It was March. Souji had left Inaba only a few days prior; and if Naoto were to be frank, she did feel a touch of anxiety about his absence. Inaba’s safety was secure. There was nothing left to worry about, except the inevitable decline after one’s life had peaked and come to its best at sixteen. Of course, she would be fine without him. They all would be fine without him. Today she was meeting Rise for lunch, and Naoto was resolved to shut down any conversation about Souji before it even started.
She wished Kanji could have come along as well; he was teaching one of his knitting classes, and had unceremoniously stolen Chie and Yukiko and Teddie and Nanako. Yosuke was at Junes, and senpai or not, Naoto felt no obligation to invite him into her and Rise’s lunch date. Yosuke might misinterpret something. And Yosuke sometimes made Naoto wish that it was not inappropriate to tape someone’s mouth shut. (He was not that much taller than her. She was not a midget, and midgets everywhere would appreciate it if he’d stop.)
It was early morning. The sunlight was startlingly clear and cool, the air crisp, the mood good. Naoto, for lack of better things to do, went over the Inaba murder case files one more time. These were her own personal records, not to be seen by others. The paperwork regarding Adachi’s arrest had been filed away and was making its way through the province’s bureaucracy. She had no intention of changing that. But then there was everything that had happened in that strange, foggy world with the red torii gates inviting them forward to the truth. She had tried to write down what had happened multiple times over the last few days, but it all sounded so fantastical. Five years from now she may well look back on the file and declare that she had exaggerated, or she was wrong, or she had been confused. Ten years from now—and what would the other Shirogane detectives say?
She had no intention of losing track of the truth. But describing it was a challenge in on itself.
Naoto lived in one of the apartment complexes on the west side of town. It was a while away from the high school and further still from the shopping district. Walking back and forth from the apartment to anywhere else in Inaba was hell. Her only consolation was that the Amagi Inn was near, and out of the generosity of Yukiko’s heart, Naoto was sometimes given free meals and the occasional visitor. Yukiko rarely visited, but Chie often did. Chie jogged across Inaba in the mornings and evenings; and unlike Yukiko, Chie had no problems with meddling. Teddie and Yosuke came from time to time, as well. Kanji came once every two weeks under various and strange pretenses. Rise lived in the shopping district and asked Naoto to come visit her instead. And when Souji was in Inaba, the two of them would meet in neutral locations: the park or the floodplains or the shopping district. Since Souji had left, Chie had been to Naoto’s apartment twice; Kanji had met her in front of her door and stammered something about making her a gentleman’s hat (she declined); and Rise had said that Naoto was neglecting everyone by holing herself away so often and ought to see more of the world. Never mind that Naoto was already well traveled. By “the world,” Rise had evidently meant “Inaba.”
She was glad that the others had come to visit her, but she wished Rise would not be so lazy and come to her more often. It was a gentleman’s duty to oblige a lady, but despite Naoto’s willingness to oblige, Rise was no lady. Rise was a girl—or a woman. In stories, Rise would be the girl left behind in the village while the detective went out to the world and got shot, but in this story, the girl in the village had left to seek out her own fortunes. Soon she and Rise would both be gone from Inaba, or at least, would be prone to frequent comings and goings. Naoto was sure that another trimester of high school would tell her if secondary schooling was necessary for a detective. She already knew calculus. Why should she stay?
The birds had ceased their bright chirpings some hours ago. The trees were flowering. There was already a layer of petals on the ground. It smelled like spring: crushed flowers and cut grass and clear, running water. She had walked down this path with Souji more than once. It had been memorable the first time and the fourth time and every time—she wished she hadn’t written that down. It was an embarrassment to her. She had half a mind to burn them.
“Come on in,” Rise said when Naoto arrived at Marukyu. She was dressed in an apron and had a kerchief holding her long red hair back and away from her face and had been up to a few seconds ago elbow-deep in tofu. “I’ll be ready in a second.”
“Please,” Naoto said. She licked her lips. It had gotten hot as the sun went higher. By noon she noted with displeasure that she was sweating through her chest binding and her cap kept slipping forward over her eyes.
