The front door slammed, startling Sojiro awake from his doze on the living room couch in front of the television.
“Sojiro, I’m home! Mona’s home too. This is Haru, she’s staying over tonight.”
He rubbed his eyes and sat up straighter, turning around to look at Futaba, sure he had misheard. The concept of her bringing over a new friend to stay the night was something he’d previously thought slightly less possible than humans landing on the sun. But sure enough, standing next to Futaba was a slender girl not much taller than his daughter, wearing a Shujin uniform skirt and smiling apologetically.
“Sorry, what?” he said, knitting his brows.
“Well, she can’t stay with Akira, there’s only one bed! And she can’t go home, either!” Futaba had her hands on her hips, and was wearing the exasperated expression she pulled out whenever someone couldn’t keep up with her typical airy, half-formed explanations. “Don’t be a stick in the mud!”
“Hold on, Futaba. Start over. I didn’t say she has to leave, I’m just a little confused,” Sojiro said, yawning and standing up. He’d thought he’d met all of Akira’s impressive cast of female friends by now, but apparently he was still collecting them. “Sorry, your name was…?”
“Haru,” the girl said, bowing politely. “I’m sorry to intrude. I found your cat, you see, and while I was at Leblanc with everyone, I lost track of time. The trains have stopped running, and I don’t…” She hesitated, eyes sliding to the side. Her eyes, Sojiro noticed now, were shadowed with black, her mascara smudged underneath them as though she’d been rubbing her eyes, or had been crying.
“Hm,” he said, but before he could continue, all three of them jumped as a tinny classical ringtone blared out from Haru’s schoolbag. The girl pulled her phone out, looked at it, and silenced it with a tight-lipped expression.
“What’s that, the fourth time? He must be pretty pissed about me disabling the GPS. I told you, I’ll totally block him from the grid for you, if you want,” Futaba said, leaning sideways to peer at the phone. Haru shook her head with a sigh.
“I’m afraid that would probably just cause more trouble.”
A ‘him’, and smudged mascara. Well, then. One of two options. “Your father?”
“Oh, no,” Haru said, shaking her head and dropping the phone back into her bag. “I don’t think he’ll notice that I’ve stayed out. It’s…”
It’s the other one, then. Sojiro half-smiled ruefully at the daggers Futaba was staring at him, just daring him to refuse. Shouldn’t she know him better than that? “Well, as long as the police aren’t going to come and bang down my door, looking for a missing person. Futaba, the spare futon is in the upstairs hall closet. Go ahead and set it out in your room. Have you eaten?” This last was directed at Haru, as Futaba raced off down the hall eagerly.
“Yes, thank you. Akira-kun gave me some curry— oh!” She covered her mouth with her hand guiltily. “I’ll pay you back for it. Futaba-chan told me it was your cafe…”
“Don’t worry about it,” Sojiro said, waving a hand. As far as he was concerned, anyone who’d apparently taken all of about three hours to get on a first-name basis with Futaba could eat all the curry she damn well pleased. “Not the first time I gave a freebie to one of Akira’s hungry friends, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Besides, it doesn’t reheat well. Just goes to waste at the end of the night if it doesn’t get eaten up.”
That wasn’t, strictly speaking, true. Sojiro was a thrifty man, and knew exactly how much curry to prepare throughout the day. But if the kids ever got wind of the fact he’d started making larger portions, accounting for late-night study sessions and perennially empty pockets, they’d think they could walk all over him. It was the same reason he called them all interchangeable epithets, usually ‘kid’ or ‘hey you’, even though he was perfectly aware of what their names were. Never show weakness to teenagers, that was the key.
After thanking him profusely for his hospitality, Haru excused herself to use the bathroom, and Sojiro walked up the stairs to check on Futaba. She was coming down the hall with her arms overflowing with blankets, walking with a wide-legged stance so as not to trip on the trailing corner of the futon. “So Akira’s been teaching you how to stick your nose in other people’s business, has he?” he asked rhetorically. Futaba opened her mouth to protest, but Sojiro cut her off, ruffling her hair fondly in a way he hadn’t done since she was in elementary school. “Hey. Any of your friends need a place to go, you can always bring them here.”
Sure, Sojiro operated on a fundamental principal of ‘leave well enough alone’. There was plenty of trouble that could be avoided if you kept yourself to yourself. But, well… maybe Akira was rubbing off on him. A little.
