It's the sort of landscape that appears at the very ends of your vision, one that gets blurrier the harder you try to see. The winding noises of gears and machinery hiss and ring dully. A large pendulum swings back and forth.
It's a familiar face, a name right at the ragged edges of his cracked throat. "Ayano." He says it again. "Ayano!" Not caring anymore about how he appears, he runs forward and falls, a desperate pang thudding away in his soul. "Don't leave me! I can't do this again!"
The girl sits on a desk of paper cranes and white lilies, eyes shining bright red like the scarf she always wore. "Shintaro. Long time no see. I thought you'd forget me."
"I can't forget you. You're the one thing I can't ever forget. Why didn't you let me save you? There must have been another way!" He grabs at her, but she avoids him with a bittersweet smile.
"It isn't time yet. But above everything else, never lose yourself." She plants a kiss on his forehead and wraps his scarf around him. "You'll be ok, you have many allies you can trust and rely on. I'm counting on it."
"But what about you?" Shintaro grasps her hand. He breathes in the scent of sun, wind, and the unmistakable tang of blood that he'd grown to despise and dread. "Why can't you be here with me? What do you know that I don't?"
"You'd be surprised with how much I can glean even in a limited space like this. But there isn't time. You need to go." She pushes him firmly. Backwards, Shintaro falls, leaving everything the ethereal daze far behind.
"Shintaro. Shintaro! You're going to be late for work!"
Shintaro opens his eyes blearily. I haven't had a dream like that in ages. "Ayano?"
"Of course silly, who else would it be?" She gives him a playful poke. "I have breakfast and coffee ready. Just the way you like it. Hurry before it gets cold."
"Mm, right." The dream already feels hazy as most dreams do after rejoining reality. He briskly pulls on the dress clothes he'd laid out the night before and kisses Ayano before he heads out for his commute. "Love you dear. Stay safe. See you soon."
"Good luck at work honey. I'm heading out later than you, but you'll see me again at dinner."
"Good luck with the kids Miss Tateyama." Shintaro waves from the door.
Ayano smiles and salutes. "Same to you Mr. Kisaragi. And that's Mrs. Kisaragi to you, don't you forget it."
God that's adorable. I'm so lucky to have her. He hides his blushing face and walks to the subway station, not able to keep back his stupidly cheery grin.
The commute is crowded as usual, but it doesn't take long. Shintaro thinks he already sees some of the students of Kashiwa High School starting to congregate into groups as they take their seats in the classroom.
When Shintaro decided to become a teacher he didn't exactly plan to come back to his own high school, but it just sort of turned out that way. After Ayano came back from the haze, there was a lot to catch up on. Shintaro had just dropped out around that time anyway, so they attended school together again, and the rest of the Mekakushi Dan joined them. There was an awkward gap when the staff couldn't figure out what happened to Kenjirou and had to find a replacement, but everything worked out fine. It was a lot to explain when Ayano, Takane, and Haruka came back of course, and how Ayano's adopted siblings would also be attending, not to mention Marry, who'd never been to school in her life, but well… No one would have really believed the actual story and an eye ability would have been really handy to use then. Shintaro pitied the poor teachers who had to deal with multiple members of the Dan in their classroom. Must have been hectic.
"Alright, welcome to another school year students! You may address me as Mr. Kisaragi, and I'm an alumni of this school. Nice to meet all of you. Now, I'm sure some of you all know each other already, but let's go through some introductions, shall we?"
The classroom echoed with a bored chorus of yeses. The students were well accustomed to the drill, and Shintaro wasn't really a fan of it either. He looked around to see if there was anyone that caught his interest.
Just then, he felt a piercing pain as the memory of Ayano in the heat haze returned and overwhelmed his senses. He winces.
"Mr. Kisaragi? Is everything alright?" He meets the gaze of all his concerned students, and just as quickly feels the shame of his NEET days burn into him. He shakes his head and tries to ground himself back in the present.
"Don't worry students, that was just… I remembered something from my own school days. Really embarrassing stuff. Say what, how about I give you guys a short break? I think I have something to discuss with a colleague of mine."
There is a confused silence before the students shrug and start idle chatter. Shintaro takes a deep breath and walks out into the hall, where he can overhear other classes starting their lessons. His fingers shake as he types out a message to Ayano: Have you been in contact with the rest of the Dan lately? I had a weird dream about the haze.
