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Spinner of Fate

Chapter Text

The First Beginning

For all of its uncertainty, we cannot flee the future

~ Sunday, April 5th, 2009 ??:??  ~

To be fair, it really wasn’t Naoto’s fault for getting lost. Ikutsuki was supposed to have met him near Iwatodai station, but since something had come up, he’d had to make his own way to the dormitory. Of course, due to a delightful stroke of Naoto’s terrible luck, his phone had stopped working and he’d forgotten to pick up a map, and the streets were completely empty.

Naoto cursed his lack of preparation as he dragged his travel suitcase along the sidewalk, checking the moving-in guide for Iwatodai Dormitory he’d been given by Grampa again. The miniature map on the guide was entirely unhelpful, so he’d simply headed towards the area he thought the dorm was in, hoping that he would be able to ask someone for directions along the way. For some reason, not a single person had answered the doors he’d worked up the courage to ring and he hadn’t found anyone walking on the streets either.

The night had begun to look strange, the colours of the sky twisting in front of his eyes. He wasn’t unfamiliar with hallucinations from sleep deprivation, especially with all the late nights he’d been working through now that he was attempting to complete his second year of high school at thirteen years old. Naoto yawned softly, staring absently at a rather out of place looking four-story, surrounded by tall office blocks in a way that seemed almost familiar….

Naoto snapped into awareness, holding up the picture of the dormitory for comparison, sighing in muted relief when the photograph matched the scenery in front of him.  Walking with renewed determination, Naoto strode purposefully up the stairs, lifting his suitcase over the final step and placing it down beside him as he stood in front of the doors.

He considered the ornate doors, taking a moment to think as he lifted his hand to knock. This is my new place of residence for, at the very least, the next year. It would be beneficial to make a good first impression. With that in mind, Naoto took a deep breath and rapped sharply on the expensive oak once, twice –

The doors swung open before Naoto’s third knock. A man (long hair, beige suit, glasses. Ikutsuki.) smiled welcomingly at him from the doorway. Naoto extended a hand, a perfect mirror of the way Grampa acted when introducing himself.

“Good evening, Ikutsuki-san. I am Naoto Shirogane. I trust you’re well?” Naoto said, then inwardly winced. Too formal. However, it’s not a terrible thing to be perceived as by a guardian. At the very least, it might encourage him to take me more seriously than if I was casual with my words.

“Well, good evening to you too, Naoto! I am well, thank you. I’m glad to see you made it here safely from the station – there wasn’t any trouble on the way, was there?” Ikutsuki smiled cheerfully at him, seemingly unaffected by Naoto’s stilted speech as he ushered him inside. Naoto heaved his suitcase over the raised part of the doorframe, shaking his head.

“There were no issues.” He said, choosing to pretend he hadn’t got lost. First impressions were important, after all. Naoto straightened up as the latch on the door clicked closed, taking in the room for the first time. It was a homey, dimly lit lobby-type area, with what looked like a reception built into one wall. Perhaps the building used to be a hotel, and was repurposed into a dormitory…?

Ikutsuki cleared his throat, and Naoto flinched, reeling his thoughts back in. I need to stop getting distracted so easily. Grampa isn’t here to watch over me and catch my mistakes anymore. He followed Ikutsuki’s meaningful look, finally noticing the three people seated on the brown leather couches. On one of the longer sofas, a girl with red hair sat beside a boy with short, silver hair and a white band-aid above his left eye. Perpendicular to them, a girl with brown hair and a pink sweater sat tensely on an armchair, her hand brushing over a holster on her leg that held – dear God, why does she have a gun?!?

“These are your dormmates, Naoto.” Ikutsuki said, going to stand beside the redhead, who got to her feet as the Chairman approached. Naoto followed him, eyeing the brunette warily but pushing the thought of her away to concentrate on the upcoming interaction.

Naturally, Naoto knew who the daughter of the owner of the Kirijo group was, but he didn’t say anything, letting her introduce herself. Kirijo had a proud air about her, looking down at Naoto and giving him a cursory once-over. She offered him a tight smile and a hand to shake.

“It’s lovely to meet you, Shirogane. My name is Mitsuru Kirijo, and I’m a third year at Gekkoukan High School.” Kirijo said politely, and Naoto nodded.

“A pleasure, Kirijo-senpai.” He replied, before shifting his gaze to the silver haired boy– Akihiko Sanada, the captain of the boxing team in Gekkoukan. Naoto had been informed that he’d be in Akihiko’s dorm – which is more than he could say about Kirijo and the younger looking brunette.

“Akihiko Sanada, third year. How ya doin’?” Sanada gripped Naoto’s hand with his own gloved one, shaking it firmly. His kind grin was far less intimidating than the intensity Kirijo had given off.

“I am in good health, thank you, Sanada-senpai.” Naoto said, holding Sanada’s gaze for a moment, then finally moved onto the girl with the gun. As she stood, Naoto noticed that, while the holster was still on, the firearm was gone. I could have sworn she had a gun… besides, if she didn’t have a one, why does she have a holster on her thigh?  Naoto tried not to let his confusion show, shaking the girl’s hand quickly. He caught a glint from behind her when she moved. The gun was jammed into the gap between the seat and the arm of the armchair.

“Hello. I’m Yukari Takeba, second year at high school. Nice to meet ya!” Takeba smiled, but it wasn’t quite as relaxed as Naoto had expected from her– her shoulders were tense, set in a slightly defensive stance, like she was ready to run away at any moment. Her brown eyes kept flicking away from Naoto and casting worried glances over Naoto’s shoulder – Likely at the door, Naoto recognised. So, the gun is for protection from something, and the point of entry that concerns Takeba the most is the door.

“It’s nice to meet you too, Takeba-senpai.” Naoto murmured, stepping back so he had all four of them in his line of sight. The inhabitants of the dorm all wore matching armbands labelled with the letters “SEES”. Are they all part of a club? Is the armband just for people who stay in this dorm? Ikutsuki clapped his hands to get their attention.

“Alright, everyone. Since Naoto was home-schooled when he was traveling with his grandfather, he’s quite far ahead in the Japanese curriculum, so he’s going to join the second year of Gekkoukan with you, Yukari. Akihiko, Naoto is in the first room on the right, so you can show him where he’s staying.

Naoto, we have a curfew of being back by midnight, but since your age corresponds to that of a middle schooler, that curfew is a little earlier – you need to be back at the dorm by ten thirty, and in your room before eleven thirty. Do you have any other questions?” Ikutsuki looked inquiringly at Naoto.

Naoto hesitated, considering asking about the gun that Takeba had openly displayed, but decided against it. It would be better to have some more information before asking about the pistol, because he refused to think that no-one else in the dorm, including the Chairman, had seen it. She was wearing it on her leg, in plain view! Instead, he opted for a simpler question.

“I had been led to believe that I was going to be in a male dormitory – I wasn’t aware that Gekkoukan had co-ed dorms.” Naoto said, staring straight at Ikutsuki, who laughed sheepishly.

“Ah, you’re quite right about that. Unfortunately, all the other dorms are full, and since there were so few people left over, it was easier to put them all in one dorm.” Ikutsuki explained. Accepting it as a reasonable solution, Naoto picked up his suitcase again.

“I have no other inquiries.” Naoto said. It was getting late, and after a plane and a bullet train ride, he just wanted to collect his thoughts somewhere private.

“Alright, Naoto. Don’t stay up too late – remember, the early bird catches the bookworm!” Ikutsuki called as he left the building. Naoto saw a flash of the sky outside – it looked as dark as ever. His earlier vision of the tinted sky must have been an exhaustion induced hallucination. Perhaps he shouldn’t have stayed awake to study on the plane…

Sanada waved his hand in Naoto’s face, and Naoto jerked away violently. “You alright? I said your name, but you weren’t responding.” Sanada’s voice sounded faintly amused, and Naoto flushed in embarrassment.

“I am – I am fine, thank you! It has been a long day, and I think – I - ” Naoto stopped in the middle of his sentence to yawn again, trying to cling to whatever dignity he had left as he forced out the rest of his words. “I would like to get some rest, if we’re done here.”

“Sure. I’ll take your bag up.” Sanada effortlessly lifted Naoto’s suitcase away from him, ignoring Naoto’s weak protests in favour of walking towards a flight of stairs at the back of the lobby. He turned to look at Naoto, his foot on the first step. “You comin’?”

“Ah, y-yes.” Naoto stumbled over his words, his tongue suddenly too heavy to speak properly. Despite his fatigue, he remembered to turn and offer the two girls a respectful nod and wish them a good night before hurrying after Sanada.

They went up one level and took a right turn, where Naoto was led down a corridor with five doors. Sanada stopped at the first door on the right, carefully putting down the royal blue bag as he turned the knob. The room inside was a moderately sized, average looking dormitory – although, at closer inspection, everything in the room seemed to be unusually high quality, from the bed sheets, to the desk set against the wall. 

“This is you. I’m in the room on the other side of the hall, closest to the window. Feel free to ask if something’s up.” Sanada said, passing Naoto his bag and leaving him to his own devices. Naoto closed the door, listening as the footsteps faded away. He waited a moment longer, just to be sure, then threw himself down on the mattress, groaning.

The best course of action right now would be to try and figure out why Takeba had a gun, because Naoto was absolutely certain that she didn’t have a licence like the one Grampa had sorted out for him when he’d first been targeted by a criminal as leverage over Grampa. If she had, why would she hide the gun, instead of keeping it out while Naoto was around, and just explaining?

Ikutsuki, as Naoto’s temporary legal guardian while Grampa was busy, had been informed that Naoto carried a pistol and should have alerted his dormmates, so why would Takeba feel the need to conceal her gun from him if she had a licence, especially when she had been wearing it in front of Kirijo, Sanada and Ikutsuki? There were so many questions, but he was just too tired to fit any of them with answers.

Naoto sighed, forcing himself up. Unpacking properly would be bothersome at this hour, but he went ahead and got changed, swapping out his ordinary clothes for something more appropriate for sleeping in. He took off his binder too – it was unhealthy to wear it for a prolonged period of time, after all. After taking out his journal and noting down the events that had just taken place, Naoto slipped under the covers, letting the worry drain away from his body as he fell asleep.

~ ??????, ????? ???, ???? ??:??  ~

 “Welcome, dear guest, to the Velvet Room.” A hunched old man with a strangely elongated nose grinned at Naoto as he blinked awake. He was sitting on a plush chair, in a place that resembled Mother’s study, back in the old house in the Shirogane Estate in Inaba. The colours, however, were different, with varying shades of deep blue shading all the furniture and the walls of the room itself. In front of Naoto, the old man sat in his Father’s chair, separated from him by a desk made of what seemed to be cerulean blue wood.

Beside the man, stood someone that Naoto could only assume was a woman. She was shorter than the shelf beside her, but taller than the lampshade on the desk, which put her at around… 5”4? She looked to be around seventeen, maybe eighteen at a push. Her hair was a light blonde and styled with a braid that started just above each ear, then looped around a low bun at the top of her neck. Around the base of the bun was a circle of gold, with evenly spaced spikes - Naoto couldn’t count how many there were from the angle he was sitting at, but he estimated about twenty, maybe a few more. An azure bellhop cap sat neatly on her head, with words that Naoto couldn’t understand picked out in shining thread.

The woman wore a sleeveless blue waistcoat with three golden buttons over a long-sleeved black shirt with a blue tie. The buttons had carvings that Naoto realised were the same as the bun decoration – a circle with twenty-two spikes. She had a sleek black belt to hold up a pair of black trousers, but the rest of her outfit was hidden by the desk.

“My name is Igor,” the old man continued, drawing Naoto’s attention back to him. “and I am delighted to make your acquaintance. It has currently been many years since we’ve had a guest, after all. Now, won’t you do me the honour of telling me your name?” His bulging eyes glinted as he clicked his fingers, and a page of paper, along with a navy quill materialised on the table in front of him. That settles it, Naoto thought to himself. This is simply a remarkably vivid dream.

