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Exploring the Mysteries of an Unknown World

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Exploring the Mysteries of an Unknown World

It began innocently enough, or so it seemed to Rei at the time. She was sitting on the opposite side of the low table from Ogasawara Sachiko, sipping on some strange black tea that had found its way in front of them at some point. To her left, Rei’s cousin Yamashita Momoko was speaking animatedly to Sachiko, asking all kinds of overly-familiar questions about Lillian and their customs.

What were the uniforms like when you were in high school? Are the rules hard to follow?”

What happens if your family is Buddhist?”

Do you have to confess to a priest? What if you didn’t sin, though?”

Having a real, live Oujo-sama from a fancy Catholic school seemed like a fascinating novelty in the country town they were staying in. Sachiko’s beauty and refined look certainly made her stand out, at the very least, so Rei found that all the attention was somewhat understandable. Plenty of people had stared as they had walked to her cousin’s house from the train station earlier that afternoon, and a few men had even given Rei what seemed like congratulatory smirks. It was only after awhile that she realized some of the less observant folks must have assumed that she was Sachiko’s boyfriend.

I should have worn a skirt today, she found herself thinking. But, if she was perfectly honest, she didn’t really like skirts too much. They made her feel kind of naked, especially during breezy weather.

More annoyingly, Rei’s own cousin seemed to have lost all her manners the moment they stepped through her door. Sachiko had looked a bit bewildered at first, but had adapted quickly, and had begun politely answering Momoko’s questions with a genuine smile.

Rei, for her part, had spaced out not long after they sat down for tea at Momoko’s low table. It was slightly embarrassing to watch her cousin pry into their lives in Tokyo to such a presumptuous degree, but they were already imposing on her and staying over her house, so she felt that it would be wrong to intervene unless she asked about something that was truly none of her business.

“Speaking of which, Rei-san,” her cousin said, turning towards her for what felt like the first time, “why didn’t you move onto Lillian University with Ogasawara-san?”

Like that.

Rei was taken a little off guard at the direct question, jerked out of her stream of thoughts, so it took her a moment to respond. Something acceptable finally popped up in her brain. “Well, I decided to go to a university that has the kind of kinesthesiology program I was looking for, that’s all,” Rei half-lied.

She didn’t feel too guilty about it, though. It was certainly one of the reasons—just not the main one. Just as she said it, she thought to look up at Sachiko and found that the girl was giving her a reassuring glance. Sachiko knew perfectly well why Rei had left, of course.

“Ah, well, we all have to move outside our comfort zones to grow as people, don’t we? It must have been difficult moving so far away. I know you’re really close to Yoshino-san, aren’t you?”

Rei suppressed the wince that her brain automatically wanted to make. Okay, we’re firmly in ‘none of your business’ territory now, she thought. She couldn’t blame Momoko-san, though. She wasn’t privy to the inner workings of a soeur relationship—especially not one as overly close as the one that Rei shared with Yoshino.

In truth, it wasn’t accurate to even call Yoshino her soeur. What they had was a strange kind of marriage, one that had recently ended in a hazy, unspoken “divorce” that Yoshino was still resisting. Rei’s resolve had almost broken more than once; but she knew that she needed to move on. The space to grow was not found in Yoshino’s room back home, where Rei had spent countless hours hiding herself underneath layers of duty and attachment to a girl who simply didn’t need her anymore.

For the moment, though, Rei didn’t want to think about any of it. She didn’t want to remind herself of Yoshino’s face at the train station in Tokyo on the day she had left for university months before, or of the angry phone call she had received just that morning when Yoshino realized that they wouldn’t be going on a summer trip together.

Rei cleared her throat and changed the subject as gracefully as she could. “So, Momoko-san, how have things been around here, anyway? I haven’t visited in years.”

“Oh, things are as they usually are!” Momoko waved her hand as if to say that nothing around there mattered. “You know how small towns are. I’m a bit ashamed to admit this, but your visit is probably the most exciting thing to happen all week! I’m so glad that Ogasawara-san could join you, too! It’s such a coincidence that she was vacationing nearby.”

“I like to get away from the city during the summer if I can,” Sachiko replied pleasantly. “Thank you very much for allowing me to intrude in your home. It is quite nice being able to catch up with Rei-san and meet more of her extended family.”

