Cover to Cover
Spoilers, October - early November. Naoto character study.

The worst part isn't being found out. The detectives she worked with most often always knew, of course - you can't fool other investigators, not the good ones, and it hadn't been a secret among the peerage that Naoto's parents had produced a girl. Every one of the senior detectives she worked with knew and never informed the other stations. No one let on. It served them better to have Naoto as a boy, with themselves in on the truth. If Naoto ever felt anything about being a subtle one-up between departments - to be an in-joke, a snickering behind a hand at other people's perceptions - she said nothing.

She can thank her Grampa's influence that they tolerated her at all.

The other agencies lost face by being assisted by someone younger, but they could salvage enough of it so long as she was male. To have a girl, even a Shirogane girl, would have been intolerable. They preferred the easier solution, the one that could be most politely swept under the carpet when she grew too physically mature to hide any longer. Then - they assume - Naoto would have followed her duty and stepped politely aside to bear a real Shirogane heir. The next in the chain. As countless other Japanese women had done, ignoring Naoto's own mother, who thereby earned her fate in society's eyes of being dead.

Naoto is Shirogane. Her family has a history; she would have been filial. So everyone assumed.

No, the worst part is how people think she's going to change, like revealing a secret would erase everything. That she will put Naoto away like a toy, or a device outgrown, and resume being a girl; that, many years afterwards if anyone asks, she'd say she had just been playing at being a boy. Playing, like her Shadow had been playing - like her Shadow had reflected her own fears back at her of how she was being perceived. And, now that her secret has been exposed, there is no longer any need for masculine trappings - as if finding out her gender fixed her. As if all she is is a girl who thought she needed different chromosomes to be accepted.

But Naoto likes the clothes, the frown, the short hair and seriousness. She likes the seamlessness when there's nothing between her and the other detectives except for age and arrogance, when she looks at them and sees them trying to evaluate her as a younger version of themselves, rather than as a different species. Male, female. Naoto wants to be beyond such things. She wants to be something so good that it defies gender, that it eludes male and female definitions, that it continues the tradition of bringing honor to the Shirogane name forever.

Naoto knows how the idea got into her head. She wanted to be a detective. She wanted to be a great detective, and in Japan, that means a person has to be male - like how you're expected to have certain physical endurance for manual labor jobs, or steady hands as a surgeon. And there are things she likes about being male, and things she's sick of hearing about, like how dressing as a male supposedly involves rejecting being female, how it's never about becoming something else but only denying what you are.

And she likes these things, these boy things. They're as much a part of her as her breasts and slightly curving hips. She likes how she's allowed to be more blunt as a boy. She likes how she has a broader fit in society. She likes how she moves differently at school, more aggressively, segregated from girls who argue about regulation lengths of skirts and the trials of pull-up socks.

And if Naoto is supposed to accept the latter, then, she thinks, she is supposed to accept the other half too.

Naoto wasn't always her name. She picked it from the lists with Grampa's help - Grampa, who hadn't complained to say that Naoto should respect the choice of her parents, how Naoto's parents had given her a girl's name, had been happy with having a daughter. Grampa had simply listened. When she'd narrowed the options down to five choices, he had nodded, and gravely poured more tea.

Yakushiji had helped her with the forms, correcting her gently when she checked the box for gender. He'd had to explain that, while society might indeed judge based upon what's written down on paper, that didn't mean you could change facts with the flick of a pen.

The characters that go into Naoto include one that becomes honesty in context. She chose them on purpose. Even at that age, she had liked having meaning in things, having a reason, and this - she figured - would be her true name.

Yakushiji had acknowledged that.

In October, as Naoto recovers at the Shirogane estate from her first practice run through the television, she wonders if Dojima's nephew and his friends will ask her what her original name was. Or if they will even think about it. She finds she can't let it go, even as she prepares herself for the inevitable day when they look at her and see only girl - when before, it had been detective.

Naoto's spent so much of her time defining herself as what she's not. She fights against anyone who tells her, you are this way because of your body. It's not just gender, it's age too. She's young, which means she's inexperienced in the eyes of the police force - inexperienced and ignorant. But age will fix itself on its own. When it does, however, society will shackle her in place. It expects her to be married, to have kids, to fit expectations.

