Cover by A. R. Shellnut
This story is over 195,000 words long. Can you believe that? We’re closing in on the end now. I’m feeling a mixture of overwhelmed and excited. Today I’m just glad I’m posting this chapter on time.
I’m still aiming to finish writing The Dreams this month. The final chapter will be posted sometime next month or possibly early in December. Starting on November 1, I’ll be posting the first draft of my next novel, Inbetween, on my Patreon. Once The Dreams is finished I’ll start revising and posting the second draft of Inbetween here, but the first draft will continue to be a patrons-only thing.
As soon as she saw the jail Rina did not like it. It was dark, damp and seemed to be made of inferior quality materials when compared to the rest of the city. She understood that this was a place for criminals, but she could not help feeling offended at the apparent lack of care for the people that were stuck in this place. She knew her feelings on the matter were probably being colored by the fact that she knew Hibiki was in this place.
Her kitsune friend helped her get inside and promptly disappeared. She regretted waiting to thank him as so most likely came across as completely ungrateful. Equally puzzling was the fact that he left without hearing the rest of her life story when he had made such a point of only helping her if she proved that she was interesting enough to be worthy of his time.
It left her feeling a bit unsettled. She pushed those feelings aside as she was sure that she would see him again one way or another. He had not come across as the sort of person that would forget about a promise like that. She might not have so much as a name to go with his face, but she was enough of an oddity here that she felt sure he would be able to track her down with next to no effort on his part. The realization proved to be quite unnerving.
She suppressed those thoughts. She had more urgent matters to concern herself with. A jailer was now escorting her to Hibiki’s cell.
She could hardly believe it. When King Yama had been so resistant to the idea of letting her see Hibiki she imagined she would be barred from the jail house and now she was being escorted directly to his cell.
Her emotions were in too much of a flurry for her to feel much other than numb at the moment. She had anticipated this moment for so long that she did not know how to feel about it now that she would finally see Hibiki again.
It was hard for her to wrap her mind around the fact that it had only been a few days since she last saw Hibiki. So much had happened that she could easily imagine it being weeks. In her normal life, she would need weeks to accommodate so many exciting events.
She had so much she wanted to say to him, but all of that flew out of her mind when she realized she was brought to a cell containing Souma rather than Hibiki. Her mind still insisted on separating the two even though she had moments where it seemed quite clear to her that they were one and the same no matter how different they looked. Right now she was having a hard time seeing them as one and the same which led to her feelings of disappointment. After all this time waiting to see Hibiki she only had Souma to pour her heart and soul out to. She tried her best to suppress the part of her mind that associated Souma with everything that had gone wrong in her life lately before she started speaking to him.
One deep breath was all it took. She was too desperate for a friendly face to allow her personal hang-ups to slow her down.
She stepped up to the bars and greeted him, “Hello, Souma.”
The shocked expression on his face convinced her that he had not expected to see her here. She knew he had told her to go back to living her life normally, but she did not think that he could actually expect her to sit back and do nothing.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he insisted. “I told you to stay away.”
“I couldn’t just leave you here,” she argued. “I had to do something. Can you even imagine me being able to stay away?”
He shook his head. “It’s just not safe for you here.”
“Yeah. I’ve gathered that, but I’m here so it’s too late to do anything about that now. I’ll deal with a bit of danger and figure out how I can help you get out of here.”
“Unless you have some foolproof plan to break me out of here, escape and keep us both in hiding for the rest of eternity I don’t know how you can help.”
She rolled her eyes. She had expected for him to be discouraged, but this seemed a bit excessive. Here she was offering to help him in any way she could and he was mocking her. She had hoped he would have some idea of how she could help, but it seemed as though he was more focused on what could not be done than what could. With no ideas being offered by Souma she only had her own ideas to put on the table.
She put her hands on her hips and stood up as tall and proud as she could as she announced. “I’m going to defend you at your trial. Once they realize that I’m fine and mostly normal there won’t be any point in keeping you locked up.”
“No matter how convincing you might be, this trial is not going to be an opportunity for anyone to prove my innocence. It’s a formality. They’re going to gather up the elders from as many kitsune families as they can and announce my crimes and my sentence in front of them.”
“They can’t do that. It’s not fair.”
“Nobody said this was going to be fair.”
“That’s not right. They can’t do this to you. You weren’t doing this to hurt anyone and you didn’t hurt anyone. I’m living proof that everything turned out as well as it possibly could. If they take you away from me I won’t be okay anymore. I can at least make them see that, can’t I?”
“I don’t know that you can,” he admitted.
