Saturday, July 7, 2019, Day Time, Kanako's POV
My husband and I got off the train in my hometown, the town of Inaba, and saw a handful of people waiting at the station. Since few people got off the train here, there weren't many people waiting to greet people they knew or loved, but the one we were looking for was among them.
"Mom! Dad!" a familiar voice called out- that of my son, Yu Amagi(formerly Narukami). He was the tall, handsome young man I'd seen a few months ago, but it was surprising to see him in traditional Japanese attire.
"Hello, Yu," I said, walking over and giving him a hug. "How has Yukiko-san been?"
"Quite well, thank you," Yu said. "She learned a lot at college- running a business, cooking and living by herself- but she's really glad to be home."
"So she's been running the inn ever since you returned home?" Souji said.
"Not quite yet," Yu said. "She's taken up most of the responsibilities, but Mother- by that, I mean Yukiko's mother- is still the proprietor of the inn. Still, she's really glad that you're coming to stay at our establishment."
At times, it was a bit surprising to hear Yu talk about himself as part of Yukiko-san's family. Yu and Yukiko-san had been legally married ever since a year after they had graduated college had struggled to find a time for a wedding that suited everyone's busy schedules.
I was still getting used to some things, such as Yu calling himself an Amagi now. Still, my parents had been fine with the Dojima name dying off, not believing that Ryotaro would ever have children, so it wasn't as though my family name was important to me.
We went to the bus stop near the station and boarded the bus that was bound for the Amagi Inn. As we passed through the town, I found myself recognizing many of the stores that I visited when I was young, even if many of them had been closed or replaced by other businesses, and those familiar sights brought back memories.
I was a bit surprised I felt this way after so long away from a town that I expected never to see again, since I refused to let sentimentality influence my decisions. I loved my son, but knew I had a responsibility to do what was best for him, even if fulfilling that responsibility involved making difficult decisions. In many cases, I'd done what I had to, rather than what I wanted, but while I didn't see much of a future for myself in Inaba, a part of me was glad to be back.
We got off the bus outside the Amagi Inn. I recognized the building quite well, even if it was mainly due to various articles and news reports on it, rather than having been there very often before. I had to admit that the most I could say about the inn was that it was a famous tourist attraction, at least before my son fell in love with the young woman who was set to inherit it.
After my husband and I checked in, got our room key and dropped off our luggage, Yu showed me to the inn's reception area, which would be used for his wedding tomorrow, and was currently holding a pre-wedding party and meet and greet for the various people he knew. As we reached the door, Yukiko-san came out to greet us, wearing a pink kimono and with her hair already done for the wedding, and bowed gracefully to us.
"Thank you for coming, Kanako-san, Souji-san," Yukiko said. "What do you think of our establishment so far?"
"It seems like a good place," I said. "I've stayed in many hotels throughout my career, but I've never been to any traditional inns. From a business perspective, it wisely fills a niche need. You can find one of the major hotel chains in any major city, but traditional inns are somewhat uncommon, and have a unique character."
"We do have some competition now," Yukiko said. "Now that more tourists are coming to Inaba, a small hotel has opened up some ways from the shopping district. Some people were concerned at first, but we believe a bit of competition can be healthy for our business."
"I've heard about it," Souji said. "The reviews range from 'Fairly good for a cheap hotel' to 'terrible,' so it's not much of a threat to you."
"Still, I'm glad it's there," Yu said. "Our inn can't take all the guests, and it's nice to have a place for more budget-conscious tourists to stay."
"So there will be many guests, won't there?" I said.
"There will," Yu said. "Most of them live in Inaba, but there's also my old friends from Minagi, some people Yukiko and I know from college, and a few people who lived in Minagi while I was there, but moved out. A lot of them are meeting each other- and you- for the first time."
We accompanied Yu and Yukiko-san into the reception hall, which was full of guests
Yu showed me to a young woman with long, light brown hair, who was wearing a light blue cardigan, a white blouse and a dark skirt.- The man with her had neatly combed dark hair and wore a navy blue suit.
"Mom, Dad, you've already met my old friend, Hitomi," Yu said. "This is her fiance, Keita Tsumiki."
I'd heard about Ayanokouji-san's being engaged before. Apparently, her former fiance introduced her to one of his less "socially acceptable" friends, a young man whose father was an electrician.
"It's nice to see you again, Ayanokouji-san," I said.
"Likewise, ma'am," Ayanokouji-san said. "By the way, please feel free to call me 'Hitomi' if you wish. My wedding to Keita will be next year, and once that happens, I won't even be an Ayanokouji in name."
"True," Tsumiki-san said. "She's been calling my folks 'Mother' and 'Father' ever since we've gotten engaged. Not only are they her in-laws, but they've treated her more like a daughter than her actual parents ever did."
