The Onsen Encounter

Ch. 8

by Bottou-chan

"I've never seen a fortune-teller with katana calluses," grumbled Mikagami under his breath, as the bus bumped its way down the mountain to the train station early the next morning. Although not an official member of the class trip, he had managed to impose on the teacher to join them on the ride home, and was now seated next to Fuuko.

"You're such a skeptic, Mikagami," she replied, in a wonderful good mood since the previous evening's experience. "You took a class trip to Kyoto, and all you can think about is calluses on a random stranger's hand."

"Not just a random stranger, and you know it," said Mikagami, gazing steadily at her.

Fuuko had the grace to blush, but primly turned away to avoid prolonging the conversation.

Mikagami, it seemed, was the only one who had been able to penetrate the disguise. The calluses on the hands and the powerful ki emanating from the fortune-teller had been dead giveaways for one who was trained to note such details. However, after a series of threats, pleas, and wheedlings, he had promised to keep her secret, as long as she promised to report anything suspicious that cropped up in the future. This, Fuuko had willingly sworn.

Conversation drifted away from the fortune telling at the onsen and broadened to fondly rehash the happenings of the entire shugaku-ryoko. Only half of Fuuko's mind was occupied with contributing to the conversation, however. The other half was busily speculating in what form Raiha would appear to her next, and how he would make himself known to her.

* * *

"Fortune telling, hmph. I swear, you should have let me do it. I would've made a really good one."

"You would have sent half the girls away in tears with some cruel prediction, Joker," replied Raiha placidly.

"Who wants to make a girl cry?" asked Joker petulantly. "I'm more chivalrous than that, c'mon. Besides, it would be much more interesting to see what havoc I could've wreaked with the guys' minds."

"You've made my point," said Raiha.

The three of them were sitting on the front steps of the onsen once more. The bus caravan, with its five very dangerous passengers and their schoolmates, had departed a good twenty minutes ago, and early-morning peace had returned to the mountains.

"You have to admit. You were closer to an advice columnist than a fortuneteller. Y'know, you're supposed to do more with those cards than just shuffle them. Deal them. Flip them over at random. Rearrange them. Make stuff up. Sound mystic. Spooky. Magic. I don't think you gave them a show that was their money's worth."

"You're a harsh critic, Joker."

Neon delicately sipped her tea. "So how much of that did you mean?"

"I meant all of it," shrugged Raiha, refreshing his cup. "But we'll see what happens. I didn't want to make any promises I couldn't keep."

"You know how she'll interpret it, though."

"Yes." He waited a moment and added, "And I'll give her the chance encounter I promised. I can do that much for her. We'll just have to see where the heartache comes in. She's so young. I don't think she knows much about that sort of thing. I just wish it wasn't me."

"But you care for her."

"Undoubtedly. But the question remains--- do I care for her like that? And if I do, am I someone she has genuine feelings for? Or am I just an obsession *because* I keep floating in and out of her life?"

Joker broke into the conversation. "Sounds like you're more afraid of getting hurt than she is," he remarked, with a sideways glance. "Live your life, and seize the moments, and be happy for what you get. It may very well be more than other people can ever hope for their entire lives." He stood up abruptly. "Maa, maa! Such a weighty conversation for so early in the morning. You two can stay out here for as long as you like and philosophize to your hearts' content, but I've got some important stuff to do. You know where to find me."

His two partners watched him retreat into the depths of the main building, before gathering up the tea things and preparing to follow.

"It's tough for him to talk seriously about feelings, isn't it?" observed Neon, carefully arranging the items on the little wicker tray.

"You only just now noticed?" asked Raiha, smiling wryly. "He's much better about it than before, though. Remind me to tell you a story sometime."

"OK." Neon straightened up, carrying the tray inside. Raiha turned to follow her, but paused on the threshold, looking at the private gravel road that snaked down the mountain towards the highway. His green eyes gazed steadily for a few moments, as though still seeing the long-departed line of buses full of students. Then he turned and disappeared inside, closing the door behind him.

The End