Cover by A. R. Shellnut
I don’t know what to say here. I’m very worn out between CampNaNoWriMo, the recent heat wave, and other life stuff. The chapter is ready to go though so I’m getting it out to you!
My supporters are great and keep me going. Thank you so much!
She could not deny it any longer. Something was changing inside of her. It was no longer just feeling a little off and not quite recognizing herself in the mirror first thing in the morning. Now she felt as though her own mind was being invaded.
It started out innocently enough. She would have a thought that seemed to come out of nowhere. It was no big deal, just a little odd. Stray thoughts like that were the sort of thing that could be easily ignored if she was not already on high alert.
With everything else that had been happening to her, she definitely took note of those strange little thoughts that did not seem to belong. It was not something she could really explain so it was one of those little concerns that she kept to herself. She knew she would probably never hear the end of it if Hibiki found out that she was hiding possible symptoms. That did not change the fact that she did not know how to even begin to explain without sounding as though she was losing her mind.
As time progressed the problem seemed to grow as well. Stray thoughts started to take on a voice of their own — she had a voice in her head and it was not her own. She could certainly explain that, but she was not entirely sure she wanted to do it. Hearing voices was a sign of madness the last time she checked.
At least the voice was not telling her to do anything. She knew it was just a voice. Well, most of the time she knew it was just a voice, but the rest of the time she hoped it was at least harmless.
The voice said things in her mind that made no sense. Just going about her day Rina would hear a whisper of a thought in her mind. Lately she heard whispers about her sister. She knew it was not her own thoughts. She did not have a sister.
She tried her best to ignore it, but her day kept getting disrupted by this little whispers about getting to see her sister. The voice was just loud enough to interrupt any other thoughts bouncing around in her head and derail her conversations or actions.
Once the voice reached this distracting volume she knew she could not even attempt to hide it from Hibiki any longer. Her own thoughts were getting interrupted and she did not know if or when she would get derailed mid-conversation.
She knew once this voice in her head reached this point that she would not be able to hide it for long. She did not want Hibiki to find out about it from her current problem as she continued to try to cover it up for him. He needed to know and she finally admitted to herself that she needed to be the one to tell him. He would handle it better if she told him rather than finding out on his own.
She screwed up her courage and made herself speak up. The only reason this felt so difficult now was because she had not said something as soon as she noticed it. If she kept putting it off she would only find it that much harder to do.
There was no time like the present, she tried to tell herself. Knowing she could not go back in time to tell him sooner to make it all that less painful meant that she had to speak up now before it became even more difficult.
“Hibiki?” she hesitantly got his attention.
He was immediately brought to attention by the sound of her voice. She wondered why she ever thought that she should withhold information from him.
“Could I talk to you in private for a minute?” she asked with an annoying squeak in her voice that made her inwardly cringe.
“Of course,” he agreed.
She grabbed his hand and pulled him along up the stairs. There was only one place she could think to take him where they at least would have a bit of privacy. Even Kouta left them alone most of the time if they were in Hibiki’s room and kept the door closed.
She made sure the door was completely closed and latched behind them this time. The last thing she wanted was for any of Hibiki’s family to overhear this conversation and misunderstand what she was trying to explain. They did not know the whole story of her recent problems so without that as a point of reference she knew her newest problem or possible symptom would probably be seen as some sort of psychosis.
“Rina, what’s going on? You look upset.”
She sat down. She knew better than to trust her legs right now. Hibiki immediately sat down next to her and took her hand in his. She squeezed his hand and gained her strength from her connection to him.
“I didn’t mean to keep this from you, but I just didn’t know how to explain it. I’ve started hearing a voice in my head. It just this one voice, but it’s definitely not me. She — the voice — thinks about things that don’t make any sense to me. That’s how I know it isn’t me. I don’t have a sister. I keep thinking about a sister, Hibiki. It was easy enough to ignore at first, but now it’s getting louder and I can’t find my own thoughts for a moment.”
“How long has this been going on? Have you mentioned it to Dr. Charlotte or Penny?”
