Experiment Log #3
That thing with the wings.Pairing:
Let the record show...that Hubert actually acted like a normal person in love for once.Rating:
M for Mood Whiplash. Oh boy, the mood whiplash.Notes:
Also known as the Stepford Hubert Shift!
In the middle of browsing the bakery’s offerings through its window display, Pao-Lin suddenly finds herself enfolded in an enthusiastic hug from behind.
“Hey, Pao-Lin.” Hubert nuzzles her cheek. “Looking for something to fill that bottomless stomach of yours? I’m surprised the restaurants here can even keep up with you.”
The oddly cheerful greeting combined with such brazen teasing and physical proximity completely throws Pao-Lin for a loop. “Hubert...?”
He chuckles. “What’s with that reaction? You sound like you’re not happy to see me.”
“Of course I’m happy to see you.” She pats his arm lovingly. “You just surprised me, that’s all.”
“Sorry, love. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Wow, okay, something is definitely wrong. Hubert never
addresses her by a nickname. “Are you feeling all right?” Pao-Lin asks, half-giggling in astonishment.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re acting weird. ...not in a bad way, though,” she quickly adds. “Just different.” Pao-Lin’s certainly not going to complain about more attention from her boyfriend.
“Really?” A thoughtful sigh. “I haven’t noticed anything odd.”
She turns around to face him properly. “You don’t feel sick or anything? You don’t remember being kidnapped?” She raises a hand to his forehead: no fever detected. Or chills. And nothing else about him looks particularly off.
“That would be a ‘no’ on both counts.” Hubert lifts a hand to his chin in thought. “And since we just had an experiment last week, I can only conclude that this must be a barrier incompatibility of some sort.” He sounds utterly unconcerned by this notion.
“Yeah, probably.” Pao-Lin’s not really worried, either. Every incompatibility she’s either heard about or experienced herself has been generally mild in comparison to the Shifts that the enclosure is formally subjected to by Malnosso scientists. There’s no reason to think that this time will be the exception. Of course she’ll keep an eye on Hubert, but after being in Luceti for so long, she can’t really get herself worked up over a Shift as benign as this. “Anyway, are you here to get something, too?”
“No. I was just passing by when I saw you. But I’ll come with you if you want.”
Hubert accompanying Pao-Lin somewhere after a chance encounter in the village isn’t anything new. What is
new are the affectionate little gestures he showers her with, like ruffling her hair as they enter the bakery or draping his arm around her shoulders while they wait in line at the counter. And his smile, so contentedly upbeat, is unlike any expression Pao-Lin’s seen out of him before. She can’t help but steal glances at him when she thinks he’s not looking just to admire the change.
He catches her, eventually. “Is there something on my face?” Hubert asks her after they’ve spent some time at a table with their orders.
“No, it’s...” Deciding to test the waters a bit, she flashes a mischievous smirk before she continues: “I like looking at you, you know.”
Hubert smirks right back at her. “Well, I like looking at you too.”
Pao-Lin’s mouth drops open in shock. She isn’t sure what she’d been expecting, but it hadn’t been that
. Blushing, she busies herself with nibbling on an oversized cookie, dropping her gaze.
Hubert reaches out to run his hand through her hair. “You’re cute when you’re embarrassed.”
“I’m not cute,” mumbles Pao-Lin, having a sudden sense of deja vu.
“You’re even cuter when you deny it.”
Pao-Lin can only muster a bashful grumble at that. Hubert’s hand drifts down to cup her cheek, which doesn’t do anything to make her blushing go away. Still, she doesn’t feel the need to really protest.
(Although it’s weird chewing when someone’s hand is on your cheek, to be sure.)
The two spend the rest of the day afterwards marathoning action movies at Pao-Lin’s apartment, which comes with a side of (ahem) making up their own “action” during the less-intense scenes. Three days later, Hubert suggests they visit the beach for a bit, where they build sand sculptures and go wading in the water. And during the New Feather party that Pao-Lin’s volunteering at, Hubert is the one to lead her away from her work for a spin on the dance floor. It’s a whirlwind of romance that Pao-Lin’s not used to being swept up in. Or, more accurately: it’s rarely Hubert who initiates such things.
“Really?” he says when she mentions this to him during a break in one of their sparring sessions. He laughs sheepishly. “In that case, you have my apologies. I’ll have to change that.”
“You don’t have to.” Hubert’s reticence has never bothered her before. She’s simply accepted it as part of his personality. But if she has to be honest...she’s been getting a kick out of this more outgoing Hubert. “I guess it would be nice if you did, though,” she continues, clasping her hands together in her lap. “Things have been a lot of fun lately.”
