Goodbye Mekakucity

Author’s Note: If you ask me about the ending of Mekakucity Actors, I feel like it should be more developed. I don’t know if Jin-sensei will ever write a continuation to it, but I’d like to say that telling the story of it shouldn’t be ended at where Mekakucity Actors ended. Right now, the Kagerou Project really seems like a tale of a neverending summer, and I have learned good things from it, but the the members of Mekakushi Dan will have to grow up. Mary, especially. After some musing about Mary Kozakura, Mekakucity Actors, and the rest of the Kagerou Project with a fellow fan on Twitter, I decided to write this theory-filled one-shot. If Jin-sensei wrote a continuation to Mekakucity Actors, maybe it wouldn’t be like this, but hey, think about how things are likely to go after the events of Mekakucity Actors, fellow KagePro fans.

Now, this fanfic definitely has major KagePro spoilers. Also, my knowledge of canon isn’t perfect, especially since I haven’t checked out the canon materials thoroughly for a long while. I’d like to know your honest thoughts on this fanfic too.

And one more thing: I don’t recommend this story to anyone below sixteen years old.

“Kousuke…don’t leave me, please. Okay?”

“…”

“Kousuke…? Is there something wrong?”

“Mary…I love you…but if I die one day, please don’t turn back time.”

“You won’t die, Kousuke! You have your Snake!”

“…Mary. These Eyes…I don’t think I really need them anymore. Can I live without them, I wonder…?”

“…”

“I know that this will be hard to take, but I’ve been talking with Bro, you know, Shintarou-“

“I’ll most likely sound like a jerk here, but hey, it’s about time that he did that, if you ask me.”

There was a grave in front of her.

Behind her was a friend.

[Maybe you should call him a traitor, though. Friends don’t leave other friends alone. Friends don’t encourage friends to kill themselves too.]

No, behind her was a traitor.

[Yes, he’s a traitor. You shouldn’t have given him those Eyes if he was going to betray you and leave you. You should punish him right now. Show him what happens to those who go against the Queen.]

A “traitor” who didn’t want his sister with the wrong guy. A “traitor” who kept his lover from being stupid [More like kept her from being heroic]. A “traitor” who carried her back to the base when she couldn’t walk by herself while her lover wasn’t available.

She would give him some mercy. For now.

“Explain yourself.”

But she would let him know how much wrath she wants to unleash towards him.

“You’re an idiot. You’re worse than Ayano back then.”

Within her, there was a feeling similar to cold water slowly being poured on a blazing fire, but she suddenly remembered [the traitorous Zero] being on [the traitor’s side] very clearly, and the fire burned hotter as it evaporated the flowing water.

“Hmph. As expected. Don’t bother her with your Eyes, Ayano. She’d probably lash out if you try again.”

She shot a glare at the cold eyes of her [former friend]…his red Eyes that reminded her of the blood of loved ones-[traitors who dared to leave her].

“I bet you’re calling me a traitor right now,” he continued, [sneering at] her sitting form as he approached. “I can read you like an open book. I thank my friends very much for that too.”

A [traitorous smile] formed on his face. [All her friends had been conspiring with him against her and Kousuke too, so they should be punished already.]

“Since talking to you like this won’t be a great step…”

[Kill them, take away their Snakes, make them beg for your mercy, they’re all sneering at you, they all hate you!]

“…I’ll be doing some things that I learned from a former liar and from a sadist looper.”

Eyes glowing red, he stretched a hand out towards her face.

Before she could do anything, black snakes with red eyes completely darkened her vision.

“Bro! I proposed to Mary! She said yes!”

“…Hmph. Congratulations, I guess.”

“Hey, come on, Bro, why aren’t you happy about it? Shouldn’t this be a cause for celebration of something?”

“I’m glad that you two love each other, Kousuke, but…I’m just concerned.”

“Concerned? About what?”

“Mary’s…maturity.”

“Well, she’s a medusa, I can’t do anything about her-“

“No, not her physical maturity. Her psychological maturity. Her ability when it comes to dealing with events like, say, you dying.”

“Bro, I won’t-“

“She’s probably gonna turn back time again if one of us dies, or even if she herself gets really close to death.”

“Well, what’s wrong with that?”

“‘What’s wrong with that?’ you ask? She’ll be manipulating us again.”

“What? Mary didn’t do anything wrong!”

“…you know, I really wish that you have my Eyes right now. Wait.”

“Huh?”

“Just stand there, Kousuke. Don’t move.”

“Bro, what are you doing?”

“Something that I should have done when I was eighteen years old.”

“W-What? Agh…argh…what is this…?”

“My memories. All perfectly maintained by my Eyes. Eyes that came from Mary.”

“She…she…no…she’s been…she’s why…she’s why…”

“Yes. I hate that damn sadist looper, but it had a point. She had been manipulating us. You think that’s a friendly attitude? She may have wanted friends, yes, but I would be pissed if I knew that she had an active hand in killing some of our loved ones.”

“She can…she can change, Bro! Stop this already!”

“Unfortunately, I think we’re too late. Have you tried reading her mind, Kousuke?”

“What…? No…you know that I don’t want to do that…”

“Read it and understand. It’s still a theory right now, but I think that you’ll find her under the tight control of a certain Snake of hers.”

“-and he told me that…well…you need help.”

“Help? With what?”

“Growing up, basically.”

“But I’m like this! My body doesn’t grow big as fast as humans’ do!”

“No, not like that. I meant…mentally. Psychologically. Wait, are you even listening?”

“Listening to what?”

“Mary, what did I say before I talked about Bro?”

“‘I love you!'”

“And then?”

“…and then what? You didn’t say anything else.”

“…”

“Kousuke, is there something wrong?”

“…he’s right…”

“Kousuke? Kousuke! Where are you going? Wait-“

“Bro…I’m sorry for being an idiot.”

“She’s that far gone now?”

“Seems so, Bro. I’ve thought of something too.”

“What is it?”

“She’ll probably stay the same if I don’t do this, so…please…”

“Kousuke? Wait, you’re giving me your Snake? Are you serious?”

“I hate lying, Bro. I’m sure you remember that perfectly…so yeah…take my Eyes and tell her that she needs to grow up. I…I’ve been cheating death long enough already. We’ve been cheating death for far too long…”

“Kousuke, stop it!”

“…”

“Shit. I shouldn’t be surprised at this outcome. Shitty immaturity of mine…and stop trying to make me like your creator, you dumb Snake…”

“…Kousuke…? Kousuke? Why are you lying on the floor?”

“…”

“Kousuke, why are you cold? Kousuke?”

“…”

“Kousuke! Please! Wake up!”

“…”

A scream tore through the quiet graveyard. Crows scattered through the sky colored by the sunset.

“YOU KILLED HIM, YOU TRAITOR!”

“…”

The lips of [the traitor]were horizontal. His eyes were narrow, unsurprised, and, maybe even bored.

“Sadist looper was right,” he said with his head tilted to the side. “You are the queen of this tragedy.”

“I AM THE QUEEN, AND ALL WHO GO AGAINST ME WILL BE PUNISHED!”

“And I’m the [villain.]” He paused and looked up for few seconds. “Wait, no, I’m not the only [villain…]” He looked over each of his shoulders, looked to his left, looked to his right, and then directed his gaze back at her. “They’re [villains] too. But maybe we shouldn’t be talking about what we call ourselves right now, ’cause you’re probably calling us [villains] or something right now.”

[Enemies] showed themselves, going through the gates, passing through the gaps between gravestones. One by one, and with [sneers], they loudly spoke.

“You’re a dumb queen,” said [an enemy.]

“I don’t want to stay lonely and alone on that bed again,” said [an enemy.]

“I don’t want to go see that…that Hell again…” said [an enemy.]

“I’m glad for the better body,” said [an enemy], “but I don’t want it if getting it means fucking ruining somebody else’s life.”

“I don’t hate you, Mary…but I don’t like what you did to me and Dad…and so many other people…” said [an enemy.]

“I won’t even bother hiding how much I hate you right now, Mary,” said [an enemy]

“Mary…this has to stop,” said [an enemy.]

“Please, Mary. You’re just hurting yourself more than helping,” said [an enemy.]

[Traitors, all of them. All of them are enemies.]

“Die. You are not my friends.”

Black splatters exploded from the bodies of [the traitors]. Snakes under her command returned to her, while the corpses all stayed still and silent on the ground.

[I knew that this would happen…but I’m sure that this plan…it will work…I hope…]

Strangely, those words burned deep into her mind as she tried to spin the gears of time backward again.

[No matter. We will be out of this nightmare soon enough.]

“Hm? I’m alive? I’m not stuck in that girl’s body anymore?”

The first voice that Mary heard after her outburst was deep and familiar. So familiar that it was like she had heard it yesterday.

Suddenly, she found herself surprised at the clarity of the memory of her latest fit of rage.

Then, dread filled her, not just from the presence of the familiar voice, but also as she realized what she had done.

Mary Kozakura, after several years, several loops, had finally realized that she had hurt her loved ones. Her precious family, her precious friends, even her lover who promised to stay by her side and help her be truly happy until the day he dies. All of them. She had hurt them. Put other loved ones of theirs in torture while she tried to keep her fellow Mekakushi Dan members to herself.

Mary gritted her teeth as her tears spilled out.

At some point after she and her friends had defeated the Snake that she had once conspired with, she had admitted that death was a thing that she and everyone else couldn’t avoid. She had promised to face the future, and she was assured that she could do that with the help of her friends.

Thing is, she had forgotten about certain abilities of the Snakes of the Medusa.

She wasn’t perfect, she still isn’t perfect, and she knew that. Back then, as the high she experienced thanks to saving her precious friends from the Wide-Awake Snake faded, she was gradually reminded of the harsh parts of reality. Crystal clear in her mind was her mother’s death (and that was the only death she clearly remembered before she took back the Snake of Recording Eyes), and after a bunch of days, she became worried about suddenly losing her friends.

At that point, she began hearing the voice of a Snake, the one that her grandmother gave her.

It was not the Wide-Awake Snake, for it was suppressed by a wish from the Snake of Awakening Eyes, the one who took the form of Konoha. It was the Queen Snake, the Snake that controlled all the Snakes that formed Azami’s Heat-Haze Daze, the Snake that she had called upon when the Wide-Awake Snake threatened to kill her friends again.

It seemed like a friend at first. It affirmed her and tried to justify her hurtful actions. Mary, who had a fragile mind back then, easily fell for its temptations.

She also had times when her body was totally controlled by that Snake, and she found them easy to remember thanks to Shintarou’s Eyes.

Not like she enjoyed watching all the horrible memories, though. She didn’t enjoy watching her possessed self doing things like covertly murdering Momo’s more aggressive fans, violently beating up a Kano who was striving to be a more honest guy, and loudly threatening a Shintarou who gave her silent and vaguely suspicious looks.

And now, the Queen Snake prattled on to Mary, buzzing like an annoying fly close to her ear, so the time-traveling quarter-medusa decided to know more about her current surroundings.

“Oh. Is this Hell?”

The monotone voice that came out of her frowning mouth, combined with the round but mostly dead-fish-like eyes on her younger face, made her look and sound like Shintarou had become some sort of split personality within her.

Speaking of split personalities, Mary was also having a hard time distinguishing her own self from Shintarou’s self. The Snake of Recording Eyes seemed to be too effective in remembering everything.

So, to keep herself in order, Mary decided to treat Shintarou’s memories as a personal assistant inside her mind. Hm, perhaps she should just call him Shintarou, since he does have his whole mind recorded in full detail, right? Wait…he’s…

[Mary, get that damn Queen Snake out already. It’s annoying. And huh, I’m alive. I guess. Or we’re dead and we’re in Hell right now.]

The friend she once called [traitor] [Damn it, shut that stupid thing up!] still haunted her, acting independently from her own mind. The thought made her let out a weak giggle. She was relieved, though, for she knew that he had grown and is still growing into a very nice and loyal person, even though he has his moments of rude language and aloof behavior.

Shintarou’s presence moved her to take the Queen Snake out of her. She closed her eyes, dove deep into her mind, and took that one noisy Snake fighting the other Snake out of her chest.

Opening her eyes, she met a scenery covered with lots of red, black, and snakes. Among what stood out in the Hellish ruins was a snake wrapped around a floating rock. And then there were the ones tied to pillars of snakes beside her: a short woman she mostly knew through her mother’s stories, and the mother who had told those stories.

Mary smiled when her gaze met an unconscious Shion and a surprised Azami. The full-blooded medusa’s eyes widened more when she locked eyes with her granddaughter.

“Grandmother,” the granddaughter said with a weak smile. “Thank you, but please, take this back. I do not need it. Let Mother and I move on already.”

With a hand that surprisingly managed to free itself of the snake pillar’s restraints, Mary pulled her arm back and threw the Queen Snake back to her grandmother.

Then, Mary took a look at her mother. More tears spilled out of her eyes as she started whispering.

“I’m sorry for being so selfish, Mother…I’m sorry…I’m so sorry…”

She closed her eyes, but then, she realized that she wasn’t losing consciousness yet, that she had not stopped cheating death already.

She calls to the friend within the Snake she had created.

“Shintarou, please. Don’t keep my memories. Go accompany my grandmother.”

[I think it would be better if you came with me, Mary.]

“Huh? Why?”

[After all, my power allows the user to remember everything clearly, and finding solutions is better with different perspectives recorded in full detail. Compared to a typical bunch of historians and scientists in a university, we’re so many leagues better. Recording Eyes is very effective, if not perfect.]

Mary’s eyes widened as she thought about what he meant, and after seconds of thought, a giggle leaked out of her, which then turned into a teary laugh. When she stopped laughing, she’s still smiling, while tears of joy came out of her eyes.

“You are such a genius, Shintarou.”

[Heh. Thanks. So, shall we go?]

“Alright. Let’s go!”

Even if she had a very dark past, and even though the future still wouldn’t stop trying to make her suffer, the future didn’t seem very scary to Mary now.

Azami became wide-eyed again after she destroyed the Wide-Awake Snake and the Heat-Haze Daze, the Hell that she inflicted on herself and her family, and returned to Planet Earth. She just stood still, looking like a well-painted and very detailed statue near two corpses and a stone statue of a masked human in some gap in the forest. She wouldn’t notice what was going on around her unless somebody shook her out of her daze.

[You know, Loli Grandma, you should just look at us like the two of us here are ghosts. That way, you can focus on your body’s surroundings and protect it better.]

