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Bury me under a thousand goodbyes

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Souji eyes the bulletin board for a long few moments. There are indeed several jobs posted on it, as the girls he’d overheard on his way into school this morning said, but he’s not sure he’s qualified to be anyone’s tutor, or that he could stick out a full shift cleaning a hospital in the middle of the night. Maybe if they’re still available in a few months he’ll try again, though he imagines anyone that desperate for a tutor will have found one by then.

A few of the others look like they’d be good to pass his evenings with, when he doesn’t have anything else to do. The day care job would at least be interesting, and they’re happy to take him. And… oh.

For some reason, he hadn’t thought the gas station actually would be hiring.

It looks easy enough, especially since they’re only advertising for help on rainy days – funny, he’d have thought they’d need it more the rest of the time, when people are actually out and about; Inaba doesn’t seem to get much traffic in the rain. But that means he’ll have little else to do on those days, so it works out.

***

The first day he can go isn’t quite a week later, the first full day of rain since Yukiko-san was kidnapped; fortunately, they’d finally managed to bring her to safety over the weekend. And since it’s better to attend a job when you have it, Souji does.

The attendant who’s already there perks up when he steps onto the lot. “Oh, welcome back. I wasn’t sure you’d follow up.”

Souji shrugs. “Not much else to do on rainy days.”

“Yeah, true. At least this way we get a little money out of the deal, right?” The other attendant grins, almost unfairly sunny in disposition for such dreary weather. “But I know something that might spice up your evening. Ever heard of the Midnight Channel?”

“…I’m aware.” It’s probably better not to get into the fact that he’s pretty sure it doesn’t show anyone’s soulmate, not unless the viewer’s already connected to the person on the screen.

On second thought, that would explain why Yosuke-san got so worked up when they first discussed what they all saw.

The other attendant snorts, but doesn’t say anything else right away, leaving them to listen to the sounds of the rain and the gas station’s radio. It’s set to a Western music station, for some reason; Souji would have expected local music, but it cut from a Junes ad to a song in English he thinks he remembers from a video a while back. He hadn’t understood the words at the time, but his English has improved dramatically since early middle school.

I guess there’s gotta be a break in the monotony, but Jesus, when it rains, how it pours, the song says, and he can’t help agreeing.

After a while, the other attendant sighs. “Seeing your soulmate on a TV… that must really be something. Maybe I should try it myself.”

Souji shrugs, but it seems wrong to leave it at that. “Who do you think you would see?”

“I don’t know.” The attendant fixes him with an oddly piercing look. “But you seem like a nice guy, so hopefully it’s not rude to say I’d like it to be someone like you.”

One of those odd moments passes that suggests to Souji this is a social link. It’s a strange feeling, and he’s still getting used to it; he honestly didn’t expect it from someone he just met (though perhaps he should have, after joining the basketball and drama clubs).

When the feeling passes, he says, “I don’t think I caught your name?”

“No, I guess you wouldn’t have.” The other attendant pauses for far too long, then says, “Call me Izumi.”

“Izumi-san, then. Good to meet you properly.”

This is going to be an interesting job, to be sure.

***

The rain hasn’t let up two days later, so Souji goes back to the gas station. It’s almost unbearably quiet – only one or two cars pull up at all in the first hour, and Izumi-san’s quick to help them both. Souji doesn’t really mind, as he’s still learning the ropes. Fortunately, pumping gas is easy enough, and people don’t really need their windshields washed on rainy days.

“You’re practically a natural,” Izumi-san says, after letting Souji handle the third car alone. “You sure you don’t have a scooter or anything?”

“My parents don’t have anywhere to put one, and I just had my birthday last month.”

“Well, maybe it’s something you could do while you’re here. This town’s so quiet, I’m sure you’d like being able to get out of it for a while.”

Souji shrugs. “Maybe, if my uncle will let me. What’s around here?”

“I don’t know Okina that well, honestly. I’ve been in this town for a long time.” As if on cue, the song on the radio says something about hanging around on the corner. “Your friends could help you out better there. But there’s a beach and a ski lodge not too far away – problem is, you can’t get to either by train.”

