Cover by A. R. Shellnut
This week has been so chaotic! I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get this chapter out in time, but it looks like it will be posted with just a bit of time to spare.
This chapter is made possible by my fantastic supporters. Thank you so much for believing in me!
Getting to Corine’s proved to be an exhausting ordeal. Rina found waiting for her friend to be an emotionally draining ordeal. The fight she spent the day preparing for ended up being much less of a blowout than she had expected. Instead of being angry her mother just seemed confused and disappointed.
That proved to be a greater burden to bear than she had prepared herself to endure. She tried to hold on to the anger she felt to keep herself from crying. Once she admitted to herself that neither of them were actually angry at each other she was doomed to spend the rest of the night with tears in her eyes and she would end up feeling filled with regret.
She felt pretty tense even before Corine arrived, but she did not feel any sort of relief once her bags were tossed in the back seat and they were on the road. The freedom was a relief. The ride in Corine’s car of questionable road-worthiness brought on a whole new sort of stress. The car had been nearly on its last legs when she bought it back in high school, and two years with Corine behind the wheel had done it no favors. Between the car, the driver, and Rina’s current mood the term death trap easily came to mind.
There was not much talking during the ride back to Corine’s dorm. Rina spent most of the ride biting her nails and worrying about how much she might have just messed up her life.
Corine seemed to understand that she was not ready to talk, and for once she did not pressure her to speak. That might have something to do with the frantic texts Rina send earlier in the evening, and then the hasty phone call she made before Corine even had a chance to send a message back. She suspected her friend thought she was overreacting, and now that she was literally putting distance between herself and her problem she found herself sharing that sentiment.
Back on campus, they hauled Rina’s things from the sophomore parking lot to Corine’s dorm. The walk was a cold one, and with her bags to deal with they neither had the energy or the desire to talk much.
Fortunately, they were able to ride the elevator up to Corine’s floor rather than carrying everything up the stairs.
Corine glanced over at her and said, “My roommate might be asleep already. We’ll have to be extra quiet or she’ll be pissed and probably want you to go home.”
“Wait. You did ask her if I could stay, didn’t you?”
“Yes and no.”
“What do you mean ‘yes and no’?”
They were off the elevator now and walking down the hallway. It was late at night, but as any typical college dormitory, this floor was hardly silent no matter what the hour.
“I mean I sent her a text telling her you were sleeping over tonight, but I haven’t heard back from her.”
“So she never actually gave the okay for me to sleep on your floor?”
“Well, no, but you’re sleeping on the floor on my side of the room so she can just deal with it.”
Rina knew she had nowhere else to stay for the night so she was just going to have to take Corine’s word for it and hope that she would not end up being the source of conflict in the room. Already she started to wonder what time would be a good time to go back home. She knew it would be pointless to even consider going home again tonight. Even if she thought it would be a good idea she would not want to be that much of an imposition on her friend. She had a feeling that many favors in one evening could put a strain even on their long friendship.
She resigned herself to sleeping on the floor for at least one night, and possibly more. She knew she might not feel the same way after a few hours of sleep. Most people cooled down after sleep, but she knew at least to a degree she calmed down because she flat out ran out of energy to be mad. After getting a bit of sleep she would find her energy reserves replenished and with that she might find more anger.
Making predictions about her emotional state once the light of day arrived would work about as well as trying to predict winning lottery numbers. Anything could happen between now and then.
Corine continued to read her mood with surprising accuracy and reigned in her usual boisterous behavior. With the few items she brought with her, it did not take long at all to get her settled in.
“Are you positive this is going to be okay?” She felt she had an obligation to ask again.
“Sure,” Corine assured her. “It’s just for a few days after all. Once you make a point and your mom knows you are home by choice and not out of necessity you’ll be able to go back home no problem.”
“I feel like such an ass acting like this, though.”
“Don’t worry about it. Everyone is a bit of an ass from time to time. You’re too much of a goody-goody it was bound to come out eventually.”
“That’s not much of a comfort, you know.”
Rina tried to make herself comfortable on the floor without too much success. There were only so many configurations for a sleeping bag, blanket, and a few pillows, and none of them did much to take away the biting hard of the floor. She tried to take solace in the fact that she would at least be warm. She decided the hard floor would be her penance, and she would be less likely to overstay her welcome this way.
