“Is there something the matter?” you ask with a hint of a teasing tone in your voice, placing a hand on the top of her head. She flinches from the sudden contact, and reluctantly locks eyes with you. She’s definitely embarrassed, and why wouldn’t she be?
“Um, I…” she stammers, struggling to keep eye contact with you, although it’s obvious from her restless movement that she’s feeling so shy that it’s killing her to look at you directly, repeatedly averting her gaze for a moment before returning it to you.
“Go on, you can tell me,” you say with a shameless grin, pressing her.
“N-Never mind! It’s nothing!” she finally says after a while, pushing your hand away from her head. Looking like she’s mentally kicking herself, she silently returns to your side. However, as she does so, she wordlessly seeks out your hand, clutching it in her own. You smile down at her, her eyes glued to the floor, and give her hand a gentle squeeze.
…Yeah, this is fine.
“Hey Sanae,” you ask, the two of you walking together hand-in-hand, “is there anything else you want to do?”
“…Huh? Umm…” She pauses to ponder a bit about what to do next. Looking around, her eyes linger on a photo sticker booth standing outside a nearby store. Smiling energetically, she points at it and looks back to you. “Ah, let’s do that!” she says cheerfully. “I still don’t have a single photo of you.”
You can’t help but think something along the lines of “something to remember me by, huh?” Still, you reinforce your smile and nod, allowing her to tug you toward the booth. The two of you step inside, drawing the curtain and inserting the money.
“First time I’ve used one of these,” you remark as you look at the interface pop up on the screen. “Looks like you can select a bunch of different frames.”
“Let’s go with this one!” Sanae says, pointing at a green-themed frame.
“Sure thing,” you say as you pick out the one Sanae pointed out. “Alright, we’re going to take it now. Here, stand in front of me.”
“That’s good. Alright, take a good look at yourself, and make sure you don’t come out looking funny! You ready?”
Sanae giggles happily as she looks at the sticker printouts from the booth. “It came out really nice!” she says, looking at the pictures fondly.
“So where are you going to stick those on?”
“Hmm?” She frowns. “I haven’t really thought about that yet. Ah! But, here…” She rips out one of the stickers, the one just big enough to fit in a wallet, and hands it to you.
“Thanks,” you say, reaching into your pocket and slipping the sticker into it.
As Sanae folds up the remainder of the sheet and neatly tucks it into the pocket of her coat, you glance down at your watch. It’s about time you returned home. But, do you really want to? No, you don’t. Because that would mean the end. Today’s the final day you’re allowed to spend with her. You dread having to go back. Just having fun with her, just talking to her, just being with her; you want to prolong all that, even if it’s just for a minute longer.
And that’s why it all weighs so much more heavily on your heart when you slowly begin to walk toward where you left your bike, still holding onto her hand.
There’s no words exchanged between the two of you as you silently wheel the bike along, walking back to the shrine. Despite your best efforts to keep up your cheery state of mind, you can’t help but dread your return home. Do you really have to leave? Why is this happening? Why won’t that god Moriya tell you anything, damn it!? What will happen to her from now on…?
“Hey, Sanae,” you break the silence with a trembling voice, giving an involuntary shudder.
Sanae casts a worried glance your way, attentively watching your face as you struggle to continue.
“Did you have fun today?” you ask, forcing a smile on your face.
“…Yeah,” she says, nodding and smiling brightly. “It was the best.”
“Haha, I’m glad,” you say, exerting effort to keep your voice from breaking up. “…You have to become strong, you know that, right? You… you really have to make this shrine successful…” You take a deep breath before continuing, “…so, you’ll be okay without me from now on, right?”
She stops in her tracks while you continue to walk a few paces forward, not turning to look at her. It’d be too painful to look back at her now. Even at this moment, when you can’t see her face, you can’t stand the anguish that the betrayed silence is giving you.
“Why…?” Sanae slowly says in a hurt voice. “Why are you… asking me that?”
