"How are these?" Doumeki asked and showed Watanuki the eggplants he'd bought at the store on the way back home.
Watanuki dried his hands with the dish towel next to the sink and eyed the eggplants. He reached over and prodded one with a finger. "They're not bad," he said grudgingly. "I can use them for yakinasu. I won't fry them this time - you're gaining weight." He shifted and prodded Doumeki's side like he was one of Watanuki's eggplants.
"Take it as a compliment," Doumeki said and batted Watanuki's hand away.
"I knew your stomach would catch up to you someday," Watanuki crowed as he finished putting away the dishes and went back to the pot of boiling noodles on the stove. Watanuki was taller now, although he was still nowhere as tall as Doumeki. Watanuki seemed to take this as an open act of aggression and called him a freak whenever he had to ask Doumeki to get something off the top shelf.
"Being a professor isn't an active job," Doumeki replied and bent to run his stubble across the back of Watanuki's neck. Watanuki yelped and ducked away. "Not like running errands for the shop."
He snapped his mouth shut, but Watanuki's face had already softened into the thoughtful expression he wore whenever he thought about the shop and Maru and Moro and Mokona. For all that Watanuki had complained about their taunts and demands, Doumeki was sure he missed them.
He still remembered Yuuko disappearing twelve years ago, and he remembered finding Watanuki a few weeks later crouching on the store room cradling Yuuko's kimono close like a child.
"I have a choice," Watanuki had whispered. "I can inherit the store. I can stay here and make sure the store doesn't disappear; I can take care of it until she comes back."
It had made Doumeki angry. "And when will she come back?" he'd asked. "How many years are you willing to wait, Watanuki?"
"It's no use being selfish-" Watanuki started.
"There's every reason to be selfish," Doumeki snapped, and Watanuki met his eye and looked afraid. He hadn't looked so frightened since Doumeki had shouted at him for giving up his eye to Jorougumo. "You're allowed to be selfish. Think of Tsuyuri. Think of Kunogi." Doumeki was desperate and not above dirty tactics because by god, he wasn't going to let Watanuki do this. He wasn't going to give Watanuki up so easily, no matter how readily disposable Watanuki thought himself. "What about Yuuko? Do you think she would want you to spend your whole life here?"
Watanuki looked down at the floor and then to the kimono in his hands. "N-No."
"Then get up," Doumeki snarled, seizing him by the elbow and jerking him to his feet. "And let her come back to us when she will."
Watanuki hesitated and then nodded. He followed Doumeki out of the store room and back into the shop but put one foot inside the door and then stopped. "The shop," he said. "It has to stay in this world no matter what. I…I can't let it…there is a price." And there had been a steely expression on his face that Doumeki hadn't liked at all. "And I think I'm obligated to pay it."
"Fine, I want to," Watanuki had snapped, but there had been creases at his forehead.
"Is it a high price?"
"Oh yes," Watanuki had breathed. "Yes, very high. But I'll do it. I want to do it."
"A woman saw me today," Watanuki told him over dinner. Watanuki had made cold soba and vegetable tempura for the hot weather, and they were eating with the windows open. A sudden gust made the door shiver slightly and stirred the collar of Watanuki's shirt. Watanuki wore modern clothes now. Long before when the wounds from Yuuko's disappearance had been fresh, he had worn old kimono in jarringly familiar patterns and had taken up the habit of smoking whenever he thought Doumeki wasn't looking. Doumeki hadn't liked it, but he had said nothing. He had been incredibly relieved however when Watanuki had switched to dark pants and sensible shoes and white collared shirts a few years later.
Watanuki only wore his old kimono whenever he went for official consults now; he and Doumeki were still quite the celebrity pair in the spirit world. Watanuki had slowly become stronger and stronger over years of hard work, his latent power opening up like a flower. Doumeki supposed it was why the spirits found his blood so delicious in the first place, not that Watanuki had to worry about them. Watanuki was quite a formidable character now; even Ame-Warashi and the Tengu Guardians treated him with all the respect due to the owner of a wish shop.
"Did she have a wish?" Doumeki asked between shovelling food into his mouth because Watanuki's cooking really was very very good.
"What was the wish?"
Watanuki rolled his eyes and shrugged. "Jealous lover. You know. She kept one of his old handkerchiefs close to her at all times; it had gained a surprising amount of malicious power for such a little argument. I went to the shop to put it away in the store room."
"Maru and Moro and Mokona?"
Watanuki shook his head. "No. They were asleep. They're still asleep. But they look peaceful. The Jorougumo came into the shop today, actually. She had a wish. Some scarlet pearl- I'm working on it."
Doumeki grunted disapprovingly. He didn't really like that woman…thing.
"She asked me about you."
"Mm." Doumeki finished his glass of cold barley tea and reached for the fresh pot. "What did she ask?"
Watanuki ducked his head, but Doumeki saw the tips of his ears turning red. "Nothing."
"We do all those things, you know," Doumeki reminded him, staring unabashedly. Watanuki had grown into himself after high school, becoming less gangly and more graceful. Now he was all slender elegant wrists and long legs and pale shoulders. God, Doumeki loved him.
Watanuki's face went red. "Don't say that so casually!" he said, raising his hands.
With any luck, Watanuki would be on the path to full-fledged arm flailing any minute. Doumeki decided to try. "We're probably doing those things tonight."
"Not if you don't shut up about it!" Watanuki snapped and oh yes, his arms were in the air now, and Doumeki was definitely amused. "You can't say those kinds of things! What will the neighbours think? Oh, of course. I know exactly what they think. They think you're a nice young man who's too good a catch to be living by himself. And you let them believe that. You're such a liar."
"About what?" Doumeki asked innocently.
"Well, you're not actually very nice, are you?" Watanuki retorted, but he was smiling.
Doumeki reached over and covered Watanuki's hand with his own. The neighbours all thought he lived by himself. He thought they would have liked Watanuki. "I'm alright."
"I suppose you are," Watanuki replied and curled his long slender fingers over Doumeki's.
Doumeki didn't know exactly when he'd realised what the full extent of Watanuki's price to keep the shop had meant till a few days after the incident in the store room when he and Watanuki had come into school, and there had been someone else sitting at Watanuki's desk.
"Who is that person?" Doumeki had asked Watanuki suspiciously.
"Doumeki, listen," Watanuki had pleaded, suddenly looking anxious. "There's something I have to tell you-"
"Doumeki," one of the members of the archery team interrupted. "We have extra practice after school today. Coach told me to tell you."
Doumeki nodded, and the boy turned, bumping violently into Watanuki and sending him flying into a desk.
The girl next to the desk jumped away. "Kuroda, you're so clumsy!"
Kuroda laughed, and Doumeki clamped a hand on his shoulder. "Apologise," he said in a low voice.
"What?" Kuroda looked at him in confusion and then back to the girl. "Uh, sorry."
"No, I mean-"
"Doumeki," Watanuki interrupted quietly. "Stop. He can't see me."
"What do you mean, he can't see you?" Doumeki demanded. "Kuroda, you see Watanuki, don't you?"
"I haven't seen Oguchi since last week," Kuroda said. "I think he's sick."
"No, Watanuki," Doumeki said tersely.
Kuroda nodded. "Yeah, see you at practice."
He went back to his seat, and the girl straightened out the desk. Doumeki turned to Watanuki, who was looking at him wide-eyed as if Doumeki was going to strike him, and for a moment, Doumeki wanted to because Watanuki had done something. Watanuki had done something terrible.
Doumeki loomed over him, and he knew he must have looked terrifying, but he didn't care. "Tell me what you did."
Watanuki ducked his head.
They'd ended up on the roof at lunchtime like always, Doumeki and Watanuki and Himawari. Watanuki had packed them his customary bento, but for once Doumeki didn't touch it, and Himawari looked like she would cry at any moment.
"Wh-what do you mean no one can see you?" Himawari asked. "How could they forget you?"
"I'm like the shop," Watanuki said helplessly. "People who have wishes can see me, at least until their wishes are granted. You two can see me - so can Kohane-chan and Obaa-chan. And anything from the spirit world can see me. Anything powerful."
Doumeki's fist tightened at that. No, that couldn't happen again. "Does that mean you-"
Watanuki shook his head and then lifted his chin in a show of false bravado that Doumeki couldn't bear to shake. "They wouldn't dare eat a wish shop keeper."
"B-But Watanuki-kun," Himawari said, and she was crying now. "How will you graduate from high school? H-How will you go to college? And after that-" Her voice broke, and she reached out to clench Watanuki's hand tightly.
Watanuki squeezed back. "It will be all right, Himawari-chan."
"How can it be all right?" she had demanded, wiping her eyes. "We were supposed to be together, all three of us. And now we're…we're all drifting apart."
They had sat on the roof in silence for a moment, listening to the far off sounds of students eating lunch and the soft shh-shh of wind blowing through the trees.
"Let's eat," Watanuki had said finally. "It's almost time to go."
"Himawari-chan called today," Watanuki said as he absently ran his fingers through Doumeki's hair. They had gone to bed long ago, but Watanuki hadn't been able to sleep, and Doumeki was waiting till Watanuki decided to tell him whatever was bothering him. Sometimes it took Watanuki a few hours of babbling and twisting himself around and around into knots to figure out what he wanted to say, but Doumeki was patient.
He shifted his head from where it was lying on Watanuki's chest to look at him. Watanuki's expression was unreadable in the dark, but his posture was unmistakable. "She's visiting?"
Doumeki hmmed. It was the first time she would be visiting them in their house. She lived in Kyoto now. It was reasonably close but far away and expensive enough that the three of them had done nothing but exchange phone calls for years. The last time they had seen her had been at her wedding. Doumeki knew Watanuki missed her, missed being a part of her life.
They had never really given Himawari any reason to suspect they were more than friends. It wasn't that she would have disapproved, but Doumeki knew he was naturally reticent, and Watanuki for all his noise and exuberance was too shy to show any affection around other people. It would be the first time she would see them together instead of just separate voices on the phone. Watanuki was probably anxious about it; he always worried over little things like that.
"She's bringing Kazuki," Watanuki added.
"Kazuki Hiroshi," Doumeki said and put his head back down comfortably. "One of your old customers."
"He doesn't remember me now, of course. Well, me as the shopkeeper," Watanuki replied, still playing with Doumeki's hair. "I granted his wish."
"I remember him," Doumeki murmured. "He found us at the train station. He said-"
"-Please, let me find a good wife who doesn't mind when I'm away," Watanuki finished. "He said he had been lucky in everything else but love, and he was getting old and lonely."
"He was twenty-eight," Doumeki said flatly, and felt Watanuki's low quiet giggle reverberate through his chest. "Kazuki always has been overdramatic."
"Yes," Watanuki agreed. "He was in Tokyo on business. And Himawari-chan came to visit the next day."
"Mm. Was that your doing?"
"No," Watanuki replied, and the fingers in Doumeki's hair stopped. "It was something far older than me."
They lay together quietly for a moment thinking about it. Doumeki wondered if he and Watanuki had been hitsuzen too, but he didn't believe that. He didn't believe that it had been fate that had brought them together, because he couldn't believe there had ever been a chance of them being apart. He thought of a way to put that into coherent words, but he knew Watanuki would just pull his ears and call him a romantic.
"We'll put them in my room," Watanuki decided.
"This is your room," Doumeki said and raised his eyebrow at the jumble of their combined clothing in the closet and his clunky watch sitting on top of one of Watanuki's folklore books on the side table.
"I meant my old room," Watanuki said peevishly. "Before you…you-"
"Seduced you," Doumeki repeated dutifully, because he had heard all of it before. He leaned up to kiss Watanuki. "Like an arrogant bastard." Watanuki tasted like toothpaste and slightly like the anmitsu they'd eaten after dinner. "With my stupid smirk."
"Yes," Watanuki agreed, but there was no venom in it. "You…you and your stupid…you- oh."
Doumeki bent his head to suck a kiss high on Watanuki's pale slender neck where it would stand out in a tight red bloom, and Watanuki squeaked in a way Doumeki always found terribly endearing. Watanuki let him do what he wanted for a moment and then slapped the back of his head. "Stop it. People will see."
"Will they?" Doumeki asked softly.
Watanuki was silent for a moment. "No," he admitted. "No, they won't."
Doumeki hmmed comfortingly and tucked his head under Watanuki's chin. He felt Watanuki curl his hands around his shoulders and run his thumbs over them in tight circles. Doumeki fell asleep like that.
Watanuki set the alarm early on the weekdays. He always woke up before Doumeki, always peeled himself out from under Doumeki's slumbering body to go make breakfast and pack their lunches for the day. By the time Doumeki was awake and finishing his coffee, Watanuki usually had three bento boxes in a sturdy bag to take with him to the university. He walked Doumeki there every morning like Doumeki had once done for him long ago when he'd worked for Yuuko. Watanuki liked it. It was a short train ride to the university and the flocks of students walking from the station to class reminded him so strongly of high school that he half-expected to turn around and see the student council members all walking in a group or Doumeki's fan club covertly seeding themselves into the crowd around him or Himawari falling into step beside them with Tanpopo perched on her shoulder.
Doumeki taught in the chemical engineering department; Doumeki's forte in high school had always been in the sciences, and Watanuki suspected the only reason Doumeki had chosen to also minor in folklore studies was because of the price Watanuki had paid for the store. Doumeki was trying to find a loophole, a blip in the contract, and Watanuki suspected Doumeki could have been formidable as a prosecuting lawyer if eloquence had ever come naturally to him. But strangely, Watanuki was grateful Doumeki had never learned.
"I'm having lunch with Kohane-chan today," Watanuki said as they passed through the hallway. Doumeki parted the crowd easily, and Watanuki followed in his wake. The students were all curious about Doumeki; they praised his neatly ironed shirts and his beautifully made bento and gossiped that he secretly had a wonderful wife who did all those things for him.
"That's fine. I have to work through lunch anyway."
"Eat," Watanuki told him curtly and handed him the bento box. "I'm coming back after lunch to make sure you've finished this."
"Yes, Kimihiro," Doumeki intoned obediently and took the bento.
They stopped by Doumeki's office (Watanuki still found it hilarious that Doumeki had an office) to drop off the bento and Doumeki's jacket and then down to the classroom where Doumeki held his morning classes. Most of the students were already there unpacking their pencils and notebooks.
"What are you talking about today?" Watanuki asked as he followed Doumeki to the board in the front of the room.
"Water molecules and hydrogen bonds," Doumeki replied. He picked up the chalk and began to write, and the students began to quiet down and take their seats.
"Hm," Watanuki said approvingly. "The Ame-Warashi would like that." He rose up on his toes and pecked Doumeki on the cheek. "Have a good day. I'll be in the library."
"Hn," Doumeki replied neutrally, and Watanuki was sufficiently versed in Doumeki-speak by now to understand that as 'don't go too far.'
"Kimihiro-kun," Kohane called, and Watanuki waited for her to catch up to him in the crowded hallway.
People's eyes went to Kohane and then slid away. Later on if asked, they would have said they noticed nothing unusual about her but would have been unable to recall exactly how she got from her classroom to the benches outside the canteen. It wasn't simply that Watanuki was invisible, he was forgettable - even the few mortals with enough power to see him often stopped and blinked as if they had something in their eye and then continued on their way.
"I prepared your lunch," Watanuki said and gave her one of the bento boxes from his bag.
Kohane accepted it eagerly, and they sat down at one of the benches closest to the trees. Watanuki studied her for a moment. She really was beautiful now with her bright wavy hair and long eyelashes. Watanuki was certain she could have been quite popular in college if she had ever paid attention to anything like that.
"I told my mother about you, and she sent me these," Kohane said shyly and showed him the small wrapped package of ohagi in her bag. "There's three pieces. Please keep the one for Shizuka-kun for later."
"No, we can share it," Watanuki whispered conspiratorially. "He eats too many sweets anyway."
She smiled at him. "Only because you make them, Kimihiro-kun."
"Oh no, that guy will eat anything," Watanuki joked, but he was thinking of Valentine's day three years ago when Doumeki had eaten every single one of his handmade chocolates without complaint, and it had only been afterwards when Watanuki had run his fingers over the remaining crumbs that he'd realised he had forgotten to put any sugar into the bitter baking chocolate.
"Ah! It's looks delicious as always," Kohane commented as she lifted the bento lid. "Tororo soba!"
"We made soba for dinner yesterday," Watanuki said apologetically. "If you want something else-"
"Oh no," Kohane interrupted. "My mother used to make me tororo soba all the time when I was younger." She cracked the egg with her chopsticks and carefully mixed the yolk into the radish paste on top of the soba.
"How is your mother doing?"
"She's doing very well," Kohane replied. "She's living in Osaka now. I think it suits her. I call her once every week. We get along better on the phone, I think."
"Do you think you'll ever go back to live with her again?" Watanuki asked.
Kohane toyed with the tiny rings of green onions in her soba for a moment. "No," she said finally. "Obaa-chan is teaching me important things. I think Mother could teach me things too. Different things, but still important." She gave Watanuki a small hesitant smile. "I used to think that all I ever wanted was for her to love me again. But…that is very selfish. I'm glad she's happy. And I have so many good friends with me here."
"We love you very much too," Watanuki said warmly. "Obaa-chan and all of us. Himawari-chan asks after you constantly."
Kohane brightened. She and Himawari had struck up an easy friendship in the years after Watanuki's transition to defunct shopkeeper. "Does she? Oh, I hope she comes to visit soon. I have to see how much Tanpopo has grown."
Watanuki laughed. "He has to perch on her arm now. It's a good thing Kazuki is fond of birds."
"Himawari-chan loves birds. Kazuki is fond of Himawari-chan," Kohane corrected him, and not for the first time Watanuki was struck by all the eerily keen observations Kohane rattled off so casually. It reminded him more than a little of Obaa-chan, and he wondered what sorts of things Kohane had been learning from her.
"Mm," Watanuki agreed, smiling. A shadow fell across the table.
"Excuse me." A boy and a girl were standing near Kohane with bento boxes in their hands. The boy was smiling at her. "Are you eating alone again?"
"Yes," Kohane said quellingly, and her expression was cold. "I would like to eat alone, Tachibana."
The girl frowned at her, but Tachibana continued anyway. "Are you sure you don't want any company, Tsuyuri?"
"I am quite sure," Kohane replied firmly.
"Then you wouldn't mind us sitting on the other end of the table, would you?" Tachibana wheedled.
"It's no business of mine. You can sit where you like," Kohane replied and went back to her bento.
"You could be kinder to him, Kohane-chan," Watanuki admonished as Tachibana and the girl put their lunches down.
"Hmph," Kohane said, and it was the first time Watanuki had ever seen her look irritated. "He thinks he's so popular with the girls here. I don't care about him at all."
"You're very popular, yourself," Watanuki told her. "Slide over," he added sidelong to the girl at their table, who had been ignoring Tachibana and staring at them all the while. "You must have a wish."
She jumped. "H-How am I able to see you?" she stammered. "Tachibana didn't even look at you - he acted as if you weren't even there. Are…" She looked frightened. "Are you a ghost?"
"I grant wishes," Watanuki said smoothly, fidgeting with the collar of his shirt. He much preferred doing his transactions in his formal kimono. "For a price."
"Price?" the girl repeated. "What sort of price?"
"It depends," Watanuki replied. Kohane frowned at him. "But do you have a wish? Something you desire?"
The girl hesitated and looked down at her hands. "I want Tachibana to notice me," she mumbled.
"Ah," Watanuki said and nodded. "I can't make people fall in love. But I don't think that's what you intended."
"N-No," the girl said. She looked embarrassed. "I kn-know Tachibana would never love me. He..." She took a deep breath. "He doesn't do that. But once, oh, just once. I want him to look at me."
"What will you give me?" Watanuki asked. "The pendant around your neck?"
The girl's hand went to it. "This? But I…is this the only thing you'll accept?"
Watanuki pursed his lips. "I'm afraid so."
She took it off and reverently put it in his hands. "It's very important to me."
"I know," Watanuki said and smiled at her. "I promise you I will take very good care of it."
The girl nodded and darted a glance at Tachibana, who was talking with one of his friends at the other table. Watanuki shook his head.
"Not yet," he said. "Wait and see."
The alarm on the girl's cell phone started beeping, and she jumped and reached to shut it off.
"Mai-chan, is it time to go to class?" Tachibana asked. There was a grain of rice stuck to the corner of his mouth. His bento box was empty, but the girl's looked as if she had just sat down.
"Eh." The girl checked her watch, tapped it, and then checked it again. She looked at Watanuki then back to Tachibana. "Ah, yes." She picked up her uneaten bento. "Thank you," she whispered to Watanuki before getting up to follow Tachibana.
"Don't thank me yet," Watanuki murmured, but she was already out of an earshot. "That isn't wise."
"Something's going to happen," Kohane said suddenly. He turned to her. "Something's going to happen, isn't it? That's why you wanted to meet me today."
Watanuki smiled at her, the wide one that crinkled his eyes. "Can't I just want to see you, Kohane-chan?"
"Kimihiro-kun," Kohane said. "Please don't."
That sobered him, because sometimes he forgot that Kohane wasn't a young girl anymore. "Yes. Something is going to happen."
"Something bad," Kohane pressed. "Can't we stop it?"
Watanuki wiped his chopsticks and slid them back into their container. "No."
Watanuki's eyes went to Mai's retreating figure. "Because she's already paid."
The students all said that Professor Doumeki had a wife who made him lunches and impeccably pressed his shirts. Watanuki found this hilarious.
Even now Watanuki was amazed that he could settle in to read at the school library for hours on end and even fall asleep if he wanted because he knew Doumeki would come to wake him up eventually. He was amazed that he and Doumeki shared a little house fifteen minutes from the Hamamatsucho station, that they woke up in the morning and went to bed at night together. Watanuki had fully expected to accept the shop's original demands and live in the shop with Mokona and the twins to wait for Yuuko.
Instead, he had been forgotten. He had passed many days like that, going from station to station, sometimes calling Himawari-chan's phone to assure her he was alright. It had been a strange freedom to go wherever he liked without anyone noticing him. It had been amusing for a bit, and then frustrating. And then depressing. And then Watanuki's landlord had sold his flat.
Watanuki had known it would happen sooner or later but hadn't expected it to happen so soon. He thought he would have plenty of time to move his things into the shop and clean the flat a bit before his landlord forgot all about him and sold the flat again. Luckily, burnable items in Watanuki's neighbourhood were picked up every Thursday, and he managed to rescue all of his most precious possessions from the sorted rubbish before they were thrown away.
Doumeki found him like that, of course Doumeki found him. Watanuki looked up from carefully wiping the framed picture Himawari had taken on his birthday to find Doumeki looming over him with one of Watanuki's bags already over one arm.
"Come on," Doumeki said and walked away like Watanuki would follow.
Watanuki ran after him. "Hey! Hey, my things! Where are you going?"
"My place," Doumeki and raised an eyebrow at him. "Where else will you go?"
"The shop," Watanuki snapped. "I was going to live in the shop."
Doumeki grunted and kept walking. "Come on. I already cleaned out one of the spare rooms for you."
"What?" Watanuki asked dazedly, because he had never asked Doumeki for anything. "Wha- you, arg!"
Between them, they rescued quite a lot of Watanuki's possessions. Watanuki's pots and pans and the apron Himawari had bought him for his birthday, his school clothes (though Watanuki didn't see why he would need them anymore), his collection of books, some of his favourite bento boxes and furoshiki. Watanuki didn't actually have very many personal possessions; the majority of what he owned revolved around other people. A scarf he was knitting for Kohane, a pair of Himawari's favourite chopsticks that he always packed with her lunches, a heigushi he had been learning how to make that was not for Doumeki, five beautiful pieces of fletching he had received as payment from a spirit that were definitely absolutely not for Doumeki. (Doumeki approved of them and said they would be useful in difficult exorcisms. "Who says they're for you?" Watanuki spat but didn't say a word when Doumeki pocketed them.)
Watanuki had only been inside Doumeki's house once when they had all come over to tell ghost stories, and Yuuko had- No, he couldn't think about Yuuko. Not so soon, or he would fly apart, he wouldn't be able to make himself walk and talk and behave like a proper human being. Doumeki's house was old but functional in a carefully quiet way that Watanuki approved of. Doumeki showed Watanuki the spare room, a bare little space with a tatami floor and a huge sliding door that overlooked the courtyard.
"My room is next door," Doumeki said and tapped the other adjoining door that separated the two rooms.
"I wouldn't care if you slept in the storage house," Watanuki replied and flounced out. He knew he was being ungrateful, but he couldn't help it; Doumeki's kindness was too much for him to bear right now.
They made several trips back and forth from Watanuki's building to the temple. Watanuki's room became filled with odds and ends, and he would have started organising everything right away except Doumeki's stomach started growling, and Watanuki stomped away to the kitchen because the noise was giving him a headache. Doumeki was a mannerless jerk anyway and probably didn't know or care that barging into people's kitchens uninvited was considered grossly unacceptable by most of polite society, so Watanuki sailed in without asking permission. He skidded to a stop on his way to the sink, because there was an elderly woman in a dark respectable kimono sitting at the table making preparations for tea.
She looked up when Doumeki came through the door. Her face was soft and deeply lined, and her eyes disappeared into their puffy lids when she smiled. "Ah, Shizuka. I had been wondering where you'd gone."
"Grandmother," Doumeki said politely. "Where is Mother?"
"Off to the office again, busy thing. She said to tell you she would be home very late." Doumeki's grandmother turned, and Watanuki felt her gaze go through him. No, not through him. "And who is this?"
Watanuki sucked in a breath. "You can see me?" he breathed. "How?"
Doumeki's grandmother laughed, a dry sound like a broom sweeping leaves in the courtyard. "My dear Haruka wasn't the only powerful one in the family. But he liked to do too many things with his power, I think. He never saw the value of letting things lie. He always was a brash young thing."
That surprised Watanuki, because 'brash and young' didn't seem anything like the Haruka that came into his dreams in a haze of cigarette smoke and offered him advice. "I think you and Obaa-chan would get along very well," he said without thinking and then winced, but Doumeki's grandmother was laughing.
"Indeed," she said. "Even I call her Obaa-chan. I have not seen her in many years."
"Why?" Watanuki asked.
She shrugged. "We have not had a reason to meet. And I think you agree that seeing someone in person isn't the only way to keep in touch."
Watanuki nodded and felt a subtle prickle along the eye he shared with Doumeki. Yes, he knew a great deal about that. He looked at Doumeki, who was staring back at him.He looked thoughtful. Watanuki didn't like his expression and scowled back at him. "Oy, aren't you going to introduce me to your family?"
"You are Watanuki Kimihiro," Doumeki's grandmother said. "Shizuka speaks of you often."
"What do you mean he sp-" Watanuki began suspiciously, and Doumeki coughed.
"Watanuki, this is my grandmother Doumeki Nagako."
"Please call me grandmother too," Nagako added.
"Ah!" Watanuki said immediately, because his parents had brought him up properly. Not like Doumeki, no. "Please sit down then, Grandmother. I'll prepare some tea and snacks."
"Oh," Nagako said with a little girlish giggle as he ushered her into a seat and then rushed to start the tea again on the stove. "Shizuka, you do choose your friends well, don't you?"
"We're not-" Watanuki started and then stopped because what were he and Doumeki now, exactly? He had Doumeki's blood and half of his eye. Doumeki had come to rescue him from the pathetic heaps of burnable rubbish, helped him move his things, and extended an indefinite invitation to live in his house, and if working at the shop had taught Watanuki nothing, he had at least learned about the collection of debts, how they were gathered and how much was owed and by whom.
"Oy," Doumeki said, and he was too close. Watanuki could feel his breath stir the hair on the back of his neck, and he was much too close. Watanuki didn't know what to do, and he didn't know whether he ought to turn around and what he would say. "Oy," Doumeki said again.
"What?" Watanuki snapped and sent an elbow backwards into Doumeki's ribs. "Why are you standing so close to me- don't you have any concept of personal space?-"
"Do you need help using the stove?" Doumeki asked in his irritating monotone voice, and Watanuki realised he had been staring at the knobs for the last few minutes.
Watanuki sputtered. "Do I- do I need help using the- do you need help using the stove? Because I bet you've never touched it! I bet you expect me to feed that stupid void of the universe you've got for a stomach and make all of your lunches and dinners and snacks."
"Well you do, don't you?"
"Oh my god," Watanuki shouted, flabbergasted at this impertinence. "Get out! I'm serious, get out!"
"Too loud," Doumeki complained and stuck his fingers in his ears.
"It's nice you two are so close," Nagako chimed in. "Shizuka doesn't make friends easily."
"I can see why," Watanuki muttered, starting the gas under the teakettle with a soft blue whoosh.
Nagako nodded as if he had said something insightful. "He always spent far too much time with his grandfather when he was younger."
"Haruka-san," Watanuki murmured, because now that he thought of it, Doumeki's grandfather hadn't come to talk to him since…he couldn't even recall the last time.
"You might see him," Nagako said as if she were reading Watanuki's mind. "He likes it here."
"Does he?" Watanuki asked as he poured the tea and set their cups out, and he wondered at the offhanded way he was discussing a dead man's sprit with his old widow. "I suppose he would."
Watanuki was lying on his back on top of the spare futon Doumeki had loaned him and staring at the dim ceiling of the spare room. It smelled different here - comforting, like freshly cleaned rooms that never actually smelled clean in old musty houses full of incense. It smelled as close to the shop as a mortal house could have dared. Doumeki was sleeping in the room next door with a sliding door separating them, and that was alarmingly comforting too for reasons Watanuki was too afraid to name.
"I haven't seen you in a while," Haruka remarked and blew out a stream of smoke.
"I haven't seen you," Watanuki replied. They were sitting with the door to the courtyard open, and Watanuki was swinging his legs and listening to the backs of his geta hit the sideboards of the house with dull tonk-tonks. He was wearing the dark blue and white patterned yukata that he remembered Doumeki saving from the depths of the trash. He wondered how Doumeki had found it.
"You've been moving around, I admit," Haruka said. "I didn't want to interrupt you. I waited till Shizuka brought you home."
"His home," Watanuki said and felt his back go up. "Not mine. Not…"
"Then where is your home?" Haruka asked. "Your old flat? The shop?"
"The shop," Watanuki echoed, staring at the trees in the courtyard and remembering how he'd been caught there once by a simple spider web, and Doumeki had knocked it down. He blinked and shook his head. "The shop is gone. I don't…the shop the way I remember it is gone."
"Change is a part of nature, Watanuki. The transformation of things."
"I know," Watanuki blurted out. "I know. But now Himawari-chan is in Hokkaido, and Doumeki will start college in a few weeks, and…"
"And there's you." Haruka lit another cigarette and flicked out the spark. "What will you do now, shopkeeper's apprentice?"
"I'm not," Watanuki said, and the confession drained him. He felt tired for the first time that day. "I'm not a shopkeeper's apprentice anymore, because there isn't a shopkeeper." He drew in a breath, and it came out sounding like a sob. "She's gone, and there's no one to look after the shop and grant people's wishes and- and no one to send me on stupid jobs and make me go out to the store at all hours to buy her beer. And…Yuuko-san. She's really gone, and there's no one left."
"There is someone left," Haruka replied and pressed a warm hand to Watanuki's shoulder. "There is always someone left."
"I could," Watanuki hazarded, looking at his shoes. "There's still time. I could go back to the store and make the bargain the shop proposed."
"Do you want that?" Haruka asked gently.
"Yes. No. I…I don't know. If it would make things right, I would."
"You say it like there are matters to be righted, Watanuki. Like you've done something wrong." Haruka shook his head and reached over to ruffle Watanuki's hair. It was soothing. "Little shopkeeper. There are things that have prices you should not pay."
Watanuki woke up with the young morning light creeping through the open courtyard door. There are things that have prices you should not pay, Haruka had said. That stayed with him long after he put away the futon and went to the kitchen to make breakfast.
Watanuki dreamed often of Haruka while living in Doumeki's house, perhaps because it had been his place - many of the things important to him had been there at one point or another, and now it was Watanuki's place too. Watanuki was surprised to find he fit quite well into the Doumeki household's patterns. He was always the first one awake in the mornings to make breakfast, and then Nagako would come in after her early prayers and they would sit together and share hot cups of tea in silence. Then Doumeki's mother would come in like a sudden gust of wind, slurping down a cup of tea and polishing off two pieces of toast before running back out to go to the office. Watanuki always made sure to have her toast perfectly golden and ready with a thick layer of butter and sweet bean paste. He disapproved of sweet food in general, but she was so thin that it frightened him sometimes. He wondered what sort of woman had raised Doumeki and who she was when she wasn't in the office earning money to support the family. He wondered where Doumeki's father was.
Doumeki would come in last and make Watanuki prepare full Japanese breakfast for him, and Watanuki would snipe at him while making him whatever he wanted because Watanuki never backed down from a challenge. And besides, there were prices to debts swimming in the bowls of miso soup and in the long filmy strings of natto.
Sometimes Watanuki wondered why Doumeki let him stay at the temple. He wondered why Doumeki came to find him every few hours as if to make sure Watanuki was still there. Watanuki pretended to be irritated. He tried to help around the house and Doumeki's chores, because he felt so useless staying inside. He tried to help out with simple things like sweeping the courtyard, but Doumeki wouldn't let him, reminding him what happened last time and calling him an idiot in such a tight pained voice that Watanuki actually complied.
So Watanuki threw himself into cleaning out and organising the storage house. It was interesting enough and reminded him of cleaning out the store room in the shop. He liked rolling up his sleeves and steaming through the rooms like a dust cloth waving menace, and he suspected that Haruka appreciated it.
He found an old shamisen on one of the shelves and sat down to repair it but then started fiddling with notes and looking up tutorials on Doumeki's slow ancient computer. He usually practiced in one of the temple's spare rooms, and Nagako would sometimes stop and listen to him with a fond expression on her face.
"Oh," Watanuki said the first time he noticed her, and he quickly stilled the strings. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to bother you."
"No," Nagako interrupted, looking nostalgic. "No, don't stop. It sounds nice."
If Doumeki had any opinions, he kept them to himself, but it was time for him to start studying for college entrance exams, so he was at the library often, and Watanuki barely saw him.
Watanuki kept himself busy nevertheless. He worked in the storage house throughout the morning, stopped to make lunch, and then went to work till dinnertime. He helped keep the Doumeki household clean. On Mondays and Fridays he wiped down all the windows and floors till they gleamed, and every Thursday he did the laundry and hung it out to dry. His routines made him mind-numbingly tired in a way he liked, and he usually tumbled into bed and into a dark dreamless sleep every night save for the times Haruka would visit him and ask after Doumeki and Nagako and Akane, who Watanuki realised after the first few times was Doumeki's mother.
"Where is Doumeki's father?" Watanuki asked once, and then felt like biting off his tongue because he didn't have the right to ask such questions.
Haruka looked thoughtful for a moment. "Don't tell Shizuka I told you."
