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“Mayuuuuu,” Yumiko whines, the absolute second the clock strikes six. “Come to karaoke with us!”

I push away from my desk, put my glasses up in my hair, and rub at my eyes. This afternoon’s girls—Yumiko, Hinata, and Rie—clocked out thirty minutes ago, and have spent their last half hour of “work” in the changing room, putting the bounce back in their hair, and a fresh coat of concealer where applicable, while I’ve just barely finished my tally of the week’s invoices. “Sorry ladies, if I spend one more minute staring at a screen tonight my eyes are going to fall out of my head.”

Yumiko puffs out her little chipmunk cheeks, sending a flutter through her loose bangs. Hinata puts her hands on her hips. “For a girl who works at a soapland, you’re awful anti-social, you know.”

Rie, their senior, clucks her tongue. “Ah, leave Mayumi be, it’s time for her monthly ritual.”

“Eeh?” asks Yumiko. Hinata finishes her thought, “Monthly ritual?”

Rie takes them both by the elbows. “Tell you what. You two buy the first round, and I’ll tell you why they call Mayumi the Buddha of Nichome.”

She bids me farewell with a taunting thrust of her tongue from over her shoulder, as she drags her nosey subordinates bodily out the door.

I shut my computer down and step into the empty changing room. I take a deep breath, hold it as long as I can, and exhale loud enough that it bounces off the walls all around me. The heat of their bodies still lingers in the air, clinging to the brilliant light rings of the make-up mirrors, coaxing at my skin. Distantly, I hear the slosh of women cavorting in the public bath. I spread my arms as wide as they can go, rippling my fingers, and relish in the energy that prickles my pores awake.

After I’ve had my fill breathing in the lingering bouquet of talcum powder and floral conditioner, I rinse off in the employee showers, put my hair up, and take to the floor.

Our public bath is as much a draw as our private ones. Even in this day and age, even in Nichome, there are only so many places to meet other like-minded folk. Women of all ages, from incoming country bumpkins breaking loose for their first semester of college, to office ladies spurred into action by the heartbreaking discover of their first grey hair to recapturing their lost youth, to housewives sneaking away for an afternoon spa visit to keep themselves sane, we see them all—often a couple times a week.

And off in the furthest corner of the bath, far away from any risks of forcible social interaction, is a particular sort of girl. You can always identify them by the stance. She sits practically up to her nose in the water. She has light hair cut short and shaggy, pale skin, and a wary look.

“Greetings,” I say with a smile, cupping my hands before me and offering a light bow. “Are you finding everything to your liking?”

A splash. She startles herself upright. Her small breasts break the surface of the water. Her shoulders hunch. She looks at me, wide-eyed. A fawn I’ve caught in my headlights—or the way my arms frame my breasts, anyway. When she proves to be paralyzed, and it’s clear no further speech is coming, I push my glasses up my nose, smile, and ask, “Is there anything we can get for you?”

With great effort, she mumbles something about wanting a drink.

“Funny,” I say, slipping into the water beside her. I am close, but not too close, and yet her knees close with worry just the same. “I was thinking the same thing.”

Quiet as a mouse, the bartender, sets a tray at the side of the bath, between us. A small carafe of sake, two cups. I pour, and offer her the first. She takes it, and I notice the fresh coat of black polish on her nails. A bold choice. It stands out well, against her pale skin.

“Mayumi,” I introduce myself.

“Yoh,” she says, already looking away.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Yoh-san.”

A bob of her throat. Her hands crush around her cup, as if it were a mouse contemplating a prison break. “Yoh-chan, if… if you don’t mind—”

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