Corine giggled. “I’m not here to comfort you. If you were upset and needed consoling you know I’d be there for you, but you’re just sulking and in this case you need a bit of tough love. Lucky for you, tough love is one of my specialties.”
“I can’t argue with you there.”
“You know I can’t take you seriously when you say ‘ass’. It’s too strange hearing that word from your mouth.”
“Oh yes. Make fun of me for saying ass now.”
“It’s just too strange, that’s all. You’ve said it twice in the span of just a few minutes, but I can’t remember the last time I heard it come from your mouth. Don’t say it again.”
That was all the temptation Rina needed. She saw a way to get them both out of this solemn attitude they had fallen into. She knew she needed to break free from this veil of despair. Now she just discovered the perfect way to get things at least on their way back to normal tonight.
She grinned and proudly stated, “Ass ass ass ass ass.”
Corine stuck her tongue out at her. “Are we in eighth grade again, or what?”
“Well, one of us had to do something to break the tension.”
“I guess so. It was getting pretty intense there for a while.”
“So! Do you have any homework you need to do or anything like that? I’ll shut up and read or something if you need time to study.”
“Ew. Gross. No! I’m not going to do homework at night.”
“Okay then. I just thought I’d ask.”
“Let’s do something fun. There’s still hours of night time stretching out ahead of us!”
“It’s late!” Rina protested.
“It’s only late if you’re a grandma.”
“I’m not a grandma.”
“Then it’s not late and we should do something.”
“Like what? There’s not exactly anything going on around here at this time of night.”
“Once again you prove just how innocent you are, my dear. There’s plenty going on… if you know where to look.”
“And let me guess. You know where to look.”
“Of course I do. Who do you think you’re talking to?”
“I thought I was talking to my best friend, but depending on what you have in mind I might have a change of heart.”
“Trust me, I’m always going to be your best friend. Now let’s see what I’ve got for you to wear because you can not go out wearing that.”
Rina looked down at her clothes. “What’s wrong with my clothes now?”
“Nothing is wrong with them exactly. They’re just not exactly what I’d recommending wearing for a night out.”
“Well, I wasn’t expecting a night out when I put these clothes on. I was expecting to have a night in. I thought we’d be staying right here and sleeping.”
“Oh come on. You’ve done enough sleeping to last you a while, don’t you think. |What you need is some fun.”
Rina nodded. “There has been a lack of fun in my life.”
“Good. I’m glad we agree then. We’re going out tonight and having some fun. Now let me lend you something to wear so you don’t look out of place.”
After everything she had gone through lately Rina found herself not really caring about the roundabout way Corine insulted her clothes. She did not even care that there were going out, and she would most likely be roped into doing something insane she never in a hundred years would do under normal circumstances. This was just the sort of change she found herself thinking she needed in her life. She wanted things to be different, and that meant she could not turn away from an opportunity to experience something that finally went beyond her usual routine.
This day was nothing like what had become her normal life and she needed to embrace the differences. She needed a new lease on life. She needed to try something different for once. Her comfort zone needed to have its boundaries reevaluated and redrawn.
Before she knew what was really happening Corine had her dressed in an outfit that clung too close to her body for her to ever consider being seen in public wearing it. She decided that probably made it the perfect outfit for the night she decided to do something completely different.
She just tried her best to keep her brain turned off. Thinking only made her miserable, and for now that seemed like more than enough reason to avoid thought whenever possible.
In this way Rina came to be dressed and made up in a way she would never have allowed on any other day. Then while her brain was still willfully shut off she ended up in the sort of place she never imagined she would go in this lifetime.
By the time they returned to Corine’s room Rina’s hand had been stamped and her ears were ringing from being bombarded by several hours of excessive bass. She felt exhausted, but too exhilarated to even consider sleep yet, and she was absolutely certain she had no desire to repeat the experience.
For her part, Corine gloated the entire time. She was almost unreasonably pleased with her success at convincing Rina to go along with her scheme for the evening.
Rina had her doubts that this constituted a typical evening for her friend. She knew she was more adventurous than Rina herself, but she had faith that her friend could not possibly maintain that sort of lifestyle on a daily basis. She knew enough to have an idea of when shew as being toyed with. She just hoped that Corine would not end up paying the price in the morning.