There was no harm in indulging the more creative part of his mind, so Naoto picked up the quill, writing his name in elegant script. As he wrote, words in bold black font faded into existence on the page, and he watched in fascination as the words spiralled across the white surface, spelling out…

The paper was pulled away from him before he could read anything. Igor picked up the sheet and gave the paper a delighted once-over, before flicking his hand. The paper dissolved into a shower of blue, and Naoto couldn’t help but give Igor a sullen look for depriving him. The woman by Igor’s side snorted, composing herself with an embarrassed cough when Igor gave her an unimpressed look.

“Ah, yes. My dear guest, allow me to introduce Alexis, a servant of Philemon like myself. She will be your guide and attendee during your time in the Velvet Room.” Igor gestured to the woman, who offered Naoto a smile. Her eyes were like nothing he’d ever seen. The left iris was a bright, shifting liquid gold around a black pupil, and the right iris was an onyx black, with a spiked ring of gold around the pupil.

“Hello, Naoto.” Alexis said lightly, a teasing lilt to her tone. Naoto didn’t say anything, too entranced by Alexis’ eyes to even think about responding. There was something almost hypnotising about the slowly rotating circle of gold in her right eye.

“The Velvet Room is a place that exists between dream and reality, mind and matter. It is a room that only those bound by a contract may enter.” Igor continued, as though he’d never stopped. “It is where we will help you hone the powers bestowed upon you by Philemon, in order to prepare you for the inevitable ordeals that await you. We only ask that you take full responsibility for your actions, Naoto Shirogane.” He finished, giving Naoto an expectant look.

“My actions are my own. I take responsibility for them.” Naoto said quietly. The words had a certain weight to them – he didn’t know what it was, but saying them aloud felt like pronouncing a death sentence.

“Wonderful.” Igor said, beaming at him. “We will see you again soon, dear guest.”  Naoto frowned, trying to speak, but finding that he couldn’t open his mouth. Alexis gave him one last smile and whispered something as his vision clouded and there was a sensation of falling and Naoto couldn’t see

“Be careful, Rewriter. The Wheel has already started to turn.”

Chapter Text

A New Day

~ Monday, April 6th, 2009 06:30  ~

Brr-rrring. Brr-rrring. Brr-rrring.

Naoto groaned into his pillow, reaching out to smack the alarm, but he misjudged the distance and sent it falling to the floor, where it cracked against the wood. His arm flopped uselessly against the side of the bed and he lay still for a few minutes longer, unwilling to part with the comfort of the bedsheets.

Suddenly, loud music began blasting from under his pillow and Naoto squawked, falling off the mattress in his surprise. He rummaged around, drawing out his phone and hitting the disable button on the alarm, then yawned, shivering, and clambered right back into bed.

Once he was swathed in soft warmth, Naoto sat up, reaching for the notebook and pen on his nightstand. Last night’s dream was perplexing, to say the least, he jotted down after outlining the details of the dream. He couldn’t remember when he’d last had such vivid dreams, but Naoto supposed that it wasn’t too odd to have a strange dream now and then. Yesterday had been rather unusual, after all.

Naoto’s eyes widened. Right, Takeba had a gun. What had he written down last night about it?

TAKEBA HAD GUN AND HOLSTER

TAKEBA WAS AFRAID – LOOKING AT (ASSUME) DOOR. POINT OF ENTRY? WAS WEARING GUN & HOLSTER OPENLY W/ PPL IN ROOM, INCL IKUTSUKI. DID NOT WANT ME TO SEE GUN – STUFFED IN ARMCHAIR, DID NOT REMOVE HOLSTER

Naoto chewed the end of his pen thoughtfully. What reason would Takeba have for illegally owning firearms in Japan? There is, of course, the possibility that the pistol is just a model, and that Takeba is simply enthusiastic about guns. That would solve the problem of people letting her wear the “gun” in the open and might also account for her hiding it from me – perhaps she just didn’t want me to think she was insane. That would be... reasonable.

That doesn’t solve Takeba’s apparent fear of something from the door. Adding that is, I’m left with three probable options. The gun was a model, the gun was real and everyone in the dorm is okay with it and possibly has their own for protection from some unknown threat, or the gun is real and the dorm lived in fear of Takeba.

…Somehow, I doubt the last one is the case, which leaves the first two options. Right now, however unlikely it is, the evidence seems to point to the second option, but I clearly need to do a more thorough investigation prior to coming to my final conclusion.

But where can I start investigating? Asking Takeba herself will make her wary of me, as will asking anyone else directly. I don’t have anything to go off of other than what I saw last night, so there’s no real evidence to confront my dormmates with. Searching Takeba’s room is one way of getting evidence, but I don’t know any of their schedules yet, let alone to a depth which will allow me to investigate without getting caught.

My best bet is to bide my time, he decided, and hope they slip up. In the meantime, memorising their schedules and connections around this area would be useful.

Having a plan of action made his ridiculous situation somewhat more manageable, Naoto found.

He rolled out of the bed and scrounged up a casual outfit from his bag, picking out a pair of black trousers and a plain blue T-shirt, as well as his usual hat. Naoto slipped the binder on under his pyjama top and left for the showers.

~ Monday, April 6th, 2009 07:20  ~

There was something unsettling about this dormitory. Even without the entire Takeba situation, Naoto had found a new reason to distrust the inhabitants of the dorm.  When he’d been in the showers, Naoto had seen a small security camera just outside the cubicle – an incredibly invasive choice for CCTV placement.  It appeared to be recording continuously as opposed to being triggered by motion sensors.

Now, as Naoto searched out cameras under the guise of acquainting himself with the dorm’s layout, he found more and more concealed devices; in the kitchen (where he filled a travel mug with tea and grabbed a couple of protein bars from a box as breakfast), in the hallways, in the lounge, and finally…

That brings the count up to nineteen, that I know of. Naoto scribbled in his notebook, marking the position and angle of the camera in his room. Note to self: never get changed in my room – use the restrooms instead. In case of emergency – stand directly under camera – its position is fixed to see most of the room , but there is a blind spot underneath it.

He stared at the drying ink for a moment, watching the dark colour spread slightly as the solvent evaporated. At the very least, this discovery does seem to add more evidence for everyone being afraid of something that I have no knowledge of. Naoto snapped the notebook closed, tucking it away in his jacket beside his pistol.

Staying in here and brooding over what little information I have won’t do me any good. He pulled on his coat, snatching up the spare protein bar and his wallet as he left. Anyway, Grampa wanted me to go to Paulownia today, didn’t he? As I recall, he sent a text with directions and instructions…

~ Monday, April 6th, 2009 09:10  ~

Naoto raised an eyebrow at the run-down police station in Paulownia Mall. Appearances can be deceiving. Grampa knows what he’s doing – there’s a reason he’d send me here. He nudged the door open and was met with a glower from a police officer from behind the cluttered counter.

“Something I can do for you?” He asked hoarsely – the man appeared to be almost angered by his presence. Naoto cleared his throat, closing the door and standing up as tall as he could with his annoyingly diminutive stature.

“My name is Naoto Shirogane. I was sent here by Takashi Shirogane, my grandfather, to meet with Officer Kurosawa. Would you happen to be able to tell me where to find him?” He recited the lines he had practiced on the train, brushing away the hair that was falling into his eyes. I should probably get it cut soon.

“That’d be me you’re looking for.” Officer Kurosawa gave Naoto a cursory look, but his glare had softened immensely. Had he thought Naoto was someone else, or here for some other reason? “Detective Shirogane told me you would be stopping by sooner or later. He wants you to help work here if you have the time – helping with the investigations, taking on cases and so on.”

Naoto had guessed that Grampa had intended for him to do something of the sort, and even though he’d expected it, the excitement that bubbled in his chest threatened to tug his lips into a childish grin. Thankfully, he was able to clamp down the juvenile response and maintain his cool demeanour, allowing Officer Kurosawa to continue uninterrupted.

“He said you’d be fine with most of the harder jobs, so we’ve already assigned you a couple of incident reports to go through. Usually, I wouldn’t even think about letting a kid anywhere near this kind of work,” Officer Kurosawa frowned at Naoto here, but the intent behind it felt closer to concern than the initial hostility he’d show when Naoto came in,  “But the number of cases that have come in have skyrocketed in the recent years, and your grandfather said you needed the practice. I trust Detective Shirogane – he got us through a rough case a few years back – but I just want to ask you. Are you alright to be doing this kind of thing at your age?”

Naoto didn’t hesitate, despite the look Officer Kurosawa sent him. “I fully intend to live up to the Shirogane name. I know what I’m doing – I’m quite fine to be working here.” He said calmly.

Officer Kurosawa let out an exasperated huff, opening the gate at the side of the counter for him to enter. “If you’re certain… Be sure to tell me if you ever need a break.”

Naoto bit at the inside of his lip to stop a retort. Of course he was certain, why wouldn’t he be? He was about to say as much, but one look at Officer Kurosawa stopped him in his tracks. The man’s unfriendly demeanour was ever-present, but the expression on his face was more akin to… (looking down and away, index finger rubbing against his thumb in a comforting manner)

Guilt?

Naoto wasn’t quite sure why, but a lump rose in his throat. He backed down and nodded once as Kurosawa closed the gate behind him.

“I will.” Naoto said quietly, then choked loudly as something in his chest snapped. He inhaled raggedly as he was filled with a strange rush of something he couldn’t explain. Wiping away tears of shock, Naoto glanced up to ask Officer Kurosawa for help and jolted away in surprise. His face was frozen mid-blink, lips parted like he was on the verge of speaking.

“Officer – Officer Kurosawa?!?” Naoto coughed. Kurosawa didn’t respond. He wasn’t even breathing. Naoto waved his hand in front of Officer Kurosawa’s face, but he didn’t move in the slightest.  It’s almost like- Naoto thought, realisation dawning and terror setting in, -like time has halted entirely. He whirled around, suddenly aware of the oppressive silence that surrounded him, devoid of even the whirring of the ventilation fan or the thrum of heating, until –

I am thou, and thou art I,

A voice, high and clear, rang out inside Naoto’s mind. The lilting intonation drew a feeling of serenity forward, and Naoto instinctively relaxed. The melodic tones were familiar in a way he didn’t understand. He could’ve sworn he’d heard the soft voice before, but he couldn’t quite place where.

Thou hast spun another’s string of fate into thine own,

If it should turn the Wheel in thine favour and aid thine quest,

Thou shalt be blessed, should thine Arcana ever align with the Hierophant Arcana.

A card – a tarot card, maybe? It had symbols and numerals on it.  – shimmered into existence over Naoto’s hands, then vanished just as quickly. He blinked, trying to comprehend what had just happened when Officer Kurosawa started speaking, effectively scaring the living daylights out of him.

“I’m glad to hear it.” He said, continuing as though he hadn’t experienced… whatever that time-stop thing was. Did I just imagine that? Am I still tired from yesterday? Naoto followed him silently as Kurosawa led him though to the back of the station, trying to focus on what Kurosawa was saying, rather than doubting his sanity. “We’ve already had a key cut for you. You’ll get it next time you come in – I’ve got to pick it up from the shop later.”

“Since you’re doing police work, and not working as a private detective here, the stuff you’re starting with is fairly basic – examining records, inspecting evidence and going over testimonies previously gathered by our other detectives. Later, we’ll have you doing some more hands-on work, but this is as far as it goes for the time being.” Officer Kurosawa said sternly, watching for Naoto’s reaction. He’s testing me. Naoto recognised, then offered him a polite smile. Does he expect me to break out into a temper tantrum? I have no experience in interviews and very little experience in investigation. This is the better than I could have hoped for. Of course, this is assuming that everything I’m experiencing right now is real. It might not be. I might be losing my mind.

“That sounds perfect, Officer Kurosawa.” He said demurely, and Kurosawa made an approving noise, reaching over to a shelving unit.