Rei smiled a little at the “-san” that Sachiko had suddenly added to her name. They had dropped honorifics with each other years ago, but occasionally—especially when she was speaking to strangers—Sachiko would glue them back on temporarily. Rei wondered if it was simply because she had noticed that Rei and Momoko still used them with each other. It was weird sometimes how members of the Yamayurikai were closer to her than her own blood relatives.

“Yes, the summers can be sweltering here,” Momoko-san complained, fanning herself a little. “Luckily it’s been a breezy day. I can only imagine what it’s like in the city. You probably shower with cold water!” Then abruptly, Momoko’s eyebrows shot up on her face, as if she had only just remembered something. “Oh dear, that reminds me. The bathroom is still in a state of disrepair. The old pipes need to be replaced. We only have one plumber in this area, so things move slower around here. I should have warned you before I invited you over!”

“Please don’t feel that you have to apologize, Yamashita-san, it’s really no trouble at all. We’re only staying one night, so it’s not a problem if we forgo a bath,” Sachiko replied.

Rei privately disagreed, but found herself nodding anyway. She fought the urge to sniff herself to check how dire the situation was. They had walked all the way to Momoko-san’s house in the warm evening humidity, and there was bound to be a little bit of residue that needed to be blasted. In particular, Rei had been looking forward to scrubbing off the dirt that had accumulated around her ankles from walking through some unpaved roadways.

“Nonsense,” Momoko said. “I can’t expect my guests to go without a bath! What kind of host would that make me?” She crawled across the tatami mat to a nearby chest of drawers that was pressed against the wall. Rei and Sachiko exchanged a curious glance, then watched her rummage around loudly in one of the lower drawers. She pulled out a pair of tickets. “There’s a sentou not too far from here. I got these vouchers for free when they first opened, and I’ve never used them since I usually have a bath at home.” She offered one to each of her guests. “I trust you’ve been to a public bath before, right?”

“Uh, not since I was younger,” Rei said, reaching out at first, but then quickly shying away from Momoko’s insistent hand. “Thank you very much, but to be honest, the thought of standing around naked in a room full of locals as a stranger in this town feels a little embarrassing.” People had already been staring at them while they were fully clothed, and she wasn’t looking forward to the added scrutiny that came with running around in the buff.

Sachiko shot her a disappointed look and Rei merely shrugged. Perhaps she had spoken too plainly, but she wasn’t an Ogasawara, so she didn’t need to watch her tone too much.

On the other hand, Sachiko shook her head at Momoko and politely declined the offer for much more dignified reasons. “There are only two vouchers there, is that right? Thank you for your hospitality, but what kind of guests would we be if we take your only vouchers and force you to pay the entry fee on your own?”

At that, Momoko’s expression seemed to move in a sheepish direction. “Ah, well…,” she began slowly, “I wasn’t planning on going with the two of you. It’s terrible of me, I know, but I had a prior engagement tonight with...a friend. I can just wash at their house, so it’s no problem for me.”

Sachiko tilted her head. “Even so, Yamashita-san, we would be using these coupons which you could enjoy with someone else. I’m afraid that we’ll have to decline.” She said it with such severity that Rei thought she was being a little silly. Then she turned to Rei. “Besides, it appears that Rei-san is hesitant to expose herself in front of others, which is somewhat understandable. Perhaps it would be more appropriate if we forgo the general entry and simply book a private room, if those are available.”

And that was when it finally struck Rei that Sachiko was trying to come to her rescue. She nodded slightly at her with gratitude, and Sachiko glanced back at her with a look of mutual understanding. They had shared that look many times over the years. This time, though, Rei detected the edge of something else underneath it. There was a very, very light tinge of pink on Sachiko’s face—but, then again, perhaps it was simply the reddish lighting of the low ceiling lamp that hung above them.

The gravel of the old road crunched underneath their sandals as they made their way through the poorly-lit street. The electric lamps that sprouted out from the side of the path in unpredictable intervals were Western-style street lights, but they were very old-fashioned-looking, as if they had been crafted a century before in some European town. Rei wouldn’t have been surprised if they were re-purposed oil lamps.

