Cover by A. R. Shellnut
This chapter gave me all sorts of trouble. Hopefully it was all worth it. Be sure to let me know what you think!
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Rina missed her first class of of the semester on a crisp fall day. The sun was up and shining brightly on the multicolored leaves outside her window, but she had no energy to force herself to get up and out of bed. She could not remember the last time she ever felt so tired.
The night before she even went to bed early without finishing her assignments. Today marked the first time she ever failed to complete an assignment before its due date. She could not help but wish she had enough time to sleep and still get her work done.
It was turning out to be a day full of first times that only served to make her feel even worse than she did already. Thinking about it just made her want to crawl even deeper under her comforter.
Her biggest concern at the moment was hiding herself from the offending sunlight. She knew she needed sleep, and the sleep she got lately proved to be so greatly inferior to true sleep that she could sleep day and night and still wake up a week later exhausted.
She might not be able to cure her state of exhaustion by missing a class or even a full day’s worth of classes, but she could not force herself out of bed today. Willpower kept her going for days, but now it was not enough. Her usually strong sense of responsibility was eroded away by the harsh waves of exhaustion that tormented her constantly now. Missing her classes did nothing to ensure she would recover and be better able to function tomorrow, but ignoring this problem would not make it go away. Willpower alone did her no good, and at least today she lacked the energy to find another solution. By tomorrow she hoped to find something other than her withering willpower left deep down inside.
Even skipping class still required her to get out of bed for at least a few moments to at least email her professor. She tried to get up and actually walk the few, short feet from her bed to her desk, but actually getting on her feet was a bit much for her. Even with intense concentration her body only responded sluggishly. Climbing halfway out of bed and dragging her laptop back into bed with her proved to be much easier, at least psychologically. Physiologically she barely held herself together and nearly tipped out of bed and fell on the floor in the process of retrieving her computer.
Compared to retrieving the laptop sending out an email required only minimal effort. Then she faced the prospect of returning the laptop to her desk. Her muscles felt like jelly and gave no indication of recovering so she tucked the laptop next to her pillow. This way when she decided she could not manage to get out of bed later either then she would not have to endure the ordeal or retrieving the laptop once again for another email writing session.
Until then she had at least a few hours to try to sleep again. She pulled her blankets up over her head to thoroughly block out any and all sunlight that dared to try and find her eyes this morning. Even with the sun in her eyes she knew she would have no problems falling asleep. Nothing could keep her awake for long once she gave herself permission to sleep these days.
She drifted off to sleep while thinking about sending a text to Hibiki so he would not worry. She was asleep before she had a chance to act.
“Do you have to go again so soon?” Yuzuki complained.
“I’m afraid so. This was only a stopover. I’ve still got to actually make a profit off this job.”
“I know. I was just sort of hoping that you might be home a little bit longer this time.”
He sighed. “We need some sort of income. I know sometimes you get a little bit bored around here, but I’m sure you’ll find some way to occupy yourself soon.”
She shifted in place from one foot to the other. She had told herself she would not bother Souma with her silly feelings of paranoia, but now it seemed to be stopping her from letting him go as easily as she normally would. Admitting such foolishness to him still pained her a bit. His sensibility caused him to always try to find answers to her problems. All of this independence still made her uneasy so she relied on his opinion and advice to supplement her own ideas on most matter. She felt silly for even thinking of bringing this matter up.
Then again, keeping quiet would leave her worrying nonstop until Souma came home again and distracted her. A short period of humiliation after putting her paranoia into words just might end up being worth it if she could finally have some piece of mind. These thoughts had been eating her up ever since she bought fabric at the general store.
More likely than not her mind was playing tricks on her. Souma had done everything he could to make sure they lived in a safe place and she even added her own precautions since then. She was perfectly safe here at home.
She had seconds to decide to speak up or not. If he said that he was leaving then he would not be sticking around for too much longer.
She screwed up her courage and chose to risk feeling foolish. “Souma, I keep thinking my father might have followed us here. I feel like I’m losing my mind.”
He did not laugh. Having her concern taken seriously after denying it herself for days was a relief. Her feeling of relief quickly slipped away as distress took its place. If he took this seriously then there was at least a slight possibility that her father might be somewhere near by. Paranoia gave way to terror.
“I don’t think he would be able to find us here. We were careful when we left and it’s not as though we traveled in a straight line on our way here. And then there’s your little barrier. I can’t imagine he could find us if he tried.” Souma purposely maintained steady eye contact with her as spoke.