“Your working station is there.” Officer Kurosawa pointed at a desk hidden behind the corner of a row of filing cabinets. It was made of metal and had a cheap plastic chair tucked under it. I wonder if Officer Kurosawa would mind if I brought a cushion for the seat? Naoto ran his hand over the lamp on the desk, then returned to Officer Kurosawa, who had evidently found what he’d been rustling through a drawer of files for.

He piled a stack of papers onto a shelf labelled clearly with Naoto’s name. “This is where your stuff stays. There are lockers over by the entrance for your personal items that you want to keep here, but your work stays on this shelf. If you finish it, drop it on my shelf. I’ll make sure you’ve got enough to go through each morning.” Officer Kurosawa concluded.

“Understood.” Naoto said, trailing after Officer Kurosawa as he went back to the front of the station. This seems satisfactory. I should probably report back to Grampa when I return to the dorm, if I ever left it. This could be a dream.

“That’s all for today. You start school tomorrow, don’t you?” Officer Kurosawa took his seat behind the counter again.

“I do. I’m a second-year at Gekkoukan starting on the eighth.”

“I see. Take care of yourself, Shirogane-san.” Officer Kurosawa said, looking back at his computer in a clear dismissal. Naoto inclined his head respectfully before taking his leave, maintaining his composure as he firmly closed the door behind him.

Outside the station, Naoto caught his breath, sitting down by the fountain in the centre of the mall. That settles that. I’m clearly going insane. He leaned back, staring up at the pastel sky through the glass roof. Hallucinations of time stopping, vivid and nonsensical dreams… and, not to forget, Takeba’s gun. Maybe I’m just mad, and I’ve imagined everything since I got here.

Naoto slumped down on the bench, pinching the bridge of his nose. The sun was warm on his face – too warm. Wearing my full jacket may have been a bad decision. He unbuttoned his coat, adjusting his top so it wasn’t bunched up under his arms.

Insane or not, he still had work to do. Grampa had ordered all his school books and had them sent to the post office, where he’d asked them to be stored until Naoto could pick them up. Additionally, he needed to get a uniform from a clothes store. He’d already sent his measurements so the blazer would be tailored appropriately, with the required alterations, of course.

Sitting around won’t achieve anything. Naoto exhaled, pushing himself up and heading for the post office. I’ll do what I need to do now, and ponder my mental state later.

Chapter Text

A Quiet Night

~ Monday, April 6th, 2009 18:10  ~

Naoto used his elbow to hold the door, turning so he could shove it open with his back. He’d underestimated quite how many school books Gekkoukan required him to have for the beginning of the school term, and his hands were occupied with three heavy bags that he’d been sure were going to break at some point during the walk back. To his relief, they’d held together surprisingly well.

“Where’ve you been?” Sanada called over, from where he was sitting on one of the couches. He was holding a boxing glove. Not a pair of gloves. Just a single boxing glove, which he reverently ran his fingers over from time to time.

“I required some supplies for school.” Naoto said, deciding not to remark on the item in Sanada’s hands. Perhaps Sanada simply had a few idiosyncrasies related to boxing, since he was the boxing team’s captain. He nudged to door closed, trying to get a better grip on his bags. “I returned before my curfew, so I don’t think there should be any issues, correct?”

“You’re fine.” Sanada left the glove on the sofa, got to his feet and headed over to the kitchen. Naoto, a little unsure about what Sanada wanted him to do, followed at a distance.  “I wanted to ask. You eatin’ with us tonight?”

“I… I had planned to, yes. I trust that’s alright?”

“Yeah, you’re good. I’m making omurice for everyone, since it’s pretty easy, but you’re free to make whatever you want with whatever food that’s not got a label on it.” Sanada ran his finger down a recipe that was pinned to a corkboard on the wall. Judging by how worn the paper seemed, Sanada had probably been using this particular recipe for quite a while.

“If it’s not too much trouble, I’d – like to have omurice too.” Naoto said, stumbling over his wording. I hope that didn’t sound presumptuous. “Do you usually make meals, or…?”

“We didn’t tell you this morning, ‘cause you left so early, but there’s a rota for cooking. You know how to cook, or should we take you off the schedule?”

“I can follow a recipe.” Naoto said quickly. I can pull my weight – I’m not useless. A twinge of pain jolted his arm, and he winced as he dropped one of the bags. Sanada glanced back when he heard the thump, then pointed at the doorway.

“Go ‘n drop off your stuff. I’ll have finished in twenty minutes, but if you don’t turn up, I’ll put some in the fridge for you to eat later.” Sanada said, going back to roughly chopping up some mushrooms. Naoto silently removed himself from the kitchen, shifting the bags between his hands as he made his way up the stairs.

~ Monday, April 6th, 2009 18:37  ~

Exactly twenty minutes later, Naoto had sorted his schoolbooks onto a shelf above the desk, unpacked most of his clothes into a closet and locked his revolver in his suitcase, away from the view of the security camera. He checked his watch once more, (Grampa had impressed the value of punctuality on him – though he probably hadn’t meant it to this degree) before he left his room.

The part of the stairs closest to the wall creaked when he walked on them, so he kept to the other side as he went downstairs. In the kitchen, he could see a red head of hair bent over the sink.

“Good evening, Shirogane.” Kirijo said, fastening the cover on a jug of water. Beside her, Sanada carefully stirring egg into a pot of fried rice.

“Good evening, Kirijo-senpai.” Naoto said, looking around for something to do. “Can I assist you with anything?”

“Could you get the cutlery from the drawer beside the fridge? There are Western and chopsticks – you choose whichever you prefer.” Kirijo said, setting out cups on the dining table.

“Certainly, Senpai.” Naoto hastened to his task, picking out four sets of Western cutlery from the drawer, and neatly arranging them beside the cups on the table. He couldn’t remember when he’d last helped set the table for dinner – usually, Yakushiji-san ensured that all their eating and sleeping arrangements were taken care of.

 Sanada grunted as he set down the pot in the centre of the table. The aroma of spiced vegetables was unmistakeably familiar, (Embarrassment. A messy kitchen, strewn with discarded bowls and utensils. Love. His mother, pressing a kiss to the top of his head. Pride. His father giving him an exaggerated thumbs up as he ate a spoonful. Joy. Laughter. His family-), but he forced away the wave of nostalgia in favour of helping Sanada fill bowls with the steaming rice.

“There’s salt and pepper and stuff, so use whatever you want.” Sanada gestured vaguely to the condiments, sitting down. Kirijo was already seated, so Naoto took his seat beside Sanada.

“Thank you for the food.” Kirijo pressed her hands together briefly, then started on the heap of rice in front of her. Naoto and Sanada quickly followed suit.

The omurice was pleasant, if a little too spicy. Naoto sipped his water discreetly, trying not to make it seem like he disliked Sanada’s cooking. Kirijo, who was halfway through her bowl, set her spoon down with a loud clatter, as though she’d just realised something.

“Did you see Takeba on your way down?” She asked, looking at Naoto enquiringly. Interesting. She didn’t notice until part way through the meal – perhaps Takeba is new to the dorm, and Kirijo hasn’t gotten used to eating with her yet? He shook his head.

“I didn’t, no. Does she usually eat with you?” Naoto took another drink of water. The spice hadn’t been quite as bad after the first few bites. Kirijo frowned, standing up.

“Almost always. I’ll go and see if she’s doing alright.” She left her place at the table, heading up the stairs. Naoto glanced at Sanada, who was watching Kirijo walk away with a concerned expression. He sighed, looking back at Naoto. Sanada pointing at his bowl with his spoon, raising an eyebrow.

“You want some more? You only gave yourself ‘bout half of what Mitsuru and I’ve got.” Sanada reached out to scoop up another ladle of rice from the pot. Naoto started, waving his hands frantically.

“No – I, I mean, I – couldn’t possibly-!” He sputtered out protests as Sanada dumped some more rice in his bowl. Sanada snorted.

“You gotta eat more than that, Naoto. You’re already pretty thin, and you don’t have any muscle definition. A detective can’t spend their entire life indoors, you know? You’ll need to fight criminals – you’ll need to hold your own in a fight.” The jab at Naoto’s aptitude for his profession swept away any respect he’d had for Sanada’s observational skills. He sat up straight, brushing away the hair that fell into his eyes and fixing Sanada with an icy glare. It gave him some small degree of satisfaction to see Sanada recoil slightly.

“For your information, Sanada-senpai,” Naoto said, words clipped and cold as he adjusted his hat, “I keep fit, and I regularly sparred with my grandfather’s secretary. I can protect myself perfectly well in a pinch, thank you.”

An uncomfortable silence descended upon the room. Sanada seemed uncertain about how to respond, Naoto noted. It was rather gratifying, to be able to quiet someone on his own without Grampa having to intervene, even if he’d probably… overreacted. Sanada had been blunt, yes, but not without concern – encouragement, even - for him. Naoto felt his face flush with embarrassment.

The creaking of the stairs alerted him to Kirijo’s return – and there was only one set of footsteps he could hear. Takeba wasn’t with her. Kirijo sat down, seemingly ignoring the tense atmosphere.

“Takeba will be eating later – she isn’t feeling particularly hungry right now, but she’s fine otherwise.” She said, resuming her meal without hesitation. The tension in Sanada’s shoulders eased. He was worried about Takeba. Was he simply concerned for her health, or was he afraid of something else?

“That’s good.” Sanada said, more to himself than to either of the others. They continued their dinner without talking, the awkward atmosphere slowly dissipating as they started to clean up. Sanada let Naoto collect his bowl, taking away the leftover rice and packing it away into the fridge. Suddenly, Naoto realised what his main reason for coming down for dinner had been, almost dropping the bowls in his surprise. What can I do to get them to tell me something? Takeba was afraid of something, I assume Sanada was concerned about something relating to her, so…

“I was – wondering.” Naoto blurted out, a half-formed idea in his mind. Sanada and Kirijo turned to him, and he swallowed, before continuing. “I-If either of you heard something strange last night. I’m not quite sure how to describe it, but it… woke me up?”

Sanada and Kirijo exchanged a glance. Sanada shrugged at Kirijo, and she turned back to Naoto, shaking her head. “I’m afraid not. Do you think you might have imagined it?”

Naoto hesitated (are they lying?), then nodded. “It’s entirely possible. I was rather tired last night – it was likely just a figment of my imagination.” I don’t think she’s lying. If I wasn’t supposed to hear something, they’d have likely made up something to liken the noise to, so I’d brush it off. I couldn’t have heard anything to be worried about last night after I arrived. What about before I arrived?

He mused over his limited information as he washed up, organising the dishes on the drying rack. Kirijo and Sanada completed their tasks in the kitchen as Naoto finished putting away the cups. The three of them started up the stairs. Naoto made no effort to talk to the third years, too caught up in his own thoughts, only broken out of them when Kirijo stopped on the second flight of stairs to call after the boys.

“I almost forgot to mention, but a new second-year will be staying at the dorm. His name is Arisato Minato – he should arrive late tonight. I’ll be staying up to meet him.” She said, walking up the stairs without waiting for their response. Naoto turned to Sanada questioningly.

“Are three boys not enough to start a male dorm?” He asked, tapping his chin thoughtfully (something he’d seen Grampa do countless times).

“Ikutsuki-san is looking into sorting a new dorm for us. We’ll get one soon, but until then…” Sanada shrugged, opening the door to his own room.

“I see. If that’s all, I will take my leave. Thank you for dinner, Sanada-senpai.” Naoto said quietly. He paused, then added, “I apologise for my misdemeanour earlier. It was uncalled for.” Sanada nodded, and Naoto slipped into the safe retreat of his room. Well, obviously not safe, since there was still a camera in the corner, but the relative safety of silence and lack of people to interact with was enough for him.

That was… helpful. Not as informative as I’d hoped, but useful, nonetheless. Naoto flipped open his notebook, taking short notes about his day and the information he had to work with.