The road was narrow with no sidewalk, so they walked close together. Both she and Sachiko each held a bucket filled with a cotton washcloth and some toiletries on one side, their free hands swinging easily in the middle space between the two of them. The back of Sachiko’s hand brushed against Rei’s a few times, very lightly. It took Rei more than a block to realize that it had happened too many times to have been by accident.

She looked at Sachiko. There was a small, serene smile on her face. It reminded her a little of the time they had ridden together down the winding Ogasawara driveway on Rei’s bicycle.

“Thanks for all of that,” Rei said after a moment. “You saved me from an awkward situation, even if you may not realize it.”

Sachiko gave her a funny little smirk, the kind that one gives to co-conspirators. “What do you mean?” But her tone said that she knew exactly what Rei had meant.

“If you hadn’t come along with me to Momoko-san’s house, things might have gone differently tonight. She might have even decided to come to the bathhouse with me,” Rei explained anyway. “Even if we had ordered a private room with no strangers….”

“Yes. Disrobing in front of strangers is awkward enough, but when it’s distant family, it can be even more troublesome. You’re not close enough to them to feel comfortable with it, and yet you can’t simply forget about them later the way you can with strangers,” Sachiko agreed. “With just the two of you, she certainly would have insisted on accompanying you. And knowing you, you would have agreed after awhile. You’re easy to wear down.” Sachiko’s smile widened a bit and Rei responded with a wry look.

She couldn’t really argue with those points, though. Rei eventually nodded and turned back towards the street, and it was then that her mind rolled forward a little, and a mild discomfort came over her. It was true that she had never seen Momoko-san naked, which would have made things awkward, but she had also never bathed with Sachiko, either. They had both shared a locker room at some time or another, but Rei had never actually seen her friend fully undressed, as far as she could remember; it could have been that she actually had, and then simply forgot about it, but she was fairly certain that an image like that would tend to stick in her mind.

Sachiko was very beautiful, after all.

Rei wasn’t even attracted to girls too often, but everyone thought Sachiko was stunning, so Rei wasn’t surprised at herself when she found that her eyes occasionally wandered. The attraction was merely superficial, anyway, so she never gave it much thought. It didn’t mean anything.

Still, it did make her both a little eager and a little afraid of what she was about to see. It was only the thick air of respect that had always hovered between them that saved her from growing too uncomfortable with it.

They kept walking. She wondered if Sachiko was thinking the same thing because they had fallen into silence again.

“One of my earliest memories of seeing you do the long jump, during gym class, I believe,” Sachiko murmured out of nowhere. Her hand brushed against Rei’s hand once again. “I didn’t know you very well at the time, but now I’m sure that it must have been you. It was very impressive, seeing all that energy burst from your body, watching someone show off a strength that I didn’t have.”

Rei turned again and looked at her face carefully. Sachiko had moved her gaze to some far-off spot where the road seemed to darken. The town’s landscape was completely unfamiliar to Rei. Even though she had been there many times over the years, there was so much of it that remained unexplored to her because she had never wandered much further than the comfort of her cousin’s house. Maybe she had been a little afraid that she would run into something that she didn’t like.

Still, she advanced further into the moonlit street, side-by-side with Sachiko. It was easier knowing that someone else beside her had the same curious intentions to explore the same place. It took some of the pressure off.

Sachiko, for her part, seemed to move fearlessly onward towards a part of the path where the street lamp’s glow didn’t quite reach. It was only the small twitch in her jaw that clued Rei into the fact that she was growing a bit nervous as they moved closer to the unknown. When her hand knocked against Rei’s once again, it all finally came together and Rei let out a chuckle.

She took Sachiko’s hand in her own. The pink returned to Sachiko’s cheeks, but she squeezed Rei’s hand in response nonetheless.

Sachiko’s afraid of the dark, Rei thought, and gave the other girl’s arm a bit of a deliberate tug, as if she were guiding her through the misty path. Rei made no outward comment, though. She knew that Sachiko would never admit to such a preposterous phobia.

As they walked, Rei noticed something unexpected. She liked holding Sachiko’s hand—more than she should have, perhaps. They hadn’t taken to touching each other much until the later months of their last year together at Lillian, and by then they had nearly graduated and gone their separate ways; but in those few moments they had shared, there was definitely a small jolt of...something whenever they touched each other.

