Cover by A. R. Shellnut
This chapter is so, so late! Somehow it feels appropriate that it’s a longer chapter. I was knocked out by a migraine for several days this week and had the bright idea of trying to work on this week’s chapter while under the weather so I had to go back to fix everything I messed up when I should’ve been resting. I hope I straightened everything back out.
Thank you for being so patient with me! The next chapter should be back on the regular schedule.
Rina knew she could not leave without saying goodbye. She might not be able to explain what was happening or where she was going, but she felt that she owed it to the people in her life to let them know that she was not returning to college and would be going away for at least a short while. She did not dare tell her mother in person. She lacked the nerve and was afraid her resolve would not survive a fight with her mother.
In the end, she took the coward’s way out and told Corine and tried to cajole her friend into telling the bad news to her mother. She knew it was cruel to ask such a think of her friend who had been so supportive, but she barely had the courage to tell Corine let alone her mother.
Somehow she still managed to ask all the right questions to make Rina even more anxious. Her only saving grace was that she did most of the explaining through text messages, which gave her some time to think through her responses so she did not say anything to set her friend up to ask questions she was not ready or willing to answer.
Then Corine’s messages stopped abruptly. That made Rina more than a little nervous. Her nerves were so frazzled that she could only sit still worrying and waiting to hear another message come through.
She wished she could say she was surprised when she received a text from Corine telling her to come outside to talk. She only spent a second wondering how Corine knew where to find her. Corine knew practically everybody and could find out just about any information she needed quite easily.
Facing her friend right now made her nervous. She did not know if she could hide enough of the truth to keep her from worrying and spreading the worry to her mother. Explaining everything would be impossible even if she had the time. Every hour she lingered here was an hour she was not able to spend getting to Hibiki and figuring out how she could save him.
She silently crossed the porch and the front yard and joined Corine in her car, all the while wondering what caused Corine to choose now to resist her urge to snoop around a new place. Without any idea what she should say, she was left to wait for Corine to speak her mind.
“What is going on, Rina? I’ve barely heard from you over the past month and then out of nowhere you want me to talk to your mom for you and tell her you’re not going back to college. What the hell?”
Rina squirmed in her seat. Something needed to be said and she wanted to explain it in a way that would not make her friend feel as though she was being used and kept out of the loop even as it became more and more apparent to her that she was doing just that.
“I wish I could start at the beginning, but there’s no time to explain and it would take too long to make sure you understand. A lot has happened to me lately and now Hibiki needs my help and I can’t go back to college while all of this is going on.” She spoke all of these words as quickly as possible to get it out of the way and hoped that it would be enough.
“You can’t do that,” Corine insisted.
“I have to do it,” she shot back.
“You’ve lost your mind. I could understand everything getting messed up when you were sick. I could even understand when you got so caught up in your love life that you forgot about the rest of your life — young love and all that, but this is just too much. I wouldn’t be a good friend if I didn’t tell you that I think this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Anger flared up briefly and overtook the rest of her thoughts. How dare Corine judge her when she did not have the whole story? She also felt thoroughly ashamed by her words. She could not say she disagreed with her friend’s statement. That did not stop her from feeling compelled to defend her life.
“Look, I’m just not ready to go back to school. I want to be able to do my best and I can’t do that while I’m still trying to get my life figured out. I was already starting to think about this before I knew Hibiki would need my help. I love him and he needs me. How can I not try to help him?”
Corine sighed. “I guess I can get why you won’t listen to me. You know your life, but I’m not going to be the go between for you and your mom. If you’re serious about derailing your whole life you’re going to have to tell her yourself.”
“Fine,” she agreed with a sigh. She should have known it was too much to hope that she could disappear without telling her mother herself even if the idea did terrify her.
“You better know what you’re doing because it really does look like you’re in the middle of a nervous breakdown or something.”
“I wish I could tell you that I knew exactly what I’m doing, but that would be a lie. I really do think I’m doing what’s best. Can you just trust me?”
“Oh, Rina… I’m used to you being normal and never doing anything dangerous and exciting. What happened?”
“A lot. Too much for me to explain right now.”
“You’re not going to do anything stupid, are you?”
“I’m not going to try to be stupid.”
