Cover by A. R. Shellnut
I’m so excited to post this chapter! I’m sure you’ve already noticed the reason why. This is the first chapter I’m posting with my beautiful new cover. I love it!
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The doctors could offer no explanation for her sudden rise back into consciousness. They tried to explain it away by saying she suffered some sort of trauma their imaging machines could not detect, but her body had managed to repair the damage on its own due to her youth. They did some more imaging and then required her to do a sleep study before releasing her back to her mother’s care.
Being at home with Mother rather than back at college was less than ideal in Rina’s opinion. She conceded that she was not in any sort of shape to go back to school just yet, so she knew the only place she could go was home. At the moment she still felt reasonably optimistic that she could get back to her classes without having to take incompletes for this semester. Doing so would mess up her plans beyond recognition and she hated the idea of returning next semester with so many extra classes to worrying about completing in addition to a regular course load.
Allowances had already been made for her at the college because of her sudden illness. Her mother was pushing to have her be permitted to retake some tests as she should have already been out sick at the time she had taken them. She knew this would never happen, and she had a feeling she would end up making up those grade by doing even better on her other exams.
For now she needed to learn to deal with her mother trying to do entirely too much for her. The hospital released her with the advise to take it easy for a while and to slowly ease back into a normal routine as her body had been through a lot recently, but her mother took that to mean that she was a complete invalid who should stay in bed and be fed a diet of soup, jello and ginger ale. Her mother also instituted a bed time for her and checked on her all too often until she fell asleep, and probably after she fell asleep as well. Then she woke her up at exactly seven o’clock the next morning.
Mother refused to comprehend that she had trouble falling asleep at night because of anxiety over possibly not waking up properly again and her lack of activity during the day. She needed to do something during the day before she could sleep at night. She also wished she could wake up at some time other than seven in the morning since she was not allowed to get up and do anything anyway. There was nothing on television worth watching at that hour — morning talk shows were hardly riveting entertainment — and Mother tried her hardest to keep her from reading too much out of some misguided concern over reading leading to studying and studying leading to overexertion.
By the second day of this treatment she had already managed to get a few books tucked away in strategic locations around her bed where she could easily shove hide them again in case of a surprise drop in from her mother.
She did not know how she could endure the rest of the week like this. Mother took a full week of family medical leave to take care of her until she could be trusted to get back on her feet again. She still had days and days of her mother being around constantly before she returned to work. Already she found herself counting down the days until she would be able to roam about the house as she pleased without being constantly coddled or scolded for pushing herself too far.
It was not as though she thought she could just go back to everything being fine and normal from the get-go, but she was old enough to be able to find her own limits. If she went a bit too far that was when she needed her mother to be there, but she needed to test her limits and push herself a bit or she knew she would never be able to make a timely recovery.
She was biding her time. Today her mother had to go to the grocery store. Rina suspected that the household supply of jello and soup had been depleted. She just hoped she would be allowed to graduate back to normal food soon.
With her mother out of the house she got out of bed and walked around a bit without supervision. She waited a full two minutes after she heard the car pull away before she headed for the stairs. Since arriving home her movement had been restricted to the second floor. The stairs barely hardly caused her any trouble at all. Her muscles were not so badly atrophied as to stop her from being able to move under the power of her own body without outside assistance.
Her nerves more than frailty made her tightly grip the railing as she walked down stairs. With each step her confidence grew.
Once downstairs she was not sure what she wanted to do. The variety of possibilities nearly overwhelmed her. Most of the options that came to mind proved to be underwhelming. Leaving her bedroom was not enough to make her life interesting again. She poked around the rooms a bit. She sighed. Nothing had really changed much since the last time she came home.
Aside from stretching her legs, her act of rebellion failed to accomplish much at all. She was tempted to go back upstairs and read. Then the notion that made her day entered her mind.
The fridge was downstairs. She was downstairs. This might be her only chance to eat some real, substantial food for maybe the rest of the week. As long as her mother kept coddling her she would be stuck upstairs eating the sort of food usually reserved for ordinary ailments.
She hurried into the kitchen and made herself a sandwich and filled a bowl with ice cream. She had to eat quickly as her mother might come back at any moment. If she heard her mother’s car pull up she hoped she run back up the stairs without getting caught.
Yuzuki tried to hold herself together as they made their way back home. The numbness of shock made it easy at first. Then she started to think again and her composure slipped away bit by bit. As the walk stretched on her thoughts turned toward her luck. Things could have been so much worse, and in some ways she found that to be much more terrifying than replaying the events of the day in her mind.
No matter how many times her mind forced her to go over the course of events she could not process what had happened. Her ability to keep her mind from flooding with worry dissipated as the gears in her brain warmed up and attempted to tackle the problems at hand. She tightened her grip on Souma’s arm to reassure herself that he was in fact here and nothing would go wrong from now on. She needed his near magical ability to keep her grounded so she would not spiral out of control.
