A/N: Snippet Three in what appears to be an ongoing BTN series now... I honestly didn't expect it to get this far. [shrug] The girls discover a secret male-only festival at the hot spring, and they can't resist doing a little reconaissance from a convenient overhang. As expected, halarity ensues.
Disclaimer: No men, naked or otherwise, were harmed in the making of this fic. Harvest Moon and any related characters are copyright their respective owners. I only borrowed them. Whether I'll give them back is another story :)
All's Fair in Love and Hot Springs
"And one, two three…And one, two, three…" Karen marked off the beats with her foot as she watched the dark-haired girl in front of her stumble through the steps. "One, two, three…Come on, Mary, you've almost got it!" The dark-haired girl twirled around again, and overbalanced, sending her to the ground with an ungraceful "Oof!" Karen sighed. "Alright, let's stop there, then."
"I-I'm sorry, K-karen," the girl said, trying to catch her breath as she lay panting on the ground. Her braid, once shiny and smooth, hung down her back half-undone, the ribbons trailing. "I-I just don't think I can get it right in time…" Karen sat down beside Mary with another heavy sigh.
"It's only a new dance, Mary," she said. The pretty girl flipped blonde bangs away from her face and regarded her mousy counterpart with stern eyes as she struggled to sit up. "I thought you liked dancing!"
"Well, I do." Mary hunched her shoulders and clasped her knees to her chest, looking away from Karen. "There's a distinct difference between liking something and being good at it, though." She adjusted her glasses and tried to smooth down her wild hair to no avail. "I'm just no good at it."
Karen frowned. "You did fine with the old dance," she countered. "How long did it take you to learn that one? I forget."
"Three years, Karen. Three years, and I still never got it right." Mary looked away, beyond the flower-filled field where they practiced and into the sky above it. It was a beautiful spring day, with just the right amount of clouds and sunlight to make the dewy grass sparkle. "Remember last year?"
Karen scoffed, rolling her shoulders in a shrug. "That could have happened to anyone, Mary." Mary, flushing bright red, buried her face in her hands.
"I fell," she said in a small, muffled voice, "in front of everyone, right when the dance was almost over and I thought I'd get through one year without doing anything wrong. The year before that my headdress slipped over my eyes and I knocked Popuri over, and the year before that, I forgot half the steps in the middle of everything!" Her shoulders heaved with heavy breaths.
Karen rolled her eyes and stood, placing her hands on her hips and staring down at the girl she had spent the last two hours trying to teach a new dance to. The girl was hopeless, hopeless! "Come on, Mary, don't give up now." She tried to smile, but it came out as a grimace. "We'll get it this time, I'm sure. I even made the dance easier, for you."
Mary sniffed and rubbed her red nose, her glasses fogged up. "It is a little easier," she said softly, struggling to her feet. Karen took her arm and pulled her up, using deft hands to smooth down her flyaway hair and straighten her lopsided spectacles.
"We've still got time until the rest of the girls get here, and I'm sure you'll have the beginning down by then." I hope, she added to herself, trying to smile encouragingly at the younger girl. Mary nodded slowly and smoothed down the neat plaid skirt she wore. The grass stains were barely obvious, even the big one from the most recent fall.
"Okay," she said slowly, still frowning. The stray strands of hair around her head made her look slightly wild. "I-I guess so. How did the beginning go again?"
"For the Lady's sake, Mary!" Karen groaned loudly. "You may be the smartest person I know, but you have no memory for dance steps!" Mary shrugged hopelessly. "Hopeless, utterly hopeless." And the clearing echoed with clapping and the thud of graceless feet on thick grass once again.
The sun was hovering low on the horizon when practice ended, and Karen was the only girl of five who wasn't winded. Popuri threw herself on the cool ground with a moan, and blew damp strands of her bright hair away from her eyes. "Goddess, Karen, why do you do this to us?" she moaned, shaking her long skirt to fan herself. "I don't think I can even walk home after this…"
"It wasn't that bad," Karen said with a slight frown. She, unlike the other girls, still looked as bright and clean as she had been two hours earlier, when the three other girls had convened in the meadow for practice, and she bounced with excess energy. "Didn't it make you fell alive?"
"It makes me feel dead," Ann said weakly, her shoes lying beside her. She massaged her feet with grunts of pain. Her socks had a hole in them; her big toe wiggled free of the material. After a moment, she looked up at her four companions, all of them flushed with color and catching their breath after the grueling rehearsal. "Maybe this is just the tomboy in me speaking," she began, "but why do we put up with this year after year? I mean, we learn the dance, we dress up in pink dresses - pink! - and we parade ourselves for the whole town to see, all while the men stare at us like we're slabs of meat shaking ourselves for their personal pleasure." She tugged her braid and scowled at her feet. "Why don't they try pulling one of those triple spin thingys when they've got ten pounds of pink flowers weighing them down!"