She squeezed her eyes shut for a second to stop the tears. This was not what she had expected at all. This was just an endless cycle of frustration. There was only so much she could take and she had just about reached her limit.
She turned around and walked back to the jailer that had escorted her to Souma’s cell. Talking through the bars just did not do the trick. If she was going to get anywhere at all in this discussion she needed to do it in a way that at least let her feel as though it was all real. For that, she would need to be in the cell with him.
Convincing the jailer to open the cell to her proved to be the easiest thing she had done all day. She asked and he agreed. From the creepy smile he gave her when she asked she could guess the reason he thought was behind the request. It made her skin crawl, but she was not going to try to correct him. At this point, she was just glad to have something go her way.
She did not panic as much as she thought she might when they locked the cell behind her. It was not the first time she had been locked up lately, but this time it did seem a bit more tradition with all the steel bars and the jingling of all the keys on the jailer’s keyring.
Once the jailer was out of her line of sight again and hopefully out of hearing range as well she breathed a sigh of relief. Souma looked far from relieved himself. She hoped that he would be able to get over the fact that she had come here against his wishes in time, but it appeared that she had not given him enough time to adjust just yet.
If it had been Hibiki locked in this jail cell with her she would feel a bit more comfortable just recklessly insinuating her way into his plans for escape. Souma, on the other hand, forced her to be a bit more cautious. She was ashamed of it because it probably found its root in some deep-seeded bias but she could not help but feel as though she was in at least a bit of danger whenever she was in Souma’s presence. Knowing that he and Hibiki were one and the same did not change it at all. She was forced to confront his inhumanity when she looked at Souma while she could keep her head buried in the sand while interacting with Hibiki. She could not help but feel as though she was behind bars with a caged animal right now and she could not shake off or suppress that feeling as long as he kept glaring at her and judging her for disobeying him.
She knew she could handle it, though. She had been learning how to be brave more and more over the last few weeks. The past few days had been particularly trying but as long as she continued to see progress she was sure that she would continue to find both reserves of energy and bravery that she had not known she possessed. She did not know if this was part of human nature or if she should credit that part of her that was kitsune with suppressing her natural caution and timidity.
In a sense, she knew it did not matter. It was happening and she could use it and that was what would really end up making all the difference, but a part of her would not let it go. She was a scholar. Her curiosity and desire for knowledge meant everything to her and she could not just turn that off because it was not a convenient time to want to know more about the world and herself.
She could not stop herself from staring at him. The longer she looked the more she hoped that she would be able to see some bit of Hibiki in him. If she could see that she would at least have one small comfort that would serve as her anchor while she dove into trying to solve the trouble they were both in now.
Possibly the hardest part of all would be admitting to Souma that she had come to rescue him, but before she even had so much as a chance to try she found herself just as trapped as him. Worse, she was not even sure what she had done wrong so she could hardly imagine what she would need to do to get herself out of this mess. At least with Souma they knew that there would be a trial and she could just press forward with her plan to speak on his behalf and try to get everyone to see that she was fine and he did not deserve to be punished for doing something so harmless.
“I don’t see why my plan won’t work,” she argued after a few minutes of silence.
Souma sat down on the small, hard cot against the back wall of the cell. He looked drawn and hopeless. Rina did not like it at all and wanted to do whatever possible to help him at least find some shred of hope to hang on to while they figured out the rest of a solution.
“Rina, they’re bringing elders from different kitsune clans to help decide what should be done about me.”
She sat down next to him on the bed and almost immediately regretted it. She could not remember the last time she sat on something so uncomfortable and could not imagine being able to sleep on it. The floor would probably be easier to fall asleep on. It only added another layer of pity to her feelings toward Souma’s current situation. It seemed entirely unfair that she had a reasonably comfortable room and bed while he was stuck in a jail cell with a terrible, rock slab of a cot to sleep on.
“That should be a good thing, shouldn’t it? I mean, kitsune are more likely to want to help you out than someone like King Yama.”
“It’s a little naive of you to think so,” he said with a faint flicker of a smile. “I’m not exactly in the good graces of the celestial kitsune or the nogitsune.”
“Well, that’s something I can help with! I can talk you up to them. Make them realize how great you are and then they’ll all agree that you deserve to be free.”
“It won’t be that simple. They all hate me because I’m not entirely like them or like their enemies. I’m the common enemy they can all despise.”
“That’s so unfair. I do remember the problems you had before. I hate that nothing has changed.”
“You need to be prepared. I can’t say for sure, but with them trying to get elders from as many clans as possible there is a chance Takeshi might be here.”
