The two walked in silence, side by side. Leaves rustled about them, the late afternoon wind blowing at their hair and clothes.
It had been a long day. Night was soon going to fall, and the Mekakushi-dan had went off to their respective ways. Even after all the crazy adventures Shintaro went through, he could not get rid of his weak, anti-social physique. So by now, his legs hurt and he wanted nothing more than to lie in bed with only his beloved computer to keep him company. But one look at his companion sent a strange fluttering sensation in chest, and he set his eyes straight ahead with an unusual determination to keep going.
That determination soon faded as the pain in his feet throbbed even more.
''L-let's have a break,'' the hiki-NEET gasped. He strode over to the nearest bench and took short, rapid breaths. He was aware of the brunette smiling in an amused manner beside him. Usually, Shintaro would snap at people when they did that, but his coldness was no match for the lively expression on his friend's face. And suddenly, completely out of place, the boy in the red jersey felt heat rise to his cheeks. He shook his head in an attempt to get rid of the creeping blush, but to no avail.
''Shintaro-kun?'' the girl with the red muffler said in a worried tone. Clearly she was not used to a reddening Shintaro either.
''Ah, is there something wrong?'' Shintaro responded, trying to turn the situation around.
Ayano shook her head. ''You don't look very well.''
Self-consciousness spread through the hiki-NEET, and he was suddenly aware of how nauseous he felt. He must have looked like he was on the verge of throwing up all over the sidewalk. Well, he had taken a long walk, so it was no surprise that his meals were threatening to make a second appearance. But something told him it wasn't just the excessive exercise that induced such a feeling...
''I'm fine,'' he assured her after a few moments. ''Aren't you tired? Sit down.''
''Oh, I'm sorry!'' Ayano quickly sat beside him, blushing in embarrassment. ''I shouldn't have just stood there. Where are my manners...''
''You don't really have to beat yourself up over it,'' Shintaro commented. He forced himself not to look at his companion, especially not in the eyes. He couldn't explain why exactly, but there was that sinking prediction that something unpleasant would happen if he did.
Beside him, the girl with red hairclips swung her legs like a little kid. She was always so carefree and innocent, it was like really talking to a child. Although, after all the chaos and confusion they underwent, you could hardly say that about her anymore. Ayano seemed much more mature than she was a few years ago, and definitely wiser (even if her face said otherwise).
''Do I have something on my face?'' she said out of the blue. And that was when Shintaro realized he'd been staring at her.
''N-no, it's not like that—!'' he amended, shaking his hands quickly in front of him. ''I'm just...I was...um...why don't I get us something to drink?''
At that, he stood up immediately. He was too embarrassed to admit that he was scouring her face like some creep. Besides, what excuse could he possibly make up to make it sound reasonable?
Again, Ayano shook her head. ''I'm not thirsty.''
''Then I'll get something for myself.''
Just as Shintaro was about to walk away however, he felt a hand grab his own, stopping him from going farther. The soft touch of those fingers upon his made the fluttering sensation in his chest burn even more. He looked behind him and saw an indignant Ayano staring back at him.
''Let's just stay here for a while. Please,'' she pleaded, eyes full of...wait, was that longing?
The shut-in's cheeks flushed even brighter. What it possible that Ayano...he shut his eyes in frustration as he stowed away his dirty thoughts.
''Uh...sure,'' he said at last. And was it just him, or did relief flicker across the brunette's face?
Ayano loosened her grip on his hand, but before Shintaro could retake his seat, a blurred flash of red swept the corner of his eyes. He looked at the source, and found a muffler flying across the park.
''Uwaaah!'' Ayano cried in surprise, feeling at her bare neck.
Instantly, neither thinking about what he was about to do nor why he was doing it, the weakling in the red jersey ran after the red muffler with surprising speed despite the previous cramp in his legs. In one swift motion, he caught the fabric in one hand and clutched it tightly to prevent it from wandering off again.
Once the deed had been done, he allowed himself to sink to the ground and breathe in huge gulps of air. The pain returned to his body parts, his lungs failing to function properly.
