He wasn't ready for this, really. The whole "hey, look, I'm no longer a social recluse!" thing was still a foreign concept to him; hell, even now, going outside seemed like a chore, and still he's expected to have (wait for it) social interactions with strangers? Yeah, right. Thanks but no thanks.
Yes, he is aware that it's been a year, a whole goddamn year since that whole fiasco, those two days that might as well have taken ten years off of his life. But the heat was just as unbearable today as it was on that August 15th, and Shintaro seriously debated whether he should just ditch and lock himself back up in the sweet, air-conditioned heaven he called his room.
Sure, Momo would probably be disappointed in him, but he could happily waste away another day on the internet, as long as he made sure to keep all forms of liquids away from his keyboard. Thank God his electronic devices no longer housed the blue cyber she-devil, destroyer of peace, harbinger of calamity — Takane was probably streaming herself cussing at some elementary schoolers in whatever game she was obsessed with now or making out with Haruka, which in that case, ew, gross, stop with the PDA, leave some room for Jesus, please.
But Ayano had asked him, begged him to come outside so nicely that if he actually ditched her, he might as well have committed a war crime. Last night, she sent an overload of pleading puppy-eyed emojis and repeated "please, Shintaro, pretty pretty preeetttyyy pleaseee" so many times that he really had no choice but to say yes. Not that he was going to say no to her; who in the world could say no to beautiful, sweet, caring, lovely, kind, precious Ayano— wait, what?
Taking out his phone, Shintaro checked the time once again. He was hesitant at first, fearing that the voice of cyber Satan would just blast on full volume or that he'd unlock his phone to see some glitchy "jUsT mONiKa" shit as an attempt to jumpscare him. Keeping his guard up around electronics had already become a habit; after all, two years of interaction with Ene was hard to undo.
But he had to make sure he wasn't too late or too early. He didn't want to be rude and show up late, but at the same time, he didn't want to seem like he was excited about seeing Ayano or anything. It's not like he wanted to see her, anyways, right? She was just too clingy and he just was forced into a position where he couldn't reject her. Right?
He didn't know why he was still such an asshole. Like bruh, he wasn't some edgy depressed fifteen-year-old anymore; could he treat her with some human decency, at least? Every time he slipped back into his old habit of ignoring her or reprimanding her, he just wanted to perish. After two years, she was finally back in his life; why couldn't he just be honest about how happy he was, like a normal person? Hell, even Takane got over her tsundere nature and practically tackled Haruka when they returned to their bodies, crying and confessing her undying love for him in front of everyone. (It was hella embarrassing to watch, but oh well. As long as the two of them were fine with it.) And now they've been dating for a whole year, while Shintaro was still stuck worlds behind them like a coward.
Takane often harassed (trust, that was the nicest way he could put it) him about it, but he'd always retort with something equally rude until she stormed off. Haruka asked him about it too, but Shintaro always gave him the same excuse: "I don't know what you're talking about." Momo occasionally brought it up too, as she and Ayano were now studying in the same grade and were great friends, but he ignored her, too.
Ever since Ayano came back from the Heat Haze, Shintaro and she remained good friends. When they were having the whole face-off with the Snake of Clearing Eyes and even when everyone was having their reunion, Shintaro didn't say much to her — he had to stay cool, after all, and keep up his "main character" persona. But afterwards, when he was walking around with her, just the two of them, he couldn't hold it back anymore. He told her that he really missed her a lot and that he was so glad that she was back. He even cried a little. It was hella embarrassing, and he probably lost all his dignity with that, but Ayano told him that she missed him a lot, too, so it was probably worth it.
"Ah, there you are!"
Speak of the devil— no, Ayano's not a devil. She's an angel. Speak of the angel. Her red scarf was securely wrapped around her neck, even though the summer heat was literally unbearable (really, he had no idea how she did it). She wore her middle school uniform, and immediately, Shintaro's mind flooded with memories from the haze; for a second, he even wondered if his ability was back. Her smile was already bright, but Shintaro swore that it grew even brighter when she saw him.
"You're late," said Shintaro, glancing at his phone. But really, he was just being picky, and he was too awkward to be good at conversation starters.
"Eh, I'm not!" Ayano's cheeks puffed outwards as she pouted. What the hell, that was so cute. "It just hit twelve! I'm on time!"
"Okay, okay." Shintaro couldn't help but smile a little, and he resisted the urge to pat her head fondly like a lovesick idiot. Goddamn it, being with her really made him weak.
