Cover by A. R. Shellnut
This chapter has a couple moments that I absolutely loved when I rediscovered them during my edits. I still cut over a thousand words from the chapter, and I think it is all the better for it. I hope you enjoy.
This chapter was made possible by my supporters. Without them I don’t know if I would have managed to get this chapter done this month.
At her mother’s insistence Rina agreed to withdraw from college for the semester. She missed so many classes even before her hospitalization that she could not imagine catching up in the time she had left. Her mother still treated her as though she could barely handle going up and down the stairs, so she was a bit shocked when her mother left so much of the process for her to do on her own.
She put it off for as long as possible, but nothing changed enough from one day to the next to alter the course she now took. Now she was almost out of time, and her prospects for returning to her classes this semester were still as unlikely as ever. Finalizing the paperwork and actually ending her college career — even temporarily — just felt wrong. It bothered her even more than still having her activity restricted by Mother.
The stress of not being able to do the things she wanted to do either due to her mother’s limitations or just the limitations of reality left her feeling jumpy. She needed some sort of distraction.
Inviting Hibiki over again might be asking for trouble. Tempting fate by bringing him over again so soon would almost certainly end in disaster. Instead she would have to invite over someone her mother would never object to seeing. She called up Corine and made plans for her friend to stop by once her classes were over for the day.
About a half hour later she received a text from Corine stating that she had decided to blow off her classes for the day to have some bestie time instead. Rina knew better than to protest against this change in their plans. They had hardly had any time to hang out together in weeks so a few extra hours would not hurt at all. Corine had a way of making her forget her problems for a while and somehow also making it easier for her to handle and confront things she might otherwise consider impossible. Right now she needed a big old dose of confidence so she could tell herself she was doing the right thing, and maybe even believe it.
Corine showed up before Rina reasonably expected her to arrive, and she brought along with her a ton of stuff that she most certainly had not mentioned either on the phone or in her text message. Rina worried that she might be in over her head. She felt a lot better, and now felt as though she could do pretty much all of the things she wanted to do, even if her mother tried to forbid her from pushing her limits. Corine had always challenged her limits, and now she did not know if she could take it. Even at her full strength Corine’s antics exhausted her.
She did not waste any time before getting to the bottom of things. “What on earth did you bring with you?”
“Just some stuff to make up for lost time,” Corine said flippantly. “We have weeks worth of girl time to make up for today.”
“Oh no,” Rina whispered as she backed up and sat down on the couch. “I thought we were going to watch trashy tv and eat junk food. What do you have in mind?”
“Well, we can do that too. I just brought along some extra stuff. We’ve got to make up for a lot of lost time in one day so we need to really make sure the time counts.”
“Corine, I need to know what sort of extra stuff you brought along so I can decide if I’m going to play along or make a run for it.”
Corine stuck her tongue out and unzipped her duffel bag to display the contents to Rina. “I’ve got chick flicks, pajamas, chocolate, nail polish, and make up. What did you think I had in here? If I wanted to get you drunk I’d at least have the sense to take you back to my dorm with me. No point in getting you in trouble with your mom.”
Rina relaxed a bit. Most of those things were harmless enough. The make up was the only one she had any real reason to want to protest, but those items in combination with Corine herself could only spell disaster for her. It was not that she disliked girly things, but she did not tolerate a lot of girliness all at once. On the other hand, her dear friend Corine adored all things girly and did not understand the concept of spreading girly activities out over the course of days or weeks. Once she decided to have a girl’s only day everything would happen at once.
Just one look in that duffel bag told Rina just what Corine had in mind for their day together, and it spelled out a long, irritating day for Rina. She hoped that a quick intervention would keep things from getting too far out of control. If she could just get out of the make up and keep the chick flicks from completely filling up their viewing queue she thought she could probably handle the manicures and gossip that were bound to happen.
“I have a few ground rules,” she warned.
“And I bet they’re the same ground rules you always have,” Corine shot back.
“If you know what my boundaries are why do you insist on trying to cross them all the time?”
“I’m trying to broaden your horizons, duh! This stuff is fun and you really need to have some fun right now, right?”
“Yeah, but I don’t see the point in putting on a bunch of makeup when we’re going to hang around the house and watch movies.”
“It’s not supposed to have a point. Don’t take it seriously at all. We’re just trying to have a bit of fun.”
“We are going to have fun,” Rina assured her.
“Does that mean you’re going to let me do a teeny tiny makeover?”
Rina rolled her eyes.
“Come on,” Corine wheedled. “I want to doll you up, put you in a cute outfit and send a ton of pictures to Hibiki so he’ll be halfway out of his mind wishing he was here.”
