“Last week, we covered the supplies of a good home first aid kit. This week, we’re starting lacerations.” Takashi-sensei peered over the edge of her clipboard, her large, round glasses making her look like an insect looking past a stone. “Are there any questions before we begin? Everyone read Chapter 3? Excellent. Now, who can tell me the three goals of wound care? Shizuka-san?”
“To prevent infection, restore function, and restore physical integrity.” Doumeki carefully recited, proud that he didn’t have to check his notes.
“Very good. Someone else, now: the five types of wounds one might encounter in an emergency situation?” Takashi-sensei scanned the class for other “volunteers,” nodding approvingly in his direction.
“As always, Shizuka-kun. Nicely done.” The voice was coming from the old woman next to him, who’d introduced herself to everyone on the first day of class as Doi-san. Somehow, she’d picked him specifically as her friend, making sure they were partners in every exercise. He was never sure why, given that there were other members of the class who seemed to understand the material much more thoroughly and quickly than he did. But she beamed up at him every time he got an answer right, and she reminded him of the grandmothers who came to the temple every week to having a sewing circle and discussion over tea.
The class was held twice a week in a function room of the college nearby his high school. He was the only student his age, which had lead to some awkward discussions. Most of the rest of his classmates were retirees, looking to add the life skills that they’d always meant to have, but never gotten the time to perfect, until now. He stood out in every class, and he knew it—if nothing else, his black uniform was a strange contrast to the colorful clothes and relaxed sweaters his fellow students wore. But after most of the initial awkwardness dissipated, classes became more interesting and some of the older ladies in the class plied him with homemade treats, on the grounds that he was too thin and would never get a girlfriend ‘looking like that’.
“Now, remember, everyone,” Takashi-sensei had paused in her lecture and was fixing her students with a practiced stare that was clearly meant to strike fear into their hearts, “Our first midterm test is next week. It will cover chapters 1-5, and will include a practical component based on one of those chapters. I’ll be available during break to answer any questions you might have. Let’s start again in fifteen minutes.”
“Are you prepared for the test?” Doi-san asked him as the other members of the class started to get up and talk.
Doumeki shrugged. “I think so.”
“You’re not going to say anything more than that, are you?”
“I suppose not.”
Doi-san laughed. “Shizuka-kun, always so stoic! A young man your age should smile a little bit more. Or at least reveal what’s on his mind every once in a while.”
He contemplated this for a moment before he answered. “Maybe.”
“No matter.” Doi-san reached below the desk and pulled a small plastic container from her bag. “Would you like some kinpira? You look like you’ve not been eating well at all this week.”
He accepted the container and chopsticks she held out to him and took a bite. It’s good, he thought, but not as good as Watanuki’s. Not that Watanuki had been doing a lot of cooking lately.
“Don’t you like it?”
The older woman regarded him an arched eyebrow. “Really? You don’t look like you think so. Shizuka-kun, with all due respect, you’re a terrible liar.”
He started to answer, and then stopped in surprise. Wait, did she say what I think she just said?
“There’s something else on your mind. Why are you even in this class if you aren’t going to concentrate? I don’t think someone like you just goes through the motions.”
Going through the motions. He gulped down the rest of the food, a cold lump in the back of his throat. “I never thought of it that way.”
“And?” She prompted him.
“I’m worried about a friend of mine.”
“Yes. A friend of his died, and he hasn’t been the same since.”
“Ah.” Doi-san nodded sadly. “I know what you mean. Some people get locked into a pattern, and all you can do is watch them slowly drown. It’s depressing, isn’t it.”
“Well, as far as I’m concerned, you’re doing the best possible thing. Instead of sitting at home worrying, you’re actually out and doing something about your worry. That’s commendable. You never know when you’re going to be tested, Shizuka-kun. It’s best to be well prepared. Oh, look, break is over.”
