Cover by A. R. Shellnut
It’s finally here! November went by without any new chapters due to NaNoWriMo. Now I am back with a lot more chapters waiting patiently for me to clean them up and post them online.
I think this chapter really gets the story moving. There are still some parts I’m not 100% happy with, but over all I’m very excited to get this chapter out there and in front of my readers.
I would like to thank my supporters on Patreon for their vote of confidence in me and my work. It means the world to me. If you like The Dreams and would like to support it please check out my Patreon.
Once she had been officially asked out on a date by Hibiki, Rina immediately thought about calling Corine. She knew her friend would love to hear the news. On some level she also wanted very much to be told exactly what she needed to do in order to be ready for a date. At the same time she knew that she would not get a moment’s peace once her dear friend found out about this particular piece of news.
She elected to keep this particular update in her life to herself for the time being. There would be time for girl talk after the date took place. Until then Rina knew she needed to do what she could to keep herself from losing her mind and her nerve.
Losing her nerve appeared to be a very likely outcome at this point. Every day since she agreed to go on this date made it feel less likely to ever happen. Dating had never been a top priority for her, and since starting college she had abstained from that particular social activity altogether.
Then out of nowhere she just happened to be introduced to a guy that she felt like she could really see herself getting close to. This had not been a part of her plan. The plan involved studying and working hard to keep her scholarships and hopefully graduate a semester or two early. The plan did not ever for even a moment include dating.
Now she had a date, and if this date went well she could not imagine herself being able to say no to another date with him. As badly as she wanted to keep her plans on track, she also had to admit that she wanted this to work out.
She gave herself way too much time to get ready for the date. Of course she did not want to run out of time, but she did not have a wardrobe that gave her a lot of options for an evening out on the town. She picked something comfortable that also looked nice, at least in her humble, uninformed opinion. For shoes she had a choice of her one pair of dress shoes or sneakers so for once her decision was an easy one.
Make up proved to be a bit of an obstacle. She had a very limited supply of make up and only a small bit of knowledge regarding how to use what she did have. With a bit of experimenting she decided less really was more when it came to this sort of thing and just stopped.
After looking herself over in the mirror and deciding she looked at least as presentable as she had the first time she had met Hibiki, she sat down at her desk and tried to think of a way to pass the time. Hibiki was not due to pick her up for another 37 minutes. That was a lot of time to wait, and it would only be made longer as she knew she would start to think and in turn that would only lead to her worrying about the future.
She worried about the future far too often. Allowing herself to worry about things she could control — like upcoming tests — was one thing, but she worried even more about social situations where her actions and decisions were only a small part of the overall equation. She needed to distract herself and find a way to stay as relaxed as possible.
There was not much she could do in 37 minutes. A walk would be out of the question. There was not enough time to play a game or watch a movie either. She opened a drawer in her desk and pulled out a dog-eared paperback.
Sometimes a worn out book was the most comforting friend a person could have.
The time actually passed quickly once she got a few pages into the book. She almost forgot what she had been waiting for in the first place when her phone rang. The sound of her ring tone snapped her back out of her escape to the realm of fiction. Once more in the realm of reality, she quickly picked up her phone.
Hibiki was on time. That was a good start.
Outside of her dorm she found him waiting at the entrance to the building. She let out a sigh of relief. Finding him in an unknown car in the parking lot would not have been a particularly pleasant task.
With that worry out of the way she was able to greet him and get things off on the right foot.
He led the way to his car. She followed half a step behind him and tried to stop herself from being utterly overwhelmed by the sudden sensation of butterflies in her stomach. This was a date… an honest to goodness date with a guy she could really see herself liking.
She could not even hide the fact that she was nervous, but she felt as though her excitement on this particular occasion probably out shined her nerves. No complaints in that regard from her. She would rather appear a bit too excited to be on a date than seem to be falling apart from out of control anxiety.
Their conversation on the drive to the restaurant came in staccato bursts, which convinced Rina she was not the only one with a case of the nerves this evening. She just hoped that he understood that she did not allow the silences to stretch on longer than might be considered polite because she was not interested in talking to him, but rather because she found her excitement to be rising to such a level that she could not bring herself to think clearly enough to carry on a conversation beyond the first few initial volleys, and coming up with something entirely new to say on her own was out of the question while in this state of near bursting joy.
