Cover by A. R. Shellnut
I feel really good about this chapter. I don’t know if it is just because it cooperated with me during revision or if there is another reason behind it. Overall I think it is a rather hopeful chapter, which these characters really needed. I hope you enjoy reading it!
As always my supporters deserve a huge thank you. I wouldn’t be able to do this without you.
She was sure that so was not the same person she used to be. Rina caught herself looking in mirrors more than ever before to see if she could see any change in her appearance. As far as she could tell she was still just herself. She looked less exhausted and by extension healthier, but she still knew who she was looking at in the mirror.
That did not change the fact that she felt different. It might just be that her health had improved. She had more energy now. Her confidence had also increased. Now she no longer needed to feel overpowered by anger to have the confidence and fortitude of will to take decisive action.
She finally felt content with herself, which was a huge change in and of itself for someone usually plagued with anxiety about the tiniest things. She had a confidence these days that she had not had before, even before her illness she had lived with a constant degree of uncertainty. Now, although she still did feel guilty about some things she had done, she felt confident that she was on the right path. Contentedness and confidence were very nearly alien feelings to her, but she found that she was much happier now than she was before.
Her new confidence might explain the way she was feeling. She had never been self-confident before so that might explain why she felt as though she was a different person now. That did not seem as though it would be enough to lead to such a strong feeling of change within her. It would have to be something much more significant and sudden for her to take such notice of it. If it was a gradual change over the course of many weeks or months she would not be feeling the change so profoundly no matter how significant the change might be once the transformation was complete. More time would mean more time to adjust to what was happening. This was sudden, abrupt, and she felt it all the more for that very reason.
The more she thought about it the further into a spiral of confusion she found herself falling. There was no way for her to be objective about this. She had to admit as much to herself. She could not look within her own psyche without some amount of bias. She was already changed and the way she had been before was becoming a rapidly distant memory. She thought differently now.
This would all need a second opinion. She could not find her way through this on her own. The only option left to her was to see an outside opinion. Granted, the only person she felt she could trust to make a reasonably informed judgment was probably at least a little bit biased when it came to her. She hoped that he would be able to remain objective for a short while. No one else here knew her long enough to be able to have an opinion on her from before.
She did contemplate calling Corine, but she had not seen her for a few weeks now, and talking on the phone for a while and texting inane things back and forth did not really do much to represent the changes in her persona and bearing that she was positive were happening. If they were to meet sometime soon she might note the difference, but Corine was also more prone to tease her than to provide any serious help. It was just her way. Rina was far past begrudging her friend for being more inclined to silliness than seriousness. She needed that sort of person in her life because she knew she was quite often too serious for her own good. Corine made it easier for her to let that go and actually stop worrying and thinking so much for at least a little while. It was not a state of being that Rina could easily maintain, and having her friend help her facilitate a few carefree moments was almost essential to her mental health.
Right now she needed someone a bit more grounded to discuss this with her. Fortunately, Hibiki was present and available to provide her with sensible counsel.
She left the bathroom where she had spent entirely too much time staring at herself in the mirror and returned to Hibiki’s bedroom. It was quite early in the morning. She had been awakened by her own troubling thoughts which spurred her to check the mirror to see if she was still herself.
Hibiki was still sleeping soundly. He managed to look sweet and innocent while sleeping. She was fairly certain this was the only time he was not trying his best to think at least three steps ahead of everyone else. Although she found that she was getting better and better at tripping him up as she spent more time with him, he still seemed to know what she would do or say before she acted more often than not. She took pride in her ability to surprise him more now than when they first met. It certainly made things more interesting for both of them.
She had some serious qualms about waking him up just to ask him if she had changed. He would probably not be very happy to have his sleep disrupted for something so silly and trivial as her asking him if he thought she had changed. She was not even sure that she wanted to know the answer. Hibiki loved her for who she was, or maybe who she used to be if she really was changing. If she asked him this question then he might realize she was not who she used to be and then she would be in an even worse position.
Eventually, she did manage to screw up the courage to wake him up. She decided that there were worse things in the world than hearing news she might not like. It would be infinitely worse to have these things be true, but to never know them because she never bothered to ask. Thinking like this she knew she needed to ask these questions before it was too late. It might already be too late already. This was serious. She loved him. Granted, they could be more serious, at least in the physical sense, but that was neither here nor there. It was already understood between them that they would cross that bridge when they were both ready, and she just was not there quite yet. She was getting closer to feeling ready — that was for sure. Being near him day and night did not make it easy for her to resist some of her more base urges, but as she did not feel ready to handle the consequences of those sort of things so she thought it was better to avoid them for the time being.
