Chapter 1: They Say You Can Never Go Back

I can see you've been busy, dear brother.

A snicker. I can't let you win this one, can I? Getting nervous?

Hardly. They're stronger than you think.

You keep saying that, but I've seen you watching them.

I'm making sure you don't cheat again.

Cheat? How can I cheat? You said anything goes!

I most certainly did not. I said you can try all your tricks. "Tricks" does not include taking a mortal's life.

Death brings about the biggest strain in mortals, especially the death of loved ones. It's the true test.

Be that as it may, no more killings.

A sigh. Fine. It doesn't matter anyway, I'm going to win.

That's not what it looks like to me.

A laugh. Just wait until you see what I've got coming next.

VVVVV

June 10, 2018

Souji Seta gazed out the window of the train as it sped toward its destination. It had been a long trip from America to this little corner of Japan, punctuated by the occasional stopover or semi-palatable meal from a terminal's fast food stand. He'd brought a couple books with him, but had no desire to read them, nor the ability to concentrate on their words. As soon as events would give his time back to himself, he'd continue daydreaming of days long gone, a school year colored with giddy highs and desperate lows. He had fallen in love that year, and for the first time in his life it had been real. It was also the first time he'd ever been really popular, and it had taught him how to come out of his shell, to really make friends and live life.

It had also taught him the courage to do the right thing, no matter who or what was against him. And yet, for some reason, he'd never had the courage to return. Not after that day. He had met his friends online, had spoken with them on the phone, had texted them often, at least in the first couple years afterward, but as time progressed he'd just gotten too busy with school, work, and his future. He had promised to return again, but every time he tried something had gotten in the way. Most of the time, it was his own urge to stay away. He couldn't explain it, but every time he'd thought about going back he just couldn't bring himself to do it. He was afraid to spend the money, or his classwork load was too heavy, or he didn't feel right taking the time off his job.

He had felt so badly about having to break his promise. Nanako in particular was disappointed every time he'd had to say he wasn't coming. He'd loved the little girl as his sister almost as long as he'd known her, and distance and time had not changed that. He knew that as she was getting older she was more used to family having to be away, for her father's penchant for working long hours had not changed even with his promotion to Police Lieutenant. She'd always been a remarkably independent girl, and despite him knowing how disappointed she was in not being able to see him in person, he knew she was strong and that his failures would not break her.

Sometimes he wondered if he was anywhere near as strong as she. Thinking back, he could see many times over the past three years when he could have found the time, could have made the time, to come back if just for a weekend. His parents' jobs had kept him on the move before he turned 18, and yet he still visited at every opportunity. When he'd finally started college, he was already on the fast-track and found almost every free hour consumed with homework, studying, or working. College in the U.S. had been quite an experience; he had spent the first week learning the hard way just how tenuous his grip on English really was. Fixing that only added to his work and subtracted from the time he could spend communicating with his old friends back in Japan.

Before he knew it 19 had come and gone. Not long afterward 20 had arrived. It had passed so quickly that he hadn't even properly christened it with a drink. It would have had to have been with a fake ID, as the legal drinking age in the US was 21 instead of 20 as in Japan, but he was and always would be Japanese no matter his geographical location at any particular time.

That thought had struck home one day while he had finished one critical term paper just in time to start another in a long string of work for half a dozen advanced classes. At that moment he realized that, almost literally since he had first rejoined his parents, he had spent less and less time for himself, and even less than that for his friends. He had still kept contact with them, but on a less intimate basis than before. He eventually grew distant from even Yukiko, whose messages to him, and his messages to her, always ended with an uncomfortable-feeling "I love you." They continued to do so during his extended absence, though by then it had become almost mechanical for him to tack it onto the end of every message, and to say it as they ended each phone conversation. Of course, they had learned soon enough that a long distance relationship was impossible, and that their love would no longer be of boyfriend and girlfriend but of good friends who still cherished each other, but even that seemed to have faded over the years. "I'll always love you," she had said, and while he knew that love had changed over the years, the memory of it warmed his heart just when he needed it.