He’d sailed through the stormy waters of adolescence well over twenty years ago, and much of it looked much clearer through the hindsight of decades of experience. Teenagers were passionate. About themselves, about their relationships, about their beliefs. It was exhausting just to think about, and usually better just to give them the space to tire themselves out. It was typical for teenagers to rail against their parents for reasonable rules, or cry themselves to sleep over the breakup of relationships with people who aren’t worth their tears. Hell, he’d probably made a few girls cry himself back in the day, when he’d had the casual callousness of a prideful teenage boy. But a girl with a fresh bruise on her arm and a GPS tracker on her phone… that was something to pay attention to, and he didn’t even bother to lie to himself that it was just because Futaba was now involved.
“Yeah, this should fit. Here you go!”
Haru took the proffered pair of sweatpants and oversized t-shirt. Futaba jumped up on her bed and turned around, sitting cross legged and facing the wall to give Haru privacy while she changed.
Haru pulled her sleeveless shirt over her head slowly, folding it carefully and draping it over the back of Futaba’s computer chair. She took the opportunity to gaze around Futaba’s room, taking in the organized chaos. Printouts of MRI scans were tacked haphazardly to the wall next to pages torn from anime magazines. A mini-fridge full of brightly colored soda shone next to a bank of dark wires and blinking lights that she assumed was related to the three computer monitors on the desk. A pile of laundry had been hastily kicked aside to make floorspace for the futon, and the trash can was surrounded by snack wrappers that had almost, but not quite, made it in.
She thought of her own room, pristine and well-decorated. She liked her rococo furniture, her airy patio and the charming pastoral paintings hanging on the walls. She wondered what would have happened if her tastes hadn’t ended up aligning with what young ladies of money and status were encouraged to like. She wondered what would happen if she uprooted the primroses and pansies from the pots on her patio and planted wild climbing vines instead, roses that hadn’t had the sharp thorns bred out of them, bushes of cooking herbs, planters of hemlock and nightshade. She’d thought about it, but she’d never had the courage to try. It was why she grew her vegetables on the roof of the school, a secluded, private act that could barely be called rebellion.
Carefully coaxing rare imported lilacs to grow in Tokyo’s soil was Done. Wearing expensive gardening gloves and arranging cuttings in antique vases was Done. Shoving your bare hands into mulch to feel the heartbeat of the soil, heedless of your manicure, was Not Done. Growing oddly-shaped cucumbers and carrots and scrubbing the dirt off of them before biting into them raw was Not Done. It was all gardening, though, and Haru was starting to realize that when you tried to split one whole complete thing into Acceptable and Unacceptable, one day the neglected half was going to swing up like the other end of a see-saw and brain anyone who stood too close.
“Is it just you and your father here?” she asked, pulling up the sweatpants, stepping carefully around a pile of books on the floor to kneel on the futon. “You can turn around.”
“Uh-huh,” Futaba replied, shuffling around to face her again. She’d changed before Haru had entered the room, and was wearing an oversized black T-shirt with the inexplicable message #000000 printed on it in bold white ink. She curled her arms around her knees and tilted her head, hair falling to one side. “Sorry it’s messy,” she said belatedly, as if she’d just realized that this was what you were supposed to say to a guest. Haru had the impression she didn’t mean it at all.
She shook her head. “I like it,” she said, gaze drifting around the walls aimlessly. “It looks… lived-in. You don’t get in trouble with Sakura-san for it?”
“Sojiro? Nah. He’s a big ol’ softie. He always does my laundry if I leave it lying on the floor long enough. I mean, I try to clean! Lately, anyway. I washed my sheets myself yesterday. But…” She waved her hands aimlessly, as if to indicate that the universe was constantly collapsing into a state of entropy, and she was one small girl powerless against the natural tendency of everything to get messier all the time.
It must be an odd relationship, that she calls her father by his first name, Haru thought, but she was too well-mannered to ask. Instead it was Futaba who began questioning, looking at Haru owlishly. “Why? Do you get in trouble for your room being messy?”
It was a roundabout way of asking what she really wanted to know, Haru knew. Just what kind of man was her father? must be the question on all of the Phantom Thieves’ minds.
She wished she knew the answer.
“It’s never been messy long enough for me to find out,” she answered slowly, trying to figure out how to answer the question that Futaba hadn’t asked. “We have housekeepers to clean. I tidy my laundry into the basket and keep my desk organized, but… I suppose I’ve never really had to do chores. Perhaps my father thought it would take away from my lessons?”
“Noble young lady stuff?” Futaba said with a graceful gesture, before flopping onto her stomach on the bed, chin on her hands.