Knowing her friend though, one night out would not be enough to keep her from having enough energy to get through the following day. She might end up not having the motivation for it though. Already Rina felt as though she had failed in her vow to not act in any way that would be a detriment to her friend’s school work while staying with her. She made a new vow to make sure that thing did not get in the way of the rest of Corine’s life.
It would just be like her to derail her entire life just to play some sort of elaborate prank to mess with Rina. She just could not allow that to happen. No matter what sort of things she did to make Rina feel like she was some sort of deprived, sheltered schoolgirl, she would not allow it to have a negative effect on her school performance. She needed to make sure that her life getting all screwed up did not end up screwing up the lives of the people that originally wanted to help her.
The trip back home felt like the longest and the shortest she had ever been on. She slept most of the way. It was a deep sleep full of strange dreams that would wake her with a start but then evaporate from her mind before she could even commit to describing it in words.
She ate and drank when Souma stopped and forced her to do so, and she readily accepted the medicine for pain that he offered her. It made sleep happen that much more easily. That was all she really wanted these days. She wanted to sleep because she did not have to deal with consequences as long as she was not awake.
Souma carried her all the way back home. She could not fathom what he went through to do it. He abandoned nearly all of the things they had brought with them so he could carry her. Every time she woke up he was carrying her and they were moving forward. She was not sure that he slept at all during the days it took to get them home. He was in a rush and she could not understand why.
At first it had made sense to get away from the youkai who had caused the problem in the first place, but he just kept going on without stopping. It was possible of course that he did stop and rest from time to time and she just missed it. Even she knew she was sleeping more than she should.
Any other time Souma would have stopped her from abusing his herbal medicines in such a blatant way. This time she thought he seemed relieved when she asked for more and went back to her world of dreams that she could not remember. She had a feeling he preferred to deal with her while asleep as opposed to bursting into tears or suddenly hitting and kicking to get away from him as she had done a few times when she woke up in his arms. She was much safer for him to handle while asleep.
Somehow they managed to make it home in one piece. Yuzuki knew it was no thanks to her. Souma had been the one handling everything for the both of them. Now she was actually safe and in her own bed for the first time in ages, and the last thing she wanted to do was sleep some more. Her brain was fuzzy from all of the medicine she had been taking and all of the sleep she had been doing. There was not much she could do about either at the moment. She just needed to stay awake long enough to let the side effects of those problems wear off. She was very, very thirsty though so she decided she would get out of bed and get something to drink.
Souma had given her orders to stay in bed and rest until she felt better and he had promised he would take care of everything else until she was up to doing some it herself again, and she did appreciate the thought, but she did not think she could just stay in bed and ignore the world as it passed her by. She needed something to do to occupy her mind of she would end up going stir crazy as well as a few other things. Her legs were wobbly and not quite sure how they were supposed to be used anymore, but she still managed to stumble out of the bedroom without causing herself any sort to grave injury.
She was surprised to see Souma inside and cooking. She had expected him to be out in the garden with his plants. After they had been gone for so many days she was sure that the plants would be craving some extra care from the resident plant master. He was alternating his attention between a small book he held in one hand and the pot on the fire he was stirring with the other. He jumped slightly when Yuzuki crouched down next to him and peered in the pot.
Whatever he was making looked disgusting and smelled even worse. She crinkled her nose at it.
“What is that?” she asked. “It smells awful.”
“It’s for you.”
“Yuck. That’s not going to be my supper is it?”
“No. It’s medicine.”
“Ugh. I’m so done with medicine. My brain is so foggy from the stuff even now.”
“You’re going to take this medicine, though.”
“Do I have to?” she whined. Mostly she was joking, but she was also a bit leery of anything that might alter her mental state further. She wanted to feel like herself again. She needed to know if she could still be herself and there was no way to know for sure unless she just got all of the stuff that made her feel numb out of her system.
He turned and looked at her with a dead serious look on his face. “You’re taking this, and I don’t want to hear a word of complaint from you about it.”
The room felt as though it dropped a couple degrees in temperature when he looked at her. The way he spoke sent chills down her spine. He was almost never this harsh with her. He could tell when she was making a joke so she did not understand why he was so against joking around this time.
“What’s it for if it’s so important?”
Now he did not want to look at her. He was staring at the foul smelling, muddy stuff in the pot. She hoped that he was going to wash the pot at least if he was going to make her drink that muddy crap.