It’s more than he knew before, at least, even if he ends up not being able to use it. Souji nods, as he watches the rain sweep down the hill from the shopping district’s northern end. “Thank you.”

Izumi-san smiles. “Any time, Souji-kun.”

***

Two weeks later, after they’ve all agreed to check the Midnight Channel, Souji goes to work. There’s nothing else for him to do, since he’s already checked back in with the fox and this isn’t a drama club day, as much as he’d enjoy the meeting fresh off of midterms.

But he can’t do anything about that, so he might as well get some money out of the day.

“Pretty quiet for a shopping district, isn’t it?” Izumi-san says, trying to strike up a conversation as usual; Souji just nods, and lets her continue. “It’s been like this since that megastore opened up. And yet, every time people come here, I hear them complaining about how the shopping district’s losing business.”

“You’d think they’d make the connection,” Souji says. A mental image of Tatsumi being given the task of advertising for his family’s shop crosses his mind – Visit your local shopping district, you lazy dicks – and he huffs out a laugh.

Izumi-san laughs too, louder, but not as long as Yukiko-san’s rather impressive laughing fits. “You would, but people can be pretty dense sometimes. They only see what they want to see. This place used to be pretty hopping back in the day, you know.”

“What day was that?”

“Can’t remember, exactly. It was a long time ago, to be sure.”

It’s odd; Izumi-san didn’t strike Souji as being that old. But it’s not polite to ask for a woman’s age, so he doesn’t. Instead, he falls quiet, and she moves to help a car.

The radio, loud and clear over the rain, would like to know all of Souji’s thoughts on God.

***

Souji doesn’t make it back to the gas station for three whole weeks. There’s rescuing Kanji-kun to see to (and if he never sees another bathhouse in his life, it’ll be too soon), he has more friends to hang out with, and it simply doesn’t rain in that stretch of time.

The forecast, he’s beginning to notice, is almost eerily accurate. He can see now why Nanako asked if the meteorologists actually choose the weather.

In any case, the rain hasn’t let up in the past three days; he’s expecting fog tonight, but doesn’t want to dwell on it for the rest of the day, not with the important job done. And he’s exhausted his other options, and Izumi-san – who rarely seems to be around in better weather – is happy to see him, as usual.

“Some mess this murder situation is, huh?” she says; it’s kind of an odd topic, especially since Souji’s found himself in the thick of it, but he really couldn’t agree more.

So he nods. “It’s certainly keeping my uncle busy.” (Of course, it doesn’t seem to be the only thing occupying his uncle’s time, but he won’t talk about those old newspapers he’s always looking through. Whatever it is, though, it’s certainly not Nanako, and that’s starting to trouble him.)

“I bet. Not to mention the gossip network – funny, isn’t it? I mean, I understand it’s a scary situation to have a murderer at large in a small town like this, but it’s like they’re actually excited, with something this big to talk about.”

Souji shrugs. “Maybe they are. The Midnight Channel seems popular enough, anyway – did you ever try it?”

Much to his surprise, Izumi-san’s expression darkens, for once almost fitting the gloomy weather. “It only showed me what I wanted to see,” she says. “I should have expected that, but it still hurts when that’s something I’m never going to have again.”

“I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”

Izumi-san shrugs, but before she can add anything else, a car pulls in. He moves to help the driver, and the radio starts playing a fairly cheerful song, almost as if it’s trying to lighten the mood.

I wish the real world would just stop hassling me, the song says – and just barely, over his conversation with the driver, Souji hears Izumi-san snort. If he had to guess, he’d say she knows the feeling.

***

The next week, Souji finds himself drawn to the gas station like iron to a magnet. The rainy season’s picking up – he just hopes it doesn’t cause them trouble during the campout next week, but so far the forecast looks promising – and he has a lot to think about, between the way the student health association’s all but shut Konishi-kun out, Yumi-san’s struggles with her father, and Kanji-kun… well, being himself. (He’s going to be one of the rocks of the group, though, once he finds his feet. Souji can see it already.)