“Make sure you call your mom and talk to her about this.”
“I guess I don’t have a choice.”
“You’re right. You don’t.”
Rina glanced sideways over to her friend. “Would it make you any less mad at me if I told you I think I’m doing the right thing?”
“Is doing the right thing going to end up making you miserable?” Corine asked, still being a bit standoffish.
She tried to smile but knew it was probably not bright or confident enough to illicit confidence. “If I can get the universe to go in my favor I’ll be happy. If I fail at least I’ll know I tried. There’s no way I could try to live out my life the way it is right now. The guilt would eat away at me. I have to follow this path and see where it takes me before I put my focus back on my education.”
“I’ve known you a long time, Rina, and this isn’t like you. I hope you can understand why I’m so concerned.”
“But I’m just now starting to learn who I really am. It’s confusing even for me at this point, but I’m learning as I go and once I know I’ll be better able to explain it to you.”
“It still seems insane to me.”
“Can you at least trust that I know what I’m doing? I know this messes up all the plans I had for my life, but I’m willing to deal with that. Right now I need to deal with myself and helping Hibiki.”
“Okay, Rina. I know you well enough not to think you haven’t thought this through. Just don’t shut me out like you have over the last few weeks, okay? I’m still your friend and maybe you wouldn’t have such a hard time telling me what’s going on right now if you had kept me in the loop in the first place.”
“I’m sorry, Corine. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen. I promise I’ll keep in touch.”
“Good, and don’t take too long getting your life straightened out. I don’t want to end up being the smart friend. I’m rather fond of being the party girl.”
“Trust me, I have no interest in stealing your title or forcing you to take mine.”
“You are going to talk to your mom about this, aren’t you?”
“I guess I don’t have a choice.”
“Yep. Now I have to get going. People are starting to throw back to school parties and I have to make an appearance so people don’t forget who I am.”
Corine left and Rina felt more pressure than ever to tell her mother what had happened. She knew she would not have the courage to face her. Even the thought of speaking on the phone made her feel queasy. It was a tiny stroke of brilliance that inspired her to call when she knew her mother would be at work and leave a voice mail. It might not be the kindest way to do it, and it technically did not count as talking to her mother, but she did not think she had the courage to face her mother’s judgment or questions.
She called and explained as quickly and neatly as she could. She tried to word things in a way that would cause the least amount of worry.
Now she realized she had no more excuses holding her back from trying to get to Diyu. She wanted to go to help Hibiki, but she still did not know if she was even capable of getting there to defend him. She was afraid to try. As long as she did not try and fail she felt she had a chance to make a difference.
She doubted Hibiki’s confidence in the abilities he believed she inherited from Yuzuki. Nonetheless, Motoko was eager to try to help her know that everything was out in the open. She did not know if she could bear the stress of it all, but she had come too far and she was too set on saving Hibiki not to try, no matter what her nerves might have to say about it all.
“Do you really think we’ll be able to do it?” she asked once she realized the time to make their attempt had finally come.
Masami was back to being Motoko. She needed to free up her magic so the human disguise was the first transformative illusion to go.
“We won’t know until we try,” she responded. “I don’t mean to put too much pressure on you, but it will all come down to you. I know already I am not strong enough to do this on my own.”
“I don’t think I have any magic in me,” Rina confessed.
“Oh, you have magic. I know that for sure. I remember it. We just don’t know if you are able to access it while you’re human. You’re unique. There’s no lore for us to refer to when it comes to a case like yours.”
She smiled at that. Something about being a unique case did make her feel at least a little better about it all. For her anything could be possible.
She took a deep breath to gather her courage and asked, “How are we going to do this?”
Motoko locked eyes with her. Rina realized it never occurred to her before that Motoko’s eyes were such an inhumanly bright blue before. Those eyes were striking and Rina felt incredibly ordinary and far too human as she met her gaze.
“Just follow my lead,” Motoko said in a calm, soothing tone.
“I don’t know if I can. I don’t remember how to do this. There’s no way for me to know how to follow you.”
“You know more than you think. You have experienced this before. The memories are there right alongside all the other things you have remembered. You might not understand but you do know. It’s as much a part of who you are as it is a part of who I am.”
