Cover by A. R. Shellnut
I’m so excited to share this chapter with everyone! Editing Chapter Ten was so much fun to edit. I finished in one day. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.
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She had not in her worst nightmares imagined she would be bringing her boyfriend home to meet her mother any time soon, but of course reality had to prove it could be worse than anything her mind might make up on its own. As soon as her mother learned she was in a relationship she started demanding that Rina bring the boy home to meet her. Her mother insisted on the meeting happening as soon as possible without giving any logical consideration to either of their schedules. After Rina tried to stall her for several weeks, her mother decided she would see them both at her earliest convenience, which of course meant Saturday.
Hibiki took the news in stride. He insisted he was fine with meeting her mother. He remained completely calm and made her a bit self conscious about her own case of nerves. She knew if she had to meet his parents she would be at least a little bit nervous.
They left on Saturday morning. Hibiki drove and Rina navigated the way to her mother’s house. The reason for the trip made it less than an ideal way to spend a Saturday morning, but she could never regret a drive with Hibiki.
For a short while in the car she managed to forget her apprehension and just enjoy the time she spent with her boyfriend. Her reason for postponing this meeting until her mother insisted had also kept the Rina and Hibiki from seeing each other more than once a week. When they reached the outskirts of her hometown and she was reminded of their mission and butterflies appeared in her stomach.
Soon she would see her mother and her mother would see Hibiki. She hoped for a smooth introduction followed by her mother’s approval. Imagining anything other than approval made her feel queasy. If her mother did not approve she knew it would make her life very, very difficult.
Rina always liked riding in Hibiki’s car so that proved to be a decent distraction. Although far from new, it was not so terribly messy that she felt dirty or claustrophobic from sitting in the passenger seat. The back seat was a bit less tidy, but it was not filled with the garbage she saw in so many other cars on campus. His back seat contained a variety of books, blankets, and his back pack. She could not do anything to find fault with anyone who kept a small library with them in their car.
Today she only had a small purse with her. Lately their outings, when they could find the time, had her backpack full of study supplies and books joining his collection in the back seat. Unfortunately, she knew better than to think that there was any hope of getting homework done while on this particular trip. Hibiki would be certainly distracted by her mother’s constant questions for the entirety of their visit and he would not be given much of a chance to do much else. If they were lucky Rina might have enough time to show him around her home town for an hour or so, but that would be contingent on her being able to convince her mother that they need to leave earlier in the day than was actually the case.
She reminded herself to fib to her mother about the time they needed to leave as soon as they arrived so she could get the little lie in place early and make it seem like less of a lame excuse. She wondered how early she could make it without coming across as though she were actually lying. She decided four o’clock was an acceptable time to say they needed to leave. Any sooner and it would be obvious what they were trying to do, and any later and they would have no time left to themselves. She felt a bit guilty for intentionally cutting a visit home short, but with her mind unable to imagine the day going well she wanted an escape plan.
“If my mother asks, we have to leave by four, okay?” she announced.
“Any particular reason why we have to leave by four?”
“Do you want the real reason, or a possible reason we could tell my mother?”
“Let’s start with the real reason, and if necessary we’ll delve into potential falsehoods.”
“Okay. So, I’m pretty sure my mother is going to ask you way too many questions and you’re going to be absolutely miserable during the whole ordeal. If we tell her from the start that we have to leave by four then you only have to deal with it for a couple hours. Then we will be free and I can show you around the town a bit before we have to drive back.”
“Sounds fair enough to me. Don’t think we will get caught, do you?”
“Of course not.”
“Has your mother ever caught you in a lie before?”
“Well, yes, but not lately!”
“Do you think this is the best way for me to make a first impression with her? If she is going to be questioning me as much as you seem to think, wouldn’t me lying to her about anything at all result in even more damage to our chances of having a good relationship?”
“I didn’t really consider that. I’ve been more worried about her making you miserable and you never wanting to come home with me again.”
“She can’t possibly be that bad, you know. I think you are worrying about nothing. I’m fully prepared to deal with an overprotective mother. If she knows how great you are she has every right to try to protect you from someone who might be unworthy.”
“I don’t need to be protected from you.”
“Maybe not, but from your mother’s perspective I’m someone who could be a negative influence, someone who might derail all of the plans you’ve made for yourself. Haven’t you heard all of those cautionary tales about young girls who throw their lives away to be with the man they love and end up regretting it because they neglected their education and eventually the guy left them in the dust?”