"That's good to hear," Yu said. "My parents asked Yukiko call them by their first names after we got engaged. She does so, but, being polite as she is, still uses 'sir' and 'ma'am' on them sometimes."
I nodded. Yu had told my husband and I about how Hitomi-san's parents had cast her out of the family, while making me swear to absolute secrecy. Hitomi-san had spent the last few years eking out a living as a waitress. Some would look down on her for pursuing a menial profession, but I realized that she worked just as hard as- and in some respects, harder- than my husband and I did, and respected her.
Of course, even if the last few years were difficult for Hitomi-san, they were much harder on her erstwhile "parents." Someone had leaked the news of Hitomi-san being disowned, and while I had a few obvious suspects in mind, I realized that if the entire household was aware, practically anyone who worked for the Ayanokoujis could have done it. As someone who worked in a highly classified industry, I was well aware that "Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead."
The scandal had harmed the Ayanokoujis' image, but it was a trifle compared to reports that workers were being exploited, which surfaced not long after word had gotten out, and it wasn't hard to conclude that they might be related. Not only would the initial report likely encourage others to come forward with their complaints, but anyone who treated their daughter like that would likely treat their workers poorly. The company's fortunes starkly declined, and the Ayanokoujis were apparently considering selling it- their family's legacy, which they had prized above their children's happiness.
Hitomi-san might have had reason to feel vindicated, but according to Yu, she still felt some sympathy for her parents. She'd never forgiven them for abandoning her, but she believed this was more than they or their employees deserved.
"In any case, Hitomi-san," I said, "what sort of wedding do you have planned?"
"A small Western-style one, in a church," Hitomi-san said. "Only close friends and family will be invited, so if you do not receive an invitation, please do not take it personally."
"Essentially, my family, my best friend Keiichirou, Hitomi's friends from Minagi, and a few others, like your daughter-in-law and her friend," Keita-san said. "I sent an invitation to my in-laws because Hitomi insisted, but I haven't gotten a response."
My husband and I could read between the lines well enough to tell that the young couple had no plans on inviting us.
"I see," my husband said. "Please accept our congratulations, as well as our well-wishes for your future happiness."
"Thank you, sir," Hitomi-san said.
We moved on, as Hitomi-san walked off to rejoin some of her old friends.
"How are your other friends from Minagi, Yu?" I said.
"They're doing fairly well," Yu said. "Sakura's working as a civil servant. Kenji got a well-paying job at a trading firm, one that he actually enjoys. Kaoru's still at the sporting goods store, and he's worked his way up to assistant manager."
"So he's still in retail?" Souji said. "It's not the career route I would have chosen, but it sounds as though he's doing well."
"He feels the same way, Dad," Yu said. "I'm sure he imagined himself playing basketball at this age, not working in a sports store. That said, he's always happy to help customers with their sports-related needs."
Yu showed me two young men in business casual, one of whom looked like a foreigner with his blond hair and blue eyes.
"Mom, this is Yosuke Hanamura, my good friend," Yu said, pointing to the first man.
"And this guy's our mutual friend," Hanamura-san said. "He goes by Teddie. It's a...nickname."
I was slightly confused about this "Teddie" person, but then I remembered Yu's story about the strange creature he met in the TV world, a bear in a mascot suit that had a handsome young man inside. Only someone as experienced in the TV world as Yu could accept something so strange so easily, but perhaps it was more of a testament to how inclusive their group of friends was.
"What do the two of you do for a living?" Souji said. "Yu told me that you went into business."
"I've been working for a friend of mine's start-up," Hanamura-san said. "It's a pretty small web solutions company, so I end up playing a lot of roles- overseeing the staff, managing the office, contacting and dealing with clients, occasionally bits of other people's work if I have to."
"Do you have any interest in going to a larger company?" I said.
"No, ma'am," Hanamura-san said emphatically. "I've spent enough time working for one when I was a part-timer for Junes. It's kind of nice being in a smaller company, where everyone knows everyone's name, and the guy you like talking with probably won't be gone by the end of the year."
"That's how it is with many people from Inaba," Yukiko-san said. "Those who believe that the corporate world isn't a good fit for them, or that they can't compete with the graduates of big-name universities, tend to work for smaller companies."
I could tell that, talents and skillsets aside, most of Yu's friends were not suited to working at large corporations. Yu had once described his circle of friends as a casual but highly effective group, and while I still had trouble believing that they'd actually fought against Shadows, I could understand why they'd prefer smaller and less hierarchical workplaces.
After parting ways with Hanamura-san and Teddie, I saw Sakamoto-san and Kajiki-san together, along with Ms. Takizawa. The former two were in business casual, while the latter wore a pantsuit.
