Naoto was rather young when she went to the funeral – thirteen, almost fourteen. Grandpa and the ever loyal Yakushiji-san came as well, her grandfather a stern and commanding presence amidst the sea of mourners. Naoto idly wondered what her cousin had done to warrant such popularity; from what she remembered of him (which wasn't much), he had been a thin, frail boy with sleepy eyes, whose only interest at the time was listening to his music. Looking around the funeral home, where various people were displaying open signs of grief, Naoto couldn't help but feel faintly unsettled.
We're his family, she thought, and yet we barely even knew him. Naoto glanced outside, where a thick fog blanketed the ground.
"Naoto," Grandpa said gravely. Naoto snapped to attention, embarrassed that he'd caught her distracted.
"Yes, Grandpa?" she asked softly. He gazed at her for a long moment with rheum-ridden eyes, suddenly seeming very old.
"Everyone in our family has left me over the years. Everyone but you. Naoto, you are the last of my blood line." Whether you marry or die alone, the family name ends with you. The unsaid words hung heavy in the thick air. Naoto got a bitter taste in her mouth, and wondered for the umpteenth time why she hadn't been born a boy.
It was almost like looking at a warped reflection. He watched her with dark eyes, the music from his headphones filling the silence.
If I had been male, would I look like him? Naoto thought, somewhat nonsensically. He lightly touched her hand, never breaking eye contact. His moth opened, formed the words to string together a sentence.
"Tag, you're it."
She was on the roof of some building, looking out over an indistinct city. Standing there, framed against the hazy outline of the horizon, was a boy. He turned to look at her, and his eyes, bluer than the afternoon sky, widened.
"Mi –" He stopped, ran a finger through his windswept black hair, and then collected himself. "Who are you?" Naoto regarded him suspiciously, trying not to get distracted by his long, bright yellow scarf.
"I could ask you the same question," she said, voice neutral. He didn't reply for a moment, seizing Naoto up.
"Well… I suppose I'm Death," he said. Naoto scoffed.
"Don't be absurd. Death is a phenomenon, not the name of a person," she said bluntly. He blinked, and then a cautious smile broke out across his pale face.
"In that case… there was once a time when people called me Ryoji," he said.
Naoto woke up the next day, got dressed, and took a limousine with her Grandpa to the Shirogane Estate.
She dimly remembered a strange dream, but dismissed it as nothing.
She was back on the roof. Ryoji looked up and smiled.
"I've been waiting for you," he said. Naoto stared.
"How did you… what?" she said, unnerved. Ryoji chuckled softly.
"Sorry if it seems a bit creepy. There's not much else for me to do around here. It gets rather lonely," he said, blue eyes solemn in spite of his light-hearted expression. Naoto hesitated, a pit of something forming in her stomach.
"… I never introduced myself. I'm Naoto Shirogane," she said, feeling as though their – meeting? – would be awkward otherwise.
"A pleasure to meet you," Ryoji said with a disarming smile. Naoto blushed, suddenly hot around the collar.
"Where are we?" she asked, ever inquisitive and eager to change the subject. Ryoji shrugged.
"I'm not sure. This is your dream, not mine," he said. Naoto started.
"I'm dreaming?" she said, stunned.
When she woke up, Naoto immediately went online and researched dreams, her mind abuzz from the events of the night. However, she could find nothing of interest, although Naoto lingered on several theories of lucid dreaming.
"Naoto-sama, someone by the name of Mika-chan called," said a servant, poking his head around her door.
"I've never heard of anyone by that name, so ignore it," Naoto said absently, buried in her research.
Back on the roof, Naoto tried to get herself to fly. She was very disappointed when it failed.
"What are you doing?" Naoto looked up, startled to see that Ryoji was watching her intently. She flushed.
"N-nothing," she said, crossing her arms. "By the way, I've figured it out." Ryoji frowned.
"Figured what out?" he asked, puzzled.
"That you're a projection of my subconscious," Naoto said it with the easy self-assurance of someone used to being right.
"No, I'm Death," Ryoji said after a moment, seeming confused.
"Death is not a physical manifestation," Naoto said automatically. Although it has been represented materially in mythology. But she kept that thought to herself, as it was too preposterous to even mention. Ryoji chuckled.
"If you say so."
At school, Naoto was leagues ahead of her class. She often missed days at a time, busy helping her Grandpa with cases, although she never had any problems catching up. As a result, Naoto had many admirers, but no friends.
It amused her, in a rather cynical fashion, that she felt most alone surrounded by people.
Ryoji was sitting on the edge of the roof, overlooking the city. Naoto joined him.