He blamed himself, especially when he had finally taken the time to think about how far away he'd kept himself from her, from them all. Of course, there was nowhere else to place the blame. He'd forgotten his courage, neglected to face his anxieties and simply chose to fade away from them. It was because of that that he'd decided to take a semester off from college, spend some of his savings, and return to the place he loved so much, and yet still brought a twitch of fear in the back of his mind whenever he thought of it.

Inaba.

Nanako, of course, had been thrilled at his call. Even six years after he'd moved away and six years of growing into young womanhood, she still cared deeply for her "Big Bro" and was excited to see him. He'd called everyone to tell them he was coming. Yosuke, arguably his best friend while he lived there, was still in Inaba, working full time as an assistant manager at the Junes department store while attending night classes at the community college. Teddie, their childlike, semi-human friend, had found living in the world behind the TV, no matter how idyllic, a little lonely and had returned to become Yosuke's roommate. After, of course, a lot of begging and false tears on Teddie's part.

Chie had graduated the police academy and was an officer on the Inaba police force, which had expanded in the years since Adachi's murder spree thanks to greater public awareness about the dangers faced even by a small rural town. And, of course, Yukiko was still there, now the full manager of the Amagi Inn. She had always been afraid that her abilities would not match up with her responsibilities, but from reading her messages and listening to her relay the day-to-day stories of the Inn, he could tell she had grown into the position quite well.

Kanji was still there, running the textile shop after his mother had passed away. The last time Souji had visited Inaba was for her funeral, but Kanji had not once spoken to him, and had barely looked at him that day. He learned later that Kanji had distanced himself from everyone, even Naoto, with whom he had finally started a serious relationship. That had hurt the most, that nobody had been able to be there for his friend, especially because his friend brushed off the support. Souji had come to believe that was the first domino to fall on all his friendships in Inaba. It had taught him that the supposedly "unbreakable" bonds were far more delicate than he was led to believe.

Not everyone still lived in Inaba, of course. Rise rarely stayed in one place for long. She had made good on her promise to release an album, which became a surprise hit despite her long absence from the spotlight. By the time Souji had decided to make this trip she had already released her third, and spent most of her time on tour or on movie sets working on restoring her old career. He had bought every one of her albums and seen every one of her movies, and had been able to brag to his college buddies that he was good friends with "the" Risette. They, of course, hadn't the foggiest idea who she was, and cared even less after he explained. He liked Americans for the most part, but they seemed as cultureless as the Shadows he'd fought so long ago.

Naoto also spent a lot of time on the move, even though she still had a permanent home at the Shirogane estate near Inaba. After her involvement in solving the Adachi murders, her services were in sudden demand all across Japan. The last time he had spoken to her, about two years ago, she was both tired and exhilarated at the same time. She was no longer having to live up to the Shirogane name, nor having to pretend she was anyone other than who she was. She had extended the meaning of the Shirogane name, and had become known herself as "Detective Shirogane", a virtual household name in police forces nationwide replacing the old "Detective Prince" nickname. At least, that all was how Chie described it. Naoto, humble as always, had just said she did her job to the best of her abilities and, in taking to heart the lessons he had helped her learn, she had found herself able to stand on her own two feet and become more than just the cocky child prodigy his uncle had once called her.

He hadn't spoken with her much since the funeral. He could tell how much Kanji's pushing her away had hurt her, and several months later she confided in him that, as best she could describe, her relationship with Kanji simply evaporated. Souji had kept in touch for a while longer, sharing their new adventures with each other, but even that faded from existence. She'd started missing his calls, only occasionally returning them, and eventually all his messages to her unanswered. He cared deeply for her, as he did with all his good friends, and had prayed she didn't blame him for what had happened between her and Kanji. The last time he spoke to Chie, not all that long ago, he learned the funeral was the last time Naoto had been to Inaba. She wasn't returning anyone's attempts to reach out to her. She simply disappeared, just the way Souji had felt like he had been doing in the years hence.

Souji had other good friends from his time in Inaba as well, but found that his contact with them faded much more quickly than with his fellow members of the "Investigation Team". Even Ai Ebihara, whom he had actually talked out of committing suicide from the school roof, stopped corresponding with him long before his last visit to the town.

It was just as well, he supposed. Looking back at himself, he saw a man growing increasingly driven and more and more selfish. He'd even started wondering if his friends would have just been better off forgetting about him altogether, going on with their own lives, and leaving him to go work himself to death like his parents were doing. Like his uncle Ryotaro was doing.

