Date written: 26/06/12 – 18/09/12

Posted on FanFiction: 18/09/12

A/N: Okay, guys, here's the next chapter. It was a very hectic little chappy, especially when I stumbled upon a huge roadblock (note: writer's block) midway and decided to pursue my other works while my muse percolates and plots out what direction I should be leading this part of the story. In consequence, though, the pace had gone a lot slower than I intended—my original plan was to be a little brief, devote 2 chapters on the beach retreat at the most—and this might drag on for three more chapters.

There's also the fact that I'm busy as heck until the end of November (sigh . . . I'm gonna miss another year of NaNoWriMo, dammit!), so updates will still be scarce. I won't be promising an immediate update, but I'll do what I can during my spare time.


–– CHAPTER 8 ––

Under the Setting Sun

"THE SEA!"

It only took a second for me to conclude that this was a failure.

A big and utter failure.

With the lack of enthusiasm tagging alongside the shyness, I started out strong but withered after the cry of the first syllable. Sena put more effort than I, but even her shout quieted as it progressed to the end. What put most of my attention, however, was the strange crane pose she took. Everybody else settled with either putting their arms up or not moving at all.

Maria apparently was the sole person with no inhibitions and capitalized on the club's spontaneous club activity. Kobato came close, but her shout made as much sense as saying the sun is the epitome of water. I doubted her use of archaic vocabulary was even accurate. Rika might've joined in, but sand got into her throat and she ended up coughing and wheezing as the earlier excitement of finally acting like a bunch of riajuu had sunk on its maiden voyage. As for Yukimura and Yozora . . . well, despite her claim to join with the cheer, Yozora didn't say a thing at all, opting instead to cross her arms and glare at the sea itself. Yozora, no matter how much you glare, the sea wouldn't be able to read your mind shouting "THE SEA!" Yukimura might've cried those two words, too, but it was either his voice was so soft when he said it that I couldn't hear it from the noise coming from Maria and the others, or he too felt embarrassment once the activity actually started. But I guess whichever it was didn't matter.

Because with just one true and successful participant out of the seven members, this little stunt was deemed a failure by the majority. The penetrating gaze of Stella behind us accentuated the awkwardness, not to mention my embarrassment, which had gone up a few notches.

Why didn't we settle for just having fun at the beach without all these riajuu rituals?

"There is no such ritual, Kodaka-sama," Stella said. "As far as I know, normal people don't do this on the account of human shame and the utter urge for those in hearing range to say, 'You don't say?' in a sarcastic tone."

"Is—is that so?"

She nodded.

". . ."

"You don't say?"

"You were waiting for a chance to say that, weren't you?"

"No comment." She said that but why did she look away as if she were guilty of something?

Yozora coughed on her hand and said, "Anyway, the start of the Neighbors Club's outdoor activity begins now!"

Like flicking a switch, the confused and somber environment turned for the better, as the two youngest of the group whooped in joy. The others provided similar cheers, but I decided to hang back and set up our beach paraphernalia. As I turned back, I saw Stella already in the midst of spreading the beach blanket on the sand. Like the rest, she was out of the butler uniform and into a two-piece swimsuit. If I had any doubt about Stella influencing Sena with certain fashion tastes and choices of swimwear, then they were utterly erased as of this moment. Her ensemble was just as impressive as her charge's, able to mystify the eye without revealing too much indecent skin. While Sena opted for the blue and yellow bikini she had worn when we went to the pool, Stella wore a red and white version, with silhouettes of hibiscuses etched in. Sena's swimwear had white silhouettes of the flower.

I approached her and offered my help. She straightened out the wrinkles on the blanket before addressing me in her monotonous speech, "There will be no need of that, Kodaka-sama. Please take this time to enjoy your stay here."

"Oh don't worry I will." That I had no doubt on; a beach all to ourselves required to be capitalized for all it was worth since we might not experience something like this again. "But I'd feel bad if I let you do all the work, though."