[Shintarou! Please don’t talk to Grandmother like that…]

In her mind were two more minds: her granddaughter’s and her granddaughter’s friend’s, and they were living on thanks to a Snake made by her granddaughter and once wielded by the friend.

And speaking of the Snake where the two minds resided, it was giving her a headache. Literally. She may be a (kind of) legendary, snake-themed, power-making creature from wherever in Earth, but she had limits.

So, first course of action, twist the figurative faucet shut, but don’t shut out the two people in her mind. She only needed to talk to them for now.

“You two, show yourselves in the physical world,” she told them before closing her eyes and taking a deep breath.

When she opened her eyes, she saw their transparent forms floating in front of her. Mary, her granddaughter who looked like a mini Shion, was in a blue dress under a white apron. Shintarou, her granddaughter’s black-haired friend who looked like a young man with an old man’s face, wore a red jersey over a black shirt and brown pants.

“Hello!” Mary greeted with a wave and a smile. Azami would have smiled back if the corpses around her didn’t draw her attention.

Looking at at two of her kin’s corpses made Azami’s blood boil, although it simmered somewhat when she saw the stone human in front of them.

“I think we should bury your corpse and your mother’s corpse first, Mary,” Shintarou said with a monotone voice, before tilting his head and looking at Azami. “Hey, Loli Grandma, this is gonna sound rude, but you’re gonna have to do the cleanup. We’ll be your moral support.”

With eyes that looked like the eyes of a dead fish, Shintarou popped an imaginary party popper. “Yay. You can do it.”

Mary, on the other hand, started sweating profusely (it’s hard to tell whether she’s looking paler than usual or not) as her grandmother felt a vein throb in one side of her head. “Shintarou! Corpses, dead people, and dead loved ones aren’t things to be taken lightly!” Mary shrieked.

Shintarou moved his eyes to Mary’s, and his eyes narrowed a little, lessening their dead-fishness. He sighed and scratched his head. “Sorry. Got impatient. I just don’t like wasting time and stuff. And I think we’ve been taking stuff too seriously lately. We need to lighten up more, you know.”

“Watch your tongue, then, boy,” Azami growled as she approached her kin’s corpses. “A joke is meant to relieve people, not hurt people further.”

“Alright.”

At this point, Azami began an attempt at carrying Mary’s body. Somewhat heavy for Azami’s small frame, but manageable.

The whole burial then became more of a challenge when she started burying Mary’s body, and even more when she had to carry and then bury Shion’s body. A solemn expression with slow streams of tears were on Azami’s face during the whole thing, and the two other minds within her remained silent unless Azami allowed them to.

The long and slow process had Azami thinking about the daughter she had abandoned, and the granddaughter she had talked with for the first time.

An awkward silence hung around them at first. It became more emphasized when she remembered the presence of her granddaughter’s mind while feeling the coldness of said granddaughter’s younger body.

“How was Shion?” Azami quietly asked after getting a shovel from her house, unable to stand the silence of the house and the silence between her and her internal companions. “Was she a good mother?”

[Huh? Ah! Yes, she was! She was kind, she was good at cooking, she carried me a lot on her back while we walked just outside our house, she read me a lot of fun stories…]

Azami couldn’t help but feel nostalgic as she shoveled while listening to her granddaughter gush about Shion. Shion had cared for Mary as much as Azami cared for Shion…though Azami felt like her own daughter did a way better job when it came to being a mother. That clear memory of Shion screaming and crying as Azami left for the Heat-Haze Daze, her self-inflicted Hell, painfully reminded her of her failures toward her family.

[…Mother never really wanted me to go far away from our house, though…I…I was so stupid and selfish…It’s all my fault that she died…]

“It is my fault too, Mary,” Azami interrupted. “I was a coward, and I left Shion and Tsukihiko alone.” She took Mary’s body, and put it in the grave that she dug up. “I am glad that she found a man who genuinely loved her too.” She put back the dirt that she shoveled out. “And I also feel relieved and annoyed at her wish to keep you from going out and making eye contact, but she did her job better than I did.”

Azami forcefully drove the shovel’s tip into the soil beside Mary’s grave. Then, she started stomping back to get her grown-up daughter’s corpse. Tears were streaming out of her eyes as she started to rant.

“Why did I even bother staying there? It was not worth it at all. I thought that my family and I would live better that way, and then I find out that they got killed, while my own granddaughter became as foolish as I was!”

The animals of the forest scattered, clearing a path for the little woman with snakes hissing loudly on her head.

“I will not bring them back to life with my Snakes,” Azami declared before heaving and struggling to take her daughter’s corpse into her own arms. “The Snakes have…brought me…enough suffering…and…Shion…and Tsukihiko…they do not…they do not deserve me…at all…they do not…deserve to…keep living…in this…Hell…that I made!”

The full-blooded medusa roared as she tried to run to the gravesite. The hissing of her snakes became louder, and Azami’s eyes glowed redder.

She didn’t know how much time passed, but she managed to carry Shion’s body to where the graves were. Azami took the shovel and dug again.

“Reviving them is like insulting them! I have to move on and…and forget…forget about them…”

She fell to her knees, sobbing while reaching out to embrace her daughter’s cold body.

The crying went on for a while, and when she quieted down, Shintarou spoke.

[They were waiting for you, Miss Azami.]

“…what?”

[I can see it in Mary’s memories. Even though Miss Shion resented you for abandoning her and Mister Tsukihiko, Mary knew that Miss Shion and Mister Tsukihiko hoped a lot for your return. If you ask me, I think you seem like you want them alive again, so I’d like to suggest reviving them and starting a better life with them. ‘Sides, you seem pretty lonely, and I don’t think only having us as your companions would be helpful for your sanity.]

“…”

Azami just stared silently at that, wide-eyed. On one hand, reviving them felt like sticking herself in a delusion and rubbing salt into their wounds. On the other hand, it wasn’t like the world and her family couldn’t be better.

The full-blooded medusa shook her head and rubbed her eyes with a small smile. “Indeed, I was stuck with despair and wrapped up by negativity. I have been a fool again…My Snakes…Yes, my Snakes…”

Azami was curious about how they knew of the Snakes’ powers, but she decided to look into that later. Right now, there was a golden opportunity that she had to grab as soon as possible.

[So…you’ll revive them?]

[You’ll revive me, Grandmother?]

Azami stood up, tears still in her now brighter eyes.

“If we promise that we’ll help our family and other people live better lives until the day I die, and that we’ll not do things like making a Heat-Haze Daze, resetting time, or even hurting other people, would you like to live again, Mary?”

[…]

[…]

There was silence, but Azami could feel Shintarou smiling and Mary pondering.

[…one more chance, then.] Mary said with seriousness. [I shall keep that promise. No making of Heat-Haze Dazes, no resetting time, no hurting other people. We shall try to live better lives for ourselves and for everyone else until the day you die!]

Azami closed her eyes as her smile widened. “Then it seems like I shall need to get some corpses out of their graves.”

[And then we shall start the zombie apocalypse. Muhahaha.]

“Shut up, boy,” a still smiling Azami told a smiling Shintarou. “And thank you. For showing me hope.”

[No problem, Miss Azami. No problem.]

[Come on, Grandmother, let’s go! I can’t wait!]

“Haha! Be patient, granddaughter. Be patient.”

A splash of water hit her face.

Shion sat up and coughed immediately. “Did that world of burning heat and snakes have water?”

“Welcome back, Mother!” said a very familiar voice after she stopped coughing.

“…Mary?”

Shion rubbed her eyes while trying to face where her daughter’s voice came from.

When Shion could see better, she found herself in disbelief. After all, wasn’t she dead and trapped, with Mary and Mary’s grandmother, in the Heat-Haze Daze?

And was that her long-lost mother standing beside her precious little Mary? Why were the both of them smiling? Why were they…outside their house? And where is her mother throwing water at…?

Another person began to cough, and when Shion turned to where the coughing was, she felt even more disbelief.

“Father?”

Tsukihiko was there, coughing and still pale-skinned, but not looking like his body decayed while it was buried.

“It’s a miracle that your father’s body didn’t decay,” Shion heard her mother say with surprising glee. “I didn’t expect him to be that intact!”

“I was…haunting the house…the whole time…my dear…” Tsukihiko replied as he took deep breaths. “…did you really think that I wanted to stop waiting for you?”

“Eh? Then why didn’t you show yourself to our daughter and granddaughter, or even our son-in-law, you fool?”

“Well, um, ah…I…I didn’t want to scare them…”

“Still as stupid as when I first met you, huh…?”

“Yes, yes, I’m sorry, my dear Azami…I’m sorry…”

“Well, that’s great, especially since I’ve revived you two and decided to say sorry as well!”

After Shion alternated her gaze a bunch of times while her parents talked, she saw her smiling mother drop herself to the ground back-first.

“Finally…that took a lot out of me…but it feels relieving too. Let me sleep here for a bit…”

“Hey, don’t you dare leave me again, my dear!”

“Wha-Hey! Haha-stop tickling me!”

Shion blinked. And stared. And blinked again. “What is going on…?”

And then she felt someone pinching and pulling her cheek.

“This isn’t a dream, Mother.”

It was Mary, who was smiling at her too. No sign of a smashed head at all. Mary didn’t look like she got wounded…but…

…Mary’s eyes…they had shadows under them, and they looked heavier than an innocent child’s eyes…

Seeing those eyes, feeling her daughter hug her close and tight, feeling tears streaming down a shoulder, feeling warmth that she thought she’d never feel again…

If this were a dream, she honestly wished that this would last forever.

Yes, Shion understood her mother’s intentions behind creating the Heat-Haze Daze. Deep down, though, she knew that she would die someday. Her father would die someday. Her daughter would die someday. Even her long-living mother would die someday. Her life had taught her that.

“If death and chaos await in both good and bad paths,” Shion thought as she smiled and cried, “then perhaps I should aim for the good path, live life to the fullest, and die happily…Yes, that’s definitely better…”

“I’m sorry, Mother.”

“Huh?”

“I…I was so selfish…I got you hurt…I got both of us hurt…”

Shion combed her fingers through her daughter’s hair. “It’s okay, Mary…We’re better now…We have another chance. Let’s not be selfish again, okay?”

“Mhm,” Mary mumbled with a nod. “I love you, Mother…and I missed you so much…I missed you so much…”

The way her daughter said that made Shion very concerned. Perhaps the Heat-Haze Daze was crueler than she thought, and perhaps it was crueler to Mary. Her daughter was a child, after all. No one, let alone a child, deserves to be in that place.

(This Shion didn’t know about the other Heat-Haze Daze that the Mary in her arms had trapped herself in, though. But right now, that’s another story for another day.)

“It’s alright, Mary…I’m here…I’m here…”

They stayed like that for a while, and after some time, Shion felt her parents join the embrace from behind her. She breathed out a sigh, still smiling and shedding some tears.

“I missed you two so much as well…”

“Yes, Shion…and I apologize as well,” said her mother. “I apologize for abandanoning you and your father.”

“And I am sorry for leaving you and not helping you as well, Shion,” her father added.

“Don’t worry…we can get better…it’s okay…it’s okay…”

There were tears, there were smiles, and there was sleeping.

If a person were to stumble upon this scene, the chances of them not bothering this reunited family would be very high.

Years passed.

A certain house deep within a certain forest in Japan did not spend a single year without repair and cleanup.

More often than not, though, was the absence of the family that owned it.

There have been people who have stumbled upon it too.

Some arrived there because they were lost while exploring new places or were so scared while doing tests of courage. After a few minutes of suspicion, they found the surroundings around the house relieving. They never bothered to go near the house, though, for they felt a somewhat disturbing aura whenever they tried to approach it.

And some arrived there while searching for highly valuable material things. Possessed by greed, they would try to break into the mysterious house, only to be driven away by strange black snakes with red eyes. A few of them, still possessed by greed, returned after some time and tried to kill the snakes. When it seemed like they finally broke through the defenses, they were stopped and driven away by the owners, who had just returned from another journey around the world.

The strange family, whose heads bore the “Hanazono” family name, became more well-known after that incident. They didn’t bother to hide the fact that the women in the family were medusae. The medusae, creatures named after one of the three Gorgons in Greek mythology because they were known for being women with snakes as hair and the power to turn people into stone with a gaze. Unfortunately, they were feared by many humans. Tsukihiko Hanazono, despite being a very calm and kind human, well, few bothered to listen to him. To the very foolish ones, though, it was a surprise when Azami Hanazono made it clear, after several failed assassination attempts on her and her family, that she and her family wanted to get along with other humans, and that she had a hard time trying to talk to them because of their delusional and impulsive attitudes. Asking them about whether she even did what the outrageous rumor spreaders thought she did, she managed to get the truth into their heads: She and her family did not want any harm to anyone.

The attempts on them lessened, and even if some of the foolish ones were still stubborn, the medusae did not turn them to stone. They never turned any attackers to stone. There were fools who were knocked away by Azami’s supernatural strength, and some were paralyzed by Mary Kozakura’s gaze, but none of them were killed at all. The lack of homicide gradually made their intentions clearer. Oh, and the family’s frequent invitations to snack time with the attackers after every attempt also quickened the clarification.

The Hanazono family eventually became a welcome presence all over the world. Unlike most celebrities, though, hordes of fans did not hound them everyday. The strange family wasn’t perfect, but they had the power to be great, and they weren’t above or below humans at all. Those were things that they had made clear to the people they interacted with everyday.

The world was still wrapped in chaos, wars, violence, crimes, despair, and hate, but the Hanazono family reminded humanity of the existence of peace, friendship, kindness, healing, hope, and love everyday, for several years.

Ah, and the Hanazono family definitely won’t be dying out soon.

Tsubomi Kido wished that nobody noticed her.

Nobody loved her, anyway, except for herself and one of her older sisters. But that sister of hers was so busy lately, so maybe nobody cared about her at all. And if somebody did notice her or if she tried to get herself noticed, she would just get insults or ignorance. So, she preferred a life where she would be invisible and could do whatever she wanted.

After all, nobody but herself would notice if she did anything, right? And if someone did notice, nobody would ever treat her nicely, right?

“Hello there!”

It sounded like a man’s voice, and Tsubomi suddenly remembered her older sister’s warning about strangers, especially older men. She curled up into a ball in her hiding spot under the playground’s slide, hoping that she would become invisible already.

She did not want their poisonous sweets, hypnotic bracelets, and…those, that’s for sure.

