Chapter 267: Strain

After making their way inside, Vahn looked over the Manor and noticed Hestia was still asleep in the room. Since she had some bags under her eyes, Vahn assumed she either didn’t sleep last night or had trouble sleeping before he finally woke up. Thinking about the best course of action, Vahn just walked toward the study that was nearby the dining room and sat on one of the large sofas that were spread throughout the Manor. Milan sat next to him while he quietly pampered Tina who had tucked her face into his collar and soaked his tunic with warm tears.

Milan leaned against Vahn’s shoulder and laid her head next to where Tina’s was as she gently stroked the back of her own daughter. She knew why she was acting this way, as she too felt a bit of melancholy after seeing Vahn in his Cat Person form. Though Vahn didn’t look much like her husband, they actually had the same chestnut brown hair and somewhat similar heights and builds so it was easy to overlay them atop each other especially when he treated them kindly.

If not for the difference in facial structure and demeanor, it would have been easy to mistake Vahn for her former husband at a glance. Since Tina had lost her father at a very young age, she didn’t have the greatest memory of him and only the primary features stuck in her mind. This made it so that, even though she knew it was Vahn before her, the trust and comfort she felt from him triggered her recollection of her father and caused her to have a small breakdown.

After a few minutes, Tina’s choked voice sounded out through the silence, “You aren’t my Papa…” Even though her words sounded harsh, Tina still hugged Vahn tightly and shook a bit before repeating the words, “You aren’t my Papa…” Vahn continued to stroke her back gently and made eye contact with Milan who stared back at him with her golden eyes with a somewhat tired look. She didn’t seem to know what to say either since Tina’s word were the truth and they actually didn’t have the relationship where Vahn would be considered her step-father either.

Vahn hummed slightly before a small smile appeared on his face as he cocked his head to the side to look into Tina’s face. When she saw him look at her, Tina turned her head away as if she were refusing to look at him while he was still in his transformation. When he was about to speak up, Tina interrupted his words by saying, “I don’t want this…I don’t want you to treat me like a child…” However, even though her words were a refusal, Tina didn’t let go of Vahn’s neck and continued to cling to him.

Since he could sense her struggle, Vahn wasn’t sure of what to say and just continued consoling her by rubbing Tina’s back gently. He wanted to say he didn’t treat her like a child, that he actually considered her more sensible than himself, but Vahn didn’t know how to say the words in a way that would benefit the current situation. As if she had never expected him to say something to begin with, Tina continued, “I will continue to work hard…I will become stronger and stronger…so for now…please just comfort me for a little longer…”

Until the end of the outside training session, Vahn sat aside Milan as they leaned into each other while both comforting the small cat girl. They all remained silent and enjoyed the atmosphere between the three of them until Tina’s ears twitched at the sound of people entering through the back door. After taking a few deep breaths, Tina finally pulled her head away from Vahn’s shoulder and looked into his aquamarine eyes with a somewhat sad, yet hopeful, expression. Vahn returned a small smile and moved his hand to stroke her hair, but she leaned forward and gave him a small peck on the lips before crawling down from his lap and the sofa.

Milan and the blankly staring Vahn watched Tina trot away and exit through the door without saying a word. Vahn saw her presence bolt through the corridor as soon as the door closed and she seemed to be running off to the girls changing room before anyone else was able to get there. He suspected she probably wanted to jump into the water and hide the evidence of her tears or potentially relax a bit before returning to her usual self.

Only allowed on

From his left, Milan suddenly said, “Vahn…do you really think all of this is okay?” Since they had still been leaning into each other, Vahn could feel Milan’s warmth as he turned to look into her golden eyes. He could see the same kind of hesitation that she had when he first asked her and Tina to live with him. Vahn thought about his answer for a moment before saying, “I just want the both of you to be happy. It might seem strange, maybe even rude, but I don’t see you and Tina as romantic interests currently. Though I think you’re very beautiful and would like to be with you someday, I don’t think we’re ready for that type of relationship at all. Tina is cute, but she is also very young… I can tell the affection she has for me is warped slightly and I think exposing her to people that can help her grow is better than ignoring her…”

Even though Vahn expressed that he didn’t see her in a romantic light, Milan didn’t pull away or have an adverse reaction to his words. She also didn’t see Vahn in that way and was simply trying to help ease her own daughter’s tensions. Though she thought he was very handsome and had even ‘comforted’ herself to his image, Milan was bound by her own sensibilities and the fact that her daughter was also interested in Vahn. She did want to spend time with Vahn, because it had been a long time and she had some minor frustrations, but Milan also knew what kind of situation they were all in. Milan knew that, if she was truly hurting, Vahn would care for and protect her…even if she took some liberties with him. The only thing that kept her from taking that step was the existence of Tina, the only person she truly loved in her life presently.