She perched herself on the edge of the bed and gently shook his shoulder until he woke up. She decided that he was at least equally as cute when first waking up as he was while asleep. Something about him not quite having a plan yet made him seem a bit vulnerable, and she could not help but find his more open look and slightly confused expression to be absolutely adorable.
“What’s going on?” he asked, still sounding more than half asleep.
She blushed as she realized she would not stop staring at him. Her mouth did not seem to want to work. She woke him up for a reason though and she felt like a jerk for not providing him for a reason. Thinking he looked gorgeous first thing in the morning was not a good reason to leave him wondering what was going on.
“Do I seem different to you?” she finally managed to blurt out.
He sat up and arranged himself so he could see her more easily. He just looked at her for a moment, as though he was giving her a look over for the first time. The scrutiny made her feel extremely self-conscious, and she found herself wishing that she had done something with her hair or at least taking a moment to wash her face before jumping in feet first with this sort of question. She just wished she knew what he was thinking while he was looking at her like that. It seemed like he was taking his time, which only gave her more time to worry about what he would say and whether or not she really wanted to know the answer.
He reached out and tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. His fingertips brushed against her cheek. She felt another wave of heat rising in her cheeks.
She felt silly. A little bit of physical contact between them should not be enough to get her flustered like this, but here she was. It was that look in his eyes and the unanswered question hanging between them. She felt incredibly self-conscious from all the waiting, although she knew, in reality, it had probably been less than a minute since she had asked. Her nerves were just messing with her more than she would like to admit.
“You’re surer of yourself now. You know what you want, but you seem more conflicted at the same time.”
“Oh,” she said dumbly. Knowing his answer did not do anything to make her feel better. She had hoped it would, but now that she knew she really felt no differently.
“You’re still having trouble from when you woke up in the hospital. Hasn’t Penny’s mentor been able to help?”
Rina sighed. “I’ve been talking to her, but that’s all we’ve been doing. Somehow I thought she’d be more hands on after the stuff Penny did.”
“Do you want someone to dig around in your psyche again?”
She tipped over so she was laying on the bed and thought about his question for a moment. What did she expect to happen? What did she want? She wanted to feel like herself again. She wanted to be confident that she knew who she was and that her feelings toward her own life experiences were not somehow being tainted by some ridiculous dreams that seemed to be happening more and more often. She wanted to be able to build up her own biases for these experiences. It did not seem fair to her to have some sort of outside source — which oddly enough was somehow inside her own mind — conditioning her to feel a certain way about something she should be inexperienced and generally unbiased about. She wished if she was going to have opinions on stuff she had no way of knowing about it could at least be the sort of stuff that would help her in school, or maybe some sort of otherworldly knowledge of taxes. Anything really seemed like it would be better than dreams of assault.
She sighed. “Not really, but at this point, I’d try just about anything if I could just get some real answers for once.”
Hibiki moved to lay down behind her and put his arms around her. “You know I think you’re wonderful just the way you are, but I’ll be here to support you no matter what you decide to do. I just hope you aren’t actually making yourself more miserable by digging for more answers.”
“I’m already pretty miserable as it is,” she lamented.
“There’s no sense in making yourself feel even worse.”
“I guess you’re right. I’ll try not to dwell on it until I go back to Dr. Charlotte and see if she can do anything for me.”
“Shall I do my best to keep you distracted in the meantime?”
“Please do. I think I’ve had enough of thinking on my own for a while.”
With her apprenticeship starting, Yuzuki knew that she would have to tell Souma about it tonight. She never had any intention of hiding it from him, but she was admittedly a bit nervous to actually go through with breaking the news to him. There was no real reason to be nervous and she understood in her heart of hearts that there was no way he would ever be anything less than supportive of her decision.
Breaking the news to him would be best handled in an environment where she could keep her spirits high, so she decided to make tonight into a celebration. Souma would be coming home and she would have a nice meal ready for them to share, and she thought that she might be able to find some way to decorate the room to really make the evening special. If everything around her was cheery, bright, and wonderful then her news could only be interpreted in the same way.
As the time for Souma’s arrival grew closer she started to doubt the strength of her plan. Suddenly her food seemed completely average and her autumn flower arrangement looked childish. She wanted to start over — to try again, but there was not enough time for that. With Souma coming home at any minute, she needed to make due with what she had already created. She had faith that he would not say anything about any of it, but she wished she could have done something better for her own peace of mind.
She could not remember the last time she had been this excited to see someone. There had been plenty of times she did not want to be alone, but actually wanting to celebrate the return was a bit of a new concept to her. She had news she wanted to share. Usually she just heard stories and had hardly anything of her own to share when Souma came home. Today she was the one with big news and she could not wait to tell him.
Waiting was not her forte in the first place. Now she felt completely impatient. She paced across the floor as she had done so many times before. The wait was excruciating. She climbed down from the tree and poked around the garden a bit to keep herself from focusing too much on the wait.