Since he would not speak she tried to lean over and glance at the book he seemed to be getting the recipe from. He turned away from her to hide it. Now she was getting pushed into full blown curiosity mode. She just had to know what was going on here or she would go crazy.
“Where did you get the book?”
“I had to buy it off the apothecary in town. I went while you were asleep.”
“Oh. Why’d you need to buy a book from the apothecary? Couldn’t you have just bought the medicine and saved yourself the trouble?”
“I wanted to make sure it would work.” He glanced over at her quickly. “You know I have fresher ingredients than he does.”
“Yeah.” She smiled at him before asking him again. “But what’s this medicine for?”
“Not now, Yuzu. I’ve gotta make sure I get this off the heat in time.”
“Fine,” she said with a huff.
She got up and got herself a cup of water and sat down next to him again to watch the process. If he wanted her to be quiet and wait she would just have to be patient. It was not the end of the world to have to wait a little while to know something the important part was getting to know at all. He had to know by now since she had made it abundantly clear that she would not be taking any more medicine until she knew what this one was for.
The water did help her to feel a bit better. Her mouth did not feel fuzzy any more and she could swear that she was thinking a bit more clearly already. It might have just been from being awake longer than ten minutes at a time too. While she sat there she started to realize how grimy she felt, though. She had scrubbed herself as much as she could stand as soon as Souma had gotten her to a creek. In fact, she had remembered Souma dragging her out of the water as she frantically tried to keep scrubbing at her skin because she had started to go blue from the cold water. That had been at least a few days ago, though. Now she had days worth of dust from travel on her skin and her hair was limp and greasy. She knew she had to look terrible.
On top of just being grimy, she was still covered in marks from her ordeal. The bruises on her arms were starting to fade to yellow around the edges but were still dark and purple in the center. Her arms also still sported scabs from the scratches she had given herself. She dreaded looking over the rest of her body when she got a chance to take a bath. Her arms had not exactly been the focal point for the damage she had taken.
She sipped her water and continued to watch Souma. He was deep in concentration and she dared not disturb him gain. He looked tired, but it was different from the tired she had expected. She had expected to see dark circles under his eyes from lack of sleep. She expected him to look pale and worn out. She had not expected him to look older. He had lines on his face she could have sworn had not been there before. His face looked thinner too.
The changes frightened her. She did not want him to change or to be older than he really was. She started to wonder what the last few days had done to her face. Since she was not going to be getting any answers out of Souma for at least a little while she decided to go find out. She had a small, pocket sized mirror in the bedroom that Souma had given to her. She went and looked at herself in that.
She was not sure what to think of the person she saw in that mirror. Both of her eyes looked bruised and sunken from the intense dark circles around them. Her face looked thin and pale, but she did not have the lines that had so abruptly aged Souma. She just looked small, pale, and haunted. As much as she hated the way she looked right now — the griminess and the greasy hair were not helping matters in the appearance department in the least — she really did not care if she looked awful. She just felt awful that Souma had put himself through so much hell for her. He did not deserve this sort of torture.
The mirror might have been a bad idea, but when she got back to the kitchen she decided that leaving him alone to finish his concoction had been a worse one. Apparently it was finished. It did not look any more appetizing than it had during its cooking process, and now it looked like she was expected to drink a whole cup full of the stuff.
There was more than enough, but she eyes the pot and much to her dread there was plenty of the stuff left in there. She folded her arms across her chest and leveled him with her most stubborn, defiant look.
“I’m not touching a drop of that stuff until I know what it is.”
He sighed and adjusted his sleeves all in an attempt to put off telling her the answer to her question. She knew she was not going to budge, though. He had to tell her or he might as well throw the stuff out. She had a right to know what she was putting into her body and what it was going to do to her. She did not know why he was making such a big deal about it. Obviously, he thought it was important because he went ahead and started making it without even so much as consulting her about it. It had to be important, something she had needed that he could not give her and she had somehow overlooked or simply not been aware of existing. Either was possible. She was still not exactly in the best state of mind for clear thinking and she was far from the most knowledgeable person about medicine and overall kitsune health. She knew enough not to be utterly miserable if she managed to get herself sick, but that was far from being an expert on the topic of health and wellbeing. Souma was generally more knowledgeable about such things at least in the sense that he knew more about medicinal plants due to his interest and therefore he knew all about the things they could be used to treat. He might not know how they do it but he knew which ones did what and in the end that was all that people really wanted to hear.