Evidently, the two third-years don’t live in fear of Takeba, since they were both worried for her well-being. When all the evidence is compiled and evaluated, however, they do seem to be afraid of something. What is it? It appears at night, because Takeba was wary at night, and must not carry a gun around town with her, since her holster wasn’t concealed in a way that would make a gun easy to hide in public. They didn’t caution me about anything during the day, but I do have a curfew. Does that tie into anything?

Naoto sighed, scrubbing at his eyes. School begins tomorrow. I’ll stay up on Saturday night to see if anything happens, but I need to sleep. And call Grampa. Prepare for school. And maybe get a mental evaluation about that hallucination earlier, but that’s far less important right now.

~ Monday, April 6th, 2009 20:00  ~

The first notes of ‘Jupiter’ from the Planets suite played thinly over the speaker on his phone, and Naoto fumbled with the small buttons as the music swelled. Finally, he hit the answer button, holding it to his ear with his shoulder without checking the call ID.

“Good evening, Grampa. How has the Tokyo case progressed?” He said, returning to ironing the fold creases out of his new school uniform.

“Good evening, Naoto.” Grampa’s voice sounded faintly amused. “Right to the point, I see.”

“I only have two numbers on this phone, Grampa, and both you and Yakushiji-san text before calling. What happened with the case?” The iron sizzled, and Naoto scowled, tossing the ruined shirt in the bin and taking a new one out of his closet.

“The case has... Well. A proper investigation has uncovered a far more complex case than was originally thought. Premeditated kidnappings at least a day before each murder, with a rough structure to them. There’s been another death since you left, another police officer.”

Naoto frowned, smoothing out a particularly stubborn crease with his knuckles and letting the iron rest on it for an extra second. “I thought the second victim’s husband said he’d seen her that morning.”

“He did. We’re looking into him right now, actually.” Grampa was silent for a moment.

“The killer seems to be following some kind of pattern, going up in rank through the police force and those involved with it. You won’t be able to join me in Tokyo for a long time, and there’s the possibility of you getting involved somehow.

"Are you sure you don’t want to go back to Inaba with Yakushiji-san? There’s far less of a chance of you being targeted to force me into a corner there.” The concern in Grampa’s voice was clear, but there was no point. Naoto already hated the Estate enough – he wasn’t going to put himself through being there without Grampa. It was too hollow for him to stay there alone, even if Yakushiji ended up staying with him the whole time.

“Grampa, you were the one who said that you trust Ikutsuki-san, and that your faith in Tatsumi Port Island’s police force was second only to Inaba’s. You need Yakushiji-san, if the case is as complex and dangerous as you say. Besides, I met with Detective Kurosawa earlier, and I doubt I’d be able to get the same level of work in Inaba.” He said, concealing the slight waver in his voice with a cough, switching the shoulder he was holding the phone with as he laid out the ironed shirt with his new blazer and trousers.

True, but you’d be safer-“ Grampa started, but Naoto cut him off, rolling his eyes as he put away the iron.

“I’m perfectly capable of self-defence, Grampa. I do have a gun.”

Alright, Naoto. Just be careful, you hear me?” Grampa sighed. The resignation in his voice made Naoto feel slightly guilty, but there wasn’t a single chance of him going to the Shirogane Estate without Grampa, so he kept his tone firm as he replied.

“I will be.”

And talk with Shuji or Kurosawa if you need to. Kurosawa owes me for assisting him with the rebuilding of the police force in Tatsumi Port Island after an incident about a decade ago, so he was willing to assist me in getting you a spot working at the station.

“Understood. Thank you for that, by the way. The work he has me on is ideal for building experience.”

I’m glad. Take care of yourself – and make some friends!”

“Grampa!” Naoto hissed, an embarrassed flush colouring his cheeks. He slumped down on his bed, dragging a hand over his face.

You don’t need lots, just one or two. Socialise a little, get used to being around people again, alright?” There was a quiet kind of steel in Grampa’s voice. Naoto scowled to himself, but caved.

“... I’ll try.” He said, and the world jolted. The fan on his desk stopped whirring, the chirping of insects outside was abruptly cut off, and the soft feedback that played through the phone’s speakers was silenced. Naoto inhaled, pressing a palm to his chest as he felt a crack and a warm(?) rush of.... Of something flooded through his ribcage, filling him with an almost blissful feeling of peace. It feels just like it did back at the police station, Naoto noticed absently, distracted by the card floating over his hands.

I am thou, and thou art I,

Thou hast spun another’s string of fate into thine own,

If it should turn the Wheel in thine favour and aid thine quest,

Thou shalt be blessed, should thine Arcana ever align with the Temperance Arcana.

 As before, the card (the card had a design of four quarters, all coloured differently, with different symbols on each quarter) shimmered out of existence. The woman’s voice, so irritatingly familiar that he could almost recognise it, recited the same words as before, but if Naoto wasn’t mistaken, the “Arcana” had changed – from the “Hierophant” to “Temperance”. The warmth in his chest faded as Grampa replied, speaking as though there had been no interruption.

Thank you. I love you.

Naoto paused. It was rare for Grampa to be so blunt with affection. “I love you too. I’ll call you after school tomorrow.” He said, clicking a button to hang up. The phone dropped out of his hands, and Naoto slammed his head backwards onto the mattress, flinging his arms out to the side in an awkward starfish.

I’m not intoxicated, or under the influence of anything – as far as I know. I’m not tired, I presume I’m not insane. Whatever’s happening to me – right now, I can only assume it’s real. Naoto stared up at the ceiling, running a hand through his messy hair, tugging on one of the longer locks thoughtfully.

The Hierophant. Temperance. Arcana. The Wheel. Strings of Fate. What do all these things tie into? What links them? What’s capable of stopping time? Fixing his mind on a few questions was simpler than focusing on the impossibility of what he was considering (though, the possibility of magic and superpowers did fill him with a childish surge of glee). Naoto sat up, rolled over onto his front, and switched on the laptop he’d left on his pillow.

xXx

Naoto tapped the pen against his bottom lip, reviewing the notes he’d made on the various words he’d heard.

First, the Hierophant. A tarot card, representing tradition, morality and pursuit of knowledge or truth about the world or oneself. He’d heard the word in reference to Kurosawa, which seemed fitting – the man was clearly dedicated to his police work.

Next, Temperance. The first definition was of the virtue of abstinence from alcohol, or self-moderation. On the other hand, it could also refer to a tarot card, representing the middle path, patience and finding balance as one adapts to various situations. This one had been in reference to Grampa, which also made sense – Grampa hadn’t had alcohol since high school if Yakushiji was to be believed, and he was the very definition of learning to adapt and find balance in life.

Arcana. A word that could mean secrets, or mysteries. It could also refer to tarot, where there were twenty-two major arcana, and fifty-six minor arcana (Tarot is a common link, Naoto had scribbled in the margin of the page).

The Wheel – going with the theme of tarot, the Wheel of Fortune was another card, representing change, cycles, luck and fate, and the inevitability of balance, best portrayed by the words ‘What comes up, must come down’. The words resounded strangely inside Naoto’s head, and there was a sense of recognition he couldn’t quite place.

Finally, strings of fate. In Greek mythology, they referred to the threads of life spun by the three Fates – Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos. In Japanese and Korean culture, they could refer to the ‘red thread of fate’, a string that was supposedly wrapped around someone’s finger and tied them to a soulmate, or someone that they were destined to meet.  (The only reference that I remember that does not hold a link to Tarot. However, Tarot is often used as a source of insight into one’s life – their fate, one might say.)

The words that I remember made out the people I were talking to be the “Arcana” – so they must be represented by said “Arcana”. In that case, I suppose that the “Arcana” that represents me is “The Wheel of Fortune”? And I am someone who has some degree of control over others’ lives – shown by my “spinning” my string of fate into others’.

With a thoughtful hum, Naoto closed his notebook. The idea of supernatural forces and powers, capable of stopping time and the like, was intriguing (and awesome, it was just like that one episode from Phoenix Ranger Featherman R… which he’d forgotten to watch on Sunday. He’d have to watch the new episode later in the week), especially in that it related to him in some way. Now, the next step would be to figure out what had instigated the time-stop.

I… was talking with someone, both times that it happened. I was talking with them, and before the time-stop I… Agreed, to something? Naoto dredged up the details he could remember of Kurosawa’s conversation with him, comparing them to his chat with Grampa.

Yes, I agreed to do something for the people I was talking to. I agreed to tell Kurosawa if I required a break, and I agreed to attempt to make some friends when talking with Grampa. So, the ‘trigger’ for these occurrences is to talk to someone, and make some kind of deal with them? Perhaps my arrival in Tatsumi Port Island also had something to do with it – I’m certain I’ve made deals with people before without this kind of thing happening.

The reasonable thing to do, Naoto decided, would be to test this. I wonder if I can lead a conversation with someone onto a topic where they ask me to do something that I can agree to?

Maybe tomorrow. Naoto yawned widely, piling the laptop and his notebook on a chair grabbing his sleepwear. For now, sleeping sounds like a good plan.

~  ????? ????, ???? ??:??  ~

There were voices downstairs. Groaning, Naoto shoved away the bed covers, sluggishly forcing himself out of bed. He couldn’t find his coat, or a pair of shoes, so he padded barefoot across the landing. Naoto peered over the banister, watching Takeba and Kirijo talk. There was someone standing behind them – a girl, if he wasn’t mistaken. She was a bubbly looking teen, wearing a bright pink sweater and one earphone looped around the top of her ear.

“Why do you have a gun?” She asked, directing her question towards Takeba. Naoto perked up, listening with as much focus as his sleep-addled brain could manage.

“Huh? Um, well it’s sorta like a hobby…” Takeba stumbled through her answer, and Naoto grinned to himself, relieved to finally have some confirmation about the gun’s existence. He looked over to check, and the gun was definitely in the holster on Takeba’s leg. “Well, not a hobby, but…”

There was an awkward pause. Kirijo stepped up to take over the conversation. “You know how it is these days. It’s for self-defence.” There was some level of satisfaction in having his suspicions confirmed. Sanada almost certainly know about the gun too, if Kirijo does. Gun licenses are difficult to come by, but I’m sure the Kirijo group could have –

“It’s not a real gun, of course.” Kirijo continued, and Naoto scowled. Why would she have a model gun for self-defence? She’s clearly afraid of something dangerous, not just a robber. Why else would she have been so antsy? Besides, she hid the gun from me. Why do that, instead of just explaining?

“It’s getting late, so you should get some rest. Your room is on the third floor, at the end of the hallway. Your things should already be there.” Kirijo turned to Yukari, clearly waiting for a response.

 “Oh, I’ll show you the way. Follow me.” Yukari chipped in, and the girl nodded, letting herself be led upstairs.

“I’m Minako, by the way. Minako Arisato. It’s nice to meet you!” She said, smiling brightly at Yukari, who seemed a touch confused by the peppy introduction. Naoto stumbled back from the bannister, darting back down the hallway. Before he went into his room, however, he turned back, catching Arisato’s eyes for a second. The girl looked a little startled, but grinned at him all the same. He offered a quick nod of his head, then ducked into his room, unseen by Takeba.

The room, he almost noticed, was empty. His suitcase wasn’t in the corner, his personal items weren’t on the desk, and the closet was locked closed, unlike how he’d last left it. Unaware, and unwilling to care, Naoto slipped back into bed and closed his eyes.

Chapter Text

New Experiences

~ Tuesday, April 7th, 2009 07:30  ~

 Naoto glanced up as he heard the stairs creak. He was sitting on the sofa in the living area, sipping on a travel mug of coffee, having forgone any breakfast. Takeba hurried down, followed by a blue-haired boy wearing a Gekkoukan uniform and a pair of headphones, the speaker on his right pushed back to expose his ear. Takeba rushed forward, coming to an abrupt halt in front of Naoto when she saw him.

“Oh, you’re here!” Takeba said with a relieved smile. “I thought you were in your room, so when you didn’t answer when I knocked, I was kinda worried.”

