A/N: Happy early new year, everyone! Have some angsty fluff. Kanji x Naoto, post-game, T-rated for Kanji's eternally inappropriate language.
It was an old photograph. Naoto couldn't explain why she'd taken it from the box or why it had been in there. The composition was terrible: her father was only half in the frame, her mother was looking to the side, and Naoto herself - no more than two years old - was making a grab for her grandfather's tie. Yakushiji had probably been behind the camera.
The snow had been falling lightly for an hour and clusters of flakes were forming on the steps to the apartment building. Naoto leaned her head against the railing and refolded the photograph to quarter-size, following the white creases and attempting to match the wrinkled edges. She made a mental note to throw it away later along with the rest of the box, knowing she wouldn't and doubting she could. Even the old clothes and scrap electronics had proved impossible to discard. Naoto had settled for categorizing them instead. Then she'd decided to empty the bedroom closet completely - and the one in the living room, and the dresser, and the chest of drawers. Everything in a single sweep. More efficient.
The rest of the apartment was always immaculate - empty, even - making it easy to forget how much she'd brought from the estate to Inaba over the last two years. Boxes of old photographs, letters and postcards. Printouts of emails. A coffee tin of old watch components. A model robot she'd built aged six, then modified with unfolding wings and a laser gun that still flashed and made firing sounds eleven years later. No semblance of order, no purpose, no structure. She had been on her knees in the middle of seven piles of nothing in particular - her father's threadbare winter scarf in one hand and a dog-eared copy of The Maltese Falcon in the other - when she'd finally stood up, picked her way to the front door and walked down the stairs.
This, Naoto decided, was what happened when you kept things for no reason.
(Kanji had given her the book last June. "Just a present," he'd insisted. Naoto had already owned a copy - which she was certain he'd known at the time - but the new version was preferable. The print was easier to read.)
The scarf was still looped over her shoulders. Her coat was still upstairs. Inexplicable behavior, as was her apparent attempt to cram half the contents of her grandfather's estate and twenty months of Inaba jumble into two small rooms.
Sixteen months, strictly speaking. Four had been devoted to casework elsewhere, including the past three. The apartment lease would expire on the first of January and the plan had been to pay the landlord to dispose of the contents in whatever manner he saw fit - until yesterday, when she'd realized they had never been inventoried. Naoto, always rational, had caught the train to Inaba the same night. Her memory had never been as reliable as she would've preferred, making it impossible to know exactly what she'd left behind and meaning she ran the risk of losing something important.
After seven hours spent up to her elbows in useless clutter, she knew she'd been completely right on the first count and equally wrong on the second. This was unsurprising. Habits were hard to break.
("Holy crap, did your living room explode?" Kanji had asked.
Naoto had assigned numerous adjectives to Kanji, some more flattering than others. 'Neat' had not been on the list, until Tatsumi-san had informed her that not only did he set up all the shop displays, but he also reorganized the stockroom at least once a month. On this particular occasion - when she'd been hunting for a particular pathology textbook and had transferred much of her living room closet to the sofa - he'd attempted to do the same to her apartment. Naoto had threatened dire consequences if he touched a single scrap of paper and firmly suggested he make some tea instead.
Kanji had frowned in response. "You'd know where everything was if y'kept it neat," he'd grumbled.
Naoto had gestured around the room at the orderly shelves, the color-coded case files on the table, the schoolbag flush against the wall. "Everything else is," she'd curtly replied. They repeated a similar exchange almost every time he visited.)
The snow started to fall more heavily, large flakes of it building up on the brim of her cap and soaking into her shirt. Naoto tangled her fists in the fraying ends of the scarf and shifted against the step.
It had snowed last December, fifteen days before they caught Adachi. She remembered walking outside Aiya to think, instantly wishing she hadn't, then staying in the cold for ten minutes rather than risk the rest of the team laughing at her. But she'd assumed last year's weather patterns to be anomalous, for obvious reasons. Inaba's winters were typically milder, or at least Kanji had said so when she-
Clearly this winter was different. It was also one more than she'd intended to spend here. Naoto often wished her offer to leave with Souji had been more than a feeble attempt at a joke. Sometimes she suspected it had, and that if he asked again now, the outcome would be quite different. Subconsciously, she must have known what would happen if she stayed, because by March much of it already had. In truth, everything had changed the moment she'd decided to put her life in the hands of a gang of children - yet at the time, everything had seemed clear and simple. There had been Adachi and the need to capture him, just as there had always been cases and the need to solve them, and Naoto had never considered what would happen when there wasn't.
