Vahn continued thinking as Chloe dragged him into the commercial district of the tower. Keeping true to her word, their first stop was a small cafe that served coffee and baked goods. Vahn wasn’t fond of the taste of coffee, but after Chloe had shown him how to add cream and sugar he began to enjoy it.
“Nyaaaaahn~” As he had started enjoying the coffee, Chloe began gesturing towards his mouth holding a small fish-shaped cookie in her hand.
Vahn stared at the cookie while Chloe watched his expression with a cheeky grin. After a few seconds…he allowed her to place the cookie into his open mouth. It was a mix between sweet and salty and had a crunchy texture. It was good.
Chloe laughed while watching him savor the cookie. “You really like food, don’t you~? You should try dipping the cookie into coffee next.” She handed him another cookie and waited for him to give it a try.
Following her instructions, Vahn soaked the cookie into the coffee before placing it into his mouth. He was surprised, as the combination of the two flavors complemented each other well.
Seeing his reaction, Chloe showed another gentle smile. “You see, even if something is good on its own, that doesn’t mean it can’t become better when added to something else. Sometimes the combination of two individual things can bring out the best qualities of both.”
Vahn nodded his head and continued dipping cookies into his coffee. After trying a few more, he agreed with Chloe’s expression. Seeing that she was still looking at him, Vahn hesitated before extending a cookie towards her.
“A-aaaaaah-” He blushed at the awkwardness of the act as he tried to imitate her earlier actions.
Before his hand was able to get close, Chloe leaned forward and slowly took the cookie into her mouth. She gave him a wink before eating the cookie with a sip of coffee.
Vahn stared, hand still outstretched, as he watched her swallow the cookie. Seeing his look, Chloe began to giggle while covering her mouth and saying, “Thank you Vahn, it was very good~nya.”
After they left the cafe, Chloe once again took Vahn’s hand and lead the way towards a men’s clothing store that sold both outfits for adventurers as well as casual wear. Though Vahn was initially drawn to the adventurer section, Chloe dragged him towards the casual wear and began lining various shirts against his chest.
“You have very dark hair, but your eyes are a deep aquamarine… let’s see, maybe peach~? No, too soft…How about a nice neutral green to compliment your eyes~nya?” She continued to hold the two long-sleeve open-collared shirts up next to Vahn, waiting for his decision.
Vahn ended up selecting the green one since she said it complimented his eyes. Nodding, she took both shirts and hung them on a rack next to the dressing room. She continued to pick a variety of other clothes while asking for Vahn’s opinion. Whenever he would pick one, she would always look into his eyes before either putting one piece away or keeping both. Vahn was confused why she even bothered asking his opinion when she seemed to make the final decision…
After selecting seven shirts, three pairs of slacks, one pair of trousers, and a pair of shorts with a lot of pockets she forced Vahn into the changing room. She told him he couldn’t come out until he had tried on all the clothes and checked himself in the mirror. Only when he was satisfied with his appearance would she let him exit.
Once he was in the changing room, Vahn stared helplessly at the pile of clothes. He didn’t really know anything about clothing or how he should choose between the different options. He shook his head before grabbing the first shirt he had chosen when entering the store. After removing his shadowsilk tunic, Vahn adorned the loose-fitting shirt and inspected himself in the mirror for the first time.
Vahn’s first impression was one of shock. Not at the shirt, but at seeing his body reflected in the silvery reflective surface. It wasn’t his first time seeing his reflection, as he had stared into higher-quality mirrors in his previous life, but it was the first time he had inspected himself after arriving in this world. He slowly reached towards the surface of the mirror, as if confirming that the person reflected was truly him…
He was no longer the emaciated, limbless boy, with semi-transparent glowing skin. Instead, he saw a young man with healthy skin and an athletic build. Where it had been missing in his previous life, there was now a mop of dark brown hair arranged messily on the top of his head. Through the drooping bangs, he could see a pair of aquamarine eyes staring back at him. Unlike the lifeless image he saw within his memories, his eyes were now crystal clear. Though they weren’t very lively, he could see a long-lost hope and determination within the dark pupils. After staring into them for an unknown period of time, he could even see the illusion of a fierce warrior contained deep within their core…
(“This is me. The body I obtained when I was reborn into this world…the results of all my training and efforts. I’m not the boy that died powerlessly back in the lab, surrounded by people who saw me as a commodity. I’ve transcended that life, and even the very world itself…”)
In response to his inner monologue, Sis spoke in his mind. (*Thats right Vahn. You are no longer bound to that tragic fate. You can move about freely and live as you choose. As long as you don’t give up on yourself, there will never be anything that can bar your way along ‘The Path’.*)
Nodding his head, Vahn looked once more into the eyes of his reflection…and smiled.
After a few minutes, Vahn exited the changing room. Rising from the bench she had been waiting on, Chloe inspected Vahn before giving an appreciative nod. “They say clothes make the man, and I can’t help but agree~nya.”
