Actions

Work Header

The Many Quirks of Girlfriend Thievery

Chapter Text

Makoto Niijima believed that she was a rational person. She was rarely the sort to make decisions without heeding logic. Her upbringing taught her the value of strict discipline and a stiff upper lip. She was, in her own mind, the very picture of the ideal student. Why else would she be elected as the student body’s president?

And yet, despite everything she had been raised to believe about the world and about herself, her view on life, once so strict and unyielding, had crumbled to dust in less than three weeks. It started with the impossible task of hunting the Phantom Thieves, a demand that made it all too clear that she was, at best, a mutt on a short leash to the authority she served under.

After a time of almost no leads, her goal switched to the somehow more impossible task of taking down a crime ring in Shibuya that targeted Shujin students. It wasn’t what her “superiors” wanted of her, as Principal Kobayakawa was still fixated on the debatable threat of the Phantom Thieves, but it was the threat to students Makoto found to be more pertinent.

Imagine her surprise when it was only the discovery of her first mark that lead her to the second. Well, “discovery” was a kind way of saying “blackmail,” but it was the only way Makoto could justify any of her actions to herself after becoming a Thief. In the span of two weeks, she had gone from a stand-up, if stressed- out, student to one of the leading minds of the most mysterious criminal organization in Japan.

In a way, though, it felt like it was reinforcing her view of herself rather than abandoning it. Only the threat of overt enslavement by a fat pig of a man made her eyes open to the implicit chains set on her by the fat pig sitting in that principal office.

Realizing that made her cast off the identity heaped on her by others and find the real Makoto waiting underneath. She didn’t expect that version of herself to be a nuclear motorcycle, but damn did it feel right. Now she was ready to really be the large, in-charge woman her sister raised her to be.

That was what Makoto believed, until she met Haru. It was almost happenstance that made the two meet on the roof of Shujin that day, but the butterflies spawned from a chance encounter can live long on the nectar of an awakened heart. Every image of the fluffy-haired third year that passed through her mind made Makoto’s iron discipline falter, and the constant stream of fantasies that assaulted her mind had her shaking from nervous energy.

She had known for many years what her taste in partners was, but meeting one that met her tastes in person was enough to make Makoto feel like a little kid getting chucked into the deep end of the pool with only the support of her infinitely patient friends to act as her water wings. What she did to deserve that kind of support after almost ratting all of them out to the police, no amount of logic could discern. But this was well beyond the point of logic, a depth her old self feared to acknowledge.

Her new self was still hesitant about pressing on. Akira, seeing this, set about formulating a plan. The irony of her asexual friend being the one to head her new elite unit of wingmen was lost to her, as fixated as she was on not screwing the plan up.

The guy had a keen eye for people, but that included Makoto. For every step meant to endear her to Haru, such as having Morgana act like an affectionate kitten towards her, he had another in place to push Makoto out of her bubble of comfort. She knew that he, somehow, made it so the two were next to each other in theater chairs that shared an armrest. She also had a vague hunch that he enjoyed seeing her go bright red every time Haru squeezed her hand out of reflex during intense scenes of the movie, but full knowledge of that fact was kept from her by her brain overclocking on the charge of proximity.

It didn’t end there, though. If the theater put Haru in a light that made Makoto want to be her support, then the trip to Big Bang Burger portrayed the exact inverse. Akira brought up wanting a Big Bang Challenge as casually as anyone else would bring up a normal burger, and, with Haru’s enthusiastic agreement, the two were seated to a pair of gargantuan stacks of meat, lettuce, cheese, and who-knows how many artery clogging sauces jammed between two relatively flimsy buns. A bell rang, and the feeding frenzy began.

Akira picked up his tower by the chunk and shoved his face right in, counting on his mouth to carve a tunnel. By this point, anyone familiar with his attitude in the Metaverse could tell that Joker had come to play. Haru, on the other hand, took to hers with a fork and knife, transferring segments down to a plate in order properly cut them. That didn’t mean she was going any slower, though. Where Akira’s speed came from savagery, Haru looked more like someone had just set footage of a meal being eaten normally on fast forward. The food in question being a burger only slightly dampened the image of this proper lady burning through her Challenge with all the speed of a starved beast without losing any of her noble poise.

Makoto couldn’t quite say why at the time, but the sight spoke to her. Where the others only saw her keeping pace with Joker, Makoto saw something more. She saw in Haru someone who could balance ability with image. Yes, Haru was breathtakingly capable, but she was also completely in control, able to remain a “lady” while facing off against adversity. Compared to Makoto, who had to turn into a craven berserker to get anything more substantial than paperwork done, it was one of the most captivating sights she had ever bore witness to.

It wasn’t the last time Makoto found herself lost in Haru’s splendor that day. The group was ostensibly just hanging out around town, bouncing from place to place randomly, but Akira, after seeing what Makoto seemed to like about Haru, and hopefully vice-versa, took it upon himself to direct attention towards venues that let them display those qualities in full.

They spent an hour or two bumming around a bowling alley. While Ann and Ryuji goaded each other on to the left, and Akira and Yusuke held a more laid back competition to the right, Makoto and Haru had a lane all to themselves. They took turns taking scores for each other by the frame. This was the polite thing to do, but Makoto admitted to herself, begrudgingly, that she also relished the chance to take in Haru’s natural grace.

The fluffy haired lady had a lightness to her movement that Makoto was jealous of. She stepped towards the lane like a water sprite dancing on water, a comparison she was all the more certain of after seeing Akira command such a sprite in Mementos. The ball left her hand with the smoothness of morning dew dripping from a blade of grass. It skated across polished floor, and it struck the pins with a satisfying thwack and clatter.

When the lovely hail of pins subsided, though, an unfortunate result was made apparent. Two pins were left standing, and they weren’t adjacent. All that was left was the lead pin and the one in the back left corner. Makoto’s rapt gaze turned down in sympathy as she recorded the initial eight.

“A one-seven split. This could be tricky.”

“Oh well.” Haru shrugged, coming as close to a skip as possible while she took up another ball. “Sometimes, we have to work with the hand we are dealt.” She centered herself in the lane and held her new ammunition up to her eye. Makoto was intrigued by this, as she could almost see Haru’s thought process in the flickering of her pupil.

When the last of the numbers checked out, Haru stepped into her second throw. Makoto was confused at first. The ball swerved slightly to the right, its path looking to miss both pins entirely. Then, about two-thirds of the way down, the spin on the ball took effect, curving its path to the left. It sliced across the end of the lane, sweeping both pins down. Makoto looked on in awe as Haru clapped her hands together.

“Yay, I did it!”

How was this girl both perfectly calculated and disarmingly adorable!? It was just unfair! Makoto felt like a lump of ham that got kicked down the stairs by comparison, just barely picking her jaw up off the floor in time to note Haru’s spare.

“Your turn, Mako-chan.”

“Right. Let’s see if I can follow up your performance.” Makoto felt even more like a ham as she waddled up to the lane. The ball was heavy in her hand. What if her nerves locked up and made her roll a gutter ball? What if they stopped on her even sooner and made her drop it on her foot? So many things that could go wrong, and there were so few ways to mitigate the risks! What should she…?

“Hey, Makoto.” She jumped slightly before following the voice to her right. Akira threw his shot with all the nonchalance he could muster, scoring a respectable seven pins. “Hold up, stay calm, then go all out.”

The command broke through the ball of quivering fear that was Makoto and reached out to the Queen hiding underneath. Her other self looked back at the pins, and, instead of seeing a chance to fail, she saw a pack of enemies that needed to be laid low. At once, her posture hardened, and her tongue longed for the taste of recreational justice.

Besides the boost in willpower the transformation wrought, it also gave to her an awareness rivaled by no normal human. She felt the intent in the air around her. Ann’s heated fury intermingled with the sting of Ryuji’s barbed jabs at her. Yusuke’s cool con templation seeped across the entire room, noting every bump on the wall and divide between the floorboards. Akira gave a token of attention to his second shot, but she could feel the brunt of her leader’s focus on her. It wasn’t a judgmental force, though. Quite the opposite. The warmth of his camaraderie braced her against the cold of the uncaring universe. This was that beating heart of the Phantom Thieves.

His wasn’t the most potent intent in the room, though, at least not to her. No, her attention quickly went to the one pair of eyes that didn’t belong to a Thief. Haru’s focus on Makoto suddenly redoubled, as if she could feel the change that overcame her. It wasn’t a reaction of sheer shock, more one of instant magnetism. Makoto could almost see her own actions reflected back at her. Being on the other side of the transaction stoked her flames further, and Queen grinned.

The ball in her hand was no longer just a sphere of hardwood. Now, it was her implement of domination, a way to extend the might of her fist. She pulled back, and she threw her shot with the weight of a punch. The air shattered like a brick wall, and the ball barreled towards its defenseless foes at mach-1. When the attack landed, it was a miracle that the pins didn’t break. They were all caught by the straight shot with a force that launched them from their posts, sending them into the wall at the other side of the repository. They fell in with a cavalcade of cracks, like a field all alight with thunder, and Queen cocked her head back in stalwart pride.

Justice has prevailed.

That was incredible, Mako-chan!” Queen turned around, and, in the spotlight that was Haru’s sparkling gaze, the terribly nervous cloak of Makoto concealed her once more. Was that admiration in her expression? Oh gosh…

“It was nothing, really. Just a little… luck, I guess.”

“Luck only varies as much as you allow it to, and you left no room for it.” Haru merrily recorded the result, a large ‘X’ in the score box. “Composure like that only comes from practice. What is your secret, if you don’t mind my asking?” She didn’t intend to, but Haru happened to step a few inches into a territory she really didn’t want to be in. Everyone caught wind of the question, and their eyes were on her, with various degrees of intensity. (Note for later, Ryuji needed some discipline lessons of his own.) Makoto was left to fish for an answer that didn’t blow the lid on their entire operation. Fortunately, this was the kind of pressure she could operate under.

I practice Aikido. My sister is a firm believer in self-defense.”

“Wow, martial arts!” Makoto always thought she wanted the respect of others, but now that someone was actually looking up to her, she had no idea what to do with it. She wasn’t helped by the fact that it was a beautiful girl. Scratch that, the beautiful girl. “I have always wondered what it must be like to have that kind of refined control over yourself. Your sister is wonderful for giving you the chance to find out.”

Queen was practically hammering at the inside of Makoto’s head. Opportunity, take it!

“I can show you a trick or two sometime, if you would be interested?” If the redoubled shimmer of Haru’s eyes didn’t tell her the line landed, then the catty whistle from Ryuji would have. The retaliatory thump across Skull’s thick skull shut him up before Haru seemed to notice.

“I would love to! Oh, if it’s not a bother?”

“If it was, I wouldn’t have offered.”

“Thank you very much, Mako-chan! I’ll try to find an opening in my schedule that we can work with. Speaking of, I suppose it’s my turn again, isn’t it?” Haru excused herself to claim another ball.

While her back was turned, Makoto glanced over to Akira, the one person whose social sense she trusted in this situation. His thumbs up confirmed what Queen was trying to say through the haze of uncertainty. To borrow a Ryuji-ism, she had freaking nailed it.

 

-

 

The day was a long one. Akira repeatedly and insistently dragged Makoto out of her comfort zone, and she couldn’t have been more grateful. Between the bowling alley, the batting cages, and the arcade, he had put her in situations that showed off her best sides, barring her academic sense. At least, she trusted that this was his intent. Either way, Haru had fun at each locale, so Makoto wouldn’t complain.

When the sky started to turn yellow, reflecting gold off the tall skyscrapers of Tokyo, the approach of curfew rang heavy in the group’s ears. It was time to disperse. They rode the same subway lines for a spell, during which they exchanged jokes and observations about various events throughout the day.

After a while, though, the lines started to diverge. Yusuke, Ryuji, and Ann were the first to be sent on their individual ways. Sometime before Akira got off, Morgana scampered across the seats to sit between her and Haru. While the latter was more than happy to start scratching behind his ears, the cat himself had a message for Makoto.

“Our plan’s down to the last step. You got this, Queen?” In place of responding directly, Makoto acted like she was petting him, too, and traced her reply along his side with her pinkie finger.

‘Hope so. Thanks for help.’

“Anytime. Now go get her.” Akira saw that his stop was next, and when he stood, Morgana bolted into his bag.

“We should hang out more often. The extra attention does Morgana some good.”

“Agreed. Take care, Akira-kun, and if you ever need a break from the crowds at school, feel free to come up to the roof. It’s always nice and quiet in the garden.” Akira wasn’t expecting the kind offer, but it earned a genuine, soft smile from him.

“I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks.” Akira departed, and when the doors closed, it was down to Makoto and Haru. Somehow, they managed to have an entire car to themselves, and it was at least fifteen minutes before the next pertinent stop.

Makoto wracked her brain trying to find something to say. Actually, she knew what she wanted to say, but not how to say it. Haru liked the bold approach when she offered Aikido lessons, so maybe firm confidence would work? Or maybe that was because she thought it was a platonic offer, and not the date Makoto hoped for. Well, she would be alright with it being platonic, if worst came to worst. She didn’t like rescinding offers. If that was the case, then…

“Thank you for inviting me to meet your friends, Mako-chan. They truly are lovely people.”

“Yeah. They are.” Okay, a conversation at all was better than the exact one she wanted.

“They’re all quite bighearted, and honest. It’s a breath of fresh air.”

“...Compared to what?” With one offhanded comment, Makoto’s yellow flag had gone up. Haru kept herself under control, but it was clear that she was putting up an air of composure. Her expression had gone from serene to false serenity, as though the way she presented herself had frozen to keep how she really felt under wraps.

“You know, Akira-kun mentioned something to me when you and the others went to order lunch. He said...” Haru looked at Makoto, her gaze lingering, hunting for a reaction. “...That you have a crush on me?”

Makoto’s heart stopped. Was the lack of honesty Haru indirectly brought up her own? Oh God, she screwed it up! Before Makoto could let the apologies flood out, Haru lost her poise, jumping up in a fluster with her hands raised innocently.

“Oh, no, I’m not mad about that, honest! In fact, it’s the opposite, I’m flattered!” Makoto’s heart started again, though her head was still a little fuzzy from the unexpected blow.

“You’re… really?”

“I’m really, truly not angry. I think I understand why you might want to be a little guarded about your… is ‘preferences’ the correct term?” Makoto nodded, her voice momentarily lost to her. Haru was relieved. “People care far too much about others’ preferences in our society. Keeping it secret is a matter of protecting your social standing. I understand that.” Haru’s gaze drooped, shame sullying her appearance. “It’s my own deception that I’m upset about, as I fear it might hurt you.”

“What?” Johanna’s eyes opened. She didn’t have any hard information, but her gut was spelling out a vague, but telling impression. “What do you mean?” Haru took a deep breath, her forced calmness, tinted by revealed guilt, returning to her.

“We were patrons of a Big Bang Burger earlier today. Are you aware of the controversies surrounding its upper management?” Confused, but still following well enough, Makoto nodded.

“My sister mentioned that the corporation behind the chain, Okumura Foods, has been accused of disreputable handling of competitors, and it appears that it funds predatory practices by overworking and underpaying employees.” Every word from her mouth garnered a response from Haru like a knife plunging deep into her heart. Makoto’s hands clenched on her lap. “May I ask what this means to you?”

“It… It matters to me, because...” Haru gulped, her composure failing. “My full name is Haru Okumura.”

...Oh. Oh.

“So you’re…?”

“My father is Kunikazu Okumura, the CEO of Okumura Foods. Many of the business decisions under investigation came directly from him.”

“I see.” Haru withered, as though preempting some tirade that she expected to wash over her. This guilt, this helplessness, it all rung as familiar. Haru expected a response of anger for stepping out of line and revealing herself. Anger was precisely the emotion sparked in Makoto.

But it was not aimed where Haru thought. To her great fortune, Makoto was among the few people who knew what it was like to be puppeteered by unseen, uncaring hands.

“It’s not your fault.”

Where harsh words would have made Haru hunker down further, the kind sentiment that took their place was the more shocking slap. The false front she put on for protection was shattered, revealing the prone girl whose only known line of defense has been torn from her.

“Come again?” Her voice was soft, vulnerable. The only thing that kept Queen from tearing her way into reality was the physical impossibility of Thievery in the real world. Even then, the margin that kept her at bay was thin. A swell of her newfound grit coursed through her to the sound of Johanna’s screaming engine.

“What your father has done is entirely on him, not you. I admit, I’ve only known you for a few days, but that time has been enough to say that you don’t deserve any of the blame.” Haru’s shoulders firmed up from their prior deflated slouch, as though her whole frame was being pulled up by the heart.

“That’s… It’s very kind of you to say that.” A shaky smile pushed onto Haru’s face, but it was submerged by a second tide of hesitation. “But you should also know that Father’s actions also include a… an, arranged marriage. For me.” The words hit Makoto like a bullet through the soul. It would have broken her had she stood unaided, but the stiff upper lip that had long been trained into her was finally useful. It let her weather the damage long enough for Haru to add onto her statement. Filling dead air was the standard response for uncomfortable situations when fleeing wasn’t an option, after all.

“I truly regret having to inform you of it. I actually think I feel something for you.” Haru sprung up, the implications of her statement hitting a moment too late. Before she could attempt to correct herself, Makoto found the opening she needed to bring in a second wind.

“That implies you don’t feel anything for your fiance?” Haru clamped her lips together. Where before she was held back by guilt, now it seemed that fear limited her. It was a horrible reaction, no matter how Makoto looked at it. She gently set a hand over Haru’s, careful to not put too much pressure on her. “I promise, whatever you tell me now will stay between us. I won’t tell a soul.” Haru settled back into her seat, looking Makoto over for the slightest hint of deception. When she found none, only firm, ardent support, she let the last scraps of her reserve fall.

“If I may speak plainly, I feel only disdain for that horrid man.” Her words were barbed, laced with venom that could make exposed flesh smolder. Makoto listened intently and drank deep of the toxic brew that long boiled unseen. “He looks at me like a trophy, something to possess for the sake of his own hubris.” By this point, thick streams of tears had broken free, flowing from a reservoir she had been forced to hide away. “Hearing him speak makes me feel used, and I dare not think of what intentions he holds for me once the marriage is finalized. Had I a way out, I would take it, but I’m trapped by my station as an Okumura daughter.”

“You’re only ever as trapped as you allow yourself to be.” Haru choked back a sob, looking up into Makoto’s eyes. What she found there kept her from turning away. “You’re letting others build your future for you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t build another for yourself.” Her mind pulsed with a hundred legal clauses. She knew how much business loved bending rules to its favor, but she was furnished to unravel the labyrinths of law as well. “Have you signed anything yourself?”

“N-no, no I haven’t...”

“Then nothing is set in stone as of yet.” The plan started coming together. It was rough, tentative, but it would work. “Your father only holds the right to sign in your stead until you are an adult, and even then, he cannot sign it without your express acceptance. If we can prove your fiance’s ill intent before...”

“No!” Haru grabbed Makoto’s hand in both of hers as though trying to hold her in place. “Sugimura’s family is highly influential. If he has any reason to suspect you of getting between him and me, then… I don’t want to imagine what he could do to you.” Makoto’s brow dipped dangerously low. “Please, don’t do anything rash. I don’t want to be the reason you’re hurt.” Makoto’s iron will was set. This was no longer about herself. Now, it was both personal and professional.

“Very well, then something a bit more covert. I think I can do that.” Makoto added her last hand to the growing pile, both girls now holding the other with everything they had. “If you’ll let me, I can work something out to get you away from him. It won’t be anything large enough for him to retaliate against. All I need is your approval, and then I can start drafting plans.” Haru blinked, now entirely out of the depths she knew. Makoto felt her cling all the tighter.

“You would do all this, just because you have a crush on me?”

“It’s not just about that anymore.” Makoto thought for a moment of telling Haru everything then and there. The only thing that stopped her was her duty to the other Thieves. Instead of opening them up, she could instead expose her own vulnerabilities.

“I know what it’s like to be used. My whole life, I’ve been groomed for this role and that. The moment I actually try doing anything, I’m reprimanded and told that I’m just a child who doesn’t know any better.” Her burning anger gave way to the deep, boiling pit from whence it came. Haru could almost feel its arrival, the thick steam rolling from it and encircling her, pulling her closer to Makoto. “I’m sick of it. I’m sick of being used. I’m sick of seeing other people’s lives getting turned into tools for those who came before them. We’re worth more than that, and I’ll be damned if I let that happen to you.” Haru gasped at the sudden surge of fury.

“Mako-chan…!”

“Please, Haru.” Makoto held onto Haru with all the desperation she could muster. “I don’t care if you like me that way. I don’t care if, after all is said and done, we never see each other again. What I care about now is making sure that you don’t fall into the same trap that I almost fell to.” Haru’s hands felt cold to the touch. She soaked in Makoto’s heat as though she had just stumbled to her from the vengeful clutches of a blizzard. “Please, let me help you.”

Haru sniffled. Makoto’s rage abated, letting her see the sorrow that contorted her face. Her lips quivered, her eyes squinted to hold back what few tears they could, and her whole body was shaking like a wind-battered leaf. Suddenly, that shaking, frightened mass was huddled into Makoto’s neck, the wet spots trailing down her cheeks rubbing off onto her blouse.

“Please, help me.” The surge of hate petered off, and Makoto allowed herself to become a warm hearth for Haru to rest at. She wrapped her arms around her, slowly, carefully tightening until her support kept the fearful jitters away.

“I promise, I’ll find a way to make your future yours again.”

“Thank you. Thank you.” Haru, her arms almost stuck against her own body as she curled into herself, tried to wrap them around Makoto. She only managed to barely reach her back, but it was enough. She sniffled and sobbed into Makoto’s shirt for a time, until she felt her voice again. “And, I would love to see you again sometime.”

“Of course. I’ll keep you up to date on the plan as it’s...” Haru couldn’t stop herself from giggling, to Makoto’s confusion. The girl was stuck firmly in professional mode. Haru looking up at her, face tear-slicked but lit by a modest smile, made her realize what she was suggesting. “O-oh! Um, you mean like…?” Haru nodded and pushed her arms out enough to encircle her completely. Her efforts were greeted with her personal hearth warming up another few degrees, enough to turn Makoto’s cheeks a dusty pink. “You know, I honestly forgot about that for a minute there. I mean, I accept! Gladly! But, you know...”

“You weren’t focused on your own feelings, but mine.” Haru pushed herself up enough to be face-to-face with her embarrassed partner. “I would call that a good thing. If you care about how I feel, that means I can afford to care about how you feel. That’s how a relationship should work, yes?”

She leaned in, and Makoto found out that pressure on her lips was enough to shut all of her conscious systems down. The signals in her head were crossed, every sensation her brain controlled going off at once. She felt tingly, like there was an electric current running across her skin. She never expected that ‘spark’ to be so literal, so real. It was overwhelming, flustering, kind of embarrassing.

But it was the best thing she had ever felt.

She pressed back into the kiss, contributing something other than just sitting there dumbly. When the two pulled apart, both were flush, and neither was willing to let go. For all the words Makoto knew, only one came to mind.

“Wow.”

“You felt it, too?” Haru leaned in again, this time propping her chin on Makoto’s shoulder, taking in as much of the hug as she could. “My only regret is that we can’t do this openly yet. What a day that will be, right?” Makoto acclimated to the contact, but that didn’t mean she was tired of it. She pulled Haru in closer and set her head on her shoulder as well. She didn’t think this would be how her day ended, but she welcomed it all the same.

“I’ve been in the closet for a long time. If you’re here with me, I think I can wait a little longer to come out.”

Chapter Text

Sugimura. He was an easy man to find. A few late nights of research produced multiple binders of notes on his activities. Really, Makoto should have expected as much, but her only experience with tracking down business slobs was with an organized crime boss. Unlike Kaneshiro, Sugimura conducted his trade in the open.

Or, rather, his father conducted trade in the open. Sugimura just coasted along on his successes. She had a fairly good idea where the entitlement she heard about came from, and she knew exactly where she would be ramming it when given the chance. He wanted to play rough? Fine. She could play rough.

There was just one catch. When she entered his name into the Metanav, it came back negative. Nothing. Not even a little ping. He wasn’t in Mementos. That shouldn’t have been possible! She was thorough in her research. He might have hid his more obvious tracks, but the paper trail left in his wake was still a mile wide. Hostile takeovers, dropped sexual harassment charges, and even one that went through. That one, though, he just had his attorney stall the court proceedings long enough for legal fees to drain the claimant’s funds. He was one of the most twisted people she had ever heard of, but he didn’t have a Shadow? Bullshit!

She wanted to ask Mona about it. He was the expert on deck about Mementos, so he must have had an answer, or at least an idea about what was going on. Asking him, though, would make him ask about the case she was investigating, and she couldn’t risk exposing Haru’s secret. She promised. She trusted her friends, more than anyone else, but she refused to betray her trust like that.

So, if a direct take down wasn’t possible, then she would go the roundabout route. Corporations had sponsors, people who knew about allegations regarding the guys in charge. People who were willing to let sexual harassment slide for the sake of money had to be distorted somehow, or at least one of them was. If she kicked enough pegs out from under Sugimura’s throne, then the whole platform would come crashing down. If she was lucky, the marks she targeted would try to make things right by coming back on Sugimura, accelerating his downfall.

It was a strong plan, and she was eager to enact it. She traced every thread in his family’s company she could. She found a list of the top sponsors, most of whom were on-board during his worst offenses. One of them knew what was up. She would find that one and take the whole tower down as only a Phantom Thief could.

Once again, though, there was a problem. Many of them had Shadows this time, thank goodness, but they were all way too far down. At the time, she could access Mementos to a depth of exactly 10.2 kilometers. The closest potential target was 40 kilometers down according to the Metanav’s map. It was physically impossible for her to them, and that was without factoring in the danger of charging in after a Shadow alone. She really wished she had thought of that little detail sooner, but if this was the grave she had dug for herself, then she would sleep in it if need be.

She was determined to find even one name she could pursue. Early one Sunday morning, she opened her list and the Metanav and went to work. She was careful about how she recorded the names. After all, the last thing she needed was Sae finding a suspicious list of hers, especially if it included people that would soon be host to a change of heart. It would have been highly incriminating, to say the least. The suspicious file was buried within multiple layered folders on her personal laptop, the top ten of which were all filled with other, normal, believable files, and the document itself was written using the suspects’ initials. A little memorization let her recall what she needed with only that much.

“Toroshi Hikada.”

Match out of range.

It was to the point that she didn’t bother looking at how far away they were.

“Hiroshim Markiba.”

Match out of range.

If the depth of a Shadow’s lair correlated to the intensity of their distortion, and those distortions affected their decisions in the real world, then Sugimura was nestled in a hive of absolute villainy.

“Hayate Naru...”

“Makoto!”

Match not found. ” Makoto hastily covered her phone’s speaker, hoping that the automated voice wasn’t loud enough to be heard through walls. Something to test later, for safety’s sake.

“Yeah, Sis?”

“Your friend is here. I trust you’re decent?” Makoto closed the app, pocketed her phone, and confined the telling document to the underbelly of her laptop once more.

“Coming!” She half-jogged to her room’s door, and when she opened it, she had to take a step back. She didn’t expect Haru to be right on the other side. Sae was a few feet down the hall, watching intently. It made the hairs on the back of Makoto’s neck stand up, but she knew the obvious signs of nervousness that her sister looked for.

Good morning, Mako-chan! I hope I’m not too early?”

“Not at all. I was just wrapped up in homework.” Technically, it was work, that she was doing in her own home. That meant she wasn’t lying, right? Damn Akira for making her abundantly aware of loopholes in common sentence structures; it encouraged all kinds of seedy behavior. “Are you ready to cover the basics?”

“Yes, in spirit and body. I even managed to find the appropriate gi.” Haru looked exceptionally proud of herself for the fruits of her independent research on the subject. Makoto was reminded of her first impression of the girl. Just like a happy little kitten.

“I was just going to lend you one of mine, but this works better.”

“Be careful, you two.” Sae turned a half-glare to Makoto. “Especially you. We don’t need anyone else with a sprained shoulder due to an overenthusiastic pin.” Makoto was at once horrified and aggravated.

“It was one time, and a decade ago at that!” Sae shook her head, then thought to explain what she meant.

“Makoto exerted an excessive amount of force while practicing with her first tutor. It shouldn’t be an issue now, but the occasional warning keeps her in check.”

“Thank you for the words of caution, Niijima-san.” Haru bowed, her hands crossed in front of her. “We will be careful, you’ve no need to worry.”

“I always worry. It’s my job as her caretaker.” Sae’s demeanor softened a little, loosening her lead. “Still, she has always been diligent in her practice. She should make for a fine instructor.” A bubble of warmth floated up through Makoto. She only came up with a response when it popped, showering her brain in dopamine.

“We should hurry. The exercise room will be open for an hour and a half.”

“Lead the way.” Haru followed closely behind, her hands rubbing against the cords of her clothes sack. When the door to the apartment was closed, and the two were alone in the hall, she leaned in close to Makoto’s ear and whispered, “That incident is quite the impressive feat, if I may say so.”

“Uh, well...” Makoto was glad to not be in her sister’s cross hairs at the moment. There was no way she could have hidden the signs this time. “It was just an accident, but thank you.” Haru sneaked in a swift, light peck on Makoto’s cheek, the gesture passing so quickly that it felt to her like a graze with a spirit.

This was the girl Makoto was about to spend upwards of an hour in close proximity of, including required contact as she taught a number of close-quarters grabs and pins.

Was this Heaven?

 

-

 

“First principles first.” Makoto allowed her thinking mind to take a backseat. This time, it wasn’t to Queen. It was to the pillar of discipline instilled in her by a lifetime of practice. The gi, a loose, yet conservative wrapping of smooth cotton, awakened in her every lesson she learned the hard way on the mat.

Haru had no such training, but she still stood before Makoto with a resolute readiness to learn. Her stance was much too firm. Her head was angled too high, exposing her neck. Her hands were crossed behind her, removing them as a defensive option. That could all be corrected in time.

“The most vital thing to remember about Aikido is that its goal is not to subjugate an opponent. It is an art of self defense. To learn it in light of laying your enemy low is to learn it in no light at all.”

“Yes, Sensei.” Haru’s sense of protocol would make things much easier. She wouldn’t be obstructed by headstrong tendencies, as her instructor once was.

“We will begin with a simple throw. It may seem unimpressive at a glance, but its utility is undeniable in the correct hands. If you would lend your arm for the demonstration.” Haru, not thinking, offered her left arm. Makoto met it with her right, taking it a few centimeters below the wrist.

At once, Haru jumped, and a twinge of pain broke her concentration. Makoto stepped out of her position as mentor, leaping headlong into her position as girlfriend.

“Are you alright?” She went to roll up Haru’s sleeve, but she was stopped by her right hand holding it in place.

“Yes, I’m fine.” Haru wiggled her fingers, shaking off the pain in her arm. “I must have strained it while tending to the garden the other day. Bags of potting soil can be quite heavy.” Makoto nodded in understanding, switching which hand she approached with. Haru offered up her right, and this one proved much less sensitive.

“When an attacker comes for you, they will be moving forward in most instances. There are a number of techniques for utilizing this momentum against them. This one is for cases where they attempt to disable your options by grabbing your arm. Start by turning so that you and your attacker are side by side, like so.” Makoto took a step, mirroring the action she wanted Haru to perform.

“Then, transition directly into moving the opponent. Using their hold on you, lift their arm up, then back. If your timing is correct, you will reverse their momentum, toppling them.” She raised her arm, mindful to not pull on Haru too harshly. “The rest will follow through naturally. Are you ready to try it for yourself?”

“Yes.”

Makoto backed away a few paces, returning Haru’s hand to her. Then, when Haru’s stance was ready, she stepped forward and grabbed her wrist. As instructed, Haru rolled to Makoto’s side and lifted her arm up. Then, the upward movement stopped and Haru tried pushing directly back. She struggled, trying to overpower Makoto.

“Not quite.” Makoto took over the attempt in order to demonstrate again. “What you’re trying to do is use the enemy’s strength against them, not your own. When you lift their arm up, it must be in a larger circle. To move them in hard angles is to stop their momentum, the driving force of the technique. Try again.”

Makoto returned to starting position, then advanced again. When she grabbed Haru’s arm, the smaller girl spun around again. This time, when the arm went up, it continued moving forward, tracing a circle in the air. Makoto felt this and braced for the follow through. When the circle reached its peak, her movement was thrown back at her, pushing against her upper half. An unaware opponent would have been slammed backwards with their own force.

Makoto, having thrown and been thrown many times, rolled into to throw, lessening the impact on her back as she was tossed to the mat with a heavy thud. Haru was stunned for a moment. Then, she began to worry.

“Oh my! Are you okay?”

“It looks and sounds more painful than it really is.” Makoto pushed herself up on her elbows, nodding approvingly. “That was exactly how the throw is meant to work. In a normal altercation, that will buy you a minimum of five seconds to act without retaliation. Proper acquisition and use of breathing room is the key to outlasting an aggressor.” Haru blinked, then smiled wide and clapped in celebration. Makoto would have joined in if she was on her feet. “Your form could be better, but this is an excellent start. Shall we proceed?”

“By all means! Here, let me help you up.” Haru reached out. Knowing that she wasn’t the type to turn an offer like this into a means of reinforcing vigilance, like Makoto’s second teacher did, she accepted the aid. Haru pulled, and Makoto pushed off the ground. Neither expected the other to contribute as much force as they did, so when Makoto was standing, they almost touched noses.

Were it anyone else, Makoto would have stepped away and apologized. With Haru, though, she was tempted to lean in closer…

“That was an admirable first step, Okumura-chan.” The interjection made Makoto revert to her retreat plan, just barely hiding her surprise as Sae walked into the room with her own gi on. With it, she cut an imposing figure, as though the cloth was wrapped around long poles of iron. Makoto tried to ignore how she suddenly felt threatened by her own sister.

“Did you want to practice, too, Sis?”

“Not quite. I thought you and your friend would both benefit from having someone with more experience oversee your training.” Sae marched to the edge of the mat, then turned to overlook it, arms crossed over her chest. It was like having a judge watch their every move. Like that, Makoto’s Heaven turned into Purgatory.

“...Oh, okay. Thanks.” She made the gratitude sound as real as she could. Sae took it at face value, and the training resumed.

Their first official date turned into a chaperoned outing, one where the chaperone didn’t realize what they were chaperoning. It was still a productive day, twice as much as expected with Sae’s constant advice on the sidelines, but it wasn’t exactly what Makoto had in mind. What they needed was a place where they could have a real date without judgmental oversight.

 

-

 

It took a number of weeks for such a venue to make itself known. Coffee shop dates, in hindsight, were a staple of relationships in the modern day, and with Boss now working alongside the Phantom Thieves, LeBlanc became the go-to spot for events where a degree of secrecy was required. Granted, Haru wasn’t a Thief herself, but that didn’t preclude her from cashing in on her partner’s benefits.

“Now you two let me know if you need anything, otherwise I’ll stay out of your hair.”

“Thank you, Boss. This will be plenty for now.”

Sojiro nodded, plodding back behind his counter. Two bowls of his trademark curry were steaming in front of them, and the coffee was even hotter. Haru blew across the top before taking a sip.

“How’s the Blue Mountain?”

“As excellent as I was promised!” She knew better than to take a long drink of scalding hot coffee, but the flavor was tempting. “And the curry smells wonderful, too.”

“Thanks, kid, but you should be buttering your date up, not me.” Sojiro had what could be charitably described as a ‘wily old man’ grin. Makoto wasn’t sure whether his pink shirt enhanced the effect or not. Mostly because she was looking at Haru, not Sojiro.

“Of course.” Haru reached over the table to hold Makoto’s hands. “Thank you for bringing me here. It’s nice to have lunch with a loved one.”

Makoto’s cheeks went bright pink.

“I wish I could take credit, but it was someone else’s suggestion...”

“You’re welcome.”

“Get back to your dishes, punk. You’re bothering the ladies.” Akira rolled his eyes, but he obeyed all the same.

LeBlanc was far from the most… stable place. Over the course of their next few dates, Haru was exposed to a great deal of her new friend group’s eccentricities. Despite the ramping insanity, she kept coming back, and each time she came, she brought along her brilliant smile. Her being there made what was already a bright spot in the middle of gloomy Tokyo into Makoto’s sanctuary, a place where she could be herself without reserve.

This, she decided, was Heaven.

Chapter Text

Even for an honor student, school days could be long. This was especially true when the student in question had countless things on her mind. How could anyone focus on calculus with both the fate of the free population and the fate of her girlfriend on the line?

It was a good thing, then, that she had a retreat option. Whenever things got overwhelming and fresh air sounded great, she just went upstairs. Most people weren’t allowed to follow her, meaning that, unless a teacher wanted her for something, she would be away from unwanted attention.

Those moments, though a necessity to keep her anxiety down, were nice. She liked spending time among the plants. Maybe they were just random vegetables to most people, but to her, it was the second best thing to being with Haru. She put a little bit of her soul into her work. As someone with a heightened sense for the magical side of things, Makoto could feel it.

Or maybe that was just her gay showing. She tried to keep it under wraps most of the time, but Futaba informed her it was, “visible from space.”

Well, space could look all it wanted, it and whatever space camera Futaba had hacked to verify her statement. As long as it didn’t tell Sae, she didn’t care how gay she looked. She just wanted to not be a mess of overthinking and stress for five minutes.

Makoto set her pack down by the door and looked over the garden. The tomatoes were coming along nicely, and there were hints of orange starting to peek out from under the carrot plants. It was amazing that this much green could flourish in the middle of the gray city. It was all thanks to Haru, someone who deserved a chance to grow, too. Makoto brushed a hand lightly over the potato leaves. It tickled her skin, and then it was gone.

Would Haru slip from her touch as easily? She knew love was supposed to hurt, but she would rather rip her own face off again. That wound was only skin deep.

As she passed near the edge of the roof, her eye was drawn by a poof of brown blowing in the wind. Maybe it was a Phantom Thief thing, but it was remarkably easy for her to pick Haru out of the crowd of students streaming from the school below. Makoto leaned over the edge, giving her a better view of the one thing that made all this headache worth it. Even the gardener herself was a bright spot in a dark place. The white, short-sleeved blouse she was wearing made her stand out all the more. Makoto didn’t know why Haru refrained from showing her arms off more often. They looked to her like the delicate wings of an angel.

Suddenly, a black limousine sped into the drive in front of the school. It would have been bad enough had it been left at that, as it was going twice the legal speed limit for the area and made students scatter in fear of being run over. One of the attendants came from the front and went to open the door in the back.

That made it worse.

A living lump of grease slid through the opening. Makoto rethought her liking of white clothes after seeing the gaudy suit that starkly contrasted the heart of its wearer.

Makoto wanted nothing more than to rip that putrid glob out of Sugimura’s chest. The need intensified when he smiled. How his smile wasn’t fraught with termites was a mystery to her.

She couldn’t hear a word he said, but whatever it was, it made Haru instantly uncomfortable. A flicker of annoyance crossed Sugimura’s face, and he reached out. No sooner than he set a hand on her wrist did Makoto’s vision go red. Red turned to scarlet when his fingers tightened and yanked Haru partway into the limo. With no other way out, she was forced to join him. The attendant closed the door, and as soon as he was back in front, it drove away at a more leisurely pace, leaving Makoto with the bile rising in her throat.

She dropped to her knees, aware that the expression burning its way onto her features would have frightened anyone who saw it. Once she was hidden by the lip of the roof, she let her hate leak. Growls clawed through her clenched teeth, and concrete very nearly cracked under her hands. The air around her went warm, and her heart felt like an overclocked nuclear reactor.

“That… bastard! That fucking prick!” She slowly stopped caring who heard her. She was too worked up to care about decorum. There was only a thin film left separating Makoto and Queen, and both sides thirsted for a rampage.

A hole was ripped through her blinding rage by the ringing of her phone. She took several deep breaths, wrangling back enough control to speak somewhat normally. If she sounded gruff and irritable, that was fine. She answered with a click.

“Hello?” Yeah, she sounded pissed.

“Yo, Queen, you good?”

“Futaba?” In her blinding rage, she forgot to check the caller ID. “Yeah, yeah, just a little worked up.”

“I don’t think ‘a little worked up’ makes you, miss president, swear like a Scottish sailor.”

“How did you hear…!?” She stopped for a moment, the answer dawning on her. “Phone bug?”

“Yep.”

“This is just… I mean, you…!”

“I literally found you guys by bugging LeBlanc. What did you expect?” Hard to argue against, but still disappointing. “...You’re not mad at me, are you?”

“Are you going to tell anyone about what you heard here?” Makoto put as much implication in her tone as physically possible.

“Nope.” Futaba was a smart girl.

“Then I’ll overlook this invasion of privacy. For now.”

“Whew, for a second, I thought you were going to step on me.” Several awkward seconds passed. Makoto thought she heard something along the lines of, ‘That might not be so bad,’ on the other end, but she wasn’t sure. “So, want to do something about that pent up murder-anger?”

Johanna’s engine sent excited shivers through Makoto’s soul.

“Let Akira know I’m voting for a Mementos run.”

 

-

 

Hot damn did Makoto need this excursion. Futaba was completely forgiven. She forgot all about the bug as the thirtieth Shadow’s head popped under her tire. Mementos was like her personal sheet of bubble wrap, one that came flowing from a bottomless box.

The looks of admiration from her compatriots was the cherry on top. Akira was sliding along behind her with his chains hooked to the back of Johanna. It was like jet skiing paired with a shooting gallery for him. Any chunks of Shadows that were still big enough to function after she pancaked the rest were swiftly shot into even smaller bits. Where she was raw rancor, he was the type to dance and laugh on the graves of his enemies. He was hooting and hollering the whole way, egged on by Ryuji from the sidelines.

“Dude, backflip! Backflip!”

“Here goes!” Akira bent his knees, then he waited for Makoto’s back tire to pop up off one of the train tracks. As soon as it hit, his chain whipped up, and he followed the flow to fuel his stunt. He hopped off the ground and turned over backwards, letting go just long enough to reposition his hand. His top half flipped up ahead of the rest, and his gun was facing forward again soon enough to put a bullet in what passed as the face of an incoming Sudama. The floaty paper doll didn’t stand a chance. Akira landed with both feet and resumed his skiing. “Whoop!”

“Nice shooting, Joker!” A few beeps came through the intercom, and Futaba hummed to herself in amusement. “Looks like you and Queen are neck-and-neck, fifteen kills each.”

“Don’t I get support points?” Makoto usually wasn’t one for the team’s general tomfoolery, but, she had to hand it to them, it did wonders for her nerves.

“Sorry, only the last hit counts. Easier to tally up that way.”

If that was how it would be, then fine. Makoto called Johanna back, and she front rolled to bleed off her spare momentum as her mask returned. Joker whipped his chain up to the ceiling, swinging up into the air before landing on both feet.

“Showoff.”

“I have never denied it.”

Makoto shook her head, but she didn’t let it get to her. She needed to score a few kills of her own if she wanted to win. Her golden ticket came with a yell from Ann.

“Shiki-Ouji, nine-o’clock!”

Perfect. Makoto turned to face her new opponent. She knew these big guys were dangerous, but the folded-steel samurai had a deathly allergy to radiation. She put her dukes up as the lumbering silver warrior stomped into the intersection. It was like an origami giant with a star carved into its helmet, and it was about to be slag.

“Thoth!” Akira had the same idea, calling upon his most recent nuclear-enabled Persona. His grin was equal parts vicious and shit-eating. “Don’t forget who the boss is, now.” She playfully scoffed at the challenge.

“You’ll be bowing to your Queen soon enough.” Her attention went back to the Shiki, but the creature was behaving oddly. It wasn’t launching into an assault like physical bruisers tended to do. Instead, it was staring her down at a distance, and if she listened closely, she could hear a throaty mumbling. Its hand raised glacially slow, and Makoto saw the signs of a spell being cast.

“Burn, Johanna!” She tore her mask off and broke into a sprint. She leaped and landed on her trusty mount, and her power was already building. A Freila was coming, and that would knock the Shadow out of its casting.

She wasn’t counting on the speed of the enemy’s technique, though. Its finger suddenly straightened, and the star on its helm lit up. The same point on Makoto’s forehead was struck by a concentrated buildup of unnatural heat, and then it spread through her, using her bloodstreams to travel. Her fight-or-flight instinct only served to make its infection swifter. Every patch of skin it passed felt like it was billowing steam, and the flesh it covered was boiling.

The most drastic kick came when it reached her brain. It trickled in through every vessel going up, and then it spread over her gray matter like a parasitic fungus. At once, her concentration was shattered, and with it went Johanna. Her Persona retreated to her mind to try fighting off the infection, but it was soon lost in the red mist. Makoto’s body, unprepared for the recall, was sent skipping across the ground.

She pushed herself up as quickly as she could, but when she was able to look again, the scene around her was obscured. It was like she was locked in a room without light, but instead of black, the abyssal nothing was red. Her breathing became sporadic, heavy, and the tension was building in her muscles. It seemed like every jagged turn she made to find a hint of light only intensified the reaction, drawing out every drop of anger she had hidden within. With no other release available to her, she was left to scream into the void.

“Where are you!?”

Right here.

When the void spoke back, she turned around and threw a punch. Her fist connected with something, sending it stumbling back. The figure was thrown off balance. It kept from falling, and its expression was one of smug condescension. Soon, she realized she could put a name to the face, and she stopped trying to put the cap back on her nightmarish hate.

“What the Hell are you doing here?” Sugimura chuckled to himself at her question and stared down at her with those hawkish, golden eyes.

“Isn’t it obvious?” He stepped forward, his hands held in front of himself in a mockery of pleading. “I’m here to silence the worm that wants to take my new toy from me.” Makoto’s pupils shrank, small dots of pure, bloody red.

“If you’re talking about...”

“Oh please, what else could I mean?” He took another step, now with his hands up in a gesture of surrender as though caught in his act. “Once you’re out of the way, there won’t be anything left stopping me from taking exactly what I want.” His teeth were big and white as he smiled, making for a perfect bullseye. “I’m a reasonable man, though, so I’ll give you one last shred of influence over what happens next. Should I wait until she’s of age to show her what only a man can give, or should I bed her tonight?”

The last scrap of Makoto was drowned in the pooling red. Queen rose from the lake of chaos, and her every cell burned with the magic it was funneling. The metal of her suit was burning white as she threw herself towards him, hands clenched painfully around her smoldering iron knuckles.

“I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch!” She punched with enough force to take his head off entirely, but the lucky bastard slid aside, and her hand was planted in a wall. Its brickwork went runny at her touch, letting her tear it sideways through the wall to continue the pursuit.

“My, so crass! Don’t you know a woman needs to keep herself proper for her betters?” He flowed around her punches like water, but she knew so much as a graze would be enough to make him shut up forever. “Then again, you wouldn’t know who your betters are, you dyke .”

Against all odds, the venom in that last word alone was enough to make Queen’s rage worse. Her speed doubled, and he seemed to struggle to dodge her.

“You know it’s the truth. Why else would you try so hard to keep that side of yourself buried? And you want to drag my Haru down with your depravity? I won’t suffer pond scum like you dirtying my things!”

“...Shut up.” Queen’s breath was growing short. She only spoke through burning, oxygen deprived lungs by force of will. Her voice was raspy, like claws rending skin and bone. “Shut your mouth already!” A moment of Makoto returned to her, and she changed her strategy on the fly. In an unexpected move, both hands launched forward at once, clamping down over Sugimura’s meaty, slimy, pathetic neck.

“Face the facts.” He grabbed both of her wrists. He wasn’t nearly strong enough to pull her off, but still he grinned that cocky grin at her through the steam rising off his neck. “You’re not even worth my time to play with. You’re just a useless bitch!”

“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” Every repeat of her mantra saw her fingers tightening, until her hands were both sunken in his breaking, smoldering flesh. “You don’t deserve the air you’re wasting. You don’t deserve what you’re stealing from us. You don’t deserve any of it!” Queen was seething now. All of the twisted, confused anger stuck in her head came pouring out at once, forming into a noose she would force on this excuse of an unevolved primate. Her iron mask was burning a hot enough white to partially blind her, but her anger was already all-consuming.

“All you deserve is to JUST DIE ALREADY!”

Energy D rop!”

It was like a snap. One moment, she was the incarnation of unholy wrath visiting judgment upon the unworthy. The next, it was like she was floating in a pool of jelly, the world around her distant, blurry, and tinted a wispy red that gradually filtered from her sight. The first thing she was aware of after the shift was how loose the ground was under her feet. It felt like she was standing in a shallow puddle of mud.

The second thing she noticed was the contorted, gasping face of Akira. He was going pale, and his eyes were rolling back in his head. It was a few inches above his neck, which was currently stuck in Queen’s death grip. Two and two took three seconds to compute, and Makoto snatched back control of her bodily functions with a bewildered, panicked start.

“Joker!?” Her hands released him. The sound was somewhere between the breaking of a chain link and a bubble popping, and he fell to the floor, pulling in huge gasps of air. Morgana scampered up to him and put his hands near, but not quite on, Akira’s horrifically reddened, somewhat misshaped neck.

“Diarama!” The skin glowed green briefly, and when the magic faded, his skin had taken a few steps back towards its natural shade and shape. “That was way too close.”

“Took you long enough, furball.” Ryuji was next to fly into the scene, hauling Akira up into a sitting position. Yusuke was next, and he joined Ryuji in supporting their airless friend.

“To Mona’s credit, healing techniques don’t seem entirely suited to ranged use.”

The situation slowly pieced together in Makoto’s mind. The spell that Shiki hit her with was some form of provocation. In its thrall, she had grabbed Akira and nearly strangled the life out of him. Her stomach dropped, and guilt turned her sheet white. She felt a hand on her shoulder, and when she looked, Ann had only concern for her.

“Are you alright, Queen? Do you remember where you are?”

“I… I think...” She looked around, awareness of Mementos returning to her. A short distance away, she saw a melted glob of black and silver slag with a half-melted crescent moon on top. She recognized it as the Shiki, or what remained of it, but she didn’t know how it went from monster to mush. Melting metal in a short span of time takes an insane amount of heat.