At this point, the garden was mostly self-sustaining. She could not even understand what Souma had done to it, but aside from watering the plants if the weather had been particular dry the only real work this garden required was harvesting the crops. She could not explain it, but she also did not mind having no weeds to pull.
Messing around in the garden did keep her mind and her mind busy to the point that she was caught off guard when Souma actually arrived. Being surprised to see him was a much better way to have him come home than being stuck waiting and seeing his impending return from a distance.
She jumped up when as soon as she spotted him in the yard. “Souma!” She ran over and pounced on him to give him the biggest hug possible.
“Hey, Yuzu. Did you miss me or something?”
“Of course, but I have something to tell you!”
“Would it happen to have anything to do with why you are dressed up and muddy?”
“Yes and no. Let’s go inside. Now that you’re here I can finish making the food.”
“You’re surprisingly upbeat today. What’s going on?”
“I’ll tell you when we get inside,” she teased in a singsong voice. She took him by the hand and pulled him along back to the tree.
She felt almost light headed from the excitement she felt. She did not understand it. Souma was home, but he was the same as he had always been. That made her extremely happy. All she wanted right now was for him to stay this way forever. She was happy today, happy to have good news to share with him, happy to see that he was well, and just happy to be near him again. She could not explain how she felt. She just did not have the word for it, but she could not remember a time when she had been happier. It was a wonderful, sudden change from the way she had been feeling for so long. She lost the fear and apprehension she had carried in her heart. Now she felt light, as though she would walk in the clouds.
Once they were inside Souma would not wait any longer for an answer. She tried to be coy. Avoiding the subject proved to be impossible simply because he would not be distracted by anything.
Not telling him became a game. She liked to think that he started it by pestering her nonstop, but she turned the game even more serious. She found excuses to duck out of the room, she tasted the food, then she made him taste the food, she made him change out of his travel clothes. Finally, she made one last escape by declaring her clothes too stained for such a special meal and gave Souma the task of minding the food while she changed.
The game was less fun now that she was pretty much just hiding from him, so she hurried and changed into something that was at least not grass stained and muddy. Her new outfit was not as nice as the first, but it was clean, and the pretense had served its purpose of getting her out of the room to keep Souma waiting even longer.
Now she was not sure she wanted to keep him waiting any longer. She had been looking forward to telling him all day, but then she got sucked into playing with him, and it was just so wonderful to have fun with him that for a while she could even pretend she did not want to tell him about her apprenticeship. As she left the bedroom she vowed to tell him and put an end to the game.
She stepped out into the common room and immediately got swept off her feet. Souma captured her in a huge bear hug, lifting her completely off the ground. She panicked, struggled to get her feet back on the ground, and somehow managed to knock him off balance. They collapsed into a heap of limbs on the floor.
“Are you okay, Yuzu?”
“I’m fine. Are you okay?”
She wiggled her way out of the tangle of limbs and found herself on all fours on top of Souma. He was smirking at her, still fully enjoying their little game. His eyes were bright and full of joy.
His arms wrapped around her and held her close. She could not have escaped if she had wanted to. She did not want to escape.
Without giving much thought to what she was about to do, Yuzuki leaned in and kissed him. She shocked herself by doing this, but if Souma was surprised as all by her actions he hid it very well. He did not push her away. He kissed her back. She had to hold herself back from gasping out of shock.
She had not planned on this happening, and getting such a positive reaction completely threw her off balance. While she would not have wanted to be rejected outright and would probably be miserable if that had happened, she also had no idea what to do now that her unplanned gesture was reciprocated.
Her stomach filled up with butterflies, and her heartbeat drowned out all other sound in her ears. She was intensely aware of just how much of her body was pressed up against his. She expected panic. She expected to want to get away. Instead, she found that she very much enjoyed this.
Then her brain caught up with the turn of events. In a feat that seemed to defy her own physical limitations she escaped from his embrace and made it to her feet before she even thought about doing so. Her legs wobbled and she crumpled back into a sitting position on the floor.
Souma sat only a few feet away and his eyes were locked on her. She met his eyes and felt her cheeks instantly grow warm from a blush. He looked at her in a way that was completely unfamiliar to her. In a way, he was looking at her in the same way he had always looked at her, but now everything that had been hidden beneath the surface was looking at her in the plain and simple light of day. She saw it, but she would not allow herself to understand it.
If she understood it then she would have to think about herself, and doing that held the potential to change everything. With things just starting to be good again she did not think she could bring herself to risk it all by changing things between them. Then again, the way Souma was looking at her, the way her heart was racing, those were signs that everything had already changed.
Souma’s fingertips brushed against her cheek. As he leaned in for another kiss she decided to at least give these changes a try.