Seigi turned his face to the sun and gave a peaceful sigh.
Today has been a really good day.
It had been one of those days when it seemed like the whole world wanted to come to Etranger. As soon as one customer had left, the next one came hurrying in with a new request. Seigi had been kept busy attending to customers, making tea, and washing dishes, but he hadn’t minded. He liked the days when the customers were sparse, and he could spend his working hours listening to Richard give impromptu lessons on the art and science of jewelry, or else pottering around in the kitchen trying to make desserts to tempt Richard’s educated palette. On the other hand, he also liked days like this, when he could stand back and watch Richard do what he did best. It was always satisfying to see him take center stage, whether it was using his charm and his vast knowledge to guide a customer to exactly the right gemstone, or watching him carefully resetting a jewel with his face set in concentration.
And this had been a particularly good day, because when the whirlwind of activity had finally subsided, Richard had remarked that they could both use a break, and suggested that they should take a walk to the park for some fresh air. Seigi suspected that what Richard had really wanted was to visit the little cart selling crepes, but since he’d paid for both of them, Seigi wasn’t going to complain. Now the two of them were sitting side by side on a park bench, finishing their snacks and soaking up the sunshine.
“Well, that was pleasant,” said Richard at last, carefully folding up the wax paper his crepe had come in and dabbing at his lips with a napkin. “Definitely worth the walk.”
Seigi grinned. “You’ve got strawberry sauce on your chin.”
“I do not!” Richard huffed.
“Yes, you do!” Seigi reached out with a napkin and dabbed it on a protesting Richard’s chin. He held it up to show the pink smear. Richard blinked at it.
“Well, what do you know,” he murmured. “Thank you for saving me the embarrassment.”
“Any time,” said Seigi sincerely.
The two of them started back to the shop. Seigi let his mind wander a little as they walked. He found his eye was drawn more these days to what other people were wearing. It was funny how as soon as you learned a new thing, you started noticing it everywhere. A few months ago, he wouldn’t have known or cared if the pendant a woman was wearing was diamond, rhinestone, glass, or even plastic. He still didn’t know how to tell the difference between a diamond and, say, a white sapphire just by looking, but he thought he could at least tell the difference between real stones and costume jewelry now.
He was so absorbed in this guessing game that he didn’t notice trouble approaching until it was too late. Part of it was that the trouble came from such an innocuous-seeming source: a half-dozen or so rowdy middle-school boys, one carrying a soccer ball. It sounded as though they had been having a game, or perhaps they were about to. In any event, they were running down the sidewalk in a cluster, laughing and shouting and shoving each other. There wasn’t enough room for everyone, and in the ensuing traffic jam, one of them bumped Richard to the side, directly toward the busy street.
From Seigi’s perspective, everything seemed to happen in slow motion. He saw Richard stumble, watched him lose his balance, saw the dawning realization as he began to tilt backwards into the street, saw the oncoming car. In such a slow-moving world, it seemed impossible that Seigi could move fast enough, but somehow his hand closed around Richard’s wrist, and he yanked him hard, pulling him upright and then further still, so that he stumbled away from the street and into the wall of the nearest building.
That would have been the end of it, except for a straggler near the end of the crowd of boys who brushed against Seigi as he ran by. Seigi, already off-balance, lost his footing and went sprawling face-down on the sidewalk.
“Watch where you’re going, you little hooligans!” Richard shouted. He was as close to genuinely angry as Seigi had ever heard him.
“Ow, ow, ow,” Seigi complained, as he tried to get up. His whole body felt shaken from the fall, and his hands and knees were smarting where they’d scraped the pavement.
Richard knelt at his side. “Seigi, are you all right? Are you hurt?”
“I’m okay, I think,” said Seigi. He managed to pull himself into a crouch and began inspecting the damage.
“Oh, your hands...” said Richard, sounding genuinely dismayed.
Seigi looked. The tough denim of his jeans had protected his knees from most of the damage, so they were only lightly grazed, but his hands had not been so lucky. Both of them were badly scraped, oozing blood and studded with bits of grit and the rest of the detritus that collected on city sidewalks. He winced. There was still enough adrenaline in his system that he wasn’t really feeling the pain yet, but he could tell he was going to still be aching from this little adventure tomorrow.
