Author's Notes: Almost there. Almost at 250k words, and I'll make it over with this chapter. Do you guys love me for it? Do you? Well, either way, I love you all enough to keep going. Lots of things to pick up with and plenty of places to go. If I hit a few right chords, feel free to let me know with that cute little button at the bottom of the screen.
Glad that everyone liked my eeevilll cliffhanger, because I had a fair bit of fun writing it. Thank you, one and all, for the feedback.
Standard disclaimers apply. Not making money, I only own a copy of Persona 4 and a lot of love for the characters (very curious about Persona 5 though. Possible future project?), and intend no copyright infringement.
Many, many thanks to my new beta, Tales from the Lee. His insight and commentary on this chapter were very helpful in making it work as well as it does. And thanks to Enact, as always, for his help in all things writerly. Speaking of Enact, he wanted to post a little something to all our wonderful fans, and since I get to write/talk enough as it is, here's what he wants to say:
"Hello everyone, my name is Enact, and I am the editor/beta-reader for Continuance. I've been working with Voc on this project for up to 2 years now, and I am both extremely happy and very lucky to have gotten this chance. Persona 4 is a very special game for me, as it's not only my favorite Megami Tensei game besides Persona 2: Innocent Sin/Eternal Punishment, it's my favorite RPG of all time, and that's largely because of how strongly I fell for this cast of characters and got invested in their struggles as well as their everyday lives, and it's positive messages, of facing your inner demons and becoming a stronger person for it to learning that it's okay to let down your own personal barriers and let people into your heart, really struck a strong cord with me and it's an experience I will always carry with me. Since I'm the editor for this piece in particular, my OTP for Persona 4 is Souji x Yukiko, as of all the characters, Yukiko's character and storyline hit me the most, giving me someone I thought I could figure out from just looking at her but then showing me someone who was had a lot of steel and passion underneath her shell, someone who wanted to find what mattered to her in life and going after those things with all of her heart (as well as an adorably dorky side, of course). That said, I have a pretty strong, deep connection with the entire cast of the game overall, as Vocarin can attest to, and one of my main goals while working on this project is to let all that passion, all that love, be put into a story that feels genuine and honest, because the cast deserves it, and so does the fandom, and that is what keeps me motivated as I help with planning things out and nailing down potential issues in the writing or storyline. I intend to see this project through to the end, so I hope you, the loyal and appreciative audience, continue to support us and this project, which I want to be something that not only fans of the Souji x Yukiko relationship, but fans of the game in general, can feel is a story that really cares about and understands this quirky little group, and that some of those strong feelings me and Voc have for the source material rub off on you all. In the meantime though, I will be in the back, tinkering with things to come. (Current mood playlist: heavenly blue by Kalafina, SHIVER by the GazettE, IN MY WORLD by ROOKiEZ is PUNK'D)"
Isn't he awesome? Again, thanks to my betas. Any mistakes from here on are mine.
Per usual, here are the greetings and gratitudes for all my lovely reviewers:
Flavius001: Well, he just might. Few things are that easy, though, and I wouldn't want to make the answer a complete cakewalk to get to. Glad you like where it's going so far, and I hope you enjoy the show.
Zelenal: That's probably my greatest fear, that I'll make that one mistake that screws things up without me thinking it through or having ways to correct them. Enact and I examine everything, so I hope that it's an empty fear, but I'd hate to do that to you guys after getting this far. Thanks for the praise, though – if I've done well up to this point, then the ideas I have that follow should be fairly well-received. This chapter should broaden things a fair bit, so I hope you like it. Enjoy, and thanks for the feedback.
Ulcaasi: Okay, I won't tell you. You'll have to read and enjoy and tell me how awesome I am when we get there. Enjoy!
qweenashleyfox: No worries; you don't have to wait any longer.
LoneWolf218: That's the first time I've heard P4 referred to like that, but I can certainly see where it comes from. Glad you like the story so far, and glad you like Yuuma that much, because there's more of him to follow. Thanks for the review, and enjoy!
Jake-Everfree: I think you might've, yes. And there's nothing wrong with being a puppet and never having to think for yourself unless, you know, you want to be an actual person.
Xoraan: That is how it works out, isn't it? Things never stay simple and easy for very long. But just as well – I wouldn't have a story to tell if they did. Glad you liked the chapter, and I think this one will answer a few questions.
Vergil 1989 the Crossover King: I don't think there'll be very much ambiguity here. Things happen and stuff progresses and… well, there are words on the page too, so that's good, right? In all seriousness, thanks for the praise, and this chapter shouldn't dissatisfy.
darrelodin: And to think that that's not even the entire group. There's still Naoto, Kanji, Nanako, and Teddie, and you know how this group loves to party – might even get the girls to cater the wedding. Imagine: all seven courses made exclusively by Yukiko, Chie, Rise, and Naoto. Mmmmm… my stomach's cramping up just thinking about it. And as to that bit with Dojima, well, I'll have to make you rage a bit more and say 'We'll see when we get there.' It will be worth the trip, though. I can promise you that.
Attempt Tomorrow: Glad to hear it, because here's more just for you.
Sorata Shioya: Thanks for the props, and welcome to the story. Glad you like it that much, and I hope what follows doesn't disappoint. Not that it will, of course, but I hope it doesn't anyway.
MegaRizwan20: Thanks for the review. The new girls felt like they belonged there, so there they are. Glad you like them since Enact and I worked on making them fit in a fair bit before we got here. As to what they are to each other, well, we'll see, yeah? Glad you're looking forward to the possibilities, because we continue that trend from this point on. Hope you like the chapter.
beatlesfan931: Well, you'll have to wait no longer. That's insulting, though, thinking that I'd trip up and flag after this long. Have you no faith in me? No trust in my totally amazing abilities? Yeah, thought so. No worries – I've come way too far to leave this baby unfinished or to cheap out on what I have planned. I want there to be genuine, serious, honest-to-god tears when this tale wraps up, and I can't do that if I write substandard crap, can I? Thanks for the review, always glad to have you along for the ride.
Ziodyne967: Why, not another moment, of course.
Tales from the Lee: Very much obliged, my friend. I'm glad I hit so many right notes with you, and I'll definitely take your comments on improvement to heart from here on in. Welcome, thank you, and I'm glad you like it so far.
squaredplanet: Glad you like it, and thanks for the heads-up. The characters should be getting their due this time around, so I hope you like it. Thanks for the review.
AndersonBLUE: Thanks for the suggestions – I'll definitely keep them in mind for future chapters. Glad you like it so far, and enjoy the chapter.
james: There is a fair bit of that in this one, so I think you'll get your fill. And no, they really can't. It's a blessing.
Erebus13: That is some pretty interesting timing. Very appropriate. But you need wait no longer. So go forth and enjoy.
Anonymous568: Thank you very much. If you feel that the fic ranks that high, then I won't argue. I'll just work hard to make sure it stays that good, or gets even better. Better is the idea. Glad you like Kou since Enact and I have a lot more content for him and Chie in the next few chapters. So stay tuned!
