Cover by A. R. Shellnut
This chapter was fun to write, but getting the revisions done was a nightmare! The story wasn’t the problem though. Life just wanted to make everything difficult this week. I had internet troubles and lost pretty much an entire day to fighting with that (and I still don’t have a real resolution to that problem since it just started working on it’s own again). The weather has tried to ruin me too. We’re having a heat wave and I’m too tired to do much of anything. The chapter is ready though!
Here’s to my supporters. You’re fantastic, and knowing you’re waiting for the next chapter keeps me working.
The fireplace in the family room quickly became Rina’s favorite place in Hibiki’s home. Some of it was because she had always wanted to live in a house with a fireplace, and read in front of a crackling fire. Now she had a chance to fulfill that dream.
Lucky for her it did not take a lot of convincing to get Hibiki to join her in reading in front of the fire. They brought a lot of soft blankets and pillows down from his room and made themselves a very comfortable in their little nest.
Her plan of spending the night reading by the fire was first slightly derailed by her curiosity about the book Hibiki had brought down to read. She could not resist the temptation to try to move in to see what he was reading. At first squeezing in to take a peek was a little bit awkward, but once he caught on to what she was doing he made room for her in his arms. She rested against his chest and read along with him.
The book was not as interesting as she first thought it would be. Normally she loved books in all their wordy glory, but in this moment she could not bring herself to be bothered with reading. Her mind insisted on wandering to other thoughts. She just wanted to always have a fireplace so they could snuggle like this every single night.
She sighed involuntarily. She was just feeling so content in this moment. It was like all the worries she had been holding on to for the past few weeks seemed to melt away for the time being. She was completely relaxed and content.
Hibiki kissed her cheek. “Are you okay?”
“I’m wonderful,” she said with another blissful sigh.
“You seem very relaxed.”
“I want to do this every night from now on.”
“What if we did?”
She shook her head. “We can’t just live here.”
“I know that, but what if we found a place together after I graduate? We could get a fireplace of our own.”
She turned to face him. “How would we afford an apartment? I’ll still be in school, and who knows where you’ll end up getting a job after graduation.”
He kissed her and at least for a moment all of these worries faded away. He held her closer and kissed her again. She wondered if he was stalling, but it was not as though she minded if that was the case.
“I can get a job with my dad. The apartments around campus are pretty affordable. If we start looking soon I bet we can find one with a fireplace and anything else you might want.”
She looked into his eyes. He seemed so eager for her to get on board with this idea. She felt guilty for having reservations, but she could not get past the fact that this was very much on the spur of the moment. He shocked her with the impulsiveness of it all. She needed a plan, and he was here making up a plan as he went, and for some reason she felt tempted to go along with it. It was crazy. She knew she was not in any sort of position to be getting an apartment with anyone. She did not have a job or any sort of savings. He wanted to start out his adult life with the dead weight of a hopeless college student weighing him down. It did not seem like it as at all responsible, but she still found herself considering it. She wanted to be with him, even if it was incredibly foolish to do so.
“How would we afford an apartment while I’m still in school?”
“I’ll probably be able to cover our expenses during the school year so you can focus on your studies.”
“No way.” She shook her head. “I’m not going to be a freeloader.”
“Who said anything about being a freeloader? You can help out when you can afford it.”
“I don’t want to live anywhere if I can’t pay my fair share.”
He sighed. “Why are you being so stubborn? What about the money you use for room and board each year?”
“Scholarships cover a bit and my mom makes up the difference. I doubt she’ll help me pay rent on an apartment — and I don’t think I want her to.”
“Fair enough,” he agreed.
“Maybe I could get a part-time job to help out,” she offered.
“That would work,” he agreed.
“So what’s got you thinking about moving in together anyway?”
“Just having you here with me. I hate that I’m going to have to give up seeing you everyday once the spring semester starts.”
She nodded. It was going to be a strange transition for more than one reason for her. Missing him would not be the least of them. They would have to go back to planning to get together to study, to try to find times for real dates. Once winter break was over they would never have this kind of freedom to just do nothing together.
Moving in together was just such a huge step. She did not know what to think. It was overwhelming in the sense that she could not wrap her head around all of it at once. Finding an apartment would only be the start of it, she realized. They would need so many things to make an apartment livable. It would end up being very expensive, and she knew she would not be able to buy much of anything.