She sighed. She knew she needed to expect these questions, but it did not make it any easier for her to answer. The answer was difficult to share when she did not know it all herself. This had crept up on her. She understood that Hibiki probably felt blindsided by this information, but she had been caught off guard by this herself. It went from an easy to ignore quirk in her mind to a thought disrupting voice in what felt like no time at all.
She dove in with the best explanation she could muster. “I didn’t think anything of it at all at first because it was so small and I barely noticed at all. Then it just got worse and I panicked. I wanted to say something, but I was afraid I would sound crazy.”
Hibiki sighed heavily. “Oh Rina…”
She winced slightly and waited for the bad news. She knew it was coming. She felt it all along. She was losing her mind. He noticed her distress and put his arm around her and drawing her closer to him.
“You need to stop holding back. You can’t keep trying to handle these things on your own. This keeps backfiring for you.”
“I know,” she admitted with a defeated sigh. “I just don’t want to blow things out of proportion and make a big deal out of nothing.”
“I don’t care if you don’t want to blow things out of proportion,” he said with a sharp edge to his voice. “This is too big for you to handle on your own. You have a whole team of people ready to help you, but you have to confide in us first.”
“I just don’t want to be a burden.”
“You are not a burden,” he said, putting extra emphasis on each individual word. “I want to help you, but I need to know what is going on if I’m going to do that. Don’t shut me out from your problems.”
“It’s just so hard to start unburdening everything on you. It feels like a waste of your time.”
“You are never a waste of my time. I’m here to help you. I want to help you get well again so we can start thinking about our future.”
“Yes, our future,” he said before kissing her cheek.
“What is our future exactly?”
“Well, I see it as getting an apartment, like we talked about before. Then sometime down the road we’ll get married, buy a house, and start a family.”
“You really think about those things?”
“Of course I do. I want my future to be you, but we need to get you healthy again before we can start thinking about that.”
“What are we going to do?”
“We’re going to call Dr. Charlotte. Then we’re going to do whatever she tells us to do.”
“I love you. No matter what happens that isn’t going to change.”
“I love you too, Rina.”
“Do you think I’m crazy?”
“No. We’re still trying to figure out what is going on with you, but we will figure it out and then everything will be fine. We are going to get through this together.”
She knew he was right. She hoped he was right. As long as he had hope she felt as though she had no right to give up herself.
The festival proved to be even better than Yuzuki could have imagined. She had anticipated three days with strangers that would hopefully at least offer her an opportunity to learn something new. Living on her own for the past year had made it even more painfully obvious that her education of her own people’s traditions had been extremely spotty at best.
Instead of receiving an education from strangers she had found her sister, and a part of her family that she could speak to without fear. Yuzuki and Souma spent the majority of their time with Motoko and Kyo and even got to know Akimitsu a bit when he was not occupied serving his lord.
On the third and final day of the festival, Yuzuki was already feeling a little heartsick at the thought of leaving her sister and nephew. The day had only just barely started and already she dreaded its end.
She stayed in bed, refusing to open her eyes in hopes of delaying the inevitable. Eventually Souma grew bored with waiting for her to get up on her own and started to pester her. At first he just ran his fingers through her hair, which actually felt pretty nice and certainly did not motivate her to get up. When that tactic did not work he changed gears slightly and ran his fingertips down to her ribs where he tickled her. She rolled over and crawled away from him to avoid laughing.
He leaned over and whispered in her ear, “I know you’re awake. Why don’t you get up so we can enjoy the festival before it is over?”
She kept her eyes tightly closed, but could not resist the urge to answer. “If I get up then today will happen and the tonight the festival will end and in the morning we’ll all go home again.”
He wrapped his arms around her from behind and held her close. “The day is going to happen whether you get up or not. You might as well get up and enjoy the day.”
“I can’t get up and enjoy the day if you’re holding me in bed,” she protested weakly.
“You can start enjoying the day in bed, can’t you?” he whispered in her ear.
She blushed as though this sort of thing was not a regular occurrence in her life now. Protesting seemed to be a fruitless prospect as her body yearned for more from the moment he embraced her. Even so, she knew she needed some sort of token protest just for her own amusement.
