*BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP
My watch's alarm wakes me. The smell of sweat and the sticky feeling on my skin are the second thing I notice as I return from dream land.
With a slight groan, I push off the desk that served as my pillow the night before. Back muscles sting, the ones in my neck feel like they're made of splintered wood, and my face hurts from resting on a hard surface for several hours.
"Serves me right for experimenting when I'm tired I guess..."
Really, that was dangerous. Worst case scenario, I might not have been able to wake up again.
Yawning, I scratch my head and lean back in the computer chair.
If it had gotten to that point though, I'd just re-do everything from the beginning. I might already have for all I know. The one advantage of being me I guess.
I check my watch; the numbers 6:03 blink back at me. Standing up causes my back to creak in response. Grimacing, I stretch it out and look around me.
The room I'm in was Shinozaki Hinoe's. It's mostly unchanged from when she owned it. Old books still sit on antique shelves and strange knickknacks like; a polished old globe, an equally ancient looking candelabrum, a jade dagger, and the patterned rug on the floor still remain. The only thing that's changed is the addition of a collapsible wheelchair by the bed and the computer on the wooden desk.
After stretching, I walk towards the bed. A single woman sleeps there.
Shinozaki Ayumi, the girl I loved; now the woman I love. Her black hair is untied, and I brush a few locks out of her face. Her eyes open at my touch, and stare blankly at me. Those blue eyes don't see anything. They just opened reflexively, signifying she's awake.
"Sorry, did you want to sleep a bit longer?"
Even then, I talk to her.
I greet her every morning, and say goodnight before she goes to sleep.
She blinks, as if not really awake.
"Wait a moment, I'll get breakfast ready."
Leaving her in bed, I exit the room.
In the kitchen, I make some rice porridge. The recipe is simple, and I've had practice. I boil some rice from yesterday's dinner in soup stock made with dried mushrooms. Opening up the fridge, I shove some Japanese sweets to the side to take out a fresh pack of eggs. Cracking in a few, I sprinkle in a little salt to add some more flavor, and check the taste with the ladle I'm using to cook.
I used to avoid using the cooking utensils to check the taste, but it doesn't feel like that big a deal anymore. Besides, getting out another bowl is just a hassle, not to mention the extra dirty dishes.
Adding in a little Ponzu, I taste it again and nod to myself. Getting a bowl from the cupboard, I scoop some of the porridge into it.
The house is quiet as I walk down the hallway; just the pat-pat of my socks against the flooring.
"Thanks for waiting." I announce as I open the door.
Shinozaki remains in bed, staring blankly at the ceiling. Putting down the bowl on the round table in the middle of the room, I unfold the wheelchair with a clack. After locking all its supports in place, I walk back to her.
"Time for breakfast, Shinozaki."
Pulling back the covers reveals her orange pajamas. The top button is undone, and I quickly fix that for her. I guess I must have been really out of it yesterday to have not dressed her properly. Having fixed her clothing, I slip my arms underneath her and lift her out of bed. Her head rests against my chest as I do so, and her smell fills my lungs. After seating her in her wheelchair, I drag the wheeled computer seat over and sit down as well.
"Here, breakfast. Eat up while it's warm." Saying something that a previous me would have called embarrassing, I begin to feed Shinozaki. She opens her mouth as the spoon approaches, and chews a little before swallowing by herself. At first, I took this as a sign of awareness, but there's been no further progress since then. I guess it's just another reflex, or something instinctual. I continue to feed her until the bowl is empty.
"Right, bath time then?" I ask as I put the bowl on the table.
Shoving the computer chair under the desk, I push her wheelchair towards the bath room.
Ordinarily you're not supposed to give a comatose person a bath. Cleaning is done via sponges, but Shinozaki's condition isn't exactly a coma. She can sit, chew, and swallow on her own and she doesn't need help breathing either. I would have worried about leaving her in the bath if she couldn't sit, but since she can, the chances of her drowning are pretty low.
In the bathroom, there's a chair before the sink in the changing area before the bath. Lifting Shinozaki out of the wheelchair, I transfer her over to the 'changing chair'; as I like to call it.
In the past, I almost dropped her the first time I did this. I didn't have any female friends or relatives I could ask for help at the time, and hiring a caretaker was out of the question. Still, man... that day was tiring. I couldn't fall asleep either, so I was a total wreck the next day as well.
Smirking at the bitter memory, I take off my clothes before undressing her. Collared shirt, pants, socks, and boxer shorts are buried by her; orange pajama top and bottom, a white bra, and white panties.