"This is a safety hazard, you know," Naoto informed him as she sat down.
"I won't fall," Ryoji said, turning to smile at her. "Don't you love being able to see things all spread out before you, like a map or something?" Naoto wanted to say, "Yes, more than anything in the world."
"No, it's childish," she said instead. Ryoji seemed thoughtful.
"I suppose I am a child at heart," he said, reflective.
It was her first big case. She wouldn't be helping her grandfather; she'd be doing it alone.
Naoto caught herself wishing night would fall sooner.
"… What do you think?" Naoto asked when she finished describing the murder. She wasn't sure why she was telling Ryoji about the case – Naoto supposed she simply wanted to talk to someone who wasn't Yakushiji-san or her Grandpa, and there was no other viable option. Besides, Naoto felt strangely comfortable around Ryoji, a fact that puzzled her. The boy in question took a long moment to respond, his expression thoughtful.
"I think it's sad that a man would kill another man." His deep blue eyes seemed to bore straight through her. Naoto blinked.
"What? Of course, that's why the perpetrator has to be brought to justice," Naoto said absently, her mind far away.
"Justice…" Ryoji said broodingly.
They'd stolen it from her. Her big break.
It wasn't fair.
"Damn them all!" she said angrily. Ryoji gave Naoto an alarmed look.
"What's wrong, Nao-chan?" he asked.
"Don't call me that. The police force I was working with – for that case I told you about? – I solved it, but they stole the credit! I figured out who the killer was, not them!" Naoto was on the verge of furious tears, hot pinpricks nipping at the corners of her eyes.
Now, now, Naoto-sama. There's no need to cry; you need to act like an adult if you want to work with adults. The male voice bounced in the recesses of her mind like echoes in an empty cave, bounding about listlessly.
Ryoji hesitated, and then timidly placed a hand on her shoulder. Naoto tensed.
"But you know you solved it, right? And the bad guy was caught?" Naoto nodded grudgingly. "Then that's what's really important, yeah?" His hand was big and warm and very human.
"I suppose," Naoto said sullenly, "But it isn't fair." The words rang childish and stupid even in her own ears. Ryoji merely smiled.
"Why don't we talk about something else?" he suggested, guiding her to the edge of the roof.
"… Very well," Naoto said reluctantly. He then told her a story, his voice low and rolling like a wave, washing over her and leaving in its wake a glowing warmth.
Naoto never told Ryoji that she loved high places. He just seemed to know.
Time passed and Naoto turned fourteen. Ryoji, however, didn't ever seem to change.
Naoto had a strange vision of talking with him on the roof when she was an old maid, while Ryoji looked exactly the same.
"I received ten love letters today. Ten!" Naoto complained to Ryoji, brow furrowed in irritation. He smiled dreamily.
"I remember when I got love letters," Ryoji said with a lazy grin. He was lying on his back, gazing up at Naoto. She paused, blinked, decided to dismiss the thought, and continued pacing.
"They don't even know me. How could they ever think I'd return their affection?" Naoto said irately. Ryoji gazed at her with a knowing expression.
"Well, they won't know until they try, right?" he said with a good-natured smile. "Besides, you're very cute, Naoto." She blushed hotly and averted her gaze.
"Don't be ridiculous. Besides, they all think I'm a guy."
"They're not very observant, are they?" Ryoji said. Naoto scowled at him, but inwardly she was pleased.
When Naoto saw groups of kids hanging out, she didn't feel quite so lonely as she once did. After all, she had various cases to keep her busy throughout the day, and Ryoji to keep her company at night.
Nao-chan, do you have any friends?" Ryoji asked one day. Naoto blinked.
"I have you," she almost said.
"Well, there's Grandpa, Yakushiji-san, and the other servants at the Shirogane estate." Naoto didn't mention all the people who resented her, especially the adults she worked with, because it didn't seem relevant, and she didn't want Ryoji to worry.
"… Don't you think you should have friends your age?" Ryoji asked, plucking her hat from her head and placing it on his own. Naoto twitched, partly out of annoyance and partly out of amusement; Ryoji looked quite ridiculous.
"Well, there's always you," Naoto admitted, a slow blush crawling up her neck to heat her face. Ryoji seemed flattered, although a hint of concern still lingered in his dark blue eyes.
Naoto graduated junior high at the top of her class. It was hard to get excited over, especially since she was in the middle of a hit-and-run incident.
Naoto looked at the cover of her Sherlock Holmes book. Although she took meticulous care of it, it was still worn from copious amounts of use. She lightly fingered the dun-colored pages.
