Chapter 18: Onsen Intermission!
Saija followed everyone else out of Ryogin’s office and back into the main hall. Amaryllis led them through a door at the end of the hall then turned left into a smaller hallway. Saija still wasn’t quite used to how clean everything was here, compared to her old life among the Natas.
“Here we are.” Amaryllis stopped in the middle of the hallway and pointed to a door on the left. “Onin and Tannin, this is your room. We’ll be across the hall.”
Onin yawned. “I’d like to stay up and discuss what we’re going to do next, but I’m exhausted.”
“Yeah, you should get some rest and let that leg finish healing.” Kasai started to stretch her hand out, paused, then shoved it back in her pocket and looked down at her feet. “Uh, see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah.” Onin raised his hand and made a small, stiff wave. “Goodnight, Kasai.”
Cerina made and exaggerated gagging noise. Saija turned, grabbed Cerina by the wrist and pulled her into the girls’ room.
“Ug.” Cerina rolled her eyes. “I can’t stand them being all mushy. I just want to slap Kasai and tell her to kiss him already.”
“I think they’re cute.” Saija put her hands on her hips and narrowed her eyes. “They obviously like each other, and it’s not just about being horny. It’s—” Saija tapped her finger on her hip. “—refreshing. I’ve never seen a relationship like that. With the Natas, they just do whatever they think feels good and don’t care about anyone else.”
“Yeah, whatever.” Cerina snorted and picked at some dirt under one of her fingernails.
Saija frowned. Cerina wasn’t exactly mean like a Natas, but she didn’t have that happy, relaxing, put-you-at-ease aura that Onin, Kasai, Tannin, and Amaryllis, had. If the people that found her after the Natas left were all like Cerina, she’d probably be dead now. She shuddered and walked around to inspect the room.
There were four wooden dressers on the far wall, and two large beds up against the near wall. The bedspreads and walls were both a pastel pink.
The door opened. Amaryllis and Kasai entered and closed the door behind them.
“So, this is my first, uh, normal, slumber party.” Saija took a step closer to Kasai. “Do we play games or something?”
“Kill me now.” Cerina groaned and turned around. “I’ll take a shower.”
“Ooo! I’ve got an idea!” Saija smiled and bounced on her toes. “Let’s go to the hot springs!”
Cerina paused mid-stride. “Okay, that actually is rather tempting.”
“Um” Amaryllis looked at Cerina, then over to Saija. “We don’t have a hot spring anywhere near here.”
“Not a problem.” Saija lifted her hand. She stopped, and brought her hand back to her chest and turned to Amaryllis. “Uh, can you show me how to do the blue portal thing again?”
“I can.” Amaryllis put an arm around her shoulder. “But you need to learn that on your own.”
Saija blushed. When other Natas touched her it lead to activity—better not to think about it. She took a deep breath and pushed the memory aside.
Amaryllis lifted her arm and looked into Saija’s eyes. “You’ve suffered more under the demon than you care to admit.”
Kasai stepped around to her other side and took her hand. Saija squeezed it and took a few deep breaths. These people wouldn’t hurt or violate her.
“So, anyway—” Saija cleared her throat. “Uh, how do I make the portal blue?”
“Well, what do you normally think about when you make a portal?” Amaryllis asked.
“Hmm.” Saija pursed her lips. “I dunno. I kinda reach through space to the destination, and yank.”
“Hmm.” Saija paced back and forth. “I don’t do so well with those. Uh, I feel confidence, asserting control. Maybe a bit of anger.”
“Try to think about the opposite of those things when you form the portal. Think about it while we pack.” Amaryllis smiled and turned around. “Oh, that’s right. I had your bags brought here from the hostel where we first met.”
The opposite of what I normally think, huh? Saija frowned. What exactly does that mean? She turned around and found her backpack on a nightstand on the other side of one of the two beds in the room. She unzipped her pack and peeked inside. Looked like she forgot to pack swimwear or pajamas. She shrugged, zipped the pack up, and slung it over her shoulder. There would be time to worry about that later. For now, she needed to concentrate on her portal technique.
