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Sixteen Steps

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Rise thinks Kanji's a sweetheart from the start; the clumsiness and awkwardness just add to it. Sure, he's pretty imposing, and from what Chie-senpai's told her he's calmed down a lot since he joined the team, but it's still hard to imagine why people in town are so scared of him. If Yukiko-senpai's stories are true, he was cute as a little kid too - played house, dressed the window in his mother's store, and helped Yukiko-senpai carry her bag to school.

(Admittedly, Yosuke-senpai's stories are a lot stranger - but Rise suspects half of them really say more about him than Kanji and she's tired of trying to figure out which ones.)

Naoto's more complicated. Weird at first; he asks her a ton of questions after the others rescue her from the T.V. world and doesn't quit until Rise's grandmother shoos him out the store. By late July, he's just a big (or tiny) self-important moron. On the school trip in September, he's kind of shy and strange. Even a little cute, maybe, if you like that sort of thing. Then he gets himself kidnapped on purpose, making him a total jerk again, and Rise devotes a good five seconds to being thoroughly pissed off before guilt kicks in. The exact same thing happens again when they pull him - or her - back out.

After that, it's all too much effort. By November, Naoto's sort-of-maybe a girl and Kanji's still crushing on her, and Rise, deciding they're both ridiculous, metaphorically throws up her hands and just rolls with it.


January's a problem, because Kanji doesn't have a good reason to hang out with Naoto anymore.

There's no reason for the team to meet at Junes, so he only sees her between lessons at school, which he then spends searching for new excuses to see her more often. Souji's not impressed when his grades take a tumble and dedicates an entire evening to giving him an Important Talk about paying attention in class.

("Be thankful you only got it once," Yosuke tells him later, rolling his eyes.)

Kanji makes a lot of promises to Souji that he really, honestly means, except they don't work out because Naoto always jumbles everything up. Rise doesn't help, either. Comes to the store all the time and teases him for having the world's biggest crush on the universe's most clueless detective, until one day he snaps and threatens to throw a stuffed hippo at her.

She folds her arms - and for once, she isn't smiling. "You could just tell her, Kanji-kun."

By February, he still hasn't thought of the good reason he needs. He tries to settle for their walks home after school, Naoto splitting off after they leave the park and Rise trying to cheer him up the rest of the way.


Occasionally, Naoto wonders exactly which of her actions - or which combination - has upset Kanji, who barely speaks to her and refuses to meet her eye when he does.

When questioned on the matter, Rise simply shrugs.


Most of Rise's summer vacation is taken up working at her grandmother's shop, but she spends the rest hanging out with Kanji, because he's seriously going to throw himself in the Samegawa if he doesn't do something about Naoto. Even Tatsumi-san says how worried she is about him, he's been in a terrible mood for months now.

("Hormones," she says, and Rise's grandmother nods - glancing at Rise herself as she does.)

Naoto comes to visit them at the textiles shop a few times a week, usually on her way to the bookstore or police station, and never notices that Kanji clams up soon as she walks through the door. She never talks much either, but Rise's gotten used to carrying a conversation for three.

Then, one day in late July, she says she'll be leaving Inaba for a while. Some case in Osaka that she isn't allowed to tell them anything about. What she doesn't mention is that 'a while' means all of August, at least not until she stops at the textiles store on her way to the train station.

"See you back at school," she tells them both, with a tip of her cap.

Later that afternoon, Rise buys up every flavor of Topsicle the Shiroku store sells, runs back to Tatsumi Textiles in the summer heat and dumps them all on the shop counter in front of a wide-eyed Kanji. "So you don't poke yourself to death with a knitting needle," she tells him with a smile, then shoves a Chaotic Coconut Topsicle in his hand.


Summer hasn't been all he hoped for. Not that he hoped for much of anything. Kanji knows himself too well by now, just like he knows that for all the plans he made and conversations he had inside his head, he was never going to tell Naoto what was up.

But at least Rise's been hanging out with him. Actually been really nice, even if (and maybe because) she's kinda loud sometimes. She's quit calling his dolls creepy too, and even helped him set them up in a window display. Shame she'd change her mind pretty quick if she saw what he's been working on for the last week.

