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The Strangest Romance Route

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It was easy for Futaba to talk to Ryuji. He listened to whatever she said, laughed at her stupid jokes, and never made her feel boring or awkward—which was something more common than she hoped when she still went to school. When they went out together, he always kept an eye on her, even when he was talking to someone else; always made sure she was close, and took her to a less crowded place whenever she started to feel anxious. In a way, he was as caring as Akira, except that, to her, Akira was like an older brother, who she loved with her whole heart. And, while she came to love Ryuji with her whole heart as well, she would be lying if she said it was anywhere close to a brotherly feeling.

To put it in easier terms, if Futaba was Mario, then Akira was Luigi, and Ryuji was Princess Peach—a big and buff version of Peach, sure, but still… What mattered was that, if she was the protagonist, he was the love interest.

That should be cute, right? To be in love, especially with a close friend… nothing could sound more ideal than that—except for the fact that Ryuji was the densest creature to ever walk the Earth, and each time her sad attempts of flirting went over his head, it felt more like a critical hit to her guts.

Hey Ryuji… Do you want to come eat a piece of cake at my castle? You have no castle, and since when can you bake? Are you the Fire Lord, or just the hottest guy around? I’m neither and I’m freezin’… Gimme my hoodie back. You know what you have in common with Majima? You’d also look great in fishnets! I… really didn’t need that image in my head… I should call you Alduin, cuz I’d let you end me anytime. What the fuck, Futaba?

To be fair, her flirting skills weren’t that good either.

But her tragedy would end that very day. She invited Ryuji to accompany her to Akihabara, since Akira—her accomplice in crime—was too busy posing for his Inari boyfriend, and what a shame… It would have to be only the two of them now.

Ryuji, of course, didn’t suspect a thing, which was both good and terrible for Futaba, who knew she needed every help she could get to make him understand what she meant. But she tried not to lose hope: that day she would make it clear enough, in a way that not even Ryuji would be able to misinterpret—or so she hoped.

“Okay…” she said, stopping in front of that claw machine, rubbing her hands together and taking deep breaths. “Here we are.”

“Is this the important thing you said you had to do?” asked Ryuji.

“No, it’s just the first step.”

“To what?”

Futaba analyzed the prizes from every angle, trying to come up with a good strategy to get them.

“Patience, young grasshopper…” she said, slightly distracted. “Everything will come to place in time.”

“I’ve got no idea what you’re sayin’, but… sure?”

When she was done studying their positions, she looked at Ryuji, indicating the machine with a gesture.

“In short, I need to get one of these,” she said. “ It’s important.”

Ryuji looked at that pile of Jack Frost dolls.

“They’re kinda cute, I guess,” he said.

“That’s not important.”

Her answer only seemed to confuse him.

“Why do you want it, then?” he asked.

“It’s a se-cret,” she half-singed in response. “Just wish me luck.”

Ryuji simply shrugged, probably used to her stubbornness by that point.

“Okay…” he said, leaning against the machine. “I’ll be cheerin’ for you here.”

Futaba glared at him.

“That’s the worst cheering I’ve ever seen…”

“C’mon…” protested Ryuji. “I’m doing my best here.”

“You’re not,” she answered, putting a coin in that machine, “and I resent you for that.”

“Want me to sing a song of encouragement for you?”

“No, thanks… I take it back, you’re doing great.”

Futaba got in position, her heart doing jumping jacks inside her chest. She pressed a button and the claw started to move; she held her breath, focusing all her attention on a single box, then, when the timing was just right, pressed the button again. The claw went down, then closed around a box, lifting it. Shocked, Futaba let go of the controls.

“I got it!” she yelled.

“Holy shit…” said Ryuji, staring at the box. “That was quick!”

The two of them watched the claw move in anxious silence, the box shaking precariously as if about to escape it.

“Please don’t fall…” muttered Futaba. “Please don’t fall…”

It didn’t. The claw opened, dropping the box in the opening. With a muffled screech, she reached for the prize, staring at the smiling Jack Frost picture in disbelief.

“I did it…” she said. “I really got one on my first try!”

She raised the box above her head, The Legend of Zelda style. Her enthusiasm made Ryuji giggle.

“For someone who didn’t care about the doll, you sure look happy,” he said.

“Of course I am!” retorted Futaba. “Ohh… Now is my chance. My luck is maxed… all stars are aligned in favor of Futaba Sakura!”

“Why are you so worried about your luck?” Ryuji raised his eyebrow, curious. “Are you gonna summon a demon or somethin’?”