And now, onward! On to a nice chapter of Naoto and Kanji and Ai in Inaba where they talk about school, arts and crafts, and the purpose of physical vs. intellectual beauty in a post-modern world. Enjoy!
"Did I interrupt something?" his father inquired, sounding calm despite the hour and genuinely curious – as though he did care if he interrupted – in a way that Souji hadn't heard in years. "It sounded like you were expecting someone else."
Souji blinked, losing sight of his room as he shuffled in his chair and tried to rein in his thoughts. Everything he'd planned on telling Yukiko rattled around in his head, broken into pieces from him slamming on the brakes and changing mindsets to deal with his father. And worse, he thought with a sinking sense in his stomach, he might have tipped off Yukiko's existence to the last person in the world he wanted to know about her. The man was anything but dull and unperceptive, after all. Much as Souji wished otherwise. "No, it's nothing," He told his father a moment later, no joy or warmth in his voice.
"Are you sure? Were you waiting for a friend? You mentioned someone getting settled in, so–"
"Was there something you needed?" The polite framing of the question was a thin sheet over a collection of knives, held back only because his father never called without a reason.
In spite of the near-naked hostility, Yuuma continued smoothly as honey with milk. "Maybe it was a girl? You're smart and capable, so that wouldn't surprise me. If that is the case, tell me her name; I might know her family."
"I'm not seeing anyone, father." As little compunction as he had about lying to either of his parents, the words burned his tongue the moment he said them. It felt like he was slandering Yukiko and every memory they'd made since Christmas, and he couldn't stop from looking over at his ring. "And I'm not going to a marriage meeting or hooking up with some snob's daughter just because you have connections. Why are you calling?"
"You refuse to meet other girls your own age," Yuuma mused, "because you're in a relationship? Not with that Risette girl. No, I haven't seen you on anymore headlines or celebrity magazines lately."
Souji's words came from behind clenched teeth this time. "I already told you, I'm not–"
"You're lying," his father stated simply. "You were expecting someone else to call, and now you're trying to cover it up. I haven't heard you this angry in years, so obviously I hit the mark somewhere."
"Maybe I'm angry because you cut off my scholarship and lost me my job here," Souji snapped.
"Well, I'm glad you're dating," Yuuma commented, cutting some of the hostility out of his son.
"I'm glad. You never showed an interest in girls when you were in school, so this is a welcome change. And if it's not Risette, then I expect you'd be with someone intelligent and capable, maybe from an old-fashioned family with a long history."
Souji saw red at his father's words, all his memories of Ayu and the problems that particular 'business move' caused him coming to mind. But as much as he wanted to scream at his father, satisfying as it would have been to hang up on the man, his father was not to be underestimated. Plenty of his business partners and competitors had learned, one way or the other, that rushing in against Seta Yuuma was like diving into a swimming pool full of land mines. "I've dated enough in the past, father," he replied after a few seconds. "To what do I owe the pleasure of your call?"
There was a contemplative pause on the line before Yuuma spoke again. "I understand you're in Fujisawa, attending Keio University."
Small talk. Wonderful. But if that was how Souji had to play the game, then he'd play if it got him some answers. "I told you as much before, yes."
"That's a fine choice. You did well to pass the exams."
As much as Souji took care of his teeth, he was becoming a bit worried that clenching them as hard as he was just the would cause problems down the road. "They were nothing I couldn't handle. Since you called, I have a question for you."
"Of course. What is it?"
He took a stabilizing breath and put his thoughts in order. "You know people at the university, don't you? You're friends with a few of their finance instructors, as well as the head of the economics department." It had been something his parents had brought up when they were discussing universities back when Souji had started junior high.
"So you do remember that. I'm impressed."
"I'm not doing anything to impress you," Souji snapped, his patience breaking under the weight of his building temper. "My scholarships, the job I had lined up, they're both suddenly missing from my record despite them being finalized a month ago. Spare me the pleasantries and tell me what you had to do with it."
There was a long stretch of silence before Yuuma replied, and when he did it was in a bland politically correct tone that Souji immediately recognized. And he hated it when he heard that tone. "You losing those so close to the semester starting is an unfortunate circumstance. When your mother and I met, such things rarely happened, but it seems that the clerks today don't have the same dedication as they did back then. But that's only to be expected – they can't keep track of everyone who comes through the doors."
Souji hated it enough that it was about to beat down his curiosity. "I'm hanging up soon, unless you answer my questions: why did you do it, and what do you want?"
Yuuma's toned hardened, but only a little. "Hostility toward your elders is unbefitting of someone of your talent, Souji. I know I taught you better than that. On the front of a job, I have an acquaintance who is looking for a finance intern in his company. He'll pay you if you accept. And your admission would be less of a problem if you and I came to an understanding; I'm not above helping you when you need it."
Souji bit back the vitriol that was clawing at his clenched teeth. "Understanding about what? I still don't know what you want."
"You've been intent on doing this the hard way," Yuuma noted, his tone shifting and thawing a little. "Working through the university, relying on a full scholarship, and neither of these will get you anywhere. It's impressive that you received it, but you can do much better than that, and it's time that you gave some thought to building the foundation for your future."
Arrogance. Souji expected it and could heard it over the line, but knowing that it was the driving force behind this fiasco was galling. "You do realize that offering to help me through a problem that you yourself created isn't the best way to get me to listen to you, right? And I chose that way of doing things because it was what I wanted to do. Earning my accolades instead of getting them handed to me on a platter because of you."
"I understand. Your mother's brother is a blue-collar man, so you come by that naturally. But you have a world of opportunities in front of you and so far you've let them pass you by while you've been hiding in the middle of nowhere. That should change, and while you might not appreciate the way I do things, you will when you see where those opportunities will get you. You like challenges, and you'd be pushed to your limits every day."
Souji bit his tongue, keeping down the very small part that agreed with his father. He wasn't as openly competitive as Daisuke, but he did want challenges in his life. Challenges like making a long-distance relationship thrive, or finding the right mix of time spent on school work and work work so that he could still enjoy an evening with his friends. Data entry and living in a cubicle was only a challenge of his sanity. "Thanks for the concern. What's the catch?"
"The catch," Yuuma replied, toneless except for the hint of curiosity. "I told you – it's time you started thinking about your future. You can't stay in your uncle's attic for the rest of your life. I'm sure he wants the space back by now, and you need to grow up."
The anger came back. Swirling through his mind, burning and roaring like a blast furnace at the thought of being told to 'grow up' by a man who was practically a stranger to him. But he kept the words to himself. They hadn't helped him at first, and had only led him into his father's verbal trap. He wasn't going to make the same mistake a second time, certainly not in the same conversation. "Duly noted."
When Souji didn't say anything more, Yuuma moved on to a different approach. "That reminds me, where are you living? It's somewhere close by, isn't it?"
"That's none of your business."
"Are you sure about that?"
"It's not at the university," Yuuma continued right over Souji's response, "and you haven't applied for residency with any of the off-campus dorms. I assume you're using your connections. If that's the case, well done."
