Chapter 1: lost in space
They cleared out an airlock and stopped so Akira could scribble some diagrams in his notebook. It was a small compartment, too small to fit all eight of them at once. They had to leave the backup members of the party in the previous airlock while Akira worked out which switch opened what doors when. He had declined Haru and Makoto’s help. “I’m certain I can do this,” he said, sounding more confident than his numerous failures to lead them to the next area could justify.
Next to Haru, Makoto sighed. “At the very least, it’ll be good for your spatial awareness,” she said.
Haru felt, strongly, that Akira should let someone help him with the navigation, but this was the one aspect of his leadership that she might call typical, for a boy, with his bravado and the refusal to ask for directions. She would have liked to step in, but neither Makoto nor Morgana wanted to say anything to Akira, perhaps from prior experience. So Haru and Morgana practiced high fiving each other instead.
“Keep your back straight!” he said, crossing his little arms over his chest. “All feet on the ground! Stop thinking I’m cute!”
“You could never be cute,” Haru said, barely resisting the urge to poke his tummy. “You’re the definition of boyish charm!”
“That’s never going to win Lady Ann’s affections,” Morgana said, and sighed. She held her palm up and he jumped up to hit it. “Firm up your palm!”
“Like this?” she said. She straightened her fingers. He smacked his paw into her hand and this time it made a firm clapping sound, the way the others’ hands sounded when they switched turns. “You’re so good at this. You must’ve practiced a lot.”
“Nya~et,” he said, pushing his chest out. “It came naturally to me, of course. But everyone else was miserable! Except for Panther and Queen, and you. But there’s a long way to go until you’re ready to use it in battle.”
“I understand,” Haru said.
“Really?” Makoto said, looking over her shoulder. Against the blackness of Metaverse space, her scarf was a warm, deep gray, and her hair, a medium brown, almost looked as though she went to a salon to get it colored. Haru knew without having to ask this was not the case. Some people were born with their most desirable characteristics ready to reveal themselves with the slightest change of perception, or temperature, or angle. “It’s just a high five. Anyone can do it.”
“Tsk, tsk,” Morgana said. “It takes pizzazz and panache to turn something as lame as a high five into a stylish baton pass worthy of a Phantom Thief. I’d expect Queen of all people to know better.”
“High fives are not lame,” Makoto said sharply.
“Please, I’m almost done,” Akira said.
“You have plenty of natural talent, but you’re too cute,” Morgana said. He had his paws on his hips. Haru had to resist mirroring his pose. “Cuteness is the death of style!”
“It’s a wonderful branding strategy,” she said. “And life wouldn’t be worth it without cute things. Like you, Mona. And Queen, and Joker, too.”
Akira looked up at her and tugged at his bangs. He wasn’t blushing like he would have if he were outside the Metaverse; had she said that to him on the rooftop, he would’ve turned pink at the ears and looked away. He was a different person in different worlds. Ann and Makoto were like him in this respect, but Ryuji and Yusuke were the same both in and out of the Metaverse, and Haru felt like herself no matter where she was.
“I think I have a way to the end of this,” Akira said. “Haru, can you let the others know we’ll be waiting for them through the omega door?”
“Don’t send a lady to do your dirty work, Joker,” Morgana said, and his tail puffed with indignation.
“It’s all right,” Haru said. “I like going through the doors. Whoosh! It’s like being in a pneumatic tube.”
“Pneumatic…” Akira made a face. “What are those?”
“It’s a delivery system invented in the early nineteenth century,” Makoto said, and her eyes flashed with satisfaction at remembering it. A teacher had mentioned it during social studies as part of his lecture on American spaceflight programs. It was almost certainly not part of the standard curriculum and had more to do with the teacher venting his personal pet peeves than communicating anything of importance to them, but Haru was pleased at how quickly Makoto had picked up on it and how it felt like something private between them, even if the teacher had dropped this factoid to every one of his classes and would now put it on their exam. Makoto went on explaining how it worked while Haru took some deep breaths. It always helped to breathe in deep before ejecting oneself into space, even if that space was mostly cognitive void.
The part she liked least was just before she was sucked into space. The pressure, at first, was extreme. It always felt like her skeleton was trying to race ahead of the rest of her, the muscles, the nerves, the fat. When she was a child, her father had taken her to the science museum. An exhibit about black holes had entranced him and frightened her. “Let’s say you enter feet first,” her father had said, and a vein in his temple bulged and his face turned blue with excitement. “You’ll feel your legs stretching out. As you look down—and it will be harder to do that, as your eyes elongate—you’ll see your toes going from chopped meatball to linguine—then poof, they’ll swell up into udon noodles, before turning into spaghetti.”
He hadn’t said that. She was imagining it. She was trying to make her father’s Shadow make sense. He had probably been bored. He liked to be entertained, and the museum they had gone to had been for adults. It was very somber. Haru couldn’t remember why he had taken her. Culture, destiny, free tickets? He loved free things. He had probably taken many bribes.
The other thing she disliked was the change in pressure. Her ears popped painfully. The first few times she had been so surprised that she gasped and expelled all the air from her lungs. It was only a few seconds between airlocks, but the sensation of her lungs crumpling, her sternum pulling towards her spine, her abdomen and chest seizing as they tried to inflate her lungs by force, had been so unpleasant. They all had to spend a few sessions curled up on the floor, crying out in pain, while Joker tried to feed them or administer medicine. He was the only one who never seemed affected.
It had been very difficult for her to get used to it, but once she did, she enjoyed it. If she turned away from the spaceport, she faced black, featureless space, a near-total darkness. It was easy to imagine herself as the only thing there, a planet or space station unto herself. No one knew how she had come to be there. Like a star, she had appeared as though by magic: no mother, no father, no point of origin that anyone could trace.
Chapter 2: tower of jewels (i)
Makoto had turned over most of the student council responsibilities to the vice-president when her exams started, but she still stopped by one or two times a week. At the end of February, with just a few weeks until graduation, she walked into an argument between the vice-president, the treasurer, the secretary, and the new student council member about a set of posters the principal wanted them to put up. It was an anti-ghost campaign.
“The new principal insisted on it!” the treasurer said.
“This is a waste of your time,” Makoto said. “You should tell the principal that he should direct his attention towards preventing bullying and the misuse of power.”
“I’ve tried,” said the vice-president. “But he’s a little… Senpai, don’t you think he’s weird?”
“His teeth are pointed,” said the treasurer.
“He’s so pale,” said the secretary.
“And that cape!” said the newly elected student council member.
“That bothers me, too,” Makoto admitted. The new principal, Matsuda, walked up and down the halls during classes wearing a high-collared cape Joker would envy. Did he have no meetings? Why wasn’t he working? She looked at the student council and sighed. “If I do this for you, you have to understand that it means that any of you should be able to confront Matsuda-san. All you have to do is look him in the eye and tell him this campaign is pointless.” They nodded in a way that told her immediately that they would not absorb that lesson at all. So much for changing the hearts of the Japanese people. Holy Grail her ass. “But I can’t do it this week. I’ll check in on you before graduation and help if you still haven’t taken care of it.”
She hadn’t been lying when she said she’d be busy. Haru had to move her garden off the school roof. Right now what she needed was help clearing out her apartment. Understandably, she did not want to clear out her father’s study by herself. It probably wouldn’t take the entire week, but she wanted to keep her schedule free in case Akira or one of her other friends wanted to do something. Eiko had been taking her out with her third year friends to celebrate. She had even taken them to the arcade. It had been pleasant.
Akira and Morgana were waiting for her outside the student council room when she came out.
“Haru says she has a car waiting for us,” he said. “Have you ever taken the train to her place? I think she doesn’t want us to know where she lives.”
“She’s just being nice,” Makoto said. “Don’t make fun of her.”
“I bet you’d prefer going alone. Just you, her, and that big apartment, no one around except—”
“Are you asking me to commit an act of vehicular manslaughter with you as the victim?”
“I’ll let Haru know we’re on our way.”
She had never been to Haru’s apartment before. If Akira weren’t there, she would have taken the time to change into something else. Pants, at least. Pants were great for moving and cleaning. The elevator up had a full length mirror, and she tried to discreetly fix the part in her bangs, only to meet Morgana’s eyes.
“Nice, isn’t it?” he said, and rubbed his face against the back of Akira’s head.
“You don’t even live here,” Akira said.
Haru met them at the door.
“Welcome!” she said happily. “Thank you for coming.”
“Thank you for having us over,” Makoto said. “Are you brewing coffee at this hour? It smells delicious.”
“I’m experimenting with a new blend. Come inside. I would be delighted for you to try it. It’s the least I can offer in exchange for you helping me clean out Father’s office.”
“It’s really nothing,” Makoto said, but let Haru take her to the kitchen by the hand. It was not the perfectly neat apartment she had thought it would be. There were three different espresso makers lined up on the kitchen counter and various other coffee-making equipment. Haru had a tablet on the kitchen table, paused in the middle of a latte-making video.
“I’m testing equipment,” she said. “Please, try this.”
There were three cups and a small saucer of milk on the counter. Morgana hopped onto the counter and stuck his face into the milk right away, then raised his head up and said, with an aggressive purr, “What fine porcelain!” Makoto took a moment to admire the cup, and drank.
“It’s good,” she said. “I’m sorry I can’t offer more notes.”
“That’s all right,” Haru said. “We can’t all have Sojiro-san’s tongue, after all. All I want is for you to enjoy it.”
“I like it, too,” Akira said. “Classic and standard. It works. Are you planning on doing lattes at your café?”
“I’m thinking about it. Sojiro-san’s remarkable, isn’t he? He only serves what he wants and when he wants it. I admire Leblanc very much, but it’s not something I can emulate, I’m afraid. It’s difficult staying in business.”
They spent a few more minutes standing and talking before Haru opened the door to her father’s office. She kept the door locked, and when it opened, it was apparent that the apartment was at least twice the size Makoto had initially thought it was. She and Akira stopped dead in the doorway and looked at each other.
“Don’t worry if we can’t finish everything today,” Haru said. “Ann and Ryuji said they’ll come by tomorrow. And I’m sure I can put some things away once you two go home.”
“We’ll do our best,” Makoto said.
“I love hard labor,” Akira said. If it weren’t for how Haru smiled, Makoto probably would have elbowed him in the side.
The office was not as cluttered as she expected. There was a lot of open space, especially by the tall windows that looked down over the city. Makoto worked on clearing the desk while Haru and Akira put the books on the shelves in boxes. The desk itself was a mess, probably from the investigations into his confessions and death. Papers and folders were scattered everywhere. Someone had already put a cardboard box on top of the desk. More papers and two picture frames. She flipped them over. Haru was in the oval frame. A picture of Kunikazu Okumura shaking hands a man with she didn’t recognize was in the other. She didn’t know whether Haru would want to keep them and put them aside.
Most of the drawers had already been emptied. She was about to move onto clearing out the shelves behind the desk, but something about the way one of the drawers sounded as it opened bothered her. It made a rasping sound, but only when the drawer was pulled about halfway out. She gave it a pull and looked under it. A patch of duct tape over a lump. She peeled off the duct tape. It was a key.
Haru and Akira were chatting with one another—they looked chummy, and she was surprised and upset by the hot lash of jealousy. She was here, she reminded herself, because she wanted to spend time with both of them, and it was simply more efficient to split up instead of having them all in one spot. She resolved to finish clearing the desk out faster so she could help them with the bookshelves and called Haru over.
“I see,” Haru said. “I believe I know what that opens. Mako-chan, can you follow me?”
She was taken down a hall, past a bathroom, and then to a door. Haru opened the door. It was her father’s bedroom, though nearly everything had been boxed and the furniture was covered in sheets. Haru went to a closet and opened it. Inside was a row of metal boxes.
“Father kept several of these boxes in his safes, and I had them moved back home. There must be other keys around the house somewhere.”
“It must be difficult for you to stay here,” Makoto said.
“I don’t think so. I’m not sure. It’s hard to imagine moving. I’ve been here my whole life. And we have servants… I have servants, I should say. Moving would likely put them out of a job… I must sound awful.” She sneezed, and wiped her eyes with a handkerchief. “You don’t have to worry about me, Mako-chan. I wonder which one of these boxes this will open.” She took a step back, and looked at Makoto.
