Crafty's One-Shots (Dec 25th, 2020: Rising Steam)

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Craftyatom
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Rising Steam (2/5)

Post by Craftyatom » Fri Dec 25, 2020 2:33 am

“Hello?”

“Hey Mom, it’s me.”

“Oh, Natsume - I wasn’t expecting you to call so early!” I can hear a few muffled sounds in the background, and gather that she’s probably in the middle of something.

“Yeah, sorry, I just... I just thought of something, and figured I should call you about it.” That’s a bit of a lie - I was up early this morning, and came up with this idea during breakfast. But calling that early might seem impatient, so I waited until later in the day.

“Oh? What is it?”

“I was thinking about our conversation yesterday. And I thought of a compromise that might work for both of us.”

“Oh...” She pauses, and I can tell she’s not particularly interested. ”Okay, what were you thinking?”

“Well, like I said, I do want to come home and see you all, but I felt bad about leaving my friends behind. But then I realized that I could just bring one of them with me!”

“Natsume, no.”

“Wha- Why not?”

She sighs. “A lot of planning goes into these things. It’s just too late for me to try and accommodate another person.”

I know for a fact that’s not true. “It’s fine, we don’t need... I mean, she can sleep in my room, and she doesn’t eat much anyways, and there’s plenty of space in dad’s car, so-”

“And doesn’t ‘she’ have a family, hmm?”

“They’re all working over the holidays, so she’d be stuck in the dorms otherwise.”

“Look, Natsume, I’m not running a home for neglected children here. It’s tough enough-”

I gasp. “Mom, she is not a ‘neglected child’, she can handle herself!”

“Then why should I have to take care of her, hmm?”

“Because she’s my friend!”

“Natsume, everyone in this house has friends. We do not have room for them all.”

I groan. “And if it’s really so crowded, then why do you keep insisting on me coming home? Why is she so much trouble, and I’m not?”

“Because she is a stranger, and you are family, Natsume!”

“Well, I- Mom, sometimes I-” A few heartbeats press on the inside of my head. “Sometimes, I wish I wasn’t!”

Part of me swears I can feel my mother recoiling on the other end, but my phone doesn’t make a sound until I snap it shut.

The room is unbearably quiet for a few seconds before my phone rings again. I quickly set it to silent, then toss it onto my desk and get up. I need to talk to Naomi about this. She’ll know what to say to make me laugh, or calm me down, or just... make it better.

I throw open my door, step across the hall, and knock loudly on her door. After a moment with no reply, I try again, but still to no avail. Maybe she’s in the common room.

I huff and storm down the hallway. My knuckles hurt from knocking that hard - it’s not too bad, but it helps keep me angry, which is what I want right now, for better or worse.

Unfortunately, Naomi is nowhere to be seen, and I’m about to give up on my search when I spot Rika and Saki talking on one of the common room couches.

“Hey, have either of you seen Naomi?”

Saki nods, and Rika motions towards the door. “Yeah, she went out a few minutes ago to get something from the cafeteria.” I guess it is about time for lunch. “Why, did you need her for something?”

I grumble. “Yeah. I’m pissed, and figured I could vent to her about it.”

“About what?”

Well, I suppose I don’t have anything else to do until she gets back, so maybe talking to these two would help. “It’s my mom again, same as last night. I thought I could convince her to let Naomi come over with me instead, but nooooo, we couldn’t accommodate her, she’s not part of the family, and...” I groan. “God forbid I wanted to have fun over the break for once.”

I’m expecting some simple commiserations, but instead Rika just looks over at Saki, who returns the glance before speaking in her usual calm tone. “Well, keep in mind, our offer is still open.”

“Offer? What offer?”

“Coming with us on vacation.”

I’m confused. “Naomi already said she wasn’t interested, didn’t she?”

“Well, yes, but she might be more interested if both of you came along.”

“Both of... No, that’s what I was saying yesterday, I can’t go anywhere because my family wants me back home for the break.”

Rika grins devilishly, but Saki’s smile is softer, if still a bit knowing. “Well, just because it’s what they want doesn’t mean you have to do it, you know.”

It takes a little bit for me to comprehend what she’s getting at, but once I do, it feels like I’ve blasted through the walls of a bank vault full of new and interesting ideas. A hint of reservation remains, but is quickly silenced by the anger left over from earlier. I’m 18, and if I want to go have fun with my friends over winter break, then why not?

My rebellious mental tirade is interrupted by Naomi walking through the front door from outside. Since we’re on break now, she’s ditched the school uniform for a pair of jeans and a light green hoodie, zipped all the way up to her neck in an attempt to keep the cold out.

She smiles when she sees me, then comes over and hands me a small package - some kind of nutty bar from the cafeteria. “I thought you might be getting hungry by now.” I’m still reeling from my earlier thoughts, and she notices. “Is something up?”

