The following days seemed to drag behind the young monk. While before he experienced occasional distraction, he now found it nearly impossible to focus. The pace of his daily tasks was hindered by perpetual musing. It felt as if he had been given a wonderful book to read, only to have it taken away after the first page. What more could he have learned from her? With slight embarrassment, he also wondered if she ever thought of him, as well -- or if she had already forgotten about their encounter. When he realized he would probably never see her again, his daydreams faded into disappointment.
“Shichi! Focus,” came the stern voice of his mentor, snapping him back to the present. At his side was a lacquer box of acupuncture needles, and before him lay a somewhat-voluntary patient.
“I’m sorry,” Shichi said under his breath, steadying the younger tengu’s wrist as he positioned his next point.
“This art is about balancing energy,” Sagiri reminded him. “But first you must balance yourself.”
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” his patient asked with a squint. A row of needles already ran down the back of his hand. “I think you’re making my headache worse.”
“Just sit still, Shusei,” he said, then pierced the surface with a light tap.
“Ow,” the tengu whined, struggling not to move his hand. His mentor closed her eyes with disappointment.
“Shichi, proper acupuncture should be painless. Where is your head today?”
“I’m sorry,” he repeated. “Let me try again.”
“Maybe you should just let Sagiri do it,” Shusei mumbled. This earned him a glare as Shichi pulled a fresh needle from the box.
“I said ‘sit still,’” he said, steadying his patient’s wrist as he pricked his skin once again.
After the treatment was completed, Shichi attempted a clean getaway down the hall towards the garden. Unfortunately, his mentor’s voice caught him in a vice.
“What happened in there?” she asked from the doorway. Her tone dripped with disappointment.
“Forgive me, I had trouble sleeping last night,” her student replied, slowly turning to face her.
“Do you think the life of a healer is full of rest and relaxation? When you choose this position, you choose the responsibility that goes along with it. You must be able to perform, regardless of your mental state. Others’ lives will depend on it.”
A deep shame now grew in his already weary heart. With nothing to say, his head bowed low, eyes locked on the floor.
“That said,” Sagiri continued, her voice softening. “You haven’t been yourself recently. Is everything all right? Are you feeling ill?”
He wished he could tell his mentor about his troubled mind, and perhaps about the strange feeling in his chest. All of his concerns and longings were trapped inside, but unfortunately, they would have to remain that way.
“I’m well. I have only myself to blame.”
“I see. Have some valerian tea before bed and we’ll try again tomorrow.”
“I will,” he said obediently. “And thank you.”
“And one more thing,” Sagiri continued. “We’re running low on hatomugi. I need you to go fetch some before afternoon zazen.”
Shichi could only nod before his master spoke up again, this time with a firmer tone.
“And do try to be quick about it. It’s going to rain soon.”
Sagiri’s request was easier said than done. As he made his way over the mossy terrain, it was a struggle to focus on his task. He knew the best place to find the wild grass, but a glimpse of the old storehouse caused his attention to drift. The tengu stared at it for a while. Indulging himself, he made his way over to take a rest on the front steps. The sky was gray and humid. There was an energy in the air that usually preceded the rain and the trees rustled loudly in anticipation.
Shichi knew he was being foolish. He was still young, for a tengu. Perhaps immaturity was to blame for his state of mind. Monks were not usually allowed relationships of an intimate sort, and he had very little contact with anyone outside of the temple for many years. It must have been the excitement of meeting someone new that had affected him so deeply. An older monk would never allow themselves to be so easily drawn astray from their responsibilities. He had to remember that he would never see her again. Perhaps focusing on that fact would allow him to forget her.
With that thought, Shichi opened his eyes. He remembered her voice and her kindness, how genuine her laughter was -- he didn’t want to forget these things.
Grimacing, he put his fist against his forehead. This wasn’t helping.
It was then that another sound cut through the air -- footsteps. His posture straightened in panic, instantly fearing that his mentor had just caught him daydreaming again. When he looked up, however, it was not Sagiri that stood before him.
“Kana?” he said, his yellow eyes widening in disbelief.
There she stood, this time wearing a lavender yukata that faded into a dusty pink towards her feet. In her hands was a parcel wrapped in an orange cloth. Either she had come back to see him, or Shichi had completely lost his mind to hallucinogenic despair.
“Oh, good,” she said. “I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find you.”
“You came back,” he said, the words tasting rather odd as he spoke them.
“I wanted to thank you properly. And... I felt terrible for leaving without saying good-bye," she explained, approaching the structure and sitting down next to him. "I didn’t want to worry my family by being gone for too long.”
"It's all right," he insisted, holding up both hands. "You really didn't have to."
When her eyes fell he realized how his words might have come across. He swallowed, then softened his voice.
"But I'm glad you're here," he added. "I didn't think I'd ever see you again."
"Well," Kana said. "I liked talking with you."
"Really?" he asked, feeling pleased with himself for the first time that week.
