After dinner, Welf parted ways and returned to his own dwelling. He wanted to get started on researching magic circuits and see if he could incorporate defensive and support spells into equipment. He now had a clear path towards the future and was far less abrasive than when they first met. Vahn and Welf bumped fists and wished each other good fortune in their training and development.
As it was already pretty late, Tsubaki snatched up Lili who had been hanging around Vahn and disappeared further into the Minka-like structure of the house. Lili flailed and tried to escape, but Tsubaki just laughed while telling Vahn, “There is a bath further down the hall towards your left. There isn’t a lock, so make sure you put up a sign or something unless you want company. Make sure you get plenty of rest tonight because tomorrow is when the real fun begins. Maybe we can get the count to two-hundred if we try hard enough!”
Tsubaki’s voiced echoed in Vahn’s mind and he couldn’t prevent a shudder from passing through his body. Though he knew it was necessary to increase his strength, Vahn wasn’t sure his mind would be able to last as long as his body. He needed to come up with a plan but wasn’t sure of what to do. For now, he headed to the bath as it had been a long day and he was still covered in dirt from this morning.
Entering the bathroom, Vahn fell into a stupor before excitement began to build inside of him. The bath wasn’t a simple basin or shower, instead, it was an open-air onsen. The room was split into two, with one side being a wooden patio for changing and washing oneself while the other was a build-up of ornamental stones surrounding an oblong pool of steaming water. Decorating the onsen itself were several statuettes and pillars that had been meticulously designed to represent various animals. Surrounding the open area of the bath were high bamboo walls with live bamboo grown to prevent external viewing.
Though he had bathed outside during his stay in the forest, this was Vahn’s first time experiencing an actual onsen. He had only ever seen them in anime/manga in his previous life, and this had always been one of the things he wanted to experience if he had the opportunity. After quickly cleaning himself, he slowly eased his body into the steamy opaque water.
It wasn’t as hot as he expected, but it still warmed up his body. He relaxed against the stone and notice they were somewhat cool compared to the water temperature, and after closer inspection, he found small indentations that drew power from a bevy of nearby magic cores. They seemed to serve the purpose of heating the water while keeping the stones cool to the touch.
The formation of the magic stones themselves was quite interesting, as they had been set into the location of the eyes on the various animal statuettes. It made the entire bath more scenic seeing the glowing red and blue lights against the black-lustered designs. As an experiment, Vahn tried replacing some of the dimmer magic cores and the water began to heat up slightly with the insertion of the newer core.
While he was immersed with the core formation, he heard a sound from behind. His body froze, and he turned towards the door which had just been opened. Tsubaki and Lili had just entered, and the two girls were staring directly at him. As Vahn was inspecting the cores located outside of the onsen, he was standing there blankly while completely nude.
Lili, who seemed to be very flustered, looked down at Vahn’s lower half before blushing a deep shade of red, but unlike in manga she didn’t avert her eyes or try to hide her face. Tsubaki, on the other hand, smiled widely before giving him a thumbs up. “And here I thought you were still just a kid. Turns out you’re growing properly!” She started laughing and moved towards the wall where baskets had been set for clothing.
Vahn looked towards her in confusion before realizing he needed to leave immediately. Tsubaki had completely ignored his presence in the Onsen and started unwrapping her sarashi on the side. Seeing her action, Vahn decided to grab his clothes before heading towards the door that Lili currently occupied.
Lili had been in a daze and hadn’t moved from her spot, continuing to follow Vahn with her eyes. Seeing him approach towards her, she became even more flustered before backstepping out of the door. The moment she entered the corridor she took off running down the hallway screaming, “Vahn, cover yourself you, idiot!”
Vahn was confused, as he never really cared if others saw his body. Ever since his previous life, there had been hundreds of people that had seen him naked. Even his barely covered anything and consisted of a modified hospital gown and slippers. Shaking his head, he grabbed his clothes and made his way towards the door. Before he was able to step out, an arm grabbed around his neck and a soft sensation pressed against his cheek.
“Where are you going this late in the game? I told you to put a sign up if you didn’t want company. Come on, I can see you haven’t finished cleaning yourself. I’ll wash your back!” Tsubaki continued dragging Vahn towards the onsen against his protests. Since she was completely nude, he didn’t know where to put his hands as each spot seemed more dangerous than the last.
At the edge of the water, Tsubaki twisted her hips and executed a perfect shoulder throw while tossing Vahn’s flailing body into the steaming water. Seeing that he had entered, she tested the water with her foot before frowning slightly. “Isn’t this water a bit hot? You must have messed with the magic stones a bit, huh?” She looked towards where Vahn stood previously and noticed he had replaced some of the cores.
As she was a Level 5 and liked the heat as well, Tsubaki left things as they were and dipped her body into the water. At this point, Vahn had managed to recover a bit and was lazily leaning against the rocks on the opposite end of the bath. Since he couldn’t really oppose Tsubaki, he just decided to enjoy the warm water against his skin. It was, after all, his first time in an onsen; it would be a waste not to enjoy it.
