"Shintaro. Shintaro! Where have you been? I've been looking all over for you!"
That voice. But it couldn't be. "Ayano?" He says disbelievingly. He says it again, louder this time. "Ayano!" He runs forward and puts his arms around her. This time, she doesn't avoid him and hugs him back.
"Shintaro, I missed you."
"Ayano… I missed you too. More than you could ever know."
Ayano laughs and runs her hand through his hair. "But I do know, silly." It was hard to notice, but for just a moment, her eyes had the unmistakable hint of red.
"You have your ability? Did you use it on me? To come back?"
"I don't need an ability to know what you're thinking Shintaro. I have no use for it on you. I've always known. And I always will. You've never been good at hiding your emotions."
"You were the only one who ever saw anything in me Ayano. You saved me."
"No. You saved yourself. I only helped you see what you couldn't see in yourself. Just a push in the right direction. You're my hero, Shintaro. My happiness. Thank you for everything you've done for my family."
"But of course. Anything for you. I'll always search for you. In thousands of worlds, in millions of timelines, I won't stop until I can finally find you and give you the happy life you always deserved."
Ayano blushes and buries her face in Shintaro's chest. "I love you so much. I've loved you for a long, long time. Why couldn't you have noticed it sooner, you big blockhead?"
"But hey, I noticed eventually right?" Shintaro playfully pokes Ayano and she giggles.
"Stop, that tickles!"
"You're so cute. I'm so lucky to have you in my life."
Ayano's voice suddenly becomes much more serious. "Could you listen to a selfish request of mine?"
"Anything love. Anything at all."
"I want you to go to our closet and take out the things in the old box on the very right."
"Is that your request? That seems easy enough - "
"I'm not done yet. Bring the box and then there's something else too."
Shintaro obligingly brings the box. It's heavier than he expected. He doesn't know how he never noticed it.
"Could you open the box for me?" Ayano's eyes look a bit red, but it isn't the same hue as her ability. She looks like she'd been crying.
"I'm fine. Please just open the box and show me everything that's inside." Ayano pats Shintaro's head reassuringly.
He opens the box. "My jersey? I outgrew that ages ago. I didn't think I'd ever see it again. It's all worn and - "
"There's other things in the box too."
Shintaro rummages through and finds other treasures, exclaiming, "When did we take these photos? This was all when we were still in high school! You know, before any of that happened! And that game I used to play with Takane all the time, and some of Haruka's sketches, and - "
His voice catches as he gets to the last object. A red scarf. It looked the same as it always has.
"Can you put it on me? Put on your jersey too."
Shintaro thinks of protesting, there's no way that'd fit, but something stops him. He wraps the scarf around Ayano's neck and pulls on the red jersey. Somehow, it fits perfectly, and looks less worn than before.
"Brings back a lot of memories, doesn't it?" Ayano smiles.
Shintaro doesn't think he likes where this is headed. "Yeah."
"Can you promise something to me?"
"No. Tell me what it is. There's something bothering you. I can tell."
"There's nothing bothering me." Ayano's hands fidget.
"Liar. Like you said, I can tell."
"You're so mean, Shintaro. Only being perceptive when it hurts. There isn't much time. Promise me."
"No! Tell me what you want!"
"What I want is for you to be happy. That's all."
"Ayano, whatever it is you're about to do, don't. I can't be happy without you. I won't." Shintaro stubbornly clings to her, not letting her escape.
"You're so mean…" Shintaro watches as tears gather in Ayano's eyes and fall on her scarf. "You're making this so much harder for me. I don't want to go. You're too kind. Too kind for someone like me."
"Ayano, then don't go. Stay with me. We can make this work out." Shintaro doesn't know what Ayano is so upset about but he's desperate. Not again. Never again. "Don't sacrifice yourself for me!"
"But that's all I'm good for… You have to leave. She's going to see me soon, and there'll be consequences. She's ruthless you know. I took a lot of risks to say goodbye."
"This isn't goodbye." Shintaro grabs Ayano's hand tightly. "Who is it? Who's making you do this?"
"Their name is - "
The world erupts into a shower of black and red. Azami steps into the fray and Ayano looks terrified. "Shintaro, you're no match for her. You can't fight her."
"I don't care if it's impossible! I won't let her take you! There are people that care about you! I care about you! Why can't you ever realize that? It doesn't matter what she does. I'll talk to Marry. I'll talk to everyone. And we'll win."
A chill fills the air as Azami's words fall thick and heavy. "Lover's quarrel? Appears the usurper has escaped her cage. I won't be so careless next time."
Ayano shivers but jumps in front of her. "You can't take him. I won't allow it."
"It doesn't matter what you allow, weak mortal girl. I have the power here. And red is unbecoming of you. Let me relieve you of your struggles. I hate people like you more than anything."
"Shintaro, promise me! This isn't the end, alright? I trust you'll do the right thing. My family has already moved on without me. But you have the power to bring everything back and change their hearts. I know now. This decision was never mine to make. I love you. I'm sorry."
Ayano smiles again and a hole opens and swallows her into writhing black slithering oblivion.
"Ayano!" Shintaro grabs at her hand but the hole closes before he can reach her. He hears a cry of tortured pain that destroys his throat. Why can't I save her when it matters?
"It appears you'll be more of a pest than I thought. No matter. You'll never see her again." Azami turns her back on him, not wanting to take in his broken body.
Shintaro looks up and his eyes glint angrily. "That's where you're wrong. I'll never stop. Never!"
"I'm amused by what a young boy like you thinks you can do. Alright. Try then. Try and fail until you fall into an even deeper despair. Experience the pain of seeing everyone you love disappear and despair at the thought that all of this could have been avoided if it wasn't for your own stubborn ignorance."
"Have you no heart? How could you do this to someone with nothing to do with you?" Shintaro shouts.
Azami's eyes flash dangerously. "Are you threatening me, boy? Appears there's no brain inside that head of yours. My heart was taken from me by your own kind. And you speak to me of kindness? Don't make me laugh. All of you are the same. Every single one of you. Rotten to the core. Crueler than anything that could ever exist. If I could, I'd tear down every single thing any of you has ever made and the world would be better for it."
"Haven't you loved someone once?" Shintaro pleads.
Azami pauses. "Once. But never again. I only protect my own." She places her hand on his face. Shintaro wants to strike at her and turn away but he can't move.
"Sleep young foolish mortal boy. Sleep and wake up in a world without you. Feel the loss of being forgotten and alone. Only then can you see me again. And I'll crush all your hopes and leave you to die."
The whispers fade. Shintaro wakes up. There's no one to wake him this time. He'd said something truly awful to the only person that could have possibly helped him.
He groans as it all comes back to him. He was alone in what was now Momo's apartment, and it appeared she had still never learned how to clean up after herself. You'd think a former idol and current model would want to have a tidy image, but the place was a total wreck. Shintaro didn't know how she found anything here.
Luckily, his room was mostly the same as he left it. He'd collapsed in it the day before after his talk with the Dan which didn't go too well - it'd basically ended with a screaming match and everyone mad at him. Which made sense. He was pretty mad at himself.
