Cover by A. R. Shellnut
I couldn’t sleep so I figured I’d get up and get this post out to you wonderful readers. I really enjoyed rereading this chapter, but I hated revising it. I think enjoying the first draft makes it harder to change the things that need to be changed for the second draft. It seems as though everything wants to make revising difficult.
Even while formatting this chapter I’m catching little things that I now think might be better if I tweaked them a bit, but I’m trying not to allow myself to delay chapters by nitpicking. It’s a second draft. It won’t be perfect and trying to make it perfect would drive me up the wall. As always, if you see something that doesn’t work or isn’t right please let me know. I’ll either change it right away or make a note of it depending on the nature of the problem.
My supporters continue to be a source of motivation for my work. Without you guys there is no way I would keep up with my weekly posts. Thank you for thinking my writing is worth it.
Weeks had passed since the last time Rina visited home. She had only called her mother a few times since she left — mostly to talk to her on the holidays — and now she was worried that her mother would be upset with her for being so distant. As much as she wanted to be home again she did worry that she had already done irreparable damage to her relationship with her mother.
“You need to stop worrying so much,” Hibiki insisted.
She considered fibbing and telling him that she was not worrying, but she was almost certain he would see through such a flimsy lie. Instead she decided she would just use his presence to her advantage.
“Will you go in there with me?” she pleaded.
“If you want me there I’ll be there with you.”
Hibiki reached over and squeezed her hand. “Are you ready?”
She sighed. “I think I’m ready. It’s going to be okay, isn’t it?”
“Of course,” he promised. He leaned over for a quick kiss. “Let’s go.”
She took a deep breath and got out of the car. Having Hibiki at her side was enough to give her a huge boost of confidence. Everything would be fine with Hibiki there to support her. She did not need him to protect her, but she did need him to help her feel safe enough not to do or say something foolish and make everything so much worse.
She hesitated at the door. She still had her key, but she was not sure if she still had the right to use it. After the way she acted she might be expected to ring the doorbell rather than barge in on her own.
Hibiki put an arm around her shoulders. She remembered she was not here alone and she found her courage in that knowledge. She unlocked the door and let them both inside.
“Mother?” she called out. “I’m here to pick up my things for the dorm.”
“Rina?” her mother called out before coming into the entranceway.
“Hello, Mother,” she managed to get out before her mother pulled her into a rib crushing hug.
“It’s so good to see you,” her mother said while still squeezing her tight.
“It’s good to see you too,” she managed to squeak out.
Her mother let her go and she was able to breathe again. It was a more extreme reaction that she had been expecting, and a much more positive reaction that she had hoped for. It was a better reaction than she deserved.
“You look different,” her mother said while studying her at arms length.
Rina glanced helplessly over at Hibiki. He shrugged, obviously unwilling to help her get out of this increasingly awkward scrutiny from her mother. She was left speechless and defenseless as she did not want to start another fight with her mother when they were apparently on the path towards reconciliation at the moment. If her mother wanted to stare at her for a few moments she would tolerate it if it would allow her to get back in her mother’s good graces. She wanted her mother to be happy so she could apologize and be forgiven for being so awful and irrational.
She waited for her mother to get past staring at her. It took a few moments. Rina had to avoid looking at Hibiki or her mother for the duration of this time because she was sure that she would not be able to stop herself from laughing if she met their eyes.
A nervous laugh very nearly escaped her when her mother put a hand on either side of her head and stared deep into her eyes. It was hard to tell exactly what was happening right now, but she knew that it was quite possibly one of the most embarrassing experiences she had in recent memory.
“Have you been getting enough to eat?” Mother asked.
“Yes, Mother,” Rina replied, already sensing that this was going to turn into some sort of interrogation.
“And enough sleep?”
“Plenty of sleep,” she answered, hoping that she was sliding by with the truth so her mother would not question her further on this particular topic.
“You look a little pale.”
“It’s winter, Mother.”
“I’m an adult now. I can take care of myself,” she insisted.