Wordlessly, he returned the snack and chopsticks to her, and opened his notebook again. Now, it was time to think and focus, and to put his worries aside. Doi-san briefly touched his shoulder and smiled kindly at him. Trying to put her words out of his mind, he listened to Takashi-sensei’s words about the exam the following week and willed himself to write the words down, even if they had no special meaning at the moment.
Not like this, he thought. I didn’t want to be tested like this! The books from the evening’s class fell from his hands to the ground with a soft thump.
Watanuki lay at the edge of the wooden porch, blood dripping down his hands, his face pale, and his eyes unfocused. Maru and Moro were standing over him and looked up as they heard Doumeki approach.
“Doumeki! Watanuki’s hurt!”
“Hurt! And he’s too heavy!”
For a moment, Doumeki was surprised to find he couldn’t think clearly. The inherent wrongness of seeing Watanuki as a case study was too jarring for his brain to process. Then, as if his thoughts were a movie stuck on fast-forward, he knew what he had to do, and quickly stepped over to the porch.
“Did you see what happened?” He asked as he bent over Watanuki’s shaking body, trying to make sure his friend wasn’t so badly injured that he couldn’t be moved.
“No. We heard him talking to someone.”
“And then he made a hurt noise. And then we came to see, and he was like this.”
“Doumeki, will he be OK?” Maru asked.
“OK?” Moro echoed.
“I think so. But I need to take care of him. Will you to the kitchen and heat some water for me? And get some clean towels.”
Both girls nodded, their eyes still wide and frightened. He remembered Takashi-sensei’s words about bedside manner and added, “I’m counting on you to help. You can do that, right?”
“Yes!” They chorused, the light of purpose slowly coming back to their eyes.
He barely heard their receding footsteps as he picked up Watanuki. He hadn’t seen anything that made him think there was any sort of neck or head injury that endanger the other boy, who weighed very little. Doumeki frowned and wondered what it was that Watanuki ate and drank when they weren’t together. He suspected it wasn’t much.
Mokona hopped through the half-open paper screen door. “Doumeki, in here! There’s already a futon.”
Inside, the room was dark and still, and there was thick, sweet smell, leftover smoke that coated the walls. He ignored it and laid Watanuki down on the soft, cotton mattress. The main injuries seemed to be only cuts on his arms, but they still bleeding and Doumeki knew that was a bad sign. On cue, Maru and Moro appeared with a basin of warm water and a stack of clean rags. The girls were about to close the screen doors, but he stopped them.
“No, we need light and fresh air. Can you see if there’s a first aid kit anywhere?”
Stop the bleeding, he thought as they scampered away again, clean out the wounds. Then assess whether they need stitches or not. He hoped not—Takashi-sensei hadn’t covered that in class, saying that if any wounds needed stitching, they should take the wounded person to the emergency room. Grimly, he started to mop up the blood.
“Do you need help, Doumeki-kun?” Mokona asked.
He blinked. If his life weren’t this complicated already, he might have laughed over the idea of a pint-sized, usually drunk, magical bunny-creature offering to help with first aid for his friend. But this was the crazy that was his life, and it made total sense.
“Hold this one here.” He motioned to the towel under one hand. “Put pressure on it, like this.”
“Did you see what happened?” Now that he’d cleaned up most of the blood, the wounds didn’t look quite as bad as he’d supposed.
“No.” Mokona replied. “I heard him talking to something—maybe someone—and then he started screaming. By the time I got there, whatever it was that did this, it was gone.”
“Did Yuuko ever let dangerous creatures in here?”
“That’s a silly question, Doumeki.” Mokona rolled its eyes. “Do you think she’d allow them passage? Of course, they did slip in sometimes anyway, as they’re wont to do… and now that she’s not here, the barriers may be breaking down a little.”
This nearly made Doumeki stop what he was doing; nearly, but not quite. “Breaking down a little?”
“Yuuko was a strong witch. I still don’t know all the things she could do. But being strong doesn’t guarantee anything after death… and even with all her efforts, it’s likely this place won’t—can’t—last.”