Just then, it happened.
It was as if the air itself warped and changed shape around him and Shintaro heard hissing not unlike the sound of snakes. No! Nonononono I thought I was done with this!
He groans and panics as everything around him went dark. Then there was silence, and something like a deep sleep.
Behind his closed eyes, he sees disjointed images of Ayano, calling out and reaching for his hand. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't get close. Then she vanished entirely.
"Shintaro. Shintaro! You're going to be late to school!"
School? This feels familiar, but there's something off.
Shintaro opens his eyes and sees his old bedroom and Momo glaring down at him.
"Onii-chan! Do you know how long I've been calling you to get up? You're not even going to have time to eat!"
"Momo? Shouldn't you be modeling or something? I thought I went to school already. Why am I here?" Shintaro tries to pinch Momo's cheek before she slaps his hand away.
"Onii-chan, you're so weird! Is this some kind of joke I don't get? Hurry up and put on your uniform. I'm leaving without you." She pouts and closes the door on him. Shintaro takes time to look around.
Momo slapping him was definitely a real sensation. And the room looked exactly how it did when he was still going to high school, before the haze happened. And Ayano… Ayano! He checked his contacts list. Weird, she wasn't there. Maybe he was still being an idiot then and never asked for her number.
He's surprised at how calm he is about this. True, he did experience worse and going through high school again would be a pain, but this was still like something that'd happen in a manga or light novel. This was new.
He looked at himself in the mirror. Definitely younger. He checks his hand and notices his ring is gone. Ayano'd definitely be mad about that. He checks the vicinity in case he misplaced it somewhere but it's nowhere in sight. Guess there's nothing he can do about that. No use going to school, might as well call Ayano and see what's going on.
He dials her number and waits for her to pick up.
This number does not exist, or is no longer in service. Please try again later.
Huh? But I know that's her number. Maybe I'll have to call on her in person. Where's her address?
He puts on his red jersey and heads outside. It's a nice spring day, unlike the hellish summer day of August 15th they had to loop over and over. He appreciates the breeze on his face and the smell of newly budding cherry blossoms as he walks to the Tateyama's.
Kano opens the door.
"You're not at school yet?"
"Neither are you." Kano sticks his tongue out at him. Right, he never really liked him much. And it seems he either wasn't affected or doesn't remember.
"Never mind that, can you call your older sister over here? There's something I want to talk to her about."
"My sister? What do you need her for?" Kano starts closing the door but Shintaro stubbornly wedges his foot in.
"It's important. Please."
Kano scowls. "Fine. Onee-chan! Do you know this sketchy person? There's something at the door that wants to talk to you!"
What a brat… Shintaro has to resist the impulse to slap him. Slapping a kid wouldn't be a good idea. Plus it's Ayano's younger brother we're talking about. "Ayano?"
Kido comes to the door. "Ayano? That's not my name. And I don't know you. Have you mistaken our house for somewhere else?"
"Kido? Kano, I think you made a mistake. I'm looking for Ayano. Your oldest sister. My best friend?" And girlfriend, but he doesn't need to know that yet.
Kano peeks his head around the door. "No Ayano here old man. Only sister I have is Tsubomi. Now stop harassing us. Scram. How do you know our names anyway? Are you some kind of stalker?" Kano tries to slam the door on Shintaro again, but this time he comes inside.
"Hey! You can't do that! Seto! Mom! Dad! Stop this guy! Hey!"
Shintaro tears down the hallway of the Tateyama household looking for the door to Ayano's room. He throws it open wide. There's nothing there.
"Is this some kind of joke?"
"What kind of crazy person just breaks into some person's house to look at an empty closet?" Kano kicks Shintaro in the shin.
"Serves you right, you maniac." Kano prepares to kick him again, but Kido stops him.
"Wait. I don't know why, but I get the feeling we should listen to him."
"What?" Kano peers into Kido's eyes. "He broke into our house talking about some person that doesn't exist. We should call the police."
"Seto, can you make some tea? Don't tell Mom or Dad about uh - "
"Don't tell Mom or Dad about Shintaro yet. We can't explain why he's here after all."
Kano sulks but complies. Seto casts a worried glance but starts boiling water in the kitchen.
Guess Kido's a leader even now. Shintaro's impressed despite himself.
"So? How do you know our names and why are you here?" Kido's trying to be intimidating and she was if you just ignored how small and afraid she actually was.
