A/N: Originally written for KageprOTP Month in 2018.
Ayano is at the door. "I brought fresh vegetables!" she smiles, a grocery bag in her hands.
Shintarou blinks. "Oh. Er… okay. Come in."
"Sorry for dropping in unannounced," she says, taking off her shoes. "We accidentally bought way more food than we needed because we got confused about whose turn it was to go shopping! Anyway, I thought your family might want some of the food, so I came over!"
"Thanks, I guess," says Shintarou. He walks over and sets out a pair of slippers. "Here."
"Thanks!" she hops into the slippers. "Anyone else home right now?"
"Mom is at work, and Momo has a concert today," says Shintarou, leading her to the kitchen. "So it's just us two."
"Oh, yay," says Ayano, patting him on the arm. "Won't this be fun."
They put the groceries in the fridge.
"Have you eaten yet?" asks Ayano, following Shintarou to his room.
"No… I just have leftovers for today. I'm heating them up later."
"Hm, that's all right, I guess," she says. "I haven't eaten yet either. Maybe I'll make something later~"
In the living room, the clock chimes 11 o'clock.
Shintarou notices that Ayano's footsteps have stopped. He turns back. "Ayano?" For a moment, brief enough that he wonders if he imagined it, there's a worryingly blank expression on her face.
But in the next moment, it's gone, and she's smiling again. "O…Oh, it's nothing," she says.
Shintarou's room isn't really much to speak of. The curtains are drawn shut, the lights turned off, and his computer screen glowing brightly in the darkness.
"What have you been up to?" she asks.
"Oh, you know," says Shintarou. "Computer stuff."
She takes a closer look, peering over his shoulder. "Isn't this that music program? What was it called… IA?"
"Uh-huh." He takes a seat at his desk.
"That's so cool! I wouldn't have expected Shintarou-kun to be the musical type."
"Ah… It's not like I'm an expert or anything," he says, feeling slightly embarrassed. "This is just something I've been experimenting around with. It's not good or anything."
"Nonsense, Shintarou-kun is smart. I'm sure you can be great at anything you put your mind to."
"Can I listen?"
Shintarou's face heats up with embarrassment. "N-no! It's… not ready."
Ayano points at the screen. "It says 'Final' in the file name."
"Um… It's… about you, so it's embarrassing." Shintarou fidgets with his fingers. "And…"
Biting his lip, he makes his decision. Silently, he shoves his pair of headphones at her.
"Ah." She pats his outstretched hand with both hands. "Thank you." She puts on the headphones.
He clicks play and she listens to the song.
As the cursor progresses through the track, Shintarou feels his heartrate increasing and he starts getting tunnel vision. He's never really shown anyone his music before. Even Ene, back when she was still in his computer, was at least respectful enough to leave these files in particular alone (or at the very least, she pretended that she had left them alone, which he can respect).
The song sucks. It totally sucks, doesn't it. Really, he hasn't taken a single class of music theory, so what does he know.
When the song ends, he glances back at her with trepidation, dreading her response.
He sees something wet on her cheeks.
His mouth opens in shock. "Y-You're crying!? Why!?"
"Fu fu," says Ayano as she takes off the headphones, her voice shaky despite the forced smile on her face. "Don't tell me you wrote something heavy-hitting like that and didn't even realize just what kind of an effect it would have on your listeners?"
Shintarou doesn't know what to say in response to that, so he just hands her the box of tissues. She nods in appreciation, wiping her face with a couple of tissues.
She tosses the tissues in the bin, and then takes a seat on his bed.
"It's an eternity in there," she says suddenly, the characteristic smile on her face gone, her hands clasped together. "The Daze. I know you all said that I was only in there for two years, but it felt like a lifetime. Multiple lifetimes. So many lifetimes."
She glances up at Shintarou, her eyes red. "The same nightmare, loop after loop after loop. There was no end. I was keeping track of the loops that passed with tallies on the wall, you know? Each loop was about a day, I think, and I thought, if I kept track…
"But I ran out of room on the walls. The tallies spread out across the floor and ceilings of the house, and then out onto the ground outside. Eventually, I stopped keeping track, because just watching the tallies spread, covering more and more area… it was making me kinda depressed, you know?" She chuckles dryly.
"I tried to stay strong. For Shuuya, for Tsubomi, for Kousuke. I just needed to do my part, and then everyone could be happy in the end… But my mind… isn't exactly the most rational thing, you know?" She smiles. "Ayano's dumb brain, not making sense. It should be expected, really."
Shintarou always feels a spike of unease when she calls herself dumb. 'You're not!' He wants to shout. He really needs her to stop thinking those kinds of thoughts. But he's really still not used to talking with other people, and so before he has time to string together a coherent set of words to interject, Ayano is already continuing.
"So, um, I might have stepped in front of an oncoming truck?" she says, looking down at her fingers.