Speaking of hypnotic bracelets, why did she even watch that gruesome anime, anyway?

Oh, yes, she wanted to prove to her sister that she was an adult already. She did survive all the episodes, but she ended up a sobbing wreck afterwards.

Indeed, the world can be very cruel.

She still hasn’t told her sister about that, though. Her older sister was really nice, but really scary when angry. And Tsubomi knew that she did something that would anger her sister very much.

“Shouldn’t you be with a responsible adult?”

“HYAH!”

“Ow!”

Tsubomi rolled away after throwing a fist at the face that appeared right beside her hiding spot.

She had to run and hide! Not back home, since nobody cares about her! But if she tries to run somewhere out of the park, the bad man would catch her easily, so where? Where can she hide?

Aha!

Tsubomi dived into the bushes!

Was she successful?

“Boo!”

“GYAH!”

“Ow!”

Nope.

“Please don’t hurt me…”

After jumping out of the bushes, Tsubomi had found herself having scratches on her legs, arms, and face. That wasn’t as worse as the what the man in front of her would do, though, so she closed her eyes, hoping that not seeing anything would reduce the pain.

“Oh my. Hm, good thing I have a first aid kit here right now…”

He’d probably…probably…clean her wounds…and…put bandages on them? Wait, what?

Tsubomi opened her eyes.

In front of her, squatting to her eye level, was a man with very pale skin and mostly white clothes. He had white hair styled in a way that exposed a very big forehead, and his eyes were…closed? But it seemed like he could see, though, so maybe his eyes were very narrow normally…or maybe he was one of those awesome blind people. She hoped that he was awesome, at least.

But hey, wasn’t he supposed to do something bad?

“Why are you…helping me?” Tsubomi decided to ask.

The man looked up at her with a raised eyebrow. “Hm? Why shouldn’t I try helping a person who looks sad and hurt? Are you not sad and hurt?”

Tsubomi began to blush and look down in embarrassment. “Um…well…I’m feeling pretty sad and hurt right now…but!” She made her voice louder. “But my older sister told me that I shouldn’t be talking alone with strangers, especially older men!”

“Hmmm…I see…” The pale man nodded as he listened to what she said. “I think your sister really cares a lot for you, then!” he added with a smile.

Tsubomi felt herself lighten. “Yes, she does!” And then she remembered something that made her feel heavier again. “…but she doesn’t spend a lot of time with me lately…and nobody else at home likes me…”

“Oh? Then why don’t your other family members like you?”

“Well…they say it’s because I’m a…uh…” Tsubomi scrunched her face as she tried to remember the words. “…an ‘illegitimate child’? ‘Illegitimate.’ Yeah, that’s what they call me, especially that mean old lady who calls herself the ‘legal wife’ or something!”

“Oh.”

The man’s face now reminded Tsubomi of her older sister’s face. Specifically, the face she made whenever she caught someone doing something bad. The green-haired girl hoped that she didn’t do anything wrong.

“How long has this been happening?” the man continued.

“A long time…”

“Have you tried talking to your father?”

“He…he doesn’t care about me. Says that he’s too busy to deal with me. Says that I would give him a lot of trouble too. He’s always working on boring papers and talking with boring people.”

Tsubomi felt even heavier now. She really didn’t like her father. And except for her sister, she really didn’t like the rest of the people that she lived with in her big house.

“Hmm. That’s really bad,” the man suddenly said. “I’d like to invite you to my family’s home, but right now, I think I should patch you up and take you back to your sister. I’d like to talk to her. Is that okay?”

The green-haired girl felt some hope well up within her. This was an opportunity that she shouldn’t be letting go of!

“Yes!” she said with a vigorous nod.

“Alright!” the man exclaimed with a bright smile. “But now, we should clean your wounds and bandage them. Please tell me if it hurts, okay?”

“Okay!”

That day became one of the happiest days in Tsubomi Kido’s life.

She’d never forget that day, the day that led her to becoming Tsubomi Kozakura…

Kousuke Seto had lost his parents.

That afternoon, after playing with some fellow kids, he stepped into his house. He found himself all alone when he entered, and the time was the time when his parents should be home already. They always got home in time during the afternoon for some bonding time with him, so he pondered about why they weren’t home on time yet.

Then, the phone rang.

He picked it up, and he heard an adult talking to him. He noticed the speaker sound more gentle when he revealed that he was a child. That just added up to the dread that was building up inside Kousuke, though.

And yes, his dread was well-founded.

His parents had died.

Kousuke didn’t bother listening to more of the details. He just listened when he was told about the hospital where his parents were. After that, he ran out of the house, through the rain, and into the hospital.

The truth kept on being confirmed when the nurses held him back from seeing his parents’ bodies, and then calmly explained their deaths to him.

Kousuke, of course, cried.

And as he was still in denial, the boy ran away from the nurses, ran out of the hospital, and ran towards wherever his legs would take him. Wherever, except for his house and any hospital.

He stopped running when he saw a shivering puppy being soaked by the rain.

Kousuke immediately took the puppy and ran to somewhere where they wouldn’t be soaked by the rain.

He decided to stay under a bridge. The puppy shook most its water off its fur, and Kousuke leaned on a wall while the fluffy animal curled up to have some comfy sleep.

After some time, the boy smiled as he felt himself be taken by drowsiness…

“Hey! How about we go for that kid!”

…but he was awoken when he heard someone say that.

That shout didn’t seem like a good sign to him.

Neither were the wooden planks and baseball bats in the hands of those boys.

And those sneers on those boys’ faces definitely weren’t good signs at all.

Their eyes were looking at him too, and they were getting closer to where he was.

Right, time to run, then. Take the puppy and run, Kousuke!

“MOKOMOKO!”

Wait, something came down from above!

“What the-”

“GIANT HAIRBALL!”

“IT’S FOLLOWING US!”

“DON’T EAT ME!”

The high and cracking screams of those boys echoed through the rain.

Meanwhile, a wide-eyed Kousuke, who was with a still sleepy puppy, just witnessed a big ball of white hair roll around on the wet and grassy ground while driving the bullies away.

If he was being rescued, then he would be thankful, but the giant hairball was unsettling.

And was that a hole with an eye peeking out?

Wait, it was approaching…

“AH!”

Kousuke fell on his back, thinking that he would be run over by the giant hairball.

But it seemed like nothing bad happened, so he opened his eyes.

In front of him was a girl that looked pretty young but somewhat older than him. She was smiling at him, standing straight and with her chest puffed out, like one of those superheroes that he saw a lot on TV.

Kousuke felt his cheeks warm up. She looked weird, but not in a bad way. And pretty, too. Especially with that smile on her face.

And why was she grinning? Something’s wei-wait, no, she wasn’t grinning. She was just smiling. Maybe the grinning was just his imagination. Maybe.

Wait! What was her name?

“Umm…w-what’s your n-name, Miss?” Hold on, shouldn’t you be thanking her first? “Ah! I’m sorry, I forgot to say ‘thank you’!”

Kousuke adjusted himself into kowtowing.

“Thank you so much for saving me and this puppy!” he shouted while he looked at the ground.

He heard a giggle, and then steps approaching him. She held his shoulders and raised his upper body, putting him at eye level with her.

Those round, pink eyes looked really pretty…

Ah, and that smile…that smile made her more pretty…

“Mary. I’m Mary Kozakura.”

She sure had a soothing voice too…and that giggle!

Wait, that giggle…

“Do I see someone having a crush on me?”

Kousuke spluttered gibberish. His face was burning red too. He rolled away and curled up into a ball, covering his head with the hood of his white jacket.

“I’m flattered,” he heard her say as she approached him again, “but I think you should wait for some more years. You’re still pretty young, you know.”

Kousuke raised his head to meet Mary’s eyes again. He saw her childish face again, but he felt like she was older than she looked. He felt that when he saw the faint shadows under her eyes and listened to her response to his crush on her.

“Umm…how old are you, Miss Mary?”

The boy covered his mouth quickly, though, for he suddenly remembered one time when a woman got angry at him when he asked about how old she was. Women’s actual ages were usually kept secret, right?

“Way older than you, Ko-I mean, boy! More than a hundred years old!”

Did she just call him by his first name? Maybe it was his imagination again…wait…

“More than a hundred years old!? But you look really young! I think you should be called a ‘big sister’ instead of an ‘old lady,’ Miss Mary!”

Mary seemed to be in pain after he said that, considering how she took a step back and put a hand up in front of her mouth.

“Are you okay, Miss Mary?” Kousuke couldn’t help asking.

“I’m…I’m okay…” She put her hand down, revealing a strangely wide smile and cheeks that seemed to be pink. Or maybe she wasn’t blushing? It’s kinda hard to see, considering the time of day, the weather, and Kousuke’s location. “…very…very okay…”

And now, Kousuke, suddenly recalling a very recent and very tragic loss, became even more worried.

Fresh blood leaking out of a person’s body wasn’t a good sign, after all.

“Miss Mary, if you need to go to the hospital, please, go with me, I’ll take you there, I’ll take you there!”

He ran to her and hugged her tight, spouting out his offers of help, as she was such a great person. Little Kousuke didn’t want to lose another great person in his life.

And then he felt something wet touching his nose. And it wasn’t water. In fact, it had a kinda familiar smell…

“Miss Mary, please don’t die! Please don’t die, please don’t die…”

Kousuke started crying. He dragged themselves down to their knees as he broke into tears and snot. He cried and cried and cried, while Mary gently ruffled his hair…

…and after what seemed to be a long while, he opened his eyes.

Mary wasn’t in front of him anymore. And he was in someone’s room.

“Good morning, Kousuke!”

That wasn’t Mary’s voice.

Kousuke looked behind him. He rolled over, and he saw an unfamiliar face looking at him from above.

She had brown hair tied up into a ponytail, brown eyes, and two red hair clips on one side of her hair.

“Where’s Miss Mary?”

Kousuke hadn’t even said goodbye to her. Or even another thank you. Mary did bring him to some very kind parents, so he had to meet her again and thank her.

And even though it would be a long while before she came back to Japan with her family, it’s a good thing that Miss Ayaka knew where Miss Mary lived and when she’ll come back.

For now, he would enjoy his new life with his new family. He felt like it would be easy to do so too, as his new mom, dad, and older sister were all awesome!

Shuuya Kano loved his mother very much.

Even though she shouted at him and hit him a lot, he loved her. He wanted to make her smile. So, he would shut up and follow her commands, even if they hurt him.

“You useless kid! I had a bad day at work already, I hadn’t eaten lunch, you forgot to buy groceries, and then you’re ruining my day by stumbling around!”

Of course, the insults and hitting still hurt. He didn’t want to be useless to his mother, see.

But he couldn’t complain. One complaint against her assaults would lead to a more painful beatng. So he would just shut up, stand up, and walk fast, even if his whole body was in pain.

He had to, so that he could make his mother happy.

He had to.

He had-

“How dare you.”

Shuuya found himself turning around to look behind him. Along with the pain, that caused him to lose his balance and fall on his rear.

Still, he ended up seeing the one who growled.

And for some reason, he couldn’t take his eyes off the short and glaring woman (Her voice sounded really mature to Shuuya) standng in front of him.

She had long and thick black hair, wore black and red clothes, had pale skin (Were those scales on her cheeks?), and had glowing red eyes.

The strange woman’s eyes weren’t looking at Shuuya. She seemed to be looking at…

“What’s your problem, kid?” Shuuya’s mother shouted. “I’m having a bad day right now! Unless you wanna get dragged back to your stupid parents’ house, stay at the playground or something!”

The strange woman’s response was a hard, silent glare…and the rising and hissing of her hair.

Snake hair.

With little red eyes.

“Have you ever heard of the medusae before, brat?”

Shuuya thought that the snake woman was referring to him, but he then noticed that she was still looking at his mother. He also found himself able to look around more freely when he tried to turn around to look at his mother.

Speaking of Shuuya’s mother, her knees were clearly shaking. Despite that, she still shouted back angrily.

“W-What, gonna turn me to stone? You can go trick us all you want, but I’ll call the police on you, and they’re gonna arrest you!”

Shuuya heard the snake woman sigh loudly in annoyance. His gaze became stuck to the snake woman again too.

“Can you not see that your son is in pain, brat?” Snake Woman asked. “And then you are throwing insults at him like that? Hm, and the insults do not seem to be limited to the verbal sort as well…”

Snake Woman seemed scary at first, but when he heard her tell his mother off, he felt like a huge weight was taken out of his stomach. He also noticed himself letting out a big exhale.

“That’s because he’s being useless!” Shuuya’s mother replied. Shuuya winced when he heard ‘useless.’

“And you think that making him even more useless with your insults and beatings will make him more useful, then?” Snake Woman replied with a tilt of her head. “As you can see, if you are not blind at all, your son is having great difficulty with standing and walking. You are not the only one who is having a bad day today, brat.”

“Keh…”

Shuuya’s mother started grumbling curses. The boy in a black jacket and black shorts became scared of his mother again. He felt like he should run to the supermarket already and buy groceries to stop his mother from saying those hurtful words, but he couldn’t take his gaze away from Snake Woman, who had sat down, looking at him.

Snake Woman started smiling, while her snake hair stopped floating.

She may have looked intimidating with her glare and her snakes, but now, Snake Woman had a smile that his mother rarely showed.

Shuuya wished that his mother would smile like that, but still, he smiled back at Snake Woman.

“How are you feeling, boy?” Snake Woman asked gently.

The boy trembled and looked down, having a hard time with thinking of what to say in reply. He was really worried about what his mother would say if he said the truth while she was near him, but he pushed that away when he remembered how much pain his body was currently feeling.

“N-Not…not good…” Shuuya said, still looking at the ground.

“Hey, what do you think you’re doing, talking to my son!?”

Shuuya winced and started trembling again.

Silence followed for some reason.

“Please don’t turn my mother to stone,” he told the snake woman. He didn’t want to kill his mother. He still wanted to make his mother smile too. And because of fear of angering Snake Woman, Shuuya kept his gaze focused on the ground.

“Do not worry, boy. She will not be turned to stone.”

Without looking at Snake Woman, Shuuya turned around to look at his mother.

To his relief, his mother wasn’t turned to stone. She was just looking away from them, frowning silently.

“Do you love your mother, boy?” Shuuya heard the snake woman ask.

He turned his head back to answer the question with several nods and a smile.