Futaba shook her head.

“No…” she said. “Not a demon this time.”

“This time?”

That was her chance. Oh boy… she definitely wasn’t ready for it, but it was now or never. She turned to face Ryuji, moving the box to her left arm so she could point at him with the other.

“I’ll summon a boyfriend instead!”

She said it in a slightly loud voice, regretting it not even a second later. Ryuji looked at her with a blank, lost expression, and her anxiety started to grow at an alarming rate, making her stomach turn, hands get cold, and a high-pitched noise flood her ears.

“You,” she clarified. “I meant you. Please, be my boyfriend.”

Ryuji blinked confused, as if she had spoken in an unknown language.

“Me…?” he repeated.

Futaba groaned in frustration.

“I don’t see any other Ryuji Sakamotos around…” she said. “Oh shit, I’m getting nervous. I want to puke.”

“Wait, really?”

“Just answer me!”

He stared at her for a whole minute, and Futaba was starting to think she had accidentally fried his brain when he finally answered.

“Yes! I mean…” he placed a hand on the side of his neck, seeming slightly embarrassed. “I can do that.”

Futaba couldn’t deny that the answer got her by surprise.

“Can you?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

She narrowed her eyes.

“Can you really?” she insisted.

“I said I…” Ryuji sighed, averting his gaze. “You want me to be your boyfriend or not?”

“I do!” answered Futaba with a groan. “But I also feel like I’m dying. My stomach hurts…”

In a second, Ryuji’s flustered expression gave place to pure concern.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“I’m really about to puke…”

“Holy shit…!”

Without wasting time, Ryuji lifted her up like a small child and dashed across the place toward the bathroom, getting inside of it and taking her to one of the free stalls, almost bumping against a girl on her way out.

“Sorry, we gotta pass!” he said.

They reached the toilet just in time for Futaba to say goodbye to her breakfast. Ryuji kneeled beside her, holding her hair away from her face. She coughed a few times, seeing bright silver dots everywhere. Ryuji rubbed her back, then helped her stand up, flushing the toilet.

“Are you better?” he asked.

She nodded, then looked behind him, at three girls in high-school uniforms who stared at them with a mix of shock and confusion. It took Futaba’s brain a second to understand what that meant.

“We’re in the girl’s bathroom, aren’t we…?” she asked.

The question made Ryuji widen his eyes. He followed her gaze, and his face immediately became white.

“Fuck!”

He raised both hands, gesturing frantically at them.

“I’m really sorry!” he said. “I didn’t… I didn’t mean to…”

His attempts of an apology broke alongside his voice, and Futaba could feel his panic from where she stood. In an impulsive move, Ryuji dashed to the door.

“Ryuji…!” Futaba called.

Ryuji stopped halfway, then ran back to Futaba, grabbing the Jack Frost box with one hand and her hand with the other, before quickly leading her back outside.

They left the arcade, running as far from it as they could down the street, only stopping when Futaba’s legs and lungs asked for mercy. They sat on a nearby bench so she could catch her breath, then stared at the ground in awkward silence for a long while.

“I feel like a dirty old geezer…” Ryuji groaned, leaning forward and covering his face with both hands. “Damn, this is the worst.”

“If it makes you feel better, at least you didn’t puke after confessing to someone,” reminded Futaba.

Her comment made Ryuji lower his hands, looking at her.

“Hey…” he said, hesitating a little before proceeding. “Were you serious about it?”

Futaba’s stomach turned again, but she managed to calm it down with a long, deep breath.

“I was,” she said. “But it went much better in my head.”

To her surprise, a chuckle escaped from Ryuji’s lips.

“Why are you laughing, you jerk?” she asked, elbowing him in the ribs.

“My bad…” said Ryuji. “But everythin’ kinda went outta the rails real fast.”

Futaba groaned, hugging her knees against her chest.

“It was even worse than my worst-case-scenario…” she muttered. “I can’t even ask for a kiss now.”

Her own words startled her. She stared at Ryuji, worried.

“I mean…” she said. “You were serious about your answer too, right?”

Ryuji averted his gaze, a slight flush spreading through his face.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Oh. Okay, then.”

Futaba looked away as well, staring at the ground while her mind made an effort to absorb everything that had happened in such a short period of time.

“So…” Ryuji broke the silence a while later. “Does it mean we’re going out now?”

“Maybe?” answered Futaba. “Too much info to process… My stomach is hurting again.”

“You need to go back to the—?”

She stared at him in mild annoyance.