So she didn’t want to open it herself. Makoto kneeled down before the row of boxes and started with the furthest on the right. The key didn’t fit the first one, wouldn’t turn on the second or third. The fourth clicked open easy, and behind her, she heard Haru breathe in short and sudden, almost like a hiccup.
“I’m opening it now,” she said. She opened the box and reached in. It was a folder of photographs, with sheets of handwritten notes, lists of names, companies, outcomes, relationships, and so on forth at the bottom. As she read on, she understood what this was. This was Okumura’s research on Shido and his network.
“May I see it?” Haru said.
Haru flipped through the papers quickly, front to back then back to front. The papers quivered at the tip, and after another look through, she pushed them back to Makoto. “You should take this, Mako-chan. Your sister should find this useful in building Shido’s case. I’m sure this will help in bringing in other people in Shido’s network, too. I should call my lawyer and let him know I’m planning to turn over the materials.”
“You don’t have to call him right now. Let’s finish up and decide later. Achoo!” All the dust was getting to her, too. “I don’t want you to put yourself through this if you don’t need to.”
“That’s very kind of you, but I can handle it,” she said. “My father was part of Shido’s network. I have to help build the case.”
Haru was probably right. The hot, burning feeling returned, unaccountable and difficult to process. She was almost relieved to feel it with just the two of them. It meant that what she had felt before, when she saw Haru and Akira together, could not be jealousy. “I’m not telling you to run away,” she said.
“I know. You don’t want me to feel like he’s my responsibility. The dead don’t give you that choice.”
They went back to the study. Haru excused herself, saying she had to make a call, and went to her room. Akira looked between them and said, “Was it bad news?”
“It’s Okumura’s research on Shido. She’s talking to her lawyer now.” She put the folder on the coffee table in the middle of the study. “I hope I didn’t upset her.”
“I don’t know. It might be good to get her upset every now and then.”
“I just want to do more than ‘be there,’” Makoto said, grabbing a stack of books off the shelf and practically dropping them into the cardboard box at Akira’s feet. “But all I’m useless. I haven’t done anything.”
“Don’t think of it that way. I haven’t done anything for you or Eiko-san, after all. That was all you.”
“That’s not true. You combed your hair and took a shower before meeting her and Tsukasa.”
“It was a bath,” he said, and looked pained. Then he smiled. “You feel better now, right?”
“I do,” she said. She felt more relaxed and lighter than before. “You must think I’m silly for asking this, but I’ve never been able to determine how you can do this for so many people.”
“Books and steaks.”
She had already read plenty of books, so she couldn’t see how reading more would help her. “So your secret technique is red meat?”
“I think it’s plant-based.” Akira ran a hand through his hair, playing with a few strands. “I don’t think Haru likes being upset in front of people. She’s a little cynical, if you ask me.”
“Haru, cynical? That’s not how I’d describe her.”
“I don’t mean in attitude. More like in approach. I don’t know. I’m not making much sense. Anyway, it’s just for certain things. She’s sincere in her feelings. Obviously.”
“I didn’t ask about her feelings,” Makoto said. She tried to play with her hair in a casual, absentminded fashion, but miscalculated the force and smacked her forehead with her palm instead.
“Even if you didn’t ask, I can tell you’re interested,” he said. He said it more gently than she expected and in the kind tone he used when he was humoring Morgana. She was both grateful and stung by how easily he had seen through her. “She thinks you’re cute. Why not give it a try?”
“A relationship can’t survive because someone thinks someone else is cute. There has to be more to it.”
“I mean that there has to be something that’s needed by both parties,” she said, doing her best to ignore the warmth in her cheeks. “Don’t follow up on your previous comment.”
Luckily, he listened to her. She didn’t know what she would’ve done if he hadn’t. Hit him, most likely. The smirk—Joker, of course—dissolved. He picked up a stack of books. “It’s nice to feel needed,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s the only thing that can make a relationship work. It can feel pretty dire, if need’s the only thing there is. All I meant was that you two might end up being happy together. It could be fun even if it isn’t perfect. Why not try?”
“Happiness isn’t the only thing that matters.”
“It should be,” he said, and put the books in the box. He didn’t say anything else on the matter.
They finished packing up the office. Ryuji and Ann would help with loading the boxes into a van, where it’d then be taken to storage. Haru said a moving company would take care of the furniture. Then on Sunday, movers would transport the garden into the area that used to be the study.
Haru asked if they needed to eat dinner. Akira declined with suspicious swiftness. He was going to meet a friend out in Shibuya, and he had to make haste. Those were his exact words. He smiled without a hint of embarrassment and strolled right out of the apartment.
“I don’t have to go home for dinner tonight,” Makoto said. “I’d be happy to stay.”
“Being done with school is quite freeing, isn’t it?” Haru said, perking up. “There’s a diner I like to go to at night. It’d be lovely to have you with me.”
The diner was two subway stops away. The walls were porcelain blue and the seats a mineral brown. The tables, with their glossy, cherry wood, glowed with an intensity that seemed almost animal-like. Most of the regulars were older women eating in groups of two or three. They were given a table in the back.
“Today’s menu,” the waiter said, presenting a regular laminated menu to Makoto and a single sheet of paper to Haru.
Haru put the paper on the middle of the table so Makoto could read it.
“Mako-chan, you like seafood, don’t you?” she said, pointing at two menu items: clams in black bean sauce and flounder with chili peppers and fermented beans.
“How did you know that?” Makoto said, looking up from the menu.
“The school newspaper did a profile on you when you became the student council president last year, I think.”
“Oh, the school paper… I can’t believe they managed to find new members.” Makoto returned her attention to the menu to hide how pleased she was that Haru remembered. “Why don’t we have the clams? I’d like to try something off the regular menu, too.” Everything on the main menu was some variation on paella. “This is going to be too much food for the two of us,” Makoto said once Haru indicated how large the paella would be.
“It should be fine,” Haru said. “I can give some to Yusuke to take home. I’m sure he’ll appreciate it. Or you can take it with you for leftovers, whichever you’d like. Mako-chan, do you not like the school paper?”
“Not dislike. Journalism is important, of course, but our paper was an accounting error, if you could call it that.”
“There’s all kinds of interesting news, though. Including many of your student president announcements. And ghost sightings!”
“Is that where all those ghosts rumors are coming from?” She’d have to talk with the president of the newspaper club about what constituted proper news.
“Part of it must be Morgana’s fault. There are so many monster cat reports. And there’s a special bathroom in the practice building where there’s a girl crying all the time. I started hearing about it around the beginning of the school year. That’s right around when the Phantom Thieves started, wasn’t it?” Now Makoto understood. Those rumors would have started right around the time Suzui’s suicide attempt. Haru looked up at her and said, “What’s wrong?”
“I remembered something, that’s all,” Makoto said. “It feels like so long ago. I was someone else entirely back then.”
“I’m sure you were just as delightful then as you are now: kind, strict, and relentless.”
“You have a strange definition of delightful.”
Haru laughed. She put her elbows on the table as she thought. The restaurant décor was terrible, but she liked the way the red tables made Haru’s skin take on a pink hue, and the way the blue walls complimented Haru’s pink sweater. “It’s true that I’ve been told I have strange tastes. I like strong blue cheese and lutefisk, and even vegemite.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not familiar… I should take more care to expand my horizons on this front, too.”
“It’s nothing to apologize for. They’re just things you haven’t tried yet. If you have time, I’d love to take you out again.”
It was easy spending time with Haru, although Makoto was aware that it was Haru’s good manners that made this possible. There was no friction with her or fear of humiliating herself, socially speaking. This was probably what it was like to have someone look out for you, she thought. It was a similar to how she felt around Akira, but somehow painful.
When they returned to Haru’s apartment, Morgana was waiting for them on the kitchen counter, in a mood.
“Can you believe Joker?” Morgana said, his fur prickling. “I got stuck under the couch and he left without me! Ridiculous!”
“Oh, you poor thing,” Haru said, reaching out to pat his head. “I’m sorry we didn’t find you earlier. We thought you left with Akira.”
“Hmph,” Morgana said. “You run away for two months…”
“That’s too long,” Makoto said. “You never should’ve avoided us like that.”
“I know,” Morgana said. His tail lashed out. “I found some keys while I was trapped. I thought you might want them.”
There were two keys, similar to the one Makoto had found just hours earlier. Haru winced when she saw them. She covered them with her hand. “Thank you, Morgana,” she said.
“Do you want to try the keys on the boxes now?” Makoto said.
“No. It’s all right. I’m just—so—I’m so sick of this!” She shut her eyes and screwed up her face. There was visible effort to control herself. “I can do it later,” she said. “I’m sorry. Could you please go home?”
“If there’s anything you need, I want to do help,” she said. “Please.”
“No. Thank you. Mako-chan—I don’t think you’d understand.”
“What do you mean?” she said, and a strange grimace flickered across Haru’s face. She remembered what Akira had said earlier about her suspected cynical streak. Was it here now, between them? She hoped not. “Whatever it is, you can tell me. You don’t have to feel like you have to hold back.”
“Thank you. You’re so sweet.” But she was distracted, and her smile was carefully applied, as though she had arranged it.
Chapter 3: space vampires
They cleared her father’s Palace ahead of schedule. For the week after, Haru went home almost right after school. She spent just enough time tending to her plants to make sure that they were growing on schedule and that they were in no danger of being discovered and that there were no pests or infections spreading. Then she called her driver and went straight home. It didn’t matter to her that Sugimura would be paying visits. Once the change of heart took effect, once her father was well again, none of that would matter. Her father would stop his cruelty and build Okumura Foods nobly, with kindness. She would restart her life.
She asked to be the one to deliver dinner to her father. She’d open the door to his bedroom, apologizing for intruding, and, spreading her fingers out beneath the tray to try to keep them steady, edge slowly toward him.
She usually brought a tray of food for herself, too, so she’d have something to do besides watch him. He barely ate. As far as she could tell, he had not changed out of his pajamas in several days. His hair had flattened down with grease. When she asked him questions, he wouldn’t hear her. Her questions would vanish into the dust swirling in the air, the aroma of their dinner, the streetlight breaking through the curtains. Sometimes he’d turn his head to her slowly a few minutes after she asked and would say, “Haru, what was that you said?”
Yusuke had been the one to warn her that it wouldn’t be the same. He had said it in a safe room, cautiously, while opening up containers in search of food. The Madarame who had broken down in tears during the press conference and sobbed openly in court was who he was now. The distortion of greed and vanity had been replaced by a distortion of repentance and regret.
“Is he better than he was before?” she said.
“It’s better for the world that he is this way,” he said. “I have no regrets. It was the right thing to do.”
She noticed something about her father’s office. It was autumn and the sun set earlier and earlier, and when she came out of his room after dinner, she remembered how her father enjoyed turning the lights off in his office and standing in the middle of the room when he had trouble thinking. She set the trays down on the desk and turned off the lights. The tall windows, instead of showing her a reflection of the office, now showed her a new scene. All those neat studs of light in the tall towers, the comet trails of cars below, and the washed out night sky reminded her of the spaceport.
It was an ordinary view if she thought about it. Many people probably saw it or variations of it. But now she understood why, as she was thrown from one airlock to the next, it had seemed so familiar to her. It was not some secret villainy brewing in her veins, a shared genetic affinity for gaudy buttons and turquoise robots. She recognized the vistas and the starscapes because she knew them from a different view.
What she thought Yusuke was warning her about was that she was sacrificing her father for the sake of Okumura Foods. What a cold way of thinking about it. Yes, she did it for the workers and for her own sense of honor and justice. But she couldn’t deny that she was doing it in hopes that, after a week, a month, a year of repentance and tears, her father would return to the man he once was. The Phantom Thieves didn’t know how their victims—targets, she corrected herself—turned out five years down the road or what the long term effects of a change of heart might be. She might have her father back again.
Later, she understood that he was warning her that this dream was probably impossible to achieve. Life can take you in many different directions. But it cannot take you back.