Watanuki's interest perked up at that, because Haruka had never told him to keep secrets from anyone before.
Haruka stubbed out his cigarette and looked at the dark squashed end. "Doumeki men are very similar in many ways. There is iron within us and stone. We are solitary when left on our own. Self-reliant. I was able to find a balance in my life, find a place for Nagako and a family. I tried to teach that to Shizuka as well." He sighed. "But my son was never able to find such a balance, and it took him over. Too much iron. His company sends him overseas often. I believe the modern term is divorce, but they're both too stubborn to make anything official. He sends part of his money back to keep up the temple and for Shizuka's school costs. Oh, he means well, he just doesn't know how to have other people who need him. He was always gone too much when Shizuka was growing up; I think it taught Shizuka to need people better than I ever could."
"Need people?" Watanuki asked curiously. "But Doumeki doesn't need anyone."
"You should look at him closer, Watanuki. He needs his friends. He needs you."
"No," Watanuki protested. "He doesn't. He doesn't. He's always…he's always so…"
Haruka smiled at him. "You and Nagako are like water, like fire. You can wear us down into the soft sand at the bottom of the riverbeds. You can melt us down and cast us into whatever shapes you please."
"Ha," Watanuki replied, more confident now. "I'd like to see Doumeki do anything he didn't want. I can't think of a single time he's listened to me." And he was thinking of the woman in the park and how Doumeki had ignored him and shot her, even though Watanuki knew he had probably saved his life.
"Ah," Haruka said and tapped his fresh cigarette against his teeth in a way that was reminiscent of Yuuko and her pipe. "But you must forgive him. You have too much fire in you. He knows that you could burn hot and eat yourself up far too easily."
And suddenly it was all over, and Doumeki would be going to college the following week. Watanuki cleaned obsessively and snapped at him for no reason at all and made dinners that he only realised much later were all of Doumeki's least favourite foods. He finished cleaning the storage house in a flurry of angry formless energy and set about making a nuisance of himself in the house. He made cups of tea at every hour, rewashed even the barely used clothes, and wiped the floors so many times that Nagako stopped him with her gentle hands and joked that he would scrub the varnish right off.
Doumeki understood in his strange silent way and stayed out of Watanuki's way as much as possible. Except Watanuki wanted to be antagonised so he could shout back as much as he wanted and beat his fists like a small child and go bury himself under his old landlord's burnable rubbish in shame. He went to sleep early the night before the first day of college even though he didn't feel tired at all. He stayed awake and listened to the sounds of the house going to sleep, the clack-clack of doors being shut and metal shutters being pulled down. The rush of the sink as someone drank a last-minute glass of water. The soft open-and-shut sounds of the refrigerator.
He finally heard Doumeki go into his room and shut off the light. He wondered what Doumeki would do in classes tomorrow, what he would study, what new problems he would bring home. And Watanuki thought about Himawari-chan so far away in Hokkaido because she had decided to break the three of them up cleanly and efficiently rather than wait for them to dissolve. He missed her, missed the way her face lit up whenever she opened her bento box, her sunny smile, and the way Tanpopo nestled up against her cheek and slept.
Watanuki finally sat up and checked the clock next to his futon. It was Doumeki's old clock. He had a lot of Doumeki's old things. Most of Watanuki's things were organised neatly in drawers in the kitchen or packed in neat folded piles into an old dresser that had his collection of books lined in alphabetical order on top of it.
Watanuki put the clock back down, threw off his covers, and rolled off his futon. He got up and crept to the door that separated their rooms. It was unlocked. Watanuki didn't know why that surprised him, but he had been staying here for weeks and weeks and had never bothered trying the door.
The door slid open with a quiet rasping sound, and Watanuki saw a Doumeki-shaped lump on the futon on the floor. The lump stirred, and Doumeki's tousled head poked out of the sheets. "Watanuki?"
"It's nothing," Watanuki said, feeling very silly now. "It's nothing." But he walked over and sat down beside the futon.
Doumeki turned on his side to face him. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing, I told you," Watanuki hissed back and realised they hadn't spoken in a few days now with Watanuki lost in a series of pointless rages and Doumeki giving him all the space he needed. Doumeki was so stupid sometimes. All the time, really.
Doumeki hummed back, and Watanuki got the sudden feeling that he was looming over Doumeki. The thought made him uncomfortable, the way he could stare down at Doumeki's face and see the faint moonlight play across it. He lay down on the floor beside the futon and crossed his arms over his chest. The tatami would probably leave little stripes of red and white across the backs of his heels.
"You're going to college tomorrow," Watanuki whispered over.
"Yes." Doumeki was staring at the ceiling with his arms folded behind his head, and Watanuki couldn't see his expression.
Watanuki sighed and turned to run his fingernail up and down the ribbing of the tatami mat. "You should tell me about it when you come back in the evening."
Doumeki paused. "Do you want me to?"
They lay there in silence for a moment. "You can leave the temple if you want," Doumeki said.
Watanuki's finger stopped. "Are you saying I should leave-"
"No. No. But you can go to the park. Go see Tsuyuri. You're not obligated to stay here all day."
It was perhaps the longest speech Watanuki had ever heard Doumeki give. He swallowed and then nodded. "Yes. Yes, maybe I will."
"You could go with him, if you wanted," Haruka said from the door, smiling. "To college. You can do whatever you want."
Watanuki opened his mouth, thinking Haruka was being flippant, but then closed it again. Yes, Haruka was right. He was free, he could do whatever he wanted. He had never thought about that. He had never thought about leaving the shrine because it was so easy just to stay here and let it define him. But who was to say he couldn't do everything he had originally planned? Go to college, study whatever he liked. Struggle through classes with everyone else.
"Wait," Watanuki said suddenly. "When did I fall asleep?"
"You've been exhausting yourself this week, Watanuki," Haruka said and tucked one of Doumeki's extra blankets over Watanuki's legs. "You should sleep. You have class tomorrow."
When Watanuki opened his eyes again, the moonlight had moved to a different part of the room, and Doumeki's face was un-illuminated. Watanuki stared at him for a moment, wondering at how quiet Doumeki had been recently. How unobtrusive. Iron and stone indeed. For the first time, Watanuki saw the kind of person Doumeki could have become if Haruka had not taught him about important things. About people.
Doumeki's breaths were coming in deep and slow now. He didn't quite snore, but there was a low rumble at the depths of his throat whenever he exhaled. Watanuki thought he could have put a hand against Doumeki's chest and felt it reverberate up his arm. The sound made him feel hazy and comfortable.
Watanuki hesitated, not sure if Doumeki was fast asleep. "Thank you," he murmured after a moment.
Doumeki didn't reply.
Watanuki waited till the very last moment the next day before accosting Doumeki in the entryway.
"I'm coming with you," he declared. He was gripping his old schoolbag tightly in one hand and a plastic bag with two bento boxes over his shoulder. His freshly pressed shirt felt strange across his shoulders. Haruka was right. He could go to college if he wanted, just like everyone else.
Doumeki paused in the middle of putting on his shoes. He actually looked surprised. Watanuki thought Doumeki looked very different without his usual school uniform and with his hair parted a different way. He looked older, and Watanuki could have sworn he had grown a few more inches in the last two months.
Watanuki scowled at that. "I'm coming with you and don't think you can talk me out of it."
"Aa," Doumeki replied easily. "Let's go."
"-Well too bad!" Watanuki shot back. "Because I don't think you could stop me if you- wait." He blinked. "Really?"
Doumeki finished tying the laces on his shoes and rose up. "Stupid. Put on your shoes. We're going to be late."
"Stupid?" Watanuki shouted. "Who are you calling stupid?"
"Are one of those bento for me?"
Watanuki banged out of the door. "You're such a jerk." It felt almost like old times when Doumeki fell into step beside him on their way to the train station.
Watanuki discovered that he liked college. Doumeki was taking chemistry and physics classes with the rest of the potential science majors, and Watanuki found himself wandering into the folklore department as if drawn there. It reminded him of the shop, but more structured and detached. Part of him was grateful most of the information he learned was out of books rather than from near-death experiences, but the other part of him thought experience really was the only teacher with these sorts of things. Not that he was validating Yuuko's habit of sending them into danger willy-nilly.
Watanuki wrote down any questions he had in class and took them to Nagako, who was happy to sit with him and explain everything he asked. It was a blessing to have someone finally tell him whatever he wanted to know and teach him all the things he had only learned by himself through blundering and trial and error. It was strange to have definite answers rather than riddles and mysteries and unfinished sentences. Definite answers only went so far with Nagako too, but Watanuki learned a great deal about herbs and old traditions and the various forms and trickeries of spirits. Everyone else had always expected him to know such knowledge, and it had frequently been the lack of it that had landed him in the most serious trouble.
Folklore also got him away from Doumeki. They had been seeing each other far too much lately; Watanuki supposed it was a price he had to pay for someone who could see him and talk to him. Watanuki didn't want to think about prices. But it really was a relief sometimes to go their separate ways for the day and meet up just for lunch and to walk back home. Watanuki was afraid he could get used to Doumeki if they were always together in class and walked everywhere together. He didn't want to get used to him. Still, he admitted that it was frustrating to be an unperson to the rest of the world. The beginning folklore classes he attended were easy, and of course the teacher could never call on him, so he developed the bad habit of just shouting out answers whenever he felt like it.
He and Doumeki developed far too many bad habits during college like sleeping little and waking up late and eating at strange hours. There was one time Watanuki caught Doumeki absent-mindedly eating a convenience store bento, and after that Watanuki always made sure he got home first (Doumeki's science classes usually ran later than folklore classes anyway) and had something ready for dinner by the time Doumeki got back. Watanuki told him it was only for Nagako's sake, but that didn't stop Doumeki from being bossy and making unreasonable demands.
"Make niku dofu for dinner," Doumeki said as he came into the kitchen and dropped his schoolbag in one of the chairs. It had been a hot day, and the top two buttons of his shirt were undone.
"Welcome home, Shizuka," Nagako said and poured Doumeki a cup of cold tea.
"Go away! I'm not making you anything!" Watanuki shouted and waved a handful of fish bones at him. He watched Doumeki finish the tea in one gulp and go off to his room. Watanuki turned back to cleaning the fish they would be having for dinner and caught Nagako laughing quietly into her hand.
"Ah." He was embarrassed now. "I didn't mean to offend you. It's just- that guy-"
"I'm not offended. Actually, you remind me of myself at your age," she said, smiling. "Oh, how Haruka loved to tease me."
"I'm sure Haruka-san was much more polite," Watanuki said stiffly. He dumped the rest of the fish bones and innards into the compostable trash bin and bent to wash his hands in the sink. "I'm very sorry, I have to go to the grocery store and buy mushrooms for niku dofu. Dinner will be a little late." He wrapped up the cleaned fish in fresh plastic and put it back in the fridge before going to fetch his wallet.
Nagako let him walk around and gather his things for a moment before stopping him with a hand to his elbow as he came back to untie his apron. "But Watanuki, how will you pay for your groceries?"
And Watanuki froze, realising he couldn't do that on his own anymore, realising Doumeki had been doing all the grocery without telling him. "Ah…" he floundered. He put his wallet into his pocket and sighed. "I'm sorry. No, you're right. I'm sorry, I'm still getting used to…all of it."
"There's no need to apologise," she said. "You didn't do anything wrong. You did a very good thing, Watanuki. A very good brave thing."
"Sometimes I wonder," Watanuki murmured and realised he hadn't gone back to the shop in months. Maybe it was time to go back, just to see it. He shook his head. "Doumeki!"
Doumeki stuck his head into the kitchen. "Yes?" Watanuki must have caught him while he was preparing for his bath, because he wasn't wearing a shirt and his hair was soft and messy.
"Er," Watanuki said, feeling his face go warm. He glared at Doumeki and tried not to let his eyes wander to the wide brown expanse of his chest and god, did everyone on the college archery team have those kinds of arms and those shoulders? Watanuki hated him. "If- If you're going to make unreasonable demands for dinner, you'd better be willing to take me to the grocery store, because I'm not going to-"
"Okay," Doumeki said amiably and disappeared again, presumably to change back into his clothes.
"Oh." Watanuki hadn't expected him to comply so readily. And that made him angry too, because he had expected a good fight and quite a lot more yelling. "Hurry up! I mean it- my fish is in the refrigerator! I won't be blamed if it spoils your dinner! Do you hear me?"
"Did you ever think about not making the niku dofu, Watanuki?" Nagako asked. She looked amused.
Watanuki frowned, because what sort of trick question was that? Sometimes Doumeki's grandmother reminded him so much of Yuuko with her mysterious answers and confusing questions, and no. No, he couldn't keep thinking about Yuuko because he had half made up his mind to go into the shop now. "I- I don't understand," he started.
"Oy," Doumeki said, walking back into the kitchen. He had pulled his shirt back on, but he hadn't bothered comb his hair again, and it was sticking up in soft spikes and falling into his eyes.
"My name is not 'oy!'" Watanuki shouted, marching up to him. "And your hair looks stupid!"
"You two have fun," Nagako said. "I'll make some cold barley tea while you're out."
Watanuki wheeled around. "Ah, yes. Thank you very much, Grandmother." He felt Doumeki leave the kitchen and turned to chase him down. "Hey, don't you say goodbye to your grandmother before you go out? Hey, stop walking so fast, slow down! Hey!" He thought he heard Nagako laughing as he shut the door behind them.
"Hey," Watanuki said, racing to keep up with Doumeki's long strides. "Slow down! Do you think we could stop by the shop on the way?"
Doumeki was silent for a moment. "Are you sure?"
"No," Watanuki said. "Yes. Yes, I'm sure."
So they went to the shop, and Doumeki walked a little closer to him than usual; Watanuki complained but was grateful for his strong solid Doumeki-ness, the undefinable humanity of him that was almost as powerful as his aura for dispelling spirits. There was just something so relentlessly normal about him that it felt like strange things just couldn't happen because Doumeki didn't believe they should exist.
They finally reached the tall familiar gates, and Watanuki wasn't sure what he had been expecting. It looked exactly like it always had with its old wooden fence and curious crescent moon pinnacles. It was perhaps a little darker; none of the lamps were lit, and all the windows were dark. It was quiet. It felt foreign but impossibly familiar because he had paid to keep it alive in some form, and it was bound to him now. They were in a contract.
"Do you want to go in?" Doumeki asked.
Watanuki hesitated. He still felt the shadow of a pull towards the shop, towards the sitting room with its long red couch and intricate draperies. He thought he could go into the shop and never come out again. It chilled him. "No," he said finally. "Maybe someday. But not now."
The students all said that Professor Doumeki had a wife who made him lunches and impeccably pressed his shirts. Watanuki found this hilarious.
"Oy," Doumeki said and shook Watanuki's shoulder. "You fell asleep in the library again."
"Mm," Watanuki agreed and stretched luxuriously before getting up to put his books away. The college library always had them whenever he wanted them no matter how popular the books were, but that was just the charm of being a shopkeeper. "I don't remember falling asleep. I-"
Doumeki's eyes narrowed. "Granted a wish," he finished.
"Yes, to a student at lunchtime. Did Kohane-chan tell you?"
"No. You're always tired after you've been granting wishes." Doumeki put a hand on his back and ushered him through the lines of desks filled with students. "Let's go home - we can order out."
"We will do no such thing," Watanuki said indignantly but let himself be herded. "How were classes?"
"Good," Doumeki said.
Watanuki heard his unspoken question. "Kohane-chan misses seeing you, but she's not going into the science department. She's enjoying her history classes, I think. She looks happy. Ah." Watanuki rummaged inside the bag with the empty bento boxes and fished out the ohagi. "She asked me to give you this."
"Hn," Doumeki said. He leaned over and opened his mouth expectantly.
Watanuki rolled his eyes and put the ohagi in his mouth. Doumeki's mouth closed on it, and he took a bite. Watanuki absently wiped the glob of kurogoma paste from the side of Doumeki's mouth and waved the other half of the ohagi in consternation. "What am I supposed to do with this?"
"Eat it," Doumeki said with an innocent expression. "You told me yesterday I was gaining weight."
"You!" Watanuki muttered and tried to stuff the rest into Doumeki's resisting mouth. "Are you going to be rude and turn down the sweets Kohane-chan's mother made especially for us? You would, wouldn't you? Eat it properly and be grateful."
Doumeki caught his wrist and held it steady so he could eat the other half. He put his lips to Watanuki's thumb and sucked the kurogoma paste off.
"That's disgusting," Watanuki declared, but Doumeki raised an eyebrow, and Watanuki looked away.
Doumeki snorted, but his voice was fond. "You're too easy."
"Excuse me?" Watanuki sniped. "What else am I supposed to do with you being so- so you- we're definitely ordering out! I'm not cooking a single thing!"
"Why are we taking the long way to the train station?" Doumeki asked suddenly as he realised Watanuki was leading him down one of the side streets.
Watanuki smiled at him, the slow serene smile he suspected Doumeki didn't like. "I've heard there's an accident on the main road."
Doumeki opened his mouth but was interrupted by a sudden screech of brakes down the road and then a scream. Doumeki stared at him for a moment and then took off down the road towards the stopped car and the dark person-shaped huddle sprawled across the road in front of it. Watanuki followed at a more leisurely pace; it had taken years and years for him to learn that Doumeki could be more impetuous than him at times.
Doumeki pushed through the ring of students and knelt over the two students lying in the road. A boy and a girl. The girl was crouched over him, her arms shielding his head.
"Mai-chan," the boy murmured. It sounded like he was in shock. "Mai-chan, you saved me."
"I-It's nothing," the girl stammered.
The boy's expression softened, but then he frowned. "Where is the pendant I gave you for White Day four years ago? You always wear it."
"You noticed?" the girl asked. Neither of them seemed to see the crowd of students or the driver calling an ambulance from his cell phone. "I never thought you would notice."
"Mai-chan," the boy said and put his hand on her shoulder. "I've always noticed."
And then Doumeki was there crouching over them and asking them in a short harsh voice whether either of them was hurt. Watanuki watched while he stayed until the ambulance came and took them both away, the boy being loaded onto a stretcher and the girl following while holding his hand. This was why he loved Doumeki, Watanuki thought. For reasons precisely like this.
Doumeki came back to him after the ambulance had left. To anyone else he looked perfectly composed, but Watanuki saw his real expression and the slight accusing look in his eyes. "You knew about this."
"Yes," Watanuki admitted. "I told you I granted a wish earlier today."
"Someone could have died."
"I would have intervened if I had known that would happen."
"Would you have?" Doumeki asked, and his tone cut like a knife. "Sometimes I wonder. You and Yuuko-san. I wonder what sort of balances you strike up. What you find an acceptable loss."
"I'm not ruthless," Watanuki snapped. "She had a good wish. A good-hearted one. What sort of person do you think I am?"
They walked on to the train station in silence. Watanuki watched Doumeki from the corner of his eye. Doumeki's shoulders were set in the way they always were whenever he was sorry. Watanuki accepted the apology.
"Did you find the library useful?" Doumeki asked as they waited at the platform for their train. He was getting better at small talk after years and years of Watanuki's presence, but perversely, Watanuki liked it much better now when they walked home together in contemplative silence with the sound of Doumeki's briefcase tock-tocking between them.
"Yes," Watanuki said, smiling at the small distant dot of the train coming towards the station in an electric green blur. "Yes, very useful."
"No no," Watanuki said irritably. "That yam is old. Just look at it - are you blind? How have you survived all these years without knowing the difference?"
"They said the shipment came in this morning," Doumeki said. He was a regular at the grocery store, and all the female staff rushed to help him at the slightest provocation. He knew it put Watanuki in a foul mood, and Doumeki enjoyed that much more than he should have.
"Well, it's older than the others. Oh look," Watanuki said and picked up a yam that looked identical to the one Doumeki had picked out. "I want this one."
Doumeki just held the plastic vegetable bag open and said nothing.
"Senbei are on sale," Watanuki said dragged Doumeki down the aisle. They were holding hands, but more so Watanuki could pull him along than anything else. Doumeki admittedly got caught up in the cold beverage section if Watanuki left him to his own devices for too long. ("It isn't my fault your parents never bought you this kind of thing when you were younger," Watanuki would complain and then a carton of royal milk tea would somehow end up in their basket during check-out.)
"And I won't get the broken ones again," Watanuki continued. "Not even if they're the cheapest because they have too much salt in them, and you eat too much salt anyway-"
"If it's anyone's fault, it's yours," Doumeki replied. "I never eat anyone else's food. You won't let me."
"Are you complaining?" Watanuki demanded. "And who's the one who keeps telling me I need to use more soy sauce in my cooking, hm? And now you're blaming me for feeding you salt-"
"You don't put enough soy sauce in your food," Doumeki said, knowing it would rile him. "You're stingy when it comes to sauces, Kimihiro-"
"Barbaric," Watanuki denounced. "The real flavour of food comes from its ingredients, not whatever dubious sauce people use to hide all of their terrible-"
Next to them, and old woman sputtered and then began to laugh. They both turned to stare at her, and she gave them a kind smile, her eyes casually skating over their linked hands. "It's nice you get along so well."
"Ah-h," Watanuki whispered, and Doumeki shifted because he knew that tone of voice. "I've been waiting to meet you."
"In the senbei aisle?" the woman asked, a corner of her mouth curling up. Doumeki snorted.
Watanuki grinned and suddenly looked his age again. "Yes, I suppose so. Do you have a wish, then? A wish you want me to fulfil?"
"A wish." The woman looked troubled. "Yes. Yes, now that you say it, I think I do."
Watanuki perched on the railing next to the frozen octopus and listened to her talk while Doumeki went to purchase the groceries. He listened to her talk while Doumeki carried their groceries to the little second-hand car they had bought two years ago for shopping and to visit Himawari, and he listened to her talk while Doumeki opened up the inevitable carton of milk tea and drank half of it while Watanuki wasn't paying attention.
And then the woman finally stopped talking, and Doumeki looked at Watanuki for the first time since the grocery store aisle. And Watanuki looked…he looked smaller. He reminded Doumeki of the boy that had cradled a dead cat close to him and declared that he would die like this too. Watanuki looked like that tiny cat.
"There is a price," Watanuki said finally, and Doumeki almost didn't recognise his voice. "There is…I don't know if you want to pay the price."
"I do," the old woman said, and her voice was unwavering. "He's my grandson. He's still so young. He doesn't deserve to die so young, and I have lived my life. I will pay your price, even if I have to die for it."
"But you won't die," Watanuki replied and his voice cracked. Doumeki wanted to press himself behind him and put a hand around his shoulders, but he knew better than to touch Watanuki when he was hammering out prices and debts like this. "You'll live. You'll live forever, and he'll forget you. Everyone will forget you, even me. And you'll…you'll walk on this earth forever and no one will ever see you or speak to you or touch you. You'll see your grandson die, and his children, and his children's children. Can you…I don't want to…" He faltered, and Doumeki had never heard him falter. Not when he was like this, a wish shop keeper in all his terrible power.
"Yes," the woman whispered. The hum of the streetlights in the parking lot seemed tuneless and loud. "Yes, I will pay this price. I will gladly pay this price."
"I'm sorry," Watanuki said and looked like he was about to cry. "If there was anything else I could do…you can come to me. We'll remember you at least until today is over, until midnight. You can come to me before then if you want, and you can ask me to-"
"-It's enough," the woman said gently. "My grandson is the only family I have. He will live to grow up. I can look after him and his children. It's enough."
Watanuki took a deep breath. "Then I'll grant your wish," he said. He pressed the woman's hand. Doumeki had never seen him touch a client before. "I'll grant your wish, even if I don't want to."
The woman smiled at him, and her eyes were wistful. "But young man, that's why you're the shopkeeper." She pressed his hand back. "Thank you for saving my grandson. I won't ever forget you."
"No," Watanuki said and pulled his hand away. "I'm sure you won't."
Watanuki tucked his head against Doumeki's shoulder when they got into the car. Doumeki buried one hand in his hair. They turned onto the main road, and in the rear-view mirror Doumeki could still see the old woman standing in the fluorescent parking lot alone with her hair upraised, her figure growing smaller and smaller as they drove away.
Watanuki stayed up the entire evening. He paced and paced and drank the terrible tea that Doumeki made him and didn't yell when Doumeki ate leftovers from the day before without heating them up first. He sat down and then stood back up and worried his hair and the collar of his shirt and stopped every time he thought he heard someone knocking on the door. Doumeki stayed up with him and felt like they were holding a funeral vigil for the old woman, except she wasn't dead. She would never die.
It was eleven when Watanuki finally collapsed into their living room chair and stared at the ceiling. "She's not coming, is she?" Watanuki asked.
Doumeki thought he looked so young then. So vulnerable. He looked like the Watanuki that had almost made the bargain with the shop, the Watanuki that had stood outside his empty flat and stared at it until Doumeki had come to take him away. "No," Doumeki replied. "I don't think she is."
That night Watanuki cried and cried, and Doumeki put his big warm hands on Watanuki's face and made love to him so gently that it made Watanuki cry even harder. Later, Doumeki put his arms around Watanuki and squeezed him close, and for once Watanuki let him instead of trying to squirm away. Together they watched the digital clock on the dresser click closer and closer to twelve o'clock. 11:52, then 11:58.
"I would do it for you," Watanuki murmured. He had his arms folded tightly across his stomach, and Doumeki could feel Watanuki's sharp elbows jutting into his ribs. "All of that. If I could save you. I would do it for you."
Doumeki put his chin on top of Watanuki's head and was suddenly grateful they would forget about the woman by tomorrow, because he knew Watanuki was strong, but he also knew Watanuki was much too brittle in subtle dangerous ways. "I wouldn't want you to," Doumeki replied.
He glanced over at the clock. The green display said 12:00 AM.
The students all said that Professor Doumeki had a wife who made him lunches and impeccably pressed his shirts. Watanuki found this hilarious.
Doumeki woke from a soft touch to the side of his face. He blinked and saw Watanuki bending over him, his hair still damp and curling from a bath. His eyes were puffy, but Doumeki didn't remember him crying the night before. Actually, he didn't remember very much of last night at all - just that they had gone for groceries and come straight home. Maybe he had drunk too much of the sake Obaa-san had sent over with Kohane a few days before. Watanuki always gave him a lecture for that.
"I have work," Watanuki whispered. "I have to go."
"Hn," Doumeki said, slightly resistant to Watanuki leaving at -he blinked at the clock-at six o'clock on a Saturday for business with the spirit world. His own job had its own regular hours during the week, but Watanuki could be called away at any moment. He rolled on his side as Watanuki pulled away and went to the closet to get dressed, the soft curve of his back stark against the dark wood.
Watanuki still stored all of Yuuko's old kimono in a separate chest against the far wall. Doumeki was strangely glad they were as far away from their other clothes as possible; he was glad her clothes didn't touch or intermingle with theirs at all. He would have made jokes about Watanuki being the one cross-dressing now, but there must have been some kind of magic in all of Yuuko's clothes, and they suited Watanuki as if made for him. They looked dull when they were all folded up, but then Watanuki put them on and suddenly looked completely natural swanning about the house in the long sleeves and bold intricate designs. He looked like he belonged in those clothes. It scared Doumeki sometimes.
He thought they could have got on perfectly fine if the spirit world hadn't decided to meddle again. But they had. He and Watanuki had come home from college one day to find the Zashiki-Warashi waiting for them nervously in front of the temple gates. Watanuki had stopped dead.
"Wh-what are you doing here?" Watanuki had asked. Doumeki had tensed and moved to stand between Watanuki and the Zashiki-Warashi, but Watanuki just thumped his shoulder and growled that he was in the way. Too bad, Doumeki thought.
"Watanuki-san," the Zashiki-Warashi said softly and moved to clasp his hand. "I wanted to see how you were doing with the death of your mistress. I'm very sorry."
"Yuuko-san?" Watanuki asked, and his voice still cracked on her name. "I, but…that was almost two years ago."
"Two years?" She looked surprised. "Ah, time flows more slowly in the spirit world." She blinked. "You look different. You're taller."
"Am I?" Watanuki seemed to realise that all at once, staring between him and Doumeki and back a few times before finding they were almost at eye-level now. "Huh."
Doumeki raised an eyebrow. "You haven't noticed? Idiot."
"Who's the idiot?" Watanuki snapped, and the Zashiki-Warashi giggled.
"You're still close," she remarked. "I thought you might be."
Doumeki pre-emptively shoved his fingers in his ears, but Watanuki just said, "Hmm," and Doumeki didn't know what to make of that at all. "It is very nice to see you," Watanuki continued brightly. "Would you-"
"I have a wish," the Zashiki-Warashi interrupted, looking embarrassed.
Watanuki stared at her. "What did you say?" There was a small note of breathless amazement and dread in his voice.
"You're the shopkeeper now," she said. "We have felt your power growing ever since Yuuko's death. Perhaps not quite as strong but similar to hers."
"And you want me to grant wishes," Watanuki said incredulously. "Do you think I can?"
She looked confused. "Yes," she said. "Why not?"
"I don't know how!" Watanuki said. "She never taught me any of that. All I've done is read folklore at the university and clean out store rooms and learned to play the shamisen."
"Haven't you ever gone back to the shop?" she asked, and Doumeki stiffened. The shop was one place Watanuki had no business going ever again. The shop was greedy. It wouldn't be satisfied with what Watanuki offered it, it would want more and more until it had devoured Watanuki completely.
The Zashiki-Warashi saw the look on Watanuki's face. "Then that is my wish," she concluded. "I want you to go into the shop."
No, Doumeki thought. No, anything but that. But he knew Watanuki would do it, because he was an idiot and would do anything for her if she asked him.
"I'll just go and tell Grandmother we'll be late," Watanuki replied predictably and ran into the house.
Doumeki watched him go and then turned back to stare down at the Zashiki-Warashi. "Do you know exactly what you're doing?" he rumbled. "Do you know what that shop will do to him?"
She smiled at him. "I will be with you," she said softly. "But have some faith in him, Doumeki-san. He has become stronger. He wants to live in this world. You and Yuuko have taught him that."
"Me?" Doumeki said, but Watanuki came bursting out of the house the next second, and the moment was lost.
Doumeki felt a sense of foreboding as they walked to the shop. They hadn't come back here for years, not since the first time when Watanuki had asked him if they could stop by and see it. He stole a glance at Watanuki, who was staring straight ahead resolutely.
"I wonder if they're still there," Watanuki murmured to himself. "Maru and Moro and Mokona."
"The shop was dark last time," Doumeki reminded him.
"They could have been asleep," Watanuki said dreamily. "I wonder what they're doing now? Who's feeding them? I wonder how they ate before I came along."
"They don't need to eat," Doumeki replied. "They ate your food because they chose to."
"Yes," Watanuki agreed. The Zashiki-Warashi didn't say anything, just glided beside them in her pale beautiful kimono and listened with her head tilted to one side.
The shop looked precisely as Doumeki remembered it. It was eerie. Even in the sunlight the sky beyond the gate seemed darker and more sinister. The windows were bare but reflected the light strangely, and Doumeki couldn't see anything inside.
"Do you want to go in?" he asked Watanuki.
"It's her wish."
"That's not what I asked," Doumeki replied. The Zashiki-Warashi put a hand on Watanuki's shoulder.
"I will be with you," she said. "To make sure you are not harmed."
"This is the shop," Watanuki said, and he tried to sound casual. "I used to live there. I saved its life. Why would it want to harm me?" A shadow went across his face, and he drew in a breath. "Let's go."
The front door opened silently. Their shoes made quiet shh-shh noises as they took them off in the foyer. It sounded like whispers, the Maru and Moro's voices saying welcomewelcomewelcome you'vecomeback neverleaveusagain watanukiwatanukimastermaster.
"Right," Watanuki said loudly and shook his head as if to clear his ears. He took a step towards the sitting room and then hesitated. "Let's try to find Maru and Moro first," he said.
"They might be in the sitting room-" the Zashiki-Warashi started, but Watanuki shook his head.
"I think we should go in there last," he said. They didn't argue with him.
They followed Watanuki to the twins' room. They walked slowly and carefully. The shop was unnaturally dark inside, and Doumeki had the strangest feeling that walking slowly was the only way they could properly navigate this place without losing themselves forever in its depths.
"It's so strange," Watanuki breathed, and the air shivered around his words. "I thought I knew this place."
"It shaped itself," the Zashiki-Warashi said thoughtfully, and they both turned to her. "It shaped itself around Yuuko, and now that she's gone it's…unstable. Dangerous." She turned to Watanuki with tears in her eyes. "I'm so sorry I asked you to come here. If I had known-"
"It's alright," Watanuki said warmly. "I've been hiding from it. I should have come here long ago."
"I don't think so," Doumeki said. Watanuki wouldn't have been ready two years ago. He would have been grieving and confused and terribly easy prey. They couldn't have come any other time than now. Watanuki had changed. He had become surer of himself and his place in the world outside the realms of spirits and magic. He had gone to college and read all the books he could get his hands on and become more powerful and learned things from Obaa-san and his grandfather and grandmother. He realised now that they had been grooming Watanuki for this.
"Wait," Watanuki hissed and then turned to the Zashiki-Warashi. "You're crying."
"Y-Yes." She tried to wipe her eyes. "I'm s-sorry."
"It's fine," Doumeki said and handed her his handkerchief. He looked at Watanuki. "But then-"
"Where are the Tengu guardians?" Watanuki finished. He looked nervous, and his eyes darted back down the hallway. "We..we shouldn't be standing outside in the hall. Let's get inside. Close the door."
The Zashiki-Warashi streamed into the room as gracefully as ever, but she had Doumeki's handkerchief clamped tightly in her right hand. Doumeki made sure he was the last one inside and slid the door closed obediently. "Lock it?"
Watanuki shook his head. "No. Don't lock it."
"Oh," the Zashiki-Warashi said wonderingly from the canopy bed at the far corner of the room. "Oh, I think I found them."
Maru and Moro were lying together under their canopy bed, tangled up in each other's arms and breathing in and out like one person. They looked tired and peaceful. Their little childlike hands were clasped together.
"Are…" The Zashiki-Warashi seemed on the verge of tears again. "Are they-"
"No," Watanuki said and reached out to brush a strand of hair from Moro's face. "This was part of the price. I couldn't give the shop enough to keep them in this world. So they sleep." He looked troubled for a moment. "Maybe I should have-"
"No," Doumeki said firmly and grabbed his wrist. "No, you shouldn't have."
Watanuki sighed and stared down at the sleeping twins. "I suppose," he said and made no motion to free his wrist.
"Where is Mokona?" the Zashiki-Warashi asked, looking around.
Watanuki looked surprised and then a tiny smirk lit up the corner of his mouth. Doumeki was unspeakably relieved to see it. "I think I know."
They went into the kitchen. It seemed lighter here, maybe because it was Watanuki's place, and he had marked it out as his territory on his first day at the shop. Watanuki ran a hand down one of the walls. "Good to see you again too," he said fondly.
