Hello everyone! Some may have already figured it out but warning nonetheless...this chapter is long. Very long. It is the longest chapter so far, and it took some work to revise, so I'm sorry if I left any mistakes.

The whole chapter is pretty much just "KamiZuri moments". As it must be difficult for some to read all at once, I did my best to separate it into as many scenes as possible and divided the parts with numbers, so you can read it little by little.

Oh, and also a final warning of spoilers, both from GT and the ITEM novel. I'll mark the GT spoiler with an (S) in the chapter separation, so if you're not up to date with the novels you can just skip that part. It can get confusing at the end, but it is recommended since it is somewhat recent.

This chapter is rated "K" for kisses. A lot of them. What am I doing?

Enjoy your reading!

Chapter 42 - Darkness Within/Bright_Future_Ahead

Surprisingly, Touma had returned to the ITEM apartment. The reason for this was simple: the hospital nurses had delivered a message from Shizuri, stating that she had already returned home and was waiting for him in her room.

He felt a peculiar nervousness, unlike anything he had experienced before. His hand hesitated near the door, going up and away about five times, before he finally gathered the courage to knock.

"Mugi - Shizuri, may I come in?" His voice was full of hesitation.

Instead of a verbal response, he heard the sound of the doorknob being turned.

"Hey Touma, you took your time."

She was smiling as she said his name. It was stupid, but that was still enough to make him happy, even after so long together. When she called him by his family name after so long in the other world, he felt a pang in his chest, but now she sounded like herself again, his Shizuri.

"Are you coming in or not?" she asked, gesturing with her head for him to come right in. "We have a lot to talk about and I'm getting a little sleepy, so hurry up."

When she used that soft tone, one that he knew was only meant for him, Touma felt as if his heart would melt. After so much time together, it took the two of them going to another world for him to realize how much he loved this girl.

"So, about that girl, April, how is she?" asked Shizuri, approaching the open window, the only source of light in that neutrally colored room.

"She...won't cause any more trouble."

That slight hesitation was easily noticed by his girlfriend, and honestly, it was a good thing she did. She simply raised an eyebrow, her expression slightly serious yet understanding, conveying the message that he didn't need to elaborate further.

"Good to know that this madness is finally over." Shizuri let out a tired sigh. "That was a pretty long night..."

"Shizuri, I think I owe you an apology." Touma cut her off as he walked over to join her near the window. "You were right, back in the other world, I really was giving up, I -"

"Wait your turn." She touched his lip with the soft tip of her slender finger. Touma really loved it when she did that. "I have to apologize first, both on my behalf and on hers. I must admit, I acted like a bitch back then, putting the blame on you like that. I promised to support you through anything, so that was seriously the dumbest move I've ever made in my entire life."

"You were right, so I don't -"

"Quiet," she cut him off once again, repeating that technique. "You know that acting like that will only hurt us in the long run, don't you? I really like how understanding you are, but don't go trying to blame yourself for my mistakes, because they were many and probably won't stop any time soon. So, again, I'm sorry for being an idiotic, controlling, and overall bitchy girlfriend. My head was a mess, but that doesn't give me the right to treat you like this, not after all you've done for me."

"I...can I speak now?" he stammered, his voice uncertain.

"Sure, go ahead," she replied warmly, her lips curving into a slight smile. She tilted her head in that adorable way he always found endearing.

"Well. First, stopping to think about it, it seems that the two of us were kind of out of sync back in the other world. It seems that versions of ourselves didn't approve of our relationship very well."

"Don't worry, this has changed -" Shizuri stopped talking when he looked at her seriously. "Okay, your turn to talk. I'm listening, I'm listening."

"Being honest with you, at that time, when I said there might not be a way back to this world, I really wished I was right." He paused heavily when he saw the girl change her sympathetic expression to a neutral one. "I don't know how much April told you, but she must have at least revealed that the me from here came from the world we were in, the one where I already have someone by my side. Going back to that world again made me change my way of thinking, doubt some decisions I made, ones I didn't make in that world. Deep down, I didn't want to go back."

Shizuri bit her lip. Her brows furrowed slightly, as if she was grappling with the urge to say something. However, she quickly composed herself, her features softening into a thoughtful expression.

"You can speak your mind," he said, seeking her gaze which was averted for half a second.

"I..." She hesitated, for several seconds. "I'd be lying if I said it doesn't make me upset. Is it because of that girl? Mitsuari Ayu. She must be alive in the other world."

"How you-" His tone rose suddenly, but he stopped talking to take a deep breath. That was a name he hadn't expected to hear coming out of her mouth, not now. "It's more than that. The person you are seeing before you is the same as the one from the other world, and yet, all this time, I doubted it. His memories... no... my memories were with me all this time, but I rejected them, forced myself to believe that they were not mine. If I accepted that, my desire to return to that life would crush me. I felt like I was just an echo of myself, a lost child wandering through a world similar to my own, but with enough differences to change me to the point that I wouldn't even know where "Kamijou Touma" began or ended."

The relieved sigh that escaped him was akin to a heavy burden lifted from his shoulders. It brought an immense sense of relief to be able to open up and confide in someone in such a manner. After enduring solitude in this world for what felt like an eternity, he had finally found someone he could truly rely on and trust. The feeling was indescribable, a balm to his weary soul.

"But none of that matters now," he continued, his tone becoming lighter. "Stopping to think about it, my life in the other world didn't turn out exactly as I planned either. I also failed many times, I also felt completely useless many times, but I kept moving forward, without running away like the coward I hated to be in the past. I made a difference so many times, I was a hero in that war, I survived the manipulations and torture of a lonely Goddess who tried to break my spirit, I defeated that demon who planned to destroy all existence, and much, much more. But in all these times, I had to count on someone by my side, either helping me directly in combat, giving me advice on how to act, or even telling me that it's okay to be selfish, like a certain girl who is alive and dead at the same time. And I really enjoyed all of this. The excitement of those adventures was exactly what I dreamed of when I was bored with the monotonous routine of a normal high school boy's life. In the end, even though it wasn't entirely as I had planned, I had a good life."

"What made you make the decision to return to this world?" Shizuri waited to ask that question, being sure that he had nothing more to say. "Were my words alone enough?"

"You are enough." He meant it in a serious tone, but the smile on his face betrayed him. "I wanted that life, and I wanted this life. Do you have any idea how many times I had to hold back from simply kissing you in the other world without caring about the other Shizuri's opinion?"

"But... you said it was okay if we were just friends."

"To hell with this just friends shit." He made an exaggerated gesture with his hand, which startled the girl a little. "I just thought we could reset, when your other version took your place, I would be able to win you over again and then I could have the best of both worlds. God, what a selfish decision that was for me."

"So you knew about the other me all along?"

"Of course I did. I was a little upset that you didn't want to tell me something so important, for a moment I thought you had stopped trusting me after merging with your other self and -"

"I'm sorry," Shizuri interrupted him, holding his face with her fingertips. "I think my biggest mistake was trying to control everything. At a certain point, I started to realize that I was leaning too much on you, that my obsession was getting worse and worse... I got confused... I was afraid of losing you, and because of that I almost really lost you. I promise to be honest from now on, and that there will be no more secrets between us, but you need to promise the same to me."

"I promise." His lack of hesitation made her take the sulky expression she had and exchange it for a cheerful one. "My problems are your problems, and your problems are mine too."

Finally she smiled again. Doubt still adorned her brown eyes, but Touma was sure that would soon be resolved. The two of them were back in sync now, no, it was much better than before. The boy knew this because now he was no longer afraid to talk about everything he felt and ask her for help with anything.

Their relationship was troubled from the beginning. Their contrasting perspectives and approaches hindered mutual understanding, but now they were taking a step in the right direction... on the right path. From now on, they vowed to embrace transparency, shunning secrets and any attempts at control. Their commitment was to care for one another and strive towards personal growth, supporting each other to become the best versions of themselves.

"Do you have anything else to talk about?" she asked, slowly bringing her face closer to his.

"Nothing to add at this moment." He tilted his head a little in her direction.

"Good, then accept my apology."

With one final, seamless motion, Shizuri claimed his lips as her own at last. The moment lingered, an eternity compressed into a fleeting second. Reluctantly, she eventually pulled away, though the separation felt far too brief compared to the endless wait she had endured.

"So," Shizuri said, catching her breath again. "Am I forgiven?"

"I'm sorry," he replied a little too seriously, but he soon put a rather smug smile on the corner of his lip. "But I can't forgive you, Shizuri-chan. Not after that half-assed kiss."

Now it was for real. Without giving the girl time to process, Touma shoved her with unnecessary violence, bringing her back against the wall beside the window. Closing the distance, he pinned the girl down so that she could not escape, and only then did he attack her lips with his own, pressing his body to hers to ensure that she was at his mercy.

He had wanted to pay her back for a long time, but lacked a little courage, and that was behind him. Now the girl could only gasp as he continued kissing her, not letting her escape for a second.

He still didn't feel satisfied, even after minutes of not letting her go. His hand that was beside Shizuri's body pressing against the wall, went down to her thigh, feeling that softness of her perfect skin, squeezing it and feeling it warp softly in his hand like he was grabbing a cloud. Touma was beginning to feel that he might go a little further this time, this was compounded by the girl's hands that went down quickly and then up, reaching into his shirt and touching his skin with her warm hands.

Touma easily defeated any attempt by her to take control of the kiss by pushing her tongue with his, and then beginning to explore her mouth. He ran his tongue under hers, then up to the roof of her mouth as if making a detailed inspection, and continued pressing his body into hers.

When he finally felt a sense of satisfaction, he took a step back, observing the thin line of saliva forming and smiling at the dazed expression on the girl's face. Typically, she would wear a similar look after an intense kiss, but this time it was slightly altered. Her eyes appeared unfocused as they locked with his, her breaths heavy and uneven, resonating through the room. Her body remained frozen in the exact position Touma had held her for several minutes, as if she were suspended in that very moment, unable to break free.

After a few moments of contemplation, Shizuri touched her own lips with her index finger.

"Holy shit," she said breathlessly. "What the fuck was that kiss?"

Her voice sounded a bit strange, probably because of the daze. This only served to make Touma put on another smug smile.

"You said you wanted to apologize, so I got a little carried away, you know?" He shrugged, his voice leaking mockingly.

"Hmmm... I don't know how to feel about this. It was supposed to be you who should enjoy it more since it was my apology, but... holy shit, what a kiss." She slowly moistened her lips, as if she wanted to feel the same sensation as just now. "Do you have more where that came from?"

"Ohoo...someone was finally impressed. So that wasn't another one of my lackluster kisses you were complaining about?"

"You still have room for improvement." Shizuri finally realized she was free and took a step toward him. Her face was still stuck in a state of elation. "But I admit, you really succeed when you stop holding back."

"I'm holding back actually. If I made a list of things that are going through my head right now it would basically be a 50-page dissertation."

"Rookie numbers, let's work it out."

As she took the second step towards him, her face contorted into a grimace of discomfort. Her hand instinctively went to her stomach region, and a feeble groan of pain escaped her lips.

"Shit," she cursed, stopping walking. "That's why running away from hospitals is a bad idea."

"You ran away from the hospital?! I knew something was wrong. Damn, did I hurt you?"

"It hurt a little bit but I liked it." Shizuri smiled mischievously.

"This is no time for jokes, come here." The boy cradled her in his arms and gently assisted her in lying down on the bed. "Stay still, I'll call an ambu -"

"No, stay here," she ordered, pulling him by the sleeve of his shirt. "I left the hospital because I wanted to spend the night next to you, in our room, in our bed. So lie there and be a good teddy bear."

"Shizuri -"

"Don't 'Shizuri' me. Come... here," she ordered slowly, giving his arm a good tug which caused him to collapse on the bed next to her. "I promise to come back to the hospital when I wake up. Just lie still there." She laid her head against his chest and closed her eyes, making him smell that sweet scent coming from her as she breathed quietly and smiled. "I can already feel my energy coming back, you have a knack for being a teddy bear. My poor beat-up doll will have to say goodbye to me soon."

Touma sighed, his gaze fixed on the gentle morning light streaming into the room. Unable to resist, he extended his hand and started to stroke the girl's head affectionately.

"Shouldn't we at least have closed the window?" asked Touma.

"What's the matter? Are you thinking of crossing some items off that list or something?"

"Not now, I'm more worried about assassins and such. Aren't you being too careless? People from the dark side shouldn't sleep so exposed like that." The boy passed his arm defensively over her body.

"Does being at your side count as being exposed? You can always vaporize any threat with that weird beam of light that came out of your arm, or give a snack to one of those dragons."

"You know I wouldn't do that. I'm the more elegant type."

"Are you trying to say that vaporizing people with beams of light is not elegant?" Shizuri said, a touch of indignation in her voice. "Although punching things is kind of therapeutic. That poor girl April, you had to see the beating I gave her."

"She seems to have fought back, considering that you didn't look good at all when you appeared in the fight against that angel."

Shizuri began to stretch out, trying to find the best position to sleep next to him, or on top of him. She pressed her body against his, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck.

"She got lucky there," she said, giving a yawn right away. "About three or four times, pure luck. After that, I kicked her ass six ways to Sunday. I'm not kidding, Touma, that girl sucked and swallowed the biggest L in history. Bitch was like: You can't beat me, you'll have to wait for him to come save you. I bet the marks from the sole of my foot on her ass will be carried into the afterlife. I tattooed her soul with my blows, it was the easiest fight of my life."

"You almost died, didn't you?" he asked skeptically.

"Yeah..." The girl giggled. "I still feel a little pain when I giggle. That little bitch was strong, and tough too... ah, thanks for the sword idea, it was pretty useful today."

"You're welcome."

Also smiling, he hugged her close to him, silently telling her that everything was fine now. He felt the tightness in her neck grow stronger, her weight resting on his body as she relaxed.

"Shizuri, you know I'm not really a stuffed animal, right? If you keep this up I won't be able to breathe," Touma joked, feeling the girl's warm, irregular breathing. "Hey... Shizuri-chan?"

He gave her a gentle shake but got no response.

"Looks like someone was pretty tired."

With the girl now asleep in his arms, he released himself a little from her grip so that he could breathe more easily and closed his eyes. The morning sun, like an insistent visitor, persisted in piercing through Touma's closed eyelids. It would be rather rude if he got up to close the window while the girl was sleeping so peacefully, so, he chose to endure the intrusion and let the sun's rays continue to bathe the room.

What kind of dreams would they have?

x-2-x

"It was a long night, indeed."

A male voice echoed from inside a room with multiple monitors. Aleister Crowley looked pleased as he chatted with someone.

"Looks like I was right about not getting completely involved," Aleister continued, getting no response from the 'person' he was communicating with. "But now... there's only the last step left." A simple smile appeared on that human's face. "Deliver my message. Remember to be subtle, he will understand."

x-3-x

A few days have passed since the confusion in District 16 where the fabric of reality seemed to warp for a brief moment. Rumors and strange reports spread to the four corners of the world, leaving people perplexed and curious. The news echoed like waves, bringing stories of rips in the sky, unusual storms, and unexplained phenomena.

In remote places, bustling cities, and isolated villages, witnesses shared their experiences, trying to make sense of the unique events they had witnessed. The skies were painted with vibrant and dazzling colors, as if nature itself was rebelling against the known rules. Torrential rains showered tropical forests, while thunder echoed across the horizon. Once serene coastal countries were shaken by unexpected storms, where wild winds battered their landscapes and rough seas defied the usual calm.

But nothing was permanent. The world was going back to the way it was, although people would keep talking about it for a long time.

So here he was, Kamijou Touma, a normal (?) high school boy with a smile on his face as he walked through the corridors of a hospital in District 7, his posture relaxed, one hand in his pocket, everything seemed back to the "normality" he was so keen to protect.

The boy nodded slightly to a blonde nurse in the hallway, who blushed and smiled in response. It was a deliberate gesture, his unspoken signal for the girl to provide him with cover. The reason for this was that visiting hours had not yet started, which was something "abnormal". Because of the mess last week, some rules had been changed to avoid a major disturbance. But this was a good time for him to break the rules.

"Hey, Kamijou-san," a female voice stopped him before he reached his destination.

Turning around, Touma scratched his head absently, being caught in the act.

"Hey, Takitsubo-chan, you look pretty good." He laughed gracelessly, however the girl only continued to stare at him with a blank face. He looked around to see if there was anyone in the hallway. "I'm not about to do anything wrong, if that's what you think."

"Huh?" Her head tilted just a little. "Kamijou-san, most of the time, talking too much engenders more suspicion than simply staying silent."