Why is my gender so much weaker? she thought bitterly.
"Do you ever wish I was a boy?" Naoto asked. Ryoji looked out at the indistinct city, eyes far away.
"You remind me of a boy I once knew," he said.
You didn't answer my question, Naoto thought, biting her lip.
The mysterious murder mystery in Inaba was everything Naoto could've desired; strange, different, and virtuously impossible to solve. She just wished the Inaba police force would take her seriously.
But then again, that was nothing new.
"They were hanging from an antenna and a telephone pole? Creepy," Ryoji said, legs dangling over the edge of the roof.
"That's not the most fascinating part. The autopsies can't find anything wrong with them. It's as though their organs simply stopped working." Naoto was brimming with excitement, cobalt eyes shining.
"… Like they died in their sleep," Ryoji said quietly. Naoto blinked.
"I suppose. But common sense dictates it's a murder, because people don't just end up hanging off of telephone poles."
"Well, yeah," Ryoji said, twirling his scarf in his hands. He still seemed rather pensive.
Although it was far-fetched, the pattern Naoto uncovered seemed consistent with the two deaths and the abrupt disappearance of Yukiko. Therefore it seemed safe to assume that Kanji could be the next target.
Naoto decided to question him, and when she did, his swept back, bleach white hair reminded her vaguely of Ryoji.
"I think a bunch of kids are somehow involved in the murder," Naoto told Ryoji.
"Kids? Like, elementary students?" Ryoji asked, puzzled. She flushed.
"Actually, some of them are older than me," she admitted. Ryoji laughed.
"I see." Naoto glared at him.
"But from what I've observed of them, the group has the emotional maturity of ten-year-olds," Naoto said in her own defense.
"So they could become Pokémon trainers?" Ryoji quipped. Naoto snorted and looked away.
"… One of them approached me and asked about Kanji Tatsumi," she said several seconds later.
"Really? What did you say?" Ryoji asked. Naoto didn't reply for a moment, thinking of a boy with silver hair and mesmerizing grey eyes…
"I said he seemed to have a complex of some sort," Naoto finally replied.
"Huh." Ryoji grinned impishly. "Maybe this Kanji guy thought you were cute." Naoto scoffed.
"Don't be absurd."
They all seemed to share a camaraderie that Naoto envied, their growing group of… investigators? She tried not to notice, focusing only on the case, but it was nearly impossible.
"Mitsuo Kubo is clearly not the serial killer, and Kinshiro Morooka is just as obviously unrelated to the other two deaths!" Naoto said, fuming.
"Calm down," Ryoji said, somewhat alarmed by her ferocity.
"No, I will not calm down!" Naoto said snippily. "Not until those idiots at the police station get their facts together." Ryoji blinked.
"Naoto, you're getting really worked up over this. Is something the matter?" he asked. Her expression flickered.
"I…" Naoto took a deep breath. "Ryoji, do you think I don't take this seriously? That I treat the case like… like a… game?" He stared at her a moment, then threw his head back and laughed.
"Nao-chan, you look so adorable right now," Ryoji said, grinning his easy grin. Flustered and not knowing how to reply, Naoto glanced down at her feet. "As for your question… Naoto, I don't think you couldn't take something seriously if you tried. And I don't know if you treat the case as a game, per se, but you do seem a little… obsessed. It worries me a little, to be honest." Naoto looked up to see Ryoji had become very serious, blue eyes staring at her with shadowed emotion.
"Let's talk about something else," Naoto said, unable to handle to intensity of his gaze.
Naoto told herself she was transferring to Yasogami High to keep up on her studies.
Part of her wondered why she even bothered lying to herself.
Ryoji knew something was wrong as soon as Naoto showed up. It was visible in the set of her shoulders, the stoniness of her expression.
"What's wrong?" he said, jumping to his feet. Naoto looked away.
"… They took me off the case," she said, voice devoid of emotion. Her eyes burned.
I will not cry, she thought, curling her hands into fists. I won't.
"Naoto…" Ryoji said softly. He hesitated, and then walked forward to envelop the small detective in a warm embrace. She tensed briefly before melting into him, body shaking with dry sobs. Her hat tumbled to the ground, unnoticed by the duo.
"It's not fair," she said, voice muffled by his shoulder. "It's just not fair." Ryoji stroked her soft blue hair, resting his chin on the top of her head.
"It's okay," he repeated, over and over. "It's okay. I'm here for you."
Naoto continued to work on the case, even without the police force's consent, as an independent consultant (that's what she called herself, anyway). She kept tabs on the group of teens, her suspicions growing with the size of their 'gang'.
