Mamoru: The Japanese verb for "protect."
As the pair finished their dessert of frozen yogurt, Kazuto and Shino stood up and threw away their cups in the nearby trash can. Having paid at the counter as they built their yogurt cups, the pair thanked the staff and left out the door. Kazuto patted his belly upon exiting the store.
"Whoof, that was good," Kazuto said, satisfied.
"No kidding. I had no clue that Thai place was so good."
"Yeah, me neither! It looks super sketchy on the outside, so I didn't really give it much thought."
"Right? That frozen yogurt was good too," Shino responded. "By the way, thanks for today and dinner! You and I don't get to hang out very often, just the two of us, so this was nice. I still feel bad about you paying for everything though."
"Ah, it's not a big deal. Is it wrong to treat my friends?"
"I mean, no, but you seriously didn't have to pay for me. I can pay for myself."
"Just let me buy a cute girl some dinner, alright?" Kazuto said innocently.
Shino blushed and looked at Kazuto, smiled, then sighed. "Idiot."
"What? What'd I do?"
"Don't worry about it," Shino laughed. Always taking care of me. It's the stupid stuff like that that made me fall for you, Shino thought to herself.
Kazuto was as dense as ever, though. What did I say? Unbeknownst to him, he had a nasty habit of saying things that could very easily be taken as flirting. Would he ever come to realize that? Probably not. Would it come to get him into some awkward situations? Probably. Absentmindedly, Kazuto patted his pockets for his phone, keys, and wallet. Quickly, however, he realized that he was missing one of those three items. "Shit, I think I left my keys somewhere," Kazuto panicked, frantically patting all of his pockets.
"Could you have left it in one of the stores we went into?"
"I don't think so."
"Maybe the restaurant?"
"Maybe- Wait!" Kazuto exclaimed, suddenly struck by a fleeting memory.
"W-what?" Shino stuttered, caught off guard by his sudden outburst.
"I left it on my stupid desk," Kazuto grumbled, facepalming.
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, I'm pretty sure. I vaguely remember this morning before I left going 'oh, I don't need my keys, I'm taking the train today, not my motorcycle.' Then I just left without them."
"Great job, Kazuto. Well, it doesn't really matter in the end, your family will let you in, right?"
Kazuto's eyes went downcast. "Nope. They're out and about until tomorrow, they went to go see a family friend a few hours north."
"Brilliant. Now what?"
"I don't know, I'll have to see if I can call Tsuboi or something…"
"...y-you could stay at my place, it's way closer than Tsuboi's place…"
"Could I actually?"
"Sure! ...just don't sound so excited about it."
"Thank you, Shino!
"Y-yeah, of course."
The two made idle conversation as they walked to Shino's house. It wasn't far away, only a fifteen-minute walk from the mall. They arrived at Shino's front door, and she pulled out her keys to unlock it. "Sorry if it's a bit messy," Shino said as she gestured for Kazuto to enter.
He had been inside Shino's apartment before, but those were markedly different circumstances. From what he could remember, not much had changed. Her apartment was small, fitting for Shino. She didn't need very much, as she lived alone. The bathroom was immediately right of the mudroom, and the kitchen was directly across from that, fixed on the wall, complete with a small electric stove/oven combo, a refrigerator off to the right of the stove, and surrounded by a few cabinets. In front of it was an open seating area with a small table surrounded by four evenly placed pillows. Only one of those pillows was really used, though, as she didn't have people over very often.
"Would you like some tea?" Shino asked.
"Hm? Oh, sure. Whatever you have is fine," Kazuto replied.
He sat down on one of the pillows on the opposite end of the table, facing the kitchen. He watched the ebony-haired girl do her thing, reaching in various cabinets and cupboards to make the tea. In just a few minutes, the tea was ready, and Shino walked over to the table, gingerly carrying two mugs full of steaming oolong tea. She sat down at the pillow adjacent to Kazuto and took a sip of her tea.
"I never actually thought to ask you this, but what do you actually plan on doing with your life?"
"That's one way to put it," Kazuto began, musing about his future. "I plan on going to college like everyone else. I'm not sure where, but I do plan on going. I'd like to study engineering and programming and get into a mechatronics program, but if that doesn't pan out, a software engineering job is fine."
"That makes a lot of sense for you. Why mechatronics?"
"Why mechatronics? I'm not sure. I think it's from wanting to make Yui tangible in this world so that she doesn't have to just hang out in my phone all the time."
"You must really care about Yui," Shino said, thinking about his past relationship with Asuna.
"I do, and I'd like her to see the world as we do. That'd be nice. With Asuna not really being around as much anymore, I just want to make sure she doesn't feel neglected. What about you? What do you plan to do, Ms. Asada?"
"Wow, getting formal, are we?" Shino said, chuckling at the change in tone. "I want to be a policewoman. That's it, really. I'll go to college and get a degree in law, then I'll apply to be a policewoman. As for why? I'm not really sure either. I guess it's just that I'd like to be able to protect myself and others, and I suppose that kind of comes from what happened in my past…"
Kazuto smiled and gazed into her dark obsidian eyes. He felt as if he could visually see her old and healing soul, burning brighter and brighter each day that she healed. She had come a long way since he had met her, and he was incredibly proud of her progress. He went through much of the same dilemma, questioning himself and his own worth as a result of the blood on his hands, so he knew what she went through and how tough it was. He decided that he'd voice his feelings on the subject, now that his mind was thinking about it.
"Y'know, Shino, you've come quite a long way since I met you for the first time. I'm really proud of you."
"What? Where's this coming from?"
"I don't know, you brought it up, and I kinda just started thinking about it. You've grown so much in this past year or so, and it really shows."
"I couldn't have done it without you."
"I was just there to get you started. You did all of the work."