“Thank you for your concern, Takeba-senpai.” Naoto said. She’s scared – more than she reasonably should be.  He clamped down on the satisfaction of realisation, turning his attention to the silent blue haired boy instead. Takeba winced, holding out a timid hand.

“Ah, Naoto-kun, Minato doesn’t… he’s, uh, mute. He uses JSL, but I’m sure we can find him something to write with. Mitsuru-senpai gave me a notebook for you after you went to bed, I think…“ Takeba tripped over her words in a nervous rush, directing the last sentence at Arisato, opening her school bag and rummaging around in it. Arisato tilted his head at her unconcernedly, then held out a hand for Naoto to shake instead. Naoto shook it quickly, letting go so he could use both hands.

 “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Arisato-senpai.” Naoto signed in JSL, spelling out Arisato’s name with careful, precise gestures. (He’d never been so glad for his obsession with spies and sci-fi. When Naoto was younger, he’d begged Grampa to teach him JSL, and, as he’d picked up English, ASL. The primary reason wasn’t for communication’s sake – it was actually so they could chat covertly, like “super spies using a secret code”, as Naoto had put it when he was nine.) He almost missed the near imperceptible change in Arisato’s expression – a tense crinkle around his left eye smoothing and a tiny twitch of his cheek – though his face remained blank.  

“Nice to meet you, Naoto-kun.” Arisato moved his hands with unhurried elegance, clearly far more practiced at JSL than Naoto was. Takeba watched the interaction bemusedly, flicking her gaze back and forth between them as they continued to sign, eventually giving up on trying to follow the silent conversation.

“Um…” She interjected, continuing once she had their attention. “Mitsuru-senpai asked me to show both of you how to get to school. If you like, we can go together every morning – we’ll all be getting the same train anyway, and this way we’ll all get to school a bit early.” Takeba reasoned, handing Arisato a small notebook, which he tucked into his pocket.

“That’s acceptable.” Naoto stated, catching the odd look Takeba sent his way. Wasn’t that…? I thought that sentence was alright. Was it rude?

Arisato nodded at Takeba in silent agreement, then switched on his music, clearly uninterested in interacting any longer. Naoto stared at Arisato’s headphones for a moment longer. There was something about them he thought he recognised, but the sense of déjà vu vanished when Arisato adjusted the speaker.

~ Tuesday, April 7th, 2009 08:10  ~

Takeba exchanged a cheerful good morning with a girl on a bike as they walked up to Gekkoukan High, seeming far happier now that they were out of the dorm. Is there something that makes her feel uncomfortable at the dormitory? It could be that she feels threatened in Iwatodai, or it might be that she’s scared of things at night.

Naoto cast a glance back at Arisato, who was walking slightly behind him, completely isolated from the world as he listened to his music. His face was completely blank, almost unnervingly so. How am I supposed to react to social cues unless I can read his body language and facial expressions? Naoto studied Arisato’s face, trying to find some hint of expression.

There was nothing for him to go off. Naoto scowled, glaring at a blue butterfly that had circled around a flowerbed. He halted, surprised, when it alighted on his school bag, the brilliant azure on its wings shimmering in the sun. It flapped up to his hat, settling briefly on the rim before it flew away, and Naoto followed its path, watching as it darted into the bushes. Takeba cleared her throat, and he turned to her as she indicated towards the building in front of them.

“Well, this is it. Welcome to Gekkoukan High School – I hope ya like it!” Takeba smiled, and Naoto forgot the butterfly in order to appreciate the sheer size of the school. Yes, he’d known that it was founded by the Kirijo Group, but he hadn’t quite understood the scale of the place until just now. Arisato, he noticed, only gave the school a passive look before moving on, leaving Takeba and Naoto to catch up to him.

“You two are okay from here, right?” Takeba asked as they changed their shoes. She didn’t wait for an answer before she continued. “You should go see your homeroom teacher first. The faculty office is right there to the left.”

Naoto followed Takeba’s line of sight, fixing his sight on a hallway on the left of the spacious main lobby. As Naoto made to walk off, he saw Takeba tug at Arisato’s sleeve as he followed Naoto.

“Hey, about last night. Don’t tell anyone what you saw, alright?” She said, anxiously checking their surroundings, probably for eavesdroppers. Last night? Did he see the threat? Takeba must have been there, or at least, she was told about whatever happened by Kirijo, since Kirijo definitely met Arisato last night – she doesn’t seem like the type to forgo a duty she takes upon herself. Or perhaps…

“See ya later.” Takeba said quietly, slipping away into the crowd with a shifty look when she caught sight of Naoto’s calculating expression. Naoto inwardly chided himself for being so obvious with his curiosity as he slowed down so Arisato could catch up.

“What were you two talking about?” Naoto asked. Arisato didn’t seem ‘talkative’ (referring to his personality, of course. Naoto wasn’t keen on making puns that were insensitive and, frankly, rather rude) enough to answer vague questions, so being direct was probably his best bet. Arisato blinked slowly, contemplatively, before responding.

“I scared her yesterday, when I arrived. She reacted in a way she must have thought was embarrassing, or something.”

“I see. My apologies for the intrusive question.”

They walked on without talking, which Naoto appreciated. It gave him time to think things over. She reacted embarrassingly? Takeba likely went down to get dinner later that night, but not so late that she would have difficulty waking up this morning, since she seemed well rested. That gives me a rough time frame – between seven thirty and before, say, two in the morning.

She didn’t seem embarrassed by the event when reminding Arisato not to talk about it, however – no flushed cheeks, no physical tics, no stutter. If anything, Takeba seemed wary, like she couldn’t let people know what she was talking about, which means… did she have her gun with her last night? If he scared her, in the middle of the night, when Takeba seemed to be afraid of a threat, she may have pulled a gun on him. That’s it. That must be it.

Ack-!” Naoto yelped as he was yanked back by the collar of his blazer. He stumbled away, massaging his throat and glaring at Arisato, who stared back. Arisato raised an eyebrow, pointing at a door Naoto had already passed. The door had a sign that declared it the “Faculty Office” and Naoto wilted, signing a quick apology as they went inside.

The room was fairly standard, as far as faculty offices went. The room was cluttered, files and cases balanced in dangerously tall piles. Printers and computers whirred, a rattling AC providing little relief in the humid room. A group of teachers sat around a table stacked with loose paper and folders. A woman in a peach faculty jacket hastily stood up, dusted off her trousers and approached the two second-years.

“Ah, are you two the new students?” She asked, offering a hand for them to shake. Naoto took initiative, gripping it firmly. The teacher startled, as though she hadn’t expected Naoto to shake it (just because he was young didn’t mean he wasn’t going to let himself be treated as anything other than equal to his classmates – what was so strange about that?), but she smiled awkwardly, taking her hand back when Arisato just watched her, unmoving other than a nod.

“Minato Arisato and, uh, Naoto Shirogane, both eleventh grade, correct?” Naoto didn’t miss the hesitation before his name, or the doubtful glance the teacher sent at him. He nodded, hiding his offence under his composed mask. The teacher flipped through a binder she was holding, labelled with “Class 2F, 2009 – 2010” on the purple cover.

“Wow, you’ve lived in a lot of different places…” She said, not indicating either one of her students. Naoto glanced at Arisato, unsure of who the teacher was talking to.

“Let’s see… in 1999… That was what, ten years ago? Your parents and twin sister were killed in a car crash-“ The teacher cut herself off with a gasp, looking up at Arisato. Ah, so that’s who she was talking about. What’s this about Arisato’s parents and his sibling, now? “I’m so sorry! I’ve been so busy, I didn’t have time to read either of your files beforehand –“ She tripped over her apology, bowing her head.

“Ah, no, it’s fine, Ms…?” Naoto hurried to move the conversation onward, not wanting to be subject to the woman’s discomfort. Although, to be fair, she should have already read the files. She has a mute student and a thirteen-year-old joining her class.

“I’m Ms. Toriumi, I teach Composition. Welcome to our school.” Toriumi said, this time with a far more rehearsed tone to her voice. She recovers quickly.

Nice to meet you.” Arisato signed, and Toriumi responded in kind with clean, neat movements. The school had had the foresight to give Arisato a teacher who knew JSL, at least, even if said teacher didn’t seem all that organised.

“It’s, um, nice to meet you.” Naoto said when Toriumi turned to him, startled by the sudden interaction.

“It’s wonderful to meet you too, Naoto.” Toriumi said, putting down the files she had been holding. Naoto eyed the folders. It was an uneasy feeling, knowing that huge details about his life were stored in those papers, available for anyone to read. “Have you seen the classroom assignments? You’re both in 2F – that’s my class. Before we get to class though, we have to get to the auditorium. The Welcoming Ceremony is about to begin. Follow me.”

xXx

Naoto muffled a yawn behind his hand. The Welcoming Ceremony had been going on for a good half hour now. Half an hour of the Principle droning on about the value of doing your best – hardly a revolutionary idea, and barely interesting enough to stop Naoto from nodding off. He shifted in his seat, glancing at Arisato, who looked like he was on the verge of falling asleep.

A hushed whisper caught Naoto’s attention. The student behind Arisato nudged his seat again, and Arisato slowly turned to him. “You two came to school with Yukari, right? I saw you walking together. Hey, do you know if she has a boyfriend?”

Arisato tilted his head, giving the student a contemplative look, then, without a single change in his expression, “Hell if I know. I met her last night, you think I’ve got a clue about her?”

Naoto’s eyes widened, caught off guard by the… unique reply. Somehow, that was the last thing I expected from Arisato.  He masked his surprise behind a cough, considering turning around to tell the student that Arisato didn’t know if Takeba had a boyfriend, when –

“I hear talking.” A male teacher spat, sending a venomous glare over at Toriumi. “I believe it’s someone in Ms. Toriumi’s class…”

“Shh, be quiet! You’re going to get me in trouble!” Toriumi hissed at the student, cheeks dark with shame. There are lots of students talking – even some of the teachers. Naoto observed, indignation towards the male teacher making him pinch his cuff in an effort to compose himself. Yet, he chose to pick on Toriumi specifically, not even telling off the student in favour of embarrassing her.

The Welcoming Ceremony dragged on. Naoto chose to spend his time debating the pros and cons of calling the male teacher out on blatant sexism by writing a letter to the funders of the school, instead of listening to the Principle’s rambling.

xXx

“Class, get to your seats! Now, I know most of you from last year, so we’ll skip introductions today. We do have two transfer students joining our class today, so I’ll let them introduce themselves.” Toriumi waved unenthusiastically, motioning Arisato to step forward. He walked up to the front of the class, writing his name on the chalkboard and watching his classmates with an impassive gaze.

“Oh, right. Minato uses JSL to speak, so he’s been issued with an electronic writing pad.” The class murmured, discussions about Arisato’s voice already breaking out. The only one who wasn’t gossiping, Naoto realised, was Takeba, who was sitting in the front row and giving Arisato a sympathetic look – not that Arisato noticed. He’d already taken a seat behind Takeba at Toriumi’s prompting. Naoto blinked in surprise when Toriumi gestured for him to step up to the front, then steeled himself for the inevitable, taking Arisato’s place beside her. Almost immediately, the whispers grew in volume and number.

“What the hell, he’s like twelve-“

“-damn middle-schooler doing-“

“-little swot-“

“-don’t he and Arisato look identical-“

“-how old even is he-“

“Alright!” Toriumi yelled over the noise, sighing in relief when the class quietened down. “Now you’ve all shut up, maybe you’ll let our other transfer introduce himself.”

“Hello. My name is Naoto Shirogane, and I’ll be joining your class for the next year. I hope we’ll get on well.” Naoto recited his pre-written lines (he’d worked them through with Yakushiji a week ago, just to be safe), forcing himself to ignore the increase in chatter.

