Cover by A. R. Shellnut
This chapter was tough to get through! I struggled to write it months ago, and I struggled to revise it this week. Please let me know if there are any issues or errors I missed.
This chapter is made possible by my fantastic supporters. Thank you so much for believing in me!
Rina could not properly express exactly how grateful she felt that Charlotte had a degree and a job that made her going to visit her something she did not feel that she needed to hide from her mother. Charlotte was officially a counselor. She even convinced her mother to let her go on her own as it would be easier to get an appointment during the day and she could not ask her mother to take so much time off work driving her around trying to solve her problems.
Her mother accepted her proposition. She took pride in the fact that she had finally shown her mother that she was well enough to go out to appointments on her own again. She learned the ropes of the public transit system in her town by the age of twelve. Seven years later she finally regained the right to take the bus on her own. She felt childish for even feeling the need to ask permission, but at the same time, she knew her mother would worry if she just disappeared for a few hours one day. Of course, she worried at first that Mother would want to take her to this appointment too, just like the various doctor’s appointments she had lately, but to her surprise, she had no problem with the idea of Rina taking the bus to see a counselor.
Going outside by herself for the first time in weeks messed with her mind a bit. She had butterflies in her stomach, and not at all in a good way. A part of her worried that she had forgotten how to function out in the world. She worried she forgot something very important she needed to know about getting around the town. The last time she used the town’s transit system was just a few months ago over the summer, but after everything that had happened to her it might as well have been a hundred years ago.
Even after checking her route three times she still worried that she would end up going to the wrong place. She knew it was silly, and she knew she would probably get on the bus and everything would come back to her, but while she waited at the bus stop she could not stop her worries.
As badly as she wanted to be independent she really wished she had someone to go along with her right now.
Dr. Charlotte worked in an office building. Going inside felt a lot like one of the many other appointments she went to recently. The familiarity of the situation comforted her to a degree. The waiting room was similar to all the other waiting rooms. She checked in with the office receptionist and waited.
The lack of other patients in the waiting room made her a bit nervous. Why was she waiting if there was no one else with an appointment? She was used to waiting rooms with at least a few other people in them. Either other patients or their friends and family members usually occupied the waiting room alongside her. Being alone right now without even a companion of her own to keep her company made her acutely aware of how easily the receptionist could see her every move. She was pretty sure she did not like the idea.
Fortunately, she did not have to fret about the empty waiting room or too long because she was called back to her appointment with Dr. Charlotte almost exactly on time. Her other concerns quickly fell by the wayside as her heart started pounding.
She worried that the doctor would not be able to help her, or would mock her for thinking that her problems were in some way related to something other than a medical problem. She knew it was silly to think this considering who had referred her here and the nature of the relationship between those two people. If this doctor taught Penny everything she knew and knew even more herself then she would be more than likely to believe Rina’s version of events.
Going to a doctor with the intention of saying these things still felt a bit wrong to Rina. She had her suspicions that something not entirely related to the field of medicine and the physical body had happened to her since she woke up in the hospital. Her belief in that had only grown since then with confirmation from Hibiki and then her discussion with Penny. Through all of these discoveries and realizations, she had not said a word about any of it to any of her doctors or even to her mother. She did not dare. She did not want to be told that she was crazy. She did not want to be treated as though she was crazy.
Now she was in a doctor’s office and about to do exactly what she had avoided doing up until this point. Hiding it would do her no good anyway as Penny had already called ahead and briefed the doctor to the best of her understand in this matter.
It only made sense to allow Penny to do it. She was the only other expect involved on the case so far. Rina could only give her very underdeveloped version of events when asked. She only knew what she felt in the hospital room and what had been explained to her since then. She still had all of her questions that needed answering and she certainly did not have any sort of training in respect to this subject matter. She deferred entirely to the people that seemed to know better than her, particularly someone who had managed to produce results like Penny.