"I'm not sure you'd believe me even if I told you, I'm going to be honest. Actually, I have a question. How did you all meet?"
Seto pipes up. "We all met at an orphanage before we were adopted by the Tateyamas."
That much is still the same I guess. "All of you are orphans?"
"Yeah. My mom was killed by a burglar, and my dad was a drunk who left us to die. Seto almost drowned trying to save his dog. And Kido and her sister were caught in a fire. No one really wanted anything to do with us after that." Kano deliberately avoids Shintaro's gaze.
"Is that the only reason?" Shintaro reels internally. No one has eye abilities?
"What other reason would there be? Mind your own business. Why should I trust you?"
"No one said anything about trust. I'm sorry for bothering all of you." Shintaro decides to retreat. "Thanks for the tea, and also not calling the police."
"No problem." Kido is puzzled, and for good reason.
"Actually, could I have your number Kido? I might want to message you more about some things and I don't think Kano likes me very much."
"Oh, uh, sure."
Shintaro walks out with one contact in his phone other than his sister and his mom. He has a lot to think about.
It's weird that no one seems to have abilities, especially those who had them early on. It could be that they weren't telling me, but I don't think they were lying. Maybe that means everyone is more socially adjusted here.
For some reason, this doesn't make Shintaro feel any better. Could this be a totally alternate universe? Would he never see Ayano again? He decides his best lead would be someone who'd know Ayano about as well as he did, someone who also went to school with her. He breaks into a run.
Classes had already long since started, but Shintaro has no interest in studying. He hides out near the exit closest to Haruka and Takane's special classroom, waiting. But no one arrives.
Huh? Could this be another change? But that doesn't make sense, this is before they had abilities!
The students in the class nearest the door Shintaro is hiding by start to file out, and Shintaro is startled when he hears a familiar voice: "The hell's this kid doing here? Think he's a student? Why isn't he in his uniform then? Must have been skipping."
Shintaro meets Takane's sharp gaze and without thinking says, "Ene! It's you!"
Takane's face fills with an angry flush of color. "Ene? What kind of name is Ene? I'd hope someone like you would treat your upperclassmen with more respect."
Shoot, I messed up. Haruka doesn't know about Ene yet. Although… I know she has a big crush on him. Maybe I can move things along. She did the same for me after all. It's basically even.
Shintaro kneels on the ground shouting, "If I had known the legendary Dancing Flash Ene had attended my school I would have visited you long before, oh great one. Let me play just one match with you, my grace!"
People are starting to stare. Haruka shuffles awkwardly. "Takane, do you know this person? Why is he calling you Ene?"
"He, uh, I've never met him before in my life!" Takane's eyes flit between Shintaro and Haruka, conflicted between decking Shintaro or keeping up the charade with Haruka. "You must be mistaken. I don't know who Ene is. Go home."
Shintaro takes a deep breath to shout once more. Takane sees this and covers his mouth with her hand hissing, "Alright, don't you dare. We'll talk somewhere in private, yeah?"
Takane wipes her hand on her skirt and turns to the bemused Haruka. "Sorry about the distraction Haruka! I'll walk home with you later! Need to talk to this underclassman first. Won't be a minute."
Haruka shrugs and walks back into the classroom. Takane grabs Shintaro by the collar, which would have been intimidating had it not been for their height difference. Takane knows this but chooses to ignore it either out of spite or sheer bravado. Shintaro struggles to keep a straight face as she says, "Now listen asshole, I don't know who you are, but I don't appreciate you embarrassing me. There better be a good explanation for what you just did or I'll find you and make your life a living hell, got it?"
Shintaro easily slips out of her grasp. "I meant what I said. I want to play a match with you. Also, I know you like him and thought it'd be good for him to know more about you."
Shintaro didn't think it was possible for Takane's face to get even redder. "I still don't know who you are! Who are you to know about me and butt into my business? Is this some sick game? Have you been stalking me? What do you want?" Her voice rises and grows more panicked with each question.
"Alright, relax. I'm just a big fan. I do admit though that I might have some ulterior motives in approaching you. And it involves getting your number."
Takane gives him a look of utter disgust. "Not interested."
Shintaro shrinks inside as he realizes how that must have been misinterpreted. "No! No, that's not what I meant at all. I just wanted to ask you some questions, and I wish you all the best with Haruka, really, I do. Sorry for embarrassing you earlier, I just thought it'd be the easiest way to get you to talk to me."