"None of you understand. I'm the only one that can do this." Shintaro waves off the rest of the group, backing away.
"Let us help you! I'm not the leader of the Dan for nothing! Do you think we don't care about Ayano as much as you do?" Kido pleads.
"You don't know anything! I'm the only one that remembers anything because of my ability. You'll just slow me down."
"That may be so, but we won't know anything if you don't tell us." says Seto stubbornly.
"Why do you care? Can't you just read my mind and tell everyone else?" Shintaro says bitingly.
Seto winces. Kano glares at him. "Hey asshole, you know he doesn't like using his ability. Why don't you consider anyone else's feelings besides yours and Ayano's? Selfish prick."
Shintaro ignores him. "Marry, you have to reset the timeline. I have to go back."
"I - I don't know if I can. I don't want to - "
"Absolutely useless every single one of you!" Shintaro snaps. "Fine! Leave me. I don't know why I even bothered. Ayano was right. It would be so much better if you were gone!"
Marry gasps, tears gathering in her pale eyes. Seto hugs her and glares, as does the rest of the Dan. "You take that back."
"No, I won't! You don't care about Ayano! You never have! All just stupid pretend and make-believe hero bullshit when you can't even save a single person. Do you know how many times all of you have failed, and how many times I've had to come and bail you out? I didn't have to do that, and maybe I shouldn't have! I hope the haze just swallows you up and I never see any of you ever again!"
"Onii-chan! Ayano would never say that! Apologize, right now! You aren't thinking straight." Momo stamps her foot at him.
"Oh, I see how it is. Siding with them over me. Fine. Abandon me. I don't care." Shintaro puts his hands in his pockets and walks off.
Ene sidles up to him but he shakes her off. "Move. Are you here to insult me too? Add insult to injury? I don't need your pity."
"Shintaro, I was the only one on your side when you were alone in your room for two years. Can't you at least tell me what's going on? I can tell there's something on your mind."
"What, so you can tell everyone else and betray me? Fuck off, Ene. I should have deleted you too."
Ene stops. "You don't mean that. You can't possibly mean that."
"I do." Shintaro looks straight into her eyes. She slaps him across the face so hard he loses balance for half a second before continuing forward.
"You shitty NEET! I should never have helped you!" Ene tries running after him but Haruka stops her. "Takane."
"Let me at him! I'll get him to spill everything, every last dirty rotten secret. He can't hide from me!"
"Takane, it's no use talking to him like this. You have to let him do that himself."
"As if!" Takane struggles, but Haruka won't budge. "Let me go! I'll slap you too!"
"Try me!" Takane reaches for his face but Haruka lifts her off the ground. "You can't reach, and neither can Shintaro. He has a plan. We'll just have to figure it out as we go like we always do."
"What makes you so sure? He was always so unreliable. A total loser of a guy. How can you trust him?"
Haruka looks into the sinking sun on the horizon. "He's never failed us before. And we don't have much of a choice."
"We're all going home. Try to get all your abilities under control. If you don't have anywhere to stay or anywhere to go, you can stay at our place." Kido makes it seem like an option, but it sounds more like a command.
Seto carefully carries the weeping Marry on his back and adds weakly, "If you want."
Kano's eyes flare. "No, not if you want. Come over so we can figure out how we beat that punk's ass. I can't believe he was ever part of the Mekakushi Dan. Permission to expel him, commander?"
Kido sighs and closes her eyes. She looks tired. "No. Once a member, always a member. Come now."
The Dan disband and go their separate ways, with some following the commander and her lackeys. Hibiya walks close to Momo, piping up, "Hey, do you know where you're going to go? I can walk you there."
Momo brushes him off. "No, it's fine. I'll probably just go to my apartment."
"Say… Shintaro was really panicking back there. I haven't seen him in so long but geez. This was no reunion. Some guy, huh?"
"If you're thinking about talking bad about my brother, don't. A lot's happened. And all of us had a long day. Is there something you want from me?"
"Well… no." Hibiya puts his hands behind his back. "How old are you Momo?"
Normally she would have snapped, saying something like it's rude to ask a maiden's age, but she sighs. "Early twenties, why?"
"Just thinking. We have a five year age difference, right? Remember when I was obsessed with finding Hiyori all those years ago? It feels a lot like that I think. What Shintaro's going through. I feel bad for him."
"Huh. I didn't expect you to actually relate to my brother." Momo turns and looks at him.
"In any normal circumstance, I'd hope not. God, he's so sappy it's disgusting." Hibiya shudders.
Momo laughs. "You were totally like that with Hiyori. Worse even."
"Were too! What's happened between you and her, actually?"
"We… broke up. It didn't last long. Something about not really being compatible."
"Oh Hibiya… I'm sorry." Momo intends to pat his head, but her hands have to reach more than she remembered. He'd gotten a lot taller. When did that happen? I'm even wearing heels!
"Haha, it's fine. And Momo, I'm not eleven anymore. You don't have to treat me like a kid."
Momo blushes. "I can't just get that image out of my head though. You were so cute then!" Then she pauses and thinks about it. "Actually, scratch that. You weren't cute at all. You were so rude to me!"
Hibiya's face grows red. "That was because… I was an idiot, Momo. I didn't know how to express my thanks to you. You helped me so much. And I want to return the favor."
Momo stops and thinks. "You can make me dinner."
"Sure." Hibiya says it so quickly and with no hesitation. Momo feels a bit embarrassed.
"I think onii-chan's going to be at my place. I know how he is. So we can go to his and Ayano's. Lot cleaner there. Lot more food stocked too, I bet."
Hibiya shrugs. "Sounds like a plan."
"And if the Mekakushi Dan call us again about something else, you can find them much more quickly than my whole gathering gimmick. I'm holding you responsible, alright?"
Hibiya grins. "Sure, commander Momo."
"And you better not peek on me in the bath!"
Momo stares at Hibiya. He looks away.
"You're thinking about it!"
"I wasn't! But then you mentioned it!"
"I can't help it! I'm a guy! But I won't go in. I won't peek, and I won't be anywhere near the bath. You have my word."
"And how much is your word worth?" Momo says suspiciously.
"Uh, dinner? What sort of food do you like?"
"I like karaage, pork katsudon, ramen, natto, udon, onigiri, sushi, teriyaki, sukiyaki, burgers, croquettes, donuts, pasta, curry, steak, and - "
"There's absolutely no way I can make all that. And even if I did, you wouldn't be able to eat all of it."
Momo pouts. Hibiya closes his eyes and sighs. "Fine, but you're such a needy onee-san. I'm going to make my own menu, alright? No complaining since I'm making the meal. And you'll help with the dishes."
"I hate dishes, but alright. I tend to drop them. Really clumsy onee-san, you know?" Momo flutters her eyes at him. It didn't work.
"Nice try, Momo."
"Damnit! I was hoping that'd work."
"What? No I'm not!"
"You are. You haven't changed at all. And that's what I like about you."
Momo circles around. Is he joking? He didn't seem like he was.