“Is that so? Then clearly I have no choice but to do what pleases you. Is there anything else I should be concerned about regarding my behavior?”
Pao-Lin elbows him a little. “I said don’t worry about it, silly! I just like seeing you happy for once.”
“But I’m always happy with you.”
Bubbly delight warms Pao-Lin’s heart. “Okay, but...I can’t tell most of the time, you know?” She gently pinches one of his cheeks. “Because you don’t usually smile.”
Hubert swats her hand away. “Well, I’m certainly not going to smile more if you do things like that
,” he grumbles, rubbing his face. But there’s no real heat behind his words.
“Hehe, sorry.” She plants a kiss on the spot she’d pinched. “Feel better now?”
“Hardly,” says Hubert, and for a moment Pao-Lin freezes, afraid that he’s actually upset. But he grins as he continues: “I’ll only be satisfied once I defeat you in battle.”
She giggles. “Then I guess you’ll just never feel better!”
“That’s a rather unkind thing to say for someone who’s supposed to be my girlfriend,” Hubert accuses, standing up and brushing the dirt off his jacket.
Pao-Lin, too, gets to her feet, using her staff as support. “Well, I can’t just lose to you on purpose. That wouldn’t be respecting you as a fighter! Besides, you’d only feel better if you beat me all on your own.”
“Precisely.” Hubert takes up his blades from where they had been resting on a crate and snaps them back together. “I’m offended that you would think so little of my abilities as to automatically assume defeat on my part.”
“Oh. Sorry. But I’ve won most of our spars, you know.”
“Just barely. Of course, I intend to change that.” He throws her a challenging smile. “Shall we continue?”
Pao-Lin beams. “Ready when you are!”
It doesn’t ever occur to her that she should feel guilty in any way for enjoying this new (and arguably improved) Hubert. Things will wear off soon enough, so why not have fun while it lasts?***
Reality sets in a little under two weeks after the initial change. When Pao-Lin arrives at the barracks for kung fu lessons one afternoon, she finds Hubert leaning against a wall with his arms crossed, staring at the ground. At her approach, he doesn’t smile, but merely nods at her. Pao-Lin can’t say she’s not disappointed — in truth, she’s feeling more disappointed than she expected to be — but she’s still glad to see him, as she always is.
On the other hand, Hubert seems like he doesn’t want to be there at all. He tenses when Pao-Lin comes close to correct his posture, and doesn’t speak more than the minimum required to get small talk out of the way or to ask for clarification on something. With every minute that passes, he retreats further behind successive walls of stony silence. When the lesson ends, he simply turns and makes a beeline for the door.
“Hey,” Pao-Lin says softly, and Hubert stops. “What’s wrong? This isn’t like you.”
A bitter laugh. “Grown accustomed to that other me, have you? Well, I can’t say I’m surprised.”
“Wh-what?” That hadn’t been what she’d meant at all...
He turns his head barely enough for Pao-Lin to see his profile over his shoulder. “There’s no point in dragging this out longer than necessary. The truth of the matter is that I will never be that person again. Barring any similar Shift in the future, anyway.” His voice is achingly flat, a barren emotional wasteland. “I think you’re better off finding someone more reliably agreeable to spend your days with.”
And with that, he exits the barracks, sharp and sure.
For a few moments, the shock of heartbreak freezes Pao-Lin to her place. She understands what he’s saying, but doesn’t understand
it, and this paradox traps her mind in a loop of disbelief, turning his words over and over again as if that will unearth the sense in them. But of course Pao-Lin finds exactly nothing, leaving her to chase after Hubert for answers.
“Wait! Hubert!” She catches up with him halfway to the main path, grabbing his hand. “What’s going on? Tell me.”
“There’s nothing more to say,” Hubert coldly declares, shaking off her grip and still refusing to face her. “I’m breaking off our arrangement, Pao-Lin. You don’t have to stay with me anymore.”
“But...of course I want to stay with you...” Every word she speaks feels like a sharp rock in her throat. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Didn’t you find my modified self more pleasing, more compatible with your own personality?”
“And didn’t you express a wish for me to be more like that?”
“What — ” A furious headshake. “I said you didn’t have to! It’s not important!”
Hubert whirls on her, his gaze hard. “Oh, really? It was of no importance, yet you felt a need to request it anyway? Lying is quite unbecoming of you, you know.”
“I’m not lying! I like you the way you are normally!”
“Even now, after knowing I could be more favorable to you?”
“Well...yeah.” She couldn’t possibly love him if she didn’t, right?
He stares at her. Slowly, his anger morphs into bewilderment that matches Pao-Lin’s own. “...you’re serious.”