"It's been a while, Mrs. Narukami," Kajiki-san said. "I don't think I've seen you since Yu-san got on the train and went to college."
"That's true," I said, "but Yu has occasionally told me about what you and your friend, Sakamoto-san, have been up to. It's nice to see the two of you and Ms. Takizawa again."
"Likewise, Mrs. Narukami," Ms. Takizawa said. "I was touched that Narukami-kun thought of me and invited me to his wedding...I'm sorry, I mean Mr. Amagi. My older sister took her husband's name, so I'm not used to husbands doing the same."
"That's all right, Ms. Takizawa," Yukiko-san said. "I sometimes forget and introduce my husband as Yu Narukami."
Ms. Takizawa smiled appreciatively.
"I'm not sure whether your son told you," Ms. Takizawa said, "but Sayuri's hoping to work as a high school teacher, specifically composition. She'd taken a while to find a career, but I'm proud of what she chose."
"I hadn't heard," I said, "only that your niece was interested in theater."
"Theater performers are a dying breed in this day and age," Sakamoto-san said, "but that doesn't mean I can't help pass down my love of plays to the next generation, and help them appreciate them on a deeper level."
"That's admirable," I said.
"You'll have to be an authority figure, won't you, Sayuri-san?" Yukiko said. "Doesn't that make you a little uncomfortable?"
"A little, Yukiko-san," Sakamoto-san said. "Of course, now that I think about it, the hardest part was having to adjust to a new relationship with people like my friends and aunt. With the students, I'll make my expectations clear from the beginning, but probably won't be as strict about manners as Aunt Chihiro is. As for my aunt, I'm hoping we end up working at different schools."
"So am I, Sayuri," Ms. Takizawa said, "but if we end up working together, then it might not be such a bad thing to have to call you 'Ms. Sakamoto,' as a colleague and equal."
After saying goodbye to those three for the moment, the next person we saw was a familiar-looking girl, one we'd often seen on TV and once in person, when she'd paid a visit to Minagi during a concert. She wasn't appearing as often in the news these days, but virtually anyone in the hall knew Rise Kujikawa, also known as Risette.
"Ah, there you are, Yu-san," Kujikawa-san said. "I've been looking all over for you."
"Sorry, Rise," Yu said. "I had to pick up my parents at the station. You remember them, right?"
Kujikawa-san nodded. Perhaps she didn't know the names of all her fans, but she did recognize her friend's parents.
"Hello, Kujikawa-san," Souji said. "It feels like it hasn't been that long since I last saw you."
"Likewise, Mr. Narukami," Kujikawa-san said. "Sorry my grandma can't make it- she's tending the store."
"That's perfectly fine," I said. "Thank you for coming to our son's wedding- it must be difficult to make time with your schedule."
"It's my pleasure, ma'am," Kujikawa-san said. "Unfortunately, I'm not as busy these days."
"Did something happen?" I said.
"You know how it is with idols," Kujikawa-san said. "At 24, I'm already considered over the hill- my sales have been going down and I've been having fewer engagements. Inoue-san, my manager, is doing his best to help out, but he always knew that it was only a matter of time. When I met with him last month, he said the higher-ups probably won't renew my contract."
"I'm sorry to hear that," I said.
"It's been a good run," Kujikawa-san said. "By idol standards, I've had a fairly successful career while it lasted. I've used my fame to speak out on issues like bullying, and feel like I've made a difference- I get some letters thanking me for my work. I sometimes see people who like Risette or Magical Girl Aiko, and it actually makes me happier than it used to."
"That's good to hear," Souji said. "I once aspired to be an actor in my youth, but knew I didn't nearly have enough talent, and so instead chose to pursue a safer, if less lucrative, career in business. Still, I do respect those who beat the odds, regardless of how long their success lasts."
"Thank you, sir," Kujikawa-san said.
Kujikawa-san looked around.
"Anyway, Yukiko-san, there's something I'd like to talk about with you a little later," Kujikawa-san said, "preferably somewhere a bit more private. Can we meet up then?"
"Certainly, Rise-san," Yukiko-san said.
"Great," Kujikawa-san said. "Let me know when you're free and we'll meet in Sakura-san's room. I'll see you then."
Kujikawa-san said goodbye to us and rejoined the other guests.
"Was Kujikawa-san unable to talk about that with us?" I said.
"I believe so," Yukiko-san said. "Rise-san doesn't have much of a career left, but there are still some things that she can't exactly say or do without causing a scandal. Please don't take it personally if she's still conscious about her image."
"Sheesh, that girl never changes," a young woman said from behind us. "Doesn't she know that's only going to make you more interested?"
"Oh, Marie-san," Yukiko-san said.
"Glad to see you made it, Marie," Yu said.
Souji and I turned around and saw a young woman in dark hair and glasses, who was wearing a pinstriped suit.