"It's just…custom, I guess," Mary said softly, stretched out on the grass beside Popuri. The last two hours had not done much for her appearance; her braid was gone, completely, and her cheeks were flushed bright pink. "Papa said that it dates back hundreds of years, when villagers thought the dancing woke the Goddess from her winter sleep." She toyed with a strand of her dark hair as she looked up into the sky. "Maybe it does, still…but either way, customs like this are hard to break, especially for a place like Mineral Town." She sighed, remembering the many moments of embarrassment she associated with the Goddess Festival. "We just have to put up with it," she said with another sigh.
"Yeah, well I don't want to anymore!" Ann tugged her braid, hard, and the ribbons came out in her hands. "Oh, great." Long red-orange hair tumbled around her face, making her look quite feminine, if it weren't for the grimace she was aiming at the ribbons crumpled in her hand. Elli sat down beside her and began petting her head gently.
"Throwing a tantrum won't help," she said soothingly. Ann growled, and propped her chin on her hands. "It's only a five minute dance once a year. It's not so bad, really."
"I just wish…" Ann frowned and leaned forward to pluck a lone moondrop flower from the ground in front of her. "I wish we had a chance to see the guys doing something silly for a change…There's no festival where they look like fools in pink." Elli patted her head as she sulked. "It's not fair."
Popuri sat up suddenly, the tips of her long hair brushing Mary's nose and making her sneeze. "Wait, but there is!" she squealed, clapping her hands together. Mary rubbed her nose and sat up, and the other three girls leaned forward, exchanging looks and smiles. "I heard Rick talking to Cliff today, after lunch. He said something about the hot springs, tonight, and how all the guys were going to be there, even Jack!"
"You mean, they're going to sit around in the hot springs together? Completely naked?" Karen grinned, her eyes wide with mirth and excitement. "I'm so there!" She looked around the circle of girls, all of them close friends she had made as a child and with whom she shared all her secrets. It was hard not to in a town as small as theirs. "Who's with me?"
"Oh, no, Karen," Elli said, holding her hands up. "I'm not going to sneak up here in the middle of the night to watch the men take a bath. That's an invasion of privacy!" She stood up smoothly and brushed stray leaves off her skirt, checking her immaculate hair for any stray wisps. The eldest of the five village girls, Elli was, by far, the voice of reason in a group dominated by troublemakers. "Besides, I have to get back to the clinic." She checked her watch and frowned. "I told the doctor I'd be back by five, and it's already ten past."
Karen rolled her eyes and turned to Ann as Elli began clearing away the bag lunches and water bottles the girls had brought with them. "What about you, Ann? You said you wanted to see them…"
Ann blushed in the fading light and stood up as well. "I don't think this counts, though. I mean, when we dance, we're still wearing clothes…" She ran a hand through her hair, tugging at a tangle near the tips, and shook her head. "I'll sit this one out. I promised Dad I'd waitress late tonight, anyway, and I can't really tell him I'm going to be late because I'm watching the Mineral Town Peep Show featuring guys I grew up with." She made a face as her hands caught on another painful tangle and struggled to pull it apart. Karen sighed and turned around.
Popuri shrugged as Karen's eyes fell on her and picked a blade of grass off her skirt. "I don't think I could, either," she said, wrinkling her nose prettily. "My brother is going to be there. There are enough naked baby pictures around the house to let me know I never want to see him like that." She stuck out her tongue, making Elli smile and roll her eyes.
Karen sighed and threw her arms up in the air, frowning. "Well, I'm not going alone-" she began, but her angry speech was interrupted by a quiet voice behind her.
Four heads swiveled, looking for the mystery speaker, and their eyes fell to Mary, still sitting on the ground, her eyes downcast. Her hair fell in waves around her head, and she rose to her feet slowly. Karen and the others looked at the quiet girl with disbelief plain in their eyes.
"Are you sure, Mary?" Karen asked slowly, still unsure of how to react. This is Mary--quiet, mousy Mary-wanting to see this? "I mean, you don't have to go just so I won't go alone…"
Mary shrugged, tucking her hair behind an ear. There was a faint blush to her cheeks that didn't seem to be from the dancing. "I-It's new local folklore," she said in a quiet voice, her hands clasped behind her in the perfect image of innocence. "I-I should probably document it for…for future generations." Then, she smiled slightly, looking up at Karen. "And…and I'm interested in seeing it all, I suppose…" Her cheeks deepened their pink tinge, but her eyes shone with something almost like excitement.
Karen fairly screeched in happiness and hugged Mary around the neck, cutting off her air for several seconds. Elli, shaking her head, set off down the mountain path, followed closely by Ann, who was muttering to herself as she rebraided her hair. Popuri lingered for a moment, waiting until Mary caught her breath to accompany them through the overhanging branches that canopied their path.