Her mother seemed to accept this and turned her attention toward Hibiki instead. Rina waited for things to become awful again. She had never bothered to make Hibiki promise to keep her relapse a secret. A conversation between the two of them would surely reveal the problems she had been having since she was last home.
“And you’re making sure she takes care of herself?”
“Of course, not that she really needs my help,” he responded.
Rina made a mental note to give Hibiki some sort of reward later for that answer. She just wished she could telegraph a message to him to let him know that she wanted him to keep his mouth shut about her troubles. Once her mother knew about that she would never be able to get out of here again.
Her mother turned back to her. Rina was relieved to have the interrogation turn back to her. She could at least control what sort of information her mother could receive.
“I still can’t put my finger on what’s different about you,” she said with a sigh.
“Is it at least a good sort of different?”
Mother studied her face for another moment. “You seem older.”
“Mother, I am getting older.”
“That’s not it.”
“I don’t know what else it could be.”
“Your eyes look like you’ve been through something intense. Is there anything you want to tell me?”
Rina sighed. “There’s nothing to tell.”
Mother gave her a skeptical look. “If you say so.”
It seemed like the subject was going to be dropped and Rina started to feel a bit of relief, but then her mother turned back to Hibiki. “What do you think?”
Hibiki took a moment, seemingly to study her face. Her heart started pounding in her ears as she realized she was actually under scrutiny and he was not entirely faking for her mother’s benefit. She panicked, and started to worry that they would both gang up on her. She did not like the feeling of being studied like this and she was winding herself up to protest the matter when Hibiki spoke up.
“Your daughter has a very old soul. I think you’re seeing it shining through,” he announced with reassuring confidence.
Rina felt herself start to blush. Then Hibiki put his arm around her and the blush spread out of control. She did not know what sort of reaction to expect from her mother, but she was pleasantly surprised to realize her mother appeared to just be pleased with his answer.
“We should get started on packing up my things,” she said in such a hurry that the words tried to trip over each other on their way out of her mouth. “Let’s go Hibiki.”
She grabbed his hand and dragged him up the stairs with her. Packing up was the reason they came over, after all, and it just so happened that getting started would get them out of this weird conversation with her mother. For once there did not seem to be a downside to her plan. She did not let that throw her for a loop.
Once in her room she let out a sigh of relief. She was safe from interrogation. It was not the reason she expected to want to flee from her mother’s presence, but it had the same end result.
“So this is your room,” Hibiki said as he looked around.
“Yeah,” she replied absentmindedly. Already she was trying to determine what she needed to pack up and take along with her and what would need to be left behind. She could only take as much as would fit in Hibiki’s car so she needed to be strategic.
Hibiki sneaked up behind her and wrapped his arms around her. “You know, this is my first time in your room,” he whispered in her ear.
“Is it?” Rina asked. She tried and failed to keep her mind on the task at hand to prevent another round of blushing.
“Yeah. Although, I did get a peek inside in those pictures.”
“The ones Corine sent to me a while ago.”
He pulled out his phone and showed the pictures to her. She felt the old embarrassment from that night coming back to her.
“You never said anything! I thought she was kidding.”
“No. She definitely sent me pictures.”
“And you kept them?”
“Of course,” he said and kissed her cheek. “You’re adorable and sometimes when you’re not around I want to see you.”
“Something about this room makes you even more irresistible.”
“Seeing me in my natural habitat?” Rina teased.
Hibiki moved so they were facing one another. “You know, I think your room might be a little jealous of my room.”
“You’ve never been kissed in this room,” he whispered before briefly brushing his lips against hers.
He was not wrong, but she did not want her first kiss in her bedroom to be a chaste little peck on the lips. As he started to pull away she grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled him back in for a more satisfactory kiss.
He eagerly responded to the kiss. His hands dropped to her waist and drew her closer to him.
Yuzuki did not know what to expect when they arrived at the festival, but she had no idea it would be this big. She had never seen so many kitsune in one place before. Tents of varying sizes filled the field. The largest were in the center, set up with regimented precision and further out the tents grew smaller and the organization completely fell apart.