"Don't start talking with that big sister tone, I'm just paying a little visit to my girlfriend. I haven't seen her for two days and I'm kind of looking forward to the 'surprise' she said she had for me today and -"

"I'll stay here to make sure no one hears you two," she interrupted him, donning a pair of headphones and nodding her head in a manner reminiscent of an understanding mother.

"Umm... thank you, but I would really prefer that you stop saying such ambiguous things out loud."

A response was not expected, since the girl seemed to be in her own world while listening to music, so he just took a deep breath and opened the door as slowly as he could. Shizuri was not the kind of person who was a very light sleeper, but he really didn't want to wake her up suddenly, at least not yet.

Touma cast a furtive glance toward the only bed in the room, where he noticed Shizuri's soft tea-colored hair sprawled out. It was evident that she had tossed and turned throughout the night, as the white sheets were turned up and multiple pillows lay scattered on the floor. She had previously mentioned her tendency to oversleep, but since meeting him, her sleep patterns had gradually become more regular. However, it appeared that her routine was becoming disrupted once again, likely due to the sleepless night they had experienced.

Tiptoeing over to the bed, the boy carefully sat down on a convenient spot where a huge pillow lay, the one Shizuri had her arm over. He stretched out on the bed, removing the barrier between the two of them. The defenseless girl slept peacefully, breathing with her mouth slightly open. Her chosen nightclothes was somewhat... indecent. That thin white negligee the boy didn't recognize, but it was very much like his girlfriend to wear that instead of her hospital pajamas. He was not complaining, how could he?

"I wonder if I can get her to talk to me again?" he whispered, only to himself. "Hey, Shizu-chan, how are your dreams?"

To his disappointment, there was no response. Touma settled himself on the bed, edging closer to her little by little. His mischievous eyes tempted him to focus on her exposed skin, but as the gentleman that Kamijou Touma was, he quickly brushed aside those thoughts from his mind. At least, for the time being.

"Shizuri, you look so beautiful today, you know that?" the boy insisted, inches from her face. "You promised me a surprise today, I wonder what it is."

"Hmmm... hmmm." Something unintelligible escaped her lips, causing Touma to crack a smile. "No... not now..." She giggled in her dreams. "I need to change my clothes first... stop complaining, this is important..."

"What's important, Shizu-chan?"

"Dumb...ass...boyfriend." The smile that slid across her lips was not innocent at all.

"You don't want to tell me? I can do something to change that?"

"Hmm... maybe." Instinctively the girl moved toward him, her warm breath making him shiver. "You always have a way of convincing me, and you know very well what it is..."

With the girl's face now mere millimeters from his own, grinning like an idiot, Touma felt her hand glide up his body, trailing down his chest and coming to rest on his shoulder. With a gentle pull, she drew him closer to her, their lips almost brushing against each other. If he hadn't resisted at the last moment, she would have kissed him while still asleep.

"Maybe...maybe I should?" he wondered, feeling his heart racing.

As if a switch had been flipped in his mind, Touma responded to the movement initiated by the sleep-talking girl, gently pressing his lips against hers. It was a fleeting and delicate touch, barely a kiss, but almost immediately, he regretted his action.

A little awkwardly, he tried to pull away, but to his surprise, the girl surged forward, gripping the collar of his hoodie and compelling him to kiss her again, and this time the kiss was much more intense.

"Don't be a coward," she said, releasing his collar and opening her eyes. Her voice was still sleepy. "If you're going to wake me up with a kiss, then do it right."

"Always so picky." Touma rolled his eyes playfully and smiled. "I was kind of in doubt whether you were sleeping or not, so I hesitated."

"I was asleep...but that quick kiss brought me back to the waking world." Shizuri touched her own lips with her index and middle finger, as if still savoring what was there just now. "Come to think of it, that's kind of creepy. Are you the kind of person who kisses defenseless girls while they sleep?" Her tone was clearly playful.

"In my defense, it was you who asked me for something like this a while ago."

"Trying to justify your crimes, huh? Today marks one month into our relationship, and you still don't want to admit that I am simply irresistible and you are incapable of controlling yourself."

"See? It's all your fault. I'm glad you finally admit it."

"Smartass." Her eye roll, for some inexplicable reason, brought him immense satisfaction. "Enough of the small talk, I hope you're ready for the surprise I've prepared."

With a stretch and a boisterous yawn, the girl bounded out of bed and swung open a nearby cabinet. Touma couldn't help but notice that this sizable closet seemed out of place for a hospital room, suggesting that Shizuri had likely pulled some strings or offered bribes to acquire it. It was almost like a "miniature" wardrobe. He could only guess that there were all kinds of clothes in there, Shizuri got bored easily after all, so there was a good chance that she would just randomly change clothes. She was that obsessed when it came to fashion.

"How about you pick out what I'm going to wear today?" she asked, showing her selection.

"Is that your surprise? Disappointing."

"Obviously not, dumbass. Just so you know, I plan to change clothes when we get to our destination, so that takes some of the pressure off. This is me being nice to someone with an… average fashion sense. Thank me, come on."

"Wow, thank you very much Shizuri-sama."

Seeing the girl roll her eyes again at the sarcastic comment, he smiled and then began to examine what she had there. Having glimpsed her clothing collection on multiple occasions, he was almost certain that none of those items had been taken from her bedroom closet. This was interesting. Had she bought new clothes just to bring them here? Touma had been standing next to her long enough to understand that there was something here that he hadn't noticed yet. This was the level of understanding he had reached after trying so hard to be a better boyfriend, but he had to try harder if he wanted this relationship to last.

Just for a moment, he stole glances in Shizuri's direction, noticing the anticipation etched on her face. He had grasped, or at least his mind was able to formulate a good guess. That time in the other world was the clue he needed.

"Those are your clothes, aren't they?" he asked, almost rhetorically.

He couldn't completely hide his doubt, but the girl smiled slightly, satisfied all the same.

"You always impress me, it's scary sometimes," she remarked, unconsciously biting her lip. She walked past him and opened a hidden compartment within the closet, pulling out a sketchbook from there. "Take a look."

"I didn't know you could draw so well. One more thing for the list, although I still preferred the juggling."

"I can do some flips, so that kind of counts."

Not really, but Touma just smiled when he saw her give a childish pout. She flipped through the sketchbook, showing several scribbled designs of clothes. The most careful drawings were precisely those that represented the clothes there in that makeshift closet.

"See?" she asked, pointing to a specific part of the designed clothes. "They all have pockets, but I'm trying hard to make it look like they don't actually have any. I plan to use Academy City technology for that, like that technique used in those clothes that adjust to people's sizes." She was even too excited about all this, nudging her boyfriend lightly as she spoke.

"Eh... I don't think I can give a valid opinion about it, It's like something is slipping away from me, and I'll never figure out what it is."

"Well, I guess I can't complain," A sigh escaped her lips, "you passed the surprise test with flying colors after all. To ask you to stand on the same stage as me just like that would be too demanding."

"I don't know if you are praising or disappointed with this Kamijou-san, but thank you anyway."

With a nonchalant shrug, he turned his attention back to the choice he had to make. He was torn between a simple white dress with a gold ribbon around the waist, or something more elaborate, a sleeveless blue blouse matched with a long black skirt.

"I bet you'll pick something boring," teased Shizuri, stepping in front of him with an evil grin. "Come on, darling, are you embarrassed to pick something sexy? Bloody prude."

"Shizuri-chan, I think you've got something wrong about me," he began with a deep tone, the girl must have even shivered at that intense look. "I'm not a pure saint, if all that time by my side hasn't made it clear. If an older girl presents me with a choice between seeing her in sexy clothing or something more modest, I would naturally opt for the sexy option. In fact, I might even ask if the third option, 'no clothes at all' is available. Don't underestimate my youth."

The girl curved her lips and shook her head when she heard him say that, he couldn't read thoughts but she no doubt loved that answer. However, he couldn't afford to lose his focus at this moment, especially as he observed her starting to seductively lick her lips.

"How about this short red dress?" he asked, squinting at the girl who was practically devouring him with her eyes at this moment. "It has a nice neckline and seems to be pretty tight too."

"Excellent choice." That smile on her face was kinda weird. "Do you have any preference for my underwear?"

At first, he thought he had heard wrong. But he soon remembered that it was Mugino Shizuri there, so he froze for a good five seconds. Just because he had developed a great resistance to this kind of situation did not mean that he was immune. That girl knew where to hit him.

"Umm... well I..." Touma almost stuttered, not being able to maintain eye contact. "You're just doing this to tease me, aren't you? It's not like choosing that for you is going to change anything for myself, so whatever."

His nonchalant shrug made the girl let out a slightly disappointed sigh.

"Actually that was the most important part," she said, pulling the red dress out of the closet. "But that's okay, I think picking it out myself might give better results."

"You're not going to insist? Great, I wasn't ready for such an awkward moment anyway." He sighed with relief...and disappointment. "I'll go outside so you can change your clothes."

"OK, but that was your choice." Shizuri let go of one of the negligee straps, a somewhat dangerous move.

Touma had to muster his superhuman willpower to force himself to turn around like the gentleman he was. Half a second later he heard the subtle sound of a thin cloth falling gently to the floor. Without giving his mind time to process what was happening, he left that room before his supreme defense collapsed in the face of that aggressive girl.

"You were quick," Takitsubo said when she saw him close the door in a hurry.

"I don't know if you're doing this on purpose, but I wasn't doing any of those things you're thinking."

"Huh?" The inexpressive girl looked genuinely confused.

"Can I ask you to at least make an expression that will help me decipher what is going through your head?"

"Kamijou-san, you are strange." Takitsubo put her headphones away in a disinterested gesture, but she was quick to speak again. "You and Mugino are basically the ideal pair."

"I don't know what you mean, and I don't know if I want to hear the explanation either."

"Mugino has always been a little strange too." With a finger touching her lip and a faraway look, the girl changed her expression, even if only a little. She looked happy. "I mean, she always tries to hide how she feels, but fails miserably most of the time. And the worst part is that she sometimes doesn't even understand that she's not being honest, or she just doesn't want to think about it, like she's afraid of something."

"I'm not sure about that..." He approached the wall and leaned against it, standing beside Takitsubo as he gazed up at the white ceiling above them. "Shizuri has always struck me as really honest. She's a bit rigid and… crazy sometimes, but she's usually pretty calm and composed, and pretty confident too. I can't see her being so dishonest with herself."

"Hmm... I know no person in a relationship wants to hear this but... you could say I have more experience with your girlfriend, I've known her longer after all."

"Maybe she's changed over time then," he insisted, ignoring the fact that the girl was speaking ambiguous things aloud again. "I'm not saying she's always honest, but the times she's not it's just jokes and teasing... no... that's a recent thing, I think I understand what you mean."

When Touma turned to look at Takitsubo's face, he saw her tilt her head slightly, her lips pressed together forming a rigid straight line, but her face, was that surprise? A bit of admiration too.

"Has Mugino ever told you how we met?" asked Takitsubo, becoming inexpressive again. Her voice sounded much lower than the tone she normally used. "She saved me, you know. I was nothing more than a mere lab rat to those scientists...a tool. She could have chosen to use me however she wanted, I probably couldn't resist, how could I? But she didn't do that. She gave me a house... a home. I was someone without a purpose, until she gave me one. And she did it all by always treating me as an equal, as a valued friend instead of something disposable. But if she hears me talking about her like that, she'll probably make some excuse that she's not like that, she'll pretend that she only does it because I'm useful to her and nothing more, or she'll just keep silent and push me out of the way because she can't handle the truth. Mugino is that type of kind person who is afraid to show this side of herself."

Touma listened to all this in silence, attentive to every word, every gesture. That girl was certainly no chatterbox, so to see her talk so passionately and endlessly about the person she admires was mesmerizing. And this was magnified greatly by the fact that the person she spoke so highly of was the one he loved.

"I don't think she's like that anymore." Touma could only smile as he said that. "She certainly showed me that side several times, without holding back. And I've seen her call you her friend several times, best friend actually."

"Yeah... you're right about that." The girl curved her lip, even if only a little. "You know, Kamijou-san, maybe you have a talent for bringing out the best in people. You've made more progress in a month than I've made all this time with her. I really admire you."

"Hey, hey, hey... don't talk like that." The boy waved his hands in embarrassment. "First, you can't measure our 'progress' like that, they're different kinds after all, if you know what I mean. And second, it's uncomfortable to hear that someone admires me that directly and suddenly."

The uneasy silence was aggravated when the girl once again bowed her head in a very cute way. There was no telling when she would go into lethargic mode, and that was something Touma had to learn to get used to.

But at least he was saved from all embarrassment by the sound of a door opening.

"Look at you two," Shizuri said, crossing her arms over her ample chest, being highlighted by that revealing dress. "My best friend and my boyfriend talking about me behind my back. At least you two seem to get along. They say having the approval of close friends is an important step, darling, you should be proud."

"I think parental approval is an important step," Touma retorted making a gesture of disinterest with his hand. "Friends approving doesn't mean much."

"A bit rude," Takitsubo interjected, "but I'm still going to root for you, Kamijou-san."

"Thanks, I guess." He scratched his head absently and then looked at Shizuri, stunning in that tight red dress. "By the way, how did you know you were the topic of conversation? Were you listening to us this whole time behind the door?"

"Actually I just tried to guess." Shizuri smiled mischievously. "I was about sixty percent sure, thanks for confirming."

"Why am I getting a sense of deja vu?"

Still smiling, the level 5 walked over to stand at the boy's left side, holding his arm in the possessive way she loved so much. And he loved having her by his side like that, always had, since the first time in that park.

"We'd better go," Shizuri said, waving goodbye to her best friend. "Talk to you later Takitsubo, I have something to show Touma now."

"You mean that?" asked Takitsubo, nodding her head several times. "Don't forget to blindfold him first."

"Takitsubo, will you stop this eventually?" complained Touma.

"Stop what?"

x-4-x

Kamijou Touma was blindfolded at this point. Right after they left the hospital, Shizuri took a black ribbon from a pocket and blindfolded him before he even got into the car. She really didn't want him to guess where they were going.

"Careful now," Shizuri said, guiding him across what was surely grass judging by the feeling. "I think this is fine here...or should we go inside and play a little guessing game?"

"You're making it sound like you're going to have a lot more fun than me in this game, so no."

"You're quite the spoiler sometimes, you know that?" he could picture her with a cute pout. "Okay, you can take off the blindfold."

"At last."

His eyes adjusted to the light, focusing on the somewhat familiar surroundings. The lawn he was walking on was one he vaguely remembered, but this was the first time he had been here during the day. Touma tilted his head in confusion as he looked at that large mansion that might as well belong to an idol or an actor judging by the extravagance.

"I know it was only a little over a month ago," Shizuri said, looking in the same direction as him, "but still I feel a little nostalgic."

If Touma still had any doubts, they were removed by this comment. This was not just any mansion, this was the mansion where he and Shizuri had met.

"They say criminals always return to the scene of the crime," Touma commented, receiving a light elbow in the ribs as an immediate response.

"That wasn't such a bad joke, but don't spoil the romantic moment."

"Princess...can you explain to me the romance in bringing me to see the place where I almost died?"

"From what I know, you almost died in many places. You would have to switch cities following your logic."

"Fair point..." He pondered, a few flashes of suppressed memory coming back to the surface. "Just changing cities wouldn't be enough really, but that's beside the point. It's different here, you really could have sent me to the afterlife that night."

"I know." Shizuri tilted her head, touching his shoulder. Her voice was so soft that his body relaxed upon hearing it. "This place represents a bad memory for you, and for me too actually, and that's why we're here."

"Remembering our dark past?"

"Let's create new memories." She pulled away, holding both of his hands and looking him in the eye.

It was expected that she would say something, but that was not the case. Her silence was awkward for a while, but he knew exactly what she wanted. Once again Shizuri wanted him to guess what it meant, and once again Touma understood. It wasn't difficult really.

"Wait," he said, squeezing her hands and looking at the house once more. "We're not just here to pay a visit, are we?"

"We are here to start over." Her watchful eyes on him overflowed with happiness. "This house is going to be our love nest from now on. A place just mine and yours...I mean, I have no problem welcoming my friends here of course, but you get the idea."

"Shizuri... did you buy this mansion just because we met here? I can't even imagine how expensive it was."

"Really? Is that what you have to say to me right now?" Her weak sigh made him smile awkwardly. "You should know by now that you don't have to worry about something like that. Now come on, I need to show you my surprise."

"Huh? Wasn't that the surprise?"

"It was part of it."

The two walked through the neatly trimmed garden, a bed of roses exuding a scent he had learned to like, which made him wonder if this was a special touch from the girl.

Shizuri used an old-fashioned key to open the mansion's double door, which left her slightly frustrated, probably because of her habit of using the latest technology for this sort of thing.

