In which Souji Seta reflects upon his life, reviles himself, and awaits a fateful encounter...
Souji Seta stared listlessly into the reflective depths of coffee that had been delivered to him. He didn't know why he'd ordered it. He wasn't particularly fond of the taste of coffee, but he drank it anyway. He drank it in the comfort of his own home, but never ordered it. At one point in his life he took it with cream and sugar. Lately, however, he'd been forcing himself to develop a taste for drinking it black. Though he enjoyed the aromatic qualities that it boasted, he could get enough of that simply by sniffing idly around him at the busy café. It seemed like everyone had ordered at least one cup...probably for the reason that it was the cheapest item on the menu...which, in hindsight, is probably the very same reason he'd ordered his own cup. Every other item that had been listed was either too frightening for his wallet or not appealing enough to his stomach.
The place was new, apparently...probably why so many people seemed to be around. It worked the same way in the city, he thought. New place opens up...every single consumer within the immediate area swarms to it in order to see what's like...then most never come again. Either the new place gets by with those lured flies that happened to get a taste for its honey or it crumbles within weeks.
...Might've been slightly different here though. It was a small town, but it was different from Inaba. Inaba was a middle-class town that had what it needed.
...Shintate was a high-class town that specialized in the novelty. Rich people with expensive hobbies buying expensive things. This café...this tiny little haven of French chic was nothing more than a high-quality distraction for the perpetually bored residents of the surrounding town. While Souji wasn't necessarily well-versed in the nuances of French culture, he also imagined it was a safe bet that the place was about as authentically French as a bowl of garden snails and a bottle of generic ketchup. The owners essentially built the most flowery interior possible, layered the menu with dessert crepes and cheap coffee that they'd sell for three times their worth and called it a payday.
Maybe it did work differently than in the city. The people of this own had gold-lined pockets and nothing to do...investors and trust fund babies. They came off as the type that'd buy anything wrapped in an attractive package. The level of bourgeois was almost palpable.
...This was a bad choice. Someone like Naoto...she'd see through this place the second she stepped inside. Souji couldn't have known. He'd never been to Shintate. This was the first place he saw...and 'Croissant Brioche' sounded nice enough...though, now that he thought of it, the name sounded like faux-French gibberish.
'She's gonna think I'm shallow...or stupid...or...something', he thought. After five years, this was hardly the reunion he'd wanted.
Five years...and he hadn't done a thing. He finished high school in the city...enrolled in college for a year or two...became distracted with money troubles and the frantic desire to cut financial ties and seek independence. 'I'll work for a while...build up my funds...go back to school, become a teacher maybe. Yeah, it'll be great!'
Some time later, here he was...recently unemployed and not a step closer to his goal. He didn't know why. He was a smart guy, he thought...aced everything in high school...or, everything in high school when was in Inaba.
...Maybe that was the problem. Inaba. He'd kept in touch, of course...with everyone there...but it wasn't the same. He'd always been a distant sort of person...and it took a series of gruesome murders and a trip into the television to get the guy to socialize. He was special in Inaba. He had some purpose in Inaba.
In Inaba, he was the Leader...and nothing else after Inaba felt quite the same.
He was ashamed to be comforted by the activities of most of his old friends. Most of them weren't overly successful themselves.
Chie Satonaka had taken the police exam in Inaba and failed...twice. She'd be going in for a third try in a few weeks, or so he heard.
Yosuke Hanamura was still working at Junes while slowly creeping through college. He'd never been more than a part-time college student. He still hadn't declared a major.
Teddie was also still working at Junes...though, he'd now taken a much larger corporate role. He was the official mascot of the company now...or, at least, his bear suit is. He owned the copyright of the bear image before anyone else so he was making a mint and living it up. You couldn't go anywhere without seeing one of those 'Teddie' dolls lounging in store windows. Considering that his success was mostly dumb luck, however, Souji didn't exactly feel envious.
Kanji Tatsumi seemed to have no plans for higher education...though, he was apparently very happy with his current life as the fastest sewing needle in Inaba. Some locals referred to him as 'Kanji the Stitcher'. He didn't know whether to take offense or not. After all, out of context, it did still sound kinda manly.