Even seeing it from a distance made her stomach do flip-flops. She tried to keep her composure though as Souma was right at her side, and she had not forgotten coming here for the festival was against his judgment. She wanted to at least try to have fun before her nerves got the better of her to prove to him that she had not made a mistake in coming here.
Seeing the size of the gathering she felt under prepared. Not only did she have no idea what to do or say to anyone now that she was finally here, but she also worried that they should have arrived several days ago to claim a better space. She glanced to her right to see what Souma thought about it all, but his face was impassive.
She hesitated to pick a place for them to set up camp. Without a moment of hesitation, Souma stepped into the leadership role and led the way along the perimeter of the encampment. Now that they were this close Yuzuki got a better view of the sort of people in this area of the gathering. She could tell from the clusters of kitsune in similar clothes that some of these tents belonged to the servants and lesser vassals of the great lords residing in the huge tents in the center of the field. Others were farmers and peasants coming to meet with one another and feel as though they were a part of the world at large. She felt a bit odd realizing she was part of that final group. Until now it had not really struck her that she would come here and she would be nobody.
She took a deep breath and took solace in the knowledge that being nobody also ensured that she would not attract attention that might be unwanted. There were hundreds of other kitsune all around her that were just as anonymous as her. Being able to blend into the crowd offered her a type of protection she had never had before. She stuck close to Souma and soon enough he found them a spot that was a bit less crowded than all the places around it. He dropped his pack and began to set up their tent.
She tried to help but quickly proved that she had no idea what she was doing so she got out of the way and moped a bit, wishing he could just grow them a shelter with some of his seeds and his youki. That possibility had already been shot down though. There were no set rules about using fox magic at a gathering of kitsune, but Souma had been sure to remind her that his plant manipulation abilities were not exactly normal and everything would go a lot easier for both of them at the festival if his unusual talents were kept under wraps. She guessed that she would not have the same restriction since her own abilities were fairly standard, but feeling useless even with the option to use her magic was hardly any consolation.
Sitting and watching Souma work somehow made her feel invisible and oddly conspicuous at the same time. So many people were looking at her every minute, but none of her really saw her. Soon enough the tent was ready and she jumped into action to carry their things inside. Once she was inside the tent she was tempted to just stay in there to avoid confronting her anxiety and insecurity over her anonymity.
“Are you coming out?” Souma asked after she had lingered inside for an unnecessary length of time.
She took a deep breath to calm her jittery nerves before stepping back outside. If he saw her upset now she knew she would end up being protected until she was bored to tears, or worse he might pack up and take her home right now. He had no desire to be here except for out of love for her. If he thought she did not want to be here he would need no other excuse to leave.
As soon as she saw him she flashed him her brightest smile. No harm in overplaying it just a little bit.
“What do you want to do first?” he asked.
She paused. That question was not a particularly easy one. She only had a vague understanding of what happened at the festival. “I don’t know,” she admitted.
He sighed. She tried to quickly think of something to say so he did not end up losing his patience with her or with the festival.
“I’m just not sure what there is to do here. What do you think we should do?”
He laughed. “I have no idea. I’ve never been here either.” He offered her his hand. “Shall we go exploring?”
She smiled and took his hand. Exploring seemed to be the best possible option available to them. After hearing about the festival throughout her childhood she was finally here. Somehow the only thing she could remember about the entire gathering was that there were always beautiful weddings to cement political alliances and she was never allowed to go along to see the princesses meet and marry their princes. Surely at some point someone had mentioned what happened the rest of the time, but she had been too much of a child to pay attention. Now she would get to fill in the gaps in her knowledge, and for once she was not the only one out of the loop.
Souma kept her close, which was both slightly humiliating and a great comfort to her. His increased possessiveness lately had not gone unnoticed by her. She understood it to a degree. Part of it had to do with her painful tendency to get herself into the worst kind of trouble and part of it had to with the fact that he had not had many opportunities as of yet to make the world as a whole aware of the changes to their relationship. She realized he was showing her off at least a little bit, but she could not bring herself to be upset about it or even offended because her own instincts nudged her toward showing him off as well.