A low hiss echoed as Touma peered into the living room of the place. He hadn't had the chance to appreciate something like this during his previous visit, so it felt as if he was experiencing it for the first time. The sight was simply breathtaking. A grandiose crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling, exuding an air of timeless sophistication. Plush, velvety sofas and armchairs beckoned with their inviting comfort, upholstered in rich, earthy tones that perfectly complemented the ornate mahogany coffee table at the center. That room alone appeared to be at least five times larger than the cramped dormitory he had lived in before meeting Shizuri.

The girl was not giving him much time to appreciate all the rooms where he would live from now on, she seemed in a hurry to get to a specific place.

"That's a pretty big pool," he commented as he looked out one of the windows.

"Hmm... so many things you and I can do there."

"I don't think there's that much you can do in a pool."

"You do that on purpose, don't you?" Shizuri was in child mode today, inflating her cheeks and pouting all the time.

"Doing what?" His smile sent a clear message that yes, it was on purpose. "I guess annoying girls is kind of my natural talent."

"I'm not annoyed. Being honest that way you act was one of the main things that caught my attention. At the same time, I love people like that... I hate people like that."

"Can you elaborate on that? I'm a little confused."

"I'll elaborate later...but not with words." That evil smile was not childish.

The slight chill in Touma's spine had to be ignored as they hurriedly arrived at their destination. It was the kitchen. Immense, with gleaming cabinets, shiny marble floors, and expensive looking silver utensils. Touma was surrounded by modern appliances and granite countertops that were smooth to the touch.

"You asked me if we had a sous vide a while ago, remember?" asked Shizuri, making an arrogant gesture with her chin pointed in the direction of the device. "Now we do."

"Wow..." The words left him at the moment. His mouth refused to close as he walked around that huge place.

"No smartass comment to make Touma?" She hugged him from behind to whisper in his ear, making him shiver as usual. "I guess that's a good time for my surprise."

"Huh?" The boy made an indecipherable face. "Isn't that still the surprise?"

"It's part of it." The girl's giggle tickled his neck. "I'm going to need you to put the blindfold back on."

"What do you intend now?"

"I need to change clothes." Turning away from him, she touched her own lip with her index finger and maintained eye contact. "Actually, you can just close your eyes, you don't even have to turn around if you want to."

"That doesn't sound like a good idea."

"I trust you... and you peeking at me won't make any difference anyway."

His head didn't quite process what the girl meant, but he had a basis to work from. But this really wasn't the time for him to get his head around it.

With his eyes closed, and without turning around, he remained silent while the girl hummed and unwrapped something. Some time later, he heard a distinctive noise, as if something delicate and rigid met a hard, smooth surface.

"This thing is hard to use with this smooth floor," the girl said. Her voice sounded too close, making the boy nervous. "And the clothes are a little smaller than I ordered, especially in the bust area."

"Can I open my eyes now?"

"Only if you want to..."

"Some questions are easily answered with a 'yes' or 'no'. "

"Do you want me to give you a Show? Answer with 'yes' or 'no'." Her voice was suddenly paused. He already loved her quiet voice, but it was even better when she forced it out a little higher pitched and whispered.

"You really want me to open my eyes. Be more honest with yourself."

"And you certainly want to open them. So that leaves us in the same boat together."

"At least you admit it." He shrugged. "By the way, I'm a little disappointed that you're taking the red dress I picked out. What's the point of making me choose anyway?"

"It was you who chose this outfit too, so don't be disappointed. You can open your eyes now, by the way."

"Really? Or is it one of those tricks where I open my eyes and find a half-naked girl in front of me? Another level 5 has already used that on me."

"I'll write this down for a future occasion, but you can look now, I'm not half naked yet."

Still reluctant, he slowly opened his eyes, which didn't stop "opening" until they were fully wide open. No, Shizuri had not fooled him, she had already finished dressing, and the outfit she had chosen was definitely something he found better than the tight red dress.

"What did you think?" She asked, giving it a whirl. "Is that to your liking, master?"

Her outfit was just black and white, thigh-high stockings, sleek high heels, and she wore non-prescription glasses that were surely awakening something in Touma at this moment.

"A... maid's outfit?" He still looked incredulous, almost touching his head with his right hand to make sure it wasn't an illusion. "And what did you call me about just now?"

"Do you prefer Touma-sama, master? Or is it taboo for a lowly maid like me to call you by name?"

"This must be some kind of trick," he said, denying with his head. "The world is not such a kind place as to allow me what is happening. Very funny Othinus, you can come along now and kill me or something, you're getting lazy with these hells."

"I will force you to go to therapy for at least a decade." She sighed, but soon got back into character. "So, master, what shall we prepare today?"

Touma needed a few seconds of contemplation for his stunned mind to understand that this was really happening. That maid's outfit, which was much shorter than was acceptable, was really igniting something inside him. Shizuri looked so good in it that he wished he could see her in other situations.

"Where is my mind going now?" he asked aloud, still contemplating what he was seeing. "Was I really as bad as those two all this time? I think I need some time, Shizuri. I have to analyze all this and write a dissertation on why this gets top marks in every conceivable way that a member of the delta force - wait, why am I thinking about this right now? Mugino Shizuri, you have really taken it hard on me now. Are you trying to break all my defenses today?"

"I don't know what you are talking about darli - I mean, master. I'm just trying to serve you the best way I can."

"Why are you trying so hard to keep yourself in a character? I'm losing control... I'm losing control..." Touma grabbed his spiked head with both hands and tried futilely to remove the sight of that exquisite scene in front of him. "Okay, take a deep breath..."

The moment he said that, the cosplayer girl stepped forward, a deliberate move to get the familiar rose fragrance into his nostrils. As if she needed to resort to dirty tricks to get him on edge, Touma was already on edge as soon as he saw her earlier in that sexy sleepwear. This here was overkill.

"So, master," she continued, fixing those fake glasses in perfect acting, "what are my orders? I am ready to help you with whatever you need."

"Shizuri, you can stop that now, really..."

"And you could start with that, Touma-sama."

And she had to tilt her head and smile in a cute way, but the tone of voice she used was so serious and mature that the dissonance made his brain shift gears instantly. Clearing his throat exaggeratedly loudly, Touma began to play along.

"I count on your help to prepare a proper meal," he said with a formal tone.

"As you wish, my master. Will you show me another of your amazing recipes to this mere unworthy maid?"

"Actually I was thinking of something simple. How about Okonomiyaki?"

"Hmm... I expected my master to choose something more sophisticated. Is there a reason behind that choice?"

"As I said, it's something simple," The smile he put on his face now didn't suit him. "Which means that someone with as little talent as you can help with all the steps without a problem."

And Touma had gotten into character too. It was kind of funny to see her face spontaneously contort, that raised eyebrow, the watchful eyes.

"Understood, master," she bowed slightly. "Forgive this useless servant for not being able to attend to every task assigned to her perfectly. Feel free to punish her at any step along the way if you wish."

"It's okay." He brought his hand to her chin to make her lift her face. "I will help you improve your talents, even if I have to force you, as a good master would."

They looked at each other for a few seconds with serious faces, until they couldn't take it anymore and burst into laughter. Shizuri almost let her glasses fall off her face.

"Okay, we can stop now," Touma said, slowly recovering but still breathless, "I don't think I'm good enough for this role."

"I was actually enjoying it." Shizuri leaned toward him in a seductive manner. "You should enjoy it too while I'm acting so submissive like this, things usually change quickly with me. And they will."

The natural aggressive tone she was using made Touma feel his heart suddenly become noisy. From the beginning, he had always liked that about her. Shizuri was a straightforward girl, a bit strict at times, but he always preferred the aura of maturity that emanated from her when it came to girls. When she teased him in a dry tone and then started acting cute right after, it made him practically let out a passionate sigh. This girl was dangerous to his heart.

"Can we use salmon in okonomiyaki?" she asked, opening the fridge and leaning over. That was a dangerous move considering how short that maid's outfit was. "I bought plenty hoping you would use it."

"Of course you bought plenty of salmon. So predictable."

"I'll take that as a 'yes'." She smiled at him, placing the fresh salmon on one of the countertops. "You never told me what your favorite food is. Do you have one?"

"Nothing specific...eggs maybe."

"Eh?"

"Long story."

Touma began cooking, mixing flour, water, and eggs in a bowl to create a smooth liquid batter. It was a straightforward dish to prepare, so he expected his girlfriend to assist him every step of the way.

"You can dice the salmon," he said, placing the bowl beside her. "Once you're done, slice the cabbage into thin pieces as well."

"I love it when you get serious," she remarked, reaching into the refrigerator to retrieve a cabbage. "You have the presence of a professional chef, you know?"

"Well... that's a good sign. I might need that in the future."

Upon hearing this, the girl abruptly stopped working, her face turning serious.

"Touma, what I said in the other world...I don't think it's right that I'm simply going to make important decisions in your life. You can forget what I said. It's fine with me if you choose to do anything else in your life."

"I don't remember you making decisions for me," he retorted, positioning himself next to her and beginning to chop some scallions. "That's something I had kind of already chosen. It's the same thing with the clothes that you're designing, I didn't give you the idea, I just encouraged it. But I understand what you mean, don't worry about it."

He draped an arm over her shoulder, observing her contented smile. It brought him joy to witness the girl he admired making a genuine effort to hide any hint of dominance.

"Don't speak like that while we're so close," she playfully complained. "You're tempting me to reveal the surprise ahead of time."

"Wait, isn't that already the surprise?"

"The entire day is going to be a grand surprise," she replied, giving him a sly wink. "After we finish eating, I'll show you our new room. The decor is still quite simple, but we have a comfortable bed."

"I bet it's enormous, even though we'll only utilize, like, 10 percent of it since you practically sleep on me."

"Is that a complaint? Well, you should be grateful. I'm all soft and warm, after all."

"And a little heavy too," he replied, wincing slightly as a twinge shot through his ribs, nearly causing him to cut his finger with the knife.

"I'm sorry." The girl immediately recognized her mistake and hastily grabbed his hand to check if she had caused him any harm.

"It's okay, I kind of deserved that one. I guess I'm not the best 'bed partner'."

"It was the best I ever had."

"Doesn't mean much considering I'm the only one, but thanks anyway."

"Who says you are the only person I have ever shared a bed with?"

Time seemed to stretch out infinitely for a few seconds when he heard her say this. The theory of relativity seemed somewhat wrong at this moment, or perhaps it was proven right once again by the gravity of this situation.

"I'm sure you told me once that I was your first boyfriend," he interjected, his focus on cooking shattered.

"First, last, and only. We're in this together until the end of time, as you promised."

"So, what about the person who -"

"Takitsubo." A nonchalant shrug came next to the interruption.

"Umm... that was a bit... unexpected," he mumbled, shrugging his shoulders and returning to chopping the scallions. "I'm not judging, to be clear, I just didn't expect my girlfriend to enjoy that sort of thing."A mischievous grin spread across his face.

"Smartass." Shizuri rolled her eyes. She had finished dicing the salmon and was starting on the cabbage. "When ITEM was forming, we didn't have enough beds for the five members, so Takitsubo decided to sleep with me. She didn't even warn me, I just woke up one day and she was there with her tracksuit that she never takes off, not even when she sleeps."

Despite the unexpected revelation that Takitsubo and Shizuri had once shared a bed and the intriguing detail that the typically stoic girl didn't even change clothes to sleep, Touma's attention was fixated on something entirely different at that moment. Did she say five members? ITEM had a support organization of course, which meant that technically they had more than the current members. If he understood correctly, Hamazura was part of this support group at some point in time in his original world, and he was 'promoted' to an official member afterwards, although technically ITEM doesn't even exist in his world anymore, which means that there was someone else before him.

"This fifth member, where is he... or she now?" Touma thought carefully before asking that, the reason for that is what he had heard from her in the other world.

"I didn't kill her, if that's what you're thinking." Her tone was quite dry. "Her name was Hanano...come to think of it, was that really her name? Probably not."

Shizuri abruptly fell silent, causing concern to well up within Touma. Perhaps he shouldn't have broached the subject. However, it was necessary to address their past, both hers and his, if he wanted to demonstrate his unwavering support. So he allowed a moment of silence, observing the girl lazily incorporate the diced salmon into the batter, something that wasn't exactly what he had intended at the moment.

"Touma, you've had near-death experiences, haven't you?" she asked, her voice was clean, there was no hesitation. "I'm not just referring to that infernal realm I witnessed, but beyond that."

"Yes."He leaned over her to grab a frying pan, adding some vegetable oil. "Once, a certain bad girl made me swallow a pill that almost made me bleed to death, destroying my body from the inside out. Stopping to think about it, I think that's what I meant that day in the hospital, in that interrogation."

"Did you already have your memories at that time? April told me something about this. The reasons for your headaches, right?"

"I didn't believe the memories were mine...technically, I still don't fully believe it. It just seems so strange."

Thinly sliced cabbage was incorporated into the batter, infusing it with a crisp, vegetable scent. He continued to stir the mixture, watching as the vibrant hues of the cabbage leaves melded with the dough, forming a medley of green shades. The recipe had veered off course, much like their conversation.

"Why did you ask me that?" said Touma, pouring some of the dough into the pan, spreading it with a spatula and forming a perfect circle. "You must have gone through the same thing yourself, I imagine."

"Yes...more than once." For some reason that Touma didn't quite understand, she looked down at her left arm. "My other version too, but that doesn't matter now."

"Does it have to do with that fifth member?"

A subtle nod of her head and an echoing sigh was her response. He didn't press her to speak, he knew the girl wouldn't hide anything from him after all.

"I saw her as a useful ally… loyal 'friend'. She fulfilled her role, followed my orders, put her life on the line, putting the team first." She paused for a long moment, and then looked him in the eye "ITEM fights as a team, that's our motto. We usually divide the mission tasks between us, but even if we are separated, we still have to think as a team. And she did exactly that. On one mission, she ended up being captured, and since this is the dark side we are talking about, she was subjected to torture, but she resisted... she held on for us... for the team. I couldn't let someone like that die, so I started to work on a plan. For about a week, I barely ate or slept, focused completely on saving her... but I failed."

Shizuri glanced away. Throughout the story, she never appeared sad, angry, or self-pitying. He understood that his girlfriend wasn't one to indulge in sentimentality, but her demeanor shifted when she was with him, suggesting there was something else beneath the surface.

"In the end, all I was left with was an empty revenge," she continued, now staring at the glass window, the garden landscape outside. "I had to honor a companion. I stepped into that 'arena' with the intention to wipe the floor with that bitch who pushed my mate to the limit, even if I had to die to do it... and I did die."

"What?" he didn't intend to speak, but his voice rose by reflex.

"Well... it was actually just a 'near-death'." The girl turned the golden dough with a spatula casually, as if the memory she was recounting didn't shake her one bit. "My heart stopped for about two minutes until they revived me. Maybe if I didn't live in this shitty place, I really would have died. I would go with a smile on my face... at that moment I was convinced I was doing it for a friend after all, but that wasn't really the case. So good thing I didn't die, that would be kind of embarrassing, I guess."

"You are a pretty extreme girl."

"And I'm dating someone worse...or better in this case." She turned to him smiling, as if she hadn't just told him something that could be considered a horrible story. "I bet you've thrown yourself into battles that you were almost certain to die in."

"More than once," he replied so readily that the girl even narrowed her eyes slightly. "But I can't say that I wasn't afraid...and that I was ready to go."

"I never said I was ready to go. And at some point, maybe I was afraid too...or at least a little doubtful."

Carefully, she transferred the contents of the pan to a plate. By now, a delightful aroma had filled the kitchen, but both of them were too engrossed in their conversation to get their mouths watering. Touma seized the moment to drizzle some sauce, providing the finishing touch with the scallions he had prepared.

"Touma, I have one last question before we eat," she said, sitting down on one of the countertops with a wooden spoon in her hand. "After I was revived, I think something changed in me. You can say it's just me, but... after that, all my battles, even if my life was at stake, all I could feel was a numb feeling, and nothing else. It's as if something was left behind that day. Stupid, I know, but do you feel that way too?"

"I guess we're different in that," he replied truthfully. Then with one fluid motion, he took the spoon from the girl's hands and smeared it with sauce. "Do you think this sauce is tasty enough, or shall I prepare a homemade one?"

"Are you trying to avoid talking about whether you felt empty or not? Didn't we kind of promise to be honest with each other?" She tasted the sauce, a somewhat too salty taste for her, Touma knew that. Deliberately, she let some drip onto her lower lip. "Damn, I'm so clumsy...can you clean that up for me?"

Shizuri barely finished pointing to her lip and smiling, and the boy leaned in on an impulse and pressed his lips to hers. That sauce wasn't so salty in his opinion, there was sweetness there after all.

"You should have done it that day," she said as he walked away. "It would have saved me the trouble, you damn coward." Her mischievous smile always lit something in him.

