Cover by A. R. Shellnut
With this chapter I tried to be a little less picky. Lately I’ve spent way too much time making everything about a scene perfect before I post it here. I have nothing against perfection, but this is only a second draft. I’ll be revising this entire novel at least one more time so aiming for perfection when it will be rewritten is just silly.
I hope the chapter won’t be too bad. If the quality suffers too much I might need to find something more of a middle ground between these sort of revisions and the attempts at perfection I aimed for lately.
This chapter is made possible by my fantastic supporters. Thank you so much for believing in me!
After the mess her mother came home to in the living room as well as upstairs during Corine’s visit, Rina found it a bit easier to ask to go out. Considering how quickly her mother agreed to let her go out with Hibiki after her previous resistance she had had to assume that her mother finally wanted her to get out of the house for a while. It was a bit of a relief to finally start to feel as though she had her life back, but she worried she might be regaining her freedom for all the wrong reasons.
She tried not to worry about it though. At least while she was out of the house she had something else to focus her mind on. Today Hibiki was taking her to meet with Penny. She would finally have answers to her questions. Those questions had been eating away at her for the past few weeks. She had hoped to find answers while talking to Hibiki, but he had been almost as far in the dark as her, but he had been able to point her in the right direction. He was even good enough to take her to the person who could give her the answers she so desperately wanted and needed.
Riding in Hibiki’s car again took her back to a better time. She felt almost normal again — the way she felt before she got sick and stayed in the hospital. For a little while, at least, she managed to pretend nothing had gone wrong at all. They talked about Hibiki’s classes — finals were just around the corner. She hoped he would still find time to be with her in between all of the papers he needed to write and the studying he needed to do. She avoided mentioning her concern though because she did not want to be the girlfriend that distracted him from his studies and messed up his plans to graduate early.
They also avoided discussing the topic that brought about his outing in the first place. Rina’s nerves would not allow her to even broach the topic, and fortunately for her Hibiki seemed to be content to keep this discussion relatively insubstantial. She only regretted the light, essentially useless conversation a little bit. She would prefer to have her time with Hibiki actually mean something in the long run, but she knew it would be impossible for every moment of their time together to be filled with meaningful conversation.
As the drive continued on and the casual conversation started to peter out she found herself starting to worry about the outcome of her meeting with Penny. She wanted answers, but she did not know if she would get any satisfaction from the answers she received or if she would be left with even more questions and another long process to find the answers.
That worry ate away at her and by the time they reached their destination her nerves had managed to work themselves up into a frenzy.
Hibiki looked over at her. “Are you okay?” he asked, “You’re looking a little pale.”
She nodded. “I’m fine. Just a little nervous.”
“Are you going to be okay going in there?”
“Yeah. Let’s just do it before I lose my nerve.”
She tried to smile but it came out all wrong and she felt like crying instead. She tried to take a deep breath and it caught in her throat. All of her willpower went into keeping herself from crying. No matter what she felt inside, no matter the amount of panic she felt right now she would not allow herself to back out of this visit. Getting answers was too important to allow her own discomfort or anxiety to slow her down now.
Hibiki offered her his hand, and she gladly took it. Just that small bit of human contact was enough to act as a conduit. She felt her anxieties begin to lessen as she sensed his calm steadiness. Her worries were still there, but feeling that he had faith that the answers were just around the corner helped her to reign in her own thoughts. He helped her to form a bit of a barrier to keep everything from boiling over.
“We’re just here to ask questions and hopefully get some answers. Knowing the truth can only make things better. Not knowing is the scary part, right?”
“Right,” she agreed. Her voice still shook, but she actually agreed with him. Hearing it said out loud made all the difference in the world.
They were meeting Penny at her house, which meant waiting on her porch after ringing her doorbell. Somehow waiting there, and knowing she would be sitting in someone’s home rather than somewhere more impersonal like an office helped calm her down even more. She would not have to worry about a clinical environment here. Most of her excursions out of the house these days involved doctor’s office visits so office buildings felt like an odd combination of stressful and annoying to her these days. Not going through that today was a blessing. Having Hibiki with her through this was a blessing. Finally getting answers was a blessing. She just wished she could stop worrying.
They probably waited about thirty seconds for Penny to answer the door, but the way Rina’s mind was racing made her feel as though they were left out in the crisp autumn air for much, much longer. She took a few deep breaths to clear her head, and she wanted to believe it made a difference, but she also knew she was still worrying herself to the verge of feeling light headed.
Almost before she had a chance to realize things were happening she was finally introduced to Penny and ushered into her home. Her brain finally started to catch back up to the events taking place when they were already sitting in her living room on a surprisingly soft couch. She felt extremely unprepared right now. All of her questions that felt so pressing such a short time ago seemed to fly right out of her head now that the time to ask them had arrived.