“Fine. We’ll do make overs, but there is no way I’m letting you send pictures to Hibiki.”
“Deal, but I’m going to try to change your mind.”
“I know,” she agreed grudgingly.
As with most of Corine’s questionable plans for girlish bonding Rina started to enjoy herself a bit once she stopped trying to resist. Hanging around the house in pajamas by herself had long since lost its appeal, but adding a friend to the mix somehow made it a novel idea again. Some of the fun might come from just having something new to do again after days of solitude and monotony, but at least part of the credit had to go to Corine for not treating her as though she was still sick.
The movie was not even that bad. At least, it was not that bad because Corine had no problem riffing on it with her. Rina wondered if anyone enjoyed these movies or if everyone out there found enjoyment from pointing out the awfulness of the film with their friends.
There was not much time to wonder about these things though. Corine refused to allow anything to side track her from her plans. She kept the progress of activities moving at a swift pace, leaving Rina without an opportunity to derail the day with silly distractions like cat videos on the internet. Painting their nails was not so bad, and her guard slipped enough so she hardly noticed when Corine got out her make up.
She only started to scramble for an excuse when they headed upstairs for better lighting and mirrors. Her panic only grew when she noticed a pair of heels being carried along with the make up. Corine still intended to go through with dressing her up as well as making her wear makeup.
Rina knew she needed to put a stop to this before the situation got even more out of hand. While her friend organized her supplies she grabbed the heels and made a dash to the window. Corine caught on the the scheme before she managed to get the window open though and confiscated the shoes, foiling her plans to be rid of them.
“For that stunt you are definitely going to let me do your hair, and there’s no way you are stopping me from getting pictures.”
She sighed. “Fine. I deserve it. Not for trying, but for getting caught.”
“Shoulda moved faster.”
“In my defense I was just in the hospital. I’m not exactly in top form.”
“But you’re on the mend. I expect better.”
“Fine. I will just have to suffer the consequences, I suppose, but don’t think that I’m not going to put up a fight.”
“Good. You trying to get out of this stuff is half the fun, you know.”
Corine flopped on Rina’s bed and fixed her with a devious look. Her eyes glinted with mischief and her grin left Rina feeling unnerved. Something was about to happen, and she had a sinking feeling it would make her very uncomfortable. It might end up being even worse than the make over scheme, which at least seemed to be temporarily postponed in favor of what ever idea just came to Corine’s mind.
“So, Rina, you know what we haven’t talked about in a while?”
“You and Hibiki. How are you guys doing? You’ve been going out for a while now. I mean, you weren’t exactly available for dates for a little while there, so it’s a little iffy as to where you guys should be in relationship at this point.”
Rina sighed and sat down on her bed. “Why do I get the feeling you’re trying to chart the progress of my relationship like it would be in some sort of article in a teen magazine?”
“Maybe because that’s exactly what I’m doing?” she replied with an absolutely evil smirk contorting her face into a terrifying mask.
“Why would you do that though?”
“Who exactly is having fun in this situation?”
“Me, of course. Have you guys had any sleep overs?”
Rina tried to fix her with a withering glare, but it proved to be completely ineffective against the evil, manic energy emanating from her friend at the moment. Her willpower stood no chance of resisting this energy. Against her own better judgment she found herself answering the question.
“No. We have not.”
“Well, why not?”
“I don’t know. There just hasn’t been a good time for that sort of thing.” She crossed her arms and tried her best not to get too defensive. Corine always picked on her and teased her about a lot of things, but relationships in particular. Usually she did a good job of joking around about it too, but this inquiry managed to hit a nerve. She liked Hibiki. She wanted to continue dating Hibiki, but so much of her life had left her control recently that she felt as though their relationship got pushed to the side to a degree and it was not within her power alone to bring it back into focus.
That was not to say that she thought they should be spending the night together yet, but before everything went so horribly wrong the idea would have at least been on the table down the road. Now she was living at home again with her mother being even more overprotective than usual so pretty much all relationship stuff was out of the question.
“How can there not be a good time. Pretty much all you have now is free time.”
“Yeah. Free time in my mother’s house. It’s not as she’s going to let him sleep here.”
“Oh you sweet, innocent child,” Corine said with a pat on Rina’s shoulder. “If you two have a sleep over I seriously doubt either of you will get any sleep.”
Rina’s cheeks burned. She buried her face in her quilt. She wished she could feel surprised by this turn in the conversation, but with Corine none of this could be considered a surprise. That did not mean she wanted to talk about it though.