Rina did not know if she could believe that. She was not Yuzuki. Everyone seemed to be confused on that point. She had lost pretty much everything else that made her who she used to be so it seemed less than likely that she would retain something as significant as magic without noticing it.
“I’ve gotta try, I guess. Like you said, you can’t do this on your own so we have to hope that I’ve got enough magic left over to tip the scales in our favor. Should we go outside to do this or something? I mean, will opening the portal do any damage to the house?”
Motoko laughed. “We’re fine right where we are. Could you imagine the ruckus we’d start if the neighbors saw me like this and then saw us open a pathway to another plane of existence?”
“Yeah. I guess that would be pretty bad,” she admitted. She tried to smile, but her nerves had her body in a vice grip and showed no signs of letting go.
She realized she was equally afraid to succeed or fail. She did not want to imagine the guilt and worry of failing and waiting to see if she would ever see Hibiki again, not to mention wondering what was happening to him now that he was taken away.
“Shall we get started, Rina?”
“I guess so. What should I do?”
“Let’s sit down and I’ll start opening the path between worlds. I want you to concentrate on feeling my magic. Once you know what it feels like you’ll understand and you can add your strength to mine.”
“This doesn’t sound like beginner’s stuff.”
“It’s not. Like I said before, I’m not strong enough to do this on my own. I understand how to do it, but my own limitations have prevented me from understanding it more than theoretically.”
Rina nodded. She understood, but it did nothing to alleviate her nerves. Everything came down to her being as good as Yuzuki and she felt as though she was anything but.
They sat down and Motoko began to use her kitsune magic to part the boundary between worlds. Rina closed her eyes and did her best to just concentrate on feeling the magic and understanding how the process was done. It came as a pleasant surprise to her that she was so easily able to feel the magic. She had been practicing a bit at doing this before Hibiki was taken away, but Souma’s magic felt alien to her. This magic at least felt familiar.
What she really needed to know now was how to get it all started. She had a feeling once she got that part done she would be able to get the rest of it to work as well.
Motoko’s magic retracted suddenly and Rina found herself concentrating very hard on something that was no longer there. She felt disoriented and slightly sick for the loss of it. Then the world realigned so it made sense again and she felt a bit better, if still a bit confused.
“I’m sorry Rina. I ran out of steam. It seems I’m more out of practice than I thought.”
She managed to smile this time. She realized she had it figured out. Everything became clear to her except for how to access the magic.
“How am I supposed to get started?” she finally asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know how to make the magic start. Is there an on switch I should know about?”
“If you need it, it should just rise up from within you. Just try to start using it and then it will be there for you.”
Rina shook her head. “That makes no sense, but I know exactly what you mean.”
She took a deep breath to clear her mind and gave it a try. Letting go of the expectation of needing to get started sounded like the most unnatural thing in the world to her. It defied logic, but for some reason she would never be able to explain it worked.
As soon as she felt the surge of energy she almost panicked and stopped right there. It was completely alien, yet somehow familiar. She tried to concentrate on making the magic stay put now that she had found it. When it did not disappear instantly she took the risk to glance at Motoko.
Her eyes were bright and she looked as though she was ready to jump up out of her seat and cheer. Rina could not help smiling since this cemented her belief that she was on the right track. Her control slipped a bit and she had to scramble to maintain her tenuous grip on the magic.
She frowned from the effort of concentration. At first, the magic seemed to be only a trickle but as one moment stretched into another the amount of magic at her disposal seemed to grow exponentially. It did not take long for her to feel as though she was in over her head.
All of this magic needed something to do. Once she opened the door it was out and ready to be put to work. It became her responsibility to shape and direct it, which she did not quite know how to do. She knew how it felt when it was being put to a purpose but she did not know exactly how to channel it herself.
Remaining calm seemed to be the order of the day. She knew panicking would do nothing for her. All she could do was push that feeling deep down inside of her and try to think of something to get everything under control.
Motoko was moving closer to her with a concerned look on her face. Rina knew that had to be a bad sign, but she could not spare energy to worry about it. Nearly everything she had was going into holding onto the magic. She watched Motoko with wide eyes, hoping that she was able to silently communicate her desperate need to be rescued from this nightmare situation.