Rei was very familiar with that space, though—not merely a friendly touch, but not quite a sensual one, either—since it was the way people were at Lillian. In some ways, it was mundane and comfortable to Rei. It was the kind of skinship that Sachiko probably shared with Yumi, and what Rei had shared with Yoshino for a long time—until things had changed between them.

“Truthfully, I’ve wanted to see you these past few months,” Sachiko admitted all of a sudden. “We became closer friends than I expected, and I didn’t completely realize this until you were gone and there was a small void left behind at that school. But I know why you left and I know that you’ve outgrown Lillian, so I haven’t wanted to burden you with requests to visit. It’s not my place.”

This time, it was Rei that felt some warmth reaching her cheeks. “I’ve missed you too, Sachiko. Out of all the former members of the student council, I think I trust you the most with...the deeper things.”

When they rounded a wide, dark corner filled with many trees that Rei didn’t recognize, they found the vague shine of a nearby light. This time, Rei felt Sachiko pulling her forward, Sachiko’s steps growing a bit faster now that they had honed in on what they were looking for.

Hot Water, said the plain sign.

There was no overt branding, and the outside entrance featured a rather un-fancy pair of glass doors. Through them, Rei could see the curtains that draped the men’s and women’s side of the baths. There was a counter nearby, with a bored-looking woman scribbling something on a sheet of paper.

The air felt even more humid than the outside the moment they stepped through the doors. Once they had taken off their shoes and stepped onto the ledge of the main floor, the sole employee turned to regard them. Rei felt like they were being beckoned into some shady hotel more than a sentou.

“Welcome,” the woman said. She scrutinized them under the single, dim light bulb that dangled above them. The prune-like wrinkles around her eyes made Rei wonder if she had spent a little too long in the baths herself. “I’m glad to see some new faces around here.” Her tone didn’t quite match the sentiment, though. Rei thought that it was natural for people in such towns to be skeptical of strangers, so she forgave it quickly enough.

“We apologize for not reserving ahead of time, but do you happen to have any private baths?” Sachiko asked her.

“We have one,” the woman replied. She pointed towards a sign that hung loosely below the ledge of the counter. It quoted the prices, which were a bit less than the set prices Rei had seen in Tokyo.

After they each paid their admittance, the woman slowly stretched out of her chair and thumped her way down to where they were standing. With a rather uninterested air, she led them down a small corridor and opened the door to the bathing room.

“No need to close it on your way out,” she said. And then she left them alone, both of them standing at the threshold of the tiled room, the moisture of the air sticking to Rei’s skin coolly.

They waited quietly—for what, Rei wasn’t entirely sure—but some of that awkward air from before had returned between them. She felt the warmth of Sachiko’s body, certainly a bit heated from the walk, radiating in her direction as they each leaned to peer through the door.

There were two chambers that made up the room. In the first, there was a simple alcove indented into the wall, with a some shelves and baskets to place their clothes. The space was not much larger than a wash closet. Beyond it was a sliding glass door that was half open, revealing the wider bathing area.

The bathtub in the far corner was small, only large enough to accommodate two people comfortably, maybe three with some squeezing. A pair of those snaking shower heads hung loosely from the side of the opposite wall.

Sachiko was the first to go in. She pushed past Rei lightly, ducking her head as if to apologize, but even with the narrow door there seemed to be enough room for them to have both cleared it if they had slipped in sideways.

Her eyes were still on Rei after Rei had turned back around from closing the door. They faced the shelf with the baskets together, both hesitating for some seconds, each seemingly waiting for the other to move first. Rei thought about how unusual it was for Sachiko to show her uncertainty so openly—but then again, it was only the two of them there, so perhaps she was not as worried as she usually was about baring those more vulnerable parts of her.

Then Rei decided that since Sachiko had been the first to come in, then it was her turn to offer the next push forward. She grabbed the bottom hem of her shirt and began to pull it up. Since it was summer, and she had few layers, it was easy enough to undress herself. She was naturally rather flat-chested, so she hadn’t even bothered with a bra that day, especially since they tended to make her sweat in humid weather.