"I don't think that would be very appropriate. And how was I supposed to know that you wanted that?"

"Come on, darling, I was being somewhat obvious. I was practically hitting on you in that car."

"Yeah... maybe the 'practically' can even be removed from that sentence." He put one hand in his pocket and put the other to his head, a little awkwardly. "Seriously, at one point I thought 'Why is this bad girl treating me so well? She can't have fallen in love with me, that's impossible'. I had a pretty good internal fight that day and the next, until I just couldn't go on in denial."

"So my strategy of being aggressive was working very well."

"Straightforward girls like you always have a way of shaking me up." He began spreading more of the batter in the pan, preparing a second dish. "And since you're an older girl, I don't need to lecture you...you know very well what you're doing."

"Why do I get the impression that there's a story hidden behind this?"

"That's a tale for another time."

A faint chuckle slipped from his lips as he fixated on the food. This delightful ambiance was something he yearned to endure eternally. And perchance it might, this was his imperfect world after all.

x-5-x

After the food was prepared and served, the two enjoyed a meal together while Touma shared fragments of his life in the alternate world. The conversation got too long, so Shizuri decided to take him to a specific room for them to continue the conversation while they did something she had really wanted to do with him for some time.

"I would rather we had gone to do the dishes," he complained, almost stepping on Shizuri's foot.

"Don't get all nervous. I've never been a particularly good dancer and you're not doing badly, really, is this really the first time you've done something like this?"

The two of them were in a modern dance hall. Touma was no expert on this, but it was clear that this floor was different from normal, constructed to absorb impacts adeptly, bestowing a sensation akin to floating upon their feet.

"Yeah, it's kind of the first time." He was suddenly thoughtful. "Kaibi tried to turn me into a dancer once, but I promptly refused...there was that time at the bonfire too, but I can't say I was standing out. I guess dancing isn't my style."

"I disagree, you clearly have talent." Shizuri spun in place, moving slightly away from him in rhythmic steps. "But you seem to be bothered by something...somewhat distracted."

Shizuri was right, and she knew very well what was "distracting" him. The girl changed clothes after their meal, putting back on that red dress that would easily stand out at a ball. It was hard for him to take his eyes off her, especially from that generous area with a very exposed part.

"Hey, Touma, my eyes are right here," she said, returning to his arms.

"I'm not interested in your eyes."

"Ohoo...I like it when you get all honest." Shizuri's hand found its place on her own waist, intertwining with his as she gently guided it downward, meanwhile he was starting to guide her into the dance hall. "In classical ballroom dancing, it's the boy who should lead, but since I'm older than you, I think it's my role to guide you to where I want. Do you agree with that?"

"Certainly not," he just whispered, leaning toward the girl and smelling her sweet scent. "But I don't care, it makes no difference in the end...the result is the same." He held her by the thigh, making her lift her leg beside him.

"Confident...so that's how the hero of World War III does things. Interesting. Dating a celebrity has its privileges."

"I am not a celebrity here in this world."

"So you admit that you were quite famous in the other one?"

"Considering my tendency to try to save bad girls...you could say my status is more infamous than famous."

"And did those 'bad girls' at least give you a proper payment for your efforts?"

"I never expected a payment. That's not how I do things."

"I know, and I really don't care." She pulled him to her as far as she could, his leg now positioned between hers. "But don't worry, I can make it up to you for all of them."

"I think you'll need a fair amount of time then, princess."

"Quality is always more important than quantity, but I manage to balance the two. And it's not like we need to worry about time. I've heard that they've already found a way to stop cellular aging. In a few years, by the time we're in our prime, that technology should have been perfected."

"I don't know if that's what I want...isn't growing old next to someone the true pinnacle of romance?" Touma sounded pretty serious about it.

"You are not wrong, but think of the possibilities..."

"Possibilities? Yeah, I can think of a few. Hmm... you always find a way to convince me, and you make it sound so simple."

"Can't the same be said for you?"

The music had stopped some time ago, but they were so busy flirting that they didn't even notice. Shizuri looked at a clock on the wall. It was already past four in the afternoon, which meant that the time she spent next to him seemed to be much shorter than the impression she got.

"That made me sweat a lot," she said, pushing her hair away from her neck, where some strands were stuck together. "I believe it's time for a bath. A nice, long one."

"Okay. I'll get dinner ready in the meantime." He put on a thoughtful face. "Come to think of it, there must be more than one bathroom here, so maybe I should shower too."

"I completely agree." Shizuri flashed a somewhat awkward smile. "I'm available if you need help washing your back."

"I'll be fine." He shrugged casually.

"I'll let it go this time." She put on another one of her cute pouts. Touma knew what her reaction would be, his response was totally deliberate.

The two momentarily parted ways. As he paused to ponder, Touma realized he had neglected to bring a change of clothes. Showering and remaining in the same attire would undoubtedly be uncomfortable, but he found himself with little choice.

Touma ended up feeling somewhat disoriented in that vast place until he stumbled upon a location that seemed vaguely familiar. To his surprise, a dubious package lay on the first step of the stairs.

"Use this," he read the note taped to the box aloud. "There's a bathroom down the hall, and another one up the stairs to the left. But I'll probably be using the private one in our room. Wash your back well, darling." The boy smiled and shook his head in surprise. "That's from before we arrived for sure...she really thinks of everything."

Inside the box was an outfit that he knew very well, and it made him twist his face into a strange frown. It was a white hooded sweatshirt, simple, nothing too noticeable, but it still had a certain style. The strange thing about it was that it wasn't his... not in this world.

"I wonder if it's exactly the same. What are the chances?"

Raising his head after putting away the clothes in the box, he walked down the hall toward the bathroom, but something caught his attention. Outside, in the garden, a familiar figure seemed to be watching him. It was a dog, more precisely a Golden Retriever. Touma could only tilt his head and smile when he saw some sort of mechanical arm bringing a cigar to the dog's mouth.

"I understand," Touma said, nodding to the dog, "but I'm in the middle of something right now, I'm sorry. I have priorities, if you know what I mean."

x-6-x

In the city streets, near a luxurious mansion, a woman wearing a cheap suit and a lab coat walked nonchalantly beside a Golden Retriever. She seemed to be thinking about something.

"Sensei, can you explain to me why we are moving away?" she said, straightening her posture as she asked the question.

"Isn't it obvious, Yuiitsu-kun?" surprisingly, the dog promptly replied. "Are you not capable of feeling?" Dogs were not quite capable of smiling in this particular way, but they should not be able to speak either, so he ignored that norm. "That's an adequate amount of romance. The best kind."

"What do you mean, sensei?"

"The true essence of romance lies in the pursuit of the impossible. I think it is more than fitting that an old dog like me should recoil at witnessing something so incredible." The dog looked sharply in the direction of the mansion. "Between good and evil...I guess I'm not sure this time...but between liking it and disliking it, I sure like it a lot."

x-7-x

"This is already getting old, Shizuri," complained Touma, "and climbing stairs while blindfolded is kind of dangerous."

Once again Touma was deprived of his sight. The girl had barely come out of the bathroom, waited outside while he took a bath, in a towel by the way, and as soon as he came out she blindfolded him. At least he got a quick look at her wearing nothing more than a wet white towel, which seemed like it would soon burst out of her body due to the 'internal pressure'.

"I hope you've at least changed into some awesome clothes now," Touma said, hearing a door open and feeling the girl push him into an unfamiliar room. "You bought something with cat ears, didn't you? That's definitely the next step."

"I am sorry, but it will not be today that you will see me in 'Meowgino' form."

"It's a shame." He sighed, but soon the important information entered his head after dealing with the disappointment. "Wait, why are you talking as if something like this is going to happen soon?"

"Maybe not so soon. When is your birthday?"

"Today!" The excited boy almost shouted. "You can start meowing in a cute way, Nekozuri."

"That name is awful, mine at least reasonably respects the norms of nomenclature." He could imagine her smiling in a silly way as she shrugged. "And you already told me that your sign is Aquarius, dumbass. Which means I have at least half a year to prepare for this event."

"Is it really that hard to get cat ears?"

"You can take off the blindfold now." She surely rolled her eyes.

The teasing boy put a smile on his face and removed the blindfold, looking in the direction he knew she was standing. He wanted to take a look at her clothes before doing anything, but his smile faltered a bit.

Shizuri was wearing a black miniskirt and a gray button-down blouse. Of all the clothes he saw her wearing today, this was certainly the most disappointing. Even the towel was more exciting.

"What is that face?" the girl asked, placing both hands on her slim waist. "I thought you liked miniskirts."

"Can I put the blindfold back on? That maid outfit is still around, isn't it?"

"Give me that here." She snatched the blindfold out of her idiot boyfriend's hands so that he would stop fooling around. "Didn't you notice right away? You were drunk, so I can't demand that much. Whatever, it at least gives me a little time. Take a look around for now."

"As you wish, Miss super serious no-nonsense."

The room was quite spacious, but it was rather empty. There were a few shelves full of books... no, most of them were full of manga. He didn't recognize most of them. But the most noticeable thing there was the giant bed next to the window that was covered with old-fashioned curtains that didn't really match the room.

"Our room, I imagine," Touma commented, walking toward the shelves. "There's some interesting stuff here. What is this collection, trying to outdo me in my own hobby? The one I was responsible for getting you hooked on."

"I'm still an amateur on that subject." She walked over to near the bed, precisely, toward the window. "But that's not what your attention should be on. Come on, don't let me down."

The truth was, Touma had figured it out long ago. And knowing Shizuri as he does, the girl knew that, but she played along with her boyfriend's jokes and antics, it used to be that way between them after all.

This room was different since the last time he was here. Those shelves were not the same. There was no desk with a computer there anymore. This place couldn't even be called an 'office' anymore. But those curtains, they were still the same, old-fashioned, and even a little dusty.

"Shouldn't there be a hole here?" he asked, pointing to the curtain.

"Those aren't the same curtains," she replied simply, leaning against the wall, against the curtains where a void should be, and looking him in the eye. "But they might as well be. Would it make any difference?"

"Yes, but it's better this way. I like those new ones too."

With that answer, she was silent for a while. Her head tilted just a little.

"Come here," Shizuri said, gesturing with her index finger.

The boy obeyed, and as soon as he approached her, the girl held him by the wrist and made him lean his back against the wall, where she held him there, helpless.

"It was right here, if I remember correctly," whispered the girl. She wasn't actually pinning him against the wall, there was no pressure at all on his wrists. "The place where you were when I first saw your face. At the time, you kind of didn't stand out much in my opinion... but..." Her hand went to his face, stroking it tenderly. "You're kind of… not bad at all, you know?"

"I don't hear that much."

"Maybe I'm just crazy in love then," she joked, smiling slightly.

"Hey, don't go back. I had liked the compliment."

"Does what I think and say out loud make that much difference? Doesn't this the most important thing?"

As soon as she finished her question, Touma felt that soft sensation on his lips. Maybe the girl was trying to imitate him that day after the long night, because she certainly took her time to pull away, panting close to his ear as if she still wanted more.

"Is that enough to make up for what I tried to do here?" One of her fingers touched his lip before he could say anything, "Please say no."

"No." He didn't even have to think. "Not even close."

"A perfect answer."

A smile carrying several different feelings slid across her lips at that instant. She pulled him away from the wall, and then pushed him until he felt his legs against the mattress of the bed.

"How would you prefer to proceed from here?" Shizuri asked that and then immediately pushed him away, making him sit on the bed. She sat down right next to him, already taking the opportunity to stroke that spiky head. "You want a hint?" She just whispered, her warm voice so close.

"Dumbass girlfriend," he replied, lifting one of his hands and taking it toward one of the buttons on her clothes. "I know this is the same outfit from that day when we were drunk. And I don't like it very much to be honest."

"It's a shame." Shizuri bit her lip and smoothed her own hair. "Would you rather I change?"

"No... actually, I was thinking of choosing a third option."

"Hmm... and that would be?"

"I hope you don't mind if I loosen a few buttons."

Touma didn't wait for a confirmation, he already had the first button between his fingers so a simple movement was enough to release it. The girl barely reacted to that, not on the surface. Shizuri liked to keep a rather serious face, but her heart didn't lie.

"Shouldn't you say something to me?" asked Touma, undoing the buttons of her clothes one after the other. "I'm doing something rather dangerous here."

"All I can say is 'be faster'."

And faster he went. Touma played a little on the last button, making the girl slightly anxious with that loud breathing. Instead of looking at her newly exposed skin, he touched his lips lightly to her neck, and he knew very well how much she liked that. In the meantime the boy's hand started to move up again, this time to her inner thigh, but he felt those rough shorts preventing him from touching her soft skin. The panting girl noticed this hand even though she was lost amidst all the sensations. Her left hand touched his underneath that skirt and guided it, bringing him higher and higher.

"Is that in the way?" She asked, just after an almost inaudible sigh.

"Is that question a subtle way of asking me to take your Shorts off?"

"It wasn't subtle. But since you're such a fucking tease I'll be more clear. Why haven't you taken that off yet? Can't you see it's in the way?"

"Shizu-chan, we have to put some boundaries here." He said, trying to sound serious, however the fact that he was whispering in her ear and then immediately kissing her on the lips didn't help. "This is just a casual make-out session so it's better -"

"Quiet!" Shizuri pushed him aside, making him lie on his back. She didn't wait for him to continue before mounting him and taking the opportunity to take off her unbuttoned blouse and throw it into a corner of the room. "If you won't take off my clothes, then I'll take off yours."

The boy couldn't even admire the girl's body, covered by that sexy black bra, before an electron sphere formed at the tip of the girl's finger. It was much smaller than normal, but still dangerous, and Touma had no idea why Shziruri activated her powers so suddenly. A little startled, the boy saw her reach down with her index finger, and the light followed it down to the waistband of his pants.

"Shizu -"

"Be very still now," she whispered, a bizarre smile sliding across her lips. "I'm going to melt that annoying outfit with my Meltdowner."

"Hey,hey,hey...there are safer ways to do this, you know?"

"Yes, but that's not how it happened in my dream." She actually began to melt, or rather burn, his clothes. "Now you can feel some of my heat. I spent a looooooooong time wanting to do this."

Touma exerted every effort to remain perfectly motionless. The crazy girl really had made a work of art on his pants, which at least indicated that she was pursuing the right career in this fashion business. Or so it seemed to the boy's dazed mind.

"There." She seemed to contemplate her work for a moment. That little giggle of hers made him worried.

"You're completely crazy." He had to look at the perfectly cut clothes with the electrons in their pure state. That was excellent scissors. "That's a strange way to warm up the mood."

"You have the worst jokes," she said. Her hand went to under her skirt, where she took off that short in a single motion and threw it into the corner of the room. It felt like something unreal. "Then I'd rather you use that mouth of yours for something good."

"Anything specific you want me to do?"

"Darling, you just want to hear me say it out loud, don't you?" She leaned toward him, coming within millimeters of kissing him.

"I need to know what you want, that's all." His nonchalant shrug was only to disguise his nervousness.

"So, like the bad girl I am, instead of me saying what I want, I'm going to say exactly what I'm going to do to you." Shizuri tilted her head to the side, so she could whisper once more to him, pressing her lips against his ear for maximum effect. "I will fuck you, right here and right now, until the end of this day, and not even the end of the fucking world is enough to stop me. Have I been clear, Kamijou Touma?"

The boy forcefully swallowed a reasonable amount of saliva. He already knew from the beginning where this day would lead, so he just gently slid that right hand up the soft, warm skin of the girl's thigh.

"Was that the surprise?" he asked, a smile on the corner of his lip.

The girl's hands entered his hoodie, warm, silky smooth, caressing his body on the way.

"I told you the whole day would be a surprise," she said, biting his lip lightly, "it still counts, even if you were able to predict where it would all lead us. Now be quiet, words are unnecessary for now."

She also knew that the boy was already aware of her intentions. They were in perfect sync, and the long kiss that followed marked the beginning of another long battle. It would be a long night too.

x-8-x

The sun was setting in Academy City, and on the city streets, two boys were walking at a leisurely pace. They were chatting trivia, if one can consider bunny clothes something like that. But these two were 'special'.

Abruptly, the two stopped their rhythm, as if the music at a party had suddenly stopped. Even the atmosphere itself seemed to shift, as if the air held its breath in anticipation.

"That's weird, nya."

"Did you feel it too, Tsuchimikado? Does that mean what I think it means?"

"Probably. The disturbance is evident."

The two looked at each other somewhat incredulously, and then shouted in unison.

"Damn you Kami-yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!"

They should be happy for their friend.

x-9-x

In another universe/phase, two people were organizing some things in a luxurious apartment. One of them was a busty, inexpressive girl with black hair, and the other was a blond boy with delinquent looks.

