Ren’s eyes took a moment to adjust to the light.
At the end of the tunnel, there was a large, circular empty area where giant crystals protruded from the walls and sparsely on the ground, as well.
The entire place was filled with strange rocks that reflected light so brightly it made it impossible to see inside at a glance, like polished mirrors.
The ceiling was pretty high up, and at the very top there was a giant hole where sunlight illuminated everything, hence the impossible brightness.
But even brighter than all the giant crystals and the shining rocks was the smile from the girl sitting at the center of the cave, playing with a bat’s wings and laughing while she sang.
“One, two, three, one, two, three! What a pretty girl I be!”
The bat was chirping in tune, quite happy to be used as a doll— complete with Emma’s barrette holding the dense fur at the top of its head like a bow.
Ren was frozen in place.
He couldn’t believe his eyes.
When she heard her name, Emma turned around to look at him, gasping with a smile.
“Ren! Look at—”
Before she could finish what she was going to say, Ren tossed the torch inside the tunnel and rushed over to hold her tightly.
The bat she was playing with flew away, chirping.
Ren’s arms trembled as he held her close, afraid of letting go.
“I’m sorry, Emma. I’m sorry. I almost gave up. I…”
“I thought you were gone… and…”
She laughed quietly, patting Ren’s back.
“I’m not gone! I’m here!”
Ren felt like he could cry.
He didn’t want to let go. He didn’t want to lose her again.
If something had happened to her…
If he never saw her again…
Ah, no point thinking that now.
Emma was fine. She was here. She was still here.
He sighed, afraid of opening his eyes and finding out it was all some sort of illusion.
But then a familiar girl’s voice came from a tunnel on a different side of the cave.
“Oho? What do we have here?”
“Shit,” a masculine voice echoed from yet another tunnel. “This place’s bright as hell.”
Ren pulled himself away from Emma slowly, adjusting his vision.
Apparently, all three tunnels ended up at the same location.
Rika, Julius, Airi and Yusei had all arrived at the same time.
They were all still here, too.
They were all alive.
Ren’s touching moment was interrupted by Rika’s sneer, who placed a hand on her forehead to cover her eyes from the brightness.
“Yo. So this is what you were doing while we were all worried sick, huh?”
Ren’s face flushed, putting yet more distance between him and Emma.
“I— I just got here, too.”
“Fufu, sorry we interrupted your tender reunion.”
Airi stepped closer once her eyes had adjusted to the cave. Yusei and Julius were walking around looking at the giant crystals all over.
Ren helped Emma back on her feet, and realized Emma was pouting.
“Aw… she flew away…”
“...Do you mean the bat? Sorry, I scared it off while it was wearing your hair clip…”
Emma shook her head.
“No, I gave it to her! She’s my friend! I just wanted to say goodbye.”
“You… gave it to the bat? Even though you ran all the way here to get it back…”
How very like Emma to do so, he thought.
A few steps behind them, Julius was examining one of the large crystals, fascinated.
“Where exactly are we, I wonder. I’ve never seen this kind of mineral before. It sparkles and reflects light more powerful than a mirror, I would say.”
“Beats me,” Yusei said, picking up a small piece from the ground and turning it around in his hand.
It looked sturdy like a diamond, but as soon as he put some pressure onto it, the rock immediately crumbled into fine, glittery dust.
“Whoa. It’s flimsier than it looks.”
Airi looked at it as it floated away.
“Perhaps that’s the dust we saw all over the cave? The material that made the walls shine so brightly…”
“Could be,” Rika shrugged. She turned to look at Emma.
“Hey bro, you okay, right? No injuries or anything?”
Emma shook her head.
“Nope! I’m all good!”
“Great. Let’s get out of here already. Agatha’s probably writing self-insert fiction of herself and Adam by now.”
“Self-insert?” Julius squinted.
Rika patted his shoulder.
“I’ll tell you when you’re old enough.”
Julius rolled his eyes, and they both started heading towards one of the tunnels.
Airi and Yusei looked at each other.
They were sure Julius was going to complain about Rika always teasing him and make a big deal out of nothing as usual, but instead it felt like the atmosphere between them had changed.
Airi leaned over to whisper, covering her mouth with her hand.
“Did you see that, Yusei?”
He leaned to whisper back.
“Yeah. Whaddya think happened on the way here?”
“Perhaps the warm lights and the romantic atmosphere got to them as well, fufu.”
“Yeah— w-wait,” he leaned away from her with a slight blush, “what do you mean, ‘as well’!?”
“Fufu. I was referring to the warm embrace we interrupted between Emma and Dahl when we arrived, of course.”
“O-Oh, yeah,” he looked away, rubbing the back of his neck. “Right.”
She looked at him with a cheeky smile.
“What did you think I meant, I wonder?”
“Sh… Shut up.”
“Aw. I thought I had cured you from your Shut Up disease…”
“I’m not sick!”
Ren watched them walk into the same tunnel as Julius and Rika.
Emma skipped past him and turned to look at him.
“Today was fun, wasn’t it!?”
He couldn’t believe it.
The girl in front of him was smiling as if nothing had happened while he had spent the last however long it took to find her worried sick.
But he couldn’t get mad at her.
She hadn’t done anything wrong; she had only been herself.
Then he realized at that moment that they were alone.
Emma was standing here, in front of a scene as bright as her soul, and Ren had her undivided attention, for once.
If there was ever a time to confess his feelings, this was it.
His heart started pounding.
Emma gripped the straps of her backpack and tilted her head.
His face was heating up.
He was really going to do it. He was going to tell her, finally, after all these years.
Nothing could stop him this time.
He thought about the brightness of the cave before he walked in, and how he thought the pearly gates were on the other side.
Cupid had saved him from that once, but this second chance wasn’t forever.
And if he broke one of his rules and got sent back first, no one would take care of Emma.
He couldn’t be selfish like that.
He sighed, frustrated at himself for almost ruining his own plans, then forced himself to smile wryly at her.
“Yeah, it was fun. Let’s go back.”
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