"I'm sleeping at Karen's tonight, Mama!" Mary called as she shifted the bag on her back and made for the door. Her father waved a hand in her general direction as she kissed his cheek goodbye; he was rereading notes he made that afternoon, and nothing short of a fire could distract him. Come to think of it, his foot had caught fire once, and he only paused in his note taking long enough to dampen it out with his cup of tea. Karen stood outside the open door, shifting from foot to foot in a nervous dance of excitement. She grinned as Mary shut the door with a sharp click, and dragged her away down the street.
"Did you get everything?" she asked as they trotted through the quiet village. Mary nodded and shifted the bag again. Karen had a similar bag hanging from her shoulder, and her pretty face was flushed with excitement. "Oh, this is going to be great, Mary, you'll see."
"I know, I know…" Mary patted her bag, feeling the notebook and pen she had shoved in there along with the impossibly long list of items Karen had given her less than an hour to gather. Naked men or not, it was a ritual, and she planned to get in at least a few notes to take back with her. They were passing Yodel Ranch now; the animals had been locked away for the night, and little May was probably eating her dinner right now. This is crazy, a voice in Mary's head said. It was a needley voice, and Mary frowned. What'll happen if you get caught?
"Karen?" Karen turned them down the path near Chicken Lil's and turned a smiling face to her. Mary bit her lip and watched the path as they walked. "What if we get caught?"
"We won't." Karen's answer was so straightforward that it shocked Mary into momentary silence. They were nearing Gotz's house when she regained her voice.
"But, Karen," she continued, pushing her glasses up her nose, "there are so many factors that could go wrong. I mean, they could see us, or we could make too much noise, or Popuri could even be wrong about this whole thing!" She frowned again, and hiked the bag up higher on her back. "What happens then?"
Karen stopped at the crossroads, taking Mary by both shoulders and looking straight into her eyes. "We won't get caught," she said, in the slow voice an adult uses to speak to a child. "I promise you. Would I ever lead you wrong?" Mary opened her mouth to remind her of the time last summer when Karen had claimed Rick would never figure out it was the five girls who had stolen his underwear and staple-gunned it to the announcement board in the square, or the winter before that when midnight sledding down Mother's Hill had been her kick, but Karen grabbed her arm again and began leading her up the mountain. Mary didn't resist. Despite her misgivings about the whole situation, she really was curious. Maybe it'll all be worth it. She smiled and pushed her glasses up her nose. Maybe.
"Here we go," Karen said as they settled into the underbrush on the southern side of the trail. "Perfect view, too." Mary peered through the bushes; they did have a good view of the hot springs, directly below them. In fact, part of the cliff stuck out over the spring, making it the perfect spot to spy over the wall and into the bubbling water below. Karen must have scouted out this spot beforehand. "So, let's run through the checklist," she continued, pulling her bag off her back. "Blanket?"
Mary pulled a checkered quilt out of her bag and spread it on the ground in front of them. "Check," she said, settling down on it. Karen did the same, making a mark on a wrinkled piece of lined paper she pulled from a battered notebook.
"Camera?" Mary pulled a small instant camera out of her bag and set it in front of her.
"Check. It's waterproof, too."
"Great. Tape recorder?" Mary set it beside the camera, brushing a fine layer of dust from the buttons.
Mary paused, her hand in the bag. She remembered looking at the scribbled list Karen handed her before they parted in front of the library, and wondering just what her friend had in mind. "Karen," she said, clearing her throat, "I don't see why we need th-" Karen looked up, her eyes narrowed.
"Bin-oc-u-lars?" she repeated, enunciating every syllable. Mary squeaked and pulled her hand out, setting a pair of small, black binoculars with the other items.
"Check," she said in a small voice. Karen smiled and patted her on the head.
"Good." She pulled her own bag open and dumped out the contents onto the blanket. Candy, sweets, and several packages of chips cascaded out in a colorful flood. She grinned at Mary. "I brought the snacks. Just don't tell my parents." Mary smiled back and carefully opened a package of cookies, thankful Karen had remembered her likeness for sweets, and stretched out on the blanket. Karen did the same, squinting through the binoculars and focusing them on the stairway up to the spring.
The night deepened, and crickets began to chirp around them. Mary pulled out her notebook and flipped to a blank page, scribbling down the date and time on the first line. The soft bubbling of the hot springs directly below them was soothing, and the soft, happy tune Karen hummed under her breath lulled her into a comfortable, sleepy mood. Pillowing her head on her arms, she chewed contentedly on a chocolate covered cookie and let her eyes drift closed.
An indeterminate time later she was shaken awake by a grinning Karen, her white teeth the only thing clearly visible in the waning moonlight. Mary rubbed her eyes and propped herself up on an elbow, squinting at Karen. "Wha? Are they here?"
Karen nodded, still grinning, and shoved the binoculars into her hands. "See for yourself!" she whispered, pointing through the brambles toward the wooded path leading away from the spring. Laughter and voices drifted toward them, and soon the first few figures trooped into view.