“The whole day is going to pass us by if we don’t get up,” she insisted as his hand slipped under her clothes.
“You’re right,” he agreed.
He got up and offered her his hand. She pouted.
“What do you mean I’m right?”
“You enjoy acting like this was my idea,” he said with a smirk, “but it was yours and you’re counting on me to talk you into it.”
She sighed. “ You’re right, but you like trying to talk me into it.”
He continued to smirk as she looked down at her. “Maybe I do.”
“Are you coming back to bed or not?”
“So you want me in bed?”
“Yes!” she said with an exasperated sigh.
“That’s all I wanted to hear,” he whispered as he slipped back into their bed. Just hearing his voice was enough to make her feel tingly.
Eventually they did manage to get out of the tent and Yuzuki instead found herself enduring knowing looks from her sister. Escape was out of the question as Kyo had made himself quite at home in her lap.
As usual, Souma somehow managed to remain unphased by scrutiny. He watched the bustle of activity as the lanterns were put up for the weddings that would close out this festival and only half paid attention to the conversation between the sisters.
As they watched the final festivities get set up and waited for Akimitsu to be released from his duties so he could join them Kyo fell asleep in Yuzuki’s lap. She could not help but already feel incredibly attached to her nephew. The thought of leaving and not seeing him again for months or years made her heart ache. She wanted to scoop him up and hold him close forever.
“Can I keep him?” she jokingly asked her sister.
“I’m sure I’ll be begging for help soon, but I’m not quite ready to start giving my babies to relatives. Sorry Yuzu.”
She sighed and looked down at the kit now sleeping deeply with a tiny hand gripping a fistful of her kimono. She glanced over at Souma. “I want one,” she announced decidedly.
Motoko clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle.
Souma turned and looked at her in a way that let her know immediately that she had managed to render him speechless for once. She did not know what to make of it. She considered taking back what she had just said, but at least for the time being she meant it and she would not take back something she meant even if it was shocking.
“Are you sure?” he managed to squeak out, his voice cracking.
Yuzuki looked down at Kyo again and smiled.
Her sister could not hold back her laughter any longer and burst into a fit of giggles. “You’d better hurry up and put a baby in her belly so the cousins can all grow up together.”
“Shouldn’t we discuss this in private?” he asked Yuzuki.
“Nope. I want a baby now,” she replied while trying to hold back a fit of laughter.
“Wait, are you joking?”
She thought about it for a moment, gently smoothing down Kyo’s hair and looked Souma in the eyes. “Soon?”
He sighed. “Maybe. We need to talk about this first.”
“You two should join in the wedding festivities tonight and make it official before you get started on the family.”
She glanced between her sister and Souma. Motoko looked as though she just considered all of this to be a continuation of their little game of teasing Souma. On the other hand, his face suddenly turned very grave. Her stomach did a nervous flip flop when she saw his expression. Participating in the weddings today seemed like at least a pleasant diversion to her, but seeing his face made her rethink her stance.
“I doubt it would go over too well if I tried to join in and get the blessings of the elders,” he said darkly.
“Do you really think it would be that bad?” Motoko asked.
He shook his head. “Everyone here takes one look at me and decides I don’t belong. It’s always been like this.”
“You fit in here with us just fine,” Yuzuki assured him.
“Who cares what they care anyway?” Motoko agreed. “You should do what you want to do and not worry about what the elders think.”
Yuzuki carefully moved Kyo off her lap so she could move over to sit next to Souma. She rested her head against his shoulder. “We don’t need their approval. It’s just a ceremony.”
He nodded, but she could feel the tension in his arm and shoulder telling a different story. As much as he tried to act as though the reactions of the other nogitsune at this festival did not bother him their ostracization of him still wore on his nerves. She felt guilty for being able to fit in so easily even though she felt as though she should be an outcast while Souma had so many qualities that should have recommended him as an ideal member of the group. She felt as though they did not deserve to have him if they were not willing to look past the fact that he looked like a celestial fox rather than one of them.
Kyo woke up and realized he was no longer on his aunt’s lap and started to fuss. Motoko cleared her throat. “Somebody needs a nap. Would you two like to take one last walk around while I get him settled down?”
