March 14 (White Day)
Dad drops me off at the onsen to return the crisply folded robes, ready to accompany me. But I insist he stays in the car. I’m a man now. I’ll handle it. Though, he shoves a jar of balm into my pocket.
My wobbly tree-trunk legs beeline it to the paneled desk. Despite the wood walls and warm lighting meant to comfort, my hands shake. Placing the stack on the counter with care, I drop to a deep bow with my apology to the receptionist. “I-I’m so sorry for causing a disturbance two nights ago. The yukata are cl-clean for your guests.”
The clerk’s response? A gasp.
Here it comes, another eviction.
I know that delicate voice. Daring to peek, I see her shuffle from behind the desk in her kimono and zori sandals. Where the bruising would be vivid, a coordinating scarf covers her neck.
“You rescued me! Thank you so much!” she says, returning the gesture of respect. “I’m Shibasaki Yukiko. Please allow me the honor of knowing who saved me twice.”
Finally, the mass of agar between my ears registers that my continued bow makes the situation awkward, so I force my sore back to move. “M-my name isn’t imp-portant. If you are unharmed, all is g-good.”
While I often stutter a bit, that sentence was pathetic. Why can’t I ever speak straight? She remains bent several ticks more. “I’m sorry for the misunderstanding during your stay. When I came to, I told my father who assaulted me. But you left, before seeing the attacker arrested. Please tell me your name, so we can give you and your friends the hospitality you should have had.”
“May I ask another question?”
Nodding my assent, my stomach tightens. What could she want? We move in different circles.
“How is it you know magic?”
Stumbling backward several steps, I respond as my voice hikes an octave. “H-how do you know about that?”
Her mouth quirks. “I know ki control is uncommon, but magic users are almost always aware of and watch out for each other. Father and I have been trying to figure out how you escaped the community’s notice.”
“M-magic community? Dad said w-we were the only ones.”
She sobers after a giggle sneaks from behind her kimono sleeve. “You’re not alone, but keep that under your hat. I’m sure you’re aware the town doesn’t always respond favorably to things they don’t understand.”
“Well, Ohno-sama, let me fetch my parents.”
“B-before you go…” With both hands, I thrust the jar at her—an offering. “This w-will help heal the bruising. Please, apply it twice daily.”
With the grace of a geisha, she opens it, waving the scent toward her. “Pine and sage balm, with magic?”
I don’t care if she accepted out of some obligation. Helping her heal is what matters. My family can decide together if we discuss the magical aspects with outsiders. “Arnica—imp-ported from Eastern Europe.” Displaying the back of my hand, I point to my knuckles as my words pick up speed. “These sh-should be all sorts of colors, but they’re almost healed. Your br-bruises will be better in a few days too.”
Her smile is better than the warmth of a kotatsu heating table in winter. When she returns with her parents, her father is apologetic, pleading that my friends and I return for a proper visit. I refuse, but his earnest insistence wins out.