"Write this down," Karen instructed, and Mary obediently raised her pen, squinting in the moonlight. It would be hard to write, but she could manage without too much damage to her eyesight. She sighed and waited for Karen to recite.
"Hmm…" she said, adjusting the binoculars pressed to her eyes. "That's Cliff, and Rick coming up the path. Of course, they're the loud ones. Now, what are they doing…" She scooted closer to the edge, peering down toward the spring. "They're talking about…about Ann? Ooh…"
"What's going on?" hissed Mary, wriggling up next to Karen and trying to squint down through the underbrush. "Is anything going on?"
"Not really," Karen whispered, waving a hand behind her noncommittally. "They're just talking and…"
A sudden rustle from behind the two girls made them jump and turn, Karen brandishing her binoculars in one hand and Mary holding her notebook out in front of her like a flimsy shield. "Who's there?" Karen said, an uneasy quaver working its way into her normally confident voice. She had neglected to consider the possibility of wild animals this late at night; she and the others had been warned about this as children, but she had never really believed that wolves and bears lived out among the gentle squirrels and bluebirds that populated the forest during the day. The bushes rustled again, and said, "Oof."
Thankfully, Karen and Mary remembered that vicious, bloodthirsty animals don't normally say, 'Oof,' and relaxed a bit as a familiar pink head struggled into view.
"Hi, girls," Popuri whispered, crawling out from behind a convenient fern and brushing her dirt-stained skirt clear of stray leaves. She looked up and grinned at her two friends sitting half-petrified on their cheerful quilt. "Did I miss anything good?"
Karen and Mary stared at her for a minute. "What?" Popuri asked, running a hand through her brilliant curls. "I didn't scare you, did I?"
"Yes, you did scare us," Karen hissed, brandishing her binoculars at Popuri. "I thought you didn't want to come tonight!"
Popuri shrugged and settled herself down on the blanket, helping herself to the open packet of chocolate cookies at Mary's knee. "My curiosity got the better of me," she explained, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. "Besides, I've got nothing better to do." She turned to Karen. "I told my mom I'm staying at your house tonight."
"Fine, fine." Karen ran a hand through her hair and sighed. "And keep your voice down, Popuri, or they'll hear us!" She gestured down at the spring, where more loud voices were rising.
"Oh, the boys!" Popuri wriggled between Karen and Mary and peeked over the edge of the precipice. "It looks like they're all here…even the doctor!" She looked back over her shoulder at the other two girls. "D'you know what they're doing yet?"
Karen held up the binoculars and smiled importantly. "That's what we were doing, before you crashed our party." Popuri rolled her eyes and ate another cookie; Karen tossed her hair and looked at Mary, who was busy writing in her notebook. "Alright, Mary, let's keep going."
"Ooh, let me see!" Popuri snatched the binoculars from Karen's hand and peered through them, training them on the steaming pool below.
Mary sighed and leaned closer, listening for voices. There were more now, raised in laughter and shouting. Even the normally quiet doctor seemed to be having fun, remarking on the beauty of the night and the good spirits all around. She caught a snippet of Gray's voice as well, telling some joke to a laughing Jack, the farmer from down the north path.
"This is great," Popuri whispered, crawling up to get a better view. "I can't believe they've been doing this for so long and we never knew…"
"Who knew they were this good at secrets?" Mary said softly, angling her notebook so it got the full light of the moon. "Is anything important happening, Popuri?"
"No, no, they're just…" Popuri paused as there was a shout of laughter from below, and a splash, followed by more laughter. "Oh, wow…Wow…" She trailed off into subdued giggles, the binoculars pressed tight against her face.
"What?" Mary was getting impatient, and she tugged on Popuri's arm. "Popuri, what are they doing? I thought you guys wanted me to record this…" She cradled her chin on her hands and sighed. "I can't rely on second hand data the whole time…"
"See for yourself!" Popuri hissed gleefully, thrusting the binoculars toward Mary with a giggle. "Oh, you'll enjoy it…" She dissolved into giggles once again, covering her mouth with her hands to stop most of the sound.
"Enjoy what?" Mary muttered, wriggling forward and pressing the binoculars to her glasses. The view was fuzzy; she took a moment to adjust the zoom, and squinted through them.
There was the bubbling water of the spring, and a glimpse of brown hair that could only be Jack's. Someone tossed a familiar looking khaki shirt to the ground nearby, and there was another whoop of laughter and a humongous splash, followed by Rick's voice raised in protest.
"Watch the glasses!" Male laughter sounded, and Mary caught sight of Gray's coppery head rising from the water, an uncharacteristic smile on his face. He shook his head, spraying water at all the men, and then stood up.
Mary gasped and dropped the binoculars. "Eep."
Karen, trying to peer down through the assorted brambles and ferns lining the precipice, glanced up at Mary's very red face. "What?" she asked, tilting her head and ignoring the sounds of soft chatter from the spring below. Mary shook her head and waved a shaking hand in the general direction of the men.