That thought just depressed her. She wanted to be with Hibiki. There was no doubt at all about that, but she did not want him to be the one that bought everything all the time. She did not want to be in that sort of relationship. Giving and taking equally had always been a sort of necessity in her mind. Things had been unequal enough lately to start to bother her when she took the time to give it a thought, but if they lived together with their current, or even projected circumstances, she would be relying on Hibiki far too much for her personal comfort.
There would be time to think about it, and talk about it later. For now she had a feeling she would not have time to focus on such matters. The way Hibiki was looking at her right now told her that she would be rather thoroughly distracted for the foreseeable future.
Worrying would have to wait for another time, and she was quite okay with putting it off.
The fact that people had died because of her, or rather in the name of her honor, did not sit so well with Yuzuki. The more she thought about it the more it bothered her. She wanted to make up for it somehow. The people that had died had not been good people, but she did not think she should in any way be used as a way of determining the worth of the life of another youkai. There was enough suffering in the world without more being carried out in her name.
She decided she would learn more about the healing arts and try to save some lives to make up for the lives that had been lost. It was a useful skill to have, at least.
She felt as though she already had a solid foundation after learning everything she could from Souma about the medicinal properties of the various plants he grew in their garden and kept around his person for their usefulness. Plants were not the only aspect of the healing arts that she could study. If all she knew was herbs and when to use them she could only do so much. To really make a difference she needed to know more.
First, she got a hold of the book Souma had bought. She read it cover to cover and understood some of what was said in it. She admitted there was a lot she still could not understand. Sometimes she could at least follow the directions to make the recipe, but she was not familiar with the ailment the potion was used to treat. Even after reading through the book several times and trying to piece together everything she could from tying information given in one section of the book into the treatments and illnesses mentioned in another section she was still at a loss most of the time.
There were not a lot of opportunities for her to practice caring for the sick and wounded either with only one healthy, young kitsune as her potential patient at home. To really be a healer and not just an amateur potion maker with no ability to even diagnose illness she would need to find someone to take her on as an apprentice.
She loved the idea of being able to make a positive difference in the world. She also loved the idea of having something she could do that gave her a reason to be away from home sometimes.
After what had happened she had decided going along with Souma when he worked just was not for her. The way he made it very clear he would be traveling alone indicated to her that he had no intention of letting her go along with him again no matter what her opinion on the matter might be. Even so she found herself a bit curious about how the smugglers operated now that Souma had officially ended their rule by anarchy system.
She was still trying to work through her feelings about that night. He had been foolish and was lucky he even made it out of there alive. He admitted as much, though, so she could not fault him too much for the things he openly acknowledged himself. He still thought it had all turned out for the best because he had gotten justice for her and through dumb luck managed to give himself a promotion of sorts. Yuzuki was not so sure.
She did not understand why she was not happy to hear that Hisao and Katsu were dead. She certainly did not like the idea of them being alive and able to do what they had done to her again. Their deaths did nothing to change what had happened to her. She did not suddenly feel better because they were no longer alive. The damage had been done. Her body had healed just fine, but her mind and her soul were permanently scarred. She did not want to tell Souma because she knew he tried to do what he felt was right, but she was fairly certain having the burden of their deaths on her mind did her more harm than good.
Even with them dead she did not feel safe at night. Since the night Souma had come home drunk and covered in blood she had gone back to sleeping on her own as well. Sometimes she managed to sleep, but more often than not she worried away the night until sheer exhaustion took hold and the nightmares started. There had been no nightmares with Souma so close, but she could not go back to his bed now.
Something in their relationship had changed that night. She had felt it shift. She watched and listened carefully and as far as she could tell Souma had not noticed. He had taken extreme measures to try to avenge her honor. She had taken notice, which caused her to take notice to all of the other times he had gone out of his way for her sake. Yuzuki could not look at him in the same light once she realized it. Now she was taking her time to sort out her feelings. At this point, she did not know what she felt.
Until she got her feelings sorted out and had a definitive answer for her own peace of mind she would just try to keep herself busy. The studying did a lot to keep her mind busy, but she knew she could do a lot more once she got herself out there and had a real teacher.
Finding a teacher would require leaving home, at least for a day, and quite possibly for a much longer time than that. Luck would have to be on her side if she could find someone looking for an apprentice healer of some sort within easy traveling distance of home. The closest village, certainly within walking distance had an old apothecary, the one who had sold Souma the book she had been studying so far, but there was no dedicated healer in residence as far as she knew. If she could find a place to learn what she did not already know she would probably be able to set up for herself in the village once she had the proper skills.
