Cover by A. R. Shellnut
This chapter was somehow easier to revise than the last one. I don’t know what exactly makes some chapters easier than others. Hopefully easy to revise will translate to easy to read!
My supporters over on Patreon are fantastic as always. Even a dollar makes a huge difference. Every chapter you support gets us one step closer to seeing this novel through to the end.
Finals were done and over with and Rina had still not reconciled with her mother. She did not feel ready to go back to living at home. Part of it was out of concern that she would end up trapped int he same sort of oppressive routine she had left to get away from. Another part of it was that she just could not deal with returning with her tail between her legs.
She was no better off than she had been when she left. She was not back in school. She had not found a job. She felt as though her mental health was a bit improved by being more free to do as she wished, but it was not something she could easily show to her mother to make a point. She just wished she had a job or something. Then she would feel better about staying at home with her mother again.
Instead of going home for the entirety of winter break Hibiki invited her to come home with him. She had not even told him about her hesitation to go back home once the semester was over when he asked her to go home with her.
Of course, she readily agreed because it got her out of an awkward position. Only when she thought about it did she start to feel a bit nervous. She would be meeting his family. She would be spending the winter holidays with them — even if she would probably try to go home to see her mom for Christmas she would still be with them the rest of the time. That was a lot of personal time with new people. These were not just any new people either. These were the parents of her serious boyfriend, her first ever serious boyfriend. She would have to face them knowing that she had been sleeping over in his apartment for the past ten days. Not knowing them at all she did not know how they would take that kind of information.
She hoped they would be okay with it seeing as they were okay with her coming to stay with them for pretty much the entire month long break. Then again, she had been too nervous to ask Hibiki about what the sleeping arrangement would be at his parents home. Once she thought about that she realized that the sleeping arrangement would probably tell her a lot about his parents and what they thought of their relationship, and how okay they were with young adults having serious relationships in their presence. If they were in denial about their son being an adult and capable of having adult feelings about someone she would probably be relegated to a guest bedroom of some sort, but if they were more open to the idea of him being a grown man in an adult relationship then they would probably have the option of sharing a room. She did not know if she really wanted to know how they felt about their son being in an adult romantic relationship, but she was at least slightly curious to see how Hibiki would handle it all. She knew she could count on him to shield her from anything that was too terribly upsetting. That’s not a problem she expected to have. As far as she knew Hibiki’s parents were wonderful people. She had no reason to think otherwise because obviously they had raised a wonderful son.
The more she thought about it the more nervous she got. Since she did not have all that much stuff with her — she was really starting to miss the things she had not bothered to pack when she left home. It did make moving around from place to place a lot easier, but she had to wonder if she had the right clothes to get her through the next month. The seasons were changing and she did not know how much she would be expected to dress up. There was not much she could do about it at the moment though so she instead focused on helping Hibiki pack up.
That was a depressing thought. If things never improved with her mother she might be doomed to live like a vagabond between semesters, at least until she had a decent job and could afford to have a permanent place to stay and enough money to actually fill that space with the comforts of home. For now that was outside of her reach. She would have to be content with staying with friends for the time being if she wanted to continue to live away from her mother.
The independence seemed to be worth it to her for now. She did not know how long she would continue to feel like this, but being out on her own seemed to be doing her some good. She got to go outside. She got to make her own choices. She answered to no one. The freedom made her worry a lot less about things she had no control over. Of course that just made her more freedom to worry about the content of her dreams. There had been so much fear and suffering happening when she slept that she started to wonder if she was losing her mind again. She could not trust her dreams, she knew that much at least. It was so far beyond her own experiences that she was able to distinguish between being awake and asleep very well right now, although sometimes she was not sure which was real and which was the dream. The peaceful happy life she had right now with Hibiki might easily be a dream she had to escape the awful pain and terror of the other life where she was someone that was more definitely not her.
She did not like giving herself too much time to think about it. Too much thought just left her feeling dizzy from all the circles her mind contorted itself into. Thinking about it for too long only left her unsure of whether she was awake or asleep. Both seemed just as real as the other. There was no real way for her to tell. Unlike the usual stereotype she could feel pain even while sleeping. Dream or no dream she was perfectly capable of being hurt.