Still, Izumi-san’s reaction to his question about the Midnight Channel was interesting, and despite himself, he wants to know more. He usually wants to know more about his social links, he’s finding (maybe he should see if that job at the hospital’s still open), but this was such an obvious sore spot for her that he’s hesitant to voice it. Her reaction also wasn’t what he would have expected, based on what he’s seen himself; did she see something other than Kanji-kun?

All told, it’s got him pensive, and the radio seems happy to meet him halfway today, playing some melancholy number that seems to be about a failing relationship. Izumi-san strikes up her usual cheerful conversation for a while, but it rings hollow, like her heart’s not really in it.

Eventually, during a lull in what little traffic there is on rainy days in Inaba, she says, “You want to know what I saw on the Midnight Channel.”

Souji blinks. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think it was that obvious.”

“I’m a student of human nature, Souji-kun. Besides, I did give you quite a hook, and I think for once I’m willing to talk about it.”

“If you’re sure, I’ll listen.”

Izumi-san nods, staring off into the rain for so long that he’s sure she’s changed her mind. “I saw my husband,” she finally says, and Souji blinks again; he wouldn’t have guessed she was married. “Well, ex-husband, I suppose. We haven’t talked in years.”

Not for the first time, he wonders just how old she is. But even though she’s granting him this much information, he doubts saying so would be wise, so he just says, “I see. You miss him?”

“More than I used to think I ever would, but…” Izumi-san shrugs. “The time for that is long gone. It got ugly, right at the end.”

Souji can’t help thinking of Minami-san, struggling to raise a stepchild she wasn’t expecting to end up with; he wonders what happened to her husband’s first wife, whether she died or decided she’d had enough of his work habits, and why she didn’t take Yuuta-kun with her if that was the case. Minami-san probably doesn’t know that, though, and this situation sounds different. Messier.

“I’m sorry for that.”

“It was what it was. Just… promise me something, kid?”

Souji frowns, not sure what he could promise that relates to this conversation. “All right.”

“When you find someone you want to keep, if they ask you to wait for something? Wait. They’ll appreciate it.”

He can’t make heads or tails of that advice, but he thanks her for it anyway.

***

Souji had expected Rise-san’s issues to be the biggest they’d grappled with so far – the fact that her mental health is subject to public speculation alone almost guaranteed that. Teddie, though… that had been a surprise, and an unpleasant one to boot. They barely got through it. They wouldn’t have, if Rise-san hadn’t somehow found the resolve (after near burnout from work, being kidnapped, and getting a first-class torment session from her repressed thoughts) to get up and walk them through.

It’s no wonder she’s been sleeping most of the day for the last two weeks, according to her grandmother, who gave him some ganmo for taking the time to worry about her. The stuff here is the best he’s ever had; he’s going to miss it, come spring. But spring is months off yet, and he has other things to worry about.

After picking up another ema from the fox, he weighs his options. He doesn’t feel up to tackling Aiya’s beef bowl, especially not when he’s just had a snack. Teddie wants to be left alone, so that’s the TV out for a while. The capsule machines at Shiroku catch his eye, but he decides against it; he already wasted one afternoon with Yosuke struggling to turn the dials. It’s not worth the aggravation.

That leaves the gas station. It’s been a while since he and Izumi-san properly talked; last time he was there, all she wanted to talk about was how an idol was coming home, and how all sorts of people were talking about the same thing, and what that might mean. (The radio, at the time, felt the need to tell him about what it wanted to see when it looked in a television. Souji’s still a little rattled by that, if he’s being honest.)

Izumi-san smiles when he reaches the gas station, the more introspective one she’d used the day she talked about her husband. For some reason, it’s hard to remember she’s technically divorced, maybe because she talked about it like they never got around to the formalities. He takes the more sincere smile as a good sign, and they settle into their working routine, helping what few customers pass through.

“Getting used to this town yet?”

The question startles Souji into dropping a squeegee, covering the end in rocks and bits of leaves. So much for that. “I think so.” As much as he can when there’s a fresh kidnapping every other week or so, he doesn’t add.

“Country life’s more convenient than it used to be, but I’ve never found convenience to be everything. I’d bet it still feels strange compared to the city, though.”

“Sometimes it does, but I kind of like it.” He can see what drew his uncle out here, for all moving to a quiet town to raise his family isn’t quite going according to plan.