At school, the next day, the student council vice president thrust herself between Makoto and a classmate in the middle of lunch. Makoto was about to rebuke her when she noticed how pale the vice president was, and her shaking hands. Sweat gathered at her forehead in round, quivering droplets.
“President, we have a confirmed sighting,” said the vice president. “Of the ghost.”
“That can’t be true,” Makoto said and laughed nervously. She didn’t believe in ghosts most of the time, and certainly not when it was coming from the hard working, but impressionable, vice-president.
“Look!” She thrust her wrist out under Makoto’s chin. Something had bitten her wrist.
“Now you have the concrete proof you need—” To show the new principal that the school didn’t have a ghost problem, it had some other problem, Makoto was about to say, but all the beads of sweat broke and ran down the vice president’s face at once, dripping down her face and soaking into the collar of her shirt and jacket. “Let me see what it is,” she said, aware, faintly, that she would regret this. She didn’t have much stamina for fear unless she was in costume.
She was taken to the girl’s bathroom on the second floor of the practice building. The secretary was there, too, pushing his ear against the wall.
“I can hear it,” he said when they got close. “I can hear it calling out…!”
“Step away from the wall,” Makoto said, dying slowly on the inside. She was glad that her relationship with the other student council members had loosened up over the last few months, but this was going too far.
Since it was a woman’s bathroom, the secretary couldn’t possibly be expected to be seen walking in and out. Or so they had reasoned.
“It’s not going to matter if someone sees you leaving because you can tell them you’re carrying out your student council duties!” Makoto said. “If the ghost were in the boy’s bathroom, I would march right inside and knock it down.”
“So you admit there’s a ghost,” said the secretary.
“I’ve fought scarier things than ghosts,” she snapped, and went into the bathroom. The first thing she noticed was that the lights were off. She almost faltered and went back out to request assistance, but she braced her knees and forced herself to stay forward. She could do this. Dark or not, a school bathroom was just a school bathroom. She didn’t have to be Queen to get through this. She’d have the secretary put in a work order if she made it back out.
The second thing was that two of the sinks were leaking. Another work order. She took out her phone and turned on the flashlight function, and screamed when she saw her own reflection in the mirror.
It was just a bathroom. The bathrooms in the practice building were only three stalls compared to the four in the classroom building. All the stalls were unoccupied. The doors hung slightly ajar.
“This is Makoto Niijima,” she said, projecting her voice to intimidate any spectators and/or specters. “I am the student council president of this academy! I—” She pressed open a door and jumped straight up, even though there was nothing there. She turned the light from side-to-side, then went to the next stall. Again, nothing. She had gotten all worked up for nothing. She almost left the bathroom without checking the last stall, but her professional pride stopped her. She swung the last door open. Nothing again. She shut the door and turned away, when something soft smacked into her head.
This time she screamed, then spun back around, pointing her phone at the swinging door, ready to shout out something like, That’s not funny! Except there was no one there, and whatever had hit her was tangled in her hair, flapping and making urgent, high-pitched noises. She swatted at her head, hitting herself a few times before her fingers wrapped around a firm, squirming winged creature.
“Ouch!” she hissed. It had bitten her. She didn’t let go. She pointed her light at it, and an awful, smushed-faced creature squinted back at her. A dark blur shot out of the third stall, screaming as it circled her head, and the bat in her hand screamed back, and Makoto ran out of the dark bathroom holding the bat over her head. “A Shadow!” was the first thing out of her mouth. “Ah, no. It’s an infestation!”
“I knew this school was haunted,” the vice president moaned, and fainted.
Makoto and the secretary took the vice president to the nurse’s office. On Makoto’s way back to the classroom, she ran into Haru coming down. Her first thought when she saw Haru was that she must have gotten bad news: Haru’s forehead was wrinkled with worry, and her hand was clenched tight at her breast.
“Thank goodness!” Haru said she saw Makoto, and the worry dispelled itself. “I heard you were taken to the nurse’s office after being attacked by a ghost.”
“Happily, ghosts are the one problem Shujin does not have,” she said. “It’s halfway through sixth period. What are you doing here?”
“I sneaked out to see you,” Haru admitted cheerfully. “Classes don’t seem to mean much right now, do they? What happened to your hand?”
The nurse had wrapped Makoto’s hand with dramatic white bandages, since it was the only thing she had in stock. Makoto stuck her hand behind her back; she was still embarrassed from how frightened she had gotten in the bathroom, and didn’t want the pity. “It looks worse than it is. We should go back to class.”
“Mm.” Her eyes dropped down and the line in her forehead reappeared; worried about something, or disappointed? After all, she had skipped class. And, Makoto thought, she had skipped to see her.
“But we don’t have to be in such a hurry,” Makoto said. “Why don’t we go somewhere?”
“We could go to the roof. I know it’s not very exciting, but I’ve been keeping a secret there that I’d love to show you.”
The roof. Why was it that she felt relieved when Haru said they wouldn’t be leaving the school grounds altogether? She wondered what had made her so bold before.
The secret on the rooftop turned out to be an electric boiler and a tap with a portable water filter fit on top. There was some tea, too, bagged, but very good, Haru eagerly assured her. And there was a clean thermos with a lid. Haru kept all of this stashed in an empty bin under a tarp. It felt colder up here than it had when she stepped out of her apartment building this morning. The wind kept getting into her sleeves, and Makoto took to holding the hot tea in her mouth to let the warmth flow back into her between gusts.
“How often are you up here?” Makoto said, accepting another cup of tea from Haru.
“Every morning and after school. I wish I had started this project earlier. Even when it’s raining or cold, I love being here. It’s my dream.”
“The fact that you’re still growing this late into winter is a testament to your skills. But you must be freezing. Your cheeks are red. Unless it’s the tea.”
“It’s not the tea, Mako-chan,” she said.
Heat prickled at Makoto’s ears despite the cold. “Why am I the only one you call Mako-chan?”
“I always imagined that I’d call my friends -chan. Do you not like it?”
“I like it,” she said. Her heartbeat had migrated to somewhere in her temple. She hoped she wasn’t sweating. “None of my friends ever called me that. Not that I had many. I wasn’t very good at communicating with people until I became a thief.”
“I know what you mean. Graduation is going to be sad, isn’t it? It finally feels like we’ve found somewhere to belong.” Haru’s eyes flickered down again, this time at Makoto’s lips.
Makoto curled her fingers into her palm, in part for warmth and in part to keep herself from doing anything rash. “I wonder whether this is what people normally do when they skip classes. I feel like we’re not living up to our potential.”
“We can break a window, if that’s what you’d like. Or vandalize! I was so disappointed that we never had more organized advertising campaigns. It’s too late for that, though, isn’t it? We’ll have to try other types of trouble.”
They were standing very close together, hip-to-hip, thigh-to-thigh, arms touching. Makoto put her hand against Haru’s shoulder and Haru’s head tilted to the side. A strange pressure built in her neck.
“I want to,” she said, and the rest of the words kept dissipating whenever she opened her mouth. She went with, “I might be rabid.”
Haru’s eyebrows, Makoto noted, were pulled up and slightly away in an expression common to both restrained amusement and fear. Her breath was hot, her lips surprisingly firm and commanding; it didn’t surprise Makoto when her back hit the wall. Makoto’s ears burned from the cold.
“Are you all right?” Haru said.
“I’m just surprised. I didn’t think I’d be doing this.”
“Really? I see people up here all the time, though.”
“Why didn’t you report them?” Makoto said, pulling back slightly.
Haru giggled and tugged at her wrists, bringing her in close again. “It’s harmless, isn’t it? As long as they leave while I’m working and don’t disturb my plants, I’m fine with it.”
“That’s not the point. I closed the roof to keep…” Akira, Ryuji, and Ann from using it as a hideout, she remembered that now. She cleared her throat. “The roof is closed for a reason and shouldn’t be used for personal projects to begin with. Not that we can enforce it now.”
“I’m sorry if I’ve made you compromise on your principles,” she said, her hands wringing together.
“Don’t be so upset by that. It’s not as though the administration had anything better to do with this space, either.” Something about Haru’s concern got under her skin. She couldn’t tell whether her nerves were from the insinuation of corruption in her office—a laughable prospect, given that it was a student council presidency that netted her no money to speak of, but still something she was sensitive over—or from something she had missed earlier in the conversation.
It was a relief when Haru tilted her head up at Makoto and said, “Mako-chan, what are you doing this weekend?”
“I’ll be tending to some business here at school—”
“Of course,” Haru said, and giggled.
“—and Ann and I have plans for Saturday afternoon. But on Sunday, if you’re free, you could come over. We could do things, or go somewhere… or I can misunderstand a situation with a friend’s personal life and we can spy on them!” She was momentarily filled with vigor, then, realizing how that strategy sounded too much like what she had done, in a friendly fashion, with Akira, she cleared her throat. “You should come over.”
“That sounds delightful,” Haru said.
Her hands extended towards Makoto’s, and Makoto’s took them automatically. “Thank you” slipped out before she could stop it.
“You must be very cold,” Haru said. She rubbed Makoto’s hands in hers, careful to avoid pressing down too hard on her bandaged hand, then kissed her cheek.
On their way back to class, they ran into the principal on the stairway between the second and first floors. As always, he was an arresting image with his cape and high collar. He was older than you might expect for someone who went around in a cape. Mid-forties, if she had to guess. She wondered if this counted as a midlife crisis or if he had always been this way.
“I am delighted to see you, Niijima-kun,” Matsuda said. “There was a matter I hoped to discuss with you.”
“You mean about the bats?” Makoto said.
“No, about the graduation ceremony… what bats?”
The vice president hadn’t gone to see the principal yet. Makoto suppressed a headache. At least this wasn’t about skipping class. “It’s a matter the vice president will discuss with you later,” Makoto said smoothly. “I turned in the speech I’ll be making two weeks ago. Do you have feedback for me now?”
“I hope you understand that my eyesight is very poor during the daylight,” said Matsuda. “And my sciatica makes it impossible for me to stay seated for long periods of time. So I have been very carefully reading your speech in the hours when my eyesight is good enough to focus on what you have typed. In winter, the hours of good daylight are very short, you know. I simply cannot cope.”
“Sir, what is…” She struggled for a second to find a way to say it kindly. She was not used to having to deal with benign incompetence. Every other facet of adult life she was familiar with was either incompetent or maliciously obstructive. It was like seeing him naked. “Where is this going?”
“I’m certain you have done much thinking, as someone seeking a profession in law… Or law enforcement, I don’t understand your university admission with respect to your career ambitions, so I apologize if I have gotten it wrong.” He removed the speech from his pocket—it had come from his pocket, hadn’t it?—and handed it to Makoto. “I respect your ambitions, but you must respect that, ah, we’re aiming for a more reassuring tone for this ceremony. To remind our student body of what they have gained from coming to Shujin. I have written, where I was able, notes for a potential revision.”
She skimmed the notes, then folded the speech in half. “Thank you for your comments, sir,” she said. “Speaking as a graduating student, sir, I believe confronting the failures head-on will reassure students that the administration is taking a proactive approach to remedying its ills.”
“And speaking as the principal, I have to say that, ah, this speech makes promises of rapid and swift response, but since you are graduating so soon, it would be—” He had a disconcerting habit of clacking his teeth together, and this time he did so with a particularly unnerving smile. “—smoke and mirrors, so to speak. You make a grand promise and exit the stage and leave all the hard work to others, no? Fiery speeches are for campaigners, not departing presidents. But I understand that you feel passionately about this. All I ask is for you to consider my suggestions.” He stared past Makoto’s shoulder, as though just noticing Haru. “Who are…”
“Hello!” Haru said brightly from behind Makoto. “Mako-chan was just reprimanding me for a dress code violation.”
“I’ll review your notes later,” Makoto said. “Thank you. We should get back to class.”
They left Matsuda behind and went towards the classrooms. Haru took the speech from Makoto’s hands. She held the pages so tightly that they creased from the tension. She looked up from the speech, her expression pure determination.
“You shouldn’t change a word,” she said.