Sometimes she entertained the idea that both were real, but she could not work out how that could be the case. It would have to be some sort of double life, but she did not understand how she could be aware of both of them, and yet still unable to connect the dots between the two. Hibiki would be sure to notice if she disappeared at night when she should be sleeping, and she had no way of explaining how her other life seemed to be happening in a place completely alien to her.
All of this did her no good and just left her confused and rather cranky. She promised herself she would do everything in her power to ignore these thoughts while she was staying with Hibiki’s family. She would try to stay busy so she would not be tempted to dwell on these internal problems that seemed to have no solution. She would just save all of her thinking on this subject for her appointments with Dr. Charlotte. She did talk a lot there, and still Charlotte said very little, but she did encourage her to not be afraid of the dreams and to do her best to remember them and recount them to her. It was only slightly annoying to not receive very much counsel from her, but she supposed her talking was most of the therapy anyway. She just needed a safe place unload her problems and to be told that she was not nearly as out of her mind as she sometimes felt. Even without a lot of advice she did always leave the office feeling a bit better if a bit empty and exhausted. The dreams always seemed to be a bit more vivid after her appointment, but she assumed that was because she had cleared out a number of the earlier dreams by talking about them in gory detail. Since their talk her first day staying with him, she had told Hibiki about some of her dreams. He always listened respectfully and seemed to be trying to understand why she felt the way she did based on the information she shared from these dreams, but she never dared to give him all the details.
Without studying and exams taking up most of his time, Rina was sure that Hibiki would prove to be a much more effective diversion over break. She would be able to keep her mind off of troublesome things much more easily once she knew she had something to look forward to doing for most of her waking hours. Even if they just watched television together for lack of anything better to do it would still be easier to keep her mind from going to dark and confusing places with him around.
The car ride to his parents’ home made her more than a little nervous. She knew he did not live too terribly far from the college, it was a situation pretty similar to her own, but in a completely different direction. She had never had reason to travel to this town before. Everyone that lived here had money. It was not as though she had ever been so poor that she was left wanting, but their house was small and shabby compared to the magnificent houses in this town.
For some reason it never occurred to her that Hibiki might live in such a place. Now that she knew she was afraid she would seem much like her family home: small, shabby, and maybe a bit rundown. She wanted to impress them, and now she was no longer sure she was capable of doing so. She was afraid that they would think hat Hibiki could do better — which he surely could. She could never match his charm, let along his intelligence or his looks. All in all, she knew their relationship was very unequal. She hoped that he knew something she did not that at least evened the playing field between them. She also hoped that his family would see whatever it was that he saw so they would not think too little of her. She wanted to make the best impression possible, especially after the rocky start Hibiki had with her mother. It would not do for both of them to have problems with the other’s family. If that was the case they were probably more doomed than she already thought. She doubted their relationship could last unless they had the approval of at least one of their families. Certainly after she practically ran away from home, and now was pretty much living with her boyfriend, her mother was never going to be all that okay with their relationship. She felt a sudden urgency to make the best possible impression on Hibiki’s family.
“What’s your family like?” she asked abruptly. “I don’t think you’ve ever told me much about them.”
He shrugged. “They’re a pretty ordinary family. There’s my mom and dad and my little brother, Kouta.”
“How old is Kouta?”
“Twelve. Don’t let him bother you.”
“I wasn’t planning on it.”
“He’s just going through that annoying middle school phase where he hasn’t quite figured out how to act around girls yet even though he’s very sure he likes them.”
“Oh. So that phase that half the guys our age haven’t grown out of yet?”
“I think I’ll be able to handle it,” she assured him.
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Once he sees you he’s going to have a huge crush on you.”
She blushed. “I doubt that.”
Hibiki grinned. “I don’t. You’re too pretty for him not to have a crush on you.”
“Doesn’t that bother you?”
“Not really. He’s just a kid, and I know that it’ll just be a harmless crush.”
“Oh. Well, thanks for the heads up, I guess. What are your parents like?”