At least something had escaped his father's notice. Souji had changed all his emergency information and sterilized his phone's contact list before he left Inaba, and that was looking like the right course of action if his father had him this much under the microscope. The less he had to worry about his parents, the happier he was going to be. "Keep your praise. I don't appreciate being watched this much, and you know too much about this as it is. My answer stands: stop asking."
His father's tone took on a note of finality. "I can see you're not in the mood to listen, and I have other calls to make tonight. I'm sure that, wherever you are, rent is very expensive. Accept my offer and that won't be a concern. You'll have your bills paid, tuition covered, and the start of a career where you belong. This is the best path for you, and as much as you resist it, it is much bigger than your personal concerns."
"I won't be threatened by you, father," Souji replied in the same steady voice. "This isn't your decision anymore.
"You know how to contact me when the time comes," Yuuma replied before the line went dead.
"Don't hold your breath," Souji told his room as he cut the call and tossed his phone onto the desk, leaning forward and holding his head in his hands, letting out a long breath. It made sense, when he looked at it. It was actually very easy, from conception to execution, for his father to throw a wrench into the works like this. Whether it was through favours and phone calls, or a generous and convenient donation from a 'local corporate sponsor,' business deals were things that his father knew only too well. "It must be nice to not have a conscience," Souji muttered to himself.
It was a problem, and one he would need to resolve before classes started. Talking to a few people might get him some leeway where admission deadlines and payment were concerned, but it wouldn't last. And as much as Souji wanted to bet that his father wouldn't sabotage the chances for Souji to actually start classes, especially if his aspirations were as high as they seemed, Souji wasn't ready to risk that Seta Yuuma wouldn't treat it like a warped test of his skills and push the envelope. And all of that was ignoring the simple realities of rent, food expenses, and that he was new in town and knew very few people who were hiring at the wages he needed.
"Wonderful," he sighed when he checked the calendar on his desk. He had almost two weeks to replace the funds that came with a full scholarship before the tuition deadline and the drop date. The last time he'd felt the looming shadow of an impending deadline had been when he was saving people from their Shadows. He examined his options and determined to do some digging around, then test the local job market. As much of a dead end as the university was looking like, there were other options. The idea of asking any of the others for help only occurred to him for a second before he dismissed it; there was no way he was getting them involved in this.
He was still turning over approaches and ideas when his phone rang again, and when he checked it, the name on the display brought a weak smile to his face. "Hey beautiful," he said into the receiver when he connected the call. "Settled in yet?"
"Almost," Yukiko told him with a smile in her voice. "We met some new people today, and they offered to show us around this week."
"That's moving pretty fast," he commented as he got more comfortable in his chair. "I'm glad you're making friends."
"That's… Well, it was a bit unusual, how we met them, but they seem very nice. I think you'd get along well with one of them – she reminded me of you."
Unbidden, the image of what his beloved fiancé had dressed him up as during the cross-dressing contest came to mind, and he had to cover his mouth to stifle his laughs. Without trying she'd already lightened his mood. "How's that? White hair and broad shoulders and swinging a sword around?"
"No, no, nothing so dramatic," she giggled back. "She was very calm, though, and seemed comfortable talking to us. And she said she's in business, too."
"That would do it," Souji conceded.
He was about to ask for more details on the women when Yukiko beat him to the punch. "Are you okay?"
Souji stopped his words, not expecting the question. "I'm alright, I guess," he replied after a moment, not sure where she was coming from. "Tired from moving, but I'm not sick or anything."
"I mean besides that," she noted. "You seem a bit distracted."
After a moment's surprise, he wanted to groan and crash his face into the desk. He used to be good at this. Bluffing people and dealing with his problems on his own had been second nature only a few years ago. And much as he loved her, Yukiko hadn't been able to pick up on his habits even when the investigation was going on. Now she could home in on his tells before he even knew he was showing them.
Lying was still an option. And it wouldn't really be a lie; more of a fib to keep the one subject from his old life that he couldn't stand away from the life he was putting together now. No matter how much she might want to get involved with his parents, he'd kept them on the fringe of their discussions, and she'd respected that.
He heaved a heavy groan into his phone, putting an elbow on his knee and rubbing his face. No, that wouldn't work. She already knew something was wrong, and blowing her off or keeping the problem to himself would only make things awkward. He had a sinking feeling, when he thought about it, that she'd pay him another visit like she did when he was living in Kofu if he pushed her away. He didn't know whether she could afford that or not, and the last thing he wanted was to add to her financial problems, never mind the time it would take.
"Souji? Are you alright?"
"I'm here," he replied finally. "Sorry. Thing is, I got a call from my father earlier this evening. It didn't go very well."
She paused before answering, probably not expecting that. "Oh. Um, what was the problem?"
"The usual arguments between us," Souji told her. He wasn't going to lie to her, but telling her the whole truth would only worry her. "He's pushing me to work for someone he knows, probably at an office somewhere, and he's taking a personal interest in my courses. We're not coming to an agreement, to put it lightly, and I wasn't expecting him to call in the first place."
"It's strange that he called you now," Yukiko noted. "Or maybe he knew when you were starting classes and planned it that way."
He nodded, rubbing his face. "That's how it sounds to me. Whatever his faults, he does run things tight when he wants something. So, sorry if you were worried. It's just that it wasn't an enjoyable conversation."
"I see. Well, I hope that you can sort things out."
"I will, one way or the other."
"Are the others doing well?"
Souji snorted a chuckle. "Well, our accommodations are a lot nicer than I expected, and I ran into some old friends when we got here. By the way, expect a call from Rise in the near future. She went a little nuts when she found out about our engagement." The novelty of the term was still fresh in Souji's mind, and it brought a smile to his face as soon as he said it.
The way Yukiko paused on the line, she was probably feeling the same way. "I knew she'd be excited about it."
"That's putting it very mildly. It was all she talked about on the way here, and she wanted every detail she could get. Don't be surprised if she starts asking you about wedding dress designs and who gets to be the maid of honour next time you talk to her."
"I'll call her this week."
"Please do. She'll haunt me here if you don't." Souji scratched his cheek and an old conversation came to mind. Something that needed to be looked after. "Actually that reminds me, could I ask for a favour?"
"Of course. What do you need?"
"I have some things to work out at the university and I'll be busy for the rest of the day, probably longer. I promised Dojima that I'd tell Nanako about the rings when I got the chance, and I don't want to leave her waiting for too long. So could you call her and explain things for me?"
"That's… I'm not sure if I'd know what to say to her."
Souji chuckled, already imagining how his cousin would react. He expected to hear the screams of joy from Inaba when she got the news. "I don't think that you'll have to say very much. I just don't want her to start driving the others crazy, and I might not have the time to do it. I can, though, if you're busy."
"No, it's alright. I have some time. It's going to be strange, though – she'll actually be family in a few years."
"You won't get any objection from her," Souji assured as he leaned back in his chair. "If anything she's probably going to want to come visit you as soon as you give her the news."
