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I need you to (beg my pardon) tend my garden

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After they’ve seen to Futaba’s Palace, Yusuke decides he’d like to see his friends’ first hideout.

They moved their base of operations before he joined the team, partly for the necessity of being closer to Madarame’s atelier and partly because Makoto had told them off for loitering on the school roof. It’s just as well - it would have been very difficult indeed for Yusuke to justify his presence there - but he’s still curious. Ryuji supplies him with an old Shujin PE jacket, on the grounds that even though it’s summer, it may still allay suspicion; Makoto sighs and tells him not to get caught on the back stairs.

He’s not sure what he was expecting, other than an interesting rooftop view within the city. He was definitely not expecting a garden.

And yet, the roof is littered with planters. There are both ornamental flowers and an assortment of vegetables - and, he realises too late, a person up here tending to the plants. They’re far shorter than Yusuke, when they stand up, leaving him inclined to assume this is a girl.

“I’m sorry, did you need help with some--” She cuts herself off as she wipes soil off her hands onto her own track jacket, frowning. “You… aren’t actually a Shujin student, are you?”

Yusuke bows. “My apologies. No, I’m not, but my friends had mentioned there was a garden up here, and I wanted to see it for myself.” He’s making that up on the spot, but it’s better than the truth, since he doesn’t know what she’d think of his friends being a band of supernatural vigilantes. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Oh, it’s quite all right. One of my teachers asked if I’d be willing to take on responsibility for tending to the school’s planters, and since no one else comes up here, I’ve sort of… expanded the project for myself, a little. So long as I keep the planters by the school gate watered and looking good, no one cares.”

“Well, it does make for quite the alluring sight.” He’s going to need his largest box of colored pencils to truly do the rooftop justice, but the pencil he brought with him today will have to do. “Oh, I have yet to introduce myself. I’m Kitagawa Yusuke, a second-year in Kosei’s fine arts track.”

“How lovely! My name is Haru. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Kitagawa-kun.”

“You as well.” Yusuke can’t help raising an eyebrow, though. “Only your given name?”

Haru nods, suddenly looking quite downcast. “Please.”

“I see. In that case, you need not rely so much on formalities with me.” It would feel awkward, when she refuses to offer her family name - he can’t help wondering what the story is there, but it would be a true breach of trust to ask at the moment. “Would you mind terribly if I drew some pictures of your garden?”

Haru brings a hand to her mouth, trying and failing to hide a delighted smile. “You’d really like to? I’d be honored! But if you didn’t wear or bring any sunscreen, I suggest you sit in the shade to do it.”

“That is a fair point.” He pulls up a chair in the shade, and sets to work; the hours fly by in companionable silence, as he draws Haru’s various planters and she tends to the flowers and vegetables.

He’s already made up his mind to return.

***

Haru suspects her homeroom teacher asked her to take care of the school’s planters so that she would have a viable excuse to get out of the house. Gods know her father doesn’t want her going much of anywhere unattended; Sugimura might well resort to even more drastic measures, if it were his decision.

She is trying, with increasing desperation, to think of a way in which it might not be his decision. But he is the political contact her father settled on, after considering the various offers for her hand he received (he received, as though Haru herself were a piece of property and not a person), and it looks increasingly likely she’ll have to bear it.

If only she could convince her father to delay the marriage until after she had a chance to go to college. If only she could convince him to listen to her about something, anything. It’s what she’s hoping to do with the vegetable planters; she found some seeds intended for the company’s use, and wanted to see if she could improve upon them. She already suspects it’s a lost cause, but at least it’s a nice supplement to her lunches.

There’s a torrential downpour the day after her unexpected company shows up, and Haru returns the day after that hoping against hope he’ll come back. She’s not counting on it; luck is rarely on her side, these days. But she can still hope, and bring enough lunch to share if it comes to that.

Yusuke-kun does come back, much to Haru’s surprise. It seems like one minute she’s alone, and the next he’s perched in that chair he claimed the other day, drawing as though he’d been there all morning. He has a much larger box of colored pencils, this time.

“I wasn’t expecting you to come back,” she says.

Yusuke-kun says nothing for nearly a full minute before startling out of his work. “Oh, hello. I hope you don’t mind the intrusion. I couldn’t put your garden out of my mind yesterday.”

Haru wonders if she should consider this an intrusion. This is arguably the only space she has that’s truly her own; she hasn’t even had true privacy in her bedroom for a long time. Ever since that trio of juniors stopped bringing their cat up here, the school roof has been quiet but for her own activities. But somehow, Yusuke-kun doesn’t feel like an unwelcome presence.

“I don’t mind at all. In fact, I brought extra lunch, if you’d like to share it when you’re hungry.”

“Oh, you didn’t have to go to that kind of trouble.”

“It was no trouble at all,” Haru insists. “It’s a simple salad and some bread, but that’s easy enough to split into two portions.”

Besides, he’s almost alarmingly skinny for how tall he is. As if to support that thought, he backs off the argument almost immediately. “Well, if you insist. But by all means, go back to your work until you’re ready.”

Haru nods, and does so. The vegetables are coming along nicely (if only her father would acknowledge her work and give her feedback other than ‘stop that’), and the flowers add splashes of color to the rooftop. She’s trying to decide which ones to transplant by the school gate for September, but she hasn’t quite made up her mind so far.