She tried not to think about the fact that Penny was not able to answer all of her questions when she went to see her. That seemed to be the result of her very unique condition not a lack of understanding on Penny’s part. Even without really and truly understanding what she was dealing with Penny had proven that her skills and her instincts were capable of providing positive results. The person that trained her and had decades more experience in the field should be able to give much more definitive answers.
If Penny had only encountered this once in five years and Dr. Charlotte had been practicing for over twenty then Rina thought that she would probably be the fourth or fifth case of this variety to cross paths with the doctor. She would know what had happened to her, how to fix it and what Rina’s next step should be. She felt sure of this. Her sureness gave her confidence and she entered the doctor’s office with her shoulders squared and her head held high — something she rarely did in her life.
The doctor did not look the way she expected a doctor to look. She did not even look like she was old enough to have twenty years of experience doing anything. Normally appearances going against her expectations would be enough to put Rina at least a tiny bit on guard, but she felt completely at ease. She knew something had to be going on to make her feel this way, but she just could not bring herself to actually care one way or the other.
In a way, she liked this feeling and almost hoped it would last because she knew she was normally too nervous and likely to jump to conclusions and allow her worries to get blown out of proportion. Being fearless for once felt good.
Meeting Dr. Charlotte made it immediately obvious why everyone referred to her by her first name. She seemed to emit an aura of familiarity that managed to make Rina feel as though she were visiting an old friend rather than a stranger. She knew on some level that she should be suspicious of all of this, and she knew if the situation was even slightly different she would be busy thinking of an excuse to get herself out of here. Somehow thought everything seemed to be just perfect for bringing her peace of mind.
“Well, Rina, I feel like I already know you from what Penny has told me,” Charlotte said to break the ice.
Rina smiled despite her half buried apprehensions. “I feel like I already know you too, but really I don’t have any way of knowing anything about you other than what Penny told me, which wasn’t that much.”
Charlotte nodded as though she knew exactly what Rina meant. “Do you want to jump straight to the point and talk about why you’re here? I have a reasonably good idea what your concerns are from what I know already, but it’s usually for the best if you actually tell me yourself rather than assuming we are on the same page.”
She sighed and prepared herself for the difficult experience of retelling her experience again. This time, there was one significant difference. This time, she got to tell the truth. She started down that route when she went to see Penny, but she ended up censoring herself to a degree partially out of habit and partially out of fear of what Hibiki would think if she was completely forthcoming about all of her experiences.
Things started to come out of her mouth that she did not even realize were true until she had said them. She could not take them back, though. They were the truth, even if they were a truth that was hidden even from her awareness until almost when they were coming out of her mouth.
Everything came out. All of her worries and concerns and all of the half-remembered dreams started to pour out of her. The words just tumbled out of her mouth without any sort of filter or buffer. The sensation of having no control over her own thoughts and words frightened her, but she also felt stronger as she did it. The more she spoke the stronger she became.
Before she knew it Charlotte stopped her. Her appointment time was over.
She spent the entire time talking. Charlotte only listened.
A stab of disappointment ran through her. She did not know what she expected exactly, but a part of her had hoped to walk out of this first appointment with the answers she so desperately wanted. It was time to leave, but she had no answers. Her questions still stood, and really she felt as though the doctor had not contributed anything at all.
She still made an appointment for the following week. She felt better for having all of this off of her chest, and a part of her knew she would not get help anywhere else. She needed to at least give Dr. Charlotte a chance to make a difference.
The rest of the party disappeared as she just sat on a fallen tree trunk with Hisao and Katsu silently stood a few feet away with their arms crossed over their chests and irritated expressions on their faces. No one was terribly happy with the arrangement Souma had set up.
Yuzuki had a hard time trying to comprehend what her two guardians looked like underneath their scars. Even their scars had scars. It was overwhelming enough to see one youkai like that at a time, but Hisao and Katsu were practically a matching pair, and they went everywhere together.
She wondered how she could pass the time while stuck sitting on a fallen tree trunk. She looked up at the trees above her, but nothing up there really caught her attention. While she was staring up at leaves and trying to get herself enthralled with the play of the leaves and sunlight she heard some very faint voices over to her right. She continued to look up but turned her attention to those voices.