Snake Woman smiled. “That is nice.” And then she straightened her lips, making her look more serious. “But you need to be cared for properly as well. Your mother should not be insulting you or hitting you. You will get hurt that way. After all, if you get hurt, you…” She then looked at the person behind him with a wider smile. “…would have a harder time with making her happy, especially if she keeps on hurting you again and again.” And she returned her gaze to Shuuya. “Right, boy?”

Shuuya understood easily, for he was a surprisingly deep thinker under the fake smiles that he tried to wear everyday for his mother. He got into the habit of thinking deep during the times when his mother hurt him. He wondered about what was right, what was wrong, why his mother hurt him so, why he should follow the bad commands that his mother says, and so much more.

“Yes. I find it harder to make Mother happy whenever she hurts me.”

Now, Shuuya felt like his chest was about to burst because of all the feelings he had buried inside him. Tears were threatening to break out of his eyes too.

He had to tell his mother now.

So he stood up, turned around, and…

…silently glared…at his mother…while tears came out of his eyes.

He honestly felt like he couldn’t say his thoughts to his mother’s face. Shuuya was scared of what his mother would say. Even if Snake Woman was there to stop her from hitting him, Shuuya was still scared of her frowning, her shouting, and her insults.

But still, he felt the need to let his mother know about how much pain he was feeling in his body and in his heart.

So he settled for kicking his mother’s shins.

He ended up losing balance and falling on his rear again, but his chest felt lighter after that. The crying was helping too.

Shuuya kept on crying, then.

His mother didn’t hit her this time. She didn’t insult him, and she didn’t shout at him too.

And after what felt like a long time of living in fear, he went through sleep where he wasn’t fearing the wrath that would strike him when he woke up.

And when he woke up, his mother really didn’t hit him, didn’t shout at him, didn’t insult him.

Even though there were shadows under her eyes and quieter but still worrying grumbles from her mouth, she had prepared a delicious breakfast for him. She even skipped a day of work for him!

They didn’t talk much during that day, though, but for Shuuya, the silence was relieving. He sat on her lap while they watched TV, they took a nap while sitting beside each other on the sofa, and his mother smiled when he smiled at her!

He also hugged her when she whispered “Sorry” to him too.

Shuuya loved his mother very much, you know.

Oh, and when his mother quietly gave him that word of apology, Shuuya remembered the snake woman who helped in fixing their relationship.

He had a feeling that he and his mother would have a hard time forgetting to thank Azami Hanazono too. Even more so when they knew more about her and her family.

Momo Kisaragi was one big dork.

When she was younger, she frequently tried to get the attention of other people. Sports, drawing, singing, dancing, music-making, writing, and even pranking-she tried a lot. And yes, she got attention.

She didn’t want that Momo-centered portfolio that her family had, though. And that external drive with the folder that she covertly renamed “cthulhu,” she felt that it would be good to look at if nobody took a single look at its contents.

Oh, and her first year of middle school was probably going to be Hell.

Pretending to be a ninja-pirate-reaper-magician? Haha, she’s been wondering about how she was able to do that for a year.

Oh wait, she wanted attention. And the sorts of attention that she got were mocking and pitying.

She really wished that she wouldn’t be noticed now.

Though it’s not like she didn’t want friends. She just didn’t want the bad sort of attention. Like, the sort of attention that a tardy student would get.

She thanked the heavens for her awesome mom and dad. Her mom being scary motivated her (and her dad, ’cause he had kinda slept in too, that very relatable but still embarrassing guy) to do her morning stuff quicker, while her dad being chill calmed her while he drove her and her Big Bro to school.

So yeah, she narrowly got to her classroom on time, a few minutes before the homeroom teacher arrived. After the teacher (Shion Kozakura!?) arrived, introductions were made, Momo was highly remembered (She wished that she could have dug a hole and then hide in it forever then and there), and she spent the rest of the introduction period with her face on her table.

When the bell rang to signal break time, her body moved out of the chair like a rusty metal machine, with shame and anxiety being the rust that kept her from moving smoothly and straightening her back. Ah, and her creaking was her long, drawn-out groan.

Despite knowing that she may get annoyed responses-and she will make herself noisier if anyone complains, because even though she’s past that phase of hers, Momo Kisaragi will not let herself be ignored if she was low on the good sort of attention. And right now, she wanted attention from people who are interested in being friends with her.

Fortunately, her homeroom teacher was awesome.

After all, awesome should always be expected when you knew that the person you’re interacting with was one of the Hanazono.

“Hm? You are Momo, right?” Shion-sensei asked.

Momo, feeling really honored to have the amazing Shion Kozakura as her homeroom teacher, decided to struggle with lifting her head up and mustering up a smile.

“…yes,” the girl with orange-dyed hair replied weakly.

Momo saw Shion-sensei bending forward a little to be at eye level with her. “Do you need help with something?” she asked with a voice as relaxing as a breeze and eyes that easily understood the younger girl. “You look really troubled.”

Feeling a great trustworthy atmosphere after taking in her teacher’s response, Momo decided to express her thoughs upfront.

“…c-canyouhelpmemakefriends…Sensei?”

She was still nervous, but hey, she tried again.

“Ah, uh, I mean…can you, um…help me…make friends…Sensei?”

Miss Shion giggled.

Momo felt her face heat up, but she felt her spirits rise after that too.

“Making friends here in school is important, Momo!” Shion-sensei told her as she smiled, pulling back and putting her hands together in front of her as well. “I’ll show you to some classmates of yours, but I’ll leave your introduction and the things after that to you and your classmates, okay? You’ll need to learn to rely on yourself more as well. Understood?”

“Yes, Sensei!” Momo shouted with a salute.

Shaking with nervousness and excitement, she then followed Shion-sensei to a group of three students chatting at the back of the nearly empty classroom. The near-emptiness was surprising, but it wasn’t like she didn’t like it. It was a calming setup for Momo, actually.

As they approached, the only girl among the group noticed Shion-sensei and greeted her with a smile.

“Hello, Moth-I mean, Sensei.”

Wait, was she…Tsubomi Kozakura?

“Hello, Tsubomi,” Shion-sensei greeted back, still smiling, before giving way for Momo. “I’m sure you know her already, but I’d like to introduce her again in a more comfortable setup. Momo?”

Momo, feeling really giddy, decided not to dawdle.

“Hi, I’m Momo Kisaragi! I’m twelve years old! I like eating dried mangoes, dried squid, and Benisake-chan!” She paused for a bit, before realizing a very big mistake in her previous sentence. “Wait, no, I like Benisake-chan, but I don’t like eating him!”

Just as Momo was about to look at their reaction faces, though, a boy stepped forward-“Yo, I’m Kousuke Seto, dude! I like taking care of animals, taking care of plants, exploring places, and being a hero, dude! Just like my Big Sis Ayano!”

Kousuke’s pose reminded Momo of Kamen Riders…and that fluttering red scarf on top of his uniform…

Momo’s heart may or may not have skipped a beat. But if she was sure about something, then it was about Kousuke Seto’s coolness.

So the orange-haired girl decided to give a high-five to one of the red-scarfed boy’s outstretched hands.

“”Nice to meet you!”” the two said in surprising synchronization.

Shion-sensei giggled, while Tsubomi and the other boy were struggling to keep their laughter to themselves. Momo blushed when she felt the attention that she got because of doing something really weird. Weird stuff usually got bad attention, but hey, hey, she wanted friends, and she promised Shion-sensei that she would try to make friends! It’s not like all weird stuff are bad stuff! Momo would try and try! Momo would learn from her mistakes!

“If you make a mistake, don’t beat yourself up over it. You can’t change what’s in the past, even if you managed to make something like a ‘time machine.’ Learn from your mistakes, and keep on moving forward. Even if the past is dark and painful, remember that the future can be better, Momo. You can be better.”

Again, Momo felt the need to thank her Big Bro-the person who was the main reason behind her jealous and persistent attention-seeking schemes during the past years, and a person she now looked up to. She didn’t understand why his eyes looked even more sleepy now, and she didn’t understand why he sounded more like an adult now too, but when he became kinder to her suddenly during that same day, she decided to keep his advice in mind. As for her Big Bro’s strange change in behavior, she would try to know more about it some other time.

For now, Momo needed to make friends, and she had grabbed a goldmine of opportunities.

“I’m Tsubomi Kozakura,” the other girl, one with long green hair, coolly declared with a smile and a flip of her hair. “Twelve years old. I like making clothes, I like being a hero too, and I love my family very much.” She directed a bright smile at Kousuke and Miss Shion respectively at the last two parts. “It’s nice to meet you all.”

Momo, being a very enthusiastic supporter of the Hanazono family, took initiative and energetically shook one of Tsubomi’s hands.

“It’s nice to meet you too, Tsubomi-chan! Your family is awesome, and I’ve heard that you’re awesome too! I’m really really glad to be making friends with you-”

“Miss Momo!” interrupted the other boy, one with light brown hair, “Please don’t shake Miss Tsubomi so hard!”

The girl with side-tailed orange hair heard that and immediately took her hands off Tsubomi.

“Ah, I’m really really sorry!” Momo exclaimed, bowing down while kneeling on the ground.

“Don’t worry, it’s okay,” Tsubomi assured before letting out another giggle. “I understand that feeling when you meet someone you’re a big fan of, Miss Kisaragi. It’s like when I was praised by a fashion designer that I’m a fan of too.”

“Ehhhh? Who was that fashion designer, Tsubomi-chan? Ah, and please, call me Momo!”

“Um…”

“Hm?” Tsubomi turned to the brown-haired boy. “Shuuya-kun?”

“I…haven’t…” that boy said as he pushed the tips of his index fingers against each other.

“Haven’t introduced yourself here yet, huh?” Tsubomi took a few steps to the side. “Sorry about that. Go on, introduce yourself.”

The boy named Shuuya smiled back before straightening his posture and putting his arms by his sides.

“I’m Shuuya Kano!” he shouted with closed eyes, a shaking body, and a blushing face. “Twelve years old! I like cooking and cleaning, I love my mother very much, and I want to be a police officer or a lawyer when I grow up!”

“Eh? That’s really cool too, dude!” Kousuke quickly replied, and he and Shuuya shared a high-five.

“…”

Meanwhile, Momo’s heart may or may not have skipped a beat again after Shuuya introduced himself.

“Uwah!”

“You’re so cute!”

And she certainly hugged him and rubbed cheeks with him, ’cause the shy but heartwarming Shuuya Kano looked like someone who deserved a hug, a cheek rub, and lots of kind attention.

Momo began to regret being touchy-feely when a really red-faced and possibly steam-spouting Shuuya pushed himself away from her and ran out of the room. She hung her head and groaned.

As Shion-sensei, Tsubomi-chan, and Kousuke-kun shared a laugh, Momo, yet again, understood that feeling she felt when she got attention that she didn’t want. She also blushed when she realized that she had been in such close contact with a boy.

Basically, Momo felt…weird…

Well, she’ll need to ask her Big Bro about that when she gets home. He is a genius, after all.

But hey, Momo made three new friends during that day! That was enough for Momo to consider that day a really great day!

Ah, and glomping Shuuya Kano? Did that happen? That didn’t matter much, didn’t matter much…Stop thinking about that, Momo Kisaragi!

Takane Enomoto was a hard person to please.

Perhaps it was because of her condition, some problem that seemed to be more than just narcolepsy, considering how grumpy she got and how foggy her memory ended up after each attack of daytime drowsiness. Sleep was less of a comfort to her, and more of a freaking headache inducer that made being cheery very hard for her. If she spent a whole day being as cheery as her friend, Ayano, Takane would call that day the apocalypse.

Yes, to other people, Takane smiling genuinely is a very rare situation…

“Takane-chan, look! I drew our avatars, Actor and Konoha!”

…unless if you’re Haruka Kokonose.

“…”

In the sketchbook page he showed were the hotblooded and gunslinging Actor, Takane’s avatar, standing back-to-back with the calm and fistfighting Konoha.

“Hm! That’s really cool, Haruka-kun! So sweet…Reminds me of myself and Azami when we were way younger…”

Their homeroom teacher, some young-looking but centuries-old guy, felt like an annoyance to Takane, especially when he tried to interact with them. She didn’t give a damn about who he was, what sort of fame he had, or his stupid reminiscing.

And most of all…

“HARUKA AND I ARE NOT LIKE THAT, YOU STUPID OLD GEEZER!”

“Pfft…hahaha…”

Why the Hell was that stupid old geezer laughing? Was he enjoying making her squirm? That demon! She knew it! That old geezer’s really narrow eyes really weren’t some coincidental feature! He most likely enjoyed watching her deny her…her…um…her…

“Takane-chan…do you hate me?”

Takane, hating Haruka? Hahaha…the day she does that is also called “the day of the apocalypse.”

“Of course not! I love you! As a friend!”

Close call, Takane. Really close call.

Wait, did she just see disappointment in Haruka’s face?

“Oh? Thank you so much, Takane-chan!”

Nah, maybe it was just her imagination. And that wasn’t a problem as big as this…this problem that was making her feel both angry and satisfied.

“Haruka…not here…not in front of the stupid old man…”

It should be noted that Haruka was just hugging Takane and showering words of gratitude to her.

“Oh my…I’m going to have separate you two before this turns into something…inappropriate.”

In a rare occasion, she agreed with the stupid old man.

So she thought of pushing Haruka off her…but hey, she shouldn’t be so forceful towards Haruka!

“H-Haruka…you heard T-Tsukihiko-sensei, right?” she squeaked, a manner of speaking that she rarely used. “I-I’m happy to be your friend, b-but…pleaseletgoofmerightnowHaruka.”

“Okay!”

And he complied cheerily.

Takane wouldn’t admit it out loud, but his cheeriness brightened up her day.

Still, she felt like his cheeriness was something that she shouldn’t have. She felt unworthy of him. Like admitting that he and his cheeriness brightened her up a lot was something that would cause him to hate her, because he would work harder for her, and he probably wouldn’t care about himself more-Seriously, what was up with Takane? She didn’t quite get what was going on with herself too.

She put her face on her table, laying her arms there along with her head.

Now, who could help her? Ayano? Takane considered her a friend, yeah, and a really great friend, but she would probably nag at her to go the doctor, and doctors were usually depressing. Shitaragi? That flamboyant idiot would probably be as bad as Ayano, considering the fact that he’s Ayano’s boyfriend.

“Now, Takane, Haruka, we should talk about what we’re going to do for the school festival…”

Takane felt like she didn’t have time for this. Again, she was feeling really pissed at the world again. Why couldn’t she look the bright side as much as Ayano, Shintarou, and Haruka do?