She remembered an earlier impression, and she looked down. She was standing in a small pothole filled with a blackish slurry. The concrete that used to fill that gap was now a puddle, and between the two points, she saw the metal pieces of her costume were still letting off smoke. Her eyes widened as the puzzle all fit together, and she pushed Ann back.

“This whole area could be irradiated! Everyone needs to…!”

“Chill...” The voice of calm was weak, as mangled as the guy it came out of. Joker found an iota of his cool, though he still looked like he was in a lot of pain. “Had Thoth suck up as many rads as he could. Should be safe now.” Right. Before all this went down, he had a nuclear-immune Persona slotted in. That meant she could at least take his contamination off the list of things she felt bad for. It was still a weighty list, though.

Okay, as team navigator, I think we should pull out.” Futaba was standing a ways back, probably out of concern for how any level of radiation would affect her scanners. “Joker’s out of health and Queen burned all her magic. We’re done.”

“Good call.” Morgana wiped his paws off, his job as finished as he could manage, and made some room so he could turn into the Mona-bus. “Fox, Skull, get Joker into the back.” Ann was by Makoto again, not put off by the shove.

“Do you need help walking?” Makoto was about to decline, but then she felt her legs going wobbly.

“Yes, please. Sorry to ruin everyone’s fun.”

“No sweat.” Ryuji opened the back and started loading his disabled leader onboard. “Shit happens. Just gotta pick up the pieces and make do.”

“Well said.” Akira was more than relieved as he settled into the back. “Fox, with Queen and me out, driving goes to you. I’ll let you know when I’m good to go again.”

“Nonsense.” Fox had already climbed into the driver’s seat and familiarized himself with the controls. “I will handle our transportation in its entirety. You focus on resting.”

“But...”

“Was it not you who advised me to balance momentary passions with proper rest?” Fox stared at Akira with cold, forceful severity in the rear view mirror. He was pleased when no answer came. “As I thought.”

The ride back was long and awkward for Makoto. She was in the back with Akira, and, though he didn’t show her any ill will for what she did, she still felt awful. This seemed to trigger his protective side.

“You sure you’re okay, Queen?” He lifted a hand and tapped the side of his head. “I mean up here. That was a lot of frustration you let off back there.”

Thank goodness Makoto didn’t give any names in her fury, otherwise her cover would have been blown. She thanked whatever dark god stayed her tongue then as she replied.

Stress, nightmares, that sort of thing.”

“Nightmares?” Ann took interest in that part, pulling herself over the back of her seat enough to partake in the conversation better. “What kind?”

Makoto felt bad for lying to them, but she couldn’t actually say what was going on with Haru. That would be a huge breach in her trust, and she wouldn’t do that. She settled on a half truth, half lie, just with a few tastefully replaced names.

“I guess Kaneshiro’s threats have been on my mind lately. I know he’s locked up and that’s all dealt with, but it’s still terrifying to think what he almost did to me, and Sis.” Come to think of it, what Haru was going through with Sugimura was remarkably similar, only different in that it was just Haru herself on the line and that it was happening to her in a technically legal manner. That part arguably made it worse.

“Hey, that happened to me, too.” Ann was in full big sister mode, despite being one of the younger Thieves. “After our first job, I had nightmares about Kamoshida for weeks.”

“I remember that. Kind of a shit time to be us, right?” Ryuji jumped into the chat next. “We took care of that with some team meetups in the real world. We should set some up while we have a chance.”

Three of the founding members of the Phantom Thieves were smiling at her warmly. She started to understand why that did so much to help Ann before. Maybe it would help her, too?

 

-

 

No matter how much their support helped mentally, it didn’t do anything for her physical condition. Once she stepped back into reality, her body all but broke down on her. The loss of her supernatural support left her feeling like she had been assaulted with a large sack of bricks. Her joints refused to bend, the bones themselves ached, and her muscles were petrified sheets of granite.

It took some quick thinking on Akira’s part, but he was able to fabricate a story about how Makoto randomly collapsed in the middle of LeBlanc during a “study session.” He didn’t deliver it himself, seeing as he was a known criminal who Sae wouldn’t trust. Ann, whose record was clean, did it in his place while he let Sojiro know what was happening in case the story needed corroboration. Sae accepted this messenger and promptly ordered Makoto to stay home on account of sickness. It was a bullet dodged.

She had a doctor examine her the next day, and the conclusion was swift and predictable: complete physical exhaustion. A week or two of bed rest was proscribed, and, with the school alerted to her sickness, Makoto was allowed to recover in peace. After they got back from the hospital, Sae helped Makoto to her bed, then sat next to her for a time, worry and no small amount of admonition in her eyes.

“Normally I would be proud of your productivity, but this was reckless.”

“I know.” Makoto’s voice was deflated. It made her feel a little better that Akira didn’t incur all of the damage from her outburst, but she still felt like a bowl of cold porridge. “ I just want the school to trust me again, and I figured hard work would help.”

“If you were looked down on for something more reasonable, perhaps.” An edge of bitterness entered Sae’s tone. “I wish you had told me about your principal’s ridiculous request sooner. Who sends a student to find criminals?” Sae shook her head, oblivious to the twang of guilt ringing through her sister. “I’ll talk to the board when I get a chance. Kobayakawa will be lucky to not be arrested for this when I’m through.” Makoto worked up the energy to smile.

“Thank, Sis.”

“You’re welcome.” Sae, her less positive points addressed, was comfortable with showing Makoto some warmth. The last thing she needed when she already felt frozen from the neck down was a cold shoulder. “Now get some rest. I’ve arranged for someone to help watch you while I’m working, so they should be here in a little while.”

“Really?” She should have known better than to expect Sae to personally stick with her through her recovery, considering that she still needed to attend to her duties as a prosecutor, but a sliver of her hoped for some quality family time as a counterbalance to the overwhelming soreness that locked her in place. Oh well, no sense in bemoaning it now. “Who did you call?”

“Actually, Okumura-chan called me.” Makoto’s heart skipped a beat. Was this going where she thought it was going? “Apparently she was concerned after not seeing you in class today. I clarified what I could about your condition, and she offered to come over and keep you company.” Sae looked somewhat proud, and it added to the warmth accumulating in Makoto’s chest. “You’re lucky to have a supportive friend like her.”

If only you knew how true that was.

At some point in the next few minutes, Makoto drifted off into sleep. She didn’t fight it, as sleep was the surest form of rest. It was deep and dreamless, as thought even the imaginative faculties of her mind needed to recuperate. She was made dimly aware of some shifting in the room around her, but it wasn’t enough to break her from the sandman’s spell.

She awoke sometime later. Her body was still like a felled tree, but she had some minute control over her neck now. She immediately set about trying to work out the kink that built up there while her eyes gradually focused. A hint of brown where there wasn’t brown before pulled up the last memory from before she went dormant, and when it moved, the springiness harkened back to an older, but imminently clearer memory. Haru closed the book she had on her lap and quietly moved her chair closer to the bed.

“Hello, Mako-chan. Did you sleep well?”

“Like...” She briefly considered, ‘like the dead,’ but she didn’t suspect Haru would appreciate that kind of dark humor. “...A rock.”

Haru was quick to dote, running a warm hand through Makoto’s hair. The gentleness was compounded by the fluff of Haru’s pink sweater sleeve, which brushed against her skin as the soft down of a wing. Were she not filled with energizing elation, it would have lulled her back to sleep. Her will to stay up was reinvigorated by a thought; if Haru was being this open about their intimacy, that meant Sae wasn’t around. This was a waking dream she had wanted for as long as her first fantasy became reality, to have Haru over without the guise of them just being friends. She would be remiss to let this gift go to waste.

“Is it true you overworked yourself to this condition?” Haru’s worry was plainly evident. It made Makoto glad that she could answer this question honestly.

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Haru tried to keep smiling, but the corners of her mouth descended all the same. “But, if I may, you weren’t working on improving your reputation as you told Sae-san, correct?” Makoto’s heart, which had moments ago been about to lift off like a balloon, now turned to a weight stuck in her ribs. It became harder to keep eye contact, even with a true answer, especially with a true answer.

“...No, I wasn’t.” Haru’s kind touch never receded, continuously assuring that it would be going nowhere.

“If I may hazard a guess, you saw my… interaction with Sugimura after school.” The twitch under Makoto’s eyes, one of what remained of her disdain, was enough of a response to tell Haru everything. “From there, you burned yourself out trying to make your plan.” She wasn’t asking anymore. It was like she knew her girlfriend enough to say her thought process with certainty.

That she was only off by the Metaverse’s role in what transpired both elated and shamed Makoto.

“I’m sorry, but, him grabbing you like that...” She looked up at Haru. Though there was still bleak concern ringing her eyes, the ember of affection was burning bright in her smile.

“Thank you for trying to look out for me, but, as I said, I don’t want you hurting yourself for my sake.” Haru put her free hand over Makoto’s and closed her fingers around it. Her touch was a salve to the dry, cracked hands that almost killed someone the day before. “I know how you must have felt seeing me in pain, but now I’m the one seeing you in pain. Knowing it’s because of me...” Makoto fought against her exhaustion to hold Haru’s hand in turn.

“It’s not you, it’s him.” A few drops of confidence helped smooth out Makoto’s strained voice. “I would be mad about him anyway. You being one of the people he’s hurting just makes things more immediate. And personal.” Makoto’s hold tightened. Had she the power, she would make it so she never had to let go again.

She knew that was a fantasy, though. Reality had to claim its due sooner or later. She pulled back her fears, letting their touch become something more comfortable.

“I’ll find a way to get him away from you, but I’ll take better care of myself from now on, too. Promise.” That was enough to let Haru relax, the dark clouds parting to reveal the sunshine. She giggled to herself, to Makoto’s intrigue. “Did I say something funny?”

“No, it’s not that. I was just reflecting. A year ago, I didn’t even consider the possibility of liking another girl.” Haru came closer, leaning over Makoto, and she cupped the back of her head, as though the hair stroking was a planned play to position her hand there all along. “Now, I can hardly imagine my life without you.”

Makoto’s sickly skin was lit up by the renewed blood flow, like strings of lights running beneath fresh snow. It grew redder and hotter as the gap between them closed. Makoto started tilting her head up to hasten to their meeting. It was as though her body knew it would need the functionality of her neck for this one moment.

Their lips met, and it was like, for that one moment, Haru was giving her strength. She wanted to throw her arms around the girl and hold her close. She wanted to pull her under the covers and stay that way for hours, kissing, hugging, intertwined until one, the other, or both drifted to sleep. She wanted to lock the door and, for one afternoon, forget that there was anything on the other side that could come between them.

The moment passed, and when their lips came apart, though the unbridled sensation of strength left her, she retained the spirit of Haru’s empowering affection for her. She would also hold onto the image of Haru she saw shortly after, the smaller girl as red and flustered as Makoto herself.

“Oh my, I didn’t know I had something like that in me!” She was split between excitement, numbing delight, and the nervousness that should have made itself known before she tried to put the move on her at all. Makoto knew exactly what she was going through.

“It was amazing.” Makoto spoke from the heart, a heart that wanted nothing more than to relive that closeness again and again. “I just wish I was in any state to reciprocate more appropriately.” Haru, still jittering after her successful power play, resumed her task of doting on Makoto.

“That reminds me, I was supposed to let you know that there’s been a small change in the school schedule, one we might be able to make use of.”

Makoto was intrigued by the suggestive nature of that statement.

“Go on.”

“It seems the staff will be preoccupied with… certain rumors and investigations when the trip overseas was planned for.” How much of that pressure, Makoto wondered, was being applied by Sae? “In order to keep the trip possible, they have requested a number of third years to join the second years as chaperones, with members of the student council being automatically enlisted.”

Of course they were. Why wouldn’t the school foist responsibility onto the students? It wasn’t like Makoto herself was present to object or anything.

“And, knowing you were among them, I volunteered soon enough to join you and your group.”

Makoto’s impression of the situation immediately spun around and distanced itself from its prior statements.

“I see.” A sly smile worked its way to Makoto’s lips. Suave lessons with Joker, don’t fail her now. “Two upstanding young ladies, left without adult supervision, in a place far from almost anyone who knows them.”

“Mhm!” The conniving was shared between them in a moment of absolute unity. “Of course, we wouldn’t dare abuse this opportunity to be together with no threats of being discovered, right?”

“Not at all.” If it hadn’t been obvious enough to Makoto before, it was now abundantly clear why she loved this stunning woman. “Don’t be silly, Haru.”

Just be mine.

Chapter Text

Makoto had never been on an airplane before. She never imagined she would be on one. Vacations abroad seemed to vanish into the realm of dreams once it was up to Sae, and Sae alone, to keep food on the table. Makoto didn’t mind, but she was kind of happy that she had a chance to go abroad at Shujin’s expense. It was like some minor revenge after all the garbage a certain neckless principal put her through.

About half an hour into the flight, any thoughts of vengeance were evicted from her thinking mind. Haru showed up to the airport half-awake. She packed up before going to bed the night before, so she hadn’t forgotten anything in her tired tumbling towards the terminal, but she was still left only partially functional as she boarded.

Makoto, having had a hand in getting the tickets prepared, managed to get her and Haru seats next to each other for both directions. Haru tried to make pleasant conversation for a time. Her limited conscious capacity was wholly dominated by what a Hawaiian date would be like. Eventually, though, even that rapturous dream gave way to the alluring call of real sleep. She drifted into the sandman’s spell without a fight.

She also drifted onto Makoto’s shoulder, using her girlfriend like a big, warm pillow. As soon as she felt that poofy hair compress against her, serving as the only divider between them, Makoto’s brain completely stopped functioning. Blushing, she gave into temptation, gently wrapping an arm around the smaller, kitten-like girl. She nuzzled into Makoto, finally resting her head against her chest, right over her heart. It was amazing that the thunder rolling through Makoto’s rib cage didn’t jostle her awake.

The outside world became a secondary issue in Makoto’s mind, but it managed to poke through her fluffy reverie now and then. A few rows ahead, some of the second years had taken notice of the girls’ compromising position. She could see the curiosity and wonder in their eyes. It was only natural, she supposed, considering they had done everything in their power to keep their relationship under wraps. She knew there were rumors running around about how often she went up to Haru’s private garden. She didn’t mind those as much as the ones that said “private garden” in a less innocent sense.

To her misfortune, it seemed like a few of the second years were the disreputable sort that spread the latter version. They openly stared at her, wide-eyed and agape. With Makoto unresponsive, Queen took the reigns. The Niijima stare was deployed, reinforced by the bloody red hue that cast over her eyes. The prying students scampered back to their seats like trounced rodents, leaving Makoto to slip back into her peaceful retreat.

Only two people still looked back at her from time to time. Ann was the opposite of subtle when she checked, openly giving her a thumbs up from across the plane. Even with a girlfriend secured, Ann still took her role as Makoto’s wingman very seriously. It was appreciated as much as it was overwhelming. Makoto imagined Ryuji would be doing the exact same thing if he was awake.

Akira, at the very least, knew how to keep his checks subtle. His glasses helped hide where his eyes were going from anyone in front of him. Makoto was slightly behind him and to the side, letting her see his sideways glances. He smiled whenever eye contact was made, and that was as far as he went. It was like he trusted her to take on the challenges of being a good significant other with only light reassurances.

Looking at the ball of sunshine curled up against her and the sunny shores of Hawaii ahead, Makoto was at once thrilled and nervous. At the very least, she would be able to focus on Haru herself and not certain scumbags left behind in Tokyo.

 

-

 

Powers, Makoto concluded, were very useful.

Her own blooming nuclear abilities had limited use in the real world. She didn’t want to go around irradiating everyone in sight, after all. No, this time, it was Yusuke who saved the day. Hot sun above and hot sand below very quickly proved the undoing of any ice cream cones caught between them. Ice powers, meanwhile, made sun and sand both back off.

With his support, Makoto was able to get Haru’s cone to her intact. She had set up their beach spot while Makoto found snacks. The umbrella was wide with tassels at the edge hanging down like a partial curtain, providing ample shade from the sun.

When Makoto entered the half-tent, two things caught her attention. First, the towel that served as its floor was singular. As in, she would be sharing a towel with Haru. There was enough room for both of them, but it would call for a lovely degree of closeness, perhaps even a little overlapping, if she was allowed the fantasy.

Second, she was struck again by how lovely Haru looked in a swimsuit. It was two layered, a green, dress-like portion overlaying yellow undergarments. The wide, white sunhat was rendered functionally useless with the umbrella, but the accessory brightened up her eyes, making them look like a pair of jewels. Those gemstones Makoto so cherished sparkled at her approach.

“Ooh, I was just thinking about how nice something cold would be.” Makoto smiled and handed a cone down. She sat next to her, ready to maybe roll with the conversation by saying something cool, but Haru leaned in a little closer to whisper. “Although, if the warmth is yours, I wouldn’t say no to some of that, too.”

Makoto was radiating plenty of heat after that. Haru could tell, fawning over her blushing beauty all the more. The display of affection was less public, Makoto noticed, because of the curtain on the umbrella. It covered their upper halves from sight, even while sitting down, letting them do as they wanted with everything above the shoulders. With this barrier to their privacy in place, Makoto felt herself getting bold.

“Well, hot or cold, it’s my job to satisfy you.” She took a small, but slow lick of her ice cream. She let it sit in her mouth for a moment, and, giving Haru a smoldering, wanting look, she moved in for the kiss. Both of their lips were chilled by the frozen treat, tinting the sparks with a cool sting.

Soon, Makoto felt Haru trying to push things further. There was a prodding at the entrance to her lips. Makoto was caught by surprise, but her unthinking body knew what to do without the counsel of her mind. Her lips parted, and her tongue was quick to greet Haru’s. The chill was even more pronounced, and there was a taste of sugar that drew Makoto deeper in. Their tongues intertwined, bringing them closer together, something Makoto didn’t realize was possible until that moment.

Their lips came apart with a slight pop, and their tongues regretfully returned to their own domains. They carried with them, though, the sweet aftertaste of their meeting. As the cold passed, a warmth welled up from inside of her, one she saw mirrored in Haru.

“I don’t think I could ever get tired of this.”

“Me neither, Mako-chan.” Haru scooted into Makoto, recreating their shared seating on the plane. This time, she was fully awake and wanted to enjoy every second of it. “Me neither.”

 

-

 

Ann was a life saver. Makoto studied her English as hard as any other subject, but having someone borderline fluent in it made navigating the island much easier. It didn’t hurt that she was as eager to find somewhere to eat as everyone else put together. Of all the people in their little dysfunctional family to be the big eater, Makoto didn’t expect it would be Ann. She wasn’t complaining.

She was, however, envious. She could feel the weight piling on just watching Ann shovel down her pancakes. The pineapple topping she so praised looked to be twice as fattening as the food it was ostensibly a condiment for. Despite this, she knew Ann wouldn’t see an extra pound from all of it. Makoto almost despaired looking down at her own salad.

It was only Haru’s compliments that reminded her why maintaining her weight was worth it. There would be less girlfriend proportionate to her own size to hold if she let herself go. Granted, it would also give Haru proportionately more girlfriend, but she suspected that “gesture” wouldn’t be so well received.

Especially after Haru suggested she had few reserves about getting… intimate. It wouldn’t do if she was too out of shape to keep up. You know, if it was actually going that direction. Which Makoto didn’t want to think too much about yet for fear of her blush turning the diner into a nuclear cesspool.

Haru’s comment was enough to make the boys politely excuse themselves in case the conversation progressed in that direction. Rather, it was enough to make Akira excuse all of the boys. He lured them away with the promise of finding something fun to do elsewhere, far enough away to not severely embarrass their poor strategist. Ann stayed behind, with a knowing glimmer in her eye.

At some point, Haru had to excuse herself to “answer a message .” It wasn’t clear whether it was from nature or a business partner, but either way, this left Makoto alone with Ann. The latter was soon to act, mercifully holding the discussion in Japanese as to keep it contained between the two of them.

“S o, t hat was about as clear as signs get .”

Makoto’s throat was suddenly very dry. She muttered out an affirmation through her drink.

“You gonna do anything about it?”

“I mean, you heard her. The walls are very thin.”

And after you get back to Japan?”

“...”

“Okay, I know this is going to sound rich coming from me of all people but… Damn, you’re being a useless lesbian right now.”

“I’m nervous, okay!?” It felt good to admit how little she knew of what the actual Hell she was doing. She continued to do exactly that. “Think of the logistics here. We’re both trying to keep the people we live with from finding out we’re gay, let alone that we’re dating. Then there’s me not knowing a thing about sex. That’s a big issue! And Akira just had to bring up knowing where we could find toys, making this even more complicated...”

“Yo, Makoto.” Ann clapped her hands, holding her fussing friend’s attention with a seriousness she never deployed. “First, there are places you can meet up where no one will ever know. If you don’t want to spend for one of those grimy love motels, then you can use the spare bedroom in my place. I can hook you up.”

“Wait...”

“And don’t worry too much about not knowing. No one does when they start. It’s all about...”

“Wait!” Makoto said it louder that time, once more very grateful no one else present knew Japanese. “There’s a lot to unpack here. We’ll start with, why are you so relaxed about us… doing things, under your roof?”

“See, there’s another bit of big bad society getting you down, girl.” Ann stabbed a piece of her pancake firmly, then waved it like a teacher’s pointer for emphasis. “Sex isn’t something to be ashamed of. It’s natural and beautiful, and I’m pretty sure both of you want it.” Makoto was about to speak up, but Ann tutted her. “Don’t lie to me! You had that fancy umbrella in the way, but don’t think I didn’t hear you two sharing tongues earlier.”

“...Oh god, people heard that...”

“Like kissing doesn’t happen all the time on those beaches. Look, you’re losing focus here.”

No, I think I’m focusing on the questions that need to be...”

She was interrupted by a ringing in her pocket. Welcoming the diversion, Makoto pulled out her phone and answered.

“Hello?”

As soon as she made her presence known, music blared through the speaker. It was the most stereotypical porno music you could find, deep with heavy, pounding bass punctuating each note. She backed away in shock, indignant as Ann started cracking up.

“Futaba!”

“Go get some, you damp ham sandwich!”

“Stop listening in on all of my conversations!” She registered what was actually said to her a few seconds later. “And what did you just call me?”

“Damp ham sandwich. Damp as in...”

“Don’t explain it!”

“Okay, jeeze, make up your mind.” Futaba made no effort to hide the joy she was getting from poking fun at the imperiously sturdy Queen. The music was kindly cut off, the joking portion of her call ended. “Real talk, though, I’m the most socially inept person in the room, and even I can tell she would give you a hard yes if you asked. You’ve got a guaranteed shot, a place to do it, and a guy who can provide any extras you need. That’s more prep than anyone else going for their first. What’s holding you back here?”

Makoto took some time to put it to words. She obviously had to leave out anything to do with a certain threat breathing down both of their necks, but she thought she could give a satisfactory answer.

“I guess, I’m nervous about being too forceful. You’ve seen me in the Metaverse. That’s what happens to me when I get swept up by my instincts, and that’s what intimacy is supposed to be about, baring your hearts to each other. I’m afraid that, if she sees mine, it’ll scare her, or, worse, hurt her. I’m afraid of myself. That’s without considering that I can turn sand into glass with one touch. What if I lose control of my magic when we’re together? What if something goes wrong? What if...”

“You’d regret it if you did something to break what you have. I think I get it.” Futaba’s voice was quiet, contemplative. It was wholly unnatural for her. She was always either nervously quiet or explosively emotional, never in between. Makoto didn’t like where this was going. “You know, back when Mom was still around, Sojiro was always putting the moves on her. Each time, he tried something smooth to get her attention, and each time, he fell flat on his face. She just bounced him.” Futaba was chuckling to herself, a deep and heartfelt chuckle. The warmth of her nostalgia flowed through the phone.

“Still, he and Mom got along great. They were best friends, maybe a few more months of trying away from being… something more than that. Heck, I think little me saw him as a dad before everything that happened. And I don’t think he regrets trying. He’d regret it more if he never tried. He would’ve lost a lot of memories with someone he had real feelings for. Maybe he would’ve lost me.” Futaba’s voice trailed off. Makoto heard the breeze of her hair swishing as she shook the gunk out of her head.

“What I’m saying is, you might regret failing, but if something happens while you’re waiting, you’ll regret never trying worse.” The silence that followed was heavy. Makoto was more taken aback by what was just said than the damp sandwich insult.

“Futaba...”

“Shoot, I just made this all real awkward, didn’t I? Sorry, didn’t mean to...”

“No, it’s alright.” Ann sent some of her own warmth back across the sea. If she could reach out to hug Futaba, Makoto was certain she would. “I don’t think I could have said it better myself.” Ann looked meaningfully at Makoto, who felt like a hammer was taken to her insecurities. The shards prickled her skin, but the opened wounds made her acutely aware that worse pains could be felt.

“Thanks, Futaba. I think I needed that pep talk.”

“Wait, I actually did a good? Score for me!” Futaba inserted some of her enthusiasm back into the conversation, hoping to lift it back into a positive note. “I think I just spent all my emotional energy for the day. Think I’ll grab Mona and hibernate for a bit. While I’m doing that, you go and see about getting a score for you. Got it?” Makoto smirked slightly at the authoritative tone taken by their scrawniest member.

“You’re the navigator here. Just know, you’ll be receiving a formal complaint if your directions were off.”

“Whatevs, just get yourself some bow-chicka-bow-wow. Oracle, out.” The phone disconnected, leaving behind explicit instructions.

“I guess I don’t have much of a choice now. Do I?”

“Nope.” Ann gave her a confidant smile and an encouraging nudge to the shoulder. “I was serious about my offer, by the way. Let me know if you need the room, and it’s all yours.” Makoto blushed a little, but the kindness being given to her was more readily accepted.

“I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you.” She heard the bathroom door open, and she quickly pushed her embarrassment back into the depths of her soul. She returned to her salad as though she hadn’t just gotten relationship advice. Haru returned to their table, her hands on her lap.

“I’m sorry about that. It was an urgent message.”

“It’s fine, we all get those sometimes.”

Ann carried on the conversation like everything was fine, but Makoto noticed something that unsettled her. It was a very slight shift, a little dip in Haru’s upper eyelids, a loss of noble poise in how she held her fork. It was a bunch of little things, but, in Makoto’s eyes, it was a complete downcast. The alarms were warming up, waiting for any indicator to sound.

Haru glanced over at her, and she noticed the intensity behind Makoto’s gaze. Her eyes shriveled back further. Makoto knew something was wrong, and now, Haru knew that she knew. They couldn’t talk about it now, not in Ann’s company, but they knew it couldn’t be allowed to set for long.

Chapter Text

Makoto was buzzing, almost literally, with… Well, just about every negative emotion one could experience. The sight of Haru breaking down as the sliver of hope Makoto worked day and night to give her closed off was carved into the front of her mind. Her brain was bleeding. It was a boiling, leaking mess, and she didn’t know whether to be more furious or broken.

When her friends asked for her to “supervise” a trip to the beach, she wanted to say no. She really did. She wanted to spend as much time as she could with Haru, afraid that letting her leave her sight for even a moment would invite the vultures to snatch her away all the sooner. But, Haru insisted that she went. She was adamant about not wanting to make Makoto any more miserable, and time with people who would stick around longer, she thought, would be better for her.

Haru was too good for her own good. Too good for the cloying bastards who tried to drag her down to Hell with them.

Makoto gave in and went, but the whole time, she felt like a passenger in her own body. She was acting like herself, but she felt her real self, perhaps a projected phantasm, sitting next to her with her head in her hands. She vaguely registered Ryuji asking for her help powering a radio with magic. She hoped it would be enough to bleed off her rage before it boiled over, but that little radio wasn’t nearly enough of a receptacle. By the time it was full, only a few drops had been purged, leaving the rest of the reservoir wide open, ready to burst. She excused herself and shuffled towards the sea, knowing that nuclear power plants relied on water as a coolant. Salt water wasn’t ideal, but it would have to do.

Then, Akira followed her and showed his hand. He saw something was wrong. Of course he did. Between the magic eyes and nearly omniscient understanding of conversational cues, of course he did. He didn’t demand answers of her, though. He just nudged what she was feeling towards the surface, then presented himself as a willing sink.

She didn’t know how he always knew what to say and do, but she cracked. Finally, finally she cracked. The raw anger that built up and compressed in her soul was allowed to peak out, just for a moment. The ocean exploded as a bubble of nuclear power was released. She was so close to crying, to losing the last shreds of her strong facade, until Akira pulled the last card out of his sleeve.

Or, more accurately, Joker pulled the card, and Joker was quick to match her readiness to do something. All he needed was a team to do something alongside him. The Thieves were a democracy, after all.

Walking back to the party, she was seeing the festivities through her own eyes for the first time. Ryuji was hula dancing near the fully-powered radio. Yusuke was painting the nearby volcanoes, over which Ann was now cooking hot dogs. It was like a family barbecue with a higher risk of incineration by lava. She felt absolutely awful about the bomb she was about to drop on them.

Ryuji noticed their return first, and he called out to them.

“Hey, was that water fountain thing you? I know you said you had to cool off, but… Man. Powers, right?” He looked down at his own hands, marveling at the strands of static that flowed over his palms and across his fingertips.

Ann looked over her shoulder, and she was about to say something, too, but, unlike Ryuji, she looked directly at Makoto. This let her see the haze over her eyes, and she was on edge at the realization.

“Are you alright, Makoto? Did you overheat?” Ann abandoned her cooking station, setting the stick of hot dogs somewhere safe while she attended to her ailing friend. Yusuke was pulled from his art by the question, and when he looked, he was also visibly disturbed by what he saw. Ryuji’s high petered off, and he turned off the radio. This was no time for the cheery music.

“I… I’m sorry, but...” Her voice sounded so drained. She was tired, so tired of the charade. Guilt piled up from both sides, for lying to her friends about what was going on in her head, for the promise to Haru she was about to break. Akira put a hand on her shoulder, and he was the picture of understanding.

“Can you say it, or should I?” Makoto didn’t want to heft responsibility off on him. This was her situation, her request. It was only right that she presented it, no matter how much it twisted her on the inside.

“No, I can handle it.”

“Uh...” Ryuji was lost, not quite recovered from the tonal whiplash. “What did you guys talk about over there?”

Makoto took a breath, then let it out. She stepped back in her mind, letting the Student Council President speak in her stead. The false front was easy to spot, and it made even Yusuke lose his stoic disposition.

“There has been an… aspect of my relationship with Haru that I have kept between us. It was, perhaps, unwise of me to let it remain unknown this long. This secrecy on my part suggests a lack of trust in you, and for that, I apologize. I trust all of you more than almost anyone else, and that I have allowed myself to act in implicit distrust of you will be a mark of shame for as long as I live.” She bowed, the first and only time she had ever done so to them. Ryuji and Ann, both, were left without words at the display. The gravity of the gesture wasn’t lost on Yusuke, but he retained his functionality.

“Apology accepted. Now, if this secret is, as you have implied, dangerous, I must ask that you tell us so we can attend to the issue.” Makoto fought back a touched hitch in her voice as she nodded and continued.

“You are all aware at this point that she is the heiress of Okumura Foods, meaning she is in a position of some influence.” No disagreement with the statement was voiced. “I also assume you are all familiar with the concept of...” The term burned at the back of her tongue. It was hard to push up, and once it was there, she was forced to spit it out to keep it from burning her. “...Arranged marriages.”

“Oh God.” Ann connected the dots as soon as they were presented. “You can’t be serious.”

“Haru is contractually engaged to a man by the name of Sugimura, the son of a partner company’s CEO. Through their wedding, the two corporations will seal their mutual support for each others’ operations. However, the relationship between them is not one of care.” She pulled up the evidence in her memories, hoping it would suffice. “I have personally witnessed him becoming physically abusive when his advances were denied. He is not above using force to get what he wants from her. Considering his past of covered up sexual assaults, I am under no delusions as to what he will do to her once the marriage is official.”

Ann and Ryuji both had their jaws dropped. Yusuke’s expression hardened, and the air around him began to cool. Akira took the exposition passively on the outside, but there was a fire burning behind his eyes.

“Earlier this afternoon, she received a message. The date of the marriage has been finalized.” Haru’s face contorting in grief almost gave Queen the strength to break through, a snarl shattering half of the mask she wore. “On October eleventh, they will be wed, and he will be legally allowed to do with her as he will.”

The President and Queen fought for dominance in her actions. The former wanted to get the message out there, the latter wanted nothing less than to make the swine bleed. Frigid logic, burning hate. These were the two extremes Makoto lived by. She was crushed between them.

At the intersection between order and chaos, her real self buckled. The pressure of the act was too much to keep up anymore. Makoto’s face almost seemed to melt, her rigid discipline breaking.

“I thought we had more time. These last few months, I’ve been trying to think up a way to get her away from him. What else am I supposed to do? I’m… I-I just want to make her happy.” A tear fell to the sand. She had to be strong for Haru, but her strength was all gone. Her hands were clenched in front of her, and her posture was rigid. It was all she could do to retain her sense of self as her dreamed future turned to sand at her touch. “I can’t, I don’t know what to do. I don’t. There’s not enough time. I don’t want to lose her. I… I...”

Suddenly, she was encased by something warm. Through the water in her eyes, she saw a blonde pigtail. Following it, she found Ann’s head next to her own. Her arms were wrapped tightly around Makoto. Where she lacked stability, Ann tried to replace it with some of her own.

“A… Ann? What…?”

“We’re going to fix this.” It was one sentence. Five simple words. But Ann spoke them with finality. She wasn’t suggesting that they help. No, she was stating it like any other indisputable fact. To her, their intervention was as certain as the turning of night to day.

“That’s one vote.” Akira called attention back to himself, then turned it on the last two technically undecided Thieves. “The decision needs to be unanimous before we can start this mission. We already got the go ahead from Sojiro, Futaba, and Morgana. Fox, Skull, are you in?”

“Stating my agreement would be redundant.” Behind Yusuke, the freshly applied paint on his canvas had hardened. It turned to ice in his presence. “Any man who would intrude upon love so pure is nothing short of an abomination. I will not stand for this.”

“You’re damn right we won’t!” Ryuji stomped, trying to expend the turbulent anger that was sparked within him. His body was cloaked by electricity, and it seemed to be trying to take a more solid shape. His hair was on end, and the static gathered around his eyes, a few watts away from forming a mask. “That’s all of us. Can we go kick his ass now?”

“That’ll have to wait until we get back to Japan, but once we are, yeah. That about settles it.” Akira was grinning wide, proudly approving of the succinct vote. “You heard them. We have an operation to plan for.” He turned his budding malevolence, that heart of rebellion whose strength pulsed through every Thief, to Makoto. “Now then, we were going to extend an invitation, weren’t we?”

Makoto was numbed. The will of the Thieves was overwhelming, despite being one of them. Ann’s touch rekindled the fire in her heart, one that swiftly spread through the whole of her being. When feeling returned to her, she found herself smiling, too.

 

-

 

“Mako-chan?”

Makoto opened her eyes. She didn’t know how long she had been standing on the beach, facing out towards the water, but the pink starting its gradual climb over the horizon told her it was almost morning. She looked from the skyline back to the beach, where Haru was walking towards her, a cloud of soft uncertainty trailing behind. Haru glanced down at a sealed envelope in her hands.

“Akira talked to you, right?” Makoto didn’t like how firm her tone was. Luck willing, it would be the only time she was this stern in Haru’s presence. For now, it was all she had to keep herself from prematurely erupting.

“Yes, and he gave me this, but he said not to open it yet. You had something to tell me?” She tilted her head, confusion, concern, and no small amount of sorrow’s echo etching lines into her face. She tried to step closer, but Makoto held up a hand. She needed some space for what came next.

“I think I’ve figured out a plan.” She watched as Haru’s eyes opened wider, but there was no sunshine yet. The fog of wicked fate still shrouded her. “It may be unorthodox, however.” Makoto gripped the strength she accumulated over the last several hours. Emotionally, it let her speak. Physically, she held onto it, letting it hum in her bones until the time was right. “I recall you said that you respect the Phantom Thieves.”

“Yes, I did say… Wait.” Haru’s hands clenched around the envelope, an automatic response to nervousness. “You want to contact them about Sugimura? But, that would mean revealing so many company secrets. It’s just so...”

“Hold that thought a moment, please.” Haru scrambling for solid footing was making it harder for Makoto to concentrate. She knew what she needed to say. She just had to say it. “I am suggesting exactly that, but a few of the fine details are still missing. Before anything else, I want to establish two things. Firstly, do you believe the Phantom Thieves’ method of changing hearts is, in any way, supernatural or mystical in nature?” It was an odd question in the circumstances, but Makoto always had a point when she spoke. This made it less incongruous in Haru’s eyes.

“I suppose so. No evidence points to physical contact between the Thieves and their targets, meaning an unusual method has to be employed.”

Good. She was still on board so far.

“Second, do you trust that I would only tell you something if it was true, no matter how outlandish it sounds?”

“…Yes.” Haru nodded firmly without a hint of doubt. “You are the single most upstanding person I know. I trust you explicitly, Mako-chan.” The sentiment warmed Makoto’s heart, but Makoto could tell her as much later.

“Thank you. But you should know you aren’t exactly speaking to Makoto right now.” Haru was confused once more. “Please, open the envelope.”

Hoping for some answers to Makoto’s cryptic statement, Haru did just that. The fold was gently peeled open, and the vibrant red and black coloring inside immediately jumped out at her. As she removed it, recognition slowly dawned on her. Makoto watched as her eyes went across the cutout-letters pasted on the front of the card.

“Haru Okumura, princess of Okumura Foods, songbird in a gilded cage, we have heard your plight. Those who seek to pluck your feathers will find their fingers burned by our flames. Within the month, your heart shall be saved.”

“Signed...” Haru looked up, an unidentifiable blend of shocks crossing her face. “...The Phantom Thieves of Hearts.” Her hands shook, and her nerves were fraying at the edges. “Mako-chan, you already told them?”

“There’s more on the card.” Makoto nodded towards it, and, now too deep to back out, Haru continued to read.

“P.S. If you are wondering why we are not planning to steal your heart, we believe one of our members has already done so. Isn’t that right, Queen?” Haru’s brow creased. “Queen?” Makoto chuckled a little under her breath, though Haru heard.

“It is my greatest treasure, more valuable than anything else I have.” Makoto allowed herself a moment of joy before returning to stone-faced seriousness. The magic surged through her, and she directed it towards the ends of her tightly clenched hands. “As I said before, when you first accepted me into your life, I can’t stand seeing people getting used as tools by the wealthy and corrupt. That’s why I wanted to help you. That’s why I took the path that lead me here.” Makoto’s muscles tightened. She wouldn’t let words alone represent her. She could do better than that. She brought her arm up, pulling it back. The power was coursing through the limb, accruing at the face of her knuckles.

“I am Queen.” She blinked, and the blue of her magic reached her eyes. Haru took an unprepared step back, spooked by both the glow in Makoto’s eyes and the rumbling echo in her voice. “Chief strategist of the Phantom Thieves of Hearts!”

She threw all of her might behind her fist, and she threw her fist to the ground. She struck the sandy beach, and on impact, her magic was released. A wave of energy like a meteorite landing blew outwards, sending up a biting cloud. Between the swarming sand and sweltering heat, Haru was forced to back even further away, an arm covering her eyes, though she tried her hardest to keep watching.

Starting at the tips of her knuckles, the sand began to melt. Then it merged together. As the patch of earth she stood on fell, blasted away where it didn’t disintegrate, it also merged into one mass. The liquid slurry expanded outwards, a growing pool that climbed up to Queen’s ankles. She couldn’t feel its heat, as no matter how how it got, her blood burned indelibly hotter.

She put everything in her head towards the ground. Every doubt in herself and her team. Every hate filled scream about that rat Sugimura. Inside, Johanna was roaring, and Queen was tempted to roar with her. The only thing that stopped her was the single thought she held onto, the one thing she wouldn’t, now or ever, let go of. In the corner of her eye, she saw Haru staring, though whether the shock was fearful or awed, she couldn’t tell.

As the maddening pressure was released, Makoto felt a calm she had long forgotten come to her. The haze in her mind had subsided, and she could see the way forward clearly. In the bubbling, rippling pool beneath her, she saw her reflection, and though her eyes radiated the most destructive of magics, behind the power, there was an unyielding strength.

Johanna’s roar became quiet, and her reflection shifted. She could see a dark figure rising behind it. In the real world, there was nothing truly behind her, but in the depths of her heart, she could feel a renewed spirit awakening. The will at the center of her being was changing, her resolve taking on a form wholly new and, yet, familiar. This reborn other self stared back at Makoto, and she could feel its might, as unbreakable as the highest Queen.

When her magic was almost completely spent, she pulled her fist up. Rivulets of molten sand dripped from her skin, kept from sticking only by the last waves of heat rolling from her. The energy subsided as its source was calmed, the meltdown coming to an end.

She looked up, and at the edge of the crater she created, Haru was still staring, her expression unreadable. Makoto let her hands relax, unballing her fists, but her stance, as a whole, remained firm. Not rigid, but strong, as though her muscles were cords of steel.

She pulled her feet from the knee-deep pool, and as she marched through it, the mass cooled and hardened from the center out. Behind her, it solidified into a plate of solid glass. Sand cascaded into it from all directions, slowly burying the proof of her passing from any who hadn’t witnessed it themselves.

She came to the top of the crater, and there she stopped, leaving a gap between herself and Haru. The next step was one Haru had to take.

“I have been lying to you about this for as long as I’ve known you, and for that, I apologize. Now, I offer you this strength of mine.” She held a hand out, and, with it, the whole of herself. “The Thieves have accepted your request. All we need now is your agreement.”

“Huh?” Haru spoke in a shaking, uncertain tone. “My agreement?”

“Our decisions are unanimous. If any one of our members disagrees to an operation, we will not undertake it. This is how we retain our integrity.” Makoto let a part of herself show through the stern countenance of Queen, the gentle smile she wanted to show Haru now and forever. “They all agreed that you’re practically one of us now, so the last vote falls to you.” She held her hand out a little further, drawing attention back to it. “Will you accept our help?”

For a long time, Haru could only stare, shaking, but otherwise unmoving. She made not to take the hand nor to run away. Makoto held back any judgment that came unbidden to her mind. This was no small decision. It was one that needed to be thought through.

What she didn’t expect, however, was Haru throwing herself forward, forgoing the hand in exchange for the rest of Makoto. Her arms wrapped around her, and Makoto, unexpecting but not unresponsive, returned the gesture. Haru buried her face into Makoto’s chest, and she started to sob.

“Thank you… Thank you!”

That was all Makoto needed to hear. She gave herself completely into the hug, holding Haru closer. She made herself like a suit of armor on the outside, to ward off anything that might harm her, but inside, she held Haru like the most fragile, most precious of artifacts.

“We’ll get you out of this. I promised that before, and I promise it again now. We won’t fail you.”

Haru, unafraid of whoever might be watching, cried openly, baring her troubled heart to the one who gave hers first. In their hands, they each held they other, in body and soul. Though their forms would have to pull apart eventually, a time that both pushed off as far as possible, their hearts would forever remain the other’s property, the most valued of their treasures.

Makoto felt a second form fall over her to hold Haru as well. No one physically stood with her, but in spirit, the presence of her other self, her Persona, was undeniable. With its will behind her, the smile on her face grew all the wider, and the certainty in her actions was reaffirmed.

We will save her… Anat.

Chapter Text

Makoto was loathe to part ways with Haru when their plane set down in Tokyo. Her every instinct was screaming at her to stand watch over her, to fend off the slavering mutts who assailed her from every side.

Her logic readily agreed with her gut for a change. There was no telling how bold Sugimura would become this close to their appointed wedding day. No part of Makoto could stand so much as imagining what that walking tube of hair gel was plotting once he was alone with Haru.

If there was one voice that spoke to her louder than her instinct and reason, though, it was Haru’s. This was, at the end of the day, her operation to supervise, and she advised against any action that would bring suspicion to them before a heart could be stolen. She would play the role of the obedient heiress for a few weeks longer if it meant casting her yoke off for good, and Makoto, though humming with the energy of her newly awakened self, acknowledged her partner’s wishes. She would just have to punch their upcoming target’s Shadow twice as hard in the nose. Or twice as many times. Or both.

She agreed to meet up with Haru the next day at the subway terminal, where they would catch the first train to Yongen-Jaya. The team would be waiting for them to hammer out the fine details of the operation. From there, Makoto would give a tentative estimate of about a week before they had a heart in their hands, at least if Anat was as powerful as Makoto felt she was.

When she arrived at the station that morning, she immediately set about finding Haru. She could pick those gorgeous curly locks out of a crowd from a mile off. She scanned through oceans of straight, uninteresting hair and curls that weren’t half as vibrant in her search. She thought, briefly, that she had arrived too early, a fear only slightly confirmed by her watch. She was only five minutes before the appointed meeting time, and she waited for a grueling ten minutes from there. Where was Haru?

Before she could start simmering in her own paranoia, she finally found the exact shade of hair she was looking for, a nice light brown that stayed radiant in the dark subway tunnels. It paired nicely with the voluminous pink sweater, turning Haru into a veritable beacon.

The face it was connected to, though, was less radiant than usual. Her eyes were wide and irises shrunk, and she was huffing heavily, as if she had been running for miles. She was doing the closest thing to running now, softly pushing her way through the crowd.

Makoto was about to call out for her and ask what was wrong, but she saw another familiar set of hair tailing her into the terminal. Sugimura wasn’t nearly as out of breath, pursuing Haru with an unabashedly annoyed expression as he shouldered his way into and across the packed room. He was yelling, too, unconcerned about whoever heard him.

“Get back here! Your father is going to be disappointed in you for trying to blow off our date like this. And so close to the wedding, too.”

Where the mention of her father made Haru lock up, the followup about the wedding spurred her forward. She was looking all over the station, and when Makoto realized what she was looking for, she threw her arms up and waved, pushing through the people towards her. Haru saw Makoto then, and relief washed over her, the light at the end of the tunnel beginning to shine.

Then, the hand grabbed her right arm. From what Makoto could see, his fingers were sinking in deep, as if trying to cause damage on top of immobilizing her, or maybe he was hoping the pain would help in stopping her.

“There you are! You’re coming with me right now, and I expect full compensation for...”

As Sugimura pushed forward, his momentum carrying him towards what he expected to be a choking embrace of some manner, a sudden shift came over Haru. Her terror dissolved, and the frantic jitters in her nerves hardened into something less malleable.

Sugimura stepped forward, and Haru threw the arm he held up, their actions together forming a circular flow of movement. Makoto recognized what was happening, and Anat, despite the fear tearing through her, started to laugh with a sadistic glee that would make Arsene blush.

Haru didn’t look back, but she dropped back, just enough to hurl Sugimura’s arm. His shoulder locked at the peak of its assent, and the backwards momentum was enough to sweep him off his feet. Haru broke her arm free of his grip in the heat of the moment, managing to avoid being carried down with him as he splatted to the tiles. He bounced with a sharp snap, his eyes going hazy as his head cracked against the floor.

As Haru put her Aikido training to good use, Makoto never stopped her advance. She thought better than to grab for Haru before catching her attention, pushing her way into her line of sight. Haru’s eyes locked on hers, and the moment of intensity passed. The light at the end of the tunnel had come to her, and she met it with the brightest smile she could muster.

“Mako-chan, you have no idea how happy I am to see you!”

“I’m glad, too, but...”

“Damnit, Haru…!” Sugimura pushed himself up on his elbow, and he reached with his other hand towards Haru’s ankle. Makoto pulled her away from him, letting him flounder towards them as they retreated.

“We need to get to the safe house, now.”

Haru nodded and started to run. The commotion finally made the crowd pay attention. They parted before the girls, their line of sight alone enough to carve a path to the ticket gate. The girls pulled out their passes and hastily ran them across the sensor, and the gate opened for them. They rushed through, knowing full well that Sugimura would be dashing for them by this point. They needed to make it to the train. No matter how pissed he was, there was no way he could outrun a locomotive.

Only, the footsteps pursuing them stopped, replaced by the harsh sound of clattering metal. Makoto dared look back, only to find Sugimura throwing his shoulder into the closed gate. He looked with absolute hatred between it and the girls, unable to make it open so he could continue his chase.

“He doesn’t have a pass?”

“No.” Haru slowed down once they were out of his line of sight, making Makoto do the same. “He always relies on private transportation. I think this is the first he has so much as set foot in the subway.” With the excitement of the moment passing, Haru fell into a state of exhaustion. She was all but panting, thick trails of sweat running down her skin. Even so, it was her relief that claimed the emotional seat of honor on her face, her smile wide and her eyes tearing up slightly. Then she started laughing weakly.

“I can’t believe I actually did that to him. I’ve never been a violent person, but everything came to me so fast, and I just...” She looked up at Makoto, pushing herself under her arm. She looked more secure there, and Makoto, for her part, felt proud to be her shield. “I must thank you for teaching me Aikido. I never expected to use it so soon.” Makoto returned her smile, adding to it all the warmth she could muster.

“I’m glad I taught you. Otherwise, I admit I would have just punched him in the face.” God she felt like such a… Ryuji saying that, but it made Haru giggle, so she excused herself.

“The sentiment is appreciated, though it is most likely better this way. I don’t doubt he would have pursued legal action against you. Against me, he wouldn’t risk business relations like that.” The weight of her situation came back to Haru’s shoulders, pulling her rush of cheer back to the deepest dark. Makoto helped hold her up, guiding her to the train, to salvation. She leaned down and whispered in Haru’s ear.

“If the Thieves have anything to say about it, those relations will be terminated soon.”

 

-

 

Makoto watched as something besides simple “relations” were terminated.

Just as her earlier prodding found, Sugimura didn’t have a Shadow to be hunted down, somehow. Morgana said it was because he was that way from the beginning, meaning he wasn’t technically “distorted,” per se. It all rung as so much bullshit to Makoto, though, mostly because she really wanted to punch something that looked like Sugimura in the face.

She found something that looked like him when they got into Okumura’s Palace. They had to bring Haru with them, thanks to the DNA locks in this paranoiac’s defense system, but Queen was certain in her and her team’s ability to escort her as far as they needed to. With that in mind, she was ready to jump on the cognitive version of Sugimura that warped into what could charitably be described as an attempted rape-bot. Heavens above, she wanted to tear it apart.