His grounding powers might be a bit weaker than usual, or she was more susceptible to disturbing thoughts at the moment than she would be on another day, but even being near Souma failed to give her peace of mind. She wanted to avoid falling apart in front of him. She had been weak enough for at least an entire decade in just a few short hours today. Continuing to be weak now that the danger had passed was more than unacceptable.
All Yuzuki wanted was to be strong so that she would not be any more of a burden on Souma. He was supposed to be gone already. She was still missing part of the story — how he knew to come rescue her. She considered herself lucky that he had come back, but at the same time she knew she was delaying him his work. If he did not work then there was no way for them to support themselves.
To a degree they could live off the land. Souma’s superb abilities with plants would ensure that they always had something to eat. Yuzuki’s cooking skills had already improved a bit, and she could help with the garden and even clean. They would not fail to survive if they just holed up at their tree house and hid from the world, but Souma was not satisfied with just surviving.
Her father’s village was built with mere survival in mind. Souma aspired for something more for both of them. Yuzuki did not know what she wanted for herself. Moving up in the world seemed like more of a hassle than a benefit to her, but she was willing to give it a try since Souma wanted it.
He had goals and she wanted to support them. He supported her in so many ways. He saved her time and time again. All she wanted to do was try and get her act together and see what she could do to support to finally help him. She made sure he had a home to come back to and watered his plants so they did not die while he was gone and there would always be plenty of food to eat when he got back. She maintained the barrier that was meant to hide them from the outside world.
She wanted her life to have more value. She wanted to be more important to Souma’s plans for the future and more important to the world in general than her current role in life allowed her.
Tears welled up in her eyes, but she held them back until they walked within sight of their tree house. Then she saw the damage that had been done to their home and she lost the will to restrain her tears. Plants were torn up from the garden, their stems bent and broken. Even the tree itself had snapped branches. Her heart nearly broke to know this all happened due to her father wanting to take her back to her old life.
Before today she considered their home a safe haven separated from the rest of the world. It was supposed to be a place to heal after the nightmare of living with their parents. Now their home was in shambles because she had not been strong or smart enough to keep her past from catching up with her.
Her knees felt weak. Her legs buckled and she crumpled to the ground. Souma quickly knelt down next to her to make sure she was okay.
“It’s ruined,” she managed to squeak out.
“No. It’s not ruined,” he assured her. “It needs some work, but we can fix it.”
Tears were rushing down her cheeks in torrents now. Everything that she had tried so hard to stop herself from feeling rushed over her in waves. Being strong only worked for so long. All it took to break her was one wrecked house. She was kidding herself if she thought she could ever be strong enough to survive out here. No matter what she would always be a burden and eventually Souma would want to leave her behind so he could actually achieve all of his goals. Then she would be all alone and utterly useless. When that day finally did come she could just imagine what sort of horrors would be waiting in the shadows for her.
She sobbed uncontrollably. She could not even hear what Souma said to her. Despair had her deep in its clutches. She could feel it clawing at her very soul.
She was weak. So very weak. All she could do was sit in the dirt, sobbing and shaking. Logic and reason had no place in her mind right now. Even telling herself she was safe now proved futile. Somehow knowing she was no longer in danger made it all that much worse. She handled being in danger better than being rescued.
Souma picked her up and carried her into the tree house and even then she could not be bothered to respond or protest. She could not be bothered to fight back even when he put her in her bed like she was a little child. She tried to feel offended but that seemed like too much effort. She knew she had more autonomy than this. She did not need to be treated like some sort of infant incapable of even handling the most simple of self care tasks. If she needed to rest she would be the one to decide that it was time to rest. A part of her wanted to be irritated by this, but she could not make herself care. Her entire being was absorbed in just crying her eyes out.
The crying came in waves. At first she cried because of her lack of power in her own life and in the lives of others. Then she cried because she thought crying made her weak. Finally she cried because she had been crying for so long that she forgot how to stop. When the tears stopped she continued to cry for a while until her body could no longer keep up the high level of stress and strain. Then she just collapsed in a heap on her bed.
Souma disappeared at some point while she cried. She wondered where his had gone, but she did not have the energy to go looking for him. Instead she pulled her blanket up around herself and tried to keep herself from trembling.
A few moments later Souma returned to her side with a bowl of rice. He handed the food and ordered her to eat.
She ate mechanically. Soon enough she started to feel better. After a few bites she stopped shaking and actually started to think clearly again.
“Feeling better?” he asked when she stopped eating.
Yuzuki tried to smile and failed. “I am feeling a little better.”
He sat down next to her. All the while she watched him carefully wondering what he would do next. She knew he must be upset with her on some level for being so much trouble, for causing so much of a mess, and then just falling apart and leaving him to deal with everything on his own while she just made a racket and became even more of a burden on him.
“It’s going to be okay,” he assured her.
“It’s not okay though,” she insisted.
“We’re going to make it okay, okay? It will take some effort, but we can do it.”
