Cover by A. R. Shellnut
Once again I’m just barely getting this chapter done in time to post it on Saturday.
I really like this chapter. I hope you’ll enjoy it too. As always, if you see any errors be sure to let me know.
My supporters continue to be the best. Knowing you guys are counting on me really keeps me going. Thank you for keeping me accountable!
Hibiki would be coming over any minute now. Rina was ready. Since they had been on a few more dates she had finally started to relax a bit. After the second date she had stopped stressing about the clothes she wore. Now she had stopped worrying about thinking up fun and exciting things to do with him. Being with him was enough, and she thought the feeling was mutual.
Tonight they were studying together. Corine told her that was a lame date idea, but Corine did not like studying, and, well, she and Hibiki both took their academic careers very seriously and they could see each other more if they studied together rather than separately. Tonight they were staying in her room and studying, and in her opinion it was just perfect.
As long as she stayed positive she knew she had nothing to worry about. She had cleaned her room so she had no fear of humiliation by way of her housekeeping skills. She focused as much as she could on making this place as guest ready as possible. If she worried about being a good hostess then she did not have time to worry about the possible implications associated with inviting a boy she had been seeing fairly regularly into her room.
Her entire home at this point was a bedroom, but the invitation to her bedroom was still there and she knew it. She did not want to be nervous about such things. She wanted to believe that she had no reason to be nervous about these things with Hibiki, but she was not a stupid girl, and she knew that even the nicest people she seemed to sync up with the most could still at times misinterpret her motivations. Allowing her mind to accept this fact, even giving herself a chance to confront such a notion was enough to set her into a spiral of panic. She knew she had to keep busy. Without time to think much she would not have time to come up with excuses to worry.
She tidied and straightened up until the moment her phone buzzed on her desk. Quickly, she checked her text messages. Perfect. Hibiki was just on time. She hurried out to let him into the building.
He had never been inside her dorm before. All of their dates prior to this one took place else where. Hibiki came to pick her up and Rina exited the building and off they went. Now he finally got to come inside.
Spending too much time in the hallway outside her room seemed like a bad idea to Rina. Usually nothing too strange happened in this building, but knowing her luck today would be the day someone decided to get sloppy drunk in the hallway. It had happened on other floors before, but so far the rooms around her had been spared from any such incident. At this point they were probably over due for some chaos.
Overall her floor of the building was a quiet one. She had the only single room, but the other rooms all had girls that kept reasonable hours and got along just fine with their room mates so things tended to be quiet and peaceful.
“Here’s my room,” she announced before cringing at how lame the statement sounded.
She opened the door and allowed Hibiki to enter ahead of her. As he took in the room she watched him for signs of disapproval or disgust. So far he seemed to be completely content, but she could not stop herself from worrying.
“Um. I don’t have a lot of spare seating options, so you can take the desk chair and I’ll sit on the bed if that’s okay with you.”
“Sounds perfect,” he replied.
He crossed the room and sat down at her desk with ease that made Rina believe he could not possibly be feeling even the least bit nervous about being in her room. She tried her best to emulate his cool demeanor as she crossed the room herself.
“So what do you have to work on today?” she asked.
He pulled a notebook and a thick textbook out of his bag and sat them on her desk. From her seat on the bed she could not see the title of the book.
“I have a history exam in two days so I need to memorize names and dates. What about you?”
She held up her anthropology text and made a silly face.
“Three chapters with a vocabulary quiz tomorrow. Do you think you could drill me on the vocab list after I finish the reading?”
“Sure. You want to drill me on these history chapters after that?”
“Sounds like a plan to me.”
After that short exchange they fell silent and got to work. Rina found it nice to have someone to study with that actually wanted to study as much as she did, but at the same time she missed talking to Hibiki. Most of their time together up until this point had been spent talking and now it felt almost wrong to be so quiet with him.
Once she focused on the chapter she had to read the silence stopped seeming out of place. She found her study zone and once she made it there almost nothing took her out of it until she was good and ready to leave. With that mindset she made great progress on her reading assignment and soon had her full vocabulary list made and she had practically drilled the words into her brain.
Then as seamlessly as she fell into her study zone she rose back into the world of full awareness. She looked up from her work and glanced over at her desk. Hibiki was watching her intently from her desk chair. He seemed lost in thought while watching her and did not immediately notice or care that she was now watching him watch her.
She smiled at him. He smiled back.
