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love transcends

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Stare~

 

He was staring again, wasn't he?

 

She bet he was staring at her legs. Her horrible, unfortunate legs. Her face scrunched up in embarrassment, and her hands tightened around the mop.

 

Oh, the shame! These legs of hers were the downfall for nearly every romantic encounter, every possible romantic attraction! It would take a miracle for her to grow out of them. They seem like they were permanently attached.

 

No matter how much she worked, they seemed to just be a part of her. No matter what she did, guys never wanted to focus on her skills or her cute face, but instead are always distracted by her painfully apparent ankles! She’d bet her ankles that these legs of hers would be the deal breaker for this possible romance, too!

 

Not that she thought Hanako-kun was shallow like that, but he does tend to make cruel jokes...

 

Instead of a charming, caring gentleman, she was bonded to a crude, cryptic apparatus. Instead of falling for a tall, sexy prince, her heart thumped hard and loud for a perverted, secretive spirit. She couldn’t understand why, though.

 

Him, of all people. She liked him!

 

He could be real childish sometimes, which definitely isn't cute at all. And his hair is so choppy and messy, which also isn't cute at all. And sometimes he's too possessive or protective or flirty, which makes her confused and sometimes angry and sometimes overly expectant, and is absolutely not cute at all!

 

And yet, in the rare cases where Hanako displays some weird, off-the-charts cuteness, she just couldn’t help but capture every detail.

 

And to her surprise, it seemed like those cases were becoming less and less rare. He was actually really…

 

Ahh! 

 

She mopped with little attention, mind drifting off to try and imagine a hot prince sweeping her away from here and breaking her spiritual bond with Hanako. She tried to feel ecstatic about being loved by her type.

 

However, the thought made her stomach twist in an awful way. Where these thoughts once brought joy to her, now only seem to bring disdain. She couldn't imagine trying to be severed from Hanako, not when they've already been through so much together. She couldn’t see herself being strongly attached to someone else that wasn’t him.

 

I want you to keep on living…

 

Her face flushed. He really, really cared about her, didn't he? Even when he tried to convince himself and others otherwise, he just couldn't help it.

 

It's been a week or so after the whole "being trapped in a canvas from No. 4" incident. It seemed like Hanako became even more clingy, and she often caught him staring at her as if he didn't care that she could see him. He was still his usual self, overall, but something about him… was odd, or… more intense? Each touch seemed to heat up her face and tingle her skin, and his voice was much more pleasing to her ears. His eyes always looked at her, as if he wanted something…

 

Does he… she gulped, hands shaking slightly, want me?

 

Her mind went straight to the gutter at that point, making her whole body instantly heat up. She shook her head furiously and mopped like a madwoman. There was no way Hanako liked her like she liked him! He probably saw her as a dear friend, a surrogate sibling, a close cousin!

 

Her stomach twisted again, disliking the notion that Hanako might not return her affection. She relented on her insistent refusal.

 

...What if Hanako-kun does like me?

 

A fluttery feeling passed through her, carrying sweet relief and sparkling hope. 

 

She sighed, bumping her forehead on the mop stick. She felt so defenseless against her own emotions.

 

This whole internal conflict began because of his staring and her insecurity. 

 

Ahh. She had a solution. Maybe she should just chop some parts of her legs off and make radish soup…

 

A defeated aura washed over her. She mopped slowly and sadly.

 

One way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, right?

 

"Eek!"

 

A pressure grasped at her legs. A coldness tickled the skin of her calves. She looked down, and had to lean over a bit more until she saw Hanako peeking from behind her legs. He smiled at her, the curve full of mirth. Her hair that was cascading down filtered only some of the sunlight, showing his glowing eyes of amusement.

 

"...What do you think you're doing, Hanako-kun?"

 

"Hmm, well, I've been watching my assistant fluster and freak out for the last ten minutes," his grin widened at the sight of her mortification, "and I thought I would see what's been eating her up."

 

Her face scrunched up. "Nothing is eating me up! I'm fine."

 

Squish.

 

"Nothing~ hmm?" squish squish. She squeaked, unable to move, "Hanako-kun, stop squishing my legs!"

 

"I'm just appreciating your crops."

 

He rubbed his cheek against her leg, and she grimaced. "Oh, you mean my unlikable radish legs…"

 

He was probably just making fun of her… again.

 

He giggled, then tilted his head and aligned his mouth. With his pearly whites revealing themselves, they quickly surrounded her right leg. She squealed again at the sensation that came soon after.

 

"H-H-Hanako-kun!!" her face bloomed, eyes swirling, "W-What—?!"

 

He caressed her leg gently, right next to where he just bit her.

 

"Sorry~ I couldn't help myself." He pinched her leg, making her squeal again. "It just looked so delicious~"

 

She blushed hard, and whacked his head, where he emitted a small ‘ow.’ 

 

"S-Stop that! This sort of teasing isn’t funny!"

 

He rose up in his typical ghost pose and looked at her, thoughtfulness in his expression. She stared back at him with her hands pressing down on her skirt.

 

“Don’t make fun of me like that, Hanako-kun,” she gathered her skirt up into her trembling fists, “I know my legs are ugly.”

 

Oh, no. She felt her eyes welling up. The tears threatened to spill.

 

Crying in front of the person you like? Over a joke? She willed herself to maintain her already unstable composure, Don’t do it, Yashiro Nene!

 

Her head was suddenly swimming, her vision disoriented, the wind knocked out of her chest. Her eyes soon focused onto the apparition right in front of her. The wall on her back was nonexistent to her at that moment, and the clatter of the mop hitting the floor didn't register in her mind. She only felt like she was on fire from head to toe. Hanako’s boyishly handsome face was way too close to her. His left arm was trapping her against the wall, and his right hand was firmly palming her neck. His thumb brushing under her ear was about to make her melt on the spot.

 

Her pounding heart nearly drowned out her meek voice. "H-Hanako-kun?"

 

He grazed his lips against her ear, sending chills down her spine.

 

"I’m sorry, Yashiro.” He whispered in her ear, heavily apologetic. She let out a little ‘eep.’ “I wasn’t trying to make fun of you.”

 

His tender caresses were nothing but faint pressure on her skin, yet they still made her head foggy.

 

"I just… don’t know how to act around you."

 

"What do you mean, Hanako-kun…?" she shuddered, trying to ignore the excitement jumping in her chest. He shifted his shoulders slightly, his voice tinted with chagrin, “I’ve never… done this before. And being alone with you… I just...”

 

A silence passed between the two of them. It seemed like it lasted ages, with her heart beating against his still one. She wondered if he was going to release her anytime soon and play off this whole thing as a joke. Then she could do her usually routine like getting mad, tearing up, blushing a lot, and hitting him for harassing and bewildering her. A small part of her wondered if he was going to dive in further, fueling her growing anticipation.

 

"Yashiro."

 

"Y-Yes?!" 

 

She couldn't see his face, but his overwhelming presence smothered her. He caressed a lock of her hair, before pulling away slowly. His hands rested on her cheeks, and she hoped he didn't somehow burn himself from the heat that radiated off of them. She found herself staring into those large, amber eyes, encapsulating every part of her being.

 

W-What is happening? Why is he staring so hard?

 

His eyes darted a bit lower, and her breath caught in her throat.

 

Kiss… her lips opened slightly, he's going… to kiss… me…?

 

He seemed to be staring intently at her lips now, and the hands on her face tensed up noticeably. There was conflict dancing behind clear desire in his round eyes, and she inwardly shivered at the sight of him being so… needy.

 

She slowly closed her eyes. Her mind was racing to the point where she just couldn't think of anything anymore. His small, hesitant voice broke through.

 

"Can I?"

 

She opened her eyes again. "Huh?"

 

"Can…" a heavy blush adorned his cheeks, lessening his prior intensity and increasing his boyish cuteness, "Can I really…?"

 

His eyes gazed at the floor, occasionally glancing up at her for her awaited approval. Her mind was too fuzzed to even understand what was happening at the moment. But in her heart, she couldn't deny the pounding affection she held for the spirit in front of her. He is her boss, yes, but also her savior in many situations. He is her precious friend, who has shown to only her his softest, most vulnerable thoughts and feelings. Didn't that make her special to him? Her heart fluttered at the idea, and before she could reel in her bursting fondness and abrupt courage, she nodded in agreement.

 

His eyes lit up, like stars in the night sky, and somehow an even brighter blush found way to his face. His surprised countenance melted swiftly into a doting smile. With his hands comfortably cupping her heated face, he pressed his forehead against hers. They closed their eyes and relished the feeling of being close to one another, finally coming to an understanding.

 

At that moment, she realized that there was nothing to deny how they genuinely felt toward each other, and that there was everything before this that had built up to this moment. She knew him well enough that he wouldn't want to kiss her for no reason. He would tease her and sexually harass her often, but the raw emotion present in his actions right now were entirely different. The revelation hit her like a punch to the gut.

 

Hanako-kun likes me.

 

His hands grabbed hers in a careful manner, lifting them up to his chest. He pulled back slightly to stare into her ruby eyes, before his own eyes slid shut once more. Slowly, ever so slowly, he began to lean in. His head tilted slightly, and his mouth opened just a bit. Her jumpy heart was clawing its way up her throat, and she felt her lightheadedness drive away all rational thought.

 

This is it, this is it!!

 

We’re in the bathroom, though!! A part of her reminded. This is gonna make for an awkward memory!

 

A couple of louder voices hissed, Shut up!! We’re about to have our first kiss!!

 

Squeezing her eyes shut, she mustered all of her might and pressed forward—

 

Bang!

 

“Ouch!” Hanako yelped, holding his forehead with his hands. His behind was abruptly met with the floor. 

 

Her mind went quiet, until all the voices conjoined into one.

 

Eh…? EH?!

 

Her hands covered her mouth in horror. The throbbing pain in her skull was nothing compared to the absolute humiliation of ruining her first kiss.

 

“H-Hanako-kun…” she stammered with quivering lips. A million words wanted to spill out from her mouth, half of them being some sort of apology, and the other half wanting to ask him if he was okay. 

 

The sentence tumbled out from her tongue, “Are you really sorry?!”

 

The puzzled look on Hanako’s face made her want lightning to strike her down then and there.

 

No, wait! She wanted to scream, That’s not what I meant!!

 

“Yashiro—”

 

She tried again, “I’m so hurt?!”

 

His petrified expression had her punching and kicking and stabbing herself inwardly.

 

“Are you hurt?” is what I wanted to ask.

 

“I’m so sorry!” is what I wanted to say.

 

Kill me, now, please.

 

She zipped her mouth and forced her eyes shut, before rushing past him. He reached his hand out to her, but only managed to graze his fingertips on her wrist. She slammed the door open and ran out—

 

Bang!

 

Ahh. Again?

 

Her throbbing head hit something warm and hard. The person she ran into stumbled back, but held their ground.

 

“Ah! Senpai, are you okay?”

 

Kou checked over his upperclassman friend for any damage, but he only saw the redness of her face.

 

“I-I’m fine!” she waved her hands frantically, “No worries! Gotta go. Sorry, Kou-kun!”

 

Kou watched Nene run hurriedly down the hall, disappearing around the corner. He turned back to the inside of the bathroom, where Hanako was still inhabiting a cold seat on the floor, staring at the doorway. He marched over to the ghost and said accusingly, “What did you do to Senpai now?!”

 

...Nothing.

 

Kou waved his hand in front of Hanako’s face, who seemed to be in a deep trance. He placed his hands on his hips and furrowed his eyebrows.

 

What has gotten into them?

 

“...Kid.” Hanako finally voiced, “I think my heart stopped.”

 

Kou was past befuddled at this point. “Hah? But you’re dead, of course it stopped.”

 

He didn’t understand him, and that was fine with Hanako. Because nothing could topple this feeling, the feeling of having your love requited. He never thought he would see the day this would occur. He never believed that she would ever take notice of him and his unspoken emotions, given her bad taste in men and her desperation for her type of guy. But he wanted her to, he wanted her to notice him.

 

I don’t… hate him. 

 

I like him.

 

The person I like isn’t here.

 

Since the fake world incident, he now saw a very real, possible chance with Yashiro. She said it herself, to him, that she liked Hanako-kun.

 

He was Hanako-kun!!

 

Of course, he thought, maybe it was platonic. But with how relentless she was with making him escape with her, with trying to return to the real world because he wasn’t in the fake utopia one, made it hard to believe. 

 

She may very well like him just as much as he liked her, which was hard to compare, because he liked her a lot.

 

He shot up from the floor, fixing his hat and his uniform. He had to chase after her. Ack! He should’ve chased after her the moment she fled. But there was so much to process, he was frozen by sheer disbelief. What a fool he was, for he could have been sharing a long-awaited kiss with his beloved by now.

 

He patted Kou’s head, who had been silently wondering to himself during Hanako’s reflection. Kou swatted his hand away and scowled, “Where are you going? What is happening? Can you please tell me?!”

 

“After Yashiro, of course,” Hanako paused, “but don’t disturb us. We’re going to be busy~”

 

“H-Huh?!” Kou recoiled, blushing at the innuendo, “Busy with what?! Hey!!”

 

The giggling ghost floated away fast, leaving the young man alone. Kou grumbled to himself, “That dirty rotten perv…”

 

Kou knew how much Hanako cared about Yashiro, so he definitely didn’t think he would hurt her in any way. Hanako would probably hurt himself ten times over for who knows how long before he would harm Yashiro. But that didn’t mean Hanako couldn’t get carried away with his greedy, ghost hands and persuade Yashiro’s kind, hopelessly romantic heart into doing naughty things!

 

“Oh, no!” Kou’s grip on his raiteijou stiffened, “I can’t let him do that to cute, innocent Senpai!”

 

Turning on his heel, he began his chase after them.

 


 

A girl sat by her lonesome atop the school’s highest roof. She tucked her folded legs into her chest, burying her face into her knees. Someone could look up at the sky and see steam rising above the school, wondering if there was some sort of leak. Instead, it was just her, face hot and head steaming and body sweaty.

 

"I'm so gross!" she whined, "Everything happened so quickly, I had no time to prepare…"

 

Nene used to imagine going on her first date with a tall, handsome boy, where they'd both be dressed in nice clothes and wearing good-smelling perfumes. Then they would enjoy a romantic evening by watching a movie, eating at a nice restaurant, taking a walk in the park, then sharing a gentle first kiss under the moonlight! Yet she was just about to have her first kiss in the girls' bathroom.

 

With Hanako-kun…

 

Her face continued burning. Even if she liked Hanako, it did little to erase her romantic fantasies. She would've wanted them to at least been on a date. But with so much happening in their lives, it was hard to come to terms with her feelings, let alone think up a good date with Hanako if they could only go around the school.

 

Nene sighed as she stared outward. The sun was going to set soon. She'd been in the school for too long.

 

She was surprised that Kou was still here, too, since part of her believed that he was tired and had gone home. He hadn't met up with them at the usual time, so she presumed he had been busy with some class or club or older brother of his. He must've thought something weird was going on between her and Hanako, though…

 

Just a human girl and a ghost boy silently revealing their feelings to each other in the girls' bathroom after school, no big deal.

 

And yet, the thought made her heart pump with joy, and a small smile broke through.

 

As embarrassed as she is with "Round One" being a miserable failure, she was quite confident there'd be a "Round Two."

 

And maybe a "Round Three," "Round Four," "Round Five"...

 

A pair of hands grabbed her shoulders from behind, making her jolt from shock.

 

"I~ found~ you~"

 

He whispered in her ear. She endured the rush of warmth that flooded her head and turned around. Hanako grinned at her, before perching on the spot beside her.

 

"Yashiro," he eyed her with amusement, but asked sincerely, "is your head okay?"

 

She nodded quickly. He breathed a sigh of relief, "That's good, because I really thought that you were going to knock yourself out."

 

She couldn't quite put her finger on it, but he seemed a lot more assured than before. Inwardly, she clenched her fists and nodded her head in determination. She was reassured, too. She liked Hanako, and he liked her, so there was no reason to be timid about it!

 

He looked forward to the setting sun, almost pouty. Almost, he would promise. "You should've let me initiate it. We could've kissed by now."

 

A few chuckles escapes her mouth, before she was full-out laughing. She held her stomach as tears sprung in her eyes. 

 

He couldn't help but stare.

 

And then he frowned. 

 

"Why are you laughing?"

 

"B-Because," she wiped her eyes, "you're just… really cute, Hanako-kun!"

 

She looked over at him, in which his big blush from before had come back for vengeance. He pulled his hat downward and glared at her.

 

"I-I'm not cute."

 

He pinched her cheek, making her whine. "You're cute!"

 

Her blush renewed, and her heart jumped, but she didn't let her embarrassment take over so easily.

 

"But Hanako-kun, my ugly radish legs aren't cute…"

 

Okay, so maybe she couldn't stop her insecurity from taking over. It was her first time outwardly flirting with her crush, give her a break.

 

He nearly rolled his eyes, but instead, went ahead and grabbed one of her legs. She squealed, "H-Hey!"

 

"This," he pointed at her leg with his free hand, before giving her a thumbs up, "is good."

 

"Good?" she puffed her cheeks, "But you always make fun of my legs!"

 

"I was just teasing you…"

 

"Your teasing isn't very funny."

 

"I can't help it sometimes!" he defended, "I told you I don't know how to…!"

 

He waved his hands around, forming odd gestures.

 

She leaned in expectantly, "To…?"

 

"To…" he bit his cheek, "to not insult you."

 

She clenched her fist threateningly. He held his hands up in surrender.

 

"Are you saying that I'm easy to insult?"

 

"No," he looked up, "well, maybe. But that's not what I meant! I meant that it's hard for me to be straightforward with people, especially you!"

 

She looked at him suspiciously, "Are you sure about that? You're pretty vulgar."

 

"Yashiro~" he murmured, "I'm not that bad."

 

She gave him another deadpan look. He clutched his heart. "Ouch."

 

"But why?" she scooted closer to him, "Why are you always so roundabout with me?"

 

"Why else?" he brought himself closer, too.

 

His hand landed on top of hers, and since he wasn't pulling away, she could say that it was intentional. The rhythm of her heart escalated again, and she looked up to gaze into his own observant eyes.

 

The sun had set long ago, rendering the sky dark, yet not empty. The stars shone above them, twinkling in interest at the couple below.

 

Ignoring their circumstances, their problems, their enemies, their fates, they decided to focus on each other. Just for a moment, they chose to cherish this chance before it slipped away.

 

"Yashiro…"

 

"Y-Yes?"

 

Is he going to confess? For real, this time??

 

"I…" his hand held hers tighter, "I like your radish legs!"

 

Her eyebrows strung together, "Eh?"

 

"But that's not all…" he moved his other hand to cup her face, brushing her bottom lip, "I like a lot of things about you."

 

She blushed, and opened her mouth, yet couldn't say a word.

 

"I like you, Yashiro."

 

She erupted into a hot mess, and her eyes glistened with affection. Although before she could reply, he swooped down quickly and planted his lips onto hers.

 

Her free hand caught him by the shoulder as their eyes slid close. She was blooming like a ripening tomato while he continued to push into her. His lips molded against hers, capturing her mouth and stealing each breath. Their intertwined hands never let go, and she half-recognized the coldness of the roof on her back.

 

Hanako-kun is kissing me!! I'm kissing Hanako… kun… ack…

 

She nudged his shoulder with her hand, but he seemed very indulged in the kiss. With a hard push, she managed to peel him off as she inhaled deeply. With her heavily breathing, they stared at each other once more with red faces. His hooded eyes then trailed down her messy clothes, before coming back up to inspect her pink lips. He brushed his finger over the bottom part of her lip again.

 

She grabbed the hand on her face and looked to the side, using the hand to shield half of her face.

 

"Hanako-kun, you idiot! I-I still need to breathe…"

 

She realized that the world appeared sideways, then looked up at the apparition trapping her.

 

"Am I laying down?"

 

He snorted, before smiling cheekily, "Yes~"

 

His form was outlined by the glow of the moon, and his grin outshone all the stars. She felt her breath disappear again, though this time, not from passionate kissing. Speaking of which…

 

She flushed, "Hanako-kun, a first kiss should be gentle!"

 

"Sorry~" he sang, absolutely void of regret, "I was just trying to make your lips swollen."

 

Her eyes widened, "W-What??"

 

"Mhmm~ though," he leaned close to her face, "seems that I need to try again."

 

Yashiro returned home later that evening with a scarf wrapped around the lower half of her face that she definitely didn't have with her this morning. Also, it was a warm spring night, nearly the beginning of summer. Her parents didn't get to ask about it, nor question why she was a bit late to come home. She only ran into her room, shut the door, and screamed ecstatically into her pillow. Her parents looked at each other and smiled proudly.

 

"She finally did it."

 

"Maybe we can ask her about it tomorrow."

 


 

The next day…

 

"Nene-chan?"

 

"Hmm?"

 

"Are you okay?" 

 

The girl in question waved her hand dismissively. “Yes, Aoi-chan. I’m perfectly fine.”

 

As if!

 

She could barely focus on her best friend with Hanako-kun draping himself over her. His arms were wrapped around her neck as he rested his chin on top of her head. She could only imagine his face, since he radiated incredible comfort and horrible smugness.

 

Aoi only smiled worriedly. “Ahh, but your face seems really red, so I thought you might be coming down with something…”

 

Nene froze, “Oh, umm, must be the weather!”

 

Aoi leaned closer to her, making Nene look away. “There’s also something wrong with your lips… They’re kinda swollen.”

 

Hanako giggled above her. Nene pretended to bring her hand up bashfully to her neck, but actually pinched Hanako’s arm—hard. She ignored his puppy-dog whimper and proceeded to change the subject away from her. 

 

“Ah, Minamoto-kun!”

 

“Good morning, Minamoto-senpai!”

 

There was an increase of chatter around Nene and Aoi, before a shadow fell over the two girls. Minamoto Teru’s kind smile could fool anyone, but Nene felt a chill travel down her back. To other people, it would seem that Teru was smiling gracefully down at Nene, but the girl herself could see him glaring daggers at the apparition on top of her. Hanako held onto her tighter, staring back at Teru’s icy eyes.

 

“Good morning, Yashiro-san,” he spoke in that dazzling manner he usually does, “could you accompany me to the Student Council’s room?”

 

“U-Um, okay…”

 

Aoi nudged her best friend and sent her a discreet thumbs up. Nene only responded with an awkward smile.

 

When the three of them were now traveling alone, Nene spoke up hesitantly, “So, um, Minamoto-senpai, what do you need me for?”

 

He sighed. “Not you, in particular, but the apparition attached to you.”

 

Nene looked up at Hanako, in which he looked down at her, both of them staring in confusion. She poked his cheek, “What did you do?”

 

“Yashiro~” he buried himself in her neck, "I didn’t do anything~”

 

“Oh, you didn’t?” Teru opened the door to the Student Council’s room. Lo and behold, it was Kou on the couch, knocked out with a huge bump sprouting out of his head. In the corner of the room was Hanako’s hakujoudai, trapped by a lightning cage.

 

Recognition passed through Hanako’s face.

 

“Ohhh.”

 

“‘Ohhh’?” Teru’s smile became malicious, “What do you mean ‘ohhh’?”

 

“Kou-kun!” Nene dashed over to the unconscious boy, checking over his head. She whipped her angry stare over to the apparition, “Hanako-kun, did you do this?”

 

Hanako placed his index finger on his chin and looked up pensively.

 

“...Yes, I did.”

 

“But why?!”

 

“Well, he was gonna interrupt us,” Hanako pouted, “so I just wanted him to leave us alone for a bit.”

 

“So you knocked him out?!”

 

“I didn’t mean to hit him so hard!” the ghost boy threaded his fingers together, “At least I put him in the nurse’s office so he could sleep comfortably.”

 

Nene stared at him in disbelief, where he only looked at her innocently. “Will you forgive me?”

 

The girl sighed and blushed a bit, then turned back to Kou, “Really, Hanako-kun…”

 

She said frankly, “I’m not the one you have to ask for forgiveness from.”

 

“Eh?”

 

Hanako felt a menacing presence rise above him. He slowly turned around and saw Teru’s glinting, sadistic eyes as he pulled out his spirit blade.

 

Nooo! Yashiro!!

 

She only sighed.

Chapter Text

An apparition walked silently through the woods, his black cape flowing gracefully behind him. There was a pair of golden horns protruding out of his head, not too lengthy, but somewhat large in girth, and a white seal on his left cheek. He twirled a kitchen knife in his hand, utterly bored out of his mind. Walking through the woods was calming, he supposed, but tranquility wasn't what he was looking for. There was a soul nearby that needed reaping, one that had appeared out of the blue, raising a few questions back at headquarters. It was the last soul on the list they had to take care of before they could go home.

 

Death had many names. One of them was Amane.

 

"Can I do this one??" 

 

One of them was Tsukasa, who owned a pair of identical horns, but dark crimson in color, and a black seal on his right cheek. He tugged and tugged on the fabric of his brother’s cape, but Amane lightly chopped his head with his hand.

 

"No, I want to. You never let me reap any souls." 

 

"But Amane!" Tsukasa dug his heels into the dirt, trying to stop him from moving forward, "I wanna do it!"

 

The older reaper yanked his arm away, causing his brother to fall on his back. Tsukasa began to kick at his brother’s black hakama, consequently dirtying his own gray one.

 

Amane frowned at the display of childishness. "Go reap some bugs. I'm sure there's a fly being eaten by a spider somewhere."

 

Tsukasa stared indignantly at him, before smiling brightly. "Okay!!"

 

He dashed away like a kid rushing toward a playground. Amane sighed, before continuing on his way. Eventually, he reached his destination.

 

The soul was floating peacefully alone in the middle of the lush forest. It's silver flames were tipped with blueish-green hues that harbored a beautiful ruby-colored center. He's seen just about a million souls, but none of them seemed to have this sort of vibrancy to them. He almost wanted to just observe it for a few more seconds, if only to soak in the painting-esque scene. He shook his head out of his trance and inched closer to it, reaching his hand out slowly. 

 

He voiced softly. "What are you doing here…?"

 

Gently, he held it in his palm, and the soul rested on it without resistance.

 

His eyes widened, and he found himself descending onto his knees.

 

There was something about this soul that seemed so… familiar

 

His head started to ache, and he doubled over from the sharp pains that began to afflict him. With his free hand, he cradled his throbbing head, while he felt his breathing go ragged.

 

A soothing aura came from the soul in his palm. It somehow alleviated the pain in his head, and relief swept through his body. 

 

He used his other hand to caress the soul, surprised laced in his curious amber eyes.

 

“You knew I was in pain?”

 

The soul made a small chime, and a little gesture, almost as if it nodded. His eyebrows rose in shock, “Wow, such strong awareness. You shouldn’t be able to perceive anything right now.”

 

He tilted his head, and the soul appeared to copy his movement. Amane let out a barely noticeable smile, “You’re a special one, huh?”

 

Slight warmth heated his palms, in which he furrowed his eyebrows in confusion. Before he could inquire, an excited presence popped up from behind him.

 

“Amane!!” Tsukasa arrived, waving his scythe around like a toy. “There was a lot of bug souls! I even found a few animal ones!”

 

He stopped in his tracks at the sight of the soul in his brother’s hands. Tsukasa’s eyes sparkled, “Whoa~ is that the soul you wouldn’t let me reap?”

 

“Yes, but,” Amane stood up and held the soul close to his chest, “I won’t be reaping it. I’ve decided that I want to keep her.”

 

“Her?”

 

“Yeah…” Amane brushed the top of the soul’s flames, “I’m not sure why, but I just know.”

 

Tsukasa narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “That’s weird, Amane. You’re being weird. And you know that you aren’t supposed to be keeping souls!”

 

The reaper under his companion's accusing eyes only shrugged. “Perhaps~”

 

“Hmm,” the younger one chuckled in his hands, “the great Honorable No. 7 breaking the rules~? How scandalous!”

 

Amane rolled his eyes, but chose to not say anything. 

 

"Silly Amane~" Tsukasa's eyes suddenly glinted with a disturbingly sadistic shine as he spun his scythe around in his hands. “The rotten dead release their succulent souls, which are meant to be harvested.”

 

The soul in Amane’s hand shuddered, causing him to look down at her. He brushed his hand over her again, comforting her tremors.

 

“Shush.” The older sibling placed his index finger over his lips, “It will be our secret.”


Tsukasa blinked, then looked a bit more enthusiastic about keeping a secret than revealing it, as if the chaotic nature of it pleased him. Amane beckoned with his hand, “Time to go back.”

 

“Aww, but we barely got to go around…” Tsukasa motioned to the greenery around them. "We didn't even get to watch the humans do funny things!"

 

"We've been out long enough." Amane said, somewhat tired and annoyed, "I'm pretty sure you're on the verge of passing out. You've been doing most of the work all day."

 

"I'm not tired!!"

 

Tsukasa.

 

The younger reaper stuck his tongue out defiantly. “Your spooky voice won’t scare me, Amane!”

 

One moment later, and Tsukasa was on the forest floor, unconscious. Amane sighed as he picked up his brother and slung him over his shoulder. His faint snores indicated the low amount of energy Tsukasa had left, which meant Amane had guessed correctly. His brother had been pushing himself for the sake of being out and about in the human world. Holding his brother’s scythe in his other hand, he brushed his thumb over the soul, “Sorry you had to see that. He can be a handful most of the time.”

 

With only her small chime as a response, he began his journey to the boundary’s entrance. It wasn't too far away, and in just a single step, they were suddenly transported to an entirely new world. 

 

It was colorful; even if it was dreary in its tones, the atmosphere was not depressing, but actually cheerful and lively. Thousands of souls with manifested bodies were wandering around, going about their day. Amane hid the silvery soul under his cape as he ventured through the Spirit World.

 

At the sight of Amane, the denizens greeted him respectfully, with excited chatter surrounding the reaper.

 

“Good day, Hanako-sama!”

 

“Welcome back, Hanako-sama.”

 

“It’s the Honorable No. 7!”

 

“And it’s his brother… on his back?”

 

“Did they get into a fight?”

 

Amane only smiled awkwardly at them, bowing slightly at whomever he could. He hurried to his residence, hoping to avoid the other Spirit World Reapers. Instead of taking the mass number of stairs that led up to the Reapers’ residences, he decided to just fly upward to save time. Once he was at his shared home, he closed the door behind him swiftly.

 

Breathing out in relief, he slid off his shoes and allowed the soul to float beside him. He hung up his black cape, revealing his black kimono. Then, he laid his brother on his bed and placed his scythe in the corner of the room, before shutting the door and leaving him to rest. 

 

The soul bounced side to side, appearing to be happy next to him. He smiled at her again, “You’re quite expressive."

 

He pinched her side and chuckled when her flames became hotter.

 

"If you haven't guessed by now, my name is Amane." He pointed at the horns on his head, "I'm one of the Seven Reapers of the Spirit World. We reap the souls of all living things on Earth, and bring them here to the Spirit World. The spirit denizens of this world know me as Hanako."

 

There was a moment of silence, before he coughed into his fist.

 

"Uhh, right. You can't tell me your name, so I need to give you one…”

 

He inspected her carefully, with one hand on his chin to assist his thinking. For some reason, a peculiar nickname arose on the tip of his tongue almost instantly. 

 

Amane snapped his fingers. “Radish-chan!”

 

Without warning, the soul brutally bumped on his head once, twice, thrice—

 

“Ahh~ okay, okay, sorry!” Amane chuckled as he waved the soul off. He could sense the anger seeping out of her. “Maybe, hmm…”

 

As he lost himself in thought, the soul nudged his shoulder. He lifted his head up in interest, staring at her with inquisitive eyes. Another nickname sprouted from his head.

 

“What about White Inferno?”

 

The soul seemed to just float there, as if judging him silently. He was about to reel back the name before the soul bounced up and down in agreement.

 

“You—what?” Amane giggled, “You like that name?”

 

She twirled around, her flames dancing and falling along with her motion, and he felt himself blushing slightly. Why in the world was this soul so beautiful?

 

“Okay then, White Inferno,” he poked her teasingly, causing her to warm slightly, “from now on, you’ll be mine~”

 

He cupped her in his hands and gently laid her inside his collar, where her flames were barely peeking out. He hummed, “This way, you can easily hide and be covered by my presence, so that others won’t sense you.”

 

A small chime came from her. He sighed, “Well, I’m not really supposed to have kept you. As you may have heard Tsukasa, my brother, mention prior, it’s against the rules.”

 

Her colors dulled slightly, as he sensed something like sadness or worry emit from her. He placed his hand on top of her in a consoling manner. 

 

“Don’t worry. I’ll protect you.”

 

It was a strong promise, he recognized that fully. Yet, he was able to declare it with ease. It was unlike anything he's ever felt before. The strange sense of security, or of remarkably strong confidence, even if it was centered around an alluring soul he had just met.

 

He decided to take her out into the Spirit World, where he could both take her on a tour and steer clear of the other Reapers.

 

Amane enjoyed the fascinated, tiny chimes that she would create as she was snuggled in his collar. The warmth beaming from her made him feel cozy himself, as he felt an odd sense of ease with her.

 

As the two of them went through the vast plane, he explained each site, each scene, and each structure. The ambiance was animated, and the world was a sight to see in itself. Even if everyone was spirits with strange appearances, they went about their day as if they were living regular lives. He would wave politely at passing denizens and maybe humor a few of them, especially the young ones.

 

“Hanako-sama, Hanako-sama!” a young spirit requested, “Could you cut up my colored paper?”

 

“Oi!” the older spirit knocked him over the head, “You can’t just demand the Honorable No. 7 like that!”

 

“It’s okay~” Amane pulled out his knife, twirling it in his hand. “I know what the price will be.”

 

Faster than the eye could follow, he sliced up the colored paper, causing bits and pieces to drift to the ground. In the hands of the young spirit was a line of what appeared to be people holding hands. Amane smiled at the astonishment of the young spirit and the intrigue of the older spirit.

 

“Now, as for your price.” The Reaper stored away his knife and looked down at the young spirit with an ominous stare.

 

The two denizens froze in their spot, suddenly regretting the request, before Amane put both of his index fingers up to his cheeks. 

 

“Your smile!”

 

“O-Oh…” the young spirit chuckled nervously, before grinning joyfully. “Thank you, Hanako-sama!”

 

“No problem~”

 

Amane waved goodbye to the two of them as he proceeded on his way. The soul tucked in his collar chimed questioningly, and he patted her down. “I wasn’t going to hurt them, so don’t worry.”

 

She chimed again, yet for a different question this time. He looked up at the fake, glittery stars among the fake, wondrous sky. “Well, there’s one spot that I think you’d love to see.”

 

After walking for what seemed like forever, Amane stopped upon their journey’s end. He scooped up the soul pressing against his collarbone, and presented her to the grand view.

 

From his feet to the extensive horizon, there were miles and miles of water. Reflective and clear, mirroring the fantastical sky, encapsulating each twinkling star. There were soft waves reaching the sandy shore, where sometimes, they’d produce some random object that didn't really have any significance. Mundane items from the mortal realm, washed up and forgotten, or remembered but forever lost.

 

Amane sat down and rested his chin on one hand, observing the serene ocean.

 

“Sometimes,” he said in a low tone, “denizens of the Spirit World come here to pick up items that they may have lost when they were alive. It's phenomenal, since they never have any memories from their human selves. Their attachment to these objects go beyond their physical desires, and they know intuitively that it’s theirs.”

 

The soul in his other hand chimed quietly. He brushed his thumb over her, “It’s pretty cool, huh?”

 

He closed his eyes and relished the peaceful air, silently observant of the soul’s reactions. She gave off elation, with her warmth consistent and her chimes like a little song. 

 

Of all his hundreds of years of fulfilling his duty, he’s never felt such contentment.

 

“I’ve come here before, too.” he whispered, as if revealing a part of himself that he thought he’d rid of centuries ago. “I’ve looked for something.”

 

She hummed a query. He opened his eyes and raised his eyes to the sky.

 

“The moon.”

 

Her chimes spiked, as if interrogating his rationality. He giggled, “Yeah, I know. There’s no way the moon would wash up on the shore. But that didn’t stop me from looking for it.”

 

His smile fell, slightly. “Though, eventually, I gave up. I decided that there was no way I’d find the moon. This was where I would stay.”

 

Amane looked down at the soul, engrossed in her sparkling blaze. He lifted her up to his eye level, and felt her heat up again in his hands.

 

So compelling...

 

“Enough about me. What about you, White Inferno?”

 

She jingled quietly, uncertainty in her aura. He tilted his head, “You don’t remember, huh?”

 

The soul dulled, where Amane squished her slightly, causing her to perk up again.

 

“Don’t be like that. I thought you might be bizarre enough to hold some of your mortal memories, but it seems you've also been affected by death's amnesia spell. It's fine~"

 

He caressed her fondly and resumed his interrogation.

 

"How about your form?” he asked, “Can you manifest your appearance?”

 

She expressed her hesitance by her slight quivering. Amane rose his eyebrows in surprise. "You don't remember that, either? No shape comes to mind?"

 

The soul nodded quickly, but Amane kept his analytical surveillance on her for a few more seconds. He lowered his hands to his lap, allowing her to float on her own, and then leaned forward with darkened eyes.

 

"I hope you're telling the truth, White Inferno~" he poked her three times, stamping his words into her memory. "If I find out that you're lying, then I won't be happy~"

 

The soul froze in the air, feeling smothered by his overwhelming demeanor, until he smiled amicably. "Though, I don't believe you'd be untrustworthy."

 

She shook again, before sending a flurry of attacks onto him, using herself as the weapon. He laughed loudly, "Hey! I was just kidding!"

 

She floated farther away from him, her mood visibly depressed. He pursued, laying down on his side next to her and patting her down in an effort to placate her.

 

"Was I too mean, White Inferno~? Too scary~?"

 

The soul emitted a faint, harsh sound. He smiled, amused but genuinely doting. His hand brought her to his cheek, where he nuzzled her delicately.

 

"I'm sorry," he whispered. Her temperature increased again, this time hotter than before. He smirked for some reason, but decided to keep his mouth shut.

 


 

"White Inferno~" Amane called out, cupping his hands around his mouth, "where are you?"

 

The soul plopped on top of his head, causing him to chuckle at her antics. 

 

"Oh, yeah, I definitely didn't sense you."

 

The two of them were frolicking around in an open field, admiring the flowers and brushing along the green grass. Despite her existing without an actual physical appearance, they were able to sustain a strong relationship. He could comprehend each chime and jingle, and successfully read her multiple auras.

 

It didn't even take him that long to figure out why she possessed such astounding exquisiteness. 

 

She was a—

 

He shook his head. He didn't want to worry about it.

 

After a couple of weeks, Amane came to recognize an aspect of himself he was previously too afraid to label. 

 

A hole...

 

There had always been a longing, a yearning, a want. It scarred his soul, forced him to feel truly dead; to exist without true emotion, without real, worthwhile experiences.

 

...in his soul.

 

One that even Tsukasa couldn't fill. His brother took up enough of his heart, anyway.

 

As Amane laughed the emptiness away, that part of his soul came to be filled with her lovely chimes.

 

And then the sky became dark, grim and dangerous. Cracks formed along the ground, before a misty black hand rose from the depths. A deformed spirit appeared from underneath, where an unearthly voice demanded that the silver soul be given to him.

 

Amane held the soul in his hands, unfazed by the apparent peril. She, on the other hand, was shaking like a leaf.

 

Before one could blink, Tsukasa came bounding in from the side. With one swing from his scythe, he dispersed the spirit, harvesting its ugly core. 

 

The sky returned to its regular shade of blue, cloudless and unbelonging to any malicious entities.

 

Tsukasa cheered, "Wow! That's like the hundredth evil spirit to come after your soul girlfriend!"

 

"She isn't—" Amane sighed, "She's not my 'soul girlfriend.'"

 

Tsukasa toddled over to him, doubt in his eyes. "Are you sure?"

 

"Yes, she isn't."

 

"Why not, though?"

 

"Because..." Amane felt himself becoming vexed. He ignored that the soul was warming up in his hands, and sent his brother a strained smile. "Shush, Tsukasa. No more questions."

 

"Okay!"

 

Silence fell upon them like a blessing. Amane knew it wouldn't last long.

 

"...So what is she to you then?"

 

Ahh, I knew it.

 

Amane brought her to his collar and stood up on his feet. Tsukasa followed after him, and they proceeded to walk together along the empty forest.

 

"She's my friend."

 

"Friend?" Tsukasa hopped all around him. "But you guys can't even communicate!"

 

"We do." Amane defended, "Just not by speaking…"

 

"So you can understand everything she's saying?"

 

"Well, yeah, basically."

 

"What is she saying right now?"

 

"Umm…" Amane looked down at the soul, "she says, 'Amane is the greatest person ever.'"

 

She hovered above him and started bumping his forehead again. He laughed and pushed her off, while Tsukasa looked at him skeptically. "I don't think she said that."

 

Amane brought her back into his collar. "She just doesn't want to admit it."

 

"Ohh, like how you don't want to admit that she's your soul girlfriend?"

 

Amane sighed again, not bothering to deny it this time. Tsukasa chuckled, throwing himself over his brother and teasing him further. The older reaper felt the blush tinge his cheeks, but he maneuvered his head, refusing to let it show. Over time, the younger reaper lessened his brutal teasing, opting to change the subject instead.

 

"Hey, hey!" Tsukasa tugged on his cape, "So, how long do I keep the secret?"

 

"...For as long as needed."

 

"Does that mean forever?"

 

"...If forever is needed," Amane said seriously, "then yes."

 

The two boys grew silent as a divine presence approached them. Under the strict rules of the supreme being, those appointed by God were not allowed to exchange violent conflict, unless there was some special scenario that dictated otherwise. That didn't erase the tension held between the two classes, however, and the reapers readied themselves for a divine encounter.

 

Out of the bush came Minamoto Kou, who had his raiteijou prepared in his hand.

 

Recognition passed through all of their eyes. Tsukasa pointed at him, "Oh! It's the Lame Earring divinity!"

 

Kou waved his staff around angrily. "What?! Where did you hear that?!"

 

"Mitsuba calls you that all the time."

 

"Oh, he does?" Kou calmed slightly, but irritation still tinged his face. "You can't call me that, though!"

 

"But it's funny!"

 

"Ugh," Kou pointed his staff at Amane, "could you control your brother?"

 

"That's what I'm here for." He deadpanned, causing Tsukasa to whine and pull on his cape. Amane pushed him off with his hand, "Never mind that. What are you doing here?"

 

"I've been getting reports of highly malevolent spirits appearing out of nowhere for no apparent reason in this vicinity." Kou tapped the bottom of his staff on the ground, "So my duty is to get to the bottom of it and clear them out before any harm comes to some innocent humans!"

 

"Ahh," Amane walked along casually, not partaking in any responsibility for the surge of evil spirits, "well if there does happen to be some harmed humans, I'll be there to clean up the mess."

 

Kou frowned. "You could help me…"

 

"That's not our job."

 

"It doesn't have to be about your—"

 

Interrupting him, Amane turned to stare at him dead in the eyes, "Our job is to reap the souls of the dead and allow them to live in the afterlife. We don't bless and save mortal lives like you divinities."

 

Kou took a step back, perturbed by the reaper's hostility. He had only spoken to him a few times during the grand meetings, but every time he had, it always ended up like this. Tsukasa was surprisingly more talkative and open, despite his creepy sadistic tendencies.

 

"We're leaving, Tsukasa."

 

"Okay!" the younger reaper waved at the blond spirit, "Bye bye!"

 

"Aah…" Kou waved back, though not nearly as energetic, "Bye."

 


 

It's been a month or so since he began sheltering the wayward soul. And each day was just contentment, satisfaction; a warm fulfillment he couldn't imagine existing without. The presence of her soul had been gradually altering his typical attitude, however, in which he hoped wasn't too remarkable to others. In any case, he hoped he could keep up a facade and not stir up any questions.

 

Tsukasa, of course, was the first to notice the change in his behavior.

 

"You used to be so awkward and cold!" He peeked over his brother's shoulder as they walked toward the headquarters. "Now you actually smile at least three times a day!!"

 

Amane felt a blush adorn his cheeks, but he set a firm tone as he dramatically turned away, black cape flowing behind him. "I don't know what you're implying, Tsukasa."

 

The younger reaper peered at the soul hiding in his brother's collar, then stared at the older reaper himself.

 

"Amane," he addressed solemnly, "are you sure you aren't receiving sexual favors?"

 

"What?"

 

Amane whipped his head over at his younger brother, glaring daggers in his direction.

 

"Uh oh!" Tsukasa giggled as he distanced himself slowly, "Amane is angry!"

 

He spun around and shot up the stairs with incredible speed, arms outstretched beside him in a frivolous manner, although Amane wasn't too far behind. In fact, the older reaper was gaining on him. There was a dark, murderous look in his usually friendly amber eyes.

 

"Aaaah!" Tsukasa yelled loudly, regardless of his wide smile, "Amane is gonna kill me!!"

 

"What the hell is going on…?"

 

Tsuchigomori yawned as he stepped outside of the main doors to the headquarters. Suddenly, there was a shorter body clutching at his coat. The taller spirit gazed down to see Tsukasa with his usual shit-eating grin.

 

"Amane is angry! Amane is gonna kill me!"

 

"Yes, I am." Said spirit bit out as he yanked Tsukasa by the back of his collar. Tsuchigomori rubbed his eyes, as he hadn't even registered Amane appearing behind the younger reaper. There was a kitchen knife in his other hand, ready to commit ghost murder.

 

"Alright, alright, that's far enough."

 

Tsuchigomori lifted Tsukasa out of Amane's fierce grip and placed the younger reaper on the other side of him. Then, he turned to the seething spirit. "What's gotten into you? You rarely get this bloodthirsty, especially toward Tsukasa."

 

As if a switch flipped, Amane's amber eyes brightened with its usual affability. He waved his knife around dismissively. "Ah, just a conflict between two brothers. Nothing serious."

 

"Is that so?" Tsuchigomori turned back to Tsukasa, "Anything you want to say?"

 

The two brothers held a staring contest, where one pair was big, brilliant, and excited, and the other pair was entirely threatening behind a disguise of innocence.

 

Tsukasa shook his head. "Nope!"

 

"I don't believe you, but if you say so." The taller spirit ushered the two of them inside the building. "Now, hurry, or we'll be late to the meeting."

 

"Yay~" Tsukasa cheered, "I get to see Sakura again~"

 

Amane grimaced. He didn't like these grand meetings at all.

 

The Seven Reapers would gather round a table with two representatives of the Divine Court, as well as the head Messenger, and whoever served as loyal assistants to any of these authorities. It was mostly boring and tense, since there was some weird discrimination between the Divine Court and the Reapers. The meetings were meant to discuss the balance between life on the surface and death in the Spirit World, maintaining an easy passage between the two realms, and all that.

 

"Sakura!!" Tsukasa glomped the head Messenger, who only sighed in response. Natsuhiko, her faithful helper, grabbed the reaper's clothes, "Hey, hands off, runt!"

 

"D-Don't crush her, Tsukasa-kun…" Mitsuba, Reaper No. 3, said weakly. An arm wrapped around his neck, in which Kou appeared in support of his friend's statement. "Yeah, you're gonna crush her head!"

 

"C-Crush?" Natsuhiko restated, before he began to yank at Tsukasa like a madman, "Off! Off!!"

 

Sakura held up a cookie, which Tsukasa snatched greedily, allowing her to once more have her personal space.

 

...For two seconds, before Natsuhiko came before her to hold her hands and inspect her for any damage.

 

"My Lady, are you injured?"

 

Her eyebrow twitched. "No, now let go."

 

"Geez…" Mitsuba shook his head, "he never changes."

 

"Tsukasa or Natsuhiko?" Kou asked. Mitsuba pressed his mouth into a thin line, until he answered plainly. 

 

"Yes."

 

"...Yeah, I guess not." Kou looked over to find Tsukasa's older brother, who was sitting by his lonesome. Mitsuba followed his line of sight, then questioned his friend, "What's the matter?"

 

"His brother is all alone again." Kou frowned, then munched on his cookie, "You think he'd try to come up and talk to us."

 

Amane was sitting down in his regular seat, hands placed in front of his face as if he was deep in thought. In reality, he was covering the soul hidden in his collar, and trying to reassure her by whispering soothing words.

 

Mitsuba snickered into his sleeve, "Oh, how cute. You're trying to make this a fun daycare where all the kids should play and get along."

 

The reaper noticed cookie crumbs on his scarf, and brushed them off from the cloth, failing to notice the crumbs stuck to the corner of his lips. Kou scowled. "No way! This isn't a daycare. We're all here to do very important business!!"

 

"Just admit it~"

 

"If he was the least bit communicative, we might have better standing…" Kou huffed, not at all feeling bad that one of the younger spirits in the group was isolating himself. Mitsuba patted his back, "You already know that Amane-kun is either scary, sleazy, or icy. He just doesn't want to share any stories with a juice box."

 

The young blond spirit sipped at his own juice box in a dissatisfied demeanor. Mitsuba chuckled, "You're such a kid."

 

"Everyone."

 

The voices in the room quieted. Minamoto Teru stood proudly at his chair. As one of the two representatives of the Divine Court, he carried a prestigious title and a heavy responsibility, as well as himself in a highly dignified manner. 

 

His younger brother, Kou, speedily headed to his rightful seat, where he sat as the second representative of the Divine Court.

 

"If you could all take a seat, we could get started." Teru spoke sternly, in which the spirits that were standing soon sat down in their respective seat numbers. All of them were the younger spirits of the batch, excluding No. 4 and No. 7, who hadn't moved from their spots. Akane, or No. 1, had been holding a polite conversation with Teru before the meeting had to commence, and No. 4 was doodling away at her sketchbook.

 

Teru glanced over at Amane, who hadn't attempted to look up at all. He decided to begin the meeting as usual.

 

For a large majority of it, Amane was practically half-listening. He could just ask for a short rundown of all the important bits from Tsuchigomori later. His mind was preoccupied with where he and White Inferno could go later today if he didn't have work to do in the mortal realm, although being on Earth didn't sound too bad either, since they could hang around and enjoy nature's aesthetic together. Speaking of which, the soul hiding in his collar was heating up gradually against his skin, causing him to wonder what she may be nervous about.

 

The doors in the back opened, in which a girl presented herself to the table. She bowed respectfully, her dark purple hair moving with her.

 

Amane felt the soul in his collar tense up as if she was petrified.

 

"This is Aoi." Teru announced, "She is one of the aristocrats of the Divine Court that help with tending to the shrines and providing blessings to prayers. She is here to report some alarming information."

 

"Thank you, Teru-sama." Teru nodded at her, permitting her to proceed. Aoi seemed to have a troubled look on her face, but she held strong. "My dear friend has been missing for about a month now. She was in the neighboring shrine, and I know that she had been there longer than I have been in mine. And then one day, s-she just disappeared."

 

Amane tuned in to the conversation, suddenly enthralled by the topic. It was quite something, since it wasn't every meeting where an aristocrat would pay them a visit with a major concern.

 

"That sounds terrible!" Akane, who was normally composed, was abruptly melodramatic. "I'm so sorry you had to experience that!"

 

"O-Oh, yes," she wiped her eyes, "b-but I'm not worried about me. I'm just worried about her."

 

Before anyone in the table could say anything, Akane slammed his hands on the table. "Tell us everything we need to know! We will find her, and relieve you of your grief!!"

 

It seemed as though heaven's light was shining down on him at that moment, whereas everyone else in the dark could only stare at him with varying emotions, though the average shared expression was a blank look.

 

"Ah, t-thank you, um, Akane-kun…" she bowed respectfully, and the spirit himself nearly fell over, completely love-struck. Aoi relayed what she could, "She's always been very kind and friendly to me, but before she vanished, she was mulling over some rumors she heard from the humans."

 

"Hmm?" Yako rose a fine eyebrow, "What rumors?"

 

"I don't know, exactly, but then she started having dizzy spells and headaches." Aoi teared up now, "She always looked like she was in deep pain, but when I tried to help her, she wouldn't let me. She said that she needed to let it happen, but I never understood why."

 

Tsuchigomori glanced over at Yako, who eyed him back.

 

"You don't think…?" he said in a low voice.

 

The fox spirit sighed. "It's highly possible."

 

Teru's calm countenance was marred slightly with puzzlement. "Explain."

 

"Something that the humans said may have triggered her human memory." Tsuchigomori explained, "If she has an extraordinary connection to whatever it was, it may have allowed her to remember everything from when she was human."

 

White Inferno was now quivering nonstop, and Amane felt her temperature drop considerably. He wanted to ask her what was wrong, but he felt as though there were a pair of watchful eyes upon him. A cold sweat broke out on his forehead, concealed by his choppy black hair. One moment, he was fine, and the next, he felt as though he was being assessed by a holy figure.

 

Shit…

 

"B-But," Aoi clenched her fists, "that doesn't explain her disappearance!"

 

"Perhaps we'll find out soon." Teru voiced from below her. Aoi as well as the others looked at him questioningly. He paid them no mind, and directed his attention to Amane.

 

"Honorable No. 7," Teru spoke smoothly, "would you please unveil the soul that you are hiding in your collar?"

 

Amane froze in his seat.

 

The rest of the spirits looked on curiously, turning their gazes toward the ghost in question. There was little skepticism in the room, since Teru had a tendency to be right in nearly every situation. Nevertheless, shock still affected most of their minds, and in some, rage or despair.

 

Tsukasa's expression darkened, however. "Hey, wait a second. What are we picking on Amane for?"

 

Teru barely spared him a glance. "There's no use in covering for him. I've known since the moment he walked in."

 

Teru strolled over to Amane's seat, each clack of his shoes brought the reaper's hand closer to his knife. The divinity retained his spirit blade within its sheath, as if he was waiting for Amane to make any sudden movements. Kou couldn't help but grab his own staff in suspense.

 

"Listen, Honorable No. 7, you cannot run from this." Teru looked down on him, a spiteful gleam in his usually compassionate, calming eyes. "Release her soul."

 

Aoi held her hands up to her mouth in shock. Akane gritted his teeth; he wasn't entirely close with Amane, but to think that he'd stoop so low as to kidnap her soul...

 

Tsuchigomori and Yako only watched, if only to satiate their perplexity and curiosity.

 

"...I guess my secret's out."

 

Amane drew his hand away from his weapon, then scooped up the soul in his collar, and allowed her to float freely in the air. The gasps in the room were immediately followed by expressions of disbelief and amazement. He only smiled sadly, knowing what was to become of his existence soon. That wasn't what brought the onslaught of sorrow, however.

 

He wouldn't be able to hang out with her again.

 

How sad.

 

He felt her radiate extreme devastation, accompanied with a severe fear for his safety. He wanted to reach out to her, to comfort her as he usually did when she was panicking. 

 

Aah, but I can't. All I can do is take in her image...

 

She was still as ethereal as the day he found her.

 

Before Amane could move to flee, attack, or even defend himself, a hand slammed his head against the table.

 

"Amane!!

 

There was a harsh noise that sounded like a chair scraping against the floor.

 

"Tsukasa, don't!"

 

Tsuchigomori… don't let Tsukasa get hurt because of me.

 

"No. 7... you dirty thief!"

 

"H-How could you, Amane-kun?"

 

Akane… Mitsuba… you wouldn't understand...

 

"Amane, No. 7 of the Spirit World Reapers, you are under arrest for breaking one of the divine rules set upon the spiritual realm. Reapers aren't allowed to retain wandering spirits under their care, especially a divinity." Teru pulled out his spirit blade, "Yet you knew that, didn't you?"

 

The soul left in the air blazed and burned, yet no one took notice, except for Aoi. She dashed over to the silver soul and brought her into an embrace. 

 

"Nene-chan, I've missed you so much!"

 

Amane's breath hitched.

 

Nene…?

 

"Yashiro!!" he waved his hand, excitedly, "Look! Look!"

 

A sharp pain struck his shoulder, and without warning, his whole body was convulsing from black lighting. His agonized screams filled the room, forcing Tsuchigomori and Yako to restrain the reaper's younger brother.

 

“Yashiro, not too fast!”

 

“Yashiro, I'm sorry~ don’t be mad at me!”

 

The lightning disappeared, but the pain lingered, traveling along his skin from head to toe. His head was fuzzy, and consciousness was slipping from his grasp.

 

“Yashiro, I—”

 

He blacked out.

 


 

Amane awoke in a dark, damp cell. It definitely wasn't one of the Spirit World's prettier sights, that's for sure.

 

His cape was missing. He only had on his black kimono and hakama. 

 

The back of his head rested against the cell wall.

 

After all this time, and especially before his impending judgement, he finally remembered. He remembered who he used to be, before becoming a Reaper. He might even say that he remembered exactly how he became a Reaper.

 

The Yugi Twins are infamous.

 

Do you know the story?

 

They were abandoned by their mother, as she had been too wrought with fear. She feared that giving birth to twins meant she would be cursed for the rest of her life.

 

They were feared by the entire village and all of its villagers, who were very religious and entirely superstitious. Any bad omen and any possible blessing were taken into consideration by tenfold.

 

The only care they received was from the orphanage that was led by a nun. She was the only one who didn't look at them with fear. She sought the goodness in their hearts. She was pure, unadulterated kindness.

 

This is where young Yugi Amane met young Yashiro Nene.

 

Yashiro Nene was also an orphan. She, however, received special treatment from the villagers. They always gave her free food, free water, free clothes. Although mystifying, she couldn't complain. She felt like a princess, like the ones she read in her story books.

 

"Yashiro, you don't have to give these to us…"

 

"Shush, Amane-kun!" the girl handed over the plain donuts to the twins. Tsukasa munched on it happily, but Amane only stared at the food, before looking up at her. She rose an eyebrow, "Well? Tsukasa-kun is eating it. Now it's your turn!"

 

Amane slowly bit into the pastry, and tears found way to his eyes. Both Nene and Tsukasa stared at him.

 

"Whoa, Amane is crying!"

 

"No, I'm not!" Amane wiped his tears away. Yashiro grabbed his hand, causing him to blush. She told him firmly, "I'll do my best to take care of you two! So no more crying, Amane-kun!"

 

He sniffed, "O-Okay."

 

Amane closed his eyes, allowing the pain in his head to break in and bury itself in his brain. The aching in his chest made him clutch at it with both of his hands.

 

He took a deep breath.

 

"Yashiro!!" he waved his hand, excitedly, "Look! Look!"

 

He presented to her a black hair clip, shaped like a pointy flame. Tsukasa presented the second one with equal vigor. Nene's eyes sparkled, "Whoa, did you make these?!"

 

Amane nodded enthusiastically. Tsukasa added, "It was all Amane's idea!"

 

A blush bloomed on his face, and he tackled his brother down to the ground. Nene laughed at the scene.

 

Amane felt something wet hit his palm. 

 

He felt it trail down his cheek. He felt it brim in his eyes.

 

"Yashiro, not too fast!"

 

"Sorry, but I'm just really excited to show you… this!"

 

She presented them with brand new shoes. Just their sizes, it seemed, with no holes or tears.

 

Tsukasa gasped, "No way!"

 

He took a pair and slid off his old, broken ones for the new, shiny ones. He lied down on the dry dirt and smiled, "It must be nice to be pampered."

 

Nene frowned, "I think it's nice of the villagers to donate stuff to me. The village is struggling enough as it is."

 

"Y-Yashiro…" Amane put his hands up, "I don't think I can accept this…"

 

"Eh?! Why not?" Nene looked angrily at him. He pouted, "Well, I-I don't—"

 

"Don't you dare say that you don't need them!" Nene pointed at his dirty and bruising feet. "You always pass your stuff to Tsukasa! I was able to get things for both of you this time."

 

"Yashiro…"

 

She shoved the shoes in his hands. "J-Just take it, Amane-kun!"

 

A blush dusted her cheeks, and so, one appeared on his, too.

 

Tsukasa grinned, "Oooh, you two are in love~"

 

"Shut up, Tsukasa!!" Amane dove for his brother, once again.

 

Amane bent over and held his head with his hands. He couldn't stop the tears from running down his cheeks. The pain in his skull never seemed to fade. 

 

When would the memories end? 

 

When would he stop feeling so human?

 

"I'm gonna kill them. I will."

 

"Tsukasa-kun… don't say that."

 

"Yashiro, look at what they did to Amane!" the younger twin pointed at his beaten up brother, who was resting on the floor.

 

Yashiro had to force herself not to cry.

 

"T-Tsukasa-kun…"

 

"We were hungry! We just wanted food!!" Tsukasa screamed and punched and kicked. Yashiro felt pity squeeze her heart. Over the years, the villagers were somewhat blind to her re-gifting of their donations as she handed over their items to the infamous twins. However, they were now aware of what she had been doing, and she was no longer allowed to make any requests that wasn't suited for her own benefit.

 

"Tsukasa…"

 

Said boy opened his teary eyes. "Amane?"

 

"S-Stop being… a brat…" he sat up slowly, making Nene fuss and panic. "You're scaring Yashiro."

 

"Amane…" Tsukasa gritted his teeth. Nene felt her tears pouring now. Amane looked over at her, and sighed in both pain and guilt. He cupped her cheek and wiped her tears, where she grabbed his hand and sobbed in his palm.

 

Despite nearly every part of his body hurting, and blood coming out from who knows where, nothing was worse than seeing Yashiro cryand for him, of all people.

 

He smiled for her. A genuine, cheeky grin, one he knew that she liked. "Yashiro, I'm sorry~ don't be mad at me!"

 

She sniffed, before throwing her arms around his neck and hugging him tightly.

 

"Amane-kun, you idiot!"

 

Amane felt a shuddering breath exit his body, as his shoulders refused to stop trembling.

 

His vision was too blurry from the tears, so he squeezed his eyes shut. His sobs bounced against the walls, so he covered his ears.

 

Yashiro Nene had dreams. She wanted to date a tall, handsome prince, who would help her and her friends and take her away to some magical dreamland. She wanted to become a princess and have beautiful clothes and gorgeous jewelry.

 

At fifteen years old, she realized she wouldn't achieve those dreams.

 

Yashiro Nene was kind. She always tried to help him and his younger brother out. Even when he teased her about her radish legs, she still stuck around. Even when Tsukasa bullied her pet White Inferno, she still tried to teach him how to take care of animals. Even when he talked about the moon and the stars, she never feigned interest. Even when he showed himself as protective or possessive, she still stayed with him. Even when he kissed her on the cheek, she kissed him on his.

 

At sixteen years old, she didn't regret a single act of kindness.

 

So, why

 

"Yashiro, I—"

 

Sixteen-year-old Amane inhaled deeply, before yelling out loud.

 

"I love you!"

 

The redness of his face was probably drowning out his eyes, so he shut them and waited for her response. 

 

Nene grabbed his hands, gently, as if trying to not scare him away. His eyes snapped open as he stared into her enchanting ruby eyes. The blush on his cheeks dimmed at the sight of her despondent smile.

 

"I love you too, Amane-kun." She broke down in tears, "I love you so much."

 

Her following words would haunt the rest of his days.

 

"I finally know what the village needs me for."

 

Amane quietly sobbed into his hands, allowing the rest of his memories to play out. They weren't very long, anyway.

 

The pain in his skull dulled. What was left was the hole in his soul, once again.

 

"W-What… are you talking about?"

 

The nun wiped her tears, and repeated herself in a broken voice.

 

"H-Her sacrifice is today. For the greater good of the village."

 

Amane stumbled backward, catching himself on the doorway. He slipped on his shoes and started running, faster than he's ever run before.

 

No, no, no, no

 

Why?

 

Why her?

 

God, why her?

 

He was panting and shaking, but pushed through his physical limitations and tried to reach her before it was too late.

 

Please, please, please

 

I'll try to be friendlier. I'll try to be a funner brother. I'll try to be a nicer friend. I'll try to be stronger, to be happier, to be better.

 

Please, God, don't take her from me.

 

And yet, despite his pleading, his begging, his prayers, they were not answered.

 

By the time he arrived, he was too late.

 

Her blood stained the soil, dripping from the cold, metallic slab. It dyed her once silvery hair a horrifying crimson color. Her lifeless eyes stared up at the endless sky.

 

He felt his knees give out, while the crowd of villagers cheered and rejoiced.

 

"Blessings!"

 

They chanted.

 

"We'll finally be blessed!"

 

Unbeknownst to them, they had just sealed their cursed fate.

 

As the legend of the Yugi Twins goes, the two brothers proceeded to slaughter every single person in the village.

 

"Then I was given the duty as a Reaper, in order to repent for the sins I committed for the love of my life…" 

 

Amane chuckled, a sad sound that reverberated along the iron bars.

 

"And yet, now I am here."

 

Without a way to absolve his sins, without his brother by his side, without Yashiro to smile with.

 

Long after the pain subsided from his head and the tears dried up from his face, did someone walk in to lead him to his judgement trial. 

 

It was Minamoto Kou.

 

Amane looked over at him with an emotionless gaze.

 

"Don't you hate me, too?"

 

The question popped out of his mouth. Kou scrunched his face at it.

 

"No."

 

Amane perked up slightly at that, but not too much. Kou shook his head, "I don't sense any sort of evil intent from you. And you didn't hurt Senpai, so I have no reason to hold a grudge against you."

 

Senpai? Amane furrowed his eyebrows. "Yashiro…?"

 

Kou opened the cell and hoisted the reaper onto his feet.

 

"Come on, judgement is waiting."

 

Amane had to cover his eyes from the blinding light of the outside. They were definitely in a much more divine section of the Spirit World, probably the highest peak of the realm. He allowed Kou to drag him to what would probably be his inevitable doom. As if he'd be forgiven for trapping one of the divinities, even if it was his long lost love.

 

As they entered the viewing area where he would be publicly tried, Amane kept his gaze down at his feet. He expected to hear a clamor of insults and perhaps a bunch of objects being thrown at him, but nothing of the sort was occurring. He stepped onto a wooden platform, where Kou released him and started to walk off the stage. He placed a hand on his shoulder, however, "You're lucky you've got the best lawyer in the Divine Court."

 

Amane looked at him in confusion, whereas Kou only nodded his head toward the front. Amane turned to look forward, and he felt his heart soar from the sight. Pure awe stole the breath from his lungs, causing his hands to become shaky and his knees to feel weak.

 

Yashiro Nene, in all her divine beauty, stood in front of him. She had affection in her ruby eyes as she stared back at him, a blush adorning her cheeks. Her silvery hair was wrapped around her head, clipped up by familiar black hair clips. The white kimono that wrapped around her body seemed to be made of silk, decorated with red and gold flowers. 

 

He couldn't move, nor could he speak.

 

She moved forward to grab his hands, like she used to when they were younger.

 

Her blush increased, leading her to avoid direct eye contact.

 

"I-It's been a while, Amane-kun."

 

He forgot how lovely her voice sounded. He forgot how lovely she acted. Oh, geez, it seemed like his heart was beating fast and hard.

 

"Yashiro…" he whispered, "it was you all along?"

 

She nodded. "You didn't seem to recognize me, though…"

 

"Aah, I'm sorry," he held her hands to his cheeks, cherishing the warmth from her fingertips, "all I knew was that you were an absolutely beautiful soul that I was weirdly attracted to."

 

He smiled at her, genuine and cheeky. "Seems like I never forgot that aspect of you."

 

She blushed even harder, "Amane-kun, you're on trial, and everybody is watching."

 

"They can watch~" Amane wanted to take a few steps closer to her and hug her; kiss her, even. "I've finally found you."

 

Yashiro pinched his cheek, causing him to whine. "Hold your horses, Amane-kun. Like I said, still on trial. Tsukasa-kun has been losing his mind, so we need to get you home quickly."

 

He turned into a statue. "A-Aren't you coming with me?"

 

"E-Eh?" Yashiro shook her head, red staining her cheeks, "N-No, I-I can't. I have my own duties to attend to."

 

At the sight of his disheartened face, she cupped his cheek and kissed the other side of his face. He blushed brightly, now.

 

"I'm sorry for the mess I've made, Amane-kun." She spoke softly in his ear, "I wanted to tell you who I was, but I was too afraid of getting us in trouble without even getting to spend time with you. And then after some time, I just couldn't disclose who I was... because..."

 

Yashiro pulled back slightly to gaze into his tender eyes. She smiled, embarrassed but adoringly, "I was having a lot of fun!"

 

Amane held the hand on his cheek, brushing his lips onto her palm. "Yashiro..."

 

"I've been looking for you ever since I remembered my human past." She confessed, "I couldn't stand being apart from you."

 

He felt merriment at her words, but gloom took hold of him quickly. He suddenly realized exactly where he was standing, and all the talk about being with her was for naught.

 

"Sorry, Yashiro," his smile faded, "but I don't think we'll be together for much longer."

 

She gazed at him sympathetically, before puffing her cheeks in displeasure. "What are you saying?"

 

"Eh...? Um..." Amane looked up at her, bewildered, "I-I mean, well, won't I be sentenced to death...?"

 

"No! Not if I have anything to say about it!" Yashiro backed up and stood confidently, holding his hand in hers. "I'm not going to back down without a fight. I mean, I'm the one who was unfairly sacrificed, after all."

 

He admired her confidence, but felt ashamed for putting her through this trouble. She noticed his humiliation. "Don't look like that, you don't need to feel bad. I'm the one who got you in to this mess in the first place. So it's only fair that I win you this trial, Amane-kun!"

 

He spoke, somewhat unwilling. "I-It won't be easy, though..."

 

"Shush!" she pointed at him with fixed determination, "I'm going to do this for you, whether you like it or not!"

 

He stared at her in disbelief, but a smile soon broke out onto his face. He squeezed her hand, emitting his own warmth and transferring his endearment through his touch.

 

"Thank you."

 


 

Spirits cannot get married, unfortunately. Not in the human sense where they pronounce their vows within the holy sanctum of the supreme being. However, there was something Amane thought was way better, which was called spirit bonding, otherwise known as the red string of fate.

 

This was to ensure that, no matter what realm, plane, or dimension they would be in, their souls were intertwined, destined to find each other regardless.

 

As the Honorable No. 7 hugged his lover close, he felt the tranquil winds brush through his hair and ruffle his clothes. His arms wrapped around her neck, while she sat in between his legs. Yashiro snuggled deeper into his embrace, wrapping his cape around her form. Although they both had different responsibilities to take care of, they always tried to find time together. Each moment was cherished, as they gradually fulfilled their unmet desires from their human lives in the afterlife.

 

Amane buried his face into her shoulder, kissing the exposed skin, making her giggle.

 

He loved her laugh. He loved her chimes.

 

"I love you."

 

Yashiro blushed, feeling her body heat up from his affection. He chuckled against her skin, which made her whack him on his head. It took a bit to get used to his horns, but she decided he looked quite cool with it.

 

Running her hand through his hair, she pressed a kiss against his temple.

 

"I love you, too."

Chapter Text

From this moment until her deathbed, she would swear that she was not staring. 

 

I mean, why would she be?

 

There was nothing appealing to him. He was around her height, and being around her height meant that he was just an inch or so above five feet and three inches.

 

That meant he was short. 

 

Yashiro Nene wasn’t into short men. She was all over the help-you-reach-the-top-shelf type of men.

 

His hair wasn’t a princely light color like blond or light brown or anything, but it was black as the night. To make it worse, it was choppy and messy, like he didn’t bother combing it. And trust her, it didn’t make him attractive, it made him unkempt and careless. 

 

Yashiro Nene was into considerate, organized men, who appeared classy and dreamy.

 

His face wasn’t super sharp or ragged, but actually quite boyish and soft. His eyes were wide and round, almost like a curious child’s. And just because his eyes were a very pretty color—amber, to be exact—didn’t mean that she adored them. Though she will admit that, only sometimes, would his eyes crinkle from a smile so gentle, so cheeky and smug, yet so charming.

 

Not that she was watching! 

 

Yashiro Nene didn’t have time for astonishingly cute men. She preferred the sexy, masculine men that knew how to cook a steak to perfection and chop wood and all that. All her life, she's imagined a chivalrous lad noticing her inner beauty and making it shine, before picking her up and into the sunset.

 

“Nene-chan?”

 

Reality was much crueler.

 

“Yes?”

 

Reality was much different.

 

“You’re staring again.”

 

She shouldn't have been surprised, really.

 

There was a loud slam. Ahh, yes, the telltale sound of skin slapping against wood. Frequent patrons of the cafe were quite used to this by now.

 

“I am not!” Nene whispered harshly, “W-Why would I be staring at that shorty?!”

 

Aoi gave her a look. “I didn’t even have to point him out this time.”

 

“Pfft, so?” 

 

Her fellow barista grabbed her shoulder in a comforting manner, but Nene felt like she was being investigated under a very warm spotlight. Aoi sent her a reassuring smile, “This is getting bad, Nene-chan. You need help.”

 

She swatted her hands away. “Don’t tell me that!!”

 

“We go through this almost every day.” Aoi sighed, “I don’t know why you don’t just accept it.”

 

“Accept what?” Nene crossed her arms in a huff. “I accept nothing except the unconditional love from a handsome, strong male.”

 

“I don’t see why you can't just try to talk to him…”

 

“Why in the world would I need to talk to him, Aoi-chan?"

 

"It's a lot better than staring at him like some psycho."

 

"Psycho?!" Nene stumbled back, "I'm not a psycho!! And again, there's no need for me to talk to him!"

 

"Denial isn't just a river in Egypt." Aoi wagged her finger in disapproval. "You can't keep this up forever. One of these days, you'll have to gather up your skirt and go make conversation."

 

"No way! I’ll never go out of my way to interact with that man!”

 

Aoi glanced up, then her face paled. “N-Nene-chan…”

 

A voice came from the other side of the counter. “Excuse me?”

 

What?!” Nene hissed, before realizing that the person she had definitely not been staring at was standing there, cash in hand. He smiled awkwardly, “I wanted to buy a donut…”

 

Despite her prior rambling, she felt her heart accelerate and her mouth become dry.

 

A few seconds of silence passed. He asked, a bit unsure, “Is… that okay?”

 

“O-Oh, yeah, of course!” her voice pitched itself what seemed to be an entire octave higher. She rung it up faster than ever before. “Let me get that for you! It’ll be out lickety-split!”

 

He handed over the money to her, brushing their fingers momentarily. Heat rose from her face, yet she persevered and completed the transaction.

 

Instead of picking the pastry from the glass case in the front, a magnificent idea popped up in her head. She dashed into the kitchen, grabbing a warm, fresh donut with a napkin, and returned to the register with a bright smile. He blinked, surprised at her seemingly demonic speed.

 

“Here you go!”

 

His eyes seemed to sparkle as they fell upon the donut; his mouth was now watering. “W-What? A fresh one?”

 

“Yep, just for you!” she passed it over to him, earning herself one of his famous grins. He waved at her as he walked away, “Thanks!”

 

“No prob.” Nene snapped finger guns his way, making sure he was back at his usual spot in the cafe, before clutching on to the wooden counter with all of her feminine might. The darkened look on her face was enough to actually frighten Aoi, who was known to usually be interested in scary stories and movies.

 

“Lickety-split”?! What the hell was I saying?? And finger guns?! I’m so damn lame! she felt her arms shaking from the adrenaline, her head fuzzy from the encounter. His smile is cute! Too cute!! So unfair!!

 

“Nene-chan, stop! You’re gonna break the counter!”

 

Aoi patted her arm urgently, reminding her that they were still at work. Nene released her death grip on the innocent fixture. Smoothing down her apron, she exhaled and calmed her haywire nerves.

 

“There, there.” Her best friend stroked her back. “You didn’t make that big of a fool of yourself in front of him.”

 

And with that, Nene crouched down in the back corner, feeling her soul wither away. Aoi waved her hands apologetically, trying to preserve what was left of her decaying colleague.

 

“I’ve returned from my break~” Mitsuba announced as he appeared from the back door. He immediately noticed the crouching young woman pressing her forehead against the wall. Tying his apron around his waist, he looked down at her in confusion, before looking up at the fretting Aoi. “What happened to Radish-senpai?”

 

The nickname seemed to encourage Nene to try and drive her whole head into the wall. Mitsuba pulled frantically at her shoulders, “Wait, wait! You’re gonna destroy the wall!”

 

With a few sips of some soothing tea, Nene had now calmed down officially. The three employees idly waited behind the counter, enjoying the pleasant atmosphere of the cafe. Aoi and Mitsuba were discussing something, but Nene had already tuned them out. 

 

There were quite a lot of people inhabiting the tables and seats, usually high school students hanging out or college students working on assignments. Some older adults were holding hushed business-related conversations or creating their next plans for their job. And then there were always a few stragglers, just there to enjoy the cafe.

 

Nene held her chin up with her hand as she tried to sneakily study the young man sitting on the comfy couch, which was located in the corner of the cafe against the window. His black sweater was loosely worn on top of his white collared shirt, partially hiding his pastel pink tie with red stripes. Occasionally, he would push up his squarish glasses as he typed away at his laptop. His face was generally blank, which was probably his look of focus. Although, sometimes, he would smile to himself just a bit, as if entertained by something he saw on the internet, or maybe just proud of what he had written up.

 

From the previous times he had ordered a drink, she knew that his name was Amane. He’s been coming to the cafe every day for longer than she’s been employed. She didn’t know his last name, or his age, or his occupancy, his hobbies, his interests, etc…

 

Dejection loomed over her, but she quickly shoved it aside.

 

Why would she want to know any of that? She didn’t like him that way.

 

Nene watched him take a bite out of the donut, surprise quickly appearing on his face from the crisp flavor. He then munched happily, eyes closed to further indulge in the tasty delight. 

 

She felt her cheeks warm at the sight.

 

She absolutely didn’t like him like that.

 

“Ehh, Radish-senpai is staring at him again…” Mitsuba said quietly behind his hand, “I think she has a problem…”

 

“I know, right?”

 

“I can hear you!” Nene snapped quietly. Mitsuba raised his hands in defense, “Sorry, Radish-senpai, but it’s kinda sad that you’ve been working here for, like, two months, have been staring at him for almost a month, and yet you never talked to him.”

 

Aoi nodded in agreement. Nene tore her eyes off of the sweater-clad man to glare at her younger colleague. “Like you’re one to talk.”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“‘Ah, Minamoto-kun is visiting today?’” Nene held her hands to her cheeks as she feigned Mitsuba’s girlish attitude. “‘It’s not like I wonder where he is or anything!’”

 

Aoi giggled in her hands, whereas Mitsuba retorted in a strained whisper, “I do not sound like that!”

 

Nene rolled her eyes as he wiped away fake tears. “How could you make fun of cute, innocent me, Radish-senpai? You meanie!”

 

Suddenly, Aoi grinned at her best friend, a tad more diabolical than her usual pristine smiles, which made Nene’s hair stand on end. 

 

“Wait…” the girl leaned toward her with a skeptical glint in her eyes, whispering, “does that mean you’re admitting that you like Amane-san~?

 

Nene threw her hands over Aoi’s mouth. “Never say that again! And no, it doesn’t!”

 

In the background, Mitsuba declined the implicit accusation against him. “And that doesn’t mean I like Minamoto-kun, either!!”

 

“Oh, you two,” Aoi placed a hand on her cheek, “are just so tsundere!

 

“You did not just call me that.” Mitsuba scowled, flabbergasted. “I am no such thing!”

 

“Yeah, neither am I! I am fully open and honest with my emotions!!” Nene asserted firmly with clenched fists.

 

"You two really need to come clean!"

 

"Stop lumping us together, Aoi-senpai! I'm not the one with the staring problem!"

 

"Mitsuba-kun," Nene proclaimed angrily, "I don't have a staring problem!!"

 

"That's what someone with a staring problem would say!"

 

Nene pulled at his cheeks, making him cry out pitifully. 

 

"Radish-senpai, you are so mean!"

 

"I am a friendly person!!"

 

Before the three could delve into an even louder argument, an elderly woman signaled for their attention from behind the counter. They instantly fell into silence as she bowed slightly, “I’m so sorry, but could you keep it down? You’re being a bit too noisy.”

 

Ah.” The trio bowed as deeply as they could with their voices somehow in sync. “We’re very sorry. Please excuse us.”

 

Lifting themselves up, they sighed at the fact that they were being a disturbance, realizing too late that a majority of the cafe had quieted down from their inconsiderate quarreling. They decided to separate and find something to do that didn't involve being irritated and contentious. The ambiance resumed being cozy and serene, as the guests went back to their respective things. 

 

Casting a glance at Amane, Nene caught him giggling into his hand. For a moment, she wondered what could have caused such mirth, until she realized that he was staring directly at them—maybe even at her?