Penny seemed to accept that she would need to wait a moment or two before she would be ready to ask any questions. Just being in this room, having a moment to look around, had a soothing effect on her. She could not place exactly what about it helped her calm down, but she wanted to keep at least one foot firmly grounded in reality so she refused to give credit to anything metaphysical, even if she was sitting in the presence of someone she willingly believed to have psychic abilities.
“So,” Penny began. “Hibiki said you had some questions for me. I’d be happy to help if I can.”
After a moment of awkward silence Hibiki chimed in. “Yeah. Rina asked me some things and I didn’t know how to answer so I thought we should come here and ask you since you’re the one who actually showed up and fixed everything.”
They both looked at her and she squirmed a bit under the weight of their expectations for her to speak. She had these questions. She needed to ask them to get answers, but now that the time had come to take action she felt frozen. If she spoke now she was afraid that she would start to cry. That would just add a brand new layer of humiliation to what was already turning into a painfully awkward situation.
Rina took a deep breath and forced herself to say something before the situation got any more awkward than it already was. She swallowed hard to keep the tears at bay and said the first thing that came to her mind.
“Well, you see,” she stammered while her mind scrambled to actually put her worries and questions into words. “I was sort of wondering what happened to me and if I’m really better or if I could just suddenly get sick all over again.”
Penny sighed. “I wish I had an easy answer for you. To be honest I’m not sure how to explain what I know. You see, um, it’s not so much about knowing as it is about feeling something was wrong and fixing it.”
“Oh. So you don’t really know whether or not I’m going to be okay in a month or a year.”
“Rina, your spirit, your soul was trying to detach from your body. I know that sounds bad — it really was bad, but at the same time, it felt as though it was tethered to your body by some force I’ve never felt before. If your soul left your body you’d be as good as dead, but that tether saved you. It left you a tangled up mess, but you’re still here.”
“But you fixed me. Does that mean I’ll die if it happens again?”
“I can’t say for sure,” Penny said as she shook her head sadly. “That tether is still there so in theory it will perform the same function a second time.”
“I can’t tell you anything definite. This is so far outside my previous experience I don’t even know where to begin connecting the dots.”
“Do you know anyone that might be able to offer us any more of an explanation?” Hibiki asked.
Rina sighed in relief. She was grateful that the question was out there and the burden of asking all of the questions did not rest on her shoulders alone.
Penny stood up and left the room. “I know I have a card here somewhere,” she shouted back over her shoulder.
Rina took the chance to glance over at Hibiki. She knew she would not be nearly this calm if she was here on her own. She would not be here at all if it were not for him. He did so much to help and support her and she did not think she would ever be able to properly express the depth of her gratitude.
He caught her looking at him and gave her a reassuring smile. She reached over and gave his hand a squeeze. She could not think of anything to say to him right now — not when they could be interrupted by Penny’s return at any moment. She needed time to properly get those words out, and a few fleeting seconds would not do.
After a lot of drawer slamming in another room Penny returned with a business card and presented it to Rina.
“This is Dr. Charlotte’s card. She taught me everything I know, and she’s been studying this metaphysical stuff for at least twenty years. She’s seen and been through things I can’t even imagine. If you want more answers she’s going to be your next, best step.”
“Okay,” Rina agreed, holding the card in her hand by the very edges. To her, at least, it felt like she had just received a piece to a precious, extremely delicate puzzle. Even smudging it with her fingerprints seemed like it might be enough of a violation to break the spell and she dared not risk it just yet.
“I know it’s not exactly what you were looking for today, and I can’t even guarantee she’ll be able to help you with all of your questions, but it should be better than searching for answers all on your own.”
Rina had to admit getting some answers and a clue as to where to look next was better than being left without knowing anything at all. She could not begrudge Penny for not having all the answers. She did not even know if she was asking the right questions. Having someone — a true expert — might be for the best after all. Part of why Penny could not help was because neither party had a full understand of the situation. Charlotte had more experience and might have answers even if Rina did not understand or know enough to ask the right questions.
A step in the right direction might be less than she had hoped for, but it was something at least. Rina refused to allow herself to feel anything less than gratitude.
After getting herself established as a skilled detector of various barriers and dimensional walls Yuzuki started to accompany Souma along on missions for the smugglers from time to time. She tried not to think too hard about the fact that they were doing something that was probably illegal in all of the worlds involved, but sometimes it still bothered her. She would much rather be helping people in an honest way rather than just doing something to make as much money as possible. She still liked to feel useful, and most days feeling useful was more important to her than simply doing the right thing.