"Say that again? I don't think I heard properly."
Hibiya blushes. "Onee-chan, don't make me say it again. I think you did hear me."
"Momo. Call me Momo. And say it again."
"I l-like you Momo. As more than a friend. I've liked you for a long time now."
Momo screams internally. I just invited him into onii-chan and Ayano's apartment! And my heart's fluttering! What's wrong with me?
It wasn't like this was the first time they spent time together. Hibiya had gotten into the habit of catching her shoots and sending letters, but she always just thought he was a fan. Although, I guess there were times they ate out together. And he did seem to ask frequently if she was free on the weekends. Were those dates?
As if he could hear what she was thinking, Hibiya replies, "You don't have to accept my confession now. But I would like you to think about it. And I won't do anything to you if it makes you uncomfortable. I can keep my distance. And I never want to do anything to hurt you. Just - just know that's how I feel."
Momo's silent. Hibiya walks ahead of her. "Momo, I know that there's a lot on your mind and that this probably wasn't the best timing but - "
"What do you know, idiot! You're still a little kid who thinks he's all grown up! And watch where you're going! You don't even know the directions! Stupid!" Momo stretches out the last word, emphasizing each syllable. She'd never been so embarrassed in her life, not even in that live where she was drunk and puked all over herself.
"Hey, is that any way to respond to the guy who just confessed and is making you dinner?" Hibiya sounds hurt. Momo expected him to lash back so this just confused her more. "I'm not a little kid anymore Momo. I've graduated and I have a job now if that's what you're worried about. I could probably - "
"You could probably what? What are you going to do, jumping to conclusions like that? This isn't what we're supposed to be worried about right now! Shintaro's - "
"Do you like Shintaro more than me?" Hibiya kneels down and looks up at her.
"I - What do you mean by that! I would never be in love with my brother!"
"But you'd be in love with me?"
Momo blushes and starts walking quickly away from him. Hibiya runs to catch up.
"Momo, I'm sorry, I was joking! Don't run away - "
Momo turns and kisses him on the mouth.
Hibiya gasps in surprise then closes his eyes. He holds her tight. They make out under the stars.
Momo isn't sure what made her do it, but he wasn't a bad kisser. She separates and takes a deep breath. "Not bad."
"Y-you're really good at it." Hibiya looks dazed.
"Was that your first kiss?"
"I-I've imagined it, but I wasn't sure it'd go like that."
"Was it bad then? Sorry." Momo feels her lips. Maybe they were a little chapped…
"No, not at all. Just give me a moment." Hibiya tries desperately to hide the stupid grin covering his face. This was better than he could have imagined. He gets up and starts shouting, "I'm in love with Momo Kisaragi! I've just had my first kiss!"
Momo hits his shoulder. "Stop it! You're embarrassing me!"
"Why don't you stop me then?"
This kid. He really hasn't grown up at all. She clears the hair from her face and kisses him again. Hibiya seems to have gotten more courage, as he's touchier this time. Momo opens her eyes and hits him.
"Don't get ahead of yourself just because I'm a famous idol. We don't know where things are going to go from here. And you'll only treat me with respect, and make me food everyday, and, and - "
Hibiya rubs the area Momo hit him. "That was actually kind of hot. And aren't you a model now?"
"Shut up! That doesn't matter right now! No touching!"
"As a model though, don't you have that sort of thing all the time?"
Momo glares at him. "What kind of model do you think I am?"
Hibiya shrinks. "I'm sorry, I don't actually know a lot about that kind of thing. But you can't tell me that was your first kiss."
"Ah, I should have figured." Hibiya sighs.
"But that was the first one that actually mattered. First one worth remembering."
They hold hands as they walk slowly back to the apartment late and they talk over dinner. They had a lot more in common than they realized.
Marry goes to her room and kneels down in a sort of praying motion. Seto shuffles around.
"You know you don't have to take what that jerk said to heart. It doesn't mean anything."
"But it does. I know he was angry, but he was right. My ability's been no good to anyone. I have to at least try if I want to protect the people I love."
Seto doesn't agree, but she looks more serious than she has in ages. He sighs and closes the door.
Kido and Kano are leading a strategy meeting. Haruka and Takane listen intently. Seto can hear snatches of their conversation -
"I bet it's kidnappers. They just have her hidden really well."
"But that doesn't explain how Hibiya couldn't find her with his ability."
"I don't know, maybe it malfunctioned or something? He's probably out of practice so - "
"I think it might be that the snake's back. Maybe he possessed her."
"But we totally defeated him! There's no way."
"Yeah, but the haze probably still exists right? So maybe if - "
Seto goes to his own room and collapses onto the floor. "Ayano, if you were here, what would you do?" He sees a photo of the four of them together as kids, her with her highschool friends, and a group shot of all of them together, and sighs deeply.
Marry's eyes go red. "Bring it all back to zero. Find my family."
Around the same time, Shintaro tries sending another message to Ayano. I miss you.
Light and space contorts again as Shintaro is swallowed back into the world without her.
"He's back somehow. He made it to the world without him. But this time, he isn't alone. I made sure of that."
Shintaro hears Azami remark that he was about as stubborn as a cockroach and would be punished dearly but can hear no more as everything fades to black.
"Who is this man? What's he doing passed out on the road?"
"I don't know, he just kinda appeared! Carry him into the house!"
Shintaro groans. "Momo, is that you?" He feels pain in his bones. It feels like he broke something.
"How do you know my name? Don't worry sir, we'll have you all cleaned up and checked soon." Momo doesn't seem to recognize him. Shintaro looks at his hand and freezes. His ring!
"A mirror. Give me a mirror."
Momo looks at him confusedly but obliges. "Okay." She hands him a small hand mirror.
It's me! But I'm not changed at all! What happened?
Momo struggles to carry him in. "Hibiya! Hiyori! Can you help me move him next to my brother?"
"What? But I'm Shintaro. Shintaro Kisaragi." Shintaro tries to move but it hurts too much.
"Huh. Weird. You have the same name as my older brother." Momo squints at him. "You do kinda look like him. Wait here, mister. I'll get you some water. Try and make yourself comfortable. There isn't a lot of space so you're going to have to share a room."
Momo pushes Shintaro into his room. He panics. "This is your brother's room? But where is he?"
"He head out. I think you saved him, mister. You pushed him out of the way of that truck. What should I call you sir? Mr. Kisaragi?" She wrinkles her nose. "That sounds like my dad but I can't come up with a better alternative."
"Mr. Kisaragi's fine." Shintaro's head is reeling. What the hell is going on? What else has changed? And above anything do not let me meet -
"The hell's this old guy?"
"Onii-chan, you're so rude! This was the man who saved you! What's wrong with you anyway? You've been acting so different."
"I don't think I'm any different, it's all of you that are weird." Young Shintaro rolls his eyes. "Get me a soda, will you?"
"I don't think we have any, onii-chan. I didn't know you liked soda."
"I've always liked soda, what do you mean? Whatever, I'll just head to the convenience store." Young Shintaro presumably heads out as the door closes with a crash.