I met her eyes, calculating, unreadable.

She eventually nodded. "Arguing with you would be pointless. Bring the bags and the floatation devices here."

"Yes, ma'am."

I did what she asked. The swim tubes and other beach toys had been fed with air before we descended to the beach, so I decided to start with providing shade. The beach umbrella was opened and I pierced it on the sad just to the side of the blanket farthest to the beach. A few adjustments for optimum shading and I went about setting up the other stuff onto the blanket, the cooler, our towels, and most importantly, a bottle of sunscreen.

"Ahahaha. The blue sky, the white waves, and the sun above. They all call for me. Yay!"

Speaking of sunscreen . . .

"Kobato! Put on sunscreen before you go play."

"Hmm, wise advice, my kinsman. Skin burnt from sunlight is ever so a nuisance for this Shinso's time in the bath." She did Leysis's signature pose and kukuku'd.

That was the easy part. Kobato, as the last time I'd applied sunscreen on her, found it difficult to stay still, not when the lotion felt like I were scrubbing her back with ice cubes. Without missing a beat, our club pervert remarked how indecent this situation was, especially the frantic cries of my little sister. Things just went a little overboard when Yukimura offered to apply sunscreen on my back, and Rika capitalized on this picture in her messed up imagination.

"EXCALIBUR!"

The craziness of the club never ceased to amaze me.

"There, all done. Your turn next, Maria."

She nodded. "Okay, Onii-chan!"

As our little bubble of normalcy maintained its effectiveness against the tyrannous assault of Rika's perverted fantasies and Yozora's old-fashioned beachwear, Stella was in the process of applying sunscreen on Sena's back. My eyes lingered on her topless state, trying not to think of the incident at her house, of the incident this morning when I saw her sleeping form. They were memories I did not want lingering in the forefront of my mind, teasing me with alternate outcomes and tempting scenarios where I could get the chance to take one metaphorical step forward in the situations. I was a hormonal teen, straight and quite aware of girls, and while having such thoughts was considered healthy and a part of puberty, my manhood could betray me as often as my lingering eyes. Such an awkward situation was best to be avoided.

After applying the UV barriers on two girls plus one boy (I was thankful Rika had passed out after her "EXCALIBUR!" shout or I'd be facing more delusional byplay of her shounen-ai daydreams), I looked towards Yozora and offered the sunscreen bottle. "You need some, too?" I asked.

She peered down at her full body swimsuit. It wasn't SCUBA gear or anything; there was no excuse or reason to go around what she really wore, which was female swimwear that might've been popular about a century ago. She eventually shook her head, though her face portrayed a kind of disappointment with the way things had turned out. Maybe she was regretting wearing that getup? Whichever the case, the sunscreen was no longer needed.

The kids, now protected from getting sunburned, charged towards the sea like newborn turtles, carrying with them a beach ball and a swim tube. But as soon as they hit the water, Maria threw the ball at Kobato's head, which splashed into the water when it was hit. And then the chaotic water fight began.

"Come on, Yukimura. Let's swim."

"Understood, Aniki."


Almost three hours had passed since we started playing on the beach, and I was getting tired. Maria and Kobato were still going strong and at least they converted to a more civilized form of playing than the roughhousing they'd done for the first forty-five minutes of stepping into the water. Eventually, Sena, Yozora, and Rika had joined in on the fun, but the latter two preferred to hang back on the shallow levels and watch the rest stroke to deeper levels.

At one point, I had to warn Maria from venturing farther. The waves were getting stronger and she was unaccustomed to swimming without a swim tube to keep her afloat. I was afraid she'd be swept away by the tide, and it almost happened if not for Kobato's swift action. Her amazing swimming abilities proved to have prevented a disaster, but Maria, the innocent yet ignorant little ten-year-old that she was, took no notice of this. She just thought Kobato came to ruin her fun. I was unsure if Kobato had enough compassion to reiterate her actions if ever Maria decided to wander dangerously again.

