Cover by A. R. Shellnut
This chapter was hard to revise. I’m still not entirely sure why it was so difficult, but I hope I was able to straighten it out and make this chapter a worthwhile read.
You can download Chapters 1 – 39 here! If you’re interested in reading The Dreams as a .pdf, .epub, or .mobi please check it out and let me know if everything works properly. I’m still learning how to do this.
Every moment that passed brought Rina a bit closer to feeling normal again. Of course, it was not the same as the normal she remembered from not all that long ago, but she could feel herself adjusting and accepting that she would never be able to go back to the way things were before. That still hurt to think about for too long, but each time her mind rested upon it the pain did seem to lessen if only just a bit. She never gave it much thought before because it seemed like one of those empty quotes that get passed around when people did not know what to say to make a bad situation better, but time really did seem to heal her wounds.
She finally felt as though she could start to relax. She did not realize how tense she had been and for how long until she felt herself start to calm down. Once she started to feel calm everything seemed like a lot less of a problem. She even started to feel comfortable just being around Hibiki again. She could go about her day and actually interact with him without irrational anger overcoming her and ruining whatever genuinely decent time they were having.
They were reading in front of the fire after Rina spent about an hour trying to get Hibiki to explain how Yuzuki created her barriers. It was a technique Hibiki could hardly do himself, and unfortunately, it had come as second nature to Yuzuki. For Rina, it was not natural at all, even though Hibiki insisted that there should be no reason she could not do it. They called it quits on the magic lesson when they ran out of ideas to try and Rina started to get a tension headache. Reading helped her to relax again and her frustration quickly melted away.
“Classes start on Monday,” Hibiki said abruptly, breaking the meditative silence of the crackling fire.
Rina’s heart skipped a beat. Somehow, for the first time in her life she had forgotten to count down to the start of school. It just did not seem like a priority to her, and she did not know how to feel about that. Her education was her life. Studying and learning were the only things she felt she could do well. Even now she was not at all sure what she would do once her education came to an end. She always assumed she would find another skill she excelled at eventually and then she would find a way to do that for the rest of her life.
After that initial electric shock of panic left her body, she realized it did not matter to her anymore. She had no interest in returning to her college classes when there was so much she needed to learn about herself.
“Do we have to go back?” she asked with an exasperated sigh.
“You don’t want to go back to college?” he asked with genuine surprise.
She thought about it for a moment. Her life — even before she started high school — had revolved around the idea of studying and working hard to graduate from college. She could not quite believe her own disinterest at this point. Nonetheless, it seemed like a waste at this point. She did not like that she felt this way, but she did not know what could be done at this point to change it.
She squirmed a bit before she could find a good way to answer. “It doesn’t seem all that important right now. I never thought I’d say that, but if it isn’t my number one priority, it would be a waste of my time.”
“It would be a waste to quit now, don’t you think?” he asked while appraising her for a reason for her sudden disinterest.
She shook her head. It figured that he would not understand where she was coming from right now. She doubted anyone could really understand, but if she could explain it to anyone it would be him. She put her book down and scooted closer to him. Proximity might not make the explanation any easier, but being closer to him calmed her nerves. For some reason, she could sense that she would be in need of at least a bit of calming.
He hesitated for half a second before putting his arms around her. Their physical interactions were now almost always initiated by her. So far they had not managed to define the boundaries of their relationship since Rina learned the truth about Hibiki and for now that seemed to mean that he would defer to her. It was one of the many things she felt she would be time better spent figuring out rather than trying to turn her focus back to college at the moment.
She leaned against him and allowed all of the extraneous thoughts to drain out of her mind. She needed to make her case clearly and concisely, and to do that she needed to not be distracted.
“I don’t think I can make college my priority right now. It’s too expensive and too important to just go through the motions. I’m already behind after all my problems last semester, and I don’t think I could give it the attention it deserves now.”
“What would you do instead?” he asked gently. His fingers absentmindedly played with a lock of hair that fell over her shoulder.
“I’d figure out who I am. I’d process everything I’ve learned lately so I stop feeling like I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I’d figure out where I need to go from here. Right now I’m still so lost. Are you going back?”