"You what!?" Shintarou says, feeling his stomach lurch. Damn, why is it always the trucks.
"Don't worry," she says, waving her hands. "It didn't work. I just woke up again at the beginning of the loop. Seems like you can't die while inside the Daze. Good to know, eh?"
"Well." He gets up from his bed and takes a seat on the bed next to her. "In theory… yes. But I think it's really bad that that… happened."
"Don't be. I mean… gah." Shintarou stretches his arms. "It's the circumstances. I mean. I've felt this before. This feeling. The one you're showing me."
Ayano blinks, and then gasps, turning away and covering her eyes. "I'm so sorry. I didn't realize I turned these on. I'm still not used to these…"
"It's fine. It's just that this feeling… is very familiar to me."
And then Ayano peers closely at Shintarou. "Shintarou-kun. Y-your eyes…"
"Yeah, I think it was in an earlier timeline," says Shintarou, staring at the ceiling. "I think I actually succeeded, too." He points at his neck. "Scissors. Here." He makes a cutting sound.
Ayano winces. "Ouch."
"Yeah, come to think of it, it probably hurt like hell. But I think that me had just accidentally killed Ene, and like… I was feeling so terrible and in despair and I was just so overwhelmed that I didn't really notice. I just wanted… out, as soon as possible." Shintarou looks away. "You know? So, yeah. Scissors."
"I'm sorry you had to experience that," says Ayano, her hand brushing his wrist. "…But as for me… I probably wouldn't be able to do that. I'm a coward, so I can only do things like jump off buildings or walk in front of trucks."
"…It's not like this is a competition or anything," he says carefully. "Being better at… that… is probably not a good thing. So you're fine."
"…If you say so…"
They sit in silence for a bit.
"This is super cheesy," says Shintarou, "but if you need to talk, or just hang out and play video games or whatever, you can come over whenever."
"You'd defeat me single-handedly in like every game ever," says Ayano, smiling weakly, her eyes glowing red. "But thanks. I appreciate it."
Shintarou unconsciously grips the covers on his bed. "Um."
Ayano tilts her head. "Hm?"
"You… Your eyes are red." He glances away in embarrassment.
She pauses for a moment, perplexed, and then blushes upon realizing what she'd just conveyed to him. A certain set of feelings… "Well, um… Geez, you had to have known already, anyway! With all the hints that I was dropping!…"
"That's the thing though, you can never be completely sure." Shintarou stares at his hands, fiddling with his thumbs. "Obviously, the possibility occurred to me, but it seemed kind of… too good to be true?"
"Ah." Ayano looks down at her hands as well, her cheeks still faintly red. "Is that so."
They sit in silence for a while.
"So…" says Ayano.
"So…" says Shintarou.
There's another long silence.
Ayano flops backwards onto the bed, her arms spread out on either side. "Do you think I should go back to school?" she asks, staring up at the ceiling. "I mean, I missed two years, so I'll be behind…"
"Well, I dropped out of school as well," says Shintarou. "It's been about two years for me as well."
"Yes, but unlike me, you're smart. You'd probably pass any university entrance exam on your first try."
"I… Agh." Shintarou rubs the back of his head, making a frustrated sound. "There are different kinds of intelligences, you know. There's bound to be something you're good at."
"Maybe?…" Ayano sighs. "I really have no idea what I'm doing, to be honest."
"Is there something you want to do?"
Ayano is silent for a long time.
"For me, well," mutters Shintarou. "I don't really know what I'm doing either. I mean, look at me. Still a hikikomori NEET, staying at home. It's really says a lot about me that my little sister is doing more for this household than I am."
"Potential," says Ayano. "You just haven't reached your full potential yet."
"Hmph," says Shintarou.
"Yeah… I really don't know…" Ayano's eyes shine bright red in the darkness. "I wish I could ask my parents. I mean, they'd have some cool tips and advice for sure."
Shintarou feels a swirling vortex of pain and grief and loss. He clutches his stomach. "Ugh. Yeah…"
There's a long silence.
Unbidden, some memories of Ayano from before the incident arise in Shintarou's mind.
"Why are you always cooped up in a dark, gloomy room?" she had said to him once. "Go out and explore! Exercise is good for the mind, you know."
Another memory. "Me, I'm more of a sun and outdoors person," she had said in response to one of his comments about the weather one day.
"Hey…" says Shintarou. "Um. Do you want to go for a walk?" he asks.
Ayano blinks, and then sits up, gaping at him. "Oh my gosh. Shintarou-kun, wanting to go outside of his own volition? You've matured so much! I'm so proud of you," she says, patting him on the head.
"Oh quiet," says Shintarou, looking away, covering his face out of embarrassment. "…So?"
"…Sure," she says, getting up from the bed. "I'd like that." She wipes her eyes. They're still a little damp. "Ah… Yes, I think going outside would help a bit."