They opened the refrigerator. It was still cold, but the light inside wasn't working, and the vegetables and bowls inside were rows and rows of indistinct shadowy shapes. It was all Watanuki's food. Doumeki vaguely remembered one of the last meals they had eaten at the shop and supposed all the bowls were leftovers from that dinner and preparations for breakfast the next day.
Suddenly he realised how hungry he was. Watanuki usually prepared snacks and tea after they got home, but the Zashiki-Warashi had intercepted them, and they hadn't had the chance to eat. Doumeki's stomach growled almost painfully. He couldn't remember the last time he had been so desperately hungry, and that was strange because Watanuki had packed them both a decently-sized bento for lunch. Doumeki thought Watanuki wouldn't mind if he ate some of the leftovers; he was always screeching about wasting food anyway, and there was no one in the shop to eat it. Doumeki let go of the door. It swung wider invitingly.
"Don't eat anything," Watanuki warned. "Not a single thing, both of you. The shop wants me. It's willing to take prisoners."
A chill went down Doumeki's spine, and he shut the refrigerator door. The feeling of terrible hunger abated slightly. "But it's your food."
"It's been here for too long," Watanuki said tiredly. "And it was made here. It's the shop's property."
"Hn," Doumeki said, feeling disappointed.
Watanuki gave him a pointed look. "And besides, that food is two years old. Were you seriously going to- Oh. Oh, you were, weren't you? Oh my god, that's disgusting."
"He isn't here," the Zashiki-Warashi interrupted, peeking under the table and then opening one of the cupboard doors. "Mokona."
Watanuki sobered immediately. "There's only one other place, then," he said grimly. "And I was going to head there next anyway."
"Yuuko's room," Doumeki said and they left the kitchen. "Are you sure?"
"It's the only place," Watanuki repeated. He squinted. "Is the hallway darker now?"
"No, you were just used to the light in the kitchen," Doumeki said, but now that Watanuki mentioned it, the hallway did seem darker. "We should move faster."
"Don't tell me what we should do!" Watanuki snapped, but he quickened his pace. His lips were moving silently, and it took Doumeki a moment to realise he was counting doors.
"Is it this one?" the Zashiki-Warashi asked and stopped. "I remember the paper ward she used to have above the door."
They looked down the hallway and saw a procession of identical doors with wards hanging on the lintel. Each ward had the same brush strokes and the same wrinkled corner at the bottom where it was starting to wear off.
"Oh, come on," Watanuki muttered. He reached out an arm as if grabbing onto something in midair and pushed it aside, and suddenly the doors were streaming past them like a rolodeck, like the cars of a train. Doumeki had the odd sensation of movement and of standing perfectly still, and he wasn't sure if it was the doors that were moving or if it was the three of them. He wondered what kinds of things Watanuki had been learning for the past two years.
He wasn't sure how many doors had passed, hundreds and hundreds of doors till he lost track of where they were, but then Watanuki said, "Aha," and threw up his hands like a conductor.
The doors jerked to a sudden stop, and Doumeki felt the force of it in his legs and back. The Zashiki-Warashi looked shaken, and Watanuki smiled at her reassuringly. "This is it," he said and inspected a door that looked exactly like the others.
"Are you sure?" the Zashiki-Warashi asked tentatively. "Maybe we should open some of the other doors to make sure."
"No!" Watanuki said. "Don't open those other doors. We don't know where those doors lead. They have wards to keep things out, not keep them in. I don't know if I can protect you." He looked back at Yuuko's door. "We should go here," he said and reached for it.
"Watanuki, wait!" Doumeki said, but it was too late, and Watanuki had slid the door open.
There was nothingness inside. Nothingness and everything, every chaotic thing and sound, and he couldn't focus on any aspect of the room because there were no aspects. There were colours he couldn't name because colours like that didn't exist and amorphous things violently colliding and coming apart again and shapes with impossible dimensions that could drive men mad. He knew they couldn't go into this room because they would be like a raindrop in the ocean that was absorbed and broken apart.
"Mokona!" Watanuki was shouting. "Mokona!"
Doumeki didn't understand why Watanuki was even shouting, because three-dimensionality didn't exist in this room, if it was a room. It wasn't something, it was everything. It was the entire screaming universe without shape and substance and order. It was glowing hot like the surface of a star and was pulling them in with a strange force as if they were rotating around it like a moon.
He saw the Zashiki-Warashi take a step towards the room with a look of wondrous horror on her face. He reached out and grabbed her arm. "No! Watanuki!"
Watanuki reached for the door with superhuman force and threw it closed. It jammed halfway, and he tried to pull it shut, but the room wouldn't let him. "Get out of here! Go to the wine storage!" he shouted, and they ran.
The hallway seemed to stretch for miles and miles as they ran away from Yuuko's room. Watanuki was behind him, but every time Doumeki looked back, he just heard Watanuki's voice shouting "Go go!" in his ears as if from a great distance. He could see Watanuki's arms outstretched in the corner of his eye and how he was flinging doors past them in a manic blur. It felt as if they were running at the speed of light.
"Through that door!" Watanuki shouted, and Doumeki was about to ask, "What door?" but suddenly they were at the other end of the shop where Yuuko had once kept secret things in cool dark rooms, and then they were shooting into a small door that didn't look like it could have even fitted Mokona. They lurched to a stop, but they were still running, and the sudden drop in speed disoriented Doumeki for a moment. They were still running as fast as they could, but now it felt too slow.
They ran shaking and panting into the cool wine storage room and slammed the door behind them. The strange dark miasma was considerably better here. Doumeki saw shelves and shelves of bottles against the walls and mysterious chests tucked away at the corners of the room.
"Back here," Watanuki said, and led them to a shelf with tall opaque sake bottles. They were…Doumeki blinked and rubbed his eyes, sure that it was a trick of light but…the bottles were glowing slightly with a cool milky light.
The space around them smelled cleaner. Doumeki stepped closer and inhaled deeply, feeling his lungs expand. He wondered why he had never noticed how difficult it was to breathe in the rest of the shop. He took another breath. The Zashiki-Warashi looked better too; the colour was coming back into her cheeks and she didn't look so thin and pale.
Doumeki eyed the bottles and realised he knew the heft of them and the way his fingers wrapped around the necks. "Are those-"
"Haruka-san's best sake," Watanuki said and huffed out a tired laugh. "I had always thought Yuuko-san just liked drinking them."
"Do you think she foresaw this?" Doumeki asked.
"I don't know." Watanuki took down one of the bottles and broke the seal. "I'm sorry I can't do Haruka-san's sake justice at the moment." He offered the bottle to the Zashiki-Warashi. "Drink some of this. It will help. The shop knows we're here now. It will be more difficult to resist it."
She took the bottle from him and tipped it back delicately. "Oh," she said and put a hand to her chest. "Oh, that feels much better."
Watanuki cracked the seal on another bottle, and gave it to Doumeki. "Here, you too. Though I shouldn't have to tell you twice, you drunkard."
"Why do we have to each open a bottle?" Doumeki asked. "Is it some kind of-"
"No," Watanuki said and looked embarrassed. "I just…I just thought since she's already drunk from it, it would be impolite to…" The Zashiki-Warashi was blushing now. "J-Just drink the sake, Doumeki!"
Doumeki did as he was told and felt instantly better, just as the Zashiki-Warashi had said. Running through the house had made him tired, and his muscles ached from straining against some unseen force in the hallways. The sake invigorated him as if he'd just had a cold bath or won an archery contest. He didn't feel so tired anymore.
"We can't stay here," Watanuki warned. "Haruka-san's sake will protect us for a while, but we can't let the shop close up and trap us here. We have to keep moving."
"Where are we going?" Doumeki asked.
"The last place we can go," Watanuki said. He looked haggard like an old man. "We have to confront the shop." He nodded to the Zashiki-Warashi. "Take that bottle with you. It will help keep the shop at bay. Come on, let's go."
The air got thicker the further they walked away from the shelf of sake bottles. They finally got to the storage door, and the Zashiki-Warashi opened it. The miasma from the shop rolled in like a fetid stale-smelling wave. She coughed once and then cleared her throat.
Doumeki grabbed Watanuki's arm as he started forward. "Just a moment," he told the Zashiki-Warashi and pulled Watanuki back inside the wine storage room. "You drink too," he said and pressed the sake bottle into Watanuki's hands.
"I don't think this is the time-" Watanuki began irritably.
"Drink it," Doumeki said fiercely. "I'll be damned if you die saving us."
Watanuki looked at him wide-eyed and tipped back the bottle. His lips came away pink and shiny with traces of sake, and Doumeki belatedly realised he had given Watanuki his sake bottle instead of opening a new one.
"All right?" Doumeki asked, slightly preoccupied with wondering whether Watanuki's mouth had touched the same place where his own lips had been moments before.
Watanuki nodded curtly. "Fine." It was too dark to tell whether he was blushing, and he pushed past before Doumeki could get a closer look.
The sake bottles glowed weirdly in the darkness of the hallway as they made their way back to the front door. The Zashiki-Warashi was hugging hers tightly, and Watanuki was carrying the other by the neck almost like a club.
"What are you going to do?" Doumeki asked. They had been continuing slowly down this particular hallway for a few minutes now, and Doumeki was quite sure it had not been half so long when they had first entered. It was as if the shop knew what they were going to do and was delaying their meeting for as long as possible.
"I don't know," Watanuki said. "I don't know what we're up against. I mean…this is the shop. I don't even know anything about it."
"You can do it," the Zashiki-Warashi whispered encouragingly. She looked tiny and far away in the long hallway even though Doumeki knew rationally that she was walking just in front of them. The sitting room door was a dark distant dot on the horizon. It felt as if they had been walking for hours.
"Oh for pity's sake," Watanuki snapped and lobbed his sake bottle at the end of the hallway. It tumbled farther and farther away till it smashed against the far wall, except they should have been only a few feet away from it. Doumeki felt a pulling stretching sensation like an elastic band snap propelling him forward, and suddenly they were all throwing up their arms and shielding their faces from flying glass and sake. Doumeki turned.
They had reached the sitting room door.
"That was…a bit drastic," Watanuki admitted, wiping sake off his glasses. The Zashiki-Warashi had somehow managed to keep herself relatively dry.
"Hn," Doumeki replied. He put his hand against the sitting room door. The air blowing in from the cracks felt strange, not like air at all. The Zashiki-Warashi shivered.
Doumeki braced himself. "Ready?"
"Ready," Watanuki agreed breathlessly, and Doumeki threw open the door.
The sitting room was dark. Thick and strange. Dimly, Doumeki could see the outline of a curtain, the flash of what might have been a red reclining couch. Yes, it could have been a couch, but the harder Doumeki looked, the less it looked like a couch at all. It didn't look like anything made by human hands. It looked like a living thing, a thousand breathing things. Out of the corner of his eye, Doumeki saw Watanuki beginning to move. He reached out to grab his elbow, but it was too late, and Watanuki was moving forward.
Watanuki put one foot across the threshold.
A strange low beat resounded from the silent depths of the sitting room. The light from the Zashiki-Warashi's sake bottle winked out.
Watanuki froze. "Zashiki-Warashi," he said quietly. "I want you to run."
"Wh-What?" she asked. "I'm not leaving you."
"I want you to leave the house and wait for us beyond the gates. The Tengu can protect you there." He gripped the doorframe tightly. In any other circumstance, Doumeki thought Watanuki would have turned to smile at her, but his eyes seemed riveted on the darkness in the room. "It will make me feel better to know you are safe."
"Is that a price?" she asked.
Watanuki hesitated. "Is it a good price?"
She thought about it and then nodded. "Yes."
"Then it is," Watanuki said firmly. "Go to the entranceway, put on your shoes, and run as fast as you can to the gate. Don't look back. No matter what, don't look back."
She stood looking at him for another moment. "I have faith in you," she whispered. "I'll wait for you as long as it takes."
They waited till they heard her put the bottle gently down and run to the entrance. They waited till they heard the soft finality of the door closing behind her. They exchanged glances. Watanuki nodded. Doumeki nodded back.
Together, they leapt into the sitting room and slammed the door behind them. They leaned against it panting loudly. It was difficult to see, let alone breathe in the room. Doumeki heard the soft click of in the door behind them. They were locked inside.
"You?" Watanuki asked.
Doumeki shook his head. "You?"
"No." Watanuki leaned his head against the locked door and tried to catch his breath. "Right," he managed. "Let's go."
"Go where, Watanuki?" a voice asked languidly, and suddenly the miasma was the swirling of pipe smoke. "You aren't planning on leaving my shop so soon, are you?"
"Yuuko-san," Watanuki gasped. There was a figure reclining on the couch. Doumeki could make out the fall of a dark kimono and a long pale leg.
The figure sat up, and Yuuko was smiling at them. She pulled the pipe from her teeth and gestured with it. "You know you have a debt to me. You can't just leave whenever you wish."
"Yuuko-san," Watanuki said again, and he was smiling. "You're alive."
"Watanuki, wait," Doumeki said sharply, because something was not right here.
Yuuko sent a reproachful look his way and re-crossed her legs. The folds of her kimono rustled against each other. "Little apprentice. That's what you are, aren't you? Why are you here to steal my shop?"
"I'm not!" Watanuki protested. "I wouldn't do that."
"Oh yes you would," Yuuko hissed. "You're here to take my shop from me. How dare you? This is my shop, and you have no right to take it! You don't deserve it, little weakling." She put her pipe down on the arm of the couch and leaned forward. She refolded her legs again, but this time Doumeki couldn't keep track of exactly how many legs she had.
"Watanuki, that isn't Yuuko," Doumeki warned.
Yuuko's terrible gaze snapped to him. "And you!" she shouted. Her voice was harsh and hoarse like a dog, like a thousand dogs. Her face was lengthening, changing. Her eyes were bright red. "Doumeki Haruka's descendant! What power do you have here? Do you think you can save him?"
The Yuuko-creature crouched as if ready to spring. Doumeki shoved himself in front of Watanuki and braced himself. His hands longed for his bow and arrows, and he cursed himself for leaving them at home. Two years of relative tranquillity had made him slow and complacent.
The creature laughed, a loud terrible sound that sent a bolt of pain through his body. Doumeki realised it wasn't wearing a kimono at all. It was made up of thousands and thousands of wriggling things. "I will have you for my own, Watanuki Kimihiro!"
It lunged suddenly, moving grotesquely on all its arms and legs. Doumeki had enough time to realise it had grown to fill half the room before Watanuki was ducking under his arm and running towards the creature.
"Watanuki!" Doumeki screamed and reached towards him, but Watanuki was shouting something too. Something that made the shop flash with a bright hot light for a moment. The creature exploded into a thousand wriggling things, all of them screaming. Watanuki was standing perfectly still, and it was enveloping him in a wave.
Doumeki saw something dark and terrible in his other eye, Watanuki's eye. A long endless void rushing up to meet Watanuki and swallow him, take him to places Doumeki could never hope to find him. There was power in that void. And loneliness. And Watanuki was falling through it, streaming down into the depths of oblivion with dark churning masses writhing around him, all howling with wild terrible triumph.
"Watanuki! Wake up!" Doumeki shouted. He covered his eye so he could only see Watanuki standing alone in the middle of the empty shop.
Watanuki seemed to come to himself. "Doumeki, stay exactly where you are," he shouted. It should have echoed throughout the shop, but Doumeki could barely hear it over the roar of the void.
Watanuki moved. Watanuki moved like he was oozing through some thick impenetrable space, like he was trying to fit himself into the gaps between the molecules. He put out his hands and pushed, slowly dragging his foot forward and then his shoulder. There was sweat on his forehead. He was going…Doumeki squinted, because the air had suddenly become a large translucent rippling thing- he was going for Yuuko's pipe that was resting on the arm of the couch.
Watanuki had told him to stand still. But Doumeki had never been very good with following orders. He reached out- he never remembered exactly how he did it, but he reached out and grabbed whatever was surrounding them. He could feel it slithering in his hands, but he held it tightly and he pulled. The shop tried to resist, but Doumeki wouldn't let it. He wouldn't let it claim Watanuki for its own, because Watanuki didn't belong here with it. The shop pulled back, and Doumeki felt his feet slide.
"Doumeki!" Watanuki shouted. He was using his fingernails. He was using his fingernails to claw through the invisible spaces of the shop, to find little footholds in it and heave himself forward.
"Shut up," Doumeki grunted. He dug his heels in, braced his shoulders, and used his entire strength to wrench the shop backwards, to pull and pull, and suddenly Watanuki was surging forward.
Watanuki misjudged the distance. His knee hit the couch, which skidded backwards with an awful screech, and the pipe tipped and fell, but Watanuki was there with his frantic hands and grabbed it before it could hit the floor. "Now," he gasped, sweaty and triumphant. "I think you ought to be more hospitable."
He took the pipe and brought it down on his knee. It broke with a loud clean snap. Suddenly, Doumeki's hands were holding onto nothing, and he stumbled backwards. The shop thrummed like the plucked string of a shamisen.
Watanuki made a slicing motion with his hand, and the motion stopped. "I am your new owner," he shouted. "There will be no bargaining! You will do as I say!"
The shop shivered again, more angrily this time.
Watanuki laughed. "Are you trying to bully me?" he asked. "Your previous occupants taught me all about that, I'm afraid." He suddenly looked sombre. "Your previous master is dead," he said quietly. "She has entrusted you in my care." He held out his hand, the one with the frozen little finger. "You remember me, don't you? I saw to your needs, helped keep you clean and warm."
The shop shivered again, but more gently this time. It felt like a caress.
"That's right," Watanuki said soothingly. "I've promised to keep you in good care." He put his hands on his thighs and bowed deeply. "My name is Watanuki Kimihiro." The name rang out strangely, too loud and reverberating for such a small room. "Please accept me kindly."
And the shop changed. Doumeki couldn't say how exactly, but the sitting room suddenly seemed lighter and larger. The miasma vanished. Light came in softly through the rice-paper doors. The red couch and hangings were gone. Doumeki was sure if he opened the sitting room door and looked around, he would find exactly the right number of hallways with exactly the right proportions and doors. He took a deep breath and realised he could breathe again. The air smelled old but clean.
Watanuki jammed the two pieces of pipe into his bag and zipped it up. "What a nuisance," he said grumpily. He put his arms over his head and stretched. "At least it's over now."
"Nuisance," Doumeki said flatly. "You call that a nuisance."
"Hmm? Yes." Watanuki walked past him into the hallway. "Oh, mind the glass. I shouldn't have thrown the bottle so hard. Oh well, I can clean it up later."
He put on his shoes and opened the front door. The yard in front of the house was bright and cheerful. The grass was waving softly in the breeze, and a few crows were cawing back and forth.
"What time is it?" Doumeki asked suspiciously. He checked his watch. "Five in the morning?"
"Yes," Watanuki replied. "At least it's the weekend."
"We spent four days in there, Doumeki." Watanuki reached inside Doumeki's bag, flipped open his cell phone, and showed him the display.
"Hn," Doumeki said, taking the cell phone from him and staring at it. He had missed almost a week of classes. He wasn't sure how he would explain this to his professors. "What will you do now?"
Watanuki shrugged. "I'll go back to the temple to pick up a broom for the broken glass and then come back."
"It's safe now?"
"Yes, it's safe," Watanuki said and gave the front door a gentle pat before shutting behind them.
They started back to the gate. Doumeki stared at the back of Watanuki's head. He looked different now. Older. "What then?"
"Then?" Watanuki frowned. "I'll come back every week to clean and check on everyone. The shop has been through an ordeal, so I'll wait a while before I start poking around."
"The shop's been through an ordeal?" Doumeki repeated incredulously.
Watanuki turned around and smiled at him, a genuine smile. Doumeki was taken aback, so it took him a few moments to notice his grandmother waiting on the other side of the gate.
"Well well," she said as they approached. "It seems everything is alright now, isn't it, Watanuki?"
"Yes, Grandmother," he said brightly. She reached into the grocery bag around her arm and pulled out two paper-wrapped onigiri. Doumeki tore into it hungrily. She had made them herself, but they were Watanuki's ingredients, so they were still very good. He polished off two more while Watanuki nibbled on his first and told Nagako all about what had happened inside the shop.
"Oh my," Nagako said. "I had always wondered why Haruka made so much sake that year."
Doumeki crumpled up the paper and stuffed it into his pocket. There was something nagging at the back of his brain. "Where is the Zashiki-Warashi?"
Watanuki stopped chewing. "There was no Zashiki-Warashi," he replied. "It was the shop all along. Do you think the real Zashiki-Warashi would have asked me to go into the shop if she had thought I would be in the slightest danger?"
"The shop?" Doumeki repeated in confusion.
"I knew it was time for me to come back," Watanuki said. "It was gaining too much power on its own. If it had the power to break the barrier and come into the temple after me, who knows what else it could have been capable of in a few years?"
"And when exactly were you going to tell me?" Doumeki asked angrily.
"Now," Watanuki said, looking unrepentant. "I wasn't sure she was actually the shop till much later. I was stupid."
"You did very well," his grandmother said warmly. "Obaa-chan is pleased too. Come, let's get you home. I'm sure you are tired."
"Mm," Watanuki agreed and promptly lurched backwards. Doumeki lunged to catch him, and Watanuki's head fell against his shoulder. He was unconscious.
Doumeki tried to jostle him with his shoulder. "Watanuki?"
His grandmother clucked. "Silly young man still hasn't learned how to take care of himself properly. I expect that will be your responsibility, Shizuka." She looked up into his tightly drawn face. "Oh, not to worry. Our Watanuki just overexerted himself. I expect he hasn't used so much power before. He will have to get used to that." She put a hand on his forehead and nodded. "A good night's rest is all he needs. Let's take him back home."
"I'm used to carrying him," Doumeki replied and knelt to hook his arms properly behind Watanuki's knees before lifting him up. He could feel Watanuki breathing slow and deep against his neck. It was strangely comforting.
"I suppose you are," his grandmother said approvingly. She picked up Watanuki's fallen bag and started back to the temple. Doumeki followed her, carrying Watanuki. He looked down at Watanuki's sleeping face and wondered who he would be when he woke up.
Watanuki was the same and vastly different after that. He still shouted and cleaned and made the most wonderful food Doumeki had ever tasted, but now sometimes he would stare off into space for periods of time with the strangest look on his face as if he were listening to a conversation that only he was privy to. Sometimes Watanuki would tell him he wasn't going to class with him today because he had business elsewhere. Doumeki assumed Watanuki meant the shop, but sometimes he wondered. Sometimes he saw Watanuki talking to strangers at the station or the park. Once or twice Doumeki could have sworn it was a spirit. Sometimes Watanuki would stare at random people as they passed, and then he would turn around to watch them go and say, "Hmm," in a voice that made Doumeki uneasy.
It all came to a head one day when Watanuki swept into the kitchen one evening wearing a long dark old-fashioned kimono with bunches of pale morning glories tumbling over delicate sprays of pine with golden puffs of smoke rising up around them. The kimono looked vaguely familiar, and Watanuki looked striking in it. Doumeki realised after a moment that it was Yuuko's kimono and wondered when Watanuki had gone through her room and taken it. He wondered if the room was behaving itself how like a proper three-dimensional object. He doubted it.
"How does it look?" Watanuki asked and swept around in a small circle, the hem and sleeves of the dark kimono belling out around him. The obi was tucked into a neat elegant fold and the kimono fitted him as if it had been tailored for him. He looked…Doumeki thought about it. Watanuki looked foreign, like another spirit that had entered the house just like the false Zashiki-Warashi.
Nagako dropped the potato she had been peeling and clapped her hands. "You look wonderful, Watanuki! Oh, it suits you very well. Don't you think, Shizuka?"
Yes, Doumeki thought. It suited him a bit too well. Watanuki looked like a wish-shop owner, like a sorcerer. He already looked hundreds of years old and tired of living, ready to disintegrate into a cluster of butterflies and fade away. "You can't be her, you know."
Watanuki looked taken aback, and then his eyebrows came together. "What?"
"You can't take her place."
"I don't mean to," Watanuki snapped. The irritated look made him look more familiar, more like the same old Watanuki just playing dress up with his mother's things. "Why can't you ever say something nice?"
"Where are you going in her kimono?"
"That's none of your business!" Watanuki told him, flushing, and oh, Doumeki finally understood what the false Zashiki-Warashi had meant about Watanuki looking different. Doumeki didn't know when Watanuki had become long and lean and graceful instead of gawky, when his eyes had become so blue and his jaw had become smooth and firm. Watanuki crossed his arms, and his hands were like miracles, slender and strong with faint rosy knuckles.
Doumeki had always been protective of Watanuki and ever-present almost to a degree of annoyance initially out of some vague sense of obligation and later because Watanuki was his friend, and Yuuko had entrusted Doumeki with him. Doumeki had always pushed Watanuki out of harm's way and shouted at him when he was stupid because he didn't want to think of a future with Watanuki injured or dead or worse because he had seen what happened in Yuuko's shop and knew there were things much worse than death.
If Doumeki were pressed, he could have admitted he cared for Watanuki, and if his grandmother had pressed him, he could have even confessed he loved Watanuki. As a friend. Maybe more than a friend, but Watanuki didn't have to know about that. But till this moment, Doumeki had never looked at the delicate arches of Watanuki's feet and his pale fingertips and wanted him. He had never wanted to wrap himself around Watanuki and whisper gentle things in his ear and feel the curl of Watanuki's ankle around his leg. Doumeki felt a small thrill go through him and realised he was in trouble. Oh, he was in so much trouble that it wasn't even possible.
"Don't do anything stupid," he warned Watanuki breathlessly, because it felt like he was just meeting Watanuki for the first time, and he couldn't stop staring.
He expected an outburst, but instead Watanuki raised an icy imperious eyebrow at him and then nodded politely to Nagako. That was unexpected. "I'll be back late. I'm very sorry I won't be here to prepare dinner."
"Oh, we can heat up leftovers," Nagako assured Watanuki.
But no, Doumeki didn't want Watanuki to stay out late and go to places Doumeki couldn't follow him. He wanted Watanuki to prepare dinner and shout about unreasonable requests and wave cooking chopsticks around threateningly. He didn't want Watanuki to look like Yuuko. "You're slacking off," he told Watanuki.
"Ah-h," Watanuki said in a quiet contemplative way that raised the hairs on Doumeki's neck. "Yes. I have been slacking off, haven't I? There's work to be done." Then he turned it into a glare and spoiled the effect. "I know what's going on in that oafish brain of yours - you can't come with me."
"Just come back," Doumeki replied and was mortified that he had actually said that.
Watanuki looked away, but his mouth was set in a firm line, and he nodded once. "I will."
He left the kitchen in a rich whisper of silk, the material flowing out behind him like the stroke of an ink brush. Doumeki imagined it was rewriting the characters of Watanuki's name and was afraid of what Watanuki would be when he returned. Watanuki, April first. He turned to see his grandmother staring after Watanuki too.
"He's different," Doumeki said, instinctively knowing she would understand what he was trying to say and explain it to him. "He's changing."
"He's growing up," his grandmother replied, neatly peeling the skin from another potato. She put down the knife and looked at him pointedly, as if she knew all about the way he had stared at Watanuki. It made him feel sheepish. "And so are you."
Doumeki was startled awake sometime during the night by the sound of a door sliding shut and a person shuffling their feet against the tatami mats in Watanuki's room. Doumeki rose up from his futon and crept to the adjoining door. Watanuki hadn't come back at all that night, and Doumeki had stayed up waiting for him till his grandmother had coaxed him to go to sleep. It was the first time Watanuki had vanished like that, and Doumeki had wondered if it was the sort of thing Watanuki did often in the daytime when Doumeki was at college and couldn't follow him.
Doumeki heard a bang and then the person on the other side was cursing furiously in short pained breaths. Doumeki finally threw the door open, and the figure inside the room froze. It was Watanuki. It was a Watanuki who was suddenly small and graceless again, hunched over clutching his arm with his kimono billowing around him at awkward angles.
Doumeki stared. "Watanuki?"
"Doumeki." Watanuki made a small pained sound, and Doumeki was there in an instant. Watanuki tried to hide his arm, but Doumeki grabbed his elbow.
"What's wrong?" Watanuki tried to push him away, but Doumeki resisted and gently pushed Watanuki's sleeve up. "What are you-" And then he was suddenly furious, because Watanuki's hand was twisted at an unnatural angle. Something had ruined the clean beautiful lines of Watanuki's wrist, and there would be hell to pay. "Who did this?"
"The shop," Watanuki said and gasped in pain again. "Oh, god. I misjudged the price for the wish and th- the shop took the rest of it from me."
"You would," Doumeki said, even though he knew it wasn't really Watanuki's fault, but wasn't it just like him? "Idiot, why did you do that?"
"I didn't know," Watanuki cried, and he looked so deathly pale that Doumeki's heart stopped for a moment. Watanuki looked as if he would faint, so Doumeki pulled him into his room and laid him down onto his futon, not caring about how the kimono would bunch up and crease under the blankets.
He eased Watanuki's head down onto the pillow and put a hand on his forehead. "Hold on, I'm getting Grandmother."
"I've…never been in your room before," Watanuki managed. "Your…your sheets…your sheets are wrinkled." He tried to laugh, but it came out sounding like a gurgle. It turned Doumeki's stomach.
"Get a hold of yourself, Watanuki," he growled and ran down the hall before he did something stupid like pull Watanuki into his arms and kiss his forehead like his own mother had done once when he had fallen off his first bicycle and broken his arm.
His grandmother, to her credit, remained calm. Doumeki wondered if she had known this would happen. She certainly collected her herbs and tonics with an efficiency unnatural for a woman that had been asleep only moments before.
"Hold him, Shizuka," she said briskly as she walked into the room and knelt down beside the futon. She mixed a few bottles and herbs into a small wooden bowl and beat it with a whisk till it frothed. "Watanuki, child, drink this."
Doumeki helped Watanuki lift his head, and for once Watanuki didn't say a word. He finished the bowl in a few swallows and winced at the taste.
"Good." His grandmother took the bowl back efficiently. "Shizuka, help him sit up."
Watanuki rose by himself tremblingly, and Doumeki immediately curled his arms around Watanuki's back. Watanuki felt too small and delicate to be the same person that had sailed out of the kitchen that same evening. Doumeki wondered if this was the shop's revenge, but Watanuki had tamed it, and the shop would have made its move long ago if it had still harboured grudges.
"Has this happened before?" Doumeki asked suspiciously.
Watanuki started shaking his head and then stopped. "Some," he gasped. "But such small things that I didn't even notice. I thought they were paper cuts or bruises from slipping on the floor. I think it's because…I've never granted such a strong wish before."
"Idiot," Doumeki growled. "You've been granting wishes willy-nilly. You should have told me." But then Watanuki let out a soft involuntary whimper, and Doumeki didn't have the heart to berate him further.
His grandmother lifted Watanuki's arm. "I'll need to turn your wrist back into place," she said. "Please bear it for a moment."
Watanuki nodded and put his face into Doumeki's shoulder. Doumeki pressed a hand between his shoulder blades and didn't know what to do.
"Ready? One, two, three."
There was a snapping noise, and Doumeki felt Watanuki's muffled shout against his chest.
Doumeki heard someone talking and realised after a moment that it was coming from him. "It's alright, it's alright," he was murmuring into Watanuki's ear, and his hand was rubbing up and down Watanuki's back in a soothing way that he had thought would never come naturally to him. But this was Watanuki, and Doumeki would do what he could. "Watanuki, shhh."
"Don't tell Kohane-chan or Himawari-chan," Watanuki gasped out and then shuddered. Nagako was wrapping his arm in bandages and laying a cool paste against his skin.
"Is that what you're worried about?" Doumeki asked angrily. "Idiot."
He kept holding Watanuki even after Nagako was done with the bandages and said Watanuki could probably sit up by himself now. Watanuki might have protested, but Doumeki ignored it. He could feel Watanuki's pulse underneath his hands. It was still too loud, too rapid. Nagako left to make tea for everyone, so they sat alone in Doumeki's room, still half-lying on his futon. Doumeki thought about how he had lain awake in his bed a few hours ago wanting to know the feel of Watanuki in his arms, and he realised that wishes had to be made carefully, especially the unspoken ones.
"I gave you my blood," Doumeki said and then stopped. He had never brought up any of his debts before because he thought it was in poor taste. But if Watanuki could be reckless, so could he. "I gave you my blood once when you were on your deathbed in Yuuko's shop. I carried…I carried you all the way there."
Watanuki hissed in a breath but said nothing.
"I gave you my family's blood, mine and my father's and my grandfather's," Doumeki continued. He felt Watanuki listening. "Don't waste it."
Doumeki was still in bed when Watanuki got back home. Watanuki supposed Doumeki had the right to sleep in late on the weekends with his busy schedule at the university, but Watanuki still remembered the days when he had seen Doumeki wake up early to clean the temple before school.
"No temple here," Doumeki always told him. "Besides, you clean now."
Watanuki didn't shout at him about that last comment anymore, perhaps because he had become used to Doumeki's odd sense of humour after living with him for such a long time. Doumeki had become used to Watanuki's humour too and knew when he would scowl and press the broom into his hands and bully him into sweeping the entranceway.
Watanuki crept to the bed without a sound. He liked seeing Doumeki like this, relaxed and sprawled out with his hair soft and dishevelled. "Hey," he whispered and sat down on the tiny ledge of space at Doumeki's side of the bed. Doumeki stirred after a moment, blinked up at him owlishly, and rolled over to check the clock.
"That was fast," he remarked, and his voice came out in a low sleepy growl. "A wish?"
"The Tengu wanted to negotiate the return of their fan."
"Mm." Doumeki picked at the edge of Watanuki's obi. "So you had to wear that stupid outfit."
Watanuki smiled. "Yes, I did." Doumeki grunted, and his eyes drifted closed again.
Doumeki still didn't like when he wore kimono to formal business. Watanuki thought it was good to have a sense of professionalism in matters dealing with the spirit world, but Doumeki had other opinions. Doumeki rarely expressed open dislike for anything, and Watanuki wondered what was so terrible. He wondered if it had to do with the kimono at all or if Doumeki thought he would disappear someday like Yuuko, and the kimono were all Doumeki would have left of him.
But Watanuki loved wearing them. He loved coming back home in the late evenings or mornings like this, because Doumeki hated seeing him dressed up. And then Doumeki would fumble with the kimono and ask, "What the hell is this?" as if he had never seen one before in his life.
He would undo the obi and peel the kimono away, casting away layers and layers like husks. Watanuki would help him sometimes. Sometimes he would interfere. Sometimes he would tangle his fingers with Doumeki's or turn and pin the kimono down with his elbow so Doumeki couldn't take it off or sometimes he would feign ignorance and pull the kimono back around himself and ask, "Yes? What's wrong?"
But Doumeki always won in the end, because Watanuki always let him win. And then Doumeki would run his hands up and down Watanuki's body in wonder and breathe, "There you are."