“I was planning on it,” he admitted, “but if you aren’t going back I don’t see much of a point in finishing my degree right now.”
She laughed because it sounded more than a little insane. “So we’re both dropping out? My mom is going to disown me, and possibly kill both of us. What are we going to do for money? You’re not going to be able to get a good job even though you’re only a semester away from having your degree, and I’m even less qualified.”
“We could keep living here,” he suggested.
“I wouldn’t feel right freeloading.”
“What if we live on my money?”
“First of all, that would only mean you weren’t freeloading. I’d still be relying on you for support. Second of all, you have money?”
“Of course I have money. Enrolling in college was complicated enough. Borrowing money when I technically don’t exist as a human being would be impossible.”
“But what about your parents… don’t they support you?”
“They’re not really my parents, remember? This charade is a favor to me, but I don’t rely on them for monetary support.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask about that… do they know?”
“I’ve kept them abreast of the basics of our situation. Surely you’ve noticed we’ve had a lot of privacy lately, even more than before?”
She nodded. “So they know and they’re giving us some space?”
“Yes, and waiting for you to be ready to meet them.”
“Obviously they’re not human. They’re waiting to properly introduce themselves when you won’t be overwhelmed by too much information.”
She massaged her temples. “Speaking of being overwhelmed with too much information…”
“Sorry. I’ll try not to make things any more complicated.”
“It’s okay,” she assured him. “It’s just… this is exactly why I’m not ready to take on college courses again.”
“I understand. I just hope you don’t regret getting sidetracked later.”
“I didn’t have much choice in the matter, but I don’t plan on letting it stop me forever.”
“At least think about it a while longer before you do anything rash,” he pleaded.
“All I’ve been doing lately is thinking, and I don’t think I’ll be stopping anytime soon.”
Hibiki did not say anything, but he expressed his approval by drawing her closer to him. She could not stop herself from smiling. He seemed happy and that made her happy. She turned in his embrace and kissed his cheek. It was nothing more than a brief brush of her lips against his skin but proved enough to elicit one of his confused, questioning looks.
She smiled shyly, half as a wordless apology for being a constant source of confusion and mixed signals these days, and half because she knew she was enticing him to test the unspoken limits of their currently fragile relationship. It might be playing with fire to thoughtlessly push her own limits in such a way, but she could only stand knowing how much he held himself back for her sake for so long. The guilt mixed with her own rather confused feelings and made her act like more of a tease than she would have liked. Her heart seemed to care a lot less about the secrets he had kept from her than her mind did.
He watched her with great intensity. So many emotions swirled in his eyes that Rina failed to identify them all. That gave her pause. She drew back a bit, unsure how she should proceed. She recognized that emotion. Pain. She knew without even a second’s consideration that she did not want to see that in his eyes.
She reached out and stroked his cheek with her fingertips. “There’s still a lot I need to figure out, but I have a feeling we’re going to be okay.”
That managed to draw a smile out of him. She smiled back. An invitation for more. He pressed his forehead against hers. She closed her eyes and sighed contentedly. He spotted an opening and took it.
At first, his kiss was hesitant, obviously holding back most of the feeling he would normally pour into his every attention to her. She let out a low hum of approval and the dam broke. His kisses transformed from gentle, questioning things to self-assured kisses fueled by enough passion to curl her toes and set off tingly sparks throughout her body. One kiss became two and then she completely lost count.
She lost track of time. She lost track of everything outside of Hibiki’s kisses. His hand cupped her cheek, but otherwise only their lips touched. Nonetheless, her whole body reacted and flooded her mind with feelings of tingling warmth. Whatever was happening, it was apparent to her that he did not need to touch her body to render her completely incapable of feeling anything other than the sort of pleasure that pooled as a burning heat in the pit of her stomach.
There was no way for her to guess how long they continued to kiss, but the fire had died down to glowing coals by the time she first had a chance to take a look at the room around her. She only thought to do so because she felt the room fill up with static electricity, sending a chill down her spine and making her hair stand on end.
Something was not right.
Hibiki moved, standing up and putting himself between the weird energy that was rolling into the room and Rina. She jumped up and held onto his arm, peeking over his shoulder. She was not at all sure what was causing all of this electricity in the air, but she had a gut feeling that it was not good.