And then he blurts out the next question before he can help it. “Was that the problem with your husband?”

Izumi-san blinks, but before Souji can offer any kind of apology, she chuckles, closing her eyes for a moment.

“I suppose you could call it that,” she says. “We were young, we didn’t really know what to expect from the world – we were sort of making it up as we went along. We even had a few children.”

“You did?”

“We did – I’m not in touch with them anymore, either. They got out on their own as soon as they could. Anyway, the last labor was… difficult.” The way she says it implies a level of understatement Souji doesn’t think he’s ever encountered before. “My husband was in a hurry to see me well again, tried everything he could think of. I told him to back off and give me some time, and he… well, he never did listen, really.”

“And rushing your recovery was the last straw?”

“Something like that. I was not happy with him at all. I wish I could tell him I’ve forgiven him, but I don’t even know where he is these days, or if he’d hear me out or just close the door in my face.”

One goes to heaven, one goes to hell, like a national myth, the radio proclaims; Izumi-san glares in the direction of the speakers, like they’re not helping at all.

“I’m sure he knows you’ve let go,” Souji says. He doesn’t know how he’s so certain, but there’s as much conviction in that statement as he had when he told Rise-san and Teddie they were going to be all right.

Izumi-san laughs, almost cheerful again. “That’s what I like about you, Souji-kun. You’re an eternal optimist.”

***

Souji dashes off a text to Yosuke as he gets his shoes on and rushes out, not even bothering with an umbrella. There isn’t time; he’s not surprised Nanako bolted, not the way things have piled up between her and Dojima-san, but she can’t stay unaccounted for all night. He needs as many eyes on this situation as he can get.

This was not how he’d planned on spending his summer vacation, and he’s sure it’s not how his uncle wanted to spend the first early night he’s had since Kubo’s arrest, but here they are.

He confers with his classmates (Yukiko was the only one sensible enough to bring an umbrella), but they have no more idea of where Nanako could have gone than Souji does himself, unless it’s Junes. He tells them to head there – Yosuke can get in at any time, and searching a giant store will go faster with three people – and stays rooted to the spot, racking his brain for something, anything, that might fit the bill.

“Everything all right?”

He nearly jumps out of his skin, but it’s just Izumi-san; he’d forgotten Yosuke caught up to him in front of the gas station. “You haven’t seen Nanako, have you? She had a bit of an argument with Uncle.”

“I haven’t seen her in a while, sorry. Oh, but did you try the flood plain? You mentioned a while back that she likes the river, didn’t you?”

“…I hadn’t, actually.” That’s right – the flood plain. Nanako and her parents went there, she has fond memories of it. Hopefully she didn’t get any closer to the water than the gazebo. “Thank you so much, I’d better run.”

It doesn’t occur to Souji until later, after Nanako’s in bed and he’s had a bath, that he can’t remember actually mentioning that to Izumi-san. It’s no matter, though. They talk about all kinds of things between customers.

***

“Did that case get solved?”

School’s just started again, and it’s the first chance Souji’s had to come back to the gas station since summer break began – there were fish to catch and things to find for people in town, not to mention his summer homework. He only shrugs at Izumi-san’s question, though; he’d like to think it’s over, but even if Shirogane-kun weren’t still in town, some of what Kubo said is still bothering him.

(He never acknowledged the rest of the group as his victims, and only addressed Yukiko in the context of his attempts to ask her out. And then there were the game prompts they kept running across in Void Quest – ‘fight,’ ‘fight’ and ‘kill’…)

“It’s like everyone stopped talking about it all at once. Be nice if it was over, wouldn’t it?”

“It would.” He’s not entirely sure what he’d do with himself for the rest of the year, but he’s sure Yosuke would come up with something, at the very least. Then again, as well as going to Okina to pick up girls went, maybe that’s not something he should put his faith in. “But what are you going to have to gossip about now?” he adds, hoping she takes it as the joke he’s intending.

Izumi-san laughs, which he takes as a good sign. “Oh, I’m sure something will come up. The pack of teenage punks, another biker gang, whether the meat at Souzai Daigaku’s genuine beef or not – it’s just kind of funny, you know? There aren’t many ranches in the area. Have you heard anything about that?”