“Naoto-“ Toriumi was cut off by a swell of talking, and she scowled at her class, clapping her hands to regain their attention. “Excuse me! Naoto, due to a difference in his curriculum, is joining a higher grade than corresponds to his age. Treat him as you would any other classmate, okay?” Toriumi considered the room, then pointed at the other seat on Arisato’s desk. “You know JSL, right? It’ll be easier for you two to work together on partner stuff if you sit next to each other.”

Naoto nodded, hurrying away from the front of the class. The stares and gossip followed him to his desk, claustrophobic and smothering in their intensity as he sat down. It’s fine, Naoto told himself. I expected them to act uncomfortable around someone younger. They’ll find something else to focus on by next week – that’s what all the guides said. It’ll be fine. They’ll move on. It’ll be fine. Arisato didn’t react to him slumping down in the seat or tucking away his bag, but when Naoto gave him an awkward smile, he blinked in a way that Naoto could only hope was welcoming.

~ Tuesday, April 7th, 2009 15:30  ~

Sighing, Naoto packed up his books. The first lesson had been nerve-wracking, with everyone in class glancing at the ‘transfer desk’ as they had dubbed it (Naoto had gleaned as much from the whispers. He’d thought they’d be warier, considering that there was a teacher in the room, but they’d continued to gossip through Toriumi’s lesson). Thankfully, that had died down as the day went on, and though no-one seemed to want to talk to Naoto – likely because they were unsure of how to act – he couldn’t help but prefer it that way.

“’Sup, dudes?” An obnoxiously loud voice carried across the classroom. The boy the voice belonged to was wearing a dark blue cap and sporting a scraggly goatee, grinning at Arisato with casual ease as he approached. Naoto fixed a neutral expression to his face. So much for no-one wanting to interact with me.

“How’s it goin’?” The boy directed his question to the two in front of him, turning his excitement towards Naoto. He’s looking at me. He’s speaking to me. How am I supposed to respond to him? Should I speak with the same… uh, dialect?

“I’m currently in good health, thank you.” Naoto said, not fully thinking his words through in his haste to reply. Wait, was that the right answer? I don’t think – I’m not sure I actually responded correctly –

“Aw, you don’t gotta be so formal about it! The name’s Junpei Iori – you’re Naoto, and you’re Minato, right? Nice to meet ya.” Iori smiled with what Naoto assumed was genuine warmth, and he relaxed a little. Iori seems nice enough. I wonder, what requirements are there to be met before I’m supposed to call someone a friend?

“I transferred here when I was in eighth grade. I know how tough it is, bein’ the new kid.” Iori clapped a hand on Arisato’s shoulder, and Arisato shoved it off without hesitation. Iori continued to talk, not discouraged in the slightest. “So, I wanted to say hi… See what a nice guy I am?”

Ah, I see. I suppose he enjoys being seen in a positive light by people around him, like his classmates – that’s why he made the first move to talk with the ‘new kids’. Naoto couldn’t help but feel somewhat disappointed by the revelation, in Iori for raising his hopes, and in himself for even believing someone would approach him without having something to gain from it. Sharp footsteps cut through the uncomfortable lapse in conversation, and Iori turned to greet the newcomer.

“Hey, it’s Yuka-tan!” He dragged out Takeba’s name teasingly. “I didn’t think we’d be in the same class again.”

“At it again, huh?” She replied, rolling her eyes and settling her weight on her back leg. Naoto couldn’t stop himself from analysing the posture, noticing the subtle way Takeba leaned away from Iori. She’s not terribly fond of him, then. “I swear, you’ll talk to anyone if they’ll listen. Did you ever think you might be bothering someone?

“What? But, I was just bein’ friendly.” Iori whined.

“If you say so. Anyway, looks like all three of us are in the same homeroom.” Takeba deliberately turned away from Iori, ignoring the insulted noise he made. Naoto took a moment to react, his mind still catching up with the conversation, their rapid back-and-forth.

It must be fate.” Arisato signed, deadpan as always. Naoto couldn’t hold back an amused huff, quiet enough to pass for him just clearing his throat. Arisato glanced at him out of the corner of his eye, the creases around the bottom eyelid deepening slightly with Naoto’s sheepish cough. Iori and Takeba watched them, confused.

“He, um, said that it must be fate.” Naoto translated. Takeba scoffed.

“Fate? Yeah, right.” Takeba shut him down, chuckling sarcastically. “Still, I’m a little surprised all three of us are together.”

“Um, hello? Are you forgetting that I’m in this class too?” Iori cut in. His expression changed, something sly and mischievous creeping into the lopsided grin. “By the way, I heard you’re both staying in Yuka-tan’s dorm. What’s up with that? C’mon, gimme the dirt!” Iori winked – badly – at Takeba, sidling up to Arisato and nudging him. Arisato took a firm step away, putting him out of Iori’s reach.

“Wh-What are you talking about?!?” Takeba spluttered, her face erupting in a violently red blush. “They both got allocated to my dorm because there were too few people to make a separate dorm, okay? Besides, Naoto-kun’s a kid! Why’d you even bring up something that weird around him? Why are people even talking about it? Now you have me worried…” She ranted, breathing heavily as she concluded. The few people left in the classroom gave her odd looks, but otherwise ignored Takeba’s outburst. I wonder if she often acts like this, or just when Iori incenses her.

“Hey…” Takeba trailed off, a sudden nervous hunch in her shoulders. She looked at Arisato. “You didn’t say anything to anyone about you-know-what, did you?”

“I mean, I’m mute. Not much chance of me saying anything, is there?” Naoto had been trying to follow the conversation instead of reading too deeply into anything they were saying (because that insinuation had been quite something), but the mention of Arisato keeping a secret was enough to draw him right into the moment. Well, that and Arisato’s… unique brand of humour. Seeing Takeba’s confusion at his gestures, Arisato took out his school-issued pad, scribbling something down and holding the pad in front of him like a prisoner getting a mugshot, with a poker-face to match.  

No. The pad read, and Takeba exhaled, puffing out her cheeks.

“Okay, good.” She shifted from foot to foot – Insecurity. Seeking comfort or reassurance. The hours spend studying books on body language had the words springing to the forefront of Naoto’s mind like a reflex the moment he recognised the movement. “Seriously, don’t say anything about last night, alright?”

Naoto perked up, listening to the conversation more intently than before, desperate to glean any hint towards the strangeness of his dorm. Beside him, Iori’s jaw dropped open.

“What.” Takeba said, giving Iori a wary look.

“L-Last night…?” He asked, wriggling his eyebrows suggestively. Takeba yelped, physically recoiling at the idea of his implications.

“Wait a moment! Don’t get the wrong idea!” She blustered, waving her hands frantically in front of her. “Listen, I just met Minato the other day, and there’s absolutely. Nothing. Between us.”

Seconded. I’m not touching that kind of crazy with a ten-foot pole.” Arisato chipped in, using miniscule movements that went unnoticed by either Takeba or Iori.

“Geez…” Takeba huffed, running a hand through her hair, smoothing the part that had fluffed up. “I’ve gotta go. I’ve got something to take care of for the archery team. But, you better not start any rumours!” With that, Takeba flounced off. Iori watched her go, then turned to Naoto and Arisato, shrugging nonchalantly.

“Ah, who cares? No-one takes rumours seriously, anyway. She’s so paranoid.” Rumours are frequently taken too seriously, Iori-senpai. They get people hurt. Naoto thought the words he wanted to retort with, but he couldn’t form them with his lips, the sounds getting caught in his throat. Instead, he stayed silent, shying away from Iori’s expectant look.

“Uhm, I suppose…?” Naoto said instead, unwilling to disappoint or possibly anger a fellow classmate. Iori shrugged.

“That just how she is, I guess. But anyway, it’s your first day here, and people’re already talkin’ about you, dude. You da man!” Iori thumped Arisato’s shoulder proudly, and Arisato ducked away as the hand came down a second time.

Personal space.” He signed irritably. The clear distaste on Arisato’s face was unnerving, especially after the blank expression he’d sustained the entire time Naoto had been around him. Arisato scowled, straightening his blazer and standing beside Naoto, using Naoto like a human barrier between himself and Iori.

“Heheh, this is gonna be a fun year. I can feel it!” Iori said happily, unperturbed by Arisato’s reaction.  Naoto pressed his fingertips to his temple, trying to stave off the building headache. He picked up his bag and walked out of the classroom, leaving Arisato to trail after him, Iori calling after them and running to catch up. This is going to be a torturous year, I can already tell.

~ Tuesday, April 7th, 2009 16:03  ~

 “One moment, if you don’t mind.” Naoto signed, checking with Arisato as they walked to the station together. Arisato shrugged, so he veered off course, heading to Paulownia Mall instead.

They drew up in front of the police station, and Naoto rapped on the door, waiting for Kurosawa to call him in before he shouldered the door open.

“Good afternoon, Officer Kurosawa.” He said, inclining his head respectfully. Kurosawa looked up from his computer.

“Afternoon, Shirogane. Your key’s here. Who’s the friend?” Kurosawa slid the key over the counter, and he took it, looking back at Arisato. Arisato blinked.

“A dormmate. Minato Arisato.” He offered no other explanation, tucking the key away beside his notebook in his pocket.

“I see. Just so I know how to assign your cases, are you going to take this week to get used to school, then start work, or will you be in tomorrow?” Kurosawa asked. It’s phrased like he’s challenging me. Is this another test, of sorts?

“I’ll… I believe that I may need a little time to acclimatise to the time difference, and to school, but I’ll be here on Friday. Is that acceptable?” Naoto said slowly, thinking his response through. He previously told me to tell him if I wasn’t comfortable. Kurosawa also seemed worried that I wasn’t of the appropriate age. He’d probably want me to take the full week off, but… this is a compromise, so I suppose it’s alright? And, regarding my previous hypothesis about agreements…

“It is.” Kurosawa gave him an approving nod just before the world froze. Naoto exhaled harshly as the flooding warmth in his chest made an appearance, but he didn’t panic. As I thought. Now, the voice-

I am thou, and thou art I,

Thou hast woven new power into the twined strings of fate,

The Wheel has heeded thine call,

And blessed thee, as thine bond with the Hierophant Arcana strengthens.

~Rank Two of the Hierophant Arcana has become available to you~

Right on time. The words were different from the other two occurrences, however. Perhaps it’s because I have ‘strengthened’ a bond, rather than establishing one and ‘spinning a string into mine’? Additionally, the voice mentioned ‘Rank Two’, and the Hierophant Arcana becoming available to me. Is there a maximum Rank to whatever this is? What has ‘become available to me’? Naoto ran through hundreds of thoughts as time resumed, quickly setting them aside to concentrate on the present. Kurosawa, as before, didn’t react to the time-stop, letting him leave without any further queries.

Another thought came to mind as Naoto pushed open the door, waiting for Arisato to walk out of the station ahead of him. Come to think of it, I agreed to travel to school with Takeba this morning and nothing happened. Do the agreements have to be of a more personal nature than that? That’s something to consider, at least, when I conduct further investigation into this.

Outside the mall, Arisato looked at Naoto for a few seconds, furrowing his brows slightly. Naoto stopped, glancing up at him.

Is there an issue?” Naoto asked, but Arisato simply shook his head and kept walking.

~ Tuesday, April 7th, 2009 18:00  ~

“Good evening, Arisato. Shirogane.” Kirijo said, offering the two a nod as they signed in, handing them each a list of names.

“Good evening, Kirijo-senpai. This is…” Naoto skimmed over the paper, “…the cooking rota?”

“Correct. We all take turns to cook dinner. Lunch is provided at school, and the dorm will supply money for you to purchase lunches on Sundays and holidays.” Kirijo informed them. “I’m cooking tonight. Do you have any particular foods you’d like me to avoid using?”

“I’m sure that I’ll have no issues.” Naoto said. Arisato held up the same no on his writing pad that he’d shown Takeba that afternoon.

“Thank you. Dinner will be prepared by seven o’clock on most nights, unless whoever is cooking tells everyone otherwise.” Kirijo said. She excused herself, heading into the kitchen and rifling through the cupboards.

