Cover by A. R. Shellnut
NaNoWriMo is here! My time is now being split between two projects. It’s chaos, but I’m loving it. The end of this novel is coming, but I’m still not ready to commit to a total number of chapters. It will happen very soon, though.
In the meantime, you can read the rough draft of Inbetween on my Patreon page. The second draft of that novel will start going live on this blog once The Dreams is completed.
With this chapter like every other chapter, I owe a huge thank you to my fantastic supporters.
Rina sat in stunned silence. Apparently, testimony for the day was now over. The others that had filled the great hall were starting to file out. She had not been prepared for the testimony to be Souma’s memories. His grief and desperation left her feeling too drained to immediately get up and follow the crowd out.
None of them were affected by it quite the way she was. None of them were connected to the memory like her, and if she was going to place a bet she would put it on none of them experiencing the recovery of memories that should be long gone quite the way she did.
As the utterly overwhelming sensations started to ebb away she found herself with more questions than ever. Her frustration over the loss of her past life memories bubbled to the surface. As much as she had feared discovering what would happen once she reached the point of her previous death, she could not help but feel as though she was being deprived of a serious part of herself once again.
Souma’s memory had done nothing to reveal to her how Yuzuki had died, but it did confirm that she had passed away and left Souma so grief-stricken that he went on to commit a crime that had led to one disaster after another in both their lives. She was sure that she should be angry about all the trouble she had been forced to go through, but now that she had experienced the memory of his grief and despair along with him, and with her ever hazier memories of life as Yuzuki she felt as though she could understand why he had acted in such a hasty manner.
Neither of them had anyone else in their life. Losing Yuzuki had been the same as losing his whole world. Rina had friends and family waiting for her at home and the idea of losing Hibiki was still unimaginable. If she did not have the people she had in her life she would be even more desperate to keep the one person she did have. She realized even now Souma still centered his life around Yuzuki. He remained completely dedicated to her and her happiness and did everything he could to protect her from any sort of suffering.
All she had been doing lately was running headlong into the sort of pain that he had hoped to spare her. The more she learned the more she wanted to know. It would mean even more suffering on her part and it might very well be torture for Souma as well, but she would never be able to get closure and move on with her life if she did not learn what she now knew she needed to know.
She needed to know about her death so she could finally understand just why Souma had been so determined to set things right again by stopping her from being reincarnated like any other soul.
Her realization came too late as they had already taken Souma back to his cell. She glanced around the room and realized she did not see a single friendly face. Mori had disappeared sometime between her entry into the hall and now. She was not sure if she was surprised or not. He seemed to be satisfied with causing trouble and being paid for his time and trouble in the form of unusual stories. A trial was hardly the right place for someone like him. There were too many rules and having one’s stories turned into a matter of public record made them too common to be of interest to a collector of strange life experiences.
As she got up and made her way out of the hall she became aware of at least one set of eyes watching her every move. She could not say for sure who was watching her, but she could not shake the feeling of dread that settled into the pit of her stomach. Someone was watching her and their intentions for her were full of ill will.
She wanted to go to Souma. She had dozens of questions she needed to ask him and she was sure that he was in need of some comfort and support after being forced to share such a personal memory with all of those people. As long as she felt those eyes watching her and following her she would not go to see him. Whoever it was, they were not someone she wanted to have around Souma if he was in as fragile of a state as she thought he must be.
Instead, she went back to her room. It was not ideal and it delayed her plans, but she felt as though it would be safer for Souma as well as for herself if she did not bring any more wild cards into the current mess.
Even after she left the immediate area filled with busy oni and others that were still milling about after the trial ended for the day, she felt as though she was being watched and followed. She tried walking faster. It did not good. She still senses that she was being watched and being followed.
The sensation was unnerving. Her gut told her she was in trouble, but she had no idea how to get out of it. She wished she knew where Mori ran off to. Even if she could not say for sure what his motivations might be at this point she would be glad to just not be alone in this hallway.
That seemed to be a pointless wish at this point. She was on her own with this lovely stalker. Instead of heading back to her room she decided to change direction and head to the jail to see Souma. At least then she would not be alone.
She resisted the urge to walk faster. She thought it would be better if she acted as though she was oblivious to the danger. At least then she had some sort of advantage, as small as it might be.
She rounded another corner and hoped beyond hope that she was going to be able to get away from her stalker. She made it about three steps down this new hallway before her arm was grabbed and she was spun around to face the last person she ever wanted to see.
“Well, well. Look at what you let him do to you, Yuzuki,” Takeshi said in a hissing whisper.