The kitsune grabbed her arms and stared into her eyes. Rina held her gaze and tried to telegraph her need for assistance with just a look.
“Concentrate, Rina. You can do this. You have to feel how much power you have pouring off of you right now. It’s more than enough to get you through to Diyu. You just need to use it.”
She wished Motoko would just tell her how to use it. She had already been shown the way to do it and that had just flown straight out of her mind as soon as things got a little bit out of hand.
Slowly she closed her eyes. She knew Motoko was there so she did not need to keep looking at her. Knowing was enough. It was different when the magic was inside of her rather than outside of her body, but the principle was the same. She could extrapolate.
Keeping the magic bottled up inside did not give the power the freedom to do its work. Gradually she loosened her vice-like grip and she felt the magic spread out into the wider world. She concentrated on pushing it into the same direction she felt Motoko direct her magic earlier.
Something clicked into place. She was not entirely sure feeling it click was a good sign, but she could tell it was in the right place and this seemed to start a cascading domino effect. Everything started falling into place without any sort of effort on her part. She felt it all happening and just tried to hold onto whatever degree of control she still had. She was afraid of what might happen if she let go too much.
Motoko was still with her. She was being supervised and she felt sure that she would be stopped if she went too far. She did not know if it was meant to take this long or not and she was not currently in a position to ask any questions.
The physical material of the room started to shift. It started out as a static-like magnetic field. It reminded her of the feeling that left her hair standing on end when the oni came for Hibiki. The changes did not stop there. She felt the floor start to shake. She could tell that this was right, but she still felt frightened.
Something clicked again and she felt her magic draw back into her body. It disappeared back to wherever it had been hidden all along.
Rina gasped. It was a thrill, a terrifying, exhausting thrill. She did not know if she would ever be able to convince her body to go through this ever again.
Motoko was silent, but let go of her arms. Rina knew she needed to open her eyes and see if she had succeeded, but success or failure would not be determined by her ability to see what her magic had done. On some level she already knew that she had done it. She would be going to Diyu.
All she had to do was open her eyes.
With all her courage gathered up for what amounted to one small, insignificant act she opened her eyes. The portal was there, seeming to stare back at her. It was black, not the black of nighttime but the black that designated a complete absence of light. She stared into the blackness and realized she could see a small speck of light breaking through the void. There was something on the other side. She needed walk all the way to that light. Then she would be in Diyu.
She gave Motoko an appreciative smile before she stepped into the portal.
After the move, Yuzuki felt as though she needed to readjust to the concept of normal. Every day had brought some new change lately and now she was able to wake up in the same place every morning, get up and know exactly where all of her things were. It was a wonderful, reassuring feeling. She found that she loved not having to climb a tree to be home. She loved having Souma all to herself even more.
For now, he seemed content to work around the house making adjustments to everything until it met his specifications. His intentions for the garden kept changing, usually in the form of an expansion in one direction or another so Yuzuki kept herself busy adjusting her protective barrier to accommodate whatever plans he had in mind.
She worked covertly because Souma’s tendency to hover and fret over her every time she tried to do anything at all only. She found herself dreading that she still had months to go before she could go back to just being herself again. It was particularly vexing because she had an overabundance of energy these days and the last thing she wanted to do was sit quietly and rest all day. She needed to do something so she could sleep at night. She wanted to burn off some of her excess energy, get a bit of exercise and see some of the human world.
She was itching to get out and explore. There was a whole world out there and she had hardly seen any of it. Souma wanted her to stay close and the seclusion was driving her up the wall.
She sat in their house, looking out across the clearing and wondering what was out beyond the forest. She knew Souma had thoroughly scouted the area before selecting this place for their home. He picked this particular place based on its proximity to a human village.
They had chosen to settle here and she needed to know about her neighbors. She was not going to remain ignorant about the surrounding area like she did for the first months she lived in the tree house. She was not the same scared girl she was back then. Now she knew the importance of being prepared, knowing her neighbors, and what resources and options were available to her.
“I want to go to the village,” she announced abruptly when moping and pouting over it had entirely lost its appeal.
“Why would you want to go there?” Souma wondered.
“I want to know what it is like. I want to meet some humans so I can stop wondering about them.”
He gave her one of his appraising looks. “You’d have to disguise yourself as a human. I don’t want you to wear yourself out between walking and the magic.”