"They're…they're…" she stuttered, turning yet another shade of bright red. "Um…"
"Oh, just say it, Mary!" Popuri whispered, slapping the shy girl on the back. Mary jumped, coughed, and blurted out:
"Naked. They're naked." She shook her head and pushed her round glasses up her nose. "Oh, my…"
Karen's eyes lit up. "Oh, I have to see this!" she crowed, perhaps a little too loudly, and snagged the binoculars from Mary's shaken hands. The shy girl pressed her hands to her red cheeks, her eyes still wide with embarrassment, as Karen leaned over as far as she could and focused the binoculars on the spring.
"Oh, wow," she giggled, "they really are!" A few seconds later she collapsed into giggles. "Oh, Rick, I never knew…"
"Ew, that's my brother!" Popuri cried, pressing her hands alternately to her eyes and ears. "Don't even say that!"
"Hey, do you guys hear something?" Jack's voice called from below, and the men fell silent. Karen and Popuri dove on each other, covering their mouths, and Mary squeaked once again before clapping her hands to her lips and staring wide-eyed at her fellow conspirators. For several agonizing seconds there was no sound aside from the bubbling of the hot springs below them, and they didn't breathe for fear of being found.
Karen and Popuri had turned purple from lack of air before laughter resumed below them. "Probably a squirrel," Cliff's voice said, and sound rose once again from the spring, accompanied by various splashing and contented sighs.
"Get a hold of yourself!" Karen hissed to Popuri, pushing the younger girl off her lap. "Do you want them to find us?"
Popuri paused, and stifled a giggle. "Well, having five naked men chase us through the forest in the middle of the night is definitely something I've never experienced before…" She turned and reached for the binoculars. "I've got to have another look…where'd the binoculars go?"
Karen glanced around, and in the dim moonlight she could make out Mary, flat on her stomach and halfway into the bushes. "Mary…" she whispered, a grin forming as she crawled her way to lie next to the normally shy librarian. Mary waved her away, adjusting the binoculars pressed against her glasses.
"Research," she said primly, and hunched down to get a better look. Karen giggled, which set Popuri off, and finally Mary succumbed to the laughter too; soon all three were rolling on the blanket, hands pressed to their stomachs to contain the silent giggles wracking their bodies.
"Oh!" Karen sat bolt upright, holding up one of her hands as though she just realized something. "We have a camera!" Her two companions giggled again, and Mary began rummaging through her bag, pulling out the small waterproof instant camera she had packed earlier at Karen's request. Karen took the camera with a revered look and grinned maliciously.
"We could sell the pictures to Ann and Elli," she whispered, her eyes glinting. "Or blackmail the boys into something…"
"Oh, don't do that, Karen," Mary protested, glancing behind them to the overhang. "They'd hate us if they knew what we were doing…"
"Oh, it's all in good fun," Popuri replied, tossing her hair over her shoulder. "Go on, Karen. Try to get one from directly above; we'll get the best view then." She grinned and cleared a path to the edge of the overhang, and Karen wiggled her way through the bushes and positioned herself on the very edge.
"I can't get a good one," she whispered back to them, trying to adjust herself and get a clear shot of the men. They were directly below her, but a bush was obscuring the best view and she couldn't maneuver her way around it without standing. "Get ready to run when the camera flashes," she called quietly, and rose cautiously to her feet.
What happened next was a jumble of voices, slippery skin, and steam, but it seemed to have gone like this:
Karen rose carefully, leaning over as far as she could to hold the camera over the hot springs. The men were talking quietly, laughing and dunking their heads under the bubbling water every now and again. None were looking up, so she was sure they wouldn't notice her until the camera's flash went off, and by then she and her two companions would be dashing for the path down the mountain, too quick for five wet and naked men to catch. She was counting on taking a shortcut through Jack's farm, and hoped feverently that his dog wasn't still outside.
However, she wasn't counting on a loose rock under her feet; she wobbled, arms pin-wheeling silently in an attempt to keep her balance.
Popuri sprung up to steady her, but Mary had done the same thing at the same moment and their frantic grabs for her arms and waist only managed to make Karen even unsteadier. She yelled, making all five men look up to see three girls teetering on the edge of the overhang above the spring, and then fall an ungracious fifteen feet to land in the deep center of the spring. There was a moment of bubbling, frothing water, sputters and yells of surprise and pain, and the flash of the camera going off.
Then three sopping wet, fully clothed young women rose as one out of the center of the spring, sputtering like a trio of clumsy naiades.
Stunned silence descended over the eight assembled figures, and then there was a rush to grab for what towels the men could reach without exposing themselves to the women in their midst.
In the ensuing rush, Mary stumbled up, her glasses wet and steamed over, and crashed into a wet, warm body, who fell against the edge of the spring with a muffled, "Oof."
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" she squeaked, her hands flying up to steady her glasses, and when that failed to clear her vision, remove them completely. She blinked, leaned in, and squinted until she was nose to nose with her slippery savior.