That thought depressed him a little. He was already becoming a workaholic, an affliction which seemed to run in his family. He only hoped Nanako learned to take time to enjoy life, something that Souji, even at 23, had apparently forgotten.

He wondered just what he expected out of meeting his old friends, the ones who were left, anyway. Could things be just like they were six years ago? Could they go out and eat a "Meat Dimension" bowl at Aiya or hang out at their "Special Headquarters", the Junes food court? Could they meet for a few drinks, reminisce, and then separate for another three years? Was there anything really tying them together anymore, aside from an old murder case they had solved? Were the bonds of true friendship really that weak?

He gave a small laugh. Maybe they could venture into the TV World again, just explore it as far as they could walk, maybe even make a map of it. He laughed again. He was such a workaholic he was even coming up with ways he could make his friends work. Once in a great while, if just to remind himself that it all hadn't been a dream, he'd stick his hand into a TV set. Just like dipping it in lukewarm water. And yet, anymore it felt like a parlor trick; yes he could do it, and every once in a while it was good for a quick laugh, but what was the point? He wasn't close anymore with anyone who knew about it. He couldn't navigate while inside, and had no clue how large it was. Could he have met his friends inside, even if they entered into TVs that were a world apart? Would they have to cross thousands of miles of verdant forest and babbling brooks on foot? Just thinking about it had given him that same quiver in his stomach, and it had sapped his courage so much that he hadn't even tried to fully enter that world again.

Many times during his visits, he and Yukiko would steal away through the nearest large-screen television and just sit together in the paradise, enjoying the gentle sights and sounds and the deep love they shared. They did it so many times that Teddie, tired of having to "rescue" them every time, had taught them how to find their way out on their own. That only increased the frequency of their trips to the other world, walking barefoot through the dewy grass, holding each other close for hours on end in the shade of a great oak, under the eternal sunshine. He had even come within a breath of asking her to marry him one of those times.

He sighed. Now was not the time to depress himself further. This was supposed to be a happy time. He was finally going to see his friends. Rise had scheduled a special charity concert near Inaba just so she could be there. While none of them had heard from Naoto, he had left her a message to let her know he and Rise were coming, just stopping short of begging her to be there. She hadn't called him, and as of yesterday, nobody else had heard from her.

Through all his reverie he'd managed to deepen his sadness, and made a half-hearted attempt to force his mind away from it. He chose to remember the times they were all together and had nothing to do with the murder case. Hell, from Christmas through most of March that year there hadn't been any mystery to solve, and they'd been an inseparable group. "The Souji Crew" they'd called it at school, because the group had seemed to form around him. After he moved away everyone kept telling him how people at school, even those he hadn't really known, had thought about him, missed his presence, and wished him good fortune in the future. Shockingly, they hadn't equated him with the murder cases or the icy fog that had nearly swallowed them all whole; he was the school genius who was also a cool guy and the one everyone had wanted to be around because he didn't know he was either a genius or a cool guy.

That always left him with mixed emotions. If only they'd known how insecure he always was. He was the team's Leader only by default, because he seemed to have the uncanny ability to bring about a consensus in the group even when they all disagreed on a particular course of action. Really, in retrospect, he was the blandest one of them all. Even when he'd let Yukiko dress him up for that ridiculous cross-dressing pageant, he had come out of it unmemorable. Few outside of "The Souji Crew" had ever remembered seeing him in drag, though to be fair that was a relief. Masculinity aside, he remembered that he'd made a terribly ugly girl.

Souji focused on a water tower about a mile away, slowly crawling past his field of view out the window. He sighed. He realized that the reason he worked so hard all the time was because, when he wasn't working, he was thinking. And when he thought, those thoughts invariably turned inward. He was never much of an outgoing person, and though that had changed a little after his time living in Inaba, everywhere he went he was still known as "the quiet one". For some reason people had been drawn to him, though he'd been told it was the "mysterious air" he had about him or his abilities as a "natural leader". He never understood it, and doubted he ever would.

"Yasoinaba Station, five minutes. Passengers please prepare to debark."