Shintaro closes his eyes. That was close. Who knows what could have happened if they'd seen each other. But the nerve of that guy! Calling the person who saved him old! Well he was older but -
Shintaro's head stings. No point in thinking. Might as well rest.
Shintaro wakes up to see himself. Literally. He has no time to speak before he starts speaking to himself.
"Doctor was here. Says you were lucky to have survived but you shouldn't move much. Thanks for saving me, I guess." He takes a swig of soda. "Want some?"
Shintaro feels sick. "No thanks. Do you know who I am or how I got here?"
"Beats me, old man. Or should I call you Mr. Kisaragi? Momo says that's what I should call you. But you have the name as me? That's seriously creepy. If it were up to me, I would kick you out of here. Who wants to share a room with a total stranger? No offense." Shintaro chugs his soda again.
Shintaro feels a little relieved, but not much. At least he hasn't recognized me. But god, I hate how obnoxious I was. Or am, I guess.
"I think you know more about me than you think."
"Yeah, yeah, say whatever you want old man. I think you're delusional. What kind of guy just runs and pushes a kid off the road? I totally had it handled."
"Kisaragi. Mr. Kisaragi. I have a name." Shintaro's starting to get irritated. Don't slap myself, don't slap myself…
"Yeah, I don't think I'm going to call you that. That sounds like my dad, and you're nothing like him."
Shintaro tries to sit up, but collapses back onto the bed. He's covered in a cold sweat.
A familiar dry and imposing voice says, "I wouldn't overexert myself if I were you."
"What did you say?"
"Huh? I didn't say anything." Young Shintaro narrows his eyes at him.
"No, not you. You didn't hear that voice?"
"What voice? I think you're starting to hallucinate too, old man. God, I hate having to share my room with this geezer. Go do something meaningful. Get a job."
"I saved your life! And I'm a teacher at Kashiwa High School, I'll have you know."
"Kashiwa High School? Why would you teach somewhere as boring and unimpressive as that? You're about as worthless as I thought. Whatever, I'm out of here. Enjoy the stay while you can, old man."
Shintaro grits his teeth. He'd like to beat his ass. His own ass? He couldn't even trust himself!
"How's the view Shintaro? Or should I call you Mr. Kisaragi now?" Shintaro hears scraping sounds and hissing. It's Azami.
"Can you show yourself? Why are you talking to me like this? And what's going on? It wasn't like this before!"
"I'm not going to expend energy on you. But I am watching you. And I've simply returned things the way they are. The way they should be. I thought you'd be happy."
"Like hell! I don't want to deal with me insulting myself! I can do that just fine!"
"I don't think you're in any place to bargain. And the more you move back and forth, the harder it is for you to return, not to mention that girl you're still trying to find." She yawns. "Ayaki, was it?"
"It doesn't matter. Do what you will. But if you touch Marry again, you'll be sorry."
"Where is Marry? I haven't seen her yet."
"And you never will."
Shintaro isn't entirely sure, but he thinks he hears a hint of doubt in her voice. "Why are you doing this?"
"To protect her. It's for her own good."
"You're an awful guardian, not even letting her make her own decisions."
"And what would you know about that?" There is a warning tone in her voice.
"You need to let her make her own friends."
"But she makes mistakes. She will get everyone she loves killed."
"That may be true, but she has multiple chances. She needs the opportunity to change and grow up with people she cares about. That's what life is about."
"What do you know about life? I've been around far longer than you have."
"Surviving isn't the same thing as living."
"I'm not here to wax poetic and philosophize. I give you a promise and a threat. Mess with this world I've created and you will pay dearly. Is that clear?"
"No, it isn't. Nothing's clear. Get out of my head."
"As you wish. Your mind is small and revolting like rotting snake skins. I've never seen anyone so repulsive."
Her presence leaves his mind and he can finally breathe. He pants heavily. Even with the threatening presence expelled from his mind, there's a weight that wasn't there before. Before he knows it, he's asleep and dreaming again.
He sees the Marry of his own world tell the Mekakushi Dan of the plan she created. They all nod and get ready. Momo and Hibiya are holding hands, that bastard. They rush out. Shintaro is filled with fear and foreboding.
Don't do it! You can't win!
They either ignore him or can't hear his cries. They head into the heat haze together.
Shintaro wakes up to Momo hand feeding him peeled tangerines piece by piece. She blows on a bowl of rice gruel. "Hibiya made this. How are you feeling, Mr. Kisaragi? I saw that you were having a fever and having a bad nightmare, so I've been watching over you day and night. I think you're going to stay here a few more days. My brother's not happy about you staying in his room but we can't move you so he's sleeping on the couch for the time being. I'm sorry for how rude he is."
Shintaro sighs. "It's not your fault. I was exactly like him when I was his age."
"You were? What were things like when you were younger?"
Shintaro smiles wryly. "Not much different from now. Enough about me. What day is it?"
"It's August 16th. It's been a day."
At least we don't have to worry about the haze. But just in case…
"Momo, whatever you do, don't go to that mall that's completely operated by cyber security. It's going to get hacked."
"Oh, alright." Momo looks confused but seems to attribute that to his grogginess after waking up from his nightmares. She finishes feeding him his gruel. "Do you need anything else, Mr. Kisaragi?"
"How are the kids?"
"They're inside. I think they're watching television. There's a really cute and famous idol on screen."
"I think you could be a famous idol Momo."
"You flatter me. I could never."
"I think you should give it a try."
Momo looks at him, trying to gauge if he's lying. She surmises he's telling the truth. "If I do, you'll be the first to know Mr. Kisaragi. Call me in if you need anything." She takes the tray and leaves the room.
Shintaro didn't think much could change in a day, but he saw that his PC was on and open to a music program. Guess he still writes music.
It was weird referring to himself in the third person, but he sure didn't identify as that thing anymore. The disrespect. He should go back and apologize.
Apologize… He remembers everything he said again and groans. He totally didn't have a chance to win anyone over now. Ayano, save me from this nightmare I've created for myself.
He still feels a pain in his chest when he sits up, but at least there's no Azami to comment on his every movement this time. Or at least, if she was present, she wasn't revealing it. Shintaro considers what he's been told. He'd properly bungled things back in his universe, but that didn't mean that had to happen here.
Besides, even if that wasn't what she had intended, Azami basically said he did have a chance. He just needed to play his cards right. And if he failed…. Well, Shintaro didn't know how good his odds would be after that, or if he had any at all for that matter, but he wasn't about to find out.
"Momo, I'm leaving." Shintaro finds his red jersey and prepares to head out.
Hiyori wrinkles her nose. "I don't think Momo onee-san would like that."
"You're still here?" Shintaro pauses.
Hiyori glares. "Why wouldn't I be?"
Shintaro decides to redirect. "Where's Momo?"
"Onee-san's asleep. Passed out after nursing you all day. You're lucky you had a pretty onee-san like that looking after you. I want to be just like that when I grow up."
"You could probably do that with Hibiya. I'm sure he wouldn't mind."