“Aww. Rina, don’t be embarrassed. Maybe if you’re mom knew how innocent you still are she’d have less of a problem with your boy toy coming around.”
“Not helping,” Rina complained into the quilt.
“I do know something that might help.”
“Let me finish your make over so we can send some pics to Hibiki and drive him wild with actual photographic evidence that you have a body.”
“You are the worst best friend ever.”
“I love you too.”
The team working to accomplish the smuggling jobs was not particularly large, but Yuzuki found it nearly impossible to keep track of everyone’s names. Today marked the first time she had ever been in a situation where she might socialize with youkai other than a fellow kitsune for more than a few moments. The variety of dialects and accents being used made her head spin.
She found herself almost afraid to look at anyone for fear of ending up staring. Not only were there youkai here that she had never seen before but many of the smugglers were covered in various scars and tattoos that practically pleaded with her to stare even though she knew it would be rude.
Her lack of willingness to make eye contact combined with her difficulty in understanding the rapid conversations around her left her at a loss as to the names of pretty much everyone around her. She felt like the grit that ground the clock work machine to a halt.
No one seemed to like her, and she felt the childish desire to be liked by everyone weighing down on her. After growing up in a place where everyone knew her before she had even been old enough to know herself and then living pretty much on her own with only Souma to keep her company she found it unnerving to be the outsider now. She did not even know how to make a first impression, let alone a good one.
She tried to keep out of the way. She had no idea what she could do and the best thing she could think to do was keep herself out of the way and try not to cause too much trouble. She glanced up and looked for Souma as quickly as possible. At this point anything seemed better than accidentally making eye contact with one of the other smugglers.
She spotted Souma without being noticed by anyone else. He was busy conversing with a grey skinned, horned youkai she considered one of the leaders of the group. Leader might be a bit too strong of a word as no one in particular seemed to be in charge. The way this group operated completely mystified her. This grey skinned youkai was one of the oldest and experienced members of the group so the others at least listened when he spoke.
Her observations made while trying not to make it at all obvious that she was watching those around her led her to believe this was some sort of loose alliance with no set roster and the youkai involved were free to come and go as they pleased. Knowing this it now made sense that Souma could suddenly decide not to go back the other day. Not showing up was an acceptable option.
This was a loose alliance of youkai with no way of knowing who would show up for one job or another meant that before they got to work each time they needed to be assigned their duties. She had her doubts about the way this group operated, but she dared not say anything as an unwanted outsider.
She watched and waited for Souma to have a free moment to move in and take a bit of his time for herself. For now she considered herself lucky to be ignored by others. Once she actually got a feel for them as individuals she wanted to think she would warm up to them, at least to the ones that gave her reason to think that they would be decent to her. Until then she was biding her time and trying to be as careful as possible.
Finally Souma broke away from the others. Yuzuki rushed over to him before anyone else had a chance to take him away from her again. She latched herself on to his arm and looked up at him with desperate, half crazed eyes. She dragged him away from the group by his arm.
If they were going to talk she needed to do it in a place where the others were not going to be milling about and overhearing what she had to say. She would be so embarrassed if they heard her whining and trying to figure out what she should be doing at the moment. Everyone else had a purpose. They knew where they belonged within the group. She had no idea where she was supposed to go or what she should be doing once she was there. She knew she was being awkward, but she had no other option when she felt so out of place and was treated as though she had no business being where she was right now.
Part of the problem was that she agreed with those sentiments. She did not belong in this place. She had no skills to speak of to offer to these people and she was too weak to make up for her lack of special skills with muscle. She would be a liability in almost any situation.
Even with all of these questions and issues boiling just beneath the surface she was having trouble finding a way to say anything at all to him. Now that she was here she thought she might have even been able to stand being left home alone better than this feeling of isolation while surrounded by strangers. At least at home she would be truly alone and could do as she wished without at least a dozen eyes on her as she did it.
Souma was growing impatient with her. His gaze was already back with the others. If she did not speak soon he would go back to them and Yuzuki knew she would not be able to get him away so easily again. She needed to speak her mind now or she would lose her chance.
She took a deep breath and forced herself to speak her mind. The real harm came from being too afraid to try.
Souma was still waiting.
“What am I supposed to be doing right now?’ she demanded once she gathered up her courage.
“What do you mean?”
“I need to do something!” she nearly shouted. She only barely managed to reign herself back in through her fear of drawing attention from the others.
He needed to find something for her to do. Without someone to give her direction she was lost.
“What do you mean you need a job? I thought you just wanted to come along so you wouldn’t have to be alone just yet.”
