All the records said it should have gone into hibernation by now. But then again, a watahaki developing this far had never been recorded.
Ginko hoped it would go to sleep soon.
"What are you doing now?" it asked from its bottle on the floor beside him.
Ginko was sitting cross-legged, ink brush poised over a piece of parchment. "I'm writing a letter to a friend of mine," he replied. It was late in the evening, and the room was lit by a single flickering candle placed next to the green bottle.
"Which friend?" it asked.
Patience was a virtue that Ginko prided himself on. After all, his was a slow-paced lifestyle, full of long walks through mountains and forests, sometimes going for days without seeing another living soul. But even the easy-going had their limits, and his was three days of constant questionings. "A friend," he said through gritted teeth. "Quiet. I'm trying to think."
The watahaki sloshed around in the bottle a little, in a manner he'd come to recognize as contemplative. Good gods, he thought. I'm reading its moods now?
Just as he was enjoying a few moments of blissful silence, it said, "The humans who took care of me mentioned friends sometimes. I never really understood."
Since it wasn't a direct question, Ginko declined to answer, instead focusing on the letter. He wanted to ask Tanyuu if she had any further records on watahaki, maybe something he'd missed. Thankfully, it remained silent as he rolled up the paper and tucked it into his messenger cocoon. As he leaned to blow out the candle, it spoke again. "What's the purpose of having friends?"
"Purpose?" Ginko said, a little thrown. He frowned, staring at the tiny flame as it guttered, then blew it out. It had to be close to midnight, and he was too tired for philosophy. "If you're not going to sleep," he grumbled, laying back on his futon, "at least let me."
The next morning, he woke to sunlight streaming through the windows. When he glanced over at the bottle, the mushi inside it was still. He propped himself up on his elbow and watched it, his one eye slightly narrowed.
"In case you're wondering," the watahaki said, "I'm still awake."
Ginko flopped back onto the futon with a sigh. "Dammit."
"If you're so anxious to have me gone," it asked, "why don't you just kill me?"
"Because that would be needlessly cruel," Ginko replied.
It seemed to contemplate this, as well. After a moment, it said, "I read the scrolls in your pack. Isn't your job to destroy things like me?"
He sat up and achingly pushed himself to his feet. "Only if I have to," he said as he cricked his neck. "You said it yourself, didn't you? It's not your fault. And you're not a danger to anyone as you are now, so there'd be no point to it."
"I see," it said, but it sounded dubious.
Ginko pulled a fresh shirt over his head and headed for the door – and then paused. He looked over his shoulder at the bottle sitting on the floor. This was the perfect opportunity to get a few moments of peace as he went to find breakfast, and yet…
Before he could think better of it, he went back and picked it up, looping the cord around his wrist.
"Where are we going?" it asked.
"Don't get excited," Ginko muttered. "I just wanna go eat breakfast."
"Ah," it said.
"Just don't talk while we're around other people, okay?"
"If you insist."
Apparently, Ginko hadn't insisted enough. As soon as he acquired his meal at a restaurant beside the inn, the watahaki inquired after its contents. Everyone within earshot swiveled to look as Ginko shushed it just a little too late. He didn't pause to try to offer any kind of explanation, just wolfed down the food as fast as he could and hurried back to his room.
"What did I say?" he hissed as soon as he'd shut the door behind him.
"I was curious," it replied.
Curious. The past few days suddenly made so much sense, and he felt like an idiot for not seeing it sooner. If losing its first changeling to Ginko's needle had triggered its learning behavior, then perhaps traveling had given it curiosity. Or perhaps, it was beginning to learn that had led to this. Once given some knowledge, it began to crave more. That, Ginko could understand. Suddenly, he couldn't bring himself to admonish the watahaki anymore. "Just…" he said. "Just be more cautious, okay? Folks aren't always the most friendly towards things like us."
Watahiko's face formed briefly in the liquid to blink at him. "Us?" it asked.
The words had just slipped out. Ginko pinched the bridge of his nose, wanting to reel them back in and pretend they'd never been said, but there was a ring of truth to them he couldn't deny. "The strange," he said. "Things not easily explained. I suppose I'm not much different from you mushi when it comes to that."
"Strange," it echoed. "Yes, you are strange. Even among humans." It swirled languidly inside the bottle. "We have seen many people, but none that look like you. Why is that?"
"If I knew, I'd tell you," he grumbled, crossing the room to where his things were. He put the little jar on top of the box and began to pack.
"Would you?" it asked, watching him pack. It was formless, but he could feel its gaze on him all the same.