 

It seemed like he had been observing the whole affair from afar. When he realized that he had been discovered, his hand sent her a tiny wave while he smiled apologetically. Then, he resumed working on his laptop.

 

Nene felt her face turn red from embarrassment, before she lightly hit her palm against her forehead.

 


 

It was a few days later before something else happened in Nene’s incredibly complicated and super dramatic love life.

 

“Eh?” Nene said as she tied on her apron. “Aoi-chan called in sick?”

 

“Yep, and unfortunately…” Kou rubbed the back of his neck, “we’re a bit short on staff. I would love to help, but I still have a whole essay to finish and classes to get to later!”

 

So that’s why she didn’t answer my texts earlier… Nene thought to herself. Upon seeing Kou’s guilty face, she sent him a jovial smile. “No worries, Kou-kun. I can handle the morning shift by myself. The counter is like my second home, to be honest.”

 

“H-Huh?!” he grabbed her by her shoulders, “Are you sure?! It’s a Monday!”

 

She picked his hands and peeled them off of her, holding them out in between the two. “I can assure you that I’ll be fine! It just means there’ll be more tips for me, right?”

 

“I guess…” Kou frowned, before bowing a multitude of times. “You're the best! Thank you so much, Senpai!”

 

He threw on his coat and waved at her vigorously. “Goodbye, and good luck!!”

 

“Ah, thank you! You too!”

 

Once he was gone, Nene was left by herself behind the register. It was still quite early in the morning, so there weren’t too many customers. She tied her hair up in a bun and washed her hands thoroughly. Clapping her hands together, she smiled confidently to herself.

 

“Today will be great!”

 

Two hours later, the day was entering mid-morning, and Nene felt her hands falling off of her wrists. She’s made nearly five hundred drinks, and despite trying her hardest, she had experienced a few mess-ups with orders or requests. But a few errors to half of a thousand successes was a pretty good ratio, she would say. 

 

Nene, regardless of her somewhat messy appearance, grinned proudly.

 

“Ahh, it’s only you today, Nene-san?” a frequenter asked her. Nene nodded as she practically danced behind the counter, “Yep, just me!”

 

“It’s barely eight o’clock, will you be okay?” someone else questioned half an hour later. She felt a bit irritated, since that was probably the hundredth time someone has shot her that query, but she restrained her irritation. They were only worried about her, she didn’t have to be annoyed because someone cared. Nene handed their order over to them and said, “I’m sure I’ll be okay! Thank you for asking.”

 

She had to be grateful to those who showed her sympathy, because unfortunately, there were many people that didn’t spare any condolences.

 

“Hey! What’s the hold up?!”

 

“I-I’m sorry, I’m nearly done!” Nene rushed to finish the drink, feeling the customer’s burning glare into her back. 

 

It’s only been five minutes, give me a break!

 

She delivered the drinks quickly before ringing up the next orders, thus continuing her hectic cycle. Her feet were beginning to ache, and she felt a sweat building up on her temple.

 

Nooo, I’m gonna look so gross…!

 

As noon approached, it seemed that the more people there were, the more complaints that needed to be taken care of. They disrupted her attempts at establishing a solid rhythm, and built more and more onto her stress. She felt her mouth began to hurt for each smile she needed to force and each apology she had to convey.

 

“Excuse me, I think there’s something wrong with my drink!”

 

“I’ll get that fixed for you right away!”

 

“There’s no soap in the bathroom…”

 

“I’ll get someone on it as soon as possible!”

 

“My wrap is really cold and nasty!!”

 

“I’m so sorry, let me correct that for you!”

 

Nene landed herself back at the register, exhaustion beginning to wreak her body from the morning rush. It was barely past noon, yet her neat bun had become a tangled ponytail. However, she knew well enough that near this time, there were less people coming in since it was time for lunch rather than a cup of coffee. A lull took over the previously busy establishment, allowing Nene a moment of rest. She sighed in relief and held herself up on the counter, until someone walked in front of the register. Without looking at the person in front of her, she inquired weakly, “Hello, how can I help you?”

 

There was a moment of silence, then, “Hmm, it seems like you need more help than I do~”

 

T-That voice—

 

Nene brought her gaze up slowly; her polite smile was frozen in place. Amane waved at her with a friendly smirk, “Hey, how’ve you been?”

 

“O-Oh, um, Amane-san!” she threaded her fingers through a lock of her hair, “I-I didn’t see you come in…”

 

Please let me smell good. Please let the smell of coffee overwhelm my sweaty odor!!

 

“I don’t blame you. There was a ton of people coming in and out when I got here.” He scratched his cheek and glanced to the side, “You looked really busy, so I thought that my order could wait.”

 

“Aah, um, thank you…” Nene said timidly. Her foot was pressing down on her other one as she tried not to sound so shy.

 

Why am I so nervous?? It’s just Amane-san…

 

She bashfully looked up at him. He was eyeing the menu with a thoughtful expression, absentmindedly playing with his hands.

 

But… I've never really gotten the chance to talk to him...

 

She noticed that he still had his black sweater on, but on top of a baby blue collared shirt and a white tie with dark gray stripes. Part of her was curious as to why he needed to dress in business casual everyday, which… meant that she was interested in his profession…

 

I already went through this. I don't need to know!

 

"So, I don't usually see you around this time," Nene noted, before inquiring, "Did your schedule change?"

 

Shoot, I ended up succumbing to my curiosity...

 

He looked a bit astounded at her attentiveness, which made her cringe inwardly.

 

I sound like a stalker…

 

"No, it's just a teacher workday."

 

She stared at him inquisitively. He stared back, large amber eyes closely reading her face.

 

"Wait, could you be… a high school student?" Nene put her hand up to her mouth, suddenly feeling gross, and not because of the dried sweat on her forehead. A twenty-two year old woman fresh out of college should not be showing interest in a boy who looked to be at most fifteen. 

 

Amane chuckled softly, before shaking his head. "No, I'm not."

 

"Oh," she felt at ease, "then… university student?"

 

"Nope!" he smiled cheekily. She felt slightly indignant, but then a final prediction came to mind.

 

"You're a teacher?"

 

"Bingo~!"

 

She gaped slightly, "Wow, I would've never thought. I would have guessed you had a doctorate of some sort."

 

At his somewhat crestfallen reaction, she bent forward and made panicked hand motions.

 

"N-Not that you need it! I think it's cool that you're a teacher!!"

 

He perked up. "Really?"

 

Nene nodded quickly with a small blush, causing him to chuckle at her.

 

"Well, since you made the right guess," he leaned forward, arms crossed in front of him, and inches away from her face, "would you like a prize?"

 

"W-What?!" Nene felt more heat rush to her cheeks. She always thought he was a well-mannered person, but the way he asked her was way too suggestive! Dirty thoughts began to swarm her mind, until he dug into his pocket.

 

"Here~"

 

He placed a tiny object on her forehead. She plucked it off and recognized the shape of a star.

 

"Is this a sticker?"

 

"Yes, it is." He stood back and closed his eyes, gladly explaining, "It's a bit old-fashioned, but I use stickers as a reward. The goal is to achieve a moon~"

 

Dumb brain making innuendos out of nothing. He was just treating me like a kid…

 

Though, she wasn't sure if that was any better. 

 

"Aah, I see!" Nene replied cheerfully as she stood up straight, "Your little ones must love to earn stickers!"

 

Amane tilted his head. "Little ones?"

 

"Uh, yeah…?" she pressed her hands together as uncertainty laced her tone, "You teach elementary, right?"

 

Amane shook his head. "My classes are full of confused and hormonal teenagers."

 

She furrowed her eyebrows. "You give stickers to high school kids…?

 

"Yup!" Amane grinned, "And they compete over my stickers like rabid animals~"

 

"E-Eh?! Why?" she asked, alarmed. He displayed his empty hands and wiggled his fingers. "Every five star stickers gives one moon sticker. And every ten moon stickers is one point I add to their end-of-semester grades."

 

"Seriously?!"

 

He nodded happily. She inquired, "Then, when do you hand out stickers?"

 

"Oh, I mean, for small in-class competitions, highest test grade, stuff like that." He shrugged, before beckoning her to lean in closer, as if disclosing a grand secret. She exposed her ear to him, and internally shuddered at his warm breath on her ear. "The real jackpot for my students is when they do favors for me like filling up my water bottle, organizing my paperwork, or even cleaning all the desks~"

 

"Huh?" she pulled back to stare at him in perplexity. "That sounds like you're just paying a bunch of student workers with stickers."

 

"For better grades~!"

 

"For better grades…" Nene paused, "Wait a minute, isn't that cheating?!"

 

"Nope, I was approved and everything~"

 

"How did you get the principal to approve something like that?"

 

"Simple~" Amane said casually. "I threatened to ruin his career."

 

"You what?!" she yelped, startled. He quickly covered her mouth with his hand before she freaked out more. The other patrons didn't seem to particularly care, so they were in the clear. Amane leaned forward and whispered, "Not so loud, Yashiro-san, or you're going to cause a scene."

 

Nene had to use both of her hands to remove the one on her lips. "B-But you just told me—"

 

He chuckled and shook his head. "I was kidding. I wrote a good proposal like any normal person would, and was approved within a week."

 

"O-Oh…"

 

"Geez, Yashiro-san," he drew his hand away and rested his cheek on it, "you're pretty easy to mess with~"

 

"Y-You just mess with me too much!" Nene huffed and looked away. "Don't you know that you should respect your elders?!"

 

"Hmm~" Amane smirked, wider than before, "You're assuming again, Yashiro-san."

 

"Eh? No way…" she felt like the world just wanted her to fail in front of him. "You're older than me?!"

 

"Yep~" he held up three fingers, "by three years."

 

"You look so young, though!" she said, incredulous. He giggled at the look on her face. "Why, thank you. I rub aloe vera on my skin every morning and every night."

 

She made a noise of understanding and nodded, until she saw the laugh he was trying to hold back.

 

"You're messing with me again!!"

 

"Right you are~"

 

She growled and tugged on her hair, where he, on the other hand, was letting out peals of laughter. Nene grumbled to herself, before demanding, "I thought you came up here to make an order!"

 

"Ahh, that's right…" he grinned flippantly, "the regular, please~"

 

Nene puffed her cheeks as she rung up his usual drink and donut. "You could have said that from the beginning."

 

"I could have, but," he beamed at her again, much sweeter this time, "I wanted to talk to you~"

 

Nene's head burst into flames, yet she managed to carry out the transaction. Despite the fluttery feeling in her gut, she produced his drink without spilling any of the contents and went to grab a fresh donut from the rack in the back.

 

"Hey, Yashiro-san, I saw that it was crazy out there earlier—whoa!" her kitchen colleague Satou inspected her heavily blushing face. "Are you about to pass out? You're really red!"

 

"I-I'm as right as rain!" Nene tried to bring down the temperature of her head. "Just grabbing a donut…"

 

"Did we run out in the front? I can restock—"

 

"No, no, we're all good!" she selected a donut with a napkin and hurried out of the kitchen. She muttered to herself on the way to the counter,  "Geez, is today 'ask Nene if she's okay' day?"

 

At her arrival, Amane happily took the fresh donut from her grasp, and picked his drink up with his free hand.

 

"Wow, looks yummy. I can always depend on you, Yashiro-san~"

 

"O-Of course." Nene blushed and threw her gaze to the side, until she realized that Amane knew both her last name and her age.

 

As he nibbled on the treat, she turned back to him with a bewildered look. He tilted his head, "Hmm?"

 

"N-Nothing, just…" she asked, "how did you know that stuff about me?"

 

"What stuff?"

 

"My last name? My age?"

 

"Ahh, well, between you and me," Amane leaned in again, lowering his chin and looking up at her with an expression that made her knees wobbly, "I'm a supernatural entity."

 

"E-Eh?!"

 

"I can read minds and analyze human beings~" he said in a spooky tone, raising his hands in a ghostly manner, "then, I choose whose brain I want to eat—"

 

"Amane-san!!" Nene pouted and hit her hands on the counter, "Stop doing that!"

 

He stuck his tongue out at her, before taking another bite out of his donut. She quietly eyed him with annoyance, before saying purposefully, "Are you sure you aren't just some perverted cafe man?"

 

He looked genuinely struck by her allegation, and it made her feel a tinge of guilt. He shook his head, "No, I got my information fairly!"

 

"Really?" she maintained the high ground she had now, and raised her chin up as if to look down on him, "How so?"

 

He sighed while a lovely blush painted his cheeks, provoking Nene to gaze and absorb the sight. Amane said reluctantly, "I'm good friends with one of the owners."

 

"Oh…" Nene guessed, "Minamoto-senpai?"

 

Amane shuddered. "Uh, no, definitely not him."

 

"Kou-kun, then??"

 

"Yeah," he sipped at his drink, "since I came here everyday, he noticed and talked to me a few times. Now, we're close friends, but he's usually too busy to chat anymore."

 

"I suppose that's a legitimate source, however," Nene leered at him with suspicion, "that still doesn't explain why you know those things about me."

 

He stood there, visibly stunned, then bit his bottom lip and stared at the donut intently.

 

Wow, look at the way he looks at that donut…

 

I wish he'd look at me like how he looks at that donut!

 

Wait, no, I don't!

 

Shush, me!!

 

Shaking her head out of its stupor, she brought her attention back onto him. He was looking everywhere now but at her.

 

"Well, I'm always interested in the cafe's new employees. But you stood out to me, because…"

 

She felt her heartbeat quicken at his words. Was he about to hint at holding some romantic feelings for her? Oh, but then she'd have to turn him down, right? She would have to avoid leading him on to save his feelings from getting hurt.

 

Although, when she looked at him, she couldn't deny how unfairly attractive he was sometimes. She couldn't say that the idea of turning him down made her feel like a smart and mature person. The opposite actually, because then it would feel like she invested so much of herself into nothing. 

 

Staring at him everyday… and getting teased for it… 

 

Trying to be the one to ring up and make his order…

 

The day she learned his name still makes her excited and jumpy.

 

Maybe… maybe she did hold something for him…

 

Yashiro Nene, you big, blind idiot.

 

Nene peered at him with widened eyes, as if seeing him in a new light. The revelation elicited a sharp inhale, and she braced herself for his confession.

 

You ended up liking him.

 

"...b-because," he stammered, "you have really fat ankles."

 

She felt her world come to a halt.

 

The sound of a mirror shattering would have been perfect for this moment. Instead, there was a heavy, thick silence, and suddenly the room became terribly cold and tense.

 

"Y-Yashiro-san?"

 

She didn't answer him. Robotically, she turned around.

 

"Oh, would you look at that. There are dishes I need to clean…"

 

"Yashiro-san…?"

 

She eyed the mechanical clock hanging up on the wall.

 

"Mitsuba-kun is almost here~ then I can go on break…"

 

"Yashiro-san…"

 

"I wonder what I can eat~"

 

Amane gave up on trying to get her to talk to him again, so he took his drink and his donut and went to his seat in shame. Looking at the now glum young woman, he lightly smacked himself on the forehead.

 


 

Kou may be a bit slow to pick up on things sometimes, but when it came to his friends, his instincts could pick up even the smallest sign.

 

So through Amane's fake smile, Kou discerned his melancholy.

 

“Alright, that’s it.” Kou threw his leg up and put his hand on his thigh as he scrutinized his friend. “What’s the problem?”

 

“Problem~?” Amane sipped quietly on his drink. “There is none.”

 

“That’s bull, and you know it!” 

 

“Eh…” the shorter man feigned indifference, “it’s nothing.”

 

“Oh, now I know for sure that it’s something big.” Kou frowned deeply, trying to get a closer look on his face, but Amane was unwilling to show much of his expression. He scrunched his face up, considering all the possible factors, before he remembered that his friend and employee Yashiro Nene was also down in the dumps.

 

It’s been at least a week with her moping around with only half of her usual spunk. Both Aoi and Mitsuba didn’t seem to know what was wrong with her, nor was she inclined to share her problem. Kou also didn’t have much time in his day to talk to her, so he couldn’t discuss what was bothering her. Although, now that he had a moment to sit down with his teacher friend, he noticed that Amane wasn’t as lively as he usually was, either. He wondered if the two situations were linked, somehow. 

 

So, he did what he did best. He asked questions, straight to the point.

 

“Amane, do you know why Senpai is sad?”

 

“Senpai…?” Amane paused, “Ah, you mean Yashiro-san?”

 

He took another sip of his drink, one leg across the other. “I wouldn’t know.”

 

Kou leaned back and stroked his chin pensively. If interrogation didn’t work, then he did what he did second best. He proceeded to subtly manipulate his friend.

 

“Ahh, bummer…” Kou sighed as he looked up at the ceiling, “I was hoping you would know. I wanted to help Senpai since she seemed so down. I caught her crying this morning…”

 

Amane tensed up, his hands on his drink went rigid, and his face became utterly still. He choked out, gradually losing his composure, “O-Oh? That sounds bad…”

 

“It does… it is!” Kou snapped his fingers, voice laced with despair, “It seems like she’s liking her job less and less… I really hope she doesn’t quit…

 

Amane took a deep breath, and Kou stopped talking to ready himself for the truth of his friends’ emotions. The shorter man then exhaled, before placing his drink aside and slumping over his legs.

 

Quietly, almost nervously, he admitted, “It was probably... because of me…”

 

“I knew it!” Kou yelled, gaining some attention. He waved apologetically and went back to his confounded friend, telling him in a hushed voice. “I suspected that something was up with you and Senpai!”

 

“You knew?” Amane furrowed his eyebrows. He didn’t think the blond man knew much of anything when it came to people, if he were to be honest. Kou nodded a copious amount of times, before pointing at him accusingly. “Yeah, and I had to lure you into confessing!”

 

Amane didn’t appear happy at that fact. “Did you lie to me?”

 

“Lie? Of course not.” Kou replied simply, “Senpai really was crying this morning, and I really hope that she doesn’t quit.”

 

Desolation washed over him, making it impossible for him to slump over even more. It may have been better if Kou was lying… because to think that Amane really made her cry from what he said was quite painful to bear.

 

He should’ve just told her the truth…

 

“So, what happened?” 

 

Amane heaved a heavy sigh. “When she was the only one behind the counter a week ago, she seemed really tired from the busy morning. I wanted to talk to her and, I don’t know… try to cheer her up.” 

 

Kou had an amazed look. He half-expected Amane to keep denying the charge held against him, but it seems like knowing that Nene cried was enough to make him miserably honest.

 

“It was the first actual conversation that we have ever had, and... I completely blew it.”

 

“Ooh,” Kou was still puzzled, though, “that explains your mood. But why is she in a bad one, too?”

 

“Hmm, well,” Amane looked to the side, “I may or may not have insulted what was probably her biggest insecurity…”

 

Kou chopped Amane’s head with his hand, earning a small ‘ow’ from him. “That was for Senpai. Geez, the first conversation you have with the girl you like, and you make fun of her ankles!”

 

“What?! I—” Amane felt a blush cover his cheeks. “I don’t like her. I told you before, I’m just curious about her!”

 

“Really? All those times you asked me about her name, age, birthday, and work schedule was because you were only curious?”

 

Amane grimaced at all the information that he had requested before, but nodded regardless. There was a cocky grin rising onto Kou’s face, “Oh? And even when you asked me about her relationship status, her type of guy, her hopes and dreams and hobbies and interests—”

 

“Okay, I get it.” Amane glared, obviously unhappy about being found out. He ran his fingers through his hair and divulged grudgingly, “So, I might fancy Yashiro-san a little bit… and now what? She still hates me."

 

"Senpai doesn't have a hateful bone in her body! That's how nice she is." Kou pointedly looked at him. "You just need to talk to her."

 

"She won't talk to me."

 

"I bet you didn't try after that day."

 

Amane opened his mouth, but quickly pursed his lips, unable to counter that claim. Kou sighed and shook his head, "You gave up too easily. Just try again!"

 

"But, what if she—"

 

Before Amane could express all the nightmare scenarios festering in his mind, Kou's phone rang on the arm of the couch chair. 

 

"Ah, it's my group. I have to go meet up with them for a project." Kou rose to his feet and stretched his arms. He pulled on his coat and crossed over to his friend, patting him firmly on the shoulder. "Remember, just talk to her! It's gonna be alright."

 

His already shiny friend became a lot shinier with the thumbs up he was giving him.

 

Amane fended off the hopelessness in his mind with a stick. "Ah, sure…"

 

"I gotta go now! See ya!"

 

"Bye, kid~" Amane waved at his back, before sighing to himself. He felt like his friend's advice was really basic, yet the golden rule for any relationship. Communication, right?

 

He groaned quietly into his hands.

 

He sucked at communication. He sucked at it big time.

 

Despite coming to the cafe for nearly five years, and knowing who Kou was for basically the same amount of time, it took him two years to actually engage in a conversation and learn his name. Then, it took another year to get used to talking about himself. Not even anything personal, but simple things like "What do you do?" and "What do you want to do?" and "What do you like?" and opinions on this and personal stories on that and—

 

Despite his blank facial expression, Amane was screaming in his head.

 

He sighed again.

 

Fear gave way to frustration. He hated justifying his own wrongdoings.

 

Even if he was incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of laying down his emotions, knowing that Yashiro cried because of him mercilessly yanked at his heartstrings. He despised knowing that he made her so depressed. Seeing her happy again would be worth suffering from social anxiety and all the mortification for being a creepy secret admirer.

 

So, resolved to do the right thing, he sat on the couch and waited until night fell. 

 

By the time the sun set, he only got half of his work done since most of his mind was freaking out about talking with Nene. It was an hour before closing, meaning that the kitchen was done for the night. There was no one left in the cafe except for him and Nene, in which the latter was slouching silently behind the counter.

 

He gulped.

 

"Who is that?"

 

"Huh?" Kou turned to whomever Amane was looking at. "Oh, that's our newest barista, Yashiro Nene. Since she's older than me and, like, really nice, I like to call her Senpai."

 

"I see."

 

Amane placed his head in his hand and observed her. She had a pretty smile and lovely ruby eyes. He felt heat rise to his face, coloring his cheeks slightly red.

 

Amane placed his empty drink aside and stood up. He took a few deep breaths as he settled his nerves.

 

Talk to her. He willed himself to move, Stop being a ghost.

 

He found himself in front of the register, in front of her. She slowly lifted her gaze to look at him, and suddenly the dullness in her eyes faded. Amane struggled to keep up the intense eye contact.

 

"Yashiro-san," he nearly stammered, "how has your day been?"

 

Nene seemed to be startled at this abrupt exchange, but she replied regardless, "I've been better."

 

"Is that so…?"

 

Silence fell over them like a fog over a forest.

 

Say something else, say something to her, you stupid—!

 

"You're not here to make fun of me again, are you?"

 

"Ah—"

 

Amane shook his head vehemently.

 

"No!"

 

The corners of her lips quirked upwards.

 

She hid her mouth with her hand, using her eyes to portray coldness.

 

"Then state your business."

 

"Yashiro-san, about the other day…"

 

Nene arched an eyebrow. He couldn't maintain eye contact with her skeptical gaze, so he directed his attention to his feet.

 

"I didn't think you would get so upset." 

 

She frowned, a bit insulted. "So are girls supposed to welcome offensive statements?"

 

"No, I didn't mean it like that…" Amane tried to save himself, "I meant that I thought I was funny, but I... wasn't funny."

 

"Yeah, you weren't!" she felt her tears stinging her eyes. He was taken aback by her sudden exclamation. Nene realized how she reacted, and held herself back. Crossing her arms, she turned her head.

 

He felt like reaching out to her, because for the life of him, he could not say anything correctly. He knew what he wanted to do, he knew what he could convey using his actions rather than his words, but he was still a stranger to her. Not to mention, the counter was separating the two of them.

 

"Yashiro-san," his eyes softened, "I'm sorry."

 

Her shoulders slackened, and her firm stance of anger weakened immediately. She brought herself to stare at him again, in all his flustered shame.

 

"I know we haven't talked a lot, and I know you like to make jokes," Nene said as she gazed down at the counter, "but the thing with my legs is that… I hate being known for it. I want people to notice me for me and not because of my legs."

 

She felt humiliated at this point, so she may as well continue, "And the horrible thing about it is that no matter what I did, guys never ignored them. It's like they're there so that I could never have a guy like me."

 

Nene sighed, then chuckled sadly. "Isn't that pathetic…?"

 

Amane stared at her, then gently grabbed her hand, capturing her attention in the process.

 

"All those guys are missing out, anyway."

 

"Huh?" She blushed, and he was blushing, but then he added, "There's a lot of other things to tease you with besides your ankles."

 

She blinked, before bumping his head with her forehead.

 

"O-Ow!"

 

"You dumb… dummy!" Nene yelled at him. "And here I was, thinking you were being cute!"

 

The pain in his head vanished while she covered her mouth from her slip-up. He pointed at himself, "You thought I was cute?"

 

She flushed. "That's not the point!!"

 

"No, wait, bring the thought back!" he squished his cheeks in an attempt to persuade her, "Am I cute? Tell me I'm cute~"

 

"Stop!" she whined, unable to resist the smile growing on her face. He pouted, "But I wanna know~"

 

"Fine," Nene said with blooming cheeks, "you're cute cute."

 

"Two cutes? Yay~"

 

"Not as cute as my boyfriend, though."

 

Amane froze at that sentence, midway through rejoicing. His excitement died at the speed of light.

 

"Oh, really? I see."

 

She snorted and hit the counter, before laughing uncontrollably. 

 

"I was kidding, silly. My status is still single." She stuck her tongue out at him. "That's what you get for teasing me."

 

He gazed at her incredulously, before chuckling with her and feeling relieved. 

 

Out of nowhere, he grasped her hand again, and placed his lips on the back of her fingers. She felt steam shoot out of her head. 

 

"A-Amane-san?!"

 

"You can call me Amane-kun." He winked at her, gently pulling her closer, "And I can change that status for you~"

 

"Huh? W-Wait—"

 

She squeezed her eyes shut and prepared for impending contact. However, nothing was actually touching her face. She opened one eye, only to be greeted by Amane's haughty smirk.

 

He jumped back and celebrated, "That's a point for me!"

 

"A… a point??" 

 

"Yeah, I got a point for teasing you!"

 

Nene fussed, "This isn't a game!"

 

"Then why is it so much fun~?"

 

"Geez, are you sure you're not a student?!"

 

"Aw, don't be like that~" Amane stopped victory posing to face her. "Though, you're right. I guess it’s not a game~"

 

She sent him a questioning look, to which he answered lightheartedly, "Because I'd easily win by one million points."

 

Nene rolled her eyes but smiled, spirits lifted remarkably. He was feeling quite triumphant at bringing back her happy mood.

 

They spent the rest of the night conversing, losing themselves in their discussions. When it was time for the cafe to close, he strolled out with her as she closed the lights and locked the door. He walked her to her car, ensuring that she was safe from any possible night thieves. 

 

“To think you take night shifts half of the week…” Amane said coolly, hands in his pockets, “Aren’t you worried about being alone this late?”

 

She giggled as she unlocked her car and put her bag inside, “It seems like you’re more worried about me than I am~”

 

He didn’t respond, so she brought her gaze up to catch his blossoming face, steadily looking away from her. Nene’s heartbeat pounded in her ears, and she couldn’t help but fidget. 

 

This is nice… she mused, a guy caring about me, walking with me to my car at night…

 

Although, with her inexperience, she wasn’t entirely sure how to end the night. They were still only friends, and they seemed mutual about taking it slow and natural. At least, she hoped she wasn’t misreading the situation, and that he did in fact hold some feelings for her… like she did for him. With all the blushing and squirming and looking here and there and suggestive tones, she was ninety-nine percent sure that there was something going on between them.

 

“Um…” 

 

“Hmm?”

 

“Thank you for walking me to my car,” she said softly, “Amane-kun.”

 

His subconscious just about fainted, and his heart was bursting at the seams, yet he managed to maintain a calm, unfazed composure.

 

“No problem~” Amane shrugged, “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

 

“Yep!” she was about to slide into her seat, but paused, “Oh, Amane-kun!”

 

“Yes?”

 

She clasped her hands around his and smiled bashfully, “You can call me Nene.”

 

“E-Eh?” Amane appeared disturbed to be addressing her so informally, but she motioned him insistently, so he tried, “Okay, Nene.” 

 

They allowed a passing moment of tranquility to soothe their eager hearts. Nene nodded, “That’s better.”

 

“If you say so,” Amane gave a half-suppressed laugh, “then I’ll see you tomorrow, Nene.”

 

 “Mm! See you!” 

 

He watched her drive away, then let his heart be swept away by the night.

 


 

Aoi eyed her best friend dubiously. “You’re very happy.”

 

“Indeed, I am~” Nene hummed as she made the drinks, with a spring in her step and extra brightness in her beam. Aoi would have questioned her further, but she chose against it, and basked in Nene’s gaiety.

 

For the next couple of months, Nene and Amane would spend as much time as possible. During her breaks, she sat down with him and talked with him about trivial things and broad topics. They would generally be touchy-feely, with it seemingly impossible to keep their hands off each other. Amane was physically dependent in particular, always holding her hand or cupping her face or draping himself over her. Despite her electrified heart and eagerness to reciprocate, it was difficult to keep up with his flirty actions. She contemplated how she could adequately return his affections.

 

During her night shifts, he’d usually be the last person in the cafe, and they’d have the time and privacy to delve into more personal or specific subjects. He always made sure to walk her to her car after the cafe was closed.

 

One night, as they were on the way to her car, Nene felt a rush of confidence, and the idea she had been considering for a while finally illuminated.

 

“Amane-kun?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Look,” she pointed up at the full moon, “it’s so big and beautiful.”

 

She knew fully well that he was a major nerd for astronomy, since that was his subject of teaching, after all. One time, she remembered him telling her that he had wanted to go to the moon himself when he was younger. However, he had disregarded the idea and sought to teach about it instead. Albeit, it never changed his love for the sky and for space. He looked up and grinned, relishing the gorgeous sight. Nene took this opportunity to commit to her plan of action.

 

She tugged on his sweater, barely waiting for him to notice, then stepped closer to him.

 

“Wha—?”

 

A faint sensation landed on his cheek, almost like a pair of flower petals, but he knew exactly what is was.

 

She backed up with a fierce blush spreading across her face. He flushed and stared, a hand automatically holding his cheek. Nene felt entirely apprehensive now of the consequences of her deed. She held her bag close to her chest and pivoted around to view the distant trees. Deafening silence filled the night, occasionally interrupted by the sound of the road or a stray cricket in the grass.

 

He voiced behind her. “Nene…” 

 

She grimaced, unable to face him. “I-I’m sorry, was I too bold—?”

 

A pair of arms wrapped around her waist, making her utter a tiny ‘eek.’

 

His forehead was pressing against her shoulder, turning her as still as a statue. She heard him mumble, “That’s not very fair.”

 

The feeling of his arms was burning her up. His head lifted up to lean toward her ear, “I want consolation~

 

Miraculously, she leaned against his touch instead of pushing him away; their relationship was moving forward, now. “Are you gonna ask me for a written apology?”

 

“No~” he rested his head in the crook of her neck, “I was gonna ask you if you wanted to see a movie with me.”

 

Nene swallowed her fear and allowed herself to cherish this moment. “When?”

 

“This Sunday.” His breath warmed her skin, “I can pick you up at six, and we can grab a bite before it starts~”

 

She hummed in rumination.

 

"AM?"

 

"PM."

 

"Darn," she said cheekily, "I only go with guys at six in the morning."

 

"...Then we can go at six in the morning," he persisted. She giggled and turned around in his arms, "That was a test. Six in the evening is perfect."

 

He stared down intensely at her. She felt her heart nearly stop.

 

"Nene?"

 

"Yes?"

 

His hand cupped the side of her face.

 

"Can I kiss you?"

 

She was tempted to say yes. Very tempted.

 

But she wanted Sunday to be a wonderful first date, and intended on ending it with a magical first kiss. So she smiled, and declined his request, "No."

 

She slipped away from his grasp while he was still shocked by her answer.

 

"N-No??" he held the top of her car while she situated herself in the driver's seat. She nonchalantly turned the car on and buckled herself in.

 

"Yep!"

 

"Yes to kissing?" Amane tried to maneuver. Nene shook her head, "Yes to my no, which was no to kissing."

 

"But Nene~" 

 

His whine was so cute. She just couldn't help herself.

 

Snatching onto his tie, she jerked him down to her level, and used her other hand to position his head. Before he could react, she planted a chaste kiss on his cheek.

 

Red dusted their cheeks.

 

"Ask me again on Sunday, Amane-kun~" she grinned, "and I might just reconsider."

 

After they said their fond farewells, she drove off into the night. Amane was left by himself, his flustered yet ecstatic expression visible to only the night sky. He couldn't contain the exhilaration coursing through his body, nor his heart that wanted to flutter about in the wind. The stars attentively watched him, twinkling in awe at the sight, as he was finally over the moon.

Chapter Text

When Nene said she wanted to see him tonight, he wasn't entirely sure what to make of it. It was weird that she seemed very excited and flushed, but he was quite curious as to what she had in store. She had even told him to try not to float and wander around, and to not bother her for any hints. It appeared that she was determined to hang out with him long after school was over, even without Kou.

 

Very suspicious, indeed.

 

As night fell, he was still wondering what she was planning. His bewilderment only increased when she arrived on campus outside of her uniform.

 

She was pretty, adorning a lovely spring dress with a sleek coat on top to fend off the chilly breeze of the night. White socks stretched over her legs, hiding under black Mary Jane shoes. She had her hair curled, her front locks framing her blushing face while the rest of the top of her hair was tied back with a skull-shaped hair pin.

 

He froze in place, unable to form any words. She waved shyly, "Did I make you wait too long?"

 

"Ah, um, no!" Hanako cleared his throat in an attempt to regain his composure. She flashed him a bashful smile.

 

"How do I look?"

 

She lifted the skirt of her dress up, then proceeded to twirl around. With the moon glowing behind her, she looked absolutely stunning. 

 

He felt his hands become clammy.

 

"Like a well-dressed radish."

 

He felt the pain coming long before she made contact with his head.

 

Hanako gingerly rubbed his sore forehead.

 

"S-Sorry~"

 

She harrumphed, before placing her hands on her hips, "Geez, Hanako-kun! Try to behave better, or I'm gonna get really mad!"

 

"But what are we doing…?"

 

"We're," she took his hand and led him into the school, "going to have fun!"

 

"Huh?"

 

The lights inside the school flickered on, but it was a dim lighting that set a… weirdly specific mood. It was hard to remember what exactly the atmosphere was entailing, since he wasn't used to something like this. It wasn't bad, per se, but it made him a bit nervous and even more skeptical. He gazed around curiously, momentarily spotting Tsuchigomori behind a corner, before he was pulled along further inside.

 

Hanako muttered, "What is going on here…?"

 

They arrived in front of the doors to the auditorium. He didn't get to question her intent further as she brought him inside without hesitation. 

 

The place was completely dark, save for the lantern being held up near the entrance. Hanako recognized the large drop down screen on the stage, before he turned his attention to the spirit in front of them. Yako greeted them with a bow as she shined them with her light, "Here for the movie?"

 

Nene nodded, but Hanako only looked even more puzzled.

 

"No. 2? What are you doing here?"

 

"Please be silent during the film." She only replied. A couple of Mokke ambled over to them, carrying popcorn and sodas with their ears. "And help yourself to some snacks."

 

Nene grinned as she took a box of popcorn and a drink. Hanako wanted to be more cautious, but the popcorn looked too good to refuse, so he went ahead and grabbed one.

 

"Is there something wrong with the School Mysteries?" Hanako asked as they were ushered to their seats, but Nene shook her head, "They're fine, Hanako-kun. Come on, let's watch."

 

"What are we watching?" he questioned as the screen came to life. She responded in a low voice, "'The Hamster of Oz,' it's a classic story with a modern twist."

 

"Hmm~" he leaned over, "since you aren't freaking out about anything, then I suppose this means that all of this is your doing?"

 

"Maybe." She placed a finger over her lips, "Now, shush, Hanako-kun. It's about to start."

 

"But—"

 

She intertwined their fingers, and sent him a pointed look. A blush bloomed on his face, barely visible in the darkness of the room. Her hand gently laid in his, the warmth and the chill contrasting before eventually balancing.

 

"I said shush. Okay?" she plopped a piece of popcorn in her mouth. He nodded, "Okay."

 

He could barely focus on the movie with her casually holding his hand like it was nothing. She smelled really good for some reason, and looked really good for some reason, and acted as though this was a typical thing to do for the two of them. 

 

In order to distract himself, he munched on his popcorn and forced himself to indulge in the film. It wasn't half bad, as the characters were quite entertaining, and though the plot itself was obvious, the way it was executed made it very interesting. He found himself laughing and reacting often to some scenes, Nene joining him every time. She would coo and giggle a lot more than him, and sometimes, he'd make a flippant comment or a remark of an error, to which she would hit him but not harshly.

 

Nearing the climax, the drama and the sorrow hit, but Hanako wasn't too affected by it. However, he turned to see a teary-eyed Nene, her lip trembling as she tried to hold in her sympathy. He felt like teasing her for crying at such a lame scene, but something within him inhibited him from doing so. Instead, he squeezed her hand gently, and she sniffed and cried softly into her other hand. 

 

Aww…

 

She was cute, for being sad over something like this. The sight of her innocence strengthened his desire to protect her and to keep her safe. He shook his head and smiled; she made him too soft, sometimes.

 

As the resolution played out, Hanako felt himself growing roots into the chair, so he yawned and stretched his arms up. Nene jolted in surprise beside him. He looked over at her questioningly.

 

"What's wrong?"

 

"O-Oh, um, nothing!" she waved her hands around nervously, "I just thought you were gonna… do something…"

 

Hanako stared at her for a few more seconds, before bringing his arm down behind her shoulders. She whirled her head over to him in shock. He leaned in and smirked, "You mean this~?"

 

"U-Um—!" she shrunk and nodded quickly. He chuckled quietly, and kept his arm around her as the movie played its last fifteen minutes. When the credits appeared, the lights of the auditorium brightened. He removed his arm from her shoulders, the lingering sensation still tingling her skin. They stood up from their seats and headed for the exit, tossing away their trash on the way. They spent some time discussing their thoughts on the film, sharing jokes and honest opinions.

 

"As nice as that was, I'm still wondering what this is all about~"

 

"We still have things to do, so bury your questions for now."

 

"Eh?" Hanako furrowed his eyebrows, "There's more?"

 

"Just come with me."

 

She led the way through the halls, and he dutifully followed after her. There was a calming serenity travelling with them, and he yielded to the peacefulness of the moment. Soon enough, they arrived at their destination, which was the school's garden. Hanako was surprised to see small lanterns strewn along the edges of the vicinity. Their lights were cozy and mild, not overpowering the natural light from the moon. The flowers were all swirled closed, but the variety of colors still decorated the area beautifully. 

 

He scanned over the garden, “What happened here?”

 

She shushed him, and said in a hushed voice, "Do you hear that?"

 

Music began to flow overhead, drifting along their limbs and slipping into their souls. 

 

"Music?" Hanako looked up and around, "From where?"

 

It was a zestful song with a fast cadence, stirring his body to surrender to the vibrations. He felt his foot tap along to the steady rhythm, his shoulders bouncing to the beat.

 

"Don't worry about it!" Nene sent him a cheeky grin, "What do you think?"

 

Hanako nodded and shrugged. “It's pretty good.”

 

“Really? I think so, too.” Nene was also bobbing her head to the tune, “It’s Mei-san’s original composition.”

 

“No. 4 composed this?” Hanako’s confusion came back, “What for?”

 

Nene shrugged, dismissing the question. He frowned slightly, “I just wanna know~”

 

She twirled on her heel, her dress sweeping at her legs, her hair falling around her motion. Hanako was enthralled by the sight, his previous inquisitiveness replaced by awe. Nene reached for his hand again, smiling at him all the while, “Come on, let’s dance.”

 

“Dance?” Hanako chuckled uneasily, “Sorry, Yashiro, but I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

 

“What? Why?”

 

He pulled at his collar, glancing at the grass.

 

“I, um, haven’t practiced dancing… ever?”

 

“Hmm~” she stepped closer to him, and he had to refrain from stepping back, “it’s a good thing I didn’t wish for dance lessons, then.”

 

They chuckled at her little quip, light blushes dusting their faces. She then held both of his hands, and her movements started to gain much more energy.

 

"Y-Yashiro?!"

 

"Just go with it!"

 

She was one with the beat, falling along with the jolly music; her dance moves may appear to be radical, but she was as free as the sounds in the air. After watching her vivacious behavior, he felt the tension in his joints fade, as elation began to course through his veins. He started moving more loosely, more wildly, as a grin grew on his face, matching the one on hers. They let themselves go, the fun of the moment removing any and all anxious feelings. They let themselves free—free from all the worries for the future and from all the pain from the past.

 

They let themselves dance, one step following the other.

 

He bared himself to her, in all of his joyous and carefree expression. His hands were tight around hers, as he pulled and she pushed, as she tugged him back and he pressed forward.

 

Their boisterous laughter mixed with the lively music, and there was nothing else he cared about at that moment besides Nene’s bright smile. He may have yanked a bit too hard, however, as she misstepped and fell right into his arms.

 

“E-Eep!”

 

“Oh, sorry!”

 

As they scrambled to separate, the music abruptly changed into something slower and… intimate. Nene felt sweat break out onto her temple.

 

I didn’t request this!

 

Hiding behind the bushes, No. 4 and No. 3 were giggling into their palms, wholly responsible for altering the mood. Mei high-fived Mitsuba, as their smug cat-like faces twinkled at each other.

 

Hanako scratched the back of his head, unsure of what to do. Nene pressed her fingers together in a timid manner, “W-We can just skip over this song… You wanna take a break?”

 

He looked at her fixatedly, before saying, “No, it’s okay. I wanna try.”

 

Nene's face became increasingly redder. “Oh…”

 

"Do you know how to…?"

 

"Y-Yeah! Just, um…"

 

Nene tried not to fidget too much as she put her arms over his shoulders. She instructed, “Now, ah, grab me by the waist…”

 

“Like this?”

 

His hands gently perched themselves on her waist, sending chills throughout her entire body. She gulped, “Yep, just like that…”

 

At first, their motions were somewhat disorganized and uneven, causing them to falter in their footsteps. Their awkward laughs filled the void, encouraging them to continue.

 

She stepped on his foot once or twice, making him flinch in pain, eliciting a fervent apology from her. After some time and persistence, they began to match each others’ steps, and they both let out a sigh of relief. Nene chuckled sheepishly, “I thought that would’ve taken forever.”

 

“Tell me about it.”

 

They swayed to and fro, allowing the music to carry them like the wind through the leaves. Hanako gazed at her intensely, half of him focused on dancing correctly, and the other half engrossed with her adorable self. She shrunk and flushed under his eyes, unable to handle his undivided attention. 

 

With a burst of bravery, Nene decidedly stomped down her fear and brought herself even closer to him, laying her head against his neck. Her warm breath tickled his skin and made the butterflies in his stomach go haywire, but he survived the fluttery feelings and carried on with their slow dance. They continued to hold each other close, going through the rhythmic motions together for what seemed like eternity.

 

Hanako may have been incredibly mystified tonight, but so far, every moment has been absolutely worth it. He didn’t think he’d ever end up slow dancing with Nene in the middle of the school’s garden under the moonlight. It all seemed so surreal.

 

She whispered against his neck. “Hanako-kun?”

 

He couldn’t help but shudder. “Y-Yes?”

 

Her arms slipped from his shoulders until her hands cupped the nape of his neck. She stared at him with curious ruby eyes, her pink parted lips beckoning for his gaze, and he suddenly had a very strong urge to lean in.

 

“Are you hungry?” she backed up all the way now, out of his grasp, forcing him to stop moving his feet. He looked at her, perplexed, “Huh?”

 

“Are you hungry?” she insisted. Hanako tilted his head as he looked at her attentively, "For…?"

 

"For food, Hanako-kun."

 

He was a bit crestfallen to have the mood disrupted, but he rubbed his stomach, “I guess?”

 

In all honesty, his hunger would be sated with just her. But she smiled at him with her hands behind her back, and his heart constricted a bit, giving in to her demands.

 

“Good~!” she tugged on his hand. “I have one more spot for us to go.”

 

"Yashiro~" he whined. A small notion was telling him that she was teasing and stalling on purpose. She giggled at him, then began their trek to their final designation.

 

Following her once more, they ended up on the rooftop, much to Hanako's renewed wonderment. She proceeded to climb up the ladder to the highest point of the roof, then turned around to gesture at him, "Well, don't just stand there!"

 

His eyes were staring straight up, shamelessly looking under her billowing dress. She squeaked and pressed her skirt down.

 

"Hanako-kun, stop that or else!

 

"Okay, geez, sorry."

 

He floated upward as she reached the top of the ladder, and the apparition was once more surprised at what awaited them there. A picnic blanket was set down on the floor with a lantern in the center. There was a basket of food waiting for them, as well as some napkins and utensils. 

 

“Yashiro, I know I keep asking this over and over,” Hanako gesticulated to the set up, “but what is this?”

 

“Our food, silly.” She brought him over to the blanket. They sat down, and from their seats, they could see the endless night sky. Stars shone above like gems burrowed in space, their light piercing through the dark veil that extended over the horizon. The moon stood out, its glow illuminating them and the entire town. 

 

Nene picked up a cutely wrapped bag from the picnic basket, and inside were crisp, homemade donuts. Hanako immediately began to sparkle, “Donuts?!”

 

She nodded firmly. He pointed at himself, “Are they for me?!”

 

“Of course, who else?” Nene picked one up and handed it to him, which he accepted graciously. She put away the rest and pulled out a sandwich for herself. With a content smile on her face, she dug into the delicious food. He caught himself observing her again.

 

“When did you prepare these?”

 

“Yesterday.” Nene took another bite out of her sandwich, “I asked Mitsuba-kun to store them away for me, and then I had the Mokke make the preparations up here.”

 

“You really thought this out, huh?” Hanako chuckled, “You even got the School Mysteries and the Mokke to help you out…”

 

He looked at the donut in his hand, before munching on it. It was even more delicious than he thought it’d be.

 

“Well, I didn’t want the night to go bad.” Nene blushed down at her legs.

 

“Hmm~” Hanako turned to her, mirth in his smirk, “and why’s that?”

 

“W-Why else?” Nene clapped her hands together to brush the crumbs off, before using a napkin to wipe her mouth. She uttered quickly and simply, “It’s a date.”

 

“Oh, right,” Hanako smiled in understanding, “because it’s a date—”

 

He almost choked on his donut; the realization hit him like Nene’s headbutt times ten.

 

“I-It’s a date?!”

 

She pouted, “The movie and the dancing wasn’t obvious enough?”

 

“I-I mean…” Hanako colored red, “I didn’t want to assume…”

 

An awkward silence consumed the two, causing them to look away from each other. He glanced at her, “Why, though? Why’d you take me on a date? And without actually asking me?”

 

“'Why?'” Nene restated, before answering, “Because you already asked me out on a date, you dummy. But we didn’t get to actually go. Don’t you remember?”

 

“A-Are you talking about in No. 4’s world?” Hanako asked, to which Nene nodded. He laughed, and reluctantly said, “That was just… uh, you know, a joke…?”

 

“A joke…?” Nene looked up at the sky. Hanako gulped, suddenly regretting his fib. He really hoped she didn’t take any offense to it, but he had to say it in order to defend himself. Instead of being angry, she simply looked over at him with gentle eyes, “I don’t believe you.”

 

“Eh?!”

 

She scooted closer to him, and leaned her head on his shoulder.

 

“If it was a joke, then you wouldn’t have been so determined to go, too.”

 

Hanako blushed in embarrassment, but allowed her to take his hand in her grasp. 

 

“And I didn’t ask you because…” she squeezed his hand, “I was scared that you’d turn me down since we’re in the real world. Now that I know it’s you, and you know that I know, then you’d be too scared to come, and you would just blow me off.”

 

“...Well, I guess that’s not too far off the mark.” Hanako sighed and pressed his lips into her head, “It’s a good thing you didn’t ask, then, or else I would’ve missed an amazing night like this.”

 

They fell into another silence, albeit more comfortable and less heavy. He brushed his thumb over her hand, feeling the tension in her grip.

 

“Yashiro,” he said in a low voice, “are you scared?”

 

She giggled weakly. “I’ve been scared. I’ve been scared since I thought up this plan. I’ve been terrified the whole night.”

 

He frowned. “You should’ve just told me sooner.”

 

“Sorry.”

 

“I don’t like it when you’re scared.”

 

“...Sorry.” Yashiro tilted her head up, leading him to stare down at her shy and blushing face. She threw a glance to the side momentarily, before bringing her gaze back up to his. Slightly puckering her lips, she slid her eyes closed and waited for his decision. 

 

It was obvious.

 

Cupping her cheek with his free hand, he leaned forward and tenderly kissed her.

 

Her lips were soft, sweet, and he knew that with one taste, he’d be addicted for the rest of his ghostly existence. She was squeezing his hand and clutching his clothes, heat radiating off of her face from the kiss. When she gripped him too tight, he knew that she was seeking air. He peeled off of her temporarily, allowing her to take a breath, before pressing his lips back onto hers. His lips pressed and pecked, making her completely flushed and once again out of breath.

 

She pushed on his chest lightly, making him disconnect from her mouth. She softly confessed, “H-Hanako-kun, I love—”

 

He kissed her forehead, interrupting her confession. 

 

“I know.” He kissed her lips, “I do, too.”

 

Tears sprang to her eyes, but a smile adorned her face. He kissed her again, and again, and again, each one pouring out his affections, his considerations, his genuine feelings. And she happily received each one, returning to him her own pure, absolute fondness.

Chapter Text

Tsuchigomori liked kids, believe it or not. He liked scaring them, he was entertained by their shenanigans, and a small part of him was actually moved sometimes by their youthful dreams. But he wasn't paid enough to be both a teacher and an apparition that had to eternally suffer from the stupidity of young apparitions. He really wasn't.

 

He looked at the two boys in front of him, and exhaled heavily. 

 

"Damn it…"

 

"Well, this is quite the conundrum…" one of the boys noted. His choppy black hair partially veiled his wide amber eyes. He was wearing a black gakuran with golden buttons, and a black hat with a golden insignia tied to it with a red string.

 

Typical Hanako, save for the unnerving smile upon his face.

 

And then, on the other side of him, was a bewildered boy with identical features. The only difference was his mannerisms and his clothes. Instead of a disturbing smile, there was a look of apprehension on his face and puzzlement apparent in his eyes. He was wearing a white collared school uniform shirt and black pants to match. 

 

He apologized meekly, "T-Tsuchigomori-sensei, I'm sorry…"

 

The teacher wasn't too preoccupied with receiving an apology, but more with the fact that the great Honorable No. 7 had gone and messed himself up.

 

Yugi Amane was standing in front of him, guilt written on his face. 

 

Hanako was standing in front of him, smiling casually with his hands in his pockets.

 

Tsuchigomori still couldn't believe his eyes. It seemed like it was forever ago since he last saw his former student this way. Looking at him was like he was living in the past, if it wasn't for his ghost equivalent standing next to him.

 

He sighed. "What do you have to say for yourself?"

 

Amane reluctantly said, "I didn't mean for this to happen…"

 

Hanako crossed his arms, "I had to do what I could."

 

The two exchanged looks at each other, equally perturbed. Tsuchigomori squeezed his nose bridge and closed his eyes.

 

"This wouldn't have happened if you just listened to me."

 

Amane frowned. "I was trying to find a way to help Yashiro-san."

 

Hanako kept smiling. "I can't let Yashiro fail her finals."

 

"Of course…" Tsuchigomori drawled, then stood up and headed for the door. "You two stay here. I'm gonna grab some kids."

 

"Okay…"

 

"Don't be long~"

 

When he left, the two boys were surrounded by an uneasy silence. They refrained from looking at each other, as if they were daunted at the fact that they were part of the same person. Quickly, Hanako floated over to the desk and started shuffling through a stack of papers. Amane asked, alarmed, "What are you doing?!"

 

"I'm trying to find the answers for Yashiro's test. Duh."

 

"Duh?" Amane grabbed his spirit counterpart's wrist, "Going around carelessly is what got us here in the first place. We should just sit still."

 

"And miss this opportunity?" Hanako smiled nonchalantly at him. "Don't be stupid."

 

Amane growled, "You're being stupid!!"

 

"Tsuchigomori won't notice~"

 

"Of course he'll notice! He was in charge of an entire library!"

 

Amane tugged at Hanako's shirt, but he wouldn't budge. With a few more tugs, Hanako became a bit vexed and shoved off his human counterpart, where he fell to the floor. The human groaned and rubbed his behind, definitely disliking the ache. He had forgotten the sensitivity of human nerves, and boy, did he not miss that. 

 

"Idiot~" Hanako grinned at him, "I have more strength than you. You're just a squishy and powerless human."

 

Amane glared at him. Hanako placed his head in his hands and stared down at him. "Oh~? Are you angry~?"

 

Footsteps were fast approaching the room. Hanako swiftly removed himself from the pile of tests, attempting to look as innocent as possible. Amane rolled his eyes, and returned to his initial spot, as well.

 

The door slid open, revealing Tsuchigomori with two shorter figures at his sides. 

 

"Don't get too surprised," the teacher warned. Nene didn't get to ask why with Kou immediately reacting to the scene in front of him.

 

"What the heck?!" Kou pointed at one, then the other. "Two Hanakos!"

 

"One Hanako." The short apparition corrected. The human equal gave a small wave, "One Amane."

 

"Amane-kun…?" Nene trailed off as she stepped forward. Kou wasn't able to stop her since he was stunned speechless, and the teacher who brought them there only observed. The two boys stared at her, making her a bit nervous, but she approached the human version of Hanako with great interest. She leaned in, scrutinizing him, which brought a light blush onto the boy's face.

 

"Amane-kun? Is it really you…?"

 

The boy in question nodded firmly, unable to hold eye contact. "Yes, it's me!"

 

A cold hand grabbed hers, catching her attention. 

 

"Don't forget about me, Yashiro~" Hanako whined, "I'm here, too!"

 

"Ah, sorry, um… Hanako-kun?" Nene said, a bit unsure if he was completely the same person without his human aspects. A warm hand grabbed her free one, making her jolt in surprise. Hanako—no, Amane, actually—was clutching her other hand and scowling at the ghost. 

 

"You're gonna make her uncomfortable."

 

"Oh~? How?"

 

"Your hand is cold!"

 

"She never seems to mind."

 

"Let go!"

 

"I was holding her first. You let go!"

 

Nene was incredibly confused and couldn't clearly process what was happening at the moment. She only knew that two versions of the apparition she was very fond of were holding each of her hands and arguing over her. Speaking of which, the two boys seemed to disregard the fact that she was being overwhelmed, and continued to squabble with her still in between. The grips on her hands seem to fasten with each traded gibe.

 

Kou finally uttered, "Sensei, what is going on?!"

 

"Well, you see," Tsuchigomori started loudly and passive-aggressively, quieting the bickering boys, "Honorable No. 7 here had decided, 'Oh, I feel like going through good ole' Tsuchigomori's stuff today.' He stumbled upon an item called the Crystal Mirror, which splits the beholder into two versions of himself or herself. The two versions tend to be complete opposites, and the only way for them to become one again is if they find something they have in common that deeply connects them."

 

"So, offering them doughnuts wouldn't bring them together?" Kou inquired. The teacher shook his head, "Nope!"

 

Both versions of Hanako perked up.

 

“Donuts?” the spirit felt his mouth water.

 

Amane disclosed meekly, “I wouldn’t mind a donut…”

 

Tsuchigomori evaluated the two’s reactions, before contemplating, “Actually, I don’t know. They seem to really like them. But let’s say it’s not enough for now.”

 

"How are we supposed to know what deeply connects them both?" Nene questioned as she gently retracted her hands from their grasps. Amane gazed at the wall dejectedly, and Hanako kept his hand in the air as if that would convince her to hold it again. Tsuchigomori hummed, then looked up pensively, "Well, it's a bit difficult to find out most of the time. Usually, they realize it on their own."

 

Kou ran his hands through his hair. "How long will that take??"

 

The teacher shrugged. The blond boy tugged on his coat, "But, what happens if they don't merge?"

 

"Then they don't."

 

Nene gasped, holding her hand up to her mouth. She appeared clearly distraught at the idea of having the apparition split into two people with different personalities. Hanako patted her head, "There, there. Don't worry~"

 

"B-But Hanako-kun, how are you not worried?" Nene's eyes shined with distress as she turned to him, "It doesn't seem like you two even like each other! How are you supposed to know what will bring you two together?"

 

Hanako looked past Nene to study his human counterpart, before he smiled at her.

 

"It'll be fine~" he stroked her hair, “You don’t need to be so upset.”

 

“But—”

 

"He's probably right." Tsuchigomori piped up, "In this case, it might be easier than you think."

 

Nene tilted her head curiously, not noticing the two boys behind her exchanging withering looks. He waved his hand dismissively, "You’ll see soon enough. If someone were to tell the two individuals what could connect the two, they might just be driven away from it."

 

In addition to his easy-going explanation, he said ominously, "Although, there are some pretty dire consequences if the two halves cannot become whole again."

 

She puffed her cheeks. “That’s not super helpful, Sensei…”

 

Kou scratched his head. "Why would you even have a mirror like that, Tsuchigomori-sensei?"

 

"I like collecting things." He shrugged, "Do you see me questioning everything you do?"

 

"N-No..."

 

"Then treat me the same." Tsuchigomori hissed at him, before he turned to Nene, “Anyway, I don't want to take care of Amane all day, so I'll be putting him in your classes for now, Yashiro."

 

"R-Really?" 

 

Nene thought she would be extraordinarily excited about being classmates with Amane, but it just reminded her of the fake world she escaped almost a week ago. Not that it was an entirely cursed experience, but she had been so determined to return to normal high school life with her regular apparition that she was very reluctant to be sucked back into all that temptation and mixed feelings again. To make it weirder, instead of her fake friends meeting the real Hanako, her real friends would be meeting part of the real Hanako. 

 

Nene buried her face in her hands and loathed the complexity of the situation. Three different hands were now caressing her in a comforting manner. Hanako was stroking her head, Amane was brushing her arm, and Kou was patting her back.

 

She looked up, thoroughly bemused.

 

“...This is pretty freaky more than anything.”

 

The three of them took their hands off of her, allowing her room to breathe again. Amane and Kou laughed sheepishly, while Hanako looked dissatisfied at having to pull away because the others decided to join in on his way of consolation. Back at the topic at hand, they were discussing the details of Amane’s time in the school, before realization struck.

 

"Wait…" Amane said, concerned, "what about at night?"

 

The others in the room peered at him for an explanation. He gestured, “Where will I be sleeping? In school?”

 

“In the bathroom with me!” Hanako replied frivolously, “We can bond and share secrets and talk about girls!”

 

No.

 

“Your loss~”

 

"Hmm..." Tsuchigomori rose an eyebrow, before a chilling grin stretched across his face. "You want to sleep with me?"

 

Amane shuddered and shook his head vigorously. 

 

He glanced at Nene, and she gazed back at him. The idea of sleeping together in the same room made their faces red, rendering them silent. Hanako, on the other hand, had moved in front of Nene, and blithely waved his knife with a forbidding smile. Amane frowned, before finally turning to Kou. The exorcist got the hint, "So you'll be sleeping with me?"

 

Amane shuddered again. "Don't phrase it like that."

 

"Shut up, you pervert!" Kou shook his staff at him. "I meant in my house!"

 

"I'm not a pervert!" Amane shouted back at him. He took a glimpse of Nene, and felt indignant at being labelled such a thing in front of her. Kou furrowed his eyebrows, "For real?"

 

Hanako grinned. "Let's prove it!"

 

Digging in his cape, he pulled out a raunchy magazine and presented it to everyone with a "ta-da~!"

 

"Oh, geez, why do you have that on you?!" Kou questioned as he covered his eyes but not his red cheeks. Amane had blocked out his eyesight as well, muttering with a blush, "You suck..."

 

Nene sent Hanako a blank stare, and suddenly the magazine was hurled out the open window. Hanako floated over to her and hugged her close, making her face heat up.

 

"It was just a test, Yashiro~" he voiced into her hair, "Don't get mad at me~"

 

When Kou and Amane opened their eyes, they were met with Hanako snuggling Nene's head. She was visibly overpowered by the spirit's affection, her face parallel to a tomato. Kou shoved his staff in between the two, forcing Hanako to let go, as he angrily yelled, "Keep your hands off of Senpai, you rotten perv!!"

 

"Look at what you did to Yashiro-san, you dumb ghost!" Amane joined in as he held up the melted Nene in his arms. Kou looked over at Amane in surprise, "Wow, you two really are different."

 

"E-Eh?" Amane suddenly appeared anxious under the blond's analyzing gaze. "Can you… not do that?"

 

"Hmm? Uhh, sorry!" Kou stopped staring so hard, abruptly reminded of Mitsuba's timid demeanor. "But it's just that… you actually have some manners!"

 

"Thanks…?" Amane replied, unsure. Hanako rolled his eyes, uninterested now that he was being rudely forced off of Nene, "This is cute and all, but now, I'm just getting bored…"

 

Hanako drifted away, his hands in a ghostly position as usual.

 

"Where are you going?" Tsuchigomori asked, to which Hanako replied with a smile and a shrug. "Around. I'll check on the boundaries, the lowlife spirits hanging around here, the other School Mysteries. I have to keep doing my job, don't I?"

 

He felt a tug on his sleeve. Nene questioned him earnestly, "Are you sure you'll be okay?"

 

"Hmm~? Are you still worried about me~?"

 

She pouted, but it disappeared as soon as he leaned forward. His lips grazed her temple, and he caressed her cheek with his cold hand.

 

"You worry too much, Yashiro~ I promise I'll come back to you soon."

 

Her heart pounded. He really acted like the original Hanako. But if his personality was split into two contrasting sides, then what made him different from the primary Hanako...?

 

"O-Okay…"

 

Amane watched on, and felt a pang of envy in his heart. He knew that it was still him, technically, but it wasn’t him that was so close to her at that moment. He felt like if he tried to be as physical as his spirit counterpart, he’d get red-faced and afraid. Meanwhile, Kou had sprinted in and used his staff to usher Hanako off of the girl again. The ghost flipped him off as he phased through the wall.

 

Kou grumbled, "That bastard…"

 

"Alright, why don't you two head back to class?" Tsuchigomori used his extensive limbs to slide Nene and Kou out of his room. "I just needed you two to know the situation.”

 

He told Nene, “I'll have Amane in your class by noon, okay?"

 

"Ah, um, okay!" she responded, her gaze connected with Amane's before she was pushed out entirely. The door shut behind them, leaving the two no choice but to walk away.

 

"Geez, this is so weird…" Kou began, "I didn't think I'd ever see human Hanako again in my life."

 

"Me neither…" Nene included as she fiddled with her fingers, "and just when I thought I let go of that possibility…"

 

Kou stared at her questioningly. She flushed, "N-Not that I was persuaded by what Hanako-kun was saying in No. 4's world! It's just that, the idea was still pretty… alluring. Being with everyone as humans… and being able to live longer…"

 

"Senpai…" Kou gazed at her sadly.

 

"But even so, the whole reason I wanted to leave was because…"

 

"...the world was fake?" Kou completed for her. She looked at him thoughtfully, before playing with a lock of her hair. "Yes, the world was fake, and knowing that it was is what stopped me from feeling real happiness.”

 

“Same here!” Kou nodded. To his confusion, she appeared to want to say more, so he waited for her to continue.

 

“But, also…” Nene grabbed her skull brooch, “I told you, hadn't I? That I wasn’t happy with who I thought was the fake Hanako-kun. I should’ve been, right? He was human, he was nicer, he was warm, funny, and… sorta cute. I had a lot of fun! But it wasn't real to me... and I wanted to be with the real Hanako-kun. Even if he’s a ghost, he’s still my friend, and he's still precious to me...”

 

"Eh?" Kou halted in his steps and watched as her face colored red, "What do you mean?"

 

"D-Do I really have to explain??" Nene suddenly asked in a flustered manner.

 

"H-Huh?" Kou stumbled back, staring at her in astonishment. A notion crossed his mind, and its contents began to weigh him down. "Senpai, do you… um…"

 

He found himself staring into her teary, embarrassed eyes. Her expression only confirmed his suspicions, and the revelation dawned upon him after a passing moment of silence.

 

"You like him, Senpai?" he felt his heart ache at his own words, "You like Hanako?"

 

They stopped walking now. The quiet halls reverberated the utter silence that consumed the two. Kou had sighed mutely and directed his attention to the world outside the window. His heart was beginning to hurt horribly, and he felt like running off, but he and Nene were in the midst of a problem, and he didn't want to add anything unnecessary to it. Besides, since when has he ever run off? He's always faced every issue head-on, because that's how he believed things should be dealt with.

 

"...Yes."

 

Kou turned back to a shy voice.

 

Nene was holding her chest and blushing down at her feet.

 

"I like him. I like… Hanako-kun." 

 

The exorcist wanted to get mad, to feel horribly envious that her affections were toward the apparition.

 

“Ahh, how embarrassing…!” Nene hid her mouth as she squealed quietly.

 

But looking at her now, as she was expressing her truest emotions to him, he found that nothing in him had changed. 

 

She was still the adorable Senpai that he cherished and would protect with his life; his dear friend that he was determined to save from impending death. 

 

Despite Kou's first attempts to find the bad in Hanako, he has known fully well of the spirit's good heart and good will. Even if sometimes he was a bit childish, and maybe even a bit selfish, he always pulled through for Nene. And he knew just how special of a bond she and Hanako shared, stronger than anything he's ever seen. He was almost one-hundred percent sure that the apparition liked her back. They both seemed to make each other very happy, and that in turn made Kou delightfully content. His friends’ happiness surpassed any negative feelings that may have arose, and so he was able to smile radiantly.

 

But still, if Hanako were to hurt her in any way, he would exorcise him on the spot.

 

"Heh!" Kou beamed at her, "I think everyone knows that, Senpai!"

 

"E-Eh?!" Nene questioned, incredulous, "Everyone?! What do you mean?!"

 

Kou only wandered away, his hands behind his head and whistling a random tune. Nene chased after him, "Kou-kun, wait!"

 


 

Hanako ambled through the halls, feeling somewhat cheerful, though mostly indifferent. Maybe the small sense of joy came from the smile on his face. Otherwise, there was nothing he was particularly gleeful about. 

 

He was far from Nene, so that was already a bummer.

 

He was bound to fulfill his duties as the leader of the School Mysteries, which was both dull and depressing. He's seen the sights thousands of times, so nothing impressed him much anymore. The Mokke and other low-power spirits were like peasants to him, where he humored and helped them but he held no actual concern for them otherwise. The other apparitions were just acquaintances, and he had little interest in their day-to-day routines as long as they didn't disrupt anything for the mortals. 

 

Almost all humans were meaningless in his eyes. A majority of them had the same issues and the same mindsets, and it just made him annoyed and irritated. The only one he really paid any mind to was Nene. Since they were linked by her wishes, he had to make her life as long as possible and as worthwhile as can be.

 

A business client. Hanako thought to himself, That's all she is.

 

He understood only the responsibility for maintaining the balance between spirits and humans. He felt only the motivation to carry out his job as a School Mystery. He sought only to carry out his role in fulfilling the wishes of the person that summoned him.

 

Hanako stepped into No. 3's realm, checking to make sure everything was in order and that the new School Mystery didn't wreck the boundary or cause any problems. The place had definitely brightened up and cleaned up, which was a pretty good improvement. It was unfortunate what happened to the first No. 3, but, he didn't really like the guy, anyway. 

 

He ended up stumbling upon a tea party. He yielded at the entryway, recognizing the four familiar faces at the table. They all paused in their serene conversation to turn their heads at him.

 

No. 3 dropped the scone from his mouth.

 

"H-Honorable No. 7…?" Mitsuba stuttered, "What're you doing here? How did you get in?"

 

Hanako surveyed the group. "I let myself in."

 

"Were you always able to do that?!"

 

He smiled, "I suppose it would have been rude to have done it before, right?"

 

"I-I guess?" Mitsuba wiped his mouth with a napkin, "But why barge in now?"

 

The exchange was quickly interrupted by the sound of a chair being knocked over. While the other guests at the table remained silent, one of them had shot up in a frenzy. Tsukasa bolted over to Hanako enthusiastically, "Amane!! You're here!!"

 

Hanako was still smiling, but it strained the moment the other spirit began bolting toward him. He sidestepped, dodging Tsukasa's intended tackle. He continued stepping side to side, evading his brother's fervent movements.

 

"Amane! Amane!"

 

Hanako's smile twitched.

 

Sakura put down her tea cup, quietly mentioning, "Something doesn't seem right…"

 

"What was that, My Lady?" Natsuhiko questioned, but Sakura was too engrossed in the occurrence in front of them.

 

"Amane—!" Tsukasa went to dive for his brother once more, but was stopped by a shoe. Hanako kept his foot in his face, deadpanning with a plain grin, "Don't touch me."

 

"...Amane?" Tsukasa spoke as if there wasn't a shoe in his face. 

 

Hanako didn't respond to the name.

 

"You are Amane, right?" he asked again. "Is this a new game? How do you play?!"

 

He removed his foot, before bending over with his hands on his knees. "Spare me the sentiments, I don't need it. I don't even like looking at you."

 

Tsukasa froze with his excited grin still on his face.

 

Natsuhiko and Mitsuba inhaled sharply, absolute shock and terror written on their faces. Sakura only stared, astounded at the scene. This was definitely not how Hanako usually acted with Tsukasa. Something was clearly wrong.

 

"What is up with him…?" Sakura muttered as she scanned over the spirits.

 

"I don't know, but he's bringing bad vibes!" Mitsuba cried in his sleeve, "And our tea party was going so well!"

 

Hanako stepped back as Tsukasa's expression went dark. The spirit hoisted himself up onto his feet.

 

"You're making an ugly face~" Hanako said without hesitation, "It doesn't look good."

 

Mitsuba trembled, confident that a bloody fight was sure to ensue, "Oh, no no no nooo!! H-Honorable No. 7, why would you say that?!"

 

Neither Hanako nor Tsukasa paid him any mind. Tsukasa's dim eyes examined Hanako, who was standing up straight with his hands behind his back. One sinister smile clashed with the other, both refusing to back down. Then, Hanako quietly observed Tsukasa as he toddled forward to him, probably with hidden malicious intent.

 

A face leaned close against his, darkened amber eyes gazing deeply into his dull amber ones.

 

"Who the hell are you?" Tsukasa tilted his head, "Did you kill Amane?"

 

"Didn't I just say that I don't want to look at you?" Hanako said as he smiled and closed his eyes, his expression equally dark and ominous. The tension was thicker than anything the other three had thought possible when it came to these two. Once again, neither side defused the air, and it seemed like it was building up to combat.

 

Sakura muttered, "What's going on? He's usually amicable… genuinely amicable."

 

"Crazy Knife indeed… Honorable No. 7 is being even more frightening than usual!" Mitsuba remarked, shaking like a leaf.

 

"You're lucky that I let you stay here, Tsukasa." Hanako poked his brother's forehead, "Though, I guess you really wouldn't have anywhere else to go~"

 

"Did he just… insult him?" Mitsuba said in a choked voice. Natsuhiko nodded to his question.

 

The finger was still pressing into his head. Tsukasa decided he didn't like being treated like this, from an Amane that didn't tremble at the sight of him, that wasn't crying from guilt. This wasn't Amane.

 

Without warning, Tsukasa's hand shot up to grab Hanako's wrist. The hold was extremely strong, seeking to snap the joint in a second, but before he could, Hanako yanked his arm back and propelled his knee up into Tsukasa's gut. The impact clearly shocked him, in which he loosened his grip and widened his eyes.

 

Hanako twisted and kicked him away without a moment's notice, sending him flying. After a few tumbles, Tsukasa slowly lifted himself up onto his feet, no longer smiling.

 

"Tsukasa-kun…!" Mitsuba didn't think he'd actually be worried about the spirit, since he always appeared to be unbelievably powerful, but Hanako just didn't seem to be holding anything back with his attacks.

 

Tsukasa charged forward and jabbed his opponent's shoulder violently, causing him to wince and falter. At the open opportunity, Tsukasa aimed to strike him through the chest, not catching Hanako's sudden wicked grin. The younger spirit barely touched him before a large cut appeared on his arm. Blood began to pour from the wound, staining his sleeve crimson.

 

"T-Tsukasa-kun!" Mitsuba and the others were stumped upon seeing Tsukasa badly injured. They couldn't force themselves to move from their spots.

 

Hanako waved his now bloody knife, admonishing him, "I already told you, don't touch me."

 

He shook his head and placed his hands on his hips. "When will you ever listen?"

 

Tsukasa watched the blood gush out of his arm, as if he had never seen himself bleed. Then, he bared his tiny fangs in a creepy smile.

 

"Where is Amane?"

 

"Who cares~?" Hanako yawned in his hand as he turned around to finish his inspection. He felt a hand grab the back of his neck with the purpose of crushing his throat, and retaliated almost immediately. Tsukasa recognized himself on his back and his arms pinned above his head by a hand, as he stared up at his brother's face, which was upside down. There was a kitchen knife pointing down at his chest.

 

"You're pushing your luck, Tsukasa." Hanako spoke eerily with a barely noticeable smile. "Stop it."

 

Tsukasa blinked, his smile nowhere to be found, and a flat expression left in its wake.

 

"...I don't like you." He said simply, "You're no fun."

 

"I heard that there's fun after destruction."

 

"I don't believe you."

 

"Ah~ your loss." Hanako released him, leaving him on the floor as his arm continued to bleed out. He looked up at Mitsuba, "This place seems fine. I'll be taking my leave now."

 

"U-Umm… o-okay…" Mitsuba stammered as they all watched Hanako walk away into the darkness of the halls. He never turned back, like he was just that uncaring. Tsukasa rose to his feet, and scrutinized the wound on his arm. Sakura inquired gently, "Are you… okay?"

 

"Amane…"

 

Natsuhiko scratched his head. "Huh?"

 

"Amane…!" Tsukasa said louder, "Amane!!"

 

The three looked at each other in confusion. Tsukasa announced, "I need to find Amane!!"

 

He had started running toward the exit when Mitsuba yelled, "Wait, you're still bleeding a lot!"

 

Tsukasa stared at him for a good few seconds, before flinging his arms up, splattering the walls and floor with blood.

 

"Amane!"

 

He then fled completely, leaving Mitsuba to grimace, "And I just cleaned that part of the boundary… that kid—!"

 

"Mitsuba-kun..." Sakura interjected softly. He turned to her, fearful of her scolding, "Y-Yes?" 

 

"Could you go with him? It appears that he's not thinking clearly."

 

"M-Me??" Mitsuba fretted, "I-I don't know, I might just make things worse, or something!”

 

Natsuhiko chimed, “I’ll go, My Lady!”

 

“No,” she responded, “Mitsuba-kun is more suited to engage in combat if necessary. You’ll only get yourself killed.”

 

Natsuhiko clutched her hand, his sparkling aura blinding her slightly. “Are you concerned about my safety?!”

 

Sakura ignored him, “Can you, Mitsuba-kun?”

 

“O-Oh, I suppose I can’t blame you for depending on me…” Mitsuba brushed his hair back, “I’ll go after him, then.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

Mitsuba gathered himself up and stood tall. He walked away confidently, his scarf swishing behind him, enhancing his coolness. He waved at the duo as he exited the boundary, then landed safely in the boys' bathroom in the new building. He let out a small sigh, before promptly grabbing his head and freaking out.

 

“Argh!! No!!"

 

Mitsuba banged his head on the wall. He ignored the throbbing pain and what was sure to be a red mark on his cute forehead.

 

"Sakura-senpai convinced me too easily! I’m just gonna get myself killed!”

 

“By who?”

 

“By—”

 

Mitsuba halted, fully registering who the person was beside him. 

 

Yugi Amane turned off the sink and tore off a paper towel, drying his hands. He grimaced, and told the spirit with a nervous chuckle, “Using the bathroom is a lot weirder than inhabiting it…”

 

“You’re…” Mitsuba pointed a shaky finger at him, “You’re Honorable No. 7, aren’t you?”

 

Amane sighed and scratched his cheek. “Yes, but not precisely.”

 

Mitsuba couldn't believe what he was seeing.

 

“You’re… human…

 

“I know, and I’m not liking the experience so far.” Amane stuck his tongue out in distaste, “I forgot how many needs I have.”

 

He let out another awkward chuckle, but Mitsuba wasn't having it. All he did was gawk at the human, increasing his discomfort. Amane held a hand up to his face in an attempt to shield it, "P-Please stop."

 

Mitsuba's expression fell, as his eyes went to examine his own hands. Amane was beginning to feel incredibly uncomfortable since he knew exactly what he was so enthralled with. He backed away gradually, intending to slip out unnoticed. Just as he was about to leave the bathroom, the ghost grasped his wrist, a conflicted look on his face. 

 

“Why are you human?!" the question spilled out, "How?!”

 

“Eh?! M-Mitsuba…”

 

“That’s not fair!” his grip tightened, making Amane flinch, “You always told me it was impossible! You always stopped me from trying! But…”

 

Mitsuba was on the brink of tears. “Why are you what I wanted to be?!”

 

Amane dismissed the pain in his wrist and looked up at the desperate apparition. Mitsuba was taken aback by his apologetic eyes.

 

“I’m sorry. I know.” Amane spoke as if he was revolted at himself, “It’s not fair.”

 

His shoulders slackened, and he repeated, "It's not fair…"

 

Mitsuba's eyes darted all over the human, his chest heaving from his outburst. He grasped at some words to say, but it escaped from his tongue. Swallowing the shame that arose, he loosened his grip, “I-I'm sorry, too. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

 

“That’s okay. I probably deserved it.” Amane gave him a guilty smile. “I didn’t mean to make you angry.”

 

Mitsuba was quite puzzled over many things, one of them being Amane's concerning self-approach. But his mystification was more so over the fact that he had now encountered both a ruthless Hanako and a living Amane, so he inquired, “Honorable No. 7, what happened? First, you appear at our tea party all scary and mean, and then you’re here as a human!”

 

“Eh?” Amane pointed at himself, “I was at your tea party?”

 

“You don’t remember?!”

 

“U-Um… no?”

 

“You better not be pulling my leg!!” Mitsuba ran his hands over his face, “O-Or did I never leave No. 4’s boundary?!”

 

Amane chuckled uneasily. “You’re in the real world, Mitsuba. But I think I know who you met.”

 

At his look of bewilderment, Amane explained, “Something happened and the Honorable No. 7 everyone knows and loves was split into… two people. Both with certain aspects of the original person, and differing personalities from the other.”

 

“Ohh.” Mitsuba uttered. Amane frowned, “Say, uh, what did Hanako do that was so 'scary and mean'?”

 

“Is that what you’re calling your apparition self?” Mitsuba asked first, to which Amane nodded. Then, the ghost proclaimed behind his sleeve, “He ruined our tea party! It seemed that he was doing an inspection around the school and boundaries, but things went downhill so quickly. He ended up fighting Tsukasa-kun!”

 

"What?!" the human facepalmed, "Geez, okay, how badly injured is my spirit counterpart?"

 

"Huh? Oh, well, um, here's the thing…" Mitsuba waved his arm, "the ghost Honorable No. 7 barely let Tsukasa touch him. He actually cut him with his knife!"

 

Amane was immediately petrified, his expression wholly disturbed. Mitsuba didn't notice the way the human had held his hand to his stomach.

 

“He… hurt Tsukasa?”

 

“Yeah, a long gash right on his arm!” Mitsuba described frantically, “And then he basically threatened to hurt him more if he didn’t leave him alone!”

 

Amane stopped replying, and then abruptly held himself up against the wall. The grip on his stomach tightened, and he felt a cold sweat break out on his temple. Mitsuba rushed beside him, “Are you okay?!”

 

A hand tapped his back. Amane’s shoulders jumped, as he turned around with a frightened expression. 

 

“Honorable No. 7?”

 

“...Yes?” Amane shook himself out of his stupor. “Yes, I-I’m fine."

 

"A-Are you sure??"

 

"Ah, um…" Amane took a deep breath, "I'm sure. Sorry about that.”

 

"Honorable No. 7…"

 

"I'm fine, I'm fine." He recollected himself and sent him a reassuring smile. "We've been here for too long. At least, I know I have. Let's leave now, okay?"

 

"Um, okay."