As they walked around she thought she started to understand at least part of the purpose of this festival, and without even knowing they were using it for that express purpose. To a degree, she found that fact comforting, but on another level she found it to be a bit unnerving. She did not like the idea of being shown off as anyone’s possession, even Souma’s. Even more, she did not like to feel as though she was implying that Souma belonged to her. Souma was very much his own person. He would not surrender his autonomy to anyone, even her. She had her way in their decisions and debates more often than not because he was more interested in making her happy than having his own way. Even so he was still freely following his own wishes rather than merely bending to her will. She knew others would not be able to see things the same way she did. Potentially leading people to misunderstand her life distressed her to a degree, and she ended up spending more time within her own mind than actually observing her surroundings.
She nearly tripped and fell on her face when Souma stopped abruptly and grabbed her arm. His fingers squeezed her upper arm hard enough to make her gasp. She turned and glared at him and noticed the shocked look on his face. She followed his gaze and her stomach did a somersault.
Of all the people she had expected or feared to see here somehow she never considered that her sister might be at the festival as well. Motoko looked shocked to see them as well. The shock was understandable. She had run away years ago, and with no way to contact them as far as she knew they were still living back in the village.
“Yuzu?” Motoko asked after swallowing hard.
“Hey Motoko,” she replied. A smile came to her face before she even had a chance to think about keeping a hold on her emotions.
In the blink of an eye, Motoko crossed the space between them and pulled Yuzuki into a rib crushing hug. Souma just barely managed to step out of the way in time to avoid getting pushed away.
“Look how much you’ve grown! You’re as tall as me now,” Motoko announced as she held Yuzuki at arms length and looked her up and down.
“And you’re,” Yuzu struggled to find the most tactful way to describe what she wanted to say.
Her sister laughed and rubbed her hand over her rounded belly. “I am.” She turned her attention to Souma and caught him in a bone crushing hug to match the one she gave Yuzuki.
“You’ve grown a lot, Souma. You used to be such a scrawny pipsqueak. What happened?”
He laughed a bit. “I grew up. It’s been years, Motoko.”
“I know,” she agreed. She stepped back from both of them as though to take in the whole picture. “So the two of you… I did not expect that, but you’ve both changed so much since I left.”
Yuzuki nodded. “It’s been a long time.”
“We have a lot of catching up to do. You’re coming back to my tent to talk.”
There was no arguing with her. Fortunately, Yuzuki had no inclination at all to disagree with her. Souma seemed to be in a better mood now too. Running into Motoko was a much better outcome than the one he had predicted. Now they did not have to even worry about finding something to do. They could probably spend the entirety of the festival catching up and still not have enough time.
Her tent proved to be very nearby. Motoko lifted the tent flap and ushered them inside ahead of her. Before Yuzuki had a chance to take in her surroundings a small, dark haired kitsune slammed into her legs and knocked her off balance and onto the ground.
A pair of bright blue eyes glared up at her accusingly. “You’re not my ma,” the child said accusingly.
“Kyo,” Motoko called out. “Be nice to your aunt Yuzuki.”
“I don’t have an aunt Yuzuki,” he grumbled while moving to sit down next to his mother.
“Yes you do,” she replied gently. “Yuzuki is my little sister so that makes her your aunt.”
“You already have a kit?” Yuzuki could barely process all of this new information. It seemed surreal that she had been knocked over by a nephew she did not even know existed.
“I do. Don’t look so shocked. I know you know how kits come to be.”
Words were still failing her so Yuzuki just nodded.
“Kyo, this is your Aunt Yuzuki and your Uncle Souma. Do you want to go outside and play with your uncle while I talk to your aunt?”
Kyo looked Souma over cautiously before scampering outside. Souma looked back and forth between the two sisters a few times before exiting the tent.
Motoko made herself comfortable before speaking. “So you managed to get away too.”