"Of course I would," the woman said. "I didn't miss Minako's wedding, so I'll be there for you guys, too."
"Ah, I think I've seen you on TV before," Souji said, "although I'm having a bit of trouble recalling your name, miss..."
"I'm Mariko Kusumi," the woman said, "meteorologist for the local news. Some of my friends call me 'Marie' for short, in case you're wondering."
"I'm Kanako Narukami, and this is my husband, Souji Narukami," I said. "It's nice to meet you, Kusumi-san."
"Nice to meet you too," Kusumi-san said, with a seemingly disappointed expression that seemed to say "So we're not friends yet, huh?".
"So, Marie," Yu said, "is Margaret coming?"
"She should be," Kusumi-san said. "Assuming nothing comes up, she'll be there tomorrow."
"Who's Margaret?" Souji said.
"A friend of ours from...abroad," Yukiko-san said. "She's a distant relative of Marie-san's."
"If you say so," Kusumi-san said. "Anyway, this is great timing for a wedding. Tomorrow's going to be sunny and warm, but not too hot. I don't want all of you sweating into your formalwear."
Kusumi-san seemed unusually confident in her predictions, but we knew that she likely wouldn't give a straight answer if she asked her why, and so we let the topic drop.
As we talked with Kusumi-san, we caught a few glimpses of some other guests. There was Naoki Konishi and Kanji Tatsumi, who worked at their families' respective liquor and textile stores. There was Eri Minami, a housewife accompanied by her businessman husband and middle school-aged stepson. There was Shu Nakajima, who Yu has said was able to make it into Kikuoka despite a black mark on his record, even if he ultimately failed to get into Tokyo University. Yumi Ozawa, a young council secretary in a navy blue skirt suit, was talking with Sakamoto-san and Kajiki-san, while Ai Ebihara, another friend, caught up with Kou Ichijou and Daisuke Nagase, two acquaintances from the Yasogami basketball team.
Not everyone could make it to the wedding. Yu had gotten cards from Sayoko Uehara, a nurse who worked in Africa, the relatives of Hisano Kuroda, an elderly woman who had passed away a few years ago, and most surprising of all, from Tohru Adachi, who was still serving two life sentences for murdering Mayumi Yamano and Saki Konishi, among other charges. Some business owners, who'd known Yukiko-san for a long time, had been unable to come today, but promised to be there for the wedding. Unfortunately, the same went for some of the guests who were in law enforcement, or were in school, and a few people we knew were running late.
The door opened, and a latecomer arrived. It was a girl in Yasogami High School's summer uniform- still a white short-sleeved top with a yellow neckerchief and a black skirt after all these years. Her brown hair was done in a ponytail, and she was still carrying her school bag.
"I'm sorry I'm late," the girl said. "Music practice ran a little long today."
"That's all right, Nanako," Yu said. "We knew some people wouldn't make it on time today, and other people would be busy."
I was completely flabbergasted for a moment. While Ryotaro and I had started exchanging letters and phone calls in recent years, and the two of them visited us when they had time, I hadn't seen Nanako-chan in person since she'd started high school.
"Is that really you, Nanako-chan?" I said.
"Yes, it's me," Nanako-chan said. "It's been a while, Aunt Kanako, Uncle Souji."
Nanako-chan bowed to us, her youthful exuberance tempered by maturity and good manners. For all Ryotaro's doubts in his ability as a parent, his daughter had become a fine young woman.
"It certainly has," Souji said. "So how have you been?"
"I'm just fine," Nanako-chan said. "I've been doing well in school and keeping up with piano practice for orchestra. The club's a bit shorthanded, so they need all the help they can get."
"Sounds like you're keeping busy," Souji said. "Is your father at work today?"
"He is," Nanako-chan said sadly. "He should be coming here soon, though."
Ryotaro told me that while he was making more of an effort to be there for his daughter than he had in the past, he was still quite busy at his job. It was a fulfilling one, particularly when he saw it as protecting he community where his daughter and nephew lived, but he had to admit that it sometimes took more of his time than he would like.
"That's just how things go when you work in law enforcement," Yukiko-san said. "Chie tells me that she and Naoto-san have been quite busy too, as a patrolman and detective, respectively, but they should be able to attend the wedding unless something comes up. The same goes for Dojima-san, but the three of them want to come."
"I understand" I said. "It wasn't easy for my husband and I to arrange this time off, but now that I'm back in Inaba, I hope to spend some time with Ryotaro and Nanako-chan."
Perhaps Nanako-chan was all too used to adults making empty promises to spend time with those close to them, but she seemed to believe my sentiments. Ryotaro and I didn't think we were good parents- only that we were trying to be- and simply did the best we could for our children.