“You’re pretty composed aren’t you? That’s kind of boring. I expected you to act flustered and shy, but here you are completely relaxed while naked in the presence of a woman. You aren’t even trying to sneak glances at me, what, do you find my body lacking charm?” As she was pretty confident in her body, Tsubaki wasn’t trying to conceal anything. She was relaxed against the wall with her arms spread out along the rock surface while looking directly towards Vahn.
Vahn released a sigh, not due to her question but because of how relaxed he was becoming. He replied in a lazy voice, “I don’t really care if people see me naked, and it would be rude be rude to stare at a woman’s body. Even if you’re not hiding anything, I’m not going to invite trouble for myself by trying to catch a glance.”
Tsubaki started to laugh loudly after hearing his response. She didn’t expect him to say something so ‘gentlemanly’ and honest. Even she was feeling at least a little nervous sharing a bath with a boy, but here he was almost completely indifferent to the situation.
She began to recall the conversation she had with Hephaestus. According to her speculation, Vahn very likely grew up in a captive environment after being stolen from his mother at a young age. He likely grew up surrounded by people that tried to exploit his heritage, and it was even possible he had experienced many traumatic things which shaped his current mentality. Hephaestus noted that Vahn had an aversion to most people and put a lot of effort into watching them before making decisions.
Assuming Hephaestus’s speculation was correct, Tsubaki began to pity the young boy. Because of the evil and greed of others, he missed out on a normal childhood and didn’t know what it was like to have familial bonds with other people. Even his disinterest and lack of social etiquette in the current situation was likely a result of the trauma that is still deeply rooted in his body.
One of the requests Hephaestus had made to Tsubaki before leaving Vahn in her care was to help him open up to people. Hephaestus believed that Tsubaki’s straightforward personality would allow her to get close to Vahn quickly, and over time it would influence him in a positive way. This was one of the reasons Tsubaki teased Vahn, and even why she had entered the bath together in the first place. Seeing how indifferent Vahn was pained her a bit. At this rate, he’d never have a normal relationship.
“Move over here Vahn. I said I would wash your back for you. After I’m done, you can wash mine.” Tsubaki moved towards the center of the onsen before grabbing a nearby sponge. The water had been infused with a power comprised of various minerals and crushed magic cores. It’s what allowed the magic cores to rapidly heat and cool the water, and also what caused the opaque appearance. Even if she got soap or dirt in the water, it would be diffused by the properties of the water.
Vahn slowly shifted towards her and turned his back. The water made him feel incredibly lazy, and he even began nursing the idea of trying to sleep in it if given the chance. Tsubaki began using the sponge to cleanse his back after applying a cool liquid to his skin. It didn’t bubble as much as normal soap but seemed to stick to the skin more persistently. It was one of the things this ‘record’ lacked, and Vahn thought about trying to purchase some for people as a ‘gift’ in the future. He was certain the girls would like it.
Tsubaki continued scrubbing away at Vahn’s back and was worried seeing how little he reacted even after being in such close proximity to her. As a final resort, after she had finished scrubbing him, she wrapped her arms around his neck and leaned against his back. Vahn, feeling the soft-yet-firm sensation flinched after realizing what was happening.
“Um…Ms. Collbrande, what are you doing?” Even though he didn’t mind when they were simply near each other, Vahn’s heartbeat began to accelerate after being in direct contact with a woman’s body. Tsubaki didn’t answer him, shut just put a small amount of strength in her arms and gently hugged Vahn’s body.
After a bit of time passed, Vahn began to relax and started enjoying the embrace. Though it was different from when Hephaestus hugged him, it was still very comfortable. The warmth of Tsubaki’s body and the heat of the onsen began to overlap, and Vahn slowly closed his eyes while enjoying the variation in temperatures.
Seeing him relax, Tsubaki had a small revelation. Vahn wasn’t immune to women, nor was he unaware of the significance of being naked, he simply had high mental resistance against things he found ‘troublesome’. The more he was pressured, as long as he wasted directly affected in a physical sense, the more he blocked out stimuli. It must be some kind of defense mechanism he developed in his childhood.
During one of the moments Hephaestus was rambling on about Vahn, she mentioned how he had fallen asleep in her arms after she embraced him gently. Hephaestus wanted him to experience being held by someone that cared for him and noticed Vahn was very receptive to her embrace after his initial panic. Now Tsubaki was experiencing the same thing, and she began to understand one of the reasons why Hephaestus was so concerned with Vahn…he lacked security.
Vahn had nobody in his life that provided him a safe-haven from harm. There was no place he could retreat to find security and emotional support. He was so focused on simply becoming stronger and experiencing new things that he kept neglecting the most important factors for his emotional and social development.
Tsubaki, like Hephaestus, realized the most important thing Vahn had been lacking all this time…a Mother. Now, he lay in her arms, completely at ease while entrusting himself to her embrace. It made Tsubaki want to protect him even more…
“WHAT ARE YOU TWO DOING!?”
(A/N: Alternate Titles: ‘Calm Within the Forbidden Valley’, ‘Shameless Cyclops’, ‘A Glimpse of the Future’, ‘Hot, Steamy, Onsen’)