Cover by A. R. Shellnut
I like this chapter. I feel bad for my characters, but I just really like this chapters. Fun to write and easy to edit. I really can’t complain.
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Rina had hoped to wake up the next morning blissfully content and well rested. As usual, her joy was tainted by her failing health. She woke up late which was in and of itself a bit of a disappointment.
Normally, Hibiki woke her up before the day dragged on too long. She tried her best to avoid sleeping more than eight hours. She had no idea when she finally fell asleep the night before it was hard for her to guess if she had enough or too much sleep. Hibiki was still sound asleep next to her, his arm holding her close to his bare chest. He could not be blamed for not waking her up if he had not woken up himself. It made her think that she had probably not overslept by too much. Hibiki kept to a pretty reasonable routine even without the help of an alarm.
She wanted to get up, but her brain was still foggy and her eyes wanted desperately to stay closed. Every time she forced them to open, her eyelids would flutter rapidly before closing again and stubbornly refusing to open for a few more moments.
She felt trapped between a dream and full wakefulness. It was an annoyingly familiar sensation. She would have panicked if her body did not feel so adamantly at peace with everyone and everything. She had never felt so relaxed and so sore at the same time before. Muscles she did not even know she had felt tired and aching.
Thinking about the events of the previous night was like trying to wade through chest-deep water. The progress was very slow and sometimes almost all of her progress was lost as another wave of sleepiness knocked her back to her starting point.
She realized she had questions both for herself and for Hibiki. There was so much she could not remember at the moment, which made her uneasy. Loss of memory after such a short time could not be a good sign. She was slightly afraid that she had not been herself before. If she could not remember she had a terrible feeling that it might not have been her there with Hibiki after all.
She needed to know, but she could not muster the energy to fully wake up, to ask the question. It was maddening and terrifying to realize she could not command her own body to perform such a simple task.
This was like before. Back then she ended up in the hospital. She did not know how long she had to wait before she was noticed that time. This time she would have to suffer through Hibiki waking up and discovering her like this. Anticipating that made her heart ache.
The last thing she wanted to do was to cause him any sort of pain. Right now he radiated contentment. Even through this haze of sleepiness she could feel it. The last thing she wanted to do was to cut that feeling short for him. He deserved to be happy.
That feeling and that feeling alone pushed her to open her eyes one more time and then to fight to keep them open. She did not blink. Her eyes burned and started to water, but she dared not allow herself even the opportunity to blink for fear that her eyelids would not open again.
Holding her eyes open like that was tiring work, but she gave it everything she had, and she waited. If she could have moved she would have woken Hibiki up, but her body was still too lethargic to respond to even the most insistent, willful demands from her mind.
Even after just a few short moments, her mind started playing tricks on her. She could not even be sure that she was awake. This felt just as real as a dream. Maybe it felt even less real than a dream. The more she tried to think the more confused she became.
Everything was fuzzy and muted. Time did not seem to behave as it should from her perspective. All of it seemed to point towards this being a dream. None of this seemed like her dreams, though. Her dreams were strange, bright, vivid, and oddly realistic. This felt more like a typical description of a dream.
This might very well be real. That was at least a frightening as being stuck in a dream about being awake. She did not want to live in a world with everything looking and feeling this way. The thought absolutely terrified her.
She knew she needed to move. She needed to prove to herself that this was not a dream and she had control over her body. She concentrated as hard as she could and forced herself to try moving her arm. It was too much. Her hand. Still too much. Just one finger. She concentrated with all of her might to move one finger and somehow managed to move her whole arm.
Her motor control left something to be desired and she ended up disturbing Hibiki with her awkward, uncontrolled movement. She wanted to wince, but she could not manage to physically react.
Hibiki did not seem to care at all about his rude awakening. He sleepily put his arm around her and kissed her forehead.
“Good morning,” he whispered in her ear.
She would have responded if she could, but the focus she summoned to move her arm did not extend as far as allowing her to speak at the moment. She just watched him, waiting and hoping everything would stop seeming so fuzzy and dreamlike soon.
“Rina?” he asked after she did not respond.
She looked right at him. It was the only way she could think of making sure he knew that she was aware of him and not in some sort of coma-like state.
“Can you hear me?” he asked while stroking her cheek.