Lifting her up again, I seat her on the plastic stool inside the bathing area. Before her, shelves containing various bottles and toiletries sit beneath the mirror set in the wall. I shut the sliding door that separates bathing and changing areas, behind us and rest her back against my chest. The foam mat squeaks beneath us.
Putting a shampoo hat on her, I take the showerhead from its stand and twist the tap. Rivulets of water flow down her head, before being blocked by the plastic of the hat. Returning the showerhead back to its stand, I pick up a shampoo brush and bottle of shampoo. Squirting some of the silvery liquid onto the brush, I start washing her hair. I used to do it by hand until my fingers got tangled up once. I hope she didn't feel the yanking.
Once I've made sure all her hair has been lathered up, I rinse both her hair and the brush. Returning the showerhead back to its stand, I pick up a bottle of conditioner, and repeat the process. I used to only use shampoo, but then got scolded by another girl when she heard about it. I have to admit, the frazzled look Shinozaki was beginning to gain disappeared ever since I started using the brand of conditioner they suggested. It's amazing how a couple split ends and a lack of moisturizing can make someone look so irritated. I swear, her usual blank gaze was starting to look like a glare.
After washing her hair, I remove the shower cap. Returning both bottles and brush to their original places, I pick up a sponge and bar of soap. I lather up the sponge. Then begin to wash her body. Her skin is smooth. The scars she used to have on her arms, legs, and neck are gone.
Gently, I rub the sponge up and down her neck and chest, before scrubbing her shoulders and arms. She doesn't respond at all. Not a flinch of embarrassment, or twitch from ticklishness. Even as I go over and under her breasts or under her armpits, she just stares at the mirror before her blankly. Soon, her front is covered with white foam, hiding the dots of pink and swells on her chest.
I wrap an arm around her chest, and lean her forward. The sponge travels over her shoulder plates, into the groove along her spine, and draws circles along the sides as I get rid of the sweat from last night.
Sighing, I set the sponge aside and pick up the shower head again. The suds flow down her with the water, almost like an avalanche. I clean her back first, before doing her front. Then, I lift up one of her arms to remove the soap under it and on her sides.
Soap can damage the skin if left on too long. If I don't wash it all off, it could case swelling or irritation.
I repeat the process with the other one. Then grab the soap and sponge again. I shift Shinozaki and the stool backwards, so she rests against the wall.
My heart used to pound painfully when I did this.
I lift up her left leg, and start sponging her inner thigh. The yellow blob goes from the point the limb connects to her waist to the knee joint, and continues for above and below. She stares blankly at the top of my head, as my hands works back and forth over her skin. Once I've finished with the thigh, I put down her leg and stretch it out instead.
In the beginning, this process was almost an experiment in acrobatics. Trying to; stop her from falling off the stool, while lifting her leg up, and washing her shin started twisting both our limbs in directions they weren't supposed to go.
I bought the mat below us right after that. At least if she falls, there's something soft for her to land on.
My heart probably holds a grudge against me for all the stress I put on it that day. I swear it was threatening to resign at the time.
I finish sponging both of her legs, and turn on the shower again. Again, I rinse of the lather slowly and carefully, to make sure no soap is missed.
I carry her out once I'm done. Seating her in the changing seat again, I wrap her in one of the larger bath towels. After that, I pull out a set of underwear from one of the re-purposed towel drawers. There's only the two of us living here, after all. No need for so many towels.
Drying her off, I dress her in the underwear before wrapping her in the towel again.
"Alright, I'll be back soon."
Patting her slightly damp hair, I step back into the bathing room and clean myself.
After a quick shower, I check on Shinozaki to see if she's cold. Her cheeks are still a little red from the bath, and the bath towel is still warm.
Quickly drying myself, and donning my own underwear. I lift her up, and carry her back to the room.
Seating her on the bed, I open up one of the closets. Besides the suit jacket and pants I sometimes have to wear when going to Niwa's office or a really rich client, most of the hangars and shelves inside contain woman's clothes. A lot of them belonged to Shinozaki's sister.
Picking out a shirt and skirt at random, I return to the bed.
It's times like these I regret not meeting up with Shinozaki outside Kisaragi. The only memories I have of her are of her in Kisaragi Academy's uniform or the patients robes she wore at the hospital. If I knew what she wore casually, I might have been able to pick out something she liked. However, there's no crying over spilt milk.
Anyways, I can probably buy all the clothes she wants when she comes back. I've got at least that much saved up. I think...
Having dressed both of us, I collect the wheelchair in the hallway and fold it up again. Shinozaki remains seated on the bed, staring at the wall. I sit down in front of the computer and continue with my work from yesterday.