Souji had once told her change was necessary. Necessity did not make something easier to stomach. Inaba had caused her discipline to falter by forcing her to care - which was ridiculous, because she didn't and never had, not about anything, not except her work. Naoto had a singular talent, one she'd devoted her life to refining and which rewarded her by breaking the world down into simple components, until all that was left was all that was necessary: a sequence of puzzle boxes, self-contained and unambiguous.
Inaba, however, remained whole. Staying had been impossible.
(Rationalizing it would later prove impossible - but at the time, for a single vivid instant, Naoto had thought: well, of course. The next step they'd been crawling toward for months. The logical conclusion.
Then the world had reordered itself a moment later, and she'd slammed her palms into Kanji's shoulders.
Everything after that had been white noise: stuttered denial on both sides, fierce heat blazing over her skin, Kanji's endless, useless apologies - and Naoto's head buzzing with terror as she stormed away, ignoring the way her lips still stung and the ridiculous notion that she'd been right first time.)
Snow began crunching to her left, steadily growing louder. Somebody was approaching along the sidewalk. Naoto kept her head down and hoped they'd leave quickly - sulking in the snow was ludicrous enough without witnesses - but the footsteps stopped at the base of the steps.
"Kinda cold out here."
Her stomach had turned to lead somewhere between the first and third words. Swallowing, she lifted her head just enough to see Kanji Tatsumi standing in front of her - or his kneecaps, at least, which right now were vastly preferable. She didn't look up. "H-how did you know I was-"
"Dojima-san saw you near the station. Told Chie-senpai. She told me." His hands were shoved in his trouser pockets, his fingers visibly worrying at the fabric from inside. Naoto remembered him frowning whenever Yukiko had done the same with her skirt. He gestured toward the scarf. "That new?"
Naoto shook her head and twisted the wool tighter around her fingers. "I'm not here to see anyone," she pointed out.
Above her, Kanji cleared his throat. "Then what're you doin'?"
"Cleaning. For the new year."
"S'posed to have finished all that by now. You only got one day left."
The words were casual. His tone wasn't. She shrugged. "I'm late."
"Yeah." He paused. "Spendin' the holiday with your gramps?"
(Grampa had been preparing for his own departure the day she'd returned to the estate. A trip to Switzerland. Work-related. Yakushiji would be accompanying him. "Perhaps you could visit your friends," he'd said, and Naoto had heard something quite different: a cluster of implications she hadn't welcomed. Grampa had continued talking - something about four consecutive cases being three too many - but she'd already stopped listening.)
"No," Naoto replied.
Kanji's heels scraped against the snow. "Not like you gotta spend it by yourself. New Year's, y'know." Another, longer pause. "Ma, she always says s'too quiet with just me an' her."
"I will be fine."
No response, as expected. He wasn't supposed to be here to start with. Naoto, meanwhile, stared down at her hands, still wrapped in fabric, and tried to think of a single rational reason for bringing her dead father's scarf to Inaba. She barely remembered him wearing it, but her thumbs had worked the frayed ends even looser and-
"So what did I do to piss you off?"
Startled, she blinked - then made the fatal mistake of looking up.
Kanji's shoulders were shifting with each heavy breath, the streetlight casting odd shadows across his face. "September. You just left. Didn't tell nobody. I, I called you two weeks straight, I left messages and-"
"And then you stopped," she shot back, tasting the acid that had begun to lace her voice.
He shook his head fiercely. "No way. You can't pull this shit, you can't make people care and then-"
"You. You'll just-I know what happens, Kanji. People always-" Her jaw clenched involuntarily. The cold, of course. "This is not open to debate."
There was an answer to that. There were too many answers, overlapping and twisting together into a knotted mass that Naoto - blinking and biting her lip and wishing she knew what to say - had no idea how to unravel.
She hesitated. Furious color burned over Kanji's cheeks.
"I get. I get it, alright?" he snapped. "You're a big secret. All of you, whole thing, right from the start. And-and that's fine. Do what y'want."
This was ridiculous. She was in her shirt-sleeves in the freezing cold and Kanji Tatsumi was about to make her cry. "Look," Naoto managed, and left it at that. She folded her arms instead, keeping her hands tucked in the scarf for warmth.
Kanji just sighed, puffing a white cloud into the evening air. "Naoto, you're gonna-it's frickin' cold out here, yeah? I mean, look at you." He gestured sharply toward her.
"I'm fine," she snapped - but he'd already slipped his arms out of his jacket sleeves. He leaned down and tried to drape it over her shoulders.