If there were any doubt left in my mind, it’s been blown away. I turn to Saki. “When do you leave?”

“Tomorrow morning.” Perfect, that’s before my dad would get here. With only one question remaining, I turn back to Naomi.

“How fast can you pack your bags?”

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Rising Steam (3/5)

Post by Craftyatom » Fri Dec 25, 2020 2:33 am

Despite coming out on this trip to have fun, I still can’t shake the spectre of my family’s expectations. I’ve spent this whole train ride with one hand in my pocket, fiddling with my phone, afraid to check it. Only now, with a few minutes until we reach our station, do I finally take it out and flip it open.

Nothing new, as expected, since my dad won’t have gotten to Yamaku yet. Some missed calls from my mom yesterday, but she gave up after the first few times I didn’t answer. She probably figured that it wasn’t worth it, since I’d be coming home the next day anyways.

Over the course of last night, I realized that as much as I was angry at my family, I probably shouldn’t disappear without a trace - that kind of stuff is how the police get involved. In an attempt to avoid that, I left a note on my door explaining that I had gone on a trip with my friends, and that I’d be back in a few days.

It’s still going to suck for my dad - he’ll be arriving at Yamaku any time now, after a long drive, only to find out that I’m not there. He doesn’t deserve that, and I wish I could save him the trouble, but I know that if I tried to tell him he’d just show up even sooner. I’ll just have to accept that.

By now it’s probably late enough that I can say something. I start a new message to my brother, who I figure will have to be the intermediary for all of this. Again, not a role he deserves to be burdened with, but one that I’m putting him in regardless.

[Hey. I’m not coming home for the break.]

[Really? You managed to convince Mom?]

[No, I left this morning with some friends without telling Mom or Dad. We’re taking the train to an inn a few towns over.] On one hand, the last thing I want is for my family to come find me while I’m trying to have a vacation. On the other, I don’t want to disappear without a trace, just in case something does happen while we’re out here. I figure texting my brother, paired with the note I left, is a good compromise. Sort of.

He takes a minute to respond - it’s probably a lot to take in. And maybe he’s breaking the news to Mom. [Ha! I didn’t think you had it in you. Don’t tell Mom I said this, but I’m proud of you.] As always, he knows exactly how to calm my nerves.

[Thanks. Hopefully I can use this time to relax for once.]

[Exactly! Take a load off.]

[Tell Dad that I’m sorry he had to drive all that way, okay? I didn’t want him to worry.]

[I’m sure he’ll understand. That said, you could’ve told me a bit earlier :P ]

[I didn’t want it to weigh on you.]

[You’re too kind.] He knows that’s not the only reason, but it’s okay.

[Let me know how they take it. And thanks for being there for me.]

[Anytime. Love you.]

[You too.]

We finish that conversation just in time, as the voice over the speakers announces our stop is coming up, so we grab our bags and head for the nearest set of doors. Well, everyone else grabs their bags - Naomi elected to carry mine for me. I’m thankful for it, but she probably barely even notices: I fit everything into a backpack, while she insisted on bringing a duffel bag full of... whatever it is she has in there.

The station is clearly rather old, albeit in good condition. As we step out onto the sidewalk, however, Saki breaks the bad news: “Given the size of this town, there’s not really much transport. We could call a taxi, but the inn is so close that it would probably be faster just to walk.” She looks at me. “Sorry.”

I wave her off. “Don’t worry about it - if Naomi can make it with that massive bag, I’m sure I can manage.” We laugh, then fall into line behind Saki, who leads the way through the chilly winter air. If anything, I was worried about how she’d take the walk, given that she uses a cane, but she seems more than capable, mostly using it to hold up the weight of her bag.

Luckily, the walk really doesn’t take too long, especially since we spend it chatting. We share little anecdotes about teachers, grades, classmates, and whatever else comes to mind. Nobody mentions my family, and I’m thankful for it. Soon enough, we arrive at a quaint little inn, step inside, and find...

... nobody. The place is empty.

“Hello~?” Rika calls, and a loud thump answers her, followed by a pained wail. Moments later, a woman in a qipao gets up from underneath the front desk, one hand rubbing the back of her head.

Naomi and I freeze for a moment, then exclaim “Yuuko‽” in unison.

Sure enough, the glasses-wearing librarian/waitress recognizes our party. “Oh, Enomoto! And, uh, Katayama! And, ah, um...” She suddenly throws her head down towards the desk in a deep bow, surprising us. “I’m so sorry, I forgot your names! I know you’re the newspaper girls, but...”

Naomi laughs. “The newspaper girls, huh? I like it!”

“Yeah - finally, some respect!” I smile at Yuuko. “I’m Ooe, and she’s Inoue.”

