Chapter 13:

The Hardest Step

Third and Final Time

“Ladies, I have called this emergency conference for one reason and one reason only.”
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“Hinata, I’m tired - can’t we-?”Bookmark here

Hinata quickly shushed Kana, placing her hand over our friend’s lips. This then, of course, resorted in Kana almost biting Hinata’s hand, though she was able to avoid the strike in time.Bookmark here

It was a Friday night, and we were having a sleepover round Inori’s house.Bookmark here

We’d had six group sleepovers since my first one round Hinata’s, and we’d spent the night at everyone’s house but mine.Bookmark here

I knew that the girls wanted to ask me why, but they seemed to understand that I didn’t want to talk about it.Bookmark here

Maybe they thought my parents were strict or something - I just left it ambiguous since it was easier. Bookmark here

“Ladies - our summer vacation has officially begun and, you know what that means.”Bookmark here

“Summer homework?”Bookmark here

“Heatwaves, sweat, increased electricity bills?”Bookmark here

“Dreading that the air con breaks down?”Bookmark here

“No!” Hinata playfully smacked our shoulders with her balled up fists. “What it means is we’re all going to the pool together!”Bookmark here

“…Just the four of us?”Bookmark here

Hinata smiled brightly at me and nodded. “Of course! In fact, I even asked Rei if he and the guys had plans and he said they were busy that day.”Bookmark here

“What’re they doing?” Kana asked.Bookmark here

“Going on some trip to the mountains, so.” Hinata flashed us a peace sign. “It’s just us girls!”Bookmark here

I sighed internally as the others lightly applauded Hinata. Bookmark here

Despite everything I’d been through, I still wasn’t comfortable with Rei and the others.Bookmark here

They had come to my aid when I came out and, from what I’d heard, they were supporting Hinata and I in the shadows, combating any negative rumours with positive ones, but that didn’t make the anxiety in my chest dissipate.Bookmark here

Rei I was okay with - I could make light conversation with him and was comfortable enough with him hanging out with us four girls.Bookmark here

The others, however, were a completely different story.Bookmark here

Especially…him.Bookmark here

…Ryuuji.Bookmark here

I couldn’t separate the two in my mind.Bookmark here

They were the same person, but they weren’t.Bookmark here

I understood that, I tried desperately to wrap my head around that, but my heart wouldn’t listen to me.Bookmark here

Ryuuji Sakamoto was Ryuuji Sakamoto.Bookmark here

“…H-hey, Akane, this is probably not the best time to ask this, but are you…okay with this?”Bookmark here

“What do you-?”Bookmark here

I cut myself off - I understood what Hinata was asking.Bookmark here

If we went to a pool, then we’d be wearing swimsuits and that would mean my scar could be visible.Bookmark here

All three of them were giving me worried looks.Bookmark here

Inori in particular looked a little troubled by Hinata’s question.Bookmark here

When we went out shopping the other day, she picked out some swimsuits for me to wear, and some were two-piece ones. She didn’t look when I wore those, but instead just asked if I thought they looked good.Bookmark here

In the end, I bought two swimsuits - a one-piece and a two-piece, but I didn’t know which I would wear.Bookmark here

It’s not that I was ashamed of my body.Bookmark here

If anything, the scars I bore were a mark of pride - I’d saved Ami’s life and it was a medal of honour I bore.Bookmark here

However.Bookmark here

I didn’t like other people staring at me.Bookmark here

Pity.Bookmark here

Disgust.Bookmark here

Sadness.Bookmark here

Grief.Bookmark here

Horror.Bookmark here

I had felt all those gazes before and I didn’t want to feel them again.Bookmark here

“…I’ll be fine.”Bookmark here

Truthfully, I liked the two-piece more, but.Bookmark here

I wanted to have fun.Bookmark here

I didn’t want to crumble beneath the weight of other people.Bookmark here

So, it was agreed - tomorrow, we would each head home, grab our things, and meet at a water park.Bookmark here

As I was packing my belongings, I couldn’t stop myself from packing both swimsuits into my bag.Bookmark here

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We left Hinata’s at 7AM and met up at the water park at 9.Bookmark here

Once we changed and put our things into our lockers, we were ready to start our long day of fun on the hottest day of the summer.Bookmark here

In the end, I had chosen my black one-piece suit over the white two-piece.Bookmark here

When Inori saw what I was wearing, she made a complicated face.Bookmark here

That said. Bookmark here

My friends really are cute.Bookmark here

Inori was wearing a pink bikini outfit that made her quite bewitching; I remember her buying that and saying she wanted to show it off to her boyfriend.Bookmark here

Kana’s was a simple pale blue two-piece that she seemed to be quite shy in, making her even more adorable.Bookmark here

Hinata though looked amazing. She was wearing a yellow two-piece swimsuit with a black trim; she had recently started growing her hair out and had it tied up in a ponytail. Bookmark here

She was really pretty and - she seemed embarrassed to have me staring intensely at her.Bookmark here

“…You look great.” When Hinata almost fainted from the blood rushing to her cheeks, I quickly followed up with, “As do you two.”Bookmark here

“Thanks, Akane. You look great too. Though.” Inori smiled weakly and looked at my shoulder. “Is it-?”Bookmark here

“I’ll be fine.”Bookmark here

“Oh! Who’s that I see?”Bookmark here

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Oh no.Bookmark here

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With trepidation, I looked behind us and saw five guys walking towards us and, front and centre, was Rei.Bookmark here