“Precisely,” Haru replied with a smile that was only a little tremulous. “Music, dance. Tea ceremony.”
“Did you like it?”
Haru paused. It was possibly the first time anyone had ever asked her that question.
“I didn’t… dislike it. I enjoy music. And it’s nice to know how to properly wear a kimono. Oh, and I was the one who asked to take ballet. I enjoyed it, for a while.”
“Ballet? Can you lift your leg over your head?” Futaba asked with what appeared to be genuine interest. Spurred on by the realization that this was her first sleepover, and she was sharing confidences with someone who would probably very shortly be a friend if she wasn’t already, Haru stood up and slowly raised one leg behind her. It had been years, and she was rusty, but her weekly yoga sessions meant she had never quite lost her flexibility. She dipped her torso into an arabesque penche, back leg raised almost straight in the air in a kind of standing split. Futaba’s mouth formed an O and she applauded as Haru gave her a small curtsy before sitting back down, cross-legged on the futon.
“I took ballet classes from nine until twelve,” she continued, and the sudden awareness that she knew exactly how to answer Futaba’s unspoken question sat like a rock in her stomach. “My father was supportive. He gave me permission to buy whatever leotards and dance slippers I liked, and even hired a supplemental private instructor for an hour on Friday afternoons, as I was starting rather late compared to other girls my age. He told me how glad he was that I was taking an interest in the arts. And he never, not once, came to one of my recitals.”
She’d justified it to herself when she was younger, and she automatically began justifying it now. “I mean, I understand. He’s always been busy, and that’s just his way of—“
“You know what the truth is.” Futaba cut her off, abruptly, fiercely, in a tone Haru hadn’t expected. She sat up and wrapped her arms around her knees, hair falling around her face.
Surprised, Haru backed down, rather than protesting. “I… what is it, then?”
“I don’t know! That’s the point,” Futaba said. She sighed, and rested her cheek on her knees, staring off sideways at the wall. “But you do. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s better or worse than it is. Even your own head.”
The silence that followed stretched out into the dark corners of the room. Futaba was the one who broke it, pointing at a small set of drawers and demanding ‘more hit points’. Haru obligingly opened the drawer and handed her a bag of shrimp-flavored potato chips. In between ferocious crunching, Futaba found the time to pat Haru awkwardly on the head.
“It’ll be okay,” she assured her. “You’ll see. The Thieves can fix anything.”
Haru woke up for good at four thirty in the morning, after a night spent tossing and turning. She slept poorly when stressed even when she was in her own bed, and she wasn’t accustomed to futons. Hard floor aside, she’d dug a hand under her back at around midnight to discover that the mysterious pea in her bedding was in fact the detached head of some kind of action figure. At two in the morning Futaba’s computer had spontaneously whirred to life, blue light shining like a cold sunbeam while Haru groped blindly for the button to turn off the monitor. Futaba hadn’t stirred at all. In fact, when Haru gave in and sat up around five, resigned to being awake, the younger girl was lying in the exact same position she’d gone to sleep in.
Haru washed her face in the bathroom, and used her finger to rub some toothpaste on her teeth. She cupped water in her hands to rinse with, and as she leaned over the sink and spat, she caught a glimpse of her face.
She looked exhausted.
She filled her hands with water again and attempted to scrub off more of her smudged mascara and eyeliner, apparently having missed some last night, but very shortly realized that her face was perfectly clean, and what she was looking at were the dark circles under her eyes.
She felt exhausted.
She felt exhausted, and angry, and frightened, and relieved. She tried to hold on to the relief, the relief that she’d found the others in time, that she didn’t have to fight alone, that she had some answers, some direction. She should be feeling calmer, she told herself sternly. Then she stopped, fingers clutching at the porcelain sink, and thought about all the years she’d shoved any negative thought away and put on a pleasant face, all the years she avoided conflict, pretended nothing was wrong, smoothed the way, put others first.
She stared at her face in the mirror, dark circles and all, loose tendrils of hair around her face dripping water.
“I’m angry, and I’m exhausted,” she told it aloud, and felt a little better.
She padded down the hall towards the kitchen. It felt rude to poke around in someone else’s house unaccompanied, but Futaba’s father had a kindly way about him, and she felt sure he wouldn’t begrudge her making herself breakfast. As she approached the kitchen, though, she realized there was dim light shining from the kitchen doorway, and she came around the corner to see Sojiro leaning against the counter in front of a ticking toaster oven, perusing the newspaper he held in one hand.
