Seen through the windows of his uncle’s car, Inaba looks plain and unassuming: just one of the many small and unremarkable towns that litter the map. They drive past dozens of picturesque little houses which fit the mostly unexploited landscape just as well as they would fit the scenery of any other village. For all Souji knows, he could have got off the train at any other provincial town and he would never have noticed it until he read the nameplates at the station. He imagines now, as he watches the other cars pass them by, that in that other town there is another middle-aged man with a cute daughter waiting for a guest that will never arrive.
The only thing worth noting about Inaba is this: it is not Souji’s home, but it will be. He can learn to live in the outskirts, just like he has learned to make his way through countless other cities before Inaba. All things are interchangeable. If he thinks of Inaba as his new hometown then that will become the truth. Anything can become truth if there is someone there to believe it. That’s what she used to say, in any case, and Souji reckons she has some experience when it comes to such things.
They stop at the gas station on the way home because his uncle Dojima wants to fill the tank. Nanako announces she needs to go to the bathroom and, since Souji is feeling rather sleepy from observing the endless parade of monotony, he decides to wait inside the car. He leans back in his seat and closes his eyes, letting the cacophony of new voices and sounds from the outside wash over him and into him. He hears the sound of his uncle Dojima answering his cell in a brisk manner, and then Nanako’s high voice letting somebody else know that she can find the bathroom on her own without any assistance. Souji smiles at the twinge of indignation in her voice. Her would-be helper laughs too, a deep-throated chuckle that sounds like liquid heat gliding over a smooth surface. Souji recognizes it instantly; he feels as if that laugh stabbed his chest with the sharpest blade; at once he opens his eyes and rushes out of the car to meet her and force her (this time, for sure) to come with him, but before him there is only Nanako, who in a prelude to teenage rebellion is staring at the ground with a put-upon look on her face.
The first girl Souji becomes close with is Chie, perhaps because he meets her first (Nanako doesn’t count, of course, and he has forbidden himself from thinking about what he saw at the gas station on that first day, for his own sake). What Souji sees in Chie is: a fierce quality, the need to fight to protect, like a mother lioness, in possession of a well of energy that nothing can put a lid on that serves to fuel her determination. He sees a great strength in Chie: strength with a purpose, which is the mightiest of all.
He senses traces of this in their first meeting, but it takes time until he is able to describe Chie to himself satisfactorily. Whenever they hang out together, Souji observes her as much as he can without risking being caught: he watches the way she defies the world by placing her hands on her hips, the way she hops in place when they pause their training, as if she could not bear the notion of remaining idle for the few seconds it will take for Souji to get back his breath. He watches her constantly, and after some time a feeling akin to admiration for Chie begins slowly to form inside him.
Chie is full of raw potential, and Souji cannot avoid wanting to help her shape and control that potential: she is so insecure still that she puts limiters on herself, and although she is beginning to learn that there is power to be had in the acceptance of one’s weaknesses, Souji feels compelled to see her quest through to its end. Chie becomes a project of sorts for him, the one thing he needs to perfection before he is forced to move onto other people’s towns and lives.
Souji notices Chie’s feelings before she does, precisely because he watches her so much more closely than she does. He knows that a confession is coming, and he also knows that letting Chie focus all her efforts on him (who will at some point in the near future move away again) would end up destroying her. Therefore, Souji takes great care in what he says to her at all times and continues to strive to perfect her power. He observes her more carefully than ever. With each passing day, her kicks become stronger and her reflexes better; however, the most noticeable change is in the way infatuation gradually disappears from her eyes and is replaced by confusion and, later, acceptance. Souji is happy for her; as long as she continues to overcome the barriers that stand in her way, she can only become stronger.
At the beginning of summer, he has a dream of Chie. She is screaming treason at him, throwing random objects at him as she chases him through Inaba; Souji dodges everything, keeps running away from her, certain that he will be killed if he stops to talk some sense into her; then before he knows it the peaceful landscape has become a field of fire, and Chie’s projectiles begin to chase him with a life of their own, and when Souji looks back there is an angry woman one step behind him, but it is not Chie.
He wakes up with a jolt. He tells himself it’s only a dream, he’s had thousands of them before, but it is no use: his heart will not stop pounding. It is still the middle of the night, and in the moonlit room he cannot help seeing the phantoms of a different lifetime.
Yukiko is the second girl Souji befriends after coming to Inaba. It is a friendship that happens almost by accident: Souji has his doubts that it would have developed had the circumstances been different. He thinks it very likely that he would never have got to know Yukiko if she had never found herself in mortal peril; he might have got to know a different Yukiko from the one that stands beside him in battle now, or Yukiko would never have been more than “Chie’s friend”, and even of that he cannot be certain.
It is pointless, however, to dwell on the unrealized possibilities. Instead, Souji prefers to think of Yukiko as she is now: a soothing presence when Chie and Yosuke get into an argument, a helping hand to put the team members back together whenever they bite off more than they can chew. In Yukiko’s calm disposition Souji sees the perfect counterpoint to Chie’s hotheadedness. They are opposites, but just because Yukiko appears fragile at a first glance it does not mean she is without strength. Rather, Yukiko is the one who fuels Chie’s strength and pushes her to her limits without being aware of it, and vice versa: they complement each other, like two sides of a same coin.