They’re both absorbed in their work long enough that it’s Yusuke-kun’s stomach growling that alerts Haru to the passage of time. She’ll also need to reapply her sunscreen after lunch, but that’s simple enough.

As she dishes up the salad, she says, “I have to confess, your name sounds somewhat familiar. I haven’t been able to place it, though.”

“Well, I have recently entered work into a few art exhibitions.” A thundercloud passes over his expression. “It’s far from the first time, but it’s only in the last couple of months that I’ve been able to do so under my own name.”

“Oh. Madarame-san?” Multiple reports about his sudden confession to serial plagiarism and slander against former students noted that Madarame had one remaining pupil at the time of his arrest, but most of them declined to name a minor. Haru supposes it would have come up in the sorts of tabloidesque reporting her father likes to listen to, on the lookout for any whisper of information that might be used against him.

Yusuke-kun nods. “He first displayed my work when I was ten. At the time, I was honored, but… well. Ultimately, he did myself and many others a great disservice.”

“That he did. It sounds like you used to look up to him, though.” Haru can hardly fault him for that, not when she’s desperate for her father to look kindly upon her again. She doesn’t understand what changed.

But even if it were to change back, he’s done so many terrible things in the meantime that it wouldn’t ever be the same again. Still, she knows he loved her once, and wants to see it proved true again, however briefly.

“He essentially raised me, along with whatever other students were around at any given time. He taught me most of what I know. I may never completely shake off my gratitude for that. And yet, I cannot bring myself to visit him - changed man or not, I’m afraid he’d try to slip through the cracks in my armor again. Now that I’ve seen the true extent of what he failed to teach me, and how content he was to use me until someone else intervened, I cannot afford that.”

“It’s complicated when it’s your parents, isn’t it?” Haru says before she can stop herself. But Yusuke-kun clearly understands, and that’s not a gift she’s about to let slip away.

“It is.” He looks at her like he knows exactly what it is she’s not saying. “If you don’t want to discuss it, you don’t have to, but - is everything well for you at home?”

“I am physically safe at present,” she settles on, after too long of a pause. “My father has been - distant, in recent years. I think my mother and my grandfather dying so closely together hit him hard, and he threw himself into work in response.” That’s far from the entire picture and she knows it, but it is true, as far as she can tell.

It’s just that under his leadership, Okumura Foods has bloated into something she doesn’t think her grandfather ever wanted it to be. It’s just that at some point, he stopped seeing Haru as a person and instead came to consider her a commodity, chattel to help him climb political ladders and nothing more. It’s just that he ignores Sugimura’s open lechery because his father is a useful contact.

Instead of pressing the matter, though, Yusuke-kun takes a few bites of his share of the salad. “Are these the plants you’ve been growing yourself?”

“Some of them are, yes. What do you think?”

“They’re more bitter than average,” he says, after a few more bites. “I think the salad is in desperate need of some dressing. Yet it’s strangely invigorating, at the same time. Paired with the proper meals, I think they would be quite good.”

Haru smiles. “Thank you, Yusuke-kun. You’re probably right about the dressing, but I didn’t know what kind you would like, so I decided to keep it simple.”

Still, that’s useful feedback from someone who’s actually tried the - well, the vegetables of her labor. She’s not sure how to compensate for the extra bitterness, but she can experiment a bit, in the time summer and fall leave to her.

***

Yusuke doesn’t know if Haru is as blind to the ugly depths of her home life as he once was. She certainly seems to be more aware of the situation, if still justifying her father’s coldness; he wonders if it’s tied to her refusal to divulge her family name.

But he knows what that long pause and too-specific answer mean: No, everything is not all right in her home.

At the same time, having once been in her position, he knows he cannot push too hard. Thank the gods Ryuji hasn’t gotten involved; he may well have already scared her off, by now. He’s slowly coming to understand that not everyone has the luxury of lashing out at the people who have done them wrong, but it’s only slightly faster progress than his continued lack of volume control. If Haru has no way out, anger may only make it worse.

Rather than press for details she may not be able or willing to share, Yusuke makes time in his schedule to join her more often. He can’t be there every day; the oppressive heat makes the notion of lingering on the rooftop utterly unappealing some days, and on others he has things to do for school, or with his other friends. And if there’s another downpour, Haru herself isn’t there anyway.

She makes a point of bringing lunch after discovering just how precarious Yusuke’s budget is, even after Makoto has had a tremendous stabilising influence on his bank account. (He can’t help it if good art supplies are expensive and inspiration strikes at a moment’s notice, but he has noticed his friends despairing about his diet more than once.) Often they work in silence, other than their shared meals. One day she asks for his input on which plants to move to the school gate for the fall term, leading to an exhausting afternoon of traipsing up and down the back stairs to compare color palettes and overall composition of the planters.

Everything he suggested is in place the next time Yusuke visits, and he wonders how she did all of that by herself. But she must have done, as no one else has intruded upon the rooftop’s solitude this whole time.

The day before Medjed’s deadline isn’t smotheringly hot, and he needs a distraction from the fact that Futaba’s still not awake or else the anxiety will gnaw at him all day, so he heads to Shujin. Haru’s already hard at work on her vegetable planters when he gets there; she glances up long enough to wave hello and goes back to her work.

