Cover by A. R. Shellnut
I made it. It’s still Saturday (for me, at least) so I’m not late.
Unlike the last chapter, this one was just awful for me to edit. It’s just my luck that I run into a tough chapter during a holiday week. The chapter is done though, at least to my eyes. As always if you see an error be sure to let me know!
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Rina had waited for this Saturday all semester. Today she took the train back home to visit her mother. She would sleep in her own bed in her own room and her mother would bring her back to school sometime on Sunday.
Last fall she had been home almost every weekend so she thought of her new track record as a marked improvement. She was not entirely sure her mother considered it to be an improvement. Mother still called her nearly every day if Rina did not call her first. Even if she was starting to move on and grow to be an independent person she was fairly certain her mother was not ready for her to do so just yet.
That made this visit home even more important than all the trips last year. She did not want her mother to worry or feel like she was being left behind. Her mother was still very important to her, but she was learning how to be an adult and that entailed a certain degree of independence. She just hoped her mother understood that fact.
She also hoped Hibiki understood why she had to decline a date for tonight. They had rescheduled for later in the week without any problems, but she still worried that he might not understand exactly how important it was for her to go home this weekend. His parents were still together, and his younger brother was still at home. Surely they missed him, but they would not be lonely.
Without her at home her mother was all alone. She had to live with that guilt every day. It was enough to make her wish she at least had the comfort of knowing her mom was in a relationship so she could have someone to eat dinner with on a regular basis, but her mother helped her realize that she did not need to be in a relationship to be a confident, fulfilled woman. Leaving home for the first time last year made her doubt just how fulfilled her mother was after all. Without her around with homework and after school activities her mother seemed to just live to work and stay home alone. She felt as though she was betraying her mother and her upbringing by wishing she had someone in her life.
The train ride lasted only forty minutes — not too long at all. Once the train stopped she did not even have to wait for luggage as she had packed everything she needed for one night in her back pack.
Her mother was waiting in the parking lot of the train station. Her old, blue, steel framed car stood out in the lot full of newer cars with their more modern designs. Rina waved and hurried over to the car. She opened the back door and tossed her back pack in before sitting down in the passenger seat and buckling up.
The drive home was quiet, which was not unusual for their family. Rina got her appreciation for silence from her mother. While so many people were afraid of silence while alone or with others, her mother had taught her at a young age that the quiet moments could be extremely valuable when used for reflection.
She imagined her mother must have even more quiet moments now that she was back at school and not coming home every weekend. She tried her best not to feel guilty, and usually did not have time to dedicate to such feelings. Growing up and going to college was not abandonment. She was not even sure it was possible to abandon a parent by just growing up and moving into another phase of life. She was doing exactly what society expected her to do and there was no way anyone had the right to fault her for it.
“Your grandparents have been asking about you,” her mother said abruptly after several long moments of complete silence in the car.
“Oh? How are they?”
“They’re doing fine. Still as independent as ever, and doing everything in their power to make sure that I know it. I think they’re afraid I’ll put them in a home for no reason. They want to see you. I thought maybe the next time you come home for the weekend we could drive up and see them.”
“Okay. Sounds good,” Rina agreed.
“You’ll be home again before Thanksgiving vacation, right?”
“I guess so. I mean, I can come home just about any weekend you want to see me.”
“Okay. I just didn’t want to pester you to come home. I figure you’re probably busier now than you were last year.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“How’s everything going for you?”
“Pretty well. I’m enjoying my classes. Corine’s her usual self. She took me with her to her cousin’s party and she sort of tried to play match maker with me and this guy her cousin knows and it turns out we actually really like each other. So… I’ve sort of been out with him a couple times over the past few weeks.”
Her babbling announcement might be a bit of a round about way to get the news of her love life actually existing to her mother, but she did not think she had the courage to make it into a normal conversation. A long, rambling mess of a conversation would probably leave her mother out in the dark with no idea what she had just been told.
“Oh, so you have a boyfriend?”
“I guess so? Maybe? I mean, we’ve only been on a few dates. I haven’t called him my boyfriend yet, and I don’t think he’s called me his girlfriend just yet either. Anyway, didn’t you always tell me that it wasn’t proper to consider a relationship to be exclusive until the matter was actually discussed.”
She knew she was just running her mouth on at this point, but she could not bring herself to let her mother get more than a few words in edgewise or worse actually give her a chance to think about the news. She could not quite put her finger on why she was so afraid of her mother’s reaction to the fact that she had a life at college that actually included romantic relationships.