That got a bell-tone laugh out of her. "Maybe someday. I should let you go, though. It sounds like you've had a long day."
"Nothing I can't handle," he told her with a shrug. "Rough patches that just need some work, that's all."
"Right, but don't be afraid to let me know if you need help. That's what the others and I are here for."
Souji couldn't keep the chuckle down. "That's terrible, Yukiko. You sound like you got that from a fortune cookie."
"Hey!" she protested with a laugh. "It sounded like something you'd say, so you don't get to tell me my lines are bad."
"I'll only do it when they are," he shot back before taking note of the time. "You sound tired though. Everything's alright there?"
"Yep. Things are going well, and I have a good feeling about the ladies we met earlier and Chie's settled in. We're doing some sighting seeing in a few days, too."
"Sounds good. Take lots of pictures. Nanako will love you for them. Keep in touch."
"I will," she chirped before yawning. "I will. You too. Take care."
When they completed their farewells and hung up, Souji turned his phone off for the night and leaned back, staring out his room window with a much lighter heart than he'd had even half an hour ago. For all the grief that his father had given him, the new problems on a ticking time limit that were staring him in the face, she'd given him a levity that he wouldn't have had otherwise. As daunting as the problems were, they felt less so with the memory of her voice in his ears, and that left him with a smile on his face as he shut his room lights off.
"How long has Souji not gotten along with his dad?" Yoshiro asked two days later. The student in question had bowed out of joining them after telling them what was going on with his school situation and left the apartment early that morning. The others had finished familiarizing themselves with each other and were now intent to see the sights, on their way down the street toward what the restaurant websites called the best ramen place in town. Yoshiro was walking next to Kou and Yosuke while Rise and Megumi were chatting about something girly. "He's never talked about his family to us before."
"That's not just you," Yosuke replied, switching songs on his music player and straightening out his headphones so he could hear his tunes without putting the 'phones on. "He never talks about his parents to us. We've met his uncle and his cousin, and they're pretty cool, but nothing about anyone else. Yukiko-san's probably the only person who knows more about that, aside from the rest of his family. But I don't know how long this has been a problem for him. He's never brought it up before."
"I know that his parents went overseas for a while, which is why he came to Inaba in the first place," Kou added, hands in his pockets, steps calm and steady. "He made a lot of waves as the new transfer student, but he didn't really talk about where he came from."
"What about his mother?" Yoshiro tried, polishing his phone screen before snapping it back into its holder on his waist. "Does she come into the picture at all?"
"Nope," Yosuke told him simply. "Not that we've heard, anyway. I hear that Yukiko-san went to visit Souji when he was still living in Kofu, but she didn't mention having met anyone from his family. And I think she would've mentioned it if she'd met his parents."
"That's too bad," Megumi mentioned with a small frown. "It would have been nice to meet her if she came all that way."
"Nanako-chan talks about her aunt sometimes," Rise offered, stepping forward to join the conversation. The starlet was dressed in her usual 'classy-casual' with a minimum of make-up on, just enough to highlight the beauty she already had. With so little flare around her, no one on the streets called to her or asked for autographs. "Izumi-san, I think. But that's all she knew, so I don't know whether they don't talk much or what."
Megumi nodded but said nothing, a distant look in her eye.
Kou gave a long sigh. "The whole situation sucks. Souji made so many friends back home that it's hardly fair for him to get the shaft when it comes to his parents."
"If there's anything that'll get you, though, it's parents," Yoshiro replied, his mouth setting in a line as he looked toward the street. Megumi's hand cupped around one of his clenched fists.
Kou and Rise glanced at each other, clearly curious, but Yosuke shook his head and held a hand out. "Everyone has their demons," he commented, looking to the pair then back to Rise. "Souji's no different."
Kou turned to Yosuke, puzzled and with a question on his lips, then back to Yoshiro before understanding came over his eyes. "That's a good point. So, Yoshiro-san, is the ramen at this place as good as you say?"
Yoshiro was quiet for a bit longer, but nodded to them with his usual smile and led the way, Megumi's hand in his own. "Yep. Not too much further." Yosuke and Rise exchanged a knowing look and followed, talking gossip and about her latest CD and schedule and trying to keep the mood light. When they got to the restaurant and grabbed a table, the grim mood had passed and soon they were exchanging war stories from their respective schools. Kou and Yoshiro became intent on outdoing each other on the luckiest, laziest, and most ridiculous shots they had ever taken from the free-throw line. Megumi was too busy enjoying her ramen and the gyouza on the side to comment much.
"What else is there to do around here, Rise?" Yosuke asked as Megumi was talking to Kou about the coaches she'd dealt with in her second year. "Seems like a place this big would have everything."
"It does," she confirmed. "Whatever you're looking for is probably one block over. There's a pretty cool game center a little ways from here, and they have bowling alleys and batting cages nearby too. Did you have anything in mind?"
Yosuke shuffled his chair away from the basketball fans a bit, giving them their privacy as he leaned on the table to speak easier. "Music stores? Dance clubs? I'm sure there have to be a few around, right?"
Rise leaned in close as well and gave him a grin like she'd just won a year's worth of chocolate sundaes. "Best ones in the prefecture. Do you just browse, senpai? Or do you buy real CDs?"
Yosuke gave her a return grin. "Ladies first," he told her with a gallant sweep of his hand. "Do you prefer digital or analog?"
Rise giggled, her eyes sparkling. "I used to collect CDs whenever I got the chance. And I'd meet the artists on interview shows or in concert lineups, so I always got autographed copies. But I always seem to lose something when I move, so now I keep the ones I have at home and download the stuff I really like. It's easier that way, and less of a PR hassle when people ask which bands I like if they see me with signed stuff, but I like CDs when I can get them. Your turn."
Yosuke pulled his own music player from his belt and setting it on the table. "I used to use CD players whenever I could, but when we started…" he glanced to the others then back to her, "well, when Souji moved to Inaba, it was too tricky to have them on and move around as much as I needed to, so I had to leave the CDs at home. That's all I listen to when I have the choice, though."
"Is there a specific reason?" Rise inquired, head tilted and one of her pigtails brushing her shoulder. "The only guys I know who do what you do are pretty hardcore into collecting, or they're big on their music equipment."
Yosuke shrugged and gave a dismissive brush of his hand. "I'm not a tech junkie in that sense. It was bad enough paying the shipping charges to get CDS sent to Inaba without adding amp wires and bigger speakers to the bill. Not to mention that there's not enough room in my whole house if I wanted to buy all the latest mixer boards and music decks. I just collect the stuff I like, which happens to be a lot. And I like CDs because you don't always get the art books and comments from the artists online."
"A lot of singers I know like putting stuff in the CD books," Rise told him, lips quirking up in a smile. "They say it adds a personal touch if they know the fans are reading their stuff. Voice actors are the same way, I hear."
"How about you? Do you like putting something special in your CD cases?"