Since Milan remained quiet and just snuggled against him, Vahn mentally sighed in relief since he thought she might be offended by his words. With a small smile on his face, Vahn continued, “There is a lot of time…we don’t have to think about everything and make decisions that will affect the rest of our lives right now. I think, when you’re ready, you and Tina can live here and become stronger alongside the rest of the Familia. Even if you don’t want to go into the dungeon, this place will always be a welcoming home to the two of you…”

Milan nodded her head slowly and her ears tickled Vahn’s neck a bit as she said, “Thank you Vahn…for everything you’ve done for us…” Rising from his shoulder, Milan showed one of the few genuine smiles Vahn had seen on her ever since the incident. In a manner similar to Tina, Milan leaned forward and gave Vahn a slightly prolonged, yet simple, kiss. When she pulled away, she whispered, “Thanks for everything you will do for us as well…I don’t know how our lives might have been if we never met you, but I know they would have been over if you never came to save us…truly, thank you…” With one last peck on the lips, Milan smiled before flicking Vahn’s cat ear and making it twitch. As she walked away to go prepare breakfast, Milan chuckled, “Cat ear’s look adorable on you, but I feel like your normal appearance is more suitable~nya.”

As if reminded by her words, Vahn returned to his normal appearance as he watched Milan’s back exit through the door. After a few seconds of silence passed through the room, Vahn laid back on the couch and released a somewhat exasperated sounding sigh. He couldn’t help but feel that, even though he was supposed to be relaxing, his body was in even higher tensions after everything that had happened. He actually didn’t mind physical exhaustion much, it was the mental strain of dealing with emotional situations that weighed heavily on his heart and mind. Vahn began to wonder if he needed to be more decisive at times and pay more attention to the mental states of others before he took action. Even though it was rarely his intention, Vahn’s actions seemed to always trigger some event that caused emotional development in himself or others…he began to, for the first time, feel like he needed to be less invested in the lives of others if he wanted to actually relax.

Since all of the girls were bathing presently, the only other presences roaming around were Hestia, who had woken up, Milan, who was in the kitchen, and a mellow aura that Vahn was almost certain belonged to Preasia. He could see her wandering about the corridors slowly, almost as if she was looking for something. Since she hadn’t participated in the training, she didn’t join the other girls in the bath and also didn’t go toward the dining room where everyone would be gathering. Using contextual evidence, Vahn was almost certain she was looking for him…it felt like, even if he didn’t take action, just like this, someone would come to find him…

Though he wanted to help her, Vahn knew Preasia was in an unstable mental state and it would probably be detrimental if they got close so soon after he healed her body. It was simply way too soon and she would probably become emotionally attached to and overly reliant on him if he tried consoling her. Vahn already noticed that she was often staring at him, even when he turned his attention towards her. Though he didn’t know what was going through her mind, Vahn didn’t think it would be healthy for either of them if they were alone together so he stood up from the sofa and made his way toward one of the nearby windows.

Vahn unlatched the lock on the window and opened it enough that he could squeeze through and step out into the cold morning air. Since he was on the first floor, it was easy to close the window behind him and then he jumped up to the roof by rebounding off one of the support struts of the Manor. Without stopping in his normal spot, Vahn continued to climb higher until he found his footing and used Shundo to leap to the highest spot in the eastern wing. He somewhat felt ashamed to ‘flee’ away from his own Manor, but Vahn believed it was the best course of action other than plainly rebuffing Preasia.

After laying down on the cold tiles of the roof, Vahn actually enjoyed the refreshingly cold air and the breeze blowing over his body. Even though he could resist the cold with his [Heart of the Eternal Flame], Vahn restricted the skill somewhat and allowed the cold to wash over him and spread through his body for a bit. For around an hour, Vahn just laid on the roof in silence until he felt a pulse of energy pass through his body that sounded a small alarm in his mind. It wasn’t his ‘instincts’ kicking in, but Vahn knew he had been ‘detected’ so he assumed Mikoto had used her skill to look for him.

Warming up his body for a few seconds, Vahn tilted his body and used Shundo to connect a point between the roof and the ground. He could jump off normally without problems, but he didn’t want to leave a hole in the courtyard that would have to be fixed later. After landing, he made his way through the front door and walked toward the kitchen where everyone was waiting for him. The cold air had helped to clear his mind a bit, so Vahn felt somewhat refreshed as he walked into the warm room and saw the faces of his friends, Familia, and loved ones. He even passed his eyes over Preasia, who stared at him silently through her shaggy, platinum blonde, bangs.