She huffed. He forgot who it was that was constantly maintaining the protective barrier around their home. She knew better than to think that she was going to run out of energy but for some reason Souma constantly worried that she did not have the strength to do the most simple sorts of magic.
“I’m not going to run out of magic anytime soon,” she insisted. “And walking is going to be good for me. Being cooped up all day every day is going to make me weaker than I would be otherwise.”
“I just want to make sure you’re getting the rest you need and aren’t overexerting yourself.”
“I won’t overexert myself. It’s just a walk. There’s nothing wrong with me and there’s no reason you should be stopping me from going about doing whatever I want. I know what’s too much for me to handle much better than you ever could so please just stop trying to look out for my interests by stopping me from doing everything and anything that might make my life even remotely interesting.”
She felt a bit guilty as soon as she finished her rant and noticed the hurt look in Souma’s eyes. She had not meant to make him feel bad. She just needed to vent her own frustration about the situation and try to educate him on how he could better help her when she really did not need to be shielded from the entire rest of the world.
“I’m sorry, Yuzu. I know I’m going overboard trying to protect you. I’m just afraid that something is going to come along even now and try to take away our happiness. Every time I think we’re safe and we can be happy I let my guard down and you end up being the one that gets hurt. I can’t allow that to happen ever again.”
Yuzuki got up and moved to Souma’s side. She did not know what to say so she just hugged him.
“Maybe we can go out and explore a bit without you letting your guard down? That way you know I’ll be safe and happy.”
He nuzzled her cheek and seemed to give her suggestion at least a bit of thought. “If I said yes when would you want to go?”
She thought about it for a moment. She could be honest or she could try to be flexible. In an instant honesty won out. She did not know if she could trust him to continue to be this agreeable if she gave him a choice in when they would go on their adventure.
“Can we go now?” she asked, not caring the least bit if she sounded like an overeager child.
He snorted in an attempt to suppress a laugh. “Are you ready now?”
“Give me a few minutes,” she said in a hurry to amend her stance.
She sprung into action making sure everything was ready for her to leave for a while and to make sure she had everything she would need to take on a short afternoon adventure. The weather was fine, neither too hot nor too cold and it did not look like there would be any rain today. Once she knew that their house would remain intact during their absence, she returned to Souma’s side, more than ready to go.
“That didn’t take long,” he commented.
“There wasn’t much that needed to be done,” she pointed out.
He nodded. “We should switch our appearance here just in case some of the humans have decided to go walking around today too.”
Yuzuki sighed. Changing form was quite possibly her least favorite thing in the world. Adjusting to a new body made her immensely uncomfortable. She hardly ever changed form because of her intense dislike of the sensation. Now that she thought about it she could see this as a serious downside to living in the human world.
She had no choice other than to get over it. She was getting her way and she would have to live with the fallout that came along with getting what she wanted. She took a deep breath and suppressed her more fox-like attributes in favor of a more completely human form. She blinked slowly and tried to adapt to her now dulled senses.
Souma also changed. He looked so ordinary. She reached out and touched his now brown hair.
“I like your other hair better,” she complained.
“It would cause too much of a commotion for me to leave my hair the way it was. This way it’s ordinary and won’t draw attention.”
“But I like it when you draw attention.”
“Well, you’re still stunning as always so you’ll have to carry the burden of drawing all the attention.” He slipped his arms around her and gazed down at her with loving eyes. “You’re too pretty, Yuzu.”
“Should I change something?” she asked with slight apprehension. Her human form was not one that she had much practice with so she was not sure she had it right.
“Don’t change a thing,” he purred.
She blushed as she realized that this could easily turn into the day the almost went to see the village. “We should probably get going before there aren’t enough hours in the day to make the trip.”
He cleared his throat. “You’re right.” He let her go but immediately laced his fingers in with hers. “Let’s go.”
She grinned. She was finally going to see a tiny bit more of the world beyond their home. One afternoon would not be enough, but it was a start and once she convinced Souma to make the trip with her once it would be that much easier the next time.
