Cover by A. R. Shellnut
I’m so happy to finally post this chapter. We’re closing in on the end of the story!
With this chapter, like every other chapter, I owe a huge thank you to my fantastic supporters. If you want to support my writing and help my creations go from first draft to maybe someday a real book you can hold in your hands, head over to my Patreon.
Souma’s story ended and Rina found herself speechless. She knew Yuzuki had died and she had some idea of how it might have happened, but hearing Souma’s account of it made her heart ache. She could not bring herself to mourn for her past life, but she felt Souma’s pain through his retelling. She wanted to reach out to him, to comfort him, but the bars prevented her from doing much more than reaching through to hold his hand.
She gave his hand a gentle squeeze to remind him that she was still here. He looked up at her and smiled, but the shimmer of tears in his eyes spoke volumes. She was the replacement of the one he lost and she was not nearly similar enough to the original.
As much as she wanted to comfort him, she realized she needed some time alone to process this. Being with him right now was giving her an inferiority complex.
“Thank you for telling me what happened,” she whispered. “I know it wasn’t easy for you to tell me and I’m sorry I made you relive it. I’m just glad I finally know.”
“You deserved to know the truth.”
She struggled to find the words she wanted to say to express both her concern for him and her need to be alone to process this. She was afraid he would think she was upset with him for telling her if she left so soon.
With a deep breath, she prepared to tell him. “I just need some time alone to process information. Please don’t think I’m upset with you or anything. I just… I just need to think.”
“It’s okay. I understand.”
She nodded and waited a moment or two before getting up to leave. She thought her overeagerness to go might hurt him. Of all the things she wanted, hurting Souma was not one of them.
“I’m going to go,” she announced as she stood up. She hovered for another moment, unsure if she was ready to go or not. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Take care, Rina.”
“Thank you,” she said softly before turning and leaving.
She did her best to keep her composure while walking through the halls. Even after walking this route multiple times she did not trust herself to make the trip with her vision blurred and her mind preoccupied with who might see her in such a state. She held herself together by promising that she could cry and process everything once she was in the safety of her room with four walls and a solid door between her and the rest of the world.
By the time she came around the final corner before she could duck into her room she was desperate to finally get away from any potentially scrutinizing eyes. She could feel the emotion starting to well up to the surface as soon as she reached the door.
Beyond that door, she did not find the safe haven she had hoped for. Her few personal items were scattered around the room and the furniture and decor were disturbed and damaged as well. The room was ripped to shreds.
A chill of panic raced up and down her spine. The damage terrified her, which was surely the desired result. This had to be more retribution along the same lines as whatever shew as being punished for all day long.
With nowhere else to go, she resigned herself to cleaning up the mess as best as she could to put it behind her. She was not at all sure that she was safe in this room now, but she was feeling too insecure at the moment to try going back out into the hall. She admitted that she did not think she would feel all the much safer spending the night on the floor outside of Souma’s cell if she would even be permitted to do such a thing.
There was not much she could do about the things that were genuinely destroyed. She piled them up in the corner where she could ignore them to the best of her ability. She sadly lost the only pillow to the destruction. Instead, she bunched up a blanket and buried her face in that and let the tears go.
The tears drained her. She felt weak. Physically and mentally she felt the tears sap away all of her energy. She expected to cry herself to sleep, but the tears dried up and she was wide awake. Her mind and body both begged for sleep, for a chance to recharge, but her heart was hard at work trying to sort through what she now knew. She had Souma’s side of the story and her need for closure had been sated for a time, but now she found her heart trying to figure out Yuzu’s thoughts and feelings at the same time. She imagined fear and pain, but also knew without a doubt that her imagination did not cover even half of it.
She pushed herself up. Laying in bed and thinking this way was only making herself feel worse. She needed water, but that would require venturing back out into the hall, which she knew she could not handle at all at this time. She scrubbed her face with her sleeve and tried to take some deep breaths to recover some strength in her arms and legs.
She felt lost now that the tears were gone. She did not know if she had finished processing things or not. After all the tears there was just a numb emptiness left in the wake of the sadness. She could not tell if she needed more time to be sure that the tears were gone for good or if she needed to get moving again to get back the feeling of being a whole human being.
The room seemed like a terrible place to replenish herself, but she did not think there was anywhere she could go at the point that would make her feel any better. The location was not the issue. This was her own bleak state of mind making everything worse than it needed to be.