Right now, I swam to the shore and slumped my tired body on the blanket and under the shade. I opened up the cooler, took out a can of Pocari Sweat, opened it, and drank about half.

"Why won't you join in?" I asked the person sitting next to me. She'd been there since I took off with Yukimura, keeping a close eye on her charge yet not indulging in the fun as she had advised me hours ago.

Stella leveled me with her stoic gaze—looking away from Sena for the first time—and replied, "I prefer staying here. Do not worry yourself over me, Kodaka-sama."

"Maybe, but you've gone through the trouble of changing into a swimsuit." I took a sip from my drink. "Why not let loose and have fun—just this once?"

She shook her head. "Like I said, I am fine."

"It's not like Sena will drown, unless she swims to deeper depths."

A pause in our conversation. Then she asked me, "Were you the one who taught Sena-sama how to swim?"

"Yeah. What, didn't she tell you it was me?"

"When I had asked why she'd go to the pool if she didn't know how to swim, she told me someone offered to teach her."

I didn't offer; she demanded me that I teach her. "I see," was all I offered in return.

"If I had known you were the teacher, I would've come along."

"You don't trust me with Sena that much?" I'd be lying if I said that didn't hurt me.

"You misunderstand, Kodaka-sama. I wish to be present for another reason entirely."

"Which is . . .?"

"Classified information." She put her forefinger on her lips, the universal gesture for silence.

"You were waiting for a chance to say that, weren't you?" I asked, a slight sense of déjà vu coming upon me.

"No comment." She returned her gaze to the blonde teen trying to coerce Kobato into something. "She really has looked happier than before she met you, Kodaka-sama."

"I think that's more because of my little sister's presence than mine actually."

"Please do not sell yourself short, Kodaka-sama. And do not presume that I am in the wrong. Sena-sama really has been happier since meeting you."

I couldn't think of a response, so silence became my default answer.

"You must have known about her reputation in her class, correct?"

That she was hated by all the girls and worshipped by all the boys? Yes, I definitely knew. But my reply was, "Kind of."

"To be truthful, this is the first time she has acted on a male with respect other than her father."

"But what about Hideki-san? She was acting quite nicely to him."

"Because I told her to," she retorted. Her head lowered a little and there was a slight upturn of her smiles, yet I couldn't completely classify that as either a smile or her suppressing a bigger smile. "She would be punished otherwise."

"Punished?"

"Why, yes, Kodaka-sama. Punished. I do not like it when someone insults my friend, even if it's Sena-sama."

"Does the chairman even know about this?"

She nodded. "He believes it was a proper punishment."

"What exactly did Sena do to have Pegasus-san give you the okay?"

"Sena-sama was only ten at the time. She was impulsive and quite vocal of things. It got out of hand when Hideki decided to come over and visit me. Sena-sama said some offending things, so I readied my hand and slapped her butt until she apologized."

"I—I see."

"She gave up after the twentieth strike."

Please, say no more about it, Stella. Please.

"Stella! W-what are you telling Kodaka?!"

I could almost feel the stomps of Sena's feet as she came to us, her face as red as Stella's bikini.

"Your childhood," the butler replied.

"Not the kind of childhood I want you talking about as if it was no big secret."

"Kodaka-sama was very curious about things you did when you were a child. He literally forced me to tell him."

"Hey, hey! I didn't force you to anything."

"Kodaka, how could you?"

"I didn't do anything! I'm being falsely accused here."

"Stella wouldn't lie about this, you know."

"Yes, I wouldn't lie about this, you know."

Great . . . this was just great. I would've palmed my face right then and there, but doing so would declare that Stella had won this battle. I didn't want to lie down on this kind of defeat, so I resisted whatever urge I had for facepalming and substituted it with a long sigh through gritted teeth. The look might've turned a little menacing—I was a little pissed—but I made sure to turn away when I did that. Sena should avoid seeing my face when it was agitated. At least that was what my instincts were telling me.