"Yeah," he said after a moment. "Yeah, I would."
Tanyuu's response came a couple of days later, and Ginko set down his trunk in the shade and sat on it to read the letter. Sorry, she wrote, I don't know any more than you do. But if he's still awake the next time you come to visit, introduce us, okay?
He could almost hear her laugh, and he wanted to write back it's not a 'he' you should know better, but she did know better and so he knew that she was just yanking his chain.
"Is that from your friend?" the watahaki asked as Ginko folded the piece of paper and pocketed it.
"Yeah," Ginko replied. In the long stretches of road between towns, he'd taken to keeping the watahaki bottle out, dangling by its cord from his wrist as he walked. It stayed quieter when he did this, perhaps not feeling the need to ask when it could just see for itself. And somehow, when it commented on the vibrancy of a bird's plumage, or asked about the name of a flower they passed, he found himself minding less and less.
"You still haven't told me what the purpose of friends is," it said, sounding a little reproachful.
"Look, Watahiko-" Ginko began, and then the words dried up in his mouth. Watahiko? What was he doing? The thing in the jar was not Watahiko. It was a mushi that had killed the real Watahiko. He'd been so busy reminding everyone else of that fact that somewhere along the line, he'd forgotten to remind himself. Suddenly he felt the need to stamp WORLD'S BIGGEST HYPOCRITE on his forehead.
He was ready to wrap up the bottle in a thick cloth and stuff it in the bottom of his trunk when it murmured, "Watahiko… That's something I never understood, either."
Ginko lifted up the bottle to eye level as the mushi briefly formed the boy's face and then melted away again. It didn't seem to have the energy to hold a shape anymore. "What do you mean?" he asked it.
"My kind live by taking the place of real humans," it said. "But I still don't understand why the humans care for us. You said that whenever we were discovered we were destroyed, but that didn't happen to me. Even when my humans learned what I was, they wanted to keep me. The woman even tried to kill you. I don't understand what was so important about Watahiko."
Ginko gingerly prodded at his side, where the stab wound was still healing, and struggled to think of some way to explain it. An idea occurred to him. "You burned the house down to protect your spores," he said. "It's sort of like that. She still considered you to be her own, and would have done anything to protect you."
"But she knew," it insisted. "She knew that I wasn't her own."
"Logic doesn't have anything to do with it," he replied. "Us humans have these pesky little things called emotions. We often listen to our hearts more than our heads. And her heart was telling her that you were her baby."
"I still don't quite understand," it said.
"That's alright," Ginko said. "You don't have to."
It was quiet for a moment, swishing languidly back and forth. Then it said: "But I want to."
Ginko blinked, his eyebrows rising slightly. "Why?"
"Because…" It seemed almost reluctant, but finally admitted, "Because I miss being called Watahiko."
Ginko fell silent, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a cigarette. He lit it, took a long drag, puffed out the smoke, watched the white wisps float through the air and slowly disperse in the faint breeze. There was a chill in the air, signaling the closing of autumn and the coming of winter. After a long while, he said, "Friends are so that we aren't alone in the world."
"What makes a friend?" it asked.
"It depends, I suppose," he replied after another puff of smoke.
"Ah," it said. The breeze grew a little stronger, and Ginko turned up his collar against it. Clouds were beginning to creep across the sky, and he decided that they should probably get moving again. He stood up and slung his pack over his shoulder, and started out on the path again.
"I think maybe, then," the watahaki said, "that you are my friend."
Ginko scratched at his jaw. He wanted to say something like I didn't think mushi had any concept of friendship, or if this is a trick to get me to let you go then no dice, but they died on his tongue because they didn't feel true. "Yeah," he said instead. "Maybe."
That evening a storm hit, and they holed up in a cave a little ways off the road. Ginko started up a small fire to keep warm, then smoked while he watched the rain pour down in sheets.
"I'm tired," the watahaki said suddenly.
"Finally," Ginko said, but there was no real exasperation behind it.
It was motionless in its bottle as it said, "I'm glad that I can go to sleep knowing I'm not alone in the world."
Ginko put his hand on top of it and said, "Good night, Watahiko."
"Good night," it murmured.
In the following silence, the downpour outside seemed suddenly very loud. He wrapped up the bottle in a spare cloth and stored it in one of his trunks bottom drawers. The next time he visited Adashino, he thought of perhaps leaving the watahaki with him for safekeeping – after all, the doctor had learned his lesson after the ink stone incident. But when he left again, the bottle was undisturbed in its drawer, and it remained so for a long time.
After all, he had the rest of his life.