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3 more stops and then change line.

The train pulled out of the tunnel and an unfamiliar stretch of buildings gave way to…. Well other unfamiliar buildings, really. Tokyo is a big place, but these unfamiliar buildings had silhouettes that started ticking important little boxes in the back of his mind.

It was funny, he could remember the first time he did this, his stomach churning as he tried to keep to the hastily written instructions he’d scribbled down. It was almost scary the difference a year made. Now he could damn near make this whole run blindfolded. He recalled a few times he did it exhausted, barely keeping his eyes open after a late shift at a part time job, or pushing back home tired after an evening with his friends. More than once he’d woken up in bed, unsure of how he’d made the three or so line changes to get back safely to his door.

Change to the second line, pick up the circle, 4 more stops and then switch to the branch.

He’d considered asking his friends if one of them had assisted him, but that was a minefield. Asking the right one would get an understanding ear and a smile, the wrong one would earn him a blast about his safety, and running himself ragged for the good of everyone but himself. Sometimes both, depending on the person.

Or the glare, it was always a bad idea to ask Makoto that question. She had definite opinions.

Overall it was easier to just take the blessing of a safe return when it came.

Lastly, pick up the subway to Yongen-jaya

The view from the windows on the occasional short stretch of rail topside was no longer only vaguely familiar. Now he could recognise storefronts, the occasional person working there. Could picture the sounds and smells of the area.  The weight of the journey getting a little heavier on his shoulders every time he spotted a familiar sight.

Until, finally, he left the trains behind and headed out from the last station on foot. A small bag slung over his shoulders holding only a change of clothes and the most important of his possessions, one of which was a snoring friend that had slept through almost the entire trip.

 


 

He hadn’t been gone long. It was a far shorter visit than they’d originally had planned. But it had soon become clear to those waiting for him that, although he had come back, he hadn’t really come HOME.

In the past year Home had come to be a draughty attic over a café, the smell of coffee and curry, and the presence of his friends along with one particular woman who had stolen his heart. His parents’ house was too far away from all of that for him to be happy there.

His parents didn’t know what to do with that fact. They’d sent him away to keep his head down, behave and return at the end of the probation period with the situation behind him. They expected passable grades, maybe a part time job and a return to them unchanged. Expecting their quiet dutiful son to do just this, and nothing more.

He hadn’t.

He’d had been a decent student, now he was the top of the class at a school far better than the local high school he now had to attend. He used to be average, unmemorable. Now he was brave, charming and empathetic. A hard worker skilled with his hands and with a circle of loyal friends.

He’d worked his tail off. He’d put down his own roots in Tokyo and those roots went in deep.

When they’d told him to return, they thought it would be a simple trip and he be back, the same as always. Oh, he’d have to settle back in, overcome the last of the rumours about his misdeeds. Prove to the town and school he wasn’t the criminal they thought he was. Simple.

It would have been, if the old Ren had made it back.

Joker had come in his stead and he had no patience left for that bullshit.

Their little fish had grown too big for his old pond now. He had his own opinions, and when they’d tried to downplay the importance of his year in Tokyo in the hopes he’d return to his old self they found out exactly what those were.

Their house was only ever going to be a stopover for him, a break between his year in Tokyo, and his return to it for college, to resume his life. He was there under sufferance. Not by choice. The opinion of the town and school were of no interest to him.

His parents hadn’t been pleased but, honestly, he didn’t care anymore. There was a lot of things he had yet to say to them about the last year, but he wasn’t sure he was ready to start, not yet at least, and being forced to stay was the worst possible way to do things.

Unless you wanted a fight, then it was a great place to begin.

Ultimately his parents realised their mistake. If they ever wanted him to be a part of their lives, they had to let him return to his and, finally, they consented to his return to Tokyo and the resumption of his schooling at Shujin. You could almost hear the cheers of the local school from his house. They’d been a little worried about him attending since a teacher had thrown a piece of chalk at him, only to have it returned at speed seemingly by reflex and near imbed itself in the board.

He just wished their decision had come a week or so earlier so he could have made it back for Futaba’s first day at high school… and so he’d missed out on a certain phone call that had clouded any excitement he might have felt.

At least Shujin had been very helpful in slotting him back into place with the minimum of fuss, and keeping it under wraps that he was coming back at all. He told himself it was all to surprise his friends.

Not because she might kill him.

 


 

Navigation Complete, you have reached your destination.

Autopilot has got him here, a walk he’s done so often his feet didn’t feel the need to engage his brain anymore.

He paused at the door.

It’s nothing fancy, but he’s home now and the big weight he’s been carrying lifts itself off his back. Well, the part of the big weight that isn’t currently accounted for by his bag and too much tuna at least.

He can’t rest yet though, He’d made a big mistake, and the fallout of it was going to need to be dealt with. This wasn’t where he needed to be to do that, though, but he was almost there. Just one quick train ride away. One short trip from the station to meet her.

One dead man walking.

 


 

The separation had been harder on them than he expected. After his time in jail he thought the year would fly by but it was one thing when the bars meant he was physically unable to see her, this was something different. The only thing stopping him from kissing her goodnight was his parents desire to have him return to them. It didn’t help his temper.

Her texts and their nightly calls calmed his loneliness and made him smile, but it came back with sharper edges every time. Fraying his patience with the whole pointless, stupid visit. With all the stupid conversations, saying he was better off here, with “His Family”. Sure, better off. In the middle of nowhere. In a crappy local school who had no idea what to do with a student almost a year ahead of the rest of the class. Surrounded by people who still thought he was some crazed thug. He’d been asked to sign a petition in the shopping arcade on the way home the other day, to protest the known criminal being allowed to attend the local school.

He’d signed it, seemed rude not to. He’d have loved to see their face when they read his name.

News travelled fast out here, unless it was something dull, like him being innocent of all charges. Then it got around when it felt like it, and nobody believed it. To most of the people in the town, Shido was still going to be prime minster and Ren was a proven criminal. It was like stepping back in time.

He felt like the only sane man in the world.

It was at least partially responsible for the number of arguments he got into with his parents, the frustration made his teeth hurt, made him lash out at everything but he did his best to never direct it at her, she was the only thing keeping him sane.

 

Until one day he did.

 

He was tired and angry. Coming off yet another argument with his parents after he got in late, feeling more on probation here than he had in Tokyo and she had made the mistake of trying to calm him down, to smooth things out between him and his parents, as she often did. She thought she was helping. He knew that.

He was just so FRUSTRATED!

He didn’t want things smooth, or calm.

He wanted to be angry!

He wanted to be HOME. With Her.

Why did she keep taking their side every single time? Why did she want him to stay when he hated it here? She clearly did not want him to come home! Did she no longer love him?

It was only after he heard the sharp intake of her breath he’d realised he’d said that out loud.

Smooth Moves, Joker.

She’d had a shitty day of her own and his thoughtless comments had led to some very choice words screamed down the phone and an angry buzz in his ear when she hung up on him.

Followed by a deserved mauling by his old partner. Morgana was NOT appreciative of the tone he had taken with her. He took the gentleman thief thing very seriously when it came to the treatment of women. Particularly ones he was fond of.

It was a beyond stupid fight he would have given anything to erase,  because of it he hadn’t had the courage to contact her, and now, coming up on a week later his loneliness had knives, and threw his own words back at him laughing.

When he’d finally convinced his parents to send him home he couldn’t bring himself to tell her he was returning. Afraid she wouldn’t care anymore and her apathy would have broken him into little pieces. He resolved to apologise to her face, and take his punishment, praying she still cared enough to listen. A possibility that seemed more remote by the minute.

It had been a Very. Long. Week.

 


 

For now at least, it’s show-time. He pulls absentmindedly for the cuffs of gloves he isn’t wearing. A habit he’s found hard to break.

His Hand pushes on the door, the bell jingles and he steps in.

And it’s like it’s a year or so didn’t happen and he’s walking through the door for the first time. Smelling the coffee and curry and feeling a knot tie itself in his stomach as the panic set in.

But then he sees a certain painting on the wall and a familiar face behind the counter, hiding a smile.

“Boss.”

Sojiro made a gruff gesture to the back stairs “Your stuff came this morning. Seriously, if you were just going to turn around and come straight back you should have told me, wouldn’t have bothered getting it shipped out in the first place.”

The owner peered at him over his glasses with a frown.

“I haven’t told them you’re coming back yet, don’t worry. Not sure why you wanted to keep it a secret. It’s not like they didn’t miss you and it’s going to be over in about an hour when Futaba gets back from school anyway. Second she finds out she’s going to tell everyone. They’ll probably hear her from orbit.”

And there’s his deadline.

No matter, He’s worked with deadlines before. At least nobody is going to die if he screws this one up.

Hopefully.

No matter the cost. It needs to be done, and soon. He owes her far more than that, but it’s all he can do for now.

“You look like crap, rough trip?”

They share a moment’s small talk as Sojiro prepares a cup of coffee for his returned guest. The trip, the weather back where he’d come from, how Futaba was doing at school, the fact his bag had just started snoring loudly.

But the itch in the back of his head was still there and he can’t afford to delay this much longer or it will drive him insane.

He snuck a quick glance at the clock and ran it against a train schedule in the back of his mind. He’s got plenty of time to make this last trip, but the look doesn’t go unnoticed.

“You got an appointment I’m keeping you from?” Hard to get anything pass Boss sometimes.

“Got one more stop I need to make” the gloves still aren’t on his hands, he covers by adjusting his watch.

“You’re really thinking of heading back out already? You’ve been on a train for hours, and you’re barely in the door! It can’t wait until tomorrow?”

“All the time in the world to catch up later, Boss.”

He can’t leave this any longer.

His quick strained smile is met by a raised eyebrow and a sigh.

“Head upstairs first, give yourself a chance to change and unwind. Whatever it is you’re way too worked up for it now. Besides, a clear head might save you a trip”

Odd way to put it, but he might as well change his clothes, it had been long trip and he could definitely stand to freshen up.

He sipped his coffee as he climbed the stairs, the fragrance wiping away a lot of the tiredness from the trip. That’s another down side to staying with his parents.  He couldn’t get a decent coffee to save himself out there and he lacked the equipment and beans to brew his own. When he had gone back there was nothing but instant coffee in the house.

INSTANT!

He shuddered in remembrance of the first cup. He wasn’t sure what type of beans it was made of was, but they tasted like they were grown in tainted soil and had been prepared by someone who wasn’t familiar with coffee. Or Food for that matter.

He was fairly sure that came under unethical treatment of prisoners. It was surprising how long he had managed to stay, really. If he’d mentioned it on the phone to Sojiro he’d have probably have driven down to rescue him.

Joker attempts to dodge his problems with humour!  It’s… not very effective.

He sighed. Futaba had clearly rubbed off on him.

 


 

Up the stairs the old room in the attic was just about as he left it. The scattered souvenirs of the past year had made the round trip with him and would need be unpacked from the large box on the floor later. The plant needed feeding, but that’s job for another day. His old television and console were still there, so was the desk and the old laptop he’d coaxed back to life.  Soon, it would be like he never left.

Everything in its place and now so was he.

Or nearly everything.

Focus on that for now. Breathe. You need to be Joker, not the scared teenager right now. Not if you’re going to fix this. You can’t afford to fall apart until it’s done.

His instincts were telling him some things are off and he doesn’t need the third eye to spot them.

Somebody’s been in his room. Recently too.

 


 

An empty coffee cup sits on the table, the blanket on the bed is rumpled where someone has flopped into it. A book is on the windowsill and there is a faint perfume in the air where the unexpected visitor had lain down to read.

He could think of only a few people who would have been comfortable enough here to have done that, and only one who had ever worn the particular combination of the fragrance near the bed and the lip-gloss he spies decorating the edge of the forgotten cup.

His finger rubbed gently at the faint hint of her lips on the edge of the cup bringing a soft smile to his own. This couldn’t have been here more than a day or two and Boss was going to notice it missing it soon.

He felt the icy fingers in his chest loosen their grip, just a touch.

That, at least was something. His odds of success on his next mission might not be as dire as he may have initially feared.

She might just give him a chance to apologise before she started throwing things.

 


 

Right then. Target acquired, deadline set, Mission Start!

Time to get ready.

He had a heart to steal!

No. 

He has a heart to EARN back, on his hands and knees if that’s what it takes.

He woke his sleepy roommate and evicted him from his bag before pulling a quick clothing change from its depths. For his part Morgana was already stretching his legs and heading out the window to reacquaint himself with the area and leaving his friend to change and unpack. Their relationship was still a little frosty after the well-deserved talking to the cat had dished out. There would need to be sushi in his future after things were made right.

Sojiro had definitely been right about one thing, though, he REALLY needed to change his clothes. His outfit had picked up that particular odour he’d grown to associate with the trains in Tokyo. The smell of too many people and too many hours packed into too little space, sweat and exhaustion and a dozen lives. The less he carried that odd mix of scents the better. He swapped his clothes for something a touch more formal and a lot less fragrant.  He needed this impression to be good.

Plus, this way if she killed him he’d look passable for the funeral.

 


 

The sound of the front door shakes him from his planning. He heard Boss greet the customer, but instead of the sound of sound of a stool, or someone sliding into a booth, there was instead quiet footfalls on the stairs.

He recognised those footsteps, although they’re slower and more hesitant than he remembered.

Now Sojiro's off-hand comment made sense. Boss had to have known she was coming!

How many times had she come up here since he left? He hadn’t been gone that long, but apparently for her this had been a regular thing, if the owner could predict it was going to happen.

Now his heated words during the argument returned to burn him a just a little more.

He had told her SHE didn’t care. That SHE didn’t want him to come back.

She would still come up here after he had said that all that to her?

He didn’t deserve her.

He wasn’t sure now if he ever could.

 


 

The slow, tired footsteps echoed up to the empty room.

Except this time it’s not empty, and she’s in for a hell of a surprise since he can’t fit through the window like Morgana. No escape from this encounter. Think quick, Joker.

He doubts she’d fall for him hiding behind the bed, and the last time he’d vaulted the rail he’d limped for the rest of the day. No way he’d outrun her.

Time to get the first strike, then. His hand moves to fuss with his absent gloves again.

He’s here now, and he’s going to make up for all the times he wasn’t. All thoughts of escape or losing this fight thrown to the wind.

He prepared to throw out a witty remark, a smirk and a bit of the old Joker charm to start with, and had even loaded one of his best lines into the chamber as her head came around the corner. Determined to surprise her, bring a blush to her cheeks and start on the right foot but somehow it caught in his throat at the sight of her.

She seemed… smaller than he remembered.

She looked so tired, sad, almost curled slightly in on herself. Her head bowed as she typed a text message into her phone with shaky fingers. Finally, she hit send, closed her eyes and let out a breath she’d clearly been holding for too long before dropping her phone into her pocket.

He once got offered a deal by a malevolent god. A deal that would have erased everything he’d worked for, everything he’d accomplished in the year he’d been there.

At this point he’d take that deal in a heartbeat if it meant he never saw that look on her face ever again.

She’d been crying. He could tell.

He’d done that to her.

He had a lot to make up for and the sheer pressure of it freezes him in place.

It’s only when his own phone beeped excitedly as her message reached its destination that she broke her part of their tableau, her head snapping up to look into the room, startled by the proximity of the sound.

Well, so much for the element of surprise…

She meets his eyes, and her bag dropped from nerveless fingers with a thump. Her hands leaping to her mouth in shock.

But her eyes tell him he’s spent the better part of the last week jumping out of his skin for nothing. That a single call or text begging her forgiveness would have begun the work to make this whole trip a dream, not the nightmare it was.

She might be angry, but she still wanted him here.

Suddenly his witty remark just doesn’t seem all that appropriate.

But he’s got another that does.

 

“I’m home.”

 

 


 

Sojiro winced as the sound of running footsteps and the thump of a pair of bodies crashing to the floor makes the cups rattle. Then he chuckled, and returned to preparing her coffee. Reaching out with his free hand to rub Morgana’s ears.

“Never quiet when the two of you are here, huh? “

 

Chapter Text

Who the HELL did that JACKASS think he was?!

The blond girl stomped her way away from the crepe stand, hands and mouth full of sweets.

“How the hell could he even THINK THAT!?”

She barely tasted it. She wasn’t eating this for enjoyment this time, though. Not even double cream could lift her mood today.

No, this time she needed the energy.

 

It was fuel for the Rage.

 

Ann Takamaki was no shrinking violet. No, SIR!

She tore off another mouthful of crepe.

No damsels in distress here. 

Hell, it had even taken that asshole Kamoshida and his rumours almost three months to push her into a corner and wear her down, and that was before awakening her persona. In the whirlwind year that followed she had only grown stronger.

She’d faced horrors from the collective unconscious, Demons from the darkest nightmares of humanity and maybe a couple of things from those really dodgy hentai she’d heard whispers about.  She’d taken Kamoshida’s treasure and forced that bastard to confess.  She’d fought gods! Overthrown governments!! Saved the world!!!

She wasn’t a heartbroken little girl. Crying into her pillow after one fight.

She wasn’t…

Tears pricked the corners of her eyes yet again

Apparently she was also a liar.

Sadly not a great one, she didn’t believe one word of it.


 

 

Shiho Suzui was kind of glad her friend had decided to concentrate on modelling. Her Acting sucked more than her art ever had.

They'd been planning a get-together for weeks. The back and forth on what to do had settled on Karaoke and Shiho had expected their usual when they met up, a medley of old anime themes, J-pop and laughter since neither of them were great singers.

It took her all of a minute to realise that plans had changed. It had started out normal enough, Ann seemed tense, but they’d just restarted school for the year, and that had always given the girl a headache. Then an off-hand comment about Ren had made Ann freeze. Oh, she had recovered quickly enough and she was back full of energy, bubbly and excited. Until Shiho looked away. What she saw out of the corner of her eye looked more like a puppet with its strings cut than her friend.

Something was going on with her boyfriend.

She had known the long distance end of the relationship was going to be an issue for Ann, the girl was very kinetic, and loved giving her small happy hugs and hanging off her arms whenever they met. She expected the lack of her boyfriend’s presence was probably going to push Ann into something like withdrawals by the end of the year.  Hopefully staved off by phone calls and visits to manageable levels. She hadn’t expected it this soon, the year had barely started. Either it was way worse than she’d expected, or something had accelerated things.

It took her another five minutes to pry the reason for Ann's fake excitement out of her, at which point the girl deflated like a balloon.

"It was just a little fight." They were stuffing themselves with cake, the Karaoke forgotten for the moment, and Shiho was doing her level best to play detective. At least it hadn’t affected Ann’s appetite. The point she stopped eating sweets Shiho would be looking for the other signs of the apocalypse.

There was no just in that fight, Ann. Not to you, you look like the world is ending.

She kept that thought to herself. No need to push too hard, yet. Still plenty of cake to keep her distracted for the gentler line of questioning. She’d turn on the lamp and play bad cop if that failed.

"What happened?"

"He doesn't want to be there. Apparently the school kind of sucks. Worse than Shujin! He was just tired" There was that freeze again. She was deliberately leaving something out.

How bad must that school be to be worse than one that greeted him with rumours, an aggressive pervert and threats of expulsion?

Poor Ren, he was sent to Tokyo because he was a criminal, and she’d known something was off with that the moment she'd seen him. He didn't have the eyes of someone who'd attack someone in the street, not without a reason, anyway. There was something in there, he was a fighter to be sure but if he fought you, you'd be the one who started it and he'd be the one to end it.

No, he was the one with his hand on Ryuji's shoulder, keeping him in line. He wasn't a hothead.

Ann had told her later that he'd defended a woman from a drunk politician who'd used his influence to throw the book at him. That sounded more like the boy she’d met.

There was still more to this than that, though. That wasn’t the reason for this.

"And?"

Ann had clearly hoped that would be enough, she sighed.

"He's having trouble getting a part time job. Word that he's innocent is taking its time to get around. I think it’s really starting to bother him.”

Dear god, girl! Tiptoe around that landmine some more.

He'd worked his fingers to the bone here. Ann had mentioned three, no four there was a bar wasn't there, jobs and he'd had so many friends and acquaintances it made her head spin. The times she'd met up with Ann and Ren was around it was rare to go ten minutes without seeing him acknowledge someone. 

Ann had been a bit twitchy around some of them, there was quite a lot of pretty girls around her delinquent, but Shiho wasn’t worried.  He'd only ever had eyes for Ann.

So he's probably bored out of his mind and, if the town was as hostile as it seemed, then he'd have very few people to talk to. He'd probably just be down to his parents and that smug cat he always had in his bag.

Shiho didn’t trust that cat, it was up to something.

She was beginning to get a nasty picture forming.

"And?"

Ann shrank a little more.

"He's so tired of all the fighting, all the time. With his parents, the people in the town, the school. They still treat him like a criminal. Even his parents were more worried about what the town thought than Ren"

So it’s down to the Cat and you to keep him sane? Oh, Ann...

"I was just trying to calm things down!"

There we go. She was getting more animated now. Ann had a tendency to snowball once she got past a certain point in a conversation. Usually adding more information that she really intended to.

"His parents just want him with them, I know how that feels! So I was trying to tell him that BUT THEN THAT JACKASS...!" Ann was on her feet now, fists and teeth clenched.

Dammit, Amamiya, what the hell did you say?

Then her eyes went dead and she slumped back into the chair.

Shiho knew that look. Last time she'd seen she was still at Shujin, Ann was close to the end of her rope.

"He thinks I want him to stay there because I don't like him anymore."

OH FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! Shiho resisted the urge to bang her head on the table.

Amamiya you IDIOT! How stressed out was he that he could forget the look in Ann’s eyes when he held her hand? Shiho had been almost embarrassed to see it herself. If the blonde had blushed any harder she’d have passed out.

Let me send you a picture of Ann’s face right now and see if you still think that!

That would have been one hell of a fight. Oh, Ann wouldn’t be blameless in it, Shiho had no doubt about that. She had a fiery temper when she was pushed and would have given as good as she got if Ren had made her angry enough and that comment would have done the trick. Ann would probably have said a lot of heated things she didn’t really mean and she was probably regretting most of them right now, by her face.

“Ann, you know he doesn’t really think that.”

The blonde remained slumped in her chair.

“You said yourself how frustrated he is, He’s stuck in the middle of nowhere with no-one to really talk to except you and that odd cat of his.”

“I know.” her voice was barely audible.

“Do you think the cat is giving him good advice?” Maybe she could lighten the mood.

The blonde appeared to consider this.

“He’s probably doing his best. It’s not really his area of expertise, though.”

“Pardon?”

“But Morgana would probably be angry at him as well after that. He’s always liked me more. He used to call me Lady Ann.” She smiled a bit wistfully.

“Umm…Ann…?”

 “The blonde’s eyes snapped open as she remembered who she was talking to.

“Ren! Ren used to call me Lady Ann, pretend it was Morgana… ahaha…”

Ok then…?

That was meat of it. Stressed out idiot pushes bad tempered blonde’s buttons. No need to dig any further and clearly Ann was more in need of something to take her mind of this, she was starting to act a bit weird. 

Shiho turned to the karaoke machine and picked out an angry love song. Soon the two of them were screaming into the microphones and after a few more songs Ann’s spirits had picked up a bit.

As the evening came to an end, Ann hugged her goodbye.

“Thanks for listening.”

“That’s my job! And as for the idiot, you let him cool off for a bit, then talk to him. He’s probably wetting himself, thinking you’re going to kill him, or dump him. Or both!” The girl hugged her back.

And he’s probably having as bad a time with this as you are. It hadn’t just been Ann’s eyes that made her look away. Ren’s were just as bad.

The blonde giggled.

“You’re right.” She smiled, tiredly.

 “And you keep me posted. ANYTHING that happens.”

“Will do!” Ann walked away to catch her train, with far more bounce in her step than before.

Shiho watched Ann’s back as she walked away, she was still terrible at acting. It was kind of sad to watch her fake energy like that.

Nothing she could do at this end, sadly. She didn’t have Ren’s number and asking for it now would be a really bad idea. Maybe she could follow it up with Ryuji in a day or so if she hadn’t heard from Ann? She was clearly going to have a pointed talk to Amamiya about what you do and don’t say to a lady, either way.

She hoped they talked soon, though. That blonde needed to talk to that stressed out idiot before she exploded, and he’d better apologise first thing, before she started yelling.

Or crying.

If he didn’t, if he made things worse…

Shiho was going to get a bat, catch a train and take matters into her own hands. No matter how nice a guy he was, nobody hurt Ann. 


 

 

The Jackass still hadn’t called.

Ann was trying to sleep but the night was too quiet. Not something she usually thought about Tokyo.

She preferred the day, it was easier to hold onto the anger then, and as much as that hurt it was better than the empty silence that replaced it. It asked questions she didn’t want to answer.

Why did one phone call make her feel like she was a broken little girl?

She punched her pillow and tried the other side. It was worse.

How could he have done this to her with one stupid fight?

She'd had sleepless nights before, a lot of them, eventually those little voices arguing with you would give in and let you sleep.

But now her inner voice had a name of its own, and wasn’t letting her ignore it.

Because you allowed him to.”

“Shut up, Hecate”

“Because if you leave your heart in his hands then not every touch will be gentle?”

“Quiet” She couldn’t even plug her ears, since the voice came from inside.

“Because you’ve spent most of your recent conversations with the boy playing the “good girlfriend”, the “mediator” and not telling him how you really felt? It is one thing to make him dance, another entirely to deceive him”

“I didn’t”

You can’t lie to me girl.”

Hecate was right. She hadn’t wanted to worry him with her problems when he had so many of his own. She’d felt his absence like a hole in her chest and watching him get more and more tired and angry and not being able to help him was driving her up the walls.

“It wasn’t all my fault!”

“The fool played his part, but what did you expect from him. He’s been sent beyond the reach of your fire, and you stay cool while he begs for warmth. You don’t even like the parents you so readily defended.”

“They weren’t that bad. They seemed like nice people…”

“THEY TOOK HIM FROM YOU!”

They had. She’d watched his face as they’d left, he’d have given anything to be back on the van. He hadn’t stayed because he wanted to. It had taken all she had not to tell Makoto to stop.

“You heard it in his voice. He was tired, worn and angry. How often was he like that with you?”

Never.

There had been times when they’d both near collapsed with exhaustion, but she’d never heard that edge in his voice before. They’d faced down the man that had destroyed his life, a god intent on stealing their future which had tried to erase them from existence. She’d never heard that degree of frustration before.

“Why are you taking his side, anyway?”

Lashing out at herself was a great idea, nothing could go wrong there.

“He is yours, if any shall break him it will be you.”

“Break…him…?” She flushed. She didn’t want to break him, per se… but he might need to know who was in charge…occasionally…

“Oh grow up, child. The thief shall dance to your beat until you allow him rest. Those who would dare to think otherwise are fuel to your fire. However if this is the extent of your spark then perhaps it is for the best. His battles clearly continue, and you seem to have lost your stomach for them.”

“What?! No I haven’t!”

“If these last few embers are all you have left then perhaps you should seek kindling elsewhere. That puppy that mooned around the fools coattails might be more your current tastes.”

“MISHIMA?!” Hecate was screwing with her now… right?

“The mewling boy is clearly more to your palette now, since your fire is dying.”

“Say That Again…”

“I came to fan the flames of rebellion. You swore to not bow down again.”

“I haven’t. I… didn’t.”

Where had the stutter in her voice come from?

“Does this thief have you so whipped, girl.”

“WHAT?!”

“He challenged your FIRE! The strength of your will and heart, but yet you lie here afraid to even call him to task on it.”

“I’m not afraid”

“Do not lie to me again, child.”

“I’M NOT!’

“THEN PROVE IT!” Hecate’s voice was a hiss

“Those who risk the fire must be forged or burnt! If the metal will not be tempered it will be ASH!”

“This thief of yours is clearly in need of a reminder of this if he DARES to challenge you so lightly!”

“Fool or no, remind him that what purrs can bite if not handled with care”

She awoke, tired, angry and late for her train for the third day running.


 

 

It was getting harder to keep her distress from her friends.

Makoto and Haru were preparing to start university in a few weeks, so they weren’t the constant presence that they once had been. If they were they’d have had her story out of her by now. As it was Makoto had given her a hard look when they’d met in passing the other day and Haru had sounded concerned during their last phone call. It wasn’t going to be long before they came asking questions. Or went to Ren. She wasn’t sure which would be worse.

Ryuji, as loyal a friend as he was, never had a lot of insight to her feelings, but even he had made a comment on her recent string of late entrances in his usual way. Well-meaning but worded such that it made you want to hit him regardless.

Yusuke’s mind was a mystery and their interactions had been limited due to the difference in schools but at their last meeting he’d asked if she was trying to express sorrow for a modelling engagement. He’d also said she needed to have more pain in her eyes if she truly wanted to pull it off. After she’d stomped on his foot he’d decided to refrain from more acting critique.

No, the one that worried her most was Futaba.

Futaba’s was a mystery all her own, and she was not the best at picking up on social cues, but the small girl was very sensitive to problems with her adopted family, probably given how rocky her relationship with her real one had been. She had quickly added Ren to that group during the last year, and as her new big brothers girlfriend that brought Ann into the family more or less by default. The younger girl had started school with them a scant few days before, so she was already a bit on edge. Dealing with so many new people and the teachers surprising her with questions in class, even if she had no problem answering them, was a trial. Ann and Ryuji had been helping out where they could, and heading off any problems they spotted before they became too large for the girl to handle alone. Not much they could do about teachers throwing chalk in class, and her phone getting confiscated though. Futaba had a tendency to text whenever she felt like it, the teachers didn’t seem to think that was appropriate. The girl didn’t know what was going on, but she clearly knew something had happened from the looks she was sending her way.

 

It came to a head at lunch, when Ryuji had headed off to buy a drink, Futaba had sat down next to her while she was eating, her mind miles away.

“Panther?” The girl tapped her shoulder.

Ann jumped. Scaring them both.

“Gah! Futaba… Don’t do that!”

“Talk to you?” The younger girl was startled.

“Sneak up on me!”

“Who’s sneaking? You wouldn’t answer me!” She looked confused.

Ann calmed her pounding heart down.

“Sorry, I was just thinking.”

“About Joker?”

Oh crap. No, not now. She’d been holding together so well today… Well, she hadn’t cried at least.

Yet.

“Is he sick? He’s barely been responding to anything in chat and after I sent him the photo of us in our school uniforms the other day he went all quiet.”

Sick. She thought he was sick. Not that they had fought. She hadn’t even considered that, had she? A few days ago she wouldn’t have thought of that first either.

“He didn’t even react when I said the next one would be sexier.”

“Sexier… How?” This finally made it through the fog.

“Futaba! No taking your clothes off for photos! Even for Ren! ESPECIALLY FOR REN!”

The look Futaba shot her spoke volumes.

“I was going to pour water over Ryuji, duh. Plus it’s not me without a shirt he’d be looking for.” The girl wiggled her eyebrows.

Ann would have laughed, except she’d just start crying.

I’m not sure he’d be too keen on that one at the moment, either.

No, she had to head off this line of questioning before it went places she couldn’t get out of.

Time to turn on the talent! Her acting was much better now! She’d fooled Shiho, hadn’t she? Mostly?

“He’s been busy with School, Futaba. Not sick. You know how a new school can be.”

“Do they throw chalk? That hurts way more than I expected” The girl rubbed her forehead.

“He didn’t say. Anyway, I’m going to text the big idiot tonight, he’s not paying me enough attention. Doesn’t matter how distracted he is at school.”

It was almost true.

Futaba didn’t seem convinced.