Haru beat her to it. All it took was seeing the coldness of her father’s heart firsthand to make her finally throw off the reigns. A dissonant calm overtook her, and then came the mask. It was a simple, black eye covering, nowhere near as ornate as the others’ masks. She peeled it off without any hesitation or pain, as if it had been that long overdue.

The fire overtook her, and from it, a resplendent woman in a pink gown rose to her aid. Makoto’s heart skipped a beat at the sight of a new Persona. It skipped again when she saw Haru’s awakened rebellion. Her Thief attire was every bit as classy as Haru herself, a derivative of a French nobleman’s suit. It was cut to better fit her feminine physique, and it was topped by a dark purple, wide brimmed hat with a jaunty feather sticking from the top. It made up for the relative slimness of her mask, and it remained even when Milady was summoned, retaining her noble poise even as she unleashed the fire in her heart.

And that fire burned bright. It burned so bright, in fact, that it saw best to shape itself into a grenade launcher. Which she used to launch herself over Sugimura-bot and rain explosives from above. She was a living airstrike, destruction incarnate. Even so, she remained the picture of self-control all throughout, her tone consistently cheery as she aimed her barrel at his head for the final shot.

“Consider this my annulment.”

With that, and what surely had to be the last grenade in her gun, the robot was torn apart and scattered like electronic confetti. Haru looked so very relieved to speak her mind about that crass man.

One would expect that to be where the exhaustion of awakening made her topple, forcing them to fall back for the day, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, she personally lead the charge for the next several corridors of the Palace, laying waste to any Shadows she came across as if she had been born with that ax in her hand. To anyone else, her merrily hacking monsters to black, oozing bits would have been disturbing.

Makoto thought it was absolutely beautiful. She was no slouch when it came to killing Shadows herself, but Haru did it with an unrivaled composure. It was graceful. It was gorgeous. It was…!

“Okay, that’s enough of that.” A soft clump of fabric was held up against her mouth. She grabbed it out of reflex and looked down to the orange-haired navigator that dared break her out of her trance. It was only when she pulled the towel down to give her a piece of her mind that she saw the trail of drool linking it to her lips.

“Oh. Uh...”

“You don’t gotta explain yourself.” Futaba crossed her arms and shook her head, chuckling like the absolute hobgoblin she was. “Just do us all a favor and save the bedroom eyes for later, would you?” When did Futaba, of all people, get so gutsy? And accurate.

“Right. Mission first.” She mopped up the spit from her chin, regaining a little bit of her dignity.

“Making out later.”

“That’s enough, Bug.” Akira rustled Futaba’s hair, giving Makoto a chance to repress the burning pink that was invading her cheeks. He looked over their new teammate, and his smile was somewhere between approving and cocky. “You’re sure you only taught her Aikido, right?”

“Yes. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t give her any formal weapons training.” Now that she thought about it, though…

“Enemies neutralized!” Haru skipped back to the group, pulling Makoto out of her stupor and throwing her into a whole new dazed state with a long kiss to the lips. “I see how you keep so trimmed now. This is excellent exercise!”

...Haru thought she was trimmed? The very idea made Makoto feel all tingly inside.

“...Um, are you feeling okay, Ma… I mean, Queen?”

Damnit, stop drooling and start talking!

“Yes, just… surprised. Amazed. I can’t think of the right word for it, but it’s definitely not a problem.” And she was rambling now. At least it made Haru fawn over her. Wait, that would just make her train of thought less cohesive!

“I’m flattered you think so highly of my contributions.”

“I don’t think it’s just your contributions she’s admiring.” Skull briefly jumped back as Makoto turned a sudden glare on him, but the way her authoritative shell melted away near Haru gave him the guts to keep going. “It’s pretty obvious she’s head over freaking heels for you. Hell, how many times have we had to help her pull out of a tailspin ‘cause she thought she was messing something up?”

“Skull!”

“You’re really that nervous about doing wrong by me?” Makoto would have felt shame about being asked that, but Haru looked more relieved than anything, with a hint of admiration. “That’s very sweet of you! Though, I would prefer if you weren’t so flustered about sharing how you really feel.” Haru pulled her into a hug, almost picking her up off the ground like a giant stuffed animal. Makoto hugged her back, of course, but she was afraid to put half as much strength into it as Haru was. “Now that our relationship has taken a new turn, I believe we should do a bit of bonding. Would you like to fight some Shadows with me?”

Those were the magic words. Makoto’s quivering heart was reaffirmed by the suggestion. This was something she knew she couldn’t mess up, and doing it alongside her single favorite person in the world? That just made it even better. She pulled the fledgling romanticism out from the corner it was hiding in and took a half step back from Haru, lacing their fingers together.

“I would be delighted to share this dance.”

This was going to be one wild date.

Chapter Text

The first thing Makoto always noticed when she summoned Anat, and Johanna before her, was the humming. Through her legs, the handlebars, the seats, every point of contact let the rumble of the engine pass from Persona to rider. Only, it was more than that. She had been on a normal motorcycle before. The difference between that and this was that, on a real bike, the rumble was one-directional. On Anat, though, she felt the engine itself as if it was her own heart. She merged with her bike. The line between Persona and rider, between Queen and Makoto, faded away, and she was able to submerse herself in being. There were no questions of identity when she was in that seat. There was only her.

That distinct feeling of oneness usually remained self-contained when there was a passenger. Over the course of her time as a Thief, a few of the others had hopped on for one reason or another. When, for instance, Ann joined her to escape the Reaper, there was a line between her and Makoto. Her body remained its own entity clinging onto Makoto’s back. She didn’t merge into the whole, instead floating on the surface like a leaf. She thought, at first, it was simply because that bond only existed between these two aspects of herself coming together.

Haru made her question that conclusion. It only took her laying a hand on Makoto’s shoulder, before ever boarding Anat in full, for her to feel the unified body expanding. She could feel Haru’s pulse dully through her palm, and it resonated with her own, speeding up to match the wild racing that came from the realization.

Then she took a seat. Were this the real world, Makoto could have chalked the warming of her skin up to being this close to her girlfriend, who had her knees clamped tightly around Makoto’s thighs for support. With her senses cranked up to full, she felt that there was something deeper going on. She felt that thrumming, that humming, that resonating tone of oneness coming from Haru as surely as she felt it from Anat. And Anat felt that same connection to Haru. The heat was new energy linking into the circuit. The entity Makoto sunk into accepted Haru as well. She wasn’t just a passenger. She was a part of the matrix. It was so overwhelming, unexpected, that she almost completely missed Joker’s directions.

“I-I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”

“Sure.” Joker paused for a moment to smirk. He probably thought the break in attention and the reddening of her skin was a reaction to proximity. Were this any other situation, he would have been right. “We’re going to have you two clear out as much of the hallway ahead as you can. Don’t worry about stopping to look for the key card. If you bust the Chief whatever that has it, we’ll pick it up. You just get a feel for the… adjustments to the Battering Ram technique and let us know if it’s working. Did you catch it that time?”

“Yes.” Makoto nodded and revved the engine. As its hum turned to an anticipatory growl in her soul, she felt the shiver of excitement from Haru, too. She hid it from Akira well, saluting with the hand that wasn’t holding her grenade launcher.

“Blow things up with Queen. Got it!”

“That’s the spirit!” Necronomicon hovered over the other Thieves, its scanners prepped for data collection. “Alright, everyone back from the splash zone. T-minus three seconds!”

Joker leaped away from the bike, giving the girls his most supportive thumbs-up. Makoto pulled her legs in, and Haru clung to her all the tighter. It wasn’t out of fear, though. The face looking at her in the rear-view mirror was one of unabashed glee.

“Two!”

Haru moved both of her hands to her launcher, her eyes going sharp. The hum of the engine wasn’t making her grip quiver, though. No. Where intent could paralyze an unwary opponent, it reinforced the combatant it came from.

“One!”

Anat was growling. Haru was giggling under her breath. Makoto was grinning. All felt like the last inch of their collective fuse was about to burn away, leaving only the spark and a sea of gunpowder.

“Takeoff!”

The gunpowder ignited. Anat’s impatient growls turned to a deafening screech, her tires clawing over what used to be well-polished floors.

A hand went to Haru’s hat after the resistance force pushed it up her forehead. With the lid of her hat up, Makoto was allowed a more complete view in the mirror. The glitter of her eyes shone through the dark before, but with her face wholly exposed, the extent of Haru’s radiant joy came to light. The sunshine in her heart, long buried under years of obedience and training, of grooming to be a serviceable token in the great game of wealth, blasted through what remained of the prison that was her own skin. The girl in the mirror wasn’t that slave anymore.

It felt like seeing Haru like this, fully released from her shackles, was enough to double the magic rushing out from Makoto’s heart. Anat accelerated to a height Makoto had never dreamed of before, and she barely paid it mind now. She was too enraptured by the moment to think of anything but the raw, untamed, unstoppable might that swept her up.

Two hundred feet ahead, a roadblock appeared. The halls of Okumura’s Palace contained many safeguards against intruders, gates that barred by both blood and rank to keep outsiders well and truly out. On foot, Makoto would have looked at the barricade and thought it impenetrable. She would have considered hunting around for an override lever, or maybe a key. That was the smart approach.

On her bike, though, she could only see it as the slow approach. The boring approach. As if reading her mind, Haru leveled her artillery at the dense steel door.

“Breach and clear!” With a howl of uproarious laughter, a grenade was launched. Between the power of her gun and the speed of the platform it launched from, it must have left the barrel at several hundred miles per hour, and the sound of it cutting through the air was a high, jaunty whistle. When it struck the door, the metal bent on impact.

Then it exploded. The fireball tore across the door in every direction, and it fragmented where it didn’t outright melt. A hail of steel chips washed over Makoto’s face, red hot chunks of what used to be a top-of-the-line security checkpoint. To her, it felt like naught but confetti.

Anat sprinted through the cloud of fire and smoke, and tails of it followed her as she crossed to the other side. She was untouched by the heat, and her riders with her. Haru was laughing merrily, and Makoto was about to join her.

But then, she saw what was coming. Not fifty feet from the burning husk of a doorway, the hall took a sharp turn to the right. At her normal top speed, Makoto could have made the corner easily, but her forward charge was too fast this time. They were going to ram headfirst into a much thicker wall! She threw Anat’s handlebars into a hard turn, but there was too much friction between her tires and the ground to turn so suddenly. Makoto braced for an impact that would surely leave her, Anat, and Haru a scorched crater.

At the last moment, just as the hall to the right opened up to them, Makoto felt her back tire sliding. She looked in the mirror, and her eyes widened at the pink aura coming from the rear of Anat. In the shadow that trailed them, she thought she saw not a motorcycle, but instead a lady in a magnificent gown giggling into her opera mask. She waved, and the magic released, letting Anat reclaim her traction and shoot down the next stretch of hall.

“Oh my, how exciting!” Haru, seemingly unaware of the number of pieces they were almost dashed into, laughed and tittered as though their incident was only a small slip in a dance. It was akin to the cocksure attitude Makoto had come to expect of Akira at his most malicious, but in Haru, it arose more like blissful innocence.

It was an infectious sort of joy, one that soon had Makoto on the verge of maniacal glee herself. Ahead, she saw that, though the main hall continued, there was a side path coming up. A sign above the intersection said that there was a control room over that way. Were this a standard Battering Ram, Makoto would have had to turn to put her wheel through all of the delicate machinery therein. Now, though, she had a copilot for that.

“Mark incoming, on our three!”

“Not for long~!”

Makoto could feel the intent behind that statement. It coursed through her heart like it was her own, a single state of emotion shared between two people. Haru turned, her launcher aimed where the opening would shortly be. In the split second between when they entered and exited the intersection, a grenade was loosed.

Not five seconds later, a torrent of flame tore through the mouth of the hall, as though someone had roused a mighty drake. Mechanical screams echoed briefly alongside it, but the sound was devoured whole by the carnage.

With that unmatched destruction left in her wake, Makoto had no choice but to join Haru in uproarious laughter. Makoto’s was a low, throaty bellow of a laugh, and Haru’s was higher pitched, as though it was dancing with the falling ash. Both expressed their joy together, and to them, a single phrase came that would reverberate with terror in the souls of any Shadows that were lucky enough to survive their passing.

“I love the Battering Ram!”

 

-

 

Makoto and Haru tumbled into the next safe room well ahead of the others. They fell almost immediately onto the couch at the back. Their legs were shaking, their hearts were racing, and their skin was all abuzz, but neither could stop smiling. A few chuckles and giggles occasionally echoed up from the memory of their wild ride, but other than that, they simply sunk into a well-earned rest, their arms draped haphazardly, but lovingly, over each others’ bodies.

“Well.” Makoto took what felt like an age to find her voice. She was light of breath, and lighter of coherent thought. The inside of her head felt like a big, warm pool, a personal sauna of sorts. It was relaxing to be so thoroughly spent. “I think the new Battering Ram is a keeper.”

“Agreed!” Haru, though every bit as exhausted as Makoto, still looked like she was on pins and needles, ready at a moment’s notice to jump back on that bike and turn a few more control rooms into charcoal. She forcibly calmed herself down for Makoto’s sake, but all that expecting energy ran straight to her arms. She couldn’t stop herself from affectionately caressing the girl who made that whole trip possible. By the time she was done, she would know the curve of Makoto’s back like the keys of a piano. “It was like, all of my inhibitions went up in smoke. Is that how it always feels for you to ride your Persona?”

“Yeah, and it lingers for a while.” Were she not under that effect right then, she might have felt awkward about Haru getting so hands-on. Even without Anat beneath them, though, she still felt like there was a synchronicity between them. She relished any chance to bask in that well of shared being. “I think that feeling is what hooked me on being a Phantom Thief early on, besides doling out justice, of course. It’s unlike anything else to let everything out and help advance the mission at the same…!”

Her thought was interrupted by a warm tingling that ran down her spine. She gasped as her sentence came to an abrupt halt. Haru was alerted quickly, pushing herself up to see what was happening. She did so out of worry, and Makoto was grateful for that, but Haru moving only made the sensation more intense. She could feel a hot line of stimulation that the rest of the tingling came from. It ranged from the top of her torso to her hips. More specifically, to a very certain point between her legs.

“Mako-chan, what’s…?” Haru’s eyes widened as she realized exactly what was happening. Makoto followed her line of sight down to her chest, where Haru’s hand was placed firmly against her breast. It was a light graze of touch at first, but when she made to get up, Haru’s hand sunk in deeper, held back only by the leather of Makoto’s outfit. Once she connected the dots of causation, Haru swiftly pulled her hand away. The voltage running through Makoto calmed down, but she could still feel it echoing in the pit of her stomach.

“Oh my gosh, I did not mean to let my hand wander there! Oh, this is so embarrassing, I...”

“I-It’s okay!” Makoto collected herself pretty quickly, throwing on an emotional half-mask to make it look like she wasn’t completely flustered about having her boob grabbed so suddenly. The deep red her skin turned was the only sign that she was faking her cool, or what little she could weave out of thin air. “It was just unexpected, that’s all.”

“Uh… Oh.” Haru put her hands firmly on her own lap and clenched them together. “So you’re not upset?”

...Makoto didn’t know how honest she should be. The taunt of ‘damp ham sandwich’ popped up in the back of her head, and she smacked it down just as quickly.

“Not at all. I just wish I had some warning beforehand, I guess.”

Haru calmed down immensely at the assurance that she didn’t completely invade her personal space. Then, her worry turned over to curiosity, mixed with something else that Makoto couldn’t quite put a name to. It almost felt like intent to her, but very distant, as though even Haru wasn’t quite cognizant of it.

“...Do you think you’re sufficiently warned now?”

Whatever cool Makoto had was promptly thrown out the airlock into the vacuum of space. Was this ‘a move?’ Was she being propositioned? She felt so very unprepared. At the same time, she was still riding the afterglow of the Battering Ram. Where she lacked direction, her confidence was unusually high.

“I… would say so, yes.” She gulped down the last of her uncertainty and pulled her shoulders back. This made her chest puff out oh-so slightly, giving any hands that wandered that way unbidden access. The bait was all too alluring. Haru’s hands slowly lifted from her lap, inching closer and closer to Makoto.

As her fingers brushed across the top of her suit, Makoto felt the tingling return. Now that she was prepared for it, she was able to appreciate how well it melded with that lovely calmness in her head. Her brain was absent, and her body was being lead manually. The feeling was centered on Haru’s fingertips, and the epicenter grew as she dared to let her hands sink in…

“That was freaking sweet!”

Haru jumped away from Makoto, and Makoto put her shoulders back where they belonged. By the time Ryuji entered the room, his voice preceding him by a large margin, the girls appeared to just be sitting there as if their relationship wasn’t about to advance by a big step.

“Queen, you were all like ‘VRRRRM SCREECH,’ and Noir was all like, ‘pop pop, BANG!’ Like, holy freaking shit, right!?”

“Yes.” Haru sounded as calm as she looked. The only remaining hint of what was about to happen was what her eyes flickered to when she thought no one was looking. “Bang, indeed.”

“Oh, right, you guys must be wiped.” Skull poked his head back out the door. “Can we get some drinks in here? I think they burned all their SP!”

“On it!” A red streak was the next to enter the room. Ann had with her a large thermos. The smell of LeBlanc’s best roast flooded the safe room as soon as the cap was off. She was about to pour out a tall cup for the heroes of the hour, but then she took a closer look at how red Makoto was. She averted her eyes something fierce, hoping it would divert suspicion. It only made Ann more suspicious. “Did we butt into something… private?”

“Oh no, we were just resting.” Haru’s tone evened out further, returning almost completely to her upbeat self. “That coffee would be very much appreciated. We are simply parched! Right, Queen?”

“Right.” Makoto did her best to follow Haru’s lead. She still came off as kind of stiff, but that could be passed off as exhaustion. “Long rides like that are thirsty business.”

“Thirsty, you say?” Appearing from nowhere like a poltergeist, Futaba popped in close to Makoto with a strange smirk. “Should I make a joke now, or should we wait for Kiki?”

I don’t want to die.” Akira responded to his summoning promptly, and his gaze gave no hints as to whether he knew what was up or not. “And if I let you die, Boss would kick me right out of the attic. So, maybe don’t antagonize the people who turned the lower deck into smoldering ruins.”

“Hmm. Good point.” The thought that the people she was teasing could easily snap her like beef jerky was as sudden as it was visceral. She kept her movements slow and nonthreatening as she retreated. “Pretend I said nothing.”

“Can do, Oracle-chan.” The use of an honorific was not lost on the group as Haru took a long drink of her coffee. She somehow made one syllable implicitly frightening while sounding like a pocketful of sunshine.

Between that and the suddenly derailed moment of privacy, Makoto very much felt like a damp ham sandwich.

 

-

 

This was so stupid.

But Haru wanted to do it.

But it was so dumb!

Makoto was conflicted as she held her end of rope fast. She refused, on every logical ground, to participate directly in one of the team’s infamous Palace defacement operations. It served no purpose, and having her as a reliable agent in these side missions would only embolden them to do something bigger, flashier, and more wasteful.

But, again, whatever the plan was this time, it was mostly Haru’s plan. She was one of the only people bold enough to take a drawing utensil out of Yusuke’s hand and mark up his carefully drawn diagrams, but he was all for whatever changes she made. Hence why he rappelled down the side of one of the space station’s skyscrapers and painted the team’s logo across it. She was also the only reason Makoto was remotely okay with holding his rope for him on the roof. It was latched to Anat’s frame, and Makoto could pull him up by hand once he was finished.

“Is there any particular reason you’re painting all of these marks crooked?” She looked around at the many, many Phantom Thief logos plastered around the station. Every building was infected by Thief pox, and none of the symbols were upright. Some were only tilted a few degrees to either side, but others were completely sideways or upside down. There was no rhyme or reason to anything about this, something she thought would be an affront to Yusuke’s sensibilities.

“Okumura is a man of order. This factory is a testament to efficiency as much as it is to cruelty. Disturbing order with order makes as little sense as trying to put out a burning building with a flamethrower.” Yusuke propped himself at an odd angle using the frame of a window. His legs showed no sign of weariness after so many markings. She fully expected that he would collapse later, but for now, he was consumed by his drive to create. “Spontaneity will win the day, and make our graceless host despise us all the more.”

It was nice to pay Okumura back for everything he was doing, but Makoto preferred the direct approach, that being the introduction of her fist to his face. This all struck her as faffing about when they could be wrapping up the next leg of their mission. She was starting to get impatient.

When she heard Haru laughing with all the joy she had desperately needed for so long, though, Makoto set her own feelings aside. If nothing else, all of this would be therapeutic.

“There we are.” Yusuke slipped his brush into the folds of his robe and pulled twice quickly on his suspension. Makoto pulled back, giving Fox her strength to help scale the wall. He ascended swiftly, rejoining her on the roof. His wandering mind was soon to leave, hunting for the next stretch of unpainted scenery to slap their logo on.

His musings were halted by a very strange sound. It was like the ringing of a church bell, a loud call that reached every ear for miles. Makoto went on the defensive. It didn’t sound like the kind of alarm Okumura would install, but…

“Ah, they’re finished.” Yusuke was unperturbed by the bell, much to Makoto’s confusion. In fact, he seemed rather giddy, or at least as giddy as his stoic exterior would allow.

“What are you talking about?” Another ring rolled over the station. Yusuke simply smiled.

“You would know had you read our plan. Best that you didn’t. It would have ruined the surprise.”

Before she could question him on that, he strode on without her, giving her nary a hint about what was going on.

“Hurry on now. You wouldn’t want to be late for your big day.”

“Wait up!” She recalled Anat and sprinted after him. She didn’t like being kept in the dark like this, but she could get angry about it later. For now, she was just confused.

That lack of stable footing only intensified when she saw what became of the station’s center piece. What had once been a towering idol to the Palace’s ruler, an intricate bit of stonework carved from marble with brass highlights, was now painted over with the most eye-bleeding shade of pink imaginable. The only reprieve from the tacky coloring was the helmet, whose bubble had been turned black, hiding the smug face inside. Taking its place was a sharp-toothed grin sloppily scrawled across the front of the headpiece. It came together with the cat ears erected around the antennas to make it look more like a statue of Morgana, if someone could convince him to jump in a pink suit.

“There you are!” Speaking of whom, the cat in question ran up to her, a length of fabric in hand. “C’mere, put this on.”

“Morgana!” Makoto tried to back away when he hopped onto her shoulders, but he was as quick at putting something on her as he was at relieving someone of the weight in their pockets. Before she could get a second work out, she had a tie wrapped around her throat, a tasteful, dark-blue accessory that severely clashed with her rough biker motif. “What’s the big idea here? I thought you hated this goofing off, too.”

“This is a one time deal, and it’s only because they showed me their blueprints.”

Okay, what was on that paper that made everyone so goddamn cryptic? Before she could ask exactly that, there was a third strike of the bell. Looking up, it became clear that it was only a recording being played by Necronomicon. Of course it was Futaba’s handiwork. More surprising was that she had a passenger up there. Joker was straightening out his long coat, careful not to stroke it with the red-tinted brush in his hand. The two were right next to the dome dividing the station from space proper, and there were two cans of paint with them.

“You’ll understand when we get to the ceremony. Let’s move it!” Morgana grabbed her hand and pulled her forward against her will. She had to bend over to accommodate his short stature, leaving her blind to almost everything but the ground right in front of her.

She was dragged along a good few hundred feet before Morgana had the decency to let her go. Before she could interrogate him, he hopped away, joining Yusuke by the statue’s left foot. Across from them, Ryuji and Ann were by the right foot. The two small groups formed a weirdly organized set of lines, making an aisle of some sort between them. Down the center was a long strip of red carpeting, probably velvet.

Between the statue’s two feet, a shrine had been set up. It was a small, wooden platform partially covered by the end of the carpet. An arch crossed over it, one with a white picket fence motif. The arch was wreathed by vines of flowers, the white, yellow, and blue petals all brilliantly vibrant against both the green vines and the white wood.

Under that arch was none other than Haru. She was off to one side, facing towards the middle with her head dipped slightly in reverence. Her hands were clamped together, holding a bouquet of roses. There was a white veil hanging down from her hat that covered her face. Beneath it, Makoto could only see the red of her lips, a much brighter shade than she had been wearing a few minutes before.

When the music started playing from Necronomicon’s speakers, Makoto finally figured out what was happening. It was the “Bridal Chorus.” When the first few notes played, Makoto realized that she was the one currently coming down the aisle. “Here comes the bride.” The record of her brain came to an abrupt, screeching halt.

Haru opened one eye, her lips forming a coy smile. She said nothing, but her expression, even hidden by the veil, was clearly that of a teasing, “Are you coming?” Makoto said nothing, but the moving of her legs was clearly a, “Yes.”

As she passed by the other Thieves, she caught their various means of support in the corners of her eyes. Yusuke gave a firm nod. Morgana, though respectfully still, was smiling proudly. Ryuji’s arms were crossed, and he was smirking. Ann looked like she was desperately holding back some sort of outburst, maybe a whistle or a, “Woo!” Something like that. Makoto also briefly noticed that all four had wooden pales next to their feet, but she couldn’t see what was in them.

She stepped up onto the shrine. Her nerves locking up every few paces, she somehow managed to guide herself to be by Haru. Now, the girls faced each other. Haru tilted her head slightly up, enough to look at her with half-lidded eyes.

“Are you surprised?”

“That… doesn’t cover half of it.” Makoto’s voice was suddenly all airy, like it was skipping on a cloud of butterflies, hand-in-hand with her fluttering heart. “Is this really our…?”

“Mhm.” Haru nodded up towards where Necronomicon floated. When Makoto looked, she saw Akira was painting a message onto the dome in wide strokes of red.

 

Princess Okumura,

Do you take the low born

Phantom Thief known as

Queen to be your lawfully

Wedded wife, to have and

To hold, in sickness and in

Health, till death do you part?

 

Oh, wow, this really was a wedding. And Joker was their officiator. And look at that, Makoto could feel herself blushing now. Haru, for her part, kept her giggling low and mostly inaudible.

“I remember being told that you’re always nervous that you might lose me. I hope this makes how I feel clear. I will always be yours, for as long as you want to be mine.” Haru’s gaze drifted casually up Makoto’s body, and she felt that attention almost as distinctly as if there were hands rubbing up her sides. “You’re not upset, are you?”

The question sounded familiar. Makoto’s answer came as she reclaimed control of her wobbling knees.

“I just wish I had been warned about my own wedding sooner.” Makoto’s smile settled. She rested her hands over Haru’s, and at that touch, the murk of her mind parted to reveal a still pond of calm. Haru lifted a hand up, a pink aura overtaking it. Back at the dome, a paint brush lifted from the other can, this one leaving a trail of pink.

 

I do!

 

“Do you think you’re sufficiently warned now?”

Makoto’s heart slowed, the warmth of her blushing skin turning into a cozy hearth in the pit of her soul.

“I think so, yes.”

Haru’s eyes were glowing like the springtime sun. Being this close to that magnificent light made the hearth crackle warmly. This, Makoto thought, was a fireplace she could rest at any time. Haru glanced up at the dome, and Makoto followed her.

 

Then by the power vested

In me by my sick long coat,

I pronounce you wife and wife.

You may twist tongues

With the bride.

 

Makoto didn’t get a chance to see what Haru wrote back. She was too preoccupied with the bundle of newly-married energy that flipped up her veil and jumped her as soon as the vow was made official. True to Akira’s permission, Haru’s tongue wasted little time finding Makoto’s, the two greeting one another with all the enthusiasm they could muster. Their arms naturally found their way around the other’s back. They pressed together boldly, seeking as much contact with their bride as could be found.

With the formalities passed, the other Thieves allowed themselves to hoot and holler as much as their little lungs could. Suddenly, they all grabbed for their buckets, and handfuls of rice were thrown to the air, raining down on the tongue-twisted couple.

They all worked so hard to throw this together. They could have just settled on making their defacement an affront to the Palace’s ruler, but they went the extra step to make it mean something more.

Not half a year before, Makoto had her feelings locked deep in a safe, certain that no one would ever accept them. Now here she was, friends cheering on every side as the woman she loved did everything in her power to let Makoto know that her feelings were reciprocated in kind.

Maybe she was still in the closet, but the people she let in knew how to make it feel like a party in there. She hoped the music would last forever.

Chapter Text

Sometimes, it felt like plans were made to go awry.

They knew that Akechi was following them throughout Okumura’s Palace. Hell, Akira was wary of him at least since Kaneshiro’s bank. They knew there was a chance that he would swoop in, probably under the guise of Black Mask, to silence Okumura before he could rat out the conspiracy behind the mental shutdowns.

They knew, but that wasn’t enough to completely turn the tables. Haru was left to watch as her father’s Shadow took a bullet to the heart, a wound Morgana couldn’t heal for some gods-forsaken reason. He was able to flee to the real world before Black Mask could land a finishing blow, but there was no telling how that would affect him.

Now, most of the team had gathered at the entrance to the Palace, waiting on pins, needles, and landmines as the space station tore itself apart around them. Akira stayed behind to buy them time, but he promised he would follow them as soon as he could.

Makoto didn’t know how to feel as she watched and waited for their leader’s return. They failed. They failed to secure their target, they failed to beat Black Mask, and, for all she knew, they failed to save Haru’s father. She was furious, that much was certain, but she didn’t know who to be angrier at: Akechi or herself.

Haru was sitting behind her on Anat, her hands clenched tightly around Makoto’s waist. She was holding onto one of the few people she knew she still had. Makoto didn’t know if she was worthy to be that person anymore, but she wouldn’t let Haru sink alone because of her own doubt. She swallowed her millionfold anxieties and put a hand gently over Haru’s. She said nothing, but the way Haru pressed herself further into her back made her feel like she had done the right thing.

The muffled hiccups and barely restrained sobs made her remember how badly she messed up.

“Look, up there!”

Makoto snapped to attention at Ann’s call. She was pointing into the airspace of the complex’s main dome, where they sat waiting. There was a red and black figure flying towards them. They heard the swish of Arsene’s raven wings long before they saw it was him, and it was longer still before they saw that he was carrying something.

No, not something. Someone, and that someone was unconscious.

Morgana and Ryuji bounded across the platform to meet Arsene as he set down, where they found Akira laying limp in his arms. His coat was singed along the lower sleeves, and there were two thick lines of ash running parallel up his back. Worse than that, though, there were multiple holes cutting through the front of his outfit, and each was profusely leaking blood. The crevasses of his undershirt were clogged brown where it had dried, but there was yet more that built up to flow over these clotted dams. Akira’s breath was ragged and uneven, and every other exhale seemed to make the flow of red intensify.

“Akira-kun!” Foregoing code names out of shock, Haru jumped off of Anat and sprinted to their fallen friend. She arrived in time to help Ryuji hold him up, but there was no tension in Akira’s legs to help them. Morgana put his paws against Akira in preparation.

“Don’t worry, Joker, I’ll have these closed in a second.”

“Thou canst do nothing.” Arsene’s diagnosis was blunt, wasting not a moment of precious time. “Our foe employed real world munitions. Cognitive healing’s effect is limited on real world injuries, if thou recall thine fortune in treating Okumura.”

“Damnit…!” Morgana snarled in rage and grief at his inability to help, at a uselessness that Makoto deeply sympathized with, but he was quick to find a second wind, though it was as much one of desperation as it was of hope. “Doctor Takemi can help him! We need to get him back to Yongen, now!”

That sounded like an operation. Makoto latched onto it, throwing up the guise of Queen to hide her inner turmoil.

“We’ll have to hurry. Using any public transportation is out with him bleeding like this. We can’t risk being seen.”

“Grr, fine!” Ryuji grit his teeth and hauled Akira onto his back. His knee nearly buckled under the weight, but there was no way in Hell he was going to let Kamoshida screw him over now. “I’ll haul him there myself if I have to! Let’s move!”

“I’m helping.” Haru picked up Akira’s legs, lessening the burden on Ryuji by half. He looked back, either to thank her or tell her he could handle it, but whatever his initial response, it was silenced by the deep scowl her mask did little to hide. She said nothing, but her statement was clear; she wasn’t losing anyone else.

“...Thanks.”

“Me, too.” Fox made to slip between them, but Ryuji held him back with a hand.

“Your school uniform’s all white. We get back there, it’ll stain, and everyone’ll start asking questions.”

Yusuke wanted to protest, but Ryuji’s fear was well founded. Blood and paint left very different stains. He was about to curse his choice in attire, not that he had much choice, when he noticed Futaba’s legs shaking. She was staring at Akira, her hands clenched together painfully. Her face was hidden by her goggles, but Yusuke seemed to see right through them. He held out a hand to her, and she looked at it in surprise.

“You can have my support, if you so need it.”

Futaba looked down from him to stare at the ground. Then, she shuffled over to him, slinking under his arm to lean against his body.

“Kay.”

Makoto could feel how hollow Futaba’s response was. She was holding back how she really felt, for the sake of not demoralizing everyone around her and making their mission harder than it already was. Makoto could sympathize. As it was, she was the only functional leader in the room, and they needed one now more than ever.

Please don’t let me screw this up, too.

 

-

 

Even the most seasoned traveler of Tokyo would admit that the city could be tough to navigate sometimes. The sidewalks often seemed half as wide as they needed to be for all the pedestrians out and about, and finding directions above ground was complicated by the hundreds of neon advertisement signs that blotted out navigational signs with their light pollution.

The task was exponentially tougher when the travelers in question were carrying what might as well have been a dead body. The group dived for the first back alley they could find, knowing full well that anyone spotting a bunch of kids covered in blood would call the police. They couldn’t afford that kind of attention.

Makoto ran ahead of the others, watching carefully for breaks in the population density for them to skirt through. The late hour helped, but Tokyo was never truly asleep. More than that, though, they knew that individuals, such as the one person who could save Akira’s life, did sleep, and Takemi could close her door at any minute. It was up to Makoto to balance their rush with caution, a balancing act that she feared would crush her.

Most of all, though, she feared what she stood to lose if she failed. She didn’t know what her other failure that day would cost her in the long run. She was in no hurry to compound the feeling of uselessness festering in her heart. That gnawing, skittering parasite would leave her all too vulnerable if the worst came to pass.

Ann trailed behind the pack, making sure no one followed them. They had no guarantee that their assassin had actually left. One opening was all it would take the likes of Akechi to finish his work, and they weren’t going to give it to him. Morgana raced across the makeshift walkways above them, leaping from light poles and fire escapes to be their eye in the sky. If all else failed, he would be their last line of defense, the only ace left up their sleeve.

Yusuke, though, seemed to have taken on the second most important job of the bunch. Once they left the Metaverse, Futaba lost the protection her goggles gave her. That layer of technology between her and her surroundings helped keep her focused on what was real, and without it, she was left with only her own flawed eyes. Eyes that were filled to bursting with hallucinations.

She nearly crumbled against him before her first step, and after her second, Yusuke decided that she would be better off using his legs than her own. Between her exceptionally light frame and his deceptive strength, he was able to pick her up easily, letting her tuck her head into his chest to hide from whatever nightmares were creeping into her cognition. Her inability to protest only made him more certain of his decision. She was so vulnerable, so afraid. She looked like one wrong move would shatter her.

She was the only one who showed it, but everyone knew they would be in much the same condition if they let their leader down.

Ryuji and Haru were the most strained of them all. By the time they made it three blocks from Okumura Foods HQ, it had become difficult to tell if Ryuji’s hair was dyed yellow or red. It was starting to roll down his neck and seep into the collar of his shirt. It was only sheer stubbornness that let him stomach the smell of copper wafting from him. His face was twisted into a desperate rage that hadn’t found him since the day he lost his knee.

Haru didn’t show any emotion whatsoever. None of her anger, none of her grief, not a single twinge of visible expression. Even looking deep in her eyes showed not a whisper of thought. She had completely locked down, funneling any and all resources she could muster into getting Akira to safety.

Makoto envied that grim determination. It struck her as far superior to the manic rage gripping her. She felt like a bull tearing through Tokyo. She felt her hands shaking, her stomach twisting. She was half certain that if she did see Akechi following them, that would be all the coaxing she needed to release all of her pent up magic on him. Had she any control of the thoughts in her head, she would be sickened by how little control over her destructive potential she had.

As it was, only one thought was given any foothold in the screaming vortex of her mind. ‘Save Akira. Save someone.’

Once they found their way to Yongen, after nearly an hour of weaving through streets and alleyways like a drunken seamstress, Makoto broke into a sprint. She barely pulled herself back enough to keep from tearing the door to the clinic off of its hinges on her way in. Takemi was shocked by her entrance. The doctor appeared to be on her way out, her white professional coat replaced with her casual leather jacket. They had barely made it.

“Huh? Say, aren’t you…?”

“We have an injured!” Makoto spat it out through hard gasps for air. Sweat streamed from her by the cup, so much so that she felt like she was speaking through a waterfall. At once, Takemi’s attention went from the exhausted teen that burst through her door to the exhausted Phantom Thief that burst through her door. She threw off her leather jacket and went for the lab coat she left behind.

“You’re lucky you got here when you did. How bad is it?”

“Gunshot wounds!” Ryuji was next through the door, a trickle of blood that wasn’t his own rolling down the side of his head. His rage had worn out, leaving only tired fear. He was shaking almost as bad as Futaba, holding onto composure only by the knowledge that he was Akira’s lifeline. Takemi rushed over as soon as she saw who he was carrying, and once the weight lifted from his back, he was finally allowed to break down. He fell to his knees as his last reserves of energy were spent. It was the first time anyone had seen the rough boy cry. “That bastard had a real gun. He had a real fucking gun. We couldn’t heal him. Fuck, damnit!”

“This isn’t good.” Takemi’s eyes went over the multiple pools of red that seeped through Akira’s clothes. They were all indicators of where she would find holes in his paling flesh. “He’s lost a lot of blood. We’re going to need a transfusion, now. Is anyone here compatible with type AB?”

“I am.” Ann stepped forward and pushed her sleeve up. “I’m type B, and I don’t have any diseases.”

“Perfect. Get to the examination room. We’ll start drawing once I have him as stable as I can manage.” Takemi took up Ryuji’s place, nodding appreciatively to Haru, who was still holding up Akira’s other end. “Hold in there, we’ll get you through this. Don’t you dare stop being stubborn now.”

It was sound advice for Akira, but Makoto’s stubbornness felt like it was going to tear her apart from the inside. Her mind wouldn’t stop lingering on things she had no control over anymore. Things she already screwed up her chance to change, to avert.

As Akira was taken away, Ann and Haru following along, Makoto let herself collapse in one of the waiting room chairs. Yusuke sat next to her, and Futaba was still in his lap, shivering, eyes clenched shut. At least she wasn’t hyperventilating anymore. Yusuke had a phone to his ear, though it wasn’t his own. Makoto doubted he would have a sticker of a cartoon woman on his case, much less one in clothes that skimpy.

“Yes, we just arrived a moment ago. We seem to have spent the last of our luck. I believe Takemi-san was about to…” There was a click as the line closed. Yusuke only half registered it. “Boss?”

“I’m here!” Sojiro all but threw himself through the front door, bringing with him the scent of coffee and desperation. His eyes quickly scanned the room, landing on the unprepared Yusuke. More accurately, on the bundle of terror-stricken nerves on his lap. Ignoring the creaking of his own bones, Sojiro knelt down to her and fought back the tremor in his voice. “Futaba, I’m here. Do you recognize me?”

“Sojiro?” Futaba meekly turned her head towards him and cracked an eye open. Her normally cedar eyes had dulled to a faint gray. She looked so small. “Is Kiki there, too? I… I saw him bleeding. Was that…?”

“That… that was real, but he’ll be okay.” Sojiro took her hand in his, giving her another rock to cling to. No matter what she saw or heard, she knew that what she touched was really there. “He’s being seen now. He’s a tough punk to crack, you know that. Hell, I bet he’ll be up and cracking wise at us by morning.”

“I’d like that. I’d really like that.” Seemingly pacified by Sojiro’s presence, her eyes drifted shut more softly. Her breathing slowed, and she melted into Yusuke’s lap. Sojiro sighed in some semblance of relief.

“Yeah, sleep it off. It’ll all be better by the time you get up.” He slowly pulled his hand from her loosened grip and stood, nodding towards Yusuke. “Thanks for getting her home. I know her… quirks can be a hassle sometimes...”

“Not at all.” Yusuke slipped Futaba’s phone back into her pocket, adjusting himself to be more comfortable for her sake. “If anything, it was her lack of ‘quirks’ on the trip back which disturbed me most. I would take her barbed comments over this anytime.”

Sojiro didn’t have it in him to hold back the chuckle. The humor died when he looked towards the door to the back, where his other kid was fighting for his life. Eventually, he went to sit down himself, but then he noticed Ryuji sprawled out against the wall. He was staring at the ceiling, unaware of the red dripping from him onto the floor. Active concern roared to life in Sojiro’s face anew.

“Are you alright there, kid?”

Ryuji looked up at him in dull confusion, but then he remembered what was happening and glanced down at his stained sleeves.

“Uh, yeah. It’s… Not mine.” Saying it reminded Ryuji of where the blood actually came from, and he looked away from it with green gills. Gratitude and fear wrestled in Sojiro’s heart, but he could only act on the former. He fished out his wallet and found a few bills in it.

“Here. This should cover a trip to the laundromat and bath.” He held it to Ryuji, who stared at it for a few moments before taking the offer. He pushed himself back to his feet, leaving a smear along the wall on his way up.

“Thanks, Boss. I owe you one.” Ryuji skulked out of the room. Seeing him… Hell, hearing him without any of his thunder was surreal.

Makoto sympathized. Her body was all out of strength, but her head was screaming in all directions. When Sojiro plopped down across the room from her, he noticed the lost look in her eye.

“How about you? You don’t look like you’re doing well.”

Makoto didn’t have any words left in her. All she had was the facts, and none of them liked her. Sojiro was about to try pulling something out of her, but it was then that Haru rushed out of the operating room, a phone against her ear. Her eyes were wide, and she was struggling to turn the knob properly.

“I’ll be right there. Yes, yes, I understand. Yes, thank you.” She was talking fast, and trying to move faster. Makoto jumped from her seat at the sight, and the concern she was putting off caught Haru’s attention. She stopped dead in her tracks, uncertainty tainting her expression. She looked like the words she wanted to say were barbed, cutting her as they rose from her throat. “That was my father’s assistant. He has collapsed with a heart attack.”

It was like a hammer to Makoto’s fragile mind. All of the fighting voices fell silent, all but one.

‘You failed.’

‘You failed.’

Failure.

Her hands balled up at her sides. Her guts twisted into a knot, compressing themselves until they felt like a lump of iron. It was only the growing dampness around Haru’s eyes that gave her any direction for this building aggression.

“I’ll help you find a taxi.”

Haru merely nodded and hurried out the door. Makoto glanced back to the room behind her. The evening was weighing heavy on Sojiro’s brow. Yusuke’s face was distorted by bitterness. Makoto wished she could do something to lift the sour air, but she knew she couldn’t. She was useless. All she could do was find a taxi. A stupid taxi that was too slow to help. It could only carry them to Makoto’s other grand failure.

She raced after Haru, finding her halfway to the main road. She was looking dead ahead, moving with a single-minded energy. Her hard mask was on again, and Makoto couldn’t see her eyes under the cover of night.

When they made it to the street, Makoto took to flagging down cars whenever she saw the telltale light above the cabin. It wasn’t long before one stopped for them. Makoto opened the door for Haru, and she crawled in with an acknowledging nod. Makoto started moving to get in with her, but her iron gut held her in place. When she hesitated, Haru coughed.

“Could you… come with me?” There was a thin fracture in the mask. An almost imperceptible quiver to her lips, and the moisture was coming back to her eyes. Makoto didn’t have the courage to do it for her own sake, but for Haru, she worked up the nerve to follow. Haru told the driver where they were going, and the car drove off, its pace restricted by clotted traffic.

Haru sat ramrod straight in her seat. Makoto was hunched over. The light of passing street lamps did nothing to pierce the dark mood shared between them. Then, Haru sniffled. When Makoto looked over, there was a tear crawling down her cheek. With each sniffle, meant to pull her sorrow back in, yet more found a way to squeeze out of her control.

Makoto left behind any concept of thought. Instead, she only acted, putting an arm around Haru. She leaned into Makoto, almost hiding herself in the bigger girl’s hold. She didn’t try to hide how she felt there. She didn’t even act out the feeling as much as she was carried away by it.

Makoto had no feeling left to show. She was numb. All she had to give was a little warmth and a shoulder to cry on. At that moment, it felt like it was all she was good for, hot air and being a bump on a log.

Chapter Text

“No no no, you stay down.”

“I just want a drink...”

“I’ve got it.” Ryuji was quick to run down to the kitchen of LeBlanc, though not before pointing at Akira threateningly. Threatening with kindness. Akira had trouble moving a lot of things, but rolling his eyes was well within his capabilities.

“I’m a bit roughed up, sure, but I can carry a glass of water fine.”

“Kiki, the only reason we let you up the stairs is because your bed is up here.” Futaba was curled up at the foot of his bed, staring at him as though having him centered in her sight warded off the echoes of what she had seen the night before. “Unless LeBlanc is on fire, you’re staying put, and even then I’m sure someone will want to carry you down.”

I volunteer.” Yusuke’s response was as pointed as his appearance was stern. “Honestly, your self-care is atrocious. How your body is still functioning at all is beyond me.”

“I have a good doctor.” Akira’s snark only earned him a glare that was colder yet.

“A doctor who specifically told you that you nearly died, and who spent a third of an hour washing your blood off of her clinic’s wall.”

“I said I was sorry for leaning on it.” Ryuji’s sprinting back into the attic was only hampered by a need to not spill the glass he was carrying. “Can’t blame me for forgetting. That shit was traumatizing!”

“I’ll say.” Ann shuddered at the memory, but her short-sleeved shirt proudly displayed the bandage on her upper arm. “I mean, you actually said ‘fuck.’ When do you do that?”

“Skull said a naughty.”

“Oh pipe down!”

“I’m with Skull on this one, believe it or not.” Morgana stared over the rest of the room from Akira’s far side, which, coincidentally enough, was the side where Akira roughly cut out one of the bullets on his own, resulting in a spot where a simple tap could drop him. In an emergency, of course. “If we’ve ever had a time where we had an excuse to break down, last night was it, but we held strong. I’m proud of you guys. Yes, even you, Ryuji.”

That barely sounds like a compliment, but I’ll take it.”

“Then take this one instead.” Akira swallowed his pride for a moment, accepting the cool glass of water. It was gone in one long draw, and when he was done, his voice sounded less raspy by half. “You all saved my ass. I owe each and every one of you my life. I’ve only got one to go around, but damn if I wouldn’t try to be in six places at once if you needed it.”

“We know, Joker.” Makoto refrained from critiquing his eagerness to give while still on his recovery bed. She figured the four bullet wounds were chastisement enough. Then again, he probably had the thickest head in the room, so who knew if the lesson would stick. “Though I should remind you that it was helping us which got you into this mess. If there’s one thing you can do to pay us back, it’s resting. Please.” Akira relented, but not without an exaggerated sigh.

“Fine, if you insist. I’ll be a good boy. Until I’m healed up, then back to the… Ouch!” He was kept from jumping only by the restrictiveness of his cast. “Okay, Mona, point taken! I’ll be careful. Relatively careful.”

“That’s all I can realistically ask.”

It was difficult enough to convince him to sleep in his own bed, instead of sleeping on the futon for my sake.” Haru was next to Makoto on the futon in question. Everyone pointedly avoided talking about the deep bags formed under her eyes. She had the longest night of anyone, except maybe Akira. And that was a big maybe. “The least he could do is actually sleep.”

“I already agreed! You don’t need to twist my arm anymore, or poke my shoulder for that matter.”

Haru giggled into her sleeve at Akira’s exacerbation. It felt like a return to the norm, if only momentary. She glanced at Makoto, and Makoto looked back, nothing but support in her eyes. It helped her gather up what courage she had left.

“I believe it is my time to thank everyone, as well.” She stood up and clasped her hands in front of her before bowing, a deep and formal gesture. It made everyone feel awkward, most visibly Ryuji.

“But, we screwed up. Your old man is...”

“Alive.” Haru was quick to cut him off, as though she knew he was going to say it. “He is comatose, yes, but I have a feeling that he would have been in a far worse state had we not acted at all. It is clear to me that his associates wanted him gone. Our infiltration merely looked like a chance they were waiting for anyway. ” Her eyes glazed over, but Makoto gently touching her hand brought her back from the ‘what-if’ haunting her thoughts. “ We saved Father, and when he wakes up, I know he will be closer to the man I once knew, thanks to everyone’s hard work. So, thank you, sincerely.”

“Don’t make your own work sound small, Noir.” Suddenly, Akira sounded less like a set-upon teen with an injury and more like the confident leader their team desperately needed. His voice was always a clear bell that brought them out of their gunk, and Haru needed that focus. She also needed the viciously proud grin he gave her. “Did you see Akechi scurrying away from those grenades? You scared that twink stiff!” Futaba snorted openly and merrily.

“Twinkechi. Perfect! How long have you been holding onto that one?”

“A few months. One of the more mellow ones I came up with, honestly. Glad the joke landed.”

Now if only a grenade had landed.” Everyone turned around to look at Haru with wide eyes. She blinked in confusion at the attention. “Was that too much? It may have been too much.”

“I think someone disagrees with you there.” Futaba tilted her head, smirking like the hobgoblin she was. “Queen, you’re drooling.” Makoto snapped to attention, wiping at her mouth just to find her lips quite dry.

“No I’m not.”

“Wrong end.” Futaba wiggled her eyebrows, which was enough to set off Makoto’s terminal blushing.

“Futaba!”

“Bow-chicka...” Ryuji’s comment, and his wry smile, evaporated as soon as he locked eyes with Makoto. He could practically feel the radiation churning inside her. “Please don’t hurt me.” Makoto glared at him a few moments longer, only breaking their staring contest when she felt he was appropriately cowed.

“If that’s enough teasing me...”

“Sorry, but such a limit does not exist.” Now it was Haru wiggling her eyebrows. Makoto didn’t have it in her to chastise her girlfriend.

Uh, wife? Was that official? Questions for later.

“...Teasing me for the moment, then we have one other point to discuss. Sugimura.” Uttering his name was enough to make the blush on her face disappear, replaced by a heavy scowl. Haru scooted closer to take in Makoto’s warmth, as if that cursed word had sucked all the heat out of the room.