Apparently they had been wrong in thinking that Hisao and Katsu did not speak most of the time. They just spoke so quietly that they were difficult to hear except under very peaceful conditions. Yuzuki just so happened to have perfect eavesdropping conditions right now.
She did not feel the least bit guilty about it either. They had to be aware that she could hear them. Ears like hers were rarely for decoration.
“The little prince wants us to watch his girl for him and nobody even bats an eyelash.”
“Who decided he was in charge?”
“No one. He just waltzes in and starts giving out orders and nobody even questions the pretty boy.”
“And of course, the prince has his own personal whore following him around everywhere while the rest of us go without.”
She did not like what she was hearing. It made her very uncomfortable, but so far there was nothing she could do about it. Responding or even showing a sign that she was listening to them would probably have worse consequences than just sitting quietly and listening to the awful trash the were spewing.
“We’re all stuck waiting to go buy one night from a girl in town while he gets some every night. What’s the world coming to?”
“Things aren’t as great as they used to be. Remember the old days when we all would’ve shared? These new guys have no sense of team spirit.”
“You know, there isn’t anything stopping us from bringing back a bit of the old team spirit right now.”
Yuzuki could feel two sets of eyes staring at her. Prickles of fear ran up and down her spine. She did not like where this conversation was going. She had a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach. It would probably be prudent to find an excuse to get away from them until they got on to a different topic of conversation.
She stood up and stretched a bit before slowly wandering off to the other end of the clearing. They continued muttering to each other as she started to move. Soon she was out of range and could not hear any more of the garbage they were spewing, but she could still sense that they were saying it, and it made her skin crawl.
It was almost enough to make her want to curse Souma for being so stubborn. She knew she should have gone with him, but he would not let her. Now she was stuck having to listen to those creeps bad mouth her to her face. They did not even have the decency to at least not look at her while they were talking about her that way.
Being lewd seemed to be a way of life for a lot of smugglers. Usually, it was the general sort that she could easily ignore, but these two were making it more than a little too personal for her taste. On the other side of the clearing, she found a nice soft looking place to sit in the grass and plopped herself down. This spot was much more desirable. Now she did not have to listen to the disgusting words they were saying and she could relax for a little while.
The sun was warm on her face and the longer she sat there the easier it was to just close her eyes and soak it up. They had traveled on foot several days to get to the meeting place, and then after a day of planning and organizing they had set out with their group and spent even more time walking day in and day out. They only stopped long enough to eat and get some sleep every night. The rest of the time they were on their feet and walking forward. Having this time to stop and just enjoy the sunshine this morning was an actual luxury at this point. She swore she would never be unappreciative of a lazy, peaceful moment ever again. Now, she knew that she thought this sort of thing pretty often and more often than not once she was comfortable and back in her old routine again she went back to ignoring the little things, but this time she really thought she might be able to hold up to this promise and continue to appreciate sitting in the sunshine forever.
Little things like just sitting still for a while seemed so much sweeter when she was so tired she could barely stay awake. The sunshine warming her up and loosening up all of her aching muscles. There was nothing to keep her awake, and the idea of falling asleep was extremely tempting. Then she remembered who was on the other side of the clearing and realized that she did not want to sleep at all.
Even having her eyes closed seemed a little bit risky now that she thought about it. She opened then again slowly. She did not want to look like she was trying to keep an eye on Hisao and Katsu, and she certainly did not want to look like she was staring at them. There might not be much she could be looking at other than them, but she knew they would not take it too kindly if they thought she was getting haughty and looking down at them. She did not want to cause any trouble with them when they were so stuck on the idea that Souma was in some way acting like he was better than the others.
If he did act like he was better than them it was only because he was better than them. She knew it and she was sure Souma knew himself that there was no way he was on the same extremely low level as the other youkai in this group.