“You want some water?” Rise said. “Or do you want to try some of our special drink?”
“Water will be fine,” Naoto said.
“Help yourself,” Rise said, and nodded to the tall cooler in the back. Naoto slid the door open and let the cool air wash over her; then she took a bottle of water without other ceremony and drank. “So, Naoto-kun, what have you planned today?”
“We had agreed upon lunch,” Naoto said.
“Beside that,” Rise said. She winked as she rolled up her sleeves. “You weren’t thinking about taking me out on a date and only feeding me, were you?”
A date. A date. A date?
“Wow,” Rise said. “I was just kidding, Naoto-kun. You don’t have to take me so seriously.”
What did one even do on a date, anyhow? Naoto bit back the panic and replaced it instead with a dull and blunt anger. She didn’t appreciate it when people made fun of her. Teasing from Rise was gentler than teasing from Yosuke, but it still made Naoto feel as though someone had kicked her in the knees. She knew what she was supposed to do on a date: hold the door open, pull chairs out, test the wine to make sure it wasn’t poisoned before letting the girl do the tasting. But what would a date in Inaba look like, anyhow?
“Anyway,” Rise said, “I’ll be back in a second, Naoto-kun. I need to change. Sit tight, okay?”
“I’m standing,” Naoto said, miffed.
“If you say so,” Rise said, and vanished upstairs. Naoto drank more water. Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. She needed to think of something to do. She blinked hard and tried to think of recreational activities in Inaba that did not involve fending off schoolgirls with a rolled up newspaper (some of her secret admirers were very persistent and not very secret) or working as a detective. There was always Junes, but Junes did not have the kind of atmosphere she wanted. She was not afraid of this challenge. Thousands of people went on dates every day, and Naoto knew what a date was and how to go about doing it. The only thing she did not know was what the actual experience of dating was, and that could be remedied easily enough. Granted, it would be painful. But all things were.
She heard Rise coming down the stairs. Naoto looked into her reflection in the plastic door of the beverage cooler. Yes, she could do this. She set her jaw, squared her shoulders, and adjusted her cap.
“I’m ready, Naoto-kun,” Rise chirped. She looked, Naoto noted, the same as always: bright and peppy and clothed all the way to the neck. Naoto found that fascinating. She wanted to roll the high, white collar away from Rise’s throat and look at it for any strange abnormalities, but she was also a gentleman, and gentlemen did not let their curiosity run ahead of their sense.
“Good,” Naoto said. “We will now proceed to go out for lunch.” She walked up to Rise and, stiffly, offered Rise her arm. “If you please.”
“Okay?” Rise said.
“I have prepared today’s agenda while you were changing,” Naoto said. “We will begin by going into Okina and watch a movie. We will then eat lunch at an appropriately unhealthy restaurant and return to Inaba for a palate cleanser and dessert. Do you find this acceptable?”
“I was just kidding,” Rise said, pouting at Naoto. “Geeze.”
“So you agree?” Naoto said.
“No,” Rise said. “It’ll take us too long to get to Okina. I have to be back to help with the shop in the evening—can’t we just go get something from Aiya’s and watch a movie at my house, instead?”
Naoto tried to smile. “Anything you say,” she said. Rise gave Naoto an odd look, then giggled and clung onto Naoto’s arm a little harder. Naoto ignored the blush creeping onto her cheeks and tried to ignore how difficult opening doors was when one had a young girl attached to one’s dominant arm.
Aiya’s was crowded, but Rise’s charm secured them a seat in the back. Some people from Yasogami were there as well. They seemed to recognize her and Rise, but she and Rise were famous outside of Yasogami anyway. Naoto had learned to ignore the stares. Rise, in turn, winked and waved at them.
“You recognize them?” Naoto said.
“Yeah,” Rise said. “They’re senpai’s friends, from the sports team.”
How was it that they were talking about Souji again, Naoto thought, and banged her shin against the chair she was trying to pull out for Rise.