The sun is shining brightly in the sky the day Yukiko drags Souji to Tatsuhime Shrine. The fox is nowhere to be seen, though Souji has no doubt that it is watching them, and Yukiko is standing next to him and looking anywhere but at him. She is wringing her hands nervously, so Souji speaks to her of the high value of this friendship they have by some strange coincidence come to build together; her hands go still, she nods after a moment, and begins to laugh awkwardly.
In that instant he feels an urge Chie must already know: the need to protect, to keep what is precious safe from all harm. To put his arms around Yukiko and pat her back softly, like a father would his hurting child.
Rise’s arrival feels like that of a typhoon, turning the little rural town upside-down in a few hours. The news that an idol from the big city will be moving to an insignificant town where nothing ever seems to happen knocks Inaba’s usual dynamics off balance for the first few days: out of nowhere, foreign cars invade the roads and the humble tofu store in the shopping district becomes the Place To Be after school. Rise upends everything to the point that even the police stop thinking about the open murder case for a while, too busy regulating traffic. All of Inaba reels with the shock of being thrust under the public spotlight out of the blue. The first few days after Rise arrives, Inaba feels like the big city rather than a small town, full of influential people and the flashes of the cameras.
The public, however, is fickle. Soon something or other catches their interest, and they move on: always jumping from tree to tree, stopping only so long, until they become distracted by the next big thing. Rise-the-idol disappears from the press and television shows little by little, and other girls take her place. Posters are covered with other posters. In the end, anything can be replaced, even people.
Souji meets Rise-the-girl a few weeks later. They’re in the Food Court at Junes when she says something to him about wanting to see more of Inaba and, illogically, they get into the habit of going to Okina City together two or three times a month, which doesn’t cater to Rise’s request but kills the dead hours of a Sunday afternoon just fine.
During these outings Souji meets many Rises, and catches glimpses of many others who aren’t strong enough yet to come to the surface and stay there for a prolonged period of time. There are more Rises than Souji can count. There are Rises smiling from the TVs in the electronics store; Rises flashing victory signs from the covers of magazines; Rises holding dieting products on pamphlets littering the ground. Then there is the Rise that walks next to Souji, who is none of the other Rises and yet holds them all within her. She stands closer to him every day, but it will be a while before Souji can figure out who this girl is.
When, a couple of months after their meeting, Rise breaks down in front of him, Souji can’t bring himself to put his arms around her. It’s not that he doesn’t like her, or that he doesn’t want to make her feel better about herself. At the moment when Rise begins to cry, he remembers that he still does not know which of the many Rises is standing before him, and realizes that even if he were to cheer this Rise up, there would be a million other Rises still thinking of the what-ifs. What good would a hug do, in that case?
Even so, Souji thinks he ought to at least walk her home, so once she has calmed down a bit he takes her hand and leads her back to the tofu shop. He tells her that it’s okay, that she’s going to do well no matter which path she decides to take in the end, even though around Rise he can be sure of nothing these days. Meeting all those Rises has brought to the front of his mind other concerns that he had been doing his best not to think about, even as they become more and more difficult to ignore as time passes. He does not fully comprehend what is happening within him yet, but perhaps Rise would, because it is becoming apparent that there are many Soujis as well, Soujis that Souji had never noticed before coming to Inaba, and they are growing stronger. These Soujis are very young, and they are very old; they remember nothing but they remember everything; they remember people that don’t exist and people this Souji has never been face-to-face with and people whose names he shouldn’t even know. He wishes he could forget, but he can’t.
Lost in thought as he is, Souji realizes they’re standing in front of Marukyu Tofu only when Rise lets go of his hand and says, “See you later, Senpai” with no trace of her usual spark. She has changed again. Souji watches her go, and wonders if he is going crazy.
At the time of their first meeting, Souji thinks nothing of the Detective Prince. His arrival precedes Rise’s, and unlike hers it is a quiet affair, shrouded in mystery. Rather than provoking an immediate reaction in the people of Inaba from his first appearance, Naoto Shirogane slips through the villagers’ notice for a long time, a discrete presence racing through the streets in pursuit of a romantic ideal of divine justice. He has the appearance of an unwelcome ghost, a nomadic being with no ties to any one place, there one day and gone the next. He concerns himself with no-one, and no-one concerns themselves with him. There is a hunger in him for something deeper, the truth that shines only for the eyes of those who seek it, though he must know that once he achieves his objective he will be thanked and sent on his way, never to be seen again. It is the lifestyle of a puppet, born to be used for other people’s purposes and thrown away once it no longer holds their interest.