"Are you ready to admit your guilt, Kodaka-sama?"

"Like hell I am." I then turned to Sena. "Look, I didn't force her to say those things. I just asked and she answered."

"Hmph! A likely story."

"I'm not forcing you to believe me—"

"What is there to believe?" She cut me off. "All I'm hearing is you trying to make excuses for something which you are at fault."

"I'm not—"

"Just because you want to know more about me doesn't mean you have the right to pry out everything about my private life. Seriously, show some restraint!"

"I'm telling you, I'm—"

"I don't want to hear any more excuses, Kodaka! Not one more."

I sighed again through gritted teeth, but I couldn't turn away. My anger rose the same time our voices escalated to shouting. I didn't need a wider range of vision to see that the other club members found our argument more interesting than their current actions in the water. I had closed my eyes during my sigh, so I had not seen the fearful look on Sena's face until I opened them again.

My anger remained, its visage primal and in need of an outlet, but as much anger I could muster, no matter how justified I'd be, I would not dare to raise a hand against a girl, especially Sena. It was less because she was the chairman's daughter and more because she was a girl and my mother told me to respect them. But my chivalry did not automatically mean I wouldn't speak my mind against a girl. If she were in the wrong or if she had offended enough for me to take action, then I would probably have little to zero hesitance to speak out.

So speak out I did, standing to my full height, idly noting Sena taking a step back. "You know what," I hissed, a result of having to resist growling out my words, "I don't care what you think. Just leave me alone already."

They were my parting words as I walked to the edge of the shore, intending on releasing some steam through the time-old activity anyone would do when in the beach. Maria and Kobato managed to make a nonverbal truce for the time being but even I was unsure how long that would last; it could be until we get back to the villa, or it could be five minutes from now.

"Kodaka," Sena said behind me, her voice low and soft, almost disembodied, "wait."

I neither looked back nor stopped my stride.

I got so preoccupied with my seething that I hadn't realized I brought along the half-empty bottle of Pocari Sweat until a mild wave slammed against my feet. Not wanting to bring it along, I dropped it where the wave would not reach and continued entering the water.

When by chance I looked back at the shore, Sena and Stella were gone. I didn't question it, didn't think much of it. They could do whatever the hell they want for all I care.


The sun soon headed far west, dropping down into the horizon and leaving in its wake the dark canopy of summer stars. At this time, the Neighbors Club had returned to the villa and washed away the excess salt water and sand from their bodies in the shower.

This was an hour after I came back to the villa and busied myself with washing up and preparing for tonight's dinner. Stella and I had thought ahead and brought with us some ingredients to cook. I had been leaning towards a delicious seafood dish I learned from the cooking channel last year, a particular dish I only cooked twice since I'd heard of it. I got everything I needed, yet with the addition of Stella's cooking supply, I was tempted to procure more extravagance on my chosen food.

Stella's encouragement sealed the deal, although I was still wary of her.

The rest of the Neighbors Club—those who already had their showers, anyway—wasted time away doing their own thing. There was Yozora with her book, Rika with her mecha-mag, and the two girls fast asleep on the couch. Yukimura was the one currently showering. And Sena . . .

Well, I hadn't seen her since we had that argument at the beach. I knew I should be a bit worried for her. Everybody else had already freshened up and out of their swimsuits. With night time close at hand, it wouldn't be good for Sena to go about there with just that two-piece swimsuit as her attire. It was while I was thinking about this that I had walked to the glass door that led to the house's backyard and then the stairway descending to the beach we had played in hours before.