“What about him?” Ann certainly wasn’t expecting his name to ever pop up again. “Without your father’s go-ahead, no one can enforce that deal, right?”

“Were it only so simple.” Haru was past the point of being despondent. Now she was just pissed off, as if her ex was a bad case of pink eye. “It appears the lack of leadership has left the board of directors in a state of panic. They are scrambling for anything to get the company back on track. They believe an alliance with Sugimura’s company would be a great benefit, and they are conducting talks of pushing the issue through. I may yet be tied to that horrendous excuse of an insect.”

“I would sooner see Hell freeze over.” Knowing Yusuke, he most likely meant that literally. The frost clouds around his hands indicated the same. “I recall icing your bruise from the last time that neanderthal set his hand on you. A brute like him has no place harassing one of our own.”

“Agreed, and fortunately, we might have found someone with influence on our side.” Makoto nodded to Haru, who handed her a phone with an open chat log. “We’ve been communicating with Vice President Takakura of Okumura Foods. Included were a few choice pictures and an accusation of their origin.” She scrolled up, revealing an image that made their collective gut twist. Haru’s sleeve was rolled out of the way to show off a nasty brown mark spanning half of her upper arm. She unconsciously put a hand over the spot, visibly relieved to not be immediately taken by a wince.

“As said, this is still only an accusation, but the possibility of having myself involved in an abuse case, or possibly worse, due to a board decision would be enough additional controversy to bring Okumura Foods collapsing down around them. He is convening with other high ranking members to decide on a plan of action.”

“I vote for a sting operation.” Akira only needed a glance at the proceedings to find an efficient way forward. His certainty was contagious, easing nerves all around the room. “Chances are, Sugimura is boiling after the incident at the subway station. If we can slip word of Haru’s whereabouts to him, he’ll come running like a dog chasing a rabbit.”

“Couldn’t that be, you know, dangerous?” It was far from Ryuji’s norm to be the voice of caution, making his question all the more potent. “Her powers aren’t working over here yet. We’d just be inviting him to come hit her again. I ain’t cool with that.”

“It would be a controlled environment, of course, one with plenty of witnesses and backup if things go south. I learned from the last time I had to deal with a belligerent snob.” Akira visibly suppressed the surge of anger that statement aroused in him. “Best case scenario, he’ll realize the cards are stacked against him and run off after running his mouth, giving us proof to pass of to the head honchos.”

“Worst case scenario, he gets within ten feet of her and I get to turn his nose inside out.” Were they not on the same wavelength, that would have been where everyone slowly started backing away from Makoto. Instead, it earned her only a loving look from Haru and a slowly spreading grin from Ryuji.

“I do like the sound of punching a dick in the head. Okay, I’m sold. Er, if Haru is, that is.”

“Yes, I am.” She nodded resolutely, not a speck of fear to be found. “It is time to get this louse out of my hair once and for all, and I trust all of you with my safety. We deal with monsters far worse than Sugimura in the Metaverse, after all.”

“However, there should be one proviso in place.” As chief strategist, Makoto earned her due by finding the one potential hole in the plan. “Akira can’t raise a finger against him.”

“What? Why me, specifically?”

“In case you’ve forgotten, you’re here on parole.” She hated bringing it up, but it had to be said for caution’s sake. “If he finds out the guy who hit him back is already in hot water with the police, he’ll use that pressure to his advantage and probably put you back behind bars. Let us handle him.”

“Also because you’re still hurt and Queen wants a crack at him.”

“Those are secondary reasons, Futaba.”

“Which one is more important?”

“That’s not important.”

“Okay, point taken.” Akira cut both of them off, before they could start a proper tiff in his attic. “I’ll keep my hands at my sides, but I make no promises as to the shit I say. Does that work for everyone?” There were nods all around. With the final nail on their end set, he looked to the one Thief to whom this mattered most. “Would you like to do the honors, Noir?”

“I would love to.” Haru looked an awful lot like a supervillain about to unleash ‘Plan Z’ as her eyes narrowed. “Operation Sugi-move-over is underway.”

“Why didn’t I think of that name…?”

“I have been sitting on it for months.”

 

-

 

The operation was a resounding success. No, that was understating how well it went. It was like all the stars aligned around a blue moon, whose light shined down on a leprechaun’s stash of gold hidden in the fountain of youth.

Two more assets made themselves available for their sting. First, Sojiro offered LeBlanc as the meeting place. His fancy new security system gave them footage from every angle and a perfect audio recording of all the threats streaming out of Sugimura’s sewer of a mouth. The boards of both companies were sure to love hearing one of their kingpins say the word “dyke.”

That might not have been necessary, though, as the very Vice President they had contacted in the first place opted to sit in on the event personally. He saw with his own eyes how violently possessive their soon-to-be business partner was. Needless to say, he left the cafe with the promise that Okumura Foods would cease all dealings with folk as disreputable as him. That wasn’t saying much, as anything was better than absolute evil, but it was enough for their purposes.

Sugimura was officially out, and Makoto was officially in, or at least as in as she could be while she and Haru were in the closet. Cheers went up all around at the swift, efficient mission they had conducted.

But Makoto wasn’t satisfied. There was no way she could be. When Sugimura entered the cafe, his first instinct was to start screaming threats, first at Sojiro, then at her. She could have weathered any words if they were only at her, but Boss? That was pushing her patience.

Her patience was shoved over the cliff when he turned his attention to Haru. Despite the confidence she showed at the planning phase, actually encountering open hostility from him triggered something in her. She clung to Makoto’s arm for protection, and the hammering of her heart spread through their touch. The fear of him was too ingrained in her to face him directly. She hardly got a single word out to him in the whole two minutes he plagued LeBlanc with his presence.

The sight of her princess a shaking wreck, the feeling of cold fear crawling through her veins, the memory of that bruise, one of many he had inflicted on her, it all weighed heavy on Makoto’s mind. A mind that was already worn down to the frame.

Snap.

Every thought in her head went silent. She could still feel herself thinking, but conscious awareness of what was going on upstairs escaped her. The only thing she knew about that floor of her mind was that it was hot. It was burning. Her brain was going up in flames.

No, not flames. Something similar, but less material. It was a wave of heat with no visible source, one that radiated through the inside of her skull.

Mentally, she didn’t know why she jumped on Akira’s request for someone to go get supplies for a celebration, but she could feel why when he leaned in close and gave her a look that said he knew exactly what was happening.

“If he says anything about revenge, put the fear of Queen in him.”

That was the only direction she needed. Or maybe it was the only one she wanted. Either way, it told her that whatever was happening in her head, it was good. She sank into it, and as the heat washed over her, turning her into a hot spot in the cool night, her body set to work.

Sugimura was all too easy to track. His soul left a trail of twisted intent wherever it passed, and his stainless white suit was like a big bullseye. She followed him, and he didn’t even notice. She wasn’t doing anything to hide herself. Stealth was the farthest thing from her intent. She only followed, and listened, listened for the words that would let her pull off her mask and release the heat.

“She thinks she can get away with humiliating me like this? I’ll show her. Her, and that dyke she’s hanging off of now.”

That was it. Her skull cracked, and the heat tore its way through the opening, weaving over her skin like a mesh of pure energy. Never before had she so appreciated the weight of that iron slab of a mask.

“Is that so?”

He turned around to look at her for the first time since she began tailing him. This close, she could see just how small he was. His company wasn’t there. His all powerful daddy wasn’t there. His money wasn’t there. He was a slug wearing all those things as armor. She could see that now.

Even if he had those barriers on him then, they wouldn’t have slowed her down.

Sugimura’s lips were moving. She couldn’t hear what he was saying. At least, not consciously. Her body could, apparently, because it started speaking, too. She couldn’t hear it either, though.

All she knew was what she felt, and what she felt was the soft flesh of his throat in her hand.

Such a weakness, the human throat. The inside was a hollow tube. As little as five pounds of pressure per square inch could close it. A little more could make it stay closed. That was only if the quick way wasn’t chosen, a swift, severing cut to make the head roll around on the floor. Tempting, but that was too quick. And choking, that was too bland.

She felt a different solution. It had been inside her all along. Now that it was outside of her, she could recognize it. Her magic, the strength of her soul made manifest. Pure, nuclear energy. A few dozen rads would make him sweat. A hundred would start breaking down the genes in his cells.

His reaction only became more dynamic as she turned up the reactor. His skin went red almost instantly as the cells began to die. His eyes were watering. Understandable. They were just pockets of jelly, glorified water pouches. They would boil as well as anything else. Oh, and look at how his hands reached up to grab her arm. It was like he thought he was strong enough to pry himself free. How cute. He wouldn’t have a chance to try anyway. By the time he reached her, he would be past the point of one thousand rads. That was a lethal dose, not that she had to stop there. She wondered how much radiation it would take to leave a puddle of slag. She thought to herself that it was a great idea.

Then, she had a second thought.

She was killing him. She wanted him dead, that much wasn’t news, but, was she actually doing this? That wasn’t what the Phantom Thieves were like. That wasn’t what she was like!

She threw him aside, fearing that she couldn’t make herself stop leaking radiation. The reactor was winding down, but it wouldn’t disperse all at once, and not until she could force it to cool down. She had to direct it all elsewhere, before the whole block was quarantined. First, she had to wrap up the blighted affair that put her in this situation.

“That was a dose of two hundred rads. You can expect the cancer to set in within the year. Get to a doctor in time and you’ll live, though not before the treatment makes you lose all that greasy hair.” The words that came to her lips shocked her. She meant to say some of it, the rad dosage and the doctoral advice, but the hostility clung to her conscious intent and wouldn’t shake loose. She needed to get out of there, before she lost control again. “You should be grateful. I hear being a guinea pig for a worthy cause can be quite fulfilling, more than anything else you might have achieved with your useless existence. Keep bugging my girlfriend, and I’ll take even that from you. Trust me, you don’t want to see what two thousand rads does to a person.”

He pushed himself up onto his arms. He couldn’t stand, and he was having trouble breathing. He would live, if he followed her advice. That didn’t excuse her actions, not in her mind.

“I… I’ll…!”

“Press charges? What will you say, that I irradiated you with a wave of the hand? Please.” As if sensing her inner turmoil, the phantom of her spirit came to her unbidden. The mask evaporated from her face, releasing Anat into the real world. It formed under her, its engine already warm. “Who would believe such a ridiculous story?”

Anat roared, carrying her off into the night. Sugimura was left behind her, left with the damage she inflicted on him. Despite her disgust at the idea of almost killing him, a tiny part of her was thrilled to have returned the favor for all the harm he had done to Haru. He deserved to suffer.

But that didn’t mean she could just kill him! There were standards, rules! And these were rules she agreed with. She was practically the Thieves’ second in command, but she couldn’t observe their most important law? What right did she have to lead anyone like that?

What right did she have to be with Haru if she was just as violent as the deadbeat they pried her away from?

The cool night air, intensified by Anat’s speed, took enough heat from her to seal the radiation leak, but that still left her with a head full of dueling anger and shame. It was far too late to sift through any of it, assuming she could on her own. All she could do was buy those party supplies to maintain her cover and hope her thoughts were clear enough to sort come morning.

Chapter Text

“I missed a lot of things about my normal schedule. Homework isn’t one of them.” Despite Akira’s griping, page after page of missed assignments were swiftly completed. Makoto knew he would finish quickly. He was as sharp as he was efficient. She knew he was smart enough to knock a couple weeks of homework down in a snap.

But then, he was also smart enough to know that Makoto knew what he was capable of, and to notice how she locked the door after he arrived. Once a sizable chunk of his work was behind him, he turned his attention to her.

“So, care to get into why you really invited me here, or are you still trying to put the words together?”

She wasn’t even disappointed about how transparent her plan was. She had other things on her mind, and, tried as she might, no amount of alone time in the quiet student council room was enough to get them all in order. She needed help, hence why she kicked Akira the message.

“The latter. Though, I guess if I had a ‘right way’ to put it, I wouldn’t need advice this badly.”

“Take your time.” Akira set his pencil down and reclined on his side of the couch, the picture of patience. “If it helps, I think you would have better luck starting with what happened, then getting to what you think about it.”

“...Right. At least we would get somewhere then.” Her hands were clamped tightly together, her palms hidden from open air. This didn’t escape his notice. “It’s about what happened with Sugimura.” The mention of that name made the skin around her eyes tighten, but she steadied herself quickly.

“I’m guessing you ended up confronting him yourself?”

“Yeah.” She could see the next section of events so clearly in her head, but they turned fuzzy as she tried to move them to her tongue. It was as though they were dissolving in her shame, leaving only a bitter aftertaste instead of intelligible words.

“Second guess, he said something about getting payback, you confronted him, and then he called you something derogatory? I noticed he likes the word ‘dyke,’ for some reason.”

Her frustration in herself mingled with her renewed hatred for Sugimura, and a barbed reply forced itself to her lips.

“If you can guess so well, why don’t you figure out everything that happened yourself!” Once she heard the complete statement, her mouth snapped shut, and she pried it open to try fixing damages. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to snap like that, it just sort of...”

“Easy, easy.” Akira only moved to hold up a hand in reassurance. He didn’t look mad, and certainly nowhere near as mad as Makoto was at herself. “To answer your question, you should say the big part yourself. Admitting there’s a problem is the first step in solving it, after all.”

“That’s, uh… a bit cliched.” Makoto felt some fraction of peace return to her heart, enough to resume a civilized, not screaming conversation. “Did you think of that line yourself?”

“I’ve been around my share of shrinks.”

“Oh.”

“My mental stuff is in the past.” Akira shifted his seating so it was more obvious how invested he was in what Makoto had to say. “Right now, it’s you that matters. So, when you’re ready, tell me what happened.”

“I...” As much as she didn’t want to say it, as though speaking of the event would give it power over her, she also couldn’t bring herself to be any more stubborn with Akira than she already was. He went so far out of his way to be there for her. It was only polite to let him in. “I might have… kind of… almost choked him to death.”

“Key word being ‘almost,’ right?”

“And maybe there was nuclear radiation involved…?” She peeked over at him, but he still wasn’t mad. He wasn’t just raw support anymore, though. Now there was a shade of thought to him, forethought to be specific, something she wished she had displayed a few nights prior.

“How much radiation are we looking at?”

“About two hundred rads, enough to potentially cause a minor form of skin cancer.”

“He can survive?”

“Assuming he listens to my advice and gets himself checked out soon enough, yes.”

“Okay.” The tenseness faded as he set the potential threat, that she could have caused, aside. “Catch it early, and it’s a simple bit of cell removal, very minor chemical therapy. We’re clear. Good.”

“Sorry...”

“I would say that it’s not me you need to apologize to, but I also wouldn’t blame you if you punched him directly in the face if you ever saw him again. So no apology necessary.” At least someone could find humor in the situation. Makoto found none, which he noticed after a few seconds without so much as a giggle. “That’s hanging heavy on your conscience, isn’t it?”

“To say the least.” The extra weight dragged her head down until she was looking at her own feet. She couldn’t even move her eyes up. She was only worthy to see the floor, but that still felt like too much to give herself. “I almost broke the biggest rule of conduct we have. I almost killed someone.” Hearing her admit it to herself was like venom dripping into her ears, funneling into her blood through every open pour it could find. “I just, let my anger run off with me. If you don’t want someone with such a hair-trigger as your strategist, I understand. I can take a back...”

“You’re insulting me and don’t even realize it.”

“What!?” Makoto jumped out of her shame haze at that one. It was a verbal slap she wasn’t expecting. “I wouldn’t insult you about something so serious! Why do you even think I was?”

“I know you weren’t there for the first explanation, but the others told you about my awakening, right? About how I got Arsene?”

“Yeah.” The day she took Haru to see the others for an official Phantom Thieves meeting for the first time, before she took on Milady and the title of Noir, apparently they had just barely missed Akira pouring his heart out to everyone.

Tell me, what did I want to do to Kamoshida? Be as specific as you can remember, or stomach.”

“I… I believe Arsene’s exact words were, ‘He provided us the perfect oven. It would be a shame to not use it.’ Close enough?”

“Close enough.” He nodded, still looking at her passively. “So tell me, how exactly is what I did any better than what you did? If it was as bad, and if you think what you did was worth a demotion, then what right did I ever have to be our leader in the first place?”

“It’s completely different!” Makoto’s mind was scrambling to fill in gaps she didn’t realize she was leaving until it was too late. “The Phantom Thieves weren’t a thing at that point, so there was no rule to follow, and you were doing it because of what you saw him do to Ryuji, whereas I was working on a personal vendetta. You can’t even begin to compare...”

“Thieves or no Thieves, murder was still the wrong call.” His voice was cold condemnation, but not of Makoto. It was his own deeds under the headsman’s ax. “Besides that, you’ve got our dynamics in the second point flipped. I didn’t want to kill Kamoshida because of what he did to Ryuji. I wanted to kill him because I was sick of being kicked around by dicks like him.” Akira’s tone was even, but deepened. Makoto almost saw a reflection of herself, of her shame, though blunted, rusted by age.

“Tell me something, who was Sugimura talking about when you jumped in on him?”

Makoto had to think about it. The actual words exchanged that night were hazy, more clouds of emotion in her memory than anything else. Slowly, they came back to her, albeit vaguely.

“He mentioned me, but he was focusing on Haru.”

“And which were you more mad about, his attacking you or her?”

“Her. Definitely her.” There was no hesitation in her voice. Recalling what he said again made her blood boil that Haru was almost chained to him by law.

“There’s the big difference maker between us.” Akira pointed at her with finality, a lawyer who found the last piece of evidence to tie his case together. “I almost killed for selfish reasons, and had to be turned away from it by someone else’s need. You tried to kill for someone else’s safety. That puts you ahead of me, in that regard.” He let feeling poke through his clinical facade, a small, proud smile that warmed Makoto. She wanted to turn away from it, but his certainty was too expansive to escape.

“I mean, it still doesn’t make what I did right.”

“I never said it did. We fucked up, no two ways about it.” His bluntness, though harsh, was the exact kind of direct honesty needed to knock the dust out of Makoto’s head. “The important part is, we turned back before it was too late. We realized we were wrong. I had every reason to think you would, and I was right.”

“Huh. That is kind of… Wait.” The effect of his warmth was lost on her as she took a closer look at what he was implying. “Did you know I would snap at him like that?”

“I didn’t think nuclear magic would be involved, but other than that, I was pretty sure.”

“Why didn’t you stop me then!?” The anger was back and redoubled, now directed at an earlier link in the chain of events. “We could have avoided all of that if you just told me to stay put! Oh god, I feel like such an idiot!”

“I did what I thought would be better for you.” Akira wasn’t on the defensive, exactly. He still maintained his cool head, even under her vigorous verbal and logical assault. “Like I was saying before, what I did to Kamoshida was the last in a long line of incidents. With every time I was crossed, I put a little more rage in the bottle and sealed it up, letting it ferment in my soul like the world’s worst wine. There were a few times over the years I thought the bottle would crack. Hell, if it weren’t for that goofy bear...” He put a hand to his glasses, though not to push them up. He simply touched the bridge between the lenses, and he visibly relaxed.

“Anyway, you know what happened when it finally broke. It turned into a fire demon, and that demon almost made me kill. Letting that anger pile up is a recipe for disaster.”

“Let me get this straight.” It wasn’t a request on Makoto’s part as much as a command. “You let me go after him, because you thought it would help let off steam? Like he was a Shadow?”

“Not quite. I was trying to make you aware of the bottle.” Akira sat up a little straighter, firming his presence. “I could see it building up, and understandably so. It’s been a rough month all the way around. For you, though, I saw it was this close to breaking you. Your bottle almost broke. To keep that from happening randomly, I decided to use Sugimura as a controlled instance for you to have that moment of realization I had with a smaller risk of collateral.” His eyes lost contact with hers briefly, losing themselves in a glance to the past.

“It’s funny. After realizing how far I could go and coming back from it, I changed. I changed a lot. Hey, would you call me a calm person? Am I cool-headed?”

“...You’re kind of daft sometimes, and you take the showboating too far for my tastes, but when the cards are down, yes. You’re the pin that holds us all together when times are tough.” Makoto thought it was a nice statement, considering how riled up she felt, but he had the gall to laugh dismissively. “What’s so funny?”

“It’s not what you said. It’s how your version of me stacks up to how I see myself.” He shook his head, and when he stopped, he was looking out the window. “Would you believe it if I told you I was angry right now? Because I am, cross my heart.”

“Really?” It was news to her. He was as mellow as ever from where she was sitting. “What about?”

“Everything. Stuff going on now, stuff that just happened, stuff from years ago.” He moved his fingers like he was counting, but he gave up on that. “If I had to choose a big one, I’d say that bastard who got me arrested for assault, that old can of bullshit. I’m always stewing on that. I’m glad for coming to Tokyo and meeting everyone here, starting the Thieves, but those few months in prison before the deal went through? That’s going to stick with me for the rest of my life. I thought I would be the sulkiest sulk around with that on my mind.”

“But, I’m dealing with it better now. A lot better.” His smile was solemn, contemplative, and his eyes were misting over. “Ever since I had my little crisis, I realized how small everything in that bottle was. You get angry about a lot of things, but when you taste real hate, the kind of hate that makes you calmly ruthless instead of explosively scattered, you learn to internalize the small stuff better.” Then, he turned those thinking eyes on her, and she felt like she couldn’t hide anything about herself if she tried. “You seem a lot more calm now, too.”

“What?” She was shocked by that assertion, more than any other she had heard thus far. “Are you kidding? I’m a mess of nerves and anxiety! I’m all tangled and muddled inside...”

“But are you angry?”

With that one question, she looked back at herself, and no matter how hard she squinted, she was hard pressed to answer in the affirmative.

“At myself, and at Sugimura, but… I guess I’m not as purely mad as I was a week ago. I’m just, wound up.”

“Stuff that was already there, right? That you couldn’t focus on because of how mad you were?”

“...Yeah. That might be it.” She stared down at her own hands in amazement. It was the first time in a long while she could do that without finding them shaking. “How didn’t I see this before?”

“You can’t be your own mirror. You need someone else to be that mirror for you. Here, look at this.” He pulled out his phone and flipped through it for a half minute. Soon, he stopped, then he turned the screen to her.

It was a picture of him, Ryuji, Ann, and Morgana. They were in a fancy living room, on a nice couch, and all of their eyes were sunken in and tired, but oddly content. Ann was between the two boys with her arms thrown over their shoulders, and Morgana was on her lap. He was pretending to not look at the camera, but the way the photo came out would have had him looking suave were he in a human body. Strangely, Ryuji wasn’t the one smiling the widest for once. They were all equally happy to be there, even if they looked like they needed more sleep.

“We took that two days after we stole Kamoshida’s heart. We were all nervous. The idea that we almost died took a while to catch up, you know? And as for me, I was still fighting the idea that I almost killed someone. It took being with them, seeing how much they liked me for who I was, to take a step back and try seeing what they saw in me. That change in perspective at the end of the crisis, that’s what helped the most. It kept me from reverting after the dust settled. It kept me, me.” Makoto was about to comment, but she jumped when he put a strong, supportive hand on her shoulder. “Once I saw that you were going through the same thing, I knew I had to help you along however I could.”

Against all of the fuzz going on in her head, she found herself smiling again. It was good to be able to do that. With her mentality smoothed over, she looked back and saw something else that stood out for its oddity, something she could explain now.

“You told me to go after him so I would remember who I had waiting for me at the end.”

“Exactly.” Were he any more inclined to hands-on behavior, he would have pulled her in for a half hug right then. “I knew you would be tempted either way, so I gave you that little push so you had the Thieves in the back of your mind. I knew that would be enough to pull you from the edge.”

“Huh. Well, who would have thought.” Makoto felt the need to laugh, a small, airy laugh, as all the pieces of the puzzle came together. “I thought I was on my own, but you were trying to help me the whole way.”

“That’s a leader’s job, right? I’ll be there for you whenever you need me. So will the others. Believe me, I know. If they can handle bullet wounds, they can handle emotional support.” He chuckled at his own experiences. When he sobered up, a hint of thoughtfulness returned. “If there’s one person I think you should talk about this to the most, though, it’s Haru.”

Like that, Makoto’s guts scrunched up and tangled in on themselves.

“Do I have to?”

“You’re nervous about spooking her, right? Well don’t be.” He didn’t wait for her to answer. She wouldn’t have denied it. “The two of you went on an explosive joyride through space. You saw her tear her ex’s cognitive double to pieces with grenades, while using those explosions to float like Mary Poppins. She’s not going to be afraid of you.”

“I know that! And there’s a lot I’ve been meaning to tell her, it just never feels like I’m ready to say it. Every time I try to figure out what to say, and believe me, I’ve tried, it never comes out right and I scrap that plan for another day.”

“Hey, like I said, I’m here for you.” Akira opened his bag and pulled out a notebook. “We’ll hammer out the big stuff now and get you ready for that chat.”

“Are...” Makoto felt entirely too gifted for having an offer like this dropped on her lap. It seemed too good to be true. “Are you really okay with this?”

“For a teammate? I’m okay with damn near anything. Now.” He found a pen tucked under the mountain of finished homework, long forgotten by the two, and clicked it open. “Let’s get to work.”

 

-

 

“Thank you.” Haru took the bag of fertilizer off of Makoto’s shoulders, letting her rest for a moment. They were big, heavy bags, so Makoto thought it was a fine idea to help Haru haul them all up to her roof garden. She didn’t take into account that each bag was probably about one hundred pounds, or how much stronger Haru was than her. She barely looked burdened at all as she put it with the others, while Makoto was left with sore shoulders. She still saved her about half of her usual trips up and down the stairs, though, so she served her purpose well enough.

“You’re welcome. I was happy to help.”

“And I’m happy to reward you.” Haru skipped up to her and gave her a gentle peck to the lips. Makoto was getting better at seeing those coming, letting her reciprocate instead of just taking it like a stone statue. “I would hug you, too, but I wouldn’t want to get your shirt dirty.” She held up her arms, showing off the layers of soil on her skin. Gardening wasn’t a clean hobby, and Makoto was still in her white-sleeved school uniform. It was probably a good call to keep her clothes away from open dirt.

That didn’t stop her from admiring Haru’s work, though. The plants were all vibrant, with the many brightly colored vegetables and fruits starting to take an edible, appetizing form. She was tempted to sample one of the cherry tomatoes near the corner, but she saw that they were a little green yet. She could wait for them to ripen first.

With the way Haru meticulously cared for her crops, she knew it wouldn’t take that long. She mixed in fresh soil by hand with only gloves to assist her. She was a dedicated planter, shouldering the immense workload with aplomb. She knew what she wanted, and she knew how to get there.

The thought made Makoto recede into herself. She went over the notes in her head one last time. No matter how much preparation she did, though, she knew it wouldn’t make her comfortable with the topic at hand.

“I actually wanted to talk to you about something. Is it okay if I stick around?”

“Of course, Mako-chan.” Haru’s hands were still busy, but her ears were open. That was step one. Step two felt like Makoto was walking off of a cliff. She hoped the water at the bottom was deep enough to catch her safely.

“Do you remember how I went to get celebration supplies for Akira the other night? You know, after the sting.”

“Yes, and it was a lovely little party.” The memory brought a smile to Haru’s lips, though it was broken by a low sigh. “Such a shame we had to postpone it because of Taba-chan’s uncle. Quite an unsightly character, I must say. I do not think I’ve seen Ryuji-kun so coldly enraged before, have you?”

“Now that you mention it, no, I don’t think so.” Was he getting near that precipice, too? Would they have to worry about Ryuji reaching his breaking point? Well, Akira was probably keeping an eye on everyone, not just Makoto, so it should be…

...Okay, she was letting her train of thought get away from her. It was about time she stopped running.

“I actually have to come clean about something. You see, I wasn’t just going out to get supplies.” To Makoto’s surprise, Haru’s work slowed at the admittance, as though weighed down by the work of her mind.

“...I thought not. You were trailing Sugimura, weren’t you?”

Makoto winced as Haru’s guess struck home.

“Yes. I was.” Makoto’s dour air didn’t dispel as Haru took a deep breath through her nose. It looked like her shoulders were slumped over, too.

“Thank you for being honest with me. I must ask, why do you keep putting yourself in harm’s way for my sake? Had he tried anything underhanded, Okumura Foods was already aligned against him, with evidence. We could have taken care of anything he did easily, and you know it. Why did you try to strike out on your own?”

“I… I don’t know.” It really was like looking in a mirror, only to realize that she didn’t recognize the reflection staring back at her. “I thought I was past this recklessness, but, I guess not. What was the old saying? Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it?” Makoto shook her head before leaning against the wall behind her. It was difficult to retain posture while prodding the knots in her head.

“It feels like everything I have, I got because of blind stumbling and bullheadedness after running into something I couldn’t handle. I couldn’t argue how illegal it was to make a student go after a crime ring, so I let myself get turned into a bloodhound to find the Phantom Thieves. I realized I couldn’t find them, so I tried hunting down Kaneshiro instead. I couldn’t find him, so I blackmailed the others into doing it for me. Every single time I come up short, I start ramming into things like a blind bull set loose on main street. Every failure is like being picadored, and that just makes me angrier, so I go charging faster, fail, and it keeps going on and on until I do something so monumentally stupid that it comes back to bite me.”

“If I’m being honest, I envy you so much.” Makoto was well lost in her verbalized thoughts, so much so that she didn’t see how Haru looked to her with surprise. “You always handle things so gracefully. You make everything you do look beautiful and effortless. I know, you actually put a lot of work into doing that, but whenever I try, it turns into another bullfight with no matador. Just dumb me crashing into lampposts and benches. I tried handling Sugimura, and I ended up taking a backseat as everyone did it for me. I felt so useless that I tried wrapping him up myself, and that just ended up worse.” She was coiling in on herself, arms wrapped around her legs like Futaba. Her eyes were screwed shut, which blinded her to Haru hurriedly trying to scrape the dirt off of her arms.

“I know what I did was dumb, and reckless, and that we could have handled him a better way, but in the moment, I just couldn’t stop myself from feeling useless, like I wasn’t giving anything back for how wonderful you’ve been to me. The more we’re together, the more it feels like I’m leeching off of you. I don’t want to be a weight holding you back, but I don’t want to let go. I… I can’t...”

“You stop that, right now!” Every muscle in Makoto’s body seized. When she looked up, she almost jumped back. Haru was kneeling in front of her with her face leaning in until they were nose-to-nose, and she was furious. It was one in only a handful of times that Makoto had ever seen her get angry, and that made it all the more frightful. “I won’t let anyone degrade my Mako-chan like this, not even you.”

“But I...”

“But nothing!” Haru roughly grabbed Makoto’s hands, pulling them out so she couldn’t hide behind her arms again. After the rough initial pull, she moved her grasp to hold them in a more caring, though still unyielding, way. “You’ve given me so much. You gave me the courage to stand up for myself. You gave me my life back.”

“Before I met you, I was a coward.”

Makoto wanted to speak out against her using such harsh language to describe herself. It was a degree of self-loathing she wasn’t at all comfortable seeing in the person she loved.

But then, she realized how hypocritical her calling Haru out for that would be.

“When Father started treating me as a token in his business ventures, I accepted the role like a doll on the shelf. I didn’t have the will to take my life back, not even when I found out how boorish the man I was going to be wed to was. I accepted it as an inevitability and adopted an attitude of defeatism. I didn’t think I had a choice.” Her anger abated, but the retreat of thunder left behind a sky of dark clouds. “Then I met you. I met someone who was insistent that I could take my future in my own hands, and who wanted to help me every step of the way.”

“And you were right, I did take my life back. You helped me do it. You gave me the courage to when I had none.” The rains were coming. Makoto wanted to reach to the sky and drive them back, but her hands were held down too tight. “You’re not a leech. You’re not useless. You’re the most stunning woman I’ve ever met. You remind me that, even when troubles seem impossible to beat, I should try anyway. You’re my courage, and I can’t stand to see you tearing yourself apart like this.”

Her grip loosened, and Makoto took her hand back, only to give it once more, willingly this time. With the hand she thought only good for destruction, she cleared the rain from Haru’s cheek and held it like a gem of untold beauty.

“Haru… I’m sorry. I’ve been so focused on trying to be a good partner for you, I didn’t stop to consider what you saw in me. I could only see where I fell short. As always...”

“And I should have said something sooner. I knew you were troubled, but I thought I could say one thing and make your worries all go away. Ha, I suppose I’m taken by those silly romance novels, aren’t I?”

“You’re not silly to me, Haru.” Makoto brought up her other hand to clear the other cheek. It let her see Haru in all her radiance. “You’re beautiful.” She sealed her words with a kiss, one she allowed to linger. They stayed together until they could feel each other’s heartbeat, until their rhythms joined as one. It was with no small amount of hesitation that they pulled apart. “From now on, I’ll tell you when I start feeling low. I promise.”

“So do I.” Haru moved in closer to tuck herself under Makoto’s arm. There, she felt safer than anywhere else. “I’ll be your direction when the road becomes too dark, and you’ll be my courage to push through the night. Give and take, as it should be. Right?”

“Right.” Makoto gave her princess a peck on the cheek and basked in her warmth. To have someone, one person who she had opened herself completely to, and who had given her the same in turn, was comforting. Maybe she fell short in a lot of ways. Maybe she would fall short again. But there and then, she knew she had one place where she would always be welcomed and loved.

That day, she felt the knot in her soul loosen, its coils undone by gentle hands.

Chapter Text

With a combination of elemental magic, enhanced physical speed and strength, literal demons at their beck and call, and a leader who was effectively immortal with how hard it was to put him down even semi-permanently, it might have been easy to write off the Phantom Thieves’ job as a cakewalk for them. That, however, was far from the truth. At the end of the day, they were teenagers going head-to-head, or whatever passed as a head, with demons, sexual predators, abusers, and the occasional murderer. Really, the demons were the least of their problems. It all got insanely stressful, especially in the aftermath of the Okumura incident.

That was why everyone absolutely leaped on Haru’s offer when she revealed her acquisition of an all expenses paid trip to Destinyland. She said it was originally an Okumura Foods business meeting with a certain other company to finalize a certain deal, but, since the son of that company’s CEO was outed as a foul-mouthed predator, the need for the venue in an official capacity was greatly diminished. She barely had to do anything but ask to receive it for personal use.

The party all met up in front of the park’s iconic castle for a debriefing before they fanned out towards all the rides. However, it wasn’t just Thieves who were attending. There were a couple of tag-alongs in the mix, too. Of the three non-Thieves, only Mishima was shaking a bit at the presence of the infamous heart stealers of Tokyo, though that was probably because of his close encounter with realizing and apoligizing for his own distortion a few days prior.

Shiho was entirely nonplussed by the “band of dangerous rogues.” Mostly because she knew exactly what desserts she could bribe one of their founding members with. The Panther was reduced to a kitten in her hands, and it was adorable, though strange that they weren’t officially a couple yet. Oh well, everyone took their own pace.

Kana was nervous enough to be hiding both behind Futaba and inside her own heavily-padded sweater, though that seemed to be more from social nervousness than a fear of the delinquents all around her. She tried her best to be sociable when spoken to, which was enough for everyone who was already familiar with the other recluse in the group. The only things anyone could see of her were her greenish-brown eyes, neck-length chestnut hair, and numerous freckles. Still, it was easy to see that she was doing a fair bit of smiling from behind her collar.

Makoto took over as the officiator of the short meeting. Akira offered, considering he was the leader and all, but Makoto’s experience with meetings between teenagers won out in the end. She was quick and to the point, first clarifying that everyone knew their secret for certainty’s sake before setting a rough endpoint on the schedule to stick to, the nighttime parade. A cheer went up as Haru helped her end on a high note, and everyone went hunting for their first attraction of choice.

Makoto was about to start asking Haru where she wanted to go, but it seemed her girlfriend already had somewhere in mind. This was relayed to Makoto via the medium of being dragged off by a merrily skipping princess. The infectious nature of her joy overwrote any of Makoto’s confusion, letting her follow without question. The only sticking point to be found was that Haru had a purse with her, a pink piece that matched her sweater, which was strange. Normally, she kept her belongings in a wallet. It wasn’t all that important, but it was somehow memorable.

She picked the source of Haru’s excitement out of the many options once they rounded a corner to find a sign that read “Tunnel of Love.” Well, it technically could have been the nearby test of strength machine, too, but they passed that without a second glance. The butterflies in Makoto’s stomach were doing their bi-daily migration, it seemed. It was good, then, that Haru handled speaking with the woman at the ticket booth.

“Boat for two, please!”

“Of course.” The woman didn’t press any buttons or request any sort of pass. She simply lifted the rope blocking off the path into the attraction and let them proceed.

The entrance looked like the arch of a hedge maze, the thick shrubbery dotted liberally with many shapes and colors of flower. The water was perfectly clean, making the bright array of gemstones glittering on the riverbed clear and dazzling. The boat was a remarkably lifelike depiction of a swan. Every feather was meticulously carved onto its body, giving it a soft, inviting appearance. This was also helped by the plush, pink seat inside, whose back was shaped like a heart.

Makoto reclaimed control of her bodily functions as they approached. She pulled ahead to open the door for Haru, clearing her way with a light bow. Haru giggled at the show of chivalry and curtsied, as was proper, before accepting the invitation. Makoto slid in after her, and Haru waited no longer than it took Makoto to close the door to tuck herself affectionately under her arm.

Makoto looked around in front of her for the boat’s means of movement, but Haru beat her to the punch, simply hitting a button under the dash. The tail behind them fluffed itself in anticipation, and the boat began its leisurely swim down the river.

“Hmm, you found that button awfully fast. You wouldn’t happen to have looked this place up before we came here, by any chance?”

“I’m certain I don’t know what you mean, my dear.” Haru efficiently detracted from the question with a nuzzle into Makoto’s neck, her greatest weakness. That lovely hair was soft enough to wipe any thought from her mind besides how much she wanted to bask in the moment.

The tunnel was low-lit by lines of lights spread about the ceiling like stars. Gradually, the tunnel widened into a full diorama of a garden. There was a birdbath with a little fountain spout and a swinging bench for two. Patches of brilliant flowers lined the walls, and the smell in the air was gently fresh. All of it was awash in the light of a full moon. It was, in a word, beautiful.

But none of it held a candle to Haru. Her eyes were as gorgeous as ever, sunlight in the darkest night. Makoto knew full well how cheesy that thought was, but she didn’t care. She would be as sappy as she wanted. She was genuinely that happy. Somehow, the soft hum of Haru’s whispers made it all the sweeter.

“Isn’t this romantic?”

“Definitely.” Makoto sneaked a little kiss onto Haru’s forehead. “Anything is romantic so long as you’re there.” Haru’s giggles felt as good as they sounded.

“Oh you flatterer!”

“I only flatter because it’s true.” She had no idea how she was being this forward. Maybe shedding sunlight on her anxieties helped her get rid of the last of her anxious hangups, letting her just enjoy the moment.

“One day, I should grow my own garden like this. Then we could spend as much time as we wanted there.”

Being surrounded by life that brimmed with Haru’s care? That sounded like the definition of paradise.

“Only if I get to help you make it.”

“Deal.” Haru wrapped her arms around Makoto, who wasn’t quite sure whether she or the bench they rested on was softer. The low, content sigh Haru made tickled her skin. “Do you remember what day it is today?”

How could Makoto forget? It had only been on her calendar in red ink since she returned from the Hawaii trip.

“October eleventh, the day you were supposed to be married off. It’s poetic, we get to spend today of all days together like this.”

“Call it my last insult to him before moving on. I would rather go forward with you than dwell on him, after all.” She pointedly avoided saying his name. Makoto was perfectly fine with that. “Do you know why they chose today for the wedding when the agreement was made months ago?”

The question made Makoto stop and think. Why would they push it off so far if Okumura was intent on receiving the support as soon as possible? Now that she thought about it, there wasn’t any sense in that.

“I honestly don’t. Why?”

“It’s simple, really. They believed it would go over better with international partners if they waited until I was eighteen.”

Makoto nodded slowly, accepting the logic in that viewpoint. Then, she stopped when it fully set in.

“Does that mean today is…?”

“Mhm.” Haru pulled Makoto into her like the world’s largest teddie bear. “My birthday.”

“Oh, then happy birthday! I would have gotten you something if I knew beforehand.”

“Believe me, you’ve given me plenty this year.” Haru pulled herself up, and Makoto leaned into the kiss she saw coming. She was getting very good at predicting those. The tips of their tongues danced on their lips, but they were in no rush. They had the whole ride to make out. They pulled apart for a breath, and Haru spoke up. “Although, there is one thing I wanted to ask you.”

“Anything at all.”

“Now, you don’t have to say yes if you don’t want to. I wouldn’t want to go too quickly if you’re not comfortable with it, okay?” For once, it was Haru who was acting a little nervous, though it was tinged by an undertone of excitement. This made Makoto a little nervous in turn, but optimistic. It was Haru, after all. What could she ask that would be that bad? Haru had to calm herself before continuing.

“We’ve been together for a long time now. We’ve gone through so much, I honestly couldn’t imagine life without you.” That was a high compliment as far as Makoto was concerned, not least because she felt the same way. “One thing I keep going back to was that minute we had in the safe room before. When it was just the two of us, remember?”

...Oh boy. The nerves were coming back. They weren’t unpleasant, exactly, but they made it hard to be direct.

“It’s kind of hard to forget. We got kind of… intimate, didn’t we?”

“That we did. That we did.” Haru was blushing now. What weird reverse world was this?

Wait, Makoto felt herself blushing, too. That was normal enough.

“I keep asking myself about it, but, since I can’t find an answer, I thought you might.” Haru looked up into Makoto’s eyes, curiosity and something else lingering in her gaze like wisps of smoke. “If we hadn’t been interrupted, how far would we have gone?”

Everything in Makoto’s body conspired to keep her from responding at once. Her mouth went dry. Her tongue went limp. Her brain was doing cartwheels on the far side of the moon. She, almost literally, had to cough up her answer.

“If I’m being honest, I don’t think I would have stopped if you didn’t want to.” A nervous laugh broke up her train of thought. “I, um, I actually meant to ask you about… you know, intimacy, when we were in Hawaii. Heh, Futaba called me a ‘damp ham sandwich’ for being nervous and dragging my heels. I was going to, but then you got that message and I kind of forgot about it. Until we were alone together in the safe room, I guess. I’m starting to think she was more right than I...”

“Maybe I should rephrase the question.” Haru’s interruption was the only thing that made Makoto aware of how she was rambling. She was doing a good job at being the self-control of the pair. “If I said I wanted to resume what we were doing then, would you want to...” She slid up Makoto’s side, the friction between them now suddenly sending shivers up her back. Her voice descended to a hushed, smoky whisper. “...finish?”

Apparently, Makoto saying she wanted to bring it up before was a green flag in Haru’s eyes. Her hand wandered up Makoto’s belly, her fingers leaving a thin trail of fire that made it more and more difficult to concentrate. She hovered just shy of passing her stomach, waiting for an explicit answer to crawl any higher.

Makoto now recognized that look in her eyes. It was hunger, a craving for the delicacy that was so cruelly pulled away once before. As the object of that unbound desire, Makoto found her mouth going dry. She had to pull her lips in to moisten them before she could speak.

“A-aren’t we being w-watched? Th-they might have...”

“Cameras? Don’t worry.” Now Haru was licking her lips, but not because they were dry. “I made sure that this show was for us only. We can do anything we want. Anything.” She lifted her fingers until only the tips of her nails were still touching Makoto, concentrating that flame into a spark that made Makoto’s toes twitch. “It wouldn’t do if we were stopped a second time, now would it? The only cease I’ll accept is yours. So… Do you want to try something new with me?”

She was scratching out logical escapes as they arose, leaving how Makoto felt as the only gate in place. She knew that, with one word, she could either keep them closed, or throw them open. It was in her hands if they, as a couple, were brave enough to take the next step.

As she admitted herself once, she was nothing if not too brave. Makoto relaxed her muscles, sinking into the sensation of Haru’s touch.

“I would love to.”

Haru’s lips curved into a wanting grin, and a quick tap of the button under the dash brought their raft to a drifting stop.

“Happy birthday to me.”

The gate open ed , and Haru descended on her like a Thief in the night. Her body was ripe for the taking, and take she did. Haru pressed into the kiss with the thirst of a woman lost in the desert. Makoto opened herself as the oasis she desired. Haru’s tongue pulled hers into an embrace, and she didn’t stop there.

Haru flipped herself around Makoto until she was kneeling over her, knees planted on either side of her hips. She pressed into Makoto, belly against belly, and breast against breast. Makoto’s breath hitched as the her chest compressed against Haru’s. The latter’s smaller, firmer assets made for a wonderful massage, tripping every nerve Makoto had and making her realize just how sensitive she was.

She wasn’t just going to be on the receiving end, though. She refused. It seemed most natural to her to grab for Haru’s hips, which she found were swaying, pulling the entirety of her weight to make the full body rub as intense as possible. That thought was the last straw, leasing a mewl from her. Haru answered with a satisfied purr. When she pulled back, she giggled as Makoto was left to gasp huskily for air.

“My my, we’re all pent up, aren’t we?” Haru filled Makoto’s vision, and her mind was flooded, too, as she pressed the tips of her thumbs into her breasts. Only her shirt defended her untouched nipples. “Don’t worry, I’ll help you let it all out. Every.” Her fingers softly clamped around the nubs poking through the cloth. Makoto gasped, and her body thrust itself eagerly into the palms of her hands. “Last.” A little twist almost made Makoto’s eyes go crossed. As her knees knocked together in the shivering ecstacy, her thighs found themselves moistened and hot. “Drop!”

“H-H-Haru!” The quivering of her lungs made it hard to speak, and impossible to say anything without a long moan on the wings. With the way Haru was grinning, one would think she was the one being lavished with attention. Her ravishing of Makoto’s body was only delayed by a pair of unsteady hands fumbling with the buttons on the front of her blouse.

“You want to be a little more direct? Hmhm! Okay, I think you’ve earned it.” Haru’s hands slipped over Makoto’s and helped guide her clumsy fingers around the clasps. They came undone with loud pops that sent a wave of anticipation through Makoto’s needy flesh. She wanted to get her shirt off as quickly as possible, but Haru held her back, making every button seem more agonizingly slow than the last.

“Haru, p-please…!”

“Good things come to those who wait, Mako-chan.” As though appeasing her, Haru set a warm kiss on the corner of Makoto’s jaw before whispering thickly in her ear, like flowing caramel. “Let me savor my treat.”

The topmost button was finally, finally undone, but before Makoto could even think of throwing off the over shirt, Haru took the task with those cursed, blessed, devilish hands of hers. She didn’t just pull the shirt open. She pushed it, oh so slowly, every one of her fingers tracing a line across her breasts along the way. When she had to go higher to get it over her shoulders, she made sure to tease at the base of her breasts with her middle fingers as she ascended. The remaining blouse was starting to feel so constrictive, and way too hot. Makoto wanted it off!

She thought the blouse would be cast aside much faster, but she was so very wrong. Haru’s hands, those evil things, slid under the hem of the shirt, and they lifted slowly, slowly, glacially slow. She had the mercy to not use her nails anymore, but she was sure it was so she could savor the feeling.

“I knew all that Aikido had to do wonders for your core. So wonderfully firm.” Her hands stopped just beneath Makoto’s ribs, a few bare inches away from letting her breasts free. Instead, Haru took her time to worship the abs she had so painstakingly unwrapped. One, two, three, four, five, six, a soft kiss on each. Makoto didn’t know her muscles could be so sensitive, but every touch of her lips sent ripples over her entire body. It was maddeningly slow, but the growing dampness between her legs made it hard to lie about how she felt.

The kisses raised above the abs. Haru found every square inch of her tummy as toned as the last, and Makoto could only bite her lips and whine in hopes of encouraging Haru’s progress. It didn’t make her speed up, though. It only made her lips press more eagerly against her skin. If anything, Makoto’s song was only making her ache for release more instead of bringing it faster.

Haru couldn’t keep pushing off the inevitable forever. Soon, her fingers found a layer of more cloth underneath instead of skin. Makoto thought it was a herald of relief, but Haru pressed and kneaded the whole way up, the bra only giving her a bigger surface to tease. She was freed from the torment only when Haru finshed climbing her peaks, her fingers set as pins against Makoto’s collar. Haru looked over the gift she had been given, and she lightly moistened her lips in anticipation.

“How delicious you look, my Mako-chan. I could just eat you up.” There was only a small amount of boob showing at the top of the bra’s cups, but Haru’s aim was true, landing yet more teasing kisses at the upper base of the hills.

Makoto was so busy moaning and gasping as something finally touched her that she barely noticed her blouse being pulled over her head, leaving her in only a black bra. She might have been shy in this situation once, but now, her need was blinding. Once more, she tried to undress herself in haste, but Haru put a quick end to her plans.

“I can feel it, you’re getting so close to the edge, but still so far. Don’t worry, I know a lovely scenic route.” Haru almost had to climb Makoto’s body to get her hands around her back, the tip of her nose so close to grazing along Makoto’s supple skin. She waited for the click of her straps being undone, but she couldn’t hear it over the warm breath blowing across her breasts, or the shriek that slipped past her lips. “Mm, not as lovely as your voice though, I must admit.”

Makoto was dazed, only able to limply let her arms slip through the straps as Haru, at long last, removed the last layer confining her chest. Haru could hardly help herself, wrapping a hand around each press and giving a little squeeze. The sensation of rolling between Haru’s fingers almost made Makoto finish then and there, but she wasn’t allowed the mercy.

“They fit so perfectly in my hands. It’s almost as though they were made just for me to enjoy, wouldn’t you say?”

By the time Makoto worked up the brain power to potentially answer, Haru had closed in and, with only the tip of her tongue, flicked at the little pink bud of Makoto’s nipple, and it felt like the strike of lightning.

She cried unabashedly as loud as she could. her legs clamped together and twitched erratically. Haru was taken off guard, but when she figured out what was happening, it only made the excitement on her face more potent.

“All without a single touch below the waist, hm? You must have been so...”

“M-m-more!” It was the first time Makoto could voice exactly what she wanted since she agreed to Haru’s wish. It was one request, and one alone. “Please, keep going-g! Don’t stop!”