 

They exited the bathroom quietly, thoughts heavy on their minds. Tsuchigomori, who was waiting outside, raised an eyebrow, “No. 3? I knew I felt a spiritual presence, but I didn’t think it was you.”

 

“Ah, yeah, um…” Mitsuba flushed, “I was—”

 

He stopped speaking, then shouted, “I was supposed to be going after Tsukasa-kun!

 

“H-Huh?!” Amane looked at him, perplexed. Mitsuba nodded vigorously, “Tsukasa-kun was looking for you! He didn’t even tend to his wound!”

 

Tsuchigomori and Amane watched as he sprinted off, leaving them behind. The teacher pocketed his hands, “This situation is becoming more and more complicated. Let’s just head to your new class, hmm?”

 

Amane observed the end of the hall for a few more seconds, before he turned to the teacher and nodded. He pushed away the thoughts of Tsukasa and focused on the current situation at hand. The two walked together in silence, but the boy felt his heart beating quite loudly. It was nerve-racking to be part of a human class again. Not the fake one with drawings of people, but a real one with real people. However, during his actual lifetime, he wasn’t inclined to be around other people much, either. He hasn’t had to interact with this many humans in over fifty years… 

 

He would be in all of Nene’s classes, though…

 

The thought made his heart skip a beat. He was excited to have at least his friend with him throughout the day.

 

Tsuchigomori knocked on the door of the classroom. The teacher of the room exchanged a bit of hushed words with Tsuchigomori, before Amane was being pushed forward. All eyes fell upon him, and he cracked a smile.

 

"Alright, class. It seems that we’ll temporarily have a new student." The door shut, leaving Amane with the class, "Why don't you go ahead and introduce yourself? Tell us your name and something you like."

 

"Uh… well," Amane rubbed the back of his neck, "my name is Yugi Amane, and I like…"

 

His eyes caught on to Nene's, who was waving at him. He finished lamely, "space and radishes."

 

That set her off. She crossed her arms and glared at him from across the room. He snickered silently as the teacher pointed at the empty seat behind Nene.

 

"You can go ahead and sit over there."

 

He slid in the seat, and took out the notebook and pencil that Tsuchigomori lent him. He felt a few eyes staring at him in wonder, but he ignored it and observed the girl in front of him. Speaking of which, she turned and frowned at him, "Radishes, really?"

 

He giggled quietly and nodded. She rolled her eyes and turned back around to the front. His gaze lingered on her for a few moments, before he looked down on his paper and began doodling. Radishes in space, radishes with skirts, radishes with hearts...

 

He sighed.

 

I think I like radishes a bit too much…

 

When the bell rang for lunchtime, a large number of people came up to his desk and began asking him questions. It was somewhat overwhelming for him since he's never gotten so many requests at once.

 

"Where are you from?" someone inquired. Amane was trying to think of some place that would make sense, but he realized that his geography wasn't up-to-date, so he went with the simplest answer, "Tokyo."

 

"Whoa, Tokyo?!"

 

"So cool!"

 

"Have you visited the Tokyo Skytree?"

 

"Or Disneyland?"

 

"The Tokyo Tower, or the Meiji Jingu?!"

 

Amane was completely lost at this point, because he had no clue what any of these places were. Someone stood up and in front of the crowded boy.

 

"Hey, I know it's exciting, but give him space, please!" Nene looked at them all pointedly, "Amane-kun is my childhood friend, and I'd like to catch up with him."

 

"Oh, really?"

 

"Sorry about that!"

 

The students left the two alone, allowing Amane to sigh in relief.

 

"Thanks."

 

Nene sang, "You're welcome."

 

She pulled her chair to sit across from him at his desk. He felt his stomach rumble, and he flinched at the pang of hunger.

 

"Here." She pulled out her lunch and put it on the desk, "You can have some of mine."

 

"Really?" 

 

He looked at her with wide eyes. She nodded as she munched on the food. As they ate together, she started, "So, how's being human?"

 

"Kinda sucks." Amane said instantly, "Lots of human things I have to do that I forgot that I don't have to do as a ghost."

 

"Like what?"

 

"Uh, maybe it's better not to get into details..."

 

"Pfft, alright." She chuckled, "Also, Tokyo?"

 

"I didn't know what else to say." He frowned, before shooting back, "Childhood friend, huh?"

 

She stuck her tongue out at him. "Touché."

 

He leaned over and chewed on some more of the food, swallowing with a pleased expression. "This is really good."

 

"Ah…" Nene blushed, "I cooked it myself."

 

"Of course~" Amane grinned as he ate some more, "You and your feminine skills. If only you prettied up your bentos, guys would be attached to you from their stomachs."

 

"Ew," Nene shook her head, "and my bentos are nice, they have character!"

 

Amane eyed her curiously, his tone tinged with a bit of sharpness. "I thought you would be open to the idea of making things more nice-looking for guys, though?"

 

"No, I'm not trying to change my whole personality for them, gosh." Nene replied indignantly as she slouched back in her chair. Amane seemed a bit taken aback by this, but he smiled regardless.

 

"Maybe I should just have you cook for me instead of cleaning the bathrooms."

 

As he laughed, she gasped and hit his arm. He pointed at her as an idea came to his head, "Or I could make you do both!"

 

"Hanako-kun!"

 

Her hands flew to her mouth as some heads turned to her in surprise. After they looked away, she apologized, "I-I'm sorry, I meant to say Amane-kun…"

 

"It's fine." Amane shrugged, ignoring the envy that squeezed his heart. "We look identical, after all."

 

She frowned, "You're not just identical, you're part of the same person."

 

"Right." Amane finished his part of the meal, whereas Nene still had some left to eat. He tapped his fingers on the desk, "So, uh, what is our schedule, exactly? I only know that all my classes are shared with you."

 

"Oh, that's right! Well, let's see…"

 

She pulled out her schedule and pointed at the next class, then explained the classes and the teachers and when the classes start and end. He seemed quite intrigued, as if he had never paid attention to actual life in the school he was inhabiting. But the truth was far different; he was always observant of students, whether it was on purpose or on accident. He knew how their school functions worked, and he liked to watch them occur. It wasn't something he had the luxury of participating in anymore, so he's always buried the desire deep inside.

 

Throughout the day, Nene was there to help him out at any roadblock, and was just good company overall. Whenever there were too many people, she'd clear them out. If he was confused, then she'd answer his questions. She was nice, sweet, fun to mess with, and so many other things. Amane was joking earlier, but he was genuinely wondering how any guy could turn her away.

 

The last bell rang for school, and a cluster of footsteps resounded from the halls. As Nene packed her bag, she mentioned, "You'll be going with Kou-kun to his home, right?"

 

"Yup, that was the plan," Amane sighed, "I hope I survive."

 

"You'll be fine, Amane-kun. I'm sure Kou-kun will take care of you."

 

The two of them walked down the now quiet halls. It was odd, because they had spent the whole day together, and hadn't caught any glimpse of the spirit counterpart. Nene wondered if he was just too busy to be around, since sometimes the original Hanako would bother her or greet her during class. 

 

Amane, on the other hand, had suddenly remembered his encounter with Mitsuba and what he had been explaining with what happened between Tsukasa and Hanako. Dread began to pool in his gut, and he wondered if something else happened while he was out and about living a normal student life. Just as the thoughts began to spiral, a dark presence swept over the halls. Nene shivered, "W-What was that?"

 

"I found you~!"

 

Shock painted Amane's face as a figure appeared in front of the two. There was dried blood caking his clothes, obviously from the gash on his arm that hadn't been taken care of. Amane was petrified once more, "T-Tsukasa…"

 

There was a pause.

 

"...Amane?" Tsukasa took a step forward, his dim eyes suddenly brightening, "Is that really you?"

 

Nene was frozen in place, darting her eyes between the two. Bewilderment flooded her mind, and she wondered why Tsukasa had been searching for Amane in the first place. It didn’t seem that her internal question would be answered, however, as it appeared that there would be no room for conversation. She wasn't sure if this would end well for them, since neither she nor Amane had any power to fend off Tsukasa, of all spirits. 

 

There was another pause.

 

"Tsukasa, are you stupid?!" Amane marched over to the spirit, much to Nene's absolute horror. "Your arm!"

 

Tsukasa tilted his head. "What about it?"

 

Amane grabbed his wrist and lifted it up for the spirit to see. The long cut was barely dried, as it still possessed a dull shine.

 

"Why didn't you take care of it?! It's like a dead animal attached to your body!"

 

Tsukasa laughed, "That would be so weird!"

 

"This isn't funny!"

 

"Oh?" Tsukasa peered at him, "But you're the one who did this."

 

Amane felt his mind halt, before he shook his head in fervent denial, "N-No, I didn't. It was the spirit part of Hanako. We were separated into two people! I-I didn't do this…"

 

A small smile dawned upon the spirit's face. 

 

"But the human Amane is the one that killed me in the first place."

 

The wind was knocked out from Amane, as he stumbled back at the simple fact. His face scrunched up, a deep frown forming from despair. He felt his eyes water as he looked down guiltily, "Tsukasa, I don't—I-I'm…"

 

"There it is…" Tsukasa grinned fully as he cupped his brother's face, "The expression I love so much~"

 

Nene snatched Amane out of Tsukasa's hold, glaring at him and holding the boy in her arms protectively. Although she was terrified, she wasn't going to permit the spirit to bully the human counterpart of her favorite apparition.

 

"Stop!”

 

“Hmm?” Tsukasa’s eyes went dark. “Stop what~?”

 

“You know what you're doing, Tsukasa-kun!" Nene shouted with trembling arms, "But Amane-kun was only concerned about the gash on your arm!"

 

"Eh...?"

 

Tsukasa gripped her wrist, forcing her to let go of Amane. The boy dropped to the floor as she let out a startled squeak. Disregarding the pain that came quickly, he lifted his head and shouted at his brother, "H-Hey! Tsukasa, don't touch her!"

 

"But she was being mean~" the spirit whined at him, before turning to the girl, "I'm not supposed to kill you, remember? I'm supposed to be nice to girls!"

 

Tsukasa leaned in toward her face, his eyes bearing into her own. "But don't get in the way, or I'm going to be mad."

 

Utmost fear was written all over her face, and the spirit was fascinated by it.

 

"Wow,” he stroked her cheek, “you make a good expression, too!"

 

"Tsukasa, let her go!" Amane shot to his feet and grabbed his brother's shoulder. "I'm serious!"

 

"Amane…" Tsukasa lowered his eyes at him, "you know I don't like it when you try to stop me."

 

His eyes flickered with interest, before he slammed his free arm against Amane's chest, sending him into the wall. The boy gasped and coughed, struggling to regain air.

 

Nene yelled, "A-Amane-kun!"

 

"Oh, I see!" Tsukasa appeared enlightened, "Sorry, Amane! I was just testing out something. If you had any power, you would've stopped my attack, or dodged it, or even withstood it at least!"

 

Tsukasa chuckled, still holding on to Nene, unaware of the pain growing in her wrist. "But it seems I guessed correctly: if Amane was separated into a human and a ghost, it means…"

 

He pointed at the beaten-up boy with a disturbing smile.

 

"...you're powerless."

 

Nene tried to wrestle her way out of his hold. "T-Tsukasa-kun, stop…!"

 

"Shhh!" Tsukasa put a finger on his lips. His grip was like a metal chain. "You should stay out of this. It's just between me and Amane."

 

Despite the pain throbbing in almost all parts of his body, Amane managed to stand up. He stumbled and caught himself on the wall, breathing heavily, his vision blurring. Tsukasa was heavily intrigued by this display, as he observed him with wide eyes.

 

"Cool!" the ghost said, "So the spirit has all the power, but none of the human feelings that I like…"

 

He turned to Nene, spooking her. "And then the human has all the feelings and willpower, but none of the actual power!"

 

"W-What are you talking about…?" Nene asked, alarmed. Tsukasa tilted his head, "Was I not clear?"

 

A new voice entered the fray. "No, I'd say that's right~"

 

Tsukasa and Nene looked over to see Hanako, one hand on his brother's shoulder, and the other wielding his kitchen knife.

 

"Amane—wait, no, Hanako!" Tsukasa corrected himself, "The one that no one likes!"

 

A vein popped on his forehead. "People like me, but that's not the issue here. Let go of her."

 

"T-Three similar faces…" Nene whispered as she looked at Tsukasa, then Hanako, then Amane. She couldn’t help the thought that sprung up in her head.

 

This is so weird!

 

Tsukasa pouted. "You're so demanding—"

 

"I don't have time to deal with your games, Tsukasa." Hanako fastened his grip and waved his knife, "Don't make me dirty my knife again~"

 

"...Hey, Hanako…" 

 

The two spirits turned to see Amane staggering over to them. Despite the exertion spiking the pain in his chest, he tugged on his spirit counterpart's cape, "don't… you dare."

 

"Ohh!" Tsukasa gaped, "The conflict of ideals! Wow!"

 

"Amane-kun…" Nene whispered in a doleful voice. Hanako glared down at his human self, "Your hesitance is what gets people hurt; killed, even."

 

“You hurt Tsukasa…”

 

“I had to.”

 

“No, you didn’t.”

 

There was an intense stare down between the two, challenging each other's stance. Tsukasa cheered, an excited smile on his face, "This is so fun! Right?!"

 

Nene shook her head. "I-I don't like this…"

 

"I love it!" Tsukasa threw his hands up, flinging Nene's arm upward. She yelped in pain as her arm stretched a bit too far. Tears sprang to her eyes, to which Tsukasa simply uttered, "Oops."

 

The ghost felt holes burning into his head, so he turned around to find two pairs of glaring eyes. Amane and Hanako were both eyeing him with extreme discontent, no longer focused on each other, but instead shooting sharp daggers at him with their stare. In sync, they commanded, "Tsukasa, get your hands off of her."

 

"Scary~" Tsukasa let go of her immediately. "You both really seemed like the real Amane just now."

 

Nene was nursing her sore wrist, gently caressing the red, irritated skin. Her whole arm was hurting, too. There were tears falling from her cheeks, ones that she couldn't stop.

 

Upon seeing her pained crying, Tsukasa felt imminent death crawling up his shoulders. He clapped his hands, "You know what? I think I like one Amane better. I don’t really wanna visit if there’s these two... and that's my cue to leave! Bye~"

 

He vanished into thin air, dodging the knife that was thrown at him. The weapon lodged itself into the wall, causing Hanako to curse under his breath. 

 

Amane rushed over to Nene, ignoring his aching chest, "A-Are you okay?!"

 

He placed his hand on her back, and anxiously awaited for her response. Nene nodded and smiled at him with concern, "I'm fine, Amane-kun. But what about you? Are you okay?"

 

Despite the pain, he smiled reassuringly. “I’ll be fine, Yashiro-san. I barely feel it anymore.”

 

“Amane-kun…” Nene grasped his hands, making him blush, “thank you.”

 

"W-What? But… I didn't do anything…"

 

Hanako was about to support that claim, but Nene hurriedly declined it, "That's not true! You tried to stop him, and I really appreciate it."

 

Amane looked guilty at receiving any praise, but Nene's kind smile stopped him from refusing it. Hanako watched the scene with indifference, and gained their attention by saying, "We're wasting too much time. Don't you two need to head home?"

 

"T-That's right!" Nene stood up, Amane following after her. She said to him, “We have to meet up with Kou-kun so you have a place to stay!”

 

The three of them strode down to the exit of the school, with Amane hiding his discomfort as he kept up with them. Both Nene and Hanako noticed, so she subtly pulled on his cape, and sent him a pleading look. Hanako sighed and slowed his pace, allowing Amane to maintain a speed that wouldn’t strain his injury. Nene smiled gratefully, “Thank you.”

 

“If it makes you happy~”

 

She glanced up at him, “But, also, thank you for rescuing me.”

 

Hanako smirked at her. “I’ll always rescue you. It’s my job to make sure you live a long life, right?”

 

Nene smiled back at him, but was slightly puzzled by his formal responses. He didn’t plan on elaborating, so the rest of the journey was spent in silence. Eventually, they reached the school gate’s entrance. Upon arrival, they found Kou and Mitsuba in the middle of… something.

 

"What is happening here?" Hanako questioned, confused faces on all three of them.

 

Kou was behind Mitsuba, stretching his cheeks out and ignoring the spirit's complaints. When he saw the three of them, he lifted a hand and said joyfully, "Oh, hey, what's up! Where have you guys been?"

 

"We had a violent encounter with Tsukasa-kun…" Nene waved back as she explained, albeit with uncertainty. She asked, "Kou-kun, what are you doing to Mitsuba-kun?"

 

"Justice."

 

"That doesn't explain anything," Amane deadpanned. 

 

“I found him running around suspiciously, so I chased after him. When I tried to get him to tell me what was going on, he wouldn’t say anything.” Kou clarified as he continued to tug on the spirit’s cheeks. “And then he started insulting me, so this happened.”

 

“Let me go~!” Mitsuba whined, “I bet you just want to touch my cute face!”

 

That only seemed to make Kou yank on his cheeks harshly, but Nene quickly intervened and tore the exorcist off of the ghost. Mitsuba’s tears fell onto his sleeve, “Thank you, Radish-senpai, thank you~”

 

Amane sighed from behind her, “Mitsuba was looking for Tsukasa.”

 

“He was?” Nene asked as she looked over at him in surprise. Kou appeared confused, and somewhat irritated, “What for?”

 

“This guy over here,” Amane threw a thumb over at his spirit counterpart, who only smiled nonchalantly, “decided to fight with our brother this morning, and ended up injuring him, so Mitsuba was looking for Tsukasa because he didn’t take care of his injury.”

 

“T-That’s right!” Mitsuba floated away frantically, “And if it wasn’t for the Hella-Lame, Traffic-Safety-Earring Boy, I could’ve found him by now!”

 

Kou raised his fist. “Why, you—!” 

 

“Eek!” Mitsuba squeaked and soared away, somewhere where they couldn’t see him anymore. Kou’s gaze lingered in his direction, before he exhaled, defeated. Nene patted his back in a comforting manner. After a second or so, Hanako piped up with a grin, “Well, I don’t think he’ll be returning anytime soon. Now that that’s over with, can you take this human home?”

 

Amane frowned, “Why do I feel like a stray animal…?”

 

Nene giggled into her palm, earning an indignant pout from Amane. Kou also chuckled, “Well, I’m still waiting for Teru-nii. He got held up doing Student Council work.”

 

“There’s always something…” Hanako muttered. “Well, I don’t wanna stay around for him to show up. I’ll be taking my leave now.”

 

“Bye, Hanako-kun!” Nene waved at him, to which he waved back, smiling all the while. He disappeared into the wall of the school building, leaving the three humans by themselves. Kou turned to the two shorter people, “Do you guys wanna do anything while we wait?”

 

Nene perked up. “Like what?”

 

Kou suggested, “We could play cards!”

 

Yes.” Amane said, strangely enthusiastic. He whipped out a deck of cards—hanafuda cards—from his back pocket, provoking the question from Kou, “When… did you get that?”

 

“I always have these cards on me.” Amane said with a serious expression, causing the other two to laugh. The three of them sat down, forming a triangular shape, as they brought out the cards. They spent the next ten minutes playing together, until a couple of Mokke hopped over to see what they were playing.

 

One of them uttered, “Can I join?”

 

The other one added, “I wanna play.”

 

“Aww.” Nene cooed; their tiny voices were so cute, but Amane was having none of it. He crossed his arms in an ‘X’ formation. “Denied!”

 

“Eh?” Kou furrowed his eyebrows. “Why?”

 

Amane glared down at the small, adorable spirits, before shielding his mouth with his hand and leaning toward the other two. He asserted in a hushed voice, “I don’t trust them when it comes to hanafuda. I can never seem to beat them! I think they cheat.”

 

“That’s crazy!” Nene declared as she held his hands, “Just give them another shot, Amane-kun.”

 

Amane looked surprised at her insistence, but then sighed and surrendered. 

 

“Fine.”

 

It wasn’t long before Nene and Kou realized what Amane was warning them about. She clutched her head and doubled over, “H-How did they beat me?!”

 

Kou banged the ground with his fists. “That’s not fair!!”

 

Having decided to sit out, Amane was grinning with crossed arms. “I told you~”

 

“Uh…” Teru, who had just arrived, was perplexed at the scene in front of him. “What’s going on?”

 

“Teru-nii!”

 

“M-Minamoto-senpai!”

 

“Oh, you…” Amane stuck his tongue out in distaste. Teru eyed him momentarily, before turning to his brother with a curious smile. Kou tugged on his pants with shiny, puppy eyes.

 

“We’re playing hanafuda but…” Kou pointed at the Mokke, “I think they’re playing unfairly!”

 

“Is that so?” Teru was about to draw his sword, but his younger brother held his arm. Kou fretted, his prior discontent replaced by apprehension, “W-Wait, you don’t need to do that!”

 

The Mokke had already fled, leaving the cards scattered across the ground. Amane exhaled in vexation, then began to pick them up, Nene and Kou helping him out, too. After Amane packed them back inside the small box, Teru inquired him, “So, you’ll be staying with us for the next few nights, Honorable No. 7?"

 

Amane was wary. "That's right…"

 

Teru stared at him for a few more seconds, making the shorter boy squirm in discomfort. The blond young man sighed, "You don't have to be so fearful. You're a human at the current moment, not an apparition."

 

Amane loosened up slightly. "I-I guess…"

 

"But," Teru placed a hand on his sword handle, an icy smile on his face, "if you try any funny business in my home, you're gone."

 

Amane nodded with a grimace. "Understood." 

 

"Now then," Teru looked at the other two, his aura once again amicable, "shall we head home?"

 

Kou pumped his fist. "Yes!"

 

As the Minamoto brothers and Amane began to walk toward the street, Nene smiled bashfully down at her feet. "And I'll be heading home now, too."

 

"Hmm?" Teru stopped where he was, causing the other two to also halt. "At this time? The sun is already about to set."

 

She glanced up at the warm gradient in the sky. "A-Ah, that's true…"

 

Teru offered, "Since it's my fault that I took so long, why don't I walk you home? My brother can bring No. 7 to our house."

 

Nene was struck with both awe and indecision. On one hand, her past self would have been over the moon to be walked home alone by Teru, and even now, it seemed impolite to turn down such a gentleman. On the other hand, her newly realized feelings for Hanako made her want to stay faithful and refuse the charms of other men.

 

Amane and Kou were battling their own internal conflicts. Amane was debating whether to argue that she can walk home alone, which would make him seem like a selfish jerk, or to stay quiet and not say anything at all. Kou, meanwhile, knew that Nene no longer liked his older brother, but Hanako instead, and he felt obliged to help her out so she wouldn't be trapped with her old crush.

 

"I know!" Kou announced suddenly. Everyone turned to look at him as he suggested, "Why don't we all walk Senpai home?"

 

"T-That sounds like a good idea!" Amane agreed with a firm nod. Teru looked at both of them weirdly, before shrugging, "That's fine. We need to hurry, though, because Tiara will get hungry, and I don't want our grandmother to worry."

 

Nene waved her hands, embarrassed. "Y-You guys don't have to…"

 

"We insist!" Kou persisted, backed up by more of Amane's firm nodding.

 

"B-But…"

 

Kou abruptly bent forward in front of her face, scaring her senseless, and against Amane’s expectations. His hands were gripping her arms in a tight hold, renewing the soreness in her limb. "What if you're attacked by muggers, or thugs, or spirits, or the yakuza?!"

 

Amane's hand chopped his head, hard.

 

Soon enough, the four of them were trekking toward Nene’s house. Kou was sporting a round bump on his head, and Teru was comfortingly patting his shoulder and saying something along the lines of “that’s not how you treat a girl.” 

 

Kou was softly repeating, "I know, I'm sorry…"

 

Amane had an irritated look on his face as he pointedly ignored the teary blond boy, despite the fact that he had his own throbbing bump on his head. Teru really had it out for him.

 

Though, his cheeks were also tinged with pink because of the girl grabbing him. Nene had decided to clutch onto his arm, her fright over being robbed overpowered her awkwardness of holding onto her crush. He scratched his cheek, "Uh, Yashiro-san?"

 

"Y-Yes?"

 

"Why don't you use this opportunity to hold on to him…?" Amane whispered as he nodded his head toward the taller blond. Nene blinked at him, before burying her face in his arm. Amane blushed brighter at the sensation.

 

"Because…" Nene admitted quietly, "I feel safe with you."

 

Amane's throat went dry. "O-Oh… okay…"

 

There was a tense silence between the couple as the group continued on their way. Amane took a glimpse at the red-faced girl on his arm and exhaled heavily. Nene looked at him questioningly.

 

"Is something wrong?"

 

"Nothing." Amane shoved his hands in his pockets. "It's just weird that, uh, this is the first time I've ever walked a girl home. And then in a few days, I'll never experience it again."

 

Nene looked at him sympathetically, not that he knew. He was adamantly staring elsewhere. She relaxed her hold on his arm, opting for a loose grip instead.

 

"Well, I think I’d be happy about experiencing it at all!" she said cheerily. He contemplated her words, "Well, that is true. I didn't think I'd ever get the chance…"

 

As Amane came to accept the blessing, Nene smugly thought to herself, And I'm the first girl he's ever walked home~!

 

"Senpai…"

 

"H-Hmm?" Nene peeked over Amane's arm to see Kou's guilt-ridden expression. He clapped his hands in a prayer, "I'm very sorry about frightening you! Please forgive me!"

 

"Eh?! Kou-kun…" Nene let go of Amane to walk in front of the apologetic boy. "It's okay! Really, I feel better with all of you around! I'm not scared anymore."

 

"I'll try not to scare you like that ever again!!"

 

"Kou-kun, I said it's fine!"

 

"I know, but I still feel bad about it…"

 

The group was still walking down the street. Since Kou was deeply enthralled with repenting, he failed to notice the pole coming up in his path. Before anyone could warn him, his head smacked right into the metal, resulting in yet another bump to sprout out. Nene gasped as Amane burst out laughing. He pointed at him, "It looks like there's a butt on your head!"

 

A few seconds later, Amane was now unwillingly matching with Kou. Both of them donned two large bumps on their heads. Teru's fist was smokey and red from the punch, but the malicious smile was still apparent. Nene contained her laughter with her hands, "Oh, my gosh. You both have butts on your heads. You're butthead buddies."

 

She couldn't restrain it any longer. Nene let out peals of laughter, holding her stomach from the onslaught of mirth. Although both Amane and Kou were teary-eyed from the fresh pain in their scalps, her laughter was incredibly contagious, so they joined in soon after. 

 

They arrived too soon at Nene's house. The sun had set long ago, and the night now ruled the sky. Her parents were already waiting by the door as she rushed up to them with a content smile. They waved at the three boys, and Nene turned to wave at them, too.

 

She yelled across the distance. "Thank you for walking me home!"

 

"Of course!" Kou shouted back while his older brother waved politely. Amane added, "No problem!"

 

Nene's mother nudged her shoulder and whispered in her ear. "Which one of them is your boyfriend?"

 

Nene froze mid-wave. Her father nodded, "I bet it's the tall one. You like that type, right?"

 

"No!" Nene pushed them inside, not without one last wave to her friends. The three boys watched her shut the door, and then were only left with each other. Unease began to settle in Amane's stomach, but Teru gestured with his hand, "Let's go home now."

 

The walk toward the Minamoto household was much more silent. Amane felt remarkably uncomfortable with just the two boys, especially when both of them tried to exorcise him before, with one of them nearly succeeding. Kou was eyeing his friend with concern, but said nothing.

 

Upon arrival, Teru opened the front door and announced, "I'm home~"

 

"Nii-chan!!" a small body bolted over to tackle the eldest sibling. "And Kou-nii!!"

 

"Tiara!" Kou joined in the sibling hug, as Amane stood there, not knowing what to do. He slid off his shoes and idled quietly. The little girl noticed his presence after the hug was over, "Who's this?"

 

"It's Kou's friend." Teru patted her head, "He'll be staying with us for a few nights."

 

"Okay!"

 

"If he does anything, tell me right away, and I'll make sure he never existed."

 

"Okay!"

 

Amane bore a blank expression, but he trembled in fear, causing Kou to scowl. "Nii-chan, he won't do anything bad!"

 

"If he knows what's good for him. Now," Teru patted his younger brother's head, "would you mind cooking up dinner? I'm sure Tiara is hungry."

 

"Hungry!"

 

"Ah! Of course." Kou hurried into the kitchen, followed by the little sister. Amane wasn't sure what he was supposed to do next, but Teru ordered him, "Follow me."

 

It took some time strolling through the elongated halls, but eventually, Teru brought him to the bathroom. After disappearing behind another room nearby, he returned with a fluffy towel and some clean clothes.

 

"You can use this towel during your stay. These clothes are Kou's old ones, so you'll probably fit."

 

Amane scanned the items, then took them from his hands. Teru raised an eyebrow at his hesitation, "Don't tell me that you'll need help showering."

 

The shorter boy shook his head vehemently. 

 

"Alright, good." Teru went on his way, "Dinner will be ready in a few, so come down after you're done."

 

Amane hugged the items closer to his chest, his voice quivering slightly.

 

"...Thanks."

 

Teru threw a glance over his shoulder in surprise, but Amane was already heading into the bathroom. The taller blond peered at the door in thought, before leaving entirely.

 

After an oddly fun yet awkward dinner, Amane found himself tucked in a futon on the floor beside Kou's bed. He stared up at the ceiling, wide awake in the dark room. Unfortunately, his chest and back were still aching from being slammed into the wall by the powerful strike earlier. He disregarded the ache and resumed his reflection. Many thoughts were drifting in his head, mostly today's events, as he was processing the current situation he was in. He wondered if his spirit counterpart was doing the same.

 

There was a rustle from the bed, disrupting his pondering, and suddenly Kou's face peeked from the edge of the mattress. 

 

"...Are you asleep?"

 

"...Yes."

 

Kou's arm stretched out to poke him. "You aren't."

 

Amane sighed. "No, I guess not."

 

Kou rested his chin on his arms, "Is it weird to be human again? For real, this time?"

 

"You ever die four decades ago and suddenly come back to life?"

 

"N-No?"

 

"Well, imagine it."

 

Amane could practically hear the gears turning in his head as the blond went mute. Then, he uttered, "Ohh, yeah, that'd be pretty weird."

 

Kou observed the boy laying on the floor for a couple of seconds, then said, "I never thought that I'd share my home with you."

 

"Me neither."

 

"Yeah, since you were bound to the school and all."

 

"I was thinking that your brother would stab me before I got anywhere close to your house, but yeah, that too."

 

"This is a pretty funny situation!" Kou smirked, "A ghost coming into the household of a family of famed exorcists."

 

Amane snorted, before chuckling with Kou. Abruptly, he hissed in pain. The blond lifted himself up slightly, "What's the matter?"

 

"N-Nothing…"

 

"Come on," Kou poked him again, "I've noticed you wincing and struggling since you came out of the school. Was it because of Tsukasa?"

 

"I-I'm fine."

 

Kou frowned, before he hurled off his blankets and hopped onto the floor. Amane was startled, "W-What are you doing, kid?!"

 

"I bet you still have an injury!" Kou claimed as he scoured his room for his first aid kit. "Aha! Found it."

 

Kou flicked on the light switch, then sat down next to the shorter boy and popped open the box. He turned to Amane with a solemn expression.

 

"Take off your shirt."

 

Amane's hands shot up to his chest.

 

"You really are perverted! I knew you weren't as innocent as you appeared!"

 

"Why does everyone think—?!" Kou groaned as he refocused his priority, "I'm serious! You're still hurt!"

 

"I said I'm fine!!"

 

With Kou's strength, he easily overwhelmed the shorter boy and yanked off his shirt, leaving Amane to shiver at the sudden draft. The blond examined the dark purple splotches on both Amane's chest and back.

 

"Ouch. This looks painful."

 

Amane grimaced. It was painful.

 

"Alright, hold still." Kou smeared some pain-alleviating ointment on him, then wrapped a long bandage around his torso until the bruises were fully covered.

 

Instantly, Amane felt the soreness diminish. He could finally breathe again.

 

As Kou packed away the medical items, Amane put his shirt back on and hesitantly said, "Thank you."

 

"You're welcome." Kou pointed at him with an accusing finger. "But stop enduring your pain all by yourself. You have friends, remember?"

 

Amane repeated slowly, "Friends…"

 

He stared at Kou, until he scratched the back of his head with a sheepish grin. "Sorry, I forgot."

 

"Idiot…"

 

Kou stored away the medical kit, and was about to turn off the lights, until Amane said, "You know…"

 

"Hmm?"

 

Amane divulged in a low voice, "I've never had a sleepover before..."

 

Kou gawked, his head whipping over to him. "Seriously?!"

 

"Yeah, this is my first one ever."

 

Kou bit the inside of his cheek, then declared, "Then we can't sleep!"

 

"E-Eh?!"

 

"We have to stay up." Kou planted his fist into his open palm, "And have fun!!"

 


 

"Amane-kun?" Nene poked his shoulder. "Amane-kun~?"

 

Aoi looked over in interest. "He's not waking up?"

 

"It seems like it." Nene frowned at the snoring boy. Out of the blue, Akane walked over, cracking his fists, "Allow me."

 

The School Mystery had already been notified of their leader's situation via Teru, and he was all too happy to play the part of a fellow classmate.

 

Nene yelped, "W-Wait, Akane-kun!"

 

Amane was rudely awoken by a throbbing pain in his head. He clutched his head, "Ow!! What the hell?!"

 

He recognized the figure of No. 1 standing in front of him. Amane grumbled, "Of course…"

 

Nene wanted to shake him. "W-Why did you do that, Akane-kun?!"

 

"I woke him up." Akane shrugged, "And I can't skip an opportunity of hitting him."

 

Aoi frowned at him, disliking his method. "That was uncalled for, Akane-kun. I don't know why you would want to beat him up, but he is Nene-chan's childhood friend."

 

Akane was immediately at her feet, pleading for forgiveness. He couldn't handle the displeasure he caused her, and offered several ways of punishment he could do to compensate. It seemed that he was more regretful over making her upset rather than the actual deed. Aoi stared down at him for a few moments, before she relented and patted his head. "There, there. I forgive you."

 

In the background, Amane yawned and rubbed his eyes. Nene looked at him with worry, "Did you not get enough sleep last night?"

 

"Huh?" Amane was still slightly groggy. "Uh, no, not really…"

 

"Oh, no!" She looked very worried, now. "I hope Minamoto-senpai didn't try to exorcise you in your sleep! Or was Kou-kun a loud sleeper?"

 

Amane chuckled at her and grabbed her hand in a comforting manner. She blushed, and since he was too sleepy to realize what he was doing, he only smiled, "Don't worry, Yashiro-san. I just had a fun sleepover."

 

"O-Oh…"

 

"I'm glad you care so much~" he pressed her fingers to his cheek, reddening her face further. "You must really like me, right?"

 

Yashiro bloomed like a ripe tomato. She squeaked, "U-Um! A-As friends!"

 

"Of course, as friends…" Amane slumped over on the desk. Nene thought he had knocked out again, but she felt his lips on her palm. He mumbled, almost sadly, "Nothing more…"

 

"A-Amane-kun…"

 

His light snores were the only response she received. Nene let out a sigh of relief, as the temperature of her face went down. She'd let him nap for the rest of the morning, since she didn't think she could handle sleepy, flirty Amane. Gently slipping her hand out of his hold, she tenderly caressed his hair, noting the softness of the black locks. She was wholly enamored with his adorably peaceful expression.

 

"Whatcha doin'~?"

 

Nene squeaked again, her hand flying out of Amane's hair. Hanako was leaning extremely close to her face, his eyes analyzing her countenance. She flushed and exclaimed in a hushed voice, "H-Hanako-kun!"

 

"That's me!"

 

"I-I didn't see you come in…"

 

"Well, that might have been because you were too busy petting my human counterpart."

 

Nene somehow flushed even harder. "P-Please don't say it out loud."

 

Hanako giggled at her embarrassed look. His smile, although apparent, somewhat weakened, but Nene missed the change. He smoothly commented, "It seems that you're doing fine with regular school things and my human counterpart."

 

"A-Ah, yes…"

 

"Wonderful!" Hanako threaded his fingers together. 

 

Aoi and Akane had already left the classroom, off to do something else for the remainder of the morning. There were students standing around, chatting and not paying much attention to the girl talking to the air. 

 

Lucky her.

 

In this situation, she could talk to the spirit some more—

 

Hanako grinned. "Then there's not much for me to do here~"

 

"E-Eh?" 

 

Something about the way he said it made her feel… bad.

 

"Hanako-kun, wait!"

 

"Hmm~?"

 

"W-What about you?" she inquired with a tilt of her head and a small, friendly smile. "You've seem so busy with School Mystery leader things. I've barely seen you!"

 

"That's fine~" he waved dismissively. "You'll see me after school, anyway."

 

"B-But…" Nene felt her heart sink.

 

"Ah, again with this~"

 

Hanako held her chin, his thumb was brushing her bottom lip.

 

"You're always so worried about me, Yashiro." He backed her into her seat, trapping her with his other arm. "It's kind of cute, you know~?"

 

C-Cute?!

 

Nene's head burst into flames once more. But his next words brought her back to reality. He dropped his friendly smile in exchange for a sullen look.

 

"You wouldn't want a spirit like me."

 

Nene's embarrassment converted into confusion. 

 

"...W-What?"

 

Instantly, his smile returned, and he patted her head.

 

"Just saying." He saluted, "I think it's about time I go now!"

 

"Wait, Hanako-kun, what did you—?"

 

He vanished before she could finish her query. 

 

She sat there, stupefied with Hanako’s last words. As the bell rang, signaling the beginning of school, she couldn’t stop mulling over what he had said. Amane woke up to the ringing, and yawned as he stretched and cracked his neck. 

 

“I fell asleep again?” Amane asked out loud, anticipating an answer. However, Nene remained silent, prompting him to peek over and see what she was doing.

 

He poked her shoulder, visibly startling her. He chuckled, “Something bugging you?”

 

“Ah, um…” Nene smiled nervously, “No, it’s nothing, really.”

 

“Hmm~”

 

Amane was concerned, but he wasn’t sure how to directly go about it. He thought her bizarre mood would last for a short time, but it ended up looming over her for much longer. As for her, she was puzzled for most of the day, inadvertently ignoring Amane's jokes and conversation starters as she tried to decipher what Hanako meant. The longer she thought about it, the more she realized the peculiar attitude of the spirit.

 

“Yashiro-san, look at the picture on the board! It looks like a radish~”

 

Ignored.

 

“So did you dye your hair~? Or is it all natural?”

 

Ignored.

 

“Why do you hold your pencil like that? Can you teach me?”

 

Ignored.

 

“Hey, Yashiro-san, isn’t this weird~?” Amane pointed at the dead frog, but Nene sliced it open without a second thought. His face was struck with shock, as she dissected the frog casually. 

 

Amane stammered, “Y-Yashiro-san, are you sure you’re a girl…?”

 

She whacked him on his head, eliciting a pained yelp. Her eyes lit up as she registered his widened eyes staring at her in surprise.

 

“Oops, sorry. It’s a reflex.” When he wouldn't stop gazing, she asked worriedly, "Did I hit you too hard?"

 

"No, it's just…" Amane blurted, "you actually responded!"

 

"W-What do you mean?!"

 

"You've been silent all day," Amane told her as he rested his arms on the lab table, "and I was starting to think you were ignoring me on purpose."

 

"No, no, it's got nothing to do with you!"

 

"Then what were you thinking about?"

 

Nene glanced to the side. "I-It was…"

 

"Hey! Lab station seven!" The teacher yelled, "Your frog is open! Don't get distracted!"

 

The two of them speedily obeyed. "Y-Yes, sir!" 

 

Amane ended up not obtaining the answer to his question before school ended.

 

After school, Nene felt weird about seeing Hanako again, afraid there would be some sort of uneasiness between them. However, Hanako went about the routine as normal, before leaving her to clean the bathroom. It mystified Nene, but also angered her. She felt that he was either playing with her feelings, or doubting how much she actually cared.

 

"Y-Yashiro-san?" Amane was helping her, too, for some reason, as he donned a white bandana and wiped the windows. "Are you feeling okay?"

 

She brutally mopped the floor. "I'm fine!"

 

"It doesn't seem like it…"

 

"What is his deal?!" Nene exploded, frightening Amane, "Hanako-kun is acting as if everything is ordinary, but he's definitely hiding something!"

 

Amane gazed at her. "E-Eh?"

 

"Haven't you noticed his behavior?" she started, as if introducing a conspiracy, "Why would he even attack Tsukasa-kun?"

 

Amane grimaced, "Beats me…"

 

"He rarely talks to anyone else! Not to the other School Mysteries, or to Kou-kun, or to me!"

 

"Yashiro-san…"

 

"I swear that I'll get to the bottom of this…" Nene muttered to herself. Amane observed her, unnoticed sorrow passing by his face.

 

After a few days of analyzing Hanako, Nene realized that he was being avoidant. He rarely visited her during school hours, and barely brought up anything worthwhile when they did get to talk. Whenever she tried to remind him of their friendship or any other ties he has with other people, he'd brush it off like it wasn't significant. When she tried to mention the fact that he wasn't attempting to become one with his human counterpart, he acted as though it wasn't an issue at all.

 

Didn't Tsuchigomori-sensei mention "dire consequences"?!

 

Surveying him for the last few days has also made her recognize the minute changes in his attitude whenever Amane was brought up. It seemed obvious now that his whole aura seemed to alter when Amane was in the picture. There was a weird feeling behind it that she couldn't place her finger on… until recently.

 

She's only caught it a few times, but the Hanako she knew definitely possessed some jealousy. That trait must have passed onto his spirit counterpart, and based on some trials, she may have figured out where his jealousy was stemming from. Confident in her findings, she decided to confront Hanako about it today.

 

The bell rang, which meant that it was time for lunch. However, she wasn't hungry for food, she was starved for answers.

 

"Yashiro-san?" Amane asked as she walked by purposefully, "Where are you going?"

 

"I need to talk to Hanako-kun," Nene paused, "alone."

 

"What for?"

 

"I'm going to face him head-on and talk about his problem!" Nene declared resolutely, before she switched her tone to a sweet one, "Sorry, Amane-kun, but could you leave us be for the time being?"

 

"Oh, uh, sure!"

 

Amane watched as she stormed off in determination, and he felt his heart constrict painfully. Sighing, he dragged his feet toward the rooftop, intent on being alone. 

 

For the past few days, her attention was fully on the spirit, and she didn't spare Amane a glance. He already knew how she felt about his human self, and how she focused on the fact that his real self was an apparition, but it wasn't like they were in a fake world.

 

They were in the real world.

 

He was really right here, next to her. He could touch her and talk to her everyday like a normal student.

 

Couldn't she just enjoy the chance they had now?

 

But… she only cared about getting him back to normal.

 

Amane put his head in his hands, feeling envy grip his heart once more. There was a pang in his stomach from hunger, inducing him to flinch.

 

Someone suddenly occupied a seat next to him.

 

"Yo, Amane."

 

Said boy rose his head, meeting Kou's quizzical gaze.

 

"Have you eaten yet?"

 

"Mmm…" he shook his head, "no."

 

Kou pushed his opened lunchbox toward the boy, urging him to partake in the food. Amane did so with low energy.

 

"What are you doing here alone?" Kou began asking, "Where is Senpai?"

 

"She's confronting Hanako about something." Amane munched slowly, "I wouldn't bother them right now."

 

"Oh, okay." Kou noticed that he didn't appear too happy at that fact. He frowned, "She's been pretty focused on him lately, huh?"

 

Amane nodded. "I know, right? I don't get it."

 

Kou racked his mind. "Well, she probably wants to get you two back into one person."

 

Amane threw his hands out. "But, why?!"

 

"Huh??"

 

He sat up straight, and leaned his head against the concrete. "Is she… is she not happy with the human me?"

 

"Amane, it's not like that." Kou shook his head, "Even in the fake world, it was never about that."

 

He grabbed his friend's shoulder, forcing him to listen.

 

"Senpai just likes Hanako. The real Hanako, with every aspect included."

 

Amane stared at him, astounded. The revelation swept over him like a gust of wind.

 

She wasn't disappointed in his human pieces, she just wanted the whole picture.

 

He was being jealous over his spirit, but he should have been grateful that she accepted all of him.

 

All of his brooding, his envy, his self-loathing… was because he misunderstood her emotions. She had fun with him and laughed at his antics, but she covered up her real misery behind her joy. He thought she would have preferred his human self, and would have been happy that she could be with someone that walked on the ground like she did, but that wasn't it at all.

 

Suddenly, he wondered, Has my spirit counterpart been thinking the same thing? Did he think that she was better off being with me?

 

Amane surged to his feet, much to Kou's confusion.

 

"Where are you going?"

 

"I need to find them!"

 

He needed to fix this, and close the gap between his human self and his spirit self.

 

In another part of the school, Nene had already met with Hanako in the girls' bathroom. She had summoned him with the standard knocks and question, and he didn't seem perturbed at her random request. He was smiling, that same smile that she sees him wear almost all the time.

 

"Is there something wrong, Yashiro?"

 

She let the air carry a moment of peacefulness, predicting that it was about to be destroyed, anyway.

 

Hanako uttered again, "Yashiro?"

 

Nene took a deep breath.

 

"There's some things I want to talk to you about, Hanako-kun."

 

"What is it?"

 

She clutched her skirt. "Where do you go every day?"

 

"Eh~?" Hanako replied simply, "Just around the school. I'm just trying to maintain the peace, you know~"

 

Nene frowned. "The original Hanako-kun was never this busy when it came to patrolling the school."

 

He shrugged, "Maybe he was slacking."

 

"No, he may have seemed carefree, but I know that Hanako-kun took his role very seriously." Nene took a step forward, "But even then, he still made time to hang out with me and Kou!"

 

"Oh~?" Hanako smiled and blushed at the floor, "Is that what this is all about? Yashiro misses me~?"

 

Nene's lips strained, before she proclaimed, "Yes, I do!"

 

The spirit was taken aback. "H-Huh?"

 

"I thought you were just the same as the real Hanako-kun, but I was wrong!" Nene held back the tears that wanted to shine in her eyes. She yelled at him, "Why did you attack Tsukasa-kun?!"

 

"W-Why?" Hanako looked puzzled. "Because…"

 

His voice escaped from him. Suddenly, he realized that there was no excuse he could make for attacking Tsukasa. His brother hadn't been fighting him or attacking anyone. Hanako had done so on his own accord.

 

Seeing his brother… he couldn’t stand it. It was a display of self-defense…

 

He couldn’t tell her.

 

Nene kept going as she took a few more steps forward. "Why do you keep smiling?!"

 

Hanako searched his brain for an answer, but once again couldn't find one. He backed up slightly against the window, "Hey, this is getting a bit—"

 

"Answer me!"

 

Hanako winced. "Yashiro, calm down!"

 

She was in front of him now, gazing up at the spirit.

 

He looked like him. He looked exactly like him.

 

But he wasn't him. Not completely.

 

The tears rolled down her cheeks. He couldn't bring himself to provide any comfort.

 

"...I miss him."

 

Nene hiccuped, wiping her tears as she tried to swallow her despair.

 

"I miss the original Hanako-kun."

 

The ghost in front of her tensed up. His eyebrow twitched, his fingers flexed. 

 

She didn't see.

 

Nene revealed, sorrow hanging from her voice. "But you and Amane-kun aren't making any efforts to become one again..."

 

She grabbed his hands abruptly, surprising the spirit. "Please, Hanako-kun, could you at least try?!"

 

His eyes never left hers, and instead of understanding, she only found disgust.

 

But… not for her.

 

He ripped his hands from her grasp, his hat now hiding his face.

 

"...Why?" the spirit barely held back his caustic tone, "Wouldn't you be happier with a human?"

 

Nene's eyes widened as she surveyed the spirit in front of her. 

 

They fell into a heavy silence. He refused to look up at her. She felt like reaching out to him, but she resisted.

 

"...I understand now, Hanako-kun." Nene's hands rolled into fists. Hanako finally looked up at her, curiosity coloring his eyes, "Understand what?"

 

She shouted suddenly, "You're scared!"

 

Hanako stared at her, before snorting, "Scared—?"

 

"You act so cold and mean and distant because you don't want to become close to anyone! You don't wanna make friends, you don't wanna make bonds, because they can hurt you!"

 

He was seriously beginning to dislike her accusations. Hanako seized her wrist, gaining her attention.

 

"Yashiro, that's enough."

 

She shook her head, disregarding his command, and persisted with her claims.

 

"And—and you're envious! You want to be human again," she peered into his eyes, "you want to be Amane-kun!"

 

He struggled to maintain his composure; the strength of his grasp decreased. Regardless, no matter what, he wasn't going to allow her to break through to him. 

 

It was for her own good.

 

"You're scared that… that I'll stop liking you because you're a ghost, and that you can't be with me like Amane-kun can, but you are wrong!"

 

She cupped his face, fully exposing her true feelings through the ruby gleam of her eyes.

 

He couldn't see anything else but her.

 

"Hanako-kun, get this through your thick skull!" 

 

She nearly screamed, her voice pleading for him to listen to her.

 

"There's nothing that I would change about the real you!"

 

She was panting, her exhausted breathing breaking through the tense quietness. He was watching her with astonishment, unable to reply to her chain of outbursts. The hands on his face slipped away, and she was now gazing at him with soft eyes, searching his face for some sort of vulnerability.

 

"Come on,” she quietly begged, “together, we can fix this…"

 

Hanako's lip curled downward. He's heard enough, already.

 

"Sorry, Yashiro." He spoke frankly, "I think I know what you may be implying, but I only think of you as a customer."

 

Nene's lip trembled, every word piercing her heart. 

 

He looked at her with dull eyes. "I'm only bound to you by your wish. There's nothing else to it."

 

Shock struck her, straight through to her core. She stumbled back on her feet, disbelief washing over her face, then ran off in a hurry, not catching the boy eavesdropping by the door.

 

Amane reached out to her, but his voice caught in his throat as she sprinted down the hall. He glanced at the bathroom door, before deciding to chase after her.

 

His head whirled around, attempting to find any traces of her, but she was nowhere to be found. Without his hakujoudai to help him, he was completely clueless.

 

The bell rang. Students were starting to fill the halls and file into classrooms. 

 

He hoped she would be in class. He rushed to the room, expecting her to be crying on her desk. 

 

She wasn't there.

 

The teacher closed the door, keeping everyone in the room. Amane almost ran out in his desperation to find her, but he fought against the desire.

 

Maybe she would want to be alone.

 

Maybe she didn't want to be reminded of Hanako.

 

He plopped into his seat, and laid his head on the table.

 

She didn't show up for the rest of their classes.

 

Nene would have, too. She would have gone back to class and would have wanted comfort from her friend.

 

But, unfortunately, something prevented her from doing so.

 

When she ran out of the bathroom, she had no direction in mind. She only let her feet carry her away.

 

As she felt the tears pour down her cheeks, frustration racked her mind.

 

Stupid Hanako-kun!

 

She ran with shut eyes, failing to notice that she was running somewhere entirely different. The sound of her footsteps disappeared, and there was suddenly a deafening silence surrounding her. A chill breezed over her back, causing her to shudder and open her eyes in alarm.

 

Darkness swirled and flowed in front of her. She felt like she was floating.

 

Nene couldn’t move. "W-Where am I?"

 

A nearby voice enlightened her. "Why, you're in the Crystal Mirror, my dear."

 

Nene squinted in the dark to pinpoint the voice, but she could barely see. "W-Who said that?!"

 

"It was me!"

 

A young man appeared from the black mist, finely dressed in a tuxedo, tall with make-up decorating his face. His hair was sleek, and his keen eyes were scrutinizing her. She was thoroughly creeped out by his aura.

 

“Oh, don’t be like that, dear.” He waved at her, “You’re barely my type. I could never go for a lady with those ankles.”

 

Nene clutched her heart. “H-How mean!”

 

“Honestly,” the spirit posed, exuding arrogance, “how could anyone be deeply connected with you?

 

What is it with mirrors and being judgmental?! Nene cried to herself. Then, she realized, “W-Wait, what do you mean?”

 

“Hmm? You haven’t realized, yet?”

 

At Nene’s confused expression, he sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. “You’re what deeply connects my latest victim.”

 

Victim… Nene asked, bemused, “A-Are you… the spirit of the Crystal Mirror?!”

 

“That’s right!” He licked his lips seductively, completely freaking her out, "And I've come to receive due payment. Since the two halves of the beholder cannot come together as one in time, it is my duty to destroy the thing that deeply connects them both, ensuring that they can never become one again!"

 

Nene held her shaking hands to her chest. "H-How are you gonna do that…?"

 

He grinned widely, displaying his horrifyingly sharp teeth.

 

"I'm going to eat you, and then become more powerful, of course."

 

She froze, her entire mind blanking, before she screamed, "H-Hanako-kun!! Save me!!"

 

Nene tried to swim away, run away, or something, but it was impossible to create any distance between her and the spirit. He laughed at her futility, and floated over to her struggling form.

 

"Just let the mirror absorb your energy, my dear. It'll make the whole thing much more painless!" He caressed her bangs, casting a sleeping spell over her, "In just three hours, you'll be my meal~"

 

Nene was hit with drowsiness immediately. Before she totally went unconscious, she couldn’t help but cry, her tears drifting into the void.

 

Hanako-kun...

 


 

Tsuchigomori exhaled, already exhausted, as he exited the gymnasium through an isolated hall. Warning signs and yellow tape wrapped around the entrance, while he had ignored the confused chatter of the students and teachers, and only directed them to exercise outside or go elsewhere. He didn’t care what they did, as long as they didn’t go back inside the gym. 

 

He really wasn’t the fighting type, so the girl better be thankful he tried his best. Manifesting his human appearance, he hurried to two certain classrooms, taking two particular boys.

 

Tsuchigomori hauled Amane and Kou inside his office, having no time to answer their questions about his wounds or fatigue. They were puzzled, but the teacher didn't waste any more time. He had already found out too late, as well. It was only a matter of time until…

 

Kou stepped up. “Tsuchigomori-sensei, what’s wrong?”

 

"I'll say it simply: the Crystal Mirror ate your friend." He told them straightforwardly, "I didn’t find out until almost half an hour ago. She’s been trapped in there for much longer, but I don’t know the exact time.”

 

"It—what?!" Kou stuttered, shocked. 

 

“She…” Amane trailed off, before informing them, “The last time I saw her, it was after lunch.”

 

“Then, that was around two hours ago. You only have an hour left to save her. I managed to trap the mirror in the school gym, but I can't do anything else to help." The teacher explained with closed eyes, then looked at the two boys, "You can fight it to stall for time, but ultimately, the two halves need to come together and defeat the mirror himself."

 

Kou asked urgently, "Did you tell Hanako what happened to her?!"

 

"I did, actually." Tsuchigomori pushed up his glasses and stated dryly, "He said he wasn't going to do anything."

 

"T-That bastard…!" Kou growled. He stopped talking as his eyes followed Amane, who marched forward with tightened fists, biting out the words, "Where is he?!"

 

Tsuchigomori gave him a look. "I think you know where."

 

Realization passed over Amane's face. He hurried out of the room, Kou close on his heel. At the doorway, the blond momentarily turned, “Thanks, Tsuchigomori-sensei!”

 

The teacher waved him farewell. Kou caught up to the frantic boy, inquiring, “What are we going to do?!”

 

Amane turned to him and said, "Kid, listen, I need you to fight the mirror to save time."

 

Kou nodded with determination. "And are you going to find Hanako and persuade him?"

 

"Better than that." Amane possessed a piqued expression. "I'm gonna knock some sense into that asshole."

 

Kou was in admiration of his friend’s rage, but to be fair, he would have done the exact same thing. They separated, intent on succeeding in their own missions. Sliding down the banisters of the stairs, Kou hastened to the gymnasium. His grip on his staff was fixed, as he was set on helping Amane save their friend. 

 

Meanwhile, Amane raced through the halls, glad that there was still class occurring so he didn’t need to push pass anyone. He knew exactly where Hanako was; they shared the same destination in mind when it came to feeling upset. With haste, he ventured up the flights of stairs toward the school's rooftop. Bursting through the doors, he clambered up the ladder and aimed straight for the apparition sitting on the ledge.

 

"Hey, stupid!!"

 

"...Here we go." Hanako closed his eyes and sighed, "Why are you here?"

 

"Why else would I be here?!" Amane stomped over to him, yelling at his back, "Yashiro-san is in danger! She's going to be killed!"

 

"We already saw her fate." Hanako watched the clouds roll by, avowing, "It doesn't matter to me."

 

"You idiot!" Amane shouted as he grabbed the spirit's shoulders, forcing him to turn around, "Stop lying to yourself!!"

 

Hanako scowled at him, disgruntled, "I don't know what you're talking about."

 

Amane met the glare with his own. "You don't care about Yashiro-san? That's total bullshit!"

 

Hanako felt his temper rising. He pressed his lips together in a firm line, annoyed by his human counterpart’s insistence. 

 

"She means nothing to me—"

 

Amane slapped him as hard as he could, knocking his hat right off of his head, before grabbing him by his collar. His enraged leer met with Hanako’s shocked gaze.

 

"If that were true…" Amane gritted his teeth, "If that were true, then you wouldn't have let her cry and run away! You would've put on your stupid fake smile and complied to her desires and made her as happy as can be!”

 

Hanako faltered, “How do you—?”

 

“You would be out there saving her as fast as possible! To help her live longer like she wished for! But you made her miserable because you were too afraid of facing your own feelings! You don't want to save her because the pain of knowing that she can and will die is too much!!"

 

The spirit felt his control begin to crumble, his voice was going to break

 

Stop it.

 

Amane's voice quivered. "'Why not just let her die?' Right? That's what you think. 'I don't want to watch her die. Let it happen far away from me.' You're trying so hard to avoid feeling anything for her that it's pitiful!"

 

“Shut the hell up!” 

 

Suddenly, Hanako's expression contorted into rage as he harshly clutched onto the hands on his collar. 

 

"What the hell do you know?! You can't understand me!!"

 

Amane endured the pain searing in his hands. Hanako was getting angrier by the second.

 

"Of course I can, dumbass!" he banged his forehead against the wrathful spirit. "That's how Yashiro-san makes me feel!"

 

Hanako's eyes widened.

 

"I’ve tried not to care, but it’s impossible not to! She makes me confused, but happy. She makes me feel safe, even if I'm all fluttery. I don't understand it at all, so I never take it seriously. I make dumb jokes, and sometimes, it hurts her feelings, and then I feel bad and I never know why." He squeezed his eyes shut. "I'm such a moron. I'm just as foolish as you!"

 

Tears began to brim. "For so long, I've felt so, so alone, but when she was there for me in the festival, I've never been happier…"

 

Amane fell to his knees, bringing the ghost down with him. His hold on him was trembling, but he refused to let go. 

 

"You understand, don't you?" Amane asked in a shaky voice, "Don't you?"

 

Hanako's fingers twitched, before they relaxed. He felt his aching heart finally break free.

 

"...Yes."

 

Amane's breath hitched, as he lifted his head up.

 

"Yashiro…" the spirit looked up at the sky, "I always felt so empty, transparent, void… just as a ghost is supposed to be, right? But... she gave me purpose."

 

Amane stared at him in surprise. 

 

"She made me feel human again…" Hanako closed his eyes, skimming through the memories, "She made me want to live again. She made me care about her, Kou, people, spirits, everything... She made me scared of death again."

 

Something wet dropped on Amane’s arm. 

 

Another tear ran down Hanako’s cheek.

 

He realized that more of them were falling from his face, and soon his sight became blurry. Bending forward, the tears plopped to the ground, one after the other. He suddenly hiccuped and cradled his head in his hands. 

 

"I don't want her to die." He sobbed; his hidden wish spilled out, "I want her to live."

 

Amane's eyes softened, and he unclenched his fists. 

 

He extended his arms out, bringing his counterpart into a tight embrace. Hanako’s tears trickled onto his shoulder, dampening his shirt.

 

"I do, too," Amane admitted quietly. He held the ghost by his shoulders and looked at him resolutely. "She’s what brings us together, and what keeps us connected. That's why we have to save her." 

 

Hanako uttered in realization, "She’s… our first love…"

 

Amane smiled kindly, "...and our only."

 

A light glowed from in between them, before it burst into a blinding brightness.

 

A single boy stood by his lonesome, his cape billowing in the wind. 

 

Without a moment’s notice, he bounded toward the gymnasium.

 

Within the vast building, the mirror stood eerily upon the waxed wooden floor. Kou was breathing hard; a few scratches marred his body, but he held strong. Just as he was about to leap into another attack, a voice behind him declared, “Kid, that’s enough.”

 

Kou turned around, surprise lacing his face. “H-Hanako, is that you?”

 

Hanako sent him a friendly smile. “The one and only~”

 

He walked forward, the light now shining down on his form.

 

“I’ll take care of it from here.” His face held determination, causing Kou to grin proudly. He high-fived the spirit, “I trust in you to save Senpai!”

 

“Of course~”

 

Inside the mirror, Nene was floating in the abyss, her limbs and her face entirely still. The spirit swimming along the black mist bided his time, waiting for her to fully lose all of her energy so that her body and soul would taste its best. Although the blond exorcist gave him some trouble, he wasn’t the one that could defeat him, and so the girl would inevitably become his next meal.

 

A familiar voice echoed through the hazy chamber. “Hey~!”

 

Nene’s eyes twitched behind her eyelids.

 

Hanako-kun…?

 

The apparition stood at a distance from the mirror. He drew out his knife, pointing it at the Crystal Mirror.

 

“I’d appreciate it if you could let my assistant go.” 

 

“Eh?! Are you… a School Mystery?” the mirror spirit laughed, “Sorry, but I’m just carrying out the consequences of the beholder. You can try to stop me, but only the person who is deeply connected with this girl can defeat me!”

 

Hanako smirked. “It’s a good thing that Yashiro means a lot to me, then.”

 

He twirled the knife in his hand, before swinging it threateningly. The mirror spirit cringed, “W-Wait…don’t tell me you’re… that person?!”

 

“Yup!” Hanako abruptly dashed forward, “Sucks for you~”

 

“N-No, stay away!” 

 

A black mist shot out of the mirror, it’s tremendous mass aiming to swipe Hanako away. The School Mystery dodged it with ease, and proceeded to evade the ensuing strikes that tried to take him down. Another ghastly manifestation blasted out of the mirror, charging straight for him.

 

Kou shouted from behind, “W-Watch out!”

 

The mirror spirit cackled. “I got you now!”

 

“Guess again~”

 

Hanako sliced through the shape cleanly, diving to the side as the remains plummeted to the ground. The mirror spirit gawked, “No way…”

 

“Ah, you’re so weak…” Hanako tapped the back of his knife against his shoulder, “I feel kinda bad. No wonder you’re so hungry for power.”

 

Shut up!!” the mirror exploded with a perilous aura, black mist sweeping over the gym, “I’m going to kill you!”

 

Another misty arm zeroed in on Hanako, rapidly closing in on him, causing him to jump into the air.

 

“Idiot!” the mirror spirit taunted. 

 

He threw out his arm, creating tinier black appendages to fly out of the black mass. He was intent on striking the School Mystery down before he could reach the mirror. Hanako narrowed his eyes as he twisted and swerved in the air, narrowly missing the attacks. The space between them was swiftly waning, and the mirror spirit could perceive the gleam of the knife through the darkness of the cloudy appendages. 

 

Hanako seized the opening. “Goodbye!”

 

The mirror spirit held his arms protectively in front of him, unable to counteract any longer. His cry reverberated through the mirror and on the walls.

 

Noo!

 

Hanako’s knife carved straight through the black mass of the pulsing, lumpy mirror, in which it spat out Nene into his awaiting arms. Kou cheered from the sidelines, “You did it!!”

 

The mirror died down, its previously ominous reflection now normal and clear. There were no remarks or presence of the spirit within. The atmosphere was now free of its previous peril. 

 

Hanako stared down at the girl in his arms. She opened her eyes slowly, recognizing her precious apparition’s face in front of hers.

 

A small smile formed on her features, one that he felt he didn’t deserve.

 

"Yashiro…" as delighted as he was to have rescued her, Hanako grimaced when he remembered how he acted before, "I-I'm sorry…"

 

Nene felt tears sprung to her eyes as she wrapped her arms around his neck with full force. She hugged him, taking in everything that he is—not a preference or perfection, but his truly complete self. He staggered, but held his ground, as his hands slowly coiled around her further, pressing deeper into the hug.

 

"Thank goodness…" Nene felt her tears slip, "I missed you, Hanako-kun!"

 

He let out a feeble laugh. “I know. You screamed that at me.”

 

At her heated embarrassment, he chuckled louder. She leaned back to beam at him, in all of her teary-eyed and blushing expression. He cherished the sight, wanting to never let her out of his arms. 

 

Her words were music to his ears. "Welcome back!"

 

He smiled at her lovingly. “Yeah… I’m back!”

 


 

A short spirit boy was wandering around, not particularly searching for anything. His eyes caught onto a cloth draped over some object. Driven by interest and boredom, he sought to unveil the mysterious item. Floating over, he tore off the cover and gazed upon a fancy mirror.

 

Suddenly, a bright light shined from the mirror, and in its wake, were now two boys on the floor of identical features.

 

One of them rose upward, slowly and ominously.

 

"Ohh, what is this~?" his darkened eyes stared down at his hands. He grinned in a sinister fashion, fangs bared, "With a separate body, I can act out a plan to corrupt all the ghosts with madness, and descend the entire school into chaos!"

 

He added shortly, "For fun!"

 

His guffaw rang throughout the large room, until it was interrupted by a small cough. The spirit Tsukasa stopped laughing to turn to a human Tsukasa, who hopped on his feet.

 

He was smiling blithely. "That sounds great and all, but you know what's better? Amane!"

 

The spirit Tsukasa looked down on him with dark eyes. "Better? I like to dissect animals and smear all kinds of blood on walls. What's better than that?"

 

The human chimed, "Amane!"

 

The spirit stood in front of him with a disturbing grin. "I can even crush a School Mystery at full power!"

 

"I like Amane!"

 

"I could turn the apparitions against each other with just their rumors!"

 

"I like Amane!"

 

The spirit Tsukasa stared at the human one, his blank, dark eyes assessing the human's happy expression.

 

Silence passed, until—

 

"I like Amane, too!" 

 

Spirit Tsukasa's eyes were sparkling as his mouth morphed into a cute, cheeky beam. The human closed his mouth, lips still curved in a smile, and he glanced up at the ceiling. Then, he brought his gaze back to the spirit.

 

"I love Amane!"

 

The spirit closed his mouth, and they both looked at each other with wide eyes. Another silence passed over them. Suddenly, he proclaimed with the same ecstatic expression as his counterpart.

 

"I love Amane, too!!"

 

They threw their hands together in a firm handshake. The spirit Tsukasa nodded at him, "Amane?"

 

The human Tsukasa nodded back, "Amane."

 

A blinding light consumed the two of them, until it left behind just a single apparition. As if nothing had happened, Tsukasa threw the cloth back onto the magical item. He hummed to himself as he floated away, now bored of the mirror.

 

Somewhere else in the school, Hanako sneezed, then shuddered.

Chapter Text

Yashiro Nene was dead.

 

That single fact skewed his entire existence.

 

There was nothing else in his vision besides her limp body.

 

He couldn't think. He couldn't speak.

 

He wrapped his arms around her body, and brought her closer to him, disregarding the blood that was now staining his clothes. The deafening silence echoed in his ears, and he felt it reach the deepest part of his soul. A gut-wrenching emptiness within, alongside a coursing numbness over his skin.

 

"Honorable No. 7?"

 

The boy didn't respond.

 

"You requested for me."

 

Hanako eventually spoke in a hoarse voice, "I didn't."

 

"You were going to." The old apparition stated, "I could already hear your call."

 

"Is that so…?" Hanako brushed back her bangs, the red liquid coloring her pale forehead, "What was I going to ask for?"

 

Kako gulped, unsure if he should encourage the actions that were to follow this event. He wasn't sure if it even mattered what he believed, because he was most likely going to be forced into it anyway.

 

The spirit boy simply stated, "I see."

 

Hanako cupped her face. There was a lingering warmth.

 

He didn't want to wait for it to burn out.

 

"Do it."

 

Kako hesitated at the command, and that made the younger apparition seethe.

 

"Now," Hanako growled, "do it now."

 

The old apparition sighed, then banged his staff onto the ground. The sound resounded throughout the atmosphere, and all the destruction around them had begun to reverse. Hanako pressed his forehead against hers, as the ropes of time unraveled into something unused, untouched, untainted.

 

I changed it once, so I will change it again.

 


 

"Hanako-kun?"

 

The apparition stared upward at the girl, who was looking at him in concern. His mind was just beginning to wear off from the effects of time travel.

 

"Yes~?" he tried to smile, but it was incredibly hard, especially after seeing how lifeless her eyes were going to be; after seeing her soul slip from his hands, her warmth dying from her body. When Mirai caused it, it was reversible, it wasn’t her time to die, it was only a display of her future.

 

But when it actually happened, he couldn’t handle it.

 

It was hard. It was hard.

 

She frowned. "You don't look okay."

 

"You hadn't even asked!" Hanako waved her off as he turned away, "I'm quite fine. Really, I am."

 

Nene wanted to pursue more into the topic, but Hanako seemed very reluctant to disclose. She sighed and continued mopping, choosing to talk about other things. School, friends, spirits, anything trivial and everything mundane. It was surreal.

 

Hanako could listen to her talk all day. He could watch her move and speak any time of the month. It was odd to think that having the ability to talk about casual things was such a hidden luxury. But whenever she turned his way, he wanted to gaze into her eyes, and get lost in her presence. Though, he knew it would creep her out, so he had to look away.

 

It was difficult to face her. It really was. 

 

Yet seeing her alive was… unimaginable.

 

Alive and well, with her bright smile and flushed skin.

 

Blood in her body.

 

Eyes full of life.

 

He felt almost rejuvenated, like a fire lit inside of him. He had to fight, to fight for her life

 

Dead, again.

 

She was… dead again…

 

He couldn't stop it again. Same cause.

 

Same cause. Same—

 

Change it. You have to change it.

 

Hanako felt his mind begin to slip, just like the liquid seeping out of her wounds.

 

He had to focus. He had to fix it.

 

Kako waited for the command of his leader. Hanako directed him without hesitation. The winds began to whirl around them, tearing the fabric of time into its previous state.

 

I changed it once, so I will change it again.

 


 

Hanako knew of his past. He later on discovered the contents of his destiny, before he had decidedly changed it himself.

 

Him, a teacher? What a sight that would have been. He wondered how his adult self would have reacted to an immortal Tsuchigomori. He wondered how he would teach a bunch of snot-nosed kids. 

 

He wondered if he would have been happier without Nene in his life.

 

He fully believed he wouldn’t have been. That sort of point of view seemed impossible to possess. To exist without her felt like going against his wishes, his own desires that for once, he wanted to fulfill.

 

It was weird, to have that sort of power. To go against fate, but… in a worse way; a future teacher becomes a murderer of his own brother.

 

This time, this time, it could be different.

 

He could do this for a better cause.

 

Break the binds of destiny, rewrite the course of fate.

 

Save her life from an early death.

 

She wished for it. He had to grant it, didn't he? He'd have a way.

 

He would find a way, no matter what. 

 

So despite every splatter of blood, every stream of crimson, he would scour through the routes and search every inch of a possibility.

 

Even if… Even if she—

 

She died, again. 

 

He reversed the events.

 

Again, he’d try—

 

She died, again.

 

He reversed the events.

 

Somewhere down the line during another one of her deaths, her fading eyes gazed up at him, and she faintly called, “Hanako-kun?”

 

Hanako intertwined their fingers. “Yes?”

 

“Do you… care?”

 

The question seemed so random and almost insulting. “W-What? What do you mean?”

 

“I-I mean,” Nene smiled; a small, sad smile that constricted his heart, “I… I’m about to die. But… you’re not… crying… or anything…”

 

Hanako stared at her in surprise. Was he really indifferent, now? Did he come off as uncaring?

 

He shook his head, and felt the tears build up in his eyes. He wondered, How long has it been since I cried?

 

“Of course I care.” Hanako felt his voice break, slightly, “Everything that I’m doing… it’s all for you.”

 

Nene’s smile disappeared, and her eyebrows somewhat furrowed in concern. Her grip loosened, the strength in her body declining. “Don’t hurt yourself, Hanako-kun…”

 

Her time ran out. Hanako felt his tears streak down his face.

 

At some point, he wasn't entirely sure if he was doing this for her or for himself, but he was doing it.

 

He was doing it to save her. That's all that mattered.

 

The old apparition's look of pity made him somewhat vexed. What was he staring at him for?

 

Hanako nearly let out a snarl, "Why are you looking at me like that?"

 

Kako didn’t reply, as he stood there in all of his towering, dignified form and waited for the command.

 

Hanako was clutching onto the girl again. Dead, again. Bloody, again.

 

Again, again…

 

"Honorable No. 7…" Kako gripped his staff, "At this point, you are only replaying your worst memory."

 

"...This will not be a memory for long." Hanako caressed her peaceful face. "When I've succeeded, it will only be a cursed path never taken."

 

He pressed his hand in the pool of her blood. The warmth tingled his skin, encompassing his fingers, embracing his hold. 

 

He wanted to throw up.

 

"Do it now."

 

I changed it once

 


 

"Hanako-kun," Nene ignored the cleaning tools and trapped him by the wall, "I'm really starting to worry about you."

 

Hanako refused to respond, not-so subtly avoiding her eyes. She grabbed his hand in a comforting manner, wondering what was bothering the ghost boy. 

 

He relented in his stubborn attitude and turned his head to her. The way he gazed at her made her heart ache. There was pain storming in his eyes, and sorrow in the curve of his lips. He appeared as though he was suffering, but she couldn't discern from what; she felt like the issue couldn’t be resolved, but she wasn’t just going to do nothing. She didn’t want to leave him to bear the agony on his own. 

 

Unable to hold back her sympathy, she threw her arms around him and hugged him.

 

"It's okay, Hanako-kun." She whispered, "It's okay."

 

No, it’s not. I’m trying to save you.

 

He felt his soul chip, little by little.

 

I’m trying to save you—but I… It’s hard.

 

She was dead again. Same cause, of course. His new method didn't work.

 

As he held her close, he reflected on each moment that signified her importance to him. His strength persisted with each smile that she gave him. He tried to remember all the time he’s ever spent being with her.

 

But it was tainted, red and dull. Each smile was pushed away, and he found that more and more of his memories were being filled with scenes of her death.

 

Hanako trembled.

 

The fear of losing his memories of her was more frightening than he thought it'd be. Her being dead was horrid enough, but he couldn't bear to lack any memory of her actual life. It would be as though she never existed.

 

Tremors wracked his body, and the tears suddenly flowed.

 

What should I do? What can I do?

 

He looked up to the sky.

 

Is there anything… to do?

 

“Hanako-kun~?”

 

Hanako quickly wiped his tears, but that didn’t fly by Nene. She stalked over to him and perched the seat next to him, tilting her head curiously. “Hanako-kun, were you crying?”

 

“N-No.”

 

She poked him and leaned closer to him. “Are you lying to me?”

 

“N-No…”

 

“...Hanako-kun, you dummy!” Nene shook his shoulder, “I know you are! But why don’t you face me?”

 

He was scared. 

 

He was scared that if he looked at her, he would only see her death.

 

She softened her approach, and tenderly clutched his hand.

 

“Hanako-kun,” Nene quietly said, “look at me.”

 

With a deep breath, he turned his head to her.

 

She was… as pretty as she’s always been. Cute and short and radiant, with her radish legs and big ruby eyes.

 

“I’ve been worried about you.” She divulged, “You’ve been avoiding me, and I just want to know why.”

 

Hanako opened his mouth, but his voice was stuck in his throat. His lips trembled; he couldn’t tell her.

 

She glanced downward, feeling tears sting her eyes. “Did I do something? Do you want me to leave you alone, Hanako-kun—?”

 

“N-No!” his wide eyes captured her attention, as his hands grabbed hers in distress, “Don’t… Don’t leave me… please.”

 

His tears returned, dropping from his cheeks, plopping onto the ground.

 

Please.” His voice quivered, “I can do this. I can do this. I… I changed it once, Yashiro. S-So... I will change it again… I…”

 

He hiccuped. “I don’t know if I—”

 

Nene embraced him, interrupting his watery rambling. She held him close to her neck, and caressed his hair in a soothing manner. He sobbed, holding her close despite his shaky grasp. He was afraid that if he let go, he’d never get to hold her again, while she was still alive and breathing.

 

Nene didn’t know what face to make, but she continued to stroke his black locks. “It’s okay, Hanako-kun. It’s gonna be okay.”

 

She always said that. Always comforted him, always believed in him, always stuck by him, even when she didn’t know the entire truth of the situation.

 

Abruptly, she said, “Thank you, Hanako-kun.”

 

His breath hitched. 

 

“...For what?”

 

“Well,” she giggled lightly, “I don’t really know. But something is telling me to thank you. I can feel it.”

 

He relaxed in her hold, then burrowed his face deeper into the crook of her neck.

 

“Thank you, Hanako-kun,” Nene said with utmost sincerity, “Thank you.”

Chapter Text

Hanako noticed immediately that something wasn’t right about Nene’s attitude.

 

Her usual smile was replaced with a sullen frown. Her typical sparkly aura had dulled. Her eyes were dim; the buoyant gleam in her gaze was gone.

 

“Senpai? Is there something wrong?” Kou asked first. The trio was tending to their bathroom cleaning routine. It was just another ordinary day in a school full of spirits. There hadn't been any major events as of late, and their lives were moving somewhat normally (save for Hanako, of course).

 

Hanako hoped she’d respond truthfully, so then they could help her feel better and get rid of whatever was making her so down. Nene gave him a smile, “Just didn’t get enough sleep.”

 

Hanako tried to not let his disappointment show. She barely hid the truth behind her emotions, unless it was something serious, like when she first found out about his human self. He wondered if she found out something else about him, and that immediately made him freeze up.

 

"A-Are you sure?!" Kou looked on worriedly, "Does it have anything to do with us?"

 

"No, no." Nene waved her hand. Detecting no lies, Hanako mutely breathed a sigh of relief.

 

“Ah! Is that so...?” Kou wanted to persist, but he didn’t think she would like it very much, so he only patted her shoulder. “Please get some more rest.”

 

“Thank you, Kou-kun.” Nene barely looked at him. “I will.”

 

Hanako watched the two silently, unsure of what approach to take. He felt that his jokes right now would make the situation worse. Since he's rarely seen her like this, it was hard to think of an appropriate way to go about her mood without making it go further tumbling downhill. He couldn't think of anything in particular that occurred lately that would cause her sullen mood. He hadn't seen her confess and get rejected by anyone, and last he heard, her family and friends were perfectly fine.

 

So, what gives…?

 

When Nene left early, claiming to have a headache, Hanako and Kou were now by themselves and their skeptical thoughts. The spirit boy turned to the exorcist, “So you noticed Yashiro’s behavior, too?”

 

Kou nodded. “I wonder what’s bothering her.”

 

He suddenly whipped his head over to the apparition and swung his staff. “Did you do anything?!”

 

“Boy, I did nothing!” Hanako claimed defensively, “I don’t know what’s wrong with her, either!”

 

Kou crossed his arms. “Maybe we can cheer her up, somehow.”

 

The two of them looked up at the ceiling in thought, before pointing at each other in realization. They quickly dove into a fervent discussion, as their plans for tomorrow would surely solve the issue.

 

The next day, Nene arrived to class and went straight to her seat without looking up. It wasn't long before someone poked her shoulder. She recognized Aoi standing next to her, her eyes narrowed with concern. She looked down at her friend and inquired, “Nene-chan, are you okay?”

 

Nene said simply, “I’m fine, why?”

 

“Well…” Aoi smiled sheepishly as she pointed at all the balloons and confetti on her desk. “You completely ignored all of this.”

 

“Oh.” Nene stated flatly, before pondering, “Is this a prank?”

 

“I’m not sure, but it’s pretty fun!” Aoi tossed a balloon up in the air. The colorful decor attracted some of her classmates, increasing the noise level of the classroom. Akane glanced at Nene, but mentioned to Aoi, “This is wonderful, but not as wonderful as you, Aoi-chan!”