And so they head outside. Ayano waits just a few steps ahead as Shintarou locks the front door.
The cicadas are loud as hell out here.
"Aren't you hot in that?" asks Shintarou, pointing at her scarf as they begin walking out onto the sidewalk.
"Mmm," she says, smiling slightly. "It's fine."
"Why do you wear that all the time, anyway?"
"Well, at first it was just to cheer up the Dan, you know? Way back when. 'Red is the colour of heroes!' But nowadays…" She smiles faintly. "It's kinda become my signature look, you know? So I gotta wear it all the time, or else people won't recognize me!"
"Right…" he says dubiously.
"Also," she says more quietly. "Erm. It's nice and comfy. Like a hug." She wraps her arms around herself. "So it's reassuring."
"What about you?" she asks, tilting her head. "Aren't you hot in that jersey?" She pokes him.
"Y…yeah…" he says, tugging on his collar. He really shouldn't have underestimated the heat today. He can feel the sweat starting to soak through to his clothes already.
"Why did you wear it out today, I was wondering?"
"Well, you never know when a red jersey might come in handy," says Shintarou. "So it doesn't hurt to be prepared."
"And also, that time, you said…" Geez, what is he saying. That's silly. Wearing a blatantly out-of-season piece of clothing just because a girl he likes said something good about it once is just silly. He's silly.
Ayano flashes a memory at him, tilting her head inquisitively.
"Yeah, that's the one," says Shintarou, looking away out of embarrassment.
"Ah…" says Ayano. She smiles, fiddling with her fingers. "Well, I'm flattered. But it's really not worth getting heat stroke over."
"…Fine, I'll take it off." He ties the jersey securely around his waist. "There."
She giggles. "It looks like you're wearing a dress now."
Shintarou crosses his arms. "Bah."
She giggles again.
Shintarou glances at her hesitantly, and then turns his attention back to the sidewalk in front of him.
They walk for a while.
As they walk, Shintarou sneaks a few glances at Ayano.
Ever since she returned from the Daze, she's been more… jumpy than usual. He wasn't sure if he had been imagining it earlier, but after observing her more carefully, she does seem to be tensing up a lot… It's happening whenever a car rushes by, and also whenever someone walks past them.
Once again, she twitches rather noticeably as a particularly large SUV drives by.
"Hey," says Shintarou. "You all right?…"
"Oh," she says. "I'm fine." She laughs sheepishly. "Well, the atmosphere was really different back in there… It'll just take me a while to get used to being back here in the real world."
"Should we go back inside?"
"I'll be fine," she says, pouting. "I can handle it."
"…If you say so." He glances away. "Just wanted to make sure you weren't pushing yourself."
She waves her hand. "This much I can handle."
"But anyway, I kind of feel you, you know?" she says, stretching her arms. "What you were saying earlier. I'm the big sis, but we're all mainly relying on Seto's income right now. And also Dad's savings, but that won't last long. I need to get a job as soon as possible…"
"Me too, I guess," mutters Shintarou. "What kind of jobs do they have for high school dropouts?… Cashiers?"
"Fancy talking with strangers on a regular basis, Shintarou-kun?" She smiles.
He stiffens. "Urk."
"Fu fu. I thought not."
"Then factory work, or something."
"Hm, maybe." She glances at him. "But you should really finish school. It would be such a waste, with a mind like yours."
"Does it really matter…"
"You could do a lot of good in the world at your full potential."
"Then what about you?" Shintarou crosses his arms, frowning. "There's got to be something you can do. I don't want to see you doing some unfulfilling job for the rest of your life."
"Awww. Shintarou-kun actually cares." She smiles. "But don't worry, some kind of menial low-wage job is probably best suited for me. I was never great with the complicated stuff, anyway."
"There's got to be something. Um… say, a nurse."
"Oh gosh, no. I'd probably just mess up and give the wrong medicine and patients under my care would just end up dying."
"That's really more Takane-chan's area of specialty… Not so much for me."
"…A manga artist?"
"The manga world is too competitive, and for most people, it doesn't pay that well!" she says. "And besides, I'm not great at drawing. Haruka-kun would probably have a much better shot at it than me."
"An idol, me?" She covers her mouth. "Noooooo… That's so not for me."
"…" Argh, what are some other jobs? He's really starting to regret actively ignoring anything career or job-related during his two-year stint as a hikikomori-NEET.
"You've been only suggesting jobs that are really out there, Shintarou," huffs Ayano. "Why not something more reasonable, like teachers?"
Shintarou blinks. "Hey, sure. Why not a teacher?"
"Huh? No, I was just giving an example…"
"But you're good with children."
"Y…you think so?"
"And your Dad was a teacher too, wasn't he?" He turns to her and gives her a scruntinizing look. "Hm… Yeah, I can picture you as a teacher."