"I'm glad," Nanako-chan said. "Dad might be busy, but he wants to see you again, and is happy you're coming to my big brother's wedding."
"So are we," Yu said, gesturing to Yukiko-san, who nodded in agreement.
"Um, Yukiko-san," Nanako-chan said. "Now that you and my brother are finally making your wedding official, may I call you 'Big Sister'?"
"You most certainly may, Nanako-san," Yukiko-san said. "After all, we're family now."
"Great!" Nanako-chan said. "There's some other people I'd like to see, so I'll talk with all of you later."
Nanako-chan then politely excused herself, as I still was coming to grips with her being the same person as the young girl I'd met at Christmas in 2012.
"She's really grown," I said.
"She certainly has," Yukiko-san said. "I first met Nanako-san while she was in elementary school, and now she's in high school. She's always been mature for her age, but she's become such a fine young lady, so I can't treat her like a little girl any longer."
"I see," I said. "I'm sure Nanako-chan appreciates it."
I paused for a moment, long enough for my son to notice that something was on my mind.
"Is something wrong, Mom?" Yu said.
"It's nothing," I said. "It's just that I'm surprised at how much time has gone by."
"I know how you feel," Yu said. "My friends, my wife and I still fondly remember our days keeping Nanako company while she was in elementary school and we were in high school, even if those days are behind us."
"It's a natural part of raising children, dear," Yukiko-san said. "My parents miss the time when I was a little girl, but they're glad that I've grown up to someone who can actually help out around the inn, and will soon inherit it from them. A lot of the adults in town feel the same way- they're calling me 'Amagi-san' rather than 'Yuki-chan' now- but they're actually a bit proud of me."
A part of me accepted this as the inevitable end to childhood. Another part, though, despite knowing that it was pointless to wish I could turn back or stop time, couldn't help but wonder whether I'd done as much as I could for Yu.
"What about you?" Souji said. "I'm sure both of you have plans for raising any children you have, won't you?"
"Yes, sir," Yukiko-san said. "We plan on raising our children to become respectable adults, gradually increasing their responsibilities while not forcing them to grow up too quickly. As for the inn, we plan on teaching them the basic skills they need to keep house, but we'll leave it up to them whether they wish to inherit it. If they do, we'll teach them everything we need to know, but if not, we'll look into alternatives for my successor."
Souji nodded in approval.
"Once again, it sounds as though the two of you know what you want to do, and how to do it," Souji said.
"I'm glad you think so, Dad," Yu said.
Souji and I soon took our leave, not wanting to monopolize our son and daughter-in-law's time, and mingled with the guests. The days when he lived under our roof and did as we told him were long behind us, but he was still our son, even if our relationship was different in many ways. As busy as we both were, we still could be there for him on his special day. We promised to return someday, perhaps relatively soon, and while we didn't know when our travel days were, we knew where we'd make a reservation for lodging- the place where we could see our son, daughter-in-law, and maybe one day, our grandchildren.
As Satomi and I were getting acquainted with one of Yu's old friends, Ozawa-san, we caught a glimpse of Mr. and Mrs. Narukami.
"It's nice to meet you, Sakamoto-san, Kajiki-san," Ozawa-san said "I've been interested in meeting you since our mutual friend told me about the problems you had in the drama club."
"Ah, that," I said. "It wasn't exactly fun being president and distancing myself from everyone else, but I'm a bit nostalgic for my time in the club."
"So am I," Ozawa-san said. "I don't know if Yu-san told you, but my second year was a difficult time in my life. My estranged father returned to the family he'd once abandoned... while he was dying. I only truly came to terms with my feelings about him after he passed on."
"I'm sorry," Satomi said.
Ozawa-san shook her head. Some wounds never fully heal, but it seemed as though this was long enough ago that she'd had time to come to terms with it.
"Still, it wasn't entirely bad," Ozawa-san said. "I did end up making a close friend during that time, and was able to sort through my feelings about my family and acting. If my father hadn't returned, I would probably have told myself that I hated him for the rest of my life."
"I see," I said. "I'm glad you can find some silver lining in it."
Ozawa-san nodded, then quickly moved to change the subject. She might have found closure, but she didn't necessarily enjoy talking about this time in her life.
"But enough about that," Ozawa-san said. "I have never been president of any club, but I would probably end up being fairly strict- perhaps overly so. All the same, though, I do still believe in working hard, following the rules and setting appropriate professional boundaries."
"I understand," I said. "Of course, it was kind of hard to flip the switch between treating Satomi as a friend outside of club, and a subordinate while club is in session."
"I know," Ozawa-san said, "which is why I don't really have any friends at work. They like me enough that we can work well together, but it's strictly professional."
"My aunt feels the same way about her colleagues, let alone her students," I said, "and I plan on following her example once I become a teacher."