 

That caused Nene to observe the two with vacant eyes, as they laughed and played around with the balloons. She felt her heart constrict, and suddenly found herself wanting the comfort of…

 

There were many of her classmates throwing around the balloons, or gathering up the confetti, only to hurl it at each other. The boisterous laughter echoed in the area, their ecstatic spirits interacting with one another. It was somewhat of a bother to her, so Nene gazed back down to her desk. She held up her head with her hands, silent and still.

 

Aoi and Akane looked at each other worriedly, but decided not to say anything. The supernatural cursed mentally, Just what kind of stunts are we trying to pull, No. 7?!

 

Nene thought the weirdness of the day would fade after the strange occasion in the morning, but she was definitely wrong. 

 

Yako had visited her during a bathroom break, asking her if she wanted a makeover. Nene was, to say the least, absolutely shocked. A free makeover from a beautiful spirit? And especially a spirit that seemed to hate her guts and everyone else that came in contact with her that wasn't named Misaki?! 

 

When the girl asked for a reason, the apparition became angry, “I’m just trying to help you out! Don’t you want guys to look at you?!”

 

Instead of overreacting, Nene only laughed sadly as she rubbed the back of her head. “I-I mean, I guess…”

 

Yako growled and insisted, “If I give you a makeover, guys would be more focused on your face and not your ugly radish legs.”

 

The spirit expected the girl to start yelling or crying, but Nene gave a small smile as her gaze darted to the side. “That would be nice.”

 

Yako grimaced at the girl's obvious disinterest; Hanako, who had been watching from afar, also felt defeated. Nene left the bathroom without any makeover, and still a rain cloud above her head.

 

That didn’t work.

 

Tsuchigomori was the next to cause some bizarre things to happen.

 

His voice unexpectedly came up on the school’s PA system. Apparently, there was some school assembly at the auditorium. Nene was dubious about this whole debacle, but she didn't question it and filed behind her classmates. 

 

She took a seat among the sea of students awaiting in the grand, darkened room. They all observed as the curtains draw back to reveal the Student Council and some other volunteers as zany characters. They were dressed up in some wacky outfits, performing comical skits, ones without any prompt or reason. Just the fact that Teru, the Student Council President, was dressed up in an oversized, clowny outfit, was incredibly hilarious. The students were bawling with laughter.

 

Nene was softly giggling into her hand at the display. Hanako and Kou both grinned at that, but after the small show was over, she returned to her class with the same sad expression. 

 

"How can we help her??" Kou felt like tearing his hair out. "Why won't she tell us what's going on?!"

 

Hanako was mumbling almost hysterically to himself, "What are we missing? What are we missing??"

 

"Pfft," Mitsuba crossed his arms and shook his head, "fools."

 

"Excuse me?" Kou growled as he pulled on the spirit's collar. Mitsuba glared at him defiantly. "Obviously, what she needs is some quality time with the cutest ghost around on a good nature walk. And let go of me!!"

 

"How will that help her?!" Kou shook him to and fro. Hanako scowled at the other spirit for his suggestion, until he heard Tsukasa interject, "Maybe she needs to go on a run!!"

 

The three—actually, six of them (Sakura, Natsuhiko, and Mei were there, too)—turned their attention to Tsukasa. Kou repeated, unsure, "A run…?"

 

Tsukasa hopped to his feet. "Yeah!!"

 

Sakura nodded approvingly, "That's not as bad as I thought you'd suggest."

 

Out of nowhere, Tsukasa grinned disturbingly, fangs flashing and eyes sadistic. "I can help her run by chasing her down—"

 

"Alright, that's a time out for the runt." Natsuhiko stood up and dragged Tsukasa out of the room before Hanako or Kou decided to deliver punishment onto the spirit. Kou pinched his nose bridge, "Um, I guess we can try Mitsuba's idea."

 

"Yay~!" Mitsuba cheered. A hand was put on his shoulder, and the spirit found himself engulfed in the ominous stare of Hanako himself. 

 

He wielded his knife threateningly. "Don't get too comfortable, okay~?"

 

Mitsuba trembled, suddenly regretting his involvement. "O-O-Okay…"

 

"If that doesn't work," Mei offered, "we can always invite her for tea time with me and Nanamine-san."

 

Sakura nodded in agreement as the two girls sipped on their drinks. Hanako sighed, gradually feeling less optimistic about everyone's plans. "I guess."

 

"Alright, Mitsuba!" Kou patted the spirit's back with a bright beam, "You're up!!"

 

"R-Right!"

 

The chirping birds resounded throughout the courtyard. The rays of the sun shined down on the school, as a breeze cooled those below.

 

Mitsuba was soon situated outside the school during the lunch period. Nene had easily agreed to walk around with him, just as he expected her to. He smirked haughtily to himself as she gazed at the blossoming flowers and healthy, green trees. 

 

"So, Radish-senpai…" Mitsuba flinched when he remembered that she didn't like that nickname. He was supposed to be making her feel better, not worse! He whirled over to her to stop any tears, but she only looked at him with curious eyes. He stammered, "U-Uh, how are you?"

 

"I've been okay." Nene smiled, and suddenly Mitsuba understood what everyone was talking about. Her smile was quite unnerving, not because it was ugly or something, but it just felt forced. She asked gently, "How have you been, Mitsuba-kun?"

 

"Um, I've never been better!" Mitsuba flaunted automatically. Nene closed her eyes and hummed, "Is that so? Is everyone treating you okay?"

 

He felt something pierce his chest at the question. No one had asked him that before, and her doing so… it made him somewhat sad, but weirdly happy. He nodded, a genuine smile finding way to his face, "Yeah, Nanamine-senpai is really nice, and Natsuhiko-kun can be a real airhead, but…"

 

As the two of them spent the lunch hour walking, Mitsuba ended up using all of that time to talk about his new experiences. After the walk was over, he returned to the room, radiating joy.

 

"Mitsuba, how did it go?!" Kou asked as soon as he returned. Mitsuba hummed, "Ah, well—"

 

A dark figure loomed behind him, before a hand yanked on his hair. Mitsuba yelped as he met Hanako's eerie leer. 

 

"You were supposed to ask her about her feelings, not talk about your own."

 

Mitsuba teared up. "S-Sorry..."

 

"Oooh, Amane is angry~" Tsukasa giggled into his hands as he sat in the corner of the room. Hanako shot a glare toward his brother, before sighing, "Forget it. I'll take care of this myself."

 

"E-Eh?!" Kou shot up from his seat, "Don't do anything too rash!"

 

"I hope you know what you're doing, Honorable No. 7," Mei added from the sidelines. 

 

Hanako looked over at all the people in the room. It was so strange that they were all brought together because of their association and worry with Nene, but Hanako dismissed it. It would probably go back to normal after this was solved, so there was no benefit from getting used to it.

 

"Don't worry~" Hanako proclaimed as he walked away, "I'll figure it out."

 

After school, Hanako found Nene sitting on top of the roof, a place he himself usually went in times of distress. Her legs swayed in the air, as she viewed the vast sight of the school and below.

 

He placed his hands in his pockets and sang from behind her, "I found you~"

 

"Ah?" her head lifted up slightly. She uttered quietly, purposefully not looking at him, "Hanako-kun?"

 

Hanako ambled over to where she was sitting. "You know, everyone is wondering about what could be bothering you—"

 

His voice got stuck in his throat as he registered the tears running down her face. He immediately freaked out, "Y-Yashiro?! What's the matter?!"

 

"Oh…" Nene didn't move to wipe her tears, but lowered her head and gazed to the opposite side, "J-Just, um, not—"

 

Her voice cracked. "N-Not feeling so good, lately..."

 

He asked without thinking, "Why?!"

 

She pursed her lips and shrugged, as if a heavy weight was resting on her shoulders. "Um... Well... I don't know..."

 

She sniffed, and squeezed her eyes shut as she let her head hang down. The tears were now plopping onto her skirt. He could hear the small whimpers escaping her lips, and watched how she clutched her clothes with shaky fists.

 

Before he could stop to process, Hanako reacted and moved his body. He reached out slowly, then hugged her head to his chest. She didn't seem to mind it and continued crying. It appeared that she started sobbing even more after being brought into the embrace. He ran a comforting hand over her back, and pressed his lips into her head. 

 

He wanted to ask her so many things. 

 

Why was she crying?

 

What happened?

 

Why was she sad in the first place?

 

How could he fix it?

 

But the girl bawling in his chest didn't seem to want to talk at the moment. She just needed someone to hold her in her weakest state.

 

He could do that.

 

Hanako secured his arms around her, and kept caressing her in a soothing manner. He whispered nothing but sweet and comforting words, enduring all the sorrow she unleashed upon him.

 

"There, there…" Hanako threaded his fingers through her hair, "I'm here for you."

 

He pressed a small kiss to her head; it was automatic, he didn't think much about it. She sniffed and hugged him closer, burying her tears into his shirt. He smiled sympathetically at her quivering form.

 

"I'm here for you."

Chapter Text

Hi, my name is Yashiro Nene! 

 

I’m the heroine of this story. Since I recently turned sixteen, I can finally start my own magical adventure! I’m looking to become a beautiful Archer or a pretty Priest or an attractive Archmage, so I’ve come to the City of Orsus as all the typical sixteen-year-olds do when they’re ready to begin their own mystical lives! With this, I can also begin my search for a handsome and charming hero to call my own as I start my own thrilling adventure!!

 

Nene hoisted her backpack onto her shoulders, and bowed to the man behind the counter. “Thank you for the food!”

 

“It was my pleasure.” He waved at her, “Good luck on your Class Selection!”

 

“Thank you!” she yelled as she walked away, aiming for the center of the city.

 

People don’t usually know what they’re going to be until they’re evaluated by the Orb. It assesses all of your stats and hidden traits and abilities, before producing a Profile card for you to choose your class and skills on.

 

It’s incredibly exciting!

 

Nene finally arrived at the magnificent building, and she gazed upon its glorious beauty. It was so huge, it nearly blocked out the blinding sun. She felt her heart pick up its pace, before she squealed and rushed up to the door. There were various people walking in and out of the doors, heading up or down the stairs, respectively. Distracted by some of the interesting characters she was passing by, she ended up bumping into someone by accident.

 

She stumbled backward, nearly about to plummet down the steps, but a hand firmly gripped her wrist. She balanced herself on her feet, and her eyes met with wide, inquisitive ones.

 

"You must be new to Orsus!"

 

"U-Um… yes!" she questioned, "How could you tell?"

 

He shrugged. "Lucky guess, maybe? I'm pretty good at reading people."

 

"I see…" Nene bowed, "Anyway, thank you for catching me."

 

"No problem~" he smiled at her, and by the looks of it, he appeared to be young, but she couldn't tell what age. "Be more careful! Bye!"

 

He continued down the steps, passing by her faster than she could respond. She shook herself out of her stupor, and continued on her way.

 

Entering the building, she only saw a sea of young adults ambling in the gigantic room. There were numerous halls that were guarded by soldiers, and seemed to only let in certain people. Nene gawked at the beautiful and ornate depictures on the ceiling and walls, and at the sheer size of the place in general. She clapped her hands on her cheeks and willed herself to focus. Striding forward, she filed in line at the reception desk.

 

"Next!"

 

After what seemed like forever, she finally received a small ticket with her name and number. Nene hummed to herself as she sat against the wall, awaiting her turn. There were a myriad of people in the room, and it made her somewhat self-conscious, even if everyone was probably at the same Level.

 

“Do you see that girl?”

 

“Where?”

 

“Right there.”

 

Nene pretended not to hear the two young guys whispering about her, but she felt her heart race. Were they gaining some sort of romantic attraction toward her?!

 

“She’s got massive legs!!”

 

“S-Shut up!” the boy hissed, “But yeah, they look like radishes…”

 

R-Radishes…?

 

Nene drew her knees close to her chest and wrapped her arms around her legs, feeling her mind scream in anxiety. She rested her chin in her knees and felt like crying right then and there.

 

"This is kinda scary, huh?"

 

She turned to the question directed at her. It was a very pretty girl, probably her age, with blueish-purple hair that was tied in a way that made two loops in her hair. She was smiling at her; a friendly smile that soothed her nervousness and consoled her sadness.

 

Nene mustered up a smile. "A-Ah, it is!"

 

The other girl brought her knees to her chest, as well. "My name is Akane Aoi, but you can just call me Aoi."

 

She leaned against the wall, revealing another person next to her. Pointing at the boy sitting beside her, she explained, "And this is my childhood friend, who is currently busy at the moment protecting me from any harm. His name is Aoi Akane, but he usually let's people call him Akane, just so they don't get confused."

 

"That… is confusing…" Nene said, making her and the girl laugh. She was happy to be making friends so quickly, and her fear of being alone quickly faded. "My name is Yashiro Nene, but you can call me Nene!"

 

"Okay, Nene-chan!" Aoi scooted closer to her and whispered excitedly, "Seeing all these people is so weird, but it's fun!"

 

Nene nodded in agreement. "I think there are some high-leveled people here, too!"

 

"You think so?"

 

"It seems like it!" Nene described with her hands, "They had big suits of armor and mighty swords and huge staffs and everything!"

 

"Wow! Amazing…" Aoi placed her hand on her cheek. "I wonder if any of the Seven are here."

 

"The Seven?"

 

"Hmm?" Aoi looked at her curiously, "You don't know, Nene-chan?"

 

"I, um, suppose not…"

 

"Well," the girl clapped her hands together, "the Seven, or the Seven Mysteries of the Land, are a group of people said to possess extremely high-powered or peculiar special abilities, blessed by the Gods and marked with their respective numbers!"

 

"Really??"

 

Aoi nodded. "Since they're so popular, they rarely reveal their identities. But there's lots of stories floating around about their amazing feats and skills!"

 

"C-Can you tell me?" Nene was now very intrigued, as she gazed at her newfound friend with sparkling eyes. Aoi pointed a finger in the air, "Of course! I know about all of them. No. 1 is said to have the ability to manipulate time, earning the title the 'Archmage of Time.' Sometimes, people feel the ghost of its effects, like really strong déjà vu!"

 

"W-Wow…"

 

"No. 2 is said to be able to transform from human to beast, and that she has really good fighting prowess with a peculiar dual-bladed weapon! They call her 'Misaki the Berserker,' or Misaki for short, after it was spread that she mauled a spiritual man named Misaki at the top of what is now known as The Misaki Stairs."

 

"Misaki, Misaki…" Nene was a bit woozy. "So many mentions of Misaki…"

 

Aoi resumed, "No. 3 is somewhat debated. Although, the majority of people are saying that the real No. 3 died and was replaced by a newer person. However, no one has really seen him or her yet. People have just been speculating that he or she has crazy bird powers!"

 

"Crazy bird powers?" Nene imagined a person flying in the sky and aggressively caw-ing at everyone. Aoi giggled, "As for No. 4, she's said to be a really beautiful but cold-hearted Summoner. She's famous for her magic that can bring anything she draws to life!"

 

"That sounds incredible!" Nene gasped. Aoi was nearing the end of her explanations, "No. 5 is known to be a Warlock with an avid thirst for knowledge. He apparently has a hidden library somewhere in the land that only a few people have ever entered and exited alive. His magic allows him to transform, but people aren't entirely sure as to what he transforms into."

 

"I wonder if he transforms into a hot guy…" Nene muttered. Aoi chuckled in her hand, causing the other girl to cringe. "A-Ah! Did you hear me?!"

 

"It's okay, I understand." Aoi patted her shoulder comfortingly. Nene felt her face burn from embarrassment. "P-Please continue…"

 

"Right!" Aoi held up six fingers, "No. 6 is probably the most mysterious out of all of them. No one really knows what he does, but some say that he has an affinity for death, so they speculate that he's a Lich or a Necromancer."

 

"S-Scary…"

 

"And last but definitely not least," Aoi held up five fingers, then two fingers against her palm, "No. 7, the leader of the Seven! She's probably the most famous of them all. Her legend has been going on for more than a hundred years, and so people think she found an elixir of immortality! Though, almost no one has ever seen her. They said that she's an Archmage of all Archmages, that she has incredible magical abilities, and that she can even fight hand-to-hand combat!"

 

"S-She sounds extraordinarily powerful…"

 

"I know!" Aoi placed her hands on her cheeks. "I don't know what I'd do if I met even one of them!"

 

She turned to Akane, who appeared startled. "What about you, Akane-kun? Would you want to meet one of the Seven?"

 

The boy stared at her, before pushing his glasses up. "I don't think so. They probably aren't all that great, anyway."

 

Aoi frowned at that, but he held her hand and said, "But no one can compare to you, regardless! I love you, Aoi-chan! Let’s be together!!"

 

Nene looked surprised at the sudden confession, but Aoi only smiled, "Two points. Sorry, try again!"

 

Turning away from his dejected expression, Aoi continued talking to Nene as if nothing happened.

 

"I wonder what class I'll get…"

 

"Me too!" Nene disclosed enthusiastically, proceeding to ignore whatever just happened, "I'm hoping I'll get Priest or Archmage!"

 

There was a cluster of shuffling noises heard above them. They turned their heads upward to view the cards above the hallways switching into new names. Aoi's name popped up in one of them.

 

"That's me!" 

 

Aoi hopped to her feet, Akane following after her. There were a myriad of people exiting and entering the halls due to the new group of requested people. Aoi waved at Nene, "I'll see you after I'm done!"

 

"Bye!" Nene waved back, "Good luck! I hope you get what you want!"

 

"Thank you!" she beamed, then hurried to her designation, Akane dutifully accompanying her. Nene was left with her thoughts, her sweaty forehead, and her pounding heart.

 

After about ten minutes or so, the shuffling resounded through the buildings, and people began exiting and entering the halls once more. Nene caught sight of her friend's excited bouncing, "Nene-chan! Look!" 

 

The girl bounded up to her, showing off her brand new Profile card.

 

"What did you get?!" Nene inquired as she leaned forward to read the card. Inscribed on it beside the class title was the word "Priest."

 

"Wow…" Nene gaped, "Congratulations."

 

"Thanks! I'm super excited." Aoi glanced up and mentioned, "Nene-chan, I think you're up."

 

"E-Eh?!" Nene whirled her head to see her name among the cards. "Ah, I am! I have to hurry!"

 

"Good luck!"

 

She started forward, not without turning and smiling gratefully, "Thank you!!"

 

Nene showed her ticket to the guards, who then allowed her inside. The halls gradually became much quieter, as she could now hear her own anxious thoughts. Nene pushed through a pair of ornate doors, arriving upon a few people on a wide, open balcony. The view beheld the enormous and awe-inspiring Orb, its shine illuminating the expansive room. From the distance, she could recognize other open balconies, and the light of the orb concentrating upon distinct figures.

 

Nene was stunned by its grandeur. "This is… amazing…" 

 

"Isn't it?"

 

"E-Eek!" Nene jolted at the sudden voice beside her. An old woman said apologetically, "I didn't mean to frighten you."

 

"N-No, it's okay." 

 

"We'll begin your Class Selection soon. Come, stand on this pedestal."

 

Nene walked over to stand on the raised platform. She turned to the people behind her, "L-Like this?"

 

"That's perfect." The woman remarked, "Now, don't move. It'll be a bit of a rush, but you’ll get used to it."

 

"Okay!" Nene clenched her fists and stood up tall.

 

This is it!

 

"Are you ready?"

 

"Yes!"

 

Within just a few seconds, a cord of light traveled from the Orb to her body, wrapping itself around her. She nearly fell over from the surge, but she held her ground. The light flowed around her, and she felt like each part of her being was being inspected and assessed.

 

Soon, panels of light started popping up around her. There were some words engraved in them, but she couldn't read it clearly. She heard the people behind her muttering as they went around the pedestal and evaluated the readings.

 

When it was over, Nene felt the light leave her body as her heart continued racing.

 

What did I get…?

 

"You can come down now."

 

"R-Right!" Nene stepped down and walked to the people behind the control panel. The old woman handed her a card, "This is yours."

 

It was her Profile card.

 

Nene wanted to jump and squeal in excitement, but she restrained herself as she turned over the card. It was time to see what her stats were, her current abilities, and which classes she could become!

 


 

Aoi expected to find her friend radiating with joy, but when Nene came back, she only emitted a depressing aura.

 

"A-Are you okay?!"

 

"Look…" Nene stated sadly and showed her Profile card. 

 

On it, her class read as "Crusader."

 

"C…Crusader?" Aoi eyed the card, then glanced up at her dejected friend. She scratched her cheek, "W-Well, that's not so bad!"

 

"It's not?!" Nene cried, "I wanted to be a glorious long-ranged fighter or support that stayed in the back and looked beautiful! But I have to be up front in heavy armor, defending against deadly monsters!!"

 

"N-Nene-chan…"

 

"This is the worst!" she wiped away her tears. Aoi wanted to cheer her up in some way, so she continued skimming through her card.

 

"Ah, it shows here that you have a really high defense stat! And your Blessed status is super rare!"

 

Nene sniffed, "R-Really…?" 

 

"Yeah!" Aoi tugged on her hand, "Why don't we go shopping? We can buy new outfits and items so we can start adventuring!"

 

Nene was quiet for a moment. Then—

 

"...Okay."

 

"Yay!" Aoi grabbed Akane's hand, too, who had been standing there silently. She proceeded to drag the both of them out of the building and into the bustling streets.

 

On their way to the clothing shop, Aoi asked, "So, where do you want to go in the land, Nene-chan?"

 

"Um," Nene thought to herself, "there's actually a lot I want to see! I'd go all over if I could, but one of the places I'd love to go to is Aecor Town. I've always wanted to taste the seafood and see the mermaids."

 

"Really??" Aoi looked surprised, much to Nene's confusion. The Priestess explained, "Aecor Town is usually for Adventurers who have already reached Level 20. Since it's on the coast, there's a lot of dangerous things like pirates, sirens, sea monsters, and things of that nature!"

 

At Nene's apprehensive look, Aoi waved her hands, "I-I didn't say this to scare you! I just think you could prepare more before heading there so that you won't get hurt. You could even party up with some higher-level people."

 

"I-I guess you're right… But I'd rather stay in the city a for a while longer, then, before I travel."

 

Aoi looked at her quizzically. “There’s a lot you don’t know about, huh?”

 

“I’m just learning as I go along!” Nene glanced to the side, before she asked, "So, um, where are you heading?"

 

"Akane-kun and I will be venturing to the Capital."

 

"The Capital?" Nene put a hand on her chin, "Isn't that really far? Aren't you scared?"

 

"Hmm, no~! As long as Akane-kun is with me, then I feel safe." Aoi said with a smile, not noticing Akane's heavily enamored expression. "He has some important work to attend to there."

 

"Huh?" Nene leaned over to speak to the young man, "What business do you have in the Capital, Akane-kun?"

 

He perked up. "Well, I happen to have an advanced skill set that allowed me to join the Council a year back."

 

"Y-You're part of the Council?!"

 

"Yep!" Aoi beamed, "He's the vice president to President Minamoto Teru in the Young Adventurer Department, so anyone twenty and younger."

 

"N-No way…" Nene stammered, “How old are you, Akane-kun?!”

 

“I’m seventeen.”

 

“A-Amazing…”

 

“Isn't it~?” Aoi said with a hand on her cheek, prompting Akane to blush with a love-struck expression. Nene laughed quietly at that; they were quite cute, but she was slightly envious that her friend had someone so devoted to her. She buried that envy, as it wasn’t worth sacrificing her new friendship. Nevertheless, there was a tiny part of her that longed for someone to admire her the way Akane admired Aoi.

 

Upon arrival at the shop, the two girls frolicked through the glamorous Adventurer clothes, leaving Akane in the dust. More like, he awkwardly stood at the doorway, but still in support of his beloved Aoi’s desire for shopping. There were silk robes, tight pants, frilly skirts, cool headgear, and all the wonderful things that young Adventurer girls like them always dreamed about!

 

"This is so pretty~" Aoi commented. Nene nodded in agreement as she felt the cloth, "It looks like it'll be easy to move around in, too!"

 

She flipped over the price tag, and felt her soul ascend out of her body from the numbers that flung itself at her.

 

Nene stopped touching the material, puzzling Aoi.

 

"What's wrong?"

 

"I feel like if I held it any longer, I might dirty it with my fingers."

 

"That expensive, huh?" Aoi frowned, "I guess it makes sense. These clothes look like they're suited for the more experienced and richer Adventurers. Let's go look at the novice section."

 

The two of them strolled to the clothing area closer to the wall. The disparity between the sections was quite clear.

 

The design of the clothes appeared to be much simpler, opting less for flashy patterns and more for necessity and functionality. Nene and Aoi were much more appreciative of the prices, however.

 

"I like this one." Aoi took out a simple indigo dress with a gold trim and a brown belt around the waist. "I'm gonna go try it on."

 

She went to the dressing room in a hurry, then came out as soon as possible. The new appearance of her friend had caused some eyes—mostly male ones—to capture her aesthetic. It's long sleeves didn't appear to hinder any movement, and with a brisk twirl, it was shown that the skirt flows quite nicely. 

 

"Wow," Nene seemed like she was always impressed when it came to her friend, "that looks great!"

 

"You think so?” Aoi wheeled around to face Akane, “What do you think?”

 

Although he was on top of a pile of unconscious males, he gave her a thumbs up and a sparkling smile. “You look beautiful as always, Aoi-chan.”

 

W-When did he beat all those guys up?? Nene thought to herself in bewilderment, He didn’t even break sweat...

 

“Do you have anything picked out, Nene-chan?”

 

“Oh, um…” She pulled out a light cream-colored dress with tight dark gray sleeves, a bright red ribbon just under the bust, and a bright red trim around the edges. The first skirt formed a separate cloth in front of the leg area to reveal the underskirt. The underskirt was a dark gray, a cool contrast to the warm colors of the rest of the cloth. Aoi’s eyes sparkled, “That’s going to go so nicely with your body armor!”

 

Nene sighed, “Right, I have to wear body armor over this.”

 

“Don’t be so negative about this, Nene-chan.” Aoi grabbed her hands, surprising her. “You’ll be the prettiest Crusader ever!”

 

Nene flushed a bright pink. “Y-You’re just saying that!!”

 

“No way! It’s true.”

 

“Aoi-chan~” Nene whined, making her friend giggle. The two of them headed to the counter with their new clothes in hand, then bought the items without a hitch. Well, besides Aoi having to fight off Akane from buying the clothes for her, everything went smoothly. The two of them switched to their new clothes, embracing the feeling of freshness against their skin. Nene couldn’t help but enjoy herself, “This does feel nice~”

 

“See? Perfect fit.” Aoi hummed contently. The three of them were now on their way to the armory, intent on buying starter weapons and armor. Against her prior pessimistic thoughts, she began to feel more excited in her new garments; it was really starting to dawn on her that she’d be adventuring soon.

 

Upon seeing all the beautiful staffs and bows and light chest plates, Nene quickly remembered she had to be scanning over the section for Crusaders. Her mood quickly depressed once more, making Aoi fret, “Ah, hey, like I said! Being a Crusader won’t be all that bad. You’ll look amazing in your new wear.”

 

Aoi picked out a steel armor set, complete with tall, guarded boots. The set looked heavy with how Aoi struggled to keep it up for her to see, but when Nene carried it for herself, it wasn’t actually that difficult to manage. Her friend gaped, “Do you work out, Nene-chan?”

 

Nene blushed, embarrassed, “I just did a lot of labor at home.”

 

“Wow~”

 

The set wasn’t that ugly, either. There were pretty, ornate designs carved into the edges, and the color shined so nicely against the light. Nene felt herself engrossed by its aesthetic, before she shook her head and reminded herself that this wasn’t what she wanted to be!

 

But…

 

She didn’t mind buying this.

 

The two girls exited the armory, Akane in tow, tossing compliments left and right over Aoi’s new garbs and her beautiful golden staff. Nene ran her hands over the chest plate, and moved her arms around to test the flexibility. Albeit slightly uncomfortable since she wasn’t used to wearing armor, it didn’t hinder her movements at all. Her shoulder and leg guards weren’t too bulky, and her boots felt nice to walk in. She felt like she could withstand anything.

 

Aoi was beaming at her. “You look so wonderful~”

 

“Aoi-chan…” Nene wanted to deny her claim once again, but she stopped herself and glanced up at her friend, “t-thank you.”

 

“Of course~!” she tugged on Nene’s hand, and wrapped her hand around Akane’s elbow, “Now let’s finish this shopping journey with a stop to the apothecary!”

 

Nene felt her sourness dissipating, before a full-fledged smile stretched across her face. She nodded firmly, and paced herself beside her excited friend.

 


 

“It’s been amazing meeting you.” Nene bowed deeply. The three of them were saying their farewells at the gate of the town. “You’ve really helped me.”

 

“It’s no problem, Nene-chan!” Aoi waved her hand dismissively, “That’s what friends are for, right?”

 

Nene stared at her in surprise, before humming in agreement. “R-Right!”

 

“And if you ever wanna talk, just send me a message through the postal! Since Akane-kun likes to write to me, I’m pretty used to sending and receiving mail. The birds are pretty fast!”

 

“I got it.” Nene smiled at her. “I hope I’ll see you around.”

 

“Same to you.” The two girls shared a warm hug, before parting. Nene bowed at Akane, as well, “And I hope I’ll see you too, Akane-kun.”

 

“Likewise.” Akane spared a smile at her, then he and Aoi turned to the outside world and began their departure. Aoi waved as the two of them inched farther and farther away, “Goodbye!”

 

“Bye!!” Nene yelled back, watching the couple disappear beyond the horizon. She felt the loneliness settle around her, noting the silence that crept up after the two were gone. Her hands found way to her cheeks, and she brought herself back into an eager state. “I need to go on missions so I can survive and travel!!”

 

By the law of the kingdom, all young Adventurers were allowed at most thirty days to live for free at an inn. They would use that time to go on quests and earn money so that they could live on their own. If not, they’d be kicked into the streets, and would have to find other ways of employment to make a living, or join a guild. Nene shuddered; she really didn’t want to be homeless or be tied down to one place. She wanted to explore the world and make a lot of friends and experience a lot of things.

 

Nene spent the night at a local inn, feeling her mind rack with enthusiasm. She imagined all kinds of scenarios on her adventures, mostly ones where a handsome, tall young man would save her from danger, or notice her beautiful features and court her with flowers and chocolate. She wondered how Aoi and Akane were doing and if they made it to the Capital safely, before eventually falling asleep soundly.

 

The next day, she donned her new clothes and armor, and looked at herself in the mirror. She wasn’t too skilled with using a sword—a greatsword, especially—and decided to use a kite shield instead to fend off enemies. The shield was basic, decorated with simple designs near the edges. Nene secured it on her back with a strap that ran diagonally down her chest. As a finishing touch, she tied up her hair, allowing two long locks to frame her face, and put her two classic black clips on either side of her head.

 

“Wow…” she muttered, gazing at her reflection, “I really look like a Crusader.”

 

She appeared less feminine and felt more like a warrior, which made her somewhat grimace, but she held her chin up high. Grabbing her satchel of potions and other necessities, she raised her fist to the ceiling and cheered.

 

“Let’s go on a mission!”

 

The first mission she chose from the Central Mission Board was easy: clear out the Slimoths from the fields outside of Orsus. They were like pests for the local farmers, and were overall a sight for sore eyes, so clearing them was usually needed. Nene grinned to herself as she stood tall with her hands on her hips. Overseeing the field full of Slimoths, she cracked her knuckles and hyped herself up for the challenge.

 

Nene held her shield in her arm as she eyed the large slime creature. It had no face, or eyes, or nose… or any defining features, for that matter. It was just a sentient, gelatinous, being—both translucent and brightly colored. She tapped it with her shield, and it only jiggled from the contact, moving slowly as if nothing happened. Nene pondered to herself momentarily, Will I even level up from this?

 

She proceeded to lightly shove the creature away from its original position, and found no issue in doing so. Nene’s face lit up, the thought of leveling up now vanishing, I can get rid of them without actually killing them!

 

It took a few hours, but she managed to push all the looming Slimoths from the open field. Nene wiped from the sweat from her brow and chuckled triumphantly to herself, despite the remnants of slime drooping on her clothes and shield. After turning in the mission flyer for her reward, she took home the small bag of coins and whistled happily all the way to the inn. A hot bath would be lovely, right about now.

 

“I-I’m telling you!” she heard a young man say, “I saw her with my own eyes!”

 

“And I’m telling you that I don’t believe you!” someone else replied, “There’s no way No. 7 would be around these parts. It’s the city for coming-of-age Adventurers, for crying out loud. Nearly everyone here is a novice, and everything is peaceful because the general is strictly cautious.”

 

“But I saw her hat as she was leaving the Orb! The Golden Insignia was on it!”

 

Nene felt herself gawk slightly. Her parents had told her before that the Golden Insignia was only given to those that had been honored by the Capital; the King himself handed it to only the most deserving. Since there were so few with a Golden Insignia, they were usually required to wear it to bear the honor that was bestowed upon them in respect of the mark.

 

“That doesn’t mean that it was No. 7.” The person responded, “I heard No. 7 is the opposite of honorable. She’s super sly and mischievous!”

 

“You’re hearing the wrong rumors, you schmuck.”

 

“I think you are, you donkey!”

 

As they descended into an argument, Nene continued on her way to the inn. She tapped on her chin and stared up at the large, glowing moon. What were the chances that one of the Seven was in the City of Orsus? She didn’t think it was very likely, since the other person was right: the city was usually difficult to attack, and there’d be no reason to do so. Disregarding the claim, she hurried on her route.

 

The next day, Nene found that the quest she had taken up before had returned onto the Central Mission Board. She felt a sweat break onto her forehead.

 

I-I thought I already took care of this…

 

Upon arrival to the open fields, she was astonished to find that the Slimoths were now roaming the fields once more. Nene cried out in alarm, “T-They’re back?!”

 

She tugged on her two locks. “I don’t wanna kill them… but I can’t push them out of the fields everyday!!”

 

Actually, maybe she could. That would be a sure way to keep earning money. But what if the person got tired of posting the same issue every day instead of the usual every month? And banned her from taking up their quests?! And refused to pay her for her hard labor?!

 

Nene gulped. 

 

I-I have to kill them…

 

What kind of Adventurer would she be if she couldn’t take care of a bunch of Slimoths? A groan escaped her lips, and the choice was heavily debated in her brain.

 

Looking up at her predicament, her eyes noticed something peculiar. There was a black witch hat sticking out from a nearby mound. Curiously, she prowled up the mound and peered over the top. The hat was covering someone’s face, and the person seemed to be sleeping; their chest rising and falling in a rhythmic pattern. Analyzing their body, the mystery person appeared to be somewhat short in stature, sporting male clothes and lacking feminine curves. Something clicked in Nene’s brain, like a sense of familiarity.

 

Carefully, she plucked the hat off of the person’s face, and revealed... a boy’s peaceful snoozing face. There was a bizarre white piece of paper on his cheek that didn’t look like a bandage, and had the characters meaning seal on it.

 

I know him! Nene’s eyes lit with recognition, He caught me before I fell off the stairs!

 

His eyelids twitched from the sudden light, before they drew up, unveiling his wide amber eyes. They focused on her immediately, making her stomach flutter from surprise.

 

The two stared at each other for a few moments.

 

Her face burned from the shame at being caught, “I-I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to—I was just—”

 

His sudden giggle interrupted her fervent explanation. She furrowed her eyebrows, “What’s so funny?”

 

“Nothing~” his eyes twinkled with amusement, “Just your reaction.” 

 

E-Eh??

 

He rose to his feet, brushing the grass off of his gorgeous black cape and patting down his hair. She mentally noted that he was about an inch or so shorter than her, and his face was quite young-looking. His clothes appeared to be made of luxurious cloth, as the fabric was smooth and shiny like a velvet cloud of red and gold highlights. There was a wooden staff strapped to his back, most of it hidden by his cape. He held his hand out, “May I have that back, please~?”

 

“H-Huh?” Nene looked at him in confusion, before realizing that she was still in possession of his hat. She became flustered, “Oh, ah, sorry! Here you go!”

 

He fixed his hat back onto his head with a satisfied smirk. “There we go~”

 

She caught the gleam of the golden object tied to the front of his hat. Her mouth went dry, “I-Is that… a Golden Insignia?”

 

He smirked, “Yep!”

 

“No way!” Nene gazed at him with a mix of awe, fear, and intrigue. “Who are you?”

 

He tilted his head, as if he was perturbed by her reaction, then bowed in a greeting. “My name is Yugi Amane. Just an ordinary Archmage at your service.”

 

“Ordinary…” Nene felt her eye twitch as the Golden Insignia sparkled. His youthful appearance implied that he was probably younger than sixteen, which meant he was probably advanced in his skills. She declared skeptically, “For some reason, I don’t really believe you.”

 

“Ah, is that so?” Amane grinned, unbothered by her blatant distrust. He pulled out his Profile card for her to examine. “See~?”

 

The card read Yugi Amane, Lvl. 3, Class: Archmage, along with a bunch of basic stats that came with being a magic-user. She held her hand up to her mouth, “Oh, you were right… Um, sorry! But how did you get a Golden Insignia??"

 

He held a finger up to his lips, mirth dancing in his eyes. "The world may never know~"

 

W-What is with this boy?!

 

Amane pouted at her incredulous expression, almost childishly. "I've already given you all the info I can, but you still don't believe me?"

 

"I-I do!" Somewhat… Nene thought, then held her hands up defensively, "Sorry…"

 

“Hmm~” he pocketed the Profile card, “You apologize quite a lot.”

 

"Well…" Nene felt an apology on the tip of her tongue, before she puffed her cheeks, "I don't know what else to say!"

 

He gave her a look. "You could introduce yourself."

 

"Oh—duh!" Nene wanted to smack herself in the face, "My name is Yashiro Nene, and I’m a Level 1 Crusader. It's nice to meet you!"

 

They shook hands, oddly cordial despite the circumstances. She asked, "What are you doing napping here?"

 

"The fields are nice for napping." Amane shrugged, "You should try it. But anyway, what brings you here?"

 

Nene frowned as she gestured to the Slimoths all around the field. "I need to clear these out… again."

 

"Again?"

 

She nodded hesitantly. "I tried to free up the fields by pushing them away, but they just ended up coming back."

 

Amane blinked, before chuckling. "Well, yeah. They wouldn't just stay back because you pushed them off. Why don't you just get rid of them by destroying them?"

 

Nene fiddled with her hands. "I-It’d be mean..."

 

He stared at her, probably in his own state of disbelief. "Are you sure you wanna be an Adventurer?"

 

Nene nodded vehemently. "Y-Yes!!"

 

He motioned to one of the Slimoths. "Then go ahead and take out that one."

 

She turned around and looked over to which one he was pointing at. After confirming the target, she slinked over to the Slimoth, as if the slightest sound would scare it off. Taking out her shield, she looked over at the Archmage for support. He quietly shouted, "Don't you have a greatsword?!"

 

"N...No….?"

 

He was staring at her again with the same look of blankness. She scowled and ignored his judgmental leer, before nudging the Slimoth with her shield. The blob jiggled in place.

 

"I can do this. I can do this." Nene took a deep breath, and threw herself forward. "I can do this!"

 

A second later, all of her intended force sent her flying onto her behind. She yelped and groaned, rubbing it gingerly as she got up. How was she supposed to fight this creature without a sharp weapon?

 

"It seems to me that you really didn't suit yourself for fighting." Amane said beside her, making her jolt. "I know you're a Crusader, but even Crusaders use greatswords."

 

She grumbled, “I know that…”

 

“Don’t you wanna level up?”

 

“Y-Yes…” Leveling up was the only way to ensure her growth as an Adventurer and that she would be able to handle more and more dangerous situations. He looked at her, then looked up at the Slimoths. “You know, at this rate, you won’t be earning much money. Do you have enough to buy a greatsword?”

 

Nene shook her head. She got onto her feet, and looked at the Slimoth head-on. He gazed at her in interest, “What are you doing?”

 

“I’m gonna try again!” Nene charged forward at the giant mass, before she was hurled back by her own force. “Ow ow ow…”

 

She got up again, repeating the process over and over. It came to a point where she was just expending her energy for no good reason. A hand stopped her from continuing, holding her shoulder firmly. Amane tilted his head at her, only curiosity on his face.

 

“You’re not really getting anywhere.”

 

Nene’s face scrunched up. “I-I’m just doing what I can…”

 

He shook his head with a click of his tongue. “Really, why are you an Adventurer if you don’t wanna even kill a few Monsters?”

 

Nene stared at him with weary eyes, before dropping her gaze to her feet. “I-I’ve never seen a Monster before…”

 

Amane looked at her in surprise. “Really?”

 

She nodded as her stance slackened. “I’ve grown up not really seeing the world. My parents and I lived in one of the safest places in the land, and so I’ve only ever really heard stories about the adventures people have. The only things I’ve ever experienced were labor and cooking and cleaning and… yeah...”

 

She gazed up at the sky. “I wanted to see the world for myself, so I decided to become an Adventurer. There’s so much I want to do…”

 

Amane was staring at her, all the while. Nene blushed, “S-Sorry, I didn’t mean to dump this on you!”

 

He smiled, friendly and understanding, “I see… Well, then…”

 

He leaned forward, making her stumble back. “Would you like my help?”

 

“H-Huh…?”

 

“I can help you clear these out, so you can get some EXP and the money.” Amane stood upright, “I don’t think you know this, but when Slimoths feel enough aggression, they become hostile. I’m not sure if you can handle them once you attack them.”

 

“E-Eh?!” She did not know that. Nene inquired, “W-Wait, then what do you want in return?”

 

He smirked, “I’ll let you know after. Do we have a deal?”

 

Amane held his hand out for her to shake. Although there were a million red flags screaming at her that this may be a bad idea, she honestly didn’t sense anything malicious from him. He appeared sincere about helping her out. Since she was totally ignorant about the world, she may as well take all the help she could get.

 

“O-Okay.” She took his hand, and gave him a firm shake. Amane beamed, “Great! Now, let’s get down to business.”

 

He pointed at the Slimoth. “I can finish these guys off in one slice from my shortsword since they’ve got incredibly low defense, but once they’re aggressive, they can pack a punch. That’s when I’ll need you to block the hit.”

 

“G-Got it!”

 

“Okay~!” he gave her a thumbs up, before darting toward the Slimoth. Nene’s eyes widened, He’s fast!

 

Amane twisted his hips, and kicked the Slimoth right in its center. The blob quivered, before its color shifted into a more menacing, dark hue. Nene was amazed at the stunt, but swiftly, she wondered, Wait, why is he using his body to attack? From his clothes and his staff… isn’t he an Archmage?

 

As he landed on the grass, he shouted, “Now!”

 

“Y-Yes!” Nene yanked herself out of her trance and bolted over in front of him, placing her shield firmly in front. The gelatinous whip that shot out of the Slimoth struck her shield, causing her heels to dig into the dirt. The sound sent a ringing in her ear, but she shook off the shock and kept a secure position. Amane grinned from behind her, “Way to go! Those radish legs are super sturdy!!”

 

She felt a vein pop as she glared at him ominously. "What did you say…?"

 

"Hehe, nothing~!"

 

He jumped upward, his shortsword gleaming through the air like a falling star, before slicing straight down the Slimoth. The Monster disintegrated into tiny, glittery orbs that were soon absorbed by the two. Nene felt the rush course through her as her skin glowed momentarily, “W-What was that?!”

 

“That’s what happens when you kill a Monster. They give out EXP that power you up.” He threw his thumb over his shoulder at the copious amount of Slimoths, to which she blanched; he raised his other fist to the air. “Now, let’s keep cleaning up!”

 

She pumped her fist weakly, half as excited as he was. It was going to be a long, long day.

 

By the time night fell, the duo was finally done with all of the Slimoths. When she checked her Profile card, she discovered that her Level had ascended from one to three! Her cheering was accompanied by Amane’s delighted laughter.

 

Nene was extra slimy and covered in a lot of dirt and grass, but a proud smile was on her face as she presented the flyer to the requester. As she happily carried the somewhat larger than her previous small bag of coins, Amane hummed to gain her attention. The two were alone along the walls of the buildings, the streets empty as most were now tucked in for the night.

 

Nene turned to him. “Hmm? Yes?” 

 

He pouted, “Don’t I get anything?”

 

“Eh?! Oh, um, here, I’ll split—”

 

“No, not that.”

 

“Um…” Nene placed her finger on her chin, “Oh, sorry!”

 

She bowed deeply. “Thank you so much for helping me!”

 

Amane placed a hand on his cheek. “That’s much appreciated, too, but it’s not what I meant.”

 

“Eh?” Nene gazed at him, puzzled, “Then, what do you mean?”

 

“You really forgot?” he held out his hand as if that would remind her, “We shook on a deal.”

 

“O-Oh… right.” Nene stopped to put away her bag of coins into her satchel, “So, what did you want?”

 

A hand placed itself beside her on the wall, effectively trapping her. In her shock, she staggered backward, her back hitting the building. Since Amane was shorter than her, he was looking up at her from under the rim of his hat with a devious smirk and half-lidded eyes. Nene felt the heat rush to her head.

 

W-W-What is happening?! Am I being sexually assaulted by a twelve-year-old?!

 

“I know what I want~”

 

She let out a small squeal, and waved her hands wildly, “W-Wait!! Aren’t you too young?!”

 

He looked somewhat offended at that. “I’m only a year younger than you.”

 

“You are? You’re fifteen?!" She analyzed him in bewilderment, temporarily forgetting her embarrassment. “I was right… you are advanced! Most Adventurers don’t start until their sixteen.”

 

Amane almost snorted at her response. “Well, yeah. Not by much, though~”

 

He quickly changed the topic back to their current situation. “So, you know what I want~?”

 

“U-Uh…” Nene felt the heat circulate her head again. “N-No…?”

 

He leaned over to whisper in her ear, his breath hot against her skin. 

 

“I… want…”

 

She pushed him back. “W-W-Wait!!”

 

“What~?!” he whined. 

 

“Y-You’re not my type!!” she crossed her arms in front of her in an ‘X’ formation. “And I just met you today!! A-And in the streets—that’s not very chivalrous!! Why not court me first—?!”

 

He placed a finger on her lips, disrupting her rambling. He frowned and told her indignantly, “I was only going to ask you... if you knew how to make donuts.”

 

E…Ehhhhh??

 

He pulled away his hand. “Do you?”

 

“Y-Yes…?”

 

“Great~!” Amane clapped his hands together. “Could you make some for me~?”

 

“Um… okay…”

 

“Yay~!”

 

Nene gazed at him, astounded, “T-That’s it?”

 

“That’s it. I was really craving some homemade donuts, so thanks a bunch!!” he stepped away from her, his hands innocently behind his back, “What dirty thoughts were you thinking of, Yashiro~?

 

“N-Nothing!!” She hit him lightly, causing him to chuckle and block her feeble attacks.

 

“Well, anyway~” Amane held her wrist, adoring the teary-eyed embarrassment of the girl. “Why don’t we meet up tomorrow so you can give me the donuts? At the city’s center, where the Orb is.” 

 

Although she still felt mortified, she nodded and agreed to the plan. He left her there, as her face bloomed under the moonlight. Nene spent the rest of her night buying ingredients, cooking donuts, and ignoring her thoughts swarming with magnetic amber eyes.

 

The next day, Nene dressed herself in her regular clothes and strapped on her shield, as she promised herself that she would make the delivery quick so that she could continue taking up quests. As appreciative as she was, she wasn't going to be travelling anywhere and meeting any hot guys if she had a fifteen-year-old boy attached to her hip. She nodded to herself as she wrapped the donuts up in a quaint basket and tied the plastic together with a red ribbon.

 

"Perfect~!" Nene sang to herself as she stepped down to the lobby. The innkeeper asked her immediately, "Where are you heading off to?"

 

She halted in her tracks. "To the Orb."

 

"Ah, good, good." He twisted his fuzzy mustache, "There's been an emergency announcement this morning to keep to the center and to stay away from the walls of the city."

 

"Really?" Nene didn't recall hearing any announcement, but she did sleep in this morning after working all day and staying up all night. The innkeeper nodded, "Yes, yes, so just keep safe, yes?"

 

"I will!"

 

Nene exited the inn with the basket in her hands. She disregarded the odd air she felt from the innkeeper's message and focused on the donuts she made.

 

"I wonder how he'll react…"

 

There was a spring in her step as she passed by the lively citizens, not noticing that the streets were somewhat more crowded than usual. "Will he be happy with the donuts? I hope he'll like them~"

 

She halted in her skips to force herself out of her reverie. Bringing a hand to her mouth, she blushed and declared, "N-Not that it's super important for him to like them!!"

 

"Hey, did you hear??" she heard a feminine voice urgently inquire. Nene didn't mean to eavesdrop, but...

 

"What?"

 

"I heard that No. 7 was around the edges of the city!!"

 

"No way!!"

 

"What do you think is happening?”

 

“I don’t know, but I hope I get to meet her!”

 

“Me too!”

 

Nene gazed at them, momentarily worried about the impending situation. People keep saying that No. 7 was in Orsus, but was that a good thing, or a bad thing—?

 

BOOM!

 

...What…?

 

Nene’s vision was filled with a surge of fleeing citizens—a rolling sea of people escaping to the Orb. There was a strong wind blowing toward them from the perimeter of the city, and a bright light emitting from over the roofs of the buildings. Upon closer inspection it looked something like…

 

Fire… and smoke…?

 

Nene managed to stay on her feet, but with the rush of people, she wasn’t sure how to assess the current situation at hand. Above the panicked screaming and crying of the mob, she heard a tiny girl’s piercing wail.

 

Someone needs help…!

 

Nene pushed past the crowd, in the reverse direction of where they were running. In the distance, she recognized the sound of magic being cast, and stronger gusts of winds blowing through the city.

 

BOOM!

 

Another one?!

 

It happened somewhere else, but she couldn’t wonder about it much with the girl’s continuous crying. Nene finally parted from the crowd, and was able to track down the girl’s location from her crying alone.

 

The streets were void of people, deserted and left with all sorts of merchandise strewn across the ground. The crying had stopped, probably from fear of being by oneself or from being caught by whatever enemy may be attacking the city. Since they were somewhere close to the perimeter, Nene felt incredibly apprehensive, but she couldn’t just leave a little girl by herself.

 

“Hey!” Nene cupped her hand around her mouth. “Where are you?!”

 

She stopped where she was, and listened closely for a response. 

 

“...H-Here.”

 

Nene bolted over to the stand, and found the little girl hiding under the counter. Nene asked worriedly, “What are you doing here? Where are your parents?”

 

The girl had fat tears rolling off her cheeks. “M-Mama left to grab something from home. I-I was waiting for her to come back, but…”

 

She kept sobbing; the sound of her melancholy broke Nene’s heart even more. The Crusader caressed her hair comfortingly. “It’s okay. She’s probably at the Orb. I can help you get there.”

 

Her sniffling faded, and Nene handed her the basket. “Could you hold this for me?”

 

“O-Okay.” The little girl held the basket in her hands as Nene picked her up and carried her in her arms. She gasped, “Onee-san, you’re strong!”

 

“Thank you.” Nene smiled at her as she started trekking toward the center. It was eerie how remarkably quiet it had gotten in the streets, but she tried not to worry about it, or else it might frighten the girl.

 

“Who are these for?”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“The donuts!”

 

“Oh!” Nene explained, “I made those for my… uh… my friend! He has a black cape and a black witch hat with a Golden Insignia on it.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Yep!” something whistled through the sky, and she felt the ground tremor beneath her feet. Nene continued talking, “We were supposed to meet at the Orb so I could give it to him.”

 

The little girl was staring at the donuts in amazement, now distracted from the current problem at hand. Nene almost sighed in relief.

 

Almost.

 

A presence loomed behind the two. 

 

Nene felt it for only a single moment, and it was enough to freeze her in her place. She whirled around and put the girl down, then took out her shield.

 

“O-Onee-san?”

 

“Run.”

 

Nene felt fear clawing at her heart, and her desire to escape was pleading for her to leave, but she couldn’t if there was still someone else in danger.

 

“Run, now!

 

The little girl stumbled back, now crying once again, before she started on her way toward the Orb. She held the basket close to her chest and prayed for the Crusader to stay safe as she completed the remainder of the route.

 

“Well, well, well,” a woman appeared from the shadows, her striking black hair reaching down to her knees, “you’re quite attentive, huh~?”

 

There were ominous markings wrapped around her arms, as she donned a revealing crimson dress. Two creatures were presently beside her, awaiting her next call of action. Nene couldn’t stop trembling, and it made the woman laugh, “You act so brave, but you’re so scared~! How cute.”

 

Her keen eyes scrutinized her form, as if her Profile card was displayed in front of her being. It might very well be, as the woman cooed, “Isn’t that something~? You have such a rare Blessed status...”

 

Her red lips pulled back to reveal her sharp teeth. “I’ll play with you and tenderize you first, then make meal out of you~”

 

Nene squeaked.

 


 

An Archmage of sorts stood at the top of the impressive platform connected to the imposing building of the Orb. Not far from him were the tremendous amount of stairs that led up to the building, filled with Adventurers and denizens alike. There were Orsus soldiers guiding their path, ensuring that they wouldn’t stray off and cause a ruckus. The confused and hyper chatter filled the air, and he could vaguely discern some people mentioning his title as they caught sight of him.

 

“Honorable No. 7,” the Orsus General arrived and knelt at his feet, followed by his soldiers, “it seems that the attack on the East and South Gates have been completely subdued as a result of your foresight.”

 

“My foresight~?” The boy shook his head. “Don’t be silly; I have no such thing. This was just a message I delivered from No. 5.”

 

“Regardless, many lives have been rescued as a majority of the population evacuated safely to the Orb.” 

 

The boy whistled. “That’s good to hear. And any signs of the Lower Demon General?”

 

“No, sir.”

 

He narrowed his eyes as they scanned across the city. “Interesting…”

 

“A-Ana? Ana!!”

 

“Mama!!”

 

Ah, the beautiful sound of a child and parent reuniting under a terribly frightening situation. He smiled to himself, but the unexpected soon occurred.

 

There was a small pitter-patter of feet rapidly gaining on him. A couple of soldiers were too stunned to snatch the little girl, which allowed her to tug on his cape. The mother was stopped by the other soldiers near the stairs, her hand outstretched past their shoulders.

 

“Ana! What are you doing?! Come back!”

 

“O-Onee-san!”

 

Amane looked down at the little girl in surprise. The Orsus General fretted, “L-Little girl, what do you think you are—?!”

 

“What is it?” the Archmage interrupted, as he eyed the basket of donuts in the girls hands. Instantly, something unsettling entered his gut.

 

“Onii-san…? Not an Onee-san…” she shook her head and went back to the mission at hand, presenting the basket to him with teary eyes, “O-Onee-san was going to give this to you!”

 

Nene’s face flashed in his mind, in all her smiling grace. Amane felt his blood run cold.

 

Why wasn’t she at the Orb?!

 

“W-What…?”

 

“She helped me!” she began to cry, “She made me leave her, but before I did, I saw some scary lady come out of nowhere…”

 

The Orsus General suggested, “Perhaps the Lower Demon General?”

 

Amane considered this possibility, then knelt down to the little girl’s level, “Please calm down. Where did you last see her?”

 

“U-Um…” she pointed over to the East Gate. “O-Over there somewhere.”

 

He smiled at her. “Thank you. You’ve just returned the help she gave you.”

 

As he rose to his feet, he told her, “Keep those donuts safe for me, okay? I’ll come back for them later.”

 

“Honorable No. 7?” the Orsus General began, but Amane saluted to him. “I’ll take care of this. Just watch over everyone.”

 

He waved his staff in front of him. “Hakujoudai.

 

The two white wisps circulating him seemed to jolt with life, as they revolved around his body, particularly his legs, more vivaciously. With a running start, he leaped off of the platform and soared through the air. The general couldn’t believe his eyes, and the little girl was clapping excitedly, “Go, Onii-san!!”

 

As Amane overlooked the city for any peculiar figures, Nene was in the midst of her encounter with the Lower Demon General.

 

“Come out, come out, wherever you are~”

 

The Crusader was pressing herself against the statue, holding her mouth to prevent any sounds from escaping. Her shield had dropped to the ground some distance away from her during her escape. The woman’s vicious jade snake was slithering across the ground, and her menacing golden lion was prowling the roofs of the buildings.

 

“I’ll find you, girl.” She flexed her fingers; sharp nails clacking against one another, “You can’t hide for long~”

 

Blood was streaming down from the cut on Nene’s cheek, but luckily, much of her armor and her shield had blocked the attacks on her body. There was sweat dripping from her forehead, both from exhaustion and trepidation. Her heart pounded in her ears.

 

“There you are!” 

 

Nene had just a split second, but she evaded the swipe of her elongated claws. It sliced straight through the statue, completely obliterating it. Just as she was about to run again, something thick and scaly secured around her leg, halting her getaway. The woman clenched her fist, and suddenly the ground was quickly approaching Nene’s face.

 

Her jaw hit the earth, and pain seared her face.

 

Her heavy breathing resounded through the air—the blood on her cheek smeared. She tried to crawl away, but the woman only guffawed at her attempts. 

 

Nene exhaled angrily, before inhaling as much air as she could.

 

Help!!” she screamed as loudly as she could, “Someone, help!!

 

“Shut up, you stupid girl!” the woman hauled her to where she was standing, and the lion pounced atop her chest, pressing the wind out of her lungs. The chest plate was the only thing saving her from being crushed, but it was getting harder and harder to breathe. The woman gripped her ponytail and yanked her head upward. “I’ve hidden my presence, so there’s no one that can save you.”

 

She opened her maw, revealing rows of jagged, sharp teeth, surrounding an alarming forked tongue.

 

Nene squealed at the sight, paling at the thought of her imminent death. She squeezed her eyes shut, expecting agony to soon bombard her brain, but the only thing she felt was a strong blast of wind. The weight on her chest and the pressure around her leg disappeared, allowing her to breathe once more.

 

"It's a good thing you screamed."

 

A warm hand placed itself on her shoulder, lifting her onto her knees.

 

“Are you okay, Yashiro?”

 

Nene opened her eyes, only to meet the wide amber eyes of Yugi Amane.

 

He was looking at her with concern. She smiled gratefully, “I-I’m fine…”

 

Amane’s tenseness broke as he smiled, too. However, her face twisted with anxiety, and she quickly uttered, “But what are you doing here?! Now both of us might get killed!”

 

He chuckled. “Don’t worry.”

 

The woman hoisted herself up from the debris, large rocks falling off of her back like it was nothing. She hissed at him, “You insolent brat! Don’t you know it’s rude to interrupt a woman’s meal?!”

 

Nene froze up with fear, but Amane appeared composed. She looked up at the boy, “Y-Yugi-kun, this isn’t good… She’s really strong, and she’s giving off some horrible aura…”

 

“Yashiro—”

 

“P-Please!” tears brimmed her eyes, “You can’t fight her… you’ll die!”

 

He watched her, as if surveying her expression.

 

“Hey, don’t ignore me!!” The woman shrieked wrathfully as she shot her arm forward, prompting the lion and the snake to charge at the couple.

 

“It’s okay.” Amane grinned, “I’ll protect you, Yashiro~!”

 

“H-Huh—?”

 

Abruptly, the two were now floating in the air. Nene yelped and pressed herself closer to the boy, shocked at being so high up. Amane chuckled as he tightened his grasp on her, looping his free hand under her knees.

 

They landed on a roof nearby. The woman spat blood on the ground, “You know Flight? Who are you, brat?”

 

“Shouldn’t you say your name first~?” Amane replied cheekily. The woman’s eye twitched, before she laughed with a gasping breath. “I am one of the Lower Demon Generals—Lyvana the Chimera!

 

She beckoned her lion and her snake to return to her body, as they suddenly sunk into her skin, morphing into her flesh. Nene and Amane cringed at the sight, with her face going white, “W-What is happening…?”

 

“Transformation…” Amane set Nene down gently, “Wait here, it could get messy.”

 

The woman’s face bubbled and ripped, until her entire womanly physique was replaced with a gigantic, repulsive creature. The black lion was ferocious and terrifying, and the jade snake coming from its tail was more like a daunting viper. The two jaws were open, saliva dripping from their mouths in hunger for food. The atmosphere suddenly turned cold and steely, as she emitted the extent of her full strength.

 

“You wanted to know me so badly?” the chimera goaded, “Well, here I am! Now, tell me, boy. Who are you?!”

 

Nene watched as Amane stepped forward, his cape billowing in the wind, as the sun's rays were beating down on his back. He smirked and held his staff aside, his other finger slowly peeling off the white paper on his cheek, enough to show her all that she needed to see. Nene couldn’t see what was on his face, but whatever it was, it was enough to petrify the monster.

 

“N-No way…” the chimera actually trembled, “That mark...”

 

“That’s right~” Amane’s amber eyes glowed in the shade of his hat. He smiled cheekily and dangerously, “You ran into the wrong person, Lyvana-san~”

 

She gritted her teeth, before bolting toward the Archmage. “D-Don’t make a fool out of me!!”

 

Before she could close the distance, Amane twirled his staff and whispered some incantations under his breath, summoning a magic circle in front of him. Balls of fire began to shoot out from the runes, making the chimera swerve left and right.

 

“You missed!”

 

Amane was still grinning while he finished the last of the phrases. He thrust up his staff, evoking a spell circle to summon beneath her feet. “Up you go!”

 

“W-What—” she was suddenly rising off of the ground, “What the hell?!”

 

She was thrown into the sky as a narrow tornado engulfed her. Its powerful winds ripped at her fur and made her muscles into jelly, but she couldn’t do anything to stop it. Nene gaped at the incredible use of magic, and at the fact he had used both wind and fire.

 

“And now back down!”

 

Amane whirled his staff, feeling the magic course through his veins, before it burst from the swirl of his staff. He swung it downward, causing the tornado to slam her body into the rubble. The sound of broken bones rung throughout the air, while the chimera choked on her own blood.

 

He vanished from in front of the Crusader and appeared next to the chimera. Without wasting another moment, he used his shortsword to slice off the Lower Demon General’s head. Her body twitched and convulsed, until it stopped moving completely.

 

It was a grotesque sight, with all the blood pouring out from the inside. Her body wasn’t fading to twinkling orbs like how Monsters would. Nene held her hands to her mouth, “W-Why won’t it disappear?”

 

“She was a Demon.” Amane answered as he reappeared next to her. She yelped and fell onto her behind. He said solemnly, “All Demons were once humans. They don’t dissolve like Monsters do.”

 

With a last spell, he cast a blazing inferno upon her body, the flames eating at the flesh until it was nothing but a silhouette. The paper on his cheek was no longer there, and she could finally see the mark.

 

Seven.

 

Nene couldn’t believe what she was seeing.

 

“Y-You’re one of… the Seven?” 

 

Amane looked at her, almost sadly, “Yes.”

 

He looked away, toward the destruction of the buildings and the gaping hole in the wall. “It’s too bad. I was having a lot of fun just… being normal… you know?”

 

She furrowed her eyebrows at his tone, but quickly stood up and walked over to him. “Y-Yugi-kun, are you hurt anywhere??”

 

He gazed at her in surprise, before laughing, “You’re asking me if I’m hurt? Is your head okay?”

 

She looked highly offended at that question. He waved his hands defensively, “Sorry, but I don’t really expect anyone to ask one of the Seven if they’re hurt.”

 

The amusement disappeared from his eyes as he cupped her cheek, making her flinch. He brushed his thumb over the cut on her face.

 

“Besides…” he said in a low voice, “you’re hurt, Yashiro.”

 

“I-I’m fine, Yugi-kun…”

 

“Amane.”

 

“Eh?”

 

A gentle sensation tingled her cheek, and she could barely see the small spell circle sealing the injury. He told her, “You can call me Amane.”

 

“Oh… okay…” she brushed his fingers, “Amane-kun…”

 

He almost shivered from her voice, but managed to nod in approval. Her soft eyes gazed upon his face. “So you’re… No. 7 of the Seven Mysteries of the Land?”

 

He nodded again, but chuckled afterward. “What a mouthful. I’d really just prefer if you would call me Amane.”

 

“I was gonna do that anyway,” she stuck her tongue at him. He grinned, and hoisted her up into his arms, making her squeak. “Alright, let’s head to the Orb. There are donuts waiting for me! Hakujoudai!

 

“D-Donuts?!” Nene exclaimed as they began to soar through the sky. He hummed, “Yep! Does a little girl ring any bells?”

 

Her expression perked up. “S-She managed to hold them…”

 

“And she was the one who told me where you were.” Amane beamed as she fastened her clutches on him. She nearly missed his next words from the wind rushing past her ears. 

 

“I’m glad…”

 

Her heart thumped erratically in her chest.

 

Once they reached the building of the Orb, the population of citizens were applauding and chanting his name. “Hanako! Hanako! Hanako!”

 

Hanako…? Nene thought, before remembering, That’s right! Aoi-chan said that was his name to the public.

 

He landed onto the platform, smiling politely and waving, though making sure to hide most of his face with his hat. The general walked up to him, so Amane let her stand on her own feet.

 

“Honorable No. 7, the Lower Demon General—?”

 

Amane cut him off, "Slain.”

 

“Ah, thank goodness.” The Orsus General said with a sigh, “Thank you, Honorable No. 7.”

 

“No problem~” Amane gestured to Nene, “Can you get a Priest to check her over for any injuries?”

 

“Yes, right away!” the general signaled one of his soldiers to fetch a high-leveled Priest. Amane released her from his hold completely, “I have to attend to some things, Yashiro. Just typical royal duties."

 

Her interest in him peaked; she was quite curious with… just about everything. His character in general wasn't as intimidating as she imagined. Although he was immature sometimes and a real tease, he occasionally revealed a boyishly cute side; he was fun and comforting to be around. He helped her out, listened to her… and even saved her life. 

 

Are the Seven really just… regular people?

 

"I guess this is goodbye." He rubbed the back of his neck, ignoring the inquisitive stares and shouts from everyone else around them. "I'll be leaving Orsus as soon as possible. There are more things I have to do."

 

She gazed at him with an indistinguishable expression on her face, then looked fixedly at her feet. He silently sighed, predicting the loss of a potential friend.

 

"Um…" Nene voiced hesitantly, just as Amane was about to walk away.

 

"Hmm?"

 

"Can we…" Nene gulped, "I mean, can I… come with you?"

 

He was astounded. "Come with me?" 

 

"Yeah!" she blushed at her bold request, "Can I travel with you?"

 

Amane reddened slightly. "B-But why?"

 

"W-Well, I always wanted to travel, but after hearing more about how scary the world was, I had gotten too afraid to actually begin. Although, after meeting you, I felt like I could go anywhere," she twirled a lock of hair, feeling a bit embarrassed over this disclosure, "and I thought that it'd be more fun to travel with a friend."

 

"Friend…" Amane repeated softly, then cleared his throat. "Ah, I see. Can I let you know my answer tomorrow?"

 

"Eh?" Nene appeared puzzled, but agreed, nevertheless. He added, "Great~ then meet me at the West Gate at noon." 

 

"Honorable No. 7," the general urged, "I apologize, but we really must get going."

 

"I know~" He sent her a brief smile, before going on his way with the Orsus General. The last thing he saw was a Priest approaching her to tend to her injuries.

 

His smile dropped. There was a reason why he traveled alone.

 

It was easier to hide his identity, and easier to cover his tracks. He didn't have enough fingers on his hands to count the amount of enemies that sought for his power. If he had a companion, there were way too many things that could go awry. 

 

But…

 

What he wanted… his wish…

 

Could he indulge in his own desires, for once?

 

To have a friend, to travel with and to enjoy things with, was he allowed to have that?

 

"Amane!!"

 

Said boy opened his eyes, his amber orbs meeting similar ones.

 

"You need to stop napping everywhere!"

 

"I don't nap everywhere…" Amane rolled on his side and yawned, "I nap on the field."

 

"The field is too big! And there's so many of them!!"

 

"That sucks~"

 

"Amane~!" The other boy tackled him, his whining insistent. "What if we get separated?!"

 

Amane rolled his eyes. "That won't happen."

 

"How do you know??"

 

"Because," Amane sat up, grinning at the boy sitting on his legs, "we're brothers, Tsukasa. We stick together—"

 

"Honorable No. 7?"

 

Amane jolted from the sudden call of his title. He looked over at the general, but the man merely nodded his head toward his feet.

 

The Archmage brought his gaze down, recognizing the familiar little girl in front of him.

 

"I'm glad you're safe, Onii-san!" she thrust her hands out, practically shoving the basket in his arms. "Thank you for all your hard work!!"

 

He stared at her, incredulous, until the mother suddenly appeared and began bowing apologetically. 

 

"I'm so sorry for the trouble we've caused you, Honorable No. 7! Thank you for the help!"

 

Amane blinked, slightly awkward. "I-It wasn't me that saved her, though. The one you're looking for is outside."

  

"Onee-san?!"

 

The little girl abruptly ran out toward the exit; her mother dutifully in pursuit. Amane giggled, feeling a pang in his heart at the familiarity of the situation.

 

The general beside him beckoned for his attention again, causing the two to begin their trek toward their destination. Amane unraveled the ribbon around the plastic, and relished the delightful aroma that wafted upward from within.

 

He could feel the Orsus General side-eyeing him, but it didn't matter. Grabbing a donut, he bit into it all-too excitedly. The texture was perfect, and the taste made him want to hum in satisfaction.

 

To travel with someone who could cook this good… well, he definitely didn't mind.

 


 

The rest of the day was spent cleaning up the wreckage so that reconstruction could begin. They broke down the rubble into tinier pieces so that it could be disposed of quickly. The Orsus forces and novice Adventurers both assisted in defending the city, in which many benefited from slaying so many Monsters. With the help of Hanako, they were able to take care of two Demon Admirals and one Lower Demon General.

 

Thanks to Hanako's early arrival, the city was able to properly defend itself from the expected attack. The only problem was: why did the Demon Lord decide to attack the city where Adventurers were born? The answer was simple, really: to prevent the selection of young Adventurers in order to put a dent in the King's numbers.

 

At least, that’s how most people justified it.

 

It was a blatant attack, one that was entirely unsuccessful. The Demon Lord and his army hadn't gotten any advantages from it. So, why did he have such a bad feeling about it all?

 

Amane didn't have long to mull over these thoughts, as he quickly recognized Nene's figure near the gate. He picked up his pace, ignoring his giddiness upon seeing her. Luckily, there was no one else around, as much of the population was still somewhat paranoid of another attack, and decided to give it another day or so.

 

"Yashiro~"

 

"Eh? Oh, Amane-kun!"

 

Nene clasped her hands together in front of her dress, a bashful expression finding way to her face. She had her armor on again, and had picked up her shield yesterday after finding it abandoned. As for him, the only difference was that there was a new white paper hiding the mark on his cheek.

 

"Have you, um, thought of your answer?"

 

"Yep!" he grabbed her hands, bringing a blush onto her cheeks. Intertwining their fingers together, he proclaimed, "I would be delighted if you would accompany me in my travels, Yashiro~"

 

Her ruby eyes sparkled brightly. "R-Really??"

 

"Really~!"

 

"T-Thank you very much!" she grinned at him, totally filled with unbridled glee. He nodded, "Yep, I have just one condition!"

 

"Oh?" she gazed at him with curiosity, "What is it?"

 

"You have to listen to what I tell you, no matter what."

 

"Eh?!" she gawked, "B-But why?!"

 

He stated simply, "For your own good."

 

"B-But…"

 

"Now, now, Yashiro." He wagged an admonishing finger, "We may be friends, but you want to travel with one of the Seven. This is a big deal, you know? You're setting yourself up for all sorts of peril."

 

At her disheartened look, he squeezed her hand soothingly. "Don't worry. I'll do everything I can to ensure your safety. But I won't force you to put yourself in danger just for me."

 

Nene blinked owlishly at him, weighing her choices. She could stay in the City of Orsus, train and level up for several months, then finally feel prepared to embark on a journey all by herself. Or she could leave right now with good company, see places right away that she's only ever dreamt of, despite the adversaries that may come their way.

 

She knew her choice, of course. She's always wanted an adventure.

 

"Okay." She nodded in determination, reaffirming her decision, "I want to be with you, Amane-kun!"

 

Amane recoiled at her daring declaration, swiftly melting his gaze into a flirtatious one. "Wow, Yashiro, I didn't know you liked me like that—"

 

The elbow to his neck sent his voice into a sputtering mess. She glared down at him, and he held his hands up in surrender.

 

Massaging his throat, he gasped, "O-Okay, go pack your things a-and meet me back here in thirty minutes."

 

"O-Only thirty?!"

 

He grinned, "Remember the condition! Now, go!"

 

"Y-Yes!"

 

She fled with haste back to the inn. 

 

Just as thirty minutes finished, she made it back to the gate with her travel backpack, panting all the while. Amane nodded, “Very good, Yashiro~!”

 

“Y-You’re cruel…”

 

“There’s no time to waste when it comes to adventuring!” he lifted his fist in an attempt to arouse her excitement. “Let’s get moving!”

 

He pivoted on his heel, and began walking toward the outside world. She took a step forward and halted, disbelieving that she was on the brink of leaving, that she was actually at the starting line of her real adventure. Amane’s back stood out to her, among the green forests and the blue sky. 

 

Noticing her hesitation, he turned around for a second, inquiring, “Yashiro, are you coming?”

 

Nene broke into a smile and hurried next to him. “Yes!”

 

While they were travelling farther and farther away from Orsus, she saw the city gradually shrinking in size. The breeze was wonderful, combating the warmth radiating from the sun. Nene cherished the wind threading through her hair, and the light that sent cozy kisses onto her skin.

 

He was staring at her. “You really haven’t gotten out often, huh?”

 

“Ah, n-no…” Nene scratched her cheek. “Like I said, my hometown was extremely safe! It may have been because it's located in the middle of a lake, that’s inside of an extinct volcano, that’s inside of another lake!”

 

He blinked. “Is that safe, or just highly isolated?”

 

“I-It it what it is, Amane-kun!” She frowned, “Anyway, what about you?”

 

“What about me?”

 

“Do you have a hometown?” she inquired, leaning closer toward him, “What was it like??”

 

He looked surprised at her interest, before he rolled his eyes up to the sky in thought. “Well, no, not exactly. I’ve been travelling ever since I was a kid.”

 

“Really? How did you stay safe?”

 

He grinned, simply answering, “I had a good teacher.”

 

She had a feeling he wasn’t going to expand on the topic, so she switched to a new one, “Your card says you’re supposed to be Level 5, but... are you really when you’ve been travelling for that long, and know so many powerful spells?”

 

Amane feigned shyness. “You pay so much attention to me, Yashiro~ It’s sort of embarrassing~” 

 

“S-Shush!” she yelped, “I’m just interested, is all!!”

 

“Well, I guess I’ll let you in on a little secret~” he brought out his Profile card, the same words still apparent. However, with a single tap of his magic-infused finger, it altered entirely. His stats, once average, were now unbelievably high. His Level was no longer five, but instead…

 

Level 99?? That’s insane!!

 

“Yashiro, you’re gonna swallow a fly.”

 

She forced her mouth shut, and continued to stare at him incredulously. “But you’re almost at the Level cap!”

 

“It helps when you’re constantly travelling the world and defeating high-leveled Monsters,” he replied with a shrug. She tilted her head, “Have you always been No. 7?”

 

That question seemed to shift the entire mood. He gazed off into the distance with a tone she couldn’t quite identify. “No.”

 

She felt like she was prying into something sensitive. Her hand rested on his shoulder. “Amane-kun…?”

 

“Hmm?” he grinned at her, but it was less… genuine. “Anyway, the same event that led me to being No. 7 also got me the Golden Insignia.”

 

“Is that so…?” Nene held her hands behind her back, “You know, Amane-kun…”

 

“Yes?”

 

“I’m sort of jealous.”

 

His eyebrows drew together in confusion. “Jealous? Jealous of what?”

 

“You’re so young, but you’ve already achieved so much for yourself. Even if it wasn’t always bright and sunny, you still experienced so much.” She laughed sheepishly, “All I’ve ever done was work hard for my family in a town nobody knows about.”

 

“Yashiro…” Amane uttered, his solemn voice seizing her attention, “There’s nothing to be jealous about.”

 

He darted his focus elsewhere. “I’d never want you to go through what I went through.”

 

“A-Amane-kun…”

 

He could feel her adamant gaze on the back of his head, so he refused to look at her. The silence that consumed the two was overwhelming, and she felt her shoulders tense up. She relented, and asked instead, “Where are we heading?”

 

“I’m glad you asked~!” he immediately sang, shocking her slightly. “We’re going to stop by a small rest area on the way to a wonderful spot called Umbra Village!”

 

“A small rest area?”

 

“Yep, yep!” Amane described, “They have all the necessities and awesome hot springs~”

 

“H-Hot springs!!” Nene almost swooned. She’s always wanted to go to one of them, since they usually infused the water with medicinal herbs to soothe the sore muscles of Adventurers. He nodded, before looking at her slyly, “There’s some mixed baths~ maybe we could take a visit—”

 

He was soon on the ground, gingerly rubbing the throbbing bump on his head. She marched on, not sparing him a glance.

 

“Y-Yashiro, you’re so violent…”

 

“You’re just too perverted!!”

 

“But, Yashiro~”

 

He floated over to her, shocking her with his sudden vertical advantage. He draped his arms over her neck, nuzzling her head.

 

“H-Hey…!” Nene blushed, “Cut it out!”

 

“I can’t help it~” he rested his chin on her head. She frowned, “Aren’t you wasting Mana by using Flight like this?”

 

“You saw my Mana pool already, Yashiro~” he hummed, “This will barely nick my numbers.”

 

She poked his cheek. “You’re pretty casual about your spell usage.”

 

“Maybe~”

 

Nene leaned over, seeing the two white wisps that revolved around him. “Why do you need those to help you with Flight?”

 

“My hakujoudai?

 

“Um, yes?”

 

“Think of them as my familiars.” He clarified, “They assist me in my spell casting and reduce my Mana usage.”

 

“Amazing…”

 

Nene looked out into the open world, quite enjoying the sights. She couldn’t believe that she was taking such a peaceful walk out in the open, and that the view could be so beautiful. The rolling hills in the distance were tinged with blue from the vast sky above. There were creatures flying through the clouds, and others prancing through the tall grass. Large Masswines were lazily munching the grass, and small Jackalopes were burrowing in the ground. 

 

She looked in awe at the beautiful insects that flew around her, tickling her skin and playing with her hair. Amane blew one of them away from his face, then resumed his observation of Nene. Although he was directly on top of her, he could perceive her wonderment and joy, and for some reason, it made his heart content.

 

They spent the rest of their travel time in comfortable silence, with the occasional inquiry over an odd-looking creature, or whatever trivial question came to mind. The walk was quite lengthy; the sun was just about to set in the sky.

 

After what seemed like forever, Nene saw a couple of buildings rising out of the horizon. She sped up her pace, Amane still hanging from her like a human cape.

 

“W-We made it!” 

 

The rest stop was quite small, indeed, if compared to the typical village size. The inhabitants were mostly other passing Adventurers, many with mounts and high-leveled weapons. Nene felt hearts coming out of her head as she gazed at a handsome young man who seemed to be a Swordmaster. 

 

She felt the person above her leering at her critically, so she harrumphed and went toward the nearby inn.

 

“A room, please.”

 

“Yes, ma’am.” He was a chubby man with small eyes and a big smile. “Would that be one bed?”

 

Amane’s face lit up. “Yes—!!

 

“Two, please.” Nene said with an amicable smile, as she held the Archmage in a firm headlock. She pointedly ignored his choked noises and paid for the room swiftly.

 

Once the two made it to the room, Nene breathed a sigh of relief and dropped her backpack. “Finally, a bed~!”

 

Without thinking, she began to strip off her armor, making the boy behind her blush brightly. She had already taken off her chest plate when she realized that Amane was staring at her fixedly. Nene squeaked and scolded him, “D-Don’t just look!”

 

“S-Sorry!” Amane cleared his throat and made a quick escape to the bathroom. Nene huffed, feeling the redness of her face die down. She muttered, “It’s just my armor. I still have my dress on…”

 

After stripping off all the metal from her body, she felt her body lighten and relax. She decidedly plopped on the bed nearest to the window, relishing the soft sheets and the comfort of the mattress. Soon enough, she was napping, basking in the warmth of the sun while it was still out.

 

“Y-Yashiro?” Amane cracked the door open, just the tiniest bit, “Are you decent?”

 

A part of him was angry that he had asked, for he could have accidentally stumbled upon a naked Nene, but he had to keep at least some of his decency if he wanted her to stay. She was his first travel companion in so long, and, not to mention, she was a girl… he could get carried away a bit, unfortunately.