“Ooe... Inoue...” She presses one hand to her temple, trying to push our names into her brain. It’s not that big a deal - we barely ever use the library, or visit the Shanghai, but I guess she takes pride in knowing everyone’s name.

“More importantly,” Naomi continues, “what are you doing here?”

“Oh, me? Yamaku’s library and the Shanghai are closed over the break, since most of the students are out of town. I figured I could use this time to make a bit more money. Can always use a bit more...” She chuckles nervously.

“Yeah, but why here? How did you find a job so far from Yamaku?”

“It’s, ah, it’s actually thanks to Enomoto: I met her uncle when he visited Yamaku once. He mentioned the need for extra staff over the busy winter holidays, and it seemed like the perfect job for me!” She looks down briefly. “Even if the uniform is a bit... unusual.”

Saki picks her bag up again. “Right, well, I suppose we should get to our rooms.”

“Oh, oh, right, sorry! I’ll show you to them right away, let me just-” she searches through some of the items on the desk, then grabs a few to take with her. She starts down one of the hallways, and we follow her for a moment before she gasps and turns back to us. “Sorry, sorry, I should take your bags! Here, let me just, um...” She takes Rika and Saki’s bags from them, then looks at Naomi.

“I’ve got these, it’s fine.”

“Okay, if you’re sure! Follow me, then!” I can see her struggle a little with one bag in each hand, and fail to imagine how she could possibly manage Naomi’s monstrous duffel bag.

We eventually arrive at a pair of doors near the end of the hall, on the left, and Yuuko puts the bags down and takes a breath. “Alright, you’ve got these two rooms. I only set up one futon in each of them, though, since I thought there would only be two of you...”

Saki smiles with a sort of graceful sheepishness. “Sorry, our plans changed at the last minute. Do you have any spares?”

“Ah, yes, there’s another in each of the closets. I’ll get them out for you, just let me-”

Saki swiftly brings up her cane to block Yuuko from entering the nearest room, though her smile never falters. “Don’t worry, we’ll set them up ourselves.”

“A-Ah, right, yes. Well, everything else should be set up for you - feel free to get yourselves settled in, and I’ll be at the front desk if you need me!”

As Yuuko walks away, Rika leans over and whispers to Saki. “Do you have to do that? It’s creepy as hell.”

“I’m simply saving the poor woman from herself. Anyways! Naomi, Natsume, you two can share that room, and Rika and I will take this one. Sound good?”

We nod in agreement, and head into our room, which looks quite nice. It’s probably not particularly big by most standards, but it’s bigger than our dorm rooms combined, so we can’t complain.

Naomi puts our bags down and sighs in relief. “It feels good to finally be here.” She heads over to the closet, and begins looking through it for the extra futon.

“Yeah - like we can finally relax.” Come to think of it, I haven’t thought about my family since we got off the train. I decide not to check my phone yet.

She lays the second futon out on the floor next to the one already there, and it becomes apparent that the spare is much smaller. “You want the big one?”

I shrug. “Nah, I’m fine with either.”

“You sure?”

“Go ahead. You carried my bag, after all.”

“Suit yourself.” She drags her bag over next to the big futon, opens it up, and begins to pull out a few things.

After a bit of unpacking, we hear Rika and Saki’s voices coming from outside, and decide to check out the door at the far end of the room - only to find a hot spring bath, just like I had imagined.

“Woah.” The steam slowly wisping off the surface gives it an almost surreal appearance, despite the very mundane flat stone pavement surrounding it.

Rika smiles. “Great, huh? And we have it all to ourselves!”

“Wait, really?” I look around, and sure enough, there are only two doors leading here, each attached to one of the rooms we have. “Saki, this place is incredible.”

“Don’t say a thing until you’ve actually gotten in. Speaking of which, shall we give it a go?”

We all agree, and head excitedly back into our respective rooms to change. Naomi grabs two towels from the bathroom, tosses me one, and starts...

undressing.

She tosses her light green sweater onto the floor first, revealing a white shirt with a big red heart on the front, then unbuttons her jeans - a darker pair than yesterday - and hooks her thumbs around the beltline, pulling them down and-

I turn around and pretend to fiddle with the towel. I asked, yesterday, whether I should bring a swimsuit, and was told that this was a ‘proper’ hot spring; besides, we’re all friends here.

Right.

It’s different this time. I can’t hear my heartbeat, but my stomach feels worse. My fingers constantly lose their place as I fold the towel one way, then another, then unfold it all again. Even turned the other way, I feel like I can see her behind me, replaying the same few milliseconds over and over. It only stops when a hand grabs my shoulder, and I jump in surprise.

“You okay? You’re taking your time, even for you.”