"Ah, but you really did what I asked you to!" said Ayano as she examined Shintaro from head to toe. "I'm so happy!"
"Yeah, and thanks to you, I'm dying from this weather." Shintaro was practically radiating heat in his red jersey jacket, which Ayano asked him to wear. But compared to Ayano, whose scarf was the definition of a nightmare in the summer, maybe he was a little better off.
"I just thought it'd be fun to revisit some memories!" said Ayano, laughing. "Besides, I'm wearing a scarf, so if we burn, we burn together!"
God, she's so cute. How can someone as adorable as her exist? And how, for the love of Christ, was this sweet angel even friends with a hopeless loser like him?
"Well, I guess I wore this last year, anyways, so I can get used to it."
"It's already been a year since I came back!" said Ayano, laughing. "Can you believe that?"
"Time is a strange concept, especially when I have memories that go beyond its constraints."
"It's kinda weird to say it now, but I really missed being alive," said Ayano, a wistful smile on her face as she stared at the bustling of people on the streets. "Being in the haze was… different than this. And I love all of this."
Shintaro didn't know what to say. He knew that Ayano had it much worse than him — she lost both her mother and her father, and she took it onto herself to be the "hero," taking away her own life in an attempt to protect what was precious to her. For two years, but probably longer in the haze, she waited and waited for something, anything, that could prove to her that her plan had worked.
"Is there anything I can do to help you make up for it?"
He didn't know he had uttered his thoughts out loud until he saw Ayano staring at him, eyes wide with surprise. He didn't know what gave him the courage to finally say something honest, but whatever it was, he was proud of himself. Ayano's overly happy face did make him a little uncomfortable, though.
It took his brain approximately fifteen seconds to register that Ayano was full on bear-hugging him as she squealed in delight. Her hair tickled his cheek playfully, as if toying with his sanity. God, she was so close, and he just wanted to hug her and never let go—
"I'm so happy you asked! I'm so happy, Shintaro!"
"Quit it, Ayano, we're in public," said Shintaro, doing his best to cover up his embarrassment. Thank God she wasn't looking at his face, or she'd just see him blush as red as his jacket.
This seemed to snap Ayano back to reality, because she let go of him quickly, a bashful grin on her face. "Ah, sorry… I got really excited all of a sudden."
"It's okay, I guess," said Shintaro. He'll blame his heating face on the summer weather. "So… What do you want to do today?"
At this, Ayano beamed. "I have some places in mind! It'll be super fun!" She looked at him shyly. "Will you come with me, Shintaro?"
Shintaro couldn't help but smile at her. Maybe it was okay for him to be a little more honest, once in a while.
"I think this is a bad idea."
Ayano whirled around to look at Shintaro with puppy dog eyes, which made him involuntarily flinch, as he had absolutely no defense against them. "What do you mean?"
"There's…" Shintaro eyed the crowd around him and shuffled nervously. "A lot of people. And it brings back bad memories."
"Why is it bad? I thought this was where you met everyone!"
They were standing on the first floor of that mall. Yes, that mall, the same one that he went to a year ago for his goddamn keyboard, the same one where he bumped into a strange, hooded figure with a stern gaze that momentarily flashed red, the same one where he was held hostage by a group of criminals and met a weird guy with cat-like eyes and another weird guy who seemed to read minds and— Oh, boy, he could practically recall every single detail of that day.
"Well, I don't know if you remember, but we were literally held hostage by a group of criminals here. I don't think I want to run into that kind of situation again."
"Don't worry!" said Ayano, dragging him towards the escalator. "They increased the security here after that whole thing happened. Come on, it'll be fun!"
Shintaro, having given up, did not object. There was no use in fighting against Ayano, anyways, and he did say that he would help her. They started from the highest floor and worked their way down, walking around aimlessly as they looked at different shops and talked amongst themselves. Shintaro was never big on shopping, but being with Ayano made him almost enjoy being outside. It was a curious thing, really, and he didn't know what sort of magic she cast on him. He was acting like a different person altogether: less annoyed, less edgy, even… happy, almost.
They were on the third floor when Shintaro's feet began to tire out. There was a cafe on the same floor, and Ayano had excitedly proclaimed that they made the best fruit cakes ever and that they had to go try it. They were headed towards the direction of the cafe when Ayano stopped in her tracks, and Shintaro almost crashed into her.