“You sure? I mean if he’s not talking to you he must be sick. What did he sound like last time you spoke to him?”

He didn’t sound like my boyfriend.

“He seemed fine.”

LIAR.

“I’m still worried, Ann. He’s not…”

The girl was cut off when Ann hugged her.

“It’s fine Futaba. He’s not sick. When I talk to him I’ll yell at him for worrying you, ok? I’m heading off to the bathroom.”

Ann hoped the girl wouldn’t notice the tears she left on her shoulder. This couldn’t go on much longer. Futaba didn’t deserve that.


 

 

Futaba watched after her as she walked away.

“Well?”

“Lied through her teeth, just like you thought. Something bad is going on there. She was about to cry”

Ryuji sat down, holding out a bottle of drink.

“Told you so, she can’t act for shit.”

“You want to try next?”

“Eff that, she’d never tell me. Plus Yusuke was limping after he tried. I’m only just getting my legs back in shape.”

“Makoto’s turn then?”

“At least she wouldn’t stomp on Queen. Plus she has the glare, if anything is getting it out of her it will be that. Other than Suzui, but let’s keep her out of it for now. She’d probably be gunning for Joker if she thought something was going on.”

“Speaking of, Anything from Ren?”

“Still not answering my messages. You?”

“He turns his phone off almost all day now, he usually only does that when he’s hiding from me.” The two considered this.

“Almost road trip time?”

“If we have to go grab him, I call shotgun. Makoto’s choice of music sucks”


 

 

Ann had hit her breaking point.

Right! Enough was enough. It wasn’t fair on Futaba and it sure as hell wasn’t fair on her.

If he wasn’t going to man up and contact her, she’d make him regret leaving her to take that step.

“Saints preserve us, the fire is not yet dead.”

“Shut it, Hecate. I’m not in the mood”

She wrote and rewrote the message as she was walking away from the school. Being careful to avoid her friends.

How angry should she be? She didn’t want him to hate her, but he needed to know how much it hurt. This last week had been hell.

He known he’d gone too far, saying she didn’t want him to come back. She heard it in the sharp intake of his breath in moment of silence that followed. Just before the anger took hold and she had gone off like a bomb.

Maybe he was sitting by the phone, too afraid to call, just like her?

Maybe he had a text he was fussing over too?

Maybe he’d gone out and found a cute little country girl, eager to help him get over her.

That last thought came right out the quiet emptiness of the last few days like a freight train and damn near tore her legs from under her. She felt sick.

No, that wasn’t him. She was sure of that. Joker might have lashed out in a moment, but he’d never…

A week ago he’d have never said those things either.

The pit in her stomach was getting deeper.

It was only when the bell jingled she realised she found her way to Leblanc. She’d taken to visiting his room since he’d left. Slowly wearing out the little of his presence remained, using the memories of the last year to brace herself when she felt like falling. Boss had been surprisingly understanding. Never coming upstairs without ample warning. Giving her time to hide the tears.

She hadn’t intended to come here now, though.

“HECATE! Why here?!”

“Don’t blame this on me, you silly girl. I’ve washed my hands of this whole foolish situation. Call on me when you’ve made up your own mind. I can’t take the drama”

Sojiro looked up from his crossword, saw her startled face and frowned.

“What did that damn kid do this time?’

Was it that obvious she’d been crying? Great.

“Nothing, just a little argument. It’s just… hard… with him not being here.” She fought down the urge to rub her eyes again. They were bloodshot enough as it was.

His eyes softened.

“Kid doesn’t know when he’s got it good, does he?” He sighed and shook his head. “Go on, Head upstairs, see if you find what you need up there. I’ll bring a coffee up for you and you give him hell from me when you talk to him. You don’t leave a lady like this after a fight.”

Sojiro Sakura, ever the gentleman.

“Thanks Boss.”

She walked slowly up the stairs, rewriting the message again. She didn’t want to give him hell.

Right now she just needed to know he was still there.

 

P: - Hey, I’m still angry but I really need to hear your voice right now. Can I call you? Please?

 

She sounded pathetic. It seemed appropriate.

She squeezed her eyes shut and hit send before she lost her nerve.

Now it was on him.

He wouldn’t let her down. He hadn’t before.

Her eyes prickled.

Please don’t let me down, Ren.

She missed him so much, she’d never make a year of this. It seemed such a short time before he’d left! If he was here, well, she’d… probably die of happiness but THEN she’d sock him in his stupid smug face.

How dare he?

How dare he be so important to her one fight near killed her!

“BREATHE, CHILD! Damn fool of a girl. Must I remind you to keep your heart beating as well?”

She let out a ragged breath she didn’t realise she was holding.

Keep it calm, Panther. No passing out, that would let the cat out of the bag, and this one wouldn’t go back in, even if you promised it sushi. Boss would tell the others, they’d try to help. She’d die of embarrassment.

She sighed.

Well, she was here now. Might as well lie down for a while. Her head still ached from the lack of sleep and she'd need the energy.

It was funny how the room seemed more alive with her eyes closed. Almost like he was still there. She could almost hear him breathing. Could almost smell the unusual mix of scents she’d grown to associate with him. Coffee, Morgana and…trains?

A message tone went off not more than six feet in front of her.

She would have recognised it anywhere.


 

 

Time stopped.

“Open your eyes, stupid girl. He’s right in front of you.”

“He can’t be.”

“Your fool is standing right there, it’s just what you wanted! Teach him to fear the fire!”

“I can’t”

“Why in Blazes not?”

“If I open my eyes and he’s not there, I’m going to die, you realise that.”

“At this point I would take that as a personal favour. Anything to stop the moping. Will nothing save me from these damned teenagers?”

“Hecate!”

“Do it Ann”

She forced her eyes open, and there he was.


 

 

The slouch that put his chin just at the right level for her. The hair that never looked tidy, no matter how she fussed with it while he smirked at her attempts. Those stupid fake glasses that suited him a little too well and made those grey eyes of his look so much cuter.

He was here!

HOW WAS HE HERE?!

His eyes were full of… Fear. He looked as tired as she felt.

Tired and scared…

Joker, Their leader. She’d seen his final persona. Arsene, unchained. The one that put a bullet through a god. It was the size of a building.

She’d never seen him that scared before.

What was he scared of? Her? Of her beating the ever living crap out of him for that stupid, stupid call? Of her not wanting to talk to him?

It didn’t matter.

If he cared enough to be scared of the result. She could work with that. That was a base Panther could build some confidence on.

He spoke, two words. All she needed to hear right now.

 

“I’m home.”

 

She didn’t notice her bag dropping, or closing the distance faster than she’d ever moved before. She tackled him to the ground, sobbing and yelling and kissing. With Hecate’s mocking laughter echoing in her mind.

Chapter Text

“HE. SAID. WHAT?!”

The girls’ voice cut through the restaurants’ background noise like a whip crack. Drawing startled stares from the other customers.

“On second thought” Makoto considered “Eiko might not the right person to discuss this with. At least in public."

Although she would definitely have more experience in the “Big Fight with boyfriend” field, she was also a little too protective of her friend, and her own sour experience with dating put her straight into angry defence mode . Ready to take the fight straight to Ren.

“EIKO! Please! You’re disturbing the other diners!”

“Don’t you Eiko Me!  HOW DARE HE SAY THAT?! Glasses boy is getting his scruffy ass kicked when I see him!’

It was almost adorable. Like watching a kitten prepare to defend a German shepherd.

She remembered that final gunshot.

From a Dragon.

“He has a name, Eiko.”

“He has officially lost all name privileges for that one Makoto. He’ll be lucky if he gets to keep the Glasses.”


 

She didn’t really need defending.

If anyone, Ren included, EVER raised a hand to her they’d find out exactly how much she usually held back when sparring.  She might not have her knuckles and she certainly wasn’t able to carry her revolver, but SHE was not undefended, and unlike the other thieves her skills were not removed entirely upon leaving the metaverse.

She also wasn’t entirely certain Ren was even capable of TRYING to hurt her. The few times she had taken a sizable hit during their careers as phantom thieves it had caused him something approaching physical pain. Oh, he had laughed it off at the time once he was sure she was safe, or at least Joker did, but she could see it in his eyes, behind the mask.

 

Where Ren lived.

 

Makoto had learned over their time together that Joker and Ren were very different animals.

Joker was the one who made suave teasing comments, Ren was the one who sat with his arms and a blanket wrapped around her and his chin on her shoulder during thunderstorms, to keep her safe and calm.

Joker was the one who had made a smirking joke at a comment about marriage to make her blush.

Ren was the dorky kid who spilled coffee on his lap after meeting her eyes while studying.

Joker was the big grand gestures, Ren the small thoughtful ones.

Joker was “My Queen!” at the top of his lungs with a manic grin.

Ren was “Makoto” under his breath with that little smile.

Joker was what Ren brought out when he was feeling weak or scared. When he needed to be stronger than he thought Ren alone could be.

Joker was Ren with all the brakes off. A cocky suit of armour that kept him safe.

In the balance of things, as much as she’d miss the gentle teasing and his grand gestures, she would have much preferred it if Ren had never needed Joker again.

But then he went home, to his parents.

Or at least, Joker went home. The last few times she’d spoken to him, she wasn’t sure if Ren was in there at all and that worried her.


 

He hadn’t wanted to return.

Oh, he knew he had to. There was air to clear. Conversations that needed to be had. Family was very important to her, and he wasn’t about to cut ties when they could be salvaged, particularly given how few he had left. However he had new family here, and he would never sacrifice the new to save the old.

He’d gone home under sufferance, intending to convince his parents to let him return as quickly as possible. It had been the wrong approach. He’d treated it like a battle he had to win. He’d led with Joker.

His parents had expected a reserved and studious son returning with his misdeeds behind him to quietly resume his rightful place in the family.

 

They’d got a Monster instead.

 

Joker paced the house like a tiger in a cage, and took delight in surpassing their every expectation, but never in quite the way they had wanted. Seemingly just to spite them. A veritable monkey’s paw. A far cry from when he had left.

They had thought they could simply collar him and put him back where he came from.

 Joker would not be chained.

 

He frequently ignored his parents’ curfew attempts, going fishing or just walking in the countryside. As much to break the rules as from any real desire to go.

She almost felt sorry for them. They had no idea what they’d unleashed.

 

Almost.

 

Then she remember the time she had snuck a look at his phone before he’d left trying to find his birthday since he wouldn’t tell her, hoping to surprise him and found they’d never called him once in all the time he was in Tokyo. When she’d nervously asked him about them, he shrugged and said something offhand about his probation requirements. JOKER had said, not Ren. She had heard the difference in his voice. She’d followed it up with Sae. There was nothing in his probation limiting contact with his family. In fact it was recommended to help keep him in line.

They’d lied to him, and deep down he knew it, they’d sent him to Tokyo and washed their hands of him until the probation was done.

 

Left him to face it alone.

 

Despite the importance she placed upon family, Makoto did not like them.


 

 They’d fallen into a routine. Joker would drive his parents insane, but ace any task they put in front of him. Hoping to show both that he was highly capable and better off far, FAR away from them.

Ren would vent to her on the phone before bed. Clinging to her, despite the distance. Holding onto her mundane comments about university preparations and their friends’ activities like a lifeline in the dark.

He’d complain about the coffee, the rules and the silence during meals and then he’d go to bed and they’d do it all again tomorrow.

Makoto had seriously considering driving down there herself and bringing him back before he went mad. Sae would kill her if she did it, she knew that, but Boss was keeping his room as he left it, just in case she had to. She’d visited it herself, a larger number of times than she was willing to admit, ostensible to study in the quiet and enjoy the coffee, but really just to remember better times.

Better times should not have been the ones when people were trying to kill them.


 

It was wearing him down.

No person can fight forever and Ren was growing tired of covering the same ground over and over. Week after week. Proving his points again and again, only to have to do it all over again the next day. She could hear it in his voice.

But Joker wasn't a person.

Joker was a force of fucking nature when he wanted to be. Ren’s rebel incarnate. THE Phantom Thief, all capitals intended.

Joker couldn’t STOP fighting. It was what he was for. The more Ren tired, the more he slipped, the more he relied on Joker to keep him standing.

But Joker was ruthless, always primed for battle with lines already drawn.

 

And He did not take prisoners.

 


 

The fight had been Sudden, harsh and terrible.

She was always trying to be the voice of reason, no matter how little sense it made to her to do it sometimes. She kept him grounded. Tried to keep him Ren, kept him from just cutting ties and leaving. Reminded him of how important family was. How he needed to keep in line, and get through this. He just needed to keep his head down and survive. A year wasn’t so much. 

She must have sounded a lot like his parents.

Joker had lashed out. Startling her with his anger. She’d fought back, furious at his words, but the horror of who she was shouting at made her cut the line mid-way through an angry barb as it sank in. She sat staring at the phone. Shaking, feeling sick to her stomach.

Joker had always been a master of targeting his opponents’ weaknesses. They’d fought together enough to realise that. She’d watched him in action, he had it down to an art form.

 

She’d just never expected to be on the receiving end.

 


 

She threw herself into her university preparations the next day. Her Aikido. ANYTHING to stop herself thinking about his words.

She needed to be calm, focused. Ready to act when he called. He would need her, they would discuss the fight, reasonably, and make a plan going forward. She tried listening to see if the echoes of Anat had any wisdom on how to proceed. To bring REN back, to help him endure this. They could handle this, they were a team. Weren’t they?

 

Anat stayed silent.

 

Oh, she was NOT going to let those comments slide, don’t mistake that. Joker or Ren, She was nobodies’ punching bag and he was going to have to spend a LOT of time making those up to his queen, but he could do that once he was back safe, with her.

 

It was a long, long day.

He’d always called her before bed, an act of defiance yet again and to ensure his parents focused on him, not on her. Ren was a sweetheart and, despite his constant battles with his parents, he did his best to ensure they only thought well of her, the smart, pretty and talented School council president he loved.

Positioning her as a taming influence, not the source of the problems.  

Protecting her.

 

He didn’t call that night.  She fell asleep waiting and slept poorly, haunted by a nightmare image of joker who chased her through Mementos. Knocking her down every time she thought she was safe.


 

The next few days were simultaneously a blur, and some of the longest of her life.

Sae knew something was wrong, Makoto was making a big show of efficiency, being precise, calm and busy but she was doing such a poor job of it she kept having to redo basic tasks over and over making her frustrated. She only remembered having seen her like this before when she was worried about important exams. It would usually die down once she faced the test and walked away happy, but as far as she knew there wasn’t any tests she might have scheduled, her first semester wasn’t starting for at least another week.

She didn’t usually jump anytime a phone rang, though, that was a new twist and very telling.

No, the boy was clearly involved in whatever had happened.

Sae wasn’t confidant enough in her newly healed relationship with Makoto to step on a landmine in a fight between her sister and her distant boyfriend, not yet at least. She did her best to keep things smooth and normal, to keep Makoto’s environment as quiet as possible, and made a note to call Amamiya in a few days if things hadn’t improved, either to help sort the problem out, or put the fear of the Niijima into him for worrying her little sister as required.

 

Meanwhile, Makoto excused herself early each night. She went to bed with a book to read, and with her phone close to hand.

 

And then to sleep, disappointed.

 


 

On the fourth day she had had enough. Although she had agreed with the reasons for his return home in principle, the results had not proven worthwhile. There was no reason to cling to a mistake just because they’d spent time making it.

She needed Ren back, while there was still some Ren left.

She was going to bring him home.

 


 

Queen and Noir were plotting a heist, it was almost like old times.

 

Haru had been horrified at her tale, confused at how a matter of weeks had led to such a shift in his behaviour, and tearfully apologetic she had not been there to help her friend.

When the details were explained. She eagerly leapt at the chance to help save him.

Makoto had refrained from contacting the rest of their team. Futaba had just begun high school, and was stressed enough as it was. She needed Ann, and Ryuji with her for support, and the last defiant dregs of the school council president in her soul couldn’t condone any of them skipping school.

Besides, if she’d told Ann or Ryuji they’d be halfway there by now and as entertaining as that could be, she couldn’t risk the operation due to their improvisation.

Fox was a possibility, but she decided to only bring him on board as required, once a more concrete plan was in place. Yusuke was a treasure, but he had school of his own and he was so unpredictable that she couldn’t bring him in without a firm guiding timetable.

He might also stop on the way to paint if something caught his eye.

No, Haru was her best bet.

 

The plan came together quickly.

They’d grab him on one of his evening escapes. She would bundle him into the car and be on the way back to Tokyo before his family knew he wasn’t coming home. Haru would get morgana’s attention and ensure he was also on board before they left. They could arrange to deal with the fallout once Ren was himself again. Haru had offered use of her limo, but the vehicle would be too flashy, too easy to recognise. This wasn’t a distraction, it was a snatch and grab. In and out with the package, quick and clean. She’d have to use the van.

Now the only question was the package itself, or more precisely how amenable it would be to collection.

Joker would have loved the plan, and would probably been waving from the van’s skylight as they left. Or at least making some sort of hand gestures, Joker was an improviser.

Ren wouldn’t. He’d hate they’d be putting themselves at risk for him. Be angry at himself that he couldn’t have solved the problem without it coming to this.

 

The only question was who they were going to be dealing with when the time came.

Haru had attempted to contact him to gauge his mental state. He hadn’t picked up. He could have been in busy, or he could have been ignoring it, right now she couldn't predict which one.

She had surreptitiously begun attempting to locate some chloroform, just in case they needed to subdue him. Haru wasn’t entirely on board with that idea but, as slim as he was, Ren could still potentially try to overpower them and she didn't want to risk harming him.

 

It was Haru who bought her back to reality.

“Mako-chan?” the girl asked quietly while they were reviewing the timeline.

“Sorry, Noir. What was that?”

“Does… Do you not want Joker to KNOW, we’re coming?”

“He’d probably just complicate things.”

“It would make things easier, we wouldn’t need to get Morgana, and Ren could pack his things.” Haru chewed on her lip.

“That would be too risky, if his parents noticed missing items, or him acting strangely we could have problems.”

“Still, Ren might be able to get us a better idea of where and when we could get him! We wouldn’t have to worry about hanging around risking we get spotted.”

“I’m sure our planning will cover us for anything that might happen.”

“…” Haru was clearly still worried about something. She was rubbing her hands, she hadn't done that in ages.

“What the matter, Haru?”

“Makoto, we are RESCUING Ren, right?”

That was the big flaw in the scheme she’d missed. It was so massive she kicked herself.

Suddenly all her plans fell to the floor in tatters.

She was bringing him back whether he wanted it or not.

This wasn’t a rescue operation.

 

It was a kidnapping. Well-meaning or not.

 

Joker would have laughed at her.


 

She’d put the plan on ice, tried Plan B, promising to keep a now even more worried Haru posted.

Eiko had been understanding, once she’d calmed down and been bribed with pudding. Sadly, the only thing that Makoto had really gained was information she already known, deep down. Along with a number of new emoticons she apparently absolutely needed to use in her next message to Ren, at least some of them seemed lewd, and she fancied most of them were offensive.

She needed to talk to Ren about this.  Not just to put his scruffy ass back in line, as Eiko suggested.

They needed to work together, if he wanted to come back she would bring him. And may the gods have mercy on anyone who stood in her way. They could repurpose the plan as needed, sans chloroform. Hopefully.

If he wasn’t ready to return she’d just have to support him every way she could. He needed to know she was there for him, and on his side, to prevent a repeat of the last week, if nothing else.

And if he no longer wanted to work with her….

 

It caught in her throat and choked her.

 

She forced herself to slow down and review. That usually brought the anxiety under control.

So Plan A was out, due to potential kidnapping issues.

Plan B’s advice wasn’t great either. She wasn't even sure why there was an eggplant in the emoticons, and Eiko's grin made it hard to ask.

Plan C was making a phone call she was dreading.

 

How the hell had she come to a point that KIDNAPPING was plan A? Since when was that a better option than just talking to her boyfriend?

Since she wasn’t certain he still wanted to be her boyfriend anymore?

She couldn’t breathe. She was panicking again.

CALM DOWN, Queen.  

She needed time to meditate. To calm herself before the call.

She sat, cross legged on her bed, closed her eyes and tried to slow her ragged breathing.

 

And rocked backwards under the Rage of an angry god.

 


 

The persona is the true self, shaped into an archetype by the pressure of the collective unconscious. The contractors’ spirit made manifest, all flaws faced, accepted and overcome, more than the sum of its parts.

And Makoto Nijima’s was apparently VERY upset with her.

It was at this point she realised Anat hadn’t been silent.

 

Makoto had been ignoring her and it’s a bad idea to ignore a goddess.

 


 

 

 

"Oh, the Priestess DEIGNS to call upon me again. I had thought she’d abandoned me like her poor discarded fool!’"

Anat’s anger was a solid thing, hammering the breath from her lungs. 

“I had thought you replaced by a clockwork, given your actions. Where is your justice now, Priestess? Your Thief is left in chains and you busy yourself with mundane drudgery. I’d almost believe the grail was still in its place.”

The pressure was enormous, Anat towered over Makoto normally and today she was the size of the sky.

"You face a wrath of god unbowed and yet fear the word of a MAN? THIS BOY?”

She could barely stay upright.

“WHY HAVE YOU LEFT THIS TO FESTER SO LONG?”

She had to face the truth.

“I was afraid that was how he really felt.”

“The Mouse speaks! Please priestess, pray grace us with your wisdom. If nothing else your court has space for a new fool since you so carelessly lost the last one.”

“I should have called him back once I calmed down.” Her breath caught. “I was afraid if I called it would be joker again, Not Ren.”

“Indeed, and would one have been better than the other? They are one and the same, both your fool”

 

She froze.

 

Joker was Ren behind a mask. Ren pushed to his limits. Ren when he needed her help the most. She’d been treating them as different people, one to be saved, one to be fought.

 

She was an idiot.

 

“Clearly I was mistaken. This court has a surfeit of fools.”

The pressure lessened.

“You and this thief suit each other. Children all.”

“Cease your hiding, speak to the boy. Tell him your mind. Not what you think he needs to hear, lovesick girl.”

She felt the tears coming.

“You are no mere clockwork. The head is not always the choice over the heart. Though you would think yours is glass the care you take of it. Keeping it in a box won’t aid you. Hiding it from him won’t help.”

 She never wanted him to go, she’d pushed those feelings down a thousand times. Once things had started going wrong she kept pushing him to stay there because it would be the right thing to do.

The proper thing.

Since when did that matter to them?

His parents had tossed him away when he needed them the most.

They didn’t deserve to have him now.

Not when she missed him so much.

 

“And if one of you must leave the floor at the end of this, then so be it! But that choice is yours. No-one else’s. Should his parents wish for a fight, we shall give it to them”

The pressure was gone

She knew what she had to do.

 

Right after she threw up. She ran for the bathroom.


 

She washed her face, tidied her hair and headed to Leblanc. She looked a fright, lacking the complexion to cry and look good, the best she could manage was a blotchy mess. Not that she cared right now.

Leblanc wasn’t the best choice, but it was all she could think of. She needed a safe place to call from and it couldn’t be home. If Sae came in and found her like this his parents would be the least of Ren’s problems and Haru was already too worried to call from her place.

She’d been doing fine holding together until she opened the door and Sojiro saw her face. He leapt to his feet.

“What the HELL happened?! Are you ok? Let me grab…” He headed toward the stairs.

“Boss, I’m fine.”  She felt so spent. So tired.

“You don’t look fine!”

“I need to make a phone call, can I head upstairs?”

Sojiro suddenly looked guilty.

“Are you sure….”

“I am.”

“If this is the Kid’s fault I’ll kill him.”

“I think this one is on me.”

Sojiro relented.

“I’ll make you a coffee then. You look like you need it. Call if you need me, for ANYTHING.”

She nodded tightly and climbed the stairs, Shut her eyes, breathed in and sent the message.

 

Q: - Ren, I need to call you. I’m scared and I’m angry and I miss you and I want you to come back home. To me. SOON. Please talk to me.

 

But when the message tone went off in front of her and she opened her eyes, it turned out Joker was one step ahead of her, yet again.

No, REN was. There was nothing of joker in those eyes.

He looked so very tired.

 

“I’m home.”

 

He barely had it out before she tackled him to the floor, soaking him in tears.


 

It took a while to calm down, so she could speak.

“Amamiya-san?”

Uh-oh, she was being very formal, bad start, he needed to step carefully.

“Yes Niijima-senpai?”

“You are not out of trouble yet, Mister. I’m glad you’re home but we still need to have a long talk about those things you said. If you EVER set Joker on me again, I’ll…”

“Fist of justice?” He winced, still that would be getting off lightly.

“No, I’ll just tell my sister.”

Ren’s blood ran cold. He might survive one Niijima, with preparation, he wasn't sure anything could survive both.

“Understood, my queen.”

She leant her head on his chest, hugging him.

"They can't have you back."

He allowed himself to relax, just a bit.

“Oh, and you might want to avoid Eiko for a while.”

He cocked an eyebrow at her, and she held out her phone, showing the string of emoticons in Eiko’s message.

Ren winced. He wasn't sure if some of that was physically possible.

“Oh...And just try to ignore anything Haru says about chloroform.”

 

Wait, what?

Chapter Text

Hey! Its Futaba.

You sitting comfortably? This gets complicated.

Right then.

 

First thing you need to understand, is that my Boyfriend is an idiot.

 

Either that or he is some grand master manipulator that just acts like an idiot to throw off suspicion. I did consider that one for a while. He WAS incredibly good at being in the right place at the right time, and all those skin of his teeth escapes. He had to be on like New Game+++

But after I heard him singing a duet of old anime theme songs with Morgana, I just kind of settled on idiot.

Don’t get me wrong. He’s my kind of idiot.

The kind of idiot that was brave, and leapt to the defence of the NPCs without thinking. Who took those crazy risks and came back safe through sheer dumb luck.

 

Who broke into a scared, tired little girls’ palace and helped put her life back together.

 

The kind who would risk everything to help me bring down the man who had my mother killed.  Who’d take a crazy shot at a god to save the world.

Who had completely forgotten his incredibly smart, talented and beautiful girlfriend had accidentally forgotten to remove the bug on his phone before he’d left to go back home.

 

Whoops.

 


 

Some of that wasn’t true, He is an idiot and I did tap his phone, though.

Ok, maybe most of it was true, he is pretty cool, don’t tell him that part. He’s too cocky already.

The Part about the duet with Morgana was totally true. I used it as a ringtone for a month until he begged me to stop.

 


 

It was the bug on the phone that caused all the problems.

You see he’d gone home.

 

The stupid idiot, Sojiro should have just adopted him. He could Run Leblanc! A family business! He looked so cute in the apron. ^o^

Ren, Not Sojiro. Sojiro is never cute.

He’s cool sometimes though. He knows Ren and I are dating now and he didn’t kill him!

Ren told him. Like I said, he’s an idiot. Sweet though. He didn’t want me to worry about keeping things from my dad.

Sojiro did have a real long talk with Ren about it though. He still gets weird when I ask him about it. Poor Ren, Did I mention he’s real cute when he’s flustered?

Ren had pointed out that might make things weird if Sojiro adopted him, so I suggested he should just marry me instead! Best of both worlds!  

He might also have a stomach problem. He kept running off to the bathroom in the middle of my brilliant plans. Not sure why he always dunked his head in the sink, though, weird. Maybe it was all the curry. I need to remember to get him some yakisoba. Vary his diet a bit.

Marriage plan filed away under more work needed. Only to be used if Ren gets too full of himself.

 


 

Right, he’d gone home. You shouldn’t let me get distracted like that, this is important.

 


 

I listened to everything that happened, well, everything that happened around his phone, which was pretty much everything important since that’s where Ren was and I didn’t care about anything else!

He wanted to make sure I wasn’t lonely, he’s kind of sweet like that. We had the messenger for talking about little things, and he’d called me before bed and I’d fall asleep listening to him sleep over the bug. Worked like a charm, and Way easier than sneaking into Leblanc after Sojiro had gone to bed. Genius!

 

He doesn’t know about the listening to him sleep thing, shhhh.

Or the sneaking in thing. Only did that once, made Sojiro grumpy for like a week.

I slept downstairs, don’t look at me like that.

 

I would have preferred to play online games with him as well, but his parents didn’t like computer games! Who doesn’t like games! Clearly aliens.  

Wait does that make Ren an alien? Or is it like, some pod people replacement parents thing?

 


 

What do you mean I’m getting distracted again?

Oh right.

So, where were we?

Pod Parents? Gotcha!

 


 

Yeah, so maybe not Pod people, but, you know, so much not like Ren it was weird.

No GAMES!

NO COFFEE! Dun Dun DUNNNNNNN. Only something Ren referred to as the instant shit from hell. I don’t think it was very good.

 


 

I don’t think I get distracted easily at all. Not sure why you keep saying that.

I’m not distracted, we were talking about the pod parents.

 


 

They did NOT get Joker. They kept trying to pin him down with rules, they wanted to make him go to school there. Settle back in.

“You’re back where you belong now.”

“Stop doing that creepy anime thing with the glasses you’re scaring the neighbours.”

“Dear god, son, stop singing to the damn cat.”

Really dumb stuff, stupid. They didn’t like Morgana much either.

I totally didn’t leave the bug in there because I wanted to hear his voice without calling him and sounding needy, btw.

 


 

Quick-fire summary of some of their arguments.

He wanted to go home. (Ren)

He WAS home. They wouldn’t let him go back to Tokyo.  (Pod Parents)

His grades were great at Shujin, he had good friends in Tokyo.

(Also Ren, he’s right. Dude is smart. He’s still an idiot.)

His friends were Punks, (ooooh that was totally Ryuji.) Troublemakers, (Also Ryuji? Maybe Ann? She had spilt tea when we dropped him off.) and Weirdos( Oh, that was Definitely Inari!)

Nothing about Makoto and Haru? Booo Maybe they were Punks and troublemakers! Queen was kind of punky sometimes.  (Pod Parents from hell)

He had a girlfriend, whom he sorely missed. (Ren of course) Ooo juicy! Spill the deets!

 

Oh, that’s me. Right! Awww Q_Q

 

They hadn’t liked his girlfriend. She was too young and scrawny, too weird. He needing an older more stable girl. Like the one with fluffy hair. (Pod… Parents….)

 

Wait, what? Why was I in with the weirdos? They grouped me with INARI?!

Waait... Fluffy…

Dude, they HAVE TERRIBLE TASTE, Haru can be scary…

Hang on…

 

NOIR CAN’T HAVE MY JOKER!

HE’S MINE!

 

BRB, I’m erasing their bank account, don’t try and….

Oh crap, if they lose the house they’d have to move in with Ren in Leblanc wouldn’t they.

I’m keeping my finger on that button. Just in case.

I’d bet they had a palace, Do you think Ren ever checked?

Damn, the apps gone. I can’t check his history.

Boooo.

 


 

Right, Illegal wiretap story, sorry. Forgot.

Anyway, I’d just started school. He missed my first day Q_Q.

We took photos though. Ryuji Ann and I. Couple with Makoto and Haru, they came to the opening ceremony. Even Inari was there, not sure why, I didn’t invite him.

They didn’t have their uniforms though. Bummer. Maybe we can get a photo later, once Ren’s back. All in our uniforms, together. A real school photo!

 

I’d like that.

 

Did I mention I looked goooood in the uniform? <Wiggles eyebrows>

 


 

Why are you coughing?

 


 

I sent Ren the photo, he really liked it, Said he was sorry he missed the special day, sounded real sad.

He told me I was incredible, duh.

So I sent him another photo, without the shirt on and he called me and yelled at me for like, 20 minutes straight about it being “inappropriate”.