The source of the strange energy appeared in the room. They did not enter by the door, but rather joined them in the room out of nothing. Not too long ago something like this would have sent Rina’s mind spiraling out of control with questions. Now she was confused, but also extremely cautious. Appearing in the room like that still more than qualified as strange in her book, but so many strange things had been happening to and around her that she was less shocked than she might have been in the past.
The physical appearance of the men, if they really really were men, did more to give her pause than their method of entering the room. Their skin was blue, and their ears ended in sharp points. Their style of dress reminded her of something out of a bygone Chinese dynasty.
Her mind quickly determined that they were first and foremost not human, and secondly not from around here. Considering present company she was not sure which should be a greater cause for concern.
One of the blue men stepped forward. Hibiki shifted his stance so he was once more fully in front of Rina. She could not see much of anything unless she stretched to look over his shoulder, but she still heard everything.
“We’ve come to take you into the custody of King Yama to await trial for your crimes against the natural cycle of life and death. Will you come peacefully?”
Rina cringed. It never occurred to her that her existence would be a crime. She had a feeling that she would not survive this trial if she agreed to go. From the look of the two that were making this arrest, the only options were to go peacefully or go kicking and screaming. There was no hope for escape.
She took a deep breath. She would have to go peacefully. She knew she stood no chance against anyone in a fight. Agreeing to surrender seemed to be her only viable option.
Before she could step out from behind Hibiki to speak her piece, he spoke up himself.
“I’ll go with you as long as you can guarantee Rina will be allowed to continue living her life. She did nothing wrong, and removing her from the world now would ruin more lives than just hers.”
“It is not our place to make any such guarantee. We are here to collect you.”
Those words made Rina’s knees nearly buckle. They were not here for her after all. They wanted Hibiki. She grabbed hold of his arm and held on tightly.
“Don’t go,” she pleaded in a voice that could not rise above a feeble whisper.
He glanced at the strange men before turning to face Rina. He pulled her into a tight embrace. “I’ll do everything I can to make sure they do nothing to harm you,” he vowed.
“How can they just take you away with no warning?” She blinked hard to hold back tears before continuing. “Why are they taking you?”
She had more questions, but her throat tightened up as she tried to stop herself from crying. She tried not to panic, but fear and confusion overruled her own desires. The only thing keeping her from falling apart completely were Hibiki’s arms around her, providing her with a shield from the strange men and allowing her to deny at least a small fraction of the reality of the situation to hold onto a scrap of her rational mind.
His voice was barely audible, even in the near silence of the room. “You know I broke the rules when I tried to bring Yuzu back. It’s caught up with me and I need to go so they don’t make things worse for you.”
“They’re going to take you away from me. What could they do that’s worse than that?”
“Just trust me. If King Yama wants to put me on trial, I have to go.”
“Will you come back to me after the trial?”
“Rina, I’m guilty. I’m going to be punished and I have no way of knowing what that punishment will be.”
“Just say you’ll be back. I don’t know what I’ll do without you.”
“I don’t want to lie to you.”
The first blue man stepped forward again. “Enough of this. Are you coming peacefully or do we need to use force?”
He gave the man a frustrated glare. “I’m coming.” He turned his attention back to Rina. “Go back to college. Live your life. I’ll come back for you as soon as I can, but don’t waste your life waiting for me.”
She could not believe what she was hearing. She could not accept that this was happening. Her denial froze her in place. She could do nothing but watch as Hibiki surrendered himself to their custody and the three of them disappeared in another rush of static electricity.
Rina’s knees gave out and she crumpled to the floor. She knew there were dozens of things she should be feeling and doing right now, but she felt too numb from shock to even react.
There was not much left for Yuzuki to do but accept that they would be moving soon. Thinking about it still filled her with sadness, but she did now acknowledge that it was necessary for them to have a home more suited to raising a kit. As soon as she agreed to the move she knew she would need to tell the news to Hisako. She dreaded doing so almost as much as she dreaded moving.
Neither one of them had many friends, which was probably why they grew to be so close to each other. Yuzuki did not like the idea of leaving her mentor alone here, even if she had been living here just fine on her own before she ever met Yuzuki. She also hated that she would have to tell her that she would be leaving before the kit was born.