“I’d say they’re pretty ordinary parents. My dad works in an office, still wears the ties I got him for father’s day growing up. My mom is the best. She’s just going to love you.”
Rina suddenly felt silly for all of the worrying she had done already. Hibiki had so much confidence that his family would like her that she could not help but feel at least reasonably confident that everything would turn out okay.
“Do you really think they’ll like me?”
“They’ll love you.”
“Are you sure that you aren’t just letting your own bias color your judgment even just a little bit?”
“I know they’ll love you because you’re amazing and I love you.”
“Well, I love you too.”
That little bit of confidence made meeting Hibiki’s family all that much easier for Rina. His little brother, Kouta, barely said a word to her before retreating to his room. If that was the extent of the crush Hibiki had predicted then she was fairly certain she could deal with it.
With his father at work, she only met his brother and mother immediately upon arrival. His mother, Masami, greeted her with a hug and seemed to welcome her as a member of a member of the family.
She was shown around the entirety of the house by Masami before she had a chance to get settled in. After the tour she had to figure out where to find her boyfriend.
She was a little disoriented. She had been shown around the house, but it was such a whirlwind that she was not entirely sure where she was in relation to everything else. It was not that the house was huge, but that she was more than a little shaken up even after being reassured by everyone she met that there was nothing for her to worry about and her fears prior to coming to this place were much more the product of her overactive and extreme imagination.
Once she actually figured out the layout of the house she was sure that she would be able to feel at home here. Somehow this made her feel even closer to Hibiki. She could see herself as part of his family already. They felt like a part of her family that she had never known but that welcomed her as though she had always belonged here. It was like she instantly had a second family. In a way it was wonderful, but it also reminded her of how much of a strain there was in her relationship with her own family. She was avoiding her mother by being here. That was not int he spirit of familial feeling, but she still did not feel ready to go back home.
She shook her head and did her best to banish these thoughts from her mind. She was here to spend time with Hibiki, get to know his family, and try to actually enjoy herself before she rejoined the college life and threw herself back into her studies. After everything that had happened to her during the last few months she needed some time to actually live before her life became all about academics again. She knew that she would need to work twice as hard to make up for everything that went wrong in the fall, and that meant she would have very little time to enjoy much of anything until May. She needed to have fun now so she would at least have some good memories to think about when she really needed it.
Once she reined in her nerves and just tried, she found Hibiki in his room with relative ease. She slipped into the room and immediately felt calm. This room was just so much like Hibiki. It immediately felt familiar to her. Stepping into this room was like being surrounded on all sides by him. She sighed and smiled.
The room itself had attracted so much of her attention that she did not even register that Hibiki was there too for a few seconds. While she was getting the tour of the house he had brought all of their bags up into this room. That brought to her attention that nothing had been mentioned to her about where she would be sleeping. She knew there was a guest room, but no one said a word about her staying in that room for the next month.
Hibiki had her bags in his room with his bags, and all of his things. She knew she had spent the last week and a half in a room with him. They shared that room without a problem, but that was when the other people living around them were his room mates. They had no problem with her. It was just a matter of fact that guys had girlfriends stay over sometimes. Here it was probably much less of a given. It would be pretty weird in her opinion if his parents were completely okay with him having a girl in his bed. Then again, he was a guy and the rules for sons typically seemed to be different from the rules for daughters. They were not worried about her because she was not theirs and everyone expect boys to be all over their girlfriends. They were not the ones expected by society to defend their virtue to the death. Maybe part of it was also that he was already twenty and he would be graduating from college and entering the real adult world in just a few short months. At that point in his life his parents would be expected to afford him a bit more freedom. She just did not know if going along with all of this would change their opinion of her or if they already liked and approved of her even though they expected her to be sharing a bed with their son.
She knew she was over thinking things again. Hibiki was giving her that look he had started to give her whenever she got trapped in her own mind and he was trying to be patient while she sorted everything out and decided to join the rest of the world again. As soon as she noticed the look she learned to start working on bringing herself back to reality because he had a great deal of patience for her introverted quirks so when his expression changed to the one where he had seen enough of her spacing out and worrying in her own head she knew that she really needed to snap out of it and get her act together.