"What is it, Hamazura? Are these boxes too heavy?" asked the girl, noticing her boyfriend somewhat uneasy.

"No, it's not that." The blond had a strange smile on his face, although he wasn't sure why. "Nice, boss!"

"Huh?"

"Nothing, I just felt a good feeling and wanted to say that."

"You guys are spending too much time together," the one who spoke this was Mugino Shizuri, flipping through a magazine while lying on a couch, "Hamazura is turning 'sensitive' through osmosis or some shit like that."

"Mugino, didn't you have an appointment today?" asked Takitsubo, helping her boyfriend carry the moving box.

"Yeah, but he canceled." She didn't look happy about that at all. "He didn't even bother to explain it properly. Maybe I should try to access some security cameras and find out where he is."

"Yanderes are scary."

Hamazura's comment was not appreciated at all, that magazine thrown in his face served as proof.

"Hamazura," Mugino said, looking toward the window. She raised her hand toward the light, as if she could feel something flowing there. "I think I'm understanding the 'feeling' you commented on."

Was that a smile on her face?

x-10-x

At the top of the windowless building, a life support device was empty. Or rather, only the person who was supposed to be there was missing.

x-11-x

Once again, the sun rose over Academy City, its rays slipping through the partially drawn curtains like slender fingers of light. Our spiky-haired "hero" had his eyes closed, enjoying the intriguing silence of that soundproof room and the softness of that comfortable bed. Nestled beside him, a gentle warmth lingered, enveloping him in comfort..

"It's a good life," he said, flashing the world's biggest idiot grin. "So much so that I feel even a little bad. I wonder if some meteor is coming toward earth. I wouldn't be surprised."

"Does a meteor even come close to being a threat to you, darling?"

The whispered, playful voice instantly prompted him to open his eyes. He assumed, with a fair degree of certainty, that the girl, being her usual lazy self, would still be asleep. It was a safe bet, considering her tendency to linger in bed. Not that he minded her listening to his reveries.

Shizuri was in a state that ranged from very sleepy to incredibly happy. The curve of her well-defined lips revealed a simple smile that he adored, while a subtle flush adorned her cheeks for a reason he knew all too well. She was wearing a white hooded sweatshirt that belonged to him, and probably nothing else.

"Did you wear this while I was sleeping?" asked Touma. He had seen her basically collapse next to him wearing literally nothing and then fall asleep soon after, so it was kind of a rhetorical question.

"I heard that guys think it's sexy when girls wear their clothes or some shit like that. How did I look?"

"You didn't find that outfit in the garbage, did you?"

"Huh?"

As the sexy, confused girl tilted her head, Kamijou Touma in his slightly aroused mode peered at those bare legs being displayed without any shame. Her girlfriend was about the same height as him, which meant that the white sweatshirt wasn't doing a very good job of covering her. At this moment he wondered if the girl had bothered to wear anything underneath.

"By the way," Touma said, turning his gaze to the girl's face, "how long have you been awake? You're not the kind of creepy girl who likes to admire sleeping people, are you?"

"It's only been about ten minutes. And I did a lot more than just stare at you while you slept."

"Eek!" The boy overflowing with adolescence let this attack pass cleanly through his defenses, but he regained his balance an instant later. "And here I thought you had been satisfied after being easily defeated last night."

"I didn't mean it, dumbass." Shizuri gave his ribs a light poke. "And what is that confidence-filled tone? Don't talk as if my performance wasn't worthy of a level 5. I may be lazy, but I have well above average stamina."

"You fell a little behind near the end, disappointing," his voice leaked with mockery, though his words were not meant seriously, and Shizuri knew it.

"I was a little hungry. After my sugar level returned to normal levels I was killing you."

What Shizuri was referring to was the fact that the two took a break for dinner, but soon afterwards the girl dragged Touma to the room where they remained until then.

"Yeah, you actually almost killed me."

He directed his gaze towards a corner of the room, where a hole in the wall stood as evidence of a certain ability that had gone awry, melting its way through.

"Don't complain." She shrugged in the cutest way he'd ever seen. "It was an accident and you perfectly negated the other three Meltdowner beams. Your life wasn't exactly at risk, so that kind of adds extra points of excitement."

"I'm sure it was more than three." His shit-eating grin was going from ear to ear. "You had no way of knowing of course, your eyes were surely elsewhere."

"Will you stop mocking me at some point?" She rose up in a leap and mounted him quickly, beginning to trace her finger across the boy's bare chest. "Or you want me to start using more extreme methods."

The girl's slender fingers ran over some of the marks she herself had made on his body last night. Some were deep and sharp, marks from her teeth, while others were long and erratic, where she had scratched him with her long fingernails.

"Just so you know, I didn't like any of that. You damn sadist," Touma said, more concerned with finding out how much clothing the girl was wearing at this moment. The position she was in on top of him was letting his imagination run wild. "Could you please be a bit more gentle with this poor Kamijou-san next time? I'm concerned about my well-being."

"I'll use my Meltdowner next time." She continued playing with those marks, now lightly kissing them. "I'll draw a giant 'S' with it on your chest, maybe then you'll learn to behave."

"Try to do that and I'll give this ass here an even worse spanking."

A high-pitched sound followed just after Touma's hand crashed heavily against something somewhat soft, but firm as well. Shizuri's scream of surprise reverberated through the room as her body slammed into his.

"Ohoo..." The girl smiled, half stunned. "Now that was a slap. But you'll need to do better if you want the bad girl to behave."

"Ouch!" Touma squirmed on the bed as the girl bit down hard on his chest.

The two idiots in love rolled around in the sheets for a few seconds trying to figure out who could pin the other to the bed. It got a little violent, but the strangest part was that Touma couldn't define if the girl was wearing something under that outfit or not. He had slapped her on the butt several times during the senseless fight, but he was still in doubt. It was the fault of that girl and her underwear that barely seemed to exist.

"That's a little unfair," muttered Shizuri breathlessly. Touma had managed to pin her to the bed by her wrists after throwing his body weight on top of her. And it was still hard. "I got out of the hospital yesterday, so I must not be a hundred percent. It hurts in some places still."

"So that's why you were so loud yesterday?" He made sure to grin from ear to ear once again.

"That certainly had nothing to do with my injuries, smartass. Now let me go, I'm going to take a shower."

"Not yet." He brought her wrists together so that he could hold them in one hand and thus use his free hand to feel her body. "You hurt me pretty bad, so maybe I should make you apologize with your body."

"Really, is that all you want as an apology? No wonder you've always gotten the short end of the stick. Allow this Shizuri-chan to teach you how you should act from now on... I'll make sure nothing slips through your fingers."

Touma was too distracted by that smile, so he didn't even notice when the girl moved and hit him in the stomach with a knee. Obviously she didn't hit him that hard, but it served to distract him, thus causing her to escape his grasp. A casual shove later the boy had been thrown to the other side of the bed. He was so stunned by the girl's precision and technique that the ceiling above him became the object of contemplation for several seconds.

Something had been hurled in his direction, but that object landed harmlessly beside him, jolting him out of his reverie. It was his clothes... the very ones Shizuri had been wearing just moments ago.

"Wait," he said, grabbing the sweatshirt with his hands. "I wonder if..."

Without finishing, his eyes shot to the other side of the room, where he heard sound of footsteps. He could only see his girlfriend for less than half a second before she entered the private bathroom of their room.

But he was sure of something all the same.

"Nothing, huh?" he grinned like an idiot. "Such... fortune. Seriously, the world is screwed. I can stop a meteor with a dragon?"

"How about you use your 'dragon' for something else?" shouted Shizuri from inside the bathroom. Without a second's delay, he saw her head emerge through the open door. "What are you waiting for to come in here? A formal invitation?"

Touma was no saint, but he moved at a speed well above sound at that moment.

x-12-x

Outside this luxurious mansion, full of stained glass windows that gave a modern appearance, contrasting with the archaic way everything was modeled, two girls got out of a black car. This was one of the cars that were disguised to look 'ordinary' and not draw much attention on the outside, while the inside was armed with luxury and state-of-the-art technology. One of the benefits of being part of the dark side of that city.

"It's that same super mansion from that night," Kinuhata said, walking through the well-trimmed garden smelling of roses.

"Mugino seems to be going all out," Takitsubo replied, looking at the walls of the mansion as if she had x-ray vision.

"Yeah, this super place is amazing. I wonder how much it must have cost."

The excited girl failed to understand that Takitsubo was not on the same frequency as her, but that was a common thing so she decided to keep quiet. Surprisingly, Touma was one of the only people who seemed to be able to 'sync up' with her at times, which intriguingly unsettled her a little.

"That's why she asked you to go to the super bank, I imagine. How much money from her emergency funds has she spent?"

"The emergency funds were not enough."

Kinuhata froze upon hearing this, while Takitsubo maintained her usual stoic expression. The girl chose not to mention that her friend would need to put in considerable effort to recover from this financial disaster, especially since she didn't want to rely on her parents' assistance. Instead, she shifted her focus to something more significant.

"They make a good pair," AIM Stalker spoke again, rummaging through her purse. "I understood that from the beginning."

"You always super seem to read people perfectly." Kinuhata placed her hands behind her head and gazed up at the cloudless sky. "Mugino is like a person shrouded in dense fog to me, but she's practically transparent to you."

The two's conversation was interrupted by a distinct noise.

"Damn. Basically, that didn't work."

"You said that was enough, but you only succeeded in getting smoke on me. Are you really a professional?"

"Don't underestimate me, Saten. Basically, that was an improvised bomb. If I had my equipment here I would -"

"Frenda, what's going on here?"

Takitsubo almost screamed when she saw the two girls trying to break the door handle of the mansion for some reason that escaped her mind at that moment. Frenda and Saten were dirty with soot and a viscous liquid that she didn't even know what it was, perhaps some chemical that helped keep them safe if something went wrong.

"B-basically, I can explain." Frenda desperately wiped the soot from her clothes and put a smile on her face that would make some people relent and stop asking questions. "My friend Saten challenged me and -"

"Frenda-san, could you not deflect the blame onto me like that right off the bat?" The black-haired girl looked slightly worried about something. "Your friend is staring at us with a very scary glint in her eyes."

"It's okay, she's harmless. And it's not like we broke the lock anyway. At most those makeshift chemicals will need to be urgently cleaned up before -"

She was not allowed to finish. With superhuman speed Takitsubo moved her arm with her claw-shaped hand. Half a second later the girl, still inexpressive, was applying an 'iron-claw' technique to the poor blonde. It required a great deal of effort from Kinuhata and Saten to separate her from Frenda.

"I'll open the door for us," Takitsubo said. She literally ignored what had happened, in this case the poor victim with the soul about to escape through her mouth, and calmly pulled an old-fashioned key from her purse. "But I'll let you know right away that I'm not letting anyone walk around freely for the time being. Have I made myself clear?"

"Y-yes!" Everyone responded simultaneously, including Frenda, who had been contemplating the Valkyries about to whisk her away.

Takitsubo was the only one of the ITEM that Shizuri had entrusted with a key to the mansion. The reason for this was obvious, so she was doing her best to maintain the 'perfect best friend' image. She had been playing the role of 'wife' to her friend for a long time, so she didn't have to try too hard to excel at this 'job'.

x-13-x

"Would you please be quiet?" asked Shizuri, her hands filled with a slimy, half-transparent material. "I know what I'm doing."

"Do you intend to do this every morning? I feel somewhat uncomfortable getting rid of my morning ritual."

The two had gotten out of the shower a few minutes ago and were now sharing a giant mirror in the bathroom. Shizuri didn't even bother to put on an outfit like Touma, she just wrapped a towel around her body and left it at that.

"Why are you complaining?" She ran her clammy hands through his hair. "Isn't having a girl who understands fashion to help you improve your appearance every teenager dreams of?"

"I don't know where you got that from."

"That's a classic in young adult romance books."

"What kind of garbage have you been reading?"

"Someone is asking for a fucking punishment." Shizuri ran her hands over his face as well. He now had hair gel on his eyebrows, and he didn't doubt that had people who would do something like that. "I confess that you do a reasonable job of keeping your appearance acceptable, but with me by your side now, let's take that to the extreme."

"Could you keep those scissors away from me, please?"

She didn't keep the scissors away from him. But she used them only to trim a few disheveled strands and soon dropped them. Carefully, she spread some more gel and then began to style his hair with a fancy comb adorned with gold. Touma by now had begun to think that every item in this house cost more than everything he had in his old apartment combined.

"I'll keep it spiky," she said, parting his hair and then making several layers, "but I'll spread your hair out like this... and like this..."

"It seems too complicated for me. How am I supposed to imitate that?"

"You don't have to, but it's not that hard."

After a few minutes, the boy's new hairdo was ready. It was strange, but it looked like the same hairstyle, but much better than the one he usually did. In the beginning he was very concerned about his appearance, spending hours in front of the mirror sometimes, and a few more hours reading men's fashion magazines, but this diminished with time. His hairdo became more relaxed, so seeing it so well done made him smile. His girlfriend had really put a lot of care and effort into it.

"See?" Shizuri positioned a second handheld mirror behind his head. "I skillfully layered the back and seamlessly blended it with the sides for a modern look."

"I have no idea what you're talking about, but I liked it." Touma tilted his head to all sides one after the other, trying to appreciate the new hairstyle from all angles.

"That's just the beginning."

Glancing around, he saw the girl open a small silver cabinet and take out some products. He wasn't very well versed in this, so it only looked like those beauty products he saw advertised on the internet or TV.

"You need to have a routine of taking care of your skin too, Touma."

"Hey, hey... hold on. You're not going to put that weird girl thing on my face are you?"

"This is not a 'girl thing.' This is an exfoliant developed here in Academy City." She had to force the boy to stand still while she applied some to his facial skin "You only need to apply it once a week to get rid of all the dead skin cells and impurities on your skin. Besides being easy to apply, it doesn't irritate and it doesn't care about pH either -"

"You do know that this is literally irrelevant to me, don't you? What's the next thing? Are you going to give me makeup tips too?" His voice leaked sarcasm.

"It also serves as a toner and serum so you can apply -"

"Shizuri, a little attention here."

"I am giving you my full attention."

A few minutes and Touma's complaints later, the girl finally finished demoing her beauty products (?) and seemed to calm down.

"Damn, I forgot the moisturizer," she said, opening the cabinet once again. "And this also provides good protection against ultraviolet rays."

"How I wish I had vector manipulation right now to reflect this shit," grumbled Touma.

"Why are you so much ruder than usual? That kind of teasing is only exciting when I feel a twinge of playfulness behind it, without that it's just cruel."

Touma couldn't define whether that pinch on the cheek was part of the routine or not so he just stood there quietly.

"See how much more relaxed your facial muscles are now?" she asked excitedly.

"What does that have to do with everything else?"

"Make a thoughtful face at me."

"Shizuri -"

"A thoughtful face for this Shizuri-chan, go."

The strategic pout at the end was a supreme weapon that the boy couldn't define whether he wanted to see more often or not. The effectiveness was phenomenal, so he just gave up grumbling and made a 'thoughtful face,' sharpening his gaze and letting his lips relax.

"Yeeeeah... just like that," the girl said, biting her lower lip. The expression on her face was almost one of ecstasy. "Look at that male beauty. Your 'attractiveness points' at least triple when you make that thoughtful face, and now it's practically perfected. And that was just one day of care, imagine what we'll have in a month. I can even imagine all those envious faces now." She licked her lips seductively.

"Don't you think this Kamijou-san already has too many girls wanting a piece of him? What kind of artificial monster are you trying to create here?"

"And now you are admitting that you are the juiciest piece of meat in this town...you are making me feel rather hot."

"Hey, wait a minute, don't go taking your towel off just like that! At least give me a warning... wait, wait, you're still full of moisturizer or whatever shit on your hands... hey, hey... Shizuri, calm down, don't -"

x-14-x

As they left the bathroom, Shizuri chose to wear a thin negligee similar to the one she was in the hospital yesterday, but purple instead of white. Touma was wearing his white sweatshirt that his girlfriend had bought for him, which he was still confused as to whether it was the same one he had worn for so long.

"Do you want to pick out my hairstyle?" the girl asked as soon as she finished changing.

"I can do better than that."

Shizuri was sitting in front of a mirror that emerged from inside her gigantic wardrobe, the one that had some men's clothes in a separate section. A small smile came to his face when he noticed that the girl had already thought about this too, she really wanted to share everything with him.

"Your hair is so soft," Touma said, running his fingers through the strands of her hair. He picked up a hairbrush, which was obviously expensive looking, and began to carefully comb through those tea-colored waves. "I always wondered if your hair was naturally kind of wavy."

"That depends on the day of the week. You know, bad hair days."