She tried to gather all of her focus once again. She needed to do something so he would know that she was awake and aware. Blinking might be too small. He could miss a blink or misinterpret it. She knew she needed to nod to let him know that she was here with him.
Moving was a bit easier the second time around. Whatever had her mind and body in a numbing death grip seemed to be losing some of its potency as time went on. Her thoughts were still sluggish, slow, and dreamlike, but she could push them ever so slightly in the right direction now. She hoped she could bounce back to normal soon, but she knew such a recovery was not likely to be realistic.
Hibiki helped her sit up. His face was darkened by a shadow of concern. He reached out and touched her cheek again before saying, “I’m calling Dr. Charlotte. This is unacceptable. We have to get to the bottom of this.”
He made the phone call while Rina sat in bed and slowly felt the dreamy film covering her perception of the world slowly slip away. Her ability to direct her thoughts and to move gradually returned to her. It was as though her senses were thawing out.
By the time Hibiki finished calling Dr. Charlotte, Rina felt enough like herself to move off the bed and onto her feet. Hibiki spotted her and rushed to her side, putting a steadying arm around her.
“I’m okay,” she insisted, maybe a little too quickly and with not enough conviction.
“I’m going to consider you standing and speaking an improvement, but I’m not entirely convinced you’re okay,” he said softly.
“You have a point,” she admitted while smiling weakly.
He kissed her cheek and pulled her into a tight hug. “You scared me.”
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” she started babbling apologies.
He shushed her. “It’s okay. It’s not your fault. Dr. Charlotte agreed to see you first thing today. Do you think you can handle that?”
She nodded. “I’m feeling better every moment.”
“Good,” he said but still did not let her go.
“You know, I can’t get ready until you let me go.”
“I know.” He loosened his hold on her but did not completely release her. His hands rested lightly on her hips and he stared into her eyes.
She stared back, trying her best to hide just how afraid she had been moments ago. She felt as though she needed to be strong. She had enough of being weak to last her a lifetime and it seemed to her the only way to turn it around would be to pretend she had the strength until she actually found it.
The last thing she wanted to do was make him worry any more than he already did. She did not want to see that panicked look on his face ever again. She needed whatever had been going wrong to be fixed once and for all. She wanted the voice in her head to be gone. She wanted to sleep without wondering if she would be able to wake up properly in the morning. She wanted her life back.
She was sick of being cautious. Being careful just seemed to make things worse. She wanted to be well again. She was willing to endure just about anything to get there, but she could not stand to have herself falling further back into her previous state. It was bad enough going through this herself, but she could not stand to see Hibiki worrying about her like this.
“I don’t want to be late since she making time for me again so soon,” she protested.
“Just one more minute,” Hibiki insisted. “One more minute won’t make a difference.”
He kissed her before she had a chance to protest the delay. Suddenly she lost all desire to rush out of the house.
Hisako sent Yuzuki home late that night when they were both too exhausted to be of any more use to the injured combatants. By then others had shown up to help so their presence was a bit less vital. Without making a conscious decision she headed towards the village rather than going directly home.
She could not explain why she did it. She knew the village was still deserted after everyone fled from the battle. Anyone she might meet there would most likely be one of the soldiers that got left behind or deserted for one reason or another once the battle ended. Going there now would be asking for trouble, but she could not bring herself to care.
As it turned out, she had nothing to worry about in the village. The soldiers there recognized her as one of the medics that had been working to treat injuries all day. They welcomed her to join them with open arms. She was too exhausted and feeling too detached from everything and everyone around her to do or say much to anyone.
They loaded her arms full of food and drink — most of it more than likely stolen from the empty homes of the village. Even so, she could not bring herself to protest. They were so happy, and she thought if she accepted their gifts she could forget for a while and be happy too.
She did not bother trying to figure out what was being gifted to her. It all happened so fast, she did not know who gave her what anyway. When her arms were so full that she could not carry even one more thing she said her goodbyes and stumbled through the forest back to the tree house. She knew the way almost entirely by heart so her legs made the journey safely while her exhausted mind was adrift.
The walk seemed to re-energize her to a degree. Being alone seemed to be the perfect method to recover her greatly drained energy reserves. She was still physically pushing herself beyond her limit, but mentally the time alone actually helped her to recover some strength.