Sometimes observing them made Naoto so lonely she wished she could sleep until she died.
"This isn't a good idea, Nao-chan," Ryoji said worriedly. Naoto ignored him.
"I have to know. This is the best way to test my hypothesis without harming anyone," she said.
"Except yourself," Ryoji pointed out. Naoto paused in her pacing to shrug.
"It's not like it matters to anyone. Everyone thinks I'm a kid who considers this whole affair a game." Ryoji looked at her for a long time, blue gaze stormy.
"I don't think that," he finally said, "and you matter to me."
Naoto had never been more terrified than when she was kidnapped. She was almost relieved when she collapsed, darkness swiftly overtaking her vision, because it meant she'd soon be seeing Ryoji.
There was something wrong with Ryoji. He was shivering and twitching and growling. Naoto stared.
"Ryoji?" she said, uncertain.
"Stay away," he snarled. For an instant the young man Ryoji was gone, replaced by a slavering beast. Then he was a young boy, then a tall, dark creature of indefinable power. Naoto stumbled back, terrified.
"R-Ryoji?" she repeated, voice going up several octaves. She remembered that time, long ago, when he'd told her he was Death. Suddenly it didn't seem quite so ridiculous. However, the fear in Naoto's voice seemed to strike a chord with Ryoji, or whatever it was, for he froze, and then the teenage boy was back and in control.
"Naoto, you're dying," he said, turning away, white-faced and trembling, fingers digging gouges into the palms of his hands. "I'm doing everything in my power to resist the urge to take you away."
Take me away where? Naoto couldn't help but wonder. It reminded her of when she was younger, and she had once daydreamed that Ryoji appeared in reality to sweep her off her feet so that they could ride off into the sunset together. Mortified by the effeminate vision, Naoto had banished it to the back of her head, never to be thought of again, although she knew it was still there. Hidden but not forgotten.
"… Maybe that wouldn't be so bad," she heard herself say, as though from far away. Ryoji wheeled around to give her an incredulous look.
"What? Naoto, no! You deserve to live! Make friends with those kids you always tell me about, graduate, save lives, throw evil men in jail, grow old! You… you can't say that; don't even think it!" She had never seen Ryoji so frantic, so uncollected, so afraid.
"But… you're all I've ever wanted," Naoto said, voice breaking at the end. Ryoji took a deep breath and gave her an even, solemn look.
"That's not true, Naoto. You don't want Death." And deep down, she knew he was right.
"But, Ryoji, you're all I've ever had," Naoto said, shaking with pent up emotion.
"Well, if things go wrong, I could be all you ever get," Ryoji said grimly.
She survived. Somehow. And found herself surrounded by brand new, real-life friends, who'd hidden an amazing secret. Naoto had never been happier.
Or more tired.
"You'll never believe it, Ryoji," Naoto said as soon as she appeared on the roof. "There's a world inside the television –" She cut herself off, and for good reason.
Ryoji was glowing.
He gazed at her with sad blue eyes and said, "I have to go." Naoto stood there.
"Why?" she finally asked, feeling numb. Ryoji shrugged.
"Your potential death has passed. I'm no longer needed, I guess. Or maybe it's just time for me to move on." Naoto didn't really understand, which was strange, because she usually caught on so quickly. There was a loud roaring in her ears.
"You can't go. I need you here. You're my only friend." The words sounded muffled to her ears.
"Not anymore," Ryoji said softly. "I was honored to be your friend, though. In all honesty, I thought I'd be alone until the end of days. I'm glad you proved me wrong." He was slowly disappearing. Naoto's mind raced as she tried to think of something to say.
"Wait!" she finally yelped, panicked. Ryoji laughed.
"Death doesn't wait, Nao-chan." Then he was gone, and the world went black.
Her male reflection said nothing for a long moment.
"I'm sorry," he said. "But Ryoji's right. You can't come back."
Naoto woke up with a warm wetness on her cheeks.
She sat up, took a deep breath, and put on her hat. Then she wiped away the tears and got ready for school.
Her new friends were waiting, after all.
Author's Note: Well, hope that was okay. This is a new style for me, and I'm not sure I conveyed what I wanted to convey. I do have some vague, rather convoluted theories on how Naoto and Ryoji ended up meeting, as hinted at throughout the text, although I'll leave it up to you guys to formulate your own ideas on what happened. If you found the one-shot enjoyable, then I did my job, and I hope you'll leave a comment or two if you so wish. :)
Return of the Thief, out.