The room’s walls seemed to be much closer together now. Whether is was purely a trick of her mind or a result of the clutter that she could not gather up the willpower to clean up, she could not yet tell. She paced across the room, counting her steps and confirming for her own peace of mind that she was not in a shrinking room. Having something to do, even something this pointless and nearly mindless, seemed to do a lot to help her from feeling so desperately sad and alone in the world.
Now she thought about things long and hard enough she realized she needed to be with Souma, and she was sure that he did not particularly want to be alone right now either. She had been afraid of expressing her sadness in front of him, of being so vulnerable in an exposed place where just about anyone could see and hear her. Reflecting on it now, her worries seemed silly and selfish. She felt as though she could not make it right now, and that just added to the swirl of confusing emotions she had to deal with.
Her spiral did not get to last for too long as the sound of the door to her room opening stopped her thoughts dead in their tracks. She turned on her heel, unsure of what she should even expect to see at the door. No one entered without knocking, no one normally knocked at all while she was in. After she came in to see the room ripped to pieces today, particularly after her cold treatment by almost everyone all day long, she had a bit of what she felt was justified paranoia toward anyone that came into her personal bubble now.
Of all the possibilities she had entertained in her mind, many of which had seemed like disasters at the time, suddenly seemed like favorable options when she noticed Takeshi entering her room. She wanted to run, but there was nowhere to run. She wanted to at least back up into a corner and get as far away from him as possible, but her traitorous body kept her frozen in place.
The terror that raced from her eyes directly to the primal part of her brain refused to allow her to budge, even as the higher parts of her mind started racing through possible scenarios. Whatever he wanted, it could not be a good thing for her. Now she was positive she was too isolated to hope for much help and too friendless in this place to think that anyone would bother to help if they knew.
Takeshi’s face was darkened by anger. Rina could only guess what she had done now to reignite his interest in her. Her assumption that she would be ignored by him now, the assumption that his interest in her was diminished after he determined that she was more human than kitsune now. After their last confrontation, she had been sure that she would not have to deal with him again since he considered her to be too far beneath him. Yet, here he was back in her life again after such a short time and somehow he had managed to become even more terrifying in no time at all.
He loomed like a storm cloud now. His presence filled the room and she felt as though she would suffocate as his negative energy filled her lungs.
“You little bitch,” he seethed as he crossed the room.
The muscles that had frozen her in place were not propelling her backward until she slammed into the wall. The back of her head hit the wall and while she managed to miss biting her tongue, she briefly saw stars. With nowhere else to go, she had to find new reserves of courage on the fly.
He continued to stalk across the room and her traitorous eyes were darting to the right and to the left looking for somewhere else to go. She sidled along the wall and tried to remove herself from his direct back. He might have been overwhelmingly enraged, but it did not blind him to her movements.
“You’re a traitor.”
She did not know what to say. She did not know how to argue with him. At this point, she did not know if it was safe for her to speak. There was so much anger in his expression that she thought that her voice might push him over the edge. The way he did not seem to react at all to the mess around the room made her think that he had been here before, that he had been the one that had trashed the room. Apparently, that had not been enough and now he was back to terrorize and berate her. If she was lucky that would be all he would do. She realized she needed a more definitive plan to get out of this alive and as close to unscathed as possible.
“I’m a traitor?”
She had not meant to say it as a question. As soon as she did she realized that this might sound like a challenge. With him this enraged, she did not know what she hoped to accomplish by asking him a question.
“You used to be one of us. And now you’ve gone over to him. It’s disgusting.”
He seemed to be a little distracted by his tirade. She tried her best to make a run for it. His attention did not appear to be divided enough though and when she tried to dart past him, he grabbed her roughly by the arm.
She tried to pull away, but his grip only tightened. She tried twisting around to get away, but his other hand grabbed her throat and he pushed her back against the wall.
Her heart raced but her mind froze. Her body was tightly wound and poised to defend herself, but her mind refused to allow her to budge. This sort of threat was an entirely new experience for her. She had not lived a life that would prepare her for such events. She regretted never taking martial arts classes in the past. She never thought it would make a difference one way or the other. Even if she did know what to do it was still up in the air whether knowing what to do would translate into her mind allowing her to do it in a situation like this.
He leaned in close and Rina found herself unable to look away from his bright blue eyes. She did not know what to do. She did not know if she could even speak like this.
“I knew you were a selfish little whore, but I didn’t think you’d betray me like this.”
She was pressed up against the wall with nowhere else to go. His body was uncomfortably close to her, touching her. Her breath hitched in her throat, but her thoughts finally broke free.