Chapter 4: tower of jewels (ii)
Her sister spent less time at home these days, between setting up her new practice and closing up the cases she had left over at the prosecutor’s office, but she was home when Makoto came back and had dinner prepared. Makoto gave Sae a copy of her speech and Matsuda’s suggested revisions once they finished eating. She had felt good about her speech as it was, but the second Sae’s eyebrows came close together, her confidence crumbled and she became irritated with herself.
“Of course you think I should change it,” Makoto said.
“Did I say that?” Sae said. “I haven’t said anything. I’m not even at the end.”
“I can see it on your face.”
“When did you start getting smart with me? If you’re done eating, I’ll take the dishes.”
Makoto passed her plate over. Sae piled the dirty dishes and took them to the sink. Makoto took the rest of the dishes to the kitchen to sort the food into containers. Then she looked her printed speech with the principal’s comments scribbled in the margins.
“Is it really that bad?” Makoto said.
“Not at all. It’s passionate. But it’s your graduation. It’s meant to celebrate your upcoming future, not to dwell on your past. You won’t be a kid for too much longer, might I remind you.”
“But I’ll still be young.”
“How old do you think I am?” Sae muttered, and started doing the dishes. “I’ll read the rest of it once I’m done with these. But it’s so—I mean, steal back your future from the rotten adults? You might as well tattoo, ‘I’m a Phantom Thief’ across the bridge of your nose. Why not, ‘Work to reform society with the responsible adults looking out for the futures of everyone?’ Or, ‘Change people’s attitudes through persistence and mutual understanding?’ All I’m saying is, your graduation ceremony isn’t your personal soapbox.”
Makoto wrinkled her nose and dried the dishes hard enough to make them squeak. She wasn’t angry with her sister, or upset that they were disagreeing. She had always known her sister felt this way—or, that this was what she felt beneath the twisted, corroded exterior her career had warped her into—but it wasn’t until now that Makoto felt comfortable saying what she thought, directly and out loud.
“You know, a seven-armed god told us we had changed the hearts of Japan,” Makoto said.
“People’s hearts are fickle. Lasting change must be encoded, implemented, and enforced by humans, not by gods.” Sae washed her hands off and dried them on a towel. She picked up the speech and flipped back to where she had left off. “There are some nice rhetorical flourishes, but it doesn’t seem to fit the mood of a graduation ceremony. And…” She shut her eyes and sighed. “Of course, you don’t have to change anything if you don’t want to. It’s your day and your podium. You should remember that, too.”
“But you want me to change it,” Makoto said.
“I do,” Sae admitted. “But I won’t make you, or be upset if you don’t. That’s fair, isn’t it?”
“It is,” she said, because it was. Sae’s reaction was a normal thing for a sister to do and feel. But a part of Makoto was ready to fight. Before she had become a Thief, she would have just felt battered and exhausted, and before the Phantom Thieves changed Sae’s heart, she would have felt pity. Condescending as it sounded, she would have thought Sae couldn’t help having these opinions, or thinking in a certain way. Now that her sister was—herself, if that was what she was now, Makoto only felt a squirrely urge to fight with her over this. Not meanly or cruelly, but with spirit. A part of her was confused by how little her sister had changed. She was no longer bitter over the hardships of her life, but her ideals and opinions remained untouched. Her change of heart had only made her willing to concede that Makoto might have a point. Expecting more from the change of heart would be unreasonable of her. Changing someone’s heart did not mean forcing them to conform to your own design, even if it seemed like that was what they had done.
The student council continued to plan for the graduation ceremony. Makoto, in order to give her student council members more self-confidence, kept herself out of it, forcibly, by leaving the planning meeting half an hour early to meet with Ann at the Protein Lovers gym in Shibuya. It wasn’t her favorite gym in terms of amenities, cost, or clientele, but Ann was insistent on Protein Lovers in a petulant way that Makoto found both cute and a headache. The few times she had tried to suggest other venues, Ann had said, “But I know how to use all the machines here! And I know everyone at the front desk, and the price is right for students, and all of our friends come here, so we can’t change it now! Besides, when you go off to university, you’ll be able to find Protein Lovers near your school and we can keep working out together in spirit. I don’t care if it doesn’t make sense. This is the only place I’ll ever work out.”
“Oh, all right,” Makoto said. There was something to be said for a steady routine and knowing which of the water fountains had the best water pressure. And Protein Lovers had a heavy bag she could pummel until her wrists started twinging and the skin on her knuckles cracked and bled. It was winter and her skin was always dry.
Usually, when she and Ann went to the gym, they would go to the diner or somewhere else to discuss their plans for spring break. Ann’s father had a van in storage somewhere; Makoto had gotten her license ages ago and could drive, with Morgana as back up; Haru would provide food and Yusuke the antiemetics, mostly for himself; Futaba had pulled the address for Akira’s parents’ home in Hiroshima and mapped out the rest stops. Their plan was to make it a simple escort mission. It wasn’t going to be anything spectacular. They’d drive him back home and then drive back to Tokyo. Haru and Futaba had already booked the hotel they’d be staying at in Hiroshima.
The last time they had met, Ann had discovered a problem with the engine and had called a place to fix it, and Makoto assumed, quite reasonably as far as she was concerned, that they’d discuss it over some tea or crepes. Instead Ann hunched over her phone, careful to shield the screen from Makoto’s eyes, and giggled once, then said, “I have a shoot to get to, sorry! You should go straight home.”
“But the van—”
“It’s totally fine! Absolutely in no way a problem. I should’ve texted you about it years ago, but it totally slipped my mind. Say hi to your sister for me.”
There was a clever edge in her smile, like she thought she was getting away with something, that made Makoto suspicious.
“What are you up to?” she said, narrowing her eyes. “You’re not dating Yusuke, are you? He’s been chipper lately, too.”
“Oh my god, no, never,” Ann said. “I just really, really have to go right now. Bye!”
“I’ll see you in school,” Makoto said. She stayed on the street waving goodbye sadly for another second or two before heading into the subway.
When she got back home, there was a handsomely nondescript car idling in front of her apartment building. The back door opened, and Haru stepped out.
“What are you doing here?” Makoto said, jogging over to the car. Haru took her hand in hers, and a familiar, warm pressure built at the base of her neck.
“I thought I’d surprise you,” she said. “I asked Ann when you’d be done, and she sent you my way. She’s so kind, isn’t she? But I just realized you might be having dinner with your sister tonight.”
“She’ll be home late tonight,” Makoto said quickly. “Dinner. You did promise to take me out more often. Do you want to come up before we go? I’d like to put my bag away, at least.”
She wasn’t sure what had made her offer this. They could have gone to the restaurant straight away. It wasn’t like it was unusual for people in school uniforms to be out in the evenings. But she wanted a change of clothes and she wanted to look nicer than she usually did, nice in a way that Haru hadn’t seen her in.
Haru let out an impressed gasp when she came through the front door.
“It looks so clean! You must work hard to keep it that way.”
“It’s all right,” Makoto said. She pushed the salt shaker on the counter to a better position. “Do you need water? Tea?”
“No, thank you. Is your sister here?”
“Not today. She has to work late this weekend, I think.”
“Can I see your room, Mako-chan?”
“I’m warning you, it’s a mess,” Makoto said. She realized her ears were hot. “I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow.”
She enjoyed how forward Haru was with her, how it made her feel precious, as silly as that sounded. Precious, and valued for being just Makoto, instead of uptight or reliable or the second in command of something or school president or a little sister. Haru followed her through the apartment to her room, and the sound of her footsteps against the hardwood floor twisted something inside her breast. She opened the door and turned on the light.
She tried to think of something to say that would be appropriate for the situation before she turned around, but her words were stuck again. Haru had the look of a coil ready to spring, and Makoto knew it’d be her word that would make Haru come to her, it’d be something she said. She worked her jaw a few times, taking in how Haru’s deep breaths made her shoulders and chest rise, the reciprocal desire in Haru’s eyes and lips, then grabbed Haru by the shoulder and kissed her. It was not the soft, lingering kisses they had exchanged on the school roof; it was a relief to go fast and hot, like she was swinging Johanna along a sharp curve. Haru rubbed her side with one hand, each time letting her palm sweep higher towards Makoto’s breasts and hips. Then she brought one hand behind Makoto’s head, her fingernails raking against her scalp, and Makoto whimpered. Haru stopped then.
“Are you sure?” Haru said.
“Let’s move to the bed.” Then, realizing how that sounded, she said, “I really did just mean to show you my room.”
“It’s okay, Mako-chan. I’ve been—” They sat on the edge of the bed. Haru giggled. Her cheeks had turned a dusty pink. “I’ve been thinking about you.”
“The rooftop. Or did you mean… I don’t know. After I realized you were Queen? You caught my eye. I thought you looked so dangerous.” She kissed the side of Makoto’s jaw, then her ear.
That hadn’t been exactly what Makoto wanted to hear, but it was encouraging in its own way. She put her hands against Haru’s back and used her knee to nudge her legs apart. ‘Oh, fuck,’ she thought when Haru obliged; even though she had no intention besides fitting their bodies closer together, the tangible, physical weight of Haru’s moving thighs nearly dissolved her.
They went on for a few more minutes before Haru’s phone went off. Makoto almost wanted to stop her from answering it, but when they parted, she found herself out of breath.
“Mhmm. Yes. Mako-chan, do you still want dinner?”
“No. We can order something in.” She said it decisively, with a stinging authority that made her feel shy for being demanding. She reached up to fix the part in Haru’s hair. From the front of the apartment, a door opened. All of her senses went into high alert; she flushed and sat up, careful to not throw Haru off of her accidentally.
“Your face is red,” Haru whispered, and kissed her back through her shirt while Makoto frantically brushed her hair flat and tucked her shirt back in. She seemed devoid of the nervousness animating Makoto; with a few tosses of her hair and a smoothing of her skirt, she was back to her normal self, though with pinker lips.
“How do you do that?” Makoto said.
“I like to change very fast for gardening. Could that be it?”
Why couldn’t anyone give her a straight answer on these kinds of questions, she wondered to herself morosely. To Haru, she reached back and squeezed her arm through the pink sweater, then opened the door. She paused before putting her weight on the door. She wondered what she’d tell Sae, if her sister picked up on their wrinkled clothes and furtive air, if Sae would pick up on it at all. Then she went into the hall.
“I’m just here for a shower,” Sae said when Makoto and Haru came out of Makoto’s room. “Haru-san, isn’t it? Welcome to our home. I’m sorry I can’t stay. Makoto will take care of you, I’m sure. Makoto, do you need anything?”
“I’m okay,” she said, not sure whether she was relieved or not that Sae had picked up on exactly nothing. Then again, she hadn’t been the sneakiest of Phantom Thieves, and Sae hadn’t noticed a thing then, either. “Haru and I are going out for dinner.”
Sae reached for her purse, at once authoritative and awkward. She took out some bills and put them on the table. Makoto couldn’t figure out how to react. Sae had never done anything like this before.
“Consider it a gift,” Sae said. “I’ll shower. Don’t prepare a bath for me. I have to get back to the office right away.”
“Thank you,” Makoto said. Sae jerked her head down in acknowledgement and went down the hall. Makoto turned to Haru. It would have been nice to get delivery, but she had a feeling it would be awkward eating and talking with her sister in the apartment. “Should we go out, then?”
Haru’s brow furrowed. She looked over to Sae, as though considering her, then said, “We should.”
They went to a pizza place three blocks away. Makoto had never ordered from there despite living in this particular apartment since her father’s death. It was a simple shop, built in the style of an old American diner. The teal vinyl seats squeaked beneath their skirts. Haru ran her index finger down the list of potential toppings and ingredients and felt the menu paper and then eyed the napkin dispenser. Field research, Makoto knew. It seemed awfully tactile.
When Haru asked her what dishes were best, she tilted her head low and admitted she didn’t know.
“What would you like to get, then?” Haru said.
“Something healthy, at the very least. Or not?” She tugged at her collar. Why did she always button it up this high? She had said ‘or not’ knowing Haru’s own tastes ran richer than hers; although she knew, from careful observation of Haru’s lunchboxes, that Haru also enjoyed delicate flavors as well. “I feel like I’d know better three months ago, or six. I wouldn’t have even thought of coming in here.”