Pao-Lin frowns at him. “Of course I’m serious,” she snaps. More softly: “Hubert, I don’t understand. Why are you so upset? Why do you want to...” She can’t even bring herself to say it because it hurts so much to merely think
about Hubert leaving her. And she’s terrified because she has no idea how things even got to this point in the first place.
It takes a strained silence to get the answer out of Hubert.
“I can’t make you happy anymore,” he mutters, sounding defeated.
“I’m no fool; I know I have my flaws. And this Shift has only made them all the more apparent.” He turns his gaze away again. “How could I possibly ever live up to the ideal you’ve experienced these past two weeks, the person that gave you such joy? Every day from here on out can only be a pale shadow of that for you.
“You wished for me to be more like my Shifted self, but I fear that in the end it may be more than I can ever give. There are simply some parts of me that are...” Hubert’s brow furrows as he trails off. His hands curl a little, as though grasping something. “You deserve someone better,” he finishes instead.
“But I don’t want ‘someone better’!” Pao-Lin insists, her voice trembling. “I just want you!
He shakes his head. “You’re generous to a fault, Pao-Lin. It will lead you down terrible roads if you’re not careful.”
Pao-Lin gazes at Hubert through hot, burning eyes. Seconds pass like hours as she quietly mulls over his words, each one a brick in the invisible wall that’s sprung up between them.
“Are you mad at me?” she whispers. “For...saying things like that?”
“No, that’s not it,” Hubert says, but Pao-Lin has condemned herself anyway.
“I’m sorry!” she cries. “I d-didn’t mean to hurt you...I just thought...!”
No, she hadn’t
thought — and therein lies the entire issue, it seems.
Pao-Lin buries her face in her hands, a last-ditch attempt to dam the sudden flow of tears. Words don’t come as easily as the tears do: anything she wants to say stubbornly refuses to let itself be spoken aloud, shattering into sobs the moment she opens her mouth. Every muscle in her body tenses as she tries to drag excuses and explanations to the surface. In the end, she only manages a single plea.
“Please...d-don’t leave me...”
A light breeze sighs softly over the path and through the nearby trees, carrying with it the faint sound of footsteps and swishing fabric. In her sorrow, Pao-Lin thinks it’s Hubert walking away from her — until she feels his arms wrap around her.
“Do you really want me to stay?” he asks after a long minute, his voice sounding uncharacteristically small.
She sniffles loudly against his chest. “Of course.”
“...very well. If...if you’re certain.” Pao-Lin sags against him with relief, and he gently rubs her back, causing the wings concealed under her clothes to twitch a little. “I’m sorry. I only thought to spare you more disappointment later.”
“Idiot.” Normally Pao-Lin would default to just calling him silly
, but this time she really thinks he’s being stupid. Which is a novel experience for her. “I’d be way more disappointed if I didn’t have you around at all.” She hugs him as tightly as she can, trying to reassure him. It’s strange for Hubert to be so...insecure. She’d never considered that he might share the same worries she has of not being a good enough partner. Is this another Shift at work?
Or is she seeing a different side of the real Hubert?
“Pao-Lin,” he wheezes, “I can’t breathe.”
“Oh. Sorry.” Pao-Lin lets go of him before rubbing some of the remaining wetness from her face with her sweatshirt sleeve.
“I should make amends for distressing you like this,” Hubert says.
She tilts her head. “Huh? But...I was the one who upset you first, wasn’t I?”
“It was entirely my misunderstanding. I can see that now.”
“Well, don’t worry about it. It’s fine.”
fine! Upsetting you this badly for nothing is unacceptable.” He rests his hands loosely on her shoulders. “Tell me how I can make this up to you.”
Pao-Lin is about to tell Hubert that he doesn’t have to, but stops, thinking. Maybe he’d feel better if she did let him to do something? But she doesn’t really want or need anything else from him now that she knows they’re still together.
“Well,” she muses, “if you really want to...then just kiss me.”
Hubert blinks at her, clearly disbelieving. “That’s it?”
“Sure!” Then, as an afterthought: “If you make it really good.”
The words have barely left her mouth before Hubert leans in and does exactly as she’s requested.
When he finally breaks away, Pao-Lin finds herself reeling a bit, her body trembling with a strange warmth. That...definitely isn’t how he usually kisses her. He didn’t even kiss her like that when he was Shifted, she doesn’t think.
“Is that all right?” Hubert asks, a little breathless himself.
It takes a moment before Pao-Lin registers the question. Then it takes half a moment for her to simply respond with another kiss, because really: what more needs to be said?