The Onsen Encounter

Ch. 1

by Bottou-chan

Author's Note: Possible manga spoilers, as it is set after the Tendoujigoku arc's conclusion.

The Spring Festival was a success; with their food booth dishing out exotic American strawberry shortcake, the junior class had earned enough money to make their spring shugaku-ryoko a memorable one.

Fuuko had somehow managed to obtain a brochure from the teachers' lounge. "Because we sold so much, they've lengthened our class trip by two days, and added in a stay at a hot spring!" she said exultantly over lunch, waving the stolen brochure. "I overheard them saying so, and they'll make the official announcement on Friday."

Recca plucked the stolen pamphlet from her hands. "That'll be a nice change," he said enthusiastically, scanning the glossy color photos with interest. "I mean, everything else on the agenda was stuffy and boring and historical and *educational*. I mean, c'mon. If I wanted to go all the way to Osaka on my own, you think I'd choose to go to a bunch of museums and castles and parks and shrines and stuff? No way."

"What else is there? They'd kick you out of the nightclubs in a heartbeat," said Fuuko placidly, poking at the last few remains of her lunch in her bento box. "And if sensei phones back any reports to Kage Houshi, you might as well stay in Osaka--- because she'll kill you when you get home."

"At least the food's good," said Domon brightly. "So I hear."

"The hot spring looks very interesting," said Yanagi, in her usual quiet voice. "I'm looking forward to going. Ahhh--- Mikagami, where are the seniors going this year?"

Mikagami had distanced himself from the other Hokage, once the Tendoujigoku affair had been resolved. He rarely ate lunch with his former teammates, but Yanagi had spotted him and invited him to join them that day. He had readily agreed to join her; it was just a disagreeable minor point that she also happened to have the Monkeys around her at the same time.

"Kyoto," he said briefly, and then, reminding himself that it had been Yanagi asking the question, he decided to elaborate. "I'm looking forward to it. It'll be a nice way to relax after the stress of exams." He punctuated it with as close an approximation of a warm smile that he could manage, given the circumstances.

"Heh. I'll bet you don't get anything as cool as an onsen to visit," said Recca, waving his chopsticks in the air. "Man, nothing like those hot springs---"

"Segregated bathing," Fuuko sniffed, and both Recca and Domon seemed to droop momentarily with the news.

"I don't see much relaxation happening at the hot spring as it is," replied Mikagami coolly. "Not with the entire junior class swarming around, anyways."

"I swear, Mikagami, you're such a killjoy. You wouldn't know a good time if it came up behind you and bit you on the---"

Whatever insult Recca had been about to deliver was cut short by the older boy abruptly gathering the remains of his lunch together and walking away.

"I swear," grumbled the ninja. "I've never seen anyone work so hard to not have any friends."

* * *

As Mikagami had predicted, the timing of the shugaku-ryoko was excellent and consequently, the trip much more appreciated than it otherwise may have been. Exams had come, exams had gone, and the upper echelons of the student body were restless with spring fever. Field trips in the past had been day trips to local points of interest; nothing like this nine-day extravaganza. The fact that it was educational at the same time was only a minor grumbling point, and upon spotting the first case of ninja artifacts among the many he would encounter, Recca completely abandoned his previous complaints and began showing some genuine enthusiasm. When there wasn't any ninja stuff in sight, Yanagi's presence was enough to make anything fun. Spending time with Fuuko and Domon was an added bonus.

The days passed with predictable speed, one colorful, busy day blurring into the next in an exciting swirl of sights, sounds, and memories. It wasn't until the junior class found themselves on a caravan of buses, sweeping them away from the bay and towards the mountains for their final two days at the hot springs, that the true pace of time was revealed.

"It's a nice change from the congestion," remarked Domon, staring out the window at the increasing greenery as they traveled the mountain highway.

"I wouldn't have thought you were so sensitive to nature," laughed Fuuko, amused at his observation.

"Nahh. I'm just sensitive to traffic jams," replied Domon, grinning.

The bus turned off the main road and through a pair of pillared gates, entering a private drive that snaked and turned. Recca had just gathered up enough courage to ask if there *did* happen to be kon'yoku, would they get in trouble for using it--- when the bus pulled to a stop, and sensei's voice came over the loudspeaker.

"Line up outside. Leave your bags in the bus; the staff will take care of bringing them to your rooms. Best behavior!"


The landlady, or okami, was standing on the steps at the door, waiting to greet them cordially to her hot spring.

"We are honored to have you here; I wish for you to make yourselves comfortable for as long as you are our guests," said the smiling woman, dressed in a lovely green kimono which set off her glossy red hair to its utmost advantage. "The boys' rooms are down the left-hand wing; the girls' rooms are down the right-hand wing; and I believe your sensei has already distributed sleeping arrangements. If you need assistance in locating anything, please feel free to question a staff member, and they will be pleased to assist you. Dinner will be served in the main building in two hours, so you may want to orient yourselves with the grounds until then…"

"She's so cute!" whispered Domon in an undertone, and Recca nodded his enthusiastic agreement, after making sure Yanagi's attention was firmly fixed elsewhere.

"Fuuko, you could be cute, too, if you dressed up like that---"

But Fuuko suddenly gripped his arm with an unexpected fierceness. "That's not just any okami-san," she breathed. "That's Neon."

Although there was no way the woman could have possibly heard the whisper, the landlady picked that moment to make direct eye contact with Domon, who was the most difficult member of the Hokage to miss. Recognition flashed across her features, and her complexion appeared to pale a shade or two. Her usual introductory speech, so smooth-flowing, halted a brief second, before she resumed the thread of her words.

There was no mistaking it.