She could not stop smiling. She hoped this made it readily apparent that she was in fact enjoying herself and the awkwardness was not brought on by her lack of desire to be on this date, but was just her latent personality quirks being put through the wringer as she was abruptly in a situation where she actually needed to socialize rather than keep to herself as she would within her comfort zone.
By the time Hibiki parked the car she started to calm down a bit. Every time she glanced over at him during one of the many lulls in the conversation she spotted him smiling as well. That alone reassured her enough so that she could begin to calm down and actually be an active participant in the date.
They were eating at one of the diners in town. All of these places were essentially the same with slightly different trimmings, but that did not matter to Rina at all on this day. Today would be unique no matter how ordinary the location or the activity might be, because she had the pleasure of getting to know Hibiki here.
They got a booth in the nearly empty diner. She sat down across from him and did her best not to fiddle with the jelly packets provided on the table. Hibiki looked fidgety to her as well, but she knew there was no way she could bring that into the conversation without making everything so much worse.
He laughed quietly and shook his head. “I’m sorry I’ve been making this so uncomfortable for you. I’m just a little bit nervous.”
“It’s okay,” she insisted. “I’m pretty nervous myself.”
“What are we so nervous about though?
She shook her head. “I don’t know. I just don’t do this sort of thing very often, so I’m a little unsure as to what I should be doing right now.”
“Talking with you is good enough for me. Let’s not worry about what we should be doing and do what we enjoy.”
“I like the way you think.”
“How are your classes going?”
“Well enough, I suppose. You know how things tend to be at this time of the year. I know what the professors want from me finally, but the course work is starting to build up, and if I let myself start to slip up I’ll end up falling behind on one thing or another.”
“At least fall break is coming up. You’ll be able to catch up on anything you overlooked then.”
She nodded. “How are your classes? Is senior year as insane as it looks like it will be?”
“I don’t know if I’d call it insane. It’s a bit odd actually. Everyone is so focused on graduating and getting those last classes in so they can graduate, but even now there are people that are just done with everything.”
“Do you know what you want to do after you graduate?”
“I don’t really know yet. My mother wants me to move back home and get a job with my father, but I think I’d like to get out on my own for a couple years and then maybe go back to school for my master’s.”
Rina leaned forward. “Your master’s? What would you be going back to study?”
“I’m not sure yet. If I find a job I like I might try to get a degree to go further in that field, but I honestly have no idea what I want to do with my life yet. What about you? Do you have plans past graduation?”
She smiled and fiddled with the assortment of condiments on the table again. “I don’t know what I want to do with my life. I feel like school is the only thing I’ve ever been good at so the thought of leaving it behind is just bizarre to me.”
“So more school?”
“Probably,” she sighed. “That’s if I can afford it, of course.”
“Maybe you could get a job teaching?”
Her heart nearly skipped a beat upon hearing that same old suggestion again. Whenever she told someone she loved school they told her she should become a teacher, and she rarely had a chance to make her point about learning and teaching being two different things. Things had been going so well and now there was her old nemesis coming to make this conversation as tedious and awkward as most of the other she had on an average day.
“Teaching just isn’t the same as being the one being taught. I don’t think I have it in me to be up in front of a class for hours every day.”
He nodded. “Maybe something research-based might be more up your alley. If you’re lucky you might be able to find work at one of the big universities doing that sort of thing. It won’t bring in much money though.”
“I don’t need a lot of money. I can live at home, or find room mates, or something. I could make it work. If that’s something I could even end up doing, that is.”
“I think you could. You’re very determined. I’ve only known you a few days and I can tell that about you already. If you decided this is what you wanted then you would be able to do it, I’m sure of it.”
“Thanks. I guess I should be grateful that I still have some time to figure all of this stuff out, right?”
“Yeah. I’m running out of time.”
“You’ll figure something out.”
“If you say so.”
“Who knows. Maybe I’ll help you come up with a plan or something. I’m very determined after all.”
Once they started talking they did not stop. Not even the slow service in the diner managed to put a damper on their good time. She barely noticed how long it took for their food to arrive because the conversation just seemed to be happening so naturally that even interruptions on the part of their waitress were glossed over in her mind.
After their meal the original plan had been to see a movie, but they discovered their meal took longer than they had expected. Instead they opted to walk through the park where they could more easily continue their conversation without worrying about interrupting or disturbing others.
