Cover by A. R. Shellnut
This was another chapter that caused me all sorts of trouble while editing. Hopefully my editing efforts will make it a bit easier to read.
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The moment she had been fighting for weeks finally arrived. Rina screwed up. She missed returning her mother’s call for too long, and now she was here in her dorm room in the middle of the week.
She was in the middle of giving some sort of lecture, but Rina was too tired to even pay attention to what her mother was saying. She wished she cared enough to pay attention, but she wanted to go back to sleep. That’s all she had wanted for what now felt like forever.
She felt tired whenever she was awake. When she went to sleep she was, well, she was nothing. When she fell asleep it seemed as though she did not even exist anymore or perhaps like she had never existed. Everything became about that other world where she lived through the life of someone else, someone not even human. She was this Yuzuki girl every time she fell asleep.
In some ways dreaming about Yuzuki was better than being awake. Yuzuki did not suffer through such aching levels of exhaustion at every moment of the day and night. Her life was far from a cakewalk though, and that frightened her. She woke up still reeling from the angst from a life that did not even belong to her. Stress and anxiety from this other dream life lingered even though those worries had no basis on reality.
Sometimes when her concentration slipped and she dozed off a bit she could hear echoes of thoughts that she was fairly certain were not her own. She could not tell how far out of her mind she might be right now, but she had made a point of avoiding a second opinion up until this point.
Now her mother was here providing that dreaded second opinion, and she was very soon going to be getting a third and possibly fourth and fifth opinion depending where her mother decided to drag her now that she was convinced that she could no longer take care of herself.
She knew she did not have a leg to stand on in defense of herself at this point. At first she missed some classes to get a little extra sleep. Then she started missing entire days of classes. Now there were days she did not leave her room at all and did not even eat because she could not keep herself awake long enough to even make it out the door. Whatever might be going on she had long since passed the point where she could hide it from others. Ignoring the problem did not make it go away.
Her mother’s arrival was a relief, in a way. The problem had snowballed out of control while she had been busy pretending everything would go back to normal. Now her mother was here and would take care of her. She could make her mother speak to the doctors and have her be the one to make sure she would not be put on a ton of medication that will make her act like a zombie. That would hardly be better than the way she felt right now. She hoped her mother would not let them do that to her. She doubted she had the willpower left to fight against the suggestion of medication herself. When she had a bit more energy she needed to tell her not to let them stuff her full of drugs, but right now she lacked the ability to think clearly enough to speak.
Through her brain fog she took a moment to notice her mother packing an over night bag for her. She hated to see her mother doing something she could normally handle herself, but today she lacked the energy to mount even a token protest on behalf of her independence.
Her mother’s silence while collecting her things did nothing to reassure her. She had the quiet sort of calm about her that usually meant she was seething with rage just beneath the surface but wanted to make sure she was the bigger person by not unleashing it in front of anyone.
After fighting with her the day she visited with Hibiki, Rina had not bothered to mend any bridges. She meant to cool off for a day or two, but by then she had started to fall apart and calling her mother had dropped down on her priority list. Looking at the way she had acted she could not blame her mother for being upset with her. Even if her behavior on that day might have been at least slightly justified Rina knew she had crossed a line and needed to apologize, but by the time she gained this perspective she could not muster up the energy to tackle an emotionally grueling conversation with her mother that would almost certainly involve a long lecture.
Somewhere during the bag packing ordeal she lost track of time and herself. Her senses and her awareness of her surroundings came back to her and she was already in her mother’s car. Her mother’s lips were pressed tight together into a thin line. The look on her face was one Rina had experienced while growing up. She looked scared and angry at the same time, a terrible combination for a daughter to see in her mother. Neither of those emotions tempted her to start a conversation. Questions needed to be asked, but at this point the situation felt so far out of her control that she could not summon the courage to speak up. She did not have the energy to deal with a difficult conversation.
Staying awake made everything feel simultaneously fuzzy and burning with a fiery, razor sharp edge. The effort of staying awake with those sensations made her feel more than a little sick. It was too much and she found herself giving in to the temptation to close her eyes again.
When she managed to open her eyes again she was in a sharply sterile waiting room. Her mother was waiting next to her.
“Make sure they don’t turn me into a zombie, okay?”
She went to sleep early that night. After a stressful morning she never quite managed to move past the worry to get on with her day. As soon the sun set she climbed into bed, too drained to even care how badly she had squandered the day. She was asleep almost before her head hit the pillow.