“Ah.” This was new information, but it could be considered later on. Watanuki’s eyes were fluttering open and he convulsed, making Mokona lose its grip. Blood started to flow again.
“No, stop! I can’t do that, I’m not her!” Watanuki was yelling at something only he could see, arms flailing wildly.
Careful not to grab the cuts and wounds, Doumeki put his arms on Watanuki’s shoulders. “Hey. You’re safe now.”
Watanuki blinked, but he stopped moving long enough to let Doumeki push him gently back down on the mattress. “Why are you here?” He was trying to muster his customary annoyance, but Doumeki heard the note of relief and gratitude at the back of his voice.
“I came to check on you. You were hurt. Don’t move, OK? We’ll take care of you.”
“You?” Watanuki looked like he was going to say something else, but then he changed his mind as he looked down at his hands and shut his eyes, shivering. “So much blood.”
“It just looks like a lot. You’re going to be fine.” Doumeki quickly replaced the towel that had been staunching the blood and Mokona held it down with a small paw. “Just relax. I’ll tell you what’s happening.”
“Watanuki’s glasses.” Maru stepped into the room, holding them as if they were made of gold.
“First aid kit.” Moro added as she followed closely behind, handing Doumeki a small but heavy box.
He quickly scanned the contents and breathed a small sigh of relief: everything he needed was there. In fact, it was as if Takashi-sensei herself had been there to pack the kit. Upon final inspection of the cuts on Watanuki’s arms, he decided that he’d take a chance on the bandages alone, and started the careful work of disinfecting and dressing the wounds.
He was unaware of time passing as he worked, but the angle of the sun had dipped by the time he was done. Maru and Moro had fallen asleep, leaning against each other, hair tangled. Mokona said nothing, but carefully stacked the used rags into a pile for cleaning later. Doumeki finally let himself relax.
“Why is it so quiet?” Watanuki asked. His eyes were half closed, but he wasn’t asleep yet. Doumeki frowned.
“You need rest.” He said after a moment’s consideration.
“I see.” Watanuki exhaled slowly. A faint smile appeared. “It’s quiet because I usually do all the talking.”
“You need rest.” Doumeki repeated, unsure what to say. Suddenly, he wished that Yuuko were here. The time-space witch had always had the knack of knowing exactly what to say and when it was appropriate to do so. She’d never pressured him to make idle chatter, either, although he suspected this was largely because his very presence was enough to make Watanuki mad and Yuuko enjoyed watching that. Now, though, she wouldn’t have been laughing. Doumeki imagined her sitting next to Watanuki, murmuring reassuring things, or lighting some incense to send him to sleep, or looking in through the open screen, a question on her lips. He felt entirely too alone.
A soft, furry thing brushed against his hands, his cheek.
“Mugetsu likes you.” Watanuki said, his voice barely above a whisper. “He only touches people he likes.”
Doumeki stared down at the pipe fox that had coiled around one of his fingers, remembering a small baby that had been brought to his parents’ temple for a blessing. At one point, the parents had handed him the baby as both their cell phones rang and everyone else was suddenly nowhere to be seen. The baby had regarded him with serious eyes and grabbed one of his fingers with a strength he hadn’t known a child could possess. The pipe fox was stronger than he expected, too. It made a soft purring noise, squeezed his finger once more, and then slithered back through the air to curl around Watanuki’s head, ending up in a soft heap on his friend’s chest.
He stood up, a little astonished at how much at how much his back hurt.
“Where are you going?” Watanuki asked. There was a trace of fear in his voice, matched by the clenched fist around the edge of the blanket.
“To the kitchen. I need a glass of water. I’ll bring you one.”
“Fine.” Watanuki shut his eyes, as if he could make Doumeki disappear by doing so. “Just... you’ll be here when I wake up, right?”
The answer appeared to satisfy Watanuki, who unclenched his fist and relaxed.
“I’ll stay with him, Doumeki.” Mokona said. “You go and take a break.”