"Ew, no. I mean like someone who saved my life. Hopefully someone handsome though."
Ouch. Hibiya has a pained expression on his face. Shintaro gives him what he hopes is a reassuring smile. Realistically, he didn't think they'd ever get together, but well… No use antagonizing someone who might be his ally later on.
"Well, then, one of you let Momo know I'm heading out and that I'll probably be back later. Hibiya, sorry about dragging you all the way out here. I hope you don't have to experience something like that again."
Hibiya turns to face him. "Thanks for saving us from that truck, Mr. Kisaragi. It could have been really bad." He squints. "But do I know you?"
Shintaro curses internally. He's going to have to remember he's separate from his high school self now. Wouldn't be hard when someone that obnoxious was actually present, but for now, what should he tell him?
"It's sort of a long story. Hopefully I can explain it to you once I take care of some business of my own. Thank Momo for me."
Thankfully, Hibiya seems to accept this. "That makes it sound like you're going to be gone for a long time. Take care, mister."
Sure respects me a lot after rescuing him and Hiyori. As he should. I didn't have to do that, and everything hurts like hell. Too bad I'm not the same in that respect.
"Where are you going Mr. Kisaragi?"
"Er… I guess you could say hiking? I'm heading into that wood over there." He takes out a crumpled map labeled with various red circles and arrows. The more he stares at it the sketchier it looks. "I'm uh, looking for someone."
Hiyori's ears perk up. "Is it a girl?" She takes a look at the map and then starts laughing. "Pff, you're looking for a gorgon? What is this, some kind of fairytale? Monsters like that don't exist."
Shintaro flushes. Maybe I shouldn't have labeled that so explicitly.
"Hey, what's wrong with monster hunting? I think he's cool."
Shintaro looks up to see Hibiya defending him. Shintaro wasn't expecting this, and Hiyori clearly wasn't either by the look on her face, but she recovers quickly.
"Ugh, boys! So childish!" She storms off and sticks out her tongue. "Fine then! I didn't want to invite you anyway!"
"I was the one who invited you!" Hibiya retorts incredulously.
Hiyori sniffs. "I invited myself! So there!" She starts helping herself to the snacks in the fridge.
"Hey! Those don't belong to you! Those are Momo's!"
Hiyori waves a pudding just out of Hibiya's grasp. "What, this pudding labeled 'Momo'? Just looks like the brand to me." She opens it and shamelessly shoves spoonfuls of it into her mouth to Hibiya's dismay. "Momo onee-san said since we were guests we could take anything we want. If you really wanted the pudding you should have just said so."
She takes the last spoonful and sticks it under Hibiya's nose. "Maybe if you were nicer to me though I'd give you this much."
This was too much for Hibiya to bear. Before he opens his mouth to shout, Shintaro says, "Alright, that's enough." He eats the pudding himself. "I don't see why you're getting into a fight over this stuff when it really isn't that good. Tastes generic. Exactly how you'd think store brand would taste."
Hiyori pouts. "You're no fun."
"That's no way to treat a guy, or anyone for that matter. Keep having a rotten personality like this, and no one will like you, even if you're cute."
Hiyori gasps. Hibiya desperately tries to stifle his laughter. Between breathless streams of laughter and tears, Hibiya chokes out, "You tell her Mr. Kisaragi! I'll follow you for the rest of my life!"
"I'm not picking a fight with kids. Let's go to the convenience store before Momo wakes up and no one will be any the wiser. Come on." He motions at the two. "I'll get you anything as long as it's within reason."
Hiyori frowns. "Can't believe anyone who'd have the privilege of rescuing a delicate maiden like myself would treat me so poorly and bribe me with convenience store snacks. Have you no shame?"
One day, we'll all look back on this and laugh. Shintaro takes a deep breath to resist the urge to tell her to shut up. "Suit yourself. I think I'm just going to get some sandwiches or something because I probably won't be back for lunch."
"I could probably make something for you," says Hibiya.
"Forget it, you've done enough already." Shintaro ruffles his hair. "Cheer up kid, it can only get better from here, right?" Hopefully.
Hibiya seems to want to protest but decides against it, maybe because making a meal for another guy was decidedly less… impressive, especially if it was just going to be something light and portable since it seemed Shintaro was in a hurry. "I'll make dinner for you as thanks, Mr. Kisaragi. Something special. Don't miss it."
"Sure kid. Sounds exciting. I'll be off then if you don't want anything from me." Shintaro finally heads out, trying to memorize the routes he'd drawn. It seemed easy enough.
Hours later, he's still in the woods and has no idea where he is. Either the map didn't outline this area very well or… He throws the map on the ground in frustration but it doesn't do much to relieve his stress. Come on, think! If I was a little kid, running away from my thoughts, where would I hide?
Suddenly he notices a rustling movement in the corner of his eye, in a clearing he didn't notice before. He stares as a big stag with large antlers gives him a sort of intelligent gaze, one that didn't seem afraid and wanted him to follow.
Shintaro sighs. Hell, weirder things have happened to him, and they seemed to be happening to him all the time as of late. What would be the harm? He tentatively lets the deer lead the way, eventually coming to a small tower in the woods.
This is a proper fairytale if I've ever seen one. Being led to a small house in the woods by a stag, where supposedly there lives a little quarter gorgon girl who's never properly stepped foot outside in her life. And her terrifying full medusa grandmother who's threatened me multiple times never to approach her. I must be crazy.
Still, Shintaro steels his nerves and opens the door. He hears a small creak followed by a shrill shriek.
"Who are you? Why are you in my house? How did you get here? Did someone send you here to kill me? Don't look at me!"
Marry looks like she might faint. She covers her face with her hands, peeking out through the gaps. Despite the fear in her eyes, she's curious.
Shintaro hadn't really planned anything further along than this, but he waves the bag of food he got from the convenience store. "Hey, your name's Marry right? My name's Shintaro. I have lunch, if you haven't eaten yet. Want to talk?"
Marry devours the food like she hadn't eaten in days. Considering how spacey she was, maybe that was true. Shintaro prepares some tea along with the earphones clipped to his phone. He'd bought some albums he thought a girl like her might like based on the story Seto gave him, but it didn't really seem like he'd need it. Still, doesn't hurt to be too safe. Checking his phone before he'd only had a few songs from anime that would be much too embarrassing to share, and some of his own songs, and it would be total narcissism to share that. He could already hear his younger self screaming at him if he did something like that. And if he was unlucky enough, maybe that would actually happen.
Marry finishes eating and he pours her a cup of tea. She drinks it so quickly he's afraid she burned herself. "Are you alright?"
She nods. "Thank you Shintaro."
Shintaro thought about letting her call him Mr. Kisaragi too, but thought, what the hell. She's pretty much the only key I have to getting out of here with Ayano, so I might as well tell her the truth. Besides, the only reference she has to real life is in the stories she reads.
"Marry, I'm about to tell you an important story. It involves you, me, your family, and lots of friends you haven't met yet. It's long and confusing, but listen closely, alright?"