“Chie mentioned it, but she didn’t know what to make of it.” Souji wonders, briefly, where all these rumors come from anyway.

“Oh well. I’m sure someone will know more about it. It’s funny, the things people find to talk about, isn’t it?”

“But it’s good that there’s so many things to catch our interest, I’d think.”

“Could be.” Izumi-san shrugs, watching the few cars out on a rainy day go by. “I’ve heard a lot of strange things in my time, and some of them… just really make me wonder what it is people want out of life. Whether they even know the answer to that.”

“We’re all figuring it out as we go along,” Souji says. “And not everyone comes to the same conclusion.”

“Still, there’s got to be some kind of consensus, right?”

It’s an odd note to end the day on, underscored by the radio taking a particularly somber turn. One of the lines from it’s still hanging in Souji’s head that night, as he tries to focus on the tea ceremony manual Kou gave him (even though it stopped raining about the time he got home, he keeps glancing at the TV as midnight approaches).

Is it that they fear the pain of death, or could it be they fear the joy of life?

Not for the first time, he wonders just what Izumi-san’s grappling with in the aftermath of her divorce.

***

There’s something almost annoyingly familiar about Edogawa-sensei’s lecture, and it’s not just the fact that it’s about Souji’s very first Persona. It’s like he’s heard this story recently.

Of course, he’s already familiar with the overall myth – Edogawa-sensei wasn’t wrong to guess several of them would be, and Souji can see from the heads nodding along that he’s not alone. (The group seems to be split among people following along, people sleeping because it’s not as though this will matter when they go home, and Kanji-kun, sitting in with their class for God knows what reason, who’s given up any pretense of paying attention in favor of knitting. Souji’s glad to see that, considering.) But the sense of familiarity has nothing to do with textbooks and everything to do with…

With something that he can’t quite put his finger on. It irritates him for the rest of the afternoon, right up until the bus pulls up outside Kashiwagi’s idea of an appropriate hotel for a bunch of teenagers to overnight in.

***

Shirogane-kun’s dungeon – sticking with the same honorific even in light of what her Shadow had to say seems like the right balance to strike, somehow – was… something else, as was the fact that she got herself kidnapped deliberately. Still, Souji was evidently right to have his doubts about Kubo being responsible.

He doesn’t get back to the gas station until right before the fog’s supposed to set in again; it’s a sunny couple of weeks and he’s busy with his friends. Naoki’s coming to grips enough to both go to Junes and put up with Yosuke’s presence; Yumi-chan’s father likely isn’t long for this world; Rise’s former manager keeps putting her on the spot; and Ai-san… well. She’s herself, which turned out to be an even bigger mess than he would have thought possible.

Still, he’s eager to catch up with Izumi-san, and she doesn’t disappoint, all sunny disposition despite the dreary weather and the song on the radio mentioning Waterloo for some reason.

“Figures we’d have to spend a day like this just standing around, doesn’t it?” she says. “I can’t say I really mind, though.”

“Oh?”

“I like the rain. And having the time to look out on the town like this… it’s restful. Puts me at ease. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’ve lived here for so long.”

“I can see that. I feel like I have roots for the first time.” Souji hesitates for a moment; the question on his mind is incredibly rude, but he thinks he’s put it off long enough, and at this point he can probably get away with it. “How long is ‘so long’? You’ve never specified.”

“Since my husband and I split, you could say,” Izumi-san says, after a few moments. “I needed a little space, somewhere quiet to think. And I’ve had a lot to think about. Why people do what they do, what it is we all really want…”

“And what have you decided?”

“Nothing, yet. But you’re helping me draw closer to a conclusion.”

Souji can’t help but smile. “I’m glad I can do that.”

***

October goes by in a blur. He and Yosuke slug it out at the riverbed, Yukiko realizes what she really wants is to stay in her home, Kou tries and fails to learn more about his birth family before it sinks in that his adoptive family still loves him, Yuuta-kun punches him where it hurts but it’s worth it to hear him call Minami-san ‘Mom,’ Uehara-san stops hitting on him and starts working herself half to death, and Naoto-kun’s true depths start coming to light – not to mention midterms, the threat letter, and the Culture Festival.