Fighting back might not be easy at this point, but she could at least still speak. She glared at him as well as she could from such a close distance. The effect was most likely lackluster, but it was the best she could manage at the moment.
“I’m not a whore,” she insisted in a smaller voice than she had hoped to use. She just counted herself lucky that she was able to keep her voice steady as she spoke. A wavering voice would have given away too much of her fear and she needed to fool herself into thinking that she was calmer and more confident than she was in reality.
“You are,” he growled and slammed his hand against the wall.
“I’m not a whore for being with one person, a person I love.”
“You’re a whore for wanting to be with trash. You’re a traitor for turning to him.”
Rina could not even guess what he was going on about. She certainly thought that understanding his logic would be a detriment to her own mental well being. His hold on her loosened by a fraction and she reflexively jerked herself away from him. She almost stopped out of awe of her own success when she managed to get out of his grip.
She got a grip before it was too late and ran for the door. Takeshi was a fraction of a second behind her. She could not feel her footfalls on the floor as she tried her hardest to get out of here and get to any place that might have a chance of having other people in it. She might be a bit less popular than she had been before for whatever reason, but she was sure that she would not be left to fend for herself if he attacked her in plain sight. It was just a matter of getting that far now.
She made it all the way across the room and to the still open door before Takeshi caught up to her. He grabbed her arm and her momentum caused her to swing into the door frame. Her back and her shoulder ached from the impact, but she still struggled to pull away from him.
His grip on her arm tightened painfully, denying her the opportunity to escape. He grabbed her chin and forced her to look at him.
“Don’t think you can run away from me, stupid bitch. I’m not going to let you go over to him. I’ll kill you before I let you do that.”
Her heart raced and her mind panicked because she knew he meant it. She never thought of herself as one to faint under stress, but she could feel herself starting to slip into unconsciousness now. It was just too much for her mind and her body to handle at once. She figured it would be better not to be present for another occasion of her death today.
She blacked out and hit him. She only knew she had hit him because her hand stung and he had a red mark on his cheek. She had no memory of doing it, but the clues were there bright as day. She wished she had not done it. Takeshi’s eyes blazed with anger now.
She had been terrified before and now she realized it could have been so much worse. She made it so much worse.
The best she could do now was try to remain calm and not allow herself to black out again. Now that she knew what she was capable of doing when she was not paying attention to herself she did not want to risk it again. She had a feeling things were about to become even more dangerous for her now. It would be a struggle, but she needed to hold it together and only act in a rational manner. Anything else would dig her into deeper trouble.
His grip on her arm was more than hard enough to bruise. He had her arms pinned down so she did not have the option or the opportunity to hit him again. She would not have dared to try the same tactic again consciously anyway, but the rage she saw on her face and the pain from the way he was gripping her arms told her that she would not be able to avoid fighting him now.
The thought terrified her. She did not know if she had it in her, not while she was aware of what she was doing, at least. At this point, she did not even know if she had the nerve left to speak. Her gut instincts told her that she should be quiet. She remembered that he did not like to feel like he was being ignored. She remembered that arguing with him only added fuel to the fire.
She remembered things that should not have ever applied to her life now. Those memories should have been left in the past along with everything else from her former life, but now everything seemed relevant again. She hated it.
Not all that long ago she believed her memories of her past life were still in the past. She saw it as a distinct separation. She took comfort in that separation. Then Hibiki was Souma and the rest of the wall she had between the two lives came crashing down.
As far as she knew she was still Rina. Rina was human. Rina was a student. Rina was normal. A part of her was Yuzuki though. She tried to deny it as much as possible. She hated the blur of the past and the present. She wanted to know what she was. She wanted to be confident in her own identity. The blurred lines and confusion in her own mind irritated her.
Irritation did not properly cover the depth of her feelings. Irritation was what she felt when she felt when she got stuck with an early morning class in college because the later session of the class filled up already. This was more than irritation. This was not something comparable to the rest of her life experiences. This was life and death.
She should be outraged. She had every right. She was being stalked, harassed and threatened by a monster that did not even belong in her life. Takeshi was supposed to be Yuzuki’s problem. As long as she maintained her identity as Rina these artifacts from her past life had no right to interfere and ruin this life.
She decided to get angry. She needed to be angry now and harness that overpowering emotion to get herself out of this dire situation. If she was lucky then she would be able to fix some things, or perhaps just burn everything to the ground and find a way to forge her way ahead by building up her life and her identity from the ground up.