Haru might have been a relentless tease, but she wasn’t cruel, especially not when Makoto was already so far gone. She jumped a step ahead on her list, pulling one of those sweet little buds into her hungry mouth and suckling eagerly. Her lips sealed around the pink tip of the breast and her tongue flicked it, caressed it, pressed it, anything she could think of.

She didn’t stop for anything, as Makoto had asked. She kept suckling as Makoto pulled her more fervently into her chest. She licked as Makoto’s voice filled the tunnel, the echoes piling on top of one another until all that could be heard was Makoto’s high cry of elation. Even as Makoto started winding down, thrusting her hips against Haru’s weakly, she kept pulling at the teat. Only Makoto’s body going limp in its seat brought her to stop, and when she looked up from under the mounds she had so well serviced, she saw Makoto looking back, breathing heavily and practically glowing.

“Oh god, Haru… That was… Oh, wow.”

Makoto knew how much of a babbling fool she must have sounded like, but it only pleased Haru more. She nuzzled into Makoto’s neck as always, her smoky, teasing persona set aside.

“Nothing is too much for my Mako-chan! I had hoped all the studying I did would be enough, but I never expected such stunning results.”

“Studying?” Makoto puzzled over the word. Her pleasure-addled brain failed to disconnect it from its usual context for a long while. Haru helped fill in the gaps.

“Yep! I didn’t want to go into this unprepared if you said yes, so I made sure to know as many little tricks as I could remember. You wouldn’t believe how many guides are out there, and some say exactly opposite things. It was a little tough to navigate, but it was worth it.” She popped up to kiss Makoto on the lips, but the latter could barely move to kiss back. All she had the energy for was smiling dumbly.

“I didn’t expect you to do all this for me. I’m grateful.” Makoto tried to squirm around to get her body moving again, but all she managed to do was consciously find out about the growing pool under her waistline. “And also in need of a change of underwear, I think.” That managed to make Haru snort a little with laughter at least, so maybe the extra laundry hassle was worth it.

“We have all day to take care of that. For now, do you think you’re up for another round?”

Makoto’s eyes went wide, and her skin was tingling preemptively.

“Another round?”

“I can do this for a long while still, if you want?” Haru was offering another chance to stop. Makoto barely had to think before nodding vigorously. “Goody! Now, I have two choices in mind. First.” Her hand crept down Makoto’s side until it was hovering and tracing circles around her thigh. “I could slide down here and see if I can dry you, personally.” Haru licked lightly at the side of Makoto’s neck, making it clear exactly what that entailed. “And I do intend to do that sometime today. Or, if you want, we could use this first.”

Haru pulled herself away from Makoto, but only far enough away to reach down to her purse. She zipped it open and retrieved a rather large box from inside. Its flaps swung wide, and Makoto’s heart skipped when she saw a distinctive shape inside. Haru, as coy as ever, gradually pulled it into open air, revealing the phallic body of a pink dildo.

“Oh my. Akira actually followed through with getting us something.”

“That he did. I admit, I would have struggled to find a supplier on my own, especially one of such high quality.” Haru held it in her hands, where Makoto was able to gauge its mass. It was about two and a half fingers wide, and its was half as long as Haru’s forearm. It wasn’t ridiculous, as far as dildos went, but it was still unexpected. “That said, it’s still entirely up to you if we use it or not. I won’t force you, but I promise.” She trailed off as she held it closer to Makoto, tracing its head along the same path her fingers took on her thigh a moment ago. “I can make you feel very good with it.”

Makoto didn’t quite know how to respond. None of her responses were negative, though. She might have finished, but she hadn’t gotten any attention at all down below. This was a fine opportunity to change that.

On the other hand, she remembered something else that had gone unattended. Or, rather, someone.

“Wait, you haven’t gotten anything yet.”

“Oh yes I have~!” Haru was all sing-song about it, and she was being honest in a roundabout way, but, again, Makoto didn’t like sitting there and letting Haru do all the work. Not at all. Haru squeaked in surprise as she was pulled up onto Makoto’s lap, her back pressed snugly against a firm, unyielding force.

“Haru, you just gave me the most mind-blowing orgasm of my life. Come Hell or high water, I’m going to give you the same.” Now it was Makoto’s turn to grin as Haru shook excitedly in her lap. Fortunately for Haru, she wasn’t one to keep people waiting. She kissed eagerly into Haru’s neck, drawing a soft coo from the smaller girl. As softly as she could, Makoto hooked her thumbs into the hem of Haru’s pants and gradually tugged them down her legs. She didn’t stop Haru from wiggling out of them, either, and the garment was soon discarded on the boat’s floor.

All that left was a pair of panties. They were light pink, matching her sweater, but, unlike the sweater, there was a wide damp spot growing out from the middle. Makoto slid the tips of her fingers across the very center of the spot. It made Haru gasp, and when she got control of her voice back, there were two dripping fingers in front of her.

“You’re this wet, but you were acting like you didn’t need attention? Tsk tsk.” Makoto rubbed the fingers together, letting strings of Haru’s lube form and meld together in front of her eyes. “I thought we wouldn’t hide things from each other anymore?” At first, Haru seemed to melt into Makoto, retracting from shame.

Then, she leaped forward and took Makoto’s fingers into her mouth. She pulled her lips off slowly, sucking up all the wetness for herself. She rolled it around on her tongue, then, glancing back at Makoto with the most innocent smile, she swallowed it and showed off her clean tongue with a wink.

The tease was back, and Makoto was hungry for revenge.

She pulled the front of Haru’s panties aside to reveal the source of the leak. It was a little pink slit, or it would have been dry. Now, it was opening, hungry to be filled. Makoto was about to test the waters, but she stopped when she realized how she could flip the tables. Instead of diving in, she put her hand just above it, rubbing along the bare skin just shy of her aching vagina. If her muffled gasps were any indicator, it was still quite sensitive.

“It looks to me like someone trimmed the garden. Were you hoping I would go in to sniff the flower?”

Haru was shaking in Makoto’s grasp. It was an involuntary response, but it looked like her body was trying to move so she was closer to the mark. Ah ah, no rushing now.

“I might, later, but I want to take in its beauty first. It’s quite a lovely shape, wouldn’t you agree?”

Her fingers lowered and glided along the very rim of the opening. Her skin only got more and more moist as she circled, careful to not touch the quivering bud at the flower’s peak just yet.

“Such full, yet soft petals. I wonder if they stay that way as we go deeper?”

Haru leased a shaky moan as Makoto’s fingers passed the crest and began to descend. With each round she made, she slipped in a centimeter more. Never before, no. She wasn’t a barbarian. She could take this slow. Just as Haru began to look inquisitive under the red-cheeked pleasure, wondering about how methodical Makoto was being, her thoughts were wiped clean by a sharp jolt of raw feeling. Makoto had found her target, a little, firm spot about two inches in.

“O-Oh! Oh, Mako-chan!”

“Have you never felt this before?” Makoto drank in the sight. Haru might have been mock-melting earlier to be playful, but the loss of tension now was real. Haru was putty at the tips of Makoto’s fingers. “Even when you’re looking, it can be hard to find. Fortunately, I know a few things myself. Can’t waste time with no time to waste, right?” She never pushed too hard into it. If Haru asked her to, she would, but she knew it best to let her get a feel for it first. “But right now, we have all the time in the world. Let’s see how long you can last for me.”

While Makoto’s left hand rubbed that trembling spot, her right was going on a journey of its own. The left circled her flower, and the right explored the hills. There might have been a sweater in the way, but the squeezing and pulling made Haru squirm all the same. She lavished them as Haru did hers before. Though she didn’t seem quite as sensitive around the breasts as Makoto was, she was certainly making her feel everything she could from them.

What Haru didn’t know was that her breasts weren’t the end goal of this little venture. Makoto’s right hand played with her right breast first, then moved onto the left. Then, just as Haru’s grip loosened, she reached in and snatched the toy from her hands. Haru gasped in surprise, among other things, but she didn’t move to make Makoto stop. She watched, biting her lip, as Makoto brought the head to the opening of her hot, wet flower and rubbed it against her outermost petals.

“Hmm, this could be fun, but I can’t tell if you want it or not.” Makoto let the dildo enter one centimeter deeper, but not further, like a lure at the end of a fishing line. “You’ll have to tell me. Do you want to play with your new toy? I can only give it to you if you ask.” Makoto’s grin grew wider with anticipation. Haru coiled like a spring, her hips swaying in a vain attempt to draw it in, but Makoto wasn’t budging. Her mouth opened with a grunt, and, in a high, scratchy, breathless voice, she gave her answer.

“Put it in me! Mako-chan, Mako-chan please, I want it! I want it so bad!”

Had she not already finished just minutes before, that desperate cry would have been enough to bring Makoto to her knees. Now, it was only inspiration to do the same to Haru.

“Who am I to say no?”

The head sunk the rest of the way in, level with the ends of Makoto’s fingers that were still rubbing away, and Haru’s walls tightened around both.

“Mako-chan! Mako-chan!”

Haru’s voice was invigorating and inviting, driving Makoto to press on. Centimeter by centimeter, the shaft was buried into Haru’s ravenous core, and every inch made her moans and screams louder. Makoto could have kept feeding it to her forever and never gotten tired. There was only so much of the toy to give, though, and soon, there was just enough left on the outside to hold onto. She let it sit at that depth as Haru contracted and squeezed, only moving those few fingers massaging that one sensitive spot. Haru’s breaths got a little less ragged, and she looked up and Makoto with want in her eyes.

“I’m ready. Don’t hold anything back!”

Makoto smiled and redoubled her grip on the toy.

“Anything for the birthday girl.”

Haru asked for everything, and Makoto gave her everything. She pulled it out to the tip and sank it back down to the base within a half second, and her pace didn’t slow from there. She put all the power she could muster behind every thrust. The high whines it pushed out of her goaded her on, and the wet schlicking it produced only helped. Makoto didn’t care about how she was leaking onto her skirt. If anything, it made her more excited, and she was making as much from the inside anyway.

She noticed before long that the squeezes were getting stronger, and they were happening more often. She knew what was coming, and she was intent on watching every last twitch that rolled through Haru’s body.

Haru had other plans. She turned her head around and locked her lips against Makoto’s, hungrily prodding her tongue in after hers. Makoto could only accept, leaning into the kiss and clasping their tongues together. Haru was moaning into her mouth. The vibrations excited her. Her rubbing became more vigorous, and she found a new stockpile of strength to thrust harder with.

There was another reaction, too, one she wasn’t expecting. Through Haru’s lips, her back, the contractions of her vagina, she felt her heartbeat, and Makoto’s was racing to match it. Their souls were coming together again, melding into that beautiful unison. If they shared their emotions so deeply when bonded like this before, what would happen when Haru crossed the line?

Makoto found out abruptly. Haru squealed into her mouth, and when her walls locked down around the dildo and her fingers, Makoto felt her hips tense up, too. She didn’t have anything in her, but she was clasping down all the same, the strength of Haru’s orgasm screaming through her, too. Makoto moaned, and they sang together, filling the tunnels with their sounds.

Makoto waited for Haru to go limp against her before she relaxed, too. Her body was so sore. She recognized it as the blood catching up with her activity. It would pass in a few short minutes, but in the middle of it, Makoto felt lost in sensation. She didn’t know if she would be able to stand if she tried. Haru was right there with her, curling up between her breasts, her ear right against her heart.

“That was… so wonderful, Mako-chan. Did you feel it, too?”

“Yeah. I did.” It was like they were both swept away by the same wave, carried out to sea with only each other to hold onto as they drifted back to shore. “I don’t think that’s normal, but, I’m not about to complain.”

“It just means I know we’ll finish together.” The sentiment was almost as adorable as Haru herself, which, in Makoto’s eyes, was saying a lot.

Makoto realized she was still deep in Haru. She gently removed her fingers first, then made to ease the toy out. It pulled free with a wet pop. Although, Makoto couldn’t help but nudge it against her little nub before setting it aside.

“Oh! Oh, Mako-chan!” She swatted Makoto’s shoulder playfully, and they both chuckled a little at the playful exchange. Then, Makoto sighed.

“Thanks for setting this all up for me. Like I said, I’ve been meaning to bring it up, but the time never felt right.”

“You’re welcome. We’ve been through so much together, I couldn’t think of anyone else I would rather give my first to. And many more to follow.” Haru winked up at her, renewing her blush briefly.

“Me neither. I love you.”

“I love you, too.” They shared a quick peck, neither having enough in them for much more, but it was enough.

“I guess it’s a shame neither of us have the best places to keep doing this kind of thing, though. I mean, Sis still doesn’t know...” Makoto felt her heart drop at the thought, but she tried to shake it off with a hint of humor. “...And I don’t think Akira would appreciate us doing it in his room.”

“Oh yes! That reminds me. Akira-kun actually said we could do just that if we so wanted.”

Makoto’s heart stopped cold.

“He what?”

“He only asked that we warn him so he doesn’t come in on us in the middle of making love, and we should probably wash his sheets, too. And probably not during LeBlanc’s business hours. Other than that, though, we absolutely have somewhere to continue.”

Well, that was… unexpected, but not out of line with Akira’s sensibilities. He was too relaxed for his own good sometimes. Makoto would have to make sure to not abuse the gift, and to thank him somehow. She would figure out how later, when she could think straight.

“Speaking of continuing, are you ready for another round? I am!”

...What hunger had Makoto just awakened in her sweet princess? Worse still, she was feeling it, too, if a bit muted.

“Could we just snuggle a bit longer first? I need to recover more.”

“Of course. Let me know when you’re ready, and I’ll see if I’m half as good at using our new toy. Or would you prefer the cleaning service I offered?”

Oh golly.

 

-

 

Several hours later, the two made their way out of the Tunnel of Love’s exit. Anyone watching them would have thought they were just hugging, with Haru playing the small spoon because of her smaller size. In reality, she was holding Makoto up, because the bigger girl’s legs had gone as soft as overripe bananas.

If nothing else, it was a pleasant kind of soreness she was submerged in. Plus, it would probably be the best exercise she would ever receive. She looked up at the clock and estimated it had been… about four hours.

She was still going to be sore in the morning. And probably the morning after that. She would have to figure out a way to hide it later. For now, she was happy to have Haru so close to her.

“Sorry I couldn’t keep up as long as you wanted.”

“You must be joking. I am completely satisfied! I never knew sex would be so much fun!”

And now Haru did know. Makoto wasn’t about to complain.

She saw a streak of yellow hair in the corner of her eye, and she glanced over to the ride’s entrance. Ann was stepping past the ticket booth, holding hands with Shiho. The tall blonde was blushing profusely with the dopiest possible smile oozed over her face. Was that what Makoto looked like a short while ago? Shiho was equally joyful, and it was clear that Ann was trying to keep up with her as they made for the new swan boat.

“It looks like those two finally got together.”

“Really?” Haru looked over, and she smiled when she saw the way they were transfixed by each others’ eyes. “Oh yes, they are officially an item.” Then, Haru’s smile dropped for a moment, struck by some errant thought. Makoto couldn’t see it, but there was a spark of recognition in Haru’s eyes at the way Shiho was shifting her hips.

When the smile came back, it was even bigger than before.

“We should hurry along to a changing room, Mako-chan. I’ll text Akira-kun to bring us the change of clothes I entrusted him with.”

“Is there anyone in our group of friends that wasn’t implicit in getting us to have sex, in the tunnel or otherwise?”

“Hmm, probably not Ryuji-kun, for one.”

Neither of them were around to hear Ann screaming to the heavens. The ticket booth attendant politely ignored the commotion, pretending for the second time that day that she heard nothing.

Chapter Text

Makoto was thanking the stars for the invention of incognito internet browsing. It made looking up embarrassing things much easier.

It was only mildly embarrassing when it was a matter of researching official reports. Still, best to cover her tracks. She didn’t need someone, especially not her sister, hopping on her computer and seeing that one of the results in her history was “sex addiction.”

It was unsettling that she had even the slimmest notion that she might have had it. Not two weeks ago, she barely thought about sex. She would maybe take care of herself once every couple of weeks, and that was that. Now, though, she noticed an increasing fixation on the idea. Whenever her mind went idle, it drifted back to the previous week, to the Tunnel of Love, and to Haru’s evil little hands. This was a drastic shift in behavior, and she wanted to know what she was getting herself into.

The incognito mode was twice as necessary, in Makoto’s mind, when she decided to double check her mental faculties and the precise details of her fixation through the use of... less clinical sources. She took all the precautions, of course. The incognito window, the antivirus software, adblock, everything. Her computer would remain crystal clean.

She locked her bedroom door, put in her headphones with one ear partially uncovered, and found a few videos. She had one or two that tended to fulfill her purposes when the need arose, and she employed them to see if anything changed about her perception of them.

To her simultaneous relief and confusion, no, nothing had. She wasn’t any further invested in the material than before. If anything, she found herself less aroused by it. That was the concerning part. She was so fixated on sex, but this wasn’t cutting it? What was going on?

Just as she was about to start searching mental health sites again, a new window opened itself like a genie rising from its bottle. It was a video chat software, and an orange-haired goblin was on the other side with a half smirk on her face.

“You really are hopeless about this stuff, aren’t you?”

“Futaba!?” Makoto covered her mouth, the awareness of her own volume hitting her a moment too late. She vowed to keep her voice under control for the remainder of the conversation. The vote was pending as to whether she would do the same the next time she saw Futaba in person. “Could you please refrain from suddenly appearing on my computer screen? It’s distracting, to say the least.”

“I make no promises.”

Makoto shook her head in irritation, but then she went back to what Futaba had greeted her with. It made Makoto’s skin go red in a blend of shame and rage.

“How long have you been watching my screen?”

“Enough to know you’ve got great taste. No, seriously, those vids were solid B’s. And those stars were solid D’s, if you know what I’m saying.” Futaba’s stunning lack of self awareness dissipated when she spotted the glowing red dots that were Makoto’s eyes.

“Futaba.” Makoto’s voice was simple and direct, like the click of a revolver’s chamber.

“Yes?”

“Would you be so kind as to tell me one reason that I shouldn’t chain you to a wall and leave you there for several hours.”

“...Because I might enjoy it?” Futaba smiled shyly, but it withered when Makoto’s glare didn’t dissipate. She wasn’t perving her way out of the situation. “Also because I know what’s going on with you and can help?” Makoto continued to glare for several more seconds. When she blinked, after what felt like an eternity, her eyes were significantly less red.

“Fine. Enlighten me. What’s your diagnosis?”

Futaba was happy to answer, after she sighed in relief.

“Kay, so a lot of couples go through a stage where they wanna get it on as much as they can. It’s natural, get it? You’re not addicted to sex. You’re addicted to Haru.”

That… actually kind of made sense. Her fantasies did have a lot of cuddling between rounds. If it was raw lust, her imagination wouldn’t have stopped streaming the heavy stuff into the front and center of her thoughts. As much as she loved Haru, though, it was getting harder to focus on anything else. She couldn’t afford to lose productivity, for many reasons.

“Is there a way to make it stop?”

“Let’s see… Cold showers, raw willpower, or, and this one might work the best, having Haru plow your brains out so you can’t think about anything for a while.” Futaba’s smirk grew in proportion to the amount of red washing over Makoto’s face. “You know, just a suggestion. But what do I know? I’m just a perv.”

As perverted as it was, and as doubtful as Makoto was that it would work, she couldn’t deny that she wanted to spend some more intimate time with Haru. They would have to work around no less than three tight timetables to make it happen, but Queen was the local strategist on deck. She could make something happen, but first…

“When it happens, you are not allowed to listen in by any means whatsoever.”

“Oh come on! I already missed your spicy riverboat adventure!”

“No.”

“Please?”

“No.”

“Not even if I give you my hand-crafted antivirus software, totally free of charge?”

“Tempting, but still no.”

“Ugh, fine. Leave me high and dry, why don’t you… I’m totally doxing your stash, though. You’ve got some keepers in there.”

 

-

 

“I’m heading out, Sis!” Makoto was jittering with nervous energy. Haru approved of her plan as soon as she mentioned wanting some alone time together. From there, it was only a matter of getting the approval from Akira and LeBlanc’s business hours. They might have already had sex once, but now that it was taking place somewhere more accessible, it felt like it was becoming a more routine part of Makoto’s life. Despite her earlier misgivings about what it was doing to her thought process, she was more than okay with that. She just had to make it out the door, and…

“Hold on.”

Makoto came to a stop, her hand just shy of the doorknob. She had to stop herself from reaching for it to spite her sister’s order. Sae walked up to her from the dining room table with her phone in hand.

“You said you were studying with Haru-chan, and only Haru-chan, correct?”

Why did this suddenly feel like an interrogation? The hard eyes being set on her made her uncomfortable. It was all she could do to not glare back on instinct. She just had to stick to the story.

“Yes. We’re going over some of the denser material in a few of our classes.” Makoto knew all the signs to avoid. She didn’t let her eyes drift elsewhere out of fear, nor did she stare too intently. Her posture was natural. Her tone was flowing. Everything about her said she was telling the truth. Sae was still unconvinced.

“You’re sure there’s no one else coming to this meetup?”

“No, just the two of us.” The loophole there was that Akira was technically already at the location, therefore, he wasn’t ‘coming’ to the meetup. Not that he would be there for long anyway, but finding the gaps in her questioning still eased Makoto’s nerves. “Why do you ask?”

Sae’s arms were crossed to firm up her presence, and, though she tried to stay casual herself, those hints of accusation lingered in the tightness of her jawline and the rigidity of her posture.

“I noticed you’ve been spending more time with your friend group. I was only wondering if any of them would be making an appearance.”

So, she was noticing one change in Makoto’s behavior, several months later, but not the one that was actually concerning. Okay, fine.

“As far as I’m aware, everyone else is busy today. It’s only Haru and me.”

“Only you two and no one else? None of the boys?”

And Sae tipped her hand. Her suspicion was, at once, obvious and relieving. Makoto could disable it without lying at all. She just had to work herself into the right angle.

“Wait, are you worried I’m going out all the time to… date one of the boys?”

“It’s a reasonable concern.” Now Sae was shifting from interrogatories to accusations. It made Makoto’s blood radiate. “I don’t want you making a mistake that costs you everything you’ve worked for, and one wrong encounter with a boy can do exactly that.”

Was she… insinuating she thought Makoto was going out and risking getting...? Did she really think she was that…!?

Okay, breathe, Makoto. There was plenty of room to vent later. There was only one chance to get out of this situation unscathed. She put a front of humor in her tone as she responded.

“I can promise you, I don’t have any interest in any of the boys in our group. They know I’m not interested in dating them, and they respect that.” Again, she was leaving out exactly why she wasn’t interested, but, since Sae only mentioned boys and not girls, she was being honest. It was enough to break through Sae’s serious front, letting her relax.

“Right. Of course, you’re practically an adult. You know how to make smart choices.” Sae sounded like she was trying to convince herself more than appease Makoto. “I’m sorry for prying. I just worry for you, that’s all.”

“I understand, Sis.” Makoto gripped the doorknob, antsy to get out of this situation as soon as possible.

“You should get going. You wouldn’t want to keep Haru-chan waiting.”

“Right. I’ll see you in a bit.”

Makoto stepped out the door, and just as she was about to shut it, Sae piped up one more time.

“Stay safe!”

“I will!”

The door shut, and Makoto severely hoped Sae wasn’t going to touch it anytime soon.

Because it was a few degrees from melting on her end.

Did Sae really trust her so little? Did she seriously think that it was okay to drop out of the blue like that and start accusing her of stuff she had no evidence of whatsoever!? She was her sister, not an inmate! This, this right here was why Makoto had to be so careful, why she had to walk on eggshells, because if Sae stuck her nose in the wrong place, that would be it! The closet would get ripped open, and the one comfort place Makoto had would be…!

...No. No, she wasn’t going to stew on this a moment longer. She was going to leave this apartment behind and go to the place that actually wanted her, where she heard the words, “I love you,” more often than once a month, and more earnestly than her sister could manage.

 

-

 

“Laundromat is a few blocks left of LeBlanc, detergent is in the bathroom downstairs, and, yes, all of Bug’s cameras and microphones are disabled, including her taps on your phones.”

Going from Sae to Akira was like going from the South Pole to the surface of Mercury. Akira was blasé, at best, about what was soon to happen on his bed. Were it anyone else, it might have been creepy, but Akira was never less than direct about how he felt. The only thing he cared about was making sure his friends were happy, and it was refreshing.

“Thanks again, Akira.”

“Thank you for being a good friend.” He was quick to fire back a compliment instead of just taking Makoto’s. Morgana popped up from the bag on Akira’s shoulder.

“We’ll be back from his beef bowl shift at about eleven. The cycle should take an hour, so you’ve got until ten to do your thing.”

Thank you very much, Mona-kun.” Haru scritched behind his ear, clearly getting a good spot from the way he melted into her attention. “Your sense of time is always appreciated.”

“Heh heh, well, someone has to keep this guy on track.” He shook off the daze at the reminder of his duty. “Speaking of, we need to get going. You wanted to get there early to prep, right?”

“That I did.” Akira gave the girls one last nod before descending the attic stairs. “Have fun, you two.”

“We will!” Haru somehow remained social in the face of their oncoming session, something Makoto struggled with. Was there a secret to not becoming cripplingly embarrassed?

Well, if there was, it was half-and-half as to whether Haru would teach her or not. She was apparently fun to work up. The thought made her blush, a reaction that spiked when Haru turned her eyes on her.

Only, it wasn’t in that smoky, half-lidded look Makoto had been fantasizing about. It was a somewhat subdued, concerned look. It was like she had been waiting until they were alone to show her real cards.

“Are you okay, Mako-chan? You looked kind of agitated when we met up.”

Oh shoot, did she think she was mad about something? Best to clear that up so it didn’t linger over them all night.

Don’t worry, Sae was just being overbearing and it got under my skin, that’s all.” Instead of clearing Haru’s concern, it only served to give it a point of focus. She sat on the bed and patted the spot beside her.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“I… I’m okay.” Now Makoto was embarrassed for an entirely different reason. “I don’t want to ruin our alone time with my drama.”

“And I don’t want your drama to hurt you.” Haru wasn’t backing down, but she wasn’t being forceful either, only unyielding. “You know you can tell me anything at all if it’s been bothering you.”

Makoto still hesitated at first, but then she remembered her promise. She wasn’t going to reverse her open-book policy and risk hurting Haru’s feelings. She could get this out of the way, then move onto what they planned. She took the offered seat with a sigh, as if uncorking the issue in her head.

“She stopped me at the door to accuse me of dating a boy behind her back.”

“To be fair, she isn’t completely wrong.”

“No, she isn’t. If she left it at that, I wouldn’t be stewing on it right now.” Makoto was very careful to keep her magic on the inside. She had no idea if Haru’s weakness to the nuclear element would transfer to real world sources of radiation, but she wasn’t taking that chance in any case. “She outright accused me of going out and risking getting pregnant for a one-night stand.”

“Oh my...” Haru had no means of mitigating that point. All she could do was move a hand over Makoto’s to remind her she was there. “Certainly she must trust you more than that?”

“You would think so, but apparently not. It wasn’t even because she thought I would get my feelings hurt. She said, and I quote, that I was ‘making a mistake’ that would ‘cost me everything.’ Seriously!” The bottle wasn’t closing as quickly as she thought it would, but she knew better than to put the cork back in now. If she did, the bottle would’ve cracked. As much as she didn’t want to burden Haru with her nonsense, she didn’t have any other choice. “That’s all it is with her anymore. Either I’m working, or I’m wasting my work and everything she’s given me. I don’t think she’s even asked me what I’m working towards! It’s just and endless cycle of…!”

“Breathe.” A second hand joined the first, fully wrapping around Makoto’s. It snapped her out of her rant for a short moment. “You can keep going after, but remember to breathe.”

Far from the sort to argue with her own girlfriend, Makoto took a deep breath. It was only when her lungs pressed against the tense muscles around them that she realized how wound up she was getting. It was the bell she needed to keep herself even-headed. She let much of her tension out as she exhaled.

“...Thanks. I needed that.”

Haru nodded in understanding. She didn’t say anything, though, in case Makoto had more to get off her mind.

“You know, she wasn’t always like this. When I first moved in with her, I think when I was about nine, she was better. Stressed, definitely. Who wouldn’t be? But, she managed. As the years went on, though, it just kept compounding until all that was left was the stress. Heh, she...” It was a dry laugh that came to her, one of resignation rather than humor. It was all she could do to convince her body to not start crying then and there. That would just destroy the mood, right?

“The last time I tried talking to her about the Phantom Thieves, a real, honest conversation, she told me to shut up, and that I was ‘eating away at her life.’ Useless… I think, I think that’s why I hate that word so much. I love her, and look up to her, but having her call me that...”

“Come here.”

Makoto found herself buried in Haru’s arms. There was a hand rubbing over her back, and another cradling her head. It was a vulnerable position. Were it anyone else putting her there, she would have revolted and clamped shut.

That it was Haru taking her in, though, made her do the opposite. If Haru minded the tears soaking into her sweater, she didn’t say anything.

“I know what you’re going through. She isn’t the person you remember, right?”

Oh. Of course. Haru would understand, with everything her father did.

“I shouldn’t be complaining about all of this to you, not with...”

“What I’ve been through doesn’t diminish what you’re going through now.” Haru was… warm, in every sense. Her touch was calming her coiled body as much as her voice soothed her troubled mind. “If there is a silver lining to my troubles, it is that they have prepared me to help you through yours. So, say whatever you need to say. I’m here to listen.”

A few tears of happiness slipped through with the rest.

“Thank you. Thank you so much.” Makoto was losing her voice, but even if she hadn’t heard it at all, Haru knew what she meant all the same.

“You helped me. Now I’ll help you. I always will.”

Maybe… this is what Makoto was addicted to. The feeling of being loved. Distance made the heart grow fonder, right?

No, that couldn’t be true. She was surrounded by love, but that closeness made it no less sweet.

“Can we still…?”

“Of course, but only when you’re good and ready. We have until ten, after all. Take your time.”

With the assurance that she wasn’t wasting Haru’s time, nor their golden window of opportunity, Makoto let herself sink fully into the embrace. It didn’t make her troubles disappear, but the moment of reprieve was what she needed to face them anew.

Chapter Text

Makoto’s bed was oddly warm. It wasn’t exactly a cool time of year, but it certainly wasn’t this warm. The sheets felt different, too. They were about the same quality, sure, but the overall texture was off. And her pillow was bigger than she remembered. When she focused on it, she noticed that it was where a lot of her warmth was coming from. Strange. Without thinking, she curled her head into it, yet undecided whether she was stretching to wake up or go back to sleep.

“Hm?”

She knew that voice. She knew it well. And the way it made her “pillow” vibrate told her that it wasn’t actually her pillow she just curled into. Her cheeks lit up, and she opened her eyes, suddenly very awake. The fabric under her head was fluffy and pink, and it was wrapped around someone else.

“Good morning, Mako-chan. Did you rest well?”

“Um, yeah.” Morning? Makoto’s eyes went searching for a clock, and she found that she, among the many other misconceptions she had made while waking up, wasn’t actually in her room. She was in an attic turned into a room. Akira’s room. When she finally found his clock, a thick, gelatinous layer of guilt slithered over her heart.

It was 9:30 P.M. Half an hour before the cutoff point Morgana recommended.

“When did I…?”

“It wasn’t too long after I pulled you in for a hug. I suppose I wanted to make you comfortable, so mission succeeded.” How Haru was staying so positive was beyond Makoto. She just felt like she had wasted their entire evening.

“Sorry. I guess I messed up our plans in the end, huh?”

“Not at all, silly.” Haru’s gentle chastisement was softened with a kiss to Makoto’s forehead. “We wanted to spend time together, and that’s exactly what we did. Hmm, and you could say we slept together, though more literally than we intended.”

Well, that was true. Makoto felt emotionally refreshed, so the problem she was having was dealt with, and Haru just sounded happy to have her in her arms.

Come to think of it, Makoto really liked being cradled like this. It was a pleasant way to wake up. Somehow, Haru made it work despite being the smaller of the two. Her natural warmth went a long way to that particular end.

So, if Haru was happy, then Makoto was okay calling it an evening well spent. Even if it did make the idea of waking up in her own bed, alone, a little more chilling.

“I’ll make sure I’m rested plenty the next time we plan to get together like this. I’m sure you were looking forward to the, uh, main event.” Makoto still felt awkward being direct about what they did together. She loved it, but that didn’t change how embarrassing it was to talk about.

“I would be lying if I said I didn’t like our special time, but I’m making love to my Mako-chan all the same.” Haru pulled her in closer, hugging her like a living teddie bear. Makoto kind of liked being her teddie bear. “Although, we do still have enough time for one round, and I had a little something lined up for tonight. If you’re still up for it, that is?”

Haru brought out the smoky whispers. It was enough to turn Makoto into her personal putty.

“How could I say no when you ask so nicely?”

“Oh, lovely!” Haru leaned in to peck Makoto on the cheek. Then she lowered herself to kiss her neck. Apparently, Makoto’s neck was another sensitive spot, as she discovered with the pulse of excitement it sent rolling over her. Or maybe she was one big sensitive spot for Haru. “We should get you all warmed up, then.”

Her breasts, though, were just plain sensitive, as Haru knew full well. She wasn’t so torturously slow this time, quickly pulling Makoto’s shirt up to her neck. Makoto took to shimmying it up over her head as Haru’s deft little fingers made quick work of her bra’s clasp. Shirt and bra, both, were thrown aside, forgotten on the floor, and Makoto’s chest found two new supports.

“You know, they say the bigger a girl is, the less she feels here.”

Makoto was already squirming. The width of her breasts were pressed in a wave that gradually teased every nerve in them. She rolled under Haru’s hands, both pressing against them and rubbing her own thighs together, seeking any stimulation she could find. The sight made Haru lick her lips.

“Silly, isn’t it? My big, beautiful girl feels absolutely everything, don’t you?”

“I’m not that big...” Makoto’s denial was replaced by a hiss as her nipples found themselves pinched between the lengths of Haru’s fingers. The waves rolled by, and her buds were taken along for the ride, each crest making her breath hitch.

“Oh? Then how are you slipping through my fingers so easily?” Haru pushed her hands straight down. Rolls of breast curved up around them until they rolled over the edge, almost engulfing Haru’s exploring digits. Makoto felt a grinding spark, and when Haru’s hands were as pressed in as they could get, the charge burst out into waves of untamed shivers. “You’re such a handful, and I absolutely adore it.” Haru’s honey-sweet voice was getting quieter, her hushed words tingling as they passed through Makoto’s mind. She was looming over Makoto’s shoulder, watching with ebbing patience.

“I could just eat you up.”

Like a snake springing from the underbrush, Haru dove in, a hand raising to deliver one of Makoto’s waiting nipples to her. It was a quick peck, a sudden, fierce pop that filled Makoto’s head with white noise. She was already on the edge, and the closer she became, the harder it was to focus. Her prized brain was melting, her every thought as incorporeal and formless as the snaking pleasure that coiled around her.

Then, as suddenly as she had struck, Haru backed away, taking her hands from the tingling peaks. Only her lustful breathing remained, keeping Makoto at the precipice through sound alone. Her touch drifted down Makoto’s sides, and, almost too fast for her to follow, two fingers slipped across the front of her pants, clipping her third bud in their wake.

By the time Makoto could react with a buck of her hips, those fingers were in front of her. They were damp, almost dripping onto Makoto’s nose as Haru rubbed them together. They smelled heavy, burying Makoto deeper into her own lust.

“Look at this. You’re so eager, so soon. Either I’m better than I thought I was, or you’re even hungrier than me.” Her thumb joined in on the fun, the three digits writhing together in Makoto’s dripping fluids. “Well? What do you have to say for yourself?”

Makoto had nothing to say. Even if she wanted to, words were lost to her, but she wasn’t wholly gone yet. She had enough stable mind left to recognize the situation. She knew just what Haru wanted.

Her tongue ventured from her gasping lips. Slowly, sensually, she traced it over Haru’s fingers, savoring the gift of her own honey. She couldn’t describe the flavor. It only tasted as it smelled: heavy, lustful, desirous. Makoto lost herself in the sensation as she licked every drop so graciously given to her. By the time she was done, Haru’s fingers were dry, and the want between them became palpable.

“Very good, Mako-chan. I think you’re ready for my surprise.”

A thrill broke from the fog of deafening hunger in Makoto’s heart, but it fell back into emptiness as Haru slipped out from under her, leaving her on the bed alone. Only the way Haru looked down at her, pink-skinned and shivering with excitement, kept the flame from being snuffed out. Haru stroked her hair adoringly one more time to stoke the fire.

“Close your eyes. Don’t open them until I say to.”

Makoto nodded, obediently blinding herself. Her world was reduced to the thumping in her chest, the heat between her legs, the sheets at her back, and Haru’s pleased, husky chuckles.

“Good girl. This will only take a moment.”

For many, the loss of touch would make them wind down. Makoto found it to do just the opposite. Where once there were waves of pleasure washing over her, now there was anticipation. Her body knew that Haru wasn’t satisfied yet, and that was enough to keep it warm and wanting.

There was a scraping sound to her side, like cardboard being dragged across the floor. It sounded like a box had been pulled out from under the bed. The flaps opened, and there was a crinkling sound as its contents were retrieved.

“Lovely. I know you’re going to love this, Mako-chan.” Teasing, teasing, always teasing. It felt like one breath from Haru would be enough to finish Makoto, but, somehow, it only pushed her closer to an edge she thought she was already at. She didn’t know how much more she could take, but she knew Haru would savor finding out.

“Oh, would you be a dear and… get comfortable for me? I want to drink in every inch of you.”

Were her mind not already slurry, Makoto would have locked up at the request. Now, though, she was nothing but antsy obedience. Her hands crept down to the waist of her pants, and, with a shimmy to get them over the swell of her hips, she pulled them down. It was the coolness of the sheets on her exposed butt that told her she had swept her panties down with them. It was all the more thrilling, as if her body was subconsciously at Haru’s beck and call.

“Mm, there’s the rest of my beautiful Mako-chan. But what’s this? You look a little more trimmed than before.”

Makoto knew she wasn’t talking about her figure. The last inkling of resistance in her wanted to cross her legs and hide her work, but the rest pushed her legs apart wider to show Haru what she wanted to see.

“You were so eager, you made yourself more presentable for me. My my, I didn’t know I could want you more than I already did.”

All Makoto could feel of Haru came from her voice. Its every tone echoed through her soul, her praise revving her up all the more.

“You naughty girl, you’ve forced me to hurry along.” There was a light thump of clothes hitting the floor. Before Makoto could lick her drying lips, she felt the bed move. There was something pressing down at either side of her chest and a warming presence hovering over her. “Very well, you may look now.”

Her eyes fluttered open, and shrank in surprise. Haru was sitting over her, inches from taking a seat on her chest. Every bit of her clothing was thrown aside, leaving Haru bare in her glowing radiance. The smooth expanse of her thighs, the gentle slope of her figure, the warm, wanting, crimson gleam in her eyes. Makoto could see all of it, and she knew it was all hers.

She was confused, then, that she couldn’t see her vagina, which should have been right in front of her. Rather, she saw first the black straps wrapping around it tightly, conforming to her skin as if to appear a part of it.

Then, she saw that it was more than form-fitting underwear. There was a rim right at the center of her crotch, where her little bud should have been. In its place was a familiar toy, its pink length affixed to the straps.

“H-Haru, this…?”

“Do you like it?” Haru rolled her hips forward to give Makoto a closer look. She moved as though it was always a part of her, knowing exactly how best to display her new appendage. “I’ve been thinking about how to make our second time even more magical than the first. It was difficult, I admit, but there was one thing that stuck out to me. For as much as I loved using our little friend, it felt like a thin layer of separation between us. We were toying with each other instead of becoming one.”

“It was wonderful, of course, but I wondered if I could make it feel a little closer. Then, I found this.” Haru’s thumb pried a strap up. When she let go, it snapped bracingly against her. “Now it won’t be so much like using a toy. Now...” Haru advanced further up Makoto’s body, bringing her tip just shy of Makoto’s face. If she wanted to, she could take it in her lips. “...I can really get into it.” Haru reached behind her, pulling a small bottle out of the back of the strap.

“We have two options to get it all nice and slick for you. We could use some of this and jump right into it, or you can give it a, personal touch.” She pushed it an inch further, lightly prodding at her upper lip. “What do you…?”

Haru didn’t get a chance to finish. By the second word, Makoto had already leaned forward, wrapping its tip between her lips. She looked up at Haru with a lidded gaze, purring as the tip of her tongue passed her lips, leaving a trail of shining, natural lubricant. Haru smiled, putting the easy option away.

“I should have known. You’re not one for cutting corners.” She thrust another half inch forward, driving the head to the middle of Makoto’s salivating tongue.

It was awkward for her at first, being the first thing she had taken so deep into her mouth with no intentions of swallowing. It was like moving in a way she hadn’t thought of before. She kept her teeth far from the firm skin, instead lavishing it with her tongue. It didn’t stay in one spot for her, though. Haru wanted this to be as real as she could make it, grinding in and out until it glided smoothly through the tight grasp of Makoto’s lips.

“If only I could feel your hard work. It certainly looks heavenly.” Contrary to her sole complaint, Haru was still getting worked up. The wet slurps made her drive her hips harder, though she held back from pushing too far in. It wouldn’t do to make Mako-chan uncomfortable. No, there was somewhere more immediately fitting to bury it to the hilt. “Ooh, I, I think we’re ready.”

The sentiment was lost on Makoto, who tried to keep it inside her longer yet as Haru pulled it back. Before she could try to reclaim it, Haru lifted herself up to let bob against Makoto’s forehead. It left a thin, glimmering line of its new coating down her face, and her eyes nearly crossed to try seeing it herself.

“Look at this, all slick and hot. There’s so much we could do with it. What do you think, Mako-chan?” Haru rubbed it across Makoto’s skin, her gaze falling on her with knowing intent. “What do you think we should do? I can’t decide.”

She was going to make Makoto sing for her supper. Makoto could barely squeak, let alone speak, but she fought for the one coherent sentence buzzing in the middle of her dizzying lust.

“I w-want you to… to...”

“To what?” Haru giggled as her pressure ramped up. She was showing exactly what she could give, if Makoto could say exactly what she wanted. The sight made her turn ravenous, and her desires came roaring through her voice.

“I want you to fuck me! I want to feel you in me, please!”

I want to feel you in me.

Not, “your dildo.”

Not even, “your dick.”

You.

Haru shuddered as she pushed down the urge to climax then and there. Instead, she slid herself back on the bed, and, though she was moving quickly, every second felt like an hour too long to Makoto.

“Good girl. I love it when you’re honest.”

Makoto only saw Haru’s face closing in a moment before their lips locked together. Their tongues found each other, Makoto’s giving Haru’s a long taste of the very thing she wanted.

Who was Haru to deny her wish?

She turned her head enough to see without breaking their kiss. She was careful to line herself up just right before diving in.

After less than an inch, Makoto was already moaning into her mouth. It had been in her before, but the weight of Haru on top of her made it feel so very different. Her thirsty flower was clamping around it even tighter than her lips had, and Haru grunted as though she could feel it.

She didn’t try to force her way in. Rather, she swayed her hips, wriggling it in Makoto’s depths. She aimed to please, and the steady grunts of approval being fed to her were a grand testament to her efforts. Makoto loosened enough to take in a little more, and every inch she was given made her voice climb ever higher.

It was Haru’s turn to squeak when Makoto’s arms and legs lanced up and locked around her, forcing half of her length in at once. The surprise made the kiss falter, letting Makoto slip a few words out with her puffs for air.

“I… I’m, sorry. I couldn’t...”

“Don’t you worry.” Haru found her balance once more, moving in Makoto’s hold for the best angle. “You already told me what you want.”

That was the only signal Makoto received before what was left of Haru’s mast was driven deep into her. Their crotches met with a thick, damp thud, and Makoto loosed a cry that echoed through the room.

Haru wasted no time in pulling herself halfway out and slamming it all back home in the space of a blink. Then again, and again. Burning hot pulses rippled over Makoto with each thrust, throwing her headlong over her limits.

Makoto moaned long and loud, as though her voice rippled as fervently as her well-stuffed vagina. She could barely hear Haru’s grunts of fulfillment over her own.

Though the waves of climax washed over them, Haru didn’t slow. She remembered just how her Mako-chan liked it. She clenched hard enough to stop anyone else in their tracks, but Haru pistoned along, working against both her own and Makoto’s orgasm to give as good as she received. She only slowed as the limbs around her lost their tension, and she only stopped when Makoto let go, dropping limply onto the bed.

Still, Haru didn’t pull out. She left herself hilted and pulled Makoto into her arms as she came to rest beside her. The remnant clenching from Makoto’s satisfied core pushed the base of the dildo back against her, topping off her finish nicely. She sighed contently and planted her approving kiss right on Makoto’s cheek.

“I would ask, but I have the funny feeling you liked that as much as me.”

Makoto’s eyes numbly rolled over to look at Haru, a big, dumb smile melting onto her face.

“If… If by ‘liked,’ you mean ‘loved,’ then yes. Absolutely.”

“Love is a strong word.” Haru rubbed a hand along the back of Makoto’s head, cooing as Makoto nuzzled into her chest. “And it’s the only one fitting for how I feel now.”

They remained there for several long minutes, both awaiting the return of their strength and soaking in the afterglow. Though preceded by intensity, the girls found their union now to be downright cozy.

 

-

 

“I… Um, I didn’t think I had that much in me.”

Well, Makoto didn’t have it in her anymore. She spent much of her body’s fluids soaking the sheets. It took half a bottle of water to get the dry feeling out of her mouth.

“I’m sure I contributed some. At least, that which the equipment didn’t hold in place, that is.”

The strap, it seemed, was as watertight as it was skintight. Haru’s proviso essentially eliminated her attempt to dampen Makoto’s embarrassment. She was left to wash it down with another long drink.

At least the laundromat’s bench was wide enough for two. It made the awkward wait to clean Akira’s thoroughly abused sheets more comfortable. Plus, it meant Haru didn’t have to stop holding Makoto, which was a win in both of their books.

“See, Mako-chan? Our evening was plenty intense.”

“That it was.” Makoto retraced it all in her head. From a confrontation about her home-life issues, to breaking down in Haru’s arms, to clinging to Haru as she…

Well, Futaba phrased it best before. ‘Plow her brains out,’ indeed. Makoto nearly chuckled at the thought.

“I hope we can do it again soon.”

“Don’t mind if we do!” Well, Haru was already excited. It boded well for Makoto’s sex life, though much less well for her hips. She would be sore for several days after clinging to Haru like that. She would just have to get used to it.

The ringing of her phone cut through the reverie of the moment. She sighed in mild irritation. If it was Sae being nosy again…

She poked around in her pocket with loose fingers, numbly fishing it out. Unfortunately, those loose fingers weren’t in any condition to then grab the phone. As it passed the hem of the pocket, it slid just as easily from Makoto’s hand, and it tumbled towards the floor. She jumped to try grabbing it, and Haru followed her, shooting a hand out.

“I’ll get it!”

Haru meant what she said, but the last thing she realistically expected was to reach it without actually reaching it. As her intent locked on grabbing the phone, a pink mist formed around it, suspending the device in midair. Haru’s heart jumped to her throat as she glanced between her fingers and the sudden magic.

“Mako-chan, is this…?”

“Well.” Makoto was staving off a heart attack. First from fear of losing her phone to gravity, then from the unexpected appearance of Psi. “It looks like your powers have finally crossed over. Good timing. Ha.” She was about to reach out for her phone, but her phone, instead, made its way to her. Haru’s every thought was on slowly, carefully moving it to safety. It was nerve-wracking, but it was impossible to keep the excited smile off her face.

“It’s like I’m holding it with a new hand. I can kind of feel it.”

The thought made her go still. The phone drifted into Makoto’s waiting hands, giving her something to focus on as Haru experienced her epiphany.

“Thanks, Haru. You’re a life saver.” Makoto rubbed against Haru lovingly, and Haru rubbed back, hiding her sly grin.

“So, who texted?”

“Looks like… Futaba?”

Sure enough, the text was from their resident puny bridge troll. The subject line read, ‘Got a gift for you.’

“Oh god, what now?” Makoto liked Futaba. She was endearing, but she was equally infuriating when the right topic was at hand. Since she knew they were having a romantic evening, it was most definitely going to be about one of those topics. Though hesitant, Makoto knew it was best to read it herself before Futaba forced it to open on its own.

‘Hey there! Looking at the time, you two should be wrapped up and trying to get your various juices out of Kiki’s room. Don’t tell me, Makoto soaked them, right? You damp ham sandwich.’

Why did she love that particular jab so much?

Maybe it was because Makoto still went red in the face at it.

‘Anyway, I wanted to thank you for letting me snatch your vids. You don’t cheap out with your smut, now do you?’

“Oh?” Apparently, Haru reached that part just as Makoto did, and she was curious. “You have a collection like that?”

“Um...” Makoto’s species was getting ever closer to changing permanently to a tomato. “If it helps, I got most of them before we started doing this.”

“Maybe we should watch them together sometime.”

Makoto didn’t know how to respond to that. She was happy, but not the sort of happiness she could say out loud. She buried herself back in the message to escape the vivid images that suggestion inspired.

‘I figured I should throw you something back. You know, fair trade and all that. It’s a little more involved than a video, though. Welcome to the world of smutty games! This one’s a personal favorite of mine. Enjoy!’

There was a file attached to the text. It didn’t display the full name of the program, though, just what Makoto hoped like heck was an acronym for something. Who named a program CoC?

Besides Futaba, that is.

As filled with dread as she was curious, Makoto tapped it, letting Futaba’s so-called gift download to her phone proper. It didn’t pop up on her main screen, though. It tucked itself away at the far back of her app list, with a much more normal name. The icon was of two monochrome figures. One was an outline of a normal-looking human girl’s head in light blue. The other was deep purple, with long horns curling from her head. It appeared to be an actual game. Makoto didn’t play those much, but she was, against her better judgment, intrigued.

“Corruption of Champions?”

Chapter Text

“I do believe that settles it.”

Black Mask, the assassin who instigated countless mental shutdowns and psychotic breakdowns over the course of two years.

The second Detective Prince, who killed Futaba’s mother.