Yuzuki had hoped so much that Hisako would be there to help her through her labor. The idea of doing it without her was terrifying. She did not know who else she could go to for advice on any matter, let alone with her deepest, darkest fears regarding her pregnancy and labor.
She did not want to tell her that she was leaving, and she certainly did not want to tell her that she was leaving to go live far away where she did not know any women who could help her when her time came. Souma was so confident that they would find a midwife there to help, but Yuzuki could not get him to understand that there was a difference between someone and the right someone. She needed to feel safe, and she was not likely to feel safe with someone she barely knew, particularly if she had to pretend to be human through it all.
She had no idea how she was going to get through telling all of this to Hisako, but she did know if would be better to just see her and get it over with before she gave herself any more time to get worked up about it.
Hisako was ready to put her to work as soon as she arrived, but changed her plans as soon as she picked up on Yuzuki’s dejected body language.
“Forget about organizing the herbs, Yuzuki. Let’s have tea and chat.”
Yuzuki gladly stepped away from the herbs. Her thoughts were on something else entirely and she could tell she was making a mess of things even if she could not quite figure out how to do it properly today.
The questions started as soon as she sat down. Hisako prepared the tea but wasted no time in trying to get some answers out of her student.
“How are you feeling? Are you getting enough sleep and eating well?”
Yuzuki nodded. “I’m fine. Lately, I’ve had plenty of energy and I think I’ve been eating pretty well. Last week I wanted apples and Souma grew some for me.”
“Lucky girl,” Hisako said with a smile.
“Yeah, I guess so,” Yuzuki agreed although she could feel her spirits slipped back to melancholy.
“So what is bothering you? I know it’s something. You have that look on your face you always get when you’re pretending you can get through the day and you’re not going to make it.”
She knew she needed to speak before her nerves got the better of her and she tried to bury her head in the sand again. “We’re moving.”
“And that’s what has you so upset? I would’ve thought someone had died the way you’re acting.”
“Souma found us a place in the human world. I don’t know when I’ll be able to come back to see you,” she explained mournfully.
Hisako looked amused. “You’re a strange one. I don’t’ know anyone else who would be so upset to stop living in a tree.”
“Hey, you said yourself, it’s actually very nice once you’re inside.”
“Yes, but you should not be climbing trees in your condition, and I think you know that.”
She sighed. It seemed everyone was in consensus in regards to her current and future ability to scale the tree into her home. She personally did not disagree, but she resented having her present condition used against her in such a way. The last thing she wanted was to be treated as though she was too fragile to even live her life.
“I know it’s not ideal, but I can still handle it for now,” she insisted.
“And not too long from now you’re not going to be able to handle climbing at all,” Hisako reminded her.
“I’d rather stay though if it means you’ll be with me when it is time for me to give birth.”
“Send your young man for me when your time is close. I’ll come to help you.”
“What about everyone else that needs you here? Who will help them?”
Hisako shrugged. “They can get by without me for a little while. Even if you weren’t my favorite apprentice you’d be high on my priority list. This will be your first birth and you don’t have your mother or an aunt to hold your hand so I need to step in and keep you calm.”
Yuzuki managed a wavery smile. “I’d rather have you than my mother anyway.”
Hisako smiled back. “Now, don’t you think this would be a good time to be excited?”
She shrugged. She was still not quite sure how to explain the way she felt to anyone. This seemed like it would be the best chance she had to figure it out, though. She did not want to talk about it with Souma because for some reason admitting her apprehensions to him made her feel incredibly guilty. She felt as though she owed it to him to try to be happy even if that was not the way she actually felt. Here with Hisako, she did not feel as though she needed to do anything to hide her feelings. There was no reason for her mentor to have too much of a vested interest in her happiness or to feel responsible for her happiness the way that Souma seemed to.
“I don’t know why, but I just can’t feel excited about any of it. All I can think about is everything that could go wrong.” Even this brief confession caused her throat to tighten up and she dared not say any more at the moment.
“Why do you think something is going to go wrong?”
She tried to take a sip of her tea. She did not realize this would be so difficult to talk about. She had tried in roundabout ways to express her reservations about the changes taking place in her life. The reassurance she got did nothing to calm her mind and the worries just dug in deeper. Now she had waited so long that being directly honest about it was almost too painful to bear.