Once again she considered the fact that her arms were held down, of no use to her right now and in fact the way they were being held down was the source of pain and discomfort for her right now. She took that pain and added it to her anger. She might not have much to work with, but she had that at least. Her skin when from cold to burning as she built up her offensive power.
Her arms were useless to her right now. Takeshi made sure of that after she managed to successfully attack him with her hand once. She realized, even though she was sorely lacking in experience in using her body as a weapon, that she did have other limbs and body parts available that were capable of dealing damage.
Her legs, in particular, seemed like a good option. She might not be a particularly strong person in general, but she knew that she had a lot more force behind a kick than she did in a slap or a punch. The most vital part would be in not giving herself away before she figured out the best way to give him a good kick.
She knew she was over-thinking all of this and most people in similar circumstances would just act. She could not stop herself from thinking everything through carefully.
Thinking carefully while allowing herself to become as angry as possible proved to be more difficult than Rina originally estimated. She started to realize how easy it was to just let her body take care of the threat at hand without involving or consulting her brain. Her body wanted to act to ensure her survival or at least put up a good fight before she met her fate while her brain would happy to waste hours upon hours hypothesizing what might happen if she selected one course of action over another, but never allowed her to actually take the theory out for a practical test.
She swung her leg upward, intending to hit Takeshi in his most vulnerable area, but missed, hitting him hard in the thigh instead. She tried not to let her failure deter her. Any retaliation on her part appeared to catch him off guard. She decided to roll with it instead of trying to pause and regroup.
While he was shocked by her second attempt to harm him, she pulled away from him. His grip on her had loosened ever so slightly and she was able to free her arms. His proximity to her still prevented her from having a clear escape route, but she pushed against him and increased the space and then she ran for it.
Without even stopping to consider which of the two directions would be a better, safer option, Rina took off down the hall. Her need to get away from Takeshi spurred her to move faster than she thought possible. She still feared it would not be fast enough. She knew she was physically outclassed, and currently, she did not see any opportunities to outsmart him.
With no one in sight, she found herself hoping for a corner. She thought if she could get around a corner she stood a better chance of escaping, but now there seemed to be so much more of a straight run than she remembered.
Finally, she spotted an intersection up ahead. She dared not look behind her. She had no doubt that Takeshi was chasing after her. He said it would kill her and she was certain that he had not changed his mind in the meantime. She pushed herself a little harder, found some reserve of strength and energy that she had not been able to tap into before and ran just a bit faster so she could turn that corner and hope that there was someone or something to save her in the next hallway.
She turned the corner, nearly falling over when she did not attempt to slow down as she changed direction. Somehow she managed to stop herself from toppling over and tried to keep going. The turn seemed to rattle her brain more than a bit and she started to feel dizzy.
She wished she had exercised more since she regained the energy to do so, but she never seemed to have the time to fit it in. Now she had a lot of regrets about not doing enough to keep herself in good physical shape. She knew she could not keep up this pace for much longer. Once she stopped she would be caught again and Takeshi would be even angrier and she would have no more energy left to rally another round of resistance. Getting caught now might as well be a death sentence.
That knowledge kept her going past her limit. Adrenaline forced her to keep going well past the point of breathlessness and screaming muscles. This little extra boost would not last for long. She could not even think about that. She could not think at all. She was driven by pure instinct to move forward and survive.
She thought she was paying attention to where she was going, but that did not stop her from slamming into what felt like a brick wall. She went down from the impact and finally had a chance to take in her surroundings. Her hearing was impaired by the sound of her heartbeat racing in her eardrums, but her eyes seemed to be working fine again.
The brick wall she hit had not been a wall at all, but a persona nd she had knocked him down just as much as she had knocked herself down. She blinked once. She knew this person. Relief flooded her heart and soul. Of all the people she could run into she could not imagine a better person than Mori.
She knew Takeshi was right behind her. She could feel his rage even from here. Without turning around she could feel his gaze move over her and then move on to Mori.
She hoped Mori would come to her defense, or at best she would be able to use him to get Takeshi to leave her alone. She did not have time to beg for his help. She had to hope he would know that she was in a bad situation and that he was in a position to help.
Mori recovered his wits and returned to his feet well before Rina could manage to do the same. She looked up at him and pleaded for his help with her eyes. Mori’s eyes were locked on Takeshi now, but he knelt down and offered Rina his hand to help her back to her feet.
She accepted his assistance and stood up. She stayed close by his side and turned to face Takeshi.