I turn around slowly, and see Naomi smirking at me, now wrapped in only a towel. My eyes flick down from her mouth to her bare shoulders for a second, before fixating themselves carefully on the bridge of her nose, in an attempt to look normal. “Uh, yeah, I’m fine.”

Her grin disappears. “You sure?” It’s not working.

“Yeah, I just, uh...” I fake a quick smile. “Maybe I shouldn’t get in the springs.”

“What? Why?”

“I don’t know, I’m just kinda... Well, I mean, like you said, maybe something’s up, or something.”

She raises an eyebrow. “Come on, you seemed really interested in getting to try it!”

“Well, yeah, I did, but I- I might join you later. We’ll see.”

That seems to do the trick. “Okay, I guess.” I watch as she heads for the door, then turns around again. “Let me know if you need anything, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Seriously, I mean it. Come get me if I can help.”

“Got it.” Part of me considers saying something, but before I know it Naomi is gone, closing the door behind her. With the room now completely silent, I can hear their voices from outside, joking and laughing as my best friend steps slowly into the soothing spring water.

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Rising Steam (4/5)

Post by Craftyatom » Fri Dec 25, 2020 2:33 am

Rika and Naomi watch the empty road intently, while Saki and I relax in some of the chairs outside the front entrance to the inn, all four of us wearing jackets in an attempt to combat the winter weather.

Over a limited but tasty breakfast this morning, Saki suggested that we head over to the shopping center nearby. Well, ‘nearby’ - it’s far away enough that we have to call a taxi. And so we’re out here waiting, having waved goodbye to Yuuko at the front desk.

I absentmindedly check my phone to try and pass the time. Still 5 missed calls and 2 unread messages from my parents - nothing new since last night. Whatever my brother told them must have worked, at least for now. I should respond to them... eventually. Maybe.

But not right now; Rika exclaims “Finally!” as a blotch of yellow rounds the corner. “I call shotgun!”

Saki and I get up, and she sighs. “Rika, this is the futon deal all over again. The people who need the most legroom should have the front seat. Right, Natsume?”

She’s clearly offering me the position, since I’m the tallest of our little group, but I just shrug. “I don’t mind - and actually, I let Naomi have the big futon.”

“Is that so?” She shrugs in return. “I guess I’ll take the front seat for myself, then.”

Rika pouts. “Fine, but I’m not going in the middle.”

Declining Saki’s offer was almost instinctual for me, but as the taxi driver beckons us over and we open the doors, I realize just how cramped the rear seats are going to be: it’s not a particularly big car. Rika gets in first, sliding over to the far side, before Naomi steps in, claiming the middle seat. As I sit down next to her, I almost wonder whether I’ll be able to get the door closed, but a bit of shuffling from the three of us leaves enough room.

As we all get situated in the back, and Saki talks to the driver up front, I realize that even if I lean against the door, my right side remains firmly in contact with Naomi. It’s not uncomfortable, just...

I look over at her, and she smiles, clearly excited about the journey. I smile back, but then turn to my left and try to focus on the scenery outside, which slowly begins to move as we pull away from the curb. No matter how hard I try, however, I can't stop myself from noticing Naomi pressed against me. It’s not like lying in bed or leaning against a pillow - her outline isn’t uniform, and although she gives way in some places, others are hard and bony.

Still, I decide that there’s nothing to be done about it - I’ll just have to wait until we get there, and try not to think about it too much in the meantime.

Once we do arrive at the mall, we’re greeted by an overabundance of holiday decorations, framing a sizeable collection of stores - it’s not exactly huge, but it’s far bigger than I was expecting given its proximity to the small countryside inn we’re staying at.

I’m not one of those people who enjoys shopping for the sake of it, but even I can enjoy walking around with the other three, ducking in and out of various stores, mostly finding things that we’d never actually want to buy but are fun to talk about anyways. This is what I really wanted from my holiday vacation - screw the hot spring.

We get lunch from one of the fast food places relatively late, since we all slept in this morning, but once we’re done Naomi drags me to the clothing section of one of the larger stores. She rifles through racks and racks of tops and skirts and jackets, and I mostly provide idle commentary, content with my wardrobe as is, no matter how much she says I’d look good in this or that.

Having accumulated a pile of things she’s interested in, however, she heads for the changing rooms in the back; they’re a simple affair, only two booths with what are probably shower curtains mounted over their entrances, each with a long mirror mounted to one wall. I take a seat outside, and prepare for a long wait: it’ll take her at least ten minutes to try on everything in that pile she had.

To my surprise, she comes out after only half a minute or so - wearing different clothes. “Okay, what do you think?”

“Huh?”

“The outfit, Natsu, what’s it like?”

“It’s...” She’s got a dark blue, knee-length skirt, topped by a bright red sweater that looks a little big on her. I shrug. “It’s an outfit.”

She groans. “Yeah, but how is it? Do the colors work? Is it comfy, or too conservative?”