Shino looked at him and cocked her head to the side. "That's just so… you."
"What?" Kazuto said, confused.
"I don't know… just… don't worry about it. Thank you, although my point still stands."
Kazuto smiled warmly back at her. "If you say so."
Shino gazed into his eyes, as if pondering or remembering something. She shook her head, dismissing the thought.
"On that note," Shino said, standing up. "I'm going to go take a shower. Don't do anything weird, or I'll sodomize you with this table."
"Sheesh, I wasn't planning on it," Kazuto laughed, putting his hands up in surrender.
Suddenly, Shino leaned in quite close to Kazuto, and in the most tantalizing voice she could muster, she whispered back.
"Good." She threw a sly wink behind her as she spun on her heel and walked toward the sliding door that separated the main room from her bedroom. She reappeared shortly without her glasses while holding a small heap of nightclothes in her arms, all the while Kazuto was trying to make sense of the feelings that quickly barreled into his stream of consciousness.
That was completely out of character. What was that supposed to mean? Was she trying to insinuate something? Was there something I missed? I swear to god that she winked at me. Was I imagining things? What the hell is going on? Kazuto sat on the pillow, unmoving, as the rogue thoughts that plagued his head tumbled from his synapses. A few (literal) steamy minutes later, Shino stepped out of the bathroom clad in matching blue pajamas. Her voice came into focus quite slowly as he realized she was calling his name.
"Kazuto! Are you good?"
"Wh-what? Oh yeah, I'm good, I just… had some things on my mind…" Kazuto said while diverting his eyes.
"You were thinking weird things while I was in the shower, weren't you?"
"No! I wasn't!"
"...perv," Shino scolded as she chopped Kazuto lightly on the forehead.
"I- ju-..." Kazuto sighed, defeated. He knew that he wasn't going to win that argument. Satisfied that she'd won, she opened the door to her room again, throwing her used clothes in the laundry hamper.
"You can come in, I'm not gonna make you sleep out there."
Kazuto stifled his thoughts and followed her into her bedroom. It was quite simple, a twin-sized bed in the back corner with a dresser directly across from it. On the other side of the room sat a desk with a laptop, a pencil holder, her Amusphere, and a spinny-chair.
"So… Where am I going to sleep?"
"Good question, I should have a fold-out futon in here…" Shino said, rummaging through the bottom drawers of her dresser. "...that I lent to Rika a few weeks ago. Great."
"Good job. Now what?" Kazuto said, pushing the obvious option out of his head.
"Uh… I don't want to make you sleep on that chair, it's super uncomfortable, and it's not like the floor is much better…"
The two paused and the option that Kazuto pushed out of his head seconds earlier reinvaded, and it seemed like it did the same to Shino.
"You… could sleep in my bed… It is kind of cold tonight anyway," Shino trailed off. Now that the line had been cast, Kazuto had to choose whether or not to bite. Unsurprisingly, he accepted, albeit hesitantly, as to not poke any bears along the way.
"S-sure… that's fine, I guess."
The two awkwardly shuffled before Shino finally gestured toward the bed. "L-ladies first," she joked through the nervousness.
"Hey! What's that supposed to mean?"
"Just get into the stupid bed, and I'll turn off the lights."
"Alright…" Kazuto said as he crawled into her bed. The first thing that struck him was that her pillow smelled nice, faintly of strawberries and fall. The second thing that struck him was that she used a weighted blanket. Tucking himself in, he felt the blanket press down upon him, and he found the weight comforting. Maybe he should invest in one. Suddenly, the lights went out and he was left in the darkness, sans a dim nightlight in the corner of the room. Soon after, he felt Shino slide in next to him, covering herself with the blankets. He sank under the covers as well, turning over to face away from Shino, their backs against each other on the twin-bed.
"Goodnight," Shino murmured tiredly from behind him.
A few minutes passed, and Kazuto felt Shino shift. He couldn't bring himself to sleep, as his heart was racing. She's just a friend, right? Right? At that moment, Shino decided to speak up.
"Remember what I asked you during our first BoB together?"
"Other than asking me what the hell was wrong with me when you found out that I was a guy?"
"Yes, other than that. Just roll with it, idiot."
"I asked you to protect me for the rest of your life."
Ah, right. That.
"Yeah, what of it?"
"You never answered me that day."
"Did I really not?" Kazuto asked, vaguely recalling the scene.
"No, you never did."
"Ask me again, then."
"Okay. Will you, Kazuto Kirigaya, protect me for the rest of my life when I can't protect myself?"
Of course. I'll protect you as long as you want me to, Shino," Kazuto answered without hesitation.
A soft, almost inaudible, content giggle came from the girl behind Kazuto. Another minute of silence.
"Could you follow through on that right now?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean hold me, dummy."
"Ah." Kazuto shifted and turned around so that he was facing Shino. She had done the same too, and soon, the two were gazing into each other's eyes, onyx on onyx. Kazuto opened his arms and Shino latched onto him, pulling herself closer to his body, burying her head in his chest, curling into him, and wrapping her legs around his. The boy then wrapped his arms around her, completing the protective embrace. The girl's throat vibrated into a content sigh, happy that Kazuto had done what she'd wanted.
The pair lay there, simply feeling the warmth of each other's bodies. Kazuto etched the feeling into his mind of how soft and small she felt in his arms and the gentle, warm breeze of her exhales into his sternum. His head curved downward to nuzzle the top of her head, softly breathing into her crown. He savored the warmth between them, not wanting to ever let go of her. As he held her on that chilly night, a lone thought came to his mind. Maybe she isn't 'just a friend.'
Little did he know, Shino never actually lent the futon to Rika, as it was still safely folded up in her dresser. Kazuto had simply fallen right into her trap.
Hiya! This was posted on my AO3 account as well. I hope you enjoyed!