Goro Akechi, who tried to kill both Haru’s father and Akira.

Everyone in the Thieves hated this man with every breath, and now, he was standing in Akira’s attic, their own den, and telling them what to do.

Only, he didn’t know that they knew he was Black Mask. As far as he was concerned, they had bought his lie about facing Black Mask himself and awakening to Persona in the process. He was a wily one, but he failed to plan for the possibility that no one believed his stream of constant lies. Pride would be his undoing.

Only, later. For the time being, they had to make nice with the psychopath. The roomful of justice-oriented, hair-trigger, personally wronged teens who were capable of summoning plumes of flame and rolling clouds of lightning had to sit on their hands and let him pontificate like their leader, even though their real leader, who he had tried to kill once, was sitting a few feet away.

“We’ll steal Sae Niijima’s heart, and you’ll tear the rest of the conspiracy out by the roots. That about sum it up?” Akira, to his eternal credit, was remarkably calm throughout the ordeal. If she didn’t know better, Makoto might have mistaken his act as him actually liking Akechi.

“Aside from the following disbandment of the Phantom Thieves’ activities, yes.”

Makoto wanted to laugh. He really thought he was threatening enough to enforce that order.

Makoto wanted to cry. Those pictures he took gave him the tools to actually be a threat, and his physical copies were out of Futaba’s reach.

Makoto wanted to scream and turn his face inside-out. He was using Sae as a tool to further his own ends and endanger her friends in one fell swoop.

Makoto wanted to do all these things, but she could only let it show as a degree of discomfort under the guise of concern for Sae. Beyond that, she had to remain the stalwart strategist, otherwise their collective hand would be tipped.

“If you are able to stop the perpetrators of the mental shutdowns, then our greatest target would be dealt with. We would have no reason to continue our work on the scale we have been conducting it.” She allowed herself a short exhale to calm herself. Her script came out as she intended. She spotted Akira building up that cocky grin of his, and she was subconsciously primed to either love or hate whatever he said next, depending.

“Although, if you mess up your end of the bargain and bite it, I guess that leaves it to us to finish what you started. Or maybe mister perfect won’t make it through his first Palace. Who knows?”

Ryuji snorted out loud as he failed to suppress a laugh. It was the sputter that broke the dam, letting everyone else enjoy a laugh they sorely needed. It dissolved in their throats as Akechi found a comeback.

“It almost sounds like you’re planning on me going the way of Caesar.” He winked, trying, and failing, to mimic Akira’s natural charm. “I’ve got my eye on you, Brutus.” Akira returned fire with a finger gun.

“Ambition’s debt will be paid.”

“You’re deceptively well-read, Kurusu. Perhaps we could discuss some of the classics later.” Akechi stood up, dusting off his pants. Was the attic life too ‘unhygienic’ for him? Akira was right. Akechi was absolutely a twink, at least as far as Futaba’s definition of the word entailed. “For now, I must be off. There are preparations to make for tomorrow’s operation. I must admit, I’m somewhat nervous. I do hope the experts don’t mind escorting the new blood for a while as I find my Metaverse legs?”

Wow, that was two cheap tricks in one. The ‘nervous newcomer’ act he put on for the cameras all the time mixed with the absolute fib about his experience with the Metaverse. Makoto would have been impressed if she wasn’t so… Well, whatever the toxic sludge of emotion in her head was called. She would address it later, after she got this tangle out of her hair.

“We’ve all been the new recruit once. It’s a short adjustment period, I promise.”

“I suppose it would be, considering your reign of terror has all taken place in only six months’ time.” Akechi really needed to stop trying to be funny. It only worked with the reporters trying to ride his coattails. “Jokes aside, your vote of confidence is reassuring. Thank you, Niijima-san, truly.” He said as if anything coming out of his mouth was, in fact, the truth. “Well, I will see all of you at the meeting place tomorrow.”

“Of course.” Those who knew her could see that Haru wasn’t quite acting right. She looked content enough on the surface, but there was something missing in her smile. Her skin was all a little too taut, and there was a hint of pale to her features that was horrifically misplaced. It was like looking at a star that had gone cold. “Good day, Akechi-kun.”

“Haha, good day, Okumura-san. We will see justice done for your father, I swear.”

It was very fortunate that Akechi turned the moment he said that. Otherwise, he would have seen the bloody red glare cast on him. It was like Milady had gone into a frenzy, only held back by the shell Haru had turned her outward body into. Makoto quickly gave her a hand, and when they touched, a spark of warmth returned to the sun. She reclaimed the strength to hold back the death in her eyes.

She only needed to hold a moment longer. A loud squeak marked the second-to-last stair. He said something to Boss on his way by, and Boss responded with practiced casualness. The bell rang once. It clicked a little softer. Then, he was gone.

Haru let out a breath, and her disguise was shed. Her shoulders sagged deeply, and it was perhaps the first time anyone had seen her with an unapologetic scowl on her face. She leaned against Makoto and let their connected heartbeat sooth her.

“Akira-kun, I don’t mean to be demanding, but...”

“Say no more.” As if he had known it was coming ahead of time, Akira was already on his knee, pulling out the armory box hidden under his bed. The code was halfway inputted, and he clicked the rest into place in a second. The box opened to a wide assortment of tools. It was the entirety of their active weapon loadout, alongside a number of backup weapons and thief tools. Akira was after one weapon in particular, though, one that stood out from the rest.

Haru spotted it before him. That was the only prerequisite needed to grab it in a shimmering sheet of psychic energy. An ax about half the size of its wielder rose from the box as though possessed by a demon. Its jagged, unrefined design and runic scrapings only added to that impression.

“Wow, you got the hang of your powers really quickly.” It was telling that Ann wasn’t perturbed by the possessed demon blade in the slightest. Not that she was used to that degree of brutality quite yet, mind, but more like she was too drained to properly react. “I still remember the mess Akira made trying to practice with his telekinesis.”

“To my credit, I helped you get the yolk out of your hair.” Akira was onto the second step, leaping into the support beams above to retrieve a pair of sawhorses.

“True enough, and you did have some great advice for making my curls all shiny.”

“I would imagine he has a lot of personal experience on that front.” Haru was bouncing the handle of her ax against her off hand, acclimating to its impressive weight. The only reason it didn’t count as an actual weapon was because its head was plastic, at least when she wasn’t holding it. She already appeared leagues better with the potential murder implement in her grasp.

“You know it. There really isn’t a quick way to get these curls out, so I make do.” Akira dropped the sawhorses down, and quick pokes of pink whisked them into position. Haru waited before her shrine, and soon, Akira threw to her an offering of one steel bar, about three inches in diameter. More psychic positioning placed it directly across the altar, and Haru’s fingers gripped her ax in anticipation.

“It would be wise to avert your eyes for a moment.”

At Haru’s suggestion, everyone took varying degrees of cover. Ryuji and Yusuke only closed their eyes and nothing else. Ann turned away. Akira remained in his perch far above, where Morgana joined him. Futaba slipped under the workbench in the corner, popping back up only long enough to retrieve her laptop.

Makoto refused to look away. Through her bond, she knew seeing it would be as cathartic for her as it was for Haru.

Noir rolled her shoulders. Then, she brought the ax up, its blade shimmering in the dim attic lights. She breathed in time with an unheard clock. Tick, tick, tick.

When midnight struck, so, too, did the headsman.

The ax came cleaving down, its warpath stopping just shy of the floor. To the untrained senses, it appeared as if she had missed. After all, there had been no clank of metal against metal, nor did the bar seem to have moved at all. It was a clean whiff.

On closer inspection, though, there was now a line dissecting the two halves of the bar. It was a clean cut, as if through water. This fact was made more apparent when the halves were hovered up into the air and held parallel to each other. There was a foot of space between them, each suspended by a conjoined cloud of magic.

With no warning, Haru took another swing, this time horizontal. There was a very light click, and those two bars were segmented again into four. Then to eight. Then sixteen. Haru all but juggled the pieces around, striking out as they all lined up. It was like swatting flies. The tiny fragments of metal surely seemed that size soon enough, and they only became smaller from there.

Though Makoto felt the thrill of every hit, even she lost count of how many individual pieces of steel were left behind. By the time Haru found it in her heart to stop, she was holding up a cloud of steel shavings, each no bigger than a fingernail clipping.

Satisfied, Haru flipped her ax head down and placed its tip between her feet. She squinted, and the manifold shavings were crunched together. The ball writhed under the steadily ramping pressure, until the friction between shavings alone was hot enough to make them merge. The surface of the ball roiled and flowed in ripples, but then it was solidified.

The end result of Haru’s venting was laid bare for all to see. What was once a long bar of pure, faultless steel had been broken and fused down to a perfect sphere, about a foot wide. She gently lowered it to the ground, but it still thumped mightily against the floorboards. Seeing its heft, Haru tilted her head in thought.

“Ryuji-kun, you wouldn’t happen to be interested in a flail, would you?”

“Nice of you to offer, but, I don’t know if I could swing that around too easy.”

“Hmm, I suppose sustainability would be an issue for you with a weapon this heavy. Pardon my lack of foresight.”

“No no, you’re cool. If it helps, it would’ve been pretty badass.”

Haru nodded in agreement, and an idea occurred to Makoto. As Akira hopped down from his perch, she turned to him.

“Could you hold onto that ball until we go to Mementos again, and maybe let me borrow a chain?”

“Queen has murder on the brain.” Futaba shimmied back into her seat, her focus glued to her laptop’s screen. Her eyes seemed abnormally glassy, though it was hard to say if it was from something going on in her head or from how long she had been working. “I can relate.”

“Don’t worry, Bug.” Akira gently patted her head, and the fragility of her gaze subsided. “We only have to work with him long enough to figure out who he’s working with. Then we can deal with him. Somehow.”

“I put forth hanging him upside down from a lamppost in Shibuya. After stripping him of his evidence, of course. And possibly his clothes.” It was hard to say if Yusuke was joking or not. He had thought out his suggestion disturbingly well if it was a joke.

“I’m with Inari on this one.” Futaba was most certainly serious. She wouldn’t side with Yusuke out loud for the sake of a joke.

“We can talk about that part later.” Morgana was one of two people in the room who had retained their even temperament in Akechi’s wake. “First, we need to get his secrets out of him.”

“Actually, we need to get our own chickens in a row first.” Akira stepped in with the other cool head. A head which was currently looking at Makoto with no small amount of concern. “You need to do any venting? You’re dealing with both his blackmail and finding out about your sister. I can only imagine how those two things are interacting upstairs.”

As always, Akira was to-the-point with a sagacious accuracy. Part of Makoto resented him for it, but a greater portion was thankful for him taking away her cover. It was all the harder to hide again after Haru sat down next to her, taking her hands in hers.

“Should I say something?” Haru was even offering to speak on Makoto’s behalf. It was heartwarming that she knew her well enough to do so, but on the same token, she couldn’t go burdening Haru like that. If Makoto was going to panhandle for sympathy, she could use her own voice for it.

“I think it would be more effective if I said it myself.”

Haru nodded in understanding and fell silent, pulling herself closer to Makoto to give her that comforting feeling of union. It was just the direction she needed to follow through on her word.

“If I’m being honest, I suspected something was wrong with Sis for a while. She’s… not the person I used to know.”

“That sounds...” Yusuke’s eye for details caught the matching pattern. Makoto nodded in affirmation.

“Haru helped me put it into words, and she said it best herself. Sis changed for the worse. She’s letting her need for victory tear her apart. I can only imagine how they’re planning to use that against her, or if she’s hurt anyone else on her own...” Makoto was about to carry on, but she saw Akira’s eyes narrow for a moment. When she looked pointedly at him, he knew it was pointless to keep it to himself.

“You said her name was Sae, right? Prosecutor Sae Niijima?”

“Yeah. What did she do?” Makoto was in no mood to keep up the charade of being unaware. If she was already at the end of her rope, she might as well keep things moving.

“She showed up threatening to take Futaba away.” Akira wasn’t the one who answered. That honor went to Sojiro, who chose that moment to plod up the stairs. “She came in here demanding what was left of Wakaba’s research, and used Futaba to twist my arm. Not that there was anything left to take. The first set of bastards cleaned everything out.”

That was her sister?” Futaba looked away from her screen, the shock great enough to break her focus. “I hate to say it, but Akira looked like he wanted to murder her. And he didn’t even know me yet!” Sojiro was taken aback by the news in a blend of many horrors.

“You saw all that?”

Akira looked away, probably because he was afraid of anyone looking him dead in the eyes. The cold pallor of his anger was a rare sight, but it hung heavy about his neck.

“...Yeah. I… hate seeing the people I care about threatened like that.” He glanced over to the futon where Makoto was seated, half cradled by Haru. “Let’s leave it there.”

It was a tough pill for Makoto to swallow. Even so, she knew she had to take it. Akira was the one person she trusted most, barring Haru. If he said she had gone so far as threatening to pull Futaba away from Sojiro, the one person who cared about her at the time, all for the sake of something he didn’t have to begin with, then she was really that far gone.

“Thanks for trying to be sensitive for me, but it doesn’t change what she did. Or what Akechi might do to her.”

There was another weight beside her on the futon now. She felt Ann’s hand on her back before she saw her.

“We’ll be with him the whole time. As long as we keep a beat on him, he won’t be able to do anything funny. Right, guys?”

“Damn straight.” Ryuji had his arms crossed, as if physically restraining himself from acting prematurely. “I see him put that black mask on, I’ll shoot the bastard myself. Point blank.”

That was… a funny mental image. Makoto wanted to feel guilt for chuckling at something that would undoubtedly kill Akechi, but it came packaged with the image of Skull ramming the barrel of a shotgun into Black Mask’s lower back like an Elmer Fudd cartoon. Makoto couldn’t stop giggling under her breath, which, in turn, lightened the room around her. Ryuji took some pride in being its instigator.

“I wasn’t going for funny with that, but I’ll take it.”

“Thank you, Ryuji-kun.” Haru was back to her old self, enjoying the giggly girlfriend in her arms. It was like Makoto’s laughter fed back into Haru’s mood. “Let’s put it to the official vote. All those in favor of saving Sae Niijima, raise your hand.” Haru’s was the first to go up, followed by Ann’s. Makoto sobered up quickly as everyone around the room became aware of the vote.

There went Ryuji’s hand. And Yusuke’s. Futaba put both of hers up. She was eager to stick it to Akechi, it seemed. Morgana’s paw was harder to see, but it was up all the same.

“Looks unanimous to me.” Akira’s was the last hand to go up. At some point in all of that, Sojiro had made his way over to him. They were talking about something, but it wasn’t clear what. Whether it was important or not, Makoto’s plight took precedence, breaking them both out of their side conversation and back into the main.

With them, every Thief besides Makoto herself had agreed on the plan, and Makoto’s answer was obvious. Especially now that everyone else had sworn their support. Makoto couldn’t turn anywhere without finding a warm smile or sharp grin, both equally prepared to do what was necessary. To circumvent Akechi. To save Sae.

They were going to save Sae.

Was Makoto going to get her sister back?

Would it be like the old days again?

More importantly, when did Makoto start crying? And why couldn’t she stop?

Haru pulled Makoto onto her lap, fully enveloping her in the warmth of the sun. She was rocking her to the sides, back and forth, gently coaxing out Makoto’s newfound flood of overwhelming… happiness? Relief? Love? Whatever it was, Haru wouldn’t let Makoto hold it back any longer. The thought made it flow more readily.

“We saved my father. Now, we can use what we learned to save Sae as well. I swear, we will not let you down.”

“Haru… Everyone...” At the end of the day, Makoto was a Thief, too. With all of the others smiling at her, it was all but impossible to keep from smiling herself. It was small, and shaky, but it was every bit as genuine as those given to her. “...Thank you. Thank you so much.”

“Third time’s the charm.” Futaba was back to her laptop, and, by some black magic, her hands were dancing across the keys faster than ever. “We’ll stick it to him this time.” Her typing slowed, but as her bones cooled, the razor sharp grin on her face heated up. “With a little help from my new and improved bug. We’re online!”

“...Does that mean I don’t have to cross-dress to track him manually now?”

“Dude, seriously?”

Chapter Text

Every little thing about the casino grated Makoto’s nerves.

The only Shadows in the building that were weak to her nuclear magic were already lacking in constitution, making her redundant in combat. This wasn’t at all helped by the lack of elbow room between the many slot machines and poker tables, rendering Anat’s mobility minimal in bike form. Her Persona had better luck standing upright, but it still felt like she was fighting with a leg tied behind her back.

The garish neon lights plastered on every wall hurt her eyes. Her only saving grace was that her mask was made of a grittier metal, keeping it from rebounding into her eyes via reflection. Maybe that was why the human-presenting guards of the facility, or what few there were lurking behind the scenes, wore sunglasses. It kept them from being hit by their own facility’s psychologically hypnotic fixtures.

Most of all, though, she hated, hated, HATED working alongside Akechi. Or, rather, “Crow,” as if he deserved the benefit of any code name besides Black Mask. How simply he tried to slide into the group dynamic, but to Makoto’s eye, he seemed more like a tick planted at the nape of their neck. She couldn’t wait for the day she could take a heated needle to the parasite and be rid of him.

To keep her broiling hate from making that mental bottle melt, she partook in the one silver lining to be had when possible. There was exactly one good thing about fighting alongside a murderer.

She learned of this joy as soon as they set foot on the casino’s floor for the first time, where a Shadow sprung from nowhere to deal with the intruders. Its security guard form rippled and bubbled violently until its disguise shattered in a fountain of alien viscera. The shape it congealed into was that of a bipedal cheetah, garbed in a forest green cape and a metal, pointedly pointy set of underwear. Makoto’s observations going directly from its… odd body coverings to Akechi’s smirk at it almost made her laugh. What had Futaba done to her sense of humor?

“Ah, an Ose. I encountered one of these as I escaped Black Mask. If my memory serves, Robin Hood was quite effective. May I?”

Akira took in Akechi’s request, then nodded, holding an arm out for everyone else to stay back.

“Alright, Crow. We’ll jump in if you need backup.”

Makoto wondered to herself how Akechi actually felt about the idea of Joker daring to offer his help. Was he laughing at the thought? Or maybe he was fuming at the mere suggestion that he wasn’t good enough to do it on his own? Whatever his real feelings on the matter, Akechi’s given response was as predictable as anything else coming from his false front.

I had better bring my best if you’re watching me that closely. We wouldn’t want our partnership to feel one-sided, now would we?” He sauntered forward with all the confidence he could ‘muster,’ as if he wasn’t overflowing with pride like a strutting rooster. His hand went to his mask in preparation of the show he intended to give. “Come, Robin Hood, we prove our dedication to…!”

As absorbed as he was in his showmanship, he carried it forward a step too much. That, and the rest of his body. The Ose took one leap forward, and its two swords were raised above Akechi’s head. He was shocked by the instant encroachment of his opponent, and the momentary flash of fear in his eye brought a second wind of life back to the long-stressed Makoto.

So long as Akechi was working with them, she had a front row seat to every time he screwed up. Since he was intentionally presenting himself as a new Persona user, she imagined such incidents would be quite common. Were it anyone else, she would have jumped in then and there to take the hit herself at worst and knock off the Ose’s head at best. But it was Akechi, and since he would survive a hit just fine, she just wanted to take it all in.

“Milady!”

That was why she was taken by surprise when Haru tore her own mask off, allowing Milady to spring to life between Akechi and his would-be assailant. The elegant lady in pink raised her mask, catching the incoming blades in the crook between its eyes. The right socket flashed orange, and all the force driven into it was thrown back, twisting the Ose’s arms against their own joints hard enough to crack.

My thanks, Noir. Robin Hood!” Akechi spotted the error in his approach, foregoing any further boasts to jump directly to his Persona’s summoning. His mask pulled free, and the hero in white rose before him.

This was the Persona he presented as his one and only, but Makoto wasn’t convinced. It was too… clean. A Persona reflected the deepest will of its user’s heart, but no matter how Akechi pretended to be a hero, pretended to be Crow, everyone knew well that beneath the act was the reality of Black Mask, the heartless assassin. Robin Hood was a dashing picture of heroism, with a barrel chest, confident posture, and chivalrous flair. None of these aspects reflected a gram of truth so far as Makoto could tell. Rather, the extreme depiction of justice struck her as an overcompensating charade, as false as the white attire Akechi wore before them now.

No matter her doubts, Hood was nonetheless a strong Persona. He dashed ahead, holding his bow a scant foot from the recoiling Ose’s chest. He mimed the act of drawing an arrow, and despite his bow’s lack of a string, an arrow of condensed light formed at his fingertips.

“Kouga!”

At Akechi’s signal, Robin Hood fired. The arrow of light pierced flesh as easily as air, splattering the ground behind Ose in its midnight black blood. It staggered back one step, then two. Between its own returned attack and Akechi’s return fire, its strength had been wholly sapped. It collapsed as its legs bucked, and its loosening body landed with a thick splat. The definition of its features melted away to the call of death, leaving the Thieves’ path open.

Well, that’s that.”

“So it is.” Haru raised a hand, calling her Persona back. With a curtsy, Milady withdrew, returning to Haru the cover of her mask. “A word of advice, you should read the enemy before considering theatrics. I’m certain Joker could help you with the timing, but I personally enjoyed your form otherwise.”

“Ah, thank you for the sound advice, my friend.” Akechi nodded, taking her words on the nose. Makoto could hardly believe that neither of their fake pleasantries broke in that exchange. ‘Friend’ was a strong word. “I do hope Joker has the time to spare on my silliness.”

“When it comes to friends, I make time.” Joker stepped forward into the claimed battleground, the reserved uptick of his lips giving his full analysis of the fight without a single direct comment.

If Joker spoke the truth, which Makoto trusted he did, then she would need his help to better hide how much she wanted to punch Akechi in the face. She was doing an admirable job on her own thus far, but much more pressure would shatter her bottle of anger like a glass pinata.

 

-

 

“Yo, Noir. Got a question for ya.”

Makoto listened with intrigue as Ryuji interrupted the deafening spinning of the slots with his own voice. She was proud of their newfound source of much needed coins after hacking into the casino’s wiring, but standing at a machine spewing out tokens while blaring an ear-shattering celebratory alarm was whittling down the scraps of her sanity to a fine powder. She needed a distraction. It was hard to tell if Haru was of the same mind as she answered.

“Of course. Is something the matter?”

“I was just wondering...” Ryuji glanced to his sides, making sure their chat was kept to themselves, or at least kept away from one person in particular. “Why’d you help Crow back there? No one would’ve blamed you for letting him eat it.”

“It’s quite simple, really.” Haru turned to him with the most serene, easygoing, undeniably adorable smile on her face. It was the panacea Makoto needed. “What fun is there in shattering a vase that’s already broken?”

Ryuji clammed up. Despite himself, a pang of sympathy echoed hauntingly in the otherwise barren list of reasons to care about Akechi.

“Well then. He’s screwed sideways, isn’t he?”

“With my sharpest ax.”

Huh. That sounded like something Makoto would want in on. Where to find a suitably sharp ax?

 

-

 

The elevator dinged as it reached its stop. Makoto was the first off of it, her hawkish eye open for any sign of her sister. She didn’t quite see her. Instead, all she saw was a large, golden cage around the elevator and a butler-esque Shadow standing guard.

Welcome to the high-ranking floor. Do you have reservations?

“Uh?” Ryuji scratched his head, then held out the membership card they had just bought. “We got a card for this floor. Thought the elevator already checked...”

No, no, that won’t do.” The Shadow all but scoffed at Ryuji’s assumption, making the temperamental boy’s nostrils flair. “Anyone can earn entry, but very few deserve it. Now, do you have a reservation, such as verification of rank by a seasoned member?

“The Hell!?” Ryuji took one heavy stomp forward, putting all of his aggression into the advance. The Shadow was unshaken. “Let us through! We got beef with your boss!”

“Skull, stand down.” Akechi raised a hand, trying to ease Ryuji’s famous temper before it got them all in trouble. Skull and Queen caught a glimpse into each other’s eyes, and they felt their thoughts align for a brief moment. Was he really giving orders now? As much as this fueled his fire, Ryuji bit his tongue and stepped back. “I don’t see any means of opening the way from in here, considering any such members of rank are already inside… Could this be a cognitive effect?”

“It would appear so.” Yusuke nodded in agreement, his eye unable to find anything resembling a keyhole to exploit. “We should have expected such trickery by this point.”

Even with all the odds stacking against them, nothing kept that cocky grin off Joker’s face.

“Then we’ll just have to trick harder.”

“My thoughts exactly. As this casino is linked to the courthouse, perhaps the trigger for entry can be found there. Something personal to Niijima-san, like...”

And there he went. Akechi brown-nosed Akira, then went on to act like the leader himself. Any compliment out of his mouth was lip service to hide what he intended to do to everyone present in the near future, and it was getting on Makoto’s last nerve.

Enough of this damn casino. Enough of this damn “cooperation with authority,” or whatever he called his blackmail. Enough of this damn feeling of entrapment.

The bottle was shaking. It was nearing full. She needed to release some pressure.

She noticed, then, that the cage was made of solid gold. Stylish, but not very sturdy. That was all the contribution her thinking mind could make before Queen ran off with her body, taking to a slow, patient stride towards the Shadow.

I’m sorry, but you can’t enter without a proper...

Makoto clenched her fist. Her iron knuckles were humming and steaming. Her eyes were going blue.

“Welp. That’s our cue.” Such was all the warning Akira gave before ducking behind the elevator itself. Everyone else joined him. Futaba and Ann were curled on the floor with their arms over their head, ready for the coming tornado. Haru kept one eye poking out from around the corner.

Seeing this, the Shadow audibly gulped.

Now, Ma’am, there’s no need for this. Allow me to contact my superiors to see how long it would take to verify...

Makoto didn’t hide her scoff.

“Why should I believe a cheat like you?”

The next three second were a blur, both from the haze of raw magic being expelled and the speeds Makoto broke into. Her fist was raised and primed in the first. It was thrown by the second.

At the strike of second three, nuclear fusion was achieved.

The Shadow’s head was hardly an obstacle, as soft as their bodies were in an untransformed state. The golden bars it guarded were only marginally more effective. The spikes of her knuckles dug into the metal, and when the heat hit, the cage began to melt. An already soft metal on the verge of turning liquid stood little chance of stopping the storm.

The cage screamed as it was torn apart, the force of Makoto’s fist extending well beyond the scope of her hand. It echoed far into the floor, and as it faded into the distance, the front of the cage had been blown open. It was now wide enough to drive a van through.

Oh yeah, that was exactly what Makoto needed.

“Damn, Queen, that was sick!” Well, Ryuji seemed to agree as he marveled at the twisted bars of half-molten gold. “You think I could do the same thing with my lightning? I’d effing love that.”

“Let’s put that thought on hold, for the sake of not bringing the building down on our heads.” Akechi’s suggestion was meek, fearful, but Makoto couldn’t take joy in it. He was still giving out orders despite being shown exactly why he shouldn’t press his luck. The sheer gall of this excuse of a man sapped away any relief she had just generated, leaving her stress painfully unrelieved.

She didn’t know how much more pressure she could take before something broke.

 

-

 

Makoto couldn’t stop looking at the bunny-suited waitresses. No, it wasn’t because she was well past due for a passionate night with Haru. In reality, it all came down to Ryuji’s oddly on-point observation and the resulting exploration of this particular cognition’s ramifications. The chain of reasoning had reverberated enough in her mind to hone it down to its main points.

The higher floors of the casino denoted more successful inhabitants.

The female Shadows in question were only found on those top floors, and their outfits became more… scarce in fabric, so to speak, as the tiers were climbed.

And the nail in the coffin; Sae’s Shadow, the owner and most powerful individual within the casino, was the inhabitant in the skimpiest outfit.

There was no other way to account for the above facts. Sae was a smart person, no matter how distorted her morals became. Such a discrepancy wouldn’t have persisted in her Palace for long before her own reasoning turned it inside out. No, she had to be fully aware of what the above facts in relation to each other implied for the results to materialize as such.

Makoto couldn’t spin it any other way. Instead, she tried her best to push it to the back of her mind. She jammed it into the bottle and sealed the cap with a welding torch. It boiled and burned at the very core of her heart. She ignored that pain, though, focusing as hard as she could on the mission at hand.

She felt herself growing reckless, but she couldn’t do anything to stop herself. If she slowed down, the truth would have caught up to her. She outpaced the others, outpaced Akira and Haru and especially Akechi, practically sprinted through any Shadows that got in her way. She was blind to the ornate, golden trim on the last two she blew away as she rushed past their corpses and opened the grand, ornate door they guarded.

But what was past the door, that, that she couldn’t run from.

The room was sparsely furnished. There was what looked like a study desk modified with a standing mirror in one corner. Across from it was a bed, and in the opposite corner was a dresser. Draped over the dresser, abandoned instead of being put away properly, was the signature black uniform of Shujin.

Specifically, Makoto’s. She was the only person in the building who had gone with the neck-strap variant of the over shirt, and those brown, ankle-height boots were just her size. She took great care of her uniform as an extension of her presence in the eyes of the student body. It was always freshly folded and put away to retain its pristine condition between uses.

This set, though, was haphazardly thrown to the wayside. The buttons weren’t done, and the way it was dropped left it riddled in wrinkles. The dust was almost thick enough to dull the plaid skirt to a solid black. If she looked closely, the buttons almost appeared to have rusted. To her, it seemed like an insect had shed its skin, or perhaps it was an abandoned cocoon.

The latter hypothesis was confirmed as her eye fell on the butterfly herself. And her heart stopped.

There, sitting on her knees in the middle of the room, was a copy of Makoto. She was motionless to an unsettling degree, only moving to blink. She wasn’t even breathing. Her ears twitched at the real Makoto’s entrance, but she recoiled, as if that minuscule degree of motion was worthy of retribution. Her actions were that of someone conditioned to be a doll on the shelf, someone forced to restrain the slightest twitch in fear of it sullying her perfectly manufactured appearance.

It was what the doll in question was dressed in, though, that burned the image into Makoto’s mind. She wanted to think that the outfit was still being sewn, forgoing a mannequin and fitting it on the recipient herself, but the edges of the fabric were smoothed over, with nary a loose thread in sight. This was the complete article.

And it looked like the kind of outfit best reserved for a porn pinup. The widest stretch of clothing was around the top of her hips, but it only amounted to a length of string made to hold the dress in place and accentuate the curve of her thighs. Everything above and below it tapered off into much thinner sections. Two rolls of the gold leaf-reminiscent cloth cascaded down in the front and back, each about wide enough to reach her knees while standing. They just barely covered her decency, but closer inspection showed that there wasn’t a pair of undergarments in place beneath these flimsy drapes. One wrong gust of wind would have exposed everything she had to hide, whether she consented or not.

The top wasn’t much better. It was only kept from being worse by the slight difference in horror between what was being accentuated, advertised like fruit on a shelf. The top was mainly a long, curving strip that reached up from the hips and around her neck, vaguely akin to both her normal shirt’s straps and the dress her sister’s Shadow proudly paraded around in.

The difference was how lacking in modesty it was. Where Sae’s covered the outer sides and obscured her cleavage with crossed strings holding the front together, her own was, at most, two inches wide as it passed her chest, covering only the nipples. Everything else was on full display. In fact, it looked accentuated, as if it had been intentionally slung to hold her breasts up. Once again, there wasn’t a bra, not that it would have helped.

Makoto didn’t know how to react. She couldn’t react. She could only stare, as motionless as her displayed doppelganger. The footsteps in her ears echoed in a hollow mind, as did the voices that came with them.

“Queen! Queen, wait for us!” Haru slipped up beside her. She hadn’t seen the room ahead yet, instead looking at the real Makoto. What she saw was cold and lifeless, and it stirred a fearfulness in Haru’s already concerned heart. “Are you all right? Are you hurt, or…?” Haru gradually noticed that Makoto was staring at something. When she turned, she found the same horrible sight awaiting her, and, had Makoto been paying attention, she would have seen her own terror mirrored in Haru’s eyes. “Oh no...”

“What!? What’s wrong!?” Ryuji went barreling past both of them, his club raised to crush whatever monster was threatening his friends. What he found, though, couldn’t be banished with violence. It only made his burning blood run cold, cold enough to dull the thought of turning away. It took several beats more than it should have to turn from the fake Makoto and towards the real one. He used himself to block Makoto’s view, but the whole of that room was seared into her memory. He looked up at the sound of more approaching footsteps.

“Guys, stay out of here.”

“Skull? What’s…?”

“Panther. Stay out.” Something about the deathly stoicism in Ryuji’s tone shook everyone who heard it, bringing silence over the Thieves.

The extinguishing of Ryuji’s flame, as haunting as the thought may have been, was the farthest thing from Makoto’s mind. She wasn’t convinced that she, herself, hadn’t been distanced from it as well. Her thoughts were all thin and transient, wisps of consciousness that grazed her cheek, leaving only thin paths of dew as they came and went. She couldn’t feel Haru’s hands taking her own, or Skull’s hands gently landing on her shoulders to push her away.

“Come on, you shouldn’t see this.”

His voice was far away. She couldn’t understand it, so she remained still, alone with the ghosts of thoughts.

Makoto felt like she had seen that other version of herself once before, or something akin to it. When was that? It felt so long ago.

Oh, that was it. June. Shortly after she joined the Thieves, but before her first successful mission. So, it was during… Kaneshiro’s Palace.

She was starting to remember. A nightmare she thought she had buried. His threat was terrifying once. How had she forgotten it? She was almost enslaved by him, forced to serve as a woman of the night to pay her ‘debt.’ That idea was at once fearful and infuriating. She had seen an echo of herself that never came to be, broken on the floor, exposed, eyes devoid of life. Ruined.

Now, she saw that same figure, a demon revived to drag her into her own personal Hell. The only difference was that Kaneshiro was honest about what he wanted of her. This one, this hollow-eyed statuette, bought into the idea that this was all for her own good. Somehow, that made it worse. So much worse.

“Niijima? Niijima? Are you still with us?”

Was this what Sae really thought of her?

“Give her some damn space, Crow!”

Was Makoto just a doll to dress up and put on the shelf, like some sort of trophy?

“Inari!? What’s gotten into you!?”

That had to be it, then.

“She’s going into shock. I thought a detective would know better than to rile her up further.”

This was all the value she had to her own sister.

“Her breathing’s getting heavy. Skull, help me move her. We need a safe room, now!”

The sister she loved, and who she thought loved her, somewhere under the muck.

“On it, Joker.”

Apparently, she underestimated just how ruthless Sae had become.

“I’ve found one. Down that hall there, second door on the right.”

She was a tool, used to reap fame instead of fortune.

“Damn Shadows! Get out of our way, or I’ll burn you to charcoal!”

She had come all this way, just to end up right where she began.

“She’s blacking out!”

A whore by any other name…

“Mako-chan!”

Chapter Text

Makoto had two hard rules left, the only two that hadn’t changed after all these months of being a Phantom Thief. First, she loved her sister. Second, she would never directly partake in defacing a Palace unless it aided their operation in a practical way. Everything else about her had shifted one way or another, for better or worse. These two points were the only scraps left of her old core, which she built herself upon.

Now, both were thrown into question.

Her vantage point from Anat’s high shoulders was perfect for seeing the havoc she wreaked on the blighted casino. The grenade launcher in her hands was, likewise, perfect for causing that havoc. It wasn’t as graceful in her hands as it was in Haru’s, nor was its song so melodic, but the crunch of devastation was loud enough to drown out the desire to just curl up and cry.

She was lucky beyond measure that Haru was willing to let her vent. Not just with the grenades. She spent longer than she liked to admit lost in her own head. She would’ve stayed in there if Haru didn’t insist on listening to her. It gave her a tether to climb out, even if it took a while.

Ironically, the last push she needed came from Akechi, of all people. She was… conflicted about that, but she set aside Akechi’s part in it for the time being. He was a monster, but he was hailed as a Detective Prince by the unknowing public for a good reason. He did what she was too gobsmacked to do and made sense of what she was seeing.

Now, that interpretation helped her filter out the raw shock and actually think. Slowly, mind, but any thought was better than none.

“Queen, is the statue to your liking so far?”

She looked away from her warpath to judge the end result. In the middle of a hundred slot machine husks, torn and twisted like hands of the damned grasping for far off salvation, was the dictator that held them under her boot.

Her dress was as jagged as her soul. The char-painted black plates were welded together at harsh angles. It was a striking outfit, but it did nothing to hide the writhing monstrosity underneath. Her skin was woven from wires and springs, all coiled like a body of ferrous snakes. It looked like Fox was still mulling over what he wanted the head and arms to be, but the forming visage of one hand reaching hungrily towards the sky, as if lusting for the moon itself, was promising.

A cold chill ran through Makoto. For her whole life, she had only seen the sister she wanted to see, the one she loved. Now, she had a form to put to the dictator who had long tormented and controlled her. Seeing this raw interpretation of Sae, she wondered why it took her so long to notice it herself.

“It looks good. Say, do you think you could use some of this glass to make a wine glass for her other hand?”

“Hmm, wanting with one hand, contrasted with the vice she already holds… Yes, that could work.” Fox was doing his best not to grin. Knowing how swept up he could be in his flights of fancy when it came to his art, Makoto appreciated the effort to not look too happy about demonizing her sister, no matter how much she deserved the reality check. “We’ll need to construct a mold for the glass. Perhaps something loose and with a low heat, so the shards don’t lose their sharpness.”

“We’re going to need a lot more scrap, then.” Haru offloaded another armful of broken chunks onto the pile. “Skull, Panther, should we take a short break first?”

“Nah, I’m good.” The blondes were balancing on the statue’s shoulders. Ryuji held chunks of metal in place as Ann welded them down with her fingertips. If either of them fell, Seiten Taisei was hovering below on his cloud, ready to swoop in for the catch. “I’ve been needing to hit the gym anyway. Haven’t exactly had a ton of time for it, you know?”

“Tell me about it.” Ann rolled her fingers, popping each knuckle before her muscles could stiffen. “It doesn’t help that I’ve been stress eating like crazy. I hope we can take care of all this soon, or I’ll start putting on weight.” It took Ryuji no small amount of willpower to not point out how unlikely that was. He didn’t mind possibly being pushed off the statue for it, but it still didn’t sound like a fun time.

Makoto glanced up to the rafters, where the source of all their stress watched over them. The only reason she was okay with Akechi being way up there was because Akira was with him. And the only reason she was okay with Akira being alone with his potential assassin was because they were both being watched. Makoto lowered her voice to a whisper and spoke.

“Oracle, any developments?”

“Negatory.” Their navigator hovered over the room as their personal sun. She said she was watching for Shadows, but really, she was making sure Akechi didn’t try shooting Akira earlier than planned.

And that right there was one of the added worries that kept Makoto from venting in full. If she was to dump everything out of the bottle, she would lose the last bit of restraint keeping her from tearing Akechi’s head off. On one end, her sister was bending the justice system for personal glory, not to mention the horrible, distorted image she had of her heartless approach to raising Makoto. On the other, there was Akechi, who they knew was gunning for Joker. He thought he was so clever, but they all saw right through his plan.

But then, why was he being helpful? Why would he try to straighten out Makoto’s personal issues if he was going to discard her like an old napkin in a few weeks anyway? It wasn’t like he needed to reinforce his grip on the team by acting like a real Thief. They already appeared to be following the path he needed them on. It didn’t make any sense.

He was, without a doubt, their enemy, so why wasn’t he acting like it?

Makoto felt a tap on her shoulder. Morgana had jumped up beside her, and the concern was evident in those big eyes of his.

“How are you holding up?”

It was then that Makoto realized she had stopped shooting and started thinking, exactly the thing she was relieved to have a break from. She was slipping back into her head. She wanted to reassure Morgana, but that wouldn’t help anyone in the long run.

“Not well. I feel like I’m jumping back and forth over a big pit. I can’t walk away from it, but if I stop, I’ll fall in. I’m sorry, I must sound like I’m crazy.”

“No, I get where you’re coming from.” Mona sat down next to her. It was like he knew she needed some company. “We’ll find a way to help your sister, and then we’ll get Black Mask off our backs. I swear on my honor.”

“I know we will.” Makoto was tempted to sit down, too. She didn’t, but she wanted to. “I’m just worried if I’ll hold myself together long enough to see it.”

“Whoa!”

A loud crash broke Makoto’s hazy concentration. It looked like a shard of the dress hadn’t been welded on tight enough, so when Ryuji stepped on it, he slipped and fell. He rolled down the side of the statue, and, though his Persona caught him, the dislodged pieces of metal hadn’t been so lucky.

“Oh crap!” Ann winced at the open wound on the statue’s shoulder, as if pure guilt was bleeding out of it. “Are you okay?”

“I’m good! I’m good.” He rolled upright on his cloud and dusted himself off. Taisei helped pick bits of debris out of his hair, though it was tough with fingers that big.

“I think we should call break. Wouldn’t you say?”

“I suppose.” Fox agreed with some hesitation, but Haru had a point. For once, it wasn’t him risking himself for his art, so breaks were necessary. “We’ll start again in ten minutes.”

“Got it.” Ann hopped down onto Ryuji’s cloud. It tilted under her unexpected weight, almost tipping Taisei off his own nimbus.

“Hey, watch it! There ain’t much room here! Ugh, I miss our old boat.”

While Ryuji mourned his long gone past as a pirate, Haru took to her own break with aplomb. She took a running jump towards Anat, who leaned over to catch her deftly. From there, it was a short ride up to her other shoulder, where she was free to peck Makoto’s cheek.

“Are you feeling better now?”

“Yeah, but still not great.” Makoto almost wished she could use Anat and have her mask on at the same time. She was sure the stress wrinkles under her eyes didn’t look good, but Haru didn’t seem to mind as she pulled Makoto in for a gentle hug. She really needed it. “I’m worried we won’t be able to get through to Sae. If we steal her Treasure, then we’ll lose her Palace, and our plan falls apart. And then there’s the plan. If we mess that up...”

“Shh, we’ll be okay.”

She thought being cradled and rocked like a crying toddler would have been embarrassing once, but there was something soothing about it.

“We always pull through, one way or another. Sae-san will get better. Joker will be fine. I know it, and so do you.”

“Yeah… I know.” But there was a difference between knowing with her head and knowing with her heart. The former had been failing her too often for comfort of late, and the latter was a tricky thing to convince. She needed to step away from all this stress for a while, unwind. Maybe then she would be more open to the suggestion that she was worrying herself into a ditch for nothing. “Do you think we could have… you know. A night for ourselves, soon?”

“Of course, Mako-chan.” Okay, having a girlfriend say something like that so readily, now that was slightly embarrassing. In the nice, butterfly feeling in her stomach way. Actually, that only made it more embarrassing. At least Makoto wasn’t thinking about all the stress for a second.

There was a patter of paws scaling down the side of Anat. When Makoto glanced, she saw Morgana trying to make a sly escape. Since he was caught, though, he changed tactics.

“I’ll give you ladies your space. And, uh, convince Joker to be out and about soon.”

Makoto was going to say something, but he was already gone, scampering off… somewhere. It wasn’t entirely clear where.

Not that it really mattered. The alone time with Haru was nice. Well, relatively alone. Their private time would have to come later.

A quiet moment in her arms was almost as good in her book, though. She felt like she could stop jumping over the pit, if only for a little while.

 

-

 

November 19.

That was the day everything would come to a head. They would confront Sae’s Shadow. Akechi would spring his trap. Then, it was up to Akira. If anyone could convince Sae to trust them, just long enough to help reroute Akechi into the Metaverse, it was Akira.

There was more to be done after that, of course, and a few things to wrap up beforehand, but it felt like the tipping point to Makoto. Could she face Sae’s distorted self? Could they undercut Akechi’s plan and slip under his radar? Would everyone’s promises to her hold true? Only time would tell.

Before any of that, though, Makoto needed to rest. It had been a long day, a long month, and there was more to come. Stepping through the door into her apartment, she was ready to curl up and black out. May her dreams be mercifully hollow.

To her surprise, she wasn’t alone. Sae was actually home for once, sitting in front of her laptop at the dining room table. In a best case scenario, Makoto could have slipped by undetected with Sae too wrapped up in her work to notice. That came with the risk of Sae noticing her and starting the conversation with an unprepared Makoto, though. She couldn’t risk being caught like that.

“Hey, Sis. Are you taking a break from the investigation?”

“No. Some bean counter on the board wasn’t comfortable with all the time I’ve been spending on the clock. Something about workers’ rights violations. Annoying, but I can take part of my work with me, so I’ll manage.”

The pit at the bottom of Makoto’s stomach twisted twice over. Sae’s voice was harsh and carried itself with superiority, as if the film between her and the distorted self sitting in her Palace was dissolving further. More than that, how much had she been working to make her bosses uncomfortable? Considering the rising death rates on account of overworked employees, the degree of fixation taking root in Sae must have been immense. No one could bear the pressure much longer, neither Sae nor anyone around her. Especially not the Phantom Thieves.

“Okay. I’ll get out of your hair, then.”

“Wait.” The forcefulness of the order was strict enough to make Makoto obey unthinkingly. When Sae stood from her seat, though, a much softer presence turned to face her. It was a face riddled with regret. “I know how stressful all of this must be for you. I haven’t been around much at the best of times, but now with the Phantom Thieves investigation, I can’t help but think it’s putting a wedge between us.”

She had no idea. She really didn’t. Even with a lack of understanding, though, her words still cut deep. That surface level detail must have been obvious, making Sae’s guilt worse.

“When this is all over, I think I’m due for a long vacation. We can go somewhere if you like. Reconnect. I think it would be good for us.”

Stop this, please...

“Yeah, that sounds great!”

A small, warm smile grew on Sae’s face. It was like she had cast off the ice queen’s shroud, freeing the sister Makoto used to know and love.

“I’m glad you think so. Just, bear with me a little while longer. At this rate, I should be freed up by December. Come to think of it, we haven’t been able to celebrate Christmas together in a while, either. We’ll have to do something about that.”

Why are you talking like this now?

“You know, just having dinner together would be enough of a present for me.”

The upswing in Sae’s mood dipped a bit at the suggestion.

“I really have been absent if so little would suffice. If it’s a dinner you want, though, we’ll go somewhere nice. We’ll make an evening of it to talk about… I don’t know. I suppose you’re getting to the age where you must want to talk about boys now, right?”

A knife punctured the thin veil of fantasy. Sae was right about one thing. The wall between them was thick. The dewdrops of hope condensing on Makoto’s heart swiftly turned to cyanide. She wanted to keep trying, to get back the warm fantasy that her family life was just fine, but she knew she would either bleed out or die of toxicity first.

“I mean, kind of. I guess.” Makoto played off her discomfort as embarrassment as she averted her eyes and rubbed the back of her neck. Sae bought it with a chuckle. “I really should be getting to bed soon. I have a test coming up, and...”

“Say no more.” Sae nodded with understanding, or what she thought she understood, and returned to her seat. It would be but a few minutes, at most, before she hardened again, locking away Makoto’s dream of normality. “Good luck. And remember, we’ll have some us time when you’re finished.”

“I’m looking forward to it. Goodnight, Sis.”

“Goodnight.”

Makoto hurried down the hall, leaving Sae to her work. She didn’t know how she managed to not slam her door behind her. She was shaking horribly. She brought her hands up to cover her mouth and clenched her eyes shut.

Why?

Why was Sae acting like a real sister now? Was her Shadow trying to mess with Makoto’s head?

Nothing made sense anymore. Makoto was sick at the thought, but, she kind of missed Kaneshiro. At least then, she knew she was fighting a monster. It was so much easier to fight monsters than humans.

Chapter Text

Makoto was getting real tired of having her identity go up in flames every other day.

She was certain, one hundred percent sure, that she was absolutely, unequivocally gay. She was so gay that she sometimes wondered why her nuclear magic didn’t come out as rainbows. (Note to self, never mention that thought to Futaba. She would get ideas. Come to think of it, make that Ann as well. It would be disastrous to try with fire.) She thought girls were hot, and she didn’t like boys. Not for any particular reason, mind, she just didn’t see them that way.

She could almost understand why she thought “Aka-chan” was kind of attractive. Akira really pulled off that look, if Ryuji’s reaction was anything to go by. She just knew, though, that under the pretty face was a vicious, sharp-toothed grin waiting for someone to fall into her trap, like a practical joke spider. So, Aka-chan was off the table. She wasn’t really on the table to begin with.

What was harder to understand, what she couldn’t grasp for the life of her, was why she was getting weak in the knees for the reverse.

Far behind her, she heard the bell to LeBlanc’s front door ring, and then the lock clicked. Nothing else remained in the cafe. No phantasms, no patrons, no peeping cameras, nothing. Only Makoto, the beating of her heart in her ears, and the strong arms carrying her up the stairs bridal style.

It was a surprisingly comfortable position, if she was being honest. And were those muscles she felt rippling across her back? Oh gosh she was swooning. Yep, definitely swooning. Thank goodness she wasn’t at all responsible for remaining upright at the moment.

“You seem a bit tense, my dear.” That voice flowed smoothly into Makoto’s ear, filling her up like a slow pour of hot caramel. Her insides were hot and candy-coated and oh golly she was swooning worse now. Respond, Makoto! Use your lips for something other than gawking!

“I’m just… nervous, is all.” Nervous!? Is that the best you’ve got!?

“I know just the thing to put your mind at ease.” She knew she was gambling. She knew it was a risk. But still, she hazarded a look up. Floating over her like a guiding star was a wonderfully firm jawline… No, expression! Yes, a firm, confident expression. She could just get lost in those cedar eyes, drown in the caramel irises that gazed lovingly down at her. Her paramour’s lips parted as if to speak, but it took Makoto a moment longer than she liked to surface from her haze and hear what she was being offered. “How does a thorough massage sound, my sweet?”

Her imagination crackled and popped, millisecond-long flashes of strong fingers rubbing every square inch of her, cascading down her body until they finally reached…

No, dangerous thoughts! Don’t shut down yet! RESPOND!

“That sounds… wonderful.” Her backup brain kicked in, forcing her hand to trail up the sturdy chest that embraced her, trace the jawline that so enraptured her, until she gently cupped that mesmerizing cheek. “Almost as wonderful as you.”