She was very aware that as she did this, Sachiko had been openly observing her. She turned to meet her glance once her shirt had been tossed into the basket. Sachiko’s gaze was not one of rude, wide-eyed fascination—she didn’t think Sachiko would ever permit herself something like that—but it was one of mild curiosity.

It was a similar look to the one Sachiko used when Rei would mumble something interesting under her breath, right before Sachiko would casually ask her to repeat herself. It was not a stare that searched Rei’s body for anything specifically, or one that required Sachiko to crane her neck and scrutinize—rather, it was one where Sachiko remained perfectly still and accepted exactly what Rei was willing to show her.

With some hesitation, Rei turned slightly towards Sachiko and showed her. She was a little surprised to find that Sachiko was looking directly at her face with a soft smile that seemed to mean nothing at all.

When Rei turned her gaze back down to begin removing her jeans, she felt Sachiko’s stare wandering some more before finally slipping away. Sachiko seemed to mirror Rei’s movements and began to do away with her own clothes, quietly letting her skirt drop to the floor, along with everything else, until only the warm air served to separate them.

They both stepped towards the door to the bathing area without looking at each other directly. Rei could see the ghost of a reflection on the glass as she began to slide the door all the way open, though, and even just seeing the vague outline of Sachiko’s body made her blush.

Again, Sachiko’s side pressed against hers with a non-accidental intensity as she moved past her. This time, without the barrier of clothes between them, it felt a bit too intimate and Rei even fought the urge to momentarily pull back. Sachiko’s hair tickled the skin of her arm. Before long, though, Sachiko had walked away, heading for the stool that lay in front of one of the shower spigots.

For the first time, Rei saw the shapely image of the back of Sachiko’s form with complete clarity. She could not draw her eyes away. Not knowing whether the other woman could feel her stare, she followed the lines of her figure, followed the interesting curve of her hips and admired the way it led smoothly into the small of her back.

Rei was suddenly more conscious than she had ever been of the fact that she was attracted to Sachiko. She had always found Sachiko attractive—it was just that she had never felt an impulse to do anything about it. Normally, it didn’t matter and she rarely thought about it. It was only now, for the first time, that something in Rei’s nakedness was responding to Sachiko’s own nakedness, something that gave her the very mild desire to reach out and run her hands along Sachiko’s thighs.

It was a desire that was easy enough to ignore, however. What was not quite so easy to ignore, though, was the fact that Sachiko had stopped when she reached the wall, had stood facing away from Rei, had simply stayed there for a few seconds without doing anything. It was as if she were waiting.

When Rei let out a quiet sigh that nonetheless seemed to echo through the bath, Sachiko sat down at the bathing stool and cranked the shower handle with a squeak. Rei blinked and watched the water fall in narrow little rivers along her friend’s back.

There’s something going on here, Rei thought to herself. There’s something strange that is clearly going on, and as usual I’m not getting it.

Or not quite, anyway.

She had an inkling of what it might have been, but she could hardly believe it, so she decided to assume that she was wrong.

She went to the other shower spigot, the one that was closest to the tub, and sat down beside Sachiko. The water came out a little too cold at first, even with the handle twisted toward the tepid middle, but Rei found that she was grateful for the jolt after braving that whole sweltering day.

Cool water sprayed down her head and made a mop out of her slightly overgrown hair. The strands fell in front of her eyes and for a moment she couldn’t see Sachiko at the corner of her point of view. Instead, she could only see a pattern of repeating tile, relaxing in its monotony, the white grout traveling through the corners like a little maze that Rei could get lost in.

What am I looking for, anyway? she thought. She turned the shower off once she was sufficiently soaked, and then reached over for her bar of soap. It was then that she sensed Sachiko’s gaze again. She looked up.

Sachiko watched her attentively, and yet her eyes were relaxed and heavily-lidded, almost as if she were in the midst of a dream. She did not look away even as Rei began to soap the washcloth and then lather the skin of her chest and arms. Rei looked at Sachiko in turn, but did not ask anything.

That feeling was back—the feeling that there was something going on, that something was about to happen. It wasn’t that Rei felt like she was about to do anything, or that even Sachiko was about to do anything; it was simply that something naturally was going to happen to the both of them, and the very fabric of the air around them appeared to be telling Rei ahead of time.