The topic of discussion drifted from one thing to another without either party having to make an effort to shift the subject. They talked about their families and childhoods: Hibiki’s rather traditional nuclear family with both parents and a younger sibling at home, and Rina’s life with just her mother after her father left them.
Normally she did not like talking about her father, or rather her lack of a father with people she just met. The subject was even more uncomfortable when she knew the other person had an unbroken family. She did not mind telling him though. In every topic they touched upon he made her feel as though her opinion was valid and valued. For that reason alone she felt as though she could afford to risk getting onto the subject of her family. She trusted him to not be insensitive.
He lived up to her expectations. Their walk was going great until the shoes she picked out to wear for the evening decided to turn against her and hurt her feet.
At first she tried to ignore it and hope it would not get any worse, but the sore places continued to be rubbed the wrong way by the shoes and the pain only grew worse. She had ignored it in hopes of not interrupting the conversation to bring up something unpleasant, but soon her mind started to fill up with thoughts of blood and blisters.
“I think I need to sit down,” she announced abruptly in the middle of an unrelated conversation.
By the time they made it to one of the benches places along the path Rina’s face was burning with embarrassment. She plopped down on the bench as soon as they reached it, but even that did not bring her relief from the oppressive shoes.
She looked around for a moment to see how many people would be present for her moment of shame. The path was empty at the moment except for Hibiki and herself. She did not feel any better for reaching that realization.
“Just so you know,” she added with a nervous waver in her voice, “I don’t usually take my shoes off for a guy on the first date.”
A faint flicker of a smile appeared on his face but disappeared into his concern again before she had a chance to give it much thought. She wished she was more at leisure to analyze that smile but her feet insisted on holding her attention at the moment.
She very carefully took her shoe off only to experience an entirely new sort of pain as the pressure on the injury was relieved. She ever so carefully slid down her sock to get a look at the wound. One spot on her ankle had been rubbed raw by the shoe.
Her mind immediately started racing to think up a way to avoid putting her shoe back on that would still allow her to make it back to the car. She just could not fathom putting her shoe back on now that knew what damage had already been done. That was if she could even bear putting the shoe back on without doing something to treat her injury first.
Her other foot had to be in similar shape considering how it felt. On one hand she did not want to take that shoe off to check because she knew she would not be able to go get it back on without causing even more pain. She would not have an easy time walking back to the car with only one shoe on either, so she decided the best course of action available to her at this moment was to just take off her other shoe as well and try to walk back barefoot.
She steeled her nerves and got the second shoe off in much less time. Now she had to figure out what to do with her socks and shoes, as well as how she would play this off to Hibiki who, for his part, was doing a commendable job of not making this situation any more humiliating than it already was for her. With very few options available to her, Rina took her socks with their grotesque spots of blood and stuffed them inside her disappointing shoes.
When she stood up she tried to meet her date’s eyes without blushing in embarrassment of the odd scenario she had managed to include in their evening. She failed utterly and completely.
Hibiki continued to handle it all with more grace than she could have mustered with a month’s worth of preparation. He was not irritated by their plans being derailed once again. In fact, he somehow had already perfected the mix of concern and aloofness that put her at ease without smothering her with attempts to fix the problem for her.
She tried her best to smile but could not get the corners of her mouth to turn upward convincingly. She lifted her shoes up a bit as a weak demonstration of her current predicament. “Do you think we could head back to your car now? I don’t think I’m up for much more walking.”
“Of course,” he agreed. He moved to her side and seemed ready to lend her an arm to lean on.
His way of speaking and moving made it clear that he wanted to make this as painless for her as possible without saying as much. She appreciated that he was not falling over himself trying to express excessive amounts of concern for her well being. Both of them were sensible enough to realize this was more of an inconvenience than a serious health concern.
The path was not even terribly unpleasant on her bare feet. The evening was starting to cool down, but the sun had warmed this pavement enough to keep her unprotected feet from getting too cold. She still stepped gingerly, partly out of fear of any stray pebbles that might dig into the soles of her feet and partially because the ragged edges of her wounds pulled a bit with every step she took.
As was most likely inevitable she stepped on a pebble in just the wrong way and had her balance thrown off for a second as a result. Before she could so much as stumble Hibiki’s hand was on her arm steadying her. She looked over at him and he smiled ever so slightly in silent reply.