She would never know where to look unless she asked so she resolved to go to the village and ask where everyone was currently going if they needed to consult a healer. Even if that particular healer then could not take her on and teach her what she needed to know she hoped that she could at least be passed on to another healer. Surely they all knew each other to a certain degree seeing as they all did the same things, just not always in the same places.
She had to steel herself to the prospect of having to deal with a large number of people once she got to the village and started asking questions. Her interpersonal skills had always been rather weak, and she did not have a lot of opportunities to practice these days. In addition to the fun of exercising her out of shape social muscles, she also had to prepare herself to deal with the rapidly cooling temperatures that came along with the late autumn days.
Her timing for this idea of hers was far from perfect. Even if she was able to start some sort of apprenticeship soon she would have a hard time traveling to and from home once winter set in. That would either mean delaying her studies until after the spring thaw or possibly taking up residence with whatever master took her on. Doing so would give her much more time to learn the healing arts, and she would be ready to work all the sooner if she stayed on and studied every day, but that would mean leaving home and Souma for possibly an entire season.
As undecided as her feelings about him and his recent actions were she knew in her heart that she was not ready to leave this place long term just yet. She might be putting herself out there and trying to make herself into a positive contributing member of society, but she still felt that the most important thing in her life was having a home of her own. If she left now, even for just one winter she knew she would lose this home. Even if she did come back she would find that it was no longer hers.
She supposed it was good to know her own limits. She wanted to learn. She wanted an apprenticeship, but she needed to be able to go home at regular intervals. At this point in her life living elsewhere was still a deal breaker. If she later found that she needed to get away then the option was available to her, and learning a useful skill would better enable her to leave if she chose to do so.
On some level, she knew that she should tell Souma about her plans and that he would be as supportive of her as she could ever possibly hope, but she still decided to keep her plans to herself for now. When she knew for sure what she would be doing or at least what her options were then she would bring it up. Until then she felt as though she needed to have this as a sort of private, personal project that no one else had any say over. Having control over this made her feel as thought she had a little bit more control of her own life. Everything had been so out of her hands lately. She had no even had a say in whether or not her rapists lived or died. This she could control and she would hold onto that control until there seemed to be good reason to bring it out in the open for debate.
She trudged through the early morning forest. Many of the leaves had already fallen making it impossible for her to walk silently, and causing her to trip at least a few times as the multitude of leaves disguised the tree roots and holes in the ground that would normally be easy enough to spot. Much to her own surprise she made it to the village in one piece. She had half expected to fall and twist her ankle at some point once it became apparent to her that she did not have the skills or grace to avoid tripping if the opportunity presented itself.
In the village she made a beeline for the apothecary. Of all the people in the village she assumed he would know the most about where a healer could be found. If someone was badly ill with some unidentified ailment or needed more care than the family could provide then it would only be logical for them to go to the one who usually dispensed cures to tell them where to go for further help. Even if she was wrong, she told herself it at least would not hurt to ask.
The apothecary was an old youkai that could only properly be described by the word wizened. Just looking at his leathery, wrinkled face left her with a strong impression that he had been here long before the village, and even before the trees that grew all around it had even been seeds. Almost all youkai were long-lived compared to other creatures that were generally less in tune with the spiritual energy of the world around them, but to live long enough to become small, old and wrinkled as a youkai was almost unheard of.
“Excuse me, sir,” she hardly managed to squeak out. She shifted in place as the apothecary’s gaze lifted from his worked and fixed upon her. He grew bored of looking at her and went back to grinding his ingredients into a fine powder. “I was hoping you might be able to tell me where to find a healer. I want to study the healing arts and I have no idea where to find a master.”
He set his mortar and pestle carefully to the side before raising his eyes to meet hers. “We ain’t had a healer around here as long as I can remember. We’ve got a midwife, though. She’ll fix whatever ails ya though even if it has nothing to do with birthing babes. Go talk to her.”
“Where can I find her?”
The old youkai sighed heavily as though continuing this conversation was a heavy burden for him to bear. “She rents one of the rooms at the tavern. Gets lots of business when fights break out downstairs. Ask for Hisako.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
She had to go to the tavern — one place she had always avoided specifically because it would be a place where fights broke out. Now she wanted to go there because someone else considered those fights to be a business opportunity. She wondered what it would be like to be taught by someone who saw drunken brawls as a way to make money. Could she even learn from such a person? Or would her personal convictions get in the way and stop her from learning from such a person?