After greeting everyone, Vahn sat at the table next to Ryuu and Hestia and looked around to notice that Haruhime and Mikoto were still wearing their kimono. Vahn even suspected that Haruhime might still be without panties so he commented, “This afternoon, Ryuu can take a few of you into town to purchase clothes and other necessary items. Our Familia increased by a large amount in the last few days and I know not everyone has a proper change of clothes to wear presently.”

Since Vahn knew they would probably want to go with him if he offered, he decided to throw out Ryuu’s name without asking her permission. She didn’t seem to mind at all and simply nodded her head in response to his words. Haruhime seemed happy at the idea of going shopping, but Vahn had an apologetic smile on his face as he said, “Sorry Haruhime, until the matter with the Ishtar Familia is settled, I’d like for you to stay in the Manor. There will be plenty of time in the future to do other shopping and explore the City, and I’ll even escort you myself when the time comes.”

Though she was a bit dejected at first, Haruhime placed the tips of her fingers together and had a happy expression on her face as she said, “I’m looking forward to it~! Please make sure it’s just the two of us when the time comes.” Since it wasn’t the first time a girl wanted a ‘personal date’ with him, Vahn just decided to agree to Haruhime’s wish. She had lived a difficult life and a single date wasn’t asking for much from him other than a bit of his time.

After Vahn agreed to her request, Haruhime was in a good mood as she slowly picked at her food with chopsticks and ate happily. Everyone began to make polite conversation with each other and the atmosphere was loosening up a bit as the girls started discussing what they wanted to buy. Since Vahn had made a small fortune when he sold some high-quality equipment to the Guild in the past, he wasn’t really hurting for money and didn’t mind if they spent a fair amount.

Many of the girls had nothing were almost forced into a life of servitude and darkness so Vahn wanted to help ease their hearts a bit. If spending a little money could make them happy, Vahn didn’t mind spending it all if he had to. Since he was now a [Master Smith], as long as he put in enough effort a single piece of equipment he made could be worth several tens-of-millions of Valis. Though he still wanted to pay back Hephaestus one day, Vahn didn’t think she would actually accept the money even if he offered it to her.

After breakfast, the girls go together a huge group that consisted of Ryuu, Fenrir, Emiru, Maemi, Mikoto, Milan, and Tina. Though she wore other clothes every now and then, Hestia usually wore her godly dress when around the Manor. Haruhime’s living essentials and clothing would be purchased by Mikoto and Preasia’s would be dealt with by Milan. Since Preasia was still recovering her mental state, it wasn’t safe for her to be exposed to large crowds and busy places where it would be easy to bump into other people. Even if she were in a large group of other girls, there was always a small possibility something might happen and she was the least capable of defending herself.

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When everyone had left, Hestia asked Vahn, “So, you have relaxation time until lunch. Did you have anything planned?” Ever since their interaction this morning, Vahn noticed Hestia had been acting rather reserved compared to her former self. She had a gentle smile and a steady aura and Vahn could see a perpetual sparkle in her deep blue eyes. After thinking about her question for a bit, Vahn said, “I think I’ll just lounge about in the library in the western wing. I want to enjoy a bit of peace and quiet and simply read books for a bit.” Vahn had the ability to purchase thousands of books relatively cheaply through the system, so he had devoted an entire section of the western wing into a library in the past.

Hestia nodded her head before grabbing the wrists of the excited Haruhime and the timid Preasia and dragging them away. Haruhime’s ears began to bob and she said, “Hestia-sama, I want to go read as well.” In response to her words, Hestia said plainly, “You have plenty of books in your own room and Vahn needs time to relax on his own. He wouldn’t be able to focus and stay calm if there are people around to distract him. Besides, there is a lot we need to talk about…I heard about the incident with Fenrir earlier…” Hearing Hestia’s tone, and seeing the blaming look in her eyes, Haruhime couldn’t help but feel like she should apologize. She remembered Vahn’s earlier reaction and knew she had probably done something wrong. Just as she was about to say something, as they had already gotten far away from Vahn, Hestia whispered, “Besides, I wanted to ask you some other questions…I don’t want Vahn to overhear us.”

Though she was briefly confused, Haruhime seemed to realize what Hestia was talking about and she muttered in a cheerful voice, “Certainly~! I’m glad to be of help Hestia-sama. In exchange, you have to tell me how Vahn reacted though…” A glimmer passed through the blue eyes of Hestia and the green eyes of Haruhime for a moment as they made eye contact with each other. Preasia, who had been silently dragged along by Hestia, was previously staring back toward Vahn but now perked her ears up a bit at the conversation.

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