Kanji sits the two dolls on the sewing table in front of him, side-by-side. Each is about fifteen centimeters high: one with pigtails and a microphone in its hand, the other wearing a cap and holding a magnifying glass. 'Creepy' might just be the right word, especially since he can't remember why he decided to sew them to begin with - or why he's made it so they can hold hands.

Something up with that, he thinks, and tucks both dolls inside his materials box.


Naoto arrives back in town just a few days before the start of the new school year. She's quiet, though. Even more than usual. Rise, figuring that she's probably only talked to policemen and other detectives for the past month, decides the best cure is some intense hanging out with friends. And since Naoto's only got a few, most of who are busy with the new semester and one who's hopeless forever, the task falls to Rise. She calls Naoto on weekends, drags both her and Kanji to the roof to eat lunch each day at school, and even convinces her to go shopping in Okina one Sunday afternoon.

"You spend a lot of time with me," Naoto says while they're waiting at the train station.

Rise smiles. "Well, yeah! I missed you, dummy. And Kanji-kun was in pieces, seriously." But Naoto doesn't say anything after that, and Rise hates pauses in conversation. She tips her head. "...You missed us too, right?"

Naoto stares at her for a moment - then shrugs. "I suppose I did," she says.


Few things captivate Naoto more than unsolved mysteries, but both Kanji-kun and Rise are impossible to decode. One continues to ignore her, the other refuses to leave her alone.

Naoto tells herself repeatedly that she prefers the first option.


"Kanji-kun, have I offended you?"

Kanji, who was just standing outside the sewing room and minding his own business, tries to answer and comes out with a grunt instead. It must sound like a reply, though, because Naoto looks up at him and keeps going.

"You are awkward around me," she says.

He isn't sure whether to laugh, run away, or slap her on the back and hand her a medal - so he resorts to a lie. "S'nothing."

Her blue eyes narrow. Kanji's been trying not to look at them. Rise's are much easier, but that's no surprise; brown's a warmer color. "You are certain?" she asks.

"Yeah." He glares back into the sewing room. "And it don't matter anyway. You got Rise to talk to."

This time, Naoto looks confused. "What do you mean?" she asks, dipping her head.

Kanji isn't sure how to answer that, except that she's all Rise's been talking about. Naoto this, Naoto that. Ever since she came back from Osaka.

Not like he cares.

He swallows. "She's just hanging out with you a lot, s'all."

It's hard to see under the brim of her cap - but if he didn't know better, he'd swear Naoto's cheeks turn a little pink.


It's totally, completely, one-hundred-percent obvious that Kanji and Naoto are perfect for each other. All Rise needs to do is get the latter to realize that and the former to finally do something about it. It becomes her official project for the month of October; she doesn't figure it'll take that long, really, but she needs to leave a week free for Souji's visit.

Unfortunately, the campaign doesn't go to plan. Naoto shreds the forged love letters without reading them and all of Rise's hints about secret admirers are met with blank stares. Kanji is just plain useless, no matter how many pep-talks and idle threats Rise gives him - and since Yosuke-senpai won't show her how to work the elevator control panel at Junes, the 'forced awkward encounters' plan never even gets off the ground. By the time Souji arrives at the end of the month, Rise's feeling thoroughly bummed-out by the whole thing.

"Something's gotta change," she tells him over lunch at Junes. "I'm sick of Kanji-kun moping all the time and he might be really good for Naoto-kun. I have to get them together, Senpai."

"Spend a lot of time on that, don't you," Souji says evenly, one eyebrow raised.

Rise shrugs and twirls the straw in her soda. "Hey, they're not gonna get anywhere without me."


The most disturbing part yet is when Rise begins talking about secret admirers.

And for many reasons, Naoto thinks. Or rather, she tries not to.


It might just be the best idea Rise's ever had, even if she stumbles on it by accident and even if it's Chie-senpai's, really, since she's the one yelling it at Yosuke-senpai when Rise walks out the gate after school.

"Shame Souji didn't stay longer, Hanamura," she snaps. "Could've taught you some manners!"

Aha, thinks Rise.

Later that night, while her grandmother's locking up the store, she skips over to Tatsumi Textiles and tells Kanji her grand plan.

"I'm gonna coach you, Kanji-kun," she says. "Make you irresistible. Naoto'll notice for sure."