"When I can." There was a fond, faraway quality to her smile that reminded him of the girl who'd joined him in pestering Teddie when he was supposed to be working. "I'd like to keep that up for as long as I can."
The wistful tone in her voice made him tilt his head in confusion. "You're not having problems like before, are you?"
"No no, nothing like that. It's just that someone I looked up to, a singer who was in her prime when I started up, is going to retire soon. And when I was taking time off in Inaba, Kanamin was there to take my place."
"Try to take your place," Yosuke corrected. "She didn't, and I don't know if she could."
"Awww, thanks senpai. That's really sweet. I'm not depressed about it, though. I love my work, love my fans, and I want to keep going for as long as I can. I know the industry, though, and it runs on marketable talent. And I hope that I can do this for a while, you know?"
"You will," Yosuke assured her. "You're still on the way up. Worry about all that stuff after you've jumped the shark."
"Right. Thanks, senpai. You sound like you know your music, by the way. Is that why you're going to college?"
"I'd like to. Haven't decided yet. There's always Junes, but I don't think I'm manager material, and I'd hate to get transferred to wherever because head office says so. I'm in open studies for now so I can see what it's like, and I'll make a decision about it later."
"That's smart. I'd like to go to university when I'm done showbiz. Somewhere with a good music program."
"I'll let you know how it is if I get there."
"Well, that was good," Yoshiro told them as he finished a second bowl of ramen. "How about it? Were there any places you guys wanted to–" He stopped speaking and turned to look over Kou, standing and looking out the restaurant window.
Kou looked at him and then turned to try and see what had caught his attention. All he saw were the people on the sidewalk and the street traffic beyond them. "Something wrong?"
Yoshiro was silent for a moment, looking up and down the street before he shook his head and sat back down. "Nothing wrong, no. I just thought I saw someone I knew."
Megumi looked out the window before turning back to him. "Who was it?"
"I'm not sure. It just felt like I'd seen them before, but I can't think of how or why. If that's the case, it must not have been anything serious."
Kou looked at the teen, then out the window one more time. Nothing out of the ordinary. "Was there anywhere else we were going to go? Seems like a waste to spend the day at the apartment."
"I got a map of the area from that tourist booth a few blocks back," Yosuke told them, showing the pamphlet in question. "I think I'll find some of the places on here before I head back. Rise said she'd show me to some good dance and music clubs in the area too."
The young lady in question perked up and nodded. "That's right. You might not get the chance to look around once your classes start. Did you guys want to come with?"
"I'm game," Yoshiro replied.
Megumi looked at the area map, tapping a nail on the 'clothes store' markings before nodding to herself. "So am I."
"I guess we're decided," Kou concluded, calling for the bills. Once they were settled, the group went back out into the bright summer of Fujisawa.
Yosuke hung back a little, noticing how Kou was getting along with their new friends and how Rise sparkled at their side. Classy, funny, and always lively and energetic. He'd forgotten how much she'd brought to Inaba when they'd rescued her.
Yeah, he thought as he stepped forward to join the conversation. This was a pretty good deal. However long their studies lasted and whatever changed, he was sure that the next few years were going to be fun.
Inaba wasn't the same without her Big Bro. She'd thought as much the first time he left, but nothing made it easier when the upstairs room stayed totally quiet and she couldn't have his French toast or Belgian waffles for breakfast. And without Yosuke-san, Chie-san, Kou-san or her Big Sis, things felt even quieter.
Not that Dojima Nanako was without friends to play with. Her classmates were still talking to her about her Big Bro and all the friends he had, like Kanji-san and all the cool stuff he could make. She'd told her teacher him and now a platypus family made out of some cans, a milk carton, and a bunch of straws lived in the corner of her classroom. And Naoto-san had been visiting and calling, coming by to talk to Dad about work stuff, and she always stayed around to talk to Nanako for a while when she could. Sometimes she brought Kanji-san along and didn't ask for Dad at all, and they all went to the river together to meet Teddie.
But it hadn't even been a week yet and the house felt empty. Dad was going to be home late, there was nothing on TV, the laundry was done and she'd eaten her dinner and cleaned the dishes, and now sat on the couch with nothing else to do. Even when Big Bro was doing his homework or working at night, she'd known he was around. When he'd been making envelopes and building models, sometimes he would invite her up to his room to help him. Just like before, though, she would have to get used to the house being a bit emptier. Maybe she'd go to bed early, she thought. Or read some of the books her Big Bro and Big Sis gave her before leaving.
The phone started ringing, and Nanako got off the couch and walked to its cradle. She'd seen Dad jump up and stub his toe on the table lots of times when he was sleeping on the couch or when the phone surprised him. It looked like it hurt, so she was always careful when moving around the table corners.
"Hello? This is the Dojima residence," she said into the phone when she picked it up.
"Hi, Nanako-chan," a happy, familiar voice responded. "Did I catch you at a good time?"
Nanako immediately perked up, holding the phone in both hands so she wouldn't let it go. "Hi Big Sis! Yeah, this is a good time. Thanks for calling!"
"Of course. I wouldn't miss the chance. How's everyone been since we left?"
Nanako walked back over to sit on the couch and began telling her Big Sis about Teddie and Kanji-san and Naoto-san. Several minutes passed as Nanako covered everything, but she always got encouragement from the young woman on the line when she paused to think of what else was going on.
"That's wonderful," Big Sis told her when she mentioned talking to the blond lady that she'd met at Big Bro's graduation. "I'm glad everything's going well."
"Yep! How about you?"
There was a small 'hmm' before the answer came. "We've made some new friends, and I know Souji's settled in at Fujisawa. Rise-chan's been visiting him there too, so I'm sure she'd be glad to hear from you."
"Really? Thanks! I'll call her tomorrow. But do you think she'd be alright with me calling? I'd feel bad if I interrupted her when she's singing or talking to people."
"It'll be alright. You can leave a message if she's not there." Big Sis cleared her throat just then. "Hey Nanako-chan, did Souji… well, did he seem strange before he left? Like he was working on something and he wasn't telling anyone else about it?"
Nanako perked up at the question. "Yeah, he did! Him and Dad were talking about something, but they said I had to wait and see what it was when I asked. And Kanji-san and Naoto-san didn't know about it when I asked them. Did he tell you about it? Could you tell me?"
"I guess you could say that he told me about it," Big Sis told her with a laugh. She always had a pretty laugh. "What he was talking to Dojima-san about was some rings he bought while we were still in Inaba."
"Rings?" Nanako frowned in thought. They didn't have many jewelry boxes in the house. Just some earrings and bracelets that Mom had worn before she died. Dad had promised to let Nanako wear them when she got through middle school. "That's weird. Big Bro doesn't wear jewelry like that."
"Well, one of them was for me. He asked me to marry him, Nanako-chan."
Marry? Like what her Mom and Dad– "Really?!" she squealed, bouncing on the couch and trembling with excitement. "You're gonna get married?!"
"Not right away, but when we're done at university, yes."