So far in her life romance seemed to be an almost taboo topic between her and her mother. Rina did not think her mother imposed this view on her, but she could not remember a time when she decided that she would try her best to avoid the subject with her mother. It seemed counter intuitive. She had no one else in her life growing up to go to with her trials and tribulations. No one in her life could be relied on more to give her sound advice, but her own love life proved to be too personal to easily share.
Mother had always been alone, at least in her mind. Her father had left so long ago that she barely had any genuine memories of him. Most of what she knew came from stories about times when she was either too small to remember on her own, or from the time before she was born. The few memories she did have that were completely her own did not feature any sort of romantic behavior between her parents. She could not remember a single time she saw them kiss, or even hold hands. After he disappeared from her life she could not think of a single time she knew her mother went on a date and she certainly never brought any boyfriends around.
Dating never seemed important to her mother, and for that reason she never gave it much thought either. Then whenever she did date someone — even just one date that never went any further — she did her best not to bring it up with her mother. Her reasoning being that her mother did not want to hear about dates since it did not that interest her.
Right now she seemed at least passively interested. Possibly her interest only extended as far as curiosity about her only daughter’s life away from home, but she had a tone of voice when asking that made Rina think her mother might actually care about this sort of thing. She found it all very puzzling.
“I’d like to meet this young man sometime. It’s not every day that someone catches your interest.”
“Maybe I’ll bring him around sometime. We can’t always even meet up ourselves because our schedules get too hectic. I’ll have to talk to him about it and see when might work for him, okay?”
“You haven’t even told me his name yet. Unless you want me to keep calling him your young man…”
Her mother was teasing her about a boy. This could not really be happening.
“Hibiki. His name is Hibiki.”
“Well, I want you to tell Hibiki that I do need to meet him sooner rather than later if he wants to continue to see you. I need to make sure he understands that you are a serious girl, but that doesn’t mean this needs to be a serious relationship between you two.”
She stared at her mother, absolutely shocked. Of all of the reactions to this bit of news she had expected this was not one of them. The idea of her mother saying that sort of thing to Hibiki made her want to dig a hole in the ground and go live in it forever, hiding far, far away from the humiliation that would inevitably take over her life if that event ever transpired.
She wanted to argue with her mother. She wanted to tell her Hibiki understood her and respected her. He did not need a lecture on the subject. Now she suspected her mother did not understand her nearly as well as she thought.
That realization soured her entire visit home.
Her mother had taken up glass painting since she moved back to school and they spent quite a bit of time looking at some of her mother’s recent creations. Then Rina had some alone time in her old bedroom to work on a reading assignment she could not afford to put off entirely until Sunday evening. She tried to focus on the assignment, but she found it too strange to be working in an area so different from the dorm room she surprised herself by thinking of as her home. She felt more homesick for that room than she did for the room she sat in now, a room she had called her own for many years.
Now nearly everything she loved had been moved to her dorm room. This room was far from bare, but all of the items of significance were missing. Her mother had not converted it to some other purpose as so many television sitcoms loved to imply was the norm, but even so the room no longer belonged to her.
She could not properly relax in this house anymore. Overnight she became a guest and no one noticed except her. She felt unsettled and out of place no matter which room she was in or what she was doing. So much was still the same, but also very different from the way she always remembered it. Even her mother matched her memory, but somehow managed to be different in the most upsetting way possible.
All in all she made it back to college exhausted from a bad night’s sleep in her own bed and stressed out by all the minute changes, but very relieved. She found her home, and it was not where she expected it to be. She had made her own home.
She knew she would do this sort of thing one day, but she had not expected to move on from her childhood home quite so soon. She thought it might happen with her first apartment after college, and most likely when she finally bought a home, but she never at any point had expected to feel so at home in a dorm room. Defying her own expectations, she had a home and she had found it all by herself.
After traveling for enough days for her to lose count Souma finally declared that they were far enough away from the village to escape all likely detection. He had often expressed his assumption that they would not be followed as they were not nearly important enough to warrant any sort of inconvenience by way of forming a search party to chase after them. Yuzuki was not at all sure how far away they might be.
Their sleep schedule had been nearly nonexistent for the duration of their travels. Some days they might sleep several times for only an hour or two at a time, and another they found a well hidden cave and they both slept until they were fully rested. Day or night did not matter. They traveled when they — and they usually meant Yuzuki as Souma seemed capable of traveling for days on end — had energy to go on, and only rested when forward motion became an impossibility.
As far as Yuzuki could estimate at this time they had been traveling on foot for at least a week and possibly as much as two weeks. At the time of Souma’s declaration Yuzuki was too exhausted to think clearly, and certainly did not care to work out such a detail in a conversation with Souma, although she was sure that he knew exactly how long they had been traveling.