"Huh. You didn't exactly give me the best impression. But I suppose you don't care about that, do you?" Takane tries to hide it, but she's definitely smirking.
This little shit. "Yeah, I guess I don't. But I'm not lying about the match. Say, if I win, you need to answer all my questions and I get to hang out with you and Haruka whenever I want. How does that sound?"
"And if I win? You really think it'd be that easy to win against someone who got second in Dead Bullet nationals?"
"Whatever you want, but I can assure you, I won't lose. At least, not easily." I haven't really played the shooter Takane likes in a long time, but it should be fine, right? After all, I beat her with absolutely no trouble when I faced off against her all those years ago. This should be a piece of cake.
"Fine! Then if I win, you can call me master and I can order you to do whatever I like." Takane looks triumphant, but Shintaro gets a sense of deja vu.
"Sure. Arcade. Does 4:15 work for you?"
"You're really not going to complain about what I just said? What a weirdo. Must be some kind of pervert. Do you like that or something? Actually, don't answer that." Takane sighs. "You've already taken up this much of my gaming time. Shouldn't be a problem. Hope you're ready to lose."
"I could say the same to you."
Shintaro kills some time at the arcade before their match, not having much to do. He did however, find the address of Hibiya, and has managed to parse out where Marry's forest might be based on what Seto's told him before. It didn't appear Seto had found her yet, but it wouldn't hurt to know.
He curses as he pushes another coin into the first person shooter, where he'd been shot dead again. This is a lot harder than I remember.
"Hey kid." Takane roughly pushes Shintaro. "I don't think you ever told me your name, which is rude considering you know mine. Practicing, huh? Afraid you'll lose?"
Shintaro disregards her obvious jabs. "Looks like Haruka's here too, huh? What's up Haruka?"
"Oh, nothing much." Haruka puts his hand behind his head and chuckles. "I just came here to cheer Takane on. But you don't seem bad yourself."
"Haruka! Don't ignore me!" Takane glares at him and Shintaro. "Your name!"
"Shintaro. Don't wear it out."
"Alright, Shittaro. You're on. Want to be player 1 or player 2? Not that it'll matter when I beat you, but I should be a generous and respectful host since I'm older."
Shintaro can't help but provoke her. "Old hag."
"You little - ! Alright, fuck you then. I'm player 1. Dick."
"Suit yourself, grandma." Shintaro grabs the controller and thinks, Oh god, I'm reverting back to my high school self. I thought I was better than this.
The game is much closer than Shintaro could have anticipated. Shit, shit, shit, I underestimated her! I didn't think being out of practice would fuck me over this bad!
He looks over at Takane, expecting some sort of smug expression but she's totally focused on her game. Guess even she has a professional side.
Just then the screens cut to black.
"Oops." Haruka sheepishly lifts the wires he tripped over and disconnected. "Sorry, I ruined your game. It seemed like you were having so much fun…"
Takane sighs and puts down the controller. "Damnit, I admit my loss, Shintaro. You've completely and utterly beaten me. What do you have to ask?"
Shintaro feels weirdly contradictory about this. "Hey, but you were totally gaining on me towards the end! There's no way we could have known who won!"
Takane opens her eyes. "It's a draw then?" She extends a hand to Shintaro. "Good game."
"Good game." Shintaro takes her hand and firmly shakes it. "I can still call you master if you want."
"Hell no. You just annoyed me earlier. I don't expect you to seriously do that."
"Oh come on, don't be stubborn master! What do you want me to do for you?"
Takane gags. "Gross! Figures you'd be into something like that. Hurry up and ask your questions before I change my mind."
"Do you know a girl my age named Ayano? Red hair clips, always wore a red scarf even in the middle of summer, embarrassingly bad grades, smiles a lot?"
"Nope!" Takane doesn't even take the time to think about it. "I don't exactly pay attention to your class, and even then, she seems like she'd be extremely noticeable because of the scarf thing. What's with her, gets cold easily or something?"
Shintaro groans. He'd feared this. "How about you Haruka?"
Before he can answer, Takane jumps up. "Aha! You like her! Whoever this is! Who else would know this much random information about someone? What a wimp! Relying on senpais to get more information about her instead of talking to her himself. Ahahaha! You're so timid!"
"Takane - " Haruka begins.
Despite himself, Shintaro's ears grow red. "I could say the same for your own feelings, Ene."