“Something always goes wrong,” she said while keeping her eyes fixed on her tea cup. She did not think she would be able to speak at all if she looked in Hisako’s eyes. “I always end up getting hurt. I don’t want to be hurt anymore.”
“Do you think someone is going to hurt you?” Hisako asked.
Yuzuki noticed that edge in her voice that always meant Hisako intended to put a stop to whatever nonsense she saw happening. Usually, it was reserved for drunken brawlers that did not quite have enough wits left to know that the fight was over, but she had also heard that tone come out when family members were out of line with mother or baby. It was a tone that informed all listening that she might be a mere human woman but would fight like a mother bear to protect anyone she considered to be under her care. She did not know what it could mean in this situation since there was no one to protect her from, but it was comforting to know that she was safe and protected here.
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I just feel afraid. Something is going to go wrong and I don’t know what I can do to stop it.”
“Yuzuki, does your young man ever hurt you?” Hisako asked her with a level, serious look that demanded complete honesty.
“No! Souma would never hurt me,” Yuzu immediately insisted.
“What about someone else?” Hisako pressed. “Has anyone hurt you?”
She flinched at this line of questioning. It was something she avoided talking about these days. She liked to think that she put it in the past and wanted nothing more than to forget it all. Although she did not want to lie about it, she also did not want to discuss it and relive what she wanted to believe was her past.
“Yuzuki, has something happened that makes you feel as though you won’t be safe if you move to a new home?”
It was not that she wanted to hide the truth from Hisako, but she was not sure that she was strong enough to open up about these things again. She also knew that she did not really have any grounds for thinking she would be in more danger in a new place than she was here, and if she started to explain she imagined that that particular fact would be brought up pretty quickly.
“I don’t know if I will ever be safe,” she admitted in the faintest of whispers.
At first, she was not even sure if Hisako heard her. Her mentor remained completely impassive as she stared at her. She almost felt as though she was seeing past the surface and into Yuzuki’s soul. She did not like it because she knew what was in there and she was honestly ashamed of the more unpleasant facts of her earlier life.
“Yuzuki, you are stronger than you give yourself credit for. And you’re smarter than you think. I know you can keep yourself and your child safe. The world is full of danger, but you’ve been through enough to be vigilant and that will keep you safer than most.”
She listened to Hisako’s words and allowed them to settle into her mind. It was not that she disagreed with what she heard. She knew she was so much stronger than she used to be.s he knew she could be vigilant and keep herself safe, but she did not know how to explain to anyone that it just was not enough to know that she was careful and watchful at all times. She did not know how to explain that it was exhausting to always suspect that the worst was about to happen and that feeling of exhaustion had her convinced that one day she would not be vigilant enough and something awful would slip past her defenses and it would be the ruin of either her or her child. She tried to stay strong right now. She tried to accept the advice with a smile and a brave face and she failed terribly. She could feel tears welling up in her eyes and quickly looked down at her tea to try and hide them.
Hisako got up and moved to sit next to her. She pulled Yuzuki into an awkward half hug and did not say a word for a moment or two. Yuzuki accepted the unanticipated display of affection which somehow made it that much easier for her to release the tears that previously refused to fall.
She was in no condition to speak so all of the burden for talking continued to fall on Hisako. It was a burden she accepted easily.
“I’m not going to pretend I can even imagine the sort of demons you have haunting you, but I don’t want to hear about you holding it all in and facing it on your own. You need to talk to someone before you start falling apart. Talk to me or your young man before it becomes too much to bear. You can’t do it all on your own and you shouldn’t have to.”
Yuzuki nodded. It made sense to her. She had been trying to handle everything herself and she just did not have the energy to keep it up. She needed help and she needed to remember that it was okay to ask for help for this sort of thing. She needed to let go of the shame of what she had been through so she could at least admit when it reached the point of being too much for her to handle on her own.
“What am I going to do once I move away and I can’t just walk over to see you whenever I want?”
“I’ll just have to come out and surprise you with a visit from time to time.”
It was not a perfect arrangement, but Yuzuki thought she could make it work.