Yuzuki jumped to her feet, more than ready to carry out her sister’s request. She felt as though she had an ordeal ahead of her in dealing with Souma in his less than upbeat mood, but it was an ordeal she was sure she could handle as long as she had the time and space to tackle it. Improving his mood would be easier without her sister and nephew watching their every move. In a way going out into the festival proper gave them more privacy than staying inside the tent.
Souma rose to his feet as well, but more slowly. The thoughts on his mind seemed to be weighing him down.
She did not feel right being in a good mood while he seemed so miserable. She could think of dozens of things around the festival that brightened her mood and she hoped those things would do the same for him. It would be their last chance to see these things this year anyway so she thought it would be best to make the most of it.
With Souma still moping and barely even seeming as though he was willing to go along with her own this walk she knew she needed to take charge. She grabbed his hand and started to lead the way. To his credit, he kept up with her without a bit of resistance or a word of complaint.
She just wished she knew what to say. He had little to no interest in actually seeing the things the festival had to offer, but now she had to wonder if the lack of interest was actually more of a defense mechanism because he knew his presence would not be well received so he chose to avoid getting into situations where he risked rejection. She held on to his arm to make sure he stayed close by and to assure him that she would not be going anywhere.
As they walked along the main avenue she could not help but allow her gaze to turn up toward the lanterns that had been put in place. She heard Souma sigh next to her.
“You really want to be a part of this, don’t you?”
“It’s not that big of a deal.”
“I can see you staring at the decorations. It’s okay if you want this.”
She blushed. She hated that he could see right through her like this. He did not understand it entirely, though. She did not look at these the decorations out of a strong desire to participate, although she would not mind being a part of it all. Mostly she was just curious about how it all worked. She missed out on so many parts of her own world due to isolation. Now she tended to go overboard in trying to immerse herself in the things she had missed out on all these years. Souma had been left out too, but even now he was not invited to join in. That was the difference between their personal experiences. Certain individuals caused her to miss out, but the system itself was set up in a way that made sure Souma would never be a part of the inner circle. Just thinking about it made her want to take a stand and try to do something to change it all. Doing such a thing would probably be a wasted effort at best. She had no social standing at all with these people and there was no reason at all for them to listen to her when she started to demand change. If she did such a thing they would just take the easy way out and shun her and everything would stay the same. She needed more power and influence if she wanted to make a difference. That would take time, and that would mean that Souma would be left to feel miserable for possibly years to come. That seemed both unfair and intolerable to her. She needed to think of some way to lift his spirits in the mean time since tackling the status quo would have to be more of a long-term goal rather than a quick fix over the course of a single afternoon.
While she was looking around but actually absorbed in her own inner universe Souma had been watching her. Knowing that his eyes were on her instead of on the interesting sights all around them made her extremely self-conscious. Her legs felt a bit wobbly upon this realization and she stumbled over nothing, barely managing to catch herself before Souma steadied her himself.
He moved a bit closer to better put his arm around her. “I’m sorry you won’t get to be in the wedding party because of me,” he whispered.
She shook her head. “It’s not even worth regretting it if you can’t be there with me.”
“I hope you don’t need a ceremony to know that you have my complete devotion.”
She could not hold back her smile upon hearing those words. “I would hope so! We decided on this for ourselves, not for the sake of some sort of alliance.”
“We’ve made an alliance between the two of us.”
“And the people we care about know and accept that we are together.”
She nodded her agreement.
“Taking that into consideration isn’t the ceremony a bit superfluous?”
“Of course it is, but it’s still pretty and looks like it might be fun.”
He bent down and kissed her cheek. “One day we’ll be settled enough to have our own big party and we’ll only invite the people we like.”
“Really. Maybe our kids will even get to be there.”
“Oh. Do we have to wait that long?”
“I thought you wanted to have a kit soon.”
“Well, maybe not that soon.”
“I hope that doesn’t mean you want to stop practicing.”
“Oh no. We should practice a lot so we can be sure we get it right.”
He smirked and pulled her tight against his body. “I’m sure we can find the time to fit in plenty of practice.”