“Yeah,” Yuzuki agreed. “Souma helped me get away.”
“Did you manage to get away in time?”
“In time for what?”
Motoko looked at her in a way that made her feel as though she were a kit Kyo’s age again. She felt very small and foolish, as though she could not possibly understand anything but the mot obvious of statements.
“Yuzu, I ran away because I realized I was carrying Kyo. I didn’t want my kit being raised by our father. Did he ever do anything to you?”
“No! Nothing like that.”
“Then you got away in time.”
“Oh.” She paused, suddenly feeling more than a little conflicted. As happy as she was to see her sister again she now struggled with a surge of pity for her as well.
“So Souma,” her sister said in a teasing tone, obviously resisting the urge to allow the mood to continue to sag into a cyclone of self-pity. “How did that happen?”
“He wanted to leave and I had to get away so we went together.” She felt a bit strange explaining this to anyone. It was just a fact to her, a fact that happened a long time ago.
“Not what I meant, Yuzu. I didn’t misread things did I? You two are together, aren’t you?”
Yuzuki blushed. Her lack of contact with anyone outside of their own little world for the entirety of the last season meant she had not had much practice at all actually talking about Souma and the way he made her feel. Now having her sister making these sort of questions, and so soon after they were reunited, made her feel a little bit uneasy. They had been close when they were younger, but now that was years in the past. Motoko was all grown up with a family and even Yuzuki had started to think of herself as pretty grown up. She just did not have a lot of experience talking about this side of her life.
Her sister laughed. “You’re adorable. You won’t say anything that will shock me, little sister. I’ve been through too much already to find much of anything surprising anymore.”
She shifted uncomfortably under Motoko’s waiting gaze. “We haven’t been together that long. Well, we’ve been living together since last spring, but we were just friends back then.”
Motoko giggled. “I can just imagine it. I bet you both did your best to pretend there was nothing there.”
When the teasing began Yuzuki knew there was only one option left to her since she was fairly certain she was too old to just run away and tell on her sister for being mean. A subject change was in order.
“Let’s talk about you. We haven’t talked for years and now you have a family and I don’t even know anything about your life.”
“Okay,” she agreed with a sigh. “Where do you want me to start?”
“How did you run away on your own? I would never have been able to do it.”
As soon as the question was out there the mood in the tent changed drastically. Motoko was no longer smiling. Her eyes looked pained and suddenly she looked years older. She moved over to sit close to her younger sister.
She spoke in hushed tones. “I thought I could endure it at first as long as I could keep a part of myself locked away from it all deep down inside. Then when I realized I was carrying Kyo I knew I couldn’t just block it out and pretend it wasn’t happening.”
Yuzuki scooted closer and hugged her sister. She felt so ashamed to know she had been oblivious to these things that had to have been extremely stressful for her sister. She knew she had been young at the time, but she did not think that excused her complete ignorance of what had been happening. She felt as though she should have known. She should have known about these things long before they finally came to the forefront for her. If she had managed to be more aware in her younger years she had herself convinced that she might have gotten away without such close calls. If she had known the signs she might have been able to do something, or maybe she could have had the sense to try to go along with Motoko when she decided to run away. Then she would not have been with Souma, and that thought made her miserable. Regretting the past did her no good because she could do nothing about it here in the present.
“You ran away and had Kyo all on your own,” Yuzuki said as a chill of terror ran through her at the mere thought of going out into the world for the first time while pregnant and alone.
“Weren’t you afraid?”
“Terrified, of course, but I was more afraid of letting our father get a hold of my child than the prospect of being on my own. The idea of adding another generation to that disgusting household sickens me.” Her voice shook as she spoke and here hand spread protectively over the swell of her belly.
Swallowing hard to hold back her tears, Yuzuki moved closer to wrap her arms around her sister. She did not let Motoko out of her embrace until her own heart returned to beating at a normal rate. No words passed between them during this time. They just relied on the proximity of their sister to provide them a sort of comfort and compatriotism that they had not had the opportunity to experience in years. No one would understand how they felt as well as they understood each other right now.