"Good," Ozawa-san said. "Still, it can be a little lonely not having anyone to talk with at work, so if you and Kajiki-san would like, let's talk about this some more."
"All right," Satomi and I said.
One of Ozawa-san's old friends from school showed up, and she proceeded to introduce us to each other. For now, the only thing Ozawa-san and I had in common was that the groom at this wedding had once been in our respective schools' drama clubs, but I hoped I could one day grow and deepen that connection. There was something about Yu-san that helped bring people together, so I was sure Ozawa-san and I might be good friends one day.
I met up with some of the "big kids" I used to hang out with in a corner of the reception hall, shortly after Chie-san and Naoto-san got off work. By now, things had changed- I was one of the "big kids" now, and all of them were grown-ups. I could only imagine where they would be when I got to their age- maybe some of them would have children the same age I was when we first met.
"Well, here's everyone," Yosuke-san said, as Chie-san and Naoto-san came in, wearing a patrolman uniform and a suit, respectively. "Too bad we couldn't do this at our old 'special headquarters.'"
"Honestly, Yosuke, we're a little old to be calling it that," Chie-san said.
Big Sister went into one of her laughing fits, which drew some glances from the guests nearby.
"A 'little,' Chie?" Big Sister said.
"All right, that could have been better worded," Chie-san said
"I know, I know," Yosuke-san said, deeply embarrassed. "I should be the one saying that."
"Anyway, Nanako, how's high school?" Big Brother said, obviously trying to change the subject.
"It's going well," I said. "I'm getting good grades, and I'm having fun in the orchestra."
"That's good," Yosuke-san said. "When I was your age, I didn't want to be there- school in general and Yasogami in particular. Having grown up definitely gives me some perspective, and I'm learning to recognize and appreciate the good times."
I had been a bit surprised to first hear that Yosuke-san felt so out of place at Yasogami. I knew that year had been difficult for him, especially when the girl he liked had died, but he'd always seemed like he was enjoying himself when I saw him with my big brother. When I said that to him, he'd said, "I was," and explained that the good times had helped him learn to appreciate what was good about Inaba.
"You've all changed a lot since the last time we were all together," I said. "You seem so much more mature."
"Well, that generally happens over time," Yosuke-san said. "Heck, even Ted grew up a little- he's actually competent at his job by now."
"Actually, Yosuke?" Teddie said. "I thought you weren't going to embarrass me in front of Nana-chan."
"Give me a little credit,' Yosuke-san said. "That's actually a compliment, coming from me."
"Quite true, Yosuke-san," Big Sister said, barely holding back her laughter.
We shared a laugh at that. It had been a while since all of us were in the same city together, but it was as if we'd never parted ways.
"Ah, there you all are," Marie-san said. "Having a little pow-wow to discuss whatever big news Rise has for everyone?"
"Not here, Marie-chan," Rise-san said. "We wouldn't want any eavesdroppers hearing me, would we?"
Marie-san pouted as the subtext of Rise-san's remark hit her.
"Yeah, yeah, I get it," Marie-san said. "If your news is what I think it is, I'd announce it to the whole wide world if I was in your shoes. No point in hiding something like that, is there?"
Rise-san went white for a moment, then shook her head.
"I... have my reasons," Rise-san said, before quickly changing the subject. "Anyway, Marie-chan, you've been to a wedding before, right?"
"Yeah, and I heard something interesting last time," Marie-san said. "They say that the woman who catches the bouquet at a wedding will be the next to get married. Is this true?"
"That's right," Yosuke-san said. "Naoto, this is your chance!"
My big brother shook his head.
"This isn't that kind of wedding," Big Brother said. "Sorry to get your hopes up, Marie, Yosuke."
"I don't need any superstitions," Naoto-san said. "Kanji and I are discussing when to hold our wedding, so with the possible exception of Ayanokouji-san and Tsumiki-san, we will likely be the next of your friends to get married."
"That's wonderful news," Big Sister said. "Any ideas?"
"Not really," Kanji-san said. "We haven't gotten any more specific than 'after yours' yet. We're taking everything one day at a time."
"That's a good idea, Kanji-san," Big Sister said. "Just talk with us, and I'll let you know when would be a good time for your wedding."
Dad walked up, still dressed for work.
"Sorry I'm late," Dad said. "I said hello to my sister and Souji on the way over."
"Thank you for coming, Dad," I said. "It's been great to see everyone again."
Dad smiled and nodded.
"Ah, looks like the gang's back together," Dad said. "Like I said all those years ago, Yu, you've made some wonderful friends."
"Thanks, Uncle," Big Brother said. "I'm glad you could be here today."
The days when I hung out at Junes with my brother and his friends were in the past, but my connection to them was still alive and well. We'd come together for his wedding, and hoped to be there for each other many times in the years to come.