He made his way through the darkened house, to the kitchen, which was remarkably bare. In the old days, there would have been pots and pans on the stove, something in the oven, the refrigerator crammed with snacks... now, there was only a clean counter and tabletop. It seemed lonely somehow. He opened up the refrigerator and found only some week-old bread and supermarket potato salad. Not what I had in mind, but...
“It’s not that bad, actually. The chef at Oda-Super really does try his best.”
Doumeki whirled around. Sitting at the kitchen table was Doi-san, smiling the same kind smile she had in class. “Relax, Shizuka-kun. I’m only here to talk to you.”
“How did you get in here?” He said, deliberately keeping the suspicion out of his voice.
“Oh, that. Actually, I’ve been watching you for quite a while now. Yuuko-san was very powerful, as your rabbit friends says. She asked me to keep an eye on you for a while.”
“You mean... she knew? What was going to happen to her?”
“She had a fairly good idea.” Doi-san’s smile turned wistful and sad. “I owed her, and this was her price for me. I thought it was a small one to pay, all things considered. But she was adamant. She didn’t want you to be alone, I think.”
“Exactly. She planned ahead quite thoroughly, you know.” Doi-san motioned at the other cup in front of her on the table, “Sit down. I made you some tea. I know it’s not as good as his, but I do try.”
Wordlessly, he sat down and took a sip. The hot drink had never tasted so good.
“I think you’ll pass your midterm with flying colors, if what I saw today was any indication.”
There was a long silence while he drank the tea and tried to think of something to say. Finally, he quietly said, “Why are you in my class?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean… are you there just to spy on me? Like Yuuko wanted?”
“Oh, that.” Doi-san’s expression darkened and she looked sad for the first time that day. “I was there already. That’s what she helped me with... her price for helping. My husband died, Shizuka-kun. We were in a car accident on a rural mountain road. I was lucky and thrown clear, but he wasn’t. He died there, on the road, in my arms. I was planning to kill myself. I thought it was my fault. We had been arguing, before the crash, over something stupid. A few days after his funeral, I was sitting on a bridge, waiting for the right moment to jump, when Yuuko-san walked up, and told me there was too much to live for. We talked all afternoon, and by the end, I didn’t want to kill myself anymore. When she told me who she was, I’ll admit I was a little surprised. But she urged me to join the class, and you know what I learned? That even if I’d been a skilled doctor, there would have been nothing I could do. And I started to think that maybe it wasn’t my fault after all. She helped me... very subtly, of course. She loved to show off, but she knew when to be subtle, too.”
“Anyway, she came to me right before you joined the class, and asked me to make sure you were OK, that if you needed anything, to help you in whatever way I could. And I’ve been doing my best ever since.”
“Ah.” He couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Anyway, I should be going. Your friend needs your help. I’ll see you in class in a few days, right?”
“Yes.” He stood up slowly as she did the same. “Thank you for the tea.”
“You liked it? Good. I am rather proficient at that, at least.” She started to walk towards the door, then stopped. “And, Shizuka-kun? Life is too short to be wondering if you forgot to say the right thing. Just a word of advice.”
After she left, he stood there alone in the dark, breathing in the cold night air. Then he found a spare glass and filled it with water.
In the room where he’d left Watanuki, Mokona had joined Maru and Moro in the sleeping huddle. Watanuki was sleeping, too, but shallowly, his brow furrowed as if he were having a bad dream. Doumeki knelt down beside the futon, worried. He was thinking about what Doi-san had said about saying what you felt, and he understood her. He heard it on the lips of many, many people who came to the temple to pay their last respects to dead relatives and friends. But words weren’t his specialty—at least, he’d never worked to make them that way. Actions are better, he thought. You can put your meaning into whatever you do, whether it’s archery or first aid.
Watanuki made a soft, whimpering noise. Without thinking, Doumeki bent down and kissed the other boy’s forehead. As he pulled back, he was gratified to see Watanuki’s face relax, for the first time that day. Actions are definitely better. He took Watanuki’s hand in his. He would be there as long as he needed to be.