That was music to his ears. Not so much that he was arriving; he was, in fact, still quite nervous about seeing everyone again. It was just the fact that he now had something to do that didn't involve thinking or trying to concentrate. He'd become quite good at entertaining himself by looking inward, turning over stones and seeing what old insecurities and self-reproaches crawled out. It was "entertaining" in the loosest sense of the word, at least. It staved off boredom, replacing it with old pains that refused to leave.

He had one bag for his belongings, mostly clothes, but also the keepsakes that his friends over the years had given him. He had mailed another package, containing more clothes, directly to Dojima's house so he wouldn't have to lug it with him on the entire trip. Everything else, which wasn't really much, was in a storage facility back in the US while his dorm room at Ohio State University had been reassigned to some other poor workaholic of a student.

He felt himself lurching toward the front of the train and heard the whine of the engine decrease in pitch. Soon the floor was rattling and he could hear the squealing through the floorboards as the brakes were applied. He remembered the scenery outside very well, having taken this trip so many times before, even though this was his first in years. The first time he'd ever seen these sights was his arrival, back in '11, when he was nervous and withdrawn, and not particularly interested in taking in the sights of the sleepy town he was being forced to call home for an entire year.

The second time was his departure, when he was watching his friends chase the train down, wishing he could be on the other side of the glass with them, staying in Inaba forever instead of having to move back to the city with his parents. Why couldn't they have moved to Inaba? It wasn't like their work tied them down to the city. Of course, he knew the answer: they needed to be able to go anywhere in the world at short notice. It was a two hour train ride from Inaba to anywhere with an airport large enough to handle intercontinental flights, and their work simply would not afford such a disconnect. He had resented it at first, and then come to accept it. They were such hard workers, after all, so he could have the opportunities he had without having to worry about going without, without having to worry about settling for less than the best when it came to his future.

He had repeated the trip so many times after that, enjoying the arrival far more than the departure. This time though, was more like that first arrival. He was nervous all over again, like the 16-year old spending his first extended time away from his parents. Not resentful, but afraid of what and who he would find. How he would explain himself for having been away for so long. How he could justify it without insulting whom had been the best friends he'd ever had in life. The ones who had saved his life more times than he sometimes thought he deserved.

The train had slowed to a crawl and was already at the terminal. He scanned the sparse crowd, looking for the face of the "Little Sis" he'd seen grow from a girl to a young woman in photographs and e-mailed videos. Or, at least he'd be able to see Ryotaro Dojima, who always stuck out like a sore thumb. If there was a stereotypical police detective, Ryotaro-san was it. Tall, with unruly hair and two-day-old chin stubble. Even when Dojima was in a crowd he was outside it, observing it, looking for deviations and dangers from which he'd have to protect everyone else.

No Nanako. No Ryotaro. The train had pulled to a halt and its passengers were exiting. He hoisted his bag over his shoulder and stepped onto the concrete platform. He looked around again. No Yosuke, Chie, Yukiko, or anyone else he knew. No voice crying, "Big Bro!" Just the jumbled voices of a dozen or so conversations in the open air terminal.

He checked his watch. 13:52. The train had arrived seven minutes late. They knew what time he was due to arrive. They wouldn't have simply left because the train hadn't arrived right on the nose. Would they?

He exited the terminal and descended the stairway to the street. Nobody he knew. Not even Ryotaro's car. Of course, he realized that his uncle very well could have bought a new one in the past few years, but it was very disconcerting. He was trying to build himself up into a cheerfulness he had felt very rarely since leaving Inaba that first time, but even that was bleeding away in the flushing of his skin, the slight quivering of his stomach as he realized that, without someone he knew being here, he was more or less stranded.

No, of course he wasn't stranded. He saw the bus stop just a couple dozen meters from where he stood. He walked over to the small group standing there, taking one last look for a familiar face and listening for a familiar voice. After several minutes the bus arrived and he was on board, having paid the fare and found a seat between a dozing old woman and a man listening to his headphones a little too loudly. For a split second he'd hoped that was Yosuke, but no, it was just some random kid.

He wasn't sure whether to be depressed or insulted. He was surprised that his friends and family would be so callous as to leave him to make his own way from the train station to Inaba proper. That got him thinking, which was something he really didn't want to do. Could he have insulted them by taking so long to visit? Was this payback for his three-year absence?