Rina’s gaze darted around, desperately hoping to spot anyone that might be around to see this so she could beg them to help her get away from him. Of course, he had waited until they were completely isolated to make his move. This was not his first time being a complete and total creep so he knew what he was doing in this sort of situation.
All Rina wanted at this point was to find a bit of courage, maybe even some left over courage from all the times Yuzuki had managed to survive her confrontations with Takeshi. Those long buried mental scars were now springing up freshly to the surface as though they were not literally from another lifetime. She could not and would not forget the pain and suffering he had inflicted on her. She remembered all of the nights she spent unable to sleep for fear of him appearing above her once she closed her eyes. These were no longer the fears of some distant, long gone bogeyman. He stood before her in the flesh and her every nerve sensed the threat he posed.
She tried to jerk her arm from his grip, but his hold on her arm was too firm. Her effort did not go unnoticed. Her stomach tied up into knots at the sight of his sadistic smile. His fingers squeezed her arm just a bit tighter. He wanted to get a reaction out of her. She did her best to remain stoic.
There seemed to be no point in pretending he had the wrong person. Certainly, he saw the flash of recognition in her eyes and even if he missed that she was positive he must have been present at the trial and realized what her connection to Souma meant.
Her stoic lack of a response did not do much to deter him. At least she could take some solace in the knowledge that she had given him no new ammunition to use against her. That did nothing to stop him from looking at her in a way that made her skin crawl and her mouth to go dry with apprehension.
“It’s a shame he made you human,” he said slowly as he traced a finger along her jawline.
She leaned away from him, but only managed to pull back a few inches before his fingers tightened until they were digging into muscles in her arm. She wanted to scream, but her voice seemed to have run away without her. She wanted to have the courage to bite those fingers that thought they had the right to come anywhere near her face.
Her fear translated into increased courage on Takeshi’s part. Now he knew just how much of an advantage he had over her.
His fingers finished their trek along her jaw and moved to the back of her neck. He drew her closer, the proximity of his hand to her spinal column was more than an adequate reminder that he was more than capable of snapping her neck. Throughout this, he did not take his eyes off of her. He seemed to be studying her and she did not think she would like to know the reason behind his study.
“Humans are so dull, don’t you think?” He was close enough now that she could actually feel the power radiating off of him.
If he drew her in any closer she would be pressed up against him. She could feel the inevitability of that but hoped to find a way to avoid it nonetheless. Her panic continued to render her mute and without her voice, she felt as though she lacked even a basic weapon in her arsenal.
“Your coloring is so washed out. It’s like humans never learned how to live properly. Not that you ever lived properly before, Yuzuki.” His fingers were entwined in her hair now. He grabbed her hair at the base of her skull and pulled.
She yelled in surprise and he seemed to relish the sound.
“Maybe you got what you deserved. Now you can be weak and powerless rather than just a waste of potential.”
He let go of her and shove her back with enough force to knock her off balance and onto the floor. Her legs felt liquefied so she stayed where she landed, but could not stop herself from glaring up at him.
The disdain she saw in his eyes sent a tremor of fear through her that he might just kill her here and now.
“I guess you’ll have to wait a while. I wouldn’t want to break you before this show is over,” he said before turning back the way he came.
Rina tried to avoid thinking about what he meant while she waited to regain the use of her legs.
She was shocked that he let her go. She did not even want to think of what might have happened when Takeshi grabbed her. She remembered him doing far, far worse in the past, but she could not fathom why he had let her go. She assumed it had something to do with her humanity. He disliked the fact that she was human now. For the first time in a long while, she found herself feeling immensely grateful that she was a human being. In many ways, it was a distinct disadvantage in this place, and really not that much of an advantage in a world full of humans, if she was going to be honest about it. At least it made her less of a target for cruelty stemming from Takeshi’s weird ideas about power and beauty.
The incident still had her shaking. She did not know if she had the fortitude now to turn around and go back to her room. She was not even sure that she would be safe if she did that. Takeshi had stalked off in that direction. Even if he had not done too much damage this time she did not want to know what he would do if he was given another chance to mess with her.
For now the best course of action as far as she could see would be to continue on the way she had been going. Even if she had not originally intended to go to Souma so soon she felt as though she would be safer there with him in a jail cell than she would be anywhere else at the moment.
With an increased sense of purpose, she continued on her way. Everything seemed to be normal again until she reached the jail itself. The jailers had grown used to her visits during her brief time in the palace and while they were not on particularly friendly terms, she always felt as though she had been treated at least with civility and possibly even kindness, but now they seemed distant and almost cold towards her. No one would look her in the eye and their usual short responses to her were now clipped to the point that she almost recoiled and wondered what she had done wrong.