He followed the direction of her gaze to see a jewelry shop, one he recognized to be quite popular, thanks to Momo, and Shintaro looked at what Ayano was staring at. It was a hair pin with two beautiful heart-shaped red jewels, and Shintaro was immediately reminded of the red hair pins Ayano usually wore.
"Ayano? What's wrong?"
Ayano hastily looked back at Shintaro and smiled. "Ah, nothing, nothing! Sorry, let's go, we're almost there!"
He knew what she was thinking, and yet, he was an idiot and completely ruined it. Screw you and your "oh, I'm so dark and edgy and I don't understand people" personality, Shintaro Kisaragi. He didn't stop thinking about his missed opportunity until they sat down at the cafe and ordered. Ayano hummed softly to herself as she looked around the cafe, smiling gently, and it was that smile, that goddamn smile, that completely took his breath away.
"I'm going to the bathroom," said Shintaro, standing up. "I'll be right back."
"Ah, okay!" said Ayano, waving.
Shintaro quickly hastily and made his way back to the jewelry shop. He immediately picked out the hair pin that caught Ayano's gaze and brought it to the counter. He immediately tensed up as the cashier looked at him; oh, for God's sake, he was going to have to talk to people, wasn't he?
"Ah, I saw you walking by earlier with your girlfriend earlier," said the cashier, laughing, as she scanned the item. "She was wearing a red scarf in this weather, so it was hard to miss."
Shintaro knew that his face probably turned as red as Ayano's stupid scarf. "…She looked like she wanted it, so I came back to buy it for her," he said as he averted his gaze. Somehow, he had enough courage to stop himself from sputtering in defense and denying it.
The cashier squealed as she took his credit card. "Ah, and they say that romance is dead!" She exclaimed. "I'm sure she'd be so happy. She's so lucky to have a boyfriend like you!"
Shintaro mumbled a quiet "thanks" as he took the box from the cashier, having asked for no shopping bag so that he could hide it in his pocket. Would Ayano really want to be with him, anyways, even as friends? He was a pathetic excuse of a human being, and she was the cutest person on this planet. Why would she, of all people, want to stick around someone like him, who was awkward and socially inept?
He returned to the cafe to see that their cake had arrived. Ayano was taking photos with a grin, and as he sat down, she snapped another few photos.
"Ah, Shintaro! I took a photo of you in it, but I didn't show your face because you said you don't like photos, so I hope you don't mind," said Ayano, smiling and turning her phone screen towards him.
Shintaro only nodded in response as he tried to think of how he could bring it up naturally to Ayano. After a few minutes of consideration, he said "fuck it" and decided to just be straightforward. Without a word, he took out the box from his pocket and handed it to her, looking away in embarrassment.
"What's this?" Ayano asked as she took the box.
"It's for you," he said. Glancing back at her, he saw her open the box and gasp in astonishment.
"You looked like you wanted it when we passed by, so…" He trailed off, unable to find a good reason to justify his actions.
"Shintaro… You didn't have to!" Ayano immediately pinned the accessory to her hair and smiled. "I'm so touched; I really love it. Thank you!"
"It's nothing," he said as he lifted his drink with a shaking hand. Somehow, it worked out fine for him; he really had to thank Phantom Thief Jeanne and all the other shoujo manga he read in the past for helping him out.
Ayano moved on to talk about how weird it was for her to be in the same grade as her siblings. Shintaro stared at her as she excitedly told him stories of her school life, and he couldn't help but smile to himself.
Ah, he really was hopeless.
"There's somewhere else I want to go," she had said after the left the mall. "Will you come with me?"
Shintaro nodded and agreed without any questions. On the Yamanote Line, they sat next to each other, and he was reminded of the few times he spent time with her outside of school back then, when he never learned to appreciate her presence. Beside them, a high school couple stood near the door, talking and laughing amongst themselves. Shintaro stared at them a little, and for a quick second, he seemed to see his younger self with Ayano — she was talking excitedly about something, while he did his best to look distant and uninterested. He felt a sudden yearning for those times; if he had been more honest, would things have been different?
Could their paths have intertwined differently, in the way he secretly wanted them to?
They arrived at their destination, and Shintaro couldn't help but do a double take. "You sure you want to come here?" He asked.
Ayano nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah! You haven't been back for a while, have you? Since you're off to college now. I thought it'd be nice to revisit some memories, you know, and a lot of our memories lie here."
"Are we even allowed here?"
"I'm still a student here, and you're an alumni, so it should be all okay! Don't worry about it; let's go!"