The night passed away in the blink of an eye. She slept deeply and dreamlessly, and she awoke much earlier than she would on a normal day. The lamp plants still glowed blue ever so faintly as they always did during the late hours of the night and earliest hours of the morning. The room was still filled with shadows, but she could not sleep a minute more. She knew her only realistic option was to get out of bed and start her day.
She sat up, stretched and yawned, and then she stopped. Something was very, very wrong.
Of course there was a very real chance that her senses were playing tricks on her. Perhaps this was just the ghost of the anxieties she had been enduring for the past few days rising up again to the surface of her barely conscious mind. That had to be it. She promised herself everything would be fine once the sun came up.
Souma had checked. He told her nothing out of the ordinary was out there. He planted the sentry plants. No one should be able to get to the tree without waking her up. If anything tried to interfere with the barrier to her pocket dimension she would feel it — she had to feed a bit of her fox magic into it at all times to maintain it. Her paranoia had gotten the better of her before and she needed to get a handle on herself to keep from falling into the same oubliette of panic again.
She scanned the room several times over to give herself some peace of mind. Her eyes adjusted to the low light levels in no time at all and she felt she had a pretty good sense of what was there and what was a trick of the shadows. Everything was completely still — a good sign in her opinion. She listened very carefully while breathing as shallowly as possible. She waited. She could hear no breathing in the silence, no snapping twigs, or rustle of leaves or grass. Everything was really and truly silent. Not even a cricket chirped.
Maybe this was normal for such an early hour of the morning. Typically this time of night fell in the middle of a good night’s sleep for her so she did not have much of a basis for comparison. She tried repeatedly to reassure herself that everything was perfectly ordinary, and she almost had herself convinced.
She decided to start her day since falling asleep again would probably be next to impossible. Starting her day extremely early would help her get caught up on everything she neglected the day before.
Before she started to tackle her backlog of chores she needed to eat some breakfast. She placed her feet on the floor. Cold! That explained the lack of crickets. She quickly withdrew her feet back under the blanket and fished around the edge of her bed for a pair of socks that she might have kicked off while in bed. As luck would have it she did find a pair of socks down there and quickly slipped them on.
Now she could walk to the kitchen without freezing her toes. The tree house was still completely silent. Although she knew she was walking normally she thought her footsteps sounded unusually loud this morning. She tried to walk lightly but it made no difference with the lack of other sounds to mask the sound of her footfalls.
Fruit would do nicely as a breakfast this morning as she knew she had a few pieces picked from the garden that would either need to be eaten or preserved very soon. She could not imagine how little food she would have day to day if not for Souma’s amazing ability to make plants grow at a rate that caused them to almost instantly become mature, fruit bearing plants and trees. Without his ability they would have gone through at least one very lean season in regards to the plants and many years in regards to the fruit bearing trees. Sometimes when she thought of all of the food she gathered from their very modest garden she had to wonder why Souma thought it was so important to go out into the world and make money some other way. Surely they could get by just fine with his abilities and then selling whatever excess produce they grew for profit. Working together as farmers sounded much more desirable to her than being alone and scared of shadows for days or weeks at a time.
A hand clapped over her mouth while a strong arm wrapped around her torso and pinned her arms to her sides. She struggled and tried to scream, but both were utterly ineffective. In reaction to her feeble flailing the arm around her torso tightened until she thought she could feel her ribs starting to creak in protest.
“Did you think you would get away from me, Yuzuki?” Takeshi whispered in her ear.
She could hardly breathe. Fear and anger where mixing freely inside of her. Her father was here. Her paranoia was not unfounded. He had been near by and nothing they did to hide themselves had been enough to stop him from getting here and taking her back with him.
He removed his hand from her mouth and stroked her cheek. She knew she could scream if she could just muster up the courage to actually move some air past her vocal cords. Fear had her lungs locked in its cold, clammy grip.
“I’ve been looking for you. You did a good job of hiding yourself away.” The silky smooth tone in his voice sent her stomach roiling.
He leaned in even closer and whispered in her ear. The sensation of his breath on her neck made her skin crawl and she barely kept herself from shutting down completely.
“There was one fatal little flaw in your little protective measures,” he whispered in a sweet voice laced with promises of pain. “Did you not realize you could not use magic tied to your blood in protectives against your own father? You little fool. Our ties are far too close for that.”
His hand was now drifting down below her cheek. She wanted to fight back. She wanted to shove him away from her and make him pay for all of the agony and terror she had to endure because of him. All she could manage to do despite her fantasies of heroic action was stop herself from sobbing as the tears started streaming down her face.