"I'm sure it shouldn't work that way."

The girl's hair was impeccably maintained. It possessed abundant volume and a lustrous sheen, feeling silky-smooth to the touch, without a single split end or sign of damage. He couldn't help but feel a twinge of unease at the thought of offering to tend to something so meticulously cared for. It was akin to an elementary school boy attempting to teach physics to Isaac Newton.

After Touma finished combing, he deftly gathered all the hair together, securing it firmly with his right hand. He reached out with his left hand to take a rubber band and wrapped the hair with it, forming a fluffy ponytail.

"A slight tweak maybe," he said, delicately pulling a few strands of hair from the crown to add extra volume to the hairstyle. "Does it feel uncomfortable?"

"No, it's fine." Shizuri stood in profile in the mirror to take a look. "Good job. Something tells me you've done this before, which is a shame."

"With two different girls actually. Come to think of it, maybe it was more than two."

"Bad news those, I wasn't even able to be your second..." She put a giant smile on her face right after the pause and then looked into his eyes through the mirror. "But at least I was the first to fuck you."

"Could you be even more vulgar?" he let out a sigh as he tried not to blush, being moderately successful. "And you are right only in the literal sense."

As soon as Touma uttered those words, an inexplicable sensation coursed through his body. It had nothing to do with the girl, who was expressing her delight at having someone to assist with her hair while wearing a bright smile. This peculiar feeling seemed to originate from outside. His gaze shifted beyond the open window, fixating on a distant focal point.

"Shizuri, I know it's kind of sudden, but I have to go outside for a few minutes."

"Outside? Would you like to get some fresh air in the garden? I -"

"No, it's not that." His gaze remained distant. "There's someone watching us right now."

His words were spoken in a casual manner, yet the underlying tone carried a seriousness that caused the girl to slightly curl her lip in discontent.

"Don't worry, I'll take care of it." He leaned in to give her a quick kiss. If it hadn't been for the kiss, she would have sighed loudly and started to complain.

"I doubt there's anyone in this city that's a big problem for you, but be careful, okay? Put your safety first. If you get hurt for no reason I'll...I'll be mildly annoyed."

It was kind of cute how she carefully chose her words in moments like these. The normally unfiltered girl allowed her true feelings to shine through in her tone, yet she placed enough trust in him not to excessively criticize him without reason.

"I won't have any trouble, believe me." Touma clenched his right fist tightly. "Now go play host to our guests."

He threw himself out of the window without warning, still looking at her. His destination was the top of a nearby building, where a certain person was waiting for him.

x-15-x (S)

He was nothing more than a human. Even with billions of possibilities, he was a magician who never changed. He knew defeat like no one else in the world, and pretended not to care about his repeated failures. His plans were complex, dynamic, and most of them, totally disposable. In fact, he no longer possessed a plan. His reason for being here on the terrace of this building could be recognized as a futile act.

"It's been a while since I've seen that face."

A young male voice sounded from behind the "human" dressed in a green hospital gown. He had abandoned his life support that had made him cheat death for so long, which meant that his enemies on the magic side should have identified his magic signature by now. But he didn't care.

"Your otherworldly memories have totally synchronized by the looks of it, great." Aleister Crowley turned in the direction of the voice. "My plan has been successfully completed." He displayed a minimal smile on his impassive face.

"I had a feeling you were the mastermind behind all of this."

He was nothing more than a normal high school boy. Even after billions of years, that's what he kept telling himself and everyone else. His plans almost never worked, his misfortune always came out on top, so he had to trust his instincts and improvise, changing his plans according to the situation and always trying to see the best result, turning his failures into victories, his mistakes into successes.

"Are you truly him?" inquired Kamijou Touma, studying the appearance of the 'human' standing before him from a distance. He cautiously advanced a few steps, his guard raised.

"Are you really Kamijou Touma?" Aleister Crowley countered the question with another question.

"I couldn't be anyone else."

The boy sprinted towards the figure who was once hailed as the greatest magician in history. His fist remained unclenched this time, violence finding no refuge here. Instead, he extended his arms in an open gesture.

"Thank you," Kamijou Touma uttered, his arms enveloping the form of the man who maintained a tight smile during their heartfelt embrace.

"You're welcome." His smile broadened. A trembling hand reached out to gently pat the boy's back. "I apologize for my limited capabilities. You, above all, comprehend the depth of my struggles. You understand, don't you?"

"Yes, I understand."

After a few seconds, the boy finally pulled away. He was serious, more so than usual, but Aleister Crowley knew that he was holding his feelings in. The same could be said of the great unchanging magician.

He was just one more possibility among billions. The eccentric great magician could take many forms, and this was one of them. Even in another world, his influence remained, and he used this to fulfill his one desire, his one plan. He wanted to save Kamijou Touma.

"I can't believe I made it," Aleister said, his eyes slightly moistened. "All those failures of mine in the past seemed to lead me to this moment."

"You must have tried to help me in the other worlds too, I imagine."

Touma was referring to the other worlds brought to the surface by April's powers. That boy had been put in a kind of loop, each world slightly different from the other. The girl born of his powers was making fine adjustments, trying to find a world that better pleased him, but it would never end, and Aleister Crowley knew it.

"I tried so hard," said the magician, "but trying to interfere too much wouldn't work, so I did only the minimum in this world."

"I guess you must have manipulated something to make April attack the very Mall that Shizuri and I were on.

"Yes. And I was also the one responsible for sending the messages that alerted ITEM of the situation, in an indirect way of course. And I was also the one who made sure that priority mission fell into your hands."

"What about the Dark April project?"

"I needed to buy time, so I was able to lock her up in a facility for a few months. Luckily she was weak."

"What about Aihana Etsu?"

"That was just you." Aleister shrugged. "To be honest, I didn't anticipate it to serve as the definitive proof to sway her. I thought making you accept your memories was enough. In truth, much of it relied on your actions. I merely played the role of an observer, making essential tweaks as needed. Taking cues from her plan, which aligned with my own, I ensured that I assumed control of the ritual at the opportune moment."

"So sending me to the other world was your doing." Touma put a hand to his chin and stared at the horizon. "Was Shizuri going along part of the plan?"

"Not initially. I used a ritual based on Thelema, and although will is above love in our motto, love still fulfills an important role. #4 was essential here. She certainly exceeded my expectations. An ideal match for you...and you know why."

Touma looked at his right hand and then raised it into a fist.

"So that's really the answer." The boy sighed, as if disappointed by something.

"That is not only what is expected of you. The same goes for her. Your true will is something that can be chosen too, you know the motto."

"Do what thou wilt," he just whispered, a tiny smile sliding across his lips.

"Exactly." Aleister Crowley nodded, and then reached out to lower that clenched right fist, as if disarming the boy. "That is the true power that resides in you. As long as you live by following that principle, you will never lose your way."

The magician placed a hand on the doubtful boy's shoulder, hoping it would suffice to persuade him. The serene expanse of Academy City's blue horizon appeared more tranquil than ever before, and Aleister Crowley found himself lost in its beauty. It was as if, for the first time, he allowed himself the luxury of relaxation.

"What are you going to do now?" asked Touma, looking in the same direction as the distracted man. "I don't really know how this works, but if you leave this body will the Aleister here remember this?"

"I'm not sure, but I don't think it makes any difference. My job here is over anyway."

"So you don't mind if me and my girlfriend thwart all your plans, do you? I'm really thinking about starting to work on some things."

"Start with the clones," the man suggested, his face going rigid in contemplation. "The Aleister here needs them to spread the AIM fields around the world, so it won't make any difference."

"Shit... now that you've commented, many of them must be dead by now. I need to act soon."

"I will send you some important files that will help you do this in an effective way. I have other projects that might catch your attention as well. Your hobby is saving people, so this will definitely keep you busy."

"Usually I wait for things to happen instead of going to the mess on my own, but that's something I intend to change," Touma exclaimed with excitement. "I have to go now, my girlfriend has some guests and I bet they are having an interesting conversation."

"That being said," Aleister replied in a more formal tone, "I still possess a considerable amount of time in this realm. Therefore, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that our paths may intersect once more."

"You're being too thoughtful... ah... while we're at it, Kakine -"

"I'm already in the process of working that out," Aleister remarked, displaying a gesture of disapproval. "Merely listening won't satisfy that person. I must devise a solution that resolves his issue without resorting to drastic measures. I shall leave it to you to determine which changes will be implemented."

"Something tells me Accelerator is the best person for that."

"Not for now." He just watched as the boy turned his back to him, one hand raised in a waving goodbye.

"Farewell, Aleister."

The boy was gone, throwing himself off the edge of the building. The nanotechnology bracelet was with him, but Aleister didn't see it activate. It wasn't a problem. He had reached maximum purity, something like this wouldn't hurt him, and that left that old magician's spirit at peace. He would be safe from now on.

"That girl was mistaken about something," the 'human' murmured to no one in particular. "Yet, I hold no resentment towards her. Unlike her, I no longer required salvation." A moist sensation trailed down his cheek, prompting him to instinctively reach up and touch his own face.

A smile unlike any he had ever worn graced Aleister's face as he cast his gaze upward, almost as if anticipating the presence of somber clouds in the sky.

"It shall be an intriguing future," he remarked, casting one final glance in the direction where the boy had leapt. "Farewell and best of luck, Kamijou Touma."

There was not a single cloud in that blue sky.

x-16-x

"That smells good." Kinuhata held up a piece of omelet with her chopsticks and blew gently. "Your super culinary skills are not bad at all, little girl."

"Why are you calling me 'little girl'?" Saten finished setting the table and sat down next to Frenda, who was distracted fiddling with her cell phone. "We are practically the same age, did you know that?"

"Kinuhata is the youngest in ITEM," said Frenda, trying to open a can of mackerel with one hand since the other was busy. "And the 'youngest' member of the team too. Basically, you get used to her awkward attempts to blend in."

The four girls had decided to start breakfast without the two lovebirds. Takitsubo made it clear that she wouldn't let anyone bother them, so they all gathered in the dining room, while Saten insisted on being in charge of preparing everyone's meal.

"Eh?" Saten only just realized what Frenda was watching so intently, making an odd grimace and then turning away. "Frenda, this is not something appropriate to watch while eating." She even scowled.

"Basically, there's nothing like watching people kill each other in the bloodiest way possible first thing in the morning." She smiled at Saten and poked her fork into her mackerel. "Hey, don't you have a recipe for mackerel for breakfast?"

"You do know that your eating habits are not healthy at all, right?" Saten shrugged and then gestured toward the table full of Japanese food. "Look how much stuff you have here, you could just taste it."

It's not as if Frenda refused to eat anything that wasn't canned mackerel, but watching her contemplate the meal in front of her and drop that can so readily was not a sight Takitsubo expected to see.

"You could put down the phone too," AIM Stalker said in a caring big sister tone. "We're visiting here, so behave yourself and stop watching this stuff. Hadn't you stopped that?"

"Basically, you've gone into your 'wife' mode." Frenda let out a sigh and dropped her phone. "It's okay, I'm not missing much anyway. These new people who organize the colosseum fights are terrible. I don't feel the same excitement as before anymore, but it's better than them closing it down for good."

"Wait a minute," Saten said with a somewhat horrified face. "Are you saying that what you were watching was real? Like... people killing each other for real? Now I feel... dirty."

"If you think of it as some kind of true urban legend you'll feel better." Frenda raised a thumb full of energy to her friend.

The young girl appeared eager to respond, but hasty footsteps hushed the room, causing everyone to turn their attention towards the entrance.

Mugino Shizuri made her grand entrance into the dining room, almost as if she were parading. There was even a noticeable lightness to her demeanor, with a smile playing at the corner of her lips as she hummed a cheerful tune.

"Good morning, girls!" Shizuri exclaimed with a vibrant tone in her voice. She moved to the back of Takitsubo's chair and leaned over, enveloping her in a hug from behind, gently brushing her cheek against Takitsubo's. "Are you doing alright, my dearest friend?"

The rest of the girls exchanged perplexed greetings of "good morning" while casting bewildered glances at one another. Their faces contorted with surprise, as no one expected so much energy from that lazy girl first thing in the morning. Even Saten, who had limited acquaintance with her, sensed that something was amiss.

"Hey Frenda, I haven't forgotten about you," the level 5 said, smoothing the blonde girl's beret as if to pamper her. "You're already pretty comfortable with your new girlfriend, huh? Inviting her over to my place and all. Brave."

"B-basically... What?" Frenda didn't know what to do with her shaking hands. "Mugino, don't make that kind of joke with a sincere smile on your face, you'll end up giving the wrong idea to the others."

"So you two have this super kind of relationship? I approve."

"Quiet Kinuhata! You two are embarrassing me in front of my friend."

"Are you guys always like this?" asked Saten, feeling like a fish out of water.

"Basically, Mugino must have been possessed by a vengeful ghost from this mansion." Frenda inflated her cheeks. Was that an attempt to disguise nervousness?

Shizuri ignored the embarrassed little girl and sat down at the table. She helped herself to the food, all the while continuing her cheerful humming, which prompted the other three remaining ITEM girls to exchange furtive glances and communicate silently among themselves.

"Did you show them the house, Takitsubo?" asked Shizuri in her cheerful voice.

"Not really."

"You're all welcome to make use of the facilities here," she stated, taking a bite of bread. It was evident that she no longer concerned herself with her previous habits. "We have a movie theater here, Kinuhata, if you're interested. And an arcade, Frenda."

"Really?" The blonde looked excited. "Basically, Saten and I could compete in one of those modern dance games. I'll kick your ass."

"In your dreams, Frenda." Saten lightly patted the girl's shoulder. "Know that I am the best dancer in my dorm and at least the third best in my school. And you Mugino-san, do you dance?"

"I'm not the best dancer, but with enough motivation I can beat you two easily. I never lose after all." She paused to smile like an idiot. "Well... I did lose something yesterday, but it's not as if I care."

That tone she used was quite suggestive, the girls there noticed her nonchalantly curling a lock of hair as she giggled. Only Takitsubo showed no reaction, and it was also only she who knew exactly what was going on.

"Mugino-san -"

"You can take off the honorifics, Saten." Shizuri tasted some of the omelet, making a satisfied expression.

As if taking the chance, Saten rubbed her hands together and put a curious expression on her face. That assertive little girl was about to try to dig something up.

"So, Mugino, I have a question." She tilted her head to the side and held the smile forming for the moment. "You and Kamijou-san are sharing this house, right?"

"Yes. This is our love nest, where we will be together until the end of time." Shizuri let out a sigh of a girl in love as she looked at the ring on her right hand.

"Oh, so that means you guys must have gone pretty far by now."

"Saten, you're going super far too," Kinuhata joked, as if to take the subject elsewhere.

"It's okay," Shizuri said, moving her hand in a circular, casual gesture. "I'm not the kind of person who cares to talk about something like that. And yes, we had an amazing day yesterday, an even better night... and this morning was a nice appetizer, hehehe."

The girls' reactions to that casual bomb ranged from a dumbfounded look on Kinuhata's face, to a furious blush on Frenda's, to a mischievous smile appearing on Saten's lips. Takitsubo barely raised an eyebrow. Benefits of being the best friend, she was always ahead of the others.

"B-basically, t-that means that you two..." Frenda stammered all the way through.

"OK, forget what I said, I want super details." Kinuhata out of nowhere went into enthusiastic mode, leaning toward the table until she almost brushed her developing chest against the table.

"Kinuhata," Frenda said seriously, "I don't think we should talk about it, Saten is here after all."

"Relax Frenda," said Shizuri, puffing out her (well-developed) chest. "I will use euphemisms."

"That doesn't make things much better," Takitsubo commented, not too concerned if her tone let on.

"Let me know if I'm going too far then," said Shizuri. "So, first of all, to say he has stamina for days would be an understatement. And he's a pretty creative person too."

"Don't make any weird gestures using the food, please," Takitsubo spoke up, patting Shizuri's hand that was getting too excited.

"I thought I was going to dominate all night but I was wrong," she continued, nudging her friend lightly to let her continue. "Touma is the kind of person who applies an '180' out of nowhere, if you know what I mean."

"I have no idea what you are super talking about." Kinuhata actually knew, but she had to fake it a little to get more details.

"I was holding my own for a while, but I was completely overwhelmed after about five or six rounds. Seriously, he is a beast. I guess I better hit the gym for a few months to make up for it, you know?"

"You're making it sound like you guys were having a fight there," Saten commented.

"It was really a fight. He got the better of me, but I certainly fought back with everything."

"You're exaggerating," Frenda said, trying to maintain the appearance of a high school girl who knows things and barely succeeding. "And biologically speaking, you'd have plenty of time to recover anyway."

"Like he would give me even a minute to catch my breath."

"Basically, that's impossible."