As he took a step forward onto his high school campus, Shintaro's mind flooded with memories of the past. Perhaps his ability never left him, for he saw flashes of imagery and memories he held deep in his heart — Takane screaming at him for beating her in her favorite shooting games while Haruka and Ayano tried to calm them down, Haruka stuffing his face with free food from the cafeteria's event, Ayano running across the campus excitedly while he struggled to keep up with her energy…
The memories only multiplied as they walked up the stairs and towards their classroom. The sound of the classroom door sliding open was deafening, and Shintaro shielded his eyes from the sunlight that blinded him momentarily. When he opened his eyes again, he saw Ayano standing next to the window as the rays of the setting sun seeped through the glass. She had a wistful smile on her face as she ran one hand against her desk by the window, and something about her expression just made Shintaro's heart clench in sorrow.
"How nostalgic," she murmured to herself as she looked around the classroom. "We spent most of our days here, didn't we?"
"We did," Shintaro said finally as he made his way over to his desk next to hers. "You spent more time here, though, didn't you?"
Ayano laughed. "That's true," she said. "The haze was very much like this, wasn't it? I've been here for longer than I can keep track of. Falling, falling, and falling, continuously, over and over again… It's strange to see the real location now, you know?"
"Shintaro, you don't have to apologize for anything," said Ayano, seeing right through his thoughts. "You might not believe it, but I was really happy. At school, I had friends and could be around the people I loved. At home, I had my siblings, who I love dearly. In the end, I was able to do my best to save everyone. I was happy, so you don't need to apologize."
"Do you…regret anything?"
Internally, Shintaro slapped himself for asking such a stupid question. Even though he didn't mean it that way, it was like asking her if she regretted saving everyone, and he knew better than everyone else that Ayano the hero would never think in such a way.
Ayano, however, shook her head and smiled softly. "Nope, not at all. It was scary at first, you know; learning about the snake's plans and really allowing the implications to sink in, and then trying desperately to find a way to stop him. But in the end, everything worked out fine, so I guess my sacrifice was worth it."
"But you didn't deserve all of this," Shintaro blurted out. "Any of this. You should've had a normal life with your family. You were supposed to be happy in a way that didn't involve sacrificing yourself. You deserve so much better than this."
"This isn't like you, Shintaro," said Ayano, chuckling slightly.
"You shouldn't have befriended a jerk like me, either. All I did was add on to your suffering."
"Shintaro…" Ayano stepped forward and looked into his eyes. "That's not true. Why would you think that?"
"And why would you think otherwise? I was terrible to you. I was never nice to you and I always acted like I didn't care in the slightest about you or your wellbeing. I never listened to you, never noticed your suffering, never reached out to you. You said not to apologize, but I won't be able to forgive myself if I don't. I'm sorry, Ayano. For everything I did and everything I said back then. I never wanted you to leave me alone, and I certainly never wanted you to fuck off. I'm sorry for being such a jerk, and I'm sorry for causing so much pain for you. If you didn't meet me, you could've been happier."
At the sound of her stern voice, Shintaro looked up. She stared at him, pouting slightly as she inched closer to him. Involuntarily, his face heated up as he noticed, again, how cute she was and close they were.
"Listen to me, Shintaro," she said. "You're very important to me, in ways you cannot even imagine. Please believe me when I say that you're irreplaceable to me. I have never regretted meeting you, not even once."
The silence was deafening as both of them stayed deep in thought. Shintaro could hear his heartbeat in his ears as a scary thought flashed across his mind and stayed there, one that he couldn't shake away no matter how hard he tried:
Confess to her.
What was he thinking? Him, confess his love to someone? He could barely even be honest about his feelings normally; how would he be able to do something as bold as that? And to sweet Ayano, for god's sake. But oh, how he wanted to say it, right here and now, to tell her the secret he's been holding on to for god knows how long.
"Let's go to the rooftop," Ayano said suddenly. Not giving him any chance to finish his sentence or even speak, she headed out the classroom and towards the staircase that would lead to the top of the school building, but before she left, he could see the pink tint that glowed on her cheeks.
Opening the door to the rooftop, Shintaro was met with the most beautiful sunset he had ever seen before. The sky was dyed with splashes of fiery red and orange and pink on a faint blue canvas, with dots of multi-colored clouds swirling it all together. He was never big on admiring sunsets or anything, since they were ordinary, everyday occurrences, but he couldn't help but stare at the beautiful scenery in front of him. Ayano, in contrast, squealed in delight as she ran forward, admiring the sky. Excitedly, she pointed to the sky, gesturing for him to come over and repeating "Shintaro, Shintaro, look at how pretty it is!" over and over again.