She ends up a focal point of his first drawing of the day entirely by accident, but she looks so at peace tending to the garden that he can’t help it. At least she has one place to her name that makes her truly happy.

Over lunch - roasted vegetable kebabs, this time - she surprises him. “What do you think of the Phantom Thieves?”

Yusuke blinks. “I can’t say I was expecting that question.” They haven’t talked about the Phantom Thieves at all, unless one counts the vague allusions to Madarame’s change of heart.

“I suppose with all the recent fuss about Medjed, it’s been in the back of my mind. And… well, they targeted someone you once considered family. You’re bound to have a unique perspective on what they do.”

“That’s fair.” He takes a deep breath, and prays he won’t bungle this or give anything away. “I was - I had to keep myself blind to the depths of Madarame’s depravity for a long time. He had legal custody of me, and aside from that, he blackballed every student who left and tried to begin their own career. No one would have believed me if I’d tried to report him on my own, and I deeply resented the idea that someone thought they might be able to stop him.”

He’s never asked, but he’s fairly certain Nakanohara-san gave Akira and the others the information that had them circling back after Yusuke refused their help himself. He was the most recent departure, after all, and could have had a promising art career if not for Madarame’s meddling.

Haru is quiet as she pulls a tomato free of her kebab. “What changed your mind?”

“Hearing his confession. Understanding that he knew what he was doing the whole time, and did not care whose future he crushed so long as he profited. The worst of it didn’t even make it into the news - that would be the negligent homicide of my mother, all to claim her work as his own.”

“How horrible!”

Yusuke nods. “Had it only been me, I may have found it in myself to forgive him. But it wasn’t. There are at least three deaths on his hands that I know of, including my mother’s. I didn’t believe I had a way out from under him until suddenly, I did.”

Of everything that happened in May, that remains the strangest part. The Metaverse and all that came with it are odd, Morgana continuing to talk in the real world a fascinating quirk of cognition - but escape from the inescapable? He’s still getting his head around it, honestly.

“The Phantom Thieves have found a means to hold people accountable for their actions. If the people they target won’t confess on their own, and the police cannot or will not put any effort into bringing them to justice, then I don’t see how it’s a bad thing that someone is doing so.”

“I agree,” Haru says. “There are so many horrible people that offering a light to those who are suffering is… maybe not exactly a public service, but something we could all use. I’m far more concerned about the mental shutdowns and rampage incidents.”

“As am I.” They have nothing but unfounded suspicions as to who might be responsible for those - and if it is Akechi, as Akira thinks it is, they can’t possibly all be his idea. It may not be Akechi, either; all they know for sure on that front is that he understood Morgana. They need more information, but they may only be able to get it at the cost of taking the blame, at this rate. The public won’t care that changes of heart and mental shutdowns are two very different things, if someone can provide even a tenuous connection.

“So if…” Haru hesitates. “If someone were to put in a request on that website, for the Phantom Thieves to change the heart of someone the requester is supposed to respect… you wouldn’t hold that against them?”

“Not in the slightest. I’m given to understand that’s the nature of several requests as things stand.” Besides, it would be ridiculously hypocritical of Yusuke, at this point.

Haru visibly relaxes, and changes the subject.

***

“I’m not sure how soon I’ll be able to return,” Yusuke-kun says, as they’re packing their things for the day. “My friends have been talking about organising an excursion to the beach before summer vacation ends, and I’m not sure when that’s going to be.”

“I see.” And the end of summer vacation is only going to make it harder for a student from another school to come up here unnoticed. It couldn’t have lasted forever. And yet, perhaps selfishly, Haru doesn’t want to give up this slice of normalcy. It’s hers; how dare the world try to take it from her?

“Maybe we could trade phone numbers?”

Haru freezes in place.

“I’ve come to enjoy chatting with you,” Yusuke-kun adds, apparently taking Haru’s silence for reluctance. “Even if we can’t continue here, and I do intend to try to come back, I’d like to keep the option open. Unless you find it distasteful?”

“Oh, no, no, not in the slightest! I’d love to keep in touch. I just…” Haru sighs; there’s no getting around it at this point. “I’ll have to come up with a clever way to save your contact information, or else my fiance may get suspicious.”

Yusuke-kun’s eyebrows rocket upward. “You’re engaged?”

“I am, yes. My father arranged it. He’s planning the wedding for after graduation.”

“I see. Is your fiance kind to you?”

She should say yes. Failing that, she should say something to keep her friend from worrying about her when there’s nothing either of them can do about the situation alone.

She says nothing. The words catch in her throat, as if her own voice is betraying her.

Mercifully, Yusuke-kun lets it drop. “Save me as a landscaping contact. It’s true enough that I’ve provided consultation on your flower beds, and it wouldn’t be unexpected for you to have cultivated one or two of those.”

“That - that’s true.” Haru smiles, trying to get her wits about her again. “Let’s do that, then.”

She heads home with the day’s vegetable harvest and a lighter heart than she’s had at the end of the day for quite some time. She’s not truly going home to anything different than usual, but knowing Yusuke-kun has her back still seems to have lifted a weight from her shoulders, like someone took a bag of potting soil that she didn’t know she was carrying.