“You can do it. I’m useless. Just a burden.”
There was a long pause while Souma shifted so Yuzuki had to look directly at his face.
“You are not a burden, and you are not useless. I need your help right now to clean up and fix our home. It’s our home, remember? It belongs to both of us equally. I need you here with me.”
“I can’t do anything right,” she despaired.
“None of this is your fault,” he insisted. “I’m just so grateful you’re okay. You are okay, aren’t you?”
For a moment Yuzuki was forced to take a mental inventory of herself. She felt better, but still far from right. What was wrong with her was not something she could easily put into words. She knew she was aching and bruised, but she had no specific, pressing complaints.
“I’m just bruised and sore all over, you know?” She tried her best to play it off as absolutely no problem at all.
“Did he hurt you in any particular way?”
“Well, my head is killing me. I know I blacked out for a little while, and my ribs hurt from where they got kicked.”
He sighed. “Yuzu, that’s not what I meant.”
“Okay. I feel pretty awful. That’s the truth,” she admitted.
“Yuzuki,” he said in a dead serious voice and held her gaze steadily. “Did he hurt you in a sexual way?”
“No!” she shouted.
She jumped to her feet and walked away. That question made her feel worse than before. Her stomach tied in knots. She felt light headed. Her heart tried to pound out of her chest. She paced the room even though her head ached and the walking made her ribs hurt from the harder breathing.
She calmed down enough to look up from her pacing and noticed Souma watching her. She stopped and stared at him.
“Yuzu, I’m sorry. I was just worried, and if I didn’t know I wouldn’t know how to help.”
“It’s okay,” she insisted. “I was afraid the whole time because I know that he wanted to… and I know it would have happened if he managed to get me back to the village, but you rescued me in time.”
He sighed. “I was there in time to protect you from something at least.”
She hugged herself tightly. “I don’t know if I’m ever going to feel safe again. My barrier… he can just get through it. He knows how to do that, and he doesn’t even have to try that hard because we share blood. I can’t protect myself from the one person that I’m most afraid of in the world.”
He remained silent in thought for a moment. In the mean time Yuzuki tried to keep herself from falling into another fit of panic. She could not cry again and she barely had the energy to stay on her feet let along go into another full blown crying jag.
“I can set up some more guardian plants and traps if it would make you feel safer.”
Yuzuki nodded. She did not know exactly what sort of guardian plants he could come up with that would work against Takeshi, but she did know that it would never be enough to make her feel safe. Then again, she doubted anything in the world would be able to make her feel safe again. Now she knew she could run, but that would not stop her from being found forever. Maybe the only way to stay safe would be to stay in constant motion. Maybe settling down and making a home had been the biggest mistake she ever made. Her father was not going to stop and she could not deny that fact now that she would always be hunted at least as long as her father lived.
To a degree she wished she had killed him, or at least somehow managed to hurt him herself and scared him away from her. Now she felt like a damsel in distress with a guardian already guaranteed not to be around all the time. She wished she had shown herself to be stronger on her own. She attempted to be strong, and that backfired on her terribly. Her very survival depended upon the protection of others. She had always been dependent and she knew she would always rely on others for help. She lacked the power and force to make things work for herself. From the moment she had been born she had been forced in a position of reliance and she just accepted it. She had no idea if she was a failure or if she could handle herself but her only chances to prove herself so far ended in disaster.
Without bothering to say another word she wandered around the tree house looking at the damage. Things could be worse, she had to admit, but the damage was not negligible either. Their lack of material possessions counted in their favor for once as there had not been much around to break. Nothing she saw was ruined physically, but the entire place felt broken now.
She spotted blood on the floor. That had to be hers. It would wash away, but she had a feeling she would still see it there long after it was gone.
When the time came for her to look at all of this alone she just did not know if she would be strong enough to handle it. She felt uneasy about it with him just a few feet away from her ready to offer her any sort of support she might need. Right now she was too emotionally drained to even properly process what she was seeing. Her thoughts flitted from one idea to another, constantly keeping her from dealing with the heart of the problem.
While she stood in the middle of the room, staring down at the floor, Souma came over and stood next to her. He looked at the blood spot for a moment as well before speaking.
“I know it seems bad right now, but we can clean up, and soon enough everything will be just like it was before.”
“I don’t think I can look at it anymore.”
“Why don’t you go sit down and I’ll have it gone in just a minute.”
She nodded and returned to her bed. Having the option of hiding under her blanket and going to sleep appealed to her immensely at the moment. Once she fell asleep though she lost the ability to direct and control her thoughts. She did not want to know what might be lurking with in her mind once her guard was down. She had a feeling whatever it might be she would not enjoy it.
For now she wrapped her blanket around herself but remained sitting. At least until she felt a bit safer she would do her best to stay awake. When the house looked more like itself and Souma had made everything safer for them both she would get some shut eye. Until then she would stay awake where she fought back her worst thoughts.