“Were you waiting for me to finish?”
“Yes, but not for long. And I was enjoying the view during my wait.”
Rina blushed. “Are you ready for me to quiz you on those chapters?”
“Sure.” He picked up his book, handed it opened to the correct chapter over to her and then moved to sit next to her on the bed. “Ask me anything. I should know it all.”
She could feel herself growing warmer. Soon she would boil over from excessive blushing. He was sitting so close to her — as was necessitated by the narrow single bed — that she could touch him if she just leaned over ever so slightly. On all of their dates they had never been this close. It was exciting, but she always found herself worrying when her face heated up and her heart started to beat so hard it might nearly pound out of her chest.
“Won’t you be able to peek if you’re sitting right next to me?” she managed to squeak out.
“I could,” he admitted, “but I won’t.”
His arm draped over her shoulders and drew her slightly closer to him. Rina would certainly have blushed more if she had not already reach her maximum blushing capability already. She did manage to feel a bit light headed to make up for it. Their study date suddenly took a turn more toward the date side of things when they had been so comfortably settled in the study side of things thus far.
“I’m glad I can trust you to be honorable.”
“Of course. I know cheating my way into the answer won’t do me any good in class.”
She looked down at the book in her lap and tried to scan the paragraphs to see if she could glean out a good question to begin quizzing Hibiki. The words blurred together and the only thing her brain wanted to focus on was the arm over her shoulders. She liked the way it felt, but had no idea how to let him know how she felt about it.
She turned to look at him and he quickly kissed her. It was a brief encounter, more than a peck on the lips, but still barely more than a brush of their lips together. A spark of electricity ran through her from the brief contact. That shock left her without words for a moment. It did cure her of her inability to look him in the eyes. His eyes were a shade of light brown that caught the light in the room and changed facets of his iris to a amber hue. Now she could not stop looking at him.
He reached out and tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. She leaned in and kissed him, lingering longer than he had dared.
As she pulled back she took pleasure in seeing his satisfied smile. She did not know what had come over her. She had never initiated a kiss before. She had never kissed like that before. Up until today all of her kisses so far had been dry, boring pecks on the lips that were given mostly out of custom at the end of a date. Kissing in the middle of a date — kissing like this at all — was completely new territory for her.
“I hope this isn’t moving too fast for you,” Hibiki said as his fingers brushed against her cheek.
“Oh no. Not at all. Now that we’ve made it here I’m pretty sure this pace is just perfect.”
“Oh good. I’d been hoping you’d give me some signal since our first date, but then you got so worked up over your shoes that I couldn’t tell and since then I’ve been worrying I missed my chance.”
“Well, I think that it turned out perfectly. No complaints here at all.”
“Good. I’m glad. Now I’m not sure if I can stop kissing you.”
“Maybe I don’t want you to stop.”
She leaned in again so their noses were nearly touching. She could not explain what had come over her. There was nothing in this that she could consider to be part of her normal behavior. All of this qualified as unexplored territory for her. For once it felt right to actually step outside of her comfort zone so she put faith in herself to know where the new boundaries would be placed and not to cross those lines until she was good and ready.
“What about studying?” he teased.
“We did study. Drilling each other on vocab and dates is just bonus studying.”
“Yes. I see. I suppose our grades won’t suffer too greatly if we take a short recess.”
“Indeed,” she could barely stop herself from giggling.
He kissed her again and very nearly took her breath away. She liked to think that she could get used to this.
After running away from home Yuzuki expected to be a bit more isolated than she had been back home — no, no that place could no longer be called her home. She forbid herself from thinking of that place as home. This tree was her home now and for the most part she was more than happy to call it that. Souma more than proved that he had thought long and hard about what he would do when he finally left the village and that he came prepared. All she had thought to bring had been food and clothing. For a time she thought that was just about all that Souma had brought as well, but now she knew how wrong she had been.
It had only looked like his pack was only full of food and clothes because his other supplies were so small. She had not noticed all of the seeds he had brought along until he started using them.
The tree had been the first, and the most taxing on him. They spent their first night in this new home in a bare tree that, while specially formed to have some lovely accommodating rooms where the branches split from the main trunk of the tree, had the potential to become cozy, but was still very bare, and would not do for more than a few nights.
Fortunately, after sleeping well into the following morning Souma had recovered enough of his energy to get out more of his seeds and start to actually fill in their home with other plants that served a variety of uses. He brought so many seeds with him, and many of them grew into plants that she had never seen before in her life.