He’s so cute when he’s flustered.

 

Oh come on! I’ve basically lived on the internet since I was 12, I know what’s out there. Grow up.

I’m 16 now, it’s not like he can be arrested for it. Don’t look at me like that!

Sweet sixteen and Never been kissed. My birthday was in February. I’m just short for my age.

No, he hasn’t. Yes it is annoying as fuck. I’m not a little kid.

I refuse to wait for him to marry me to get a kiss! I mean the head-pats are good and all but…

I Kinda think he’s scared Sojiro would put him in the curry.

He’s a Massive idiot. Sojiro wouldn’t do that to the curry. It’s special.

Anyway, it wasn’t even that lewd. I still had a tank top on.

 

It’s not like that time I swapped Inari’s art film with tentacle porn.

Heh, I gas-lit him about what was on screen for the whole movie. It was funny AF.

Oh, right. Never allowed to mention that one to anyone. Pain of death.

Just pretend I didn’t say anything.

 


 

Anyway. He wasn’t happy, Ren.  I mean he had these photos now and STILL not happy. Hard to please, much?

I was super cute in them.

Sometimes when I get bored I set them on his phone’s home screen and pretend it’s a bug. Don’t tell him that.  When he noticed he always sounded a bit happier.

 


 

Ok, so maybe sometimes I get a little distracted.

 


 

Ren wasn’t happy. He was going full joker trying to keep himself in the game, he only does that when he’s really worried. :(

It’s so they can’t tell he’s scared. He goes all smirks and cockiness and the cool posing and his butt in those pants… mmmmmmm

 

What?

Sorry, got distracted.

Forget the butt part. Sorry.

Guess he wasn’t in the joker outfit. We don’t get those anymore…..

Nooooooo My Joker butt was lost with the metaverse! Q_Q

No, seriously. Stop thinking about his butt. It’s mine!

 

Anyway. It rubs some people the wrong way. Used to drive Pancake boy nuts.

Queen too, sometimes. But she still smiled, mostly, I think, Hard to tell with Queen.

Well, it rubbed his parents EVERYWAY but the right way. I think his dad started trying to lock him in at night, at one point but, you know, JOKER. He still has those lock picks of his. We were going through shadow’s pockets for hours to find the mercury to make them.

He was really tired too, like all the time, Mona kept trying to cheer him up and his dad kept throwing things at Mona for meowing too loudly.

Not a cat person, clearly.

 


 

So I was trying to find a way to help him, and I was reading this article Ann mentioned and it said a good girlfriend knows how to keep her boyfriend focused when things are important, and not interfere with his family dynamics unless she had too since it was a minefield of…. Some kind of tension. Can’t remember.

It was all bull, of course. But I figured what the hell! Let’s give it a shot. See if it cheers him up. I didn’t think it would work after the photo failed, but he’s weird that way sometimes.

Unresolved familial tension! That was it.

Still bullshit.

It was totally NOT the right thing to do. I told Ann that magazine was garbage.

HE HATED IT. Straight to the weak point, MASSIVE DAMAGE!

Started yelling that I didn’t want him to come back, that I didn’t like him anymore!

Boyfriend, massive idiot. Told you so.

That hurt, a lot.

A LOT.

Friendly fire is apparently ON in this game.  So I yelled back for a bit then and hung up. Didn’t know what else to do. This whole girlfriend thing is a LOT harder than those magazines say.

I would have been super upset once I hung up if I didn’t hear Morgana start mauling him for yelling at me.

I owe Morgana sushi btw. Cat has my back!

Not a cat, he doesn’t like it if you call him that that. Even if he has fluffy cat cheeks.

Ok so I was still a bit upset. Joker can be merciless.

 

I was way more upset when Ren started crying though.

 

I couldn’t tell him it was ok, that I was ok, without reminding him there might still be a bug on his phone he may have told me to remove, like 5 months ago and it’s a whole invasion of privacy thing I’m not supposed to do to my friends anymore.

So I have to sit there while he cries and I can’t help him.

 

That hurt way worse than what he said.

 


 

Like I said, terrible advice in the magazine. So I told Ann, so she didn’t try it.

She was real angry at Ren.

She told me er…hang on, I wrote it down.

Right, that it didn’t matter how good his butt was if he had his head stuck up it. That I should give him time to cool off and he’d damn well better start out with an apology or she was setting his… Can’t read that bit. Scruffy! It’s scruffy. Scruffy ass on fire.

 

Ann’s kind of cool. She keeps hugging me, though. Not sure how I feel about that.

 

She told me not to tell Ryuji because he’d be worried, and he’s the kind of idiot who’d cause a scene.

She also had a picture of the Ren in his swimsuit, from the Hawaii trip. So that cheered me up.

Not sure how I felt about panther having pictures of my joker butt. I might need to erase her copy.

 

IT’S MY JOKER BUTT.

This IS important.

 

I didn’t mention the bug, but I think she guessed. Apparently I wasn’t sad enough. She was a bit worried by that.

I mean, it hurt, it REALLY hurt, but He’s Ren. He’s my boyfriend. He was just angry and tired and I kind of think he may have hurt himself more than me with that one.

I’m way stronger now, once he got me put back together he’s been helping me level up. He can’t get rid of me that easily! He’s my key item!

 

I kind of hope I can be his.

 

I really didn’t like him crying like that.

 

So after school….

 


 

What? School’s fine it’s nothing special. Some of the teachers are weird though.  One keeps throwing chalk at me when I don’t pay attention. Pretty sure that’s illegal or something.

Ohhh…. One of the teachers looked like that Maid Joker used to hire!

She was REALLY NOT HAPPY when I pointed that out. Maybe it was her sister or something. Family is hard.

She was nice once she calmed down though.

Yep, he used to hire a maid. You think he cleaned? On what time? Dude was busy, he had like four jobs. Not sure why he stopped though. I’m not doing his cleaning.

Maybe I should! I could wear a maid outfit, do you think he’d like that?

 


 

 

That’s a really bad cough. You should get it checked.

 

I wasn’t distracted, you interrupted!

You wanted to know about school!

 


 

 

SO AFTER SCHOOL…

Ren didn’t call. He didn’t message. He started typing a few times, but never sent anything! RUDE! Morgana wasn’t talking to him, either. Well, he was but he was just saying meow, meow, meow.  Like actually saying meow, not meowing. That cat is a grade A shit-poster.

Ren’s dad was really confused by that. No idea what it sounded like to him? Weird I’d bet. He kept talking about hairballs, and getting Morgana fixed. Not sure why he thought a vet could fix a weird meow.

 


 

What? What do you mean not that kind of fixed?

Oh.

Oooooooohhhh! That explains why Morgana hid under Joker’s bed and wouldn’t come back out.

 


 

Anyway, Boyfriend. Massive idiot, STILL doesn’t call me. Still no texts. 3 days now. He’s moping, getting called an idiot by the cat and I’m feeling really bad because I can’t tell him its ok without getting in Mucho trouble and I’m a little scared he will yell again. Mainly because it would hurt him.

I kind of want to scream, but the last time I did that I woke Sojiro and he freaked out.

He’s my first boyfriend! It’s meant to be a bit weird, right? I mean, not bugged phone, talking cat weird. But still.

Oh yeah. Mona can talk. Forgot to tell you that.

 


 

Ooo, now we get to the good part.

Joker is in his room, and Mona is still giving him shit about needing to talk to me from under the bed. And Jokers’ folks are downstairs talking about how quiet he’s been.

And Joker just says.

“I need to fix this” But his voice, it still gives me shivers. It’s like that bit in the action movies where the hero finds his resolve.

 

I’ve got it clipped as my alert tone, want to hear it?

See told you so. Total stud moment there. Got me all hot and bothered.

 


 

Are you sure that cough is ok?

 


 

Anyway, he gets up, walks downstairs and just lays it all out.

 

Ren does, no joker, no cockiness, and no being a smartass.

 

Just Ren. Ren being so tired and sad and lonely I just wanted to hug him. To cry. Couldn’t though. Was in class… shhhhh.

Oh, it was just English. No biggie.

He says he needs to go back. To make things right.

Eventually they say YES!

HE’S COMING BACK!

 

No, he’s coming, HOME. ^o^

 

Now I’m in class right now, and I totally shouldn’t have been listening to the bug and I may have got detention for shouting and scaring the weird English teacher so bad she fell off her chair.

Oh crap, that was for today…. I’m in trouble.

Family emergency. That works right. Can I get you to write me a note?

 

Stingy.

 


 

Anyway. I think they didn’t really get to see their son until then.

That was when he came back to them and that’s why they let him come home. 

Maybe not pod people after all. Still weird. Who doesn’t like coffee?

 

I still haven’t forgiven them for calling me scrawny, its petite, and I’m way better for him than Noir, right?

 


 

Anyway, cue the mission impossible music.

 

Ren’s gearing up. He’s packing boxes. He’s trying to get Mona to stop hiding under the bed.

He’s talking to Shujin to try and get re-enrolled. Funny, he hadn’t been UN-enrolled, weird that, lucky break!

Totally didn’t hack in and do that myself before he left, just in case, fyi. ;)

He’s actually talking to his parents and they’re not at each other’s throats! Character growth! Heart-warming moments! Morgana is still hiding from Ren’s dad. Just in case. Don’t blame him, what with the fixing comments.

And the MASSIVE IDIOT still won’t call me!

I can’t be happy with him if he won’t TELL ME. I’m not supposed to know to be happy!

He’s going to come back and tell me sorry, face the music in person.

He’s a massive Dork, and a grade A idiot but I love him so much sometimes.

He’s also super scared I’ll tell him I don’t like him anymore.

As if!

The wielder of the Joker butt? Never!

 

I may be a bit of dork as well :)

 

Right, so he gets on the train, and heads out. And the whole trip he’s humming the music we used to get in the palaces when the shit hit the fan.

You know the one.

Guess you don’t. Don’t think he knew he was doing it anyway.

SOJIRO KNOWS HE’S COMING! Ren called him! He knows and he still MAKES ME GO TO SCHOOL! I tried to pretend I was sick and everything! Still not happy about that.

Longest. Day. Of. My. Life!

 

Ann and Ryuji couldn’t figure out why I was so jumpy.

Sorry guys, this is My Joker time! You can have some when I’m done!

Book in advance!

 

I’m in the last class, with the teacher that looked like the maid, something really dull history or language or something, listening to the bug and I hear the Leblanc doorbell! HE’S HOME!

He’s still doing the whole mission impossible thing, I missed a bit then since the bell rang and I was out the door like a bullet. Maid teacher let me go, she’s pretty cool.

I JUST caught the train. Ryuji and Ann have been making me exercise and shit to build my stamina. Apparently sleeping for a week solid is not normal. Who knew?

 

Well of course you knew, duh.

 

Anyway, having more stamina for when the joker butt came back sounded good to me <hehehehe>

According to Ann that was too much information and Ryuji’s drink came out his nose.

 


 

 

So I finally make it to Leblanc and I’ve got NO idea how I do this. Do I pretend to be sad? Just go with happy? Admit the bug is still there?

I do have to get my breath back a bit first since I’ve been running a lot and the stamina is a work in progress.

And in the end, I decide, Screw it! I just really need to see him. I’ll work the rest out later.
So I walk through the door.

Sojiro was VERY surprised to see me. What with it being like twenty minutes after school ends and me having maybe left a bit earlier than I should have and the running and all.

I don’t want to have that talk right now.

 

So I just told him I was going upstairs to see Ren.

 

He didn’t seem as surprised then. Kind of happy. He’s a cool Dad. Except for the dress sense. Why pink shirts?

So I start climbing the stairs, and it hits me.

 

I’m a TERRIBLE girlfriend!

 

I’ve spent the last week watching, well, Listening to Ren tear himself up, cry and fight with himself and his folks and get mauled by his cat and I’ve done NOTHING to help.

I knew how much he was hurting and I just listened.

And he’s up here preparing to come find me and beg for my forgiveness.

I kind of think I should be begging for his.

I’m a shitty girlfriend and a big idiot.

And I just start crying and it’s a whole mess. My nose was running and everything.  So I have to do something. So I pull out my phone write him a text and just stand there at the top of the stairs with my eyes shut waiting for him to get it.

 

O: - You are a Massive Idiot, but you’re still MY IDIOT. Welcome Home.

P.S. You might still have the bug on your phone, weird huh, and you’ve been humming the palace music all day.

 

So I’m ready to go, the text tone goes off and I open my eyes.

And he’s there, all serious and tired and sad and hot and he says.

“I’m Home”

So I drop my bag and tackle him.

 

And he doesn’t have the good grace to catch me, so I kind of bounce off.

RUDE! That’s NOT how this is meant to go!

So I get back up, kick him in the shins. Knock him down and jump on him.

 


 

Finally got that kiss.

 

I liked it, a LOT. Butterflies and all.

He’s not getting out of the kisses now. That cat is out of the bag.

 

So is Morgana, I guess, not sure where Mona went.

 

So he’s there on his back, trying to apologise and I’m lying on his chest, kissing him and crying and doing my best to make the apology super difficult, partly because it’s funny and mostly because I kind of feel bad about him doing it.

Then Sojiro comes up with my coffee.

Boy was he surprised! And that’s when it struck me! The perfect way to fix the marriage plan! It’s Flawless!

So I yell. “Sojiro, I’m pregnant! Now he has to marry me!”

 

And that’s when Sojiro fell down the stairs, I think he may have landed on Mona. It sounded like it.

 

So, uh, if you have any Ice or pain killers I’d really appreciate you coming across to Leblanc ASAP. Sojiro’s head is real hard but he kind of has a big bump on there now and he’s acting all jumpy and I think Mona may be hiding under a table

Got To Go!

 


 

Dr Tae Takemi sat at her desk in the clinic, staring at the phone blankly and rubbing her temples. There was a lot to process in that call.

 

<Beep>

New Message

Oh, and if you have any stomach medicine can you bring that too?

Ren read my text message while I was on the phone and now he’s in the bathroom again and he won’t come out.

I think it was the fake coffee his parents gave him. He might need a pain killer too, it kind of sounds like he’s banging his head on the wall in there.

Sorry to drop this all on you, but you’re kind of one of us and Makoto doesn’t like answering my calls anymore after the Inari Gas-lighting incident, Not since we saw Mara and Inari had to go lie down.

She got all twitchy under her eye when I explained.

 

OH SHIT!

 

I, Err… I may have to go and un-press a button!

Ren doesn’t need any more roommates, he has Mona. And the Pod parents would just make things weird when I visit.

P.S. Mona wants Sushi! Bye!

Message ended

 

Tae rolled her eyes, sighed, and grabbed her bag.

<Beep>

“What now?”

 

New Message

OHSHITOSHITOSHIT! DID I JUST PROPROSE TO JOKER?! OHSHITOSHITOHSHIT!

Does that mean he has to wear the big poofy dress?

@_@

That’s how that works, right?

I kinda wanted the poofy dress. :(

Message ended

 

“What the hell is that girl on?!”

 

<Beep>

New Message

I’m not really pregnant btw. Duh. I know how that works.

Don’t tell Sojiro. He still thinks I’m six.

Message ended

 

Doctor Tae Takemi didn’t really understand half of what just happened there, but, all things considered, thought it might be wise to sedate Futaba, just in case.

For her own safety, if nothing else.

Chapter Text

Haru Okumura stared blankly at the coffee cup in front of her, letting the chatter of voices in the coffee shop wash over her. She added sugar and stirred, watching the surface ripple in the spoons wake.

 

They’d fought.

 

It was their first fight. Not the sort of milestone you wanted recorded on the calendar.

The spoon traced the bottom of the cup again.

She hadn’t been in a fight before. She wasn’t a fan. Oh, she’d had disagreements with her father and with that odious man she’d been engaged to, but neither of them had really FOUGHT with her. She’d tried, but they hadn’t even considered her worth fighting. Her father saw her as a product, and Sugimura saw her as a trophy or some kind of blow-up doll.

 

You didn’t fight with property.

 

The surface of the coffee reflected back her eyes. She looked more tired now than during the first night she came to Leblanc. She stirred it again, feeling the sugar grains shift in the cup. Breaking the reflection

In order to have really have a fight, the other person needs to think you’re important enough to fight with.

Was that why it hurt this much?

Ren had thought she was important. He’d helped her, He’d told her he liked her too. The echo of the fight came back at her.

“Do you even love me anymore?”

The spoon slipped from her fingers and clattered on the saucer.

How could he have thought that!

She’d yelled at him, unsure how much was coherent in the shouting. Then hung up in shock.

It wasn’t a very grown up way of dealing with it. They should have calmed down and talked through the problem. Not shouted and stomped off but that hadn’t occurred to her at the time.

She snatched up the spoon embarrassed and returned to stirring the cup.

“HARU!”

That spoon was having a bad day, she dropped it again.

“Sorry Ann, I’m just a bit tired”

The blond squinted at her and played with her hair.

“Haru, you’ve put at least 4 sugars in that coffee and you haven’t tasted it yet.”

She started, looking down at the cup, and then back at the girl opposite her, Flushing.

“Did something happen with Ren?”

Bullseye. Ann watched the girl shrink into her chair.

“Want to talk about it?”

Haru glanced at Sojiro, who was busily inventorying the tins of beans behind the counter and shook her head.

“That bad huh?”

Was she always so easy to read?

“Let’s head to Shibuya then, we can catch that movie. Maybe get a crepe, or some cake at the diner.” Ann dialled up the false chirpiness, to cover for Haru’s lack of it.

And talk somewhere that they won’t be overheard, just in case.

“That sounds lovely.” She tried to sounds enthusiastic. She failed.

The girls collected their belongings and headed out, waving to Sojiro as they left.

He watched them go and sighed before he moved to clear away their cups.

How blind did those girls think he was? He could tell something was going on when Haru had walked through the door.

He hoped the Kid had a good explanation for this.

 


 

 

Haru finished giving Ann the edited highlights of their fight.

Ann flopped back into her seat in the diner, staring at the short haired girl opposite.

“I can’t believe it. I mean… Ren wouldn’t say something like that. It just doesn’t sound like him…”

Haru poked her cake disinterestedly.

“He’s been sounding more and more tired and frustrated every time I talk to him, I think things aren’t going very well with his parents.”

 

That wasn’t quite true, she KNEW things weren’t going well but Ann had clearly been surprised by the fact, so Ren might not have mentioned it to anyone else. It made her feel warm, that he trusted her with something that he hadn’t told to others.

 

Maybe she hadn’t been enough support, maybe if he’d told Ann or Makoto he would have been fine.  

Maybe he just needed a better girlfriend.

 

And then she was cold again.

 

She hadn’t known what to do, she’d barely got her head around being a Phantom thief, then realities of her father’s death, and her control of her fathers… HER company had crashed down on her. Ren had come to her rescue. He’d kept her above water, helped her in the garden when she needed peace, shored up her shaky confidence as she dealt with the company’s future, then held her hand as she came to term with new feelings, for him this time.

Three months was a very short amount of time for all those things.

Then he was taken from her, on Christmas Eve, no less. Well, Christmas day, technically, but Ren hadn’t really been there on their last evening together. She’d thought it was the stress of killing a god. That seemed like the sort of thing to distract you from a date, no matter how cute your girlfriend was trying to be, but it turned out that wasn’t the case.

They’d got him back, working as a team to track down evidence and witnesses, to clear his name.  Another month and a half without him, time together she couldn’t get back.

Then back together for one more month, fighting the others, tooth and claw for every moment she could claim, every scrap of his attention.

 

Not enough time, NEVER enough attention.

 


 

“I’m calling Makoto!”

“Why?”

“Maybe she can come up with a way to get Ren back, I mean her sister is a lawyer, maybe we can get some kind of neglect thing going.”

“He’s not being neglected, Ann.”

“Well, mistreatment, then. SOMETHING is happening if he’s snapping at you like this. When you talk to him tonight….”

Haru swallowed.

“Ann, it’s been three days since the fight.”

“WHAT?!”

“He hasn’t called since.”

“WHAAAT!!?”

“Ann, please.” Haru was becoming aware of the other customers stares.

The blond sank back into her chair.

“Sorry, I…I still think we need Makoto, I…don’t have a lot of experience with this.” The girl drooped.

That was a surprise, Haru had assumed the blonde would have far more dating experience than her.

“Neither does Makoto.”

Ann’s eyebrows shot up.

“No way?! I always assumed she’d had a least one boyfriend. She’s so confidant!”

“Ask her about kissing and see if she’s confidant then.” After such a conversation Haru had learned why Ren still teased Makoto occasionally, the blush was adorable.

Ann giggled at the image.

“Maybe her sister could help?”

They both pictured approaching the elder Niijima for dating tips.

It felt good to laugh.

“Kawakami sensei or Dr Takemi, maybe?”

“I’m sure they’re good people, but I barely know the doctor, and it would feel weird to go to Kawakami sensei for this.”

“That fortune teller, the one Ren knew? Maybe she could read your fortune…?”

Haru’s incoming message tone went off. She almost dropped her phone in her eagerness to pull it out.

It wasn’t him.

 

ORACLE: - I am offended that I wasn’t even considered for advice.

 

“Futaba is offended we didn’t ask her.”

Hang on…

How did Futaba know what they were talking about…?

 

NOIR: - Futaba! Did you bug my phone?

ORACLE: -…

ORACLE: - Maybe?

ORACLE: - A bit.

ORACLE: - Joker told me to watch out for you!

 

“Futaba has tapped my phone, apparently.” Haru feelings were split between being embarrassed that the girl could have heard anything she said and warmth, that she was still trying to watch over Ren’s girlfriend in his absence. She’d more or less adopted both of them.

Ann leant over to the phone.

“Invasion of privacy is a crime, Oracle.”

 

ORACLE: - Only when you get caught.

ORACLE: - Besides, technically that skirt you wore on sunday was illegal too.

ORACLE: -  Laws are weird

 

 "WHAT?!"

 

ORACLE: -  Illegal to expose thighs in public by mistake. Prison term of 29 days. Ask Makoto.

 

"Seriously?!"

 

ORACLE: -  I can find the act if you like.

 

“No, its not important right now... Right, then so long as you’re here and we're breaking the law and all, what’s your advice?”

 

ORACLE: -I don’t have any.

ORACLE: -I was just feeling left out.

 

Ann sighed.

“Then Haru, you finish your cake while I’ll call Makoto. I’ll get her to meet us at your place. We need to put our heads together.”

 


 

It was starting to get dark when Makoto arrived at Haru’s home and was met at the door by a stressed out blonde.

“Thank god! We’re in the kitchen.”

“What’s going on, Ann? Your message just said Haru needed me, has something happened?”

Makoto hung her coat in the hall and followed Ann down the entrance hall.

“She had a big fight with Joker.”

Makoto squinted in surprise.

“Our Joker?”

“I know, right?!”

“Did she just get off the phone?’

“The fight was THREE days ago, and he hasn’t called since.”

Makoto’s confusion was clear on her face.

“What?! He couldn’t go a day without seeing her since they met, it was kind of cute, in an odd way. What changed?” Ann hadn’t stood still for a second.” Why are you so frantic?”

“I’ve got no idea, Haru said something about fights with his parents, but no real details yet and I’m frantic because I’ve got no experience with this and I’m an idiot!”

“How does that make you an idiot?”

 

“I don’t know! I made her a cup of coffee and now she won’t stop crying!”

 


 

The female Phantom thieves were holding a council of war, one of them via speaker.

“It wasn’t your fault Ann, I should have put those beans away somewhere. They’re… special.”

Poor Ann. She’d just tried to make her some coffee, to calm her down. It wasn’t her fault she’d grabbed the beans that Haru had grown herself.

The smell had taken her back to the day they’d begun dating, and the dam had burst inside her.

It had, however impressed upon Makoto the gravity of the situation. If the smell of coffee could take Haru out of action like that she was barely holding together. This was serious.

Once Haru had manage to recover from her fit of crying she’d filled them in on the fight, and Joker’s behaviour on the days proceeding.

They’d settled in the lounge room, Makoto and Ann flanking Haru on the lounge, Ann’s phone representing Futaba sitting on the coffee table, leaving Haru’s ready in case their missing Joker finally decided to call.

It was rare to find the Phantom Thieves completely unsure of how to proceed, Joker had been unflappable, the one solid constant in their career. His cocky confidence and precise instructions gave the impression he was always in control.

 

It was hard to imagine what would take to make him fall apart.

 

“It’s my fault.”

“What?! No! Haru! How can it be your fault?!” The blonde hugged her.

“Ann! Hug Haru, NOW!”

“I already am, Futaba”

“MORE HUGS!”

“We could always send the car for you, Futaba if you want to join us?” Haru sniffed as she wiped her eyes.

“At this time of night? Sojiro would have kittens! School tomorrow, remember? Plus, then he’d be asking questions. “Why did Haru need you girls? What’s going on? What did the kid do this time? When is he in town so I can kill him?”

Futaba’s sing-song impression of Sojiro was fairly close to the mark. As much as Sojiro had come to like his charge during his probation, he was a gentleman, and very attached to Haru who had been learning to brew coffee at Leblanc. If Sojiro got wind of Joker’s comments he might find Leblanc a more hostile place now than on his first visit.

“I’m fine on the phone, anyway, lets me work in the background.” The sound of her keyboard echoed slightly as she typed.

“Nothing you’ve said makes me think this is your fault, Haru.” Makoto affirmed, and squeezed her shoulder.

“Whatever is going on with his parents, you didn’t deserve that.”

“I’ve been trying to help, but… I never know what to say. He’s been so angry at his parents, so FRUSTRATED. I’ve tried to calm things down and it just seems to make it worse.”

Haru felt the tears beginning again.

“HUGS!”

“On it!’

“Nobody expects you to be an expert, Noir. You learn these things together, that’s the whole point of a relationship, and besides, this isn’t the sort of situation you’d usually run into. Ren should understand that.” Makoto was clearly confused by his actions. It was so out of character.

“Why is he getting into these fights, though? It just not like him.” The blonde chimed in.

Haru frowned.

“Because he left as Ren, and came back as Joker, I think.”

“Ohhhh.”

Joker did tend to rub some people the wrong way. Cocky and confident didn’t really work with most authority figures, parents included, apparently.

“They’re trying to put him back into a hole that the old Ren used to fill, and he doesn’t fit anymore. He wanted to come back to Tokyo, they wouldn’t let him and now he’s not calling me” Haru’s voice was getting smaller as the sentence went on.

“You sure he’s not just having phone problems?”

“Nope, it seems fine.” Futaba chimed in

“Sorry, Futaba?

“Err… Nothing.”

“I don’t think his parents like me much, either. They seemed very cold when we met them.” The tears were still there, waiting.

“Oh no, Haru, they were very impressed with you, just surprised. They were confused how he got a princess like you while acting like… You know, Joker.” Futaba laughed from the phone.

 

There was a moment of heavy silence.

 

“Futaba? You have something to share?” The raised eyebrow was audible in Makoto’s voice.

Futaba cleared her throat.

“I may… not have removed the bug on Joker’s phone either. Don’t tell him.”

“ORACLE!”

“It’s helping now! Shhhh.”

“You can’t go interfering with telecommunications for fun, Futaba. That’s big police levels of crime.”

“Bigger than Phantom thievery?’

“You know what I mean, Oracle. You know how bad that could be!”

“Only if you keep shouting at me about it and get me caught.”

“Futaba?” Ann’s voice was quiet. The girl was clearly deep in thought.

“Yep?”

“Are you bugging all our phones?”

“Of course not, that would be WRONG!”

“Why do I not believe you?” Makoto felt a headache forming.

“You’re nasty and cynical?”

She rubbed her eyes. This was not what was important now.

“Why didn’t you say so before?”

“It’s not like I listen to it all the time, it’s all kinds of dull, and I’ve got better things to do than listen to Noir and Joker make googly eyes at each other. I’m reviewing it now to see what was going on”

“Not sure you can find us anything to really help, anyway.”

“Never know until I look. Big gaps in here, though, he keeps leaving his phone in his room. Anyone would think he doesn’t trust me! I’ll let you know what I find. It will keep me occupied.”

Makoto shook her head at the phone.

“Have you tried calling Him, Haru?’

“He made me promise to let him make the calls. After he started fighting with his parents he wanted to make sure they didn’t focus on me as a problem. Wanted to make sure if they were angry at anyone because of us talking every night it was him.” Always looking out for others, the Idiot.

“Still…”

“I know. I should have called him by now, but he was so angry…I didn’t… I couldn’t…” The tears were back

“HUG NOIR NOW!” Futaba sounded angry.

“Futaba?!!”

“I found the recording of the fight. She needs the hugs after that.”

It was Rare to hear her sound that heated.

“I’m going to erase all his save games for that. Not cool Joker.”

“Futaba…”

“He’s lucky it isn’t his bank account.”

The voice on the line went quiet as she went back to work.

Ann lent her head against Haru’s and sighed.

“What a mess.”

Haru giggled despite the tears.

“We save the world and now the Phantom thieves are trying to fix my love life.”

There was a burst of laughter from the phone

“HAH! Morgana is mauling him for yelling at her. Mona’s got your back too, Noir!”

Haru sighed, and leaned against her friends.

“Thank you, all of you.”

“That’s what we’re here for, wish we could have come up with a solution.” The blonde chewed her lip

“No, Makoto was right. I need to talk to him.” Haru straightened up.

“I need to know if that’s how he really felt, or if it was just the stress talking. That way I know where I stand. Can… can you be nearby when I call, just in case?”

“Leblanc, tomorrow after school? We can call from the hideout?”

“Boss did want me to call in, something about getting rid of some junk up there.”

“Sounds like a plan then, and if Joker doesn’t come to the party we’ll drive down there and kick his tail all the way back home!”

 


 

Haru had excused herself to go and wash her face as the others prepared to leave.

“Futaba?” Makoto prodded the girl.

She’d grown increasingly silent as the visit went on.

“Mhm”

“Did you get that, Leblanc after School tomorrow? We’re supporting Haru”

“Yeah, got it.” The girl sounded subdued.

“What’s the matter?”

In her pocket her phone’s message tone sounded.

 

ORACLE: - Not sure Noir should hear.

QUEEN: -What’s going on Futaba?

ORACLE: - Joker needs a hug too.

QUEEN: -Why?

ORACLE: - Been going through the recordings. So many fights with his parents.

ORACLE: - His folks keep ignoring him, and he always sounds so tired and sad when he talks to Mona….

QUEEN: -It’s ok. Futaba. We’ll get them through this.

ORACLE: - The school didn’t want him to come back, there’s a petition.

QUEEN: -Oh…

QUEEN: -He was fighting with his parents about it before he called Haru. I don’t think she knows.

ORACLE: - He was crying, after the fight, I’ve never heard Joker cry, before. I didn’t know he could.

 

Sometimes it was hard to remember their confidant leader was a teenage boy.

 

QUEEN: - Ren can.

ORACLE: - I guess…

ORACLE: - Makoto?

ORACLE: - Can we go get him? Now?

QUEEN: - No Futaba.

ORACLE: - You have your license, right? We could go pick him up, tonight. Sojiro would let me!

QUEEN: - It’s not possible, you know that.

ORACLE: - Why does he have to stay there! He wants to be here! With Haru! She needs him! He needs her!

QUEEN: - It’s not something we can rush into.

ORACLE: - I know…but…

ORACLE: - Why didn’t he tell us what was happening? Didn’t he trust us?

QUEEN: - Because he’s an idiot and he didn’t want to worry us, I think.

QUEEN: - You know Joker, he’d try and solve it by himself first.

