_____ rose from her seat at the low table in Kiku’s living room. She, Feliciano, and Ludwig had been asked to come to Kiku’s house for a visit, which they happily accepted.
“So, what’s on the agenda for today?” she asked.
Feliciano took the liberty of answering, since Kiku had just left the room. “We’re going swimming, sorella!”
_____ blinked. She knew that swimming wasn’t uncommon in Japan, but it was a bit of a shock to hear that Kiku of all people would go on such a trip. He was the one planning the trips, after all.
“Something like that,” added Ludwig monotonously, turning a page in his book.
Still unsure, but willing to drop it, _____ nodded, saying, “Okay,” and turning to go to her room.
When she reached her room, she went through her suitcase and searched for clothes to wear. She stopped at the bathing suit and flip-flops she had packed and took them out.
We’re going swimming, right? she thought. She sighed as she held the bathing suit in front of her body. I haven’t gone swimming in so long. I wonder if this thing even fits me now?
Locking her door, she stripped down and slipped the bathing suit onto her body. It was black one-piece with a white floral design, and a short skirt was attached at the waist. _____ smoothed down the suit and skirt portion, feeling a bit self-conscious despite the fact that she was alone. A bright pink began to dust her cheeks.
I can’t go swimming in this, she thought, looking down at her body. I can’t pull it off at all.
After a long moment of thought, she sighed again. Well. . .I guess I should. . .so I don’t hurt Kiku’s feelings. . . She smoothed down the skirt one more time before pulling the cover-up over herself. The cover-up was solid white and sleeveless, a zipper going all the way up the front, and made of a towel-like material. A hood hung on the back of the neck, and _____ pulled that over her head momentarily, then pulled it back off.
“_____? Are you in there?”
_____ jumped at the voice just outside of her room. “Y-Yeah, Ludwig. What’s up?”
“We’re leaving in five minutes,” he replied, his voice muffled by the door. “You should hurry und get ready to go.”
“O-Okay. Thanks, Luddy.”
_____ heard Ludwig grunt at the sound of his unwanted pet name, and she giggled. She picked up her bag and finished getting ready.
Kiku led the group to a building not far from his house. It was a one-story traditional Japanese building, and was sprawled across the flat land, a few openings here and there. A woman in a pastel green robe appeared from the main entrance and walked toward the group. _____ absentmindedly stepped back so that she was slightly behind Ludwig.
The woman smiled and bowed, speaking in Japanese. Kiku bowed as well and spoke on behalf of the others. The woman nodded and turned, gesturing the group to follow her.
The group obeyed and followed the woman inside and down the hallway. She stopped and spoke again, pointing to a door on either side of the hall. Kiku nodded and bowed as the woman bowed and walked back the way they had come.
“I made reservations earlier,” the Asian man explained. “We are the only ones here for today. Ludwig-san, Feliciano-kun, and I will use the onsen through this door,”—he pointed to the door on the left side of the hall—“and _____-kun will use the onsen through that one.” He gestured to the door on the right.
The German and Italian agreed, Feliciano immediately dashing through the door.
_____ took a moment to think, then nodded at Kiku. “Okay. Thanks, Kiku.”
Kiku smiled understandingly and bowed before going through the door as well.
_____ sighed and looked at her respective door, freezing as she felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned her head to see her German friend.
“Are you alright, _____?” he asked, his voice friendly but still containing its usual professionalism.
Hesitantly, _____ nodded. “Y-Yeah. I’ll be okay.” She smiled. “He said we were the only ones here.”
Ludwig nodded. He knew how incredibly shy and self-conscious _____ was, and he and Kiku would always try to make things more comfortable for their friend. “Alright.” He patted her head gently, and turned and walked through the men’s door, closing it behind him.
_____ opened her door and walked through, a warm and humid air enveloping her. The room was empty excluding the many cubbyholes against the walls and the three benches bolted into the tile floor. On the other side of the room was an open sliding door leading to what looked like a steaming indoor pool.
_____ looked around—even peeking out into the other room—before taking off the thin jacket she had put on when she left the house, and then slipping off her cover-up. Still clad in her bathing suit, she kicked off her flip-flops, put her belongings in one of the cubbyholes, and walked into the adjacent room.
The humidity was significantly higher in this room than the other, and _____ had to wait a moment to adjust to it. She looked down at the water, noticing a bamboo ramp steadily pouring more water into the pool. She sat down at the edge and dipped half of her foot in, yanking it out as she realized how hot it was. Her eyes widened slightly in realization.
Oh, yeah! she thought. This is one of those hot springs Kiku and Feli told me about.
Now sure of herself, _____ slowly made her way into the hot water, letting out a quiet sigh as the heat relaxed her joints. Kiku and the others must be using the guys’ one. And this one must be the girls’.