She realized there was no way she could make the climb up the tree with all the items she was carrying. This little problem finally forced her to actually take a look at what she had been carrying all this time. There was some food of questionable freshness and more alcohol than she had ever seen outside of the tavern at one time. She found it hard to be surprised considering the sort of priorities she knew soldiers had, but she was a bit shocked that she had carried so much of this stuff home with her without a second thought. She had been trying to avoid all sorts of thoughts though so some things were going a bit under her radar.
Carrying so much useless junk home made her feel a bit foolish, but she had not been in a position to refuse. Bringing it all the way here with her had been a mistake on her part, admittedly, but she had it here now and needed to decide what to do with it. The food did not seem to be edible to her so she set it aside so she would not have to think about it anymore until morning. The alcohol, on the other hand, appeared to be in perfectly decent condition. She had no idea what use she had for so much of it, but she could not bring herself to waste it.
It would be useful to have around to disinfect wounds. Maybe people drank it to disinfect their minds and souls of the things infecting them. Her own mind was feeling more than a little infected at this point. She wished she could just forget the entire day even happened. Then she could finally stop reliving seeing her father over and over again. She could stop wondering if she did the right thing by letting him live. She could stop worrying if he would come after her again now that she had seen him again.
For the first time in her life, Yuzuki could understand why someone might decide to drink themselves sick. Not being able to remember and feeling numb for a while actually sounded really good right now. She very much wanted to be able to forget today ever happened, if only for a little while.
Contrary to her convictions she picked up the bottle. It was surprisingly heavy. For some reason she expected it to be nearly empty, but it was not. She stared at it for a moment. She had never tried alcohol before and she could scarcely believe she was contemplating it now.
The temptation of being able to forget for a while — to escape her worries — proved to be far too great. She needed to get her father out of her mind. The longer she thought about him the sicker she felt. She needed to stop.
She opened the bottle. She did not even think about doing it. At this point she was feeling too sick to think about anything. She tried not to sniff it on its way to her mouth, but it still burned her nose. That should have been a warning to her. If it burned her nose it would surely not be something she wanted to put in her mouth. Common sense was not in play at the moment, though. That would require thinking, and her mind was already shut off to the point of barely functioning.
She took a sip from the bottle and quickly swallowed. It burned her nose and throat and she nearly threw the whole bottle across the yard in reaction to the sensation. She could not understand why anyone ever went back for the second sip.
The stinging might be a bit like cleaning out a scrape. It hurt but in the end it was doing more good than it was causing harm. Maybe it stung because it was starting to work. If that was the case then she would need to continue to try to cure herself of her pain. It might sting, but it didn’t last. The pain of seeing her father was constant, and showed no signs of letting up on its own.
She wanted it gone. She did not want to hurt anymore. She did not want to remember. She did not want to be burdened by the persistent, nagging worry that he would come after her. She wanted to be oblivious to it all, even if only for a short while.
For that reason alone she did not throw the bottle away or dump it out on the spot. She knew it could offer her the opportunity to leave all of her problems behind for a while and she needed that more than anything else at the moment. She ignored the way it burned her throat. She ignored the awful taste. She kept drinking so she could get away from it all.
After a while she did feel numb, and she managed to lose track of how much she drank. With no idea how much would be too much she suspected she might have overdone it, but by the time she made that realization she found it hard to care about anything.
Everything felt warm and fuzzy and she could not get her limbs to coordinate to climb into the tree. Luckily Souma arrived home in time to stop her from doing something particularly foolish or dangerous in her attempts to get into the tree and into her bed.
“Yuzu?” he asked with a concerned waver in his voice.
“Souma!” Yuzuki exclaimed as she tried desperately to appear both casual and more steady on her feet than she actually felt at the moment.
“I hurried home as soon as I heard that a battle was happening near here. I was worried about you being here by yourself when the fighting broke out.”
She stayed frozen in place. Words and movement were both sacrificed so she could try her best to merely stay upright.
Souma approached her. When he got close he stopped and asked, “Have you been drinking?”
She giggled. Her not-so-secret secret had been found out. “Maybe,” she replied playfully.
He studied her for a moment longer before declaring, “You’re drunk.”