Again, she didn’t give a damn about what the two other people in the classroom would say. She’d still go out of the classroom, to somewhere more relaxing. The game center? That place would probably be damn noisy. Her house? Her grandmother, and even her parents (who were working overseas), would probably chew her out.

“Argh!”

Frustrated, Takane decided to launch a kick to a random direction.

The muffled sound of her foot hitting something, along with the pressure being applied by something grasping it, surprised her.

“Hm…one of Tsukihiko’s students. Miss Takane Enomoto, I presume?”

And now, here’s someone who looks tough enough to take some saltiness from Takane. Who the person was, Takane didn’t care much about that.

“What do you want, huh, midget?”

Said midget snorted, grinning at Takane as she held the foot…with one hand.

“Not even bothering to apologize to someone you accidentally kicked,” she replied, letting the foot go while Takane almost lost her balance. “If I were more than a century younger, I would have sent a literal death glare at you. But I’ve changed. Anyway…do you need help with something?”

Takane wasn’t sure whether that smile on the delusional midget girl’s face was a good thing.

“You think you can understand?” the twintailed girl asked with a sneer.

“Knowing a person’s dark side is an essential part in forming friendships, girl. We all have dark sides.”

It was at this point that Takane fully realized that she was on the rooftop, all alone with this midget girl who decided to sit beside the door back to the stairs. Despite wearing black and red clothes covering a lot of her body and having hair so long and thick, the midget looked calm. She was sweating, but it seemed like she didn’t care much about it, like she was used to it already.

Or maybe the midget was just crazy.

Takane wasn’t sure.

But hey, Takane also had the itch to vent already. Her friends didn’t seem trustworthy, her teacher didn’t seem trustworthy too, nobody else seemed trustworthy.

“I shall try to listen, girl. If I am unable to help you enough, then I shall apologize.”

And then this delusional-looking midget girl…she didn’t nag at her. Didn’t assume that her attempt at helping the twintailed girl would be one hundred percent successful. And the midget’s facial expression…

This girl’s-no, this woman’s facial expression looked like it had been through so many tough times. If she really were as young as she looked, she would probably have a wider smirk on her face almost all the time while not bothering to think carefully.

Suddenly, Takane recalled a certain friend of hers bearing an expression similar to the midget woman’s.
Shintarou Kisaragi.

He definitely wasn’t like Ayano. Takane was his friend, and she was supposed to know a lot about Shintarou!

Takane groaned. Feeling the itch to vent grow stronger, she decided to sit down on the side to the right of the midget woman, near the door.

And while Takane started staring off into the distance, she began to speak.

“Hey.”

“Yes?”

“You ever feel sleepy during the day, then you fall asleep, then you wake up with your memory cloudy and the whole world looking like shit? You know how that feels?”

“Hmm…I do not think I have experienced such a condition. But it is painful, no?”

“Yeah. My friends-except for Shintarou, probably-and my family…they don’t understand that. Even that stupid old man who calls himself my homeroom teacher doesn’t understand. I feel like the doctors won’t understand. They’ll probably just make my life worse with stuff like fucking high fees.”

“I see. I am going to have to tell your homeroom teacher about his inattention. He will listen to me, worry not.”

Takane sensed confidence in the midget woman’s voice when she mentioned the stupid old geezer. Along with being familiar with her name, that got her curious about the midget woman’s identity.

“Oh yeah…who are you again?” the twintailed girl asked, looking at the midget woman.

The smiling midget woman locked eyes with Takane.

“Azami Hanazono, your homeroom teacher’s wife. When he is too soft, I make sure that he gets as hard as needed.”

“…”

Takane was in disbelief at what she had just heard.

“…I am aware of the innuendo, girl,” Azami added with a smirk.

The twintailed girl shuddered. It felt really inappropriate, see. Especially when it came out of the mouth of someone who looked younger than a high schooler. And she’s married to the homeroom teacher? Which means they’ve probably done that too?

Takane decided to not wrap her head around the relationship of those two young-looking old people. She would probably go insane.
And speaking of the innuendo, it sparked thoughts in Takane…thoughts about her and Haruka…

“…you stupid old hag,” Takane growled and glared, face heating up in anger and discomfort. “You’re just like your stupid husband…”

“Yes, yes, I made a stupid joke, girl,” Azami replied with a groan while holding her forehead with one hand. “I shall silence myself for now. It appears that that time is approaching again…”

Takane shuddered again upon the mention of “that time.”

“Whatever ‘that time’ is,” the twintailed girl continued, shaking her head, “I don’t want to know. But hey, are you still up for listening to me? I don’t wanna be a big bother to you or anything.”

“No need to worry so much, girl. We all have people, things, and situations that bother us everyday. You only need to deal with what you can handle, while I deal with what I can handle. And you are not someone I cannot handle.”

Takane sighed in exasperation.

“You have limits, and I don’t enjoy watching people suffer, you old hag, so tell me if you can’t deal with me anymore, got it?”

“Noted, then,” Azami replied with a small smile. “So, aside from your painful sleeping problem, what are the things that trouble you, bratty girl?”

“Hey, why are you calling me ‘bratty girl’ now?”

“I think it is fair when you are calling me ‘old hag.'”

“Hmph, fine then, old hag. Anyway, have I ever told you about your stupid husband?”

“That sort of topic does not surprise me. But please, tell me more.”

And so, Takane talked and talked and talked. Azami replied with witty remarks, wise replies, and, much to Takane’s dread, Tsukihiko-related innuendos.

But hey, in the end, Takane felt like the weight in her head and chest got reduced. From “old hag,” Azami became “Midget Grandma” to Takane after that memorable time.

As for Haruka and Tsukihiko…

“Sensei, should we go after Takane-chan?” a worried Haruka asked after Takane-chan walked out of the classroom again. Takane-chan was a precious person to Haruka, after all.

“Hmm…maybe we shouldn’t,” Tsukihiko-sensei pondered. “I think she won’t be happy if we try to approach her, especially after we practically nagged at her a lot back then. Let’s wait for thirty minutes, and then we go out to find her.”

Haruka thought of protesting, but Haruka also knew that his Sensei was right. Takane-chan definitely wouldn’t be happy if they tried to talk to her again while she was like that. So, despite him wanting to follow Takane and hug her and tell her that he loves her (but would she really love him back too, though?), he reluctantly followed Tsukihiko-sensei and waited in the classroom.

For a bunch of silent minutes, Haruka laid his head and arms on his table, similar to how Takane did before she walked out again. He rested his chin on his sketchbook, and he sighed. He didn’t have a strong body, and then there he was, making a friend (and crush) sad!

“So…you like Takane-chan, Haruka-kun?”

Tsukihiko-sensei’s sudden question caused Haruka to look up and blush.

“Eh? Uh…um…”

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell her,” the homeroom teacher with very narrow eyes assured. Despite Takane-chan’s claims throughout the past year and a half, Haruka could see that Tsukihiko-sensei was very trustworthy, even if their Sensei made mistakes like what caused Takane-chan to get very angry at them. Haruka looked at him like he was a father figure as well!

(Tsukihiko-sensei was so unlike Haruka’s own father, that father who had given up on helping his own son.)

“…I love Takane-chan, Tsukihiko-sensei,” the boy with a bedhead declared with a determined face. “But I don’t like seeing Takane-chan like that, Sensei…It hurts…”

Haruka tightly gripped the edges of his table, and tears slowly broke out of his eyes.

There were the sounds of footsteps, there was a scraping sound of a chair being dragged across the floor, and then there was Tsukihiko-sensei’s voice.

“After knowing about teenage romances going awry a lot these days, I don’t think leading you into a couple really quick is a good idea, Haruka-kun. But even if you didn’t have that sort of interest in her, I’d still tell you to let her have some space in this situation.”

Haruka looked to his right, and he saw Tsukihiko-sensei resting his chin on a table, staring off into the distance, past the transparent window of the science lab that was turned into a classroom for the Special Needs Class.

“I’ve learned that a lot from a lot of experiences in my more-than-a-century-long life. From experiences with Azami, experiences with my daughter, with my granddaughter, and with so many other people. People need other people, but each person also needs some time alone…some time for reflection. Some time away from the crowding chaos of other people’s troubles…some time for each of us to clean up our own messy minds into proper condition without a lot of outside interference…”

Tsukihiko-sensei, with a sheepish smile, turned to look at Haruka.

“…and to be honest, letting people have some alone time still makes me nervous. What if they end up killing themselves? What if they do something really bad? I really wish that I knew how they were doing while they were alone, but in most cases, that would be disrespecting their privacy.” He sighed and let out a wry chuckle. “I’m more than a hundred years old thanks to my wife, my granddaughter, my granddaughter’s friend, and a lot of other people, but I still have weaknesses. Weird, huh, Haruka-kun?”

Haruka, who had been listening intently, stood up straight from his seat while shaking his head vigorously.

“It’s not weird, Sensei! You’re human, you’re not perfect, but please don’t lose hope, Sensei! You’ve been teaching Takane-chan and I well in Science classes! And I wouldn’t mind calling you “Dad” too!”

“…”

Tsukihiko-sensei’s rarely seen eyeballs seemed to have become somewhat visible upon listening to Haruka’s spirited response.

Then, the homeroom teacher laughed and smiled warmly.

“‘Dad,’ huh? Outside of class, sure, I won’t mind, Haruka-kun. I’ve never had a son before, actually. As of now, Azami and I only have one child, Shion, our daughter.” He suddenly paused, looked up, seemingly recalling something, and then he let out another chuckle. “Ah, and I think I’ve said the ‘I’ve never had a son before’ speech to a lot of boys that I’ve met in the past, hahaha…” He laughed some more. “…and Shion’s probably going to be jealous because of all the attention I give to her ‘little brothers’!” he added jokingly before laughing even louder.

Haruka felt his spirits rise and his smile widen a lot when he saw his Sensei letting out such a lively laugh.

“But hm, Haruka-kun, now that I think about the gap between our generations, maybe you should call me ‘Grandpa’!” Tsukihiko-sensei added with a wide smile and a thumbs-up.

“Eh? But you look more like a ‘Dad’ than a ‘Grandpa’!” Haruka replied with a giggle.

“Oh my, how flattering, Haruka-kun!” Tsukihiko-sensei exclaimed with mock surprise, followed by standing up and bending forward to make an impression of a typical old man with a cane. “But I am old, as you can see…” he said with an imaginary cane in his hand and an affected creakiness in his voice. “I don’t like being seen as someone that I am not, little one!”

Haruka laughed at that.

“In seriousness, though,” said the smiling, pale-skinned teacher with white hair and a big forehead, “I don’t mind you calling me ‘Dad.’ A lot of people think that calling me ‘Grandpa’ is very unsuitable because of my appearance, though I don’t mind being called ‘Grandpa’ too, as I am an actual grandfather.”

“Okay, Da-I mean, Tsukihiko-sensei! Thank you very much!”

“No problem, Haruka-kun.” Tsukihiko shot a look at the door before looking at the room’s clock, and then he looked at Haruka. “Hm, let’s look for Takane-chan now, Haruka-kun.”

Haruka nodded, took his pencil and sketchpad, and he let his Sensei move ahead of him.

Quietly, they moved through the corridors.

As Haruka followed Tsukihiko-sensei up a set of stairs, the boy with a bedhead hoped that Takane-chan was feeling better already.

Fortunately, Haruka’s hopes were fulfilled when he and his sensei went to the rooftop.

Takane-chan was sitting by the door to the rooftop, while there was a pale (and scaly-faced?) girl in black sitting on the spot to Haruka’s left.

Takane didn’t look as grumpy as when she walked out, and that gave a lot of relief to Haruka.

“Ah, Tsukihiko-sensei.

“Yes, my dear, I did something wrong that has led to Takane-chan becoming sadder and walking out of the classroom again,” Tsukihiko-sensei said with a resigned look to the girl in black as he ran a hand through his hair.

Haruka raised an eyebrow, noting how his Sensei addressed her, followed by remembering his Sensei’s stories about his family…and then he realized that he had just met his Sensei’s wife for the first time.

“Ah, you’re Miss Azami, right?” Haruka asked with a smile, standing beside Tsukihiko-sensei, and with his sketchbook and pencil in front of his chest.

“Yes, Mister Haruka Kokonose,” Miss Azami answered with a smile as she stood up and dusted her clothes. “And I am sure that he has enthusiastically told you and Miss Enomoto here about me.” She shot a look at her husband. “Every school day, most likely.”

Tsukihiko-sensei simply laughed with a blush at that.

“And dear…you’ll be getting a lecture from me later…”

Miss Azami had this weird look on her face. Haruka found it familiar…It seemed to be the look that villains had…It was called…a leer, right?

Wait, why did Takane-chan suddenly shudder? And why did Sensei have a very serious expression?

“Oh dear. That time again, huh? Well, be patient, my dear…you’ll have your chance later at home…”

“If you don’t-”

Miss Azami was about to respond when she noticed Takane-chan glaring at her.

“…fine,” Miss Azami continued, frowning. “At home, dear. Be on time, or you won’t be attending to your students tomorrow.”

Haruka then found himself feeling worried for his father figure.

“Sensei, what’s wrong?” the boy with a bedhead immediately asked, alternating his gaze between his Sensei and his wife. “Is there anything we can do to help?”

“Don’t worry, Haruka-kun,” Tsukihiko-sensei waved with a smile. “Azami and I can handle this problem properly.”

Haruka felt like he should press for more information, but he stopped when he met Takane-chan’s glare.

The glaring girl with twintails slowly shook her head. She also made an X sign with her arms.

Haruka slowly nodded and gave a thumbs-up, sneaking around his Sensei to sit beside Takane-chan.

Also, Haruka remembered his desire to hug his crush.

So yeah, he did that. From the side, he held Takane-chan close to him.

And Takane-chan didn’t resist much. There was a squeak of surprise, there was the stiffening of her body, but she loosened after a few seconds.

Oh, and there was blushing from the two friends (or the unofficial couple?) when they met the grins of the husband and wife in front of them.

Haruka and Takane-chan quietly excused themselves.

After a few days, some encouragement from Shintarou and Ayano, a lot of reminders from their homeroom teacher, and a bunch of awkward conversation starters, Haruka Kokonose and Takane Enomoto confessed to each other.

Players of Dead Bullet also began to fear the deadly duo, one that they dubbed “KonoEne,” even more in the days that followed.