"Don't call me that!" Takane smacks Shintaro's head. Haruka has to stop her from attacking him more.
"That's enough, Takane. You're being rude. Apologize."
"No! Why should I? He insulted me - "
Haruka firmly grabs Takane by the shoulders. "Apologize."
"I - I'm sorry, Shintaro. That was wrong of me." Takane sulks. "There! Is that enough for you?"
"Sorry about what?" Haruka puts Takane down but keeps his hands on her.
Takane scowls. "I'm sorry about hitting you, insulting you, and calling you a wimp."
Haruka smiles. "There, that wasn't so hard was it? Now I want all of us to be friends."
Takane explodes. "Friends? Friends? With this loser? Do you really expect me to - "
"Takane." Haruka shoots her a warning glance and she quiets down.
"Fine, but only because it was part of the deal. You have my word. But you're not my friend."
Shintaro sighs. "That's fine with me. I just need you to input your numbers here - " he opens his contacts on his phone, " - and I'll be on my way."
"You better not use it to pull weird pranks on me. And if you call me while I'm in the middle of something, I'll kill you."
"I'm likely only going to message you, and only if I really need to. I'd never call without notice."
"The hell do you want my number for then?"
"Questions." Shintaro answers cryptically and exits the arcade.
Takane and Haruka look at Shintaro, then at each other and shrug.
Shintaro picks up some things at the supermarket then checks the fridge of their apartment. As expected, it seems Momo filled it with nothing but convenience store snacks.
No soda… maybe it's because I didn't befriend Haruka yet.
Shintaro puts on his black hoodie and an apron and starts whistling as he cut vegetables for the evening meal.
Momo comes in as the water came to a boil. "That smells really good, onii-chan! What are you making? I didn't know you could cook!"
"It's just curry. Ayano taught me." Shintaro says it before he can stop himself.
"Ayano? Who's Ayano? Is she some idol or something?"
Shintaro was expecting this at this point, but he groans and burns his hand on the curry. "Ah!"
"Onii-chan! Are you ok?" Momo runs over to Shintaro and puts ice on his hand. "You have to be careful!"
"I'm alright." Shintaro slumps over the counter. "Actually, Momo, can you take care of the rest? I don't really feel hungry anymore."
"But onii-chan, you still need to eat something…"
"Don't worry about me, I'll get some later. Don't wait up." Shintaro walks over to his room and closes the door.
"Well… alright. If you say so."
Shintaro had been holding back all this time, but he can't stop it anymore. He collapses on his bed and mutters, "Ayano, where are you? Ayano, I miss you so much… Ayano… "
Before he knew it, he drifted off.
"Onii-chan! Onii-chan! Wake up dummy! Did you forget you have school again?" Momo peers down at Shintaro, worried. "You burned yourself pretty badly yesterday, and you didn't even eat dinner. Are you alright?"
Shintaro yawns and stretches, the events of the past day coming back to him. "I'm fine, I'll have some leftover curry. You didn't eat it all, did you?"
"Of course not! I left some for you. Do you really think I'm such a glutton?"
Before Shintaro can answer Momo frowns. "Don't answer that."
"I wasn't going to," says Shintaro. He looks around. Same as yesterday. "Actually, can you tell mom I'm not going to school today?"
"Huh, why? I know you don't like school but you always went… Are you just going to stay home and play games?"
Shintaro gives Momo a dirty look. She laughs. "I was just joking! Don't take it so seriously. Is this for that Ayano person?"
"Yeah. Yeah it is actually. How did you know?"
"Just a lucky guess. You never answered yesterday. Who is Ayano?"
"She - she's a good friend of mine. She's really important to me."
"I didn't know you had friends. I'm happy for you onii-chan."
If it was from anyone else, Shintaro would have been offended, but he nods. "Thanks Momo. I'll be back soon."
"You better get me some pudding on the way back! You owe me!"
Shintaro grins. "Even with all the snacks in the fridge? You're going to get fat."
"Am not! Onii-chan, you're so mean! How could anyone like someone like you?"
"Haha, I wonder. I'll get it for you Momo. I promise."
"You better! Or I'll tell Ayano all the embarrassing things about you!"
"You don't even know her! How do you expect to do that?"
"You suck at keeping secrets onii-chan! I'll find a way." Momo smiles and waves as Shintaro leaves the apartment. He waves back.