“He’s an elder? Do you think he’s even still alive?”
“I don’t think there’s much out there that could kill him, unfortunately.”
She instinctively drew her knees up to her chest and hugged them tight. She did not know how to handle this information. On some level, she felt as though she had nothing to fear. He had no power over her. Takeshi had been put in his place before and she was so much stronger and more confident now than she was back then. There was no cause her her to still feel this afraid of him here and now.
She shook her head. “Well, if he’s coming here we’ll just have to stay out of his way. I’ll focus on the others. Talk you up to them. Get them to see how great you are and then I’ll be able to get you out of here.”
“Well, you certainly make it sound simple.”
“It’s all about confidence. I need to figure out a way to get you out of here. I’ve never been so sure about something before. That sort of confidence makes things seem a lot more simple than they really are.”
“Are you going to be okay? You’re looking a little pale.”
She thought about that for about half a second. She was not sure when she had last been okay and that was a disturbing realization. “I’ll live,” she insisted.
For all her efforts to keep her distance and keep her mind from blurring the lines between Hibiki and Souma and leading her down a path of even greater confusion, she could not stop herself from craving some sort of physical contact right now. She scooted closer to him and leaned against his arm. It might not be exactly what she had wanted, but it would do in a pinch.
For some reason Rina was not locked up in her room again. She existed as something between a prisoner and a guest. Her meals were brought to her. It appeared that she would not be having any more meals with King Yama. Considering the way she stormed out from the first meal they tried to eat together she could not say that she was sorry to miss out on reliving the experience.
Most of her time was spent with Souma. She did not know if she even cared at this point if he was Hibiki or Souma. It did not seem to matter as much at this point. She just needed to see a familiar face. The palace was expansive and even when she tried to stick to a routine to preserve some semblance of normalcy in her life she did not often see the same faces twice.
The lack of new memories ate away at her. She never hated being alone with her own thoughts so much before. Now everything seemed like a reminder that she would never know any more about her past than she knew right now. She even imagined that the memories she did have were starting to fade away.
That might have been part of the appeal of spending time with Souma. He was a link to the past she was afraid she would lose altogether if she did not cling to it tightly. She did her best to forgive him for his deception and to put the negative associations behind her. Now that she knew she did not have anyone else she was finding it easier and easier to do. She was not sure if this was a weakness on her part or just an acceleration of what would naturally happen in time spurred on by having nothing to do with her time other than work through all of her issues.
No one bothered to explain much of anything to her. Souma continued to be as mysterious as ever. No matter how much of the truth she knew she never seemed to catch up to the level of preparedness that would unlock the rest of what he knew. She started to suspect that he knew a whole lot less than he wanted her to believe. She could understand that to a degree. She was the one that kept turning to him and expecting him to have all the answers. It was not his fault that he tried to have answers for her and did not know how to tell her that he did not have some of the answers. He tried to do it to please her and she just kept pressing him for more answers. As unfair as it was he kept silent about it and just tried to make her happy.
All she did in return was try to keep his spirits up and give him hope that he would be free again soon. Most of the time she was pretty sure he was doing more to keep her spirits up than she did for him.
They talked a lot. More often than not it was just regular talk, not planning or anything of the sort, but just talking about nothing and enjoying each other’s company.
“You know, I’m not so sure this is the standard treatment for a prisoner,” she pointed out when there was a lull in their conversation.
“You think so?” Souma asked.
“Well, I’m pretty sure that most prisoners don’t get to have visitors in their cell all day. I’m pretty sure most prisoners don’t get to have visitors in their cell with them at all.”
“Everything has been a little strange here, wouldn’t you say? I expected it to be different, but I didn’t expect everything to be so easy.”
“I wouldn’t exactly call this easy. I’m still in a jail cell and you’re, well, you’re still not allowed to leave.”
“Yeah, but I was expecting to have to put up a fight or something. I did sort of yell at King Yama that first day, but since then no one important has even bothered with me. Do you think I screwed everything up by letting him get to me?”
“It’s hard to say. I’m not exactly his biggest fan so I can’t say I’m surprised that you couldn’t get along with him or that he is pretending to ignore us now.”
“Are you sure he’s only pretending to ignore us? It feels pretty real to me.”
“You would not be free to wandering around the way you do if you weren’t being watched,” he pointed out.
That notion creeped her out, but she could not shake the feeling that he had a point there. She was sure that she was not on King Yama’s list of favorite people living in his palace at the moment yet she was free to wander here and there as she pleased without reporting to anyone where she was going or what she was doing. He had no reason to trust her and most likely did not trust her.