Marry listens intently. When Shintaro is finished she absentmindedly fiddles with her hair, thinking. "It's a little hard to believe."
Shintaro slumps. "So you don't believe me?"
"No, I do. It's just - I'm wondering how no one seems to know about such extraordinary circumstances."
Shintaro laughs dryly. "You'd be surprised."
"And my grandmother. I've never met her. You're saying I'm responsible?"
"I didn't come here to blame you. But you are involved, like it or not. And maybe it's selfish of me to want to come and disrupt everyone's lives here to bring back a girl no one here seems to remember or know. I've put myself in danger and I'm potentially putting everyone else in danger too. But how could I possibly accept a reality where the girl I love has decided to sacrifice herself for me again, despite never having done anything wrong? How could I accept this after everything I've been through to win a future where everyone is finally happy and safe? I can't stand this!" Shintaro's voice rises until he's practically shouting. "Marry, when I see Azami again, I'm going to have to fight her with little to no chance of success. I can tell my friends on the other side are trying to do the same thing and I can't stop them. I might die, and then maybe I'll have no chance, but what other choice do I have?"
Marry grabs Shintaro's shaking hand. "How do I help?"
"Do you really mean that? Even after everything I've said?"
"If you're right, and I don't think you have any reason to lie to me, you're my friend. And I couldn't possibly see a friend rush off into danger alone. Besides any friend of a friend is also a friend of mine, right?"
Without meaning to, tears form at the edge of Shintaro's eyes.
"Shintaro? Shintaro, what's wrong?" says Marry in alarm. "Did I say something that somehow upset you?"
"What you said just reminded me of how I've wronged my own friends. And how I wasn't able to apologize. What a bad friend I've been. Marry, could you forgive me?"
Marry pats Shintaro awkwardly. "I don't know what you said, but you said it out of stress and anger. Even if maybe you meant it at the time, you feel remorse, so you can't be a bad person. I think your friends too will come to realize that. Don't agonize and punish yourself over things that have passed, but just do your best to keep moving forward. That's the best any of us can do."
Marry lets Shintaro finally let out all the feelings he'd kept inside and when he's calmed down, he asks her to join him in his apartment. "Only if you want to, of course. It's already a bit crowded since Hibiya and Hiyori are there, not to mention my own past self, but - "
Marry stops him. "I'd be honored. I think it's about time I leave this place."
They walk out together, talking about next steps and new friends in unexpected places. Shintaro lets Momo and Hibiya know there's about to be one more person that night. Both Hiyori and the other Shintaro complain, but there's noticeably less objection when they hear it's another girl.
In the other world, Marry leads the way into the haze and Seto nervously follows behind. The rest of the Mekakushi Dan look around, filled with foreboding and anticipation.
"I didn't think I'd ever see this place again. Don't exactly have good memories of it." Momo shivers. Hibiya squeezes her hand encouragingly, but she can tell he's afraid too by a nearly imperceptible shaking in his own hand. It's like an erratic sort of vibration running through his body, resonating out into this strange stark white world.
"Keep your eyes peeled for Ayano, Azami, or anything strange." orders Kido.
Even Kano is far more serious than he usually is. "Commander, can you explain what exactly you mean by strange?"
"Why? Have you found something?" Kido asks, running over.
"I'm not so sure if I found it, or if it's found me," says Kano, lifting his foot with an expression of distaste. A black snake weakly wraps itself around his ankle. "You have to let me out of here. Azami, Azami… She's leading the world to destruction. You have to let me help you. I know where the girl is."
Seto's eyes widen. "Isn't that - "
"It's the snake of clearing eyes," says Marry with no hesitation. She wraps it around her neck, covering it with her long white hair. "What's happened to you since we've been gone?"
"You shouldn't have come here," says the snake. "She thinks she's doing it for you. She took back control over the haze, but she doesn't trust anyone but herself. You have no idea how powerful a medusa with control over all her abilities is, or how vengeful she is is when she's opposed. Turn back!"
"We're not leaving without Ayano!" says Haruka stubbornly. "Even if I have to let you into my body again to defeat her, I'm not leaving without her! Ayano's my friend, and I can't stand to see Shintaro and the others cry because of the misguided actions of some monster from a fairy tale."
Takane turns. "Haruka! I can't allow that! Ayano may be my friend too, but I don't want you to sacrifice yourself again too!"
"It's my own decision, so I want all of you to consider it." Haruka says firmly.
Takane looks devastated. The others look reluctant as well, but Kido nods. "Marry, keep the snake with you and inform us if it makes any suspicious movements. We need to find Azami and take Ayano by force if necessary."
They continue into the barren wasteland. The ground rumbles as Azami snarls, "Bringing humans into my own territory? Of all the insolent and stupid things you could do, it's hardly possible to do worse. I'll show you true force."
It goes dark. Momo panics. "Hibiya? Hibiya!"
"I'm still here Momo. And I think everyone else still is too. She's trying to throw us off but with our abilities it shouldn't be too hard to relocate each o - "
"Hibiya!" Momo screams. Kido tenses up. "We need to split up. If we just stay in one group, she'll pick us all off. Pair with someone who can complement your abilities, and go!"
"But Kido, Hibiya - " Momo wails.
Kido grabs Momo by the shoulders. "I know you're attached because something happened between you two, but now isn't the time. I'll search for him while you can pair with Kano. Our goal is to - "
Azami grabs Kido. Kido grits her teeth. "As leader of the Mekakushi Dan I can't let you take me down this easily. I'm responsible for everyone here and I swore to help everyone with abilities so that means you too, miss. Put me down and we can talk this out peacefully - "
Azami slams Kido into the ground, knocking all the air out of her lungs in a painful jolt. Kido coughs and gasps, unable to do much else as the impact reverberates through her body.
"Kido!" Kano shouts. She can hear his irregular footsteps as he rushes to her side.
"Don't come closer!"
Kano stops. He curses and looks over at Momo. "I never liked this plan and this is why! Now we're all going to get killed. Any bright ideas before more of your screaming brings the monster right to us and incapacitates more of our allies?"
Momo's face burns but she says nothing. It was partially true. Azami had targeted Hibiya and Kido and it might have been because of her.
"I don't think she's interested in negotiating with us. We're going to have to use our abilities against her." says Takane, grimacing as Azami lashes out against Haruka. He manages to hold her off a little longer before she throws him into the air and temporarily immobilizes him.
"Isn't she the one that gave us our abilities in the first place? She's gotta be experienced with this kind of thing. Plus, it's not like our abilities have great offensive capabilities you know." Kano says, dodging as she attempts to knock him out. "I think this whole thing's a bust. We should get out of here while we still can and regroup later instead of risking more losses."
Momo has a revelation. "Notice the way she's attacking us though. She's targeting us one by one, and none of the attacks seem to be lethal. I don't think she actually wants to hurt us, and she thinks we could actually be a threat if we work together. If we catch her off guard…"
"This isn't the terrorists in the mall, Momo! She knows all of us and our weaknesses. You think it'd really be hard to knock out a ton of kids who barely have control over their abilities when she's had them for years? You're overly optimistic at best, and delusional at worst! I'm telling Marry to get us out of here now!"