Arisato wandered off, going up to his room. Naoto followed suit, locking his door and calling Grampa, assuaging his worries about Naoto’s first day and allowing his mind to catch up to the rush of his first time in school since he was eight.

“I am trying, Grampa, it simply… requires some more time.”

I know, Naoto. I’m glad you’re making an effort – keep working on it, won’t you?

Yes, Grampa! I can manage making one friend, I promise. I’ll call at the end of the week. Call me sooner if there are any changes with your case.”

That’s my boy. I’ll see you – well, hear you on Friday. Be safe!” Grampa ended the call before he could hear Naoto groan at his appalling attempt at a joke, but Naoto did it anyway, out of spite.

~  ????? ???, ???? ??:??  ~

“Welcome back, dear guest. It is wonderful to see you again.”

Naoto’s eyes fluttered open. He was back in the ‘Velvet Room’, as Igor had called it. The cool blue tones were as soothing as the familiarity of Mother's study, the room exactly as he remembered it. Igor grinned at him, bulbous eyes scrutinizing his every move. Alexis stood behind him, silent and still, even as the ring of gold in her right iris slowly rotated.

“You remember us, do you not?” Igor gave him an impossibly wide smile, extending a hand. The tip of his index finger touched the desk, and a sheet of paper formed under it. He slid the paper across the wood, and at his prompting, Naoto picked it up.

-Fate is a script to be composed, a wheel to be turned-

-A thread to be spun, but not a puppet to be controlled-

-That which is raised must be lowered, and that which is lowered must be raised-

-The Wheel of Fortune turns endlessly onwards for all-

-And regardless of power, gender or status-

-Delivers all equally to the same end-

-I hereby agree to the statement above-

-And chooseth mine own fate, regardless of whatever path has been prewritten-

Below the writing was Naoto’s signature, exactly as he’d written it two nights ago. He pushed the paper back across the table, looking at Igor uncertainly.

“Why am I here? What’s going on?” Naoto asked. I’m asleep. I remember going to bed, so this must be a dream – by the loosest definition of the word. With the supernatural time-stops, this may very well be real. In fact, considering that strange things started happening after I signed that… contract? This is real. This is all real.

“You, dear guest, are destined to hone a power gifted to you by Lady Fortune, and you will require our help to do so. All we ask is that you take responsibility for your actions. Is that acceptable to you?” Igor tilted his head, tapping the paper, which shimmered and disappeared. Naoto frowned.

“I suppose... Hold on, one moment. You said the Philemon had given me power last time we met. Now it’s Lady Fortune, whoever she is? Which is it? And why?”

“I promise, you’ll know soon.” Alexis finally spoke up, and something in Naoto’s mind clicked when he heard the light enunciation.

“You’re the one speaking during those time stops, aren’t you?”

Alexis nodded, holding something out. In it lay a single card – a tarot card. Naoto recognised it from the research he’d done the previous night. “This is for you.” Alexis pressed it into Naoto’s hand, closing Naoto’s fingers the simple design.

“The Wheel of Fortune.” Naoto said to himself, running his thumb over the glimmering golden Wheel in the centre of the card. Alexis glowered over her shoulder at Igor as she walked around the desk to stand by Naoto.

“Unfortunately, someone won’t let me explain anything until you find out more on your own, but don’t worry. It’ll take maybe a few days, max.” Alexis rolled her eyes expressively, sounding more like a put-out child than the age she appeared to be.

“I… alright?” Naoto said helplessly. Alexis grinned at him, draping an arm over his shoulders. Surprisingly, it wasn’t uncomfortable – the weight was warm, reassuring in its steady pressure. Alexis leaned over, murmuring into Naoto’s ear.

“You be safe, okay? Everything happens for a reason and your Wheel is on the right path, but that doesn’t mean you’re not at risk.”

Alexis.” Igor said reprovingly, giving her a scolding look. Alexis stuck her tongue out, pulling down an eyelid and making a mocking noise.

“I’ll be as careful as I can.” Naoto said firmly. Alexis sighed, withdrawing her arm and taking Naoto’s hand instead, the one holding the tarot card. She touched her fingertip to the first spike on the Wheel of Fortune. The design flashed once, and a bell-like sound resounded in Naoto’s head as the golden Wheel on the card began to turn.

“I know you will, it’s just that… it might not be enough.” Alexis smiled weakly, pressing the card back towards Naoto. “I’ll see you soon, okay?”

Naoto only managed a nod before a wave of dizzying exhaustion swept over him and his eyes closed.

Chapter Text

 

A Development

~  Wednesday, April 8th, 2009 08:00  ~

“Hey.” Takeba clicked her fingers in front of Naoto’s nose. Naoto jerked away from the noise, staring in surprise at Takeba before he collected himself.

“Is there something I can help you with?” He asked, straightening his cap. Takeba shook her head, maintaining her concerned expression.

“It’s just… you seem distracted. You haven’t said anything since we left the dorm, and you keep getting this far-off look in your eyes, and you didn’t respond the last few times I talked to you, and…” Takeba paused, smiling ruefully. “I’m rambling. My point was, you don’t really seem as put together as you usually are. Is everything okay?”

“I’m quite alright, thank you, if a little tired. It’s just taking me a while to adapt to school life.” Naoto used the convenient excuse that Kurosawa had unknowingly provided him with yesterday instead of trying to come up with something else, giving Takeba a (hopefully) convincing smile. Well, it’s not entirely a lie. Being at school is certainly different from life when I’m travelling with Grampa.

“Oh, right, I gotcha.” Takeba said understandingly, leaving Naoto be and returning to looking out of the train window. Naoto slipped the handle of his briefcase over his wrist, using his freed hand to tug distractedly at a lock of hair.

I should expect something supernatural to happen in the next few days. I wonder, will   it have something to do with  Iwatodai  Dormitory, or will it be something entirely different? Whatever it is, it’s related to Tarot in some way, and it has something to do with someone called Lady Fortune and someone called Philemon. Investing in a tarot deck and book might be useful.   

“This is our stop.” Takeba took Naoto’s shoulder, guiding him out of the train when it shuddered to a stop. Naoto shrugged the hand off, walking on his own, but as her hand brushed over the skin on his neck, a foreign thought – not his, definitely not his – pulsed through his mind.  

Lovers. 

Naoto stumbled as his train of thought was forcibly halted, and Takeba immediately grabbed his arm, steadying him.

Lovers. Another Arcana . Is it referring to her?  That would mean  Takeba  is  represented by the Lovers Arcana  in the same way Officer Kurosawa is  represented by the Hierophant , and Grampa is by Temperance.   

“Woah, Naoto. Are you okay?” 

“Yes, thank you. I must have caught my foot in the doorway of the train.” Naoto pried Takeba’s fingers off his sleeve, and the heavy, insistent thought (memory? It was like he’d known it before, and yet, he didn’t know exactly what it was he thought he knew) flashed again.  

Lovers

This time he managed to keep his balance, but still froze up mid-step. I feel an Arcana when I touch someone, then. Not through clothes, skin to skin contact is required - Takeba grabbed my sleeve and nothing happened. I didn’t get anything from shaking Arisato’s hand yesterday, so whatever happened in the Velvet Room last night – Alexis giving me the Wheel of Fortune? Igor letting me read my contract? – must have caused this. 

Takeba caught up to him, Arisato trailing behind her. Naoto ignored her mindless chatter as they walked up to the school.  

Perhaps this is important information, but i t would be irritating for  my thought process to stop every time  I touch someone. Since it happened both times I touched Takeba, that’s likely the case. When she touched my clothes, however, I didn’t hear anything. If I wear gloves and cover as much skin as possible…  

~  Wednesday, April 8th, 2009 15:30  ~

“…two hundred words on a character of your choice from ‘Akuma’, explaining how Zenzou Kasai effectively uses literary techniques to develop the character and make them interesting. I want that on my desk by next Monday!” Toriumi called, voice drowned out by the ringing of the bell. The students chattered over her futile attempts, forming loose groups and wandering out of the classroom in waves.

Naoto took note of the homework, sitting at his desk and waiting for the classroom to empty somewhat before he started clearing his desk. Takeba had been one of the first students out of the doors, quickly mentioning that the Chairman was coming over to meet Arisato tonight as she passed their desk on the way out.

Arisato had given her an impassive shrug, not trying to pack away his books until Takeba had left and Naoto started moving. Naoto nudged Arisato’s book over to his side of the desk, accidentally brushing his hand against Arisato’s as he did so. He stiffened as a word surfaced in his mind, far more loudly than Takeba’s Arcana.

Fool.

The first tarot, number “zero” or “twenty-two”. Representing the start of a journey, innocence and new beginnings. Maybe being at Gekkoukan is a new start for him?

Naoto rubbed his knuckles, alleviating the tingling sensation over his skin. Arisato watched him passively, tidying away his books. Naoto gave Arisato a questioning look as they packed up together, but, as Naoto was coming to understand was the usual, Arisato offered him no explanation. Arisato followed him out of school and down the walkway.

“Do you have any purpose for coming with me?” Naoto eventually asked when they turned the corner onto the strip mall.

Felt like it.” Arisato signed. He gave no further clarification, opting to clip on his headphones and hook his thumbs in his pockets as he walked. Naoto rolled his eyes, deciding not to change his plans to start internally mapping out Tatsumi Port Island. They continued without talking, Arisato sneaking a glance at Naoto every so often, facing ahead before Naoto could call him out on it.

It was rather frustrating, to have someone who clearly had a personality underneath his uncaring façade but simply wouldn’t respond or give any way for Naoto to understand him. Arisato didn’t even display any obvious body language for him to read other than an occasional frown and a general tendency to shy away from physical contact.

Naoto paused in front of a run-down clothing shop, remembering his idea from the train. “Excuse me for a moment.” He left Arisato outside and headed in. The shop advertised evening wear, so if he wasn’t mistaken…

In the corner, a small rack of accessories stood at a tilting angle, the white paint on the rack chipping away to reveal dull metal. He picked up a pair of thin, black cotton gloves from it and tried them on, flexing his fingers and rolling his wrists. They seemed flexible enough that they wouldn’t impede his movement. Naoto paid for them and pulled them on again as he and Arisato started walking again. Arisato gave him a mildly curious look yet made no effort to ask about the gloves.

~  Wednesday, April 8th, 2009 18:00  ~

“Oh, they’re back.” Takeba looked up at the door from the couch she was seated on. Ikutsuki stood, smiling pleasantly.

“So, this is our new guest!” Ikutsuki stood, shaking Arisato’s hand. “Good evening. My name is Shuji Ikutsuki. I'm the Chairman of the Board for your school. ‘Ikutsuki’… Hard to say, isn't it? That's why I don't like introducing myself. Even I get tongue-tied sometimes...”

Naoto resisted the urge to groan from sheer second-hand embarrassment. Ikutsuki trailed off, apparently realising the distasteful content of his introduction in this context as he rambled his way through the rest of his spiel and finally, defeatedly, gesturing to the sofa.

“Please, have a seat.”

Arisato slouched back into the couch, the tense shape of his shoulders not dropping despite the relaxed position. Naoto shifted his bag to the other hand and stretched the stiff fingers, heading for the stairs. If Ikutsuki wanted me in the room, he’d say it. Perhaps it’s better if I get started on some homework.

“I’m on cooking duty tonight. I’m making a veggie curry – that okay with you?” Takeba called after him, still seated on the sofa.

“That would be much appreciated.”

“Cool. I’ll be done at seven, so come down early if you want your food when it’s hot!”

Naoto offered no more than a polite nod, staying away from the creaky side of the stairs. He took care to step lightly even with his heavy boots, trying his best to avoid unnecessary noise they tended to make. .

Grampa had told him time and again to stay as quiet as possible in unfamiliar areas with potential threats. He wasn’t sure if it applied here, but it was a good lesson to keep in mind – just in case.