In her uninformed opinion, the trees here in the human world were no different from the ones found in the other world. She did not find this to be particularly surprising, but she was a bit disappointed. A part of her had hoped that she would be able to marvel at the vast, exotic differences in the human world. Now she was becoming more and more sure that it was actually more of the same, except in this world she was against all odds one of the more dangerous creatures on the prowl.
Thinking of herself as a threat to anyone right now seemed ridiculous. She giggled a bit to herself. She was as small and timid as ever and these days she was constantly reminded that she was growing more and more pregnant. From her perspective, she was the least threatening creature in existence.
Souma was looking at her as though she was at least a little bit out of her mind. She smiled at him and stuck out her tongue.
She did not think that the village was all that far away, but the terrain here was a bit more hilly than she was accustomed to and she had to take a bit more care. This slowed their progress and made her more than a little impatient.
When she spotted something other than tree trunks and ordinary undergrowth her eyes lit up. This glimpse of a shingled roof was the first real sign of human civilization Yuzuki had seen. It might not be as big or interesting as a whole village and there were still no humans in sight, but she could not help but feel excited by it.
She picked up the pace and pulled Souma along to check it out. She knew she was being a bit less cautious than she should be considering her senses were all dulled in this form, but she could not resist the chance to learn a bit more about the humans that would be her neighbors from now on.
The structure was a small shrine of some sort. That made sense to a degree. Religion was not a foreign concept to youkai and she understood that humans clung to it desperately, sometimes as a method of protecting them from youkai. She did not know much about human religions, but this seemed like it was a chance to learn at least a little bit. She could use it to make herself seem a bit less strange and ignorant if the topic ever came up when she found herself interacting with humans.
She spotted the fox statues before they reached the shrine. She frowned in confusion. She had not expected that at all.
“Foxes?” she whispered breathlessly.
“Yeah,” Souma agreed.
Yuzuki reached out hesitantly to touch the ear of the stone statue in front of her. She did not know what to make of it, but feeling that the statue really was here was a bit reassuring.
“Humans worship Inari and place foxes at his shrines as his messengers,” he explained sharply.
She pulled her hand back. Inari. This was a shrine for kitsune, but not a place for wild kitsune like her. These kitsune had entered into the service of a god and denounced all those that chose to remain free. This was not a safe place for them to be.
She felt a bit nervous being so close to a place dedicated to kitsune that were notoriously terrible to any of their own kind that did not adhere to their own concept of piety. Anyone that chose freedom over service to Inari was considered to be inferior. She glanced at Souma and noticed his clenched jaw and the way he glared at the shrine.
She took his hand in hers and led him away from the shrine. He was seething. She did not trust him to behave himself here given his history. The last thing they needed was to start a fight with the kitsune associated with this shrine.
“Let’s just go,” she pleaded when he seemed to be unwilling to move on.
He appeared to be in some sort of trance. She just wanted to make sure that he did not do anything foolish. He shook his head and the trance seemed to be broken just like that.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said gruffly.
She nodded in agreement. He took the lead now and set a rapid pace downhill and away from the shrine.
Yuzuki did not want to complain. She wanted to get as far away from the shrine as possible too, but she was not so sure she was up to matching the pace he set. She wrenched her hand out of his grip and stopped to catch her breath.
Souma turned to look at her after walking a few paces alone. His expression shifted from intense irritation to remorse and concern.
It was not until she saw his expression change that she realized her current pose might make her look deceptively distressed. She quickly straightened up and removed her hand from the side of her stomach. She might be feeling a bit winded, but it was nothing to warrant the level of worry she spotted on his face.
He took one long stride back to her side. One arm was protectively around her back in the blink of an eye and he was intently studying her face for further signs of distress.
She tried to give him a reassuring smile but she could feel it immediately faltering under the intensity of his gaze. She knew she was fine. She felt a bit winded for a minute and almost had a stitch in her side before she stopped, but she already felt so much better that this entire situation seemed ridiculous to her.
“I’m okay,” she insisted when he did not stop watching her like a hawk.
“I shouldn’t have done that.”
“It’s okay. No harm done.”
“I should have been more careful for your sake,” he argued.
“You were just moving a little too fast for me, that’s all. Please stop looking at me like I’m going to faint at any second.”
He stroked her cheek with his fingertips. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine. Give me another minute and I’ll be good as new.”