“Senpai had a lot of friends,” Rise said, sitting down. If she noticed Naoto’s blunder, than she didn’t laugh. Not out loud, at least.
“Yes,” Naoto said. “He was very popular.”
“I’ve never been here with him before,” Rise said. “But now that I’m heading back to the business soon, I might as well eat as much grease as I can before Inoue-san starts worrying about my weight.”
“Yes,” Naoto said.
“Chie-senpai and senpai used to come here all the time.”
It was odd. Naoto had sworn to not think about Souji, but talking about him was strangely cathartic. Naoto opened the menu. Then she decided it’d be better to pour them both tea instead.
“So, Naoto-kun, what kind of friends do you have?” Rise said.
“Fair ones,” Naoto said. “Matsunaga-san from the orchestra club. Some other people as well.”
There was a dip in the conversation. Rise peered over her open menu at Naoto. Then she said, “You’re not good at this conversation stuff, huh?”
“I am perfectly adequate,” Naoto said. Maybe if she thought of this like an interrogation.
“I mean, you’re so good at talking when you’re trying to be all gentlemanly,” Rise said. “And then you open your mouth and it all goes bad. I think it’s cute.”
“I am a detective,” Naoto said, not mentioning that she really did think of herself as a gentleman; but it seemed odd to mention this out loud to the entire restaurant when it was clear that at the very least, she was not a man, and there was no such thing as a gentlewoman. “And I resent the implication that I am bad at making conversation. My conversational skills are above average. I was tutored in the art of extracting answers.” From criminals. But it still counted.
“Sure,” Rise said with a roll of her eyes. “I like you and all, but you’re so… serious sometimes. Lighten up! I didn’t think you’d actually try to do the date thing.”
Which had to be a paradox of some sort. Why bother making a joke to someone who was going to take it literally?
“If you are so uncertain, than perhaps we should terminate the date and do something else,” Naoto said.
“Nuh-uh,” Rise said. “I want to go out on a date with you. You’re cute.”
They locked eyes. Rise batted her eyelids. It was so ridiculous that Naoto had to smile.
“We don’t spend enough time with each other outside of school, anyway,” Rise said. “Sometimes it feels like without senpai, we’d all drift apart from each other, you know? Especially us.” Rise picked at the table cloth. It was a relief to hear that Rise worried about the same things Naoto did; it seemed to be proof to Naoto that they really were friends. “What do you think he’s doing right now?”
Naoto looked around the walls of Aiya’s: the group of boys speaking in low voices in the back, men in suits at the counter ordering noodles, and saw Souji sitting at his usual spot, watching them all in the beginning of December. She drank her tea.
It wasn’t that she had been “in love” with him. There had been, in fact, some things about the way he did things that grated her. He was overprotective and condescending, he spoke so smoothly that sometimes she wondered if he was manipulating her, but he had always seemed sincere. Maybe it was the way he seemed to know what she wanted, but the way he said it—what he said—it didn’t always come out right.
He had said that he liked her as a girl, and that had been flattering and wonderful and a very nice thing for him to say. But she would have liked it even better if he had said that he liked her no matter how she spoke, or that he would have still liked her if he hadn’t known the truth about her sex. He wanted her to be a girl. If she were less cautious or less defensive, she would have tried to be one for him.
He never made any advances, but she made a fool out of herself in front of him too many times before coming to her senses. And then she died for him, and that had been that. She hadn’t been in love with him. But she wanted to have been.
“I imagine,” Naoto said, “that he’s doing just fine without us.”
She should have asked Rise to stop talking about Souji the first time he came up, because once Rise started talking about Souji, she kept on going. Naoto had the faintest impression that Souji was with them somehow, just as present as he had been before he left.
To say that she was displeased would be an exaggeration. Or maybe an understatement. Either one.
After Aiya’s, they went to Rise’s house for a movie. Rise hadn’t brought many movies with her, so most of the available DVDs and VHS tapes belonged to her grandmother. Many of them were imports from Europe: French, German, and Italian movies lined the shelf. Naoto recognized some of them, and selected a German movie about a German man headed for Japan. Kirschblüten. Cherry blossoms. It seemed seasonal.