"Here I am," Watanuki whispered and lay down next to Doumeki, still fully clothed. He put his head against Doumeki's shoulder and felt the expensive silk rustle all around them like rain.
Doumeki breathed in and out with a soft shh-shh. And then, "Are you wearing that dark one? With the morning glories?"
"Yes," Watanuki said and crossed his arms over his stomach. He thought it looked rather nice on him, but Doumeki never appreciated anything like that.
Doumeki huffed out a breath. "I don't like it."
"No?" Watanuki taunted. "What are you going to do about it?"
"Hn," Doumeki said and then suddenly grabbed him and swung him up and over till Watanuki was lying on his back on the other side of the bed. Doumeki rolled on top of him an pulled down the neck of the kimono.
"You're going to ruin all of them, one by one," Watanuki scolded him, but he was laughing and wriggling out of the obi and ties.
"Going to burn them," Doumeki corrected. He mouthed the curve of Watanuki's exposed shoulder.
"I see," Watanuki said and circled the knob of Doumeki's ankle with his toe. He dug his fingers into Doumeki's messy hair. "Hey, what did we do last night?"
"Mm?" Doumeki asked, and Watanuki heard the grin in his voice.
Watanuki slapped the back of his neck. "I don't mean that. I mean…what happened after we bought groceries?"
"Don't know," Doumeki grunted. Watanuki could feel his breath against his collarbone. "You're tired. Your eyes were puffy this morning."
"I am tired," Watanuki said in surprise. He hadn't noticed. "And so are you. I've never seen you sleep till ten before."
"Mm," Doumeki agreed. "Sleep."
"I can't," Watanuki said. He traced the curve of Doumeki's ear. "It's Saturday. I have to clean the house."
"Clean later," Doumeki suggested and did some rather persuasive things with his tongue.
Watanuki squeaked. "I uh, I could sleep in for a few more minu….I can clean-"
"Talk too much," Doumeki complained. He pressed kisses to Watanuki's stomach, light feathery terribly ticklish kisses, and Watanuki laughed and laughed until tears came into his eyes. He could feel Doumeki hmn-ing against his ribs, the Doumeki version of a laugh.
"Yeah," Watanuki agreed when he could breathe again. He knocked the discarded kimono off the bed, and it floated down to the floor in a dark cloud.
Watanuki eventually got around to cleaning sometime in the afternoon. It was a Saturday, and he always cleaned on Saturdays. They had bought this place after Doumeki had decided he liked working in the chemical engineering department and wanted to stay under the tutelage of his advisor, who said he would help him navigate the process of getting a PhD while working as a teaching assistant.
"I never imagined you would become a professor," Watanuki had told him. He had never imagined Doumeki would become a lot of things. "All your students will be afraid of you."
"Hn," Doumeki replied, and Watanuki got the impression that Doumeki was secretly pleased about that.
The house had been a surprise. It had started with Nagako commenting that with all the commuting Doumeki did between the temple and the university, it might be cheaper to find closer accommodations and cut down on train fare.
That had made something sink in Watanuki's stomach but he hadn't objected to the idea. He had admonished Doumeki a bit for leaving her alone in the temple, but he had reassured him that he would take up Doumeki's duties and help around the house and maintain the temple.
"The shrine maidens can help too," Nagako had added.
To which Watanuki had replied, "What shrine maidens?" and had squinted at Doumeki suspiciously. Doumeki had squinted back.
"Obaa-chan has some hopefuls that she'd like to send to me. She already has Tsuyuri and can only take care of so many." She had smiled up at Doumeki. "Besides, Shizuka, I knew you were interested in something more than keeping the temple after college. I didn't want you to think you were obligated to take over after your grandfather."
She had apparently foreseen that better than either of them. Or maybe Doumeki had been in on it too, because three weeks after that discussion he said, "I have to show you something," on the way back from the university, and Watanuki followed him, bemused. They got onto the train but stopped at the Hamamatsucho station.
"Are we going to visit someone?" Watanuki asked as Doumeki led him into one of the surrounding neighbourhoods, but no, Doumeki led him to a tiny house with dried stems in the flowerboxes and let himself in.
"Idiot!" Watanuki hissed. "You can't just-"
"I have the key," Doumeki said, and that was weird. "It's my house."
Watanuki stared at him. "You bought a house?" Doumeki's silence was as good as a confirmation. "With what money?"
"My father," Doumeki started but then stopped, but Watanuki knew through Haruka about the account Doumeki's father had set up to send money back every month, and how Doumeki never touched it ever.
So Watanuki did the tactful thing for once and ran around exclaiming over the ordered tatami room and the spacious well-lit kitchen. The tatami room, master bedroom, and a bathroom with separate toilet were downstairs and the kitchen, living room, and laundry were upstairs. It was a small house but well-maintained and clean. Grudgingly, he admitted to himself that Doumeki had good taste, at least when it came to houses.
"What's this?" Watanuki asked, wandering into a spare room next to the master bedroom. It was a nice cosy place with bright whitewashed walls and a window overlooking the street.
"This is your room," Doumeki said, not making eye contact.
Watanuki gaped at him, and his mouth moved soundlessly for a few moments. "I'm…I'm coming with you?"
Doumeki eyeballed him like he had just asked a stupid question. "Duh."
Watanuki glared back and ignored Doumeki in favour of wandering around the room for a few minutes to think about where he would put his things and how he would arrange the furniture. "This is my room," he murmured. "You gave me my own room."
"Do you like it?" Doumeki asked. "All of it?"
"Yes," Watanuki replied, smiling. "Yes," because Doumeki had bought a house. Doumeki had bought himself a house and given Watanuki a room all for himself. And then Watanuki punched him because being sentimental just wouldn't do. "Jerk. You could have told me before. I find it highly suspicious that you just happened to buy a house three weeks after Nagako suggested you move out. And I specifically remember she said you, not we."
"Hn," Doumeki said, and after years of living with him, Watanuki was able to interpret that as, But it would have ruined the surprise.
Watanuki sometimes wondered why Doumeki bothered with him. He wondered why Doumeki always walked him to the shop like the old days even though spirits didn't dare attack Watanuki now. Doumeki came from a good family and had a respectable job and didn't have any business fussing over Watanuki, but he still persisted day after day.
"I promised Kunogi," was all Doumeki would say whenever Watanuki asked him. It was oddly comforting, but Watanuki sometimes worried that he was holding Doumeki back, that Doumeki walking him to and from the shop every day and paying for an extra person in the house was too much thankless work.
"This is ridiculous," Watanuki groused after the train that usually took them to the shop had been late because of an accident, and Doumeki had scrambled to get to his morning class on time. Watanuki had a few words with the shop that day and then came back with Doumeki's laptop to look up a few blueprints of the city. He made sure he took the laptop while Doumeki was away at university, because Doumeki had the strangest idea that Watanuki would drop it. (Watanuki did drop the laptop, but only once, and he paid a few spirits hanging around in the local electronics store to help repair it. If Doumeki noticed that his laptop was quieter and faster and had more memory than it used to, well, Watanuki didn't know anything about it.)
"We're taking a shortcut," he told Doumeki the next day, and led him down the street past the playground and the bulletin board with fading pictures of electoral candidates and city garbage schedules.
"What," Doumeki started when Watanuki began inching through the gap between someone's fence and the streetlight on the corner of the next intersection.
"Just do it," Watanuki snapped and with a sudden shift, they were standing in front of the shop without any fuss whatsoever.
Doumeki blinked. "Huh."
"I just made a small…" Watanuki made a gesture like he was folding a sheet together. He wasn't sure he could explain it any better than that. "I didn't want to go directly into the shop, because something could come inside that way and bypass the shop's boundaries."
"It's good work," Doumeki said.
Watanuki blinked. "Oh. R-Really?"
"Never thought you would think of something like this," Doumeki added.
"Like you could think of it, jerk," Watanuki retorted, but he was glad Doumeki approved.
Watanuki worked from the shop every day after that. He walked with Doumeki to the station to see him off and then went back to the shop to conduct his affairs. It was much easier than running into wish-holders at random in parks and supermarkets. He became more skilled at judging prices and debts, though in the beginning he still came home with enough cuts and broken fingers to make Doumeki angry.
The work gave him satisfaction. He had found a niche for himself, a wish shop keeper. He wore kimono that Doumeki disapproved of and sometimes smoked when he knew Doumeki would never find out because Yuuko had done it, so there had to be a reason. He was still inexperienced with scrying and the smoke helped his clarity, but mostly it was just a habit. He didn't use Yuuko's pipe, which he had long since put in an inert glass container covered in seals. Sometimes he borrowed cigarettes from Haruka or went to the drugstore near their house to pick up a pack. He always left money at the register of course, but sometimes he had the strange feeling that the store manager knew more than he was letting on, because he would always aim smiles suspiciously close to Watanuki's direction whenever he came in.
"I'm very sorry," the Zashiki-Warashi said once when she stopped by to see him with a housewarming present. It wasn't a plant Watanuki had ever seen before. He wasn't sure it was a plant. "I heard the shop came to see you while disguised me and tried to trap you inside."
"Hmph." The Ame-Warashi was less than impressed. "He should have seen right through that."
"You're right," Watanuki said cheerfully and poured them all more tea. "I should have. But not to worry," he told the Zashiki-Warashi. "Everything turned out for the best. And the shop is very sorry."
The shop hummed in agreement and rattled their teacups.
"Creepy," the Ame-Warashi muttered and tightened her grip on her umbrella. Watanuki laughed.
In short, he grew complacent. He grew used to humans and spirits visiting his shop. He grew used to looking after Maru and Moro and Mokona (who he found asleep with his paws around one of the sake bottles in Yuuko's room). He grew used to going home and drawing Doumeki a bath and making dinner in the wonderful kitchen and being called away on unexpected business in the middle of the night. He moved Yuuko's kimono into a large chest in his room and organised his book collection on the set of sensible shelves he brought with him from the temple. He adjusted to the neighbourhood garbage collection schedule and the early morning sounds of people and bicycles going by his window.
And then one day, a woman walked into the shop and changed everything.
She was pretty. She had light brown hair and kind eyes and looked a little younger than him. Yuuko had always gone through her speech about nothing being a coincidence and had blown some smoke rings for effect while lounging like a Victorian woman in a faint on her couch. Watanuki wasn't like that.
"Hello," he said, smiling, as the woman shuffled into the room. He put the tray of snacks on the small low table in the middle of the sitting room. "I've been expecting you. Sorry, do you like green or red tea?"
"Uh, red," she said and worried her lip. "Do I…what am I doing here?"
"You have a wish," Watanuki said. "Sorry, sit down. I'll be back with the tea."
In the kitchen he put a few spoonfuls of tea powder into the pot and capped it. He made sure he also had a bowl of sugar and a small pitcher of milk on the tray. He usually used the blue china for black tea, but another customer had already been to the shop that morning, and the tea set was soaking in the sink, so he choose the pale ivory set with the gold trimming and pink flowers. He thought she would like it.
The woman was arranging herself on one of the cushions when he came back in with the tea. He put the tray down and served them both before sitting down. "Now," he started. "Tell me about your wish-"
"Mmgh!" the woman said with wide eyes as she bit into one of Watanuki's sweet croquettes. "These are so good!"
"Thank you," Watanuki said. He was used to this reaction by now. Sometimes people stopped by just for the snacks. Once one of his customers had abruptly said, "I don't need that wish anymore," and had proceeded to devour all the sweets on the plate. He had liked her.
He took a long sip of his tea and waited. He had learned a lot about patience from Doumeki, mostly how to maintain it when Doumeki was being annoying.
"My wish," the woman started. She drained her cup of tea, and Watanuki poured her another one. "I suppose I have one. I would…well, I suppose I would like to meet my future husband."
"Your future husband?" Watanuki repeated.
"Yes," she said. "Or even know who he is. It's…" She sighed. "It's difficult, just waiting. I've…admired some men before, but I think it would be nice to know who is meant for me. I don't want to marry the wrong man or spend time dating someone else if we aren't meant to be together."
"Ah," Watanuki said. "But you know that being hurt, loving others and letting them hurt you is also an important part of human interactions. Destiny isn't just a single answer; it's a series of connections, of relationships, however painful some of those relationships may be."
"Please," the woman said. "Please try."
Watanuki nodded. "Very well."
Watanuki looked at her and saw through her. He saw the lazy thread of hitsuzen weaving around her finger. He saw her in thousands and thousands of layers, how she would look when she was older, where she would work, where she would cry and where she would be so blissfully happy that she wouldn't even know it until it had passed her by. He saw how she would stop to give directions to a stranger and miss her train and hear on the news later how it had jumped the tracks and killed many of the passengers on board. He saw how a homeless man would ask her for money once, and how she would take him to a noodle restaurant and feed him and pay his bill. He saw how many children she would have and how she would cheerfully complain that they all looked like Doumeki.
This woman was supposed to be with Doumeki.
Watanuki suddenly saw him standing beside her with one of their children in his arms. She turned to laugh, and he smiled back, still quiet and reserved after so many years. She would quit her job to look after the temple and take care of Nagako. She would be a good cook, and Doumeki would eat her food, perhaps not with the same relish that he ate Watanuki's food, but he would eat it all the same because he loved her. He would be a professor in the university's chemical department, and she would be his wife. They would be happy.
"Where am I?" Watanuki whispered, and his heart clenched. "Where am I? Doumeki?"
And he thought oh, that was the point. Doumeki could have had this life if Watanuki hadn't decided to reject the bargain with the shop. Doumeki could still have this life if Watanuki left, just packed up all of his things and left without saying a word.
And yet…and yet..
You're allowed to be selfish, Doumeki had told him once, and Watanuki wanted to be selfish. He wanted to be so terribly terribly selfish because he didn't want this woman to marry Doumeki and have his children. He didn't want Doumeki to smile at her and eat her cooking and let her take care of the temple. She was kind and generous and beautiful, and Watanuki didn't like her. He didn't know her, and he didn't like her. He didn't want to grant her wish.
But he couldn't do that, because he was the shopkeeper, and there was such a thing as hitsuzen and granting wishes that he didn't want to grant. There was such a thing as love. That nagged his memory for a moment, and he remembered two people, a man and a woman who had pressed their hands to his forehead for his temperature-He shook his head and lost the thought. He didn't know whose memories those were.
Doumeki would be happy. It would be enough. And Watanuki would…he would fade away. Doumeki would look for him because Doumeki was a stubborn idiot, but everyone had to give up their dreams some day, didn't they? Doumeki would give up someday and find this woman and fall in love…
"I…" Watanuki started, and he could taste futures spinning out on the tip of his tongue. "I…I can't grant your wish." He clamped his mouth shut in shock and bit his tongue.
"What?" the woman demanded. "Why not?"
"I can't change a person's nature," Watanuki lied even though it wasn't a matter of making Doumeki love her. He would do that all on his own after they met. "I'm…I'm sorry. If…If you have some other wish, I can try to grant it. But…I'm very sorry."
"That is my only wish," the woman said, looking disappointed. She clutched her purse. "Are you sure you can't grant it?"
"Yes," Watanuki replied, and felt something twist in his heart. "Yes, I'm sure." She looked so dejected that he took pity on her and rose from his cushion. "I'll pack some of those snacks for you to take home," he offered.
She brightened a bit at that. "Oh, thank you. That's very kind."
Watanuki smiled at her and braced himself against whatever price the shop would exact for refusing to grant a wish. Wish shop keepers didn't do that. They weren't permitted to pick and choose who they liked. No matter how much power they had at their disposal, they ultimately existed to serve and grant the wishes of others. He waited and waited till he reached the kitchen. He waited as he packed up some of the snacks, gave them to her in a pretty floral-printed cloth, and saw her off.
"Well?" he asked the shop as he cleared the table and carried the tea service to the sink. "What are you waiting for?"
The shop was silent. Watanuki frowned.
"What would happen if you got married?" Watanuki asked as he and Doumeki were sitting down to dinner a few days later. The shop still hadn't done anything to Watanuki, who was becoming increasingly paranoid that something bad was going to happen very soon.
Doumeki froze with a piece of pork on his chopsticks. "What?"
Watanuki looked down at his plate. "If you got married. Would I…I suppose I would move into the shop, wouldn't I?"
"What are you talking about?" Doumeki asked.
"Because you have to get married someday, don't you?" Watanuki asked, and his voice felt thick in his mouth. "I just…" He cleared his throat. "I just want to establish what we would do so it isn't a problem later."
Doumeki was staring at him as if he'd grown three heads. "Who said anything about me getting married?"
"Stop being difficult!" Watanuki snapped. "Just answer me."
Doumeki's expression was unreadable. "Is…is this your way of telling me you want to move out?"
"No," Watanuki said, and felt like crying, except he didn't know why he felt like crying. It was so stupid. Doumeki deserved to be happy, and Watanuki had taken it from him. He finished his bowl of soup and some of the hand-pickled tsukemono, but they tasted sour and flat on his tongue. He picked up the bowl of rice and the pork and stood up.
"Where are you going?" Doumeki asked with his mouth full. Doumeki always talked with his mouth full- it was a bad habit that even his wife would probably never…
"I'm not hungry. You keep eating," Watanuki muttered and went into the kitchen to put the food back into the fridge. Doumeki didn't even make a move towards the pork on Watanuki's plate, which meant he was worried.
Watanuki made himself a cup of strong tea, leaned against the counter, and tried to breathe through the tight knot in his chest. From the kitchen he could see the living room and the back of Doumeki's head. He could hear the clack-clack of Doumeki's chopsticks and the almost imperceptible hm-mh sounds Doumeki made whenever he was eating something he liked. Watanuki had learned to listen for those sounds; he had never had an ear for them in high school and had just thought Doumeki was an ungrateful jerk. He had learned the proper value of silence at meals now. Sometimes silence was the best compliment a cook could receive. Watanuki made a note to make the pork again in two weeks.
He found a bunch of fresh leeks in the vegetable bin and decided to chop them up for lunch tomorrow just to have something to do with his hands. Doumeki had bought bunches and bunches of leeks fresh from the market, and their fridge was overflowing with them.
He heard Doumeki drop one of the chopsticks as he began to gather up the empty plates. They were familiar sounds to him now, just like the sound of Doumeki's footsteps ringing up the stairs from the entranceway when he came home and the quiet frustrated sounds he made whenever he was working on a difficult engineering problem in the living room with his papers spread out on every available surface. Doumeki was a careful architecture of quiet subtle sounds, and Watanuki was impossibly fond of them all.
He looked up as Doumeki came into the kitchen, and for the first time he really looked at him. And perhaps it was because the woman that had come into the shop had planted it in his mind, but Watanuki looked at Doumeki as she might have. He saw how Doumeki was tall and sturdy and handsome. No, Watanuki was not like those stupid girls, never-but seriously, when had Doumeki suddenly started looking so… Watanuki saw how Doumeki listened to him and looked after him in small imperceptible ways. He saw how Doumeki bore his outbursts, enjoyed them even because Doumeki was weird like that. He saw Doumeki's mouth and his large capable hands.
"Doumeki." Watanuki was gripping edge of the counter because if he let go he would do something stupid like grab Doumeki and bury his face in his soft-smelling t-shirt. He had been stupid, oh he had been stupid.
Doumeki turned. "Mm?" And Watanuki found he loved that expression of casual contentment; he couldn't remember precisely when Doumeki had started to wear it.
"I…I…" he cleared his throat a few times. "I…met your wife a few days ago," he said in a small voice.
Doumeki looked confused. "What?"
"She came to me with a wish. She wanted to meet her husband. She wanted to meet you." Watanuki felt his tongue prickle where he had bitten it.
"I don't have a wife," Doumeki said.
"You would have," Watanuki confessed. He couldn't stop talking now. "I saw her future, and she was supposed to marry you. You were going to have three children and all live at the temple together. A-And you lo-loved…" He pressed his lips together and couldn't go on.
"What did you tell her?" Doumeki asked, and Watanuki had never heard him sound so angry. "Watanuki. Did you grant her wish?"
Watanuki looked down at his feet. Doumeki had all rights to be furious with him. "N…No. Oh, I'm sorry, I don't know why." - Except he knew exactly why he hadn't granted her wish- "I told her I couldn't grant it. I told her to wish for something else." He risked a look at Doumeki's expression, but he saw it had changed.
Doumeki didn't look angry anymore. He looked…almost relieved. "Good."
"Good?" Watanuki demanded. "What for? If you haven't been paying attention, I just-"
"Why did you refuse her?"
Watanuki couldn't look at him. He looked at the bunch of leeks on the cutting board and felt something stinging behind his eyes. "I wasn't there, you know," he said finally. "In your future. I wasn't there. I looked and looked. And you didn't care that I was gone."
"No." Doumeki's voice was angry again. "That wasn't my future."
"It was," Watanuki insisted. "If I had stayed in the shop, you would have-"
"Dragged you back out," Doumeki replied. "Knocked some sense into you."
Watanuki made a frustrated noise. "Don't you see? I stole your future from you. You could have been happy."
"Idiot," Doumeki said, and he looked...embarrassed. "I am happy."
Watanuki blinked. There was something on Doumeki's finger. He looked down and saw something like a thread tied around Doumeki's little finger, but it was a multitude of threads, all chaotic and tangled. He tried to follow some of them but they disappeared into little wisps of nothingness the moment he began to trace them. And then there was one in the centre. It looked old and was made up of thousands of threads all woven together. Watanuki tried to reach out and touch it, but he felt a curious tugging in his chest and realised the other end of the thread was looped around his own little finger. The dead little finger that had been used for promises long ago.
"Oh," Watanuki whispered. "Oh."
Doumeki breathed something like, "Took you long enough, stupid," and Watanuki opened his mouth to be insulted by that comment, but then Doumeki was kissing him fast and desperate like he thought Watanuki would vanish at any moment. He pressed forward, and Watanuki ceded all the space Doumeki wanted till they were pressed up against the counter, and Doumeki's hands were squeezing Watanuki's shoulders in a vice-like grip. He tipped Watanuki's head back a little. Watanuki let out a small breathy gasp and Doumeki made a noise and said, "Watanuki," and was kissing him again.
The bunch of leeks topped over, and they both jumped at the sound and broke apart.
They stared at each other.
Then Watanuki offered him a slow tiny smile, and Doumeki smiled back. Doumeki was smiling, and oh, that was too much. That had to go away immediately because it was too strange, so Watanuki leaned back up and kissed him. He had never done this before, but from what it felt like, Doumeki hadn't either. It was awkward and messy, and Watanuki wanted it to be like that every single time. He coaxed Doumeki's mouth open without any rush and just took whatever Doumeki was willing to give him, and Doumeki was willing to give him everything.
"You…" Doumeki said between kisses. "You…you have no idea."
"Tell me later," Watanuki murmured. He was trying to figure out where to put his hands and finally ended up wrapping them around Doumeki's sturdy waist.
Doumeki stared at him, and his weird endearing smile was back. "I will." He bent his head down-
"Wait," Watanuki said, and Doumeki made an impatient noise. Watanuki went on regardless; they could kiss anytime they wanted, but there were pressing matters to be settled. Some things were making a lot more sense now, like why the shop had never bothered punishing him. "Does this mean I stole you from your wife?"
"Hm?" Doumeki pulled him closer. Their noses were almost touching. "No. Because I don't know her. And I've been yours since…" He trailed off, and Watanuki didn't know if it was because Doumeki realised he had been about to say something disgustingly romantic, or if he really couldn't remember a time when he hadn't loved Watanuki.
It really was disgustingly romantic, and Watanuki wanted to tease him about that. He opened his mouth. "Yeah," he said instead and surprised himself. "Yeah, I get it. Alright? I get it. I do. Just. Come here."
Doumeki let himself be pulled down to be kissed, and then he was kissing Watanuki like he wanted to articulate everything he was unable to say aloud, and Watanuki just grabbed his broad shoulders and luxuriated in the warm tingly wonder of Doumeki apparently being in love with him for years.
"I told you," Watanuki was shouting. "I told you we should call someone, but no, you had to try and fix it yourself." He had been crowding around Doumeki and shouting contradictory instructions for almost two hours now, and Doumeki's famous patience was wearing thin.
"What do you flush down our sink, anyway?" Doumeki asked, wiping his face with the paper towel Watanuki gingerly gave him. Whatever had stopped up the sink had spattered all over Doumeki's shirt the second he opened up the trap. He knew he smelled disgusting.
"Nothing," Watanuki said as if Doumeki had said the most insulting thing in the world. "I never flush anything down our sink. We have a catch on our drain for all of that. I clean it every day."
"Then what is this?" Doumeki asked, not even wanting to move a hand to point at the mess on his shirt because that would require moving and make his shirt pull away from his skin with a cold clammy plop.
"I don't know!" Watanuki shouted. "Maybe you threw something down there."
"I wouldn't," Doumeki tried to start.
"Oh you would," Watanuki interrupted.
And alright, that was it. That was it. Doumeki was cold and hungry and stank so terribly that he was getting a headache from the smell, and Watanuki's shouting and arm-waving wasn't helping at all. Doumeki peeled his shirt off, threw it in the garbage, and stalked out.
He went to go take a long scalding shower and didn't care if Watanuki got stuck with all the lukewarm water. He wondered when he had become so petulant and thought darkly that Watanuki had rubbed off on him. It took him five washes to feel clean again, although the smell still lingered in his nose. He was tempted to sit in the living room and work, but Watanuki would be there, and Doumeki couldn't speak to him right now. Instead he sat at his study desk in their room and worked from his laptop on a research paper he was collaborating on with his former advisor. His stomach growled. The sink fiasco had happened when Watanuki had been in the middle of preparing dinner, and fixing the sink had taken hours. Doumeki's neck still hurt from craning up into the darkness for dimly visible pipes and screws. He massaged it as squinted at the computer screen. The start black and white characters were hurting his eyes, but he didn't want to leave the room.
Watanuki came in an hour later looking sheepish and bearing a tray. He had a steaming cup of tea, a glass of water, two plates, and a small sauce bowl that contained three white aspirin. Doumeki wondered how Watanuki had known. The larger plate had a sliced portion of okonomiyaki, which Watanuki had made with all of Doumeki's favourite ingredients. The smaller plate had some kind of folded cloth sitting in a small puddle of liquid. Doumeki eyed it with interest. His grandmother used to make something like that.
"Hi," Watanuki mumbled. He gestured with his thumb at the desk. "Can I…"
"Hn," Doumeki replied and cleared a space. Watanuki put the tray down and emptied the bowl of aspirin into Doumeki's hand. Doumeki knocked them back and then held still as Watanuki picked up the folded cloth and pressed it down against his forehead. It was cool and smelled like mint and menthol. Doumeki felt his headache start to recede and knew it couldn't be the aspirin, not so soon. He reached up to touch the damp compress.
Watanuki batted his fingers away. "I learned a few things from Grandmother," he said. "Simple things like bandages and some salves." He pressed the chopsticks into Doumeki's hand. "You should eat."
"Mm," Doumeki said and leaned over the tray with one hand pressed against the compress. He was ravenous, and the tea felt good sliding down his throat.
Watanuki watched him eat for a while. "I'm sorry," he said finally. "I shouldn't have…sometimes I forget you get frustrated just like everyone else. I shouldn't have shouted at you."
"Mm," Doumeki agreed and swallowed. "I used up all the hot water in the shower."
"Ah," Watanuki said, smiling. "I suppose I deserved that."
"Yeah." Doumeki crammed half the okonomiyaki in his mouth and spoke through it. "I'll call someone about the sink in the morning."
Watanuki looked up. "Oh, I fixed it."
Doumeki stopped mid-chew. "You fixed it?"
"Yes. I used to live by myself before you came along, you know. I learned how to fix things myself."
"But then…why did you let me try to fix the sink?"
Watanuki laughed. "You just looked so eager to do it. You know, initially. I didn't have the heart to-"
"If you finish that sentence, Kimihiro," Doumeki warned and glared at him. "You should have stopped me."
"I know," Watanuki murmured and put his hand into Doumeki's hair. Doumeki sighed a little because oh, Watanuki's fingers felt wonderful against his scalp. Watanuki rubbed harder and pressed tight concentric circles against the tense muscles at Doumeki's neck. Doumeki closed his eyes; he never admitted it, but he did love whenever Watanuki gave him attention. And Watanuki wondered why he'd antagonised him so much during high school. Watanuki really was stupid sometimes.
Watanuki leaned over his shoulder. "What were you working on?"
"Reading," Doumeki said. He pulled the laptop out from under the tray. "The paper I'm working on with my professor. It's called-"
"Why are you holding the laptop so far away like that?" Watanuki demanded.
Doumeki raised an eyebrow. Watanuki had a bad habit of interrupting. "I'm trying to tell you the title."
"You mean you can't…" Watanuki made an aborted attempt to grab the laptop but then realised Doumeki wouldn't let him take it and went to get one of the receipts from his wallet. "Here," he said, holding it up in front of Doumeki's eyes. "What does this say?"
Doumeki squinted. "It's blurry," he said. "The ink must have smudged."
"The ink is fine," Watanuki said. He held the receipt out further. "What about here?"
The blurry characters resolved themselves into neat rows of noodles and radishes and cold green tea for a discounted price. "How did you do that?"
"Oh my god," Watanuki said gleefully. "You can't read up close. You need reading glasses. You're turning into an old man."
"What?" Doumeki demanded and grabbed the receipt from him. He pulled it closer to his face and then away, marvelling at the way the characters disappeared into fuzzy shapes and then reappeared. "Huh."
Watanuki had the telephone directory out and was leafing through it. "Tomorrow is Sunday. I wonder if the eyeglasses store is open on Sundays."
"I am not getting eyeglasses," Doumeki rumbled.
"You're one of those people, aren't you?" Watanuki said, apparently forgetting he was still supposed to be seeking forgiveness for the incident with the sink. "Listen, you need them. You're only going to make it worse if you don't wear them. And it's just when you're reading. You don't have to show up to archery practices wearing them."
"Hmgh." Doumeki was quite sure the archery team wouldn't appreciate their coach showing up wearing eyeglasses. They wouldn't say anything outright, but he was sure there would a lot of snickering and jokes floating around. But he still wasn't convinced.
"And also," Watanuki said, playing with the collar of Doumeki's t-shirt. "I think they would make you look very distinguished."
Doumeki paused. "You're enjoying this, aren't you?"
"A lot," Watanuki admitted, grinning. He planted a decisive kiss against the back of Doumeki's neck. "We're going to the eyeglasses store tomorrow," he declared.
"Hn," Doumeki acquiesced. Sometimes it was best to let Watanuki do what he wanted.
The eyeglasses place was next to the internet café and 24-hour bento place in the shopping district. They had shelves and shelves of frames and spindly display cases for sunglasses at the front desk. There was another small desk for glasses fittings in the middle of the store with two green swivel chairs and a mirror. The optician's office next door had a contract with the place, and Watanuki made him get an appointment to make sure nothing else was wrong with his eyes. Doumeki would have just preferred trying on the supermarket reading glasses till he found one that suited him, but Watanuki insisted on getting his exact prescription and lens strength.
They finally released him back into the store with a low prescription, and Doumeki went to go browse the shelves. Watanuki slumped into one of the swivel chairs, rested his head against the back, and used his long legs to spin the chair around and around.
"No," he cried out and swept out an arm as Doumeki began trying on frames. "No no! Oh, no, definitely not those. Hmm, not bad, but they don't fit your face. Try the pair beside them-no, to the left."
"Do you need any help?" One of the young women working at the desk came over. She had a round pleasant face and looked like a walking advertisement for the store with her huge thick glasses that she kept pushing back onto her nose. "Or you?" she asked, turning to Watanuki. "Are you looking to exchange that pair?"
"Ah, no," Watanuki replied, smiling and touched a hand to his glasses. "They look old, but they've been with me for a long time."
"How nice," she replied, beaming. She bowed to them. "Please don't hesitate to ask me if you need anything."
"Thank you," Watanuki replied. "I'm sure you'll be a great help."
"Who…" Doumeki muttered and looked at the girl sidelong as she walked to the other end of the store.
"A ghost," Watanuki said. "She died here during Christmas. She was in the store all alone. She didn't have any family to go home to, so she volunteered for the long holiday shift."
"She was murdered."
"Yes. They never found out who did it."
"But you know."
Watanuki looked at him, amused. "Why do you think I know?"
Doumeki shrugged. "You knew everything else about her."
"I did that from reading her aura," Watanuki replied. He rose up to stand next to Doumeki, closed his left eye, and concentrated. "Look."
There was a bright bloody taint around the woman, and the echoes of a scream reverberated in her quiet footsteps. Doumeki's eyes widened and his hands twitched, but he knew covering his ears wouldn't make it go away. "Are all auras that loud?"
"No," Watanuki said. He shut his eyes and turned away for a moment so Doumeki wouldn't have to see any more of it. "But her death was especially violent."
"Hm," Doumeki said and went into and left the 'young people' section to look at some of the older styles. There was a bright yellow sign next to a set of empty shelves that said rimless glasses were out of stock. Watanuki resumed his position in the swivel chair and followed him using the heels of his feet to pull the chair forward inch by inch.
Doumeki was sure Watanuki thought he hadn't noticed so he waited till Watanuki got closer and then grabbed the back of the chair, spun it around once, and then leaned down towards Watanuki with his hand still resting on the back. It made Watanuki tilt backward. "Should we get one of these for the living room?"
Watanuki was laughing. "Yes! Could we?"
"Just like a child," Doumeki muttered and turned away because he could feel his mouth curling into a smile.
"I'm sorry, what was that?" Watanuki asked and hooked his foot around Doumeki's ankle. He used the leverage to drag himself forward.
"Excuse me, sir." One of the blue-jacketed employees came forward with a box full of eyeglasses, and he began restocking the empty shelves.
Doumeki picked one of the new glasses up. They were lightweight and he liked the way the frames didn't wrap all the way around the lenses. He put them on just for the hell of it and turned around. "What about these?"
Watanuki stared at him and stared at him. "Fine. Let's get those," he said in an odd voice. "They suit you."
"Okay," Doumeki said and wondered whether Watanuki didn't have a thing for people with glasses. He figured he would keep tabs on the bespectacled manager of that drug store around the corner, just in case.
"I agree, they suit you very well," the store employee agreed and beamed at them. Doumeki's head snapped around so fast he gave himself whiplash.
"Yes," Watanuki murmured. He rose from the swivel chair, and Doumeki knew the expression on his face far too well. "In payment for helping us find a new pair of glasses, I will grant you a wish. You do have a wish, don't you?"
"A wish?" The employee stopped stocking the eyeglasses. "Yes, I do, actually. It's…" His eyes darted left and right, and he lowered his voice. "It's a little embarrassing."
"It's fine," Watanuki said with a wink. "You can tell me."
"Right." The employee swallowed and came closer. "Uh, I…a few years ago I was implicated in a murder. I-" He held up his hands. "I didn't do it! But the police still have my name in their books. If that could…" He twirled his finger. "Disappear, I would be grateful."