Sena was outside, standing close to the stairway, forearms resting on the railing erected beyond the start of the stairs. Her eyes trailed the sea and her hair danced with the breeze. The setting sun basked this part of the world with a bright orange hue, even Sena's form, but it did not destroy her beauty. Still clad in her form-fitting two-piece, she exhibited a sense of sadness, like a lone woman thinking of the lack of people in her life. There was a prickling in my memory, a reminiscence that felt like déjà vu, but it was crushed by my mad assault of pulling it into the forefront. Its presence was faint, fragile, so I guess trying to put my attention to it proved too much pressure to bear. It would come back to me in time if it was important, but I was unsure if I wanted it to.

A small piece of it, however faint and hazy, latched onto my heart over its relatively short lifespan. Uneasiness and regret burst from it. I didn't like it.

Whatever my inner battles lead to, they did not have much hold over the events transpiring in the outside world, and it was not as if they could help me dissipate the tough situation Sena had put herself in. I was still mad at her, but not in the same intensity as before. It might be my kind nature or inability to stay mad at basically anybody, but something at least compelled me to go outside and talk to her. What to talk about, however, eluded me and so I hesitated. For all I knew, Sena wanted to be alone right now. There was no point going over there and talking to her, not when I still have dinner to think about.

Stella unexpectedly appeared on my right, again clad in her butler uniform, looking at me like how a yakuza interrogator would when contemplating the many ways she could bring pain without killing me.

Her sudden appearance, as well as her stare, made me want to scream and if not for her hand covering my mouth in time, I would've disturbed everyone in- and outside the house.

"Please calm yourself, Kodaka-sama. All is well."

"Except for my heart." It was beating like crazy. "Why sneak up on me like that?"

She tilted her head to the right. "Kodaka-sama, I've been trying to get your attention for a while now."

"You have?"

"Yes. I've called your name over ten times already." When I was about to apologize for ignoring her, she then added, "With my mind."

"Teh! That's as much as not calling my name at all!"

"You've always wondered if I have ESP, and from what I've read espers have the ability to not only read minds but also project their thoughts."

I couldn't think of a reply.

Stella thought that my silence was a gesture for her to elaborate. "My findings are currently inconclusive. I have tried to project my thoughts to Yukimura Kusunoki, but there were no signs of the message being received."

"You two must've been staring at each other for over ten minutes."

"How clever of you, Kodaka-sama! You wouldn't happen to be the real esper, would you?"

"No, that was just intuition." And a bit of common sense. They did, after all, commenced a long staredown at our meetup at the train station before.

Stella nodded in resigned agreement before moving her eyes to the lone figure of her charge staring out into the sea like a mermaid missing her home. "A mere change of discussion: will I be required to persuade you to approach Sena-sama?"

"Approach her for what reason?"

"Now you are just trying to be ignorant," Stella retorted, and this time I actually felt emotion in her voice. Dark, malevolent, and threatening (for me). I was as surprised at the emotion as I was that this was imbued in her sentence, when all of our previous conversations could be summed to a forum lurker trying to figure out if one of the user's post was sarcastic or serious.

It was a change in pace—or maybe even a breach in the character I pictured her in my head—that I just managed to utter a confused, "Eh?"

Unfortunately she took that as my continued retreat to the realm of ignorance. Her eyes narrowed, but they soon closed as her head bowed. I heard her sigh through her nose—yet another sign of emotion from the cold steward, frustration!

She looked to Sena again, her eyes expressing emotions where her voice lacked. "Do not take Sena-sama's words to heart. She was merely frustrated and confused. She . . . you could say, has a hard time showing her actual feelings when around you."

"Why would that be hard?"

"A maiden's heart is a curious thing. It acts and reacts on a whim, mostly without the maiden's knowledge."

I wisely did not say a thing. It seemed Stella was trying to convey something more than justifying Sena's previous actions towards me.

"It is also my fault that things have turned downhill. For that, I apologize, Kodaka-sama." She bowed till her torso was parallel to the ground. "Please make up with Sena-sama."

Instinctively, I grabbed her shoulders and pulled her up. "That's enough. You don't have to go that far." It made me uncomfortable to see a woman older than me bow before me. Memories of guys who thought I was extorting their cash bowed in a similar way and offered their wallets while staying that way.