Marry helps Kido up. "No, I think it's worth a shot. Momo, use your Drawing Eyes to distract her and Kano, you back her up! I'm going to get the others! We're going to use a coordinated attack to wear her out and get her to tell us where Ayano is!"
Kano sighs. "I still think you're all crazy, but fine! Don't blame me if this all goes wrong." He uses his Deceiving Eyes to transform into Marry and runs in the opposite direction. "Hey grandma! I'm the one you want, aren't I? Come and catch me!"
Azami ignores Kano and goes after Momo. Kano groans. "Oh for fuck's sake." He whisks Momo out of danger just in time. "You owe me big time for this."
Marry concentrates and tries to find Hibiya and Seto. She checks on Kido and Haruka first to make sure they're ok. "Kido, are you hurt?"
"Just bruising I think. I'll be fine. Check on the others."
Haruka gives a weak thumbs up. Takane mutters, "I wish my ability could be more useful in a time like this…"
"Ene, you could try and do reconnaissance from everyone's phones. Try to keep us from coming to harm. Once Hibiya, Seto, and the others are found, you can work with them too to figure out a more concrete plan. I think I have the best chance of making my grandmother listen to reason, so wait for my signal."
"Roger that!" Takane salutes and closes her eyes, entering the cyber world. Marry can hear her shouting directions in all of their phones. Marry can feel their resolve. All I can pray is that Shintaro's doing his part too. We can't let a tragedy like August 15 happen again.
Shintaro's been doing his best to get everyone to recall their abilities. He takes Momo to the beach where she had drowned and reminds her about the pains of being an idol. He takes Kido to the burned remains of her mansion and reminds her of the time she went invisible and nearly scared Takane to death during her cultural festival booth. He even talks to himself about Ayano and how much she meant to him.
Slowly, everything's starting to come together. Marry's power is growing by the day as she recalls each timeline and grows closer to her friends. One day she opens her eyes and tells Shintaro, "It's time. I can sense the haze opening up. We should call everyone together one last time."
Shintaro's heart rate quickens. "What do you mean?"
"It's been fun, but you have to know that this can't last right? You have to go back to your own time, and we'll miss you, but life will go on like it always has. You have someone you love, someone you trust, someone you need to save, and someone you have to see again. I just hope you don't forget about everything that's happened here."
Shintaro hugs Marry. "Of course. I can't thank you enough for everything. Makes me regret that I didn't try to become better friends with you."
Marry smiles. "You can always try again. And I think you've made great friends here, even if maybe it is only temporary."
"So great pity party, but what now? Do we have to go with you?" says young Shintaro, yawning. He had to be dragged out for the last Mekakushi Dan meeting, the bastard.
"That is a good question you know." says Kano, who still hadn't really warmed up to Shintaro. "It's not like we have full control over the abilities you've tried to unlock in us."
This was true. Shintaro may have done his best with the resources he had on hand, but there wasn't much he could do for lack of overall experience. Shintaro sighs.
"The best thing we have on our side is surprise. And if all else fails…" He gestures to a pile of sports equipment and tools he'd "borrowed" from the school.
"When did you even have the time to get all this?" says Takane in disbelief.
Shintaro shrugs. "You'd be surprised how little they care about what you do once you tell them you work on high school grounds." Shintaro had essentially taken on Kenjirou Tateyama's role as teacher for problem students (minus the dead wife, snake possession, and student killing of course). Since neither Takane and Haruka nor Momo were attending the special class in this universe, his work load had been relatively light.
He is worried that he hadn't seen much of the current Mekakushi Dan as of late, but he hoped they were holding their own in the haze.
The Mekakushi Dan were not holding their own in the haze. In fact, they were fatigued and losing badly with no indication of whether Azami would listen to a word they were saying. Worse, she barely seemed affected by what they were doing. She just seemed more irritated if anything.
Marry had gone through several resets already to try to get the advantage, but she was also tiring. If nothing happened soon, she might actually have to use Haruka's plan, and she really didn't want to do that. She grabs the snake around her neck and holds it upward. Azami notices and rushes toward Marry but before she can, a truck comes hurtling through the haze and hits her head on. The Mekakushi Dan rally and stare, wondering where the hell it came from.
Shintaro comes out of the driver's seat. "I didn't hit anyone else did I? Sorry I'm late."
"Shintaro!" Momo shouts, overjoyed.
Haruka smiles. "See, I told you he'd be back."
Marry jumps out of the passenger seat. "No one's hurt?"
"What the hell was that? At least warn us before pulling some shit like that, fucking hell." Past Shintaro groans.
"Maybe you should have worn a seatbelt then," says Takane smugly.
"What seatbelts? We're in a goddamn truck! I don't even know what I'm doing here!"
Kido opens the back of the truck. "We're here. Better get out before the monster gets up again." She says it in a tone that meant all business. There'd be no negotiation unless they wanted to get killed and they knew it. They shuffle out, chosen weapons in hand.
Azami's eyes blaze. "You think you can defeat me with some children who've barely grasped their abilities with these poor excuses for blunt instruments? Me? I'll make you pay for this insult!"
Kano groans. "You've gotta be kidding me. This is the worst backup plan I've ever seen."
Marry grunts, propping herself up. "No, the worst backup plan would have been to rely on the snake. This might be just unpredictable enough to work."
"Back them up! Think about what you'd do in their shoes! Give them advice!" Kido barks with the rest of her strength.
Members of the Mekakushi Dan who are still fit enough to stand salute and run to their past selves keeping out of the range of Azami's attacks and targeting her blind spots. The tide finally seems to be turning in their favor.
Marry closes her eyes and lifts her hands to the ceiling of the haze. "For those of us who can no longer stand, I give our abilities to our younger selves so they can fight and win. Marry! It's up to you!"
Marry screams as her eyes glow red and snake scales appear on her face and body. She petrifies Azami for just a second before she gathers everyone to her with her Combining Eyes.
They surround Azami who finally succumbs to both Marrys directing her own powers against her. "Grandma, it's time to give this up. This isn't what your husband or your daughter would have wanted. Not to mention, this isn't what I want either. You have to let go. Do you really think this is the future everyone would have wanted?"
"Marry, I did this for you. You don't understand how treacherous and foolish the human race is - "
"Grandma, I left my tower a long time ago. These are my friends. They're my family. And you've taken one of us away thinking I'd somehow just accept it and move on? You have to understand how many people you've hurt! How does this make you any better than the people who took both my grandpa and mother's lives? I almost had to let the snake of clearing eyes possess my friend just so we had a chance against you and reset everything back again! Do you think I enjoy putting everyone in danger? For the first time in my life, everything seemed safe and happy and you had to go and make everyone sad again."
Azami wilts under Marry's gaze. "I want you to apologize. You can still make things right. I can appreciate that you think you're doing this for my sake, but I haven't been a child for a long time now. The only person you've been protecting is yourself from your own twisted delusions. The world is still good if you just give it a chance."