 

There was no response. Fear immediately struck his heart, and he suddenly imagined the worse. Had she gotten hurt?! Kidnapped?! Even when he was just inside the bathroom, only a few feet away?!

 

He swung the door open, “Yashiro—?!”

 

The blush on his face renewed.

 

She was in her usual dress, but now without her armor, he could see the full curves of her figure. His eyes watched as her chest rose up and down, peaceful yet alluring in her state of slumber. Her thick legs were peeking out from under her dress, but instead of the typical male consensus of disgust, it only increased his discomfort more in a… different way.

 

To put it simply, he really wanted to run his hands up those legs.

 

She’s so cute… Her legs are so cute… Why did she have to be my type?!

 

He heavily fixed his gaze on her body, a strong urge nudging him to cop a feel. He shook his head, almost insanely.

 

C-Control yourself…

 

Before he could stop himself, he walked over to her sleeping self, and forced his gaze to focus on her face. She was remarkably adorable, with her cheeks rosy, lips pink and full, and her hair now wild and free all around her. 

 

Amane was currently struggling to keep his hands to himself.

 

He inhaled deeply, stomping down the wanton desires, and reached out slowly.

 

“Yashiro?” he poked her arm. Her lovely eyelashes fluttered open, revealing her enchanting ruby eyes. He gulped, but spoke nonchalantly, “You fell asleep. I thought you wanted to go to the hot springs.”

 

She yawned and stretched automatically, and oh, it was so hard not to stare!

 

“I-I did?” she rubbed her eyes, before realizing that Amane was intensely ogling her. She squealed and crossed her arms over her chest, “A-Amane-kun! Did you do anything?!”

 

“N-No!” he shook his head and waved his arms, a fierce blush on his face. “I-I promise! I didn’t!!”

 

“Really?”

 

“R-Really…”

 

There was a tense silence hanging in the room. Amane removed his cape and hat, tossing it on his bed, then grabbed some clothes and slid his shoes back on, “Hurry, let’s get cleaned up.”

 

“O-Okay…”

 

As the two of them walked to the hot springs area, Nene tapped on the boy, who was intently looking elsewhere. He turned to her, seeing her timid yet appreciative smile, “Thank you for not taking advantage of me.”

 

Amane nearly fainted. He quickly covered up his embarrassment by saying, “Ah, uh, sure! I mean, who’d want to feel up a radish?”

 

As expected, he found himself writhing in pain on the ground.

 

Nene grumbled as she went into the woman’s section of the hot springs, “Stupid Amane-kun…”

 


 

After a good amount of time soaking, she felt completely rejuvenated from the bath. Nene exited the hot spring, her hair tied up once more, and sporting a simple yukata. Amane was apparently still in the hot spring, so she wrote him a little note saying that she was going to go around and buy some supplies like food and potions.

 

Nene hummed to herself as she wandered about the small rest area, examining the fruits on the kiosk. 

 

She failed to notice someone behind her, tracking her every movement.

 

The person snuck up on her stealthily, until suddenly, a hand grabbed her shoulder.

 

She whirled her head, immediately face to face with a young man she’s never seen before.

 

“A-Ah!” he staggered backward as a blush took over his face. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

 

“W-Who are you?!” Nene reached for her shield, but she forgot that she was only wearing a yukata. She thrust her arm out, the fruit still in her hand. “Stay back! I-I have an apple!! I hope you’re not a—a doctor!!”

 

The young man stared at her blankly. “What’s a doctor?”

 

To be fair, she didn’t know either. The word just sounded like it went with the threat, though.

 

He explained, “I just wanted to know if you know where the boy with a Golden Insignia is.”

 

Thoughts raced through her mind, most of them assuming that this young man was here to use her against Amane. She shook her head, "I-I have no clue who you’re talking about.”

 

“Um…” he looked a bit ashamed, “Well, I’m pretty sure I saw you with him.”

 

She looked very creeped out. “Y-You were stalking me…?”

 

“I-I didn’t mean—!”

 

Amane’s voice broke through the exchange. “Boy?”

 

“Eh?” both Nene and the mysterious young man turned to him. Amane looked like he had gotten out of the bath in a hurry, with his yukata disheveled and his hair barely dry. She asked, “Amane-kun, do you know him?”

 

“Y-You know Hanako’s name?!” the young man inquired strongly, making Nene squeak. Amane sighed, almost in relief, “You gave me a scare, boy.”

 

“Who is this?” Nene and the mysterious young man asked in sync, as they pointed at each other. Amane chuckled, before walking over to Nene, “This boy is Minamoto Kou, descendant of the famed Minamoto clan. They’re well-known for spawning some of the most powerful Priests the land has ever seen.”

 

A strange sense of familiarity hit her at the reveal of his name, but she couldn't put her finger on it. She only uttered, “O-Oh…”

 

“And, boy,” Amane hugged Nene, almost possessively, “this is Yashiro Nene, my new travel buddy~”

 

The blond furrowed his eyebrows. “You’ve never traveled with anyone before.”

 

“I’ve had a change of heart.” 

 

“Well, anyway,” Kou approached Nene, and bowed apologetically, “I’m very sorry to have frightened you. I was just looking for Hanako.”

 

“I-It’s okay,” she smiled at him, making him blush again, and eliciting a cat-like stare from Amane. “How do you two know each other?”

 

“Well, Hanako works for the King, and so do I, since I’m part of the Young Adventurer Department. We’ve met before.”

 

“That’s right…” Nene reflected, “You mentioned that you had royal duties before, didn’t you, Amane-kun?”

 

“Yes~” Amane didn’t let go of Nene, “So, what brings you here, boy?”

 

“Well, Teru-nii sent me here to help you deal with the next problem at hand.”

 

“He sent you?” Amane sighed, “He really doesn’t trust me, huh~?”

 

“I-I suppose not…”

 

“What?” Nene looked at the boy attached to her, “What’s the issue we’re going to deal with?”

 

“Ah, well, that’s in Umbra Village, where we’re heading…”

 

“Wait,” Kou appeared befuddled, “you didn’t tell her?”

 

"Eh… no…"

 

Kou groaned. "I'm sorry about him, he's used to being secretive."

 

"Oh, I know that for a fact," Nene agreed easily, making Amane whine. Kou darted his eyes between the two, slightly blushing, "Are you two…?"

 

Nene and Amane tilted their heads. Kou coughed into his fist. "You know, together?"

 

"Yes—"

 

"No, we're friends~" Nene replied as she covered his mouth with her hands. "He's not my type, anyway. I'm more into the mild-mannered gentleman that's tall and strong~"

 

Amane felt each listed characteristic stab his heart. As a finishing blow, she added, "Also, he's younger than me."

 

The Archmage rested on the ground, deciding that the dirt would be his home for the time being. Kou rubbed the back of his head, "I-I see…"

 

He perked up. "Wait, if you're older than Hanako, then you're older than me!"

 

"Eh?"

 

"Hanako is only older than me by, like, a few months, but for some reason, he addresses me as 'boy' or 'kid.'"

 

"Because you are one." Amane stated from his spot on the floor. Kou pointed angrily at him, "You are one, too!!"

 

Amane waved his hand dismissively. Nene giggled into her hand, "Well, I'm not really high-leveled, so I think the extra help would be great."

 

"Hey~" Amane interjected from the floor, "Remember, I make the decisions here, Yashiro. And I say…"

 

He gave a thumbs up. "Sure, I guess."

 

Nene clapped her hands. "Then it's settled—"

 

"However," Amane exclaimed as he shot up onto his elbows, "I'm not responsible for you, boy."

 

"I know that!" Kou shook his fist, "I'm Level 15, I can take care of myself!!"

 

"Wow, Level 15?" Nene gazed at him, amazed, "I'm not even Level 4 yet."

 

"Really?" Kou smiled, offering kindly, "I can help you level up!"

 

She gasped, "I'd appreciate that a lot!!"

 

"Wait a minute~" Amane hopped to his feet and put an arm in front of the girl, "You're gonna take Yashiro out to level up? All by yourselves? Just the two of you?"

 

His tone became somewhat hysterical. "Are you not thinking right?? She's travelling with me now! What if someone goes after her? Are you sure you can protect her?"

 

"Um…" Nene placed her hand on his shoulder, "Amane-kun, you can just come with us. We don't even have to make any detours, it can just be on the way."

 

"...Sounds good."

 

Kou nearly fell over in disbelief. He lightly slapped his forehead, "In any case, we need to get moving as soon as possible. I'll meet you two tomorrow at the exit."

 

"Got it~" Amane waved, "Don't let the Soulbugs suck out your soul, kid."

 

"...G-Goodnight, Hanako." Kou shuddered, before he bowed at Nene, "It was nice meeting you. Goodnight."

 

"You as well!" Nene waved after him, "Goodnight."

 

The couple spent another hour stocking up on supplies, before heading back to the inn. While they were getting ready for bed, Nene let her hair down, then took out a pen and paper. Amane gazed at her with interest.

 

"Who are you writing to?"

 

"My friend, Aoi-chan." Nene said as she began to write, "She's in the Capital right now with her friend, Akane-kun."

 

"Oh," Amane slid under the sheets, "I know them."

 

Nene looked at him in surprise. "You do?"

 

"Yeah, well," he yawned, "I've never met the girl, but I'm fairly acquainted with Glasses."

 

"I see…" she went back to writing, "Is it because you both work under the King?"

 

"...Yeah," Amane replied slowly, "it is."

 

He's being discreet again…

 

After a while of only the sound of ink scratching into paper, Nene called, "Amane-kun?"

 

"Yes~?"

 

"Why are we going to Umbra Village?"

 

"Oh, right, I didn't tell you…" Amane rolled on his side, "It's about No. 2 of the Seven."

 

"Did something happen to her?"

 

"Yes, but, not in the way you think." Amane closed his eyes as he recalled the details of the mission, "No. 5 told me about the attack on the City of Orsus, and also informed me about what would happen to No. 2 right after. She was said to go out of control with her powers, and I'm going there to stop her and find out why."

 

"...I hope she's okay." 

 

"Really?" Amane opened his eyes, "Worrying about another one of the Seven? Haven't you heard her rumors?"

 

"I know, I've heard scary things about her." Nene said earnestly, "But after meeting you, I'm starting to think you guys are a lot more different than how people describe. I mean, people thought you were a girl!"

 

Nene chuckled, and Amane joined her, albeit quietly. She finished up her letter, then rolled it up and wrapped it with a red ribbon. After packing it away to send it later, she slipped under the covers of her own bed and turned to the boy.

 

"So, No. 5 tells you what'll happen in the future?" 

 

"That's right. But he usually can’t disclose a lot of information, or else it sucks out his life force." Amane felt his eyelids getting heavy, "He and I go way back, actually."

 

Her eyes slightly widened at that information. "Seriously?"

 

She saw him do a small nod, then heard him say in a sleepy voice, "He's always been somewhat spooky and mean, but he actually cares about people…"

 

Nene watched him gradually fall asleep. She said softly, "He sounds like a nice guy."

 

Amane smiled adorably, and Nene took in the sight of how young he really appeared. She felt a pang of sympathy, suddenly wondering what he had experienced already while he was still a kid.

 

"He is. He was our teacher."

 

Our?

 

Amane had stopped responding at that point, now fast asleep. Nene stared at him for a bit longer, before cutting out the light, and joining him in the realm of repose.

 


 

"Amane? Oi, Amane!"

 

He opened his eyes slowly, recognizing the fuzzy figure of his teacher. He hit his head with one of his books.

 

"Geez, did you fall asleep again?"

 

"He did!!" his brother shouted, "Wrap him in a web again!!"

 

"No, don't!" he heard himself say. But it wasn't his voice, really. Not his current one, at least. 

 

It was his younger one.

 

"It's not fair you get to sleep!" his brother whined, "I'm bored, too!! Can't we learn some magic today?"

 

"You need to learn about these first. They're important, too." 

 

Several books were placed in front of them. Ironically, all their titles were blurred, so he couldn't figure out what was so important about them, anyway.

 

He sighed, "I'd rather go out and explore. Right, Tsukasa?"

 

No response.

 

He turned his head. 

 

His brother was gone.

 

"Tsukasa?"

 

He turned his head.

 

"Tsukasa?"

 

He turned his head. He started to cry.

 

"Tsuchigomori-sensei, where is Tsukasa?!"

 

A hand reached out to him. He flinched, but the warm contact sought to sooth his nerves.

 

His teacher's face was hard to discern, but he thought he saw something like sorrow.

 

"I'm sorry."

 

Amane looked down. There was blood on his hands.

 

In his hands, soaking up the blood and renewing with life, was his magic staff.

 


 

Amane jolted awake. 

 

He sat up, and quickly looked over to the other bed.

 

Nene was sleeping soundly, unbothered by the world.

 

He felt his heart rate slow, and his mind refocused on his present-day situation.

 

Unable to sleep again, he moved his feet to the cold floor, and reached for his staff.

 

He winced.

 

He stared at the staff, then looked over to Nene. 

 

Taking a deep breath, he got out of bed, then threw on his usual clothes. Finally, he grabbed his staff.

 

Amane snuck out of the room from the balcony, then hopped to the roof. He settled among the shingles, allowing the night sky to shower him in all of its starry delight. 

 

He couldn't sleep, but he could watch the world as if he was.

 

He stayed up until the sun peeked out from the horizon, shifting the sky's hues from its dazzling, dark colors to a vibrant, vivid brightness.

 

He was so focused on the world changing in front of him, that he didn't notice Nene calling his name. She suddenly appeared on the balcony, wrought with anxiety.

 

"Amane-kun?! Where are you??"

 

He slid down, then poked her back, making her jump. "I'm right here."

 

"A-Amane-kun, what are you doing out here?" she pressed a hand to her chest, and looked away, "You scared me. I thought you… I thought that you left…"

 

He slid off of the roof and landed in front of her. "Don't be silly, Yashiro. I'm not leaving you~"

 

Amane gripped her hand, lacing their fingers together. "Come on, we have to get moving. And we don't want the boy to think we ran off without him."

 

As the two went back inside the room, Amane thought out loud, "Although, that doesn't sound too bad…"

 

“Amane-kun!”

 

“Kidding, kidding.”

 

The duo left the inn not too long after, and quickly saw Kou waiting for them near the exit of the resting area. He waved happily, “Good morning!”

 

“Good morning, Minamoto-kun!”

 

“Good morning~”

 

Upon Nene’s appearance, he looked surprised. “Senpai, you’re a Crusader?”

 

She frowned and held her cheek, “Yeah, I am, it’s unfortunate…”

 

“I thought you would’ve been a Priest or something!” he told her nonchalantly, “You seem like the type.”

 

Nene’s eyes sparkled. “Y-You think so?!”

 

Amane rolled his eyes. “You haven’t seen her aggressive side yet.”

 

“Amane-kun, shush!” she put a finger to her lips, “Let me have this!”

 

Kou laughed, “Well, anyway, we should get going. It’s gonna take us at least a week to get to Umbra Village.”

 

“O-Oh…” Nene didn’t realize how long travel times were on foot. Walking all day yesterday had made her weary, but she’d have to do that for a whole week? 

 

She asked hopefully, “Will there be more resting areas along the way?”

 

“Of course,” Kou nodded, “and we could probably find some spots to level up, too!”

 

He suddenly brought out a white horse and hopped on top of it. Nene staggered back, “Y-You have a mount?!”

 

“Well, yeah. It’s under the care of the Capital, though.” Kou looked down at her, confused, “If we travel without a mount, then it’d take us at least two weeks to get there!”

 

Two weeks… of continuous walking...

 

“Is that so?” Nene asked as she side-eyed Amane, who was whistling innocently. Kou sighed, “I see. Hanako didn’t tell you...”

 

He held his hand out to her, and Nene thought she saw flowers and sparkles drifting behind him. This entire scenario was straight out of her fantasies, albeit the guy on the horse wasn’t who she imagined. Nonetheless, it was quite charming. He inquired, “Would you like to ride with me?”

 

Enchanted by the scene alone, she was about to take his hand, before Amane stole it with his own. “Now, wait a minute~”

 

He swept her off her feet, making her emit a tiny ‘eep.’ His arm caught her waist, as the two of them began to float off the ground. “I’m the one who didn’t tell you about needing a mount. I’ll make it up to you by carrying you in our travels~”

 

Nene blushed, and Kou did, too, just from watching them. He knew Hanako could be cunning, but he didn’t realize how perverse he could be with a girl. 

 

Nene couldn’t look into his eyes. “F-Fine.”

 

“Great! Hakujoudai!” Amane began to fly out of the resting area with Nene in his secure clutches. He chuckled at Kou’s noise of protest. “Try to keep up, kid!”

 

Nene couldn’t help but bury herself deeper into his hold. He was warm, and his hold around her was reassuring. Many times, she would find herself surprised at the amount of strength he had, that he was a powerful Archmage, that he was one of the Seven. Again, she wondered what experiences he could possibly be hiding from her, and how he came to be who he was today.

 

Amane looked down at her, surprised at her intentional closeness. He grinned and leaned closer to her ear, “Are you comfortable~?”

 

Nene squeaked. Kou yelled from below, “What are you doing to her, you rotten perv?!”

 

“Nothing~!”

 

After crossing a significant amount of distance, the trio decided to stop by a nearby creek to camp for the rest of the evening. The sun was still up, but they’d take their break and leave first thing in the morning. Amane started a little fire with a bit of magic, and Kou was cooking some meat that he had caught. Nene questioned, her voice hung with worry, “U-Um, are we… s-sleeping outside?!”

 

“Yes?” Kou answered, but in a confused tone. He asked her, “Haven’t you slept outside before?”

 

“Yashiro here hasn’t done a lot of things, actually, so don’t mind her ignorance.” Amane hugged her from behind, “That’s why she’s on this adventure with me~”

 

“You talk about me as if I’m a lost child…”

 

“Really, Senpai?” Kou garnished the kabobs, “Why haven’t you?”

 

“Um, well, I grew up in a really safe town…” Nene said as she scratched her cheek.

 

“Well, don’t worry. We’ll keep you safe.” Kou responded fervidly, which made the girl smile. He took the kabobs out from the fire, handing it to the other two. “Done!”

 

Amane and Nene gazed at the food in wonder, before taking equally large bites. Their eyes lit up once it hit their tongues—the flavor, the texture, the aroma!!

 

“T-This is amazing, Minamoto-kun!”

 

Amane smirked and wiped his cheek. “Not bad, boy…”

 

“Thank you!” Kou chuckled shyly, but then noticed something off about the girl, “Ah, Senpai, you, um…”

 

“Hmm?” Nene looked at him, but he only leaned forward, and wiped the small bit of food that stuck to the side of her lips. A bright blush overtook her face, whereas Kou realized what he had just done. “O-Oh, shoot, sorry! I didn’t mean to—I have a little sister, so I’m just so used to doing that!!”

 

Amane was leering at the two, particularly the blond, with wide, dark eyes. Kou shot up, stretching out his muscles and laughing nervously. “A-Anyway, we should start training and leveling up!! I think I saw some Toags on the other side of the creek.”

 

“Ah, right!!” Nene stood up and brushed her hands of remaining food bits, then strapped the shield onto her back. Amane cleared his throat, causing the girl to stop where she was. “Oh, um, c-can I go, Amane-kun?”

 

“Hmm, I suppose so~” Amane droned, then followed the two, floating somewhat above them. “Don’t cause too much trouble, kid~”

 

“It won’t be too bad, Hanako. This is actually gonna be good for us!” Kou cheered, then questioned the girl, “Do you have a greatsword, Senpai?”

 

“No, but, I think I’ll buy one in Umbra Village.”

 

“Hmm, well, if you can’t attack them, then I’ll attack them first, and you can cover for me!”

 

“That’s what Amane-kun and I did in the City of Orsus!”

 

“Nice, then you’ve already got some experience with it!”

 

When she finally discovered what exactly Toags were, she was… shocked, to say the least. They were somewhat large creatures with frog-like features and a hard turtle-looking shell. Nene trembled, “W-What Level is that?!”

 

“Well, they’re around Level 25 or so…”

 

“Level 25?!”

 

“But it’s nothing we can’t handle!” Kou cheered, “The harder the monster, the stronger you get!”

 

“A-Are you sure about this, Minamoto-kun…?” Nene patted herself repeatedly, “I’m Level 3. Level 3!!

 

“It’s okay, let’s test it out!”

 

Kou tore the black cloth from his raiteijou and shouted out some incantations, before directing the staff toward one of the Toags. White lightning shot out from his staff, striking the Toag where it stood. Nene gaped, “At your Level, I thought you only healed and powered up people!”

 

“My bloodline allows me to use more powerful spells at a younger age!” Kou said proudly, then hit his chest with his fist, “Actually, my older brother was a prodigy who had extremely potent magic. I want to be just like him.”

 

Nene smiled, admiring his resolve. “That’s really cool of you!”

 

“Eh,” Amane said from behind them, “I’d say stay yourself, and also, the Toag just went Aggro.”

 

“Aggro?” Nene had a second to repeat the word, before she was suddenly wrapped in a long, slimy tongue. Stunned, Amane and Kou watched as she was yanked away from them, and into the broad mouth of the Monster.

 

The two boys instantly began running after the Toag, in which the creature was bounding across the bank of the creek. 

 

“S-Senpai!!”

 

“Yashiro!!”

 

Her legs flailed while she pounded her fists against the Toag’s tongue. “This is so gross! Let go of me!!”

 

While they were running behind the Toag, her flailing legs made her dress fly up multiple times. Kou blushed and darted his eyes away, but noticed that Amane was intently gazing at the girl’s behind. The blond shouted, “S-Senpai, stop moving your legs!! Your dress!!”

 

“R-Right!” she stopped panicking and kept her legs as straight downward as possible. “A-Amane-kun, if you had been looking—!”

 

She couldn’t continue her reprimanding as the Toag swallowed more of her, still fleeing from the two boys. She shrieked, “Help!!”

 

“Hold on, Yashiro!” Amane whirled his staff, whispering incantations, before spell circles began to manifest and the earth began to quiver. The Toag’s strong, flexible legs were suddenly caught by the ground. With another chant, he maneuvered his body to extend the flow of his magic, influencing the ground to move with his motions. Swinging his staff down, a large mass of earth slammed straight into the Toag, completely shattering its shell, and forcing it to spit out the girl.

 

“Boy!”

 

“Got it!” Kou bolted over to Nene, and caught her from the air before she hit the ground. Although he was now slathered with some spit, it wasn’t as bad as Nene’s condition. She was dripping with saliva that drenched the upper part of her body. Her face was gloomy, as she looked at him with indignation.

 

“I-I’m sorry…” Kou apologized, bringing himself into a dogeza. As Amane destroyed the creature completely, Kou said louder to the disgusted and weakened Nene. “I’m sorry!!”

 

The good news about the whole thing was that Nene leveled up all the way to Level 6, even almost to Level 7, bringing her stats higher than normal thanks to her super rare Blessed status. The bad news about the whole thing is that she could still feel the slime in her ears.

 

“Oho, you’ve really done it now, boy…” Amane snickered into his hand. Kou’s forehead was throbbing red, at this point. “Senpai, I’m—”

 

“It’s okay, Minamoto-kun.” Nene interrupted, then showed him her Profile card, “I reached Level 6! Even though the fight was super gross, I gained a lot of EXP from it!” 

 

She smiled, enthusiastic, “Can we try again later?”

 

Kou blushed and nodded vehemently. “Y-Yes!! While we’re travelling, I’ll help you level up more!”

 

“Thank you!” Nene stood up with a disturbed expression, “B-But I’m going to go clean myself, now.”

 

Amane smirked, “I can help you~”

 

Nene left the scene to go bathe in the nearby creek, while the Archmage doubled over in pain. Kou looked down at the boy in disappointment, “What is with you, Hanako?”

 

Amane let out a small ‘tch.’ “You wouldn’t understand, boy.”

 

“...You like her, don’t you?”

 

Amane’s ears burned, but he bit back caustically, “No. Why? Do you?”

 

“N-No!” Kou scratched his ear, “S-She’s just really cute.”

 

Amane was staring at him again, dark and ominous. Kou flushed, “W-What??”

 

Silence, then, “I bet you looked at her boobs.”

 

What?!” Kou nearly choked. He went red, resembling a tomato. “N-No!! I’ve never!!”

 

“Never ever?”

 

Ever!

 

Amane’s lips curved into a mischievous grin. “You’re missing out, then.”

 

Kou felt his ears pop with steam, then he tackled the other boy. “You perv!!”

 

Nene returned to the camp, stumbling upon the two in the middle of a tussle. She hung up her clothes on a line, “What are you two arguing about?”

 

“Hanako keeps talking about boobs!!”

 

“The kid here just isn’t mature enough~”

 

“You’re the immature one!”

 

Nene sighed, and muttered to herself, “Boys…”

 

For the rest of their travels, Nene would be carried by Amane, and they would soar through the skies as Kou rode his horse along the ground. Whenever they stopped to set up camp, she continued to train and level up with Kou by attacking the nearby higher-leveled mobs, often getting herself in sticky situations. Amane would be there to help them out, usually the finisher in defeating the Monsters, and allowing them to gain EXP from the mobs. Nene noticed after each encounter that she was slightly quicker on her feet, stronger with her bashes, and sturdier with her stances. She didn’t realize how much she would gain just because of her Blessed status.

 

By the time they were near Umbra Village, she was already Level 11, and Kou had become Level 20. 

 

Nene was ecstatic, speaking while settled in Amane’s hold. “I can’t believe how much I’ve leveled up!”

 

“The benefits of going against enemies way stronger than you!” Kou grinned. Amane glared at them both, “Speak for yourselves. You two used up almost all of our potions, and boy, you nearly fell over twice now from Mana exhaustion after healing so much and using high-leveled spells.”

 

“We’re fine now, though!” Kou declared, Nene nodding in support of his claim. Amane would’ve continued the discussion, but his attention was immediately snatched by what lay ahead. He sped up abruptly, making Kou fuss, “H-Hey!!”

 

“Amane-kun, what’s—”

 

Once Nene saw the state of the village, she couldn’t tear her eyes away from it.

 

“W-What happened…?”

 

Amane set her down onto her feet, ignoring Kou’s shocked sounds upon his own arrival. The village was completely abandoned, with its buildings mangled and its streets void of life. Claw marks criss-crossed in various places, as did splatters of dried blood, and corpses were visibly scattered around the desolation. Nene felt her heart drop as she hid her mouth with shaky hands.

 

The Priest jumped off of the horse and called out frantically, “Is anyone there?!”

 

There was no response.

 

The three of them dispersed, searching for any signs of life. They checked inside the houses and behind the stalls, but there were only bodies, cold and pale and bloody. Nene could barely look at the sight, and Kou felt his own hands trembling, but he held on to his willpower. 

 

With a straight face and a focused mind, Amane kept searching through the village.

 

The Crusader checked inside another house, yet the result was the same as the rest. Feeling somewhat drained from all the death around her, she rested upon a nearby wall. Suddenly, a presence appeared behind her, its weight creating creaks from the wooden floorboards.

 

“Minamoto-kun?” Nene turned around, “You’re gonna scare me again—”

 

Long blades stretched out in front of her, and Nene’s reflexes reacted before she even had time to scream. She brandished her shield, narrowly blocking the bloody weapon of the person. Her eyes widened at what appeared to be a large pair of scissors in its hands, and she wondered if that was the rumored dual-bladed weapon of No. 2 of the Seven.

 

She didn’t have much time to ponder, however, as the person—a woman—relentlessly attacked her shield with her blades. Nene gritted her teeth and shouted, “Empower!”

 

A glow encircled her skin, and she charged at the woman. With the boost in her attack stat, she successfully knocked the dual-bladed weapon out of her hands. Nene took the chance and fled the room, while the woman howled angrily, transforming into an entirely different being.

 

The dreary hall was narrow and deteriorating, yet she kept on her path and aimed for the stairs. However, the building shook as a large slam occurred behind her, making her stumble. Looking over her shoulder, she barely registered the fox-like creature clambering after her until something sharp grazed her leg. Yelping out in pain, she tripped on her feet and slid across the hall, blood now streaming down her leg.

 

Nene managed to block the swift flurry of claws with her shield, but she was in a tight spot with her leg injured and the creature hovering over her. She fastened her grip on her shield and yelled, “Protection!”

 

Another glow illuminated her skin, allowing her to push back against the attacks. However, the moment she stood up, the fox-like creature arched its arm back, before swinging forcefully at her. She gasped and braced herself with her shield, but it wasn’t enough against the magic-infused strike.

 

The impact sent her flying through the crumbling wall of the building. She tumbled and skidded against the barren dirt, before colliding against a withering monument.

 

Both of the boys heard the commotion, simultaneously shouting for her in worry.

 

Nene’s vision was spotty, and she blindly reached up to her head. A liquid stuck to her fingers, bearing a familiar shade of crimson.

 

Blood…

 

Something came barreling through the building after her, and its landing sent tremors through the earth. Nene felt more of the liquid dripping from her scalp, and she couldn’t bring herself onto her feet, but she managed to put up her shield in front of her. 

 

Without wasting another moment, the creature started running at her with full force.

 

A flash of white stopped the being in its tracks, effectively chasing it away. Nene felt her head bob as she tried to keep herself up, but she ended up falling over once again. Her shield clanged as it hit the ground beside her.

 

“Senpai!” Kou cried out in worry. Amane commanded, “Heal her, quickly!!

 

A gentle sensation soon surged through her body. The two boys jumped at the fierce bellow of the fox. It entered the area again, intent on ripping the newcomers to shreds, but Amane wasn’t having it.

 

“Don’t stop healing her, kid.”

 

“Got it.”

 

Standing in front of them, Amane whirled his staff and whispered his chants, invoking a mass of water to gush out of the manifested spell circle. It rammed into the fox, sending her away once again. With her mindless rampaging, he was confident that she’d be back again. He stood guard against the bloodthirsty beast, his eyes attentive and his stance taut, allowing Kou to finish healing the girl.

 

After a while, she felt the injury on her head and her leg close up. The pressure on her bones eventually lessened until the pain disappeared. The soreness in other parts of her body diminished, but she still felt exhausted from being knocked senseless. Her friends’ worried eyes filled her vision, but before she could ease them of their concern, she lost consciousness.

 

When she awoke, she recognized the soft cloth of Amane’s cape on her cheek. Opening her eyes, she was met with the twinkling night sky, and the fluctuating light of fire was in her peripheral vision. Smoke rose up into the air until it dissipated, leaving behind a delicious smell in its wake.

 

A hand caressed her bangs, its warmth incredibly comforting. She tilted her head up, weakly voicing, “Amane-kun…?”

 

He was smiling softly at her, thankful and relieved. She was still a bit out of it, yet she sought to hold the warmth in her hands, smiling cutely all the while, “Amane-kun…”

 

The boy felt a blush tint his cheeks, but he beckoned for her to sit up. After a bit of a struggle, she sat somewhat upright, leaning against Amane’s chest. She whispered, “Where is Minamoto-kun?”

 

“Getting water.” He wrapped his hands around her waist and pressed his forehead on her shoulder. “You frightened us.”

 

“W-Where’s the Monster…?”

 

“I’m not a Monster!” an angry feminine voice cut in. Nene jolted at the sudden exclamation, making Amane hold her tighter. “Don’t worry, Yashiro. She actually has something nice to say.”

 

“W-Who—?”

 

“Me.”

 

Nene looked over to the side, catching sight of a woman sitting near the fire as she leaned against her dual-bladed weapon. She had keen, beguiling eyes, but her hair was a bit messy, and her clothes were unkempt. She appeared as though she was worn out, with her somewhat slouched appearance and the bags under her eyes. The Crusader thought that if she were cleaned up and dressed, she’d look extremely beautiful.

 

“What are you staring at, brat—?”

 

Amane uttered a noise that sounded something similar to a growl. The woman cleared her throat, and changed her approach, “I mean, I’d like to apologize.”

 

“Huh?” Nene blinked, “What for?”

 

“My name is Yako, but I’m more commonly known as Misaki. I am No. 2 of the Seven.” The woman frowned, “I’m the one who hurt you.”

 

“...Oh.”

 

Nene felt Amane grin eerily behind her, a dark aura discharging from him. “No. 2 is lucky that I didn’t slice her up into kitsune udon after what she did to you.”

 

“B-But, why?” She looked at the woman curiously. Yako eyed the fire, “I was being controlled.”

 

Nene’s expression softened. “Are you okay?”

 

Yako seemed quite surprised at that question. Amane giggled, “I know, right? She’s peculiar.”

 

Nene mewled in discontent, “Hey~”

 

“Well, anyway,” Amane began to elaborate on the situation, “she was being controlled by the Demon Lord with the use of what appears to be tiny crystals. We’re not sure where they got these crystals from, but once it’s embedded into the back of the neck of the person, they no longer have any control over themselves.”

 

The fire crackled, flinging embers into the air, where they dissolved almost instantly. Amane grabbed one of the sticks of fish on the fire, and handed it to the girl. She didn’t realize how hungry she was until the piece of food was right in front of her face. She munched on it, continuing to listen to the Archmage.

 

“They’re probably targeting the Seven to put us under their control. According to No. 2, she was being riled up by one of the Demon Admirals, then another one snuck up on her and stuck this in her neck.” Amane’s eyes reflected the flickering of the flames. “I think that the stronger the emotional state, the stronger the control will be over that person. Since the Seven are known to be incredibly powerful, they’ll want us to be on their side, whether we want to or not.”

 

“Those damn Demons were ridiculing Misaki’s name…” Yako flexed her fingers, feeling her claws grow, “They got what was coming to them. Even if I was under control, there was no way I’d let them escape the kill list.”

 

“Misaki…?” Nene was puzzled. Didn’t she kill him? That’s what her rumors say…

 

Yako read her expression, before sneering, “I didn’t kill him…”

 

Nene’s eyes widened, but there was understanding in her gaze. “I believe you.”

 

Before Yako could respond to her, they all quieted down due to the nearing presence. There were footsteps fast approaching, then Kou popped out from behind a bush, carrying bottles of water in his arms. He beamed, “Senpai, you’re awake!”

 

“Minamoto-kun…”

 

“It’s okay, you don’t have to say much.” Kou replied, handing a bottle to Nene, then packing away the rest. Amane brushed her arms, “Thanks to the boy, we were able to heal you up before you lost too much blood.”

 

Amane threw his gaze somewhere else. “My healing spells aren’t as strong as a Priest’s, and I don’t usually have time to cast them if I’m the one on the offense. So... it was a good thing he was with us…”

 

All three of them looked at him in shock. He switched the topic hurriedly before anyone made a comment.

 

“Well, unfortunately,” Amane said, “we need to take Yako in to the Capital, since, well, Umbra Village is no more. We can definitely defend her by claiming that it was the work of the Demon Lord, but it might be hard to explain that to the public if they already believe that she’s a bloodthirsty beast.”

 

Nene inquired as Kou sat down with them. “How are we gonna prove that it’s the Demon Lord’s fault?”

 

“Well, we’re gonna need to grab some of those tiny crystals. If not, then I don’t think there’s really a way to.” Amane stroked her hair absentmindedly, “People don’t really believe something they can’t see or understand. Why do you think our rumors are so off?”

 

“I-I guess that makes sense…” Nene’s lips curved downward. Yako harrumphed, “Don’t worry about me, girl. I’ll be fine. No. 5 and No. 1 are supposed to be in the Capital right now, anyway, so I’ll be taken care of. It’s not like they’ll throw me in a dungeon.”

 

“Ah, No. 5 is in the Capital?” Amane grinned, “That’s perfect. We need to get our next lead from him, anyway. If I’m right, and the Seven are being targeted by the Demon Lord, then we have to warn everyone and make sure they’re safe.”

 

“Sounds like a plan!” Kou cheered excitedly. Nene nodded in agreement, and Yako only grumbled. 

 

After a couple of hours passed, the night grew silent as the party of people fell asleep. Nene woke up suddenly, her eyes a bit puffy. She had slept for much of the day, so all the sleep was making her a bit worn. Yawning, she rolled over on her side, immediately realizing that the warmth that was behind her had disappeared. The girl looked up, and found Amane sitting some distance away from the camp, staring up at the moon.

 

“Hmm?” Amane hummed while the girl crept up beside him. She inquired meekly, “What’re you doing, Amane-kun?”

 

“...Couldn’t sleep.”

 

She sat down next to him. Still tired and groggy, she leaned her head on his shoulder, staring up at the moon with him.

 

Amane whispered, “You should just lay back down, Yashiro.”

 

She didn’t respond to his statement, and instead asked, “Are you okay, Amane-kun?”

 

“...Why do you ask?”

 

“Ever since I woke up from getting hurt, it feels like you’ve been acting strangely.”

 

It was Amane’s turn to lead the conversation into silence.

 

After a few seconds, he shrugged. “It’s nothing.”

 

“Amane-kun,” she tenderly slid her fingers in between his, “you can tell me.”

 

Amane opened his mouth, but then lowered his chin, his gaze no longer on the moon.

 

“...I don’t think travelling with me was a good idea, after all.”

 

“Eh?” she questioned, “What do you mean?”

 

“Seeing you get hurt, I—” Amane’s hand was quivering; she could feel it, “I almost lost control of myself.”

 

“But, Amane-kun…” she uttered quietly, “I’m a Crusader, which means I’d have to be in the frontline, regardless.”

 

At his silence, she giggled, “You have a spell to change my Class?

 

He shook his head with a small smile. “No, that’s impossible.”

 

Serenity floated through the air, only frequently broken by the singing of the night insects. Since it was somewhat chilly, Nene had taken the cape with her, using it as a blanket around her shoulders. She tossed it around him, too, and at his puzzled look, she smiled.

 

Amane’s eyes wilted. “The possibility of you dying… If it came true, I don’t know how I’d handle it.”

 

Nene’s smile faded, and daze took over her face. “What…?”

 

“I thought the worst, Yashiro, when I saw you bleeding out against the statue.” He choked out, “I thought you died, and if you didn’t die, I thought that you were going to...”

 

“Amane-kun…”

 

He shook his head. "This was a mistake. If I get too attached—”

 

“Amane-kun, it's okay to make bonds." She cupped his face, and gently moved his head so that he’d look at her, “And I won’t die. I promise.”

 

He looked on the verge of tears, and it brutally tugged on her heart. 

 

"You can’t promise something like that.”

 

“It doesn’t matter.” She said in a low voice, “I won’t die. There’s still a lot of things I wanna do and see, remember?”

 

He sighed. “Yashiro…”

 

Nene wrapped her pinkie finger around his. “I promise.”

 

In spite of everything telling him to ignore her claim, to leave her at the Capital so she could live a safe, normal life that the average Adventurer could have, he ended up fastening his pinkie around hers, and accepted her promise in its entirety. 

 

“Okay.”

 


 

It took a week and a half, but they eventually reached the Capital. On the way, they only had minimal time to level up and train, but it still advanced Nene to Level 13 and Kou to Level 22.

 

Nene thought the City of Orsus was big, but the center of the kingdom was simply massive. The walls towered over them, blocking out the sights from the inside or from the outside. The area extended for miles, and in the distance, she saw a colossal castle in the middle of the Capital, probably home to the King and the Royal Family. There were also wings that extended from the enormous building in the center, ones with purposes she couldn’t discern. At her gaze of wonderment, her three travel companions chuckled, each one carrying its own tone.

 

Nene pouted as she buried her face in Amane’s chest. “W-Why are you all laughing at me?” 

 

“Well, we’ve all been to the Capital before. I guess it’s just funny whenever someone new sees it for the first time.” Kou explained as they pulled up to the entrance gate. Once they were all set to go in, they headed straight to the center. Nene watched as the shapes of the buildings smeared; the speed of Amane’s flight making everything below appear blurry and small.

 

They aimed for the left wing, which appeared to be the army's quarters. Amane landed before Kou arrived, and he set down Nene gently. There was a man waiting for them there, a lazy grin on his face, “I’ve been expecting you.”

 

“Ah, shut it, No. 5.” Amane frowned, “You say that every single time I see you. Can’t you think of something else?”

 

The man drew the pipe from his mouth, and blew out a line of smoke in a single breath. “Nah.”

 

Nene tugged on the boy’s cape. “Amane-kun, who is this?”

 

“This is No. 5 of the Seven, Tsuchigomori.” He smiled at her with his hands behind his back, “He was my teacher.”

 

Nene wasn’t the only one surprised as she gazed upon the Warlock, as Tsuchigomori looked stunned at the openness of Amane’s comment. The man stalked closer to the girl, and leaned over, inspecting her attentively. Her face colored slightly at the closeness, whereas Amane hugged her comfortingly, “Don’t worry, Yashiro. He’s just like that.”

 

Recognition passed through the man's eyes.

 

“...Yashiro Nene.” 

 

She clutched onto Amane's arm. He… knows my name?

 

Tsuchigomori’s grip on his pipe tensed slightly. Amane noticed and inquired, “What’s the matter?”

 

“...Ah, nothing.”

 

The sound of galloping gradually increased behind them, revealing a white horse with Kou and Yako, her sitting behind him with her hands magically bound. Tsuchigomori examined her, and after seeing that she was perfectly fine, he drawled, "Stupid Fox."

 

"Shut the hell up, Emo Spider." Yako landed on her feet and exhaled tiredly, "I still have a headache from being under control for so long. Just bring me somewhere quiet."

 

"You know that it won't be that easy."

 

Tsuchigomori started walking away, prompting the others to follow after him. 

 

He waved his pipe around. "I need to show you to the King, explain what happened, probably have a long discussion, yadda yadda."

 

She groaned, "Just skip to the part where I have a cozy bed."

 

He scowled at her. "Do you think this place is a hotel?"

 

"If it's not, then why the hell do you work in this dump?"

 

He hissed, "I'm just passing by."

 

The two glared at each other, but Amane waved his staff, gaining their attention.

 

"Now, now. We're all part of the Seven, so we're all friends here, aren't we?"

 

The woman sneered, "Like hell."

 

Tsuchigomori scoffed, "As if."

 

Amane tapped his staff on the ground, his magic crackling around the wooden length. The dangerous flare of his Mana quelled their hostility. He stated ominously, "We're friends."

 

"Y-Yes…"

 

"Of course, Honorable No. 7."

 

Wow, he really is their leader… Nene thought with an amused yet disbelieving grin.

 

They trekked through the building, sunlight streaming in from the glass overhead. There were other people located inside, roaming the halls, but at the sight of three of the Seven in one place, they were inclined to stop and stare. Nene felt a bit self-conscious, so she walked tightly in-between Amane and Kou.

 

After some more walking, they eventually arrived at a set of grand doors. Tsuchigomori thrust his thumb toward them, "The King is in the Conference Room right now with his general. I'll be taking Honorable No. 7 and the Stupid Fox inside to get everything sorted out, and so that Honorable No. 7 will know where to go next."

 

Amane looked a bit upset at that, but didn't argue. Nene asked hesitantly, "What should we do?"

 

"I know!" Kou grinned, "I can see my brother again, and you can meet him!"

 

"I-I don't know…" Nene looked unsure, "I don't know much about him."

 

"Well, he's really kind and tall and strong, and everyone always depends on him!"

 

At the words "kind" and "tall" and "strong," Nene was already sold. She clasped her hands together and caught herself in a charming daydream. 

 

Oh, Amane was quite upset, now. Just as he was about to say something, Tsuchigomori shushed them, and knocked on the door. He waved at them to go elsewhere, and the two other teenagers nodded as they whispered their farewells. Amane stared at them longingly, but his grip on his staff tightened. There were important things to take care of.

 

"So, where is your brother?" Nene asked as the two ambled through the halls, striding through the right wing. Kou answered, "He should be in his office right now."

 

"He has an office?" she cocked her head, "Who is he?"

 

"He's the President of the Young Adventurer Department." Kou chuckled sheepishly at her, "I'm surprised you haven't heard of him. He's in charge of anyone twenty-years-old and younger."

 

"Wait…" 

 

The two stopped in front of a door, presumably the door to the aforementioned office. Nene pointed at Kou with a shocked expression. 

 

"Minamoto-kun!"

 

"Y-Yes?!"

 

"Your last name is Minamoto, which is the same as… Minamoto Teru!!"

 

"Y-Yes!!"

 

"I can't believe it." Nene shook her head, "You're the younger brother of the President of the Young Adventurer Department…"

 

“That’s right.” A voice said from the now open door. Nene swiveled her head to see a tall, handsome blond with beautifully slim blue eyes and a lovely, amicable smile. There was a sword at his hip, and a golden badge on his chest. “Hello, my name is Minamoto Teru. I don’t believe we’ve met before.”

 

She felt like this man was a personal attack on her heart. How could she handle someone so perfect?

 

“I-I’m Yashiro Nene.” She said quickly, this time remembering to introduce herself. Kou beamed at his brother, “She’s been travelling with me and Hanako and helping us with our quests!!”

 

“Is that so?” Teru hummed, before he pulled out two medium-sized bags of coins. “I was going to give these to Kou, but you can have one, Yashiro-san.”

 

Nene waved her hands nervously. “W-Wait, ah, that’s a bit…”

 

“It’s nothing, really.” Teru smiled kindly, “Think of it as a thanks for helping my brother.”

 

Oh, curse her fair maiden heart. If she wasn’t all garbed in armor, maybe she would’ve actually appeared attractive and feminine, and he would be rewarding her with more than just money.

 

“I-If that’s the case, then, thank you…”

 

“Nene-chan?”

 

A familiar voice called from behind her. She turned, and was pleasantly surprised to see Aoi and Akane standing there. “Nene-chan, it is you!”

 

“Aoi-chan!” the two girls ran up to each other, throwing themselves into an embrace. “Did you get my letter?”

 

“Yes, and I was so relieved when you told me you were okay after the attack on Orsus.” Aoi held her by her shoulders, “But I can’t believe it! You’re travelling with one of the Seven, and it's No. 7! Although, I think you were making a mistake in your letter, because you kept referring to her as a boy…” 

 

“N-No, that was no mistake…” Nene appeared worn out, “There’s so much I wanna tell you. It’s sort of hard being surrounded by boys all the time.”

 

“Well, I was just accompanying Akane-kun to his office, so we can go ahead and explore the Capital while we catch up!”

 

“That sounds great!!” Nene said excitedly, “And I can also buy some new stuff!!”

 

Although she was teeming with anticipation, she remembered that she hadn't come alone.

 

“Ah, but what about you, Minamoto-kun?” the Crusader asked as she turned to him. The boy replied casually, “I need to stay with Teru-nii anyway because I have to give my report, so it’s fine.”

 

Akane seemed a bit miffed about leaving Aoi alone. He discreetly began sliding away from the office, “Maybe I could also—”

 

“No.” Teru snatched him by his collar, and began to drag him toward the door, “Let the girls have their fun. We have to talk about the state of affairs.”

 

The door shut behind them, leaving the two girls giggling as they headed toward the exit.

 

As Nene had expected, the Capital was not only immense, but high-spirited. The citizens were bustling and going about their daily routines, lively and fun-loving. The buildings were clean and colorful, the most developed she’s seen in her travels. The two went for a drink first; a luxury drink, Aoi had claimed. With one sip, Nene could barely endure the magnificent invasion in her taste buds.

 

“W-What is this?!”

 

“Hot chocolate.” Aoi smiled, “Akane-kun bought this for me when I first got here.”

 

“It’s delicious~” Nene almost cried as she continued to drink. After finishing the drink, Nene asked, “So, Aoi-chan, have you stayed in the Capital since you got here?”

 

“Well, mostly.” Aoi sipped slowly on her own drink, “I’ve visited some of the villages not too far from here, but Akane-kun is always insistent about being with me and keeping me safe.”

 

“I-Is that okay?”

 

“Mhm!” there was a tinge of a blush on her cheeks. “I don’t mind it.”

 

Nene gazed upon her in wonder. Before she could inquire about her feelings for him, Aoi quickly added, "It's not like he spends all of his time with me. Though, I'm sure he'd love that sort of schedule. He often hangs out with his best friend, Yamabuki Lemon, and is usually busy with work. So I'm actually pretty lucky if I get a whole day with him."

 

Nene smiled, happy to know that her friend has been enjoying her time in the Capital. The Priestess asked, “So, how is travelling with No. 7?”

 

“Well, first of all, he is a boy, actually.”

 

“Really? That's so strange. I wonder why his rumors say he's a girl...”

 

"That's true." Nene looked upward in contemplation, "Maybe he looks like one from afar?"

 

"Does he?"

 

"...I'm not sure!"

 

"Well, does he act like a girl?"

 

“Oh, not at all. That was my second point, actually: he’s… such a boy. He can be a real joker and teases me a lot and likes to invade my personal space.” Nene groaned, “Sometimes, I don’t know how to react or feel around him. He seems like he has a lot of baggage, too, and I’ve seen his serious side a couple of times, but he tends to hide it.”

 

“Hmm,” Aoi smiled, small but sly, “it sounds to me that he likes you~”

 

“W-What?!” Nene shook her head, “N-No…! No way!!”

 

“Isn’t it obvious?”

 

Nene’s eyes widened, before she looked down at her hands. In retrospect, that would’ve been the easiest answer to Amane’s weird behaviors, but… 

 

To think that someone actually liked her?

 

“The only question is,” Aoi tilted her head, “do you like him?”

 

A blush burst from her face. Nene’s immediate response was to decline, but she held back and actually thought through it.

 

“I…” Nene’s expression softened, as she looked to the side with a heavy blush. “I don’t know…”

 

The mirth in Aoi’s smile disappeared, as it took more of a sympathetic curve. “Nene-chan…”

 

“I mean,” Nene suddenly started shouting, “he’s not my type at all!! He’s shorter than me, he isn’t gentlemanly, and he always keeps secrets from me! He’s even younger than me!!”

 

She held her hand to her mouth, and continued to ramble, “But he’s really, really strong, and he looks and acts so cool sometimes that it makes my heart do flips! And he can be really sweet and caring when he wants to be…”

 

Nene-chan is even more confused than I am… Aoi thought to herself, but she grinned, finding humor in the fact that they were two romantically confused girls. They spent the rest of their time together hanging out, touring the center of the Capital, and enjoying some much needed girl time together.

 

When they arrived back at the Castle several hours later, Nene had restocked on potions and supplies, and possessed a brand new greatsword. Amane had immediately pounced on her as his greeting, disregarding the fact that there were other people present.

 

“Yashiro~! You took so long!!”

 

“A-Amane-kun!!” Nene admonished as she clutched onto his arms wrapped around her. Kou yelled in protest, “Hanako!”

 

Akane held onto Aoi’s hand, bringing it to his chest. “You made it back safely. Thank goodness.”

 

Aoi smiled at him, appreciating his worry, although... 

 

“Akane-kun, we only stayed in the Capital…”

 

"Danger lurks everywhere. A goddess like you must be protected at all times."

 

Devoted as ever… Nene thought with a sweatdrop.

 

“Well, anyway,” Amane said as he backed up from her, “we’ll be staying in the Capital for tonight, and leaving tomorrow morning. I’ve told No. 5 to send out warnings to the rest of the Seven so that they won’t be caught off guard and put under control. In turn, he’s told me that we should head to Aecor Town and meet up with No. 3. He’s been scouting the Demon Lord for a while, and he’ll be able to tell us what we need to know.”

 

“Teru-nii said that there hasn’t been any other disturbance after we left the City of Orsus, so everything’s going according to No. 5’s scripts.” Kou pumped his fist, “He also paid for our inn!!”

 

“Aecor Town!! Yay!! A-And, um, that’s really nice of him~” Nene said dreamily. Kou tugged on her wrist, “Come on, I heard it was one of the fancy ones!”

 

“Really??” Nene’s eyes sparkled. “I’ve never been in one before!”

 

“I know, that’s why I wanna show you!”

 

“O-Okay!” Nene hugged Aoi, “It was great to see you again!”

 

“You, too.” Aoi said as she and Akane went inside the Capital, “Good luck on your next quest!”

 

“Thank you!” Nene and Kou were about to leave, but they noticed that Amane wasn’t following them.

 

The Archmage grinned, “I’ll come after you guys soon. Just gotta check on something real quick.”

 

The Crusader looked at him weirdly, but continued on her way with the blond. Amane watched them walk away, and once they were out of earshot, he spoke in a flat voice, “You never did answer me earlier, you know.”

 

“Hmm…?” Tsuchigomori drawled, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “About the girl?”

 

“Yes, Yashiro.” Amane eyed him, assessing him, “Is something going to happen to her?”

 

Tsuchigomori exhaled heavily. “Honorable No. 7, in the case of any future incident, you know that there’s nothing—”

 

"What’s going to happen to her?" Amane asked curtly, his entire mood shifting into a state of solemnity. Tsuchigomori looked over at the boy, meeting his dark, forbidding eyes, yet somewhere inside of that swirling darkness, he saw disquiet about the possibilities. The man only laid his hand upon the boy’s head, “The future is set in stone, but that doesn’t mean you have to worry; trust in your own power.”

 

Amane’s eye twitched. “Always so vague…” 

 

“Now you know where you got it from.”

 

“...Shut up, No. 5.” Amane pouted and pivoted on his heel, “I’m going, then.”

 

“Yeah, yeah.” Tsuchigomori held his hand up, a lazy impersonation of a wave, “Take care of yourself.”

 

“Will do.” Amane held his hand up, too, “You, as well.”

 


 

Aecor Town was as glamorous as she anticipated it to be. Being next to the shore came with both its advantages and disadvantages. On the bad side, they were open to many high-leveled mobs such as sirens and man-eating squids, as well as some ocean-exploring bandits or dangerous pirates. But on the bright side, the town had some of the best and exotic flavors in the land, as well as one of the most exquisite views that anyone ever had the pleasure of experiencing. 

 

It took them more than two weeks to make it to the town since it was on the edge of the land, but when they had finally arrived, Nene couldn’t wait to try everything she could. 

 

It was well worth the arduous journey, through all the mob-slaying and high-leveled training she was put through during their venture. As she experienced all the pain and suffering from being struck and chewed on by various kinds of mobs, their destination drove her to keep marching forward. While enduring Amane's typical sexual harassment and the boys' annoying antics, she persevered!

 

As exhilarated as she was to reach Level 21, coming here made her even more so.

 

She was completely ecstatic about being in one of her dream locations, but just as she was about to run off, someone tugged on the back of her chestplate.

 

“Ahem!”

 

“Amane-kun~” Nene whined, then pointed at the town almost crazily, “C-Can I go?? Please??”

 

“Not so fast, Yashiro.” Amane wagged his finger, “We need to find an inn first, then look for No. 3.” 

 

She pressed her fingers together. “I can look for him if you let me go around~”

 

At her puppy-dog eyes, he was very inclined to yield to her desires, but Tsuchigomori’s cryptic message resounded in his mind. Amane shook his head, “No, we stay together.”

 

Nene puffed her cheeks. “Fine…”

 

Kou inquired as the three went through the town, searching for an inn to stay for the next few days, “What does No. 3 even look like?”

 

“Well, personally,” Amane gazed away with a small sheepish smile, “I’ve never met him.”

 

Nene gaped, “W-What?!”

 

“He’s new!” Amane waved his hands defensively, “I was never that closely acquainted with the old No. 3, either. But if you see any peculiar figures, then, you’ll know!”

 

“Hanako…” Kou shook his fist threateningly, “Almost everyone in the land is a ‘peculiar figure.’

 

“...Maybe.”

 

“Ugh!” Kou cradled his head in his hands, “This might take forever!”

 

Amane cheered, “We better start searching, then!”

 

Once they rented out a room from an inn, they put their unnecessary stuff away, and began to scour through the town. Nene was forced to stay beside Amane, while Kou took a path of his own.

 

“Why does Minamoto-kun get to go around by himself?!”

 

“Because he’s… you know, he’s him. But you’re you.”

 

“Is that an insult?”

 

“Ah, wow, look at the pretty ships.”

 

“Don’t avoid the question!!”

 

Due to his paranoia, the Archmage had to bear the complaints of the girl beside him, as she yearned for the delicious food and the beautiful clothing. All the shops they were passing by were too tempting for her to bear. To think, she was finally at one of the most marvelous sites in the land, after all of her dreaming and wanting, and she was forced to ignore it all.

 

I take back what I said before, Nene inwardly said, bitterness in her words, Amane-kun is cold and selfish and mean!!

 

He felt her glare burning multiple holes through his head, and sighed in discontent. Her safety was important, but if she hated his guts, then that wasn’t going to make him feel any better. He thought up a way to satisfy her needs while also fulfilling their mission, while also satisfying his desire to make sure she was protected. Upon seeing the lighthouse in the distance, an idea illuminated in his mind.

 

“Yashiro,” Amane called, making the girl look away from the dress in the boutique, “follow me.”

 

“Where are we going now?” she sulked. He only smiled at her and held out his hand, “It’ll be a bit of a hike, but you’ll enjoy it, promise.”

 

She looked at him dubiously, but at his sincere grin, she relented and took his hand. After the climb up the rocky cliff, they made it in front of the lighthouse. Nene was mystified, “What’re we doing here?”

 

“Why else?” 

 

Amane brought her into his arms, startling her from the sudden movement, and soared upward with a call of his familiars. They perched themselves on top of the lighthouse, behind the railing of the balcony. Nene hadn’t realized how tall the lighthouse was, so on the way up, she had shut her eyes instinctively. 

 

He whispered in her ear, “You can open them, now.”

 

Nene slowly opened her eyes.

 

The piercing sunlight made her narrow her eyes, but after getting used to the intensity, she was able to overlook the town in its entirety. The view was absolutely gorgeous, as if straight out of a painting, if not better. The shimmering brightness reflected off of the ocean, a mix of all kinds of colorful, warm hues from the sun as it sunk down toward the horizon. In the distance, she could see the animated ocean, full of life and always in motion. The ocean breeze tickled her skin and brushed through her hair, the coolness of it combating the balmy air. She felt that she could watch this breathtaking scenery for hours.

 

Nene could only utter, “This is… amazing…”

 

Amane smiled, proud of his own genius idea. Seeing that she was satisfied right next to him, he felt that he could now work with a clear mind. He took a few steps closer to the railing, and closed his eyes. He directed his hakujoudai to scatter, the white wisps combing through the streets of the town, hunting for No. 3 of the Seven. 

 

Meanwhile, down among the citizens was Kou. He noticed the white wisps flying past, and momentarily wondered if that was Hanako’s way of searching faster. He clenched his fist, and resolved to do his best, too.

 

Although…

 

Everyone really did stand out, in their own way. Multicolored hair, various colors of eyes, a myriad of outfits, and diverse set of skills. How was he supposed to separate the most particular person from a bunch of particular people?!

 

After searching for a couple of hours, Kou sagged on top of a bench in an empty walkway. He felt his stomach growl, but his feet already hurt too much after walking around everywhere. The white wisps had already long disappeared, too, which meant Hanako and Nene were probably done looking for the day.

 

He stretched, cracking his back and relaxing his muscles. He may as well return to the inn, now.

 

“Hello.”

 

Kou jumped in his seat, scrambling for his staff. He halted his actions after registering that the person next to him didn’t appear threatening at all. Despite the fact he had a bright shade of pink for both his hair and eyes, there wasn’t much about him that stood out. He was even wearing civilian clothes, although the scarf wrapped around his neck was a bit odd.

 

“Are you just going to keep staring at me, pervert?” the boy scoffed. Kou furrowed his eyebrows, “You’re the one that snuck up on me!”

 

Kou sat up straight, slowly questioning, “Why… did you sneak up on me?”

 

A vein popped up on the boy’s head. “Why do you ask so many questions? Trying to get to know me, pervert?”

 

Kou was seriously starting to get annoyed by this boy. He barked, “Stop calling me that!”

 

Their odd conversation was suddenly interrupted by the growl of a stomach. The pink-haired boy blushed, and he pulled his scarf up, “W-Was that you?”

 

“Clearly, it was you.” Kou deadpanned. He wasn’t sure who this guy was, but something about him just screamed ‘give me attention.’ The blond felt somewhat bad, so he stood up and seized his hand, “Come on.”

 

“E-Eh?!” the strange boy yelped, “D-Don’t just grab me out of nowhere, you—!”

 

“If you finish that sentence, then I’m not gonna treat you to any food.”

 

The boy stopped struggling. After harrumphing and throwing his gaze somewhere pretentiously, he surrendered, “Fine…”

 

Eventually, they reached a random restaurant Kou had passed by earlier. The pink-haired boy was gazing up at the sign, his mouth watering as delicious smells wafted from its entrance. The Priest shot him a knowing look, to which the boy cleaned up his mouth and declared saucily that he wasn’t at all hungry or thankful.

 

“So,” Kou began as they sat down at a table, “what’s your name?”

 

“...Hanky Hankerdoodle.”

 

With a glint from his raiteijou, the boy sweated and corrected himself, “I’m… Mitsuba, Sousuke Mitsuba.”

 

In spite of Kou’s menacing glare and his staff ready to commit murder, the pink-haired boy was very reluctant to answer most of his questions. His origins, his living status, his Class—none of it received any answers. How did he even live on his own up to this point, anyway? Where did he get his clothes?

 

Their meals were soon set down in front of them. Mitsuba indignantly dug into the delicious food, ignoring the way Kou gazed at him in interest. Once the blond bit into his food, he pulled back in surprise, “This is… delicious!! I need their recipe!!”

 

“Eh? You cook?”

 

“Uh, yeah…” Kou rubbed the back of his neck, “I learned for my family. They needed someone to cook in the household, and my older brother wasn’t any good at it…”

 

“...I see,” Mitsuba uttered, then sipped on his drink. They ate in silence, occasionally bringing up the topic of food, but nothing else was really exchanged.

 

After they were done eating, Kou gladly paid for all of it, using the coins that his brother provided him. Mitsuba waited for him outside of the restaurant, then muttered to himself, “Not bad for a Hella-Lame, Traffic-Safety-Earring Boy.”

 

Kou looked at him confusedly. “What the hell?”

 

“It’s my name for you. It suits you.”

 

“No, it does not.

 

“Anyway,” Mitsuba waved his hand, “you just spent a bunch of money on food for a stranger. Are you stupid?”

 

Kou narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “If you were trying to take advantage of me, then you wouldn’t have bluntly put it out there.”

 

“Maybe I’m going to take advantage of you, still, even after you’re aware.” Mitsuba stuck his tongue out, “That’s just how dumb you are.”

 

“...So you’re saying that you want another meal?”

 

“...No…”

 

Kou sighed, “I’m busy looking for someone, but in the evening, I’ll meet up with you here. If you can even survive that long, that is.”

 

“Of course I can!” Mitsuba seemed piqued at his comment. Then, he calmed down, asking, “Why are you still going to treat me to food?”

 

“If I let you starve, I’d feel bad.”

 

Mitsuba’s eyes sparkled. “Is it because I’m too cute to go hungry?”

 

Kou stated frankly, “It’s because I’d feel like I’m starving a poor, wild animal.”

 

“You—!”

 

“I have to go now!” Kou waved at him with a smile, not guilty of his gibe, “See you tomorrow!”

 

When the blond left, Mitsuba stood there by his lonesome, staring at his back. He hadn’t even gotten the chance to wave back, the Priest moved too quickly. Mitsuba stared at his hand, feeling warm and full from his meal. He folded his fingers into a fist, chastising himself for not being able to do a simple hand wave back.

 

It’s not his fault. It’s not like he was used to that sort of thing.

 

At the inn, Kou yawned as he entered the room, surprised to see Nene already fast asleep on her bed. Amane immediately shushed him upon entry, to which the blond threw his hands up, mouthing the words “I didn’t even say anything!”

 

Amane pointed at him angrily, silently shouting the words “You have loud footsteps!!”

 

Kou slid off his shoes and shut the door behind him as lightly as he could. Then, he angrily—but mutely—marched over to the Archmage and mouthed “Are you calling me fat?!”

 

Amane stared at him for a good few seconds, then scrunched his face up in bewilderment, mouthing an exasperated “What?!”

 

Kou looked elsewhere, as if someone else was in the room with them, then turned back to Amane, soundlessly saying “What do you mean ‘what’?!”

 

Amane put both hands to his ears, then pulled them away with a stupid look on his face, conveying the message of “I don’t understand a thing you’re saying.”

 

Kou vibrated with rage, before Amane tapped his shoulder. Looking up, he saw the black-haired boy with a mischievous smirk, before he was suddenly flipping him off.

 

Kou yelled, abruptly breaking the silence, “You son of a—!”

 

“Shhh!!” Amane hissed, pressing his finger against his lips. “You’re so loud, boy.”

 

Kou gazed at him with incredulity, before slapping his forehead quietly. 

 

Due to their tomfoolery, Kou had forgotten to report to his party about the unusual boy he met, and instead fell asleep tired and irate. When he woke up the next morning, the three of them dispersed once again, he on his own and Amane and Nene as a pair. He wondered to himself why the Archmage was so insistent on staying next to her, but he guessed it was probably for some perverted reason.

 

After another failed day of searching, Kou ambled toward the restaurant from yesterday, somewhat surprised that Mitsuba had actually shown up. The boy seemed disgruntled, “I’m not here for you.”

 

“You’re here for food. I know.”

 

“Good! It’s good that you know.”

 

Kou flashed his staff at him. “Just go inside.”

 

“O-Okay…”

 

They decided to try different foods this time. An awkward silence hung above them, until Mitsuba inquired, “Did you find who you were looking for?”

 

Kou looked shocked that he actually asked him a question, but to avoid missing this opportunity for an actual conversation, he answered, “No, still looking.”

 

“So… why are you looking for the person?”

 

“It’s part of my mission. We need his help.”

 

Mitsuba eyed him warily. “Do you always go on missions where you hunt for people?”

 

“N-No! I do other stuff!!”

 

Over the course of the meal, it developed into a topic from work to visited locations to strange occurrences, and they suddenly found themselves talking normally. After they finished their meals, they departed once more, Kou returning to the inn with a satisfied expression.

 

Nene wasn’t asleep, this time. She had a few cuts on her arms, ones that Amane was currently busy healing.

 

“S-Senpai, what happened?!”

 

She almost bawled. “We went to the beach near the port, and I saw something in the water. They were sirens, and male ones, especially. T-The sirens were so hot… I just wanted to talk to one, but then he tried to eat me!!”

 

Amane clicked his tongue in disappointment. “Oh, Yashiro, you silly radish.”

 

“Shut up!” she exclaimed tearfully. Kou scratched the back of his neck, “I-I see…”

 

“So, boy, how was your day?” Amane asked as he continued to heal up the sniffling girl. Kou grinned, “I still haven’t found No. 3 yet.”

 

“Then why do you look so happy?”

 

“I’m in the middle of making a new friend!” Kou made gestures with his hands, “He’s really hard to get along with, but I think I’m slowly breaking through to him!”

 

“What’s he like?”

 

“Uh… girly and cocky and rude.”

 

“Ah… well, that’s good for you.”

 

“Yeah, good for you, Minamoto-kun.” Nene said resentfully, “Some of us can’t seem to make male friends.”

 

“Yashiro, you’re being mean~! Bad radish!”

 

“You’re getting a rise out of this!!”

 

“No~!” Amane looked at her sourly, “And what do you mean you can’t make two male friends? You have two right here!”

 

“...You two are more like wolves than anything.”

 

“That hurts!!” both Amane and Kou said simultaneously. The Archmage whined, “And after I let you look around and enjoy things while we’re still on a dire mission!”

 

“You’ve barely let me enjoy anything!”

 

Kou didn’t see any end in sight for this debate, so he went ahead and excused himself to the bathroom, not that either of them were paying attention. When he returned, there was a tense silence in the room, and his two party members were steadfastly avoiding looking at each other. As they lay in their beds, their backs were facing one another, and Kou only sighed.

 

In the morning, Kou waved goodbye to the two, in spite of them acting discontented at each other. He really hoped they’d fixed their issues by the end of today. It was weird seeing them clash like this, but he didn’t blame Nene for being vexed when Amane was holding her against her will for some reason he wouldn’t explain.

 

Of course, he couldn’t find No. 3 today, either. Mitsuba noticed his dejection.

 

“What’s up with you?”

 

“My friends are being mad at each other.” Kou ran his fingers through his hair, “And for the life of me, I can’t find the person at all. I’m not even sure how I’d pick them out…”

 

Mitsuba snickered, “Wait, you’re looking for someone when you don’t even know what they look like?”

 

“I know, right? So dumb…” Kou grumbled, “Damn Hanako…”

 

Mitsuba pretended not to hear him say that name, as he sipped on his drink casually. “Why don’t you just give up?”

 

“H-Huh?” the blond reeled back, then shook his head, “There’s no way I’m giving up! We need to find him so he can help us. A lot of people are counting on it.”

 

“What if he just doesn’t wanna be found?”

 

“Why wouldn’t he want to be found by his allies?” Kou frowned, and Mitsuba frowned back, “Not everyone is as they seem.”

 

“Well, maybe he should just get to know them.” Kou answered simply, taking a swig of his drink. Mitsuba’s eyes widened at that, before he lowered his eyes to the table. After their meals were finished and paid for, the two of them exited the restaurant. The night sky was already out, and Kou knew it was time to head home.

 

“I’ll see you tomorrow evening?”

 

Mitsuba gazed at him, conflict in his eyes, before he sighed. 

 

“I think I can help end your search.”

 

Kou was quite perplexed. “Eh? You can?? How?”

 

“Just listen.” Mitsuba crossed his arms and looked up at the looming moon. “You can tell No. 7 that I’m not looking for any company.”

 

Kou stuttered, “You—You know Hanako?!”

 

“Know him? No. Know about him? Yes.”

 

Kou frowned and took a defensive stance, his hand on his raiteijou. “Who are you?”

 

“This again? I told you, I’m Sousuke Mitsuba. You’re lucky to hear that, by the way.” Mitsuba stuck his tongue out at him, before reaching up to his scarf. He pulled it down just enough for the blond to see the mark on his neck.

 

Three.

 

“You’re—!!”

 

“Bye.” Mitsuba waved skittishly. He revolved in place, suddenly summoning large, black wings onto his back, causing Kou to hold his arm up to brace himself from the powerful gusts of wind. He vanished, only leaving a few fluttering feathers in his wake.

 

Back at the inn, Kou rushed to the shared room to tell them the grand news. He swung the door open, stumbling upon… the Crusader, who was dressed up in some expensive-looking yet stylish dress. Nene appeared quite pleased while she twirled in place, whereas Amane was sitting on the bed, clapping softly for her. The two whipped their gazes over to the blond, who only watched the scene in astonishment.

 

“What is… going on here?”

 

“Oh, hello, Minamoto-kun~” Nene was beaming, but something about it didn't sit right with Kou, “Do you like my dress? Amane-kun bought it for me~”

 

Amane nodded, a flat smile on his face. “It only cost half of my travel money, but it was worth seeing her smile.”

 

Kou paled. That must have been a lot of money. “A-Are you sure?”

 

Positive.

 

“Oh, Amane-kun, you’re so kind~” Nene said as she clasped his hands. The sucrose tone she was using made Kou cringe. Amane sang back, monotonous, “Of course, Yashiro~”

 

“Amane-kun~”

 

“Yashiro~”

 

“A-ma-ne-kun~!”

 

“Ya-shi-ro~!”

 

“Guys…” Kou disclosed plainly, “I found No. 3.”

 

All at once, they both snapped their necks to look at him, then bounded over to where he was standing. The two freaked out, no longer maintaining their false smiles or sugary voices. “You found No. 3?!”

 

“What was he like?”

 

“What did he look like?”

 

“Did you catch his name?”

 

“Do you know where he’s staying?!”

 

“H-Hold on!” Kou put his hands up in an attempt to calm them down. He gazed up at the ceiling and recalled what he could, “Well, it turns out that the person I’ve been befriending was actually him! He has pink hair and pink eyes, and his name is actually Sousuke Mitsuba. But… I don’t know where he’s staying.” 

 

Kou directed his attention to Amane. “We met up today as usual, but at the very end, he revealed who he was. Then told me that he doesn’t want any help from you, Hanako.”

 

“Eh?” Nene looked at Amane skeptically, “Did you do something to him?”

 

“No! Like I said, I’ve never met him before!!” Amane defended, before saying, “Well, now that we know what he looks like, we can try to lure him out and get him to tell us what we need to know.”

 

Kou questioned, “How are we gonna do that?”

 

“Hmm…” Amane tapped his finger on his chin. “Well, he likes to visit you when you’re alone… Maybe we can use you as bait!”

 

“Y-You want me to deceive him?” Kou appeared hesitant, “He seems really introverted and distrustful, so that might just make the situation worse. Here, I’ll just meet up with him again, and convince him myself to help us.”

 

Amane frowned, “You sure you can do that, boy?”

 

“Yes!”

 

Nene smiled and gave him a double-handed high-five, “I believe in you, Minamoto-kun! You’ll do great.”

 

“Thank you, Senpai.” 

 

“And since it seems that Minamoto-kun is now solely in charge of the mission,” Nene pivoted her body to grin eerily at Amane, “does this mean we can finally tour the town~?”

 

Amane frowned, but he sighed and waved his hand, “Fine, fine. You win, Yashiro. We can.”

 

“Yay~!”

 

“But just so you know, I’m going to be with you the whole time.”

 

She hummed, before nodding, “Okay, I suppose I can deal with that.”

 

When the three of them slept later that night, they carried excitement in their hearts, each for a different reason. Kou pondered how he would get Mitsuba to fully join their side, Amane wondered what he and the Crusader would be doing all day, and Nene dreamt of swimming away with a friendly merman.

 

In the morning, after they all shared a hearty breakfast and took refreshing baths, they stepped outside into the brilliant sun. Amane instructed, “Remember, we meet up at the inn at noon, at four, and at eight.”

 

“Roger!” Nene and Kou said together. They put their hands together in the middle, and Amane counted, “One, two, three—break!”

 

Intent on finding the third of the Seven, Kou strode off somewhere immediately. Nene was about to do the same, but Amane snatched her by the wrist instantly. “Ah, ah, ah! Remember~”

 

“Yes, I remember…” Nene said grumpily, “But Amane-kun, how am I supposed to attract any handsome guys if you’re with me?”

 

His lips curved downward, before he gently gripped her chin and stared into her ruby eyes with his own amber ones. “But, Yashiro... why do you need any other guy when you have me~?”

 

“E-Eh?!” Nene swatted his hand off and put her own up in front of her face, “T-That’s not even a comparable replacement…”

 

Amane clutched his heart and grimaced. “Ouch.”

 

She walked ahead of him, purposefully hiding the redness of her face. “Come on, there’s a lot I want to see!”

 

He followed her with a pout. “Okay…”

 

In the meantime, Kou was ambling through the empty walkways, hoping that would encourage Mitsuba to peek out again. He whistled and stuck his hands in his pockets, his clothed staff strapped onto his back. Heading upward on a hill, he was able to view the coastline from his position, tracing his eyes over the vast, blue sky stretching over miles and miles of calm ocean.

 

“It’s pretty, isn’t it?”

 

Kou jolted at the voice, even though he recognized who it belonged to almost immediately. Mitsuba was no longer dressed in civilian clothes, but in dapper black robes with a hood, though his scarf was still wound around his neck. He was looking outward, “It makes you wanna capture the scene forever, right? But... that’s impossible.”

 

Kou scratched his head. “Why don’t you walk up and say ‘hello’ like a normal person?”

 

“It’s your own fault.” Mitsuba replied, annoyed, “You just never notice me.”

 

“Oh, really?” the blond said apologetically, “Sorry.”

 

After a passing moment of silence, Kou asked, “Why don’t you want to meet Hanako? Isn’t he your leader?”

 

Mitsuba grimaced, “I… I’ve heard his rumors. They’re not exactly welcoming, you know?”

 

“But you can’t just avoid him forever.” Kou frowned, “And we need your help fighting the Demon Lord. No. 5 told us that you’ve been scouting their locations.”

 

“That’s right.” Mitsuba folded his arms and proclaimed haughtily, “I have a special ability that allows me to sense presences from reflective surfaces within a specific range. After getting used to their auras, it’s been easy for me to track them down.”

 

“Seriously?!” Kou leaned forward, enthusiastic, “That’s amazing!!”

 

Mitsuba’s cheeks tinged with red, and he pushed him away, “N-Not too close, pervert!!”

 

“But really, that’s incredibly unique.” Kou grinned, “I’m glad you decided to use it for good instead of evil.”

 

Mitsuba stared at him, his expression unreadable. The Priest soon asked, “Oh, but, even if you avoided Hanako, why did you still talk to me?”

 

“...Just trying to see the kind of company he keeps.” Mitsuba gazed toward the ocean, again, “There’s a lot you can tell about a person besides what they claim about themselves, or despite what other people say.”

 

“That’s true… you’re very observational.” Kou remarked, then inquired, “Have you tried to talk to Senpai?”

 

“‘Senpai?’”

 

“The Crusader.”

 

“Ah, the Radish girl? No, since Honorable No. 7 is always with her.” Mitsuba looked at him weirdly, “And she’s your Senpai? How old are you, exactly?”

 

“I’m fifteen…”

 

Mitsuba appeared surprised, then he put his gaze to the side. “I am, too.”

 

“Y-You’re fifteen?” Kou said in wonderment, “I wonder how long you’ve been one of the Seven, since Hanako is only fifteen, too.”

 

“H-He is?”

 

“Yeah!” Kou looked up at the sky, “I don’t really know for how long, though, but I know it’s been a long time.”

 

“A long time…” Mitsuba looked down at his hands. “I’ve only been one of the Seven for a year.”

 

The blond felt somewhat reluctant to ask since the matter may be sensitive, but his curiosity was burning within him. 

 

“How did it happen?”

 

Mitsuba shielded his face with his sleeve. “That’s a bit straightforward.”

 

Kou fretted, “I mean, if you don’t wanna tell me, that’s okay!”

 

Mitsuba turned away from him, his vision now filled with the awe-inspiring view. But when his mind delved into his memories, dragging his consciousness into the past, he saw nothing beautiful about it. Maybe something sweet, maybe something worthwhile, but in the end, it was always just him and misery.

 

“...It doesn’t happen randomly.”

 

“H-Huh?”

 

“The old No. 3 explained this to me.” Mitsuba sat down on a nearby bench, and rested his chin in his hands, “The Seven Mysteries of the Land are people with particular abilities or powers that aren’t created from nothing, but they’re passed on to newer people. Some of us just happen to live longer than others.”

 

Kou looked extremely astounded at that information. He didn’t think anyone that wasn’t one of the Seven knew how the whole process worked. He sat down next to the pink-haired boy, listening intently.

 

“The last No. 3 was a creepy, old bird guy that was really judgmental and super annoying.” Mitsuba bit out, and Kou had to wonder if he detected any irony in what he just declared. “But… he helped me take care of my mother when I had no one to depend on. When she died, and he felt his death incoming, he passed down his powers to me. Heh, what a lame guy, he left me alone to become a—a bird, and one of the Seven.

 

Mitsuba clenched his fists, in spite of his teary eyes. “Stupid old bird man… really, who does that? He’s lucky that—that I’m still cute as a bird...”

 

Kou placed a comforting hand on his back. “Mitsuba, have you been alone since you became No. 3?”

 

“I’ve always been alone, idiot.” Mitsuba scowled at him, “I don’t need your pity.”

 

“I’m not pitying you.” Kou looked at him with determination. “I just admire you.”

 

The moment those words left his mouth, Mitsuba slid away from him, gripping the bench with tense hands. “H-Have I bewitched you with my cute face and sad backstory??”

 

“Shut up!” Kou stood up and cracked his fists, “I admire you for your resilience all this time, but it’s not good for you. You know what you need? You need a friend!”

 

“E-Eh??”

 

“Come on!” Kou tugged on his shirt, “I heard that this place has more awesome stuff besides just food!!”

 

“W-What about the Demon Lord?” Mitsuba replied hesitantly, even though he allowed the blond to drag him into the town. “Didn’t you want to know what information I have?”

 

“Well, of course!” Kou looked back at him with a grin, “But let’s enjoy the town, first! I bet you haven’t explored the fun stuff with all your scouting!!”

 

“D-Don’t think I spend my day just hiding around!!”

 

“That’s exactly what I’m thinking!!”

 

Mitsuba yelled, despite the big smile that grew on his face. “You idiot!”

 

For the next few days, the thought of the Demon Lord was in the back was everyone’s minds. Nene had successfully cheered up Amane, and the two of them spent their time around town, experiencing all that it had to offer. Even if she had claimed before about wanting to enchant some males, the idea of being with another boy didn’t cross her mind as she gleefully went through the streets with Amane in tow. Kou and Mitsuba did the same, getting a thrill out of the sights and the tastes of the town.

