"Are you happy with yourself?"
The meaning of those words changed a lot, depending on how Misha said them in her head. Often, they conveyed disappointment, like her parents chastising her for something - the implication was that she should not be happy. But they could also represent a sick reversal of that sentiment: when someone else was upset by her actions, but Misha herself felt perfectly happy about it.
Or at least, that's how she wanted to feel.
In the heat of the moment, when she was finally able to feel something, a sick, malicious grin would rise up through her throat and onto her face. And in those moments, she would ask whether she was happy with herself, and, without fail, answer "yes".
But with all of that now in the past, little more than memories floating in a familiar sense of emptiness...
Was she happy with herself?
Sitting alone in the student council room, with her time at Yamaku all but complete, the answer was beginning to worry her.
Admittedly, this was roughly where she had wanted to be, back at the start. She was going to school for education: she would get invaluable experience with sign language, and passable grades in whatever other subjects would get her into a half-decent university, and that would be that.
But that had all changed years ago, when she had first entered this very room. The only person there had been a single girl, with short hair dyed a medium shade of blue, staring intently through a pair of glasses at the paperwork spread out in front of her.
She had looked up and locked eyes with Misha, with a stare that was powerful and yet also welcoming. And as she had described, in sign language more fluid than Misha had ever experienced before, that she was part of the student council and already knew who Misha was and why she was here, something within Misha melted into a small puddle, never to regain its original shape.
And that had been the status quo for quite some time. Sitting near that fire of a girl to stay warm, but never coming close enough to get burned. But the longer it went on, the harder it was to live with.
And then, on Christmas Eve, a miracle had happened.
Misha felt unnerved, standing alone in a small changing room - she hadn't been to any hot springs since childhood, and this one was completely new to her. Apparently Shizune's dad knew the guy who owned it, though she had gathered that the less she knew about that arrangement, the better.
Still, it meant that there was space for the two of them on Christmas day - though Misha hadn’t really understood why they would need to reserve “space”. Regardless, without any other plans for the holidays, Misha had taken Shizune up on her last-minute offer, they had packed their things on the night of Christmas Eve, and now, on Christmas day, wrapped in only a towel, Misha stepped out of the changing room and onto a stone-paved patio.
Whatever surface-level nervousness she had felt before, it suddenly morphed into a deep and gut-wrenching anxiety.
In front of her was not a large pool for many groups of people to soak in, but rather, a small pond of steaming water, only big enough for four or five people at once, with tall wooden walls surrounding it on all sides.
This was one of a set of private hot springs.
The only people who would be using this specific bath tonight were Misha and - already in the water, her eyes closed - Shizune.
Misha's mind began to run wild as she made her way across the smooth stone floor. Shizune had invited her, just her, nobody else, to a private hot spring, on Christmas day. Was there any other way to interpret it? Surely this was... romantic?
Trying not to let her nerves shake her too much, she lowered herself into the water - it was nice, but it didn't help calm her racing thoughts. At first she expected Shizune to do something, to make a move now that they were together. But nothing of the sort happened.
Maybe it would take time. But as the seconds passed, Misha found herself unable to bear the wait. She would have to do something.
But what? And how?
She needed to say something. After swallowing nervously, she turned to her right and tapped Shizune on the shoulder.
The girl next to her had to quickly wipe off her fogged-up glasses, but then waited for Misha to speak - something which took longer than usual.
[I... Thank you for taking me here.]
[Of course.] Shizune knew there was more than that, and didn’t look away.
[So... Why did you bring me here, anyways?]
[Because we both deserved it. The student council puts in a lot of work - we could use some downtime.] Focused on work, even when she was relaxing.
Unfortunately, that didn’t really answer the question Misha had been asking. [Did you invite Lilly?]
[I think she had some sort of family thing for Christmas.] That made sense, she was quite close with her sister. And Misha knew better than to bring up Shizune’s family - plus, she wasn’t exactly eager to discuss her own.
She decided to try something out, and play it off as a joke if necessary. [I mean, with just the two of us here, it’s almost like a date!]
She watched closely as Shizune smirked for a second, but didn’t say anything.
... what did that mean? Was it a mild chuckle, or a knowing smile? Shizune’s laughs were generally rather timid, but that face had also been kind of like the face she made when she was in the middle of a game. Was she calculating a strategy, somewhere in her head? Or was she not thinking of much at all? Misha wasn’t ready to give up... but she also didn’t know where to go.
Completely lost, she tried to think about all the romance books she had read that were like this. What was it that those characters always did in these situations? When they were nervous and awkward, how did they manage to push through to the cute stuff?
She locked eyes with the girl next to her. [Shizune, I... I really, really care about you. A lot.]
Shizune smiled - this time a calm, relaxed smile. [You mean a lot to me too.]
That had to be it. No more waiting, no more wondering, no more stalling. Misha was finally going to turn the page and step into the flames. As her heart pounded in her ears, she leaned forward, watching as Shizune’s face drew nearer. Slowly, she closed her eyes and puckered her lips, reaching out, hoping desperately to feel Shizune’s touch.
Unfortunately, it didn’t arrive the way she wanted - the next sensation Misha felt was the sharp slap of Shizune’s palm against her left cheek, causing her to recoil.
Misha quickly pulled up one hand to cradle the stinging skin, and opened her eyes. Before her, Shizune was looking at her own hand, an expression of disbelief on her face. She looked up, and briefly locked eyes with Misha again.
It was too late. Misha quickly turned around and left, tears welling up in her eyes.