“This is depressing,” said Rise after the main character’s wife died.
“I can no longer feel my fingers,” Naoto said, which was by far the more emotionally distressing event. She noticed that, among other things, Rise was playing with the buttons on her jacket.
“Aren’t you going to make it better?” Rise said. Rise curled even closer to Naoto, so that her thighs were pressed against Naoto’s and her chest was pressed uncomfortably against Naoto’s arm.
“Should I change the movie to something more to your taste?” Naoto said.
“That’s not what I meant,” Rise said. She was trying to do something with her face that might have made her more attractive to a very specific subset of the Japanese population if she weren’t also trying to squeeze the life out of Naoto through her arm. “If you’re going to take me on a date, then you should go all the way, you know?”
The soft pressure on Naoto’s arm increased a bit. The blood in Naoto’s head suddenly seemed to be sloshing around in her face. “Um,” Naoto said.
“Come on,” Rise said. “You think I’m cute, right?”
Naoto was certain dating didn’t work this way. Before groping came kissing, dropping the damsel off in front of the door, and Naoto didn’t know why Rise was being so serious about this. She had thought that this was a normal lunch gathering, right up until Rise’s breasts were pressed against her arm.
“And I like cute boys,” Rise said. “Cute, clumsy, sincere ones.”
“Um?” Naoto said.
Rise scowled at Naoto. Then she said, “Come on, you don’t feel anything? No uncontrollable lust for me? You don’t even want to know my bra size?”
“I already know your bra size,” Naoto managed.
“With your hands,” Rise said.
There was a funeral on the television. Now the Black Sea.
“Um,” Naoto said. “Shouldn’t kissing come first? Or a… confession of some sort.”
“What, so you don’t like me?” Rise said.
“What does it matter whether I like you?” Naoto said. “You only asked me to do this because you were jesting with me.”
“Well, I was. But not like, a serious joke or anything,” Rise said. “I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t like you, anyway. What kind of gentleman takes a lady on a date and doesn’t mean it?”
“What about Souji-san?”
“What about him? Anyway, you’re not him. You’re too… awkward to be insincere, you know?”
“Awkward?” Naoto said, bristling.
“It means that you’re charming.”
“Seriously! You’re all prickly and mean and I like that and you’re—what do you like about me?”
“You’re extremely reliable support in battle.”
“See?” Rise said. “Can you grope me now?”
“I believe that it is more appropriate for a kiss to initiate a relationship,” Naoto said. Rise’s eyes crinkled into a smile. They were so close that it seemed odd if they wouldn’t—and then their lower lips brushed against each others’; and then they pressed further and deeper. Rise tugged at the edge of Naoto’s jacket; Naoto’s palm cupped Rise’s chin. And meanwhile, the main character of the movie was drinking beer and overlooking Tokyo. And meanwhile it was spring and the flowers were blooming and Naoto was kissing a girl.
Halfway between the end of the movie and the part where Naoto had to go home, they kissed some more and lost Naoto’s tie somewhere on the sofa.
“The funny thing is, I already told Inoue-san that I wouldn’t get a boyfriend without checking in with the agency first,” said Rise, one hand down the sofa’s cushion. “What is he going to say when I tell him about you?”
“It’ll be a scandal, I imagine,” Naoto said, buttoning up her coat again.
“He thinks you’re a fop.”
“Your manager’s an idiot. I’m dapper.”
“I don’t even know what that means,” said Rise. “Is that like, one of those Taishou era terms that you use?”
“If you’re so unknowledgeable about the Taishou era, then why do you know what a ‘fop’ is?”
“You ignomous tool!”
“I believe what you were looking for is ‘ignominious fool.’”
Rise scowled, and then said, “Can’t you just tutor me?”
“Uh-huh,” Rise said.
“Oh,” said Naoto. Rise popped her arm out of the sofa.
Well, there were worse problems to have.