Kanji's already better than Yosuke-senpai in a whole bunch of ways. He won't take much work. Unfortunately, he isn't as happy with the idea as Rise, and insists loudly that she's got it all messed up and she needs to quit watching so many dramas, because they're putting a bunch of weird stuff in her head.

"Ain't nothing wrong with me," he adds, a little petulantly.

Rise fixes him with a glare. "I didn't say there was. You're awesome. I just wanna help things along."

There's only a moment's pause before Kanji starts up complaining again, but this time it's a lot less energetic and Rise's a persistent girl. Within an hour, she's taught him a couple of really smooth compliments, even if he stammers them a little when he's practicing on her. The next day she comes back again and gives him a few tips on body language (which boil down to 'stop clenching your fists and stand up straight'). The short lessons continue each day until the start of December, and even if Kanji doesn't remember all of it and she's not even sure how much will be useful, some of it's sticking - and there's a chance, Rise thinks, that Naoto might finally notice what she's missing.

"Getting better at this, right?" Kanji asks her with a grin.

What Rise means to do is smile back, tell him, yeah, you are. Instead, she leans over the counter and kisses him.


According to meteorological records, snow is a rare occurrence in Inaba. Naoto duly makes note of the spectacle as she follows the neat row of perfectly-sculpted snow animals lining the shopping district from the shrine to the doorstep of Tatsumi Textiles. Outside, Kanji is on his knees in the snow, working on the mane of a half-finished lion. Absorbed as he is, Naoto is able to watch him for approximately two minutes before he looks up and jolts back with a start.

"Uh, N-Naoto. Hey."

Naoto gestures towards the animals. "They're very good," she tells him.

"Thanks," he says. Then he straightens up and manages a smile.

The expression is completely unfamiliar. Naoto holds his gaze longer than she suspects is polite.

"It, it's like sewing. Sort of. But uh, not really," he stumbles, then glances away. "Listen, Naoto, I wanna--"

Naoto never finds out exactly what he wants to do, because Rise comes traipsing up the street, bundled in what appears to be five separate layers of clothing.

"Kanji-kun," she says, from somewhere under her scarf.

Kanji responds with a peculiar grunting noise.

They have spent multiple evenings together over the past month, as confirmed by both Tatsumi-san and Kujikawa-san during questioning. There has also been an alarming shift in their behavior which Naoto noticed a week ago and found in marked contrast to their earlier interactions. Multiple possible explanations exist as to the cause, but theorizing about the relations between her friends is a waste of energy.

Naoto has had entirely too many theories, lately.

She coughs. "Excuse me. I should return home."

"Uh, wait!" Kanji looks vaguely terrified. "Naoto, y'gotta--"

Naoto, for reasons she can't pinpoint, chooses to ignore him. She turns on her heels and strides back through the district, deciding to contemplate the matter no further. This goal is accomplished when Rise runs up behind her, grabs the back of her collar, and dumps an entire fistful of snow inside her shirt - then drags her inside Tatsumi Textiles, insisting she needs to dry off and that Tatsumi-san won't mind at all. Naoto does not object, as most of her cognitive functions are devoted to trying not to squeal at the ice dripping down her back.

Standing in the stockroom, she congratulates herself on her composure - which evaporates instantly when Rise walks in, grabs her by the shoulders and kisses her.


Wow, I gotta stop doing that, Rise thinks, after Naoto stammers for ten seconds straight before dashing out of the stockroom, past a very surprised Tatsumi-san and out the shop door.

She'd honestly just wanted to keep Naoto there long enough to talk, straighten some stuff out. Something got really screwed up along the way. Now it's all an even bigger mess, so - after a brief and quiet bout of panic - Rise does the only reasonable thing and tells Kanji. Which doesn't go well either.


"You what?"

Hands on hips, Rise explains that it wasn't deliberate, it just happened, and Kanji ought to be more understanding. She likes Naoto, she tells him and he should've noticed that.

Kanji points out that it'd be hard for him to notice anything, given she's barely spoken to him since they did -- you know, that thing, her jumping him in his mother's store in the middle of the fricking night.

Rise in turn says that she was waiting for him to man up and say something - and by the way, it was only seven in the evening and he sure as heck wasn't resisting at the time.

