot. “The coffee’s good. Did you make it?”

“Yes. I made an extra cup. The croquette is from a bakery not too far from the train station. It wasn’t a bother for me to do any of this. How’s everything going?”

“Oh, it’s all right. I wish I had been more involved. I don’t know what they think they’re doing.”

Haru’s expression became skeptical, then, adopting a teasing tone of voice, she said, “Mako-chan, what if you were too involved, and that’s why they’re not sure what they’re doing?”

“How can that be possible?” she muttered.

They agreed to meet in front of the shoe lockers after the ceremony was over so they could go to lunch.

 

***

 

The graduation ceremony, despite her worst fears, was not a total disaster. The strange smell had not been entirely suppressed, but instead floated in between incense, which gave the whole room the feeling of a funeral parlor, and a strong, lemon-y resin smell. When her attention slacked, she’d look around and see teachers and students alike sniffing the air. Their faces cycled from relaxed to alarmed to confused. But no one stood up and left.

Perhaps more concerning was the strange black shadow that kept fluttering around high in the rafters. It was another bat—no, it was two bats, trapped high in the rafters. They weren’t visible from the audience, but soon, despite the teachers hushing them, the auditorium was soon abuzz with people staring at the ceiling.

They sang a few songs. Then it was time for the speeches. Principal Matsuda would give the first speech, followed by the police commissioner, who had, unexpectedly, decided to come by to give a speech. Then the vice-president would give the farewell address from the underclassmen to the graduating third years, then Makoto would give the farewell address from the third years to the underclassmen and, more generally, the school.

The principal’s speech was not as long as Makoto expected. Contrary to his mumbling and tendency for launching into tangents in actual conversation, at official functions, he spoke clearly, enunciating with a theatrical precision. She stared at him, unmoved. At one point, she would have been happy, or at least relieved, that she had really done it, she had survived high school; now she found the idea of sitting through the rest of this procession tiresome.

The police commissioner stepped to the podium. He had the job she hoped to get someday, and she studied him carefully. He was a dignified older man in his sixties, round through his torso with thick, muscular limbs. His hands, placed on the podium without moving even once, looked large and heavy. Medals studded his uniform.

His eyes narrowed contemptuously as he gazed down at them all from the podium; she recognized him as an enemy straight away, and that was a difficult anger, since she wanted to be him someday, or have his job and do it better. He spoke with deliberation and a crocodile’s cold intelligence. He talked about his career, how he started working during the seventies and eighties during the bubble. He made his mark confronting the large yakuza families and nabbing them for their white collar crimes. He had been shot twice on the job, stabbed once. He believed in the force of the law, and the law was patient and merciless.

Hearing this, Makoto knew that the commissioner was speaking to Akira, and watching for any signs that the other Phantom Thieves might be in the room. She looked straight ahead and hoped Ryuji wouldn’t do anything reckless.

The vice-president made her speech. It was loaded with nervous energy, and Makoto found herself in the somewhat awkward position of having to encourage her while making last minute edits to her own upcoming speech. Sometimes she’d miss the vice-president’s panicked stare and, by the time she looked up, the vice-president would be clutching the podium as though she thought she might faint. As they passed each other on the stage’s stairs, Makoto heading up, the vice-president down, Makoto whispered, “You did fine, these ceremonies are going well if they’re boring,” and that seemed to cheer her up.

As for Makoto, she wasn’t nervous at all. She looked out at the people, rows and rows of them, waiting in their chairs—talking, despite the teachers’ shushing, about the bats, or the smell, or whatever strange thing was happening. She tapped the microphone a few times to test whether it was working, but doing so gave her the appearance of impatience. She spotted Haru in the crowd, clustered with the rest of her class. She caught her eye and immediately looked away, knowing she’d be flustered if she looked too long.

“Thank you, everyone, for wishing us well at the beginning of our new journey,” she said, and had to stop to clear her throat. She smoothed out the accordion-like paper on which her farewell address was printed. She had printed it by herself instead of sending it to the school, so the content was unknown to the principal and to the administration. The only ones who had read it in its current form was Haru and Akira. Her eyes fell on the principal. He was watching her intently. The police commissioner wasn’t paying much attention to her; his gaze kept flicking to the side. So, she’d have the advantage in this encounter. “This year was a difficult one for Shujin Academy and Japan. Although the police and politicians are taking steps to erase the Phantom Thieves from history, I trust that our collective memory will preserve them and their spirit not just for us third years, graduating into a new world, but for the first and second years, and the incoming students…”

The principal’s face turned red, stark against his high collared coat, and, at the words ‘Phantom Thieves,’ the commissioner’s eyes narrowed. The rest of the school, too, had gone silent; their focus on her sharp, either with surprise or dislike, she wasn’t sure. But she made it through the rest of the speech, finishing it off with an unironic, “Thank you to Shujin for giving me the honor of delivering this address,” and stepping off the stage.

 

***

The principal blocked her from filing out with her class. He loomed over her, his brow deeply furrowed and his chest puffed up.