"See you Momo!"
"Better come back safe onii-chan!"
Shintaro checks the address he'd written down. "Amamiya Hibiya…"
He lived way out in the country, and Shintaro didn't remember talking to him much, but maybe he could give him some leads. He had that girl after all, Hiyori, who got sucked in the daze.
Shintaro takes a train for a countless number of stops, counting down until he finally reached the place he was after. This is it, I guess. Here goes nothing.
He walked past rows and rows of fields, seeing nothing but a lone vending machine in the middle of nowhere. He gets a soda, cracks it open, and downs its contents.
"Ah!" The soda is refreshing against the hot sun beating down in the open countryside. He finally sees the Amamiya dojo and breaks into a sprint.
He knocks on the door. "Hello, I'd like to talk to your son please!"
A suspicious eye peeks out. "What business would a man like you have with my son?"
Shintaro thinks fast. "I'm a special private tutor."
"Shouldn't you be at school?"
"I'm a prodigy, I graduated early."
The man grunts, considering this. He then opens the sliding door. "Enter."
Shintaro thanks him and goes inside. It's more spacious than he expected. "Hello?"
"Who the hell is this?" Hibiya stands in Shintaro's way suspiciously.
"This is your tutor, Mr. - "
"Kisaragi. I've heard lots of good things about you Hibiya. It's nice to meet you."
"Sure." Hibiya narrows his eyes at him. "I didn't hear I was getting a tutor."
"I personally scouted you myself. You're a man of many talents, you know. Full of focus and intellect. I see great things from you, young man!" God kill me, please let this bluff work, I don't want to have come all the way out here for nothing.
Hibiya snorts. "Whatever." He turns away from him and goes back to reading manga.
Guess he bought it.
Shintaro takes his manga and puts it facedown on the floor. "So tell me about yourself."
"Piss off old man."
What is it with all these kids calling me old? Just because I'm older than them doesn't mean I'm old! Shintaro forces a smile. "Now, don't be like that. Tell me what, are there any girls you like? Maybe someone named Hiyori?"
Shintaro now has his attention. "What the hell do you know about Hiyori?"
"So I was right! There is someone you like! Tell me about her!"
"What the hell does this have to do with tutoring?"
"I never told you what I'm tutoring you about now, did I?"
Hibiya looks confused. Shintaro is also not entirely sure where to take this, but decides that it's too late now.
"Listen Hibiya, I promise to help you get closer to Hiyori, but you just have to promise me one thing. Do everything I say, and bring Hiyori with you to the city on August 15."
"August 15? What's so special about August 15? And why the city?"
"Didn't you know? Hiyori's crazy about the city. We'll exchange numbers and I'll give you my address. Just promise."
"... alright. Not really like I have anything to lose." Hibiya enters the number into Shintaro's phone but says, "I don't have my own number. I don't have my own phone. We only have the dojo's landline. So you'll either have to call or send a letter. Signal's not very good here."
"I'll keep that in mind." Shintaro dusts himself off and prepares to leave. "Nice talk."
"Wait! Can't you at least tell me a little about how to get Hiyori to notice me?" Hibiya sounds desperate.
Oh boy. "Listen, just be nice and listen to what she has to say. That's really all I can tell you. There's no surefire way to make her like you back. It all just has to happen naturally. Try and spend some time with her and learn more about her interests. See you on August 15. That's the only thing you really have to remember. August 15. Got it?"
"Yeah, yeah, I got it, geez!" Hibiya seems disappointed. He escorts Shintaro out. "You sure you don't want to stay over? It was a long ride here wasn't it?"
"No, I'm not staying just to give you more advice."
"I have school tomorrow, and so do you probably. Get some rest. August 15. My place."
Shintaro finally makes it back home and collapses on the couch.
"How was your day?"
"Exhausting. Had to keep telling this kid how to get a clue but he wasn't getting it. Don't know if he has. But I'm going to have him and his girlfriend visit us on August 15. Is that alright?"
"August 15? That's some time away. Why that specific date? Does it have to do with Ayano?"
"What doesn't have to do with Ayano?"
"Geez onii-chan, you really have it bad. You better treat her well."
"Of course. It's all a matter of finding her first…"
"Onii-chan? Guess he fell asleep. Wonder what that means."