“So…” she began in the most awkward way possible. “Am I staying here or in the guest room down the hall?”
“Which would you prefer?” he asked.
She crossed the room and sat down on his bed. “Do you think your family would be upset if I stayed here with you?”
“What do you want to do?”
She squirmed. This was not how she wanted this conversation to go. She really just wanted someone to tell her what to do. “I just don’t want to upset anyone.”
He sighed and sat down next to her. He put his arm around around her in a one armed hug. “No one is going to be upset with you. You should do whatever will make you comfortable.”
“I don’t know what will make me comfortable.” She whined.
“I can’t tell you what you want,” he said gently.
She sighed. As much as she wanted to be told what to do to make everyone happy she knew now that she would not be getting a simple answer in this situation. No matter what decision she made it would have to be her own and she would have to live with it so she might as well do whatever she wanted so she could at least be happy in her decision even if she might not be happy with the unintended consequences of her decision.
“I think I’d like to stay here with you if that’s okay,” she said finally.
“Are you sure?” he asked while giving her a playful squeeze. “Have you noticed how small the bed is?”
“Oh,” she said and looked at the bed she was already sitting on. “It is kind of small. I guess I could sleep on the floor if you don’t want to be squeezed in there with me all night long.”
“I think we can make it work. You won’t hear me complaining about a month of waking up with you in my arms.”
He leaned in and kissed her softly. Her heart skipped a beat as her imagination conjured up images of waking up with her limbs tangled with Hibiki’s every morning.
She could not help but feel a little bit excited at the prospect. She knew it was opening up a can of worms considering she was still too nervous to take things all the way, and the last thing she wanted to do was torture Hibiki, but she still wanted to at least go as far as she felt comfortable going.
She scooted closer to him, practically placing herself in his lap. His arm tightened around her, drawing her even closer to him. His other hand moved up to rest on her breast — over her shirt since he had not tried to do anything involving removing her clothes since her freak out a while ago. She was glad for that for now, but she wondered how she would handle it once she was ready to go further. She did still have faith that she would one day be ready and she wanted to think that Hibiki would be there waiting when she got there.
Her heart was pounding hard in her chest, but she did not want to stop. Her hands were in his hair. She felt oddly confident now that she had decided to stay with Hibiki in his room. His obvious joy with her decision just made her more confident that she had done the right thing for them both. It might lead them to become even closer, which is exactly what she wanted, provided they were both ready for the next step.
His mouth left her and trailed kisses down her neck and along her collarbone. Her breath hitched in her throat as she tried to keep herself from making a sound. As much as she might be enjoying herself she would be mortified if anyone heard her expressing her enjoyment of their current activities.
Of course that was the perfect time for her to be utterly humiliated by a knock on the frame of Hibiki’s door. They had not even had the sense to close the door before they got started. A middle-aged man — obviously Hibiki’s father — was standing in the doorway.
At least he did not look angry. He just seemed a bit uneasy standing there in the doorway, but he stood his ground and said what he came to say.
“I saw your car in the driveway and I thought I’d say hello. So, hello.”
He lingered in the doorway as though he was not quite sure if he wanted to stick around to have an actual conversation or not. Since he did not leave someone had to say something.
“Dad, this is Rina,” Hibiki said to break the awkward silence.
“Hi Rina. I’m Yuuto.”
“Nice to meet you,” Rina said quietly.
Yuuto nodded. “Son, try to keep the door closed when you’re in here with your lady-friend. I don’t want Kouta seeing things he’s too young to see.”
Rina glanced over at Hibiki to see how he was reacting to the news. She was embarrassed enough on her own, but seeing the faint glow of a blush on Hibiki’s face sent her over the edge into humiliation mode. She wanted nothing more than to dive under the bed and refuse to come out until she was sure she could make an escape without having to face anyone in Hibiki’s family.
“Sure thing, Dad,” Hibiki agreed.
“I’ll see you kids at dinner,” he said before pulling the door closed behind him.
Rina flopped over on the bed and covered her head with a pillow. She was pretty sure she was as red as a ripe tomato at this point.
“Are you okay?” Hibiki whispered.