He looked up at her approach, and raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Morning. You’re an early riser.”
Haru smiled, and tucked her hair behind her ears. “Early to bed, early to rise… it’s a habit. I like having some time before school.”
“I’m impressed. I usually don’t see that one until noon,” Sojiro said, with a nod of his head in the vague direction of Futaba’s room. The toaster oven dinged, the bell unnaturally loud in the early morning quiet. Sojiro opened the door and pulled out two pieces of toast onto a plate, then set it down on the table. “Here. Butter? Jam?”
“Wasn’t that for you?”
“I won’t starve waiting three minutes for another batch.”
“Jam, then. Thank you very much.” She hesitated. “For everything. It must have been a surprise, having an unexpected guest show up on short notice.”
“More than you know.” Sojiro shook his head as Haru took a small bite of toast, then shifted his weight, crossing and then uncrossing his arms. “Hey. I’m not usually one to pry, but that boyfriend of yours. He worth all this?”
It took Haru a moment to realize who he was talking about. It was a strange word to apply to Sugimura, implying both a closeness and an optionality that didn’t exist, but she supposed it was a fair assumption under the circumstances. After all, most parents were probably concerned with keeping their daughters away from strange older men, not with forcing them to marry one.
She folded her hands in her lap, willing her body to relax. “It’s… complicated.”
“Is it?” Sojiro raised an eyebrow skeptically. “You might not want to hear this from a strange old man, but you’re younger than you know. Don’t waste your youth on someone who treats you badly.” He sighed and ruffled his hair as Haru avoided his eyes. “Sorry. This may be going a little far. But—“
“Oh, no, it’s all right—“
“—But I have a daughter, and you have a bruise on your arm.”
Haru blinked, and looked down at her forearm, as if it was her first time seeing it. Sugimura had grabbed it last night, twisting his hand until her skin burned, but she hadn’t expected it to bruise. She wanted to say no, she wanted to say it wasn’t like that, she wanted to say he hadn’t hurt her before, but her throat constricted so she couldn’t get out a single word.
“It’s wrong,” she whispered finally, not knowing if she was talking about Sugimura’s casual treatment of her body as a possession, or the fact that she was scared to tell her own father what had happened, in case he didn’t care.
“At least you know that,” Sojiro said gruffly. He pulled open one of the kitchen drawers and rummaged around inside until he found the stump of a pencil.
“I’m trying to get away.”
“Hmph.” Sojiro scribbled something down, then tore the corner of the newspaper off and handed it to her. “Here. The number to the cafe. It’s only me and Akira working there, so don’t worry about getting someone else. After hours, him or Futaba will know where to find me. You call any time, you hear me? Whenever you need a ride, or a place to stay. You call.”
“I will, sir. Thank you.” She clenched the paper in her fist like a talisman, staring down at her toast; she bit her lip, then looked up. “My father is wrong. Not everyone is out for their own gain.”
Sojiro rubbed the back of his neck and looked away. Haru got the feeling that she might have embarrassed him, but she found that she didn’t really mind. Something about sitting in a stranger’s dimly lit kitchen in the early morning felt dreamlike and disconnected from reality to begin with, and in her dreams, Haru could always say exactly what she meant.
“The idealism of the young, hmm?” Sojiro said, slowly shaking his head. “You watch out. An attitude like that could get you taken advantage of.”
“Most people have good inside of them,” Haru insisted, and then laughed, because she was starting to get used to the heady feeling of not doing and thinking what she was told. “I’m sorry. I must be coming off as quite strange.”
“Didn’t even notice,” Sojiro said as the toaster dinged. He spread butter thickly on his slice, then sat at the table. “You want my advice? Number one, don’t stick your neck out, because someone’s always waiting to chop it off. Number two…” He smiled ruefully. “Don’t listen too much to old men. We’re set in our ways.”
Haru opened her mouth to speak, then hesitated. Then, shaking her head, she went ahead anyway. “If I… if there’s no emergency, and I don’t need any help. Could I… could I still drop by? Every now and again?”
She had her answer in the way the corners of Sojiro’s eyes wrinkled as he smiled. “Sure. Fair warning, though. You show up too often, I may put you to work. One of Akira’s other friends took up a booth for six hours studying the other day, and she got stuck minding the register when I needed a hand during dinner rush.”
Haru thought of the warmly lit cafe down the street. If she closed her eyes, she could smell the way the scent of coffee had absorbed into even the warped floorboards of the attic. “Thank you, sir. I think I’d like that very much.”