“Stop asking questions!” she said. “Just hold me in your arms already!”

“Okay!”

Ryuji opened his arms, and Futaba threw herself into them, embracing his waist, resting her face against his chest. He closed his arms around her, and the first thought in her mind was how they made her feel tiny and warm.

“Feelin’ better now?” he asked.

“Yes,” Futaba smiled as her body relaxed. “Comfy…”

Ryuji placed a hand on her head, caressing her hair, and part of Futaba wanted nothing but to fall asleep right there.

“I have exclusive access to your hugs now, right?” she asked.

“You always had,” reminded Ryuji.

“But now they’re like… Boyfriend hugs. It’s different.”

“And got healing powers, it seems.”

“Exactly!” she laughed to herself. “Ten HP and one MP restored per second.”

Ryuji laughed, and Futaba loved the realization that she was close enough to feel it. All her plans had failed, but knowing that, despite everything, she could still hold him like that…

“Oh no…” she said.

“What?”

She moved away from Ryuji, looking at his face.

“It just came to me that my romance route includes you invading the women’s bathroom while I puke my guts out…” she said. “That’s the worst.”

“When you put it that way… It kinda sounds really bad.”

Futaba sighed, then shrugged it off.

“Well…” she said. “At least I got the best boy in the end.”

That comment made a goofy smile appear on Ryuji’s face.

“Am I your best boy?” he asked.

“A little dense, but yeah… Still the best.”

Ryuji seemed so happy to hear those words that Futaba had to make an effort not to pinch his cheeks.

“Wow… You’re so red,” she commented.

“Shaddup…”

He looked away from her, and his gaze fell on the Jack Frost box beside him.

“Ah,” he said, holding the box, “are you gonna keep this?”

Futaba’s smile turned into a grimace.

“A reminder of my humiliation…” she said. “I’ll use it as a pincushion.”

Her answer made Ryuji frown.

“What? No!” he moved the box away from her reach. “I’ll keep it, then.”

“I’m the one who got it.”

“Yeah, and I’m takin’ it as a gift.”

Futaba frowned at him.

“You can’t just take something as a…” she interrupted her own phrase, shaking her head. “Why am I even explaining this to you?”

Instead of answering, Ryuji placed the box on his lap, taking out the plastic around it.

“Okay,” he said, “he’s mine now.”

“Seems like it…” answered Futaba.

He opened the box while Futaba watched, taking the plushie from inside with an excited smile.

“It’s so cute!” he said.

That expression was enough to melt her heart into a puddle.

“You have no right to say that…” she muttered.

“Uh?” Ryuji looked at her, confused. “Why not?”

She let out a small sigh.

“Forget it…” she said. “Just lemme hug you again.”

Ryuji’s lips curved into a smile. He opened his arms again, and Futaba didn’t waste another second.

 


 

During the following eight months, many things changed in Futaba’s life.

Akira had already gone back to his hometown with Morgana, and, with Yaldabaoth’s defeat, the Phantom Thieves had also come to an end. She started to go to school again, and despite all of her improvements when it came to going out and socializing, it was still difficult to get used to that daily routine. There were days when she simply couldn’t find the energy to leave her bed, and Sojiro didn’t scold her for it, telling her that she should do things on her own rhythm. His endless patience made Futaba feel guilty, but, at the same time, she knew that forcing herself could only make things even worse. Sometimes, it all felt like a no-win situation, where she had to choose between guilty and anxiety.

Among all of those things, her relationship with Ryuji felt almost like a safe haven. Part of her had been scared that going out would change their friendship, but it was now stronger than ever. She felt as if she could talk about her worries to him without the fear of being judged, and—with time—Ryuji started to do the same with her, sharing his concerns and bad thoughts. They stayed together during the good and bad moments, offering support whenever the other needed so both could keep moving.

It was everything she could have ever hoped for, and still… she was worried.

Futaba hadn’t realized before, but the attraction she felt toward Ryuji was far from being sexual. Yes, she loved Ryuji. She loved to be with him. She loved how he looked. She loved to be his girlfriend. Still… When she thought about doing those things with him, it made her feel anxious—not in a “want” kind of way, but more in a very uncomfortable one.

She spent a long time stressing over that, researching about her own asexuality and trying to come to terms with it, while also deciding what to do with their relationship. She considered her options, from having an open relationship to keeping her asexuality a secret from Ryuji, and forcing herself to have sex with him. Those thoughts were enough to make her anxious enough to not want to leave her room, so she soon realized there was only one option left.