“I can’t believe that just happened,” she whispered back while trying so hard to hold back her laughter.
“You’re shaking,” he pointed out.
She burst out laughing. It was louder than she would have liked since she had been holding it back. Once the worst of the laughter was out of her system she was able to look at Hibiki again.
He did not find it quite at funny as she did, but that was probably understandable. It was his father that caught them in the midst of a rather intense make-out session. She just considered them lucky that he was okay with it enough to not try to stop them from doing it under his roof.
Overall she had to say that she considered them to be pretty cool parents. She had been so worried about what they would think about her and where she would end up sleeping, and it turned out that they did not really care either way. There was obviously a lot of trust and respect between Hibiki and his parents. They trusted his judgment and by extension that somehow meant that they trusted her, or at least they trusted her in context of her involvement with Hibiki. She would take that and work on building them up to a real and full trust of her. Granted, getting caught making out with Hibiki on his bed was probably not the best first impression she could have made with Yuuto, but she was confident that she would be able to recover from it because he was not upset with them.
For now, she would just take some time to try to make sure that Hibiki did not feel too bad about it all. She had a feeling it would not be too hard. After all, Yuuto had closed the door for them already.
She sat bolt upright in the bed but pulled the blanket up around her like a hood and stared out at the door. Moving from the bed to see what she had heard was out of the question. On some level, she was still convinced that she would be able to go back to sleep as soon as she convinced herself that she had actually heard nothing at all. Getting out of bed would only make it harder to fall back asleep.
There was only a little light from the sky due to the cloud cover tonight so she had a hard time seeing, but she could still see well enough to backpedal quickly, dragging the blanket along with her as though she could use it as a shield against whoever had come here in the middle of the night.
“Yuzu,” Souma’s voice called out to her in an elated tone she had not heard in ages.
“Souma?” she asked hesitantly.
“It’s all okay now, Yuzu. I got them. They won’t bother you ever again. I couldn’t get Takeshi, but I got them.”
“What do you mean?”
“I killed them. It was so easy. They didn’t think I could do it, but I did, and their friends didn’t like what they saw and they tried to get me back for it, but they weren’t so tough either.”
“Souma! What are you talking about?”
She crept closer to him, still a bit unsure of what to think of his sudden arrival and his strange behavior. Being woken up in the middle of the night had her fight or flight responses going into overdrive. She knew she had nothing to fear from Souma, but she still felt apprehensive. He did not sound like himself and the whole situation felt so wrong to her.
The cloud cover broke long enough to give her a better look at him, and she immediately realized one thing that was very, very wrong. He was covered in blood.
There was so much it certainly could not all be his as he was still standing in front of her. She could not imagine what had happened to get so much blood all over him. It was dried in streaks across his face, caked in his normally beautiful white hair, and soaked into his clothes.
“What happened?” she asked weakly. She wished to be more forceful, to make him start talking sense again, but the shock of it all took her breath away. She could hardly get her voice above a whisper.
“I couldn’t just let them go after what they did to you,” he explained.
He reached out to put his hands on her shoulders but she backed away.
“But what did you do to them?” she asked with a bit more force behind her voice.
“I made sure they would never hurt you again. Then their friends got upset so I took care of them too. Everyone thought I was harmless… thought plants are harmless. Plants aren’t harmless, Yuzu. There’s a lot of damage you can do with the right plant.”
She shook her head. There was no way she could believe what she was hearing. It was just too much. She hitched up her protective blanket cape and marched to the kitchen.
Souma followed behind her.
She grabbed the water bucket — mostly full and quite cold — and dumped it over his head. She stepped back to survey her work and waited.
He stood still and stunned for a moment before looking down at his hands in shock.
“Did you drink yourself halfway to oblivion before or after you killed them?” she demanded through gritted teeth.
“Both, I think,” he admitted.
“I don’t want you in the house like this,” she stated sternly. “Get yourself out of this tree and go wash yourself in the stream.”
He nodded and clumsily climbed down from the tree house. She sighed and climbed down after him. He might be in better shape than before she dumped the water on his head but she still did not trust him not to accidentally drown himself while bathing.
