I open my eyes, and the world has changed.
The afternoon sun is gone. Now, the moon lights the earth in its place; a faint white glow turning the world black and grey.
Shinozaki stands in the doorway of the house.
I can't see the hallway behind her. The white walls and brown floor are replaced with blackness.
No, there's something far off in the blackness; a flickering, orange light.
She calls to me again.
I look at her.
She looks sad.
There are no tears, no ridges on her brow, but I can tell she's sad.
"I waited for a while you know." Her voice isn't accusing, merely stating a fact. "We were going to go to a small family restaurant or a fast food store and do our homework there."
"After that, I was going to hand you the food I made as you went off to work."
The world shrinks. A black void eats up the street. Soon, only the small piece of yard in front of Shinozaki's house is all that remains behind me.
"If that happened, we wouldn't have seen the people coming out of that concert, or passed those children on our way home."
She tilts her head slightly.
The bags are gone from our hands, and the moon has disappeared. Yet, somehow, we can still see each other and the space around us perfectly.
"Sister would still be on her way home, and Magari-san would have been giving a sermon to her followers."
I remember this place.
I remember it even though I don't want to remember it.
A place without time or space. A vast nothing that overwrites everything.
Shinozaki steps towards me and reaches for my face.
Her fingers reach behind my ear, brushing a lock of hair behind it, and trace my jawline; resting her palm on my cheek.
Her blue eyes stare up into mine. They water slightly and a single teardrop overflows as she blinks.
My arms wrap around her. My left hands holds her shoulder while the other pulls her head to my chest.
"It'll be okay Shinozaki." I pat her head lightly. "I'll do something about it."
"You can give up, you know?"
I shake my head and squeeze her shoulder gently.
"I don't want to."
A single laugh comes out of her followed by a sniff. I can feel the wetness through my shirt.
"Your handkerchief has the same smell as you, you know?" Her voice is slightly muffled by my shirt.
"Sorry about that."
"It's fine." She shakes her head, rubbing her face against my chest.
"Are you alright with it now?"
She nods in response.
"Well, I guess you can't smell much with your nose running like tha- OW!"
She had pinched my arm viciously, but quickly let go. Her palm gently rubs the sore skin, soothing it.
"I like it, your smell."
She says something in a whisper. I almost couldn't hear it. Her voice is already muffled by my shirt, saying something quietly doesn't help.
"You smell nice too." I smile.
She sniffs, and wraps her arms around me. For a while, we just stand there, holding each other in the darkness. My shirt is soaked, and has started to grow cold. Her face is burrowed in that, so it can't feel good for her either. Still, we hold onto each other; feeling each other's warmth, smell, and touch.
Eventually, she puts her hands on my chest and gently pushes us apart. My arms unwrap from her slowly, before resting on her shoulders.
Blue eyes meet grey.
"Sorry I made a mess of things." I apologize, truthfully and sadly.
"It's alright." She forgives me. "This is just a 'what if' of a 'what if'. It's not made to last, that's why all the memories have started jumbling together."
Memories... Yeah, that's why the people I'm supposed to know are here, even though I haven't met them yet.
The Kishinuma Yoshiki who is still a student of Kisaragi Academy has not met any of the people I noticed today, neither has he visited Shinozaki's house.
He's just a high school delinquent.
But, he was happy.
He may not have been completely free of worry, but he was probably happier than me. That's why I have this appearance. That's why we're both still wearing Kisaragi Academy's uniforms.
A massive bullhorn blares, and the world begins to shake. The last few patches of grass and stone disappear into the blackness.
I bring her to my chest again, trying to memorize as much of her as possible.
I have regrets. I want to stay here. But that won't solve anything. It's as she says. This is a what if of a what if.
A possibility of another possibility.
A choice of another choice.
It's the road that was never taken, and never existed.
We never went to Heavenly Host in this world. A small difference in events changed things.
An extra word from Yui-sensei, telling Shinozaki about the class journal.
A few daily tasks done together.
A small build in trust between us.
Those led to Shinozaki getting over her hidden fears.
Her dislike of men, the mask she showed to adults, and the fear of being physically close to me and others of my sex. Little by little they wore away, finally allowing her to talk to her father.
I guess it wasn't just that either.
The fact that the two of us got closer made people think we were a couple. Even though that wasn't true, it was enough to make Suzumoto come to Shinozaki for advice. She thought Shinozaki might be able to empathize with her, and talked to her about her father's job transfer.
Being able to talk to her father and being consulted by Suzumoto led to this route. A route where Shinozaki's father, Ayato, talked to Suzumoto's parents at a PTA meeting. This gave Suzumoto's mother the extra confidence to confront her husband about the the transfer causing him to resist it and stopped Suzumoto from having to leave.
Thus, this world exists. A world where none of our friends died.
No, the change might even before then, something even simpler than a few word.
A world without Heavenly Host. A world without the Curse of the Shinozaki. A world where a single girl wasn't bullied and victimized for seeing more than others could.
A dream. A wish. A memory. Call it what you want, but don't mock it.
Because this is where Saenoki Naho, Ooue Sayaka, and Niwa Aiko are still together.
Where a nameless girl found friends with her doll.
Where a boy who wanted someone to depend on him, and a girl who couldn't live by herself met.
Magari, Misuto, Hinoe… even San. All of them are here in some shape or form.
Perhaps even Sachiko is here, somewhere.
If that stupid book made it here, she probably did as well.
Shinozaki looks at me again. A smile is on her face. The same smile I remember, even after all these years.
It's bright, energetic, and not the slightest bit sad.
There's no regret there.
All it says is 'Do your best!'; the same smile she flashed me as she left the boys' bathroom.
I smile back.
The bullhorn blares again, and she begins to fade.
Like flower petals in the wind, she disappears.
Her hand reaches for my face, even as the fingers crumble to pieces.
Then there's only me in the blackness.
My hands fall to my sides.
I remember this place now, the void that remained after the Nirvana.
I've been using it for a while.
Ever since Shinozaki and I lost sealed the Nirvana. Ever since we lost our existences, and the entirety of our past was removed from history.
I guess I must have gotten mixed up in some sort of Skandha-maraic loop built from my own memories.
I scratch my black hair, having grown out the dye long ago.
Shinozaki's voice continues to ring in my ears. Her smile is burned into my eyes.
It's been a while since I experienced either of them.
Maybe this failure was a good thing. Thankfully, it doesn't seem have taken much time. If that sound is what I think it is, then the Doppler Effect indicates that the precautions I took worked. My time is still connected to the outside. I won't wake up to the end of the world.
The bullhorn blares a third time.
"Guess it's time to wake up." Muttering to myself, I close my eyes.