Upon hearing the declaration that their travels were over Yuzuki lost all will to remain standing and sat down in the grass. She looked around and tried to imagine where they would be staying tonight. She sat in a bit of grass just barely within the shade of a tree at the edge of a small clearing. Unless she had missed something obvious there was no shelter here. She had hoped for some sort of structure to already be in place. Now it seemed she would endure at least a few more days out in the elements, and she was certainly not looking forward to it. Now she just wanted to be warm and dry when she went to sleep and to wake up in the same state the next morning.
Doing something about the lack of safe shelter required energy she did not have at the moment. Knowing that her journey was at an end completely drained her of all energy. Whatever fluke of nature kept her moving for so long finally gave out. All she could do now was sit and try to recover some semblance of a will to move again.
Through heavy lidded eyes she watched Souma rummaging through his pack and then wander around the clearing a few times. Compared to her near constant state of exhaustion his endurance seemed boundless. She wondered if she could somehow find a way to borrow some of his energy.
“Souma, what are you doing?” she asked while stretching languidly.
He glanced over at her distractedly and continued his methodical pacing without saying a word for a few moments. She lacked the energy to ask him again. She knew he would either tell her or she would eventually figure it out on her own.
She got her answer once she gave up all hope of figure out what he was doing by watching him.
He sounded as though his thoughts were miles away. It was almost enough to cause her concern, but she did not have the will power at the moment to muster much concern.
“I’m going to plant this tree,” he explained, holding up the seed in his hand. “Then I’m going to make it grow until we have a decent place to live. I just need to find the perfect spot to plant it.”
He circled the clearing one more time before kneeling down and planting the seed in ground just a few feet off the center of the clearing. He remained in his crouched position over the seed and seemed to be in a trance like state.
Yuzuki was intrigued, but did not want to interrupt whatever he was doing. As one moment stretched into the next her curiosity built up to an unbearable level and she gathered her very last reserves of strength and ever so quietly tip-toed across the clearing to see what had Souma so enraptured.
Silently she leaned over Souma’s shoulder. Then she saw the tiniest sprout of a sapling poke its way up through the soil. She gasped and sat down next to Souma.
She did not wish to miss a second of the miraculous growth of this tiny tree. At the same time she was astonished by the intense aura of focus surrounding Souma. He radiated power, focus, and determination and it had an intense calming effect on her.
She watched his hair moving in a breeze that she could not feel. The silvery-white tendrils gently lifted up and away from his shoulders and back and she found it impossible to look away even though she might miss whatever happened with the tree. Mesmerized by his hair, she very nearly failed to notice the sudden explosion of growth from the young tree.
Souma grabbed her around the waist and pulled her out of harm’s way just before the now huge tree knocked her over. His beautiful, silky hair no longer held her transfixed. Now the entirety of her attention turned to the utterly gigantic tree that filled the center of the clearing.
Calling this place a clearing was no longer appropriate. The space was nearly as shady as the surrounding forest with the upper branches of the tree filtering out the direct sunlight. Yuzuki sat on the ground staring up at the network of branches climbing higher into the sky than any of the surrounding trees.
She was awestruck. As much as she wanted to gush over the amazing feat she just witnessed, as much as she wanted to tell Souma that he was even more amazing than she had already known him to be, she could not find the ability to speak. Words failed her.
Her sudden muteness did not bother Souma at all. He helped her to her feet and led her over to the trunk of the tree. He remained silent as well. Words seemed almost inappropriate at the moment.
Wordlessly he showed her how to climb up into the tree. About twelve feet up the central trunk branched out in five directions. The central area made a cozy little hollow that was at least as large as the communal room in Yuzuki’s father’s home. With just the two of them in this space it seemed more than spacious enough for their comfort.
Finally Yuzuki’s amazement could not be contained within her shocked silence. She had to tell Souma just how amazing his creation was. She turned to him, her eyes bright and shining with admiration.
She was about to start speaking when she noticed how pale and drawn Souma’s face now appeared. The energy she had so envied in him had all drained away. He looked as tired now as she had felt for days.
“Are you okay?” she asked. Her concern wiped out all of the overly excited thoughts she initially wanted to express.
“Just a little tired,” he insisted.
Seeing him like this alarmed her. She hurried to get a blanket out of her pack with shaking hands. She just wanted to see him back to his usual self. She spread the blanket out in what seemed to her to be the coziest of available corners. Then she led Souma over and allowed him to lay down and go to sleep.
He made an entire, massive tree grow to specifications that made it perfect for habitation. Before today she had not known such a thing was even possible. At the very least he deserved some time to rest and regain his strength.
Now it was her turn to be the strong one. She set to work arranging their meager possessions within the tree house while taking care not to disturb Souma.