"Uh, Mary," Gray said in a strained voice, his eyes screwed shut. "Could you…uh…move, please?"
Mary paused, blinked, and then squeaked and pushed herself forcefully away from Gray, whose face relaxed visibly as soon as she sat up off his lap. Silence fell once again as there was much uncomfortable shifting, and then Karen giggled and the camera's flash went off again.
"Karen!" Rick roared, jumping up and forgetting his towel hadn't been secured around his waist. Popuri shrieked, "My eyes! My eyes!" and stumbled into Cliff, who doubled over in pain as her knee hit a rather sensitive spot and knocked his head against the doctor's, who raised an arm in surprise and hit Jack in the nose. Jack yelped and reached up to grab his bruised nose, his foot coming up to trip Rick, who fell face-first into the bubbling center of the spring with a gurgle. Karen snapped another picture with an evil smile.
"Yikes!" she shrieked, dodging Rick's slippery underwater grasp, and grabbed Popuri and Mary. "Let's get out of here!" And the three girls scrambled up the slippery steps and down the staircase leading to the main path, taking off in an almighty run through Jack's farm and into the village on the other side. The stopped only when they reached Karen's house and were behind the firmly locked and bolted supermarket door. Then, all three collapsed against the wall, spreading water in a growing circle around them.
"Oh, Goddess," Popuri moaned, still rubbing her eyes fiercely. "I need to wash my eyes out with turpentine! That's something I should only see on my husband. Well, the man I'm going to marry. Okay, the guy I'm dating. Oh, anyone but my brother!" She moaned again and threw herself down, her head landing in Mary's lap. Mary sighed and petted Popuri's wet hair absently.
"I hope they don't hate us now," she murmured, biting her lip anxiously. Karen seemed to be the only one not worried, bustling around the store carrying towels for the three to dry themselves off with.
"They'll get over it soon enough," she said matter-of-factly, handing one towel to Mary and throwing the other over Popuri's head. The younger girl groaned and shifted, rising up to a kneeling position with the bright pink towel still draped over her head.
"I can't believe this," she muttered, scrubbing her head fiercely and showering her friends with droplets of water. "I should have listened to Ann and Elli and stayed home. Then, I'd be warm and dry in my own bed, instead of sitting here on the floor of the supermarket, cold and wet and hoping angry naked men don't come knocking down the door."
Mary sighed and began unbraiding her hair, letting the excess water drip onto the towel on her lap. Her glasses were clean by now, but she set them aside and set to work scrubbing her fingers through the tangles forming at her hair's tips. Karen flopped down beside them and began shedding her outer layer of clothes.
"At least we've got photo documentation," she said, gesturing to the drying camera between them. "And Mary's notebook, too."
"That's ri-" Mary started to say, but gasped when she realized her notebook was still sitting on the floor in the forest, forgotten with the rest of their supplies when they were forced to scramble away from the springs. "Oh, no…" she whispered, her face falling. The notebook held all her notes on almost everything she studied, besides a few other, more fictional snippets from the novel she planned on writing. Losing that meant losing half her life, and she felt a tear brim up over her eyelids. "I can't go back and get it now," she moaned. "And it'll be gone by the morning for sure; someone will find it and take it, I just know it." The tear slid down her cheek, and she hung her head, letting her hair curtain her face away from the others.
Karen moved over and put an arm around her shy friend. "Don't worry, Mary," she said, hugging her tightly. "We'll go tomorrow and see if there's anything left. I'm sure it'll be there, and if someone else found it, they'll return it."
"I hope so…" Mary murmured, biting her lip again. There was silence for a few minutes, aside from the sounds of water dripping off clothes and hair onto the wood floor, and then Popuri yawned long and loud.
"I'm beat," she managed before another yawn almost cracked her jaw. "Let's go to bed."
Karen nodded and rose to her feet, tossing her drying hair over her shoulders. "C'mon, Mary," she said, helping the smaller girl to her feet. "We'll all feel better in the morning, guaranteed." And the three girls trudged through the store, leaving wet trails behind them, and into Karen's spacious bedroom, where, dressed in Karen's spare nightshirts, all three fell into deep sleeps filled with dreams of water and steam and perhaps a few less discreet things.
The next morning found Mary yawning and unlocking the door to the library an hour early. Her damp clothes were tucked under her arm; she wore Karen's clothes for the short trip from the market to the library, and left herself enough time to dash up the stairs, take a shower and change before she opened the library to the public.
Her mother glanced up when she descended the stairs forty-five minutes later, clean and dressed in her own clothing, and rather refreshed by the long shower she had allowed herself. "You're home early," her mother said, setting a plate of eggs in front of her daughter and kissing the top of her head. "I thought you'd be staying at Karen's a bit longer."