(The less said about the group date café, the better. But even if he’ll never admit it, the pageant was kind of fun.)

Before Souji knows it, it’s November, not that the chill in the air would let him forget that for long. The weather’s taking a turn for the nasty as well – not snow yet, just rain, but cold rain is almost worse than snow. Even the radio at the gas station’s going on about fog today. He can’t place why, but he has a bad feeling about the Midnight Channel tonight.

Izumi-san carries on like nothing’s unusual, but apparently even Souji can’t keep up a stoic face forever; it’s not long before she looks at him with the most genuine concern he’s seen from her yet and says, “Everything all right?”

It’s like the night Nanako took off out of the house, but why that thought crosses his mind, Souji can’t say. “It’s… I’m sure it’s nothing.”

“Well, if you’re sure. You’ve done so much for me, I wanted to do a little something for you, for a change.”

“I haven’t done that much. Just come to work, and even then, I’m not the most reliable employee.”

“Even that’s more than you might think, Souji-kun. You bring people hope. I haven’t felt this good about life in a long time, I can tell you that much.”

“…Tell me a story, then. From the last time you did.”

She ends up telling him two stories. One is about her husband and one of their children – it sounds wildly improbable, but she swears up and down it’s entirely true – and the other’s about her time in Inaba after that. That one also sounds a little improbable, but in a different way; it’s almost like she’s glossing over details to make it sound more true. Like if she included all the real details it would be less believable.

But it’s hardly worth calling her out on it, when she’s cheered him up so much, so at the end of the day Souji thanks her and heads home, thinking nothing more of his bad feeling until midnight, when it returns with a vengeance.

Hadn’t Nanako said that politician who’s been citing an unnamed first-grader visited her school?

***

By contrast, it feels like November will never end.

Souji can’t bear being in the house alone, so he spends as much time as possible outside of it – night fishing, if he has nothing else to do. He caught the Guardian a couple months ago, but the old fisherman still does a brisk trade in useful stuff and the cats along the flood plain like to eat them.

He stays the weekend at Yosuke’s house, when the rain hits. Naoto also offered, saying she knows a thing or two about a house feeling too empty when it’s just you in it, but he didn’t want to impose, and between Yosuke and Teddie he couldn’t very well say no.

On his way home on Sunday, he stops by the gas station – anything to delay the inevitable. Izumi-san’s all cheer, as usual, and while he can’t return the feeling, he at least appreciates it for what it is; talking to people who aren’t bogged down by Nanako’s lingering hospitalization has done him a world of good, these past couple weeks. The radio’s blasting something heavy on the strings that fits right in with the chilly rain.

“Can you believe people are starting to think the fog’s poisonous?” she says. “It’s ridiculous, right? I mean, who ever heard of poisonous fog?”

“London in the 19th century,” Souji says, almost without thinking. Sofue-sensei mentioned it offhand, the other day, and for some reason it stuck in his mind. “But I don’t think we have anything like that kind of pollution problem around here.”

“No, we really don’t. Clean living, that’s a benefit of the countryside. Still, the things people will believe… tell me, did much talk of Apathy Syndrome make it all the way to Tokyo?”

He has to think about that for a few minutes, but it does sound vaguely familiar. “A little. Something about a cult, I think.”

“Yeah, things over in Port Island were pretty weird, from what I heard. And… well, that was one of the things that got me thinking, but in talking to you, I realized something. I love this town, and I love the people in it, and I want to do what’s best for them. So I’m going to do just that.”

“Good.” He’s a little unsure of what to do with this revelation; it’s not as obvious as Uehara-san leaving the hospital or Shu-kun asking to cancel his tutoring so he can have some fun for once in his life. But he has faith that Izumi-san means what she says, and that she’ll find a way to meet her goal.

“I have something for you, actually.” Izumi-san roots in the pocket of her coveralls for a moment, pulling out an old-looking bamboo comb. “I’ve been holding on to this since my marriage fell apart. I think I was hoping I could give it back to my husband sometime, but… I don’t think he’ll miss it that much, if I ever do see him again. I think you should have it.”