She’s especially glad that he didn’t mind the notion of requesting a change of heart for a family member. Haru has no idea if she’ll be able to follow through on the idea, but she’s been contemplating it since she first noticed the uptick in rampage incidents among food-service workers - specifically, among Big Bang Burger’s competition and people at Okumura Foods who opposed the chain’s expansion.

Her father is up to something in his shameless pursuit of the political world, and she knows just enough to be certain it’s nothing good.

Haru hasn’t exactly had a texting partner her age before, but she still suspects Yusuke-kun is an unusual one. She doesn’t mind, though. He mostly sends pictures, either of his own art or something that he finds inspirational, or that reminded him of her. (She saves a drawing of the planters, in colored pencil and stark black ink, as her phone’s background.) When he does send written messages, they’re plant puns, the most eloquent non-sequiturs she’s ever seen, or simply asking how the planters are doing.

He doesn’t ask about her father or Sugimura via text; it’s almost like he knows better than to leave that land mine where one of them might find it. (He probably does know better, all things considered. She’s never met anyone who understands how she feels this exactly before.)

Yusuke-kun does manage to visit the rooftop a few more times before school resumes. While he and his other friends are at the beach, he sends her a picture of some lobsters, noting that he very nearly bought them until he realised he had no way to take them home and nowhere to keep them once he got there. He seems disappointed to have to make do with photos rather than the real thing, but Haru’s sure he’ll make something impressive out of the inspiration they gave him anyway.

When her homeroom teacher asks if she’s available to help chaperone the school trip, Haru hesitates. Strictly speaking, she doesn’t have any other demands on her time, not even cram school for college entrance exams her father doesn’t believe she’ll need to take; the real question is whether he’ll allow her to leave the country without him.

Much to her surprise, he does allow it, and she tries to spend those few precious days not worrying about what awaits her when she returns. It doesn’t work very well, but she can at least say she made an effort. Her room assignment is shared with Niijima-san, who seems content to mind her own business and leave Haru to her thoughts.

She’s not sure whether that helps or hurts.

She notices on the second day that there seem to be far more students in the resort than Shujin’s group accounts for, even with the number of seniors chaperoning, but she doesn’t think anything more of it until that afternoon, when Yusuke-kun approaches her.

“I hadn’t expected to see you here as well,” he says, with a warm smile. Haru can’t stop herself from returning it.

“The police wanted to interview several of Shujin’s teachers about the incidents this spring, so they asked several of us seniors to take the job. What about yourself?”

“This wasn’t our intended destination, but apparently there was inclement weather in Los Angeles. Rather than risk going there anyway, my school decided to reroute the trip to here; I’m still not sure how they pulled it off on such short notice.”

“Well, I’m not one to complain about a stroke of good fortune.” She hesitates for a moment before adding, “I’m surprised Father allowed me to come on this trip, honestly. I’m worried it’ll come at the cost of more of my free time when we go home.” She wouldn’t have admitted that to anyone else, but Yusuke-kun understands.

“You do still have a duty to the garden, at least. It would reflect poorly on him if he kept you from fulfilling it.”

“That’s true.”

Haru just doesn’t know how much of her freedom she’ll have left.

***

The sharp spike in the Phantom Thieves’ popularity following Futaba’s sound thrashing of Medjed is nothing short of disturbing. Yusuke finds the blind worship with which people have started talking about them alarming, if he listens too closely. Yes, they needed to raise their public profile, but this seems…

It seems off, in a way he can’t properly articulate.

The ‘who should the Phantom Thieves target next?’ poll bothers him on an entirely different level. Surely Akira’s friend meant well in starting it, but the speed and ferocity of the Phan-site’s engagement with it is just as unsettling as everything else. Not to mention, it cannot - should not - be the only criterion upon which they choose their next target. How do they know the poll isn’t being manipulated to push them in a certain direction?

At least they can be certain this Okumura fellow has a Palace to call his own; he pops up in the MetaNav connected to Okumura Foods’ office building, rather than Mementos. Thanks to the data Makoto pilfered from her sister’s work laptop, they also know he’s the beneficiary of a large number of mental shutdowns and rampage incidents interfering with his competition. Odds are good he deserves a change of heart no matter the other circumstances at play. But it feels like the poll is rushing them, and Yusuke doesn’t like it one bit.

Especially not after the death of Shujin’s principal, right at the end of their school trip. He didn’t so much walk into traffic as come to a dead stop in the crosswalk, heedless of the truck that ultimately struck him; it sounds like a mental shutdown.

He wishes he had names to go on for Haru’s father or fiance, or both. Then he could at least see whether they’re the sort of people worthy of the Phantom Thieves’ attention, and potentially raise the issue with his friends. She deserves better than she’s getting from them both.

At least Ann agrees with him that the fad is getting out of control and no basis for the group’s decision - but for some reason, that sets Morgana off badly enough to leave the meeting entirely. They’re all left staring at his empty spot on the table in shocked silence.

“What the hell,” Ryuji finally says. “Why’d he make it about me? I was the one who agreed with him about doin’ this!”

Akira sighs. “You two have always considered each other easy targets. I don’t think it was actually about you, but you were here and… he’s been weird about something since Futaba joined the team. He won’t tell me what, though.”

“We can’t help him if he won’t tell us what’s wrong,” Ann says. “That’s part of what being a team is, isn’t it?”

Futaba curls up on herself without leaving her chair. “I’m sorry. I just made things worse by being here, didn’t I.”