She loved these plants. They were amazing, and Souma was even more amazing in her eyes because of them. Her hands down favorite of these mysterious plants from far away were the ones that emitted a pleasant warmth that kept their little hollows within the tree branches warm and cozy even when the wind picked up and the smaller branches were rattling and the leaves were shaking. Ever since they grew in she had taken to sleeping right next to one. It was far better than sharing a bed with her younger siblings. Now she never had to worry about her blanket being stolen or getting kicked. She loved that.
She loved having her own space. She loved having things she could call her own and knowing that they would not be taken from her and passed on to a younger sibling and knowing that the things she received were not being passed down to her from an older sibling who had recently outgrown the item. This was her home and these were her things. Of course some of these things belonged to Souma, and things that they shared, but it was still a wonderful feeling of freedom for Yuzuki.
Now she felt even more independent. Souma, always much more sensible and put together than her, had declared that he would go out and find work in the wider world to get them the things that they could not make or grow for themselves. The plan came with good intentions and was vague enough to make it impossible for Yuzuki to argue. Some things they would need they could not produce for themselves either from lack of knowledge and skill, or simply because of their current location. For those things they needed some sort of employment so they could purchase or trade for the goods.
For now Souma was out there on his own working to provide for them. Yuzuki felt a bit uncomfortable with the idea of having him take care of her like this. She vowed to find some sort of employment for herself as well before too much time passed by. Until then she could try to figure out what sort of job she could do.
At the moment she did not feel ready to leave their new house. She had a project that was occupying most of her energy and could not be done anywhere else.
She wondered if she might be a bit too paranoid, but after having the notion haunt her dreams for a few nights in a row she knew she needed to act. She kept worrying that her father would come after her, and manage to find her. While they were still traveling she convinced herself that Takeshi would not be interested in actually pursuing her so she was safe as soon as she made her escape.
In her sleep she was not so confident. He might look for her. It was within his power to head out and search for her. There was a chance that he would do so, and it was only a chance that he would look far enough and in the right direction to find her. Even though she tried to be reasonable about the odds, she could not hide the fact that it might happen from herself.
This worry brought her to attempt the greatest feat of magic she had ever attempted in her life.
She was not a particularly proficient user of fox-magic or any of the other sorts of magic typically learned by kits, but she had been taught. She thought through her plan carefully during one of the nights she could not get back to sleep for all of the worry scampering around in her brain.
The biggest stumbling block for her would be her lack of strength. She needed to stay close to work on this project for days on end at a pace that would not leave her completely drained and unable to support the unfinished work and prevent it from collapsing in on itself.
A stronger, more experienced kitsune might be able to create a pocket dimension in one go, but this was the first time she ever attempted something larger than a personal hiding space, and Souma’s tree was absolutely enormous.
Souma supported her plan when she shared it with him and only teasingly requested that he be allowed back in once she was done. She readily agreed to this stipulation.
Now she was home alone more often than not. Souma traveled to find his work, and he was usually quite good at coming back home at regular intervals but she still went days at a time without having anyone at all to talk to. Most days that was not so bad in her opinion. The rainy days were the worst as she was stuck inside and had a limited number of things to do to amuse herself.
When she sun was shining she had a much easier time keeping herself busy. In an almost cruel twist of fate that the responsibility for keeping the garden in order now fell almost entirely on her. At home she was always extremely loathe to do anything in the garden, but now that there was no one else to do the job she found that she did not hate it nearly as much. She needed to keep the plants happy and healthy if she wanted to have enough food to eat while she was hiding at home on her own.
So far she was pretty much entirely home bound. Since they settled here she had not wandered very far from their house. The only time she had gone far enough to lose sight of their huge tree was when she was with Souma. While home alone she was too afraid of losing her sense of direction and becoming hopelessly lost to dare to go too far away.
From talking to Souma she knew there was a small community not too far from them in the grand scheme of things, but she had not had cause to go that far away just yet. Someday she would like to go that far away, but it would probably be a lot more fun to do so once they had some way to actually buy things in the town. As of right now they were not in a position to be making any purchases of any kind.
For now she tried to be content to stay close. There were still many things that needed to be set to rights to make this place a comfortable home in the long run. Once she stopped feeling like she was making significant progress she was sure that she would not be as content to stay so close all the time.