"If you really are innocent, it shouldn't be a problem," Watanuki replied with a smile, but there was a hint of something else in his voice. "Why are you worried?"
The employee bobbed his head. "Yes, yes, I shouldn't be. But it would still make me feel…better."
"That wish is far greater than a pair of eyeglasses," Watanuki told him gravely. "There would be an extra price."
"I'll pay it!" the employee interrupted. "I'll pay it, whatever it is!"
"Are you sure?"
"Hm." Watanuki crossed his arms and looked around the store. "A murder took place here too, I remember."
The employee shook his head. "I don't know anything about that."
"It happened at Christmastime," Watanuki continued, tapping a finger against his arm. "A woman was working here. You had asked her to go with you to dinner before, but she had rejected you."
The employee turned his mouth down, but Doumeki saw the trace of a snarl at his lips. "Yes! Uh, I mean, yes. She…she rejected me."
"You didn't like that, did you?"
"Didn't like it?" the employee burst out. "Who did she think she was? She didn't date, she didn't have any family at all; she should have been desperate to go out with me! Where did she get off rejecting me like she was better than everyone else?"
"She was alone," Watanuki said. "You came into the store. It was late." Doumeki could feel himself tensing. "You asked her again. She said no. You tried to force her-"
"Shut up!" the employee shouted and lashed out at Watanuki. Doumeki shot out a hand to stop him, but Watanuki was faster. He dodged the arm and pinched the employee's wrist lightly between his thumb and forefinger. From the way the man cried out, however, Doumeki suspected whatever Watanuki was doing was a great deal more painful than anything he could have done.
"I will grant your wish," Watanuki whispered. "But at a cost. Your name will disappear from the police records, but every time you go to sleep or even blink, every time you close your eyes at all, you will see the murder you committed three years ago."
The employee looked stunned. He blinked, and then recoiled and screamed, clutching his eyes. He forced them open. "Stop!" he shouted. "Make it stop!"
"Thank you very much for helping us find a pair of eyeglasses," Watanuki said. His eyes were like dark glass. "We'll take it to the desk ourselves."
Doumeki followed him and thought that sometimes he didn't know Watanuki. Sometimes Watanuki scared him. He could still hear the employee screaming behind him.
"What's wrong?" the woman at the desk asked and turned to look at her colleague, who was running into the back of the store.
"He…saw a ghost," Doumeki said lamely. He could hear Watanuki snickering behind him.
The woman giggled too. She took his prescription, noted down the frame number, and had him fill out a few forms. She told him the frames would be mailed to the store in a few weeks. Doumeki nodded and stared at the other woman standing behind the desk, the one wearing huge thick glasses that looked too large for her face. She really was beautiful, but she had tried to hide that with her glasses and long thick hair and lumpy sweaters. She smiled at them both and bowed.
"Why is she still here?" Doumeki asked as he and Watanuki left the store. "She's been avenged."
Watanuki smiled. "That girl was never interested in vengeance. She's too good-natured for that. She wants to stay in the store and look after it. She likes the customers that come in and out and all her familiar store routines. No one is waiting for her in death."
Doumeki wondered if Watanuki could have ended up like that if he had entered into the original contract with the store. He tried to think about Watanuki bound to the shop forever and waiting on customers. He wondered if Watanuki would have died like that or if the shop would have even let him die. He wondered if he would have had to wait for Watanuki in death. No, Yuuko would never have allowed any of it.
Watanuki looped an arm companionably through Doumeki's as they followed the pedestrian crosswalk. He sighed. "I'm the vengeful one."
Doumeki jostled Watanuki's arm and then held his gaze when he looked up. "Yuuko would have approved."
Watanuki looked surprised and then a small smile spread across his face. "She would have," he agreed. He squeezed Doumeki's arm. "I can't wait to see your new glasses."
"I knew it," Doumeki muttered.
"Do you know the manager of the Green Drugstore down the street?"
"What the hell are you talking about?"
It was too good to last. Doumeki woke up on Tuesday to find a note taped to Watanuki's pillow saying he had extended business to see to in the spirit world, and he would be gone for five days. Watanuki must have been in a hurry, because he had forgotten to shut the kimono chest lid and had left the hangers in the closet crooked. Doumeki wandered down to the fridge downstairs and saw that Watanuki had made enough meals and packed lunches to feed a small army. There were notes taped to all the blocks and blocks of plastic containers.
EAT THIS FIRST OR THE EGGPLANT WILL SPOIL.
HEAT SEPARATELY FROM THE SAUCE.
YOU'D BETTER NOT EAT THIS. I AM SAVING IT.
THIS SOUP GOES WITH THE MARINATED PORK, NOT THE FISH.
NOT A MAIN DISH.
FOR GOD'S SAKE, EAT THIS YOGHURT ALREADY.
OPEN THIS SECOND.
Doumeki opened the one labelled 'FOR EMERGENCIES ONLY. DO NOT EAT FIRST.' As he thought, it was filled with rolls and rolls of fresh inarizushi, and he ate five of them for breakfast with a glass of cold tea before leaving for work.
A day without Watanuki wasn't…it wasn't terrible. Doumeki could survive it in small increments of time. In five seconds he could squash down the fear that something terrible was happening to Watanuki and he wasn't there to save him, only to have that fear come up again five seconds later after he'd forgotten about it. He could distract himself by teaching classes and having office hours and grading tests and coaching the archery team after school, but reminders of Watanuki cropped up at unexpected times like at lunch when Doumeki couldn't quite convince himself that Watanuki had made the bento for him fresh this morning like he always did. Or during class when he took out his handkerchief to wipe the chalk from his hands and remembered that Watanuki liked them folded a specific way.
The worst times were when he came home to an empty dark house and had to turn on all the lights himself. He was very productive on those days because he would work quite late in the evening to keep himself from thinking about the loud familiar sounds of Watanuki preparing dinner in the kitchen. Doumeki just put Watanuki's food in a bowl and microwaved it, and it didn't taste the same. He stood in the kitchen while he ate dinner because if he sat down at the table, he glanced up every few seconds to the seat across from him and wondered where Watanuki had gone.
Doumeki went to bed and missed Watanuki's sharp elbows and his cold feet. He missed the way Watanuki turned around and around in the blankets like a cat trying to get comfortable and how he resisted every time Doumeki tried to hold him yet somehow ended up curled in Doumeki's arms anyway. He missed the feel of Watanuki's hips and his extra warmth and the neat corners he always made whenever he tucked the sheets over the futon.
Watanuki knew it too. He usually sent Doumeki messages each day to reassure him that he was alright. Some days a bird would perch at the window while Doumeki was having breakfast, peck twice on the window, and fly away. Sometimes when Doumeki was bending to take a sip of water from the fountain, the water would splash oddly and hit him on the cheek like a sharp cool kiss. Sometimes he saw Watanuki waving at him for a brief moment on the windows of a train going by. One memorable time when it was raining, the Ame-Warashi herself came with her umbrella and her sour expression.
"Your wife says to tell you that he's fine," she spat. "Any reply?"
"Tell him I'm waiting for him," Doumeki replied. "Thank you for delivering his message. I appreciate knowing he's alright."
Her expression softened for a moment, but then she nodded, snapped open her umbrella, and disappeared.
Doumeki received at least one of these messages a day, and even though Watanuki remained away for more days than he'd initially said, the messages kept coming.
Then one day, the messages stopped, and Doumeki got concerned. Then he couldn't see any images through the eye they shared no matter how hard he concentrated, and he got worried.
The next day, Doumeki pressed the button on the water fountain and leaned down, feeling foolish. "Oy," he said. "If you can hear me, the food is running low in the fridge." And then, for good measure. "I ate the inarizushi first."
He straightened and turned around to find the queue of students waiting for the water fountain staring at him. Doumeki sighed. Great. So on top of having an invisible boyfriend who was currently missing in the spirit world, he was now the professor who talked to water fountains.
"Do you know what's happened to Kimihiro?" he asked Kohane at lunch. Watanuki had of course made sure to prepare a completely different set of bento for Kohane in advance.
She shook her head and smiled. "You miss him."
"He's stopped sending messages."
She frowned at that and toyed with a strand of her hair. "I'll ask Obaa-chan," she said, but apparently Obaa-chan had no idea either.
"No one I've talked to in the spirit world can sense him," the Nekomusume said when he consulted her. "It's like he's gone."
"Thank you, anyway," Doumeki said and poured her a glass of his grandfather's sake, because spending time with Watanuki had taught him a little about debts and prices.
She drank the sake and smacked her lips appreciatively. "This is good." She leaned back and crossed her legs. She looked a lot smaller without her clunky black boots.
"My grandfather's," Doumeki said and busied himself with putting a coaster under the sake bottle, because Watanuki would have killed him if he had found out Doumeki had put something on his precious table un-coastered. Doumeki could feel her staring at him.
"You used to be a powerful exorcist," she said thoughtfully. "What happened with that?"
Doumeki ran his thumb over the peach wood ring he wore on his left index finger; Watanuki had bargained for it dearly towards an end Doumeki still couldn't see. Doumeki had remarked that the ring could have fit on his ring finger, and Watanuki had replied that it could have, but Doumeki needed to wear it on another finger for now. Doumeki hadn't understood that at the time, but he felt he was learning slowly.
"I still do that sometimes," he replied. "But I need…"
"You need Watanuki to see the spirits for you," she realised. She smiled softly. "You really do rely on each other, don't you?"
Doumeki didn't say anything.
She must have seen something in his face, because she nodded decisively and finished the sake. "I'll let you know when I hear something," she promised.
Doumeki came home from work early two days later and found Watanuki sprawled out on the couch in the living room like a lazy cat. He was dressed in a dark red kimono, the one with the pale starry dianthus flowers floating amid dark blue hexagonal lattices, but the obi had come untied and the kimono's left sleeve had come loose near his shoulder.
He was smoking, not Yuuko's long pipe that he had broken long ago but a single white cigarette that he must have taken as a price or bummed from the tall man with the dark sunglasses who loitered around at the drug store. The cigarette was almost smoked through, and he was using the very tips of his fingers to hold it. There were three more unused cigarettes sitting in a patient row on the table next to the flowerpot Watanuki was using as an ashtray.
"What are you doing?" Doumeki asked, putting down his keys. He didn't like Watanuki's expression, all recklessness and still contemplation. Watanuki shrugged and the kimono sleeve came sliding off, the silk pooling near his elbow and exposing his pale shoulder and chest. It should have sent a faint thrum of arousal through Doumeki's body, but instead it just made him angry. "Come on," he said harshly. He reached down to twitch Watanuki's kimono closed. Now that Watanuki was home, Doumeki was extraordinarily angry with him.
Watanuki waved his hand away. "Leave it."
"What's wrong with you?" Doumeki demanded. "Put out that cigarette."
Watanuki sighed and stubbed it out into the flowerpot dish. He inspected the tip and then put it down. "I saw Yuuko last week," he said tonelessly. "Or…or someone that looked like her. I'm not sure. I was coming home. She was on the train on the opposite side of the tracks. I lost her in the crowd."
Doumeki felt his stomach clench. "What did she look like?" he asked carefully.
Watanuki shook his head and smoothed a hand across his obi. His fingers were trembling. "I don't know. I just…she looked like Yuuko. That's all I remember. I couldn't say how." He put a hand to his face. "God, look at me. Chasing after strange women I've barely seen at the train station like a crazy person." He stopped and then took a breath. "She's not coming back to us."
"How do you know that?" Doumeki asked gently.
"Sh-She's not coming back, and I'm going to be like this forever. When did I become so selfish? The only thing I could think when I saw that woman was how people would see me again, and I could, I could…"
"You're allowed to be selfish," Doumeki replied. He pushed the flowerpot aside carefully (Watanuki had mindfully put a coaster under it, and that comforted him somehow) and perched at the corner of the table with his long legs bent up at a strange angle in the tiny space, with his hands clenched together and his head bowed down. Watanuki was alright. Watanuki was home. Oh, Watanuki was in so much trouble.
Watanuki shifted positions in a rustle of silk so he was leaning closer to look at Doumeki's face. "You're angry with me," he said softly.
"Yes," Doumeki hissed. "Yes, I'm angry with you."
Watanuki looked perplexed. "I was busy searching for Yuuko. I thought maybe she had come back."
"We thought you would never come back," Doumeki snapped. "You worried Tsuyuri. She hasn't been eating."
Watanuki paled. There, Doumeki thought cruelly. Watanuki needed to know he hurt people like this. Doumeki had thought the damned Jorougumo had taught him that long ago. Doumeki wondered if Yuuko would take precedence in every aspect of their lives; he wondered if there was a time Watanuki wouldn't drop everything and run off if it meant finding even a fragment of her. He wondered how much of their lives Watanuki would have given up just to find her. Doumeki wondered if Watanuki thought of him as a decent replacement for not having Yuuko in his life.
He knew it would hurt Watanuki, but he said it anyway. "Sometimes I wonder if you think we would be an equivalent price to bring her back. Tsuyuri or Kunogi. Or me."
The words hung suspended in the air for a moment. Watanuki went completely white, and looked at him with impossibly huge eyes like he was sixteen again. His mouth was open in a wordless 'O' of shock. He looked like Doumeki had just hit him.
Doumeki suddenly felt like a horrible human being. "Look-"
"How can you say that?" Watanuki gasped. "How can you even say that?"
"You are…you are…" Watanuki's mouth opened and closed. "Do you think I would use you? What do you think of me? There is…there is no price I wouldn't pay if you were taken from me." He paused and screwed his eyes shut. He looked like he was trying not to cry. "You're irreplaceable. I can't believe you don't know that."
"Kimihiro," Doumeki said again and reached to take Watanuki's hand and squeeze it. "I'm…"
"I know." Watanuki squeezed back. He whooshed out a breath and knuckled his eyes. "When I try to think of a world without…" He looked up at him and his eyes softened, looked less like he was staring off into distant unknowns that Doumeki couldn't see. "Come here," he coaxed, pulling Doumeki down towards him. "Come here."
Doumeki let himself be pulled and settled himself down on top of Watanuki so his head was tucked under Watanuki's chin. There was a small struggle with adjusting their arms and legs because their couch had never been made to accommodate both of them. Doumeki ended up with one of his arms squashed half under Watanuki's shoulder blades, and Watanuki's foot was outstretched against the table to accommodate both of Doumeki's legs on the couch. It was hot and uncomfortable, and Doumeki would not have given it up for anything. He listened to them both breathe in and out till they were uncannily in synch. Sometimes he lay awake listening to it when he and Watanuki were going to bed. Watanuki just thought he had mild insomnia, but Doumeki liked to hear the way their breaths settled automatically into a slow cadence. Inhale. Exhale.
"You know I love you," he said quietly, because neither one of them ever said it, they never needed to say it, except Doumeki had the awful thought that he had to say it aloud now before it was too late.
"Yes." Watanuki ran his thumb down the back of Doumeki's neck. "Yes, I know. I'm sorry. Oh, I'm sorry."
"You stopped sending messages."
"I didn't know they were so important to you," Watanuki said, and that was the point, wasn't it? Watanuki never understood that he was important to other people. "I thought they annoyed you."
They were silent for a few more minutes. Watanuki's fingers crept back into his hair. "I wouldn't have disappeared," he said staunchly. "I would have come back."
"When?" Doumeki asked.
"It only felt like a few extra days."
"It always does," Doumeki replied and remembered how almost a week had passed while they had been trapped inside the unstable shop. "Is it possible to miss years?"
"Yes. But I would never do that," Watanuki added fiercely. "Never. I would never forget about you."
"Hn." Doumeki freed his head from under Watanuki's chin to look down at him. "Sometimes I think you could disappear, and I would never see you again."
Watanuki stilled and then looked up at him. He reached to cup Doumeki's face in his hands, thumbs pressing down on his cheekbones. "Do you really think that?"
"Mm." Doumeki pressed his face against Watanuki's hand. "Welcome home. And if you go missing again..." He trailed off, not knowing how to finish, so he turned his head to kiss the tips of Watanuki's fingers.
Watanuki offered him a watery smile. His toe slid up the side of Doumeki's leg and his eyes were warm and wicked. "Keep me here, then," he breathed, and Doumeki leaned up to kiss him and slid his hands softly under Watanuki's kimono.
"You said she was at the train station," Doumeki said. Watanuki's kimono was a crumpled heap on the floor next to them.
Watanuki hmmed and rested his pointy chin against Doumeki's chest. "Yes. At Yurakucho. I think she connects from the metro there."
They had switched places at some point, and Doumeki was lying on his back on the couch with his feet on the armrest. He really was too tall for this couch. Watanuki was curled on top of him in a warm tangle of limbs. It reminded him of the first time they had made love. He had been terrified, and he had much learned later on that Watanuki had been terrified too. It had been frightening to permit someone else to gain such intimate knowledge of things he had claimed as solely his long ago. But Watanuki had given him secrets about himself too, the little helpless noises he made whenever Doumeki touched him and the oddly sensual way he curled his toes. Human bodies were almost innately awkward, but Doumeki had learned they could be beautiful together, moving in easy graceless tandem like synching breaths.
They had lain together like this afterward unable to sleep, and Doumeki had felt a dull ache at the side of his stomach where Watanuki had accidentally clipped him with his knobby knees. Doumeki remembered he had run his fingers up Watanuki's spine, counting the vertebrae and losing count at every pass, happy to start all over again. Watanuki had finally dozed for a few minutes and then had woken up with a jolt.
"Oh god," he had said in horror. "Oh god."
"What?" Doumeki had asked, suddenly afraid that Watanuki had just realised what they had done and was revolted.
Watanuki had shaken his head mutely.
"Kimihiro, what?" Doumeki had demanded. "Tell me."
Watanuki had curled up and put his hands over his face. "Haruka-san says hi," he had mumbled.
"No." Now Doumeki had been horrified too. "No, why would you tell me that? Does he…" He couldn't even ask such a question.
"I don't know! It isn't exactly something I can ask!" Watanuki had shouted.
"Rule," Doumeki had said firmly. "Don't tell me anything. Ever."
"Deal," Watanuki had agreed wholeheartedly.
But now Doumeki ran his fingers up the bumpy vertebrae of Watanuki's back like a set of prayer beads, over and over, and wished Watanuki would tell him more about what he did in the spirit world. Sometimes Watanuki looked so exhausted. Doumeki wondered if Yuuko had been exhausted too. He wondered how much of her burden Watanuki was willing to carry.
"We'll go find her," he promised. "We'll go to that train station every day at the same time, and we'll find her."
"Will we?" There was a smile wavering at Watanuki's mouth.
"Thank you." Watanuki smiled at him, and his eyes were impossibly fond. "Thank you."
Doumeki's stomach chose that moment to growl loudly.
Watanuki laughed and pressed a loud smacking kiss against his chin. "Dinner?"
"Dinner," Doumeki agreed and tried to move.
Watanuki winced and then used the armrest beside Doumeki's head as leverage to shove himself off the couch. "Shower then dinner."
"Fine," Doumeki said and rose to follow him.
"Separate shower and then dinner," Watanuki shouted, sprinting away to the bathroom. "Go away."
Doumeki laughed, a short low quiet sound. He turned around and swept everything, the flowerpot and the ash and the three unsmoked cigarettes, into the bin. He would endure Watanuki's lecture about properly sorting all their rubbish later.
Himawari and her husband came to visit next weekend.
Even thought Watanuki had the date circled three times on the calendar, the Yuuko incident must have distorted his whole perception of time, because he didn't remember Himawari and her husband were visiting till she called to remind him about it a few days before.
"Oh my god!" Watanuki shouted, running into the living room with the phone in a death grip. Himawari had disconnected a few moments earlier, and he had tried to keep up with her conversation while trying not to hyperventilate. "We have to go to the grocery store!"
"Hm?" Doumeki looked up. "Why?"
"Don't ask stupid questions!" Watanuki said and made shooing motions, hoping they would make Doumeki move faster. They didn't. "Himawari-chan is visiting for the weekend."
"Yes?" Doumeki looked confused. "So?"
"Wait!" Watanuki said, because it wasn't possible. "Wait, wait. You knew about this? And you didn't bother telling me?"
"I thought you had remembered," Doumeki replied.
"You- you thought I…ah." Now Watanuki felt embarrassed. He really should have remembered. He shook his head and waved his arms again. "Get your coat! Come on, I have to go buy ingredients for dinner!"
"How many dinners?" Doumeki asked drily, but got up from his work to do as he was told.
"Enough!" Watanuki said and almost tripped down the stairs in his hurry to get to the entryway. "I'll start the car."
Even though Doumeki assured him Himawari had not invited the entire standing army of Japan with her (Doumeki really had to work on his sarcasm), Watanuki still made sure the fridge was still filled to its capacity by the time he was done cooking. Filled to capacity for him meant the stacks of dishes were packed so tightly that Doumeki couldn't take them out of the fridge and munch on something when Watanuki wasn't looking. And Doumeki thought he was stupid. Someone in Doumeki's department even volunteered a mini-fridge for the weekend.
"Women," the professor said to Doumeki knowingly. "Here, take it. It's been sitting in my office holding my empty soda bottles for weeks."
"I'm standing right here, you know," Watanuki shouted, but they took the fridge, which was currently storing all the desserts for the weekend.
He didn't get to cook for company often, but he had a good memory of Himawari's favourite dishes. He didn't know Kazuki as well, but Himawari had assured him that Kazuki usually devoured everything Watanuki sent them.
"He's allergic to shellfish, though," she had said in embarrassment on the phone. And then in a lower giggly whisper, "Please make something with shellfish so I can eat all of it, Watanuki-kun."
The doorbell rang as Watanuki was re-straightening the dish towels in the kitchen. "I'll get it!" he shouted and ran downstairs, but Doumeki grabbed him by the back of the shirt and hauled him back just as he was about to reach the door.
"Idiot, what do you think Kazuki will see if you open the door?"
"I…I don't know," Watanuki said, struggling. "I don't know what people see when they look at me. Maybe he'll think…the door opened from the wind."
"Uh huh," Doumeki said, unimpressed, and let him go before opening the door himself.
Watanuki saw a man in a nice jacket standing next to a lovely woman with curly shoulder-length-
"Himawari-chan!" Watanuki exclaimed. "I almost didn't recognise you!"
"Watanuki-kun! You look wonderful!" she said and rushed forward to press his hands. From the depths of her curls Tanpopo let out a tiny musical chirrup. He came up to the shell of her ear now. Himawari turned to beam at Doumeki. "And Doumeki-kun too!"
Doumeki extended a hand to her too, almost formally as if he was an old gentleman asking her for a dance, but he clasped her hand with warmth. "It's good to see you, Kunogi." He turned and bowed his head slightly. "Kazuki."
"Doumeki," Kazuki replied and ducked his head in reply. "Thank you for having us here."
"We're glad to have you," Doumeki replied politely.
"Oh my god," Watanuki said, almost hopping up and down. "Just let them in already! That suitcase Kazuki's carrying must be heavy, and they must be hungry."
Himawari laughed. "I'm always hungry if it's Watanuki-kun's food."
"Hmm?" Kazuki turned his head. "What was that about Watanuki's food?"
Himawari smiled at him, and Watanuki saw the way her face lit up; it would have made him jealous once. Sometimes it still made him jealous because Kazuki could be with her whenever he wanted, while he and Doumeki only spoke with her a few times a year.
"It's Pavlovian," she joked. "Come on, Hiroshi, let's go in- oh, you've made some improvements, haven't you? I remember the old pictures of the house Watanuki sent us." She spun around to survey the hall. "It looks brighter!"
"We painted the walls a lighter colour," Doumeki said. The idea had been all well and good till they had actually bought the brushes and the painter's tape and collected all the old newspaper for the floor. It should have been a nice project for them to do together. Instead, it had been one of their more spectacular fights. Doumeki had ended up with half the paint in his hair, and Watanuki had crept down in the dead of night and done the whole job himself because he learned he and Doumeki had two different painting styles- correct and horribly wrong, respectively.
"I would like to thank Watanuki for taking the time to send us his cooking," Kazuki said as he followed Doumeki to the spare room to put down the suitcase. "And the chrysanthemum wine was delicious. Is he here?"
Watanuki exchanged pleased glances with Doumeki. Kazuki's scrupulously good manners and unflappable spirit had been the first traits they had noticed in him. They had liked many things about him. Kazuki probably had no idea he had been vetted so rigorously before they had permitted his marriage to Himawari; they had been like the forbidding in-laws every man was afraid of. Watanuki stared at the back of Doumeki's head and suppressed a laugh thinking of him as a terrifying mother-in-law.
Doumeki nodded and accepted the compliment on Watanuki's behalf. "Unfortunately, he has to be away for business. He regrets not being able to meet you."
"Business consulting like me?" Kazuki joked.
Himawari laughed. "Yes, something like that. Isn't that so, Watanuki-kun?" she said, and they shared a grin.
"This is the spare room," Doumeki said and slid open the doors. There was a bookcase and a desk for Doumeki's papers and ancient computer, but it was still a reasonably sized room for two people.
"Ah," Kazuki said. He put down the suitcase, picked it back up, and put it back down again. "I...I wouldn't want to intrude."
"It's fine. We don't use this room," Doumeki replied.
"But then…" Kazuki looked confused. "Where does Watanuki sleep?"
There was a pause.
"Uh," Doumeki started, articulate as always.
"Say something!" Watanuki shouted. "Say anything."
"In the next room," Doumeki began, but Watanuki waved his arms frantically.
"No! Not that! Not that."
"May I use the phone in here?" Himawari interrupted and Watanuki could have kissed her. "I'm sorry, I promised my parents I would call."
"Sure," Doumeki replied.
"Oh, yes yes. Of course you would want to call your parents." Kazuki made vaguely apologetic hand motions that were oddly reminiscent of Watanuki's characteristic arm-flailing. "I'll leave you to it, Himawari."
"Kimihiro prepared some snacks," Doumeki contributed. "They're upstairs."
Kazuki's eyes widened at the use of Watanuki's first name, but he took it all in stride. "Watanuki is very generous," he said cheerfully and followed Doumeki out the door.
Pavlovian, Himawari mouthed to Watanuki and smiled. "Please stay for a moment, Watanuki-kun," she whispered as he started leaving with Doumeki and Kazuki.
Watanuki nodded. "Oy, freak," he called out, and Doumeki turned. "See if you can reach the good plates in the shelves above the sink. Call me if you need help."
"Hn," Doumeki replied, but Watanuki could hear the smile in his voice.
"I'll be up in a few minutes," Himawari said and shut the door. She made a show of picking up the phone and dialling and then disconnected after a few seconds. "How are you, Watanuki-kun?" she whispered over.
Watanuki beamed. "I'm doing fine. You look very beautiful, Himawari-chan."
She really did. She had part of her hair up in a simple gold clip, and she was wearing a touch of make-up that brought out her eyes. Much like Kohane, age had agreed with her natural beauty.
Himawari smiled at him, the corners of her eyes crinkling up. "It's very confusing talking to you when Hiroshi is around. I'm not sure what he's hearing me say. I thought I would talk to you alone for a minute without him and Doumeki-kun."
"Yes, that guy is always around, isn't he?" Watanuki muttered.
Himawari replaced the phone in its cradle. "Do you like living with him?"
"It's…" Watanuki thought about Doumeki asking for second helpings at every meal and coming home smelling like chalk dust and the feel of his broad strong shoulders. "He's not as annoying as he used to be."
Himawari laughed a little dry laugh and gave him a look, and Watanuki suddenly realised that she had grown up somewhere along the way, that she was a woman now with secrets of her own. "You two always were very close."
Watanuki stood there with his mouth flapping open, and she took pity on him. "Don't be embarrassed," she said kindly. "He's happy. I can tell. You're very good for him."
"He's good for me," Watanuki mumbled, looking away and feeling his face turn pink.
Himawari laughed again, the bright tinkling laugh he remembered from long ago. She hugged him suddenly, and he smelled the fresh clean scent of her hair. "I'm happy for you," she murmured. "You deserve to be happy."
"I'm glad you're happy too, Himawari-chan," Watanuki replied and hugged her back.
She suddenly pulled away to inspect his face at arm's length. "How long have you…"
"Have we kept it a secret?" Watanuki joked, but he saw she was slightly hurt that they had never told her. He thought about it and blinked in surprise. "Oh. Years. Back when he was getting his PhD, I think. I can't remember." Had it really been that long? He shook his head. "I'm sorry, it just…it never came up. And we never knew how to…"
"I see," Himawari replied seriously, but the twinkle was back in her eye.
Watanuki cleared his throat. He still felt embarrassed talking about it. "Er, how is-"
As if on command, Tanpopo hopped down her arm and onto his wrist. He could feel the bird's tiny feet. Tanpopo twittered, shuffled up to settle next awkwardly on his shoulder, and tugged gently at his earlobe.
Himawari laughed. "That means food."
"I know," Watanuki said drily. "He's got quite the appetite for such a little bird, but I'm used to feeding voids of the universe after working for- oh." He blinked. "I should…well, I'm not sure if I…"
"What is it, Watanuki-kun?"
"Yuuko-san." Watanuki swallowed. It was one thing confiding it to Doumeki, but it was another thing entirely to tell Himawari. "I think I saw Yuuko-san at the station."
Himawari's hands went to her mouth. "You did? She's back? Oh, but that's wonderful! What did she look like?"
"I don't know," Watanuki replied and knuckled his eyes because it was so stupid to not remember something like that. Tanpopo nuzzled his cheek as if in sympathy. "I don't know what she looked like. But I think…if it is Yuuko-san, then-"
"People will see you again," Himawari finished breathlessly. "You'll be able to live in the normal world."
"We'll be able to see her again," Watanuki corrected. "I…I don't want to be…"
"You never think about yourself," Himawari chastised. "You never have. Please, at least let the rest of us worry about you. For your sake, I hope it is her. For your sake." She began to grin. "And for Doumeki-kun's sake too. He'll finally be able to show you off."
Watanuki scoffed. "Show me off?"
"Yes," Himawari said firmly. "You don't think I show off Hiroshi too? I make sure he comes to every single office party so I can show everyone how lucky I am."
"He's the lucky one," Watanuki replied and squeezed her arm. "Because he has such a good wife."
"Doumeki-kun too." Himawari grinned as Watanuki sputtered. "But judging from all the desperate phone-calls I get about your meddling neighbours, I think keeping up the charade of being single is tiring him out."
"Doumeki? Makes desperate phone-calls?" Watanuki repeated, feeling his eyebrows raise.
"Oh yes." Her expression turned solemn. "He was very worried when you disappeared, you know. I've never heard him sound so scared."
"Yes." Watanuki looked at his feet. "I didn't realise he…"
"Please take care of him," Himawari said and clasped his hand. "He cares for you very much."
"Urk." Watanuki could feel his face heating up again.
Himawari laughed merrily and pulled him out of the room. "Come on. We should join the others before Hiroshi eats all of your food!"
"So you work in finance now, Himawari-chan," Watanuki said. They had all settled down in the living room with cups of coffee after dinner. Kazuki kept patting his stomach gingerly like he thought it would explode at any moment. "Do you like it?"
"Very much," Himawari said, smiling. "And the office is right beside one of the most beautiful temples in Kyoto. It's very nice walking to work every day. It's such a pretty view."
Watanuki understood the nuance behind her words. She had chosen that particular office on purpose so the temple would negate her bad luck around her co-workers. Not for the first time, Watanuki thought it really was a stroke of luck that Kazuki lived in Kyoto, but it really hadn't been luck, had it? It had all been hitsuzen.
"Oh! Speaking of view, I was going to ask you about this." Kazuki pointed to the kitchen skylight they had installed after Watanuki had complained that he never got enough natural light. "Did you have this put in?"
"We're going to remodel some of our house too," Kazuki said. "Please give us some advice. We don't know what to do!"
"Yes, it will be more crowded with three of you, won't it?" Watanuki said and sipped his coffee.
Himawari gasped and put her hands to her face. "Watanuki-kun! How did you know?"
"Do you know the gender yet?" Watanuki asked, grinning.
Himawari shook her head. "No, it's only been a few weeks."
"Yes, well, make sure to put padding around the corner of the stairs. She'll always fall down right there when she's learning to walk."
"Watanuki-kun!" Himawari was laughing now, and he could tell she was pleased. He knew she had always wanted a daughter. "Stop spoiling all the surprises!"
"Send pictures of the house," Doumeki told Kazuki. "We can ask around."
"We were thinking about converting one of the spare rooms," Kazuki said and turned to press Himawari's hand. "We're expecting a child."
"Congratulations," Doumeki replied dutifully. He turned to raise an eyebrow at Watanuki.
Watanuki shrugged and grinned. "Surprise," he offered. Sometimes it was ridiculously redundant not having Kazuki in the loop with the rest of them.
"Hn," Doumeki replied.
Himawari laughed again. "Doumeki-kun- oh." She stifled a yawn. "I'm sorry."
"Please." Doumeki rose to stand. "You must be tired from the trip. I'll go put out the futons." He gave Watanuki a meaningful look as he collected the dishes and put them in the sink.
"What?" Watanuki asked, but Doumeki left the room without a word. "What?"
"That Doumeki is a quiet one, isn't he?" Kazuki said after a moment, and Watanuki realised he should have left Himawari and Kazuki alone.
"In my experience," Himawari said cheerfully. "Doumeki-kun says exactly what needs to be said."
"That's true," Kazuki agreed. "Hey." His voice dropped down to a whisper, and Watanuki really should have left the room with Doumeki, because now he felt like he was spying. "Are Doumeki and Watanuki…you know…"
Himawari looked over at Watanuki, who shrugged and then nodded. It wasn't as if Kazuki would think less of them, and the secret was already out.
Himawari followed his nod slowly. "Y-es. They've been together for many years." Her eyes twinkled. "You could say they were high-school sweethearts."
"We most certainly were not!" Watanuki protested. Himawari's shoulders were shaking in barely repressed laughter.
"Yes we were," Doumeki said, suddenly poking his annoying face into the room. "You were just too stupid to notice."
"Well excuse me for not picking up on our whirlwind teenage romance," Watanuki shot back.
"It's fine," Doumeki replied matter-of-factly. "Stop eavesdropping and help me put out the futons."
"I was not eavesdropping," Watanuki sniffed and stalked out of the room. He was pretty sure Himawari was laughing outright now. Kazuki was laughing with her and demanding to be let in on the joke.
Watanuki followed Doumeki downstairs to help carry the bedding into the spare room. He looked over to him while they were laying out the blankets and spreading out the sheets in airy white billows. "I wasn't stupid, you know," Watanuki said. "I was just…I was scared. I had never- I didn't recognise-"
"I know," Doumeki replied. He leaned in close till their noses were touching. Watanuki could feel the tickle of his eyelashes. "But you were still pretty stupid," he murmured.