She sighed. He tried to understand, but apparently did not really believe her concerns. He would leave and she would just go back to her paranoid delusions and looking over her shoulder at every turn, expecting every sound to have an evil source. She wanted to cry out of frustration.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he pleaded. “I’ll take some extra time and check around. I’d hate to think of leaving you here with no peace of mind.”
She tried to smile at this piece of good news but her worries had drained her. She wanted to express her gratitude but her whole body seemed to be going to pieces with pure relief.
If anything was wrong, anything at all, Souma would find it and everything would be fine. If her father was out there lying in wait he would chase him away and hopefully make sure her father would never, ever try to find them again. What ever the outcome of his search might be she was absolutely positive Souma could make it better again and she would have nothing more to worry about. Finally she managed to squeak out a small thank you before he climbed down the tree to do his round of inspections.
While he was gone she found it utterly impossible to remain still. She paced from one end of the room to the other on weak and shaky legs that barely tolerated the force and momentum required to propel her across the room. She barely noticed this physical weakness. Her mind was filled first with relief and then sudden anxiety for Souma’s well being. She wished for everything to be good again so badly that she started to feel faint. For now she felt like she was floating about three inches above the space her body actually occupied. She tried to wring her hands out of nervous habit but fumbled the attempt quite pitifully.
The longer she waited the harder it became for her to breathe. Finally she could not keep herself moving forward any longer. Her legs gave out beneath her in the middle of the floor and she tried to get her breathing back under control before she lost control of more than just her legs.
Her wait dragged on for what felt to her like an eternity while she rapidly lost feeling in her limbs. Then she waited a little while longer while intense pins and needles first built up in her arms and then gradually began to recede.
Every second felt as though it would tear her heart out of her chest while she wondered what was taking Souma so long. She wanted him to be thorough so there could be no doubt left in her mind, but the longer he was gone the more concerned she became that something happened to him. Someone — maybe not her father, but still someone bad — could be out there waiting and Souma could be in grave danger while she was an immobile ball of nerves all but glued to the floor. She tried to at least listen for sounds of a fight or Souma’s return, but she heard nothing beyond her own ragged breathing.
She regretted ever sending him out there. She wished she would have kept her mouth shut. Her old worries would have been preferable to this hell. Tears were running down her face but she could not remember crying. She knew she had damned Souma by sending him out on this security check.
Finally her hurricane of emotions began to calm down. She ran out of energy for this extreme state of anxious fear. Her heart slowed to a more reasonable pace and she regained some of the feeling in her limbs. This allowed her mind to stop racing from one awful scenario to another, but she felt utterly drained and could do nothing with her hard won clarity of thought.
Of course her father could not have found them here. She had created this little pocket dimension herself. She wove the walls so only she and Souma could pass through. To everyone else there was nothing special about this clearing, and they could even walk right on through with no problem. They had tested it, and it really did work just as she intended.
Even if someone had seen them coming or going, and she reminded herself that was unlikely since there was never anyone else this far out in the forest anyway, they would only see them disappear in one step. A human would probably rub their eyes in disbelief, but a kitsune like her father would know what it meant. He would know they were well defended in this place.
She sat in a state of faux calm when Souma returned. She struggled to her feet and made her way over to meet him. She could not wait any longer to know what he saw out there.
“Well,” she started impatiently. “What did you see?”
“Nothing,” he insisted. “I saw nothing out of the ordinary out there.”
He patted her on the shoulder. She sagged with relief and very nearly sat down on the floor once again to save herself from impending collapse.
“I’m going to set up a few sentry plants to give you a little extra peace of mind,” he told her. “I’ll just need a drop or two of your blood so the plants will see you as part of their kind. They’ll alert you if anyone actually approaches the tree and do a pretty decent job of barring any further progress. They won’t bother you at all though.”
She smiled but barely understood what had been said to her. She even went along with it when he brought over the needle and pricked her finger. Her blissful haze of relief lasted the entire time Souma spent planting and growing the sentry plants.
By the time he came back to bid his now overdue farewell her senses were finally starting to return to her. She gave him a big hug as a thank you.
“I promise I’ll take care of everything while you’re gone.”
“Just take care of yourself. Don’t worry so much.”
“Will you be gone long?”
“About a week. Then I should have a bit of down time.”
She nodded. “I’ll be here.”
With that he left. Yuzuki still could not tell if she actually felt calm or just numb from her panic.