Upon seeing us, his face went through a range of emotions.Bookmark here

First, was surprise.Bookmark here

Then, frustration.Bookmark here

Then, resignation.Bookmark here

Finally, he mouthed I’m sorry to me as they approached.Bookmark here

Rei, Hayato, Aki, Ryuuji and someone I didn’t know approached us.Bookmark here

“Hinata, you said it’d be just us girls,” Inori whispered.Bookmark here

“It was!” Hinata covered her mouth when she realised she’d been too loud. Then, much more softly, she said, “Rei said they were going to the mountains, I swear. So why are they-?”Bookmark here

“Guess our little surprise turned out better than we hoped,” Hayato said, wrapping his arm around the older boy I didn’t know. “You were right, big bro - it was much, much better to come here than go all the way to the campsite!”Bookmark here

“I-I guess.” Rei laughed awkwardly as he mouthed I’m sorry once more. “S-so, you guys are here too-?!”Bookmark here

“Hey, Rei!” Hinata pulled him close angrily, trapping him with her arm. “You said you were going to the mountains!”Bookmark here

She was speaking in a hushed voice, but her anger was as clear as day.Bookmark here

“I thought we were too, until Hayato’s brother took us the wrong way, said it was too hot to go to the mountains and, before I could object, we were here.”Bookmark here

“That sounds likely.”Bookmark here

“Hinata, I didn’t know, I swear.”Bookmark here

“I believe him.”Bookmark here

“Akane?”Bookmark here

They both looked to me. “…I believe him. I don’t know why he’d lie about this and.” I glanced over at the idiot twins as Inori dubbed them. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”Bookmark here

“Did they-?”Bookmark here

“No. How could they? I didn’t tell them, and there’s no way any of you guys would’ve.” Rei sighed a little as he freed himself from Hinata’s grasp. “I’ll try my best to keep them away from you guys, I swear.”Bookmark here

“You better. I swear, Rei, if Akane-”Bookmark here

“A-actually.” I felt the goosebumps rise across my skin as the words slowly trickled out of my throat. “I-i-if…if…you guys want to…hang out with…us, then…I don’t…mind.”Bookmark here

“…Akane, are you sure?”Bookmark here

I nodded at her as she wrapped her hands round mine. “…They seem…” I swallowed a small bit of vomit down my throat. “Nice and…I don’t want you guys to fuss over me.”Bookmark here

“We weren’t - we were-”Bookmark here

“I know.” I put on a somewhat forced smile. “But…I want to try and…get past this.”Bookmark here

It was scary.Bookmark here

It was like I was stood on the edge of the world’s tallest cliff; I could slip and fall at any time, but I knew I couldn’t keep living like this.Bookmark here

I couldn’t run away from my past lives forever, and I couldn’t avoid boys forever either.Bookmark here

I lightly embraced Hinata, startling my friend who, after a few confused moments, held me back. “I’ll be fine and.” I tightened my grip. “If I’m not, I’ll tell you.”Bookmark here

“…You promise?”Bookmark here

I smiled warmly - I could hear her pouting. “I promise.”Bookmark here

“And you’ll stick close to me in case something goes wrong?”Bookmark here

“…Yes.”Bookmark here

“Then.” She hugged me back strongly. “It’s fine.”Bookmark here

While it hadn’t exactly been the day we’d planned, we did end up spending time together as a big group, though I mostly stayed by Hinata’s side.Bookmark here

More accurately, Hinata wouldn’t let me leave her side.Bookmark here

She had started taking greater care of me ever since I told her and Kana about my ex; in the end, I’d told them last night before we decided to go to the pool, and they could not have been more supportive.Bookmark here

They, like Inori, demanded to know where he was to teach him a lesson, though Hinata had said she’d go as far to buy plane tickets for it.Bookmark here

Still, I was having some fun.Bookmark here

We swam in the main pool for a bit, enjoyed the waves, then we went down all six slides in order. Three of them were solo riders, one was a four-seater one and the last two were pair riders.Bookmark here

Hayato’s older brother had to join another group on the four-seater one, but the rest of us divided into groups based on gender.Bookmark here

Then, of course, for the pair slides, Hinata and I rode them together.Bookmark here

They were a lot of fun, though Hinata did get quite scared on the last slide - The Annihilator.Bookmark here

It was a super tall one that had twists, turns and drops like a rollercoaster, and her screams were so loud I thought I’d go deaf.Bookmark here

After it was over, she was shaking so much I didn’t know what else to do but hug her.Bookmark here

That seemed to calm her down a little, so I suggested we go on ahead of the others and take a break in the lazy river.Bookmark here

“Y-y-yeah…sounds good.”Bookmark here

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I don’t want to be bound by my past lives.Bookmark here

As Hinata climbed into an inflatable ring, I suddenly remember that goal.Bookmark here

Despite every grand claim I’d made in my final life, I was still digging my heels in and refusing to take major steps forward.Bookmark here

Every time I had managed to, it hadn’t been of my own free will.Bookmark here

I had been forced into it by my emotions.Bookmark here

I hadn’t made a conscious choice to tell Hinata about my anxiety on the train.Bookmark here

I didn’t tell my parents that I was depressed, and even refused to do so after I passed my breaking point.Bookmark here

I intended to never reveal that I was bi-sexual until I was 100% certain someone liked me for who I was.Bookmark here

So, as I pushed the girl I had a crush on down the lazy river, I swore to myself that I’d finally do it.Bookmark here

I’d finally take control of my life.Bookmark here

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I would confess to Hinata today - no matter what.Bookmark here

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