"I was- wait, what?" Watanuki's eyes darted down towards Doumeki's mouth, which was crooked up in a smirk. "Jerk," he muttered with a surge of affection. He stole one of Doumeki's pillows and hit him with it.
By the time Himawari came down to see what the commotion was about, Doumeki had launched a counter-strike involving a complex set of short precise moves that made Watanuki think Doumeki had once studied pillow-fighting as a martial art. God only knew what priests did in their spare time. Nevertheless, Watanuki was quick-footed and had been a few moves away from certain victory when a third pillow connected with his head. He turned around with his glasses askew and saw a half-blurry Himawari giggling and brandishing her own pillow.
"No, I can't hit a girl," Watanuki said and threw down his pillow.
"How kind," Himawari replied with her innocent smile and proceeded to give him a thorough beating. Doumeki joined her with several methodical blows to Watanuki's head.
"Mercy!" Watanuki finally shouted, laughing. He lowered his arms. They were all slightly out of breath. Himawari was flushed and laughing. "Honestly, with friends like you two…"
"Friends," Himawari echoed. She dropped her pillow. "Did you ever think ten years ago that we would be here doing this? Did you ever dream any of this, all of this would happen to us?"
"No," Watanuki replied. "But…I'm glad it did." He glanced at Doumeki, who was wearing a thoughtful expression, and at Himawari, who reached out and took both of their hands. Watanuki squeezed back. "I'm glad it did."
"I am leaving without you!" Watanuki shouted from the door. He was already wearing his shoes and had his obligatory tote bag of food slung over one shoulder. "We were supposed to leave at six. It is now six-fifteen. Grandmother will just celebrate her birthday without you." He heard Doumeki typing on the computer for a few more moments. "Your paper is fine, you know. Stop worrying. The review community will love it."
"Is that a prophecy?" Doumeki asked drily. Watanuki heard him click the mouse a few times.
"It's a certainty," Watanuki replied. "Because you're brilliant. And late." He tapped his foot and waited till Doumeki finally submitted the paper and emerged to put on his shoes. "Hey, did you remember to make sure your cousin that keeps the temple in Kanagawa is coming?"
"Yes," Doumeki said with some justified exasperation because Watanuki had been pestering him about it for days. "Nii-san wrote to say he wouldn't dare miss Grandmother's birthday."
"Why do you call him nii-san, anyway?" Watanuki asked as Doumeki locked up the house. "Are you close?"
"We were," Doumeki said. He shouldered their overnight bag and fell into step with Watanuki. Watanuki thought they matched one another quite well; Doumeki's height gave him a naturally long stride, and Watanuki had always walked very quickly, perhaps from the ingrained instinct to run from spirits for most of his young life. "His mother died when he was young. My parents took care of him in the meantime. He lived with us when his father was out of the country for talks."
"For talks," Watanuki repeated. "You mean, he's an ambassador?"
"Diplomat," Doumeki replied. "Nii-san inherited the temple in Kanagawa through his family and has lived there ever since. He enjoys taking care of it."
They walked through the gap in the telephone pole. They paused for a moment to get their bearings and then walked to the intersection. It was much easier to get to the temple this way. It was only a five minute walk, and they didn't have to pay train fare.
"It's a good temple," Watanuki agreed. "Small, but important in keeping malicious spirits in check. He should make sure his wards are in good condition."
He could feel Doumeki staring at him. "Are you going to tell me what this is about?" Doumeki asked. He sounded peeved.
Watanuki smiled ruefully and shook his head. "I'm not toying with you," he said. "I always thought Yuuko never told me anything either. But…it's not like I can see the future. I can…have you ever had déjà vu?"
"Of course you haven't," Watanuki muttered under his breath. "But you do know what it is, right? Feeling like something has happened before? That's what it feels like- I don't see the future, I remember it. Badly. Sometimes if I'm lucky I can see a little further ahead, but most times I just remember what needs to be done at the moment."
"Hn," Doumeki replied. He sounded thoughtful and opened his mouth, undoubtedly to ask a number of annoying and nosy questions.
"Kimihiro-kun! Shizuka-kun!" a voice carolled out, and they saw Kohane walking towards them. She looked beautiful as usual in a pastel blue dress that was lit up by the pale fluorescence of the street light.
"Kohane-chan!" Watanuki exclaimed, delighted. "I'm glad you were able to make it. Did you just come from Obaa-chan's house?"
"Yes. Obaa-chan said I should pay my respects to Nagako-san," Kohane replied. She showed them the box she had bundled up in her jacket and tucked under her arm. "She said I should make horumonyaki. I just took it off the stove."
Beside him, Doumeki shuddered very slightly. Watanuki frowned. "Any reason why?"
Kohane blinked. "I thought it might be one of Nagako-san's favourite foods."
"I don't know," Doumeki replied in a clipped tone.
Watanuki gave Doumeki a quelling glare and then smiled at her. "I'm sure she'll like it, Kohane-chan. It looks delicious." He jerked his chin towards the temple gates across the street. "You should hurry before it gets cold."
She looked between them and then nodded, looking suspicious. "Right. Yes, of course."
"We'll be along!" he shouted at her retreating back. He waited till she was out of an earshot and then turned around to confront Doumeki. "What exactly was that about?" he hissed. "You could have hurt her feelings."
Doumeki was silent for a moment. "My grandfather told you that I was sickly when I was young," he said. He sounded so tense that Watanuki didn't even indulge in his usual teasing about cross-dressing. "My mother used to make me eat horumonyaki to build up my strength. Every day. I hated it."
"You…you hated it?" Watanuki was taken aback. He had never thought he ever would hear Doumeki hate a piece of food. Even Watanuki's Hn-Not-Enough-Salt dishes usually disappeared in four bites.
"Yes," Doumeki said darkly. "When I could, I used to sneak mine to-"
Kohane suddenly cried out, and they heard a loud crash further ahead.
"Kohane-chan?" Watanuki shouted, and they rounded the end of the gate. "Kohane-chan, are you-oh."
Kohane had crashed into a man that had been coming out of the house. He had grabbed her shoulder and one of her wrists to keep her from falling, but her box was lying upside down on the ground. Watanuki saw a bit of the Doumeki lineage in the man's wide frame and height, but his face was sharper, his forehead higher. A distant relative, perhaps.
"I'm sorry, I didn't see where I was going," the man said and righted her. He looked a little older than Doumeki but already had faint laughter lines around his eyes. "Are you alright?"
"Yes," Kohane replied, rubbing her wrist. "Thank you very much."
"Ah, I'm sorry. I made you drop your box." He stooped to pick it up. "I think it's intact."
"Thank you," she said again and opened the box to check the food.
The man's eyes widened. "Horumonyaki! That was my favourite food when I was younger."
Watanuki understood a few things all at once. "Ah-h," he murmured. "Obaa-chan knows what she's about. She can see clearer and deeper than me, after all." He frowned at Doumeki. "Isn't he a bit too old? Well, I suppose age doesn't always matter in these things."
"Too old?" Doumeki asked.
The man looked up. He saw Doumeki and grinned. "Shizuka-chan!"
Watanuki burst out into uncontrollable laughter. Doumeki glared at him. Kohane looked like she was fighting a smile too.
The man pointed to the box. "Shizuka-chan, remember you used to hate this stuff and sneak it to me at dinnertime?"
"Hello, Nii-san," Doumeki replied instead of dignifying the comment with a response.
"Nii-san?" Kohane said. She looked at Doumeki. "I didn't know you had a brother, Shizuka-kun."
Watanuki was still busy laughing and couldn't take breath to speak.
"My cousin, Okada Shotaro," Doumeki said. "We grew up together. This is Tsuyuri Kohane. An old friend."
"Pleased to meet you," Okada said. "Shall I carry that box for you? It must be hot."
"Oh." Watanuki saw a faint blush go across Kohane's face. It looked foreign on her, but he blinked and realised she had been thinking of her as a child for too long. He hadn't realised that she had grown up, just like Himawari. "Oh, that's very kind of you. If it isn't too much trouble."
"Of course not." Okada's smile was softer this time, and he walked with her into the house with her horumonyaki cradled in his hands. "So where do you go to university, Tsuyuri-san?"
"Kohane, please," Kohane said. She sounded surprised and…charmed. "How did you know I'm a university student?"
Okada laughed. "I suppose you have that look about you, Kohane-san."
Doumeki was silent as he watched them both go inside together. "That was unexpected," he remarked.
Watanuki heard them both laugh at something (Kohane was laughing) and turned to look at her as Okada opened the door for her. They made a handsome couple, her dainty dress and brilliant halo of hair complementing his tall dark figure. The lights inside lit up their silhouettes, and for a moment, Watanuki saw the shadow of something long and slithering wound around Okada's neck in a chokehold.
"Yes," Watanuki murmured. His grip tightened on his tote bag. "Very unexpected."
He and Doumeki had come over to the temple a day before to set up. Watanuki had instructed Doumeki on how exactly to organise the tables to be perfectly parallel, and Doumeki had told Watanuki exactly what he thought of Watanuki's obsession with carefully placed bowls and delicately arranged flowers. They were all old comfortable arguments, dragged out now for formalities sake to have something to do while they worked rather than actual fighting. All the hot prickly anger behind them had drained out long ago, and Watanuki wasn't sure people would have believed him if he had told them things were serious between Doumeki and him if they didn't fight. Between them and Nagako's endless glasses of tea, they had set everything up in a neat organised fashion.
It took Doumeki's relatives thirty minutes to wreck it. They pushed tables together and ruined the neat clean lines of the tablecloths. They upset bowls, rearranged the flowers (Watanuki's hands twitched involuntarily every time), and used mismatched chopsticks for their bowls.The more Watanuki saw of Doumeki's family, the more he thought Doumeki was the aberration in the family tree; Doumeki's other relatives were gregarious and nosy and loud. They wanted to know who had cooked the food Doumeki had brought, who exactly Watanuki was, and why Doumeki hadn't married a nice girl yet. In that exact order.
The aunts pinched Doumeki's cheeks and poked his stomach and the uncles clapped him on the back whenever he said something they thought especially clever. Perhaps Watanuki had been a loner for too long; perhaps he had grown used to the peaceful silences in their little house and Doumeki's carefully chosen words. Perhaps Yuuko had been right and sharing blood had slowly changed their personalities over the years so that Doumeki understood in some small way the need to communicate insignificant things and Watanuki saw the value of stillness and calm deliberation. Whatever the reason, Watanuki felt as if he were drowning after spending ten minutes with Doumeki's family and couldn't imagine the hell Doumeki was going through.
Part of Watanuki knew he was being petty, that Doumeki's family was perfectly polite- perhaps a bit too noisy and prone to shouting jokes across the room to one another. They were comfortable with each other. But Doumeki wasn't comfortable with them, and that was all Watanuki needed to dislike them. Watanuki wondered if there had been anyone else after Haruka to be patient with Doumeki, to listen to Doumeki's silences and say precisely what was needed. Watanuki looked around and thought he had been like Doumeki's family once; he had been brash and loud and demanded too many things that Doumeki was not by nature able to give. He thought he understood now why Doumeki had been so irritated with him in high school and why he had still taken care of Watanuki through all of it.
Dinner was awkward. Okada sat next to Kohane and ate almost all of her horumonyaki, declaring it the most delicious thing he'd ever eaten. Watanuki didn't actually think he was exaggerating that part; Watanuki had tried his best to be a good teacher, after all, and Kohane had been a diligent student.
Doumeki sat next to Okada tight-lipped with a tight grip on his chopsticks that threatened to snap them in half. He had seen the thing around Okada's neck through their shared eye, but they hadn't had time to talk about it. Watanuki had murmured, "If only he had strengthened his wards," but then Doumeki's relatives had snatched him up before he could say anything more.
Watanuki managed to find a seat for himself beside Doumeki. He was sure whoever tried to sit there saw some unfamiliar relative that they vaguely remembered from years and years ago but couldn't quite place. Watanuki was quite comfortable with being an unperson now; he knew that people didn't notice little things like extra cups leftover at the table and dumplings disappearing from plates. It was actually easier at larger places where he could get lost in the chaos. At least now he was grateful he could clasp Doumeki's free hand without attracting any stares. Doumeki looked as if he would strike Okada given half the chance, and Watanuki didn't want to risk it.
Kohane for her part didn't seem to notice the thing wrapped around Okada's neck, and she kept shooting quizzical glances at them at intervals. Watanuki wanted to shout at her to look, to use her powers to see what Okada really was. He saw something glittering at the corner of Kohane's eye, but she blinked and looked away before he could get a closer look.
"Ask him about the wards," Watanuki hissed when Okada stopped to drink. "Ask him how his wards are doing."
"Nii-san," Doumeki parroted. "How is your temple in Kanagawa?"
"Very well," Okada replied. "I enjoy the work. You have quite a nice temple here too. It's very beautiful and well maintained. A pity you aren't here taking care of it."
His words were pleasant enough, but Watanuki saw the thing on Okada's neck stir greedily.
"I take care of the wards," Doumeki replied. "How are yours?"
"Well enough, cousin." Okada smiled, but this one showed far too many teeth. "Nothing comes in or out that I don't allow."
"What about things he doesn't see?" Watanuki muttered. Okada looked like he hadn't heard, but the thing on his neck and turned to watch him.
Watanuki returned the gaze haughtily. His hand tightened on Doumeki's.
"Shizuka. Shotaro." Doumeki's mother Akane crouched near them. She was still a perpetually frenzied-looking woman, but her hair had faded, and she walked with more steadiness and grace. She didn't look as if she would fly apart at any moment. Watanuki supposed she worked less now that Doumeki was supplanting the family income, but he also thought it had something to do with time and how it had passed for her in the wake of her husband's departure. He thought Nagako and Doumeki had been good influences.
"It's nice seeing you two sitting together again," she said, smiling. She glanced down at the wide plate Watanuki had picked out to complement the colours in Kohane's dish. "And horumonyaki too! It's like old times." She laughed, a tiny quiet sound, and then looked towards Watanuki. She looked towards Watanuki and raised her eyebrows. "Oh, hello," she said in surprise. "I didn't know Shizuka was bringing a guest."
Watanuki exchanged glances with Doumeki. Doumeki raised his eyebrows, and Watanuki gave him a tiny nod. There was nothing malicious in Akane's aura; if anything, she felt like a wish holder. Watanuki wondered what a woman like Akane could wish for, but he could think about that later. "Yes. I'm Watanuki Kimihiro. Shi- Doumeki and I were in the same high school - we live together."
"So you're the famous Watanuki," she said warmly. "I've heard so much about you. Thank you for the food you brought. I see Shizuka hasn't been exaggerating when he says you're an exceptional cook."
Watanuki stole a glance at Doumeki and wondered if Doumeki had ever said a thing like that. Doumeki wasn't meeting his eyes, which was affirmation enough. "Oh no," Watanuki said with ease. "I'm just glad you like it."
"You're so modest, Watanuki-san," Okada said. Now he and the thing around his neck were both looking at him with identical beady sets of eyes. Watanuki stared. Okada's eyes seemed colder and blacker. It was getting worse- whatever was possessing the man was gaining footholds with alarming speed.
Watanuki felt Doumeki move his foot closer to his under the table till their toes were brushing. Now Kohane was looking at him too, and Watanuki couldn't stand it. He felt like something was trying to burrow its way into his skull.
He stood up. "Excuse me," he said, clutching his teacup so hard that it might have shattered. "I think I need some fresh air."
"But we're almost ready to cut the cake," Akane protested. "As soon as we can find Grandmother."
"I'm sorry," Watanuki replied. "It will only be for a few minutes."
Doumeki caught his sleeve and pulled him down close. "Should I…" he murmured.
Watanuki shook his head. "No. Stay here. Protect Kohane-chan."
Doumeki nodded and let him go.
Watanuki left the room as fast as he could and found himself walking into the courtyard, hearing the smooth low sound of stones under his feet. There was the sound of trickling water from somewhere in the distant rear garden, and insects were croaking sleepy little lullabies in the darkness. He exhaled. He could think here. It felt clean. He knew why Haruka liked it out here so much. He sipped at his tea and walked out through the trees to the large rocky pond that was fed by a small secret steam underground. He had fallen into this pond years and years ago when Haruka had tasked him with finding his possessions. The Ame-Warashi had said the water here was unusually pure.
Watanuki turned. "Grandmother."
She shuffled towards him, perhaps a bit slower and smaller than she had been ten years ago, but she still looked astonishingly young for her age. Watanuki knew without knowing how that she would look this young for some time yet.
"I thought I would take a walk," she said, grasping his arm for support that he was sure she didn't really need. "It's very crowded inside."
Watanuki knew she didn't mean her relatives. "We let something into the temple," he said. "I let something in. I'm sorry-"
"I know," she said and patted his arm. "I see it. Wait a bit. Have patience, Watanuki." Her smile showed all her wrinkles in sharp relief. "You're still so young, aren't you? Rushing about. Like my Haruka. I wonder what you would have been like if you had aged like Yuuko. I wonder what kind of shopkeeper you would have been." She touched his cheek with her soft fingers. "Ah, but I don't think you would have been happy. And happiness is a better teacher than most."
"Er…" Sometimes Watanuki suspected she knew about Doumeki and him. He didn't know what to do about it. They walked along the edge of the pond, and Watanuki stared into its depths. It seemed murkier than he remembered, its sounds were muffled and unmusical. He stopped mid-step.
"Ah," he murmured. "I see. Even a pond like you must be cleaned from time to time." He knelt and dipped his hand into the water. "Well, the shrine maidens have been fishing out the leaves and branches. I'll give them that." He twirled his fingers in a series of symbols and felt the slow power of the lake rise like an old man coming out of his slumber.
The lake had been washing the rocks around it for decades and decades, and a tiny amount of silt had built up at the bottom like a layer of dead skin. Watanuki felt it slowly flake off and spin towards his hand, amassing like coral. The lake thrummed deep and low, and ripples spread out from its centre like a sigh. Watanuki's hand came away with a layer of silt so thick he could barely move his fingers.
"Yes, that's better, isn't it?" Watanuki crooned. He turned and saw Nagako watching him. His face heated up. "Er…" He finished off the rest of his cold tea, wiped it clean with his shirt, and began wringing the silt from his hand into the teacup. "I'm sorry, I'll buy you a new teacup, Grandmother. But I need this."
"That silt has been in the lake for a very long time," she remarked. She took his arm and began walking again. "It has power."
"Power," Watanuki agreed. "For what, I'm not sure yet, but-"
"Everything happens for a reason," she finished. She smiled. "I like the kind of shopkeeper you've become, Watanuki Kimihiro. Yuuko would be very proud of you."
"Yuuko-san," Watanuki murmured.
They were nearing the entrance again, and the chatter of people was spilling out from the open doors. Nagako stopped and released his arm. "I have my duties to attend to, I'm afraid." She nodded. "And you have yours."
"Yes," Watanuki said. "Thank you."
She disappeared back inside, and Watanuki ignored the party to head back to his room. He and Doumeki had settled back into their old rooms just as if they were in college again, but they left the adjoining door open this time. Watanuki had become used to falling asleep to Doumeki's deep almost-snores and wasn't sure he could sleep alone in the next room anymore. He hadn't fallen asleep like that in years.
He would have to try. He felt tired. The demon around Okada's neck was draining him. He went to the kitchen first and washed his hand, feeling the remaining grains of silt go dead as they came into contact with the tap water. The teacup was almost overflowing with silt, and he wrapped it up carefully in a good cloth before putting it in the small cupboard with Nagako's other remedies and tonics. It seemed like an appropriate birthday present.
Watanuki flexed his fingers, which were sore from being held in the same position for such a long time. They felt almost- He stopped and held out his hand, flexing his fingers again. His little finger, his dead little finger was moving. He rotated it, let it curl down to his palm and then back. He pressed a fingernail against the cuticle. He could feel that.
"A good price," Watanuki whispered. "A very good price indeed."
He turned, still staring in fascination at his little finger, and ran into someone on the way out. Something glittering tumbled towards his eye, but it bounced off his eyeglasses. It crackled like electricity and fell to the floor, where it lay shining too brightly to be a mere piece of glass.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Watanuki-san," Okada said and bowed. "I didn't mean to bump into you."
"It's fine," Watanuki muttered.
"Is it?" Okada asked in a strange voice, and the demon around his neck writhed. "Oh, good. I hope you enjoyed the dinner."
"I enjoyed your performance," Watanuki spat, and the demon wearing Okada's expression looked pleased. "What do you want with Okada?"
"Oh, he's perfect," Okada hissed. "A Doumeki and a priest at one of the keystone temples in Kanagawa. How could I resist? And he's taken a fancy to that girl Tsuyuri." He smacked his lips. "She has power. She looks tasty." His lips twisted up. "Isn't it lucky he just happened to run into her as she was coming into the temple? Entrances and exits always have been…weak."
"Is that how you came into Okada's temple?" Watanuki demanded.
Okada laughed. "My dear little shopkeeper, why ever should I tell you?"
"I could pry it out of you, if you prefer," Watanuki said. He shrugged and tried to look nonchalant, as if that wouldn't take all the power he possessed. "I would do it willingly, just for threatening Kohane-chan. I could rip you from Okada."
"I could kill him," Okada said just as lightly, and the thing around his neck tightened even more. "I could squeeze the life out of him and easily find someone else. There are so many pure humans here at this gathering. Your Doumeki Shizuka smells especially nice."
"Don't you dare!" Watanuki struck out a hand without thinking, but the thing on Okada's neck evaded him, dissolving into twisting plumes of black smoke around Watanuki's wrist and then resolving back into its original shape elsewhere.
Okada laughed, a cold hollow sound. "Nothing you can do can harm me."
"I am the shopkeeper," Watanuki hissed. "There is nothing you can do to me that I cannot do to you thricefold."
"I can take your Doumeki Shizuka," Okada said, and Watanuki's heart stopped for a moment. "I can slither into his room during the night and wrap myself around his neck and squeeze and squeeze. Perhaps I will appear to him as you. Perhaps he will submit to me willingly, and I will take what I want from him." Okada sneered at him and caught his wrist. "Look at your face now. The other shopkeeper never had such a weakness. How pathetic."
Watanuki jerked away from him. He stepped deliberately on the tiny glittering piece of glass on the floor and turned on his heel, feeling the glass break into hundreds of little pieces. He knew without looking that it would be nothing more than glass now, just a small heap of dull fragments on the floor.
"How pathetic," Watanuki repeated and walked away. He heard the demon snarl behind him. Watanuki took a deep breath. Patience, Nagako had told him. He would certainly need it.
His hands were shaking when he got back to his room, but he made himself go through all of the motions. He laid out his futon with the sheets tucked into neat corners, brushed his teeth with vigour he didn't feel, and splashed his face with cold bracing water. He had to be patient and think of a way to outsmart the demon. There had to be a way. Nagako trusted him.
He finally walked into Doumeki's room to retrieve the pyjamas from their overnight bag and caught Doumeki in the act of exchanging his nice shirt for the ratty t-shirt he always wore to bed.
"You too?" Watanuki said and yawned.
Doumeki nodded. "That demon has an especially bad aura."
"It's old," Watanuki said and fetched his pyjamas from the bag. He slung them over his shoulder. "I was going to wake up early and make some kind of plan."
"I don't know yet," Watanuki replied. "But we have to think of something."
Doumeki nodded. "Wake me up if I'm still asleep."
"Same," Watanuki replied.
They stood awkwardly for a moment. Watanuki eyed the crooked sheets on Doumeki's futon and resisted the urge to fix them. He cleared his throat and looked around the room. "Have you updated the wards?"
"Yes," Doumeki said and indicated various points in the room with his eyes. Watanuki followed his gaze and admired the work for a moment. Doumeki really was remarkably talented at some things.
"Perfect. Wake me if you need anything."
Watanuki shuffled back to his room, changed out of his clothes, and shut off the light. He lay down on his futon and heard Doumeki do the same. Watanuki heard his own breath hiss over the pillow cover. The back of his neck felt cold; he was used to Doumeki's hot intrusive breath gusting across it. Doumeki was possessive in the strangest ways. Watanuki had never thought of him as a tactile person; he didn't think Doumeki had been raised that way, which might have been exactly why he was like that around Watanuki.
Doumeki always tried to wrap him in his arms when he slept, and Watanuki disliked being clutched like a favourite stuffed animal. He felt safe just being around Doumeki, and Doumeki trying to gather him up and physically shield him even in sleep reminded him too much of the stupid reckless Doumeki from high school who had leapt out in front of him and sacrificed whatever it took to keep him whole. Watanuki hated that. He liked best when Doumeki slept on top of him like a blanket; there was something comforting in Doumeki's warm slightly crushing weight, in the careless way Doumeki tucked his head against Watanuki's shoulder and territorially splayed out his limbs.
"Oh hell," Watanuki muttered, kicked off the covers of the futon, and stalked over to Doumeki's room. He crouched by Doumeki and poked him. "Hey, move over."
"Hm?" Doumeki asked, and Watanuki knew he was playing dumb, because no way Doumeki had fallen asleep so fast. But then Doumeki swept aside the sheets and made room for him. His single futon was much too small for both of them, so they had to sleep on their sides with Doumeki's arm resting on Watanuki's hip. Watanuki felt warmth gust against the back of his neck and relaxed. Doumeki ran his fingers up and down Watanuki's ribs for a moment.
"How did it get in the temple?" Doumeki murmured after they had settled. He slid one of his feet between Watanuki's heels, and Watanuki felt Doumeki's toes slip comfortably against the arches of his feet.
"It possessed Okada," Watanuki replied. "And we invited him in." He ground the palm of his hand against his eye. "Stupid. Stupid, stupid. I was sure he was meant to come here. I was sure. I never foresaw this."
"You can't know everything," Doumeki said. His soft breath tickled Watanuki's ear.
"But I should know something," Watanuki snapped. "Something useful. Anything. Poor Kohane-chan."
"Does she know?"
Watanuki shook his head. "I don't know. I think the demon might have put something in her eye. Something to stop her from seeing and listening. Did you see it at dinner? Something glittering in her eye?"
"Yes." One of Doumeki's hands curled around his arm. It reminded Watanuki too much of the demon winding and winding itself around Okada's neck, so he shook it off but pulled Doumeki's arm over his chest in apology. Doumeki was silent for a moment. "So what do we do?"
"I know that demon," Watanuki muttered. "I know that old viper. Once he gets a hold of something he'll never let go." He stirred. "The only thing that can make him let go is love. And sacrifice. Does Okada have a wife?"
"Someone who loves him? His mothe- oh, I forgot. His father then? No, I don't think they saw enough of each other. Your mother?" Watanuki looked at him. "Did you notice the demon shying away when your mother came close to you at the table?"
"No. It didn't seem to care about her."
"I suppose not." Watanuki sighed. "Do you still have the ring?"
Doumeki ran his hand across Watanuki's collarbone, and he felt the little band of wood circling Doumeki's index finger.
"Good," Watanuki said with some satisfaction. "It's a start. I don't know if we can get any help from Kohane-chan. She might be trapped too."
"Mm. She's stronger than you think."
"I know," Watanuki replied and then sighed. "I just…I feel so useless sometimes. I'm the shopkeeper- I'm only as powerful as the wishes I grant. The only thing I can do is trick it into some price it can't fulfil, and it's too clever for that. I can't help you. Not really."
"You do help me."
"Do I? I don't know."
Doumeki grunted. "Shut up. Sleep now. Worry later."
"Yeah," Watanuki said. He lay there for a moment listening to Doumeki's breaths even out. It was strange sleeping in these rooms again. It reminded him of a time when the Doumeki family had first sheltered him here, and he had lain beside Doumeki's futon once in the middle of the night and thanked him when he had thought Doumeki was asleep.
Watanuki pulled both of Doumeki's arms around himself and dared the thing around Okada's neck to force its way in. Doumeki's wards burned all around them, and Watanuki had placed himself between Doumeki and the door; if the demon wanted Doumeki, it would have to take both of them.
Watanuki shifted. It was warm with both of them under the blankets, but not terribly hot, and it was almost nice to have the prickly uncomfortable warmth of having someone close. He put a hand on top of Doumeki's and closed his eyes. When he was about to fall asleep he thought he heard Doumeki whisper, "You're welcome," but that was probably his imagination.
"Wake up," Doumeki whispered in his ear. "Kimihiro?"
"Mm?" Watanuki turned and smiled at the feel of Doumeki's lips brushing his ear. He felt very sleepy and warm. "What is it?"
"Okada is gone."
"What?" Watanuki wheeled around in a flurry of sheets. Doumeki was crouching over him already dressed in his spare clothes. Watanuki put a hand out for his glasses and then realised he had left them in the other room. "When?"
"He wasn't at breakfast."
"I missed breakfast?" Watanuki demanded. "What happened to waking up early and making plans?"
Doumeki pressed a thumb to Watanuki's forehead. "You looked exhausted."
Watanuki smacked away Doumeki's hand and pulled himself out of bed. The muscles in his arms and back were sore, and he rubbed at his shoulders and wondered what could have caused it. Maybe they had both been fighting against the demon in more ways than they had known. He had never felt so physically tired before; usually he just slept it off.
Together they put away the futons, and Watanuki got dressed while Doumeki went back into the kitchen to bring him back whatever was left of breakfast. Watanuki checked the wards while Doumeki was away, but they were next to dead and looked old and crumbling at the edges as if they had been in place for years. His stomach plummeted, and he realised he had been overconfident the night before.
"Do we need anything?" Doumeki asked as Watanuki devoured the bowl of rice and slices of cold fish. "The temple has many artefacts."
"Nothing. The wards are useless," Watanuki replied. He nodded to Doumeki's hand. "But we have your ring. I need your resolve, your strength. The demon exhausted us yesterday, and it was only partially in control. We have to stop it before…" He put the bowl down and put his hand on Doumeki's arm. "Listen, that isn't your cousin anymore. You have to understand that. I will save him. I will save him, but you have to trust me."
"I do," Doumeki replied.
Watanuki's hand tightened on his arm, and he finished his tea in silence. "We need to find its weakness," he said as he began stacking the empty dishes. "We should lead it out into the garden. It doesn't have any physical doors. It shouldn't be able to escape." He rose with the dishes in his arms. "Close all the doors behind you."
"Egresses," Doumeki said, understanding.
Watanuki nodded. "Places where the boundaries are weak. We'll search the house first."
Predictably, the house yielded nothing.
"You have too many rooms," Watanuki groused and shut another pair of doors behind him, but he was feeling apprehensive. He felt too light as if he would blow away at any moment; he wished he had packed one of his kimono. It weighed him down and kept his feet on the ground. He could hide secrets in the folds of his obi.
"Who are you looking for, Shizuka?" Akane asked after they came circling around into the living room for the fifth time.
"Shotaro? Ah, he's been out in the garden with Tsuyuri." She gave them a sly conspiratorial look. "I think he likes her very much."
"In the garden?" Watanuki asked, because that was the last place they had expected the demon to go. He wondered if that had been its strategy all along.
"Yes." Akane looked pleased. "I'm glad they're getting along so well. I always worried about Shotaro. He never bothered getting married; I never thought it was good for a person to live in that temple by himself."
"Mm," Watanuki replied. "It can be lonely. People get…careless." He and Doumeki exchanged glances, and Watanuki nodded once. "We'll go see him."
"Tell him he should stay another night," Akane called after them. "Most of the family is leaving after lunch. I'm not sure where they are, though. I think they went somewhere with Grandmother."
"The garden," Doumeki said under his breath.
"Yeah," Watanuki replied. He felt himself tense.
The demon was in the garden, just as Akane had said. Watanuki stopped dead when he saw it. It was smiling down at Kohane with a strange hungry expression that Watanuki didn't like at all. Okada looked so wrong in the middle of all the delicately trimmed shrubs and fading orange leaves. The shishi odoshi filled with water and seesawed with a gentle clonk-clonk.
As if sensing them, Okada looked up. "Ah, Shizuka-chan. And your little shopkeeper too. How nice."
"Kimihiro-kun?" Kohane looked uneasy. Okada had a hand around her wrist.
"Get away from him, Kohane-chan!" Watanuki shouted.
Kohane's eyes widened, and she tried break Okada's hold. She took one step and then stopped. "I can't!" she cried. She strained against something invisible. "I can't move!"
"Oy," Doumeki barked, and suddenly an arrow was shooting towards Okada like a bolt of lightning.
Okada laughed. "A purification arrow, Doumeki Shizuka? Really?" He waved a hand and struck it away like a fly.
Watanuki heard Doumeki suck in a breath.
"I don't think you understand," Okada said, and suddenly the demon was all around him, cascading in smooth coils up and down his arms in a black writhing sea. A coil snaked against Kohane's wrist. She cried out and tried to pull away. "I own him. I've taken the best of you, the most powerful of you. Okada fell all too easily. Even your old shopkeeper was never able to fully stop me."
"I'm not the old shopkeeper," Watanuki spat. He took a step forward.
"And what I do to you, you'll pay back thricefold," Okada replied. "Isn't that what you told me?" And suddenly the dark coils were rushing towards them like a net.
"Move!" Watanuki shouted. He grabbed Doumeki's arm and pulled them both sideways to the ground. He felt one of the coils barely miss the top of his head. Okada was laughing.
"Shizuka-kun!" Kohane shouted, and Watanuki turned to see Doumeki clutching his right arm, which looked raw and dark with strange black blood. His bow was lying on the ground.
"You idiot!" Watanuki pulled him closer to look at the damage. "Stupid, you stupid-"
"I think I can still pull the bow with my left hand," Doumeki replied and picked up the bow again.
"That's not what I mean!" Watanuki shouted. He reached out to touch Doumeki's arm, but Doumeki batted his hand away.
"No, don't touch it."
"How will you pay that back, shopkeeper?" Okada taunted. "Or shall I have to teach you about prices and debts too?"
Watanuki heard a twig snap.
"Now!" someone shouted, and suddenly people were running from the house and from behind bushes and trees.
"What?" Watanuki wheeled around as the people surrounded the four of them in a large circle and linked hands. They all looked so similar, the men all tall and broad and the women so sharp and elegant. The Doumeki family had always possessed an eerily strong resemblance to one another. The last two people linked hands to complete the circle, and Watanuki felt a sudden zing of power crackle all around them. "They've formed a barrier," he murmured. "Your family…your family is helping us."
Okada hissed. "You Doumeki! You've always been thorns in my side!"
"What should we do now, Grandmother?" one of them shouted, and Watanuki suddenly saw her at one section of the circle, tiny and forbidding.
"Let them do their work," she said in a curiously distant voice. "Shizuka. Watanuki."
"You!" Okada roared. "You wizened old bitch, how can you still be alive?"
"You never looked for me, did you?" Nagako said calmly. "Not when there were such tasty young souls for you to feed on."
"You shut up!" Okada shouted, but his face looked different. His expression looked like it was fighting to emerge from his own face. "How dare you speak to Grandmother that way?"
"Shotaro-san?" Kohane said quietly. "Is that you?"