She still couldn’t figure out what it was, though.

“Your shoulders,” Sachiko said finally. Her eyes seemed to travel along the top edges of Rei’s frame. “They’re more muscular than I remember. Actually, the muscles of your chest and your back seem to have grown a little, too. Are you still in kendo?”

Rei could feel the scan of Sachiko’s eyes almost as a physical sensation along her body. It was not unpleasant. “Of course,” she replied with a smile. “They’re working me hard. I’m a newbie all over again and they make us kohai carry all the equipment.”

Now that Sachiko had looked at her so openly, she felt a little less hesitant and let her eyes wander as well. She looked at the smooth skin of Sachiko’s legs, but still did not allow herself to linger too long on what was between them. She let her gaze naturally climb up the curve of the girl’s hips and stomach. Near her upper torso, Rei could see the barest outline of Sachiko’s ribs. Most of her chest was covered in the long, flowing strands of her hair. It coated her like a wet lacquer and hid her breasts coyly, which Rei found very pleasing for some reason.

Perhaps it was because this seemed to be a mystery asking to be uncovered—something she had not yet explored, something daring her to act.

Sachiko’s posture was not closed off from her. In fact, she had tilted slightly in Rei’s direction. She was sitting up straight, as comfortable and open as she was when she was clothed. With a growing awareness, Rei realized that she too had turned her body towards Sachiko.

They looked at each other. Rei could feel her heart throbbing in her ears. She still could not completely understand it.

Without thinking, she reached out and forward. She reached about halfway through the space between them, just out of some sense of instinct—and then the hesitation overrode her natural impulse, and the fingers of her open hand snapped closed. She began to pull back.

Unexpectedly, Sachiko snatched her retreating hand by the neck of her wrist. Rei’s eyes widened. She felt the pressure around her wrist beckoning her to smoothly spread her fingers open again. Slowly, very slowly, Sachiko drew those fingers towards her.

Rei watched her own hand moving away, gliding through the air. She was barely conscious of anything else for those few seconds as it traveled forward. She was only conscious of her stretching arm, of her own breath that blasted loudly inside her head, and of that open hand that reached towards Sachiko.

With a light, moist sound that Rei could barely hear echoing through the room, Sachiko placed Rei’s hand on her breast. She laid it there softly, but then brought her own hand to the back of Rei’s fingers and pressed once, enough so that Rei could not mistake her intention.

She was looking at Rei carefully, directly in the eyes, her expression so serious that it was impossible to discern any specific emotion. She was clearly watching Rei’s reaction. She had emptied her expression in order to fill herself with Rei.

Immediately, Rei felt a twinge of fire at the base of her stomach, one that traveled up her spine. She could not feel much of Sachiko’s skin directly. Her fingers were buried in the strands of Sachiko’s long, elegant hair that fell over her chest. That sensation of pure instinct took over once again, though, and Rei began brushing the hair to the side, pushing it far enough that she could see the pale skin emerging underneath.

She looked intensely at the swell of Sachiko’s naked breast. She squeezed softly, enjoyed the sensation of what it was like to hold it. Then her hand seemed to travel on its own along the slick skin of Sachiko’s chest, up to her collarbone, then up to her neck, then finally up to her face.

Rei’s stare met Sachiko’s again, very directly, very deliberately, as she caressed the side of her face. Sachiko’s eyes were filled with an emptiness, a focus that seemed to fall solely on Rei. But there was a small smile growing on her face. It was a smile of desire, with a very slight touch of relief underneath it all.

They both moved at around the same time, as if some universal timer had called them both simultaneously. Rei’s hand joined the other on the opposite side of Sachiko’s face and Sachiko reached out towards Rei, wrapping her arms around her, grasping at the flesh of her upper back with such intensity that it was very nearly painful.

They kissed, mouths open. There was no waiting, no slow escalation, no hesitant moment. They merely kissed and Rei tasted the warm, soft flesh of Sachiko’s lips and tongue for the first time. When she inhaled deeply, she noticed the scent that was uniquely Sachiko’s surrounding her, but stronger than ever before. It seemed to tinge every part of her, even down to the flavor of her breath.