Oh god, that was so corny. Was that the best she could come up with! And was she focusing on a CHEEK!? She was losing her cool over one tiny part of a pretty face! A face she thought she already knew, but a professionally roguish suit and well-fit bowler hat apparently worked wonders. On one hand, she was oh so very happy she confided in Haru her taste for yakuza movies. On the other hand, her brain physically couldn’t handle the result.

Haru, though… Or, pardon, ‘Harumi,’ was reveling in her… his role. He filled the shoes of a dashing gentleman well. Too well. It was almost enough to make Makoto feel straight for once in her life. It was an emotion, layered on her already overwhelming feelings for the person of her dreams-made-reality, that gave her only short bursts of cognitive function. And she was supposed to be a top tier strategist? Yeah right, like she was living up to that…

Oh gosh, Harumi was chuckling. Makoto could feel that. It was stirring up the oceans of caramel she continued to drown in. Help, someone, girl overboard!

“You flatter me. But tonight is yours, sweet Mako-chan.” Harumi returned the gesture, cradling Makoto’s soft, undoubtedly blushing, cheek. “Nothing but the best for one so lovely as you.”

She knew it was still Haru’s voice. She knew she was just shifting her pitch down to hide that adorable chirpy tone of hers. So then why was Makoto sinking in Harumi’s rich, sonorous vocals? Was it her yakuza fantasies mingling with the part of her that still recognized it as Haru? Well if that were the case, then she was still gay, but that was beside the point.

Actually, she couldn’t find the point. It was lost somewhere in the deep sea of red hot, candy-sweet attraction that Makoto was still drowning in. She was pushed even further down by another bombardment of loving mirth from above. How had Makoto not been dragged to the bottom yet? How deep did this ocean in her head go?

“Ah, you’re as adorable as the day we met, fair Mako-chan, but it’s about time to see you relax. That is what I promised you.”

...Yeah, it was, wasn’t it? Makoto just wanted one evening to let go of her worries. One chance to bleed off her tension before everything came to a head. That’s what Harumi wanted to give her, and in his arms, lost in the bottomless waters, she was drifting far from her troubles. Why was she trying so hard to surface, then? If Harumi wanted her to melt in his hands, then he could have her. She stopped flailing, and the warm water settled around her.

“All right.” The tension trapped in her rigid shoulders floated away. She could still feel herself blushing hot enough to boil, but she didn’t try to push the feeling away, nor did she struggle against the lightness in her head when she felt the strong arms cradling her closer. The last bit of control she mustered was to lean forward and kiss Harumi on those promising lips of his. “I’m all yours.”

“And I, yours.” Gently, ever so lovingly, he lowered her to the bed, sliding his hands from under her so that she slid smoothly from his grasp to that of the mattress.

Wait, when did they reach the…? No, it didn’t matter. Makoto didn’t need to cling to the absolute control that so pressured her. Not here, not with Haru.

“I would ask you to make yourself comfortable.” Harumi rubbed his hands together in slow, sensual circles, warming them up for what he had planned next. “I don’t intend on stopping until I’ve worked out every last drop of stress that has been plaguing you.”

Still on with those high promises. Luckily, he was the one person who Makoto trusted to meet his word. He was intent on making this a night for her, but she could give him at least a little something to whet his appetite. Matching his pace, her hands moved to the buttons on her blouse, the first of many rolling between her fingers.

“If you insist. It’s so hot in here.” Ooh, she didn’t know she had that kind of sultry tenor in her, but she liked it. She actually felt attractive for once. She rolled with it, sliding the button free and letting her shirt pull itself apart as she breathed deeply.

What was this? It looked like the first stretch of skin she exposed was a bit damp. The sweat wasn’t so thick as to pool, but it gave her a lovely shimmer. She could feel the hunger in Harumi’s eyes even as he tried to maintain his gentlemanly presence, and Makoto wondered, what could she bring out of him with a little more teasing?

“Mm, much better.” The second button came undone, and she pressed her shoulders together. She had to resist the urge to admire her own work as the barest glimpse of her cleavage pushed into view. Harumi was almost staring, just barely holding himself back. She had him hooked. It was time to reel him in. “I think that’s enough. I wouldn’t want to make you touch my exposed, moist skin...” She didn’t even have to break out the eyelash flutter before he cut in, his voice teetering on the edge of desire.

“You don’t need to stop for my sake.” Still the gentleman, at least on the surface, Harumi played it off as deference for her, though she knew that wasn’t the only thing on his mind. “This is all for you. Don’t mind me one wink.”

Was that desperation on his lips? Delicious, absolutely scrumptious. Knowing that he wanted her so bad was fulfilling in a way Makoto had never dreamed of. She could let the lead out a little bit now, see where he took it.

“Well, if you insist.” She undid the third button, and a little bit of blue was exposed. Harumi’s eyes snapped to it. Makoto moved her arms to cover the gap, hiding her coy grin by turning her head. She watched him closely, though, as he tried to peek around her hands to see what she was hiding.

But what fun was there in laying it all out so soon? No, as long as he wanted to play the gentleman and hold out on giving her a proper eyeful of that lovely hunger of his, she would keep her cards, among other things, close to her chest. As one hand moved to the next button, the other arm stayed behind, covering herself while her shirt covered less.

Admittedly, it was a hassle undoing buttons with just one hand, but the results were worth it. More and more, she could see Haru looking out from behind her disguise. “Harumi,” the proper and promising man he was, grew more thin by the inch. No matter how much Haru undressed her with her eyes, Makoto felt like she was unwrapping something just as good. And no, she wasn’t talking about her shoulders, though the cool air felt good on them as her shirt fell. The only problem was that she couldn’t get her arms out of the sleeves without uncovering herself. What to do…?

Oh, this was a massage, wasn’t it? Then laying on her back wouldn’t do. She rolled over, and like that, the blankets covered more than just the mattress. She moved her arms back and shimmied the sleeves up them, keeping a little bit of arm over the softly pressed mass of her breasts.

Just as she was about to feel silly for wriggling like a worm out of her shirt, Harumi moved to help pull her free. Maybe it was a kind gesture, or maybe he couldn’t wait any longer. Most likely both. Makoto appreciated it either way. With one quick click, she unlatched her bra and slid it out from under her. The only cover remaining was the bed beneath her.

“There. Are we comfortable now?”

Makoto nodded, pulling one of the pillows over to proper herself up on. She was still careful not to let her nipples show, but she let him see just a little more of what was around them as she lifted herself up onto her elbows. He would have to work for more than that.

“Excellent.” He leaned down to her, and this close, she could see exactly where his eyes were going. He wasn’t sneaking a peek at her boobs now. Nor was he staring at her butt, even if the way she was laying made it kind of pronounced. He was looking right at her, the burning embers of lust mingling with a softer warmth. In every way, she could see that he adored her. It was enough to make her cheeks go pure red, surely a hole in that teasing facade she had been keeping up, and he placed a quick kiss right on them.

Oh hey, she could see her own nose going red. That was mildly embarrassing. But then, she was laying there shirtless, and she felt the mattress shifting as Harumi moved over her, his knees planted on either side to give him the best access to her back. Maybe a red nose wasn’t that bad.

“As lovely as your muscles are when they’re tensed, this would be easier if you relaxed them a little.”

Glancing at her own arms, Makoto supposed she was a bit more on the brawny side than one would think under the uniform. She wasn’t a body builder by any means, but her various training regiments were showing well. She lowered herself fully into the pillow, and when her weight was more evenly distributed, her muscles were allowed to loosen.

“There we are.” When Harumi’s hands first touched down between her shoulders and neck, their warmth immediately set the muscles there to melt. He hadn’t put any pressure behind them yet, but she felt the stress bleeding out already.

The outflow only intensified as those strong fingers started rippling over her, pushing into her like waves lapping at the shore. The tide encroached further in, those wonderful hands gradually sweeping down her back, taking in the lay of the land before they set to work.

“You’ve been hunching of late, haven’t you?” The next few presses into her back her punctuated by soft tuts. “You’ve been much too distracted to focus on good posture. That will take its toll if left as is.”

She was being chastised, but still, between the fingers rolling down her back and the sweet bass of his voice, Makoto couldn’t keep her eyes from sinking shut.

“M’ sorry.”

“It’s hard to fault you, I admit. We’ll see what we can do about your habits later.”

The hands lifted from her back, their scan apparently finished. She knew they would be back, and probably more forceful than in the warm up, but she still felt a shivering mewl of disappointment rumble through her. She heard them rubbing again somewhere above her. There was something about the sound that was different this time, but Makoto had surrendered too much control to tell exactly what. She couldn’t quite tell, and she couldn’t quite care. She just wanted that special touch back.

“For now, it’s nothing a little love and care won’t fix.”

If he said anything after that, Makoto couldn’t hear it over her soul purring as she felt Harumi’s touch return. As she thought, it was pressing in so much harder. The heat was rubbed deep into her muscles. Wherever he touched, she felt her control over her own body faltering. She probably couldn’t move those spots then if she wanted to. But then, she didn’t want to. Risk missing out on so much as a moment of Harumi lavishing her with attention? No.

As unneeded senses dulled and her focus went wholly to the magic being worked on her, she noticed that there was a slight tingle left in the wake of Harumi’s ministrations. It was refreshing, like that cool feeling of a good face cream clearing out the pores. It was like that, but warm. Makoto’s addled mind guessed that he was using some fancy massage oil or the like and left it at that. Asking about it could be left to future Makoto, who would be clear headed enough to put the question together. Present Makoto only cared that it felt so very good.

It only got better as Harumi dared to scale down her sides. He didn’t linger there long, kneading the sensitive skin a short skip down from her arms before retreating to less risque territory, but his cycle carried him back soon enough. Then a bit sooner, and sooner still. On each dive, he descended a little further. She purred as he grazed her abs, admiring them as much as he could for the second he allowed himself to remain.

My, such restraint. Some men would be all to eager to reach for something else. Or perhaps her well-maintained stomach was what attracted him more? Ooh, that odd tingle was nice in the creases between her abs. He certainly had an appreciation for her musculature. In that case, she knew somewhere he’d love to get a handful of.

“Mm, that feels great, but I’ve noticed a bit of pressure in my legs lately, up around the thighs. Do you think you could…?” She barely shook her hip once before she felt a finger looping into the waist of her pants.

“Of course, your poor legs must be haggard from running here and there. Don’t fret, dear, I promised you total relief.” Harumi lifted himself up enough to slide the band of it under him, but he never let up on the massage in progress.

Something about his work was making the back of her head tingle. That pesky workaholic wanted to ruin this with her endless worrying again. No. She ignored the nagging feeling and let herself be molded. It looked like he was maintaining his proper decorum, taking off only her pants. The underwear was left as it was, exposing just the legs she requested attention towards.

She tilted her feet to help him pull the pants free, and as soon as they were gone, his hand went to her thigh. Oh how she wanted to shiver, that wonderful tingling touch so close to somewhere much less decent. He firmly squeezed, filling his hand with the iron-hard thew of her leg. He let loose a pleased rumble. He was enjoying this as much as her.

“From top to bottom, you’ve chiseled yourself marvelously. I feel like I’m polishing a Greek statue. Nay, something more sublime. Thank you, sincerely, for the honor.”

His words were moving from loving deference to adoring worship. If that didn’t make the shiver she held off surface at long last, then the hand squeezing her other thigh dragged it out of her.

“You’re quite welcome. It’s nice to have my hard work appreciated.”

And appreciate he did. From rippling back to stony thigh, he hoarded the touch of every last toned muscle to himself. She would call him greedy if she hadn’t given herself over willingly. For as much as the feeling of her body thrilled him, she found just as much in the polishing of her battle-ravaged flesh. She could feel her stress going up in smoke as those fingers rolled over her shoulders and pulled it all out of her.

Wait. Shoulder, shoulder. Back, back. Thigh, thigh… Six points of contact? A seventh and eighth came soon after, admiring the iron beams that were her lower legs.

She opened her eyes, and at once, she saw the faint pink lights fluttering at the corners of her vision. She turned to look at one of them. There, working her shoulder like the keys of a sensitive piano, was a hand with no arm. It ended at the wrist. The hand floated there all on its own, its skin made of woven magic with a faint shimmering cloud drifting around it. It was a detailed creation, with every crease one would expect to find on a real hand. It even appeared to have the grooves of fingerprints. Just as her sluggish mind put the pieces together, Harumi chuckled richly.

“How do you like my special technique, my dear?” Looking up at him, she realized that his real hands weren’t touching her at all. They probably hadn’t since the initial warm up, swapping out for the conjured doubles soon after she closed her eyes. All up and down her body, the phantasmal fingers polished her every curve more thoroughly than any one person would ever hope to accomplish. When the surprise wore off, a small, cheshire grin found itself on her lips.

“I think I love it almost as much as I love you.” She winked, drifting back into her relaxed position, content to let the hands continue. “Almost. But then, I would think you would rather feel me for yourself rather than letting your magic have all the fun.”

“Ah, but I’m having fun aplenty.” Hands nine and ten formed right on her hips. It felt like gentle static dancing on her nerves, and the feeling focused into that lovely tingle as they solidified. “It took some practice, but I can feel each of these hands as if they were my own.” There was number eleven, cupping her cheek like a precious jewel. “Only the best for my dearest Mako-chan.” Numbers twelve and thirteen almost tickled as they took hold of her feet, but the soft pressure left them as limp and blissfully helpless as the rest of her.

If all of these extra hands were his way of showing off how far he would go for her, then it was working. She loved the attention she got from him with just the normal human two, but she had no word strong enough for how wonderful it felt to be cradled from every angle like this.

Only, there were a few spots he hadn’t placed a hand yet. For all her teasing, she had yet to make him jump ahead of himself.

Oh well. She could admit defeat. She was getting to be too curious, among other things, to be coy about it much longer.

“I could lay here like this forever. And I’m pretty sure you would go along with it if I asked.” Her own skin felt like a loose sock puppet. No, it was more like the stuff inside her trying to make it move had gone soft. Her muscles were pudding, and her bones were rubber hoses. Still, she mustered up a few grams of control to pull herself out from under Harumi. Then, she pressed backwards into him, his magic hands stuck between them moving as much as they could while pinned to please her.

“But all of this attention has me feeling a little… frisky.” She looked over her shoulder to find Harumi glancing between her eyes and the supple curves of her boobs. It seemed that hiding them for so long had gotten to him more than she thought. She felt more than a little impish as she winked, making him blush for once. “Do you think your magic hands can handle that?”

It was the most direct invite she had given all night, and it was exactly what Harumi had been waiting for. The door was open, and with a smile a mile wide, he stepped through. His real fingers twiddled and stirred up a few more palms of magic to work with.

“I should certainly hope so. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be the best.” He flicked his wrists, and the spell was cast. The clouds floated around her, hanging in the air in front of her as they wriggled and compacted. Then, as if poking through the membrane between mind and matter, the fingertips emerged. One slipped through the divide faster than the other, and it reached over to pull its partner through, almost like snapping on a glove. As Makoto was mesmerized by the light show, Harumi leaned into her ear and whispered, quietly, hungrily. “And I only give you the very best.”

This would be the point where she normally broke down entirely. Her cobbled together control would crumble, leaving her a plaything. Her dearly beloved was only ever careful and loving with her when it came to that. But this time, in rolling with it instead of fighting it for once, she retained just enough momentum to answer his hunger with a growl of her own.

“Then prove it.”

Like that, she saw something snap behind those cedar eyes. It looked like ‘Harumi’ wasn’t there anymore. Only Haru, and Haru wanted Makoto.

Good. Because Makoto wanted Haru.

And she got her. Or rather, Haru got two handfuls of Makoto. As the other hands all continued their massage, the two newcomers latched onto her breasts. They pressed in at first, warming them with magic and friction, and then they pulled. Her nerves were pulled thin, and as if seeing the opening, all of the lingering magic flooded into her. Wherever those hands touched, the feeling remained, buzzing, stirring, kneading into the soft tissues until Makoto’s eyes went blurry.

Not many girls could get pushed so close to finishing just from a little boob play. Makoto was one of them, and now that the play was being done with more than hot and ready skin, she had to pull herself back from finishing before the fun began.

She didn’t have to wait long for that, though. Just as those thirsty fingers found her nipples, pinching and twisting them in the lovingly rough way Makoto liked it, another hand started tracing circles down below, just barely avoiding the sensitive hill in the middle. Hand fourteen… Or was that fifteen? Whatever, didn’t matter… Was a bit smaller than the others, but its surface was more charged, focused. The trail it left behind was almost as mind melting as all of the work being put into her non-erogenous zones put together. She questioned why something like that wasn’t currently fondling her boobs, but then she remembered that it probably would have sent her screaming over the edge on contact.

Then she realized where that hand was probably going.

“Are you ready?” Haru had dropped the rich, gentlemanly facade of Harumi. As much as Makoto liked the role play, she couldn’t disagree with the cheery, chirpy voice she knew and loved joining her as she fell headfirst into what came next. A few hands converged down below, pinching at the hem of her panties. The thin, damp sheet of cloth was pulled aside, leaving no barriers between that crackling, concentrated hand and its target.

Makoto was almost afraid of the implications. She was already at the edge, and this promised to be the single most intense sensation she had ever felt.

Or so she hoped.

She relaxed her body as much as she was able. If this was going to carry her away, she was going to ride that wave as far to sea as it would take her.

“Don’t go easy on me.”

Haru chuckled at the order.

“I wasn’t planning to.”

The hand was circling closer. Closer. Just before contact with the outer lips, it lifted up, skipping the buildup and aiming its pointer finger right at her button. It looked like it was shifting as much power as it could spare right to that tip.

“Only the best for my Mako-chan!”

That declaration was the sound of the pistol firing. The hand pushed in, its finger sinking directly into her clit.

Makoto’s mind detonated on contact. The raw pleasure was white hot, hotter than any nuclear fireball she could dream of whipping up. It shot up the nerves of her pussy like lightning. If that clenching she felt wasn’t a torrential orgasm, it was almost certainly her muscles writhing under the assault of Haru’s spell. Twisting, clenching, pulsing. All of the rubbing up to that point had been prepping the bomb, waiting for someone to press the button. Now that it was going off, Makoto was shot off to sea with the force of a meltdown.

It didn’t stay below her waist, either. Where the feeling of sex usually stayed at the site of activity, maybe rolling up into the stomach if it was really intense, the surge of magic echoed across her entire body. Curling her toes popped a big enough bubble to make her climax refresh. Twitching her eyes made the feeling stay at its crest. Her screams, reduced to mono-syllable cries if any coherency remained at all, rippled across her and stoked the flame, while hearing herself screaming was like tossing stones into the water. It was like Haru had hijacked all of her functions and rewired them for sex.

And Makoto loved it. She was totally lost, buffeted every which way by her senses run amok. It would have been painful if she was still intent on fighting it. She gave up on that control a long time ago, though, letting her dissolve without regret.

Hehe, you’re so cute like this, Mako-chan!

That was… Haru? But it didn’t sound like she was speaking. The only thing Makoto heard was her own screaming. It was more like Haru had infiltrated her thoughts, taking over inside as much as she had outside.

But I know you like dragging it out a bit more. So...

Suddenly, that hand, that wonderful, devilish hand, dragged down her slit, lining its fingers up with the canal. Had Makoto a single thought left intact in her head, she would have realized then why the hand was smaller than the rest.

Let’s see how far we can take this!

The hand plunged in. She vaguely felt her lips closing around it as it burrowed in, but it was far from lost. She could feel it, to the very last square nanometer. Her pussy clenched down around it, either to push it out or pull it in, but all that accomplished was letting it touch her with its evil, beautiful spell. The first wave was one strong pulse that ricocheted off of her boundaries, refusing to die down as it latched into any sense it could get a hold on. This, though, was more like a generator had been planted in her, sending out a fresh wave by the second.

Any other magic hand still working on her outer muscles. The hands on her boobs. The bed under her. Haru at her back. She couldn’t feel any of it anymore. This was a space of but one sensation, an anti-vacuum of sensual desire. She didn’t know how total her capture in it was, nor did she care. Any thoughts that might have occurred were drowned out by firing neurons trying to keep up with the endless signals from places that shouldn’t be experiencing anything like this.

At some point, the sensation became too much, and Makoto’s thinking mind shut down. It was almost like blacking out, but reversed. Whiting out, then? When consciousness returned to her, everything was spotty. Her vision was filled with clouds of white and pink, stardust floating in her eyes. Her body was wracked by spasms, as if it was trying to reenter that state of pure bliss. Her mouth gaped and lungs squeezed like she was screaming, but nothing came out. It was like trying to make a deflated dog toy squeak.

Her ears were ringing. That was probably because of all the screaming. She could actually hear something now, someone talking. To her. Yeah, she thought she heard her name mixed in there somewhere. She was groggy, her body wrung out for the last drop of energy it had. Was that why she broke out of that horrible, wonderful void? Did she just not have enough strength to sustain a reaction any longer? It took more focus than she thought she had left to tune in and really hear what was being said.

“Are you awake? Mako-chan?”

Makoto wrangled back control of her lungs. She forced them to expand, bringing in fresh air. That burned, a lot. Suffocating with plenty of air around her, how weird. That would have been an embarrassing way to go.

“Ugh… Haru?” Her systems came back to her, one by one. She tried to push herself up, but her arms gave out at every attempt. She was being held anyway, she soon noticed, so that effort was scrapped quickly. It was hard to see through the stars in her eyes, but when she finally pieced Haru together behind the curtain of lights, she saw a face of almost manic worry. It was tempered a little at the sound of Makoto’s voice, but the core of concern remained. “How long was I…?”

“Um… Ten minutes, I think.”

She was orgasming for ten straight minutes? Or was that just how long she had been passed out, not including the minute or two of orgasm from before that point? Either way, that was easily the longest she had ever been through.

“Do you need a drink? You were screaming an awful lot, so you must be parched.”

“A little.” That was an understatement. She felt dried out in every way. Her gaze drifted down, and, to her shame and begrudging amazement, there was a puddle under her. That right there was a good chunk of her lost fluids. She refused to measure how much, as to not stoke her embarrassment. “Just, let me wake up first.”

“Of course. Of course.” The request was taken as an order. Haru pulled Makoto into her, fully enveloping her with the plush warmth of herself. No suit, no matter how well fit, could hide the soft curves of her body when it was this close. “Are you sure you’re all right otherwise?”

“All right?” No, in fact. She wasn’t all right. Her throat was hoarse from the screaming. Her fingers were still twitching. Down below, she still clenched up even though there wasn’t anything in her. She had been hit with the brunt force of an exploding star, one that was jammed up inside her for that matter.

And it felt amazing.

“I’m better than all right. That was the best orgasm I’ve ever had, bar none.”

“O-oh!” Haru was taken aback by the declaration. Understandably so, after seeing Makoto practically transcend her body. “Well, that’s great! I’m glad you liked it.” Understatement of the year. “But, I hope you don’t mind if we ease back just a little bit next time. That was a little startling.” Okay, that was probably a bigger understatement. Makoto was about to agree, completely, when something else occurred to her.

“Hey, you never got any attention! Gosh, I feel kind of guilty. I get my hard drive wiped, and you get nothing for it.”

“Um, actually...” Haru looked sheepish, but she didn’t let that silence her. “After you gave me the go ahead there, I made a hand for myself. Under my clothes.” Haru shifted on her butt, emphasizing her post-coitus sensitivity. “I thought you would be tired after coming back down. Not this tired, but… You know. And seeing and feeling you finishing and going past the finish like that was too much for me to resist.”

Despite her intense exhaustion, Makoto just had to laugh. Haru was squirming like she was the one who just spent ten minutes writhing helplessly. It was adorable, exactly what she wanted to wake up to. Maybe in the near future, she could wake up to see it every morning. For now, this was enough.

“I love you, Haru.”

Haru smiled through her blush, and she leaned down to answer with a kiss. It was a gentle, warm kiss, the kind that told her everything would be okay. When they pulled apart, the lights in her eyes had cleared, letting her see Haru in all her glowing beauty.

“I love you, too, Mako-chan.”

She held Makoto close, backing up her words with action. Makoto never wanted this moment to end.

“Should I go get you some water now?”

...Well, maybe she should get a drink, then resume the moment.

“Yes, please.”

Chapter Text

In retrospect, it made perfect sense to go on a Mementos run before the deadline. After they dealt with Sae and sprung the trap, they would be pretty preoccupied with the fallout one way or another. It would be an affront to their standards and convictions to leave request holders helpless in the meantime. Clearing out the request list, then, was the smart and just thing to do.

But there was a problem with that plan. Akechi wanted to accompany them. That meant Makoto would have to put up with working alongside him again. While they were both cramped together in the back of Morgana’s van form. She would be expending the relief she gathered up from her night with Haru, the relief meant to carry her through the end of their “cooperation” with the Defective Prince, days before the final operation.

Makoto had some choice thoughts on the matter, and they were as follows.

Fuck her life.

Fuck Mementos.

And most of all, fuck Akechi with a nuclear warhead.

She knew she had thought as much before, but she swore to heaven, Hell, and whatever clusterfuck was between them that whoever was in charge of the universe loved laughing his almighty ass off at her misery.

And no, she didn’t care that her internal monologue was sounding increasingly like Ryuji went emo. She was too pissed off to care. She had to remind herself why she was there to keep her head on straight. It was for the innocent people of Tokyo. It was for the victims who couldn’t protect themselves. It was for justice.

It was also for the sincere hope that, at the end of this long trail, she would finally get to turn Akechi’s face inside-out. That would be so very cathartic.

 

-

 

“I am… severely unsettled.”

In the meantime, watching him squirm like a maggot was a decent enough substitution. Even if she agreed with him. The deeper they dove into Mementos, the more warped it became. Up towards the surface, it was mostly just a dark subway with some twisted geometry. As they descended, it felt more and more like they were driving through the twisted flesh of some inconceivable monstrosity. Blood vessels pulsed and writhed along the walls, and the tracks were carved from bone. The stone walls, the last vestiges of architecture encapsulating the organs of the beast, were melting, rotting, as if black putrefaction had set in.

They didn’t have much choice to avoid the lower layers, though. It seemed the more warped someone’s cognition became, the lower they were located. If they wanted to help the people who were most threatened by their oppressors, they had to reach deep, no matter what kinds of demons lurked so far beneath the surface.

“That’s Mementos for you.” For as nightmarish as the environment became, Akira was as chilled as ever. Or at least that’s how he looked. How much was it real confidence, and how much was it an act to give everyone else some hope? “With all of humanity blending its cognition here, it kind of fits that it would start melding together like this at some point.”

“Hmm.” Akechi’s brow furrowed in thought. The way it made his ridiculous mask wiggle like a big nose was, admittedly, kind of funny. Dart-faced bird brain.

Oh, she was sharing that one with Futaba later. She would get a kick out of it.

“You said that this is humanity’s Palace, Mona? Could there be a Treasure hidden somewhere in the structure?”

“It’s highly likely.” Morgana’s voice came to them through the radio. It made listening to music to ease the tension difficult, but it was efficient in terms of bodily reconfiguration. “But we can’t confirm the possibility yet. The doors between each zone only open after we’ve achieved a certain amount of fame or infamy among the population. Until we get passed the final door, we have no way of seeing what’s at the bottom, which is where the Treasure is most likely to reside.”

“That would be a hindrance… But are you certain that your renown is what causes the doors to open?”

“Huh?” Ryuji was half asleep in his seat. He shook himself to wakefulness, using the conversation as a way to stay awake. “I mean, the doors always open after we nail a big target. Seems kind of obvious that that’s what does it.”

“All possibilities should be explored, just to be certain.” And now Akechi was trying to be more clever than them. Again. Makoto was no psychologist, but he seemed extremely insecure if he had to flex his mighty brain at every opportunity. “If this has happened repeatedly, then the connection between your missions and Mementos deepening seems certain. However, your fame is only one product of your actions. Could it be that dismantling other Palaces across the Metaverse allows more space for Mementos to build itself?”

“I don’t think so.” Futaba didn’t look up from her monitor, but she had enough expertise to talk and scan at the same time. “Mom’s studies never turned up any sort of physical limitations for the Metaverse. As far as we can tell, it has infinite space to work with.” She glanced up from her work to level a cocky glare at Akechi. Good thing he knew that she loved mocking him anyway, otherwise it would have given away how much she absolutely despised him. “Try again, smart guy.”

“Very well.” He took the challenge on the nose, his mask wiggling as he formulated a new hypothesis. Yusuke beat him to it, speaking as he idly sketched. Or, ‘idly’ by Yusuke’s standards.

“Perhaps dismantling the Palaces allows Mementos to absorb the material they are constructed from, expanding downwards as it is able.”

“Ah, now there’s an interesting idea.” Akechi seemed genuinely surprised to receive a hypothesis like that from Fox. He had a horrible tendency to take one glance at people and decide then and there whether they were worth paying attention to.

“But it raises a new question, does it not?” Haru, too, was busy with her own task on the road. Hers was still focused on the mission, though, as the gleam of her freshly sharpened ax attested. “We theorized before that the Treasure of Mementos is at the bottom. If Mementos as we know it has to expand to reach that far, then what is the nature of the Treasure chamber? Is it an independent structure only loosely connected to Mementos itself, and if so, why?”

“We’re assuming, first, that an expansion is what’s happening.” Makoto found it much more palatable to enter the discussion through Haru than through Akechi. “I don’t see any reason why a Treasure would be physically separated from its Palace. That wouldn’t fit with any other Palace we’ve seen. Unless this being humanity’s collective Palace somehow shifts its connection to the core of distortion?”

“I suppose, looking at the cognitive background of Mementos...” Akechi trailed off, his eyes going distant. It was like he was suddenly sucked up by thought, or something else lingering in his mind. The tightening of his features spoke to something floating just out of his grasp, dragged away by a string whenever he reached for it. Whatever was on his mind, or adamantly refusing to touch it, was unsettling to him. “People tend not to understand one another on any deep level. It could be that the lack of coherence between us prevents us from clearly seeing a distortion that we share.” He shook himself out of his stupor, the object of his striking obsession vanishing from his attention. “No, it would be more accurate to say everyone else’s distortion, since we Persona users can’t...”

“Shadow, dead ahead!”

Morgana’s alarm shut the conversation down where it stood. Haru was the first to jump to her feet, that gloriously giddy energy of hers making her bounce on her heels.

“It looks like a strong one!”

“Yeah.” From the back, all anyone could see of Akira was his wicked grin in the rear view mirror. The shift stick chunked into high gear, and Mona accelerated to ramming speed. “But not for long. Let’s hit him where it hurts!”

Finally. Makoto was all too happy to kick open the back door and prepare Anat. Flattening a Shadow or ten would be relaxing. It always was. And if she happened to catch Akechi being slapped around a little, all the better.

 

-

 

“Well. This is interesting.”

Makoto’s eyes skimmed over the crowd of Shadows encircling her. There were a lot of dragons. A lot of them. Technically they were more like snakes, but their size pushed them into draconic territory in her mind. Their massive bodies were coated in green scales, and close observation revealed that they traveled in heaps of eight. She couldn’t count how many there were total, but they were enough to ensnare her in the middle of their den.

“They appear stronger than the other Shadows at this depth.” Haru pressed in close, her and Makoto’s backs covering each other. Any blind spot would let the slithering pit crash in on them unimpeded. “I suppose Mementos is getting tired of us.”

Queen, Noir, respond!

“We’re here, Oracle. What’s the situation on your end?”

Lots and lots of snakes.

“That sounds familiar.” One of them edged in towards them, but one good point from Haru’s grenade launcher made it retreat into the hoard. “Have you found a weakness?”

Lucky you, they hate nuclear attacks. I’m not seeing a lot of breathing room for you guys on my scanners, though.

That was an understatement. If Makoto managed to summon Anat with them this close, she would have enough time for maybe one small attack before they retaliated.

We’re on our way, just hold out until we get there.

“I suppose we could keep up our guard for that long.” There was a hint of mischief in Haru’s voice. It looked like living with Akira was starting to affect her.

Not that Makoto was much better.

“But where’s the fun in that?”

Queen, no.” Was Futaba actually being a voice of reason for once? “I can’t tape you kicking butt from over here!” And there was the gremlin she knew.

“I’ll tell you all about it later.”

Ugh, fiiiine. Have a speed buff.

No sooner than she said it in that droning faux-disappointment, Makoto’s heart rate jumped, and her body felt light. The snakes’ movement became easier to track. To her, it felt like the world was slowing down and gravity was lifting, but she knew that she was the only thing changing.

You better hurry, or we’ll show up and steal your fun.

“We appreciate the offer.” Haru swung her ax in circles, spinning the hefty implement as easily as a hollow baton. A blade in one hand, a heavy armament in the other. All she needed was the space for Makoto to provide her arsenal with wheels. “But I think the Shadows require more assistance than us.”

With a spin on the tip of her toes, Haru put all her strength behind her ax and threw it into the slithering mass. Many coiling bodies swerved to avoid it, but many more were sliced open as the massive bladed boomerang twirled through them. The sound of tearing scales and splattering blood was the starting gun; the time for defensive measures was over for both sides.

One of the octal heaps broke off from the rest, plowing through the eye they stood in. Makoto was initially just going to jump around it, but then she noticed how the creature extended vertically. The heads bore down in a staggered pattern, almost like a…

“Stairway!” With one shout to hint her intent, Makoto leaped, her improved agility launching her right onto the nearest head. As she jumped to the next, she heard Haru landing shortly behind her.

Of course, the Shadows didn’t take long to catch wind, either. Once she reached the third head, the coil pulled up from their patterned charge, the heads turning in to snap at the humans leaving footprints on their skulls. Prospects for ascending on this one were getting slim.

That wasn’t true for the other snakes, who tried to make themselves into a wall too high to climb. They were so preoccupied with acting as a barricade that none of the heads thought to stay prepared to attack if their prey got too close.

They also didn’t realize how good the traction their rough skin could provide. Makoto, though, did.

With one last mighty jump, she flung herself at the wall of snakes, and as she neared impact, she grabbed her mask. The force of tearing it off launched her into a spin that ended with her feet aimed ahead, right at the wall.

She never touched it, though. A streak of blue flame shot up its side. The fire slid under Makoto, leaving a trail of skid marks. When Makoto landed on it, the flame had hardened into a steaming bullet with tires and horns. Anat had come just in time.

In the corner of her eye, Makoto saw Haru jump after her. Only, she wasn’t aiming for Anat’s seat. Makoto saw where she was going, so she straightened herself out, pushing her ride’s speed as high as it would go to stay aloft on the failed barrier. The snakes were screeching in pain as she drove across them, even more so whenever her tires found their treads digging into exposed eyes. The force applied only got stronger when Haru landed on Anat’s side, using the Persona as a platform.

“Ooh! This is a wonderful vantage point, Queen. I can see all the open mouths coming after us.”

Haru was right about that. The snake that had originally attacked them, the one they used to get this high, was chasing them around the ring now, its heads almost fighting to be the first to take a bite out of them. It looked like the front runner was one Makoto had used as a stair, at least if she was seeing that boot print over its left eye correctly.

Most people would be freaking out right about then. There was a real chance of them being eaten, after all.

Makoto didn’t quite see it that way. Neither did Haru.

Because Haru had two things: great aim and a grenade launcher.

The Shadows watched in enraptured fury as Haru lined up her shot. She was smiling so beautifully, the same kind of serene happiness that came to her as she tended her garden. Makoto liked the angle she got to see it from. She even had a nice view of the aftermath in her mirrors.

None of them thought to close their mouths until after Haru took her first shot. A grenade thwipped past the lips of the closest head and tumbled down its throat. The explosion sent shockwaves through the octal… No, now it was a septal. The blast tore that head from the others, making it roll away and flop to the ground where it promptly began to dissolve.

The others made to change course at the realization of their vulnerability, but not before three nice chunks saw payloads delivered to three more gullets. The sound of them being blown to bits was music to the ear, almost as much as Haru humming as she looked for another opening. By the time the raging snake broke its attack run, it found its number reduced by half.

“I love target practice. But I love explosions more.” Haru slipped down Anat’s frame, hugging herself against Makoto’s back. “And I love your explosions most of all! Can we make some?”

Makoto couldn’t help the warm smile that came to her lips. She could feel Haru’s heart racing as though it was pumping blood through both of them. She loved that thrill of unison in the heat of the moment. With Haru beside her, she felt like she could do anything.

Most of all, blow stuff up.

“Always, kitten.”

She wondered if Haru could feel the magic pumping as she drew it out. That prickling at her skin as it surfaced. How purely alive she felt at the cusp of the cast. It was a pleasure like few others.

The Shadows were starting to get wiser to the prey they underestimated. The wall was coming apart, breaking off into a quickly spreading sea of angry reptiles. They weren’t quick enough, though, since they had to untangle first. This gave Makoto the breathing room she needed, and there was still a big space in the eye of the storm she could use.

She yanked Anat’s handlebars up, and the bike hopped from the wall. The feeling of her insides shifting alongside gravity as she righted her orientation made Makoto aware that she was getting heavier again. The buff was starting to wear off. Not that it gave her opponents an opening.

Though she was upright now, she wasn’t driving straight. Rather, she was turned to the side, screeching around the clearing in donuts, her back tire leaving a trail of flame that held back the few heads able to pull off from the rest.

In the center of it all, the halved Shadow was watching, its hate warped into fear. It backed away from her, but every time it thought it found a way to escape the wall of her driving, Anat’s acceleration jumped to a new level, cutting off its route and driving it back to the pupil of the eye.

Makoto knew when it was time. Anat was thrumming beneath her. The magic was coursing hot in her blood. Haru was laughing with unrestrained glee. Everything was lined up perfectly. It was just waiting for Makoto to let it loose. As she opened her mouth, she felt the first rush of magic racing up her tongue.

“Mafreidyne!

It was like a bomb going off. Makoto wasn’t the epicenter of it herself. No, she had been laying that out beneath her with each revolution. The trail she burned into the floor of Mementos lit up a radiant blue, and then it exploded. It washed over Makoto and Haru, kept from them by Anat’s slipstream.

The Shadows had no such protection. Blue energy, airborne hellfire, tore through them, peeling back scales and flesh like the skin of fruit. The boiling of their oil blood was almost as loud as the roar of the nuke. The screeches of the countless Shadows behind them were a ghastly symphony, and they were the proud conductors.

In front of them, left to boil all alone, was the halved Shadow. It shriveled in on itself, trying to hide its most vital organs behind itself like a fortress of flesh. It was a futile effort, but almost admirable in the tenacity. All it truly accomplished was turning itself into a fleshy jawbreaker for her spell to lick away, bit by bit. The many tails were torn away and devoured by the ravenous swarm of leased electrons. It was like paper being fed into a shredder.

At the center of the desperate ball, the last four heads cowered together. Makoto watched with morbid fascination as her magic went to work on them. Scale and skin peeled away, and then went the oozing, gelatinous flesh. She was surprised to see, after killing so many Shadows with her own two hands, that these ones had skeletons in the muck. That was unusual, but intriguing. The bones lasted longer than the meat, leaving her the picture of a tetrad of draconic skulls wreathed in their own flayed muscles. She got an eyeful while she could, because she knew it wouldn’t be long before the bones, too, were reduced to irradiated dust.

Anat slowed, and Makoto looked around to see the fruits of her labor. The entire fight had taken place in a short segment of tunnel, maybe fifty or sixty feet long and half as wide. All of it was coated in ash. It rained down, the remains of her enemies turned to tainted snow. It was a bloody, yet bloodless wonderland, and she was glad to share it with her special someone. If Haru had no decorum, maybe the two could have shared in making some ash angels.

The satisfied sigh she heard as Haru swept Makoto up into a hug from the back was every bit as good. She nuzzled into Makoto’s neck, letting her whisper and preserve the soft afterglow.

“You always know how to show a lady a good time, Mako-chan.”

Makoto reached up to cup Haru’s cheek, pushing in lightly until they shared a gentle kiss.

“It’s only good because you’re here to enjoy it with me.”

“Aw, that’s sweet!”

“A big compliment, coming from my sugar princess.”

Makoto didn’t know what was more surprising: that she was saying something so cheesy, that she believed every word of it, or that Haru was as into it as her. She wanted this moment to last forever.

“Aha! I got it!”

Well, ten seconds. That was almost forever, she supposed. A grinning sun descended on their ashen paradise, carrying inside it a very happy navigator.

“I got here just in time to film that big blast! You can’t find special effects like this anywhere else, I tell you.”

“Ooh, a home movie!” Haru was delighted at the prospect, bouncing in her seat and clapping with giddy energy. “Can we have a copy?”

“Hmm… Later. I think I have enough clips to edit together a best-of show of you two, and that right there looks like a great finale for it to me. You know, unless you do something even cooler before I finish it.”

Oh yeah, Makoto was feeling very much like Akira.

“Is that a challenge?”

“Maybe it is. What of it?”

Anat growled, and at the sound, Haru secured herself to her seat.

“Who’s up for round two?”

“I am!”

 

-

 

Round two wasn’t quite as big as round one, but it was still amazing. That pattern held for round three, and four, and five. Truth be told, Makoto lost count by round ten. She was starting to run low. Maybe Futaba’s challenge would have to wait for another day. No sooner than she was able to settle into her seat in the Mona van, the alarm when off again.

“Shadows!”

Mementos was dense with them today, wasn’t it? She pried herself back up, ready to throw whatever she had left at them, when a red-gloved hand blocked her in.

“Whoa there, you’re drained.” Akira was announcing the obvious with that one. He looked back from the driver’s seat at the others, most of whom had their weapons in hand already. “Do you think you guys can handle them? I’ll watch from here and see about getting Queen back to fighting shape.”

“You got it, Joker.” Skull shoulder-checked the back door open, his metal elbow pads scraping it up. Mona yelped in pain.

“Watch it, you freaking gorilla!”

“Whatever, cat.”

As the others filed out, Haru hopped over the seats to peck Makoto’s cheek.

“You rest up. I’ll be sure to put on a nice show for you.”

“Thanks, kitten.” Makoto answered with a peck back. She had enough energy left to do that much, at least. “Knock them dead.”

“Yes, ma’am!”

The Thieves scattered out like a hive of bees, and while they started their stinging assault on the Shadows in their way, Joker started hunting through their supplies.

“Let’s start with some coffee.”

That was a medicine Makoto could get behind. Akira was too prim about his brew to just give her the whole thermos. He went through the trouble of balancing a fancy cup and plate on his knees to pour her a drink, like it was a normal afternoon in LeBlanc. Their little cafe party while the others tore up demons was kind of surreal, but ‘kind of surreal’ wasn’t weird enough to put her off anymore. It was only in hindsight that she found it less than normal to be sipping away at that moment.

“Give the caffeine a minute to kick in, but let me know if you need more.”

Makoto nodded, well aware of how this particular treatment worked, as a chunk of Shadow splatted against the windshield.

“Gyah! Watch it!” Morgana’s radio blared loud at the debris raining on his… head? But it was doubtful that it reached the others from his place in the peanut gallery. His wipers squeaked across glass, clearing the mess before the unnatural blood could corrode him. “See if I heal that monkey next time. Anyway, how are you holding up, Queen?”

In terms of combat condition, or her personal stress? That was the first question to come to Makoto’s mind, but she knew he probably meant the former.

“I’ll be ready by the time we reach our next target.”

“Cool, cool.” Akira busied himself by pouring his own cup. He crossed over from chilled to total Zen when he was lip deep in a good brew. It bordered on chemical dependency sometimes, but then, couldn’t that be said of most routine coffee drinkers? When he was done savoring that first sip and the cloud of peace passed, he returned to the conversation with a vengeance. “And how’s your stress holding out?”

Yep. She saw that one coming.

“It’s not.” Makoto wished she could disappear into her drink as thoroughly as Akira could, but she wasn’t that dependent on the stuff yet. “I’m supposed to be our strategist, and I’ve done as much as I can for this plan, but it still feels like far too much is being left up to luck.”

“It’s a gamble, no doubt about it.” He swirled his cup around, the swirling steam and foam both captivating him like the face of a lover. “Kind of fitting, since it’s going down in a casino and all.”

There it was again. Was he joking to lift her spirits or his own? Well, if the latter was true, then he was probably trying to do both at once. Still, her question was valid. Prodding him for a direct answer might make them both feel worse, though, so maybe a slightly different topic would prove more productive.

“How are you staying so calm about this? If anything, you should be freaking out more than me.”

“I mean, fair enough.” Perhaps seeing it as a distraction, Akira downed the last of his cup in one gulp and set it aside. “If I had a real say here, I would prefer not to die. But there’s not much I can do to change the fact that someone wants me dead. This plan is my best shot at giving them the slip, so I’m throwing my all into it and trusting that it will see us through the other side in mostly one piece.”

His use of the word ‘mostly’ was concerning, but Makoto knew it was accurate. She knew it, and she hated it.

“I don’t mean to undermine your confidence, but aren’t you worried about if it doesn’t work? Isn’t that eating at you?” It was devouring her whole. It had been for about a month. What if she failed again? What if she failed her leader when he needed her most? What if she lost one of her best friends and pushed the rest closer to the arms of their murderers? What if Haru was…

“You’re getting that manic look, Queen.” Akira didn’t need magic eyes to call her out on that. She scrambled to push it back down into the bottle, though it was sitting heavy in her chest.

“Sorry. I’m… really not handling this well.”

“You don’t have to feel guilty about that.” It was still a little strange getting soothing advice from a bus that was actually a cat who was supposedly a human who was a good friend of hers, but it was very much needed. “Getting overwhelmed in a position like ours is normal. Don’t let the guilt of it get in your way.”

“Well said, Mona.” And now Akira was petting the dashboard like Morgana was still in cat form. That would never stop being weird. “Being afraid is normal. I think the only reason I’m not right now is because it was beaten out of me when I was young.” The hairs on the back of Makoto’s neck stood up at that last thought.

“It sounds like you’re getting close to your old trauma. Are you comfortable going there?”

“If what I have to say about it might help you a little?” He turned to her, his grin sharp and his eyes devious. The effect was magnified by the light of a thunder spell in the distance. “Hell yeah.”

All in all, the show was enough to make Makoto snort out a laugh. That pleased Akira greatly, it seemed.

“If you’re sure about this, then I could really use all the advice I can get.” To Makoto’s admission, Akira’s features softened, flipping from devilishly hot to proudly warm in less than a second.

“Thanks for being honest with me here.” He was consistently accepting of her whenever she bared her fragile, frightened heart to him. Maybe that was why she was so comfortable confiding in him. He and Haru were the only two people who could get her to open up so readily. “So, from the top, you remember what I’ve told you about how I grew up, right?”

Hesitantly, Makoto nodded. Not because she had forgotten any of it, but because she recalled it too well.

“Good. Well, not good exactly, but you get my point. It’s the kind of upbringing you can never forget once you’ve been through it.” Akira’s fingers rapped along the steering wheel, bleeding off any nervous energy that came up as he recounted his story. “What it’s like to go to bed hungry every night, wondering if I’ll have so much as a bite of dry rice the next day, is only now starting to fade. And don’t get me started on the callused, bleeding hands.” He pulled one of his gloves off in a flash of energy, waving his fingers in an odd fashion.

“See how smooth they are now? That took years, years, of lotion! Always make time to moisturize. If you take anything away from this conversation, make that it.”

How was he making Makoto laugh so regularly!? The childhood he was talking about was horrible, but he found a way to present it that was funny. How many years, years, of pent up sarcasm did that take?

“Okay, are you going somewhere with this other than a joke?”

“I mean, my code name is Joker.”

“And I regret giving it to you in the first place!”

“Hush, Mona. It’s too late to fix your mistake.”

Morgana grumbled under his engine, but it was all in good fun. It was a needed injection of laughter before Akira dug into the meat of his story.

“Back then, as much as I was angry, I was just as afraid. Terrified even. Every day felt like I was dragging myself along, just so I could drag myself through the next day, and the next day, ad infinitum. That right there...” Akira’s mood dropped all at once. His deathly quiet, no matter how brief, was more foreboding than any sound. “That was Hell. How many ways do you think I could have died back then?”

It took Makoto a minute to realize that he wasn’t asking rhetorically, and it was with some apprehension that she began to think.

“Well, obviously there would be malnutrition. Less likely is dehydration, but not having any salt to take in would make absorbing water more difficult. Most of the odd jobs you’ve told me about sound dangerous, especially that roofing one without any safety equipment. As you were quite young, approaching certain people itself might have been dangerous, too.”

“Yeah, yeah, and oh yeah.” He kept pace with her, tallying her responses with a quiet affirmation. “Everything you brought up there is on point, and I knew all of them like old friends. I never knew if I would starve to death, or break a bone so bad that I would bleed out, and I’ve had a few close calls with real creeps trying to take advantage of a kid. Yes, in exactly the way you’re thinking.”

“You what!?” That last one was news to her. She imagined as much in her worst assessments of his old life, but this was her first confirmation. Apparently, Morgana was just as blindsided.

“Why didn’t you say anything about that? Man, no wonder you hate sex crimes so much.”

“Look, that was all a long time ago and it isn’t important anymore. No one actually got away with me, I never had to do anything for any creeps. At least, not in that way.” Okay, these qualifiers on every statement were becoming very, very concerning. “Back on topic. I lived every single day knowing the dangers, knowing that I was one wrong move away from dying. I lived every day afraid of just… withering away, dust on the wind.”

For all his talk about that being behind him, the look in his eye went meaningfully distant as he brought more of it up. He blinked it out pretty quickly, but Makoto would remember it for a long time to come.

“If Akechi thinks he can kill me in a way that’s half as painful as the hundreds of deaths I faced when I was ten, then I cordially invite him to fucking try it.” The fire was back, and it was good to see. Anger, spite, mockery, all wrapped up in black leather and a can-do attitude. “He thinks he’s the scariest thing I’ve ever come across. He thinks he’s hot shit. He’s in for something else.”

“I’ve already seen Hell, and I’m never going back.

Akira was left breathing heavily after his tirade, and with good reason. That was the strongest pouring of emotion from him she had personally seen since he encountered Futaba’s abusive uncle in person.

It was an informative breakdown, too. He wasn’t afraid because he had already survived a more frightful scenario. It was like the anger bottle, but with a different emotion. Or maybe all extreme emotion went into the same bottle? He knew the worst case well, so anything less than that became more manageable. Mix that with a practical approach to the current situation, and you had the recipe for his continued calmness.