“I, ah, you see,” he said to the homeroom teacher, “Niijima-kun and I need to discuss something briefly, as you might have suspected… To my office, Niijima-kun, if you’d please.”

“Naturally,” she said.

They went up to his office in the main building, walking between lines of students heading back to their classrooms. It was quite the show. She was conscious of the students’ interest in a way that wasn’t unpleasant.

Matsuda’s office had black out curtains and black wood furniture and new, dark tiles on the floor instead of carpet. Matsuda’s heels clacked loudly as he went to his imposing desk. The décor had changed a fair amount, Makoto noticed, but one thing he had in common with Kobayakawa was how he didn’t ask her to take a seat. He had her remain standing, though at least he, too, stood behind his desk. “Niijima-kun, after our, you could say, conversation, I assumed you would take my advice and avoid inflaming the passions of the student body. Now what reason could you have for disobeying?”

“I assumed that it was advice, not an order.”

“I would have thought, logically, you’d hate the Phantom Thieves, given your personality and disposition. But you’ve finally gotten tired of it, haven’t you, you’re tired of being the principal’s pet. Under Kobayakawa, that’s understandable, but I thought our goals aligned, at least in so far as they were able to, given that you’re just the student president while I am charged with steering this school back onto the straight path—are you listening, Niijima-kun?”

“I’m listening,” she said. “You’re not wrong about me getting tired of being the principal’s pet. But you’re wrong about our goals. You want to pretend that the Phantom Thieves didn’t come to Shujin because Shujin needed it. You want to act like it was a random act of fate.”

“So you do know who those ruffians’ true identities,” he said. “Kobayakawa kept records on you. He said you were deliberately obstructing him. Of course, when I read the file, I thought he was asking too much of you, his expectations made no sense, especially for some spineless high school do-gooder.”

“Are we done here?” she said. She stretched her shoulders and neck. “You’re speculating. I wouldn’t have any time to spend on the Phantom Thieves, anyway. I was too busy being a spineless do-gooder studying hard to get into a good college, and now I’ve graduated, so you don’t have any leverage over me. And as for that file, you should start a new one. That old one won’t tell you anything about who I am now. Goodbye, sir.”

She was halfway to the door when he said, “The police commissioner will ask about you. He could be your boss someday, Niijima-kun, if you’re still planning on following that path.”

“I’m not scared of him,” she said. “By the time I’m making my way up the ranks, he’ll be long gone.” She opened the door and walked out.

 

***

 

She was too jittery to go straight to her homeroom. Instead, she stopped by the student council room. It was empty here, and in the library next door. She sat at the big desk by the window and checked her messages. In the group chat, people were asking what Matsuda had wanted with her, and she gave them a brief summary and assurances that she was all right. Predictably, Ryuji was excited. He liked that she had brought the Phantom Thieves back into the spotlight.

It was Yusuke who mentioned, in his dry way, that she might have exposed herself unnecessarily, especially with the police commissioner in the audience and Akira’s current tail.

If anyone had to announce, “I believe in the Phantom Thieves of Hearts” to the police commissioner, it might as well be her. She had a spotless record. But he wasn’t wrong, and she couldn’t be upset with him for pointing out something she knew was true.

Her whole body pulsed. She rubbed her hand over her forearm, trying to stop the small hairs from rising. She hadn’t felt a thrill like that in a while.

In a private chat, Haru asked her where she was. She texted back her location. A few minutes later, someone knocked on the door. Makoto opened it and there she was. She stepped through the threshold without a word and, once the door shut behind her, said, “I thought you were very inspiring.”

“Thanks,” she said. “I meant it to be.”

Haru looked around the room and said, “There’s not as much in here as I thought.”

“What were you expecting?” Makoto said.

“Oh, I don’t know. More of an executive’s suite with a long desk and a statue of a hamburger in the background.”

“What? A hamburger?”

“That might have just been Okumura Foods,” Haru said. She sat on the table, folding her legs to the side, and looked down at Makoto with an earnest expression on her face. Although she was technically looking down on her, it didn’t feel condescending or rude; instead it was sweet and even comforting. “I don’t think you should be scared of Matsuda-san at all. He’s nothing. There’s nothing to be scared of.”

“I’m not scared of him. I think—I think I’m excited.”

Haru made a slight approving noise that sent a twist through Makoto, one of pleasure at making Haru like her and, at the same time, a slight nervousness. Haru always liked it when she was bold, and honestly, Makoto did, too. She wanted to be clear and decisive and totally confident in what she did, except the person she was wasn’t that, not all the time. Not unless there were concrete goals and plans, like hunting down a Phantom Thief; or get into the university she needed to; and then she’d do well in university, she’d go into law enforcement and… and from there it all became a blur. The title of ‘police commissioner’ now had a cold, reptilian face and the look of bruises on Akira’s wrists and face. She focused her eyes on Haru’s hair, its neat, arranged edges, how soft it looked. Haru extended her hand to Makoto’s face and ran her fingers along Makoto’s jaw.

“What are you thinking of now?” Haru said.