"Yes, of course. Ah, here... please accept this," she said, offering him a cloth-wrapped box with both hands.
At first he seemed hesitant -- after all, he hadn’t helped her with expectations of a reward. It did seem, however, that this gift was important to her. He carefully took it into his hands, pausing before untying the outer cloth. Inside was a box of woven bamboo. The lid opened to reveal a neat row of pink rice cakes. Each was wrapped with a single green leaf which came to a point along the top. He was familiar with rice cakes, of course, but the meals served at the temple were normally too modest for such detail.
Kana caught him staring at the contents of the box, apparently speechless, and quickly filled in the silence.
“I was practicing making these for guests and I thought you might like them. I wasn’t sure what you can eat. Ah, monks, I mean.”
“They’re wonderful,” he finally replied. “Thank you.”
She smiled in response, relieved that he hadn’t rejected her frivolous ‘human food.’
“Will you share these with me? I can’t eat this much on my own,” he said, looking at her expectantly. She hadn’t anticipated the offer, but was happy to oblige. They each picked up a piece, but he still seemed hesitant.
“Uh,” he said, touching the tip of his beak in thought.
“You can eat the leaf.”
“Ah, yes, of course.”
The wind picked up as they ate together, talking about other kinds of human food, as well as what the monks normally ate. Shichi was surprised to learn that the villagers ate many of the same things as they did, and even used some of the same techniques for pickling vegetables. The largest difference, of course, was that the humans would hunt animals for food.
“Do tengu not eat meat?” she asked, closing the box and re-tying the cloth.
“We do. Well, tengu eat practically anything. But monks cannot kill for sustenance.”
“I see,” she said. “So not all tengu are like you.”
“And I assume that not all humans are like you.”
Kana nodded in realization, then flinched as the wind blew her hair into disarray around her features. She attempted in vain to keep it pushed back as Shichi made his own realization. It was going to rain any moment now.
“Oh no,” he said, sitting upright. “I was supposed to--”
She looked back at him curiously.
“Would you like to go for a walk?” he asked, though it came forth as more of a panicked demand than an actual request.
The wind didn’t ease as they made their way down the mountainside, yet somehow they managed to make conversation over the merciless gusts.
“How is your ankle feeling?”
“Perfect, thanks to you,” she replied, stepping carefully over a mound of stones. “Are you a healer at the temple?”
“Ah, I suppose. I’m still in training,” he said, remembering his unfortunate failure earlier that day. He wasn’t sure how much longer his training would last if he let Sagiri down again. When they finally reached the clearing where the proper grasses grew, he immediately set to work. He examined the stalks carefully, feeling the seeds to check for firmness before placing them in a carrying bag.
“Can I help?” she offered, watching his actions intently.
“If you’d like. Choose the black seeds... they should be hard if they’re ready. Be sure to leave a few on the stalk.”
“What are these for?” she asked, following his example and gathering handfuls of the large seeds.
“Many things,” he said. “They’re good for vitalizing your body, or for tea. We also make beads from them.”
Just as she placed her findings into his bag, a droplet landed pointedly on her forehead. Kana glanced up just in time to see the sky flush with falling rain. A hush of water filled the air as they darted for cover, futilely attempting to find sanctuary below the branches.
“There’s a hollow tree nearby,” he called, gesturing for her to follow up an incline towards a grove. By the time they reached it, they were both completely soaked. Their clothes were darkened and sopping and Kana’s hair hung unapologetically over her eyes. When she wiped her bangs to the side, the sight before her sent the girl into fits of laughter.
“What?” Shichi asked, his feathers parted in damp spikes around his head.
“N-nothing,” Kana said, trying to cover her mouth to subdue her snickering.
“You look ridiculous, too,” he insisted, wringing some of the water from his sleeve. “Like a cat that fell into a pond.”
“You’re right,” she admitted, trying to rub the wetness from her eyes. He wished that he had something dry to offer her, like a handkerchief. Suddenly remembering, he reached into his robe and felt for the cloth he kept in his sleeve. Luckily, it was still dry. Shichi offered it to her and she accepted it gratefully, drying her face with a sigh. When she glanced down at it, however, her eyed blanked.
“This... this is mine,” she said. “You kept the ribbon I left?”
Shichi took in a sharp breath, only now realizing that it had indeed been the white ribbon she had forgotten in the storehouse. Though wet, his feathers still managed to raise in trepidation and he looked back at her with wide, fearful eyes.
“Ah, n-no. I... well, you see,” he stammered, waving his hands. “It would have been a shame to waste it. It's high quality cloth!”
Her eyes narrowed at first, clearly not buying his sorry explanation.
“And you kept it in your robe?”
“It was... convenient,” he offered, as if trying to convince himself.
“Or perhaps you just missed me?"
When Shichi didn't reply, she simply joined him in his silence. They watched the rain together, sitting huddled as the water trickled down the rock face. It fell in rivulets, darkening the stone as it went.
“I missed you, too."