2

both the speaker and XXX are confident mysterious types, at the moment the reader isn't that informed about either character

XXX provokes MC to do something shocking,

XXXの顔が、強ばった状態から、恐怖へと変わる。

そこで初めて、自分の表情が『平時』ではない事に気付いた。

At this point who is 自分? is it obvious? At this point i thought it was referring to XXX noticing that she lost her composure for a moment. (this was indeed the first time the reader has seen this happen).

MC「すまん、急だったから手加減が出来なかった」

あまり恐がらせたくは無かった。

普通の学園生活を送れるかも知れない、そんなまやかしを、少しは信じていたかった。無理矢理、信じようとしていた。

reading a bit further I lean toward the MC constantly trying to put on a "『平時』" face to live out a normal life. And not putting on that sort of face made XXX scared.

in general, I feel that i have to work back to confirm if 自分 (and 自身/自ら as well) in a prior sentence was referring to who i initially thought it was more often that it should happen.

Is there a general rule of thumb to determine who 自分 is referring to without purely relying on context?

2

It's protagonist's. You can interpret that the protagonist's facial expression made XXX frightened.

It it was XXX's, perspective would abruptly change, which is quite unnatural.

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