“That’s what I wanted then, but now that I’m here I know that I can’t be here without having something to do. Those guys you work with don’t like that I’m just standing around and trying to mind my own business.”
He sighed. “Yuzu, they’re not going to like you just because you start doing something either. They don’t know what to do with you anymore than you know what to do with them.”
“You act like they’ve never been around a girl before or something.”
“For some of them it’s been a very long time since they’ve been around a girl that wasn’t taking their money.”
“Oh,” she whispered. Just thinking about it made her slightly uncomfortable.
“Look, no one is going to bother you if you stick close to me. Just be my shadow for a little while and we’ll see if we can find something for you to do.”
She nodded her assent to this idea. Being Souma’s shadow sounded like the best sort of task possible. She would find something useful to do eventually, but until then she decided to feel as little out of place as possible.
All her current task required was for her to stick close to Souma so that’s what she did. Now when he went over to talk to one of the other youkai she just followed him over there and stood close by his side. No one seemed to mind, much to her surprise. She was still lost, but vaguely hopeful she would one day catch on if she had a chance.
Eventually she learned that the job they were doing did not start today and all of those here today for all of this discussion would spread out and set up camp throughout the woods for the night. Everyone split off into small groups consisting of only those that would be working together on a task the following day.
As the gathering broke down Yuzuki and Souma went off together and hiked through the woods until they could not see, hear, or smell any of the others. Then they went on a bit further. There they set up camp for the night.
Yuzuki started to gather some firewood so she could at least cook something for the two of them to eat, but Souma stopped her when he saw her coming back with a bundle of sticks in her arms.
“We can’t have a fire tonight. We don’t want to attract any attention.”
“We won’t,” Yuzuki promised with a smile.
She sat the sticks down in a neat pile on the ground and pulled out her own personal trump card. Her confidence in her barriers may have been shaken before, but she still knew she had grown stronger and stronger in her ability to create a pocket dimension. She took them and everything they had in their little half finished camp and moved it into a parallel pocket dimension.
“Yuzu!” Souma exclaimed. He mussed her hair and laughed. “Next time you think to do something like that give me a bit of warning.”
“Sorry. I figured it was the only logical thing to do. Now as long as we stay in here no one is going to bother us.”
“Well, I didn’t even think to ask you to do it. I didn’t know if you’d be up for it.”
“Ever since I started maintaining the one back home it’s been getting easier and easier for me to do. Making one this size is no problem at all anymore. It doesn’t even make me a little tired.”
“That’s great. I hadn’t realized you were doing so much with them.”
“I guess I really didn’t think it was that big of a deal.”
“It is a big deal. You were already better at them than me. Now you’re just amazing at them.”
“I could be better…”
“You will be, and probably sooner than you think. You’ve been making so much progress lately.”
She shook her head. Compliments still felt strange to her.
“If you weren’t here I would’ve spent the night cold and up in a tree.”
“Because I’m no good at making little pocket dimensions like you do. I can get plants to grow in the blink of an eye, but manipulating the fabric of reality is really not my thing.”
“No. It’s true. This is great though. Now I can get you to cook for me.”
She rolled her eyes as he grinned at her. She had had a feeling this would end up coming back and making her life more of a pain somehow. Now she knew how. Cooking was not so bad though. It really was a welcome change to have something to do after spending all those hours wondering what her purpose would end up being int he grand scheme of things.
While she cooked Souma was busy manipulating some seeds into plants that would make comfortable beds for them for the night. She watched him for a moment as he spend way too much time fiddling with it when they would have to be taken down in the morning anyway.
“What are you doing?” she asked when she could not figure out why he was continuing to fuss with the plants for so long. As far as she could tell everything already looked like it would work just fine.
“I just want to get these right,” he said absentmindedly.
“Why? We’ll have to stop using them in the morning anyway.”
He shrugged. “I guess I just want to do something as well as you made this pocket dimension.”
The food was in the pot and not likely to burn if she stepped away for a moment or two so she moved closer so she could look Souma in the eye. He was acting funny and she wanted to get to the bottom of it.
“I don’t think this is about me getting better at pocket dimensions. You’ve been acting a little funny off and on since yesterday.”
She waited. She stared right into his eyes because she knew that always managed to get him to spill the beans in the past. With just the two of them she went with what she knew worked to her advantage. He always ended up talking to her if she looked at him long enough.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
She backed off a bit. It was impossible to actually talk while that close to her conversation partner.
“I’m trying to get you to tell me what has been going on with you.”
“Will you at least stir the pot while we do this? I don’t want the bottom to be burned.”