ORACLE: - He told Haru.

 

Futaba was clearly feeling left out.

 

QUEEN: - He told Haru because he knew she would work it out anyway, they talk all the time. You know how close they are. You think he could have hidden it, if he sounded like that?

QUEEN: - Stop for tonight, I don’t think we’re going to get much more out of it right now.

ORACLE: - He should have listened to me and let Sojiro adopt him.

 

Makoto sighed as picked up her coat.

 

QUEEN: - He HAS parents, Futaba. We told you, it doesn’t work that way.

 


 

The sun woke Haru as it peeked through her window.

This was the first morning in almost a week that she’d woken up and hadn’t felt sick. Her meeting with her friends was the best thing that could have happened to her. Nothing had changed since yesterday, really, but after their visit she remembered who she was.

Noir. She was part of the Phantom thieves, part of a team. They had her back. Yesterday morning she felt so lost. This morning she knew she wasn’t alone.

The fight wasn’t all her fault. Some of it maybe, she could definitely have handled it better, but when she caught up with Joker he was going to get a piece of her mind. Not too big a piece, of course, she still loved him. Pushing her away like this was stupid. They were Partners in this.

Anyway, she had work to do. University started in a few weeks and she still had preparations to make. Then, this afternoon, she was going to call HIM.

 

It was time she acted her age.

 


 

She arrived at Leblanc, just before the schools let out, Surprised to see the closed sign on the door.

It opened at her touch.

Sojiro looked up from his place behind the counter.

“Afternoon.”

“Hi Boss, what did you need help with?”

Sojiro squinted at her.

“You look tired.” Boss was far too perceptive for her liking some days.

“I’m fine, Sakura-san. Just need a bit more sleep.”

“If you need me to kick the Kid’s backside, just say.”

“Its fine, Boss and besides, that’s my job!”

He smiled.

“I guess it is. Anyway, got some junk upstairs. Think it might be yours, if you don’t want it, just say.”

She hadn’t remembered leaving anything up there, but she had been sneaking up there while on break to rest and remember. Maybe she’d forgotten something.

“I’ll take a look at it. Makoto, Ann and Futaba are going to join me in a bit and, if you don’t mind, I… I have to make a phone call first.”

She had a feeling Boss knew what that phone call would be.

“Not a problem, call me if you need help throwing anything out.”

Haru started up the stairs, breathing slowly. Now she was here the pressure of the phone call was getting heavier and the little voice that said Ren was better off without her was getting louder. She pushed it down, closed her eyes and sent the text message she’d assembled on the trip to the store.

 

NOIR: - Ren. I love you, you big idiot and of course I want you to come home! With that out of the way, you are in big trouble, Joker! I’m going to call you, since you’ve left me waiting for the better part of a week to speak to you.

NOIR: - We’re a team and we need to work out a plan going forward to get you back here and, once you’re here, there’s a good chance I’m going to slap you for keeping me waiting this long!

 


 

ORACLE: - PANTHER! QUEEN! WE NEED TO GET TO LEBLANC NOW!

QUEEN: - What’s the matter, why the rush?

PANTHER: - Futaba, class is finishing in, like, five minutes. Noir was going to wait until we got there to call him, we’ve got time.

ORACLE: - JOKER IS THERE! Noir just arrived and Joker is already UPSTAIRS! She needs us!

QUEEN: - WHAT?! HOW?

ORACLE: - I don’t know! He just turned his phone back on! The GPS just lit up.

PANTHER: - You can read his GPS?

ORACLE: - Not important right now. Noir Needs US!

PANTHER: - Wait…Can you read our GPS?!

QUEEN: - ORACLE?! Are you TRACKING us as well?

ORACLE: - No?

ORACLE: - Your train is pulling into Yongen-Jaya now, Makoto, RUN!

QUEEN: - FUTABA! We are going to have a discussion about privacy, A LONG one.

PANTHER: - Why are you checking Joker’s GPS in class?

ORACLE: -  I had an alert set, besides, it’s Japanese it’s not like its important or anything.

ORACLE: - Did you ask Makoto about the skirt law?

 


 

Haru opened her eyes at the sound of his message tone, and there he was.

She dropped her bag in shock.

Everything she’d planned to say. All the points and the plans melted like snow in the rain as she met his eyes.

He looked just as tired and scared as she was.

She ran to his arms sobbing, and tackled him to the floor.

 


 

 

Makoto was almost out of breath when she reached Leblanc, pushing the door open and running inside. Surprising Sojiro who, looked up from rubbing Morgana’s ears.

“Niijima-san?! I guess you know he’s here, then?’

“Hey Queen! We’re back!” Well at least Morgana seemed happy.

“Is…Haru…Ok…?” She was clearly more out of shape than she thought. Say what you want but Phantom thievery was a good workout, she was missing it right now.

“They’re talking. Not sure what’s been going on between the two of them lately, but he was a bundle of nerves when he came in.”

“They had a big fight, Boss. He said something really stupid.”

“Figured it was something like that. Kid never did learn when to keep his mouth shut. Explains why he’s been acting like everything was about to go to hell, though. How come he is more scared now than last Christmas?”

“He knows what Haru’s like when she gets angry!” The cat was enjoying this turn of events too much.

“Morgana! Stop that!’

Sojiro put the finishing touches to the cup of coffee he was preparing.

“Give them some space for now. I’ll make you a drink while we wait. I’m sure there’s a lot they need to say.”

 


 

Joker helped Haru to her feet. She hugged him then stepped back, rubbing tears from her eyes.

“I’m an idiot, aren’t I?” He said sadly.

Focus Haru, breathe.

“Yes you are.”

The panic and helplessness of the last few days was melting away, leaving another emotion.

“Ren?” She said, softly.

“Yes, Haru?”

 

ANGER.

 

The force of the slap knocked his glasses from his face and rocked him back on his heels.

 

“IF YOU EVER MAKE ME GO THROUGH THAT AGAIN, JOKER, I SWEAR I WILL END YOU MYSELF!”

 


 

Sojiro, Makoto and Morgana Stared up the stairs in shock, the sound of the slap had echoed around the cafe.

“That sounded like it hurt.” Makoto’s voice was distant.

“Yes, yes it did.” Sojiro’s voice was likewise far away.

“Should we go help?’

“Her, or him?”

“Get him, Noir!” Clearly Morgana had a favourite in this battle.

“Not helpful Morgana!”

 

The bell clattered off its rest as Futaba and Ann skidded through the door behind them and crashed into the counter. Startling Sojiro.

 

“We’re here! Does Haru need our help!?” Ann gasped, breathing hard. They’d evidently run from the station.

Futaba dropped to her knees behind her, wheezing. The younger girl’s stamina, though improving, still wasn’t the best.

 

The sound of Haru yelling at Joker filtered down from upstairs. Alternating muffled, as she crushed him in joyful hugs, and clear, as she shook him and rattled his teeth. Joker it seemed was too stunned to respond.

 

“Joker might! Mwehehe!”

Futaba’s head snapped up.

“Oh, no! Did she have her axe?” Her eyes were large behind the glasses.

“Axe?! What axe?” Sojiro clearly did not like the sound of that.

“I could go get it! I know where Joker stashed it!”

“Morgana! Please behave!”

“But Lady Ann…!”

“Why does she have an axe?!”

“No Axes Cat!”

“He deserves it! Besides, she won’t kill him. AND I’M STILL NOT A CAT!”

“I think…” Makoto winced at a particularly vocal outburst from above. “Noir can handle this one without us”

Chapter Text

There was once a warrior queen.

Her father had been a great king, a master of the battlefield. He had trained her, instilling in her both the skills and knowledge she would need to command an army of her own and the love the chase, the ebb and flow of the conflict, the bold gambits and the thrilling victories. She watched his battles, exalting in his wins, and searching his defeats for the lessons to be gleaned there. Frequently they would test each other in battle, honing each other for the trials to come, and she was happy.

But illness robbed him of his chance of glory on the battlefield and she took up her arms in his stead, determined to see their standard flown in his honour, to bring what measure of comfort she could to him.

Her mother saw things differently, she saw more value in the queen’s charms, seeing the battlefield as only a step, to bring the queen to the hearts and minds of the public, to see her worshipped, the need for battlefield glory behind her.

The queen saw little merit in her mother’s plan. Victory on the battlefield was the reward, she could never use it merely as a stepping stone to other things. Such would be a dishonour to both its history, and her father’s legacy, still, she was a dutiful and respectful daughter and followed her mother’s plans, to bring what aid should could to her parents in trying times. It was not without cost. The queen’s opponents saw her following her mother’s path, and believed she lacked the respect and honour the battlefield demanded, and she was treated with disdain.

 

It was at this point, as she trained alone, there came upon the queen a trickster, a thief in the night.

 

He came seeking knowledge of the ways of battle, of tactics to confuse and confound his opponents.  He was raw and green, a novice with little understanding of the field of honour, seeking to use her experience for his own ends. As many before had, seeing only what the queen could grant them.

But the queen saw a spark of spirit in the trickster, perhaps it was a whisper of her loneliness, perhaps she saw a touch of her father’s fire in his eyes, but she agreed to teach him what she could in return for being her opponent to help hone her skills. To field against her when others shunned her.

The vast majority of their clashes went her way. His tactics were showy, theatrical, surprising but ultimately very risky. Hers was the more subtle, attacking when it was opportune, and allowing his own plans to blow up in his face, as they often did.  Although her opponent learned quickly, and often surprised her with unexpected strategies. For all his confidence and charm, the Trickster often made some very simple mistakes. Leading to many of his defeats.

She wasn’t sure if it was a good thing, or a bad thing that most of his defeats were less due to her success than his failures. Still, it was excellent training for her other opponents, Opponents more honed on the field of battle than she. She needed every trick she could learn to bring them to their knees.

 

Then One day her kingdom burned.

 

She was betrayed, every victory tainted, every defeat a question. Her mother, her heart twisted by her desire for fame, conspired with her opponents. The hard fought wins she had thought her own skill her mother had bought with coin. Her own lust for fame destroying her daughter’s reputation, leaving her on her knees, alone amongst the tattered wreckage of her world.

 

But her trickster was no mere thief.

 

He was a demon king, a taker of hearts.

 

He came to her, caring not for her soiled name. He brought her to her feet. Shielding her with his wings. He took her mother’s twisted heart and healed it.

He nursed her back to health, made her ready for battle once more.

Then the queen returned to the battlefield, to rebuild her reputation with her own hands with the demon king stood by her side, having claimed her heart as his prize.

 

But the demon king had his own battles to fight and they often took him far from his warrior queen. She helped him where she could. But then came a dark day, when she…

 

She’d seen the news, Leader of the phantom thieves dead by his own hand while in custody.

It near broke her. She’d felt sick to her stomach. There was no name, no picture but she knew. A piece of her world she could no longer live without was being torn away, and there was nothing she could do to stop it. She couldn’t even talk to his friends, in case that would put them, or herself in more danger, and she wouldn’t risk anything he had built. Not now.

It was only when Kitagawa-san had walked past her at school a day later, met her eyes and smiled that she felt the grip on her heart release. He had been with Ren in the church, she’d seen them. Yusuke was… unusual, but something in that smile told her there was still hope. Was he a thief too?  She sent Ren a text, praying for a response. No longer caring that attached her name to a thief, or a dead man only that she would KNOW which one…

 

The Trickster had fooled them all, even his Warrior queen.

His enemies now thought him dead, even the one who had crawled, snake like, into his party and betrayed him and the Demon king moved to take advantage of their mistake. He crept into the house of his nemesis, overcame his guards, defeated his traps and he stole his heart.

But this was not enough, for even the gods were arrayed against him and the demon king and his loyal friends, already tired from their last battle rallied again, travelling through the depths of hell, and climbing even unto the gates of heaven and tore them asunder. Casting down the god that twisted the minds and hearts of the people. Giving them back their freedom.

 

And for this victory, he went to prison willingly, to protect his friends, and his queen.

 

IT WASN’T FAIR!

He’d been distracted on Christmas Eve, so she knew something was happening but he wouldn't tell her what. He was trying to protect her again. The stupid, noble fool was protecting them all.

Why could he never let someone protect him for a change?

He’d locked his phone down and kept his plan secret from his friends and left no instructions on who to contact if anything happened to him. It was only because of a lucky meeting and Makoto’s intuition that she’d been told at all.

 

Merry Christmas, Hifumi. Your boyfriend is in jail.

 

She hadn’t even known he was on probation.

He’d never spoken of it. Enjoying that she’d seen him and not the criminal.

His friends worked like demons, hunting for the women who’d testified against him, looking to clear his name. She’d done what she could to help, an interview or two, discussions with Makoto on planning, but as little as that was it felt like nothing to her.

 

He left jail a free man thanks to their efforts, just in time for Valentine’s Day and she went to meet him with hope in her heart and homemade chocolates in her hands.

Only to have her happiness again laughed at.

Only one more month together. She’d dug her heels in and claimed as much of his time as she could.

 

He was called to return to the lands of his birth. Leaving his Warrior Queen lonely on her throne. Many were the messages sent between the demon king and his queen. He feeling her loss as keenly as she felt his.

But all was not well in his kingdom.

 

She’d spoken to his parents once. She never wanted to again.

They treated everything that had happened in Tokyo, every person he’d met, each friend he’d made as a distraction, an annoyance, A THREAT. Something keeping their son from settling back in at home.

This “Girlfriend” was the worst of them all, as if they thought she was trying to steal him from them.

After that call she gladly would have. 

Once their comments had become too much for him Ren had snatched back the phone and left, she could hear the anger in his voice at the way she’d been treated. She told him it hadn’t bothered her.

 

It had.

 

As time went on things got worse, he was always fighting, always tired. Refusing to just give in and take the quiet way.  Determined to convince them to let him return, to her.

If they hadn’t dismissed his time in Tokyo out of hand he might have just settled down and bided his time. It was their own insistence that it wasn’t important that forced his hand. He refused to accept that. It was important to him.

He was always angry those days. Making stupid mistakes in their games of shogi, snapping at mention of his parents. She tried to make the best of it, to make believe his parents weren’t a problem. That they’d come around.

She tried to see their side. Find a way to show his parents she wasn’t just a distraction. That they should let her keep hold of his hand.

Anything to try and keep her place in his life.

 

Apparently being on their side meant she was no longer on his.

 

And the Demon king turned on his Warrior queen for her imagined betrayal and between them there was no more words.

 

And Hifumi Togo cried herself to sleep.

 


 

The next day was a grey haze. She hadn’t realised how much their conversations energised her, gave her a spark to face the day until they were withheld.

She drifted through class in a daze, if any of her classmates had wanted to talk to her, they would have found her poor company. But she was not well liked amongst the girls, due to her mother’s push to make her an idol and she was also on shaky ground with the school it general. Having The Venus of shogi as a student was something Kosei had been proud of. The “Phony Princess” only brought shame.  She ate lunch alone.

She felt someone watching her, as she picked at her food, but that was also a fairly common thing.  She was famous, for the wrong reasons now, and that was still a matter for discussion amongst the students. She remembered Ren’s teasing words when she had mentioned the stares before he left.

“Maybe someone just thinks you’re beautiful. You do have those legs…” She’d pinched him, blushing furiously, to make him stop before the embarrassment killed her.

God she missed that smile.

What had once brought fire to her cheeks now ran icy fingers round her heart.

Her Demon king might have a silver tongue. But it had very sharp edges when he was angry.

 


 

She had a shift at her part time job that afternoon, since her Idol days were now behind her. Her school had not been in favour of it, but she’d managed to convince them she would bring no further shame. Not even the beautiful scents and bright colours of the Florist in the Shibuya mall could rouse her spirit today.

Ren had recommended the job to her himself when she’d decided to start looking for a part time employment. He’d worked there in the past, and it gave him the opportunity to help both her and his former employer. She got a job he knew was safe and would interest her, the owner got a hard worker and quick learner to fil the gap he was leaving.

He was always looking out for others.

The work was far harder than shogi, but she usually delighted in it. Helping to keep stock of the cut flowers, prepare the display arrangements and finding the right combination of flowers for the custom bouquets was calming, and she loved the seeing the happiness in the customers eyes when a carefully picked bouquet met their expectations.

Not today.

She’d almost dropped an arrangement, barely saving if from destruction. She’d chosen poorly on a custom order and risked disappointing a customer, before the manager had swooped in and corrected the mistake, her eyes concerned.

Nothing went to plan.

She set to work on her final task of the day determined that it would redeem her, a custom arrangement, and the flowers already chosen by the buyer, so her own insight was unnecessary. At least this way she couldn’t choose incorrectly.

Sweetheart roses of a pale blushing peach, white orchids, and an unusual type of lily she had yet to see used, the manager had called them stargazers. Its petals red and pink and white.

She had bought a book on the language of flowers, at Ren’s recommendation, to help her better understand the blooms she selected, to do her best in her new opportunity.

This arrangement spoke of loneliness and longing. A gift for an absent love. She hoped it would bring some comfort. There was a sliver of ice working its way into her heart as she tied the bow.

Her job complete she set the bouquet in the cold storage, ready for collection and went to get her things. Only to have the manager present it to her on her return. She was confused, until she read the handwriting on the card.

 

Stupid, sweet, over-protective FOOL.

 

He’d left it ready and paid for, with instructions it was to be prepared at the manager’s discretion, when Hifumi seemed sad, or lonely.

To reminder her he cared, that he missed her. To brighten a dark day.

She just made it home before the tears came.

Her trickster’s timing was impeccable as always, but this arrangement cut her deeper that his words.

 

And the Demon king again held his own council that night and The Warrior Queen stood alone on the field of battle.

 


 

She had no appetite it was gone with her energy in the grey haze she drifted through, and she sat at the lunch room table the next day, drinking tea reading a book of strategies.

Well, she was looking at it, at least. Her eyes ran over the page, steadfastly refusing to pick anything up, and when she reached the end of the page it seemed almost disrespectful to turn it.

None of these strategies could have helped her anyway. They were quite short on ways to rescue a boyfriend from entrapment, or convince parents that hate you to reconsider.

 

Or to get an angry young man to pick up the phone when she called. His phone had been off last night.

She would have a hard time protecting her king if he wouldn't talk to her.

 

“May I join you, Togo-san?”

She was startled out of her fugue by a voice. It quickly resolved itself into Yusuke Kitagawa, bearing a tray with a large bowl. She relaxed.

“Please do, Kitagawa-san”

Yusuke was…odd. In a school with a large population of artists, he was the eccentric. Always catching inspiration and running out of class, surprising people by shouting at random times, and in general disturbing the peace.

He was also on somewhat thin ice with the school, after an incident involving a pair of live lobsters and the girls swim club.

The only thing that had saved him from expulsion after that excitement had been the steadfast blank look on his face, followed by his growing horror when they’d explained why he was in trouble using shorter words. It hadn’t occurred to him that his intentions would be misunderstood. The lobsters needed water, and they were female, after all.

Her demon king had strange tastes in friends. Outcasts and oddities all.

 

Maybe that’s why she felt so at home with him.

 

Still, it was unusual for Yusuke to seek her out. The only times it had happened in the past was when he needed to pass something on from Ren when he, for one reason or another, could not.

Faking your death could make it hard to keep in contact. As could prison. Perhaps so did his parents?

Her heart lifted slightly, perhaps Ren had had difficulties calling her, maybe that was the reason for his silence, resorting to a messenger when his usual methods failed?

“Have you spoken to Amamiya-san recently, Kitagawa-san?”

Her hopes were quickly dashed.

“I’m sorry, I’ve not spoken to him in more than a week. The last time I called he asked me to text instead, something about his parents not liking all the calls from the weirdos. I wonder if nuisance calls are a big problem in the country.”

She could perfectly picture the look on Ren’s face when he said that. She almost laughed.

“His phone is working though, so a text message is probably your best method of contact. I sent him one yesterday about a drawing I was planning, and he told me he wasn’t going to be there to stop me being arrested this time.”

“That sounds…troubling?”

“He worries too much. The officer wasn’t going to arrest me, he was looking for a strange man bothering women in the park. I was merely drawing passers-by. I didn’t see any strange men.”

This was the lobsters all over again, wasn’t it?

“Did you talk to any of the people you were drawing?’

 “I may have suggest a different pose to a few of them, only if they seemed amenable.”

“Of course.” He’d asked the swim club to stop screaming because it was scaring the lobsters as well.

She had once commented to Ren that Yusuke was not very astute, he’d responded that wasn’t the case. That he just saw things differently, that Yusuke had a better eye for details than anyone. The line between the two must be paper thin in some cases.

“You are not eating, Togo-san?”

“Nothing caught my eye on the menu.” She’d barely glanced at it.

“If you like you can share mine.”

He pushed his bowl towards her.

“Thank you, but no…” The contents of the bowl caught her eye. “Is this just bean sprouts?”

“Of course not!’

“That’s ok then.”

“I have mayonnaise now as well! My budgeting has much improved.”

The starving artist was apparently not just a cliché after all.

“Thank you for the offer, Yusuke-san, but I’m not very hungry today.”

“Because of your fight with Ren?”

She went cold.

“I’m…not… sure…”

“Three days ago, at my guess.”

Apparently Ren knew his friends well.

 


 

Yusuke Kitagawa could also be annoyingly persistent.

“I’ve already told you I’m fine Kitagawa-san.”

“You’ve not eaten well in the last two days, you’ve been distracted and distant during breaks and you just called the server “Mother” when you bought your tea. I still think I should inform him, it is out of character for you to be like this.”

The feeling of being watched now made more sense.

“Have you been stalking me, Yusuke-san?” She might not be able to summon the Niijima death glare she’d seen Makoto use, but the Togo version still carried its own heavy dose of ice.

“Observing, Togo-san. Merely watching over a friend.”

Yusuke, however, appeared to be immune to freezing.

“For what reason? I’m afraid I have no plans to model for you.”

This was another reason Yusuke was on shaky ground with the school. He had a loose understanding of how scary it could be for a schoolgirl to have a lanky stranger with a sketchbook run up to them and ask them to strike a pose.

Especially during Japanese history. That poor girl had to go and lie down. It wasn’t even Yusuke’s class.

“Perish the thought, Togo-san. Although you do have a very classical beauty I’d love to capture some day, Joker was very… descriptive… about what he would do if I ever asked you to model.”

 “Descriptive?’

 “He is a man of rare eloquence and imagination.”

Apparently Ren was Joker. She knew they used code names, She’d heard him call Makoto “Queen” once, to her personal consternation.

Her demon king needed only one queen.

Joker, however, suited him down to the ground. His showy tactics, the teasing, that smile of his… but that comment still seemed out of character. He’d never struck her as possessive.

Then she remember the fire in his eyes when he’d watched her walk away from losing the exhibition match, the pride as she remained unbroken. His Hifumi, His warrior queen.

She felt the blush coming.

Her Demon King.

“Then why…?” Her intuition answered for her. “He asked you to keep an eye on me, when he went home?”

“You are perceptive, as always, but not precisely correct.” Yusuke replied, munching on his food.

 “Really, how so?” Had Ren’s friends taken it upon themselves to watch out for her? They clearly cared for their leader, was this their way of helping him?

He paused his chewing and began looking along the table before answering.

“Ren has had me ensuring your safety for almost a year now, I saw no reason to stop when he went home. Might I trouble you to pass the pickled ginger? This container appears empty.”

Ren had been looking out for her since they’d met, far before they’d begun dating and she’d not realised it.

She’d been living with his wings shielding her for so long now she no longer saw their shadows.

 


 

Hifumi ran through the park, she was late to a game.

It had taken the rest of the break, and a direct threat that she’d inform Ren that he was sketching her to convince Yusuke to not contact him. That comment had made Yusuke very twitchy.

And then most of the afternoon for one of Yusuke’s offhand remarks to filter through the haze.

THREE days, the fight was THREE days ago.

Not two, she’d lost a day.

Fortunately not one with a shift scheduled or a game planned. But one whole day was eaten by the grey fog without a trace. A day in which she’d drifted on autopilot and gained nothing. Which meant today she should have left a little earlier than usual to take the train to Inokashira Park.

Fortunately this was not a formal engagement, she was meeting up with Makoto, less of a game of shogi and more time with a friend and a discussion of tactics.

Usually anyway, today she was worried. Makoto was very perceptive and if she picked up on her mood she’d stat asking questions, and although she probably wouldn’t press her if Hifumi made it clear not to, that would almost be as bad. Then she might go and investigate herself, and that meant her going to Ren. Perhaps she should cut the game short? Claim illness?

“I’m so sorry I’m late.” For now she had to act normal, keep it together.

Makoto looked up from her book, and nearly dropped her tea.

“I lost track of time, only just made the train.” She tried to keep calm, find a way to cut the visit short.

Instead she found herself on the receiving end of one of Makoto’s glares.

“Makoto…san...?” This was not going well. She fought down an urge to run.

“What did he do?” Makoto asked softly, the glare fading replaced with concern.

 

And Hifumi shattered into little pieces.

 


 

Makoto Niijima was woman of many talents.

Comforting a sobbing girl was not chief amongst them.

She sat with her arm awkwardly around Hifumi’s shoulders as it came pouring out.

His parents.

The fight.

His words.

His silence.

The soft grey haze that had stolen her week.

All of it.

Makoto sighed.

She wished Ann or Haru were on hand for numbers if nothing else. They might at least be able to stop the crying, it was very distracting.

She did NOT have the experience to deal with this herself, given her dating expertise was limited to Joker’s pretend dates and slapping her friend. She wasn’t sure any of those points would apply this time.

At least she hoped not. Not unless she kept crying at least.

 

Joker was going to be a big problem. She didn’t realise things were that bad at his home. Their fearless leader was shouldering the burden alone yet again. Keeping his friends in the dark.

The Idiot kept doing that. He really needed to cut it out.

Last time he ended up in jail. This time he’d hurt Hifumi.

She knew which one of those would hurt him more.

And she knew if Ren saw Hifumi like this it would break him, and they’d need him whole if they were going to help. The girl was the more pressing issue right now.

 

Well then, time for drastic measures.

 

“I’m surprised at you, Togo-san.”

Hifumi lifted her tear streaked face to look at her.

“Makoto…?”

Hifumi didn’t need platitudes now, she needed something to burn away the fog, something to hold onto until Joker pulled his head out of his backside and called her.

“I’ve never seen you shy away from a challenge before.”

 

She needed an opponent.

 

The eyes that looked back at her now were very different from the ones a second before.

“I beg your pardon?” There was ice in the emerald now and a healthy coating of it on her voice.

 

Quickest way to get Hifumi to focus was to get her behind the board.

 

“You didn’t seem like one to take the easy way out. “

“You call this EASY?!”

“All you need to do is shake their hand, concede and walk away. Easiest thing in the world. Leave Ren to his own devices and move on”

The girls eyes widened in disgust.

“No.” her voice was very small, but firm.

“Aren’t you going to let them win?”

“How can I stop them? I’m in a bad position, They have my KING, I can’t...”

“Are you really? Seems to me that your army is still in the better shape. Are you looking at the pieces or the board?”

Her father’s advice, she’d told it to Makoto when they’d stated playing. No piece is too important to sacrifice, nothing too important to lose, if it lets you win the battle. She seen so many amateurs so focused on protecting Lance’s and generals that they let their kings fall.

Don’t worry about the pieces. Worry about the game.

 

Look at the board.

 

His parents may have pushed her king into a corner, but they’d paid dearly for that.

He’d gone home because they were his parents. Not because he’d wanted to. They’d tried to make him stay, tried to undermine his experiences, belittle his friends drive off the silly little girl.

They’d burnt a lot of goodwill and broke several of the ties still binding him to achieve what they had.

 

And while they were concentrating on him, they’d forgotten all about her.

 


 

“It’s understandable, if it’s too much for you. Just leave it to us, we’ll work out a way to bring Joker back without you.” Makoto continued, watching her from the corner of her eye.

 


 

Hifumi barely heard her.

They stood alone against her, distracted by him.

She has an army of thieves at her back that had gone through fire for him, and would gladly do it again.

They have a town that won’t accept him, a school that didn’t want him.

She has a place where he felt safe. A refuge to welcome him back. Sojiro had left his room as it was and had let her sit in there and remember when she needed time to breathe.

They have family and duty, perhaps respect but they had been eroding that by the day. She didn’t think there was a lot left.

 

She had a smile that could freeze him solid with a big silly grin on his face. She’d tested it, extensively.

She had his heart and she wasn’t ready to give it back!

 

Not without a fight!

 


 

Makoto supressed a smile, seeing Hifumi’s hands tighten into fists. One more push.

“I’ll talk to the others and come up with a plan. We’ve done harder things, you don’t need…”

 


 

She didn’t need? The Presumption of it.

There was only room for one Queen in this kingdom and it was DAMN WELL GOING TO BE HER!

Her Demon king had clearly forgotten who taught him this game. She’d beaten him before, and she’d do it again.

AND AGAIN!

Until he got it through his stupid, thick, over-protective skull! If he thought she was a weak girl fit only to be protected he was going to be very disappointed.

She was going to have to have a nice LONG talk with him, to make sure he knew the storm was coming!

 

And the warrior queen took up her arms, and prepared to correct the mistakes of her foolish student once again, by force if required.

 


 

Makoto watched Hifumi storm off with the worried look of a person who had pulled the pin on a grenade and was now watching it roll away, toward an unsuspecting target.

Joker had said she could get…expressive… when she got excited, but she wasn’t expecting THAT. There had been a couple of times during their matches she’d said something about dragons, or an ultimate attack but that was on a whole another level.

 

She wasn’t fully sure the girl realised how much of it she was saying out loud.

 

At least it had energised her. Hopefully she wouldn’t happen to anyone before she spoke to Joker.

“Her demon king… hmm?” She caught herself grinning. That one was getting noted down for later. Just in case Joker ever got too full of himself. In the meantime it was time to put out a call to the rest of their friends. They had some planning to do.

 


 

Hifumi came to Leblanc the next day after school to make the phone call. Her mother was fussing over her appearance too much after her return yesterday to get a chance to call. Ren would be in for some questions the next time her mother saw him, sadly.

 

Besides, if things went badly she’d need time to calm down before returning home.

 

Sojiro sat behind the counter working on a crossword puzzle as she walked in. Something in the set of her jaw stopped him from commenting on circles under her eyes. He wasn’t touching this one with a barge-pole.

“Head on up. I’ll make you a coffee.”

“And possibly look for the first aid kit, just in case.” He said to himself.

 


 

Hifumi had prepared the message ahead of time, it was ready to send.

 

123: -You’re still a terrible student! I’ve told you before you’re not allowed to hide the pieces. We can’t play until they’re on the board and you, sir, are already late for our game.

I am not done playing with you yet.

I’m calling you now and if you’re parents have a problem with that, I don’t care.

Their opinion doesn’t matter to me, you do.

 

Deep breath, Hifumi, time to get ready for battle.

But as the message tone rang out ahead of her in a room that should have been empty, she realised her trickster had already laid out the board.

 


 

Before her stood the demon king, his armour rent, and his mask broken. Returned from his battles, bruised and bloodied, but victorious and he had one more surprise up his sleeve.

For what stood there was simply the trickster, sad and tired, afraid he had lost his queens favour. Hiding behind the Demon Kings mask no-more.

Fortunately for him, His warrior queen was generous in her forgiveness.

 

And Hifumi Togo tackled her stupid boyfriend to the floor.

 

 

Opponent concedes. Game Togo.

Chapter Text

When the fight had finally happened it came as almost a relief.

Almost.

 

She’d been dreading it for nearly a month.

 


 

It started as a formless nightmare that disturbed her sleep, put her on edge and robbed her of focus. 