As the guests started to leave, Rise-san and I met up with Sakura-san in her room. The two young women had met when Rise-san came to Kikuoka in our first year of college, and had bonded surprisingly quickly, since both of them had once loved Yu. In another time, those two might have been rivals, but since they knew that what they'd wanted was beyond their reach, they found solace in commiserating, and soon became good friends.
"So, tomorrow's your big day, Yukiko-san," Rise-san said. "I'm really happy for you and Yu-san, even if I once wanted to be in your place."
"I feel the same way, Rise-san," Sakura-san said. "Still, having someone like Yu as a friend is a rare gift, enough that you hardly think of it as a consolation prize."
"I know," Rise-san said. "That's part of the reason why I can accept and be glad that things turned out this way."
"Thank you, both of you," I said. "Once again, Rise-san, I'm sorry about your idol career."
Rise-san shrugged and shook her head. While her status as Risette, had been the greatest factor keeping her away from Yu until she'd learned that I was going out with him, she'd never regretted returning to being an idol. Of course, while she knew it would end sooner or later, a part of her still wasn't ready for it.
"It's not all bad," Rise-san said. "Grandma was nice enough to let me come back and work for her. She's actually giving me training in how to manage the shop, since she'll be retiring in a couple years. Since our tofu's back on your menu, I get to see you every now and then, when you stop by for our product."
"Is it at all awkward?" Sakura-san said. "I work with Shizune Yagami, an old friend of mine, and it can be a bit of a challenge to keep our professional relationship and personal friendship separate."
"Not exactly," Rise-san said. "Grandma expects me to mind my manners around customers, but says it's fine if I treat you like I always do. Of course, I do show Yukiko-san respect because she's older than I am."
I nodded, but inwardly acknowledged that the difference in age was important. I was a year older than Rise, but she was fairly comfortable treating me as a relative equal, and while she used respectful honorifics, she did so with my first name. If I was three or more years older than Rise-san, I would probably be "Amagi-san" to her, and if I was more than five years older than her, she might just call me "ma'am."
"That's fair enough," Sakura-san said. "And what about you, Yukiko-san?"
"My family's a bit stricter, especially now that I'm working full-time," I said. "When I'm working for the inn, I'm expected to wear a kimono, bow to business partners and guests, and use formal speech on everyone, even friends."
As my friends reached adulthood, I started to use "-san" on most of them- except for Chie, my oldest and best friend, and Yu, my husband- for a few reasons. Part of it was to show them more respect now that they were a bit old for "-kun" or "-chan." Another part was so that it wouldn't be too much of an adjustment if I had to be more polite to them while working for the inn. Yet another reason was that I wouldn't address them in an overly familiar way if I made a mistake and spoke to them as I always did while at work.
"Yeah, Yukiko-san's super-polite on the job," Rise-san said. "Heck, she doesn't even laugh while she's working, which, for her, takes some pretty impressive self-control. Even Kanji picked up on that."
I burst out laughing. While I did see Kanji-san fairly often due to my inn's dealings with his textile shop, I couldn't help but be amused by Rise-san's blunt comment about our mutual friend.
"Quite true, Rise-san," I said.
Rise-san and Sakura-san laughed along with me for a moment. Of course, while Rise-san was quite amused that I'd inadvertently proved her point, she sobered up after a few seconds.
"Seriously though, it was initially a bit of an adjustment to see you being so formal and professional," Rise-san said. "As polite as you are, I'm used to you being relatively laid-back when you're with friends. Of course, you can't really show that part of yourself while you're working at the inn, can you?"
I calmed down and shook my head.
"Unfortunately, no," I said, "since I do have my reputation to think of. Most people are more familiar with the more 'respectable' public side of me, rather than the one you and the others see."
"I know," Rise-san said. "Still, Yukiko-san, your public and private personas are both part of you. That's why I think you're naturally suited for the role of managing an inn, just like I was for being an idol, and that's why I know you're not trying distance yourself from me."
"Thank you, Rise-san" I said. "I'm glad you understand."
"So am I," Sakura-san said. "It sounds like you two have things worked out on that front, which is what matters."
Rise-san then looked around and listened closely to see if anyone was in the adjoining rooms, possibly eavesdropping. Ms. Takizawa's room was on one side of Sakura-san's, while Hitomi-san and Tsumiki-san's was on the other, but while they weren't the type to eavesdrop, Rise-san couldn't be too careful.
"Anyway, this isn't what I wanted to discuss with the two of you," Rise-san said in hushed tones. "I've got a bit of news that's a bit too juicy for a reception hall full of people, but I can trust with two good friends in private- I have a boyfriend."
"Congratulations, Rise-san," I said.
"Yes, I'm glad to hear that, Rise-san," Sakura-san said. "Might he be anyone I know?"