The town barely filled one street so she did not have long to worry before her feet got her to the tavern. She stepped inside and hurried to the bar. The less time she spent here the better she would feel. She just needed to know where to go to find Hisako and then she could be done with this place.
Even just barely past midday the place was not empty, not exactly crowded, but not deserted either. All eyes seemed to turn to her as soon as she walked in the door. She knew that she did not fit in with this place and everyone else present knew the same.
She struggled to find her voice, and barely managed to squeak out the words she needed to say. “Excuse me, I’m looking for Hisako.”
The bartender gave her a leering up and down look before leaning conspiratorially over the bar toward her. “Gotten yourself into trouble have you? Hisako is at the top of the stairs and to your right.”
Yuzuki withheld her thank you and hurried up the stairs. Any attempt to correct him in regards to her reason for seeking out Hisako would only prolong her time in his company, which she knew for certain she did not want to do.
She knocked on the first door to the right at the top of the stairs. Already she felt a bit better now that there were no lecherous eyes watching her every move. Money or no money she could not imagine living in such a place. Hisako had to be a remarkable woman to be able to endure caring for that lot for the majority of her work.
Her heart pounded in her ears loudly enough to block out most of the ambient sound of the tavern below. The wait could not have been more than a few seconds, but her current level of stress made time move at a snail’s pace. She could hardly believe her eyes when she saw the door open and a plain, dark-haired woman peered out at her. A human! Yuzuki had never been this close to a human before, but she was sure that somehow, for some reason Hisako was a human living in a village full of youkai.
“Excuse me,” she managed to squeak out. “I’m looking for Hisako. You are Hisako, aren’t you?”
“I am,” Hisako replied. She opened the door a bit further and waited.
“My name is Yuzuki. I would like to be your apprentice, please.” She bowed deeply and glanced up quickly to see if Hisako responded to her feeble attempts at manners.
It was not that she tried to be rude, but she had so few occasions where she met someone new that might actually care about something like a polite introduction. She hoped that she had not botched the attempt too terribly.
Hisako seemed surprised, but it was hard to tell what her reaction would be once the surprise started to wear off. She could be surprised and still reject the notion of taking on Yuzuki as an apprentice. As much as she hoped for a better outcome she had already resigned herself to the possibility that no one would find her suitable and this wish of hers would never amount to anything at all.
“Why would you want to be my apprentice?” Hisako stood with her arms crossed and blocked Yuzuki from so much as seeing a glimpse of the room beyond the door.
“I want to help people. I’m tired of people getting hurt because of me. I’d rather be useful and actually make a difference than sit at home and worry. Please, just teach me how to be a healer”
“I see,” Hisako said with a confident nod. “And you think that you can learn what you want to know from a human?”
“You are a midwife, aren’t you? And you take care of the youkai downstairs if the fighting gets out of hand? If you really do those things then I do want to learn from you.”
Hisako seemed a bit surprised by the answer she received. Her arms were no longer folded across her chest and her brow furrowed as though she were in deep thought. Yuzuki hoped she had actually done and said the right things. She spoke her mind and told the truth. Now the matter was out of her hands. If Hisako did not want or need her she would just have to go further in her search another day.
This may have started as something she wanted to do as a form of atonement, but now she needed to be a healer. Giving up just felt wrong.
Hisako sighed. “There isn’t always even enough work to keep me busy, you know. I won’t be able to pay you or even promise you which days there would be anything to do. Babies don’t get birthed on any schedule we can see and there’s no guessing when someone is going to get hurt badly enough to need a healer.”
Yuzuki quickly jumped in to alleviate these worries. “I’m not expecting hands on training every day, but if you can tell me how things are done I can come here and clean and organize things for you, and if you are needed then I will do whatever you tell me to do. I just want to learn everything I can.”
“You know most people aren’t going to take you seriously if you’re getting your education from a human. Most of the youkai around here only tolerate me because none of us can figure out how to get me back to where I came from.”
“But you take care of them when they get sick or hurt.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m good enough to have around the rest of the time. If you think being my apprentice is going to make you more respectable you’re mistaken.”
“I don’t care about being respectable. I just want to be useful.”
“Fine. Come back tomorrow and be ready to do laundry.”
“Yes, ma’am! Thank you. You won’t regret this!”
She left with a huge burst of confidence. Even walking back through the tavern did not phase her now. She was victorious and that temporarily made her invincible even against her own insecurities.