Disclaimer: Persona IV is the property of Atlus. This is a four chapter story. Rating is for language, suggestive themes, and mild violence.
Crime and Crème Brûlée
June 2015, the sixteenth. The sun's hitting the blinds, casting shadows like the stripes on a prison jumpsuit. The slats of my ceiling fan swing in a lazy backhand, and all I can do is toy with that bottle. Squat, dark as molasses, the light oozing off it in oily slicks. Like thirst, its allure never diminishes.
Hardly a knock and she's there, slim with a vivacity hammered to listlessness. She drags herself over to my desk, the pinprick heels of her shoes tapping like a metronome. Perches one thigh on the edge, tilts those sad eyes at me and says, "Sheez, Naoto-kun, still got that cold?"
I sniff by way of answer and return the bottle of cough syrup to the desk, reaching instead for the overstuffed box of tissues. "It's clearing up. I should get back to work tomorrow, Thursday at the latest."
Rise tsks. "Too bad. When I heard you were coming out here, I thought we'd actually have a chance to have some fun." She cranes her neck around, evaluating the hotel suite I've rented for the next two weeks, as this case shouldn't last out the month. It's nice, not as expensive as I could've gone (and have gone sometimes), but I felt it was best to remain inconspicuous. It's fortunate that Rise's still hardly a name in America, otherwise I couldn't risk becoming known through any association with her.
I clear my throat, speaking slowly. If I talk fast, my nose jams up and starts squeaking, my throat tickles, my eyes water - it's not impressive. "But it looks like you got that free time you wanted."
"Yeah, they're busy shooting outdoor scenes this morning. I don't need to show up until four. I think he said four." She looks down, forehead rippled with doubt. "English. I still can't understand what they're saying half the time. Oh, but I do know 'DO OVER'. They say that one to me a lot."
I make a sympathetic sound in my throat - start coughing. For the past three days, I've been bedridden, and today I thought I'd try to move around more. So I've planted myself behind the desk, but it's really no different. All I've done is haul my pillow to the chair and burrow into the comforter Kanji made for me last year. (I must've let slip how much I feel the cold, because he gave it to me without the slightest provocation. I usually pack it if I'm going to be traveling for a lengthy period.) In any case, I still feel bedridden. Maybe I should let up the blinds, get some light in here...
Coughing makes my eyes water, and after I squeeze them shut for a moment, I notice Rise watching me in that nonchalant way that means she needs favors. "Is something wrong?"
"No," she says easily. "No, everything's fine, I just..." She tilts her head back to study the ceiling, rolls her curls off her left shoulder, then looks me dead in the eye. "I'm in trouble."
I raise my eyebrows.
"There's this guy."
She doesn't sound frightened, or even worried. Pain tap-dances between my eyes. I shut them, leaning back in my chair.
"You remember my costar, Adam Oliver? And you remember the film's star, Celia Sheridan? And how she's quitting the project because she's pregnant and all that? Well, it's drawn a lot of press on this film, and everyone wants to drum up more interest. And since Adam dated Celia Sheridan a couple years ago, he's all interesting to the fans right now, and the executive producer wants us to go out. Nothing permanent, just publicity junk to draw the public eye, you know? And..." I can hear her shift, tapping the toe of her shoe against the floor for a moment. "When it's about the public eye this way, I'm thinking I need a private eye."
I'd open my eyes except that the headache's getting much worse, more like a train all of a sudden. "Please clarify."
"He's a jerk. That is, I want to know that he's one." I open my eyes. Rise's leaning over my desk, light brown gaze almost level with mine. "I need you to dig up some dirt on him."
I clear my throat again. "Rise-chan, if you don't want to date him-"
"I'm gonna lose my part! It's not like anyone's going to cry if I get replaced, because no one in America has any clue who Risette is. And I really want to work on this project. So I need to find out something about him that's so terrible they won't make me date him. Plus-" She leans back, eyebrows angled anxiously, nibbling her lower lip. "I'm a little worried about what - Senpai will think."