She froze as a thought came to her mind.
Wait. . .Aren’t you supposed to be naked when you’re in one of these?
A blush threatened to cover her face, but it subsided as she thought, Well, I’m going to be alone in here. I guess it’ll be alright. . .
_____ climbed back out of the water and walked back into the changing room. She took a towel from a nearby rack and pulled off her bathing suit, wrapping it neatly in the towel and setting it in her cubbyhole. She got another towel and returned to the hot spring. She left the new towel on a table close to the spring, and practically jumped back into the water.
_____ sank neck-deep into the water, a relaxed smile covering her face. She tilted her head back and soaked her hair, then decided to just dip her entire head underwater. She came back up, her face splashed with slightly cooler air, and a contented sigh escaping her lips. She felt odd being unclothed in a public place, but the relief of being alone soon replaced the thought.
Around twenty minutes after entering the hot spring, _____ heard voices coming from outside the room. The voices grew closer, and they sounded as if they were coming from the adjacent room. _____ furrowed her brows in confusion, but her eyes widened as the door opened and several women clothed only in towels came into the room. She instinctively sank down into the water until only her head was above the surface.
The women noticed her and said something in Japanese. _____ opened her mouth to speak, but shut it when nothing came to her mind. The women simply smiled and removed their towels, stepping into the hot spring. _____’s cheeks darkened as a blush dominated her face. She sank further down into the water as more women—adding up to about a dozen—piled into the spring.
_____ clung to the edge of the spring, glancing at her towel out of the corner of her eye. Her heart pounding inside her chest, she scrambled out of the spring and wrapped her towel around her body as quickly as she could. Thankfully, the other women weren’t paying attention to her, so she managed to slip into the other room without anyone noticing. Fortunately, the other room was now empty, and _____ grabbed her bag and dug through it.
Thank you, Ludwig, for making me bring an extra change of clothes, she thought, half-joking. Looks like your nagging actually pays off.
When she found her extra clothes, she dried off and slipped them on. She put both of her towels into a basket, packed her still damp bathing suit, gathered her things, and left the room. She reached into her bag again and pulled out a baseball cap Alfred had given her, putting it on her wet head. She scanned the empty hallway and sighed tiredly.
I thought I was supposed to be alone, she thought, feeling a pang of betrayal. Her eyes watered, but she shook her head to dismiss the young tears. No. I’m sure he meant it. He just didn’t know about them. . .right?
_____ stepped toward the door on the other side of the hall, leaning over and placing her ear on the door. She heard her Italian friend saying something in his usual cheerful tone, then Ludwig started to lecture him. _____ heard Kiku speak, possibly saying something to ration with the German, and Ludwig spoke again, this time in a calmer voice.
_____ half-smiled. She couldn’t disturb them while they were still enjoying their bath, not just because she was too big of a wimp to soak naked in a bath with other women. She walked down the hallway and out the main entrance. She spotted a small pond near the walkway outside and sat down on the edge of the walkway.
Almost an hour had passed since _____ came outside. She had spent some of the time listening to music on her MP3 player, some time messing around on her phone, and most of the time just staring at the pond. She had scooted up to the edge of the pond and was now dipping her fingers into the water.
_____ turned her head to see her three friends walking out of the building. “What are you doing out here?” asked Kiku.
_____ blinked, then looked back at the pond, embarrassed. “Well, um. . .there were some women that came into the hot spring while I was in there. . .”
_____ heard Ludwig grunt in frustration, and Kiku grimaced slightly. “They were most likely the women that work here.”
“I apologize, _____-kun.”
“It’s okay,” she said quietly.
“But why didn’t you come tell us?” said Ludwig. “You could have just talked to us through the door.”
_____ took off her cap and tousled her hair a bit. “Because. . .I didn’t want to ruin your time in the hot spring. . .” She placed her cap back onto her head and brought her knees close to her chest. “Sorry if I did. . .”
“No, sorella!” Feliciano interjected, sitting down next to _____. “You didn’t ruin it! But. . .yours was, wasn’t it?”
_____ pursed her lips, nodding slowly.
Ludwig sighed. “Es tut uns leid, _____.”
“Hai,” said Kiku. “We are sorry that this trip was ruined for you. Would you like to go somewhere else?”
_____ thought a moment. “Well, I kinda like that park we went to yesterday. Is it okay if we go have a picnic there?”
Feliciano’s eyes lit up at the notion. “Sì! Let’s do that!”
Kiku nodded. “Hai. I would like to have a picnic there.”
“Ja,” said Ludwig. “Let’s go.” He held out his hand for _____ to take.
_____ smiled as Ludwig pulled her to her feet. “Thanks, guys.”