Rise-san shook her head. Since Sakura-san had only been to Inaba a handful of times, she didn't know many locals apart from our group of friends, Dojima-san and Nanako-san.
"Not unless you've been coming by our tofu shop a lot," Rise-san said. "He's a local businessman two years my senior, one who apparently had barely even heard of Risette. He frequents our shop- after a little while, he and I started meeting up outside of work, and eventually, we started going out. He's a nice guy, and I can talk with him about pretty much anything."
"I'm glad you found something like that," Sakura-san said, "but aren't you concerned about the ramifications of being seen in the company of someone of the opposite sex?"
"I am," Rise-san said. "It goes without saying, but I didn't bring it up earlier because I didn't want anyone to overhear me. If word got out and my career was finished off for good, my boyfriend would blame himself. I know Yukiko-san will share it with her husband, and I'm planning on telling the rest of our group, but don't mention this to anyone you don't completely trust, OK?"
"I understand," Sakura-san said.
"So do I," I said. "I'm glad that you feel as though you can trust us."
"Thanks," Rise-san said. "I wanted you two to be the first to know. Feel free to tell us if you hook up with a guy, Sakura-san."
Sakura-san smiled and nodded.
"You'll be among the first to know, Rise-san," Sakura-san said. "That's a promise."
"Got it," Rise-san said. "I'll hold you to it."
The three of us parted ways- Sakura-san stayed in her room, Rise-san went back to Marukyu Tofu, and I returned to my room. The other two could have been my rivals in love, but they were also dear friends, and now that I'd found the man I'd always yearned for, I hoped for their success in their own endeavors.
Evening, Yu's POV
After everyone went home and most of our guests went to bed for the night, my wife and I retired to our room, which happened to be Yukiko's old room. Yukiko once joked that she was quite awkward the first time I invited her to my room soon after we started going out, but now, I essentially came into her room every night.
We talked for a little while about everyone we saw again, from Nanako's time at high school to Rise's new boyfriend. A lot of the news was probably a lot more surprising to my mom and dad, or to the friends who hadn't been to Inaba in a while, but it was always nice to get my friends together and catch up.
"So, tomorrow's the big day," I said.
"It certainly is," Yukiko said "We might have been together for years, and already are married under the law, but I'm looking forward to making it official."
"Me too," I said. "Can you believe it's been eight years since we first started going out?"
"I can," Yukiko said. "Our parents have been together for almost thirty years, after all, and they got there one day at a time."
"True," I said. "We've been through a lot together- a murder mystery, high school, entrance exams, college, running an inn and planning a wedding together- but there will be many challenges in the years to come."
"I know," Yukiko said. "Of course, we've dealt with everything so far together, so we'll face what's next the same way."
I took a look at the photo we'd taken earlier today. It wasn't a formal wedding picture, since I'd just handed Kasai-san my camera and had her take a few photos of the guests, none of whom were in their formal attire, but it was nice. They'd come in a variety of outfits, from casual clothes to suits, which reflected their diverse personalities, careers and interests. Perhaps when the time for Kanji and Naoto's own wedding came, we'd see a similar crowd at that event.
Tomorrow would likely be one of the happiest days of my life, since it was one for which I had waited and worked for many years. Of course, there would also be a great deal of happiness in the years to come, just like there would be a great deal of difficulty. The future held uncertainty, but also hope, and so my wife and I drifted off to sleep, eagerly awaiting what tomorrow would bring.
Thank you for reading this fic, and all your reviews, favorites and follows- this fic is not only my longest (excluding the Necessary to Win trilogy)probably my most popular one yet, and I have all of you to thank for that. I'd also like to thank Hayden_Jay for recommending this fic on TV Tropes, which I only noticed recently.
I decided to leave off here, with everyone close to Yu and Yukiko coming to town for their wedding, setting it after their graduation and Nanako entering Yasogami. Obviously, Yu and Yukiko will have a great many stories and noteworthy experiences ahead of them, but it's nice to wrap it up here, with the two settling down together. It also features what everyone else has been doing, particularly those whose lives have changed the most. In Rise's case, I wasn't entirely sure what to do with her idol career, but I decided to end with her career almost over, since that seems to be the reality in Japan's idol industry.
This chapter debuts two new POV characters- Kanako and Nanako. Kanako hadn't gotten any POV segments because I felt it worked best to see her through the eyes of her son, brother and daughter-in-law, while in Nanako's case, it was a bit hard to write from her POV, and most of her scenes were best conveyed through other perspectives (usually Dojima's or Yu's).
Again, thank you for reading this fic, and if you liked any of the original characters, please choose your favorite in the poll on my profile while it's still up. I'm working on another (non-Persona) project, and may eventually put up a poll related to that once it's published, so please vote while you can.