Sometimes she still stayed home. There were times that she had things to do there that could not wait. Other times Souma just did not think it would be a good idea for her to go along. Those were usually the missions he knew would be dangerous or he would end up doing things that would cause them to be separated. He still did not like the idea of leaving her alone in strange places, and she really could not fault him for it. She did not like the idea of being left alone in those situations either. She was not a fighter and getting caught in a strange place by strange creatures meant she might not have a valid way to defend herself.
This particular mission had caught them both off guard. They had not expected to be stuck going this far out or being gone for so long. It had been tougher on Yuzuki than the others in that regard. She just did not have the strength or endurance to make up for the dwindling supplies, and after a few days traveling she did start to feel homesick, which put her spirits even lower. Souma tried to cheer her up, but they were both rather reserved while in front of others, and this time they had a whole group of people they were working with every day.
The group still scattered every night to see up separate camps to prevent everyone from being detected at once. At night they were able to be themselves.
Souma frequently expressed his concern that the pace was too rigorous for Yuzuki to handle, and every time she insisted she was keeping up just fine. Overall her spirits were still high, but the truth was that her body was starting to protest the excessive amount of traveling.
The night the blisters started to get rubbed raw she could not hide the difficulty she was having any longer. She took off her shoes and saw blood on her socks. There was no way to hide it from Souma who descended on her and immediately set to work trying to figure out what herbs he could grow to help heal her wounds.
She tried to insist that it would be a waste of perfectly good bandages that the might need for something more serious later, but he would hear none of it. She ended up making a short list of antiseptic herbs for him to grow just so he would stop hovering over her. The herbs did help a bit and once she had a bit of relief it was hard to regret giving in to his demands.
The next day was the hardest. She had been fine until she put her shoes back on. Then she was back to having all of the painful places on her feet getting worried by the shoes all over again. As soon as she started to walk funny Souma was hovering again and worrying over her.
He apologized time and time again for giving her shoes that did not fit properly. He promised her the next time he bought her shoes that he would be sure to take her along, and he made her promise to tell him if the next pair of shoes did not fit her feet to absolutely perfect specifications. Then it became a lecture about how she needed to speak up about these things before they became a problem for her.
She reached the point where she had to start ignoring him. His worry had been reasonable at first, but now he was starting to get out of control with his concern again. She was going to have to put a stop to it.
She put her hands on her hips and told him just as simply as could be that she had made a mistake and learned her lesson. There would be time to fix the mistake later but for now she would just have to live with it.
By then he had already come up with another plan. Their destination was not more than an hour away from where they had made camp. Not everyone in the current party was needed to collect the items. It would not be safe for Yuzuki to stay behind and rest by herself, but she would not be bothered if a few others stayed with her.
Yuzuki was fine with the idea of staying off her feet for a few more hours, but as soon as Souma mentioned that he would still have to go on ahead with the rest of the group she immediately did not like the idea any longer.
“I’m not staying behind without you,” she stated in her most definitive tone of voice.
“I can’t stay behind. We won’t be able to get through the overgrowth without burning through it unless I’m there to coax it into making way. You can’t go with us or you end up falling behind and then you’ll be completely alone. Hisao and Katsu aren’t really needed until we make the drop so they can stay behind with you and make sure no one bothers you.”
“I don’t want to stay here with Hisao and Katsu. I don’t know them. They’ve barely said two words to me and we’ve been traveling for five days with them.”
“They hardly talk at all. They’re pretty much muscle. Handy in a fight, but not exactly made for conversation. At least no one will give you any trouble with them round.”
“I don’t like it. I don’t want to be left behind.”
“We aren’t going to get the job done if we have to wait for you to get there with us, and if we don’t finish this job we’re going to get in a lot of trouble. It’s too important to risk it.”
She tried keeping her mouth shut and just glaring at him. It was woefully ineffective. She knew she was probably the least intimidating person Souma dealt with in his everyday life, but she still hoped that she had some tricks up her sleeve. Apparently intimidation was not a skill she had.
When that failed she tried begging again. “Souma, please.”
“No. Yuzu. This is the way it has to be. I’m not letting this job fall through and I’m not letting you tear yourself to pieces trying to keep up with the rest of us when it is perfectly possible for you to rest and heal up for a while before your part of the job comes in.”
She just stared at him with anger seething just beneath the surface. He was obviously not going to budge and she knew it was futile for her to try to follow after them against his wishes. She would only end up hurting herself if she tried to keep up.
He was going to get his way and she hated that she could not do anything about it. She hated that she could not have an argument with him where they could go toe to toe with each other. Someone always seemed to have won the fight before it had even begun. It was unsettling in her opinion.
“I don’t like it,” she warned him.
“Just be patient. I won’t be gone for long. We’ll be back together by noon.”