In one irrational instant, Naoto jumped to her feet and tried to will her card into her hand. "Don't you dare," she choked, snapping her palm shut and shoving at his arm with her fist.
Kanji fell a step back, then immediately took another forward. His hand twitched toward her shoulder. "What the hell do you get outta this? Why're you-dammit, what's the point?"
"It's how things are. Then you, you changed it!"
"Hell with you," he growled, low and thunderous. "Had enough, alright? Never asked you to come back. Never asked you to come here to start with."
Naoto clenched her teeth; looked down at the snow, wondering why her skin felt so hot; then lifted her gaze to meet Kanji's, jaw tight and chin tipped up in defiance. She only realized her cheeks were wet when his expression shifted.
He stared down at her, eyes wide and vaguely horrified. "Shit, Naoto - don't. Don't. C'mon."
They'd been here before. The hospital, last November. Kanji had yelled at her for falling apart over Nanako and he needed to do the same now, because this was pathetic, she was pathetic, and she had no idea what to do with any of it.
(The hospital itself hadn't been the problem; Naoto had visited more than she could count during casework. The issue had been one of circumstance.
Her parents had died in minutes, on another continent completely. Her grandfather had always been in good health (always would be, she'd assured herself), and Yakushiji had promised years ago to keep both Grampa and himself safe. With no other close family, there had never been a risk of attachment.
"Get it together, Naoto!" Kanji had snapped, voice edged with something closer to fear than anger, as the rest of the team glanced between them both.
Naoto had sniffled and nodded and thought: this was easy before I met any of you. Everything had been easy until she'd started to care - because the moment she had, she'd realized it was impossible to stop.)
Naoto tugged down the brim of her cap and turned away, first wiping her face with her shirt-sleeve, then the scarf. Control yourself. She'd bitten her lower lip on reflex to keep it from shaking - but she hadn't realized she was crying to begin with, that was the problem, she would've stopped it if she had and now it was hopeless.
A hand landed heavy on her left shoulder, the fingers gripping too tightly. She finished only one syllable of a protest before Kanji jerked her toward him and wrapped his arms around her back.
Naoto clutched his sweater on reflex, focused on the rough wool grazing against her fingers, and held her breath.
"Sorry," he mumbled. "I'm no good at this stuff, keep sayin' everything wrong."
She was planning her response, beginning with a request that he give her room to breathe or preferably let her go completely - when he tipped up her cap, leaned down, and kissed her quickly on the lips.
There was barely time to register the contact before he pulled back. There was certainly no time to react. Naoto blinked up at him, ready with an objection that inexplicably refused to leave her throat.
Kanji - eyes wide, cheeks flushed - was pointedly not looking at her. "So, uh, that, that's how it is. F-figured you should know."
"Oh. Yes. I-I should." She tightened her grip on his sweater and locked her knees in place.
Both were silent for several awkward moments.
Kanji cleared his throat. "That stuff I said, y'know, 'bout you coming back. I didn't mean it." He paused, letting out a long breath. "Well, part of me did, I guess. But that part don't see the whole story, and I don't want it drivin' the bus." His hands moved to her shoulders and he peered down at her, brow furrowed. "You alright?"
"I'm fine," Naoto assured him. "I'm always fine."
"Yeah. You are."
His grip had loosened. Naoto took a step back. "Tomorrow. I, I'm supposed to be leaving. For a case."
"Right," Kanji said, far too quickly. "Right."
"Tomorrow. And you. You could-" Her voice sounded far too high, and refused to cooperate with her attempts to correct it. "Tell me what you want me to do."
For several beats, he said nothing. Naoto fought the urge to run.
"You kidding me?" he finally asked; choked, almost.
One question made her feel more ridiculous than thirty minutes of shivering on the steps. Heat raced over her cheeks. "No."
Wide-eyed and undeterred, Kanji continued. "I-I mean-c'mon, you seriously need to ask?" he stammered, tugging his hand through his hair and looking away. "You're s'posed to be-"
He was right. The idea was absurd. Childish.
She jerked forward and grabbed his hand - or as much of it as she could fit in her own - and looked him in the eye. "Just say it. Please."
Kanji opened his mouth, closed it - then frowned, his fingers twisting inside hers. She held tight.
Finally, he sighed, and his gaze softened. "Fine," he said, free hand tugging lightly at her scarf. "I-I want you to stay, you frickin' idiot."
Blinking hard, Naoto swallowed again.
Control yourself. For what, exactly?
With a single, brisk nod, she stepped forward and grabbed Kanji's sweater, burying her head against his chest and feeling the wool scratch against her cheek. Their hands were still joined. "Good," she whispered.