“It’s difficult having choices. Sometimes it feels like a dream.”
“What do you mean?”
“As though,” and here Haru hesitated. She raised the menu to hide her expression. “As though this is all Akira’s dream. That he’ll leave and everything will go back to how it was before. I don’t mean that Sae-san will go back to being how she was or that Shido will return to power. But that we’ll forget how to be who we were. Soon, Akira will be back in Hiroshima and we’ll be in university and the others, they’ll still be in high school. And we’ll drift out of each other’s lives and see each other only occasionally; and we’ll stop reforming society, and that’ll be the shape of our lives.”
A chilly, creeping dread gripped Makoto’s waist, as strong as a pair of arms. But she shook her head and said, “Oh, stop it. It won’t do us any good if you start thinking like that before we’ve even graduated. That’ll only happen if we don’t work to keep our friendships. And we will, if we try.” The waitress came. Makoto looked down at the menu with narrowed eyes and said, “One small with sardines, mayo, and grilled yellow onion, please.”
“That sounds delightful!” Haru said once the waitress walked away with their menus.
“Oh, good,” Makoto said, and tried to make it seem as though she had thought about the menu at all while they had been talking. She took a sip of water. “In any case, we’ll have Akira for a little longer yet. And we’ll be escorting him home.”
“Yes. You’re quite the optimist,” she said. “It’s too bad we can’t keep Akira longer. We could hold him for ransom and send his parents a note. ‘You can have your son back if you can promise to never distrust him like that again!’”
“That sounds like we’re kidnapping him. I like it. The others will, too.” She rubbed her mouth with the back of her hand. “But do you think it’s practical? Are we going to take him to a motel and live there for a week until his parents comply?”
“I could make it happen. We could go to Okinawa and stay there for a week or a month, or whenever classes for university start.”
“Even if we did that, I don’t think that’d make Akira’s relationship with his parents any better.”
“It wouldn’t. But it’s nice to think about, isn’t it?”
“But I don’t feel like you’re just thinking about it.”
“It’s still hypothetical. But Mako-chan, you’d enjoy it once we landed. I feel like you would. It’d be like Hawaii, except people would speak Japanese with an Okinawan accent.”
“But what would you get out of it, Haru?”
“Get out of it?” Haru looked puzzled, as though she hadn’t thought about it at all. “I like planning trips for my friends. And we’d have fun there, and I’d have fun. It’d be one last chance for us all to be together again. Isn’t that worth it?”
“Hmm,” Makoto said. It wouldn’t have been enough for her, but then again, she didn’t know what it was like to have that much money lying around. It probably warped the way you saw cause and effect.
The pizza arrived.
“It doesn’t have to be Okinawa,” Haru said, once they had finished the first slice. “We could go to the mountains or to a hot spring. But this could be our last job as Phantom Thieves, to steal Akira away. If you don’t want to do this, I understand. But it’s such a shame to let him go without making a show of it. If you could try it, if you could do this without worrying about anything, Mako-chan, what would you do? If you could choose?”
“I don’t know,” she said. Her chest throbbed uncomfortably; she felt as though she was being asked to consider more than this one trip, and didn’t know what to do.
She took Haru back to her apartment once they finished dinner. The excuse was that Haru had left her purse in the apartment, but it wasn’t long before they were back on her bed, clothes on but kissing with heat that had the blood in her ears roaring. ‘I have no idea what I’m getting into,’ she thought. But she was happy there, her back against the wall, Haru’s hand under her vest and gripping her shirt, her own hand in Haru’s mass of hair, the other on Haru’s hip. She gasped at one point, then tried to stuff it down, and it came out like a hiccup, and they broke away from each other to laugh. Haru’s phone rang.
“Yes. Yes, I understand. Is there any way… Of course.” She hung up looking upset. She got off the bed and fluffed her hair. “I’m sorry. I have to go. I have to see my lawyer tomorrow morning. It looks like it might be an all day appointment. I’m not sure I can…” She blushed angrily and went silent.
“Don’t worry about the date for tomorrow,” Makoto said. “We can make it up sometime soon.”
Haru called her driver. They waited in the living room. While they waited, Makoto put her hand on her back and said, “You know something? After all that time we’ve spent raiding Palaces, I’ve started wanting to see some castles. So if we could end up doing some seesighting in Hagi or somewhere for a day or two, I’m sure we’d all enjoy that.”
“You’re right,” Haru said.
Chapter 5: the karman line
Planning for Akira’s upcoming kidnapping-cum-adventure went quicker than Haru expected, given how busy they both had been as of late. She was with her lawyer more often than she wanted to be. The lawyer was the conglomerate’s and not, as far as she could tell, corrupt or actively working against her, but she felt, more often than not, that he was too happy to bring her in for meetings when he could have just called. And Makoto was looking for apartments near her university when she wasn’t drawing up detailed pros-and-cons list on whether she should stay home instead, along with fussing over the student council, despite saying that she planned to leave them alone, and, of course, planning for the trip Haru had proposed.
It was hard to not to resist Makoto and Futaba’s prowess at organizing events. A few text messages and her credit card in Makoto’s hands and hotel rooms had been canceled and booked elsewhere, itineraries drawn up, and plans suddenly ready to be executed. For example, she might text, in a flight of fancy, “Should we prepare a decoy car?” and receive a paragraph from Makoto half an hour later detailing all the reasons why they should not and an offer from Futaba to go book it anyway.
Shortly before graduation, they agreed to make a few changes to Akira’s parents’ expectations for when he’d be back. It would be more convenient to move around if his parents weren’t asking for him. Futaba had Makoto call Akira’s parents, while using a voice changer, and instructed them to expect Akira later, in order to accommodate a last minute school trip that urgently required his participation. It had been a short phone call; Haru had been reading a short article on water temperature and brewing methods and was surprised when Makoto finished the call before she finished reading. Makoto hadn’t said more than four sentences before ending the conversation.
“Were they busy?” Haru asked.
“No, it didn’t sound like it.”
“I wonder if it seems suspicious to them?”
“They don’t seem the type who will look into it too deeply, if you ask me. If they were, then they would’ve come to collect Akira ages ago. I can’t stand parents like that.”
Haru smiled slightly, but didn’t say anything. Queen never emerged when she expected. Queen, unlike Makoto, was cold. Queen disliked inconveniences, where Makoto was willing to—delighted, even, if she thought it was a challenge of her abilities—plan around them, when she wanted to. Haru supposed Makoto preferred to not deal with Akira’s parents at all if she was delegating it to Queen.
“Does that upset you?” Makoto said.
“I’d want my parents to be looking for me, if I were him.”
“I wonder what they’re like. If they’re more like Akira or if they’re more like Joker. Do you think he has siblings? I wouldn’t be surprised if he did and never mentioned them.” Makoto’s eyes narrowed and went to her phone, perhaps thinking of contacting Futaba. Then she turned her phone over and said, “Do you have the itinerary for Saturday ready?”
Later that evening, after Haru called her driver, they were lying in bed together on top of the covers, waiting for the car to come along. Makoto had her hand under Haru’s shirt, running her fingers under her sternum. Her expression was one of deep concentration. “Why don’t you stay the night sometime? Or I could go to your place, it doesn’t matter. It must be difficult being home alone.”
“Isn’t that the case with you most of the time?” Haru said, curious. It wasn’t that Makoto was wrong, or that she was offended that it had been noticed, but she wanted more, and liked to see Makoto off-balance at least some of the time.
“Oh. Well, yes. But it’s not the same.”
“Ann and Ryuji also spend a lot of time alone,” she said to continue amusing herself. “Akira, too.”
“But it’s not the same,” Makoto said, now visibly flustered. She withdrew her hand. “Because I like you and I worry about you. And I want to be with you. What’s wrong with that?”
“There’s nothing wrong. It makes me happy.” Haru ran her fingers along her neck to her collarbone. She enjoyed the way Makoto’s body went on alert. She had grown up feeling half-invisible, and watching Makoto’s thighs squeeze together in response, the naked uptick of interest in her eyes, electrified her.
“Come closer,” she said. Her voice was strained and at first she was afraid Makoto hadn’t heard her. Then Makoto slid over, so her arm was nearly squished between them. Her lips were twitching. She was waiting, Haru realized, to be kissed. Makoto sometimes became nervous, like she wanted permission to touch or be touched. It wasn’t the nervousness of innocence, although they hadn’t been intimate with each other just yet. It was a nervousness that, within it, held a demand. Usually Haru would oblige her right away, but she didn’t want to right away. She sensed that this was a time when she had the advantage, when she could get something she wanted. “Mako-chan, why don’t you come over to my place tomorrow night?”
“That’s right before graduation.”
“The student council will be able to take care of everything. All you’ll have to do is be well-rested, make a speech, and get your diploma. And spend the night with me, if you don’t want me to be lonely.”
“I don’t want you to be,” Makoto said. “But Sis wants to have dinner with me, and you know she doesn’t have much time for doing these types of things these days.”
“Mm-hmm,” Haru said. She tried to not look disappointed, but knew some of it was showing from Makoto’s brows coming together as her mind ran rapid calculations on how to salvage the moment.
“You should come to dinner with us. Then we can go to your place afterward. Sis won’t have a problem.”
“How do you know?”
“You can’t avoid her forever,” Makoto said. The momentary haze Makoto had been under had disappeared, and she looked slightly annoyed with Haru. “I know she can be intimidating, but she’s the only family I have left, and sometimes it feels like you don’t even want to get to know her.”
Haru felt a prickle of shame that she tried, for an instant, to pass off as defensiveness over an unwarranted accusation. But Makoto was right: she didn’t want to get to know Sae. She couldn’t look at Sae without her breathing getting tight and her jaw clenching and her eyes getting hot. Afterwards she’d go home and, once she stepped into the elevator, she’d get a headache. The worst was when she had to go from seeing Sae and then straight to the lawyer. Then one half of her would rustle violently inside her. Why, she wondered, was everything twice as frustrating now than it was before? She hadn’t minded being just Haru until she was Noir; and now Noir was sealed away and the world was just as she had left it: stupid, slow, and unfair.
“Mako-chan, I don’t know if I could,” she said.
“Why not?” Makoto’s reply was swift, as though she had been expecting it. Her face, although calm on the surface, was uncompromising. Her gaze had abandoned its usual kindness for a pure, cold consideration. Haru sat up. Confronting this part of Makoto here, in her bedroom and in the warmth of her bed, felt like an ambush, and she disliked it intensely.
“You know why not.”
“No, I don’t. Because you don’t tell me and I don’t think I can understand it until you do.”
“Because it’s not fair.”
“I don’t understand how something like this could be fair or unfair. To me, it’s a chance for you to get to know Sis more personally. If you don’t want to tell her we’re seeing each other, I understand. But I’m not taking anything away from you. I don’t want you to say no just because you’re scared of her.”
The driver would be here soon, and Haru knew a younger version of herself would have stood up and apologized, and left. But that would’ve been the old her; and it’d take this from a heated moment to an actual fight.
“I know it may seem strange when I say it,” she said. “But I get jealous sometimes that Sae-san is…” Still alive? Isn’t dead? Didn’t have a drastic personality change post-brainwashing? That Makoto got exactly the outcome she wanted, and Haru hadn’t? She felt like standing up and pacing. “That our mission to clear Sae-san’s Palace… I’m relieved, too, that nothing happened. But at the same time...”
“That was Akechi’s fault, not yours,” Makoto said.
“Of course it was Akechi’s fault, but he’s not here, and no one remembers him or hates him except me.” A vile anger shot through her body, and before she knew it, she said, “Sometimes—sometimes I wish I could bring him back to life, just so I could show him how much I hate him. I’d hit him. And I’d kill. I’d do both, I really would.”
Now she felt bad for Makoto’s visible spike of anxiety. And she hadn’t even managed to say what she wanted to say; that Sae wasn’t going to be enough to carry on the Phantom Thieves’ goals, that Makoto, someday, would end up becoming someone like her sister was now, an adult with ideals so compromised that she was, except for being useful this one time, essentially no good. No use, she meant. Those were all awful things to think. Sae’s new line of work wasn’t useless at all. And Makoto was too young to be judged that way. It wasn’t like Haru’s plans for her own life would lead her to a brand new Japan, either. How would running a café fix anything? How was she supposed to go from saving her father to changing society to serving lattes and biscotti?