“That would never happen to me though.”
“You’re right. You’re much too stubborn to allow anyone to get you off track, which is why I suppose we are still going through with your original plan to get us away from your mother before it is too late.”
“You know me so well.”
“Let’s say you have plans with a study group or something later tonight and I have to get you back in time for that.”
“Works for me. Thanks so much for going along with this.”
“If this is going to be as bad as you think it is going to be I would hate to think that I missed an opportunity to get out of it.”
“Well, I do hope it won’t be that bad.”
“It won’t be.”
“You can’t possibly know that for sure.”
“I still know it won’t be. You’re panicking and you always jump to very negative conclusions when you are panicking.”
With a plan in place they arrived at her mother’s house. Rina was quite pleased with herself for navigating the entire way without getting them lost once. She typically took the train home and did not pay close attention when her mother did drive her back to campus, so she had not been entirely confident in her direction giving abilities today. It all worked out in the end and soon enough they were welcomed into her mother’s living room while she introduced herself to Hibiki and insisted he use her given name, Leah. Then she served them iced tea.
This quiet, ordinary start to the visit only made Rina more nervous. Her mother never served her iced tea or much of anything at all when she came home. She felt like a guest in her own home. She supposed her mother was trying to be hospitable to Hibiki, but she could not help feeling as though she was now out of place somehow. She hoped it was just a one time thing.
The questioning began very shortly after her mother asked her about her classes and she, very deftly in her opinion, snuck in the line about needing to leave by four in the afternoon. As far as she could tell her mother did not mind and thought nothing of it.
She tried not to focus on the questions and answers that were volleyed back and forth between her mother and Hibiki. If she did she would only end up worrying her way through the entire exchange. She did her best to keep her mind elsewhere while not appearing to be rude and check completely out of the conversation.
Her mother did her best to keep her involved in the discussion, probably in a weak attempt to hide the fact that she was actually trying to determine if she should find fault with her only daughter’s first serious boyfriend. Rina was forced to half listen so she could be prepared to respond to any part of the hybrid question and answer session and discussion that might pertain to her. Being fully engaged in the conversation seemed to risky considering how nervous she felt while blocking out as much as she could.
As the afternoon progressed she did start to relax. They moved from the living room to the kitchen, and her mother served them milk and cookies.
Hibiki took it all in stride. She could not help but be proud of him, because she knew her mother was not pulling any punches.
So far she knew all about his major, his college GPA, his plans beyond graduation, his high school academic record, his extra curricular activities in college as well as high school and junior high, his family life, his friends and how long he had known them, and now she had moved onto the much dreaded subject of his love life before he met Rina.
Although she had tried her best to ignore the rest of the discussion up until this point because it was either a repeat of what she had already heard or she felt that it was going too far and she had no reason to know these things until Hibiki was good and ready to volunteer that information to her, she could not stop herself from giving in to the temptation to hear about his dating history. She knew this was probably the last thing he wanted her to hear about in this way, but she had been the tiniest bit curious for a while now, and she had never found the courage to ask him herself. She made a mental note to somehow subtly thank her mother for getting him to divulge this information without making her ask him herself.
“Well, I’ve never really dated all that much at all. It was never one of my priorities because my family had always taught me to focus on my education first and foremost. That’s why I never worked during the school year either. I don’t think my parents would have outright banned me from dating, but I was a sort of subliminally discouraged from prioritizing romance over preparing for my future. I did take a girl to prom though, and I had a date for homecoming sophomore year — the one year I went to the dance.”
“And what about during college? This is your third year, correct? Have you dated anyone other than my daughter Rina?”
“I had a brief relationship with a girl my freshmen year, but it was never serious and just sort of fizzled out after a few weeks.”
“I see. So you’ve never had a serious, long term relationship before. How am I supposed to trust you to take this relationship seriously? Am I supposed to believe that you are suddenly ready and capable of having a mature, long term relationship?”
“Mother!” Rina exclaimed.
“I need to know I can trust him,” her mother explained offhandedly. “I don’t want to think of you running around with a boy that can’t realize how good he’s got it with you.”
“Leah, I promise you I am very much interested in having a serious, long term relationship with Rina. One of the first things I noticed about her is that she is serious about everything she pursues, and I can do nothing less than respect that part of her personality.”
“I’m glad to hear you respect her. I hardly know anything that’s going on with her these days. She’s always been a private girl, but the last year or so she has taken it to the extreme. I hope you can understand why I felt I could not just trust you based on what I had heard since I heard so little.”