"So you'll be my Big Sis for real?! Wait, does that mean you'll live with Big Bro in his room? I can keep it clean until you get back. Will it be big enough for both of you?" The house had been big enough for her and Big Bro and Dad, but Big Sis too? It might get a little… No, Nanako told herself, that was fine. Big Sis could sleep with her if Big Bro had too much stuff in his room or something.
Big Sis was laughing again. "We haven't decided where we're going to live yet. There are still a lot of decisions to be made and details that we need to work out. I'll be working at the Inn, remember? But Souji has something to look after right now, and he wanted me to give you the news."
"Thanks! This is… Well, it's really great! I've never had a bigger sister for real before. Will it be different from how we usually are?"
"I don't think so," she told the girl. "We got along before I left, so I think we'll do even better when I come back. Or maybe if you and Dojima-san come to Kyoto, I can show you around. Would that be alright?"
Nanako swayed back and forth, dancing in place on the couch when she heard the offer. "I'd love that! I'll tell Dad about it when he comes home. Do they have a Junes in Kyoto?"
Big Sis gave an 'mmm hmm,' in reply. "There's more than one, I think. Kyoto's a lot bigger than Inaba."
"Then maybe we can go to the different Juneses and see if they're different from the one here."
"We should do that," Big Sis encouraged. "We can bring Chie along. By the way Nanako-chan, do you have a cell phone yet?"
Nanako wilted a little. She'd seen some of the phones that her friends were carrying already, and Kanji-san had said he'd help make her a case and some decorations for her when she got one, but… "Not yet. Dad's been talking about getting me one in case I need to call him, but he's been busy with work."
"Alright. But you have my number, right?"
"Um… I think so." Big Sis gave the number when Nanako couldn't find it, and once Nanako had it she put it on the desk in her room, putting her cat paperweight on it to mark it as important. "There. I won't lose it this time."
"If you have any questions about things, you can always call me. You know, if there are things that you can't talk to Dojima-san about."
"Okay. Like if I don't know what kinds of dresses to buy for school?"
"Things like that, yeah. And when you get a phone, I'll send you pictures of what Kyoto looks like. It's beautiful here."
"Thanks, Big Sis. Did you want me to start looking for churches where you can have your wedding? Maki-chan's mom got married last year, and she said it took a long time to make all the plans. Things like food and clothes and the big party. Can I help with that?"
Big Sis laughed again, and the next half hour was spent talking about everything they could. When Nanako said her goodbyes and hung up the phone, she had a smile on her face like she hadn't had since her Big Bro left. Talking to Big Sis reminded her of when everyone came to visit for her birthday back in October. Naoto-san and Kanji-san had shown up first, then Teddie and Yosuke-san, and finally Chie-san and Big Sis. Everyone had brought something for them to have for dinner, but Big Sis and Chie-san had needed help getting through the door because they were bringing a huge plate of fresh sushi. Everyone else seemed surprised, and when Dad asked how much it had cost, Big Sis said 'It's for Nanako-chan's birthday.'
Nanako smiled when she remembered that night, everyone having fun and playing games, and it was easy to forget that Rise-chan and Big Bro weren't there, especially when the presents came out. Each person had gotten her something, and Nanako had never had sushi that good before, so she wasn't expecting anything from Big Sis. But she'd gotten a smile – Big Sis always had a really pretty smile – and got to keep the maneki-neko figurine that came with the fish. Nanako had been careful with it since then and now it was on the piece of paper she'd written Big Sis's number on. It hadn't been fair that she was always getting presents from everyone, so she'd gone around and given each of them the best hug and 'thank you' that she could. Big Sis had hugged her back and brushed her hair with her hand, reminding Nanako of Mom, and that had been the best present she'd ever gotten.
The young Dojima nodded to herself and closed up the house before going to bed, thinking of all the things she wanted to ask Dad the next time she saw him. Even if Big Sis said that there was lots of time before the wedding, Nanako wanted to make sure she did the best she could to help.
Ever since she'd taken her first business class and out shined her peers at every turn, Seta Izumi had never experienced the 'glass ceiling' so many of her colleagues complained about. Whether she had needed her contacts, her skills, or just a healthy dose of determination, her rise at her company had been steady and unbroken, and she'd worked hard to keep it that way. Layoffs, passovers, dead-end transfers, those were what other people dealt with, and she'd promised herself on the graduation platform that the only way she was leaving her career was with a generous severance package.
Now, though, those thoughts felt more and more like illusions as thin as gift wrapping. Her calls had gone unanswered and she was waiting with fraying patience as new faces, young enough to belong to her son, became more and more common on her floor. A few were polite enough to introduce themselves – the rest ignored her or came in only to give her a condescending leer that she'd seen so often that the cold, wordless stare she gave in return was a reflex.
Nakai, her superior, had always been good to her. He'd given her the space she needed, the hours she wanted, and the people she requested to get his projects done with perfection ahead of any deadline. They'd had an excellent working relationship for years and their careers had benefitted like neither would have imagined. His recent announcement of retirement, therefore, had blindsided her. The first response that came to mind, and indeed the first one she'd sent him, was 'Very funny. Enjoy your vacation, and I'll see you in two weeks.'
'It's not a joke. Your Tuesday afternoon is free – we need to talk,' had killed off her humour like a spark in cold water. "You've heard of Suto-san," he'd told her when they met, getting her a coffee and leaning back with a loose tie and the top button of his shirt undone for the first time in all her years of knowing him. "He's rising fast and making waves. The higher-ups want him here and there's no telling them otherwise." He gave a heavy sigh. "Besides, Akari has been asking me to take on fewer hours, and I don't know if I'll get any higher now. It's been a great run, Izumi-kun, but I think this is the last stop. Besides, there are things we want to do before we're too old to have the chance."
"You've never given up before," she'd protested. "And you've outlasted all the other fast-risers. Suto-san will over extend or make mistakes, and he'll need you to be there. Leaving now costs you everything you've achieved."
"I knew you'd say that. But I'm not convinced," he told her simply. "Directors and department managers have come and gone, yes, but this time around feels different. It feels a lot bigger than anything before. He made me an offer, and I'm going to take it. If he makes one to you, I'd suggest the same."
She shook her head, amazed at how docile the man, with whom she'd worked for more than a decade, looked now. "I'm not done yet. If the offer is large enough, maybe, but jumping ship now isn't in the cards."
There was a wistful tone in Nakai's voice as he looked at her, reminding her of her father a few years after he'd retired. "You've put in more hours here than I have. No one, not a single person, can say the same. But everything has a shelf life, and when it's our time to go, then it's our time."
"I respect your decision," she told him after several long seconds of uncomfortable silence. "But I won't be following your lead this time. Not until I know more."
"I expect nothing less, and regardless of your decision, I and the others will give you glowing recommendations. If you want to talk, my door's open."
She'd risen and bowed, not saying a word when she got back to her office. Regardless of what she told herself, despite her self-assurances, she couldn't stop the niggling little voice in the back of her mind that told her the ground she stood on was less like concrete and more like water now.