Saija lifted her right arm and held her palm facing away. Opposite. She thought about pushing out to her destination, a traditional onsen just outside of Dabrath. I want to take my friends there to relax. This is stupid. I don’t normally have to think this much about it. Is Amaryllis just trying to mess with me?
Saija opened her eyes. She stared at the portal. It looked the normal size, swirly shadows. Except it was purple. Saija narrowed her eyes at it. It was supposed to be blue. What had she done wrong?
“Why’s it purple?” Cerina asked.
Saija frowned and looked over her shoulder at Amaryllis.
“I don’t know.” Amaryllis cocked her head to the side. “Perhaps the old way is so ingrained in you that this is a little of both methods.” She stepped through the portal.
“I think it’s pretty.” Kasai smiled to Saija and stepped through.
“This better not dump us in the mountains,” Cerina said.
Saija poked at the portal, shrugged, and stepped through.
Saija exited the bathroom and entered the women’s changing room at the hot spring. Saija looked around the room. It was empty. Saija shrugged, stripped, and showered quickly. She slid open the door to the spring, stepped out onto the deck, and paused mid-stride. The other girls were already in the water. In their swimsuits.
“Um—” Saija glanced back over her shoulder. “—this is a traditional onsen, right?”
“Yeah.” Kasai looked away and into the water. “I’m just shy and stuff.”
“I’m saving everything for Ryogin-sama,” Amaryllis said with a little sigh.
Cerina and Saija groaned at the same time.
“You’re fine.” Cerina rolled her eyes. “Just get in the water, already.”
Saija stepped down off the deck and into the water.
“Uh, that thing’s not going short out, is it?” Cerina lifted her right foot out of the water and poked a toe at Saija’s artificial leg.
“No.” Saija rolled her eyes and waded further out and sank down into the water. A sigh escaped her lips.
“Oh, that feels nice.” Saija rolled over and sat on a seat-shaped rock, only her head above the water. “You can just feel the tension flow out of your muscles.”
“Mm-hmm.” Kasai and Amaryllis said together.
“Thanks for bringing us here,” Kasai said.
Saija closed her eyes and ducked her head under the warm water, leaving nothing but her nose in the air. This was even better than a massage.
Amaryllis distorted voice sounded through the water. Saija thought she heard her name. She poked her head above the surface. “Hmm?”
“I said I need to apologize to you.”
“Oh?” Saija pulled herself over and sat cross-legged on one of the rock seats between Amaryllis and Kasai. “What for?”
“I was fairly short with you when we first met.” Amaryllis shifted on her rock. “I mentioned I’m half Nekotian, right?”
“Yes.” Kasai turned to face her. “What exactly is a Nekotian—”
Amaryllis held up a finger. “The Natas have been active on our planet for a while. They’re searching for the perfect host. As part of that search, they’re trying to combine giftling’s powers with the best traits of other species. Kasai and I are both results. She’s half dragon, and I’m half Nekotian. They’re aliens from another planet that look kinda like I do.”
“Then the rumors are true.” Kasai pulled her knees up to her chest.
Saija moved over closer to Kasai and put an arm around her shoulders. She turned to Amaryllis. “Well, we kinda guessed that, but what’s this have to do with me?”
Amaryllis glanced away. “I saw you before I ran away from the Natas.”
Kasai’s head jerked up. “You were with them?”
“Yeah.” Amaryllis brushed a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “I lived in one of the Natas worshiping villages until I was about twelve. Then, some Natas visited the village, and I learned what I was, and why I was created. I ran away, and Ryogin-sama saved me just before the Natas captured me.”
“I’m sorry.” Saija looked away and stared at one of the rocks. So many bad memories of that accursed Natas chasing and torturing people. You’d think the cat-ears would stand out. “I don’t remember you. I—” Her voice caught. “I try not to remember, though.”