He blinked and looked down at her. "Ah, it's you," he said fondly. "The one who made horumonyaki, the university student. Kohane-san."
"Shotaro-san." A tear leaked out from Kohane's eye, and it contained something small and glittering. "What's happened to you?"
"I'm sorry," Okada said, and his expression was fading away, submerging back into his skull. "I'm sorry, I never wanted to hurt you." He turned to Doumeki. "Shizuka-chan. Do what must be done."
"No!" Kohane said, but the demon broke through again with a roar.
"Damn you, Okada!" it shouted, writhing madly in a frenzied mass of coils. "I'll make you suffer for this!"
"No, please," Kohane said desperately. "Take me."
The demon looked surprised. "What?"
"Kohane-chan, no!" Watanuki shouted.
"Tsuyuri!" Doumeki shouted, and he had his bow up in a painfully awkward position, an arrow notched.
"Take me," Kohane said. "You want fresh young souls, don't you? Take mine."
"Oh-h-h," the demon murmured. The coils began to recede from Okada's body. "Oh, yes. Oh yes-s, that will do. You silly stupid girl, do you know what you're doing?"
Okada's real expression chased fleetingly across his face, and he looked panicked. "Kohane-san, why are you doing this?"
"You're a good man," Kohane said firmly. "And you don't deserve this. I offer myself up."
"Yes! Yes!" the demon crowed and lunged between them to wrap itself around her neck.
"Now!" Watanuki shouted, and Doumeki shot without hesitation.
The arrow pierced the demon in midair. It twisted once in pain and screamed an awful high pitched wail. Watanuki smelled something dark and stale like old rubbish burning. "No!" the demon screamed. "Not like this! I will have him before that!"
Okada suddenly pushed Kohane away, and the coil that had been about to touch her pulled away. "Run!" he shouted and then screamed as the demon bared its fangs and bit him just over the heart. The demon's mouth filled with blood, and the blackened arrow mark on its side began to heal.
"No you don't!" Watanuki shouted and hurtled forward past Doumeki, the soft sounds of the lake roaring in his ears. He grabbed Kohane by the wrist and flung her behind him, trusting Doumeki to catch her.
He clapped his hands together, remembering the feeling of silt under his fingernails. He felt the lake hum in response. It yawned and stretched, but instead of rising up, it burrowed deep down. Watanuki felt the quiet chatter in the back of his mind go quiet one by one as the lake sealed off the little streams that fed it.
"No entrances or exits," Watanuki said and used his momentum to tackle Okada into the depths of the lake.
The water was a cold sudden shock, and Watanuki fought for a moment with their combined tangle of limbs and his own waterlogged clothes. He gasped instinctively in a string of bubbles, and his mouth filled with water. He floundered for a few moments, but then someone grabbed him under the arms and hauled him out. Watanuki emerged sputtering and coughing and shaking the water from his eyes.
"Idiot," Doumeki said. His voice sounded pained. His arm was smeared with something dark and oily.
Watanuki pushed himself the rest of the way out and grabbed Doumeki's shoulders. Doumeki leaned against him heavily. He was short of breath. "Hey," Watanuki said in alarm. "Hey, it's okay. Lie down. Does it hurt?"
Doumeki let himself be eased to the ground. "No."
Which probably meant it did. Watanuki ruffled his hair. "Hold on," he whispered. "We'll get you back to the house and find something to purify it. Grandmother will know what to do."
Watanuki shook his head. "That lake isn't pure any longer." He nodded towards the water. It was dark and opaque. It looked dead. "You weakened the demon, and the lake neutralised it."
"No weak places in the boundaries," Doumeki replied in a strained gasp.
Watanuki smiled without humour. "Yes, that's right. It's trapped in there."
Doumeki frowned. "Where is Nii-san?"
Almost as if he had heard him, Okada emerged from the lake sputtering and gasping. His hair was sticking up at strange angles, and there were dark circles under his eyes. He looked tired and human and strangely smaller without the mass of dark coils wrapped around him.
"Shotaro-san," Kohane said and reached to pull him out. His hand shook as he grasped her arm. Some of the people broke the circle to go and help him.
"Here," one of them instructed. "Lay him out beside Shizuka. Shizuka, are you alright?"
"Fine," Doumeki replied tightly. "Where is Grandmother?"
"She's dispersing the others," Watanuki said. "We can go inside as soon as they're gone."
"Dispersing?" Doumeki repeated.
"How did they know about the demon?" Kohane asked. She helped Okada sit down next to Doumeki. "I didn't even…I'm sorry, Kimihiro-kun, but even I didn't see. I didn't want to see."
"It isn't your fault, Kohane-chan," Watanuki said and touched her hand. "And they didn't know anything about the demon. Most of Doumeki's family are conduits. They have power but with no desire to harness it, and Grandmother was able to use that. They won't remember any of this- they'll think it was a bad dream. The more powerful ones will remember pieces of it, but they won't remember me."
Be patient, Nagako had said. He should have known she was planning something all along; he should have known that birthdays were a powerful thing. He supposed Doumeki's family wasn't so bad after all.
"Is…is the demon dead?" Okada asked. He coughed again and blinked water from his eyes.
"No," Watanuki said. "It's trapped in the water. I'm sorry, the temple lake won't be pure for some time. I'll have the Ame-Warashi siphon out the dead water- she owes me a debt anyway, but she will be glad to do it. That demon made quite a few enemies in the spirit world."
"And then what?" Kohane asked. "Will the water come back?"
"The lake will permit the streams to reopen after it has made sure all evil traces are gone," Watanuki said. "It will need to be cleansed first."
"I will help," Okada said immediately. "I'm sorry, this is entirely my fault."
"You were careless with your wards. You were tired," Watanuki replied. "But I was the one who invited you here." He smiled suddenly. "At least now I know why. No one but Kohane could have broken the demon's curse."
"Me?" Kohane said in surprise. "But…I didn't do anything."
"Sacrifice," Watanuki replied, and she looked away in embarrassment. "It is the demon's only weakness. Someone who would sacrifice for another. It is rare, and you are powerful. You gave us an opportunity to attack."
"You saved me," Okada said, smiling at her. "You are truly remarkable."
Kohane turned an interesting shade of red Watanuki had never seen before. "I…it's nothing."
Watanuki grinned. "Just don't tell this annoying guy that I…" He suddenly looked down and noticed Doumeki had gone still in his arms. "Hey." He jostled Doumeki's shoulder, and Doumeki's head flopped sideways. "Hey! Wake up!"
He put his fingers to Doumeki's pulse and found it was slow and sluggish. Watanuki cursed. Doumeki had used his aura to protect Kohane at dinner and done all the wards in their rooms and woken up early to fetch breakfast for him. And Watanuki had been too preoccupied with the demon to realise how tired Doumeki really was. Of course Doumeki had never bothered telling him.
Kohane put her hands to her mouth. "Oh no, Shizuka-kun!"
"Grandmother!" Watanuki shouted. "Grandmother, come quickly!" He turned back to Doumeki and put a hand to his forehead. "We have to get him inside."
"I will carry him," Okada said at once. He stood, slung Doumeki over his shoulder, and began running for the house.
Watanuki ran beside him with Kohane in their wake. I will take your Doumeki Shizuka, the demon had told Watanuki. He felt his eyes smart, and he tried to blink it away. He looked at Doumeki's unconscious form and prayed it had been an empty promise.
Six hours later, Doumeki was still unconscious. Watanuki had put him in his room and had sent Kohane to the kitchen for supplies. She had come back with a very sharp knife, the teacup of silt from the cupboard, and a very worried Nagako.
Watanuki had efficiently tucked Doumeki into his futon, cut away his shirt, and slathered the silt across his arm and chest. Nagako had helped him dress the wound, and Doumeki's right arm and part of his chest were now covered completely in neat white bandages. At least he looked peaceful; the tense lines of pain from before had smoothed out.
Watanuki felt his head droop and made himself sit straighter on his cushion. There was a pot of tea on a tray beside him that Kohane refilled at regular intervals. He knew he was worrying her, but he wanted to be there when Doumeki woke up- Doumeki had to wake up soon. Watanuki had been sitting beside him for hours fighting the urge to crawl into bed with him and sleep with his head against Doumeki's chest to listen to the steady reassuring doki-doki of his heartbeat.
"Idiot," Watanuki said and covered his yawn with one hand. He was holding Doumeki's hand in a white-knuckled grip with the other. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Doumeki had always been a bit of a stubborn bastard, but he should have known how important it was to rest before confronting the demon. And Watanuki still had no idea what the demon had spat at him; he had tried to get a sample from Doumeki's shoulder, but the black substance had burned away the tip of the toothpick. He didn't want to know what Doumeki's skin looked like underneath. The silt was slowly eroding the substance away and replenishing lost tissue, and that was enough for him. He heard the door open behind him just as he was assaulted by another jaw-cracking yawn.
"Watanuki," Nagako said. "You haven't eaten."
"I'm fine, thank you," Watanuki replied. He hoped she wouldn't notice he was holding Doumeki's hand because he didn't think he could let go.
"At least get up and walk around, child. I haven't seen you move from that spot in hours."
"No, it's no trouble," Watanuki replied, even though his legs ached dully underneath him whenever he moved.
"Watanuki," Nagako started. Her voice was pitying, and she sat down next to him. "Would you like me to-"
"I will do it!" Watanuki snapped and then realised who he was talking to. He rubbed his eyes. "Sorry. I'm very sorry, Grandmother. But…don't worry, I will do it." He nodded to Doumeki's sleeping face. "He did the same thing for me once. He waited ten hours for me to wake up."
Nagako nodded. "I understand." She showed him the small covered bowl she had brought. "Akane sent this along."
Watanuki tilted open the lid. Doumeki's mother had made him a slapdash donburi with strips of marinated pork arranged over white rice. "Oh. Tell her I said thank you."
He really had to let go of Doumeki's hand to hold the bowl and chopsticks; he didn't want to, but Doumeki would be angry if he found out Watanuki hadn't eaten. The food was simple but hearty, and it was only after he started eating that he realised he was ravenous.
"So, Akane can see you, can she?"
Watanuki nodded, his mouth full. He chewed and swallowed. "She has a wish. I'm not sure what."
"She hasn't told you?"
"I suppose we haven't had the time, what with the demon and everything."
"I see." Nagako nodded. "Please don't hesitate to ask if you need anything, Watanuki. And try to get some sleep, at least."
"I will. Thank you, Grandmother."
It was only after she left that he realised he had forgotten to ask her about Akane's wish. He finished the donburi and noted that the pork was salty. No wonder Doumeki complained his food never had enough salt. Watanuki would have to ask Akane about some of Doumeki's favourite dishes. He had asked Doumeki once, only once because he knew it was all the outlet Doumeki needed to start making unreasonable demands. Doumeki had only grunted and replied that he liked everything. When Watanuki had told him that was ridiculous, Doumeki had demonstrated by polishing off the rest of the eel Watanuki had intended on saving for lunch the next day.
Watanuki yawned again. "Mm, maybe just a few minutes," he murmured and put aside the bowl to curl up in an uncomfortable scrunched position on the cushion. It was cold, but he didn't want to ask for a blanket. Yuuko had once taught him not to sleep after a meal because he would turn into a cow, but Watanuki thought he would rather turn into anything right now if it meant he could rest. He scooted as close to Doumeki's futon as he dared, folded up his glasses, and closed his eyes.
"Watanuki!" Haruka shouted, and his eyes were wild. "Catch him, Watanuki!"
"Wha-" Watanuki started and then saw something fiery shoot across in an arc across the sky above him. He was running even before he knew what he was doing.
"Catch him!" Haruka shouted again, and Watanuki couldn't even follow the wild arc of the star; it looked like it was going stay in the sky forever or burn up in the atmosphere.
But then it started falling towards earth in a bright blaze of light, and Watanuki was racing after it with his hands outstretched. Haruka seemed very far away all of a sudden, his dim voice still shouting somewhere behind him.
The star looked too far in front of him. He wasn't going to make it. He wasn't going to make it. He was-
Watanuki put on a bust of speed and jumped, grabbing the star with frantic clammy fingers in midair, but the ground had disappeared, and he was plummeting off the edge of a cliff.
The star was hot and burned his hands, but he clutched it compulsively, feeling the air whip past his face. The star was cooling as they both fell, becoming heavier and larger- Watanuki had to hold onto it with both arms now. The star reached out, and suddenly it had two arms and two legs. It was a small child dressed in a girl's kimono, and her tiny body rattled as she coughed and coughed. Watanuki held onto the child as she shook, and he patted her fragile back. She cried and beat against him with her tiny fists as she coughed, but he didn't let go of her.
She grabbed onto the front of his shirt, but they were boy's hands now. The child grew taller and her hair grew shorter till she turned into a boy with a severe looking haircut and small angry eyes.
"My grandfather," he hissed. He grabbed onto Watanuki's collar and shook him. "Where is my grandfather? Where is he?"
"Haruka-san is dead," Watanuki replied. He tried to tousle the boy's severe hair and make it softer.
The boy's expression seized. "No!" he said. "No, no, it can't be. Grandfather." He stared up and Watanuki. "Don't touch me," he snarled. "You liar. You…idiot."
And now the boy was taller and lankier with a sharp pointed face and gangly legs. His shoulders were broader, but they were too knobby. He was wearing a high school uniform.
"You idiot," the boy said, and there was nothing dry or teasing about his voice. "You always rush into everything. Incompetent. Stupid."
"What?" Watanuki asked faintly.
"You're annoying," the boy said. "I have to save you every time. I wish I had never met you."
"But we were supposed to be-"
"Hitsuzen," the boy mocked. "Is that what you were going to say?"
Watanuki didn't reply.
"I never liked you," the boy continued. "I only sat with you because of Kunogi. Why would I ever look at a freak like you?"
"You've been looking at me ever since you first saw me," Watanuki breathed. "You told me that once when we were both drunk at one of the summer festivals. You don't remember saying it, but I do." He tried to pull the boy closer, but he fought and tried to pull away.
The boy lengthened and broadened, gained a bit more substance and muscle and weight, until it was Doumeki. It was Doumeki dressed in the slacks and plain collared shirt he always wore to work. His hair fluttered in the air rushing past them.
"Let me go," Doumeki said in a low emotionless voice.
"No," Watanuki said stubbornly. "No, I'm not letting you go."
"Let me go," Doumeki insisted.
"Not a chance! We have to go back home." Watanuki leaned over to see where they were falling and sent them tumbling head over heels into awkward jerky cartwheels in the air. The ground beneath them was bright and white and hurt his eyes.
"That isn't home. I hate that house," Doumeki said darkly. "I've only ever stayed with you out of obligation."
"That isn't true," Watanuki protested, and felt his eyes prickle. "You know that isn't true. We've been together since high school. I have your blood, and you have my eye. We bought that house together. We share a futon."
"Yes, my god," Doumeki said and a shudder went through his body. "The things I've had to do to keep you satisfied."
"I…I don't…" Watanuki started and then faltered. "Shizuka."
"I could have been happy," Doumeki accused. "Where is my wife? Where is she, Watanuki?"
"I'm sorry," Watanuki said. Doumeki hadn't called him Watanuki in years. He had always called him Kimihiro, so low and soft even when he was angry. "I didn't know I took you away from her. I didn't want-"
"You didn't want?" Doumeki asked, and Watanuki had never heard him sound so cold. "It is always about you, isn't it? Everything has to revolve around you. Who will I depend on now? Who will cook me dinners and greet me when I come home? Who will walk with me to work?"
And Watanuki suddenly realised the thing in his arms wasn't Doumeki at all. It had never been Doumeki. "I will," he replied and raised his chin. "I will."
"Yes," Watanuki said with more strength. It felt like they were falling faster. He could barely keep his eyes open. "I will. I will take care of you."
"You'll leave," Doumeki said. "You'll disappear one day just like my father. The spirit world has always been more important to you. Yuuko has always been more important."
"No," Watanuki replied. The rushing in his ears was getting louder, and he had to shout to hear himself now. "Never. It is so easy to get lost in the spirit world, but I've always been able to find my way out because I know you're waiting for me, and I have to come home soon. You're my important person. And no matter how much you fight me, I won't let you go." He squeezed Doumeki's shoulders in a painful grip.
"Idiot," Doumeki grumbled. For a moment Watanuki swore felt Doumeki's hands wrap around his elbows in response. Together they hurtled towards the ground, and Watanuki saw the pale pore-less ground rushing up to meet him-
Watanuki woke to the sound of voices outside the door. He lay there dazed for a moment. His ears were awash with static.
"I'll check all the wards when I get back home," Okada was saying. "And then I'll be back in Tokyo to purify the lake."
"I will be here to help," Kohane replied. "Obaa-chan has taught me a bit about purification as well."
"Is there anything you can't do?" Okada asked, laughing.
There was a pause, and Watanuki got the impression Kohane was embarrassed.
"Perhaps you could visit me sometime in Kanagawa," Okada continued, sounding tentative. "Though I'm not sure how exciting an old man like me would-"
"You're not old," Kohane interrupted. There was another awkward pause. "You're not old, Shotaro-san. Where did you get an idea like that?"
"I'm much older than you," he said wearily.
"That's for me to decide," she replied. "I would enjoy seeing your temple in Kanagawa. I would."
"So that's why Nii-san was able to see you," Doumeki said suddenly beside Watanuki's ear. "You and your hitsuzen."
Watanuki nearly bit his own tongue in fright. He pushed himself up on his elbows and stared down at Doumeki in shock and overwhelming relief. "Y-You! You're awake! How long have you been awake?"
"A while," Doumeki replied in his infuriating voice. He pulled Watanuki down against him.
Watanuki closed his eyes and breathed, smelling laundry detergent and incense and the sharp pungent smell of silt. He let himself be held for a moment. He wondered how he had ever thought the falling star was anything like Doumeki. "Is this what it's like for you?" he asked in a small voice. "Whenever I'm hurt?"
"Yes," Doumeki said. His one-armed grip around Watanuki's shoulders tightened.
"I was so worried," Watanuki said, and to his horror he found his voice choking up. "I was so worried. You are the biggest idiot in the entire world."
"Hn," Doumeki replied.
Watanuki leaned up and kissed the tip of his ear, his forehead. "Don't do that again," he warned.
"I won't if you won't," Doumeki challenged, and Watanuki laughed and tucked Doumeki's sheets closer around him.
Doumeki suddenly frowned and caught his wrist. "What is this?" he demanded. "Your finger."
Watanuki wigged his five fingers in response. He was wondering when Doumeki would finally notice. "My finger and your arm," he replied. "The lake healed both of us."
"What is the price?"
"We already paid it," Watanuki replied. "We eliminated the demon that had been intruding on its property. And you're a Doumeki. Your family and the lake have far too many debts and prices for even a person like me to follow."
He heard Kohane say, "I think he's awake," and he managed to fling himself back into a sitting position onto the cushion by the time she opened the door.
For a moment she looked terribly young, her eyes wide and her figure slight and fragile next to Okada's. Then her entire face lit up. "Nagako-san! Come quick! He's awake!" she cried. She and Okada crouched down beside Doumeki's futon.
"How are you feeling, Shizuka-chan?" Okada asked. He and Doumeki clasped hands for a moment. "Kohane-san and I were in the hallway. I'm sorry no one was here when you woke up."
"I'm fine," Doumeki said. "How are you? No after-effects of the demon?"
"No," Okada replied and pulled down the neck of his shirt. There was a scar underneath his collarbone that looked like a bite mark from a snake, but it looked old and faded. "That paste healed me up. You've been asleep for a while. How is your arm?"
"It doesn't hurt," Doumeki replied.
"It won't," Nagako replied, coming through the door. "But it will heal very slowly. You must take care of it." She knelt to put a hand to his forehead. "But otherwise I think you should be fine. How are you?"
"I-" Doumeki's stomach growled. He turned his head to look at Watanuki. "I'm hungry."
"Of course you're hungry," Watanuki replied, putting his hands on his knees to stand up with painful deliberation. "You're always hungry."
"Make me nizakana," Doumeki told him.
"Okay," Watanuki replied.
"And odamaki mushi."
"Yeah, whatever you want."
Doumeki turned his head. "Feudal udon?"
"That is still a non-existent dish no matter how many times you ask," Watanuki retorted and wheeled around to walk out of the door. He felt like an old man, all hunched over with tight painful muscles, but he could hear Doumeki hmm-ing with laughter behind him and smiled to himself.
"Ah, Watanuki," Akane said as he limped into the kitchen. "I take it Shizuka is awake."
She was sitting at the table surrounded by spoons and dishes, and Watanuki supposed she had been transferring all the leftovers from yesterday into stacks and stacks of plastic containers that were populating the fridge.
"Yes," Watanuki said and began taking pots from the shelves. He opened one of the drawers and began hunting for a paring knife. "He was asking for food."
"You seem very familiar with the kitchen," Akane noted, and Watanuki froze, realising she had never seen him in the years he had lived here.
"Ah," he said, waving his arms. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have intruded. Sh- Doumeki used to invite me over in high school, and I got used to preparing something whenever he got hungry. You know that guy."
Akane laughed. "I certainly do. I'm not angry, Watanuki. Just…surprised." She leaned forward and beckoned him closer. "Watanuki, maybe you can help me. I've heard my son has a special person in his life now."
"How did you hear that?" Watanuki asked with some alarm. He didn't think she knew about Doumeki and him.
Akane looked embarrassed. "I stopped by Shizuka's school to see him. I've never gone before." She pressed her lips together and then continued. "I gave my name as Doumeki Akane at the desk, and they asked whether I was Shizuka's mother. They asked after his special person. They told me she's wonderful."
"Ah," Watanuki said, fighting down the strange urge to laugh. Akane was a typical Doumeki in her own way, and he should have known it would take a few days to drag her wish out of her. He sat down in the seat across from her. "And you wish to meet this person?"
"Yes. It was…it was embarrassing that the professors at his school knew more about this life than his own mother. I couldn't even tell them her name. I'm…I'm glad he has someone."
"Is that a wish?"
"A wish." She drummed her fingers against the table. "There are so many things I could wish for. I could wish I had been in Shizuka's life more when he was growing up. I was happy he finally found good friends in high school, but I never met them. This is the first time I'm meeting you, and Kunogi…"
"She lives in Kyoto now," Watanuki said. "She's married. They're expecting a child."
"A child," Akane said and shook her head. "Some days I think I could have grandchildren and never know about them."
"Surely not," Watanuki replied, wanting to laugh again. "He cares about you very much."
"Mm," Akane replied and then nodded. "I think I want to meet Shizuka's special person. I'm getting old- I want to be a part of his life."
Watanuki nodded. "I'll grant your wish, then," he replied. He supposed he already had. It had been one of the neatest bargains he had ever conducted, but then again, he was dealing with a Doumeki.
Akane smiled. "Now," she said and clapped her hands together. "What were you thinking of making, Watanuki?"
Between them, they warmed up rice and soup. Watanuki found one of the less spectacular dishes from yesterday that no one had eaten and decided to make a project out of it; there was enough of it left that he could experiment to see what changes tasted best. He split it up into various bowls and felt almost like he was conducting a trial in Doumeki's laboratory. He also found some of the leftover pork and thought of the dinner he had made the evening he and Doumeki had kissed for the first time in front of all the leeks in the kitchen.
"Coincidences," Watanuki muttered and began to chop the extra spring onion. It was Doumeki's favourite dish after all, and his hands knew all the motions. Sometimes it felt like he was the punch line of a long complicated joke that had been started decades before he was born.
Akane ooh-ed and aah-ed over the various bowls of his experiment, and they tasted them all and discussed what was best for each one. Watanuki liked her like this, so open and relaxed; he had always wanted to befriend Doumeki's mother and wondered how they would get along. He took some of her suggestions, which were surprisingly sound and sensible, and wondered where she had learned to cook.
"Oy," Doumeki said and came into the kitchen with his bandaged arm in a sling. The efficient knots tied at his shoulder looked like Kohane's.
"I couldn't make the food you requested," Watanuki replied over his shoulder. "Not with so much leftover from yesterday. But I tried."
"It's fine," Doumeki said and left-handedly picked up a pair of chopsticks from the drawer.
"No, don't eat that!" Watanuki shouted as Doumeki picked up one of the bowls from his experiment. "It hasn't been heated yet, and I have to add more ginger."
"Hn," Doumeki replied and put them down. "What are you making?"
"I'm using the pork from yesterday to make your- hey," Watanuki protested as Doumeki loomed behind him and crowded close. Doumeki reached around him and put his chopsticks in the pot to awkwardly pluck out a piece of pork. "Hey!"
"Hm-mh," Doumeki replied, chewing the pork. "Needs more sauce."
"It does not," Watanuki retorted. "Go away. I made it exactly like I did the first time."
Doumeki stopped chewing. "You did," he said, and his eyes were warm.
Watanuki flushed and looked away. "G-Go away!" he said. "You're always in the way. Sit down!" He looked over to see Akane smiling at both of them.
Watanuki smiled back, wondering why she could still see him. He was quite certain he had granted her wish and wondered what more she could want. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Doumeki's chopsticks sneaking towards the pot again, so he complained to Akane, who ordered Doumeki to sit beside her at the table. Doumeki's face indicated he had just realised Watanuki and Akane were allies now and was rather regretting leaving them alone together. Akane made Doumeki drink the soup while Watanuki finished dinner, and then she forced Watanuki to sit down and eat too when he tried to clean up. Watanuki put up some token protests, but secretly he rather liked being fussed over.
"Oh," Nagako said and stopped as she came into the room. "I was going to speak with Watanuki-"
"It's fine," Doumeki replied, pushing away his empty plate and standing up. "I was going to take a bath, anyway."
"Don't get the bandage wet!" Nagako and Watanuki scolded at once, Watanuki's voice ringing out.
"Hn," Doumeki replied, and Watanuki heard the amusement in his voice.
He frowned, because Doumeki always took things like this far too lightly. "I mean it," he added. "You've done enough stupid things for the day."
"Finish your tea," Watanuki said, probably more curtly than he meant, and stood up to follow Nagako out.
"You worry about him," Nagako remarked as he shut the door and followed her down the hallway.
"Because he's an idiot," Watanuki grumbled. He yawned and rubbed his eyes. He was tired all of a sudden. "How do you think he'll recover?"
"There may be some scarring," Nagako replied. "But his wounds will heal cleanly."
"Good," Watanuki breathed and felt relief wash over him. "Good." Nagako pressed his hand, and he pressed back. "I'm sorry about the lake. It's the only thing I could-"
"You did well," Nagako replied. "You were desperate, and it was clever. It is repairable after all, Watanuki. Don't worry."
"The Ame-Warashi will be here in the next few days to draw out the bad water," he replied. He would have to get back to the shop and bargain with her, though he knew it would be a rather easy bargain; she had many of the others in the spirit world had hated that demon. Possibly he could get her to do it for free instead of using up the handful of debt she owed him. Possibly.
He yawned again, and Nagako put a hand on his back. It made him feel warm and comfortable. "You've been through a trial," she said, and he wondered if he knew about how he'd chased a falling star and somehow saved Doumeki from whatever had tried to claim him. "Sleep now- I've already retouched Shizuka's wards and put out both of your futons."
"Oh, thank you," Watanuki replied. "Where is Kohane-chan? I prepared some dinner for her as well. And Okada-san."
"She's gone back to Obaa-chan's to consult her about purifying the lake. Shotaro is sleeping."
"Yes, he and Kohane-chan stayed awake with me the whole time. It must have been difficult for him." He turned to look at Nagako. "Please, I know he won't see me, but tell him it isn't his fault. It was his primary responsibility to care for his wards, and I don't condone how he neglected them, but…a person can become careless if he is alone." Watanuki thought he could have lost himself in the spirit world and become reckless if he hadn't had Doumeki waiting for him back home.
"Yes, I will tell him," Nagako replied and patted Watanuki's shoulder. "You did very well today."
"Only because of you," Watanuki replied easily. "How are the others?"
Nagako gave him something approximating a smirk, and she looked quite a bit like her grandson at that moment. "They've gone home to sleep off the party. They still think this morning was just a terrible hangover."
"Birthdays are very strong," Watanuki replied.
"And our family is very close," Nagako told him. "Even the ones without any spiritual power suspected there was something wrong with Shotaro. It only took a bit of persuasion to…" She smiled. "I won't bore you. We are a small family, and we are getting old; Shotaro and Shizuka are the youngest of us."
"You care for them very much," Watanuki said. Yes, perhaps he did like Doumeki's family. They reached the door to Doumeki's room, and Watanuki pressed his hand against it. It was humming, a low comforting shiver that went to his elbow. "The wards feel perfect. Thank you."
"Thank you, Watanuki," Nagako replied. "For protecting my family."
"You protected me," Watanuki replied. "When I was…" He looked away, not knowing how to verbalise the first few years after Yuuko's death. The temple was dredging up far too many memories.
Nagako understood anyway, because she always understood. She leaned up to put a small soft kiss against his forehead. "Goodnight, child."
Watanuki nodded back. "Goodnight." He slid open the door to Doumeki's room and saw his and Doumeki's futons side by side on the floor. He could do nothing but stare for a moment.
He felt Nagako pause behind him. He knew without turning around that she was trying not to laugh. "You didn't think I was so senile, did you, Watanuki?"
The old Watanuki would have protested. The old Watanuki would have spun his arms and denied everything. But he wasn't the old Watanuki. He never would be again. He smiled at her, rueful perhaps because she had seen right through them or perhaps because he was older now. Older and painfully wiser with nothing left to offer but honesty.
"No, Grandmother," he said. "I never thought that."
Watanuki must have fallen asleep before Doumeki came back from his bath, because the next thing he knew it was morning and Doumeki's futon was already folded and put away. Watanuki knew Doumeki was being kind by letting him sleep in, but Watanuki hated waking up late when he was staying as a guest in someone else's house. He hated walking to the breakfast table in the morning and finding everyone else waiting for him; he didn't like people to think he was lazy.
Doumeki was at the table reading the newspaper, turning the pages awkwardly with his left hand. The fresh bandages on his arm were loosely tied in lumpy knots, and Watanuki suspected Doumeki had done them himself. Watanuki made a note to scold Doumeki about it after breakfast.
"Morning," Watanuki said, brushed a sleepy kiss to the back of Doumeki's neck as always, and went to put on the kettle for tea.
Then he stopped, because something was nagging at the back of his mind. He turned around.
Akane was staring at him from the other end of the table with the preparations for breakfast spread all around her.
"Oh no," Watanuki said faintly. "Oh no no no."
"Calm down," Doumeki said and turned another page. "You're going to give yourself an ulcer."
"No. You…her…" Watanuki pointed at Doumeki, then Akane, then back. "You're not even phased by this, are you?"
"A bit," Doumeki replied in his deadpan voice with a slight lift of his eyebrows which told Watanuki he really wasn't. Doumeki should have known that Watanuki had his routines and followed them with an almost robotic absence, and he really shouldn't have been reading at the table with the back of his stupid neck exposed. Doumeki knew Watanuki had a thing for the back of his neck, just like Watanuki knew Doumeki had a strange fascination with his feet. He always wrapped his hands around Watanuki's ankles and pressed kisses to the arches of his feet before he-
"Augh," Watanuki said articulately and stormed out.
"Watanuki," Akane said from the door.
Watanuki ignored her and concentrated on folding his pyjamas properly before packing them into the overnight bag. He couldn't speak to her right now, he couldn't bear to.
Akane knelt down beside him and took his hands. "Watanuki, stop."
Watanuki took a deep breath and then let it out. "I'm sorry," he said. "I have to see someone about your lake. I can't stay."
"Do you think I am angry?" she asked. "Is that what you think?"
"Oh, Akane-san, I don't know," Watanuki sighed. "I don't know anything about important things."
"Important," she echoed. "Yes it is."
"Grandmother said there are so few of you," Watanuki said and tried to free one of his hands to knuckle his eyes. "And he's one of the youngest. He's your eldest son, your only child. I understand."
"Do you think this is about grandchildren, Watanuki?" she asked. "Of having someone take over the temple? It's nice having someone who worries about my family so much." She pressed her thumbs to the knobs of Watanuki's wrists, and his breath caught because Doumeki did the same thing sometimes. Watanuki wondered what other secret habits Doumeki had picked up from his mother.
"I…" he started.
"I had always wondered how he could live by himself in that house," Akane continued. "He never spoke of you. Or perhaps he did, and I just didn't stop to listen."
"You have to stop and listen whenever he says anything," Watanuki agreed. "Especially when he isn't talking." Then he stopped, because he realised he was being rude giving her lessons on her own son.
But she was nodding along with him. "Yes. His father…was somewhat the same. Except he didn't stop to let you listen." Her expression clouded for a moment, but then it was gone, and she raised an eyebrow at him. "You should have said something sooner, Watanuki."
"You didn't even come to ask my permission," she chided, but she was still smiling.
"Ah," Watanuki said, embarrassed. "That…would have been difficult."
"How difficult is it?" she asked. She pressed his wrist. "Ask me."
She raised her eyebrows. "Watanuki?"
Watanuki took a deep breath. He could feel himself turning red. "May…May I have your permission to love your son?"
She laughed. "Well. I think you love him plenty without my permission, don't you?" she asked, but her eyes were kind. She took one of his hands and squeezed it. "Watanuki, I could not leave my son in better care. I am happy I was able to finally meet you."
Watanuki squeezed back and tried to swallow the lump in his throat, because this was the wish. His job was over now, and he had just begun to know her. "I'm afraid you'll forget me," he confessed because she would soon forget that too, but he had to tell her.
"Forget you?" Akane said with surprise. "I hope Shizuka brings you whenever he visits."
And just like that, the unseen pieces in the corners turned around and slotted in place. "You do?" he breathed and felt a weight inside his chest rise and balance perfectly like a set of scales. Oh yes, she was certainly a Doumeki. "And what would you give me," he said, trying not to let his voice quaver. "So you can see me inside the temple whenever you want?"
"I will love you like a son," she said. Her expression was serene. "I already do, and I've only just met you. Is that enough?"
"Yes," Watanuki managed. He was having trouble swallowing, because he had never dared hope for this. "Yes, that is more than enough."
Doumeki was in the kitchen eating the cold leftovers from last night's dinner when they came back. Akane had an arm tight around Watanuki's shoulders; they quietly watched Doumeki eat with one hand still holding the newspaper, and Watanuki imagined they were thinking similar thoughts.
"Have you finished being stupid?" Doumeki asked without turning around. He flipped another page of his newspaper, and Watanuki thought he could love Doumeki like this, with his broad shoulders and rumpled t-shirt and the way he bent his head close to peer through his reading glasses.
"Yeah," Watanuki said softly and went to sit down next to him. His eyes lingered over whatever Doumeki was reading as Akane went back to preparing breakfast, and for a moment Watanuki enjoyed the moment of quiet casual intimacy among them. Then he reached over to snap the newspaper away, mindful of jostling Doumeki's bad arm. "Those bandages are terrible," he scolded. "Honestly. Here, hold out your arm."