~  Wednesday, April 8th, 2009 11:57  ~

“So, how’re they doing?” Ikutsuki asked, leaning over to get a better look at the screens. Kirijo and Takeba stood, moving over to let Ikutsuki see.

“Arisato went to bed a little while ago. He's asleep now. Shirogane has done the same. Mr. Chairman, do you think they’re...?” Kirijo trailed off, glancing back at the monitors.

“Well, let's wait and see for now. ...The Dark Hour is approaching.”

The light cut out moments later, then flickered back with an eerie green glow. The screens displaying each of the boys’ rooms turned back on.

“Arisato is still asleep, no changes.” Kirijo reported, logging the results and turning back to the Chairman.

“He hasn’t been preyed on yet and he’s clearly experiencing the Dark Hour, so we can assume he has the potential.” Ikutsuki nodded. “What about Naoto?”

Takeba rolled her chair away, giving the other two a clear look at the screen. “Um, Ikutsuki-san? Do you know what this is?”

Ikutsuki stared at the display. Naoto was lying on his bed, clearly asleep, but that wasn’t the interesting part. No, what was strange was that the coffin he was lying in was open. The lid of the coffin was propped against the side.

Inside the coffin, Naoto mumbled unhappily, rolling over and pushing at the dark walls. He looked asleep, but that didn’t stop the distressed noises he continued to make. If anything, he seemed to grow more and more agitated, stretching up and thrashing as though in the grips of a nightmare. The coffin flickered as Naoto struggled.

“I’ve never seen anything like this.” Ikutsuki said, reaching out and touching the monitor. “He made his way to the dormitory during the Dark Hour, like Minato, but he’s not entirely unaffected by it. How strange.”

A blonde woman sat down on the bed, and Takeba did a double take. “She wasn’t there before, right? Is she actually in Naoto’s room?” She got up, about to run down and forcibly get the woman away from their newest dormmate, but Kirijo grabbed her arm.

“Wait.”

“Wait?!? There’s someone we don’t know in Naoto’s room, and it’s the Dark Hour! He could be in danger-“

“Takeba! Look at her.”

The woman carefully brushed away the hair covering Naoto’s face. Naoto made a contented noise, going lax as the woman laid her hands on either side of his head. The coffin disappeared entirely. The woman smiled as Naoto rolled into his duvet with a sleepy murmur, before she shut her eyes and vanished.

“She… Who is she? She got rid of Naoto’s coffin, and he looks fine now.”

“A Persona, perhaps?” Ikutsuki speculated, motioning for Kirijo to continue scribbling down their observations. “I’ve never seen anything of the sort… In any case, continue to monitor the two of them for the next few days. Maybe that will give us some insight into these peculiarities.”

Takeba sighed, casting her gaze down. “I feel kinda bad, though, spying on them like this…”

 

~  ?????????, ????? ???, ???? ??:??  ~

“Morning!” Alexis chirped from her seat on the desk.

“Hello, Alexis-san.” Naoto said as he blinked awake, peering around Alexis. “Igor isn’t here?”

“He’s doing the introductions for a couple of other Guests tonight. We can go check in with him in a minute, but…” Alexis bit her lip, frowning. “I need to tell you; you shouldn’t wear the gloves. It’s risky to not learn to control your powers as they develop, especially given how volatile the Wheel can be. I’m sure you won’t have problems with it if you give yourself some time to get used to them.”

“About that. Am I correct in assuming that the tarot card I hear is representative of the person?”

“Pretty quick of you to pick up on that!” Alexis grinned, jumping off the table. “Yup, same as the bonds you’ve started making. As time goes on, I’m sure your calling to the Arcana will get stronger and easier to manage, but don’t worry about that for the time being. Anyway, the reason I called you here isn’t because of Igor.”

“It wasn’t because of Igor?” Naoto repeated curiously. “I was under the impression that you took orders from him.” After all, Alexis hadn’t given Naoto more information at Igor’s apparent instruction last night.

“Yeah, I do, but it’s not like they’re absolute. I’m not one of his or Philemon’s, I’m Lady Fortune’s.”

Naoto raised an eyebrow questioningly at the distinction. “And that means…?”

“Eh, later. We gotta stop in before Theo’s guest leaves. Since you’ve already met her, you can go to her Velvet Room. Lady Fortune is really insistent on you knowing her. ” Alexis grabbed Naoto’s wrist, yanking him to his feet. “C’mon, let’s go!”

“Wait one moment, Alexis-san.” Naoto pulled himself free from Alexis’ strong grip, letting his mind catch up to the torrent of information. “I’ve met someone else… who’s a guest of the Velvet Room?”

“Yeah. Most guests don’t ever leave their own Velvet Room, though, you’re a special case. Don’t talk to her until she addresses you, okay? Igor doesn’t like being interrupted.” Alexis rolled her eyes, tugging Naoto to the door. The ebony had a different feel to it than everything else in the Velvet Room. It was the only thing that had changed from his memory of his Mother's study, which had a simple oak door, not an engraved door like this. Alexis turned the brass knob, shouldering open the door which led into… an elevator?

“That’s her, there.” Alexis whispered exaggeratedly, pointing to a girl sitting on a metal chair. She had auburn hair and wore a pair of earphones, with the wire of one earphone looped over her ear and the other dangling loose. The odd sense of déjà vu Naoto had been hit with suddenly made sense.

“I met her in a dream. What do you mean, she’s a Velvet Room guest? Well, I do suppose I’m dreaming now. Was that dream a vision into a different place? Takeba and Kirijo were there too, though, so…” Naoto went silent, mulling over the possibilities as he looked around the room, randomly taking notice of certain aspects.

The room was painted in the same shades of blue that his Velvet Room was (and the distinction between different guests’ Velvet Rooms seemed important to Alexis, so they must have some insight into the strange world he was becoming a part of) and had a similar kind of desk with an armchair where Igor was sitting in the middle of the room. The back of the chair the girl was sitting on was shaped like a lyre.

Metal bars let cobalt light flash into the room as the elevator rose. Other than the desk, the room was fairly empty, and Naoto couldn’t see anything outside the elevator. He turned his attention to Igor, listening as he told the girl about a place between dream and reality, mind and –

This sounded familiar. Igor recited a similar spiel to the one he’d given Naoto on the first night – honing her ability, abiding by the contract and taking responsibility for her decisions. I thought myself to be the only one with access to the Velvet Room and powers, but that doesn’t appear to be so.

It was almost disappointing to know he wasn’t quite as special as he thought, but Naoto quashed that uncomfortable thought immediately. The more people that are like this, the more information I can gather. This is not something to be jealous over. Caught up in his thoughts, Naoto missed the girl’s curious glance.

“Those two over there, who are they? Are they part of this schtick you’ve got going on here?” Her voice was higher than he remembered, somehow both calming and cheerful all at once. Naoto hesitated, unsure whether he was supposed to respond or not.

“Alexis is an Attendee – you’ll meet your own attendee shortly, but he is busy tonight. You may think of the boy beside her as another guest, if you will. Not of your world, but of a similar one. It would be beneficial for you learn about each other.” Igor answered for him.

“Okay? Wait – you’re the kid I saw on my first night! No-one knew what I was talking about when I asked them the next morning, though, what’s up with that?”

“In all honesty, I thought I was dreaming when I first met you.” Naoto muttered, not quite focused on the conversation enough to consider his phrasing. The girl giggled.

“Aw, I’m flattered, but you’re kinda young for me-“

“No!” Naoto yelped, his cheeks going red from the implication despite the playful tone. “I meant, um, I had gone to sleep and dreamed it. I never left my bed – or at least, I don’t think I did.”

The girl tilted her head. “That’s funky… uh, what should I call you?”

“My name is Naoto Shirogane. I may be thirteen, but I’m currently attending second year of high school.”

“Huh, same as me – I just started second year. I’m Minako Arisato, but I don’t really mind if you call me Minako. Nice to meet you, Naoto-kun!”

“Arisato?” Naoto recognised. “Strange. There’s a boy under the same name transferring-

“And that’s where I cut in! C’mon, Naoto, we gotta go.” Alexis grinned, winking at Naoto. Igor gave her a look (despite the ever-present grin, Naoto got the distinct feeling that he was annoyed by Alexis), but Naoto had already picked up on the hint Alexis was giving him.

“…I see. Goodnight, Arisato– um, Minako-senpai. I hope we meet again.”   

“Same here. Bye, Naoto-kun.”

Minako waved them out as Alexis dragged Naoto back out of the door, into Naoto’s own Velvet Room. Naoto rounded on her the moment they got inside.

“What was that about?” Naoto asked, frowning. “Am I not allowed to mention Minato Arisato to her? Why not? And, on that topic, what’s with those two? They’ve similar names, they’re both starting second year at Gekkoukan, I saw her arriving at dorm the same night that… Arisato…”

He trailed off, pieces of the puzzle slotting together in the most improbable, wonderful way. “Minato Arisato’s sister died in a car crash along with his parents. Minako said that no-one knew of me when she asked, I saw her with Kirijo and Takeba, and Igor mentioned something about similar worlds. Alexis…”

Naoto turned to Alexis; eyes wide with all the possibilities running through his mind. “Is Minako from a parallel universe?”

Alexis practically lit up with delight.

“You got it! But, also, uh… no?” Alexis slowed down, pressing a finger to her lip thoughtfully. “As far as I know, there are only a few realities that exist alongside yours, and that’s really only because-“

Alexis’ mouth continued to move, but no sound came from it. She stopped, scowling.

“I’m not allowed to give you that information right now. Apparently, you can’t know that yet; nonsense, honestly, because you’re the Rewriter, and you–“ The same thing happened, silencing her, and Alexis shrugged helplessly.

“Can’t say anything in this damn room, honestly. Keep going with your train of thought, though, you’re on the right tracks.”

It was frustrating to be so close to getting potentially useful information (like why all this was happening to him, for one), but Naoto allowed the subject to pass. “You mentioned that Igor was welcoming a couple of guests tonight. If Minako is one, and she’s from a different reality, is Minato the other?”

“I’m not allowed to give away the identities of Velvet Room Guests,” Alexis droned, as though reciting a pre-set line, then grinned at Naoto, “but if I were, I’d say you’re right on the money. Don’t mention it to him until you meet him in the Velvet Room, though, okay?”

“I… understand. Is there anything else I should consider-“

“Just try to keep building your Social Links – bonds – friendships – whatever you wanna call them, I’m not uptight like Margaret – okay? That should be enough to keep you on the upcycle of the Wheel for the next couple of days.” She sighed, running a hand through her already mussed hair.

“I’ll be sure to do that. You wouldn’t be able to tell me why I should do that yet, would you?” Naoto tried, grimacing when Alexis shook her head. “Worth a try, I suppose. You mentioned a Theo? Does he play the same role to Minako as you do to me?”

“Ace in one. I’m not like them, though. I wasn’t created for a Fool.” Alexis’ eyes fixed mindlessly on the bookshelf, seemingly unaware of what she’d just said. She’s not normal, even in this supernatural world?

“You don’t like Minako?”

“No! No, I’m not calling the Guests idiots – I mean Fool, like the Arcana. You know? Same as Minako and Minato, same as Igor and Philemon. The Attendees were all created by Igor and I was created by Lady Fortune. The Attendees are nice enough, but…” Alexis waved her hands vaguely.

“They don’t trust me like they trust each other. It just gets kinda lonely, I guess. But,” She smiled, but the corners of her eyes didn’t crinkle, “it’s okay. They’re made to be together, and I’m… not. That’s how it is.”

Something in Naoto’s chest tightened. Listening to Alexis resign herself to being alone was uncomfortable, but he didn’t quite know what to say to alleviate the tension. “…I apologise for being intrusive.” Naoto said instead, turning his face away as he twisted his fingers awkwardly. Alexis sighed again.

“’S alright. I’ve got a purpose to fulfil, after all, so it’s not all bad.”

Naoto tilted his head questioningly. Alexis hummed, looking up and leaning against the wall beside him.

“I’ve got to look after you.”