She got up and went back over to the fire and stirred the pot. She made a point of not looking happy about it and directing that unhappy look directly at Souma. Although she was worried about him she was also annoyed that he was suddenly being so cryptic. For so long she had thought he had told her everything and she had told him everything in return. Now it seemed like it had been an uneven exchange all along where he had made it seem like he was up front and honest with her and that made her honest with him but in reality he was still keeping so much of himself and his thoughts from her.
“What’s going on?” she demanded. “I didn’t think we were keeping things from each other. I just don’t understand why you can’t tell me what’s on your mind.”
“I’m trying to protect you. I’ve been trying to protect you all along, but now I’m not sure I can. Before I thought if I took you away I could make sure you were safe, but that’s not true, and now you want to be out here with me, and Yuzu, this world is so much more dangerous than I had thought.”
He sat down in the bed he had been fiddling with for the past few minutes and hunched over himself. He looked directly at her and his eyes looked hollow and haunted, and so devoid of his usual warmth.
She took a deep breath. Sometimes she had to remind herself that he was not quite done growing up either. So often she forgot because he was older than her and he always seemed to have an answer for everything, but he still needed time to grow up too. She relied on him too much, and that was not fair to him.
She moved the pot off the fire so it would not burn while she was away from it, and sat down next to Souma. Years of conditioning by her mother still made part of her want to be wary of boys, but letting the lessons she learned back then rule her life now seemed foolish. There was no point in holding onto those ideas any longer. She reached out and hugged him, pulling him closer to her in the process.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean to be a burden all this time. I’m just trying to figure out how all of this works and sometimes I end up going backwards instead of forward. It hasn’t been fair to you at all.”
“You aren’t a burden,” he insisted.
“I’ve been a burden,” she shot back at him. “You’ve been trying so hard to take up the slack and I haven’t stepped up to help hardly at all. You’re not ready to be grown up all the time either and it wasn’t fair of me to expect you to be.”
“I was prepared to leave and do all of this on my own. If I can’t handle it that’s my own fault. It has nothing to do with you.”
“That’s not true. Taking care of yourself is one thing and taking care of yourself and another person is more than twice as hard, particularly when the other person is me. Just let me take care of you sometimes too, okay?”
“Why do I get the feeling you just grew up overnight?”
At first she wanted to laugh off his question, but thing she actually gave it a bit of thought. She really did not feel any different than before, but it was hard to tell.
“I think it might be a girl thing. One minute we’re little kids and the next were grown women. Maybe it’s harder to tell when boys are growing up because it’s usually more gradual or something.”
Souma laughed. “Look who suddenly has all the answers.” He held her a bit closer.
“Well, you know, if I’m going to be grown up about things I might as well be a know it all too.”
She smiled. It felt nice to actually be near each other for no particular reason. No one was having a complete nervous break down. No one was hurt. Souma had been feeling down and she helped lift his spirits. She did not understand how she had managed to miss the fact that being physically close to a person had such wonderful effects before. She could not bring herself to move away from him.
Souma did not seem to mind. He shifted his arms so he was holding her a bit tighter. Then his hand slowly slid down her back. Tingles went up and down her spine. Then out of nowhere he let her go and shifted so he was sitting at the other end of the bed.
He cleared his throat and looked away from her. “S-shouldn’t you finish cooking? We have an early start tomorrow so we need to eat and go to bed.”
“Okay,” she agreed. His behavior perplexed her, but she did not know whether or not she should say anything. She kept an eye on him the entire way back over the the fire.
Although he tried not to look at her she caught a glimpse of his face flushed to a bright red color. She shook her head. There were so many things she still could not figure out about him.
They were both quiet the rest of the time Yuzuki spent cooking the food. Souma would not even look at her and he did not move from his place on the bed. She could not figure out exactly what was going on with him so she kept glancing up to see if he was doing anything different, and her looking seemed to just make everything that much worse.
When the food was ready she took a bowl over to him and decide to go sit on the other bed by herself. They were still silent. At first it was awkward, but then it gradually shifted into a more comfortable silence as they ate.
“Yuzu, you’re pretty good at detecting other dimensional barriers too, aren’t you,” he asked abruptly.
“I guess so. Why?”
“Part of what we have to do with these jobs is cross between the different worlds. I think you might be able to help us out with this talent of yours, and it shouldn’t be too dangerous for you to do that either.”
“Yeah. I mean, you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to, but at least you don’t be bored if you’ve got a job to do.”
“Yeah. Okay. I think I can do it.”
“Sounds like we have a plan.”