No, surely not. He had known his friends here to be many things, but spiteful was not one of them. But the question remained: where were they?

The bus had reached the stop near the Dojima residence within ten stops and twenty minutes. He stepped off the bus, his legs feeling at least a little rubbery just from the nerves that had slowly spread across his body the more he had thought. Suppose he had missed them at the station. Wouldn't they have called? Then his stomach sank. He should have called them before jumping to the conclusion that they'd forgotten him. He pulled out his phone and checked it. No missed calls. No voicemails. No text messages. Five bars of signal.

He just didn't get it. Could he have told them the wrong day? Whatever happened, he at least needed to call them to let them know where he was. He could see Dojima's house just down the street. It would be rude of him to show up unannounced, especially if he'd managed to screw up the day of his arrival.

This was a new phone, but whenever he replaced a phone he religiously transferred every single number to the new one, never deleting or omitting any of them. There were almost a hundred entries in his address book now, but he prided himself that, once someone gave him their number, he never lost it.

He scrolled through the "D" section until he found "Dojima-Inaba(home)", between "Dojima-Inaba(cell)", Ryotaro's cell phone, and "Dojima-Kyoto(home)", his maternal grandmother's number. He selected it and pressed the speaker icon.

He waited. It took a little longer than usual to give a response. He frowned. He should have heard the phone ring on the other side by now.

Three rising tones. "I'm sorry, that number is no longer in service. If you need assistance, please dial your operator."

That was strange. Hadn't he just called that number the day before to confirm his arrival? He ended the call and checked his call history. There was the entry "Dojima-Inaba(home)", showing as an outbound call at 16:00 on 9/6/18. I did call, he thought, remembering the conversation. I did confirm that I'd be here today. I spoke with Nanako, and Ryotaro-san got home while we were talking, and I said I'd be arriving today at 13:45, according to the train ticket I got online. Nanako sounded so excited it was like she was a little girl all over again. I thought she might have been jumping up and down all over the house. Could he have completely messed up in buying his ticket and ended up in another town? He couldn't remember exactly what the conductor had said when the train arrived at the station. Could it have been something that sounded like "Inaba" if you weren't paying attention?

He looked past the houses toward the town's center. If there was another Inaba, it was a dead ringer for the one he intended to visit. He shrugged and scrolled down to "Dojima-Inaba(cell)". Ryotaro-san had told him only to use this number in case of emergencies, since it was provided by the police for official use. At the moment, though, he was starting to wonder if this was indeed an emergency. Why would nobody be at the station to meet him? Why was Dojima's home number disconnected? If Ryotaro-san became cross with him for calling his work phone, Souji could just offer to pay for the minutes.

He sighed and pressed the speaker icon. Another excessively long pause. Another set of rising tones. "I'm sorry, that number is no longer in service. If you need..." He pressed the "X" button to end the call. That was weird. His uncle was never without his work phone. He slept with it, ate with it, probably bathed with it. Souji chuckled a little. Maybe he got it wet in the shower.

His mirth vanished as quickly as it had appeared. "No longer in service" meant the account had been closed. And not just his personal home number, but his work-provided mobile number as well. Something very strange was going on.

Doing his best to quash the butterflies in his stomach, he walked down the street and up to the Dojimas' door. It was a Sunday afternoon, so there was at least the possibility somebody would be home. If not – well, he'd figure that out afterward.

He rapped on the door and waited. Nothing. He rapped again, and this time heard a shuffling from inside. Through the frosted glass he could see something moving within. He straightened up just as the door opened.

There stood his "Little Sis", not so little now. She was just a head shorter than he, her hair split into twin ponytails at either side of her head, but there was no mistaking the face, the eyes. She'd changed so much since he last saw her in person like this. She had grown from a beautiful young girl into a beautiful young woman, and her photos had done her little justice.

They had also shown nothing of her new look. She had on black lipstick and dark eyeshadow, and was clad in a black T-shirt and floor-duster pants. Her fingernails and the toenails of her bare feet were painted black, the polish chipped and missing in places.

"Yes?" Nanako asked, her eyes half-open but her eyebrows raised in irritated indifference.

"Um – Nanako?"

Her eyebrows lowered. "Can I help you?"