Hibiya Amamiya would follow Hiyori Asahina to the ends of the Earth.

Hiyori Asahina was disgusted by Hibiya Amamiya’s dedication to her.

Yet, they were friends.

Or something.

Well, they were childhood friends, but now…

“He isn’t a friend. He’s just a creepy stalker.”

“HIYORI!? WHY?”

“I saw your doll of me, Hibiya,” she told him with a glare. “If that isn’t a creepy thing, then I don’t know what’s supposed to be creepy.”

Hibiya was now wide-eyed and heavily sweating, wondering about how she had found out about his doll…which was a part of a collection that he had made for himself. Making all those dolls were very worthwhile sewing practice! They helped him pass sewing classes at school! And of course, they lifted his spirits, for they were images of his precious princess, Hiyori Asahina!

Ah, delusional Hibiya. Most of the first impressions he gave to other people were “cheeky little brat” and “mature for a youngster,” which he didn’t mind much, but this…this was the most embarrassing first impression that he had given in his life.

Oh, and he and Hiyori were at the Tateyama household, having dinner with the family of Hiyori’s older sister. Also, Hibiya was now questioning the worth of having to face his family’s many dogs for the sake of convincing his parents regarding his capacity for keeping Hiyori safe and sound while she paid a visit to her older sister.

(Regarding why Hiyori was not accompanied by her parents, Hibiya learned that Hiyori’s parents didn’t have a very good history with Ayaka Tateyama, née Asahina.)

Hibiya wanted to protect Hiyori, not get humiliation from her! He found it unfair! (though he did feel somewhat relieved when she talked to him, ’cause he usually got the cold shoulder from her, but he didn’t want to admit that) Why was she doing this, then?

As for Hiyori, she did consider Hibiya a friend, but she found it hard to keep on being his friend when she noticed his creepy habits towards her. Sure, his cooking was great, he could sew cute plushies, and when he outsmarted stupid adults, he did look…somewhat cute…

But his stalking? And his doll of her? Nope, she wasn’t gonna stand for that. Hiyori, a girl who now seemed like the beginning of another Ayaka to her parents, was aware of how females in her country were treated. She swore that she would never go into jobs like being an idol. And, in terms of work, she’d rather be like Shintarou Kisaragi, a.k.a. “LTM.”

Speaking of LTM-kun, he was Miss Ayano’s boyfriend! It was both disappointing and exciting to her. Disappointing because he wasn’t interested in dating her (Why was LTM-kun rejecting her?), and exciting because “I’m your biggest fan, LTM-kun!”

Ah, and Hiyori couldn’t contain her excitement anymore. Being so close to her favorite Vocalo-P/singer was such a joyous occasion to her.

And Hibiya? Well, Hiyori didn’t care about him now. Getting him out of her hair seemed like a better idea to Hiyori. She didn’t really care much about him when he decided to stomp out of the house too.

Hibiya’s thoughts?

“And you call me a creepy person, Asahina!

The front door was loudly slammed shut.

There was silence around the dining table.

A collective sigh from all the diners, sans Hiyori, was released.

Then, the two professors of the Tateyama family decided to stand up.

“Ayaka, I’ll talk with Hibiya,” Kenjirou Tateyama announced, adjusting his glasses.

“I’ll talk with Hiyori, then,” Ayaka replied, adjusting her white lab coat.

Kenjirou went out of the house, while Ayaka gestured to Hiyori.

“Come on, Hiyori,” the older Asahina calmly called. “Let’s talk for a bit.”

Hiyori pouted. LTM-kun probably wouldn’t mind if she tried to shower him with her appreciation! She didn’t do anything wrong! …right?

The girl in pink and black threw a pleading look at her idol.

LTM-kun and his girlfriend were just silently giving small smiles to her. Hiyori felt like being a very strict aunt when she saw her niece smile along.

And then LTM-kun shook his head, still smiling, still not saying a word.

Hiyori’s appreciation for Shintarou Kisaragi significantly fell because of that. She huffed and loudly stomped to where her older sister was leading her.

Meanwhile, Kenjirou managed to find Hibiya quickly. The twelve-year-old boy was sitting under a streetlight that was at a fair distance away from the Tateyama residence.

When the bespectacled Tateyama found Hibiya, the boy had his forehead on one raised knee.

“Hiyori did something that was pretty uncalled for, huh?” Kenjirou started as he sat down beside Hibiya, with an arm’s length of space between them.

“Yeah,” Hibiya replied, raising his head to stare off into the distance in front of him. “Scolding me about my stalking, sure, that’s okay, even if it’s embarrassing, but she should be practicing what she preaches. And I’m sure that that LTM guy wouldn’t feel comfortable about how Hiyori’s been acting as well.”

“…”

“Still, I feel really really angry, you know? Why…why did I even have a crush on her?”

“Probably the hormones.”

“Yeah…maybe it’s because of that. Hormones.” Hibiya turned to look at the older man. “Puberty’s tough, huh?”

“Yup.” Kenjirou met Hibiya’s gaze. “Seeing kids like you go through that brings back memories. And it reminds me of important lessons.”

“Like using your brain?”

“Like using your brain.”

The two males chuckled and did a fist bump.

“Oh, and I’m pretty sure you had those thoughts about Hiyori…” Kenjirou added, waggling his eyebrows while keeping the rest of his face in a serious look.

Hibiya stifled a laugh while his cheeks went pink. “Hey, I have those weird thoughts too, but I’m not like most guys. Meanwhile, you should go get your head fixed, old man.”

“Which head are you talking about, brat?” the older man asked back with a smirk.

Hibiya facepalmed. Snickers were attempting to escape his mouth while he tried not to dignify the dirty joke with a response.

“So, wanna stalk the Asahina sisters?”

The younger male shot a glare at Kenjirou, who awkwardly smiled as he raised his hands.

“Yeah, that was a bad joke. Sorry. Anyway, let’s head back and wait for Ayaka and Hiyori.”

The shorter brunette’s expression lightened as he quietly nodded. He followed the taller brunette, and they had small talk during the whole wait…

And then they found Shintarou and Ayano making out in front of the house.

Kenjirou was standing under a streetlight, white light reflecting off his glasses. As for Hibiya, he was feeling a mix of ickiness and curiosity. Both of them also had shocked expressions on their faces.

And as for the couple who got caught in the act…

…well, Ayano was pretty enthusiastic. Especially with her red scarf.

It took five seconds before Shintarou noticed the other two males and stopped his girlfriend from sucking his tongue out.

“Hey, Dad, I’m hom-wait…Sis?”

Ah, and there’s Kousuke. He was hanging out with friends. Friends who were currently accompanying him.

“…”

There was a very heavy silence for a bunch of seconds.

Then, Hibiya slowly turned to Kenjirou, and he asked him a question.

“Puberty is tough, huh, old man?” he said with a monotone, now feeling some disappointment at two older sibing figures, combined with fear about what will happen to him as he goes through puberty.

Kenjirou adjusted his glasses.

“Where did my pure little warrior princess go…?” the older man rasped. He then waddled back to the house, muttering. Hibiya followed, waddling and muttering as well.

“She’s growing up…and Kousuke is too…”

“You may be annoying at times, Hiyori, but please scold me if I’m being a pervert…”

“Shintarou’s mature…Kousuke’s mature…but the girls…Ayano and Momo…”

“Haha…looks like I’ll still be hanging out with Hiyori a lot…and I’m more worried about other boys now…”

“I should make sure that the kids don’t fool around…so…”

“I should make sure that nobody touches Hiyori in a bad way…so…”

“”Wanna stalk some people? For their own good, of course!””

Kenjirou Tateyama and Hibiya Amamiya felt like a very beautiful friendship was going to form after that.

Meanwhile, Hiyori Asahina facepalmed as she looked at the two males in front of her, while her older sister sighed. She had just been through a hard-to-swallow but really valuable talk with Ayaka, realized how bad she had hurt her friend (Still, she didn’t like his stalking and his dolls of her), how bad she had been treating LTM-kun, and then she found Hibiya and Kenjirou loudly declaring their desire to stalk other people.

She felt like beating up her friend who was usually mature and the adult who was supposed to act his age, but Hiyori, who was now a lot more determined to be more chill, decided to take deep breaths. After all, she would lose friends more easily if she didn’t keep her temper in check. Oh, and she also felt like she would definitely wreck her friendship with LTM-kun if she piped up about the bite marks on his neck and the look on her (probably secretly sadistic) niece’s face.

“I’M SURROUNDED BY PERVERTS!”

Seriously, Hiyori now has a better idea about why a person should not be a pervert.

“Kenjirou, what is up with you and Hibiya?” Ayaka asked. “And as for you two,” she told Shintarou and Ayano, who were being followed by Kousuke and friends, “Kenjirou and I have been through puberty, and we know the really compelling desires that came with it, and yes, maybe you can get away with it sometimes, but please, don’t fool around. Get what I mean? And the same goes for you there, Kousuke and friends!”

While she looked at Ayaka’s face, Hiyori noticed a resemblance that she and her older sister shared. The younger Asahina then made the resemblance clearer as she glared at the idiots in front of the Asahina sisters, the idiots who were being scolded by the older Asahina.

Oh, and Hiyori felt proud of her older sister when she saw the fear in the faces of those fools. She should learn some lessons from the Great Big Sis, Ayaka, no?

Ayano Tateyama wasn’t really as great as most what people thought.

During her childhood, the Mysticals-“supernatural beings” to most people, “another bunch of precious human beings” to the rest, especially to Kenjirou and Ayaka Tateyama-and their existence were known by the world thanks to the leadership of Ayano’s parents, Ayaka and Kenjirou Tateyama, two renowned archaeologists. It all started with Ayaka and her determination to know more about the wandering Hanazono family. When Ayaka and Kenjirou knew a lot more about them after meeting them personally in her own city, she decided to research on more supernatural event reports. And then, gradually, supernatural beings revealed themselves intentionally, proudly appearing thanks to encouragement from the Hanazono family, sparking the curiosity of the people. At that point, Ayaka, with Kenjirou’s and a bunch of valuable colleagues’ help, made and submitted papers regarding the existence of “Mysticals.” Their research was mostly met with skepticism, and then with self-centered thinking, but Ayaka wasn’t a part of the foolish majority, and nor were her precious husband and friends.

Oh, and as for how Ayaka and Kenjirou and their allies improved the relations between Mystics and the rest of humanity, that’s another story for another day, ’cause Ayano doesn’t want to be underestimated, and she doesn’t want to be overestimated too!

Still, living in the shadow of her parents, that was a very heavy burden for Ayano. Many people expected a lot from her, and when she failed to meet their expectations in times like Science and Math class, their hurtful words and actions killed her self-confidence. Being asked stuff like “Are you sure that you’re Ayaka and Kenjirou’s daughter?” made her feel angry at her self, at her adoptive younger sibling (who had been more impressive than her in Science and Math), and at her parents a bunch of times, and once, she tried to run away from home, trying to run away from the curse of her parents’ fame. She didn’t deserve the fame, because she wasn’t as smart as them, right?

And so, Ayano Tateyama wished to be someone that people wouldn’t recognize easily. That wish clashed a lot with the precious values that her parents had taught her. She wanted to be heroic, to be great, like her parents, but she didn’t want people to insult her when she failed to do so. She was clumsy, her grades at school were mostly average, and she felt like socializing was big pain bait.

And speaking of socializing, it was when she met a strange boy that she found socializing to be big happiness bait as well.

She met him at a park, on the day she played truant in the middle of the day and tried to run away. He was sitting on a bench, wearing an oversized red jersey, wielding a guitar, playing chords all alone.

Their eyes met quickly.

He looked surprised to see her. Ayano didn’t understand why that happened, and she didn’t understand why he looked like he didn’t get enough sleep as well. She was also disturbed when she saw that he looked as young as her.

Suddenly, she saw tears stream out of his eyes, and that was when Ayano ran to him without hesitation. She didn’t really hate her parents, and she cherished the heroic values that they taught her, like kindness, humility, and critical thinking. She just hated their fame back then, and as much as those dark thoughts were appealing, disobeying them and leaving them behind were painful thoughts to her.

“What’s wrong?” Ayano asked him, taking his hands into hers.

And that’s when he started sobbing loudly. He suddenly dropped his guitar as well, and Ayano let out a squeak when he embraced her as well.

She was on her knees, and ten-year-old Ayano Tateyama still didn’t understand this boy’s problem. Did she do something wrong to him before?

“H-Hey…would you believe me…if I told you that we were a cou-I-I mean…friends…friends in a past life…?”

“I’m sorry, but…no…” Ayano answered with an awkward smile.

Past lives, reincarnation, stuff like that-she still wasn’t sure about those things, and she was more concerned about making genuine friends.

“Oh…”

At this point, as she saw the gloomy face on the boy’s face, she recalled all the happy memories that she had experienced, while she mustered up the brightest smile that she could give. “Smiles make other people happy, especially if they’re genuine,” was something that her mother taught her.

“But if you need a friend, I’ll be your friend!” Ayano told the boy. Then, she wiped his tears off with the red scarf, the one that she bought after getting inspired by a superhero on TV.

“So don’t cry! I won’t leave you behind!” she added, wrapping her scarf around his neck as she hugged him. Leaving any person in sadness, she and her family hated doing that!

He looked at her, surprised. Then, he laughed and hugged her again. There were tears, but they didn’t feel like the sad sort of tears.

“Huh, that was easy…I think…” Ayano muttered. But what happened to him? “Why did you cry when you saw me? And are you really okay now? I hope you’re not wearing a fake smile…”

The boy let out a chuckle as he made eye contact with her.

“Why I cried when I saw you? For now, that’s a secret.”

Ayano pouted at that. She was as stubborn as her mother when it came to looking for the truth. But she and her family knew that forcing information out of people isn’t a good thing.

“I’ll give you a hint, though,” the boy continued, “and the hint is that I once lost a very precious friend who looks very much like you. And…I guess I’m okay. Feeling pain inside, but I’m feeling better, thanks to you. You didn’t do anything wrong to me.”

Did his eyes…turn red for a moment? Ayano wasn’t really sure about that. She wanted to know if it happened or not, but she thought that she should just research that some other time. Right now, she needed to be a friend to this boy.

And, well, she seemed to be doing a good job! She made him feel better! He was smiling! And she should tell him her name now while striking a cool pose! That’s what her favorite superhero does when they do a job well done!

“You are welcome, citizen!” She let go of the boy and jumped up in an attempt to make a cool pose, pointing her right arm to her upper left. “I am Ayano Tateyama, Rider Red!”