“Your magic barrier is close to my magic as well so don’t think that you can ever just magic yourself away from me.”
His mouth drifted down to her neck now. His tongue flicked out and ran down her neck and along her collar bone.
“Please,” she managed to squeak out.
“Now none of that,” her father snapped, “I don’t want to hear you begging unless I tell you to beg.”
She kept her mouth shut. She needed to remember her silence did not mean that she was submitting to his will. She was defying him in the only way she could while she was being physically restrained by him. Staying silent meant she would not say anything that might play into his scheme. As long as there was no discussion he would not be able to twist her words around and confuse her.
He seemed to take her silence as submission just as she hoped he would. He stroked her hair a few times as though he was rewarding an obedient pet.
“That’s more like it,” he purred. “Now are you going to behave yourself and listen to your father?”
Yuzuki remained silent and completely still. She stared straight ahead and did her best to act as though she did not see, hear, or otherwise take any notice of Takeshi at all. There was no way she was going to break her silence to agree with him. Doing so would make her sick. Even if he wanted agreement and things might get worse for her if she continued to hold her tongue. Her silence became her shield in just one brief moment.
He interpreted her silence as a sign of her lack of will to resist him and he finally released her from his rib crushing grip. Finally she could breathe again, and she took full advantage of the fact. After a few good, deep breaths of the cool morning air her mind clearer even through her panic.
She knew she needed to be strong, but mental strength might not be enough to make a quick escape. There was no hope at all of overpowering her father, but she thought there might be a chance she could outsmart him, or at least trick him so she could escape again. She hoped she found a chance before it was too late.
He was clever. At least, he always seemed clever to her. She had to admit she had never really gone up against her father in any way before. One way or another she managed to fly beneath his radar almost until the very end. Motoko and her mother had served as a buffer for the longest time. Then Motoko left and her mother all but gave up trying to protect her and even seemed to grow resentful of her. She ran before she ever needed to learn how to contend with him herself.
Now things were even worse than they had ever been for her back at home. Here they were alone. She could scream and no one would hear her. She could run, but she would need to run a very long way before she could find a place to take shelter from his inevitable anger. He might very well kill her out here and no one would have any idea what had happened to Yuzuki all alone out in the woods with her father.
Living in the middle of the woods all alone did not seem like such a good way to hide after all. It was just another way she had left herself vulnerable. Living in a village might increase visibility, but it also meant there were neighbors to watch out for each other. No neighbors meant no safety net.
“Oh Yuzuki,” her father sighed and grabbed her by the chin and forced her to look up at him. “You look just like her.”
His words trailed off, but he continued to force her face to remain turned up toward his. She did her best to look anywhere but at him, and tried not to wonder who he was talking about.
He terrified her. He had always been at least a little bit scary, but the fear she experienced now took a darker turn than any fear she experienced before. He never managed to make her feel violated by his words before, and usually she was spared from any physical contact with him at all. Today he seemed to by trying to make up for all the times she managed to avoid him. Her stomach twisted itself up into knots reacting to the sensation of his touch. Nothing could be worse than the possibility of this sort of attention continuing for even a second longer.
She wanted so badly to pull away from him, but she did not dare until she knew more about this mood of his. His temper seemed to be more unstable than usual and she dared not risk pushing him into a full blown fit of rage.
He leaned in closer and closer until their noses were nearly touching. Yuzuki held her breath. All opportunities for escape seemed to evaporate as he further invaded her personal space.
He pushed her back just as abruptly as he had first grabbed her. She stumbled for a few steps and quickly reached up and rubbed her jaw. His fingers had dug in hard enough to leave impressions from his nails.
“It’s really a shame that she was only second best. You’re just a shadow of a consolation prize.”
She still had no idea what he was talking about or who she was being compared to. She only knew that she was not going to break her silence to find out. She did not need a name to go along with the disgusting things he was saying. Eventually, she hoped, he would grow bored of toying with her and verbally grinding her into the dirt and just leave. She held onto this hope even though every second seemed to banish the remote possibility further and further from the realm of reality.
He sighed heavily, as though a onerous burden weighed upon him.
“You all turn out too much like her. It makes me sick.”
She saw his hand coming, but did not have time to duck or run. She heard a harsh smack as his hand made contact with her cheek. Her vision went dark and then she saw bright white sparks before her eyes and tasted blood in her mouth.