“I don’t think I’m feeling like myself right now,” Haru said. “I’m sorry.”
Makoto nodded twice, stiffly. She got off the bed. “I’m not upset with you for speaking your mind,” she said, in a way that somehow still sounded disapproving, even though she had said it warmly. “Why don’t we come back to the dinner tomorrow during the day? Are you up for a ride right now?”
“You’re right, my driver…”
“No, no, I meant…” Makoto tugged her shirt straight. “On my motorcycle, I mean. Would you like me to take you home on that?”
Haru almost said no. She wanted to go home, she wanted to run away into the car and return to her apartment, to her room, alone. But it was an offer, she knew. And she had always wanted to see what Makoto looked like on a bike.
Makoto dug through her closet and found two helmets. She had Haru try them both on and asked if it was too big or too small.
“My head only looks large because of my hair,” Haru said, pushing her hair behind her ears. She decided to put on a slight pout.
“Of course!” Makoto said. “I didn’t mean to suggest…” She trailed off, realizing Haru had been teasing her. Haru couldn’t resist a smile.
She felt better now that they were going on an adventure. Her only disappointment was that Makoto had changed into her usual out of school outfit, though she changed her shoes for a pair of surprisingly shiny riding boots and, instead of her winter mittens, had thick fingerless gloves. But Haru would have liked to see a leather jacket, or spiked knuckles on the gloves. Still, she thought Makoto looked more assured in her tall boots and a helmet under each arm.
The garage was located underneath the apartment building. They took the elevator down to the motorcycle. It was a beat up Honda with a wide scrape running along the frame and small dents on the front.
“I don’t think I’ve ever taken anyone out on this,” Makoto said. She ran her fingers along the dings. “I bought it used. This one here, that’s from the previous owner, I think. But the metal in some places is so thin, it dents if you look at it… Here, here, here, those were all my early mistakes. And this one is from a rock that flew off the top of some car and bounced off the windshield and hit my helmet… Do you want to touch it?”
Her eagerness practically screamed, ‘You definitely should touch it.’
“When did you get this?” Haru asked. She ran her hand along the handlebars. She wiggled the brake with her fingers and put one hand flush against the saddle.
“The day after I turned eighteen. My father left Sis and I some money when he died. Sis was so mad. She thought it was frivolous. I’d like a sport bike someday. Maybe if I work part-time during college, I can get one. And then I’ll join the police, and… I must sound silly.”
She nearly said, ‘I could buy one for you,’ but managed to stop herself. This wasn’t like buying Yusuke dinner or funding their little vacation-slash-kidnapping excursion. Makoto wouldn’t want that. She settled for, “It’s not silly. I like this side of you.”
A blush colored Makoto’s ears and cheeks. Then she said, “Do you want to try?”
Haru thought Makoto meant, ‘a ride with me in front and you behind,’ the way people meant it in the movies or on TV shows, but Makoto meant for Haru to get astride it by herself, to kick her weight steady and, using her toes, paddle her way in a line. The parking lot was half empty, and there was plenty of space. At first, she kept tipping over. The motorcycle felt like a bizarre boat wedged between her legs, impossible to steer or control. Makoto jogged next to her, tugging her straight. Then she made it five meters, and then ten.
“Come on, try turning!” Makoto said, her voice nearly a bark. It echoed in the parking lot. It reminded Haru of Queen. Makoto, as Queen, never felt bad about giving orders, or demanding good performance, or showing her temper. She turned her head, meaning to surprise Makoto with a kiss; instead she nearly toppled over. She squealed and laughed, and Makoto’s arms came around her waist. “Do you like it?”
“It’s harder than I thought! I can see why you enjoy it. Does it remind you of being on Johanna?”
“No. I like this better. The whole point of a bike is that it’s a partnership between you and a machine, but with Johanna, she was me—and she was so pushy, too.”
“But you like that. Would you kiss me, Mako-chan?”
Makoto laughed and looked away. “What was Milady like?”
“Milady? I liked her. She was always supportive. Although she was impatient.” She looked down at the motorcycle, then said, “Why don’t you take me home?”
Makoto bit her lip, then said, “Let me let Sis know.” She took a moment to tap out a text. Then she put her phone away and got on her bike.
By the time they arrived at the front of Haru’s apartment building, Haru’s fingers had stiffened from the cold, and she had a difficult time letting go of Makoto’s waist. The helmet had blunted most of the wind, but her neck and knees and ankles all felt bitten. Makoto, too, looked stiff and cold. Her nose was red and her eyes were watery around the rim.
“Sorry!” Makoto said. “I should have warned you.”
“It’s very bracing,” she said. “I feel like there could be an amusement park ride for this.”
“It’s nicer when the weather’s warmer. A lot nicer. I’ll have to take you on this again soon. Maybe even after we get back from Hiroshima. I bet the weather will be better then.” She adjusted the helmet under her arm, ducking her head down low as she did so, suddenly shy. “I should get going. It’s late, after all.”
“But weren’t you just saying today that you don’t want me to be lonely?” Haru said.
“I know, but…”
“Why? What do you have to do tomorrow? And with your bike, you could get anywhere you need to go in an instant. I don’t want to make you do anything you don’t want to. If you want to go home, you can. But if you do, could you kiss me good night?”
“I do want to go up. But what if…”
“What if?” she said. Suddenly she wondered whether Sae had called Makoto home.
“You’re right,” Makoto said, without explaining a thing. She went over to Haru and kissed her. It was almost like they were back on the motorcycle. The engine’s growl came in Haru’s ears and the back of her thighs tingled. She gripped Makoto’s lower back. Then she tapped it, twice, to get her attention.
“We’ll need to find a place for you to park,” she said.
It was dark in her apartment. Haru could still feel the curve of Makoto’s waist under her wrists, the shape of her scapulae against her cheeks, the weight of her thighs against the inside of her own. Makoto, once they were in the apartment, walked to the kitchen and then stood by it, holding her helmet under one arm and eyes darting around the apartment, as though expecting a ghost to appear from behind the fridge or the curtains.
“Do you want water?” Haru said. Makoto shook her head. “Do you want to see my garden?”
Makoto jerked back, then nodded her head.
“My tomatoes just came in,” Haru said cheerily, going over to the door. “Please excuse the mess. I’m still trying to find the best arrangement for the plants—”
“Oh! So you meant your actual garden,” Makoto said, and covered her eyes with her hand. “I had something… I didn’t think you’d have it ready so soon.”
She replayed Makoto’s reddening face, the shock on it, and the nervous tilt of her chin, back in the kitchen, imagining what Makoto had imagined she was offering; imagining, too, how Makoto must have fought to keep her hips from shifting, the surest sign that her thoughts were drifting. “Can we go to my room, Mako-chan?”
“Yes. Yes, please, please.”
Her bed stood against a wall. It was a western-style bed with posts and a mattress that made Makoto gasp when she sank into it.
“The mattress is so soft. This can’t be good for your back,” Makoto said, splayed out on the bed and wiggling into the sheets with a disoriented look on her face.
“No, possibly not,” she agreed, and let herself onto the bed. Makoto reached, her hand sure and confident. She pulled Haru over and brought her down for a kiss. She ran her hand along Haru’s sides and Haru, in turn, tugged at Makoto’s shirt, twisting her fingers to get each button through the slit. Being allowed to do this, being allowed to watch Makoto push her chest out to meet her hands, to feel the pinch of her waist and to have Makoto’s hand to flat against her hip in response, made her feel dizzy and grateful. She had never had this effect on someone else before, and she hoped it would always be like this.
“Please,” Makoto said, and reached for Haru’s sweater. Haru took it off and they rustled off her shirt then, without much more thought, her skirt. Haru felt a pang watching the skirt flutter off. In a few days, she’d never have a reason to see that uniform again. Her time in school had passed by uneventfully until the last few months, and although she knew the other Thieves didn’t have fond memories of Shujin, she’d miss the red and black. It was the symbol of her first and only rebellion.
She was pulled away from her thoughts by Makoto pressing an open mouthed kiss between her breasts, the ring of wet suction against her bare skin. The back of Makoto’s tongue flicked smooth along the space between her breasts, then moved along her breast. A remote, absurd part of Haru wondered whether she should get a towel, then stopped wondering as Makoto’s mouth approached her areola. Before long, she had her nails in Makoto’s back, her hips jerking up and against Makoto’s thigh.
She thought Makoto might move to her other breast, but instead she put a hand against Haru’s thigh.
“There’s something I want to do to you,” Makoto said. “If you want me to. Please.”
“What is it?” Haru said.
And in response, Makoto bit her lip. She kissed Haru’s chest again, slower, and with deliberate sweeps of her tongue. There was something compulsively endearing about Makoto, how she could never admit, in a straightforward way, what it was she wanted. Haru hadn’t been thinking of it, but now that it had been proposed, she wanted it. She wanted to give Makoto this. She nodded and turned over so she was on her back, tugging on Makoto’s arm so she’d roll on top.
Makoto was quick to assume position. Her shirt flew open around her chest and stomach and, once on top, her thighs framing Haru’s hips and hands just above her shoulders, she looked magnificent and self-assured; not the embattled student council president, but a masked thief. Makoto scooted down so her whole body was between Haru’s legs. She set her hands against Haru’s thighs, her palms high and fingers curled just below the elastic of her underwear’s leg opening. She bent down and kissed the inside of Haru’s thigh, below her hand, and Haru grabbed Makoto’s hand, holding onto it as Makoto continued to work her way up her leg. Soon Makoto’s face was right up against the leg opening of her underwear; her breath was damp against the cloth and Haru’s leg, and Haru’s own breath was coming short. She realized Makoto wouldn’t take her underwear off unless she asked, and she placed her fingers on the elastic and pushed it down. Makoto rolled it off and, just as she knew she’d be, she was exposed entirely. She studied Makoto’s face intently, although she knew she wouldn’t have to; Makoto’s gentleness meant that she wouldn’t push the way Haru wanted her to, but it also meant that she was congenitally incapable of being unkind. Makoto put her right hand on top of her pubic bone, stroking the coarse hairs. Her left hand squeezed Haru’s leg, then circled around to squeeze her ass, rolling the flesh in her palm. The look in her eyes was a cross between fascination and a boyish wonder.
Haru put her hand on the top of Makoto’s head. That was something Makoto liked; she could feel the shiver, the relaxation, going from crown to neck, feel the squeeze of Makoto’s hand on her thigh in turn.
“Go,” she said, like it was a command, and it became one. Makoto’s hands spread her apart; she thrust her head forward and kissed her, inside. Haru had to stop her hips from shooting up. Even as she knew what would happen, she hadn’t known what it’d feel like to have the side of Makoto’s tongue against her center, the way she could feel Makoto’s lips moving against her entrance, or the high whimper that came out of her when Makoto moved one of Haru’s legs onto her shoulder, for easier access.
“Is it working?” Makoto said, looking up as she took Haru’s other leg onto her shoulder.
“Of course it is,” Haru said. She wiped off some of the slickness from Makoto’s nose and fought hard to not giggle at how Makoto wrinkled her nose afterward, as though offended by the mess. “Can’t you tell?”
“What’s been most effective so far? I mean, which do you like the most? Or where would you like me to… what do you think?”
“I’d like to feel you inside me. Can you do that?” When Makoto nodded, Haru cupped her cheek, and guided her head back down. Makoto got back to work, teasing Haru with her tongue. She was getting better at controlling the pressure, going from stiff traces to broad, slow laps as she circled back down to her entrance. Once there, her tongue pushed inside Haru, first slow, testing, then more quickly and with confidence. She wiggled closer to Haru, her mouth opening wide against her, her tongue rotating in steady, determined half-circles.