No one escorted her even held the heavy metal door open for her once it was unlocked. The simple act of unlocking the door was treated as though it was a great deal of effort to exert on someone such as her. With no one walking back to Souma’s cell with her, she had no way of getting inside to sit with him. This small bit of comfort she had not realized until now she had been longing for was suddenly and abruptly missed.
Something had changed today. It had been apparent by the attempts to bar her from the trial and now once again it was clear that she had fallen out of someone’s favor. She had not interacted with anyone new or anyone with any sort of influence at all lately so it did not make sense for her to be shunned and punished now rather than immediately after she had insulted King Yama.
She focused on sorting through her social interactions over the last few days to see if she could remember anything that might have seemed insignificant at the time but might shed some light on her current situation now that she knew she was no longer being shown any sort of favor. Her initial assessment seemed to be correct. No matter how hard she tried she could not remember doing anything to offend anyone at all let alone someone with the influence to bar her from the trial and to convince the guards to treat her less kindly. This bit of distraction at least kept her mind off of the cells she was walking by.
Being escorted down here afforded her the advantage of being protected by authority from the occupants of the cells. Going down the hall alone was enough to make her be conscious that she was staying in the very center of the hall and as far away from the voices and arms on either side.
Reaching Souma’s cell was a great relief. It meant an end to her journey and a bit of safety and comfort, even if it would not be as much as she originally wished to have. She was relieved to see that he still looked as well as ever, which was to say a bit gloomy from being cooped up and kept in a pressure cooker of stress.
At least he looked glad to see her. That was finally something that had not been turned on its head by this day. She did not like the undercurrent of worry she immediately spotted in his eyes.
“Something happened.” He waited for her to explain.
The last thing Rina wanted to do was tell him that there was trouble with Takeshi again. To her mind, at least Takeshi was still a constant, looming threat that somehow managed to spill over from one life to the next. Souma had enough on his mind now, and she did not want to be the one to remind him that he was less able to protect her than ever before.
She shook her head, not to deny his statement, but to clear her own mind so she could find something for them to discuss that could take them both away from this day. They both had enough worries without compounding them with more troubles neither of them could do anything to relieve.
“At the trial,” she began hesitantly, not sure if this was the best way to bring something up, but still in need of a way to approach a new topic. “How did they make us experience your memory like that?”
He sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know if is that place or King Yama himself, but something in there has the power to bring out memories and share them with all others present.”
“So you couldn’t just share a memory with me now, right?”
“You know I can’t do that. It’s just not within my power.”
She sighed. Expecting him to residually still have that ability was a bit of a stretch, but a part of her had still hoped that he might be able to do it. She wanted so much to be able to slip out of this time and into the past, even if the past would only end up making her miserable in a different way. It had been wrong for her to hope to ask this of him anyway. Remembering those times was as good as a method of torture for him. She could feel his regrets over his past choices even now. Going back to that time only served to reopen old wounds and she could tell that his injuries were only just barely healed over anyway.
He seemed curious about her question at least. He reached through the bars and took her hand in his. She gave his hand a squeeze and he squeezed back. Without a word they arranged themselves so they were sitting together, close even though the bars still separated them.
Once they were settled in and the flurry of thought that tried to erupt from Rina’s mind calmed down again, Souma spoke again. His voice was hushed, as though he did not want anyone else to hear this conversation more than any other they had while here.
“What did you want me to remember for you?”
Hearing him ask made her ashamed. She knew exactly what she wanted to know, but she did not want to ask it of him. Without a question, this memory would end up hurting both of them, but she needed to know so she could finally get past it and start thinking about her future.
“I wanted to know how Yuzuki died,” she told him in the faintest of whispers while trying her hardest to avoid meeting his eyes.
“Why?” He asked the question as though he expected her to be able to explain something as unexplainable as a desire to know and understand the circumstances of her own death.
“I need to know. I’m sorry. I know it’s not something you’d like to remember, but I can’t remember for myself anymore and I can’t just move on and let this go now that I know so much and I know the things you did to bring me back.”
“I don’t want to remember that. I don’t want to burden you with it.”
She paused to gather up her thoughts so she could best explain why she wanted to torture herself like this. It was not easy to explain, particularly since she wanted to avoid going into the details of her reasoning for now.
“I’m already burdened with it. Do you have any idea what it is like to know something happened that is so awful that no one wants to talk about it and only having guesses and theories to go on? I’m tired of being the only one being out of the loop.”
Souma sighed and she knew he would cave in. She waited. It might not be the same as getting a first person view of his memories, but she would gladly settle for story time at this point. She needed answers and they both needed a distraction.