“I’ll treasure it,” Souji says, and he means it, just as surely as he’s meant it for everything from Kuroda-san’s old fountain pen to Naoki’s receipt from Junes.

He studies the comb a little more closely that night, while he’s sitting on the couch in his room waiting for the Midnight Channel to come on. Up close, it looks even older than it did when Izumi-san first held it out – in fact, on one end it looks like it was burnt.

It’s a little odd, but he can’t quite put his finger on why.

***

The fog descends that night, and doesn’t lift in the morning, or the afternoon, or the next morning. It’s more than a little unnerving – it would be even if Souji didn’t know about the TV world.

They take to going places in groups whenever possible, and spend as many days visiting Nanako in the hospital as they can spare between studying for fall term finals. He’s walking Chie and Yukiko home (or at least closer to their houses) after one of these visits when they pass the gas station.

“Funny,” he says, “I haven’t heard the radio there since the fog set in.”

“What radio?” Yukiko says.

“It was always on when I was working. I never did figure out why it was set to an English-language station.”

“…Souji-kun, the gas station’s never had a radio,” Chie says. “Trust me, I’d remember if it had. It’d be a lot more interesting.”

Souji frowns, and makes a note to go and ask the owners about it after exams – and then, between the sharp turn in the case and Teddie’s disappearance, he completely forgets about it.

***

If something about the case is even bothering Adachi, it’s got to be worth looking into. And now that it’s been mentioned, Souji’s incredibly frustrated. He feels like he has all the pieces, but he doesn’t know what they are or how to put them together. What he does know, after talking it over with his friends, is he needs to bounce it off his uncle.

But it’s Nanako who gives him the first solid lead. “Um, big bro? Didn’t we stop at the gas station? I remember I had to go to the bathroom, and you talked to that weird attendant.”

“Izumi-san’s not weird,” he says, almost reflexively – okay, she is a bit odd, but not so much as to earn ‘weird.’ And now that he thinks about it, he didn’t see her at all when he was going around doing his goodbyes.

His uncle frowns. “You know them? It’s funny, now that I think about it – I never saw them again after that. When exactly did you get to know them?”

“One of my jobs,” Souji says, but his mind isn’t quite on the conversation anymore. He’s trying desperately to remember talking with Izumi-san that first day, but he can’t place any of the details.

Except for the delivery truck that pulled out of the other pump’s space as they pulled in.

“It’s… it might be important. I need to go talk to her.”

“All right,” his uncle says, “but don’t forget you’re leaving tomorrow. And there’s some dark clouds on the horizon – we might get some rain soon. Try not to be out too late.”

Souji only nods in reply before taking off toward the shopping district – of course, Izumi-san’s nowhere to be found. But the Velvet Room still is, and now that he thinks of it, that’s another sign he hasn’t settled everything; surely it should have disappeared after Margaret’s goodbye, if he really were done.

When he finishes his consultation with Igor-sama, it’s raining, and Izumi-san’s standing under the gas station’s awning, looking for all the world like she’s been there all day.

“Hey, stranger,” she says, cheerful as ever. “Long time, no see. How’ve you been?”

“I could say the same to you,” Souji says; he hasn’t seen her since the day before the fog set in for weeks. Since, now that he really thinks about it, the last time it rained. “Look, I need to ask you something. I – did Adachi or Namatame-san ever come here?”

“Probably. Most everyone in town does, sooner or later. I might’ve talked to them, but so many people come through here that it’s hard to keep track.”

For the first time, Souji feels like Izumi-san’s lying to him. “Namatame-san’s delivery truck was here the day I came to town. You must have talked to at least him.”

“What of it? Anyone who’s new in town deserves a proper greeting, don’t they?”

“That’s not…” Calm down, Souji tells himself. (The radio, or whatever it is here, starts playing; you weren’t there that day for the naming of things.) “You mentioned the Midnight Channel the first day I worked here. And you were the first person I heard mention that the fog might be dangerous. You told them the rumors, didn’t you? You gave them – gave us – the power.”