Marry tries to touch Azami's shoulder but she snaps. "Don't look at me."
"Grandma… You're hurt. You've been hurting a long time. Let us help you."
"I told you to stop looking at me!" Azami's eyes flare blindingly, forcing everyone to close their eyes. Marry stares coldly back. "It's time you finally end this world."
"I don't understand how I could ever have had a child like you. All this time I've been so selfish… I really am a monster. You've only inherited the good parts of your grandfather and your mother. You look just like them." Azami's hands shake as she runs them through Marry's hair. "I've done nothing but hurt you. I don't know what to do with myself."
Marry holds Azami's hands. "You're no monster. I'd say you're just as human as any of us. I wouldn't be who I am now without you. As for what to do, well… you could be an honorary member of the Mekakushi Dan? I don't think we can help on the abilities front but - "
Azami laughs. "No, I don't think so. I think there's a long awaited reunion we all should be getting to." She stands up and snaps her fingers. "That girl should be entering back from the void soon. You only have a little time to talk with her and your other selves before the haze is gone for good. Soon, your worlds will collide and it will be as if none of this has ever happened."
"But what happens to you?" asks Shintaro. He's surprised at himself. He shouldn't care either way. He should be relieved, maybe angry, maybe elated at the prospect that Ayano's back and that they may never see Azami again. But instead he feels worried for this gorgon who'd terrorized him for who knows how long, who'd started this mess long before he was even born. It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair that he was somehow feeling sympathy for this gorgon who'd made him lose Ayano and had lost family of her own.
"I still have a lot to learn it seems. But I have family of my own to see. Tsukihiko and Shion… do you know how much Marry's grown?" Azami closes her eyes and disappears, leaving the Mekakushi Dan with nothing but bitter thoughts and lost memories.
"Shintaro?" A small voice materializes out of the gloom behind Shintaro and puts her arms around him.
Shintaro rubs his eyes. "Ayano. I've finally found you."
"Ayano!" The Mekakushi Dan flock her and practically crush both Shintaro and Ayano in their embrace.
Shintaro grunts. "I missed all of you too. And I want to apologize for everything I said."
"Oh that?" says Hibiya, shrugging. "We know you didn't actually mean it. We were all stressed. Can't blame you for that. How did you find us anyway?"
Shintaro sighs. "Hibiya, meet Hibiya."
Past Hibiya sees current Hibiya holding hands with Momo and sputters. "Momo? But what about Hiyori?"
Hibiya pats himself on the head. "You'll understand when you're older, kid."
"Huh, so all that was true? Don't know how far the rabbit hole goes, but I guess that means that Mr. Kisaragi really is me. Gross." Past Shintaro gags. He taps Ayano on the shoulder. "Hey, can you tell me what you see in this guy?"
Shintaro hits him. "Hey, can you give your future girlfriend some respect? She had to tolerate you, you know."
Ayano smiles and ruffles past Shintaro's hair. "Aw, you're so cute!"
Past Shintaro freezes and present Shintaro looks scandalized. "Ayano!"
"This is exactly how you were like in high school when I fell for you."
Both Shintaros say, "You have awful taste."
Past Shintaro huffs. "Sure wish we could see the younger version of you, lady, so we can ask her why you'd be so stupid to fall for someone like him."
Shintaro unfortunately agrees. "He's insufferable! I can't stand being in the same room as him!"
"Well of course you can't. He's you."
Shintaro doesn't know how to take this.
Ene sees young Takane and her eyes shine. "I hope you made Shintaro's life hell."
Takane grins. "Didn't know him before all this, but I definitely will after all he's put me through."
"Also you better confess before it's too late! You never know when Haruka might be taken by some other girl!"
"Takane." Haruka gives Ene a warning glance.
"Ignore her. She's always like this. Believe me. Also, you should ask to listen to some music on her headphones. You might be surprised." Haruka winks. Ene blushes but doesn't say anything.
Kano looks at young Kano. "So how much did he have to bribe you before you agreed to do this?"
Young Kano sighs. "I only came because Kido and Seto agreed to it."
"Loyalty's good. Make sure you stand your ground and tell people how you actually feel from time to time though."
Kido high fives young Kido. "Not bad for a first mission. You'll be a great leader yet."
"I really get to have this many friends in the future?" Kido looks hopeful.
"More than that. They'll be family. And they'll have your back no matter what. No matter how annoying they might get or how much you disagree, they'll always come back and be there for you in the hardest of times, for years to come. Appreciate them. There's no one better." Kido pats her head. "You did good, kiddo. You have a bright future ahead of you."
"Am I really going to be an idol in the future?" Momo asks, eyes shining.
"The best idol. People will flock to see you and you won't even be out of high school yet. It's hard but it's fun, so don't give up! You're going to inspire and give hope to lots of people, so it's more important than anything to never lose faith in yourself." Momo hugs herself.
Past Seto and Marry look at each other.
"I guess that's why I always found your presence kind of familiar even when I hadn't met you before." Past Seto says, fidgeting.
Past Marry smiles shyly. "I thought the same thing."
Present Seto and Marry watch. "You know, I don't think there's much else we need to tell them."
Everyone holds hands as they finally walk out of the haze together for the last time. It shudders and collapses, leaving a small absence where it once stood. The world seems to shake and right itself again as the rift between dimensions collides, then closes completely.
Ayano sees a smaller version of herself for just an instant, waving at her. Then they're gone.
"It's over." Marry whispers.
"It fucking better be. I don't think I have the energy to go through all that again." says Shintaro. "If Ayano so much as goes missing from the grocery store, I will find Azami and kick her ass."
"Shintaro!" Ayano says reproachfully. Everyone laughs.
"It's good to have you back, Ayano. I missed you."
"I missed you too."
Shintaro and Ayano close their eyes and kiss in a warm embrace as the long day finally comes to a close. They all head home.
Not surprisingly, Ayano and Shintaro are the first to get married. They invite all of the Mekakushi Dan, and Shintaro can swear he sees a familiar imposing figure towards the end of the ceremony, though he can't be sure.
Seto proposes to Marry on a date at the zoo where he works. The ring almost gets stolen by some of the animals, but he gets it back just in time. Marry accepts.
Hibiya and Momo are happily dating. While Momo's irregular model schedule is hard to deal with, they make it work. Every night, Hibiya walks her home and makes her dinner like he promised, and Momo is cleaning up more after herself, if not for her benefit then for Hibiya.
Takane and Haruka work together in game design. While they don't have concrete plans yet, they're happy where they are. They're considering making a game subtly referencing the exploits of the Mekakushi Dan called Children Record. Shintaro will be among the first to playtest it when it's out of alpha.
Kano and Kido live together. While neither of them have found a romantic relationship, they're supportive of everyone and know they can lean on each other when times get rough. If Azami ever returns they'll be the first to let everyone know.
Azami's exploring the world trying to find a new meaning for her existence. While no one can replace the people she's lost, she's found there's still things worth living for.
And so ends the story of Azami, the heat haze, and the Mekakushi Dan. Until they all meet again.