The days pass by more quickly than Shintaro expected. He messages Kido on the regular and visits the Tateyama residence on occasion. Everyone there recognizes him now, and while Kano still doesn't like him, he at least doesn't seem to hate him. He's struck up a friendship with Haruka and Takane, who's still bitter about him knowing about her crush. And Hibiya… He still gets lengthy letters from Hibiya about Hiyori, and he hasn't responded to a single one of them. He has a serious obsession. Hopefully he grows out of it.
As August 15 draws closer, Momo frets about the state of the apartment. "Onii-chan, is it really clean enough to host Hibiya and Hiyori here? Are they fussy about food? What do I say to them?"
Shintaro is noticeably less worried. "They're from the countryside Momo. And they're like 10. Don't worry about it."
"They're not even teenagers? Onii-chan, you never told me that!"
"Huh, I thought I did. Anyway Momo, I'm surprised you even remember I told you that forever ago."
"Of course I remember! Every day you're saying weird things about August 15 in your room. It's seriously creepy."
"You could hear that? You should have told me!"
"It's none of my business onii-chan. But you better explain this to me when it's all over."
"Alright Momo. It's a lot. Do you think you'd understand?"
"Even if I don't, I'll make you explain it to me onii-chan. Promise me!"
"Alright, I promise." Shintaro curls his pinky around Momo's. "It's official."
On the day of August 14, the doorbell rings at around 5 am.
Shintaro groans. Who the hell is awake at 5 am?
Surprisingly, Momo opens the door. "Hibiya and Hiyori? You're so early! We weren't expecting you yet! Come in! My brother isn't awake yet so you'll have to wait. I'm Momo Kisaragi, his younger sister. Nice to meet you. I've heard a lot."
Shintaro can hear the sound of the table being set. "Hibiya, don't worry! I'm sure I can handle it!"
There's a crashing sound. "On second thought, if you really insist - "
Shintaro finally musters the energy to get out of bed. He tries to look presentable but can't really tell in the early morning light. "Morning - "
"Onii-chan! You look like a mess!" Momo shoos Shintaro back into his room and runs a brush roughly through his hair.
"We have those important guests you kept talking about over, and you can't even be bothered to look even a little nice. Shame!"
Guess I can't do anything on my own. "Thanks Momo."
Hibiya runs up to Shintaro as soon as he sees him. "Expert tutor, my ass. You never responded to any of my letters. What's your problem?"
Shintaro shrugs. "Guess they never got here."
"Bullshit! But I did get Hiyori here and she was really excited about this trip so thanks I guess." Hibiya says quietly. "I'm still annoyed at you though."
"Most people are. Did you make this?"
Hibiya made a large breakfast spread that could feed far more than just their motley group. Shintaro's eyes felt dazzled. He'd never eat this much.
"Is it too much? Is it weird?"
"Hibiya, it's great!" Momo hugs him and Hibiya panics. "Get off me you old hag!"
"Hibiya! How dare you be so rude to this onee-san who's allowing us to stay here!" Hiyori glares at Hibiya and he winces. "Momo onee-san, forgive him, he's but a simple country boy who doesn't know manners."
"Hiyori!" Hibiya looks wounded.
Momo laughs but it sounds forced. "Well I suppose not everyone likes hugs. I'll stay out of your space, ok?"
They eat quietly. As soon as they're done, Hiyori starts asking questions at a rapid fire pace. "So what's there to do around here? Anything fun or interesting? How long have you lived here? Do you live alone? Where do you usually like to go shopping? Are there any wild animals here? Why did you invite us? Do you like the city? What are schools here like? Is everything here like in the dramas? What sort of food do you eat here? Do you know any idols?"
Shintaro gets up. "Hiyori, excuse me for a moment. Can I talk to you?"
Hiyori and Shintaro walk to a secluded corner.
Shintaro exhales. "I can try and answer your questions, but first you have to promise me something."
"Why should I? I mean, thanks for inviting us and all, but I came here to do whatever I want."
God, I forgot she's a total brat too! Shintaro curses his luck. "Ok, listen, I could just as easily send you back if I wanted to, and you don't want that, do you? It's a simple thing. See that mall outside and the bridge overlooking it? I want you to stand on that bridge tomorrow at 12:30 pm on the dot. Got it?"
Hiyori wrinkles her nose. "That's it? What a weird promise."
"I promise it'll be worth your while. It's easy, and I can give you an exclusive autograph opportunity with an amateur idol."