"Yes, yes, I see it," said Shintaro, waiting for the girl to calm down.
"It's just so pretty!" said Ayano. "I can't believe it!"
But you're prettier, Shintaro thought to himself with a smile. He was done pretending that his feelings didn't exist; in that moment in the classroom, he fully realized how hopelessly in love he was with her dumb self, and he wanted her to himself for the rest of his life. As her beautiful brown eyes stared into his, he resisted the urge to pull her into a tight embrace.
"There was a beautiful sunset three years ago, too," said Ayano softly. "I still remember it clearly."
Shintaro stayed silent. It hurt every time he remembered how she left him three years ago, but now that she was back by his side, he was more than grateful for her presence. He was stupid for only realizing how much she meant to him after he lost her, but that gave him more reason to cherish her in the future.
"That day, I had already decided that I would be everyone's hero. I decided that I would save everyone and that I wouldn't regret anything. But…"
At this, Ayano paused, biting her lip. She looked as if she was about to cry, and Shintaro almost panicked.
"What's wrong?" he asked quietly.
"There was just one thing that I regretted, you know," she said with a rueful smile. "Just a little bit. I couldn't help but think about how even though I called myself your friend, I couldn't even make you smile when I was with you. Selfishly, I really didn't want to leave your side, Shintaro."
Her smile one-shotted his heart, and as he spent those seconds after she spoke trying to gather up his courage, his mind reeled as he tried to comprehend her words. Did she… Did she mean it in that way? Or was he just misunderstanding her words? Perhaps… Did she feel the same way about him?
There was only one way to find out.
"From now on, how about you stay by my side not as a friend, but as my girlfriend instead?"
He said it. Oh, dear god, he really just said it. The words fell from his mouth quicker than he anticipated, and now, there was nothing he could do to take them back. Just how daring was he today? Somehow, being with her gave him the strength he always wished he had.
He didn't know what gave him the courage, but he stole a glance at her. Her face was flushed red and oh, how cute it was. She stared at him with wide eyes as she tried to process his words.
"Eh? Wait, Shintaro, do you—? Eh—? Eh?"
Shintaro burst into laughter at her stuttering. He laughed until his stomach hurt and tears formed in his eyes, but he couldn't help it. She was just too cute.
"W-Why are you laughing?" Ayano asked, pouting.
"Sorry, sorry. I'll say it properly so that even an idiot like you can understand," said Shintaro, smiling. "I love you, Ayano. I know it might not seem like it, but I always have, and I want to spend my future with you."
Ayano stared at him, and for a second, Shintaro was scared that he had fucked everything up and that they wouldn't even be able to be friends anymore. But then Ayano started crying as she nodded furiously.
"I love you, too, Shintaro," she said between sniffles. "I love you so much. I never even dreamed that you would feel the same way. I'm— I'm just so glad—"
"Hey, don't cry," said Shintaro. He cupped his hands around her cheeks and wiped away her tears one by one. "You're an idiot."
"No, you're the idiot!" Ayano said. "When did you learn to be so smooth?"
"Do you hate it?"
"I don't think any girl would hate it! It's just… The Shintaro I know would never act like this. This is too good to be true; it makes me think that it's all just a dream."
Shintaro laughed as he pinched her cheeks lightly. "What about now? Still think it's a dream?"
"No, no, I believe it now!"
In one swift movement, he pulled her in for a tight embrace, and the two of them stood under the setting sun, holding onto each other and never wanting to let go. She was right; he usually wasn't like this. He was usually cold, emotionless, and sharp-tongued. But now, he was soft, and it was all her fault. He might be the most cynical person ever, but he's also head over heels for her, and she might have made him believe in "true love" again.
A/N: believe it or not, i planned to publish this on valentine's day, which shows how much i've procrastinated on finishing (IM SORRY). but i'm honestly pretty happy with how this turned out - being in love really changed me and makes me love writing fluff. this is also the confession scene mentioned in chapter 2 of "ily, wbu?"
also, shintaro is so much fun to write. goddamn, i've really just never noticed in all these years. and i have also renewed my love for shinaya after writing this fic and rewatching the toumei answer pv and almost crying; i just love them so much :(
please let me know what you think in your reviews!