 

Kou would return to the inn during the designated times, happily reporting his status of the third of the Seven, and excitedly telling Nene and Amane about what he and Mitsuba had done together for the day. Although the two have yet to meet him, they were quite proud of Kou’s interpersonal skills. He had a strong feeling that by the end of it all, Mitsuba would be more than willing to join their group and help them with the Demon Lord.

 

Today, however, was going to be interesting. Kou could feel it, since he planned to ask Mitsuba to be part of their party.

 

“You have a creepy look on your face.” Mitsuba told him, “I hope you’re not thinking of something dirty.”

 

“No, I’m not!!” Kou shouted, before he calmed, “I was just gonna ask you something.”

 

“...You better not have a ring in your pocket.”

 

“Can you stop?” the blond huffed, “I just… I just wanted to ask if you wanted to meet my friends.”

 

“Your friends? You mean Radish-senpai and Honorable No. 7?” Mitsuba looked dubious at the request. “Why? So you can extort me for information?”

 

“No, stupid. I think that you’d like them, and that they’d like you!” Kou grinned, “And then, maybe… you could consider joining our party?”

 

“W-What…?” Mitsuba stammered, his cheeks tinged with pink, “Me?”

 

“Who else?” Kou said gleefully, “It’d be a lot of fun if you’d adventure with us!”

 

He held his hand out to him, asking, “Well, what do you say?”

 

Mitsuba blinked, then looked down at his palm. His eyes softened, but before he could respond, chills ran down his spine. He felt a cold presence nearing them at top speed; there was no time to leave.

 

“Minamoto-kun.” Mitsuba suddenly sprouted his wings, then stood protectively in front of the Priest. “There’s someone else here.”

 

“H-Huh??” Kou peeked over his wing, and his eyes lit up at the person in front of them. “Hey, don’t stress, that’s just Hanako!!”

 

The boy was standing there, his head lowered so that his face was mostly unseen. He was wearing his usual outfit, with his black cape and witch hat and all. However, his staff didn’t appear to be present, and there was an eerie silence hanging above him.

 

“Hanako…?” Mitsuba narrowed his eyes, “Does he usually have a demonic aura?”

 

“W-What? No…” Kou pushed in front of Mitsuba, despite the boy’s protests. “Hanako, what’re you doing here?! Where is Senpai??”

 

Something didn’t feel right. Mitsuba called out urgently, “Minamoto-kun…”

 

“Oi, Hanako! Answer me!” Kou began to step forward, “You’re not really making a good first impression!”

 

The boy leaned forward with a sinister smirk spreading across his face, then he vanished. 

 

Mitsuba immediately screamed, “Minamoto-kun, watch—!!

 

Kou was abruptly slammed into the floor, blood spurting out from the fresh wound on his head. Mitsuba felt his heart plummet as his throat let out another scream. The moment he stepped forward, the boy reappeared behind him.

 

Kou tried to get up, but he couldn’t. Time seemed to slow down, as the boy’s hand shot up in the air, the object in his fingers glistening against the scintillating sunlight.

 

The stronger the emotional state, the stronger the control.

 

The boy thrust his hand forward, jamming the crystal into the back of his neck, making Mitsuba stumble forward with a pained cry. Kou pushed himself up with his hands, and called out with a broken voice. “Mitsuba!!

 

Although the blood streaming down his face was obstructing part of his vision, he let out a howl and charged forward at the Hanako lookalike. To his great surprise, the one who stopped him was his own friend.

 

“M-Mitsuba?”

 

The kick to his gut didn’t hit as hard as the realization that his friend was no longer in control. Kou collided with the nearby wall, his breath knocked from his lungs. The wound on his head worsened, but he couldn’t think to stop and heal himself. He called out painfully, “M-Mitsuba…!”

 

Four arrows pierced through his limbs, each one pinning him into the wall. Kou yelped out in a hoarse voice, barely registering the bow and arrow in Mitsuba’s hands. There were black feathers hanging from the side of his face, and his wings were outstretched menacingly behind him.

 

“Wow~” the boy crooned, “Good job, Mitsuba~”

 

Kou was breathing heavily, trying to keep his mind off of the pain. W-Who is that…?

 

“Boy!” he heard Amane shout from the side. A large mass of water gushed out, blowing the two figures away from the Priest. Amane landed in front of him, worry written all over his face. “Shit… shit!”

 

Amane quickly healed the wound on the blond’s head, first, stopping it from bleeding any longer. He tried to grab one of the arrows, but Kou groaned weakly from the pain, his strength declining. Nene was beside him, as well, “M-Minamoto-kun… hang on!”

 

Kou felt tears brim his eyes. “I couldn’t help him...”

 

“Minamoto-kun…” Nene shook her head, “Kou-kun, we’ll save him, but we need to help you, first!”

 

Amane inhaled sharply through his teeth, “This is gonna hurt.”

 

He yanked out one of the arrows, causing Kou to cry out. Saying the healing incantation swiftly, he sealed the wound and alleviated the pain. He had to repeat this process three more times, eventually freeing Kou from the wall. There was a whistle in the air, and something metal glinted through the sky. Nene speedily reacted by placing her shield in front of Amane as he healed up Kou.

 

“Nice work, Yashiro!”

 

“Thank you.” Nene said, then she glared at the two figures that reappeared in front of them. “Leave Kou-kun alone!”

 

“Oh~? Who’s this?” there was a voice with an extremely familiar lilt that made the Archmage freeze up. “Amane’s girlfriend~?”

 

“T-That can’t be…” Amane finished healing Kou, and rose onto his feet with wobbly legs. His eyes shrunk upon the person ahead of him. As Mitsuba stood dormant, the other boy waved in a friendly manner.

 

"Hi, Amane!! How long has it been? Five years??"

 

Said boy felt his breathing accelerate, and his heart hammered in his chest.

 

"Tsu…Tsukasa…"

 

Amane was trembling.

 

"Why…?"

 

"The Demon Lord brought me back~" Tsukasa waved his hand, making Mitsuba's form become normal once more. There was a black mark on his right cheek that read the word ‘Dead,’ a dark parallel to his brother’s mark. A childish smile was apparent on his face. "I have to do his bidding, but seeing you again is totally worth it!"

 

"You work for the Demon Lord…?" Amane felt tears spring to his eyes; he could barely breathe. His hands flew upward to shield his face. "Why? Why...? The Demon Lord… he's just trying to control me… s-snap out of it…"

 

He shook his head fervently, but seeing his brother again was too much for him to handle. The moment Amane descended onto his knees, a wicked look took over Tsukasa's face.

 

Nene whirled around, wielding her greatsword and swinging it behind Amane. Tsukasa narrowly avoided the slice, the crystal tight in his fingers.

 

"Whoa!" the boy grinned at her, "Aren't you skilled~ hmm?"

 

"Stay back!" Nene yelled, staying close to both of her friends. Amane was currently suffering from some sort of trauma, and Kou had knocked out from pain and exhaustion. She gritted her teeth and held her shield up high; she had to stay strong for the both of them.

 

"Don't worry, Amane~" Tsukasa held his hands behind his back. "I don’t have to take you right now. I only had to pick up No. 3, really. His tracking ability was quite irritating to the Demon Lord, but it's going to be useful for us! Thanks to him befriending the Priest, it was even easier to control him!"

 

Tsukasa waved happily. "It was fun to see you again!!"

 

He vanished, bringing Mitsuba with him; his laughter echoed eerily in the wind. Nene lowered her shield and immediately checked over Kou. He seemed to be breathing regularly, and there were no signs of external bleeding. She sighed in relief, then directed her attention toward Amane. Just as she was about to put her hand on him, he flinched away.

 

"I-I…" he stuttered, unable to look at her, "I'm sorry…"

 

Amane fled with his hakujoudai, leaving the two by themselves. Nene tried to call for him, but it was no use. She exhaled heavily, then picked up the blond and headed for the inn.

 

After tucking him in bed and rubbing some medicinal cream where his wounds were, she left the inn in search of the Archmage.

 

The sky was already dark, save for the wide, glowing moon among the scrambled stars. It made it even harder to look for him, but when she gazed upward toward the cliff, she recognized the figure almost instantly.

 

"T-There you are…" Nene huffed as she hoisted herself onto the balcony of the lighthouse. Amane was sitting down near the railing, hugging his knees to his chest, and staring up at the moon. 

 

"Amane-kun…" Nene sat next to him. He didn't regard her presence, but she persisted, "you have to talk to me."

 

Amane's grip tightened, and he wished he could just hide himself in his own body. Her gaze softened, and she reached out to grab his hand. He allowed her, in which her fingers then intertwined with his.

 

"It's okay."

 

His lips quivered. "I-It's not…"

 

"Amane-kun…"

 

"It—" his voice strained, "It hurts too much."

 

She felt her heart ache at his words. This must have been horribly difficult for him, and she felt there really wasn't anything she could do except hear him out.

 

"Amane-kun, it's okay." Nene scooted closer, and with their hands still linked, she told him reassuringly, "I'm right here."

 

His fingers twitched, before his hand relaxed in her hold. His shoulders slackened, yet he still avoided her eyes.

 

Tranquility carried over them, but in its silence, heavy thoughts could be heard. Fear could be felt, sadness was spilling. She squeezed his hand, and his nerves soothed, before they rose again.

 

He’s never told anyone this before. How would she react? What was he expecting? Did he want her to react in a certain way? If she didn’t, would he react in turn?

 

She squeezed his hand again. His mind calmed, slightly; not enough to placate his heart, but sufficient for his lips to start forming words, for his air to start leaving his lungs so he could breathe again.

 

"...Our parents died while we were still young.”

 

Nene tried not to raise her head in surprise. She kept their hands interlocked.

 

“It was just me and my younger twin brother, Tsukasa." Amane began to narrate in a low voice, "One day, Tsuchigomori-sensei passed by our village, and decided to bring us with him on his travels. He became not only our teacher, but also our guardian."

 

"Tsuchigomori-sensei!!" Tsukasa shouted, "Amane and I want to learn real magic!"

 

"Not yet." The tall man drawled, "You both still have a lot to learn before that."

 

"But you teach us stuff every day!" Tsukasa complained, and Amane, although the quieter one, couldn't help but agree. Tsuchigomori sighed, "Alright, alright. I'll try to teach you one spell."

 

"Yay!!" Tsukasa cheered. Amane couldn't believe his pleading actually worked. 

 

After the magic lesson, Amane was surprised that it had come to him so easily. The flame in his hand burned and flickered, before dissipating. Tsukasa looked at him in wonderment. "Awesome, Amane!!"

 

"You haven't gotten it yet, Tsukasa?"

 

"Uhh, no…" he grinned, "But that's okay. I think it's cooler when you do it!"

 

"For some reason, I had a strong affinity for magic. Not to a specific element, but for all of them." Amane explained quietly, "Tsukasa, though, wasn't as capable. However, he was more skilled in swordsmanship and hand-to-hand combat."

 

"Take this!" Amane yelled as he tossed a medium-sized fireball with his hand. Tsukasa easily evaded his attack, and darted over to knock his brother off balance. Amane's back soon hit the ground, and there was suddenly a shortsword looming over his face.

 

"I win~!" 

 

"N-Not fair…" Amane tossed his brother off and brushed the dirt and grass off of his tunic. Tsukasa nodded, "It's totally fair."

 

"Is not."

 

"Is too."

 

"Is not!"

 

"Is too!"

 

"Shut up, you two." Tsuchigomori groaned and lifted the twins up with his extra limbs. "That's enough sparring for today. You skipped lunch."

 

"Lunch!!" Tsukasa exclaimed joyfully, then followed No. 5's footsteps. Amane quickly caught up to his brother, and poked his arm.

 

"What is it, Amane?"

 

"...Do you think you could teach me more about close combat?"

 

"Amane? Needing my help?" Tsukasa snickered into his palm, making his brother's face burn. "N-Nevermind, then!!"

 

"Don't be like that~" Tsukasa grabbed his shoulder and beamed, "I'll help you learn!"

 

“You learned how to fight from your brother?”

 

“...That’s right.”

 

She pondered out loud, “Was he a good teacher?”

 

Amane’s shoulders rose and fell, a sign that he found humor in her words. “He fought me as if we were fighting to the death, which has helped me get out of a lot of perilous situations. So, yeah, he was.”

 

Amane’s thumb was running over the hilt of the weapon at his hip. “And this shortsword was his.”

 

“...What happened?”

 

She squeezed his hand again, reminding him of her presence. Amane gazed at her, his doleful eyes wrenching her heart. 

 

“Alright, you brats,” Tsuchigomori stood tall in front of them, “you’re going to be meeting someone important today.”

 

“Who? Who?” Tsukasa bounced on his feet, and Amane looked left and right for the person he could be talking about.

 

He slid his pipe from his lips, and blew out a puff of smoke. “The leader of the Seven, Hanako, Archmage of all Archmages.”

 

The twins’ eyes sparkled as they excitedly awaited the appearance of the woman. With a flash of light, and a superb display of magic prowess, she materialized in front of them.

 

“Ta-da!!” said a voice. Instead of it being womanly and seductive, it was one worn from many years of age. Amane grimaced and Tsukasa was still beaming, while a slouched, elderly woman came forth from the smoke. She was wearing opulent Archmage clothes and wielding a wooden staff, but her baggy cheeks and wispy hair removed any sort of threatening aspect.

 

Tsukasa pointed at her with an open-mouth smile. “It’s a sack of wrinkles!!”

 

“Tsukasa!!” Amane covered his brother’s mouth and burned in embarrassment. “I-I’m sorry, Honorable No. 7.”

 

Tsuchigomori’s straight face broke as he snorted from the boy’s comment. Suddenly, there was a pain in his head, originating from the woman’s staff.

 

“Ouch!” the Warlock hissed, “You violent old witch.”

 

She ignored him and presented herself proudly. “I am Hanako of the Seven Mysteries of the Land! The most powerful and versatile Archmage of them all!”

 

Tsukasa tilted his head, his eyes roaming up and down her figure, then tore off his brother’s hands from his mouth. “Is she hiding under that ballgown of skin?”

 

“T-Tsukasa!!” Amane once again threw his hands over his mouth. “Shut up!”

 

Nene’s giggles broke through his storytelling. He blushed, “What?”

 

“I don’t know.” She rested her cheek on her hands, “It’s nice to hear you describe you and your brother’s relationship. And you were so polite, what happened?”

 

Amane pouted, and Nene was only glad he didn’t react adversely to her little gibe. He huffed, “That hurts, you know?”

 

“You know I’m kidding.”

 

He pointedly looked away. “Do I?”

 

Nene smiled, then leaned her head against his shoulder, making his face color pink. She focused her attention on their connected hands and whispered, “Continue.”

 

“O-Okay…” Amane couldn’t look at her, “No. 7 decided to stay for a while, and we couldn’t really figure out why. We did bother her often, and even though Tsukasa kept annoying her, she seemed to like us a lot. There was something off about the whole thing though, and she and No. 5 kept discussing to each other quietly.”

 

Nene had a slight suspicion of what was going to happen, but she wasn’t sure how it was going to happen. Amane watched the serene waves crash onto the shore, dragging itself back into the ocean, until it repeated the cycle. 

 

“One day, she told us how the Seven Mysteries of the Land pass down their powers.” Amane willed himself to keep speaking, “And one day, five years ago, the village we were staying at was attacked.”

 

Nene felt his shoulders quiver. She fastened her grip on him, and comfortingly rubbed her forehead on his arm.

 

“Tsukasa and I were exploring the village.” He spoke in sorrow, “We didn’t think… I never thought that that would be the last time we’d explore together.”

 

Amane tried to put out the fires with his water magic, but it was almost impossible. The roaring flames consumed every building in its sight, every bit of plant life, every human life it could reach. The sprawled out bodies scattered across the village were imprinted in his memory, and the smoke was invading his lungs. 

 

After the nearby Demon finished chewing on a human arm, it focused its sights on him. Before it could attack him, Tsukasa came barreling in from the side, slaying it almost instantly. Amane coughed, “T-Tsukasa!”

 

The boy was covered in Demon blood, and his eyes were hyper-focused on the situation. “Amane, let’s get out of here!”

 

Tsukasa took him by his arm and dragged him away, wherever the safest location was. The dry dirt was scratchy against his skin, and the sky was no longer visible. Amane was hacking into his elbow, “T-Tsukasa… t-this isn’t gonna work—”

 

“Shush, Amane!” Tsukasa’s eye twitched, before he coughed, too. “Just gotta find a way…”

 

Suddenly, there was a whirl of winds that blew away the fire, the smoke following after it. Hanako stood in front of them, bleeding and exhausted. She gasped, “T-There’s not much more I can do. No. 5 is evacuating whoever he can. He’s been worried sick about you two...”

 

She chuckled to herself, a low grumble that resounded through the air, before shaking her head. “Ah, that poor fool. This was bound to happen.”

 

“What are you talking about…?” Amane glared at her skeptically as he stood up protectively in front of Tsukasa. She eyed them both with purpose.

 

“Listen to me, boys. I need one of you to accept my power.”

 

“W-What?” Amane’s eyes widened. “W-Why?!”

 

“I’m dying!” she yelled over the flames that began to crawl back toward them. The howl of the Demons surrounded the area. “I can barely lift a finger, let alone continue to use spells. I need one of you to be my successor, or everyone here will die!”

 

“T-That’s—”

 

“Amane can do it!”

 

“Eh?!”

 

“You can do it!!” Tsukasa shook him by his shoulders. “You can do it, you can do it! You have all the magic abilities. You’re perfect for it!”

 

“Tsukasa, I can’t—”

 

The fire encircled them once more, though not alone. There were demonic auras all over them, ready to launch for an attack. 

 

Tsukasa stared at his trembling twin, before shoving him and the old woman inside a hidden space below one of the stands. 

 

“What are you doing?!”

 

Tsukasa placed his finger on his lips, smiling slyly. “Shush. I’ll see you later.”

 

He cupped his mouth and began running away from them, “Oi! Demons! I’m right here!!”

 

“T-Tsukasa!!” Amane tried to chase after him, but the Archmage held him in place. He whirled his head and screamed at her, “Let me go!!

 

“If you go after him, you’ll die, too!” 

 

Amane’s breath hitched. She brought her staff out and held it with her veiny hands. “Accept my power. It’s the only way.”

 

The boy went silent. 

 

Nene sat up straight, about to ask him if he was okay, but his pouring tears stopped her questioning. She called him in a quiet voice, yet it seemed like he didn’t hear her. 

 

She called again, louder. “Amane-kun.”

 

He looked at her, hauling himself from his memories, and facing his reality. She met his gaze with determined yet compassionate eyes.

 

“It’s okay.”

 

Amane’s tears rolled off his cheeks. “He—”

 

The fight was over. 

 

All the demons were slain, all the fires were put out, and all the deaths were innumerable and permanent.

 

Amane found his brother laying in a pool of his own blood, encompassed by the corpses of the very Demons that sought to kill him. He was clutching his shortsword to his chest, and despite the wounds that marred his body, there was a smile present on his face.

 

That day, Amane had killed his first Demon.

 

His first one-hundred Demons.

 

That day, Amane was recognized by the Capital for his grand work, and was recruited by the King to work for him.

 

He earned the Golden Insignia.

 

That day, Amane lost his younger twin brother.

 

He became No. 7 of the Seven Mysteries of the Land.

 

Nene hugged him to her chest, soaking in his misery and his sobs. His shaky hand was still linked with hers, and he clutched her clothes with his other hand. 

 

“It’s okay, Amane-kun.” Nene whispered, “You’re strong. Very strong.”

 

He hiccuped, then laughed; the sound was marked with a sardonic pulse. “Strong…? I couldn’t save him. I let him die. I almost lost you a few times, and I even almost lost the boy.”

 

She backed up and cupped his cheek, wiping his tears. “Didn’t I already promise you? I'm not going to die.”

 

“...Sorry, Yashiro,” Amane gazed down, “It’s easier to say than do.”

 

She opened her mouth, but her voice stopped in her throat. Amane glanced up, then was suddenly engrossed with her own streaming tears.

 

He breathed, “Yashiro?”

 

“E-Eh?” she let go of him to hide her face, “S-Sorry! I just… I just feel really bad for you. You’ve been through so much, and I was even saying before how I wanted to share your experiences. That was really selfish of me.”

 

His face softened. He didn’t mean to bring her to tears. “You didn’t know…”

 

“...You know, you’re right, Amane-kun. I can’t promise that I won’t die. Who can?” her voice wavered, and despite her teary gaze at her lap, she declared, “B-But I just wanna be there for you! I just wanted you to know that I’m here for you, no matter what—”

 

He grabbed her arm, causing her to jerk her head up at him. She let out a small gasp, “A-Amane-kun?”

 

Amane stared at her, his cheeks dried of tears, taking in the sight of her fresh ones. She glanced down at his hand, then back at his eyes.

 

“Amane-kun…?” she whispered, “What’s wrong?”

 

“...I appreciate you, Yashiro. I really do.” Amane whispered back, “But I don’t know if I wanna keep feeling this way. One of us is going to get hurt…”

 

Vaguely, Nene registered her fingers still entwined with his, and that her tears were no longer pouring. She leaned forward, almost tempting him to cross their unspoken line.

 

“Feeling what way?”

 

“Yashiro…”

 

“Stop leaving me in the dark.”

 

Nene’s ruby eyes drew him in, forbidding him to look away.

 

His emotions, his feelings for her—he couldn’t bottle them anymore.

 

“Sorry.” 

 

He leaned forward and kissed her, his lips gently pressing against her own. She emitted a tiny squeak, barely remembering that this was her first kiss.

 

It ended as soon as it happened, with him pulling away with a faint blush. “I—uh, sorry, again. I couldn’t stop myself.”

 

“I-It’s okay…” Nene found herself saying. She wasn’t sure what went through her mind to permit him to take her first kiss, but she didn’t feel entirely objected to it. A bright red blush painted her cheeks, and he asked, unsure, “Is it really? Aren’t you going to hit me?”

 

“N-No…” Nene paused, then said, “Actually, yes.”

 

Amane grimaced and squeezed his eyes shut, bracing himself for his impending punishment. He was pleasantly surprised to feel a gentle pressure on his lips, and he pushed back against her.

 

When they broke apart, he giggled, “What kind of hit was that?”

 

“A hit from my lips.” She pouted, “On your lips.”

 

“Can you punish me like that more often~?” he inquired smoothly, looking at her with mischief. She chuckled, “There’s my Amane-kun. And no, I’ll still knock you if you step out of line.”

 

Your ‘Amane-kun’?”

 

She frowned, “Stop…”

 

“Does this mean that Yashiro likes me~?”

 

Nene flushed, “What do you think, you dummy?”

 

He hugged her fully, nuzzling his head into her neck, “Yes~?”

 

She nodded, and hugged him back, ignoring how the cadence of her heart hammered in her ears.

 

“You know, Amane-kun…” she blushed, “You can call me Nene.”

 

“Really?” his face heated up against her. She nodded again, and he smiled against her hair, “Okay. Then I’ll treasure you, my Nene~”

 

She blushed fiercely and whacked his head, eliciting a pained response. “You’re teasing too hard, now!”

 

“Oww!”

 

“Come on.” She tugged on his hand, “Let’s go back.”

 

He dismissed the throbbing in his skull and took her hand, interlacing their fingers. With a nod, he sent her a grin. "Yeah!"

 


 

When Kou woke up, his hands thrust outward as he threw himself upward, shouting, “Mitsuba!!”

 

Nene suffered a fright that afternoon, making Amane whack him upside his head. Kou apologized, then inquired, “What happened to me?”

 

“Your body went under a lot of intense pain and recovery.” Nene explained, “You’ve been asleep since Mitsuba-kun was taken.”

 

“Oh…” Kou scrunched up the sheets with his fists. “It was my fault he was taken…”

 

She placed a comforting hand on his shoulder, “Don’t say that, Kou-kun. We’ll get him back.”

 

He blushed at the use of his name. Vaguely, he could recall her using it before he lost consciousness, but now that he was wide awake, it was something he’d have to get used to. Amane said from behind her, “Don’t let your hopes drop, boy! We can still save him.”

 

“O-Of course!” Kou shook his head, “There’s no way I’m letting Mitsuba work for the Demon Lord.”

 

“That’s the spirit!” Amane sang and crossed his arms, declaring, “And I’m going to free my brother from the Demon Lord’s clutches, too.”

 

“E-Eh??” the two uttered in sync. This was the first time she heard him say this. As for Kou, it was the first time he heard about Hanako having a brother.

 

“Y-You have a brother?!” Kou yelled in a questioning tone, “Is that who that kid was?”

 

Amane frowned, “I had a brother.”

 

Kou looked like he stepped on a landmine. “O-Oh…”

 

“It’s okay.” The Archmage waved his hand, “Since he was revived from the Demon Lord, he’s obligated to comply with the Demon Lord’s wishes. The Undead mark indicates that he has some desire strong enough that allows him to stay alive. The Demon Lord most likely brought him back to mess with me and put me under his control.”

 

Some strong desire? Nene thought to herself, Didn’t Tsukasa-kun say he wanted to see Amane-kun?

 

“The situation right now is too risky. We’re going to head back to the Capital and regroup with No. 5 and No. 1, since we’ll need their help knowing what to do next.” Amane explained as he made formulated gestures. “I’m not sure who they’ll be targeting next, but we can’t wait around to find out.”

 

“Got it!”

 

“W-Wait!” Nene waved her hands, “Are you going to try to bring all of the Seven together? In one place?”

 

“No, because the worst case scenario is that everyone gets caught.” Amane proclaimed, “We have to make sure that even if one of us falls, there will be others that can still fight.”

 

“And we have no more time to waste!” Kou yelled as he hopped off of the bed. He stretched his stiff muscles and donned his outfit. “Let’s get going!”

 

“Right behind you, boy!”

 

Nene followed them silently, wondering what had gotten into the two of them. They were both just shaken up about the recent events, yet now they acted with motivation. She knew Kou’s enthusiasm burned inside him like the Sun, so he could persevere through the pain. Amane, on the other hand, she was confused about. She wondered what kept him afloat, what drove him to look on the bright side. Did he even look at the bright side? Or was he just good at acting like he was?

 

She rolled her hands into fists and internally said to herself, Both Amane-kun and Kou-kun have suffered the loss of someone important, and now they have to deal with freeing them. I can help them, I can be strong for them.

 

“Yashiro.” Amane said quietly beside her as the three of them exited the inn. At her pointed look, he corrected himself, “I mean, Nene, you’re being quiet.”

 

She frowned slightly, “I’m just wondering if you and Kou-kun will be okay.”

 

“Hmm, well, I think the boy will be fine~” he deduced and pointed at the motivated blond in front of them. She tilted her head at him, “And… you?”

 

He grinned encouragingly, “As long as you’re with me, then I’ll be fine, too.”

 

Nene blushed, then hit him lightly, “Y-You flirt…”

 

“Not flirting.” Amane said earnestly with a pink tinge on his cheeks, “I’m being honest.”

 

Surprise washed over her face, before she glanced away bashfully. Her pinkie found his, and while they walked together behind Kou, they kept their pinkies interlocked. Eventually, the blond reunited with his mount, and they set off to the Capital. It would take a longer time than preferred to follow through with their next course of action, but they’d try to be swift.

 

For the next few days and nights within their two week travel, the three of them would keep their spirits high by indulging in humorous activity like jokes or stories. But they had no time to stop and train, for the urgency of returning to the Capital was immense. They could only camp for a few hours, then leave early in the morning. Often, after Kou was asleep, Nene and Amane would lay next to each other and gaze up at the stars, discussing anything and everything.

 

“When is your birthday, Nene?”

 

She smiled, “It already passed, about two months ago.”

 

“Damn…” he rolled on his side and placed his palm on top of her open one. She turned over, too, and interlaced their fingers. He sang in a hushed voice, ”Happy late birthday~”

 

“Thank you.” Her eyes held curiosity. “When is your birthday?”

 

“It won’t be until three months from now.” He smirked, “Then I can get evaluated by the Orb—”

 

“Oh, my gosh.” Nene giggled quietly, “Shush!”

 

“I wonder what Class I’ll be~”

 

“Amane-kun, you’re being silly…”

 

“Well, my bad,” he planted a chaste kiss on her lips, “I like hearing you laugh.”

 

She bloomed red, indignant over his weird ability to switch from childish to suave. “You’re a real piece of work, you know that?”

 

“So you tell me.”

 

They chuckled again, like a secret shared only between the two of them. Nene gazed at him, her ruby eyes reflecting his gentle expression. 

 

“Amane-kun?”

 

“Yes~?”

 

“I think…” she whispered, as if afraid that the forest would hear her, “I think I love you.”

 

There was something about her saying “I love you” that made him want to kiss her senseless. However, his eyes widened at that, pink coming forth onto his cheeks. He stammered, raising his voice slightly, “A-Are you sure??”

 

“Eep!” Nene shushed him, invoking an apology from his tongue. They checked, and sure enough, Kou was still sleeping soundly. After sighing in relief, Nene laid back down and nodded, “Yes, Amane-kun, I’m sure.”

 

She gazed at him, timid yet expectant. “D-Do you…?”

 

“Do I love you?”

 

Nene gulped, and nodded again. Amane exhaled, and looked somewhere else that wasn’t her pretty pink face. “That’s sort of a tricky question.”

 

She blinked, then pouted. “What’s tricky about it?”

 

“...It feels too soon. Too fleeting.” Amane let go of her hand to cup her warm face, “If I said that I love you, I feel like I’d lose you.”

 

Despondence cascaded over her face. She should’ve anticipated it, but even up to now, he was still unwilling to accept his feelings. “Amane-kun…”

 

“How about this?” he said instead to appease her, “If there was anyone in the world that I’d love, it would be you.” 

 

He caressed her cheek, making her eyes flutter shut. “Out of anyone I could fall in love with, I want it to be with you.”

 

“...Cheesy.” In spite of her remark, her heart drummed wildly in her chest from his words. He saw the effect his words had on her from the way she looked rather than what she said. Amane chuckled and tilted her head up, his hand still stroking her cheek.

 

“You’re stubborn. Perfect for a Crusader.”

 

She clicked her tongue in annoyance, but he quickly leaned down and claimed her lips once more with his own. They pushed against each other, passion climbing up and out from their hearts and spilling into their kiss. Her cute muffled moan spurred him to press further into the kiss, climbing on top of her and entwining their legs. 

 

Shit… Amane thought as he began to run a hand down the side of her body, She’s so cute… I can’t resist…

 

Her hands were running through his hair, knocking off his hat in the process. She said breathily after a few hasty kisses, “Whoops.”

 

“That's okay." He held himself over her, his amber eyes glowing in the dark of night. The campfire had died out long ago, but they were plenty warm. All she could see was his form against the night sky. His lips curved into an alluring smirk, "You think I could take something off of you~?"

 

"Amane-kun, you pervert…" she tugged a few locks of hair, making him whine. "Try to control yourself. We're just kissing."

 

He buried his face in her neck, humming his lips on her skin. "You're asking a lot from me…"

 

She curled from the sensation, making her plea a bit too sultry. "Please?"

 

He groped her thigh, his voice laced with desire, his breath hot on her skin. "That just makes it worse."

 

Nene gulped and steeled her resolve. "Then I can just bash your head in."

 

Amane sighed, disappointed.

 

"...Okay, message received. Just kissing."

 

"There you go~! Now..." With her hands still in his hair, she brought his lips down back onto hers. He gladly allowed her to drag him back into her warm, soft affections, as they lost themselves in the darkness of the night.

 

In the morning, they woke up with a start to Kou's confused screaming. They detangled their limbs, sitting up and scrambling far away from each other. The blond was pointing between the two, stammering from disbelief, "A-A-Are you guys together?!"

 

Nene was covering her tomato-colored face. "U-Um...!!"

 

"I'd say yes." Amane nodded casually, regardless of his messy hair and disheveled clothes. Meanwhile, across from him, the Crusader was freaking out with her head in her hands. "K-Kou-kun, you weren't supposed to see us like that…"

 

He questioned vehemently, “When did this happen?!”

 

“A few days ago.” Amane had taken up the task of satiating the blond’s inquisitiveness while Nene inwardly died of embarrassment. Kou frowned, throwing his arms out, “Where was I?!”

 

“Out cold.”

 

“Why didn’t you tell me when I woke up?!”

 

Amane only shrugged, his face purely conveying the meaning of “I don’t know what to tell you.”

 

“...I feel left out.” Kou crossed his arms and looked away sadly, “I would never make you guys feel bad about getting together, so I’m hurt you didn’t tell me.”

 

Nene appeared guilty as she patted his back, “I’m so sorry, Kou-kun. It just happened. Even Amane-kun and I are still, um, processing the whole thing…”

 

Kou glared at the other boy, who still had a cheeky grin, then leaned down to whisper to Nene, “He didn’t force you into it, right?”

 

Nene flushed, “N-No, of course not!”

 

Amane now scowled, “What’re you two whispering about over there?”

 

“If he hurts you, I got your back, Senpai!” Kou pumped his fist, “You can count on me.”

 

“Kou-kun…” Nene voiced gratefully as she clasped his hands. “Thank you.”

 

“I’m right here, you know.” Amane said, disgruntled, and proceeded to wedge himself between the two, hugging the girl possessively. He sent a pointed look toward the blond, “Let’s hurry up~ We’re only about a day away from the Capital. We need to keep moving.”

 

“R-Right!” Nene slipped out of his hold to take the lead, “We gotta continue! Hurry, hurry!”

 

After they packed their stuff, she hoisted their bags onto the horse and marched off with pink cheeks. Amane sighed and shook his head fondly, not realizing that Kou was observing his expression. The boys were in pursuit of her, enjoying the walk before they resorted to their usual modes of transportation.

 

“...Hanako?”

 

“Yes~?”

 

“You’re not playing with Senpai’s feelings are you?”

 

“No, I’m not. I’m very serious about her~” Amane answered in a way where Kou wasn’t sure if he was being truthful or not. For the sake of his mentality, he was going to believe in his words.

 

The Archmage uttered, “In fact, I have a request to make of you, boy.”

 

“Huh?”

 

Amane’s expression abruptly sobered, frightening Kou slightly. 

 

“I don’t know how else to put it, so I’m just gonna be frank.” Amane stated grimly, “In the case of a life-or-death situation, I want you to save Nene’s life, even if it means leaving me behind.”

 

“Wha…What…?” Kou almost froze up. “Where did this come from?”

 

“I don’t know if you’ve realized it yet, boy, but when I said we're not exactly in an optimal position, I meant that we are in a very bad position. We’ve lost an important ally, and the Demon Lord’s army has prepared more than we had expected them to.”

 

“He wasn’t just an ally—he was my friend.” Kou clenched his fists, “I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but there’s no way I’m losing another one—!”

 

“Think about it sensibly, kid. Since Mitsuba and I are part of the Seven, we have a higher chance of surviving because they want us alive. I’m not asking you to forget about me, but just to put me aside. Save me later kind of thing.”

 

“You’re asking me to just leave you in a situation where you could die. It doesn’t matter the chances, you could still die.

 

Amane sighed.

 

”Kid, trust me, it’s gonna be a lot worse for you and Nene. And it’s even more dangerous for us three since we’re still far from any allies. Right now, we are susceptible to being caught off guard, and you two would be the most at risk.” Amane divulged gravely, then ordered, “So if there is a near time where you have to choose between me or Nene, I want you to choose her. Her life is your top priority.”

 

“Hanako…”

 

“I know it’s a lot to ask,” he smiled, almost sadly, “but I don’t really have anyone else to depend on besides you to help me keep her safe.”

 

Kou stared at him, then patted his back reassuringly. “You know, I’d really like to not choose between my friends’ lives. But, if it’s really what you want, then... of course I’ll help you keep Senpai safe.”

 

Amane smiled, more genuinely this time, and breathed a sigh of relief. “Thanks, boy.”

 

“But I’m going to do my best to make sure all my friends are safe!” Kou proclaimed as he lifted his staff to the air. Amane grinned at him, “That’s not always the case~”

 

“Shush, Hanako!!” the Priest angrily pointed at him, “I’ll find a way!”

 

“Good luck~”

 

The trio continued to venture through the forest on foot, taking a moment to enjoy the scenery before they were thrown into impending battle. Nene mused on what the two boys could possibly be talking about behind her. She hoped it wasn’t anything too serious, since she didn’t hear much of their usual childish arguing. After a while, Kou was about to hop on his horse, but stopped at the Archmage’s signal. 

 

Amane perked up as his hakujoudai quivered, saying, “I can sense someone up ahead.”

 

Nene questioned, “Who could it be?”

 

“I have no idea.” Kou answered. All of them were wary, until they heard a girl cry for help. Leaving their horse to hide behind the bushes, the three of them reacted.

 

Their senses suddenly heightened, staying cautious but moving with haste. The three of them ran forward as a unit, brushing past the forest’s foliage and blocking out the blinding light of the sun. When they finally stepped out into the open, they immediately saw a girl standing on the ledge of a ravine.

 

She had short green hair, fair skin, and wore a beautiful black dress. However, what alarmed them was that there was no distress written on her face. In fact, her expression was completely devoid of emotion. The wind blowing up the ravine made her look ethereal, but also like a phantom—a beguiling one sent from Death itself.

 

“Hello.” She curtsied, as if everything was normal, “My name is Nanamine Sakura.”

 

Amane kept a rigid grip on his staff, “Are you the one that cried out for help?”

 

“...Yes.”

 

“You don’t look like you need help.” Kou stated as he also kept his staff up, ready to fire an attack. The girl nodded, “You are correct.”

 

“Then… w-why are you here?” Nene asked as she put her shield up. 

 

Something definitely wasn’t right about this. 

 

The girl observed them for a few moments, then lowered her eyelids. “I am Nanamine Sakura, Clairvoyant of the Demon Lord.”

 

It took only a split second for Amane to realize what that meant, before he cursed and yelled, “We have to get out of here—!”

 

“Too late~!”

 

Tsukasa appeared right in front of them—in front of Amane, in particular. He was wearing a different set of clothes, far different from his original copy of his brother’s. The Archmage stumbled backward, but held his ground and gripped his staff. 

 

“We gotcha, Amane~!”

 

“Tsukasa…” Amane and the other two began to press close together. “How many are there?”

 

“Well, everyone knows that you’re a big, bad wizard, Amane. That’s so cool, by the way~!” Tsukasa beamed, fangs bared, “So, we had to make sure you couldn’t escape~”

 

Suddenly, they were surrounded by Demons and Demon Admirals of all kinds, even a few Lower Demon Generals, and one Upper Demon General. The Clairvoyant was approached by a Demon who appeared more human than demonic, with reddish-brown hair and dark gray eyes. He knelt before her and inquired, “Are you injured, My Lady?”

 

“No, I’m fine.” She took his hand, “Take me back, now.”

 

“As you wish!”

 

The two of them disappeared, leaving the Demons and Tsukasa to take care of the trio. 

 

This is bad… Amane noted to himself. He and his two companions huddled close together, keeping their backs protected and their eyes on their enemies. A heavy silence washed over the atmosphere, in which everyone was waiting for someone to strike. 

 

Amane’s eyes were focused on the Demons, but he was racking up ideas in his mind. They were clearly surrounded, so it would be impossible to just make a run for it. Clearing out at least half of the Demons might open up a getaway, but they were quite intent on keeping them in this area, and the process itself would take a while. If he went all out, then he might accidentally injure one of his party members. 

 

How can I save the kid and Nene?

 

“This is a bit tense, huh~” Tsukasa stepped forward, disturbing the quietude, “I’ll make the first move—”

 

He vanished for a split second, then reappeared in front of his twin. At that moment, Nene shielded Amane from Tsukasa’s jab, painting the boy’s fist a throbbing red. Tsukasa inhaled sharply and jiggled his hand.

 

“That hurt~!”

 

“Thank you, Nene!” Amane twirled his staff. They had no choice but to do it the hard way. “Keep protecting us from as many attacks as possible, and the boy and I will wipe out as many Demons as we can.”

 

“Got it!” She lifted her shield defensively, hearing the boys behind her begin to shout incantations. Magic filled the vicinity as all sorts of elements were hurled around. Water surged, fire blazed, earth trembled, and winds whirled; the skies flashed with white lightning.

 

“Empower!” Kou shouted as he directed his raiteijou at Amane. The Archmage grinned as his skin glimmered, “That’s the stuff~!”

 

His volatile tornado became a ferocious hurricane, as it snatched a few Demons and ripped their bodies to shreds. Blood rained from the sky, causing Tsukasa to gaze up in awe, and Nene and Kou to blanch and shield their heads.

 

“G-Gross…”

 

“You couldn’t have picked a better spell?!”

 

“Beggars can't be choosers!” Amane yelled back as he danced along the earth, maneuvering the jagged rocks to shoot through one of the Demon Admirals with a gyrating spell circle. He twirled his staff again, summoning yet another spell circle with a few incantations, and the water saturating the dirt suddenly froze over, trapping a few Demons in ice. The others were forced to jump up into the air.

 

Amane called loudly, “Boy!”

 

“Leave it to me!” Kou proclaimed as he slammed his staff down onto the spell circle.

 

Nene blocked another one of Tsukasa’s persistent attacks as Kou’s lightning forked through the sky, striking a few enemies that were in the air. As the two boys fought behind her, Nene continued to protect them from Tsukasa’s attempts at close-combat.

 

He punched her shield once again, but this time, he leaned close to peek over it. 

 

“So, who are you~?” 

 

Nene blinked, bewildered by the strange timing of the question. She responded, nevertheless, “I’m just Amane-kun’s travel companion.”

 

“Is that all?” he tried to knock her off her feet, but she evaded his leg and pushed him off with her shield. He tilted his head, “Aren’t you and Amane dating?”

 

Nene blushed, and shook her head. “That’s none of your business!”

 

“I’m his brother.” He sprinted forward and landed a kick on her shoulder plate. She shoved him off, and as he landed on his feet, he declared, “And I want to know!”

 

Nene wielded her greatsword, “Why don’t you try to disobey the Demon Lord, Tsukasa-kun?”

 

“Why else~?” Tsukasa ran up to her suddenly, swiping at her as if he was a cat with claws. She’d dodge and try to cut him with her sword, but he was simply too fast. At this rate, she wondered how long she could keep him off. Maybe…

 

“I don’t understand, Tsukasa-kun!” Nene declared as she stood across from him. Talking would draw out their time.

 

“Understand what?”

 

“Amane-kun hates seeing you like this. You don't have to fall under the Demon Lord's control!”

 

“Ah, well~” Tsukasa stood upright and kicked the dirt, “I thought you’d understand! Don’t you love Amane, too?”

 

“That’s—!”

 

He dashed forward, surprising her. Every kick and punch was successfully blocked, but she couldn’t manage to even graze him. He looked at her curiously.

 

“Have you and Amane kissed yet??”

 

Nene flushed, despite the circumstances. She swung her sword down forcefully, missing him just by an inch. “S-Stop asking such personal questions!!”

 

Tsukasa stood up, and cocked his head curiously. He asked with a devious smirk, “How much do you mean to him?”

 

She faltered in her stance. “I-I don’t know—”

 

Out of nowhere, Tsukasa manifested in front of her and kicked the shield out from her grasp. She stumbled backward, trepidation swimming in her eyes, but she still attempted to fight back with her greatsword. Tsukasa jabbed her wrist, making her wince and her grip on the handle loosen. The greatsword flew out of her grasp, where he caught it with one hand and maneuvered himself behind her. His other hand, cold and numbing, seized her shoulder, yanking her backwards against him.

 

“Let’s find out!” 

 

She gasped as the cool metal pressed against her neck, making her whimper in fear. His amber eyes mocked her.

 

“I’m supposed to put Amane under control, and I think you can help me with that~”

 

Nene shuddered, her discomfort increasing with every passing second. This was like a terrible joke. This boy, who looked just like her Amane, was nothing like him. His grip possessed no warmth, his eyes lacked any sort of compassion, and his smile was unnerving. She knew that Tsukasa was his brother, but with such close resemblance, this was almost cruel to experience. 

 

He leaned over her shoulder and professed, “To be honest, I don’t really care what happens as long as I get to be with Amane…”

 

Nene looked over at him, her eyes scanning over his Undead mark. “T-That’s just your curse provoking your wants. The Demon Lord is controlling you through your desires—”

 

He pressed the blade further into her neck, her skin bending from the force. “Hmm, you think so~?”

 

Despite her dread, she asked with a choked voice, ”D-Do you really not care what happens to Amane-kun…?”

 

Tsukasa observed her for a few moments, then switched his gaze over to Amane, who was too distracted with the fight to realize that she was in danger. The boy nudged her slightly with the greatsword, forcing her to back up all the way until she was standing by the ravine.

 

Looking down, the height made her dizzy, and the blowing winds threatened to snatch her out of his grasp and into the deathly depths. He turned her around, her back now toward the cliff, yet the greatsword still flat against her neck.

 

“T-Tsukasa-kun…” Nene glanced behind her, then back at the boy in front of her. “D-Don’t do this…”

 

He only stated, “It’s been interesting talking to you~”

 

He stepped forward, making her step back. The ground under her crumbled, sending a few rocks tumbling down. She yelped in shock; the possibility of dying was right by her feet.

 

Her mind went blank as she realized she was on the doorstep of death. Only one thought flashed in her mind.

 

I promised Amane-kun...

 

Kou screamed, finally discovering the situation she was in. “S-Senpai!!”

 

“Nene?” Amane pivoted on his heel, halting in his tracks at the sight of the girl being nearly pushed over the edge. “T-Tsukasa—don’t!!

 

That look of desperation on his face was just a hint of what could be his strongest emotional reaction yet.

 

Tsukasa felt the will of the Demon Lord course through his veins, and suddenly, his greatsword went straight through Nene’s chest plate, impaling her abdomen. Her breath fled her lungs, as blood began to trickle down her stomach, staining her dress red.

 

Amane froze on his feet, his hand outstretched toward the girl; his eyes were forced to watch her life slip from his grasp.

 

He tried to make himself move, but she seemed so far away—it all happened too soon, too fleeting.

 

“Sorry~” Tsukasa whispered as he retracted the sword from her flesh, “Have a safe trip.”

 

He pushed her. 

 

Her already unsteady body teetered over the cliff of the ravine, then she was gone. 

 

Disappeared under the ledge—a glimpse of her dress was the last thing Amane caught, until he lost sight of her completely.

 

Amane couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe.  

 

He couldn’t stop the tears that sprung in his eyes. His voice was just a hoarse whisper, “Nene…”

 

Senpai!!” Kou screamed and finally urged himself to move. He rushed and peered over the ledge for any signs of the girl, but it was all earth and rushing water. He sobbed out, his voice bouncing off the rocky walls of the ravine, “S-Senpai!!”

 

Kou fell to his knees, his staff dropping out of his hands. His hands gripped the grass until his knuckles turned white. Tears plopped onto the ground as he wept, “Why…?”

 

An immense magical presence exploded behind the blond, alarming him. Kou turned around to find Amane’s Mana pool spiking hazardously, his fists clenched to the point that blood was dripping down his palm, and his teeth gritted until his jaw was sore.

 

His face was hidden by his hat, but Kou could still discern the liquid trickling down his cheeks.

 

The remaining Demons all staggered backward at the display of power, but they felt the Demon Lord influencing them to capture No. 7 while he was in agony. Tsukasa felt the call as well, but he couldn’t help but survey his brother’s reaction. The grieved cry of the girl’s name, the wrathful tears, the absolute portrayal of powerlessness giving birth to unbridled rage.  

 

It was fascinating. He didn’t think he’d ever seen his brother like that.

 

Boy,” Amane seethed, his staff cracking slightly under his grip, “keep your promise.”

 

Kou wiped his tears and nodded. He promised Amane that Nene’s life was top priority. Even if it seemed all hope was lost, if there was a slim possibility of her being alive, he had to steal it and make it reality.

 

“I’m sorry, Hanako.” Kou said regretfully as he prepared to leave his friend to fight by himself, but Amane shook his head. A grim look washed over his face, one with an extreme level of intensity he’s never witnessed before. 

 

His eyes were dark, dark, dark.

 

“Don’t be. Leave, now, or you’ll be caught. You have a job to do, boy.” Amane tapped his staff on the ground, and the earth seemed to quiver from it. “Don’t wait up.”

 

“Y-Yes!”

 

Kou whistled loudly, prompting his horse to bolt out of the forest and past the still hypnotized Demons. He jumped on top of his horse and rode away as fast as he could, down the mountain to chase after her—to catch her life washing away from the rushing water.

 

Amane didn’t spare him a glance. The Demons seemed to shake themselves out of their stupor, but it didn’t matter—there was nothing these Demons could do to get past him.

 

If it meant that Kou could save her life, then he’d fight them off with all of his willpower.

 

When one of them tried to follow the blond, Amane only spun his staff, his lips silently mouthing incantations. Fire shot out of the spell circle, a raging inferno that devoured the Demon until it was nothing but a burnt corpse.

 

“Azel… is this going to go well?” one of the Demon Admirals asked in a low voice. The Upper Demon General hissed, “Do not fear. He’s now in the ideal condition, and we cannot let this moment escape.”

 

“The ideal condition, but now nothing is restraining him.”

 

“Just do as you’re told.”

 

The remaining Demons spread out around him, caging him in with their malformed bodies. Although he and Kou had cleared out some of their forces, there were still many more left. Regardless, Amane’s heart held no fear, only resolution.

 

“Seems like you bastards are hungry for me~” Amane jeered, his Mana pool still flaring murderously. “You can try.”

 

Azel narrowed his eyes, about to shout out some commands, but several Demons ran forth carelessly. He shrilled, “Get back, fools!!”

 

It was too late. Amane summoned another spell circle at lightning speed, and suddenly the Demons that charged him were entangled in a web of thorny vines. They squeezed and crunched their limbs, prompting blood to bleed from their cuts and to expel from their throats. Amane’s eyes flashed with intent, before he rotated himself and whispered more incantations.

 

“Disperse!!” the Upper Demon General screamed. With his hakujoudai, Amane flew upward and directed his staff down at them, invoking a massive spell circle beneath their feet. Gushing out of the glowing runes, water flooded the area and submerged their feet. The Demons heard the boy shout from above, before a tremendous fork of lightning struck the water.

 

The impact was immense. The combination of spells seared the feet of those who were too slow to dodge, as pain crawled all around their limbs and burned them from the inside. For the rest of them that leaped into the air, Amane swept his staff in front of him, spell circles manifesting all over, creating powerful gusts of wind that blew them every which way. Some were forced back down into the electrifying water, joining their comrades in convulsions. The lightning flashed continuously, shedding light onto his darkened expression.

 

It seemed like his rampage lasted for hours, but in reality, it barely lasted for just one. Yet, he had wiped out a majority of the Demons, destroying much of the environment in the process. Trees were torn to pieces or broken or fallen, and the ground was a sloppy mess. Gray clouds rolled overhead, lingering from his use of lightning spells.

 

Rain began to drizzle, washing away the blood, drenching him in cold liquid. The heaviness of his clothes was uncomfortable and irritating, so he threw off his luxurious cape and his hat to the side, caking it in mud. Although on the ground, the Golden Insignia was still shining in all of its golden glory.

 

His heavy breathing resounded through the air.

 

His Mana pool was still fluctuating. 

 

He wondered if Kou found Nene yet. 

 

He wondered if she was still alive.

 

The grip on his staff was shaky, and he bent over from physical and emotional exhaustion.

 

“Wow, even after all that, you’re still upset?” Tsukasa asked as he floated down in front of him, disregarding the bodies of Demons laying around in the ruin. He was soaked, too, but he paid it no mind. “You must have really liked her~”

 

“Tsukasa…” 

 

Looking at his brother, Amane didn’t know what to feel at the moment. 

 

“Shut the fuck up.”

 

Tsukasa frowned, “Rude.”

 

Suddenly, Azel burst through the pile of boulders that Amane threw on him earlier. Upon seeing his fallen troops, he shrieked with fury, “Everyone… dead! How?!”

 

“Maybe you should’ve brought some more Demons.” Tsukasa suggested with a taunting grin, “You underestimated Amane~”

 

The Upper Demon General pointed at him madly, his pupils constricted from outrage. “You imbecile!! You were supposed to keep him distracted—!”

 

“Excuse me~?”

 

A thin stream of red appeared on Azel’s neck. The Upper Demon General uttered a gargle of noises, before his head slid off of his body, the rest of him following suit in a heap of blood.

 

Tsukasa's smile was unchanging as he flicked off the blood from the greatsword. Amane narrowed his eyes, “He was on your side.”

 

“What side?” Tsukasa beamed as he spoke in a frivolous manner. His damp hair stuck to his face, his clothes seemed heavy with water, but nothing bothered him. “You know, I noticed you still have my sword. Have you missed me~?”

 

Amane didn’t respond. He couldn’t respond. 

 

Tsukasa held up the greatsword in his hands. “This was your girlfriend’s. Do you want it back—?”

 

The greatsword was shot out of his hands, soaring through the air until it stuck itself into the ground. Amane lowered his staff, and Tsukasa only shook the pain off from his fingers.

 

“You’ve changed quite a bit, Amane.” Tsukasa commented, then inquired, “Did my death hurt you that much?”

 

The Archmage ignored his question and heaved a heavy sigh as he fell into an offensive stance. He was either going down, or he’d be seeing his brother leave him a second time. What were the odds that he’d have to fight his undead brother?

 

“Oooh~” Tsukasa readied himself, too, as his hands opened up like claws, and his eyes painted themselves black. “A good old-fashioned spar!”

 

He bared his fangs in a grin, its radiance sparkling against Amane’s cold, dark glare. 

 

“Here I come~!”

 


 

“Senpai!!”

 

Kou cupped his mouth with both hands, yelling out once more.

 

“Senpai!! Can you hear me?!”

 

He rushed his horse to bring him to the edge of the forest, where he stumbled upon the bank of the river. His eyes raked over the bank until he spotted a peculiar yet familiar figure. The blond beamed, tears springing to his eyes, while he zoomed over to the washed up and unconscious body. Sure enough, there was Nene, with crimson liquid still running down her abdomen and toward the bank, only to be swept away by the river.

 

Swiftly, he leaped off the horse, then checked to see if she was breathing as he pressed his fingers on the pulse in her wrist. 

 

Although a few tense moments passed, he had confirmed the best outcome—she was still alive.

 

Relief swept over him instantaneously. Right away, he peeled off her chest plate and invoked a spell circle on top of the injury, sealing the laceration and stopping the blood from flowing out. Once she was fully healed, his arms dropped limply to his sides. He couldn’t keep himself from crying.

 

“S-Senpai…!” Kou dried his tears with his arm, then squeezed her cold, wet hands. “I really thought we lost you…”

 

He carried her up his horse, then commanded the animal to set course for the Capital. Kou secured his hold around her as he rode his horse onward. The galloping echoed in the forest; the wind blew by his cheeks and combed through his hair.

 

After several hours passed, with the moon slowly rising up in the sky, Kou set up camp inside a small cave. He wasn’t as skilled at making fires as Hanako was, but he managed to light the leaves with a small zap of lightning. He placed the girl next to the fire, allowing her to dry up and to soak in the warmth. With his raiteijou on hand, he rested against the wall and listened for any suspicious presences.

 

His wariness was at its peak when Nene woke up, uttering disgruntled noises. She drowsily looked over at him, feeling the lingering sensation of soreness.

 

“Kou-kun…?”

 

He swirled his head around with a gasp. “Senpai!”

 

Kou bounded over to her, smiling with renewed tears in his eyes. She grabbed his hand, comforting albeit confused, “It’s okay, Kou-kun. I’m fine…”

 

She dragged herself to sit up, disregarding the faint ache of her muscles. Kou looked at her, amazed, “You have such high Tenacity. You woke up only a few hours after falling off a cliff!”

 

Nene smiled awkwardly. “I am a Crusader, after all, Kou-kun. I have my Blessed status, and it helps that I’m Level 21. Thanks to you and Amane-kun… I got stronger...”

 

Amane-kun...

 

Kou nodded. “Right…”

 

The fire crackled in the quiet air of the cave.

 

Nene was looking around, obviously searching for something—someone, to be more specific. Kou grimaced, afraid of her reaction, “He’s not here…”

 

She gingerly asked, “Where is he?”

 

“I… I don’t think—” Kou shook his head, “I don’t think Hanako will be meeting up with us.”

 

Nene felt her gut twist at his words. “W-Why…?”

 

“When I left him, there were still a lot of Demons in the area—”

 

She shook her head, denying his implications. “Amane-kun is strong! H-He could fight them off!”

 

“Senpai…”

 

“But I don’t understand… Y-You just left him there, Kou-kun? You let him fight them all by himself…?”

 

“Senpai, it’s not what you think!”

 

“You should’ve stayed with him!” Nene felt her eyes water. “You chased after me, but I could’ve been long dead!”

 

“That was a chance we were willing to take! But if you were alive, then it was my duty to keep you alive.”

 

“...’We’?”

 

“Yes.” Kou avowed quietly, “Hanako and I… we agreed on it.”

 

“...What do you mean?”

 

“Hanako knew what situation we were in. He knew it wasn’t a good one. He told me that if we were caught in a scenario where it was between your life and his, he wanted me to save your life.”

 

There was silence—deafening and rebounding along the walls of the caves, then…

 

“Senpai?!”

 

“Did he not think about me at all...? Did he even think about how I would feel about this??” 

 

He watched as tears began to pour down her cheeks—large and sorrowful and relentless. She held a hand against her mouth, a measly attempt to hold in her sobs. Her shoulders were trembling as she squeezed her eyes shut, “T-That idiot…!”

 

Kou hugged her, unable to think of any other way to console her. She said in a shuddering breath, “W-We’re going to save him, right? If we can save him, then would you help me?”

 

“Of course.” Kou backed up to stare at her adamantly, “Since the Demon Lord wanted him anyway, there’s a high chance that Hanako was left alive to be put under control. As horrible as that sounds, it means that there’s a possibility of getting them back alive. And I’ll stop at nothing to get our friends back from the Demon Lord!”

 

“Kou-kun…”

 

“Don’t worry, Senpai. I need your help as much as you need mine, because…” he grinned at her, “if there’s anyone that could save Hanako, it would be you.”

 

She managed to smile, then splayed her hands out in front of her, offering a double high-five, “Thank you.”

 

He took it, gladly, “You got it!”

 

Once they slept for the night, the two of them spent the next day finishing the remainder of the trip. Upon arrival, they made haste to the Castle, needing to report to the King the status of the leader of the Seven. As they were racing through the streets, they noticed that the citizens were all heading to the center, as well, with luggage of sorts attached to their backs.

 

“What’s happening?” Nene inquired from behind him. Kou responded, “I think they might be evacuating! There’s a highly protective bunker for them to stay at, located under the Castle, in case of large-scale attacks.”

 

“Amazing…”

 

When they finally arrived at the Castle, Kou immediately searched for the King, requesting an audience from him. Nene was left to wait by herself, as the blond was swept into a grand room, presumably full of important people.

 

“...Yashiro?”

 

Nene perked up, recognizing the voice.

 

“T-Tsuchigomori-sama!”

 

He seemed absolutely shocked to see her there. It was odd, because she never thought he could even make such an expression.

 

“How…?” he stalked over to her, analyzing her as if trying to see if she was really there or not.

 

She shrunk under his critical gaze. “Tsuchigomori-sama?”

 

The man seemed to find himself, and he recomposed himself, sitting down next to her. “Where is Honorable No. 7?”

 

After retelling the events starting from the ambush until the present, he only stared at the floor in disbelief. She was beginning to be very curious about his reactions. “What’s the matter?”

 

“This is… gonna sound weird, but,” the tall man sighed, “...you aren’t supposed to be alive.”

 

“E-Excuse me?!”

 

“Don’t take it personally.” He held his hands up, showing a sign of neutrality, “The scripts told me that you were going to die, and Honorable No. 7 would have taken it upon himself to destroy everyone of the Demon Lord’s army, including the Demon Lord, and himself in the process.”

 

“Seriously?” Nene almost refused to believe what he was saying, yet she poured her trust into his words. “B-But… what changed?”

 

“...He saved you.” Tsuchigomori inhaled from his pipe, then blew out a stream of smoke, “Not that he was the one who directly saved you, but he made the decision of fighting to save your life instead of fighting to avenge your death.”

 

“So you’re saying that he changed the future...?”

 

“Exactly.”

 

Amane had changed the future… for her. She didn’t think he knew—most likely, he was blind to their fates like her. But he had unknowingly saved himself by choosing to save her; he had believed that she was still alive rather than accepted the fact that she may have been dead.

 

“Yashiro?”

 

Nene clasped her hands together anxiously. What could she do to repay him? How could she help him like he helped her?

 

Outside of the Castle, there was a whistle in the air, and one could see the hurling of a large boulder shooting across the sky, fast approaching the Capital. Screams rang in the air, petrified from the massive object about to crush them. However, something stopped it from colliding into the streets of moving citizens.

 

Akane stood atop the hill of the Castle, his staff in hand. The time bubble he cast over the Capital was manifested just in time. He sighed, as though it was a minor inconvenience. 

 

“I hate Demons.”

 

Nene and Tsuchigomori stepped outside to analyze the scene. There were multiple flaming boulders trapped in the time bubble, along with other works of magic, such as infernos and gigantic waves of water. Tsuchigomori felt a sweat break out, “This is gonna severely damage the city once fifteen minutes is up…”

 

“O-Only fifteen?” 

 

Akane frowned at her tone. Her voice was loud enough for him to hear, and he responded bitterly without turning around, “I can put up another one right away, but each time bubble lasts only fifteen minutes, allowing a tiny interval where things can move in between.”

 

“A-Akane-kun…?” Nene finally recognized who was protecting the Capital as she walked up to him, “You’re No. 1? The Archmage of Time?”

 

He nodded. “That’s right.”

 

“Where is Aoi-chan??”

 

“Don’t worry. Her safety was my first priority.” He looked almost offended that she even suggested that he didn’t think about her. “She evacuated with the others.”

 

“Wait a minute,” Tsuchigomori interjected while he leaned forward, scrutinizing the repetitive use of magic outside of the time bubble. “There’s only one person casting all of this. And that could only be…”

 

“Amane-kun?” Nene said, hope in her voice. Tsuchigomori exhaled, “I wouldn’t sound so hopeful, he’s not on our side at the moment.”

 

She shook her head, tears brimming her eyes. “That doesn’t matter. What matters is that he’s alive…!”

 

Kou rushed out of the building, followed by a myriad of other soldiers under the King. There were Priests and Crusaders and Archmages and Archers and all sorts of classes preparing for a strong defense and a powerful counterattack. Upon meeting her gaze, the blond immediately darted over to her.

 

“Senpai!! Why are you crying?!”

 

“Because… Amane-kun is alive!!” Nene grinned, tearfully happy, “He’s alive!!”

 

Kou placed a hand on his chest, breathing a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness.”

 

Akane felt a vein pop. “Sorry to break it to you, but Honorable No. 7 is currently about to eradicate the entirety of the Capital. I mean…”

 

He gestured to the massive amount of spells that accumulated inside the net of the time bubble. “Look at this!! This is outrageous!! How are we going to survive this?!”

 

Teru folded his arms, “We’ll need the Empower of the Priests on our Archmages, quickly.”

 

Another head of a department chimed, “Then they’ll use Earth magic to summon up a thick, sturdy defense over the kingdom.”

 

“Or maybe a dense wall of ice.”

 

“Or a blazing wall of fire.”

 

“If that can’t be done,” the King proclaimed as he walked ahead of them all, “then we shall use our firepower to cancel out as many of the attacks as possible. No. 1, you are to recast your time bubble as many times as you can. We will only act within the small interval in between until they reach our walls.”

 

Akane sighed quietly, but affirmed, “Understood.”

 

Tsuchigomori looked toward the two. “What will you do?”

 

Kou furrowed his eyebrows. “Isn’t it obvious?”

 

Nene clenched her fists, “We’re going to go rescue Amane-kun!”

 

Kou added, “And Mitsuba!”

 

“Right… No. 3 was caught, too. Just adding more to the trouble...” Tsuchigomori shook his head, “Well, since my scripts have been thrown off from Honorable No. 7’s shenanigans, they’re currently rewriting themselves. I only got to the point where it said the Capital would be under attack, but that was it. I don’t have anything else to help you two.”

 

“That’s okay!” Kou stretched his arm and whirled it around in circles, “We only need to make what we want to happen, happen!!”

 

“That’s right!” Nene and him high-fived. “We’ll just do what we can and hope for the best!!”

 

Tsuchigomori stared, “Are you two stupid?”

 

She pouted, aggrieved, “We may be risking our lives, but Amane-kun and Mitsuba-kun did the same thing. The least we can do is free them.”

 

Tsuchigomori deadpanned, “The least you can do is stay alive. That’s the whole reason why they saved you both.”

 

“I’m not going to die.” Nene said simply, surprising Kou and even Tsuchigomori. “I made a promise to Amane-kun. And if he doesn’t want me to save him, then I want to save him, and nothing will stop me from doing so!”

 

“Yeah, yeah!!” Kou agreed excitedly. Tsuchigomori looked between the two, then sighed, “Well, do what you want, then.”

 

“Yes!” The two cheered, spirits high. Together, they were like an unstoppable force of optimism, blazing from their righteous intentions. No. 5 only wished them luck internally, as he directed his attention to the barrage of magic spells.

 

“What should we do, Senpai?!” Kou whirled his head toward her. She appeared shocked, “M-Me? You’re looking to me for a plan?”

 

“Well, I’m not really good at them myself, so…”

 

Nene blinked, then tapped her finger on her chin and thought to herself, before her face lit up. “I got it!”

 

The time bubble vanished. The copious amounts of magical spells suddenly came falling from the sky, still with the same force before it was caught in the time bubble. Most of it hit the walls of earth sticking out of the floating spell circles, while the stragglers were parried by equally powerful spells.

 

The citizens cheered as the time bubble reformed over the Capital, the magic spells once more building up outside. They continued to evacuate, however, after seeing that remnants of the magic still bypassed some of their defenses. In the distance, the screams and howls of the Demons were edging closer, thrilled for blood and victory.

 

Nene beckoned, “We have to hurry.”

 

After picking up a new set of armor and shield from a nearby abandoned armory—let it be known that she still left her money on the counter—the two scurried to the perimeter of the Capital. Reaching one of the smaller side gates that was far from the main one, they searched for any doors or tinier openings that would allow them to slip by easily. However, everything was smooth stone, and surely lifting the metal gate would attract some unwanted enemies. Despite how small it was compared to the main gate, it was still significantly enormous.

 

Kou inquired, “How are we going to get through without attracting any attention?!”

 

“I’m not sure…” Nene caressed the wall with a frown, “We could try to climb the wall, but then we’d be out in the open.”

 

“Are we gonna have to go to the very back?”

 

“That might take more time, and we don’t know how long we have until they start barging in.”

 

The time bubble outside the Capital disappeared, and suddenly a huge boulder burst through the wall right next to them. Nene gasped, “An opening! Hurry!!”

 

"To think Hanako could unknowingly still help us while under control..." Kou remarked.

 

The two snuck out of the newly made hole in the wall before they could be caught in the reformed time bubble, and swiftly bounded into coverage in order to avoid being spotted. Although the opening would be an issue for the Capital, they had to trust that they could take care of any intruders. They slinked their way through the foliage of the forest, moving with haste despite having to duck down. Somewhere farther away, they recognized the humongous army of the Demon Lord approaching the Capital, and a significantly smaller figure in the very back. 

 

However, that tiny figure seemed to be the main source of firepower, as each high-leveled and huge spell came straight from their spell circles.

 

It took a while, but they managed to get somewhat closer to the backline, and the two could finally see who it was.

 

Nene almost let out a joyful cry. “Amane-kun…!”

 

“His cape and hat are gone!”

 

“He still has his staff, though!”

 

“But… he’s bombarding the Capital with it!”

 

“They’re making him bombard the Capital!” Nene sat lower in the bush, “Anyway, we have to wait until the time bubble runs out. That’s when the army is gonna move forward and try to infiltrate the walls. It will open up space between Amane-kun and the Demons, and then we can move in and free him!”

 

“Ah, I see!” Kou praised, “You’re a genius!!”

 

In this perilous situation, she still had time to blush. “S-Shush, Kou-kun!”

 

He snickered slightly at her humble attitude, but quickly, he recognized a figure waiting in the trees. Something shiny glinted through the leaves, and it only took Kou a second before he tackled Nene to the ground, “Watch out!”

 

“Eh—?!”

 

The arrows punctured the ground where she was crouching. Nene felt her heart constrict with fear, but Kou only glared upward. “Mitsuba…”

 

Nene looked up, shocked. “That’s… Mitsuba-kun?”

 

The pink-haired boy donned his black robes, somewhat torn and ragged near the edges, as he perched himself atop the tree. His scarf was flowing along the wind, and the black feathers of his wings and face ruffled from the breeze. His bow and arrow were in his hands, ready to fire more arrows. There was dullness in his eyes, nothing similar to the spunk that Kou was used to him having.

 

He waved at her to leave. “I’ll take care of him, Senpai. You go free Hanako!”

 

“By myself?! B-But…”

 

“It’s okay!” he cheered, looking at her reassuringly, “We can do this, remember? They’re counting on us.”

 

“...Right!!”

 

Nene nodded in determination, lifting herself up and turning on her heel. She fled the scene, allowing Kou to face Mitsuba head-on by himself.

 

She crossed a considerably far distance before eventually stopping behind the Demon Lord’s invasion. Although she was somewhat tired, seeing Amane revitalized her spirits. He was so close, now. If she did this correctly, she could free him, and together, they could help stop the invasion. Nene stayed hidden, waiting for the opportunity to arise.

 

However, she was unaware of the figure already knowing of her presence.

 

“Hello.”

 

“E-Eek!”

 

Nene fell onto her behind, her shield immediately put up in front of her.

 

Sakura was in front of her again, standing there and observing her keenly. This was the second time Nene has seen her, but she was still so beautiful, almost like a porcelain doll. There was no hostility in her gaze, nor judgement or disgust—it was only a calming look of intrigue.

 

“Aren’t you worried this won’t fare well for you?”

 

“Eh?!” Nene backed up, getting on her feet, “Why would you ask me that??”

 

“...I just think it’s interesting.” Sakura placed a hand on her cheek, her voice still toneless, “I’ve been the one providing a way for the Demon Lord to counter the Seven’s infamous No. 5. I told the Demon Lord that if there was to be an attack on Orsus, then Honorable No. 7 would meet you there, in which you would become his strongest emotional connection in his life. Perfect for the crystal to take advantage of.”

 

Sakura gazed at the Archmage in the distance. He was totally held against his will.

 

“And I was right.” She said, her words carried by the wind, “I know what the future holds, but... you don’t. Doesn’t it frighten you?”

 

Nene grimaced, before she shook her head. “No—it doesn’t. I choose what happens!”

 

“Did you choose to meet Honorable No. 7?” Sakura asked, evaluating her taken aback reaction. “I don’t think you did. It just happened, as it was supposed to.”

 

Nene held her shield up, but her eyes showed hesitation. “Amane-kun was… fated to meet me?”

 

“How do you think the world works?” Sakura looked outward, toward the Demon Lord’s army, toward the sound of violence and chaos. “There are certain things that are inevitable.”

 

“...I don’t believe that.”

 

Sakura looked at her, surprised that she was so determined to deny how the world operates. Nene stood up and declared, “If Amane-kun can change the future for me, then I’ll do the same for him!”

 

The green-haired girl’s eyes softened, something like understanding passing through her gaze. “I see… I’m sorry things had to be like this. Maybe we could have met under different circumstances.”

 

Nene backed up slightly. “What do you—?”

 

“Gotcha!!”

 

Tsukasa seized both of her wrists from behind, before yanking them together against her back and tying it with a red cord. Her shield dropped with a loud clang. He smirked, “Trying to sneak around, are we~?”

 

Nene gasped, “T-Tsukasa-kun…!”

 

“Come along!” Tsukasa chuckled as he hauled her across the dirt, out into the open. Since the Demon Lord’s army made quite an advancement to the Capital, none of them turned around to see how the Archmage was doing. Sakura watched as the Crusader was dragged away, and she suppressed the desire to indulge in sympathy. Her faithful companion appeared beside her, asking, “Are you okay?”

 

“I’m unharmed.”

 

“Not like that.” He rephrased his question, “Are you feeling okay?”

 

Sakura closed her eyes. “Since when have you seen me feel anything, Natsuhiko?”

 

“I guess you have a point there.” He grinned at her, attempting to charm her as always, and held his hand out for her. “Just know that I’ll support and protect you no matter what.”

 

“...Thank you.” She slid her hand into his, “I’d like to leave this area, now.”

 

“As you wish.”

 

Out in the open, Nene let out a pained yelp as she was thrown down in front of Amane. Her wrists were beginning to hurt from the tightness of the cord, but she managed to ignore the pain for now. She looked up slowly, and only found Amane with blank eyes, firing one spell after the other. She whispered, “Amane-kun…”

 

Something hot wound around Tsukasa’s soul. He paid it no mind; he was going to do what he wanted.

 

“He doesn’t respond.” Tsukasa waved a hand in front of his face, “See? Nothing. It’s so boring. I hate it!”

 

Tsukasa walked around Nene, his hands behind his back. “I wanna see if I can get a reaction from him, now that you’re here…”

 

“H-Huh…?”

 

He jerked her head up by her hair, eliciting a pained cry from her. Taking out his shortsword that he stole back from his brother, he pressed the blade against her neck. She felt her breathing stop as fear penetrated her mind.

 

“Look, look! Amane! Look!” Tsukasa sang, “I’m gonna kill your girlfriend~! Amane!!”

 

Amane was unresponsive, as he continued to shoot out spells from his spell circle, his mouth moving slightly, whispering incantations. The pain gripping the center of his being worsened—something that sounded like the Demon Lord screamed at him to leave the boy alone. However, Tsukasa only stared at his brother, wondering if this was his brother. The mark on his cheek began to simmer.

 

“Tsukasa-kun, it won’t work…” she felt her heart break at the sight of Amane—unfeeling and unfazed, “When you put him under control, with the state he was in… There’s no way he’d break out…”

 

Tsukasa continued to stare fixedly at Amane, before he hoisted the girl onto her knees and shifted his hold on the shortsword. The blade was now pointing directly at her neck, the tip grazing her skin. She gasped, “T-Tsukasa-kun—!!”

 

“Amane~!” Tsukasa paid no heed to her, “Amane!!”

 

“Tsukasa-kun, stop—!” the blade nicked her skin, causing a thin line of crimson to streak down her neck. The boy grinned widely, expecting Amane to break out of the control he was under, to look at him with his dark, vengeful eyes, to scream at him and question what he was going to do with the girl.

 

He wanted to see Amane’s emotions burn bright with intensity—to once more see the sight of when his brother just couldn’t hold back anymore.

 

He wanted Amane to act alive.

 

Yet…

 

Amane blank eyes didn’t even spare him a glance, and he continued to cast spells with abandon. 

 

Tsukasa felt his smile droop, but the grip on his shortsword tightened.

 

Nene squeezed her eyes shut, prepared for the metal to impale her neck, but there was only the clatter of the shortsword on the ground.

 

She reopened her eyes, and felt the cord around her wrists falling off. “Tsukasa-kun?”

 

There was a pain scorching inside him, as if it was engulfing his very soul, but he still had a strained smile. The mark on his cheek was glowing a bright red, as if trying to enforce its will onto him. “I don’t like Amane like this. It’s not as fun~”

 

“Tsukasa-kun…” 

 

Nene reminded herself that there was no more time to waste, and she turned to Amane and acted speedily. Embracing him, she reached around to the back of his neck and plucked the crystal out from his skin.

 

Instantaneously, his eyes regained some light. The amber orbs fluttered close from exhaustion while he sank onto his knees. His incessant spell casting finally ceased, and it was surely going to attract some attention. But at that moment, she couldn’t find it in herself to care—what mattered to her is that she got her Amane back. She followed after him and knelt, holding him up and calling, “Amane-kun?? Are you okay?”

 

“...Nene?” Amane looked up at her, his amber eyes capturing her face. “Nene, you’re here…”

 

“Amane-kun!!” Nene embraced him with tears flooding her eyes. Amane slowly hugged her back, relishing her in his arms, as a smile curved onto his face. “Nene, thank goodness!”

 

Amane noticed his twin standing there, and immediately threw Nene behind him, using himself as a shield. After registering what was happening to his brother’s appearance, he faltered, and his face went from defensive to mystified.

 

“Tsukasa? What—?”

 

“Amane!! You’re back~” Tsukasa grinned, as if his body wasn’t slowly disintegrating, “I was getting so bored with you under control. You’re really not the same, you know?"

 

Amane’s eyes widened. “You let her save me?”

 

His brother shrugged, then proceeded to hurl his shortsword over to his twin. Amane didn’t know who in their right mind would throw a sword at someone, but he was lucky that he caught it without a hitch. Besides, his brother was always chaotic in the weirdest of ways. He sheathed the sword in its usual place at his hip.

 

Tsukasa beamed, while a third of his body was already gone. “I’ll let you keep that.” 

 

Suddenly, a tremendous, menacing presence appeared across from them, ceasing the exchange. In the distance, the Demon Lord’s army was already at the walls, trying to storm the Capital as they fought against the King’s forces, so the Demon Lord himself decided to deal with what was happening to his backline Archmage.

 

Nene had never seen the Demon Lord before, so her eyes absorbed all that they could. The Demon Lord placed all four of his muscular arms on his hips. There were thin, black wings folded against his back, and dark horns were protruding from his head of slick black hair. His odd purple skin emphasized his sharp golden eyes.

 

“Tsukasa…” he growled, flashing his fangs, “you were supposed to protect your brother.”

 

Nene shuddered at the extremely dark aura, and Amane only held her closer. Tsukasa cocked his head at him, unafraid.

 

“Don’t tell me how to do things.”

 

That angered the Demon Lord horribly, but he kept his composure. “Didn’t you want to be with him?”

 

“If he’s under control, then it’s not really Amane~” Tsukasa put his finger to his lips, an innocent look on his face, “And I don’t need your help to protect him.”

 

“You ungrateful, disobedient child!” he exploded, using two arms to point at the boy, “If you don’t listen to me, then I will release you back to the realm of the dead!”

 

Tsukasa smiled, uncaring, riling him up with just his indifference. “Is that so?”

 

The Demon Lord seethed, smoke exhaling from the gaps between his sharp teeth. “Don’t you fear death?! Don’t you know who I am, boy?! You will fear me!!

 

“I don’t care who you are, really. And death doesn’t scare me~” Tsukasa saw the way the Demon Lord’s fingers flexed, and he felt burning chains around his soul commanding him to obey. Ignoring the pain, he continued to look on without an ounce of unease.

 

“Remember me, Demon Lord, for my name is Yugi Tsukasa!” he used both of his fingers to point at his cheeks, his body already mostly faded. A cheeky grin was on his face, one that Amane knew well in his memories, “And I love Amane more than anything~!”

 

“Tsukasa…” Amane’s form slackened. His brother turned to him, waving happily, “I’ll see you some other day!”

 

The Demon Lord released a wrathful howl, and he clenched his fist, completely destroying Tsukasa’s form. The only thing left was specks of ethereal pieces, drifting up into the air, never to return.

 

“That bastard of a boy…” the Demon Lord spat on the ground, “What a useless tool!”

 

Something slammed into his face—a boulder, it seemed like. It had little effect on the Demon, but it was annoying, nonetheless. He glared at the Archmage, whereas his shoulders were tense with rage. He gritted his teeth, magic sparking in his grasp. “You're gonna regret that.”

 

“Bring it on, boy.

 

Nene said worriedly, “Amane-kun—”

 

“Nene,” he said in a low voice without looking at her, “watch my back, okay?”

 

Nene’s eyes shined with affection, before she nodded in determination, all fear vanishing. “Y-Yes!!”

 

She rose up next to him, quietly mentioning, "My shield fell somewhere in that direction."

 

"Understood." He responded, "Be prepared to catch it."

 

The two of them stood together against the sinister being, their resolve strengthened and their stares hardened.

 

They were at a standstill. The cries of the rivaling armies still reverberated through the air, breaking the dense quietude. All sorts of magic could be felt, clashing with the Demonic auras in the atmosphere. Briefly, she wondered how Kou was doing, and if he had successfully freed Mitsuba.

 

Amane’s hushed voice seized her.

 

“Let’s go.”

