The thing that no one ever tells anyone else–the thing every person has to learn on his or her own, by the process of growing up–is that eventually, even the story’s heroes must make way for others and fade to nothing. That is one of the truths you learned years ago: no story exists on its own. One life connects to a thousand others, and each of those connect to a thousand more; your story is the same one that is unfolding for people you have never directly met, and never will.
Your part is almost over.
They’ve gone ahead, the friends you were closest to–even Teddie has left nothing behind but an empty bear suit. You have wondered what you might find, scanning it, but Rise left you with a smile and her hand in yours; even if you had the means to call her back, it would be unkind. You’ll just have to follow, when you can.
Not yet, though.
First, you go back to Inaba.
Time has only lightly touched this place: it’s bigger now, and trains run more frequently, but when you step off into the station, you could pretend it’s the same day as years ago, the first time you came to this sleepy timeless little place. There are exactly fifty steps between the train and the doors of the station, as Nanako once informed you, and as the two of you counted together; you listen to her voice numbering each step you take. (One, two, three–big bro, do you think Dad will want pickles with dinner? want to go to Junes?–four, five, six …)
You go to Junes. It’s still the largest building in town, the nucleus around which everyday life orbits. It’s only gotten larger, swallowing a few of the struggling shops that were in its direct shadow; you pass bored teenagers in uniform and wonder how many of them are Konishi Saki, resentful of turning of the world and anyone who could represent that change. None of them look at you, even though you linger, and so eventually you turn past the food court, towards the electronics department. There are still TVs everywhere, though less than before; they’re being replaced by computers now, as Inaba meanders into the digital age. You stop in front of the largest TV (not the only your friends always used, no; that one was sold years ago) and look at your face in the screen.
A girl in a Junes uniform approaches you, a bright smile in place. She looks like Rise in her youth, all easy confidence. “Good afternoon,” she says, stumbling only a little over the traditional keigo; “is there anything I could help you with–?”
You shake your head and tell her you’re just browsing, and offer her a smile. Her own solidifies into something more genuine, and she tells you to come find her if you need help. When she’s gone, you reach out and put your hand on the TV.
Nothing happens, as you expect: ever since Teddie, you can’t seem to cross over to that world at all. Still you push a little, counting out thirty seconds before you take your hand away. There is a tired old chill in your bones, so you stick your hands into your pockets as you leave, passing the Junes girl. She doesn’t notice you this time: her attention is taken by a boy her age stammering through a date invitation. When you leave Junes the jingle plays–not the one Nanako liked so much, that one’s been phased out for a while now–and you carry the sound out of the bustle of the city, up to the hill that overlooks Inaba.
In your pocket is the photograph from years ago: your friends and yourself, flush with victory, all smiling together. You’ve had copies remade over the years as the color fades and the details blur from handling; this one is from just before you left to come back here. You are the last one left standing from this photo, but–not alone, you think. Even now you’re not alone–death is a greater distance than most, but even that’s not enough to completely sever bonds truly forged.
The wind rustles through the trees, through your hair. Far away, someone is laughing. And did it really need to take you so long to understand this?
You smile a little. No, you think, it should not have.
The photo tears easily with just a little pressure; methodically, you continue to shred it until it’s no more than a handful of colorful scraps, then open your hands to the air. The wind catches them up, spinning them in a flurry (like your uncle’s ashes so many years ago, spreading over this little town he’d loved like yet another family member), and you watch until you can’t see any more. One piece remains in your hand: your breast pocket, and the blue card that peeks up from it. You press your lips to that piece, and step forward.
It isn’t falling: her arms unfold from the ground to catch you, rotten and terrible and beautiful; she holds you delicately, like one might a captured butterfly. Her breath is cold upon your cheek, and her voice is the same as it was when she first invited you, so many years ago. There is a faint jolt and a shudder runs through you before you can stop it; she is chuckling as she draws the both of you deeper into her embrace.
One of a thousand, my love. One of a thousand.
You smile again. Even death twice over has not changed her pride, and the thought warms the darkness that surrounds you both, as your head comes to rest upon her breast of bone and shredded meat.
“I’m home,” you say aloud.
She touches your hair, and her voice is gentle when she answers. Welcome back.