Cover by A. R. Shellnut
This chapter took a while. I’m not 100% sure I like the way this chapter was executed, but it told the story it needed to tell. NaNoWriMo is not the best time to try to clean up a draft. It’s hard to get my brain on the right track for creating something readable. I hope this chapter was worth the wait!
With this chapter like every other chapter, I owe a huge thank you to my fantastic supporters.
At first, the shrine to Inari did not seem to have any Tenko monitoring it closely. Considering how small and isolated the nearby village seemed to be, it probably only received the bare minimum amount of attention from Inari’s attendants. Souma knew they would not be able to go unnoticed forever, but he had hoped that they could settle in for a time before drawing unwanted attention.
They had not had nearly enough time before the Tenko started sniffing around. Yuzu noticed first. They bumped up against her barrier and unlike most beings they noticed it. She could feel them investigating, testing the limits of her abilities. As long as they were out there Souma, Yuzu and Hisako were not free to leave.
The knowledge that they were out there and they had no way of knowing just what their intentions might be weighed on all of them, but Yuzu seemed to take it the hardest. Souma wanted to do nothing more than comfort her, but she drew away whenever he came close to her.
She sat in the corner of the room, watching everything around her and looking far too strained for her condition. He watched her and she glared at him. She said nothing, but in that look, he felt her accusation. He brought her here even after she protested. He told her they would be safer here and this did not feel like safety.
He knew he had no defense against those accusing looks. He tried to make things better and in his hurry to get away from one type of danger he had managed to drag them into something that had the potential to be so much worse. She tried to warn him. She had pleaded with him not to take her away from the world they both knew and understood. His hatred of the way he was treated by the other nogitsune had spurred him to look for a place to live where he would not be judged for his heritage. The constant wars had been a concern, often an even greater concern than his feeling of ostracization.
The human world had seemed like such a good option at the time. He had not anticipated the abundance of shrines to Inari or how difficult it would be for them to exist in complete isolation. He took so many factors for granted. He knew he failed Yuzu by rushing into this. He just never expected to see her accusing him of his failure.
Seeing her look at him with such accusation in her eyes nearly broke his heart. He counted his lucky stars that Hisako discretely stayed out of their spat. He had been afraid at first that they would be butting heads a lot, but she seemed to know that he understood his part in causing Yuzu distress and did not rub his nose in it. She did not neglect Yuzu’s care for even a moment, but still miraculously managed to stay out of their relationship. Souma did not know how she managed it, but he was glad to know that he would not be fighting with both of them at once.
He resolved himself to finding some way to solve this issue before it did any more lasting damage to Yuzu’s mental or physical health. He had a responsibility to her and to their kit to keep them safe. At this point, he did not see any way of doing that other than to go out there and talk to them.
The Tenko had them trapped here. They were under siege and he needed to end the siege.
For the first time in a very long time, he hoped that he looked more like his father. It might not make a difference, but considering they had no alternatives available to them, he hoped they would be willing to cooperate with him a bit more since he looked more like them than a nogitsune.
Yuzu did not need to know he was going. He considered telling her but decided against it almost immediately. The way she looked at him these days shamed him, and the last thing he wanted to do was add worry into the mix of emotions she already had to deal with. He hoped to go out, deal with the issue and return with good news before he was missed.
He slipped out quietly, realizing when it was too late to turn back that his departure would be noticed by Yuzu since she was on high alert for anyone or anything interacting with her barrier. Their near-constant poking and prodding at the barrier might mean that she would not realize it was him crossing over from the inside.
She put more energy than usual into the barrier. Crossing it sent sparks of static electricity across his skin. Now he knew she had noticed his departure and only hoped that she would let him back in again.
The Tenko were not immediately present at the barrier. Their harassment was more of the magical variety. His appearance outside of the area protected by Yuzuki’s magic brought them out of hiding pretty quickly though.
Souma was not sure what he expected to see when he met with the Tenko, but he had not expected this sense of belonging that came with seeing kitsune that looked so much like him. It had been a long, long time since his mother finally got sick of his father’s abuse and returned to her childhood home. Since then he never came into contact with other Tenko. Even though he was half nogitsune he had never looked like one. He felt a slight thrill of hope that he might fit in for once even though he knew they were his enemy.
In all of a second, the look in the eyes of the Tenko hardened. That look of steel in their gaze cut down all hopes Souma had for acceptance. He was still an outsider here.
The four Tenko were circling, stalking, predatory. Their smiles contradicted the cold, hard look in their eyes.
The one closest to Souma spoke first. “Ah. So someone was in there. We were starting to wonder if you’d already left and forgot your barrier.”
“The barrier isn’t yours, though, is it?” Another Tenko asked.
“No. It’s not,” Souma confirmed. He was not sure what to make of them or this situation. Telling them everything at this point seemed like too much of a risk.
“I didn’t think so,” the first Tenko said with a knowing nod. “You don’t look like the sort to be hiding away good farmland from the rest of the world.”