"Wow, really? I guess that's better than nothing. But my memory isn't very good. Why don't I give you my number and you remind me? Of course, you better delete my number right afterwards. I wouldn't want to be associated with someone like you."
This ungrateful little - "Yeah sure, enter it here."
Momo takes Hibiya and Hiyori out shopping for the day. Shintaro takes out a pair of red scissors from his desk and contemplates its sharpness. There was something only he could do tomorrow.
He watches the bridge and the street across it the next morning. Hiyori gets on the bridge as promised and as expected Hibiya's with her. They chat.
As 12:30 draws closer and closer, Shintaro's hands sweat. He didn't know if he had it in him to do what he thought he had to do. He holds the scissors by their blades and the sunlight reflects off them.
The clock strikes 12:30. Nothing seems to be wrong. Shintaro lifts the scissors but his hands shake. He can't do it. He just wasn't that sort of person anymore.
Just then, unprompted Hiyori ran into the street.
"Hiyori!" Hibiya runs after her.
Shintaro watches in horror and drops the scissors. "No!"
Shintaro manages to overtake the both of them and his eyes blaze red as the truck hits him full force. Everything goes black.
"Didn't take you for the hero type."
Shintaro opens his eyes. His body screams in pain, but he doesn't have any visible injuries. Slowly, he stands up.
It's not the landscape he remembers. He sees a completely white empty expanse and a ton of black snakes slithering over each other. He feels sick.
"Who are you, and why have you been interfering with this world? How did you get here?"
Shintaro feels a terrifyingly powerful presence. He turns and sees what he only heard about in stories.
Azami, the gorgon who started it all. Marry's grandmother.
"Where's Ayano? Tell me where she is!"
"There are many things I've taken from this world. She is one of them. She escalated the conflict, and I can't have that. Do you know how long I was in here, waiting? Helpless as my granddaughter suffers and that absolute bastard of a snake destroys everything I've made? I've finally created the perfect world and I won't have anyone ruin it."
"It's not your right to decide who lives or not! I want Ayano back! And everyone else does too, even if they don't remember it! Marry had a happy life like everyone else! How could you take that from her?"
"Do you know how painful the memories are? Of seeing her family and friends die over and over? Of being different than everyone else in ways no one can comprehend? You could never understand."
"I may not completely, but I can sure try! The memories are what made Marry and everyone else who they are! Let me go back!"
"You have spunk. Tell you what, I'll let you know the key, and then I'll return you to where you were. You can do whatever you like with the information. Just know, I won't give anything else so easily."
"What is it? Tell me!"
"You've always known. It lies in you, that scarf girl, and my granddaughter, the queen. But I won't let you touch her. All their memories have been locked away and won't be easy to bring back. Now go. You're an eyesore. I feel sick just talking to you."
She pushes Shintaro back and he falls, endlessly, into a pit of writhing black and glowing red…
Shintaro gasps, sitting up with a start. He's in a bed much too small for him. He recognizes the nurse's office of Kashiwa High School.
"He's back! He just suddenly collapsed and we had to call someone to get him."
Shintaro croaks. "Ayano?"
"We couldn't grab a hold of Mrs. Kisaragi. Everyone's been looking for her everywhere. But don't worry about that. I'm sure they'll find her soon."
Shintaro's heart sinks. I'm back. But she still isn't.
"Onii-chan! I was so worried!" Momo runs in and hugs Shintaro tightly, tears streaming down her cheeks. "I thought you were gone!"
"Momo - can't - breathe - "
Momo releases her grasp. Shintaro releases all the tension in his body and smiles sadly at Momo. "I'm back. What did I miss?"
"It's an absolute madhouse onii-chan! Everyone has their abilities back and we don't know what's going on! I thought it was off when I suddenly got a ton of modeling offers, but apparently it's been happening to everyone! Seto passed out at the zoo after hearing so many minds, Marry accidentally petrified some people, Kido went invisible and almost had a panic attack, it was awful."
"Your abilities are back?" How is that possible?
"But the worst thing is, Ayano's completely disappeared! None of our abilities can find her, and I even asked Hibiya-chan! I'm so sorry, onii-chan!"
Shintaro pats Momo on the head. "It's not your fault. It's out of our control."
"Right, onii-chan, you always had a special connection to Ayano and the haze! Do you know anything?"
Shintaro laughs bitterly. "Maybe. But first I need to see Marry."
End of Part One