"Nah, he's just that good." Shizuri shrugged. "'Built different' as they say these days."

The excited girl seemed to have something more to say but...

"You guys aren't talking about what I think you're talking about...are you?"

Touma appeared in the dining room to spoil the girls' conversation. It's not like Shizuri was really going to go into details anyway.

"We're talking about sex," Shizuri said, flashing a shit-eating grin. Touma looked away at the horizon at lightning speed to try to hide his embarrassment. "And I was about to count the many items on that list that you crossed off in one night."

"Thanks for letting me know, I'll be back when you're done. Bye girls." He turned to leave, but Shizuri reached up and grabbed his left arm.

"No, no, no... it was a joke," she said, changing her smile to a kinder one. She guided him to the table, making him sit down right next to her. "How about you tell us what kind of trouble you got into?"

"That's for another time." He looked in the direction of the special guest as soon as she pulled a plate toward him. "Hey, Saten-san, it's been a while."

"Eh? We saw each other not even a week ago." Saten tilted her head in confusion, and then curved her lip in a mischievous manner. "Your days have been long, by the looks of it. This one's keeping you up all night, huh?"

"Basically, let me take care of it." Frenda picked up a baguette and hit Saten over the head with it. "Behave as we agreed."

"You...hit me with a piece of bread?" Saten looked more confused than anything else. She must have wondered if the girl decided to grab the most misplaced food there.

"These two won't stop flirting," teased Shizuri. "We have plenty of rooms here if you -"

"You be quiet too." Touma interrupted the girl also using a baguette, however he took the more dangerous route by stuffing it into her mouth.

"Touma!" Shizuri coughed a little and then began chewing hard on the piece of bread in an inelegant manner. "Don't just go sticking things in a girl's mouth. Not that I care, but at least give me a warning first."

"Someone hasn't learned her lesson." Touma activated his sadistic mode and the girl received a whole combo of random food forcefully entering her mouth.

"No, wait, that's too much food... uaheuhae... no... ok, ok I surrender." She waved her hands almost breathlessly.

After the two's display of chaotic affection, everyone at the table made strange faces, except Takitsubo again. There was no way anyone could tell for sure, but the girl was loving to see her friend acting like that. Shizuri was happy, and she wasn't trying to hide it. She was showing a vulnerable side while surrounded by her friends and in the company of a person she loved more than anything. This was exactly what that inexpressive girl had always wanted to see.

"Takitsubo?" It was Frenda who caught the girl's attention. "Basically, why do you have such a big smile on your face?"

"Huh?" Takitsubo was so lost that she barely noticed that detail. "It's just... nothing."

"I should find this super creepy," Kinuhata said, tilting her head in confusion, "but your smile is surprisingly pure. The world has turned into a strange place this past month."

"I have no idea what you guys are talking about," Saten said. "It all looks the same to me. This city doesn't have a single dull day."

Takitsubo couldn't resist and kept smiling at all this. Not only because of her friend, but because the place she belonged to had become much nicer now.

x-17-x

It had been an exhausting yet enjoyable day spent with the girls, with Touma joining them as well. They played on the arcade, watched a peculiar B movie recommended by Kinuhata, cooked together in the spacious kitchen, and concluded the day by watching the sunset from the terrace after organizing a card game.

"See you girls tomorrow!" Shizuri exclaimed with excitement, holding the door open for her friends to depart. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."

"Well, that's setting the bar super high."

They had all left, but Kinuhata stood there against the wall, Shizuri looked at her confused.

"Well, I'm a different person now," Shizuri argued, looking at the ring on her finger. "I'm still not a good person, but he doesn't care about something like this."

"I know that." The little girl stared at the ceiling, as if avoiding looking her in the eye. "Maybe I'm just too young, so what I feel can be super confusing sometimes."

"Eh? What are you talking about Kinuhata?" She didn't look confused as she closed the door and leaned against the wall next to her.

Kinuhata sighed, her expression marked by a mixture of sadness and anger. The words seemed tangled in her throat, ready to escape, but something she felt stifled any attempt at communication. Her lost gaze wandered over the vibrant colors of the walls that seemed faded to her eyes.

"The whole dark side thing... in the end, was it all just super 'fun' to you?" she finally spoke, glancing at Shizuri with a narrowed gaze, still unable to meet her eyes directly. "It wasn't any of that for me. It was all about choice... or the lack thereof."

In the end, that was what it was all about. How many times had she really wanted to talk about it so bluntly? Kinuhata almost regretted it when she saw Shizuri watching her, raising one eyebrow gently, concern evident in her discerning gaze

"If you're expecting an apology from me for saving you that night, you won't get it," Meltdowner replied curtly, making no attempt to use euphemisms or sugarcoat her words even slightly. "I gave you an opportunity, and you accepted it with a smile. That's how it appeared to me."

"Don't play the fool. I wasn't smiling when you super made me do those horrible things. At least not sincerely."

"I never said I'm innocent in that story." Shizuri stepped away from the wall to look at the girl's downcast face. "I apologize for not being the most reasonable person and for taking away opportunities and making it seem like another option didn't exist, but just like I did with Takitsubo, I don't regret bringing you into this darkness and saving you. You won't get my apology for that, you never will."

"It's not a super apology that's going to change that, I -"

"I've already forgiven myself," Shizuri interrupted her, as if she knew exactly what the girl meant. "Even after everything I've done, I can finally look back and say 'so what?' Some people will still judge me, but none of that matters to me anymore."

Kinuhata's shoulders slowly slumped, the smooth lines of her young face now marked by an unnatural stiffness.

"Having him by your side has this super effect, huh?" Her words came out in a pained whisper.

"It's not just because of him." Shizuri's hand went to the girl's shoulder, slowly and gently. "When I was fighting, that night, in that ruined building, I had to make a choice. I almost succumbed to the proposal, but I walked away from it, not because of Touma, but because of you."

Her gaze was finally brave enough to meet Shizuri's, being greeted with those determined eyes she already knew very well.

"Because of you, Takitsubo, and Frenda. I care about all of you, you know that very well. This never had anything to do with him, but I confess that having him by my side made me reflect on my actions. As I said, I have already forgiven myself, and if you want some advice from your friend Mugino-san here, do the same. That's all that's left in the end for people like us."

With a new air of joy, Shizuri gently turned away from Kinuhata and walked toward the imposing carved wooden door, a delicate smile adorning her face.

"See you tomorrow, friend?" she asked, gesturing for the little girl to move. "My life would be somewhat less happy without you by my side."

There was still a perceptible hesitation in the steps Level 4 took toward the door, but the shadow of concern that crossed her face slowly faded away.

"Forgiving myself...I think I can super do that." Kinuhata smiled, that one was quite sincere. "I'll see you tomorrow, Mugino. I'll make you watch a marathon of bad B movies."

"I can't wait."

They waved goodbye, and Kinuhata gazed out over the night city, the cold but pleasant wind caressing her face. One last look was cast toward the now closed door.

"Thank you," Kinuhata said into the void, "It wasn't him in the end, but I heard what I needed to. Takitsubo was always super right about you."

Maybe speaking out loud would help make the message clearer to herself, her fist closed as if ready to face the world. Whether it was Kamijou Touma or Mugino Shizuri responsible for what she was feeling now she had no way of knowing, but in the end, did it make a difference?

One more girl was coming out of the darkness, the rest was irrelevant.

x-18-x

The night was calm, serene, yet cold and full of people lurking in the shadows. This was the way Academy City had always been. Touma knew this all too well now, and he could curse himself for being responsible for all of this, but it wouldn't do anyone any good.

"Will you continue standing by the window all night?"

His girlfriend's voice sounded from the bed, where she was lying staring at him. Shizuri donned a delicate, sheer nightgown that sent his blood pressure soaring whenever his gaze grazed her, even if only in passing. In fact, the mere thought of it was enough to set his imagination ablaze.

"I'm collecting my thoughts," he said, peering into the night, attempting to gaze into the distance. "I won't be long, I promise."

Shizuri let out a resounding sigh, her frustration palpable. Touma was well aware of the reason behind it, yet he saw no need to concern himself. Soon enough, that frustration would be extracted from her being. In another situation, or rather another day, he would already be in bed with her, but he had to push those thoughts aside for now.

"Hey," her voice came from right behind him. The girl suddenly hugged him from behind while he was distracted, making him feel that softness that was covered by a very thin cloth and nothing else. "Come to bed," she whispered slowly.

"Just wait a little bit." His heart was racing so he almost stuttered. "Tonight something important is happening. I'm deciding whether to get involved now or not."

"Can't you decide that in two...maybe three hours?"

"Shizuri, can you blow up some specific generators from this window?"

"Ehhh... what?" she even let go of him and leaned toward the window to try to see what he was looking at. "Care to elaborate? Actually, don't elaborate. That didn't make any sense, but tell me where I need to aim and I'll shoot, no questions asked. Anything to get my boyfriend's attention."

"Index is going into Academy City today, or would that be tomorrow morning? I am in doubt what exactly to do."

"I don't really understand why the generators, but if you think that will help then..." She activated the ability, but Touma erased it with a pat on the electron sphere. "That was kind of rude, you know. I'm just trying to help."

"I didn't mean it, silly." He leaned in, placing a kiss upon her lips, and embraced her body, which was partially revealed through her clothes. It was getting harder and harder to control the excitement. "Aleister will fix this. Then I just have to meet her in my dorm tomorrow. I'll make sure I don't lose my memories this time, since that would probably leave you devastated."

"I'll go with you, just to make it clear." Shizuri looped her arms around his neck, realizing that her boyfriend was enjoying her scent. "But I'm still confused about the generators."

"I should be being chased at this moment through the city streets, by some angry delinquents, and a battle-crazy girl wanting to prove she is stronger than me."

"Hmm... and this girl, with her electrical powers, caused a blackout."

"Yeah... wait, how do you know?" Touma had to turn away from that sweet smell a bit to use his brain to its full capacity. "No, that makes sense. You still have the memories of the other Shizuri, but it's still pretty smart of you to put all the clues together so quickly."

The girl smiled mischievously as she placed small kisses on his lips, she had enjoyed being complimented, which was exactly what Touma had planned.

With each passing day, he felt more connected to this girl. That was the reason for his doubts. In the past, the boy would have run towards the nearest place he felt he needed to, start brandishing his fist while trying to gather clues to solve the problem somehow. It's not as if that feeling had left him, but having a person he loved so much by his side made him a slightly more cautious person.

"I'm feeling quite… aroused at the moment," Shizuri whispered between kisses. "But if you want to go outside and sort something out, just say so and I'll put on some suitable clothes and follow you to the end of the world if necessary."

"I really prefer that you keep these clothes on," he murmured, running his hands along her slender waist and venturing further downward, effortlessly sensing the silkiness of her skin through the ethereal fabric. "Not to go outside of course, as I said, I can work that out later. Right now, you have my full attention."

"Now we're talking." Shizuri grabbed his hands that had come down too far, but she wasn't pushing them away. "But seriously, I want you to be honest and not leave me out of your problems. With me it's ride or die, you know that very well. I don't know how effective my powers are against these 'gods' you are destined to face in the future, but direct violence is not the only card I have in my deck. Let me stay on your side, promise me."

"Haven't I made that promise before?"

"Then make it again, for my peace of mind."

With a playful roll of his eyes, he leaned in slightly towards her, bringing their lips together with such intensity that the girl almost stumbled backwards.

"I promise," he whispered, brushing his fingertips gently against her cheek. The way she looked, dazed and captivated, when he unleashed his aggression, pleased him immensely.

Touma turned away from her and approached the window once more, gazing at the moon shining in that cloudless sky. He couldn't remember if this night had been exactly like this in his home world, but things had changed here in ways that were impossible to predict what would actually happen. And that made things exciting. Index might not get into Academy City, there was a chance that girl might not even have turned into a library of grimoires in the first place, although that was quite unlikely.

How different would his adventures be here?

"Maybe I can work things out in a better way now," he said, feeling his girlfriend's arm pass across his shoulder. The girl stood right next to him, looking in the same direction as him in that window. "Maybe... violence isn't the only thing I have in my deck either."

"Touma, why are you saying that with such a doubtful tone?" Shizuri leaned her head against his shoulder. "Haven't you already proven that several times?"

But the doubt still remained there like an irritating splinter, the more he tried to remove it, the deeper it got. He thought about clenching his right fist at that moment, but instead he slipped a hand around the girl's waist, pulling her closer to him.

"Shizuri, in your fight against April, how much did she tell you?" he asked with a faraway look.

"A whole bunch of stuff. Are you focusing on something specific?"

"Did she tell you why this city is the way it is?"

Touma didn't need to look at her to know that she had a confused face.

"No," Shizuri said. She subtly raised her head, as if to assess his facial expression. "I mean, she said something about trying to shape this world to be perfect. Something to do with that?"

"Where I come from, it's the same then no." His tone suddenly became too dry. "This whole city was built to serve my desires. A place that is practically an open-air battlefield, where people find it totally normal espers abusing the violence of their powers, and scientists can experiment at will, bringing ruin and pain to people who will need my help in the future."

"Touma...what are you saying? That sounds kind of absurd."

"Aleister Crowley himself told me so." He looked in the direction where a certain opposing building stood. "There, at the top of that windowless fortress. If I were a person interested in adrenaline and extreme sports, this place would be filled with tracks designed to suit that. If I were an intellectual who lives thinking about deep subjects like human nature, this place would be filled with debate zones that would encourage critical thinking. If I were someone who is fond of Chess, this place would be a city where the best players in the world would gather."

Expecting her to say something, the boy paused, but the uncomfortable silence that night hung in the air longer than planned. He had to sigh as he clenched his right fist hard.

"However, I am none of those things," Touma said, doing his best not to sound so somber. "I am someone who dedicates my life to the violence of my fist. This is my free Thelema, and this city was made to reflect it. No matter how hard I try, in the end, I can only solve things through violence. That's the way it has to be, which is expected of me but... is it wrong for me to try to deviate from that path?"

Shizuri remained silent during the entire speech. She just watched him, with her big, thoughtful eyes, and only when she was sure he had nothing more to say, did she offer to speak.

"I don't know, and I don't care," she began. Touma watched her raise her left hand and look at her intently. "That girl, April, She told me that she had a theory of why among all the others, I was the one who managed to stand next to you. I think that's what she was talking about. If you stop to think for a moment, violence is the first thing that comes to mind when I try to define myself. And that goes for all the people who know me."

"I can't say that's true on my part."

"You don't have to try to comfort me, Touma." She wasn't complaining, and to make it clear, she laid her head on his shoulder. "We're here, in the same room we met a little over a month ago. What was the first thing I showed you here?"

It was Touma's turn to be silent.

Not that he had nothing to say, he just realized that just listening was the best option here, just as the girl had done before him. And also, she was right. Not only was the first thing she demonstrated to him violence, but she reiterated to him the person she was in that alley.

"My whole life I have been surrounded by violence," she continued. "I've already told you about my family. What do you think they expected of me when I was sent to this city? They say that an esper's personality is linked to their powers, and this is more than obvious when you analyze me. My powers are nothing more than brute force, that is the only thing they expect from me. Atom Breaker, the esper with the greatest offensive potential, who can only destroy and is incapable of saving anyone. But I did save someone." She paused for breath, as if the last words had tired her out. "I didn't do it because I'm a good person, it was a totally personal, selfish motive, but does it really matter if the life I saved sees it differently?"

With this question, Touma remembered the words of a certain goddess: In the end, who saw you for what you really are? Depending on the circumstances, or the point of view, the same person can be a hero or a monster, Othinus proved this in that first hell.

"Violence is what they expect from both of us, but so what?" asked the girl, now pulling away to hold both of his hands and look him in the eye. "I can protect and save people if I want, and my powers are studied for other things, like the development of artificial intelligence for example. People expect things from other people, which means that at a certain point in life, you have to choose between being what you really are, or what is expected of you. If and what you are aligns with what people expect, then changing becomes something almost impossible, I have already talked to you about this. But now I have someone who expects something different from me."

"I don't expect anything more from you," he said, breaking his own silence for the first time. "I would stand by you even if you were still unwilling to change.

The girl nodded as she curved the corner of her lip, she had to quickly let go of his hand to nervously fix her hair.

"Just so you know," she said, "I didn't fall in love with you because of your hero delusions. I wasn't interested in the person on the surface who likes to help people without asking for anything in return. What attracted me was the guy who does what it takes to get what he wants, the person who extends a hand even to rotten people to the core and remains loyal to the end, even if you have to do things considered wrong, you don't care. All that is you, but what happens when someone looks at you only on the surface? This kind of person would judge you the moment they see you doing something that they consider 'wrong'. They would say 'this is not you, or you would never do something like this', and the moment you hear this, a tightness will form in your chest."