Souma glanced around. All four of the Tenko were closing in on him now. He might be able to take a chance and sprint back to the safety of the barrier, but after the abuse Yuzu’s barrier had been suffering, he did not know if he could trust it to let him back in. He did not like the idea of leaving them out here uncontested either. If he turned and ran now it would only embolden them.
Fighting was not a viable option either. Four against one was not good odds under any circumstances, but he could sense that these Tenko were stronger than him too. Even if he fought them he could tell that he would hardly be more than a momentary distraction before they went back to trying to break through Yuzu’s magic.
Turning and running from a fight was not his style, but he did not only have himself to think about right now. He needed to put Yuzu and their kit before his pride. The only option available to him became clear. He needed to be there for Yuzu more than anything right now. Even if she was furious with him and resented him for bringing her here, he needed to be there for her.
Before the Tenko were able to fully surround him, he turned around and ran back toward the barrier.
The Tenko continued to wear away at Yuzu’s magics. Souma wished he knew why they wanted to break it down so badly. He did not know if he should suggest that she just let it go or not. All he knew was that he hated to see the strain it put on her.
The barrage against her magic had not let up once since Souma tried and failed to gain any sort of intelligence about the goals of the Tenko. He felt utterly helpless. Nothing he did seemed to improve the situation at all, but he could not sit still and do nothing either. He paced across the room, driving himself up the wall in the process.
Hisako approached him and spoke softly. “You need to calm down. You’re not doing her any good like this.”
“What can I do? I can’t fix this. I can’t make them leave.”
“Sit with her. Hold her hand and let her know that you’re here for her. She’s doing everything she can to keep them out right now, but she’s terrified and she needs your strength.”
He shook his head. “She doesn’t want me right now. She blames me for this.”
“This isn’t about what she wants. I see what this is doing to her and she needs you to be there with her.”
He nodded. Enduring her accusing glares might be uncomfortable, but he needed to support her. His discomfort was inconsequential compared to what she was enduring right now.
He crossed the room and sat down next to her. Up close, he could see the strain she was under on her face. This could not be good for the kit and it certainly was not good for Yuzu. She was completely focused on the task of maintaining the barrier at the moment and did not seem to even react to his presence. He took her hand in his and gave it a reassuring squeeze. He relaxed the slightest bit when he felt her squeeze back.
“I’m so sorry Yuzu.”
The intense veil of focus slipped off her face and she came back to the present, physical world to speak with him. “It’s not your fault.”
“I brought you here and now I can’t protect you.”
She smiled sadly. “Well, now I get to protect you. I’ve wanted to be useful for so long and now I guess I finally get to have what I wished for.”
“I wish I could do this for you.”
“I know. If I could, I would let you do it now.”
“Maybe we should stop resisting. I’m worried about you and the kit.”
She glared at him, fire in her eyes. “No. We can’t give up. We can’t give in and just hope that they’re going to be decent. Not after all this. Not after we fought them like this.”
“Yuzu,” he approached this carefully. “I don’t like to see you putting yourself under this kind of strain while in your condition.”
“Don’t you think I’ve considered that? I’ve just got to hope they’ll give up and leave soon. I’m not giving up so they’re going to decide it isn’t worth the trouble soon.”
“Maybe they won’t be so bad. They might not want to hurt us. We don’t know.”
“When has a Tenko ever been decent to a nogitsune? They hate us.”
Souma realized he was doing a really poor job of comforting her. At best he was just distracting Yuzu and making her job that much more difficult. Instead of continuing the argument he elected to just keep his mouth shut and try to keep her supported to the best of his ability.
Soon she leaned on him. He would have liked for her to relax, but he settled for her at least using him for a bit of physical support.
Time dragged on and nothing much seemed to hang. He could not see from his current vantage point whether the barrier was holding its own or if the Tenko were pushing in on their land. He mostly just watched Yuzu.
He could barely believe how stubborn she was being, but he had to acknowledge that he had no way of stopping her. He could beg and plead with her, but nothing he said seemed to weaken her resolve to hold their ground.
He drew her closer so he could hold her in his arms, unsure even in his own mind whether his goal was to comfort her or himself. He breathed a sigh of relief when he felt her relax against him, but from the look on her face, he noted that her concentration remained unbroken.
Although he was afraid of what might happen, he found himself wishing over and over again in his mind that she would give up on the barrier and let herself rest. He wanted nothing more than to protect her. He might not be able to succeed, but he was strong enough to try. He was not strong enough to watch her do this to herself.
Pulling her closer, trying to sooth her in any way he could, he did his best to get her to relax. He nuzzled her neck and felt a hitch in her breath.
“Yuzu,” he began softly before being interrupted by a painful gasp. “What’s wrong?” he asked more forcefully.
She shook her head as tears ran down her cheeks. Souma’s mind began racing through all the possibilities of what might be causing her pain.
“Yuzu, are you okay? Is it the baby?”
Hisako was at her side now. The concerned look on her face grew grim as she checked on her patient.
“Boil water. Now. Then wait outside until you’re called for.”