At the foot of the tree she almost kicked over a half-full bottle of something could only assume was part of the problem. She picked it up and poured it out as she walked along behind him.
Normally they did not bathe directly in the stream except for during the hottest time of the year. That was certainly not now, but Yuzuki was not going to let him into the house like that to wait around for her to heat up some water for him to wash with. The stream would be the only way to clean up a mess of this magnitude. Hopefully it would help him to finish sobering up.
The drinking was bad enough, but the blood was a whole different story. She still could not accept that he had killed anyone let alone multiple people. Even if he had gone after Hisao and Katsu it did not make it at all better. In some ways it made it even worse. He would not have done it if not for her. She was the reason he had blood on his hands right now.
She was so disgusted that she was at a loss for words. She just waited at the edge of the stream while he scrubbed himself clean. She was there solely to make sure he did not do something foolish, she told herself.
On some level thought she knew she would rather be out here with him than be up there alone and thinking about what he had done and what it all meant. She tried not to think about it out here too. The cold wind made the task a bit easier. She was only in her light sleepwear and still had Souma’s blanket wrapped around her.
“Yuzu, I think these clothes might be ruined,” he called out from the deepest part of the stream.
She half sighed and half shivered. “I’ll see what I can do with them in the morning. I’m not even going to bother now.”
He splashed his way to shore. He looked like himself again, a very cold and soaking wet version of himself, but himself none the less. That was a relief at least. He had not transformed into some sort of unrecognizable beast due to today’s activities.
She held the blanket out and looked the other way. “Just leave those clothes here. I’ll deal with them in the morning. I don’t want you trailing all that water up into the house.”
Once he was stripped and wrapped in the blanket the walked together back to the house. While Souma put on clean, dry clothes Yuzuki started the fire up again to get rid of the chill. She had no idea what to say to him now. She still had no idea how to feel about all of this. On some level she wanted to be glad that her rapists were out there walking around anymore, but them being dead meant Souma was a killer. Even if he had been so drunk he was not even himself at the time he was still the one who killed them.
He had been so drunk that he came all the way home soaked in blood to tell her the news as though he expected her to praise him. She just could not do it. She had not asked for this. She had wanted things to go back to the way they had been before, but now they were even worse than the new normal she had been starting to grudgingly accept.
He came out of the bedroom and sat down near the fire. After a moment he cautiously looked over at her. Their eyes met.
“I don’t know what you expect me to say,” she admitted.
“I wish I could explain myself to you,” he replied.
“Why don’t you try?”
“I don’t know where to begin.”
“Why don’t you start by telling me why you left with no warning yesterday? I didn’t know what to think. I almost left myself just so I wouldn’t have to be alone here.”
He took a deep breath before he began. “I just can’t stand the thought of all of these monsters hurting you and getting away with it. I knew they would be having another meeting with the other smugglers again so I decided to go and do something about them, but I didn’t know what I’d do or how I’d do it. Confronting them around everyone else was a big risk too so I bought some booze to try to get my nerve up I guess and, well, we got into a fight and everything just sort of became a blur for a while. Next thing I knew they were both dead, pretty much the entire organization was pissed off that I just went and killed some of the best muscle we had in a fight, so there was another fight. That one was pretty messy too. I was pretty messed up by the end of it, and I’m not too sure that I understood everything that was going on, but I think I might actually be their de facto leader now.”
She sat quietly and allowed that information to process for a moment before asking. “Are you hurt at all?”
“Well, I’ve got a gash on my right arm. I’m not sure when that happened, but it’s there now.”
She stood up and got some bandages and salve and cleaned up the gash. Then she stood up and brushed herself off.
“I’m going back to bed,” she announced. “I’ll sleep in my own bed.”
She added the last bit pointedly and he seemed to get the idea. She might be glad he was back but did not mean she was at all okay with him leaving or what had happened while he was gone.
The scariest part in her opinion was the part that had her the most irritated. Mostly she was just upset that he came home bloody and drunk. The rest she could move past with time, but she would always have the memory in her head of him standing there barely able to speak coherently and covered in more blood than she had ever seen in one time. That was just not okay in her book no matter what reasons he might have had for getting into that kind of shape.