"I've explained to her that I was the one at fault, thus instigating this." She stepped back once I let go of her shoulders. "But Sena-sama is not used to apologizing to anyone other than her father."

That was not difficult for my mind to picture, but my lips remained sealed.

"It is made more difficult because it is you she has to apologize to."

"Well I'm sorry for not being approachable," I grumbled.

"Do not misunderstand. She finds it difficult to talk to you for a different reason."

"Which is . . .?"

She shook her head, and with narrowed eyes, said, "Please do not play dumb. You already know why."

When I was about to retort, she cut me off.

"Talk to Sena-sama as soon as you can. I do not wish to see her this sad." She bowed to me, this one more casual. "I shall monitor the food while you straighten things out."

"Huh? Hey, wait! Stella!" My calls were wasted as she turned a deaf ear to me, already midway to the kitchen where the food was just in need of the occasional stirring and last minute additions of seasoning.

I was quite stuck in this predicament. The alternative option, in which I ignore Stella's plea and do something else until dinner was ready, had crossed my mind. I didn't consider it in length because even thinking about doing it was too cruel.

I sighed, trepidation casting more doubt my way as I looked back at Sena. She hadn't moved at all. Having Sena staying still for a long period of time was almost unheard of. Even while she's playing her games in the clubroom, there's that presence around her that seems to shout out animated and free. She was free-spirit to a certain degree and nothing ever pulled her back from what saying her mind, although this could cause trouble with the wrong people as evident in what happened with those boys in the pool.

Now though . . . Now she was just still. Like a statue.

Like a corpse.

Morbidity was not my usual train of thought, but it was strangely one of the first similes that come to mind regardless.

Okay, so maybe heading over there and settle this matter was a bright course of action—I could only imagine the tense atmosphere between us once we all sat around the dinner table later, maybe even in the days to come—but what to say still eluded me. What to say? What to do? I was not used to this and afraid I might just make things worse.

How can you make it worse? I asked myself as my hand hovered next to the sliding door bridging this house to the beach. How exactly can you do worse for apologizing?

Apologize? Why would I apologize? Sena brought this to herself, she was at fault. Why should I be sorry too?

I shook my head and braced myself for what was to come. My heart, it seemed, was already set when my mind was not. It urged me to slide open the door, despite my hesitation, my reservations. The door opened and my senses was assaulted with the feel of a summer dusk.

There was the salty breeze coming from the sea and the combined scent of an assortment of flowers spread about in the yard, their actual colors, stained with the red and yellow highlights of the setting sun, were sadly indistinguishable to my eyes. The grass was short and soft. My hunch had Pegasus hiring a bi-weekly gardener to keep the place treated and beautiful. Maybe he hired a whole group after Sena informed him we'd be using it. Either way, it didn't really concern me, yet my mind distracted itself with irrelevant things just so it wouldn't have to think about facing a certain someone, someone I was approaching foot by foot.

The grass was soft and the soil was even, but if I had any hope of getting close enough to her undetected . . . close enough to convince myself that there was no turning back if she did sense me . . . well, my ninja ancestors had to turn on their graves yet again.

I didn't know what set me off—the subtle crunch of grass, the vibrations from my footsteps, the slaps coming from my sandals as they hit my heels for every step, my overall presence that alarmed her she was being watched and approached—but Sena looked behind her like a woman expecting a scary rapist about to pounce.

"Kodaka," she murmured, her voice one of wonder, bewilderment, and worry. Before I could say a word, she turbed back to the view of the sea, neared the stairs leading ti the beach, and sat down on the topmost step.

Well, I had worse piss offs than this, but it still hurt. I began to have second thoughts, but I already crossed the threshold of not turning back. This situation was reminding me more and more of that night at the Kashiwazaki abode, after I saw Sena naked and before we had that heart-to-heart talk.