“Maybe,” she said again and could not stop herself from laughing.
“When did you start drinking?”
“I started drinking when everything became awful, but it’s okay now. You’re here. You always make everything okay.”
“What happened?” he asked.
She could not resist the urge to hug him any longer. She closed the space between them while stumbling over her own feet and latched on to him to keep herself from tumbling to the ground. She buried her face against his chest as a means to hide from the troubles she had just barely managed to block out of her mind.
“I saw him today,” she whispered.
“Who did you see?” he asked gently. His arms encircled her, offering both comfort and support.
“M’father,” she mumbled into his chest.
“He came here again?”
“No…” she whined as she tried to figure out the best way to explain what had happened. “He was in the fight. He got hurt an’ I fixed him.”
“Wait. You were out on the battlefield?”
She nodded against him. “Me an’ Hisako.”
He kissed the top of her head but did not say anything more.
“I could have killed him. I wanted to, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to be a killer, but that means he’s still out there. That means he could come find me again.”
“Yuzu,” he whispered softly.
“I just didn’t want to hurt anymore, or be afraid. I’m tired of being afraid of him,” she whined.
“You don’t have to be afraid,” he assured her. “I’m here and I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
“That’s good. I don’t hurt right now. Everything feels nice an’ fuzzy,” she mumbled against his chest.
“That’s because you’re drunk.”
“Maybe I should just be drunk all the time.” She pushed herself back from Souma, lost her balance, and fell to the ground.
“Oh Yuzu. Let’s get you some water.”
“I don’t want water.”
“Well, you need water, and you need to go to bed.”
“Carry me?” she asked in her most syrupy sweet voice. “I tried to climb up, but I couldn’t do it.”
He shook his head. “You are so drunk.”
She could not argue with that. She could not even remember how much she had to drink. That part was a complete blank in her mind. Of all the things she could have forgotten, she ended up forgetting the process of trying to forget.
Souma picked her up as though she weighed nothing at all and carried her up into the tree house. She held on tightly, mostly as an excuse to be as close to him as possible as she had absolutely no fear of falling from his arms.
“I like having you here. If you’re here I don’t need to be drunk.”
He sighed. “Yuzu, you have to realize this isn’t going to solve any of your problems.”
She kissed his cheek. “But I feel good now.”
“You aren’t going to feel good in the morning. Now promise me you’re going to do as I say or we’re going to have a hell of a time dealing with a hangover when you wake up.”
“Okay, bossy,” she poked his nose.
He gently placed her on their bed. “I want you to stay put. I’m going to bring you some water.”
“Fine,” she sighed dramatically.
She sulked the entire time he was away. Being near him actually made her happy instead of just numb. She wanted to be happy, to feel safe. She realized she wanted to actually feel, but right now she had made it hard for her to feel much of anything at all. Souma changed that.
He returned with water and urged her to drink. He sat down next to her and kept an eye on her. She sipped the water but watched him.
“You’re pretty,” she announced finally.
“You’re still drunk,” he replied.
“Doesn’t make you less pretty.”
He scoffed and looked away.
She scooted closer to him. She leaned in and whispered in his ear, “You’re super pretty and I want to have your babies.”
“Yuzu,” he said as a way of gently warning her that he was not interested in dealing with this conversation.
“When do I get to have your babies, Souma?” she whined.
“I don’t think we should talk about this right now. You’re not yourself.” He looked away from her, trying and failing to hide a blush.
That did nothing to deter her. She moved to sit on Souma’s lap. “Maybe we can make a baby tonight?”
“No, Yuzu,” he said firmly.
“Don’t you want me?” She pouted. “Don’t you want to have babies with me?”
He cupped her cheek in his hand. “Yuzu… you’re not in your right mind. I’m not going to have this conversation with you right now.”
She tried to hold back a sob. “I want to have a family with you. That way I can really start over.”
He kissed her forehead. “Don’t you think we’re already a family?”
She smiled weakly. She had to accept she was not going to get her way right now. She just did not have the energy to battle against his will. The fuzzy, numb feeling made her feel tired and ready for sleep.
“Go to sleep, Yuzu. We can talk again once you’ve rested.”
“Okay,” she agreed, feeling emotionally and physically drained to the point of being completely submissive to Souma’s will.