At times like this, it was best to have something to blame. An excellent candidate would be Shintaro's own stupidity for chasing the soft material in his fingers now. But deep inside, he knew it was the damn wind's fault for being so strong at an hour like this. The eighteen-year-old cursed the wind silently, panting and gasping.
A softness similar to the one that had gripped his hand touched his shoulder, and his entire body stiffened.
''Thank you,'' said a gentle voice.
That was enough to send his heart pounding loudly.
''No problem,'' he replied shakily. Shintaro was sure that if he were hearing his voice with an outsider's ears, it would have sounded disgusting. But instead of cringing in repulse, the girl beside him smiled. A smile that could melt any lonely loser's heart.
She reached out for the red muffler, which Shintaro handed to her. And then, their fingers met, hands suddenly clamping each other tightly with nothing but the red fabric between them.
A blushing Shintaro dared take a peek at Ayano's face, and was surprised to see that she was turning red too.
He tried to get his own hand free. His companion was probably mentally complaining about how the sweat in his palm was seeping through the cloth already, but to his even greater surprise, Ayano held his hand firmly.
All Shintaro could do was stare.
''Earlier...'' the pretty girl began, ''you were going to tell me something.''
''Don't you remember?'' Ayano pressed on, leaning closer with a look of urgency. ''It was right there, at that bench. You were gonna say something, but I wanted to tell you something too, so in the end we couldn't say what we wanted to say.''
Shintaro blinked, and the memory washed over him. He glanced at the bench that the two of them had recently occupied. His eyes flitted through the surrounding scenery, recognizing it all from this morning, before they met up with the others. When he recalled what he wanted to tell her then, heat once again filled his face. How pathetic could he get?
''Oh, yeah. But like I said, it's not important—''
Ayano squeezed his hand. And her eyes were strangely persistent.
''Well, if you're not going to tell me what it is, then I'll be the one to speak first,'' she said firmly.
Why was she acting like this? Was it that important for him to know whatever it was she was gonna say?
Silence filled the area again, and only the billowing of leaves and the swaying of the red muffler in the wind were the movements in their surroundings. Shintaro locked eyes with Ayano, and as her grip on his fingers grew stronger, she seemed to be moving closer.
I love you.''
...And everything else, including the wind and the sound of rustling leaves, stopped.
''Waaah, Shintaro-kun, you're burning up!'' Ayano's expression quickly became concerned, and she let go of his hand to touch his hot forehead.
A-a confession? Was it real or was he just dreaming? It was the first time, and probably the only one, that a girl had said such a thing to that jersey-wearing hiki-NEET.
But right now, that wasn't the only reason for Shintaro's increasing heart rate. Now that Ayano had admitted it...now that he knew...
''I love you, Ayano,'' Shintaro returned, looking straight into Ayano's eyes.
It all happened at once; he gave a strangled scream as an unexpectedly strong pair of arms wrapped around his neck and nearly choked him. But it's worth it, Shintaro thought. For at that same moment, he heard the pretty girl's bright, cheery laughter echo through the night, filling every dark and empty crevice.
Slowly, Shintaro circled his own arms around her, and they stood there, hugging each other tightly, only Ayano's emanating laugh and the dark-haired boy's smile to fill the silence and darkness.
Who would have thought that those two, who were complete opposites when they met, were about to say the exact same thing that morning?
When they had breathed in as much cold air as they could, and their mouths had stretched to their extent, and their voices had become tired, the odd pair let go of each other. Only their hands remained linked. And between those hands lay the red muffler still.
They walked away, beaming at each other. And the hikikimori's fantasy was completed when Ayano gave him a quick peck on the lips.
''You should have told me sooner,'' the brunette complained.
''How was I supposed to know?'' Shintaro retorted.
''You would have if you said something earlier.''
''Maybe you should have given the sign!''
''It's because you're always so scared, Shintaro.''
''Who're you calling scared!?''
Shintaro sighed. Maybe they still were opposites. Maybe nothing much changed between them after all.
But looking back and around him, he knew that everything; the trees, the bench, the stars, the pavement, and the red stretch of fabric clutched in their hands, had a lot more meaning than they did that morning.