"It's not your fault, you know."
Seiji Sagara blinked, glancing up from the donut he had been eating. As if not understanding the woman's words, he tilted his head slightly to the side, swallowing his food. "What isn't?"
Maria Hikawa sat across from the young boy, carefully studying his features as she spoke. It was a lovely spring day when she had been invited to go along with her younger sister's Precure team to the park for a picnic. She had eagerly accepted the invitation, and had hopped right over to Pikarigaoka using the Cross Mirror Room. Not only would she be able to see her cute little sister again, she'd also be able to properly meet and have a chat with the girl's rival. Managing to secure some alone time with him was as easy as convincing Iona to lead the other three away for a few minutes.
Of course, she was no stranger to Seiji, though she wouldn't say they were anything more than casual acquaintances prior to this. Even before she had joined the Happiness Charge Precure, Iona had always been on good terms with Seiji, having declared the young boy to be her 'rival' when he first joined their dojo years ago.
"The business with Red. It's not your fault." Maria clarified, pushing back a strand of her hair, eyes narrowing as she watched the shadow of guilt that spread across Seiji's face at the mere mention of that incident.
Setting down his plate, Seiji paused to wipe his mouth, before he set aside his napkin. Trying to collect himself, he plastered a grin on his face, meeting eyes with Maria. "I know that. You don't have to tell me that, Hikawa-san."
"I do." Maria insisted. "Because you don't know that." Lifting a finger, she motioned towards his eyes. "You have some amazing bags under your eyes, Sagara-kun."
Blinking rapidly, Seiji's smile broke for a moment- before it quickly went back up, the young boy shaking his head. "Oh, these? These are nothing to worry about. Sometimes I don't sleep that well... it's got nothing to do with that."
"You can't pull a fast one on me, Sagara Seiji- or your friends, for that matter." Maria insisted, folding her arms in front of her chest, sagely nodding her head. "You've been having nightmares, haven't you? Those girls have noticed that much."
"I-" Seiji opened his mouth, but Maria cut him off, holding up a finger and shaking her head.
"You don't have to lie, Sagara-kun. I know you're not used to it yet, but you can depend on other people for support you know. Those girls are waiting for you to reach out to them- they're all worried about you. They've all been worried about you since then." Maria told him, a stern tone to her words.
"No man is an island, Sagara-kun, especially not when that 'man' is only a fourteen year old boy." She told him. "I admit that maybe I'm speaking out of turn because I don't know you as well as those girls, but I know you well enough to be worried about you. We've had an experience in common, after all."
"Well that's..." Seiji trailed off, averting his eyes from her, his smile finally dropping from his face. Of course he knew about Maria being brainwashed to fight against the Happiness Charge Precure- and especially her own sister, Cure Fortune- he had been there, after all. "I suppose that much is true, but..."
An awkward silence hung in the air for a few moments as Maria gave him time to sort out his words. Glancing briefly back towards her, Seiji's gaze flickered away again seconds later. "Do you... have nightmares, Hikawa-san?"
"I do." Maria said bluntly. "I had them every night after that. I imagine that's normal. I tried to kill my precious sister and her friends, after all."
Another silence hung in the air between them. As easily as Maria had said it, they were still heavy words. Words that carried weight with them that a young woman of her age shouldn't have to carry- much less a fourteen year old boy.
"How did you... How do you deal with them?" Seiji asked, still not looking up towards the older woman.
"With time." Maria said simply. "With understanding. My actions were not my own." She told him. "Even knowing that, it can be hard to forgive myself sometimes. But to begin to recover, you have to start with acknowledging that it's not your fault."
"If I wasn't so weak, it would have never happened though." Seiji narrowed his eyes, clutching at the grass beneath them. "I would have never hurt Megumi and everyone that way."
"It's not a matter of being weak or strong. It's a matter of support. And you, Sagara Seiji, are in need of support, from everything that I've heard." Maria told him, reaching over to place a light hand on his shoulder. "Aino-san was able to break free from Red's attempt at brainwashing her because of you, or so I've heard. Because you were there to provide her support in her time of need. That's why she was able to remember that she had people she loved who loved her back, who cared about her every step of the way."
"You need support, Sagara-kun. But the difference between you and Aino-san is that you don't allow yourself to receive that support." She continued. "I heard a bit about it from Aino-san when I questioned her, though she didn't give me the details... but this isn't a healthy way for you to live, Sagara-kun, regardless of what happened in the past. I think you know that better than anyone else."
"Even before this, you were carrying around a heavy weight, weren't you? Your father's accident... I heard about it. But that wasn't your fault either. You were just a child at the time." Maria reassured him, her grip on his shoulder growing firm, though still remaining gentle. "Since then, you stopped asking other people for help when it was for your own sake. Being selfless might be touted as a virtue, but there's a limit to that sort of thing."
Seiji opened and closed his mouth, his brow furrowing. It seemed like there was something he wanted to say, but he couldn't find the words for it. "It's not..." He started, before he hesitated, before heaving a deep sigh. "Of course I understand that much, but..."
"You don't know how?" Maria asked, tilting her head. When Seiji nodded his own, she gave him a small smile. "That's to be expected. Nobody's expecting you to be able to change your ways overnight, Sagara-kun. Aino-san and the others, your family, and me as well... we're all here to support you. But you have to make that first step, otherwise nothing will change."
"It doesn't have to be a big one. But if you give us an inch, we'll be able to help you the rest of the way."
"I am trying." Seiji said after a moment, finally turning to meet her eyes. "In my own way, I mean. I'm just... so used to trying not to trouble anyone that I don't know where to start."
"Isn't this a start right here, though?" Maria pointed out, flashing him a smile. "Right now, you're confiding in me, right? You just have to take it nice and easy, just like this. Bit by bit."
"I suppose you're right." Seiji responded, a small, somewhat awkward smile returning to his face. "T-thank you, Hikawa-san. I'll try to keep what you've told me in mind."
"That's the important thing." Nodding her head, she removed her hand from his shoulder. "You can depend on this reliable older sister for anything you need! Of course, Iona-chan might get a bit jealous if you do, but at least with you, she can just vent her frustrations on the dojo floor!"
Seiji couldn't help but laugh awkwardly at that. It was a bit strange for him to think of Iona being clingy and jealous over her older sister- it wasn't a side of hers that he was used to, but it wasn't bad either. He had been seeing new sides of Iona, as well as Megumi and Yuko, this entire time.
When he thought of it that way, somehow it put him slightly at ease. He had gotten to see new sides of his friends- and his bonds with them had only deepened. The others had ended up seeing a side of him that he wanted to hide- but even after everything, they were still his friends, and they were here for him, more now than ever.
He just had to try and teach himself to rely on their support every once in awhile.
"Ah, but you know what would really make me feel better?" Maria grinned, a twinkle in her eyes. "Was if I got to give that god of Mars a good punch! I know Aino-san reformed him and everything, but I feel like I won't feel satisfied until I'm able to return him the favor... just like I did with Phantom! What about you, Sagara-kun? Do you want slug him at least once?"
"Maybe twice?" Seiji answered honestly.
"Mm, that's a good answer." Maria nodded her head. "I'm glad that we were able to have this chat, Sagara-kun."
"Yeah." Seiji slowly inclined his head. "Me too, Hikawa-san. Thank you."