Compared to his previous black-on-black look, Vahn now wore a loose grey collared shirt with four buttons, two of which he had left undone. Replacing his tattered, stained pants, he now wore a pair of clean black slacks with a mild embroidering along the outseam. Now, due to his athletic figure and handsome appearance, Vahn stood out for an entirely different reason. Especially his aquamarine eyes, which now had a slight glint of confidence within.
Vahn smiled towards the beaming girl before him. “Thanks Chloe. It seems like clothing really can change the way people feel.”
The already excessive smile on her face increased in size as she leaped forward and seized his arm. “Nyahahaha, right~? Right~? I knew you would understand~nya!”
This time Vahn didn’t freeze up when Chloe grabbed his arm. Instead, he looked towards her before grabbing all of the clothes and guiding her towards the register. In response, she simply continued to smile and allowed Vahn to lead her.
Though Chloe had offered to pay for the clothing, as it was her idea, Vahn refused saying, “It may have been your idea, but it was my own decision to purchase these clothes. If anything, I owe you for bringing me here today. It feels like I’ve obtained something I lost a long time ago…”
Hearing his words, she just gently pressed herself to his arm in response while the cashier stared at the two with an incredulous expression. (“What are these two fools trying to do in my store!? Can’t they see they’re making all the other customers uncomfortable!?”) She continued ringing up the clothing so as to hasten their departure.
Vahn left the clothing store with Chloe on his left arm while carrying a large bag of clothing in his right. Chloe looked towards him and asked, “Where to now~nya?”
In response, Vahn looked towards her as he felt an itchy sensation on his brow. “I think I need a haircut.” He smiled while Chloe burst out laughing.
Chloe guided Vahn around using her words, letting him continue leading the way. They found a salon and Chloe issued a long list of requirements to the stylist before allowing the nervous woman to cut Vahn’s hair. By the end of the session, the mop of hair on his head had been trimmed and styled into what Chloe called a ‘free’ and ‘wild’ style.
Vahn noticed that Chloe had been restless as the stylist was performing the finishing touches. He was able to see the ‘predatory’ glare that he noticed on their first meeting, but this time he didn’t feel any chills. Instead, he just smiled towards her which caused her ears to violently twitch. When Vahn was finally freed from the chair, Chloe immediately paid the stylist and gave an extra-large tip.
They continued to wander around together for the rest of the day, visiting several stores and purchasing anything they found interesting. By the end, Vahn was beginning to run low on funds but didn’t mind as the day had quickly become the most memorable experiences in both of his lives. He felt like, as long as he could keep these feelings, he would be able to leave all the painful memories behind.
As they continued to wander around the tower, Vahn gave periodic glances towards Chloe. Whenever she noticed his gaze, she would return a simple smile. This happened several times before they arrived at the final destination of their date.
By now the sun had started to set, and they were standing on a viewing platform that could oversee the entire western section of the City. They took turns pointing out the various places they recognized and made small-talk while watching the sun descend beyond the horizon.
As the final ray of light faded away, Vahn looked directly towards Chloe. He felt like he had so many things to tell her, but couldn’t seem to find a way to vocalize his emotions. All he knew was that he owed her a debt of gratitude he was uncertain if he could ever repay.
Chloe returned his gaze with the same gentle smile that helped him break through the shell that had been constraining him since his previous life. Seeing that smile, Vahn felt like he could fight against the entire world if it would allow that smile to persist for a single moment more.
Mustering his resolve, he swallowed hard before speaking. “Chloe…I-“
Before he was able to continue, Chloe grabbed his head and pulled it into her chest. She gently cradled him there while slowly stroking his head. Vahn wasn’t able to form any thoughts as he accepted her embrace… After several minutes, she lifted his face before kissing him on the forehead and displaying that same gentle smile…
“There is much left for you to discover about yourself before you speak those words. All of the emotions you’re feeling right now need time to be understood properly. For now, focus on discovering where you want to go in your life. When you figure that out and become strong enough to share the burden of others…if your feelings remain unchanged, you can try asking me out again… Though I can’t promise I’ll accept when the time comes~nya” Giving him one final peck on his forehead, she turned away and walked off into the night.
Vahn continued to stare at her retreating figure as a multitude of thoughts passed through his mind. He thought about her parting words as a resolve began to fill the void caused by her departure. He balled his fists and looked towards the moon that had begun to take its place among the heavens. Inspired by its presence, he extended his right hand and grasped towards it, as if by reaching just a little further he would be able to wrest it from the sky’s embrace…
“I must become stronger…stronger than anything. I will seize my fate with this outstretched hand and strike down anyone that threatens my way of life…and the life of those I love.”
A cool breeze blew through the sky, passing through the location where the young boy previously stood. After his declaration, he had followed the path Chloe left and continued downwards, towards the dungeon that would serve as his proving grounds.