Which, to Kanji's frustration, is totally accurate. On both counts. And he should've talked to Rise about it by now, told her that he didn't regret it and maybe they should do something about that - but Naoto's still jumbling everything up, just like always.

"'Course I--but--dammit, Rise!" He scowls and sweeps a hand around the empty textiles shop. "Anyone else you wanna hook up with in here?"

Rise pokes out her tongue. "You're just jealous 'cause I kissed her first."

Kanji doesn't answer, partly because he's mad, but mostly because it's true.


Honestly? Rise still doesn't know why she did it. Either time. She hadn't been sure that she liked Kanji - and despite what she told him, she definitely hadn't realized she liked Naoto. All that time spent trying to cheer them up, hook them up, whatever, she'd never thought about any of it. Some part of her must have been smarter, she figures, although 'smart' probably isn't a word she can apply to pouncing on Naoto in the Tatsumi Textiles stockroom. And there's no part of her that knows what to do next, not really, except writing this dumb letter and hoping for the best.

"You seriously think talking will work?" Kanji asks, peering over her shoulder.

She shrugs. "I don't know. But I don't want it to be just us, Kanji-kun."

He raises an eyebrow - then nods.

He's already told Rise he still likes Naoto, a whole bunch, but that he also likes her too and he doesn't know what to do about it. Rise knows now that she likes them both. Neither of them can figure out what Naoto thinks, especially since she's been avoiding them completely for the past three days.

Maybe that's their answer, Rise thinks, staring down at the letter.

Naoto-kun, we all need to talk. Meet us at the top of the hill after school.

"Best to keep it brief," she tells Kanji, neatly folding the paper and slipping it inside a blue envelope. Less chance Naoto'll freak out, more chance they'll talk and fix everything.

"How d'you even know she... y'know?" Kanji asks.

Rise doesn't. All she's got are hunches and little moments.

"Just have to take a chance," she tells him, envelope clasped tight between her fingers.


Unable to rationalize anything involving either Rise or Kanji, particularly the former, Naoto decides to ignore it all instead. The policy is successful until she finds a blue envelope in her shoe locker and, before she has chance to dump it in the trashcan with the rest, recognizes Rise's handwriting on the front.

Attending the meeting would be an absurd choice. Naoto tells herself this all the way to the top of the hill overlooking the town, only giving up after she looks both Kanji and Rise in the eye in turn.

"Sorry. This was the best thing we could think of," Rise tells her. ", we need to figure this out." She glances at Kanji. "All three of us."

"B-but you..." Naoto gestures vaguely between them. "You, you are...I thought--"

Kanji nods. "Yeah, but that ain't all of it. I-I know, s'weird. But...we wanna share. If you do too."

Naoto can't manage anything beyond stuttered sentence fragments and when Kanji eventually sighs and steps forward, she's already set on running back down the hill. But she doesn't - not when he leans down, tips up her chin and kisses her, and not when Rise steps forward and wraps her arms around them both.


After they've sat down and talked a little more, it's all okay. Naoto agrees to the... well, whatever they're going to call this. Being Naoto, she insists on explaining why. Clearly Kanji and Rise have feelings for each other, she says, and yet also for her. And in turn she holds both of them in... some regard, perhaps, although that part's mostly mumbled and Rise has to fill it in.

"Unorthodox as it is, it's the logical option," she finishes firmly. Rise's pretty sure logic isn't the only reason, but she doesn't push it.

And sure, it's awkward at first. Naoto's a bundle of flail and for all his new confidence, Kanji's still terrible at saying what he means. One of them kisses like he's worried about breaking something, the other like she's trying not to run away. Good thing they've got her to take the lead, Rise tells them.

("Good thing y'got us to calm you down," Kanji says with a smile, and Naoto nods.)

Christmas Eve is spent at Naoto's apartment, sharing a cake - which Kanji insists on baking alone, leaving Naoto to guard the kitchen door - and watching movies. Rise makes sure a few of her music videos make it into the mix, just because. They swap presents too, and Kanji's is the best by far. Two dolls, one of her and one of Naoto, both holding hands.

"You like 'em?" he asks, shifting nervously on the spot.

"They're awesome," Rise tells him, smiling, and slips her hand in his.

Naoto nods. "You just need to make another one."