"I had to change," Mary said gloomily between tiny bites of her breakfast, pushing the eggs around her plate. She had lost her appetite when she had caught sight of Rick marching down the street toward the market, the remainder of their supplies bundled up in his arms and a furious expression on his face. She had hurried away before he noticed her, but now she knew: The boys had found their little campsite, and her precious notebook was either bundled up in Rick's arms or lost among the flowers in the fields beyond, if the boys hadn't been spiteful and just thrown the book in the spring. She sighed and poked at the eggs again; her mother watched her with a concerned expression.
"Did you have fun last night, then?" she asked, after a few minutes of watching her daughter not eat her favorite breakfast. Mary shrugged, pushed the plate away and sighed again.
"Yes," was all she said, before glancing up at the clock above the stove. "I have to open the library; I'll see you for lunch, Mama." She kissed her mother on the cheek, and did the same for her father, who sat unmoving from his customary seat, reading over notes from the previous day's excursions. "Bye, Papa." A moment later she dashed out the door and was gone.
Anna sighed and crossed her arms over her chest, staring at the closed door with a worried expression. "Basil," she said softly, and then, "Basil," a bit louder when he didn't respond. Her husband glanced up from his notebook.
"Hmm?" he asked, setting the book down on the table. "Is something wrong?"
Anna rolled her eyes and gestured in the direction of the door. "I think our daughter is upset over something, dear." Basil glanced at the door and fixed it with a thoughtful stare.
"Girls her age are often upset over many things, Anna darling," he said after a moment, turning to look at his wife. "Surely you remember your younger days?"
Anna sighed and nodded, biting her lip in a manner reminiscent of her only daughter. "Of course. It just seems as though…" She sank into a chair, propping her chin on her hand and sighing. "I wish she'd tell me."
"The Night Spring Festival was last night, as well," Basil jumped in, turning back to his notes with a bit of a smile. "And I know you remember that."
Anna paused mid-sigh as realization dawned on her, and she smiled at her husband, just a bit mischievous. "Of course," she said, and rose to kiss her husband on the forehead. Her eyes traveled to a little-seen picture hanging in the corner, of a much-younger, very handsome Basil clutching a towel around his waist while standing in the middle of the hot springs, his mouth open in a yell of surprise. Anna smiled once again, and caught her husband's eye. "Of course."
Mary sat, later, idly eating a pickle her mother had brought over for her lunch. As predicted, there was no one in the library, like any normal Thursday afternoon. Karen had dropped by earlier in the day, still fuming from Rick's confrontation and the ensuing argument. Popuri had burst into crocodile tears to prevent Rick from going too far, and though her parents seemed oddly sympathetic to her plight, she had received a short lecture about respecting other people's privacy and told to apologize to all the men involved. And, there was no sign of Mary's notebook, which dampened her spirits even more. Karen left a few minutes later, reciting her apology to Jack with gritted teeth. Then, Mary had been alone once again.
She looked down at the open book in front of her and the page she had been trying to read for the last hour. Her mind kept wandering, spurred on by Karen's report that the few pictures they had managed to take would be back from the developer in a week. She was curious to see if they came out at all, and a small part of her wanted to get copies and keep them locked away in her diary. She felt another blush burn up her cheeks and to her ears, and she pressed her cool hands to her cheeks to calm herself. After a deep breath, she looked down at the book once again and concentrated on the words. She couldn't make sense of them, took off her glasses, and sighed.
Her mind snapped back to reality when the bell above the main door rang quietly as someone walked into the library. She shook her head and glanced up, blinked and put on her glasses again, and went beet red when she recognized Gray standing silhouetted in the doorway.
"Oh," she said nervously, twisting her hands in her skirt behind the desk. "Um, h-hello, Gray." Gray started at the sound of her voice, and then tugged his hat down and nodded.
They looked at each other out of the corner of their vision for a long, silent minute, and then both began to speak simultaneously.
"I-I'm sorry about last night, Gray, I didn't mean -"
"Did you hurt yourself in the fall last night…?"
Then they both stopped and watched each other for a moment, before speaking again.
"Oh, no, I think Cliff broke my fall…"
"There's no harm done. Well, none permanent, so -"
And they both stopped again, and a ghost of a smile quirked Gray's mouth upward. Mary, blushing furiously, bit her lip to hold in a laugh. Then, as their eyes met, the laughter burst forth: Gray's low and deep, and Mary's high and sweet. It lasted barely a minute, but the tension had evaporated as quickly as spring water on a warm spring night and it seemed all was right once again.
"I really should apologize," Mary said, catching her breath from the laughter. Her glasses had slipped down her nose, and she straightened them before continuing. "I mean," she continued, looking up at Gray, "you must have been so angry with us…"
Gray shrugged, his hands in his pockets. "Rick was the most angry," he said, "but he tends to overreact to things like this. Besides," and that small smile flitted across his face, "he was just angry that you three managed to get pictures."