“No way, Futaba. Whatever’s going on in Morgana’s head, I bet it’s not your fault at all, not really.”

“He’ll probably be back in no time,” Ryuji grumbles, clearly still sore about being blamed for Morgana’s problems.

“And we’re not gonna get anything else done tonight.” Akira’s shifted into leader mode; Yusuke wonders if he knows he did it. “Let’s all get some sleep. If Morgana doesn’t come back tomorrow, then I think we should at least take a preliminary look at Okumura’s Palace the day after and see what we can make of it. We can decide from there if it’s something we want to do for the right reasons, or if the public’s just kicking up a fuss about this guy because everyone else is doing it.”

It’s as reasonable a plan as any of them can think of, even Makoto. Yusuke heads home, and wishes (not for the first time) that at least one of the others went to his school. It’d be easier than having to worry about all of this by himself all day.

Futaba eases the wait somewhat by roping Yusuke and Makoto into trying to guess the distortion keyword, so that they’ll be ready to go as efficiently as possible. They cycle through and reject a number of possibilities before Futaba declares, Wait a minute, BIG BANG BURGER, and reports back after a couple minutes of silence that ‘outer space’ did the job.

The Palace is every bit as grand as that keyword suggests; Yusuke may have to ask Akira to come back here with him long enough to draw some aspects of it, before they send the calling card. However, they don’t get much more than a horrifying glimpse of Okumura’s cognition of his company’s employees before they hit a roadblock in the form of a secure door.

“Biometric lock.” Futaba sighs. “Even I can’t hack that - we’d need the man himself or a family member to get past it.”

“Dammit. We done, then? Is Mona even here?” Ryuji sounds frustrated, and for once, Yusuke can’t blame him.

“Well, if Mona is here, he wouldn’t have been able to get past this door either,” Makoto points out. “So he’d have to be somewhere in the areas we just--”

“Halt, vigilante!”

Yusuke spins to face the voice, which came from atop some nearby shelving. Sure enough, Morgana’s perched on the top shelf, and with him is - Haru? What in the world is she doing here? She’s dressed the part of a Persona user, and Ann murmurs something about the black domino mask she’s sporting, but Yusuke sees nerves in her posture rather than confidence.

The ensuing conversation backs that up; it sounds like Morgana coached her through whatever insights she has, she’s genuinely caught off guard when Akira agrees with her, and she repeats herself more than once. And Morgana’s certainly not listening to reason, either.

The interesting part, to Yusuke, is that she can’t bring herself to look him in the eye.

After declaring for the second time that she and Morgana will be taking the Treasure, Haru turns her back on the group and approaches the locked door - which opens for her. Yusuke’s too stunned to move, as this just answered several of the questions that have occupied his mind for the last few weeks. No wonder she didn’t want to give out her family name, if this is the state of her father’s heart. Unfortunately, the delay gave the guardian Shadows plenty of time to amass behind the biometric door, and they have to flee before he can talk to her.

Back at the hideout, the others wonder how she got that door to open in the first place, with the obvious conclusion apparently occurring to no one. Yusuke opts to say nothing, though; he’d rather confirm his suspicions with Haru in person before setting the rest of the team on her.

***

landscaping: We should talk about yesterday.

Haru stares at the text message for so long that her phone goes dark from the lack of input. It’s the first time Yusuke-kun has committed anything vaguely sensitive to text.

So that was him yesterday. She’d thought so - the height certainly matched up - but he didn’t say enough for her to be certain. But even without knowing for a fact that it was him, she couldn’t bring herself to repeat Mona-chan’s insult of choice. Yusuke-kun knows how to take a hint; she’s seen him do it several times in the last month and a half.

She leaves the text message be and goes to shower, then to eat breakfast, managing to sneak a little grilled fish off her plate for Mona-chan once she’s sure it wasn’t cooked with onions. (He may say he’s not really a cat, but she’d rather play it safe.) It’s not until she’s on the train to school that she responds.

Haru: Yes, I suppose we should. I have some work to do on the school gate planters this afternoon.
landscaping: Very well. I will see you then.

When Yusuke-kun arrives at Shujin, Haru’s contemplating once again how to convince her homeroom teacher that she really doesn’t need to load a push cart up with mulch when Haru has ground-floor work to do. She can haul the bags one at a time by herself with no difficulty, but she can’t shift the cart when it’s loaded down with three of them. Yusuke-kun simply picks up one of the bags and asks, “Where do you need it?”

“Over by the bushes,” Haru says, smiling with relief. She picks up the second bag and leads the way; Yusuke-kun doubles back for the last one before sitting down on one of the planters she’s not working on.

“Was ‘Beauty Thief’ your idea, or Morgana’s?”

Haru blushes, despite herself. “That… that was Mona-chan’s suggestion. I’m still not sure what I’d choose for myself. Truth be told, I barely know what I’m doing.”

Yusuke-kun nods. “I assume you chose this tactic rather than submitting a request?”

“Well - sort of. I did that as well, but I think it got lost in the recent chaos. If you and your friends have done any research, I’m sure you found some of the recent scandals that my father might have had a hand in. I want to make amends to those he’s hurt. I want to be able to have a conversation with him again. I want--” Haru stops herself; it’s selfish to say she wants out of her arranged marriage.