Izumi-san chuckles, darker than he’s used to hearing from her. “Clever boy. I should have known you’d figure it out eventually. You never did know when to give up – too like my husband, in that regard.”

He’s about to shout at her, demand to know who exactly it is he’s been dealing with for the past year, when something in his jacket pocket nudges him. It’s the comb she gave him the last time they talked; he hadn’t realized he left it in this jacket.

It’s burnt on one end, and very old, and suddenly it hits him why that lecture on the school trip sounded so familiar.

“…Izanami. Let’s cut to the chase – why did you do all this?”

She laughs outright, and suddenly the street’s full of fog again and she’s standing before him in a white funeral kimono. “I believe I told you the last few times we talked. I am a student of human nature; mortal minds fascinate me. Those who unleashed Apathy Syndrome upon the world sought death. This isn’t the first time I put humanity’s will to the test, but after seeing that display, I needed to determine what it is you all want from life.”

“But – I told you we don’t know the answer to that. And you told me you wanted to do what’s best for this place.”

“So I did, but I cannot call off the experiment once begun. Anyway, your power was surprising – enough to engulf this world in fog and drive it back to where it came from. I was intrigued, so I let it unfold. But sooner or later, I must bow to the consensus reached – humanity desires the fog, and the peace it brings. That was very clear.”

Souji draws a shaky breath, trying to clamp down on the feeling of betrayal stirring in his gut, second only to when they cornered Adachi in the hospital. “I can’t let you do that.”

“So the last battle wasn’t enough for you? Very well, then. But know this: If you insist on meeting me with force, I shall pit my full strength against you. You and your friends had best come prepared.”

She vanishes, along with the fog; Souji stumbles forward, leaning against the gas station awning’s support to catch his breath. It’s not long before Yosuke, Chie and Yukiko find him, and then they’re off to Junes one last time.

***

It feels like Souji’s floating in nothingness, and he’s not sure there would be anything to stand on even if he trusted his own strength. It would be so easy to let go here, to let himself fade into nothingness…

(What are you doing? You are not one who is allowed to fall here.)

But that would be turning his back on everything he’s built over the rest of the year, wouldn’t it? To say nothing of his friends, wherever they disappeared to – he can only hope they’re not suffering through this.

(You can get up, right, Partner? … I’ll give you our strength. … Let me protect you.)

And at the end of the litany (I’ve had enough of losing the people most precious to me), with Nanako’s voice still ringing in his ears, he hears a familiar chuckle, and looks up to find Izumi-san – definitely the gas station attendant, not the half-rotted god that just struck him down – standing over him.

“My, you’re troublesome.”

He wants to ask her what she means by that, but he can’t find his voice. She goes on, though.

“I never intended to get caught up in your web after ensnaring you in mine. I had an experiment to run, that was all – it was supposed to be simple, like last time. I certainly didn’t plan on giving you so much of the truth before you were ready to put the pieces together. But I think I learned more from talking to you than I did by testing humanity as a whole.”

She sighs. “My timing was poor, my sample too small, and my scales deliberately tipped against you. Of course Despair and Emptiness would seem to carry the day. But it only takes one person with Hope to turn against that tide, doesn’t it? A little light goes a lot further through the darkness than I ever would have guessed. So get up, kid, and finish proving me wrong.”

And he does.

When they finally leave Junes – Souji’s leaning on Yosuke, a little because he’s exhausted after all that and a lot because he can’t quite believe Izanami returned all his friends – they take the long way, cutting through the end of the shopping district instead of down the flood plain. It’s still raining some, but none of them are paying it any mind, just as glad to be alive as they were in December.

Chie’s the first one to notice; her head snaps in the direction of the gas station. “What – is someone blasting their stereo?”

“No, that’s comin’ from… but the damn thing’s never had a radio,” Kanji says. “What the hell?”

Souji looks over, and sees Izumi-san beneath the gas station’s canopy, but only for a moment. Her form blurs, soon replaced by Izanami (in her funeral kimono, thank goodness).

I will not take these things for granted, the music blares, and she smiles at him a little, bows deeply, and vanishes as the rain fades, taking the music with it. Souji can’t contain a grin, and he’s not sure he’d try to anyway.

Everything here is going to be fine.