“I mean, I guess it’s... cute?” The sweater really does look cute, poofing up around her a bit. Still, she continues her expectant stare, hoping for a bit more detail. “Look, you know I’m not good at this stuff! I think it looks good on you, what more do you want?”

She rubs her chin with one hand. “This will be harder than I thought. But I have plenty more to try!” She ducks back into the changing booth and pulls the curtain closed, but calls out to me from the other side. “Mark my words, Ooe, I’m going to make an outfit even you can like!”

“I already liked that one!”

“I mean really like! Something that’ll blow you away!”

I sigh, and try to get comfortable in my seat.

In truth, it’s not that bad - I do actually enjoy seeing Naomi in all these different clothes, though she never seems to be content with my reaction. I try using some more specific language, talking about how vibrant that orange is, but it doesn’t really help. There are some outfits that I think suit her better - I like the way they look on her thighs, or her hips, or her shoulders - but it feels weird to bring up her body when she’s trying to focus on the clothes. And so her search continues.

“Alright, this one is sure to be a winner. Prepare yourself!”

“Mmhmm.” I’m no more convinced this time than the last few. She throws back the curtain, and-

All I can see is skin.

“Gah!” I instinctively cover my eyes with one arm.

“O-kay. Not the reaction I was looking for.”

Having regained some composure, I slowly peek out from behind my arm, and realize that she’s wearing a white bikini, with red and green dots painted on the fabric. Can’t blame myself for that reaction, though - it really doesn’t cover much more than it needs to. “Sorry, I thought you came out in just your underwear or something.”

“Ha! Yeah, it’s definitely a bit, uh... small.” She tugs at the top a little, and I instinctively look away again. I swear this girl’s trying to give me a heart attack.

“Why are you trying on a swimsuit, anyways? It’s December!”

“Well, yeah, but it helps remind me of summer. Especially with this pattern: it looks like watermelon!”

She points at the dots on the top, and while I see what she’s saying, I also find it difficult to focus on the design - like before, I keep seeing detail in her body, not the clothes. Especially now, with such a clear view of her chest, and her midriff, and the side of her legs as they meet her hips...

It’s happening again. I can’t catch a break.

I yawn, hoping it’ll make me look natural. “Yeah, I g-guess it is kind of summer-y.”

“Any other thoughts?”

“It looks really... I mean, I guess, I’m more used to one-piece swimsuits?”

“Pssh, yeah right. I’ll take all the help I can get!” She does a little pose, and this time I have trouble looking away. I laugh at her joke, without really getting it. Satisfied with my appraisal, she turns around and heads back into the changing booth - but not before I see her back, bare save for the strings of her top. Even after the curtain closes, I feel like I can still see it.

Luckily for me, she doesn’t try on too many more outfits, and none of them are anywhere near as revealing. Still, I see the ghost of her body in each of them - even once Naomi changes back into her original jeans and jacket, I almost feel like I can still see her skin and those watermelon-colored dots if I look hard enough.

She buys a few of the items she tried on, which will somehow have to fit in that duffel bag of hers, and we meet up with Saki and Rika again - the former is impressed with some of Naomi’s purchases, and it makes me wonder why Naomi took me along with her. Surely Saki would’ve been able to provide better feedback?

Regardless, after wandering around a bit more, and admiring the large-but-reasonable Christmas tree set up at one end of the mall, we decide to head home, in part because we know it will only get colder as the night rolls in. And so, after another cramped taxi ride, which I spend looking out the window again, we end up back at the inn, walking past Yuuko again - I hope she hasn’t been sitting there all day.

With more than an hour left until dinner, the girls decide to go for a dip in the hot spring, and I again decide not to go with them. Naomi tries to push me on it, to figure out why I’m so opposed, but at this point the truth would hurt far more than any of the obvious lies I end up giving her.

And so I’m lying on my futon, listening to my friends’ muffled voices from outside, and wondering how the hell this vacation - which was supposed to be fun, and relaxing, and help me figure out why I felt so protective about Naomi - turned into a constant battle with myself over those feelings.

Willing to do anything to clear my head at this point, I check my phone, and find a new message from my brother.

[How’s it going? Having fun?]

[Not really. How are Mom and Dad?]

[They’re fine. Not happy, but dealing with it. What’s wrong?]

I start, stop, delete, and restart my reply many times. The words seem to come out wrong, always missing the point I’m trying to make. Eventually, I give up, and just send the question I’ve been trying to ignore. [This is going to sound stupid, but... What’s it like to fall in love?]

It feels like a long time, waiting for his response, but he actually replies quite quickly. [Woah! That’s one hell of a question. Why do you ask?]

[Answer my question first.]

[Fine, but not over text. Call me.]