All thoughts had disappeared from Rei’s mind. There was no way she could do what she was doing and think anything at all at the same time. There was a vague knowing inside of her that what she was doing would not be possible with even a single thought.

She drew Sachiko to her. Their bodies pressed together. She felt the warmth of her friend’s skin and smiled against her mouth.

 The walk home was filled with a thick, seemingly impenetrable silence. It was not exactly an awkward silence, or one filled with anger and regret, or one filled with any sort of negative emotion. It was merely a strange emptiness that seemed to echo along with the sound of their crunching feet against the gravel. Sachiko was holding Rei’s hand again, and in some ways this made it both more and less awkward at the same time.

The truth was that the outer parts of Rei’s brain were scrambling for something to say, something to break the quiet that had fallen over them as soon as their encounter in the bathhouse had been over. The deeper parts of her mind were strangely silent, though. Something inside of her felt genuinely content, satisfied, unbothered by the silly panic that the rest of her seemed to be entertaining.

There are two of me, then, Rei thought. One self that desperately needs to know what happened and why it happened, and another that is perfectly okay with enjoying it for what it was.

The latter seemed readily able to watch the dramatics of the first with bewilderment, so she decided that this second part of her must have been the real her. She was frequently bewildered, after all.

After a long time, she fought the last bits of residual fear, and allowed herself to turn and look down at Sachiko. Her friend looked back up at her. There was a quiet smile, and the only edge of conflict on her face seemed to be a bit of concern. Rei realized that Sachiko was looking for some kind of sign that she was okay, so Rei obliged her with a nod.

Sachiko let her head rest lightly on the side of Rei’s shoulder, and they walked onward.

For some reason, the moonlit road looked different to Rei than it had before they had entered the baths. There was something about it that seemed more alive. She noticed the song of the amorous crickets a bit more vividly, noticed the outline of the flowers that had burst open on the trees and bushes that lined the road. Her body felt a bit more sensitive to the pleasant breeze that occasionally flowed against them.

The silence continued, but it settled into something that did not divide them, but rather allowed Rei to focus on something other than a stream of words. She felt the subtle rocking back and forth of Sachiko’s body as she walked. She felt the tiny wisps of the sparse peach fuzz on Sachiko’s arm rubbing against hers.

They were not very far from the house when finally Sachiko joined the crickets and the caterwauling owls and added her own little song to the night.

“You’ve done that before,” she murmured as they walked up the small hill that led to the house. Her tone was mostly neutral, without judgment, but there was a small undercurrent of wonder. “For some reason, I didn’t expect that you had.”

Rei blushed immediately, and was a little glad that Sachiko couldn’t see it once they had approached the dim entrance to the house. It was true that it hadn’t been her first time at all, but she had only done that with Yoshino before, and she wasn’t sure if that sort of narrow experience translated well to other people.

Rei scratched the back of her head. “How...could you tell?” she asked.

Sachiko only lifted an eyebrow and gave her a tiny little smirk, as if it should have been obvious. She watched as Rei brought her hand to the door, which was just as unlocked as when they had left it.

“You’re good at more than just kendo,” Sachiko whispered as Rei went ahead and stepped inside. She had said it so quietly that Rei barely caught it, and her tone had been somewhat wistful, almost as if she were talking to herself.

Nonetheless, Rei felt what must have been half of her blood supply rushing up to her face. She was faced with an unoccupied living room. Just as her cousin had promised, the place was empty and some unspoken force seemed to be beckoning them to fill it.

“Thank you for taking me to the bathhouse, Rei.” Sachiko’s voice emerged from behind Rei’s shoulder, vibrating against her back, only wavering slightly with residual nervousness. She pressed a warm hand against Rei’s back. “I feel much cleaner now. And you?”

Her face still burning, Rei threw Sachiko a sideways glance. “Yes,” she managed to say, her gaze traveling over towards the door to the guest room that they would be sharing that night. “I feel much better.”

The dirt that had weighed her down that day had indeed been washed away, but there was more to it than that, and Rei was only now becoming more conscious of it. Something she had been afraid of before had disintegrated in those moments of freedom they had shared in the baths, when her inhibitions had dropped away. She felt a bit closer to that quiet, true self that she had been reaching for the moment she had decided to venture out into the unknown world.