"And with you, is it different? Do you really see me for what I really am?"

"Like I said, I don't care. I won't judge you, ever. Not because I don't want to, but because I cannot. The moment I tried to do this, I realized how wrong I was, and this was the first and last time. That's my promise to you." Again she held both his hands firmly. "If it will make you better, then forget all about 'violence is what they expect from me'. You saw it there at the breakfast table. Frenda is expected to be stubborn about trying anything other than mackerel, but she was quite open to trying something else today, and did you see Takitsubo? I don't even know what got into her but that huge smile was not something I expected. And I had a conversation with Kinuhata that I never imagined was how she felt... or at least I decided that's not how she should feel. So the best thing we can do, both of us, is to support each other and surpass the expectations of those who judge us without truly knowing us."

He listened carefully to the whole thing. It was a speech from someone who had been judged by everyone her whole life and pretended not to care for so long, but now... now she really didn't care. It was hard to define whether this was really a change or not, but honestly, it didn't matter.

After all, Touma finally smiled.

"You're getting good with speeches," he joked, pulling her back to himself, making her stand beside him at the window again. "I'm being a bad influence on you."

"A 'bad' influence is the best kind of influence." Again she slung her arm across his shoulder. "And I have one last thing to say." She leaned in to whisper in his ear. "I like your violence. You can focus it all on me whenever you want."

His head shook from side to side as he listened to his girlfriend's craziness. His gaze then drifted to her right hand, positioned beside his head. Raising his own right hand, he gently touched the ring, his eyes fixed on the inscription engraved upon it.

"Sending a silent message here?" Shizuri chuckled. "You say you have no luck, but it is a miracle that our rings are still intact. What is it made of anyway? Vibranium?"

"Plot armor, I guess." He chuckled a little too.

Touma continued to glance longingly at the ring on her finger, as if fascinated. Lost in thought, he began to contemplate something of great significance, his mind consumed by introspection.

"Shizuri," he spoke in a very low, deep voice. "I would really like to see you with a ring on your left hand."

"Yeah, it would be more practical. We could walk hand in hand and the message would stay lit there." She stopped talking for a moment when something clicked in her mind. "Wait a minute...that's not what you mean."

"No, it wasn't."

The girl had to turn away once more, she needed to look him in the eye. Touma was serious, but his face was relaxed, unlike his girlfriend, who stiffened her chin from the shock.

"Touma," she hesitated, as if the words she wanted to say were sticky and had stuck in her throat. "Are you...are you talking about...marriage?"

All that doubt in her eyes and the paused words was kind of cute. He really liked it when Shizuri tried so hard to keep control.

"I guess we're too young for that, aren't we?" asked Touma, almost shrugging.

"Hey, don't spoil the moment, dumbass boyfriend. What the hell are you talking about then?"

"There must be something in the way, right?"

"Yes, engagement." She kept a very straight face. "Touma, you're treading on a fine line here." Shizuri began to speak very quickly, stumbling over her words. "Just so you know, I'm not against getting married while young. I mean, some people might find it weird, especially the fact that I'm older than you, which means I'll soon be an adult dating a teenager, and married to a teenager would be even weirder. I wonder about my parents' reaction, I can always tell them to go fuck themselves but I will probably be tormented by my butler. To make it clear once more, I don't care about any of this. Our age difference isn't even that big anyway, so -"

"I think you should stop and take a breath. Since when do you talk so much?"

"We can wait a bit. When we are both adults the age difference won't be a problem, will it?"

"Yeah, I don't think anyone will notice the billion-year age difference between us, we'll be fine."

"What?" she tilted her head and thought for about five seconds. "I'm here for you if you want to talk about it."

"Let's make this a daily pillow talk, I have a lot to talk about… like… a lot, but leaving that aside."

The boy cleared his throat and then knelt down. He took her hand, the one with the ring, and held it tenderly.

"Mugino Shizuri, you -"

"Yes, yes...yes, I'll fucking take it!"

Now her serious face broke. She was so energetic that she was almost radiating light.

"Eh... can you at least let me finish?"

"Fuck it. I've already accepted it, I already accepted, fuck you Kamijou Touma. I am yours now, you have the fucking yes. Do you understand? I know that guys can be slow sometimes, so I'll say it again. Yes, fucking yes. Is that clear now? You're going to have to put a fucking gold ring on my left finger now. I want a really big diamond, I want everybody to be jealous of me. I will design my dress myself, and I will create everything using edible materials."

"Huh?" He shook his head to shake off the confusion and then stood up. "This was supposed to be a romantic moment. Are the two of us going to have a normal relationship at some point?"

"One more thing, your proposal was rather... lame." She raised her index finger like a teacher asking for the silence and attention of her students. "Let's just say that was an unofficial proposal. Next time, let me take care of everything. I'll create a nice atmosphere, maybe a candlelight dinner, and so at the end of the evening, you can make a decent proposal. Remember to buy a suitable ring. I can recommend the store -"

"Shizuri, I want to break up with you."

The seriousness in his tone of voice made the girl's face suddenly darken. But then she was rewarded with a sudden kiss on the lips so she could smile again.

"Okay, now take me back," he said with an odd smile. "That way, the previous proposal is nullified, and we can have the opportunity to do it right next time."

"Touma," she took a deep breath, "are you attempting to break my heart? You don't toy with a girl's emotions like that."

"I had to find a way to make you calm down and stop talking for a moment." Touma hugged her with his left arm, pulling the window curtains with his right hand. "Now come here."

With the girl in his arms, he walked to the bed and threw her there with unnecessary violence.

"I expect an exemplary apology," he said, already sliding his hand down her body, focused on taking off that thin outfit that was already working overtime.

"Wasn't I the one who should be saying that?"

"You spoiled the moment first, so it's only fair that today I do whatever I want with you. Try to complain and things will get worse for you."

"Like I'm going to let you. And don't forget that technically we're engaged now, shouldn't we take a vow of chastity until marriage or some shit like that?"

"I'll consider that a complaint."

x-19-x

The day had only just begun in Academy City, yet the city's abnormal frenzy and commotion were already in full swing. Touma and Shizuri were about to become part of that unrest, if the girl stopped worrying so much about their appearance.

"There, now we're both acceptable," Shizuri said, finishing fixing her boyfriend's hair.

"You really want to turn this into a daily ritual, huh?" He took one last look at his spiky hair. "I can get used to it."

The two were already dressed this time. Mugino Shizuri's modified school uniform looked so good on her that the boy wanted to spend a little more time with her here before they went on to their destination, but time was running out, so they both hurried and left the luxurious mansion.

It was July 20, the first day of summer vacation. That was the day it all started, but instead of being "dying" of heat in his dormitory, he was enjoying a nice breeze in the rose-scented garden that surrounded the mansion. Touma wasn't sure if such a large garden existed before they moved here, but he couldn't complain, that smell was relaxing.

"Or maybe it's your scent that I'm smelling?"

"What are you talking about, darling?" Shizuri slowed her hurried steps to look at him.

"This garden." He moved closer to her and made her tilt her head slightly so that he could sense the fragrance on the skin of her neck. "A deliberate decision on your part, to be sure."

"I like roses, so much so that I was somewhat disappointed when I didn't find my perfume in the other world. I wonder if the other Shizuri-chan doesn't like those beautiful things full of thorns."

"If that is true, then you are clearly superior to her."

That comment made the girl crack a smile. She was clearly holding back from biting her lip hard, or throwing herself at him. Touma would not complain if she did either.

"Hey princess, have I told you I love you today?" asked Touma, extending his left arm to her.

"No, and that's a bit worrying." She readily accepted that gesture so common between them. "What kind of boyfriend doesn't say he loves his 'almost-fiancée' as soon as she wakes up? Disappointing."

"I love you, Mugino Shizuri." The boy held her right hand with his, causing her ring to light up.

"No smart-ass comments? You're ruining the dynamic here."

The girl's remark elicited a brief shared laughter between them. Touma found himself perpetually captivated by the sight of her radiant smile, making it his foremost aspiration from that moment onward.

"Do you think Index has fallen onto your balcony by now?" Shizuri changed the subject, looking up at the cloudless blue sky above her.

"Probably not. Worrying about it makes no difference, Aleister will take care of locating her if necessary."

"It's still strange to know that you can communicate directly with the leader of this city and on top of that be able to enlist his help that readily. You must have quite a history together."

Her unwavering gaze remained fixed on the sky above, captivated by something mysterious. This caught Touma's attention, perhaps because he preferred that the girl kept all her attention on him? Or perhaps it was the sheer enchantment of witnessing her so deeply engrossed that held him spellbound.

"Is something so interesting up there?" he asked, pausing for a moment and staring at the sky as well.

"The day is very clear today. No clouds. A completely blue and huge sky. And the temperature is pretty nice too."

"Yeah..." Touma tilted his head, resting it lightly on her shoulder. "Such a blue sky, such a bright day... just like the future," he said in a singing voice.

"Are you attempting to embark on a poetic career out of the blue?"

"I'm just happy, don't ruin the moment."

"It's good to keep that confidence and positivity then, if that saint is as strong as you say things could get considerably worse."

"Let's keep a peaceful approach, or try to at least. Keep Index close to you at all times. You're a level 5 in a school full of level 0's, it should be easy to fool anyone there since they'll be too worried drooling."

"I said I wanted to help you, but could you at least give me something better to do instead of babysitting? And a level 5 in school on the first day of summer vacation gets a lot of attention, I sure don't need extra lessons. I bet you just wanted to see me in my school uniform again."

"You hit the nail on the head." He nudged her side lightly, making her give a cute little jump.

"Just so you know, I have a version of this uniform that is a bit more... sexy. Your lack of communication caused you to miss that opportunity, now deal with it."

"It makes no difference, you're still going to wear it today anyway."

With that cocky tone, the girl smoothed her hair in satisfaction and finally they started walking again.

"I almost forgot," she said, making him turn his face to her using her soft fingers. "I love you, Kamijou Touma."

"Finally," he joked. "You scared me there. You almost made me break up with you a second time in less than a day."

"You're a smartass, you know that?"

"Look at the person you fell in love with," he whispered, drawing closer and planting a swift kiss upon her lips. "Let's hurry now. The sooner we settle this, the more time we'll have alone."

"Rushing to the rescue of a girl in trouble because she wants to spend more time with me. That's the person I fell in love with." She felt compelled to return the kiss. "I think I've found the perfect person, don't you?"

"Perfect for you at least."

With a nonchalant shrug, he walked with the satisfied girl at his side. They were heading toward their future, one as bright as this day, bright enough to erase at least for now the darkness within them.

"If you think I'm going to let the misfortunes that happened in the past all repeat themselves, then get ready imperfect world," Touma said, clenching his right fist tightly. "That's going to be the biggest illusion I'll ever break...until there's nothing left!"

And with that battle cry, the boy who could kill illusions was ready to throw himself into the darkness once again. But he would never be alone. He would follow this tortuous path together with the girl he loved, and the two of them would smile at the end of each step of the journey.

Kamijou Touma and Mugino Shizuri had nothing to fear, not when the two would always stand by each other's side until...

The end.


And there you have it, dear readers. This is the end of this long journey, what do you think? This chapter was ridiculously long, and somewhat... horny too, but I regret nothing since I know some people thought it wasn't "horny" enough. I think you know what I mean. I kept the fic rating "T" until the end, sorry for the disappointment.

The end-of-chapter notes will also be a bit long, but before we go any further, I will answer the reviews for the last time (actually, I might use reviews to answer this chapter if I have time.). I will separate this part for those who want to skip and read my final notes, and I will be briefer than usual today:


KHVSFF: Thank you very much. To be honest, the final version of events didn't leave me totally satisfied, some people seem to have been confused which makes me wonder if I have not given enough explanations, but I'm glad to hear that you liked it a lot. I hope you enjoyed the ending of this story as well. This for sure won't be the last time I write about this ship, I count on you there when I have new ideas. Until next time.

5queso: Time goes by fast, doesn't it? I won't take a 'break', at least not a long one. I saw you commenting on my other fanfic, thanks for the support there too, I intend to write another fic at the same time, but I'll focus a bit more on just one for now. I thank you for the kind words and the immense interest. Thanks for the last time... for now.

Xellos540: Well... thank you very much for recognizing my efforts. Yes, I imagine it is a bit difficult for those who have not read the novels, and I did not make it very easy with so many different concepts. Anyway, we have reached the end now, I thank you for your detailed reviews. By the way, Dia-chan is one of Aradia's nicknames.


Back to the notes. I don't intend to make a direct sequel to this story any time soon. There is a good chance that I will write a "Christmas special" at the end of the year, but for now, that's all I have planned.

I'm going to talk a little bit about this chapter before I talk more about the overall story. I really wanted the final chapter to be all dedicated to ToumaXShizuri, but I put in a few extra things as well. For people who have read the novel "ITEM", you may have noticed several references to it here. The most obvious ones are Shizuri telling Touma about one of her adventures, Frenda watching people killing each other in high definition while eating, and Takitsubo going into her "wife" mode. There were other more subtle ones that I won't comment on, but they are for those who pay more attention.

In Kinuhata's case, there was also a reference, but I kind of subverted that. In the novels, Kinuhata seems very grateful that Shizuri saved her and gave her a job, and she also didn't seem to be so hesitant about the horrible things she was practically forced to do, there are exceptions of course, but in general, she seemed quite OK with it all. But here, I kind of wanted to make her question that. My logic is that her seeing the changes in Shizuri caused that effect on her. It may have gotten weird, but as you may have realized, I like to make characters question their own actions when they realize that another choice was always there. And I know there are people who are bothered by something like this, but I just like internal conflict, and that's not going to change any time soon.

Back to talking about Touma and Shizuri, yeah, I left that "event" for the last chapter, and on top of that I used the "fade to black" feature. I actually started to write down the details of what happened, for like 2-3k words, but that would have made the chapter even longer so I let it go. I thought for a moment about posting it as a One-shot later or something... but that's another story, and the chances are low, I don't trust my writing skills for such a scene.

I hope you enjoyed the couple's dynamic. Although I put in a little bit of "realism" at times, I completely focused on a "fantasy romance".

Leaving that aside and talking about the story as a whole.

In my end-of-chapter notes, I made it clear that this fanfic was going to focus entirely on the relationship of the two protagonists and that action scenes and even the plot itself were going to be secondary, so people who were expecting something grander, a story with a fast pace and full of conflict, were probably disappointed. If this was your case, well... you had been warned, but I apologize for disappointing you anyway.

From the beginning I already knew where this story was going, however, there were some things that were added or removed in the final version. For example: Remember that maid that is the reason Touma cooks like a god in this universe? She was supposed to appear right after he started dating Shizuri, she was the one who made that bento that the two of them share in the hospital bed. I planned a mini-arc where we would have a "cooking battle" between the two before the fight against Kakine, but the pace of the arc was so slow that I just discarded the idea. I didn't add that much to the story, just little slice-of-life scenes or humor, I usually like to improvise a little when I'm writing this kind of thing, letting my imagination flow and forgetting my notes.

Overall, I am very pleased with how this story turned out. I didn't have much pretension when I started writing this, it was just a project that was born because of my brain's inability to understand that human beings need sleep. On one of my ordinary nights, where I usually roll over in bed for a few hours because insomnia sucks, I decided to try to read something. I reread some chapters of SS Biohacker, and the next day I reread Skill Out Uprising. After that, I read Dark Matter manga for the first time and by now you may have noticed the pattern. For some reason I started to get interested in the dark side of Academy City, something that hadn't really caught my attention in the past. When I reread OT15, instead of continuing my journey, I went looking for some fanfics that dealt with the dark side, which led me to stumble upon one that had Shizuri and Touma getting to know each other before his memory loss. That story was discontinued quite a while ago, a shame. That was the beginning of my descent into the "crack ships" craze, and it was compounded when another author started writing a story with Shizuri and Touma in it with a very interesting premise. Not even 2 months later and "KamiZuri" became my favorite crackship. The next step was to contribute to spreading this craze, and here we are.

This was my first fanfic, and I managed to finish it in less than a year. It was not so easy to stay "consistent", English is not my first language and I keep making stupid mistakes, but I am glad that so many people read it. Seriously, I really appreciate everybody who took the time to read and review this story, and a special thanks to the people who often recommend my fanfic over there in the subreddit when people ask about what story to read. I wonder how many people came from there without exactly liking this pair and ended up becoming a "KamiZuri" shipper. If you were one of those people, let me know, it would make my day. The world needs more "KamiZuri" enthusiasts.

That's it... this time I still have a lot to say, but I would be here forever if I continued. NioMoon is leaving for now, but I will come back when I have new ideas... thank you all very much for reading, it was an honor to have you by my side until the end.