I guess that makes sense - his answer was never going to be a short one, so there’s no point in typing it all out if he doesn’t need to. I hit ‘call back’ on his message, and he picks up right away.

“Hello?”

“Hey. It’s me.”

“Hey! It’s good to hear your voice again. And mom wanted me to call you anyways - she’ll be glad to hear you’re alive.”

“Is she with you?” This isn’t a conversation I want her - or anyone else, really - to listen in on.

“No, I’m out shopping.”

“Let me guess: last minute Christmas shopping.” It’s the afternoon of the 24th, but-

He chuckles. “You know me too well.”

I sigh, and he laughs some more, before I get back on track. “So, about my question.”

“Right. I can answer it, but then you have to answer mine. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“Okay, so. Love. In my experience - which I think is representative - you just sort of start noticing things about someone. How they look, how they talk, what they like, all that sort of stuff. And then, after noticing enough of it, you start thinking about the things you’ve noticed, even when they’re not around. And then, when they are around, you start thinking about the things you thought when they weren’t.” He pauses. “Eventually, you’ve got this whole heap of thoughts that kind of take on a life of their own, and make it hard to focus on the person themselves.”

“O... kay.” I’m not sure I followed all of that, but a lot of it sounded terrifyingly familiar. “So there’s not, like, a chorus of angels or something? No intrinsic and powerful connection?”

“Nah, those are just poetic dramatizations of the stuff I said. Artistic license and all.” He chuckles again. “Anyways, that’s my end of the bargain; let’s hear yours.”

I briefly look around, wanting to be absolutely certain that nobody else is around. I can still hear the other girls talking outside, which gives me some confidence that they won’t be able to hear me, but I lower my voice anyways. “Alright, so, um... I’ve been having some trouble recently. I have a heap of thoughts about... someone close to me.”

“Ah, I see. And you think it might be love.”

“I don’t know. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, but sometimes it really, really does.”

“Hmm. Can you describe some of those times?”

I think back to the first time that feeling happened. “One time, someone asked me for advice on how to ask them out, and I felt really... jealous? Like, I couldn’t let someone take them from me.”

“Well, that kind of thing doesn’t necessarily mean love - it’s common to want to protect your friends from potentially bad relationships, especially if it would mean that they spend less time with you.” Almost as an afterthought, he adds, “Are you friends with this person?”

“They’re my best friend.”

A pause. “Your best friend?”

“Yes.”

“Naomi?”

He chuckles, but my heartbeat is already pounding in my ears, and I realize too late that my silence is damning. “Promise-” I take a trembling breath- “promise you won’t tell anyone.”

“Huh? Natsume, I wouldn’t-”

“Promise!”

“Fine, fine, I promise!” He waits for me to say something, but I have no idea what to say. “So you’re... into girls?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never felt this way about anyone before. I don’t even think I felt this way about her until... recently. I just - I just don’t know.”

“I take it this is why you’re not enjoying your vacation very much?”

“Yeah. It’s supposed to be fun and relaxing, visiting a hot spring, soaking in the water - but I haven’t even been in yet! Every time I think about getting in there with her, my heart starts racing, and I freeze up!” I groan. “And today, we went shopping, and she tried on this stupid bikini in front of me, and now I can’t stop thinking about it! Why does this keep happening to me?”

“You need to tell her.”

“... What?”

“The only way to feel any better about it is to tell her how you feel.”

“I... I can’t do that! She’ll think it’s weird, it- it is weird!”

“Maybe. But knowing that that’s how she feels is what will make you feel better.”

I don’t understand. “How is that supposed to make me feel any better?”

“Right now, your love is feeding on uncertainty. As long as there’s a chance that she might feel the same way, it’s impossible to let go. The only way to get any closure is to find out.” I’m about to object, but he cuts me off. “And maybe you won’t get the answer you want, but I promise that it will hurt less than continuing to guess.”

It seems so wrong, but when I think about how painful the past few days have been, I realize that maybe it would be easier that way. “But I don’t know what to say.”

“Tell her how you feel. Tell her that it’s okay if she doesn’t feel the same way. Tell her that you want to be her best friend no matter what.”

“O... Okay.” I swallow nervously. “I’ll try. Thanks.”

“Good luck, Natsume. It will be difficult, but I know you can do it.”

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Craftyatom
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Rising Steam (5/5)

Post by Craftyatom » Fri Dec 25, 2020 2:33 am

After changing into a towel, I take off my glasses, open the door at the end of our room, and step outside.

Of course, by now the sky is pitch black, matching the biting cold.

I know you can do it. Yeah right.

I couldn’t work up the courage to join the other girls outside earlier. I couldn’t force myself to talk to Naomi when she came back inside. I couldn’t even manage to say anything substantial at dinner. And so I finished my food, left early, and decided that I would try the hot spring, at least once, while nobody else was around.