"It's fine," Doumeki resisted.
"No, it is not fine," Watanuki snapped, brandishing the extra bandages he had brought from their room.
"Let him fuss, Shizuka," Akane said, looking wistful, and Watanuki imagined she was thinking of all the things she had never done for Doumeki as a boy. "We worry."
"He always worries about everything," Doumeki agreed, the corner of his mouth tugging upward. He dropped a slice of radish, and Watanuki realised how badly Doumeki was actually managing the chopsticks. He had somehow assumed that Doumeki was proficient at everything he set his mind to.
"I can't help it if you do stupid things all the time," Watanuki snapped. "Here, give me that. You're hopeless." He took the bowl and chopsticks away and held out a bit of rice and vegetables to Doumeki's mouth.
Doumeki gave him a pointed look, and Watanuki's face went warm; he wondered if all the fumbling with the chopsticks had been Doumeki's plan all along. He really was the devious sort underneath it all. Then Doumeki bent his head and accepted the piece of food on Watanuki's chopsticks, his lips closing almost delicately over the piece of star-shaped carrot.
"Don't look at me like that," Watanuki said defensively, already scooping up some more rice. "I can't change your bandages if you die of starvation."
"Hn," Doumeki grabbed Watanuki's hand and pulled it forward to eat off the chopsticks. Watanuki sputtered and didn't turn to meet Akane's eyes, but he got the impression she was smiling at them.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
They looked for Yuuko at the train station every day just as Doumeki proposed. Watanuki came an hour before he had seen her boarding the train, and then he lingered for a few hours more. He got to know every single advertisement on the platform, the ones advertising art exhibitions and snacks and department store sales. He met quite a few people with wishes that way, but he told Doumeki they were usually too busy running to a connecting train to linger for long, and he felt he was cheating them of the hospitality his other customers usually received in the shop.
Doumeki joined him after his classes finished for the day, and they walked opposite ends of the platform like guards on parade, passing each other in the middle and saying, "Have you seen her, have you seen her?" and always shaking their heads and replying, "No. How about you?" again and again till the hour was up and it was time to take the train the rest of the way home. Doumeki felt drained by the end each day. They got in the habit of buying a bag full of tiny custard-filled taiyaki from the station vendor and eating them on the way home like a consolation prize. Watanuki always repeated that Yuuko would definitely be there tomorrow, and Doumeki always gave him warm custardy kisses and agreed with him without hearing a word he said.
And then one day, just like that, Yuuko found them.
Doumeki was helping Watanuki re-order the store room in the shop on one of the rare days that he didn't have classes. He could carry things now, though Watanuki still balked at having him lift anything heavy. His arm was still healing after two months, and every time Watanuki changed the bandages Doumeki saw a profusion of dark angry lesions that would probably resolve themselves into scars. Nevertheless, his arm had improved and his hand had sustained the least of the damage, so Watanuki stopped wrapping it after it cleared up. Doumeki still didn't have full mobility anymore- his grandmother had said that would take time- but at least now he could hold things and eat on his own. The novelty of Watanuki feeding him had grown tiresome for both of them after a while.
Watanuki was on the step ladder handing boxes off to Doumeki so they could sort through them later. "No," he said. "Put this one with the others near the door-" He suddenly stopped and looked thoughtful.
Doumeki knew that face. "What is it?"
Watanuki shook his head and handed him the last box from the top shelves before jumping off the stepladder. "A customer is here," he said and went out to greet her, still clad in his apron. He grabbed a sake cup off the shelf on his way out and polished it on the corner of his apron as he walked.
"What is that for?" Doumeki asked.
Watanuki shrugged. "I have a feeling it belongs in the house now. Ah." He jerked his chin. "There she is."
A woman was standing in front of the gates looking behind her into the street, probably wondering what a small dingy shop like this was doing in the middle of a block of steel and concrete buildings. She was wearing a business suit and a pair of smart black shoes. "Excuse me," she said, turning to them. "But is this a wish shop?"
Watanuki stopped dead, and Doumeki crashed into him. Watanuki stumbled and dropped the priceless sake cup, and Doumeki stooped to catch it deftly in one hand.
"Idiot," Doumeki muttered and tucked it into his jacket. Except Watanuki wasn't making a sound, just staring ahead at the woman in silence.
Doumeki looked up at the woman. It was Yuuko. But no, she didn't have her hair or eyes. But it was Yuuko - she looked like Yuuko in a way Doumeki could not describe.
"A-Aa," Doumeki said in shock.
"Y-Yes, it's a wish shop," Watanuki recovered, stealing a meaningful glance at Doumeki. "Did you have a wish?"
The woman nodded and then shook her head. "I don't know. I just thought I ought to come here."
"Yes," Watanuki breathed. "Oh yes, come in." He ran to throw open the doors.
"This is nice," the woman remarked as she knelt on a cushion in the sitting room. In the light Doumeki could study her face better; she really didn't look at all like Yuuko, but there was something in the way she looked at things, in the way she breathed. "Oh," she said as Watanuki hurried in with some snacks and tea. "These are my favourite. How did you know?"
"Coincidence, I suppose," Watanuki replied, and he looked as if he would faint right there. His eyes were huge and blue.
"Ah, the tea smells good," she said as Watanuki sat down and poured her a cup. She looked at him wryly for a moment. "Thought…I don't suppose you have anything stronger."
Watanuki's laugh sounded almost like a sob. "It's too early for drinking."
Doumeki took the sake cup from his pocket and placed it on the table. He felt like they were in a play, each one of them acting out parts. He even knew what Watanuki would say next- he had never had a sense of déjà vu before, but perhaps this was what it felt like.
"Ah," Watanuki murmured. "Would you get-"
"My grandfather's sake," Doumeki finished. "And the pipe from the store room."
Watanuki looked at him and then nodded. "Yes. Thank you."
It was strange coming around full circle with the sake in one hand and the glass containing the pipe with the other. Doumeki still remembered the way the sake bottles had glowed in the darkness of the shop and how Watanuki and snapped the pipe and bent the shop to his will. He came back into the sitting room, and Watanuki and the woman stopped in mid-sentence. Doumeki wondered what they had been talking about.
He handed Watanuki the sake and placed the glass jar in front of the woman. The glass made an odd ringing sound as it hit the table.
The woman pressed her fingers against the glass and peered in. "I feel strange," she said. "What is that? A pipe?"
"Why don't you open it?" Watanuki said and poured her sake, but Doumeki could see how his hand was trembling.
The woman frowned and then nodded, breaking open the seals open by one. She pulled out the stopper, and a hiss of air came flooding out of the jar as if it had been pressurized. It sounded like hitsuzenhitsuzen and reminded Doumeki too much of the voices they had heard when they had walked into the foyer of the deranged shop.
The woman reached into the jar, and her fingers closed on the pipe.
"Watanuki. April first." she murmured. Watanuki lost all pretence of composure and dropped his snack into his lap.
"Y-Yes?" he whispered. Doumeki felt his shoulders tense and rise up like the hackles of a dog.
"Watanuki," the woman said again and took the pipe from the jar. "What have you done to my pipe?"
"He broke it!" two voices chimed out behind them, and Watanuki actually jumped. Doumeki turned around, and there were Maru and Moro standing behind them, beaming and making motions with their arms of a pipe snapping in half.
"He broke it!" Maru chimed, looking just the same. Her dress looked just like new.
"He broke it," Moro agreed and wiggled her fingers, laughing.
"Maru," Watanuki said wonderingly. "Moro."
"Watanuki!" they said together and stooped to give him a hug. "Good morning!"
"Good morning," Watanuki replied, hugging them back. His eyes were wet. "It's good to see you."
"Yo! Watanuki!" another voice shouted, and Watanuki yelped and fell backwards as something launched itself at his face. It was carrying another one of the sake bottles, and Doumeki wondered how it could carry something that large with its tiny paws.
"Oh, Mokona," the woman cried and clapped her hands. "You found some more sake. This stingy guy only brought out one bottle."
"One bottle is all you need!" Watanuki replied, flinging Mokona off his face. "Honestly, Yuuko-san."
"Yuuko," the woman repeated. She was smiling. "That's my name, isn't it? Ichihara Yuuko." She smirked. "It's a false name, of course."
"Then why bother telling me?" Watanuki asked, but he was smiling. "I don't lie to the customers. They just call me 'shopkeeper.'"
"Mm," Yuuko replied. She did something to the pipe, because the next moment it was whole again, and she was lighting it to blow familiar rings into the air. "They do, don't they?" She nodded. "You've been doing a good job, Watanuki." Her eyes went to Doumeki. "And you too." She tilted her head at an achingly familiar angle. "Maru, Moro. Bring-"
"The other sake cups from the second shelf in the store room," Watanuki finished. He looked embarrassed, and Yuuko was looking at him in amusement.
"Okay!" Maru and Moro chorused and ran off.
Yuuko downed the cup of sake in one motion and held it out. "So, Watanuki, it seems I've missed a lot. Tell me what's new."
Watanuki obediently filled the cup and put the bottle aside. He was frowning. "But-"
She looked at him, her eyes half-lidded. "Tell me what's new."
Doumeki hated the way she could do that. Beside him, Watanuki swallowed. "I…uh, I don't know where to start. Ah, Himawari-chan is married now. She lives in Kyoto- they're expecting a child."
Yuuko's mouth twisted up. "I told you she wasn't your Lady Luck."
"Not mine," Watanuki agreed, smiling. "Ah, what else?" He ticked it off on his fingers. "Tanpopo is doing well; he's getting taller and fatter from all the tidbits Kazuki feeds him. Kohane-chan is graduating this year from the university with a degree in history. She's spending the autumn in Kanagawa to do research in the area."
"Research," Doumeki agreed, and Watanuki elbowed him. Doumeki elbowed back. "Oy, bring out some more snacks."
"Okay," Watanuki said and stood to go into the kitchen.
Yuuko raised her eyebrows and watched him as he passed, probably expecting an angry outburst, but Doumeki knew it wouldn't come.
"Watanuki is boring now," Mokona remarked, sounding disappointed. Maru and Moro rushed in with the cups, and he took the largest for himself and immediately poured himself a drink.
"Boring!" Maru and Moro agreed and reached out for some of the snacks.
"I can hear you, you know!" Watanuki shouted from the kitchen, and they both burst into giggles.
"So tell me about you, Doumeki-kun," Yuuko said, puffing her pipe and looking at him through her lashes.
"I'm a professor at a university in Tokyo," he replied. He knew that wasn't what she was asking at all, but he didn't know how else to answer. "I teach chemical engineering." And then, because he knew she would find it hilarious. "Watanuki and I live together."
She and Mokona burst into loud obnoxious laughter. "Do you?" she demanded. "For how long?"
"Years," Doumeki replied.
"Ah-h," Yuuko said, smirking. "Does he do all the cooking and the cleaning?"
"Yes," Doumeki replied. "I help."
"Watanuki is such a good wife!" Mokona said, hopping up and down without spilling a single drop of sake from his cup.
"I'm not his wife!" Watanuki snapped, coming in with a new tray of snacks. "Who fixed the kitchen sink that time it broke?"
"Who broke it in the first place?" Doumeki countered.
"I always told you that you and Doumeki were compatible," Yuuko added, smiling.
"When did she tell you that?" Doumeki asked. He would have definitely remembered her saying something like that.
Watanuki turned a series of increasingly spectacular shades of scarlet. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh come now, Watanuki." Yuuko was gleeful. "There's no reason to be embarrassed. You and Doumeki-kun are already lovey dovey."
"Lovey dovey!" Maru and Moro echoed, curving their arms over their heads like hearts. "Watanuki loves Doumeki!"
"So what if I do?" Watanuki muttered, looking away. Doumeki felt something in his chest tighten.
Yuuko looked entirely too pleased at that. "Congratulations on your marital bliss, Watanuki! We should drink!"
"No more drinking!" Watanuki complained. His face was turning red again; he always had blushed far too easily. "Yuuko-san."
"You're much too shy, Watanuki," she admonished. She turned to Doumeki, her eyes twinkling. "Isn't he too shy, Doumeki-kun?"
"Not at all," Doumeki replied. Watanuki's face, if possible, turned an even brighter shade of red.
"Oho, Watanuki has become bold, has he?" Yuuko asked with a wicked grin. "Well well, our Watanuki has all grown up."
"Are we finished talking about this?" Watanuki muttered.
"Oh, Watanuki," Yuuko carolled. "We haven't even started."
Yuuko and Mokona grinned like cats at a fish market and busied themselves with emptying the first sake bottle. Watanuki put his face in his hands.
"Are they still outside?" Doumeki asked.
Watanuki shut the door to Yuuko's room. Doumeki had helped him carry her slumbering body from the sitting room to her own bed. Watanuki knew it hadn't just been the sake- awakening into her past life had made Yuuko tired. He had seen how her hands had started to tremble around her sake cup and the way she had said more and more outrageous things as the night went on to disguise her exhaustion. Watanuki wondered if she had always been so obvious like this, and it had just taken the shop and Doumeki to make him pay attention to the minute details that betrayed all the important truths about everyone.
"I think they are," Watanuki replied and slid open the door to the backyard, where Maru and Moro were playing with Mokona. He supposed they'd had enough of sleeping for a while. The sugary sweets they had demanded hadn't helped either, but Watanuki had bought them every single one.
"Maru, Moro," he called. "We'll be inside. Come find us if you need anything."
"Right!" they shouted, and Mokona said something that sounded suspiciously like 'lovey dovey.'
"I am not speaking to a talking manju about something like that!" Watanuki shouted back and slammed the door shut. "These people are far too interested in our…our…"
"Marital bliss?" Doumeki said slowly, bracing for a hit.
Watanuki nodded vigorously. "Yes! I mean, no! Stop saying it like that!"
"Then how should I say it?" Doumeki asked.
Watanuki glared at him but then softened. He reached up to run his fingers through Doumeki's hair. "She's back."
"She is." Doumeki caught his hand and pressed it.
"Somehow it's anticlimactic. I thought…I thought things would change."
Watanuki shrugged. "I don't know. I thought she might be different or…I suppose I wasn't expecting everything to go back to how it was."
"She was alive for a long time," Doumeki replied. "I don't know if she can change anymore." He bumped Watanuki's shoulder. "Do you want it to go back to how it was?"
"I don't know," Watanuki sighed. "At first I wanted…but now everything is different. I have my own life. I don't think I can be her apprentice anymore."
"You were the shopkeeper," Doumeki agreed.
"Yes, but I'm not sure if I want that either," Watanuki replied. He felt torn. "I want to help people, and I've made so many friends in the spirit world."
"But you don't have your own life."
Watanuki winced, because Doumeki bore the consequences of that too. "I made that decision," he said. "I tried to choose both. But…I think I was supposed to be entirely in one world or another."
"You couldn't have done that." Doumeki said that with conviction now. Watanuki would have been miserable if he'd let the shop claim him.
"There are things with prices I should not pay," Watanuki murmured. He looked up at Doumeki. "Something Haruka-san told me once."
"Then what is the wish here?" Doumeki murmured.
"And what is the price?" Watanuki added.
"All very good questions," Yuuko's voice said from the sitting room. Watanuki frowned. He hadn't heard her door open.
The table and cushions that Watanuki had arranged in the sitting room had been replaced by a long reclining couch. This one was a dark sage green and had curved brass feet. A wave of sweet-smelling smoke hit them. Yuuko was lounging on the couch and dressed in a great quantity of dark blue silk that reminded Watanuki of the business suit she had been wearing earlier. Watanuki supposed this reincarnation of Yuuko was different from the past one in subtle ways.
"You once said," Watanuki said before she could say something more. "That if a person wished hard enough for something, that wish could come true."
Yuuko nodded slowly. "Yes. Do you have a wish, Watanuki?"
"I thought I did," Watanuki replied. "Years and years ago. I thought I knew what I wanted." He smiled all of a sudden. "But if people really knew what they wanted, this shop wouldn't exist."
"Hm," Yuuko agreed, smiling too. "You have grown up, haven't you?"
"Yes," Watanuki pressed on. "Yes, I have. And there was a time I thought I couldn't live without this shop. I was your apprentice and errand boy, and it was fulfilling enough. I was happy with my life."
"And have you been living a fulfilling life?" she asked. "Have you been happy without me?"
Watanuki opened his mouth to deny it then thought of studying folklore in college and working in the spirit world. He thought of repossessing the shop and how he enjoyed solving other people's problems. He thought of watching Kohane grow up and the pictures Himawari was sending of the room they were refurnishing for the baby. He thought of living with Doumeki, loving Doumeki, of spending the last ten years filling their time with petty arguments and perfect bento and quiet nights lying awake together listening to the crickets outside.
"Yes," he said in surprise. "Yes, I have. I've been happy."
"Ah-h," Yuuko said, smiling her half-lidded smile. "I see."
"So I have a wish," Watanuki continued. "And I know what I really want." He looked to Doumeki, who had been standing silently beside him, the back of his hand brushing against his. He took Doumeki's hand. "I choose his world."
"His world?" Yuuko repeated. She looked entirely unsurprised. "The shop has already replaced you in Doumeki's world. You cannot take back that price."
Watanuki's eyes prickled. "I'm not expecting that."
"Kimihiro," Doumeki protested, but Watanuki couldn't look at him. One thing they had learned in Yuuko's shop was that prices were rarely fair.
From Yuuko's expression, she knew that too. "But think of the good you're doing as a shopkeeper here."
"This world can't have two shopkeepers," Watanuki replied.
"You've spent a great deal of time honing your skills," Yuuko said. "You've become quite powerful. Are you sure you want to-"
"Please, Yuuko-san," Watanuki interrupted. "I was the shopkeeper too. I know how this works."
"Of course," Yuuko replied. Her eyes twinkled for a moment. "But you're my first customers. You must allow me some fun." She reached into her sleeve and produced a small egg. Watanuki remembered it from long ago when he and Doumeki had drawn water from a well. Tanpopo had hatched from an egg like this.
"Nothing will be born of this egg," Watanuki said. "That's what you told us." He felt the egg pulling him in, trying to strip something from him. "Because this egg doesn't create. It takes away."
"Correct." She held out the egg. "If you choose to accept it, it will lock away all of the powers you've gained as a shopkeeper. Everything except your ability to see spirits, which you were born with."
"Kimihiro," Doumeki said in a low voice, and his grip on Watanuki's hand tightened.
Watanuki squeezed back. "It's okay. They were drawn to me precisely because they smelled those powers on me. I was valuable."
"Correct again." Yuuko nodded like a judge presiding over a match. Watanuki wondered who was playing. "They won't trouble you any longer."
That startled Watanuki into a laugh. "Very cleverly done, Yuuko-san," he said. "You've granted my original wish." He realised what he had been doing all these years, all the hours he had spent as the shopkeeper working off his debt.
"You've been an exemplary employee," Yuuko complimented. She offered him the egg again.
"Oy," Doumeki said in a low voice. His voice made something in Watanuki stir uneasily.
"But it's not enough," he realised, frowning. The weight was teetering too close to one side. "Because I made two wishes. I wished for you to come back."
"Yes." She tilted her head. "What will you give me, Watanuki?"
Watanuki thought about it for a moment. There was only one thing he could give her, and he wasn't sure if it was a price he wanted to pay. He could give her time, his time. He knew it was an astoundingly precious thing, most people didn't realise how precious till they had squandered almost all of it.
"I will pay it," Doumeki said suddenly beside him, and Watanuki felt something freeze in his chest. "I will pay the price."
"No," Watanuki said in horror. "No! You can't! Do you understand what the price is? You idiot- what did you always tell me about agreeing to things without knowing about them first?"
"You shouldn't have to pay everything," Doumeki replied like they were at the supermarket and they were arguing over a box of pickled plums. "I will pay your price."
"He won't," Watanuki shouted. He had Doumeki's hand in a death grip now. "I can't lose him. Not like this."
"There is another way," Yuuko said coolly, and just like that something clicked into place in the corners of Watanuki's mind. Something so obvious that he hadn't even considered it.
"That?" he demanded. "But I can't take that from him."
"I believe it is for him to decide," Yuuko reminded him.
"What is it?" Doumeki asked tightly. "Kimihiro?"
"Your gift," Watanuki said miserably. He felt like a terrible person. "Your gift of exorcism, the one that lets you destroy demons."
Doumeki blinked. "That's all?"
"All?" Watanuki demanded. "Isn't that enough?"
"I will pay," Doumeki told him. "I can part with it."
"Can you?" Watanuki asked. "Think about it for a moment."
"I already have," Doumeki replied like the stubborn wonderful bastard he was. "I'll pay."
"Watanuki," Yuuko murmured.
"Yes, I know, Yuuko-san," Watanuki replied. He turned to face Doumeki. "Are you sure?"
Doumeki met his eyes. Watanuki stared back; he knew the exact shade and shape of those eyes now. He had seen them in semi-darkness and in the bright early light of the morning. "Yes."
"Take the ring from his index finger, Watanuki," Yuuko instructed. "And transfer it to his ring finger."
Watanuki saw a look of comprehension cross Doumeki's face for a moment. "Yes, there was a reason I asked you to wear it on your index finger first," he said. He took Doumeki's big square hand and pulled the ring from his finger. He shifted his grip and hesitated, the ring hovering.
"It's fine," Doumeki said. Watanuki could feel his breath against his forehead. "Go ahead."
Watanuki slipped the ring over Doumeki's finger and then settled it down. He felt Doumeki suck in a breath. "All right?" he asked.
"Yes," Doumeki replied. He flexed the fingers experimentally. "Yes. Fine."
"Watanuki," Yuuko said, holding out the egg.
"My turn," Watanuki said with more courage than he felt and took the egg from her. It felt cool against his fingertips. "What will you do now, Yuuko-san?" he asked.
"What will I do without you?" Yuuko asked. She smiled. "Well, it seems you've done your job too well here. I'm needed in another world. There are always wishes and people foolish enough to pay for them."
"Another world," Watanuki said faintly. "But I've only just met you again."
"I know," Yuuko replied. "But change is a part of nature, Watanuki."
"The transience of things," he breathed. The egg was starting to feel colder now. He looked down at it. "I'll be back for this, won't I?"
"I like to think of the store room as a waiting area," Yuuko said. "Everything there is in a state of transition, waiting to go wherever it is needed. I can't stay in the shop forever either, Watanuki. You'll be back to take over. In this lifetime or the next."
"What do you…" Watanuki trailed off. It wasn't fair to Yuuko; she didn't deserve to be reincarnated just to go back to her old life. Watanuki wasn't the only one who was tired of going back to the way things were. Perhaps he and Yuuko were meant to play this game, the boatman handing the oar off to the passenger in a perpetual cycle. He looked at her again with a sharper eye. "How many times have we done this already, Yuuko-san?"
Yuuko laughed tellingly. "What makes you say that, Watanuki?" she asked.
"Hitsuzen," Doumeki grumbled.
"Taking someone else's place," Watanuki said. The egg felt like an ice cube now, as if it was burning off his fingers with a cold radiating glow. "Sacrifice. Love. It is a powerful thing." A shock went through him, and he gasped. "Oh."
"Oy." Doumeki had his arms in a strong grip. Without them, Watanuki thought he would have fallen over. "Oy, what's wrong?"
"I…" Watanuki's fingers clutched at the egg and fell upon nothing. He looked down at his empty hand. "What?"
From the other side of the room, Yuuko put the egg back into her sleeve. "I'll keep this safe for you," she promised. "Until your return." She grinned suddenly, a wide wicked thing. "Ah yes, I almost forgot." She threw a tube at him; it looked strange and blurry as it spun towards him, but Doumeki caught it. "A wedding present for you."
"A what?" Watanuki demanded and snatched the tube from Doumeki's hands. He fumbled with the stopper for a moment but then managed to crack it open and something furry and golden snaked out of it and curled excitedly around his wrist. "Mugetsu!" he cried.
The pipe fox wound itself around his neck and peppered his face with kisses. Watanuki laughed and petted its head with his fingers.
"I see it hasn't forgotten you," Yuuko said. Watanuki looked up at her. She seemed distorted and blurry too. There was a roaring in his ears, and he knew it would be a long long time before he saw her again.
"Thank you, Yuuko-san," he said. "For all that you've taught me. I'm happy I was able to meet you."
"I was happy to meet you too, Watanuki," Yuuko replied. "Perhaps someday you'll come back for your powers and take over the shop permanently."
"Maybe," Watanuki replied. The rushing in his ears was getting louder now. It sounded like soft rain and the shouts of Maru and Moro playing in the backyard. "Maybe someday. But not now."
"Hitsuzen," Yuuko replied, and the sound echoed around and around in his ears like gathering thunder.
Watanuki gasped himself awake. The world shifted and slid underneath him; he was lying on the futon in the bedroom of his house with his head resting on Doumeki's bare shoulder. The room was still a little cold. Somewhere outside, a bird twittered and reminded him of Tanpopo. Sunlight was just beginning to filter through the blinds. It was a little past dawn, and it had already started to rain.
He felt Doumeki stir beneath him, and then a warm square hand came up to rest against his hair. "All right?" Doumeki asked. Watanuki could feel the rumble through his chest.
Watanuki took a deep breath. If he concentrated, he could feel himself mentally reaching for a space that wasn't there anymore. It was a painful loss but a loss he thought he could eventually come to terms with, given time. "Maybe," he said. "You?"
"Hn," Doumeki replied. He lifted up his hand to look at the ring adorning his finger. "Fine."
Watanuki hmmed and turned to kiss Doumeki's shoulder. "Guess this makes you the wife," he whispered. He felt Doumeki laugh suddenly, a warm buzzing against the shell of his ear.
"Guess it does," Doumeki replied, but his hand was already snaking down Watanuki's side and underneath his shirt.
Watanuki laughed out loud and wriggled out of Doumeki's reach for a moment to turn off the alarm on their clock. They probably wouldn't need it.
He felt arms encircle his torso and pull him back to the middle of the futon. "Where the hell do you think you're going?" Doumeki rumbled in his ear.
Watanuki put one of his hands over Doumeki's and laced their fingers together. He felt Doumeki pull up the back of his shirt and press warm wet kisses to his shoulder blades.
"Nowhere," Watanuki replied and pressed his knee back so his leg fit comfortably between Doumeki's thighs. "Nowhere at all."
They walked to the university as usual in the morning, and Watanuki felt slightly lonely; he had never really registered the persistent ever-present murmuring of voices in his ears till they stopped. It made him feel like he had gone deaf. A woman on her bicycle passed them, and Watanuki tried to see the layers and layers of future around her, who she was and who she could be. Instead, all he saw was that the strap of her messenger bag was almost worn through, and she was wearing two different coloured socks.
They passed the telephone pole on the way to the station, and Watanuki saw Doumeki glance at it for a moment. "It's just a telephone pole now," Watanuki said. He shrugged. "Ah well. I suppose we have to take the train to the temple like everyone else now."
"Like everyone else," Doumeki echoed.
Watanuki felt the pipe fox stir around his neck and let it sleep.
They swiped their train passes at the station gates, and Watanuki's shamisen case got caught in the turnstile. They barely made it to the platform on time, the last strains of the boarding music ringing in their ears as they slipped through the closing doors onto the train.
"It's weird," Watanuki replied as they found a few seats next to a business man sleeping with his arms folded over his chest. "I thought it would feel different."
"Give it time," Doumeki replied. Watanuki nodded and stared down at the bento boxes in his lap. There were only two now with Kohane taking the semester off to do research for her thesis in Kanegawa. At least, that was the story she was sticking with.
They sat in silence for a few minutes. The businessman beside them woke himself up a few moments before his stop and flew out of the doors with his briefcase. He was soon replaced by another almost identical-looking businessman who also promptly fell asleep soon after sitting down.
Watanuki watched him with some amusement. "We should call Kohane-chan in the evening," he said and drummed his fingers on the shamisen case. "She can probably feel some of the ripple effects of this. We should tell her what happened."
The gentle electronic voice on the speakers announced the next stop, and the train began to slow down. He and Doumeki rose and began to collect their things.
"We are so very late," Watanuki said, checking his watch. "No more marital bliss on a weekday morning, understand?"
Doumeki hmmed non-committally. Watanuki smacked his good arm and sprinted out the doors.
"Where are you going with that shamisen, anyway?" Doumeki asked as they sped through the hallway to his classroom. The hallway was almost empty, except for a few stragglers.
"Thought I would practice in the courtyard," Watanuki gasped out. "The library is supposed to have some new music in."
"Hn," Doumeki managed. They winged into Doumeki's classroom a few seconds before the class was supposed to start. All of the students were already there, and Watanuki cursed science majors for being so punctual and eager to learn. What the hell was wrong with them?
"We'll have lunch outside, have a good day," Watanuki said and leaned up to peck Doumeki on the cheek. He turned back around.
All the students were staring.
Watanuki froze. He stepped away from Doumeki and walked a few steps sideways. The students' heads turned to follow him. He hesitated and then looked over to Doumeki, who was looking at him suspiciously. Watanuki walked slowly to the door and opened it just as a student was walking past.
"Er, hello," Watanuki said.
She looked surprised. "Hello," she replied.
"Oh my god," Watanuki shouted and slammed the door shut again. Now Doumeki's students were definitely staring at him. Doumeki was staring at him.
Watanuki stared back, experimentally tipped up his shamisen, unzipped the case, and twanged out a few notes, then a long rippling chord. It said goodbyegoodbyewatanuki. Watanuki thought it was the saddest thing he had ever heard. Yuuko. He tried the chord again, but this time it was just a thing of beauty and nothing more. There was a silence, and then one or two of the students clapped appreciatively. Watanuki opened his mouth and then closed it. "Excuse me," he said in a strange voice. "But are all of you able to see me-"
"Kimihiro," Doumeki hissed, but he looked dumbstruck too. He walked over to grab Watanuki's sleeve, and Watanuki leaned towards him unconsciously. "Yuuko?" Doumeki asked under his breath, still eyeing his students.
"She paid a price," Watanuki whispered back. He felt like crying and laughing all at once. "I replaced her in this world. She could be in any universe now."
"Do you want to look for her?" Doumeki asked, and Watanuki knew that Doumeki would throw away everything and help him look if that was what he wanted.
"No. I want to stay here." Doumeki really was an idiot, and Watanuki wanted to kiss him, but Domeki's students were here...the enormity of it hit him all at once, and he felt a wide silly grin break across his face. "Your students. They can see me. People can see me."
Doumeki grinned back at him, that impossibly rare wide smile that even Watanuki had only ever seen once in his life one cold windy day when a bunch of leeks had fallen onto the cutting board.
"Doumeki-sensei," one of the students piped up. "Has class started?"
"Eh?" Watanuki burst out -god, he couldn't believe he was still awkward around people after all these years, but he had only ever interacted with Doumeki on a regular basis, and Doumeki wasn't people - and turned to Doumeki's students. "Oh! Sorry for disturbing your class. I'm…well, I'm…er-"
"This is my husband, Watanuki Kimihiro," Doumeki interrupted.
Some of the girls squeaked. Watanuki gaped at him, because Doumeki had gone crazy. "Husband?" he hissed.
"Grandmother's wanted you on the family registry forever," Doumeki muttered back. "Now shut up- he's visiting the university with me," he continued in a louder voice. "For a shamisen demonstration for the folklore department."
"What," Watanuki said flatly and then caught himself. "Er, yes." He jerked his head towards the door. Doumeki's students followed his movements like he was some kind of fascinating new chemical structure. "So er, I should go now."
"See you later," Doumeki replied. His eyes were warm.
"Bye," Watanuki managed and got the hell out of there before he did anything stupid like shout things at the top of his lungs or kiss Doumeki in front of all of his students. And really, husband? That had easily been the worst marriage proposal Watanuki had ever heard, except for the part where it was exactly the kind of thing he had expected from Doumeki. By the way, Doumeki would have said, I found an extra sock in the laundry, I'll be home late, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Make me niku dofu. Probably in that order. None of that explained why Watanuki couldn't will his face to revert to anything other than bright tomato red.
"Idiot," Watanuki mumbled and sat down to pluck out some notes on the shamisen. Doumeki wanted him on the family registry. He would have a family. If he wanted, he could be... "Doumeki Kimihiro," Watanuki said out loud and then laughed so hard that he almost broke one of the strings. No, that was just strange- no matter how much he loved Doumeki, that was definitely never happening. Watanuki plucked the strings again and hummed under his breath. The sun felt good on the back of his neck.
Ironically, someone in the folklore department heard him playing in the courtyard a few hours later and invited him to give a demonstration for the students that afternoon. At this point, Watanuki just accepted there was no such thing as coincidence and took what he could get. He knew everyone in the folklore department anyway, and he didn't think walking around the engineering department would be the wisest thing to do at the moment.
It didn't matter. The rumours started anyway, because this particular one was too juicy to be kept a secret. Watanuki should have known that all the gossips he had known in high school had never really gone away- they had just grown up and gone to graduate school.
Professor Doumeki, everyone said, had a husband. He had a husband who was handsome and kind of weird and played the shamisen and made him smile. He had a husband who held hands with him at the grocery store and clandestinely bought him milk tea and crowed, "Ha ha!" at all the young female check-out clerks. He lived with Doumeki in a little house with 'Doumeki, Shizuka & Kimihiro' on the plate next to the buzzer, and the postman initially assumed he was married to one of the Doumeki women, which became a long standing joke between them.
He was friends with all of the students and invited them over for dinner and made the most wonderful food they had ever tasted. He teased Doumeki about the pre-mature grey hair he was getting at his temples, and Doumeki always replied that everyone knew whose fault that was. He was diligently clean except when it came to spider webs, and he would often squint at the tiny industrious spiders spinning their webs and ask, "What the hell do you want?" before moving on disgruntledly. He had something like a pet snake that was actually very cute and went with him everywhere in a pile of sleepy golden coils around his neck; that last part sometimes disconcerted people, but they took it in stride once they saw how sweet the snake was.
He sometimes stared a bit too long and intensely at people and made them uncomfortable till Doumeki whacked the back of his head and told him he was being creepy. Then he would clutch his wounded scalp and snipe something back, and then they would argue over it for half an hour. They fought over absolutely everything, and it was better than television because Doumeki's husband had the most hilarious noodley arm gestures. And then they fought over absolutely nothing, and it was better than the movies because Doumeki always wore his rare smiles and his husband blushed constantly whenever Doumeki teased him. And then sometimes they didn't fight, just stared at each other silently in long radio silences where terribly important things were said but never vocalised because that would destroy it. Sometimes they looked at each other like they were waiting to leave or bracing for something to happen, and sometimes Doumeki looked like he was searching for something he had lost long ago and his husband looked terribly distant and old.
But that was only once in a while. And sometimes they looked at each other like they were perfectly in love, and that was much more often.
Professor Doumeki, everyone said, had a husband. They had no idea why they had ever imagined him having a wife.
Thanks for all the feedback and love! You guys have been great!