“I completely understand. When I heard you wanted to meet me I expected nothing less than a thorough interview from you.”
“Good. I’m glad you understand the importance of my questions and did not think I was prying into your life just for the sake of prying.”
“Mother, it’s almost four. We should really get going soon,” Rina chimed in.
“Ah. Well, we still have a few more minutes before you need to run off, don’t we?” her mother asked. “Rina, I’d like a few minutes alone with you. Will you excuse us, Hibiki?”
“Of course,” he replied graciously.
“Why do you need to talk to me alone?” Rina demanded.
“I just have some matters I would like to discuss with you that would be better said privately in my opinion.”
Rina could imagine where this was going. Her mother was going to bad mouth Hibiki to her in another room. Something he had said did not sit well with her and she was going to try to convince Rina to break things off. She wanted nothing to do with it, and she knew she had the courage to call her mother’s bluff.
“Whatever it is you have to discuss with me I am perfectly comfortable discussing right here. You don’t mind do you, Hibiki?”
He squirmed a bit in his seat. She realized she put him in an awkward position. He could either go against her and side with her mother or risk angering her mother by siding with her.
“I’ll be fine with whatever the two of you decide,” he said.
“Mother, what is it you wanted to say to me.”
Mother looked shocked. Whatever words she had to say must not have been terribly kind or she would not have let this change in plans bother her. To Rina this only solidified her belief that something very nasty was waiting beneath the surface. She only hoped that whatever her mother decided to say would not make her seem like a bad person for putting Hibiki in the middle of it.
Mother stood up and gave Rina a long, hard look that made her feel about five years old again. She had to wonder if she could manage to endure the look long enough to actually return to her actual age. The intensity her mother’s withering glare made that feel like an extremely unlikely eventuality.
“Rina, I’d like to speak to you in the other room for a moment,” she spoke slowly and carefully.
With that tone of voice in play now there was no way she could resist her mother’s will. That tone was used throughout her childhood to indicate she must obey or face severe punishment. She had not ignored that tone in a long time and she did not particularly like the idea of finding out what a severe punishment for a young adult of nineteen might be.
They went into the next room and her mother immediately began to speak in rushed, hushed tones. This set Rina on her guard and she tensed up and prepared herself for the worst.
“I don’t think this boy is doing you any good. You look exhausted. You’re wearing yourself too thin. Something has got to go before you make yourself sick, and I think we both know what it is that you have to give up.”
“I’m fine. I’m not giving anyone or anything up. People everywhere are able to study and date at the same time. Half the time we get together to study anyway so seeing him hardly cuts into my time for schoolwork. Anyway, I am an adult now so I get to make these decisions for myself. You’ve stated your opinion to me, but the final decision has to be my own.”
“You’re so pale and and those dark circles under your eyes are worse every time I see you lately. I’m concerned you’ve taken on too much this year.”
“I’ll be fine. I promise. Think of it this way: Hibiki is going to make sure I take care of myself. Now you have a second pair of eyes on me in addition to Corine. If I do get sick one of them will notice and make sure I’m okay. You have even less to worry about now.”
Her mother sighed. “He seems like a very nice boy, but I still think you are stretching yourself too thin.”
“Just trust me, okay. I know how much I can handle, and when I’ve taken on too much.”
“I do trust you,” her mother insisted.
“Then please just let me use my own judgment about my life right now.”
She could not stand this conversation for even a moment longer so she turned and hurried back into the kitchen. As soon as she saw Hibiki’s face she was convinced that he must have heard that entire exchange and was mortified.
“Oh! Look at that! It’s after four! We’ve got to go,” she announced with unnecessary volume that only served to make her wince.
She had no idea what to do with her hands, or the rest of her body for that matter while she was in this tizzy of embarrassment so she started to clear the table. Mean while her mother returned to the kitchen and Hibiki said goodbye to her with all due courtesy.
After a moment of extreme awkwardness brought on by her inability to stop tidying up she finally said goodbye to her mother as well. Hibiki then half ushered her out of the house. When they made it to his car her nerves had frazzled enough to leave her shaking and barely able to open the door to the car.
She leaned forward in the seat until her forehead rested against the dashboard. For a moment she just sat quietly like that waiting for her thoughts to settle down enough for her to speak and function properly again.
She turned, looked over at Hibiki and said, “See? I told you we were going to need an excuse to leave.”