Society thinks in terms of on or off, right or wrong - young and old, male and female. But Naoto is both. She is like Sukuna-Hikona. She possesses dark and light simultaneously. Her true nature isn't limited to just one.

Naoto can't be a great Japanese detective as a girl. Not because she's incapable - only that it will never be recognized. Of Japan's collective police forces, only approximately twenty-six thousand out of two-hundred ninety thousand are female. The figures are worse with private detectives. Naoto doesn't particularly care about representation - what she wants is to follow the story, to be respected, suave, talented, accepted. She has never read stories about a female detective. Her mother was good, but her mother was viewed as a partner to her father by the police. Her mother would not have had books written about her.

Not fair, not fair, the voice inside Naoto cries. Give me a reason to stay. Give me an explanation for why I am like this - female, young, driven to succeed. There is a purpose in being how I am. Give me a reason to keep it.

At first, it's easy to distract herself. She dives right back into the case, learning all she can from Seta and the small crew of students he's assembled. She learns a new environment in the television; she relearns school. She trains herself in mind as well as body, forcing herself to adapt to thinking in new directions: with Shadows, with murder, with herself.

September was bad enough, thinking the murderer might have been caught. October is manageable, if awkward. Primed by paranoia, Naoto keeps catching glances from everyone she runs into. She keeps second-guessing how and why people respond to even the smallest of interactions. The implications build up; over and over, Naoto finds herself tensing like a spring, suspicious of motives that have nothing to do with homicide.

She can't be the only one who feels this way. Kanji, from what she's gathered, has a Shadow that prefers men; now that everyone knows about it, he goes so overboard in trying to emphasize how fine he is with girls. Of all people, she'd expect Kanji to understand things that are expected of him based on gender alone.

But he treats her differently since finding out, more carefully, as if she'll break. As if she's strange: as if she suddenly has a different thought process, girl thoughts, girl desires. Naoto has Naoto thoughts. If she is to be considered delicate, it should be because she is delicate regardless of if she is a girl or a boy.

She would imagine that Rise could sympathize with being dismissed on the basis of appearance, to be belittled and blown off, but the other girl copes with it differently. Enough of Rise likes being given attention that she doesn't fear being looked at. Enough of her likes being Risette that she doesn't hide from it, doesn't cut her hair or change her name or wear clothing that makes her figure flatten out into straight lines.

Stereotypes were - Naoto's gathered - the heart of both Rise and Kanji's Shadows. Naoto's seen the strip club. She's visited the sauna; they've explored the known spaces of the TV World. Naoto had been unrelenting in how it would only be beneficial for her to see the other regions as well. And Souji had nodded, and silently lifted an eyebrow whenever anyone had protested, and led everyone again and again into the twisting rooms. Naoto's seen everyone's inner shames now, just as they've seen hers. She can extrapolate from there.

They get back after one run, sore and aching under their uniforms. Everyone disperses in the rain. Rise cajoles Souji to walk her home. Everyone left behind watches the two of them depart before Chie turns to Yukiko and says something about catching the last bus; Teddie bemoans the dampness in his fur. Naoto, shifting from foot to foot and tasting the sting of a Maragion lingering in the back of her throat, realizes that the only one left besides her is Kanji.

She opens her mouth to excuse herself, and is interrupted by an embarrassingly loud stomach gurgle.

"We can grab a bite at Aiya," Kanji suggests. "They're open late."

Naoto's tired enough to simply duck her head in a meek acceptance. Even as they push through the door to the restaurant, she's wondering if she's merely retreating into the social role of a girl by doing so. Guilt needles her chest. Burdened by dissatisfaction, she slides onto her stool, and lets Kanji order for them both.

Kanji breaks the silence when their food arrives. "You getting along with Senpai fine?"

He doesn't need to say Seta's name; they both know who he means. She fidgets, wraps her hands around the noodle bowl. There's too much in there for her to eat. The wad of noodles intimidates her. "There has been a minor disturbance in my personal life," she acknowledges, and then hastens to clarify. "It is unrelated to the issues at hand. Senpai has been gracious enough to assist me thus far."