Her nipples were still hard from Makoto’s earlier exploration and she brought one hand to roll her nipple in between her fingers and Makoto brought her thumb to her clit. Her coordination was escaping her; she tried to stop herself from pushing her hips down too hard, tried to say complete sentences, but it was all useless; she couldn’t hold onto anything, not her sweating, wet body, not onto language for more than a word or two, and then just Makoto’s name as she came into Makoto’s mouth, wetter than she had ever come on her own. Makoto wiped her mouth against her shirt—why was she still wearing that?—before coming back up to kiss Haru, but her lips were slick with her arousal and the inside of Makoto’s mouth tasted distinctly different.
“Thank you,” Haru said, once she felt like she had enough of her wind back. “I appreciate it.”
“You don’t have to be so formal,” Makoto said. “I should be the one thanking you. You’re…” She rubbed Haru’s chest, above her breasts, obviously looking for words. “You looked beautiful. You narglorgh—always do. My tongue’s tired.”
“You were, too. You made me feel good, Mako-chan. Would you let me do the same for you?”
Haru pushed Makoto’s shirt off of her shoulders, down her arms, and out of the sleeves. Makoto’s pants were a more difficult project: the button and fly were already undone, and the thought of Makoto touching herself, struggling to work her fingers against her tight pants while she was going down on Haru, made her wet all over again. Sweat stuck the fabric to Makoto’s skin, and Makoto was aroused enough that each touch made her squirm, sometimes back into the very pants they were trying to get her out of. They pulled her underwear down with her pants, and Haru sometimes ran her fingers along the inside of Makoto’s thighs, then the outside of her slit, tracing its shape and feeling the twitch of Makoto’s hips under her fingertips. She almost couldn’t resist: the inside of Makoto’s thighs were wet, and it was easy for her fingers to travel up, and fun to watch Makoto throw her head back and whisper, “Please, please.”
“Please,” she said. “What do you want, Mako-chan?”
“Please,” Makoto said, reaching for Haru. Her hand landed on the side of Haru’s breast. Her fingers curled, almost away, but then returned, squeezing the top of her breasts and making Haru bend into the mattress. “Please, I want you to touch me.”
Once they got her pants off, Makoto nearly leaped into Haru’s lap, straddling her. Then she started grinding down, spreading hot and wet across Haru’s thigh. “Sorry, sorry,” she kept saying.
“You shouldn’t be sorry,” Haru said firmly. She adjusted the position of her leg, shivering when she realized she could feel Makoto’s clit against her skin. She wrapped her arm around Makoto’s lower back to add to the pressure.
She liked this, the two of them close together, the way she could feel Makoto’s whole body and its subtle, quick shifts. And she liked Makoto’s almost whispered commands, even as they made her blush: “Use more of your teeth, please use your nails, please pull harder, please, please, pull my hair, please… fill me up, I want you to use your fingers, please.” She almost didn’t have to think. Makoto’s urgency, the heat off of her body, drove her on. Before she knew it, her hand moved, only a little awkwardly, between their bodies, Makoto’s hips already angled to receive them. She slowed down, cupping Makoto’s pussy in her hand.
“Ah! Please,” Makoto said, tucking her forehead into Haru’s shoulder. “Please, please, I want to come.”
“You don’t need my permission to,” she said. She wanted to take her time with this part, the same way Makoto had with her, but she also wanted to be quick; it really did seem like Makoto might physically explode if she didn’t orgasm soon. She ran her fingers between her labia, searching for Makoto’s clit with her thumb and her entrance with her middle finger. She wished she could see better, that Makoto wasn’t pressed so close against her. Makoto reached down and grabbed her hand.
“Two fingers,” she said, and Haru obeyed, sliding in. Then Makoto’s hips snapped down into Haru’s hand, and Haru’s whole body flashed with heat. She had enough brainpower to bring her thumb up to make quick contact with Makoto’s clit, although keeping a hold on it was harder than she thought, with how aggressively Makoto moved against her.
“You’re amazing,” she said. She used her other hand to angle Makoto’s body away so she could better access Makoto’s clit. There, that was good: her fingers were wet and Makoto buried her face into Haru’s shoulder. Her moan vibrated against Haru’s skin, her gasps were hot and shallow. “Come whenever you’re ready, okay?”
“I’m, I’m—” Makoto let out a moan that she immediately tried to silence, with no effect. Makoto’s thighs clenched around her wrist and her knees were tight around Haru’s legs, and her cunt squeezed down on Haru’s fingers, tightest around the entrance, as though her hand was meant to be trapped there. Then it was over. Makoto fell sideways onto the bed, shifting irritably when she landed on a wet spot. Haru wiped her hands on the sheets and crawled next to Makoto so she could hold her from behind. She felt like she could’ve stayed for a long time in bed, waiting for Makoto to catch her breath.
“Was I all right?” Makoto said. “Was I too pushy?”
“Mako-chan, you were wonderful. I like it when you tell me what you want.”
“Okay. Good.” She stretched her arms above her head, then, cautiously, put one around Haru’s shoulders. “I’m glad my first time was with you.”
“You’re too sweet,” she said. “I’m happy it was you, too. Do you need anything? A shower? Water?”
“I prefer to shower in the morning.”
“I’ll get us some water, then.”
Makoto was already asleep by the time Haru returned with the water. She looked, for some reason, stern, as though she was reprimanding someone in her sleep; Haru wondered if she continued to think of her responsibilities and obligations even in her dreams. Lately, her own dreams were of her childhood, especially of her mother. But she never remembered the details or the events, only the subject. Only the fact that she had been visited.
Haru set the glasses on the nightstand on her side of the bed, and went to drink her water in the living room. She opened the curtains so she could look outside. She had noticed, before, that from the middle window, she could see her room reflected in the pane, and that she could see the end of her bed, with the blanket in disarray, too. It occurred to her that she had seen her father standing in front of this window often, especially late at night, and she wondered…
She didn’t want to go to the dinner, but she’d do it for Makoto, who was her dearest friend. She’d have to learn to work with Sae as someone who was part of Makoto’s life, if she wanted to keep seeing Makoto. Makoto hadn’t said so explicitly, but she had heard it, she had heard the words anyway. Why, she wondered, didn’t Makoto realize that Sae would be trapped by the injustice of the courts all over again, this time as a defense attorney? Ten years from now, she might end up bitter all over again. Ten years. Was that really all it took?
In two days, graduation. The week after that, Hiroshima: the last act of the Phantom Thieves, their final march. She wasn’t going to be the type of adult who needed someone to steal her heart, she told herself, she wasn’t going to be the type of adult who would struggle in vain, she’d use her money and whatever power she accumulated through the conglomerate for something useful. As she promised all these things to herself, she felt the long miles of time stretch out before her and pile over her head, like the thousands of feet of air, from the exosphere down—how heavy it was, how stubbornly unchanging.
For the last two or three weeks, Akira had become impossible for Makoto to get a hold of. Or, rather, she kept passing him in the halls, next to Ryuji or Ann, or both of them, sometimes arm-in-arm, the three of them looking much as they did when she first took notice of the trio, chummy, conspiratorial, but unburdened. Freed from their roles as Joker and Skull and Panther, they were almost like any other group of friends in Shujin. They walked in a single broad line down the hallways, they were yelled at by teachers for shouting, they—and Makoto wasn’t sure when she started noticing this—touched each other often: Ann pulling on Ryuji’s ear when she wanted his attention, Ryuji’s arm slipping from Akira’s shoulder down to his waist, Akira tugging at Ann’s sleeve to keep her from turning a corner too quickly and bumping into someone.
Sometimes she had a strange feeling: that she was back in that May heat, scurrying from corner to corner. They’d stop when they saw her, chat with her, sometimes even walk with her down the hall to her next destination, but in a two-by-two line. She wished they’d be more unruly with her, but didn’t know how to say so. It wasn’t a bad thing, she thought, to be a disciplinarian. But she didn’t want them to feel like she was trying to constrain them.
Occasionally, Akira would fall back and he’d ask her if she was doing all right and apologize for not responding to her text. They’d try to make plans, but then Ann or Ryuji would ask him whether he was ever planning on catching up, and they’d promise to text later.
Today, he caught her as she was changing back into her outdoor shoes.
“Where are you going off to in such a hurry?” he said.
“I need to get my bike. Sis and I are going out for dinner tonight and the reservation’s at five.”
“I don’t know anyone who’s hungry that early. Why wasn’t I invited?”
“Why weren’t you… why would you be?”
“Ny—aw!” Morgana said, sticking his head out of the bag. “Joker, you’re too conceited!”
Akira laughed and kicked at the ground. “I haven’t had any time to see her since she got me out of prison. And I think we’d make okay friends. Do you think Sae-san would agree to have me? It can’t hurt to ask.”
“I don’t want you making a nuisance of yourself, so don’t bother,” she said, more aggressively than she meant to. Akira, to his credit, didn’t look upset with her at all, although he did raise an eyebrow.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I was out of line. Is it an important dinner?”
“It’s for my graduation. And I’ve invited Haru, so it’d be physically impossible. Maybe it was a mistake? Haru might not like the food.”
“She’s too nice to say. I’ve made her some really bad coffee.”
“You’re not helping,” she said. Akira stuck his hands in his pockets and lowered his head, his way of conveying a minor apology, and turned his head up to the side, waiting for her to carry on the conversation. “You know that Haru and I…”
“Reached rank S?”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s more Futaba’s thing than mine. But you’re closer now, aren’t you? Dating?” His expression was one she rarely saw unless she was talking about Eiko: openly curious, even gossipy. She nodded her head, trying to do so while suppressing the urge to float or spin around. Something ridiculous like that. “Are you going to tell Sae-san?”
“No. I think we’re still seeing how it’s going to work out.”
“Once you’re in college, are you going to still try to see each other?”
“Yes, I think so,” she said, although she didn’t know. She hadn’t thought that far. They were both going to universities in Tokyo, so theoretically, they could continue dating, but that didn’t mean they’d be in the same parts of Tokyo, or that they might not start drifting apart… She shook her head to stop herself from running mental simulations on how to date in college and refocused on Akira. He kept looking over his shoulder wistfully. She wondered who he was thinking about. She hoped it wasn’t her sister. “Akira, are you seeing anyone right now? I don’t think I’ve ever asked.”
“No,” Akira said after a moment. “I don’t think it’d be fair to ask when we’d only have this much time left.”
“So there is someone you have in mind?” she said.
“Getting nosy again, Ms. President?” he said, leaning back as though offended. He rubbed his neck. “It’s fine. It’s nothing important. We make good friends, anyway.”
“Of course it’s important.” Now she wished she didn’t have to go on the dinner. She forgot how much she liked talking with Akira. “Akira, were you joking about going to dinner with us?”
“Are you sure?” he said.
“Honestly, I think Haru would prefer to have you there with us,” she said, and tried to ignore the way Akira’s head tilted to the side as he considered her words. “And Sis occasionally asks about you, so she won’t be mad. You’ll have to make it to the restaurant on your own, since I’m picking up Haru, but we’ll be happy to have you there. I’ll text you the location.”
“Thank you for inviting me,” Akira said, lowering his head.
When Makoto and Haru got to the restaurant, the rest of the Phantom Thieves were there to greet them. All of them: Yusuke, Futaba, Ryuji, Ann, and, sitting next to Sae with nothing resembling shame on his face, Akira.
Haru looked between the table, watching them nervously, and Makoto’s total confusion. “Mako-chan, did you…” Haru said.
“I invited Akira, but…” She had a sudden vision of Akira trying to sneak out of school, only to be caught by Ryuji and Ann, and then the three of them getting in contact with her sister somehow—information was always dropping in his lap—and asking whether they could bring some friends, and… Her first thought was that she had to make sure her sister wasn’t mad. And Sae wasn’t. She was chatting lightly with Futaba about something and when she saw Makoto, she smiled wryly, as though to say, ‘well, what can you do?’ Was Sae upset or not? Makoto went to the table and sat across from her sister.
Sae and Futaba were still discussing what seemed to be the finer points of corporate espionage with one another, but once Makoto sat down, Sae said, “I hope you don’t mind all of your friends being here. Akira-kun suggested that you might appreciate having all of your friends together for this meal and I thought it’d make for a nice surprise.”