Mary giggled, despite herself, and pressed her hands to her cheeks to hide a burgeoning blush. "T-they might not even come out…"
Gray waved a hand, dismissing her words. "It's the principle of it all. Cliff and I had to hold him under the spring for a minute to get him to stop yelling about invasion of privacy. Then he stomped up to the overhang and 'confiscated' all the stuff up there." Then his face lit up and he reached into his jacket. "Except this," and he laid Mary's battered, much-loved notebook on the desk between them. "I managed to grab it before he did," he explained, a bit sheepish as Mary's eyes lit up in happiness. His cheeks were tinged pink as he glanced away. "I knew that it was yours from the handwriting, and it seemed important, so…"
Mary picked up the notebook and hugged it to her chest, relieved beyond belief that Gray had been the one to find it and not a wandering animal in search of a nest. "Oh, Gray, thank you!" she said reverently, smiling up at him through her eyelashes. He muttered something under his breath, looking embarrassed, and jammed his hands into his pockets once again. "You don't know how much this means to me…"
He shrugged and tugged his cap over his eyes, though Mary could see him smiling slightly. "I'll, uh, be over there," he said, gesturing with his head, "reading. So. Uh. Yeah." And he walked--almost ran--to his favorite chair, where his current pile of books were stacked a dozen high on the table beside it.
Mary watched him, smiling, and as soon as he sat down she flipped to her last few pages of notes. They were unblemished despite their ordeal, and though the handwriting was a bit shaky she could still read it. She turned the pages, reading over the snippets of conversation she had written down and the various descriptive text written in the margins, describing the bits of the gathering she had managed to catch. It seemed that Popuri had managed to write a few lines as well, mostly concerning the men's state of undress and her opinions regarding what they looked like under the towels. Mary quickly flipped past that part, a blush burning her cheeks, and almost missed the folded piece of paper slipped between the last two pages.
"What's this?" she murmured quietly, picking the lined paper up and examining it closely. It looked torn from that very notebook, and her name was written on the front in Gray's own unmistakable, surprisingly neat script. Her stomach fluttered nervously, and she glanced at him; he seemed engrossed in the thick leather-bound history book on his lap, so she quickly opened the note, her eyes scanning the few lines scribbled inside.
It's part of the tradition, even the pictures. Cliff claims
it's only fair, since you girls have to dance in front of the
town at the Spring Goddess Festival.
The first part of the ceremony is the hot spring bath.
After that, we give offerings to the Goddess, and she
grants us a small request. We're not supposed to tell
anyone what we asked for, but She told me I'd have to
ask for myself.
Will you go to the Spring Goddess Festival with me?
Mary stared at the note, a furious happiness welling up inside her. Will you go to the Spring Goddess Festival with me? The words kept rolling around her head in a whirlwind. She told me I'd have to ask for myself. When she finally tore her eyes away from the words and looked up toward Gray, he was watching her, his eyes almost pleading her to answer 'yes.'
So, she smiled shyly and nodded, and Gray smiled his handsome smile toward her and settled down into his chair, looking both relieved and satisfied. And even though her favorite skirt was irrevocably stained with grass and dirt, and Rick probably wouldn't talk to her for the rest of the spring, and she'd never be able to look at the doctor the same way again, everything was completely, utterly, and perfectly fine.
Until a week later, when a mysterious troublemaker stapled several blurred pictures to the announcement board in the square with the Grocery's staple gun, just in time for the Goddess Festival. But that story and the resulting consequences are better left for another time.
My friends and I have a theory: Every good show or game should include the obligatory hot springs episode, where the men attempt all manner of ridiculious stunts to catch sight of the women on the other side of the bath. But why do the women never try the same? Surely the men would never expect it, or wouldn't retaliate as harshly as the women would in the same situation. Thus was born All's Fair in Love and Hot Springs. Finally, the girls get a chance to be... [ahem] naughty. As a side note, I run an anime-flavored RP for a group of friends, and the two female PCs did the exact same thing as the girls here. They weren't caught, though. In fact, through some clever manipulation, they managed to get the men blamed for spying on them. It was great.
A naiad (pl. naiades) is a demigoddess of springs, rivers, and fountains in Greco-Roman mythology. You could consider Harvest Moon's Goddess to be one, although she would be better described as a kami (a Shinto nature deity).
The story was originally supposed to end with the Spring Goddess Festival at the Town Square, but the ending note is much more satisfying without detail. If inspiration strikes me, I may write another one, but since I'm working on yet another HM fic (an AU set in the far future), it might be a little while. But requests are always appreciated!
Any comments, questions, suggestions, or otherwise? Please leave a review -- I appreciate each and every one that I get! It's the only way I'll know what anyone thinks of my writing
[small edit] I added in the proper breaks, since ff.net apparently doesn't like them. I wish they'd tell you these things before you upload them. [sigh]. Also, if you need to leave an anonymous review for some reason (which is understandable), please leave your email address. It's nice to know that I can at least get in touch with a reviewer if we don't exactly see eye-to-eye on certain subjects. Thanks! And thank you to all the reviewers so far :) I really appreciate it.