Chihaya Mifune had learned to hate the nightmares when she was in her old town. They always meant trouble and angry neighbours.

The important ones always did.

This one promised to be no different, by the feel of it.

 

Then it showed up in her cards.

It was part of her morning routine, after she’d eaten breakfast and cleared the table, to read her own fortune. Just to give a bit of a shape to the day. Not a formal spread. Just shuffle, cut and draw a few cards, to give her a jump start. Get her in the right mindset.

Since they’d begun dating, she’d modified her routine slightly, reading once for him as well. Hoping it would give her a bit of insight into how his day would go, and what she could do to help during the evening phone calls.

 

Troubled times, separation, conflict. Always just off in the future, never a firm enough shape to be confronted. Just enough to put her on edge.

 

Then it arrived with a vengeance.

For a week she’d drawn the same cards, for BOTH of them.

 

The Fool, The Wheel of Fortune, The Tower, and The Lovers, inverted.

 

Every time she shuffled. The same cards.

After the third day of drawing this she’d tried drawing another few cards for clarity.

 

The Emperor and the Empress. The Magician. Death.

 

The fourth day, as soon as she turned over the magician she stopped. Scared to turn over more.

She’d cut and shuffled a dozen times. Drawn blind. Drawn his before hers. Hadn’t shuffled. She did something you’re never meant to do, asked the same question and read again. Always the same. She’d came so damn close to removing a card from the deck and seeing if it put itself back when she drew.

She didn’t, scared what it would mean to draw the missing card.

There was a dozen readings for the cards but she’d grown used to reading for him, over the time they’d spent together, and his always fell to a similar shape.

He was the Fool, the trickster, the phantom thief.

She was Fortune. He’d never said it outright, but anytime she read relationships for him and the Fortune card turned up first she’d seen the similarities to her own days readings every time. Plus he had this little smile when he looked at her when she did it, it made her feel happy and flustered.

The Tower was change, an upheaval, and conflict.

The Lover’s inverted was… Well… She really didn’t like to think about that. There was a lot of readings nowhere near as dire as the obvious one. Didn’t stop it scaring her.

The extra cards just made things harder to understand. Emperor and empress together was odd, she felt sure his parents were involved. The magician… no clue. One of his friends, perhaps? She’d seen all three show up during his readings and she’d had the feeling it was some of his friends represented then. This time felt different, just as she was almost sure it was his parents. The magician could be read as telling the asker that they needed to take action themselves, that their own talents were needed.

Death always seemed bad in a reading, it’s a good card to scare the person asking the questions if you need to, but it’s not always DEATH. Its change, endings, returning to basics.

None of those helped her mood.

The reading hung over her. Colouring everything she saw. Making her worry, it threatened to show up again if she slipped while asking a customer’s question. She hadn’t had a reading this strong in years, making getting the interpretation right even more important.

 

But he’d taught her that fates could be changed, the future could bend under a strong enough will set to the task. When it came to him, her’s would be iron. She would not let it happen.

In a way that ending up being the problem.

 

She’d watched their conversations carefully for reference to his parents, and tried to smooth out any problems, head off issues before they reached the point of her reading. Whatever it was that his parents were doing to spark this fight between them she’d stop it. Besides, they hadn’t been very friendly when Ren had introduced her over the phone. Getting in their way was a petty victory, but not one she was above.

It was only when he snapped at her for taking his parents side in things and the fight began in earnest she recognised her mistake. She was as angry at herself as him, but it hadn’t stopped her screaming at him for the things he’d said, her country accent forcing its own shape on her words, before hanging up and throwing her phone at the bed.

A strong enough will can shape the future. She’d done it herself. She’d put her back to it and bent it straight into the shape she’d tried to avoid.

She turned to her cards, hopeful to have broken the pattern, something to give her an idea of how to move forward, to FIX this.

 

The Fool, Fortune, the Tower, the Lovers inverted. She drew again.

 

Judgement.

 

Karma. Just deserts. Being rewarded for you actions.

Karma’s a bitch.

 

Some days she hated her job.

 


 

She had an inspection by her landlord the next morning, so her troubles were put on hold in favour of cleaning and preparing. As much as she could, anyway.

She was no longer at a little card table near a convenience store, at the mercy of the weather. She had a small storefront, not too far from there and she’d made an effort towards the trappings people expected from a fortune teller without going too overboard. A heavy curtain hung near the front of the room, allowing her to control the light, and provide privacy to her patrons, where needed. A second was at the back, hiding the small sink and bathroom from view. The room was the size of cupboard, barely wide enough for her table, and it didn’t have any heating but it was out of the rain, and it had its own bathroom and power and she had space for a kettle.

It was heaven.

Ren had helped her find it, and get set up before he’d left. She had a sneaking suspicion that he’d also had some influence behind the scenes to ensure she got it, as well. She always had a vague feeling the world turned around her trickster, but she was probably just paranoid.

 

“Good morning!”

She turned, expecting to be seeing a business woman in a suit, like the landlord of her small apartment. Instead she saw an unexpected face.

 

But not an unknown one.

 

She’d seen her with Ren, going to a movie in November. Ren had waved to her from the entrance, but she was busy with a customer and couldn’t acknowledge him. She’d quickly read her cards once the session had ended, though, trying to put a shape if not a name to her most recent competition.

The Empress.

Oh she knew this one all right, she was a Phantom Thief, one of Ren’s… team? She’d gradually built a picture of most of his friends over the last year’s readings. The most commonly occurring ones, at least. There was a few around the edges like the sun and the moon that had barely even appeared but others were writ large.

The Empress was an heiress, her future was an unhappy and unfulfilling marriage, problems with family and an empty home. That was all she could ever look forward to.

 

Immutable, unchangeable, unbreakable.

 

But Chihaya's thief didn’t like unhappy endings, apparently, and he saw an unbreakable fate as a challenge. He’d changed this one, but not without a fight. She’d lost someone close, but not exactly dear, if the cards were right, and risen from the ashes, reforged into a warrior and trusted companion.

There was dark in her, though, not someone to cross if you could avoid it.

 

If you did, if you hurt her friends, she’d break you and enjoy doing it.

 

You’d never guess that from her smile.

However, her future now was far more variable, a small business built from a big business? Smiles and food? Family and love.

A happily ever after.

 

Yet another he’d saved. A rather disturbing number of them pretty girls. It worried her sometimes. She'd discovered she was a bit more jealous than she'd thought. Apparently she hadn't had enough to bring it out before. Not the nicest thing he'd taught her.

 

But sadly she didn’t have time for a reading, at the moment. Even for one of his friends.

 

“I’m very sorry but I’m opening a little later today, I’ve got an inspection by my landlord. It shouldn’t be too long if you want to grab a coffee and come back in an hour.”

The girl smiled back.

“Nice to finally meet you, Mifune-san. My name is Haru Okumura, I’m here for your inspection.”

Well that was unexpected.

 

HAH! He did have something to do with it! Knew it! Ohya owes me a thousand yen!

Focus, hayseed. Landlord, remember?

 

“Oh, I’m so sorry, I was expecting…” how to say it without sounding rude?

“Don’t worry about it. Usually this would be handed by one of our agents, but I promised a friend I’d make sure you were settling in with no problems.”

 

A friend. One with Grey eyes and a cat, no doubt.

 

“You’re a friend of Ren’s?” Her time as a fortune-teller kicked in, ask question you know the answer to, people will add extra details you can use to shape the reading.

The girls smile answered that before she did.

“Yes, we went to high school together…while he was in Tokyo.” Her smile dimmed slightly.

 

And stole a few hearts together on the weekends? Overthrew a possible tyrant? Saved the world, once or twice?

You went to the movies?

With MY boyfriend?! Did you have fun?!

 

Temper temper, Chihaya, don’t offend the person who can throw you out on the street. Besides, you won, remember?

 

She slipped back into fortune-teller mode smoothly, listen to what they tell you, and listen to what they don’t. That will help you with the reading.

Went to high school, past tense. She’d probably graduated recently then.

They made small talk while the inspection proceeded. The empress had seemed surprised at how small the space truly was but no problems presented themselves.

“It was originally going to be a location for a Big Bang Burger, just a takeaway only window. But it ended up being a bit too small for even that. So you’re doing me a favour by using the place. It’s been a dead asset for a few years now.”

Big Bang… THAT OKUMURA? Well that filled in a lot of the blanks, and put a name to the lost relative along with a rather horrifying mental image from that press conference.

“How are you settling in, Mifune-san?”

“Chihaya is fine, any friend of Ren’s is a friend of mine! No problems to report, its worlds better than my card table out on the street.”

The girl had a smile that warmed the room.

“Chihaya-san, then. I’m glad to hear it. Ren was very keen to make sure you were out of the weather, he does tend to worry about his friends.”

 

He would run himself ragged to take the load of another. No matter the weight he already carried. He was a strange man.

 

“Are you sure this is enough space for you, we’ve other properties in the area?”

“This is just what I need, thank you. I don’t need much space to read the cards and too much space would be distracting”

The Girl lit up at this.

“Ren said you were a fortune teller, he was always surprised how accurate you were!”

That didn’t sound like him, her trickster was always laughing at her predictions, often twisting fate himself to change them.

“Sit down, I’ll read yours and show you how it works.”

“Oh, I couldn’t!”

“Please, it will help me get into the right frame of mind for my next reading.

“Well if you’re sure…”

Haru sat down, facing her as Chihaya started shuffling the cards.

“Lets begin, what sort of question did you want to ask?’ Right, focus on her, Chihaya. Lets keep our troubles out of this one.

 

“Something general? How is the next few months looking?” Haru’s eyes sparkled.

 

A little broad, but a general read of the future might help hold her own issues out of the way.

She laid out the spread, and began flipping over the cards, thinking about the girl’s enquiry.

She wants to know what’s coming up. She’s Leaving High school, probably entering university. Given her attitude resting on her inheritance didn’t seem in character.

It didn’t surprise her at all to see the first card come up the Empress.

Her future looked bright, she could see a good start to university. A new endeavour starting well, a café or restaurant by the looks of it. It would take hard work, but it would pay off. Almost easy to read without the cards, given the girl sitting opposite with shining eyes. Some turbulence involving money, her inheritance? Control of a business, perhaps, but still able to be overcome by a strong enough will, and the girl had that in spades.

Good relationships, strong bonds and laughter, friendships helping smooth the way forward.

Haru laughed and smiled at a description of powerful female friend with a fire like the sun who would support her.

Chihaya had her own thoughts about that one, and the priestess card that came with it. She’d seen Ren walking down the street with her, arm in arm once. Oh, he’d warned her ahead of time, he was trying to help protect her friend, catch a liar in the act.

 

Didn’t stop it hurting, just a bit.

 

She turned her mind back to the cards, focus Chihaya. Don’t need a repeat of the pattern to screw things up. Let’s look to her love life.

 

Finally, the cards read a reconnection with an old boyfriend, or crush who was far away. A happy future going forward.

She was glad of that, Ren and his friends deserved a little happiness.

 

The look that the girl gave her at this was one of abject horror.

Clearly Haru’s love life wasn’t one she was happy about.

 

She backpedalled in surprise, and told Her not to worry, that a strong enough will could overcome anything, even the things her cards could see, but clearly the girl was disturbed now, and keen to escape. She made her excuses and exited as quickly as she could, shaking.

 

Once she had left Chihaya stared at the cards, trying to see what she had misread that had soured the girl on the future so quickly. No, her initial reading seemed accurate, and all positive, she turned over a few more cards, trying for clarity.

The Fool, the Wheel of Fortune, the Tower, the Lovers inverted.

Damn, hadn’t she been concentrating hard enough? Why had her cards…?

Then the realisation hit her.

Oh god!

 

It was Ren. The old crush, the one who was far away was REN!

HER REN!

Suddenly the reading had a whole different colour to it. Haru’s happily ever after was with HER boyfriend, she hadn’t realised it at the time, but Haru clearly had. No wonder she had run.

 

If it was intentional she’d better not stop running either!

 

Not. Going. To. Happen.

She’d made a mistake before, but she just needed to find the right question to ask and she’d make damn sure that reading didn’t come true. Sorry, Empress, He’s still mine.

 

She fought down the urge to take the cards outside and burn them. This deck had decided to be quite mean to her as of late.

 


 

Her readings the next day didn’t help.

The Fool, Fortune, the Tower, Lovers inverted. All the old friends in a row.

She clenched her jaw.

One more card. Just one.

“What happens if I get this wrong?”

 

The world, inverted.

Finding closure, embracing the changes and moving on.

Failing to reach a big goal.

There was a lot it could be, the end of the world wasn’t even one of them.

 

She really didn’t trust these cards anymore, they kept laughing at her.

 


 

The day was exhausting, her cards hadn’t changed, and her lack of sleep and general discomfort made for dangerous territory. Every time she read for a customer she had to grit her teeth and focus, lest her own problems colour the draw. It made finding nuance hard, and was making her headache worse.

Worst still, she could come up with no questions, nothing to ask or read that would help her solve the problems she had already caused. Always the same cards awaiting her queries.

 

She washed her face in the bathroom, about to finish up for the day, nursing her headache to bed but when returned to her table she realised a customer was already seated in front of it.

“I’m very sorry, but I’m closing up, I’m not feeling the best.” She did her best to sound apologetic.

The woman raised an eyebrow.

“Such a shame, my sister speaks so highly of you, I had to come and see you in action.”

Something in that voice immediately set her on edge.

It purred like a cat, but not all cats were as small or friendly as Ren’s and this one, watching her with Tawny yellow eyes was decidedly NOT safe.

There was power in those eyes, and a lot more years than the face that carried them would admit.

 

Something told her she had just got in way over her head.

 

“I’m sure I can manage a quick reading for you, since you came all this way. Miss…?”

“Call me Margaret. I can wait to see you in action. Perhaps just draw a few cards, no need for a spread.”

Chihaya swallowed hard as she shuffled, her palms sweating.

A very quick reading, and then I’m going to go home and hide under my bed. Since apparently the monsters are out and about tonight.

At least she wasn’t going to be thinking of her own troubles while she drew this time. Something about the pale platinum blonde in blue with the tawny eyes was tripping every fear response in her mind, swamping her own problems out under that golden gaze.

 

The Empress, Strength, the Fool, and… The card was Face down…

Her throat went dry. She’d checked them after her last reading.

“Sorry, not sure how that happened.”

She flipped the card over. She had a moment of acute discomfort and…

 

It was still Face down.

 

Her hands started shaking.

She had no idea what to do. Whatever the figure seated in front of her was, she was almost sure it wasn’t human and her cards, apparently, were hiding from it. That was never a good sign.

Its a bad idea to tempt fate, Its worse to find something that scares it.

 

“Oh, no that’s fine. I’m actually quite impressed.”

She looked up and met the golden eyes.

“You got three cards on me, best I’ve seen before was one. That’s quite impressive, for a human”

Her discomfort must have been showing on her face.

“Oh, Relax, Miss Mifune” The woman chuckled “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“I’m not sure what I’ve seen.” Chihaya thought “That’s the problem. I just wish it would stop smiling like that.”

The woman was clearly amused.

“Child, don’t worry. You’ve nothing to fear from us. Besides, if something was to happen to you it would make your trickster unhappy, and that would make my little sister very, VERY difficult to be around and we can’t have that now, can we?”

The woman gave a low throaty chuckle.

 

Chihaya had an uncomfortable feeling this was how a mouse felt when it saw an owl.

 

"Please allow me to return the favour."

The woman reached out to the deck of tarot cards and flipped the first one over.

 

The Fool.

 

Again, how? The deck only had one! She cast her eyes to the table. Only three cards were before the woman now. When had that happened?

Had her cards always been blue?

 

“Besides, you’re clearly busy with your own problems.”

She flipped another.

 

The Wheel of Fortune.

 

“You do seem to be labouring under a misapprehension, though.”

A third card joined the others.

 

The Tower.

 

“You seem to think this card is always his.”

A manicured finger tapped the Fool. Then flipped another card.

 

The Lovers, inverted.

 

Chihaya tore her eyes away from the cards, even now she couldn’t escape them, and made the mistake of meeting the golden eyes.

“A fool he may be, they all are in their way. But your trickster has a different card to his name.”

She flipped the next card.

 

The Joker.

 

The Tarot did not usually contain a joker. Her own deck certainly did not.

She felt cold as ice.

“And do you know what’s important in games that use the Joker, child?”

Chihaya shook her head, unable to break the grip of those golden eyes.

“Its value is always dependant on what other cards are in your hand.”

She smiled, it almost reached her eyes this time.

“The Wild card by itself can do little. It can be the most powerful card in the deck, used well, and yet it depends so much on the others to play their part. Something to think on”

 

She smiled and rose from her seat, leaving her payment on the table.

 

“That you for the reading, Miss Mifune. It was enlightening. I’ll leave you to your rest”

Her eyes rose to look behind Chihaya’s shaking shoulders…

“Are we done here, sister?’

 

Chihaya Froze.

 

A second voice came from just behind her.

“Almost, I would have a word in private with Mifune-san.”

She froze, caught between desire to turn and see what was behind her, and fear of the same.

Nothing to fear from US the woman had said. How long had the unknown voice been standing there?

 

“Then I shall await you outside.” She bowed her head, turned and walked through the curtain. Closing it behind her.

The silence in the little room was heavy, she barely breathed, trying not to break it.

 

“He loves you very much, you know?’ the young voice said softly.

Chihaya forced her head to turn, beside her, peering over her shoulder to the cards on the table was a girl.

She had her sister’s eyes and long platinum hair, caught with a headband with butterfly wings.

 

“Poor Ren, at some point the play is meant to stop, so he can take his bow and receive his applause. But there always seems to be so much trouble on the set these days.”

“You know….?” Chihaya’s mouth was a desert, it was hard to talk.

“I know your trickster very well.” The girl said, her eyes miles away. “He was our guest for the last year, under very difficult circumstances, sadly. My own problems stopped me from providing him adequate hospitality.”

She smiled.

“I was quite beside myself until he helped me solve them. Fortunately he managed quite well in spite of us.”

The girl stepped forward. She was also dressed in blue, her clothes old fashioned, like something out of a gothic fantasy.

 

“He always put such faith in your readings, you know. To guide his footsteps when he was unsure of his path. To shore up his fortune when he needed it. I could never understand it myself.” Her small finger traced the artwork on the Fool card.

“As much as they’re so pretty, they’re still just cards and if you really want to be sure of your fortune…”

A small gloved hand took hers and guided it to a card.

“Then you’re going to have to take steps yourself.”

She turned Chihaya's hand so the Lovers’ card under it was no longer inverted.

“But then again, maybe it wasn’t the readings he had faith in.” The look she gave Chihaya was far too old for her but the smile made her eyes far warmer than her sisters.

“Maybe you should have a little more in him too.”

She bowed.

“Take care of my trickster, Chihaya. He’s always needed you far more than he lets on.”

 

And the girl was gone like she was never there.

 


 

Chihaya willed herself to breathe again. Her tension draining from her as she sank into her chair.

She had no idea what the hell had just happened but whatever it was she had drawn the attention of, it seemed VERY fond, and more than a little protective, of Ren. When she saw him again she was going to have to have a little talk with him about what the hell he’d gotten himself involved with.

The memory of those golden eyes came back to her.

 

Then again, maybe she really didn’t want to know after all. Some things were better left alone.

 

Her eyes went back to the cards she had drawn for the women. Now back to their familiar red and black.

She reached out with a shaking hand and turned over the face down card again.

 

The World.

 


 

She awoke late, well past noon. Apparently she had burned more energy in her fear last night that she’d realised. She rolled out of bed, and stumbled to the kitchen, starving. She cooked a simple meal but she couldn’t bring herself to make a cup of her usual instant coffee,  the smell had turned her stomach as she opened the jar. She'd never really been a big coffee drinker, anyway.

Before, at least.

But it was time to prepare to face the day, whatever of it was left. At least she didn’t have any readings booked in for today, after last night she was due a day off.

On autopilot she cleared the table and drew her cards.

The Fool, The Wheel of Fortune, The Tower.

Her hand stopped, hovering above the deck.

 

No.

 

She may have been a country girl, but Chihaya Mifune was no fool. She could take a hint.

It was time for her to take matters into her own hands. Time to stop begging her cards to tell her what to do. Time to just do her best, and trust him to do his. Her Joker would not be facing things with an empty hand, not while she had anything to do with it.

She really needed a coffee, not the instant she made do with. One of his, or as close as she could get.

She left the cards where they sat on the table, grabbed her bag and headed to Leblanc.

 


 

As she walked through the door, she marvelled at the difference in the smell of real coffee to the cheap instant brand she had abandoned at home.

It smelled like home, and happy memories.

 

She had spent many evenings in his room with Ren after his return. Trying to make up for the time they were kept apart by his incarceration.  The owner had been very understanding to her, once they were formally introduced. Sakura-san had little belief in her predictions, but had laughingly let her read his fortune a time or two in return for his hospitality. To her success and his surprise.

He’d given her the run of the upstairs, a privilege he had not revoked when Ren had returned home.  In the weeks that had followed his absence, a cup of coffee and a short break in the attic had given her peace, when she had precious little of her own to spare.

He looked up from the crossword he was working on, and raised his eyebrows at her entrance and smiled.

“Thought you might be coming by.”

He turned to the shelves beginning to prepare her a cup.

“I’ll get your coffee started, you head on up. You look like you could use it. Guess you have a lot to talk to him about.”

As mystified as she was at this exchange she appreciated the sentiment and apparently the fact she needed to call Ren was obvious.

She pushed up the stairs, typing a quick message to let him know she was going to call.

 

Chihaya: - Ren, I need to call you, I’m sick of asking the cards how to fix things and getting the wrong answers.

This is too important to me to get it wrong. I love you.

 

She squeezed her eyes together and hit send.

She prayed he’d respond. Otherwise, the next time he would be in Tokyo it might well be for her funeral, when she went home, turned over the last card in the reading and died of a broken heart.

 

As it was, his message tone nearly gave her a heart attack.

Her trickster had apparently also decided to take matters into his own hands.

Suddenly Sojiro’s comment made a lot more sense.

 

She ran into his arms, her tears making her happy words even harder to understand than her accent.

All he could make out was.

 

“The Empress can’t have ya, Idiot. Ya’ll are MINE.”

Chapter Text

Ichiko Ohya was in the process of getting really drunk.

Some would say this was her usual state, they didn't know her well.

It was too hard to get to the bottom of a story when they world kept spinning. Overly complicated to extract info from a source when you risked throwing up on their shoes and SUPREMELY difficult to turn in a story on time when the keyboard was too loud for your head.

She’d learned that the hard way.

No, there was no way you could be a good reporter when you were drunk all the time.

You could be a GREAT reporter if everyone THOUGHT you were a drunk, though. People always seemed to be a little less guarded around a drunk. A little more forthcoming if they thought you wouldn’t remember in the morning. Outwitting people who thought they were smarter than you was almost as fun as being drunk, but without the hangovers.

Today though, she was aiming to get plastered. She’d given the signal to Lala to make sure that all her drinks were at full strength tonight. One she hadn’t used since they’d started dating.

Once he’d come into her life being too drunk to enjoy their time together wasn’t an attractive prospect. Even if she didn’t really need to learn that much about him.

 

She was a journalist, after all.

 

She’d done her own fact checking when he’d become her source, and dug a bit deeper once things had started going her way. She’d known well before he’d told her about his probation, about the charges, and the probability of them being bullshit.

She’d know his parents jobs, how the whole event had effected them, and the fact that that, more than their son’s welfare, was the reason for his trip to Tokyo.

The fact he’d left little behind in that small town. A few friends who had apparently disowned him, no family save his parents. No part time job. Middling grades, no hobbies.

It was almost like he’d barely existed. A background character in someone else’s story.

 

She swigged her drink.

 

Could you blame him for making the most of his time in Tokyo? A fresh start, however rough, and it had been ROUGH, was at least SOMETHING.

It was always much harder to change things when you’d been playing a role for a while and Ren, well he had stepped up and stolen the scene, along with a lot of other things.

One of them belonged to her, she had decided to let him keep it. A memento to take home with him.

No, now it was HIS story, his group of friends, his phantom thieves. His confidants, providing help in some manner she didn’t quite understand. Not sure WHY these mysterious and unknown stealers of hearts cared about good press, but whatever.

She was happy to oblige, it meant they got to spend quality time together.

 

She hadn’t realised his real goals until it was too late for her to panic.

 

But he’d done the impossible, won the day, saved the world.

Got the girl, as well.

Then he’d gone home triumphant. The hero on his white horse, er, train… whatever.

 

She took another mouthful of her drink, feeling it burn its way down.

 

Only, once she’d started digging, it was kind of hard to stop from finding things.

Like the list of complaints to his school about him being allowed to re-enrol, the town event board that didn’t want him within a mile of any festivals. The neighbourhood watch board that had him up as a person of risk to the community.

Funny, you’d think the stupid country folks wouldn’t be able to use the internet, or at least if they could they’d stick to facebook. Oh, yeah. There was a message group there too.  

 

His hometown SUCKED!

 

They didn’t care about the truth, they just didn’t want him there “Disturbing the peace”. Well she didn’t want him there either, but it wasn’t either of their choices.

It was his, and she was on his side and the town’s opinion on this wasn’t worth a damn.

Still, it looked like her boyfriend was walking into a rough situation without his backup.

 

She couldn't let that happen.

 

So Ohya backed off with her digging, and started taking steps of her own.

The school had had an odd request for an interview about a student. The one unjustly and falsely targeted by Shido during his time in the town and how he was settling back in after being cleared of all charges. With a few subtle drops of info about how OTHER people being shown to target Shido's vicitims were starting to get added to a big court docket, weird huh? So how was he settling in? Any problems? Any chance anyone at the school might be related to Shido, anyone? Cash paid for tips leading to a conviction!

Pity, turns out he was settling in just fine. Complaints? What complaints? No he’d be welcome to return!

 

The message group was shut down, and all members were informed that organising a hate campaign was against the Terms and conditions. When complaints were lodged they were provided with a documented list of evidence showing their terrible criminal was a victimised teenager, and a few hints dropped that maybe it was a bad idea to hitch yourself to a star that was currently in jail with his campaign on fire, besides the press was apparently very interested in people involved in illegal harassment.

A lot of people worried about the safety of their festivals hadn’t thought of that.

 

The neighbourhood watch group was visited by the local police, and informed, in no uncertain terms that, although keeping their eyes out was fine, keeping a teenager under constant surveillance was an invasion of privacy and that was definitely a crime.

And there had been COMPLAINTS.

Complaints from people worried that there might be influence on an active and very important court case. Complaints that could involve more TROUBLE.

Ohya had called in a favour for that one, the prosecutor, Niijima-san had seemed happy to make the call. She’d say she owed Makoto a drink for that, but the last time she offered the girl had glared at her in an alarming manner.

 

He didn’t need to know about any of that, of course. No need to bother him when he was still settling in. She’d made things as easy as possible for him, trusting him to handle the rest.

 

Sadly, she couldn’t do anything about his parents.

Not after they threw her out.

 

Apparently she wasn’t good enough for their delinquent, ex-criminal son. Weird! It was almost as if that was all bullshit and he was a great guy.  

She’d done her best, though! She’d tried for a good impression! She’d even dressed up and wore a suit! Ok, she looked stupid in it, but that was genetics fault! She’d done her best.

She’d tried!

She’d bought them a cake as well…

Perhaps the sake was a mistake.

Ok, she was a bit older than him, but she had a job! A good one! She was making a difference in the world! That should count for something.

 

Apparently it did, his mother hated reporters and his father hated busybodies in general.

So that went down well.

 

Ren had walked her to the station seething. His parents didn’t want him to, but the look in his eyes cut them off. He’d kept calling her every evening. Sounding more and more tired and angry every time.

It was alarming, you’d think after you overthrew a corrupt politician dealing with a year at home with your folks would be easy mode but she’d seen people crack under less pressure, without a proper escape valve.

She’d turned to alcohol herself, but he was still a few years off that.

All he had left out there was Morgana, and he talked to that damn cat enough as it was. She wasn’t sure if that was an outlet, or a symptom.

It was weird, since she’d barely saw him with anyone while he was in Tokyo, to realise how much he’d relied on others, his friends and acquaintances, the cat and her to support him.

She hadn’t been enough alone, clearly.

 

FUCK!

She slammed down the rest of the glass and motioned for a refill.

 

She’d remembered the fight.

Ohya wasn’t a teenager anymore. She could hear the stress talking, Ren didn’t really think she didn’t love him, and he didn’t think she wanted him stuck out there. 

Hurt like a bitch to hear him say that though.

The idiot owed her a big apology for that one but, given a certain visit and implications of police involvement, she wasn’t able to go and collect directly.

Plus his parents had had her number blocked from calling his phone. She’d found that out the hard way, never got around to telling him. Stuff was bad enough at home as it was, she wasn’t pouring more oil on that trash fire.

He called her every night, anyway, so it wasn’t that big an issue, and for some reason some of her texts seemed to get through with no problem. But that only seemed to happen outside of school hours. Maybe they’d set a time restriction or something to stop her talking to him at school, she’d heard of weirder things. Besides, if she really needed to contact him she’d just get a prepaid sim and get through that way. She’d never seen a parent who really understood how mobiles worked.

As much as she didn’t want to admit it, after they’d got together he was her safety valve too. Talking to him, teasing him, pretending to be little more drunk than she really was to get him to help her home. That blew the stress away and didn’t hurt her stomach the next day like Shochu. It let her cut the booze down to a trickle. She still went to crossroads as usual, but Lala had some damn convincing looking mocktails that covered her usual business.

 

Most of the time, anyway. It was hard to blow off steam when your valve wouldn’t talk to you.

So she’d decided to hit the bottle tonight, give old reliable a chance.

Didn’t remember it hitting back quite this hard before, though.

 

She gestured again, and met Lala’s disapproving stare.

“Think you’ve had enough, sweetheart.” The proprietor’s voice was quite firm.

“Screw you Lala-chaaan, I’m barely buzzed. I could drink ten times this!” There was more slur in her words than usual, she recognised that, but it was only a month or so since he’d left, your liver didn’t just grow back like that.

“You’ve already had twice what you usually have.”

Had she? She tried to count the drinks on her fingers… There seemed to be too many of them.

 

Fingers, not drinks.

 

“Oh.”

“I’ll call you a cab, your young man wouldn’t like it if I let you catch the train like this.”

 

Oh crap, here came the tears, how much had she drunk? This was way past her usual state.

 

“Lala! He thinks I don’t love him!” she wailed.

“Ren? Bullshit.” The proprietor cleaned a glass dismissively.

“He..He… HE does, he said so!”

“Which of you was drunk, sweetheart?”

“He's still too young! Plus parents! Plus school! Plus…Plus… Doesn’t drink! I tried!”

“Ichiko…” Lala had expresive eyebrows.

“It was just Umeshu!”

“Bad drunk! Bad!” Lala tapped her on the head with a stirrer.

“Itss fine, he’s too straight for that crap anyway! He doesn’t even like liqueurs”

“And you were wondering why his parents didn’t like you? You’re clearly such a good influence!”

“They’re assholes!”

“They’re his parents. They just don’t know you well enough yet.”

“Trust me, they’re assholes as well. And they don’t WANT to know me…”

Something in her voice must have hit a nerve.

“You ok, Honey?”

“He’s tearing himself to pieces, Lala! He hates being back there!”

“Sweetie, your man is a fighter, he’s not going to give up on you after a few weeks.”