Suddenly, Makoto’s thoughts were interrupted by a cascade of laughter from her left. Akira was caught up in a fit powerful enough to make his eyes water.

“What’s so funny?”

“I-I just realized. My big spiel there pretty much boils down to, be too spiteful to die!”

...Okay, that was kind of funny.

“It’s… fitting advice, coming from you.” She let him work it out of his system for a bit. She got the feeling that he was releasing a fair bit of his own stress then, and she wasn’t about to stop him. It was only after he was mostly giggled out that she continued. “I’m just wondering how I can apply it. I’ve had troubles in my life, but nothing as extreme as this.”

“Ha ha… Well, I’d say just try to keep your head up for now.” Akira pushed his giggles aside, returning to the serious discussion they were having about the serious situation they were in. “Keep going. I can look back at my bad experiences, but from what it sounds like, when all is said and done, this will be yours. I kept clawing on when I was younger no matter how bleak it got, and I came out the other side damaged, but alive. You’re one of the toughest people I know, and I know you can make it through this.”

“Wow. Uh, thanks.” She was flattered. Akira was the single most stubborn person she had ever met. If he put her determination anywhere near that level in his mind, then it was high praise from a place of experience. “I guess if a ten year old could hold out, then so can I.”

“That’s the spirit.” He patted her reassuringly on the shoulder, putting all of his immense empathy into the gesture. “And if you need to talk anytime before the big day, about the stress or just shooting the breeze to help work it out, then you give me a call. My ear is open whenever you need it.”

“Thanks, Joker.”

Makoto couldn’t deny how nervous she was. It was still eating her alive. It still made her sick to her stomach. The idea of failing the people she loved still burned her, alongside the evils she had to face in one of them. But, Akira put his faith in her. She and Haru were holding each other up. The others had her back as much as she had theirs. She felt like a weak link that was about to snap, but for them, with their help, maybe she could hold out long enough to survive. Maybe these would be the days she looked back on as the Hell she survived alongside them.

The thought that this was rock bottom was strangely comforting, more so in that she didn’t have to suffer it alone.

“Thanks.”

 

-

 

“Aaaand… done!” Futaba scratched the last name off her touch screen. All of their targets were accounted for. The request list was empty. They had helped everyone they could before the big day. It was a small step in their personal business, but it might have made all the difference in several lives.

Makoto was still in the front with Akira, and in the rear view mirror, she saw everyone else flopped about in the back seat and the far back space. Ryuji was sprawled out in one of the seats. Ann was next to him, as she was the only person used to his mannerisms enough not to be upset by it, and Futaba was curled up by the opposite window in a little navigator ball. In the far back, Haru and Yusuke bunked with Akechi, and Makoto was proud of both of them for not immediately brutalizing him when forced into close proximity.

As she watched everyone else relax, and relaxed herself, she noticed something out the back window. She tilted the mirror up to better see it. Akira caught wind of what she was doing and split his attention between the road ahead and the road behind.

“Mona… Are you feeling anything off right now?”

“This whole place feels off.” Morgana was yet oblivious to their rising concerns, his voice worn and ready for bed. “It’s tough sensing out Shadows when the whole tunnel is giving off signals.”

That explained why he wasn’t feeling whatever was behind them approaching. Was it a Shadow? It looked like one at a distance, like a mass of black in the darkened tunnels, but there was something different about it. Where the usual Shadows were solid blobs, the darkness behind them looked more like mist, concealing what walked within it. It was so familiar to Makoto, but the memory it tapped was old and faded.

“Oracle.” Akira snapped out of his chill, his sense for danger kicking in. At his command, Futaba sat straight up. “What’s that behind us? I’m getting a bad feeling from it.”

Futaba first tried looking out the back, but her eyes weren’t good enough to make out more than anyone else. She turned to her computer, and the others all turned around to see what was going on.

“O-oh geeze! My scanners must be running out of juice or something. They’re telling me it’s part of Mementos itself chasing us. That can’t be right.”

“This place was feeling pretty hostile today.” Ann put forth the suggestion nervously, like speaking it gave their pursuer power. “Maybe it’s trying to chase us out for good?”

While they were talking it out, Makoto kept her eye on the mirror, waiting to see if any of it surfaced from the mist. Her method panned out slowly, but she wasn’t about to ask Morgana to stop so she could get a visual sooner.

The very first thing she saw was a cylinder poking out of the smog. It was long and thin, and there was a hole in the center. That shape and the slight char around the hole reminded Makoto of the barrel of a gun.

Just as it dawned on her with rising horror, a head passed through the veil. It was covered in a brown, burlap sack crusted over with blood. Even as the rest of its ragged robes slipped into view, she yet stared at its head. That wasn’t just blood on its head bag. Some of it was too bright for that. No, that was bright red paint, as if a spray can had blown up in its face.

A can she remembered blowing up.

It was in a rush of terror that the words finally found their way to her lips.

“The Reaper!”

Chapter Text

Another gunshot boomed through the tunnels. The walls writhed, as if the deafening sound was hurting them. The bullet hit the rails just behind Morgana’s back tire, tearing the track apart and kicking his rear end a foot into the air. He nearly fishtailed as he landed, kept straight only by Akira’s quick hands on the wheel.

“Hang a left!” Futaba’s directions were slurred, melding together under the pressure. Her shaking only worsened with every shot, making her typing all the sloppier as the chase wore on. She only powered through with the knowledge that one wrong turn would put them in a dead end, which would be their dead end.

“Damnit, how did it find us so fast!?” Ryuji jammed himself against the wall near the back. If the bastard got too close, he was going to throw the doors open and unload all of his ammo in its face. It probably wouldn’t do much, and he would be giving it an unprotected target, but the thin metal doors wouldn’t do much for protection at close range anyway.

I would like to know what it is!” Akechi’s act of constant cool was falling apart. Even with his head jammed so far up his ass, he could feel the danger they were in.

“Mona called it the Reaper the last time we ran into it.” With Akira preoccupied at the wheel, it fell to Makoto to be the team’s rock. She was doing a good job keeping the fear from her voice, but it was in her all the same. It got worse as each strategy she grasped for unraveled at her fingertips. “We don’t know much about it, but we know that it’s immensely powerful, more than anything we’ve fought before. That’s as true now as it was six months ago.”

If that wasn’t bad enough, this was the exact same Reaper from back then. In all that time, it hadn’t gotten the paint off its face and robes. If it remembered them, it would have been stewing on a grudge on top of whatever drove it to kill them in the first place. And wouldn’t you know it, Yusuke didn’t have a can of spray paint to smokescreen it with this time. That was the first thing Makoto checked.

Another gunshot. More of the tunnel near them obliterated. More panic to go around.

“Volley ready!” As soon as it missed its shot, Haru popped up through the sunroof with her grenade launcher. She knew the safe gap between attacks was small, so she pulled at the trigger as quickly as she was able. She was a one-woman barrage of explosives, the black tunnels illuminating as though by lightning flashes as her grenades hit home.

But once again, despite every single shot hitting, the Reaper wasn’t slowed. Its robes were barely disturbed. The only ‘battle damage’ from any of it was a light coating of soot over the blood stains. Haru dropped back in, going to her munitions bag. One look in it, though, made her grit her teeth.

“I’m running out of ammo. We have enough for one more round, I think, but that will be it.”

That was a tight timer. The assaults might not have been doing much to it, but the perception that they had a means of defending themselves might have made it keep its distance. If that illusion went away, there was no telling if it would take its chance to advance on them, and closer targets were easier to hit.

Their only hope was escape. The Reaper didn’t follow them between floors. They just had to find their way to the…

“Stairs!” Futaba shouted suddenly, her laptop held so close that its screen took up all of her vision. “They’re right there, two hundred feet ahead!”

“Finally!” Aside from readying herself for direct combat, Ann didn’t have much to preoccupy herself with. Her gun wasn’t long range, so she must have felt like a fish in a barrel. “We are not dying down here, damnit!”

Indeed not.” Yusuke leaned over the front seats, employing his sharp eyes to find their salvation. “Can we make it that far, Joker?”

“We’ll make it, or die trying.”

“Bad time for a dark joke.” Morgana’s worsening condition came through his voice. He was on the verge of blacking out. He didn’t have enough in him to yell anymore, all of his strength diverted to forward thrust.

“Right. Sorry.”

Makoto had a hard time being sure most of the time, but now, she could read Akira’s nervousness plainly. His slick social grace was failing him. He hadn’t said anything for miles. If Joker went silent, it was a sign of real trouble.

“We can make it.” Makoto put her hand against the wall, hoping Mona could feel it and the support she intended with it. “Just a little further, Mona. I know you have it in you.”

“Hey, Mona!” Ann, finally finding something only she could do, copied Makoto’s gesture. “If you can get us to the next floor, I’ll carry you the rest of the way out, so keep it up!”

“Heh. Carried by a pretty girl. That’s good motivation.” Morgana was trying his best. To keep going. To laugh. It was hard, but he wasn’t giving up yet. “Aye aye, Panther. I’ve got…”

Another gunshot, and time slowed. Even louder than the gun was the rending of metal. It was right behind Makoto. By the time she turned to see it, the bullet was tearing an exit wound through the right wall. Her eyes traced the trail back to the entry wound in the back door.

Good news, it didn’t hit any occupants on its way through, though the terror on Ryuji’s face spoke to how close it was.

Bad news, it hit their most vital member.

“GYAH!”

Suddenly, Makoto was looking at open tunnels. How she went from one to the other only became clear as she hit the ground. All of them were sent skidding across the tracks.

Morgana was in the middle of them, reduced to his cat form. His black fur was highlighted by a streak of red along his right side. It splattered over the ground as he rolled to a stop.

“Mona!” Ann, in too much haste to get to her feet, threw herself along the ground to reach him. She moved him to his back and looked the wound over. From where Makoto was lying, it wasn’t good. His eyes refused to open.

“I’m… sorry. Couldn’t make it.”

Makoto felt her heart beating hard. Those sounded like dying words.

“Go on, without me.”

“No.” Ryuji used his shotgun as a crutch to push himself up. He was the first back on his feet, his posture like a steel rod as he stared down the oncoming Reaper. “I’m not leaving anyone behind. If you can’t move, then we’re making a stand right here.” Though his fire burned bright, it seemed to have crossed a threshold. It was more focused than any wild outburst, an inferno caught on a candlestick.

“I’m with you.” The fist dully thumping on the back of Ryuji’s arm told him who was taking his side. Joker’s presence was an assuring one, even as they faced Death itself. “The Phantom Thieves don’t abandon those in need. Ever.”

“Perhaps we are the ones in need of a miracle today.” With Yusuke, their front wall was completed. Ann ran her hand over Morgana’s head comfortingly before taking her place behind them.

“We’ve worked magic before, right?”

“Indeed.”

As Makoto pushed herself from the cold, coiling floor, a purple-gloved hand reached down to her. If there was ever a time she needed Haru’s warmth, this would be it. She took her hand, and with one strong pull, she was on her feet, eye-to-eye with Haru. She was uncertain, but stood strong still, an expression she knew mirrored her own.

“Shall we kill Death?”

Makoto cracked a grin at the suggestion.

“Sounds like a lovely date to me.”

“You’re all idiots.” Behind everyone, Futaba bent over to scoop up Morgana. In a beam of light, both ascended into Prometheus, where their most vulnerable members would be safe. “And so am I, I guess. Let’s kick his ass!”

“This is less than ideal.” For all he groused, Akechi, too, fell in line. Makoto was surprised he didn’t book on them at the first opportunity. It would have been easy, but then, maybe he couldn’t afford to lose all of them before his boss got his hands on them. “We must keep moving. One direct shot is all he needs on any of us.”

“Well then.” Joker looked back over his shoulder, giving his team his best sharp-toothed smile. “I guess it’s a good thing that we’re fast. Scatter and splatter!”

In half a second, the order was received and enacted. The group split, scattering around the Reaper like a swarm of insects. Its forward momentum was halted as it tried to track any of them. That was easier said than done with targets bouncing off the walls and ceiling as easily as the floor.

The guns it held were long-barreled. Makoto’s first guess was twin sniper rifles, but a closer looked showed that they were extended revolvers. Even so, those barrels left a glaring weak point. It couldn’t shoot anyone who was in arm’s length of it. The Reaper was lethal at a range, that much was proven in spades, but its effectiveness at melee range had yet to be tested.

With her test in mind, Makoto transitioned to the ‘splatter’ phase. She landed at its back, her fists raised. She carried the force of her circling leaps up and into the Reaper, landing a right hook on its spine. The spikes of her iron knuckles dug in, but she found the material of its robes to be thicker than they seemed from this angle. She trusted Oracle was making note of its defenses, leaving her to deal with the consequences of her strike.

The Reapers focus turned to her. When it faced her, it didn’t bother backing up, even though it couldn’t angle its guns at her. Rather, it lifted its left barrel like a club. Makoto crossed her arms just in time to catch the makeshift bludgeoning weapon in their crook. She felt the ground crack under her feet, and her arms felt like they wanted to shatter as well. For a long-range opponent, its physical strength was monstrous. A purely melee approach was out.

This close, Makoto noticed something about its guns. The barrels were clean, pristine, but the firing mechanisms were rusted over and caked in red. This might have been excusable by how it held them, its hands rubbing blood over that end, but she saw a divide between the guns and their barrels. The latter was made of a different material, one resistant to degradation, and screwed onto an inferior base. Why would the firing mechanism, the most important part of the weapon, be allowed to rot?

She didn’t have a chance to find an answer. By the time the question crossed her mind, the right barrel was coming down on her, aimed at her head as her arms were preoccupied. There was a heavy thud behind her, and it was followed by a loud blast. Buckshot tore across the Reaper’s burlap sack face and pushed back against it, giving Makoto an opening to retreat.

“Blunt attacks won’t work on this one, Skull.”

“Got it.”

The two bruisers leaped back into the Thief swarm, understanding that their close range kits were next to useless. The Reaper recovered from the surprise shotgun, and it was back on the hunt.

It wasn’t moving randomly now. Its scans were slower. Makoto thought she saw it looking directly at both Yusuke and Akechi as they crossed its line of sight, but it didn’t lock onto either.

Then, its unseen eyes found her. She circled around it, but it was tracking her. It seemed she had caught its ire. The others were gnats to it. She had committed a grave offense in challenging it directly. No matter how she ran, or in what direction, she couldn’t shake it.

It started to raise its gun to her, its arm steady.

“No!” A blur of purple broke off from the others. Before it could take its shot, the Reaper found an ax lodged deep in its upper arm, just below the shoulder. And yet, despite the limb being cleaved halfway through, it didn’t recoil. It merely swung to the side, swatting Haru away. Its club cracked against her ribs. She was sent flying, eyes wide, wind lost, into the wall. Her ax remained stuck in its arm, but it wasn’t bothered in the least.

Seeing Haru slide to the floor, tossed aside like an old doll, Makoto’s vision went red. She swerved in for an attack run, this time aiming to take its head off in one clean punch. With this much anger flooding through her, drowning out her every other thought, she had no doubts in her strength.

But then, her memory had failed her. The Reaper was still tracking her. It lifted its gun. Before she could recognize her mistake, it pulled the trigger.

Any intent of vengeance was wiped from her mind. The pain was all-consuming. She didn’t feel her back hit the ground, or her head bounce off the metal rails. She did, however, feel the hot pool growing beneath her. She lifted a hand and shakily touched the wound. The skin around her stomach was numb, but the bullet hole through her gut burned. She could feel every inch of the tunnel carved through her. She could feel the blood flowing out.

She heard a voice. It was distant to her pain-addled mind, but she became sharply aware of it when someone tried to lift her. She snapped back to awareness, and she screamed. It felt like the wound was tearing itself open. The slightest bend amplified the firing of her nerves. Somehow, it was so intense that it circled around from being blinding to making her much too cognizant.

“I’m sorry, Queen, but you cannot stay on the ground. It’s not safe here!” She looked over her shoulder, and she saw the last person she expected to be pulling her from harm’s way. Akechi’s arms were wrapped around her waist as he pulled her away. His white sleeves showed their new red stains clearly, but he ignored them.

Then, Makoto heard the sound of open fighting. She looked back to the action, and it was all out war. Every hand with a gun was firing. Fox and Panther were peppering it from the sides. Skull was taking every opening he could find to shoot its face. She could see the glow of Oracle’s boosting systems on all of them. The Reaper was firing back in kind, but its targets stayed on the move, making themselves harder to hit. It even took some shots at Prometheus, though none landed.

The only people absent from the scuffle were Joker and Noir. To the side, she saw them both. He was pulling Haru to safety, but with the bullets flying, he had to go in the opposite direction, away from Makoto. Though her senses were sharp, her reactions were still blunted. She reached out for Haru, wishing from the depths of her soul that she could hold her, one last time.

Wait, one last? Where did that…

Makoto’s vision started to blur again, and there, she knew she felt it. Her blood trickling out. Her mind going hazy. Words failing her. She was slipping away, each heartbeat taking her a step closer.

“Queen? Queen!” Akechi shook her, trying to rouse her from her trance, but it didn’t work. She could hear and feel him just fine, but she couldn’t respond. It felt like her mind was receding. Preparing itself to leave its broken vessel. Had she an ounce more consciousness, she would have been afraid, but she couldn’t feel anything. It was strangely peaceful, to know you were going.

“Queen, please, talk to me!” Akechi’s voice was growing more frantic. Of all the deaths he had seen, of the deaths he had caused and those he wanted to cause, why was hers frightening him so? It was funny. He was scared, and she wasn’t. Maybe it was just her being contrarian again. She wouldn’t have another chance to spite him in life, so why not?

“Mako-chan?” The yelling reached the other end of the tunnel. As Joker let her go, Haru looked through the fight. She saw Makoto laying there, trailing blood. She tried pushing herself up, but she didn’t have the strength yet. “Mako-chan! Someone, heal her!”

“We can’t!” Akechi yelled back as he started to shake. “All our medics are out of commission, and I don’t have any supplies!”

The terror spread like a plague. Through the fog of Makoto’s failing senses, a single spotlight of clarity remained. In it, she saw Haru. Her girlfriend, her wife, the love of her life. She was so scared. She was yelling. “Mako-chan! Mako-chan!”

Her eyes looked like they wanted to close, but she couldn’t look away. The tears fell like rain.

Don’t leave me!

A shock ran through Makoto. She was falling. Falling. Slipping. She drove her fingers into the slope, fighting against the pull that wanted her soul.

She couldn’t leave yet. Not with so much left undone. Not with so much life left to be seen. She couldn’t die here!

“Damnit…!” Joker was reaching the edge as well. For every drop of blood Makoto lost, she could feel his going hotter. His teeth were clenched, and the tunnels of Mementos filled with the burning of his magic as it came to life. “Arsene, give me everything you’ve got!”

A maniacal laughter echoed, and Joker went up in flames.

A wave of blue ran over him, weaving into and over his flesh. His features went to stone, and the horns sprouted long. The Reaper’s attention shifted, as though it could feel his presence growing. It turned to Akira as the wings fanned out and the claws sharpened.

The Twilight Cowl. He was fusing with his Persona, harnessing Arsene’s power with his own hands. It was a taxing technique, but it granted him strength to match his defiance.

That’s when Makoto had a thought. If he could take on all the power of his Persona, why couldn’t she? Would it give her the hold she needed to ward off death?

If she was going to try it, she had to work fast. She could feel herself fading, the deep waters below rising to snuff out the cooling embers. She reached into her heart, into the recesses where Anat dwelt. The skin of her hands burned as they neared the flame, but she had no choice but to grab it if she wanted to preserve her life.

Anat, I don’t want to die. I don’t want to leave them now, not yet. So please, give me your power!

‘...Art thou certain?’ She heard a voice chiming up from her soul. It was Anat, and yet, something more. While a Persona was a fragment of the self, it felt like Makoto was looking directly into a mirror. ‘The heart is a tumultuous thing, segmented as to not overwhelm the fragile mind. To hold it in thine hand is to know all it is and bear that burden. Canst thou suffer the totality of thine being?

I don’t have a choice!’ Makoto screamed back, her desperation growing as she held onto life by a thread. ‘If I die here, I’ll never rest in peace, knowing that I left everyone I love in a Hell like this. If I’m going out, I’m going with the knowledge that I fought to my last breath!

A beat of silence. Then, a deep, rich laugh.

Still thou tread the path of strife. It is assuring, to know thine vow was not made lightly. Very well.

For Makoto, time slowed. She was teetering over two edges, a fall into darkness behind her, a dive into light ahead. She could go either way. All she needed to do was lean.

She heard Haru’s tormented cries echo in her mind, and she leaned forward.

The world snapped into place around her, physical flesh taking back its soul.

And that flesh was burning. Her skin felt like it was peeling off her by the sheet. It was all crawling, as if her muscles were countless sentient tendrils pulling her apart. The hole in her stomach was clawing itself shut.

When her wounds were welded shut, the real pain set in.

Her skin felt like it was going through a furnace, being smelted into something new. She was screaming. She barely felt the floor under her going soft. She barely saw Akechi backing away from her, then sprinting as her magic tore into the real world, molding her from the outside as her insides hardened.

The magic encompassed all of her. Or so she thought, until it reached her brain. As soon as it touched the core of her self, it was like a floodgate being opened. She could see everything she had ever seen. At once, she saw the tunnels that wished to be her grave and the bedroom she had spent many long, peaceful nights sleeping in. She saw the red horizons of the Metaverse and the blue skies of Japan. Towering Palaces and sandy beaches.

And her ears were filled with an almost unintelligible screed of decades passed. So many voices, too many to count and separate into distinct statements. It was like being shouted at from every direction.

She wanted to close her eyes and cover her ears, but she knew it was all coming from inside. Somehow, she managed to roll over, pushing herself off the ground on quaking arms. She couldn’t find the leverage she needed for the feat, between the cooking of her body and the way her fingers sank into the sodden brickwork.

It’s too much… I can’t keep going like this!

“That’s just like you, biting off more than you can chew.”

Dark forms stood over her, encircling her. That voice came from behind her. At a glance, all she saw was a disgustingly swollen stomach and sickly purple skin, all poured into a white suit that didn’t deserve that burden.

“Pathetic. If this is where you were going, you should have just stayed at my bank and lined my pockets!”

“It would have saved me quite the trouble.” There was another white suited man. This one bent over to look her in the eye. He wasn’t nearly as bloated as the first, but the grease oozing off of him made up the difference. The only break in his pale presence was the bright red hand print wrapped around his throat. “To think I lost my high school bride to a failure like this.”

“At least you don’t have to share blood with her.” The third almost blended into the scenery, hiding in the blackest corners of every space that crossed her spiraling vision. She couldn’t see this one clearly, but she could hear her, and those piercing yellow eyes stayed locked on hers. Always watching. Always judging. “This is what you get for disobeying me. Your purpose has only ever been to serve your betters.”

This one put a hand to her chin. She couldn’t move Makoto’s body, but she felt her spirit being forced to look. The two cronies hovered beside her, the three looming tall, blotting out the world beyond them.

“You thought you could break free and find value in a life without us, but now, it’s all slipping away. How useless.”

“Useless.”

“Useless!”

Makoto was… Useless? For how far she came, she was still…

Her eyes rolled away from the three, staring instead at the space between them. There, she saw the tunnels once again. There, the Reaper was bringing its gun clubs down on the next fool to take it on directly. It had lost interest in her. Now, it was locking claws with Joker. For every three blows her leader was able to deflect or dodge, one managed to land. It was chipping at his armored hide, all the while, the attacks that came in from elsewhere, peals of lightning and spikes of ice, gusts of flame and barrages of loose brick coated in pink, did nothing to slow the Reaper.

Joker was wavering. He fought on with all he had, but it wasn’t enough. The Reaper wasn’t showing any signs of slowing. Akira was breathing heavily, and where his armor cracked, blood ran free. At this rate, the Phantom Thieves would end here.

At this realization, Makoto’s nerves steeled. What was she doing on the ground, arguing with her own demons? They were stuck in her head. Right now, the monster in front of them was the greater threat. Everything else, her woes from the world outside these spiraling tunnels, meant nothing. Death was here and now, not in some far flung future she could only imagine!

She got her feet under her, and they pushed up against the forces holding her down.

“She thinks she can help them? She can’t even help herself.”

“Though seeing her struggle is oh so delicious. I needed a laugh today.”

“Didn’t you hear me? You’re completely...”

Before this, this hollow imitation of her sister could speak again, Makoto’s eyes locked on them, and she found her voice.

“Shut up!” The gale of magic around her swelled. It tore into the specters, pushing them away. Her hundred-fold anxieties meant nothing to her. It was do or die, and she refused to die!

I expected nothing less.’ The voices in her ears quieted, leaving only the soft, approving hum of her own heart. ‘Thou hast always held great potential, but never the will to take it. Now, it is thine.

She felt it. Above the burdening mass of her whole self, she felt its strength sinking into her bones. It still burned, but now, it was bracing as well. One more surge and she could let it run wild. She pooled the last of her latent power into her lungs. The streams of magic around her turned a brilliant shade of blue. They were waiting for her word to solidify.

Her heart beat once. Twice. And she yelled. She expelled the bile of her heart. The demons at her heels. The chains of doubt that always held her back. All were thrown into the pyre, and it burned ever brighter. The walls and floor were melting around her. She had noticed it before, but now she saw why. With every decibel her voice raised, buckets more sloughed off of the edges of her tomb. It was no longer fit to bury her, or anyone else.

As though sensing the rise of a greater threat, the Reaper’s assault on Joker slowed. It kept him pinned back with one barrel pressed against his blocking arms, but it was a mere gesture. Makoto felt its eyes alight on her. She felt the burning point of its intent on her heart, but now, it bounced off. She couldn’t afford to be afraid anymore. She raised a hand in front of her and clenched her metal-cased fingers tight.

“You’re going to have to try harder than that.”

Chapter Text

Makoto felt her focus being tugged on by myriad stimuli. The hole in her stomach smoothing over. Her skin hardening. Steam blasting from the cracks in her newly grown armor. With each moment she parsed, the pains of her metamorphosis clawed at her, and that was without acknowledging the crushing burden of her memories, good and bad, all trying to take center stage in her mind at once.

She paid none mind more than they forcefully took, for any pains she knew, past or present, would be shriveled mockeries of the fate that the Reaper would inflict on her and those she loved.

She and it locked gazes, searching for and failing to find kinks in their opponent’s presence, some sign that the strength they perceived was all charade. The Reaper was distracted enough to let Joker retreat with a heavy flap of his wings. The wind of his retreat blew the Reaper’s dense robes, but still it stared, unconcerned by the enemy it had already traded blows with. While it was folly to discount any Thief, it was perhaps wise to be wary of Makoto, as even she couldn’t tell just how much strength she held now. All she could say for certain was that it was staggering, quite literally.

If there was any one signal her body bombarded her with that she took heed of, though, it was at the microscopic level. The magic infused into her body dwarfed any she had held before, but the parts of her that remained human weren’t designed to contain it. The nuclear energy diffused through her as heat, enough to bring water to a boil. Her cells were being cooked. That’s where the steam she put out was coming from, the rupturing of cells like firecrackers. They were replicating at an increased pace to compensate, ensuring that she wouldn’t eat herself away, but there was no telling how division thousands of times faster than the norm would affect her in the long run.

She had to finish this quickly. Not that she would have suffered the Reaper to live any longer than strictly necessary. While lesser memories fought for dominance, one was locked at the forefront of her cognition, where Makoto refused to let it budge from.

This bastard hurt her Haru.

She made to dash forward, her fist drawn to meet it head on. As she leaned forward, she heard a high-pitched whine at her back, and then an eruption. Her back was lined with long, open-ended chambers, though she couldn’t tell what they were until just then. She was apparently jet-propelled.

At the thought of moving, they fired up and blasted her ahead. Her heart jumped into her throat. With her thinking mind preoccupied by the momentary disaster, her body switched to instinct, and it knew what she intended. When Makoto returned to control, she had a fist buried in the Reaper’s stomach. The force that closed the distance between her and her mark in the span of a heartbeat carried over, sending the Reaper flying off at the same speed as she arrived, though it had no means of stopping, unlike Makoto. She twisted her legs to the side, grinding herself against the ground to bleed off speed as the Reaper soared over Joker and Noir’s heads.

God damn! ” Ryuji scuttled back, as if pushed by her contrails. Though fearful at first, understandably so considering the margin of mere feet between him and the semi-human rocket that passed by, a look at the Reaper actually taking a measurable hit buoyed his spirits immensely. He swung from terror to shakily cocky. Makoto took it as approval. “You were already effing metal, but this is ridiculous.”

She nodded in agreement. The corner of her eye caught on the floor beneath her, which was melting at her touch. The surface of the pool was slightly reflective. This let her get an eyeful of herself. Her skin wasn’t just harder; it was entirely metallicized. She looked like a variant of Anat crafted in her own shape. To her surprise, the horns on her head didn’t feel all that heavy .

“Guys, big emergency!” As though everything else that just happened wasn’t enough of a crisis, Futaba had yet more bad news to pile on from her all-seeing cockpit in Prometheus. “Okay, two emergencies, but still.”

Makoto looked up from her makeshift mirror in time to see the heap of bloody robes, guns, and malice pulling itself back together from her winding blow.

That’s one of them, right? ” Makoto’s voice was odd to her ear. It was echoing, partially like it was being put through a filter. Her vocal cords must have been metallic, too.

“Yeah, but believe it or not, that’s not the big one.” A green screen opened in front of Makoto, like an internet window on a computer. There was a line graph on it, and whatever it was monitoring was riding high. “This floor is flooding with radiation! You should be fine, Queen, but the rest of us need to GTFO, ASAP!”

There was little doubt as to the source. On top of cooking herself, she was giving everyone near her a nuclear wash. It was her fear from when her magic first manifested come to life. Their magic should have protected them in the short term, just like when they took nuclear attacks from Shadows, but long-term exposure would surely erode that thin barrier.

Run. ” Makoto strode ahead, again staring down the Reaper as it raised its head to watch her. “ We know it can feel what I’m putting out now. That means I might stand a chance in this form. I’ll hold it off while you escape the radiation zone, then I’ll follow once you’re safe. ” It was a clean plan in her mind. She could, at the very least, distract it for that long. Once they were gone, her unexpected thrusters should have been sufficient to flee, if its inability to react to her approach was to be trusted.

No dice.” As defiant as ever, Joker took aim with his pistol, looking to put a bullet between the Reaper’s eyes. “I don’t abandon my teammates, ever. Ever . If I let you die down here, I would never forgive myself.”

There was a thin crack in his confidence. For once, Makoto saw clean through it. She saw the tumult that drove him to keep fighting. He was desperate to stand by his word despite his vulnerable position. He was a proud individual, and that pride would tear him apart with guilt if he didn’t appease it.

Makoto could relate.

That’s why, once she passed Joker and Noir, she raised her hand to the ceiling. Before either they or any of the others could react, a pulse of pure radiation hit the ceiling like a grenade. The decrepit, liquefying tunnel groaned, and then it collapsed. Noir lunged towards her, but it was too late. Brickwork slammed the route shut. The only thing to make it across was Haru’s snap realization of what was happening, a sickening horror that seared itself into Makoto’s memory.

“Mako-chan! What are you doing!?” Haru was trying to claw open the wall. It would have been quicker to find an alternate route. That was Makoto’s plan, to take another route if she could hold out for long enough. She had the agility and resistance to do so. The other Thieves didn’t, the growing lethality of the floor pinching their options shut. Without that, she knew they would have been quick to follow her.

That was one of the things that made her team so great. If she hadn’t made it physically impossible, they would have come after her, risking their lives for her sake. After all she did to them before joining their team, after threatening to see them locked away if they didn’t obey her, she couldn’t find any other way to express her gratitude.

Paying back my debts. I owe all of you this much. ” Warm nostalgia fluttered by. She let the memories linger at the periphery of her vision. They kept the knowledge of why she was going through with this fresh in her mind. “ Get going. Something tells me the radiation will be intensifying shortly. ” She raised a hand and clenched it into a fist, the steel of her knuckles glowing hot red.

“...Only if you promise to come back to us.” A heavy strum of guilt echoed through Makoto as she heard the defeat in Haru’s voice. The clawing at stones stopped, but this sounded more painful. It was for her safety, but it still hurt to push Haru away like this. If she made it back… No, when , she swore to make it up to her.

Heh, exchanging one debt for another in a fit of hasty guts. That sounded like Queen alright.

I swear it.

There was an uneven inhale, and then a steady exhale.

“Come. We’ll fall back to the next safe floor and wait there.” The order didn’t come from Joker, but it was respected nonetheless. A steady march tapped away, and, one-by-one, others began to follow as their pace raised to a run. Among them, one came closer to the wall.

You are every bit as headstrong as your sister, Niijima-san. I expect you to pull through as she would as well, unless you intend to remain in her shadow.”

Despite the grim atmosphere, Makoto hissed out a spiteful snicker. Of course Akechi’s potential last words to her would tread the line between supportive and antagonistic; he could never make it easy on her.

Akechi took her hiss as an affirmation and fell in line with the rest. As their footfalls trailed further and further away, all that remained were Makoto and the Reaper. Her muscles were tensed, ready to spring at any moment. Its fingers laid heavy on the triggers of its revolvers. Neither rushed to make the first move. Was this some sign that it respected her as a threat rather than a soul to be harvested, or did it have some grand strategy in the caverns of its unknowable psyche?

Whichever the case, Makoto couldn’t afford to hold this standoff forever. Every moment saw millions of her cells rupturing and replicating in an agonizing orchestra of apoptosis. Every bubble that burst rang like a grain of sand tumbling down the hourglass. The timer was ticking, and she had no means of saying how long it would be until it struck midnight.

Fortunately, she already had a plan forming. If she was to be sprinting away, it would serve her well to cut off its ranged attacks.

The second firing of her rockets was more manageable than the first. She thrust herself into the Reaper’s midst, and before collision, she twisted her body to the left, kicking up at its hand. It moved before she could strike the body of its gun, instead taking the blow to its wrist. Its arm was launched aside, throwing it into a spin.

It would have been a grand opening to deliver a second kick to its head, but she had no means of reversing her trajectory, and by the time she made a full spin, it would have regained its balance. She let her momentum carry her through her kick, propelling her out of its reach.

She couldn’t make a clean fall back in that direction, though, not with a wall in the way. Of course, the line between wall and floor could be negotiated, as she knew well. She flipped around, landing feet-first on the brickwork. It cracked on impact, and it would begin melting shortly. If she remained in that spot, or any spot, she would find herself planted in place. Even a momentary break in mobility wasn’t permissible.

She had somewhere else she would much rather plant her feet anyway: directly in the Reaper’s face.

The force of takeoff cratered the wall behind her, and her new body had the means of keeping her end of the energy from bleeding out before she could use it. She took a sweeping kick with both the Reaper’s head and a hand in the predicted arc.

It swung at her, clipping her side with one of its barrels. It couldn’t bring all of its strength to bear in the hasty attack, though, only managing to redirect her. Otherwise, she didn’t feel a thing, her armor soaking up the attack. She hit the opposite wall, and, even faster than before, she sprung again, counting on her barrage to eventually overwhelm the Reaper enough to give her a clean shot.

Instead, the Reaper snapped around, exhibiting a speed it hadn’t displayed before. She was only halfway to it when she found herself staring down its barrel.

Time stopped with the click of its trigger. It started again with the bang. Makoto was pushed to a halt, and then backwards. She felt like a piece of cloth being wrapped around the bullet. If the initial hit didn’t wind her, being embedded in the wall did.

This was the first chance Makoto had to properly analyze her new form’s power scaling. Unlike the first time she was shot, the bullet didn’t manage to pierce her. It fell from the dent it made in her chest as soon as it lost momentum, and her internal magic pressure, as painful as it was, pushed her armor back into shape.

That didn’t mean it was just a peashooter to her now, though. She was expending precious energy undoing the damage, pushing her closer to a death by fatigue. Moreover, her attack run was canceled out, giving the Reaper a chance to reclaim control of the arena. She couldn’t let a brutally strong, relentless enemy like it set the pace of battle. That would be one advantage too many.

She threw herself from her crater before it could take another potshot at her, but she didn’t go directly at it again. Straight lines were a gunman’s best friend. Instead, she sent herself deeper into the tunnels, ricocheting between walls as she retreated. The Reaper aimed as though to fire again, but when it became clear that she wasn’t giving it a clean opening, it made to pursue her. It still tracked her with its guns, just waiting for her to slow down.

She noticed, though, that its movements were stifled. The left arm failed to follow her as well as the right, particularly when she was to its left side.

That’s when she remembered its handicap; Haru’s ax was still stuck in its upper arm. It hadn’t tried to remove it yet, as distracted as it was with hunting Makoto down. It was a single-minded killer, and though that was a terrifying concept, a one-track mind was easy to exploit. If it was too focused on her, it wouldn’t think too hard about its environment.

With that in mind, she began to pool power towards the ends of her limbs. She tried to make it manifest in her hands, but the form it took alone was too loose for her purposes. It would dissipate before she could use it. She knew her body was a strong conduit for magic now, though, and that her bodily regeneration was considerable. The magic was redirected again, now into the very tips of her fingers and toes.

When next she landed on a wall, she dug her ring finger into the brick, and, before it could melt at her touch, she flicked her hand away. Oddly, she didn’t feel her finger tearing off too clearly. All she registered was the deposit of stable magic left in her path.

Her finger was back by the time of her next landing, and the toe she left there reformed before she hit the ceiling. She laid her trail in clear sight, but still the Reaper followed. When it passed her first divided digit, she was pleased to see it none too interested in a single, seemingly lifeless finger.

Her idea could work, and now, she just had to make sure the Reaper would stay in the blast zone.

Only one bait would lure it, which fit into her scheme cleanly. She flipped around and leaped behind the robed reprobate. As expected, it followed her on a stunningly swift swivel. It didn’t stop to question her running off towards the blocked corridor. It only saw where she was, and it would follow. This let her slip around it and fill a few gaps in her net.

In whole, she must have lost two full compliments of fingers and toes before she was satisfied. She knew not if she would regret this move in the morning, but then, she wouldn’t reach morning if it didn’t pay off. She shot behind it again, slipping under its arm to add to the confusing spontaneity of her path. This slowed the Reaper down by a few fractions of a second, enough to let her find a smooth spot on the floor to land and remain.

It aimed its gun at the now stationary target.

Queen drew faster and snapped her fingers. A sharp metallic twang reverberated through the tunnels. She could hear the mythical cocktail in her mines sizzling as her trigger touched them.

Mementos shook.

If Makoto hadn’t been made of metal, the scalding hot air from the blast would have killed her well before the shrapnel. The whole structure beneath her feet whined. It dropped, then torqued back to rigidity. It was like the spine of Mementos crumbled, leaving its ribs to stack on top of each other.

As much as this new form hurt Makoto, the pain she inflicted with it was more severe.

She had a feeling it wouldn’t be enough to put the Reaper down on its own, though. Behind her, it had fallen to what passed for its knees. At long last, its robes showed signs of damage. Swathes of cloth were burnt black, and several folds of it hung loose from blasted strands where they weren’t torn clean off. The burlap sack over its head was torn, too, revealing a white layer beneath it.

Makoto only spared these cosmetic details a once-over. What mattered to her was the state of its weapons. The barrels remained unscratched, a testament to their sturdy build, but the guns they were attached to were on the verge of shattering with webs of cracks barely holding the frames together.

With no greater opportunities available, she bolted in, bringing her hands up to the Reaper’s. One more concussive blast of nuclear magic pushed the monster. Its arms were harshly forced back, and with a sound like rusted wind chimes, its precious revolvers scattered like ashes. Only the barrels remained to clatter to the ground.

The enemy was unarmed, and the field was Queen’s. She unleashed a flurry of blows into the Reaper’s stomach, opening with a knee and following through with an elbow. She kept attacking from there, her hits coming faster and faster, the movements flowing like raging rapids. She kicked until her boots were spattered with dark blood. She punched until she could feel bones crack under her knuckles. Each contact boomed like a bomb, and she hoped it hurt just as much.

She hoped it bled like Morgana.

She hoped it felt as hopeless as it left Haru.

She hoped it died with gnawing horror in its putrid heart.

The steel of her body cracked in her assault, though it healed as quickly as it was inflicted. It hurt terribly all the same, like breaking her bones over and over again. She had no idea if the human body she returned to would be as mangled as she felt it was, nor if she even could return to flesh and blood. But she didn’t stop. To stop while it still had blood to spill would be to risk its return, and she would never allow it to threaten her friends, her family, ever again.

Suddenly, the Reaper fell forward. Fearing a counterattack, she leaped to the side. From there, though, she saw that it was only slouching over. Its battered hands gripped the floor, holding up its limp body like a bag of hay. With it kneeling before her in defeat, head bowed, there was only one appropriate finisher.

She raised her leg, and like the hammer of Thor, she brought it down. Ribs were well and good to break, but there was a certain snap to the spine that made it uniquely satisfying.

Only, the snap wasn’t entirely bone. In fact, the click that came with it sounded more like metal. She lifted her heel, and beneath it, she saw that she had guillotine kicked a small chain link pierced into the Reaper’s neck. As she observed it, the chain’s surface toiled and bubbled before dispersing, like a pouch of fog.

Suddenly, the tunnels groaned in distress. Makoto just barely felt the pressure shift, as if she was being lowered into the ocean.

When the Reaper began to shudder, she retreated for fear of what was coming. The further she got from it, the less intense the pull inflicted on her. It was as if the Reaper had become a gravity well. The walls were bowing inwards, and the roof was pacing steadily towards collapse. The tracks around it were warping, tearing apart as weaker lengths bent to the new magnetic north.

The only matter not beholden to the shift was the Reaper itself. Entirely unimpeded, it rocked back, though the hem of its robe remained draped across the ground. Its movements were methodical, voluntarily slow. Its neck must not have been as broken as Makoto had hoped, as it was able to rear back and stare up. Its posture almost appeared to be meditative or worshipful.

Though the discovery of Shadow religious practices would be a great stride in understanding them, it also ran the risk of allowing this font of power the chance to tap into a spiritual second wind, if not a new source of magic at the other end of its prayer. Makoto would risk neither, especially not if this newly awakened Reaper would continue to roam Mementos after she fled.

Sprinting towards it was easier than before with the gravity-like pressure it exuded. Using both that and the rockets at her back, she accelerated to her greatest speeds yet and spun that force into a sweeping kick. She aimed to take its head all the way off this time.

For all her speed, the Reaper’s reaction was faster. It grabbed her leg as she closed in, soaking her attack without the slightest hint of discomfort, let alone pain. Its grip was vice-like. No matter how Makoto turned, or how much magic she drained into her rockets, she couldn’t build up enough force to break free.

How beautiful.

Dread. There was no other word for the visceral recoiling of her soul at the sound of the demon’s voice. The dread only grew as its free hand reached for its head. Bony, wraithish fingers pinched at the burlap sack it wore, and with a tug, it came loose. The Reaper’s head still wasn’t freed, but the white, silken mask underneath appeared easier to wear.

There was a hole in the silk mask, a singular hole through which it stared. The eye beneath was shrunken, fixated on something. Makoto couldn’t say what, but she was certain that it wasn’t revering just the ceiling with its gaze. It was looking up at something else.

Life slips away, thread by thread. The body unravels until it no longer binds the soul, a soul that yearns for release.” Its head rolled towards her lazily, its eye now on her. Its gaze was not hateful, as she expected. Rather, it was peaceful, loving in a twisted way. “You felt before what I feel now. The final gasp at the precipice. Alive and dead at once.” Its hold on her tensed as it pulled her closer, as if to embrace her. “Blessed be this gift. Come, let us embrace the end together!

Screw that!” With its arm folded, the leash was loosened, and Makoto found the room she needed to work. She leaped on her remaining leg. From there, her thrusters fired, twisting her around at the end of its arm. A swift kick across the face and the torque of liftoff forced its hand open. She lashed out with both legs as soon as she was able, kicking off of the Reaper as if it was a wall.

From a safe distance, she saw the arm she escaped from now dangled limply at its side. Unfortunately, it was the already damaged limb from which Haru’s ax jutted, meaning it only lost a tool that was already restricted. The Reaper didn’t pursue her immediately, instead staring at her in genuine befuddlement.

Are you not in pain? Life claws at your back, denying you the embrace of rest. Aren’t you tired?

Tired? It felt like exhaustion was all Makoto knew anymore. Even beyond these tunnels, life assaulted her from every direction, tearing her down whenever she had the gall to stand. The very act of standing now burned like the heart of the sun. How much easier it would have been to give in and rest.

And yet…

For all that living hurts, there are things here worth living for.” It didn’t realize it, but the ax in its shoulder was all the reminder Makoto needed of that. She crouched with her arms in front of her, the energy inside her, physical and magical alike, coiling in her joints. “I will not surrender them, and I wouldn’t recommend taking them from me.

Like a switch going off, the Reaper’s gaze hardened. As it rose from the ground, the blood in its robes pulled from the cloth, trailing it as a sanguine miasma.

You speak just as He did.” Its hand shot out to its side. Just when Makoto suspected an attack, she saw that the discarded barrels of its guns were glowing red. They lifted into the air on unseen strings, each hovering before the Reaper.

You cling to the suffering of life, and in doing so, deny the Mistress’ vision.” Slowly, like the turning of a clock, its hand twisted, and with it went the barrels. “I am Her hand on this withering earth. By my contract, she shall guide a new soul to peace this day.

The rods were getting closer to each other. As the space between them reduced to inches, sparks leaped between them, lightning cast in a foul violet. Off to one end, that same energy burgeoned at a tip, weaving together into a more solid form. It looked to be a long, curved blade, and it would be complete soon.

Queen blasted forward, a fist aimed for the shrinking divide between the halves. On contact, the bubble of lightning burst open, sending dozens of bolts racing up and through her arm. It felt like countless fangs were tearing at her flesh, inside and out, but her idea was working. She was the ground, draining power from the incomplete weapon. The blade receded into the shaft, and the strings holding them midair were wavering.

Your convictions are strong, human.” So distracted was Makoto with breaking its weapon that she lost sight for the Reaper itself. It was a brief lapse in attention, but it was enough. Her reminder came as a fist to the side of her head. The Reaper displayed great strength before, but with it all concentrated into its knuckles rather than a swinging pistol, it was enough to send Makoto skidding into the ground. “But mine are stronger.

She saw its shadow getting closer, and she fought to pry herself from the dirt. She saw chunks of her facial steel left down there, the inside of the mask drenched red. A new layer of metal skin was already forming over her, but the blow proved that the Reaper’s change was in more than behavior. It was stronger, much stronger.

When she was up on her arms, the now molten stonework lapping at her elbows, the Reaper hovered over her, its two staves held together as a club posed to strike.

Let them go, and be at peace.

It was already bringing its might down on her. A hundred plans flew by, but she had the time for none of them. Her body was mobilizing all of the magic she had left in her, which wasn’t much.

She had found a second wind, but it came up short. She should have fled while she had the chance. Ever bullheaded, it would seem, and Death was persistent.

Still, Makoto wouldn’t roll over and accept it. She had a promise to uphold, a promise to return. If she broke it while there was yet a single drop of strength in her, she would never be able to face Haru again.

She lifted her left hand. At best, she would catch the bludgeon and stop its attack. At worst, she would sacrifice a limb to give what was left of her more time to act. The latter was more likely. At least she was right-hand dominant.

Then, there was an explosion.

A bright flash of fire blew over the Reaper’s back, staggering it before its strike could land.

Next came the chain. Four strands thick, a twisted rope of iron descended on the Reaper, wrapping tight over its throat. On its back stood the one responsible. Joker’s skin was sheet white, and his face was twisted in unbridled hatred.

“Queen, now’s your chance!” That was Futaba’s voice. It was faint and thick with static, transmitted from a great distance, but it was enough to jump start Makoto. The situation had changed. The Reaper was distracted.

And as it turned, its good arm reaching up to try plucking Joker from its shoulders, it exposed to her its weak spot.

She fired her thrusters, letting them and them alone launch her. With so little energy left, she had to conserve as much of it as she could. One quick blast was enough to get her out of the stone and on the Reaper’s broken arm. It roared in pain as her knee dug into its twisted flesh.

It all but screamed as she fired again. Her hands were clasped around the haft of the ax in its shoulder, and when she launched herself straight up, she tore it harshly from the Reaper’s skin. Crimson blood spurted from the wound.

Her head was throbbing. Her body was heavy. She knew, as her vision began fading white, that what she did next would be her last shot.

Joker saw her raising the ax, and, struggling against the Reaper’s flailing and dodging its grasping hand, he twisted it to the side, putting its head right beneath her. He was saying something. She couldn’t hear him through the ringing in her ears, but she could barely read his lips.

Finish this!

Aye aye, Joker.

Her body shuddered as the last of its strength was diverted, pooled to her back and arms. She almost blacked out as her thrusters kicked, but she held on. A little more, just a few seconds more.

Joker yanked the chains tighter, forcing the Reaper to heel in place. It was stuck looking up, and it saw her coming down. Its eye locked on hers. She heard its voice echoing in her head.

Is this… Death?

Makoto’s answer was curt. With a battle cry that made Mementos quake, she brought the blade down. Its edge was burning white, and it cleaved through the Reaper’s skull. The shaft cracked. So did the gauntlets over her hands. Her blood splattered over the Reaper’s face, mingling with its own.

Her head throbbed again, and her vision paled. When it returned to her, she was on the ground. She tried to push herself up, but her body didn’t respond. She couldn’t move. She didn’t think she could so much as blink. She couldn’t tell if she was breathing or not.

All she knew was that she had won, because sitting in front of her was the fallen body of the Reaper. Or, rather, half of it. Its head wasn’t the only thing split down the middle. The whole beast was now in two. The half she found herself looking at was that with the eye, and she saw that nothing remained in it. No malice. No rage. No search for the end.

It was still, and peaceful. Its last moments were spent in serenity.

There was a hand on her. No, multiple. Four hands. They were pulling her up, some on her shoulders, some wrapped around her stomach. Her skin bent to their touch. As her head rolled limply down, she saw that she had shed her Cowl. Her mission had concluded, and her body was finally allowed to rest.

Rest. That sounded… nice. Her eyes slipped shut, and a white mist rolled in. Somewhere in the distance, she heard a harp and someone humming with it.