 

In a flash, he waved his staff and whispered incantations under his breath, grandiose spell circles appearing before him. From the trees, a pillar of rock burst out, throwing Nene's shield toward them. She caught it without fail as Amane went on the offense. The Demon Lord evaded his magical attacks of varying elements, and with a stretch of his wings, he charged at them. He inhaled deeply, his chest bulging, before he spat out waves of magma from the depths of his stomach.

 

Nene darted in front of the Archmage, shouting, “Protection!”

 

Her body illuminated, boosting her ability to endure the force, and allowing her shield to block the molten rock. Amane glared at the Demon Lord, and thrust his staff upward. A huge rock formation sprouted from the ground, decking him square in the jaw, sending him across the sky.

 

The Demon Lord cursed and wiped his chin of the dark violet blood, then brought a pair of his hands together, before his other pair began to glow ominously with a dark blaze. There were suddenly enormous hands on the ground with them, aiming to crush the girl. Nene jumped out of the way as Amane pivoted on his heel and invoked another spell. A flash of lightning struck him in the skies, making his skin smoke, but he still looked in top condition.

 

“He’s strong…” Amane claimed as he lowered his staff. Nene nodded, “Do you think you could wear him down?”

 

“Yes, but, it might take a while.” Amane frowned, keeping his eyes on the flying Demon. “You sure you can last that long?”

 

“Amane-kun—”

 

A glint of light shot across the sky; some sort of dark energy beam spawning from his palms. Nene reacted swiftly, rushing in front of him and using her shield to block the attack. “Protection!”

 

The black energy fanned out in front of her shield, causing her heels to dig into the dirt. Her hair billowed behind her, her dress following suit. She proclaimed, louder than the resonance of the magic blasting against her shield, “Amane-kun, as long as you’re behind me, then I can keep standing!!” 

 

Amane felt his heart elevate from her words, and his spirits lifted significantly. With renewed vigor, he began casting even more high-leveled and brutal spells at the Demon Lord.

 

The Demon barely had any time to think up a plan with all the spells withering away at his defenses. He knew that the boy was Level 99, but to think that he could exude so much power…! It was insane, horribly phenomenal, especially just for some random human.

 

Amane and Nene felt completely in sync as they poured all their focus into fighting. This battle would determine their fates and could govern the destinies of everyone in the Capital. The two continuously altered positions, almost like they were dancing. When she was pushed back, he would step up to attack; when he needed those important few seconds to cast a spell, she would frontline and protect him.

 

The Demon Lord could knock one down, but the other would counterattack, disrupting his momentum. He growled and resorted to a flurry of attacks onto the girl, but the boy merely launched him away, regaining the distance.

 

When he let out a howl and showered them in beams of dark energy, her shield managed to protect them both. In his moment of needing recharge, Amane matched his altitude using Flight, and damaged his hardened skin with sharp gusts of wind.

 

At this rate… I’ll lose…!

 

A dragon of ice slammed into the Demon Lord, sending him plummeting to the ground. He disappeared behind the coverage of the trees, but the Archmage didn’t doubt that he’d soon return. Amane lowered back to the earth, staying behind Nene.

 

The Demon Lord tumbled and slid across the dirt, his wings tearing up slightly from the massive amount of force. Scratches were now decorating his skin, with dark violet liquid seeping out of them. He popped his joints back into place and muttered angrily, “Clairvoyant, I need your foresight.”

 

“...Yes, I see your victory.” Her calm voice floated in his ear, “...Only if you break his staff, then target one of your most powerful spells at the Capital.”

 

“Perfect.” He guffawed, “That sounds almost too easy!” 

 

The Demon Lord licked his lips, before rushing out of the foliage and straight at the duo with demonic speed. Nene attempted to keep him off, but he rammed himself at her, knocking her down before she had a chance to cast a Protection spell on herself. Amane barely had any time to call for her name before he was driven into the ground. 

 

The wind propelled out of his lungs, shocking him greatly. A pair of his arms trapped him to the ground, almost crushing his arms, and the other pair stole his staff from his loosened grip. Without wasting another moment, the Demon Lord snapped the wooden staff into two, as if it was only a twig. Amane’s eyes widened as the sparks of residual magic drifted downward.

 

“Not so strong now, huh? No. 7 of the Seven Mysteries of the Land.” The Demon Lord hurled him aside, where he smashed through a couple of trees, before banging against a larger one. Pain disoriented his vision, and his bones felt incredibly heavy. The Demon Lord roared at him, “Know me as the Conqueror of the Kingdom, Slayer of the Seven Mysteries—Nazareth the Demon Lord!”

 

Using all four of his arms, he charged up a compressed sphere of black energy, then directed his attention toward the Capital. Amane tried to get up, but pain shot up his back, making him collapse. His head felt lighter, now, and he could feel the adrenaline soon begin to kick in. Using it to his advantage, he began to cast spell circles on himself, trying to heal himself as much as he could and as fast as he could, before the agony overwhelmed him—

 

—before the Capital was demolished. 

 

—before thousands of people died.

 

—before he failed as No. 7.

 

Nene gasped, her eyes darting between Amane and the Demon Lord. Making her decision, she scrambled to her feet, running in front of the incoming attack.

 

Amane screamed, almost losing his concentration on his healing circles, “What are you doing?!

 

“People will die!!” Nene planted her feet firmly, raising her shield in front of her. Nazareth scoffed and guffawed, entertained by her futile protection, as he continued to reinforce the power of the orb in his hands. Amane shook his head wildly, then exclaimed with teary eyes, “You’re gonna die!!”

 

Fear was coursing through his veins. He somehow got onto his feet, not fully healed yet, but with the adrenaline pumping in him, he was able to stagger toward the Demon Lord, pleading, “Stop…!”

 

He didn’t get far before collapsing onto the ground. Amane cursed loudly, and brought his hands back up to keep healing himself. He wasn’t going to be any use to the Capital—to her—if he was unable to even walk.

 

She was afraid, too.

 

But who was going to stand here, between the divine Kingdom and the greatest source of evil, if not her?

 

In spite of all of her fear, she could see Amane crystal clear, before she brought her gaze to the Demon Lord and his ominous spell.

“Protection!!”

 

“Protection!!”

 

“Protection!”

 

“Protection!”

 

Nene gaped; her body felt as light as a feather but harder than the most durable mineral in the Land. There were screams and shrieks originating from the Capital. Most, if not all of them, were spells cast by the Priests onto her. A holy glow enveloped her body, as the illumination seemed to pierce the heavens. The Demons couldn’t even get near her, as her radiance burned them upon close proximity. 

 

“Those bastards…” Nazareth sneered, before a diabolical smirk stretched across his face, “That won’t work!!”

 

He thrust his arms outward. There was a high-pitched whistle piercing through the air as the mass of dark magic whizzed straight at her. Nene soon felt the impact on her shield, where it sent vibrations through her whole body, but she managed to keep her ground. The black magic spread and soared upward from her shield, destroying the trees and tearing the clouds up in its path. She persevered through the unabated force, maintaining her position with the help of the Priests from the Capital.

 

“Those fools!!” Emitting signals from his horns, Nazareth impelled his army to direct their attacks on the Priests. With the Priests forced to run or evade the attacks, Nene felt the strength of her form declining; her body being pushed more and more from the force of the attack. Nazareth grinned maniacally as he poured more strength into the black beam. All he needed was that one second to throw her off balance, to decrease her source of power, and soon the beam would devastate the wall of the Capital, consuming her and everything in its way.

 

“Nene…!” Amane finally finished healing himself to the point where he could stand up, and he rushed over to the Demon Lord. With his shortsword in hand, he bolted over at Nazareth, swinging dangerously. He successfully stopped him from continuing the beam, but it was already too late.

 

Nene’s eyes widened as her feet lifted off of the ground. Suddenly, she was sent flying toward the towering wall of the Capital.

 

Her back crashed into the wall, where it rested inside the newly formed crater. Rocks crumbled and plummeted all around her from the impact as her shield dropped from her weak grasp. Blood spilled from her lip, from her head, from her body—she was out cold.

 

The Archmages of the Capital spent their magic defending her from the Demons’ hunger, and the Priests dropped down hurriedly to heal her. She was in critical condition, and time was of the essence.

 

“That bitch!” Nazareth bellowed, feeling a tinge of exhaustion settle in his muscles. “I should’ve just slit her damn throat—!”

 

At that same instant, two arms on one side of his body were sliced cleanly off. He howled in pain and cursed out loud, the blood of his wounds spurting outward. Amane’s darkened eyes held no hesitation as he swung his sword, slicing across his chest.

 

Nazareth chuckled darkly as he stood somewhat away from him. “You… You pathetic and weak fool!” 

 

His arms recovered instantaneously, shooting out of his bloody stumps in a grotesque manner. He grinned fiendishly, “Your magic is useless. You have no spells to harm me—”

 

Amane dashed forward and sliced him again, this time clearing off one of his arms and one of his legs. The Demon Lord regenerated these limbs almost instantly, but the boy was merciless with his onslaught, continuously chopping off his limbs. When Nazareth tried to counterattack, however, Amane easily dodged and kicked him across the face, magic infused in his muscles. He rounded in place and swung his leg again, slamming the Demon Lord straight down into the ground. 

 

“You…!” Nazareth attempted to catch him off guard and shove the crystal into his neck, but before he could land a finger on him, Amane once again sliced his arm off. The Demon Lord laughed maniacally, “Fine, fine… If you don’t wanna work for me, then you can just die—!

 

Amane punched him, directly across his face. Unceasing, he pounded his face again and again with magic and Mana fueling his attacks, ignoring the dark violet blood that splattered across his cheek. When the Demon Lord attempted to defend himself, Amane only sliced his arms off. When they regenerated, they were cut off again and again without hesitation. He couldn’t create any distance, as the boy was in constant pursuit of him, and sliced off his wings nonstop.  

 

The darkness swirling in his eyes never faded, and all he could see in his mind was Nene’s broken, bloody figure in the fragmented wall.

 

The Demon Lord was heaving, and somehow was able to jump away, allowing himself to regenerate once more, yet more slowly this time.

 

“Clairvoyant, what is the meaning of this?!” Nazareth seethed, “Where is my victory??”

 

No voice responded to him. In the corner of his eye, he could see his army in the distance overwhelmed by black lightning, webs and fire, and other magic spells. Without their leader, they were directionless and worthless. Bloody and beaten, he howled irately and shrieked at the boy, “What are you?!”

 

Amane’s amber eyes glowed like a pair of sun-kissed moons looming over the black veil of night.

 

“I am the Seventh Mystery of the Land, leader of the Seven, Hanako the Archmage of all Archmages.” He brandished his shortsword and swung it in front of him purposefully. Tsukasa’s grin flashed in his mind.

 

He smirked, exuding an overpowering air of triumph. “I am your executioner.”

 

Nazareth moved recklessly, climbing to his feet. “No—Not if I can help it—!”

 

Amane dashed forward with impossible speed, disappearing and reappearing in the blink of an eye. There were traces of his magic in the wake of his path, lingering off of his body.

 

Nazareth’s quivering eyes met the vast, blue sky, and he wondered, How?

 

His head slid off of his neck, plunging to the ground with a sickening squelch. Just to be safe, Amane directed a spell circle under his dismembered corpse, and whispered an incantation.

 

An inferno blazed upward toward the sky, devouring the body in its entirety, burning it up until it was nothing but black ash. The boy’s eyes reflected the flames, and he said wistfully to himself, “What an idiot. My staff doesn’t increase my magic, it only controls it.”

 

After checking for any hint of his survival and confirming that there was none, Amane hurried to Nene. The Demon Lord’s army, after losing their leader, dispersed from the battle, fleeing to the farthest parts of the land. There were cheers reverberating in the air, and screams of his title in pure joy, but he paid it little mind. Despite the ache starting to weigh down his body, he kept moving forward.

 

He called for his hakujoudai, and soared toward the location where he last saw the girl. There was no sign of her on the wall, but her leftover blood staining the dent made him cringe. He presumed she must have been carried away to a safer place, and dutifully searched for her whereabouts.

 


 

Nene opened her eyes gradually, her vision bleary from sleep. She looked around herself, realizing she was in one of the rooms of the Castle. She was able to register the cleanliness of her gown and the clearness of her skin, and wondered if someone had cleaned her up. There were two noticeable pressures on the lower part of her bed. Gazing down, Kou and Amane were resting on the bed, snoring peacefully on their folded arms.

 

She smiled softly. These idiots… they’re gonna hurt their backs...  

 

Nene lifted herself up quietly, but the minor movement seemed to stir Amane awake. His eyes quickly met hers; she tried to speak, yet her throat was horribly parched. Amane swiftly brought a glass up to her lips, allowing her to drink the cool water.

 

She gasped, “T-Thank you—”

 

She squeaked as Amane pounced on her, wrapping his arms around her and burying himself in her neck. Nene blushed, “A-Amane-kun!”

 

“Nene~!!”

 

“Eh…?” Kou brought his head up from the sudden commotion, his eyes blinking. He beamed at the sight of the awoken girl, “Senpai!! You’re awake!”

 

“Y-Yes!” Nene smiled awkwardly, wrapping her arms around Amane. He peeled back to scold her, “Never do that again!!”

 

“Yeah, Senpai, you scared all of us!!”

 

Nene scratched her cheek. “Well, it was the right thing to do…”

 

“Indeed!” The King’s voice boomed as he entered the room. His massive stature was nearly too much for the doorway. Nene gasped, her face abruptly burning from embarrassment. “Y-Your Majesty!!”

 

Nene tried to take Amane off of her, but he was locked in place, his limbs like metal chains around her body. She nearly cried, “Oh, why me…”

 

“Do not fret, child.” The King put his hand up, soothing her nerves. “I’m merely here to invite you to a ceremony in order to honor your bravery and service to the Kingdom.”

 

“W-What?”

 

They watched as he nodded his head at her, “It would be delightful if you’d come.”

 

“Y...Yes!!” Nene said, somewhat unable to contain her excitement. “I’d love to!”

 

“Excellent! Now, Honorable No. 7,” the King waved his hand, “if you could get off the girl and allow her to get dressed, that would be wonderful.”

 

Amane pouted, but complied with a grumble. “Yes, Your Majesty.”

 

Once the King left, Kou was practically dancing. “This is amazing!! You’ll be getting rewarded by the King!! You know what that means?!”

 

Nene blinked, then looked up at the ceiling. After a few moments, she gasped, “W-Will I be getting a Golden Insignia?!”

 

“Yes!!”

 

Nene and Kou started shouting enthusiastically, their hands flailing and their smiles bright. Suddenly, the blond clapped his hands, “Wait! I remembered I have to tell everyone that you’re awake. There’s also someone I want you to meet!!”

 

Kou rushed out of the room, leaving the two alone.

 

The bed dipped from his weight as he sat down next to her. His hand cupped her face, gently caressing her cheek. “We did it.”

 

She grinned, holding his hand on her cheek, intertwining their fingers, “Yes!”

 

“You were so reckless. I swear, you keep trying to die...”

 

“I’m a Crusader.” She shrugged, “I’ll always be in the frontline, and I’m obligated to protect people.”

 

“Well,” Amane sighed with a small smile, “you did an amazing job~”

 

Nene flushed, “Thank you…”

 

He leaned over and kissed her, cherishing the warmth of her lips. Nene’s eyes fluttered open after he pulled back, “W-What was that for?”

 

“My own reward for you.”

 

Amane gently brought her to him again, meeting her lips with his. The kiss was soft, tender, and sweet; filled with as much love as he could give. Nene flushed, even more than before, “W-What was that one for?!”

 

“I just wanted to kiss you.”

 

She puffed her cheeks, pink coloring her face. “A-Amane-kun!”

 

He chuckled and used both hands to hold her face, drawing her in for a deeper kiss. She let out a small noise of pleasure, prompting him to indulge more into the kiss. Pulling back for air, they rested their foreheads against each other, listening to the sound of each other’s breathing—a simple indicator that they were alive.

 

Nene voiced warmly, despite the blood rushing to her head, "I love you, Amane-kun."

 

He hummed in response, before saying, “You know, Nene…”

 

“Hmm?”

 

"I still can't seem to say it, but…"

 

His amber eyes met her ruby ones.

 

“Every day, I fall a little more in love with you.”

 

Nene blinked, then giggled into his hand. Her breath tickled his palm, her cheeks flushed with pink. "You're such a flirt."

 

"But it's true~"

 

He leaned in to capture her lips once more, but the banging of the door made them scramble apart. Kou announced, "We're back!!"

 

He pulled in someone else, and she heard the person complain, "Stop dragging me so roughly!!"

 

She's seen the pink-haired boy before, and the name left her tongue almost instantly.

 

"Mitsuba-kun?"

 

"Um, yes…" Mitsuba nodded, "That's me."

 

She smiled, “It’s nice to finally meet you.”

 

Mitsuba stared at her with awe, before backing away and putting his sleeve up to his face. “Oh, so with your radish legs, you’re only half cute. That’s too bad, I’m full cute—”

 

Kou smacked him upside the head, making him sputter. Amane sighed, “The boy wasn’t lying—No. 3 really is cocky… I’ve spent less than a day with him, and I’ve wondered how the boy lasted at least one.”

 

“That’s rude!!” Mitsuba cried, and Kou huffed, “That’s just how he is.”

 

More people filed into the room, and she suddenly felt somewhat self-conscious over her appearance. Was her hair a mess? Was there drool on her face?!

 

"Nene-chan!!" Aoi darted over to her, pulling her into a tight embrace. "I was so worried! You've really taken adventuring to another level!"

 

Nene chuckled sheepishly. "S-Sorry, Aoi-chan…"

 

“You and Honorable No. 7 really do make an interesting pair…” Tsuchigomori commented, before saying, “I’m proud of you, Honorable No. 7.”

 

“Thanks, Tsuchigomori-sensei!!” Amane beamed, but Nene only flushed in Aoi’s arms, “W-What’s that supposed to mean?!”

 

No. 5 drawled, “It means that he really needs someone to keep him in line.”

 

“Yeah—wait, what?!” Amane gawked.

 

“If he causes you any distress, we’re more than happy to deliver justice.” Teru said politely, as he and Amane’s exchanged glares sent sparks flying across the room. Akane nodded, “I’ll help.”

 

Amane pouted, “Why does everyone hate me…”

 

Nene rolled her eyes, “You know that’s not true. Don’t be a baby.”

 

He looked like he was struck. “N-Not you too, Nene!!”

 

Everyone began laughing at the expense of the poor Archmage. He looked over at Nene’s cheerful, rosy face, and couldn’t help but chuckle, too.

 

In the evening during the ceremony, Nene found herself standing on the balcony of the Castle. The guests were inside, enjoying the fancy dancing and the fine food, but she felt like taking a breath of fresh air. 

 

She wondered how many times she dreamt of being in a place like this, of being able to stand here and have this extraordinary view. A castle... with a handsome prince… or a rugged hero that’d escort her to all the luxurious spots in the land.

 

Nene chuckled at her own past fantasies.

 

The cool night breeze was comforting to her skin, and the night sky twinkled pleasantly. In her hands was the Golden Insignia, shiny and glorious. Her face reflected off of its surface. She was her own hero—a heroine, to clarify, and a heroine to many, may she add.

 

Her eyes softened. She didn’t feel finished exploring the world yet. She wanted to see more, to do more, to adventure more with all of her friends in tow.

 

“Nene?”

 

“Hmm?” Nene turned around and saw Amane standing there, dressed down finely in a suit that was clearly choking his neck. She giggled at his uncomfortable expression, to which he frowned, “Everything about this place is so stuffy.”

 

“I guess,” Nene replied and looked back outward as he took the spot next to her. She shrugged, “I wouldn’t mind… going around more. Although this view is beautiful, I don’t wanna stay in one place just yet.”

 

Amane eyed her knowingly. “You want to keep adventuring?”

 

She blushed and nodded. He snickered, and wrapped his arm around her waist, reaching for her hand on the railing. Sliding his fingers in between hers, he said in a low voice, gently promising, “Then we can keep adventuring.”

 

He added, “Besides, there’s still Demons of all ranks roaming the world. We can’t just let them wreak havoc on innocent people.”

 

“Of course. Saving people and having fun!” she grinned, “That’s what comes in an adventure!”

 

He kissed her forehead, “If you’re with me, then it’s always an adventure.”

 

Her face burst into flames. “A-Amane-kun!!”

 

He laughed and kissed her warm cheek. She pouted, “You tease…”

 

Your tease.”

 

She blushed, “My tease…”

 

He hummed. She smiled a small, genuine smile, and leaned her head against his chest.

 

My name is Yashiro Nene. I’m partied with a boisterous and optimistic Priest of the Minamoto clan, a girly and strong-willed Archer of the Seven, and a powerful and kind Archmage that leads the way.

 

I am a proud Crusader, one that successfully defended the Capital from the Demon Lord. There’s still much of the land I want to explore, and I know that in every good or bad situation, I have people that I can depend on.

 

Nene looked at him, causing him to stare at her.

 

She met him halfway for the kiss.

 

My adventure isn’t over yet, and I’m incredibly excited for it to continue!

Chapter Text

"Amane-kun, Amane-kun, are you there?"

 

She knocked thrice, awaiting his response. However, there was only silence, and the little girl frowned. She peeked over the corner of the brick wall, only to have her tiny heart have its first mini heart attack at eight years of age.

 

"Boo!"

 

"Eek!!" 

 

Nene jumped in her spot, before falling over against the wall. Tears sprang to her eyes, and she angrily declared, "That's not how you play House!"

 

His youthful laughter filled the air, despite her grumbling. The blond soon admonished, "You gave Nene-chan a scare!! Are you okay, Nene-chan??"

 

She gave a sigh and nodded, "I'm okay, Kou-kun. Thank you." 

 

Amane stuck his tongue out. “I don’t like this game. Can’t we play tag or something?”

 

“But, Amane-kun, you agreed to play House with us!”

 

"Yeah… I did… but—” Amane abruptly pointed at the blond, “why is he playing the Dad?? I don't wanna be the Son!!"

 

She pouted and put her hands on her hips. "Because you act like such a baby!"

 

"Amane's a baby!" Kou jeered from behind her. Amane yelled, "I am not!"

 

He tugged on the girl’s arm, indignance all over his face. “Tell him I’m not a baby!”

 

Nene’s eyes widened, and she opened her mouth to say something, but instead closed it and puffed her cheeks. Amane clawed at her clothes, but she wouldn’t budge.

 

“I thought I was the Baby…” Tsukasa said from behind the trio, still sitting down on the pile of leaves. He spat out the pine cone he was biting on, claiming before that it was his makeshift pacifier. “Amane, you’re ruining the game!”

 

Amane’s face burned red, before he harrumphed and declared, “I’m gonna go pee!”

 

“I wanna pee too!!” Tsukasa jumped to his feet and chased after him, flapping his arms meanwhile. Nene only stared at their backs, a frown still on her face. Kou asked, “Are you okay, Nene-chan?”

 

“I’m fine.” Nene crossed her arms and huffed, “I just don’t get why Amane-kun was being so bad…”

 

“Nii-chan said it’s because he doesn't pay attention to the teacher!”

 

“A-As much as I, um,  respect Minamoto-niisan’s opinion, I don’t think that’s why, Kou-kun…” Nene held the ends of her dress and frowned, “I hope I didn’t hurt his feelings…”

 

In the building, Tsukasa inquired, “Amane, why are you mad?? Does your tummy hurt?”

 

“I’m not mad!” Amane yelled at him, although he instantly regretted it with Tsukasa’s look of shock, even if he appeared to still be beaming. The older twin exhaled, “Sorry, Tsukasa. I’m just… feeling annoyed. Maybe I do have a tummy ache.”

 

“Annoyed at what?” Tsukasa scratched his arm, picking at the itchy spots, “I know there were some mosquitoes out there. You wanna go squash them? Will that make you feel better?”

 

“No…” Amane and him entered the bathroom. Once the two were in the stalls, Tsukasa heard him say, “I… I feel annoyed at Nene-chan.”

 

“Really?!” Tsukasa gaped as he finished quickly and went to wash his hands—with soap, this time. “But you told me that you love her!”

 

Amane slammed the door open, startling them both. After regaining his composure, he uttered, “S-She doesn’t know that!!”

 

“Eh…?” Tsukasa used his fingers to pull back his cheeks, and he examined his own tiny fangs in the mirror. Amane could barely understand him with his mouth all stretched. “Why don’t you just tell her?”

 

“I-I can’t!” Amane washed his hands, not forgetting to use soap as well. Tsukasa looked at him weirdly, “Why?”

 

The older twin hesitated, before professing, “She told me that… she has a crush on… Minamoto-niisan.”

 

“Huh? Kou’s older brother?” Tsukasa saw the way his brother bent over the sink in dejection, then said comfortingly. “No worries, they’ll never work out! He’s so old! He’s, like, thirty!!” 

 

“He’s ten.”

 

“But he’s in third grade!”

 

“We’re only in second grade, Tsukasa!” Amane banged on the sink, then immediately jiggled his hands from the pain. “And I’m younger than her by a few months. I’m not even eight yet... and she doesn’t like younger guys…”

 

Tsukasa put his finger to his chin, before he proclaimed, “Then, there’s only one way to make sure that she’ll be yours forever!”

 

His brother turned to him in wonder. “H-How?”

 

“Dying together!” Tsukasa grinned, despite his morbid suggestion, “Death is forever! You’ll be side by side for eternity—!”

 

No.” Amane trembled, his tiny hands now securely against his brother’s mouth. “I don’t want her to… to go away like… that. Never ever, not in a million, gazillion years.”

 

Tsukasa peeled off his grasp and gasped, “Gazillion is a word?!”

 

“I heard it once from a fourth grader.” Amane nodded, “So it must be a word.”

 

“Oh…” Tsukasa put his finger to his mouth, “I heard a fifth grader say ‘bitch’—”

 

N-No!!” Amane waved his hands around frantically, “Don’t say that!! That’s a bad word!”

 

“It is?! I’m sorry…” Tsukasa was no longer smiling, and looked like he was getting ready to cry with Amane’s angry glare. Realizing that his expression was probably scary, Amane directed his scowl to the wall and muttered, “Stupid fifth grader… dirtying my brother’s mouth. I’ll get them…”

 

There was a tug on his suspenders. Amane turned around to find Tsukasa grinning once more, as if nothing had happened. “I just remembered!! There’s another way to make sure she’s yours forever!”

 

Amane grimaced. “Please let it be normal.”

 

Tsukasa leaned forward. “Marry her!” 

 

The older twin gawked and stumbled back, his face engulfed with red. “M-Marry her?? But that’s… that’s so grown-up!”

 

“It’s the only way!!” Tsukasa persisted, his hands rolled into small fists. “Well, I mean, it’s not the only way, but if you wanna die together—”

 

“Marriage. Marriage will work.” Amane claimed solemnly as he hurried out of the bathroom. Tsukasa was in pursuit of him, his body all jittery from excitement. “You’re really gonna marry her??”

 

Amane shushed him loudly, prompting Tsukasa’s voice to dip into a hushed tone. “How are you gonna prop—porp—prup—”

 

“Propose?”

 

“Propose!” Tsukasa questioned, “How will you poprose??”

 

Propose. And, um…” Amane scratched his head, “I don’t really know. I need to ask someone.”

 

The bell rang, signalling the end of recess. The Yugi twins rushed back to the classroom, running into Nene and Kou on the way. She hissed at them, vexed, but something like worry was also etched into the crinkles from her eyebrows. “Where were you two? You took a while!”

 

Her skeptical eyes dug into Amane’s guilty expression. He looked elsewhere, “U-Um…”

 

“Amane had a tummy ache.” Tsukasa patted his brother’s stomach, “And he had to take a poo!”

 

“T-That—!” Amane wanted to desperately deny that, but the alternative would be to come up with a better excuse or to tell her the truth, and he could do neither. “T-That’s… right…”

 

Kou stuck his tongue out in disgust, “Ew!”

 

To add to the deception, Amane rubbed his stomach and let out a fake whine. “Aah, my stomach!”

 

“O-Oh… gross.” Nene remarked quietly with a disturbed look, which almost brought Amane to tears. Her gaze softened while she stepped forward and placed her hand on his forehead. That stopped his tears from brimming. “You aren’t warm, but maybe you should see the nurse.”

 

“I-I feel fine now!!” Amane waved his hands, which peeled her off, “Honestly, the trip to the bathroom helped a lot!”

 

“Um, okay!” Nene smiled at him, albeit still concerned, “If you had a tummy ache, you should’ve told me. I’d understand if you weren’t feeling well, Amane-kun.”

 

“S-Sorry…” Amane looked away, unable to lie directly to her face. “D-Didn’t wanna gross you out.”

 

“It’s nothing!” she hugged him, making him blush. “I’m just happy you’re okay now!”

 

“T-Thanks, Nene-chan…” the boy wrapped his arms around her, enjoying the embrace. Kou jumped in, throwing his arms around them. “I want a hug, too!!”

 

The two squeaked at the sudden added weight, and then there was soon to be another one. Tsukasa ran toward them at full speed. “Me too!!”

 

The four of them came toppling down in front of the classroom’s entrance, laughing all the while, despite the weird stares they received from their classmates. Their teacher, Tsuchigomori, only sighed and shook his head, but a small smile was present on his face. Yako was standing outside of her own classroom, and she giggled into her hand, “These brats are quite fun to watch.”

 

“Aren’t they?” Tsuchigomori drawled. Yako nodded, provoking the man to ask, “Would you and Misaki have any of your own?”

 

“That really depends.” She leaned against the wall, “We’re already constantly surrounded by kids. They’re like our own… but… maybe we will have one to call our own, someday.”

 

She narrowed her eyes to the side and muttered, “But I’m really not gonna like what it will do to my body.”

 

Tsuchigomori chuckled, prompting her to inquire, “What about you? Thinking about having kids of your own?”

 

“Ehh…” Tsuchigomori shook his head, then observed as the four children got to their feet and began to file into the classroom. “I’ve already got myself a handful with these brats. I’m alright.”

 

Yako closed her eyes. “If you say so.”

 


 

Nene was in the middle of coloring when Amane nudged her arm. The boy peeked over her shoulder, surprising her greatly. “Whatcha drawing?!”

 

“E-Eep!!” her arms covered as much of the drawing as they could, but Amane still recognized the blond spikes of the stick figure. He lowered his eyelids, watching her critically. She flushed, “D-Don’t think too much about it!”

 

He pouted and leaned back in his chair. “I don’t get why you like him so much.”

 

“Because… I just do!” Nene huffed, “He’s kind and sweet and cute. He even helped me when I dropped my pencil case!”

 

“I could’ve done that…”

 

“What was that?”

 

“Nothing!” Amane lurched forward and began to color with renewed vigor. The black crayon was a blur in his grip, leaving its darkness onto the previously ivory paper. Nene stared at him with a puzzled look, but resumed to her drawing. After a short while, Amane glanced up at her, feeling a pout on his lips, but proceeded to finish his picture of space. 

 

Kou bounded up to them, enthusiastic. “Do you guys want to work on the paper lanterns?? Satou and Yokoo are already on it!”

 

“Isn’t Aoi-chan also there? I’ll come!” Nene hopped off of the chair, prepared to follow him. However, she threw her gaze back to Amane, who was still seated. “Are you coming, Amane-kun?”

 

“Um… probably not…” Amane continued to color the stars, despite the fact that the page was already completed. “I wanna make more drawings to hang up on the wall.”

 

“O-Okay…” she uttered, a bit hurt that he refused to accompany them. Kou tugged on her hand, but Nene stayed to wave at him. “If you wanna join us, it’d be a lot more fun!”

 

“Thanks, Nene-chan!” Amane sent her a smile as she was hauled away by the ecstatic blond. After they were off to the other side of the room, he sighed to himself and rested his chin on his hand.

 

Out of nowhere, Tsukasa poked his back. Amane turned to him. “What?”

 

“Have you asked someone yet?”

 

“Asked someone what?”

 

“How to get married!”

 

Amane’s face tinged with pink. “N-No… I’m not sure who I want to ask.”

 

“You should ask someone older!” Tsukasa gripped the desk and urged, “What about Tsuchigomori-sensei??”

 

Amane furrowed his eyebrows. “You think he knows how to propose to someone?”

 

“I don’t know, maybe!”

 

“Hmm…” Amane contemplated for a moment, before raising his hand. “Tsuchigomori-sensei, I have something I need to ask you!!”

 

“Coming,” came the familiar drawl of their teacher. He ambled over to the Yugi twins, studying the skittish demeanor of one and the anxious behavior of the other. “What’s the problem? Tsukasa trying to eat your crayons again?”

 

“No!! I haven’t done that this week!” Tsukasa affirmed with a flap of his arms. Amane shook his head, “No, that’s not it. I, uh, have… something to ask you…”

 

“Huh?” Tsuchigomori’s interest piqued. “What is it?”

 

Amane felt the heat of his face increase greatly, where he then gulped and looked down at the desk. Tsukasa made a quizzical noise, trying to peer at his brother’s reddening face.

 

Tsuchigomori was about to ask again, but the boy’s quiet voice interrupted him.

 

“...do you get… married?”

 

“Eh?” the teacher crouched next to the desk, tilting his head. “Come again?”

 

“How…” Amane’s blush was big and bright, yet he persevered, “How do you get… married?”

 

Tsuchigomori arched an eyebrow, considerably nonplussed. “Marriage? Why do you ask?”

 

 “W-Well—”

 

Tsukasa cut in the conversation with a low voice, “He wants to get married to Nene!”

 

Amane shielded his burning face with his hands. Tsuchigomori felt himself crack a smile as he observed how Tsukasa curiously shook his brother’s shoulders. He was definitely telling Yako about this later.

 

“Well, to tell you the truth.” he cleared his throat, veiling his smile, “I’ve never tried to do that myself. So, if you’re asking me how to propose, exactly, then I can’t really help you there.”

 

“Oh…” his dejected expression was almost too much to handle. Alongside Tsukasa’s faded grin, it pierced that part of him that cared too much about these little kids. Tsuchigomori sighed and scratched the back of his head, “Why don’t you try asking Yako-san?”

 

“Yako-sensei?” Amane repeated as a question. The teacher nodded, “She’s the fourth grade teacher across the hall. Try asking her tomorrow, okay?”

 

“O-Okay…” 

 

The twins watched the man walk away, presumably to check on the creation of the lanterns. Tsukasa patted his back, “Don’t worry, Amane! Tomorrow, we’ll find out!”

 

At Amane’s frown, he tugged his hand, “Let’s go make some colorful banners!!”

 

He allowed himself to be dragged toward the station, smiling slightly at his brother’s attempts to cheer him up.

 

Tomorrow, for sure. He’d get his answer.

 

Although, he discovered the next day that it wasn’t going to be as easy. Nene was starting to become very suspicious of him, now.

 

“You didn’t join us yesterday to make lanterns. And I saw you quietly talking to Tsuchigomori-sensei.” Nene eyed him dubiously, seeing the way he would avoid her face. “Are you hiding something from me?”

 

"Eh? No. Nothing!” Amane leaned back as she leaned forward. She was frowning, now, “I hope not, Amane-kun.”

 

Nene backed away from him, allowing him space to breathe. She folded her arms and cocked her head, “You’re still gonna be with me and Kou for the school’s cultural festival, right?”

 

“Um…” he scratched his cheek, “yeah, I think.”

 

“Good!” she beamed, before heading into the class. He sighed in relief, feeling his heart begin to de-escalate. Someone else came up behind him, spooking him. “Amane! What’s the matter?”

 

Pivoting on his heel, he was face-to-face with Kou, who was gazing at him with his sparkly blue eyes. Amane felt another sweat begin to break out, Why do my friends keep asking me that? Proposing is already stressful!

 

“Nothing’s the matter. Just…” Amane looked left and right for an excuse, catching sight of the numerous colorful flyers on the walls, “excited for the cultural festival!”

 

“Oh… I see!” Kou nodded fervently. “Me too!!”

 

The blond ran forward into the room, blithe and cheerful. Amane once more let out a sigh of relief, hoping that his friends would get off his back until he and Nene were engaged.

 

During lunch, the Yugi twins and Nene were casually eating their lunches when Kou pranced up to them, another boy in tow. Interestingly, the boy had pink hair and eyes, and he was staring at them nervously. 

 

“Who is this?” Nene asked, to which Kou responded happily, “His name is Mitsuba! He’s usually alone, so I went to talk to him today. He called me Lame-Traffic-Earring, and I told him he knew funny words, so now we’re friends!”

 

Mitsuba, on the other hand, was looking at the back of the blond’s head as if he had two of them. Tsukasa and Amane chuckled into their hands, amused by his obvious ignorance. Nene smiled, uncertain, “Uh… cool! You can sit with us, Mitsuba-kun.”

 

The pink-haired boy looked at her in genuine awe. Kou tugged on his arm, making him sit next to him. Although Mitsuba now bore an uncomfortable look on his face, he looked on in astonishment as Tsukasa proceeded to make an abomination made of food. Amane and Nene were busy swapping food items.

 

Kou rapped the table, halting their trade. “Wait, I want the juice box.”

 

Nene’s hand was frozen midair. “But I really want Amane-kun’s cookie…”

 

“And I want the juice box.” Amane frowned, challenging Kou with his stare. Kou opened up his lunchbox. “I have an extra salmon onigiri. Can I trade that instead?”

 

“R-Really?” Nene’s mouth was watering. Amane shook his cookie in front of her. “The cookie!! Don’t forget about the cookie!”

 

“Amane-kun!” Nene pushed his hand away. She puffed her cheeks and weighed her choices. After looking at the unopened juice box in her hand. she gazed into her friend’s hopeful amber eyes. “Amane-kun…”

 

Amane’s head slammed against the table as Nene and Kou exchanged items. She joyfully munched into the riceball, while Kou sipped into the juice box, both of them nonchalantly ignoring Amane’s moping. A finger tapped on his shoulder, causing him to look up.

 

“I have a juice box.” Mitsuba was holding it in his hand in front of him. “I’ll trade you your cookie for it.”

 

“...Really?”

 

He nodded. The two of them swapped items as the rest of the table were busy chatting or tending to their own business. Mitsuba was merrily munching on the cookie, but Amane was sadly looking down at the juice box. His little heart felt all twisted and torn, but he wasn’t really sure why it hurt so much.

 

At recess, he divulged to his twin...

 

“Eh??” Tsukasa’s legs were swaying to and fro from the swing next to him. Amane was loosely holding the chains, staring down at his lap. His brother inquired, “You’re thinking about not asking Nene to marry you??”

 

Amane nodded, albeit it was very minuscule. “I don’t really wanna do it anymore. Seeing her with other guys makes me sad, and it feels like she wouldn’t say yes.”

 

“Ask her anyway!!”

 

“No… I don’t want to~” Amane whined, resting his head against the chain. Tsukasa hopped off of the swing and shook his shoulder, “Did you even ask Yako-sensei yet?”

 

“I didn’t feel like it…”

 

“If you ask, then you might feel like doing it!”

 

“But I don’t even know who she is…”

 

“Well, if she’s the fourth grade teacher…” Tsukasa tapped his chin, before pointing upward at the sky, “I know!”

 

His twin brother ran off momentarily, before returning with a taller girl in his clutches. She had green hair tied back in a braid, a somewhat thick book under her arm, and her eyes were very pretty and mesmerizing. 

 

They’re not as beautiful as Nene-chan’s but… Amane couldn’t help but wonder, who is she?

 

Tsukasa clarified with a gleeful lilt in his voice, “I thought that if a fourth grade teacher knows, then a fourth grader would know! And she’s a fourth grader!!” 

 

That’s... a sensible reason! Amane nodded, understanding his logic perfectly.

 

She gazed down at the boy. “Why don’t you just ask me who Yako-sensei is, Tsukasa-kun?”

 

Tsukasa’s face was blank as he faced her, words sealed within his closed mouth. Realization passed through Amane’s face at her advice. Sakura rubbed her forehead, “I guess you didn’t think about that. It’s okay, I’ll still help.”

 

She looked down at Amane, and suddenly, he felt somewhat self-conscious. “Tsukasa-kun, this is your older brother, right?”

 

“Mhmm!!” Tsukasa hugged his twin with a grin, “This is Amane! Amane, this is Sakura-neesan! She stopped me one time from chasing after a squirrel, and then gave me a muffin!”

 

“Oh… um…” Amane bowed slightly, “Hello, Sakura-neesan.”

 

She smiled kindly. “Hello. Your brother came to me and said you needed help with something.”

 

“Yes, um…” Amane fiddled with his hands, “There’s this... girl... that I love.”

 

“Oh?” Sakura raised an eyebrow. He nodded, “I want to—to propose to her. I… I want to marry her!”

 

Saying it out loud reinvigorated his heart, spurring his desires once again. Despite his envy and her attention toward other guys, he still really loved her, and he wanted to make her his. He wanted to be the only guy she will ever hold hands with, the only guy she ever calls cute, and the only guy she ever trades her juice box with.

 

“I see…” Sakura bent forward. Her locks of hair that framed her face spilled over her shoulders, and she patted his head. “Then I’ll help you.”

 

“Really?” Amane beamed, “Thanks, Sakura-neesan!”

 

The Yugi twins paid close attention as she began to explain the process of proposing and engagement and weddings. She often focused on Amane, since he was the one who wanted to go through with the action, after all. Amane nodded along with her descriptions, soaking in as much information as he could.

 

“Nene-chan? Are you daydreaming again?”

 

Nene turned to Aoi, who was looking at her with her classic pristine smile. She shook her head, “No, I was just…”

 

For some reason, she couldn’t outright say that she was observing her very close friend Amane hanging out with some older girl she’s never seen before. Not to mention the fact that Amane seemed to be avoiding her, and that he wasn’t hanging out with her as much as he used to. It’s already been a few days, and yet every time she asked him about it, he always told her it was because of something or the other.

 

“Oh…” Aoi directed her gaze to Nene’s view. “I see~”

 

“W-What?”

 

“Nene-chan…” Aoi wagged her finger at her, “Are you jealous of Amane-kun and his new girlfriend?”

 

“G-Girlfriend??”

 

“Well, friend that is a girl.” Aoi spelled out, though there was a bit more slyness in the curve of her lips. “Is there something wrong if they were together, though?”

 

“Uh, no!” Nene crossed her arms, “I just… I just don’t think he’d actually be able to get a girlfriend!”

 

“Well, Nene-chan,” Akane piped in from the side, “I know that I love Aoi-chan with all my heart. But if Amane doesn’t love you with all his heart, then he’d go and find himself a different girlfriend!”

 

“W-Why does it sound like you’re saying that we were together…?” Nene blushed and shook her head, “Amane-kun and I are just friends. A-And I don’t care if he gets a girlfriend!!”

 

“Really?” Aoi and Akane asked simultaneously, looking at her skeptically, and exchanging knowing looks. Nene nodded, “Even if she’s super pretty and older and looks smart, it doesn’t matter to me!”

 

“Well, if you say so.” Akane said, slipping out of the conversation. Aoi wasn’t finished yet, however. “Is he still going to the cultural festival with you?”

 

“Yes!” Nene paused, “A-And Kou, too!”

 

Aoi tilted her head, then pointed at the green-haired girl. “But what if he decides to go with her?”

 

“If he—what? No, he wouldn’t—” Nene shook her head again, more adamantly. “He said he was coming with me!”

 

“Nene-chan...”

 

“H-He will!!”

 

Nene took a glimpse of Amane, seeing how his face of intrigue was solely focused on the older girl in front of him. She felt a pout grow on her lips, and her chest was beginning to feel tight.

 

He will, won’t he?

 


 

For the next few days, Amane was spending more and more time with the mysterious green-haired girl during recess, instead of spending time with Nene. Kou didn’t think too much about it, as he was too preoccupied with his new friend Mitsuba, and Tsukasa always followed Amane around. It seemed like Aoi was feeding more and more into her doubts, and Nene was now starting to question if this girl and Amane were more than what they seemed.

 

It was finally the first day of the cultural festival, but before that, they still needed to attend school. During recess, Nene felt that she needed to confront her friend.

 

“Amane-kun…” Nene tugged on his wrist before he ran off again, “where are you going?”

 

“Um, uh... “ Amane’s other hand was in his pocket, “to the swings.”

 

She glanced up at him. “C-Can I come with…?”

 

Amane’s eyes shrunk at her request. She looked at him, somewhat pleading, somewhat woeful. He stuttered, “Y-You wanna come with?”

 

“Yeah, because I, um…” she kicked the dirt, “I miss my friend. I miss hanging out with you.”

 

“U-Uh…” Amane avoided her eyes. “Nene-chan, I-I’m sorry but… there’s something important I have to do.”

 

“Important…?” Nene suddenly pulled him close, grabbing both of his hands. “What do you have to do?!”

 

“E-Eh?!”

 

“Does it have something to do with that green-haired girl?!”

 

“N-Nene-chan!? Calm down!”

 

She inhaled sharply at his frightened expression, then released him, making him stumble backward. She pouted and rubbed her arm, “Sorry…”

 

“Nene-chan…” he brought his hands to her cheeks; there was something strikingly familiar about this scene. “Don’t worry. I promise that I’ll still be with you for the cultural festival, okay?”

 

“...Okay.” 

 

He left her there to stand by herself. Her gaze lingered on his back, his already short stature gradually growing smaller as he fled from her. She felt like crying—she already felt the tears rising, but she willed herself to move. If Amane wasn’t going to tell her, then she’d just find out by herself!

 

Determined to hear what the Yugi twins and the green-haired girl were discussing, she snuck into the nearby slide and listened closely.

 

She heard Tsukasa ask, “Are you ready, Amane?!”

 

“M-Maybe?”

 

“It’s okay.” The girl’s voice was so soft and gentle, almost like a lullaby. Nene clenched her fists and scowled. Amane sounded uneasy. “A-Are you sure?”

 

“I’m sure.”

 

“Okay… Okay!” Amane cleared his throat. There was a shuffle of movement along the ground, and then she heard him, her very close friend, loud and clear. 

 

“Will you marry me?!”

 

It took her a moment to process, but once she did, her world froze. 

 

In her fantasies, she always imagined being proposed to by the guy of her dreams. She imagined dressing up in an exquisite white dress and walking down the aisle to a handsome man, preferably Kou’s older brother. She always wanted to get married to the love of her life.

 

But… she never thought that hearing her friend Amane propose to some other girl would actually hurt this much.

 

Nene cried silently and escaped the slide before they noticed her.

 

“Very good, Amane-kun, but,” Sakura said frankly, “you don’t just outright say it like that. You need to add some more to it.”

 

“Eh??” Amane got off of his knee and pocketed the ring. “Like what?”

 

“Like,” she gesticulated, “something sweet. How you met, or how you feel about her, or how she makes you feel, all that.”

 

“T-That sounds embarrassing…”

 

“As I said before, proposing is meaningful. It’s the gateway to being together forever, so you want to make the entrance as decorative and extravagant as possible.”

 

Amane hummed, casting his gaze toward the sky, “I guess. If you say so, Sakura-neesan.”

 

As the older twin planned out his script in his head, she turned to the younger twin, “And you said you have everything set up?”

 

“Yes!” Tsukasa rubbed his hands together, resembling the typical villainous fashion, “It’s all gonna come together!”

 

“Don’t get too over your head.”

 

“Don’t get what?”

 

Sakura sighed, “Nevermind.”

 

When after school came, and the cultural festival was just beginning, the building began to flood with students and parents alike. The halls were adorned with colorful banners and ornate paper lanterns. The drawings and paintings of all the students were hung up for all to view. Stalls of fun activities and delicious food were a sight to see and a delight to partake in. The sun was still up in the sky, shining down on the bright grins of everyone.

 

Almost everyone.

 

“Nene-chan…” Aoi patted her back, “Don’t cry, please. It makes me sad to see you cry.”

 

Nene wiped her tears and sniffled, trying not to use her dress to clean up her messy face. Aoi hugged her friend, inquiring, “Why are you crying? I thought you didn’t care if Amane-kun got a girlfriend.”

 

“I said I don’t! B-But…” Nene felt her heart constrict, “It still hurts. I can’t believe he proposed to another girl…”

 

“Nene-chan,” Aoi grabbed her by the shoulders, forcing her to look up, “talk to him. Tell him how you feel. And if you have to, then leave him!!”

 

“L-Leave him?!”

 

“Oh, uh, sorry, late-night dramas got to me.” Aoi giggled, “But just talk to him about it. Get your feelings across.”

 

“...You’re right.” Nene stood up, her eyes still wet with tears, but her cheeks now dried. “I will talk to him!!”

 

“Blow your nose first.”

 

“I will!” Nene took the tissue that her friend offered her. “Thank you.”

 

Nene scoured through the festival, trying to catch sight of Amane, but to no avail. It seemed like he was nowhere to be found. She ran into Kou and Mitsuba, where she told them that she was looking for Amane, yet they couldn’t tell her anything. She tried to ask her teacher, but he only shrugged and gestured to the entirety of the festival. She ran into her parents, who tried to grab her and spend time with her, but she swiftly evaded them and only said that “she needed to find her friend and tell him how she felt!”

 

“Do you think she’s talking about Amane-kun, dear?” Nene’s mother asked. Her father shrugged, “Probably. I wouldn’t be surprised.”

 

Her mother clapped. “Oh, finally! I’ve been waiting for so long!”

 

Meanwhile, Nene huffed and puffed, holding herself against the wall. “Where is he??”

 

“Where is who?”

 

“E-Eep!!” Nene jumped, whirling her head around. Amane was standing there, wearing his usual clothes, but there was a bashful smile on his face. She pointed at him, shouting, “A-Amane-kun!!”

 

“Yes?!”

 

“I’ve been looking everywhere for you!” Nene stepped up to him. “I need to talk to you!!”

 

Amane was startled, but he quickly switched his stance, and gazed at her resolutely. “I need to talk to you, too!”

 

“Huh??” Nene was taken aback. He seized her hand. “Just come with me!”

 

The two kids darted through the halls, dodging the sea of people in the narrow pathway. Nene could only see his back as he dragged her along, and from the warmth of his firm grip, she couldn’t help but blush.

 

“W-Where are we going?!”

 

“Somewhere cool! I promise.”

 

They ended up on the roof of the school, much to her wonderment. There were paper lanterns and banners hanging around the fences, but something about it was tinged with romance. The reds and pinks of the paper set a certain mood that made her want to chuckle and flush.

 

He turned to her.

 

“I know I haven’t been with you lately, but it’s because there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you…”

 

“Amane-kun…” she stood across from him, “before you say anything, I need to know.”

 

Amane looked confused. “Know what?” 

 

“That girl you’ve been with, the one with the green hair…” the wind brushed through her hair. She held her hand up to her mouth, her eyes gazing at the side, “Is she your… promised?”

 

“M-My… what?”

 

She whipped her head toward him, her eyes full of melancholy. “Tell me! Is she…? Do you… love her?”

 

“Love her?!” Amane strolled up to Nene, grabbing both of her hands. “Nene-chan, she’s nothing more than an older sister.”

 

“D-Don’t lie to me!” Nene yelled, hurling her gaze down to her feet. “I heard you—You proposed to her!!”

 

He gaped at her. “Y-You heard that?”

 

Nene watched as he stammered, unable to get his words out correctly. She said in a watery voice, “I knew it… Don’t you know how painful it is for me?! Why bring me here if you’re already with someone else?!”

 

She ripped her hands out from his clutches, intending on leaving him alone on the roof. He staggered backward from the unexpected drama of the scenario, before bolting after her.

 

“W-Wait!!”

 

There was a whistle in the sky, before a burst of light filled the blue sky. Nene turned, catching sight of the flecks of colors crossing the air above.

 

“Fireworks…?” Nene gawked, “Why?”

 

Amane clicked his tongue. Tsukasa, the sun is still up!! Ah, whatever—!

 

It was now or never.

 

“Nene-chan!” Amane gripped her hands once more, snatching her attention. With him yelling, she could hear him over the explosion of the fireworks. “What you heard before was only a practice!”

 

Her eyes were swirling with bewilderment. “Practice?”

 

A commotion began below the rooftop. Many voices resounded with the fireworks in awe of the vivid specks, although she also vaguely heard an adult say, “Hey!! Someone activated the fireworks early!!”

 

She thought she heard Tsukasa cackling in the distance, but she paid no mind as the boy began to speak in earnest.

 

“Nene-chan, the reason why I’ve been busy is because I just… I wanted to make this perfect.”

 

“Amane-kun…?”

 

“I remember when we first met. Do you?” 

 

Their eyes met—sincere, intent amber clashing with curious, reflective ruby.

 

“It was in kindergarten. We never spoke to each other before. But I saw you one day, crying behind a tree.” He stepped closer, his hands still firm around hers, “Some boys made fun of you for your radish legs. But I cheered you up by telling you that they were cute.”

 

Her eyes widened, becoming shinier with tears after each passing moment. He cupped her cheeks, and she remembered the scene clearly.

 

He held her cheeks with his hands, staring into her teary eyes. The light, filtered from the leaves of the tree, graced their faces.

 

It was the first time anyone ever called her legs cute. 

 

Her heart—against her will, against her expectations—fluttered and thumped because of the boy in front of her.

 

“A-Amane-kun…” she smiled and placed her hands on top of his, despite her weepy eyes. “Of course I remember.”

 

“Nene-chan, to me, you’ve stuck out like a star. Radiant and inspiring,” he took her hands again, “but somewhere between meeting you and being friends with you, I realized that you weren’t actually a star.”

 

He lowered himself on one knee.

 

She was speechless.

 

The fireworks continued to burst in the air, yet she drowned out all the chatter of the crowd and the roars of the sky.

 

“You’re a moon, Nene-chan—lovely, breathtaking, and beautiful. There’s nothing that I want more than to reach the moon.” He reached into his pocket, then took out a ring. It was a simple silver band with a small red gemstone, and she vaguely wondered how he got the ring in the first place, but all she could do was gasp. 

 

“Nene-chan, will you marry me?”

 

Nene felt all her fantasies blend and fuse into one, where she was finally proposed to by the guy of her dreams. She’s never dreamt of Amane, but she couldn’t dream of anyone else at the moment. She’s never felt happier in her eight years of life.

 

“Yes…” she nodded and hugged him tightly. “Yes!! I will, Amane-kun!”

 

Amane could barely believe his ears, but he recollected himself and hugged her back. They relished in the embrace as the fireworks eventually died down. After they pulled apart, he slid the ring onto her left hand on her ring finger, just how Sakura explained to him prior.

 

She stared at the ring in amazement, before looking at the grinning boy. Leaning forward, she kissed his cheek, prompting his head to burst into flames. “Thank you, Amane-kun.”

 


 

“Mommy!! Daddy!!”

 

“Hmm?” Nene’s mother caught the sprinting girl in her arms. “What happened? How was your confession?”

 

“Well…” she held her hand to her cheek, bashful, “it was just Amane-kun speaking, really, but…”

 

She held her hand out, showing off her new ring with a flourish and a smile from ear-to-ear. 

 

“I’m engaged to Amane-kun!!”

 

It was the first time she’s ever seen either of her parents make that really weird—but funny—face!

 

Her dad managed to choke out, “You’re—WHAT?!

 

Later that day, she and Amane got a firm talking to, and it was decided that they were, in fact, not engaged. Her parents said that they could get married far, far into the future, when they were much older and no longer in school. The two kids were downcast, but their spirits were lifted quickly with the exuberance of the festival and the fact that they got ice cream to make up for the loss.

 

Oh, well. Nene held Amane’s hand as they skipped through the festival, Amane-kun and I will get married someday, anyway!

Chapter Text

"Hanako-san, Hanako-san, are you there?"

 

He had knocked on the stall's door three times, just like the legends said to do, but there was no response. Silence surrounded the girls' bathroom, and although it was after school hours, and he was in the old building, he still felt quite self-conscious. He hoped that no one would stumble upon him being there, or it was gonna be a really awkward conversation. Just as he was about to give up and go home, the stall's door creaked open.

 

But there was no one behind the door. 

 

Amane was very confused at this point, before a hand grabbed his shoulder, changing all of his confusion into fear.

 

"I'm here!"

 

He jumped away, taking in the ghostly appearance of the spirit in front of him. Hanako appeared to be far different than what the legends said. Instead of a bob cut of black hair, she had silvery-peach colored hair with light green tips. There was no red skirt, but instead she wore a female black gakuran. Her hair was wrapped into two buns adorned with black hair clips, and the rest of her locks flowed freely behind her head, save for the two that framed her face.

 

She was observing him with her ruby red eyes, as much as he was with her. There was something akin to recognition that sparked within those lovely orbs of hers.

 

"This is… interesting~" Hanako leaned over, causing him to lean back. "Don't be so scared."

 

"I-I'm not scared! I was just..." Amane’s eyes went straight to her legs, “surprised by how fat your ankles were!”

 

She was far away from him now, and her transparent body seemed to fade away even more. He jolted, “H-Hey, wait, that was a joke!!”

 

She didn’t turn around and continued to dissolve. “Dumb joke…”

 

“D-Don’t leave!” he tried to grab her, but his hands went straight through. He toppled over and hit his forehead against the bathroom stall. Behind him, he heard peals of her ringing laughter. He shook his head and stood up straight, facing her with his throbbing red forehead. "Are you Hanako-san?!"

 

"Yes!" she pointed a finger at herself with a cheerful smile, no longer upset, "I am one of the Seven Mysteries of the school, Hanako-san of the Toilet!"

 

With a flourish, she curtsied, "Nice to meet you!"

 

“Y-You’re really her?”

 

“Yes~!” she pouted, “What~? Is it that hard to believe?”

 

“Um, sort of…” he looked at her suspiciously, "You don't look like how your rumors describe you."

 

"Ah, the formalities…" she drifted in the air, "Don't mind them. I can still do what I'm here for~"

 

“You actually grant wishes?”

 

“Why, of course!” Taking out some pen and some paper, she asked, "So, what can I do for you today?"

 

“Okay, well, my name is Yugi Amane, a first-year in the highschool division!” Amane balled his hands into fists as he proclaimed, "I want my crush to return my feelings!"

 

There was a pang in her heart. She ignored it.

 

"Crush~?" Hanako lifted her gaze off of her notepad, "Who?"

 

"Nanamine Sakura!" he was blushing slightly, "She's a super cool and smart upperclassman, and she's also really pretty!"

 

"Is that so~?" Hanako smiled, "Then, I shall grant your wish…"

 

His eyes sparkled. "Really?!"

 

She held up a finger. "Though, for a price."

 

"Oh," Amane's face fell, "I-I don't have any money on me."

 

"Not to worry! I have something just for you, then." Hanako rummaged around in her pockets, before pulling out a lover's handbook for romance. In spite of her cheeky smile, he pushed the book away.

 

"No, thanks."

 

"What a tough customer~" she pulled out multiple random items from her pockets, until there was nothing left but emptiness, "It seems that I have nothing left to offer! We can always just look through the book~"

 

"N-Nothing left to offer?! But you're a ghost who grants wishes!"

 

"Ah, right." Hanako glanced up at the ceiling, "That is what my rumor says, huh~?"

 

She pressed her index finger to her cheek, eyeing him with amusement, "Well, if you want better ways, then it’ll be for much steeper prices.”

 

“T-That’s a little ominous…”

 

“It is~!”

 

Amane grimaced, “I don’t think I can afford that!”

 

She shrugged, “I don't have anything else for you. Maybe try a different apparition."

 

When she retreated to the toilet, he stuck his hand out and shouted, "H-Hey, wait!"

 

Suddenly, she was floating in front of him, her face leaning very close to his. She tilted her head and sang, "Yes~?"

 

Although his face was now slightly colored, he inquired, "...Can I change my wish?"

 

"Huh?" Hanako giggled into her hand, "That's a bit strange, but sure. What'll your new wish be?"

 

"...Friendship." Amane pointed at her, "I want you to be my friend."

 

“Eh?” she stood upright, “Why’s that?”

 

“...I don’t…” he fidgeted in his spot, suddenly feeling very self-conscious, “I don’t have any friends…”

 

"And so you want to be friends with a ghost?"

 

He squirmed under her analytical gaze. She blinked, before giggling again. Her eyelids lowered halfway, allowing the gleam of her eyes to pierce his visage.

 

"Are you sure you want to be my friend?"

 

"Ah… um…" Amane nodded, "Yes."

 

“Very well! Then your price will be…” Nene opened her palms, “working for it!”

 

“Working for it? T-That’s it??”

 

“Of course that’s it!” she floated ahead of him, then winked in his direction, making him blush. “How else would you make friends?”

 

“I-I don’t know…”

 

"Oh, you're so cute~"

 

"E-Eh?!"

 

"How about you go home and think up ways to befriend me?"

 

"Um, I guess I can do that…"

 

“Go along, now!” she waved him off, “Or else you’ll walk home alone at night, and that’s not very safe.”

 

He fiddled with his hands. “Can I see you tomorrow?”

 

“If you want to be friends with me, then you’d have to spend some time with me, right?”

 

“Um…”

 

She whispered, “Say ‘yes!’”

 

“Y-Yes!”

 

“Good, then I’ll see you tomorrow!”

 

"Okay!"

 

Hanako watched as he ran off, not without waving goodbye, of course. After he was totally gone, the smile on her face dropped, and she floated over to the window sill. She wondered how she’d approach this situation. Even if she hasn’t met many humans, she’s never met a human that wished to be her friend, of all things. But part of her felt bad for this human, because, well…

 

He was destined to die.

 

She saw it. No supernatural would be able to ignore the impending death dangling over his head.

 

Hanako sighed. If he were to die, then maybe it was up to her to make sure that—

 

—she lived the best life she possibly could.

 

...He… Hanako shook her head, her brain now cloudy. Why’d I call him a ‘she’?

 

She looked up at the moon, longing, yearning... but not sure for what.

 

The next day, the boy visited her again after school. He was as awkward as ever, unsure of where to stand, where to look, or what to say. She giggled inwardly, observing his anxious behavior.

 

What is he doing with his hands?  

 

They were entering and exiting his pockets, his fingers were flexing and straightening. She shook her head and walked up to him. He appeared startled at her sudden movement, backing slightly against the wall.

 

“Amane-kun~” she sang, “what do you think you're doing?”

 

“I don’t… know?”

 

She sighed fondly. “Alright, you. Follow me, okay?”

 

The two of them left the bathroom, into the dimly lit halls that were devoid of life. She hummed a little song, and her tune seemed to resound off the walls.

 

Empty, endless…

 

She felt alone in that moment, numb to all other sensations.

 

The echoes of her voice combined, melted into a mess of indistinguishable noises, and they seemed to surround her.

 

“—SHIRO!!”

 

She gasped, and her eyes flew open.

 

“Hanako-san?” Amane inched next to her. Recollecting her thoughts, she discerned the evening breeze caressing her face, and the boy’s worried eyes watching her.

 

“Amane-kun,” she smiled, “what is it?”

 

“You brought me up here.” He scratched his cheek, uncertain, “And I’m not sure what we’re doing out here. It’s nice, but why?”

 

“Oh, well,” she gestured to the view of the town, “isn’t it cool to look at? It’s a great place to make conversation, rather than the girls’ bathroom.”

 

“Oh, makes sense!” Amane nodded. The two sat down, side by side, and it was something that felt wholly natural to the ghost. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but there was so much familiarity ringing in her head, it was almost dizzying. Like a sense of déjà vu, but, something wasn’t aligned correctly.

 

“Hanako-san,” Amane called to her, and she brought herself out of her musing to focus on him, “I thought up some questions to ask. Can I ask them?" 

 

"Go for it, cutie."

 

He grumbled and blushed at that, but proceeded to ask, "Do you have a favorite food?”

 

She smiled, but furrowed her eyebrows. “What makes you think I can eat?”

 

“Um… I don’t know? Like, you would be able to accept offerings, or something?”

 

“I’m just messing with you.” She stuck her tongue out teasingly, causing him to pout, “My favorite snack is strawberry-filled rice cakes. What about you?”

 

“Plain, homemade donuts.” His cheeks were tinged with pink, “They’re delicious~”

 

 “How cute!”

 

“Eh?!” Amane flustered and shielded his face, “N-No!”

 

While she giggled at him, he muttered another question, "D-Do you… um, like to do anything? Besides granting wishes."

 

"Well~" she made a formation with her hands that resembled a bunny, "I like to play cards with the Mokke. I also enjoy playing games with the other supernaturals."

 

"Really?" he cocked his head questioningly, "Are they your friends?"

 

"Of course! We're a team of friends, fighting against evil for the sake of the school!" she said proudly. The words seemed a bit childish, but her tone indicated no mockery. He rested his hands on his cheek, "Wow, that sounds fun…"

 

"Hmm~" she asked with mirth, "are you jealous, Amane-kun?"

 

"E-Eh?!" He flustered, "N-Not at all!!"

 

"How cute~"

 

He turned away from her, unable to endure her cheeky stare. "Please stop…!"

 

She snickered, then inquired, “Do you have any siblings, Amane-kun?”

 

“Um…” he shook his head, “No, I’m an only child.”

 

“Really? That sucks… Having no friends and no siblings.” 

 

He looked struck by her words, and she only chuckled and waved her hand. “Sorry, sorry. I just think it’s unfortunate. Tell me, what makes other kids not want to befriend you?”

 

“Well, I think I go under the ‘nerd’ category…” Amane grimaced, “My interests don’t exactly go with everyone else’s.”

 

She tucked her knees under her chin and asked, “What’re you interested in?”

 

“Astronomy.” He grinned, and it was the first time she’s seen him actually relax. “I love to stargaze and read the latest news on space exploration. Winter is gonna come, and I’m really excited because you can usually see more of the night sky when it’s colder. I’ve actually thought about making my own club for astronomy and holding meetings where we use telescopes and—”

 

Amane halted his speaking by using his hands to cover his mouth. 

 

“I was rambling, wasn’t I? I’m sorry. I, uh—”

 

“It’s okay. It’s adorable.”

 

He blushed. She smirked and said slyly, “You can talk about the stars all you want, Amane-kun. I don’t mind~”

 

Amane’s eyes were sparkling as he gazed at her, “Thanks, Hanako-san…”

 

While she hummed in satisfaction, he tapped his index fingers together. “Hey, uh, can I... call you... Hanako-chan?”

 

“Hmm?” she extended her legs and placed her hands in her lap, “Why?”

 

“It sounds more like we’re friends, doesn’t it?” he looked away, holding his hand to his mouth. “O-Or is that too informal?”

 

“That’s fine, Amane-kun. You can call me Hanako-chan.” She leaned toward him and asked, “But are you really sure you want a ghost to be your first friend?”

 

He stared fixedly at her, before grinning. “I don’t see why not. You seem like a great ghost!”

 

She snorted, before laughing. “Ahh! Amane-kun, why are you so cute?”

 

“S-Stop calling me that!”

 

“Sorry~ it’s the truth.” She eyed him with intrigue as he flushed from her constant compliments. “Why haven’t you gotten a girlfriend, yet? That girl that you like—she hasn’t noticed you?”

 

“No, she has never noticed me, but she’s really popular for being smart and kind and beautiful.” Amane lost himself in a daydream, where Hanako had to snap her fingers in front of his face to bring him back to reality. He laughed nervously and rubbed the back of his neck. “I hear girls call me cute all the time, but usually they’re just making fun of me.” 

 

He paused, his eyes wide and his mouth agape, before fretting, “H-Hey, wait… Hanako-chan, you aren’t making fun of me, are you?!”

 

“No, you idiot.” She told him, lacking any actual malice, “I call you cute because you’re cute.”

 

“That’s, um, good, I think?” Amane directed his eyes up to the sky. The hazy colors of red and orange had faded into a lovely shade of darkening purple, which was quickly shifting into a mesmerizing dark blue. Hanako looked up, as well.

 

“You’ve spent a lot of time here.” She remarked, “Won’t your parents get worried?”

 

“They usually work late, so, I don’t have to really be concerned about what they think.” He shrugged, “And I’m having a lot of fun with you.”

 

“Really…?” her hand stretched toward him, causing him to reflexively flinch and close his eyes. When nothing but a slight chill brushed his cheek, he opened his eyes to her sullen expression.

 

“We can’t even touch each other. We can’t go anywhere except within the school. Are you really satisfied with just me?”

 

“Of course, Hanako-chan.” He lifted his hand and placed it atop her fingers, pretending as though he could feel her. “You’re my first friend, after all.”

 

Her eyes softened at his claim, and her chest tightened. The moon glowed eerily above them, emphasizing his cheerful countenance. If she really was to be his first and only friend, then she’d be the best-est friend she could be.

 


 

This wasn’t how she imagined her time after school. 

 

After a couple of weeks of hanging out with Amane after school ended, she had gotten accustomed to meeting him on the school roof instead of in the bathroom. 

 

Everything was going swimmingly. She got to spend her evenings with a boyishly cute nerd who was quite content with being her friend, despite the fact they walked on different planes of existence. She couldn’t even remember any other experiences with customers, if she had any at all. None were as memorable as this.

 

But, it was somewhat hard to reflect back on things with the boy currently trying to kill her.

 

“Get back here, Hanako!!” the blond screamed as he waved his staff threateningly, chasing after her across the rooftop, “Your reign of terror is over!!”

 

“My reign of terror~?” she evaded each of his swings and dodged his invocations of mystical lightning. “What are you talking about, boy~?”

 

The smell of blood filled the air, and she almost retched. Darting in front of him, he stumbled backward while she seized his wrist. 

 

“W-What are you—?!” 

 

“Let go of the staff, boy.”

 

“Huh?! No!!”

 

She sighed, then jabbed a weak point on his arm, making him yelp and release his staff. The metal plummeted to the ground with a clang, and she could now inspect his damaged hand. Wincing in pain, he scowled as she clicked her tongue in disappointment.

 

“I knew it. You can’t use your staff that well, yet.”

 

“D-Don’t underestimate me!!”

 

He took her by surprise and knocked her off her feet, pinning her to the ground by her shoulder. Ignoring the searing pain in his hand, he gripped his staff and hovered it over her face. The beautiful gleam of gold filled her eyes, and for some reason, she felt unafraid.

 

“H-Hey!!” 

 

The exorcist was shoved off of the girl, now suddenly in front of a boy with black hair. 

 

“What do you think you’re doing to Hanako-chan??” Amane spread his arms open, standing protectively over the ghost. “Who are you?!”

 

“My name is Minamoto Kou, and I’m an exorcist of the Minamoto clan!!” He gritted his teeth and pointed at him angrily, “I know you’re young, but that ghost is no ordinary ghost! You better get out of the way!”

 

“What’s an ordinary ghost supposed to be like?” Amane muttered under his breath, before he shook his head and declared, “No! I won’t let you hurt my friend!”

 

Hanako only rested on the ground while the two hashed it out. She blew a strand of hair off of her face, disliking the looseness of her once tight hair buns.

 

“F-Friend??”

 

“That’s right!” Amane stood tall, despite being a couple inches shorter than the blond. “And I’m not young; I'm a first-year in the high school division!”

 

“T-That’s right, you’re wearing the uniform…” the blond fully took in the appearance of the other boy. He bowed apologetically, “I’m sorry, Senpai, but I need to exorcise that ghost!”

 

“Why?!”

 

“She’s a murderer!”

 

“M-Murderer…?” Amane took a few steps back, refusing to believe him. “What are you talking about?! Hanako-chan hasn’t hurt anyone!”

 

“Before she became a ghost!” Kou swept his staff, an accusing glint in his blue eyes. “How much do you really know about her?” 

 

Amane couldn’t respond to that. He… He didn’t know as much as he thought he did. Even though the two of them spent a lot of time together, he realized that he barely asked about her life before her death...

 

“Ah… this is tiresome.” Hanako rose to her feet and dusted off her clothes. “Really, it is.”

 

“Hanako-chan…” Amane was staring at her with those wide, innocent amber eyes of his, “did you… did you kill someone?”

 

She stared back at him, her mouth pressed into a flat line, her eyes dull and dark.

 

Then, she closed her eyes. “Probably.”

 

The two boys gazed at her, confused. Simultaneously, they repeated, “‘Probably’?”

 

Hanako shrugged, as if she knew even less than what they knew. 

 

I don’t know the story behind it. He never told me.

 

Her mind came to a standstill.

 

‘He’?

 

“H-Hanako-chan?” Amane walked up to her, despite Kou’s protests, “A-Are you okay?”

 

She looked at him, and her chest hurt. 

 

Why is he asking me that?

 

Her hands were trembling, ever so slightly.

 

She couldn’t say why.

 

“I’m fine!” Hanako grinned, then directed her attention to the blond, “To be honest, I’m not sure why you’re so insistent on killing me. I haven’t done anything wrong.”

 

“B-But you… you killed someone!!” Kou reminded her in an incredulous voice. She shrugged, her curious eyes bore through his own. 

 

“Who?”

 

“Ah—uh—” Kou stuttered, then looked down at his feet, “I… don’t know…”

 

“Ha!” it was Amane’s turn to point at him. “So you have no right to try to exorcise Hanako-chan!”

 

Kou yelled back resolutely, “Well, I’ll find out, and when I do, I’ll rub it in your face!!”

 

“Good luck with that,” Hanako said with an amicable smile. “And, also, be more careful with your staff, okay?”

 

The blond stumbled back, then whipped his head toward the door, hiding the pink that dusted his cheeks. He stomped to the exit, claiming, “I-I’m leaving, now. I’ll be back soon!!”

 

After he left, Amane exhaled in relief. “I really thought you were in danger, Hanako-chan.”

 

“Aw~” she cooed, “You’re so cute, Amane-kun~”

 

“S-Shut up!!”

 

With him pouting, she floated over to him with a sly smirk. “Were you really worried about me disappearing~?”

 

“Of course!” Amane bit out, somewhat insulted she was teasing him for caring. “I can’t be worried about my friend?”

 

“You can, Amane-kun, but,” she patted her chest, “I’m a tough ghost. You don’t need to get too hung up over me.”

 

Her smile was reassuring, but Amane didn’t appreciate her words. He politely declined them, “It doesn’t matter. I’ll still be concerned about you because I’m your friend.”

 

She was taken aback, but quickly, she squealed, “You’re so cute!”

 

“Stop!!”

 

Amane huffed and rubbed his temples, before perking up.

 

“Hanako-chan?”

 

“Yes~?” she was in the middle of fixing her hair buns that had been messed up from the skirmish. He arched an eyebrow, “Do you… Do you remember how you died?”

 

“Whoa!” her bewilderment shone in her tone. “Talk about straightforward!”

 

“Huh?! Oh, sorry!” Amane clapped his hands in front of his face and squeezed his eyes in a stance of an apology. She giggled, “I’m kidding. It’s fine to ask, because...”

 

She grinned blithely at him, “...I don’t remember!”

 

“E-Eh…?” He scratched his head in confusion. She voiced frivolously, “Yeah, I don’t really remember much of my past. Just, one day, bam~! Hanako-san of the Toilet~”

 

“That’s… strange.” Amane placed his hand under his chin, “I-Is there any way to find out?”

 

She hummed in consideration, tapping her finger against her bottom lip. “Well, I know No. 5 has a library full of books that have records of the living and the dead. Maybe mine is in there?”

 

“Oh, cool!” he beamed, “We can just search there, then!”

 

“Tomorrow!” she promised, then waved him to leave. “You need to go home now. It’s already dark.”

 

“Eh? O-Okay…”

 

Amane headed for the exit, half unwilling, as he actually wanted to spend some more time with the ghost. However, looking back, with the moon’s light enveloping her ethereal form, he couldn’t help but feel entranced by her. A blush rose to his cheeks, and he couldn’t drag his eyes away. Even if she always called him cute, she was just too cute herself.

 

“Amane-kun~?” she drifted over to him, like a flower in the wind.

 

He almost forgot to speak. “Y-Yes?”

 

“Don’t get distracted.” She leaned over to stare at him directly in his face. “You need to get home safely.”

 

Amane felt his blush intensify, and he could only nod. He fled the roof, much of his brain trying to combat his hammering heart. His mind had only been preoccupied with Sakura before, but after spending so much time with the ghost, he couldn’t help but feel a slight attraction. Could anyone really blame him, though?

 

She was pretty and kind, like Sakura, but there was something else about her that drew him in. He felt like he wanted to return the compassion she’s shown him. The last couple of weeks had been the best times of his life, and he couldn’t have asked for a better friend.

 

In the morning, he made his resolve.

 

He was going to make strawberry-filled rice cakes!

 

Even if…

 

Looking around the school’s kitchen, he groaned.

 

Even if I have no idea how to cook them...

 

He was staring at the recipe book intensely, as if the food would pop right out of the book from the hardness of his glare.

 

Nothing happened.

 

Amane sighed and trashed the failed product. He needed to stop wasting so much resources, or he was going to run out of ingredients.

 

Maybe I should get help…

 

He washed his hands, then looked over at the knife in the sink. 

 

Heh. Look at me… Amane clutched the counter and curved over the sink, feeling that familiar sense of guilt, What am I doing…? 

 

“Yugi-san?”

 

Amane jolted, whipping his gaze over to the door. The Student Council President was standing there, looking at him with perplexity. He stammered, “M-Minamoto-senpai? What are you doing here?”

 

“I smelled something burning as I was passing by.”

 

“Ah, right…” Amane fiddled with his hands. “That was just me… struggling.”

 

The Student Council President scared him greatly. They knew each other only because he had a hard time integrating into the school in the beginning of the year, so the older blond helped him out. Although he came off as affable and generous, he once saw him punishing the Vice President when he was going to ask about starting up an astronomy club. There was a frightening glint in his usually cordial eyes, and his expression was dark and foreboding. Amane almost shuddered remembering the experience, but he stomped it down.

 

“Say, Minamoto-senpai?”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“Do you, um…” Amane looked at his feet, “Do you know how to cook?”

 

The Student Council President wore a surprised expression, before he put his hand up with a flat smile. “No, I absolutely suck at it.”

 

“E-Eh?”

 

“But my younger brother Kou is good at cooking.” Teru threw his thumb over his shoulder, “I can get him. He has lunch right now.”

 

“Ah, okay, t-thanks…”

 

Amane watched as he walked away, and patiently awaited for his return.

 

After a few moments of sitting in silence, realization struck him.

 

Kou…?! Amane gripped the counter, A-As in… Minamoto Kou?!

 

Faster than he anticipated, the door slid open. Said blond walked into the kitchen with a bright smile, “Hey! My older brother said you needed—!”

 

The two boys froze, staring at each other from across the room. Suddenly, the exorcist brandished his raiteijou, screaming, “Y-You’re Hanako’s ally!”

 

Amane jumped in surprise and snatched the kitchen knife from the sink. “S-Stay back!!”

 

“Now, now. Calm down, Kou.”

 

“What’s going on here, Teru-nii?!” Kou tugged on his brother’s sleeve, “You want me to help the enemy??”

 

“Of course not. I just want you to help the boy cook.”

 

“Wait,” Amane lowered his weapon slightly, shooting the Student Council President a questioning look, “you know that I’m friends with Hanako-chan?”

 

“It’s not hard to catch a boy slinking into the girls’ bathroom sometimes.” Teru shook his head, “And you used to be my ward. I pay attention to your progress and if you get involved with supernaturals.”

 

Amane blushed in embarrassment, putting away the kitchen knife and grumbling to himself. Kou frowned and turned to his brother, “Teru-nii, I don’t understand. Why do you want me to help him?”

 

“Don’t be so hasty, Kou.” Teru patted his head, then leaned over to whisper in his ear, “This will give you an opportunity to get closer to Hanako. You can keep a better eye on her that way.”

 

“Ooh!” Kou’s eyes sparkled, and he nodded, “I got it! Thanks, Teru-nii.”

 

“No problem.” He pivoted on his heel and waved him goodbye. Kou went into the kitchen to stand next to the black-haired boy, who was currently reading the recipe book as if it were a college-level textbook.

 

Kou sighed and yanked the book away from him, prompting a noise of protest. 

 

“You’re not going to understand anything when you look at it like that.” Kou skimmed over the steps, before washing his hands. He then proceeded to the ingredients, often allowing Amane to step in and to do the step himself. After some time, it became easier to work together, and the amazed grin on the older boy’s face made Kou beam, too.

 

“We’re done!” 

 

The two cheered in front of the finished and beautiful strawberry-filled rice cakes. Just as they were about to high-five, Kou remembered who he was with and retracted his hand, causing Amane to accidentally slap him at full force.

 

“Y-You—!”

 

“My bad!”

 

Amane wrapped up the cakes in plastic, then put them in a simple woven basket. Kou watched him smile down at the gift he had made, then heard him quietly utter, “Thank you.”