“It’s wonderful,” Makoto said, still feeling more nervous than happy. A list of household chores suddenly popped into mind. She suppressed them. “Thank you for allowing it.”
“Naturally. Haru-san, how have you been lately?”
“I’m doing well these days, thank you. I’ve heard you’re looking to go into a new line of work, Sae-san?”
Before Makoto knew it, Haru and Sae were updating each other about work and business. It was casual chit-chat that let Sae return to a more professional demeanor.
Next to Sae, Akira mouthed, ‘Are you mad?’
She tried to mouth, ‘I’m just surprised’ a few times before having to say so out loud. “More than that, I’m amazed Futaba is here, too,” she said.
“I don’t care about graduation or any of that. School’s a joke,” Futaba said. “But no way I’m missing out on free grub! Congrats for finishing.”
“Thank you. But my duties won’t be officially discharged until tomorrow.”
“So you’re going to be the Student Prez until the last second, huh,” Futaba said. “I respect that. You’re committed to the role.”
“I’m committed to justice,” Makoto said. She didn’t see the humor in it, but Futaba and Akira exchanged looks that clearly communicated that they found it funny. “What group were we all a part of again?”
“Slant ‘em sleeves?” Futaba said.
“Whampus wheeze?” Akira said.
The rest of the dinner went on just fine. Her sister, despite her the change of plans, took everything graciously. She spoke with each of Makoto’s friends, addressing them in a kind tone that occasionally slipped into open befuddlement the longer she spoke with Yusuke. Haru’s nerves over the dinner were completely shaken off; she engaged in conversation with everyone, she laughed, she was happy, and Makoto was happy, too, and relieved.
At the end of the dinner, Sae stood up to make a toast.
“Thank you, everyone, for coming together on such short notice,” Sae said. “This was unexpected for all of us, but I’m glad I had a chance to see you all together one last time. As you all know, Makoto is graduating from Shujin Academy tomorrow. When she entered high school, not too long after our father died, I knew she would do well as long as she had the motivation and the drive. What I didn’t expect was that she’d find a new source of motivation, one founded in people and true justice. These days, I find my thoughts turning to our father more and more, wondering whether he’d be proud of us. I don’t know what he’d think of me, but I know for certain that he would be proud of you for what you’ve done so far. But don’t forget to not lose your way. There’s still a long way left. So, here is to you, Makoto.”
“Thank you,” Makoto said, only to be drowned out by Ryuji and Ann nearly slamming their glasses into each other, Ryuji shouting, “Hear, hear!” and the splash of water on the table, and from the other end of the table, Haru’s ringing voice, quieter than Ryuji’s, but breaking clear into her ears, “Here’s to you, Mako-chan.”
“And here’s to Haru, too,” Akira said, raising his glass again, and there was another over-enthusiastic round of toasting. Makoto looked over at Akira and mouthed ‘thank you,’ because she wanted Haru to feel appreciated today, too, not just for graduating, but for being here and being their friend. She didn’t want it to be about her. Then she had to say it out loud, again, because Akira’s lip reading skills were the worst.
Instead of ordering dessert at the restaurant, Akira and Haru put their heads together and proposed that they check out a café not so far away. Sae looked almost relieved to watch them leave.
After their dessert at the café, they split off from each other. Yusuke had some deadline at school coming up, while Ann and Ryuji had plans with Futaba. Some new game was out—a racing yakuza game? On ice?—and they were all going to play it together. That left Akira, Makoto, and Haru. At first, they all tried to find excuses to go home separately; then Akira said, adopting his teasing tone, that Makoto and Haru were just planning to sneak off and get up to no good together, leaving him all alone.
“But if we did that, I wouldn’t sneak around it,” Haru said, tapping her finger to her chin. “I’d announce it and walk away while holding onto Mako-chan’s arm to better devastate you.”
“It’s true, she would,” Makoto said. “Since we’re all here, we might as well do something. Let’s each come up with three ideas for what to do, and select from those.”
“I want to go bowling,” Akira said. “Or do karaoke. Or go to one of those places where you drink wine and throw clay.”
“Let’s do that,” Haru said, clapping her hands together.
“We’re all still in our high school uniforms. No one will let us in,” Makoto said. She checked her phone to see what was nearby. “Let’s go bowling.”
Both Akira and Haru were in a silly mood. First Akira would do a pirouette before throwing the ball down the lane, then Haru would mimic him, and they’d laugh as the ball rolled straight into the gutter. Then they’d do it again and try to knock down as many pins as possible. Then one of them would come up with a new move and they’d try to score as many points as possible. By the end of the ten frames, Makoto was the clear winner of the game, with two hundred and fifty-nine points, and Akira and Haru trailing far below. Although she knew they were just having fun, a part of her was irked, anyway. Her idea of fun was winning.
“I’m better in the batting cages,” Akira said. “There’s one not too far from Leblanc, if you guys want to try.”
“Mako-chan, do you want to go to the batting cages?” Haru said.
“It’s fine, I don’t mind going,” she said. “We’ll have to go separately, though. My bike is still by the restaurant. Akira, you and Haru can go to the batting cage together, and I’ll meet you there once I find somewhere to park.”
“You can put it at Boss’. He won’t mind,” Akira said.
“I’ll let Futaba know I’m on my way over, then,” Makoto said.
She saw them off to the train station. “Are you upset, Mako-chan?” Haru asked in a low voice before she went down into the station with Akira. “Akira and I were just goofing off, that’s all.”
“I’m fine. I’m not jealous.” She realized she now sounded robotic, and cleared her throat. “I think I’m just emotional from all the celebrating. It was a lot more than I was expecting. We were supposed to be back at your place by now.”
“You don’t like it when your plans don’t go the way you want them to.” Haru rubbed Makoto’s arm through her jacket. “But I like taking detours. And they’re more fun when you let yourself enjoy it. Okay?”
“Did you enjoy the dinner? Even though Sis was there?”
“Yes, I did. I don’t know whether Sae-san would like me if we were to get to know each other in a more intimate setting. I don’t know what qualities she’d like in a friend at all.”
“I don’t, either,” Makoto admitted. She felt an adult sadness for her sister. What made this sadness adult, she didn’t know. She felt the pinch of many lonely years going by.
“You don’t need to take her advice, either. She’s not the one in control of your life. You are. You don’t have to stay on her path if you don’t want to.”
That wasn’t what Sae had said. Sae had talked about losing one’s way. A fine, but notable, difference.
“You don’t have to worry about me,” she said, and, since there was hardly anyone around, she decided to kiss Haru goodbye.
So, she drove to the batting cages resolved to enjoy herself as much as possible. What was difficult about deciding to enjoy yourself was that enjoying yourself then became an imperative. And somehow she got confused navigating Yongen-Jaya in the dark and wound up having an old man tell her that kids shopped online too much, and it was ruining their youthful health. Akira and Haru were already batting, Akira trying to couch Haru through the netting. Haru swung valiantly and hit the ball twice: once a foul, the second time to first base.
“Brava, anyway!” Akira said.
“I thought there would be more skill transfer between the bat and an ax,” Haru said.
“Oi, oi. You were trying to chop the ball?” Morgana said.
Haru scratched Morgana’s ears and neck. “Mako-chan, do you want to go next?”
She would have said yes, if not for Akira tapping his foot off to the side. “Why don’t you go in again so Morgana can coach you?” he said. “I want to get something to drink.”
“I should have some water, too,” Makoto said. She wondered why Akira wanted to talk to her alone.
There were some vending machines not too far from the batting cages. Akira got them both some TaP. Then he said, “Don’t freak out when I say this. But since you’re the one who spends the most time with Haru, so I thought you’re the one who’s most likely to notice. Have you noticed anyone following you or Haru over the last few days?”
“Following?” she said. “You have a tail?”
“I haven’t noticed anything on my end or Haru’s, but I haven’t been looking for one. Do you think it’s the police?”
“I dunno. Morgana’s the one who spotted them starting a day or two ago. They’re watching me go in and out of school. Black suits, shades, and a lot of muscle. This is the first time we noticed them outside of Aoyama-Itchome. If they’re looking for the rest of the Phantom Thieves’ identities, then it won’t be too hard for them to find it.”
“But Sis said…”
“She’s doing a lot for us, but she doesn’t have total control over the police. There could be a rogue group who think I got off too lightly. Or they could be Shido’s people. But thanks for confirming that Haru doesn’t have some official Okumura bodyguards tagging along. I’m planning on telling Futaba tonight so she can do some research. We should go back up.”
“We should have a meeting together so everyone knows that we might be under surveillance. You shouldn’t have kept this to yourself for so long.”
“I thought they were just after me.”
“Even if they are just after you, it wouldn’t be fair if they kept following you after you served your time, it just wouldn’t.” She cracked her knuckles. “I should go out there and give them a piece of my mind.”
“That’s a nice way to get arrested.”
“I’d do it for any one of us,” she said firmly, but Akira shook his head, no, no. She never thought of him as the martyring type until he went to juvie for them, but now she supposed she’d have to take it as a natural part of him. “We should get in touch with Futaba as soon as possible. I’ll send out a message telling everyone to be on alert.”
“You won’t do that. Because for all we know, it might be fine.”
“I’m telling you,” he said. “I don’t want all of that.”
“It might already be too late. They might have the rest of us made. If that’s the case, we can’t pretend we’re safe.”
He gave her a long look, not bothering to hide his displeasure. This didn’t bother Makoto at all. Aside from his being occasionally mouthy and the fact that she knew that Joker was somewhere inside him, she knew Akira wasn’t so different from the reticent, kind boy he seemed to be. He was someone who didn’t mind being pushed around by his friends, and she knew she could push him on this.
“It always feels like bad news arrives whenever we try to celebrate something,” he said. “I’ll send out the message tonight. Can you tell Sae-san? I want to arrange a meeting with her, but I don’t know where to find her.”
“Why don’t I give you her personal number so you can text her?”
“I don’t know. I feel weird taking the initiative.”
“I’m going to text it to you now.”
Haru was waiting for them in front of the batting cages.
“Sorry for taking so long,” Akira said. “I had to ask Makoto for a favor.”
“That’s all right,” Haru said. “Mona and I had fun, didn’t we?”
“Now Noir won’t have to worry about home invaders,” Morgana said, looking pleased with himself.
“Why, in case she’s robbed by a giant baseball?” Akira said. He flicked Morgana’s forehead with his finger and then muttered, “Ow,” when Morgana bit his hand.
They had time for one last round. They each got into a cage. Makoto took a metal bat.
She flexed her wrists and settled her weight into the worn down flooring. She was modestly skilled at baseball. It had been her gym teacher’s favorite game in her third year of middle school, and for a while, it felt like she’d never get the basic movements of baseball out of her shoulders and hips.
She fouled the first ball, but knocked the second to the left field, the next over third, then all the way back. The bat dug into the skin between her thumb and index finger. It was hot between her palms.
Makoto told Haru about the watchers on the way back to the bike.
“How scary,” Haru said. “Do you think we should still take Akira on a trip? Would it seem suspicious?”
“It would probably seem suspicious,” she admitted. “But I don’t like the thought of him going home by himself, either. Or of us going without him.”
“I feel like we should have expected this to happen. Akira can’t catch a break, can he? Unless you or someone else has any objections, I want to still go on the trip. At the very least, they can’t follow us out of Tokyo.”
“I don’t have any objections,” Makoto said. “We’ll proceed as normal, then.”
It felt nice to say those words.
They got on the bike. Haru’s grip around Makoto’s waist was tighter than usual. A flurry of excitement went up and down her stomach, to her sternum down to her knees, and she was afraid she might squeak.
“Mako-chan, do you want to stay the night?” Haru said. She adjusted her grip on Makoto’s waist, then, stretching her torso, and pressed a burning scythe against Makoto’s neck, in the space between her helmet and collar of her coat.
A detour, then.
You might wonder, "What's with the title of this fic? Is it a reference to a building in Vegas?" I took the title from a photograph by Imogen Cunningham (check it out!), thinking that magnolia blossoms were commonly called tower of jewels. As it turns out, they aren't.
Chapter 7: the karman line (ii)
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.