Bracing yourself, you turn and look back toward her. She’s staring at you with deeply betrayed eyes. You open your mouth to try to say something, but “…Sanae,” is all you can manage before falling back into silence.
“Are you leaving…?” she continues to mutter, still in a state of shock. “Are you going to leave me alone?”
“No, that’s not what I’m-“
“Liar!” she screams, closing her eyes shut with her small hands clenched into balled fists. “You said you would stay with me! You promised! You promised me! And now… and now you’re just going to leave me alone again!”
You let your bike drop to the ground, hurrying over to Sanae. You attempt to wrap your arms around her and pull her into an embrace, but she nimbly dodges under your arms.
“Don’t touch me!” she yells, her eyes filled with tears.
You let your arms go limp, standing fixed on the spot as she trembles and shakes, trying desperately to keep herself calm. Finally unable to hold back the tears, she starts to cry. Grimly, you walk toward her, and pull her towards you. She makes no effort to resist you this time, and buries her face into your jacket, wrapping her arms around you.
“Please don’t go…” she says in a muffled voice, her shoulders jerking up with every sob.
You run your fingers through her hair, soothingly caressing the back of her head as she continues to cry into your chest. “Hey, come on, Sanae,” you say, your voice strained and hoarse. “Don’t cry. You’re too big to be bawling like that.”
She pulls herself away from you, looking up. “You’re crying too,” she says, sniffling.
“Ah?” You reach up with your hand and touch your cheek to find it damp. “Ahaha… so I am,” you say, the tears flowing freely from your eyes now. “Haha… damn, how uncool.” You take a deep breath, wiping it all away from your face with your shoulder.
“Hoshuu…” Sanae says, the gushing from her eyes still continuing. “Stay with me, please… Don’t leave me all alone. Let’s… let’s watch fireworks again… and watch scary movies at night, and eat ice cream together during summer, and you can help me with my vacation homework… and… and…”
“…I’m sorry, Sanae.”
“Why!?” she screams. “I don’t understand! Why do you have to leave!? Why… why can’t you stay here!?”
If only you knew the answer.
“I can’t do this alone… I can’t do anything on my own…”
“That’s not true,” you say. “You’re already strong. You’re a living god, remember?”
“No ‘but’s. You have to have confidence in yourself, Sanae. Remember what we talked about before? You’re going to make everyone in the world worship your shrine, right? Didn’t you say that, Sanae?”
“And part of being strong…” You place your hand on your head, tears freely streaming down your own face again. “…is having the strength to say ‘goodbye’. Sanae, do you think you can do that?”
“I… I don’t want to.”
“It’s not as if we’ll never meet again,” you say, attempting to grin lightheartedly. “When you’ve officially started up the shrine again, and I’ve shaped up and become a man, I’ll definitely come to see you, no matter what.”
“I promise,” you nod. You raise your hand, extending a pinky, “Here. Pinky swear.”
“…You’ll just break it again,” she says rather sourly.
“I won’t. Cross my heart and hope to die; we’ll definitely meet again.”
Sanae links her pinky with yours, and the two of you shake on it. Withdrawing your hand, you wait for her to settle down as she hiccups and sniffles, recovering from the aftermath of the crying.
“Hoshuu?” Sanae suddenly speaks up after going silent for a moment, staring at her feet.
“I love you.”
“…I know. I love you too.”
You stand at the crossroads, mindlessly walking trudging through the hopeless and ruined landscape. Finally, you reach the end. The ground roughly breaks off, abruptly cutting short the roads you had been following the whole time. Looking below at the chasm barring your path, you see a world where there is neither up nor down; something completely incomprehensible.
You turn back and stare at the darkness looming behind you. There’s nowhere to go now but toward it. No other roads to run toward, nothing to hide behind. All you can do now is to run headlong into it and confront it, and hold onto the hope that you will remain you.
[ ] Into the darkness.