The look on his face was almost beyond description. She recognized a turbulent rage mixing with an intense disgust, but she thought she also saw some hesitation in his eyes. Her memories confirmed what she was seeing. He was a bully, but he did not do so well when he was up against someone he did not see as weaker than him. She was an easy target as some sort of amalgamation of his daughter who had frequently been able to be bullied in the past and a human who did not stand a chance against him. Mori was a young kitsune who seemed to be strong and capable of handling himself in a fight if need be. Takeshi was too much of a coward to go up against someone that might actually cause him harm.
“Is everything okay, Rina?” Mori asked. He continued to watch Takeshi carefully.
She could sense the tension sparking off of him. He might not know the details of the situation, but he was able to put the pieces together and the way that Takeshi was not even trying to disguise his aggression probably made it an easy case to figure out.
She tried to catch her breath quickly so she could answer his question. After the running, she knew she would need a minute and she did not think that her nerves were going to make it a lot easier.
Her courage was bolstered by Mori’s presence and she was able to answer him honestly. “No,” she took a deep breath. “It’s not okay.”
“It figures you’d be rescued by one of them, you bitch.” He spat on the floor before turning and slinking away.
“Who was that?”
Rina found herself a bit more able to breathe now so her answer came a bit easier. “He was my father from back before I died.”
“Not a good relationship, I presume?”
She shook her head. “He gives me the creeps. I thought he didn’t care about me because I’m too human now, but then he attacked me today.”
“Well, I don’t think that it will be something you have to worry about from here on out,” Mori said cheerfully.
She looked at him. His chest was puffed out with pride. She did not think he was foolish enough to believe that he had solved her problem with Takeshi for good by being here and being capable of taking him in a fair fight this one time. She hoped that he had a more permanent solution in mind for her. He had to have something good to tell her, but she did not know if she had a way to respond to him right now.
He did not need further prompting. His excitement was evident and she was just about overflowing with exuberance and eagerness to tell her why she would not need to worry from now on.
“My Lord Inari has taken a liking to you and to Souma. He’s here now and he’s involving himself in the case.”
Rina paused for a moment to process this. She blinked and shook her head. She still could not believe or understand what she heard.
“What do you mean he’s involving himself in the case?”
“Well,” Mori drawled. He bounced on his heels, apparently still not over the excitement of the news. “I did a bit of snooping around after I saw the way you were getting the cold shoulder and I found out that King Yama is not happy with you because Lord Inari heard about the case and decided that he wanted to know why he had not been informed as soon as it was determined that the parties involved in the case were kitsune.”
She shook her head again. She just could not believe what she was hearing. It did not seem as though it could be possible.
“I thought that Inari would ignore us. We’re not his people, in fact, his people hate us because we don’t follow Inari.”
Mori shrugged. “Do I seem like I hate you?”
“No,” she said slowly. “But you seem like you’d be a decent person no matter what and I’m not exactly the same person now as I used to be.”
“Do you think that would change anything?”
“I don’t know. I used to be so afraid of Inari and the kitsune that serve him, but that was in another life. If I didn’t have those memories it would be different and things would be a lot simpler. My life doesn’t get to be simple, though. I’m stuck having these preconceived notions of things that I should have no knowledge of at all.”
“Shall I escort you back to your room?”
She considered the offer for a moment. She did not know if she wanted to go back to that room. It certainly did not feel like it was her room anymore, not that she had felt much of a personal attachment to the room, but it had been given to her to stay in and the only things she had to claim as her own in the place where the things she had carried with her. With so few possessions she thought it was natural to feel a degree of attachment to the things that were temporarily hers in this place. Even so she was not sure that she wanted to go back there so soon after she had a traumatizing incident there. She had nowhere else to go so she needed to go back.
Finally, after deliberating for a brief moment she nodded, agreeing to allow Mori to take her back tot that place.
“We’ll make sure you aren’t bothered again,” Mori vowed as they walked. “Now that Lord Inari is involved you’ll be under his protection from anyone here that might wish to cause you harm.”
“Anyone?” she asked with some skepticism.
“Yes. Anyone. We’re not here to make enemies, but it is now in the interest of all of Inari’s servants to make sure that no harm comes to you while you are here.”
Rina still felt a bit uneasy accepting help and protection from someone that her memories told her was not here ally, but she also believed that time could change things and she needed all the help she could get now. She found herself in one form of trouble or another at every turn now. She took a deep breath and admitted to herself that she was in need of their help. It might not be her ideal, but she would take whatever help she could get now and hope that she and Souma would be able to get out of this place alive. Anything that would keep Takeshi away from here had to be a good thing anyway.