“I found Mona-chan outside the office building the other day,” she says instead. “I ended up following him into the Metaverse by accident, and he explained how things work, but I’m still a novice. I just thought… I don’t know enough to change my father’s company, but maybe I could change his heart.”

“What did he tell you about us?”

“He said you don’t know what you want to do. And that you weren’t helping him.”

Yusuke-kun sighs. “He didn’t tell any of us he was having a problem. As one of my friends said when he left, how are we supposed to help him if we don’t know that he needs help? It is true to say that we haven’t fully committed to taking on your father’s Palace yet, but decisions on targets are meant to be unanimous, and a few of us have… reservations about simply doing so at the Phan-site poll’s behest. We didn’t get into this only to take society’s suggestions for what we should do.”

“No, I suppose not. Society at large would have told you to stop.” Haru leaves it at that for a while, taking care of some of the mulch spreading she needs to do while she gets her thoughts in order. “I’ll see if I can talk to Mona-chan. He was very upset, though, so I don’t know if I can promise anything.”

“That’s all I can ask. Thank you for trying, regardless of his response.”

Before Haru can say anything else, though, a boy’s voice calls, “Yusuke? What are you doing - oh.” When he comes closer, she recognises his hair; it’s another of the Phantom Thieves. The leader of the group, if she remembers Mona-chan’s quick rundown correctly.

“I didn’t realise you two knew each other,” he adds, the words laden with meaning.

Yusuke-kun shrugs. “Nor did I realise she might have any connection to what we’ve been looking into until yesterday, Akira. Haru never mentioned her family name over the summer, and I now understand why.”

“Got it.” He glances at Haru. “Tell Morgana he’s being an idiot and we’re worried about him?”

Haru can’t help laughing a little. “I will.”

Unfortunately, when she gets home, Mona-chan doesn’t seem interested in talking about it. “They’ve already shown over and over that they don’t need me anymore,” he says, tail lashing. “There’s no point in going back to being treated like that.”

“But the other day, you said you wanted to get stronger so the others would acknowledge you.”

“...Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t know what I want.” Mona-chan huffs out a kitty sigh. “Anyway, if you’re free tomorrow afternoon, I’ll take you into Mementos. Maybe we can figure out why your Persona isn’t fully awakened there - it’ll be a lot safer than trying to tackle your father’s Palace with just the two of us.”

Mementos doesn’t prove to be terribly enlightening, in and of itself. It’s the time Haru has to think while they’re traversing the floors that does the job: She’s going to have to go back to her father’s Palace. She’s going to have to accept that wanting out of her arranged marriage can be reason enough to change his heart, even if the other reasons still apply. She’s going to have to tell her father that to his face (or a version of his face, at least).

She can’t do that and still call herself a heroine, in her own mind, which is enough to give her a better idea for a code name than ‘Beauty Thief.’

When they reach the floor Mona-chan wanted to investigate, it’s little more than a train platform and a sealed door, black with ominous red decorations. Mona-chan seems particularly baffled by the door, even though he said it’s normal for such partitions to be present within Mementos.

“But - I don’t understand,” he says. “The Phantom Thieves’ notoriety is through the roof right now. That’s always been enough before!”

Haru thinks about it for a moment. “I think you just answered your own question, Mona-chan. While you’re normally part of the team, on your own, you’re not ‘the Phantom Thieves’ in the public’s minds. Much like I can’t do this properly without confronting my father, I don’t think you can do this properly without your team.”

Mona-chan bristles at the idea, but it isn’t long before he wilts. “...I know. But what if they really don’t have any use for me anymore?”

“Would they really still be so worried about you that they asked me to tell you so if they didn’t think you had any value outside of your contributions to the team? In any case, we can’t really do anything here, so we might as well go back.”

They do, and Mona-chan is quiet all the way back up to the entrance. When they return to the real world, though, Haru’s phone immediately lights up - first with a missed alarm, then with dozens of missed calls and texts.

Oh. Oh no. She was supposed to have dinner with Sugimura tonight, she’d forgotten about it completely with everything else going on.

She’s going to be in so much trouble.

***

They make use of a karaoke booth as cover for a group discussion once again, rather than disrupt whatever legitimate business Sakura-san may have this afternoon with a pack of rowdy teenagers. Futaba mutters dire things about the booth’s poor soundproofing (Yusuke’s inclined to agree; if anything, the background noise seems worse than it had in June), while Makoto just looks concerned about its overall cleanliness.

“Right,” Akira says, after everyone’s found a seat. “Two things we need to talk about, and the first one is Morgana. We all owe him a big apology, but I’m not sure how to get it to him.”

Ryuji scowls. “He owes us an apology too, dammit.”

“I never said he didn’t, but just like he didn’t tell us there was a problem, we didn’t notice, either.”

They all discuss the matter for several minutes, but settle on the same conclusion they had previously: they’re just going to have to wait for Morgana to come around. Ann and Futaba seem fairly optimistic that he will come around, but even they agree there’s no point in chasing after him and trying to force the matter.

Makoto sighs. “What was the second thing?”

Akira glances at Yusuke, rather than start the discussion himself, but Yusuke had been half expecting that. “Haru was maintaining her garden when I went to Shujin’s rooftop last month. We’ve been speaking regularly since then, so I have a bit of insight into the situation she’s in.”