That had been almost a week ago, and she'd just gotten a call from Suto-san to come and talk to him. Chafing at the delay and the drop in work she'd been assigned lately, she nonetheless straightened her jacket out, wove through the piles of papers and reports erected into leaning monuments to corporate record keeping, and walked down the middle of the hallway to his office, not moving to the side as more than one unknown puffed-up secretary or file manager tried to brush her to the side.
But, again, she had to wait when she arrived at his office. Refusing to sit like a small-name client, she stood and looked around the new office area, in the middle of being redecorated. She sniffed in disdain as she took in the meagre details of the place. The corporate magazines and stock reports on the waiting area table were out of date, the coffee pot had gone cold, and the girl behind the desk looked up at her every few seconds like she was hoping Izumi would have left. It was easy to see why: the girl's hands were trembling toward her beeping phone.
"Are you waiting for Suto-san?" a deep voice asked from a nearby door. "He's busy."
Izumi looked over to the man she didn't know and bit down a grimace. "I was invited to meet him," she replied calmly, turning to look at Suto-san's door again and hoping the new face would get the message.
If there was anything the new ones liked doing more than getting the names of the attractive secretaries, though, it was making sure everyone they didn't know had a keen knowledge of their name, title, department, and status in the company. And knowing who was beneath them in case they wanted to bully someone. "You're Seta, right?"
"Seta Izumi, yes," she replied looking over at him and barely moving her head. "Corporate investment and client relations."
He didn't go back into his office. No, of course he wouldn't. He came out and stood barely two feet away, looking down on her from his perch of no more than five feet, four inches like he was on the president's own pedestal. "Yeah, I've heard about you. Hear you're a lifer."
Izumi blinked twice and didn't adjust the dull apathy in her voice. "I suppose."
"I'm Sugimoto Arata," he told her, drawing each syllable out like she'd forgotten his name before and he'd be testing her on it later. "Suto-san's right-hand man. Just asking: haven't you found a husband here yet?"
A layer of frost fell over her features, and her healthy supply of patience suddenly sprang a dozen leaks. It wasn't the first time she'd been asked that question – Japanese women 'didn't have' careers. They worked to support their husbands, or to find one at work and quietly recede into the wallpaper, packing said husband's lunch and bringing him his socks in the morning and staying home to raise the children they were expected to pop out right away. No, it wasn't the first time Izumi had been faced with those questions, and her responses over the years had gotten more and more succinct. Instead of explaining herself, she held up her left hand, fingers straight and spread.
"Yeah," Sugimoto said after seeing her wedding ring. "So? No kids? Husband broke?"
"That's none of your business," she told him coldly. "I'm not here to impress you, or answer your derogatory questions. Kindly find out where Suto-san is so I can speak to him, or stop bothering me."
He snorted and sneered, trying to push her over with his cheap, oily cologne. "Things are changing here, lady. Make sure you know your place."
"Agreed," a new voice commented from behind Sugimoto. "People should know their places, especially when addressing their superiors or those with decades of experience."
Sugimoto went whiter than the wall plaster and straightened so fast he almost overbalanced and fell over. Izumi stepped back and turned to the newcomer with an assessing eye.
Suto Hachiro, because that's the only person who could have had such an effect on the self-important windbag, looked exactly like she expected from an up-and-coming department manager, just without the arrogance. Collar and cuffs buttoned, tie straight, shirt and jacket ironed, hair combed back and a canny intelligence behind his gold-rimmed glasses, he bowed politely to her once he was around Sugimoto, and Izumi returned the bow without reservation. That he was easily ten years younger than her didn't even cross her mind – he was already a saint compared to who she'd been dealing with.
"Suto-san," Sugimoto squeaked, his bluster now a weak breeze, "I… I…"
"Our senpai are our teachers and guides, no matter their history or their sex. Some women fit outside the standard mould of the office, and I, for one, applaud Seta-san's dedication to the company. And you, Sugimoto Arata, you were going to refill the coffee pot and make sure to accommodate our guests, whether they are clients or coworkers, when anyone has questions so they have a good impression of us," Suto-san supplied. "Right?"
To Izumi's growing humour, though she was too professional to let it show, the man looked ready offer a finger in penance for the chance to get away from him. "Of course."
"Excellent. Now excuse us. And head office called – those reports need to be done by tomorrow morning. All of them."
There was a defeated look to Sugimoto's eyes now, and he was too busy staring at the carpet to even glance at Izumi. "Y… yes sir."
"Good man. Look after them. Seta-san, my deepest apologies for being late. Please, come in."
She followed him in and looked around, seeing signs of redecoration and moving, a too-bare feel that all new offices had. The essentials were there, though: chairs, a dark oak desk, a phone and computer screens, and a healthy supply of scratch pads and pens. His diplomas and commendations only took up a small corner of the wall instead of the entire thing. "Thank you for responding to my calls," she told him, sitting straight in one of the supplied chairs. For the renovated look of the place, the seats were appropriately comfortable.
"I am sorry for Sugimoto's display," he told her when he was settled in his chair, looking at her from across the table without the pomp or airs of his associate. "That was beyond uncalled for."
"He's not the first person to say those things to me," Izumi replied in a neutral voice. "I heard those lines every week when I was his age, and from people much higher up than him. You handled him well, though, and it's encouraging that you think outside the box like that."
"There is a place for such traditions and viewpoints," he noted with his hands in front of his stomach, fingers laced together, "but to label you like that would be insulting, especially since your record speaks for itself. Which is why you were calling, I presume."
Izumi felt a flutter of unease at how prepared he was for her visit. She'd been in that position before, and she very rarely had to plan ahead when delivering good news. "That's correct. Nakai-san's retirement was a surprise, and you taking his place will cause changes here. If you're able to talk about them, I'm curious about what those changes would entail."
"And your place in the new operations," he finished for her, smiling but letting out a breath. "There is no easy way to say this, and perhaps you could teach me how to do it, Seta-san. The direction I am taking this department in will differ from Nakai-san's projection. Differ quite a bit. In the interest of that, I will be recruiting new talent to make the transition as smooth and seamless as possible, to make those goals realities as soon as possible. Your record is an inspiration to us, to me, and I mean that with complete honesty. But as far as advancing your own ambitions, I don't see how that will accommodate my objectives."
Izumi sat still, processing everything. To his credit, Suto-san had broken the news to her well. But the details were somewhere between the flattery and the business-speak, and she lived for precise details. "Please be clear," she told him, taking a few breaths so as not to sound curt or ungrateful. "Are you offering me a severance package? Telling me my job is in danger?"
"No. And no. The department is undergoing a restructuring rather than cuts, so very few are being offered a severance. That might change in the future, but not now. And I wouldn't fire you at this point, perhaps not at all if you adjusted enough. You've proven to be very resourceful in the past."
The obvious question was left hanging, and Izumi pursued it when he didn't say anything. "But? There are other positions, assistant manager spots opening up during this restructuring, right? Places where I can help with your new ideas."