"Oh?" She beams. "You think?" She thinks about it for a moment. "Huh. Maybe I'll be a teacher, then. Well, kids can be kind of fun." She taps her chin, tilting her head. "Hmm. Maybe, maybe. So what about you, Shintarou-kun? What do you want to do?"
"…Don't know…" Shintarou sighs. "But maybe I can go to university."
"Maybe we'll go to the same school."
There's a distant rumble of thunder.
Shintarou and Ayano both look up, and abruptly realize that it has gotten very dark recently. Thick, grey clouds are completely covering the sky now.
"It was sunny half an hour ago!" Shintarou protests.
And then the rain begins to fall.
At first, it's just a trickle, and then it quickly speeds up, getting heavier, and heavier, and heavier…
And then Shintarou and Ayano glance at each other, disbelief etched on their faces.
"Quickly!" shouts Ayano. "Under that tree!"
They dash through the sudden rainfall that's somehow getting denser and denser, even as they run.
They stop underneath the tree, panting for breath, soaking wet. They turn around and stare blankly at the enormous spray of water being thrown up by the buckets of rain falling from the sky. The sound of the rain on the pavement around them and on the tree canopy above is almost deafening.
It's suddenly a lot colder now, too. The temperature must have dropped something like 10 degrees in a matter of minutes.
"What. The. Frig." Shintarou shakes his head in disbelief.
"Wow, that's some heavy rain," says Ayano.
"Gah, I really should have checked the weather forecast beforehand."
"You know," she says. "I think I used to hate rain. I learned my Mom died when it was pouring rain outside, you know? But we haven't had any rain for over a month. Rain is necessary for life." She spreads out her arms. "The gods give us rain. Wash away, wash away the Daze. Autumn has come."
"—By Ayano," says Shintarou.
"Huh?… Oh!" She pauses for a moment. "No, that wasn't 5-7-5, though."
"Eh, close enough." Shintarou stares out at the rain, taking a moment to gather his thoughts. "Missed a lot of school / Raindrops falling from the sky / Your marks will fall too."
"Che," says Ayano, poking him on the shoulder. "Cynical as always, I see." She giggles.
Shintarou stares at Ayano's shirt. Her soaked, white shirt.
"Erm. I can see your bra."
"So?" she grins. "I can see your nipples!"
Shintarou looks down and sees that indeed, his shirt has become see-through as well. "Oh," he says. After a moment's pause, he unties his jersey from his waist and puts it on Ayano's back. "But still. Sorry, it's wet, though."
"Hm?" she says. She puts her arms through the sleeves. "That's fine. Thanks. Oh, and…" She takes off her scarf and plops it around Shintarou's neck. It's long enough to hang down and cover a large fraction of his chest. "For you."
"…Thanks, I guess."
They stand there for about 10 minutes.
The rain doesn't look like it's going to let up anytime soon. So, despite Shintarou's doubts, they decide to make a run for it.
There's something exhilarating about running through the rain. Especially this kind of rain—with precipitation thick enough to feel as if they're running through a deep ocean.
They're completely soaked within the first several steps, and their shoes begin squishing with water shortly after that.
"Wa ha ha!" laughs Ayano, pointing at the enormous torrent of water flowing down the road and into the drains. "The road is like a river!" she shouts to be heard over the almost deafening sound of the rain.
By the time they get back to Shintarou's house, every square centimetre of their bodies is soaked to the bone, and their clothes feel almost three times heavier with the additional water that they've picked up.
Shintarou pushes the door open, and they hurry inside, gasping for breath. As soon as Ayano is inside, he slams the door behind them and clicks the lock shut.
They stare at each other, the water dripping off their clothes already forming a large puddle underneath them.
And then Ayano laughs, and then Shintarou can't help but chuckle a little as well.
Small steps at a time, little by little… they're getting their lives back on track.
Momo is totally peeved when she finds them soaking wet and dripping puddles of water in the entryway. "Oh my god, what are you two doing? What were you doing outside in this weather? I had to really rush to make it back in time before the rain started! Didn't you check the weather forecast"
Shintarou and Ayano just look back at Momo with expressions of mirth on their faces.
Momo huffs and crosses her arms. "You two…" she says, shaking her head. She throws a couple of towels at them. "Hurry up and get washed up right now. You'll catch a cold!" She quickly ushers them up to the bathroom. "Ayano-chan first, and then Onii-chan after, okay? Throw your wet clothes into this bin. I have some dry clothes from my wardrobe that might be able to fit you, okay Ayano-chan?"
The dark-haired girl (wearing Onii-chan's jersey?) just smiles sheepishly. "Sorry about this. Thank you."
"No big deal," she says, crossing her arms. "Just be more careful next time."
"Right," they both say together. They turn to each other, and then Ayano giggles.
Momo rolls her eyes, huffing. "Kids these days."