And then she blushed when she realized that she didn’t have her scarf on.

Well, at least the boy, who was wearing her scarf, laughed. And his laugh wasn’t like the laughs of those mean kids at school! He smiled brightly, looking like he found her awesome!

“I’m Shintarou Kisaragi,” he said after he finished laughing. “Nice to meet you…Ayano.” And then he blushed as he ruffled his messy black hair. “Uhh…can I call you Ayano…?”

They just met, but Ayano felt like they would get along really well really quick. He doesn’t seem like he knows a lot about her and her parents’ fame, and if he did know, he should have started treating her like those kids that followed her around a lot because she was famous! He didn’t act like those mean kids and adults that insulted her and left her behind whenever she made mistakes!

“Sure! Call me whatever you want, Shintarou!” said the girl who confidently called herself “Rider Red.” “But make sure that it’s not something bad, of course!” she added with a pointed index finger.

“Of course, Ayano.” Shintarou nodded with a smile.

And that was Ayano’s first meeting with the boy she became lovers with.

Even after that meeting with Shintarou, she still met people who overestimated her. She hated how they treated her, and she often hung out with Shintarou, since he seemed like the only person she could trust at school. At certain points, she felt worried about being a burden to him, but he dealt with her flaws with calmness and kindness to her. When she complained about those mean people or whatever big problem in life she was experiencing at the moment, he would laugh for some reason that he still wouldn’t reveal, hinting that he reminded her of a bunch of precious people.

Not like he wasn’t listening, though.

He understood her, understood the feeling of wanting to isolate one’s self from other people except for a select few, but he told her that they wouldn’t be there for her all the time, told her to face forward and look for new friends if the old ones said goodbye and disappeared. He didn’t tell her to forget the precious times with the old friends too. Based on the look on his face and how much he laughed and smiled when he talked about them, his old friends seemed to be very precious to him.

Still, he was here, without those old friends, hanging out with someone who seemed way worse than them.

Well, Shintarou didn’t like lying (He mentioned one of his old friends being a big liar who caused a lot of problems with his deception), so Ayano didn’t hold a lot of doubt towards the feelings of ease and comfort that he expressed whenever he was with her.

Oh, and Shintarou also helped her be a better older sibling to her adoptive younger brother, Kousuke Seto (He wanted to remember his biological parents, and the Tateyama family didn’t mind him retaining his original surname), who was brought to her family’s house by Mary Kozakura, one of the people who led Ayaka and Kenjirou to meeting the Hanazono family personally months later.

Speaking of that kind Mystical, Ayano honestly had some scorn for Mary Kozakura back when she was younger, back when her parents and their research became renowned. If the quarter-medusa didn’t bring Kousuke to her family’s house, Ayano wouldn’t need to deal with all the insults she got, but Ayano wasn’t that immature now. She held great gratitude for Miss Mary bringing Kousuke to her family, since the Tateyama family didn’t want to know what would have happened to him if Miss Mary didn’t rescue him from those bullies.

Now, about Kousuke, he was a very kind boy, even when he had his first conversation with the whole Tateyama family. He was somewhat timid, but he earnestly tried to be confident, and he told them that he wanted to be like Miss Mary, who came to his rescue with a very strange rolling entry (Seriously, driving away bullies while being a giant, rolling ball of hair?). He also seemed to have an affinity for caring for animals, especially dogs, considering how much he cared for Tomo, the Shiba Inu that he brought with him. Funnily, they also seemed to be similar in terms of usually trying to stand straight despite having trembling legs.

And indeed, Kousuke grew up well with the help of Ayano’s confidence, calmness, and optimism. There was a time when she hated him, as he was more praised than her by classmates and teachers when it came to school stuff, but Shintarou and his experiences with being on older sibling helped her get out of that immaturity phase, reminding her of how good she can be in terms of being a proper older sibling as well. Now, Ayano and Kousuke looked hilariously awesome when they went to help people out, doing poses that are usually seen on a lot of those flashy superhero TV shows than in most real life situations, all while wearing long and flowing red scarves.

Indeed, Rider Red Sister and Rider Red Brother weren’t very embarrassed about their names and their poses and their catchphrases. After all, they needed to have fun while they helped people too! Of course, they would hold back on the quirks for the sake of efficiency when the situation gets too serious for them.

And as time passed, Ayano gained new friends as well. Interacting with Shintarou led to meeting his younger sister, Momo. With Momo, who was Kousuke’s classmate, and fellow classmates Tsubomi Kozakura (Ayano wondered about why she didn’t notice one of Miss Mary’s adoptive sisters quickly) and Shuuya Kano, the Muffleriders gained new members. One of them was also a member who made Mufflerider scarves that were color-coded (and shorter, ’cause Tsubomi valued function as much as she valued style in making clothes as well)! They all got along really well, and the younger kids-yes, even the shy but adorable Shuuya-faithfully followed Ayano and Shintarou.

Then, as more years passed, and as Shintarou and Ayano entered high school, they made a friendship with Haruka Kokonose and Takane Enomoto, who they had first met during a summertime school festival. Shintarou and Takane had a rough start, as the hilariously flamboyant Shintarou defeated her in a shooting game duel thanks to his frequent and distracting high-pitched screams that he let out whenever he attacked. Haruka had to hold Takane back from throttling her opponent, while Ayano had to tell Shintarou to let up on the over-the-top humor. Fortunately, Shintarou apologized seriously (and Ayano still wasn’t used to his strangely smooth shifts in personality), and although Takane was still fuming right after the apology, she calmed down after interacting with Haruka and being away from Shintarou for the rest of the day. Their next interaction was when they met again during the first day of the next school year, and they hung out more frequently as the days passed. Haruka and Takane (who was convinced by Haruka) also joined the Muffleriders, and they gained scarves of their own too!

Now, Ayano and Shintarou were in their third year of high school. Haruka and Takane, who were also dating each other, had gone off to university, with Haruka taking up biology and Takane taking up computer science. During the previous year, Ayano and Shintarou started dating each other as well (and several times, Professor Kenjirou had to be reminded that her daughter was in good hands). They’ve been getting along pretty well, and she and Shintarou had gained popularity in the music scene. Shintarou, a.k.a. “LTM,” was popular for his Vocaloid original songs, while Ayano, a.k.a. “Rider Red Sister,” was known for her singing (which surprised her, ’cause she didn’t expect honest praise from Shintarou when she went to karaoke with him once, let alone the loads of praises that she got because of her singing). They’ve been handling the fame and the accompanying problems, like jealous fans, pretty well too. But still, there were things that felt more important than dealing with fame at the moment.

There were things about Shintarou that she, for a long time, wanted to know but didn’t ask about.

“Hey, Shintarou?”

“Hm?”

Her Aunt Hiyori (She found it strange, though, having an aunt who was younger than her) had went upstairs to talk with her mom, while her dad went out to talk with her aunt’s friend, which they had to do as the two twelve-year-olds just had a fight and needed some mature guidance. As for Kousuke, he was somewhere in the city proper, hanging out with the rest of the Muffleriders (Haruka and Takane included, as they had no classes on that day). With that, Ayano and Shintarou were left alone in the dining room.

For a while, the girl in red fidgeted, unsure about how to broach the topic to him.

“Don’t worry, Ayano. I’ll listen.”

Shintarou, even though he looked like a NEET with his messy black hair, wrinkled red jersey, black shirt, brown pants, and those weary-looking eyes…he and his words made her breath hitch.

“Are you…are you even real?”

It was a strange question, yes. Ayano knew that. But she also had great interest in literature, especially in fiction, and from literature, she learned that it was a bad thing if something was too good to be true. She wasn’t a pessimist, but an optimistic realist. She knew that things can get worse, but she also knew that things can get better, and she didn’t like being delusional. Everything happens for a reason, and she couldn’t take being unaware anymore. Maybe he was hurting himself a lot. If he would ask her, she would admit that she was scared and really concerned for him.

And then Ayano started to feel more relaxed, as she knew enough about her boyfriend’s personality. He wasn’t like most people, wasn’t like the majority, wasn’t like the humans who let themselves be mostly driven by their emotions. After she recalled that thought, Ayano didn’t feel the need to be scared of asking him anymore.

She opened her eyes, meeting the eyes of her boyfriend. He seemed to have been patiently waiting for her to calm down, and he didn’t seem quite fazed at all. Maybe he was hiding it really well. Ayano wasn’t going to be dishonest with herself: She was still scared of whatever horrible reacton he might unleash because of her inquiry, but still, she would try to be brave and face what would happen. She began to run through some possibilities in the back of her mind as she looked at Shintarou seriously…

“I guess I seem too good to be true, huh?”

He smiled, though his eyes and voice held sadness…wait.

His eyes.

“Your eyes…they’re…they’re red…”

She looked at him with wonder, and she also looked at him with worry. She didn’t mind him being a Mystical, but just like any other human, he still would have problems to deal with, even if he had supernatural powers.

“Would you like to know the story hidden beneath these Eyes?”

Wordlessly, Ayano nodded. Shintarou easily understood her, after all. He seemed to understand her way more than she understood him…

Suddenly, a wave of black scales and red eyes engulfed her vision.

Then, there were flashes.

There were flashes of a funeral, a funeral with a picture of her face on top of a coffin, with Shintarou’s reflection on the transparent glass that blocked hands away from her body, one that was found to be dead, but that wasn’t her corpse, since her father had constructed it, and her real body was out in the Hell called the Heat-Haze Daze, intentionally trapped by her own self via meeting death by jumping off a school’s rooftop. There were flashes of a sad Shintarou, in a very messy room, staring into a computer, a computer that was suddenly invaded by Ene, a girl in blue, a girl who was actually Takane Enomoto, the older girl that a cold Shintarou Kisaragi defeated in a shooting game duel in a summertime school festival. There were flashes of different-looking Muffleriders, all together with her, her aunt, her aunt’s friend, and and Miss Mary, and they all had smiles on their faces as they hung out at an apartment unit and so many other places. There were flashes of a dark version of Konoha, that being created by the wish of a sad and trapped Haruka Kokonose, that Snake that possessed by the thing that had possessed her father, that Snake that killed the group she called “Mekakushi Dan.” There were flashes of scissors slicing the neck of a darkly dressed Shintarou, splattering blood all over the place, over a phone that was crushed, and on a computer that was smashed. There were flashes of a crying and violent Shintarou, locked up in his room, sobbing over being such a cold idiot towards warm and sweet Ayano, sobbing over being such an unworthy companion to lonely Haruka and even fiery Takane, two upperclassmen who were suddenly declared missing.

And then there was Momo feeling guilty about her dad’s death, Momo becoming an idol, Momo worrying about her older brother as he mourned, Shintarou worrying about her even if he spent most of his time being a NEET surfing the Internet, worrying about his mother who worked too much for them, worrying about why he should go out and go back to school, stuck in depression, despair, darkness…

…and then he spilled his computer on his keyboard while he had a fight with Ene, forcing him to go out to buy a new one in the department store. There was a terrorist attack, he and the hostages were saved with his help and the Mekakushi Dan’s help, but he got shot, and then he woke up, miraculously alive in the Mekakushi Dan’s base. After that, there were many events, like reluctantly going out to the amusement park, going to Miss Mary’s house in the forest, getting killed by a darkened Konoha on a street, meeting Ayano in the Heat-Haze Daze, meeting a less violent and more upright Konoha on a street, seeing the Heat-Haze Daze swallow Hibiya and Hiyori up, and then there was a picture of Ayano, her parents, and Tsubomi, Kousuke, and Shuuya leading Shintarou to remember so many things that were recorded by his once-closed Eyes.

He gained his Eyes from a monstrous-looking Miss Mary, promising to never forget the tragedy, and then after so many loops, he and Ayano-Ayano with eyes as red as Shintarou’s-managed to hold Mary back and stop that cruel Snake from killing their precious friends, Kenjirou Tateyama was reunited with Ayaka Tateyama in death, and the cruel Snake was forced into inactivity by a wish from Konoha. Things seemed peaceful after that, but Miss Mary started to act more violent, more unstable, all because of a Snake inside her affecting her immature mind, and then Kousuke killed himself for Mary’s sake. After Kousuke died, Shintarou and the Dan confronted her, and Miss Mary killed them all, while Shintarou transferred his mind into Miss Mary’s mind, bringing him back to when she got the Snake that allowed Miss Mary to turn back time, and then a family was fixed, a promise to keep on moving forward was made, a family called themselves “Hanazono,” and for more than a century, Shintarou lived as Miss Mary’s mental friend, up until he decided to part ways with Miss Mary and integrate himself into the mind of this timeline’s Shintarou.

Then, loneliness struck Shintarou again. Being more than a century old in terms of his mind and being too mature to hang out with a bunch of kids in elementary school led to him being ostracized by kids, because he seemed like a big killjoy to them, and talking to his parents seemed like a bad idea, as he understood a lot of things that they didn’t. He didn’t want to skip school, but he wanted the kids to grow up properly. He didn’t want them to end up like him or Miss Mary. He found himself in a deadlock, and eventually, he decided to play truant, take a guitar from the school’s music room, and run to the park to play music all alone.

And then he met her. She was Ayano Tateyama, but she wasn’t quite the same as the ones he had met in past timelines.

Still, he felt like some things never changed.

He cried when she showed concern for him. He cried with a mix of sadness and joy.

Even though he failed Ayano Tateyama so many times, and even though she was different from all the other Ayano Tateyamas, he was glad to meet her again. She was his most cherished memory, the form his Snake took when he communicated with it in his mind.

“I’ll lose you someday, I’m sure. I’ll lose my family, I’ll lose my friends. Tragedy will strike us all. But I surely will cherish you while you live, and I will not take all our memories together for granted, both the good and the bad, when you’re gone, while I keep on moving forward to the future, while I keep on learning from the past. I promise. I promise that I won’t fail you. For our sakes. For my past friends’ sakes. For my past precious ones’ sakes. I can still move forward, and all of you, my family, my friends, and even you, my lover…even if all of you won’t be beside me anymore, all of you will be pushing me forward. I will move forward. I will grow up.”

Shintarou’s words resounded in Ayano’s mind as she watched his past interactions with her and the Muffleriders. It was a long story, indeed.

And at that point, her surprisingly strong fortitude had reached its limit, and it seemed like Shintarou’s fortitude reached its limit as well, as they wrapped each other in a teary embrace.