He nodded before straightening in his chair and looking at her square on. "I had considered that. Of all the current employees, I would have kept you first. But regarding the promotions you are talking about, they were open before now."
She blinked, processing his implication and realizing, with horror, that the glass ceiling had finally reached her. He wasn't taking her job away, but the tall ladder of advancement that she'd been climbing since before Souji was born had suddenly run out of rungs. "You're passing me over."
"Yes, I am." Straightforward and succinct, but his eyes held a touch of regret in the deep intelligence and drive. "Budget demands and respective talents require certain people to be above you. I hope you understand."
She kept quiet by biting her tongue, seeing the logic and rationale before her eyes at supercomputer speed. Younger managers were always preferred in business – they had fresh ideas and less experience so they would cost less to keep on. She'd seen it before and had thought herself above it. Something else she'd been wrong about. But it wouldn't do to cry and plead her case when the news was fresh. She needed her space, and she cleared her throat after a moment. "Of course. Please excuse me, I need to think about this."
"I understand. Thank you for your time."
Izumi made it back to her office and put a hold on all her calls, turning on her chair and staring at the ceiling in a daze. There had been rumours of restructuring in the company for years, but never more than that. She'd been too successful, too untouchable, to be worried about it, and she'd been working from deadline to deadline for so long that the twelve-hour days had become natural. She'd been irreplaceable. And she still was, she realized, with all her experience and clients. But if Suto-san's plans followed their course, and he didn't seem like the sort to let them stray, then her wings had been clipped. Her mind told her that her job would remain hers, that this was just a shift in a new direction, but was the status quo really enough?
Two weeks passed since Nakai had retired and her intuition was only being proven. The lack of detailed jobs, the new contacts calling around the office, the vacuum-wrapped equipment, the messages coming down from the top; it all felt like change, and this time she was being left behind. Her workload had eased off as her projects wrapped up, and she felt off-balance without something new on the horizon. It had taken a while to come up with ideas of what to do with her spare time, but she'd begun to take her full lunch breaks, and the past few days she'd made it out of the office by 6:30pm.
She'd just gotten back from a teleconference with some clients, those who'd wanted her input specifically, when Hitomi-chan peeked into her office. The day had been a standout for Izumi, but the euphoria of being needed was short-lived, and work felt like prolonging the inevitable instead of the welcome challenge from before. Had she always been this competitive? Was her career so important to her that having a job didn't feel like enough? Her musings were cut off when the young woman navigated the piles of paper in the back office easily, a bundle in her hands and an uncomfortable look on her face.
"Is everything alright?" Izumi asked. It wasn't often that Hitomi-chan had problems with their clients, knowing most of them and adapting quickly to the rest.
"Fine, Seta-san," the pretty woman replied quickly, a smile turning up cheeks that were rosy red every other week when her husband 'kept her from getting to work early.' "Um, I thought you should know, your brother called while you were away. The police detective?"
Ryo. Of course. Izumi groaned and rubbed her face, cursing herself for forgetting to return his multitude of calls and texts. "I'm sorry if he gave you trouble. That's my fault."
Hitomi-chan was quick to assure her, "It's no problem. He was… quite insistent this time, though. I think that he had a bad call-in when Aomori-san was covering for me. He wanted to be sure that you got a particular picture, and I apologize for seeing it, but if you take it then I can tell him I held up my end of the bargain."
Izumi's eyes narrowed when she stood. "He shouldn't be harassing you, Hitomi-chan. I'll talk to him about that." She took the stack from her secretary and began leafing through the sheets and folders in it. "Which one did he want me to…"
It was impossible to miss what Ryo had wanted her to see. Printed in high-colour ink, sharpened on an 8½ by 11 sheet made for graphs and pictures, was a photo of Souji embracing a girl Izumi had never seen before. The young woman wore a striking red kimono with a sakura branch design on the sleeves, and her pale skin and glossy hair screamed of a rare elegance. Souji's arms were around her, clearly familiar, and though his face was partially hidden behind the girl's black hair, Izumi knew that he was smiling. The girl didn't mind the contact given that her hands were on his own, holding them around her with closed eyes. The snow, the lamps from the shrine behind them, and the bright moonlight all around gave the picture a timeless quality, like it was taken somewhere not connected with the problems of the world.
"She's beautiful," Izumi murmured, unaware that she was speaking out loud as the other files fell to her desk.
"I thought so too," Hitomi-chan commented, straightening the papers before stepping around to look at the photo, then at Izumi. "Do you know who she is? You didn't mention Souji-kun having a girlfriend."
Because I didn't know. The words were stopped by the cold realization of how honest they were. She'd never seen her son this happy. She didn't know he had someone he could feel this comfortable with. She didn't recognize the shrine in the background, so it must have been in Inaba, and the snow around them told her the picture had been taken during Christmas or New Year's, but when she thought back to the conversations they'd had since he came back from Inaba, nothing stood out to tell her he was in a relationship with someone. "Do you know when this was sent, Hitomi-chan?"
"Dojima-san started calling about it back in January," was the swift reply. "It was only in June that he started getting insistent."
"And that was all he said? That he wanted me to see this?"
"And to call him when you did."
She'd been missing this. She'd been brushing this off the entire time. "I see. Thank you."
"For what it's worth, ma'am, congratulations. Souji-kun seems to have found a very nice girl."
Izumi nodded, and Hitomi-chan excused herself. If she hadn't left, she would have seen her respected senpai stare at the picture for minutes on end, a look of bewildered surprise on her face. And the hand holding the picture was rock steady.
She couldn't concentrate on anything after that. Paperwork, filing, phone calls, everything reflected her distracted mind. She didn't have any meetings planned that couldn't be moved to a different time, so Seta Izumi did something she hadn't done in longer than she could remember: she went home early. She was in their apartment before rush hour started, her briefcase and coat somewhere not on her couch, and the photo had only left her hand when she was on the subway. On the way back she'd listened to all the messages Ryo had sent her, his mounting frustration clear as a cat's bell the newer the time stamps got. It made sense, given what he'd been trying to tell her for half a year. He'd even told her that Souji was seeing someone, and she'd been too busy to pay attention.
But the chewing-out she was likely to get from her brother wasn't what stayed her hand this time. She held her phone and had been staring at Souji's number in her contact list for longer than she could recall as she glanced back and forth, from it to the picture and back again. How content he looked, how happy he made the girl in the photo, and how little she knew about any of this. She wanted to call him. She wanted an answer. No, answers. Who the girl was. When they'd met. Where she was when Souji was at university, and why Izumi was learning about it now. Her thumb twitched on the 'call' button more than once.
And every time, she froze. She looked at the picture and realized how much like a stranger her son looked. She thought back to Ryo's comments when she'd talked to him after Souji had come back from his trip, how angry they had made her, and found the ire empty now. How could she be angry at him when a single picture, a fraction of a moment in time, raised an ocean of doubts? How could she justify calling Souji and asking for answers when she heard the same question in her mind, over and over, in Ryo's voice and her own:
How well do you know your own son?