So here I am, shivering in my towel, treading carefully along the dark stone path around a pool of water Ican barely see, hoping to get something out of this stupid vacation.

As I approach the shallow stairs into the water, I take the towel off, and set it by the edge to keep it dry. Since I’m the only one around, there’s not much point wearing it in. The cold is even worse against my skin for a moment, but I quickly wade into the water, and it’s as if my legs have been transported to a steamy rainforest far away. I sit down against the edge, immersing most of the rest of my body, and then scooch myself further and further forward, slouching back a bit more each time, until everything below my neck is cocooned in the warm spring water.

Heat flows into me from all directions, but it also feels like some of me is flowing outward. Aches and pains leave quickly, and I can’t stifle a contented sigh. Next are the worries and frustrations, all fading away into the steam as I close my eyes. I don’t need to worry about my parents, or the rest of this vacation, or whatever I feel for Naomi, or-

the sound of a door opening.

My eyes shoot open again, and I instinctively cover my chest with my arms, even though I’m practically invisible under the water in this lighting. Looking over at the doors to our rooms, I see a single figure walking towards me. “Hello?” As they pass through one of the lights, I catch a glimpse of short, blonde hair. “Naomi?”

“Hey Natsu~!” I avert my eyes as she trots over to the stairs, and hear a fabric-y thump as she deposits her towel on the ground next to mine. “I wanted to come talk to you after dinner, and when I realized you had come out here, I figured I’d join you.” She wades into the water, then walks over and sits down next to me, my eyes still desperately trying not to look her way. “The water feels amazing, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, it’s... incredible.”

“I heard it can help with joint pain - did it do that for you?”

“A little bit, yeah.” I try to make myself relax, but fail, still tense. Naomi is silent next to me, and for a second I wonder if she has her eyes closed, but a moment later she puts one hand on my shoulder, and I flinch. “Gah!”

As I move away from her, still staring intently at whatever happens to be in the other direction, she groans. “Natsume, look at me.”

Carefully, my heartbeat growing louder, I force myself to look over at her. Like me, she’s slumped into the water a bit, with only her head and shoulders above the waterline.

It’s a little hard to tell with so little light and no glasses, but she looks... worried about me. “What’s up with you?”

“W-What do you mean?”

“Well, first off, you refused to join us in the hot spring, and instead came out here all alone. Why?”

“I-I... I just...” I throw together what seems like the most plausible lie. “I was nervous about being naked around you all.”

She scoffs. “Seriously? We’re all friends here! You don’t have anything to be ashamed of!”

“I know, but-”

“And when we went shopping earlier, you were acting really twitchy the whole time! You barely even looked at me; hell, just now you wouldn’t look at me at all!”

“I, uh... I guess-”

“And this entire trip, it feels like we’ve barely even talked! It’s like the rest of us aren’t even here, and you’re on this vacation alone!”

“I’m just... kind of the quiet type, okay?”

“I know! I know you’re the quiet type, I’ve known you for three fucking years now! This is different - so tell me, what is up with you‽”

No matter how much I think about it, I can’t seem to find a way out. Seconds crawl past, with Naomi giving me this angry, worried, pitiful look, and I can’t find anything to say in return.

Tell her how you feel.

I guess this is it. If she’s going to force the issue, then I can’t keep it from her any longer. “Fine.”

I take a deep breath, and begin.

“A week ago, one of the second-years came to talk to me after the club meeting was over. He asked if you were staying in the dorms over break, and I said I didn’t know. I asked why he wanted to know, and he... He told me he had a crush on you. He knew that I was your friend, and asked me for advice.”

She interjects. “Was it Mizuishi?”

“Huh?” It takes me a second to realize what she’s asking, and then another to realize that she’s spot-on. “Oh, uh... He told me not to tell you.”

“But it was him?”

I nod sheepishly, and she smiles.

“I knew. Way more than a week ago, I knew. When somebody likes you like that, it’s pretty obvious.”

I’m about to continue with my story when I realize what she said, and my eyes go wide. It’s pretty obvious. I can’t see her expression well enough to know exactly how much she meant by that, but it makes me even more nervous.

“Well, I, uh... When he asked me that, I... I felt bad. Like I didn’t want to give you to someone else. And when Saki and Rika offered you this trip, even though I knew you’d have more fun, I still felt jealous. I just... Something in me felt like I wanted you to be mine, stupid as that is.” I look away from her again. “And then, I thought this trip would help, but every time I looked at you, I kept seeing your... Your b-body. Especially when you went out to the hot spring, I just, I, I...” I put my face into my hands. “I’m sorry.”

Before I can spend too much time trying not to cry, she puts her hand on my shoulder again. “Don’t be sorry.”

For the first time tonight, I instinctively look directly at her. “Huh?”