Yukiko Amagi was still helping with the inn. Her mother's health had deteriorated somewhat, forcing her to pick up a good chunk of the slack. Her education had been put on hold...but she seemed reasonably happy with her position as owner-to-be.
He reveled in this and he hated it. As long as he didn't have to compare himself to anyone...as long as they were in a similar boat as himself, he would be okay with it. Every time he'd speak to any one of them over the light hiss of a phone receiver, he hoped and prayed that they'd have bad news...horrible revelations of their own shortcomings. He enjoyed it when his friends failed...and lately, he was beginning to resent himself for it.
But there was no speaking of failure when it came to Naoto Shirogane. After word of her assistance with the Inaba serial killer case got out, her assistance became more desired than ever before. Souji couldn't quite recall how many cases she'd solved now...but he remembered that it was a lot. She didn't stay in Inaba for much longer after the incident. She finished high school a year sooner than expected. Apparently, without a local serial killer case to worry about, she breezed through any piece of academia that was placed in front of her. She returned to the Shirogane Estate as soon as her education in Inaba was completed...beginning work as both full-time college student and full-time detective. Last he heard, she was plowing through every challenge in front of her. A double major in forensics and criminal psychology as well as her continuing career as the heir to the Shirogane name was proof enough of that.
Even if he were to compare himself to her high school self...she still would've accomplished much more than him. It was daunting...frightening, even.
As soon as he arrived in Shintate to meet her, he regretted it. They'd been in touch...sort of. Their interaction had begun to steadily decline. Phone calls deteriorated to occasional E-mails to...not much of anything.
...It was his own fault. He was the one who answered his phone less frequently...took longer to reply to each message he was sent. He felt too embarrassed to talk about his personal life any longer...so he just slowly phased it all out.
And yet, oddly enough, he was the one who, stupidly, had suggested this meet-up. 'I have some time off', he said. 'I've never seen your place. It's a few hours of driving, but I can manage...'
The Shirogane Estate wasn't too far from Shintate. A few miles away...enough to make the town a comfortable daily visit, but the estate itself was far enough away to give it some exciting air of intrigue and the allure of peaceful rustic living. The plan was to meet in town for a quick bite and then for Souji to be treated to an intimate tour of the estate, courtesy of Detective Shirogane herself.
Souji Seta, having acquired a convenient window booth, glanced hurriedly to the comfy town's streets at every creak of approaching tires that touched his ears. Anxious...like a virgin on his first big date waiting for daddy to drop his precious little girl off to be romanced, kissed on the cheek, and brought back home precisely at 11:00 PM.
...He recognized her car as soon as he saw it. He'd been given no description of it...but he knew it. Even in a homey little town like this something that old-fashioned stood out. He didn't know enough about cars to properly describe it, but it looked to be a pre-war model...some high-class luxury piece of automobile history that the world's elite were once carted around in. Cloth roof...long, slightly box-shaped. There was a name for that noticeable frame...started with a 'P', but that's all he could recollect. A dark blue paint job on the walls...classy, and just like the girl he used to know. He almost cringed with the notion of someone actively driving it. It seemed like something meant for display and an occasional five-mile drive. The thought of a common road's dust clinging to that immaculately polished chassis sent chills up his spine...and he didn't even like cars that much.
He tried his best to keep casual...glancing back into his cup of coffee to check his appearance, lightly raking at his developing chin stubble and brushing his bangs from his eyes. He looked...'scruffy'. He had been tempted to get a clean shave and a proper haircut to look more like his younger self, but...doubt crept in. Would she imagine he was clinging to the past? Would she be disappointed if he hadn't changed a bit? A little stubble and some shaggy hair...that'd work best, wouldn't it? He could maintain a veil of casual indifference that way.
Naoto stepped out of the vehicle from the driver's side. Surprising, really. She could probably afford a chauffeur if she wanted one. Souji's gaze went straight to her wrists.
...She wasn't wearing a watch.
...Nervously...he kept his own watch in his pocket, hesitant to strap it on as he waited for the detective to enter so he could wave her over to his booth.
(AN: Brief prologue for now. Planning to turn into a multi-chapter series...maybe even a constant ongoing thing if anyone likes it enough. Actual first chapter will be up shortly.)