That afternoon, when Ryuji visited her in her room, Futaba had already made up her mind, as painful as that decision could be.

“I think we should break up.”

Ryuji’s first reaction was to stare at her in disbelief. His expression slowly changed as he realized that she wasn’t joking, until there was nothing there but a pained confusion.

“Why?” he asked.

Futaba couldn’t answer. It was difficult enough to touch that subject, but seeing Ryuji’s reaction only made everything worse. She lowered her gaze, unable to look at him.

“Did I… do somethin’ wrong?” he asked.

“No, that’s not it.”

She knew she owed him an explanation, so she took a deep breath.

“I’m not normal,” she said.

Her answer only seemed to leave Ryuji more confused.

“Whaddya mean ‘not normal’?” he asked.

“I mean not normal! I…”

Futaba struggled with the words for a long while. No matter how she phrased it, it would still sound immature and embarrassing, and she hated it.

“I can’t be in a normal relationship,” she said. “I don’t like the idea of having sex. I don’t want to do it. With anyone. Not even you.”

“But we never—”

“I know!” Noticing that she had raised her voice, Futaba took another deep breath, proceeding in a more composed tone. “I never did things like this with anyone, but only thinking about it is…”

She tried to find a nice way to explain, but the words didn’t come. It only made her frustration grow, to the point of getting angry at herself. She hugged her knees, lowering her head between them and gritting her teeth.

“I hate it, okay?” She raised her voice again. “I don’t want to do it. I don’t even want to think about doing it. I know I sound like a child, but I don’t want to—”

Her voice cracked. She felt Ryuji’s hand on her back, gently rubbing it.

“Futaba, calm down…” he said in a low voice. “Let’s just talk about it, okay?”

She nodded, ashamed of her own reaction. Talking about those things she was barely able to accept was still too much, and she wanted nothing but to be alone at that moment; but she couldn’t simply break up with Ryuji and send him away like their relationship wasn’t important—because it was, and it only made everything more difficult.

“I’m…” she couldn’t find a way to express herself, so she started again. “I thought a lot about it. I talked to other people online who felt the same way, and I realized that I’m actually asexual. I thought I’d want to do this with you because I like you, but…” she lowered her voice. “The longer we stayed together, the more I realized that I don’t.”

“But do you… still like me?”

“Yes,” she sighed, tired. “I love you. But I don’t function like a normal person.”

“Don’t say that.”

Futaba grunted, tightening her arms around her knees. Ryuji spent some time in silence, thinking.

“So, lemme see if I got this right…” he said. “You wanna be with me, but you don’t wanna, like, do sex stuff with me?”

“I know it’s weird—”

“Stop sayin’ it’s weird,” Ryuji interrupted her. “I just wanna understand.”

She bit her lip, lowering her voice.

“Yes, that’s it.”

Ryuji nodded, spending more time in silence. That lack of response made her feel even more nervous.

“Just break up with me already,” she asked.

“But I don’t wanna break up.”

Futaba stared at him, exasperated.

“Look, this isn’t a thing I can change, okay?” She gesticulated, impatient. “It’s not like I’ll change my mind with time.”

“That’s not what I was thinkin’…”

Ryuji looked at her, opening his mouth, but taking a while to say anything.

“When did you realize it?”

“A few months ago,” she admitted.

“Why didn’t you tell me before?”

Futaba closed her eyes, needing a moment to turn her feelings into words.

“Because I didn’t want to break up either.”

A heavy, painful silence grew between them, and Futaba silently hoped that Ryuji would put an end to it and leave.

“Why do we have to break up ‘cause of it?” he asked.

“Isn’t it obvious?” she said. “Do you really think it could work like this?”

Ryuji let out a small sigh.

“Okay, I admit… I kinda wanted to do stuff like that with you.” He made a pause. “But it’s ‘cause I love you. And there’s no point if it’s somethin’ that’ll make you feel bad.”

Futaba glanced at him, a little uncertain.

“I’m not with you just ‘cause I wanna do this kinda stuff,” he continued. “I like to be with you. Y’know, talk to you, and be together, and play games, and everythin’ else. These are the things that I don’t wanna lose.”

She repeated those words in her mind. Part of her wanted to believe him, but… it wasn’t easy.

“You’ll change your mind,” she said.

Ryuji considered it for a moment.

“Can I prove you wrong?” he asked.

“How?”

“By, y’know… stayin’ with you and all that.”

That honest answer almost made her chuckle.

“You’ll regret it,” she said.

“You don’t know that.”