 

Kou refrained from being caught off guard. “Those are for Hanako, right? She… She better enjoy them!”

 

“I think she will, but,” Amane grinned at him, “thanks for helping me. This was the first time I cooked with someone!”

 

Kou felt somewhat saddened at that. This boy seemed… lonely, and it didn’t appear that he had any evil intent. He was just someone who wanted a friend.

 

“It’s no problem…”

 

Kou watched him run off, the basket in hand and a smile on his face. He started to wonder what kind of person Hanako was if someone like Amane wanted to be around her.

 

After school, Amane took the treats up to the roof. As expected, Hanako was astounded at the sight.

 

“Those are for me?? Really?!”

 

“Yes!”

 

“Aah~!” she wanted to hug him, but she'd only go straight through him. That didn't stop her little dance of glee, though. “Thanks, Amane-kun! You’re the best!!”

 

She quickly dug into the food, bliss washing over her expression. “They’re really good~”

 

“T-Thanks!” Amane rubbed the back of his head. “Minamoto-san helped me make them.”

 

“The kid?”

 

“Ah, yeah.”

 

“Hmm~” she ate another cake, slower this time, “interesting~”

 

“He’s not that bad!” Amane nodded, “A little rough around the edges, but surely with time, we can get him to like you!”

 

Hanako blinked, before giggling, crumbs flying out of her mouth. She swallowed and wiped her cheek, “That’s really cute of you, but I don’t need him to like me. As long as I have you, then I’m fine.”

 

Amane pouted at that, despite the pink dusting his cheeks. “But more people should see how cool you are…”

 

“Oh, Amane-kun~” she cupped her cheeks and looked away with a blush, “Stop! You’re gonna steal my heart.”

 

“E-Eh?!” Amane waved his hands frantically. “I-I mean—because you deserve more recognition!! N-Not that I want to—to show you off o-or something—!!”

 

She snorted, before guffawing, holding her stomach with her hands. After calming down, she wiped her eyes, “Amane-kun, you silly cutie. I was kidding.”

 

Amane eyed her with a blank expression. 

 

“...Eh…?”

 

“Anyway!” she finished the last of the cakes, much to his amazement. “Let’s head over to No. 5’s library, now.”

 

“How do we get there?”

 

“There’s an entrance in the school.” She smirked at him as he followed her into the building, “It only appears at 4 PM, which is in five minutes, so we better get going!”

 

Abruptly, she sped up, to which he yelped and hurried his pace, too. She looked back at him, and something about his worried yet determined face made her laugh. 

 

“H-Hanako-chan!!”

 

He stretched his arm out, but she was so far away. 

 

The sound of her laughter bounced off the walls, traveling through her ghostly form. She felt the wind from her flying brush along her skin, her clothes, her hair, despite her being transparent. Her eyes slid close, filling her view with darkness.

 

She twirled in the air and exhaled, suddenly feeling extremely light.

 

A feeling of peacefulness poured over her.

 

Her mind emptied.

 

In the black pit of emptiness, she heard Amane scream.

 

And her eyes burst open, renewing her spirit with life.

 

“H-Hanako-chan?”

 

She gyrated her head so fast that she could have snapped her neck. “Amane-kun?!” 

 

The boy was standing next to her, a confused look on his face. He tried to touch her, but again, forgot that he couldn’t. Nonetheless, he asked, “What’s the matter? Are you okay?”

 

“Are you okay?!” she inspected him for any injuries, but there were none. Amane’s eyebrows drew close together, “I’m fine, but you look terrified.”

 

Calming down, she shook her head. The piercing sound of anguish that she thought she heard from the boy still lingered in her mind. “I… I thought I heard you scream.”

 

“I, um, didn’t.” Amane smiled uneasily, “But I did gasp. This place is pretty impressive!”

 

“Huh?”

 

Hanako looked around, finally registering where they were. They were in No. 5’s library, surrounded by cobwebs and books and water. She didn’t remember opening the entryway, but it quickly faded from her mind.

 

Speaking of the water, Amane lifted his foot and looked down, “Why is this place flooded?”

 

“It’s a boundary.” She stayed close to him, feeling a need to protect him, for some reason. “Boundaries are the places between life and death. The school has many of them, and all seven of the School Mysteries have one. Mine would be the toilet.”

 

“Really? The toilet?”

 

“Uh, yes…” she felt puzzled by that, too. Disregarding the feeling, she began to meander forward. Amane kept up with her stride, “What are we looking for?”

 

“We'll be searching for a black book with my name on it. White books are for the living, black books are for the dead.” She rested her finger on her chin and scanned over the myriad of books. “And never look into the red ones.”

 

“W-What happens if you look at the red ones?”

 

“What else?” Hanako gazed at him, as if the answer were obvious. “You’ll be killed.”

 

Amane broke into a sweat. “Right…”

 

Hanako went back to the books, examining the names on their spines. She wondered how she and Amane would be able to navigate through this huge library.

 

“Hanako-chan?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“How come you’ve never looked for your book before?”

 

“...Ah.” She looked up at the dark ceiling and tried to remember. Nothing was coming to mind. “I guess it never interested me until now.”

 

Hanako grinned at him, even if he was staring at her with bewilderment. “What?”

 

“Nothing, it’s just… weird.”

 

She sighed and folded her arms, throwing her gaze to the side. “You’ve made me want to know more about myself, alright?”

 

“R-Really?”

 

“Mhm~!” she turned back to the books, and halted upon seeing a white one. The name nearly scorched her eyes.

 

Akane A—

 

The words blurred. She blinked, trying to read them again, but it didn’t remove the fuzziness. Staggering backward, she rubbed her eyes, feeling the cloudiness return to her head.

 

“H-Hanako-chan??” Amane called, “Are you okay?!”

 

Hanako stopped rubbing her eyes, able to see again. “I-I’m… fine…”

 

When she brought her gaze up, the lights of the library brightened, casting a warm glow over them. Someone stepped out from the shadows, and she recognized who it was instantly, as did Amane.

 

“T-Tsuchigomori-sensei!!” the boy pointed at him, “What are you doing here?!”

 

“I should be asking you that.” Tsuchigomori sighed, “Honorable No. 7, why are you and my student in my boundary?”

 

Amane gaped. “You’re the fifth School Mystery?!”

 

“That’s right,” the supernatural responded in a tedious tone. He looked at the other ghost, “I’d like the answer to my question.”

 

“Well, you see~” she floated over to him, a mischievous smirk playing on her face, “Amane-kun and I were just looking for my book because we wanted to find out more about me. Do you know where it could be?”

 

“...I do have something for you, but…” he gestured to his student, “why is he here?”

 

“He’s my friend~!” Hanako sprung up next to him, their cheeks close together but not touching, yet he still blushed, “He’s here to help me in my search!”

 

The teacher and the student exchanged stares, permitting serenity to envelop them. Hanako darted between the two, somewhat mystified, since it felt like they were trading silent secrets right in front of her.

 

“I see… That’s a good thing, I suppose.” He exhaled heavily, then motioned them to follow him. The two were close behind as he lumbered onward, into the unknown depths. Hanako beamed, “Isn’t this exciting~? We’ll finally be able to get something of my past~!”

 

“It is!” he smiled at her, “After so long of being Hanako-san, you deserve to know. I’m glad I could be here for you during this.”

 

Hanako gazed at him in awe, before snickering into her hand. It wasn’t a mocking laugh, however, but a bashful one. She didn’t know what came over her, but something about his words made her insides flutter. 

 

“Is that so?” she positioned her hands behind her back, eyeing him in a coy manner. “Thanks, Amane-kun~”

 

“U-Um…” he coughed into his fist and looked elsewhere, “No problem.”

 

“Honorable No. 7.”

 

“Hmm?” Hanako floated over to him, and he gazed down at her. She cocked her head curiously, “What is it?”

 

His hand came down onto her head, patting her gently. Familiarity rang between her ears, making her vision distort momentarily.

 

“...Tsuchigomori-sensei?”

 

He was smiling at her, but... sadly. “You always call me that, huh?”

 

“What…” she laughed, trying to shake off the feeling of displacement, “What are you talking about?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“N-No… wait…” she stopped where she was. “Haven’t we… Have we talked before?”

 

“Of course we have, Honorable No. 7.”

 

“But… why can’t I—?”

 

“We’re here.”

 

“We’re here?”

 

But she… she didn’t remember moving.

 

“This leads to my treasury.” He gesticulated toward the entrance of the eerie hallway. “I have a lot of important stuff in here, including something of your past.”

 

“Ah!” she beamed, entirely forgetting her prior discomfort, “Great, then let’s go on in—!”

 

“Hold it.”

 

Tsuchigomori held his hand up, halting her in her tracks.

 

She frowned. “Eh? Why?”

 

“I can only let him pass.”

 

Following the direction of his finger, she found herself staring at Amane, who looked just about surprised as she was.

 

“Me?”

 

“Yes.” The supernatural explained, “This is for you to take.”

 

“But why not me?!” Hanako’s frown deepened, yet the teacher only sighed. “It’s because this item doesn’t belong to you.”

 

She harrumphed and crossed her arms against her chest. Amane came up from behind her and said soothingly, “It’s okay, Hanako-chan. I’ll get it quickly, and come back to show you, okay?”

 

They exchanged stares, and with his comforting eyes, her stance slackened and she relented.

 

“...Okay.”

 

“If you will.” Tsuchigomori waited for him by the mouth of the cave, watching them with analytical eyes. Amane nodded, “I’m coming!”

 

Hanako pursed her lips, before saying, “Be careful with my friend, Tsuchigomori-sensei.”

 

His eyes were somber. “I will, Honorable No. 7.”

 

Hanako observed the bookshelves close behind them, keeping her sealed out. She let out a sigh and leaned against the pillar, already bored. Her chest, however, was constricting with worry, and she couldn't help but ponder what could be the item of her past that only Amane could grab. Slowly, her boredom was overcome with anxiety, and her mind was wrought with all sorts of ways this could end badly. 

 

She trusted No. 5, but wherever they were, she hoped it wasn’t dangerous. If it was, she hoped that No. 5 could protect him.

 

“Augh…” she buried her face into her knees. “Why do I care so much?”

 

She tried not to care, but it was hard to. 

 

Being friends with this boy had affected her in ways she didn’t think she could be affected.

 

She was already dead. There was no reason to concern herself with who lived or died.

 

But thinking about him dying… it made her heart ache.

 

I’m starting to wonder just what this boy is doing to me…

 

The ground quivered, signaling their return. She hopped to her feet and waited for their appearances expectantly. She caught sight of him waving joyfully, “Hanako-chan, we’re back!”

 

“Yay! Amane-kun—”

 

Her voice was snagged in her throat.

 

That... hat…

 

“Check it out!” he pointed at the item on his head. “All I got was this black hat! It’s pretty cool.”

 

He beamed at her, wholesome and radiant, but all she could do was stare at him.

 

He looks like… someone I knew…

 

“Hanako-chan?”

 

Who?

 

Something wet trailed down her cheek.

 

“Hanako-chan?!”

 

He crossed over to her, his hands reaching out yet unable to reach her. His fingers phased through her body, and the sensation brought light back into her teary eyes.

 

“Amane-kun…” she wiped her eyes, aware of her rolling tears. “I-I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s gotten into me…”

 

“It’s okay. Really, it’s fine!” he wanted to pat her or hug her; comfort her in some way where he could touch her, but he couldn’t. “P-Please don’t cry.”

 

“Sorry. Sorry…” she sniffed, and laughed, a bit awkward that she was crying for no apparent reason. “T-The hat suits you.”

 

“Eh? You think so?” he laughed with her, if only to lift her spirits. “Thanks! I’ll wear it more from now on.”

 

“Well, if you kids are done hanging around my boundary, I’d appreciate it if you would leave.”

 

“Sorry, Tsuchigomori-sensei.” Amane bowed, then moved toward the exit, urging her to follow. “We’ll get out of your hair, now.”

 

“Thanks, Yugi-san.”

 

The teacher waved at them while they trekked away. Hanako waved back, then followed after the boy to the exit of the boundary.

 


 

Kou asked, “I never asked you, but why did you start wearing that hat?”

 

“Tsuchigomori-sensei gave it to me.” Amane shrugged, “It looks cool, and Hanako-chan said so too, so I’ve been wearing it.”

 

Hanako doesn’t remember when or how it happened, but Kou had started hanging with them after school. He often brought baked goods to share with the other two, and even played cards and games with them. To her surprise, she didn’t feel wary around him, but instead safe and protected, as though the kid was there for her and not against her, as he tended to claim.

 

“Senpai, you sure Hanako doesn’t have you under her spell?”

 

Amane gasped, then turned to the ghost, “You know magic, Hanako-chan?”

 

Hanako nearly palmed her face, but she only shook her head, “No, Amane-kun, I don’t know magic.”

 

She pointedly said to the blond, “So that means, I don’t have him under any spells.”

 

“Just checking,” Kou said, raising his hands defensively.

 

Amane added, “That also means that Yako-neesan really was acting under some strange rumor and not because of Hanako-chan!”

 

“Well, if that’s the case, then maybe we should investigate who is messing up the rumors of the supernaturals?” Kou suggested.

 

Hanako paused, wholly confused as to what they were talking about, before memories flooded her mind. 

 

She and the two boys confronted No. 2 because she was acting out of line. Her boundary was unkempt, and her rumor had turned deadly. Students were disappearing because of it, and it was disrupting the lives of the mortal plane, whether they realized it or not.

 

Someone important was taken, but then rescued. She couldn’t remember who.

 

She fought someone—it was Yako. She fought her with a weapon…

 

Digging her hand into her gakuran, her hand drew back to reveal a glint of metal.

 

There was a kitchen knife in her hand.

 

“W-Whoa!” Kou wielded his staff, “Why’d you bring your knife out, Hanako?!”

 

“...Um,” she hummed, “I was just… making sure it was sharp?”

 

“That’s super ominous.” Kou stated, and Amane couldn’t help but agree. 

 

When did I have this? Hanako shifted the knife in her grip, When have I used this?

 

Out of nowhere, there was a dark presence near them, turning the air chilly and dense. Kou rose to his feet, a smile of awareness on his face, “Oh, I see why you brought your weapon out, Hanako! There’s someone dangerous here…”

 

She uttered, “Eh?”

 

Amane scooted closer to Hanako, somewhat nervous about the newcomer. She looked down at his tense gaze, then back up at the dark mist that interrupted their leisure time on the roof.

 

Something about this scene sent chills down her spine. She hopped to her feet, too, and fastened her grip on the knife.

 

For some reason, she expected a bout of sadistic laughter, yet there was just fearful whimpering.

 

From the black fog, a boy with pink hair appeared. Alarm was written all over his visage as he pointed at the knife.

 

“G-Get that away from me!!”

 

“...Eh?”

 

“Oi! Who are you?!” Kou marched over to him, and swung his staff threateningly. 

 

Hanako lowered her knife, trying to recall the…

 

What am I looking for?

 

...the correct scene. 

 

The world around her began to twitch and convulse with bright, illuminating colors, like glitches in a screen. A whistle pierced her skull, and her head started to throb.

 

This isn’t right. He’s not supposed to be up here.

 

“Hanako-chan?”

 

Amane was trying to call out to her, but his voice was drowned out by her rushing thoughts. She pressed her fingers against her temple.

 

Who is?

 

Her heart was pounding from fear. But, who was it that she was afraid of?

 

“I found you~!”

 

Amane showed up in front of her, a decent distance away, wearing a male black gakuran and the same hat he received from No. 5. Yet she was stunned in her spot because—

 

Wasn’t he behind me?

 

He was right in front of her, suddenly, with amber orbs that held no such friendliness that she was used to. There were narrow, black dots within them, drilling themselves into her face.

 

He’s not Amane-kun.

 

She felt herself sink into the floor, deeper and deeper until she was falling through the building. Her knife was no longer in her hands, and her outfit had altered completely to something that felt more fitting. Her hair unraveled from its previous tightly wound states, flowing all around her descending form.

 

Everything was moving too fast—it was like a black smear along the film of a movie.

 

What is happening? 

 

What is happening?

 

“H-Hanako-chan!!”

 

She heard Amane, but she couldn’t see him. 

 

Hanako was somewhere else. In a huge palace, maybe? A palace of mirrors, it seemed. Water flooded the pristine floors, and she recognized it as a boundary. Looking ahead, she saw something that made her stomach twist in a horrible way.

 

That same black-haired boy from before was doing something nauseating to the pink-haired boy.

 

“S-Stop!!” she heard herself say, and she saw herself move, but she felt out of control. Her arms grabbed the black-haired boy’s arms. “H-He doesn’t want to… okay?”

 

Part of her wondered why this boy who looked like Amane did such gruesome things—killed a School Mystery and hurt a spirit.

 

One look from his terrifying gaze brought a recognizable name to her mind.

 

Tsukasa. Yugi Tsukasa. He’s—

 

He’s someone’s younger brother.

 

But whose?

 

She was falling through the darkness again.

 

“Is he mine?” 

 

She asked the void, and the void said nothing.

 

“I don’t think he’s my younger brother…” she tapped her forehead lightly with her palm, “He does look a lot like Amane-kun, though…”

 

Hanako perked up. “Ah, maybe he’s Amane-kun’s brother!”

 

The void flashed to a disorienting whiteness, and an innumerable amount of voices swamped her brain. She heard her own internal voice trying to set a foundation for the disarray, trying to arrange the mismatch of memories.

 

He was his younger twin brother... but he killed him.

 

He killed him?

 

I killed him.

 

No, I—

 

I didn’t kill him.

 

Right?

 

“Hanako-chan!”

 

She was watching herself interact with Amane again. How peculiar, they were both humans! Laughter bubbled from her lungs, since it was just so bizarre and funny, that they were both humans...

 

They were both humans, weren’t they?

 

They were classmates. He asked her out on a date. She considered it. 

 

Her heart wanted to say ‘yes!’ but her mind was stubborn.

 

They cleaned the pool together and had lots of fun. They stargazed together and had lots of fun. They explored the town together and had lots of fun.

 

She realized her feelings for him—not for him but for him—somewhere along the way.

 

Although, No. 4 was everywhere. That was spooky.

 

And then… Amane-kun betrayed her.

 

He didn’t betray me.

 

But he lied to me, then made me sleep. He locked me up like a princess. He wouldn’t tell me what was going on.

 

She felt herself cry—tears that spilled out from frustration and sadness and worry.

 

“Why does he keep so many secrets?!” she yelled into the void. The void said nothing. 

 

“I just… I just want to know what he’s thinking. What is his wish?”

 

What is his wish?

 

What is mine?

 

Please.

 

I just want to know, for once.

 

“Hanako-chan, I’m sorry…”

 

Too many images bombarded her brain. Her knees gave out, and she started to hyperventilate. The sound of her breathing resounded throughout the vacancy, filling the emptiness, yet it was still obviously empty.

 

Her hands clutched at the sides of her head, and her eyes felt like they were swirling, reflecting the black nothingness below.

 

It felt like her mind was trying to restructure itself in order to organize her memories—to correct her memories. It hurt severely, like falling apart and coming together again, over and over and over and over—

 

and over,

 

and over,

 

and over.

 

And then it slowed.

 

Like a lull—the calm after the storm.

 

She blinked the tears away, then hoisted herself onto her feet. She was apparently wearing the high school's first-year uniform.

 

She had a vague recognition of the place she was now in, but it was still blurry in her head. Although, all of her concerns disappeared from her mind when she caught sight of what laid ahead.

 

It was Amane, laying on the ground, wearing a black gakuran. His hat was no where to be found.

 

She took one step.

 

Am I… Hanako? 

 

She took another step.

 

I can’t refer myself as Hanako.

 

And another.

 

It feels wrong.

 

Despite a gap still between her and Amane, she could clearly see the condition he was in.

 

Why?

 

There was something surreal about staring at his damaged body laying on the ground. The blood that pooled around him made him stand out in the most morbid way. In her mind, this image was as clear as day, as if it wanted to imprint on her forever.

 

She felt the air leave her lungs, a strange breath of disbelief.

 

“Amane-kun?" 

 

She stumbled toward him, feeling as though he was too far away to reach.  

 

"A-Amane-kun…!”

 

Now, in a blink of an eye, she was beside him. Her mind was starting to feel foggy again. 

 

It was hard to think.

 

But seeing Amane like this, she didn't want to think.

 

She didn't want to feel.

 

And yet, she felt like dying.

 

"...Hanako-chan?"

 

His feeble voice yanked her, hauling her closer to him.

 

"Amane-kun?"

 

“...You’re crying.” He croaked in a hoarse voice, groaned out, as though it pained him to speak, “I make you cry too much…”

 

She didn't even realize that she had been crying. Her hands reached out to touch him, but she couldn't.

 

Her eyes widened.

 

She tried, again and again. 

 

To hold him in her arms. To grasp onto his life.

 

Why can't I touch him?! I thought I could!!

 

Her head hurt, pounding with pain. Why did she think she could?

 

Her sobs, without her permission, began to fill the open air. Her hands were shaking, and she was flaring with resentment, because for once, she just wanted to feel him on her fingertips.

 

"Hanako-chan, don't cry…" his hand reached up to her, and, to her great surprise…

 

...she felt his fingers graze her cheek.

 

It was difficult to see him through her tears, but she managed. 

 

"...Amane-kun?"

 

This was her first time to be touched by him, yet she knew it would also be her last. It was refreshing, revitalizing, but it would drape over her in its misery.

 

He murmured, "I'm sorry."

 

"For what…?"

 

She didn’t understand. What was he apologetic for?

 

She was the one that let him down.

 

"I haven't been truthful with you." His lips curved downward, as though he was disappointed in himself. "It’s so funny, but weird. I'm still the same as ever…"

 

"What are you talking about?" Her voice quivered as she leaned forward, still disbelieving the fact that he was really cupping her cheek. His eyes were dim, but looking at her, it made him smile.

 

"Your name isn't Hanako."

 

Her lips wanted to form a question, but no sound left her mouth.

 

"Your name is Yashiro Nene."

 

The name left his lips, and it felt like something struck her on her head. She gasped and reeled back, but forced herself back to Amane.

 

He's dying, this is no time for headaches…!

 

"This world you're in,” his hand laid limp on the ground, “it's not real."

 

Her eyes widened and quivered, and she stared down at the bloody boy. 

 

"Not… real…?"

 

She gritted her teeth, uncaring of how messy her face was from her tears.

 

"Then why does the pain feel real?!" She was angry, infuriated, enraged, livid—but she couldn't really pinpoint a reason. "Why does it hurt so much to watch you die?!"

 

Her shoulders trembled, and her hands were still shaking, and she wanted to clutch his collar and pull him close and scream at him. 

 

It hurts. It hurts.

 

She wanted to hold him and never let him go.

 

Her head was foggy. Everything around them seemed to fade into a blinding whiteness.

 

The world was really falling apart.

 

Amane was smiling at her still, even if he was crying, too.

 

"Really? That makes me happy." 

 

The little beads streamed from his eyes, plopping into the pool of blood that contrasted against the vast, colorless space. They sent waves of ripples throughout the crimson liquid, throughout the small bit of world that was left. His hand sought hers, and their fingers intertwined. She felt a shuddering breath exit her body as her tears cascaded down her cheeks.

 

Why do I miss this feeling?

 

"It means you must really like me, right?"

 

Holding herself together—it was futile. She broke down with her tears, buckling over beside his disappearing existence. Her sobs racked her shoulders, crushing and tearing her aching heart.

 

"A-Amane-kun…!”

 

Her hands clasped desperately onto his own.

 

“Don't leave me…" she hiccuped and squeezed her eyes shut, "P-Please, I'm scared…"

 

"Of course not. I'll be with you for as long as I can." He said softly, "Even if this world isn't real, and I'm just a mere remnant of the real Amane…"

 

His voice echoed in her head.

 

His grip was the only thing she felt.

 

"...my love for you is real, Yashiro."

 

His words were the last thing she remembered.

 


 

In the void, she drifted.

 

Like a flower in the wind, during the night of a new moon.

 

It carried her above buildings, across gardens, through the embers—

 

—until she finally reached the shore.

 

"...shiro?"

 

"Yash…"

 

"Yashiro!!"

 

Her eyes flew open.

 

Amane’s face was in front of hers, looking down at her with distress, as he held her in his arms. His tear-stained cheeks and concerned expression gained her immediate attention, inducing her to cup his damp cheek. 

 

Her voice was frail, "Why are you crying, Hanako-kun?"

 

Hanako-kun… I know him as Hanako…

 

His worried face contorted with relief, renewed tears on the brink of his eyes.

 

"Yashiro…!" 

 

He pulled her into him, embracing her fully. There was a wetness hitting her back, and she could only wrap her arms around him.

 

"Hanako-kun…? What happened to me?"

 

Hanako let out a heavy sigh, as though the largest of his problems had finally left him.

 

"Well, to put it simply,” Hanako told her straightforwardly, “you… had died."

 

"I—?" she almost choked, "I died?!"

 

Her eyes caught sight of her fingertips. Pushing herself off of him, she examined her faded hands, and promptly freaked out.

 

"I died…" she screamed, "I died!!"

 

"Yashiro, c-calm down, please."

 

"But, Hanako-kun, I died!" she turned to shriek at him, but at his sorrowful eyes, she immediately quieted down. After a passing moment of silence, she asked, "Where did I go?"

 

He exhaled, "When you died, your soul fled your body to the afterlife. But, apparently, you had an extraordinarily strong wish that… summoned him."

 

Hanako pointed to his brother, who had been standing idly by. Tsukasa waved nonchalantly, "Hello!"

 

"Tsukasa-kun…" upon seeing him, she noticed the cuts and bruises that marred his skin. She inquired with puzzlement, "Hanako-kun, did you hurt him?"

 

Hanako looked away and frowned indignantly, "He wasn't cooperating, so I had to."

 

"Amane really let loose when he found out I had your soul." Tsukasa looked totally unbothered, and only chuckled, "I deserve some thanks. I tried my best."

 

"Tsukasa," Hanako demanded, Nene still nestled in his clutches, "can you just tell us what happened, now?"

 

"Ah, right!" He rolled his eyes upward toward the ceiling, "Well, you see, after she died, I heard her soul calling out in horrible regret, and chased after her! Turns out, she had a really strong wish, and since it's my job, I had to grant it!"

 

"My wish?" Nene echoed, her brain now clearing up from the fog. Tsukasa nodded excitedly, "Your regret was that you never got to fully understand Amane, and your wish was to have some sort of way to understand how he felt!"

 

Tsukasa gesticulated casually, "It was kind of hard to grant, but I found a perfect way to do it! I plucked out your memories, and threw you into them, making a little bubble of memories for you to relive in. Although, not as yourself, but as Amane!"

 

Amane’s death replayed in her mind. She asked hesitantly, “Does that mean everyone in that world was just… how I saw them?”

 

“Oh, I mean~” Tsukasa beamed, “the world was based on your memories, but I helped form Amane’s character! I was able to pick out his hair from the real world and then threw it in the bubble, just to add some of his real self into whoever he was in your world!”

 

Her pupils shrunk.

 

So the Amane that died… was still the real Hanako, in a way?

 

She lowered her gaze to her lap, barely registering the way Hanako scrutinized her reaction.

 

“My love for you is real, Yashiro.”

 

Nene veiled her quivering lip with her hands, silent tears escaping her when she remembered his parting words. Hanako, mistaking her tears for something else, seethed from above her, “Tsukasa, what did you do?”

 

“Eh? I did nothing else!” Tsukasa lifted his hands in surrender, “That’s all I did. Everything played out by itself after I made the bubble! It ended as soon as she ran out of living memories.” 

 

Nene recomposed herself, taking a few deep breaths. She wearily pointed out, "It didn't really line up correctly. It even hurt a lot to correct it." 

 

"Is that so? I'll keep that noted!" Tsukasa shrugged, "It was my first time doing something like that! I'm not as good at making fake worlds like No. 4, but it was fun!"

 

"Tsukasa, you are never doing something like this again," Hanako proclaimed with a firm tone, a baleful shimmer in his eyes. His twin whined, "Aww…"

 

"You heard me, now leave." Hanako glared at him, “Don’t cause any more trouble, because you’re seriously on my last nerve today.”

 

“That’s really tempting!!”

 

Tsukasa.

 

“Fine~!!” Tsukasa stuck his tongue out. "You're welcome for keeping your girlfriend safe, by the way!"

 

"Leave."

 

Tsukasa floated away cheerfully as Hanako's grip on the girl fastened. She flinched, "H-Hanako-kun, you're hurting me…"

 

"Ah, sorry…" his hold on her slackened. Nene observed his woeful visage. "What's wrong?"

 

A despondent silence hung over them, like the dim yet grandiose chandelier above.

 

She looked around and noticed that they were in a boundary, one that reminded her of the place where she had the tea party with Sakura long ago.

 

Hanako’s arms were still rigid around her, so she burrowed deeper into his chest, making him remember that she was, in fact, right there.

 

He relaxed, but only slightly.

 

"...I was already torn up over your death, you know?”

 

She frowned, then gently squeezed his arm. “I can imagine.”

 

“Tsukasa let me know that your soul was still here,” he huffed, “but made it hard to find out anything else.”

 

“Sounds like him…” she made a quaint quip to bring a smile onto his face, but he seemed too disturbed.

 

“When I found you," Hanako explained in a hushed voice, "you were suffering. Your soul was fluctuating and convulsing, as though you were in pain."

 

He buried his face into her neck, and Nene relished how nice it was to be able to touch him again. He probably thought the same, too.

 

"I couldn't stand to see you like that."

 

She smiled against his shoulder, despite her watery eyes. "Well, it was probably because my mind was trying to fix itself. Although... sorry, Hanako-kun, but… it was also probably because of you."

 

He pulled back with a quizzical look. "Huh?"

 

Nene wiped her brimming tears. "Tsukasa-kun was able to pull it off, somehow, where I was put in a world with me in your role, but you ended up in mine. Although things didn't exactly happen the same way, we still had a really good friendship."

 

Hanako surveyed her expression, feeling his heart constrict. He never would have wanted her to experience any of the pain he has experienced. Although, a small part of him was merry to still have been close to her, even if it was just in her memories. At least he knew that she thought well of him, for sure.

 

"Really?"

 

"Yes," she nodded, "but then… you… um…"

 

Her voice cracked. His eyes wilted as the tears poured off of her face.

 

"Y-You died in front of me, and I couldn't do anything."

 

Hanako was about to console her, but his own voice caught in his throat. He could only press her head against his shoulder, then nodded slowly in affirmation.

 

Speaking steadily, he divulged, "That's how it was for me when you died…"

 

The scene of her death suddenly played in her head. Upon revisiting the memory, she realized that it mimicked Amane’s death in her bubble. Or… did Amane’s death actually parallel hers?

 

It seemed as though all her memories had now returned to her. She sniffed and chuckled in a dull manner, "That's so awful."

 

He spoke close to her ear. "Why would you want to understand that? To understand me?"

 

"...To bear that sort of pain all by yourself…” she affirmed earnestly, “that’s even worse."

 

“Why?” His voice was laced with confusion; he sighed, harrowed and exhausted. "Yashiro, I don't need you to—"

 

"I love you."

 

A pause.

 

A pin could drop, and it would be the loudest thing they’d ever hear.

 

Hanako stopped speaking instantaneously. He felt her peel off of him, the top of her head brushing against his chin, yet her hands still securely clutching him.

 

He breathed.

 

"What?"

 

"You heard me. I love you, Hanako-kun." Nene looked down at the ground. Her shoulders rose and dropped as a sign of her sheepish laughter. "If there's anything I learned from being you in that world, it's that I love you…"

 

She gazed up at him with heartfelt eyes.

 

"...and that you love me, right?"

 

A blush rapidly grew on his face. He stuttered and looked at her with great astonishment.

 

"Yashiro, what are you—?!"

 

"J-Just admit it!" she curled her hands into fists and yelled, albeit it was now much more difficult to look him directly in his eyes. Hanako shook his head, trying to deny her affection, even if he usually wouldn’t under any other circumstances. But this was intense, serious, and being in love with him meant being with him and staying with him. He wasn’t sure if he wanted that if it was for her sake. 

 

He reasoned wildly, "But, I mean, won't it be weird? What about the kid? Don't you think he'd be distraught to see you as a ghost?!"

 

She pouted, half-offended that he implied that the blond wouldn’t be joyed to talk to her again. "Kou-kun would be happy to see me!"

 

Hanako added, "What about your best friend? Your parents??"

 

Nene frowned dejectedly, and suddenly Hanako felt like a jerk for even bringing them up.

 

“Um, wait, I-I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”

 

"They’ll be extremely brokenhearted, but… there's not much I can do now to make them happy.” A tear escaped her eye, and he wiped it away with his thumb, guilt now eating him up. Nene held his hand on her cheek with her own; a small, forgiving smile emerged on her face. “I want them to be happier as time goes on, and I know for sure that I’ll meet them again, someday. Right now, I want you to be happier, too. And I’m happy when I’m with you."

 

Hanako racked his mind for another excuse, even if his resolve was gradually waning. "But where would you stay...?"

 

"With you, stupid!"

 

"N-No… you can't stay here with me." Hanako frowned deeply, his hands retracting from her, "I'm—I’m here to repent, Yashiro, and you… you have no sins that need to be forgiven."

 

"That doesn't matter to me. I want to be with you!" Nene declared as she leaned forward, her eyes possessing no doubt. "Hanako-kun, I'll be with you for as long as I can." 

 

She grabbed his hands, greatly startling him, and interlaced their fingers. 

 

"My love for you… is real!"

 

He gaped at her, unable to respond. 

 

He stared down at their linked hands, and something within him fluttered at the sensation. Her determination made him happy yet sad, worried yet relieved. 

 

All these contradictions were surely not healthy, but they fit, somehow. They connected in some way that seemed impossible… like how they had been, like a bond between a human and a ghost.

 

Hanako's eyes softened as they gazed upon her, in all her resolved beauty.

 

"Your wishes are kind of selfish, Yashiro.”

 

She pouted, but he continued, “First, you want your crush to return your feelings. Second, you want to live until you’re ninety. Third, you want to know how it feels to be me. Lastly, you want to be with me for as long as possible??”

 

Nene flushed, “Is it really too much to ask for?”

 

"Since you're not... part of the living anymore, I don't have to grant your wish. You know that, right?"

 

"Can it just be a favor between friends, then?"

 

"Yashiro~"

 

"Can you just say 'yes' because you love me?"

 

He inhaled sharply and reddened, ignoring her glittery eyes.

 

“What if it’s forever?” Hanako asked her, then told her sincerely, “You… You really don’t have to spend an eternity with me, Yashiro.”

 

She was taken aback by the question, but her will was unwavering.

 

“I want to.”

 

Hanako furrowed his eyebrows, “You sure?”

 

“Positive.”

 

“Are you really sure?”

 

She huffed, then tackled him into a hug.

 

“That’s enough, Hanako-kun!” she complained. He chuckled, “Just making sure.”

 

“I never took you for the overly cautious type.”

 

He rolled his eyes. “Well after some recently traumatizing events, it’s probably your fault.”

 

“Wha—?!”

 

Nene headbutted his chest, but he only chortled as they both fell to the ground. His back was drenched, and she somewhat realized she wasn’t turning into a fish, but nothing else mattered at the moment.

 

There was only them.

 

Two ghosts laughing in the interval between life and death.

 

“So,” Nene hovered over him with a hopeful smile, “can I stay with you, Hanako-kun?”

 

He smirked, then looped his arms around her back and brought her face into his chest. His smile became more gentle, more content, as the couple stayed in their embrace. She couldn’t view his face, but she could hear his erratic heart.

 

“Ah… well, when you ask like that...” 

 

Hanako whispered, one word holding a thousand promises, “Okay."

Chapter Text


 

say it (but i can't)

 


 

hello, hello!

 

11 is my favorite number~

 

120+ bookmarks, 500+ comments, 1000+ kudos, and 12000+ hits!!

 

thank you all so much.

 

because there are certain aspects of this story that i want, this will take place in an american school system instead of a japanese one.

 

alternate universe.

 


 

She had forgotten her phone in the classroom. All day, she was worrying if someone had stolen it, or if she had misplaced it somewhere entirely different. It felt incredibly strange to have it off of her for the remainder of the day. But after the last bell had rung, she hurried to the classroom where her phone should be located.

 

Sliding the door open, she scanned the classroom for the object, until her eyes landed on the window sill. 

 

There it is!

 

She rushed over and grabbed it, smothering the device against her cheek.

 

Her reunion with her phone caused her to almost miss the movement behind the curtain.

 

Almost.

 

She reached for the curtain, then gently pulled it back.

 

It was…

 

"Y-Yugi-kun?"

 

The boy in question was petrified in his spot on the floor. He stared up at her with his large eyes, fear swimming in his brimming tears. She leaned in to inspect him closer, noting the bruises and nicks on various parts of his body. There was red liquid seeping out from his cuts, making her slightly queasy.

 

Her concern overcame her discomfort. "Are you okay?!"

 

"Ah…" he scrambled to his feet, "I-I'm fine!"

 

He tried to run off, but she managed to grab his hand. He winced at the tug, “Ow!”

 

“Oh, my gosh. I’m sorry!” she stepped closer, “I didn’t mean to hurt you. But you really need to get those patched up!”

 

“I-I don’t need your help! I told you, I’m fine!”

 

“Shush!” she dragged him behind her. Since it hurt to pull away, he followed after her with a grimace. They ended up at the nurse’s office, though because it was after school hours, the nurse was already clocked out for the day.

 

She rummaged through the drawers, and managed to find antiseptic wipes, cotton balls, and bandaids. He was sitting on the patient’s chair, waiting for her to be finished with him so that he could leave. 

 

Taking a seat beside him, she used the cotton ball to wipe the excess blood off the cut on his arm, where he flinched at the pain. Soon, he became used to the sting, as he usually did whenever he or Tsuchigomori cleaned his wounds. They sat in silence, allowing the setting sun to paint the room in a warm, fiery light.

 

“So…” she peered at him, “what happened?”

 

He looked away.

 

"Who did this to you?"

 

The tension in the room increased, making her shoulders fall slightly.

 

It seemed obvious that he didn’t want to divulge, so she decided to switch topics.

 

“Do you remember me?”

 

“...Hmm?” he stared at nothing in particular, “No, not really.”

 

“Oh…” she pointed at herself with a friendly smile, “I’m Yashiro Nene. We were in the same homeroom last year.”

 

He gazed at her, curiously. “You remembered me?”

 

Nene nodded, as she put on the first bandaid and pressed it down gently. “Does that feel okay?”

 

He made a noise of confirmation. She smiled again, “That’s good.”

 

Plucking out another cotton ball, she began to clean the cut on his neck, making him tilt his head upward. There was a small blush on his face at her closeness, but she paid it no mind, as fixing up his wound was her first priority. 

 

“Your full name is Yugi Amane, right?”

 

He made another noise of confirmation. She giggled quietly, “Not much of a talker, huh?”

 

Amane puffed up his cheeks, somewhat indignant. 

 

“...I don’t really know what to say.”

 

“Eh?” she cleaned the cut with a wipe, making him jolt in surprise. “Oh, sorry.”

 

“I-It’s okay…” Amane forced out. She opened up another bandaid and laid it over the cut.

 

“You’re lucky that I know a bit about nursing people back to health, like taking care of cuts!” she smiled proudly to herself, “Just one of my many feminine skills.”

 

“Is that so…?” he brushed his hand over the bandaid on his neck, “What else do you know?”

 

She smiled smugly. “Ah, you’re asking me questions now~?”

 

Amane stared at her, before standing up abruptly. “I’m going.”

 

“Hey, wait! You’re not done!!”

 

After sitting him back down, she carefully removed the old bandage on his face. He intently looked past her shoulder, avoiding her eyes.

 

“So, um, to answer your question,” she cleaned the cut healing on his cheek, “I know gardening, cooking, cleaning… you know, the like.”

 

“Aah.”

 

“What about you?” she replaced the old bandage with a fresh bandaid, “Do you have anything you’re good at?”

 

He didn’t respond. She held a hand up to her mouth and flustered, “Oh, wait, sorry. Did I make you feel bad? I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry.”

 

"...Reading star maps." He said quietly, "And I can use and modify telescopes."

 

"Oh, you like space?"

 

Amane gazed down, but nodded. She smiled, "That's really cool!"

 

He eyed her in surprise. She then proceeded to tend to the other cut on his arm. 

 

"So, are you excited to be a first year of high school next year?" she practically vibrated, "I know I am!"

 

"I guess…"

 

"I'm going to pursue my skill in gardening!" she disinfected his cut, "What about you?"

 

"None of the clubs really interest me."

 

"Hmm~" she pointed a finger up in the air, "I know, why don't you start your own club? Astronomy club! That sounds like fun."

 

His eyes widened again, but he snorted and chuckled. She would've said that it was nice to hear, but it sounded… more despondent than delightful.

 

"I don't see why." He stated simply, "No one would join."

 

She tilted her head at him.

 

"I'd join."

 

"Huh?" he sent her a questioning look, "Why? Astronomy won't help you get another girly skill."

 

She rolled her eyes. "Why else? So I can hang out with you!"

 

He was taken aback. "W-What?!"

 

"Yeah, then we can be friends for real!" she smiled, "Wouldn't that be fun?"

 

She placed the last bandaid on his arm, securing it in place with a few pats. Proud of her work, she nodded and smirked haughtily. He gave a half-suppressed laugh, shaking his head at her.

 

She pouted. "What?"

 

"Nothing."

 

Nene opened her mouth to question him further, but was stopped when Amane gave her a small, soft smile. 

 

"Thank you."

 


 

“Over here!”

 

“No, over here!”

 

“Here, here!”

 

Yashiro Nene was in the middle of her favorite pastime when another person sat next to her. Yugi Amane tilted his head to look fixated at her.

 

“I'm already here, yet you still ignore me. Are you staring at the rest of the Boys’ Soccer Team again?” 

 

“N-No…” she sipped on her water bottle. He smirked, "You know that they're the Junior Varsity team, right? So they're all freshmen and sophomores."

 

Nene blanched, then defended, "Some of them are still nice-looking, unfortunately."

 

"You admit to watching!"

 

She flushed, "I-I mean—no, I wasn't!!" 

 

Amane lightly punched her arm, “Come on, it’s so obvious.”

 

“Don’t judge me!”

 

“I’m not judging you!” Amane stuck his tongue out at her, “Maybe I'm just glad that I joined the Boys’ Soccer Team.”

 

“Eh? Why?”

 

“So the amazing Yashiro Nene will be the one to watch me all day from the sidelines.”

 

“Oh, my gosh. Shut up!”

 

Amane and Nene were best friends, and everyone at the school knew. They were like two peas in a pod, stuck together by some magical, invisible glue. Ever since that fateful day when they met, they've sought each other out more often. Of course, Nene had to be the one to initiate their interactions in the earlier days, slowly opening Amane up. It took him a few months to get used to her hanging around, and now he was completely comfortable with her constant presence.

 

"See ya, Captain!"

 

"See you Tuesday!" Amane saluted at his leaving Varsity team members. Then, he groaned, "I am so glad that it's Friday. Come on, let's go already."

 

"Coming, coming." Nene rose to her feet and patted down her skirt. "Do you have a game tomorrow?"

 

"Fortunately, nope!" he stretched his arms above his head, "I heard there was an incident with the other school, so they forfeited. Just a few more games to go~!"

 

Nene snickered and rolled her eyes, then sighed wistfully, “I can’t believe it’s already almost the end of October.”

 

“Stop talking like that. You’re making me feel old.”

 

“You are old.”

 

“Compared to you, it’s just by a few months!”

 

“Shut up, boomer.”

 

“Ouch!!” he clutched his heart and started fleeing to the doors with feigned indignation, acting like a limp was hindering his speed. “I’d prove you wrong, but my hip replacement won’t let me.”

 

“Amane-kun, seriously, shut up!” she was laughing loudly now, and clutched her stomach for support, too entertained by his antics. He grinned and began to walk normally, satisfied with her reaction.

 

She followed after the somewhat taller boy, noting the disarray of his hair. Even if he just came out of the showers, he could have fixed his hair a bit.

 

She sighed and brought out her comb, then proceeded to brush his locks.

 

"What the—?" Amane snorted, then knocked away the comb, "You could've asked me first."

 

"Since when have I asked you permission for anything? Now, let me brush your hair." 

 

He grumbled, but allowed her to straighten his messy fringe. 

 

Throughout their three years of high school, Amane developed from a shy, quiet kid to a popular smart and fun one. He had begun to answer more questions in class, shocking everyone with his sharp intellect. He started his own astronomy club in their first year, and with the help of Nene, it became incredibly well-known for its fun and cool activities with many club members. He gained the nickname "Hanako" after his prank in the spring semester of his second year, where he hid in the girls' bathroom and scared the living daylights out of a few girls during the time that the Hanako-san rumor was peaking in fame.

 

She piped up cheerily as they exited the practice field. "Did you hear about the freshman who tried to copy you?"

 

"Yep." He smirked, "Poor kid. He got caught as soon as he went inside the girls' bathroom."

 

"You've set up a bad example for the upcoming generations."

 

"Correction: I'm just a legend." He said pointedly, "That's what happens when people copy legends."

 

"Uh-huh, sure." She clicked her tongue, "Whatever you say, pal."

 

"It's true~"

 

He had even stopped gaining injuries, such as the usual bruises and cuts. Nene still remembered the day when he told her that he was going to take up martial arts, and learn knife-wielding skills. She thought that it was going to be too much for him, after his first week where he was roughed up even more than before. He had sore muscles and was covered in cuts and bruises for a whole month, but thanks to her consistent care, it didn't scar or get worse. She nearly urged him to quit, but he only reassured her until he was finished with the course.

 

"Hey, watch the seat."

 

The two slid into his car, and she had only just taken shotgun when he started picking on her.

 

"Why?"

 

"I just cleaned it. Don't need your radish butt to imprint all over it."

 

"Rude!" she punched his arm, and he only chortled.

 

"You'd be lucky to have any girl's butt on this seat," she muttered with crossed arms. Amane cocked his head and started driving. "Hmmm~? Is that a challenge?"

 

"For you to get a girlfriend? Maybe."

 

He eyed her with amusement, but declined smoothly, "I appreciate you trying to rile me up, but it won't work. I'm married to the moon. You know that already."

 

"For someone so carefree, you're surprisingly conservative."

 

"Shut up."

 

They were seniors, now, and it seemed like time had flown by so quickly. Looking at her best friend now, and comparing him to the timid boy he used to be, she was incredibly proud of what a stark difference he's made between his present and past self.

 

It was hard to admit that, though. The guy already had enough pride as it is.

 

"Hey, let's stop over at McDonald's. I want a McFlurry."

 

"I thought you didn't like McDonald's." 

 

Amane mimicked in a high-pitched voice. "'I thought you didn't like McDonald's.'"

 

"Amane-kun!"

 

"I want a McFlurry, damn it."

 

"I'll just make you a sundae at my place, idiot."

 

"Seriously?!"

 

"Of course." Nene placed her hands on her hips, "I make the best ice cream dishes."

 

"That I can agree with." He licked his lips, already tasting the delicious, cold sweetness on his tongue. She rolled her eyes at his theatrics. 

 

"But at a price."

 

"Oh~?" Amane grinned, side-eyeing her. "And what does Yashiro-san want from the school's favorite supernatural?"

 

"Shut up, you." She batted her eyelashes at him, "I would like you to hook me up with Haru-kun."

 

"Our team’s goalie?" Amane arched an eyebrow, "Why him?"

 

“I don’t know. I like his eyes. They’re so blue, like the sky~” Nene felt her heart pound at the thought of them. Amane remarked, “Are you sure it’s because they don’t remind you of Teru?”

 

She squeaked, then hit his arm, “I’m over him!!”

 

“Sure you are.”

 

Minamoto Teru was her crush for the past three years until he eventually graduated high school, and was entirely focused on his studies in college. She remembered working her butt off just to impress him, usually dragging Amane into the mix of her schemes. However, she never actually got to confess her true feelings to the guy, and to this day, it still wears down her aching heart.

 

“No, it doesn’t!!”

 

“Keep telling that to yourself, Nene.” Amane parodied her high-pitched voice once more, “‘Oh, Teru-senpai, if only you could see me now~!’”

 

“Shut up, shut up, shut up!!” Nene attacked him with a flurry of punches, somewhat vexed that his bicep was—for a lack of a better phrase— like a metal pipe. Even if Amane was lean, it seemed like he had almost no fat on him.

 

“Hey, cool it!” he ruffled her hair, just to spite her, “We’re already here at your house.”

 

She made a noise of indignance, before exiting his car. When checking on her best friend, he was apparently texting someone on the phone.

 

“Are you messaging your brother?”

 

“Yeah, just telling him that I’m at your place.” His eyes scanned over his phone, before his face twisted with annoyance. She would be concerned if not for the slight pink dusting his cheeks. She inquired, “What did he say?”

 

“Nothing. Just something dumb.” Amane pocketed his phone and strode onward, “Come on, I want ice cream.”

 

“Yes, sir,” she drawled in a tedious tone, “would you like tiny, colored candies and cream that is whipped and cooled?”

 

“Certainly!” his eyes were glimmering, but she deadpanned, “We don’t have any, so too bad.”

 

“Aw…”

 

Nene unlocked the door, announcing and sliding off her shoes, “I’m home! I have a whack-job with me, so call the police!”

 

“What did you say?”

 

Bouts of laughter bubbled out from her chest as Amane tickled her sides. She swatted at him, but to no avail, “S-Stop!! Ahh, help!!”

 

“Yeah, that’s what I thought!” Amane took his shoes off and shut the door, as she leaned against the wall and caught her breath. Her mother came from downstairs, looking at the two of them with a bright smile. 

 

“Amane-kun! Welcome!” she ambled over to him and grabbed his cheeks, inspecting his face, “I feel like it’s been forever since I’ve seen you!”

 

“G-Good evening to you, too.” His face burned with embarrassment, “Ah, I had gotten pretty busy with the soccer team and my Astronomy club…”

 

“That’s right! You’re Captain this year, aren’t you? That’s so wonderful!” she pinched his cheek, “But you seem skinnier than usual. Are you eating properly?”

 

Under her scrutiny, he broke into a sweat and darted his eyes over at Nene for help.

 

“Mom, leave him alone!” Nene placed her hands on her hips, “He’s a big boy, he doesn’t need you to worry about him.”

 

“Shush, go place your jealousy elsewhere.”

 

“M-My—what?!”

 

“Honey, leave the kid alone.” Nene’s father called from upstairs, “You’re ruining our daughter’s couple-time.”

 

Nene stomped her foot down. “D-Dad!!” 

 

Her parents were out to get her. She just knew it; it was always like this whenever Amane visited. She should’ve been a rebel, but curse their good parenting!

 

“I'm fine, thank you.” Amane said kindly as he grabbed her hands and lowered them from his face. “You look way better than I do, honestly.”

 

“Oh, stop!” she waved her hand at him, then headed up the stairs, “Nene, you got yourself some good boys!”

 

Nene sighed, “I know, I know…”

 

She paused. “Boys?”

 

Nene discerned the sound of the television playing, and recognized the smell of waffles lingering in the air. She stalked over to the living room, half-surprised to see Kou sitting on the couch. 

 

He turned around and put his hand up, mouth full of a waffle. “Yo!”

 

Minamoto Kou was currently her junior best friend. After Amane’s prank in the girls’ bathroom, Kou took it upon himself to keep an eye on the sophomore for his older brother, who managed to obtain the presidency of the student body that year. Even though he was a freshman, Kou was incredibly energetic and possessed almost no inhibitions, so he was very fun to be around. After a while of him following Nene and Amane around, he got more used to them, and in turn, they became accustomed to his presence.

 

“Kou-kun, what are you doing here?!”

 

He paused the show he was watching. “Um, I wanted to see you to ask you something important?”

 

She lifted her phone, showing him the dark screen. “Why didn’t you text me that you were here?!”

 

“I… I got distracted.” He lifted the waffle up to show her; it was his whole reason for not telling her. She facepalmed, while Amane came up from behind her. His eyes widened, “Waffles!!”

 

“There’s more in the kitchen,” Kou pointed at the other room, “Senpai’s mom made them for me. They’re really good.”

 

“Yeah, I know they’re really good!” Nene commented bitterly, then marched toward the dining table, “They’re my favorite!”

 

“Can I have some?” Amane asked while he followed her. She frowned, “I thought you wanted ice cream?”

 

“I changed my mind. I want waffles.”

 

She snorted, “Okay, fine.”

 

“Nice!”

 

“But,” she pointed at him, her eyes glinting, “remember our deal.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” He patted her head, passing by her as he went to the table, “Get Haru to notice you. Though, I must ask, how do you know him?”

 

“We’re seniors, Amane-kun.” She took out two plates and two pairs of utensils. “Everyone knows everyone at this point. And, uh, he’s in my math class… I sit behind him.”

 

She emitted a tiny giggle and performed a little gesture of shy happiness. He laughed quietly at her display.

 

“Oh?” Amane sat down at the table, stacking a couple of waffles onto his plate. She nodded, “Yeah, do you know anything about him?”

 

“Of course, I know a little bit about everybody.” Amane bit into a waffle, “Haru’s got, like, a really big…”

 

He gazed at her with a knowing look, forming a very vague shape with his hands. She flushed a bright red, “A-Amane-kun!! That’s so crude!”

 

“...boat. He has a big boat. You know, because he’s rich?” He smirked at her red cheeks, “What were you thinking of, you dirty radish~?

 

“Not that nickname again!” Nene whacked at him with a pout, making him chuckle. “And I am not a dirty radish! You did that on purpose!”

 

“Maybe~”

 

“Ugh!”

 

“Hey, guys, so, uh…” Kou peeked in the doorway of the kitchen, a rare shyness evident in his tone, “about the thing I wanted to talk about…”

 

As he approached the sink to wash his dishes, the two seniors gave their attention to him.

 

“Oh, right!” she tilted her head at him, “What did you want to ask?”

 

He stopped scrubbing the plate, and almost scratched his cheek with a soapy finger. 

 

“...There’s someone I wanna go with to Prom this year.”

 

Amane paused in his chewing to stare at him in surprise. Nene gasped excitedly, a prediction already in mind. “Who?”

 

Kou rinsed the silverware. “Uh, you know him…”

 

Nene was relentless, however. “Who? Who?” 

 

Amane glanced at her. “What are you, an owl—?”

 

She shushed him, then went back to pestering the junior. Kou crumbled from her inquisitive stare, leaning back slightly as she peered into his eyes. He felt like his soul was being scrutinized at that moment.

 

“It’s just… Mitsuba—”

 

“Ah!!” Nene squealed loudly, spooking both of the boys, “I knew it!! You two were destined to—”

 

“H-Hey! Wait, wait, wait.” Kou waved his hands around, flinging dish water everywhere, “I’m asking him because no one else is gonna ask him, and I know that’ll make him sad. He’s really into himself, and I know he’ll be ecstatic that someone asked him to Prom!”

 

Amane resumed his waffle-eating, and Nene squinted her eyes at the blond. “So… you wanna ask him… as a friend?”

 

“Yeah!”

 

“Because you want to make him happy?”

 

Yeah!!”

 

Nene sat back down on her chair and almost slammed her head on the table, but she merely grumbled under her breath. “Kou-kun, I don’t know if you’re stupidly oblivious or too wholesome for this world…”

 

“What was that, Senpai?”

 

“Nothing, Kou-kun!” she kicked Amane’s shin under the table when he tried to reveal her real thoughts. Ignoring his whimper, she continued on the topic, “What did you wanna ask me about it, though?”

 

“Oh, um…” Kou appeared genuinely nervous, and it made Nene want to pinch his cheek, “how do you do a promposal? Or, um, how should I do my promposal?”

 

Nene hummed in thought, tapping her chin with her finger and reflecting her ideas to the ceiling. Amane suggested, meanwhile, "You could hide in a trashcan, then pop out with a sign."

 

Kou's eyes nearly bugged out of his head. "Is that really a good idea?"

 

Nene said, "No."

 

Amane whined, "Killjoy~"

 

"I know!" Nene grinned, "Since Mitsuba-kun acts like a spoiled princess, and Kou-kun has princely vibes… uh, sometimes… then you can dress up as a prince and ride to him on a horse!"

 

Kou's eyes practically fell out of his sockets. "W-Where am I gonna get a horse?!"

 

"Just ask your friends to dress up as one." She clarified in a giddy tone, "Then you get down to the ground and drop to one knee, holding out a wonderfully decorated sign that says 'Mitsuba-kun, will you go to prom with me?'"

 

She squealed and clapped her hands together rapidly, whereas Amane only looked on with an amused smirk. Kou blushed slightly, suddenly feeling self-conscious, but he pushed it down and held on steadfastly to his resolve. He was doing this for the happiness of his dear friend!

 

“W-What about you, Senpai?” Kou asked her with glittery eyes, “Will you be going to prom, too?”

 

“Of course!” Nene proclaimed, “It’s my senior year. I wanna do everything I can, especially going to prom!!”

 

She swooned and clasped her hands together, before pressing it against her cheek. “Imagine: me and a dreamy hot-guy all dressed up and ready to attend the most important dance of our high-school lives!!”

 

“Yeah, right.” Amane snorted, “Now the only issue is finding that ‘dreamy hot-guy’ of yours.”

 

“Hey, it might work out with Haru-kun!”

 

“Let’s hope so, hmm?” Amane gave her a pointed look, before lifting up his glass of water, then chugged it down. She scoffed, “You never believe in my romantic endeavors!”

 

“I’d like to say I’m just somewhat doubtful, but wishes can come true, right?”

 

“That sounded like sarcasm!”

 

“Nooo.”

 

Kou feebly said behind them. “Uh, Senpai, please calm down…”

 

“I am calm!!” she huffed at the blond, who only held his hands up in surrender. Nene whipped her head back to the black-haired boy and placed her hands on her hips, “Just watch me, Amane-kun! I’ll get a boyfriend by the end of my senior year!!”

 

“Is that so~?” he leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, mirth twinkling in his amber eyes. She almost gulped at the sight of them. Amane smirked, “Okay, if you don’t, then you have to dye your hair pink and wear frilly dresses for an entire month.”

 

Nene frowned, but responded, “And if I do?”

 

He leaned back, oozing confidence. “Your choice.”

 

“You have to, um,” her eyes darted around as she racked her brain for a good punishment, “dress up as a girl for half a month!”

 

“Wow, are you going easy on me?”

 

“You’re lucky I’m nice!”

 

“Whatever~” Amane shook his head, then stuck his hand out for her to shake. “Is it a deal, then?”

 

“Of course.” 

 

The two brought their hands in a firm grip, sealing the agreement.

 

Kou only slapped his forehead with his palm. “What have you two done…?”

 


 

“Math—what is math? Who even uses math? Why does it exist??” Nene once again rubbed the eraser into the paper, frustrated as usual, “This sucks…”

 

“Man, I know, right?”

 

Her eyes trailed up the figure of the person in front of her, until it landed on their face. She let out a very unladylike yelp. “H-Haru-kun??”

 

“Sorry, did I scare you?” he sat down at his desk, yet he was sitting in a way where he could face her easily. “You’re Yashiro Nene, right?”

 

“U-Um… that’s right. How did you know?” 

 

“Well, uh, you do sit behind me. Amane talks about you a bit, too.”

 

Thank you, Amane-kun!

 

She absent-mindedly brushed her hair behind her ears, hoping she looked okay today. “D-Did you need anything?”

 

“Ah, I just saw that you were struggling is all.” His gorgeous blue eyes were making her insides flop. “Would you like me to help you?”

 

She thought her heart stopped. “Really?”

 

“Yeah!” he flashed her a smile, “We could go to a nearby café after school today, and I can help you study.”

 

Nene melted then and there. “That sounds perfect…”

 

“Great, I’ll see you then!”

 

After math class was over, Nene couldn’t help but skip through the halls. She passed by many of her friends, making sure to wave hello in an extra cheerful manner. Mitsuba could have sworn that she was leaving flowers behind in her wake.

 

“What is up with Radish-senpai today? She’s being somehow more nature-y than usual.” Mitsuba snickered into his sleeve, “You’d think being a radish would be enough, but I guess not.”

 

He was quite proud of his little quip, but he received no praise for it. At the disturbing silence, Mitsuba whipped his head around to question his blond friend. However, Kou was busy formulating a promposal plan in his head, subsequently ignoring the pink-haired boy. He tugged on his sleeve with a puppy-dog whimper, “Don’t ignore me!!”

 

“Huh?” Kou felt embarrassed at being caught mid-scheme, and hid his face nervously, “Uh, sorry…”

 

“What is up with you, now?!” Mitsuba irately blew the hair in front of his face, “Why do I have such weird friends…?”

 

In her next class, she was still as radiant as the sun in the sky, so Aoi felt compelled to inquire why she was so happy.

 

“Nene-chan, did you get a rare idol in your game?”

 

“No~” Nene rested her chin in her palms, “I’m going on a study-date today~”

 

Aoi leaned over, whispering, “Really? With who?”

 

She smiled and whispered back, “Haru-kun!”

 

“Wow, he’s good-looking! And I heard he’s nice and rich. Fits your type pretty well, huh?” Aoi patted her back joyfully, “Good job! It’ll be the first date you’ve had since your life before Teru-senpai.”

 

She sighed, “I know, right? I really let myself waste away like that… But this time, I’ll land someone good, and make up for all the lost time!”

 

“Good luck!” Aoi nudged her, “How did it happen, by the way?”

 

Nene shifted in her seat. “Okay, well, I was looking at Haru-kun for a while, but you know how I am, it’s always hard for me to make the first move.”

 

Aoi nodded to that a copious amount of times, making the other girl stare at her blankly.

 

“What?”

 

“Really?”

 

“Shh, just keep going.”

 

“Anyways,” Nene proclaimed pointedly, “I asked Amane-kun to help me out.”



























“You know…”

 

Nene turned to Aoi, her eyes lit with interest. 

 

Her friend only smiled at her, “you and Amane-kun are cute together. I think you two make a good couple.”

 

Nene’s world halted for a moment, before starting up again with her very loud and shocked, “ EEEEEEEEEEEEH??

 

Aoi uncovered her ears once Nene started speaking with words, “Me? And Amane-kun? He’s my best friend!!”

 

“Well, it’s not uncommon, especially if it’s a boy that likes girls and a girl that likes boys.”

 

“But I’ve never thought of him like that.

 

“Really?” she raised an eyebrow, “You’ve never looked at him that way?”

 

“O-Of course not! He’s not my type!” Nene reaffirmed, “He’s my best friend, and that’s all!”

 

“You don’t have to be so against it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with dating someone who is also your best friend.”

 

“No, Aoi-chan! That’s… That’s so cliché!” Nene shook her head in fervent denial. “I’m not going to conform to such a cheesy set-up!”

 

Aoi’s face twisted with concern over the girl’s defensiveness, but allowed her to maintain her refusal.

 

"Really… Amane-kun, of all people!" Nene clicked her tongue and shook her head, like the very idea of viewing him in a romantic light was simply preposterous.

 

Even though it was the end of that conversation, it still lingered in the back of her mind throughout the rest of the day. She wondered if she and Amane ever came off as a couple-like relationship. His casual flirtiness was a bit suspicious, she supposed,but besides that, he did nothing particularly romantic to her.

 

It seemed very obvious too that Amane held no attraction towards her. He always made fun of her appearance—her legs, especially—and always teased her for not landing a solid relationship with a decent guy. Whenever she made a mistake or had another klutzy moment, he was there to point his finger and laugh at her. If anything, she wondered if she was best friends with her bully.

 

Later in the day, Amane asked her, "Nene? Are you mad at me?"

 

"...Yes. I just realized how mean you are."

 

The two of them were in his car when he brought up her sour expression. He only chuckled at her pout.

 

"Oh? What brought this on?"

 

"You're a jerk!"

 

"I thought you knew this already?"

 

"I should have realized it sooner…" she waved her hands angrily, indignantly, "I've spent years suffering from your abuse!!"

 

He was full-on laughing now. "Nene, what's gotten into you?"

 

"Nothing!!"

 

"Uh huh, okay." Amane lifted his fingers from the steering wheel, as he rolled his eyes over at her. "Tell you what. Why don't we stop by the mall, and I'll pay for whatever makeup product you want so you can use it for future dates."

 

"...R-Really?"

 

"Yep."

 

"Okay!!" Her ruby eyes were incredibly sparkly. "Let's go!! Hurry, hurry!"

 

He snorted, “Yeah, okay, I’m going!”

 

He redirected his attention to the road. The idea of shopping slowly faded from her mind as she focused on his concentrated face.

 

He’s not bad-looking. I mean, Amane-kun has never been bad-looking… but he really isn’t… that bad-looking… Nene bit her lip slightly, surprised at her own realization, Why am I noticing this now??

 

Amane arched an eyebrow, taking a glimpse of her. “Are you hungry?”

 

She broke out of her reverie. “Huh?”

 

“You look like you wanna eat something.” Amane chuckled at her reddened face, even if he was oblivious to her true reason of embarrassment. “Want me to buy you something at the mall? I really want salted pretzels, actually.”

 

“Uh… yeah… yeah!” Nene waved her hands and looked out the window. “Sounds good.”

 

What am I thinking? But it’s not bad to think that your friend is attractive, right?? Nene pressed her lips into a fine line, My heart’s acting funny, though… Ugh, really, why is it weird for me to find him attractive?? Doesn’t mean that I like him or something! Dangit, Aoi-chan!!

 

The rest of the trip was left in silence, uncomfortable for Nene yet 














"Ehh??" Tsukasa peeked over his brother's shoulder, catching sight of the picture. Amane instantly cut the screen to black and faced him with a scowl, "Tsukasa, space!"

 

"That was Nene, wasn't it?" Tsukasa lightly punched his shoulder, then tugged on his arm, "It’s senior year, try something!”

 

Amane narrowed his eyes at him. “What are you talking about?”

 

“I mean, you’ve been in love with her, right?”

 

“This again…”

 

“Come on~” Tsukasa grinned, “I see the way you stare at her. She’s really just your best friend, Amane?”


















Nene sat down on the ledge of the fountain, her phone already next to her ear. She was hugging herself close together as the number dialed. 

 

Pick up, pick up… 

 

Tears rolled down her cheeks. She inhaled sharply, and clutched her arms even tighter.

 

Please, Amane-kun, I need you…

 

The ringer halted, and her heart nearly dropped, until she heard his voice. 

 

"Hello?"

 

"Amane-kun…" she perked up, her head now off of her knees, "can you pick me up?"

 

"Huh? Did your date lose his keys, or something?"

 

His small chuckle barely did anything to lighten her mood, but she felt obligated to release a tiny, amused breath.

 

"N-No, just…" her wobbly voice came to a stop, and the tears renewed. Amane was quiet on the other side, as if gauging her silence.

 

He asked in a low tone, "Nene, what happened?"

 

She couldn't keep her voice calm. "I-I… I really need you right now."

 

"I'm on my way," he said instantly, "stay on the phone with me, okay?"

 

She could hear the sound of shuffling and walking and doors and Tsukasa in the background inquiring him of his intent but Amane only told him her name. The faint beep of the car clicked in her ears, and the roar of the car soon followed after.

 

Relief swept over her, and she smiled gratefully.

 

He was on his way. She felt calmer at the thought, but anxiety still gripped her heart.

 

How could she tell him? 

 

How could she tell him everything?

 

"Nene, are you still there?"

 

She gulped, and then nodded, even if he couldn't see her.

 

"I'm still here."

 

"Are you at the restaurant?"

 

"I'm in the park outside of it."

 

"Where?"

 

"The fountain."

 

"Perfect." He sighed, “Just ten minutes, okay?”

 

“...Okay.”

 

There was a sort of serenity that passed through the phone, and came forth a comfort that coated her despite the lack of words being exchanged. He was there at the end of the line, even if she couldn’t see him. He was there, then he’d be here beside her, and then she’d…

 

She’d…

 

“Nene?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Do you wanna talk about anything right now? While I’m driving?”

 

“No, um…” she shook her head, “I want you to be here.”

 

“Should I talk about anything?”

 

“The silence is okay, Amane-kun.” She chuckled, albeit her sniffles making her true feelings obvious, “If you’re still there, then it’s okay.”

 

“Alright.”

 

It seemed like he arrived at a shorter time than ten minutes. Once the call disconnected, she pocketed her phone and awaited his arrival. She could discern his figure running across the walkway to where she was perched. Her mind berated her slightly, and a strange sense of awkwardness filled her.

 

Amane appeared in front of her, inspecting her for any injuries. She waved shyly, “A-Amane-kun, you came pretty fast—”

 

“What happened?”

 

He grabbed her hands and sat down next to her, his amber eyes swirling with worry. She wilted a bit, her face showing more distress.

 

“The date didn’t… go well…”

 

Amane eyed her skeptically.

 

“And…?”






Aoi mentions that they’d be cute together

Nene sets out to prove that she won’t conform to cliche and get with her guy best friend

Starts going on a bunch of dates with dumb guys while realizing little by little how good amane is to her

Lots of teenager stuff

Final straw when one date tries to molest her

She breaks down and reveals that she has fallen in love with him

Passionate kissing

Next day, concerned friends and amane; aoi talks to nene and nene tells her that whether it was cliche or not, her feelings were still serious and unavoidable and that it didn’t matter how cheesy it was, she wanted to be with amane

Next day guy tries to hit her up again but vengeful and pissed amane but nene manages to hold him back

Guy gets scared off, but gets banned from prom cus he punched the dude

Nene decides to skip with him to have their first date (their own special memory)

Tells him to wear a tux, he is confused but obliges

She’s wearing a nice spring dress with a ponytail but carrying a bag that she leaves in his car

They go to movie, then to the gazebo on the lake

She changes into her prom dress in the car, and steps out in it with her hair brushed over her shoulder

They dance in the gazebo, under the moonlight, surrounded by the warm glow of the lanterns.

End.

 


 

thnx for reading! stay safe, you all! i’ll try to deliver more oneshots during this time of quarantine just to satiate some boredom! ;3.

 


 

best girl

 


 

after making my new instagram account for fanfiction purposes, it's been blowing up! i can't thank you all enough!!

 

ahahahah this idea makes me lol.

 

canon universe.

 


 

“This is stupid.”

 

“How typical. No. 1 can’t handle a bit of a challenge~”

 

“You’re stupid.”

 

“You may as well forfeit, huh?”

 

Hanako placed his hand on his cheek, looking at the other boy with a cheeky grin. Akane felt his eyebrow twitch, before he grinned sinisterly, “Forfeit? If I did that, then I’d be disrespecting my goddess’s name.”

 

“Then you’re still in?”

 

“Of course.” Akane leaned forward with a darkened expression. “You can’t scare me off that easily.”

 

“...Aoi?”

 

Akane’s shoulders jumped with shock, as he whirled his head around to find the one and only Minamoto Teru.

 

“Oh, shit.” Akane whispered under his breath, before he cleared his throat and straightened his back. “Minamoto-senpai, what brings you here?”

 

“...I was just passing by, but I’m surprised to see you here.” He looked the boy up and down, noting that he wasn’t in his human form, but instead donning his supernatural appearance. With a strained smile, he said, “You texted me earlier that you were sick.”

 

Akane looked about as guilty as a child caught stealing from the cookie jar. “W-Well, you see—”

 

“Now, now...” Hanako uttered loudly, looking at the taller blond from under the rim of his hat, “Minamoto-senpai, No. 1 and I are currently in the middle of something very important. It would be rather kind if you’d leave us be for the time being.”

 

Minamoto felt his grip on the clipboard tighten. “And why would I listen to anything you say?”

 

“We won’t be doing anything harmful.” Hanako rose his hands, showing off his empty palms. “Just supernatural business, promise!”

 

Teru glared at him, then turned his gaze to his vice president. “Is that true?”

 

“...Yes.” Akane nodded, “It is.”

 

“...I see.” Teru assessed the two momentarily, then sighed, before walking away, “In the case of an emergency, I know who would have caused it.”

 

Hanako’s face contorted with indignance as he grumbled, “How presumptuous of you…”

 

“And,” Teru voiced just before he rounded the corner, sending them both an icy stare, “they’ll receive deserved punishment.”

 

Both Akane and Hanako shuddered as the blond walked away completely. Hanako looked up at the timekeeper with a disbelieving look, “I don’t know how you can work for him.”

 

“If it’s for Aoi-chan, then I can do anything.”

 

“Right, that does explain how you’ve roped yourself into this situation with me~!” 

 

Hanako chuckled into his hand, despite Akane’s face of sudden regret. The timekeeper groaned and folded his arms across his chest, “Stop wasting time. How are we going to go about this?”

 

“Well, it’ll be easy!” Hanako affirmed cheerfully, “We’ll just set up various tests for the girls to go through, and observe who does it successfully or better! The girl with the most points wins, and rightfully will earn the title of ‘Best Girl’!”

 

“This will be a piece of cake for a goddess like Aoi-chan.” Akane shook his head, almost in a pitying manner. “I’m starting to feel more bad for you than me.”

 

Akane paused, before avowing, “Wait, no, I don’t.”

 

Hanako had to stop himself from rolling his eyes. This human never ceased to entertain him with his constant dislike of supernaturals—his own leader, in particular.

 

“Shall we get started?” Hanako insisted, his hand outstretched between them. Akane shook it firmly, “We shall.”

 


 

The first test was simple: a test of speed.

 

“How is this supposed to decide anything?”

 

“What?” Hanako held his hand up to his mouth, gazing at him with false incredulity. “You mean to say that your goddess isn’t as great as you make her out to be?”

 

A hand suddenly grabbed his collar, and Hanako was now facing an irate timekeeper. Akane seethed darkly, “How dare you even imply that I’d think that way?”

 

“I was hoping the opposite~” Hanako looked to the side with a frivolous smirk, “A test like this shouldn’t be so bad for her, right?”

 

“Tch.” Akane released him, “No.”

 

“Great! Then onward to the first test!”

 

The two supernaturals hid behind the bush as they observed the pair of girls work in the practice garden. Akane couldn’t help but swoon, “She’s so lovely, even among the dirt and grass…”

 

“Focus, No. 1!” Hanako clapped his hands, “This is important stuff. The title of ‘Best Girl’ is on the line!!”

 

“Right, can’t get distracted by her beauty.” Akane shook his head, forcing himself out of his reverie. “So, what do you have planned?”

 


 

spies, spies, spies

 


 

spiiieeesss.

 

alternate universe.

 


 

He should’ve expected this plan to fail. Obviously, since the boy was the one who thought of it, after all.

 

“This shit hurts more than Yashiro’s throat jab…”

 

He dared her to spring out of the ground and start proving him wrong by jabbing him in the throat extra viciously. At least he wouldn’t be alone in this situation.

 

Ah, but that’s right, he wasn’t alone. 

 

He was surrounded by a bunch of fucking lunatics working for an even bigger lunatic. 

 

And his damn arm was currently bleeding out from the laceration he received earlier. All he had was the bottom of his shirt to use as a bandage. It was a good thing it was his left arm—he’d have a harder time shooting his gun.

 

Speaking of which…

 

“Hey, bastard, come on out!!” one of the slobs shouted. Amane swore he could smell his beer belly from across the parking garage. “You’re as good as dead!”

 

“Fuck, I wish I was…” Amane grumbled under his breath as he single-handedly reloaded and cocked his pistol. “Yashiro would not be happy, though. She’d cut off my damn head if I died…”

 

“Hurry, he must have ran over there!”

 

He waited for them to rush past his hidden position like a bunch of idiots before announcing haughtily, “Wrong!”

 

They barely had time to react before he shot one guy—two, actually—right in their chests, knocking them over like pins in a bowling alley. Hopping over the car he was hiding behind, he barely avoided the spray of gunfire that flew over his head.

 

The leader shrieked angrily as he reloaded his gun. “You piece of shit!”

 

“Ah, ah, ah!” Amane peeked out and shot two bullets, effectively bringing down two more of his henchmen. He pointed his finger upward from below his coverage, taunting him, “I am the shit!”

 

“Peek out again, I dare you!”

 

Amane hummed, then peeked out faster than the guy could shoot off his bullets. His laughter echoed throughout the parking garage, “You’re so bad!”

 

“Why, you—!”

 

Amane quickly peeked out again and shot at him, where his bullets drove straight through his leg. Once he was down, he hurried over to the open car that those morons left running and swung open the door to the driver’s seat. There was another person in there, albeit he appeared somewhat young and a bit peculiar, and incredibly frightened as he gazed up at him with shrunken pupils. 

 

He had no time for introductions, however. “Get the fuck out of the driver’s seat!”

 

“O-Okay!!” the young man unbuckled and jumped into the passenger’s chair, instead of just leaving the car entirely. Amane wanted to scream more at him for his half-witted move, but, again, no time.

 

He slid behind the wheel and began to drive off with haste, ignoring his passenger’s frightened wailing. Amane soon was in the streets, and thinking he was in the clear, he let out a sigh of relief.

 

Then, a multitude of motorcycles appeared in his rearview mirror, insistently chasing after him. Amane growled, “Ah, you gotta be shitting me.”

 

The young man beside him looked like he was just about ready to piss his pants. “G-Get me out of here!!” 

 

“You’re staying with me!”

 

“Nooo!!!”

 

A sensation vibrated in his seat. He cursed and shifted himself slightly, “Yo, kid, can you take my phone out?”

 

“W-What?!”

 

“Just do it already!”

 

“B-But it’s in your back pocket!”

 

“I don’t care if you have to grope my ass, just take my phone out!!

 

The young man whimpered and swiftly plucked his phone out. As he guessed, it was a phone call from his team (and his favorite person, in particular).

 

“Amane??”

 

"Hey, babe, what's up?"

 

"What's up?!" Nene was yelling directly into the speaker, "You've been MIA for more than two days, what do you mean what's up??"

 

"Sorry, just got caught in a sticky situation." He swerved the car, narrowly dodging the road obstacles. "I was gonna call you, I swear."

 

"Everyone's been worried sick!"

 

"That's cool. What about you, though? Did my cutie miss me~?"

 

"Shut up, stupid. Where are you??"

 


 

the moon and the earth

 


 

alternate universe.

 

sun = kou

m = mitsuba

v = yako

e = hanako, moon = nene

m = tsukasa, phobos = sakura, deimos = natsuhiko

j = kako, mirai, akane, ganymede = lemon, europa = aoi

s = tsuchigomori

u = no. 6

n = mei

 


 

Sometimes, he wondered what he could do for her, since she always did a lot for him.

 

She shines her light down onto him almost when night falls onto his dark side. She pulls and pushes his tides, and keeps him steady on his axis.

 

Unlike his unhelpful self, the Sun always gives her light, allowing her to illuminate him where the Sun couldn’t reach. Despite the Sun and the Moon being opposites, they still worked well together, and sometimes did small things for entertainment in front of him. The humans knew them as ‘eclipses,’ but it was just another one of their wonders of compatibility. 

 

The Earth gave a groan, and something like a tremble shook the grounds of the planet. He was lucky it wasn’t near any major islands.

 

He was... slightly jealous with their strong and stable interactions. It was just because he wanted to have some sort of usefulness to her, too.

 

Amane blew some hair out of his eyes.

 

And… he also wanted some of her company. 

 

She was beautiful. She was whimsical. What could he say?

 


 

my voice, my words, my thoughts

 


 

alternate universe. (idol au)

 


 

Nene was chilling on the couch, mindlessly watching the old classics, when her assistant ran up behind her.

 

"Nene-chan, I've got exciting news!" the young woman excitedly clapped, her blueish-purple hair bouncing behind her. Nene rolled her head up to look at her. "Huh? What news?"

 

"The Music Mystic Awards is inviting you to their ceremony!!" Aoi beamed,

 


 

danger lurks in the streets

 


 

doesn’t everyone need some danger? lol jk no!! oof gl nene.

 

alternate universe. (mafia)

 


 

it’s amane phantom

 


 

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

 

what have i done??

 

alternate universe. (danny phantom au)


 

let’s have fun!

 


 

it was a suggestion that i took up.

 

remember, kids, no hard lewds!

 

just the implications ;)

 

alternate universe. (succubus)

 


 

the demon king’s maid

 


 

aaaaaaaaaa!!!

 

alternate universe. (demon king hanako buys slave human nene au)

 


 

till death do us part

 


 

alternate universe. (marriage)

 


 

your wish is mine

 


 

u-uwu. sowwy for this.

 

canon universe. (nene lives her life)