Souji opened his mouth, but his words couldn't find their way out.

Nanako rolled her eyes. "Beat it." She started to close the door.

"No, wait," Souji finally said. "Nanako – it's...it's me. Souji. You know, Big Bro?"

"Souji who?"

"Um, Seta. Your cousin."

Nanako tilted her head back, as if in recognition. "Oh, Seta as in Aunt Hiromi Seta?"

"Y-yeah, my mother." He tilted his head. "Don't you – remember me?"

She lowered her head, though in more indifference than of respect. Or, from the look of her eyes, Souji thought, maybe her head was just too heavy. She shrugged. "Can't say I do."

Souji was flabbergasted. He couldn't even begin to place a thought as to what was happening before him. "But, um...we just talked. Yesterday. Before my flight. I talked to you and your dad. I said I was coming back for a visit."

"Back, huh? Like, when were you ever here in the first place?"

"A few years ago," Souji said, his voice rising an octave. "How can you not remember me? I lived here with you and your dad six years ago."

Nanako raised an eyebrow, but her upper eyelids held their vigil hovering halfway over her lower ones. "Yeah, okay. Well, Souji Seta, if that's your real name, it's been nice to see you, now go find someone else to mooch room and board off of." She started closing the door and turned away.

Souji stuck his foot in the door, and when the door hit his shoe he saw Nanako's head snap toward him and, for the first time, her eyes widened. Despite her youth and smaller stature compared to him, he started to feel some fear of her. He couldn't be sure how much of her expression was anger and how much surprise, but he thought he was at least good enough at reading people to know it was mostly anger. Still, he had to get through to her somehow. "Listen – where's your dad? I just talked to him this morning."

He heard a metallic tapping on the other side of the door and saw Nanako's fist tighten on the doorknob. "He's at work. He's always at work. He hasn't left work in four days. If you know him, you probably know he's a police lieutenant, right? Well, he taught me how to use this." Her other hand appeared from behind the door, holding an aerosol can whose nozzle she immediately stuck in his face. "Pepper spray," she continued, her voice even and frightening. "Now you can either get the hell out of here or you can cry like a baby while I burn your eyes out. One..."

Souji jumped back and then scrambled to keep from tripping over his own feet. The door slammed hard enough to jostle the wind chimes hanging from the awning. He thought he heard a loud curse word through the door, and hearing it in Nanako's voice only added to his shock.

He backed away stiffly toward the sidewalk. That couldn't have been Nanako, could it? Despite her new fashion sense she looked just like the most recent photos he'd seen of her. But, in those photos she'd looked happy, fulfilled, cheerful. This Nanako, the one he'd just met, looked jaded, angry with the world, and from the redness of her eyes, he suspected she'd recently been smoking some illicit drug. While the voice sounded familiar it lacked the joy he'd heard just yesterday. Where was Little Sis? That sure wasn't her. Could his absence, his repeatedly disappointing her, have caused such a reaction toward him?

No, he knew, that was just too farfetched. She wouldn't have changed like this in less than a day. Something had to be going on.

Maybe it was some kind of nightmare. He'd been trapped in illusions before, but this felt like none of them. Ever since he'd fought Izanami, ever since the Persona Izanagi-no-Okami had entered his soul, he'd felt a clarity of perception that he'd never before imagined. But he had seen this Nanako as clear as day, and still she was like some twisted version of the girl he knew. Could something that happened in the past day possibly have caused such a change in her?

He had to find out for himself. He wasn't going to let two non-working phone numbers keep him from his promise, no matter how discouraging her attitude toward him was. The problem was, if he couldn't stay at the Dojima residence, he'd have to find somewhere else for the time being. He couldn't run around town carrying all his belongings in a shoulder bag.

There was one place he knew he could go. She'd always promised him a room any time he was in town, even though he had always stayed with Ryotaro and Nanako. This time, though, it was time to take her up on that offer. He hiked back uphill to the bus station, his legs feeling stronger now with his new sense of purpose. Whatever happened to Nanako, he'd save her from it.

After about ten minutes the bus arrived and he boarded, managing to find a seat all to himself. He remembered this bus route pretty well, even after being away for six years. Three stops, and then he'd be at the Amagi Inn.