Futaba lowered her gaze, feeling her throat hurt as a warning that, if things continued like that, she would probably start to cry.

“Ryuji…” she muttered. “Don’t give me hope, okay?”

Ryuji leaned in her direction, carefully placing his hand under Futaba’s chin, making her look at him.

“I mean it,” he said, looking into her eyes. “I want this more than anythin’ in the world. Even if we never have sex, or whatever… That’s fine. I just wanna be with you.”

He cupped her face, leaning in her direction until his forehead touched hers.

“And there’s nothin’ wrong with you, okay?” he whispered. “You’re strong, you’re smart, you’re funny, and I love everything about you… You’re great the way you are, so, please, don’t ever think these bad things about yourself again.”

His gentle words were enough to make her resolve crumble. She sobbed, throwing her arms around Ryuji’s neck, burying her face on his shoulder as she cried away all those heavy thoughts and feelings she had accumulated over the months. Ryuji held her close, waiting in silence as she emptied her heart. Futaba couldn’t even tell how much time passed before she finally started to calm down.

“Wow…” she said, moving slightly away from Ryuji, trying to dry the trails of tears with her sleeve. “I cried so much that I’m feeling dizzy… Give me a tissue.”

Ryuji smiled, reaching for the box of tissues on her bedside table, offering it to her. Futaba took a few, blowing her nose without any grace.

“Gross…” said Ryuji in a playful tone.

“Shut up!”

Futaba laughed to herself, her chest feeling much lighter than it did during those last few months. She looked at Ryuji, making an effort to make a serious expression.

“If you change your mind after all this, you’ll have to buy me something nice,” she said. “Like a new computer. And a video game. And a new cell phone too.”

“Okay.” Ryuji shrugged. “But you’ll be disappointed, ‘cause it ain’t happenin’.”

Futaba leaned against his arm, resting her head on his shoulder.

“Are you really fine with this?” she asked in a low voice.

“Yeah, I am,” he said. “But we’ll have to talk about what’s fine and what ain’t… I don’t wanna do anythin’ that makes you feel bad.”

“Alright.”

He placed his arm around her shoulders, pulling her close.

“Hugs and stuff like this are fine, right?” he asked.

“Of course they are!”

“Okay, then…” he thought for a moment. “How about cuddles? Do you like them?”

“I do.”

“And holdin’ hands?”

“Sure.”

“And kisses?”

That list was enough to make Futaba giggle.

“Kisses are fine too,” she raised her head, looking at him. “I’m fine with the things we did until now, so you don’t need to worry so much.”

“Alright…” Ryuji seemed to relax a little. “Just tell me if I go too far with anythin’, okay?”

“Don’t worry,” she offered him a wide smile. “I’ll kick your ribs if you do.”

Ryuji stared at her in disbelief.

“Just tell me,” he said. “Nicely. Like a good girlfriend.”

“I was never good,” reminded Futaba.

“Yeah, you little gremlin.”

He kissed her head, and Futaba hugged his torso. After being so sure that she would never have the chance to do it again, it felt even better than usual.

“I’m so tired…” she said. “I was so nervous about talking to you that now I just want to lie down and stay here forever.”

“You’ll change your mind when you get hungry.”

“Why do you know me so well?”

They laughed briefly, then lied on her bed, side by side. Just like after confessing to him, Futaba’s mind refused to believe that things had turned out well in the end. If it wasn’t for the feeling of Ryuji next to her, she would be sure that she had hallucinated the whole thing.

“You really don’t mind it?” she asked one more time.

“Stop worryin’ about it,” answered Ryuji, giving her a light knock on the head. “I said it’s okay, didn’t I?”

“You did…”

Futaba turned her body to the side, embracing him and resting her head on his chest.

“You really are the best boy,” she muttered.

Ryuji giggled, playing with her hair.

“I gotta be,” he said. “Can’t risk losin’ my best girl.”

“Ugh, cheesy.”

“You started it!”

Futaba smiled, closing her eyes, enjoying that gentle caress.

“At least I didn’t barf this time,” she said. “That should be an improvement.”

Ryuji laughed at that silly comment, and that sound was still enough to melt her heart.

“I love you so much,” he said.

Hearing those words, especially after such a long time certain that there was no option besides the rejection, meant everything to her. Ryuji had been there for her since the beginning, and, at that moment, she allowed herself to believe that it wouldn’t change.

“What a weirdo…” she muttered in a playful voice.

As strange as their romance route could have been, she wouldn’t change anything about it.