“I know! But he’s so SAD! And he keeps talking to his cat! I think he’s going nuts without me!”

“A lot of people talk to cats, Dear.”

“They have conversations! I can hear the meowing!”

 

Ohya had a deep mistrust of that cat, it kept smirking at her, and its eyebrows are were very expressive.

 

“Ok, we’re cutting your limit down just a skooch, your tolerance is a clearly bit iffy now. You really need to sleep this one off, hun. Let’s get you that cab. You’ll feel better in the morning.”

“After this many drinks? I doubt that.”

“Touché.”

 

She was asleep on the bar before the cab came. Lala knew her address, she’d get her home. She’d done it many times before. She wasn’t worried about that.

She was more worried that he hadn’t called. He’d always called by now.

 

She missed him already.

 


 

It was a bad idea to drink before a big interview, particularly when she had to dress up for it, her makeup skills weren’t the fanciest at best, and it was always hard to start when you looked like something a cat threw up, plus she was never really comfortable in a suit. The last time she’d gone shopping for one the attendant had asked if she was in the wrong section.

<sigh> Genetics were cruel sometimes. Why couldn’t she have had a figure like that blonde he hung around with? She’d have got information at lot easier with that cleavage.

She popped another aspirin. Hopefully she’d pass for tired.

Anyway, boobs weren’t the requirements for this one, it was a political thing. Very formal.

The fallout for Shido had been wide ranging, and a number of people were being very, VERY helpful providing information to the press, carefully sanitised of anything involving them, of course. Didn’t matter, she had four other sources doing the same thing, there was a lot of interesting crossover with people sized gaps on both sides. Different people of course, how odd? Lots of people wanted to make sure they were on the right side of this story. So the her section had been busy.

Nothing exciting today, though. This time it was going to be a piece on a politician that was probably as close as you could come to clean on any of this. He hadn’t even been a diet member, just being elected in the fallout. This was going to be fluff, she’d known that coming in, but she’d inherited a lot of the political interviews due to her work on the Shido fallout, so she’d ended up at more than a few of these.

Hey readers! See this politician, he’s not a corrupt asshole! He’s a hard worker! He’s relatable! We’re like him! Not Shido! Could you believe that one, weird! How did that happen? Can you guys stop looking over there? We’ve got some cleaning to do.

She sat on the plush sofa in the interview area and reviewed the press package she’d been given. Do’s and don’ts. Suggested questions. Questions to avoid so they’d invite you back, the usual.

There was very little in the questions to avoid section. That was unusual. This guy had been kicked out of the diet once before, apparently on some sketchy reasons, plus a few good ones. She’d have expected that at least on the list.

She filed the thought away as her subject arrived and the interview began.

Yoshida Toranosuke was apparently riding a groundswell of support, following his election, given his policies were about as far from Shido’s as possible, and fairly close to inoffensive and bipartisan as they could come. Investing in the children, mental health, education and employment.  Making sure there would BE a next generation of voters. All sides seemed glad to have something with numbers to argue about, that someone other than one of Shido’s potential lackeys had put forward. They were still waiting for the fallout of that little bomb to clear to resume their own agendas.

Guy was a talker, she’d give him that. Had a silver tongue, and some genuine confidence that he was doing the right thing. He practically glowed as he answered her questions and smoothly provided extra information.

He also had a very familiar turn of phrase, some unusual things in his body language and posture that reminded her of a certain scruffy source she’d spent a bit of time with.

But that could just be her projecting.

 

She’d filled a page with minor notes to back up her recording of the session then was surprised when the politician had voluntary gone into his previous misdeeds.

“I have to say I’m surprised you’re so ready to talk about that.”

“It’s part of who I am. If you pretend you don’t make mistakes how will you learn from them? I’ve done stupid things in the past, but it’s important that the voters realise that the diet is staffed by people who make mistakes, and hopefully learn from them. We shouldn’t be idealised. Our recent election is a clear example of that.”

There it was again, something in that attitude, like she was looking at Ren in thirty or so years.

 

If he survived his parents.

She was too sober for this right now.

 

“I wasn’t always so ready to confront myself, prior to the last election I was barely pulling a crowd in station square for my speeches. Fortunately I was reminded of what was really important in time to correct my course. I had an assistant, truly a remarkable young man, hard at work making the world better in his own way, come to me for help. It’s hard to look at yourself from others eyes, Ohya-san, it is harder still to wonder why they think you’re worth the time. That kind of thing can really drive you to improve.”

Or to drink, trust me on that… Some of the looks Ren had given her. It was hard having someone look at you like you’re a million dollars when don't even feel like spare change.

 

Hang on…This assistant of yours… Did he like cats?

 

Was this another of Ren’s friends?

No, she didn’t want to know. If she knew she might be tempted to report and Ren stayed out of the papers, as much as should could make sure of it, she owed him that. Plus if lover boy was in the papers, she was a related story, and she had far more to do to ensure Kayo was avenged before she could risk making news herself.

This one stayed a hunch.

 

Her interview concluded she gathered her things and thanked him.

“The pleasure was all mine, I’ve read your work in the past Ohya-san, and I was quiet fond of your articles on the Phantom thieves during the election.” He laughed with a grin.

“Unusual to get any positive feedback from the diet, you’ve made my day.”

He smiled.

“If the press exists to hold our toes to the fire, then at least it should be well written and researched! Your articles were amongst the few that actually asked questions about why those thieves did what they did, and didn’t immediately just assume it was because they were criminals. That always struck me as reductive. It doesn’t look for the problems to fix.”

“The public rarely appreciates the deeper questions, sadly.”

“True, but I’ve been noticing more pushback from the public against such thing lately. Perhaps Shido may have had a good influence at the last?” He chuckled.

She smiled back and finished packing her bag.

“I’ll send the proofs through to your office for comment in a few days.”

“Much appreciated.” He rose and turned to leave.

Then paused with his hand on the door.

“Oh, and Ohya-san, off the record?”

That was unexpected. Didn't seem an off the record type.

“Representative?”

“Say hello to Amamiya for me if you speak to him, Tell him No Good Tora is doing his best.”

 

Well so much for keeping it a hunch.

 

“What gave away I knew him?” She should have guessed a friend of Ren’s would have sharp eyes.

“He’s learned a lot from you, it’s in his conversational skills, a touch in his eyes. He’s quite a charming young man.”

“Funny, I was just thinking the same thing. He’s got a lot of you in his speaking skills.”

The politician grinned, looking years younger.

“I guess it’s always harder to see your own influence than that of others. Still, that’s probably the nicest thing that anyone could have said to me. Thank you.”

He turned and left humming.

 

She crammed her notepad into her bag and ran a hand over her forehead, she’d need to pick up more aspirin on the way home.

 

“Crap, Kid. Don’t take after me. I’m a train wreck.”

Now she really needed that drink.

 


 

None of her texts were going through today. She wasn’t sure why. He wouldn’t have blocked her, not over one fight, right?

She was grumpy enough as it was, the hangover was just seasoning. At least she was beyond throwing up on peoples shoes this time, fortunately, but if they made too much noise she might throw a water bottle at them.

 

She was on personal business today, anyway, she’d had a source finally come through with some extra information about Kayo, and she’d set up a meeting.

Something wasn’t right here, though. She’d been chasing for months and stonewalled by everyone, even in the little feelers she’d put out during her other political interviews, this guy was far too forthcoming.  So she’d set up a meeting in a spot Ren had mentioned, just in case, a dead end alley, usually choked with bikes, just off central street. Quiet enough, but close enough to people that she could get help if she needed it.

Ren had seemed sure that someone was going to want to kill her sooner or later. She wasn’t sure if that was from his paranoia, an endorsement of her abilities or a comment on her personality. He always worried too much either way.

She arrived early, checking the spot was clear of visitors, there wasn’t really a lot of people who came down here, not during the morning, anyway. Most of the Otaku that would frequent an airsoft shop wouldn’t be up until noon. Then settled in to wait.

She didn’t have to wait long.

She was worried when the first man appeared at the bend of the alley, he didn’t look like the sort of person involved in local government. She’d been wrong before, though, let’s hope she’d keep the streak running.

She knew she’d fucked up when a second man joined him, both in cheap suits and sunglasses, clearly not professionals, their body language screamed thug.

“Boss thinks you’re digging a bit too much, Ohya.”

 

Well crap, there went her streak.

 

That was another reason to avoid drinking before interviews. She fumbled her bag trying to get to her phone.

The man on the left was faster, he caught her wrist before she could get away, dragging her back and covered her mouth with his free hand before she could scream. She froze.

Oh god, she’d really fucked up.

The men eyed the tangle of bikes blocking their safest exit with disdain, then started back the way they’d come.

“We’re going to have to have a little talk with our boss, aren’t we? All nice and friendly and maybe you go home today.”

 

Maybe… Oh crap. Did Ren have to be right about this too?

 

“Can you shitheads put the lady down and leave, you’re making the street untidy?”

Their heads turned quickly to the voice. A man with a short beard and a hat was watching them from the store entrance.

“None of your business here, friend. Go back inside.”

The man sighed, and pulled a small gun from his pocket. Both men and their captive guest tensed at the sight of it. He looked far too comfortable holding it.

“Not sure who you, are, but your friend there is Yamato. That means Shujo is your boss and he still owes me a favour. You want to call him and tell him Iwai says the girls with him. She’s got the message already. No need to make this messier.”

The man on the right looked surprised.

“Look, friend. I appreciate connections, but we’ve got a job to do here.”

“So do I, does yours involve getting shot?” Iwai had a smile that somehow managed to be less inviting than his frown.

“You run an airsoft shop, that things a fake.” The thug didn’t look sure of that.

Ohya eyed the gun, it really didn’t look fake to her.

The non-plussed man racked the slide on the pistol, a very real looking bullet hit the street.

“Want to bet?”

The man holding Ohya nodded to his counterpart, who slowly pulled out his phone at the man’s gesture.

“Making the call.”

“Can you hurry up, I have my breakfast in the microwave.”

“I don’t think you’re taking this seriously.”

“You’d be surprised.”

The man on the phone was talking quietly, his eyes not leaving the barrel of the gun. He nodded to his companion and hung up, narrowing his eyes.

“Let’s go.”

“Seriously?”

The man slipped the phone back in his pocket.

“Boss is happy enough that she’s got the message. I don’t think the reporter is dumb enough to dig further, is she?”

Ohya attempted to shake her head.

“Smart girl.”

The grip on her face released, the man who’d made the phone call nodded amiably to Iwai and the two walked away.

Her legs gave out as they turned the corner, not looking back.

“You alright, there. Dumb reporter lady?”

The man helped her to her feet, steadying her.

“Thank you.”

“Didn’t do it for you, I owe some favours. Besides, I let his girl get grabbed in front of my store, I look bad.”

His girl.

“Ren told you to watch out for me?” Her crazy heartrate slowed. This was why Ren sent her here, not the proximity to central, the proximity to the store!

“Nah, he told me his girlfriend was a reporter and if she was down this way she was probably worried and to call him, but that was before he left and no way in hell I’m calling him to tell him you got grabbed while I watched. I ain’t that stupid, don’t tell him but that kid scares me sometimes. Besides, if they’d taken you I’d need to do a police report and they’d love to be in there for a follow up.” He jerked his head to the store.

“I’ll bet” She eyed the fallen bullet. “Am I going to have to forget I saw that?”

“What, this?”

Iwai lent over and flipped the bullet from the ground at her, it was surprisingly light.

“You’d be amazed how accurate some of the models are. Not everything in the stock is airsoft, idiots.”

He turned to re-enter his store.

“Let’s call you a cab.”

“It’s fine. I can catch the train”

“Hah, no. you’re going home as quickly as I can get you there. You need to lie low for a few days. Shujo is old school, but times have changed. If I could remember the scary chick’s number I’d send her with you, just in case.”

“Scary chick?” she followed himthrough the doors, watching him settle behind the counter and flip through a phone book.

“The kid’s friend, the one with the big brass knuckles and the balls to match.”

She ran a quick list of the girls she’d seen Ren around in her head. Only once came close to that image, and it was a bit of a stretch.

“Makoto?”

“That’s the one, never seen anyone get so annoyed over handwriting before.”

 

She’d only met Makoto once or twice. She was clearly a strong women but she’d have never expected her to be armed.

Armed, scary and using an airsoft shop with links to the phantom thieves and apparently the yakuza if she was any judge? She’d kind of guessed before, but one more tick appeared on the list.

She didn’t need any more names! She had one already and that one was too important to risk. She was getting way too much information she didn’t want to get lately.

 

“Kid’s got some weird taste in women.”

She’d heard that before. Too many times. She’d been hearing it since high school, they worded it a bit differently then, of course, and she’d once got suspended for teaching a smart ass another important difference between a man and a women with a sharp kick to the groin.

The adrenaline in her system and temper flared before she could stop it.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m flat, I get it.” Fuck you Mother Nature.

The man looked up from his phone with a cocked eyebrow.

“Sore point, much? Look, I don’t give a shit about your tits, lady. I meant you’re a reporter. He’s not the kind of guy I’d see hanging around the press.”

She flushed.

“Besides, who cares what I think, you’ve already got the kid. He clearly likes your look. I mean you’ve seen the girls he hangs around, that blonde is a model or something. Not like he didn’t have options, is it?”

He pushed his hat up.

“Be confidant, dumb reporter lady. You’ve already hooked your fish.” He returned to his call.

 

More like he hooked me.

She owed Ren another beer. She’d put it on the tab. Along with all the other things she owed him. it was starting to get really big now.

He’d better let her pay it off.

 

“Come on princess, let’s get you to your carriage.”

 


 

She’d stayed home that evening and kept her head down the next day, working on the Toranosuke article. The slush fund piece for Kaho was going on the backburner for now. Clearly she’d pushed a little too hard, and asked too loudly. Time to work more quietly, step more softly. She wasn’t dropping it, No chance in hell, but she was clearly stepping on the right toes if the message she’d been sent was an indication.

Better to work out where the rest of the foot was so she could really drive in the heel, next time.

Her heart had leapt from her chest when her phone rang, but to her disappointment instead of Ren, it was Lala-chan, checking on her since she hadn’t arrived at Crossroads on schedule the day before. She quickly put the bartender at ease and hung up.

Better part of a week now, since he’d called. She’d tried his phone a dozen times, and could never get a message through. It made her wish she’d tried harder with his parents. Or had stayed clear for a while until he settled in, at least that way she could have called him straight back. He’d been stewing on this too long now. He was stressed enough as it was, he didn’t need her adding to it. Plus, he’d already been a little touchy about their relationship. Her speech when he’d asked her out had stung him a bit, she’d seen that. Along with the determination in his eyes that she’d be wrong.

“I’d understand if you decided to dump me someday though. I mean, you have a bright future ahead of you…so I’d probably just be holding you back….But I guess I can stick around until then.”

There had been one thing unspoken in there, she’d never known if he realised it. She hadn’t herself until she went home and buried herself in her pillows giggling like a teenager.

I’ll stick with you until you dump me.

It’s on you kid. Because I’ve made my decision and I can’t see it changing.

 

Christ, she needed a drink.

 

No, she didn’t.

 

She needed her boyfriend to get off his ass and call her!

 

Fuck this!

 

She threw a pillow across the roomin frustration and checked her watch. Should be plenty of time to pick up a sim and get him a text before he got home. That should let her get a call in without his parents getting involved.

He might have doubts about her still liking him, but that was one thing she was 100% sure of.

Now… how to convince him…

She tapped her lips with a finger.

 

His parents thought she was a bad influence, huh?

They hadn’t seen what she was capable of yet. She’d been behaving herself up to now, trying to leave a good impression. That clearly hadn’t worked and look where that left her.

 

So, time to stop behaving.

 

They thought she was the devil on his shoulder?

As if!

Not like she hadn’t tried! He was surprisingly tough to lead astray for a delinquent.

No. It’s more like he was the angel on hers. His info had keep her going. His help had given her confidence. His presence had made her smile. She was back on top of her game because of him.

But they’d taken him away and without her angel to keep her in line…well…

 

She clicked across to the folder in her private encrypted files where she kept anything about him. Then tabbed down to the one marked “Emergency Boyfriend extraction.”

 

Time to show them what the devil could do.

 

Well! Would you look at that! Someone nasty had dug up all kinds of stuff!

 

Stuff that might inspire certain hard headed parents to step the fuck off her boyfriend’s business and let him come home.

 

You’d have to be a real mean person to actually use it of course, that would be a terrible thing to do, but they really should be aware that it might be out there, in case someone else found it.

Someone less nice than their Son’s girlfriend.

 

Like, say, an angry Ex they’d driven off?

 

She smiled like a snake.

Not like she was getting invited over for the holidays anyway, right?

But first, she had a call to make.

 


 

“Hey Boss.”

The door on Leblanc jingled as she entered. Fortunately the place was empty, she didn’t really think the neighbours needed to hear this.

“Hello, there. You talked to the kid?” Sojiro smiled from behind the counter.

“Not recently, his folks have been making it hard.”

He nodded his head sympathetically and began making her a coffee.

“Anything I can I do to help?”

 

Now for the fun part.

 

“If, say, I turned up with Ren, out of nowhere, could he stay here? Hypothetically?”

Sojiro froze.

“Uh...”

“It’s fine if he can’t! Don’t worry. But…you know…As a mailing address, for school?”

Sojiro’s back was towards her, it seemed very stiff.

“I mean… I understand it would be putting you in a tough position! I’d pay rent for him! Don’t worry about that… It’s just…”

Sojiro coughed.

“Head on upstairs. I’ll… bring up the coffee. You…Er…we… might need to talk about this.”

She did spring that on him a bit suddenly, but at least it wasn’t a no. Might have to ease him into the idea a bit slower though. She needed this as a base to build off. The school might cause problems if she put “Shacked up with girlfriend.” As an contact address.

“Of course. Mind if I send a text, maybe make a call first. Got to keep him posted.”

“That would be…fine?”

Riiiiight. Something going on there. Question was if it was worth digging it up?

She raised an eyebrow at him, he was keeping his back to her, messing with some tins.

Not yet.

Not until she’d spoken to Ren. Weird Café man could stay weird for now.

She started up the stairs, typing out a message. Feeling Sojiro’s eyes on her back.

 

OI: - Right, firstly this is me, Ichiko. Hi! New number, since you’re parents have blocked me from calling you on my usual one. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Sorry I didn’t tell you earlier. Didn’t want to make things worse.

I really need your help Ren, I might have pushed the wrong buttons with the investigation for Kayo. There were these thugs… I’m safe, don’t worry. Your friend at the airsoft shop is a hell of a character, but I may need someplace to hide out for a while. Not asking your parents to put me up, but I think I can hole up for a few days in the next town over, there’s a nice Ryokan, I’ve been told about. I was hoping my boyfriend could come along? I’d feel a lot safer if you were there.

Maybe I can get a chance to prove to a certain someone how wrong he was in his last call?

I’ll call you with more details in a sec. Love you.

 

Her hands shook as she typed.

That damn cat of his had better have taken care of him for the last week. She needed him back.

So what if she was playing a little dirty there, she had ground to make up. If no-one else was going to play fair, why should she?

Nothing in there was really false though. Plus it didn’t matter if he was a little angry about it, he’d make sure she was safe first. It’s who he was. And that would get him within ten feet of her while she was wearing a yukata and not much else, if she had her say at least…

Besides, traditional Japanese clothes tended to flatter her figure more, and she could play up the poor weak girl needing protection. Flutter her eyelashes a bit.

 

He wouldn’t fall for it, she knew that. Her boyfriend was sharp. But he’d also understand why she was doing it.

He’d better.

 

She was going to make damn sure he paid her some attention. She had a lesson to beat into his stupid thick skull if he thought she’d give up on him that easy.

The tear squeezed itself out before she could stop it.

It was stupid, it didn’t matter how much she tried to convince herself she was fine she’d woken up to a tear soaked pillow every morning for almost week now. Subconscious Ohya had much less confidence in him than she did.

That bitch needed a take a drink and to calm down. She needed her on side, they had a delinquent to lead astray.

She hit send and rounded the top of the stairs.

 

And stopped.

Man, she’d almost forgotten how hot he was.

 

Well that explained why he hadn’t called her, at least. Kid looked scared stiff. She’d have laughed if she wasn’t picking her jaw up off the floor.

He seriously thought she’d have given up on him for THAT?!

Damn, maybe she wouldn’t need that Lingerie she’d picked out after all. She could save that for the next time he needed reminding about how lucky he was!

 

But then again, it did make her ass looking amazing. She did want to get his opinion on that...

Ah well, that could wait. Time for her princess act!

 

The snake grin was still there on the inside.

She’d keep that file on hand for the next time his parents got on her nerves, waste not want not.

No doubt she'd get a lot of opportunites.

Because they’d better get used to her being here.

 

She barely heard him talk as she tackled him to the floor.

Chapter Text

She’d never told her Little Guinea Pig, but her nickname didn’t just appear when she was thrown out of the university hospital.

Funnily enough, it was a parting gift from her first boyfriend.

 

She’d done most of her early schooling while recovering from her illness in hospital, and had only just started attending on campus in high school, finally well enough to re-join the real world. She’d always been a good student, and her determination to go into medicine meant she’d spent all the time she could pushing to that goal. So it wasn’t the lessons that threw her. It was the people.

The short, pale transfer student with the long dark hair and quiet, shy manners had drawn some attention on her enrolment and while she was flattered by it, she was also well out of her depth. Most of the people she’d spent time with in the hospital weren’t that friendly and she wasn’t used to being the centre of attention, unless it was coming from people with stethoscopes and lab coats.

Their relationship hadn’t lasted long, a week or so at the most. She’d barely seen him around before he asked her out, He was on one of the sports teams, she didn’t remember which one but he was at least a year older than her. He’d quickly become a little too persistent and “Friendly”, had trouble with the word “No”.

The whole thing had moved a little too far, and way too fast for her. Her stress spiked through the roof, and it turned out poor Tae Takemi wasn’t quite as well as they thought.

He’d backed the hell off when she coughed up blood on him, though. That was a plus. Even if she did have to call the ambulance herself, since he’d run away.

After she’d spent another week in the hospital she came back to school with a new nickname, no boyfriend and a mobile quarantine zone, enforced by her peers.

In some ways it had even helped choose her style, she’d seen people wearing similar things, and had been told by her “Boyfriend” that they weren’t the people you wanted to be around. That everyone avoided them.

That had sounded damn good to her, right then.

Her father had almost cried when she cut her long hair, but he’d understood. She’d started wearing the spiked chokers, the studded belts, and the chains not because she wanted to fit in with the punks, but because it was the closest she could come to armour, to keep the people thinking of trying to force their way in to her life from even trying.

A big spikey “hands off” sign.

It helped the music was pretty good.

 

The name had followed her, spread from the source of infection. Fellow students to prep-school. Prep to University. She’d kept up her armour, learned her lessons, served her time and earned her degree. Didn’t make a lot of friends, but that wasn’t why she was there.

She was a doctor now, so it made sense she was detached. She didn’t need to deal with other people except at the business end of a stethoscope, besides why bother learning names except to keep the treatments straight.

Everyone was going to die sooner or later, anyway.

She’d got terrible marks for her bedside manner. It’s why she went into research.

Tae Takemi, the big tough Doctor, the Punk.

 

The Plague.

 

Who cried herself to sleep when she lost her first patient. Who didn’t sleep for a week working on experimental drugs to ease the pain of a little girl. Who wished that just one person she’d worked with had taken a step inside the quarantine and seen her for herself.

Big tough Plague.

 

Her drug hadn’t been ready, but Oyamada used it anyway.

It nearly killed the girl.

Then he’d pushed all the blame to her and washed his hands of it. The Asshole.

If she hadn’t sworn an oath she’d have killed him herself.

But, ultimately, it was still her drug. Still her patient.

 

Still her fault.

 

So she went out on her own. A small clinic and a few crumbs of support from old teachers, all they could do to help. She’d done her best to finish the medicine, fix her failures but soon she’d pushed it as far as she could without trials. And she’d never get a full trial going. Not with Oyamada out there, making sure she didn’t show him up.

So she’d done it the old fashioned way.

Experimental supplements, testing delivery. Custom Pain-killers testing side-effects. Modified Remedies testing reactions. Tiny steps, small fixes, all with risks, and none with a big enough reward. It got her a reputation, the rep got her more customers, shady ones. More tests.

Far too slow, still not enough.

 

The time limit on this one was a little girl’s life, and that clock was ticking.

 

Then she’d scored herself the perfect guinea pig, apparently a criminal on probation, staying above a local coffee shop. He came begging for her special supplements, for his “exams”, he said.

Yeah, right, she could smell that bullshit a mile off.  He was a terrible liar for a criminal, he had such honest eyes…

The kid had a bland history of illness, no ongoing conditions, he was in a good age bracket. Good General health. Plus, he was dumb enough to trial untested drugs from a back alley doctor they called “The Plague.”

That was a rare kind of stupid.

Just what she needed, time to get to work before he came to his senses.

 

She figured he’d probably run at the first trial.

He barely even paused, drained the cup and passed out.

So what if he was brave. He was also clearly stupid. Helped her pin down that reaction though. She’d been chasing it for months.

 

She figured he’d come back once or twice and think better of it.

He never left her alone, always chasing the next trial.

So what if he was persistent. So was a cold. But he was always ready when she was, he never kept her waiting.

 

She figured it would be easy to keep detached.

He’d made her care about EVERYONE! Her clinic was full, distracting her from her trials.

So what if he was kind. She needed to be distant! But it was strange, having people smile at her.

 

She figured he’d need the occasional medicine. How much could a student need, after all? There couldn’t be that many “Exams”.

He could have supplied a hospital with the amount he bought.

 

What the hell was that kid doing?!

 

What had started as detached interest was growing into horrified apprehension. What had her guinea pig got himself into?

 

But then her time ran out.

Her suppliers wouldn’t sell to her anymore.

 

The girl was dead.

 

 

And everything had been pointless.

 

 

But her Guinea pig wasn’t done yet, apparently he was planning on saving the world.

A broken doctor would be child’s play.

 

She’d watched Oyamada fall on his sword, found out her patient was still alive, and saw a determined guinea pig standing there with his sleeves rolled up, ready to help her finish what she’d started.

All way too convenient, and suspicious as HELL.

She’d put two and two together then. She wasn’t usually a big watcher of the news, but EVERYONE had heard about those phantom thieves, stealing hearts, forcing confessions.

 

Buying so much medicine they’d damn near bankrolled her for months.

 

He was working miracles, nothing short of that could have changed Oyamada but what was he doing to himself to get these things done?

What was it going to cost him?

 

She had a bad feeling about this.

 

It didn’t matter right now, she had a drug to finish. She couldn’t waste the chance he’d given her. She didn’t sleep for days.

 

When she’d turned over the medicine for the final trials, she’d backed him into a corner. Expecting him to crack, admit she’d been supplying the phantom thieves, that he’d helped her because of that.

 

Not because he loved her, she hadn’t been ready for that.

Her little guinea pig, risking his life to change the world, was taking untested medicine to make her smile.

 

He was a GOD DAMN MORON! Good thing these drugs weren’t for his entrance exams! He was clearly too stupid to take them!

 

She’d never told him how she felt that day, never answered his question, she was too surprised. He’d got the point anyway. It was written all over her face.

Her little guinea pig. Her Patient. Her Phantom Thief.

 

Now her New Boyfriend.

 

 

Almost her casualty.

 

 

Every sale kept her up at night now. He’d finally let something slip.

THERE WAS LESS THAN TEN OF THEM!

SHE’D SOLD HIM ENOUGH FOR AN ARMY!

If they were taking that much medicine that fast…The side effects…The chances of Overdose…The potential for built up Toxicity…She couldn’t even begin to think about it…

It could have killed them.

SHE COULD HAVE KILLED HIM!

 

 

Then he saved her the effort and killed himself.

 

 

She watched the news, dumbfounded. Then stumbled to the bathroom, losing her lunch.

She spent the rest of the day a machine behind a desk, jumping at every noise, until Sojiro had come and grabbed her, stone-faced, and dragged her to his house, never telling her why.

She’d gone along, terrified she’d be identifying his cause of death.

Fortunately, the asshole who signed that death certificate was terrible at his job. The breathing gave that away. Her Guinea Pig looked pretty good for a dead man.

 

Pity he looked like shit for a live one.

 

Tae shut down, Doctor Takemi took over.

He needed her.

She couldn’t risk painkillers, not without knowing what they’d given him, particularly given how much she’d sold him and what was potentially already in his system.

Besides, he was too out of it as it was. Her poor broken guinea pig was getting no anaesthetic for this.

 

Twelve stitches, two cracked ribs and sixteen abrasions. Two things that looked like cigarette burns. Potential Concussion. Severe bruising in seven places. Two injections of unknown substances, probably intended to make him pliant.

“Truth serum” bleh, nothing true in that. You’d swear to anything under it.

One and one half hours of working on him.

 

One broken heart, hammering in her chest.

 

 

His blood on her hands.

 

 

The biggest smile she’d ever seen on his face.

He’d just won.

 


 

He was up and about the next day. When she checked in on him and found him dressed she’d lost her shit and threatened to drug him and tie him to the bed.

He’d driven her from the room blushing furiously when he’d looked at her with big eyes and asked in a surprised whisper if that was what she was into.

She could have sworn his cat was laughing at her.

 

The cocky bastard didn’t have time to heal.

 

She’d met some of his friends, acting in the dead man’s stead. They moved at a breakneck pace, taking advantage of the space his “death” had bought them.

They shopped for medicine like they were preparing for war.

She’d begged the brunette to take care of him. Told her what to do if his wounds acted up. How to know when he was hiding the pain.

Told her to bring him home safe, or else.

Makoto had promised to do her best. She’d wished the girl had sounded more confidant.

 

She’d sat there and watched them as they overthrew a government.

Not bad for a bunch of punk kids, but for all that effort it didn’t seem like it was going to stick.

Then Christmas…happened, whatever the hell that was, her memory was still blurry about it.

She still had the nightmares though, they seemed to hold a clearer picture. She really hoped they were wrong.

 

Blood and bone and ashes. A red sky and chains.

 

Black wings and a gunshot.

 

Whatever the hell it was it seemed to do the trick. Suddenly the world seemed sane again.

Until she watched him lie to her face on Christmas Eve.

Tell her everything was over, everything was fine.

That he was safe.

She didn’t know what was going on but he wasn’t acting like he’d just won.

 

At best she expected a Dear John letter the next day, job done no more medicine needed.

Doctor surplus to requirements.

Not a tearful brunette carrying a message.

He’d saved the world, now he needed to save his friends.  

 

The only way he knew how.

 


 

It turns out the rest of his friends were as sick of that as she was. They were planning something. She’d expected them to mount a jailbreak. She’d started stockpiling supplies, just in case and readying a backroom in the clinic to keep them hidden. Or to patch them up. But no, this time they had a different plan, less drugs involved, at least.

They were working inside the system, they were getting him out on a technicality.

 

Can’t keep a man in jail if he’s proved innocent.

Her poor little guinea pig hadn’t really been a criminal after all.

Not until they’d made him one.

 

She decided to trust them, make a space for him to come back to, since her expertise wasn’t required. She made sure his friends were healthy and did what she could to pin his name to the good he’d done.

As Valentine’s Day approached she ordered him some chocolates and if he wasn’t free by then she’d walk into the damn reform centre and feed them to him herself, in her shortest skirt if needs be.

The hero deserved something for his victory after all.

But he made it back just in time, she gave him the chocolates, along with a thorough check-up.