“I’m okay,” he insisted. “It’s just a scrape, that’s all.”
“It needs to be taken care of,” said Richard briskly. “No, don’t rub at them - you’ll just grind the grit in further. Just hold them still and we’ll go clean them up when we get back to the office. I have a first aid kit there.”
He laid a hand on Seigi’s arm, guiding him forward, and he obediently started walking.
“Why is there a first aid kit in a jewelry store?” he asked. He was, he thought dimly, feeling a little loopy from the shock.
“In case my clumsy assistant hurts himself,” said Richard. Then he smiled ruefully and shook his head. “I apologize; I shouldn’t say that. You’ve saved me again. I shouldn’t tease you about it. Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.”
They returned to Etranger, where Richard efficiently took over. He marched Seigi to the nearest chair and sat him in it, with an order to sit still until the first aid kit arrived. Then he marched off again in search of bandages. Seigi was happy enough to let him go. Now that the adrenaline rush had faded, he was feeling weak and shaky, and not just from the fall. He could still see, whenever he closed his eyes, that moment when Richard had been about to fall in front of that car. The image of his perfect face crushed into the pavement, the light in those vivid, intelligent eyes rendered dull and lifeless... the very thought of it made him shiver.
But it didn’t happen. He’s safe. Don’t think about it anymore.
Richard came back with the first aid kit and knelt on the floor next to Seigi.
“Now, let’s see those hands,” he said gently.
Seigi obligingly rested his hands on his knees, palm-up. Richard began carefully swabbing them clean with a damp cloth. Then, to Seigi’s surprise, Richard put on his jeweler’s loupe. He understood a second later when Richard fished a pair of thin tweezers from the box and began delicately picking out the bits of gravel and broken glass that had gotten lodged in Seigi’s hand.
This feels familiar, Seigi thought, and wasn’t quite sure why. It wasn’t as though Richard had ever held his hand before. Still, he had to admit, it was rather nice. Even though his scrapes still stung, Richard’s touch was infinitely gentle, and his hands were pleasantly smooth.
All at once, he realized what this reminded him of. How many times had he seen Richard poring over the intricacies of some new gem, peering through his jeweler’s loupe as he held the stone in a pair of tweezers just like those?
He’s treating me like a precious jewel, he thought, and couldn’t help but grin.
“What are you smiling about?” Richard asked.
“I’m just really glad you’re all right,” Seigi replied.
Richard smiled back. “It was a bit of a close shave, wasn’t it? I should have thanked you, back then.”
“You don’t need to,” said Seigi. “I just didn’t want you to get hurt.”
“You seem to save me a lot, do you notice that?” Richard murmured. He put the tweezers away and brought out a bottle of spray antiseptic. “You’re truly my knight in shining armor.”
Seigi wondered if Richard could feel him going warm all over. He was sure his hands alone must have heated up about a hundred degrees when Richard said that.
But Richard went on calmly with what he was doing, wrapping Seigi’s injured hands in clean white gauze.
“There,” he said at least. “That’s about the best I can do with that.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Seigi said.
Richard started packing up his first aid kit again. “Well, I doubt you can get much work done today, so you might as well take the rest of the day off. Don’t worry - I’ll still pay you for the full day. You’ve earned it.”
“If you don’t mind,” said Seigi, “I think I’d like to stay here a while longer.”
What he’d meant was, “I would rather sit here and keep you company, even if I’m not working, than sit at home alone with nothing to do but think about how much my hands hurt,” but Richard took it differently.
“Of course I don’t mind,” he said. “I don’t blame you for being a bit shaky, still. I know I am. Why don’t you just sit there, and I’ll make tea.”
He wandered off toward the kitchen before Seigi could explain himself. Seigi decided not to bother. He did still feel a little shaky, and he was enjoying letting Richard fuss over him. Besides, Richard made good tea.
A moment later, he was settled comfortably with a mug of tea and a plate of cookies, and Richard had gone back to work. Seigi watched him contentedly. A few minutes ago, Richard had been in mortal danger, but now he was back where he belonged, doing what he was supposed to do, and all was right with the world. Even now, Richard was carefully holding a gem up to his magnifier, studying it intently.
Now I know what it feels like, Seigi thought, and smiled to himself.
Contentedly, he sipped his tea and remembered how it had felt to be in such capable hands.