They didn’t say coherent words. Shintarou was weeping on her shoulder, while Ayano sobbed on his shoulder. Ayano found it hard to form more understandable words after feeling the weight of Shintarou’s detailed memories.

They cried and cried.

“I…I’m…I’m here for you…” Ayano managed to whisper as she cried. “I’ll always…always be with you…”

“Yeah…I guess so…” Shintarou softly replied. “And, uh…maybe we should go out and get some fresh air…and clear our heads…”

“Mm.” The girl in red pulled back and nodded.

They went out of the house. They stood in front of it, leaning side-by-side, with their hands helds tight, on a cherry blossom tree that was blooming.

Ayano remembered something she read once when she looked up at the flowers. Something about the transience of things. Mono no aware. She felt her chest tighten when she thought of losing Shintarou, even though she knew that he was pretty durable thanks to his Snake. The possibility was still there, and she didn’t like thinking about it.

And hey, maybe Shintarou needed some strongly pleasurable experiences after reliving all those heavy memories, so…

“Hey…Shintarou.”

“Hm? Wha-”

She knew that he would catch on quickly, so she wrapped her red scarf around his neck. Then, she pulled his face down and close to hers, but not to the point that their lips would touch.

“Do you know what I want right now, Shintarou?” Ayano asked in a low whisper, eyelids lowering to show her desire for him.

“You want to give me a really memorable kiss?” Shintarou whispered back with a grin. “I’d really love one right now.”

Ayano found no need for words in her next reply. She took her lover’s lips in, and he took hers, all while she kept themselves close with her scarf. Wanting to make sure that he remembers the experience very well, she took the lead and let her tongue enter his mouth, let it dance and be sucked, and let their saliva mix. Really electrified and really melting, even though it took a lot of breath away, that’s what Ayano felt.

But hey, she didn’t think that was enough, so she pulled back, leaving a dazed Shintarou going “Huh?” Not wasting time, and wanting to make both of them feel more pleased, she bit a part of his neck and sucked on it. She did more bites on his neck, slowly licking the spots before she bit and kissed them, enjoying the moans that her lover let out. And then she went back to sucking his mouth off, tightening the hold of her scarf on their necks.

And while she was enjoying Shintarou’s kinda sweet and kinda sour mouth, he abruptly pulled away, leaving her going “Huh?” this time. She expected her lover to do something like biting her neck as well, or maybe something nau-

“Ayano…uh…your dad…”

-ghtier…wait…what?

Ayano’s head swung to the right.

“…”

The bespectacled man in front of the couple looked like a villainous scientist (Remembering how the Kenjirou Tateyama in Shintarou’s memories acted, Ayano hoped that he didn’t actually turn into one, though), with glasses reflecting off light, silently staring with his mouth wide-open. Beside him was a brown-haired boy, looking like he had seen his parents doing naughty stuff.

“Hey, Dad, I’m hom-wait…Sis?”

Good thing Kousuke didn’t catch them in the act (Ayano hoped). Pure and innocent Kousuke didn’t need to see her older sister being pervy. Oh wait, he’ll still know about what happened somehow.

“…”

Ah, and the gang’s all here too. Stylish Tsubomi, adorable Shuuya, mature Mary, peppy Momo, fiery Takane, and gentle Haruka.

Oh, and Aunt Hiyori! Hello there! And Ayaka Tateyama, the older Asahina sister, stood beside Aunt Hiyori.

There was a very heavy silence for a bunch of seconds.

Then, Hibiya slowly turned to Kenjirou, and he asked him a question.

“Puberty is tough, huh, old man?” he said with a monotone.

Kenjirou adjusted his glasses.

“Where did my pure little warrior princess go…?” the older man rasped. He then waddled back to the house, muttering. Hibiya followed, waddling and muttering as well.

And it looks like Ayaka and Hiyori caught them in the act too, considering the lecture that they got from the older Asahina sister.

After that, Ayano and Shintarou sat down on a sofa, faces red as their red pieces of apparel. They endured the cackling of Kenjirou Tateyama and Hibiya Amamiya…

“Surely…our plan will keep them from doing stupid things! Hehehehe…”

“Protect Hiyori from perverts…I’m the best for her…We certainly have the best plans, hehehehe…”

“Kenjirou, calm down! You’re going mad scientist again!”

“What did I tell you about your creepy and disgusting attitude, Hibiya?”

…the teasing comments from Takane Enomoto and (unexpectedly) Haruka Kokonose…

“So…how was it, Ayano? I did not expect you to be taking the lead there…”

“Huh…you…y-you saw us?”

“I saw you two! You looked like you were having fun, Ayano-chan! Takane-chan should get lessons from you~”

“Uh…uhm…I don’t know what to say…”

“Huh? I thought Takane would be the one who’s usually on top, considering her personality.”

“Well, Takane-chan is pretty shy, and she often-Mmph!”

“Don’t say it, Haruka! Don’t fucking say it! And stop smiling, Shitaragi! Haruka, I know you’re laughing at me, so stop doing that!”

“Hm, now that I think about it, it’s not surprising…”

“SHUT UP, SHITARAGI!”

…the curiosity of Kousuke Seto, Shuuya Kano, and Momo Kisaragi…

“So…your brother and my sister were making out, huh?”

“Well, I’m okay with them, but…I feel weird after seeing them in the act…”

“Ah…so that’s what ‘making out’ means…”

“Wait…you don’t know what making out is, Shuu?”

“Uhhh…I didn’t know up until now, Momo-chan. So that’s why Tsubomi-chan slapped me in the face during that one time…”

“Shuuya, you asked Tsubomi to make out with you during that time, while not knowing what ‘making out’ meant, huh?”

“Umm…yes.”

“…I have failed in being Shuu’s guardian spirit again.”

“But Momo, eventually, he has to know, and we have to know too!”

“Shut up, Kousuke, you’re making me feel weirder!”

“Momo-chan…are you curious about making out too?”

“Shuu, you are not helping.”

“…huh? Uh, um…sorry…”

“Aaaaand Momo’s blushing and speechless. Shuuya, let’s go out for a bit. I guess it’s time for some man-to-man talk.”

“…okay…I hope Momo-chan gets better…”

“Shintarou, what’s Momo saying?”

“Ayano…looks like my sister has a crush on Rider Grey.”

“Shut up, Big Bro…shut up…”

…and Tsubomi and Mary Kozakura…who were kinda out of place.

“Tsubomi, I ship you with Kousuke.”

“Sis, why are you trying to pair me up with Kousuke?

“I have a long list of reasons. Wanna read it?”

“Sis, I won’t be focusing on getting a boyfriend until I graduate from high school.”

“Date Kousuke after you two graduate, then.”

“Sis, why are you so adamant about this?”

“BECAUSE I WANT TO STOP SINNING!”

“…”

“…”

“…Sis. If you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, then I’d like to say that that revelation is almost as disturbing as that time when I accidentally saw our grandparents doing…but still…ugh…I think need to go to the bathroom…”

Ayano liked Miss Mary, but if the quarter-medusa did something unspeakable to Kousuke…well, let’s just say that Asahina-style rage will be falling upon Miss Mary.

As the brown-haired girl glared at a blushing quarter-medusa, Ayano felt a hand on her shoulder.

“Shintarou?”

Her lover, who called for her attention, sighed and shook his head.

“Don’t worry, she hasn’t done anything to your brother.” He turned to look at Miss Mary. “You know I can prove that, right, Mary?”

Miss Mary’s face returned to its usual paleness as she raised an eyebrow at Shintarou and Ayano. After a few moments, she smiled in understanding and nodded.

“Yup,” Miss Mary said with hands raised. “I swear that I have only fantasized about him, nothing more, ehehe…” she added with some pink on her cheeks and an embarrassed smile on her face.

Ayano groaned and glared at the Mystical. That lasted for a few seconds, though, as she recalled recently witnessed flashes of a weak and screaming Mary Kozakura.

“Miss Mary?”

“Yes, Miss Ayano?”

[Ayano Tateyama. Mary holds great respect for her. She did something Mary failed to do: taking initiative. The girl who considered red as the color of heroes was not perfect, and it’s understandable, but as we went through this timeline, Mary and I took time to learn great things from our memories of her, the girl who wore red scarf even if it was summer, the girl who was mostly average at school, the girl who often thought that she couldn’t do anything great.]

The Ayano beside Shintarou smiled, feeling inspired. She knew that that Ayano wasn’t her, but hey, it’s not like she can’t learn from that version of herself.

“I’d like to know more about your past. Shintarou told me that you’re really old.”

Mary giggled. Shintarou was smiling.

“Yes,” the girl with thick white hair answered. “If it’s fine with you, then I will tell you about them.”

Ayano wasn’t just curious about Mary and Shintarou’s past. The memories still seemed heavy on the two, considering the subtle bags under their eyes. Talking about such a thing, Ayano understood how hard it was to discuss. They probably needed confidants, people with minds and hearts strong enough to handle an onslaught of heavy memories.

Fortunately, Ayano was willing to take the burden. For the happiness of all her loved ones, she was willing to endure suffering. She knew that she can’t handle all of the memories, but she also knew that she still can be of help to them.

Ayano Tateyama nodded.

“I’ll do my best!” the girl in red declared, wearing the brightest smile that she could form.

Even with his Recording Eyes, Shintarou Kisaragi knew that he wasn’t a perfect person.

Even though he, Mary, and Azami promised to move on from their past of repetitions, Shintarou Kisaragi decided to rent Room 107 of that apartment when he started his final year of high school. And that was just the tip of the iceberg, as he and Mary had become close to this timeline’s version of the members of the (non-existent) Mekakushi Dan, and Azami revived her family.

Still, it wasn’t like they didn’t deserve praise. Shintarou and Mary got along with different versions of their loved ones. Azami decided to wear her medusa aspects proudly and properly. Shintarou, Mary, and Azami comfortably considered their current selves a far cry from their more cowardly past selves.

Maybe Shintarou and Mary were still cowards, still hanging around with people who were similar to their past loved ones instead of going to look for completely different people. Maybe Azami was still a coward, not letting her family stay dead and letting their deaths haunt her. But hey, they were sure that the loved ones they had weren’t worthless. Different from what they were used to, but still not worthless. They had some regrets as they went on with this chapter of their lives, but they didn’t dare do things like “resetting time,” being a NEET, or moping alone in some torturous dimension. Going back to the past, they agreed that it was totally impossible. Even if Azami “turned time back,” they knew that the world they’ll meet will never be the same.

So there, they decided to keep on moving forward instead, all while they learned from the past. This world is where the three, the three who held fragments of the Snake of Recording Eyes, atone for their sins and live happier lives.

And yes, they would confidently say that they are living happier lives. Mary, although she could never meet her late father, had her loving family in Tsubomi, Shion, Tsukihiko, and Azami. She had a lot more friends all over the world, and she thanked the Internet for giving her a way to communicate with them and help them be happy. Azami found many beautiful things in the world in her travels with her family. Her faith in humanity was tougher than steel, and so was her faith in all the other Mysticals who revealed themselves to the rest of the world. And Shintarou, he managed to be more than some NEET with superhuman eidetic memory. Taking a name based on a song that he wrote, he went to work as a musician, and he gained a bigger and more powerful circle of friends.

Their journey was rough, and they made mistakes along the way, but they moved forward.

Now, Shintarou slept more comfortably than ever. Having his power in control gave him that comfort…although he did get too comfortable back then, causing him to sleep in.

Anyway, Shintarou slept better.

Still…August 15 wasn’t his favorite day. Mary and Azami shared the same sentiment too.

“Did you kill that sadist looper, Azami?” Shintarou asked, frowning as he waited for all the guests to arrive.

“I wished it into trapping itself in a Heat-Haze Daze, boy,” Azami replied with a straight face, looking at the lake surrounding her family’s house in the forest.

“We saw her wish it, Shintarou,” Mary added, smiling warmly as she sat on the railing of the second floor balcony. “Our Recording Eyes prove that, although they’re fragmented or not perfect even when whole, so I guess I understand. Grandmother’s birthday aside, August 15 isn’t a favorite day of ours.”

Anxiety often plagued Shintarou, Mary, and Azami during August 15. The birthday celebrations for Azami were calming, but they found it hard to loosen up. Live lives where things go horribly wrong every August 15, and Shintarou, Mary, and Azami will consider you a member of the Heat-Haze Club. Surprisingly, they had met people who were like that, but they still didn’t know the whole truth behind the founding trio’s in-joke.

The whole world didn’t need to know everything about them.

And besides, the trio already had their closest loved ones in the loop about it, and for now, that was enough for them.

“Happy birthday, Loli Grandma Azami!”

“Sometimes, I wish I looked more mature physically,” the full-blooded medusa turned to tell the Muffleriders and their families, “but still, I am grateful for all your greetings.”

“That’s just the first batch of greetings, though, Loli Grandma,” Shintarou decided to add with a grin.

“Well, I am prepared for them,” Azami answered with a smile before turning to broadly smile with fierceness at the crowd before the three. “Now, who among you are looking forward to-”

There was an approaching battle cry from behind Azami, but that lost its strength and became more distant as the source of the cry got punched by a big fist of black hair and then went splashing into the lake.

“Let the annual Heat-Haze Daze Survivor Memorial Showdown begin!” Mary gleefully declared as she punched another approaching attacker away with the help of her hair.

By the way, most of Azami’s, Mary’s, and Shintarou’s supporters didn’t really know the whole truth about it, but the three told them some things about her August 15 blues so that they could better endure the pain that they felt every time that day came.

“Haha-AZAMI! Hahaha-MARY! THEY GOT M-AHAHAHA!”

“GRANDMOTHER! Ahahaha!”

Now, they didn’t regret that choice very much.

“PUSH ‘EM INTO THE LAKE!”

“Fools! Be careful! Ahaha-This is fun, but, oh my oh my, uh, uhhh…”

“Don’t worry, we do our best to make sure that this is safe enough!”

Still didn’t stop Azami from screaming uncharacteristically, though.

Don’t worry, she’s safe. And laughing happily.

As for Shintarou and Mary, they were being tickled. Along with Azami, they also found themselves more comfortable with letting themselves lose to their “enemies” in the showdown.

Now, the trio and their visitors were in the cool water, smiling and playing.

Sad memories were still vivid in their minds, but the happy memories were vivid too. They considered that an adequate reason for them to keep on moving forward.

And indeed, they had already found more than enough reasons for them to live on and move forward more happily everyday.

Advertisements

Feel free to say something!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s