“Ooooooh, given-name basis already, Inari?” Futaba’s grinning like the fiend she is.

“She declined to offer her family name, and I didn’t press for it. Her father is the only parent she has left to her, and she’s noticed a marked change in his behavior over the last several years. He also arranged a marriage for her, and… frankly, if she’d ever mentioned her fiance’s name, I would have recommended looking for him in Mementos based on what little she’s said. She’s concerned about her father’s potential involvement in the mental shutdowns, among other things, and I believe she thought herself as powerless as I once felt, before she found Morgana.”

Yusuke takes a deep breath. “If we go forward with changing Okumura’s heart, we should not do it without Haru’s involvement. I still have reservations about the Phan-site poll aspect of it, but we do have compelling reasons to step in aside from the poll.”

“Yeah, that’s true. If he’s not directly responsible for the mental shutdowns, he probably knows who is.” Ann frowns. “I don’t know, the poll thing still feels weird to me. Like… like it’s some kind of trap.”

“It could be, but maybe we should spring it,” Makoto says. “If we’re careful, and we go in knowing there’s a chance someone wants to use it against us, we might be able to learn enough to stop them too, while we’re at it.”

Ryuji glances at her. “You think we could find out who’s pullin’ Akechi’s strings?”

“I still think it’s a big assumption to say he might be involved, but if he is, then yes, we potentially could.”

“That’s more of us tentatively in favor of tackling this Palace than we had before,” Akira says. “We’ll talk to Haru again, and maybe that’ll help bring Morgana back around, and then we can figure out how we’re handling this from there.”

Finding Haru to speak with her turns out to be as easy as leaving the karaoke bar. She’s arguing with an older man - Yusuke assumes this must be her fiance - who has her arm in a vice grip; Morgana’s lying in a crumpled heap across the alley from them. When confronted with a pack of teenagers who can see right through him, her fiance doesn’t stick around long, though he doesn’t leave without threatening to bring hell down on them all.

“Well, he was every bit as charming as you’d implied,” Yusuke says. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.” Haru rubs her wrist where her fiance had grabbed her. “But Mona-chan…”

“This is - nothing.” Despite his protests, Morgana allows Futaba to pick him up. “I’ll… I’ll apologise for the other day, but would you let Haru rest for a while?”

Akira nods. “Absolutely. Let’s go, guys.”

Haru sticks close to Yusuke all the way back to Leblanc. While she’s asleep on the couch in Akira’s room, Morgana finally explains what he’s been struggling with for the last few weeks - feeling useless in the face of Futaba’s superior navigation abilities, uncertainty as to whether he truly is really human as he’s long insisted, and a growing feeling that he doesn’t belong in the group after all.

“What’re you talking about?” Ryuji says. “We wouldn’t’ve made it half this far without you, man.”

Ann snorts. “Not without a trail of bodies in our wake, that’s for sure. You’re the one who gave us another solution. Besides, all you had to do to belong here is be our friend, silly.”

“Yeah, and like… I thought we were just tradin’ shit like usual. I didn’t know it was digging into you that bad. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not like I didn’t take unfair digs at you, too.” Morgana sighs. “Anyway, I can’t ask you to keep risking yourselves for me. This can’t be called a fair deal anymore.”

Yusuke can’t help raising an eyebrow, even as Haru stirs from her rest. “Who said we were doing this for your sake? I’m doing it to expand my own horizons.”

And because he doesn’t want to leave others at the mercy of people like Madarame, if he can do something about it.

“There’s no need to tiptoe around the situation--”

“You should stop lying, Mona-chan.” Haru sits up properly, reaching over to pull Morgana off the table. “When I found you in Father’s Palace, you told me you wanted to get stronger so the others would acknowledge you. You love being here, don’t you?”

“I - even if I do, that’s not the point.”

Akira rolls his eyes. “Of course it’s the point. You don’t need any more reason than that.”

“I was lying to myself too,” Haru says, releasing her grip on Morgana. “I thought wanting to change my father’s heart because of what he’s doing to the company, and his possible involvement in the mental shutdowns and rampage incidents, was a good enough reason, but it’s not the only one.”

“Your fiance?” Yusuke asks, and she nods.

“I thought since adults with authority made the decision, there was nothing I could do about it. But - I can’t stand that creep!” It’s the most forceful statement Yusuke’s heard from her yet. “I won’t tolerate this anymore.”

“Can’t say I blame you,” Ann says. “Not for thinking you couldn’t do anything, and not for not liking the guy. Honestly, we could probably find him in Mementos, if you wanted.”

“I don’t… I’m certainly thinking about it, but it won’t solve the root problem. If we were to only change his heart and make him withdraw from the arranged marriage, Father would just start over with another political contact. And even if he became a better person as a result, I wouldn’t want to marry him anyway. I don’t think I could trust that he’d stay that way for good.”

“And if we leave your father alone, your situation never changes, but if we change his heart, there’s a very real chance we’ll be walking into a trap.” Makoto frowns. “No matter what we do, someone loses.”

“No. No matter what we do, I lose. If someone is using Father as bait to trap you, it’s because - because he’s no longer of use to them. That’s what that kind of person does, when someone is no longer of use. If it’s somehow not a trap, he’d likely go to prison. If it is…” Haru stops there for a few moments, and picks up somewhere else entirely. “And if we leave him alone, I lose my future.”