“I don’t think that what you felt was... wrong, I guess. I mean, we’re best friends, so I’d be surprised if you didn’t feel a little... possessive? I feel like that sometimes too, sort of.” She pauses and thinks for a moment. “I can’t say I’ve ever really felt that way about the, uh... The body stuff, though.”

That’s what I was waiting for. I think it hurts a bit less because I knew it was coming, but it still hurts plenty. Then again, I feel a tiny bit of catharsis - maybe my brother is right, and it will be over soon enough. I guess only time will tell. “That’s okay. I kind of expected that.”

Naomi looks away from me. “Natsume, you’re my best friend, so-”

“I don’t want that to change.” I blurt it out in the most unceremonious way possible, hoping to salvage at least that much from this conversation, but she still doesn’t look at me, and suddenly I realize how frustrating it must’ve been when I did this to her earlier.

“You’re my best friend, so, I think it’s worth... trying, at least.” She chuckles nervously. “After all, you can’t be any worse than Mizuishi.”

My heartbeat practically trips over itself, then desperately starts pounding in my ears. Naomi finally looks back at me, her cheeks almost glowing red, and smiles - possibly at whatever dumb face I’m making right now.

“So, what do you think, Natsu?”

I’ve never had so much trouble saying something I actually wanted to. “Naomi, I... I love you.”

She giggles. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

As I struggle to figure out how we ended up here, she pushes herself forward, puts her arms around me, and pulls me into a hug. I instinctively return the favor, but it isn’t long before I notice the smooth skin of her back against my fingers, and her chest pressing into mine. For once, however, I don’t feel bad about it; the feeling washes over me, and the bits and pieces I notice are merely hallmarks of having her next to me.

After a little while, she pulls back, and sits next to me, our shoulders only just touching. A strange thought comes to mind.

“Is it weird that we were both naked when I confessed?”

She giggles. “It’s only weird if you make it weird. Besides, I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.”

“Deal.”

“Perfect - now come on, you have a lot of relaxing to catch up on.” She grabs my hand, and we both lean back against the side of the hot spring, letting our worries float off into the water.

When we eventually get out, we’re both so thoroughly steamed that the cold air barely bothers us. Still, I spend a bit too long watching Naomi as she dries herself, and she catches me, quickly wrapping herself in her towel and trying to laugh it off.

We change into our pajamas, and I put my glasses back on, getting my first proper look at her of the night. After brushing our teeth and turning off the lights, we go to lie down, but Naomi stops me.

“You know, the big futon, it... It does get kind of chilly in there. I think it’s really meant for, uh, for two people.”

My face goes beet red. “Really? I, uh... I mean, we don’t, you know... I guess I- I don’t mind, whatever you want.”

“Alright, well, then...” She gestures me over, and I carefully crawl into one side of the futon. She quickly slides into the other, and we end up lying on our backs, neither wanting to look at the other, an awkward silence falling over us.

Before long, however, she gingerly links her arm with mine, and pulls me a bit closer. I pull back a little in return, and close my eyes.

When I open them again, slowly and groggily, it’s morning already, and sunlight is filtering into the room. Soaking in the spring must’ve made me more tired than I thought.

I yawn, then realize that I’m snuggled up against Naomi, and reflexively jump away. In the time it takes to remember everything that happened between us last night, Naomi grumbles, and then rolls over, draping one arm over me. Having found me, she pulls herself closer, eventually pressing her face into my neck.

I’m almost scared to breathe, as if it might ruin the moment, but she remains there, resting against me, and it feels... right.

Wondering what time it is, and whether I should try to go back to sleep, I grab my phone from off the floor nearby, being careful not to disturb Naomi. It’s about 8:30, but something else on the display catches my attention: it’s the 25th. Christmas day.

Back home, my family will presumably be waking up and opening presents sometime soon. Dad will have insisted on getting a tree, even though Mom hates having to clean up the needles. My brother will have shoddily wrapped whatever he bought yesterday. And they’ll have a whole bunch of food prepared for the occasion. And even if I decide to give them a call sometime today, I won’t get to experience any of that.

But somehow, it might still be the best Christmas ever.

END.
Main route: COM(promise)
One-shots: Crafty's One-Shots (Dark Winter Sky, Dreamy, Path of Least Resistance, Project Blue Curtain, and more!)
Old poetry: Google Drive Collection

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NuclearStudent
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Re: Crafty's One-Shots (Dec 25th, 2020: Rising Steam)

Post by NuclearStudent » Fri Dec 25, 2020 11:49 am

Art that promotes the homosexual and undermines the family unit - where have our good Christian values gone?

For an unironic remark, though, a nice and normal story about normal events.
Feurox: it is extremely difficult to tell whether you're echoing some very interesting sentiments or if you're just attempting to be trite or funny

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