Souma caught her by surprise. Usually he gave her an estimate for when he would return and he was even more prompt than usual this time. He arrived even before she woke up on the day he promised to come home again.
He decided to wake her up by crouching down next to her and poking her cheek, and he very nearly received a fist to the face as she was startled and caught off guard. He leaned back to avoid her swing and lost his balance. He sat on the floor a bit further away while Yuzuki woke up enough to come to her senses.
She sat up, stretched and yawned all before she opened her eyes. Even then she blinked blearily at him a few times before her sleepy mind caught on to exactly what her eyes were seeing. Her mind very slowly processed the events that had transpired before she woke up completely. She gasped and jumped out of her bed.
Before either of them had a chance to say anything she launched herself at him and pinned him down with a huge bear hug.
“You’re home!” she exclaimed. She squeezed him hard.
“Yeah. I’m home.”
“Not really. I told you I’d be home today.”
She let him out of the bear hug and gave him a mock stern glare.
“You’re never home this early in the day.”
“No, I suppose not. Is that a bad thing?”
She shook her head. “Not at all. I was waiting and waiting for you to come back.”
“I told you it would be today,” he laughed.
“I know. I know. I’ve just been a little sick of being alone.”
She tried to keep him from knowing the true extent of her loneliness. Although her feelings of paranoia had gradually lessened over the days it still seemed to come back every night as the sun went down and she could not as easily see the surrounding area. Every night she once again became almost positive that she would see her father coming out of the shadows. She knew it was silly so she decided to keep these notions to herself.
The last thing she wanted to do was spoil her time with Souma by making him think that she was paranoid, crazy or more likely both. She would rather change the subject than give him the chance to push the subject any further.
“I’m just glad you’re here,” she insisted. “Did you bring me anything?”
“Of course,” he replied.
He got up and tousled her hair on his way over to the pack he had left on the floor by the door.
She stood up and eagerly followed him over to see what sort of present he brought her this time.
“Let’s see… do you want food first or your present?”
She furrowed her brow to make it appear that she was deep in thought. She could go the predictable and perfectly natural route and ask for her present first, or she could be practical and ask for the food first. That might surprise him, and she was curious to see if he brought her a rabbit like she’d been hoping.
She put her hands on her hips and straightened up, hopefully making herself seem more mature and practical in the process before announcing her decision.
“Let’s see the food first. I’ll need to know what it is so I can start planning our dinner.”
“Of course,” he agreed with a serious nod. “Very sensible.”
She beamed and bounced on her heels in anticipation.
He produced two rabbits from inside his pack, and Yuzuki could hardly keep herself under control. She had been wanting rabbit for at least two weeks, and even tried hunting for one herself before she remembered that the idea of killing an animal herself turned her stomach.
“I know just how I want to cook these!”
He smiled at her and that was all the encouragement she needed. She hurried to the kitchen and set to work on the rabbits.
A few minutes later Souma joined her. He leaned against the wall and watched her skin the rabbits.
“Don’t you want to see your present?”
In her excitement she really had forgotten that there was a gift in the pack for her other than the rabbits. She felt like such a grown up caring more about practical things than little gifts. She did not mind getting presents of course. Life would get pretty boring after a while if the only things Souma brought home for her were food.
“You probably won’t want to touch it with dirty hands so I’ll just show it to you for now.”
“Is it something fancy?” she asked.
Now that he brought the present up again she was growing more and more curious about what was still waiting for her in his pack. If he was this eager to show it to her then she could not help but expect pretty spectacular little present.
“I don’t know about fancy, but I think you’ll like it,” he said, stalling to make her wait even longer.
“Well, what is it?”
She grew impatient, but options were limited while her hands were covered in rabbits’ blood. She wanted to get the stew started and there was no time to waste skinning them and cutting the meat into pieces. He seemed to be purposely taking his sweet time getting her present out now. Maybe acting as though the food was more important had not actually been in her best interest. All this waiting just made her feel twitchy.
“Here,” he said and held a small object in his palm out to her.
In the center of his palm was a hair comb made of a crystalline blue material. She had no idea what the material might be, but she loved the way it sparkled in the light.
She spoke quietly as she seemed to be rendered nearly breathless by the sight of the beautiful comb. “So pretty…. It looks like an icicle.”
“It is an icicle,” Souma announced with a bit of pride in his voice. “I met a youkai tradesman who specializes in unmelting ice. I thought you might like it.”
“I do like it!”
All she wanted to do was try out the comb, but she needed to finish making her stew before she could do anything at all with it.