I sigh, refusing to be drawn into an analysis of my best friend's ever-evolving relationship with Souji. At least, not right now. I reach for a tissue. "Rise, I'm in the middle of a case already-"
"Then let me sweeten the deal for you, Detective Prince." She leans forward, delicate jaw tensed. "Do this, and I promise, I solemnly vow, I will never release your measurements to the public."
The tissue pauses halfway to my nose. Rise's had many an occasion to threaten me with my three-size, and it's always gotten the results she wanted. For her to relinquish that blackmail...this must be important.
More than that, if I can finally silence her concerning that, it will be worth any extra effort on my part. With as much dignity as I can command, I dab at my pink nose. "That is satisfactory. Do you have a deadline?"
"All business," Rise says, eyelids curving with admiration. "Well, before the week's out would be best. There's going to be a press event this Monday, and that's when Adam and I are supposed to sell ourselves as a couple." In a moment, she's lunged across the desk, hugging me around the neck, scattering my tissues, dislodging my hat, and nearly capsizing me. "Thanks, Naoto-kun! Don't worry, I'll find something else to blackmail you about soon enough." Then, as listless as a butterfly, or maybe a dandelion puff, she floats out, waving one hand behind her.
I reach for the cough syrup.
I'm deadlocked until one-thirty, both from my cold and the increasing calls from my clients. I'm fluent enough in English that I can speak it without much thought, a mercy to my congested head, and the ill thickness of my voice adds to the illusion that I'm male. In Japan, my sex is still a gradual revelation to my colleagues, and in America, I'm less known than Rise, so I doubt the detectives here will discover my secret. Still, cross-dressing is becoming more complicated; though passing for a sixteen-year-old boy was second nature, posing as a twenty-year-old man is impossible. I find myself tampering with my carefully cultivated records, changing not only my gender but my year of birth, all to maintain an illusion. Sooner or later, it'll all come clear, and I find myself wondering if I face that with dread or relief.
But today, with my throat scratchy and my sinuses rebelling, I have more immediate concerns. After fortifying myself with toast and lemon tea, I brush my hair, set my cap straight, and venture outside. I've already searched the Internet for any superficial clues relating to Adam Oliver, and it's time to do some digging.
This film, a small independent project being shot partially in New York City, has only flickered on the public's radar since its star's dramatic announcement of pregnancy. Celia Sheridan was slated to bring both interest and money to the film. Which she has, though in a way she couldn't have expected. Some of the paparazzi followed her back to California, but many remain to speculate over the rest of the cast and crew. It's easy to track their movements, but getting close to them proves problematic. Even the Best Boy, whose role in film-making I can't even guess at, is accompanied by a cordon of paparazzi when he stops at a sidewalk vendor for a soft pretzel. If I fail to gain any new information concerning Oliver, I manage to track the crew's movements. With an early start tomorrow, I should be able to interview a paparazzo or two.
All afternoon I've been assailed by calls from colleagues on my other - my actual - case, sorting through the new clues, conducting a haphazard interview with a spray-painted individual who wanted to sell me sunglasses, and dispatching my underlings - that is, colleagues - to follow up on these leads. I return to my suite after sundown. At some point, I must have eaten a pizza slice somewhere, because I notice a tomato stain on the inside of my right shirt sleeve as I step back into my apartment. Also, there's a bag of root beer-flavored throat lozenges in my pocket. (I hate root beer, is there a receipt so I can exchange them?) I do remember the moment I called up a nearby bakery and ordered a box of eclairs to be sent up to my rooms. It had been 2:43, and I already knew it was going to be an infernal afternoon, and I needed a reason to come back to the hotel instead of jumping the next plane for Tokyo.
I'm being melodramatic. I must refrain from that.
My colleagues are still calling me as I eat one eclair, as I attempt to check my texts, as I soak in the tub for a solid hour, as I'm sniffling my way through another eclair. Around eleven, there's a brief respite while I huddle in my pajamas, open my laptop, and try to concentrate on some posts in a forum devoted to Adam Oliver. It's devolved into Real Person Fanfiction by the time I back-click and the cell beeps again. I flip it open without looking and croak, "Yes?"
There's a fumbling on the other end, the sound of someone removing a phone from their ear in order to be sure they've got the right number. I check my own phone, then clear my throat. "Kanji-kun, are you still there?"