Eventually they had returned to a base state of calm and Yuzuki felt as though she could speak again and actually change the course of the conversation back away from such a negative topic. She took a deep breath and cleared her throat.
“You did find a mate though.”
Motoko smiled. “I did. I got really lucky.”
“Tell me about him?”
“His name is Akimitsu. He is a vassal to Lord Nagakazu. We come to the festival every year so Akimitsu can act as his lord’s bodyguard.”
“That must be exciting. Lord Nagakazu is very powerful. Even I’ve heard of him.”
“He is, but it’s not so exciting for those of us left behind waiting.”
Yuzuki nodded. “I know a lot about waiting at home alone.”
“Is Souma gone a lot too?”
“Not as much over the winter, but he’ll be gone again now that it’s spring.”
“What does he do?”
She squirmed a bit at the question. She still did not like Souma’s line of work. She tried to understand his point of view. She knew he wanted to move them away from this world with all of its constant power struggles and he felt as though he had to do whatever he could to have enough money for them to survive in the world of the humans as soon as possible. Even after all of the winter months together they had still not reached a consensus on that matter. He could not convince her that it was at all necessary for them to leave, and she could not convince him that there was any reason they should stay.
“He is in a line of work I really wish he’d quit. It’s too dangerous, but he thinks he needs to do it because he wants to make lots of money very quickly so we can move to a more secure place.”
Her sister nodded sadly. “I can’t say I’m surprised. He’s never fit in in this world. Wanting to leave for a place he might find more acceptance makes sense.”
“What do you mean he’s never fit in?”
“You’re still just as oblivious as always. He’s not like the rest of us. His mother is a nogitsune like all of us, but he takes after his father and rumor has it he was a celestial fox — one of Inari’s servants. There are a lot of our kind that distrust him just based on his looks. Have you seen one other kitsune here with white hair? Our village only tolerated him because his mother was the old headman’s daughter. Most youkai are going to judge him on his looks and think he’s on the other side.”
The words took a moment to settle into Yuzuki’s mind. She could not imagine how she had missed the way Souma was ostracized all this time. She should have noticed. He should have told her when she did not notice. Did he avoid telling her out of fear that she might reject him if she did know? How could he not tell her even after all this time?
“How do I always manage to miss these details?” she wondered.
“You’re a kinder soul than most out there.”
“I doubt that.”
“You see Souma for who he is and love him for it. That makes you better than the lot around here that see white hair and instantly decide he can’t be trusted.”
So many strange little occurrences suddenly made sense. The world shifted to fit into her newfound knowledge. He did things the way he did because few other options were available to him. He never told her so. He probably did not want to be the one to reveal the truth to her. She could not believe she had been so naive. Many things had eluded her for longer than they should have, but she thought those times had been left in the past. She thought she had finally caught up with the realities of the world, but now she knew there was still so much being intentionally hidden from her. She wanted to be angry, but she could not blame him. The urge to pity him was there, but she resisted. He did not want pity. He hid this from her to avoid just that sort of thing. She understood not wanting to be pitied. The reasons she feared pity had more to do with her own personal failings. She could change to be stronger and more informed about the world through hard work. She looked the way everyone expected a nogitsune to look so she never had to deal with being judged as an outsider among her own kind. The issues gifted to her by her parents were invisible from the outside. Deep down inside she did worry she was more messed up than even she realized. She thought she was pretty normal, but sometimes she did find herself worrying that something would one day prove to be very wrong with her and she would be left to wondering if her problems were an accident of nature or if it could be blamed on the decisions of her father.
She took comfort in now knowing that her sister was able to live a normal life and that she had a healthy son and seemed to be having another healthy pregnancy. She could only hope that in the future she would be just as lucky. She felt a bit strange even thinking about such things. Wanting children felt strange to her, but seeing Kyo, knowing that Motoko was a mother these things made her think about her own future. She wanted kits of her own, maybe not soon, but someday. She wondered what Souma would think of this realization.