He continued to stroke her cheek and watch her intently for any signs of distress. She tried to keep her expression as neutral as possible so he would not misinterpret any look that crossed her face.
She could not hide her panic when she felt a tightening pain in her belly. It was an entirely new sensation for her and for half a second her mind went straight to panic. Then she realized she knew all about this and had helped Hisako reassure at least a few expectant mothers who felt the same thing.
That tiny flash of panic put Souma right back on high alert. He looked poised to scoop her up and rush her back home. She knew she needed to put his mind at ease all over again.
“Souma, it’s okay,” she soothed.
“You’re in pain,” he stated flatly. The way he said it left her with no room for argument, not that she was planning on denying it.
She was about to speak when she felt the another pain. She took a deep breath and slowly let it out. Her hand rubbed circles on her belly to encourage it to quiet down.
“Is it the kit?” he asked. “Is something wrong with the kit?”
She shook her head. “The kit is fine and I’m fine. I learned about this from Hisako. This is just my body preparing for when the kit is ready to join the world.”
“So you’re okay?”
“Yes. I’m okay.”
“But you’re in pain.”
She sighed. It was true. Both statements were true. She was sure that she was okay and that this was normal, but at the same time this was more than a twinge of pain. She was not sure it was supposed to be this painful, which made her wonder if she was doing something wrong.
Souma’s expression changed. Worry took a back seat as determination filtered in and took a more prominent place. “We’re going home.”
“Okay,” she readily agreed. At this point, she did not think she had it in her to do anything else. Even getting back home seemed a bit daunting. She just hoped that the pain would disappear soon so she did not have to endure the entire walk home with brief moments of pain gripping her middle.
“Are you able to walk?”
She nodded. “I think walking might help. Just don’t go too fast, okay.”
“Okay,” he agreed.
He kept an arm around her and started guiding her back home. They kept a wide berth from the shrine to Inari, for which Yuzuki was grateful as the place made her more than a little nervous.
Souma glanced at her belly over and over again so she grabbed his free hand and place it on her bump. She wanted him to feel that this was not a big deal, that their kit was still there and everything would be fine.
By the time they got back home, Yuzuki already felt much better. That did not stop Souma from fretting over her. Nothing she said or did seemed to alleviate his concern so she decided to cooperate with his good intentions as long as it did not actually cause more problems that it could solve.
Between seeing that shrine and dealing with Souma’s overreaction to a little bit of discomfort on her part, her nerves were frazzled enough to make going along with whatever Souma wanted to be easier than protesting. She found herself put to bed in the middle of the day and tried to make the best of it. At least she could stretch out and relax in bed. The only downside was not being able to get a moment of peace with Souma constantly checking on her.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked for what felt like the tenth time.
“I’m fine,” she insisted.
“Are you in any pain?” he check not more than a minute later. “I could get you something if you’re in pain.”
“I’m not in pain. I was a bit uncomfortable there for a little while, but that’s passed and everything feels normal now.”
“So it didn’t feel normal before?”
She sighed heavily. “It felt strange, but it’s normal. Lots of things that are happening to me these days are strange, uncomfortable, and even a bit painful, but it’s all normal.”
He shook his head and sat down next to her. “I just want you to be safe.”
“I am safe. Everything is fine and there is nothing to worry about so please stop worrying.”
“I can’t help it,” he admitted.
She remained silent for a few moments to gather her composure. As much as she wanted to reassure him, his anxiety was trying her patience. She did not want to take her frustration out on him particularly when most of her it was centered on the fact that her chance to visit the village had been delayed once again.
The idea of being babied and pampered by Souma until he was sure that everything was fine filled her with dread. She could just imagine all the new developments that could be just around the corner that would only prolong his treating her with kid gloves.
“Souma?” she asked after a stretch of silence while Souma kept his hand on her belly and watched her with intense scrutiny.
He jumped to attention at the sound of her voice and waited for her to speak.
“Can you bring Hisako to visit?”
“Of course. Is it that serious? Should I hurry?”
“It’s not serious. I miss her and I need her here to back me up. You’re going to drive me out of my mind with your hovering at this point.”
He nodded. “Will you be okay here on your own if I go to get her?”
“I’ll be fine, Souma. I promise.”