She was oddly okay with that because she did not trust him either. Knowing that she was being watched and possibly had no privacy to speak of did not bring her much comfort. She had no way of knowing who was watching her or how she was being watched. It made sense that it was happening, but she did not like to think that she had been so oblivious to it. She wondered who it was that was watching her. She had not noticed any particular person constantly being nearby which was probably why she had not suspected she was being watched before now. If she had picked up on the fact that one individual was watching her a little too often her paranoid mind would have started making the necessary leaps to reach the conclusion that she was being spied on.
She wondered if there was some way they could turn this to their advantage. That’s what would happen in a movie. This was not a movie though and it was really just a fluke that she even knew what was happening. She was no spy which made it even more ridiculous that she was being treated like on.
If King Yama knew anything about her at all he would realize that he had nothing to worry about. Although, she had not exactly acted in a way that would make him believe she was basically harmless since she arrived her. She made a scene and threatened and defied him. She had not been herself. Desperation had pushed her beyond her usual limits. Based on the ways he had acted she could at least understand how she could be perceived as a threat or at least an unpredictable individual. Considering how angry she had been she was surprised that she was not more restricted.
She had no illusions about being so intimidating that she forced the king’s hand. She knew even at her angriest she was still a complete and total pushover. Something else had to be happening her.
“Why do you think they would let me do whatever I wanted while spying on me?” she asked finally.
“Maybe they think they’ll get some sort of information out of you this way.”
That had no occurred to her. “What information would I have that they wouldn’t already know. I’m probably the most clueless person in the entire palace.”
“You’re the only one here that has more than a general understanding of how you work.”
“You mean the way I was gradually remembering my life as Yuzuki? But the king put a stop to that. It’s part of the reason I lost my temper with him. It’s getting harder to hold onto the memories I do have now and I haven’t remembered anything new in ages.”
“He wouldn’t have stopped it unless he was afraid of it.”
“Doesn’t that mean it was dangerous for me?”
“Rina, we know it was dangerous for you. You could have died.”
“But I got it under control.”
“Yes, but we barely understand how that happened ourselves. They know even less about it.”
“I guess you have a point.”
“Hey, there’s at least one positive to being watched at all times.”
“You won’t have to worry about being alone if you run into Takeshi. You’ve got your own personal shadow with you at all times.”
Rina shuddered. “That’s not a comforting thought at all.”
The last thing she wanted at this point was to see if she was still affected by her utter revulsion for Yuzuki’s father and tormentor. She was not sure she could handle being in the same space as him without having a breakdown. She did not understand how Yuzuki had managed to hold down her bile the way she did when he was around. Rina did not think she had the same self-control now as she did back then. Plenty of things might have changed for the better but she had lost her ability to stay strong when confronted with a terrible monster.
“Why isn’t he dead already?” she whined.
“Why would you expect him to be dead?”
“He’s old and evil. Something should have happened to him by now.”
“He’s hardly decrepit though. Evil I can’t argue with, but he’s had a long time to practice getting away with it.”
“How is he not ancient by now?”
Souma sighed and shook his head. “It takes a very, very long time for a kitsune to grow old the way a human does. If he was old don’t you think I’d be pretty old too by now?”
“You’re not nearly as old as him,” she protested.
“True, but if he looked as old as you were expecting I’d be pushing middle aged.” He leaned over into her personal space so his face was only inches away from hers. “Do I look middle-aged to you?”
She reached out and touched his cheek. It was a bit of a violation of the rules of personal space that she tried to follow when dealing with Souma. Every hour she spent around him pushed her further and further from the standards she set for herself. It was not something she did consciously. In fact, she had only caught herself once or twice so far and then realized that she had been growing more and more lax.
It was such an absurd conversation and her own reaction was just as absurd so she could not help but laugh. “Nope. No wrinkles.”
He smirked. “Good.”
“You don’t seem to be much older than I remember.”
“Good,” he said again.
He was looking at her in a way that made her seriously contemplate whether or not she wanted to move her hand away from his face or if it would end up ruining everything. She stared into his eyes and had to admit that she was finding it harder and harder to separate her feelings for Hibiki and Souma.
She finally pulled her hand back. Her mind still could not consider them one and the same. The way she was thinking and feeling still toyed with her definition of cheating and dared her to figure out just where the line was. She had no interest in pushing the boundaries of her definition right now.
She stood up and smoothed down her clothes. “We should probably figure out exactly what we’re going to do and say in front of the elders. They’re the ones that are going to decide what happens to you and I want to make a good impression.”
He nodded in agreement and they got back to work.