She half-expects to be on the receiving end of a nosy stare when she looks up, but Kanji's only grinning. "Hey, that's cool. Glad to hear it, Naoto-kun."

"Perhaps. You - you don't have to keep using kun if you don't want to," she blurts suddenly, nauseous with stress. "I would... understand that."

Kanji's bluntness could level nations. "Do you want me to?"

She stares at her chopsticks without really seeing them. "Yes."

"Then I will. I'm not gonna judge you, Naoto." He snorts, blushes, and resorts to prodding at a lump of pork. "'M the last person who should be doing that."

But she does feel judged. She does. Not so much from her friends - whom she is slowly starting to accept as friends - but by society. Her secret's out; the police at the station can't pretend anymore. Dojima's silent, accusing eyes are bookended by Adachi's gawkish attention. She's judging herself and going crazy about all the things she can't escape; she acknowledges parts about herself that she'd rather not, but that doesn't mean the rest of society has to be so enlightened.

Even her friends are an uncertain quantity. She's afraid that they have it all wrong - that they came to the conclusion that she simply wants to be accepted as female, rather than accepted as someone who wants to be male as well, who wants to be socially met as an equal regardless of gender. Naoto needs a reason to stay as she is. It's not just a matter of remaining after a case is done; she wants that too, but she needs more. She craves explanations. Logically, she knows there's a reason why she is the way she is, which has nothing to do with how there's always a reason for everything in books, or at least the well-written ones.

Nothing. She tells herself that at night. Nothing.

She can't help but be afraid of that a bit: how maybe even her own sense of importance is generated by herself, generated by someone who's lonely and trying to justify it as there must be a reason. Everything is significant in books, everything has a reason for why it's printed on a page. There are no loose ends. While Naoto knows, logically - she always says that too, rationally, rationally, it's a prayer or a mantra, it's a sticking point of pride against the gross stereotypes of her gender - that life is not a tidy fiction, it's still hard. It's not logical, no matter how much she wants it to be, no matter how she needs to connect motives to crimes, causes and effects, why her Shadow is this way because of so-and-so psychological influence, why her world is a secret base. Try as she might, there's something inside her that keeps getting in the way.

It's tempting to just categorize it all as girl against boy. Everything is tempting when the answer looks so close to fitting seamlessly together, and that's the kind of thing that infuriates Naoto, when things are close but not lined up exactly. That's what bothers her so much about this case right now. Things could be so neatly solved as a series of mere homicides, but she's overlooking something. This Midnight Channel exists - why? The Shadows become agitated, why? People are appearing on a TV, why? She was kidnapped and rescued and now they're all waiting, waiting and practicing through October while trying to keep their studies up and Kanji fails math.

Like a good book, Naoto expects that there will be answers because that's how life should be: the best story ever. If not, there's an inequity that she can't help but recoil from, labeling it unfairness like a kid pointing fingers. Maybe that's really the nature of the childishness in her - maybe that's the source of what she's afraid of, that she's relieved no one else has picked up on. There's a part of her that points its finger and stamps, and says no, it can't be this way, it needs to be something else. No, it's not that I'm a girl, it's that I'm a girl who wants to be treated like a boy.

It's a fine distinction, but an important one. Naoto isn't even sure how to explain it. The two sides define a space with her in the middle, and if there's not a logical purpose for why Naoto's like this, then she doesn't know what to do.

She hears her Shadow in her voice: not fair, not fair.

The words echo each time she casts Mudoon and Hamaon back to back, one after another, flipping light and dark like a wheel. She spins them like points in a circle. That's what Naoto is. That's what she really means, with a name full of honesty, encompassing things that can't be pinned down. There are reasons for why she exists the way she does, even if she can't list them yet - even if she can't even find them yet.

When gender disappears, it's all about the puzzle, the information, the case at hand. A mystery doesn't need a pronoun attached.

The book of her life goes both ways. To explain Naoto takes all the pages, with her detached somewhere between them, floating from side to side.