Stella's words loomed in my mind. Was she telling the truth about Sena regretting what she said? Or was this another one of that steward's merciless games? Maybe. She must've been willing to bow deeply for a prank, though.

Putting caution out of my actions, I approached Sena again.

Nonchalant.

Nerves of steel.

Skin without sweat.

I failed all three objectives, but the saving grace was that I managed to sit down next to her. And there was a bonus: she didn't talk my ear off with complaints or whatnot. She just stayed silent, hunched over in her little corner of the narrow stairs.

"What do you want?" she asked, trying to act tough but her trembling hands proved otherwise. A part of me wanted to console this scared, worried girl but she was in no need of it. Not right now, not until she managed to convey what she wished to convey.

Still, she asked a question, and of all the responses I could come up with, I decided on the most simplest. "To talk to you."

Like how we did that night. Like how we did in the days since. Like how we used to do. I might've tried to act like I didn't care, but I was a horrible liar even to myself. I couldn't help what I really feel.

Surprised at my response and its simplicity, she murmured, "Wh-wh-what the heck is that suppose to mean? Be more specific, baka."

"I don't know how you can be more specific than that."

"Of course you can! You just don't want to. I can tell when you're playing with me."

Oh? And you were often dense about Yozora's game with you? "Aw shoot. My plan was foiled before it got off the ground."

We acted nonchalant and the quips seemed to have cut off the tension and break the ice. Her laughter, full of mirth, made me happy somehow.

"I-I-It's not as if I'm laughing because you're funny." She crossed her arms, looked away. Because of the sunset, it was hard to tell if the blush I had glimpsed on her cheeks was due to the light or her blood. "I'm only laughing because I want to, got that?"

"Yeah, whatever you say, Sena."

". . . Kodaka?"

"Hmm?"

"I'm sorry."

I smiled. "Apology accepted."

All was well again.


She didn't know when it started, but maybe it didn't matter much. This feeling had been there for a long time. Whether it was planted when she first joined the club or when she began to know a little more about him as days and club meetings passed over the change of a season. At first, she was unsure of these sporadic reactions whenever he was near. She discarded the notions of it being love right from the start, not because she was afraid—oh who was she kidding? She had been downright terrified, going as far as to ignore anything related to love and the things it sparked inside her, from the increasing beat of her heart to the frequent blushes on her face whenever a topic they talked about contained him a compliment for her, a compliment that came out so naturally that he wouldn't even realize it was what it was. He probably had no direct control over what he says, but she was content. A praising or a scolding, she didn't mind which, his opinion still mattered to her.

But her latest blunder might've pushed him away for good. Why did she have to go around and say that, especially after having Stella spell it out to her that she was not just attracted but actually falling for that pudding head? It was not as if her reaction was completely out of line, she thought at first, and when Stella revealed that she told him those embarrassing things all on her own, without being prompted, the mor of her desire to bury a hole and hide in it grew exponentially. She literally blew up in front of his face, her tongue lashing like a whip, merciless, unthinking.

She sighed, taking into her mouth the faint taste and scent of the salty sea breeze. The sea was beautiful this sunset. Whenever she was down, she would go to the highest westward window and gaze at the setting sun. Call her romantic, she liked it that way. She was a girl and romance stories made her giddy, although she found romancing girls with her as the boy looked more appealing to read about. She still didn't understand why, but she was not really complaining. There was something symbolic about the setting sun, something about it putting her more at ease than anything she could think of that could whisk her away from her sadness, even if only for a little while, and she wasn't complaining about this either.

Dusk had always cheered her up. When Mom couldn't make for her fifth birthday. When she fell from the second floor and inadvertently put Stella in the hospital. When the girls in middle school would talk behind her back, expecting and believing it wouldn't reach her ears (and by then she had grown used to whispered gossips centered on her). The presence of dusk was eternal to her. If no one else, it would be there for her everyday. Not a day would pass without it there for her to see and appreciate. Loyal. Eternal. Beautiful.