“You can hold onto my arm if you want,” he offered.
“Thank you,” she half-whispered.
She felt a bit silly holding onto his arm in a similar fashion to the manner in which she typically saw in fancy-pants old time movies while walking barefoot along a park path. As silly as she might feel, she had to admit that it did serve a very useful purpose. She stumbled much less while holding onto Hibiki than she did while trying to traverse the path on her own.
Holding his arm like this was not so bad from the date perspective either. A bit of innocent physical contact was completely okay in her book even on a first date. Her embarrassment came from showing weakness to someone she wished to show her best self to rather than from the conduct she had actual control over on this date.
She had to admit she liked holding his arm like this. She had warmed up to the idea quickly. Being close by his side did not make her feel uncomfortable at all. If anything her small set back this evening actually helped to bring about this pleasant development.
The only down side to the current turn of events happened to be that they had lost the thread of pleasant conversation they had been following since they were at the diner. She had been too distracted at first to really miss the dialog, but now that her own thoughts had settled down a bit more she found herself feeling the loss.
Just walking with Hibiki was nice though. They did not need to be constantly chattering back and forth to feel a connection. He remained attentive and pointed out upcoming bumps in the path to her and even offered to carry her shoes for her, which she politely refused.
Finally they made it back to Hibiki’s car. He opened the passenger side door for her and she gratefully sat down and gave her sore feet a break. Hibiki then opened the back door and reached under the seat and pulled out a small first aid kit.
“Would you like some bandages for your feet?” he asked while offering her the first aid kit.
“Oh. Thank you,” she said as she accepted the kit.
“Use whatever you need,” he insisted.
He walked around the car and go in the driver’s seat. He waited for her to clean and bandage her injuries before returning the first aid kit to the back seat and starting the car.
The conversation picked up a bit again as they drove back to Rina’s dorm. She tried to keep the conversation light in hopes of avoiding it ever drifting back toward her unfortunate wounds.
He stopped the car as close as he could to the front door of her dorm. She appreciated the attempt to shorten her walking distance, but knowing that it meant they could not take their time saying goodbye she did not know if she really wanted this particular convenience.
“I had a good time tonight,” she said awkwardly.
“You mean aside from your shoes trying to shred your feet, right?”
“Yeah. Aside from that part.”
“I had a good time too. Would it be okay for me to call you next week?”
“Yeah. I’d like that.”
“Okay. I hope your feet feel better soon.”
“Thanks. Have a good night.”
She got out of the car and immediately regretted not kissing him goodnight, but she did not have the nerve to turn around and correct her mistake. All she could do was take solace in knowing that he would be calling her in a few days and all signs indicated that she would be seeing him again.
She had been fast asleep when she heard something tapping outside her window. At first she resigned herself to ignore whatever it might be out there. Since she was already grounded she did not want to do anything that might anger either of her parents any further.
Her ears twitched as she heard another tap from outside. Whatever it might be, she had a feeling she would end up in even more trouble if the noise attracted the attention of her father. No matter what she did or tried to say he did not relent in his efforts to make sure she did not even have a chance to consider stepping out of line. If she did nothing she would risk being in as much trouble as if she went outside to investigate.
She slid open the window and peeked outside. The shadows cast by the faint moonlight played tricks on her minds while her eyes adjusted. Her gaze darted across the darkened ground and scanned the tree line, trying to find a source for the tapping sound. As her eyes grew used to the faint blue moonlight she spotted Souma stepping out of the shadows and nearly tripped over her own feet backing away from the window.
Of course the one person her family specifically wanted her to avoid had come to see her in the middle of the night. Speaking to him here and now could very well get them both killed.
She froze in place a few steps back from the window. His presence sent her mind racing in several directions. The safety loving old Yuzuki wanted him to go away so she could keep her head down and get back in her parents’ good graces as soon as possible. The new Yuzuki knew all of her choices in this situation were dangerous, and maintaining the status quo would eventually destroy her. Her only chance was to take a risk.
“Yuzuki? Are you okay?” Souma whispered from the window.
She crept back toward him. “I’m okay.”
“I was worried. After the way your father acted, and then you stopped coming to the garden…”
“I’m not allowed to leave the house.”
“Well if you aren’t coming out I’m going to come inside,” he threatened.
“But we’ll wake everyone up if I walk out of the house,” she protested.
“Climb out the window.”