Obviously, he knew she needed something and was trying his best to make sure that she got it. She just wanted to know what it was that she needed before she took her medicine. It was important to be well informed about such things and she wanted to be able to do better for herself in the future. She did not think she was being unreasonable. In her opinion, she was doing the most responsible thing she could. He would just have to tell her if he wanted her to do what was good for her.
She waited. He continued to be uncomfortable and awkward about answering.
Finally whatever the medicine must be for won out over whatever hang up Souma was feeling over it and he gave in and started to talk.
“It’s for… well, it’s to make sure you don’t…” he sighed.
She tilted her head to one side. His explanation was not so much an explanation as a jumble of words that sort of implied that the medicine would prevent something worse from happening.
“Yuzu, did anyone ever explain to you how… do you know how kits are made?”
“Oh,” she said lamely. Then she understood the implication of what he was saying and a terrible sense of dread built up in the pit of her stomach. She grabbed the cup and quickly drank it all before she had a chance to find out if it tasted as badly as it smelled.
She sat the cup down and tried her best not to gag from the after taste. It was something she hoped she would never have to do again, but already she had a feeling it would be a repeat performance considering the size of the batch Souma had made.
“I’m going to have to do that again, aren’t I?” she asked.
He nodded and quickly referred to the book. “Once a day until you are sure there won’t be… a problem.”
“Okay,” she sighed. “Why didn’t you just tell me what this was all about?”
“I didn’t want to give you one more thing to worry about if you hadn’t thought of it, and I was busy kicking myself for not having already learned how to make it. I guess I just hoped that I would never have to worry about that sort of thing, but then it happened and could have kicked myself for overlooking something so important.”
Yuzuki was left looking at him in wide eyed-shock as he just poured out all of his worries from the past few days to her. Even if she wanted to say something she would not have been given a chance. Apparently his silence had caused some sort of build up of words that he now needed to purge from himself. She found herself both terrified by what he was saying and feeling a strong urge to comfort him and hopefully be comforted by him in return. Lately, life had just been too much for both of them to handle and they were just looking for permission to crash for a while.
“You should have had this the first day. Every day without it make the chances that much worse. I couldn’t stand the thought of you with one of those bastards’ kit in your belly.” He was shaking now.
She found herself shaking too. She was feeling sick. It might have been from the sludge she just forced down her throat, but it was more than likely from the thoughts that were not in her head that she had somehow managed to keep herself from thinking possibly in an instinctual attempt as self-preservation.
Somehow her mind had been blissfully blank on the topic of any and all things related to procreation. Then again it was not just in relation to this incident. She never gave any real thought to the way kits were brought into the world, and somehow she had failed to actually ever acknowledge the fact that she was capable of bearing kits. Intellectually she knew how it happened. She had younger siblings. The concept was not unfamiliar to her, but somehow she just never thought of herself as capable of doing the same.
She knew she was old enough. That time had come not too long before her father had started his inappropriate interest in her. She had been more concerned with getting away from that than actually putting the two pieces together and thinking about why he would be interested in her that way. So it had been a physical possibility for a while now in actuality, but she had never thought about doing anything to take precautions against such a thing happening.
There had been no interest in doing any activities that typically brought kits into existence either so it was not unsurprising that she saw no reason to consider their prevention. She was immensely grateful to Souma for taking such things into consideration. She could not imagine being able to get over what had happened if she had to watch her body change day by day constantly reminding her of what had been done to her. That would be an unimaginable hell.
She looked over at Souma and gave him a weak, wavery smile of thanks. As much as she had come to realize that he was still fallible and had just as many weaknesses as her in recent days, she still considered him to be her hero in almost every way possible. Even when he made mistakes he worked so hard to make up for those shortcomings that she could not bring herself to begrudge him for what had gone wrong.
That sort of thinking might be naive and she knew that she could very well be setting herself up for failure in the long run, but everything she saw and everything she felt told her that she could count on Souma and he would rather lay down his life than let her down.
She walked over and took his hand in hers and gave it a slight squeeze. After everything he had just said there was no way she was going to try to use words to make him feel better. She just wanted him to know what she was there for him.
Some day she thought she might like the idea of giving Souma a kit. With him, the idea did not seem so disgusting or scary, but she did not dare ask him what he thought of that idea, especially since the idea of actually putting the kit there in the first place made her skin crawl.