His seems a sad business, a routine made up of meetings and goodbyes, and no-one home at the end of the day; still, Naoto strives for answers. Under the summer sun Souji watches the Detective Prince run all over town: armed with evidence, the Shirogane heir rejects Mitsuo Kubo as the man behind the mystery and plunges still deeper into the mists that surround the case. Souji takes an interest. The seasons change. Soon autumn clouds cover the sky like a bad omen. Souji knows the sense of calm cannot last.
September brings the storm. The news of the Detective Prince’s vanishing act spread through the town like wildfire. Rumors thrive in every street corner. The town does not miss Naoto, but rather the mystique surrounding him. Souji senses an important change on the way, though he cannot imagine what it will be; it seems that he moves on instinct more and more as time passes, guided by a voice not his own that talks in his head and orders him around, reduces him to a marionette whose purpose is to reenact the stories other people lived in a time no one remembers any more. In every word he exchanges with the members of the team, he feels the weight of a life long lost, a place and moment in which he shared a very different bond with them, though he cannot recall where or when that might have been.
The last afternoon inside Naoto’s secret laboratory feels like rolling down the slope of a mountain at a terrible speed. A yellow-eyed Naoto wails before the team, screaming treason, begging for a place to belong. Naoto is a contradiction, one who hunts for the truth in others while rejecting it in herself: the experienced detective in the body of a high school girl, Souji sees her as the perfect fit for the teenage boy with a god inside. Soon she becomes his only hope, the one he tells himself will be capable of sorting through the mists within him and rescuing his truth at last.
The Phantom Thief provides the perfect excuse for Souji to approach her after class. Naoto seems to enjoy his presence, and together they solve riddle after riddle; Souji grows restless, but it is not yet that he can grab her by the shoulders and say help me, I think there is a vengeful goddess of death in this town, messing with my head. He is being chased through the field of darkness every night now, and during the daytime he tells himself everyone has weird dreams and helps Naoto find messages written in invisible ink.
On rainy days they take shelter in the gazebo by the Samegawa and discuss the case; then, Souji walks Naoto to her house and goes home by himself. On the way back he rehearses the things he must say to her soon, if he is to retain his sanity: stories about a god of life that braved the depths of hell for his dead wife’s sake, and a grudge that spans the ages, a curse of many hands dragging under the souls of the living. On days like that, the beat of the water hitting the ground sounds like her furious footsteps chasing after him. Souji runs all the way home.
December rolls around, and as the fog settles in Inaba, a renewed sense of urgency invades Souji’s heart. The Phantom Thief is finally unmasked, and Naoto redirects her attention to the murder case again and the pursuit of Adachi. She racks her brain to find a rationale, something tangible she can believe in, and the words die in Souji’s lips. Naoto holds answers, but they are not those Souji is looking for.
The end of the year approaches, and the voice in Souji’s head grows louder and louder. Her presence draws closer, but when Souji turns around to check, she is nowhere to be seen.
March walks into Souji’s life to the steady rhythm of her breathing on the nape of his neck. Term is about to come to an end: in April, when spring break is over, Souji and his friends will be third years. Chie expresses her displeasure at the prospect of college entrance exams, Yosuke agrees with her for once, and the team while away the time in the Food Court at Junes. Souji knows better than to think it’s already over. The adrenaline has been pumping in his veins since New Year’s, and the uneasiness is greater as the scheduled time of his departure approaches. It can’t be long now before she reveals herself to him, but the uncertainty of when or how she will keeps him on his toes, ready to speed away should she decide on a repeat show of their fateful last meeting.
Despite his wariness, there is something in Souji that aches for her. Every night he lies awake staring at the ceiling, imagining the projected shadows of a tree’s branches are her female demons’ hands reaching out for him. Even as the memory of his flight to escape her wrath makes him break out into a cold sweat, there is an aspect of him that longs to turn around and take her in his arms. Since the last time he held her, empires have risen and fallen, but only the memory of her body on his remains to burn his skin like fire. The thought that a mortal girl could ever compare to her is too ludicrous to even consider. Souji knows he has done well to turn away from Chie and the others: the void created by her absence is too great for them to ever fill. He rarely sleeps any more, and when he does, his dreams are filled with her face, her voice, her love that died eons before Souji was even born.
The time to move onto a different life comes, and still she does not come for him. Souji knows she has to be nearby; the air itself vibrates with her power. He goes around town saying goodbye to this past year’s friendly faces before retracing his steps to his first day in town, to the first woman with the laughter like liquid fire dressed in the guise of another. His steps are measured at first, but somewhere along the way he must have broken into a sprint; before he knows it he’s dashing through the Shopping District with his heart in his throat, and when he reaches the gas station it is all he can do not to go to his knees in front of her.
She’s wearing a hideous orange uniform and a baseball cap that shades her face. She’s laughing down at him, unkind and deprecatory. She is the most beautiful thing Souji has ever seen.
Standing before her, he doesn’t know what he’s going to do about his fight or flight reflex. His pulse has gone through the roof, fueled half by love and half by terror. The god of creation that lives on inside him screams her name over and over in his head: Izanami, Izanami, until she is all he knows.
“You’re late,” she says, smirking. “I thought you would forsake me a second time, Izanagi.”