Yet . . .

When she looked at the sun this time, there was no contentment, no joy. All she felt was regret. Why? Why was the sun betraying her now when she was at her lowest point?

It was so unfair. She felt like crying but she held it in. What was the use of crying anyway?

Her ears heard the soft taps of footsteps coming from behind her. She dared to hope that it was Kodaka, and though she turned to look at the newcomer with readiness to be disappointed at her hopeful presumption, she was surprised that her hope was right.

Kodaka. It was Kodaka!

She almost jumped for joy, but there was still that slight enmity between them which was born from an argument which was born from a misunderstanding. Her joy was short-lived, and it was almost heart-shattering to even face it, to face him. She looked away, added the distance between them, and sat down unceremoniously on the top step of the stairs leading to the shore. There was no comfort to dissolve her sadness; the object of it was standing behind her and her object for anti-depression purposes was filling her with regret instead.

It was not a good day.

So she was taken by surprise when Kodaka sat beside her. If she were in his shoes, she wouldn't have bothered and walked back to the summerhouse. She was acting snobbish even though she was thinking of apologizing. Her emotions were against her, in more ways than one. She was unsure what to say, what to ask. What was she to do?

Gathering her courage, she finally asked, "What do you want?"

It was quite confrontational and she winced at her choice of words. It was here she expected him to spit out her indignant tone right in front of her face, but she did no such thing. He still wanted to talk to her, wanted to make things right but only if she were to do it too, and she was trying. She was trying . . . yet why couldn't she be more honest with herself, with him? Why must she deny what she felt, what she wanted, what she enjoyed, in words equipped with fangs and poison?

She later realized that she had always been this way, even before Kodaka. She had always been biting, always disregarding the feelings of others and making herself more superior (even though it was quite true). So why had Kodaka put up with her this whole time when the rest had already deemed her too much for them to put up with (she had covered this often by saying they were jealous of her)? Why go through all that trouble?

When he made her laugh, she began to understand. It was because he had faith that she might change for the better. Because he was really kind.

Because he was unlike other guys.

She looked away from him, trying and failing to conceal the blush from blooming on her cheeks. Well, if all else failed she could just blame it on the sunset playing games with his eyes. Her eyes glimpsed the sun and there again was that feeling of regret, small and weak but still present, like cancer cells hibernating for a second coming.

She mustered her courage again. It was now or never; she doubted she'd get another chance to be alone with him and say these words boiling and building at the tip of her tongue, demanding to be released, pride be damned.

Her lips trembled, as did her hands. Her nerves were getting agitated, wild and spasmic. She soldiered on and called out to him, "Kodaka?"

"Hmm?"

"I'm sorry." As the words left her lips, some unseen burden was pushed off her shoulders. She felt lighter and more content than before.

"Apology accepted."

Now she smiled but was too embarrassed to let him see it. Maybe she didn't need to. She skidded closer to him without her knowing and that could be enough of an indicator that whatever wall she had made him build to keep her away had tumbled down like the Berlin Wall faster than it took them to offer and receive the apology.

She looked back to the sun, its arc barely seen above the horizon as night began to rule the sky. It was just a glance, just a flicker from the giant star before it was engulfed by the world's curvature, but a single glance was enough for her. There was no regret. Just joy and contentment.

All was well.


Chapter Afterword:

I know that I most likely won't be updating again until December, so I decided to end this chapter on a lighter, happier note. Plus, I wanted to display some development on Sena's character. It might've gone too fast, but not so much for me, because there is a difference between thinking something and doing it. Realizing is both the easiest and hardest part; Sena will have a bigger challenge ahead of her if she wishes to change her ways overnight, though from what I could picture about her personality, she'd only be willing to change a little, if only for her own good. Anything else is up for debate, depending on her mood and her personality's flexibility.

I hope you have enjoyed this chapter and are patient for the time I'll be writing and posting chapters faster come Christmas.