“I don’t know, I’m just on edge, I don’t know why,” she said, although her breath was caught with anticipation. She knew what this meant, the hand on her face, the gentle consideration, the glimpse of Haru’s teeth biting against her lip. That was exciting, too, in a more familiar way.

“What about this?” Haru said, and her fingers turned over so she had Makoto’s face in her palm. Haru bent down to kiss her, drawing Makoto’s upper lip against her own, her tongue making quick, short passes along the inside of Makoto’s lower lip. Makoto moved to deepen it, only to be thwarted. Haru moved her mouth to the side and pinched the helix of Makoto’s ear, hard in a way that always made Makoto’s shoulder rise up and her back arch. Makoto pulled against Haru’s grip, returning to her lips; and then she’d be pulled away again, this time with a twist that made her hiss. “Sorry! Did that hurt?”

“It’s fine, I’m all right.” She rubbed her ear. “It was harder than I expected.”

“I should’ve been paying more attention. Let me make it up to you.” Her kiss this time was deeper and more direct, though not as forceful as Haru could be. Makoto tried to take Haru’s face in her hands, but Haru pushed her arms down and said, “Hold onto your skirt. Okay?” Then she went on to Makoto, her fingers slipping underneath the straps of Makoto’s halter top vest, tracing the loop around her neck, to the straps going down from her shoulder to her chest, following the line until they reached the low center. Once Haru’s hands were there, her kisses became bolder and hungrier. Her hands burned on Makoto’s chest; Makoto could feel the knots of her control loosening. She wanted Haru to undress her, to be laid out against the desk, to feel Haru’s hands between her thighs. Her breaths, loud already, trembled in her throat, some slipping out as whimpers or small noises. She had to bite her tongue to stay silent.

Outside, people were stepping out of their classrooms. Haru pulled away and Makoto, reluctantly, did, too.

“We should get our yearbooks,” Makoto said. “And then we’ll go for lunch, as planned?”

“Yes, I’d like that. Do you feel better?”

“I do,” she said, although it wasn’t the entire truth. She would’ve preferred to go home with Haru and get fucked. She tugged at the collar of her turtleneck. “You’re always thinking about how to make me feel better. What’s something I can do for you?”

“Aren’t we going for lunch?”

“Yes, but what I meant was, what’s something I can do for you besides that?”

“It’s rare to meet someone as kind and intelligent as you, who’s attracted to you and cares about you. So just being with you makes me feel lucky.”

“I do care about you,” Makoto said. “But you’re all of those things for me, too. I appreciate that you take care of me and look out for my well-being. What would make you feel the same?”

She didn’t expect Haru to become upset with her, although she didn’t show it overtly. She turned her head to the side, away from Makoto, and she straightened her sweater and patted her hair down. Then she said, “I wish you could be Mako-chan to me forever. I wish you could be brave and righteous, and that you won’t lose this part of yourself. That’s not to say that I think you will, but I couldn’t stand it if you did. My father—” Those words, said out loud, silenced her, and her composure momentarily split apart, revealing a red, gelatinous pain, before sealing itself back over. “Now that I know what to look out for, I’m not going to put up with it, I absolutely won’t let anyone sneak up on me like that again.”

Hearing those words made Makoto queasy at first. She had to fight to keep her face from changing. She felt lightheaded suddenly, and couldn’t understand why. Those words pressed down on her like a threat, even though she knew it wasn’t that. Haru was frustrated and emotional, and she had been through a lot since joining the Phantom Thieves. But those words were sincere, and they were hard for Makoto to take. Naturally, she had no desire to, as Sae might say, lose her way, but for someone else’s happiness to rest on her ability to be virtuous was more than she knew how to handle.

“I don’t know what to do, then. I just wanted to know what I could do to make you happy,” she said.

“It’s okay, Mako-chan. I know it’s unfair for me to ask you this. I shouldn’t have put that on you.” She got off the desk. “Can we take a raincheck for lunch? I’d like some time to myself.”

Her usual instinct would be to say yes, but she didn’t want Haru to run off to be alone and think about her dead father. She sat back in her chair and said, “Can you stay with me for a little while? Sit with me.”

She knew Haru wouldn’t say no to that. Haru moved to take the chair across from Makoto, but Makoto pulled the chair next to her instead. When Haru sat down, Makoto took her hand and held onto it. It felt awkward for some reason. She felt like this lacked finesse and Haru’s face gave nothing away. After a few minutes, Haru said, “You were right. I’m feeling better now.”

“I’m glad,” she said. “So, lunch is still on?”

“Yes, I’d like that. I have to pick up some things from my classroom, so let me leave first. We’ll meet at the shoe lockers?” Once Makoto nodded, she kissed her on the mouth and stood up.

She was careful about how she opened the door, sliding it open just enough to slip through, then shutting it. Makoto doubted anyone would think it was strange Haru had just left the student council room; she was surprisingly nondescript in school.

She was alone again in the student council room. That was, if she was to be honest, how she usually spent her time in this room. There was a mirror in the back and she checked her reflection briefly. Her lips were still red. Her headband had been knocked askew. She fixed it and felt better.