“I think the Natas that possessed you was coming to inspect me or something.” Amaryllis shrugged. “That’s when I ran away, so you wouldn’t have seen me. The Natas almost re-captured me, and that’s when Ryogin-sama found me.” Amaryllis glanced over at Saija. “Anyway, I saw you again and all those old feelings came rushing back, and I thought of you as an enemy still. As a victim of the Natas, I should feel more compassion. You’ve suffered more from them than I. Can you forgive me?”
Saija lowered her head and stared down into the water. “I don’t understand you people. I’ve hurt all of you, and you’re still nicer to me than anyone else has ever been. I don’t deserve that.”
“It wasn’t you.” Kasai placed her hand on Saija’s right elbow. “It was a Natas.”
“That’s right.” Amaryllis lifted Saija’s chin with a finger and looked her in the eyes. “It wasn’t you. I was wrong to think that, and you can’t let yourself believe that.”
“Yeah, she’s right.” Cerina sat up and tucked her legs underneath herself. “It’s getting way too emotional in here, but we’ve got to focus on the real enemy.”
Saija looked up at her. Cerina bit her lip and looked away.
“Ugh. I guess I should share this.” Cerina took a deep breath. “When I was little, they found a girl about my age wandering around outside the village. There were all sorts of rumors about her, and apparently she had some kind of fire gift.”
Saija turned to Kasai and raised her eyebrows. Kasai jumped in her seat, then shrugged. They both turned to look at Cerina.
“Yeah, it was Kasai.” Cerina rolled her eyes. “I only saw you a few times in the distance until my little sister and I were playing in the park. You were at the other end of the park, and I was too shy to say hello or anything. Anyway, after a while some guys wearing black jumpsuits ran out of the woods and started throwing ice and fire around.
“I pulled my sister down underneath the slide, and we watched as you grew wings and a tail and started throwing fire back at them. Next thing I know one of the guys in black is trying to grab my sister and I.” Cerina wiped the back of her hand across her eyes. “I curled into a ball. My baby sister stood up and yelled, ‘Leave my sister alone!’ I clenched my eyes shut and started crying. I guess I used my gift for the first time or something. They left me alone. After a while I got up, and the whole village was on fire.”
Saija looked down and put a hand on her stomach. It’s Cerina’s story, and it happened in the past. Why do I feel bad?
“Only a few of us made it out.” Cerina sniffed and wiped her eyes again. “My sister wasn’t one of them.” She took a deep breath and looked away.
“For a long time, I blamed Kasai for it all. I know it’s not her fault, but—” Cerina looked down and put her hand on her chest. “—but I still feel mad.” She sighed. “I’m working on it.”
“Cerina…” Kasai stood and took a half step toward Cerina.
“Whoa, there.” Cerina held up her hand, palm out. “Thanks, but no thanks on the hug. I’m not really the huggy type, and I still don’t like you.”
Kasai’s shoulders drooped.
“I’m working on it, okay?” Cerina huffed out a breath. “Just give me some time.”
Kasai sat back down, head lowered.
Saija patted her shoulder. “Uh, that’s actually pretty nice, for Cerina.”
I’m gonna need to practice this being nice thing myself. I really suck at it.
Kasai looked up and gave her a half-smile. “Thanks.” She cleared her throat. “So, uh, are we ready to head back? The hot water’s making me sleepy.”
“Yup.” Cerina stretched her arms over her head, yawned, then rose to her feet. “I’m pretty thoroughly cooked at this point.”
“Yes, we shouldn’t stay too long.” Amaryllis stood and flicked water from her tail.
“All right.” Saija stood and stretched. This had been an interesting trip to the springs. She felt warmer, but that had more to do with her emotions than the hot water. Even a grump like Cerina tried to get along better with others. This wasn’t at all like living among the Natas. She smiled. Having friends was nice.
She looked back at the springs one more time then headed inside. “Let’s get changed and I’ll portal us back.”