“Well, that’s easy,” Ryuji says. “We do the one where you don’t lose your future.”

Akira nods. “You shouldn’t have to give that up.”

“It’s her father,” Yusuke says, since he doubts anyone else is truly going to understand. “If merely having evidence that someone is despicable were enough, I would have helped you immediately. We wouldn’t be doing this for the public’s sake anyway, so what they think about our timeline doesn’t matter. Let her weigh the options for herself.”

Haru gives him a grateful smile, and Yusuke’s breath catches - but before he has time to think about that, Ryuji swears.

“Ah, fuck, the last train’s comin’ up. We better get going, guys.”

Makoto nods. “Let’s continue this another time.”

“Stay here, Haru,” Futaba says, finding her voice for the first time since they left the karaoke bar. “Well, probably my house. I’ll arrange it.”

“Do you have enough fare for the train, Yusuke?” Makoto asks as they head downstairs.

“I do. At this point, the better question is whether I’ll actually make the connection.” But it’s not a major concern if he doesn’t. The walk might give him a chance to think about this tumultuous evening in more detail.

***

Futaba-chan’s - father? Guardian? Haru’s not sure what their relation is, and asking seems impolite - looks positively shocked that she’s brought over company for the night. He doesn’t protest the idea of Haru spending the night, though, even going so far as to dig a futon out of a closet for her.

“No one’s used that thing in years,” he says, “so I can’t promise it’ll be the most comfortable night’s sleep you’ve ever had. If you need more blankets, they’re in the same closet. Toilet’s across the hall.”

“Thank you very much,” Haru says, because falling back on good manners has never steered her wrong before.

“Of course. I’m not so heartless as to turn you out in the middle of the night. Futaba, let me know if you two need anything else, all right?”

Futaba-chan rolls her eyes. “We’ll be fine, Sojiro.”

Her enthusiasm fades after Sakura-san leaves and they set up the futon, but Haru’s not entirely surprised; she’d noticed while they were all talking that Futaba-chan seemed uncertain of what to do with herself. She doesn’t mind the quiet, either - gods know she has plenty to think about tonight.

“We actually can’t do it without you,” Futaba-chan blurts out after a while.

“Excuse me?”

“Your dad’s Palace. You know that door you opened that had all the monsters behind it? Biometric lock. I can hack a lot of things, but I can’t make one of those think I’m related to someone. So… we can’t do anything in there without you. I guess the good news is, neither could anyone else.”

“I see.” Technology isn’t Haru’s strong point, but she knows what biometric locks are, and the presence of one inside her father’s Palace suggests one of two things. Either he has absolute faith that she, his only living relative, would never turn against him…

…Or she’s so far beneath his notice that the possibility simply hasn’t occurred to him.

She’s not sure which theory she likes less.

She’s up well into the night, staring at the ceiling while Futaba-chan pokes around on her computer. They don’t talk much, but that suits Haru fine, right now.

If she stays out of her father’s Palace, then presumably - if she understands Mona-chan’s rundown on the Metaverse correctly - whoever’s been giving people mental shutdowns won’t be able to harm him, either. Not via the cognitive world, anyway. If her father has become enough of a thorn in someone’s side that they’d use him as bait against the Phantom Thieves, she can’t rule out the chance they’d try something in the real world to get rid of him.

If she changes her father’s heart, she cannot guarantee his safety. But if she doesn’t change her father’s heart, she cannot guarantee his safety - and if she doesn’t change her father’s heart, she’s stuck with the engagement to boot.

She doesn’t want him to come to harm. She just wants him to try to understand her again.

She can’t see how, if he does come to harm, it could possibly be her fault.

It’s her father. She shouldn’t think of him like that.

It’s her father. He shouldn’t treat her like this.

She doesn’t know what to do. She wants to text Yusuke-kun about it, to get a better picture of when he became aware of his former teacher’s ill repute, but she doesn’t dare turn her phone back on tonight. She’d turned it off on the way to Yongen, and she’s sure Sugimura’s told her father about her blowing off dinner and refusing to go home with him by now. Not to mention, she’s failed to go home herself, which she definitely didn’t have permission to do (not that her father would have granted it if Haru had asked).

She must sleep eventually, because the next thing Haru knows, Futaba-chan’s waking her up for breakfast. She’s not sure Futaba-chan slept either, but she did seem wide awake last night; maybe she’s just more of a night owl.

Her phone does light up with several text message alerts when she turns it back on, but she ignores them. She’ll be going home after breakfast, after all, so there’s nothing they can tell her that she won’t learn then. Breakfast is the most relaxing meal she’s had in years, and when she saves two new phone numbers in her contacts, she doesn’t bother obscuring the fact that one of them is a boy.

Of course, her good mood evaporates when she goes home and her father greets her with the news that she’ll be moving to Sugimura’s house next month. “You won’t be officially registered yet, but that’s how it is with young people these days, isn’t it? Go prove your sincerity to him.”

In that moment, something in Haru’s heart snaps. He carries on, berating her for making ‘unsavory’ friends and staying out without permission, more worried about his company’s faltering reputation than his own daughter’s well-being, but she doesn’t really hear it. She’s heard it all before anyway.

Very well. Her father is the one who keeps saying the family motto encourages betraying others. She’ll just have to steal her future back.