His ribs were still tender, he’d pushed himself too hard and he was healing slowly.

Her Guinea Pig was still an idiot.

 

But there was always another problem. He might be out of prison, but he wasn’t home yet.

Home was in the country, home was with his parents.

 

Home was where he was going in a month, leaving her behind.

 

He didn’t seem to care, asked her to come along with him for the ride, she was surprisingly tempted to. But there were patients to care for, mostly those were his fault. So she’d promised to visit him instead.

Anyway, his parents would probably not approve of her, doctor or not. She did have a few years on him, and the punk armour wasn’t going to win any points in her favour.

She could still feel that Dear John letter coming.

 


 

Her promise to visit had been an offhand comment but he’d held her to her word. Even sent Makoto around to remind her. She dropped off the ticket in person and got a photo of her holding it…

She was dating a really sneaky bastard.

 

It had been the scariest train ride of her life. She’d taken off her armour, toned down the makeup, left off the platforms, wore “Normal clothes.” Put the plague away, let Tae Takemi out to play, she hadn’t been out much since high school.

She’d never felt so unprotected. He’d better appreciate it.

Ren met her at the train and acted like he barely recognised her. When she’d glared at him he’d laughed and kissed her, and whispered he liked her other mask better.

She’d need to keep an eye on that guinea pig, clearly he had the soul of a playboy.

But it was amazing how that smile made her feel like herself again.

 

The meeting with his parents had gone surprisingly well, so much so it scared her. Apparently her job trumped her age, at least in their eyes. Even if she had to fight down the urge to call him her guinea pig every time she spoke. The first time she used his name she blushed like a tomato. There was a reason she didn’t normally say it. She couldn’t keep her feelings out of her voice. His mother seemed to find that cute.

Ren found it something as well, he didn’t let go of her hand for the rest of the day.

Made drinking the tea difficult.

The looks his father gave him was impressed, the looks his mother gave her wanted GRANDCHILDREN.

It was terrifying, and probably inappropriate. He was still in high school after all.

Says the doctor, dating the teenager. Pot meet kettle.

Anyway, she’d be a terrible mother. Wouldn’t she?

Still, she’d gone home happier, it was good to see Ren smiling at how well it had gone. That they might have a future his parents would accept. Maybe even welcome.

That the letter would go unwritten.

 

Now, if she could only get him to tell her what was wrong.

Because he still wasn't acting like he'd won.

 


 

There’s a reason you’re not supposed to treat your family. You need detachment, the ability to see everything happening in terms of events, symptoms and treatments.

Not in terms of your loved ones pain and your failure to stop it.

It didn’t work that way, of course, Doctors were only human, after all. You got attached to patients, over time, lost your distance. You watched them grow up. Learned their kid’s names. Watched them get old.

 

Watched them break down.

 

He was stressed beyond belief. Something in the combination of his old school, his old town and his parents was pushing all his buttons. She’d known something was off when she’d visited. Some of his smiles had been made of glass. Bright and brittle.

He wouldn’t talk to her about it, kept pretending he was just tired. Dodging the subject like it was out for his blood.

He’d run a criminal organisation, took out a crooked politician , faked his death with a smile, and all with no more mental damage apparent than any other teenager but then again he’d learned one lesson too well during his time as a phantom thief.

 

Never let anyone know your weaknesses.

 

But not matter how he tried to hide them, something in that town was finding them, one by one, and all his cocky smirks and defences we’re cracking under the strain.

If he was still her patient she’d be pushing him to see a therapist, worrying about the accumulated effects of his escapades on his mental health and considering medication.

But she couldn’t be his doctor, not anymore and she wasn’t sure she’d ever trust anyone else to treat him, not her little Guinea Pig.

That meant she was the worst possible position to try and do this now. She’d lost her detachment. Somewhere between that first clinical trial and Valentine’s Day.

She’d been working her way around to making some suggestions anyway, because she knew she had to. He needed to open up, to BREATHE. To get it out before he cracked. She was trying to keep things calm and quiet. Play it safe. Creep up on it.

 

She’d clearly gone too slowly.

 

When he’d snapped at her for always taking his parents side in an argument. She’d heard an edge on his voice that scared her.

Then he asked a question that went straight through all her defences and had her snarling back.

 

Add one more reason you shouldn’t treat your boyfriend.

It’s far too easy for them to get under your skin, and it hurts too much when they don’t trust you.

 

She sat staring at the phone. Swearing like a sailor. Tears pricking at her eyes.

Knowing she’d just made things worse.

 

Now he thought she was against him as well.

 

First do no harm my ass.

Nice work, Plague.

 


 

Spring, cherry blossoms, new beginnings, Pollen season, Allergy HELL.

She’d spent the last three days handing out masks like candy and wondering why plants were trying to kill people these days. To top things off she was on a waiting list for allergy meds, along with half the other doctors in the city. Nothing to stress you out more than an angry person with inflamed sinuses who can’t get their treatment. Even worse when you had another three in the waiting room about to have just as bad a day.

She needed an evening off, to relax, be somewhere other than home with a phone that refused to ring but she couldn’t’ go back to Leblanc, not yet.

She was rationing herself.
Not the coffee though, the memories. She was terrified that one day she’d climb those stairs and she’d find only an empty attic and a broken heart waiting for her.

Hell! He was only going to be gone a year and she’d already been there so much Sojiro could tell her entrance with his back turned.

This was playing hell with her image. People were beginning to think she was human.

So she was sitting in a small bar near central, its few tables and karaoke stage mostly empty this evening.  She’d been here a few times before and it was usually pretty quiet. Too close to the shopping district and far from the cinema to be a real draw for the crowds.

It was fine by her. If she wanted noisy she’d drink with that reporter he’d introduced her too. Ohya made enough noise to wake the dead, and probably drank enough to add to them.

Besides she didn’t want company right now, particularly nosy company who’d been a little too obvious about checking out her Guinea Pig when he’d walked away to help Lala.

That had surprised her as well, did Ren really have four part time jobs, as well as school and the Phantom thief thing?

Well that explained how he could afford all that medicine.

Did the kid even SLEEP?

She sat at the bar, nursing a Shochu, deep in thought, Pointedly ignoring a large man who was trying to win her over with the size of his muscles. He’d move on when someone else came in. If he had any sense, at least.

 

He wasn’t her type.

 

She’d never had a type before, it was weird.

Sorry, jackass, you’re not my Guinea Pig, now piss off.

 

It made her wish Ren was here even more. One time when they’d been walking in the park she’d been bothered by a playboy trying his luck. Ren hadn’t liked that. It was the one time she’d really seen the phantom thief in action. That playboy never saw it coming.

Ren had moved like a dancer and hit like a train.

She’d had to yell at him afterward, for risking his probation over something so silly. He hadn’t cared.

Dammit.

She drained her glass and gestured for a refill.

 

But now her guinea pig was hiding from her.

 

His phone was off, or he’d blocked her number. She almost hoped it was the latter. If his phone was off he wasn’t talking to his friends and if he wasn’t talking to his friends he was alone.

He shouldn’t be alone right now.

 

Of course, he shouldn’t be ignoring her, either. It was going to hurt her feelings.

 

She had Makoto’s number, she could call her, check if Ren was talking to his friends at least? How the hell would she even word it?

“Hey, you know my boyfriend, how’s he been? Has he calmed down? Does he still sound like he’s gritting his teeth when he talks? Does he still jump at loud noises?”

Does he pick up the phone when you call?

 

Oh dear god, she’d turned into a teenager!

 

The idiot with the muscles was being really persistent. She had no time for idiots who walked out of a gym and into a bar, the alcohol would just undo anything they’d just done.

Plus he was a smarmy creep.

She flipped him off and turned her back. He just kept on talking.

 

She could call his home number of course… His parents seem to like her enough to pass the phone across… Even if she did risk worrying comments from his mother.

But what if he refused to talk to her?

The thought of it scared her…

The smartest thing she could do was get Ren’s parents on board. They could get him to a doctor, MAKE him attend. Ren was sharp enough and if they could get through the stress long enough he’d work with it. Heal.

He might never forgive her for it, though.

That was what gave her pause. It was almost funny. She’d never been so sure of a treatment, but so against it at the same time.

 

This is why you didn’t treat family, Idiot!

You really going to risk it hurting him, just so he doesn’t hate you, Plague?

You trying to earn that name?

 

The idiot with the muscles put his hand on her shoulder, some people just wouldn’t take the hint.

Right, that was it! She’d given him his chance. She was having a bad enough time as it was this week. She knew a few pressure points that would get the message across faster.

He wanted to get his ass kicked by a five foot woman that bad, so be it. She spun in her seat to yell at him.

And slid boneless off her chair.

 

Oh. He wasn’t drinking, that made sense now.

He was hunting.

He’d slipped something in her drink while she was distracted. He was just waiting for it to cut in.

 

Fuck.

 


 

“Come on sweetie, let’s get you home.”

Not your sweetie Asshole! She couldn’t focus, couldn’t fight.

Couldn’t scream.

He had his arm around her shoulder and was manhandling her to the end of the alley, to get to a car. The best she could do was randomly tense and release her muscles, making the trip harder than it needed to be.

To try and buy her time.

She racked her memory for old med school texts, swirling in the fog.

7 hours, depending on dose. To fully clear the system. Maybe a little more or less, depending what else was in the drink. For the more available compounds, and with medical attention, at least. Say half to a third that to get enough control back without it.

 

Way too long.

 

There were voices in the alley. But she couldn’t call out. Could barely keep her head up.

She pulled all strength from her legs and dropped.

“Dammit! I told you not to drink that much.”

Asshole had done this before. He was ready with excuses.

The voices had noticed though.

“Your friend alright there?’

No.

Something in the voice tweaked her memory.

“Too much wine, she’s always like this.”

 “She looks pretty rough.”

“She’ll be up in an hour looking for another drink, trust me.”

No!

“You sure?”

“Positive, my girlfriend here is big drinker.”

 

There was the sound like wood hitting steak and she dropped to the floor. The force pulling her up suddenly gone.

“Dude! What the hell!”

One of the blurred figures was jumping around waving. It made her feel worse to try and focus.

“Arrrghh that hurt! Dammit! She ain’t YOUR girlfriend, YOU ASSHOLE! Where the Eff you taking her!”

Someone very loud wasn’t happy, her head ached.

 

She drifted in and out of fog, trying to focus.

 

“Got the police and an ambulance on the way.”

“Cheer’s man. Shiiit, not looking forward to this.” She felt hands on her shoulders moving her gently to the wall so she could sit up.

“I guess you wouldn’t be keen to talk to the police?’

“Ain’t the police I’m worried about, I’m going to have to tell Ren.”

 

Ren…Was Ren here? She tried to lift her head and failed. It felt like concrete.

 

“Did you have to hit him like that?’

“Didn’t have a weapon on me. So yes?”

“What!?”

“Just drop it.”

 

The blurs wouldn’t stop moving. She felt sick.

 

“That’s seriously his girlfriend? And she’s a doctor?”

“Yep.”

“Damn! No wonder he never came girl hunting.”

“Careful there, he’ll kick your ass if he catches you staring like that.”

“Sorry.”

 

The voices kept swirling.

 

“What’s her name?”

“Err… shit. Can’t remember, Doctor… Legs?”

“What the hell, man?’

“I dunno, it starts with a T! He just usually called her the doctor, and told me to keep my eyes to myself! I think it was Takemi?”

“If you were staring at her legs I wonder why.”

“Heh, you should have heard what he said to Yusuke when he wanted to sketch her!  Oh Shit, don’t mention the legs bit to Ren he’d kill me!”

Oh, so that’s why the voice was so familiar, he knew Ren.

She was propped up enough now, her fuzzy vision now showed a pair of blurs, and one large one flat on the ground.

“I don’t think this is just booze. That FUCKER.” There was the sound of someone kicking a log.

“Yo, Er… Takemi? Doctor, you in there?”

The closest blur seemed to be blonde. She could hear a siren, in the distance. As she struggled to focus her eyes on the man propping her up a name swam into her mind.

“Skull?” She croaked.

“Duuuude! Not in public Doc, geez! Ryuji. Friend of Ren’s, Keep with me, ambulance on the way. You’re safe”

Well that was ok then.

 

She passed out.

 

“Skull?’

“Don’t you start, Mishima! See if I invite you to train with me next time.”

 


 

She hated being in hospital. Somewhat Ironic. Given her job.

 

Something about the quiet pressure. The tension, the feeling of knowing something, somewhere, was about to go wrong.

So many people holding their breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

 

“Fuck that!’

Some of them didn’t do quiet, of course.

 

A passing Nurse gave the room a startled look.

Ryuji didn’t have an indoor voice.

“I need to tell him myself.” She was propped up on pillows, the police had come and gone, taking statements from her, the thin boy called Mishima and Ryuji. A sample of the drug had been located in the assholes pockets, making treatment easier, and her head was almost clear now.

Not the quiet evening she’d wanted.

Even less quiet now with her current guest. He was clearly on edge from his time with the police.

 

To be fair, she wasn’t sure she trusted them much now either.

 

“When? Today? Tomorrow? When he gets back for University?”

Ryuji was now sporting a bandage on his wrist, apparently he had one hell of a hook but most people never considered when throwing a punch that there was a weak, squishy humans at both ends of the transaction. He’d got off lucky, the other end of this one had required an x-ray.

“Once I’m home safe.”

“He’d want to Effin’ know NOW!”

“AND WHAT COULD HE DO NOW?!”

Ryuji shrank back in surprise. She had a lot of presence when she needed it, it kept the rowdy patients quiet.

The nurse gave the room another stare.

“HE’S IN THE COUNTRY! It’s a THREE HOUR train trip, at BEST, and he’d be way too late for any connections tonight. He’d be stuck there and panicking!”

“But…”

“But NOTHING, he doesn’t need this right now! He’s already too stressed, it could…”

She was shaking.

She had a nasty feeling that if Ren thought his comments had led to her being in hospital he’d never forgive himself.

Panic wouldn’t help her now, she needed to stay calm, detached.

“Yo, doc..?” There was fresh concern in his voice.

She had to.  She had a patient to take care of.

“Has he been talking to you?’

“What?”

“My…REN, have you spoken to him lately?”

“Sure, mostly texts. Group chats, you know.”

“How’s he been?’

His eyes were confused.

“You talk to him every day! He said! Dude acts like a puppy anytime you come up!”

“How has he seemed, to YOU?”

 

Don’t you dare push me, kid, I push back.

 

The boy shrugged.

“A bit on edge, I guess.”

“Yes, has he said anything about that to you?’

 

This was like pulling teeth.

 

“He hates the school, and the town is full of pricks, that’s about it.”

Damn.

“How about the others? Does he talk to them?”

“Look, Doc, you’re scaring me here. What’s going on?’

Something had shifted in the boy, he’d gone from all punk to something… harder.

A wall you could put your back to in a fight.

Uh oh.

“You think Ren is in trouble?’

 

Would he hate her more, or less for involving his friends?

Too late to ask that now. Besides, if she didn’t head it off Ryuji be on his way down there as soon as he left. Probably with armed backup now he thought Ren was in trouble.

 

“I’m worried about him. He’s always so short tempered and tired.”

“School does that to me as well.”

She rolled her eyes.

“Did it ever do that to HIM?’

Ryuji’s face went hard.

“I get your point. He’s always been good at studying. You think there’s a problem?”

“I think he needs to talk to someone, he’s bottling things up too much.”

“Ren? Dude is a rock! He doesn’t have to come to anyone for help, everyone goes to him!”

 

Everyone goes to him.

How much had he been carrying on his shoulders?

Alone.

Shit! She should have been asking these questions earlier.

 

“Then who does he go to?”

“You?”

 

SHIT!

Ren was always a little secretive. The double life would probably do that to you, but he’d never really been forthcoming, even at his most talkative.

Her little guinea pig wasn’t big on sharing the burden, was he?

 

He must have seen that it in her eyes.

“Maybe Morgana?”

“His CAT!?”

“I mean, he can be a little asshole, but he’s got Ren’s back!”

 

Maybe she hadn’t got all the drug out of her system yet, that sounded like something out of an anime. Why did it make so much sense?

 

She shook her head.

“I don’t think he’s coping well with the changes from being back home, and he’s not really talking about it. The cat doesn’t count.”

“Try telling him that! Little shit has an EGO!” He paused, the gears in his head ticking audibly. “Couldn’t you... just ask Ren directly?’

Her face must have given it away.

Ryuji’s voice softened.

“You guys have a fight?’

She nodded.

“Shit. That why you were out drinking?’

Tae rubbed her eyes. Not something she wanted to remember right now.

“You ok, Doc?”

“No.”

 

And she wouldn’t be until he was talking to her again.

 

“Anything I can do?”

“Could you try and talk to him, please?”

“I’m the worst person to do that, I’d push too hard. I don’t do subtle, and I suck on the phone. Get me face to face with him that’s a different story. Nah, if you want him to open up I’ll get one of the girls to try.”

 

She thought about the girls she’d met. The blonde didn’t seem a great choice, she was far too emotional and quick to anger, and Futaba was more liable to fall apart than Ren.  The last time she was in the office a car backfired outside and it had taken her fifteen minutes to get Futaba out from under the bed.

 

“Maybe ask Makoto?” She had brought him home, after all.

“Queen wouldn’t be my first choice.”

“Why not? Ren trusts her, right?” She’d seemed almost like his right hand man at times. Did they not get on?

 “Makoto is worse at subtle than me! At least I know I suck at it. She still thinks she’s “sneaky”, get Ren to tell you about the times she was following him later, if you want a laugh. Besides that glare of hers don’t work over the phone. Nah, I’ll get Haru to try.”

“Haru?”

“Fluffy hair? Looks like a princess?”

 

Would that even work? Ren didn’t seem the one to spill his feelings to a pretty girl.

Well he hadn’t to her, and she’d be a bit offended if he did it now.

 

“I’m not sure soft and sweet will do the job right now.”

She wasn’t even really sure a crowbar would work, to be honest. He’d given no information he didn’t want to during the last interrogation and she’d seen what they did to him there.

Sometimes she could still feel the blood.

 

“Oh, she’s not just sweet. She may look like a cinnamon roll, but you piss her off and she can be like a bag of cotton candy full of razorblades. Even Ren is scared of her when she’s like that, if she thinks he’s hiding something important she’ll get it out of him.”

 

It was something, now to head off the big problem.

“It’s a start but you need to let me tell him about this, Ryuji.”

His eyes were still hard.

“If he finds out that I knew and didn’t tell him, he’ll kill me. You have no idea how scary he gets when he’s worried about you. You call him ASAP.”

 

He got up to leave.

 

“Ryuji?”

“Yep.”

“Thank you.”

He winked.

“We’ve always got your back, Doc. You’re one of us!”

“…and I won’t tell my Guinea Pig about ‘Doctor Legs’.”

His eyes went flat.

“Oh…hahaha… Shit. Dammit, she’s just like Ren. Should have known.” He muttered as he walked out the door.

 

She sank back into the pillows and closed her eyes as he walked away.

Well, that was going to be a fun phone call. Hopefully he’d let her explain before he started freaking out.

If he would even pick up the phone, of course.

 


 

The listed side effects of her prescription included dehydration, headaches and nausea. No mention of the mouth that tastes like a cat-litter tray and the craving for peanuts, though. They needed a better warning label, and she needed to buy more peanut butter.

She’d been released that morning and was currently sitting in her apartment over the clinic with an ice pack on her head. She should have been at the research hospital today for a meeting, but she’d called in sick. First sick day in years, bleh. Well at least she had a doctor’s certificate.

She didn’t think she was allowed to write her own, somehow.

She kept the events of yesterday on the edge of her mind, she didn’t want to think on them too much. She could afford to break down now. She had things to do.

 

Straight to voicemail, yet again. She dropped her phone back in her pocket.

 

If his phone was off, he’d have a hell of a surprise when he turned it back on. The number of messages she’d left. All vague, all hesitant. All going to make him worry.

She really hoped it didn’t cause more problems.

But Ryuji was right, he needed to know. She’d just prefer he was there to hold her when she told him.

 

Damn she missed him.

Big tough Plague.

 

She sighed. Thinking on this was pointless right now. Time for a break.

Dr Takemi wanted ten minutes in the fresh air.  

Tae wanted ten minutes with her Guinea Pig.

 

The Plague wanted ten minutes alone with the guy who drugged her and a bat.

 

She really didn't want a drink. That was way off the cards for the foreseeable future. Alcohol was a hazard to your health.

She could take care of one of those, for now. She grabbed her keys and headed for the door.

 


 

She locked the door to the clinic and wandered out into the afternoon sun.

She could smell plum blossom in the air, for anyone else it would have been magical, for her it reminded her to check the progress on the allergy meds, hard to turn the doctor off sometimes, plus the sun was a touch too bright, and the traffic a bit too loud, so her pain killers must have been wearing off. She wished she’d grabbed some sunglasses before she’d left.

 

She’d gone maybe ten steps from the clinic, when there was a started yowl above her and a cat fell on her head.

Apparently she also should have also found a helmet.

This was not going to be a good week, was it? It certainly didn’t help her headache. She stumbled back to her feet and brushed herself down.

She’d spoken to her neighbour about that guttering the last time it rained. Clearly it hadn’t been fixed yet.

 

The cat was sitting in the street in front of her, waiting and looking strangely apologetic.

But it wasn’t just any cat. She knew this one, he was one of a kind. With his yellow collar and bright blue eyes.

“Hello there, Morgana. Nice of you to drop in”

Morgana had the good graces to look embarrassed about it, at least.

“What are you doing here, little one?”

You are long way from home, cat, you better not have left him alone.

He mewed at her excitedly. He had a very expressive face.

He had been looking for her, apparently.

He was a VERY long way from home, too far to come alone…But his home was really with Ren, not in the country.

 

Ah…

Well, that would explain the phone at least. Her Guinea Pig had always been a little paranoid about Futaba tracking him. Something about the Hawaii trip and telecommunications fraud.

He didn’t want them to know he was coming back. She wondered why?

 

She crouched down and rubbed the cat’s ears.

“How’s he holding up?”

Damn that cat, it was almost like he could talk.

Ren wasn’t good, but he was still holding together, for now.

And that meant he needed her.

She picked him up and hugged him to her chest, ignoring his startled meow and began rubbing his ears with her free hand.

“Thank you for taking care of him for me. C’mon, let’s go find my guinea pig.”

She headed towards Leblanc carrying a purring, but somewhat embarrassed, Morgana with her.

 


 

The cat wriggled from her arms as she entered the café. Mewing to a surprised Sojiro in greeting. His eyes moved from her to the cat and back.

“How’s my patient doing?” Might as well get started.

Sojiro was clearly done being surprised with things today.

“Walking on eggshells and twitchy as hell. What did he do?” He turned to prepare her a drink.

“Bottled up a years’ worth of trauma and then popped the cork at me. Think we can get him to talk to someone about it before he goes home?”

Sojiro sighed deeply, then smiled.

“I think we might have the time.”

Morgana leapt onto the counter next to him meowing for attention.

“You know you’re not allowed up there! Darn Cat! You’re lucky I’m closing up." He turned to the fridge, and fished around for some food. "Did he go and find you, Doctor?”

She rubbed Morgana’s ears as she headed to the stairs. He looked smug.

“Well, he knew my patient was waiting for me.”

 

Tae: - Listen up, Guinea Pig, we need to get you someone to talk to. You’re no use to anyone if you come apart at the seams. I don’t know what’s going on back with your parents, but you shouldn’t be doing this alone. If it’s not me, or your friends then we find a professional.

But if you keep doing this you’re going to make me have to choose between being a doctor and your girl and broken hearts heals faster than broken heads, trust me.

I’ve had two patients since I left the university that I’ve really given a shit about. You helped me save the last one, and you can do your part with this one now.

He’s still very important to me, even if he is a massive idiot sometimes.

I love you, Ren.

 

She’d got it down in writing in case she couldn’t get the words out.

Christ he was tired, she could see it in his face. He hadn’t been sleeping well either.

But his eyes said he knew he’d screwed up. That would give her a place to start.

Once she stopped crying.

 

She never said it would be just his heart getting broken, did she?

 


 

Tae nestled into Ren’s chest and kissed him again.

Well that had gone far smoother than she expected.  

He was going to try to talk to someone. It was a start. Getting a patient to start a course of treatment was usually the biggest hurdle.

Apparently how much it had hurt her made far more of an impact than how much it was hurting him. She was going to have to work on that. That wasn’t a healthy response.

At least her crying had made an impression.

That and the kissing. He’d definitely liked the kissing.

She was a big fan of that herself.

She leant back in, feeling his hands tighten on her waist. Pulling her closer.

Yep, she’d definitely missed this part.

Maybe it was time to start calling him Ren, see how that went down.

 

Below the doorbell jangled.

 

“Yo, Renren!”

They both froze.

“‘Bout time you turned your damn phone back on, Haru is PISSED!”

There was a loud and indignant series of cat noises.

“Out of the way, Cat, got business upstairs! Yo, Joker! Futaba said you were here! She was bouncing off the damn walls! Was it Mishima that told you? I told him to leave it to me!”

 

Oh shit. He really didn’t do subtle, did he?

 

She could hear other voices downstairs, presumable one was Futaba. There was a lot more meowing as well.

“She’s ok! I told you I’d watch her back! Asshole is in jail now anyway. I might have broken his jaw. Didn’t have to come running back like this. I had it covered”

 

Ren leaned back, he was now giving her a very sharp look. She tried not to meet his eyes.

“Tae…?” She didn’t like the tone of his voice.

 

Ryuji climbed stairs like it he had something against them.

“They let her out of the hospital this morning anyway, so whatever the asshole slipped her, it couldn’t’ have been THAT bad. What the hell you two fighting about that makes her go out drinking like that and why does she call you “Guinea Pig” anyway, Renren? You two been playing…”

He rounded the corner.

 

And froze.

 

“…Doctor? Uh…. Hi Dr Takemi, how are you?”

He noted their position on the floor, and her smeared lipstick and grinned. She shot him a glare and tried to adjust her dress.

But Ren’s hand on her waist didn’t release.

Ryuji caught sight of his face and stiffened.

“Um…I should leave you two alone then?

“What is the loudmouth taking about, Doctor?” Ren’s voice was very stiff.

She sighed. She was hoping this could have waited, just a little longer. She was enjoying those kisses. After the last week she’d earned them.

“Err…They let you out ok? No ill effects.”

“RYUJI?”

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“STOP HELPING!”

“Sorry Ma’am!”

Chapter Text

There’s a point in your career that you have to face facts.

 

Life sucks.

 

It’s is a series of bad days in which people do progressively worse and worse things to each other until something or someone breaks.

If you don’t look out for yourself, watch your own back, no-one else ever will.

There’s no perfect plan, no soulmates. No happy endings.

There’s bills, there’s sickness, there’s stress.

 

Good doesn’t triumph over evil. Best you can hope for is evil to be dumb enough to fail on its own but since good has its own share of the stupid even that might not be enough.

Heroes in stories may get to ride off into the sunset with their white horse and shining armour, but they’re still going to have armour to polish tomorrow, and that horse needs to be fed.

The real world has a habit of ruining the fairy tales.

 

And then you fall in love, and maybe there could be a happy ending after all.

 

Suddenly it’s like you’re seventeen again, when that cute Senpai on the soccer team just looked your way and smiled and you’re full of butterflies.

Suddenly you’re a lovesick kid, when you need to be an adult and that cute delinquent with the messy hair and intense eyes talks you into doing something really, REALLY, Stupid and it’s not like he had to work all that hard to convince you, either.

It doesn’t matter what stands in the way, distance, society, time. It all seems so easy. Just little things you need to get past, and it can’t be that hard, right?

Maybe there is a way and you can do anything. Not matter how hard, it’s just you and him, and that’s all you need!

You and him against the world!

Maybe that Christmas cake is just a dessert and age is just a number.

Maybe you’ll get that happily ever after.

 

But there’s a lot of world, and only a very small amount of you and him to spread around.

And happy ever afters are hard to come by.

 

Then one day your boyfriend, so far away, stressed out of his head and angry at the world thinks you don’t love him because you tried to calm him down.

Then you go to bed, not knowing if you’re single again or not and wake up in the morning with a crazy headache, angry at everything.

Because you can’t be just angry at him, not after all he’s been through and it sure as hell isn’t just your fault.

 

Life sucks.

 


 

There’s still bills to pay, though, so Sadayo Kawakami is back at work, despite the tightness in her temples that tells her she didn’t get enough sleep.

Fortunately it’s only the beginning of the semester. No major problems on the cards. The biggest things she can expect to deal with today are seating arrangements, students forgetting their timetables and the occasional smart ass kid who has yet to run into a problem they can’t be sarcastic at.

Which is good, because she SHOULD be reviewing her lessons, but instead she's replaying a fight in her head, over and over.

 

Gradually realising just how much of it was her fault.

 

Not THE fight itself, she was fine there. His parents were right, and doing that thing with his glasses that made him look like an anime villain was probably not the best way to deal with neighbours, even if they were yelling at his cat. Particularly when they still thought he was a criminal.

Besides, she was sure his cat could take care of himself. She was fairly certain she saw it working on an old Van with Niijima just before he left. It had been carrying a screwdriver…

 

That cat was weird.

 

But the groundwork that caused the fight was hers, the reason for it…so much of it.

She traced it back, it let her see where the problems started, and they all led to the same thing.

Five words.

 

It's for his own good.

 

It was for his own good he went home.

It had seemed obvious at the time, of course he should go home to his parents! They were family. He could clear the air, show the town how wrong they were about him, then return to Tokyo once he graduated, with his head held high.

It wouldn’t be that hard, not given all he’d already managed!

So what if it took him away from his friends that supported him, the school he was settled into? The place he'd made his home.

His girlfriend who missed him...

 

He’d be better off there…wouldn’t he?

Even if things there were tense and his parents were trying to pretend it hadn't happened, that Tokyo didn't matter. That they hadn't left him to fend for himself.

That they had believed him.

 

Even if the town didn't trust him and the school thought he was one bad day away from a rampage.

Even if he didn't really want to and nearly everyone he knew in Tokyo would have stood between his parents and him if he had decided to stay.

 

It was for his own good she'd been so cautious.

They were in a very dangerous position. Sure, she wasn’t his teacher anymore, but she was until recently, then there was the age to consider. She wouldn’t be preferred daughter in law material, that was for damn sure. So they needed to be extra careful.

Until he finished school, all bets are off. He can't introduce her, he can't tell them about her. That meeting is only going to go one way, and it can wait until he’s old enough that they can have an opinion but not the casting vote.

Not because they’d hate her for it, she didn’t care about that, but she knew how Ren would react, and they she wouldn’t let them hate HIM.

 

So she'd made him delete the pictures on his phone, rename his contact to Becky. Limited texts to a few words and calls to short and reserved.

Wouldn't even let him use her name.

 

His parents knew he had a girlfriend, just not who she was. They probably thought he was talking to Niijima, or Takamaki... or Okumura... Or...

So there was a lot of choices, ok. A lot of probably MUCH better choices.

And she could never work out why he made the one he had.

 

It was all for his own good…

Funny how all these things, All done "For his own good" Left him alone, miserable and angry. Wasn’t it?

She’d watched him during his year at Shujin, stealing hearts and saving people. She’d watched him ace every test and run four part time jobs at a once, spend time with god knows how many friends and acquaintances and still have time to make her coffee and relax with her whenever she was free.

It only took a few weeks back home "For his own good" and he was clawing at the walls.

 

Sadayo Kawakami sat at her desk, drinking horrible instant coffee and remembered herself backing him into a corner. Taking away anything that told him she existed.