“I can’t do that. I’ll get in trouble.”
“Only if you get caught, and you’re already in trouble.”
She was starting to think that her mother might have had a point telling her to stay away from Souma. Tonight his only intent seemed to be to get her into even more trouble. In fact, now that she looked at the event from a different angle, she was in trouble in the first place because he decided to start talking to her out of the blue. He might not be her friend after all.
“Go away. I’m not going to get in any more trouble because of you.”
“You think this is my fault?”
“If you hadn’t started talking to me I wouldn’t have gotten in trouble in the first place.”
“Do you really believe that?”
His question did give her pause. Lately a lot of rules she could not understand had been forced upon her, but the no speaking to Souma rule had been in place at least since before Motoko ran away. Nonetheless, she could almost believe these rules had been set up to ensure she would get grounded and cut off from the outside world. More than anything she wanted to be able to believe Souma. Her world was falling apart at an alarming rate ever since meeting him, but her instincts told her he was not the catalyst for her problems.
For the past few weeks her instincts had been thrown into overdrive and she found herself looking at almost everyone in her life under a new, less naive, and not so trusting light, but those instincts had only served to make her opinion of Souma more favorable. Her memories felt like a fog in her own mind and now that fog was finally starting to lift away. Now she found herself presented with the choice to put her full trust in her instincts or try to realign her unclouded mind with her old way of perceiving the world.
Yuzuki certainly did not want to stick her head in the sand and try to go back. She doubted she could at this point. The world had been painted in too harsh a light for her to go back to believing it could be soft and warm.
“I’m coming out,” she announced in a hushed tone.
She climbed out the window and Souma helped her down to the ground on the outside. For a moment she held her breath and listened carefully for signs of movement inside the house. Her father had a knack for just knowing she was doing something wrong so she just expected to be caught within a minute.
He led her a short distance away from the house before speaking. “You must realize now how dangerous Takeshi can be.”
“I don’t know if he’s dangerous,” she said hastily.
“You saw him the other day. He’s locked you away from the world for talking to someone when he doesn’t approve. I could tell from the look in your eyes then and the look in your eyes now that you’re afraid.”
Words failed her so she had to resort to nodding in agreement. Every day she had more time to think, and every day she grew more aware that she had every reason to be afraid.
“I’m leaving here soon. I should have left before now,” he spoke quickly and the abruptly trailed off.
“Why? Why would you leave?”
“Because I can’t force the people here to change so I’m going somewhere they can’t get to me anymore. You should come with me.”
“I can’t leave. I couldn’t survive on my own. You know I’m practically useless.”
“You aren’t though. You just need an opportunity to learn.”
“But who would teach me if I ran away?”
“Look, I’m not going to kidnap you or anything like that, but don’t take too long thinking about it either. I’m not staying much longer. I can’t.”
“It would be better if you went without me anyway. I’d only slow you down.”
He shook his head. A nerve-wrecking silence fell over them. Yuzuki could almost swear she heard even the crickets slow down and one by one fall silent. The silence seemed to settle down around her and as it build up the absence of sound felt as though it would suffocate her if she gave it the chance. At the same time breaking the silence terrified her.
As much as she liked Souma, sometimes the things he said made her afraid to even think. Thinking around him almost inevitably ended up being one of the most painful experiences in her life. As much as she tried to hide and avoid the points he tried to make, those very points would find her again and again until she was worn down and finally came to yet another uncomfortable conclusion. Before she usually just felt safer going about her day without questioning anything, or looking for the answers. Ignoring questions was harder and harder now that she had started to see the world in a different light.
“Let’s go.” He broke the silence abruptly. “I shouldn’t keep you out here any longer than is absolutely necessary, and, well, we’re not getting anywhere right now.”
She nodded. Her confusion was starting to solidify in her brain and she knew soon she would shut down completely for a while and nothing would get in or would get out. Words were already failing her. Soon she would lose her ability to move altogether. She could still think clearly enough to know that she wanted to be back in her home when that happened.
Souma walked back with her and helped her climb back through the window. She did everything she could to be silent, but her mind continued to lock up and her body grew ever more clumsy as she found the attachment between her mind and body to be broken down.
She knew this feeling of panic, and she also knew she could take comfort in the knowledge that she would start to feel normal again once this initial wave of panic subsided. Right now she just needed to survive until that time.