She did not understand why he stayed with them. He could do so much better and she knew it. She had the utmost confidence in his abilities. These guys might begrudge him for trying to take leadership of the group when they just ran around without any sort of organization nine times out of ten. The older, more senior smugglers usually were the ones that assigned different members of the intangible organization to different jobs as they came along, but even then she had never seen a single individual person take full leadership of the group. They just sort of made things work through extreme hard work and some extraordinary good luck. That sort of supernaturally lucky circumstances could not last forever. Something was going to go very, very wrong at some time or another.
She glanced across the clearing to where she had been sitting not all that long ago, and Hisao and Katsu were not there anymore. A jolt of terror and relief fought for dominance within her. She did not want to be anywhere near them and their creepy, negative mumbling. At the same time, she did not want to lose sight of them. Having them somewhere nearby but not in sight was probably the worst thing possible.
Her heart rate jumped up at the thought of them watching her and her not being able to watch them. She considered getting up and trying to get away through the woods. Those two would easily be able to outrun her in no more than a few seconds. Even if she got a head start she would not have much luck. They had longer legs and the advantage of the odds being two against one. Her poor feet were not up for much in the way of high speed all-terrain running. She limped even when she walked at a leisurely pace. Taking her shoes off might make things a little easier on her battered feet, but then the bottoms of her feet would be torn to pieces by the rocks and tree roots. There was no safe way for her to run away. None of the options were more than futile attempts that would just lead to a short chase and a capture.
Then again, that was only the case if her guardians actually cared. Hisao and Katsu were not exactly thrilled to be standing guard here and keeping her out of trouble. If she just tried to leave there was a chance that they would let her go just because it was not worth the trouble to make an actual effort to keep her safe. She was supposed to stay put. She was sure they could justify not going after her by explaining that she had been the one defying orders this time. If they looked at things that way she might be able to get away from them.
She had to wonder why she was thinking like this at all. Something deep down inside of her, an underused instinctual feeling told her that she needed to get away. She did not have a lot of life experience and she was only good at a few very specific and not so conventionally useful things, but she knew that her gut instincts were something she could trust. She had had these feelings before and not done enough to get away and in the end she had found herself in a situation that she did not want to be in in the least. She had this sort of feeling in her gut when her father had been nearby. She had not been able to define it then. Now she had a bit more experience and she knew that it was some sort of fight or flight instinct.
Seeing as she was no fighter in any sense of the word and would hardly stand a chance in a physical confrontation with either Hisao or Katsu she knew she needed to run. It might not be practical. It might even still be an incredibly foolish idea. There were other dangerous things out there in the world that would just love to rip her to pieces, and right now the only thing that might be keeping them away was her proximity to two much scarier youkai than herself, but she knew better than to let her fear of the idea of greater danger keep her from removing herself from a danger that she could sense all the way down to the marrow in her bones.
Remaining calm seemed like it would be the only way she could make an escape. If they knew she was going to do something they could jump on her before she even had a chance, and really all she needed was a chance and a bit of luck on her side so they would not care if she took off. She slowly and carefully slipped her shoes off. Running without them seemed like it might be less painful at least as the start, and if she needed to climb a tree or something having her toes more able to grip onto footholds would be an advantage. She contemplated getting up into a tree that was too tall and too thin for the other two youkai to climb. Then she would be able to wait in some sort of safety until Souma returned. A tree like that would be easy enough to knock or cut down though and if they really wanted to get her they would do just that. Maybe she could find somewhere to hide long enough to make a little pocket dimension for herself. Maybe she could do that right now. She could be in her own little offshoot of this reality and keep them from coming in after her. That seemed safer than running, although now her shoes were off and tossed to the side.
She gave it a try, but her nerves had her shaking and her pounding heart kept making her lose her concentration. It was useless unless she could get herself calmed own again. She just could not do it under duress.
She took a deep breath and stood up just as a huge shadow blocked off her little patch of sunlight. She practically jumped out of her skin.
“What’s the little whore doing with her shoes off?”
“Maybe she’s getting ready to show us a good time.”
Yuzuki’s eyes went wide with panic. She had wasted too much time second guessing herself. She tried to back away from them, but something his the back of her head hard enough for her to see a bright burst of stars before everything went black.