And leaving him, alone.

When he needed her.

Her fingers worried at the simple silver chain around her neck, keeping an engraved ring out of sight and close to her heart.

How long before he decided that she wasn’t worth the effort, after all the crap she was putting him through and went and found a nice girl his own age.

 

It would be for his own good, after all.

 


 

She’d gone fishing after work. It was a hobby she’d been laughed at for before, an old man’s hobby. She didn’t care. When she was stuck pouring money into the Takase’s wallets it had been a cheap and relaxing way to spend her downtime, and it was calming to just watch the ripples and let her mind drift.

She didn’t usually come out here in the evenings, it was more a Sunday thing, the ponds were quiet and nearly empty at this time of day but she really didn’t want the company.

She was stressed, dreading the phone call. She needed to relax and clear her head.

 

Grrrr! Why did the FIRST decent man she met in years have to be a student?

Sadly, she knew the answer to that one. It was because, for the last few years, she was either at school or working as a maid. Neither was a good place to get a date. It was either Kids or Weirdos.

 

Then she met this weirdo kid.

 

A troublemaker, a delinquent and a criminal. Late to school day one risking his last chance. At odds with his teachers. Hanging around with the wrong type of people. On threat of expulsion in under two weeks. That was a record.

The sweetest, kindest, gentlest person she’d ever met. He’d found out her secret, and she’d expected him to put her over a barrel, everyone else in the damn world would have. Instead he’d done everything he could to help her. He’d kept hiring her, kept the money coming in. Let her rest.

Kept her sane.

She figured her life was basically over, so what the hey, enjoy the ride while it lasted. Hawaii was a mistake, but she’d loved every damn minute of making it. She almost felt like a normal person for a while.

Coming back knocked that out of her. She even ended up in hospital this time. Staring down the barrel of her last resort. Only this time it wasn’t just her future the Takase’s were threatening.

 

Then just as she was finally about to go down the drain he put in the plug.

 

She still didn’t know how he did it. But when the Takase’s called her up and apologised, swearing they’d pay back everything she’d collapsed in shock.

She wasn’t sure what to do now she had a future again.

One thing was for sure, she had to make sure to protect her idiot boyfriend, since he didn’t even seem to care about how much trouble they were in.

 

Which she’d done by making him miserable.

 

The fish were studiously avoiding her bait, today. They wanted no part of this.

It was dark, when she left, it had just started to spit rain and she’d run out of patience.

He hadn’t called. The trip back to her small apartment had never felt so quiet.

No news isn’t always good news.

 

Sometimes the silence carries a message of it's own.

 


 

The throbbing in her temples had spread behind her eyes.

She sat at her desk with her head on hands during her break, trying to chase the ache away through force of will.

 

It hadn’t worked before, but the headache medicine hadn’t dissolved yet so she’d try anything.

 

The door crashed open, as Ms. Chouno, clearly agitated, slid to a stop. Her gaze swept the room quickly before settling on her.

“Kawakami Sensei! Are you free?’

“Ms. Chouno?”

“The problem child has run off again.”

 

She rubbed her eyes. Trying to force the headache down.

 

“What happened?”

“Ushimaru-san thought she wasn’t paying attention again, he threw chalk at her. She screamed something about an ambush and ran for the door calling for Joker to help her.”

 

This wasn’t helping her head. She eyed her partially dissolved medicine. 

 

“Did he forget what happened last time?” You’d have thought he’d learnt his lesson after the shouting.

“You know Ushimaru-san. He’s a relic. He expects the world to change for him” Ms. Chouno shrugged.

“He’s an idiot. She has panic attacks!”

“He seems to think she’ll get over it if he shouts loudly enough”

“Or she’ll fall apart! Last thing the girl needs is that! Besides, last thing SHUJIN needs is more bad press about abusing students.”

“He’s never been very good with women. Have we worked out who this Joker is yet? Can we get them to help?”

“He’s not good with ANYONE!” She sighed. “And I’ve got a couple of ideas about Joker, but I’m afraid that won’t be helpful right now. Which way was she going?”

“Towards the stairs, but she’s quick.”

 

She has no stamina though, and she’s not familiar with the school yet, or most of it. So she’ll go for a place she knows.

Vending machines in the courtyard, and around the bushes down there first. Maybe library after? Possibly the roof?

 

“You go up, I’ll go down and NO yelling if you find her this time.”

 

She grabbed the glass and drained it, grimacing at the texture and headed out the door.

 


 

Her first guess was right, there she was, curled up in a ball between the vending machines and the wall.

She walked in slowly and crouched down.

“It’s ok Futaba.”

The girl’s eyes snapped open and she attempted to slide backwards, running into the wall.

“It’s me, Kawakami-sensei, you’re safe.”

She sat down next to her. The girl was still shaking.

“Bad day?”

“Mhm.”

“We all have bad days. I haven’t had the best week, myself. I’m sorry he scared you, I’ve spoken to Ushimaru-sensei about this before, guess I’ll have to use shorter words this time. You do need to pay attention in class, but that was the wrong way to remind you.”

“I feel stupid.”

“You aren’t stupid, and you’re doing your best.”

The girl hugged herself, the shaking hadn’t stopped.

 

Usually she bounced back fast, once she was sure she was safe. This seemed odd.

 

“This seems worse than usual. Anything I can help with?”

Futaba had had a rocky start to the school year, she was far too attached to her phone, and it had been confiscated a number of times already to keep her off it in class. That coupled with her dislike of crowds meant she’d had several panic attacks over the last few weeks. The only saving grace was her poor fitness which meant she rarely made it far before she ran out of steam.

That girl would go places, she was clearly brilliant and miles ahead of the rest of the students, but the difference between a rocket to the moon and a smoking crater is sometimes very small. One or two screws a bit too loose and bang.

 

She mumbled something into her knees.

“Sorry, I didn’t catch that.”

“Not unless you can get my key item back.” The girl sounded dejected.

“Did Ushimaru-sensei take it?’

Futaba looked up and gave her a disbelieving look.

“Uh, no.”

 

She had clearly expected her to know what that meant. Odd, she got a feeling that they’d skipped something important there.

 

“I’m missing something, aren’t I?”

“We both are.”

 

Futaba could be hard to follow in a conversation, her brain jumped from step to step while everyone else’s had to run to catch up. Sometimes it was quicker to be direct.

 

“I’m not good with twenty questions, Futaba. Any chance you could spell it out for me?”

“He’s got black hair, fake glasses and apparently a maid fetish.”

She froze.

The redhead rolled her face back into her knees.

“His phone is off, he only does that when he’s hiding from me. Any thoughts, Becky?’

 

WHAT SHOULD SHE DO?

Futaba clearly already knew way more than she was comfortable with, but could she trust her not to let things slip? If she did talk to her about it how would Ren react? She’d spent so much effort trying to stop him doing the same thing!

WHY HAD HE TOLD HER?!

 

Deep breath, Sadayo. Worry about this later, she needs you. Lying won’t help her trust you and Ren will understand.

You know how he feels about her.

 

Futaba fixed her with a confused frown. Then noticed the worry in her face.

“Calm down, I’m not going to tell anyone. Joker doesn’t need that.”

Breathe, Kawakami. Keep it together.

“It’s not you he’s hiding from, Futaba. It’s me. We had a fight.”

 

That hurt so much more to say out loud.

 

The girls head didn’t move.

“I heard, you made him cry, you know.”

“WHAT?!”

“After you hung up on him. He was crying.”

“How..?”

“I’ve got his phone bugged.” The girl shrugged.

“FUTABA!”

“He knows, it’s how we kept him safe when the police grabbed him.”

She hung her head back down.

“Joker doesn’t cry. He didn’t even cry when the police beat the crap out of him. He’s not acting like Joker.”

She hugged her knees.

 

He did cry, Futaba but he made sure you didn’t see.

I was there, it’s why I don’t trust the police anymore.

 

“He has to be Joker. He’s the strong one. I need him to be Joker.” The girl’s voice was very quiet now.

 

And if He’s not himself one of the foundation you’re rebuilding off of is suddenly a lot shakier, isn’t it, Futaba.

Looks like it wasn’t just me he put back together.

 

“Ren is still Ren, he’s just angry with me.” She rubbed the girls shoulder.

Futaba did not look up.

“Shouldn’t you be angry with him?”

“What do you mean?”

“I heard what he said to you but you didn’t start yelling until he did. If he had said that to me I’d have nuked him from orbit! Why aren’t you angry with him? Don’t you care?”

 

Keep it together Kawakami. She doesn’t need you crying on her.

 

“Because it’s my fault.”

The girl rolled her head on its side to look at her.

“You made his parents angry?”

“No? They still don’t know about me.”

I hope.

“Oh, you told the school not to trust him?”

“That’s not…”

“You made the town think he’s a still a criminal?”

“FUTABA!”

“Then how is any of this on you?”

“I wasn’t there for him when he needed me.”

“Oh, totally your fault then, I’ll call Sae. She can lock you up with Shido.” She snorted dismissively and put her face back on her knees.

“Futaba!”

“He understands why you were all sneaky, he was talking to about it to Morgana. Besides, it wasn’t just you. Do you realise how much effort he put into keeping you safe so he could act like he didn’t care about getting caught?”

“What do you mean?’

“Are you kidding, he had heat maps for the other teachers and escape routes all planned out. He wasn’t going to let you get into trouble for him. But Joker always needs to look cool… Ass”

Some of their dates now made a lot more sense. She swallowed a lump in her throat.

“Not your fault he got angry, it wasn’t you it was his parents. If it helps Morgana mauled him for being mean to you.”

Guess she had some ears to rub when she got the chance.

“I didn’t help, enough.” She needed to lighten things up a bit. “Does he always talk to the cat like that?”

Futaba gave her a look with an edge on it.

“Who else is he going to talk to when his girlfriend doesn’t exist?”

 

That one stung.

No getting out of this conversation then, Sadayo.

 

“Very funny. I know I should have been there for him…”

She saw the girl tense for a split second before she erupted.

“Stop talking in the past tense!” Futaba shouted.

Sadayo stiffened and lent back stunned by the outburst.

“Joker isn’t out, he’s down! He needs you to help him back up! If you don’t…”

She curled back into a ball.

“You have to.” Her voice dropped. “He won’t let us.”

 

Welcome to the butterfly effect, Becky, you screw up with your boyfriend and his friends start falling apart.

Futaba didn’t deserve this, she’d been working so hard to settle in, and you and your stupid fight is making life so much harder for her.

You need to sort this out before it gets worse.

 

“You’re right, I need to call him.”

“His phone is still off.” The girl mumbled.

“Don’t suppose you can turn it back on?’ she prodded, trying to draw a smile.

Come on Futaba, there’s something stupid for you to laugh at me for, latch on.

“I can try, but last time the phone caught on fire.”

“WHAT?!”

“I have to overheat the battery to make it reboot.”

“No fires!”

“I think I know what I did wrong and it only burnt Ryuji’s jacket a bit.”

“NO FIRES!”

“You sound like Sojiro.”

The girl had calmed down a bit, it seemed, she’d at least stopped shaking.

“I’ll keep trying his phone. He’ll have to stop hiding sooner or later. Don’t worry, I’ll sort it out.”

“Don’t make him cry again.”

“I’ll do my best. Are you feeling a bit better?”

The girl smiled, a touch shakily.

“A bit, he told me to look after you, so at least I‘m getting some XP out of this.”

“Funny, he asked me to do the same thing.”

“You’re doing a shitty job.”

“HEY!”

 

She saw Ms. Chouno’s head appear at a door to the courtyard, and caught her eye. The other teacher relaxed, and nodded before heading back to the staff room.

 

“Let’s get you to the nurse’s office, you can rest a bit there.”

“Thanks for talking to me, Becky.”

“Please stop calling me that!”

“But it’s cute! Plus, I can’t call you the other things Ren called you, this show is PG!”

“Futaba!” She was going to have to have a word with Ren about privacy. Once she stopped blushing to death.

The girl chuckled.

“Sorry, Kawa~kami Sen~sei.”

She sighed. This girl would be the death of her.

“I’ll tell Takamaki where you are, she’ll drop in to visit no doubt.”

She rose to her feet.

And I’ll have a quick word to Sakamoto to make sure he keeps his temper in check. Last time Takamaki had had to hold him back from returning the chalk personally.

 

She had one more question she had to ask first, though.

 

“When…?”

“Since June.”

“WHAT?! But… you didn’t meet him until July!”

The girl frowned at her.

“He told you that and not about the key item stuff?”

She helped Futaba to her feet.

“He called you something different, that’s all.”

 

Sorry Ren, going to drop you in this one. She needs this.

 

“What? Oracle?”

She leant over and put her arm around the girl’s shoulders.

“His little sister.”

The girl flushed.

“You’re very important to him.”

Futaba sniffed.

“He shouldn’t have left, it’s too hard.”

“Good things always are. We’re harder.”

They started walking towards the nurse’s office.

“Is Sojiro going to have to come in?”

“Maybe. At least this time isn’t because of your phone.”

“I hate worrying him.”

“He’ll get used to it, he’s your dad. Wait until you start dating.”

 


 

Exercise couldn’t be that healthy for you, could it? Not if it made you sweat this much.

She’d taken up membership to a nearby gym. Now she had free time and money again… Well… she’d become uncomfortably aware of how out of shape she was, her diet and exercise had been left a bit on the backburner while she worked her tail off as Becky.

Besides, being a teacher, spending all day around all the cute little teenagers with tight little butts and great figures and nice skin wasn’t the best thing for her confidence. Before she had never considered the comparison but now they were in some strange way her competition, and that was a very odd feeling.

It did give her something to do with the nervous energy after she’d sent him the message, though.  Her caution had left it as vague and subdued as ever, but hopefully he’d read between the lines and realise how sorry she was?

It didn’t matter. She had been determined to get in shape, that a certain messy haired troublemaker would be drooling over her the next time he saw her in her swimsuit. She wasn’t going to let those teenagers beat her to the punch. Once he came back she was going to knock him dead.

 

If he came back.

And if the exercise didn’t kill her first.

 

How did Takamaki keep that figure with the amount of snacks she was always eating? She’d kill for her metabolism, maybe she had a special workout routine? Or was it a Phantom thief thing? 

She didn’t have any real understanding of how the whole thief… business… worked. He’d never gone into details with her and she’d been a little afraid to push him too. She knew it was hard physical work and very stressful, he was a ball of tension every time he asked for a massage. She was amazed he could even breathe with his muscles that tight. Seeing the peace in his face as she undid the knots almost made working the whole maid job worthwhile.

It didn’t leave many scars though…

 

It didn’t have too. The police took care of that.

 

She’d died inside when she saw the bruises, the injection marks, the cuts from the handcuffs on his wrists. She’d done her best to help him treat them, to be there when he needed her, but she found herself looking at the police she passed on her commute under a totally different light now.

It was the first time she’d his mask slip, while she treated his wounds. For a little while he wasn’t the phantom thief, or the criminal, or even the confidant student.

 

Just a tired and broken kid.

And if they’d walked into that room to take him back she’d have killed them herself.

 

It didn’t last long, she’d fallen asleep in a chair next to his bed and woke to him trying to sneak out, fully dressed. It was only after she tackled him and dragged him back to the bed she’d crumpled and held him crying, until he promised to rest.

That lasted all of ten minutes.

He’d tried to sneak out the window when she’d gone downstairs to bring up some food for him. He would have made it too, if Morgana hadn’t jumped at his face when he slid it open. If she didn’t know better she’d have thought the cat was on guard in case of escape.

 

Doctor Takemi had some things to say when she came to check on him and found him sulking, embarrassed and tied to the bed.

 

She threw herself into the training to burn off the blush, but kept her phone at hand, ready to answer as soon as he called. Not caring if she was going to sound out of breath.

Screw running away. She was going to have to convince him not to break up with her.

She wasn’t doing these sit-ups for nothing.

 

He didn’t call again.

It hurt more today.

 


 

Her headache had settled in, and was apparently moving around the furniture. He head throbbed. It made the rest of the day a nightmare.

She was pushing through her work using a mix of headache medication and instant coffee, it was just buying time, putting off the inevitable crash, meaning it would be worse when it finally hit. She just hoped she could make it to the weekend where she could just burn a day and try and sleep it off. She’d done it before, At least this time there’s not another shift at a second job to top off the day.

 

As bad as the headache was, her heart felt worse.

 

Was this what it was like for him? Sitting there, cut off from her? Needing Something, ANYTHING to show she was still there, but afraid to push too hard in case the door slammed permanently?

What the hell had she been thinking? She’d had her heart broken, before. This felt worse.

 

Oh, Sadayo, you’ve done a bad thing this time girl. What the hell were you thinking?

 

She waved goodbye to a student, still trying to sort out their textbooks and lent against the door to the counselling room. Rubbing her eyes.

Face the facts, Kawakami, you need to talk to him. Fuck propriety, you need a smile in his voice again. To call him Master and hear him blush.

You’re acting like a stupid teenager who misses her boyfriend and you damn well don’t care.

 

Why the hell did it take you this long?

 

She was jolted out of the thought by a voice nearby.

“You ok, Kawakami-Sensei?”

The blonde twin-tails moved into view. There was just one student with hair like that.

“Just tired, Takamaki-san, it’s been a long week.”

“Thanks for taking care of Futaba.”

“I’m a teacher, it’s kind of my job.”

“Sure, that’s it.”

 

She hadn’t heard that tone in her voice before.

 

“Do you have something to say, Takamaki?”

“Oooo Grumpy! Fight with your Boyfriend?’

Too close, way too close to the mark there.

“Not a topic I wish to discuss with a student, Takamaki. Can I help you with something?”

Keep it professional and then get the hell out of range. This is the last thing she needed right now.

The blonde was giving her a look she really didn’t like. She twirled her hair around a finger and leant in a bit closer

“Because your boyfriend has been acting really weird and hasn’t been responding to messages for the last few days and I was hoping you’d have an idea why, Becky.”

 

NO WONDER HE DIDN’T WORRY ABOUT BEING CAUGHT! HE’D TOLD EVERYONE ALREADY!

 

“Do you have time to talk about it?” The blond gestured to counselling room door with her head.

She could feel herself deflating, the pressure of the last few days finally getting to her.

She could have really used a coffee right now.

 


 

She’d never really been comfortable with the whole “Consult the teacher about your love life” thing. A few girls had asked her questions, but she’d never known what to say. Really they should have gone to ANYONE else, since her recent dating history was not something they should, or really could replicate.

 

Try dressing like a maid would probably not go down well as advice in most circumstances.

 

She was quickly discovering it felt worse being on the other side of the table.

“Should I start then?” The blonde watched her, eyes unreadable.

Sadayo nodded.

“Yes I know you’re dating him. Joker told me just before he asked you out how he felt.”

 

So long ago now, she’d known for months…

 

“You boyfriend is an idiot btw, he was worried I was going to think you were just like Kamoshida if you started dating him. I mean, anyone could see the looks you gave Ren during class and see you’re nothing like that asshole.”

Oh god! Had she been making puppy eyes at him in class? How had she not been caught?

“Giving him those death glares when he zoned out.”

Not QUITE the looks she was thinking of. Wait, was that better or worse?

“You were still his teacher first, and clearly worried about him. You were paying attention and caring. That Asshole never cared about anyone but himself. Plus, the fact you’re even worrying about it is a good sign. The dick didn’t care if he got caught.”

“You don’t…?”

“Mind? That you’re a teacher, or you’re older than him?” The girl shrugged. “Neither, I’m a Phantom thief, remember. Kind of in favour of breaking rules for the right reasons here and Joker knows what he’s doing.”

The blonde leaned back in her chair.

“Besides, you held him together. Anytime things started getting hard he’d rub that ring of his through his gloves, then smile and he’d be back in the game. I take it you’ve got one on that chain as well?”

She also had sharp eyes.

“So that makes you one of us, in my book at least.” She smiled, as if that solved everything.

“Right, now that’s out of the way. What’s going on with Ren? He’s been very quiet over the past few days. Is he having trouble at home?”

 


 

It was a weird experience, having a student giving her that look, it was usually the other way around.

That was the look you gave someone who tried to study for a history exam by playing Dynasty warriors. Someone missing the point so hard it was almost an achievement.

 

“So you’re being separated from your boyfriend, he’s really not happy about it and you decide the best thing to do is pretend you aren’t going out?” The girl’s eyebrows threated to remove the top of her head.

“I wasn’t pretending we weren’t dating! We talked…” She trailed off.

“WE talked to him more that you did, and when you did talk you acting like a teacher, not his girlfriend! You took all his pictures off him? You don’t let him use your name? What the hell kind of plan was that?!? No wonder he was stressed. Wow…”

The girl shook her head slowly.

"Well that explains a lot. There’s one thing I still don't understand though..."

"What's that?" What other stupid thing had she done?

"WHY THE HELL DID YOU LET HIM GET AWAY WITH SAYING THAT!" the girl slammed a fist on the desk.

"WHAT?!" She rocked back in her chair in surprise. Takamaki had gone from zero to sixty in a second.

"What a JACKASS! How could he?! Oh, I'm telling Haru and Makoto this, we’re clearly going to have to have a little talk with our fearless leader about the proper treatment of a girl!"

"What?" She was struggling to catch up with the conversation. Ren had said Ann’s temper couple be fiery… this was incandescent.

"Dear god, who was he taking dating tips from Ryuji? Mishima? MORGANA?!"

 

Her mind flailed desperately for something to add to the conversation.

 

"Apparently Morgana scratched him for yelling at me."

THAT is what you come up with Kawakami? That isn’t going to calm anything down!

"GOOD! At least he has some idea of TACT! I'll buy him some sushi next time I see him! Why haven't you called him up and given him a piece of your mind yet? Are you letting him stew?"

"He's turned his phone off." STOP HELPING!

"THAT COWARD! HE WON'T EVEN FACE THE MUSIC?! Right, I'll call Makoto, we'll all head down tonight and beat some sense into him!"

"What, NO!"

 

Oh no! What had she done now!

 

"Girls night out! I can lend you a whip!"

"Whip?!"

The girl shrugged.

"Not your thing? Makoto might have some spare knuckles."

"Why?!"

“Have you ever thrown a punch without them, it hurts!”

“NO KNUCKLES! NO PUNCHING! Nobody is PUNCHING!”

The girl looked at her.

“You get to tell Makoto. She’ll be disappointed.”

“NO MAKOTO!”

"I can’t drive and she’ll feel really left out if we go without her… Well... we could ask Haru, she’s got a car but she's attached to her axes so you might have to find your own thing to hit him with. Plus she get enthusiastic…”

"AXES?! PLURAL?!"

"It's good to have options!"

"Nobody is taking an axe to MY BOYFRIEND!"

"Why not, he deserves it!"

"No he doesn't!"

"Why not?"

"It's an AXE!"

"He's had worse!"

"NO MORE WORSE!"

"But Sensei..."

 

This had gone way too far.

 

"NONE OF YOU CRAZY PEOPLE ARE HURTING MY REN!"

There was a brief stunned silence.

"YOUR Ren? He was OUR JOKER FIRST!" The blonde flipped her hair dismissively.

"He's my Joker now and you can't HURT him!"

"How are you going to stop us? All we have to do is tell everyone you’re dating him and you're done." The blonde’s eyes were steely.

"YOU GO RIGHT AHEAD! You think I'm going to let him get hurt to keep this job you have another think coming, girl!"

"Oh DO I?"

"YES. YOU. DO!"

"You're willing to risk all that for him when he says that to you?"

"IN A HEARTBEAT!"

"WHY?"

“BECAUSE I LOVE HIM!”

 

I love him and I was too afraid to let him walk away, since he’d come to his senses and leave me alone again.

Only this time I’d have to remember I let him go.

Dammit, last thing she needed was to cry.

 

“FINALLY!”  Ann slammed her hands on the table.

She jumped in her seat at the girl’s outburst.

“It took you long enough to admit it! I was getting worried you were just playing around.”

She had a massive grin on her face.

“Now go and tell that to the person who actually needs to hear it! Let him know he’s got something to come back to! Maybe send him a nice picture so he knows you still care!”

She paused to consider something and screwed up her nose.

“Just, keep your clothes on, please, no need to go that far.  Just get the idiot to stop depressing everyone!”

 

This had gone an unexpected direction.

 

“What…?”

“He’s been mooning around since he went home! Its worrying Futaba, Ryuji keeps talking about going back to “rescue” him and Makoto, MA-KO-TO, was going to talk to her sister and see if there was a way to get him back here under the excuse of the case against Shido! SHE WAS GOING TO INVOLVE SAE! No way could that go horribly wrong!” She rolled her eyes.

Kawakami had completely lost track of this conversation. It had taken a right hand turn somewhere. Or several.

She wasn’t sure which way it was currently heading but she hoped axes were no longer involved…

“You are going to have to do something stupid, like dress up in a maid outfit to make it up to him for this, you know that right? Maybe you could do that for the picture!”

There must have been an interesting look on her face at that comment. The blonde backpedalled.

 

“Joking, he’d never make you do that. Besides, I saw his face when we passed a maid café in Akihabara once. Not sure he’s into maids. He looked almost scared…”

 


 

Sadayo sat in the empty room and rubbed her face. That had gone very differently than she’d anticipated. To be fair, she wasn’t one hundred percent certain of what she had expected from the conversation, but it wasn’t THAT.

Not her getting led around by her nose by a teenager, out to fix her friends love-life by force.

Takamaki had just headed home, certain that all would be sorted out in blink after their talk. She just wished she was that confidant. Hell, all she could do was leave messages in the vain hope he’d turn the phone on and talk to her.

 

Dear god, she was going to have to go to him, wasn’t she? It was the only way to be sure.

Well, she didn’t have plans for this weekend anyway.

 

Her phone buzzed, she nearly dropped it in her haste to check the message.

It wasn’t from Ren.

 

ORACLE: - Well that was entertaining.

ORACLE: - She doesn’t know, btw, he told her if she needed your help to call you Becky, she thinks it’s a code word. She has no idea about the maid thing. Pity, you were cute in the pigtails.

 

Well, that was a relief at least…

Wait, NO IT WASN’T!

 

SK: - FUTABA?! How did you get this number?

ORACLE: - Do you really want to know?

 

Hang on, she had been LISTENING!

 

SK: - WHEN DID YOU BUG MY PHONE?

ORACLE: - Lots of questions you don’t want the answers to today.

SK: - FUTABA!

ORACLE: - I have to keep an eye on my big brother’s girlfriend, don’t I?

 

Usually she didn’t regret decisions quite this quickly.

 

SK: - TAKE IT OFF RIGHT NOW!

ORACLE: - You didn’t know I put it on there, how will you know when it’s gone?

 

Oh dear god she was right…

 

ORACLE: - I can tell you it’s taken off if that makes you feel better.

SK: - You mean you’ll tell me when you’ve taken it off, right?

ORACLE: - SURE, that’s what I meant. I’ve got a recording of that little talk, btw. I’m sure Ren will love it!

SK: - SEE IF I HELP YOU NEXT TIME, SAKURA! Ren doesn’t go NEAR that recording.

ORACLE: - Stingy. I’d be in his good books for MONTHS once he heard that. So would you, for that matter. He’s a romantic, you faced down an armed phantom thief for him. That has got to give bonus points.

 

She blushed like a tomato. How did today keep getting weirder?

 

SK: - I’ll take my chances.

ORACLE: - Suit yourself. One sign of him crying and all bets are off though.

SK: - Ann wouldn’t have actually hit Ren with an Axe, would she?

ORACLE: - More of those questions… But No. She wouldn’t have.

SK: - Thank god.

ORACLE: - Axe is too heavy for her, she can barely lift them. She’d have used her whip, Haru on the other hand…

SK: - FUTABA!

 


 

Home sweet… tiny apartment.

She shut the door and sighed as she dropped her bag on her table and stretched her shoulders. To be fair, she wasn’t looking for floor space when she’d moved here, and until Takase-kun’s guardians blackmail had been resolved she couldn’t afford to look for a better place.

Once it had been she’d entertained the thought of finding somewhere bigger, maybe a little more private space, a bigger bathroom. Room for a guest…

 

Stop that! You have a message to send. Daydream about your boyfriend when you’re sure you still have one.

No that was defeatist.

She HAD a boyfriend and she was lucky he’d put up with her worrying for so long.

Now she had to give him a reason to keep doing it.

 

Only two people really mattered in this, No matter what everyone else thought. However crazy they may be…

It didn’t matter what roles they were playing. The master and the maid, the teacher and her student, the victim and her hero.

This one was up to her and Ren to fix. It was time for them to talk. She was going to have to leave a better message this time.

And if he didn’t turn his phone on soon she was booking a train trip for her next day off.

Besides, if she left it any longer the rest of the thieves might decide to help as well. That had disaster written all over it…

She reached up and took the ring from its chain around her neck. Despite the fact she was the one who bought them she hadn’t worn it since that day. Maybe it was time to change that.

After she closed her eyes for a second and tried to calm down.

 


 

Her alarm ripped her out of sleep the next morning. She’d finally succumbed to her headache and tiredness and she’d crashed, fully clothed on the bed, her message still unsent. She scrambled into a shower and a change of clothes, and ran for her train, cursing herself. She’d have to try again this afternoon, once work was finished and after she got some decent coffee. She’d needed the energy.

As the doors closed she rubbed absentmindedly at the ring on her finger.

 


 

She sighed, deep in thought, as she walked into Leblanc that afternoon. It had been another long day, and it was mostly Ren’s fault she could barely drink the instant coffee the teacher’s lounge stocked to keep her going now. She was too addicted to good coffee, having had enough he’d made that instant just couldn’t compare.

It was less that it was made with love and more that it was made with real coffee beans. The instant stuff tasted like angry dirt.

Sojiro looked up from his crossword.

“Afternoon, Sensei. Was it Futaba, or the Kid causing trouble this time?’

“Very funny.” At least he kept the jokes to when they were alone.

Sakura-san had been very understanding after Valentine’s Day, and had been accommodating of their need for privacy. He’d even welcomed her after Ren’s return home, letting her drink her coffee upstairs, letting her recharge in the familiar space.

“Coffee, just here for the coffee.”

“Rough week?”

“You have no idea.”

“You want to take it upstairs?”

That might not be a bad idea, she could try sending Ren the text now, see if his phone was back on. Let him get somewhere his parents wouldn’t interfere.

“That sounds lovely.”

“Head on up, I’ll bring it to you when it’s ready. Take it easy”

The smell of the coffee and curry started to bring tears to her eyes as she climbed the stairs, typing on her phone. She probably knew those recipes almost as well as Sojiro by now. She wasn’t sure if he knew Ren had taught her to make it or the number of times she’d stood in the kitchen, preparing a batch, apparently as takeout for the Phantom thieves.

Happy times, even in the maid uniform.

 

Becky: - Ren, I’ve been an idiot. I’ve wasted so much effort trying to be a teacher when I should have just been your girlfriend.  I need you to give me a call, or at least turn the damn phone on so I can call you. Otherwise, if I don’t hear from you soon, I’m going to have to come and apologise in person.

I am, Not Becky. Me.

Love Sadayo.

 

Deep breath, Kawakami. Step one done.

Then the message tone sounded in the room ahead of her, and it turned out Ren had already started on step two for her. He was standing there, looking sad and tired.

Still wearing his ring.

 


 

Some days you don’t need to be seventeen for the butterflies, and you tackle your stupid boyfriend to the floor and the kiss lasts forever.

Some days you realise you’re not the only one who’s crying.

 

Some days those happy every afters just might be worth another shot.