Incident reports, client information, ongoing investigations, experiment notes, all sorts of documents clutter my screen and task bar.
Sighing, I start work with checking my e-mails. Thankfully, nothing new gets added to the 'shit to do' list I have.
Finishing up a report for Niwa on my latest run-in with the Grave, I print out the other documents and put them in plastic sleeves, before shoving them in my bag. I'll look at them on the train, or when I'm having lunch.
Saving everything, I lock the machine and set it to hibernate.
I cross the room, and pick up one of my business tools; a single Japanese katana, 70 cm in length. It's almost the same as when I first found it. The only things that changed was the addition of a button on the handle and the fact that it's completely silent.
Leaving the room, I go to the yard.
A single tree is planted there. It's a little misshapen. Branches and leaves are lopped off in random places, as if a really bad gardener had used a lawn mower to prune it. Well, I guess that's about half right. I never really had a green thumb.
Standing a few meters away from it, I lift up my weapon. Pushing the button on the handle for a split second causes two stones inside the handle to fit together. A small purple swirl, like colored smoke, starts to form in the air before me. I put the sword, scabbard and all, to my waist. Then draw.
A swift cut, fueled by the momentum of the draw, whips through the mal-formed portal.
The spiritual frame collapses. Effect and cause become linked.
Twigs and leaves splinter. Another patch of the tree tears to shreds.
An object was cut, thus a cut was performed. The only dissonance was the location and time. My spiritual technique, co-developed with Niwa Aiko. She calls it the "S slash", without my consent. The look on Magari's face the first time she took it was brilliant. The beating that followed... not so much.
I return the blade to the scabbard; the back of the blade traces the slit from the base to the tip, before sliding in. Tying the guard to the scabbard, I go through each of the forms San taught me. One after another, they flow. An overhead strike, thrust, guard, cut. Each movement drives me forward to an imaginary opponent. Every cut is from a different angle, each strike aims for a different target. This isn't practice, but a test run. My practice takes place at a different place, a different time.
I don't need perfection. All I need is possibility.
Suddenly, the doorbell ring, interrupting me mid swing.
Packing up, I call out for the ringer to wait. The katana enters its bag. The yard is hidden behind the curtains.
With the important things out of sight, I open the door.
"Good morning, Naka- Mochida-san. Thanks as always."
"No problem, Kishinuma-san."
Mochida Naomi, previously Nakashima Naomi.
Even though I'm not surprised, I still get it wrong sometimes.
"So, how is she today?" She asks as I let her in.
"She's fine. I've given her breakfast and a bath already."
"I've said before, I can do those, you know?"
"What, and let you get rid of one of my morning pleasures?"
"Kishinuma-san, that's inappropriate, you know?"
Frowning, she takes off her shoes and puts on one of the pairs of indoor slippers laid out for visitors.
"So, when do you need to go to the daycare center today?" I ask as I close the door.
"I only have an afternoon shift, so I can stay until three in the afternoon."
She steps inside Hinoe's room and bends down to Shinozaki eyelevel.
"Good morning, Shinozaki-san. How are you doing today?"
Shinozaki doesn't reply.
"She seems in a better mood than usual, today." Standing up again, Mochida turn back to me.
I look at her again, but she looks the same as always.
"Kishinuma-san help me get her into the wheelchair."
After putting Shinozaki into the wheelchair, I gather up the rest of the things I need for work.
"Thanks again for keeping an eye on her." I say as I put on my shoes.
"No problem." Mochida and Shinozaki are both at the entrance way, the former pushing the latter in her wheelchair.
"I'll try to be back before three."
"I'll hold you to that, you know?" Mochida pulls out her cellphone and smiles.
Kneeling down in front of Shinozaki, I place a hand on her head.
"I'll be going, Shinozaki."
Her blank eyes reflect my face.
Patting her on the head once, I stand back up and open the door.
The sun shines brightly. A few clouds whiten the sky.
Today's going to be a busy day. A day filled with spirits, monsters, cults, and conspiracies.
In the world after the Day of Darkness; a world scarred by the effects of the Nirvana and the things sealed inside it, I continue to fight for my goal.
'No matter what' was it?
Yeah, 'No matter what'…
The door shuts behind the man's back. Sunlight which lit up the hallway is cut off again, returning the two women to shadow.
Slowly, the woman in the wheelchair's mouth moves.
"Hmm? Did you say something, Shinozaki-san?"
The other woman behind her leans forward. She's noticed this once or twice. The brief movements the woman she looks after from time to time makes. The small movements her lips make, whenever the man who lives with her leaves the house.
"Have a safe trip…"