I can hear the hum of a sewing machine in the background. It's around noon on the seventeenth in Japan, and I can't help thinking tomorrow's probably better over there. "Yeah. Shit, I thought I was talking to your gramps for a moment. You okay?"
I clear my throat again, and my voice emerges passably normal. "I'm better."
"How's the case going? You gonna be heading back soon?"
There's hope in his voice, and I'd blush if he were here, but with half a planet between us, I am a rational being. "I hope so. We made a lot of progress today, and I should be able to close the case in a matter of days. Though I..." I draw a steadying breath. "...did receive an additional assignment this morning." And I sketch the essentials of Rise's request.
"Huh..." he says slowly, consideringly. Sometimes Kanji draws his words out because he's not following what's going on, and other times he does it to hide the fact that his mind has launched into overdrive. "That's...interesting."
"What's wrong?" I ask.
"What?" he yelps. "Nothing's wrong."
"Nothing! I just - er - I just sewed two sleeves together, that's all."
"What's wrong?" With Kanji, convoluted arguments aren't necessary. Persistence is often enough.
"Shit," Kanji mutters under his breath, then, louder, "I dunno if this is supposed to be a surprise for you, but Souji-senpai's going over there to see Rise. Like, a big surprise for her and all. I think he might even propose or something. Anyway, I was just thinking, with her arm candy there...Might make things awkward."
I almost resort to a four-letter word myself, but some force of will restrains me. I reach across the bed for another eclair, then settle back on the pillow and tuck Kanji's comforter up around my chin. "I'm confident that I can satisfy Rise's request in a matter of hours. It will have resolved itself long before Senpai arrives."
Something in my own voice must've betrayed me, because Kanji's "Uh-huh" is dubious. "Sure. And then it's back home?"
I smile against my phone. "As soon as possible."
"Great." I could almost reach out and touch the sudden warmth in his voice. And then, abruptly, it's off. "But, uh, not immediately."
I shrug away the comforter. "Oh? Why not?"
"Er - well, Souji-senpai was saying he needed a place to crash before he surprised Rise. And so we thought about you, and how you might not let him stay with you, so Yosuke-senpai said it would be better to arrive unexpectedly...but I've kinda nixed that to begin with. Well, anyway, Senpai's relying on you for room and board so he can surprise Rise."
"I see." I draw the words out myself, and it's not because I don't know what to say. I close my eyes and sigh. "Well...I can't very well leave Souji-senpai in the lurch. I'll call him tomorrow and make the necessary arrangements."
"And then back home?"
"Yes. And then I refuse to leave Japan for another year." I pause, a smile twitching up my mouth, and even though he can't see it, I'm still self-conscious. "I mailed you a postcard yesterday."
"You did?" A pause. "Why?"
"Ah - well..." I fidget with the comforter's edge. "I know it's much easier to simply call you but... the card made me think of you." I believe my blush has bypassed the visible spectrum into infrared. "It has...kittens on it."
There is a protracted silence, then an impassioned gulp. Kanji's voice wobbles. "Shit - I - Naoto, I - uh-"
"If you don't know what to say, that's fine," I say in a rush. "Don't say anything." Rather grimly: "Every moment I'm on the phone with you is a moment I'm not talking to my colleagues."
He clears his throat, hard, and the wobbling's gone. "Right. Sure. Anytime."
"Is-" My nose squeaks. Hoping he didn't hear, I refold my tissue and wonder if there's any discreet way to blow my nose so the phone doesn't pick it up. I decide to bear it stoically. "Is there anything else?" I realize belatedly that my question could be taken as a prologue to ending the conversation. I want there to be something else, and not only to keep my colleagues at bay. If we were together, Kanji might be able to see the hopefulness in my face, but here, I can only communicate through my voice. Phones are wretched media for real discourse. So, at the moment, is my voice.
"Uh...nah. So yeah, we'll talk later?"
A plea creeps up my voice, but I swallow it before I speak. "Certainly. Good night, Kanji-kun." I wait to hear him hang up, meanwhile he waits to hear me hang up - and I grimace and hang up, then frown at the phone. Just as it beeps. I check the number, sigh, then hand myself back over to my colleagues.