The last thing he wanted to do was leave Yuzu’s side, but he dared not disobey Hisako, particularly not when her order was barked to him in such a tone. He got water and sat it on the fire to boil. He suppressed his curiosity and resisted the urge to look over at Yuzu and Hisako. As much as he wanted to know what was happening, he was also afraid to know.
He could not block his ears while he worked. He heard Yuzu crying and tried not to think about what that meant. He hurried up and stepped outside to hopefully clear his mind of the swirling possibilities.
Outside he had not expected to see much different from usual. Yuzu’s barrier was readily visible now. He never saw it as more than a faint shimmer if he was near it and the lighting was right, but now it was fully visible, still transparent but full of visible energy waves pulsating along the perimeter.
It was difficult to see beyond the barrier with it like this. With his heart racing and his own eyes filling up with tears, he found it difficult to see much of anything at all.
He took a few calming breaths and the tears cleared from his eyes. Beyond the odd, pearly glimmer of the barrier he realized he could see the Tenko outside the barrier, seemingly just waiting for it to fall. They were much, much closer than they should have been. The barrier was closer to their home than it had been originally. He doubted Yuzu reduced the size of the territory she protected voluntarily.
He could not see what the Tenko were doing, but he instinctively knew they were the ones pushing in the barrier. They tried to break it and when Yuzu proved to be even stronger than them they pushed it instead.
They were torturing her. He did not even understand why they were doing all of this. Yes. There was the rivalry and the hatred that seemed to have no beginning or end between the two groups of kitsune, but he could not imagine any reason why this should apply to him or to Yuzu.
The Tenko seemed a bit closer. Souma wondered if he had made things worse by trying to speak with them. He certainly had not made things any better by talking to them, but he could not imagine it getting any worse. Talking to them again hardly seemed like it would make difference and he did not know if he would ever have the chance to try anyway.
He wanted to tell Yuzu to stop. He had no idea what would happen if the barrier came down, but he could see now that she was killing herself keeping it up. He did not trust the Tenko in the least, but he was more afraid for her.
The sight before him was more than he could bear to watch. Without caring whether he would be kicked out of his own home again, he turned around and went back inside. He needed to plead with Yuzu to stop torturing herself. As stubborn as she was, he still hoped that he could reason with her and spare her any more pain.
The mood outside seemed tense to him until he stepped back inside. The air in here was thick with worry and overwhelming smelled of blood and tears. Souma swallowed thickly, immediately sensing that he was entering an area where he was not needed or welcome.
He expected to be chased from the room immediately, but Hisako was too focused on her work to take any notice of him and Yuzu, his wonderful Yuzu, seemed to be beyond noticing anything at all around her. His willpower and determination faltered as he tried and failed to take in the scene before him.
His fear grounded him in place. Time seemed to stand still. A sound like a loud crack of thunder followed by a wave of energy that made his hair stand on end broke the spell.
The barrier was gone. Without even knowing what had happened he realized this. His first reaction was a wave of relief, realizing that the barrier going down meant that Yuzu had one less source of stress on her mind and body. Half a second later he realized there was nothing stopping the Tenko from rushing in here right now.
He rushed back outside so quickly that he felt a bit dizzy when he stopped again. Oddly enough the Tenko were not rushing forward. They remained just as far away as before, as though they were not aware the barrier had been broken, even though it had disappeared with such fanfare that it could not have been missed.
All of it seemed to strange to him. Their goals remained unfathomable to him. He realized he did not care as long as they were not an immediate threat.
He wanted to be sure Yuzu knew everything was fine. Her distress would be relieved once she knew the Tenko were not attacking them. Once she knew she could calm down and everything would be fine again.
With one final glance at the Tenko, he turned around once again to go back inside. This time he had good news to share and he could not wait to share it.
Hisako came over to him and he felt his heart skip a beat. She needed to be a Yuzu’s side and her leaving to speak to him for any reason at all right now had to be a bad sign. He tried to brace himself but found it to be impossible.
“Souma,” she began. “You need to go to Yuzuki now. I’m still trying to stop the bleeding, but I need you to keep her here with us.”
He nodded mutely and rushed to Yuzu’s side. He took her hand in his and squeeze it gently. Her eyelids fluttered open and she gazed up at him. His chest felt tight and he felt as though he could not breathe when he realized how weak and frail she was now.
The scent of her blood was everywhere. Now he felt certain that was what stopped the Tenko. They came here to do harm and harm was done, possibly more harm than they could have planned.
“It’s going to be okay,” he assured her.
She smiled back at him while such sadness filled her eyes that he knew he could not fool her into believing his words.
He tried to keep his composure and continued to talk to her as Hisako worked. He hoped the midwife could perform a miracle here, but his nose told him Yuzu was not just losing blood, but her life as well.
He knew he was speaking mostly nonsense, but he was afraid of what would happen when he stopped. He was not ready to lose her. He wanted to plead with her to stay with him but did not want to cause her any more pain by begging her to do the impossible.
“No matter what happens, I will always love you.”
Souma stayed with her and felt her slip away. He could not believe it. He would not accept it. Hisako tried to comfort him and tried to explain, but he heard none of it. Explanations meant nothing to him. His mind was already turning to finding a solution.